Autonomous ships…

Smart meters, smart phones, smart televisions, smart home security cameras, smart central heating, smart lighting, and smart white goods are commonplace in today’s world. We also regularly encounter smart motorways and ever-smarter vehicles as we go about our daily lives. All of this just illustrates that no aspect of our lives is immune to the relentless advance of digital technologies. However, while most public interest and mainstream media attention tends to focus on things that either do or will have a direct personal impact on the majority of us, there are many advances underway that get much less airtime. Autonomous ships seems to be one such area.

Some months ago, while examining the forecast timeline for the mass adoption of truly autonomous (driverless) cars on public highways, the Badger came across something that triggered more personal interest in progress towards autonomous ships. It was the online dashboard of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), a 15-metre-long research trimaran recreating the historic Mayflower voyage of 1620 from Plymouth in the UK to the USA , but with no humans on board! MAS, built by Promare and IBM, and packed with sensors, AI, and autonomous technology, has not been without problems, as you can see here. Nevertheless, it has now reached North America, all be it Halifax in Canada rather than the USA, and it’s been possible to monitor its vital signs and footage from its cameras via the online dashboard throughout the journey across the Atlantic.  

MAS’s journey will undoubtedly have added to the learning and knowledge essential for scaling up to the much larger autonomous ships of the future. Smart technology on large ships already has a lot of traction and Hyundai, for example, announced just a few days ago that it was the first to pilot a ‘large autonomous ship across the ocean. The ship was fully crewed and while much of its journey was under the control of autonomous technology, much of it was not. Realistically, the days of truly autonomous civilian shipping with no crew aboard are still some way off. As might be expected,  however,  in the military domain the development of small and large autonomous vessels for naval forces has been progressing steadily. Indeed, the USA, for example, has this year created an unmanned vessel division within its Navy, and is recognising a need to build a fleet of autonomous platforms to counter threats from other superpowers.

It’s inevitable that autonomous civilian and military ships will be a feature of life for future generations. Unlike autonomous cars and aircraft, they don’t seem to attract the same level of interest in the mainstream media and general public, which the Badger finds a little surprising given the UK is an island nation and taking a cruise holiday could one day mean travelling and living on a ship that has no crew!

From Self-driving cars to the Thought Police and Big Brother…

As widely reported, for example here, here and here, a Law Commission of England and Wales report recommends a new system of legal accountability for vehicles with self-driving capabilities, anticipating the future when vehicles drive themselves for a part, or all, of a journey without a human driver paying attention to the road. When the vehicle’s driving itself, the Commission recommends that the ‘human driver’ is immune from prosecution if anything goes wrong. Instead, liability will rest with the company or body that produced and approved the vehicle and its technology for use.

The Badger read this while taking a break from entertaining his energetic grandson who’d tired himself out and was having a nap on the sofa. The mass use of completely driver-less cars at level 5, a nirvana for some, is still years away, but the report illustrates that there’s more than technology to be addressed if vehicles with higher levels of self-driving capability are to be introduced and used safely on busy public road networks.

Three thoughts came to the fore. The first was that at the higher levels of self-driving capability, cars are like aeroplanes for the roads, and so manufacturers and operators will need to adhere to airline industry-type standards in order to keep vehicle occupants safe. The second was that enormous amounts of data needs to be stored and available for use as evidence in insurance claims and legal disputes when there are, for example, accidents. Who stores it and where? Who has access to it and under what circumstances? How is privacy and personal freedom protected? The answers aren’t yet clear, at least to the Badger. The third was that insurance companies will progressively find ways of minimising their liabilities as the higher levels of self-driving cars become commonplace in the mix of traffic. The Badger has thus resolved to henceforth read his motor insurance policy terms with a laser-like legal focus on renewal every year! Overall, it seems clear that the requirement for a vehicle to have a human driver will be with us for a very long time yet.

The move towards driver-less cars is just another example of how the relentless march of technology means the toddler sleeping peacefully on the sofa will grow up in a world with similarities to that in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.   That’s an uncomfortable thought, but for all the conveniences and benefits, the internet and digital revolution of recent decades has eroded privacy and made surveillance in society easier. The Badger’s wife chided him for being gloomy before confidently saying that our grandson will grow up to be a scientist or engineer solving life’s real problems and won’t worry about such matters. The Badger chuckled. Regardless of his career choices, the toddler already has the rebellious independence and intelligence that means he will never succumb to the Thought Police and Big Brother!

Connection lost, please move your display closer to the meter…

Domestic Smart Meters installed as part of the UK rollout programme come with a small monitor providing the consumer with information about their energy usage. This little device connects to the meter via a wireless network. It’s normally positioned in a place that is both convenient for the consumer and where there is a strong wireless signal with the meter. In the Badger’s home, the monitor has never been moved from where it was put last autumn when the smart meter was installed. It functions there happily for the vast majority of the time.

Occasionally at the weekend, however, it stops working and displays the message ‘Connection lost, please move your display closer to the meter’. This isn’t a big deal because powering the device off and then on re-establishes the connection and normal service. The message appeared again last weekend, but this time it took a number of off-on cycles for service to resume.  This, and seeing the Smart Energy programme’s Albert Einstein advert extolling the virtues of digitising the UK energy system, made the Badger cogitate on a couple of questions.   

Firstly, has a Smart Meter made much of a difference in the Badger household? Not really, ostensibly because we have always been disciplined and never profligate in our use of energy. While the little energy monitor provides useful information, it did not take long after it was installed to realise that it just confirmed what we already knew, namely that cooking, cleaning, and heating dominates consumption and thus the bill. Using a PC or watching TV have a much smaller impact in comparison. The novelty of regularly looking at the energy monitor thus quickly wore off. Indeed, the Badger knows many people who have eventually turned their monitor off completely and banished it to a cupboard with other unused devices!  

Secondly, is the ‘Connection lost…’ message a reminder of something important that we all take for granted? Yes, it is. It’s a reminder that wireless and wired networks are the plumbing on which the modern world relies. Today a device is, at best, limited in its use without some kind of network connection, and, at worst, it’s useless!  Networks are a rather hidden part of the tech landscape in the general public’s psyche, but given how life would be impacted if they were down for weeks, months, or even years, they deserve more public awareness of how life would change in their absence.   

Networks are critical infrastructure and not immune to a diverse range of threats. It is foolhardy to think that this infrastructure could suffer some kind of seriously disruptive event in the future. Whenever that happens, let’s just hope that it brings out the best in humanity, rather than the worst.  Gosh! Isn’t it surprising where a simple monitor losing connection with its Smart Meter can take your thoughts…

Time to have a new meter…

The Badger read the article “The Critics Of ‘Smart Meters’ Were Right All Along” and chuckled.  It says that a supplier of electricity to UK homes has proposed a system whereby suppliers can use installed Smart Meters to turn off the electricity to your home, or to certain devices within it, when demand exceeds supply from the grid. It’s a wonderful illustration of how big corporations think about maximising their opportunities from today’s ‘always on’ digital technology, and of how journalists write attention-grabbing stories with an underlying premise that’s dubious!

The Badger’s continued to chuckle as a result of two other things.  Firstly, the short reaction  in TechMarketView’s  ‘Shock horror risk of cold showers with smart meters’, and its comment that ‘…it is unlikely that the national smart meter rollout will be complete in our lifetimes – if ever’.  And secondly, because the Badger is in the throes of modernising his home’s infrastructure and is installing SMETS2 ‘Smart’ Meters for gas and electricity.  The decision to embrace Smart Meters has nothing to do with a green future, cutting household energy bills, it being ‘smart’, or capitulation to incessant flimflam and communications from the government and energy companies. It’s simply that the time’s right for the Badger to do it, the meters are just modern meters at the end of day, they meet the Badger’s needs, and it feels like the right time to get something tangible for the money we have all paid for them through our energy bills over the last 8 years!

A meter is being installed next month. The Badger is taking close interest in the whole process, ostensibly because it feels like it will prove a fertile ground for the content of this blog in the future! Will things go smoothly? Will having a Smart Meter actually change anything in the Badger household? Will it prove trouble-free? Will it encourage a reduction in the use (and cost) of energy? Time will tell.  Will it be a trojan horse that eventually allows an energy provider to directly control supply to particular devices in the home or to purposefully interfere in some other way? No. Why? Because there isn’t an elected politician that wants to stay elected who will align with such a notion in the face of a public outcry about freedom.  In this country people strongly believe that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’, i.e. they have the right to do what they want in their own home without interference from others. Woe betide anyone or any organisation that seeks to encroach on that right.

As noted above, however, time will tell if the Badger’s right.  But given the embarrassing UK Smart Meter programme has until 2025 to complete ‘offering’ smart meters to households, the Badger thinks it’s pretty certain that the meters will go ’end of life’ before your energy provider can independently turn your oven off to manage supply and demand.   

There’s no ‘Smart Living’ without ‘Smart Working’…

‘Smart working’ has existed in the tech and IT industries for years. With pandemic coronavirus, many companies in many sectors will be severely disadvantage if they don’t have the capability! ‘Smart Working’ has pros and cons, but the pros dominate by far in today’s world of work. A software engineer neighbour, for example, sees nothing but benefit from ‘Smart Working’. He works permanently from home and travels just one day each week to his employer’s office or that of a client. His deadlines are the same as being in the office, but he feels much more productive, less stressed, and has a better work-life balance compared with the grind of a daily commute. He feels strongly that ‘Smart Working’ helps his carbon footprint, his employer’s carbon footprint, reduce costs for everyone, and makes handling crises like coronavirus easier. His employer trusts him not to abuse working this way – a trust he repays with unwavering loyalty. He says he’ll never go back to working permanently in an employer’s office!

The Badger embraced ‘Smart Working’ anytime, anyplace, anywhere years ago. Since leaving the corporate hamster wheel, however, the Badger’s feeling that ‘Smart Working’ will soon be the permanent way of working has strengthened. Coronavirus will surely reinforce that the days white-collar-workers must travel to and work in offices of their employer or a client are coming to an end. We’ll always work in offices, you might say! After all, Aristotle pointed out that we are social animals that need workplace interactions. The Badger’s seen some truth in this over the years, but for today’s younger tech natives the social interactions aspects of the workplace are gravitating faster and faster to the virtual world as technology advances.

It seems likely that pandemic coronavirus, environment/climate change, and heightened public awareness of the delicacy of global supply chains will drive faster change in the way we live our lives. Society could be at a turning point with ‘Smart Living’ becoming a much more dominant part of our psyche and behaviour. This will happen faster if employers henceforth adopt ‘Smart Working’ from home as the norm. When the current economic turmoil triggered by oil and coronavirus abates, political and business leaders will realise attitudes on how people should work in order to mitigate risk in the modern global world must change. ‘Smart Working’ and ‘Smart Living’ should go hand in hand. Without the former there can be no latter.

So, now’s the time to press the case for ‘Smart Working’ if your employer doesn’t currently have it. Remember that ‘Smart Living’ is more about the way you think, behave and take action than it is about the Internet of Things and the interconnectivity of gadgets. As Mr Spock would say, ‘It’s only logical that ‘Smart Working’ has to be a core component of ‘Smart Living’ and we need both to address our problems’.

Software defects…a fact of life.

The Badger recently used a bank’s online processes to establish formalised ‘power of attorney’ control over someone else’s accounts. Formalising the ‘power of attorney’ and setting up the associated internet banking facilities was pleasingly easy. Everything went smoothly. This week, however, the Badger encountered a problem. Not a major one, more an inconvenience. The Badger, as ‘power of attorney’, set up a new payee in order to pay a small invoice the same day. However, a ‘technical failure’ error message appeared every time the Badger tried to send the payment. Grr! The Badger called the bank, who were very helpful. It was a known problem – a software defect. If you are a ‘power of attorney’ and click the ‘send payment immediately’ box, the software won’t let you send a payment! The solution? Click the ‘send at a future date’ box – i.e. tomorrow – instead. The solution worked perfectly.

The Badger wondered why this ‘software defect’ hadn’t been picked up in pre-release testing. The experience was also a reminder of how reliant we are on software and on it working correctly. It was also a reminder that software will always contain defects even when the best design, development and testing practices have been used. While the Badger cogitated on this, he saw last week’s reports from the US about the software for Boeing’s reusable spaceship, Starliner. The reports, here for example, highlight a review following the unsuccessful Starliner test flight to the International Space Station(ISS) in December 2019, which has exposed ‘process’ failings in the software design, development, testing and assurance oversight of the ~1 million lines of code. Oh dear. There are obviously many more defects in the software than the ones that impacted the mission in the first place. The Badger raised his eyebrows in surprise. After all, well-established engineering disciplines and processes for producing quality software have been around for a long time and are there for a reason.

Software runs the modern world. It’s everywhere. Its scale and complexity have risen dramatically in recent decades, and when software goes wrong it can have wide ranging, unwelcome, and sometimes disastrous impacts. You can get a sense of the scale of some codebases here and you’ll find some of the software failures that have wreaked havoc and disruption in recent years here. Without software, modern civilization would grind to a halt.

Years ago, the Badger was told ‘Never expect software to be perfect’. Wise words still relevant in today. AI, autonomous vehicles, robots – and so on – are not immune to having software defects, so when you go about your daily life just remember that a software defect is always lurking somewhere, and that it will manifest itself at the most inconvenient time. That’s just a fact of life in today’s world!

Robots in Nursing Homes…

The Badger’s immediate priority in 2020 so far has been dealing with the health and care of a frail, 91-year old, father in moving to a nursing home after a lengthy stay in hospital. This transition went better than anticipated and the Badger’s respect for all the health and care professionals involved has reached new heights. They have been magnificent. A transition to a nursing home becoming ‘home’ is, of course, difficult for any person, especially when they have medical, mobility and dementia issues but still desire full independence, but the staff have been great and have eased the process for everyone.

If you have dealt with a similar scenario then you’ll know that it makes you aware of little things that can improve the patient’s quality of life and the bigger things that would help carer’s in their work. Useful items of simple technology are available that can help with the former – see here and here, for example – and robotic pets might ultimately help some people in the future! Regarding help for carer’s, however, the Badger’s observation is that technology that helps to safely move the human body during the daily routines of life will provide the biggest help. There has been robotics research in this area for some time, and robot advances in nursing home settings is moving apace in Japan, gaining more momentum across the developed world, and receiving investment from the UK government. If the Badger becomes resident in a nursing home in a few decades time, then a robot will inevitably play a role in getting him out of bed!

A young digital native in the Badger’s family made the following comment after the Badger’s father had been in his new home for a week:

‘There’s no point in me having a laptop, tablet, smartphone, Alexa or online games when I get old because I’ll forget what they are and how to use them. Talking to someone will be more important’.

The Badger wouldn’t put it quite that way, but the comment was very insightful!

The right robots will undoubtedly help in a residential care environment, but in the Badger’s opinion they will never replace the humanity shown by the special people who really care for their vulnerable and high-dependent residents. The Badger ’s father readily responds to people who engage him with encouraging words, a touch of a hand, a smile, a wiggle of the nose or a wrinkle of the face, and a joke or some banter. Robots  that help care staff should get more profile and investment, but it’s people and the humanity of their interactions that really makes a difference in our twilight years. So, bring on the robots, but not as a replacement for the special people who look after us when we can’t look after ourselves…

A Tidy-up leads to ‘Privacy Rebellion’…

The Badger’s performed a much overdue tidy-up of his home office and more mementoes, defunct gadgets, old books, reports, and papers were found than anticipated. It started as a quick tidy-up but morphed into an archeological dig that triggered fond memories and wonderment. It’s amazing what accumulates in nooks and crannies!

Three things of note found were a 1999 Company Annual Report, an associated 1999 slide set from the company Leadership Conference, and a Palm Pilot from the same era. Tidy-up progress slowed while the Badger read the Report and the slides because in 1999 the company was a market leader in SMS and data transmission to mobile phones, and part of the slide set covered the future of mobile phones. Today, 20 years later, the company doesn’t exist, and the Badger’s smartphone hugely exceeds the vision painted in the slides. It reminded the Badger that company’s come and go and just how much information and mobile technology has changed our lives. And the Palm Pilot? Well the dust was wiped off…and it still works! The Badger’s wife wants these items to be recycled, but they’ve just been moved from the office to a nook and cranny in the garage. She doesn’t know this yet!

During a short break in the tidy-up, the Badger’s wife sighed philosophically and commented that ‘Technology has driven lots of good in the last 100 years, but the negatives have always been down-played until they’re blindingly obvious and cause everyone to run around demanding change. In the next 20 years it’ll be the same in the digital world.’ She elaborated a little with ‘Oil, nuclear, cars, planes, antibiotics, plastic, and palm oil have advanced our lives, but it’s only recently that everyone’s realised their impacts are unsustainable. People are fickle, it’ll be no different with AI.’

A fair point perhaps? The Badger nodded playfully and added that ‘data’ was the future critical commodity, and that there could be a ‘privacy rebellion’ when the general public fully appreciate that the conveniences provided by the Internet of Things and AI could mean the current concept of a private life disappears. Impish speculation, of course, but items about voice recordings (here, here and here) and facial recognition (here and here) just illustrate the need to be wary of what goes on behind the tech in our homes or on the street.

So, there you have it – a tidy-up leads to the prospect of a ‘privacy rebellion’. Why not have an office or man-cave tidy-up of your own? It’s therapeutic, you’ll reminisce, you’ll find gadgets you didn’t know you had, and it could even spark a philosophical discussion with your partner about the future. But best of all…you might get brownie points from your partner for recycling, even if you’re really just moving things from one nook and cranny to another…

Quiz night, ‘What 3 Words’, and is tech solving problems that aren’t really problems?

The following questions were asked during a quiz night at the Badger’s local Public House:

Who said ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions’?

What geolocation mechanism can locate you anywhere in the world to a 3mx3m square?

The Badger’s team got the answer to the first one right, Albert Einstein, but we got the second one wrong. Our answer was GPS, but the quiz master said the answer was ‘What 3 Words’ – which you can find out about here and here and a specific example of its use here. The Badger’s team complained loudly, but to no effect. Why? Because it transpired the quiz master is a fan of the ‘What 3 Words’ smartphone app. Although the Badger’s team were not quiz night winners, the Einstein and ‘What 3 Words’ answers triggered a subsequent lively debate over rather more post-quiz beverages than prudent!

The debate centred on ‘Is tech increasingly solving problems that aren’t really problems?’. One team member cited digital number plates on cars (see here and here) as an example of something motivated only by making money. They speculated the ‘solution’ had been invented in 5 minutes and that 55 minutes had then been spent trying to invent the problem it was trying to solve. A reversal of Einstein’s wise words! Another team member was adamant that ‘What 3 Words ‘ is unnecessary given GPS is routinely part of modern smartphones. The Badger’s contribution to the debate was simply this. Entrepreneurs will always have ideas for making money, marketeers will always try to persuade us we need their solution to solve a problem or inconvenience we didn’t know we had, and we should never take tech at face value and always understand what’s happening to our data if we want our private lives to be just that…private.

Oiled by the beverages, the debate boisterously descended into a game that invented amusing word combinations, aka ‘What 3 Words’, for the location of well-known landmarks. For example, orange.ballon.home and wooden.plank.palace were proposed for the entrances to the US White House and UK Houses of Parliament, respectively! Eventually seriousness returned, and we concluded that tech should focus on solving the real problems of life and the planet, and not things that make us lazy or mean we don’t need to learn for ourselves or take personal responsibility for our actions.

At the end of the night all the team got up to leave except for one individual who said they’d stay to be like Einstein and spend 55 minutes thinking about a problem – whether they could actually get up to leave – even though they’d already thought of a solution – to just stay at single.malt.whiskey and have another drink. Did we laugh…just a bit…

Smartwatches? Remember to be an individual not a data point…

The Badger’s trusty Tissot watch, worn every day for 25 years, has sadly expired. It’s been replaced with a new traditional timepiece made from Titanium. Before buying the new watch, the Badger explored general purpose smartwatches, both online and at the local tech store. There’s a wide range available with rich functionality and the market is growing strongly. So why didn’t the Badger buy one? Ostensibly because ultimately the salesperson rightly triggered the Badger to think hard about their upsides and downsides, something that should be done for any tech purchase! The Badger decided he’d never use all the apps and functions, didn’t want to routinely charge a watch, and didn’t want data from its use to become part of the data trail the tech giants already have on the Badger to use for their own commercial gain. Put simply, the Badger realised that a ‘private’ traditional watch which doesn’t need apps meets his requirement and will last for the next 25 years.

Like all tech, smartwatches have upsides and downsides. However, consumers rarely spend enough time thinking about the downsides before adopting or buying tech. We are fickle and easily persuaded by clever positioning and marketing that concentrates inevitably on the positives. Is, for example, issuing smartwatches to children to track their movements a useful, helpful and convenient benefit, or is it a significant downside and erosion of personal privacy when the concept was subsequently rolled out across a wider society? The Badger thinks the latter because, in extremis, your smartwatch adds to the data trail in a completely connected world and that means others can run your life, not you!

The Badger’s not anti-smartwatches, just suspicious and cautious about the use of the most valuable commodity in the current world – our data. Josh Lifton, CEO of Crowd Supply, is quoted as saying “If you want to be considered an individual and not just a data point, then it’s in your interest to protect your privacy.” Spot on! We should all think more about our privacy and about being an individual rather than a data point.

Technology moves fast and, of course, drives progress. Louis Bleriot became the first man to fly across the English Channel 110 years ago this week and just look how far global aviation has come since! Will today’s smartwatches be quickly overtaken by new developments? If Elon Musk is making implants that link the brain directly to a smartphone then the answer has to be yes! The Badger’s certain of two things, however. Implants are not for him, and his traditional watch will preserve his privacy and individuality for many years to come. Don’t be put off buying a smartwatch, just buy one not because it’s trendy, but because you’ve really thought through the pro’s and con’s, are clear that it meets your requirement, and you’re confident that you’ll remain a private individual rather than being a data point with someone else controlling your life…