Tag Archives: geek stuff

Big brother, small ball and connected cars at CES

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CES 2018 marked a turning point in the consumer electronics business. For the first time, the big companies talked more about services than products. This shift has been long in the making – it’s why the organisers no longer refer to it as the Consumer Electronics Show – and 2018 was the tipping point. It was all about connected home products, with long neglected categories like kitchen appliances and washers and dryers suddenly taking center stage. The products themselves are increasingly generic, with differentiation coming from the voice recognition and artificial intelligence services that manufacturers bundle in.

The thought of my refrigerator or garage door opener constantly analysing my actions and predicting what I’ll want next seems spooky, even unsettling, to me, but conventional wisdom is that what older consumers perceive as surveillance state products, younger ones embrace as high level service. Plenty of innovation was on display, but it came from cloud-delivered services, and not from a box.

Small and medium sized companies were not the place to look for breakout products this year. I checked out the evening showcases, which cater mostly to smaller and newer exhibitors. The first, CES Unveiled, didn’t have much under the veil. Most of the exhibitors were small companies with, at best, incrementally innovative products. The lineups at Showstoppers and Pepcom’s Digital Experience were better, but aside from a 300-mile marathon trek on a Onewheel electric board, there weren’t many wow moments. Same for Eureka Park, the now huge section of the CES show floor dedicated to start up companies. There were plenty of toys, and lots of me-too products and barely discernible upgrades to existing products.

Looking ahead, one path for startup success will be through the big AI platform operators, either the generic ones like Amazon or Google, or the in house systems developed by the big boys.

This year will also be remembered as the year when cars became a consumer electronics product. The north hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center looked like a car show. Automakers have exhibited in past years, but there were more of them, and more with marketing messages crafted around connected services. Even ones that you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with the automotive market, such as health monitoring.

Carmakers also have extensive AI projects underway, as the rush towards self driving cars picks up speed. If cars are just another consumer electronics platform, then the big auto companies will also be players in the consumer AI game.

Far from collapsing, the consumer electronics industry on display at CES was expanding into new services and new sectors, all of them linked by live data streams.

CES 2018 kicks off with cars, phones and artificial intelligence

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I’m en route to CES (don’t dare call it the Consumer Electronics Show anymore) for my annual exercise in continuing education. It’s a total geek holiday, but the fun you get out of it is directly proportional to the work you do. There’s a lot to learn.

Self driving cars are the market segment where mobile broadband, artificial intelligence and consumer electronics intersect, and it’ll be well represented at CES. I’ll be alert for clues as to how manufacturers and platform operators intend to balance on-board processing with real time data connectivity. The more it shifts towards the latter, the more the rollout of autonomous vehicles will be defined by mobile carriers rather than the industry itself.

I’ve discussed the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and voice recognition systems – two sides of the same coin, really – and the collapse of the consumer electronic industry into a two product market – big screens and smartphones in previous blog posts. CES should offer insight into where those trends are headed in 2018. In particular, I’ll be interested in seeing new core AI technology.

Two product categories that I’ve been following since before they were categories – wearables and home automation – have exploded. A user-friendly charging solution for wearables, smart phones and the other electronic bits that we carry around with us still hasn’t emerged, and I’ll be looking for any indication that one might. At some point, the home automation market will consolidate into standard solutions – a scattering of smartphone apps? in home hubs? voice recognition platforms? – and I’ll watch for signs of that too.

It’s a disappointment that Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai has bailed on the show, although it’s for a legitimate, and unfortunate, reason – the planned appearance sparked a presidential level of death threats. It’s been a CES tradition for FCC chairs to sit down and talk with Gary Shapiro, CEO of the show’s sponsor, the Consumer Technology Association. Unlike other trade association honchos, Shapiro asks intelligent and interesting questions, and isn’t shy about pressing for meaningful answers. Three other FCC commissioners – Brendan Carr, Mignon Clyburn and Michael O’Rielly – are still on the program, but that’s typically been a softball session moderated by an emollient minion.

As always, what I’m really looking for are surprises, new products, services and technology that I have no idea even exists. In that regard, CES never disappoints.

Artificial intelligence, led by voice recognition, will redefine digital world in 2018

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Three consumer technology trends gained speed in 2017: the shift from fixed to mobile video consumption, as I blogged about previously, the increasing utility and use of voice recognition technology and the adoption of the push model for artificial intelligence platforms and services.

In 2017, voice recognition technology reached the point where it can replace manual data and command entry on a routine basis. Usability is a work in progress – you can’t just look at a screen and say copy that and paste it over here – but the technical capability is there. We just have to learn how to make the best use of it.

However, the more useful it becomes, the more it is tied to massive artificial intelligence platforms, which gives Amazon, Google and Apple a huge advantage. Those three companies are positioning themselves to be the front door for all of our interactions with the digital realm. Think of what it would be like if there were only three companies that made computers, which could then only be used to access the online services those companies offered, or at least blessed.

But at least there are three companies. That’s not quite full competition, but it is enough of a market to produce some competitive checks and balances. No guarantees, though. It still needs watching, and that’s one of the things I’ll do next week at the Consumer Electronics Show. The pre-CES email flood promises a lot of AI-driven products and services.

AI is woven into an increasing array of online services, and the companies using it are not asking for opt-in permission or, indeed, permission at all. Web services, mobile apps and point of sale and similar devices are recognising who we are, or at least who we might be, and proactively tailoring responses, without us even asking.

If you’re not paying particular attention, it seems like simple convenience. You don’t have to work as hard to get what you want, even though you often end up with what an AI system thinks you should want. If you are paying attention, it can be very spooky.

But we will get used to it.

Happy holidays, and a huge thank you to everyone who browsed this blog in 2017

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If you’re reading this holiday post, then you truly are a dedicated reader. I’m thoroughly grateful for your interest. 2017 has been a wonderful year in many respects, but a writer’s greatest joy is to be read. Thank you for making this daily excursion into cyberspace so rewarding.

I hit a major milestone this month: five years of uninterrupted daily posts, at least one per day, every day, seven days a week. It’s been a pleasure and, it appears, useful. Readership has been at or near the 5,000 views per month mark for much of the year, not counting distribution via LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, which together generate thousands more monthly impressions.

The 10 most clicked posts of 2017 included six about the CenturyLink/Level 3 deal, with one getting nearly 6,000 views by itself.

There was no particular pattern to the rest of the top ten. One was about the City of Gonzales’ plan to buy Internet service for every residence in town, while another was a routine write up of 4K television forecasts presented at the Consumer Electronics Show – I’ll be following that up in a couple of weeks, when CES rolls around again.

A post from 2016 about AT&T’s deceptive talking points regarding its plans to replace rural copper networks with wireless service and another from 2015 about low cost service promises made by Frontier Communications rounded out the 10 most read list. These are topics that will have even more urgency next year as AT&T and Frontier begin to meet, or not, their federally subsidised obligations to upgrade broadband service in rural California.

But the most readership comes from people, probably a lot like you, who make it a regular habit to surf to the main page of this blog, browse through the posts and, sometimes, let me know if I gotten it right or wrong. I’m particularly thankful for your kind attention, and I’m looking forward to proving myself worthy of it in 2018.

Thank you!

Wet string delivers faster broadband than AT&T or Frontier for 1 million Californians

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The best broadband that AT&T and Frontier Communications offers to more than one million Californians is advertised at a download speed of 3 Mbps or less, if it’s available at all. That’s slower than the 3.5 Mbps that a British techie achieved using a couple of pieces of wet string and some ADSL gear.

He was sitting around the office one day and decided to give it a go. That earned him serious geek cred with his boss, Adrian Kennard, who runs Andrews and Arnold, an ISP in the U.K. As Kennard describes in his blog

It turns out he needed salty water to get anywhere. A 2m length…

And the result – it works!!! Not even that slow (3½Mb/s down) though slow uplink. Don’t dare touch the string though…

So, there you go, ADSL over 2m of literal “wet string”. Well done all for testing this. It shows the importance of handling faults that seem to just be “low speed”.

As a bonus, fit tin cans to both ends and you get voice as well as broadband on the same wet string!

According to the most recent California Public Utilities Commission data available, 709,000 Californians live in census blocks where the fastest download speed advertised (but not necessarily delivered) by AT&T and Frontier Communications ranges from 768 Kbps to 3 Mbps. Another 367,000 are in census blocks where Frontier and AT&T claimed federal broadband subsidies and offer no service, at any speed.

Although “it was a bit of fun”, the hack highlighted the capabilities of the core technology that delivers broadband over copper-based telco infrastructure. The CPUC should take note as it listens to Frontier and AT&T tell half-truths about wireline problems and magic radio solutions. The potential of rural copper-based networks is higher than AT&T’s and Frontier’s current service levels, and higher than their intended wireless replacements.

It’s even higher than wet string.

App challenge: what if you knew an earthquake will hit 5 seconds from now?

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The biggest natural disaster threat to Californians comes from earthquakes, wild fires notwithstanding. One quake can take out more homes, businesses and infrastructure in a few seconds than all of this year’s fires combined. There’s no scientifically valid way of predicting earthquakes, so most people assume they strike without warning.

Not so. Earthquakes run for many seconds, even minutes. The first vibrations that ripple out are called P-waves, which seldom do damage but carry critical information about location and intensity several seconds ahead of the big shake. The U.S. Geological Survey and west coast research universities have a pilot program in place to monitor P-waves, and send out alerts. It’s in the early stages right now, and only a few agencies are connected. BART, for example, is using it to slow down trains before the main force of an earthquake hits.

The next step is to figure out how to push that information out to the public in time for it to be useful. The City of Los Angeles has a request for proposals out, looking for a developer who can develop a mobile app that’ll deliver meaningful and useful information to the public within ten seconds of the first alert from the USGS system. The first step will be to develop an app that can beta tested by city employees. It’s intended to be an open source project. The code has to be published on GitHub and published on an open source platform.

The technical work is the easy part. The harder question is, what will people do with the information? USGS says that “the warning time would range from a few seconds to a few tens of seconds”. If ten seconds or more are eaten up processing and delivering the alert, and a few more seconds are needed for people to pick up and read their phones, there’s not much time to react and take useful action. Solving that problem will be the truly difficult, and interesting, challenge.

City of Los Angeles Informal Procurement: Los Angeles Earthquake Early Warning Mobile Application

Arizona innovates self driving cars while California pioneers regulation

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California is on the receiving end of another slagging for its top heavy approach to regulating the development and deployment of self-driving cars. Ian Adams works for the R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C. consulting group – AKA think tank – that finds its home on the dark public policy corner where industry, academia and government intersect. Writing in The Hill, he points to the departure of the Waymo – formerly Google – autonomous vehicle venture for free range Arizona…

The reasoning behind Waymo’s deployment decision was simple: California opted for an overly prescriptive approach to regulating technological innovation. The state’s regulatory process simply too slow for it to capitalize on its seemingly insurmountable natural advantages…

Meanwhile, down in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey’s aggressively pro-growth administration issued an executive order to encourage self-driving vehicles, with only the barest necessary constraints on how they may be deployed. Since then, predictably, developers have flocked to the state.

He has a point. California took an early lead in opening the door to development of self-driving technology, but instead of offering a gateway to the open road, the door led to a bureaucratic maze. When the California department of motor vehicles slapped down Uber, the governor of Arizona scored quick and easy points by welcoming them, and any of the other 20 companies operating under the DMV’s supervision, to his state.

It worked.

The DMV’s response was to double down and publish new draft rules last month that close the loophole Uber thought it saw, generally tighten up language defining self-driving cars and adding new red tape to the testing process.

Autonomous vehicles are a step into the unknown for everyone, industry, consumers and government officials alike. The word for that is pioneering; a word we expect to find in the same sentence as California and high tech. But expectation is not entitlement. Unless the DMV rethinks its role, it’s a word we won’t be hearing as often.

Commercial drone experiments outsourced to cities, counties

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Local governments have a chance to jump into the drone development business, by invitation from none other than the Trump administration. An order signed by president Trump gives the Federal Aviation Administration three months to create a program that will allow local, state and tribal governments to propose unmanned aircraft system (UAS) pilot projects, in partnership with private companies, to see what might and might not be feasible to write into FAA regulations in the future.

The “presidential memorandum to the secretary of transportation” directs the department – and the FAA in particular – to…

Solicit proposals from State, local, and tribal governments to test within their jurisdictions the integration of civil and public UAS operations into the [national air space] below 200 feet above ground level, or up to 400 feet above ground level if the Secretary determines that such an adjustment would be appropriate…

[And] enter into agreements with the selected governments to establish the terms of their involvement in UAS operations within their jurisdictions, including their support for Federal enforcement responsibilities; describe the proposed UAS operations to be conducted; and identify the entities that will conduct such operations, including, if applicable, the governments themselves.

Proposals will be screened with the goal of authorising programs in a wide variety of geographic, economic and technological circumstances, and using a diverse range of public-private partnership models. The memo calls out five policy objectives:

  1. Promoting innovation and economic development.
  2. Enhancing transportation safety.
  3. Enhancing workplace safety.
  4. Improving emergency response and search and rescue functions.
  5. Using radio spectrum efficiently and competitively.

The marquee application is package delivery – Amazon and Google are getting a lot of buzz around that – but real world proposals are likely to be more, um, down to Earth. Agricultural technology applications for drones are rapidly growing, and rural communities interested in pursuing projects would have a couple of advantages: they usually can respond to opportunities faster than urban cities, and lower population density simplifies the technical and regulatory challenges.

Peru flooding kicks Project Loon into the real world

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Project Loon demonstrated a real-world usage case earlier this year, when the worst flooding in decades hit Peru. The stratospheric balloon-based broadband system under development by Alphabet, Inc. – Google’s parent company – was deployed to backfill mobile networks that were damaged or overwhelmed by the disaster.

That’s according to Anne Bray, Project Loon’s business development director. She was speaking at the inaugural Mobile World Congress Americas trade show in San Francisco last week.

She said that Project Loon began working with Telefonica in Peru a year ago. It was a testing ground for, among other things, balloon flight operations, including a long duration flight that began at a base in Puerto Rico and then remained on station over Peru for 14 weeks. When the floods hit, the program accelerated, launching balloons and scaling up to reach tens of thousands of people in a short amount of time. It was a new experience. Up until then, Project Loon’s deployments were still largely research projects; all of a sudden it was an emergency responder.

Project Loon is a wholesale play. It partners with terrestrial mobile companies in rural areas, and provides bandwidth to areas that they can’t reach, or where existing infrastructure can’t handle the load.

Using a solar-powered transciever – basically, a small cell site – attached to a balloon that floats at an altitude of about 20 kilometers, one Loon access point can cover about 5,000 square kilometers. Bray said they’re aiming for gigabit-class throughput on each balloon. Project Loon’s website specs the service as delivered to a user on the ground at 10 Mbps.

Early tests were with Vodaphone in New Zealand, but those were tests. Although commercial deployments were promised to follow quickly, it’s been slow to roll out. The flooding in Peru appears to be the catalyst that kicked Project Loon into something like a real world operational mode.

Feds ready to tell California DMV to drop self-driving car rules

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The U.S. congress isn’t completely gridlocked, at least not where self-driving cars are concerned. This week, the U.S. house of representatives passed a bill – with a whopping bipartisan majority – that would put the federal transportation department in charge of setting standards for autonomous vehicles, and determining whether or not any particular design is safe to operate on open roads, anywhere in the country. If it makes it into law – it still has to be approved by the U.S. senate and signed by the president – California won’t be able to set its own rules for autonomous vehicle operation…

No State or political subdivision of a State may maintain, enforce, prescribe, or continue in effect any law or regulation regarding the design, construction, or performance of highly automated vehicles, automated driving systems, or components of automated driving systems unless such law or regulation is identical to a standard prescribed under this chapter.

States would still be responsible for regulating “registration, licensing, driving education and training, insurance, law enforcement, crash investigations, safety and emissions inspections, congestion management [and] traffic”, but only if those laws are not “an unreasonable restriction on the design, construction, or performance of highly automated vehicles, automated driving systems, or components of automated driving systems”.

Next week, the Trump administration is expected to announce a parallel effort to federalise self-driving car oversight, and early leaks of its plans seem to track with both the house bill and a regulatory system outlined last year, by the Obama administration. There’s also a bill pending in the U.S. senate that takes a similar, but not identical, approach.

Assuming this Beltway love affair with autonomous vehicles doesn’t run out of gas, Californian regulators will have to scrap its current rules and pull back on plans to expand them. That’s likely to have a positive impact on self-driving car development here, since it’ll remove most of the regulatory incentives to head to Nevada or Arizona, as Uber did last year when it butted heads with the California department of motor vehicles.