US now trains more drone operators than pilots

24/08/2009

As part of an expanding programme of battlefield automation, the American air force has said it is now training more drone operators than fighter and bomber pilots.

In a controversial shift in military thinking – one encouraged by the confirmed death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a drone-strike on 5 August – the air force is looking to hugely expand its fleet of unmanned aircraft by 2047.

Three years ago, the service was able to fly just 12 drones at a time; now it can fly more than 50. At a trade conference outside Washington last week, military contractors presented a future vision in which pilotless drones serve as fighters, bombers and transports, even automatic mini-drones which attack in swarms.

Five thousand robotic vehicles and drones are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2015, the Pentagon’s $230bn (£140bn) arms procurement programme Future Combat Systems expects 15% of America’s armed forces to be robotic.

A recent study ‘The Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Plan 2020-2047’ predicted a boom in drone funding to $55bn by 2020 with the greatest changes coming in the 2040s.

“The capability provided by the unmanned aircraft is game-changing,” said General Norton Schwartz, the air force chief of staff. “We can have eyes 24/7 on our adversaries.”

Read the full story on the Observer website.

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Who will be responsible for autonomous machines?

20/08/2009

Within a decade, we could be routinely interacting with machines that are truly autonomous – systems that can adapt, learn from their experience and make decisions for themselves. Free from fatigue and emotion, they would perform better than humans in tasks that are dull, dangerous or stressful.

Already, the systems we rely on in our daily lives are being given the capacity to operate autonomously. On the London Underground, Victoria line trains drive themselves between stations, with the human “driver” responsible only for spotting obstacles and closing the doors. Trains on the Copenhagen Metro run without any driver at all.

While our cars can’t yet drive themselves, more and more functions are being given over to the vehicle, from anti-lock brakes to cruise control. Automatic lighting and temperature control are commonplace in homes and offices.

The areas of human existence in which fully autonomous machines might be useful – and the potential benefits – are almost limitless. Within a decade, robotic surgeons may be able to perform operations much more reliably than any human.

Smart homes could keep an eye on elderly people and allow them to be more independent. Self-driving cars could reduce congestion, improve fuel efficiency and minimise the number of road accidents.

But automation can create hazards as well as removing them. How reliable does a robot have to be before we trust it to do a human’s job? What happens when something goes wrong? Can a machine be held responsible for its actions?

Read the full story on the Guardian website.


Scientists pioneer method for DNA microchips

17/08/2009

Researchers have found a way to create a new generation of tiny microchips that use DNA – rather than traditional silicon – to achieve potentially revolutionary advances in computing.

A team based at IBM’s Alamaden research facility in San Jose, California, has found a method for building chips that they believe could eventually replace the current standards for creating electrical circuits using silicon wafers.

The technique, which was developed in conjunction with the California Institute of Technology, creates tiny microchips using strands of DNA and carbon nanotubes – microscopic cylinders constructed from carbon molecules.

In a paper published in the Nature Nanotechnology journal, the team describes a method that uses so-called “DNA origami” – pieces of genetic material which can be arranged into patterns similar to those used in the microchips common in computers and other electronic devices.

After creating a scaffold of DNA, nanotubes are then inserted into the design to build a microchip that is several times smaller – and therefore faster – than anything that today’s most advanced techniques can achieve.

“This is the first demonstration of using biological molecules to help with processing in the semiconductor industry,” IBM research manager Spike Narayan told Reuters.

“Basically, this is telling us that biological structures like DNA actually offer some very reproducible, repetitive kinds of patterns that we can actually leverage in semiconductor processes.”

Read the full story on the Guardian website.


China drops Green Dam web filtering system

15/08/2009

Chinese officials appear to have retreated from their controversial plan to install an internet filtering system on computers in the country.

The industry and information technology minister, Li Yizhong, said today that the notion that the Green Dam programme would be required on every new computer was “a misunderstanding” spawned by poorly written regulations.

He said all public computers in schools and internet cafes must install the software – but the government “respected the choice of individuals who do not install it”. He said: “Those who overstated and politicised the issue, or even attacked China’s internet regulation, are irresponsible,” and added that pornography was the main target of the software.

Its initial plans met with fierce opposition when they were announced, with many internet users fearing that the software – which blocks pornographic, violent and politically sensitive content – would also be used to monitor behaviour, curb access to information and track users.

At first it appeared that the campaign, which was backed by the US government, was gaining ground. However last month, hours before the programme was due to be implemented, officials briefed that there would be a delay, but the plans would eventually go ahead.

Today’s announcement appears to make that suspension permanent, with Li saying the government would neither require the programme to come pre-installed on new computers, nor force computer makers to include the programme on a CD with optional software.

Read the full story on the Guardian website.


Palm Pre snoops on users by phoning data home

14/08/2009

Palm Pre users watch out. Palm may know a lot more about you than you would like to share.

Programmer Joey Hess found that Palm Pre’s operating system webOS sends his GPS location back to Palm every day. Hess also found code that sends Palm data on which webOS apps he has used each day, and for how long he used each one.

“I was surprised by this,” Hess, who bought the Pre about a month ago, told Wired.com. “I had location services turned off though I had GPS still on because I wanted it to geotag photos. Still I didn’t expect Palm to collect this level of information.”

In its defense, Palm says the data is used to offer better results to users. For instance, when location-based services are used, the Pre collects information to give users relevant local results in Google Maps, says Palm.

“Palm takes privacy very seriously and offers users ways to turn data collecting services on and off,” says Palm in a statement. “Our privacy policy is like many policies in the industry and includes very detailed language about potential scenarios in which we might use a customer’s information, all toward a goal of offering a great user experience.”

Palm’s actions trigger questions about consumer privacy and the extent to which handset makers and developers are gathering and using data about buyers’ behavior.

Read the full story on the Wired website.


Computer viruses slow African expansion

13/08/2009

Hampered by pirated software and super-slow download times, computer users in Africa are finding PC viruses hard to eradicate.

While western countries have partially learned to neutralise the threat of computer viruses, Africa has become a hive of trojans, worms and exploiters of all stripes. As PC use on the continent has spread in the past decade, viruses have hitched a ride, wreaking havoc on development efforts, government programmes and fledgling businesses.

“It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say 80% of all computers you find in Africa will have some nastiness on them,” says Tariq Khokhar, the chief development officer of Aptivate, a non-governmental organisation that focuses on IT. This compares to around 30% in the UK, according to Panda Security.

The cost is hard to measure, but ask IT consultants and development workers about the impact, and the stories pour out. Even the Congress of South African Trade Unions found in May that its website was spreading viruses to visitors.

Viruses spontaneously reboot computers, destroy vital data, and clog already severely pinched internet connection (it is not unusual to wait 10 minutes to access a single web page). The result: funding applications delayed, small businesses hurt, and hours wasted.

Read the full story on the Guardian website.


Tr.im URL shortening service closes its doors

12/08/2009

The popular URL shortening service Tr.im has announced it is shutting down. That means, just as critics of URL shortening services predicted, a whole lot of shortened links are about to disappear in a black hole.

Or maybe not. The developers of Tr.im say that the service will remain running through the end of the year, so your old links will “continue to redirect until at least December 31, 2009.” The post goes on to say, that Tr.im “will not be turning tr.im off for redirections” and the homepage claims that “your tweets with tr.im URLs in them will not be affected.”

The wording is bit vague, but the way we’re reading it is that while the Tr.im shortening service is dead as of now, the redirections will continue working until the end of the year. At midnight on December 31 all your Tr.im URLs will turn into pumpkins and vanish into the ether. Or perhaps the developers of Tr.im plan to leave the redirect engine going indefinitely, though that seems highly unlikely.

Either way, Tr.im’s saga is pretty much a textbook case of why URL shorteners are a bad idea all around. The most obvious problem is that shortened URLs could lead anywhere – a spam site, a phishing site, a porn site, a malware site, who knows?

Read the full story on the WebMonkey website.