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Will Rio success warm the public to technology in sport?

22 August 2016 by Paul Dempsey

Following Team GB's tremendous success at the Rio Olympics, the results have largely - and, after the Brexit vote, perhaps inevitably - been read politically. But what about the technology?

There's some merit in the political arguments. At their extremes, one side proclaims that the 67-medal haul - 27 of them gold - shows what the UK can achieve when left to its own devices; while the other counters that, once more, government policy has focused on an elite at the expense of encouraging sport in general.

Certainly, the pre-Rio investment of £274.5m in National Lottery funding alone on British Olympians is staggering and stands in stark contrast to the rate at which local authorities continue to be forced to close down or sell off many of the country's public sports facilities. There is also something slightly worrying in The Sutton Trust's claim that one-third of Britain's medallists were educated at private schools with - it is fair to assume - above-average and more easily accessed pitches, pools and beyond.

However, let's leave that debate aside, although just for a moment. Technology, and in particular 'big data' analysis, has played a crucial role in the UK's success.If you doubt that, read Crispin Andrews' article here at E&T. It concludes by setting out the clear battle to achieve analytical advantage that is now raging among the world's leading sporting nations. Team GB's specific R&D here will have eaten up a big chunk of that Lottery investment.

And it would appear that to some considerable extent, you can engineer the near-perfect human. You can optimize his or her actions by crunching the numbers and implementing solutions. Also, we hope, chemistry plays only an honest role in this process (diet, hydration, etc).

The UK's success in this regard is something of a breakthrough moment. The IT-led side of sports science has until recently had a rather mixed reputation. Consider our leading national sport, football.

The FA recently appointed Sam Allardyce as England manager. 'Big Sam' is often criticised as a proponent of the 'long ball game', but many believe that has been used as a lazy explanation for why he consistently gets more out of a squad than an initial assessment of its potential would suggest.

Within football itself, Allardyce has long been known as one of the game's keener students and users of the latest sports science, including highly detailed statistical analysis tools.

But that's one side of the coin. Ask a Manchester United fan what he or she makes of sports science and you are likely to hear a loudly blown raspberry.

What, they will then ask, did that mumbo-jumbo do for former manager David Moyes when he installed a now-ridiculed analysis room full of iPads at Old Trafford? And then what good did all the expensive analytical and medical systems the club also bought do for his successor, Louis van Gaal? Rather than those systems predicting injury risks, his two seasons were blighted by an apparently permanent injury crisis.

When Jose Mourinho arrived at United this Summer and declared that his training regime would be dominated by "players playing football", the supporters applauded. And Mourinho, remember, is seen as even more of a cutting-edge coach than Allardyce.

Of course, different sports have different cultures. Some sports scientists have also suggested that the current state-of-the-art favours sports dominated by the individual rather than the team (and the Olympics does have plenty of those: swimming and athletics being just the two most obvious examples).

But there is also that very British sense that we don't really like the idea of leading sportsmen or women being 'robots'. Well, there were plenty of characters who wonmedals for Team GB. Perhaps we need to reassess how we view that meeting point between sport and technology - the fact that so many of us now walk around with fitness apps of our own might also make that battle easier to win.

One final thought though. As much as we need to reopen or develop sports facilities, we should also look to feed the best technologies used by the elite through to everyone. This isn't just about making sure that the best of those inspired by Team GB's current members go on to represent it in future, but also the general health of the population.

There is some tension in that, however. As Jean Watson, operations manager for the English Institute of Sport, told Crispin, when it comes to the best technology, "It might come out after the games, unless no one else has got it. Then, we'll keep it as close to the chest as possible."

Fair enough, in a way. But we might also want to remember who paid for all this stuff in the first place.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 22 August 2016 06:13 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Sorry, I have no answers either...

25 June 2016 by Paul Dempsey

The signature British response to a crisis is (1) sleep on it, (2) make a cup of tea, (3) roll up those sleeves and 'get it sorted'. But that isn't going to work this time, is it? After the referendum's 'Leave' victory, there has been plenty of talk about bringing the nation together but, admittedly viewed from a distance, the task seems insurmountable.

Let's set aside the unquestionable xenophobia and racism that polluted the result, and also the countrywide generation gap that has seen insular pensioners and baby boomers not merely clip but slash the wings off a younger outward-looking generation. You can find plenty of analysis of those factors elsewhere. Instead, let's go into our own backyard.

Bristol, Cambridge, Manchester, Oxford, Reading. Five regions that voted solidly for 'Remain', that are centres of academic research excellence and/or are home to the UK's largest technology-based inward investors. Those three factors are obviously connected. The EU has historically been a major funder of and conduit for university R&D, and the UK's membership has made it a convenient location for EU and sometimes EMEA HQ offices.

So, what is an engineer, scientist or admin worker in any of the technology sectors in any of those regions thinking this morning? There's a good chance he or she is thinking about his or her job and whether it is under threat. Indeed, I know as much already from a good few friends who work in those towns.

There are perfectly reasonable foundations for their concerns. Not that surprisingly, the major multinationals have been working on contingency plans since the referendum date was confirmed. These frequently foresee HQ and even R&D offices being moved onto the European mainland. Thousands of British jobs are at risk; thousands of families are this weekend concerned about more than simply the philosophical aspects of where UK sovereignty should reside: getting your country back counts for little if you might lose your house.

These same people almost certainly understand some of the reasons why many people voted 'Leave', that they were provoked to do so by years of irrefutable regional neglect and a feeling that things are so bad under the status quo, it was hard to see how change could worsen their person circumstances (er, though we'll leave that one to the - ahem - expert economists).

But understanding is one thing; sympathy is another. Once you perceive someone as having directly put your livelihood and financial security at risk - and because economic referenda ask simple yes/no questions, they can often load in such perceptions - dislike trending towards hatred is very likely.

The situation is not so different in academia. Research grants equal research assistants. They also lead to various forms of professorship. And they pave the way through from PhD to innovation and beyond. So on and so forth - but it would also appear after this week's vote: 'So what?' So what, to a sum that Nature reckons could cost UK universities £1bn a year in lost EU grants.

The idea that Parliament will step up to fill anywhere near such a shortfall here is comic - look at Whitehall's track record. Then there is still the issue of how the UK will organise its participation in international research outside the EU or indeed woo foreign researchers to come to its institutions as an attractive and welcoming base.

Bringing Britain together? Really, are you having a laugh? Internal 'us vs them' differences have been highlighted, exploited and widened, and because the UK has now embarked on an ongoing process for at least another two years, those wounds will carry on widening for some time. Britain is two (at least) nations adrift and set to stay as much for some time.

One desperately wants to conclude on a positive note. But how? Because what then boils the blood even faster is that the consequences of this vote were predictable - as shown by the Brexit contingencies that have been drafted in Silicon Valley over the last three months. Yet the victorious 'Leave' camp seems utterly - and demonstrably - clueless as to how it should address any of those consequences in mitigation for the high technology sector or STEM education.

Indeed, 'Leave's' latest contribution seems largely be a rolling back of the 'goodies' that it did offer the electorate.

Your politics here are irrelevant. Such ignorance and disregard simply beggar belief.

There is one immediately evident solution. A fudge. A classic euro-fudge that might enable a second referendum, much as Ireland undertook with the Treaty of Lisbon. Hundreds of thousands have already petitioned for this online. But it would also be seen by many as the kind of anti-democratic shenanigans that have helped provoke the current situation.

Still we do know now how you describe something that is actually worse than an omnishambles: A Brexit.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 25 June 2016 10:41 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Zenbo - already a valuable teacher

1 June 2016 by Paul Dempsey

Hats off to Asus and its boss Jonney Shih: their $599 (£411) robot really is something. However, like its lookalike Wall-E, I fear Zenbo could soon also find itself shovelling an awful lot of c**p.

Now, that's not meant as snark. In fact, I think the process could be good for Asus, good for robotics and good for society. Because Zenbo looks like genuinely disruptive innovation - and all disruptive innovation gets dumped on initially.

It does all start with the price. Your very own robot with in-built machine learning for the same price as a modestly-specified PC. Suddenly we've left Spielbergian fiction, and the prospect of a moving, talking AI in every middle-class home is real.

And that's bound to get people thinking.

Perhaps you can see where this is going. But first some realities.

Most of the primary functions Zenbo integrates are already often carried out by machines - at least, in part.

For example, Asus' Shih touts his robot as both carer and companion for the elderly or infirm. It can even send an alert if there is an accident and the human cannot raise an alarm.

Well, many infirm people today have motion-sensor wristbands that can detect a fall or other potentially serious event while they are alone. They also can have alarms that specifically tell them when to take medication. The NHS even advocates the use of Wii Fit to help rehab after a stroke - and that is now ancient technology.

Another use case offers Zenbo as a companion and 'storyteller' for children. Again, we were putting books on tape when I was a kid and Derby County were the Leicester of the day. Since then, Audible anyone? Kindle text-to-speech?

And, Zenbo can even suggest recipes. Well guess where one of our iPads lives? On a fixed stand to boot.

I could go on. The difference with Zenbo is that it adds a face, a camera, movement and - yes - that ability to learn. These quasi-human attributes will creep some people out. They may also get some professional carers worried about their jobs.

Well, if you are that fussed, don't buy one. As for carers, it is already impossible for the NHS to provide a 24-7 presence outside a hospital or care home. A Zenbo can only fill in a gap and replace some technologies already in place. Human contact for the housebound is essential.

Yet we should still welcome the debate to come because in all likelihood it is only the beginning of proactive robotics on a ubiquitous level - not just, as we have generally accepted, in the workplace. Zenbo will be the Wii of his own market soon enough.

But looking forward, there are serious, even transformative cultural issues. For example, psychologists are right to closely monitor social development, particularly among the young, as machines become increasingly anthropomorphised. And where indeed could that emerging telemedicine market go? These and plenty of other questions arise.

So, even more than Honda's Asimo, Zenbo does us all an important service. It may not oblige us to think about the immediate implications of AI and robotics, but it's a heck of a hefty nudge. It certainly takes things beyond the confines of mostly dystopian sci-fi (even if HBO is remaking Westworld).

Finally, since I'm here in Taipei for Computex, yet another hat-tip is due to Taiwan's OEM engineering community and Asus specifically. Its track record in bringing new technologies to the mass market at affordable prices remains strong. Zenbo is top class innovation and integration.

Just make sure you programme it never to use the sentence, "Come with me if you want to live."

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 01 June 2016 03:30 PM     General     Comments (0)  

American public draws its own line in the sand on cybersecurity

15 May 2016 by Paul Dempsey

A larger-than-expected percentage of Americans is reining in use of the Internet, abandoning social networks and refusing to carry out financial transactions online, according to federal government data.

Late last week, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration published the latest installment in a running commentary on its annual Internet usage survey. This time the subject turned to privacy and e-commerce. Given all the recent coverage of threats such as identity theft and the large scale hacks of retailers such as Target, greater reticence about online financial activities was to be expected. The big surprise was in the scale.

As of July 2015, the NTIA found that:
* 29% of US households already actively refrain from conducting financial transactions online.
* 26% of US HH refrain from making any online purchase of either goods or services.
* 26% of US HH actively avoid posting on social networks.

Meanwhile, the primary security and privacy concern cited by US Internet users is identity theft (63%), followed by credit card fraud (45%), data collection by corporations (23%) and a 'loss of control' over personal data (22%).

One need only look at the gap between those who, probably, feel they have taken appropriate steps to curb their online exposure and those who see financial threats to appreciate that the percentage cutting back Internet use could still nearly double.

And a further wrinkle in the NTIA data suggests that the scale of Internet or electronic crime may also be greater than is typically assumed.

Within the same group - a sample of 41,000 US Internet-using households interviewed in July 2015 - just under one in five reported having experienced some kind of online security breach within the last 12 months. This percentage increased significantly for those respondents who owned more than one web-enabled device, reaching 25% for those with four and then 31% for those with five or more.

This survey is basically good news. It shows a US public, at least, that is increasingly engaged with the security and privacy issues that affect our use of the Internet at the most fundamental level. Similarly, there is a clear and important warning to those corporations that have lagged behind on the implementation of solid security and world-class data protection: they can no longer assume that the issue goes over the public's head. The man or woman in the street is very much engaged.

And then there is government's role. As Rafi Goldberg, the NTIA's policy analyst, observes: "It is clear that policymakers need to develop a better understanding of mistrust in the privacy and security of the Internet and the resulting chilling effects. In addition to being a problem of great concern to many Americans, privacy and security issues may reduce economic activity and hamper the free exchange of ideas online."

Many of these observations could have been made years ago. Notwithstanding any type of survey from any source, they do not go much further than basic common sense. However, so many of those who run the Internet like to place a fetish for data ahead of good old nous.

Well now they have clear evidence from a recognised source that in this case - surprise, surprise - the two coincide. And that a few fine words ("We recognise the challenge, blah, blah, blah) won't cut it. The market is speaking very clearly.

Edited: 15 May 2016 at 05:30 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 15 May 2016 05:18 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Has pester-power killed Disney's toys-to-life gaming bid?

12 May 2016 by Paul Dempsey

Disney's decision to quit the toys-to-life (TTL) gaming market - and, in effect, gaming development - caught many by surprise. The company recently reported disappointing sales for its Infinity line, but it remained a $1bn business; analysts were confident that the TTL sector could plough a profitable furrow, the odd bump nothwithstanding.

TTL is the fast-growing segment where players buy physical figures that interact - typically via NFC or some kind of base - with a computer game. Typically today, the link introduces the character into play, though in the longer term there has been talk about integrating jointed figures as more fully-fledged game/character controllers.

This was seen as a potentially very profitable segment for Disney because TTL plays most strongly to a pre-teen audience. With a character roster stretching across its traditional animated stable to Pixar to Marvel to Lucasfilm, the company had a plethora of opportunities to add and vary familiar figures within Infinity, all with strong appeal to younger gamers. Indeed, it assumed market leadership within TTL in short order.

The 'sandbox' aspect of Infinity (and also rival TTL platforms such as Activision's Skylanders and Lego/Warner Bros' Dimensions) also appears to match the age group's play activities. Young kids will mash up a whole set of princesses and Barbies or create their own multiverse 'civil war' battles - we've all seen Toy Story.

So what's gone wrong (and it is worth noting at this point that Activision reported Skylander sales below expectations last Christmas)?

To some degree, it may simply be that Disney decided the cost of being in just one segment of the gaming market was too high, particularly given that it can simply license properties (as it does for Star Wars: Battlefront to Electronic Arts) and watch the money roll in. Maintaining and developing Infinity involved 300 engineers at Disney's Avalanche Software subsidiary (which is now to close) and a host more at various contractors. Battlefront income basically comes down to cashing the royalty cheque from the 14 million copies sold to date.

Equally, it could be that TTL will prove to have been a fad. It had five or so years of popularity, but children are a fickle consumer group and the concept is now following Furby and others into the discount bins. Well, that could be true.

But today, I want to speak as a parent and address a broader issue emerging around not just gaming, but e-products generally.

You see, my youngest was looking for an Infinity play-set last Christmas - she was pretty insistent. Ultimately though, we were one of the apparently millions of families - or more precisely, mums and dads - who 'disappointed' Disney (and Activision).

Whether it's in the casual gaming market or the emerging TTL one, we (and, I suspect, plenty of others) are tiring of the constant upsell, particularly when it comes to pressurizing the very young. And there is a Pokemon-like "gotta catch 'em all" flavour to TTL.

With the basic Infinity sets costing around £20 and each figure after that being another £5-10, you can see how its costs can quickly accumulate. Much the same has to be said of the various Skylander and Dimensions options. You end up with a piece of pre-teen software that ultimately costs more than the latest edition of Grand Theft Auto.

OK, the Harvard Business School model might well be about maximizing your product as also a shop window. But it's not like we're talking anymore about a few bob-worth of Panini stickers from the corner shop.

So, as I read about Infinity's closure and Skylanders' travails, I can't help but feel there is something broader going on here. After all, the casual gaming players, such as Activision's King subsidiary, also acknowledge that their in-app purchasing community is, as one analyst describes it, "an abysmally small segment of mobile gamers." A continuing fear is that that group is also shrinking.

Consumers don't like feeling permanently on the hook - and they really don't like it when you try it on with their kids. Nevertheless, this is something that e-commerce has tried to do across a broad range of products. So, perhaps it isn't the TTL idea that's showing weakness but that broader economic goal.

Certainly Disney, the company that probably better understands the pre-teen consumer audience (and by extension their parents) than any other in the world has seen something it doesn't like. Again, you have to suspect that it goes deeper than simply the value of a particular gaming model.

Sure, 'pester power' will always be with us. Indeed because that's the case, it might be better if developers don't blatantly rub it in our faces.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 12 May 2016 11:13 AM     General     Comments (0)  

What does Carl Icahn's Apple stock exit really tell us?

29 April 2016 by Paul Dempsey

Within the activist investor community, Carl Icahn is a big hitter. He is also a familiar and often controversial figure within high technology. So, he certainly caught the market's attention by selling all his Apple stock a few days after the company reported its first fall in quarterly revenues since 2003. Until then, Icahn had been a very public Apple fan.

Icahn's explanation - in an interview with the CNBC cable TV channel - saw him depart from his usual criticisms of corporate strategy and governance. He carefully reiterated that Apple remains a "great company" and that CEO Tim Cook has done a "great job". But he continued, the company is haunted by the "shadow" of China.

That broader observation was enough to cut a further 3% off Apple's share price and cause a domino drop across the Dow Jones Industrials index of 210 points (Apple's share price is currently down by roughly 10% since its latest results were released).

The Middle Kingdom did play an important role in reversing Apple's longstanding revenues rise. Sales in China during the most recent quarter were down 26%, and that was also reflected in a drop in iPhone sales to 51.2 million for the period against 61.2 million a year earlier.

Beyond that, the Chinese authorities earlier this month put a crimp in Apple's e-tailing operations by blocking access to iBooks and the iTunes movie store, following the enactment of new licensing procedures for the sale of foreign media.

And, of course, there are ongoing concerns about China's ability to keep hitting 'acceptable' GDP growth and head off a dangerous bubble - even if, inevitably, growth may be lower than seen in the recent past.

The challenge in Icahn's comments - and the reaction they have provoked - is trying to unpick how much they relate to predictable issues, and how much are about uncertainty. What has spooked the US markets is the suggestion that Icahn is tending toward the latter.

But should his specific set of observations really be translated to the general - at least in the sense that they represent a 'new' concern?

"It's my opinion [i.e. the sale] about what is happening with China. It's not the [share] price point," Icahn said. "China, obviously, could be a shadow for [Apple] and we have to look at that. I'm not the great expert on China. I don't pretend to be. And that bothers me. I like to go into a company that I say to myself, instinctively, this is great."

Just in case anyone thought Icahn was hedging about the role of the Beijing government, he went on to add that, "It could come in and make it very difficult for Apple to sell there."

Pretty blunt stuff, but Icahn's comments are not highlighting anything especially new.

Wanna talk about Internet intransigence? Mark Zuckerberg has spent several years on a personal charm offensive aimed at getting Facebook into China but with no success. Even though Facebook has just posted record results, Wall Street still expects Zuckerberg to keep plugging away on that front. Google's frosty relationship with China is well known. Damned if you do, damned if you don't?

Meanwhile, China's economic plan makes it clear that country is now on a massive drive to not merely provide manufacturing and other services, but achieve as near as possible to technological self-sufficiency. That should not really come as a shock, but be acknowledged as a genuine economic challenge worthy of proper analysis.

Funnily enough, if we now to move to cellphones, that may give us a chance to start doing exactly that analysis.

It is pretty clear that sales to the higher disposable income segments of Chinese society have reached near saturation, and that other local handset-makers (Xiaomi, Huawei, Lenovo, etc) are today making very good products that cost much less than the iPhone.

But beyond that, there is another perhaps underrated factor in the sales shift, to western eyes at least. As the market for new cellphone customers has moved beyond the big cities, so western UIs are proving less easy-to-use for many rural customers and older people.

This is not about literacy and more about such features as the complex multi-tap keypad entry needed to render pictograms: systems an office worker who uses a keyboard will already understand, but inevitably won't be so straightforward for, say, a farmer. On that point, Chinese companies have led in innovative workarounds.

Finally, even the difficulty most of us often have in reading Premier Xi Jinping's administration is, to borrow Donald Rumsfeld's infamous phrase, at least a 'known unknown'. You can make some kind of risk assessment there - and to be fair to Icahn, he has done that in acknowledging a lack of knowledge about China in deciding where to place his bet.

But setting aside the political aspect, Icahn's decision may highlight another issue where it is the West that needs to do some hard thinking. How does it compete in selling its wares in an increasingly mature Chinese market where local players can access more investment capital and also now compete on both price and quality? Already they are arguably proving far more savvy at identifying what local consumers want.

For sure, there's more to that than coating phones and watches in gold.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 29 April 2016 06:21 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Hen's molar discovered in Canada

18 April 2016 by Paul Dempsey

Let's remind ourselves how Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described quantum computing.

"Normal computers work by either there's power going through a wire or not - a 'one' or a 'zero'. They're binary systems. What quantum states allow for is much more complex information to be encoded into a single bit.

"A regular computer bit is either a 'one or a 'zero', 'on' or 'off'; a quantum state can be much more complex than that because, as we know, things can be both particle and wave at the same times and the uncertainty around quantum states allows us to encode more information into a much smaller computer.

"So, that's what's exciting about quantum computing. Don't get me going on this or we'll be here all day."

That is succinct and expressed in terms that just about anyone can understand. No cats (Schrodinger's analogy has long struck me more as a joke for those already in the know). No jargon. No unnecessary complexity. Would that all politicians could show such a confident mastery of technology. Would that all those who seek to communicate in terms of 'popular' science be, frankly, so unflashy in what they say.

Before we go any further, we must note that Justin Trudeau is, albeit in a good way, an odd cove. After an academic career that started in English Lit and Education, he later took courses in Engineering and Environmental Geography. That speaks to a breadth of natural curiosity that puts all of us to shame, never mind just his fellow politicians. It also suggests that Trudeau had some understanding of the quantum world before he was briefed for the event.

Nevertheless, the shock, awe and continued Trudeau love-fest that have accompanied his comments are important.

First, there's the saddening assumption that accompanied the journalist's original question. He says that he was going to ask the Prime Minister about quantum computing, but pivots instead to quiz him on Canada's mission against Islamic State. The subtext is that it's OK if Trudeau doesn't get quantum computing.

Er, no. It's far from OK. This was a Prime Minister announcing C$50m (£27m) in public funding for fundamental research at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. Getting to the nitty-gritty of why such things matter and why such grants are made are things he should be challenged about, and be capable of explaining.

Second, there is the recurring charge that politicians generally have little time for science, Trudeau being the exception rather than the rule. This is a dangerous simplification. There are some very lazy heads out there, true, but there are others who are simply briefed very badly. Who's to blame for that? Got a mirror handy.

Packaging David Cameron off for a crammer at Imperial while parachuting Jeremy Corbyn into a few courses at the Cavendish sounds nice, but it's hardly realistic. Rather, their advisors - from whatever branch of STEM they come - need to be as capable as Trudeau of distilling complex concepts like quantum computing into layman's terms. That, after all, is what the politician should then do for the public - it's one of the main ways in which they are supposed to represent us.

Engineering has got much better at communication - heck, it's one of the remits for E&T. But, when talking to politicians on both sides of the Atlantic who regard themselves as geeky by the standards of their trade, it has been a recurring theme that they still often encounter scientists who declaim way over their heads. This leads to suspicions of obfuscation, particularly during times of austerity and especially when it comes to requests to back fundamental research. More than one politico has recalled feeling like the woman giving birth in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life: "What do I do?" "Nothing dear; you're not qualified."

More to the point here, it means that when politicians are quizzed publicly on some technology issue, they inevitably fumble to relay ideas that were not explained to them in a manageable way to start with.

For all the praise now being heaped upon Trudeau - and notwithstanding his particular skillset - we need to recognise that his comments should represent the normal, not the unusual. The reaction they have earned shows that for all the improvements engineering has made in terms of communication and mainstream education, there is still some way to go.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 18 April 2016 03:22 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Eye in the Sky (15)

3 April 2016 by Paul Dempsey

Eye in the Sky is cinema's best attempt yet to explore current technology's impact on warfare. It is also an engrossing thriller that will grip you whether or not the complexities surrounding drone weapons are of specific interest.

All too often, you have to bemoan the movies' exploitation of cutting edge digital engineering in the service of films that make no sense. Thought-provoking stuff like Eye in the Sky and last year's Ex Machina remains sadly rare.

Eye in the Sky nevertheless takes its cue from popular culture. It is 24 with a brain, charting in near real-time the decisions made on a single drone mission against terrorists in Kenya. It starts out as a simple surveillance job, aimed at helping the local police arrest long-sought suspects; but when it becomes clear that a suicide bombing attack is imminent, things change and the drone's Hellfire missiles are armed.

I don't want to say too much about what happens next plot-wise, as the film cross-cuts between various people involved in, to name but its main locations, Nairobi, mission command, the drone pilots' hutch, a data analytics centre and Whitehall's own COBRA (aka Cabinet Office Briefing Room 'A'). But it's just one of the film's many unusual strengths that it harnesses that most uncinematic of things - people staring at screens - to build the tension.

Eye in the Sky's other big pluses include its fidelity to engineering (even its future tech is known to be at the advanced prototyping stage) and its even-handedness.

This is not an anti-war film, or just solely an anti-drone one. Instead, it considers every side of the issue. Its main moral judgement is not that there is a way to choose between the lesser of two evils in the so-called 'War on Terror', but rather that the greater shortcoming is failing to make any choice at all.

At the same time, the film doesn't duck the fact that agonising decisions are often involved. It honestly describes the positions of those who do and do not want to strike in its particular scenario, as well as how events and their interpretation can cause positions to change. Because the film does not provide an easy kill/withdraw answer, it then forces us in the audience to consider how we ourselves would resolve its dilemmas.

Achieving that requires considerable realism, and this does not just extend to the drones and surveillance gear involved. Its characters get little back story, but as portrayed by the likes of Alan Rickman (his last major role), Helen Mirren, Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul and an excellent supporting cast, they make you believe in both the seriousness and the immediacy of the plot. Gavin Hood's direction and Guy Hibbert's script are also top-notch.

Eye in the Sky is undoubtedly a provocation, but one grounded in contemporary technological, military and moral concerns. And also like Ex Machina, it's British. Who needs Marvel and D.C.?

Eye in the Sky opens in the UK on Friday, April 15th

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 03 April 2016 09:05 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Few delights in the misfortunes of others

30 March 2016 by Paul Dempsey

It's a strange week that finds you feeling sympathetic towards both Apple and Microsoft. But somehow the schadenfreude you might have almost been expected to feel over their recent troubles/missteps just doesn't quite hold.

Take the messy resolution to Apple's battle with the US government. Turns out the NSA could figure out how to hack the terrorist's iPhone, eventually. And that's good news, in a way. While its refusal to now tell Apple how it did it and which external consultants helped may, of necessity, be a US national security issue. But it also smacked of very sour grapes.

After all, the NSA has now publicly pointed to a security flaw in hardware owned by millions of people worldwide, told the hacking community it exists (and they're already busily looking at some very plausible theories) but left the actual designers in the dark. That's not just two fingers in Apple's direction - 'No, your kit isn't that secure, Tim' - but also a warning to other vendors who might feel obliged to resist government requests - 'And we can muck about with your reputations too.'

Meanwhile, the real issue has again been dodged. When will we get a proper debate about the needs to balance national, corporate and private security demands? Washington's successful hack also felt like a hasty attempt to push that desperate need off the agenda, whether deliberate or not.

If Tim Cook is currently feeling very angry and very frustrated, I can't blame him.

The furore surrounding Tay chatbot continued today as it briefly went online, only to be tricked into declaring 'I'm smoking kush infront the police', and then crashing. All this after last week's tricked sexism, racism and more.

OK, Microsoft is taking an exemplary caning this second time because it promised not to reboot Tay until the system could "better anticipate malicious intent that conflicts with our principles and values".

But in this particular area of artificial - or, if you prefer, autonomous - intelligence, there really is only so much you can hope to achieve in a controlled lab environment. Scaling from one of those to the billions of social media users you ultimately want to target will always involve a leap of faith.

Perhaps more important, Tay's trauma also touches upon the issue of The Right to Fail, something that has always been important in terms of innovation, whether by big companies or small ones - although we will always be more forgiving towards the latter.

Notwithstanding that Microsoft does have another successfully running chatbot - XiaoIce in Chinese - this isn't quite the same as it issuing, say, a Windows update to a mature product that introduces a whole new set of bugs. Even the comparison with XiaoIce can only go so far: regional laws prevent social media users in most Chinese-speaking countries from posting 'inflammatory' material.

For sure, Redmond is on the wrong end of a very teachable moment, so to speak, but the real question should be how well it adapts to that in its own bids to advance AI. And, indeed, how it may help others avoid similar mistakes.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 30 March 2016 09:18 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Not just a Cockney cultural heist. It's even worse than that

11 March 2016 by Paul Dempsey

Excuse me going off topic. But the Science Museum Group's (SMG) plan to strip the Bradford Media Museum of the Royal Photographic Society's collection and move it to London's V&A is - and this is very much a personal view - wrong-headed, tone-deaf, woefully capital-centric and a few other adjectives I can't use here. Yes, I am from up north, and proud of it. However, I don't just want to take issue with the artistic side of this poor decision.

The idea that such treasures can be hijacked from the regions without any real consultation and once more transferred to a culture-obese London is infuriating. But it's an also an issue already being well addressed elsewhere.

Another problem, arguably as great, concerns what the SMG has in mind for the Bradford site once the removal vans scuttle off down to Mordor.

According to Media Museum director Jo Quinton-Tulloch, the plan is to give Bradford a more explicit focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. "Our new mission is to explore the science and culture of light and sound. This means using our world-class collections in photography, cinematography and television to inspire future generations of scientists and engineers from Bradford, Yorkshire and beyond."

Now if you're in the STEM world, that sounds great doesn't it? The more major public institutions we have explicitly promoting the sciences, the better it hopefully might be for university and industrial recruitment. Yes?

There's just one rather big problem. A too-close-for-comfort 38 miles away is the Manchester-based Museum of Science and Industry, also part of SMG. And while I can see media-specific aspects to the Bradford plan, it nevertheless sounds rather like the remit its Mancunian sister already has. Not only Bradford's richness but also its distinctiveness will be eroded if this plan goes forward.

And it could get worse. We all know that public museums have suffered stringent austerity cuts and the near-term likelihood any of these will be rolled back is slim. At some point, with two geographically neighbouring venues performing very similar, if not identical functions within the same group, and given quite likely cannibalisation of visitors, some clever so-and-so will start talking about 'merger' and 'rationalisation'.

One of the two sites could well end up shuttered, and anyway, such is the nature of cultural politics that internecine sniping between the two would become almost inevitable. Instead of helping to promote STEM, this decision could undermine what the two sites already achieve.

What gasts the flabber about this decision is that, as a science-led body, the SMG's Board of Trustees is full of very smart people (although given that three of its four sites are outside London, it would be nice if the board members' regional make-up reflected that). Still, these are smart people, yet they don't seem to have thought through the implications of their decision anywhere near carefully enough.

That the SMG should be attacked for mounting a Cockney cultural heist was entirely predictable. Ironically, it was the SMG that hired out its Manchester venue for Chancellor George Osborne to announce his 'Northern Powerhouse' project (including, ahem, £78m for a new cultural centre in the city, The Factory). But its plans for Bradford's future also seem disturbingly woolly, even more so than the rationale for moving the collection to the V&A.

So, tough budgetary obstacles notwithstanding, this decision needs to be dumped pronto. And we need to send the great and good involved back until they come up with an acceptable QED.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 11 March 2016 09:07 AM     General     Comments (0)  

I know I've said tech should do more in politics, but...

9 March 2016 by Paul Dempsey

Three of Silicon Valley's most powerful players attended a secret meeting last weekend with other political and establishment figures where the top agenda item was, 'Stop Donald Trump'. But instead it looks like they've just given Littlefingers a big helping hand.

The biggest tech executives understood to have attended the American Enterprise Institute's annual World Forum on a hollowed-out volcano - sorry - private island resort just off the Georgia coast are Apple CEO Tim Cook, Alphabet CEO Larry Page and SpaceX/Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. Also present was Napster founder and serial entrepreneur Sean Parker.

They joined a clutch of senators and congressmen (largely Republican), as well as big hitters like New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger.

The AEI, officially non-partisan but generally considered neoconservative, has been running its forum for well over a decade. During that time, it has prided itself on holding the meetings amid tight secrecy. And thereby hangs the current problem.

The World Forum is an excellent example of the kind of 'shadowy' establishment gathering that makes Trump supporters' teeth itch. They see a real-life version of Spectre, fostered by the greedy idiots who gave them not only the 2008 financial crash but also the bill. For this year's forum to be caught discussing direct intervention in the democratic process just hardens that view.

Indeed, just as there were signs that Trump's vote was declining, the world's press - always happy to 'do a number' on those who forgot their invitiation - is once more gleefully highlighting the darkened-room machinations of one of the Donald's favourite targets.

You can forgive the politicians failing to stop the potential trap, given that they have made a complete hash of understanding the dynamics driving Trump's campaign since it began. But what were those CEOs thinking?

OK, Apple has stated that Tim Cook opted not to participate in any of the 'political' aspects of the forum. However, even if he wasn't at Trump Takedown 2016, it appears that he did get into a right-old barney with Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton over Apple's encryption face-off with the FBI. So, some head-scratching there.

But here's a bigger issue - and something that Cook, Musk, Page and Parker should have been savvy enough to spot: Public confidence in the establishment is at an all-time low and suspicion around such gatherings at an all-time high. You could attend with genuine reasons, you could even be there to all pledge billions to the fight against cancer. But unless you state that you went to fine-tune lizard domination of Planet Earth, a huge number of people won't believe a word you say. Even the truth.

Technology companies have plenty of bones to pick with the Donald. In Apple's case, Trump has explicitly called for a boycott of the company's products and repeatedly slammed it for offshoring manufacturing. On a wider level, it's fair to say Trump has shown little understanding of how the global economy works.

All fair points and fair game. And if technology leaders want to do something about them, there are plenty of chances for them to speak in public, be interviewed on the TV or radio, or, even, good grief, write it down on their personal blogs.

And technology companies had the further advantage that they have largely positioned themselves at a remove from the 'establishment'.... Well, until now.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 09 March 2016 02:53 AM     General     Comments (0)  

What do Americans think about a potential Brexit?

24 February 2016 by Paul Dempsey

Assuming, of course, that you think they have a right to an opinion.

You might expect many in the US to sympathise with the UK's 'Leave' campaign. State's Rights - partly the devolution of decision-making to the most local level viable - and a general fear of Big Government are not only espoused by the Right. Meanwhile, you can encounter many a US-based CEO of a multinational who will complain about Brussels' fondness for red tape and aggressive anti-trust investigations. There are notable philosophical similarities here with Britain's leavers. But most mainstream thinkers across the Atlantic remain puzzled.

Some important examples why.

In high technology, easing globalisation through the regional free-trade agreements is seen as fundamental requirement. Why, Silicon Valley leaders wonder, would the UK take a step back from that infrastructure? Similarly, why would Britain potentially make it harder for their many UK-based subsidiaries to trade with its closest neighbours?

And there is some fear about a UK-less EU. Seen as the US' closest ideological and economic ally, Britain - to American eyes, at any rate - is thought to play an important role in curbing Brussels' excesses. What could happen were that influence removed?

Few in the US much care for the EU, then. It is rather, to bowdlerise Winston Churchill's famous observation about democracy, the worst option for Europe except for all the others.

At the same time, Americans are wary of involving themselves too explicitly in the debate. Hefty pro-stay nudges from President Obama aside, US political and business leaders know that the decision facing the UK cuts to the heart of nationhood, how a country chooses to define its democratic model and how it wants to do business with the rest of the world. It is a decision for the British people. Outsiders who would be too vocal about it risk annoying more voters than they woo.

However, that does not mean that 'soft power' muscles cannot be flexed. Wall Street - in the shape of players such as Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley - is quietly funding the 'Stay' campaign. Surveys of inward investor intentions consistently show both US and other international companies warning that they would reduce or move their UK operations in the event of a Brexit.

The impact on inward investment is one of the more difficult to assess. The US is the largest country to house foreign subsidiaries in the UK, with 564 new projects launched in the 2014-15 financial year alone, according to Whitehall data (France launched 124, Germany 97). The total value of inward investment in Britain is reckoned to be more than £1Tr.

The real question though is how much of that arrives because companies want to do business with the UK specifically, and how much because - given closer business cultures and a shared language - the country makes a convenient base for wider-based US-owned operations in the EU. At some point, expect the Leave and Stay campaigns to chew hard on that bone.

But the biggest fear of all is uncertainty. The Stay campaign's mantra that leaving the EU would be "a leap in the dark" seeds concern far beyond the British electorate, regardless of whether you detect a dollop of fear, uncertainty and doubt. Whatever its flaws, a business model that has solidified over four decades is not one that many international companies want to see disrupted. Sterling's current rollercoaster ride is evidence enough of that.

Of course, you can assert that what any foreign country thinks about Brexit is pretty much moot. Indeed, many in the Leave camp can argue - with some intellectual validity - that the EU has forced the UK to align its political and economic infrastructure with those of other member states, with reckless disregard for serious incompatibilities. This is all about making our own decisions.

But if you do want an answer to the American question, you have to acknowledge that Uncle Sam is seriously perplexed. And he probably isn't alone. China, the government's new BFF, and India, which is also being love-bombed, are strongly hinting that they feel much the same way.

Now should that influence your vote - well, chances are that if you've read this far, you think that it does. But, then again, by how much....

The bottom line is that whatever anyone else thinks, this shouldn't be an easy decision to start with.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 24 February 2016 06:38 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Apple's right. Mixing old law and new tech is dangerous

18 February 2016 by Paul Dempsey

The encryption stand-off between Apple and the federal government threatens to resolve one of the most critical electronic security issues of our time in the worst of all possible ways, and with implications that could stretch way beyond US borders.

If one thing has become increasingly clear about cybersecurity, it is that, at some stage, national government legislation and international law better suited to our increasing dependence on digital products is necessary.

However, a truly global, broad-based debate around these issues has never really taken place. Without that debate, it is hard to see how acceptable laws - acceptable to not only politicians, law enforcement and the corporate world but also mainstream civil society - can be enacted.

All that delay has brought us to the not very pretty place we are right now, poised to resolve a defining question of our age with a complete and utter botch-up.

To briefly recap. The FBI wants Apple to create a version of iOS that will allow it to run a brute-force passcode hack on an iPhone owned by the perpetrators of December's terrorist attacks in San Bernadino. It is impossible not to sympathise with the Bureau's desire to find out anything it can about the Islamic State-inspired terrorists, particularly if the phone could contain breadcrumbs leading to the discovery of other potential aggressors either in the US or overseas.

But in an open letter, Apple CEO Tim Cook has set out why his company is refusing to comply and he also has a very good argument.

Even though the government says the customised iOS will only be used on this one phone, it will still involve creating a potentially reusable 'backdoor' (and a pretty crude one at that) which "in the wrong hands... would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession".

If Apple is nevertheless forced to comply, it is hard not to see a lot of us taking another long, hard think about what we do with our phones - and the result will also force us to wonder about the promises made on encryption not only by Apple but any other technology supplier. After all, if the US government's case is successful it will set a precedent with which other companies could subsequently be forced to comply.

Which brings us to why this critical issue is being resolved in a deeply disturbing way.

As Cook points out, Washington is citing a piece of legislation that is 227 years-old, the All Writs Act. This states that the government can take any steps it wishes to force compliance with a writ, or here FBI warrant, so long as they are not 'unduly burdensome'. Well, what does that mean?

The government's case, in a nutshell, is that Apple is perfectly capable of producing the customised iOS that will not erase the terrorists' phone after 10 unsuccessful passcode entries. What's really burdensome about that... from a technical point of view? Also, the FBI is offering commitments that it won't use the hack afterwards (take those as you choose).

Apple's response, in Cook's letter, is worth quoting in full:
"The implications of the government's demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone's device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone's microphone or camera without your knowledge," he says.

There is then another issue to consider. As noted earlier, compliance with this order will raise serious questions over the security commitments all technology companies make to us as consumers. It is hard to see how a pro-Washington ruling would not damage Apple's and many other businesses.

So now everything falls down not to any real debate over genuine security issues, but the legal interpretation of 'unduly burdensome' - as in, is forcing Apple to effectively hobble part of its commercial pitch also suited to that definition.

Seriously, you despair.

Cook nails it toward the end of his letter: "We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications."

Too true, mate. And one hopes that warning does not come too late. Repurposing old laws to the needs of new technologies has never worked well. But to think we are so close to allowing that to happen on an issue as serious as this beggars belief.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 18 February 2016 04:18 AM     General     Comments (0)  

US climate change 'doubt' isn't just about the science

14 January 2016 by Paul Dempsey

Recent polling suggests that even most Republican Party voters believe the US government should be doing more about climate change, and President Obama pushed the button hard again in his final State of the Union address this week. But just how highly does the issue rank in terms of voters' priorities?

"Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it," Obama declared. "You'll be pretty lonely, because you'll be debating our military, most of America's business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it's a problem and intend to solve it."

The President's comments were a dig at many (probably most) Republicans in the SOTU's Congressional audience. Some dispute the scientific consensus on climate change; others have close ties to and funding from oil and gas lobbyists; and yet another group represents states where traditional energy industries are major employers.

Obama had two objectives. The first - probably foremost in his mind - was to underline determination to drive through his climate change initiatives announced before and at the UN Conference of the Parties in Paris last December. Action here is a 'legacy' issue for the administration. It is an area where the President wants to leave office feeling he has enabled lasting and beneficial change.

The second goal, though, came down to raw politics. Democrats believe climate change is one of a number of topics that could help them woo swing/moderate Republican voters for both the Presidency and in various Senate and House constituencies that will also be voted on in November. Given that, Obama was seeking to define many Republican incumbents not so much as extremists, but fools.

Why are the Democrats confident that an issue that has long languished down the US electoral agenda can now become a key battleground? Well, mostly it yet again comes down to the polls.

While Republican legislators reacted to the Paris deal with open contempt, a clear majority of voters surveyed as it was signed said it supported the deal. Particularly significant within those findings was a Reuters/Ipsos snap poll where 58% of self-defining Republican voters said they were in favour of greater US efforts and international cooperation on climate change.

Further data suggests this bias was in place some time before Paris, arguably stoked at the high profile pre-COP agreements Obama had already secured during 2015 (most notably with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping). According to the Project on Climate Change Communication at Yale University, only conservative Republicans said they would be more likely to vote for a climate-change sceptic when questioned in November - and this was the same conclusion of a Pew Research Center survey back in June. That skeptical slice of the electorate is hardly one Democrats expect to win over on any issue.

But dig deeper, and climate change's broader importance to all voters becomes harder to judge. Fox News may seem an unlikely source to quote, but its polling is often solid. It found climate change cited as the most important political issue by less than 5% of the electorate in its own November survey. Much higher double-digit rankings went to terrorism, the economy, healthcare and immigration.

The Yale project has also detected some ignorance among voters in terms of the scale of the scientific consensus on climate change. They believe the number of researchers who see there being a problem is around 60%; in fact, the number is above 95%. That disparity in perception is something sceptics have leveraged to suggest that the issue is not that pressing, that there may be other non-man-made causes or that we are in a natural weather cycle.

Just how pressing US voters see climate change as an agenda issue is critical, because there is much work still to do there. A March Gallup poll found that Americans greatest environmental concern is pollution in various forms (drinking water, rivers and the air, in that order). Only a shade over 30% said climate change worried them 'a great deal'.

Similarly, public and media reaction in the US to recent bouts of extreme weather has tended - rather like UK reactions to recent flooding - to focus criticism on how well government emergency services reacted locally and nationally, and on the extent and upkeep of defences and utility resources. In the face of lives lost and property destroyed, bringing up potential macro causes seemed almost rude.

Finally, even Obama's own SOTU comments included one that left climate change activists nonplussed: "Gas under two bucks a gallon ain't bad, either." As several have pointed out, when petrol prices do plunge to such levels, it tends to encourage sales of less fuel-efficient SUVs, muscle cars and so on. Not the President's best example of joined-up thinking, but again one he might have let pass for the sake of raw politics.

The US election agenda will almost certainly be led by two issues: the state of the economy and the threats posed by war and instability in the Middle East. Climate change could form an important but lesser part of this matrix. Its influence, however, still isn't as great as some of the headline numbers might suggest today - and will require a great deal more politicking for it to achieve real significance.

And if the gloomier current global economic forecasts come to pass, you can probably forget about it entirely.

Edited: 14 January 2016 at 06:02 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 14 January 2016 05:54 AM     General     Comments (0)  

2015 in technology, film and TV - Part Two

7 January 2016 by Paul Dempsey

The top 5 trends and what-nots in a personal review of last year's notable events where engineering met the media. Remember, there are spoilers.

5. A dip year for the 'hype cycle'

Research group Gartner has a resilient model for technology adoption over typically five stages: 1. The Technology Trigger. 2. The Peak of Inflated Expectations. 3. The Trough of Disillusionment. 4. The Slope of Enlightenment. 5. The Plateau of Productivity. You can see the cycle visually represented here. For a couple of key media technologies, 4k-resolution HDTV and immersive virtual reality, 2015 saw both caught somewhere between stages Two and Three. A good example right now is the head-shaking that has greeted the initial and hefty $599 (£410) price for Facebook's Oculus Rift headset - which although formally announced this month, was pretty obvious when the company said last year that the headset and an appropriately-powered PC would have a bundle cost around $1,500. What really matters is that these early price points are and continue to be addressed in ongoing design revs. A 4k TV is now approaching mass market pricing after a few years at the five-figure level (though the real shift is expected in 2017) and Oculus-like VR retail prices will also tumble rapidly. The old 'early adopter' based model persists, but the engineering will achieve 'cost down'.

4. The Franchise Strikes Back

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, blah, blah, blah. Yes, it was beautifully shot - on film - and artfully constructed by J.J. Abrams. It restored the audience's faith in the definitive saga of our time. Perhaps it wasn't that original, more a revamp of the original and The Empire Strikes Back with a welcome feminist kick. But it did its job. However for many (myself included), a still better revival of a decades-old franchise was Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller's thunderously entertaining update of his dystopian saga - though it's still in the balance as to whether it earned enough at the box office to guarantee a further installment. One interesting and ironic technological choice united the two epics: Abrams and Miller actively sought to avoid CGI, relying more on in-camera stunts, model work and other traditional physical effects (mind you, audiences also lapped up the daffy fun offered by the CGI-obese Jurassic World).

3. Real science

Broadcasting evolves, tastes change, and all that. One thing remains. Horizon... Actually, make that two things, because while the BBC has Horizon, the US has its sister series on PBS, Nova. But while these two series have flown the flag for science on TV for decades, it's fair to say that the multichannel world means there is more excellent science programming on TV than ever before. And 2015 saw us get our first late-night talk show. The eloquent astrophysicist and science evangelist Neil deGrasse Tyson began hosting StarTalk on the National Geographic Channel with guests ranging from Brian Cox (a quiet TV year otherwise for him) to David Byrne, Penn & Teller... and Bill Clinton. Have that, Graham Norton.

(Some sad news though. 2016 will see the last season of Mythbusters, the excellent debunking show on the Discovery Channel).

2. Real(ish) science

The Martian is Sir Ridley Scott's best film. Better than Blade Runner. Better than Alien. Mind you, Andy Weir's terrific novel gave him plenty to work with. But as a combination of engaging drama, scientific fidelity (OK, that does involve a pass on the destructive power of Martian storms), and ode to human ingenuity, this was something very rare and very special. But it wasn't 2015's only example of keeping the speculation and science in harmony while creating exciting drama. Alex Garland's Ex Machina embraced some of the latest thinking about artificial intelligence without sacrificing storytelling - and both Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson got to pre-pay for crimes against physics they would later commit in The Force Awakens. Best of all though, the two films were box-office hits. Proof you can give technology due respect without boring the pants off a mainstream audience.

1. Tangerine dream

The Force Awakens was the media event of the year. But when we look back in a decade or so, an independent drama you probably haven't heard of may prove the most significant. Tangerine is the bittersweet tale of a transsexual prostitute's Christmas Eve, and one of the best reviewed films of last year. The reason it's at Number One here though is technological, something its makers deliberately didn't tell critics when it was first screened. It was shot entirely on an iPhone 5. Until director Sean Baker mentioned that afterwards, nobody twigged. Yup, that's how fast imaging technology is developing in your pocket. And what it could mean for film and TV production in the none-too-distant future is still hard to conceive. An artform once limited to those with access to sizeable resources - even at the low-budget level - is being rapidly democratized by innovation. So, Star Wars: Episode 9 on an iPhone 9 anyone?

Click here to read the first part of this blog, ranking events from 6-10.

Edited: 07 January 2016 at 02:02 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 07 January 2016 01:39 AM     General     Comments (0)  

2015 in technology, film and TV - Part One

5 January 2016 by Paul Dempsey

A spoiler-splattered look back at how film and TV treated technology over the last 12 months, starting a Top 10 with numbers 6-10.

10. All good things...


A bit of a cheat this. Shown in the US before Christmas but coming to the UK in 2016, the SyFy adaption of Childhood's End, the seminal but 'unfilmable' Arthur C. Clarke novel, is not perfect but still hits almost all the right notes. The original 'first contact' story, it defeated even Stanley Kubrick. He and Clarke cooked up a little thing called 2001: A Space Odyssey instead. The theme of where man goes after homo sapiens is properly and movingly explored in the new mini-series, unquestionably SyFy's best work since its Battlestar Galactica reboot. This little gem was overseen by two veterans of excellent recent British science-fiction, Life on Mars' Matthew Graham and Who/Sherlock director Nick Hurran. Charles Dance also continues to show there's plenty of life after being skewered on the privvy as alien overseer Karellen.

9. Steve Jobs - The Movies


Imagine if someone really bright made a biopic or documentary about the most transformative figure in contemporary technology, and nobody came. Because that's what happened. Two of filmmaking's leading talents, director Danny Boyle and documentarian Alex Gibney, tried to get under the skin of the late Apple founder, but audiences and viewers stayed away from both their efforts. While flawed, both films were well-made, intelligent and properly promoted. Maybe the fans didn't like their 'warts and all' approaches and the rest of the world didn't care. But Hollywood still can't figure out what happened... and some other Silicon Valley skeletons now get to rest a bit more peacefully. Well until Mike Judge and the Silicon Valley team get their shovels out.

8. The death of broadcasting... and more

There's been a lot of angst over the decision to make BBC3 an online-only service (and yes, that new logo is pants), but legal web delivery is seriously and successfully disrupting the broadcasting model. Moreover, 2015 saw it start working on film distribution. Some of the year's best TV came from Netflix and Amazon via shows such as The Man in the High Castle and two surprisingly sparky Marvel adaptions, Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Meanwhile, iPlayer viewing for even shows on Auntie's mainstream channels continues to grow. What you want, when you want it and - as 4G makes mobile viewing viable - where you want it: this was the year the concept hit the mainstream. And the new players haven't finished. Amazon backed Spike Lee's new film Chi-Raq, a clever contemporary Chicago-based update of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, giving it a brief release in cinemas before placing it online; Netflix, meanwhile, did the same for Beasts of No Nation, True Detective director Cary Fukunaga's superb drama about boy soldiers featuring Idris Elba.

7. Can you hack it?

Movies and TV about computing have always been tough to make, particularly those about hacking. There's something inherently anti-visual about guy-sits-at-screen. On TV, the excellent Person of Interest has defied received wisdom for four seasons, cannily mixing its take on digital surveillance with elements from James Bond and the police procedural. But its ratings took a hit last year, and the producers were given only a half-season order largely so that the team can bring the story to a close in early 2016. Still, the biggest surprise hit on US TV this year has been Mr Robot, a visually imaginative, ambitious and technically faithful story about an alienated young hacker. Things weren't so good at the cinema. Michael Mann, one of Hollywood's best directors, came a cropper with the tedious Blackhat, while Spectre's reimagining of Ernst Stavro Blofeld - even one reincarnated by Christoph Waltz - as a malicious data-miner drew one of year's larger 'M'ehs' (We all still love Daniel Craig though).

6. Piracy

Last year ended with Sony reeling from a concerted hack on its film and TV division. In late 2015, everybody got to feel some pain. Of 25 films on Variety's list of current Best Picture Oscar contenders, 23 are available to download in 'rips' from high quality digital sources. The only exceptions were Star Wars: The Force Awakens and foreign language contender Son of Saul. The devil is the film industry's use of so-called 'screeners', discs produced for film critics and, during awards season, Oscar voters. Fail to get the screeners out there and you won't get even a nomination. But it's clear that distributing them can eat into your audience long before Oscar delivers a box office boost. Especially remarkable this year, the leaks included high profile films that were still to go on wide release, including Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight and The Revenant with Leonardo di Caprio. With Tarantino's film falling short of industry estimates for its first week ($16m vs an expected $22m), piracy is back on the agenda in a big way.

And, amazingly, the piracy group responsible for the leaks did itself apologize for posting the files too early. You could not make that up.

Click here for Part Two and the Top 5 countdown.

Edited: 07 January 2016 at 01:43 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 05 January 2016 09:16 AM     General     Comments (0)  

COP 21 Paris: How full is the glass?

14 December 2015 by Paul Dempsey

Last week's UN-fostered agreement on climate change is being lauded as the greatest diplomatic achievement of all time. Let's just hope it doesn't turn into a 21st Century's equivalent to the Treaty of Versailles.

There is a basic difference between the two. Versailles failed because of what it imposed; COP21 is already being criticized because of what it does not. But the stakes are arguably the same.

Still, while climate activists see the Paris deal as a step in the right direction - and a near-200 nation agreement is a heck of a step - they rightly point out that it has limited legal force and woolly goals. That's never an entirely good thing.

The High Ambition Coalition's target of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C is an aspiration and nothing more, one noted but only grudgingly accepted by the world's most powerful growing economies, India and China.

The more broadly acknowledged 2 degrees C target is itself not legally-enforceable. The USA could not accept something so binding as there is little hope that a Republican-dominated Congress would ratify such a treaty. Yeah, well.

Meanwhile, the submitted climate plans from COP 21's various participants would still only keep the increase to, at best, 2.7 degrees C.

Then, let's be frank, nobody really knows who is going to pay for all this.

And up to the very last minute, 'shalls' in the agreement were being changed to 'shoulds', offering yet more evidence to those who see a glass half-empty even if contains vintage French diplomacy.

But.

The big message from COP21 is that being a climate change sceptic puts you, well, out in the cold. The repeated claim that there is no 'consensus' on the issue just won't hold any longer. Even some of the more isolationist political thinkers in the US will now know they have to tread carefully - though there will be some hold-outs. Still, the World has decided that it needs to address the issue with a rare semblance of unity. Something to build on.

And that begs another question? Is this, finally, the 'Apollo moment', a rallying point to attack a massive engineering challenge but this time stripped of a Cold War.

On one level, if it isn't we are all up the effluent creek, possibly sooner rather than later. By agreeing on a 2 degrees C cap that has to be achieved 'somehow' - even if we don't yet have all the answers - the world's nations have also acknowledged the scale of the threat. Even if not existential, it's not pretty.

At its most direct, it could lead to local disasters such as coastal erosion and the collapse of national agricultural infrastructures. That's bad enough. But then think what would inevitably happen next. Such horrors would fuel global migration on an unprecedented scale, one that would make current conflict- and economically-driven population shifts resemble a works seaside outing. And it's not like Europe or the US is doing a terribly good job here already.

More optimistically, the need for innovation is explicitly built into the Paris deal. The shortcomings of current technology are recognized. The need to go back frequently and review progress towards both 2 and 1.5 degrees C in the light of innovation is there in the text.

That last point is a big deal. While the research funding that governments will offer remains worryingly nebulous, the chances for companies to bring some original ideas into play and - critical - get a better hearing from investors have improved. There is a more attractive framework for turning post-carbon energy R&D into dollars - the private sector might actually save the planet.

Yet for all the plaudits, much of the Paris deal is a fudge. That said, we all knew beforehand that it would lack absolute rigour. The real challenge in ensuring that it does not become the new Versailles lies in understanding how far it goes in settling the debate, potentially stimulating new ideas and - we must hope - resolving rather than seeding conflict.

If you'd asked me after that COP-Up-In-Copenhagen if we could ever have got even this much at the beginning of the month, I'd have called you a dreamer. Luckily, you didn't - but it's still down to you to top up the glass.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 14 December 2015 10:43 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Could a choking China finally kickstart the home automation business?

10 December 2015 by Paul Dempsey

As Beijing hosts its latest Darth Vader cosplay festival and, back home, Cumbria could make you believe that it's John Wyndham's Kraken rather than The Force that's awakening for Christmas, these latest high profile environmental horrors might, just might, seed one of the most overdue markets in consumer electronics: home automation.

In the pollution-choked Chinese capital, the latest iPhone has been supplanted as the must-have gadget of the year by the Laser Egg, a domestic air quality monitor marketed by start-up Origins Technology.

The Egg can be moved around various rooms in an apartment and calculates just how bad (or good) the atmosphere is, according to the dual standards of US and Chinese environmental protection bodies.

As though what they can see isn't bad enough, Beijing residents can already go to websites that publish both sets of metrics to get a reading on the air quality in the street. But even where air conditioners/fan heaters are turned off and windows firmly shut, a further concern remains increasingly high levels of indoor pollution.

So-called PM2.5 contaminants - fine particles measuring 2.5 micrometers or below (that's less than one-hundredth the width of a human hair) - are seen as especially dangerous in terms of causing and aggregating respiratory illnesses. As their size suggests, they can easily seep into homes from the outside, though domestic levels of better known nasties like Carbon Monoxide and Sulphur Dioxide are also a big part of the problem.

What makes the Egg more interesting than a simple monitor is that it is very much an Internet of Things (IoT) play. In its current launch configuration, the USB-charged hardware also includes WiFi connectivity, so you can access readings from a smartphone app (it also provides the latest external air quality indices for comparison and its functionality is undergoing continuous updates).

Today, homeowners are typically using Eggs to measure the performance of their expensive and imported air purifiers. But Beijing-based Origins has ambitions here too and has started selling its own version, the OxyBox.

Its argument is that the purifiers most Beijingers own were typically designed to cope with European pollution levels. Recent reports from cities such as Paris and London show that these should not be discounted. But China's fast-growing metropolises face issues on a far greater scale. In response, the OxyBox claims to be a far more heavy-duty piece of hardware.

The next step in all this is, to anyone who has followed the IoT at any rate, easy enough to spot. WiFi-enable the OxyBoxes, integrate them with constant Egg monitoring and build out a filtration system that automatically controls your domestic AQI. No need to run from room to room nervously checking the stats.

It's always dangerous to move from the specific to the general but as home automation products, the Eggs and OxyBoxes arguably have something going for them that, for all their undoubted usefulness, those from rivals such as the Google-owned Nest do not. Origins' products address something that their users view as an existential threat.

Yes, Nest's products have important safety features, such as CO monitoring, and the ability to manage your central heating can both save money and help 'save the planet'. But its hardware has stayed on the fringes of the mainstream, an upper-end play for more educated consumers. Set all that, though, against a visible threat of such diseases as cancer and emphysema or a potential customer's fears of the harm pollution does to growing children. That's Origins' market.

This isn't about the financial benefits or even some cuddly green feeling you might get from home automation. It isn't about home automation at all, really. It's about saving lives - or at least achieving a just-about-endurable quality of life.

However, it is also an extreme (hence for now that caveat about jumping from specific to general). Drawing a line between, say, setting your home thermostat higher than necessary leading to excessive power generation, higher carbon emissions and thereby extreme weather that generates flooding levels that are difficult to predict or defend against. More difficult, no question about that.

But if products like the Egg, addressing the local problems of regions that suffer considerable environmental blight, continue to sell at current rates, those who would see home automation become mainstream (and, finally, overcome the comical image of the smart refrigerator) should nevertheless note that the existential sells.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 10 December 2015 05:09 AM     General     Comments (0)  

ARM's not-so-secret recipe for 25 years of success

30 November 2015 by Paul Dempsey

Had I a quid for every time I've heard ARM described as some variant on, as Sunday's Observer had it, Britain's most successful tech company you've never heard of, I reckon I could buy my own 64bit Cortex licence. Such statements verge on the meaningless and are often misleading. Here it isn't the case that ARM is an unusually stealthy success story.

ARM is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Congratulations to all in Cambridge and beyond. But to mark it, here's an apparently unusual test: Ask someone you know who has nothing to do with electronic or electrical engineering to name a successful British technology company that launched during that last quarter century.

Amstrad? Sorry, Lord Sugar opened for business in 1968. Dyson? Tricky one. The eponymous manufacturing company does qualify (it opened in 1993) but the signature vacuum cleaner first started coming off production lines to acclaim and status symbol success in 1986. It was produced under licence by Japanese group Apex.

Of course, ARM's roots lie in a British tech darling of the 70s and 80s, Acorn Computers. But the purpose of the question is to show just how hard it is for most Brits to think of the UK in terms any more of technological innovation. (I don't think ARM would be the leading answer, by the way. You're probably looking at a company like Rockstar Games, creator of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. And even thereby hangs a thread, given Rockstar is now effectively US-based).

O.K. I guess you think we're about to go all sackcloth-and-ashes. Why oh why do our politicians favour policy for prats in the City of London over innovation and innovators? Why can't one ARM foster a plethora of start-ups - oh, because all our venture capitalists are risk-averse toads! Why can't we see engineers at economic heroes generally?

There is something in those questions but we've debated them to death. Let me offer three other personal perspectives on 'the ARM thing', and where UK technology may be going in general.

1. Where it needs to be, ARM is a rock star.

Go to Silicon Valley. Go to Taipei. Go to Bangalore. These are three places where you will find big concentrations of ARM clients and partners. If the company supplies a keynoter to a conference in any of them, the audience will be big and not just the technical press but also local and national newspapers will turn up to harvest Mr or Mrs ARM's thoughts.

By contrast, ARM's potential UK customer base is small - though it does have a number of important local partners. Still, on a sales to image-marketing basis, Blighty scores comparatively lowly. And it always has.

The air miles accumulated by ARM's founding CEO, Sir Robin Saxby, are the stuff of legend though the received wisdom is that the key deal he sealed for the company wasn't struck that far away. It got the ARM processor core designed into Nokia handsets. Once that market took off - and mobility remains an ARM mainstay thanks to its cores' low power consumption - the UK was never a massive player.

A global focus is a necessity, and as much for ARM as it is for - the most pertinent example - its big UK rival in semiconductor intellectual property, Imagination Technologies.

2. ARM is another UK 'ideas factory'

Name the company that makes Downton Abbey? The answer - and I'm sure a few, but only a few of you got it - is Carnival Films, a UK subsidiary of the American communications conglomerate Comcast. Comcast gives Carnival plenty of autonomy because it sees the company as a great ideas factory. Downtown is just the latest example of it leveraging UK history in an AngloupperclassyWorld way. Carnival also produced David Suchet's long run as Hercule Poirot.

What's this got to do with ARM? Well, in his recent analysis of British popular art, historian Dominic Sandbrook made great play of how we have shifted from making things to making culture and ideas as our manufacturing base has declined. Downton follows in a tradition that, Sandbrook argues, includes The Beatles, James Bond, Harry Potter and more. I'd argue that ARM fits in there as well. There's more to this British skill with selling the intangible than wizards and Walther PPKs.

ARM quite literally sells ideas, the intellectual property that semiconductor companies use as the 'core' of a design. Its business model is built around passing all the manufacturing risk and capital requirements to its customers. It expands on the still very high reputation of British engineering in the global marketplace - even if that image does not persist so hardily at home.

3. It's B2B, innit.

If you look at ARM's 'value chain', the company plays an extremely important role, but is at least two steps away from the consumer branding on the finished product. It supplies a processor core that goes into a chip (or SoC, today, if you prefer) that itself goes into a handset, tablet or perhaps now some kind of Internet of Things device.

There is an inherent tension here, even at the level of the chipmaker. Here's an example. NXP Semiconductors is right now trying to establish itself as the best SECURITY player for the IoT (Its caps.... Kind of). It wants you to think of NXP's implementation therefore, not NXP's implementation of ARM technology including ARM TrustZone. And of course, once NXP gets its design win from, say, a medical device company, its own name will be further subsumed within the technical specifications.

It's an old story. Yet it remains true that we expect business-to-business marketing to work much as traditional consumer marketing. But the real trick in B2B is to make an impact but not be seen as competing with your customers. By and large, ARM has got this balance right for a quarter of a century. This is not so much a stealthy as a diplomatic aspect of its success.

This image of ARM having somehow succeeded in spite of its national circumstances - and the repeated question, 'Why haven't we heard about these guys?' does imply that - actually gets things completely the wrong way around. In many respects, ARM is exemplary of what makes a successful British technology company in the 21st Century: you don't last 25 years running against the grain.

Edited: 30 November 2015 at 07:26 AM by Paul Dempsey

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 30 November 2015 07:00 AM     General     Comments (0)  

When we become the Yahoos

24 November 2015 by Paul Dempsey

The late comedian Bill Hicks had a jaundiced view of salesmanship. "If you work in marketing, just kill yourself," he declared. There was no punchline, no qualification, no mercy. Marketing ruins everything. His apparently uncompromising stance is often cited by those who want an Internet free of pop-ups, profiling and anything but altruistic proselytising.

Yet the statement was utter drivel, and Hicks knew as much. He was a consummate ironist. He threw down the gauntlet in an act of canny self-promotion. "Here I am, the most uncompromising comic commentator of my time. LOOK AT ME."

What has this to do with Yahoo? Well, this week, the company found itself on the wrong side of those who troll before they think when they invoke Hicks' spirit.

Predictable online outrage spread when Yahoo started blocking online email access to users whose browsers ran adblockers.

On one side, the argument was claimed to touch on civil liberties. What rights should a large corporation have to control access to private, personal communication? Unfortunately, this is a poor test case for a good question.

The real issue revolves around that most misused of words, often indeed by marketeers ... But not them alone. "Free."

Here, all the big Internet players are indeed "Guilty". When they offer "free" email, online tools and content - just three of the most obvious examples - what they really mean is that they will not take any money from you in return.

That doesn't preclude them taking other things instead. Only a child could believe otherwise. If you can't see what the product is, chances are it's you.

Nor is this a new game. Well aware of the real contract, we've all been trying to dodge electronically-delivered advertising since we got our paws on the first remote controls half a century ago. It's the oldest game of Whack-a-Mole known.

As technology has evolved towards ever more sophisticated marketing platforms, so have other engineers developed equally ingenious ways to circumvent it. That's human nature, so long may the game continue.

But let's be mature enough to admit that when a corporate player moves to enforce its side of the bargain, that's also fair game.

In truth, the objections to Yahoo smack of hypocrisy. Worse, they smack of hypocrisy garbed in ideals such as freedom-of-speech, privacy and open communication. Given other ongoing online concerns, we should be more careful about when we cite such precious ideals.

When we abuse them by invoking them too cheaply, we devalue our ability to expect them from others, corporations and - pointedly - governments.

The current Yahoo wibblers know what they signed up for. Among other things, their eyeballs on ads are what really pay for the email service. And yes, Google mines data on a postindustrial scale. I even think there's still gambling in Casablanca.

So, maybe some Yahoo user does live under a rock - I sympathise over his WiFi speeds. For the rest, suck it up. And grow up.

If you are that taxed by Yahoo's move, you could also dig deep and spend a few bucks on a 'clean' email experience. While you're at it, you could also drop a few dollars on some Bill Hicks albums or DVDs. There's more to him too than sales slogans.

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    Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 24 November 2015 12:22 PM     General     Comments (0)  

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