Tech News 1 : Robot Police Dog Sent Back With Tail Between Its Legs

It has been reported that NYPD has cancelled its contract with the company that supplied its ‘robot dog’ after the robot’s militarised appearance increased tensions with civilians at a difficult time for police relations.

What Robot Dog?

The robot ‘dog’ nicknamed ‘Digidog’ was ordered last year by the NYPD from specialist robot company Boston Dynamics and was intended mainly for use in barricade and hostage situations, and as part of the Technical Assistance Response Unit, which is used for land-based (remote) surveillance.  It has been reported that although 500 Boston Dynamics robot dogs have been deployed worldwide, the NYPD ‘dog’/robot is one of only four used by police departments.  The others are used (e.g. by utility companies) on construction sites or in other (potentially dangerous) commercial settings.  The four-legged, metal robot dogs can run, jump, climb stairs, balance, and are difficult to push over.  They can also carry cameras, lights, and transmitters, and therefore, can be used for mobile surveillance. The robot dogs are guided by AI.

Old-Style Police Robots

Robots being used by police in situations that are too dangerous for humans are not unusual. For example, since the 1970s the NYPD has used robots in hostage situations, for bomb disposal, and for other hazardous tasks and challenges.  The Boston Dynamics robot, however, is more sophisticated, capable, and dextrous than those early robots.

What Went Wrong With ‘Digidog’?

Digidog’s deployment to an incident in the Bronx, the footage of which was published online in February, appears to have caused alarm and criticism among members of the public. This alarm has been heightened by the recent high-profile incidents of police killings of black citizens, and the resulting protests.  The footage of the robot following officers back, after the incident, has led to comparisons with fictional characters like the Terminator and Robocop, and has led to comments that the robot was ‘creepy’ and like something from a Dystopian future.  Other criticisms have focused on worries that the deployment of such technology is too far ahead of regulation, whether it was wise or right to spend the money on a robot when the pandemic had squeezed finances. Some have also asked questions about whether spending on a robot should have been prioritised over the need for investment in the area of the city where it was filmed.  A (Fox) news report of the Digidog deployment in the Bronx, which also highlights its potential benefits, can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24jufNhuUSI.

2016 in Dallas

The last time there was a serious outcry over a crime-fighting robot was back in 2016 when a gunman suspected of murdering five police officers was blown-up using a robot.

Cancelled

The public concern over Digidog is now reported to have led to NYPD cancelling its ($94,000) contract with Boston Dynamics which was not due to expire until August 2021.

‘Spot’ in Singapore

Boston Dynamics made the news back in May 2020 when a similar robot, dubbed ‘Spot’, was given a trial in Singapore’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park warning visitors to observe safe social distancing measures.  Spot was allowed to roam the park, using its AI guidance system to avoid bumping into people and objects, and broadcasted a pre-recorded message about social distancing. A video of ‘Spot’ in action can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pz7A8Umw5zY .

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Robots are nothing new in business (e.g. the car industry, warehouses, and factories, even parcel delivery) and some robots even made the news for been used as mobile food distribution services on U.S. university campuses for students isolating during the first lockdown.  Robots have also proven extremely useful in law enforcement and situations where the risk to humans is too great, e.g. bomb disposal, hostage incidents and more.  This ‘Digidog’ robot, however, proved to be an example of deploying the wrong piece of machinery at the wrong time in the wrong place. The combination of a general deterioration in trust of the police (due to high profile killings of black citizens), deploying the ‘dog’ in a city area such as the Bronx, and the potentially threatening/creepy appearance of a four-legged metal (surveillance) robot proved to be too much. This, in turn, prompted uncomfortable questions and raised tensions to the point where the damage exceeded the benefits of the deployment of the robot.  Public surveillance is a contentious issue on its own, and overt law enforcement tools and methods are also a matter of public interest, and the deployment of this robot brought the two together with the added fear of dystopian imagery.  It begs the question of whether, if the robot has a ‘friendlier’ looking form (and didn’t walk on legs) it would have created so much interest and tension?

It is likely that more robots and drones will become commonplace and will fulfil productive, resource-saving, and day-to-day roles in ways that meet with public approval, but the sight of four-legged police robots, like a feared character from a sci-fi film, is something that the public may not yet be ready for and will not quietly accept.  It is back to the drawing board for both the design of such robots and for those involved in ensuring that regulation, particularly of the use of AI (as is happening at the EC at the moment) keeps pace with its deployment.

Tech News 2 : Huge Lockdown Profits For Amazon

Changing consumer habits due to lockdown are believed to have been a big factor in Amazon’s Q1 profits being a massive three times larger than last year.

Huge Profit Growth in Just One Year

In the first 3 months of 2020, before the first lockdowns for the pandemic, Amazon recorded a $2.5bn profit. Fast forward to the first 3 months of 2021, many long lockdowns later, and in the 3 months to 31 March 2021, Amazon has now recorded a $8.1bn profit.  That is a staggering three times higher than only 12 months ago!  This means that Q1 of 2021 is second only for sales ($108.5 billion) in the company’s history to Q4 of 2020 ($125.6 billion).

Why?

The main reasons are clear:

– Amazon’s leading e-commerce business with its massive distribution and delivery network proved to be the ideal way of shopping when consumers were confined to their homes under lockdown restrictions, high street shops were forced to close, and even supermarkets were restricted to essential items.

– With the leisure industry effectively shut down (pubs, clubs, cinemas, entertainment venues), Amazon was well-positioned to expand its streaming entertainment platforms (Prime) as consumers switched their leisure spending to home-entertainment.

– The closing of offices and other workplaces and the shift to remote working and the accelerated digital transformation of businesses-favoured cloud-based work and communications. This meant with Amazon owning the leading on-demand (public) cloud computing platforms and API provider (AWS), it was well placed to take advantage of a big increase in enterprise cloud migrations.  In fact, the revenue growth rate of AWS was a massive 32 per cent which generated an eye-watering $13.5bn in revenue.

Other Reasons

Analysts have noted that other reasons why Amazon has improved its performance this year compared to competitors like Walmart, Target, and eBay are that it focused on essentials at the start of the pandemic and has since increased staffing and fulfilment-centre square footage to ensure that it can cover more orders.

Growth

Amazon’s financial officer Brian Olsavsky has highlighted how Amazon’s business essentially grew by 50 percent in Q1 of 2021, and that the company’s annual revenue growth rate internationally prior to Covid, and post-Covid, had been tripling anyway.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

As Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos pointed out in the company’s earnings release, AWS offers a broad set of (cloud) tools and services to businesses, and many businesses have undergone a digital transformation and a migration to the cloud (many to AWS services) during the pandemic. Amazon’s e-commerce platform has also been beneficial to businesses using it to sell online during the pandemic, and Amazon’s ad business has also recorded huge growth. In the entertainment’s market, Prime video (which Amazon sees more as an adoption and retention driver for its Prime membership) has also seen huge growth during the pandemic, making it a serious challenger to the other streaming service competitors (e.g. Netflix, HBO Max, Disney Plus, Hulu, and more). In short, Amazon’s broad set of services, dominance in key sectors, capacity, and distribution have suited the market conditions created by the pandemic and this has been reflected in the huge Q1 profits. Just as it is competiton to many businesses (e-commerce), it is also a key supplier (e.g. public cloud), and this latest profit announcement confirms that Amazon’s power in many markets, globally, is still increasing.

Featured Article : Image Optimisation

In this article we look at image optimisation, the different types of compression and image files, and how files different file formats can be compared and best used.

Vectors or Bitmaps?

Raw, digital image files start as either vectors or bitmaps/rasters/pixel maps. Bitmaps are made from pixels whereas vectors are made using mathematical formulas, co-ordinates and geometry.

Vector image files are often used for creating logos, illustrations, and print layouts in programs such as CAD packages, Microsoft AutoShapes, Blender, Adobe, and more.  Vectors can be re-opened and re-edited in graphics programs as they can be scaled without losing resolution. Examples of vector file formats include EPS (encapsulated postscript), PDF and SVG (scalable vector graphics).

BMP

Bitmap images are made from a grid pattern of coloured squares known as picture elements/pixels. Examples of bitmap file formats include BMP (Bitmap), JPG (jpeg), PNG, GIF, TFF (pronounced tiff) and EXIF (exchangeable image file format).

Using image files on the web, however, requires optimisation.

Image File Optimisation

Image files for use on the Web need to be ‘optimised’.  This generally means creating a balance between retaining visual quality while shrinking the size of the file. Smaller image files (i.e. smaller in size and in compressed formats) take up less storage space and are quicker to download when part of a website.  Compressing image files, therefore, means changing attributes such as the dimensions, the resolution (dpi), the bit depth (the number of bits used to represent each pixel in an image), and setting the file type e.g. .jpg, .png, or .gif.

Types of Compression

There are two types of compression for image files. These are:

1. Lossy compression. This reduces the file size by permanently reducing data. This means that, once a file has undergone lossy compression, increasing the dimensions of the file shows a pixelated/blurred version because data/pixels were stretched and made into larger blocks to make the whole image smaller and compressed. Examples of lossy compression file formats (bitmaps) include JPG, and GIF (depending on settings).

2. Lossless compression.  This type of compression squeezes the file without removing data so that the picture quality remains the same, and the file can be decompressed to its original quality. Examples of lossless compression file formats include RAW, BMP, PNG and GIF (depending on settings) .

Comparison

Different optimsed/compressed file types have different qualities and uses.  For example:

– JPG and GIF files are both used on the Web. JPG files (often used in digital camera images) have lossy compression but a relatively high quality for the size of the image and as such, are used for photos and more detailed images on websites. GIF files have lossless compression (depending on settings) but a maximum 8-bit colour depth (limited to a palette of 256 colours).  This means that they are not best suited to photos, but rather for saving images like charts, diagrams, simple images, and simple animations.  GIF files can also be used where transparency of part of the graphic is needed.

– A PNG file is an example of lossless compression that provides a high-quality image. PNGs provide a much better-quality alternative to GIFs but, like JPG files, PNGs can be used for all photos and images that require cleaner, clearer detail.  PNGs, however, have a lower compression rate than JPGs, so can be bigger (in terms of KB size). PNGs can, therefore, provide a noticeably better-quality image than a JPG and the layers of graphics in the image can be kept separate from each other, but this comes with a trade-off being the larger size of the file.

– Bitmap image files (.bmp) are uncompressed or compressed with a lossless compression. This image file type has raster graphics data (pixels rather than vector) that is independent of display devices, meaning that a BMP file can be viewed without a graphics adapter. Each pixel is made of one single or a group of ‘bits’ (hence the file name), and this allows encoding of the file to different colour depths (i.e. bits-per-pixel/bpp up to 32 bit).  Like other raster file formats, BMP also supports transparency. BMP files are not suitable for use on the Web (although they can nevertheless be used) but are good for storing highly detailed, complex images (e.g. for archiving or image processing/photo editing). BMP was developed for Windows OS and BMP files are compatible with major image editing applications, e.g. Photoshop or CorelDRAW. BMP is a Windows proprietary filetype so TFF (.tff) can be used instead.  TFF files, for example, are often used for commercial and professional printing.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

A basic understanding of file formats can help businesses to make decisions about how best to present images (e.g. on websites to provide the best visual impact), and minimise download time as this can impact on SEO and ranking factors. Also, a good general understanding of file types can help when dealing with printers and web developers, and can help with decisions about the storage and archiving of company images, and how to save images so that that they can be editable. Images play an incredibly important role, e.g. in social media posts, websites, company brochures/literature, branding and more, so understanding how to save, edit, present, send and deal with them is worthwhile for all businesses.

Tech Insight : What Is An MSP?

In this article, we take a brief look at what an MSP is, what services they provide, and what benefits businesses get from using an MSP.

MSPs

A Managed Service Provider (MSP) is a company that delivers outsourced IT services and support to businesses and organisations.  The MSP remotely and proactively, manages, monitors, updates, reports on (and has responsibility for) the customer’s IT infrastructure and/or end-user systems for a subscription fee. Typically, these managed services are network, application, infrastructure, and security, and are delivered by providing support and administration on customers’ premises, in their MSP’s data centre/hosting, or in a third-party’s data centre. MSPs may also provide hardware, software, mobile device management, training, and many other IT and communications-related services to their customers.

Evolution

Many traditional IT Support companies evolved into what are now known as MSPs when application service providers (ASPs) helped make it possible for remote support for IT infrastructure.

In the late 90s/early 2000s, ASPs delivered apps (sometimes their own) and related services over the internet or via a private network for subscription, thereby giving rise to the remote provision of services. Some ASPs became MSPs, although ASPs are now generally referred to a software as a service (SaaS) providers.

Services

MSPs can now provide a broad range of services including networking, application and infrastructure services, cybersecurity, email and help desk, data storage and backup (and restore), cloud integration, software migration (e.g., to 365), patching, communications and more.

Benefits of Using and MSP

Typically, the benefits that companies and organisations get from using an MSP include:

– Savings from not having in-house IT staff/departments, saving on maintaining/replacing software and hardware, and from better advice and deals offered by MSPs (hardware, software, networks, communications).

– Fast resolution of IT problems due to on-demand availability of IT expertise.

– Becoming more up-to-date, efficient, and competitive, and future-proofing as MSPs reduce technology adoption barriers and help manage the changes and processes needed to enable a company to quickly, adopt new technologies, and take advantage of new opportunities and ways of working.

– Less disruption and increased service levels due to proactive, ongoing expert monitoring, maintenance, upkeep and upgrading of infrastructure, networks, hardware, and other services due to expert MSP help and advice.

– Better security and reduced risk due to patching, updating of anti-virus, threat monitoring and IT security education and advice, and upgrading of network security by the MSP.

– Peace of mind from knowing that effective, secure, and regular backup and restore procedures, and services are in place, and disaster recovery plans exist and are up to date.

– Easier management of IT for the business due to centralisation.

– Flexibility, scope, and scalability, thereby allowing businesses to adapt and change quickly, allowing for growth, changes, and other business realities.

– Time, money, and hassle saved from having on-demand expertise available.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Outsourcing to MSPs allows businesses not just to save money and become more efficient, but it also provides the kind of security, scope, flexibility, and future-proofing that enable businesses to be competitive and make the most of opportunities in the changing business environment. The services of MSPs can be particularly beneficial to smaller businesses because having the expertise-on demand (i.e. not having to try and do everything in house) means cost savings and the kind of up-to-date systems that can enable them to behave like a much bigger company, thereby providing greater value to more customers while being much more flexible and competitive.

Tech Tip – Setting Up An ‘Out Of Office’ Autoreply In Gmail

Many people may be familiar with how to set up an ‘out of office’ email in Outlook, but it can also be done in Gmail too. Here’s how:

– Log in to Gmail and select the ‘gear’ (settings) symbol (top right).

– Select ‘See all settings’.

– Scroll down to ‘Vacation responder’ and change the setting to ‘on’.

– Select the date of the first day you’ll be away. Although it is not necessary to enable and select a last day, it may be a good idea just in case you forget to switch the autoreply off.

– Type your subject line and autoreply message.

– If you only want to target the autoreply to people you already know, select ‘Only send a response to people in my Contacts’.

– Select Save Changes.

– To turn the autoreply off again, follow the route through Gmail Settings to the ‘Vacation responder’ section and switch to ‘off’.

Tech Insight : ISDN To be Switched Off

With BT Openreach officially setting the timeframe for switching off PSTN/ISDN, we look at what this means for businesses.

ISDN an PSTN

Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), which really came into being in the 1990s, is a set of communication standards that are used for simultaneous digital transmission of voice, video, data, and other network services over the digitised circuits of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). The PSTN is a broad term for the world’s collection of interconnected, circuit-switched, voice-oriented, public telephone networks that (whether operated by national, regional, or local telephony operators) make up the infrastructure and services for public telecommunication.

Originally, ISDN offered the chance for digital services to operate through the same copper wire as the normal telephone system.  It became popular with businesses because it offered a faster Internet connection than dial-up. Fast-forwarding through different attempts to upgrade includes B-ISDN, transmitting data over fibre optic cable, and ISDN BRI (improving voice services), and the building of modern internet protocol (IP) based networks which can support both broadband and landline telephone services, and ISDN now seems to be only of real use for internet access in areas which haven’t yet been reached by broadband.

Also, as noted by Ofcom, the old PSTN is reaching the end of its life and is becoming increasingly difficult and costly to maintain, which is another reason why a switch-over to a better alternative is necessary.

What’s Happening With the Switch-Off?

BT Openreach have announced that starting from the end of this year and finishing in 2025, it will be “switching off the UK telephone network as we know it” by moving 15 million lines to a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) based replacement telephone service. In essence, this means that the Internet (broadband) will be used to carry telephone calls rather than traditional copper wires.  Since ISDN used the copper wire phone network, this change marks the ISDN switch-off.

The Alternatives

With the now inevitable switch-off of ISDN, the main alternatives for businesses are:

– SIP, which uses virtual, cloud-based phone lines rather than physical lines. This may be more suitable for businesses with an on-premise phone system. Many existing phone systems are already compatible with SIP.

– Hosted VoIP/ a Hosted IP phone system may suit businesses that don’t want to commit or retain an on-premise phone system.  As this option uses the business’s internet lines, it essentially means that the business rents a phone system.

What Are The Advantages?

Broadly speaking, the switch to VoIP should bring many advantages, such as:

– A greater breadth of capabilities.

– Cost savings and fewer system failures and outages.

– Scalability and portability (VoIP phone systems can go wherever the company goes).

– Greater communications mobility, flexibility, and increased productivity and collaboration. The importance of this has been particularly well-illustrated with the need to use remote, cloud-based communications and collaborative working platforms during the pandemic.

– Better security that’s continuously updated.

– Greater reliability.

– Improved customer experiences.

– Clearer calls, making it easier to keep existing numbers, and the choice to have broadband provided separately from the telephone service.

– Better identification and prevention of nuisance calls, thereby saving businesses time and money and potentially protecting against scammers.

What Are The Disadvantages?

Some disadvantages of switching to VoIP could be:

– Potential problems with latency.

– Vulnerability to phone systems going down if there’s a broadband outage or if the electricity supply is interrupted.

Possible Impact Downstream

Both Ofcom and Openreach have acknowledged that the area of concern, if preparations are not made sufficiently in advance of the switch-over, is downstream services such as security and fire alarms, telecare devices, retail payment terminals, and equipment for monitoring and controlling networks.  These rely on some attributes of the PSTN that may not be fully replicated in VoIP-based platforms, hence the importance of adequate preparation.  This will require service providers to test their equipment to see if it will continue to function over IP and then replace, upgrade, or reconfigure it as appropriate. These service provider businesses will also need to ensure that customers (from residential users to large commercial and public sector entities) are made aware of the issue well in advance so that necessary steps can be taken to maintain service(s).

Ofcom has stated that the government will work with the sectors that use these downstream services (e.g. health, energy, transport, and business) so that they are aware of the change and can prepare in time.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Although the move is industry-led, there is little doubt that analogue and old, expensive to maintain copper wire phone systems will not be able to provide the scope, flexibility, speed, capacity, and economies of the digital alternative as businesses now rely heavily on the Internet. The switch-over will be spread over four years. Provided that there is adequate information and support given by the regulator and BT Openreach, and coordination among communications service providers (CSPs), and adequate advice and help for downstream providers, then change should be manageable, and disruption should be minimised.

Particular attention clearly needs to be paid to those sectors and organisations (many of which are vital to UK business and infrastructure) that still rely on some attributes of the PSTN that may not yet look as though they can be fully replicated in VoIP-based platforms. With this already being acknowledged and working groups already planned to tackle the issue, a smooth transition looks more likely.

The pandemic has increased the digital transformation of many businesses and the advantages of the switch to VoIP and digital appear to be in-keeping with this, and look likely to benefit businesses going forward.

More information about the switch and what to do about the migration can be found here: https://www.bttcomms.com/phasing-out-and-switch-off-of-isdn/.  Also, Ofcom provides some useful information about its plans for the switch-over here: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0032/137966/future-fixed-telephone-services.pdf.

Each week we bring you the latest tech news and tips that may relate to your business, re-written in an techy free style.