Uncanny Valley Fever

2015-05-08 16.44.00For the past few years we’ve been periodically hearing about autonomous vehicles; both cars and trucks. Most of the stories have been positive, yet vague on when we might actually see them. The nebulous “10 year” catch phrase always seems to make it’s way into these stories.

Most of the stories about the Google self-driving car seem to have been carefully managed. The Google car has driven hundreds of thousands of miles without causing an accident. However, that hasn’t stopped other human driven vehicles from plowing into it.

Automation theory demands closed systems, where all variables are known, without the possibility of new or unknown variables being introduced into the system. For example, it has long been possible to create 100% robotic warehouses. However these storage and retrieval warehouses are completely closed systems, closed in the same way that electronic circuit boards are closed that run smartphones, televisions or computers. There are automated garages in New York City that make it possible for every resident of incredibly expensive apartments to park their cars in marvelously automated and efficient parking garages, maximizing the expensive New York City real estate. These automated car storage systems are totally closed systems, where all variables are known 100% of the time.

Few of the glowing stories about the Google self-driving car seem to mention how Google has managed to achieve such an amazing feat as a self-driving car. The vast majority of these miles have all been in the relatively tiny city of Mountain View, California. Google has had to meticulously scan and map out every square inch of Mountain View, and come up with specific software to deal with each and every quirk that makes Mountain View, California unique. In other words, Google has managed to recreate a high-resolution virtual version of Mountain View, California for the car to follow.

In other words, Google has managed to turn Mountain View into a closed system, with every possible address known, every parking space known, and every variable the car might encounter known and accounted for. Think of it in terms of how a roller coaster makes a closed loop. The only thing that remains open-ended in Mountain View for the Google self-driving car is the presence of other pedestrians and traffic.

Contrast that with the real world, where the number of open-ended variables are frequently vast. I use Google Maps multiple times a day on a daily basis. Even though Google Maps is probably the best mapping database available, it is only accurate about 90% of the time. If I put in an address of a large business complex, Google Maps or any other GPS system can only take me to the main address, which most times can be a block or more away from the location of the drive I actually need to turn in to. A self-driving car in the open system of the real world would likely not know where the front entrance of any given business actually was or where vehicles should even park. Each one of these things would have to be specifically programmed in for each of literally millions and millions of locations, and there would still be unacceptably large database errors. Sometimes Google Maps and other GPS systems will say an address is on the left when it is actually on the right or vice versa. It may say that the address is actually out in a field.

A self-driving car might work if you live in Disney Land, but in the real world probably not so much.

In recent months Daimler has demonstrated both in Germany and Nevada so-called self-driving semi trucks. The systems demonstrated are what are in essence best described as a “super cruise control” where once the truck is being driven down a freeway the driver can press a button and the truck will steer itself with the cruise control engaged. Big trucks have had conventional cruise control systems for quite a few years. In the past few years, radar systems have been integrated into the throttle and braking systems making adaptive cruise control a reality.

Adaptive cruise control systems can be handy for maintaining adaptive speed on a busy road. However, the system quickly breaks down with vehicles that are traveling slower than the rest of the traffic. The truck’s radar-based adaptive cruise control will simply match the speed of the vehicle in front of it, unless the driver overrides it by accelerating or getting into the passing lane.

There is an occasional problem with false positives. Driving trucks with adaptive radar based systems I have had the truck slam on the brakes because of a false positive from an overpass or even from a slowing vehicle in an off ramp. On a rain or snow slickened surface slamming on the brakes could cause a jackknife or even collision from behind from someone following too close.

Another problem with radar-based cruise control and braking systems is that the sensor in the front bumper of the truck can become covered with bugs or ice and snow and the system simply stops working. Sometimes it stops working anyway for no reason, requiring the truck to be stopped and the motor turned off and back on, rebooting the cruise control electronics to try to get it to function properly again.

The Self-Driving Truck

Aside from these mechanical problems, there’s another problem having to do with security. Have you ever wondered why in this day and age of high-resolution cameras and ubiquitous electronic surveillance systems there are still so many human security guards? There’s a very simple reason for this. The physical presence of a human being security guard scares off would-be thieves much more effectively than cameras or other surveillance devices. If something is apparently unattended by a human presence, psychologically it is much easier for would-be crooks than it is if a human being is around watching.

I expect the same thing would happen with would-be highjackers of self-driving trucks. All they would have to do to make the automated truck come to a complete stop would be to completely block its path. Then it would be a simple matter of breaking into it and stealing the cargo. The would-be thieves would likely not be deterred by the presence of cameras or even automated no trespassing warning messages broadcast over integrated speakers. There would be no human witness to injure or kill, making it an easy, even desirable target from the criminal mind’s point of view.

If you have never been a long-haul truck driver, then it is easy to look at the job from the outside and think that it consists of just driving down the freeway. While driving does constitute a considerable amount of the job, there are hidden parts of the job that are not readily apparent to someone passing a truck on a freeway.

To get an idea of what the more hidden, complicating parts of the job entails, it is helpful to think of it in terms of would it be possible for someone confined to a wheelchair to autonomously drive a long-haul truck. The truck itself could easily be modified so that a wheelchair-bound individual could drive it in much the same way that conventional automobiles can be modified. However, there’s more to the job of moving freight around than simply driving.

A fair amount of face-to-face business negotiation has to take place to set up the loading and unloading processes. With every load, the driver has to figure out how how to get to a customer’s facility, where to park the truck out of the way, and figure out where the shipping or receiving entrance is located at to take the load information or paperwork to the shipping or receiving clerk. There are virtually ALWAYS stairs involved, occasionally a lot of them, and most do not have wheelchair ramps. Upon being given a door to back into, the trailer doors must be opened and once loaded or unloaded the same doors have to be closed. The trailer wheels frequently must be adjusted to meet weight law limitations in order to make the overall weight legal. A person in a wheelchair would also have to be able to fuel the truck, check its oil and inspect it each day for potential mechanical and tire problems. They would have to devise a way of getting into the back of the trailer to sweep it out, or even load and unload on occasion. Certainly all of these problems could be overcome with vast effort and great expense, but it’s just not practical.

A self-driving truck would be even more handicapped than a person in a wheelchair. It would not be able to fuel itself, nor could it handle face-to-face negotiations. It would just be a dumb piece of equipment, easy to rob from or just ignore.

The face-to-face business negotiation aspect is far more important than it appears at first blush. This aspect is one reason that 70% of long-distance freight is moved by truck and not by rail.

The Uncanny Valley

As owners of Google Glass know, there is a fundamentally important real-world aspect that Google Glass engineers failed to take into account – the so-called “uncanny valley.” Human beings are creeped-out by a camera placed directly next to human eyes. On paper it must have looked great in the closed world of Google engineers. In the real world, it’s quite creepy and produces extremely negative reactions from all kinds of different people. Why not combine it with a Twilight Zone ventriloquist dummy face for the full effect?

The concept of self-driving vehicles may also look great on paper. I think there’s another so-called “uncanny valley” problem when it comes to the self-driving vehicle. I believe the average person is going to be creeped-out when they look over and see a driver with his or her super cruise control engaged either snoozing in the driver’s seat or playing with their smartphone, or perhaps not in the driver’s seat at all.

Super cruise control is close to being here. Whether it will be accepted or not remains to be seen.

As for 100% autonomous vehicles, I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime, I want and would be willing to pay good money for a 100% autonomous toilet-cleaning robot!

Google Launches Mobile Carrier Project Fi for Nexus 6

Google has joined the ranks of AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile with their new mobile carrier service, Project Fi. Project Fi, which is exclusive to owners of Google’s Nexus 6 smartphone, offers a completely new take on wireless plans.

project fiMost carriers charge a flat rate for a specific amount of data, even when you don’t use it all, but Project Fi only charges you for the data you actually use and reimburses you for what you don’t. For example, if you spend $20 on a 2GB monthly plan but only use 1GB, Google will refund you $10. If you only use 0.5GB, you’ll get $15 and so on.

Project Fi is available in over 120 countries (with no roaming charges– yay!) and offers unlimited talk and text, personal hotspot usage, Google Voice integration, and unlimited international texting for a flat rate of $20 per month; you can add a data plan for $10/GB per month as well.

In addition, Project Fi lets you connect to both Sprint and T-Mobile’s 3G and 4G LTE networks, so if your T-Mobile signal starts to lag and Sprint has a faster signal available, Project Fi will automatically switch over to Sprint so you’ll always have the fastest possible connection. And if no cell networks are available, Project Fi lets you connect to more than 1 million free open-access WiFi hotspots, automatically encrypting your data so you can have fast, secure online access wherever you are.

Project Fi is currently in its early-access stage and only available for the Nexus 6, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see support for other smartphones coming soon, and perhaps a partnership with AT&T or Verizon, too.

Until then, you can get all the details and request an invitation here.

YouTube goes 360, upload and view immersive videos

YouTube

YouTube

Watching a video is one thing, but watching one in full surround is quite another matter. The technology makes for better immersion in your viewing experience, though it’s tricky to shoot and has been more difficult to upload and let people view your wonderful clips. That is changing now as YouTube introduces the technology to upload these clips.

“You could let viewers see the stage and the crowd of your concert, the sky and the ground as you wingsuit glide, or you could even have a choose-your-own-adventure video where people see a different story depending on where they look. Only you know what’s possible”, says project manager Sanjeev Verma.

This will be available via the YouTube app for Android — simply move your phone or tablet around to scroll around the screen. Users can also do the same with YouTube.comand Chrome by utilizing the mouse to roll around the video.

“To make it easy for you to create and upload 360-degree videos to YouTube, we’ve been working with companies across the industry. BublcamGiroptic’s 360camIC Real Tech’s AllieKodak’s SP360 and RICOH THETA are 360-degree video cameras compatible with YouTube that are available today or are coming soon” the announcement reads.

If you happen to be located near Los Angeles then you can stop by the YouTube Space L.A. and learn more about what is happening. The show is being hosted by the Creator Team and will run  into April. Google promises that it will “blow your mind”.

Google Changes Adult Content Policy on Blogger

Blogger LogoGoogle is making a change regarding what kind of content is allowed to be publicly visible on Blogger. Starting March 23, 2015, people who use Blogger will no longer be able to publicly share images and videos that are sexually explicit or that show graphic nudity.

There are some exceptions to this rule. Google will still allow content that includes nudity to be publicly visible on Blogger if it “offers a substantial public benefit”. The example Google gives clarifies “in artistic, educational, documentary, or scientific contexts”. In other words, it is the “not safe for work” content that is being removed from public viewing.

To be clear, Google isn’t going to start deleting blogs that contain nude images or sexually explicit content from Blogger. Instead, those blogs will be made private after March 23, 2015. In other words, the only people who will be able to see the content on those blogs will be the blog owners, the admins of the blogs, and the people the owner of the blog has shared the blog with.

The blog owner could invite people to view their blog by adding individual email addresses of each person they want to grant access to. The Google account associated with those addresses could then view the blog by signing into an existing Google account, creating a new Google account, or choosing to view the blog as a “guest” (which would not require an account). A “guest” account expires after 30 days and requires a new invitation before that person can view the blog.

There are some who have pointed out that blogs that have been marked private will be removed from search results. Obviously, this will result in much less traffic to the Blogger blogs that become private as a result of Google’s content policy change. There is another option. Affected bloggers can export their blog’s text and images and repost it on a personal website.

Free Beer from Alcohoot at CES!

Alcohoot Logo

Alcohoot are offering free beer for visitors to their stand at CES (booth 74549). On the surface, it’s a cheap trick but as they sell breathalyzers there’s a certain relevance to it. No doubt the merit of personal breathalyzers will continue to be debated for years to come but focussing on the technology, Alcohoot have produced a portable breathalyzer that plugs into the headphone jack of both Android and Apple smartphones. The Alcohoot uses an FDA-registered fuel cell sensor built into a hand-sized pocket device to record the owner’s alcohol level as he or she breathes into the unit.

Alcohoot and Phone

The complementary app is available on both the Android and iOS platforms and lets the owner track his or her consumption. Handily, it can provide contact details for taxis when over the legal limit for driving.

App Screens

The Alcohoot was a winner of the Red Dot Design Award, 2014, which puts it in good company along with Apple, Beats By Dre, Bose, BMW, Nest, Nespresso, Blackberry, Lenovo, Nike+ FuelBand, LG and many more.

Available in three colours – black, white and red – the Alcohoot can be bought from their store for $99.99 along with extra mouthpieces.

If you want to learn more, pop into Alcohoot’s CES booth 74549 at the Sands Expo Center for a few beers. Cheers!

Google News Spain Will Close Due to “Tax”

Google logoGoogle is about to close Google News Spain. This change will only affect that one particular version of Google News. The reason has to do with a new Spanish law that will go into affect in January of 2015. Google will also be removing Spanish media outlets from Google News.

The new law requires Google to pay for using publisher’s content. The law, which was passed in October of 2014, is a copyright law. It requires content aggregators that post links and excerpts of news articles to pay a fee to the Association of Editors of Spanish Dailies. This law also affects other content aggregators but has been referred to as the “Google Tax”.

Google’s official update describes the situation this way:

This new legislation requires every Spanish publication to charge services like Google News for showing even the smallest snippet of their publications, whether they want to or not. As Google News itself makes no money (we do not show any advertising on the site) this new approach is simply not sustainable. So, it’s with real sadness that on 16 December (before the new law comes into effect in January) we’ll remove Spanish publishers from Google News, and close Google News in Spain.

It appears that the intent of this Spanish law was to protect Spain’s print media industry. I suspect the new law will end up causing it harm, instead. The removal of links to their content is going to cost them the traffic they would have gotten via Google News Spain and other content aggregators.

£100 Off Moto X in UK

Motorola M LogoMotorola Moto XJust a quick one. If you are in the UK, there’s £100 off a Motorola Moto X as a Cyber Monday discount. Registration opens at 8am on Monday morning and closes at noon on Tuesday, though Motorola suggests that it’s “while stocks last”. Successful registrants will be emailed a promo code to get £100 off devices through Moto Maker, though disappointingly it seems from the FAQ that premium options such as extra memory and leather backs aren’t included in the offer.

I was big fan of the 1st gen Moto X and if the Nexus 6 is simply too big, then the 5.2″ screen might make this the one for you. I think I might be tempted to replace my Nexus 4, though I would have liked a leather back.

Huawei Ascend Y550 Smartphone Review

From the level of press coverage, it’s very easy to think that the only smartphones on the market have huge screens and price tags to match. If it’s not an iPhone 6 Plus or Nexus 6, it’s not worth talking about. Contrary to the column inches, there’s a wide selection of phones that have smaller screens for less cash which still offer a great deal. Which brings us to the Huawei Ascend Y550 4G Android smartphone. Let’s take a look.

Y550 with Pencil

The Huawei Ascend Y550 doesn’t stray too far from the “black slab” formula: 4.5″ screen on the front, camera in the top centre on the back with flash to one side, headphone jack on the top, micro USB on the bottom, volume and power buttons on the right. It’s not super-slim phone but at 9.5 mm and a little over 150g, it’s in the right spot. The Y550 feels comfortable in the hand, though the graphite-coloured back is fairly smooth and I think a case would be recommended to avoid the phone slipping to disastrous end.

Y550 Cover OffSpecwise, it’s a 4.5″ IPS screen with 480 x 854 pixel resolution driven by a Qualcomm MSM8916 Quad-Core 1.2 GHz processor and supported by 1 GB RAM but only 4 GB of storage, of which less than 2 GB is available to the user. Getting the back off the phone is easy as there’s a notch in the back cover to use with your fingernail. Inside, there’s the battery, micro SIM and micro SD slots, which can be used to upgrade the storage. Physically, the screen seems to be polycarbonate; there’s no Gorilla Glass here but that’s not surprising at this price point.

There’s the usual accoutrement of radios – wifi 11gbn, Bluetooth 4, GPS and of course, this is a 4G phone. Overall, the phone is 133 mm x 68 mm x 9.5 mm. The battery is 2000 mAh, which keeps the phone going for at least a day on normal use, but firing up Ingress will hit the battery just as on any other phone. The main camera is 5MP autofocus and will record 720p video. The front facing camera is 2MP with a fixed focus. I was pleasantly surprised with the photos from the main camera – colour reproduction was good even in overcast conditions.

Settings Unsurprisingly it’s Android 4.4.4 (KitKat) under the hood but Huawei have added their own Emotion UI on top, which goes in entirely the opposite direction to Google’s Material Design. Instead of flat blocks of colour, Emotion uses shading and three dimension effects and frankly, doesn’t look too bad at all. The other big difference is that there’s no difference between the Desktop and Drawer screens, with all the apps accessible from the Desktop. Widgets and regularly used apps can be added to the screens as well so it’s a bit different from what many people might be used to.

Simple HomeIf this is too complicated, Simple Home is a tab-style combined dialer and app launcher that I assume is aimed at older people with a maximum of 8 apps or contacts per screen in grid layout. Dare I say it, but the layout is reminiscent of Microsoft’s Modern UI with slightly rounded edges.

Huawei have added their Emotion UI to most of the built-in apps and there are a few extra value-adding apps provided to including Cast, which lets you share your phone screen with friends and Remote Camera, which turns the phone into a webcam that can be accesses across the ‘net. Notifications have been improved too in keeping with the Emotion look and feel.

Geekbench 3Checking the performance, Geekbench 3 scored the Y550 at 468 on on the single core and 1348 on the multicore. Interesting, the two year old Nexus 4 scores similarly at 473 / 1477 and I’d say that’s a fair reflection of the Y550 in use. Apps were responsive and there was no lag.

The lack of RAM does occasionally reveal itself and the most obvious instance of this was when an app launched the camera app to take a picture with the expectation of switching back to the original app. On some occasions, I’d find that the original app would have closed while taking the photo and would have to restart. It’s no big deal.

Phone CrashThe other problem that I had which was a bit more disconcerting was the that the phone module would sometimes crash. It never happened while I was on a call but it would take about half a minute for the phone module to reset and services to resume. Huawei need to get this fixed – this particular handset may be an early review model so take that into consideration. I’ll update the review as I hear more.

Overall the Huawei Ascend Y550 is representative of a £100 off-contract phone and it’s good to see 4G reaching this price point. The Y550 does feel more expensive in the hand but is let down by the small amount of storage RAM; 8 GB would seem more appropriate as this would give the user around 6 GB  to use. The Emotion UI is both a pro and a con, although the Simple Home is handy for less experienced users. If you are in the market for a phone at this level, put it on your list.

The Ascend Y550 is available for retailers for around £100 SIM-free or on contract from Carphone Warehouse at £10 per month.

Thanks to Huawei for the loan of the Ascend Y550.

Google fixes ‘security’ problem that blocked bit.ly links

Chrome logoOver the past few days it has come to light that Google was blocking all bit.ly links as if they were malicious. That quickly became a real problem around the web, as many services use the URL shortening service. This made things even harder for folks using the ever-growing Chromebook platform, as there is no way around a problem such as this.

Now, according to security researcher Graham Cluley, as well as other sources, the problem has now been solved. “It appears the issue has now been resolved”, Cluley reports, after initially revealing that “it seems bit.ly has made its way onto Google’s list of sites that aren’t safe to browse to”.

Bit.ly has so far not commented on the problem and it appears there was never a real danger. However, link shortening services have been known to be used to hide the real link in an effort to get a user to a malicious site and bit.ly did suffer an attack earlier this year. That seems to be unrelated to this incident, though.

For now, customers may wish to keep an eye on the service’s blog for any information regarding this incident.

Google Makes Changes in Effort to Fight Piracy

GoogleGoogle has made some changes recently in an effort to fight piracy. They have released a 26 page PDF titled How Google Fights Piracy that you can read if you want to know all the details. The key point seems to be an effort to highlight legitimate resources where people can legally purchase (or rent) music, movies, and other digital content. Google says “The right combination of price, convenience, and inventory will do far more to reduce piracy than enforcement can.”

The PDF (or “white pages” as some have termed it) mentions Google Play and points that Android users can visit Google Play and legally purchase music, movies, TV shows, ebooks, apps, and games. The implication is that Google Play is an example of “the right combination of price, convenience, and inventory”.

Google also gives details regarding copyright removal notices and ranking. Websites that have had a high number of removal notices may appear lower in search engine results. In other words, a new algorithm will push websites that have had a lot of valid copyright removal requests lower in the search rankings. I think the idea is to make it easier for people to find legitimate sources of content by making those websites appear higher in the ranking.

There has also been a change to Google’s autocomplete. Google has taken steps to prevent “terms closely associated with piracy” from appearing an the autocomplete. At the same time, they are putting links to legitimate sources of copyrighted content that match your search into the right hand panel (where the ads appear).

This change also goes along with one of Google’s anti-piracy principles, specifically the one that can be summarized as “follow the money”. Part of that principle states: “Rogue sites that specialize in online piracy are commercial ventures, which means the most effective way to combat them is to cut off their money supply”.