AI: This Decade’s Worst Buzz Word

In hacker circles, the “Internet of Things” is often the object of derision. Do we really need the IoT toaster? But there’s one phrase that — while not new — is really starting to annoy me in its current incarnation: AI or Artificial Intelligence.

The problem isn’t the phrase itself. It used to mean a collection of techniques used to make a computer look like it was smart enough to, say, play a game or hold a simulated conversation. Of course, in the movies it means HAL9000. Lately, though, companies have been overselling the concept and otherwise normal people are taking the bait.

The Alexa Effect

Not to pick on Amazon, but all of the home assistants like Alexa and Google Now tout themselves as AI. By the most classic definition, that’s true. AI techniques include matching natural language to predefined templates. That’s really all these devices are doing today. Granted the neural nets that allow for great speech recognition and reproduction are impressive. But they aren’t true intelligence nor are they even necessarily direct analogs of a human brain.

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What’s the Best Way to Learn Electronics?

What’s the best way to learn electronics? It’s a pithy question to ask a Hackaday audience, most of whom are at least conversant in the field already. Those who already have learned often have just their own perspective to draw upon—how they themselves learned. Some of you may have taught others. I want to explore what works and what doesn’t.

Hobbyists Learn Differently Than Students

One thing I can say straight off is that students learn differently than people who learn at home. Hobbyists have the advantage of actually being interested, which is a quality a student may not enjoy. People have been teaching themselves electronics since the beginning, with analog projects–Heathkit models, BEAM robots, and ham radio sets–evolving into purely digital projects.

Let’s face it, Arduinos lower the bar like nothing else. There’s a reason why the Blink sketch has become the equivalent to “Hello World”. Dirt cheap and easily configured microcontrollers combined with breakout boards make it easy for anyone to participate.

However, ask any true EE and that person will tell you that following wiring diagrams and plugging in sensor boards from Sparkfun only teaches so much. You don’t bone up on terms like hysteresis or bias by building something from uCs and breakout boards. But do you need to? If you are truly interested in electronics and learn by making those Adafruit or Sparkfun projects, sooner or later you’ll want to make your own breakout boards. You’ll learn how to design your own circuit boards and figure out why things work and why they don’t. I don’t need to tell you the Internet has all the answers a neophyte needs–but the interest has to be there in the first place.

What’s the Best Way to Learn in the Classroom?

There is a product category within robotics kits that consists of “educational rovers” designed to be purchased in group lots by teachers so that each student or small group gets one. These rovers are either pre-built or mostly built—sure, you get to screw in motor mounts, but all the circuit boards are already soldered up for you, surface mount, no less. They come pre-configured for a variety of simple tasks like line following and obstacle avoidance. The Makeblock mBot is an example.

I think it’s part of that whole “learn coding” initiative, where the idea is to minimize the assembly in order to maximize the coding time. Insofar as soldering together a kit of through-hole components teaches about electronics, these bots mostly don’t do it. By all appearances, if there is a best way to learn electronics, this an’t it. However, regardless of what kind of project the teacher puts in front of the student, it still has to generate some sort of passion. What those robots provide is a moment of coolness that ignites the firestorm of interest.

I once led a soldering class that used Blinky Grids by Wayne and Layne as the focus. This is a fantastic kit that guides you through building a small LED matrix. It’s particularly cool because it can be programmed over a computer monitor with light sensors interacting with white and black squares on the company’s web site. When my students finished their grids, they all worked and had unique messages scrolling through. Now, that is a payoff. I’m not saying that any of those folks became hardware hackers as a result of my class, but it beat the hell out of a Christmas tree, am I right?

Getting back to that rover, what must be acknowledged is that the rover itself is the payoff, and that’s only as far as it goes if everyone loses interest. However, a lot of those rovers have expansion possibilities like bolting on another sensor or changing the method of programming–for instance, the mBot has both a graphic programming interface and can also be reflashed with a regular old Arduino bootloader.

Readers, share in comments your own perspective. How did you learn? How would you teach others?

Britain Invented Rock-N-Roll, And Other Stories

An elderly relative of mine used to get irate at the BBC news. When our Prime Minister [Edward Heath] or another of her bêtes noirs of the day came on, she’d rail at the radio or the TV, expressing her views to them in no uncertain terms. It taught a young me a lot about the futility of shouting at the telly, as well as about making a spectacle of oneself.

The ISS in flight. NASA(Public Domain)
The ISS in flight. NASA [Public domain].
The other evening though I found myself almost at the point of  shouting at a TV programme, and since it’s one with a clear message about technology I feel it’s worth sharing here. The programme in question was one of the Impossible Engineering series, and it was talking about the technology behind the International Space Station. It was recent enough to include last year’s mission involving [Tim Peake], so it was by no means a show dredged from the archives.

All very well, you say. Impossible Engineering‘s format of looking at a modern engineering marvel and tracing the historical roots of some of its innovations would find fertile ground in the ISS, after all it’s one of our most impressive achievements and could easily provide content for several seasons of the show. And I’ll give them this, they did provide an interesting episode.

The trouble was, they made an omission. And it wasn’t just a slight omission, one of those minor cock-ups that when we Hackaday scribes make them the commenters pounce upon with glee, this one was a doozy. They managed to fill an hour of television talking about space stations and in particular a space station that was assembled by multiple countries under an international co-operation, without mention of any of the Russian technology that underpins much of its design. An egregious example among many was their featuring a new Boeing capsule designed to touchdown on land rather than on water as a novel invention, when as far as I am aware every Russian capsule ever made has performed a land-based touchdown.

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The Trouble With Cordless Power Tools

If you grow up around a small engineering business you are likely to gain something of an appreciation for power tools. You’ll see them of all ages, sizes, manufacturers, and technologies. When thinking of the power tools constantly on hand in the workshop of a blacksmith like my dad for instance, I’m instantly seeing a drill and an angle grinder. The drill that most comes to mind is a Makita mains powered hand drill, and given that I remember the day he bought it to replace his clapped-out Wolf in 1976, it has given phenomenal service over four decades and continues to do so.

41 years of hard use, and still going strong.
41 years of hard use, and still going strong…

Of course, the Makita isn’t the only drill in his possession. A variety of others of different sizes and speeds have come and gone over the years, and there is always one at hand for any given task. The other one I’d like to single out is I think the most recent acquisition, a Bosch cordless model he bought several years ago. It’s similar in size and capabilities to the Makita save for its bulky battery pack, and it is a comparably decent quality tool.

So, we have two drills, both of similar size, and both of decent quality. One is from the mid 1970s, the other from the end of the last decade. One is a very useful tool able to drill holes all day, the other is little more than a paperweight. The vintage model from the days of flared trousers is a paperweight, you ask? No, the not-very-old Bosch, because its battery pack has lost its capacity. The inevitable degradation due to aged cell chemistry has left it unable to hold enough charge for more than maybe a minute’s use, and what was once a tool you’d be glad to own is now an ornament.

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Avoiding The Engineer-Saviour Trap

The random seaside holidays of Hackaday staffers rarely sow the seeds of our articles, but my most recent trip had something slightly unusual about it. I was spending a couple of days in a resort town on the Isle of Wight, just off the coast of Southern England, and my hotel was the local outpost of a huge chain that provides anonymous rooms for travelling salesmen and the like. I could probably find an identical place to lay my head anywhere in the world from Anchorage to Hobart and everywhere in between.

My room though was slightly different to the norm. By chance rather than necessity I’d been assigned one of the hotel’s accessible rooms, designed with people with disabilities in mind. And once I’d reached the limit of the free amusement that the digital TV channels of Southern England could provide, my attention turned to the room itself, eyeing up its slightly unfamiliar design features as an engineer.

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LCaaS – Lawn Care as a Service?

As often happens while engaged in a mundane task, my mind wandered while I was mowing my small suburban plot of green this weekend. “Why, in 2017, am I still mowing the lawn?” In a lot of ways we’re living in the future  — we walk around with fantastically powerful computers in our pockets, some of us have semi-autonomous cars, and almost anything can be purchased at the touch of a finger and delivered the next day or sooner. We even have robots that can vacuum the floor, so why not a robot lawnmower?

It turns out we do have robotic lawnmowers, but unfortunately, they kind of suck: Continue reading “LCaaS – Lawn Care as a Service?”

Free as in Beer, or the Story of Windows Viruses

Whenever there’s a new Windows virus out there wreaking global havoc, the Linux types get smug. “That’ll never happen in our open operating system,” they say. “There are many eyes looking over the source code.” But then there’s a Heartbleed vulnerability that keeps them humble for a little while. Anyway, at least patches are propagated faster in the Linux world, right?

While the Linuxers are holier-than-thou, the Windows folks get defensive. They say that the problem isn’t with Windows, it’s just that it’s the number one target because it’s the most popular OS. Wrong, that’d be Android for the last few years, or Linux since forever in the server space. Then they say it’s a failure to apply patches and upgrade their systems, because their users are just less savvy, but that some new update system will solve the problem.

There’s some truth to the viruses and the patching, but when WannaCry is taking over hospitals’ IT systems or the radiation monitoring network at Chernobyl, it’s not likely to be the fault of the stereotypical naive users, and any automatic patch system is only likely to help around the margins.

So why is WannaCry, and variants, hitting unpatched XP machines, managed by professionals, all over the world? Why are there still XP machines in professional environments anyway? And what does any of this have to do with free software? The answer to all of these questions can be found in the ancient root of all evil, the want of money. Linux is more secure, ironically, at least partly because it’s free as in beer, and upgrading to a newer version is simply cheaper.

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