Feb 222017
 

In the tropical north of Australia, one university is looking at using the Internet of Things to expand the reach of its research and open new opportunities for the local economy.

On Monday James Cook University opened Australia’s first university IoT lab in Australia.

Based at the Cairns campus in Far North Queensland, the lab is part of the university’s new Internet of Things engineering degree and is supported by Chinese telco vendor Huawei.

The university, which also has campuses in Townsville and Singapore, boasts expertise in areas such as marine sciences, tropical ecology and tropical medicine, all of which are relevant to the IoT and made more relevant by Cairns being the main service centre for much of Australia’s remote Top End and the Torres Strait.

Part of a central mission

“The Internet of Things is based on something that is central to our mission in the Tropics: building greater connectivity between people, place and technology,” said the university’s Vice Chancellor Professor Sandra Harding.

JCU’s IoT degree, the first of its kind in Australia, combines the study of electronic engineering with internet technologies, wireless communications, sensor device, industrial design and cloud computing.

Currently the IoT faculty has 57 first year students, which the university hopes to grow to over 200. The head of the IoT faculty, Professor Wei Xiang, explained why the university decided to offer this course.

Economic drivers

“Primarily it’s driven by the economy, Australia is transitioning from a mining boom to a knowledge and innovation driven economy. So in the middle of 2015, JCU decided to offer an engineering degree in Cairns.”

“The IoT places nicely into traditional strengths at JCU in fields like marine science, marine biology and remote medicine, for example we can use the IoT for reef condition monitoring and our Daintree Rainforest project.”

An electronics Engineer himself, Professor Xiang sees the IoT as the future of industry and leapt at the chance to lead a course when the opportunity arose.

“In the middle of 2015 I thought, ‘this is what I want to do as this is where the future is.'”

Smartcity opportunities

Along with the remote health, marine science and agricultural aspects the City of Cairns itself offers smartcity opportunities. As a moderate sized town of 142,000 relatively isolated from the rest of Australia, Cairns has large tourist traffic coupled with weather extremes – the city gets nearly two meters (80 inches) of rain every summer. Making it a good test bed for new city technologies.

“Cairns Regional Council is very interested in smartcities, I’ve been working very closely with the city council and its innovation team,” says Professor Xiang. “We are also rolling out our smart campus.”

Part of the smart campus initiative is the university installing a NarrowBand-IoT base station provided by its program supporter, Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.

Huawei’s NB-IoT base station

Along with supporting the IoT lab, Huawei also plans to offer JCU IoT students the opportunity to travel to Huawei’s global headquarters in China and its Australian headquarters in Sydney as part of its Seeds for the Future program.

“It gives our students and staff an experimental platform that conforms to the latest IoT international standard,” Professor Xiang said. “It means that as we design devices and sensor networks we can test and configure them using that standard.”

The university’s Vice Chancellor, Sandra Harding shares Professor Xiang’s enthusiasm. “From designing smarter cities, to growing precision agricultural systems, monitoring natural environments in real-time, and creating clever health solutions that work in remote communities,” she says. “We don’t want to be just a part of that future, we want to lead it.”

Paul travelled to James Cook University’s Cairns campus as a guest of Huawei.

Dec 212016
 

What happens when the founder and CEO of one of the world’s biggest tech companies decides to create a genuinely smart home? Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg spend 2016 finding out.

“My goal was to learn about the state of artificial intelligence — where we’re further along than people realize and where we’re still a long ways off,” Zuckerberg writes in a blog post.

The immediate problem Zuckerberg faced in creating his home made Jarvis automation system was many household appliances are not network ready and for those that are,  the proliferation of standards makes tying them together difficult.

For assistants like Jarvis to be able to control everything in homes for more people, we need more devices to be connected and the industry needs to develop common APIs and standards for the devices to talk to each other.

Having jerry rigged a number of workarounds, including a cannon to fire his favourite t-shirts from the wardrobe and retrofitting a 1950s toaster to make his breakfast, Zuckerberg then faced another problem – the user interface.

While voice is presumed to be the main way people will control the smart homes of the future, it turns out that text is a much less obtrusive way to communicate with the system.

One thing that surprised me about my communication with Jarvis is that when I have the choice of either speaking or texting, I text much more than I would have expected. This is for a number of reasons, but mostly it feels less disturbing to people around me. If I’m doing something that relates to them, like playing music for all of us, then speaking feels fine, but most of the time text feels more appropriate. Similarly, when Jarvis communicates with me, I’d much rather receive that over text message than voice. That’s because voice can be disruptive and text gives you more control of when you want to look at it.

Given the lead companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Apple have over Facebook in voice recognition, it’s easy to dismiss Zuckerberg’s emphasis on text, but his view does feel correct. Having a HAL type voice booming through house isn’t optimal when you have a sleeping partner, children or house guests.

Zuckerberg’s view also overlooks other control methods, Microsoft and Apple have been doing much in the realm of touch interfaces while wearables offer a range of possibilities for people to communicate with systems.

The bigger problem Zuckerberg identifies is with Artificial Intelligence itself. At this stage of its development AI struggles to understand context and machine learning is far from mature.

Another interesting limitation of speech recognition systems — and machine learning systems more generally — is that they are more optimized for specific problems than most people realize. For example, understanding a person talking to a computer is subtly different problem from understanding a person talking to another person.

Ultimately Zuckerberg concludes that we have a long way to go with Artificial Intelligence and while there’s many things we’re going to be able to do in the near term, the real challenge lies in understanding the learning process itself, not to mention the concept of intelligence.

In a way, AI is both closer and farther off than we imagine. AI is closer to being able to do more powerful things than most people expect — driving cars, curing diseases, discovering planets, understanding media. Those will each have a great impact on the world, but we’re still figuring out what real intelligence is.

Perhaps we’re looking at the what intelligence and learning from a human perspective. Maybe we to approach artificial intelligence and machine learning from the computer’s perspective – what does intelligence look like to a machine?

Dec 012016
 

As with every vendor conference, this year’s AWS Re:Invent convention in Las Vegas bombarded the audience with new product announcements and releases.

One of the interesting aspects for the Internet of Things was the announcement of Amazon Greengrass, a service that stores machine data on remote equipment which combines the company’s Lambda serverless computing and IoT services.

Further pushing Amazon’s move into the IoT space was CEO Andy Jassy’s announcement that chip makers such as Qualcomm and Intel will be building Lambda functions into their chipsets, further embedding AWS into the ecosystem.

Jassy also touted the company’s new Snowball Edge, a slimmed down version of their Snowball data transfer unit that also include some processing features, that is aimed at storing machine data at remote or moving locations such as ships, aircraft, farms or oil rigs.

That latter function ties into one of the key aspects about the Internet of Things – that most data doesn’t have to, or can’t, be transmitted over the internet. This is something companies like Cisco have focused on in their edge computing strategies.

With AWS dominating the cloud computing industry – Gartner estimates the company is ten times bigger than the next 14 companies combined – the worry for customers and regulators will be how much control the organisation has of the world’s data.

It’s hard though not to be impressed at the range of products the company has, and the speed they get them to market, the onus is on companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook to allocate the resources and talent to match AWS in the marketplace.

Oct 252016
 

Last weekend a cyberattack launched from compromised webcams crippled a number of high profile services. In response, the Chinese manufacturer has withdrawn the devices from the market.

That dodgy webcams should have been used to launch a massive DDOS doesn’t surprise anyone who’s spent any time in the home automation field. These problems are endemic in the Internet of Things.

In the early 2000s I became involved in a home automation company through my IT support business. Basically we were kitting out Sydney’s harbourfront mansions with state of the art technology.

Very quickly I realised something was wrong. Almost all the home automation and CCTV systems were running on outdated, insecure software. The leading brand of home security systems used servers running on an old version of Windows 2000 at a time when malware was exploding.

It wasn’t a matter of if, but when, these systems would become hopelessly compromised given the networks they were running on were shared with the home users.

The real concern though was when I raised this with the vendors, installers and designers – no one cared. It was clear security wasn’t a concern for the market and the industry.

We could have patched the systems and boosted their security policies but given the shoddy software being used – mainly DOS batch files – and the assumed file permissions we’d have completely broken the systems and it would up to us to fix it given the attitudes of vendors and clients.

After realising this problem was industry wide I pulled the pin on that business venture as I wasn’t prepared to carry the legal risk and moral obligation of helping install dangerous equipment into people’s homes or businesses.

I’ve since watched as the Internet of Things has become fashionable with the knowledge that the industry’s cavalier attitude towards customer security hasn’t changed.

Now we’re at the stage where script kiddies can launch massive attacks from compromised webcams – God knows what the serious bad guys like state sponsored actors, criminal organisations and commercial spies are up to with these things – which shows the industry’s robotic chickens have come home to roost.

What last weekend’s events show is we have to demand better security from our technology suppliers. That though comes at a cost – we’ll pay more, we’ll have to sacrifice some convenience and we’ll have to spend time maintaining systems.

Are we prepared to wear those costs? Is the tech industry prepared to move beyond it’s ‘good enough’ attitude toward security? Are governments prepared to legislate and enforce proper design rules?

We may not have a choice if we want to enjoy the benefits of technology.

Aug 072016
 

I’ve spent the last week in Las Vegas attending the Black Hat and DefCon security conferences. Among much of the discussion about protecting oneself against the misuse of technology, one thing that stood out was the focus on the Internet of Things.

Listening to some of the discussions and speaking to various people, it’s increasingly clear the consensus is the IoT is effectively unsecurable – the range of devices connected to the internet is just too great to be protected.

Compounding the problem are the plethora of poorly designed devices where security is, at best, a vague afterthought along with an older generation of equipment that was never intended to be connected to the public facing internet.

Given many of these devices are going to be critical to business and individual lifestyles, their reliability and quality of the data gathered by them is going to increasingly come into question and the systems that rely upon them are going to need ways to validate the information they receive.

Perhaps this is where machine learning and artificial intelligence are going to be valuable in watching for anomalies in the information and flagging where problems are happening within networks.

As those networks become more essential to society, we’re going to have build more  redundancy and robustness into our systems, the key component though may be trust.

Jun 202016
 

On Monday I attended the Australian Israel Chamber of Commerce KPMG Internet of Things (IoT) & Smart Cities Briefing in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. It was an event that left me worrying about how the nation’s governments are dealing with the connected society.

The event was held under the Chatham House Rule so I’m unable to attribute quotes or identify the views of individual speakers however the conversation was mainly around the difficulties of getting Australia’s three levels of governments working together and their reluctance to share data.

Probably the most worrying comment was how Australian public servants aren’t empowered to make decision that would take advantage of smart cities technologies.

When politics eats everything

If anything this view illustrates a deeper problem in Australia where public policy and decision making is subsumed by politics. Exacerbating this is the insistence of opportunistic ministers and their chronically unqualified party advisers to micromanage decisions that should be made by qualified professionals.

A fear of delegating decision making quickly morphs into tendency to avoid accountability with decisions being made behind closed doors and contracts hidden from public view by the ‘Commercial In Confidence’ fiction that put contractors’ privileges over the public good.

That reluctance to share information also feeds into implementing smartcity technologies. With data being jealously guarded by government agencies, city councils and often corrupt ministerial offices, the currency of the smartcity – data – is locked away rather than used for the public good.

Accidental releases of data

One of the participants pointed out how in Australia government data is often released by accident and the siloing of data between government agencies and private contractors makes access difficult.

The real concern though was at during the question and answer session, in a response to a question from the writer asking if Australia’s business and government leaders are oblivious to the global changes, one of the panellists stated “boards are now convinced digital has a seat at the table.” That is hardly assuring.

Probably the biggest concern though for this writer was after the lunch. One of the other attendees, the CEO of  a major supplier to Australian councils, mentioned how the equipment he supplies was ‘pretty dumb’ and he was closing down the overseas operations of his business as they were losing money.

Inward business cultures

That inward looking attitude of catering to a domestic market that’s oblivious to global shifts seems to be almost a parody of the management books that talk about Kodak’s demise earlier this century or the fate of buggy whip manufacturers a hundred years before. Yet that is the mindset of many Australian businesses.

Exacerbating industry’s insular mindset, Australia’s planners seem to have a fantasy that the nation’s cities are like Barcelona rather than Chicago. The truth is Australia’s car dependent cities have more in common with their North American counterparts than European centres, something planners are reluctant to admit.

Being car dependent doesn’t preclude effectively applying smartcity technologies, in fact there might be more benefits to sprawling communities as vehicles becomes connected and driverless automobiles start appearing. However applying what works in Amsterdam to Sydney, a city that is more like Los Angeles, is probably doomed to failure.

“A smart city needs smart people to succeed” is a mantra I’ve heard a number of times. The question right now is whether Australia has enough smart people in positions of power to execute on the opportunities in the 21st Century. The roll out of smartcities may prove to be an early test.

Apr 272016
 

Tracking environmental changes across the oceans a huge undertaking. To deal with the scale of the task Australian researchers have started equipping seals marine animals with a maritime equivalent of a fitbit to monitor the effects of our changing planet.

One of the interesting case studies that came across my desk in recent weeks was the IMOS animal tracking program. The Integrated Marine Observing System is a consortium of research institutions lead by the University of Tasmania that collects data for the Australian marine and climate science community and its international collaborators.

The data is collected from ten different technology platforms including floats, ships, autonomous vehicles such as gliders and deep ocean probes, and by fitting tracking devices onto animals.

Along with sharks and fish, seals are one of the animals IMOS use to track water conditions, one of the benefits of using seals is they can transmit data to a satellite when they return to the surface to breath and they never get stuck under ice.

The tags themselves are made by a Scottish company and are designed to gather information on the depth, temperature, salinity of the seas the animals travel in. They are also useful for tracking the behaviour of the animals.

Along with research into conditions across the vast Southern Ocean, IMOS is also being used to monitor the effects of port development in the mining regions of Western Australia and other areas where environments are undergoing dramatic change.

Once the data is collected it’s open to use by the research community in their understanding the effects of a warming planet, that open data and the cloud storage it is based upon are critical to the program’s success as there’s little point in collecting the data.

We have the devices to collect a tremendous amount of data on our environment, whether it’s our personal fitbits, financial records or information on agriculture or wild animals. The challenge though is to use that data effectively.

In the case of a changing environment, understanding what is happening and the effects could be a matter of our survival. While the idea of a fitbit for seals seems cute, the data they collect could prove critical.