Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Learn to code!

There's been a growing realisation amongst educators that the previous decades' approach to ICT instruction has failed. Teaching children (or adults) to use application software like MS Word, Excel or PowerPoint is not teaching them how to use computers - it's just teaching them how to use applications. To learn how to really use the power of a computer you have to learn to program, or "code" as the Americans call it. The amazing success of the Raspberry Pi - a computer that costs $25 that schools can use to teach programming, has  shown that there is a strong demand for this.
   A new non-profit called aims to encourage young and old alike to learn how to really use a computer. A motivational video that they've produced features Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey and others encouraging everyone to "learn to code." As Steve Jobs said, "I think everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.” 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

An interesting new scientific award has been making the news recently - the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Endowed by Internet billionaires Art Levinson, Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan and Yuri Milner the prize aims to recocognise "excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life." The award seems laudable, but GrrlScientist and Bob O'Hara, writing in The Guardian, argue that it is misguided and flawed.

Friday, February 22, 2013

What would you do if you had Glass? #projectglass

Google is inviting people to take part in the Google Glass project. I've blogged about the Google Glasses before and now Google is inviting anyone with a good idea for how to use the augmented reality glasses to tell them about it. The winners will be able to become a Glass Explorer and I assume build their application for use on the glasses. There is a catch, you have to be in the US and have $1,500 (USD) to partake. The deadline for entry is Feb 27. Visit the Glass Project website for more information and read this article from the Verge about the development of Glass and what using one/them is like or watch the video.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Learning to play poker...

The Game AI group at the University of Auckland have been playing poker since 2007. Over the years a case-based Texas Hold'em poker bot, called Sartre, has been improving its performance both against other poker bots in the Annual Computer Poker Competition and people via our online poker bot.  The online poker bot retains each hand of poker played as a new case and so over time it learns to play against people better as it's experience of the game grows.
    When you play against Sartre you may win several hands in a row, you may even win a considerable number of hands. But, on the whole Satre wins and the graph below proves it. Sartre is now consistently on average winning 0.35 sb/h. It is consistently in profit. Of course this comes with a big caveat - we're not playing for real money and consequently some players tend not to fold when the should because they want to see the outcome of the hand. However, there are plenty of trusted sites like Jackpot Capital online where you can risk you money and test you skill should you want to.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Bionic hand that can feel

We've become almost accustomed now to the sight of an amputee controlling a robotic limb by thought alone. But a great impediment to creating truly life-like robotic limbs has been providing sensory feedback to the amputee - i.e., touch. Researchers from the Swiss-based Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne have recently announced that they are preparing to fit a bionic hand to a man in Rome. If successful this will be a real breakthrough since it should allow a person to control the limb much more accurately .

Friday, February 15, 2013

A movie about a healthcare robot

Yes really, a movie about a healthcare robot set in "the near future" called Robot & Frank. The movie is about the growing relationship between a curmudgeonly ex-cat-burglar, Frank, and a healthcare robot, just called Robot. The robot's prime directive is to improve Frank's health so it ends up encouraging him to plan a burglary, since the planning stimulates his mind. The robot acquiesces to taking part in the heist when Frank promises to commit to a low sodium diet. Any more would give too much of the story away. The movie is low key and will probably slip under your radar despite having a great cast. Some of the AI is quite accurate; I particularly enjoyed the use of "brute force search" to crack a 3 digit safe code.
   Don't think that healthcare robotics is just science fiction, many researchers, including colleagues in the University of Auckland, are actively working in this area and expect healthcare robots to be a reality in, as this movie says, "the near future."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Algorithms: not just for computers

By Mark Wilson
Recently I visited a branch library with my sons and checked out a large number of books for them, using the self-checkout. On leaving, we set off the alarm, because at least one book had not been correctly scanned. A librarian seized the pile of books, and proceeded to determine the offending book by binary search using the alarm (his algorithm may not have worked completely if more than one book was unscanned, so he performed a final check on the original pile, after scanning the one he found). His colleague was amazed and said that everyone else uses (in effect) sequential search of the receipt, checking it with the books in hand. I was amazed: both that someone that clever was working as a librarian, and that I had finally found a real-life application of an algorithm "in the wild". I try to give many such examples when teaching algorithms courses, but they always have a slightly contrived feel to them. Of course the game of Twenty Questions is a good motivating example.
    Another two questions were raised in my mind. This librarian was clearly an immigrant from East Asia. Perhaps the education system there is so much better than ours as far as algorithms are concerned. Or perhaps our immigrants are underemployed.
    For more on binary search, covered in our courses COMPSCI 105 and COMPSCI 220, see this Wikipedia article.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How secure are your passwords?

The recent hack of Telecom's Xtra/Yahoo email service, in which 450,000 users may have been affected, once again highlights the importance of managing your online security. We're all told that you can't use your dog's name as your password (too easy to find out) and that you should include lower and uppercase letters, numbers, and even special characters in your passwords (many sites now insist on this). We're also told that you should never use the same password for different websites or services. Then if a site is hacked the hackers can't get access to the rest of your online life since the password they've got is only good for that one site.
    But the problem is to follow this advice means having to remember dozens of complex passwords -  a virtually impossible task. However there is a solution, no not PostIt notes - a password management system. There are several on the market. I use, and am very happy with, LastPass.
    Basically these systems install a browser extension (all major OSs and browsers are supported) and they watch for username & password fields on websites. When you login the password management system provides the correct password for the login URL from its encrypted database in the cloud. If you're registering for the first time the system generates a random complex password for you and stores it. So now you only have to remember one password - the one that logs you into your password management system. To make this more secure LastPass uses Google's 2-step verification system that also requires a code number generated by an app on my smartphone to complete the login. There are several other security features that LastPass has, which you can explore for yourself. I recommend you consider using a password management system to take control of your online security.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Software Engineering is cool...

Last evening TV 3 news featured a story about the recent Hactivate event. Sponsored by Auckland tech companies the events involve coding challenges and competitions, cocktails and dance music. Their intention is show that computer science and software engineering can be exciting fun careers. It also offers the companies involved the opportunity to identify potential employees.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Great calculator app - MyScript Calculator

I don't  often promote apps but yesterday I came across an app for my iPad that I just love. MyScript Calculator was featured in the Apple App Store and it's free and looks fun so I installed it. It's very simple; you write a mathematical formula on the iPad's screen, just as you would with a pencil and paper, and it converts your handwriting into digital form and does the calculation for you. Any mistakes you (or it) makes can be easily undone. Watch the video below to see how it works. It's available on Android as well.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The largest prime number is...

257,885,161 – 1 

Well it's the largest prime number found so far, there will of course be larger ones since Euclid proved that there must be an infinite number of prime numbers. The current highest prime was discovered by Curtis Cooper, a researcher from University of Central Missouri, as part of the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (Gimps) project - a distributed computing project  involving tens of thousands of computers. The previous highest prime was discovered by Gimps in 2008, but it was a mere 13m digits long, whereas the number above is 17m digits long.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Bob Marley's birthday is a national holiday in New Zealand

The Bob Marley Museum, Kingston Jamaica
If you've ever visited New Zealand, or if like me you're fortunate enough to live there, you'll probably have realised that reggae music is very popular in New Zealand - there's a long tradition of local reggae bands from the late 1970s to the present day.
    Several years ago I visited the University of the West Indies in Kingston Jamaica and went to the Bob Marley Museum in his old house in Kingston. Our guide proudly showed us the framed parliamentary legislation establishing the Bob Marley Day national holiday on Feb 6, the anniversary of Bob Marley's birth.  I commented to her, "Feb 6 is a national holiday in New Zealand as well." She looked amazed and replied, "No maan, for true! Your country respect Bob that much?" I told her that "Yes, Bob Marley was very popular in New Zealand." 
   Of course it's a complete coincidence, Feb 6 is Waitangi Day in New Zealand that commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 between the  British Crown and over 500 Māori chiefs. The treaty is considered to be New Zealand’s founding document. However, it's a very happy coincidence and there are always lots of reggae bands performing on Bob Marley's birthday on Waitangi Day.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Would you like a 1.8 gigapixel camera?

You always want a camera with more megapixels don't you? US DARPA researchers have created a 1.8 gigapixel camera for use on surveillance drones. The Verge reports the drone, named Argus-IS after a 100 eyed ancient Greek monster, can observe an area half the size of Manhattan and track moving objects as small as six inches from 20,000 feet. However, monitoring all those images and video will be a Big Data challenge - it will generate 6,000 terabytes or 6 petabytes of data a day.