New Technologies, June 2017

Following are some interesting new technologies I’ve run across recently.

WiFi Imaging. Cognitive Systems has a product they call Aura that can detect motion inside of a home using WiFi. The technology was developed a few years ago at MIT. The technology used is called Radio Frequency (RF) Capture. The device can sense subtle changes in wireless signals to determine if something is moving in the home. It can be set to different sensitivities to be able to detect people, but not animals. It can also be set to track specific cellphones so that you’ll know when a known person has entered or left the home. For now the device does not connect to external security services but sends a message to a smartphone.

Some German researchers at the University of Munich have already taken this same idea a lot farther. In a paper published in the Physical Review of Letters they describe a technique where they can use WiFi to create 3D holographic images through walls. The lab unit they have built can detect objects down to about 4 centimeters in size. They scan ten times per second and can see outlines of people or pets moving inside of another room. This technology is eerily reminiscent of the surveillance machine in The Dark Knight that Bruce Wayne destroys at the end of the movie since it was a scary invasion of privacy.

Eliminating IoT Batteries. One of the scariest things about the exploding number of devices used for IoT is the need to power them, and the potential huge waste, cost and hassle of needing batteries for tons of devices. Tryst Energy from the Netherlands has developed an extremely efficient solar device that only needs 200 lux of light for four hours per day to operate a small sensor that communicates with Bluetooth or WiFi. That is the amount of light normally found under a desk. The device also ought to last for 75 – 100 years, opening the ability to place small IoT sensors in all sorts of places to monitor things. When you consider the expected billions of devices that are expected over the next decade this could provide a huge boost to the IoT industry and also provide a green solution for powering tiny devices. The device is just starting to go into production.

Bots Have Created Their Own Language. A team at OpenAI, the artificial intelligence lab founded by Elon Musk and Sam Altman, has published a paper describing how bots have created their own language to communicate with each other. They accomplished this by presenting simple challenges that require collaboration to bots, which are computer programs that are taught to accomplish tasks. Bots are mostly being used these days to learn to communicate with people. But the OpenAI team instead challenged the bots to solve spatial challenges such as devising a way to move together to a specific location inside of a simulated world. Rather than tell the bots how to accomplish this they simply required that the bots collaborate with other bots to accomplish the assigned tasks. What they found was that the bots created their own ‘language’ to communicate with each other and that the language got more efficient over time. This starts sounding a bit like bad Sci-Fi world where computers can talk to each in languages we can’t decipher.

Recycling CO2. Liang-shi Li at Indiana University has found a way to recycle CO2 for the production of power. He has created a molecule that, with the addition of sunlight, can turn CO2 from the atmosphere into carbon monoxide. The carbon monoxide can then be burnt to create power, with the byproduct being CO2. If scaled this would provide for a method to produce power that would add no net CO2 to the atmosphere (since it recycles the CO2). Li uses a nanographene molecule that has a dark color and that absorbs large amounts of sunlight. The molecule also includes rhenium which is then used as a catalyst to turn nearby CO2 into carbon dioxide. He’s hoping to be able to accomplish this instead with more easily obtained magnesium.

Liquid Light. It’s common knowledge that light usually acts like a wave, expanding outward until it’s reflected or absorbed by an object. But in recent years scientists have also discovered that under extreme conditions near absolute zero that light can also act like a liquid and flow around objects and join back together on the other side. The materials and processes used to produce the liquid light are referred to as Einstein-Bose condensates.

Scientists from CNR Nanotec in Italy, Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal in Canada, and Aalto University in Finland just published an article in Nature Physics that shows that light can also exist in a ‘superliquid’ state where light flows around objects with no friction. Of most interest is that this phenomenon can be produced at normal room temperature and air pressure. The scientists created this effect by sandwiching organic molecules between two highly-reflective mirrors. The scientists believe that interaction of light with the molecules induces the photons in the light to take on characteristics of electrons in the molecules.

The potential uses for this technique, if perfected, are huge. It would mean that light could be made to pass through computer chips with no friction, meaning no creation of the heat that is the bane of data centers.

A Better Customer Interface

AndroidToday a lot of the time and money for what we think of as programming is really spent connecting APIs (Application Program Interface). APIs are defined as a software component that defines the operations, inputs, outputs, and underlying functionalities of a specific program that are then used to have a reliable interface with a given program so that programmers can query programs or can link different programs together.

The software world is full of APIs that are the basis for building and operating most complex software systems. APIs can be simple, such as an API that just looks up a customer’s address when querying a database with their name. Or an API can be more complex, such as having an API routine that calculates the outstanding balance for a given customer and then ages the accounts receivable. The process of connecting a new software package to all of the needed APIs is time-consuming and expensive and is one of the reasons it sometimes takes months to implement a large new software package.

APIs have been integrated into almost all parts of the software world and there are plenty of them in the telecom world. For example, an integrated billing system uses a lot of APIs. APIs are used to allow OSS/BSS software to gather calling details from a voice switch to add or delete features. APIs connect to the software in a cable headend to define what channels a given customer should be receiving or to capture billing information from a pay-per-view event.

But there is a downside to using API-based software that anybody paying for software is all too familiar with. Almost every complex software package you buy these days in a telecom environment requires signing up for software maintenance – and it’s not cheap. Software maintenance is often set at an annual fee of 10% – 12% of the cost of the original software package. A large percentage of that money is to pay for keeping abreast of the changes in APIs. Every time the software changes somewhere in a telecom system, such as in your voice switch, those changes then ripple through the rest of your software systems.

Even if a large telco employs their own programmers a lot of programming time is used in working with and updating APIs. Reliance in APIs goes far beyond the telco world. Establishing the right APIs is the number one hassle of writing an application for smartphones, and it’s the difference between the APIs of iOS and Android that requires app makers to create and maintain two versions of their software.

There was an attempt a decade ago to make it easy for software packages to communicate with each other under the label of the Semantic Web. That initiative ran into a wall because of the massive effort required to make APIs work easily. However, it looks like maybe we are on the verge of doing away with the need for a lot of those APIs, at least in the manner we use them today. It seems likely that we are headed towards a time when bots are going to take over a lot of the tasks that require API interfaces today.

I use the Amazon Echo with the Alexa bot. Already today I can ask Alexa a question in English such as, “Which Baltimore Oriole has the most home runs?” and Alexa will search the web and bring back the answer Cal Ripken. Alexa and other personal bots are improving at breakneck speeds. We are getting close to a time when we are going to have bot-to-bot communications, which over time will replace a lot of the software in place today.

Soon we are going to be able to use our personal bots to interface with other software systems. I should be able to ask Alexa to go my bank and get a copy of my June bank statement. Alexa will then interface with my bank’s bot and get the needed information. The plan is for bot-to-bot communication to be in English, so if I don’t get what I want I can look to see what went wrong with the transaction between the two bots.

The beauty of bot-to-bot communication is that each customer is going to be able to find out what they want. Today, the owners of a web site for something like a bank have to pre-determine what they think customers are most interested in and then set up menus to supply those answers. But with bot-to-bot communication the bank doesn’t need to guess what customers want and doesn’t have to arrange the data in a format needed to support the APIs. The bots will figure this out for each customer inquiry. Bot-to-bot communication means doing away with a lot of clunky customer service interfaces and that means cheaper software costs for the bank. And for customers it means getting what you want by talking to your own bot in plain English. That should cut down on a huge percentage of customer service calls.

APIs won’t die, of course, but even interfaces with APIs can be automated using bots so that when something changes in a hardware or software system the bots in connected systems can figure out what this means on their own. That’s bad news for computer programmers, because today a lot of their work is connecting to or updating APIs. But it’s good news for consumers and it should be good news for any company spending too much money maintaining software that uses a lot of APIs.