The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 15th 2015
I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.
I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.
They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!
Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!
This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
1) Revolution in the Driver’s Seat: The Road to Autonomous Vehicles
This week saw a slew of articles concerning autonomous vehicles (AVs) and robots. Since AVs include robotic systems these are closely related subjects. I happen to believe robotics and in particular AVs will be profoundly important over the next 5 to 20 years, so I pay close attention to the space. This is a Boston Consulting Group study on the subject of AVs. It is pretty long but pretty good and I recommend anybody who is interested in the technology read the article.
“It is no longer a question of if but when autonomous vehicles (AVs) will hit the road. In the auto industry’s most significant inflection in 100 years, vehicles with varying levels of self-driving capability—ranging from single-lane highway driving to autonomous valet parking to traffic jam autopilot—will start to become available to consumers as soon as mid-2015 or early 2016. Development of autonomous-driving technology is gaining momentum across a broad front that encompasses OEMs, suppliers, technology providers, academic institutions, municipal governments, and regulatory bodies.”
2) Google acknowledges 11 accidents with its self-driving cars
One of the stories which got a huge amount of coverage this past week was the fact that Google’s AVs had been involved in 11 accidents. Since all accidents involving AVs have to be reported while many non-AV accidents are not reported it is not clear if 11 is a high number or a low number. Apparently, all were minor and none were the fault of the AV systems. If this is a high rate, one might blame at fault drivers for being distracted by the obviously novel vehicles. If this is a low rate, one might ascribe it to the fact the AVs are not driven around except under perfect conditions during which you would expect a lower accident rate.
“The company released the number after The Associated Press reported that Google had notified California of three collisions involving its self-driving cars since September, when reporting all accidents became a legal requirement as part of the permits for the tests on public roads. The leader of Google’s self-driving car project wrote in a web post all the accidents have been minor — “light damage, no injuries” —and happened over 1.7 million miles in which either the car or a person required to be behind the wheel was driving.”
3) Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Self-Driving Car Accidents
This article looks into the Google AV accident statistics a little more closely. IEEE is obviously very pro-technology, however their comments are probably valid. The real issue will arise when an AV hits a person (it’s bound to happen) whether or not the AV itself was at fault. Autonomous or not, the world is an unpredictable place and accidents are bound to happen. Of course, one thing about an AV collision is that, like vehicles with automated braking (see item 4), collisions are like to take place at lower speeds since the vehicles do not speed and are more likely to apply the brakes early due to superior “reflexes”.
“The Associated Press is reporting on the number of accidents that autonomous cars have been in since September, when California officially issued permits for companies to test autonomous cars on public roads. At first glance, the accident rate is alarmingly high: four cars have been in accidents out of the 50 that Google (and other companies) currently have on the road, resulting in an accident rate significantly higher than is typical for a vehicle driven by a human. This sounds bad, but if you look at what actually happened, it’s nothing to worry about at all.”
4) Meta analysis finds self-braking cars reduce collisions by 38 percent
As expected, cars which hit the brakes faster than you can hit fewer things and hit them at a lower speed. Unfortunately, that also means they tend to get rear ended more frequently since most drivers follow too closely – on Ontario highways any more than a car length at 120 km/hr is a luxury. Most likely, the greater the number of self braking cars, or those with adaptive cruise control, the lower the number of rear endings and the figures will go up even further. Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) communication (see item 5) would improve things somewhat and at a lower cost: if your car knew one of the cars in front of it hit the brakes, it could alert you or even begin to apply the brakes itself.
“In non-AEB cars, the split between striking and being struck was close to 50/50, improving significantly for cars with AEB. However, despite the apparent success of the study, the researchers noted that in order to get the best results out of the technology, widespread adoption was required; slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident requires following traffic to be alert enough to react to the situation and not cause a cascade. They also noted that AEB cars might be more likely to be struck from behind, as an unintended consequence of AEB’s better reaction time, compared to a human driver.”
5) Driverless cars are coming sooner than you think
There are many challenges associated with V2V communications including standards and the familiar “spectrum shortage”. Both would benefit from government policies designed to encourage the adoption of such technologies. Frankly I am beginning to get a little skeptical regarding the subject of spectrum shortages: spread spectrum technologies allow for spectrum reuse, and, in the specific case of cars the ranges need not be that great (more or less on the order of the braking distance of the vehicle). This should be an easily solvable problem.
“Cars that talk to one another and drive themselves may arrive on U.S. highways sooner than you think as the Obama administration launches an effort to expedite their progress. “We don’t want to be part of the problem of integrating this technology into the marketplace,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Tuesday. “We want to be part of the solution.” Foxx plans to reveal the administration’s strategy Wednesday during a speech in Silicon Valley. Though the three initiatives he’s taking sound modest, they may be far-reaching in influence when it comes to putting computer-connected autonomous vehicles on the road. Foxx plans to speed up the normally ponderous federal rulemaking process, move more quickly to resolve a simmering fight over who gets to use critical bandwidth and remove the array of federal obstacles traditionally faced by innovative technology.”
6) The job-killing-robot myth
On to robotics, or, at least, non AV robots. I don’t understand why people look upon a robot as any different from a “jobs” perspective compared to any other automated system. Not long ago people harvested grains by hand, not that work is done orders of magnitude faster with an enormous combine. As a result, agriculture not longer employs the majority of workers and food prices have plummeted. It is a pity when somebody loses their job as a result of automation, just as it is a pity when somebody loses a job as a result of stupid strategic decisions made by management. The difference is that automation leads to greater productivity overall and the employer becomes more competitive (or, more likely, remains as competitive since the competitors typically buy the same machines). Automation, whether through combines, pick and place machines, or robot janitors (see item 7) are simply a continuation of the industrial revolution.
“Are robots displacing millions of workers? Many people seem to think so. Recently, for instance, the New York Times ran an op-ed claiming that “the machines are getting smarter, and they’re coming for more and more jobs.” On Tuesday the Wall Street Journal sounded the alarm that “robots are taking over corporate finance departments.” The story goes that we can look forward to an ever greater problem of unemployment as technological advancement allows machines to replace a growing percentage of the workforce.”
7) Robot cleaner can empty bins and sweep floors
This is what most people think of when they think of a robot. As the video shows, the machine seems to do what it is supposed to do, however, in my opinion it does it in an odd way. You should not need to recognize a wastebasket since these should be RFID tagged. Similarly, a purpose built carpet sweeping attachment would probably work better and quicker. One issue which might be a problem is how many offices the machine would need before requiring a charge or battery swap (see item 8). The video on Youtube for those who have sworn off Adobe Flash https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=norgQlR3Nno.
“ROOMBAS were just the start. An office cleaning robot is being put through its paces by Dussmann, one of Germany’s largest cleaning companies, at its Berlin HQ. The goal is getting it to work alongside human cleaners in large offices, emptying bins and vacuuming floors. The robot was developed by roboticist Richard Borman and colleagues at the Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart. It is designed to do two tasks – clean the floors and empty wastepaper baskets – with complete autonomy. It can recognise dirt on the floor and identify wastepaper baskets before its robotic arm grabs and then empties each bin.”
8) Robots, Hungry for Power, Are Too Weak to Take Over the World
I saw the latest Avengers movie last week (spoiler alert: the good guys win and there is dubious physics involved in the scheme to destroy the world). The fictional character Iron Man, who has evidently changed allegiance from Tesla to Audi, and his minions, have access to nearly unlimited power thanks to an entirely fictitious power source. Real killer robots, whether good guys or bad guys, lack such a power a source. This means that a rampaging Terminator or Robocop would not get very far before needing a lengthy charge. In general, killing machines are not that frightening if you can simply unplug their extension cords.
“Even cutting-edge robots are notoriously bad at assessing their surroundings, but running out of breath as their batteries expire is just as big a challenge, according to the organizer of the contest on June 5-6 in Pomona, Calif. “Even the best ones are roughly 10 times less energy dense than the sugar and fat [humans eat],” Gill Pratt, Darpa’s program director for the robotics contest said on a media call. Worse, the robots ungainly movements consume a lot of energy. “Robots are also much less efficient than animals,” said Dr. Pratt, using as much as 100 times more energy to complete the same task. “You should expect to see a lot of robots fall down,” he added.”
9) Why the Chinese military is frightened of the Apple Watch
It didn’t occur to me previously, but does it make sense for soldiers to carry around any non-military electronics? I can understand the Chinese army not wanting the GPS coordinates of soldiers relayed to Washington in real time, but most gadgets give off radio waves which can be detected at quite a distance with the right type of equipment. This makes smart phones, etc., pretty much targeting beacons for a modestly technologically advanced enemy. Whether that gadget is made by Apple or anybody else is besides the point.
“The Apple Watch is expected to do big things in China — with even the high-end Apple Watch Edition selling out within its first hour of preorders in the country — but one place the company’s debut wearable device won’t take off is the Chinese army. That’s according to a recently released memo in which Chinese military leaders argue that wearable devices such as smartwatches and fitness trackers are sure to compromise soldiers’ security. “The moment a soldier puts on a device that can record high-definition audio and video, take photos, and process and transmit data, it’s very possible for him or her to be tracked or to reveal military secrets,” reads the message, which was published in China’s military mouthpiece The People’s Liberation Army Daily.””
10) I regret buying an Apple Watch (and I knew I would)
I have seen quite a few of these articles over the past couple weeks. It is not clear to me whether they represent the typical experience of Apple Watch early adopters of whether the authors are simply trying a novel angle to draw in clicks. Of course, the experience of many smart watch buyers is of disappointment and there really isn’t that much difference between the Apple Watch and similar products which have been on the market for some time, except marketing and price. Unfortunately, Apple has been known to black ball its critics from access to new products so criticizing them can be a dangerous path to tread.
“I bought an Apple Watch. I didn’t preorder it, because at first I didn’t even want one. I warned people who asked me about the company’s first wearable: These things (Apple things) always get much better on the second attempt. Apple’s product history, perhaps even more so than other tech companies, is peppered with examples: the substantially thinner second iPad, the next iPhone that had 3G data, the MacBook Air sequel that had decent battery life and a slimmer design. Despite knowing that, something changed for me. I became an early adopter. Our Editor-in-Chief Michael Gorman has already tested the Apple Watch. Thanks to a handful of early positive-but-with-caveat reviews and even more previews in the run-up to launch, I knew what it could do. Still, I felt like there must be a way that the watch would effortlessly dovetail into my life, reducing the need to constantly paw my phone and further lowering the barrier between myself and technology.”
11) The Golden Age Of Quantum Computing Is Upon Us (Once We Solve These Tiny Problems)
To be honest I understood very little of the article or the video, however, I can accept the likelihood a functional quantum computer will have a disruptive effect on certain fields of study, not the least of which being quantum computing. There are certain computationally difficult problems which should be a piece of cake once these systems are developed. Unfortunately, it is hard to be confident that the problems cited will be solved any time soon.
“Quantum computing is not easy. But researchers at IBM recently announced that they had taken a step toward solving one of its biggest challenges: developing a better way to detect and correct annoying errors. In a blog post, Mark Ritter, who oversees scientists and engineers at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Laboratory, wrote: “I believe we’re entering what will come to be seen as the golden age of quantum computing research.” His team, he said, is “on the forefront of efforts to create the first true quantum computer.” First, what that would mean: A quantum computer harnesses the science of the very small—the strange behavior of subatomic particles—to solve problems that are computationally infeasible for a classical computer or simply take too long. How molecules interact at the quantum level, for example, is difficult to study in a laboratory and impossible to simulate on a classical computer but could be simulated on a quantum computer.”
12) Is D-Wave a Quantum Computer?
A few weeks ago I mentioned D-Wave in a negative light and received an angry email, as well as a rare “unsubscribe”, from an investor in the company who claimed the device was “… benchmarking tens of thousands of times faster than traditional processors …”. At the time I was referring to the article in Science entitled “Quantum or not, controversial computer yields no speedup” (www.sciencemag.org/content/344/6190/1330.full) so I was a bit surprised at the reaction. I would further note that a 10,000x improvement is something you notice: the Trinity Atomic test yielded an improvement of 10,000x over a chemical bomb of the same size and they did not exactly need tape measures and slide rules to determine whether it was an improvement.
“Recently I had to explain to a reader why critics say that D-Wave’s so-called quantum computer was not a “real” quantum computer, the answer for which he accepted on my authority. However, the question kept nagging me in the back on my mind “why” D-Wave markets what it calls a quantum computer if it is not for real. To get to the bottom of it, I asked Jeremy Hilton, vice president of processor development of D-Wave Systems, Inc. (Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada) about why critics keep saying its quantum computer is not for real. He also revealed details about D-Wave’s next generation quantum computer. “The Holy Grail of quantum computing to build a ‘universal’ quantum computer—one that can solve any computational problem—but at a vastly higher speed that today’s computers,” Hilton told EE Times. “That’s the reason some people say we don’t have a ‘real’ quantum computer—because D-Wave’s is not a ‘universal’ computer.””
13) New Memristors Could Usher in Bionic Brains
Neural networks are another type of computer with significant potential, however, the number of potential applications for neural networks is probably greater, and the nature of those applications are probably more familiar to people. After all, neural networks hope to replicate the function of a brain, and, in particular, the ability to deal with uncertain circumstances. Consider that the tiny neural network of a mosquito can fly, walk around, find food (i.e. you), avoid getting squashed or eaten, reproduce, and so on. That little brain is not a computer running a program but a neural network effecting behavior: mosquitoes can deal with all kinds of uncertainty in their environment and still survive. Despite my interest in neural nets, what really interests me in this article is the novel memristor fabrication techniques: near term, these things have the potential to revolutionize traditional computing as well.
“Last month we saw researchers in the US push the envelope of non-volatile memory devices based on resistance switching to the point where they are now capable of mimicking the neurons in the human brain. Now researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in Australia have built on their previous work developing ultra-fast nano-scale memories. They used a functional oxide ultra-thin film to create one of the world’s first electronic multi-state memory cells. The researchers claim that the memristive devices they have developed mimic the brain’s ability to simultaneously process and store multiple strands of information. The research, which was published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, involved chemically manipulating amorphous strontium titanate memristors by adding faults to the material that both tuned and improved their switching characteristics.”
14) GE 3D prints a working RC jet engine
A few months ago we carried an item about a company which had produced non-working models of a jet engine through 3D printing. GE seems to have done one step better by producing a working model, albeit a small one. Not surprisingly since 3D printers cannot produce polished parts such as bearings or mating surfaces, the parts have to be hand finished, but it is still quite an accomplishment. Unfortunately, GE does not report on how well the unit worked or what its durability would be. I suspect the answers would be “not well” and “good enough for a short video”. Even so, this is quite an accomplishment.
“General Electric this week revealed that it has completed a multi-year project to print a working jet engine. The engine, small enough to fit in a backpack, was built by a team of technicians, machinists and engineers at GE Aviation’s Additive Development Center outside Cincinnati. The lab is working with additive manufacturing as a way to produce next-generation jet parts using a technique known as (DMLM). The engine also required some post-printing machining and polishing of parts. The research team then rigged up a data acquisition system to measure exhaust temperature, speed and thrust. The engine, which consisted of more than a dozen parts, was printed on an M270 industrial 3D printer from EOS. The machine can melt a variety of alloys, including cobalt chrome, nickel alloy, titanium and stainless steel.”
15) Auto industry first to get wireless charging open standard
This is the best charging solution I have seen despite a misleading headline (it is wire-free, not wireless). The “zero risk of cancer claimed” is utter nonsense since no charging system can cause cancer, unless there are carcinogenic chemicals in the device and you eat it. Essentially what JVIS has done is think “out of the box” and use basic and very cheap components to take the place of a USB connector for charging. The only drawback I can see to this approach is that there would need to be some raised conductive bumps on one surface of the device. Nevertheless, it should charge much faster than real “wireless” chargers and make it easy to produce a waterproof device. Since many phones are kept in bumper cases to save the displays, phones could be retrofitted with the charge function incorporated into a case or even sticky label on the back of the phone.
“JVIS notes that wire-free charging is gaining greater acceptance among automotive manufacturers because vehicle owners want a hassle-free “drop and charge” means to charge phones while they drive. However, the Open Dots platform expands this ecosystem to include, tablets, laptop computers, power tools and other commonly used electronic devices as well. “The standard employs a conductive technology that is fundamentally different than other technologies based on induction,” explains Mitch Randall, a director of Open Dots Alliance. “Consequently, the technology offers benefits that are not achievable by other standards.””
16) Starbucks still grappling with fraud in online accounts, gift cards
I confess that I have to restrain myself whenever I am in line at a Starbucks and see somebody pulling out a smartphone to pay for their order. I swear, it takes more time than if they paid with loose pennies. What’s the point, anyway? Rather than transferring money to an app and using the app to transfer to Starbucks, why not just skip a step and pay Starbucks? Not surprisingly, crooks have figured out how to exploit this and doubtless any other “pay with an app” type situation. The interesting thing about this sort of exploit is that, if the crook kept the amount small, people would probably never notice the money was missing.
“Starbucks is still grappling with fraud involving its customers’ online accounts and gift cards, with some victims seeing hundreds of dollars stolen. Gift-card related fraud with Starbucks cards is not new, but recent victims were highlighted earlier this week in an article by journalist and author Bob Sullivan. Starbucks officials could not be immediately reached for comment, although Sullivan wrote the company told him that customers would not be liable for charges and transfers they didn’t make.”
17) Hydrogels boost ability of stem cells to restore eyesight and heal brains
This work looks very promising, though early. Apparently, a lot of stem cells die after implantation and this technique improves the survival and implantation rates. Of course, the more stem cells to repair the damage the greater the likelihood of a therapeutic benefit. Unfortunately, I don’t know the significance of the results: how does a 15% pupil response in a blind mouse compares to one which has only had stem cell treatment?
“Toronto scientists and engineers have made a breakthrough in cell transplantation using a gel-like biomaterial that keeps cells alive and helps them integrate better into tissue. In two early lab trials, this has already shown to partially reverse blindness and help the brain recover from stroke. Led by University of Toronto professors Molly Shoichet (ChemE, IBBME) and Derek van der Kooy, together with Professor Cindi Morshead, the team encased stem cells in a hydrogel that boosted their healing abilities when transplanted into both the eye and the brain. These findings are part of an ongoing effort to develop new therapies to repair nerve damage caused by a disease or injury. Conducted through the U of T’s Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, their research was published in today’s issue of Stem Cell Reports, the official scientific journal of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.”
18) Walmart’s Answer to Amazon Prime Is Here. And It’s Way Cheaper.
Recently, Walmart has installed “Grab&Go lockers” in many of their stores which allows people to buy stuff online and simply pick it up from the locker. The idea is a good one and, in my opinion, does away with the need for delivery since Walmart stores are pretty much everywhere. Frankly, I’d prefer to pick up an order at my convenience than worry when UPS will come by or whether my dog will bite the FedEx guy again. Since I live in the country (and my dogs have a taste for delivery men) many of my orders have to be picked up anyways. Rather than focusing on delivery, Walmart should consider acting as a fulfillment center for third parties with online stores or charging online vendors for shipment to their lockers.
“A decade after Amazon launched Prime, its signature membership and free shipping program, Walmart has a rebuttal ready: unlimited shipping for half the price. Walmart said Wednesday that it will begin limited tests of a subscription shipping program for online shoppers. Those who sign up for the $50 annual service will get unlimited free three-day shipping on more than 1 million of Walmart’s top-selling items, with no minimum purchase required. Walmart says it will start testing the service on an invite-only basis in a limited number of markets later this summer. Ravi Jariwala, a company spokesman, declined to provide details on which markets in particular, or exactly how many. Walmart is also not sharing details on how it plans to fill the online orders or who will deliver them, but Jariwala added that Walmart works with “a number of different carriers.””
19) BitTorrent brings its Bleep secure messaging app out of alpha mode
Bit Torrents are often associated with piracy, so the technology has a bad rep. In reality it is a powerful way to move data around the Internet and is an integral part of some operating systems, including, so the rumor goes, Window 10. Torrent technology is open, however, BitTorrent the company has a number of differentiated proprietary offerings such as Sync, which I believe is a superior alternative to the like of DropBox. As the article suggests, a torrent based messaging system should be more secure than a server based one since there is no single point of failure such as server, to hack. In other words, your messages or my messages might be compromised, but not all my company’s messages.
““Bleep’s logo represents a folded note – a message passed directly, hand-to-hand. In our implementation, we keep messages and the encryption keys for images stored on your local device, not the cloud,” explained BitTorrent in its latest blog post. “For messages and metadata, there is no server for hackers to target and because you hold the keys, images can’t be leaked to haunt you later. We’ve solved serverless peer-to-peer messaging, including the ability to get offline friends your messages when they come back online.” Bleep certainly isn’t alone in its ambitions to make messaging more secure. Startups including Wickr, Telegram, Zendo, CryptoCat, Surespot and Open Whisper Systems (with TextSecure) are all active in this space.”
20) Philips And The Future Of LED Lighting
LED lighting has certainly hit the mainstream as prices continue to decline. This article looks at the future of lighting but I would treat it with a grain of salt. There might be some merit to controlling the color of your house lights and/or doing so through an app but any sort of communications system can lead to all kinds of technical issues, etc.. This might not be a problem for those with access to expertise but the modest benefit is likely to be numerically overwhelmed by angry consumers who can’t get the system to work reliably. Indeed that is likely a major issue with many Internet of Things applications, as is the vulnerability to having the (likely cloud based) control system going offline. Imagine how happy you’d be if your lights were “stuck on violet” for a few days.
“Manegold observes that he sees the LED industry continuing to make progress, and that there are two trends we will see: First, we will see LED bulbs get even more cost effective, and within 5 years we may see price parity with compact fluorescents. The bulbs themselves will also continue to get more efficient, but there is a natural limit: “You won’t see bulbs go from 10 watts to one watt.” Perhaps more interestingly, the market is focused on making things connected. An under-appreciated aspect of LEDs is that they are solid state (chip driven), so they can ‘talk’ to one another and to broader networks. Philips has recently spent a good deal of effort in this arena with its networked lighting product called Hue.”