Saturday, April 5, 2014

Small screen, big problem

A random study of the evolution of domestic tiffs through the ages has revealed a key trigger that catalyses most fights – technology.

It was the era of technology. Marriages had never had it so good before. Gadgets did all the work, computers did all the thinking and mobiles did all the networking. Life should have been perfect, but it wasn’t.

Both man and his wife were constantly bickering. To keep them apart, the Creator invented the television, with sports channels for man and entertainment channels for the wife, so the two of them would be suitably distracted. Initially both channels operated for only a few hours a day, so the couple shared the TV amicably. But trouble began when both sports and entertainment became 24 hours. The battle began with renewed vigour, with each trying to hog the TV all the time.

The man, wanting to outsmart the wife, came up with the channel-changing Vuvuzela, which was equipped with an 8-bit microchip and a tiny microphone, and operated using Arduino technology. When he blew the Vuvuzela, it intercepted the sound waves produced and sent an infrared signal to the set top box. This resulted in the entertainment channel immediately being changed to a sports channel. Point, blow, change channel - it was really that simple. It was a double bonanza - each time he blew it, he not only made his wife go stone-deaf, but also succeeded in changing the channel she was watching.

However, the wife turned out to be smarter than the man and quietly replaced the Vuvuzela with another musical instrument that would make music from tattoos. The instrument comprised an Arduino circuit board, a stepper motor and in-built black line sensors, which scanned the skin and read the tattoos. This resulted in electronic sounds being produced. Every little indentation and design element in the tattoo could be read as a note or an instruction. The device could also be controlled manually - with a 3D Wii remote controller - and by varying the speed and direction of the sensors, different audio tracks could be created from the same tattoo.

It turned out to be a disaster for man as most footballers had tattoos from head to toe, and the instrument scanned all their tattoos like bar codes and began playing music. Since the EPL had players from all over the world, the music that emerged from the instrument sounded pretty confused and weird, like a million school kids playing their favourite instruments together.

So the man decided to go one-up on his wife and designed the Alert Shirt, which would bypass the tattoo reader and help him experience the game as though he were playing it. Created using haptic technology, the shirt was equipped with a battery and feedback motors that transmitted impulses to the skin. These impulses were triggered via data obtained through Bluetooth, using a smartphone app. Wearing the shirt, he could feel every emotion and physical action – from euphoria to exhaustion, from sledges to shoves - that happened on the field.

Not to be outdone, the wife came up with make-up technology that could help her control gadgets with a wink. Called Blinkifier, the kit comprised metallic false eyelashes and a conductive eyeliner, which would recognise the contraction of the eye muscles when the eyelids moved. Each time she blinked, the two eyelashes would make contact and thus complete a circuit. This would then send an infrared signal to the gadget in front and thus help her change the channel.

The Creator had had enough. To ensure that technology wouldn't be abused any further by these two, he came up with a device that was small, handy and helped change channels in a jiffy. Now, the chances of the man and his wife fighting were remote and the device would give them complete control over the TV. And so, he aptly named it the ‘remote control’. ‘At last,’ he heaved a sigh of relief, ‘this will ensure that they will not quarrel any longer.’

What happened next is history.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Till a bug do us part…

The good news was that man had created a super-smart robot. The bad news was that he wanted to settle down with it.

There comes in the life of every man a special moment when he is figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the temptation to do something very foolish. Unfortunately for him, that moment doesn't pass off as a whim because technology's around to make it a reality.

It was during one such moment that man stepped into his man cave and questioned why he should live with a woman when he could live in the company of a robot. The latest technology had made it possible to create robots that could make man love them – without putting him through the misery of showering them with expensive gifts, flowers or chocolates. In a revolutionary move that swapped artificial intelligence with emotional intelligence, these robots were equipped with software that would transform them into objects of empathy. They would also be programmed to display social etiquette, the most important of which was never to interrupt when man was speaking. Not surprisingly, he fell for 'it', hook, line and sinker.

Autonomous robots - programmed with advanced self-guiding navigation features and the latest in mobility technology - had also been created, so man didn't have to stick around to instruct his personal bot. It was linked to a remote server through Wi-Fi and hence could access any information it needed to make a decision. That meant it wouldn’t stand around asking him what it should wear and then shoot down all his suggestions. It was also equipped with sophisticated thermal sensors and laser range finders that enabled it to find its way around without bumping into people or objects, so he would never have to accompany it for shopping.

In a related development, man used modular robotics to design a robot made of cubes that could self-assemble in a jiffy, thereby putting an end to the tragedy of waiting forever for his partner to get ready. Most importantly, robots could now keep secrets, thanks to some advanced level programming which made hacking and accessing information stored in the robot virtually impossible. And they would never ever reveal the identity of the person who had passed on any vital information to them. It obviously came as a big relief for man as now, his darkest secrets would never be traded for brownie points in kitty parties.

For a while, life was good. But then, trouble began when the robot developed self-awareness. It began to recognise itself when it passed a mirror - and suddenly, its pace of work and efficiency dropped as it began to operate in slow motion, or worse, come to a complete halt, whenever it approached a polished surface.

To distract it from the self-obsession mode, man created a cloud-based world wide web - RoboEarth, comprising a large network powered by a massive database - especially for robots. However, that turned out to be a disaster too because robots memorized his credit card details and splurged so much online that he was forced to shut down the web. Besides, they were forming their own web-based groups and were swapping stories about how their men were treating them. And relfies - robot selfies - were flooding the major social networking sites, making man sick of the grinning mugshots of metal heads that seemed to have become omnipresent.

The last straw came when a robot, apparently frustrated at having to do so much of cleaning, sorting and other mundane household work day after day, killed itself by climbing onto a hotplate and turning it on.

That was when man realised that having a woman in his life was so much better. He would now do whatever it took to get her back, if it meant grovelling on his knees and asking her to come back to him, so they could get married and live happily ever after. And that was how the practice of men going down on their knees to propose to a woman began.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Don’t look, my password’s changing

It was the most ferocious battle ever witnessed between man and machine - and it was over a password.

The Oscar night was over, but Hollywood was cloaked in gloom. Not because Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t win, but because the silver screen’s biggest money-spinning fantasy ever – of machines taking over the earth – had now become reality, thanks to technology.

The mobile-friendly grill had been invented and was touted as the best thing since reality cooking shows. The grill was an expert cook itself, and virtually took over the cooking process, to the point of instructing humans as to how to go about it. Then came mattresses to sleep on, equipped with artificial intelligence and sensors. They could track the various body functions of the sleeper and send a report to his mobile or computer. They were also smart enough to adjust themselves, to facilitate better sleep or offer a body massage. Even the toothbrush became smart and could be controlled through an app via Bluetooth (no word play here). It could measure various parameters inside one’s mouth, from the average duration brushed, to the teeth that were desperately gnawing for attention.

The smart devices then launched a massive recruitment drive - by hacking every other gadget in sight, including smart TVs and refrigerators. The ultimate objective was to rule over mankind. "This will be our brush with destiny," said the toothbrush excitedly. "All we need to do is steal their passwords, and we will have total control over them. The human race cannot survive without checking its mail or Facebook account, even for an hour."

Soon databases of leading service providers were hacked. Adobe lost around 150 million user passwords, Twitter had over 55,000 passwords leaked online and LinkedIn lost almost 6.5 million passwords to the hackers. One of the most shocking revelations that came out during this hackathon was man’s choice of passwords. "Can you imagine 123456 being the most commonly used password?" asked the mattress. "What about passwords like qwerty, 111111 and 'iloveyou'?" asked the TV. "Just when one thought they had evolved from having 'password' as their password... And they call me the idiot box."

Meanwhile, man planned to combat this threat innovatively, using geographical passwords. The password would incorporate key information about the physical location of a user, like altitudes, latitudes and longitudes, and mix them up with random characters. This posed two serious problems. Now, not only were their passwords being stolen, but their location was also being given away. And two, they had to disclose their password when reporting it stolen, and since most men lied about where they were to their wife or girlfriend - sometimes both - they ended up revealing their real location, which led to a host of other problems.

The next innovation was a password revolution called Gotcha, which converted a password into a series of inkblots of varied colours. A descriptive term would be assigned by the user to each of these inkblots and the next time he logged in, he would have to match each inkblot with the right word for successful entry. However, when users began to call helpline to complain that the cursor was leaking and that their computer screens were getting smudged with ink, man had to look for an alternate way to beat the bots. Finally, he decided to unleash his ultimate weapon - the body odour password. This required sensors with biometric capabilities that would correctly identify a user's body odour and give him access to the system. For a brief while, the devices were stumped. Earlier, they couldn’t go anywhere near the users because of their body odour – now, they couldn’t go anywhere near their devices either, because they were clueless as to what the password was.

The smart machines then did a smart thing - they appointed a consultant, an old computer that had been retired from a leading FMCG company. The experienced machine gave them a whiff of an idea to neutralise all types of body odour and thus nullify all odour passwords. And that was how the deodorant came into being.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Proof that revenge sucks

Success may have different hues, but when it comes to varying tastes, there's nothing like revenge.

The dreaded underworld from the cyberworld was in session. This was a splinter group that called itself Cosa Moustra (loosely translated into ‘The mouse's thing’) and was actively involved in hold-ups along the information highway and extortion through ingenious means.

The group had a simple modus operandi - to infiltrate laptops and PCs belonging to the rich. (How did they figure that out? Simple, they just went for computers that had a lot of cache.) The idea was to secretly smuggle in malware called ransomware into the PC. And the malware would take over from there. For starters, it would lock the machine and make all the files and content of the hard disk inaccessible, by encrypting them and rendering them unreadable. And the only way the user could unlock the machine and retrieve his files would be by paying a ransom.

So they found the right guy for it - a cricketer whose IPL contract was stuck in his laptop. The good news was that he was going to get paid Rs. 10,00,00,000. And the bad news was that if he didn't sign his contract and send it on time, he would be watching the entire IPL season on TV. But he had only himself to blame - he had received another mail with the subject, 'Find out how you can make Rs. 11,00,00,000'. Thinking that it was a bidding war from a rival team, he clicked open the mail and its attachment eagerly, only to realise that he had inadvertently let in the ransomware. Soon there was a pop-up: 'You have the money. We have your files. Exchange?'

Time was of essence - the ransomware had a timer, so if he didn't act fast, his laptop, his IPL contract and the big bucks would all go up in smoke. The cricketer was stuck. He thought he had struck a purple patch, but now his laptop needed a patch to remove the malware. But it wasn't that easy - if he tried to mess with the ransomware, it would lead to him losing his files. If he tried to format his hard disk, he would still end up losing his files. ‘A bit like facing Dale Steyn from one end and Mitchell Johnson from the other,’ he sighed.

Even the computer experts were helpless. "We aren't able to trace the mail," they told him. "The ransomware has taken over the boot up process of the machine and after making sure that it’s on a firm wicket, is now toying with you. Er, how did it know that you are an Indian medium pacer?" The cricketer remained defiant. "I shall not pay," he insisted. He received another mail. 'A cyber supari has been announced to defame you. If you don't pay, you won’t play – instead, a purported sting operation of you agreeing to fix matches will be played online.'

The cricketer was now desperate. "What do I do now?" he asked his actress girlfriend. "They sent you a cyber supari. You send them a cyber lollipop," she said. "That would be the ultimate revenge." "What’s that?" he asked incredulously. She put on her geek glasses and began. “It’s an electronic device which, when placed on the tongue, can simulate any taste - sweet, sour, bitter or salt. A series of electrical and thermal stimulations are delivered through the device to the tip of the tongue and hence create the sensation of taste. The system alters the various properties of alternating current and creates suitable stimuli." "So how would that be revenge?" the cricketer asked. "You know how power fluctuations are in our part of the world. The minute they keep the device on their tongue, it will suffer a short-circuit - you can imagine the rest."

“And why is it the ultimate revenge?” he persisted. “When the electrode is placed on the tongue, it would feel pretty cold,” she smiled. “Remember what the Godfather said? Revenge is a dish that tastes best when served cold.”

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Battling the biggies…

It was a battle more one-sided than Rambo against the entire Afghan army when lesser mortals took on social media giants.

Times Square was fast filling up. The private detectives of the world were up in arms. As they looked to fill the place up, they realised that it was already occupied by a zillion news channels. “Covering our protests?” they asked curiously. “No way, we are also protesting," claimed the channels. “Ever since Facebook became the most preferred source of news, so no one's watching us.”

“It's really frustrating to struggle hard and come up with ‘breaking news’, only to realize that 600 million people already know about it, have liked it and have forwarded it to the remaining 600 million Facebook users,” grumbled a grizzled channel veteran. “That's right,” spoke up the bespectacled gentleman to his right. “Why is a calamity of this magnitude going unheard? The nation wants to know.”

“But how did they manage that?” asked a detective. “Because,” an otherwise aggressive news anchor sobbed, “research has revealed that people just can't help being addicted to Facebook. Apparently it's hardwired into their brain, somewhere in the nucleus accumbens - that's the part of the brain that handles the key portfolios of rewards and ego massage. So some scientists subjected a user's brain to functional magnetic resonance imaging and guess what they found? Facebook’s ‘like’ symbol was embedded all over his brain.” “Seriously?” asked the sleuth. The anchor sighed. “Not quite, but almost.”

“And why are you guys protesting?” asked the news anchor to the investigators. “Apparently, a person's Twitter trail reveals his locations - each time he sends a tweet, his whereabouts are also revealed,” said a private eye. “It’s not just that,” wailed another detective, “the user's time zone, his language and even the street that he's walking through can be identified based on his tweets. In other words, we’re history.”

Another news anchor specialising in covering protests dismissed the complaint. “There are rumours that even games like Angry Birds and other apps are being used to glean crucial information on a host of topics, from location to personal preferences of the user. It’s elementary to tap into the settings of a phone and once that’s done, everything from its browsing history and downloads, to the services opted for and other details can be unearthed. So why are you cribbing about Twitter?”

“But they are giving Facebook a run for their money when it comes to being the most sought-after messaging service for news on mobile devices," pleaded a detective. “Can’t they help us?” The guys at Twitter were mighty pleased with that. “Don’t worry,” they assured the detectives, “starting today, lurkers and creepy followers can all be blocked from viewing your posts. So, not everyone will be privy to the information about users.” With that, Twitter brought back the blocking feature to pacify the detectives, just hours after they had removed it.

Seeing this, the news channels were encouraged. “If people continue to catch up on news from Faceook, what'll happen to us? Just do something,” they told Mark from Facebook. “No way,” he replied. “In that case, we will be forced to retaliate,” warned the news channels. “We have unearthed a new app, appropriately titled the 'Facebook Time Machine’.” “And what does it do?” Mark yawned. “It helps calculate the time one has spent on Facebook ever since one registered, and reveals numbers right down to the last minute. It zips through a user’s account and, based on his updates and posts, will tell him how much time he has wasted on social media when he was supposed to be busy at work. Can you imagine what will happen if his boss gets to see it? The Facebook user’s life will be ‘all like, no hike’ from thereon. But we don't want things to come to this. So why don't you have some sympathy for us and do something about it?”

“That can be done at the touch of a button,” Mark smiled. And that was how Facebook began developing a ‘sympathise’ button.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Strictly come invisible

The world’s first ‘fantasy-reality’ show began with the search for that which couldn’t be seen – an invisibility cloak.

The first entry almost went unnoticed. It was an invisibility cloak made of metascreen - ultra-thin copper tape affixed to equally thin polycarbonate film. The cloak desisted from reflecting any kind of waves and hence, the presence of an object behind it could never be felt. Besides, little antennae on the cloak ensured that no radar could detect what was being concealed, so a 3-dimensional object could be made absolutely invisible from any angle.

Next came a Canadian company that based its invisibility cloak on Quantum Stealth technology, with which it could clothe an entire army. Now, soldiers could strike fearlessly in broad daylight without any fear of being seen or detected. The material made rays of light bend around the object instead of deflecting off it and could operate in any frequency.

The doll maker came up with a battery-operated invisibility cloak. The concept of drawing from an external energy source helped - the metasurface was fitted with strategically positioned amplifiers that drew energy from the battery, thus making the cloak effective across a broader frequency spectrum and suppressing visibility in varied conditions. (On a tangential note, the fact that it is battery-operated has caught the fancy of a few Asian countries that are currently trying to mass-produce it at a much cheaper cost and flood the Indian market.)

The IT guy entered the contest with a cloak that was also an analog computer, capable of performing complex calculations. (All these years, you needed a screensaver to hide your chat windows when the boss came around, but now, you could hide the entire computer by making it invisible.) However, it is not yet known if you can do status updates on Facebook using the cloak-computer, but you can sure get your integration and differentiation problems solved by it. How? The IT whiz threw light on the subject by explaining how the computer used light waves to create graph-like curves in space that determined various calculus functions, while the cloak modified the characteristics of the light waves to turn an object invisible.

A printer came next and demonstrated a simple way to construct an invisibility cloak – just print it using a 3D printer. (So how does one find out if the print out has arrived? We’ll leave the judges to deal with it.) The cloak had perforations based on a specific algorithm that enabled it to deflect microwaves, and was creating using stereolithographic technology - layers of polymer plastic were added one over the other, carefully leaving out the holes and perforations as dictated by the algorithm, until the cloak was, er, invisible.

A tailor came up with his own idea - and created an invisibility cloak using gold-coated silk thread. However, like Krypton for Superman and the heel for Achilles, the cloak had a weak link - it could function only at terahertz frequencies. It had already been tested on an emperor and barring a little boy, no one could see through it. This inference led to another glaring loophole - the invisibility cloak did not work on children.

Next was a cook. “If I can make noodles in 2 minutes, I can make an invisibility cloak just as fast,” he boasted. He removed the layer of Teflon from his saucepan and used it to make a cloak in just 15 minutes, using a process called topology optimization. "I just used advanced computer software and the algorithm did the rest," he explained nonchalantly. Teflon proved to be an excellent alternative to any metamaterial, according to him.

Finally, a college kid came on the show. "15 minutes? Nonsense, I can tell you how to become invisible in 3 seconds flat." The judges looked at him, awestruck.  "Oh it's simple," he continued. "To become invisible, all you need to do is stop talking." "I don't understand," a judge blurted out.

"We do it all the time in social media. Just turn off the chat feature - you'll become invisible."

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The message that went poof!

Alcohol fumes. Binary code. Computers that identify liars. Welcome to the ABC of communication...

The queues at the hospitals and dispensaries were unending. The morgue was contemplating two-seater accommodation to fit in all the new arrivals. Classes that taught breathing techniques were huffing and puffing, trying to control the crowds.

The reason was simple - email apnoea. In other words, people simply forgot to breathe when they were keying in emails. The mother of all apnoeas – sleep apnoea – helps strangle the body's oxygen supply so that it can come out of its restful state and fight any imminent danger. But why email apnoea? Was it technology's way of getting you out of your reverie so that you didn't send any objectionable mail that you subconsciously typed - much like Gmail's math problem that you needed to solve to prove that you were not drunk when sending that late night mail?

So, was it better to hyperventilate than to vent online? This question led the social activists - fighting for human rights - and the social media activists, who demanded a better communication system, to protest, claiming that e-mail was killing people. Soon the hunt for an alternate mode of staying in touch took epic proportions. Then came the nerds. "Why can't we simply stick to SMS, IM or social media?" they demanded. "Aren't these the most common communication platforms today?" The geeks however, outsmarted them with a new research, stating that a computer had figured out how to spot a liar through digital messages - he was the one who was taking longer than the rest to respond.

“Since most users assume an alternate identity or create a fake profile, it's very easy to be misled - that makes it imperative to come up with a better system,” they claimed. As soon as the research emerged, the deceptive kinds joined in the search as well, as they didn't want to be identified and thereby lose their edge in life. (“Apparently, 54% of all lies can be detected by humans, but what's to tell how long we can be safe in that 46% zone?”)

Finally, two researchers decided to drown their sorrows in vodka - and in a flash, figured out that they could use the spirit to send text messages. (Nope, they were not drunk.) It was a case of sending the message in spurts and demodulating the same at the other end. Alcohol molecules were sent across a distance in binary code, so their presence would indicate ‘one’ and their absence, zero. In scientific terms, it was the world's first text message created and transmitted using molecular communication, but in pure tech terms, it was a vodka-soaked sms, which was much to cheer about.

"Big deal! We've always been obsessed about the birds and the bees, so what's different now?" claimed the critics. Apparently, certain species of seabirds and bees had also been using similar communication techniques. Besides, the concept of sending alcohol vapours in spurts to communicate a message was a lot like the smoke signals used by Red Indians, which enabled them to make a point even across large distances.

Something new had to be done. It looked like technology was not really on the money when it came to facilitating effective communication. The new system had to be robust, be free of any health hazard, not involve alcoholic spirits (why waste good liquor?) and shouldn't have been practised by birds and animals before.

Finally a little boy spotted an empty bottle rolling around aimlessly. It was the same one that had held the vodka used for the text message experiment. 'Perhaps this will help,' thought the boy as he wrote a little note, asking the recipient of the message to suggest a new way of communication. He then rolled the note, shoved it into the bottle, closed it and threw it into the sea.

And that is how the ‘message in a bottle’ came to be.