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This Week in Tech

Robots again.... Autonomously

This week's news contains two significant robot announcements that point the way to a future where robots take over and humans have very little work to do. What existed only in the imaginations of comic book and Sci Fi authors in the 1960's is lowly becoming reality as our technology starts to catch up with our dreams. What is making this robot revolution possible? Small, low powered, reliable sensors (including GPS); powerful SoCs (System on a Chip - where the whole computer system is on a single chip); plentiful, fast, reliable and cheap memory and storage and major advances in AI algorithms....

Our robotic future

To the self-driving cars that seem to be just over the horizon we can now add robots that can farm by themselves - and carry out dental surgery without a human's guiding hand...

Hands Free Hectare is a project at Harper Adams University which just successfully proved that robots can plant and harvest a field without any human intervention. The robots in question were installed into old farming equipment (tractors, harvesters, etc.). During the entire process - from planting to harvest - humans were not allowed into the hectare sized field. The result? 4.5 tons of Barley!

And in China (where there is apparently a shortage of dentists) a robot installed two dental implants in a patient (humans are still required to change drill bits etc, but the precise, in-mouth work was carried out by the robot autonomously. On top of that, the implants were 3D printed! 3Dprint.com has more.

These are two great and interesting examples of ICT 'disrupting' the world as we know it and possibly increasing productivity whilst causing job losses for humans. It used to be that only factory style work (precise and very repetitive involving no ability to sense the world or make decisions) was the target for robotic replacement. Now any job is fair game...

Mining vs Advertising

Much of the web (and most of the 'free' apps and services we use) is 'powered' by advertising. The problem is, advertising is becoming over saturated and people are becoming suspicious and resentful of the 'tracking' that advertisers do. This week we saw proof that companies are investigating alternative sources of income. One of these alternative sources of income is 'mining' cryptocurrency. To 'mine' a bitcoin or ether or any other type of cryptocurrency you need to perform some intense calculations to solve complex mathematical problems. To make money by mining cryptocurrency you need expensive computer hardware running at full capacity - which uses a lot of electricity.

So why not get other people's computers to do the mining for you using a type of distributed computing?

That's exactly what The Pirate Bay (something you could expect of them) and video streaming site Showtime (a big surprise) did this week. They embedded scripts in their web pages that made your computer do cryptocurrency mining when you visited them. Your computer did the work, you got the electricity bill and they earned cryptocurrency. All without asking your permission. The Guardian has the details.

Privacy insight

Tinder is a dating app. Like most modern apps it collects data about you to 'improve its performance'. We all know this. What might surprise you is how much data it collects. A journalist who used Tinder for 4 years of using Tinder requested that Tinder supply her with the data it collected. European data laws allowed her to do this and eventually Tinder complied - the result adds up to 800 pages of collected data. Data from Tinder, Facebook and Instagram had been collected. All the places she was when she used the app. The online conversations she had with people she matched up with.

“Tinder knows much more about you when studying your behaviour on the app. It knows how often you connect and at which times; the percentage of white men, black men, Asian men you have matched; which kinds of people are interested in you; which words you use the most; how much time people spend on your picture before swiping you, and so on. Personal data is the fuel of the economy. Consumers’ data is being traded and transacted for the purpose of advertising.”


Tinder’s privacy policy clearly states your data may be used to deliver “targeted advertising”.

Alessandro Acquisti - from "I asked Tinder for my data. It sent me 800 pages of my deepest, darkest secrets" in The Guardian, 26 Sept 2017.

The extent of data collected by Tinder is astonishing - but is nothing compared to what Google knows about you. Remember - the connected world is NOT a private place.

Read the article at The Guardian (worth the time).

Tapes are back!

No, not your 70's, 80's and 90's mix cassettes - no matter what the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise would have you believe. We are talking tape based data backups. The fact is, disk based backups are vulnerable to hackers. Tapes are slower, not permanently online and more cumbersome - but their major advantage is that they are secure. You need physical access to mess with their data. That's why many companies are looking to use tapes as a secondary, more secure type of backup. Read it at Marketwatch.com. This ties in with spies and security agencies going back to typewriters, paper and filing cabinets because hackers make data security a joke!

That's it for this week. Happy teaching...

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Teraflops, Petaflops and Supercomputers

This week Supercomputers made the news in two separate articles. We mention them in passing when talking about 'types of computers' in class, specifically at the beginning of Grade 10 and then pretty much forget about them. Our teaching is so focussed on the shallow end of the computing pool that we sometimes forget how astonishingly deep the pool can get - and how powerful computers truly can be. A good thing to remember is that today's supercomputer is tomorrows smartphone, watch or some other minuscule digital device that no one has even imagined yet. So, let's take a closer look at supercomputers....

First: The supercomputing news

What is a Supercomputer?

The Oxford English Dictionary only offers us this: A particularly powerful mainframe computer.

WhatIs.com offers a far more satisfying A supercomputer is a computer that performs at or near the currently highest operational rate for computers.

Yeah, but what is a Supercomputer really?

This video about sums it up perfectly:

Top Supercomputers - by end of 2016

Great to see visuals of the actual machines.

What is a FLOP?

FLoating point Operation.

A single calculation involving floating point numbers (i.e. real numbers with decimal points). Supercomputers work at speeds that allow them to perform in the Teraflop or Petaflop range. A TERAFLOP is 1 TRILLION floating point operations per second. A PETAFLOP is 1000 Teraflops = 1000 Trillion = 1 Quadrillion floating point calculations per second. By next year we should have a Supercomputer capable of 200 Petaflops!

To put it in perspective, desktop computers are only reaching Teraflop capability this year whilst the world got its first Teraflop Supercomputer in 1997 and its first Petaflop supercomputer way back in 2008 (the IBM "Roadrunner" - see it on YouTube).

The Top 500 Supercomputer list (also a great source for seeing what these behemoth machines are being used for) is updated twice yearly and lists (obviously) the 500 most powerful computers in the world. The competition for the most powerful machine is largely between the USA and China, with China dominating since 2012.

Multi Processing / Parallel Processing

We teach these concepts relating them to the desktop computers and devices that our learners are familiar with and use every day. They really start to make sense when you talk about them in terms of these machine which are made up of hundreds of thousands of CPUs and GPUs. Maybe worth a reference back to supercomputers at that point?

The Mythbusters guys explain parallel processing in GPUs in this fun video courtesy of Nvidia:

And that about concludes our quick primer on Supercomputers. Now on to our news links for the week.

News in brief:

That's it for this week.

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