Future engineers name the new Mars Rover

Sometime in July this year NASA will launch the 2020 Mission to Mars.

While the countdown has begun, the naming of the rover has been in the hands of students from K-12 in the US. Hundreds of names were submitted, and among them the finalists are “Endurance,” “Promise.” “Tenacity,” “Perseverance,” “Clarity,” “Endurance,” “Courage,” “Vision” and “Fortitude.” Many reflect the previous Rovers, Opportunity, Spirit, and “Curiosity.” Students were asked to support their  name with an essay. I loved some of the rationale  presented. For instance,  this:

Fortitude: “Defined as: courage in difficulties or misfortune, this reflects how space travel is challenging for our planet. “

Nunnehi: This rover needs a name I see! Well here is my proposal: Nunnehi ; this word is in the Cherokee language it means traveler. The Cherokee were some of the first settlers in North America. The Cherokee were travelers. They would be amazed at the fact that we are going to mars!  

(Unfortunately, Nunnehi is not one of the semi-finalists.)

My vote goes for this one:

Perseverance. Curiosity. Insight. Spirit. Opportunity. If you think about it, all of these names of past mars rovers are qualities we possess as humans. We are always curious, and seek opportunity. We have the spirit and insight to explore the moon, mars, and beyond. But, if rovers are to be the qualities of us as a race, we missed the most important thing. Perseverance. We as humans evolved as creatures who could learn to adapt to any situation, no matter how harsh. 

The 2020 rover will collect rock samples and send it back to Earth via a robotics system and an ascent rocket. Quite an ambitious mission! Perfect back-story for anyone teaching or following robotics, space science or rocketry, or STEAM.

Might robots might fix satellites (and not replace us?)

Satellites do need tech support now and then, but whom are you gonna call when a large metal and glass object hurtling through space needs a repairman?

One group of scientists believes it could deploy a robot to fix a broken antenna or a weakened panel. Ou Ma, a professor at the University of Cincinnati professor believes his group could develop robots –basically robotic satellites– that can be deployed to dock with a satellites and perform the necessary tasks. The details are here.

I found the story interesting because sending robots into space isn’t something new. But sending robots on ‘work’ related missions, rather than for mere exploration, might be an area that attracts funding. Robotics is often seen as dangerous, unnecessary, or too expensive.

In a related development, speaking of work, researchers at ASU are looking at how robots could augment, rather than replace workers in certain jobs. This story, in this month’s Thrive Magazine, looks at the human impact of robotics. There’s obviously an AI component to this. “What we can do instead is design our AI systems, our robots, in a way that will help people to come on board,” says Siddharth Srivastava, at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society

This is the topic, this week that I brought up at my robotics club meeting at Benjamin Franklin High School

Sri Lanka Robotics took Bronze at First Global Robotics

Sri Lanka reached the semi-finals of the FIRST Global Challenge, an annual Robotics Olympiad that was held this year in Dubai from 25-27 October with 189 countries participating.

The team also won the Judges’ Award for Technical Excellence for the best designed robot for the second year running.

http://www.ft.lk/it-telecom-tech/Sri-Lanka-wins-Bronze-Medal-and-Judges–Award-in-Robotics-Olympiad/50-688665

Cutting out “empty words”: Presentations this week in class

This week, my students are preparing their 12-slide presentation for a project titled, “The Future is Now.”

This is the culmination of a research project and a 3-page report based on Google’s Moonshot program. But it’s not just about creating the content and formatting the slides. I tell my students that they happen to be in “a communications class that pretends to be a computer class”. This week they are watching a TED talk by a 12-year old. But there is another student worth watching this week, Greta Thunberg,  the 16-year old activist from Sweden.

She railed against the grown-ups in the room, for stealing this generation’s childhood with their “empty words.” Speaking of Feedback loops, risks, and tipping points, her emotionally-charged speech warned that “change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

UN Envoy, Sri Lankan, Jayathma Wickramanayake, called climate change “the defining issue of our time. Millions of young people all over the world are already being affected by it.”

Facial recognition, a weapon?

File this under “Sigh! We knew this was coming.”

The story is breaking that protesters are being tracked down by facial recognition software in several cities. But more alarming is how in Hong Kong, which is erupting right now, police are seeking out protesters, then grabbing their phones, and attempting to use the facial recognition software on the phones to unlock their phones.

Hong Kong was a colony of Britain until 1997, but is now a ‘special administrative region’ of China.

“Oh, how neat!” some people thought, when Hong Kong announced that it has facial recognition software in the airport so that passengers could pass through immigration and security smoothly. Likewise so many now use door bell cameras (such as Nest and Hello) that have facial recognition, not realizing the vulnerabilities they could bring.

Facial recognition is a short stop from racial and social profiling. Why is it that few people seem to care?

Things I get to hear about Alexa and Google Home!

Sure, you often hear of fancy ‘life hacks’ about people who program their smart speaker to turn on a coffee maker or help with math homework. But the stories I get to hear from young people on the experimental edge of the home-based Internet-of-Things (IOT) phenomenon range from the hilarious to the unsettling.

I’ve been writing about IOT for some time now. What gets me is how quickly people appear to want to hand off simple tasks like opening one’s window blinds, or turning on an appliance

“Alexa, turn on the bedroom fan!”

And then there’s the not-so-funny side to having an app for everything. Just take a look at the recent lawsuits and missteps by tech companies.

The baby monitor story is scary. A mother discovered to her horror that the baby monitor “was slowly panning over across the room to where our bed was and stopped.” That’s just one of the ‘things” we want our smart homes connected to.

How about door locks? You can’t make this stuff up: A man wearing a Batman T-shirt was  locked out of his home in September last year when his Yale lock, combined with his Nest security system thought he was an intruder. The man was in a Batman T-shirt. The ‘smart’ doorbell identified the cartoon character and tried to be too smart for the man’s liking. Sound a lot like the command, “Open the pod bay doors, HAL” in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Poor Dave was locked out with, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that!”

A side note on Facebook sneaky habit. As explained at Endgadget, “Privacy International study has determined that ‘at least’ 20 out of 34 popular Android apps are transmitting sensitive information to Facebook without asking permission, including Kayak, MyFitnessPal, Skyscanner and TripAdvisor. I don’t trust Mark Zuckerberg anymore. Neither his recent statement, nor his other numerous apologies. (Check last year’s apology!)  Which is another reason why I quit FB earlier this month.

Back to the future – Viewing the original 30-year old World Wide Web!

Want to check out what the early Web looked like? This is almost like being able to tune a transistor radio to listen to an oldies station. As the Web celebrates its 30th anniversary today, there’s a way to see what Tim Berners-Lee envisioned in March 1989. Built by CERN, the organization where Berners-Lee worked, it’s possible to look at the original web pages. Here’s how they explain it:

“The WWW Project merges the techniques of information retrieval and ‘hypertext’ to make an easy but powerful global information system.”

Berners-Lee’s  philosophy was that academic information should be freely available to anyone. This recreation includes a link to another information retrieval device that has gone the way of floppy discs and library cards –the phone book (for CERN).

As for his original brainchild, you can browse through his March 1989 proposal for the Web, and marvel at the details he outlined. His boss, who looked at his proposal, famously called it ‘vague but exciting.

[Interesting how I can ‘hyperlink’ that document above from 30 years ago, because of what he made possible. Equally interesting is that while Berners-Lee put hypertext into use, a fellow named Doug Engelbart (the inventor of the mouse) explained it –as ‘hypermedia‘.]

As we peel back the curtain and see how it all began, let’s appreciate those humble beginnings, and work toward a cleaner, more responsibly hyperlinked world. Social media has made a mockery of much of his vision, and we all have a part to play in how it evolves.