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This Week in Tech

A robotics edition

Strangely enough, the news this week has been full of stuff about robots. So, we'll run with it and let the blog focus on robotic topics.

UBI (Universal Basic Income)

Let's start off by talking about a concept that features in Science Fiction and has been in the news lately relating to Bill Gates' call for a tax on robots and Elon Musk's statements in support of the concept. A UBI is when the state pays every citizen, no matter what other income they may earn, a set amount each month (Wikipedia's explanation here, Wharton School of Business discussion here, Brookings arguments in favour of). Part of the motivation for calls for a UBI is the increasing loss of jobs due to automation (robots). Some places (Finland, Ontario) are actually trialling the concept.

The topic of a UBI is a great one for class discussion and a topic for 'Social Impact of ICT' that your learners can really get their teeth into. How about a debate? Why not make up a 'parliament' where speakers get to argue for and against a UBI and then the class has to vote? This is a topic that can fire up your learners, get them involved, make them talk after class to friends and family and make your class even more relevant!

Bionic Ants

A lot of robotic research is modelled on the insect world. Check out the teamwork of these bionic ants (via Hackaday) created by Festo (direct link to company video is bionicants-en-SD.mp4)


How big are robots, economically speaking?

According to an article by Fast Company, researchers put the economic value of all robots in America at $732 Billion - bigger than the economy of Switzerland!

Robotic ear surgeon.

Cochlear implants. Devices that help deaf people to hear. Wired has an article about a robot that can perform the operation to give someone a cochlear implant - by itself.

Robot Porter


CNet has an article detailing a journalist trying out a robot porter that followed her around New York for a day. The robot follows you around and can be used for things like carrying your groceries. Great for city life where you don't use a car.

Drone Pilots outnumber real pilots.

OK, so drones are not real robots. The combination of mechanised constructions under remote human control (with the distinct possibility of self control in the future) is enough of a grey area to qualify for inclusion in this blog. Digital Trends has an article detailing how the US air force now employs more drone pilots than pilots for real planes.

Robots and specialised AI chips

The world of the microprocessor is also being affected by the increased demand for more intelligent robots. AI performs better when running on hardware specially developed to support it. Google set the trend by developing the TPU (Tensor Processing Unit) last year and many other companies are working in this hot new area of tech research and development. Mobileye is just such a company, making chips and cameras for self driving cars. Intel just bought them for $15.3 Billion.

UWVs? Seafaring Drones? Whatever you call them, they are real and being tested in Norway.


Engadget has the details.

General News

PRINT THIS OUT AND STICK IT UP IN YOUR CLASSROOM - and email it to everyone you know!!!

Cartoon courtesy of XKCD.

  • Hard drives can be wiped of data using a powerful magnet (degaussing). Or you can physically destroy them using a drill and a hammer. But how do you destroy the data on a SSD? Magnets don't work. Physical destruction needs much more precision - you have to destroy every chip. Lifehacker has the solution - and it's not what you expect.

Fake news

EWN republishes and article from the World Economic Forum studying how to control fake news.

That's it from a full and busy blog for this week.

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Unintended Consequences

Tech is always pushing the boundaries. A continual fountain of new ideas, new gadgets and new ways of doing business bubbles up, with entrepreneurs and investors (and consumers) eagerly jumping aboard the latest bandwagon. The 'next big thing' arrives and is proclaimed by its inventors / creators / designers; we all reach, starry eyed and full of hope, for the magic that will miraculously improve our lives and ease our blighted souls.

The problem is: new tech is untried, untested and - even it performs flawlessly and does what it is meant to do in an exemplary fashion - people are wily and conniving and deceitful and will find a way to pervert the purpose of even the best technology.

This brings me to the cause of this negative and cynical rant: Poachers are trying to hack the tracking technology designed to protect and preserve their prey (Full scientific article available at Wiley Online Library). Cyber poaching. A new term to learn and loathe.


“Animal tracking can reveal animal locations (sometimes in nearly real-time), and these data
can help people locate, disturb, capture, harm, or kill tagged animals,”

Another job bites the dust

Used to be that people thought that jobs flipping burgers at fast food joints would be the last refuge for humanity whilst robots took over the world. Flappy, the burger flipping robot might hake something to say about that. Read it at Engadget and check out the video below.


Wikileaks and the CIA

The big news this week, splashed all over the news and just about every publication you care to read, is the Wikileaks publication of CIA hacking tools. The New York Times has an article detailing how to protect yourself if you are worried (summary: update, update, update!), Popular Science retcons it is all over-hyped and Digital Trends has a summary of the leak.

General news:

  • How big of a problem is spam? A single spammers list of email addresses has been found - an incredible 1.3 Billion adresses. From one spam operator. Just think how much faster and more responsive the internet would be if it were not clogged by the foul morass of spam mails.
  • It is early days yet but Google has started applying image recognition tech to videos - trying to identify objects in the video. Why it matters: You could search a video library for a specific item or scene quickly rather than suffering through endless fast forwarding. It also opens the path to all sorts of as yet unimagined analysis of video archives - as well as self-alerting surveillance systems.
  • Microsoft has announced it is creating a version of Windows Server that will run on the same type of smaller, lower powered, cheaper processors (ARM processors) that power your smartphone and tablet. Read it at Digital trends. Why it matters: This move would make servers (and data centres) cheaper and more energy efficient.
  • Android is about to overtake Windows as the most used OS globally. Why it matters: More proof that most people's first (and perhaps only) computing device will be a mobile one.
  • Prototype Red Cross Land Rover launches and lands drones from its roof - while on the go! Why it matters: Besides being sooooo cool? Improved response time and efficiency.
  • Is Facebook doing something about its Fake News problem at last? Possibly. Here's a link to a page on Facebook that allows you to declare a news item as possibly fake. Problem is, that they haven't made it generally available as yet. Why it matters: We've been talking about Fake News a lot and how it influences real life. This can help people become more aware that what they are reading is not necessarily true.
  • David Mahlobo (our very own Minister of State security) wants to monitor and restrict social media in South Africa. Why it matters: If you think that even a hint that government wants to control social media (for whatever reason) is not disturbing and dangerous then I am not sure how any amount of words can explain why this is important. Zapiro has a perfect cartoon to explain the futility of the idea and the repressive, dictatorial company that our Minister wants to join.
  • CNN announces availability of some news in 360 degree VR.
  • 3D Print has a great, but technical, article on printing baby skeletons and organs to improve neonatal care.
  • CPU Developments. AMD announces server CPU with 64 cores. Why it matters: It is always good to know the trends in CPU development (not that it is likely a consumer will have a machine with such a chip $3000 - $4000 (over R40 000 just for the CPU) . Obviously, this increases server, data centre power at the same high end price point.
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Robots, 3D Printing and DNA

DNA storage, anyone?

The quest for smaller, larger capacity, low power storage is pretty much never ending. This week news emerged of people finally being able to store data on DNA with 100% accuracy (Motherboard, Engadget). A great long term future trend to mention to the class, though it will probably take 10 - 20 years before this becomes a commercial product. Although capacity is huge (you can fit over 2 TB of data on 1 gram of DNA!) it can take forever to do so - the researchers took 7 hours to write 2 MB of data. Then another 7 hours to read the data.

3D Printing in the spotlight

More for your current and future trends session. 3D printing is continually advancing. Almost every week there is an article on how surgeons succeed with particularly difficult operations because they first use a MRI / CAT scan to generate a 3D image of the persons body and then 3D print the part they will work on - so that they can practice the operation before surgery starts.

South Africa is not being left behind in the 3D printing revolution. The CSIR is about to go operational with the worlds largest 3D printer - capable of printing metal parts 200m long, 6m wide and 6m high. Read about the Aeroswift printer here at 3DPrint.com.

The world has its first printed on site house (Digital Trends) - and it only took 24 hours to print the house. Watch the video (a bit of a sales pitch for Apis Corp, the makers of the printer, but still an interesting watch). Another great current and future trends topic for your classes. 3D printing houses - reduced costs for making the house, huge loss of jobs for construction workers. Which is more important?

The robot revolution

From house printing robots to small, furry pollinators. Check out how a Japanese scientist is trying out a concept of using micro drones to do a bees work (because, scarily enough, bee populations are dying out around the world).

Advances in robotics continue apace, and as always, Boston Robotics is at the forefront. This week they unveiled a new machine called Handle - check out the video below to see what it can do.

For more insight into robots, their place in the workplace and people's relationships with robots there is a long but very interesting read at The New York Times. Good material for you to gain insight into robotics in the real world.

General news:

  • Gmail to allow users to receive 50MB attachments.
  • Get started with your own Ransomware kit - seriously, a maker of ransomware has a 5 minute ad for people wanting to start a life of cyber crime! Watch it at Boing Boing.
  • Body cams are cameras worn on the body of police - a rising trend in the USA. The idea is that the body cam protects both the police and the public by recording interactions - so that the police are less likely to use excessive force and so that the police can justify their actions when they do have to use force. Problem is, due to limits in battery and storage these cameras are not always on.Read about new holster technology that will activate all body cameras in the area when someone removes a gun from the holster.
  • Someone has created a braille smartwatch for the blind. Check it out here.
  • Be careful what you type - computers always take you literally. This week many internet services went offline - because they used Amazon web service and someone typed the wrong instructions into a maintenance command. Read it at Engadget.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Phishing and Whaling

We all take a lot of time and effort to teach our learners about Phishing - and about the more specialised, targeted "Spear Phishing" version of this type of attack. Well, it's time we added "Whaling" to that repertoire.

The term 'Whale' is often used in IT - and in business in general. A 'Whale' is generally a big spending customer - for example in all those 'free' games that you find available on mobile devices you are able to buy 'coins' or 'stars' or 'points' or something that will make it easier to progress through the game faster. Most people do not spend real money on these in game currencies - but there is a select group of users that do buy them - and they buy large. They are usually called 'Whales' - and they are where these companies make their money. Before science was sufficiently advanced whales were simply regarded as another type of fish - the biggest fish in the sea. So they are the biggest Phish for Phishers to focus their attention on as well. In the world of cybercrime a whale is typically a high level business person (CEO, COO, CFO, CTO = 'C' level executive, someone with 'Chief' in their title), politicians or celebrities.

The Whale phisher typically sends an urgent e-mail from a trusted colleague / business partner requesting urgent payment for some critical aspect of the business. The CEO then gives the order that payment be made, short-circuiting the usual paperwork... The phisher scores big. In May this year an Austrian aircraft company lost nearly € 41 Million (more than R 645 000 000) to a Whaling attack. The CEO and CFO lost their jobs. Read about it here.

MyBroadband.co.za has a story on Whaling and some tips from the FBI about how to avoid such attacks, whilst Social-Engineer.com asks 'Why go after minnows when you can catch a Big Phish?'. Finally CSOonline.com has got some examples of scams that CEOs could fall for (especially the spoofed 'from' addresses that rely on similar looking mis-spellings to seem as if they are from a valid source) - if you can stand their irritating multi-page slideshow format.

Fighting back against RansomWare

A great resource for learning about, identifying and fighting Ransomware is nomoreransom.org. They even have tools that will decrypt certain types of Ransomware attacks. A great resource for teaching about this type of malware.

Watch out for that cheap wireless keyboard

You better watch out, you better beware, Keysniffer is already in town.

Armed with a bit of smarts and a wireless dongle that costs less than R200 a hacker can not only intercept whatever you type on your keyboard (without even having to install key logging malware on your computer) from up to 70 m away, but they can also insert their own keystrokes to change whatever you are typing.

How is this possible? Well, makers of cheap wireless keyboards (those that use their own wi-fi dongle instead of Bluetooth) let the communication between the keyboard and the computer take place without encryption (or with poor encryption). Why? Because its cheaper and cheaper = lower price or more profits or both. Wired magazine has the lowdown on this new hacking exploit.

There is no such thing as anonymity or privacy on the web

Keep on telling your learners this fact. Repeat it until they think you are a stuck record. For those that say that they are savvy and have the skillz and the toolz to keep private - point out to them that the TOR browser and account they are using is probably compromised. Researchers recently found over 100 TOR nodes that were spying on their users... Tell them to read the article at The Hacker News. Then point out that the web is a large, wild, ungoverned place which is about as tough and secure as a bag made of wet toilet paper. They need to always assume that most of what you do, create, store, collect, download electronically is traceable and watchable and has probably been intercepted by someone somewhere.

A general Resource for all

The World Digital Library is a resource created by the US Library of Congress with support from UNESCO. It contains many digitised images, texts and maps that are interesting to browse through but could also be valuable resources for the History / Geography teachers at your school.

Building at 225 bricks per hour

3DPrint.com has an article about an Australian company which has created a robot that can lay 225 bricks in an hour - as much as a human does in half a day. Basically a truck loaded with bricks arrives at the building site, extends a robotic arm and starts laying the bricks according to the design programmed into it from a CAD model. There's a time lapse video of the robot at work near the end of the article.

That's it for this week.

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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