Category Archives: Analysis

The Strange Tech Wars of 2019

 

 

 

 

By Rob Enderle, Columnist and President, Principal Analyst, Enderle Group for TechNewsWorld
Mar 11, 2019  10:47AM PT

 

The tech market is defined by its battles: Microsoft vs. IBM; Apple vs. Microsoft; Netscape vs. Microsoft; Google vs. Microsoft. If Microsoft were a person, it likely would have PTSD. Then there was Apple vs. Google, and now the big one is Apple vs. Qualcomm.

The screwy thing for me is that Huawei represents a far greater threat to both companies than they represent to each other. In fact, I’m really starting to wonder if Qualcomm isn’t a proxy for Google in this fight, with Apple changing dramatically what its own real goal is.

I’ll focus on this battle royal this week, because Apple, which is in a jury trial in San Diego to determine damages to Qualcomm, apparently just attempted to influence the jury (tamper with?) and I just don’t think that is going to end well. Judges aren’t known for being stupid. Plus, I think Apple should be more worried about Huawei than Qualcomm right now anyway.

I’ll close with my product of the week: the first flying motorcycle you now can order.

Huawei’s Success

Currently Huawei is executing far better than Apple is. I say this because it passed Apple in market share, and its market continues to expand, while Apple’s apparently has started to contract. Currently Apple, which once dominated the smartphone market, is lagging behind both Samsung and Huawei.

Huawei’s success is largely because it builds a very competitive phone that provides more value than Apple’s iPhone does. Huawei also has developed more strategically, in that it builds both the phones and the switches that enable them, and it prices those switches very competitively.

This means that once it gets to critical mass in a market about switches and phones, it could enable unique features that neither its switch nor its phone competitors can match.

While both Apple and Huawei have been implementing lock-in strategies (where you capture the customers and keep them away from competitors), Apple focused on end users while Huawei focused on carriers. Since the carriers own their customers in most markets, this could make Huawei unbeatable, were it not for its one huge exposure.

That exposure is the Chinese government, which owns a significant part of the company and creates the fear that it eventually will take control and turn it into a spying tool. Although I have seen no evidence that this has happened, the company’s ownership structure implies it could, and that has led the U.S. government to blacklist the firm, not only in the U.S. but across the Western world.

However, law enforcement in most Western countries, and particularly in the U.S., isn’t based on whether someone could, or eventually will, break the law, but on whether they have broken it — and it doesn’t look as though Huawei has.

We don’t live in a Minority Report world, where you can hold people accountable for what they might do in the future. Huawei has been significantly hampered, but with proper legal help, it should be able to get off the blacklist. That would be a problem both for Apple and Qualcomm. Huawei has its own 5G technology and doesn’t need Qualcomm’s, and the company it is trying to take out appears to be Apple.

Apple (Is Qualcomm a Proxy for Google?)

What is very strange about Apple’s obvious attempts to put Qualcomm out of business is its rationale. Qualcomm isn’t a direct competitor. It provides much of the core technology that makes smartphones work — particularly high-end smartphones like the iPhone.

What if Qualcomm is a proxy for Google? Google is massively powerful, and Apple’s attempts to carry out Steve Jobs’ wish that Google be punished for violating his trust largely have failed.

However, the offending platform, Android, which Apple feels was stolen from it, depends on hardware technology — and the company that provides most of it is Qualcomm. Critical to this is that Qualcomm uses its revenue from licensing to do R&D, and that R&D is mostly carrying the high-end part of the Android platform.

If you could cripple that, you likely could reduce the competition for iPhones dramatically. Given that much of that competition is lower-priced, it would take a ton of price pressure off Apple while creating an opportunity — a strong opportunity — for Apple’s expansion.

Yet Huawei, as I noted above, doesn’t really need Qualcomm, and Huawei is a bigger threat to Apple than Samsung is, thanks to its position in China, which is the fastest-growing and arguably biggest potential market for smartphones.

Qualcomm could be a better defense against Huawei, since its technology significantly exceeds what Apple currently has. Apple is depending on Intel in the short term, and Intel has been running around a year behind Qualcomm. Intel doesn’t have the industry power, and it’s likely that Apple accidentally crippled Intel when it allegedly gave Intel Qualcomm’s technology so Intel could close the 4G/5G technology gap.

Qualcomm found out about it, and if Intel is found guilty, it may be knocked out of the cellular modem market. This is the danger when you steal technology; the downside to getting caught is that it can be catastrophic for the thief.

All of this benefits Huawei, which has Apple in its sites.

Unintended Consequences

Apple’s sales have been under pressure, and Apple has stopped reporting sales volume in an apparent attempt to conceal that volume sales are declining and revenue growth is mostly coming from price increases.

This is problematic, because there is undoubtedly a high limit to how much Apple can charge for its smartphones and related services. In other words, it can’t increase prices indefinitely, particularly as lower-cost vendors like Huawei continue to underprice it.

At some point, Apple’s customers will start to hold on to their phones longer, which appears to be the case now, and eventually jump to another vendor to avoid being on an ever-increasing and noncompetitive price cycle.

On top of that, the aggressive hostile actions against Qualcomm have cost the company millions, both in terms of legal costs and in lost iPhone sales, and the firm has been partially blocked from selling phones in China and Germany. As I write this, those blocks likely will be increased.

In addition, Huawei, thanks largely to the U.S.’s incessant attacks on the company, has become a hero to the Chinese people, and Apple effectively has been blacklisted in China.

If this trend continues, Apple could be locked out of China, the fastest-growing and biggest potential future market, , regardless of what Qualcomm does. That would crater Apple’s valuation and likely force an involuntary CEO change. In fact, I expect that if something doesn’t change, Tim Cook will be gone within 18 months.

Apple appears to be getting more and more desperate. The obvious attempt to influence the San Diego jury, which really has an incredibly high risk associated with it, is a case in point. Apple also appears to be behind the FTC challenge against Qualcomm. The FTC eventually will figure out it has been acting against the interests of the nation, particularly given that it has been approached by both the U.S. Defense Department and the Department of Energy on that topic.

Granted, the U.S. government does often seem to be at war against itself, but this seems unprecedented. Having Apple on the wrong side of the U.S. Defense Department is, in and of itself, problematic for the company.

Wrapping Up

Huawei represents a massive threat to U.S. technology dominance. Efforts to brand the company as a bad actor clearly have had an impact, but Huawei has plowed right through them, indicating that if it could get the U.S. to stop, it likely would be unbeatable.

Huawei appears to have a strong case for the U.S. to stop, and China could make leaving Huawei alone part of its deal to end the tariff war, which is going really badly for both countries at the moment (and could cost Trump the Presidency).

Given that Apple is the aggressor, it really should rethink its battle with Qualcomm/Google and focus on the bigger long-term threats: its inability to increase prices indefinitely; and Huawei/China, which together massively outresource Apple.

If something doesn’t change, tech market dominance likely will transition from the U.S. to China, with the Huawei/Apple battle being the harbinger of that change. Hopefully the next CEO at Apple will be able to intervene in time, but I doubt it.

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Rob Enderle's Product of the Week

OK, we are clearly in the world of science fiction, because last week Jetpack Aviation opened up preorders for its diesel/kerosene-powered flying motorcycle, the Speeder.

With a ceiling of 15,000 feet and a top speed of 150 mph and four turbojet engines, this thing is wicked cool. It only has 20 minutes of flying time, suggesting that if you are at 15,000 feet and a quarter tank you better like pancakes, because you are about to be one.


Jetpack Aviation's Speeder flying motorcycle
Jetpack Aviation’s Speeder

It is computer-operated, which means little or no training will be needed. (To me, that suggests you want to be watching one of these from a distance.) It even looks good — not like most flying vehicles in development, which are butt ugly.It doesn’t look like the most comfortable thing you could fly, but given the entire 20 minutes largely would be taken up with you saying to yourself “don’t crash, don’t crash, don’t crash, OMG I’m almost out of gas,” I don’t think that will be a huge problem. In fact, the lack of comfort might keep your mind off that whole pancake outcome thing.

There is even a commercial-like video of the thing. Granted, it is rendered, which suggests actually getting the product is a couple of years out, but it looks like it also will have the ability to fly autonomously.

At just under US$400K, this likely won’t have you trading in your Jet Ski or regular motorcycle anytime soon, but imagine pulling up to a party, campsite or event in this puppy. You’d be an instant celebrity, and $400K is pretty cheap for instant celebrity status.

While I think I’ll hold off personally on putting my name on the list to buy one of these, it pretty much floats to the top of my lust list, making the Jetpack Aviation Speeder my product of the week.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.

Rob Enderle has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2003. His areas of interest include AI, autonomous driving, drones, personal technology, emerging technology, regulation, litigation, M&E, and technology in politics. He has an MBA in human resources, marketing and computer science. He is also a certified management accountant. Enderle currently is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, a consultancy that serves the technology industry. He formerly served as a senior research fellow at Giga Information Group and Forrester. Email Rob.

 

How we’ll invent the future, by Bill Gates – 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2019 (Part 2, The List)

By Bill Gates for MIT Technology Review – February 27, 2019

As well as his introductory essay, read Bill Gates’ conversation with Editor-In-Chief Gideon Lichfield. Below are his picks for the 10 Breakthrough Technologies:

Robot dexterity

Nicolas Ortega
Robot dexterity
  • Why it matters If robots could learn to deal with the messiness of the real world, they could do many more tasks.
  • Key Players OpenAI
    Carnegie Mellon University
    University of Michigan
    UC Berkeley
  • Availability 3-5 years

Robots are teaching themselves to handle the physical world.

For all the talk about machines taking jobs, industrial robots are still clumsy and inflexible. A robot can repeatedly pick up a component on an assembly line with amazing precision and without ever getting bored—but move the object half an inch, or replace it with something slightly different, and the machine will fumble ineptly or paw at thin air.

But while a robot can’t yet be programmed to figure out how to grasp any object just by looking at it, as people do, it can now learn to manipulate the object on its own through virtual trial and error.

One such project is Dactyl, a robot that taught itself to flip a toy building block in its fingers. Dactyl, which comes from the San Francisco nonprofit OpenAI, consists of an off-the-shelf robot hand surrounded by an array of lights and cameras. Using what’s known as reinforcement learning, neural-network software learns how to grasp and turn the block within a simulated environment before the hand tries it out for real. The software experiments, randomly at first, strengthening connections within the network over time as it gets closer to its goal.

It usually isn’t possible to transfer that type of virtual practice to the real world, because things like friction or the varied properties of different materials are so difficult to simulate. The OpenAI team got around this by adding randomness to the virtual training, giving the robot a proxy for the messiness of reality.

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We’ll need further breakthroughs for robots to master the advanced dexterity needed in a real warehouse or factory. But if researchers can reliably employ this kind of learning, robots might eventually assemble our gadgets, load our dishwashers, and even help Grandma out of bed. —Will Knight

New-wave nuclear power

Bob Mumgaard/Plasma Science and Fusion Center/MIT

Advanced fusion and fission reactors are edging closer to reality.

New nuclear designs that have gained momentum in the past year are promising to make this power source safer and cheaper. Among them are generation IV fission reactors, an evolution of traditional designs; small modular reactors; and fusion reactors, a technology that has seemed eternally just out of reach. Developers of generation IV fission designs, such as Canada’s Terrestrial Energy and Washington-based TerraPower, have entered into R&D partnerships with utilities, aiming for grid supply (somewhat optimistically, maybe) by the 2020s.

Small modular reactors typically produce in the tens of megawatts of power (for comparison, a traditional nuclear reactor produces around 1,000 MW). Companies like Oregon’s NuScale say the miniaturized reactors can save money and reduce environmental and financial risks.

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There has even been progress on fusion. Though no one expects delivery before 2030, companies like General Fusion and Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spinout, are making some headway. Many consider fusion a pipe dream, but because the reactors can’t melt down and don’t create long-lived, high-level waste, it should face much less public resistance than conventional nuclear. (Bill Gates is an investor in TerraPower and Commonwealth Fusion Systems.) —Leigh Phillips

Predicting preemies

Nenov | Getty
Predicting preemies
  • Why it matters 15 million babies are born prematurely every year; it’s the leading cause of death for children under age five
  • Key player Akna Dx
  • Availability A test could be offered in doctor’s offices within five years

A simple blood test can predict if a pregnant woman is at risk of giving birth prematurely.

Our genetic material lives mostly inside our cells. But small amounts of “cell-free” DNA and RNA also float in our blood, often released by dying cells. In pregnant women, that cell-free material is an alphabet soup of nucleic acids from the fetus, the placenta, and the mother.

Stephen Quake, a bioengineer at Stanford, has found a way to use that to tackle one of medicine’s most intractable problems: the roughly one in 10 babies born prematurely.

Free-floating DNA and RNA can yield information that previously required invasive ways of grabbing cells, such as taking a biopsy of a tumor or puncturing a pregnant woman’s belly to perform an amniocentesis. What’s changed is that it’s now easier to detect and sequence the small amounts of cell-free genetic material in the blood. In the last few years researchers have begun developing blood tests for cancer (by spotting the telltale DNA from tumor cells) and for prenatal screening of conditions like Down syndrome.

The tests for these conditions rely on looking for genetic mutations in the DNA. RNA, on the other hand, is the molecule that regulates gene expression—how much of a protein is produced from a gene. By sequencing the free-floating RNA in the mother’s blood, Quake can spot fluctuations in the expression of seven genes that he singles out as associated with preterm birth. That lets him identify women likely to deliver too early. Once alerted, doctors can take measures to stave off an early birth and give the child a better chance of survival.

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The technology behind the blood test, Quake says, is quick, easy, and less than $10 a measurement. He and his collaborators have launched a startup, Akna Dx, to commercialize it. —Bonnie Rochman

Gut probe in a pill

Bruce Peterson
Gut probe in a pill
  • Why it matters The device makes it easier to screen for and study gut diseases, including one that keeps millions of children in poor countries from growing properly
  • Key player Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Availability Now used in adults; testing in infants begins in 2019

A small, swallowable device captures detailed images of the gut without anesthesia, even in infants and children.

Environmental enteric dysfunction (EED) may be one of the costliest diseases you’ve never heard of. Marked by inflamed intestines that are leaky and absorb nutrients poorly, it’s widespread in poor countries and is one reason why many people there are malnourished, have developmental delays, and never reach a normal height. No one knows exactly what causes EED and how it could be prevented or treated.

Practical screening to detect it would help medical workers know when to intervene and how. Therapies are already available for infants, but diagnosing and studying illnesses in the guts of such young children often requires anesthetizing them and inserting a tube called an endoscope down the throat. It’s expensive, uncomfortable, and not practical in areas of the world where EED is prevalent.

So Guillermo Tearney, a pathologist and engineer at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, is developing small devices that can be used to inspect the gut for signs of EED and even obtain tissue biopsies. Unlike endoscopes, they are simple to use at a primary care visit.

Tearney’s swallowable capsules contain miniature microscopes. They’re attached to a flexible string-like tether that provides power and light while sending images to a briefcase-like console with a monitor. This lets the health-care worker pause the capsule at points of interest and pull it out when finished, allowing it to be sterilized and reused. (Though it sounds gag-­inducing, Tearney’s team has developed a technique that they say doesn’t cause discomfort.) It can also carry technologies that image the entire surface of the digestive tract at the resolution of a single cell or capture three-dimensional cross sections a couple of millimeters deep.

The technology has several applications; at MGH it’s being used to screen for Barrett’s esophagus, a precursor of esophageal cancer. For EED, Tearney’s team has developed an even smaller version for use in infants who can’t swallow a pill. It’s been tested on adolescents in Pakistan, where EED is prevalent, and infant testing is planned for 2019.

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The little probe will help researchers answer questions about EED’s development—such as which cells it affects and whether bacteria are involved—and evaluate interventions and potential treatments. —Courtney Humphries

Custom cancer vaccines

Paper Boat Creative | Getty
Custom Cancer Vaccines
  • Why it matters Conventional chemotherapies take a heavy toll on healthy cells and aren’t always effective against tumors
  • Key players BioNTech
    Genentech
  • Availability In human testing

The treatment incites the body’s natural defenses to destroy only cancer cells by identifying mutations unique to each tumor

Scientists are on the cusp of commercializing the first personalized cancer vaccine. If it works as hoped, the vaccine, which triggers a person’s immune system to identify a tumor by its unique mutations, could effectively shut down many types of cancers.

By using the body’s natural defenses to selectively destroy only tumor cells, the vaccine, unlike conventional chemotherapies, limits damage to healthy cells. The attacking immune cells could also be vigilant in spotting any stray cancer cells after the initial treatment.

The possibility of such vaccines began to take shape in 2008, five years after the Human Genome Project was completed, when geneticists published the first sequence of a cancerous tumor cell.

Soon after, investigators began to compare the DNA of tumor cells with that of healthy cells—and other tumor cells. These studies confirmed that all cancer cells contain hundreds if not thousands of specific mutations, most of which are unique to each tumor.

A few years later, a German startup called BioNTech provided compelling evidence that a vaccine containing copies of these mutations could catalyze the body’s immune system to produce T cells primed to seek out, attack, and destroy all cancer cells harboring them.

In December 2017, BioNTech began a large test of the vaccine in cancer patients, in collaboration with the biotech giant Genentech. The ongoing trial is targeting at least 10 solid cancers and aims to enroll upwards of 560 patients at sites around the globe.

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The two companies are designing new manufacturing techniques to produce thousands of personally customized vaccines cheaply and quickly. That will be tricky because creating the vaccine involves performing a biopsy on the patient’s tumor, sequencing and analyzing its DNA, and rushing that information to the production site. Once produced, the vaccine needs to be promptly delivered to the hospital; delays could be deadly. —Adam Piore

The cow-free burger

Bruce Peterson/Styling: Monica Mariano
The cow-free burger
  • Why it matters Livestock production causes catastrophic deforestation, water pollution, and greenhouse-gas emissions
  • Key players Beyond Meat
    Impossible Foods
  • Availability Plant-based now; lab-grown around 2020

Both lab-grown and plant-based alternatives approximate the taste and nutritional value of real meat without the environmental devastation.

The UN expects the world to have 9.8 billion people by 2050. And those people are getting richer. Neither trend bodes well for climate change—especially because as people escape poverty, they tend to eat more meat.

By that date, according to the predictions, humans will consume 70% more meat than they did in 2005. And it turns out that raising animals for human consumption is among the worst things we do to the environment.

Depending on the animal, producing a pound of meat protein with Western industrialized methods requires 4 to 25 times more water, 6 to 17 times more land, and 6 to 20 times more fossil fuels than producing a pound of plant protein.

The problem is that people aren’t likely to stop eating meat anytime soon. Which means lab-grown and plant-based alternatives might be the best way to limit the destruction.

Making lab-grown meat involves extracting muscle tissue from animals and growing it in bioreactors. The end product looks much like what you’d get from an animal, although researchers are still working on the taste. Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who are working to produce lab-grown meat at scale, believe they’ll have a lab-grown burger available by next year. One drawback of lab-grown meat is that the environmental benefits are still sketchy at best—a recent World Economic Forum report says the emissions from lab-grown meat would be only around 7% less than emissions from beef production.

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The better environmental case can be made for plant-based meats from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods (Bill Gates is an investor in both companies), which use pea proteins, soy, wheat, potatoes, and plant oils to mimic the texture and taste of animal meat.

Beyond Meat has a new 26,000-square-foot (2,400-square-meter) plant in California and has already sold upwards of 25 million burgers from 30,000 stores and restaurants. According to an analysis by the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, a Beyond Meat patty would probably generate 90% less in greenhouse-gas emissions than a conventional burger made from a cow. —Markkus Rovito

Carbon dioxide catcher

Nico Ortega
Carbon dioxide catcher
  • Why it matters Removing CO2 from the atmosphere might be one of the last viable ways to stop catastrophic climate change
  • Key players Carbon Engineering
    Climeworks
    Global Thermostat
  • Availability 5-10 years

Practical and affordable ways to capture carbon dioxide from the air can soak up excess greenhouse-gas emissions.

Even if we slow carbon dioxide emissions, the warming effect of the greenhouse gas can persist for thousands of years. To prevent a dangerous rise in temperatures, the UN’s climate panel now concludes, the world will need to remove as much as 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere this century.

In a surprise finding last summer, Harvard climate scientist David Keith calculated that machines could, in theory, pull this off for less than $100 a ton, through an approach known as direct air capture. That’s an order of magnitude cheaper than earlier estimates that led many scientists to dismiss the technology as far too expensive—though it will still take years for costs to fall to anywhere near that level.

But once you capture the carbon, you still need to figure out what to do with it.

Carbon Engineering, the Canadian startup Keith cofounded in 2009, plans to expand its pilot plant to ramp up production of its synthetic fuels, using the captured carbon dioxide as a key ingredient. (Bill Gates is an investor in Carbon Engineering.)

Zurich-based Climeworks’s direct air capture plant in Italy will produce methane from captured carbon dioxide and hydrogen, while a second plant in Switzerland will sell carbon dioxide to the soft-drinks industry. So will Global Thermostat of New York, which finished constructing its first commercial plant in Alabama last year.

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Still, if it’s used in synthetic fuels or sodas, the carbon dioxide will mostly end up back in the atmosphere. The ultimate goal is to lock greenhouse gases away forever. Some could be nested within products like carbon fiber, polymers, or concrete, but far more will simply need to be buried underground, a costly job that no business model seems likely to support.

In fact, pulling CO2 out of the air is, from an engineering perspective, one of the most difficult and expensive ways of dealing with climate change. But given how slowly we’re reducing emissions, there are no good options left. —James Temple

An ECG on your wrist

Bruce Peterson

Regulatory approval and technological advances are making it easier for people to continuously monitor their hearts with wearable devices.

Fitness trackers aren’t serious medical devices. An intense workout or loose band can mess with the sensors that read your pulse. But an electrocardiogram—the kind doctors use to diagnose abnormalities before they cause a stroke or heart attack— requires a visit to a clinic, and people often fail to take the test in time.

ECG-enabled smart watches, made possible by new regulations and innovations in hardware and software, offer the convenience of a wearable device with something closer to the precision of a medical one.

An Apple Watch–compatible band from Silicon Valley startup AliveCor that can detect atrial fibrillation, a frequent cause of blood clots and stroke, received clearance from the FDA in 2017. Last year, Apple released its own FDA-cleared ECG feature, embedded in the watch itself.

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The health-device company Withings also announced plans for an ECG-equipped watch shortly after.
Current wearables still employ only a single sensor, whereas a real ECG has 12. And no wearable can yet detect a heart attack as it’s happening.

But this might change soon. Last fall, AliveCor presented preliminary results to the American Heart Association on an app and two-­sensor system that can detect a certain type of heart attack. —Karen Hao

Sanitation without sewers

TheDman | Getty
Sanitation without sewers
  • Why it matters 2.3 billion people lack safe sanitation, and many die as a result
  • Key players Duke University
    University of South Florida
    Biomass Controls
    California Institute of Technology
  • Availability 1-2 years

Energy-efficient toilets can operate without a sewer system and treat waste on the spot.

About 2.3 billion people don’t have good sanitation. The lack of proper toilets encourages people to dump fecal matter into nearby ponds and streams, spreading bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can cause diarrhea and cholera. Diarrhea causes one in nine child deaths worldwide.

Now researchers are working to build a new kind of toilet that’s cheap enough for the developing world and can not only dispose of waste but treat it as well.

In 2011 Bill Gates created what was essentially the X Prize in this area—the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. Since the contest’s launch, several teams have put prototypes in the field. All process the waste locally, so there’s no need for large amounts of water to carry it to a distant treatment plant.

Most of the prototypes are self-contained and don’t need sewers, but they look like traditional toilets housed in small buildings or storage containers. The NEWgenerator toilet, designed at the University of South Florida, filters out pollutants with an anaerobic membrane, which has pores smaller than bacteria and viruses. Another project, from Connecticut-based Biomass Controls, is a refinery the size of a shipping container; it heats the waste to produce a carbon-rich material that can, among other things, fertilize soil.

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One drawback is that the toilets don’t work at every scale. The Biomass Controls product, for example, is designed primarily for tens of thousands of users per day, which makes it less well suited for smaller villages. Another system, developed at Duke University, is meant to be used only by a few nearby homes.

So the challenge now is to make these toilets cheaper and more adaptable to communities of different sizes. “It’s great to build one or two units,” says Daniel Yeh, an associate professor at the University of South Florida, who led the NEWgenerator team. “But to really have the technology impact the world, the only way to do that is mass-produce the units.” —Erin Winick

Smooth-talking AI assistants

Bruce Peterson
Smooth-talking AI assistants
  • Why it matters AI assistants can now perform conversation-based tasks like booking a restaurant reservation or coordinating a package drop-off rather than just obey simple commands
  • Key players Google
    Alibaba
    Amazon
  • Availability 1-2 years

New techniques that capture semantic relationships between words are making machines better at understanding natural language.

We’re used to AI assistants—Alexa playing music in the living room, Siri setting alarms on your phone—but they haven’t really lived up to their alleged smarts. They were supposed to have simplified our lives, but they’ve barely made a dent. They recognize only a narrow range of directives and are easily tripped up by deviations.

But some recent advances are about to expand your digital assistant’s repertoire. In June 2018, researchers at OpenAI developed a technique that trains an AI on unlabeled text to avoid the expense and time of categorizing and tagging all the data manually. A few months later, a team at Google unveiled a system called BERT that learned how to predict missing words by studying millions of sentences. In a multiple-choice test, it did as well as humans at filling in gaps.

These improvements, coupled with better speech synthesis, are letting us move from giving AI assistants simple commands to having conversations with them. They’ll be able to deal with daily minutiae like taking meeting notes, finding information, or shopping online.

Some are already here. Google Duplex, the eerily human-like upgrade of Google Assistant, can pick up your calls to screen for spammers and telemarketers. It can also make calls for you to schedule restaurant reservations or salon appointments.

In China, consumers are getting used to Alibaba’s AliMe, which coordinates package deliveries over the phone and haggles about the price of goods over chat.

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But while AI programs have gotten better at figuring out what you want, they still can’t understand a sentence. Lines are scripted or generated statistically, reflecting how hard it is to imbue machines with true language understanding. Once we cross that hurdle, we’ll see yet another evolution, perhaps from logistics coordinator to babysitter, teacher—or even friend? —Karen Hao

Bill Gates: How we’ll invent the future (Part 1, Introductory essay)

The thinking behind this year’s list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies began with the plow.

 

By Bill Gates for MIT Technology Review – February 27, 2019

 

I was honored when MIT Technology Review invited me to be the first guest curator of its 10 Breakthrough Technologies. Narrowing down the list was difficult. I wanted to choose things that not only will create headlines in 2019 but captured this moment in technological history—which got me thinking about how innovation has evolved over time.

My mind went to—of all things—the plow. Plows are an excellent embodiment of the history of innovation. Humans have been using them since 4000 BCE, when Mesopotamian farmers aerated soil with sharpened sticks. We’ve been slowly tinkering with and improving them ever since, and today’s plows are technological marvels.

But what exactly is the purpose of a plow? It’s a tool that creates more: more seeds planted, more crops harvested, more food to go around. In places where nutrition is hard to come by, it’s no exaggeration to say that a plow gives people more years of life. The plow—like many technologies, both ancient and modern—is about creating more of something and doing it more efficiently, so that more people can benefit.

Contrast that with lab-grown meat, one of the innovations I picked for this year’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies list. Growing animal protein in a lab isn’t about feeding more people. There’s enough livestock to feed the world already, even as demand for meat goes up. Next-generation protein isn’t about creating more—it’s about making meat better. It lets us provide for a growing and wealthier world without contributing to deforestation or emitting methane. It also allows us to enjoy hamburgers without killing any animals.

Put another way, the plow improves our quantity of life, and lab-grown meat improves our quality of life. For most of human history, we’ve put most of our innovative capacity into the former. And our efforts have paid off: worldwide life expectancy rose from 34 years in 1913 to 60 in 1973 and has reached 71 today.

Because we’re living longer, our focus is starting to shift toward well-being. This transformation is happening slowly. If you divide scientific breakthroughs into these two categories—things that improve quantity of life and things that improve quality of life—the 2009 list looks not so different from this year’s. Like most forms of progress, the change is so gradual that it’s hard to perceive. It’s a matter of decades, not years—and I believe we’re only at the midpoint of the transition.

To be clear, I don’t think humanity will stop trying to extend life spans anytime soon. We’re still far from a world where everyone everywhere lives to old age in perfect health, and it’s going to take a lot of innovation to get us there. Plus, “quantity of life” and “quality of life” are not mutually exclusive. A malaria vaccine would both save lives and make life better for children who might otherwise have been left with developmental delays from the disease.

We’ve reached a point where we’re tackling both ideas at once, and that’s what makes this moment in history so interesting. If I had to predict what this list will look like a few years from now, I’d bet technologies that alleviate chronic disease will be a big theme. This won’t just include new drugs (although I would love to see new treatments for diseases like Alzheimer’s on the list). The innovations might look like a mechanical glove that helps a person with arthritis maintain flexibility, or an app that connects people experiencing major depressive episodes with the help they need.

If we could look even further out—let’s say the list 20 years from now—I would hope to see technologies that center almost entirely on well-being. I think the brilliant minds of the future will focus on more metaphysical questions: How do we make people happier? How do we create meaningful connections? How do we help everyone live a fulfilling life?

I would love to see these questions shape the 2039 list, because it would mean that we’ve successfully fought back disease (and dealt with climate change). I can’t imagine a greater sign of progress than that. For now, though, the innovations driving change are a mix of things that extend life and things that make it better. My picks reflect both. Each one gives me a different reason to be optimistic for the future, and I hope they inspire you, too.

My selections include amazing new tools that will one day save lives, from simple blood tests that predict premature birth to toilets that destroy deadly pathogens. I’m equally excited by how other technologies on the list will improve our lives. Wearable health monitors like the wrist-based ECG will warn heart patients of impending problems, while others let diabetics not only track glucose levels but manage their disease. Advanced nuclear reactors could provide carbon-free, safe, secure energy to the world.

One of my choices even offers us a peek at a future where society’s primary goal is personal fulfillment. Among many other applications, AI-driven personal agents might one day make your e-mail in-box more manageable—something that sounds trivial until you consider what possibilities open up when you have more free time.

The 30 minutes you used to spend reading e-mail could be spent doing other things. I know some people would use that time to get more work done—but I hope most would use it for pursuits like connecting with a friend over coffee, helping your child with homework, or even volunteering in your community.

That, I think, is a future worth working toward.

 

New Formjacking Technique Used to Skim Payment Details Off Websites

Conor Reynolds, News Reporter at Computer Business Review – 10th December 2018

“In recent months, we have seen a major uptick in formjacking attacks against high-profile websites across the globe”

 

Researchers at cybersecurity company Symantec have identified a new formjacking campaign targeting a French ecommerce site that is prominently featured in global shopping aggregator listings.

Over 30 online retail websites from all over the world were redirecting traffic to the compromised site.

Formjacking is a term used to describe the injection of JavaScript code into the payment section of a website. This code then skims the payment details of unaware customers sending it onto to threat actors to abuse.

The online-store in Paris was injected with a formjacking script which collects the payment information entered onto the website and then sends it to the domain google-analyitics.org; a “typo-squatted” version of the genuine url google-analytics.com.

Another piece of injected code on the same web page looks for the presence of debugging tools, such as Firebug, to thwart security researchers analysing the malicious script; a trend security researchers have increasingly noticed.

See also: Magecart’s 7 Groups: Hackers Dropping Counter-Intelligence Code in JavaScript Skimmers

Siddhesh Chandrayan Threat Analysis Engineer at Symantec wrote: “This latest formjacking campaign highlights the fact that attackers are continuously altering and improving their malicious code and exploring new delivery mechanisms to infect more users.”

Symantec researchers say they have identified more than one million formjacking attempts on over 10,000 websites in the last three months alone.

Formjacking

Symantec told Computer Business Review that the scammers had also hacked other ecommerce websites to redirect visitors to the compromised site.

He believes that the Paris site was selected as a target because it is listed in several shopping aggregators.

Formjacking

Traditionally attackers have targeted retail websites through the software provided by third-parties, as these often contain the weak link in the security chain.

Last summer it was disclosed that Ticketmaster was the subject to a serious cyberattack in which threat actors made off with the payment details of over 40,00 UK customers. A chat-bot designed by third-party supplier Inbenta was identified as the source of the vulnerability.

A report from cybersecurity enterprise RiskIQ identified Magecart tactics and script in the attack, which saw a massive credit card skimming operation that affected over 800 e-commerce websites.

In their report RiskIQ noted that: “Magecart actors breached their systems (Ticketmaster) and, in separate instances, either added to or completely replaced a custom JavaScript module Ibenta made for Ticketmaster with their digital skimmer code.”

See Also: The Ticketmaster Hack is Worse Than First Thought

Unfortunately one of the key factors in formjacking or script payment skimming attacks is that retailers and customers may not be aware that their website and details are compromised. Websites and payment forms operate as normal if the attackers have done their job right.

One way enterprise can protect themselves is to test any new software updates in small test environments. Doing so gives you a chance to spot any unusual behaviour in the script.Software distributors who supplier major retailers with products should have monitoring systems in place that detect any changes in their code or in the updating process itself. Symantec is currently working with the websites involved in this new formjacking attack and so they have not named the websites affected.

The Future of the Network: Get More or Get Smart

When planning for the future of the network, we can do what we have always done or we can “Get Smart.”

 

craig

By Craig Mathias, Principal, Farpoint Group | Oct 29, 2018 for ITPro Today

 

I recently did a presentation for an FCC advisory committee that’s looking into how the increasing volume of computing at the edge of the Internet is driving demand for network bandwidth. I opened my talk with a chart from the Cisco Visual Networking Index, an online document that forecasts network bandwidth demands over the next few years. So, let me cut to the chase: Cisco sees aggregate annual global bandwidth demand on the order of 292 exabytes in 2019. That’s 292 times the IP traffic volume–combined fixed and still-rapidly growing mobile–of 2000, with demand still growing and mostly driven by streaming video. The immediate conclusion is that we need to get started on adding bulk to the Internet–and our own organizational networks–to handle this load.

As it turns out, there are two key schools of thought on how to approach the network-capacity challenge. I call them Get More and Get Smart. Let’s look at each.

Get More

Get More is the obvious direction for dealing with the growing capacity challenge, and it’s really what we’ve been doing with networks all along to enhance capacity–more of the same, but faster, better and cheaper.

Get More has historically been a very reliable strategy, based on the benefits that accrue from improvements in basic technologies (primarily chips and protocols) that regularly and reliably appear at lower prices or at least with constantly improving price/performance ratios. This is the faster/better/cheaper noted above.

All we need to do, then, is simply add more of the components we already know, love and understand–like Wi-Fi access points, Ethernet switches and WAN capacity–as required, either to address growing demand or to take advantage of those newer technologies or, really, both. This path, then, really is easy: Buy what you need; add more as you need more; realize better value without much (if any) effort beyond writing a check and installing the gear (including new software, like management and analytics); and overprovision, as we must always to assure the headroom required for day-to-day growth and time-bounded traffic, as well as end user productivity. Indeed, what could be easier?

Get Smart

To be fair, the alternate strategy, Get Smart, really isn’t easier today. However, it might be much easier, and cheaper, over the long run, as the technologies involved mature. Get Smart is based on taking advantage of new technologies that present themselves in the form of paradigm shifts–getting the same job (networking) done, but in new and more productive ways.

Here are the leading Get Smart directions today:

  • SDN, SD-WAN and SD-LAN: Software-defined networking enables networks to adapt intelligently to changes in traffic patterns, security challenges and overall growth. Think “softer networks”–both wireless and wired–coupled with improved management.
  • NFV: Network Functions Virtualization moves many networking functions into high-performance but otherwise traditional computers, substituting the flexibility of software for the specialized hardware that, again, needs to be replaced via upgrades from time to time. NFV is analogous to that more familiar form of virtualization, virtual machines, that makes better use of computer power that might otherwise go to waste. You’ll frequently see SDN and NFV mentioned–and, increasingly, implemented–together, as software is at the core of each.
  • Extreme Virtualization: Indeed, the only real hardware required in most networks in the future will be Wi-Fi access points, Ethernet switches to interconnect and power those APs and what few wired elements remain, and a WAN interface device (which will almost certainly be implemented using SDN and NFV) that is analogous to today’s router but much more configurable and flexible. Everything else–most notably, management, analytics and other operational support, but also traffic management, controllers and even security–is virtualized, along with computing and storage, into the cloud.
  • Desktop Virtualization: We will likely also move much end user processing and data to the server side of the link, and again into the cloud, and thus minimize the amount of traffic we’ll need to move in the first place. Lightweight protocols implementing the remoting of screen and other user I/O, like RDP and VDI, are much more efficient, in most cases, than simply implementing client/server in the cloud. Some processing will of course be done on mobile devices, but the essentially shared and collaborative nature of today’s IT solutions minimizes the amount of computing power really required in handsets, tablets and notebooks–many of which will be thin clients, like Chromebooks.
  • AI and ML: Artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to yield far-reaching benefits across all of IT and applications in general, but in networks we’ll see much more powerful and proactive analytics engaged via a feedback link between multi-tenant cloud-based analytics and management consoles. All of this will enable most problems to be resolved automatically, even before operations pros are aware of them. Network operations will center on policy specification, rather than the low-level tweaking of router settings via a CLI.

So, how can IT management decide which of these two strategies–Get More and Get Smart–will be the best alternative in their own individual cases? Begin with the information central to operations, and how and thus where this data is most efficiently and productively stored and processed. Then think about how the creation, distribution and management of this information will evolve over time and how IT can best carry out this mission.

It’s also important to conduct a financial analysis of the two options.

Ideally, Get Smart will improve the productivity of network operations staffs, whose associated costs are a huge chunk of operating expense (OpEx). And, unlike the capital expense (CapEx) at the heart of Get More that improves over time in the form of enhanced price/performance, OpEx only grows as people get more expensive (but not necessarily more productive) over time.

This is why Get Smart is so interesting and why, we believe, this strategy will become the dominant of the two choices. Add in improved performance, reliability, security and availability, and Get Smart can’t lose–over the long run, anyway.

The right tools and techniques for any given case derive from a complete consideration of the above elements. In many cases, just more of the same will work fine. After all, that’s what most end user organizations have always done, and, as long as end users are happy with network performance and budgets remain bounded, all really is well.

But, in an increasing number of situations, adding intelligence and not just bulk will yield, we believe, far greater returns over time–in the form of improved reliability, availability, costs, capacity and productivity–especially that of end users–included in the bargain. Smart, after all, always triumphs over brute force. It just takes a while.

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