This week’s technology news – 30th January 2015

Will the race for the smartest AI expose a huge security risk? 

Artificial Intelligence used to be restricted to science fiction, but today it is being using by millions, even if you don’t realise. When you buy a smart phone today, chances are it will come with its own AI-driven digital assistant. By typing or speaking, you can ask the device natural questions and receive natural sounding answers to your queries. Some of these assistants also learn things about you during their use. You have the option of letting them know more about yourself, so they can offer you a more personalised service. A lot of their actual usage falls under novelty currently but these assistants have proved that for some tasks, asking a machine to do a specific task is quicker than tapping through apps and comparing data by yourself.

With Google, Apple and Microsoft fighting for advancement and innovation in this area and with millions of active people using these services, AI is in rapid development.

Microsoft are big players in AI, recently making waves with its virtual assistant Cortana being built into all Windows 10 PCs, tablets and phones, which if the OS is a success will make Cortana the most widely available virtual assistant ever.  Microsoft also provides machine learning with its own branch of AI and drives a lot of their advanced Azure services including the platform that runs Cortana. Machine Learning allows scientists and developers to integrate predictive analytics data into their own apps.  Microsoft research chief Eric Horvitz’s recently revealed that over a quarter of all attention and resource at his research unit is focused on AI activities.

One of the most vital questions around the evolution of AI has been:   if artificial intelligence achieves consciousness, could it be a threat to human life? Last December Stephen Hawking predicted that such machines could “spell the end of the human race”.  Eric Horvitz has begged to differ, “I fundamentally don’t think that’s going to happen. I think that we will be very proactive in terms of how we field AI systems, and that in the end we’ll be able to get incredible benefits from machine intelligence in all realms of life, from science to education to economics to daily life.”   Of course Microsoft has a deeply vested interest in the advancements of AI so you wouldn’t expect the same concern from a party profiting from its rapid development. Eric Horvitz also commented on the competitions involvement in the technology.  “We have Cortana and Siri and Google Now setting up a competitive tournament for where the best intelligent assistant is going to come from… and that kind of competition is going to heat up the research and investment, and bring it more into the spotlight.”

The main area of concern remains around privacy. AI systems will continually be able to make deeper inferences about users by weaving together the mass of data generated not only by information obtained via responding to a user’s queries, activities and life style preferences, but also from the access these systems have to a user’s emails, contacts, calendars and more.

Some services do let you choose what can and can’t be used via your AI assistant but this of course directly affects their usefulness. Going forwards collected information and the means to grant or prevent access needs to be even more transparent and the relevant legislation in place with sovereign governments to reasonably safeguard citizens whilst ensuring criminal exploitation is minimised.   Secondly, where information is stored (whether encrypted on device or on a server) is also hugely important. The amount of data an AI could gather about you would be incredibly valuable to ad providers for example or security intelligence agencies.

As the technology moves forwards and AI evolves, so must both our application and cyber security. Exposure of this data would enable identity theft at a whole new level and unauthorised use of an advance AI service could be detrimental, allowing a hacker to query anything from calendar appointments to email details from any participating user. The likelihood of either scenario is minute with numerous safeguards already in place, but time has shown again and again, that if someone can build something, someone else will work out how to break it down.

 

cortana

 

 

 

 

 

Microsoft Windows 10 –  surprise hardware announcements

Microsoft’s Windows 10 event last week was not just about showcasing new software.  Instead the technology giant woo’d its audience with some truly great commercial tech offerings.

Microsoft biggest surprise was its announcement of a long developed and never leaked new device called HoloLens.  HoloLens is a wearable holographic computer with high definition see-through lenses that promises to take virtual reality technology to a new level.

Worn like goggles, it doesn’t require cables or other devices to operate and runs Windows 10. Unlike other virtual reality headsets in development HoloLens doesn’t block off your view of the world but instead places virtual holograms on top of the real world without the requirement for markers or external cameras.

Demo’d during the event, Microsoft showed off specialised applications such as one being developed with NASA for its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to help control the Curiosity Mars Rover and offer scientists a more interactive way to view Mars.  An onstage demo then showed someone wearing the device to create a 3D quad-copter in 3D-space by pointing their finger, using hand gestures and voice control using an application called HoloStudio.  Once created virtually, Microsoft revealed one they had 3D printed earlier. One of the biggest issues with 3D printing is content creation and HoloLens may just have solved that.

One application of HoloLens to quickly get into people’s homes will come through Minecraft, following Microsoft’s recent $2.5 billion acquisition of the hugely popular game from Mojang in 2014.  A HoloLens version of the game was shown on video where the device wearer can see the ‘blocked’ virtual world across their real-world interior furnishings. The player can walk around their creation and even virtually destroy real world objects that will have direct implications in-game.

Select members of the press were impressed that Microsoft delivered as advertised. With Windows 10 launching later in 2015, we will hear much more about HoloLens once Microsoft have figured out the pricing and its likely roll out will be in 3D modelling, engineering and robotics.microsoft-hololens

 

 

 

 

 

 

Microsoft – Surface Hub
A much larger new technology has been shown off by Microsoft.   Called Surface Hub, the device is built for smart team collaboration.   The huge 84 inch tablet is designed to be installed on a meeting room wall. Once again, this collaborating device also runs Windows 10, and can be controlled by pen, touch or even voice.

You can invite external workers into the panoramic discussion using Skype For Business, who are then face-to-face with you, using the Hubs built in cameras and microphones. The conversation doesn’t have to be full screen either and can be snapped to one side while the rest of the screen is freed up for note taking, annotations or even reviewing advance 3D modelling.

The cameras and microphones are based on Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox. These cameras can detect who has attended the meeting and the microphones can pick up natural speech commands from across the room.   Setup is simple, needing just one power cable to operate. The rest is done wirelessly.  Users can beam content from their phones to the Surface Hub to share.   Then, once a meeting has finished, the ‘whiteboard’ contents are sent down to peoples’ devices, including any meeting minutes solving both problem of taking a photo of a traditional whiteboard and having a dedicated resource taking minutes in situ.

Being a full-fledged Windows 10 PC, the Surface Hub can also run additional apps. The new store will have a dedicated section for apps, giving developers a new market to target for business.

Both Microsoft hardware announcements were genuine surprises, which makes a pleasant change to the usual pattern of leaks.

One area Microsoft has been quiet on so far is new phones to take advantage of the upcoming operation system and with their Surface line now pulling in over $1 billion in revenue it would not be surprising to see a Surface 4 Pro running Windows 10 on launch.  Although it was a slow start, Microsoft seems to be sticking true to its modern branding of a ‘devices and services’ company and more announcements will be expected in the run up to the big Windows 10 launch later this year.

Surface_Hub

 

 

 

 

 

Heartfelt 3D printing

Since the first 3D printed gun was fired in May 2013, 3D printing (or ‘additive manufacturing’) has come a long way commercially.  This has varied from creating ‘bump’ keys for locksmiths, repairing worn out parts ‘live’ in space in the International Space Station and Oslo University’s creation of self-healing bots – all of which we wrote about in 2014.

The amazing applications for healthcare have now taken 3D printing to new heights.  From facial reconstruction of 3D printed bone and human tissue being printed to make arteries, we now have a heart warming story where 3D printing has recently saved a 2 year old girl’s life.  Born with a serious heart defect, the girl who had spent most of her life poorly and fed through tubes, underwent vital surgery to repair a hole between the two chambers of her heart.  Doctors created imaging using a CT scan and a 1:1 3D image of her heart was made in plastic using specialist software.  From this, surgeons were able to successfully plan the operation, giving vital and accurate information to assist in the delicate procedure.

The potential is seemingly limitless and the opportunities for servicing industries substantial.  For businesses, being able to send an engineer to a customer who can 3D print an exact part on site, might advertise guaranteed satisfaction.  However, the original manufacturer is then threatened with lost business from lack of replacement orders and a reasonable concern over copyright for a copied part.  This might be one for the courts to rule on as the technology progresses, or if one were to be cynical, perhaps manufacturers will purposefully drive towards shorter shelf life and price changes to keep out the competition and force whole replacements in the market.

3D heart

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