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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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Just because you can, doesn't mean you should

Welcome back. We all know that ICT is incredibly enabling. IT puts a lot of CAN into your world. This week we take a bit of time to think about responsibility and consequences. We look at three specific examples of where we can ask - 'you can - but should you?'. But first, let's start with some general news for the week:

Quick news summaries:


You can, but Should you: Monitor your staff?

Sensors are becoming smaller, cheaper and more powerful. Using them, people are developing systems to use energy and space in offices more effectively. To do this, the sensors need to track the movement of workers in the office. No workers in a room? OK, turn off the lights and climate control. Have an open plan office and need to manage work spaces, conference venues, meeting rooms, etc? Track who is where in the building.

The problem is that all technology can be used for many purposes. The same sensors that can tell you how many desks are empty and which meeting rooms are available can also be used to track how much time a worker spends at his / her desk. Some sensors can even tell how often people speak to each other. Big Brother is alive, well and coming to an office near you.

So the trade off is, once again, efficiency vs privacy. This is a topic within the frame of reference of your learners - and makes the whole privacy debate real to them. So why not give them the topic and get them to do a real debate in the class?

Some reference sites:


You can, but should you: Profit from fake news?

You live in a poor town in a poor country. There is an election in a foreign country that many people are interested in. You see an opportunity to create some 'news' web sites related to candidates in this election - and make some money off the advertising when people view your site. Your actions may have a significant impact on the outcome of that election. Should you go ahead and make money or not?

This topic is drawn mainly from a fascinating Wired article titled Inside the Macedonian Fake-News Complex. The article details the actions of a 17 year old who made $16 000 (more than R200 000) in four months feeding fake news to the American public during the elections. An interesting read - which raises interesting questions that you and your class need to be aware of.


You can, but should you: Watch porn online?


88 percent of the top 500 porn sites have tracking elements installed.

Finally, we all know that most school kids have looked at online porn at least once. You can be as shocked and in denial as you like - but surely it's better to be honest and upfront with the issue - and with them.

Articles detail how, no matter how you try to hide it, your porn viewing habits can be tracked - and all it takes is a hacker to put it out in public for the world to see... or blackmail you into a very uncomfortable situation. Check out Brett Thomas's Blog and Motherboard.


"If you are watching / viewing porn online ... even in Incognito mode,
you should expect that at some point your porn viewing history will be
publicly released and attached to your name."
-- Brett Thomas

Even if you don't feel comfortable debating the issue of porn, online porn and the viewing habits of the modern teenager - surely it is worthwhile to warn your learners of something that could potentially cause them (at minimum) great embarrassment in the future?


Solving the database problem of time

For the more technically minded. Running a global database is an immense technical challenge. But one of the issues that does not jump to the forefront of one's thinking is Time. How does a database track and manage user interactions (insertions, deletions, edits) on a global scale given the problems of different time zones - and the delays inherent in electronic communications? Only one company has solved this problem - Google. The database it developed is called Spanner, which it is making available to paying customers as a cloud service. Read about it at Wired.


Ransomware & Malware corner

Here's this week's Ransomware and Malware news.

  • Researchers show PLC (Programmable Logic Controllers, the small computers used in many industrial contexts) can be hacked and used to do things like hold the power grid to ransom.
  • And: The Hacker News has an article where researchers show that the water supply is also at risk.
  • Related: CSO Online has an article on worries that Ransomware will hit critical infrastructure. Interesting video on recovering from a Ransomware attack at the bottom of the article.
  • Prediction: Ransomware insurance will become a hot new thing.
  • Is your English poor? Are you worried your dating scam will be detected because of bad grammar / spelling? Don't worry, the Darknet has a solution. Krebs on Security has an article detailing how you can buy dating scam packs - full of templates, photos, letters, etc. to make it easy for you to steal money from a lonely person just looking to connect with that special someone.


Fake news corner

Here's a summary of fake news related articles for the week:

That's it for this week. Happy teaching!

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