Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Meaning of Meat

For all of you meat lovers, and I count myself among your number, there are some sobering facts we need to face.  No, I don't want to talk about the impact of meat on your health, or the morality of breeding and harvesting animals for food.  There are dozens of excellent websites where you can find information on those topics.  Instead, in this post, I want to discuss something we rarely consider.  Specifically, I would like to review the inefficiency, and enormously negative environmental impact, of meat production.  Here are a few facts for you to chew on:
  • To produce one pound of beef requires approximately 1,500 gallons of water
  • One pound of chicken requires 468 gallons of water
  • One egg requires 53 gallons of water
  • 1,000 gallons of water are required to produce the food and drinks consumed per person, per day, in the average U.S. diet
  • Livestock production is responsible for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions
Some technology companies feel that this is an industry ripe for disruption, and their approach would certainly shake things up.  In fact, their solution to the problem is to remove animals entirely from the meat production process.  For example, a group from Maastrict University is studying the viability of using laboratory-grown muscle cells to replace meat harvested from animals.  An early investor, Sergey Brin, the Co-Founder of Google, said of this approach, "Sometimes a new technology comes along and it has the capability to transform how we view our world." 

Other tech investors seem to agree that this is an exciting new technology.  Whereas most start-up companies find it challenging to raise money, Memphis Meats had so many potential investors, including Bill Gates and Richard Branson, that they actually had to turn some of them away. You can learn more about Memphis Meats here.

Another start-up is Impossible Foods.  This company has created a burger made entirely from plants that, according to the company, tastes, smells and even bleeds like a normal meat-based burger.  However, the burger made by Impossible Foods uses 95% less land, 74% less water and is responsible for 87% less greenhouse gas emissions.  You can read about the Impossible burger here.

So if you love meat, but you're not a big fan of green house gases, you might be craving one of the new meat substitutes.  Although most of these products haven't hit the market yet, the Impossible burger is available at a number of restaurants in the U.S.  Though it hasn't yet come to my city, I hope to try it the next time I travel.  If you try it first, please leave a comment to let me know what you think.  Bon appetit!

Monday, September 11, 2017

Protecting Your Personal Information

Equifax, one of the largest credit reporting firms in the U.S., announced on September 7th that more than 143 million consumer records had been stolen.  Yes, that's right, one of the organizations charged with safeguarding our credit and personal information was itself a victim of cyber-theft.  To put this into perspective, 143 million records represents nearly half of the total population of the United States.  Additionally, because the hackers got our most personal information, including social security numbers and dates of birth, the risk of identity theft could persist for the rest of our lives.  Adding to our sense of helplessness, nothing we could have done would have prevented the loss of our personal data.  Ultimately our data is only as secure as the locations where it is being held, and increasingly it appears that no place is safe.  Now would be an excellent time for a primal scream.  Go ahead, I'll wait.  
   According to Bloomberg Technology, U.S. Companies and Government agencies suffered 1,093 significant data breaches in 2016, a staggering 40% increase over 2015.  Unfortunately, it looks like 2017 is shaping up to be another record year for hackers.  Identities and credits cards are being stolen, hospital records held ransom, e-mail accounts compromised, people spied on with their own cameras, and on, and on, and on.  Because so much of our lives are now lived online, this malicious activity presents an ongoing threat to our safety and security.  
  So what is really going on?  Clearly, organizations are aware that hackers want to gain access to their networks, and yet data breaches continue to occur.  We know that stopping cyber-theft is a top priority for organizations, and we can assume that they have some very smart people working on the problem.  That being the case, how does this continue to happen?   One answer seems to be that large networks are so massive and complicated, that it is impossible for computer engineers to secure the entire network.  In fact, they may even struggle just to understand where all of the data resides and who has access.  As an example of the challenge, a large data network may generate hundreds of millions of security logs weekly, with any one of those being a potential threat.  In other words, there is simply too much data for engineers to analyze in real time and identify potential threats.  Another reason data intrusions are increasing is because our adversaries are becoming more sophisticated. Criminal organizations or even foreign governments may now sponsor entire teams of hackers.  Additionally, we are no longer defending solely against human hackers. Increasingly artificial intelligence agents are being used to probe computer networks for vulnerabilities.  Ironically, going forward, artificial intelligence is also one of the ways that companies hope to strengthen their network defenses and defend against cyber-intrusions.
   So although there is nothing we could have done to prevent the loss of our personal information from Equifax, we can definitely limit someone's ability to use it.   In addition to all of the usual precautions, such as regularly changing your passwords and frequently monitoring your accounts, you may also want to sign up for a Credit Monitoring service, which will notify you anytime your personal information is used to open an account. Alternatively, you can opt for even more protection by placing a Security Freeze on your credit file.  This will ensure that no one can even view your credit file without your permission.  I did this recently and the entire process took no more than fifteen minutes.  In order to place a security freeze on your file you will need to contact the three main credit reporting firms (Experian, Equifax and Transunion), either online or via telephone.
   In summary, a war for our personal information is raging in cyber-space, and as of now our side is losing.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Small Medicine

Big things are happening in the microscopic field of nanotechnology, which is defined as the study of objects less than 100 nanometers in size.  To put this into perspective, a piece of paper, or a human hair, are each about 100,000 nanometers thick.  That means that the study of nanotechnology deals only with sizes which are at least 1,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.  Progress in nanotechnology is leading to major advances in many different areas, including crop protection, materials science, water purification and solar power.  In addition to these endeavors, some of the most remarkable work is being done in the fields of medicine and human health.  In order to give you a sense of the tremendous potential of nanotechnology, I will highlight just two of the most exciting ongoing projects. 
   There are a number of cancers which occur in the brain, however it can be very difficult to get drugs to the site of the tumor.  This is because the body has a natural defense called the Blood-Brain Barrier which blocks material from entering the fluid surrounding the brain.  In practice, this means that most cancers of the brain must be treated using surgery.  Researchers at Northwestern University are taking a radically different approach.  They have succeeded in attaching nucleic acids, the same material that comprises our DNA, to the surface of gold nanoparticles.  This nucleic acid-gold combination is called Spherical Nucleic Acids (SNAs), and miraculously this material is able to cross the Blood Brain Barrier.   Importantly, these SNAs can be designed in the laboratory to specifically target different type of cancer cells.  This technology is currently being used in a clinical trial to treat patients with a type of brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme.  Although the research is still ongoing, the results thus far have been promising (see video below).

   The second project could ultimately give healthcare providers another way to tell what is happening inside a patient's body.  Bodily fluids such as saliva, sweat and tears contain very small particles called exosomes.  These particles, thousands of times thinner than a human hair, originate from the cells in our bodies.  Although small in size, exosomes contain a great deal of information regarding the overall state of our health. Researchers at IBM would like to analyze the information contained in exosomes, a type of liquid biopsy.  Using the techniques of nanotechnology, they are attempting to embed many of the processes available in a clinical lab on a single computer chip.  If successful, this would mean that a small sample of bodily fluid could be analyzed anywhere in the world using a simple handheld device (see video below).  Is it just me, or is anyone else thinking about Star Trek right now?   In closing, I hope you are convinced that big things are happening in the very small world of nanotechnology.



Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Banking on Bitcoin

On May 25th, the value of a bitcoin rose to an all time high of $2,791.70.  By the end of the day, the digital currency had fallen by more than $300 dollars, highlighting its volatility.  However, to put this into perspective, bitcoin was launched less than ten years ago, and initially it was valued at $0.0025.  In other words, if you had purchased $5 worth of bitcoin in 2009, your investment would be worth nearly $5 million dollars today!  Ethereum, a competitor to Bitcoin, is up more than 2,000% this year alone.  So now that I have your full attention, welcome to the wonderful world of digital currency.
   So what is digital currency and why is everyone so excited?  According to Technopedia, "digital currency is a payment method which exists only in electronic form and is not tangible."  If you think about it, we use digital payment methods such as credit cards, electronic fund transfers, or mobile payments all the time.  The difference between these more established forms of payment and bitcoin is that the more traditional payments methods all involve a bank or a financial clearinghouse of some kind.  In other words, for a fee, some central authority is responsible for processing and posting the payment.  Today's digital currencies do not use a central bank, but rather depend on a "distributed ledger."  Instead of a bank or credit card company holding the transaction data, every bitcoin owner has all of the information for every other owner on their computer.  This distributed ledger system, known as blockchain, is really the core innovation of digital currencies and what has allowed them to prosper.  At this writing, in addition to bitcoin and ethereum, there are at least 20 other digital currencies.
   Because digital currencies cut out the middleman from financial transactions, this obviously poses a risk to the billions of dollars in fees currently charged by banks and credit card companies.  So what are they doing about it?  Perhaps not surprisingly, many banks are planning to get in on the action and issue digital currencies of their own!  UBS, Duetsche Bank, Santandar and BNY Mellon have announced plans to launch their own version of digital currency, called utility settlement coin, in early 2018.  Other large banks including The Peoples Bank of China, The European Central Bank, The Central Bank of Singapore, and many more also plan to launch digital currencies in the near future.
   Throughout history currency has evolved from bartered commodities, to coins, to paper money, and finally to credit cards and electronic payment systems.  Now, whether we're ready for it or not, it seems that our money is poised to evolve again.

#digital currency

Friday, May 12, 2017

The War For Your Computer

On May 3 there was a massive cyber attack that targeted users of Google.  Although it was shut down quickly, the scheme had the potential to affect up to 1 billion people.  If you opened the e-mail and clicked on the attachment, this would have given the hackers access to your computer.  The scheme took advantage of something called OAuth, or Open Authorization.  OAuth is how Apps communicate with each other, such as your Uber app accessing your mapping software, or Amazon's Alexa connecting to your appointments. This is clearly not the work of some disaffected teenager, this is computer hacking on an industrial scale.  The recent Google threat got me thinking about the state of cyber security and its future.  In this war there are the hackers, the people trying to stop them, and all of us non-combatants stuck in the middle.  
   First, let's talk about hackers.  According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, a hacker is defined as "a person who illegally gains access to and sometimes tampers with information in a computer system."  Here is a link to the worlds largest data breaches since 2004.  By scrolling down the list you will notice that with each passing year the data breaches are becoming larger and more numerous.  If we were keeping score, it would appear that the hackers are winning!
   Although there are certainly individuals that hack into computer networks, more and more we are seeing the emergence of organized hacking by groups or even governments.  The University of California at Berkley's Center for Long Term Cybersecurity (CLTC) has run scenarios of what cybersecurity might look like in the year 2020.  If you want to more details, here is the link to the full report.  The first scenario makes predictions regarding what CLTC calls "The New Normal."  According to Tech Republic, here are highlights of what we can expect:

  • Internet users in 2020 assume their data will be stolen and their personal information broadcast.
  • Law enforcement struggles to keep pace as large-scale cyberattacks continue, with small-scale cyberattacks becoming commonplace.
  • Governments are hamstrung by a lack of clarity regarding jurisdiction in digital-crime cases.
  • Hackers prove adept at collaborating across geographies, while law enforcement agencies are not.
  • Individuals and institutions respond in diverse ways: a few choose to go offline, some make their data public before it can be stolen, and others fight back.
   I don't know about you, but I'm giving serious thought to going back to pencil and paper!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Software and Jobs

Recently there has been a lot of attention on the anticipated negative impact of robotics on employment.  In fact, on January 16 of this year, I wrote a post about this entitled "Automation Nation."  CBS News recently did a nice segment which they also called Automation Nation.  Do you think I should sue?
   But although everyone is talking about robotics and automation, there has been much less focus on the effect of software on employment.  I became interested in this topic when I learned of the recent $3.7 billion acquisition of App Dynamics by Cisco.  App Dynamics is a software company that monitors the performance of their client's software in the cloud.  So you may be asking yourself, as I did, why is a hardware manufacturer like Cisco willing to shell out $3.7 bn for a software company?  The answer seems to be that, after years of lackluster performance, software is once again poised for rapid growth.
  Let's consider a few examples of how software is evolving, and how jobs could be impacted:

  • A Microsoft artificial intelligence program called DeepCoder is able to write code for software, something currently only performed by human software engineers.
  • Call centers are increasingly adopting Natural language Processing and Chatbots to address customer needs.  This has the potential to lead to greater customer satisfaction and lower call center employment.
  • Deloitte predicts that artificial intelligence and machine learning could contribute to the elimination of 39% of legal positions (114,000).
  • As discussed above, App Dynamics software monitors the performance of other software.  Their CEO, David Wadhwani, has stated that there is no longer any need for engineers to monitor and analyze software performance.
I could go on, but you get the idea.  Tremendous advances are being made in software, and this is already having an impact on employment.  Going forward, we'll all have to work hard to remain relevant in this new world.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Digital Assistants Are Here To Stay

Digital assistants (DAs) such as Amazon Echo, Google Home, Microsoft Cortana or Apple's SIRI are becoming very popular.  Presently these platforms are capable of answering simple questions such as "What's the weather like today?" or "Where is the closest Thai restaurant?" They can also play your favorite music, set a reminder, or plot the fastest route to wherever you want to go.  I have an iPhone and interact with SIRI nearly every day.  However, as with most technologies, none of us should become too comfortable.  The industry has big plans for DAs, and the versions available today are just the beginning.  
   First, let's consider how DAs actually work (Spoiler Alert - It's complicated).  Let's use SIRI as an example.  To start, SIRI actually stands for Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface.  Catchy name, but it's no surprise Apple decided to go with SIRI instead.  When you speak to SIRI, the first challenge is to translate your voice to text, using speech recognition technology.  Because there are multiple ways to ask any question, and people speak with many different accents, this is one of the most complicated steps.  The text file is then sent to Apple's servers which have a large repository of frequently asked questions and potential responses.  The servers then use natural language processing to determine what action to take.  The results are delivered back to your device and then translated back into a synthesized voice using text-to-speech technology.  Pretty amazing, considering that we usually get our answer back in just a few seconds.
   So what is the future of this technology, and why are so many tech giants rushing to get a seat at the table?  For starters, for many years technology has been steadily moving away from traditional computers and websites to mobile computing platforms.  This puts the power of the Internet in our hands no matter where we are.  In a way, the move to DAs is simply a continuation of this trend.  Think about it, when you use a digital assistant you are no longer directly interacting with a search engine or website.  The digital assistant does all that for you!  If this trend continues, and there is every likelihood that it will, this has the potential to significantly shift the tech balance of power.  For example, when I ask SIRI a question, I'm not sure what search engine is being used, but I'm fairly certain it isn't Google!
   In the future DAs will become more powerful, more intuitive and able to answer much more complex questions.  As a result, we will become increasing reliant on our new digital friends.  
   My apologies, I have to end this post, SIRI is calling me.