Saturday, November 22, 2014

Open Source: Not Just For Software

Open source software is a popular topic nowadays because it is believed to help improve the software by allowing for many people to look over the code while also letting people verify that the software is secure and does not violate user privacy. Of course, some things can be overlooked and missed, but at least users have the peace of mind that they can easily look over the source code themselves to see if anything fishy is going on. Unfortunately, the developers that work on open source projects usually do not gain any profits. Also, the idea of open source remains largely prevalent only in the computer science field with no easy to use platform for other work areas.
                Fortunately, there is now a solution that solves both problems with Assembly, a startup based in San Francisco. Assembly is a web-based platform that allows companies to post their projects and tasks that need to be completed for any Assembly user to see. These tasks can range from designing a logo to developing a marketing campaign. The people who complete these tasks can earn rewards in the form of App Coins once their work is approved by the project’s team. This currency is not just cash value; it represents a sort of share in the company which gains you monthly earnings depending on the success of the project and gives you a say when there is time for voting. In my opinion, this is a great way for new startups to form as they can easily create a project on Assembly and get help from a community of people of varied disciplines. On the contributing side, people can propose their solution for a task and potentially get it approved with a reward. With more approvals, a person can attain value for their work which can lead to job opportunities with the project teams.
                Collaboration is the key to a successful project, especially when there are many people that can contribute their ideas and work. In a typical workplace environment, most projects are worked on by people that work for the company. Some companies might have a good talent pool while others may not. With Assembly, however, the project can be opened up for the world to see which can potentially bring in good talent and further the cause of open source. Since starting in 2013, Assembly has launched 5 software projects that are used by more than 4 million people. Unfortunately, only 2 of projects are profitable, but I’m sure that this will change as more people find out about Assembly.
                As noted in “The Second Machine Age” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, opening up a project to the world on the Internet can bring up some great solutions that even the original project team might not have thought of. In the book, there was a mention about NASA using the service Innocentive to come up with a solution for predicting the intensity of solar particle events when they could not do it themselves (Chapter 5). A retired radio frequency engineer was able to come up with a solution that was 85 % accurate. Clearly, open sourcing tasks brings many minds to the table and can result in a much better output. It’s great to see startups like Assembly looking to utilize the power of the Internet to reinvent current project management processes for the better.

Systems Administration

Our everyday life and everything we take for granted depends on many computers of all shapes, sizes, and functions. Whether you want to check your email, go for a drive in that new car of yours, or do something as elementary as turning on the faucet to brush your teeth every morning, there is a computer behind every little thing you do. All of the computers “behind the scenes” must be managed; the servers at your chosen email host (Gmail, Yahoo), the computers that operate the traffic lights and electronic billboards on your way to work, the computers that keep track of the water levels in town. All of these systems are managed by some form of a system administrator: a job that requires a wide knowledge of computers, continuous learning, resourcefulness, social skills, time management, and the ability to work well with the amount of responsibility that is placed on your shoulders.

Considering I am a system administrator for a company that I helped found, perhaps I am a bit biased. That being said, I think systems administration, and IT-sector careers in general, are terribly undervalued and under-appreciated professions. Such attitudes towards the information technology industry likely stem from simple misunderstanding of what it is professionals in this field actually do. For many of us, a standard 9AM – 5PM, Monday through Friday work schedule is nonexistent. Ever since I started working, there have been a countless number of times where I've had to work well through the night in order to ensure no service interruptions during regular business hours. Similarly, there have been days where I did nothing but work some personal projects, while learning/improving my skills in new technologies. Thus it often seems like we're doing nothing, like “just browsing the web”, when we may well be preparing for future work, or attempting to find the solution to a particular issue.

Much of the time, our work goes unnoticed – it isn't magic that keeps a network running reliably and without issue, continuously, for months at a time. The fact that no one noticed a big upgrade or migration is something we often commend ourselves on – that means everything went perfectly. It seems others (“users”, as we often refer to them) only notice the IT team when something does happen to go wrong – something that is usually out of our control (hardware failure). This begins to paint a negative picture for many; people naturally begin to associate us with their problems. Worse, people begin to blame all of their technology-related problems on “those damn IT people” - even when the “problem” either isn't ours, or isn't even a problem but a simple lack of basic computer literacy.

I wrote this post in the hope that at least one person not associated with the IT sector/systems administration will be able to get at least a small glimpse at what it actually consists of. Perhaps you'll spread the word.

Luddites, Cabs, and regulation

For over 130 years, taxi drivers in London have been tested on the Knowledge.  To pass the Knowledge, a prospective driver must memorize the city of London, and be able to plot an optimal route from any point in London (landmarks, businesses, tube stations, etc.) to any other point, entirely in their head.  Most candidates take over 4 years to pass the test, and preparing for it is frequently described as being as difficult as medical school.

The Knowledge has also served as a key to entering the middle class.  While cabbies in cities like New York work for dispatchers and generally don’t hold the job for life, London drivers own their cabs and keep the job until retirement.  An average London cabbie earns £65,000 ($102,000) a year, and sets his/her own hours.

These vetted taxi drivers feel threatened by a new competitor, Uber.  Since Uber drivers don’t need to have the Knowledge (instead, they need to have a GPS), there are much fewer barriers to entry.  Uber’s business model relies on skirting taxi regulations to cut down on costs.  This includes Hoboken regulations (which prompted a ban), such as mandatory fire extinguishers and first aid kits in each taxi. In London, there is plenty of room to undercut taxi prices, with a massive average fare of £27 ($42).

Uber has earned a reputation for shady (and blatantly immoral) business practices.  New drivers are encouraged to take out subprime loans to buy cars.  Journalists critical of the company have their privacy invaded.  Drivers are forced to listen to customers’ collective poor taste in music. Licensed taxis in London have protested by gridlocking roads around Parliament Square, and with the slogan UBER:  Under Boris Exempt from Regulation.

How have conflicts like this ended in the past?  This is hardly the first time new technology has threatened a profession.  The US armed forces has, as President Obama put it, less ‘horses and bayonets’ than it used to, but we still spend $738.8 billion on defense.  Photography used to require expensive equipment and training.  Nowadays, more people have access to phones (and cameras) than toilets, but there are still professional photographers.  Much earlier, the Luddites rioted in England and destroyed textile factories that they feared would put them out of jobs. While the majority of clothes we wear today are made in factories (and are still often made by children), there is still demand for tailors who create clothes by hand.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the end of black cabs or the Knowledge.  Uber (or a better automated dispatch) is capable of coexisting with highly trained taxis.  $40 fares are inaccessibly high to a lot of people.  Black cabs are a high-end service, and while there is overlap between them and Uber, they appeal to different markets.  Just like tailors can sell clothes in a global economy with sweatshops, and photographers still thrive in a world of camera phones, taxi drivers with the Knowledge and GPS-based cabs are not mutually exclusive.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Worm's mind put into a Lego robot.

I saw an article about some people who recently put a worm's brain into a Lego robot and watched as the robot acted like the worm without programming. Turns out it wasn’t quite that cool. I guess I fell for some click-bait, but it was still pretty cool, and the idea does bring up some deep questions.

What actually was done, is all the neural networks within the one millimeter long nematode worm were replicated virtually. They chose this particular worm for its simplicity, with only 302 neural connections comparing to a human brain’s many trillion. Its neurons were replicated via an object oriented program, using UDP to send messages in a way that very closely mimicked that of the communication within the brain. This program was then dumped into a lego robot, and connected properly to sensors and motors so it could react accordingly to proper stimuli.

It turns out it worked. What does that mean exactly? When this simulated neural network was put into the robot and turned on, the robot started acting like the worm. It responded like the worm was observed to react to the equivalent stimuli. It would detect walls and turn away from them, and if it detected food it would move toward it. These functions seem rather trivial, and wouldn’t be hard to program into a machine, but the point of it was it wasn’t programmed. No additional behavioral programming was added on top of the mimicked neural network. The behavior came solely from the ‘brain’.

This virtual neural network, known as the connectome, is being transferred to a Raspberry Pi and a self-contained Pi robot is being built. The idea is this kind of application would have use as a mobile sensor, to explore an environment and report back results. If a far more complicated neural network could be replicated, and an appropriate robot built, an incredibly effective mobile sensor, like suggested, could likely be built, without the need for any AI programming.

As the article (linked below) expresses, this brings up some philosophical questions. Is the robot a nematode worm in a different body, or something entirely different? Is it truly alive? These questions are trivial in this particular case, but if this connectome can be expanded to replicate much larger and more complex animal’s neural networks, these questions will carry a lot more weight.

Do you think it would be possible to get to the point to replicate a human’s neural network? It sounds like something out of science fiction. In fact it indeed is something out of science fiction. Creative AI created by mimicking the neural network of the human brain isn’t a new idea. If this is the beginning of that reality though, what do you think will be found? Do you think a person is just the sum of his or her neural networks, or something more? The answer may be different for humans vs. other animals, or it may not be. But the mere thought of finding out is rather haunting, to be honest.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Twitter is Weird.

In my recent internet browsings, I came across an article about the phenomenon of parody Twitter accounts. For those not in the know, a parody account is one that isn't directly associated with a real person, but rather with an idea. The one this article focused on was "Tweet Like A Girl". Accounts like these tweet things lots of people can relate to, which followers then retweet or favorite. I personally am not typically one to follow or retweet parody accounts. I follow a "PA Problems" Twitter account, which tweets things people from Pennsylvania can relate to, one called "Bloomsburg Life", which is similar, but specific to my hometown, "Doctor Pug", which tweets "pugscriptions" which usually involve pizza, naps, and cuddles, and "Modern Day Clueless", which takes quotes from the classic 90s teen film and modifies them to apply to today. I don't follow the popular ones, like the aforementioned "Tweet Like A Girl", "Ya Boy Bill Nye", "Earl Dibbles Jr.", and @chanelpuke, also known as "what". These tend to annoy me, and I'm not one to retweet sappy things about relationships and friendships and being disappointed about things that are a part of life and happen to everyone.

The strangest thing about the "Tweet Like A Girl" isn't the fact that it's a Twitter account only tweeting things just for them to be retweeted. It's that the account is run by 21 year old Cameron Asa, from the University of Tennessee. The "Twitter Illuminati" Asa is a part of is mainly responsible for huge Twitter fads, like the recent "Alex from Target" episode. Asa has had other accounts than TLAG; he had a "Call Me Maybe" account, parodying the Carly Rae Jepsen song, which was his first, and an account called "Retweet Dares".

The other insane part about parody Twitter accounts is the money account owners make from them. Asa says he can make up to $500-$1000 just for posting once about an app. His messages have impact too; from just one tweet by Asa, an app was downloaded a whopping 20,000 times. This kind of partnership with brands is just like the one Tyler Oakley the YouTube celebrity has had with others in the past, as described in the Frontline documentary Generation Like. Asa has even advertised for movies, like Nicholas Sparks' The Best of Me, which fits his follower demographic: young women and girls.

It's weird that Asa, a 21 year old man, tweets as a teenage girl. It's weird that he can make an entire living from tweeting thinly veiled ads for apps and movies. It's weird that Twitter users actually enjoy the regurgitated content and trite messages pushed by these types of accounts. I guess, more succinctly, it's weird that parody accounts are profitable and successfully run by people who have nothing to do with what they're tweeting about.

Social Engineering - The Infinite Leak

In this day and age, people tend to glorify, admonish, and fear what they call "hackers." The word "hacker", in this particular sense, usually implies that the person in question is smart and capable of manipulating extremely complex technology. The first adjective is correct- a hacker needs to be smart, but they don't need to be technically capable to get very far. In fact, all it takes is the ability to manipulate people.

When hired, a cyber security agency tends to run it's first tests on a company's employees, not their computers. Using only their wits, said agency attempts to gather any information they can that might allow them to create an admin account on the company's computers while trying not to appear suspicious. This method usually works, proving two things; hackers don't need to be unimaginably good with computers to break into systems, and humans are the greatest security weakness of all time.

Interestingly, social engineering tends to be one of the most effective methods for breaking into computer systems, despite the public's usual illusion that they'd be too smart to simply give away their passwords. Some of the most famous viruses of all time were traced back to social engineering methods. One such example is the virus "Stuxnet", which is thought to have originated in the United States with the purpose of slowly destroying Iran's nuclear program. It is suspected that the virus was introduced through a USB device that some unsuspecting employee plugged into their computer, which then caused the virus to infect and slowly wear out nuclear centrifuges.

The US military has also been a target of social engineering attacks. The most devastating cyber attack on the military in recent history came from a virus dubbed "Agent.btz"; the virus was traced back to a USB drive that a military employee found in a parking lot and plugged into their computer. The military learned of the infection when they caught the virus using very basic data transmission methods to send information back to it's creator.

By using basic conversational tricks or exploiting natural human behavior, an intelligent person can gain access to any computer system, no matter how heavily guarded, by exploiting it's most vulnerable security hole; the users. Users are a required component of any computer system- they create a security hole that cannot be permanently fixed, making them an ideal attack point for any system. So next time you promise to never tell anyone your password, take a moment to think about the number of ways that question can be asked.

Facebook at Work?

Google and Facebook are now focusing to grab the attention of the world’s office workers. Workers in America and across the globe utilize an array of products for their day to day needs. Tools for email like Outlook, Lotus Notes, etc. and Microsoft Office are considered default tools for every individual. Lately there has been an inclusion to these “default” tools by services like group chat, internal social networks and shared online document editing.

During my time at JP Morgan & BNY Mellon, I was exposed to group chat client from Microsoft called Lync. Pretty much everyone in the firm used that as a de-facto tool to talk with anyone else in the firm. Companies have also started setting up internal social media platforms similar to bulletin boards in order to encourage communication between company employees sitting in different part of the globe. At JP Morgan, the bulletin boards were used to come up with ideas for the Hackathon, new tools in order to increase employee productivity, educate employees on various corporate policies and many additional uses. Companies use tool called Microsoft SharePoint in order to enable online document editing. As noted in all the examples above, these tools are supplied by Microsoft. Google has been trying for years to break the grip of Microsoft from corporate America. Now it has a partner with the same motive in Facebook.

This week Facebook announced its ambition to create a version of its social network specifically focused for the office. Facebook is entering the territory which is highly dominant by Microsoft and where even Google has had trouble making its presence known. Google’s sole motive when it launched Gmail was to enter the market which was at the time dominated by Hotmail and Yahoo Mail. Once Gmail was chosen as the de-facto email client for individuals, it set sight to be the de-facto email client for white-collar workers. Unfortunately even to this day, Microsoft Outlook still is reigning champion among office workers. Google also launched its own version of cloud-based equivalent to Microsoft Office suite of software tools. Yet just like Outlook, Office still reigns supreme.

The spread of mobile devices is forcing deeper changes, particularly in the way groups of workers communicate and share information. Microsoft’s decision to reverse course this month and make Office free on Apple devices may not be enough to give it the foothold in mobile it needs. As the pressure on workers mounts, the many tools for creating, storing, sharing and collaborating are starting to converge. Start-ups like Slack, whose service is used by groups of workers to communicate and share information from different sources, are becoming increasingly popular. Currently for my senior design project, I recommended to my team to use Slack and it has been a wonderful experience so far. With the available integration to source hosting tools like BitBucket & Github as well as with project management tool like Trello, Slack is a powerful tool at least for software development teams.

Facebook will face other challenges as it looks to break into the world of work. The security aspect of Wall Street customers, strict rules about data privacy and data integration with companies’ existing IT systems will all impose a heavy burden. But it is hard to argue with demographics. A generation that started using social media networks and mobile messaging apps, rather than the Word documents and email used by their parents, is likely to exert a powerful influence over working life. For now, with most new services in their infancy and dominant consumer companies such as Facebook and Google still to make an impact, that end-game seems a long way off. But if Facebook’s plans bear fruit, the world of work, for millions of people, may never be the same again.