View From the Valley iconView From the Valley

SRI researchers Nils Nilsson (right) and Sven Wahlstrom with Shakey the Robot in the late 1960s.

SRI's Pioneering Mobile Robot Shakey Honored as IEEE Milestone

A group of Silicon Valley roboticists who developed Shakey, a pioneer mobile robot project, gathered last night at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., to dedicate the tall, wheeled machine as an IEEE Milestone. Joining the group were other robotics visionaries, IEEE officers and local IEEE section members, and fans of computing history. Shakey, developed at SRI International between 1966 and 1972, was honored as the world’s first mobile, intelligent robot.

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Photoshop creator Thomas Knoll with early versions of the software

Photoshop Creator Thomas Knoll on Subscription Software and What's Good for Engineers

It’s been 30 years since software engineer Thomas Knoll, with the help of his movie-industry brother, started creating the technology that would become Photoshop. Knoll, now an Adobe Fellow, answered a few questions this week about the origins of his photo editing software and its more recent evolution. Speaking at a preview of a new exhibition at the Computer History Museum, intended to raise the profile of software engineers and their contributions to society, Knoll had this to say:

On creating Photoshop and the power of procrastination:

“It started out as a hobby project. I was working on a PhD, but I hated the process of actually writing research papers. Creating all that text didn’t seem interesting compared to writing computer software that actually did something, that wasn’t just dead words on a page. So I was procrastinating by working on this fun project to move pixels around. I showed this software to my brother, he came up with suggestions of things to add to it. That went on for several months. Then my brother had idea; maybe we could sell this. I discouraged him, it’s a huge task to ship a software application, I was just one programmer working on it, but he said he could show it around. Eventually, he found Adobe, and they agreed to publish it. I never had the plan of creating what it became.”

On Photoshop today:

“I wrote every line of Photoshop 1.0. But now it is 100 times the size of version one, and there are huge sections that I don’t even know how to use. Now, however, the Photoshop versions coming out that run on tablets and phones are interesting, because a lot of the programming techniques I had to use in version one [because of hardware limitations] have had to be reintroduced to get Photoshop on these smaller devices.”

On Fake News:

“Any tool can be used for good in the world and for not so good in the world. It falls back to the users of the tool and consumers of information— a lot of stuff you can do with Photoshop was possible before.”

On the transition of the software update model, from packaged new releases to subscriptions:

“Engineers [working on Photoshop] were very much in favor of the transition. Previously, they had to come up with new features every two years, and these features had to demo well, because you had to convince someone to buy a new version based on those features. Then some percentage of user base would upgrade, some wouldn’t, so we had to support multiple versions with bug fixes and adding new camera support. The new model encourages users to stay current with the newest versions of software, and engineers like that because when they create a feature it gets to users right away.

“It also changes incentive for engineers. Previously, the incentive was to create features that demo’d well. Now the incentive is to create features people actually use and don’t want to do without. I think it’s a better incentive to have engineers making a product more valuable to its users than to make eye candy for a demo.”

On the celebrity—or lack of celebrity—of software engineers:

“It’s amazing to walk into any bookstore in the country and see the Photoshop bookshelf—that I’ve created a big enough impact to justify that much shelf space. But at the same time, it’s nice to go through life fairly anonymously, and not be a celebrity; to walk into a local restaurant and not be mobbed. I don’t want to become a movie star. I’m happy with the status quo.”

The Computer History Museum's new exhibit highlights the impact of software engineers on the world using artifacts, videos, and hands on activities

Software Engineers Are the Heroes of New Computer History Museum Exhibit

A museum dedicated to collecting and displaying the artifacts of computing history, like pieces of the ENIAC and the Apple I, has turned its focus on something far less tangible—software engineering. This Saturday, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., opens a new exhibition to the public: “Make Software: Change the World!” Its goal—to show that software engineers are truly the heroes of what it calls the “Transformation Age,” changing society in dramatic ways.

The US $7 million exhibit, for the first time, includes a large interactive component—hands on tasks and games designed for children approximately aged ten and up. That age target was picked, museum vice president Kirsten Tashev said, because it is during the middle school years that children start thinking seriously about what they want to do with their lives. The exhibit also aims to show tourists, who represent 40 percent of the museum’s visitors, what Silicon Valley is all about, and to help local software engineers explain what their careers involve to their children and parents. “This exhibit makes them look cooler to their kids,” says Tashev.

Selecting exactly what software developments could best tell the story of software engineering was a challenge for curators. The team came up with a list of 100 important applications of software likely to be familiar to the average person today, and whittled that list down to seven projects, dividing them into three thematic areas:

  • Perception and Reality, which tells the history of photo editing, culminating with Photoshop, and of digital music, in particular, the MP3 (and lets visitors test their ears in distinguishing between different recording technologies).
  • Life and Death, which tells the story of the development of the MRI (and lets visitors try their hands at MRI interpretation) and of car crash simulation
  • Knowledge and Belonging, which goes behind the scenes of Wikipedia to explain the world of the Wikipedians, looks at World of Warcraft, and describes the development and impact of texting (a speed-texting challenge in this section is likely to be a hit among teen visitors; advice to the museum staff—you’ll need a couple more stations for this one).

Museum staff noted that they made these selections before any companies were contacted, though the companies included were helpful. One certainly could—and lots of people will—argue about these selections; staff members note that in particular they’ve had a lot of pushback about the inclusion of World of Warcraft. (I’d be interested in knowing what seven technologies you would have picked, in the comments below.)

In spite of the difficulty of displaying software as an artifact (beyond early packages of each commercial product displayed), each section of the exhibit has plenty of “stuff,” in particular, items showing how a particular task was accomplished before today’s software took over. In the MP3 section, for example, the display includes an Edison phonograph doll, a portable music player invented in the 1870s that used wax cylinders. “We like to put computer history in the context of human history,” Tashev explained. The curators also like to remind visitors, no matter what their age, of their place in contemporary history, offering up, for example, a recreation of the kind of record store I visited as a teen. (Thanks for the memories!)

The central hub of the exhibit space focuses on programming in general, with traditional computers running programming challenges and touch tables running a programming game called Frog Pond. (I got really into this game and could certainly have spent more time there.) A small theater in this section runs a short documentary on the development of the Adobe Mix app: filmmakers followed the Adobe team working on the project for two years. Tashev hopes this will just be the first of many documentaries produced for the collection telling stories of software developments.

Cybersecurity software engineers around a table

Where Are the Software Engineering Jobs? In Cybersecurity

There are a million unfilled cybersecurity engineering jobs around the world, with that number expected to grow to 1.5 million by 2019. But where are the jobs, and what kinds of jobs are they? Job search firm Indeed.com dug into its database to figure that out.

In a report based on data from 10 countries, covering the third quarter of 2014 to the third quarter of 2016, Indeed concluded that the biggest mismatch between job openings and job hunters is in Israel, with the United Kingdom just behind. Software engineers looking for cybersecurity jobs in the United States and Canada face a slightly more crowded field, but the gap is still significant; there are only 66.7 and 68.1 job seekers, respectively, for every 100 open positions in those countries.

Indeed credits the huge demand in Israel to the country’s position as a tech hub as well as its general emphasis on security, noting that Israel is a leading exporter of cybersecurity goods and services.

Generally, employers are most interested in hiring network security specialists, particularly in Israel, Ireland, the UK, the U.S. and Germany. In the United States, the specialty that’s second most in demand is application security. In Germany, that second-place spot goes to identity and access management. And around the world, cloud security experts can pretty much write their own tickets, because there are enough of them to fill only 8.5 percent of positions in the U.K., 20.6 percent in Ireland, and 36.5 percent in the United States.

Bad news, however, for software engineers looking to work as ethical hackers. Job seekers exceed job openings for ethical hackers in some regions, particularly in the U.S. and U.K.

With all these openings, cybersecurity professionals looking for a job can pick and choose—so Indeed offers a little guidance. The company looked at companies that had at least 20 openings for cybersecurity professionals during the fourth quarter of 2016, and then ranked them according to general ratings from employees at those companies. Apple came in number one on that list. Rounding out the top ten were the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Patient First, Lockheed Martin, General Motors, Capital One, Cisco, Intel, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing.

A roped off entrance that says 'Coming to LA 2017'

Two Bit Circus Continues Quest to Turn Flames, Virtual Reality, and Lasers Into a Business

Brent Bushnell and his compatriots have been playing with electricity, fire, augmented reality, and classic carnival games for years now. They did it under contract to advertising agencies, they did it for the now-defunct TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, they did it as part of a Kickstarter campaign, and they did it to entertain their friends. They’ve paid at least some of their bills with it, but haven’t exactly lit the world on fire (just Brent Bushnell’s father, Atari-founder Nolan Bushnell, who they put in an asbestos suit and flambéed.)

Their latest venture, under the company name Two Bit Circus, is the “micro amusement park”. According to a press release, it covers approximately 2800 square meters, and will include multi-person virtual reality and mixed reality games, other social games, lasers, fire, and robots.

I’m not sure how well giant Tesla coils and flaming dunk tanks are going to go over with local zoning authorities. However, part of their vision has long involved augmented reality, and the “new arcade,” heavy on immersive, virtual reality and augmented reality experiences, is in the news these days. There’s been a lot of interest in VR and AR lately, high quality equipment is expensive, so it’s likely most people will experience this technology in an arcade setting, not at home, the reasoning goes. (I heard that scenario proposed many times at CES 2017.)

Given, then, that someone, somewhere, is going to make money off of AR/VR arcades, Two Bit Circus’ funding announcement this week is not surprising. The company just closed a US $15 million round, bringing total venture investment to $21.5 million. According to a press release, the money will be enable the company to start rolling out micro-amusement parks across the United States; the first will open later this year in Los Angeles. Brent Bushnell, CEO and co-founder of Two Bit Circus, defines micro-amusement as something bigger than an arcade and smaller than an amusement park that combines features of each.

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Stanford research Michael Snyder poses laden with the wearable gadgets that recently helped him realize he'd been infected by Lyme disease before he showed symptoms

Wearable Sensors Spot Lyme Disease

Stanford professor Michael Snyder was flying to Norway for a family vacation last year, wearing a Basis smart watch (since discontinued), a RadTarge radiation monitor, and iHealth, Scanadu, and Masimo oximeters. He was also using the MOVES app on his smart phone. Together, all this gear collects data on heart rate, blood oxygen, skin temperature, and activity, including sleep; steps; walking, biking, and running; calories expended; acceleration; and exposure to gamma rays and X-rays.

Snyder hadn’t loaded up on wearables just for this flight; he wore this gear regularly for two years as part of a study of 60 people, and frequently calibrated it with more standard medical tests. The goal? Try to figure out just how useful wearables can be in early disease diagnosis. The results of that study were published last week.

But there was something different about that plane ride. Snyder noticed that his oxygen levels—which he’d previously realized dropped during an airplane flight but returned quickly after landing—didn’t return to his baseline as expected. And his heart rate—that usually increased at the beginning of a flight but again quickly returned to baseline—didn’t come down as it normally would. Something was not right.

Snyder considered what, if anything, he’d been doing differently. Two weeks earlier, he’d been building a fence in rural Massachusetts—could he have been bitten by a tick and contracted Lyme disease? After his wearables also started recording a fever, he was able to convince a local doctor to treat him with antibiotics. Later blood tests for Lyme disease proved his hunch had been correct.

“The fact that you can pick up infections by monitoring before they happen is very provocative,” said high-tech health expert Eric Topol, professor of genomics at the Scripps Research Institute, in a statement.

It turns out, as noted by Snyder and the other researchers who worked on the study, that Lyme disease triggers particularly strong changes in heart rate, so was easy to detect.

The research team included Gao Zhou, Wenyu Zhou, Sophia Miryam Schüssler-Fiorenza Rose, Dalia Perelman, Ryan Runge, Shannon Rego, Somalee Datta, and Tracey McLaughlin, from Stanford; Elizabeth Colbert, from the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System; and high school student Ria Sonecha.

The team also suggested that wearables can identify insulin resistance, a precursor for Type 2 diabetes, using an algorithm that examines steps and differences between daytime and nighttime heart rates. Researchers also attribute the fatigue experienced by air travelers to a drop in blood oxygen that comes with flying—it’s likely why so many people doze during flight. Interestingly, they noted that during long flights oxygen levels improve as the body adjusts.

Are we really all going to strap on multiple gadgets, and wear them all the time? Snyder says that’s not really necessary, the Basis smart watch and the iHealth oximeter pretty much did the job. Oxygen sensors will likely migrate into wrist wearables. And then, with the proper algorithms, your smart watch could just alert you with a light or buzzer when it detects something off, like a prolonged elevated heart rate while you’re inactive. With an early warning of incoming illness you might be inclined rest a little more, or take various supplements intended to help you fight off viruses.

The researchers noted in their report that, of course, “It is possible that the use of wearables will lead to false alarms and overdiagnosis of disease. The number of false alarms will depend upon the threshold that is set, which can be personalized.”

“Overall,” they wrote, “we envision that these devices could be particularly powerful for individuals who are responsible for the health of others (parents and caregivers), and perhaps also for those who have historically limited health care access, including groups with low income and/or remote geography.”

Four antenna radiation patterns generated by an Ethertronics antenna chip; the system automatically selects the best one in a particular environment

CES 2017: Can a Self-Steering Antenna Fix Both Wi-Fi and TV Reception Issues?

CES 2017 wasn’t the show of the shiny new product. Wearables drew yawns, TV manufacturers spent more time talking about how to install their products on consumer walls than about the products themselves, and the lines to try on VR headsets were surprisingly short. Without the distraction of the next possibly big thing, it was easy to focus on the frustrations of the things we have now.

And one big frustration is Wi-Fi that isn’t always there, fast, and reliable. That frustration is why two router companies made the final round of the annual “Last Gadget Standing Event,” and earned their fair share of cheers: Ignition Design Labs, with its Portal home Wi-Fi system, and Linksys, with its Velop home mesh network.

The two take different approaches to addressing Wi-Fi frustration. The Portal’s approach of using Wi-Fi fast lanes and looking ahead for traffic jams (described in detail in Spectrum’s “Why Wi-Fi Stinks—and How to Fix It”), is suited for urban areas crowded with WiFi hotspots. Linksys, and other mesh network providers, makes sense for suburban customers, eager to get Wi-Fi signals to the outer edges of large houses and yards.

Off the show floor, antenna designer Ethertronics suggested a third approach: an automated antenna optimization technology it calls active steering.

The San Diego-based company says that its technology can generate four different radiation patterns from a single antenna. For devices with multiple antennae—like cell phones and Wi-Fi routers—these patterns can combine exponentially. The Ethertronics antenna systems monitor signal strength in order to select the best pattern, constantly switching between patterns if necessary. What’s more, as they are used in a particular environment, they learn which patterns tend to be optimal for that space.

That means, explained, Jeff Shamblin, Ethertronics chief scientist, that a Wi-Fi router using the technology would automatically react to a home’s layout to pick a signal pattern that would reduce dead spots, changing that pattern, say, when a group of people cluster in one room and affect signal strength. Or, he said, an indoor TV antenna could switch its RF characteristics when you change stations (the equivalent of manually fussing with rabbit ears) while the antenna itself remains motionless on the wall; that’d be appealing for cord-cutters who use a combination of broadcast TV and streaming services to avoid cable television bills.

Shamblin said that the company’s antenna systems will start showing up in Wi-Fi routers in the second half of 2017; TV antenna hardware is also in the works for this year.

A to do list for 2017 includes

Memo to Tech Professionals: In 2017, Ask For a Raise

At least one-third of tech workers are significantly underpaid. That’s the conclusion of a study by Paysa, a startup that markets tools designed to help software engineers and other technology professionals analyze and compare salaries and benefits. Paysa looked at 5 million resumes of technology professionals and concluded that nearly 2 million of them are currently underpaid by 10 percent or more. For an average software engineer making $112,000, the company indicated, that translates into $11,200 a year of missing income.

It’s probably a good time to ask for a raise, the study results suggest, because 2017 is looking like it will be a seller’s year for software engineers (Paysa’s original niche) and other technology professionals. “In 2017, the shift in power from the employer to the employee will accelerate, tipping the scales in favor of the employee, at least in the technology sector,” Paysa CEO Chris Bolte said in a press release.

The organization suggests that engineering managers might have reason to be worried that their tech workers might up and leave. More than 78 percent of technology and engineering workers the firm studied, Paysa concluded, “have a compelling reason to move to a new company and job within the next six months.” Those compelling reasons? Being underpaid relative to the market, having missed a promotion window, working at a company that is in a relative decline, or having been at the present company for the past two years. (I’d argue that the last factor is a bit of a stretch; there’s a lot of mobility in tech for sure, but is two years at one company really a sign that the bell is tolling for you?)

The Lily camera drone is a black quadcopter.

RIP Lily Robotics: The Flying Camera Drone Was a Great Idea That Others Will Get Off the Ground

Lily, a high-flying camera drone company that came out of stealth in 2015, came in for a hard landing today. The company announced that it spite of impressive pre-orders—$34 million worth—it couldn’t nail down the financing needed to “unlock our manufacturing line” and would be issuing refunds to all would-be customers. Lily’s founders, Antoine Balaresque and Henry Bradlow, have not yet been available for comment.

When I first met Balaresque and Bradlow, they were building prototypes of Lily in a crowded garage behind an Atherton, Calif., hacker house. I knew I was seeing the beginning of a classic Silicon Valley startup tale. The founders were fresh out of college, met at a hackathon, and had an idea and the energy and passion to run with it. Unfortunately, a lot of Silicon Valley startup tales don’t have a happy ending. At this point, it’s hard to know what went wrong.

The most likely reason may simply be that Lily couldn’t run fast enough to stay ahead of the pack. The company is no longer the only flying camera out there: other drones have been demonstrated that can be tossed into the air, self-stabilize, and follow a selected subject, like the Hover camera, from Zero Zero Robotics. (When I saw Zero Zero’s huge display at CES 2017, I did find myself wondering just what had happened to Lily.) And established drone makers have added auto-follow functions like those promised by Lily.

Maybe the company burned money too fast. Last January, when Lily announced a delay in its ship date from February 2016 to summer, the company was sitting on $15 million in venture money, had 40 employees, many with impressive industry resumes and was working out of San Francisco offices; no more hacker garage. I was a little surprised it was acting like a big company so quickly.

Or maybe software problems did it in; at the time of the delay announcement, Lily’s then-head of communications Kelly Coyne told me the problem was with the flight controls. “Making something that is following you around taking video that is perfect and seamless when you move left and right, or stop or jump, takes a lot of work to get perfect,” she said.  In a letter to preorder customers Lily explained the delay as caused by “component optimizations [that] required us to redesign core parts of our flight software to achieve smoother and more stable flight” and indicated it had needed to upgrade the image processing hardware and add sonar.

Whatever the reason, I’m always sorry to see enthusiastic and hardworking founders fail, even if, in Silicon Valley, failure is an expected part of a young entrepreneur’s education. Good luck, guys, with whatever comes next.

A man draws a crude smiley face on a touchscreen mounted on a gleaming metal fridge with french doors

CES 2017: Talk to the Fridge (and either Amazon Alexa or Google might answer back)

For years now, the consumer electronics industry has been trying to sell slightly intelligent Internet-connected appliances that you can control from your smart phone—and not gotten very far. A few of these things have caught on, like smart thermostats. But it’s harder to convince people they need their stoves and refrigerators on the Internet.

This year, however, the Internet of Appliances has gotten smarter, chattier, and cuter. It learns, talks to you, and it wants to be your friend. And the consumer electronics companies are hoping that you will now—finally—embrace the connected home.

The main force behind this evolution came from the broader tech world outside the consumer electronics industry. This force was the push to create smart personal assistant technology. Such technology constantly listens for a trigger word, then sends the next thing you say to the cloud for analysis; if it figures out you are asking a question or issuing a command, it does its best to respond.

Both Amazon (with its Alexa technology) and Google (with Google Assistant) sell stand-alone digital assistants for the home, and, as Wednesday’s CES press events made clear, have also been working with consumer electronics companies to embed this technology into new appliances. (Apple’s personal assistant Siri just lives on iPhones for now, though a stand-alone gadget is rumored to be in the works.) Right now, Amazon has the lead, mostly because it got its tools for software developers out ahead of Google. But this could shape up to be a Betamax/VHS kind of battle, as companies line up into different camps.

From the CES announcments from companies large and small, a picture is emerging of how these smart assistants will likely be used in the home.

The television, it is clear, will not be the centerpiece of the connected home despite the predictions from earlier years. Instead, as has been true since the beginnings of civilization, the heart of the home will be the hearth. That is, where we cook (and stand staring into the refrigerator wondering what to cook): the kitchen.

The kitchen is where we congregate, leave notes for each other, and get things done. I’m far more likely to think of things I want to tell or ask a virtual assistant while standing in the kitchen than when I’m watching TV—like remind a child about a doctor appointment, add something to a shopping list, even remember I need to order something online (clearly Amazon likes this one). It’s also where my children argue about whose Spotify stream plays on the Sonos; sorting that out is definitely within a smart assistant’s capabilities.

Another thing the consumer electronics companies got right this year is that they’ve stopped talking about lights. Turning lights on and off is not something that is going to make me embrace a connected home; it might be useful, but it’s not the killer app. Talking to my refrigerator—and having it talk back—just might be.

That’s the big picture, now a few product details.

LG announced that its Instaview refrigerator, an appliance with a touch screen display that covers most of the door and can turn transparent to let you see inside, will now run Alexa and can therefore act as the hub for the home assistant. The company didn’t announce pricing, but last year’s non-Alexa model sells for around US $4000.

For people who don’t want to replace their refrigerator, LG introduced a little countertop Alexa controller; company spokespersons call the LG Hub Robot a robot, but it doesn’t actually do much of anything physical, rather, it just orders other LG appliances around—like its clothes washer, oven, and robot vacuum—and look cute. A note about that vacuum—LG says it’s new robot vacuum is smart enough to know the difference between the legs of a person and the legs of a chair—and it will tell the person to move out of the way. No comment on how it handles sleeping pets. LG also announced that it has a robotic lawn mower in the works.

Samsung likewise updated its Family Hub refrigerator with smart assistant features. (Samsung’s refrigerator has a large touchscreen like LG’s, but the screen doesn’t turn transparent.) As usual, it took the opposite path from rival LG, going with Google technology to power what it calls Samsung Voice. Samsung plans to offer Family Hub as an option in all its French door style refrigerators going forward.

Griffin, better known as an iPhone accessories company, introduced a Connected Toaster; right now, said a Griffin spokesman, it’s just app controlled, but moving over to Alexa control is definitely something the company has on its radar. The $99 gadget allows you to create and save “toast profiles” for the different kinds of bread you use.

And, when you finally get out of the kitchen, the $249 Zeeq pillow from Rem-Fit lets you ask Alexa how loud you’ve been snoring (and other things about the quality of your sleep).

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View From the Valley

IEEE Spectrum’s blog featuring the people, places, and passions of the world of technologists in Silicon Valley and its environs.
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Tekla Perry
Palo Alto
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