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This Week in Tech

The importance of being Uncertain and other fun facts...

Welcome to our 50th blog post. We hope that the blog has at least made one useful contribution to your teaching, classroom and / or learners. This week's news tends towards the lighter side and there are a couple of fun things you can show your learners to put smiles on their faces.

Uncertainty rules!

The first item on the agenda is MIT engineers proving that you don't need GPS and precise knowledge of location to improve an autonomous drone's ability to avoid obstacles. Instead they allow the drone to keep what they call a 'nano map' in memory which the drone continually refers to. By comparing past images with the current image the drone can position itself relative to obstacles and take the appropriate evasive action.This is much closer to how we humans do things and reduces crash rates from 28% to 2%!

Weird Hardware Hack

Q: What do you get if you combine parts from a flatbed scanner, dot matrix printer and a hard drive, with some mechanical parts and a pencil?

A: The weird 'printer' below that uses a pencil to 'tap' out an image.

Useful? NO. Fascinating? Yes!


Robots continue their advance...

Wired has a story on how Boston Dynamic's Spot robot dog can now open doors (video below). Makes me think of the 'Metalhead' episode from Black Mirror season 4.

Or maybe not so much... The Winter Olympics provided the ideal opportunity for various robotics teams to show just how far robots have to go. The narrative is not English but the visuals are universally understandable.

5G and Wild Boars

More from the Winter Olympics. 5G is a specification that is only due to hit mainstream in 2020. South Korea has been using the technology (capable go 10 Gigabits data transmission speed) in various demonstrations throughout the Olympics. One of the uses is for automated defences against Wild Boars to keep them from invading competition tracks. TechCentral has the details.

Recycling old computers into art

Zayd Menck has built a model of Midtown Manhattan (New York) from old computer parts...


In other news:

    • The BBC reports that Bitcoin mining in Iceland is about to use more electricity than all the households in the country.
    • Meanwhile the SA Reserve bank wants to regulate Bitcoin in SA (MyBroadband).
    • Facebook lost 2.8 Million US users under 28 years old last year (Recode).
    • Facebook (again) is getting more intrusive by asking you to add lists to your wall... (Engadget).
    • Want to take better photographs? This AI will shock you into getting it right! (Hackaday)

And that's it for this week. Enjoy!

Comments

RFID makes way for cameras & AI

This week has a lot of news, in many mixed areas of interest. No space for an into - just jump in and enjoy!

Amazon Go - 'Queue free shopping experience'

I'm not sure how it slipped past, but the last post was meant to include the new Amazon Go - 'Queue free shopping experience' shop that has just opened in Seattle.

Unfortunately there's a queue to get in...

Seriously though...

RFID was always touted as the way that shoppers would be able to pile goods in their shopping cart and then simply walk out the shop and have the sensors automatically read the price of their goods and bill them without having to stand in a queue. That dream has not (yet) materialised - and is vulnerable to people doing things like removing the RFID tag from goods, swapping tags on expensive goods for cheaper ones, etc.

Amazon thinks they have a solution. A shop where you can only enter by having your smartphone scanned, and then being watched by many, many, many cameras that track what you put into your basket so the system bills your credit card when you walk out. Several news outlets have tried shoplifting (and failed - here's Ars Technica's report on their attempt) but some youtubers have claimed success.

There are some obvious cheats - shelves are designed to try to ensure that you can't put items back in the wrong place (to make it easier for the computers to identify them)

Here's Amazon's info page.

Think of the thousands of cashier jobs that will be lost if this technology proves a success (Forbes has).

UK Airport Security takes romance into consideration.

Digital Trends has the scoop - an amusing read.

Contactless (NFC) cards and security in SA

MyBroadband has an article where banks tout the safety of the system. No research, just spokespeople...

The value of Data

MyBroadband has an article on how Vodacom makes R2 BILLION per month on data alone.

Keeping fit... leaks info on military bases

Making data sharing an opt-out feature is always a bad idea. Sure, it lets companies be confident that they will be able to slurp up data from users who don't think about the fact that they are being tracked - or are too lazy (or ignorant) to turn off data sharing for the app. But even 'anonymised' data has its risks. This week it emerged that Strava, a fitness tracking service, has inadvertently spilled the beans on military and other secret installations around the world.

Users of products such as fitbit go out for a run. Their route is tracked. The data is 'cleaned' and anonymised and uploaded. Strava thought it was a great idea to aggregate the data and display it on a global map so that fitness buffs could find popular places to run and exercise. Problem is, some of those routes are run by military personnel inside military bases... Read it at Hackaday and Nine.Com.au (some good graphics and explanations of consequences here).

More Privacy - G.D.P.R. and how tech companies are scrambling to prepare for it

This one is important. Europe has a new set of rules to protect privacy (General Data Protection Regulation) which come into effect on 25 May 2018. If your internet service breaches these rules then your company can be fined up to 4% of your yearly income. As you can imagine, big companies are working hard to make sure that they comply.

Often they take the easy way out - excluding privacy busting features of their products from the European market.

An interesting read.

More Amazon - patent granted for wristband to track workers

Gizmodo has an article on a patent that has just been granted to Amazon. The patent is for a bracelet that workers will wear - and which will allow their hand movements to be tracked. This will allow the system to see if you are slacking off - or making mistakes. As the article points out, this is only a patent (at the moment) and probably serves as a way to treat human workers more like robots until robotics advances enough to replace them.

Cartoonist predicted the problem of intrusive cell phones - more than 100 years ago!


Boing Boing has more info on the cartoon and cartoonist.

Bitcoin miner uses oil to cool his rig

Submerging your computer in oil is an effective (if messy) way to keep it cool (oil does not conduct electricity but is good at dispersing heat). The really interesting thing about the article from Motherboard is some of the statistics it reveals about the cost of mining bitcoin. If you have been carried away by the soaring price of Bitcoin in the last short while, these stats will be of particular interest to you. Summarised, they are:

    • The rig cost $ 120 000.
    • It uses 50 Kw of electricity a month (about the same as 25 households).
    • It mines 1.5 bitcoins a month.

Bitcoin and TAX

If you have made some money from Bitcoin (or know someone who has) then read this. Hope you put aside the tax man's share...

MinION - Palm sized DNA Sequencer

It took a group of scientists 13 years of work and cost $3 Billion to map the human genome. Supercomputers and distributed computing techniques were needed to do the work. Now the MinION, the pocket sized device in the video below connects to your laptop or desktop using USB 3 (and is powered by UB) and can map a genome for as little as $1 000.

AR lets doctors see through your skin

Augmented Reality is so much more useful than Pokemon Go would make you think... Digital Trends has the low down on how researchers are displaying your insides on your outside to help doctors...

How much money (profit) do big companies make - per second?

Check out this interactive graphic to find out. Spoiler alert: Disney only makes $297 per second. Facebook makes $323 per second. Apple makes $1 445 per second!

What's so special about this movie?

The entire, feature length movie was shot on iPhone. No more excuses - you have the same camera tech in your pocket. Now go out and make a movie! More info available here at htxt.africa.

Paying for popularity

The New York Times has a great article on a company called Devumi that sells followers, tweets, retweets, etc for people who need to boost their metrics to prove their popularity. Some of the followers they sell are automated bots based on real people - the product of identity theft.

Devumi has more than 200,000 customers, including reality television stars, professional athletes, comedians, TED speakers, pastors and models. ...

Devumi offers Twitter followers, views on YouTube, plays on SoundCloud, the music-hosting site, and endorsements on LinkedIn, the professional-networking site.

If you are still using Flash, it's time to stop!

Flash is hacked again with another zero day vulnerability out in the wild. The Hacker News has the details.

That's it for this week....

Manslaughter - by text and a phone call

Seems like that old nursery chant: 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me' is no longer quite as true as we'd like to believe. Last week a judge in Massachusetts found a 17 year old young woman guilty of manslaughter for using text messages and a phone call to encourage and convince her 18 year old boyfriend to commit suicide.

“This is saying that what she did is killing him, that her words literally killed him, that the murder weapon here was her words,”
- Matthew Segal, lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts

Our learners live in a world where constant communication and the pressures of social media are pervasive. They often post private messages to each other and public messages on social media without giving a moments thought to the impact, implication, consequences or possible collateral damage these messages might cause. As educators, we need to take the time and effort to repeatedly draw to their attention cases that vividly illustrate this - cases that redefine the law and our society. This is one such case. The New York Times has a good article on the topic, but if you have already used up your free access for the month, here's a link at CNN. If nothing else, this could open the door to Manslaughter / Murder becoming, of all things, a cybercrime.

Human error - again

Computers are stupid. they only do what you tell them to do, so you better make sure that you tell them to do the right thing. One young person, first day on the job, just out of University, unguided and working according to a document telling him how to set up his own test development database did what many of our learners do: he copied the code in the document and executed it unmodified. The result: the entire companies database deleted. Gone. Unrecoverable. The CTO promptly fired him and he posted about his experience on Reddit. Many readers have come out in support of him and believe that the CTO should have been the one to lose his job.

A complete nightmare situation. A business almost down the tubes because of human error. I say almost, because surely there were backups and recovery, though tedious and inconvenient, would be possible? Wrong! Seems like there was a problem with the databases and backups were not being restored. A company that provides a document containing a potentially destructive code snippet to a complete noob for unsupervised use is not likely to make sure they follow the best backup procedure in the world. More human error, compounding the original human error...

Quartz Media has a nice article based on the incident.

Robot, Robots, Robots

Harvard students seem to want to prove that robots can be made from anything - they are developing a spider like robot made from drinking straws and powered by air.

And now, a robot that crawls up your butt - to make an unpleasant medical procedure weirder but less unpleasant. Curious? Check it out at Boing Boing.

This robot uses AI to figure out how to pick up almost anything.

In Shanghai, an automatic, self-driving supermarket cruises the streets....

Finally, the BBC has a short segment from Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu, chief engineer at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on 5 robots set to change the world.

Click Fraud

Motherboard has an article on a click fraud farm busted in Thailand. Fascinating visuals and a glimpse into the world where fake likes, ratings, etc are manufactured on demand.

In Russia though, this type of click fraud is out in the open. Here's an article about a vending machine that sells Instagram likes and followers!

Lying AI

Whilst Google seems intent on creating AI's that defeat humans at complex games demanding strategy and insight, Facebook has built itself an AI that has learnt to lie to get what it wants. Appropriate for a system where most people create fake representations of a perfect life? A fascinating read.

AI, self driving cars and Insurance

Some interesting questions raised in this article from Readwrite.com.

Scary new malware infection technique

Digital trends has an article on how hovering your mouse over a link in a PowerPoint slide can automatically download and install malware (no clicking required).

Ransomware Ponzi scheme

A Ponzi scheme is a pyramid scheme. Popcorn Time is a new type of malware tries to maximise its profits by using the strategy behind a pyramid scheme - when you get infected and your data is encrypted and held ransom, you are given a choice: either pay up or deliberately infect at least 2 others to 'free' your data. What would you do? The New York Times has the details, also at Fortune.com.

That's it for this week - good luck with the last of exams and the reports....

Comments

Farming Robots and Horrid Hackers

Don't you just wish that someone would tell the AI developers and robotocists to stop messing with playing poker and farming: what is really needed is a robot that can mark / grade exam papers!

Poker Face

Needless to say, that may not happen in our lifetime but in the past week DeepStack has been revealed as the first robot / AI that can beat professional poker players. Why is this significant? Well, AI's that can beat people in games like Chess and Go and Checkers, etc. are all working in a situation where they know what the human players know (i.e. they can 'see' the position of all the pieces on the board). In poker, the human players get cards that the computer never gets to see. There is also the not so small matter of bluffing. So, to win at poker an AI has to deal with incomplete information and interpret a player's behaviour to decide if they are bluffing or not. The AI has to analyse the game, factor in the probabilities of the unknown data (which cards are in the pack, which cards does the opponent hold) and recall / analyse the opponent's behaviour to decide whether they are bluffing or not. This is some feat of computing. Original article in MyBroadband.co.za and full academic paper here.

Farming Robot


We (the over 7 Billion people on earth) are able to access food thanks to the astonishing developments in farming technology. BUT, the human population is growing at an alarming pace and farming will have to work to keep up with it. When it comes to feeding the animals that feed us, we need to find a way to efficiently generate the fodder that creates the meat that most people crave as part of their diet.

Most farmers end up resorting to dried foods (because they can be stored for longer) - what else can you do if you have thousands of cattle and not enough grass? BUT eating fresh green is far healthier for the animals and produces better quality meat. Growing sprouts is a solution, but it has not been put into practise because it is very labour intensive and therefore very expensive.

Enter the Fodderworks Automated Fodder System - a robot that grows cattle food indoors in trays, under lights using hydroponic technologies. The food produced is seed sprouts - typically barley, grown and harvested by a robot and capable of producing tons of fodder per day. According to the company the robot can produce a ton of fodder a day (the first batch takes six days but then the principles of the production line kick in and you get a ton a day) at the low cost of around 12 US cents perk Kg! The original article is here on Motherboard and for more in depth information on the company check out the Fodderworks site.

This is a great example of social implications of ICT in the agricultural sector - the good = feeding cattle and producing food. The bad = fewer jobs.

Horrid Hackers

Having real life examples of hacking and malware to talk about with your learners is the main reason why we keep on including hacking news in this blog. Here are some short tidbits from news revealed during the course of this week:

  • France announced that it blocked over 24 000 cyber attacks against its military last year (BBC).
  • FNB (yes, the South African bank) tells of its battle with hackers threatening DDoS attacks unless ransoms were paid (CSO Online).
  • Justice? Israeli firm Cellibrite (which provides tools for hacking mobile devices) itself got hacked with 900 Gb of data stolen (The Hacker News).
  • An indian call centre swindled 15 000 Americans - The New York Times has the story.

Hard drive costs in SA

MyBroadband did a little research on hard drive costs in SA. Good to keep yourself and your learners up-to-date.

Fake News Corner

In case you have a problem explaining the problems with and consequences of Fake News, The Daily Maverick has an article worth reading on the matter.

That's it for this week. Happy teaching!

Holiday catchup

So, Monday is back to school - time for a quick catch up on what has happened in the world of tech during the holidays:

Augmented Reality (AR): When virtual data / information / images are projected over a live view of the world around us. It is the great promise behind products such as Google Glass. Other examples include apps which allow you to view a city through the lens of your smartphone camera and add labels / icons to the image to show points of interest. Last week saw the launch of a new AR game that has taken the world by storm: Pokemon Go. In the game you walk around the real world hunting virtual Pokemon monsters that you find superimposed on the view of the world seen through the lens of your smartphone camera. It's an internet sensation and has featured widely in the news. The game is not available in SA (yet) but it's a great way to teach your kids about the concept of augmented reality.

Killing by Robot: The Police shootings in Dallas ended when the attacker was cornered in a parking garage where, after a long standoff during which the attacker made threats about bombs and explosives, the police attached an explosive to a remotely controlled robot, drove the robot up to the attackers location and detonated the explosion. The attacker was killed. This is the first incident of a robot being used this way in a criminal incident (Americans have used robots in this way in war zones before). Both CNN and Readwrite.com have articles discussing the ethics of this action.

Robots in Accidents: Tesla's electric cars have an 'autopilot' mode where the car actually takes care of the driving, though the company requires drivers to remain alert with their hands on the wheels at all times when the autopilot is engaged. There have been several recent reports of accidents taking place whilst a Tesla car was in autopilot mode - one of which resulted in the death of the driver (read it here at Engadget). Google's self driving car also recently had its first accident which was caused by the car (and not the other person involved in the accident).

AI better than the best: This time it's not computer AI beating people at games such as Chess, Go or even the TV quiz program Jeopardy. No. This is computer AI beating the best Top Gun pilots in aerial combat simulations - 100% of the time. Read its at the Dailymail.co.uk, Popular Science and at Engadget (the last paragraph here is pretty impressive).

Unemployed by Robots: It's always easy to generalise and say how robots and IT can cost jobs. This is a concrete example of extreme labour reduction made possible by tech. Hostess (the company that makes American baked sweets such as Twinkies) has gone from a workforce of 9 000 employed in 14 bakeries across America to 1 170 in 3 bakeries. Well over 80% of its staff lost their jobs to automation. Read about it in themoneystreet.com and in the Washington Post (you need to enter your email for access).

More 3D Printed medical marvels: A man lost his jaw to cancer and its treatment. Thanks to 3D printing he can at least look like a normal human again. Article and video at Engadget.com.

Small snippets: KiloCore: A team at University of California has designed a processor with 1000 cores. Read it at ScienceDaily.com. A Nascar race team was hit by Ransomware in April and nearly lost $2 million in files (but paid the ransom). Softpedia.com has the details. Great article on Social Engineering at Geektime.com.

Welcome back to the new term, good luck and happy teaching!

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