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Powering the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (I0T) is here and it’s hungry. Right now, a lot of brainpower is being used to figure out battery and energy solutions so that Alexa never fails to respond and the FitBit doesn’t overlook the stairwell you climbed coming back from lunch.

Consider, too, that IoT needs computer processing power as well to function. Assuming our chips survive Spectre, will IoT users get the power they need?

IoT and a New Approach to Supercomputing

IoT devices are the ultimate in wireless, on-the-go technology and its numbers are growing. Last year, Gartner forecasted there would be 20.4 billion IoT devices by 2020. More than 60% of current IoT applications are in the consumer market, but businesses will no doubt identify new uses for it and make more demands for IoT power, including processing power.

Supercomputers are the first solution most businesses and industry enthusiasts will think of. But supercomputers are expensive and consume a lot of energy. They would place IoT out of reach for many consumers and small businesses. But guess what? There is a better way: leashing the power of idle and underused processors.

The Phoenix area where I live and work is a hub of creative technological thinking, particularly in mobile and IoT.  Two years ago, I caught a presentation by Chris Mattheiu, then with Citrix, at the annual Phoenix Mobile Tech conference. He spoke about sharing unused processors to power anything that requires computing— not just IoT—although that’s what initially sparked his interest.

A new supercomputing platform uses idle or unused processing power.
Giving and taking computing power, as needed and as available.

Even to me, a non-techie who writes about mobile and IoT tech, this made sense: Create a supercomputer that doesn’t generate more processing power but uses excess power that’s just sitting around unused. IoT itself, Mattheiu pointed out, is idle 80% of the time. It doesn’t need a steady supply of processing power, but it does need a reliable one.

Mattheiu had already created the website computes.io to deliver processing power to those who need more than they have on hand. In January 2018, he announced its formal launching as a new business. Computes serves businesses and nonprofits that need additional computing power that would otherwise require buying additional resources. It can run on the cloud and deliver to any device, on any browser and through any operating system.

It’s already got one impressive customer: the University of Wisconsin, which is using Computes to find patients with early onset Parkinson’s Disease for clinical studies.

This approach to get supercomputer power without spending a lot of money is great news for smaller companies and startups, which are powering a lot of Phoenix-area tech businesses these days.

Who Needs Additional Computing Power?

In addition to the impressive size of IoT users, there are plenty of others who can use additional computing power. For me, the most obvious one is in graphic design.

As a dedicated WordPress fangirl, I am painfully aware of the amount of sheer memory graphics take up on a website. There are solutions for this terrible problem (!) but what about the folks who are creating those graphics? Artists are not generally overflowing with excess cash to buy into more Amazon cloud space, particularly for short-term projects.

Computes works for them, too, and I suspect local Phoenix-area artists and videographers will love this solution. The same goes for those working with machine learning (formerly known as artificial intelligence, or AI), another small but strong industry in these parts. Not everyone has access to the supercomputing services at ASU!

Computes is also looking to attract a “cryptocurrency” market to leverage from idle gaming systems, cryptocurrency mining—a popular activity on campus these days—and to support applications like fault tolerance, which ensures websites remain active even when there’s an issue that would normally bring a site down.

IoT devices and machine learning/AI aren’t trends anymore: they’re as permanent as data collection and mining. Even cryptocurrency keeps marching on. Their presence, and that of the next thing on the horizon, will make more demands on power, even if they don’t need it all the time.

Most of us hate wasting resources. This “mesh computer” as Computes calls it, works in a way similar to how solar power customers sell excess power back to utilities. Plus, it’s good to see a technological advance that will actually help small businesses and nonprofits better manage their resources. The fact that this great idea was hatched right here in the Valley of the Sun makes it more than a little sweeter.

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Arizona education Arizona Tech Communiy Mobile technology

Can Artificial Intelligence Replace the Human Touch?

I attended the sixth annual Phoenix Mobility Conference in September at Arizona State University. This is the second year in a row that a university hosted the event; last year’s conference was at Grand Canyon University.

Interestingly, artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR)—not mobile technology—were the focuses for much of this year’s conference. At times, it seemed mobile tech was almost incidental outside of presentations on headset technologies for gaming which, one might presume, has research potential as well.

Can Artificial Intelligence Replace Human Interaction? Should It?

At the risk of using a non sequitur, ASU is a natural fit for discussions about the roles AI and AR can play. The campus is about as connected as one can get, a point emphasized by the keynote speaker Sethuraman Panchanathan (“Panch” to his students and colleagues), who is the face and force behind knowledge enterprise at ASU.

Touching, from human and artificial intelligence
The human touch is superior to one from artificial intelligence.

“Imagine AI giving keynote talks like this,” Dr. Panchanathan said during his keynote. AI’s ability to collect and assess a huge range of data would make keynotes more informative and accurate. Using sophisticated user interface and deep intelligence capabilities, a keynote would anticipate and answer all the questions an audience would have. It would be so much better!

Would it?

I kept wondering if Dr. Panch underestimates the power of human communication skills, including his own. I was drawn in by his enthusiasm and I’m not even a techie or ASU alum. It was interesting to hear how ASU has taken the lead in the knowledge industry, even though at times the keynote sounded like an extended advertisement for the school.

But would I have preferred a presentation from Commander Data? Probably not–and let’s not forget, that character longed to make the ultimate transition into a human.

It’s seeing a well-prepared, live lecture that captures the attention of “other” people we need to persuade to embrace technology, another point Panchanathan made. Let’s leave the presentations to the people involved in the work. Make the artificial intelligence and smart devices available for follow-up when human experts aren’t available.

Will Writers Be Replaced by Deep Learning Artificial Intelligence?

Deep learning was another hot topic at the conference. For those who aren’t familiar with it, deep learning is a part of AI that studies and learns from data to continuously adapt. It’s sort of the opposite of task-oriented machine learning that’s displaced factory jobs once held by real people. Here’s a history of it from MIT Technology Review.

There was some talk of AI being used to create written content, as for websites, blogs, even film scripts. As a writer, I find this alarming.

I also think it’s counterproductive. I don’t know how much AI can or should learn, at least about the human condition. From what I’ve read, AI-produced scripts are pretty bad. Can they get better? Honestly, I hope not. AI should primarily, if not exclusively, be used as a tool.

Let’s put it underground to detect movements–natural and otherwise–that can trigger earthquakes and give people advance warning. Let’s continue to put it in technologies like self-driving automobiles to make traffic flow better and eliminate human errors that range from distracted driving to wrong-way driving (a particularly weird and dangerous problem in the Phoenix area).

If AI’s champions see a role in influencing the human condition, use it to build upon it rather than replace it. Use AI to help people with disabilities successfully navigate new territories, whether it’s practicing to overcome severe anxiety or learning to use an artificial limb to its fullest. How about an AI device to teach new languages more naturally than repeating phrases? Or replace a nervous parent trying to teach an equally nervous teenager to drive?

We need to be smart about how we plan to use AI and keep our expectations to utility, not replacing functions best done by people. Aside from Elon Musk’s warnings about AI driving the next world war, AI is a tricky tool that requires careful planning, security, and above all, control.

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Arizona business Arizona issues Arizona Tech Communiy Mobile technology

The Internet of Things – Alive in Arizona!

You’ve probably heard about the Internet of Things. You might have quickly decided it sounds like too much to look up. Let me simplify it for you: it’s about using the Internet to control your stuff that may or may not be mobile.

Is the Internet of Things too all-seing and all-knowing?
What’s not to like about the Internet of Things? Security, for one but Arizona’s IoT firms are working on it.

I already knew this, and had a pretty good idea about how it works. I’ve written about the “smart home” concepts for clients and wondered how safe this is. Aren’t there geniuses in North Korea and China chained to cubicles and ordered to hack our smartphones this very moment?

If I wired my home security to the phone, what could stop some devious person from breaking in and stealing Junior Yankee from me in the dead of a late Saturday morning when he’s asleep but I’m away at a conference on the Internet of Things? Or what if they want my adorable Chihuahua and Dachahuahua? Is IoT, as it’s also known, a safe place?

The Internet of Things is a Wonderful and Scary Place

I got an email about a local IoT DevFest. Since it was being held at the Mesa Arts Center, I figured it was hosted by a legitimate tech group and not a nefarious dictatorship, although its co-sponsors included Google Developers and Intel.

I’m just joking! Really, Google, get a sense of humor.

A very nice guy named Mike Wolfson (he’s an Android/Java developer) organized the conference on behalf of the Phoenix Meetup for the Internet of Things. He comped me a ticket after I emailed him asking if it would be too technical for an interested, semi-techy, writer.

It was time well-spent. Not only did I learn much more about IoT, but out of a group of perhaps 150 people, there was no line for the ladies’ room during the first, post-coffee break. (Not so the mens room!)

Here are more reasons to like IoT:

  • It’s a bona fide Arizona industry. There are firms right here in our state doing amazing work with IoT most of us couldn’t have imagined five years ago.
  • Its growth potential is huge. A few speakers cited a Gartner Research finding that about a million new devices come online each day, making IoT is a potential $14 billion market.
  • It enables and improves technologies, including mobile technology. A Tempe manufacturer called Local Motors created a series of 3D printed cars. Check out their video below.
    • How is this related to IoT? It’s powered by a platform created by another Tempe company, Octoblu (now owned by Citrix), which works to integrate anything and everything through the Internet. You can control the car through a laptop and I’m sure, through a very well-protected smartphone someday soon.
  • IoT developers care about delivering quality products. I’m among millions of frustrated people who’ve written about abysmally slow US Internet speeds. IoT platform designers will be the ones to push for a faster Internet on our shores. Here’s an article I wrote on Internet Speed a couple of years ago.

 

Here’s where IoT is scary: security gaps.

Platform developers like Octoblu are working hard to maximize security on their end. They’re constantly hiring people to hack their systems and help them identify where there are weak spots. It won’t be easy for Kim Jong Un’s minions to break into their platform.

The problem comes from the device side of things, where there are no security standards. The best platform developers can do is blacklist devices and firms that are notoriously sloppy and easy to hack. They should also take the lead in persuading and assisting mobile developers to improve security and invest in new safeguards.

Right now, the safest way to communicate between two places is peer-to-peer (P2P), which of course makes it less “mobile” in some ways, but it is the most difficult to hack.

The Phoenix IoT Community is Robust and Enthusiastic

Honestly, IoT folks are not just enthusiastic at work but also at 9 am on a bright Saturday morning, after a rainy week when it’s tempting to ditch a conference and go for a hike.

Not this group. The auditorium was full for the keynote speaker, Octoblu founder and local IoT god, Chris Matthieu, who sports an impressive twirly-style mustache. In this video, he explains how Citrix used Octoblu technologies to power that 3D car.

Citrix also hosts the IoT Hackers Meetup. As a member of a couple of WordPress meetups, I appreciate when companies loan their spaces.

Another local group that brings together IoT developers is CO+HOOTS. It shares offices in downtown Phoenix to encourage collaboration among techies in various areas, including software and app developers. You don’t have to be a techie to use their space, though: the site lists graphic designers, filmmakers, photographers, and independent types like lawyers, real estate agents, and ahem, writers as among their members.

While developers tend to work for their own firms, IcedDev is one local group that hires consultants to work with companies involved in development. I won’t pretend to understand a lot of what they do but its founder, Luis Montes, talked a lot about JavaScript (the group sponsors a local Java/Node Meetup). He also discussed an interesting development in Bluetooth technology that links sensors on low-powered devices like heart monitors to the web. This allows for remote patient monitoring, perhaps as a backup for onsite hospital staff attending to emergencies elsewhere.

Want to know what the experts say will be IoT highlights in 2016? Check out this blog entry from Chris Witeck, Citrix’s chief technology strategist.

 

 

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Still Outsourcing Local Talent?

I attended the Phoenix Mobile Festival recently, an annual event for people who develop apps and technologies for mobile devices like smartphones, tablets, and wearable technology like smart watches. While I’m not a developer, I like to keep up on mobile developments. Since this was a local event, I was very surprised to hear a speaker praising outsourcing, a scourge that’s hurting Arizona’s efforts to become a tech leader rivaling Silicone Valley.

Banner for the Phoenix Mobile Festival
Is a technical conference the place to talk about the joys of outsourcing?

Is This the Time to Advise Talent Outsourcing?

I missed the first half of Fred von Graf’s session on “Secrets to Building a Million-Dollar Business.” I was learning about complications and time travel.

Normally, I welcome business development talks because Lord knows I can use advice on building this business, getting new (paying) clients, and networking. The title of von Graf’s session struck me as silly and cheap, but after checking out an Android development session, I figured I’d make room for a real developer and went into the Million Dollar session.

There I sat, horrified, as this person advised, over and over, to look overseas for tech teams.

I didn’t think people were still hot on outsourcing. I had read that a lot of companies have pulled out and are hiring US workers, whose training and, I suspect culture, match theirs more closely. In fact, I’ve read about companies in India that are outsourcing for US talent!

It came up from a question about where to find freelance tech teams. To get a really good idea of who works well on your project, von Graf advised hiring three teams to do the same project and pick the one that did it best.

How can I pay for that? another person asked.

Easy. Hire teams from overseas. “Their price points are much more competitive then you’ll find in the US.”

von Graf then spent several minutes extolling the virtues of overseas teams. He went on to say that he tells all his clients to hire overseas, where the work can get done for so much less. He groused about his one single client who refuses to hire foreign labor. “He’s spending so much more than he should,” he said, shaking his head.

I was livid, practically shaking.

Don’t Outsource Arizonans!

It made no sense to me. Here he is, in Arizona—a state that desperately needs jobs and encourages people to get educated for tech jobs—telling businesses in Arizona to outsource these very jobs.

von Graf isn’t unfamiliar with Arizona. He’s active in Scottsdale’s SkySong tech community. He’s been featured by GrowSouthwest, a company that nurtures entrepreneurs and independent businesses “everywhere,” but does that mean outside the Southwest, or the entire US?

I was a little relieved to hear grumbling about outsourced jobs from the audience. No one, though, challenged the idea.

Infusionsoft, which hosted the festival, is well-known in Arizona’s tech sector. It won the Pioneer Award from the Governor’s Celebration of Innovation. “This recognition is further validation of the impact we’re having on the global small-business community and the tech sector here in Arizona,” Infusionsoft’s CTO told the Phoenix Business Journal.

After the session, I discussed what I heard with two vendors at the site. One mentioned he had used overseas vendors from Poland and India. They didn’t work out so well. “We ended up redoing a lot of the work. They just couldn’t understand what we wanted.”

The owners of another business, both from India, was also bothered by outsourcing. “We only hire people in the US,” they told me. True, their clients were mostly state governments, but they also showcased a growing number of US businesses.


I’m sure von Graf is a good guy. He encouraged people to contact him after his session. He’s eager to share what he knows and to mentor small businesses in the tech sector.

But shouldn’t that also mean keeping potential jobs in Arizona? Does every business have to make a million bucks? And will this only happen by outsourcing jobs elsewhere?