iFixit On Right To Repair’s Remaining Obstacles, Hope

iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens sat down with Ars Technica to discuss the fight for the right to repair. Here’s an excerpt from their report: Tech repairs got complicated in 1998 when Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [PDF]. Section 1201 of the copyright law essentially made it illegal to distribute tools for, or to break encryption on, manufactured products. Created with DVD piracy in mind, it made fixing things like computers and tractors significantly harder, if not illegal, without manufacturer permission. It also represented “a total sea change from what historic property rights have been,” Wiens said. This makes Washington, DC, the primary battleground for the fight for the right to repair. “Because this law was passed at the federal level, the states can’t preempt. Congress at the federal level reset copyright policy. This fix has to happen at the US federal level,” Wiens told Ars Technica during the Road to Frontiers talk.

The good news is that every three years, the US Copyright Office holds hearings to discuss potential exemptions. Right to repair advocates are hoping Congress will schedule this year’s hearing soon. Wiens also highlighted the passing of the Freedom to Repair Act [PDF] introduced earlier this year as critical for addressing Section 1201 and creating a permanent exemption for repairing tech products.

Apple’s self-service repair program launched last month marked a huge step forward for the right to repair initiated by a company that has shown long-standing resistance. Wiens applauded the program, which provides repair manuals for the iPhone 12, 13, and newest SE and will eventually extend to computers. He emphasized how hard it is for iFixit to reverse-engineer such products to determine important repair details, like whether a specific screw is 1 or 1.1 mm. […]

Wiens envisioned a world where gadgets not only last longer but where you may also build relationships with local businesses to keep your products functioning. He lamented the loss of businesses like local camera and TV repair shops extinguished by vendors no longer supplying parts and tools. […] He also discussed the idea of giving gadgets second and even third lives: An aged smartphone could become a baby monitor or a smart thermostat. “I think we should be talking about lifespans of smartphones in terms of 20, 25 years,” Wiens said.
The livestream of the discussion can be viewed here.

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Dell Defends Its Controversial New Laptop Memory

After Dell’s new Compression Attached Memory Module (CAMM) leaked out last week, several tech sites led many to believe that the company was taking a path to “lock out users upgrades.” However, according to PCWorld citing both the person who designed and patented the CAMM standard, as well as the product manager of the first Dell Precision laptop to feature it, “the intent of the new memory module standard is to head-off looming bandwidth ceilings in the current SO-DIMM designs.” They claim that CAMM could increase performance, improve reliability, aid user upgrades, and eventually lower costs too. From the report: Most of the internet hot takes last week, however, reacted to CAMM being proprietary, which is typically viewed as a method to lock people into buying upgrades only from one company. Dell officials, however, insist that’s not the case at all. “One of the tenants of the PC industry is standards,” said Dell’s Tom Schnell, the Senior Distinguished Engineer who designed much of it. “We believe in that; we put standards into our products. We’re not keeping it to ourselves, we hope it becomes the next industry standard.”

Schnell said that Dell isn’t making the modules and has worked with memory companies as well as Intel on this. In the future, a person with a CAMM-equipped laptop will be able to buy RAM from any third party and install it in the laptop. Yes, initially, Dell will likely be the only place to get CAMM upgrades, but that should change as the standard scales up and is adopted by other PC makers. The new memory modules are also built using commodity DRAMs just like conventional SO-DIMMs.

In fact, Dell points out, it’s not even “proprietary” on its own laptops. The first Precision workstations that come with CAMM will also eventually be offered with conventional SO-DIMMs using an interposer. Mano Gialusis, product manager for Precision workstations, said the interposer option goes into the same CAMM mount, too. With CAMM now a reality, Dell’s next step is to get it in front of JEDEC, the memory standards organization, to make it available to others, he said. Why not create a standard from scratch? Schnell said its far easier to get a standard minted once it’s proven to work rather than trying to simply create something anew every time. The report goes on to say that Dell does hold patents on the CAMM design “and there will be royalties,” but “no standard can go forward through JEDEC unless the licensing is not anti-competitive, is reasonably priced, and cannot discriminate against a company.”

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Manufacturers Have Less Than Five Days’ Supply of Some Computer Chips, Commerce Department Says

Manufacturers and other buyers of computer chips had less than five days’ supply of some chips on hand late last year, leaving them vulnerable to any disruptions in deliveries, the Commerce Department reported Tuesday as it pushed Congress to endorse federal aid for chip makers. The Washington Post reports: Manufacturers’ median chip inventory levels have plummeted from about 40 days’ supply in 2019 to less than five days, according to a survey of 150 companies worldwide that the Commerce Department conducted in September. “This means a disruption overseas, which might shut down a semiconductor plant for 2-3 weeks, has the potential to disable a manufacturing facility and furlough workers in the United States if that facility only has 3-5 days of inventory,” the Commerce Department concluded in a six-page summary of its findings.

The lack of chip inventory leaves auto manufacturers and other chip users with “no room for error,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said Tuesday as she presented the findings. “A covid outbreak, a storm, a natural disaster, political instability, problem with equipment — really anything that disrupts a [chip-making] facility anywhere in the world, we will feel the ramifications here in the United States of America,” she said. “A covid outbreak in Malaysia has the potential to shut down a manufacturing facility in America.”

“The reality is Congress must act,” Raimondo added, urging lawmakers to pass a proposal for $52 billion in federal subsidies to incentivize construction of chip factories. “Every day we wait, we fall further behind.” The Senate passed the measure last year. The legislation has been tied up for months in the House, though House Democrats are expected to introduce their version of the legislation as soon as this week. Industry executives say federal funding is likely to create more long-term supply of chips but not to alleviate the short-term shortages because chip factories take years to build.

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This 22-Year-Old Builds Semiconductors in His Parents Garage

Wired reports on 22-year-old Sam Zeloof, who builds semiconductors in his family’s New Jersey garage, “about 30 miles from where the first transistor was made at Bell Labs in 1947.”

With a collection of salvaged and homemade equipment, Zeloof produced a chip with 1,200 transistors. He had sliced up wafers of silicon, patterned them with microscopic designs using ultraviolet light, and dunked them in acid by hand, documenting the process on YouTube and his blog. “Maybe it’s overconfidence, but I have a mentality that another human figured it out, so I can too, even if maybe it takes me longer,” he says… His chips lag Intel’s by technological eons, but Zeloof argues only half-jokingly that he’s making faster progress than the semiconductor industry did in its early days. His second chip has 200 times as many transistors as his first, a growth rate outpacing Moore’s law, the rule of thumb coined by an Intel cofounder that says the number of transistors on a chip doubles roughly every two years.

Zeloof now hopes to match the scale of Intel’s breakthrough 4004 chip from 1971, the first commercial microprocessor, which had 2,300 transistors and was used in calculators and other business machines. In December, he started work on an interim circuit design that can perform simple addition….

Garage-built chips aren’t about to power your PlayStation, but Zeloof says his unusual hobby has convinced him that society would benefit from chipmaking being more accessible to inventors without multimillion-dollar budgets. “That really high barrier to entry will make you super risk-averse, and that’s bad for innovation,” Zeloof says.

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Major Breakthrough As Quantum Computing In Silicon Hits 99% Accuracy

nickwinlund77 shares a report from SciTechDaily: UNSW Sydney-led research paves the way for large silicon-based quantum processors for real-world manufacturing and application. Australian researchers have proven that near error-free quantum computing is possible, paving the way to build silicon-based quantum devices compatible with current semiconductor manufacturing technology. […] [The researcher’s] paper is one of three published today in Nature that independently confirm that robust, reliable quantum computing in silicon is now a reality. This breakthrough is featured on the front cover of the journal.

[Professor Andrea Morello of UNSW, who led the work] et al achieved 1-qubit operation fidelities up to 99.95 percent, and 2-qubit fidelity of 99.37 percent with a three-qubit system comprising an electron and two phosphorous atoms, introduced in silicon via ion implantation. A Delft team in the Netherlands led by Lieven Vandersypen achieved 99.87 percent 1-qubit and 99.65 percent 2-qubit fidelities using electron spins in quantum dots formed in a stack of silicon and silicon-germanium alloy (Si/SiGe). A RIKEN team in Japan led by Seigo Tarucha similarly achieved 99.84 percent 1-qubit and 99.51 percent 2-qubit fidelities in a two-electron system using Si/SiGe quantum dots.

The UNSW and Delft teams certified the performance of their quantum processors using a sophisticated method called gate set tomography, developed at Sandia National Laboratories in the U.S. and made openly available to the research community. Morello had previously demonstrated that he could preserve quantum information in silicon for 35 seconds, due to the extreme isolation of nuclear spins from their environment. But the trade-off was that isolating the qubits made it seemingly impossible for them to interact with each other, as necessary to perform actual computations. Today’s paper describes how his team overcame this problem by using an electron encompassing two nuclei of phosphorus atoms. The three papers from the UNSW team, Delft team and RIKEN group in Tokyo can be found at their respective links.

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DDR4 Memory Protections Are Broken Wide Open By New Rowhammer Technique

“An unprivileged application can corrupt data in memory by accessing ‘hammering’ rows of DDR4 memory in certain patterns millions of times a second, giving those untrusted applications nearly unfettered system privileges,” writes long-time Slashdot reader shoor. Ars Technica reports: Rowhammer attacks work by accessing — or hammering — physical rows inside vulnerable chips millions of times per second in ways that cause bits in neighboring rows to flip, meaning 1s turn to 0s and vice versa. Researchers have shown the attacks can be used to give untrusted applications nearly unfettered system privileges, bypass security sandboxes designed to keep malicious code from accessing sensitive operating system resources, and root or infect Android devices, among other things. All previous Rowhammer attacks have hammered rows with uniform patterns, such as single-sided, double-sided, or n-sided. In all three cases, these “aggressor” rows — meaning those that cause bitflips in nearby “victim” rows — are accessed the same number of times.

Research published on Monday presented a new Rowhammer technique. It uses non-uniform patterns that access two or more aggressor rows with different frequencies. The result: all 40 of the randomly selected DIMMs in a test pool experienced bitflips, up from 13 out of 42 chips tested in previous work (PDF) from the same researchers. “We found that by creating special memory access patterns we can bypass all mitigations that are deployed inside DRAM,” Kaveh Razavi and Patrick Jattke, two of the research authors, wrote in an email. “This increases the number of devices that can potentially be hacked with known attacks to 80 percent, according to our analysis. These issues cannot be patched due to their hardware nature and will remain with us for many years to come.”

The non-uniform patterns work against Target Row Refresh. Abbreviated as TRR, the mitigation works differently from vendor to vendor but generally tracks the number of times a row is accessed and recharges neighboring victim rows when there are signs of abuse. The neutering of this defense puts further pressure on chipmakers to mitigate a class of attacks that many people thought more recent types of memory chips were resistant to. In Monday’s paper, the researchers wrote: “Proprietary, undocumented in-DRAM TRR is currently the only mitigation that stands between Rowhammer and attackers exploiting it in various scenarios such as browsers, mobile phones, the cloud, and even over the network. In this paper, we show how deviations from known uniform Rowhammer access patterns allow attackers to flip bits on all 40 recently-acquired DDR4 DIMMs, 2.6x more than the state of the art. The effectiveness of these new non-uniform patterns in bypassing TRR highlights the need for a more principled approach to address Rowhammer.” While PCs, laptops, and mobile phones are most affected by the new findings, the report notes that cloud services like AWS and Azure “remain largely safe from Rowhammer because they use higher-end chips that include a defense known as ECC, short for Error Correcting Code.”

“Concluding, our work confirms that the DRAM vendors’ claims about Rowhammer protections are false and lure you into a false sense of security,” the researchers wrote. “All currently deployed mitigations are insufficient to fully protect against Rowhammer. Our novel patterns show that attackers can more easily exploit systems than previously assumed.”

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