No sad endings for Japan’s virtual romance fans

The Ikemen (a Japanese term for ‘handsome guys’) app has been downloaded some 15 million times since its launch about nearly five years ago

Japanese book editor Miho Takeshita is having an affair. But the recently married 30-year-old is not worried about getting caught—her boyfriend only exists on a smartphone.

Takeshita is a fan of romance simulation games, a booming market in Japan that is winning the hearts of women looking for some unconventional loving.

“It’s very addictive,” Takeshita said.

“Even though the game characters aren’t real, you start to develop feelings towards them.”

That is the whole point, said Natsuko Asaki, a game producer at Cybird, which created the popular series Ikemen—a Japanese term for handsome guys.

“The story is most important, as well as the characters, and the twists and turns,” Asaki said.

The Ikemen app has been downloaded some 15 million times since its launch about five years ago, and the firm has also released an English version.

Mirroring the smartphone boom, female-targeted virtual romance games have ballooned into a market worth about 15 billion yen ($135 million) annually in Japan, according to the Tokyo-based Yano Research Institute.

Some 80 percent of fans, including a growing number of married women, play just before bed, a Cybird survey found.

The games do not rely on complicated algorithms, but instead offer multiple choice scenarios that let players escape into a world where they create their own love story with digital hunks.

Female-targeted virtual romance games have ballooned into a market worth about 15 billion yen ($135 million) annually in Japan,
Female-targeted virtual romance games have ballooned into a market worth about 15 billion yen ($135 million) annually in Japan, according to the Tokyo-based Yano Research Institute

Takeshita does not see anything strange about flirting with her smartphone sweeties.

In fact, she can engage with them whenever she likes—something real-life spouses do not always provide.

“The games also have sexual overtones but they’re expressed less crudely than in simulations made for boys,” Cybird’s Asaki said.

“It’s an ideal love story—there are no female rivals and no sad endings.”

‘Feed the illusion’

The success of these games may be partly linked to dating etiquette in Japan, where men are expected to take the lead when it comes to romance.

“A Japanese woman making the first move is not viewed favourably,” said Ai Aizawa, a marital relations specialist at the All About website, which offers daily living advice.

And even those women who have found a soulmate are often not satisfied romantically, she added.

“They use these simulations as an outlet, a place where they are not betrayed, and where ideal love and the perfect lover feed the illusion,” Aizawa said.

Some smartphone applications such as Tokimeki kareshi (emotion buddy) or Sumakare (smartphone buddy) let users exchange texts with digital boyfriends, making the experience all the more real.

Natsuko Asaki, a game producer at Cybird, which created the popular romance simulation game series Ikemen
Natsuko Asaki, a game producer at Cybird, which created the popular romance simulation game series Ikemen

But is there any risk with a bit of smartphone hanky panky?

“Becoming an addict,” said one single female fan, who asked to remain anonymous.

“You can even start to feel a little guilty if you do not play regularly—it’s a bit dangerous for teenage girls who are still immature.”

Romance games are one of the culprits behind a trend that has seen some young Japanese lose interest in finding a real partner, according to a study last year by the Meiji Yasuda Life Foundation of Health and Welfare.

“The relationship that does not happen in real life happens perfectly in the game—that can lead some people to give up looking for love, at least for a time,” said marriage specialist Aizawa.

While humans can easily love a virtual partner, it is still uncertain whether that feeling could ever be reciprocated, said Hiroshi Ishiguro, a robotics designer at Osaka University.

“A male or female body is no longer the thing that defines a human being,” he said.

“It’s quite conceivable to really love robots or virtual characters—there’s no doubt about that.

“The question is more whether they will someday be able to love a human.”

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How algorithms (secretly) run the world

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

When you browse online for a new pair of shoes, pick a movie to stream on Netflix or apply for a car loan, an algorithm likely has its word to say on the outcome.

The complex mathematical formulas are playing a growing role in all walks of life: from detecting skin cancers to suggesting new Facebook friends, deciding who gets a job, how police resources are deployed, who gets insurance at what cost, or who is on a “no fly” list.

Read: Algorithms: the managers of our digital lives

Algorithms are being used—experimentally—to write news articles from raw data, while Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was helped by behavioral marketers who used an algorithm to locate the highest concentrations of “persuadable voters.”

But while such automated tools can inject a measure of objectivity into erstwhile subjective decisions, fears are rising over the lack of transparency algorithms can entail, with pressure growing to apply standards of ethics or “accountability.”

Data scientist Cathy O’Neil cautions about “blindly trusting” formulas to determine a fair outcome.

“Algorithms are not inherently fair, because the person who builds the model defines success,” she said.

Amplifying disadvantages

O’Neil argues that while some algorithms may be helpful, others can be nefarious. In her 2016 book, “Weapons of Math Destruction,” she cites some troubling examples in the United States:

– Public schools in Washington DC in 2010 fired more than 200 teachers—including several well-respected instructors—based on scores in an algorithmic formula which evaluated performance.

– A man diagnosed with bipolar disorder was rejected for employment at seven major retailers after a third-party “personality” test deemed him a high risk based on its algorithmic classification.

– Many jurisdictions are using “predictive policing” to shift resources to likely “hot spots.” O’Neill says that depending on how data is fed into the system, this could lead to discovery of more minor crimes and a “feedback loop” which stigmatizes poor communities.

– Some courts rely on computer-ranked formulas to determine jail sentences and parole, which may discriminate against minorities by taking into account “risk” factors such as their neighborhoods and friend or family links to crime.

– In the world of finance, brokers “scrape” data from online and other sources in new ways to make decisions on credit or insurance. This too often amplifies prejudice against the disadvantaged, O’Neil argues.

Her findings were echoed in a White House report last year warning that algorithmic systems “are not infallible—they rely on the imperfect inputs, logic, probability, and people who design them.”

The report noted that data systems can ideally help weed out human bias but warned against algorithms “systematically disadvantaging certain groups.”

Digital crumbs

Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina professor who studies technology and society, said automated decisions are often based on data collected about people, sometimes without their knowledge.

“These computational systems can infer all sorts of things about you from your digital crumbs,” Tufekci said in a recent TED lecture.

“They can infer your sexual orientation, your personality traits, your political leanings. They have predictive power with high levels of accuracy.”

Such insights may be useful in certain contexts—such as helping medical professionals diagnose postpartum depression—but unfair in others, she said.

Part of the problem, she said, stems from asking computers to answer questions that have no single right answer.

“They are subjective, open-ended and value-laden questions, asking who should the company hire, which update from which friend should you be shown, which convict is more likely to reoffend.”

The EU model?

Frank Pasquale, a University of Maryland law professor and author of “The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information,” shares the same concerns.

He suggests one way to remedy unfair effects may be to enforce existing laws on consumer protection or deceptive practices.

Pasquale points at the European Union’s data protection law, set from next year to create a “right of explanation” when consumers are impacted by an algorithmic decision, as a model that could be expanded.

This would “either force transparency or it will stop algorithms from being used in certain contexts,” he said.

Alethea Lange, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the EU plan “sounds good” but “is really burdensome” and risked proving unworkable in practice.

She believes education and discussion may be more important than enforcement in developing fairer algorithms.

Lange said her organization worked with Facebook, for example, to modify a much-criticized formula that allowed advertisers to use “ethnic affinity” in their targeting.


Others meanwhile caution that algorithms should not be made a scapegoat for societal ills.

“People get angry and they are looking for something to blame,” said Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

“We are concerned about bias, accountability and ethical decisions but those exist whether you are using algorithms or not.”

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the managers of our digital lives

Partial map of the Internet based on the January 15, 2005 data found on Each line is drawn between two nodes, representing two IP addresses. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Algorithms are a crucial cog in the mechanics of our digital world, but also a nosy minder of our personal lives and a subtle, even insidious influence on our behaviour.

They have also come to symbolise the risks of a computerised world conditioned by commercial factors.

Read: How algorithms (secretly) run the world

A gift from a Persian scientist

Long before they were associated with Google searches, Facebook pages and Amazon suggestions, algorithms were the brainchild of a Persian scientist.

The term is a combination of mediaeval Latin and the name of a ninth century mathematician and astronomer, Al-Khwarizmi, considered the father of algebra.

A bit like a kitchen recipe, an algorithm is a series of instructions that allows you to obtain a desired result, according to sociologist Dominique Cardon, who wrote “What Algorithms Dream Of”.

Initially known mainly to mathematicians, the term spread as computers developed.

The brains of computer programmes are algorithms, and are thus a central cog in the internet machine.

Where are algorithms found?

“We are literally surrounded by algorithms,” says Olivier Ertzscheid, a French professor of information technology and communication.

“Every time you consult Facebook, Google or Twitter you are exposed to choices” that algorithms calculate for us, and we are also sometimes influenced by them, he told AFP.

They reign in the finance sector, one example being high frequency trading programmes, which can execute trades in milliseconds driven by algorithms that analyze a range of market and economic factors. Their speed and rule-based nature means they can make markets volatile and have triggered so-called flash crashes in the foreign exchange and stock markets.

Police forces increasingly use algorithms to predict where and when crimes are most likely to be committed. Predpol, a software programme, claims to have contributed to double-digit drops in burglaries, robberies and vehicle theft in several US states and is also used in Kent, southern England.

Satellite tracking and surveillance would not have reached the point they are at today without sophisticated algorithms.

How Google began

In the 1990s, PageRank (PR) was created in Stanford, California by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founders.

PR made it possible to class web pages by order of popularity. It became the heart of the Google research engine, which responds to key words within a fraction of a second. In addition to PR, Google uses “a dozen algorithms… to deal with spam, detect copyright infractions” and handle other crucial tasks, Ertzscheid explains.

Facebook and the ‘filter bubble’

Facebook uses sophisticated algorithms to offer its more than 1.8 billion users worldwide personalised content, in particular on its News Feed service which compiles messages from “friends”, and shares articles selected according to each users social media contacts.

One risk posed by such a system is that of “The Filter Bubble” according to Eli Pariser, who developed the concept in a book of the same name. Being surrounded by information filtered by algorithms based on one’s friends, tastes and previous digital searches and choices, someone surfing the internet can be plunged unwittingly into a “cognitive bubble” that just reinforces their convictions and perspective on the world.

Algorithms and the truth

Another risk was exposed during the last US presidential election—the prevalence of so-called fake news or hoaxes on Facebook and other social media. Facebook’s algorithms were not designed to distinguish true from false—a feat that is difficult even for artificial intelligence—but the popularity of information.

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has sought to deflect criticism that it had been used to fuel the spread of misinformation that may have impacted the presidential race, but the company responded to growing criticism by saying new tools would be provided so users could call attention to controversial content.

Thinking for us?

Cardon says four main “families” of web algorithms exist. One calculates the popularity of web pages, another assesses their authority within the digital community, and a third evaluates the notoriety of social network users. The fourth attempts to predict the future.

This last one is “problematic” for the sociologist, because it tries to anticipate our future behaviour based on clues we have left on the internet in the past.

It shows up on Amazon for example as book recommendations based on past purchases.

“We build the calculators, but in return they build us” too, Cardon concluded.

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Spanish software optimizes design of new mobile device chargers

Credit: Carlos III University of Madrid

An electronic power converter is a system that adapts electric energy from a source to a specific load need. “For example, it’s the system that obtains energy from the electricity grid through a socket and adapts it to charge the battery of a mobile telephone or other devices,” said Andrés Barrado, one of the UC3M professors who created this company.

This type of system is used in sectors such as the aerospace industry, healthcare, communications and transportation. “Power electronics is going to enable the technological development of other disciplines such as electric transport, renewable energies, communications and even electromedicine,” said Antonio Lázaro, another UC3M professor who created the program and company co-founder.

Starting with a few specifications, such as electric power or entry and exit tension, the program provides the designer of a new electronic power converter a map of solutions from which to choose. This facilitates and accelerates the designer’s work, as it is not necessary to resort to mathematical calculations that can often be quite complicated. “The designer is provided with automatic code generation, which will give them a solution that is directly embeddable in their system,” Lázaro noted.

Three versions of this software, called SmartCtrl, have been developed to date. It has been marketed in more than 35 countries through nearly a thousand licenses to research centers, companies and universities, with clients like Fuji, General Motors, Google, LG, Mitsubishi, NASA, Panasonic, Renault, Samsung and Toshiba, among others.

The practicality of the software derives from the design of power converters, which convert energy from an alternating current to a direct current. However, this use is now extended to the control of power inverters, rectifiers and the digital implementation of controls in SoC platforms. “These new lines of development open possibilities for generation of software-hardware control platforms, thereby creating an integrated, innovative and widely applicable product in the power electronics sector,” said company sources.

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Credit: Universidad Carlos III de Madrid

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Facebook to have outside audit of ad data

Facebook recently announced it was working to fix flaws in its metrics calculations that led to audiences being overestimated at times

Facebook on Friday promised an outside audit of data it provides advertisers in a move apparently aimed at quelling concerns about accuracy.

The news came just months after the leading social network announced it was working to fix flaws in its metrics calculations that led to audiences being overestimated at times.

“We are committing to an audit by the Media Rating Council to verify the accuracy of the information we deliver to our partners,” Facebook said in an online post aimed at businesses.

Partners will get more detailed information about ad views at Facebook and Instagram, including milliseconds that marketing messages are on screens, according to the social network.

Facebook also said it would offer advertisers new options, including only paying for video ads watched from start to finish or those played with sound turned on.

The new moves were to be made this year.

Late last year, Facebook said it had overestimated the average amount of time spent watching videos over the course of the previous two years.

The social network also revealed at the time that a software bug had let repeat visits to online pages of companies or brands be counted as though someone new was taking a look each time.

In addition, the social network said that for a time it had been overestimating by about seven percent the time spent on news stories published using its Instant Articles tool.

On the other hand, Facebook at the time said it had been undercounting the number of videos watched to completion.

The erroneous metrics were not those used to determine ad prices at the social network, according to Facebook.

However, the reach of content at Facebook is important to advertisers or companies when it comes to evaluating the potential impact of marketing campaigns.

The social network has an interest in maintaining advertiser confidence with reliable audience metrics. Facebook makes the bulk of its money from online advertising.

Facebook’s profits more than doubled in the final three months of 2016, as the social media platform saw its audience grow and head towards the two billion mark.

Meanwhile, the number of people using Facebook each month increased 17 percent to 1.86 billion.

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The affordable speaker that keeps party going strong, lets you sing along

My wife’s family is from southern Louisiana, and every summer we head down there for a family reunion.

Being the techie in that extended Cajun family, I’m now the one who brings the music and public address systems.

For the last few years I’ve paired a wireless microphone setup along with a smallish guitar amp, and it worked pretty well.

When Aukey asked if I’d like to review a Bluetooth speaker that has a microphone, I said, “Yes, please.”

I’ve reviewed dozens of Bluetooth speakers, and after a while they all kind of look and sound the same, but the Aukey SK-M17 Portable Party Sound System is unlike any other I’ve tried.

The SK-M17 ($79.99) is shaped like a small drum with speakers facing away from each other on the ends.

The end with the controls houses two 3-watt drivers for midtones and highs, while the opposite end contains one large 15-watt subwoofer.

In playing around with placement, I settled on putting the thing on its end with the subwoofer facing the floor.


The SK-M17 can play music from a variety of sources.

There’s Bluetooth for streaming from a phone, tablet or computer, an aux-in jack for connecting MP3 players and any source with a headphone jack, and there’s also an FM tuner for playing radio broadcasts.

There are two quarter-inch microphone inputs so you can use the SK-M17 as a PA system or to sing along to your favorite tunes. Aukey includes one microphone in the box.

There are a row of buttons controlling playback that work using Bluetooth.

The FM radio is accessed via a mode button. The SK-M17’s radio tuner will perform a scan and automatically save up to 25 stations, which you can scroll through by pressing the fast forward and rewind playback control buttons.

The power plug is not universal, so you can’t just bum a USB cable to power and charge it. The SK-M17 has a 5,200 mAh battery so you can use it for up to eight hours wherever you like.

There are separate volume controls for the music and microphones.

The music controls also include one knob for adjusting bass. Strangely, there’s no control for treble.

The microphone controls also include a knob for adjusting echo, which worked well.

The power switch is an old-fashioned rocker switch, which was a nice touch. The SK-M17 also has a one-line digital display for showing the current radio frequency or input source.

There are two handles that make it easy to tote the SK-M17 from place to place.

The speaker is nicely constructed of plastic and metal, and the controls are intuitive to learn and use, but there is a small instruction booklet that covers it all.

The SK-M17 is 9 inches in diameter and 12 inches tall and weighs 1.7 pounds.

Unlike many other battery-powered Bluetooth speakers, the SK-M17 can’t share its battery charge with other gadgets, nor can it be used to make phone calls.

I don’t miss either of those features, though.

How’s it sound?

The Aukey SK-M17 is plenty loud, but the sound quality was average.

The limited sound adjustments really take it out of contention as a serious sound system.

It’s classified pretty well as a party speaker. It’s a great speaker to set in the corner of a room for background music at a party, and the included microphone is great for when the mood strikes for a sing-along.

The battery makes it perfect for use out by the pool.

Just keep it away from the water, as the SK-M17 is not splashproof at all.

Your kids will love it, and it’s priced right.

This would be a great gift for the grandkids.

Note: Aukey has a website for reading about its products, but it’ll direct you to Amazon for purchases.



Pros: Inexpensive. Compact, but big sound. Microphone is fun. Battery for outdoor use.

Cons: The small size also lends to only average sound quality.

Bottom line: Fun speaker system with several fun features that won’t break the bank.

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Ford bets $1B on startup founded by Waymo, Uber vets (Update)

This Feb. 11, 2016, file photo shows the Ford logo on display at the Pittsburgh International Auto Show in Pittsburgh. Ford Motor will spend $1 billion to take over a robotics startup to acquire more of the expertise needed to reach its ambitious goal of having a fully driverless vehicle on the road by 2021. The big bet announced Friday, Feb. 10, 2017, comes just a few months after the Pittsburgh startup, Argo AI, was created by two alumni of Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics program, Bryan Salesky and Peter Rander.(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Ford Motor is spending $1 billion to take over a budding robotics startup to acquire more expertise needed to reach its ambitious goal of having a fully driverless vehicle on the road by 2021.

The big bet announced Friday comes just a few months after the Pittsburgh startup, Argo AI, was created by two alumni of Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics program, Bryan Salesky and Peter Rander.

The alliance between Argo and Ford is the latest to combine the spunk and dexterity of a technologically savvy startup with the financial muscle and manufacturing knowhow of a major automaker in the race to develop autonomous vehicles. Last year rival General Motors paid $581 million to buy Cruise Automation, a 40-person software company that is testing vehicles in San Francisco.

The Argo deal marks the next step in Ford’s journey toward building a vehicle without a steering wheel or brake pedal by 2021—a vision that CEO Mark Fields laid out last summer.

The big-ticket deal for the newly-minted company clearly was aimed at getting Salesky and Rande. Salesky formerly worked on self-driving cars at a high-profile project within Google—now known as Waymo—and Rander did the same kind of engineering at ride-hailing service Uber before the two men teamed to launch Argo late last year.

“When talent like that comes up, you don’t ignore that ability,” said Raj Nair, who doubles as Ford’s chief technical officer and product development head.

The two will develop the core technology of Ford’s autonomous vehicle—the “virtual driver” system, which Nair described as the car’s “brains, eyes, ears and senses.”

The decision to turn to Argo for help is a tacit acknowledgement that Ford needed more talent to deliver on Fields’ 2021 promise, said one expert familiar with Salesky and Rande.

“This is likely a realization that Ford is behind relative to companies like GM, Audi, Volvo, Waymo and Uber, and is trying to catch up,” said Raj Rajkumar, a Carnegie Mellon computer engineering professor who leads the school’s autonomous vehicle research.

Salesky said Argo expects to have 200 workers by the end of the year. Argo employees will be given stock in the subsidiary as part of their compensation packages so they will be enriched if Argo’s technology becomes a hot commodity.

The equity should set Argo apart from other companies in recruiting scarce tech workers. “There’s a war for talent out there,” Fields said.

By joining with Ford, Argo gets strong capital backing and expertise on other components needed to run autonomous cars, as well as product development and manufacturing knowledge, Salesky said. In return for its funding, Argo will design its driverless system exclusively for Ford and then have a chance to license the technology to other automakers in the future.

Competitors such as NVIDIA have developed artificial intelligence that learns about different situations as it’s tested on roads, something that is almost essential for an autonomous car to function in heavy traffic on city streets.

Ford isn’t just racing General Motors and other automakers to gain robotics experience. Uber bought autonomous trucking startup Otto for an estimated $680 million last summer primarily to get Otto’s engineers on its team working on driverless vehicles. Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski, another former Google engineer, is now overseeing Uber’s testing of driverless cars in Pittsburgh and Arizona.

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Scientist calls for industrial scale-up of greenhouse gas-eating microbe technology in UK

Credit: University of Nottingham

A leading green energy scientist who uses bacteria to turn greenhouse gases into usable chemicals is calling for more investment from industry and government subsidies to scale up this newest of technologies.

Professor Nigel Minton from The University of Nottingham says there is significant potential for the industrial scaling up of the new process which uses ‘gas-eating’ bacteria to ferment polluting greenhouse gases from landfill and industry into useful products like biofuels and plastics.

A report, commissioned by Professor Minton’s BBSRC-funded network of gas fermentation specialists C1net, says the UK should do more to increase the production of this new technology which could capture a large percentage of industrial waste gas from our factories and landfill.

As the burden on global oil and natural gas resources increases to meet demand for energy, plastics and medicines, the University’s Synthetic Biology Research Centre has been engineering microorganisms to convert natural and waste gases into valuable chemical and fuel products.

The technology has been rolled out in commercial-scale demonstration plants in China and the US and could make a contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dependency on fossil resources. However, there is currently little industrial development and use of the technology in the UK.

Professor Minton is calling for the biofuel subsidies currently given to biomass processors to be extended to the gas fermentation industry: “Gas fermentation can produce low carbon fuels from a range of waste feedstocks that do not pose the risk of increasing demand for land, like biomass production does. But the new technology is not competing on a level playing field.

“Fuels produced from renewable feedstocks are eligible under the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, but low carbon fuels produced from carbon-containing waste gases are currently not eligible to contribute towards the obligation, despite the greenhouse gas emissions reductions they can provide. This is proving a significant barrier to the commercial deployment of the gas fermentation processes. A broader and more encompassing framework is needed to increase the production of low carbon fuels in the UK. This could be achieved by focusing on the ultimate goal of lowering the greenhouse gas emissions of transport fuels, and supporting all low carbon fuels.”

The BBSRC C1net report makes several recommendations to government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the industry sector:

  • Long term policy support for all low carbon fuels and products either through incentivising their use or disincentivising the use of fossil resources. This may be achieved, in part, through amendment of the RTFO, to include low carbon fuels made from non-biological waste feedstocks. Incentivising the use of all low carbon fuels according to the degree to which they reduce carbon emissions would provide an outcome-oriented approach, ensuring technology and feedstock neutrality. 

  • A framework whereby the production of chemicals and materials are not at a disadvantage to fuels where they lead to similar benefits. In the near term, there could be a role for public procurement in stimulating the market for products with renewable content or recycled carbon content. In the longer term this may be achieved with an appropriately defined carbon tax. 

  • Policy support aimed at increasing the availability of sustainable biomass resources, and/or further supporting the use of waste resources. 

  • Improved access to capital for all low carbon technologies, for example through the use of loan guarantees, or by including the technology platform in the priorities of publically-backed lenders. 

  • Targeted R&I support addressing specific technology challenges and scale-up.

Developers of new processes, both in academia and industry, must credibly assess the economic viability of these processes, ensuring that they understand the conditions in which the processes will be commercially viable. They must also take a proactive approach in communicating the benefits of new products and processes.

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How Google Chromebooks conquered schools

In this Feb. 8, 2017, photo, a Google Chromebook displays Candy Crush Saga in New York. Google Chromebook laptops are impractical for many people because they’re little more than expensive paperweights when they’re out of range of an internet connection. Yet they’ve defied expectations and made tremendous inroads in one of the least likely places: U.S. schools. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The Google Chromebook, a type of stripped-down laptop, isn’t a practical mobile device for many people—mostly because it basically turns into an expensive paperweight whenever it can’t find a Wi-Fi connection.

Yet Chromebooks have defied expectations and made major inroads in an unexpected environment—U.S. schools.

In retrospect, that shouldn’t be too surprising. Chromebooks are cheap and easy to manage, making them popular with budget-constrained schools with limited tech-support staff. And Wi-Fi is now common enough in U.S. schools and homes to make an internet-dependent device practical for students.

Google doesn’t want to stop there. It’s releasing new models in partnership with Samsung that are designed to appeal to a broader range of consumers. They have several tablet-like features, including a stylus, touch controls and a 360-degree hinge that allows you to turn the screen faceup. One starts selling Sunday for $449; a more powerful version comes out in April for $100 more.

Google and its manufacturing partners are trying to shed the Chromebook’s perception as underperforming budget devices. But even with premium models, expanding beyond U.S. schools won’t be easy.


For personal computers and tablets, Chromebook’s share of the U.S. education market was 49 percent last year, up from 40 percent in 2015 and 9 percent in 2013, according to IDC figures released this week.

But education accounts for just 14 percent of the 110 million devices shipped in the U.S. last year—and Chromebooks make up just 9 percent of that broader total. Their numbers are also low abroad, even in schools.

The Chromebook’s popularity in U.S. education is also largely limited to grades K-12, analysts say. Macs and Windows laptops are still dominant on college campuses.


Chromebooks use a lightweight operating system designed to get people online faster, without having to wait around for the computer to start up. Much of the heavy lifting on Chromebooks gets done on Google’s remote servers, so Chromebooks themselves don’t need fast chips or lots of storage.

How Google Chromebooks conquered schools
In this Feb. 8, 2017, photo, a Google Chromebook displays Netflix in New York. Google Chromebook laptops are impractical for many people because they’re little more than expensive paperweights when they’re out of range of an internet connection. Yet they’ve defied expectations and made tremendous inroads in one of the least likely places: U.S. schools. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Early on, though, that made Chromebooks seem cheap and underpowered, which “soured consumer expectations right off the bat,” IDC analyst Linn Huang said.

Online storage for photos and documents online was much less common in 2011 when Chromebooks launched , so their limited local storage was initially unappealing. And the few apps available for Chromebooks didn’t work offline, at least at the time.


But what constrains consumers can actually be liberating in education. Most kids don’t need laptops on the bus or other locations where they can’t connect to Wi-Fi. And they don’t miss business software like Microsoft Office; Google’s online apps for documents and spreadsheets do just fine for homework.

“What surprised us was how quickly it took off in education,” said Kan Liu, who oversees Chromebooks at Google.

Apple’s iPad was hot at the time, but Google sold the Chromebook on convenience. They’re easier for classrooms to share; just sign in with a Google account, and a student’s apps and documents instantly appear. Teachers also have online tools to lock down what apps and sites students can use.

And with models available for less than $200, schools can get a few Chromebooks for the price of an iPad or a rival laptop.

“It allows us to put more devices in students’ hands,” said Aaron Slutsky, chief technology officer for McDowell County Schools in North Carolina.


But Chromebook’s success story in schools is largely an American one, and it’s likely to stay that way. Gartner analyst Mikako Kitagawa notes that Chromebooks are useless in China because the device depends on Google services that aren’t available there. And in emerging countries, where a budget laptop would be ideal, she said internet access isn’t reliable enough.

Even in the U.S., the iPad is better for many creative tasks such as recording and editing movies. Students studying engineering, robotics and graphics won’t be able to use Chromebooks to run the kind of specialized software that’s available for Macs and Windows laptops.

How Google Chromebooks conquered schools
In this Feb. 8, 2017, photo, a Google Chromebook displays Adobe Lightroom in New York. Google Chromebook laptops are impractical for many people because they’re little more than expensive paperweights when they’re out of range of an internet connection. Yet they’ve defied expectations and made tremendous inroads in one of the least likely places: U.S. schools. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

“But that’s not needed for 98 percent of our students,” said Tracy Dabbs, coordinator of technology and innovation at the Burlington-Edison School District near Seattle.

Many school districts limit Apple and Windows computers for the students who specifically need them, then provide Chromebooks for the rest. McDowell County, for instance, has 5,500 Chromebooks, 1,200 iPads—and only 100 Macs and 200 Windows PCs.


Last year, Apple gave iPads in schools some Chromebook-like features unavailable to the general public. That includes ways to let multiple people use a single tablet and management tools for tech-support staff. A new Classroom app lets teachers control what apps students run and track their progress.

Apple also provides classroom tools for teachers and students. Free e-books offer teachers step-by-step guides on using iPad apps and curriculum suggestions for everyday subjects. A separate app lets kids learn programming using the same language developers use to build iPad apps.

Meanwhile, Microsoft announced last month new online apps and management tools for schools, along with Windows PCs priced similarly to Chromebooks.


Huang said some businesses are giving Chromebooks a second look, especially in retail, banking and other settings where people share computers.

But in many offices, the lack of business software such as Office is a major hurdle. Google’s alternative lacks many advanced capabilities found in Office, and habits are hard to change.

Google is trying to make Chromebooks more palatable by letting them run Android apps designed for phones and tablets. It’s testing this capability on a handful of Chromebook models, including the new ones from Samsung. That makes it possible to install Office, Adobe Photoshop and many apps on a Chromebook, though these tablet versions have limited features compared with versions for Macs or Windows laptops.

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Protecting bulk power systems from hackers

Hackers target specific parts of the control network of power infrastructure and they focus on the mechanisms that control it to cause power outages and blackouts. Credit: Michigan Tech, Sarah Bird

Reliability measures of electrical grid has risen to a new norm as it involves physical security and cybersecurity. Threats to either can trigger instability, leading to blackouts and economic losses.

New research led by scientists from Michigan Technological University delves into so-called “nightmare” scenarios where hackers exploit security weaknesses and execute a disruptive plan of cyberattacks. The journal IEEE Transactions on Smart Grid published their work recently. Lead author Chee-Wooi Ten, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan Tech, says the fundamental problem is a gap between physical equipment and intangible software.


Advances in smart grid technology—such as smart meters in homes, management systems for distributed energy resources like wind and solar production along with instrumentation systems in power plants, substations or control centers—create both improvements in monitoring and entry points for hackers.

“Ten years ago, cybersecurity simply didn’t exist—it wasn’t talked about and it wasn’t a problem,” Ten says, joking that people thought he was crazy for suggesting power grid hacking was possible. “Now with events like in Ukraine last year and malware like Stuxnet, where hackers can plan for a cyberattack that can cause larger power outages, people are starting to grasp the severity of the problem.”

Protecting bulk power systems from hackers
Specific targets are weak in terms of a power grid’s cybersecurity; the impacts hacking have cascading effects through the system leading to equipment failure, power outages, blackouts and islanding where a grid section is cut off from the main grid. Credit: Michigan Tech, Vassilissa Semouchkina

Ten points out that hackers target specific parts of the control network of power infrastructure and they focus on the mechanisms that control it. Automated systems control much of the grid from generation to transmission to use. As Ten puts it, the convenience and cost reduction of automation streamlines the process, but without solid security measures, it also makes the systems vulnerable. The interconnectedness of the grid can also cause cascading impacts leading to blackouts, equipment failure and islanding where regions become cut off and isolated from the main power grid.

Emerging Cybersecurity Threats

Ten and his team draw connections and assess weaknesses using a framework that would constantly assess the bottleneck of a power grid and its interconnection with their neighboring grids. Using quantitative methods to prioritize cybersecurity protection will ensure power grids are operated in a more secure and safer manner. Ten says it’s like measuring blood pressure.

“You know your health is at risk because we monitor systolic and diastolic numbers, so perhaps you work out more or eat healthier,” Ten says. “The grid needs established metrics for health too, a number to gauge if we are ready for this security challenge.”

With a better understanding of the system’s weaknesses, it’s easier to be strategic and shore up security risks. In the long run, Ten says improving regulations with specifics to match actual infrastructure needs and providing cybersecurity insurance will help.

“Simply because the remote substation networks are constantly commissioned with full compliance doesn’t mean they are secure,” Ten says. “There is going to be a tremendous impact if we’re negligent and fail to keep up with changes in communication infrastructure and emerging security threats.”

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When hackers turn out the lights

More information:
Chee-Wooi Ten et al. Impact Assessment of Hypothesized Cyberattacks on Interconnected Bulk Power Systems, IEEE Transactions on Smart Grid (2017). DOI: 10.1109/TSG.2017.2656068

Provided by:
Michigan Technological University

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