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London calling tech investment and skills away from the North

15 Aug 2014

London's Tech City and Silicon Roundabout are beacons of technology industry success, creating jobs in the capital and courting significant investment. But, arguably these achievements come at the cost of tech hubs beyond the city boundaries.

Head up the M1 and you'll encounter several other tech hot spots dotted across the North. Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle all have their own takes on east London's Tech City.

Yet independent research by Policy Exchange has indicated that the capital is sucking up the lion's share of investment, and is luring northerners with digital skills to the city bright lights. This could end up putting the success of the North's technology sector at risk.

It noted, for example, that for those who have studied Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths (the STEM subjects) 35 percent, 34 percent and 52 percent of graduates end up leaving  the North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber respectively.

To combat these problems, Policy Exchange believes that setting up a transport infrastructure which better connects the North's tech hubs is the best way to further boost the nation's technology industry.

"Slow journeys make it harder for people to move between clusters to access and share work, ideas and opportunities and is a major barrier for foreign and London-based investors," it said in the report.

This may help, but Stuart Lynn, chief technology officer of Newcastle-based Sage, is not completely convinced. "The North is home to a wide talent pool of skilled business people and entrepreneurs but it's not just transport infrastructure that can help unlock business potential," he said.

Instead Lynn believes that investment in an improved communications infrastructure will be the key to invigorating the growth of technology hubs outside London.

"Technology acts as the bridge to cross any physical boundary. Effective communications infrastructure can link the North to the South and the rest of the world quicker and more effectively than any physical infrastructure ever could, and that should be the goal for these ambitious projects," he explained.

Whoever's recommendation is the correct course is slightly academic, as reworking either a transport or communication infrastructure will require significant investment which the North is failing to secure.

So it would appear that the North is in a catch-22 situation that might require a more innovative approach to give its tech sector a competitive chance against the might of London.

Google Search still learning new tricks

30 Apr 2013

Google logo (Robert Scoble Flickr)

Google will always be a search company first. In spite of all the other things the firm has its hands in, search is its lifeblood. It makes plenty of ad dollars from it and it's become synonymous with the company.

That is why Google has been so keen to add to its mobile search repertoire. The firm has just added two new features that look to extend its search power into the mobile sector.

First, the company introduced Google Now for iOS. The move is a bit of a mobile warning shot at Apple. If Google can show off some Android features to iPhone users than the firm may be able to find some converts.

Secondly, the firm added app activity integration into its entire search platform. The integration allows users to see aggregated user info when they search app titles online. For Google, the move takes them one step closer to complete convergence of mobile and PC platforms.

Both moves speak to the company's ambition with search. It's no longer an independent part of a user's online experience. Search is now a piece of a greater whole of a users experience both mobile and sedentary.

You can think of search as Google's foundation. It is the thing that everything else flows from. When you search for something on Google it leads you to other services that the firm offers.

It's not just search, its search and then some. It's the core that lead Google to become all the things it is today. Plus, judging from the recent announcements it is also is the thing that looks to be guiding the company into tomorrow.

DNA discovery celebrates diamond anniversary

25 Apr 2013

dna1

It may have been an unassuming introduction, but the paper published 60 years ago today in Nature, has given us one of the greatest ever insights into the mechanics of life, inspiring modern medicine and fathering an entire new biomedical industry.

On 25 April 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick modestly wrote: “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid.” Today their proposal – the double helix structure for DNA – has become emblematic of how we envisage life itself.

While Darwin's theory on natural selection had given us insight into evolution, the discovery of DNA's shape has fuelled unimaginable advances in how we think about life. It has helped us fine tune theories of human evolution, laid the foundations for personalised medicines, been used to convict murderers and even made it possible to create artificial life.

Before Watson and Crick's landmark publication, biologists were mostly aware that the DNA molecule was fundamental to life – though many at the time argued it was too simple to tell the whole story. And its was widely known that DNA comprised four bases, known as A, T, G and C. But nobody had figured out what the molecule looked like.

As Watson and Crick noted in their paper: “It has not escaped out notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for genetic material.”

With that, they had revealed one of the biggest clues to the secrets of life we have yet to uncover.

While Watson and Crick have become famous for their discovery, they were quick to point out the invaluable contribution of Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin at Kings College London, who did much of the X-ray diffraction that confirmed their hypothesis.

Indeed Crick, Watson and Wilkins were to go on to receive the Nobel Prize for their discovery – Franklin's name was unfortunately not added to the list, as she had passed away, and the prize rules stipulate the recipient must be alive to receive it.

Google's forward thinking philosophy is causing investors to worry

19 Apr 2013

Google logo on wall

Google had a pretty good quarter. The search giant saw decent revenue and continued success with its core products. Yet, investors still want more.

During the company's conference call with investors, many Google stock owners questioned the firm's significant investment in future technologies. Investors wondered why Google dollars were going towards things like self-driving cars and virtual reality glasses.

Analysts didn't understand why Google was putting money into products that only have the potential to make profit down the road, grilling company bosses on how they decide appropriate levels of investment for the blue-sky projects.

Google chief executive Larry Page reported that those types of projects are necessary for its future success. He said his responsibility as chief of Google was to make sure that the firm didn't get lazy and invest in only incremental upgrades.

Page makes a great point. Microsoft has suffered because it didn't have any groundbreaking products in the pipeline. People are even saying Apple maybe running into the same problem.

But at Google they're making sure they don't get blindsided by the future. Page and co-founder Sergey Brin have always been looking to find the cutting edge of technology. From cloud computing to Google Fiber, the search giant has always made crazy bets on crazier technology.

That's why it must be so frustrating for Page to hear investors wonder why Google spends so much money on currently unprofitable technology. Google has made a lot of people a ton of cash. Yet, some still wonder if the powers that be know what they are doing.

It's smart to ask questions, but Page and company clearly have a plan that's been working. Most of the time, you'd complain if a company decided to rest on their laurels. But investors are worried about Google taking measured risks.

Investors absolutely have a right to question what Google is doing. Even the company's supporters must be starting to question its Motorola purchase. However, investors should be more trusting of Google in one category: R&D.

Google knows how to make things and even if those things won't always make money right away they are still good products.

So, maybe, the time has come for Google investors to have a little bit of faith. Googlers know what it takes to make money in the internet age and by investing in the future they'll make sure they make money on whatever comes next.

Friends are overrated on social networks

11 Apr 2013

Digg logo

Time was, any start-up with even the vaguest connection to the 'social' buzzword would have an army of venture capitalists knocking down their doors with the offers of money. Indeed, it's the idea that social ties can provide advertisers with more effective ways to target their message that has seen the likes of Facebook achieve massive valuations.

But what if these social ties aren't as effective as we might assume? That's the conclusion of a group of researchers from Delft University of Technology. Are friends, they wonder, overrated?

Christian Doerr and his colleagues have been studying the impact of social ties on Digg – which may not enjoy the buzz it did in its heyday, but still represents a useful example of how users engage with content on a social network.

Doerr and his group wanted to study what impact friendship had on the popularity of any given story on Digg – and whether friends were a critical component of stories getting promoted to Digg's front page.

Users of the site can vote up content they find interesting, and see what other stories their friends have voted up too. Indeed around 180 stories per day get enough votes to be deemed popular, at which point they're featured on Digg's front page, at which point the can go viral.

In examining which stories went viral, the researchers looked at 10 million stories from two million users over a four-year period, 200,000 of which achieved a critical mass.

"The impact of the friendship relations on the overall functioning and outcome of the social network is actually surprisingly low,” Doerr and his colleagues reported.

So while users with similar interests and physical locations could be seen forming friendships, they showed little sign of following up on what their friends were doing. 

“Users with even a nearly identical overlap in interests react on average only with a probability of two percent to information propagated and received from friends,” the researchers note.

Furthermore, of the stories that became popular, friendships were only important in driving popularity in about half of all cases – and even then, they needed a large of random users to vote stories up to the extent they made Digg's front page.

“The importance of friends and the friend network in the propagation of information is less than originally perceived,” they concluded.

Such behaviour is a far cry from the marketing message often pushed out by social networks, who argue that peer group recommendation makes a uniquely powerful way to reach consumers.

The research was published on the ArXiv academic paper [pdf] repository. 

Talking head proves uncannily accurate at conveying emotion

19 Mar 2013

Virtual talking head could be the next personal assistant

Have you ever wished your life was a little more like Dave Lister's from long-running sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf? Clearly, the good folks at Cambridge University and Toshiba Research have as between them they've developed a life-like floating head avatar, which they hope will make it easier for people to converse with computers.

The digital personal assistant system, dubbed Zoe, displays emotions such as happiness, anger and fear, and can change its voice to reflect the emotion it is supposed to convey. 

“This technology could be the start of a whole new generation of interfaces which make interacting with a computer much more like talking to another human being,” professor Roberto Cipolla, from the Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge, said.

According to tests carried out by the researchers, people found it easier to recognise the emotions conveyed via the disembodied head than they did a human's.

The researchers had overlaid a wire model with the face of former Hollyoaks actor Zoe Lister, recording her facial expressions and voice when conveying different emotions.

Just over half of volunteers could recognise the intended emotion when shown the talking avatar without sound; those that had the audio track but no visual clue got 68 percent of the emotions spot on. But when volunteers had both video and audio, they recognised 77 percent of the emotions – higher that the 73 percent managed by a group shown footage of the actor.

“In the future, we will be able to open up computing to far more people if they can speak and gesture to machines in a more natural way. That is why we created Zoe - a more expressive, emotionally responsive face that human beings can actually have a conversation with,” Cipolla added.

The actor doesn't seem to have been phased by her avatar displaying more recognisable emotions that her, judging by her tweets today.

Ultimately, the team behind the system believe it will be possible to let users utilise images of their own faces, to make communications even more personal.

A further advantage of the system, they claim, is that it requires relatively little processing power or memory, opening up the possibility it could be deployed on smartphones, as a text message alternative.

 

Facebook like data reveals users' hidden personality traits

12 Mar 2013

facebook-like

People's intimate personal details which they may not wish to share publicly – such as their gender, sexual orientation and drug use – can be reliably guessed at, by analysing their Facebook likes, according to new research.

A team from the University of Cambridge's Pschometrics Centre, working with colleagues from Microsoft Research, analysed 'like' patterns of 58,000 US Facebook users, who volunteered to share their data.

Their models were able to predict male sexuality with 88 percent accuracy, identify political affiliations with 85 percent accuracy and even spot whether a subject was likely to use recreational drugs with between 65 percent and 73 percent accuracy.

Tellingly, the researchers were able to make these predictions even though the vast majority of likes users made were not for explicitly revealing links: less than five percent of gay users reviewed liked topics such as 'gay marriage'.

The vast majority of likes were for music, TV shows and films.

The implications are not just linked to Facebook, said Michal Kosinski, operations director at the Psychometric Centre, with people potentially leaving a vast digital crumb trail across numerous sites, that could be used to discern revealing information.

"Similar predictions could be made from all manner of digital data, with this kind of secondary 'inference' made with remarkable accuracy - statistically predicting sensitive information people might not want revealed,” he said.

“Given the variety of digital traces people leave behind, it's becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to control.”

The results threw up some odd links. For example, those that liked curly fries were more likely to have a high IQ; those that clicked 'like' on a link entitled 'That spider is more scared than u' were more likely to be non-smokers.

Astronaut touts space exploration as key to solving Earth's problems

12 Mar 2013

space-walk-nasa

At this year's South by Southwest (SXSW) conference, former astronaut and founder of the 100 Year Starship programme, Mae Jemison, explained how research into space travel can extended to advancements back home on Earth.

The 100 Year Starship programme is a Darpa-funded project that looks to make interstellar travel a reality within the next 100 years. Jemison says that the programme's goals will have real-world payoffs.

According to her, pushing for interstellar travel will require the people to rethink how we do things today and challenge society to advance its current ways of thinking.

The project aims to create a "Grand Challenge" that will attempt to achieve a very difficult task that will lead to smaller advancements along the way.

Jemison uses the example of teaching the world to read as an example of a Grand Challenge. According to her, teaching the world to read was a very difficult task that has transformed the way the world works. 

From things like memory foam mattresses and smoke detectors, technology built for space has already changed our lives here on earth. Jemison's project looks to add similar technologies to the landscape of earth.

In theory, someone could think about the best way to grow food in space and then we can use the technology that they create to have more sustainable farming on earth.

Jemison's project could also lead to a renewed interest in space exploration. Over the past 30 years, the push towards advancing interstellar space travel has fallen off the map. As the world begins to focus on solving the issues here on Earth, the idea of travailing space has seemed less vital.

However, if the world can be convinced that space travel will lead to advancements for Earth's woes than space travel could make a comeback.

The 100 Year Starship programme is currently just a year old. Those interested in getting involved in the project should go to the group's website to share thoughts on the group's mission.

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