Student project on ‘The Future is Now,’ a sneaky lesson plan

This semester too I have my students work on a 4-page report on the future by having  them address technologies that they believe is impacting them right now. While my present concerns include Blockchain, bio-metrics and Cube-sats, theirs includes contact lenses that  monitor health, stratospheric balloons, the ‘cyber truck,’ drones, and AI. Speaking of which, smart speakers and robots become huge topics of discussion.

So many sidebars, so many diversions, but there is no shortage of passion about these utopian/dystopian technologies. [This week I showed them a story about how Tik-Tok, an app that most teens could not seem to be able to live without, is suspected of being a ‘parasitic’ data-harvesting operation.]

Earlier this week we discussed logos, and I showed them how to create their own logo, and  insert it in the report. The goal is to treat this as a  professional report, as if they were working for a consulting company.  Our 2-week project that’s due before Spring Break, teaches them:

  • How to research five topics, beginning with Google’s Moonshot factory
  • Formatting a report using features in the ribbon of Google docs & Microsoft Word.
  • Citation of sources .

The Lesson Plan Evolves. Over the past few years I have discovered that a report like this, intimidating at first, helps students gain a broader vocabulary about technologies they are being exposed to. They also learn how to develop critical thinking about  hardware and software, which is part of the scope of this class.  I’ve revised this lesson plan many times, and changed the pace to deepen the research, and get students comfortable with long-form content.

Not reading, not writing well is becoming a default mode, sadly. As I continue to teach ‘computers’ and have students sit in front of screens, I am determined to make sure that they leave my class with much more than technical skills.

The business model of social media is affirmation, not information!

Disturbing revelation from tech insider, Tristan Harris. More unsettling for anyone who assumes the apps we use are benign. Or that mental health issues have nothing to do with screen addiction.

Please watch this video and share it with someone. 

Tristan Harris is the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. The Center has practical steps to counter the effects – at a policy level, and in our daily lives.  Of course no one wants to hear this. Everyone should.

He believes that in this attention economy the apps and the devices are not just messing with our brains. They are hijacking our behavior and how our society works. How do we get the message out to our children, and the schools? How do we model for them that there is a different way to communicate and interact?

Or is it too late to step back, as Macbeth said of his predicament:

“I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” 

 

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.

Biometrics is here. Deal with it!

Surveillance is practiced by private entities, supposedly keep a watchful eye on people every day. In malls, city centers, casinos and airports companies are tracking citizens’ biometrics. The businesses side of biometrics is clear: data harvested from everywhere, –our phones, our eyes, our doorbell ringers, our heartbeat trackers, our online purchases –is traded like commodities. The new word to describe this is ‘surveillance capitalism‘ – something brought up by author, Shoshana Zuboff

This is a story I worked on for awhile, and it’s published this month. (PDF below)

Hide your face. Shield your eyes – Angelo Fernando

 

 

 

 

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

Facebook scrutiny. Why everyone, not just the governments should do it

When it comes to foreign election interference, data theft, and broken promises about safeguarding privacy it’s Facebook and not just some secret government surveillance program we have to guard against. Mark Zuckerberg has become the face of a privatized Big Brother. Ironically it’s the government that’s now trying to peel back the curtain.

As Zuck faces questions on Capitol Hill this week this week, the questions about Libra, it’s cryptocurrency product have been asked. This blockchain product “could create a whole new threat to Americans and national security,” said Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York. Libra’s mission, according to the Facebook White Paper, is a simple global currency and financial infrastructure that empowers billions of people.”

The blockchain on which it is based is Libra, and the unit of its currency is also a ‘libra.’ It’s backed by Lyft, Spotify, Uber, and Farfetch among its tech partners.  But others are not well known, such as Bison Trails and Xapo which is a very large crypto storage service.

Much of this –and the lack of trusted names that are part of this group –should give us reason to read behind the lines of what comes out this week. Worth reading the article on The Verge, that called it an attempt to build the ‘Bank of Facebook.’ Or more to the point, that this blockchain move is its secret weapon that will help Facebook “to create a quasi-nation state ruled by mostly corporate interests.” Reuters reports that France and Germany have pledged to block Libra in Europe. Do they know something we don’t?

 

Chandler data center’s super annoying hum. It’s the sound of us!

Chandler, Arizona with a population of just over 25,000 is growing so fast we see apartment complexes and retirement homes sprouting like weeds in the desert. Many of us in the once sleepy bedroom community bordering Gilbert wonder why. Is it the still rural quality –including the wafts of cow farms in winter– and the low crime rate? I drive past horses and goats on my way to work each morning, which is quite a refreshing alternative to being stuck on a freeway.

I just received my copy of The Atlantic, and just after the Jeff Bezos cover story is a piece titled, “The End of Silence” by Bianca Bosker. It’s about the annoying hum of a data center that has been bothering people in the vicinity of south Chandler. As the writer puts it, “Arizona attracts data centers the way Florida attracts plastic surgeons.”

The kicker is in the conclusion, where Bosker astutely observes that the groaning of the chillers that keep the data centers running is the sound of us, constantly Googling the odd recipes and trivia, and paying our bills online. In other words, we’ve done this to ourselves. And it’s moving in next door in a very real way.

I just hope the horse ranches and the grain elevators along Germann Road won’t be lost to our darn data.

Hide Your face, shield your eyes! The dark side of biometrics

The use of facial recognition is not something that only comes from totalitarian regimes. It’s being used for domestic spying, in malls and casinos. Combined with AI, biometrics can turn PI (Personal information) and PII (personally identifiable information) into a weapon. I bring this up every semester to make sure my students are aware of what they are opening themselves to, should they share information even on benign sites, or “trusted” browsers.

Biometrics involve “biological measurements” such as fingerprints, facial features, and retina scans. The Department of Homeland Security, explains that “biometrics are used to detect and prevent illegal entry into the U.S., grant and administer proper immigration benefits, vetting and credentialing, facilitating legitimate travel and trade, enforcing federal laws, and enabling verification for visa applications to the U.S.” You would think biometrics is something average citizens only need to worry about if they own a passport (the new ones have an embedded chip with biometric markers), or a smart phone with facial recognition.

But biometric detection is coming closer to us than we realize. Kaspersky, the software cybersecurity company explain how “Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill downloaded photos of 20 volunteers from social media and used them to construct 3-D models of their faces. The researchers successfully breached four of the five security systems they tested.” Rental cars may soon come with biometric analyzers. Cities may use facial recognition without our knowledge as a pre-emptive way to assist law enforcement.

More alarming is the use of ‘public domain’ images to fuel the facial recognition business. The New York Times reports that family photos scrubbed off Flicker have been used to power surveillance technology. Hiding our faces, or making sure our children’s faces don’t show up in unscrupulous social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook may become a necessity. Or is it too late for those who have uploaded hundreds of photos to these leaky sites? As I warned manhttps://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/11/technology/flickr-facial-recognition.htmly times here and elsewhere these sites are “free” for a reason – they trade the data and meta-data of these posts and pictures without your knowledge. Digital human trafficking, in which many of us have become unwilling accomplices.

Interesting controversy. Tiffany and Co had to withdraw an ad that had a model covering her right eye. Why? It was accused of imitating the symbol of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, where protestors routinely cover their face, or eyes with a mask or helmet so as to avoid facial recognition cameras.  In fact, the mock eye patch has itself become a symbol of the protest.