Our world has been abuzz with the news that Raspberry Pi are to float on the London Stock Exchange. It seems an obvious move for a successful and ambitious company, and as they seem to be in transition from a maker of small computers into a maker of chips which happen to also go on their small computers, they will no doubt be using the float to generate the required investment to complete that process.
New Silicon Needs Lots Of Cash
When a tech startup with immense goodwill grows in this way, there’s always a worry that it could mark the start of the decline. You might for instance be concerned that a floated Raspberry Pi could bring in financial whiz-kids who let the hobbyist products wither on the vine as they license the brand here and there and perform all sorts of financial trickery in search of shareholder value and not much else. Fortunately we don’t think that this will be the case, and Eben Upton has gone to great lengths to reassure the world that his diminutive computers are safe. That is however not to say that there might be pitfalls ahead from a hobbyist Pi customer perspective, so it’s worth examining what this could mean.
As we remarked last year, the move into silicon is probably the most important part of the Pi strategy for the 2020s. The RP2040 microcontroller was the right chip with the right inventory to do well from the pandemic shortages, and on the SBCs the RP1 all-in-one peripheral gives them independence from a CPU house such as Broadcom. It’s not a difficult prediction that they will proceed further into silicon, and it wouldn’t surprise us to see a future RP chip containing a fully-fledged SoC and GPU. Compared to their many competitors who rely on phone and tablet SoCs, this would give the Pi boards a crucial edge in terms of supply chain, and control over the software.
In case you hadn’t noticed, it was a bad week for system admins. Pennsylvania-based United Health Services, a company that owns and operates hospitals across the US and UK, was hit by a ransomware attack early in the week. The attack, which appears to be the Ryuk ransomware, shut down systems used by hospitals and health care providers to schedule patient visits, report lab results, and do the important job of charting. It’s not clear how much the ransomers want, but given that UHS is a Fortune 500 company, it’s likely a tidy sum.
And as if an entire hospital corporation’s IT infrastructure being taken down isn’t bad enough, how about the multi-state 911 outage that occurred around the same time? Most news reports seemed to blame the outage on an Office 365 outage happening at the same time, but Krebs on Security dug a little deeper and traced the issue back to two companies that provide 911 call routing services. Each of the companies is blaming the other, so nobody is talking about the root cause of the issue. There’s no indication that it was malware or ransomware, though, and the outage was mercifully brief. But it just goes to show how vulnerable our systems have become.
Our final “really bad day at work” story comes from Japan, where a single piece of failed hardware shut down a $6-trillion stock market. The Tokyo Stock Exchange, third-largest bourse in the world, had to be completely shut down early in the trading day Thursday when a shared disk array failed. The device was supposed to automatically failover to a backup unit, but apparently the handoff process failed. This led to cascading failures and blank terminals on the desks of thousands of traders. Exchange officials made the call to shut everything down for the day and bring everything back up carefully. We imagine there are some systems people sweating it out this weekend to figure out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again.
With our systems apparently becoming increasingly brittle, it might be a good time to take a look at what goes into space-rated operating systems. Ars Technica has a fascinating overview of the real-time OSes used for space probes, where failure is not an option and a few milliseconds error can destroy billions of dollars of hardware. The article focuses on the RTOS VxWorks and goes into detail on the mysterious rebooting error that affected the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997. Space travel isn’t the same as running a hospital or stock exchange, of course, but there are probably lessons to be learned here.
As if 2020 hasn’t dealt enough previews of various apocalyptic scenarios, here’s what surely must be a sign that the end is nigh: AI-generated PowerPoint slides. For anyone who has ever had to sit through an endless slide deck and wondered who the hell came up with such drivel, the answer may soon be: no one. DeckRobot, a startup company, is building an AI-powered extension to Microsoft Office to automate the production of “company compliant and visually appealing” slide decks. The extension will apparently be trained using “thousands and thousands of real PowerPoint slides”. So, great — AI no longer has to have the keys to the nukes to do us in. It’ll just bore us all to death.
And finally, if you need a bit of a palate-cleanser after all that, please do check out robotic curling. Yes, the sport that everyone loves to make fun of is actually way more complicated than it seems, and getting a robot to launch the stones on the icy playing field is a really complex and interesting problem. The robot — dubbed “Curly”, of course — looks like a souped-up Roomba. After sizing up the playing field with a camera on an extendable boom, it pushes the stone while giving it a gentle spin to ease it into exactly the right spot. Sadly, the wickedly energetic work of the sweepers and their trajectory-altering brooms has not yet been automated, but it’s still pretty cool to watch. But fair warning: you might soon find yourself with a curling habit to support.
In the financial sector, everyone is looking for a new way to get ahead. Since the invention of the personal computer, and perhaps even before, large financial institutions have been using software to guide all manner of investment decisions. The turn of the century saw the rise of High Frequency Trading, or HFT, in which highly optimized bots make millions of split-second transactions a day.
Recently, [Wired] reported on Numerai — a hedge fund founded on big data and crowdsourcing principles. The basic premise is thus — Numerai takes its transaction data, encrypts it in a manner that hides its true nature from competitors but remains computable, and shares it with anyone who cares to look. Data scientists then crunch the numbers and suggest potential trading algorithms, and those whose algorithms succeed are rewarded with cold, hard Bitcoin.