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The Expanse season 6 makes me worry about the future of touchscreens

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As we hurtle towards The Expanse’s sixth and final episode of its sixth and final season — airing this Friday, January 14th — I can’t stop thinking about one thing: how many of this season’s pivotal moments revolved around pressing the wrong button on a touchscreen.

“If it comes across that the touchscreen is the hero of the show, then we will have truly failed,” says showrunner Naren Shankar, telling me he objects to my entire line of questioning.

I wouldn’t say they failed! I enjoyed the whole season, even if it felt a little… cramped. I’m excited for the game, too. But it’s been 15 years since Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone, and I’m kind of hoping touchscreens don’t still trip us up in another 300 years or so. Sadly, like much of the excellent series, it’s all too plausible.

I spoke to Shankar and authors / writers / showrunners Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham about those user interfaces last month. Also, I badgered them about whether and how The Expanse might return.

But first, you probably want to know what the heck I’m talking about re: touchscreens. And that requires spoilers.

Spoiler warning: this story contains huge spoilers for The Expanse season 6, episodes 1-5. If you’re caught up, you’re good; I won’t mention episode 6 at all.

1) Those buttons are right next to each other

At the end of The Expanse season 5, Camina Drummer and her Belter crew are on the run, having defected from Marco Inaros and his Free Navy. He effectively forced them to join or die, but they decided not to become his guns.

They are tired. Frazzled. So fatigued that in the midst of a carefully planned ambush necessary to escape the Free Navy’s clutches, Michio stabs the wrong touchscreen button. Not just any wrong button, either: instead of blowing the enemy to scrap, it sends out a signal that reveals their exact position. “What did you do?” Drummer screams.

Maybe don’t put buttons right next to each other when one of them will kill you? Then again, Belters jury-rig everything, so I suppose it’s not too surprising they carelessly bound this macro.
Screenshot by Sean Hollister / The Verge

This single action sets up the entire chain of events for Drummer’s crew right through episode 5. Critically low on supplies (they had to blow up two salvageable ships to save themselves, using physical buttons, I might add) and after deciding they need to offload the mentally weary Michio after the touchscreen debacle, they find themselves making an uneasy alliance with another Belter captain. He leads them to exactly what Drummer needs to undermine Marco Inaros’ credibility.

I’m totally fine with this plot-wise, even though I am the kind of person who would never, ever trust myself to stab a touchscreen in a moving vehicle. (Volume dials, please!)

2) Touchscreen drone controls

We now know the mysterious new world Laconia, accessible from our solar system via the Ring Gate, is home to intelligent lifeforms with the power to repair things… and perhaps even people. By the beginning of episode 5, the “Dogs” appear to have helped precocious little girl Cara bring her brother back from the dead — one of the biggest revelations about what humanity might be capable of in The Expanse.

What gave her the idea to drag her brother’s corpse into the wilderness? Way back in episode 2, she was flying a drone with touchscreen controls (already a bad idea if you ask me!), pushes the joystick the wrong direction without looking at the drone’s surroundings, and it hits a tree branch and crashes into the ground. But when she returns in episode 3, she finds the Dogs have fixed her drone (as well as an alien chick she’d befriended and accidentally killed).

Come on, The Expanse: we already had self-flying drones that could have dodged that branch in 2019, much less 2350.

3) The dud torpedo

Holden’s a pro with the wrist computer.
Screenshot by Sean Hollister / The Verge

This one’s 100 percent intentional. At the end of episode 3, The Rocinante has miraculously slipped out of Marco Inaros’ clutches (thanks to a combination of superior firepower, piloting, and luck) and is ready to deliver a killing blow… but after they fire a nuclear torpedo, Holden swiftly and secretly disables the nuke part from his touchscreen wrist computer to avoid killing Naomi’s son. The torpedo doesn’t explode, temporarily convincing everyone that it was a dud — except both the ship’s computer and the eventually recovered torpedo keep a record of Holden’s authorization in their logs.

You can argue whether Holden made the right choice or not, and in general, I love how The Expanse’s interfaces automatically surface the controls their owners might use next, like quickly opening, locking, and unlocking doors aboard a ship. But once again, it’s a pivotal moment where pressing one button on a touchscreen instead of another has lasting repercussions.

Bonus: Holden’s hammer


I’m not sure if it’s technically a pry bar or a nail puller he’s holding, but either way it’s tiny and probably not the real reason the engine stops? Probably.
GIF by Sean Hollister / The Verge

Twenty-five minutes into episode 1, shortly after Michio’s touchscreen button fail, Holden is standing on an asteroid that’s been outfitted with its own engine so the Free Navy can fire it at Earth. Suddenly, that engine starts to fire up… and with no time to react, Holden just smashes the damn thing with a pry bar till it stops.

What The Expanse’s writers had to say

So I asked the authors and showrunners: how, exactly, did user interfaces hurt you?

“I did almost 10 years of frontline tech support; user interfaces and I are going to die with our teeth in each other’s necks,” replies Daniel Abraham.

“And I’m going to take issue with the question,” says Naren Shankar (as I’ve already mentioned). “Yes, all of them involve buttons,” he admits, “but the scene is about the emotional decision to push a button.”

“What we should have done was go back and have a bunch of those switches,” Abraham jokes. “The old toggle switches and everything,” agrees Ty Franck. “I wish we had a lot more of those buttons in the show.”

“But to be more serious for a second, all of those moments that you cite are quite emotionally motivated, extremely in two of the cases […] That’s how they fly the ship. Sometimes they do some things by talking to it, that doesn’t mean it’s always a voice-to-text parser,” adds Shankar.

“Except in the Solomon Epstein one we did, that was totally the fault of the voice parser,” says Franck, I think, though I’ve started to lose track as they’re talking over each other. He’s referencing how season 2, episode 6 flashes back to how an engineer accidentally invented long-range space travel and dies because he can’t turn the engine off; he disabled his crappy voice parser before launch, and the g-forces are too strong for him to reach the other controls.

What do touchscreens mean to you?

“It’s kind of the same question as ‘why do we use guns instead of laser blasters or something like that?’” says Abraham. “There’s kind of a technological endpoint you can reach where something works well, and then you kind of stick with it. We have cartridge guns in The Expanse because they work really well; they’re kind of the sharks of personal weaponry.”

“What we’re positing here is that these touchscreens and these kinds of interfaces are robust and work well in these kinds of conditions, where jacking into your brain, maybe not so much? Speech, yelling commands to the ship is cool, but it’s kind of a shitty interface in practice,” he adds.

“Humans interact with the world with their fingertip; there’s millions of years of evolution behind that — our fingers are connected to our brains differently than any other part of us,” Franck chimes in. “When we want to accomplish a thing, our first instinct is to reach out and touch something and manipulate it with their fingers … so when I see something where people are no longer using their hands to do work, it feels false to me, it’s ignoring the realities of what humans do as biological entities.”

All that said, The Expanse’s authors and showrunners caution that they’re not trying to predict the future. “Science fiction is about the age in which it’s written. We’ve been trying to keep what we’ve done plausible, but I don’t know if we’re really aiming to say how a fusion drive will really work, how stealth technology will really work. I’ve always said we’ve reached for a Wikipedia level of plausibility,” says Abraham.



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US sanctions cryptocurrency mixer that allegedly laundered over $7 billion

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The US is ramping up its efforts to crack down on shady cryptocurrency mixers. The Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on Tornado Cash, a mixer that allegedly helped launder more than $7 billion in stolen crypto funds since its inception in 2019. Like a previous sanctions target, Blender, Tornado Cash is accused of “indiscriminately” helping thieves by hiding transaction details while failing to institute meaningful anti-laundering safeguards. North Korea’s state-sponsored Lazarus Group hackers are believed to have funneled $455 million through the mixer.

The sanctions block transactions with or for the benefit of Tornado Cash-related individuals and entities, whether they’re located in the US or controlled by Americans. Anyone who detects banned activity is required to inform the Treasury’s Offices of Foreign Assets Control.

Tornado Cash runs on the Ethereum blockchain. Officials said the mixer played a role in other large-scale thefts, including the Harmony Bridge heist (where it laundered $96 million) from June and this month’s Nomad attack (involving “at least” $7.8 million).

The government has taken legal action against crypto mixers for years. Federal law enforcement charged an Ohio man in 2020 for running a darknet mixer that helped criminals launder $300 million. The Treasury only started sanctioning mixers when it blocked Blender this May, however. The US now believes criminal-friendly mixers are a national security threat, and hopes efforts like these will curb both terrorism as well as attempts to dodge conventional sanctions.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.



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Intel launches Arc Pro GPUs that are designed for workstations and pro apps

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Intel is launching its Arc Pro series of GPUs today, designed primarily for powerful desktop workstations and laptops. The Intel Arc Pro A40 and A50 will both be available for workstations, while the A30M will be available in pro-focused laptops. All three GPUs are capable of hardware-based ray tracing and AV1 hardware acceleration — and are designed with AI tasks and creator apps like Adobe Premiere Pro in mind.

The Intel Arc Pro A40 will ship in a small single-slot form factor with 3.5 teraflops of graphical power, eight ray-tracing cores, and 6GB of GDDR6 memory. Intel is targeting this GPU at slimline workstations or small form factor PCs.

The larger A50 steps up to a dual-slot form factor, 4.8 teraflops of graphical power, eight ray-tracing cores, and 6GB of GDDR6 memory. Due to its dual-slot design, this is probably more suited to traditional workstations. Both of these workstation GPUs will also include four Mini DisplayPorts for multiple monitor configurations. Intel supports two monitors at 8K 60Hz, one at 5K 240Hz, two at 5K 120Hz, or four at 4K 60Hz.

Intel’s Arc Pro A50 dual-slot GPU.
Image: Intel

While you can technically play games on these GPUs, they’re not designed for gaming. Instead, Intel is optimizing these for pro tasks and creator apps like Blender, HandBrake, Premiere Pro, DaVinci Resolve Studio, and many more. Intel is targeting to get these GPUs certified for apps within engineering and construction, architecture, and manufacturing. These GPUs will also support full AV1 hardware acceleration, in what Intel calls an industry first.

The Mobile A30M GPU will include 3.5 teraflops of graphical performance, eight ray-tracing cores, and 4GB of GDDR6 memory. It’s designed to use between 35 and 50 watts of peak power, and display outputs will depend on laptop configurations from OEMs.

Intel has set expectations low for its recently launched consumer gaming GPUs, and the company isn’t offering up any indications on workstation performance just yet. Intel says its Arc Pro range of GPUs will be available from mobile and desktop partners later this year.



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What we bought: This LED desk lamp gave me the best lighting for video calls

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Over the past two years, my work-from-home situation morphed from temporary to permanent, and I’ve had to reconfigure my home office as a result. I purchased a standing desk, a monitor, and spent countless hours rearranging my furniture. One of my primary concerns is that I have a relatively small space, and therefore prefer things that can pull double duty. So when I decided to update my desk lamp, I knew I needed a multi-tasker that wouldn’t take up a lot of real estate. For me, the Edge Light from Lume Cube ended up being the perfect solution.

Prior to purchasing the Edge Light, I relied mostly on a lamp that I bought from CB2 nearly twenty years ago. It’s good looking but it has a large six-inch base that takes up quite a bit of space. It also doesn’t provide the right lighting environment for video calls. While it’s serviceable enough as a desk lamp, the light is just too warm and subdued for Zoom sessions. Plus, it’s not flexible enough for me to angle the light to illuminate my face properly. That’s a problem when, like most everyone else, I was suddenly having multiple video meetings a week. I really noticed it when I was a guest on a podcast; watching the video back made me realize how poor the lighting was.

Lume Cube
Lume Cube

Engadget

That prompted me to purchase a cheap ring light from Amazon, but I soon realized that was a mistake. Suddenly I had not one but two lamps taking up residence on my small desk. I knew I needed to rethink my entire lighting situation.

That’s why I was glad when I saw that Lume Cube, which is known for its portable photo/video lighting rigs, had come out with the Edge Light late last year. It’s essentially an LED desk lamp that also doubles as a video conferencing light. On top of that, it’s a clamp-on model, which means it wouldn’t take up a lot of space. It is fairly pricey at $120, but since it appeared to solve so many of my pain points, I decided it would be worth it.

I’ve now had it for a few months, and I absolutely love it. It has freed up so much real estate on my desk. It’s tall enough to position behind my webcam when I need it for video calls, and thanks to its five pivot points, I can easily swing it around so that I can use it to illuminate my desk. The lighting is fantastic, too – I can adjust both the brightness and the warmth so that it’s bright but not too harsh. According to the company, it provides multi-level diffusion for soft light and has a color adjustability between 3200 and 5600K.

Lume Cube
Lume Cube

Engadget

The controls are pretty intuitive – simply tap the circular button to switch between brightness and warmth, and then tap the plus and minus signs to adjust the levels to your liking. The buttons are all “soft touch,” meaning they don’t need any pressure. On top of that, the lamp actually comes with two charging ports – one USB-A and one USB-C – which I am always using to charge up all of my various devices and accessories.

Perhaps my one complaint is that the light does produce a tiny bit of glare on my glasses when it’s positioned directly in front of me. The company suggests getting two Edge Light lamps to reduce this effect, but that’s a little too rich for my blood. I’ve since managed to angle the light so that the glare isn’t as bad, which is good enough for me.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.



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