Does the Internet Make You Stupid?

A recent post by [Christian Heilmann] is one of several I’ve read lately talking about how Web sites–Stack Overflow, in particular–are breeding a new kind of developer. The kind of developer that simply copies and pastes example code or schematics with no real understanding of what’s going on. His conclusion is that developers who don’t fully understand what they are doing will become disinterested and burn out. He’s talking about software developers, but I think you could extend the argument to developers of all kinds, including hardware hackers. He concluded that–at least while learning–you stick to the old ways of doing things.

I have trouble disagreeing with [Christian] on the details, but I do disagree with the conclusion. People have copied work from other sources for a very long time. We’ve all seen circuits that were clearly either torn from a datasheet or even glued together from multiple datasheet examples way before there was an Internet.

There’s two things that are slightly different today: First, everyone has easy access to lots of examples. You don’t have to go find a book (possibly at a library), search through it, and find one or two examples. A quick Google will find dozens or hundreds of examples.

The second thing that is different is that there are places exist like Stack Overflow where you don’t even have to go looking. You can simply ask, “How do I do X?” and you will get answers from someone. It might be wrong. You might not understand it. But you’ll probably get some kind of answer.

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Raspberry Pi Zero, or Minus One?

The Wall Street Journal reported that [Eric Schmidt] of Google and now Alphabet Inc, promoted the idea of an inexpensive version of the Raspberry Pi to the Raspberry Pi foundation’s [Eben Upton]. Apparently [Upton] accepted this recommendation despite existing plans to make a more expensive, more powerful version of the Pi. The outcome is the Raspberry Pi Zero that sells, in some places, for $5.00 and was given away for free on the cover of the MagPi magazine.

From the WSJ article:

“He [Schmidt] said it was very hard to compete with cheap. He made a very compelling case. It was a life-changing conversation,” Mr. Upton said, adding that he went back to the lab and scrapped all the engineering plans for more expensive versions of future Pi computers. “The idea was to make a more powerful thing at the same price, and then make a cheaper thing with the same power.”

Plans were scrapped. The more powerful Pi 2 was released at the price point of existing Pis, and now we have the Zero.

Pi’s Purpose

Foundation Mission

The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a registered educational charity in the UK. The purpose of this Foundation according to their About Us page is to, ‘advance the education of adults and children, particularly in the field of computers, computer science, and related subjects.’

Why is the Raspberry Pi Foundation so concerned about computer education? From the 1990s onward, fewer and fewer A Level students in the UK applying to study Computer Science had previous experience as hobbyist programmers. An applicant in the 2000s usually might have only done a little web design.

Why then does the Raspberry Pi Zero exist? [Upton] also told Cnet, “We really hope this is going to get those last few people in the door and involved in computer programming.”

Very good, but how well does the Zero support this goal or address their concerns?

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Gmail One Step Closer to Human Enslavement

Apply some lessons learned in Sci-Fi literature and you’ll come to the same realization I have: Google is going to unknowingly enslave humanity to an artificial intelligence.

I read a lot of science fiction. Generally, the future of technology can be found in great novels if you read between the lines. One of my favorites in this regard is, of course, [Neal Stephenson] who writes cripplingly long books that are totally worth the read due to his brand of fact-backed forward thinking. Look back on my posts here at Hackaday and you’ll see that I frequently apply concepts from his book The Diamond Age to what we see in emerging technology.

Last year my friend [Nils] suggested I give [William Hertling] a try, specifically his Singularity Series which starts with the novel Avogadro Corp. The fictional company is the world leader in free email and data storage. Sound like someone we know? One of the research projects within the company is an email plugin called ELOPe that will parse all past communications and choose topics and phrases that have the highest probability of eliciting a positive response from the recipient. When funding for the project is threatened, the system is turned on. I’d like to avoid spoilers, but let’s just say this puts the system on a path toward enslaving society.

Google is now boasting “Machine Intelligence for You”. It’s a research project based around Gmail which is called Inbox. Inbox has been around for a while but the newly announced feature is an algorithm that reads the email for you and suggests a set of responses. Compared to Avogadro Corp this is only missing two things: the ability to respond automatically, and the directive to protect itself at all costs.

One of the things I liked best about [William Hertling’s] take on an Artificial Intelligence was the low-key nature of the entity. It wasn’t a super-high-level thinker that interacts just like a human would. It was a poor choice by one programmer that led to horrible and far-reaching unintended consequences. No, I don’t really think Google’s Inbox will enslave us. But I appreciate the irony of life imitating art.

[via PopSci]

Why Should You Get a Ham Radio License?

Several of the authors you read on Hackaday are ham radio operators and we’ve often kicked around having a Hacker Chat about “Why be a ham today?” After all, you can talk to anyone in the world over the Internet or via phone, right? What’s the draw?

The Radio Society of Great Britain had the same thought, apparently, and produced a great video to answer the question. They mention the usual things: learning about technology, learning about people in other parts of the world, disaster communications, and radiosport (which seems to be more popular outside the United States; people compete to find hidden transmitters).

In addition, they talked a lot about how hams get involved with space communications, ranging from talking via satellites, to talking to people on the space station, to actually building small satellites. As the narrator says, there are “hundreds of ways to have techie fun” with ham radio.

One thing we noticed they showed but didn’t say a lot about, though, is the educational opportunities. You can learn a lot, and working with kids to help them learn is often very rewarding (and you usually learn something, too). Just to forestall the comments that this post isn’t hack related, we’ll note two things: there is a Raspberry Pi shown and just past the two-minute mark, there is a very clever hacked together Morse code key.

We talk a lot about ham radio, ranging from Arduino-based digital modes to putting together portable stations (you can see a similar one in the video, too). One other thing we noticed they don’t mention: it is generally much easier to get a license today than ever before. Most countries (including the United States) have abolished the Morse code requirements, so while some hams still enjoy CW (hamspeak for operating Morse code), it isn’t a requirement.

Video below.

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Ultrasonic Power Transfer: uBeam’s Curious Engineering

The future is wireless power, or so say a thousand press releases in my spam folder, and with very few exceptions every single system of wireless power delivery has fallen flat on its face. Except for a few niche cases – RFID tags, Wacom tablets and the S Pen, and the Qi inductive power mats for cell phones – the future of wireless power hardly looks bright, and in some cases seems downright dangerous. No one seems to grasp that wireless power transfer is much more inefficient than using a wire, and the inverse square law only makes everything worse.

Now there’s a new wireless power technology that’s a strange mix of running in stealth mode and sending press releases to every tech outlet on the planet. It’s called uBeam. This company says it will deliver wireless power to the world, but it’s not doing it with giant Tesla-inspired towers of power, radios beamed directly at devices, induction, magnetic resonance, or even light. uBeam transmits power via sound, specifically high intensity ultrasound. uBeam has never demonstrated a prototype, has never released any technical specs, and even some high-profile investors that include [Mark Cuban] have not seen the uBeam working. Despite running in a ‘stealth mode’, it has garnered a lot of press, and has been featured on TechCrunch dozens of times. This may just be a consequence of CrunchFunds’s investment in uBeam, but there’s still more Google News results for a technology that hasn’t even been demonstrated than a reasonable person would expect.

In what is perhaps the greatest breakdown ever posted on the EEVForums, [georgesmith] goes over what uBeam is, how the technology doesn’t make sense, and how far you can take a business before engineers start to say, ‘put up or shut up.’ [georgesmith]’s research goes over just some of what makes uBeam impractical, but digging even further reveals how insane uBeam actually is.

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No Sex Please, We’re Robots

There was a time when technology would advance and launch debates over ethical concerns raised by the technology. Lately, however, it seems ethical debate is (I hope) in advance of the actual technology. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Case in point: A paper at Ethicomp 2015 from De Montfort University warns that having sex with robots may have negative effects on par with prostitution. You might think that this is an isolated academic concept, but apparently there is a conference titled The International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots. There’s even a 2008 book titled Love and Sex with Robots that is neither science fiction nor pornography.

Second case: Softbank has created a robot called [Pepper] that supposedly can understand human emotions. You know the license agreements you get with everything you buy that you don’t really read? Here’s a translation of part of the one that comes with [Pepper]: ” …owner must not perform any sexual act or other indecent behavior.

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Can You Hear Me Now?

It’s great to build projects just to do something neat, to learn; to impress friends and other hackers. It’s even better to address a real need.

I’ve worn hearing aids for 40 some years. My response to the question “Can you hear me now?” is still all too often, “No.” Because of this I heartily applaud the Aegis Acoustics Headset currently active on Kickstarter. I’m happy to see it’s blown through its goal with over a month left.

The Aegis is targeted at prevent hearing loss, primarily in teens since they use headsets so often. It’s equally applicable to adults and pre-teens. The Aegis works by limiting the sound level emitted to 85db, which is a safe level. Above that the risk of damage to the tiny hairs in the cochlea – the inner ear – increases dramatically with a 3db increase cutting the safety time in half.

Future’s So Bright I’ve Got to Wear ‘Aids

My personal experience explains why this is important. At my first professional level job as a software developer I noticed that people at the other end of the table often mumbled during meetings. Not really, because everyone else understood them fine. I needed hearing aids.

My first hearing aids were analog devices. There were three frequency bands across the audio spectrum whose volumes could be custom set for my ears — resulting in crude and limited improvements in what I could hear. My current hearing aids are technological marvels of digital signal processing with a multitude of algorithms the audiologist can use to help me hear better. They even coordinate their actions by communicating between themselves.

I still need to ask people to repeat what they say at times. But who doesn’t? I had a successful career despite my loss. But it is still a royal pain-in-the-butt to miss out on one-third of the dialog in a movie, to not go to a local coffee house because I won’t understand the lyrics or comments by the musicians, and miss out on all the other small parts of life along these lines.

Hacking for Hearing

There are a range of areas where hackers could contribute and not just in assisting individuals, like myself, who personally gain from technological assistance.

Consider how the cell phone improved communications in developing countries. Using radio communications the countries avoided the need to string thousands of miles of wires. That saved the expense and the decades of construction time. It’s easier to get cell phone service than water in some locations. It’s important to notice that it didn’t come about because of a big plan. It came about as an unseen consequence of a technical development.

“We can rebuild him…we have the technology” is from the opening of an old TV series and movies, “The 6 Million Dollar Man” and has found it’s place in the pop-culture vocabulary. But it rings true. We have the technology. We have the tools. We have the expertise. We’re hackers and builders. We and the technology are all over the place. We’re a solution looking for a problem.

Devices that Extend the Body

All signs point to a coming revolution of devices that protect our bodies and make them work better. The 2015 Hackaday Prize theme is Build Something That Matters and that sentiment is obviously taking hold throughout the hardware hacker movement. The Aegis headphones I mentioned above are one example of preventive devices, but look around and there are many more like the UV-Badge which gives you feedback on safe levels of sunlight for your skin.

Surely we’re going to see further augmentation for the devices that help restore function. Wearables are all the rage, how long will it be before your smartwatch notification functions make it into my hearing aids? Imagine the improvements we will see in custom hearing profiles born of that smartphone-hearing aid connection. The foundations of this are user-controlled profile switching which is already in place for apps like Belltone’s HearPlus. If the advanced electronics in the smartphone can build a better noise profile and transfer it to the hearing aid my visits to the coffee shop just might get a lot better. And this doesn’t mean the devices need to look the same either. I love the Design Affairs Studio hearing aid concept that is shown at the top of this article. Hardware can be a status symbol after all.

This type of forward thinking easily extends to all assistive technologies such as wheelchair improvements and navigation systems for the blind.

As you look toward your next big hack, roll these concepts around in your mind. The tools, software, and talent have never been easier to connect for our group of citizen scientists who are hacking in basements and garages. It’s exciting to think about the change we can affect using the skills honed over the past decades of this hardware enlightenment we’re all living.