Tag Archives: geek stuff

Artificial intelligence naturally ignores bicycles


As someone who regularly spends several hours a week on a bicycle, wondering if the diesel rumble of a truck coming up behind me is the last sound I’ll ever hear, I was sorely disappointed to read that help, in the form of robotic vehicles, might be a long time coming.

A story by Peter Fairley on the IEEE Spectrum blog looks at the successes that self-driving car companies have had in developing software and sensors that can recognise other cars and predict their movements, and contrasts it with the failure to do the same with bicycles…

Nuno Vasconcelos, a visual computing expert at the University of California, San Diego, says bikes pose a complex detection problem because they are relatively small, fast and heterogenous. “A car is basically a big block of stuff. A bicycle has much less mass and also there can be more variation in appearance — there are more shapes and colors and people hang stuff on them”.

The autonomous vehicle technology is already starting to appear in automated emergency braking (AEB) systems, which is great for avoiding collisions with other cars, but not so helpful for cyclists

AEB systems still suffer from a severe limitation that points to the next grand challenge that [autonomous vehicle] developers are struggling with: predicting where moving objects will go. Squeezing more value from cyclist-AEB systems will be an especially tall order, says Olaf Op den Camp, a senior consultant at the Dutch Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO). Op den Camp, who led the design of Europe’s cyclist-AEB benchmarking test, says that it’s because cyclists movements are especially hard to predict.

[Computer scientist Jana ]Kosecka agrees: “Bicycles are much less predictable than cars because it’s easier for them to make sudden turns or jump out of nowhere.”

It’s not completely out of our hands, though. As artificial intelligence systems slowly learn to cope with bicycles, cyclists can try to see the road as a self-driving car might see it and do their best to ride predictably. At least it’s more comforting than just hoping the guy who’s about to pass you is looking at the road and not at his smart phone.

Google floats an operating system for geeks who can’t dance without a beat


If you’re reading this, it’s courtesy of one of two operating systems that were born in the Rhythmless Void between the break up of the Beatles and the Great Disco Awakening: UNIX or CP/M. (Unless you are truly an uber geek and still rocking your Commodore 64 or pre-OS X Apple or something even more esoteric – I genuflect in abject admiration. Or unless you’re a masochist and you’re reading this on a Blackberry: I salute your embrace of pain and humiliation).

Microsoft Windows is a direct descendent of CP/M, although little of the original DNA is left. Pretty much everything else is within two or three degrees of consanguinity with UNIX. Mac OS, iOS, Android, Tizen and Linux all exchanged presents in their pyjamas on Christmas morning.

It’s been a long, long time (sorry, I’ll always have Linda Ronstadt on the brain – it’s a Seventies thing) since anyone wrote a new OS kernel with staying power. But Google is giving it a try. Google posted Fuchsia OS as an open source project on GitHub this past summer, and it is still under active development. It’s an operating system that’s been built from scratch, without obvious reference to the Glitter Rock era. According to a post on Linux.com by Sam Dean

Could Google be completely reinventing the core functionality of what we consider to be an operating system? There are certainly historical precedents for that. When Google launched a beta release of Gmail in 2004, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, AOL Mail and other services had absolutely dominant positions in the online email space. Look what happened. Google reimagined online email. Likewise, Chrome OS reimagined the operating system with unprecedented security features and cloud-centricity.

It’s worth watching, even if it’s not strictly necessary. I’ll happily live out my years with just a stack of Linda’s 8-tracks beside me.

Will you?

Gratitude, and warm holiday wishes to all


Take it for what it’s worth, but I am truly thankful.

Merry Christmas and a happy Hanukah to all. I don’t think today is Kwanza or Festivus or the winter solstice or whatever holiday I might be forgetting, but if that’s what rows your boat, then by all means have a joyous one of those too.

I want to thank everybody who has read this blog over the past eight years. It’s you, Gentle Reader, who makes this enterprise worthwhile and enjoyable, and I very much appreciate it.

This month marks four years of daily posting, and I’m planning to keep at it for a while longer. Readership – unique visitors, not just page views – has slowly but steadily grown to the thousands per month range, and it’s approaching that level on a weekly basis. With the added distribution and interaction on social media, Twitter and LinkedIn particularly, it’s become a wide ranging and, gratifyingly, sometimes heated conversation. I thank you all for that too.

Another major milestone this year came when a handful of my posts about AB 2395 – AT&T’s attempt to kill wireline service – went viral, thanks to CWA, TURN and, ironically, AT&T’s paid trolls. March and April saw readership approach the five figure range, with page views comfortably reaching it. A single day in March saw more than 7,500 page views and nearly as many unique visitors.

Looking ahead to 2017, I’m not planning any major changes. Minor redesign work is on the agenda – if you have any suggestions for improving readability or utility, I’d be grateful to hear them. Some server-side improvements are needed, with a searchable database at the top of the wish list. My goal is to make the mountain of telecoms policy documents I’ve accumulated more accessible and useful – again, if you have any thoughts about what you’d like to see or how it might be done, I would love to hear about it.

So Gentle Reader, whatever holiday, or lack thereof, you’re celebrating today, please accept my thanks for all you’ve done in 2016 and my best wishes for a wonder 2017!

Arizona scores a victory as DMV vanquishes Uber


So what if Acme got a permit?

Angry taxi drivers couldn’t do it. Stroppy city councils couldn’t do it. But California’s department of motor vehicles did it. The DMV has, um, driven Uber out of California, and into the arms of Arizona. The fight over Uber’s (sorta) self-driving car test in San Francisco ended with the offending vehicles being loaded onto a truck and hauled across the Colorado River. According to a story on SFGate.com, Arizona is happy to see them…

“Our cars departed for Arizona this morning by truck,” an Uber spokeswoman said Thursday afternoon in a statement. “We’ll be expanding our self-driving pilot there in the next few weeks, and we’re excited to have the support of Governor Ducey”…

In a statement Thursday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey called California’s regulations burdensome and said Arizona welcomes Uber’s self-driving car test with “open arms.”

“While California puts the brakes on innovation and change with more bureaucracy and more regulation, Arizona is paving the way for new technology and new businesses,” he said.

In contrast to the DMV, which issued a scolding press release claiming 20 companies had bowed to its authority and decreed “Uber shall do the same”, Arizona’s department of transportation said no worries, mate

Part of what makes Arizona an ideal place for Uber and other companies to test autonomous vehicle technology is that there are no special permits or licensing required. In Arizona, autonomous vehicles have the same registration requirements as any other vehicle, and nothing in state law prevents testing autonomous vehicles.

California not only requires a special permit for autonomous vehicle operation, it also demands that companies turn over test data, by default making it public. That was one, maybe the main, reason Uber pushed back. Companies, like Google, that have a working relationship with the open source world, can factor that kind of disclosure into their business plans. Up to a point, anyway. But proprietary, pre-IPO unicorns like Uber will not do their R&D in the glare of publicity – except when that publicity serves a purpose.

Instead, they’ll make a run for the border.

Uber’s DMV showdown is a make or break for self-driving cars in California


Uber and the California department of motor vehicles appear headed to court in a dispute that could add some needed clarity to the state’s position regarding regulation of self-driving cars. On Friday, the head of Uber self-driving car team, Anthony Levandowski, said that they didn’t need the DMV’s permission to run their vehicle on San Francisco streets because it wasn’t really autonomous

From a technology perspective, self-driving Ubers operate in the same way as vehicles equipped with advanced driver assist technologies, for example Tesla auto-pilot and other OEM’s traffic jam assist. This type of technology is commonplace on thousands of cars driving in the Bay Area today, without any DMV permit at all. That is because California law expressly excludes from its law vehicles that have “collision avoidance” or “other similar systems that enhance safety or provide driver assistance” and, like our self-driving cars, are “not capable, collectively or singularly, of driving the vehicle without the active control or monitoring of a human operator.”

That brought a sharp reply from the California attorney general’s office

We, as attorneys for the Department of Motor Vehicles, by this letter, are asking Uber to adhere to California law and immediately remove its “self-driving” vehicles from the state’s roadways until Uber complies with all applicable statutes and regulations. If Uber cannot advise the undersigned that it will immediately remove its self-driving vehicles from California public roadways until it obtains the appropriate permit, as 20 other companies have done, the Attorney General will seek injunctive and other appropriate relief.

More than any other state, California has jumped into the legal and regulatory void that initially surrounded self-driving cars, even rubbing up against federal regulators who want to carve out their own, exclusive authority. In many ways, that’s been good – at the least, California’s nascent rules create a safe harbor of sorts for companies that are developing the technology.

But that early advantage can quickly turn into a disincentive, as other states follow behind and adopt a more entrepreneurial approach to self-driving cars and other advanced transportation technologies. Uber’s rapid rise to the top of the ride sharing market was the result of a willingness – almost a compulsion at times – to challenge laws and regulations that served the interests of taxi companies. Uber has been largely successful in that regard, to the great benefit of the public.

At the least, by challenging the DMV, Uber could force the state to draw a sharper line around what it does and doesn’t regulate. Where that line falls is important – a tight circle would encourage autonomous car and other advanced technology development here, expansive limits could drive innovators to Texas. Either way, at least we’ll know.

Mobile OS security gains strength as a selling proposition


They mind their own business.

A reason for Sailfish’s existence, and perhaps even for the $12 million investment it received earlier this year is becoming clearer. It’s an alternative mobile operating system – a competitor to Android and iOS – that arose from the ashes of Nokia’s MeeGo operating system, which was scrapped when Microsoft bought the company.

But it didn’t buy everything and the Finnish engineers who stayed behind started a new company, Jolla, and kept working on it. And now they’ve found a big customer in the Russian government. According to a press release from Jolla

Sami Pienimaki, CEO of Jolla Ltd. comments: “Sailfish OS development in Russia is an important part of Jolla’s wider agenda, aiming to power various countries’ mobile ecosystems. Our solution is based on open source code and contribution models with partners, which makes it possible to ramp up local systems effectively in 6 months. We have now done this in Russia with a local partner and using this experience we are looking forward to ramping up similar projects in other countries.”

In Russia, Sailfish OS is the only mobile operating system, which has been officially accepted to be used in governmental and government controlled corporations’ upcoming mobile device projects.

Customers in China and South Africa – two other countries that don’t put complete trust in the developed world’s good intentions – are also reported to be giving Sailfish a close look.

Sailfish’s selling proposition is security, and it makes good on that promise in a couple different ways. First, it’s open source, which means anyone who installs it can inspect the code for bugs and gain a level of confidence that there are no backdoors or otherwise compromised encryption systems, as with the Blackberry OS or as the U.S. government seeks for iOS and Android.

Second, Finland has strong privacy laws. It’s why Turing Robotics, a tiny mobile phone maker that also aims for the security minded side of the market, moved its mobile phone operations there from California.

California rules might make self-driving cars drive for the border


Companies that are developing self-driving cars apparently aren’t happy with proposed new rules floated by California’s department of motor vehicles. There was a public meeting in Sacramento earlier this week to discuss the DMV’s latest plan for opening up California’s road to autonomous vehicles, both for research and development purposes and for actual operation.

The draft would require companies to compile testing data for a year, before applying for permission to run a car without a driver – and without a steering wheel and all the other controls humans need. As reported by Reuters, an industry group characterised that as a needless barrier

The state’s approach “could greatly delay the benefits that self-driving vehicles can bring to safety and mobility for individuals,” said David Strickland, who heads the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets that includes Google, Ford, Lyft, Uber Technologies Inc. and Volvo Car Group.

Another, more problematic rule would short circuit any legal protections manufacturers – or eventual owners – might have against police searches. According to the DMV’s draft

The manufacturer shall certify that it will release autonomous technology sensor data…that is in its possession or control to law enforcement or peace officers within 24 hours of their request for such data.

R&D restrictions also drew fire. Rather than set statewide standards, the DMV wants driverless car developers to get local approval from any jurisdiction where they might be operating. While it’s probably a good idea to give local cops advance warning about what’s going on, subjecting tech companies to the whims of every nimby along the route is sure way to encourage them to just keep driving to, say, Nevada or Arizona.

Nothing is carved in stone yet. The next move is up to the DMV.

Patent trolls come in two sizes, FTC says


Watch out for the little one.

It’s the small patent trolls, the kind cultivated by the predatory bar, that cause the most problems for entrepreneurs and other small businesses. Not problems with million dollar price tags or even vaguely legitimate claims. Just the most problems.

That’s the conclusion of a study by the Federal Trade Commission that looked at what it politely calls “patent assertion entities” (PAEs) and what anyone else – at least anyone who’s actually tried to create something – calls patent trolls. The FTC thinks it’s unhelpful to characterise them as trolls but, hey, they’re paid to be bureaucratically correct.

According to the FTC, there are two flavors of trolls, I’m sorry, patent assertion entities: portfolio PAEs and litigation PAEs. Both prey disproportionately on the tech sector. The portfolio trolls are the big boys. They have massive files full of marginal but arguably enforceable patents, and might well include among their investors honest businesses, like manufacturers, that are trying to manage risks. Okay, maybe trying to take a bite out of competitors too. They’re picking on kids their own size: mutually assured destruction might not be the most morally palatable strategy but it got us through the Cold War without the U.S. and the Soviet Union nuking humanity back to the stone age. It sucks, but it works.

Litigation PAEs, on the other hand, don’t generate as much money – only 20% or so of the $3.2 billion identified by the study (although that’s still a lot of money) – but they wreak the most havoc, going after bushels of small fry who can’t afford to fight…

The licenses typically yielded total royalties of less than $300,000. According to one estimate, $300,000 approximates the lower bound of early-stage litigation costs of defending a patent infringement suit. Given the relatively low dollar amounts of the licenses, the behavior of Litigation PAEs is consistent with nuisance litigation.

These mosquitoes of the digital age fly quickly, shuffling handfuls of patents between shell corporations and dodging attorney fee judgements as they buzz away in search of their next victim. The FTC has measured recommendations for congress and the federal courts to consider – all a good start, but control is a half measure. Eradication is the answer.

Patent Assertion Entity Activity: an FTC Study

Humans follow California rules, robot cars answer to Washington


Guess which one is a federal case?

If a self driving car still needs a human to be ready to take over operation at any time, then that human needs to be a licensed and fully capable driver. But once autonomous vehicles reach a sufficiently advanced level, then no driver’s licence – no human license – is needed in California. That’s the gist of new draft rules floated by the California department of motor vehicles ahead of a public workshop later this month. The federal highway traffic safety administration also released new rules, in the hopes of ensuring “the establishment of a consistent national framework rather than a patchwork of incompatible laws”.

The lines between state and federal responsibilities regarding autonomous vehicles haven’t been finely drawn yet. The federal document lays out a general scheme: the feds handle vehicle manufacturing and safety standards, and the states set and enforce traffic laws, and conduct safety inspections.

Where it starts to get fuzzy is where driver’s licenses are concerned. The states still regulate which humans get licenses, but, the feds say…

As motor vehicle equipment increasingly performs “driving” tasks, [the federal transportation department’s] exercise of its authority and responsibility to regulate the safety of such equipment will increasingly encompass tasks similar to “licensing” of the non-human “driver” (e.g., hardware and software performing part or all of the driving task).

Higher up the chain of command, though, federal transportation secretary Anthony Foxx put it more bluntly: states will have jurisdiction over humans, but he has the “intention to occupy the field” when it comes to self-driving cars and the software that controls them.

The DMV says that its proposed rules are consistent with that plan. They’ll explain further at the 19 October 2016 workshop in Sacramento.

Niche computer maker Purism turns lack of trust into a selling proposition


Simple security comes at a cost.

If you want to know what every bit on your computer is doing, I mean really know, then you’re the kind of customer that Purism has in mind. The South San Francisco company makes a range of Linux-based laptops and tablets with 100% open source software not-quite-preinstalled. That includes applications of course, but also device drivers, the boot system and everything else.

Not-quite-preinstalled means that the device comes with all the software and a totally naked hard drive. The customer then encrypts the disk with the included open source utility and loads everything up. In theory, that means no back doors or master keys that can be handed over to an interested agency – like maybe the Mounties? – purely for your own protection, of course.

The chips that power the Librem laptops and tablets – Purism uses Intel processors – contain opaque code, but there’s no getting around that. The code in the included software, though, is all open to inspection. “The trust us model doesn’t work in the security market”, explained founder Todd Weaver at Pepcom’s Mobile Focus event last month.

It’s not necessary to load the Linux OS and other software that comes with the devices – you can install whatever you want. Purism is shipping 13-inch and 15-inch laptops now and plans to have 10-inch and 11-inch tablets on the market by September. The components are made in relatively small batches and assembled at Purism’s South City headquarters, which means the Librem devices are relatively expensive, ranging from $599 for the smaller tablet to $1,899 for the bigger laptop. That’s the premium you pay if you want to really know.