Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Computers start to learn like us

It's always nice to see an article on A.I. in the local newspaper, The New Zealand Herald. So the article titled Autocorrect fails could be distant mammary as computers start to learn like us, by Sarah Knapton made for an interesting read. Here's a quote: "Most mobile phone users have suffered the indignity of an embarrassing autocorrect mistake, but smartphones may soon be smart enough to understand what we are trying to say." Scientists claim that for the first time, they have programmed a machine to learn in the same way as humans. I recommend the full article.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Should computer scientists have a conscience?

A recent article in The Atlantic titled The Moral Failure of Computer Scientists argues that computer scientists should take on the surveillance state rather than providing governments with the tools to strip away citizens privacy. Phillip Rogaway, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, puts forward his opinion in an interview with journalist Kaveh Waddell.
My colleague Mark Wilson brought this to my attention.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The iSANZ 2015 Best International Superstar award goes to...

Our very own Clarke ThomborsonThe iSANZ Awards are a showcase of excellence in New Zealand information security. Their mission is to formally recognise the achievements of outstanding New Zealand InfoSec professionals, companies and initiatives / events. The Best International Superstar award category is open to individuals who achieved significant results in the development or promotion of work that has had a high international profile. Clarke won the award for his contributions in trust, identity and privacy management which have helped significantly raise the profile of ICT within New Zealand.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

View declassified US satellite photos

We're all used to Google Earth and the phrase "large enough to be seen from space" has little meaning now when you can see my patio furniture on Google Earth. But, high quality satellite images have been generated since the 1960s. Many of these have been declassified and are available on the US Geological Survey's Earth Explorer website. These images are not restricted to the US - they're spy photos so the whole world is pretty much covered. The interface takes a bit of figuring out but there are a lot of resources available on the site. Many researchers, such as archeologists, are finding these images very useful, as is reported in this National Gepgraphic article.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Zuckerberg pledges $44.5 billion to charity

Facebook became more popular yesterday as its founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan pledged 99% of their shares in Facebook to charity to mark the birth of their first child. These shares are currently valued at around $45 billion. This will leave the Zuckerberg family with a mere half billion dollars to scrape by on. Actually I'm not being facetious, I commend Zuckerberg for his actions, nobody needs such a vast fortune and in the hands of well-run charities such huge sums of money can make a real difference. I hope more billionaires follow suit. When you use Facebook now you can know that you are helping make the world a better place.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Should your car be programmed to kill you?

Imagine this scenario; you are in your new driverless car and a situation arises (doesn't matter how) where the driver (the computer) has to decide between crashing into a group of young school children, probably killing several, or slamming the car into a wall and probably killing the passenger, i.e. you! Simple ethics would recommend taking a least harm approach, but that means maybe killing you. Would you buy a car programmed to kill you? Or would you prefer to buy one that would make the less ethical choice and always seek to protect the car's occupants. These ethical dilemmas are coming to the fore with the advent of autonomous systems. Several years ago the UK's Royal Academy of Engineers published a report on the ethics of emerging technologies and autonomous systems. More recently MIT Technology Review posted a piece titled Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed to KillMy colleague, Paul Ralph, also just gave a radio interview on this subject.

Monday, November 23, 2015

An experiment in digital citizenry

You may already conduct a lot of your life online, but few countries have totally embraced the concept of online citizenship. the small European country of Estonia has been conducting an interesting experiment making all their population "e-Residents". The Register has just published an interesting article on its reach and impact. This was brought to my attention by my colleague Mark Wilson.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Dr Gene Amdahl (November 16, 1922 – November 10, 2015)

Computer Pioneer, Mainframe Computer Architect & Entrepreneur

He is remembered for Amdahl’s law that basically states that the intrinsically serial part of any algorithm will limit the benefits from parallel processing. He was one of the architects of the IBM System/360 line of computers that dominated the mainframe industry and are still a force today. He was a champion of high-end uniprocessing.
Read his biography in the New York Times.
   I am grateful to Dr Amdahl for creating a company at which I was able to work as a computer architect for 6 years, 1976-82 and consult at for more. I did not have much to do with him directly – he was way above my level and he left to form a new company in 1979. But some anecdotes are in order.
   Dr Amdahl was revered by his Engineering Staff. He had a great knack of inventing rules of thumb to guide the designers. One was “one megabyte of I/O for every MIP of performance”. Another, I remember vaguely, was that “caches should be square” (as many lines as bits in a line.) These were not necessarily correct rules but it was better to make the decision and get down to design rather than dithering (even better, of course, to measure and model.) He also had sound advice on functional architecture for speed – when you see an instruction’s operation code, you should immediately know the operand address and where the next instruction is located.
   I noticed that Dr Amdahl was allowed to have opinions but he insisted that those with contrary opinions had to have facts. As the technology and markets changed, many of his assumptions had to be challenged. I was with the group that developed the high level characteristics of the 580. I remember us having to justify 2-way multiprocessing as being required because our main market was for capacity rather than solely for speed and one could no longer design uniprocessors that could compete. I remember once having to tell him that his favorite division algorithm as used in the 470V (involving finding the reciprocal using Newton’s formula and multiplication) was actually slower than the expected speed of straightforward non-restoring division. When our arguments were solid he just accepted them and moved-on.  He had to also accept microprogramming and memory chips for registers but I recall he embraced this and came up himself with a clever microcode scheme with two microstores, accessed simultaneously and each microinstruction including an address for the other memory – so each microinstruction could branch with no penalty.
   My closest encounter with Dr Amdahl was when he was trying to get the 580 design started. The 470V used 100-gate ECL chips with 80 I/O pins. Fujitsu was developing the next technology with 400 gates per chip but still with 80 I/O. The Amdahl Corp. engineers were adamant that they couldn’t design a faster computer and reduce the chip count because the I/O count was not adequate (this was because even with 100 gates they could not use them all in some cases and the famous “Rent’s Rule” requiring I/O to rise with chip density.)  Dr Amdahl was dis-satisfied and hatched a plan to jolt the engineers into creativity by engaging with the Architecture group over the design.
   So, Inder Singh (later to found the Ethernet switching company Excelan) and I found ourselves closeted with Dr Amdahl in his office. He presented us with copies of his handwritten logic for the 580 execution unit (a piece is below and I have put the whole thing on the web as it must be the last time when a major computer’s logic was specified in handwriting.) Our meeting was on a Friday and he left us with the task of coming up with a design by the following Monday!
   My wife and I were going to Carmel for that weekend but I decided that would make no difference to my chances of arriving at a design by Monday so we went anyway. The Monday meeting was delayed until Thursday (phew!) and by then Inder and I had come up with some evidence that the execution unit could be “bit sliced” with multiple levels of logic within the chip (this was not at all original as there were microprocessors taking the same approach.) Basically we said “yes sir, you are right, it can be done. He then took a team of engineers with him on a sales trip to Scandinavia where they had to stay in the hotels and work on the new design – as a result the 580 was code-named Oslo. I think that part of the problem was that Engineers preferred circuit diagrams to logic equations but Dr Amdahl was a logic whizz.
It is hard to gauge the impact of Dr Amdahl and his engineering team on the process of designing fast computers but, if it could be known, I am sure that it would be profound. The Amdahl approach of making the processor pipeline central to the design, demonstrating that pipeline interlocks could be controlled without loss of performance (itself derived form earlier IBM projects), and that fast computers could be microprogrammed,  gradually became known throughout the “valley” as design engineers moved on to new jobs.

Amdahl, the man and his company, were quite a phenomenon!
[Post written by Bob Doran]

Friday, November 13, 2015

Vote for 'Lovelace & Babbage' at LEGO Ideas

If you are a regular reader of this blog you'll know that I'm a big fan of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. Consequently I'd be certain to want a set of these Lovelace & Babbage Lego bricks should they ever be made. They would be a  fanciful and historical collection of bricks that pay homage to the Victorian roots of the computer age. The set would let you build a lego steam punk analytical engine within which you could embed a Raspberry Pi or similar mini-computer board. You can find out more on the Lego Ideas website.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

New Zealand's Great Walks added to Google Maps

If you've always wanted to walk one of New Zealand's classic walks now you can without even breaking a sweat. Google has added several classic NZ walks, such as the Milford Track, to Google street view within Google Maps. This was reported in the New Zealand Herald last week.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Is your English prefect?

Even those of us who write professionally for a living often make typos, such as letter transpositions (did you spot "prefect" in the title instead of "perfect", and sometimes our grammar is less than perfect. All of us can use a little help. I've always recommended that my students use spell and grammar checkers built into software like Microsoft Word. However, as we increasingly create documents in the cloud, in browser-based software, that option is not available - enter Grammarly. If you're a regular reader of this blog you know that I don't often promote products, but I'm impressed with this. Grammarly once installed as a browser extension sits in the background watching every word you type. It then underlines words that may be misspelled or easily confused with similar words, either by spelling or meaning. Hovering the cursor over the word brings up suggestions that you can accept or reject. Grammarly also has OS X and Windows apps and an MS Office plug-in (Win only). Highly recommended. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Why do big IT projects fail?

It probably doesn't matter which country you live in you'll be familiar with news stories of large government IT projects that have either failed completely to deliver or have gone seriously over budget and resulted in numerous bugs. Listen to this recent radio interview by University of Auckland Computer Science Lecturer, Paul Ralph; he says "when it comes to the public procurement of big software design projects - don't! He says the total cost of larger IT projects always cost more than everyone thinks, they're almost impossible to accurately forecast in advance, and innovation is constantly undermined by the tender process."

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How a Victorian mathematics don became a digital pioneer

"With a steely glare, a starched collar and a pair of truly prodigious sideburns, he is the digital pioneer you have almost certainly never heard of. Now, 200 years after his birth, George Boole is finally to get the acclaim he deserves." So begins a recent article in The Guardian. Well of course, if you're a computer scientist, you almost certainly have heard of George Boole; he after all was the creator of Boolean logic. However, that's probably all you know so there will be much about him that you're not aware of. As with Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and of course Alan Turing it's good to see these formerly obscure digital pioneers getting the public recognition they so deserve. Perhaps as our society becomes more and more dependent on computers we're starting to realise that these people are every bit as important as Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Faraday,...

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Home automation (update)

Last year I wrote about my first entry into the field of home automation and the Internet of Things. My first purchase was a combined motion sensor, video camera and Z-Wave hub that can control switches or lights remotely. The device, called Piper, also has sensors for temperature, light, and sound and contains a security siren. I then added some Belkin Wemo LED lights, that required a separate controller and then some OSRAM Lightify LED bulbs and light strips that required their own controller. Ok so now things were getting rather complex with three separate controllers controlling different things. This really reflects the state of the home automation market with many competing standards fighting for dominance; such as: Z-Wave, ZigBee, Hue, Wemo, and even Google and Apple now entering the fray.
   I then came across something called Smartthings that can talk to most of the different automation standards allowing a single controller to automate a wide variety of devices. Of particular interest to me also was that it supports open-source code allowing developers to make their own "SmartApps" for their own needs. which then they can share with the Smartthings community. For example, somebody might make a SmartApp to always ensure that the garage door is closed at sunset. Somebody else might make a SmartApp to turn on the irrigation system at Sunset for one hour, but only if it hasn't rained in the previous day. I now have a Smartthings hub controlling a variety of lights, a motion sensor, garage door opener, and video door bell. My favourite functionality is being told if the garage door is open if I've left home and being able to remotely close it. The Ring video doorbell that lets me see who's at the front door and talk to them, even when I'm not at home, is pretty cool as well.

Monday, October 12, 2015

What happens if your Government "unfriends" you?

Sounds crazy right? Perhaps not if you're Chinese. China is launching a system that gives a score to every citizen. This is partially similar to the credit scoring systems that Western nations have used for years, but it also includes a component that measures the political trustworthiness of citizens. If you are a political critic of the Government your score will go down. But, what's really sinister is that if your friends have low ratings, your rating will be reduced. This social network may encourage people to "unfriend" any friends that show dissent. We in the west are perhaps used to, and certainly aware of the fact, that our spy masters have access to our social media accounts. China is taking this a step further by building a social network into the state's functioning. Read this article from the American Civil Liberties Union for more on this story. Thanks to my colleague Mark Wilson for this story.

Friday, October 2, 2015

10 awesome internet hacks to make your life better

Well I'm not  sure that they are "awesome" but they are potentially useful, interesting or just fun. The Guardian recently published "10 awesome internet hacks to make your life better" that range from: how to log out of Facebook remotely if you left it running on a friend's or relative's computer, how to bring up an emoji keyboard on your Mac or PC, and how to watch YouTube in slow motion. One hack they don't mention though is this one; if you use Chrome type "do a barrel roll" into the search bar". Go on give it a try.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Calculating Ada: The Countess of Computing

With Ada Lovelace Day fast approaching (Oct 13) the BBC has released a timely documentary all about her called "Calculating Ada: The Countess of Computing". This is the first documentary I've seen dedicated to Ada Lovelace and I learnt a lot. For instance I didn't know that she lost a fortune gambling on horse racing. She believed she could calculate the odds better than the bookmakers - she was wrong. The doco is available on YouTube, though I expect it will be taken down soon; otherwise it can be viewed on the BBc iPlayer.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Build your own satellite

Honestly! It seems as if increasingly there is no activity that dedicated amateurs aren't willing to have a go at. Formerly, building satellites was done by NASA and specialists like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory but thanks to greatly simplified design, called CubeSat, radio amateurs our building and launching their own communications satellites into low Earth orbit. They even have their own governing organisation called AMSAT. So if you have a project that needs its own communications satellite why not build your own.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Amazon at 20: what has the online giant ever done for retail?

You may not have noticed but Amazon recently celebrated it's 20th birthday. You may or not be a regular user (I certainly am). It was originally billed a the “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore” featuring over one million titles. Twenty years later it has over 270m active accounts and claims to have more than 2m third-party vendors selling millions of products through its marketplace platform. Amazon is comfortable with the term "disruptive." It's disrupted the bookshop and publishing industries and is disrupting other retail industries. The Guardian recently published an interesting article about the impact Amazon has had - recommended.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The George operating system

I came across this intriguing news story the other day about a group of school students from St Thomas of Canterbury College in Christchurch NZ who have made an operating system, called George, that uses games and tests to teach basic literacy and numeracy. The educational OS is designed to run on old (semi-obsolete) computers.  Unfortunately, apart from this news story I can find no other information about this at all. It seems they have neglected to make a web page to describe their innovation. It gets more confusing because (news to me) it turns out there used to be an OS called George that ran on International Computers and Tabulators (ICT) mainframe computers in the 1960s. So if anyone reading this has any more information on the (new) George OS please contact me.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Sprout an all-in-one computer and 3D scanner

This product caught my eye the other day - sprout, by HP, is billed as "a revolutionary all-in-one computer and 3D scanner that makes it easy to go from thought to expression in an instant." Basically sprout combines a digital scanner seamlessly with a home PC enabling 3D models of objects to be easily captured. These can then be manipulated as necessary and printed with a 3D printer. The obvious idea behind this product is to make the 3D model capture process family friendly. Good on HP for trying this and it will be interesting to see if sprout is a success. I can see schools liking it and the odd hobbyist but beyond that I'm not so sure. Their product page implies that professional designers might use sprout in their design studios, but I'm sure they would use more professional products. It reminds me of the HP TouchSmart PC that I was asked to review a few years ago. This was intended to be a digital hub for a family, probably sitting in the kitchen - HP's promotional photograph showed a nuclear family having a meal with the TouchSmart sitting on a kitchen bench. However, I've never seen one of these subsequent to my review and can only conclude that TouchSmart didn't catch on and family members now use their personal digital devices (smart phones and tablets) instead. With regard to the sprout I can see hobbyists preferring to use separate, more flexible and powerful digital scanners. So this just leaves schools as sprout's potential market. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Internet Is Failing The Website Preservation Test

I blogged a few months back about the increasing problem of dead links (known as link rot) on research web sites. Not surprisingly this problem is not isolated to academic websites. An article by Rob Miller in TechChrunch, called "The Internet Is Failing The Website Preservation Test," makes the case for a a digital Library of Congress to preserve and protect all of the content on the internet to counter this growing problem. Preserving the integrity of the web for posterity cannot he (and others) argue be left to content publishers or non-profits like the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine or the British Library's UK Web Archive. The web is such a vital information source to us all know it must be preserved for future historians.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Will a robot take your job?

With robotic technology advancing at a pace there is the obvious prospect that robots will start to perform a wider range of services and tasks and not be limited to factory manufacturing as they are at the moment. A recent article in Wired called "Robots Will Steal Our Jobs, But They Will Give Us New Ones" makes the argument that although many current jobs will be taken by robots new opportunities will arise - the most obvious of which is servicing and maintaining all the robots. Incidentally the photo here is of a robot that can cook a hamburger and the Japanese have robots that can prepare Ramen noodles.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Remembering to forget...

With the cost of data storage being so cheap the Internet has the potential to remember everything that is ever posted online, for ever! Whilst historians might relish the idea of a future where the personal details of everyone are searchable centuries back most people like the idea of being able to be forgotten. The European Union is leading the way with legislation that provides a "right to be forgotten" — strictly speaking, a right to have certain kinds of information removed from search engine results. However, in a Kafkaesque twist, my colleague Mark Wilson brought to my attention, the fact that Google in the EU has been ordered to remove links to stories about Google removing links to stories. You can read more about this in this arstechnica story.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Inside Facebook’s Quest for Software That Understands You

My colleague, Mark Wilson, brought this excellent article on Deep Learning in the MIT Technology Review to my attention recently, Titled Teaching Machines to Understand Us it gives a very good and detailed overview of the history, current developments and challenges of Deep Learning. I work in AI but I didn't know Facebook, for example, had such an interest in this. Recommended.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Robotic musicians in New Zealand

Radio New Zealand National recently broadcast an interview with Prof. Dale Carnegie the head of Victoria University's School of Engineering and Computer Science. Amongst other research his group have been collaborating with the School of Music to design and build robotic musicians that play specially designed instruments. The really interesting thing is that these "musicians"  are not limited by human physiology; they can play faster than a person, they can play chords a human hand couldn't physically span and of course they can play longer. You can see a video of a robotic bass performing a cover of Hysteria by Muse. I have some friends who are bass players who will love/hate this!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Apple is building a car

The Guardian revealed last week that Apple is looking for a secure vehicle test track facility near SiliconValley. Therefore confirming the rumours that Apple is working on building a self-driving car. However, an article in The Verge warns Apple fans not to hold their breath. The development cycle time from concept to production, for established car manufacturers, is in excess of 5 years. Apple has no experience in this market and consequently may be expected to take longer. Of course this may be like Apple Maps where Apple belatedly realised they strategically couldn't gift location support to Google and their established mapping product. Google, of course, has been developing driverless cars for ages. Apple has perhaps realised it can't leave this market segment to Google or risk just partnering with one car manufacturer.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is a steam punk webcomic, and now a book, by Sydney Padua. It tells the story of our heroes Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage who actually do "build the Difference Engine and use it to create runaway economic models, battle the scourge of spelling errors, explore the wider realms of mathematics and, of course, fight crime." Ok it's clearly taking liberties with the historical facts (if you want that story read chapter 2 of my book The Universal Machine), but it's great to see such interesting characters in the early history of computing entering the realm of popular culture  - perhaps Alan Turing next codebreaker and crime fighter!
[Forgot to mention there's also a free iPad app]

Friday, August 7, 2015

Microscopic art

Sometimes it's good to blog off topic. I was watching a doco last night when it introduced the remarkable topic of art made out of microscopic plankton. That's right, the image you can see to the right is made out of really tiny microscopic plankton, called diatoms, each carefully placed to make the pattern you see.  British artist Klaus Kemp laboriously creates these patterns by picking and placing the diatoms using threads of glass under a microscope. However, surprisingly it turns out this was a popular Victorian pass time. You can see how it's done in the video below - I doubt I'd have the patience.

The Diatomist from Matthew Killip on Vimeo.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Beam me up

We all are familiar with the teleportation transporters used in Sci-Fi shows like Star Trek. In fact we're so familiar with the technology that we can almost be forgiven for believing that one day this will exist. Researchers at the University of Maryland are working on teleportation, but there's a twist; they don't beam atoms across space, but the information held by atoms. Read  or listen to: "Beam Me Up? Teleporting Is Real, Even If Trekkie Transport Isn't" to find out more.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Web We Have to Save

Have you noticed that the web seems to have changed in the last few years?  Do you feel that it's become more of a broadcast medium where you consume (often by passively watching) pre-prepared content, than a place where you used to go exploring for content. Canadian/Iranian author and blogger, Hossein Derakhshan, who was imprisoned in Iran for 6 years and recently released, has written a thought provoking article called "The Web We Have to Save". His incarceration enabled him to view todays web with fresh eyes since he was denied Internet access for 6 years. He believes that the web has become much more passive and that, for example, your Facebook news feed encourages you to merely "like" things, whereas previously by blogging and actively creating links to other webpages you could explain the relationships between ideas and their significance to you.
Hossein recognises that the web content you view is increasingly being curated for you, often by algorithms, which he and others call "the Stream". He says "the Stream, mobile applications, and moving images: They all show a departure from a books-internet toward a television-internet. We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication — nodes and networks and links — toward a linear one, with centralization and hierarchies. The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking." 
As someone who has been using the web since the mid 1990s I can see where Hossein is coming from. But I also recognise that for many people who are not writers, journalists, academics, or are politically active, the web has become just a means by which they watch TV and movies, listen to music, read the equivalent of a never ending personalised magazine, and exchange photos with their friends. It is perhaps the web's great strenght that it can operate in both these modes.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Get Smart exhibition at MOTAT

MOTAT in Auckland has a new exhibition called Get Smart - NZ Wired in the Digital World. The museum says "Get Smart will take visitors on an immersive journey of discovery and nostalgia as they explore the origins of the smart devices that surround us today. Learn about how networks and computing have come together to provide instant connectivity and take a closer look at the Kiwi innovators and entrepreneurs who have contributed to this thrilling digital age. Get Smart investigates the growth of computing, gaming and communications to illustrate how the powerful machines now carried in pockets and purses have become faster, cheaper, and smarter." If you've never visited MOTAT perhaps now you should and if you've not been for years it's obviously time to return. MOTAT is located at Western Springs, a short bus ride from downtown Auckland.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Chapter 13 of my book, The Universal Machine, opens with a description of a person starting their day and being helped along by their intelligent personal digital assistant. Not a physical robot, but an AI embedded in their digital world. This assistant, like a good butler, anticipates a persons every need and smooths their interaction with the world enabling them to achieve more and relax more. A recent article in Time predicts that this fight for personal AIs will be the next big tech war between Apple and Google. We already see it starting with Siri, Google Now, Amazon's Echo and other products. Personally I can't wait.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Japanese accept the US challenge

Recently I blogged about a challenge from a US mega robot manufacturer to participate in a duel with a Japanese robot company. Well the Japanese have accepted the challenge and it looks like the rumble is on! Watch this space.

Monday, July 13, 2015

BBC Micro Bit and history repeats

In 1981 the BBC released the BBC Micro computer. Yes that's right, the British TV and radio company released a micro computer to the pubic as part of its BBC Computer Literacy Project intended to encourage a whole generation to learn to program. I was one who did their first programming on a BBC Micro and I have fond memories of the machine. The BBC didn't just partner with the Acorn Computer Company to design and produce the BBC Micro, they also ran a series of TV shows to introduce the public to the computer and its potential. This is credited with kick-starting the British gaming industry for one. Over thirty years later the BBC is repeating history with the BBC Micro Bit, a pocket-sized computer set to be given to about one million UK-based children in October. Designed by an organisation called Technology Will Save Us the Micro Bit is intended to introduce another generation of Brits to computing. I think this is a great idea.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

MegaBots - giant fighting robots

MegaBots Inc. is planning to create giant robots that will fight each other in arena duels. They've recently laid down a challenge to a Japanese robotics company for a duel in a years time. They've also partnered with the CAD company AutoDesk to run a robot design challenge with a  top prize of $2,500. Details of the competition are here.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Live Coding

Have you ever wondered what computer programmers actually do? Well now you can watch people code in an activity called "live coding." Wikipedia states that live coding "is a programming practice centred upon the use of improvised interactive programming. Live coding is often used to create sound and image based digital media, and is particularly prevalent in computer music, combining algorithmic composition with improvisation.[3] Typically, the process of writing is made visible by projecting the computer screen in the audience space, with ways of visualising the code an area of active research.[4] There are also approaches to human live coding in improvised dance.[5] Live coding techniques are also employed outside of performance, such as in producing sound for film[6] or audio/visual work for interactive art installations." There is also now a live coding video streaming website ( where you can watch people code online.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Do androids dream of electric sheep?

"Do androids dream of electric sheep?" is the title of a Sci-Fi book by Philip K. Dick upon which the cult movie Blade Runner is based. Well, Google recently investigated this question by setting up feedback loop in its image recognition neural network - which looks for patterns in pictures - thereby creating hallucinatory images of animals, buildings and landscapes. Watch the video below to see what an AI dreams of.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Happy New Year

Confused? Well today is Matariki, the Māori New Year. Matariki is the Māori name for the constellation of stars that other cultures call the Pleiades or the Seven Sister. Today the constellation first rises above the horizon just before dawn. Of course it's also reasonably close to the winter solstice (in the Souther hemisphere) and so makes a natural way of marking the end of one year and the start of a new year. There are lots of information, resources online and events to celebrate the occasion. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Untold Story of Women Who Code

Computer programming is typically seen as being an activity that is done by young men of a certain type. Most TV shows (e.g., Silicon Valley) and movies conform to this stereotype. However, it's far from the truth; Lady Ada Lovelace is often referred to as the "first computer programmer" and Grace Hopper famously wrote the first compiler and coined the term "computer bug." A YouTube video, shared with my by my colleague Mark Wilson, featuring Megan Smith, the former Google executive recently appointed by President Obama as the Chief Technology Officer of the United States, further debunks this myth.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Computer junk worth thousands!

This is a great story reported in the LA Times; a woman whose husband had recently died decided to clean out their garage. She found several boxes of computer junk, old circuit boards, keyboards, you know the sort of stuff. Doing the right thing she took it all to a local e-waste recycling centre in Silicon Valley. Some time later when the recyclers were sorting through the boxes though found an Apple I computer. They auctioned this very rare machine for $200,000 and are now trying to locate the woman to give her half the money. So if you have a father, grandfather or uncle with what looks like computer junk perhaps you should have a careful sort through it, you never know what you may find.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Software Engineering vs Computer Science

At The University of Auckland, you can get a Bachelor of Science (BSc), with a major in Computer Science (COMPSCI), and a Bachelor of Engineering (BE), with a specialisation in Software Engineering (SOFTENG). Naturally a common question we get is, what's the difference?

There are many opinions and explanations as to what is the difference between Computer Science and Software Engineering, including "there is no difference" and "one is a subset of the other". My answer has been developed over years of being asked this question at University Open days, Career symposiums, Industry events, and such like.

My answer has two parts — one philosophical and the other practical. The philosophical part is that the difference is one of theory versus practice. The goal of Computer Science research is to to develop a theory of "computation", to understand what computation means, what its limits are, and how it might be applied. Software Engineering is about building effective software systems efficiently.

Clearly there are close connections between the two. Software is the embodiment of computation. It is how most people experience computation, even if they don't think of it that way (any more than they would think of turning on an electric light as physics). While some aspects of computation do not require any software, or even a physical computer (e.g. a Turing machine), much of our understanding of computation is demonstrated through developing software.

But there are aspects of Computer Science that are at best a curiosity to those building software systems (Turing machines again) and there are topics that are clearly important to software engineering that have little to do with any theory of computation (requirements elicitation, for example).

The practical part of my answer is that the B.Sc (COMPSCI) is a 3-year general degree whereas the BE (SOFTENG) is a 4-year professional degree. The B.Sc. has relatively few restrictions as to what courses students must take (mostly science, and mostly in the Major), whereas the BE is very prescribed, with only a little opportunity for choice. Both the BSc and the BE meet the requirements of a university degree, as dictated by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC), but in addition the BE is an internationally accredited engineering qualification.

So, if you want a professional qualification, you probably should consider the BE. If you would prefer a reasonable amount of flexibility and choice, the B.Sc would probably be the better option. If you are interested in different aspects of computation, then major in Computer Science. If you really want to be able to build significant software systems, then specialise in Software Engineering.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Does Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 predict the future?

A recent article in the Guardian by Keith Stuart titled "Does Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 predict the terrifying future of warfare?" is well worth a read. It doesn't matter if you're not a player of combat games, because this isn't about games but about how the future of warfare is looksingincreasingly like scenes from The Terminator. The article even points to a Japanese company called Cyberdyne, that has created a "Robot Suit HAL® for the benefits of humankind in the field of medicine, caregiving, welfare, labor, heavy works, entertainment and so on." However, the military are developing similar systems to support troops. You've been warned!

Monday, May 25, 2015

A "beautiful mind" has died

News is breaking that the Nobel prize winning mathematician John Nash and his wife were both killed in a taxi crash in New Jersey, USA. John Nash is famous for his "Nash Equilibrium" in Game Theory, which can be most easily be described by the game of paper, rock, scissors. If a player randomly plays each of the three options 1/3rd of the time they can guarantee they will never be beaten over a large enough number of games. As soon as a player deviates from the Nash Equilibrium, perhaps by slightly preferring to play scissors, then they can be exploited by an opponent preferring rock. Of course as soon as the opponent tries to play the exploit they themselves become exploitable. John Nash's life was famously documented in the movie "A Beautiful Mind," a clip of which is shown below.  

Friday, May 22, 2015

Take a better selfie with Lily

Selfie sticks were the must have Xmas gift last year and now a team out of the UC Berkeley robotics lab, who built the first prototype using a Raspberry Pi and an Arduino, have developed the Lily camera drone. Watch the video below to see how it works but basically it flies itself and can take video or stills of its owner. It's on my Christmas list.

Monday, May 18, 2015

From Interaction to Understanding

This Thursday evening's Gibbons Lecture is by Mark Billinghurst of the Human Interface Laboratory New Zealand, at The University of Canterbury. The lecture titled From Interaction to Understanding  will focus on Empathic computing where computers can recognise and understand emotions. The lecture is this Thursday the 21st at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm start. Click the lecture link for full venue details and if you can't attend the lecture will be streamed live and after the event.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Do you want a computer for $9

Can't afford a Raspbery Pi ($35), well they have a competitor now. The ultra cheap CHIP; a 1GHz processor, 512MB RAM, with 4GB storage, WiFi, Bluetooth, support for most monitors and even a mobile capacity. It runs Linux and therefore supports many free productivity apps. As you can see from the picture it's very small and so can be easily embedded in pieces of equipment. CHIP is a Kick Starter project and be honest for just $9 (US) can you not afford to own one.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Innovation in Airline Human Computer Interaction

This Thursday evening's Gibbons Lecture is by Paul McGlashan, Chief Architect, for Air New Zealand. The lecture titled Innovation in Airline Human-Computer Interaction: from ALC to IoT  will describe how Air New Zealand has taken control of its IT in-house and has been correspondingly more innovative than its competitors. The lecture is this Thursday the 14th at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm start. Click the lecture link for full venue details and if you can't attend the lecture will be streamed live and after the event.

Friday, May 8, 2015

404 Not Found

As we come to rely more on the web as a research and reference tool it's important that references to other works from a web page remain constant. But visit any old research web site and chances are half the pages it refers to will result in a "404 Not Found". An article in Nature called The trouble with reference rot highlights the issues involved. Recommended. This article was brought to my attention by my colleague Mark Wilson.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Beyond Touch: using everyday tools as input devices

This Thursday's Gibbons lecture titled Beyond Touch: using everyday tools as input devices is by Dr Beryl Plimmer of the Department of Computer Science at The University of Auckland. The lecture is this Thursday the 7th at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm start. Click the lecture link for full venue details and if you can't attend the lecture will be streamed live and after the event.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Apple's Knowledge Navigator

At last week's Gibbons Lecture Mark Apperley gave a fascinating history of human computer interaction and made a few predictions. As part of the talk he mentioned Apple's Knowledge Navigator a device which predicted the iPad and Siri decades before its release. This blog featured an item on the Knowledge Navigator back in 2012 when Siri was released. It's such a fascinating thing I recommend you visit that post and watch Apple's video.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

From the Mouse to the Smartphone and Beyond

It's that time of the year again, as the nights draw in the free public Gibbons Lectures in Auckland take place. The first lecture is this Thursday the 30th at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm start. Every year the lecture series has a theme and this year it's human computer interaction. The first lecture is by Professor Mark Apperley and titled From the Mouse to the Smartphone and Beyond: tracing the development of human-computer interaction. Click the lecture link for full venue details and if you can't attend the lecture will be streamed live and after the event.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

TV interview on Artificial Intelligence

I was interviewed last night on Media Take for Maori Television. The interview was about the recent predictions by people like Steve Wozniak and Stephen Hawking that artificial intelligence might develop to the point where humans become redundant and robots rule the world. The show will be broadcast (in New Zealand) again on Sunday at 2:00pm but it can be viewed online at

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Should "killer robots" be banned?

Lethal autonomous weapons systems, or "killer robots" as the public prefer to call them, are almost a reality. In fact in certain cases, such as Israel's Iron Dome rocket defence system, they already exist. Should the ability of a robot to identify a target and execute an attack without human intervention be outlawed? Many people believe it should, arguing that a robot can never act morally, whilst others argue that in certain circumstances robots may be less dangerous than frightened, stressed and fatigued soldiers. A week long meeting at the UN in Geneva is currently considering the issue. The UK government has already declared that it opposes an international ban on developing "killer robots" as described in this article in the Guardian. An international coalition of NGO's called the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is lobbying to have a ban established before the technology is upon us. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Alan Turing's manuscript sells for $1,025,000

The auction house Bonhams in New York have just sold a handwritten scientific document written by Alan Turing, in which he worked on the foundations of mathematical notation and computer science, for $1,025,000. Before the auction Bonhams described the document as "Made up of 56 pages contained in a simple notebook bought from a stationers in Cambridge, UK, it is almost certainly the only extensive autograph manuscript by Turing in existence, and has never been seen in public. From internal evidence, it dates from 1942 when he was working at Bletchley Park to break the German Enigma Code, and provides remarkable insight into the thought process of a genius."

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

My computer was stolen!

Last week at 3am thieves broke into my house and stole my MacBook Pro and my wife's MacBook Air. After we called the police we immediately logged into iCloud's "Find My iPhone" service and locked and erased both Mac's. Both of the machines were password protected from the lock screen and their hard drives were encrypted with FireVault. Consequently we were reasonably confident that the combination of lock screen password, encryption and iCloud erasure would keep our data secure.
   When my wife got her replacement MacBook Air (within two days from her employer, I'm still waiting on mine) I installed SugarSync (our preferred cloud storage and back-up service) and voila! Within an hour her documents folder and desktop were populated with all her original files. No work was lost. In the last week we've noticed no unusual activity an any of our accounts and we're confident our data and identities are secure. What could have been a disaster, thanks to taking reasonable precautions and ensuring our machines were backed up in the cloud, has merely been a minor inconvenience. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Backyard cricket - the official rules

Despite the Black Caps loss to Australia yesterday many people in New Zealand have been drawn into the game over the last 6 weeks. So now you may feel inclined to have a knock in your own backyard or beach. So here are the official rules for backyard cricket as stated by Wikipedia. Basically there aren't any, for example: "The wicket may be any convenient object – a chair, a cardboard box, a set of long twigs or sticks, a rubbish bin, tree or a drawing on the wall."

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The GNU manifesto turns thirty

Maria Bustillos, writing in the The New Yorker, has marked the 30th anniversary of Richard Stallman's GNU Manifesto with a very interesting article called The GNU manifesto turns thirty. If you are interested in the open  source movement this article is recommended.
[My colleague Mark Wilson brought this to my attention]

Friday, March 20, 2015

Stuxnet - the first digital weapon

Radio New Zealand National had a great interview with Kim Zetter who has written a book about Stuxnet, the world's first digital weapon. You can listen to the interview here or read about Stuxnet in chapter 12 of my book The Universal Machine. It's certainly true that quietly over the last few years we have crossed into a new age where cyberwar is now a reality.