Archive for the ‘computer’ Category

By Chris Baraniuk

Jennifer Null’s husband had warned her before they got married that taking his name could lead to occasional frustrations in everyday life. She knew the sort of thing to expect – his family joked about it now and again, after all. And sure enough, right after the wedding, problems began.

“We moved almost immediately after we got married so it came up practically as soon as I changed my name, buying plane tickets,” she says. When Jennifer Null tries to buy a plane ticket, she gets an error message on most websites. The site will say she has left the surname field blank and ask her to try again.

Instead, she has to call the airline company by phone to book a ticket – but that’s not the end of the process.

“I’ve been asked why I’m calling and when I try to explain the situation, I’ve been told, ‘there’s no way that’s true’,” she says.

But to any programmer, it’s painfully easy to see why “Null” could cause problems for software interacting with a database. This is because the word ‘null’ can be produced by a system to indicate an empty name field. Now and again, system administrators have to try and fix the problem for people who are actually named “Null” – but the issue is rare and sometimes surprisingly difficult to solve.

For Null, a full-time mum who lives in southern Virginia in the US, frustrations don’t end with booking plane tickets. She’s also had trouble entering her details into a government tax website, for instance. And when she and her husband tried to get settled in a new city, there were difficulties getting a utility bill set up, too.

Generally, the more important the website or service, the stricter controls will be on what name she enters – but that means that problems chiefly occur on systems where it really matters.

Before the birth of her child, Null was working as an on-call substitute teacher. In that role she could be notified of work through an online service or via phone. But the website would never work for Null – she always had to arrange a shift by phone.

“I feel like I still have to do things the old-fashioned way,” she says.

“On one hand it’s frustrating for the times that we need it, but for the most part it’s like a fun anecdote to tell people,” she adds. “We joke about it a lot. It’s good for stories.”

“Null” isn’t the only example of a name that is troublesome for computers to process. There are many others. In a world that relies increasingly on databases to function, the issues for people with problematic names only get more severe.

Some individuals only have a single name, not a forename and surname. Others have surnames that are just one letter. Problems with such names have been reported before. Consider also the experiences of Janice Keihanaikukauakahihulihe’ekahaunaele, a Hawaiian woman who complained that state ID cards should allow citizens to display surnames even as long as hers – which is 36 characters in total. In the end, government computer systems were updated to have greater flexibility in this area.

Incidents like this are known, in computing terminology, as “edge cases” – that is, unexpected and problematic cases for which the system was not designed.

“Every couple of years computer systems are upgraded or changed and they’re tested with a variety of data – names that are well represented in society,” explains programmer Patrick McKenzie.
“They don’t necessarily test for the edge cases.”

McKenzie has developed a pet interest in the failings of many modern computer systems to process less common names. He has compiled a list of the pitfalls that programmers often fail to foresee when designing databases intended to store personal names.

But McKenzie is living proof of the fact that name headaches are a relativistic problem. To many English-speaking westerners, the name “Patrick McKenzie” might not seem primed to cause errors, but where McKenzie lives – Japan – it has created all kinds of issues for him.

“Four characters in a Japanese name is very rare. McKenzie is eight, so for printed forms it’ll often be the case that there’s literally not enough space to put my name,” he says.

“Computer systems are often designed with these forms in mind. Every year when I go to file my taxes, I file them as ‘McKenzie P’ because that’s the amount of space they have.”

McKenzie had tried his best to fit in. He even converted his name into katakana – a Japanese alphabet which allows for the phonetic spelling of foreign words. But when his bank’s computer systems were updated, support for the katakana alphabet was removed. This wouldn’t have presented an issue for Japanese customers, but for McKenzie, it meant he was temporarily unable to use the bank’s website.

“Eventually they had to send a paper request from my bank branch to the corporate IT department to have someone basically edit the database manually,” he says, “before I could use any of their applications.”

McKenzie points out that as computer systems have gone global, there have been serious discussions among programmers to improve support for “edge case” names and names written in foreign languages or with unusual characters. Indeed, he explains that the World Wide Web Consortium, an internet standards body, has dedicated some discussion to the issue specifically.

“I think the situation is getting better, partly as a result of increased awareness within the community,” he comments.

For people like Null, though, it’s likely that they will encounter headaches for a long time to come. Some might argue that those with troublesome names might think about changing them to save time and frustration.

But Null won’t be among them. For one thing, she already changed her name – when she got married.
“It’s very frustrating when it does come up,” she admits, but adds, “I’ve just kind of accepted it. I’m used to it now.”

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160325-the-names-that-break-computer-systems

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Workflow for 3D face scan processing, including the A) original surface, B) trimmed to exclude non-face parts, C) reflected to make mirror image, D) anthropometric mask of quasi-landmarks, E) remapped, F) reflected remapped, G) symmetrized and H) reconstructed.

By Philip Ross

Could a single hair be used to make an accurate 3D model of a criminal suspect’s face? Researchers from the U.S. and Belgium have developed a computer program that renders a crude genetic “mugshot” from a small sample of DNA.

Forensics can already predict eye and hair color relatively easily. Io9 notes that criminal investigators can even use maggots to extract a victim’s DNA from their unidentifiable body or find hidden faces by zooming into hi-res photos of eyes. But the face is a complex structure that’s more difficult to map from just one DNA sample.

According to New Scientist, researchers used a stereoscopic camera to make 3D images of roughly 600 volunteers with mixed European and West African ancestry. They identified more than 7,000 distinct points on the face to see how sex and racial ancestry affect the position of these points. The variations were used to develop a statistical model that reconstructs the overall shape of a person’s face.

The team also isolated 24 genetic variants, called single nucleotide polymorphisms, which play a role in shaping a face, such as those that shape the head during embryonic development. Lastly, researchers had volunteers rate the 600 faces on perceived ethnicity as well as on a scale of masculinity and femininity.

The new study, published in the journal PLOS Genetics, says this process could allow investigators to make computer-generated mugshots from genetic material left at a crime scene.

“We show that facial variation with regard to sex, ancestry, and genes can be systematically studied with our methods, allowing us to lay the foundation for predictive modeling of faces,” the authors note. “Such predictive modeling could be forensically useful; for example, DNA left at crime scenes could be tested and faces predicted in order to help to narrow the pool of potential suspects. Further, our methods could be used to predict the facial features of descendants, deceased ancestors, and even extinct human species. In addition, these methods could prove to be useful diagnostic tools.”

Any 3D renderings created using the new technology wouldn’t be used in a court of law – any person identified via the DNA mugshots would still have his DNA compared to the crime scene sample – but it could at least narrow the search for a suspected criminal. And there are still a few kinks to work out in the process before the technology is ever used in the field.

“I believe that in five to 10 years’ time, we will be able to computationally predict a face,” Peter Claes of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium told New Scientist.

http://www.ibtimes.com/dna-mugshot-how-crime-fighting-computer-sketch-program-can-predict-face-your-genes-1563049

Thanks to Da Brayn for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

1-bionic-hand-story-top

Around 220,000 people worldwide already walk around with cochlear implants — devices worn around the ear that turn sound waves into electrical impulses shunted directly into the auditory nerve.

Tens of thousands of people have been implanted with deep brain stimulators, devices that send an electrode tunneling several inches in the brain. Deep brain stimulators are used to control Parkinson’s disease, though lately they’ve also been tested — with encouraging results — in use against severe depression and obsessive compulsive disorder.

The most obvious bionics are those that replace limbs. Olympian “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius, now awaiting trial for the alleged murder of his girlfriend, made a splash with his Cheetah carbon fiber prostheses. Yet those are a relatively simple technology — a curved piece of slightly springy, super-strong material. In the digital age, we’re seeing more sophisticated limbs.

Consider the thought-controlled bionic leg that Zac Vawter used to climb all 103 floors of Chicago’s Willis Tower. Or the nerve-controlled bionic hand that Iraq war veteran Glen Lehman had attached after the loss of his original hand.

Or the even more sophisticated i-limb Ultra, an artificial hand with five independently articulating artificial fingers. Those limbs don’t just react mechanically to pressure. They actually respond to the thoughts and intentions of their owners, flexing, extending, gripping, and releasing on mental command.

The age when prostheses were largely inert pieces of wood, metal, and plastic is passing. Advances in microprocessors, in techniques to interface digital technology with the human nervous system, and in battery technology to allow prostheses to pack more power with less weight are turning replacement limbs into active parts of the human body.

In some cases, they’re not even part of the body at all. Consider the case of Cathy Hutchinson. In 1997, Cathy had a stroke, leaving her without control of her arms. Hutchinson volunteered for an experimental procedure that could one day help millions of people with partial or complete paralysis. She let researchers implant a small device in the part of her brain responsible for motor control. With that device, she is able to control an external robotic arm by thinking about it.

That, in turn, brings up an interesting question: If the arm isn’t physically attached to her body, how far away could she be and still control it? The answer is at least thousands of miles. In animal studies, scientists have shown that a monkey with a brain implant can control a robot arm 7,000 miles away. The monkey’s mental signals were sent over the internet, from Duke University in North Carolina, to the robot arm in Japan. In this day and age, distance is almost irrelevant.

The 7,000-mile-away prosthetic arm makes an important point: These new prostheses aren’t just going to restore missing human abilities. They’re going to enhance our abilities, giving us powers we never had before, and augmenting other capabilities we have. While the current generation of prostheses is still primitive, we can already see this taking shape when a monkey moves a robotic arm on the other side of the planet just by thinking about it.

Other research is pointing to enhancements to memory and decision making.

The hippocampus is a small, seahorse-shaped part of the brain that’s essential in forming new memories. If it’s damaged — by an injury to the head, for example — people start having difficulty forming new long-term memories. In the most extreme cases, this can lead to the complete inability to form new long-term memories, as in the film Memento. Working to find a way to repair this sort of brain damage, researchers in 2011 created a “hippocampus chip” that can replace damaged brain tissue. When they implanted it in rats with a damaged hippocampus, they found that not only could their chip repair damaged memory — it could improve the rats’ ability to learn new things.

Nor is memory the end of it. Another study, in 2012, demonstrated that we can boost intelligence — at least one sort — in monkeys. Scientists at Wake Forest University implanted specialized brain chips in a set of monkeys and trained those monkeys to perform a picture-matching game. When the implant was activated, it raised their scores by an average of 10 points on a 100-point scale. The implant makes monkeys smarter.

Both of those technologies for boosting memory and intelligence are in very early stages, in small animal studies only, and years (or possibly decades) away from wide use in humans. Still, they make us wonder — what happens when it’s possible to improve on the human body and mind?

The debate has started already, of course. Oscar Pistorius had to fight hard for inclusion in the Olympics. Many objected that his carbon fiber prostheses gave him a competitive advantage. He was able — with the help of doctors and biomedical engineers — to make a compelling case that his Cheetah blades didn’t give him any advantage on the field. But how long will that be true? How long until we have prostheses (not to mention drugs and genetic therapies) that make athletes better in their sports?

But the issue is much, much wider than professional sports. We may care passionately about the integrity of the Olympics or professional cycling or so on, but they only directly affect a very small number of us. In other areas of life — in the workforce in particular — enhancement technology might affect all of us.

When it’s possible to make humans smarter, sharper, and faster, how will that affect us? Will the effect be mostly positive, boosting our productivity and the rate of human innovation? Or will it be just another pressure to compete at work? Who will be able to afford these technologies? Will anyone be able to have their body, and more importantly, their brain upgraded? Or will only the rich have access to these enhancements?

We have a little while to consider these questions, but we ought to start. The technology will sneak its way into our lives, starting with people with disabilities, the injured, and the ill. It’ll improve their lives in ways that are unquestionably good. And then, one day, we’ll wake up and realize that we’re doing more than restoring lost function. We’re enhancing it.

Superhuman technology is on the horizon. Time to start thinking about what that means for us.

http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/24/opinion/bionic-superhumans-ramez-naam/index.html?iid=article_sidebar

A transparent computer that allows users to reach inside and touch digital content has been unveiled at the TED conference in Los Angeles.

TED fellow Jinha Lee has been working on the SpaceTop 3D desktop in collaboration with Microsoft.