Voice Control Your Printer

Amazon has announced its new ‘Printing With Alexa’ service that allows owners of Echo devices to operate their printer using voice commands.

Print What?

Printing With Alexa allows the simple “Alexa, print….” followed by what the user requires to produce a printed document.  Amazon says that the kinds of things that can be printed this way include “shopping and to-do lists, games like mazes and Sudoku, graph paper, lined paper, and test pages.”

The list of different documents, many of which are related to family activities, appears to reflect the working and learning from home that has become the new norm for many people over the last 6 months, and possibly again in the future with second spikes or more lockdowns. 

Connecting

Amazon says that the service will work with compatible printers that are connected to the same wireless network as your Alexa device (provided it is a compatible Echo device too). The service is activated when the user says “Alexa, discover my printer”, or navigates to the “Devices” screen in the Alexa App, selects “+”, selects “Add Device”, and chooses “Printer” as the device type. Amazon says that the service works with most IPP-enabled network-connected printers manufactured by HP, Brother, Canon, and Epson.

Ink or Toner Re-Orders

The service also enables automatic ordering ink or toner from Amazon at a 10 per cent discount, thereby acting as a kind of hands-free replenishment process and providing extra revenue for Amazon.

Brand Voice

Back in February, before the worldwide pandemic lockdowns and working-from-home hit, Amazon was more focused on features for the business market with Alexa as it offered a new ‘Brand Voice’ capability through AWS (Brand Polly) to companies which enabled them to create their own custom voice for Alexa to replace the default voice with one that reflected their “persona”, such as the voice of Colonel Sanders for KFC.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The ‘Printing With Alexa’ service is another step in Amazon’s plan to tie Alexa (and Echo devices) more closely in with all aspects of the user’s life e.g. making phone calls, setting their appointments, alarms and reminders, and linking in with many other devices on their home network plus IoT devices.  This strategy may put Amazon’s digital assistant at the heart of the operation of modern home and will, as in this case with the printer cartridge re-ordering, tie in with Amazon’s retailing platforms, thereby providing increased revenue for Amazon and a monetising of Alexa.  This may even spread to the ordering of groceries.  For example, in July, Amazon announced that it was taking on the supermarkets and Ocado in the UK with free grocery deliveries from its Amazon Fresh service.

Even though the pandemic has dampened business-targeted announcements, Amazon is still planning to keep monetising Alexa in the business market too where there is huge potential for modifications and different targeted and customised versions of Alexa and digital assistants.  For example, in April last year, Amazon launched its Alexa for Business Blueprints, which is a platform that enables businesses to make their own Alexa-powered applications for their organisation and incorporate their own customised, private ‘skills’.

Featured Article – Just What Is The IoT?

With a vast and growing number of business, industry, consumer and civic IoT devices and systems now being used, we look at their advantages, the threats to the IoT and how we move forward in a way that maximises the benefits and security.

The Internet of Things (IoT)

IoT devices are those devices that are now present in most offices and homes that have a connection to the Internet and are, therefore, ‘smart’ and inter-connected. These devices, each of which has an IP address, could be anything from white goods and smart thermostats to CCTV cameras, medical implants, industrial controllers and building entry systems.

IoT devices transmit and collect data which can be processed in data-centres or the cloud.  IoT devices use several different communications standards and protocols to communicate with other devices.  These include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee (for low-power, short-distance communication) or message queuing telemetry transport (MQTT).

Categories

The IoT can be categorised as the consumer IoT, industrial IoT, smart homes and offices and even smart cities.

Cloud

Cloud providers also provide IoT platforms that allow IoT devices and gateways to connect with the applications used to deal with the IoT data, coordinate IoT systems and help with their functionality.

Billions

Estimates on the growing number of IoT devices vary but there is thought to be anywhere between 30 and 50 billion IoT devices worldwide which could generate more than 4 zettabytes of data this year. 

The Advantages of the IoT

Devices and systems that are ‘smart’ i.e. have an internet connection have several key advantages including:

– Data can be gathered from IoT devices that can be used to improve design, operation, security and more. This can help to create new opportunities and launch new, improved products.

– They can be updated and even patched remotely and quickly without requiring physical parts to be replaced.

– Customer interaction and engagement with the product and the brand can be increased by having a smart function.

– Companies can use IoT technologies to reduce their operational costs e.g. by helping to track and monitor equipment and reduce downtime, predict errors, and reduce power consumption.

IoT Security Risks

The risks are that the Internet connection in IoT devices can, if adequate security measures are not in place, provide a way in for hackers to steal personal data, spy on users in their own homes, or remotely take control of devices in order to misuse them.

The main security issue of many of these devices is that they have pre-set, default unchangeable passwords, and once these passwords have been discovered by cyber-criminals, the IoT devices are wide open to being tampered with and misused.

Also, the fact that IoT devices are so prevalent and are often overlooked in security planning (and are therefore likely left unguarded) means that they are vulnerable to hacks and attacks.

Another big risk is that IoT devices are deployed in many systems that link to (and are supplied by) major utilities e.g. smart meters in homes. This means that a large-scale attack on these IoT systems could affect the economy.

“Shadow IoT” devices i.e. connected to corporate networks without the knowledge of IT teams, also now pose a threat to organisations by allowing attackers a way to get into a corporate network. These devices can include fitness trackers, smartwatches, and medical devices.

Real-Life Examples

A poll by Extreme Networks of 540 IT professionals in the U.S, Europe and the Asia Pacific regions found that 70 per cent of companies who said they employed IoT devices were aware of successful or attempted hacks.

Hacks of IoT devices do not just happen to businesses.  With so many IoT devices being present in the modern home we are all now at risk. Some real-life examples of IoT hacking include:

– Hackers talking to a young girl in her bedroom via a ‘Ring’ home security camera (Mississippi, December 2019).  In the same month, a Florida family were subjected to vocal, racial abuse in their own home and subjected to a loud alarm blast after a hacker took over their ‘Ring’ security system without permission.

– In May 2018, A US woman reported that a private home conversation had been recorded by her Amazon’s voice assistant, and then sent it to a random phone contact who happened to be her husband’s employee.

– Back in 2017, researchers discovered that a sex toy with an in-built camera could also be hacked.

– In October 2016, the ‘Mirai’ attack used thousands of household IoT devices as a botnet to launch an online distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack (on the DNS service ‘Dyn’) with global consequences.

2020 Hacks

Examples of how some bigger IoT systems and devices have been attacked this year include:

– In February, there were reports that a vulnerability in over 2,300 smart building access systems was being exploited by attackers to launch DDoS attacks.

– In May, supercomputing systems in the UK, Germany, and Switzerland were targeted and infected with cryptocurrency mining malware.

– Also in May, a new form of malware called Kaiji was found to have been used to target IoT devices and Linux servers to make them part of a botnet that could be used for several different types of DDoS attacks.

IoT Security Legislation on the Way

In January this year, the UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), announced that it is preparing new legislation to enforce new standards that will protect users of IoT devices from known hacking and spying risks.

IoT Household Gadgets

This commitment to legislate leads on from last year’s proposal by then Digital Minister Margot James and follows a seven-month consultation with GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, and with stakeholders including manufacturers, retailers, and academics. 

The proposed new legislation will improve digital protection for users of a growing number of smart household devices (devices with an Internet connection) that are broadly grouped together as the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT).  These gadgets include kitchen appliances and gadgets, connected TVs, smart speakers, home security cameras, baby monitors and more.

In business settings, IoT devices can include elevators, doors, or whole heating and fire safety systems in office buildings.

The proposed new legislation will be intended to put pressure on manufacturers to ensure that:

– All internet-enabled devices have a unique password and not a default one.

– There is a public point of contact for the reporting of any vulnerabilities in IoT products.

– The minimum length of time that a device will receive security updates is clearly stated.

Challenges

Even though legislation could make manufacturers try harder to make IoT devices more secure, technical experts and commentators have pointed out that there are many challenges to making internet-enabled/smart devices secure because:

  • Adding security to household internet-enabled ‘commodity’ items costs money. This would have to be passed on to the customer in higher prices, but this would mean that the price would not be competitive. Therefore, it may be that security is being sacrificed to keep costs down – sell now and worry about security later.
  • Even if there is a security problem in a device, the firmware (the device’s software) is not always easy to update. There are also costs involved in doing so which manufacturers of lower-end devices may not be willing to incur.
  • With devices which are typically infrequent and long-lasting purchases e.g. white goods, we tend to keep them until they stop working, and we are unlikely to replace them because they have a security vulnerability that is not fully understood. As such, these devices are likely to remain available to be used by cyber-criminals for a long time.

Looking Ahead

The IoT brings many advantages to businesses in terms of cost savings, the gathering of valuable data, monitoring and management. For consumers, smart devices deliver new levels of value-adding functionality and looking ahead, towns and cities will begin to rely even more on the benefits of IoT devices and systems.

The vast number of IoT devices, many which go unnoticed or fall outside of realistic risk assessments and/or still contain known weaknesses and vulnerabilities mean that there are big concerns about IoT security and privacy going forward. 

New legislation could mean that manufacturers in some parts of the world are more motivated to pay greater attention to the security and labelling of IoT devices although there is still some way to go.  That said, smart systems combined with other technologies such as AI and cloud technologies look like providing more opportunities for businesses in the future.

No More Laptops From Toshiba

Tokyo-based Toshiba Corporation has announced that it has now transferred the remaining 19.9 per cent of its outstanding shares in its PC business (re-branded as Dynabook Inc.) to Sharp Corporation.

Helped By Foxconn

Back in June 2018, Japan’s Sharp Corp announced that it was buying Toshiba Corp’s personal computer business for $36 million.  The purchase made using the considerable resources of its parent company Foxconn (the world’s biggest contract manufacturer), meant that Sharp could re-enter the PC business that it had left eight years earlier.  The deal also meant that Sharp took an 80.1 per cent stake in Toshiba’s PC unit with a view to buying the remaining 19.1 per cent of shares this June.  Toshiba’s latest statement confirms that Toshiba has now completed the deal and is now out of the laptop manufacturing market.

Toshiba

After making the first PC laptop in 1985 and ranking highly among the laptop manufacturers of the 1990s and early 2000s, Toshiba then faced strong competition in an ever-more-crowded market where it struggled to differentiate its products.

Toshiba had also faced problems and bad publicity over news that its CEO had known about a profit inflation scheme for some years before 2015 when it was discovered that Toshiba had been overstating its profits by an estimated £780 million. Resignations in the boardroom followed.

Consumers moving more towards phones than PCs and falling sales in recent years meant that Toshiba decided to sell most of its PC business to Sharp. Sharp renamed the PC division ‘Dynabook’ in January 2019.

Selling and closing parts of the business have been a feature of Toshiba in recent years with the sale of parts of its chip unit, the sale of its TV business to Hisense and white good business to Midea Group (in China), and the closing of its NuGen nuclear business in the UK.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

It is sad to hear that one of the pioneers of the laptop business and a well-known and trusted brand here in the UK has finally left the PC business. This story highlights the relatively fast swing towards using smartphones and other differentiated, smaller (e.g. notepad) mobile devices in recent years, and how strong players such as Dell, Apple, Acer and others have come to dominate a busy laptop market. Toshiba also appears to have suffered from trouble at the top over the actions of its former CEO and some of its executives and this illustrates how bad publicity and loss of trust can also adversely affect a business.

UK Rejects Huawei Equipment For 5G Infrastructure

The UK government has gone back on its original decision to use some Huawei equipment in non-core parts of the UK’s 5G network and has opted to remove all Huawei kit by 2027.

The Waiting Is Over

For the last couple of weeks, Huawei, China and the U.S. have been awaiting the UK governments decision, following further pressure from the Trump administration, on whether the UK would decide to exclude Huawei equipment completely from UK’s 5G network. 

The final decision, as announced in the Commons by Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden is that:

– All Huawei 5G must be removed from the UK’s mobile networks by 2027.

– UK mobile providers are banned from buying new Huawei 5G equipment after 31 December this year.

Other new restrictions also announced by Mr Dowden mean that UK mobile operators should also now “transition away” from buying new Huawei equipment for use in full-fibre networks within the next two years.

Change

This announcement is a marked change from January 2020 when the UK government said that it would allow Huawei equipment to be used in the country’s 5G network, but not in core network functions or critical national infrastructure, and not in nuclear and military sites.  The UK also decided in January that Huawei’s equipment would only be allowed to make up 35 per cent of the network’s periphery, including radio masts.

Review After Pressure

Pressure and new sanctions from the Trump administration in the U.S., which some commentators see as conducting its own ‘cold war’ and trade war against China, exacerbated by blaming China for a lack of transparency in the emergence and early spread of COVID-19, along with pressure from Conservative backbenchers appear to have been major factors in the UK’s change of mind over Huawei.

Huawei Says

Huawei, which is reported to employ 1,600 people in the UK and receives considerable investment from China has reacted with dismay, suggested that the UK’s move is more of political one to please the U.S., and Lord Browne, the UK’s Huawei chairman has announced that he is to step down.

China Says

China has reacted to the UK ban with dismay and anger with China’s ambassador to the UK saying that the decision was “disappointing and wrong” and tweeting that it is “questionable whether the UK can provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for companies from other countries”.  The move by the UK was welcomed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Warnings

Some commentators have however warned that removing Huawei’s equipment will be very costly, time-consuming, and could even result in communications blackouts. It has also been reported that the decision could set the UK’s 5G network development back by a couple of years.

Although BT is cautiously analysing the likely impact of the decision, Nokia and Ericsson, two major 5G equipment vendors look set to benefit from the decision.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

It is clear to many people that President Trump’s administration in the U.S. is the driving force behind the UK and other countries falling into line regarding opposition to Huawei and rejecting its 5G network products. Although the move may be good news for other big 5G kit suppliers like Nokia and Ericsson, it could prompt China to take its own measures against UK companies.  China has also provided the money for the building of new nuclear reactors at UK power stations such as Hinkley Point, so it also remains to be seen how this may be affected by the UK appearing to make decisions in support of the those made by the Trump administration in the U.S. There are those, of course, those who genuinely see Huawei as being a high-risk vendor due to perceived close links to the Chinese government and, therefore, posing a potential security risk, and the decision to drop Huawei kit altogether from the 5G network has, consequently, been met with approval by many. 

Although UK businesses would obviously like the UK’s 5G network to be secure, they would also like it to be developed as soon as possible to enable UK companies to not be at a competitive disadvantage.  At the moment, it looks as though the rejection of Huawei could prove to be costly for infrastructure providers, and could add a couple of years on to how long UK businesses have to wait to get a well-developed 5G network across the UK.

Featured Article – Electric Vehicles, Batteries & Renewables

With 7 million electric vehicles already on the world’s roads and with predictions that 31 per cent of the overall car fleet will be electric by 2040 (i.e. 58% of all vehicles sold), how these vehicles are powered by (or can store) renewable energy are the subject of discussion, planning and speculation.

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is a term to describe energy that is collected from renewable resources, which are naturally replenished on a human timescale. The main sources are sunlight, wind, rain, tides, waves, and geothermal heat. ‘Green’ and ‘renewable’ are words used interchangeably in this arena but have slightly different meanings with nuclear power (for example) hotly contested as being ‘green’ and certainly not renewable (at least in terms of the actual material used).

Battery Technology

Where electric vehicles are concerned, the battery technology is still an area that is a real challenge to how far electric cars are able to travel on a charge.

Implications For Oil and Electricity

Electric vehicles are two or three times more efficient than conventional petrol/diesel-powered vehicles, plus they have the added benefit of having no emissions.  However, while there are still limitations on electric car battery technology, more electric cars replacing petrol and diesel cars has implications not just for the oil industry, but also for the demand for electricity.  For example, demand for oil is predicted by BNEF to reduce by 17.6 million barrels per day (bpd) by 2040 as anti-pollution legislation and the resulting increase in electric-powered transport takes over. BNEF also says that the increased number of electric cars could mean a 5.2% increase in the demand for power as well as the need for 290 million charging points by 2040.

Battery Innovation

According to recent reports, however, Chinese car battery-maker Contemporary Amperex Technology has developed (and is about to manufacture) a battery that can power an electric vehicle for an incredible 1.2 million miles over a 16-year lifespan. Reports indicate that deals may already be in place for the Chinese battery-maker to supply Tesla, BMW, Daimler, Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo for the next two years.

Dyson & Electric Car Batteries

Back in October last year Dyson has scrapped its £2.5 billion ‘N526’ electric car project but announced that work would continue improving the battery technology that would have been used in the car.  Dyson had originally planned to invest £1 billion in development of the car and invest another £1 billion in developing the electric battery technology.

Electric Vehicles Using Renewable Energy

Pilot Schemes are being run, mainly in the U.S., that provide ways for electric vehicle owners to use renewable energy for their vehicles, and to charge at times that help integrate more renewable energy sources on the grid. These schemes include:

– For a small monthly subscription, Austin Energy’s Plug-in EVerywhere Network gives electric car drivers access to a network of charging stations where the electricity is sourced from the wind.  Also, fast charging network company EVgo operated a scheme that gave customers access to power sourced 100% from wind or solar energy.  Customers could choose to pay-as-you-go or via monthly payments to access this renewable energy power for their electric vehicles.

– Pacific Gas & Electric’s ‘Charge Forward’ managed charging program let customers control the timing of their EV charging to align with clean energy availability and grid needs (in exchange for low charging rates).

– Gas & Electric, in partnership with the City of San Diego, gave electric car customers access to charging stations that were powered by photovoltaic (PV) canopies installed right next to the charging stations.  The solar energy was stored in a battery system.

– In January last year, Southern California Edison introduced a discount scheme for customers who charged their electric vehicles on weekdays and during off-peak hours on weekends, when solar was abundant.

Battery Hubs

Although there are currently fewer than 200,000 electric vehicles on UK roads, National Grid, the UK’s energy system operator proposed the creation of a battery hub that a fleet of 35m electric vehicles could feed renewable energy into, thereby helping the UK to reach its net-zero carbon target.

The idea was based upon the prediction that electric vehicles will become the most popular form of transport between 2030 and the early 2040s in the UK and by 2050, tens of millions of electric cars will be using (renewable) wind and solar power to charge up within minutes in a way that can create renewable energy battery packs for when the UK’s grid needs more energy.

It is thought that such a system could use algorithms to help the smart electric cars to balance demand and supply on the grid and make the most of renewable energy as well as saving customers money.

Looking Ahead

With so many electric vehicle purchases predicted in the near future, making serious advances in battery technology, and finding ways to charge electric vehicles using renewable energy sources to make the most of the green benefits are becoming major concerns. It also seems that there will ways in which electric vehicles and the grid can interact to help manage demand and utility companies will be finding ways to help customers to choose renewable energy for their charging needs, and will be able to offer price incentives to customers who are willing to charge their vehicles at times that will benefit the grid.

Boris Johnson is said to be currently considering a scheme to give drivers up to £6,000 to tempt them to change their old petrol/diseel cars for new electric ones, as part of a suite of plans to be announced shortly, in an attempt to kick-start the economy’s flagging vehicle sales, which has been hugely impacted by Covid-19.

Flying Taxis – Major Tesla Shareholder Funding

German vertical take-off air taxi start-up company Lilium has just received a major funding boost from Baillie Gifford, the second-biggest shareholder in Tesla.

Additional Funding

Lilium, which had already raised $340 million, $240 million of which came from China’s Tencent, has boosted its coffers by a further $35 million thanks to funding from Scottish company Baillie Gifford, which itself is a 7.67 per cent owner of Tesla.

Air Taxi

The funding will go towards the development and production of an electric-powered, vertical take-off ‘air taxi’ (like a flying car) that’s capable of transporting a small number of passengers over relatively short distances, to be used within a city or regionally.

Prototype

It has been reported that although the five-seater 36-rotor vehicle looks unlikely to enter commercial service until 2025, it is already in its prototype phase. So far, the vehicle is reported to have been able to reach a speed of 62 mph and it is thought that when finally in service, Lilium’s air taxi will have a range of more than 180 miles.

Competitors

Lilian is not the only company developing an air taxi vehicle.  In October last year, electric flight start-up ‘Kitty Hawk’, which is backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, announced that it had produced its third aircraft dubbed ‘Heaviside’ (HVSD). Kitty Hawk reported that HVSD could travel a 55-mile route from San Jose to San Francisco in only 15 minutes.

Unmanned, Autonomous Fighter Aircraft In Development

Meanwhile, in the military world, The American Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is reported to have been working on an autonomous fighter jet that can be controlled remotely.  Reports indicate that the aircraft and accompanying technology may be ready as early as next year.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

As roads have become more congested, environmental factors have come to fore, driven by environmental targets and the commercial introduction of electric cars, and with advances in autonomous vehicles and the accompanying technology, the autonomous vehicle market is now full of opportunities.  Short hop electric-powered flying taxis appear to be an area that is exciting, practical and could appeal to travellers who need to get quickly from the airport to the city centre while avoiding the crowds.  Although trusting a small vehicle with no human pilot may seem like a bit of jump now for many of us now, autonomous vehicles look set to be a growth area in the next few years and this sector could create may new opportunities for existing operators, new businesses and supply chain companies.

Fuel Engine Car Sales Fall Faster Than Electric Cars

A Bloomberg NEF (BNEF) report forecasts that sales of combustion engine cars will drop 23 per cent in 2020, whereas worldwide electric car registrations are set to fall by only 18 per cent.

Pandemic Causing Huge Car Sales Downturn

With lockdown measures, a mass loss of income and jobs, the closure of car plants and showrooms worldwide, and a huge dent in ‘consumer confidence’ has come an inevitable downturn in the sales and registrations of new cars in 2020.

Three Years

Colin McKerracher, head of advanced transport at BNEF has said: “The long-term trajectory has not changed, but the market will be bumpy for the next three years.”

Electric Models

The BNEF has also forecast that electric vehicle models will reach 31 per cent of the overall car fleet by 2040, accounting for 58 per cent of new passenger car sales. Combustion engine cars, however, are forecast to continue to gradually decline from their peak in 2017.

There are already 7 million electric cars on the road and electric car sales for this year have been 1.7 million. 

Implications For Oil and Electricity

The demand for oil is predicted by BNEF to reduce by 17.6 million barrels per day (bpd) by 2040 as anti-pollution legislation and the resulting increase in electric-powered transport takes over. BNEF also says that the increased number of electric cars could mean a 5.2% increase in the demand for power as well as the need for 290 million charging points by 2040.

Cars Not Sold

The Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) figures show that only 4,321 cars were registered in the UK in April, which is the lowest monthly level since 1946 and marks a massive 97 per cent plunge in sales from the same month in 2019.

Large numbers of unsold cars are now simply stored outside, waiting for lockdown restrictions to be lifted and some kind of upturn in the economy.  For example, the Upper Heyford airbase close to Bicester, in Oxfordshire is currently home to a vast quantity of cars estimated to be worth £35 million.

Air Quality

Lockdown around the world has brought a fast and dramatic decrease in air pollution and subsequent increase in air quality.  For example, nitrogen dioxide levels are reported to have fallen by 40 per cent around over urban areas in China, 20 per cent over Belgium and Germany, and anywhere from 19 to 40 per cent in different parts of the U.S.

The chance to see how much the environment has benefitted from coronavirus restrictions on industry and transport (road, aircraft, and rail) is likely to strengthen the case for electric vehicle ownership worldwide.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

New car registrations are often used as a key economic indicator and the pandemic has clearly been disastrous for the car market including manufacturers and their supply chains around the world. Little or no demand from hard-hit consumers is, of course, at the heart of this massive slump in a huge industry.  It is not surprising, therefore, that the BNEF is suggesting very bumpy times in the industry over the next 3 years.  Electric car ownership, driven by climate targets, industry investment and commitment, and now a perhaps improved perception by consumers who can see how a clean-air electric future could look appears to be something that, once the initial round of recessions starts to lessen could increase towards its projected trajectory.  As well as having implications for the oil and electric industries, increased demand for electric cars could create more opportunities for businesses going forward.

Robot Dog Maintains Social Distancing

A remotely controlled robot called ‘SPOT’ that is being trialled in a Singapore park warns visitors to observe safe social distancing measures.

Sign

The 2-week trial in Singapore’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park is a collaboration between Singapore’s National Parks Board (NParks) and GovTech.  A sign in the park tells visitors about the presence of SPOT and how the robot will be moving autonomously through the park to help ensure safe distancing in the park and gardens.

Sensors and Cameras

SPOT, the four-legged robot made by Boston Dynamics uses sensors to prevent any collisions with objects or people, and there is a person on-hand to help if there are any unforeseen issues.

Although SPOT is fitted with cameras which can help to estimate the number of visitors to the park, it has been reported that the cameras are not being used to collect personal data or to identify individuals.

Message

As SPOT proceeds around the park, it broadcasts a pre-recorded message that reminds visitors to observe social distancing. 

Singapore Laws

People in Singapore are used to complying with a wide variety of laws governing behaviour in public spaces, so it is likely that even commands delivered by a robot will be observed by most people.  For example, in Singapore, on-the-spot fines are common e.g. for littering, smoking in some public places and e-cigarettes can be confiscated, chewing gum is banned, and not flushing the (public) toilet can also result in a fine.

Used in Hospital

Robot delivery services are already a common sight in many hospitals, but the SPOT robot is also being used at Brigham And Women’s Hospital of Harvard University for remote triage of patients suspected of having COVID-19.

Drones

In other cities in other countries e.g. China, the US, Spain and Israel, drones have been used to deliver social distancing and dispersal instructions where there has been an outdoor grouping of people, and (in Jerusalem) outside apartment building windows and balconies to check whether people who have been ordered to self-isolate are doing so.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

For drone and robot companies, such as Boston Dynamics, demand has increased during the pandemic because the flexibility, manoeuvrability, and safety (from cross-contamination) provided by these devices has proven to have real value.  Robots and drones, using cameras, sensors and other tools can safely and quickly carry out a wide variety of tasks, as and when required, 24/7.  Delivery robots and commercial drones have also seen as a boost in demand at a time where human movement has been restricted but where a need for monitoring of property and premises, and delivery of food and other important items is still required.  

Automation is becoming an important cost and time saving and an added-value element of many businesses and organisations and the success of robots and drones and the highlighting during the pandemic of the benefits they offer can only to boost the market further and make many businesses, organisations and sectors see new opportunities for robots and drones.

Tech Tip – Charging Properly To Take Care of Your Phone Battery

You may have found that you’ve been using your gadgets for longer and charging them more during lockdown so, if you’d like to know more about keeping your gadgets’ lithium-ion batteries healthy in the long run, here are a few important tips:

– Lithium-ion batteries do not like being charged fully to 100 per cent each time. Having an energy band of around 60 per cent rather than 100 can double the life of your phone battery.

– Letting your battery get too close to zero charge should be avoided.

– Lithium-ion batteries respond well to being charged in short bursts e.g. for five per cent here or 10 per cent here and there. Bringing your phone charge from 100 per cent right down to zero and then back up again can damage the battery’s performance and cause strange and rapid losses of power.

– Extreme heat is not good for phones and other gadget batteries, and a fully charged and extremely hot phone (left in the sun) should be avoided. However, Lithium-ion batteries like to be just warm while they charge and discharge, so wireless chargers can help battery life.

Featured Article – Facial Recognition and Super Computers Help in COVID-19 Fight

Technology is playing an important role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic with adapted facial recognition cameras and super-computers now joining the battle to help beat the virus.

Adapted Facial Recognition

Facial recognition camera systems have been trialled and deployed in many different locations in the UK which famously include the 2016 and 2017 Notting Hill Carnivals, the Champions League final day June 2017 in Cardiff,  the Kings Cross Estate in 2019 and in a deliberately “overt” trial of live facial recognition technology by the Metropolitan Police in the centre of Romford, London, in January 2019.  Although it would be hard to deny that facial recognition technology (FRT) could prove to be a very valuable tool in the fight against crime, issues around its accuracy, bias and privacy have led to criticism in the UK from the Information Commissioner about some of the ways it has been used, while (in January) the European Commission was considering a ban on the use of facial recognition in public spaces for up to five years while new regulations for its use were put in place.

However, one way that some facial recognition systems have been adapted to help in the fight against COVID-19 include the incorporation of temperature screening.

Thermographic Temperature-Screening

In the early news reports of the initial spread of COVID-19 in China, news reports focused on how thermographic, temperature-screening cameras backed up by AI could be used to pick out people from crowds who displayed a key symptom, notably a raised temperature.

These systems are also likely to play a role in our post-lockdown, pre-vaccine world as one of many tools, systems, and procedures to improve safety as countries try to re-start their economies on the long road back.

In the UK – Facial Recognition Combined With ‘Fever Detection System’

In the UK, an AI-powered facial recognition system at Bristol Airport is reported to have been adapted to incorporate a ‘fever detection system’, developed by British technology company SCC. This means that the existing FRT system has been augmented with thermographic cameras that can quickly spot people, even in large moving groups (as would normally happen in airports) who have the kind of raised temperatures associated with COVID-19.

In Russia – Facial Recognition Combined With Digital Passes on Phones

It has also been reported that, as far back as March, officials in Moscow have been using the city’s network of tens of thousands of security cameras, which can offer instant, real-time facial recognition of citizens in combination with digital passes on mobile phones. It has been reported that the sheer number of cameras in Moscow, which can also be used to measure social distancing and detect crowds, coupled with the sophisticated FRT at the back-end is enough to ensure that those who are supposed to be in isolation can be detected even if they come outside their front door for a few seconds.  Moscow’s facial recognition system is also reported to be able to identify a person correctly, even if they are wearing a face mask.

Supercomputers

One of the great advantages of supercomputers is that they can carry out staggering numbers of calculations per second, thereby being able to solve complicated problems in a mere fraction of the time that it would take other computers to do the same thing.  Supercomputers are, therefore, now being used in the fight against coronavirus. For example:

– Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Advanced Computing Centre (TACC) in the U.S. are using a Frontera supercomputer and a huge computer model of the coronavirus to help researchers design new drugs and vaccines.

– University College London (UCL) researchers, as part of a consortium of over a hundred researchers from across the US and Europe, are using some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers (including the biggest one in Europe and the most powerful one in the world) to study the COVID-19 virus and thereby help develop effective treatments and, hopefully, a vaccine.  The researchers have been using the Summit at Oak Ridge National Lab, USA (1st) and SuperMUC-NG at GCS@LRZ, Germany (9th)  supercomputers to quickly search through existing libraries of compounds that could be used to attach themselves to the surface of the novel coronavirus.

– In the U.S. the COVID-19 High-Performance Computing (HPC) Consortium, a combined effort by private-public organisations, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, U.S. government departments and IBM are bringing together federal government, industry, and academics who are offering free computing time and resources on their supercomputers to help to understand and beat the coronavirus.

Looking Ahead

Facial recognition cameras used by police and government agencies have been the focus of some bad press and questions over a variety of issues, but the arrival of the pandemic has turned many things on their heads. The fact is that there are existing facial recognition camera systems which, when combined with other technologies, could help to stop the spread of a potentially deadly disease.

With vaccines normally taking years to develop, and with the pandemic being a serious, shared global threat, it makes sense that the world’s most powerful computing resources should be (and are being) deployed to speed up the process of understanding the virus and of quickly sorting through existing data and knowledge that could help.