Bot Wars: A Collateral Gift of the Automation Revolution

I received an email Wednesday morning from a company launching new features for a bot called Trim which will negotiate a lower cable bill for you. Give it your Comcast login info and it will launch a support-chat window and go to work negotiating rates on your behalf. This could be a lower monthly rate, or one-time credits for slow or intermittent service.

This chatbot is a glimpse into our cat-and-mouse future. If rate-reducing automation is widely adopted by customers, Comcast will have an incentive to spot these chatbots and act accordingly, and they’ll probably want to automate that. This leads quickly to a war of bots.

How many times has Hackaday predicted the future? The coming bot wars were hinted at in an article I wrote back in 2009 on the re-emergence of Tradewars 2002. This is a turn-based BBS game that I loved as a child. The second version added an automation layer — the game had become a challenge to write a better script than your opponent to play the game with maximum efficiency. Of course, it’s only a prediction if you realize it at the time. But this gamification of automation from seven years ago is about to jump into the mainstream.

You win if your automation outperforms your competitors; this is the founding idea of the automation age. There’s no event horizon to mark our slide into the new realm. But we know the financial markets have been playing this game for a long time now (think flash crash and algorithmic trading). Continuing the customer service call example, call centers have been using scripts for years. Automation stems from this, just cutting out the human; you may already be talking to a chatbot and not knowing it — a human takes over when the bot has already verified your account info and gets stumped. The real question is will you take up arms by building your own bots or using those available from startups like Trim? Maybe you already have? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

[Image Source: the main and thumbnail images are of course from the United Artists film War Games.]

Medium Over Message: A CD-ROM Multimedia Bubble Survivor’s Tale

Sometimes in the never-ending progression of technology, people take wrong turns. They pursue dead-ends they believe represent a bright future, often in spite of obvious indications to the contrary. IBM doggedly insisting Micro Channel Architecture was the future of PC hardware, for example, or Nokia’s seeming inability to recognise that the mobile phone experience had changed for ever when the first iPhones and Android devices appeared.

Every once in a while, that collective delusion grips an entire industry. All the players in a particular market nail their colours to a technology, seemingly without heed to what seems with hindsight to have been a completely obvious threat from the alternative that sidelined them. It is a tale of personal experience that prompts this line of thought, for the industry that tempted me away from hardware to a career in electronic publishing in the early 1990s was CD-ROM multimedia.

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My Life in the Connector Zoo

“The great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.” Truer words were never spoken, and this goes double for the hobbyist world of hardware hacking. It seems that every module, every company, and every individual hacker has a favorite way of putting the same pins in a row.

We have an entire drawer full of adapters that just go from one pinout to another, or one programmer to many different target boards. We’ll be the first to admit that it’s often our own darn fault — we decided to swap the reset and ground lines because it was convenient for one design, and now we have two adapters. But imagine a world where there was only a handful of distinct pinouts — that drawer would be only half full and many projects would simply snap together. “You may say I’m a dreamer…”

This article is about connectors and standards. We’ll try not to whine and complain, although we will editorialize. We’re going to work through some of the design tradeoffs and requirements, and maybe you’ll even find that there’s already a standard pinout that’s “close enough” for your next project. And if you’ve got a frequently used pinout or use case that we’ve missed, we encourage you to share the connector pinouts in the comments, along with its pros and cons. Let’s see if we can’t make sense of this mess.

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Sailing Ships, Slide Rules, and the Quality of Engineering

We recently ran a post about engineers being worse, better, or the same than they “used to be” and it got me thinking. Of course “used to be” is in the eyes of the beholders. To me, that’s the 1950s and 1960s. To some of you, my generation is the “used to be” generation. To some of you, I’m past even that.

I’ve often said, there are two things that are simple: something really simple, and something really complex. For example, when a caveman grabbed a log floating down the river and hitched a ride a few miles downstream that was pretty simple. Today, you can go on a well-equipped boat, stab your finger at a map, click go, and the boat will do almost all the work. However, get onboard a sailing vessel from 1850 and you better know what you are doing. What’s more is, some sailors were better than others.

What’s Better or Best?

Were yesterday’s engineers better than today? That’s like asking who is the “best” driver. It depends a lot on what “best” means? Safer? Faster? Most efficient? I would suggest that yesterday’s engineers were better at doing yesterday’s jobs. I own several slide rules and I can use them, but I bet my mentor who finished college in the 1940s was faster. I don’t need to be faster. On the other hand, he might have some trouble doing a good Internet search.

But here’s the problem. Doing basic math is like the caveman on the log (and yes, that begs for a slide rule joke). Asking Wolfram Alpha to solve your set of simultaneous equations is like the modern computer-controlled ship with GPS. You can bet that the sailing master of a barque in 1850 knew a lot more about sailing and winds and ship construction than the average guy on a modern ship. He had to. That gave him extra reasoning tools when faced with a problem.

Slide Rules Do (Most) of the Math

By the same token, using a slide rule is very helpful but–paradoxically–you have to know a little math to be able to use it. In particular, you had to have a rough idea of the magnitude of the answer to get the right answer. If you couldn’t get that concept or do the simple estimate in your head, the slide rule was useless and you probably dropped out of engineering school. Today, you may or may not have that kind of math smarts, and it doesn’t matter.

I’ve know graybeards that keep up with the modern technology. I’ve also known plenty who are stuck in the past, talking about how horrible transistors, or ICs, or software is and how it has ruined everything. Of course, they haven’t.

Lesson Learned

As Gerrit pointed out, we tend to remember the brilliant engineers and projects and forget the bad ones (unless they are really bad). Even in “the golden age” there were good engineers and bad.

So how can you maximize your chances of being one of the good ones when this turns into some kid’s golden age? Two things, I think. Never stop learning the new technology. The hot-shot engineer with the slide rule wouldn’t function as well in today’s world unless he was willing to learn about the new things. But also, learn the fundamentals. You don’t have to know how an engine works to drive a car. But all the race car drivers do know. Having tools to do circuit analysis or solve thorny math equations is a great time saver. But you ought to know how to do it without those tools. The insights you’ll gain will give you more tools at your disposal when faced with a problem.

Engineering is a series of abstractions. Always try to drive down the abstraction layers. Know how to program? How does a CPU work at the logic gate level? Know how that works? Then how do the transistors form those gates? When you understand that, dig into why the transistors work at all. Sure, you probably aren’t going to build a transistor from raw materials. But you’ll gain new insights and those insights will help you solve future problems. Besides, if there’s ever a zombie apocalypse, it might be good to know how to use a slide rule or build a transistor.

Death To The 3.5mm Audio Jack, Long Live Wireless

There’s been a lot of fuss over Apple’s move to ditch the traditional audio jack. As for me, I hope I never have to plug in another headphone cable. This may come off as gleeful dancing on the gravesite of my enemy before the hole has even been dug; it kind of is. The jack has always been a pain point in my devices. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky. Money was tight growing up. I would save up for a nice set of headphones or an mp3 player only to have the jack go out. It was a clear betrayal and ever since I’ve regarded them with suspicion. Is this the best we could do?

I can’t think of a single good reason not to immediately start dumping the headphone jack. Sure it’s one of the few global standards. Sure it’s simple, but I’m willing to take bets that very few people will miss the era of the 3.5mm audio jack once it’s over. It’s a global episode of the sunk cost fallacy.

In the usual way hindsight is 20/20, the 3.5mm audio jack can be looked at as a workaround, a stop over until we didn’t need it.  It appears to be an historic kludge of hack upon hack until something better comes along. When was the last time it was common to hook an Ethernet cable into a laptop? Who would do this when we can get all the bandwidth we want reliably over a wireless connection. Plus, it’s not like most Ethernet cables even meet a spec well enough to meet the speeds they promise. How could anyone reasonably expect the infinitely more subjective and variable headphone and amplifier set to do better?

But rather than just idly trash it, I’d like to make a case against it and paint a possible painless and aurally better future.

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Engage Tinfoil Hat: Samsung Note 7 Battery Theory

For the most part I believe things are as they seem. But every once in a while I begin to look at notable technology happenings from a different angle. What if things are not like they seem? This is conspiracy theory territory, and I want to be very clear about this: what follows is completely fictitious and not based on fact. At least, I haven’t tried to base it on facts surrounding the current events. But perhaps you can. What if there’s more to the battery fires in Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 phones?

I have a plausible theory, won’t you don your tinfoil hat and follow me down this rabbit hole?

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UK IT Specialist Unable to Boil Water, Make Tea

In our latest episode of “IoT-Schadenfreude Theater” we bring you the story of [Mark], a British man who can’t boil water. Or more specifically, a man who can’t integrate MQTT with Amazon Echo, or IFTTT with HomeKit.

Yes, yes. We all love to laugh at a technology in its infancy. It’s like when robots fall down: it’s a cheap shot and things will surely get better, right? Indeed, the Guardian has had its fun with this particular WiFi kettle before — they’re British and nothing is more important than a remote-controlled cuppa.

Every time we hear about one walled-garden protocol not speaking to another, and the resulting configuration mayhem that ensues, we can’t help think that [Mike] was right: home automation has a software problem. But that’s putting the blame on the technology. (We’re sure that [Mark] could have made the kettle work if he’d just applied a little Wireshark.)

Strongbad's VCR
Strongbad’s VCR

There’s another mismatch here — one of expectations about the users. A water kettle is an object that should be usable by grandmothers, and a complex networked device is clearly aimed at techies and early adopters. Combining the two is asking for trouble. Non-functioning IoT devices are the blinking 12:00 of our generation.

What do you think? Where’s the blame here? Poor design, bad software stack, stupid users, or failure of mega-corps to integrate their systems together? More importantly, how could we make it better?

Headline image:Fredy Velásquez Orozco, via Wikimedia Commons Thumbnail image: Markus Schweiss, also Wikimedia Commons.