Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Royal Airforce admits to shooting down Santa

Since 1955 the North American Aerospace Defence Command NORAD has been tracking Santa as he, his sled and reindeer, deliver presents to all the good children in the world on the night of Christmas Eve.

Britain however, is not a member of NORAD and does not track Santa. So back in 2012...

BBC Breaking News: RAF Says "Sorry, We Shot Down Santa" 06:15 25/12/12

A Senior RAF spokesperson has just made this announcement: Air Commodore Jack Ripper said, "It is with deep regret that I must inform the nation that at 02:15 hours we confirmed that the RAF had shot down Father Christmas as he crossed the Scottish border."
   he continued  "Two Tornado F3s of No. 111 Squadron were scrambled from RAF Leuchars in Fife Scotland to intercept the unidentified intruder but were too slow. Satellite data indicated the intruder had originated from somewhere in the  Arctic Polar Sea, actually from near the North Pole. It was concluded that it was likely an intercontinental ballistic missile launched from a nuclear submarine. The intruder was subsequently shot down by a surface to air missile. We can confirm there are no survivors, though Blitzen is unaccounted for."
   A Ministry of Defense spokesperson has confirmed the incident and added that, "The Army will ensure that every child in the UK receives a toy this Christmas. Though for logistical reasons children will have to visit regional distribution centres to collect their toy." So far the Prime Minister has been unavailable for comment.

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Santa upgrades Rudolph

With the growing world population and therefore more good children to deliver presents to, in just the one night, Santa has made a hard choice. His reindeer: Rudolph, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and Olive were not getting any younger. So Santa has gone 21st century, put his beloved reindeer out to pasture, and replaced them with robots from Boston Dynamics. Happy holidays!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Apollo software engineer Margaret Hamilton receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

Amid all the publicity given to the more "famous" people recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom was Margaret Hamilton. She invented the term “software engineer” starting her career as a computer programmer at MIT in the 1960s. In August 1961, NASA issued a contract to MIT to design the Apollo spacecraft’s guidance and navigational system. Hamilton presided over the in-flight software group. You can read more about her work on NASA's website.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Real time avatar in Shakespeare's Tempest

The Royal Shakespeare Company is putting on a groundbreaking production of The Tempest in which the sprite Ariel, a central character in the play, is visualised by an avatar driven in real-time by an actor, Mark Quartley. Both the actor and the digital avatar are visible to the audience. As a big Shakespeare fan I'd love to see this performance and I can see how this fusion of technology and acting could be used in other Shakespeare plays; obviously Puck and the fairies in Midsummer Night's Dream and  Banquo's ghost in Macbeth. Ars Technica has an interesting review of the production and you get a behind the scenes look in the video below.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

McDonald’s To Open 25,000 Robot-Run Restaurants

It looks inevitable that more and more jobs will be lost to robots in the foreseeable future. With the advent of self-driving vehicles it's clear that many driving jobs are under threat. However, less obvious jobs, like working in fast-food restaurants, are now under threat. McDonald’s has recently announced that it plans to open 25,000 robot-run restaurants. Now it's clear that McDonalds has missed its 2016 target, but the threat is still there.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence

The potential danger or threat that AI may pose to society and even humanity itself has been in the news a lot lately. Now, "thanks to an unprecedented £10 million grant from the Leverhulme Trust, the University of Cambridge is to establish a new interdisciplinary research centre, the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, to explore the opportunities and challenges of this potentially epoch-making technological development, both short and long term. The Centre brings together computer scientists, philosophers, social scientists and others to examine the technical, practical and philosophical questions artificial intelligence raises for humanity in the coming century.
Human-level intelligence is familiar in biological “hardware” – it happens inside our skulls. Technology and science are now converging on a possible future where similar intelligence can be created in computers. While it is hard to predict when this will happen, some researchers suggest that human-level AI will be created within this century. Freed of biological constraints, such machines might become much more intelligent than humans. What would this mean for us? Stuart Russell, a world-leading AI researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and collaborator on the project, suggests that this would be “the biggest event in human history”. Professor Stephen Hawking agrees, saying that “when it eventually does occur, it’s likely to be either the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity, so there’s huge value in getting it right.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

UK Government releases report on Robotics and Artificial Intelligence

The UK Government's Science and Technology Committee undertook an inquiry into robotics and artificial intelligence. Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) was one of the "Eight Great Technologies" identified by the UK Government in 2012. The inquiry has now released a report on Robotics and Artificial Intelligence that you can download from the committee's parliamentary website. Dr Tania Mathias, interim Chair of the Committee, said:
"Artificial intelligence has some way to go before we see systems and robots as portrayed in the creative arts such as Star Wars. At present, 'AI machines' have narrow and specific roles, such as in voice-recognition or playing the board game 'Go'. But science fiction is slowly becoming science fact, and robotics and AI look destined to play an increasing role in our lives over the coming decades. It is too soon to set down sector-wide regulations for this nascent field but it is vital that careful scrutiny of the ethical, legal and societal ramifications of artificially intelligent systems begins now."

Friday, October 14, 2016

Reputational damage

A new phrase for many, "reputational damage", doesn't get much worse than this. Samsung's incendiary Galaxy Note 7  has been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Now it appears that according to the Guardian Samsung will be paying Galaxy Note 7 owners to buy competitors phones, including iPhones. It's estimated the Note 7 debacle will cost Samsung $17 billion and that's before "reputational damage is added into the equation. I expect a few Samsung senior execs will be looking for new employment soon.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Do you have a Yahoo email account?

It has been revealed that "Yahoo last year secretly built a custom software program to search all of its customers’ incoming emails for specific information provided by US intelligence officials." It is not known what the "specific Information" is/was. It is believed that this is the first example of a US internet company agreeing to a spy agency’s request to search all arriving messages, rather than just examining stored messages or just scanning a targeted few accounts in real time. If this concerns you and you have a Yahoo mail account there are plenty of other options out there. For example, Tutanota provides a free end-to-end encrypted email service along with iOS and Android apps.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Do you want to know what Artificial Intelligence is?

If you do want to definitely know what AI is, and perhaps more importantly what the future holds, Stanford University has just published a report titled: One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100). "Stanford University has invited leading thinkers from several institutions to begin a 100-year effort to study and anticipate how the effects of artificial intelligence will ripple through every aspect of how people work, live and play. This effort, called the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, or AI100, is the brainchild of computer scientist and Stanford alumnus Eric Horvitz who, among other credits, is a former president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence." Click the link above to read the report,

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

IBM's Watson comes of age

When IBM decided to build a computer system to challenge Gary Kasparov to a chess match they knew it would be a hard challenge. Eventually, IBM's Deep Blue won. Then people thought: "Amazing! What can Deep Blue do now?" It turned out, not much really. Deep Blue could only play chess and some people argued only against Kasparov. IBM learnt from this and when they set themselves a new challenge they wanted to create something that would be useful afterwards. The IBM Jeopardy Challenge created an AI that could use vast amounts of human knowledge and answer difficult and interesting questions. Watson is now being used to help cancer specialists make better diagnoses, it's helped design a dress and it's helped create a movie trailer. In each of these cases it "augments" human intelligence rather than replace it. Watch the YouTube clip below for more.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The IT History Society

As computers and IT become more crucial to our society and as the original generation of computer pioneers age the history of computing is becoming more popular. A recent addition to things like the Computer History Museum is the IT History Society whose mission is "to enhance and expand works concerning the history of Information Technology and to demonstrate the value of IT history to the understanding and improvement of our present and future world." Their website is recommended featuring an international database of historical and archival sites, an IT honor roll of people who have made a noteworthy contribution to the industry, records of hardware, software, and companies databases, technology quotes, a cCalendar of upcoming events, and an active blog

Monday, September 5, 2016

Amazon, IBM, and other tech giants want to pay you to create bots

VentureBeat reports that some big tech companies like Amazon, IBM, Cisco have set up investment funds to support people creating bots for their platforms and environments. There are hundreds of millions of dollars up for grabs, so if you have a good idea for a bot or intelligent assistant this might be your opportunity.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Where Robot Cars (Robocars) Can Really Take Us

I've been blogging from time to time about driverless cars or autonomous vehicles for some years now. Brad Templeton it seems devotes his entire life to the subject, with an excellent website and blog on the subject of "robocars" - highly recommended if you are interested in this topic. Incidentally, I've put a deposit down on a Tesla 3 and looking forward to trying out its autopilot on NZ roads. I'm expecting delivery in 2018.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

New BBC documentary about Ada Lovelace

The BBC have just released an excellent new documentary about the Victorian computer pioneer and visionary Ada Lovelace called: Calculating Ada: the Countess of Computing. It's available on YouTube and the BBC's iPlayer.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Happy birthday World Wide Web!

The WWW is 25 years old! The first web page at CERN, created by the web's inventor Tim Berners-Lee went online 25 years ago. That means that for many of this blog's younger readers you can't imagine a world without the web. Trust me, it was a very different place. The Telegraph newspaper has published a good history of the development of the web.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Seymour Papert, 88, Dies

The New York Times reports that: "Seymour Papert, a visionary educator and mathematician who well before the advent of the personal computer foresaw children using computers as instruments for learning and enhancing creativity, died on Sunday at his home in Blue Hill, Me. He was 88. His death was announced by the Logo Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization that he co-founded. His wife, the Russia scholar and author Suzanne Massie, said the cause was complications of a series of kidney and bladder infections." Logo was one of the first computer languages I learned and I fondly remember watching that turtle draw it's way across the screen.
Thanks to my colleague, Mark Wilson, for noticing this.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

actigaze - control your computer with your eyes

Two CS department lecturers, Gerald Weber and Christof Lutteroth, feature in an interview for the BBC technology programme Click. The interview concerns their new actigaze
technology and is broadcast on the BBC World Service.
The podcast link is here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Using Minecraft to build more intelligent technology

AI researchers are always keen to have new playgrounds to develop their ideas in. To this end, Microsoft has announced Project Malmo "a platform developed by Katja Hofmann and her colleagues in Microsoft’s Cambridge, UK, lab ... Project Malmo allows computer scientists to use the world of Minecraft as a testing ground for conducting research designed to improve artificial intelligence." The Microsoft blog recently reported on the aims of the project and it looks interesting.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Totalisator Counter in Context

Bob Doran continues his discoveries into totalisators on NZ, writing: Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision is New Zealand’s moving image and sound archive. Recently they put online an amateur movie made of the 1940 Manawatu Hunt races at Awapuni in Palmerston North, called “Racing at Awapuni”.  This is worth viewing for a peek into the fashions and way-of-life in New Zealand 75 years ago.
However, for us it gives a fascinating glimpse of an operating totalisator, the special purpose machines designed to count bets at race courses. We have a display on the second floor with some totalisator remnants of this era, and also a detailed exposition on totalisators and their history. In our display, we have one large counter from Awapuni that was saved from scrap. It was used to show the grand total of all bets on all horses. Although used up until the 1970s, this device was from the 1920s, retained when the old totalisator of  “Racing at Awapuni” was replaced with a modern machine in the late 1940s.
“Racing in Awapuni” shows us where our counter was located back in the 1920s. It was placed behind the rectangular window just below the top of the “tote house” as shown in this still from the movie. It also shows us that the 1920s  Awapuni tote was win-bet-only and could handle races with up to 24 horses.
Thanks to Brian Carpenter for a “heads up” about this film and to Nga Taonga for making it available on-line.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Not enough people to fill tech jobs

An article in the New Zealand Herald yesterday highlights the critical shortage of IT professionals in the country causing tech companies to have to bring in immigrants to fill their vacancies. Fortunately for us, New Zealand is a popular country to emigrate to. In the longer term, the Government is introducing Digital Technology as a formally integrated subject in the New Zealand curriculum. However, tech company leaders are arguing that this doesn't go far enough as it lumps computing in with metal-work and cooking. They want to see it taught as an academic subject, like history or chemistry, which they argue lead to far fewer direct jobs than computing.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Watch Jupiter's moons orbit the planet

In the weeks leading up to the spacecraft's arrival at Jupiter Monday night (July 4), Juno captured a stunning video of the four Galilean moons — Callisto, Europa, Ganymede and Io — circling the giant planet in a first-of-its-kind view of celestial dynamics. Juno is now safely in orbit and the real science can begin.

Friday, July 1, 2016

You may not need to pay that parking fine!

The Guardian reports that a free online chatbot called DoNotPay has reportedly helped appeal over $4 million in fines. "Dubbed as “the world’s first robot lawyer” by its 19-year-old creator, London-born second-year Stanford University student Joshua Browder, DoNotPay helps users contest parking tickets in an easy to use chat-like interface."

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A tricky puzzle from the past

My colleague, Bob Doran, recently ran across a link to some 1950s technology advertisements. It is noticeable that the advertisements are positive as well as being striking designs. There are not many computing ads. in the set. We have some nice examples of these on our own dept. websiteOne of the 1950s set, shown to the right sets a very attractive-looking puzzle. That's the kind of thing that is worth spending a few minutes with for the pleasure of figuring it out. But, be warned, this is a particularly tricky puzzle and the minutes can turn into many hours. Have a go, but in order to not waste your time and make you feel cheated, there are some clues given following the image.
The “icons” are completely misleading – the colour and glyph have no meaning. It is equivalent to the puzzle:

xxx ) xxxxxxx

where each x can be any decimal digit. There are no leading zeroes and the fine-print clues are needed to solve the puzzle. Mean eh? Many thanks to Lloyd Thomas for figuring it out and providing a link to the solution.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Limits of Quantum Computing: A Sceptic’s View

Quantum computing isn't an easy subject to understand - let's  be honest nothing quantum really makes sense. As Neils Bohr famously said: "If quantum mechanics hasn't profoundly shocked you, you haven't understood it yet." Fortunately two of my colleagues, Cris Calude and Alastair Abbott, do understand it and they've recently published a post on the Quantum for Quants website titled "Limits of Quantum Computing: A Sceptic’s View". Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Viv, the next-generation AI assistant built by Siri creator

Happy solstice everyone. My colleague, Mark Wilson, found this interview on TechChrunch with the inventor of Apple's Siri who has been working on an even better AI assistant. It's very interesting, clear progress has been made.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

An AI wrote this short film

Ars Technica has an interesting piece on a short movie that was written by an AI. "In the wake of Google's AI Go victory, filmmaker Oscar Sharp turned to his technologist collaborator Ross Goodwin to build a machine that could write screenplays. They created "Jetson" and fueled him with hundreds of sci-fi TV and movie scripts. Shortly thereafter, Jetson announced it wished to be addressed as Benjamin. Building a team including Thomas Middleditch, star of HBO's Silicon Valley, they gave themselves 48 hours to shoot and edit whatever Benjamin (Jetson) decided to write."

Friday, June 10, 2016

Voda-Sky merger

The media is full of the news of Vodafone and Sky TV merging. Will it be a success, reviving the fortunes of both or will it turn out like Microsoft and Nokia - a marriage made in hell. Personally, I don't see it working. My household ditched Sky TV last year for a combination of Freeview, NetFlix and a VPN to let us use the BBC iPlayer. We're saving $60 a month and we all agree we don't miss Sky at all. Their problem is particularly with the younger demographic who don't watch TV in the traditional way (in the lounge on a TV) but consume media on their laptops and smartphones. That really damages Sky's business model. However, they also don't use their phones like their parents. They message much more than they call and very often they are messaging via free WiFi and not using their telco's data plan. This merger seems like two dinosaurs propping each other up for support.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Europe will make publicly funded scientific research public

I've blogged about this topic several times now; the craziness of academics giving their papers for free to large publishing houses and then having to pay those publishers to read them. Well, it seems that in Europe at least this is about to change. Engadget reports that in 2020 Europe will make publicly funded scientific research public. "The motivation behind today's decision is to make Europe a more attractive place to do business, and to spark innovation. Researchers will be able to look into one another's work with ease, hopefully fostering an environment of collaboration. The official announcement namechecks not only "doctors and teachers," but also "entrepreneurs;" a clear sign that the EU sees this as a very startup-friendly move." This move "will only affect the publication of research that is either fully or partly funded by public funds", but since that is virtually all research in the EU this will have a major impact. Finally, we're seeing some sense.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Hidden Science of Elevators

We've all felt that frustration waiting for an elevator to come to our floor, "why isn't one coming in my direction?" Well it turns out there's quite a lot of decision making going on behind the scenes, particularly in large busy buildings with banks of elevators. Popular Mechanics recently published an article called The Hidden Science of Elevators that explores this tech. Thanks to my colleague, Bob Doran, for spotting this piece.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Google Should Not Be Allowed to Secretly Collect Private Medical Data

There is nothing more sensitive and private than our medical records, yet Google's DeepMind project has been given access to the medical data of 1.6 million Britons. An article in The Huffington Post by Edward Frenkel makes a good point in questioning if Google really deserves this privileged access to such private information. This story was brought to my attention by my colleague Mark Wilson.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Imagine Discovering That Your Teaching Assistant Really Is a Robot

You may remember that back in the mid 1990s IBM created a computer system, called Deep Blue, that challenged Grand Master Gary Kasparov at chess. Although initially unsuccessful eventually Deep Blue beat Kasparov. This was a great achievement but there was no other use for the program; Deep Blue could play excellent chess but that was all. It couldn't be repurposed to any other task. Essentially Deep Blue was a dead end. So in 2011 when IBM set itself another challenge to develop a computer system, called Watson, to answer questions on the quiz show Jeopardy they already had future uses in mind. Watson was intended to answer questions in any domain where there might be a large body of written knowledge such as medicine or the law. The Wall St Journal recently reported on an interesting use of Watson as an online teaching assistant, called Jill Watson, at Georgia Tech. "Online learning has opened the door for instructors to reach a gigantic, global audience. Trouble is, many students can ask a lot of questions, burdening human TAs, said Ashok Goel, a professor of computer science at Georgia Tech. It was he who recruited Jill Watson for his Knowledge-Based Artificial Intelligence class." Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is that many students assumed Jill Watson was a person. Has the Turing Test been passed?
Thanks to my colleague, Mark Wilson, for bringing this story to my attention.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Free public lecture on computer science

The final lecture in the series of free public Gibbons lectures takes place this Thursday 26th May at 6:30pm. This week's lecture titled: Using IT to improve health delivery for management of chronic illness is given by my colleague Professor Jim Warren, Professor of Health Informatics, Department of Computer Science, The University of Auckland. It has been suggested that more could be done to improve human health by better delivering what we already know, rather than by developing further medical knowledge. There are enormous gaps in health delivery, including inadequate detection of individuals at high risk and mismanagement of risk factors once they are identified. IT can help through the use of decision support systems that compute estimates of risk and recommend appropriate management. IT can also serve to make screening for risk factors more systematic, and consumers can receive direct 'eTherapy' for problems such as anxiety or to aid in quitting smoking.
More details about the talk, time and venue are here. If you were unable to attend the previous week's lectures they can be streamed from here

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Peter Norvig, Research Director at Google, answers some questions

One of the great things about teaching AI today, which I do, is that our standard textbook, AI: A Modern Approach, is co-authored by Peter Norvig who is Research Director at Google. You really can't show how important AI is today than that. My colleague, Mark Wilson, brought this interview with Peter Norvig on Quora to my attention; recommended.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Free public lecture on computer science

The third in the series of free public Gibbons lectures takes place this Thursday 19th May at 6:30pm. This week's lecture titled: A case study of IT in Medical Imaging: The evolution of Computed Tomography is given by Professor Anthony Butler, Head of the Department of Radiology and Director of Centre for Bioengineering & Nanomedicine, University of Otago at Christchurch. When x-rays were first discovered, medical images were viewed with devices such as fluorescent screens and eventually from x-ray film images. In the 1970’s, with the introduction of computers, 3D x-ray images could be produced using machines known as Computed Tomography scanners, or simply CT scanners. More recently, by adapting microchip technology for use in x-ray detectors, it has become possible to measure the x-ray colour (or spectrum) in CT. This facilitates the measurement of tissue constituents that were previously difficult to discern. Medical researchers are applying this new knowledge to problems in vascular disease, cancer, and joint disease. This talk outlines the development of medical x-ray technology, highlighting advances made by NZ researchers over the last 45 years.  More details about the talk, time and venue are here. If you were unable to attend the previous week's lectures they can be streamed from here

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Building AI Is Hard—So Facebook Is Building AI That Builds AI

Wired reports that "deep neural networks are remaking the Internet. Able to learn very human tasks by analyzing vast amounts of digital data, these artificially intelligent systems are injecting online services with a power that just wasn't viable in years past." Read the full article here.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Free public lecture on computer science

The second in the series of free public Gibbons lectures takes place this Thursday 12th May at 6:30pm. This week's lecture, titled: Finding your place in the genome: assembly, annotation, association, is given by Prof. Thomas Lumley of the Department of Statisticsat  The University of Auckland. To an extent that would have been astonishing a century ago, DNA copying and transcription turns out to be a digital process. The copying mechanism allows tiny amounts of DNA to be amplified; the base-pairing of the double helix lets us read out a sequence, usually by adding fluorescent tags to the DNA bases. With three billion letters of genome, much of which is poorly understood, computers need to do nearly all the work. The talk will discuss three areas of IT involvement - DNA sequencing, annotation (looking up what is known or can be guessed about a stretch of genome) and association studies (relating differences in the DNA sequence to differences in biology and health). More details about the talk, time and venue are here. If you were unable to attend last week's lecture it can be streamed from here

Thursday, May 5, 2016

You Pay to Read Research You Fund. That’s Ludicrous

Wired has recently run a piece titled You Pay to Read Research You Fund. That's Ludicrous. I've blogged about this before and I know that it's a subject that many of my colleagues are concerned about. Really you'd think that a bunch of smart people (aren't academics supposed to be smart) would come up with a better solution. Back in the days when scientific journals had to be printed and posted out to institutions and subscribers it made sense to let publishers do this, and they deservered to be paid for their service. Now that all journals are available online paying publishers to do this is crazy.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Babbage and Lovelace in UK passport

I recently received my new UK passport and I was pleasantly surprised to see etchings of the Victorian computer pioneer Charles Babbage and the first programmer Ada Lovelace inside. I wonder how many of fellow Brits recognise them?

Friday, April 29, 2016

Free public lectures on computer science

As the evening draw in it's once again time for the annual series of Gibbons Lectures at the University of Auckland. Each year the four weekly lectures follow a theme; this year's is titled: The artificial human body - by computer design, exploring how computers are being used to model various aspects of the human body, from our genome to medical imaging. The first lecture on Computational Physiology is by Distinguished Professor Peter Hunter, the Director of Auckland Bioengineering Institute on Thursday 5th of May at 6:30pm in the Owen G Glenn Building room 260.092 (OGGB3) on Level 0. Further information about all the lectures can be found here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Social Media meets the Middle Ages

Over in Sydney, the Museum of Contemporary Art has on show an exhibition of the work of Grayson Perry. Perry is a very modern artist who works in a wide variety of media, including painting and ceramics, poking fun at the shallowness of modern culture. He has also revived the medieval art of wall-hanging tapestry, producing some extremely large and colourfully wry works. It is not surprising that he even applies his social commentary to social media. One work, partly a parody of Van-Eyck and the annunciation images of the middle ages,  “The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal”, revolves around our infatuation with mega business deals and the latest technology. Notice the iPhone, the iPad, and the twin portraits of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates hanging on the wall. There is much more in the show – it is worth a visit if you are passing by.
[This post was written by my colleague Bob Doran]

Monday, April 18, 2016

Microsoft AI bot recognises photos

Microsoft's AI recently got all the wrong publicity when a chat-bot, called Tay, quickly learnt via Twitter to become a racist. Hopefully less contentious will be CaptionBot, which can recognise and describe the content of photos you upload to it. To the right you can see that it correctly identifies a photo of a boat I uploaded. Give it a try. You can find out how CaptionBot works here.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Division the long way

My colleague, Bob Doran, brought this to my attention and he writes: Recently, a video appeared on Youtube purporting to show a Facit electro-mechanical calculator deriving pi.  In fact, the calculator is merely dividing 126358 by 40221. This gives a good approximation to pi. 126358/40221 = 3.14159270, whereas pi is 3.14159265. However, the video does give a neat demonstration of an algorithm called “non-restoring division”.

Calculators are really just simple adders that add two numbers in one revolution of the mechanism. These adders can also subtract if rotated the other way. Calculators may perform other simple actions such shifting numbers to the left or right, entering data, clearing registers and counting up or down. But to perform division (or multiplication) any simple calculator has to follow a program of many steps – a mechanical program, but a program none-the-less.
   Consider how the few of us who can still do division with pencil and paper go about it. We would look at the dividend 126358 and the divisor 40221 and use our memorized “gzinta” tables to guess the first digit of the quotient i.e. “4 goes into 12” 3 times. We then form 3 x 40221 = 120663 and, as that is less than 126358, subtract it, then “take a step to the right” and continue. Most modern computers divide in much the same way, having a built-in “quotient digit predictor”. However, older computers, didn’t have such intelligence – they needed to subtract to even compare two numbers, unlike ourselves who can just see with one glance that 120663 is less that 126358. Older computers and calculators had to work out the next quotient digit by subtracting the divisor again and again from the dividend, keeping count, until the result of a subtraction became negative, showing it had gone too far and thus needing to restore the dividend by adding the divisor once (and reducing the count by 1 to give the correct quotient digit.)
   This is where non-restoring division comes in. When the result of a subtraction becomes negative it means that we have subtracted the divisor an extra one time at this quotient digit place. This is the same as having subtracted an extra ten times one place to the right. So, rather than adding to restore immediately, the program says to move to the right and then continue by adding the divisor (and counting down) rather than subtracting. When the dividend becomes positive we have found the next quotient digit, so can move to the right again and subtract the divisor repeatedly – and so on.
   Look at the video again and now notice that the direction of rotation changes for each quotient digit produced. Clever, eh?

Monday, April 11, 2016

What is computer science?

What is computer science? This is a question I often get asked, or variants like, "what do computer scientists do?" Sometimes I struggle to find a simple answer. This doco from the BBC: The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms does an excellent job of explaining, at least one core aspect, of what is computer science; namely, algorithms. It also shows how essential algorithms are to modern life. This excellent doco is currently available on YouTube.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Announcing the D-Wave 2X Quantum Computer

D-Wave, the quantum computer company, has announced it's latest quantum computer the D-Wave 2X. "With 1000+ qubits... the D-Wave 2X will enable customers to run much larger, more complex problems on the system. In addition to scaling beyond 1000 qubits, the new system incorporates other major technological and scientific advancements. These include an operating temperature below 15 millikelvin, near absolute zero and 180 times colder than interstellar space. With over 128,000 Josephson tunnel junctions, the new processors are believed to be the most complex superconductor integrated circuits ever successfully used in production systems." Quantum computers are set to become mainstream, perhaps. Read more about the D-Wave 2X here.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Debunking the biggest myths about artificial intelligence

It seems that A.I. is always in the news these days and as somebody who has been working in the field since the 1980s it's heart-warming. Unfortunately, it's also depressing that so much of the coverage is just plain wrong. Ars Technica recently published a thoughtful article titled: "Debunking the biggest myths about artificial intelligence", which I would recommend you read. The BBC also recently aired a documentary, in its excellent science series Horizon, titled: "The Immortalist", which covers some of the same ground. Basically, we know so little about how the human brain works that the idea of uploading our minds into a computer is pure science-fiction.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Google's AlphaGo wins challenge series 4:1

After IBM's Deep Blue beat Grand Master Gary Kasparov in a chess challenge series game AI moved onto the much harder ancient Chinese game Go (chess was considered "solved"). Recently Google purchased the company DeepMind and proceeded to lay down a 5-game challenge match in Seoul against Lee Sedol, the top Go player in the world, for a $1M prize. The AlphaGo team were not confident they would win, despite having beaten the European Go champion 5:0. In the event AlphaGo won 4:1 and Google got to donate a million to charity. Watch the video below to find out more about the game of Go and the program AlphaGo and read the paper the team recently published in Nature.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Why a simple spreadsheet spread like wildfire

Why a simple spreadsheet spread like wildfire is a charming article by John Naughton in The Guardian describing how he first came across the spreadsheet VisiCalc in 1979. It describes the brief, but transcendent, history of VisiCalc, arguably one of the most influential pieces of software ever. If you use a spreadsheet daily you must read this.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Pioneering theoretical computer scientist dies

David Johnson, an algorithms researcher, and promoter of all of theoretical computer science, has passed away aged 70. His 1979 book, co-authored with Michael Garey, Computers and Intractability: A Guide to the Theory of NP-Completeness, is still the standard text on this important subject. He lead the Algorithms and Optimization Department of AT&T Labs Research from 1988 to 2013, was a visiting professor at Columbia University from 2014 to 2016. He was awarded the prestigious Knuth Prize in 2010.
Thanks to my colleague, Mark Wilson, for noticing this.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Thinking robots become experts in 8 hours

My local newspaper, The New Zealand Herald, has been on a bit of a role producing articles on A.I. recently. The latest piece Thinking robots become experts in 8 hours by Pavel Alpeyev. "A yellow robotic arm pauses over a pile of metal cylinders, snaps a photo, then confidently picks pieces out of the jumble. What's impressive is that just eight hours ago, its bin-picking skills were about zero" This is another article about so-called deep learning, which has been in the news frequently recently.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The inventor of email dies

Ray Tomlinson the inventor of email (and yes he decided to use the @ symbol in the address) has died, aged 74. Love or hate email, you'll probably agree that you can't live without it. The amusing thing is that Ray could never remember what the text of the first email, sent in 1967, was. He said "test messages were entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them" but it's rumoured it may just have been qwertyuiop.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Moore’s law really is dead this time

I've blogged about Moore's Law before, but it seems that Moore's Law really is dead this time according to ars technica: "Moore's law has died at the age of 51 after an extended illness." In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made an observation that the number of components in integrated circuits was doubling every 12 months or so. The article, by Peter Bright, titled Moore's Law really is dead this time explains why - recommended.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Run Windows 3.1 in your browser

If you're of a certain age you will probably have used Windows 3.1 on a PC. Windows 3 and its descendants was the first mass market GUI operating system for the PC. For those who couldn't afford a Macintosh this was regular folks' release from the tyranny of the command prompt. Many of its features and some of its look and feel are still visible in modern incarnations of Windows. Some clever people at the Internet Archive have created a version of the Windows 3.1 OS that will run in your web browser along with 1,500 Windows 3.1 shareware apps, including classic games like WinRisk.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Techvana Public Open Day

If you are in Auckland this Saturday, February 27,  from 12:00 PM - 5:00 PM, Techvana, The Ntec New Zealand Computer Museum is having its first public open day, so come and check out their amazing collection of vintage computers, game consoles, phones, robotics and other technology from the past.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Measuring (machine) intelligence by MCQ?

I'm idly wondering: would Ms Google pass most MCQ tests constructed by academics?  If so, should we believe that she is  intelligent? Cade Metz, in an article in Wired,  gives a partial answer:
"... Clinicians were helping IBM train Watson for use in medical research. But as metaphors go, it wasn't a very good one. Three years later, our artificially intelligent machines can't even pass an eighth-grade science test, much less go to medical school.  So says Oren Etzioni, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington and the executive director of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the AI think-tank funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Etzioni and the non-for-profit Allen Institute recently ran a contest, inviting nearly 800 teams of researchers to build AI systems that could take an eighth grade science test, and today, the Institute released the results: The top performers successfully answered about 60 percent of the questions. In other words, they flunked..."
   Apparently: somewhere in the world, folks have formed the belief that 60% of possible marks is a fail, no matter how the testing instrument is constructed; however if this test of machine intelligence were run here, we'd be required - by University policy - to award a C+ pass!
   Metz quotes Doug Lenat: "... If you're talking about passing multiple choice science tests, I always felt that was not actually the test AI should be aiming to pass," he says. "The focus on natural language understanding-science tests, and so on-is something that should follow from a program being actually intelligent. Otherwise, you end up hitting the target but producing the veneer of understanding."  What a pleasant surprise: I agree with Doug about something!
   It's an intriguing question to ask of any University: is it certifying only "the veneer of understanding" on its graduates, or do they have some "deep understanding"?  More importantly, how might we reliably measure the depth of understanding in a MOOC, or in any semi-automated teaching environment employing only MCQs and keyword-matches and machine-intelligent testing procedures?
[This post was adapted from an email by my colleague Clark Thomborson.]

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Researcher illegally shares millions of science papers free online to spread knowledge

There has been an ongoing controversy over  intellectual property, copyright and ownership of scientific papers for a while now. Basically, academics, usually funded by their governments and hence the public through taxation, do research and publish their results as scientific papers in journals and conference proceedings. These publications are not usually in the public domain, as you might expect, but are owned by private companies that are increasingly being dominated by a few massive multi-national publishers like Elsevier. The publishers then charge the academics and their universities to access the journals and conference proceeding,s even though the academics gave the publishers the rights to their work for free in the first place. Clearly this is crazy and there has been a growing movement to boycott Elsevier for several years now.
This might be going to come to a head soon since a researcher in Russia has made over 48 million journal articles - almost every single peer-reviewed paper published - freely available online. She's refusing to shut the site down, despite an  injunction and lawsuit from Elsevier. Science Alert reports that the Russian researcher is standing her ground "claiming that it's Elsevier that have the illegal business model... referring to article 27 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits".
Now I'm definitely not recommending that you access scientific papers illegally, but if you're interested the Russian website is Sci-Hub.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Crowdsourced Seizure Prediction

Epilepsy, which is often compared to an electrical storm in the brain, affects nearly one percent of people worldwide. The most common treatment is medication, which can leave people feeling tired or dizzy. Other options include surgery and a new type of implanted device that uses electrical pulses to prevent seizures. A better prediction algorithm has the potential to make implanted devices more effective. Ideally, the devices would work a bit like a heart defibrillator — only delivering electrical current when it's needed. However, to date  prediction algorithms have been little better than random chance. That is until the result of a competition, announced at the American Epilepsy Society's annual meeting in Seattle, showed the value of sharing a complex problem in neuroscience with experts from unrelated fields. The winning team included a mathematician and an engineer, but no doctor. The contest, with a first prize of $15,000, was sponsored by NINDS, the American Epilepsy Society and the Epilepsy Foundation. Over 500 teams entered via, a website that allows researchers and companies to post data in the cloud for competitors to analyze, an approach known as crowdsourcing.
Thanks to my colleague, Mark Wilson, for finding this story in

Friday, February 5, 2016

Donald Murray - Data Communications Pioneer

Donald Murray
We are always pleased when our graduates have very successful careers, particularly when they found, or rise-to-the-top of, international businesses. For the University of Auckland, we can claim that our first graduate with a distinguished international career in Information Technology far predates the founding of our Computer Science department in 1980.
Donald Murray, MA, MIEE, completed a B.A. in Science at Auckland University College in 1890! He had an interesting and varied career, being initially a trainee farmer, then newspaper reporter - first with the New Zealand Herald, then with the Sydney Morning Herald.  Seeing the widespread use of telegraphy by newspapers, he became interested in extending telegraphy to use standard typewriter keyboards. Moving to London, he worked on solving this problem, founding his own company to manufacture and sell his systems. Retiring to Monte Carlo in 1925, he passed his remaining years writing on Philosophy, work not completed by the time of his death in Switzerland in 1945.
A summary of Donald Murray’s career is now on our department’s computer history pages. And there is a lot more detail about Murray and his family for those who are interested.
[This post was written by Bob Doran]

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Internet of Things security is so bad, there’s a search engine for sleeping kids

I've made a couple of posts about home automation and the growing Internet of Things (IoT); automating my house is a sort of hobby. As the uptake grows users (and manufacturers) need to take security much more seriously, since it's possible for an insecure device to compromise an entire home network. For example, a popular first IoT device for new parents is a WiFi and cloud-connected baby monitor with webcam. Parents understandably love the idea of being able to check up on their baby (and the baby sitter) using their smartphone from anywhere. However, many of these webcams are insecure and there is now a search engine for the Internet of Things (IoT), called Shodan,  that lets users easily browse vulnerable webcams. This is disturbing, creepy and potentially dangerous. Arstechnica recently published a piece that makes a good argument that users need to take more responsibility, but that manufacturers must also play their part by designing security into IoT devices. If necessary, governments may have to legislate.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Marvin Minsky - a founding father of AI dies

Marvin Minsky, one of the founding fathers of AI has died, aged 88. As a graduate AI student his book The Society of Mind was very influential on my understanding and approach to AI (I still have my copy on my office bookshelf). An article by MIT's Technology Review does a good job of outlining his contributions, in AI and beyond, and "What Marvin Minsky Still Means for AI".

Monday, January 25, 2016

What's eating Silicon Valley

Everyone wants to work for Google, Facebook, Apple or preferably the next big tech company (well at least lots of our students do). Silicon Valley is booming like never before and San Francisco has become a dormitory town with real estate prices going through the roof and locals being priced out of traditional neighbourhoods. Understandably this is causing some resentment against the tech company employees. However, it's not just the obvious people who are starting to question if the Silicon Vally boom is healthy. This piece, by Andrew Yang, called What's eating Silicon Valley asks some very interesting questions about how sustainable this all is. Thanks to my colleague, Mark Wilson, for noticing this.

Monday, January 18, 2016

A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates

"A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates" is an unlikely title for a best seller but this book has been in print since 1955. If you're a mathematician you'll know that it's actually very hard to generate truly random numbers and since random numbers are widely used by statisticians, physicists, poll takers, market analysts, lottery administrators, and others this publication was designed to solve that problem. So, if you are in the need of a series of random numbers this book is for you.

Monday, January 11, 2016

2015 : The Year Wearables Became More Than a Bad Word

Happy New Year. This blog is back from its annual holiday. Some of you will probably have received a fitness tracker, such as a Fitbit, for a Xmas present. So-called "wearables" had a very good year in 2015 and 2016 look to be even better. This article in Wired explores the trends and suggests that wearables are soon to become even more wearable.