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May 24, 2018  4:26 PM

Why one expert doesn’t think AI will take over the world

Clare McDonald Profile: Clare McDonald
ai, Automation, Robotics, ROBOTS

Every time a robot does something that humans deem to be suspicious, a debate is sparked about when artificially intelligent beings will take over the world.

There have been more than enough films about it, ranging from Terminator and iRobot to more recent films such as ExMachina, to name just a small portion, where artificial intelligence (AI) becomes self-aware and revolts against its human creators.

So when is this likely to happen in the world of non-fiction?

According to Peter Schwartz, senior vice president of strategic planning at Salesforce, it isn’t.

Labelling these kinds of proposed eventualities “bad science fiction” Schwartz explained the reason machine learning and AI cannot be made to be more intelligent than humans, or to be self-aware, is because in all of these examples the AI is made by replicating the way the human brain works using technology.

The problem with this is that we still as a whole don’t understand how the brain works – and you can’t make a computational model of something that is not wholly understood.

So what can we expect instead of a future world resembling the Terminator films?

As it happens, technology in films such as Minority Report, which Schwartz worked on, is already coming into play in the mainstream, and this data-driven augmented reality (AR) and AI is something we can expect to see more of.

We can expect this to look like a world much like the one we live in now, but where intelligence is “embedded everywhere” including sensors and AI in everything from fridges and chairs, to floors and walls.

As Schwartz puts it: “The world around you will know you, and enlighten you.”

This sounds far from the doomsday future we have all been expecting, and Schwartz explains the disruption only seems more significant than with other waves of technology adoption because of the pace at which it is happening.

“The change that happened over decades is now happening over a very short period of time,”

“What we’re looking at is a world that will have embedded intelligence everywhere and, as long as you’re carrying a device like a smartphone, it will know you.”

But this comes hand-in-hand with issues, including but not limited to, legislation, protecting personal data and ensuring these technologies are developed to add value to people’s lives rather than for technology’s sake.

Schwartz explains that in many cases technology tends to get ahead of any legislation that can be made to control it, which is dangerous, because as Schwartz points out: “more and more important decisions are going to be made using algorithms.”

There’s also the matter of “digital dust” created by people every day, and picked up or used by other humans and companies to no benefit of the owner – which has been hard to regulate, and GDPR is only a small step forward.

Then there’s the issue of bias, which will end up embedded in algorithms, AI and robotics if we don’t make sure there are diverse teams working on them.

If it isn’t killer robots we’re scared of, it’s robots that will replace us in the workplace and render us useless, another unlikely scenario according to Schwartz, who said this fear has been expressed “again and again” with “every single wave of technology, and every time we create more jobs than we destroy” he assured.

He used cloud technologies as an example – the cloud is a relatively new technology that is still being adopted, but hundreds if not thousands of people hold roles in it. Roles that did not used to exist.

So maybe your worries surrounding automation and AI have abated at least temporarily, because with every wave of technology adoption that has come before now we have kept the robots in check.

Or maybe that’s just what they want you to think.

May 3, 2018  12:40 PM

Android bites Apple in UK, iPhone X marks the spot in China

DavidMcClelland David McClelland Profile: DavidMcClelland
Android, Apple, Huawei, iPhone, Smartphones

The smartphone sales results are in: Android continues to bite chunks out of Apple in UK and France, while iPhone X is eating Android in the East. 

The latest ComTech Smartphone OS Market Share report from Kantar Worldpanel reveals some interesting insights into how Apple and Android handsets are squaring up against each other — and highlights some striking differences across various markets.

In the UK, Apple iOS devices accounted for 37.0 per cent of sales in the first three months of 2018, compared with 62.7 per cent for Android. The mysterious 0.3 per cent eschewing the mainstream presumably includes those swept up by the recent Nokia nostalgia drive.

Kantar Worldpanel’s trend data suggests Apple’s pie is being eaten into, however. Sales of Android handsets have risen by 5.6 percentage points from the same period last year, while Apple smartphones have lost ground to the tune of 4.2 percentage points. That equates to a 25 per cent gap, compared to 15.9 last year.

France is even more polarised, with Android taking up 80.0 per cent of smartphone sales between January and February 2018 – up 4.4 percentage points – while iOS slips by almost three points to 19.5 per cent.

The USA market shows a little more equilibrium, with Android and Apple sharing 59.1 and 39.0 per cent of sales respectively, and no notable change on the same period in 2017.

iPhone X Marks The Spot in China

However, China reveals the most substantial swing in sales sentiment, with Android losing 9.9 percentage points in an apparent straight swap with Apple which gains 9.8 percentage points.

Kantar Worldpanel ComTech Smartphone OS Sales Share Chart

Kantar Worldpanel ComTech Smartphone OS Sales Share

The Kantar Worldpanel team remarks that the Apple iPhone X release has played a major role here, with the anniversary handset becoming the best-selling smartphone in all of China in the last quarter. Elsewhere, it appears that iPhone X demand peaked shortly after release, with consumers opting for the less-unaffordable iPhone 8 models in the first few months of 2018.

Apple quarterly results this week were viewed favourably by many with shares jumping 5 per cent, despite handset sales falling slightly below analysts’ expectations. However, bossman Tim Cook noted a 20 per cent revenue growth in Greater China and Japan.

Japan is the market with the most equilibrium in Android and iOS sales, with 54.8 and 44.8 per cent of sales in turn. Apple devices lost ground by 2 percentage points.

China – Two-way Traffic

The data also deep-dives into which devices and manufacturers are taking the share of sales; and while Apple grows in China, it notes how Chinese manufacturers continue to set down roots in the west.

“Huawei has managed to significantly increase its presence across the big five European markets, and now holds almost a fifth of sales in the three months to March 2018,” said Dominic Sunnebo, Global Director for Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, reflecting on the growth of the Chinese handset giant, despite having been effectively blocked from sales in the US.

Elsewhere in the US, the Google Pixel smartphone range continues to gain ground, chalking up its best-ever quarter of sales as the search/ads/AI firm bakes hardware into its lineup.

February 22, 2018  4:11 PM

How Lego Education tries to encourage kids into Stem through play-based learning

Clare McDonald Profile: Clare McDonald
Education, Engineering, IT education, LEGO, Maths, science, Stem, Technology

Lego Education, the more serious branch of the Lego enterprise, aims to provide teachers and other education providers with fun ways to engage children with science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects.

To us, it may just be a toy we have long left in our childhood, but the makers at Lego Education are creating ways these tiny bricks can support and encourage schools and teachers to make Stem more interesting in a learning environment.

The idea is the kids are learning more about technology, science and engineering without really knowing they’re doing it.

The Lego Education journey, for many, begins four yellow bricks, two red bricks and the instruction to make a duck.

Lego ducks

I liked to think of the duck as a sort of thought experiment – there is apparently “no wrong answer” when trying to make the duck, and there are many many different ways of solving it.

Ethan Danahy, research assistant professor at Tufts University, accused our group of being “too polite” and claimed most people usually jump straight in.

The advantage of adding this factor into a classroom is that it encourages some of the quieter children to be more involved in their learning experience rather than feeling like learning is “something that is done to them”.

Danahy said: “When you go into a classroom you get these kids that are passive, but when you bring in Lego it brings in this atmosphere.”

His argument was that by using tools such as Lego in the classroom, the children move from this passive attitude towards actively participating in their learning experience.

In case you were wondering, here’s my duck:

Encouraging creativity

With automation making softer skills increasingly important, there is a focus on trying to encourage creativity by incorporating art into the science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) focussed fields – in the Lego world it is referred to as Steam.

Many use Lego in the classroom to promote creative thinking, and Jane Meldgaard Johansen, communication manager at Lego Education, claimed it is a good way to get children incorporating technology concepts into their learning whilst thinking outside of the box.

Johansen had a number of examples demonstrating some extremely out of the box ideas children had produced – at one point she held something up and asked “what is this?”.

Apparently after being tasked with making a wearable a child had produced a portable duster-and-fan combo ideal for keeping cool and helping his mum clean – a contraption made up of a Lego motor with feathers and an egg box.

I would never have guessed.

As part of the process children are asked to stand up and present their wearables and why/how they made them.

Many of the children explain how they tested ideas before realising they didn’t work, adapting their inventions to make them better.

Without even realising it, Johansen explained, the kids are taking part in an agile development process which she called “early scrum”.

But while kids might be excited to play with Lego during lessons and surreptitiously learn about computing concepts, teachers can still often be far from comfortable bringing these technologies into lessons.

Lego Mindstorms

Catrine Bjerrehus, associate marketing manager for Lego MINDSTORMS at Lego Education, admitted to feeling out of her depth when she first joined the Lego world.

To try and ease teachers into being more accepting of using Lego to support the curriculum in the classroom, there are resources available including cards with suggestions on how teachers can guide a lesson.

All of the Lego Education sets designed for Primary and Secondary level education also come with a free downloadable guide which includes resources aligned with the curriculum to help teachers with building instructions and classroom tasks.

I was introduced by Bjerrehus to some Lego Mindstorms equipment with an EV3 receiver, a type of technology aimed at students in secondary education (aged 10 years and above) that allows pupils to build and programme robots.

I had no idea what to do.

I decided to latch on to another person’s project, helping her to code whatever contraption she created.

Whilst surrounded by Lego-powered egg carton dinosaurs, I used the drag and drop EV3 programming app to develop a string of instructions for our robot, which my partner decided was a lady bird.

Though I didn’t have to develop any code for the robot, there were elements of coding and computational thinking involved in developing the robot’s instructions, and there was a mathematical element in trying to work out what direction the robot would go, what degree the robot would turn by and how fast it would go.

Bjerrehus claimed these technologies can be used for “all sorts of Steam lessons” to help students to understand these basic concepts whilst making these discoveries for themselves – again putting the emphasis on actively participating in classroom learning.

The robot didn’t work as we expected and we eventually moved along.

Lego for pre-school

Helping children to make discoveries on their own through assisted play can be slightly more delicate for younger children, so for pre-school stage children aged three and up, Lego Education recommends LEGO Education STEAM Park sets.

Children are challenged to use the pieces to build a theme park, and asked what will happen when particular pieces are used together.

This introduces concepts such as balance, centrifugal force, pivots, and other mathematical and scientific theories that will keep occurring throughout their education.

Rikke Baunbæk Wallington, senior concept and design lead for preschool, at Lego Education said she uses these in pre-school lessons filled with 40 children every day, and assured me can contribute to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) learning standards followed by all Ofsted-registered schools or early years providers  in the UK.

Robots, teachers and future jobs

When moving on to primary learning, the recommended Lego kit for supporting classroom learning is the WeDo 2.0, a kit that pairs with the WeDo 2.0 software application to allow children to develop moving robotics.

Though this kit is meant to be used to teach children aged seven and up, John Pinkney, Learning Adviser at Warwickshire ICT Development Servicer, claimed he has sometimes used it with sixth formers to make them more engaged in lessons.

Most teachers already feel like they don’t have the skills to properly teach computing, and children who have grown up using technology can often make teachers feel like the kids know more than they do, making many apprehensive about introducing new methods into a classroom.

“Some teachers are fearful,” Pinkey claimed, but explained the benefit of introducing play into the classroom is that the teachers can build and discover at the same pace as the children before the coding element is introduced.

Once they have done this, “the blank canvas has disappeared” he said, giving teachers a bit more confidence because there’s something solid to work with.

It also makes lessons more exciting, and Pinkey admitted: “Sometimes as a teacher I forget what it’s like to learn because I’m always teaching.”

Developing the ability to think outside of the box, something Lego encourages, is important as children in schools now will grow up to have jobs that do not currently exist.

Long-lasting stereotypes mean Stem subjects often appeal more to boys than to girls, and girls can be put off of contributing in these lessons.

But by introducing a fun and accessible element to these subjects, these barriers can be tackled.

When attending some of the Lego League robotics challenges in 2017, Pinkey noticed how many more girls were entering teams and after speaking to one young woman, she said: “I’d never even thought about engineering until I came to this.”

Pinkey called the diversity gap in Steam industries “embarrassing” but hoped the dial would begin to shift as initiatives such as Stemettes, Apps4Good and Code Club prevail.

After my Lego Education Graduation I spotted the robot I had been helping with earlier, now fully mobilised and whizzing across the room as people cheered – I couldn’t help but smile at my own part in the agile development process of the cheerful egg-box gadget.

January 24, 2018  7:49 AM

These AI voice assistants want your office jobs

DavidMcClelland David McClelland Profile: DavidMcClelland
ai, Amazon, Apple, Artificial intelligence, Cisco, HP

Amazon, originator of the smart speaker category in the home, is taking Alexa into the office too. However, as David McClelland explores in the first of a two-part feature, Amazon isn’t the only outfit attempting to add some AI smarts to our workplaces.

AI voice assistants were the big present under our trees this Christmas.

Affordable smart speakers from the likes of Amazon and Google — along with the less-affordable such as the Apple HomePod which finally launches on February 9 — promise to voice-activate our living spaces, bringing the dream of the futuristic smart-home within reach of the masses.

Amazon is tight-lipped about how many Alexa-powered devices it shifted last month, but stats show that the Alexa app – necessary to set up new Amazon Echo devices – claimed the app stores’ coveted Christmas number one spots.

In Las Vegas, CES continued the trend revealing an appetite — or desperation — to stuff an artificially intelligent voice into any appliance imaginable.

So, it’s no surprise that those in charge of our workplaces should begin experimenting with how conversational AI assistants might smarten-up our office lives too.

Assistant Appeal

Ease-of-use and convenience are a big part of the voice assistant appeal, concentrating an ever-expanding catalogue of popular services into a single, natural interface:

Alexa: tell me the weather, turn on my central heating, check my diary, call my mum, play my favourite songs, add some batteries to my shopping list, switch off the house lights. Please?

An impressive array of skills, no more than a trigger word away. What’s more, the majority of the time it just works — speech recognition finally got useful, and we barely even noticed.

Projecting these skills into the workplace doesn’t take a great deal of imagination:

Alexa: book me a conference room, replace printer toner, turn on the projector, start my meeting, message my boss to tell her I’m running late. Now.

In its announcement of Alexa for Business in November, Amazon spoke about how some Alexa devices would be shared for “anyone to use in common areas around your workplace,” while others would remain “personal Alexa devices for your employees to use.”

The ability to integrate with workplace workflows, software platforms and business processes — ‘skills’ for the workplace — will no doubt be important for a professional user-base.

Business Apps

At London Tech Week 2017, Inspect-a-Gadget spoke with a UK startup hoping to bring its office-friendly smart assistant, UMA, to a workplace near you.

Alongside room bookings, maintenance requests and more, UMA plays big on its hooks into business applications such as Salesforce, Slack, Cisco Spark and Box.

Building a portfolio of skills and integrations is one thing, but other vendors are taking a narrower approach to their office AI.

Spark will fly

At its recent partner summit, Cisco powered up its collaborative Spark platform with its own voice assistant. Billed as the ‘world’s first AI-powered voice assistant for meetings’, Cisco Spark Assistant is the first fruit of last year’s $125 million MindMeld acquisition.

Spark Assistant won’t tell you the weather or apply its AI to work out which playlist will suit your mood: instead, it is razor-focused on meetings and collaboration. “Hey Spark, I want to start the meeting/end the meeting/call Robert’s meeting room.”


PCs have dabbled with voice assistants in the past, although Cortana has struggled to gather as much traction as Microsoft might have liked. Last year’s hook-up between Cortana and Alexa hook has yet to show any signs of bearing fruit either.

Then, as Inspect-a-Gadget reported here, the likes of ASUS, Acer and HP were lining up at CES to offer an integrated Alexa experience in their new desktops and laptops. Acer even showcased its Alexa Projector.

Acer Brings Amazon Alexa to PCs

Acer Brings Amazon Alexa to PCs

Commenting on the tie-up with ASUS to bring Amazon’s assistant to its PC range, an Intel rep enthused: “we anticipate that the PC will serve an even more important role in maximising your productivity, getting the most from your entertainment, and managing the smart home or office.”

Will privacy and security concerns — as well as office etiquette — hamper AI voice assistants’ office party? Read on in part two – soon.

January 18, 2018  8:15 AM

Cash in hand? This cryptocurrency body implant will secure your cyber-cash stash

DavidMcClelland David McClelland Profile: DavidMcClelland
Banking, Technology

Is the future of secure cryptocurrency storage and payment simply “cash in hand”? Inspect a Gadget looks at how one firm’s human microchip implant could help.

We’ve all looked on with interest as the Bitcoin rollercoaster has soared, dived and soared again over recent weeks. Quite the ride for those who joined in early on.

However, also of interest is how entire ecosystems are now developing to support those whose virtual pockets are suddenly bulging with virtual coins. Among those hitching a ride are firms with novel ways to secure your cyber cash.

Step forward Danish outfit BiChip with its “human microchip implant”. It promises to help you wave goodbye to concerns over secure crypto-currency storage and wave hello to easier payments.

Crypto Coaster

Bitcoin isn’t the only crypto-coaster in town: thrill-seekers have long been jumping aboard the Litecoin log flume, riding the Ethereum waltzers and cruising Dogecoin dodgems. Perhaps less known among these is Ripple XRP.

Technically, Ripple is an open payment network used to facilitate fast and cheap international money transfers: think Western Union or SWIFT for the blockchain era. It is the platform upon which its token (currency), XRP, is transferred. And that’s the currency that BiChip is promising to support first of all.

In 2017, a Bitcoin’s value rose by a whopping 1,500 percent. However, XRP’s value rose by a staggering 36,000 percent and is now vying for second place alongside Ethereum to be the biggest cryptocurrency by market-cap behind Bitcoin.

BiChip Graphic

Rice grain-sized implants are opening doors – literally – for non-squeamish early adopters

Crypto Wallets

Also looking to jump aboard the coat-tails of these cryptocurrencies’ success are the criminals. Ever the opportunists, cyber-crooks certainly aren’t new to this scene (as former MtGox customers will know to their cost) and have already been re-sharpening their tools to try to weasel their way into your wallets.

For that reason, keeping the private key codes for your cryptocurrency online or with a coin exchange is widely held to be unwise. Some opt for the old-school and write currency codes on pieces or paper. Others look to dedicated hardware devices like the TREZOR digital wallet to keep their crypto assets safe.

TREZOR Bitcoin Wallet

TREZOR Bitcoin Wallet (image: TREZOR)

Similarly, the Jaxx digital asset wallet, created by Ethereum co-founder Anthony Diiorio, is a well-regarded smartphone app that helps keep your blockchain assets close to your chest.

Cash In Hand

However, Danish firm BiChip just announced that its human microchip implant will make sure your crypto-cash is always close at hand by storing it – literally – inside your hand.

BiChip Implant

Chips with Everything: BiChip Human Microchip Implant, before and after (image: BiChip)

These implantable rice-grain sized RFID / NFC chips are nothing new – they’ve been a popular party trick at tech conferences for a number of years now, letting wannabe body-modders exchange digital business cards, open hotel room doors, make payments and even use public transport.

The Danish firm says it is now working on a system that could allow cryptocurrency payments simply by waving your hand over a reader.

BiChip Ripple Payments

BiChip Ripple Payments (image: BiChip)

Wave and Pay

Sweden is one country where body-modding has gathered a strong momentum. Since 2017, travellers with state-owned rail operator SJ have been able to use RFID hand implants instead of paper tickets.

In collaboration with Swedish firm BioHax, US vending machine company Three Square Market began offering chip implants to its staff last year. The RFID implant enabled workers to open doors, login to their computers, use the photocopier and – naturally – pay at the company’s vending machines. A popular move with staff, but one that garnered international condemnation from privacy activists and even religious groups.


Here in the Inspect a Gadget office, we’re not so sure yet. Aside from feeling faint at the mere mention of a needle, the semi-permanence of a chip implant – and the difficulty removing it – is a major hurdle. Given the rate at which early-stage technology inevitably evolves and is miniaturised, a new chip today may easily be obsolete tomorrow.

Strong practical use cases for these implants would need to develop that set it beyond wearable tech: after all, a smartwatch already offers secure storage and payment services to meet most people’s needs.

January 12, 2018  11:54 AM

Five new ways to charge your smartphone

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick

This is a guest blogpost by Gamil Jassin, a journalism Masters degree student at City, University of London.

We all moan and groan about how bad the battery life on our phones is. Then, we keep moaning when Apple slows it down slightly to make the battery last longer.

Pubs in the UK have stopped charging our phones, because they say “it is a security risk”, and wireless chargers are hard to find and aren’t themselves wireless which is, well, stupid.

So, here are five quirky solutions to these problems in 2018.

Attachable coat heater and power bank

The recent weather has certainly kept many of us coughing and sneezing, and it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime time soon. Global warming…

Anyway, before diverting into a rant about Donald Trump and plastic bottles, here is one way you can stay warm and simultaneously charge up your phone.

It’s called the Torch 2.0 portable coat heater. It is designed to fit in the jacket of your choosing, and can be switched easily between jackets with the use of Velcro.

It is powered using a 6000mAh power bank giving you up to four hours of warmth off a single charge. It also has two additional USB ports which are compatible with any smartphone.

It is currently only available from the company’s US website, retailing at $99.99.

Attachable coat heater and power bank

Telephone box workstations

Need to charge up your tech and reply to emails, but don’t want to be stuck in a noisy café at lunch? There is now a solution.

A New York-based co-working company, Bar Works recently transformed a number of the UK’s underused but iconic red public phone booths into micro-offices for workers on the go.

The project was launched in London, Leeds, Plymouth and Edinburgh as a more private alternative to co-working spaces and cafe offices.

The company retrofitted each phone box with Wi-Fi as well as a printer, scanner, wireless mouse, 25-inch screen, hot drinks machine and power outlets, all for £19.99 a month.

At launch, Bar Works CEO Jonathan Black said: “Our solution maximises the space, and we have a solution for security and membership-only access together with the other problem of people using the space for too long.”

However, it seems to be the case that the CEO of Bar Works is fact one Renwick Haddow, who previously ran the Capital Alternatives network of companies, which the High Court ruled in 2014 to be “collective investment schemes which could not be lawfully operated by the defendants”, according to the Financial Conduct Authority. There is also, reportedly, some doubt as to whether Jonathan Black is actually a person.

Telephone box workstations

Disposable charger

We’ve all been there – desperately closing apps and lowering brightness in a futile effort to save battery power for the journey home after a night out.

The simple plug-in disposable charger, PowerHit, which works with both Apple and most Android devices (Type C USB not currently supported), is being retailed at £3. The company claims that it can produce up to two extra hours of charge.

Before you get your hopes up, it is important to note that your phone must be on for the charger to work and this isn’t disclosed by the manufacturer on either its website or the packaging.

And more worryingly still, remember Donald Trump and plastic bottles? Add this one to the list of “ecological disasters”.

Powerhit plug-in disposable charger

Bedside lamp wireless charger

So, you finally got your hands on the new iPhone X, but have now realised there isn’t enough space on your bedside table for a wireless charger. There’s no need to worry.

Ikea and other manufacturers have worked hard in recent years to incorporate Qi charging technology into furniture and everyday items, such as a bedside lamp.

As well as allowing you to charge your device wirelessly, it offers an additional USB port so you can charge several devices simultaneously. Ikea’s offering retails at £49.

If you don’t have an iPhone X, but like the lamp, the retailer also sells Vitahult wireless charging covers which make your phone Qi charging compatible and should keep your phone from cracking in case you accidently knock it off your new bedside lamp.

Bedside lamp wireless charger

Smartphone with a huge battery

You didn’t buy a case for your phone. You’re running through the house one day, trip over the dog, fall and land right on your phone, smashing it to pieces. Fortunately, you wanted to get a new one anyway, one that doesn’t run out of charge in a few hours.

This new offering from a Chinese phone manufacturer might be the one for you.

The Oukitel K10000 is powered by a 10000mAh battery capable of going up to 21, yes 21 days on a single charge with moderate usage. The phone also allows you to charge other devices, even supporting some smaller laptops.

It also sports a 5.5″ FHD Display, a fingerprint reader, dual-lens cameras (13MP+5MP), runs Android 7.0 and has other rather impressive specs and all from £165.99.

It is however a little on the chunky side (it’s huge, actually) and Oukitel isn’t a very well-known brand, so there will be some obvious scepticism, but stop being snobs.

And keep in mind that you can get five of these for the price of the iPhone X and still have money left over for an attachable coat heater, 10 disposable chargers, that beautiful wireless-charging lamp which you will not be able to use because your new phone/phones don’t support wireless charging, but who cares, and maybe even a month’s access to your own micro office, which you may have to wait a little while for.

Oukitel K10000


Stop moaning! Use a regular charger and plug it into a socket several times throughout the day like most normal people do.

January 12, 2018  8:16 AM

Acer, ASUS and HP want to make Alexa easy PC

DavidMcClelland David McClelland Profile: DavidMcClelland
Artificial intelligence, Gadget

As sociable as Amazon’s smart assistant may at first appear, Alexa has never mixed well with Windows. Until now.

Historically, Alexa has played nicely with smart speakers, TV sticks, robots, refrigerators and even shower-heads. Yet, despite a recently announced partnership between Amazon and Microsoft announced, Alexa still hadn’t fully opened her door to the PC.

At CES this week, the folks at Acer finally coerced Alexa from the comfort of her Echo and into its new notebooks, all-in-one PCs – and even a 4K projector.

“Acer is delighted to be among the first brands to bring Alexa to PCs,” cooed Acer’s chief matchmaker and IT products chief, Jerry Kao. “By introducing voice services like Alexa,” continued Intel’s Anand Srivatsa, “we anticipate that the PC will serve an even more important role in maximising your productivity, getting the most from your entertainment, and managing the smart home or office.” Oh Anand, you old romantic, you.

Say again?

Of course, part of Alexa’s charm on her native Echo is how well she listens, thanks in no small part to her half-dozen or more keenly tuned microphones.

The problem with a typical PC is that basic integrated mic gear won’t always cut it, which is why Acer has brought in Intel’s Smart Sound DSPs to handle the audio input and output.

Managing the interaction back to the Amazon cloud is the new Amazon Alexa app – common across all Alexa-espoused PCs, for now, and separate from the yet-to-materialise Cortana/Alexa collaboration.

Acer Brings Amazon Alexa to PCs

Acer Brings Amazon Alexa to PCs

Asus says Alexa will come to select Aspire, Spin, Switch and Swift models in the US first, with support in other territories arriving in mid-2018.

Productivity Projector

The firm’s new V6820M and V6820i 4K projectors are shortly to be primed for voice control too.

Acer's all-new 4K 'Alexa Projector'

Acer’s all-new 4K ‘Alexa Projector’

The ‘Acer Projector Smart Home’ skill adds to the Amazon assistant’s lexicon with commands such as, “Alexa, turn on the projector,” and “Alexa, select HDMI as the projector source.”

This one technology promises – in an instant – to reclaim the five minutes lost from every meeting to inevitable projector operator incompetence.

Wave Hello

Acer doesn’t get to keep Alexa all to himself, however, with Taiwanese love-rival ASUS also caught courting the Amazon assistant.

However, HP pipped its A-list rivals to the post with the fabric-clothed HP Pavillion Wave PC.

HP Pavillion Wave with Alexa for Windows

Alexa love triangle: HP Pavillion Wave

The neatly-packaged Wave boasts B&O Play surround-sound audio, and specs up to a beefy Intel Core i7 with 16 GB RAM and dual monitor support.

That the Wave resembles a muscular, more modern take on Alexa’s previously prefered bedfellow, the Amazon Echo, may be entirely coincidental. But expect this to be just the first of many fruitful Alexa hookups with eligible PCs in the months to come.

October 12, 2017  4:11 PM

Splunk University: big data skills training from the ninjas

Clare McDonald Profile: Clare McDonald
Big Data, Big Data analytics, Data, Data Analytics, Software, Splunk

Alongside Splunk’s annual event Splunk.conf runs the software firm’s learning and certification course, Splunk University, where in 2017 I spent a day learning how to use Splunk to deep dive data and improve my big data skills.

As is common with third party software deployments, firms usually run certification courses which employees can go on to become an expert in the software their company is using.

After a few wines I decided it would be a really good idea to go on one of these courses and learn a little more about one of the firms I write about often, and managed to get the firm to agree.

I’ve written before about my fear of getting too techy, having chosen to put my degree in computer science on a shelf and never look at it again.

When it came time to actually attend the Splunk University course before the firm’s annual .conf event in Washington D.C I regretted agreeing to go – some of the coding workshops at university had been my least favourite parts of the course and I was worried it would bring back too many disappointing memories.

I joined the Splunk Fundamentals 1 course, which is advertised to do exactly what it says on the tin and teach you the basics of using Splunk to get the most out of your data.

The one day course promised eight modules to cover searching in Splunk, using various different fields as part of searches, creating dashboards and reports, learning about Splunk’s search language, using transforming commands in Splunk and creating lookups, reports and alerts.

We started by logging in to a dedicated server which was hosting all of the example data we’d be searching and accessing in real time during the session.

Yes, I did make a delighted “OOH!” noise as I successfully logged in to the server. Yes, I realise logging into the server is not the most complicated thing I’ve ever been asked to do, but I was anxious so I’ll allow myself this joy.

On this server was data from a virtual company called “Buttercup Games” a Splunk invention created to generate data with the purpose of testing and teaching the Splunk environment.

Buttercup is actually quite a big thing in the Splunk universe; the pony mascot has its own game and always stands tall at Splunk events.

Fictional company Buttercup Games is a platform selling video games and some accessories through third party retailers and an online store with three web servers – two different kinds of data injected into Splunk that can then be interpreted.

Data can come from logs, configurations, messages, call details records, alerts, metrics, scripts, clickstreams, virtual machines, internet devices, communications devices, sensors, databases  – basically “any system using a computer, any device that has logs” according to our session teacher and Splunk senior training technical consultant Laurent Dongradi.

Data is indexed as it enters the system – an index is a location within Splunk that searches for and stores event data – different users have different types of access to data depending on what they would need to know.

For example a security team might need access to the web index and the security index to notice trends in web patterns and whether these may have contributed to cyber-attacks.

As the class started and we were given time to acclimatise to the dashboard, the person sitting next to me immediately said: “Right, let’s click on some stuff.” to which my response was to stare at him in terror.

There’s just something about code that makes me feel unwell – and during our first module where we were talking through searching the data loaded into Splunk I realised we had to use Splunk’s own search language, called “Spl”.

Since I quit coding I’ve been continually assured that in some cases it is becoming easier to learn – automation is allowing some companies to develop software that requires little training or technical knowledge to use.

The Spl language was similar to many others, and once the familiarity set in I realised the best way to tackle each module was to power through… until a search returned a ridiculous result and then suddenly I was back to being terrified. I proceeded with caution.

Dongradi explained “we could define Splunk very simply as a search engine” allowing you to use different terms to search through data and use the results to decide what to do next.

For example Shazam uses Splunk to analyse usage data for its application to assess whether any changes to functionality have been successful, and Travis Perkins uses it to help respond more quickly to cyber-security threats.

What you’re searching for will depend upon the business – as a fake retailer Buttercup Games may be interested in looking at online vs in-store sales or trying to notice patterns surrounding abandoned online baskets.

If there are searches you hope to return to or check regularly they can be made into reports, and can be displayed on a dashboard which can be shared around the organisation – visualisations of data can be generated to help to drill down to underlying events.

But as we progressed it became clear to me that learning to use Splunk was by no means the most difficult part of the session – it was understanding what data to search and how to use the results.

For example we began by searching for failed log in attempts because our imaginary manager had asked us to.

This made sense to me – I knew that if a company is concerned about cyber-attacks it is a good idea to look at failed log in attempts to see if there were any patterns relating to the server that the attempts occurred on, the time gap between failures and whether the same person is consistently attempting entry and failing.

Insights like this can help pinpoint issues and more quickly prevent a disaster.

Later on in the workshop we were asked to look into other pieces of data, the reasons for which were a little less obvious.

One of the searches developed a chart which showed each of the actions that took place on the Buttercup Games website for each of the products the site sold.

For example, there were certain games that were added to the cart more than others, and also many that had been viewed, but then not purchased.

As it happens, World of Cheese was a good seller, but Holy Blade of Gouda was not very popular – there is an argument that data like this can determine which are the bestselling games or perhaps whether there may be a problem with a certain purchasing webpage if the purchase is abandoned many times for a particular game.

Then as an example of how to transforming commands such as ‘top’, ‘rare’ and ‘stats’ we were asked to find the top two places visitors to the website are coming from.

For some reason when I successfully extracted this data and displayed  it as a pie chart I got very excited – possibly because we’d been sitting in a room for a long time without seeing the sun and it was one of the last things we were asked to do.

Using Splunk was easy enough to learn, but as in many cases this doesn’t mean investing in expensive software will gain insight for your company – data scientists are in high demand at the moment as technology adoption and digital transformation has dramatically increased the amount of data firms are collecting.

Learning as many tech skills as possible can only be a positive thing – as an organisation Splunk works to help people in and outside of the firm to learn the skills needed to use its big data technology.

But data should not be underestimated – when properly interpreted it can be the perfect companion to a business plan, but it’s also very easy to drown in a sea of figures.

It’s all very well and good finding out which products are selling well online and which are struggling… but what are you then going to do about it?

Learning exactly how data ninjas glean insights from software such as Splunk was extremely interesting and gave me a new found respect for exactly how much data organisations are dealing with.

Whether I’ll place my Splunk University participation certificate on the shelf next to my degree and never look at it again? I’ve not decided yet…

August 31, 2017  9:33 AM

What’s a Meta For? Augmented Reality Startup Swaps Screens for Thin Air in Office of the Future

DavidMcClelland David McClelland Profile: DavidMcClelland
augmented reality, Office productivity, Virtual Reality

The office of the future, as viewed through rose-tinted augmented reality glasses.

A new film from augmented reality outfit Meta paints a vivid picture of how the office of the future may no longer be dominated by banks of monitors.

The video, which features the firm’s second-generation augmented reality headset running its new Workspace productivity software, depicts workers wearing high-tech-specs interacting with virtual PC desktops, or in meetings collaborating on 3D models.

Silicon Valley-based Meta is one of the protagonists looking to bring general purpose augmented reality headsets to market. Founded in 2012, Meta made a splash on the Kickstarter platform in 2013 and has since been backed to the tune of $75 million.

Yet while its hardware – and indeed that of its competitors – advances to a point of maturity, the search continues to find practical, genuine, revenue-generating use cases upon which to hang these thousand-dollar headsets.

Augmented Reality Office

In Meta’s vision of the office of the future, augmented reality headsets perch atop employees’ heads, projecting infinite adjustable touch screens within the wearer’s personal workplace.

The traditional desktop mouse and keyboard remain, but much of the activity takes place in mid-air with gestures to grab, swipe and pull virtual windows and objects. There’s smartphone interactivity here too, with notes and images from the real-world handheld’s screen only a pickup and push away from the virtual workspace.

So confident is Meta’s vision that its charismatic co-founder, Meron Gribetz, has made another grand gesture on his staff’s behalf: in Meta’s offices, flat screens are now consigned to the store cupboard, replaced by Meta’s own head-mounted displays. A home-grown showcase – and a beta test – for the future of the workplace.

Shoulder surfing at Meta HQ just got a whole lot more difficult.

What’s a Meta For?

It’s easy to be seduced by the ‘wow’, but forget about grasping the why.

While it’s easy to be short-sighted about future technology, there’s little yet to suggest how wearing immersive reality glasses to read an email, browse the web or scroll through a spreadsheet will be any less painful than it already is on a flat-screened display.

Indeed, once the novelty of the arm-waving gestures wears off, many tasked with frequent manipulation of a Photoshop image, for example, may simply rest their arms back on the desktop and revert to a trusted keyboard shortcut, mouse click or pen-tablet — all of which appear faster, more ergonomic, and more accurate. Some might call that lazy, others productive.

Microsoft HoloLens

HoloLens (Image: Microsoft)

Once collaborative working is layered on top of virtual and augmented reality technology, however, more solid use cases begin to appear. Rapidly iterating a prototype design alongside geographically dispersed teams provides a genuine benefit – a workflow already widely employed in some industries.

Outside of the office too, when navigating or performing unfamiliar tasks that may benefit from instant, heads-up contextual guidance, augmented reality technology has a tangible benefit.

Rose-Tinted Specs

Meta isn’t alone in the race here. The leading pack also features Microsoft HoloLens and the enigmatic-but-elusive Magic Leap – almost $1.5 billion of investment to date can’t be wrong, right? – both of which have also played out their visions of the future workplace.

Apple and Google are chasing too, but have chosen a different tack, engineering platforms to help developers explore from the comfort of their own smartphones and tablets. Apple’s ARKit received solid air-time at the firm’s WWDC developer’s conference this year, and will likely feature again in September’s iPhone reveal. Google announced its own augmented reality developer’s kit this week, ARCore. Even Facebook is in on the act, announcing its AR extensions during its 2017 F8 conference.

The fact remains that augmented reality in anything other than niche applications is still an uphill sell. Firms have long presented how  immersive technologies will revolutionise the way we work – but we’ve still to see a standout application that looks likely to endure beyond short-term novelty.

August 22, 2017  1:05 PM

Ok Google: What’s New in Android Oreo?

DavidMcClelland David McClelland Profile: DavidMcClelland
Android, Google, smartphone

Google announces Android Oreo with refined notifications, better battery life, updated emojis and ‘the biggest change to the foundations of Android to date’.

Google has opened the packet on version 8.0 of its Android operating system for mobile devices. Oreo succeeds Nougat and Marshmallow, and follows a long-line of candy-themed Android releases.

Timed to coincide with the passing solar eclipse in the US – and prior to the announcement of the next raft of Android smartphones from the likes of Samsung and Sony – Oreo brings dozens of enhancements to Google’s mobile experience, yet those expecting a cookie jar filled with colourful new features may be disappointed.

Nevertheless, under the covers is what Google calls ‘the biggest change to the foundations of Android to date’, promising more users will be able to enjoy Oreo sooner, safer and for longer.

What’s New in Oreo?

Headline features in Android Oreo include better battery life, improved usability, and measures to reduce so-called ‘notification diarrhoea’:

  • In-app autofill: already a common feature in web browsers, logins to popular apps can now be automatically populated too.
  • Notifications: Discrete dots appear on the corner of app icons to reveal the presence of a notification from that app. A long/force press on the icon reveals actionable notifications. Long overdue. Also new is notification snoozing and notification categories.
  • Picture-in-picture: continue watching a YouTube video while checking email, or check your calendar while on a video chat.
  • Background limits attempt to hobble battery hogs by imposing restrictions on infrequently used apps.
  • Emoji makeover: over 60 new emoji, with many more redesigned to look more like other platforms’ implementations. Bye bye, blobs.
  • 2 x boot speed: anything that improves time-to-productivity must be good, but given that most of us tend simply to lock our phones between uses rather than switch them off, the benefit here is minor.
  • Smart copy and paste attempts to bring a little more intelligence to the traditionally tricky activity, selecting entire addresses or phone number and suggesting appropriate activities for selected text such as calling, emailing or opening a map.

Oreo Rollout

Google Android Oreo

Image: Google

Google has submitted Android Oreo to mobile networks and manufacturers for certification and testing. At this point, it’s up to them when they choose to push Oreo out via an over the air (OTA) update. Many hope it will be soon, but history might suggest patience is required.

However, Google hopes its new modular architecture, also delivered in Oreo may speed this process. Project Treble, announced prior to the Google I/O developer conference this year, attempts to make rolling out Android easier, faster and less costly.

A new ‘vendor interface’ now sits between the device-specific vendor implementation code and the Android OS framework code, reducing the amount of code that needs to be reworked when a device is updated to a new version of Android.

It’s a great idea in theory, but time will tell how much of a real-world difference the change makes to the speed at which existing handsets get shiny new Android releases.

How to Download Android Oreo Straight Away

However, eager beavers hungry for some next-gen Android action can precipitate their Oreo feast by registering their handsets with the Android O Beta programme.

Visit the Beta portal, sign in with the Google account to which your compatible handset is registered, agree to the conditions and you’re good to go.

Google’s own pixel phone is one of a handful of devices that are ready to roll with Oreo right now.

The full list is:

  • Nexus 5X
  • Nexus 6P
  • Nexus Player
  • Pixel
  • Pixel XL

Within a couple of minutes of registering our Google Pixel XL, the System Updates menu revealed that the Oreo 8.0.0 release was ready to install.

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