Monday, April 22, 2013

A New Purpose for Drones

Given the past week's events in Boston, I started to think about some different ways drones could be used to fight terrorists.  I think we're all familiar with the conventional way this has been done, but what are some other tasks that drones could perform?

If you're only familiar with the drones that have been used by the military in the Middle East, then the first thing you have to know is that drones come in all shapes and sizes.  A drone is essentially a pilotless aircraft, but another way to look at them is to call them by another name: robot.  If you've read my previous posts on robots and drones you'll know that I usually sprinkle some words of caution in their adoption.  This time I'm going to throw caution to the wind and try not think about the Orwellian or dystopian undertones

A good place to start, if you want to see what drones of the future can do, is the jaw dropping TED Talk by Vijay Kumar.  The drones in his demonstration resemble something you might find in a hobby store and can fit in the palm of your hand.  Their functionality is anything but childlike.  He and his students at the University of Pennsylvania programmed their swarms of drones to be agile flyers that could operate autonomously.  They're equipped with proximity sensors and can fly in a programmed flight path or operate independently.  So what if drones like these could be outfitted with bomb-detecting sensors?  Large populated events like the Boston Marathon or State Fairs could have swarms of these small drones flying through the crowd relaying their information to law enforcement.  There's already a group of companies like Qube working on law enforcement versions of drones.  Would it bother you to have a model aircraft buzzing your head?  Then how about a ground-based version?  I can't find my source, but there was a public radio story on a small robot that would nuzzle up against you and lead you to stores in a shopping mall.  Would you be more comfortable with a robotic form of bomb sniffing dogs weaving through the crowd?

One of the reasons drone aircraft have been so readily adopted by the military is that you don't have to worry about pilot fatigue.  I'm assuming they're much lighter than jets and so they can stay in the air for a longer period of time.  Since the drone pilot is sitting miles or continents away, he can take a break and have another operator take his place.  The lockdown in Watertown, MA lasted roughly 18 hours - couldn't drones have played some part in the search?  Drones could follow a precise search pattern and be flown at a lower altitude beneath the helicopters.  I'm not up to speed with all of the camera specs of drones but I'm assuming it's pretty good.  Would a group of drones with night vision and infrared fared better than their human counterparts?  Wouldn't a drone have been a good option for surveying the toxic scene after the Texas fertilizer plant explosion?

Finally, I'm reminded of Adam Carolla's idea for attack crows.  Crows are pretty nasty but perhaps a swarm of drones could have flushed suspect #2 out of the boat.  Could a group of drones incapacitate an individual?  Or what if a flock of drones were launched when the bombs went off to capture the scene in video?  A drone wouldn't react to the panic and confusion like a human would; maybe a set of drones could have provided better view of who was there and where they were going.  With all of the influence that technology had in this latest terror attack, I wouldn't be surprised at all if drones played a helpful role in the next one.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Terrorism in the Digital Age - Lessons from Boston

Boston Marathon, mile 25, Beacon St., 2005
Boston Marathon, mile 25, Beacon St., 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Like everyone else, I've been riveted to the news coming out of Boston for the past week.  It's hard to understand why anyone would have done such a thing.  It's equally confusing why they thought they could have gotten away with it, because with each day technology is transforming the world we live in.

We're no longer reliant on CNN or other news agencies to provide our continuous news feed; the  Internet and other digital media is where people go to find information now.  This is a double-edged sword: on one hand the amount of instantaneous information being relayed has increased exponentially while on the other hand the validity of the content should be viewed with a critical eye.  Reddit, Twitter, and other online sites have played a significant role in the national discussion on the Boston Marathon bombings and the search for the perpetrators.  Forget about nightly or even hourly updates, most people are looking minute by minute for accurate information.  This must put a considerable strain on news services and other credible sources of information with detrimental effects.

I won't attempt to comprehend the bombers' minds but if escape was one of their goals they made a serious miscalculation.  Performing their deeds at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, with video and so many cameras present, made their discovery just a matter of time.  I'm curious to learn just how many images were submitted and reviewed by the FBI; it must be a staggering number.  It occurred to me early in the week how online crowdsourcing could be used to review the images in a more expedient manner.  This seems like a good idea until you see how different Reddit threads became what Alex Hern at NewStatesman describes as "a racist Where's Waldo?"  Several individuals became prime suspects in the cyber world followed by several news organizations trying to play catch-up by posting their faces on page 1.  It would seem that eventually even the FBI decided the eyes of the multitude might do more good than harm in their investigation.  After posting video of the suspects and the relevant time stamp, some of the best images were discovered.

Security cameras from several establishments on Boylston Street provided additional images and  left some to call for an increased amount of video surveillance in America's cities.  Closed-circuit television has been used extensively in London for years with little effect, but what I find puzzling is how Americans could lobby for more CCTV surveillance when it can't even enact mandatory gun registration.  CCTV rings of Big Brother and seems to go against an American sense of freedom, or does it?  I think this is an interesting discussion: do you have a right of privacy in a public place?  People are constantly setting off alarms over Google's privacy issues, even its Google Glass before they are released.  We can all anticipate some level of surveillance within business buildings or even online, but what about in the neighborhood park?  As I mentioned in a previous post on Drones, privacy issues are going to be tested in the 21st Century.  How do you feel about this?

As the manhunt reached its peak, we found that technology once again didn't disappoint us.  Police tracked the fleeing suspects using the carjacked victim's cellphone.  News stations used Google Earth views extensively to give us the lay of the land.  While the reporters and TV crews were kept at a safe distance, eyewitnesses in Watertown began Tweeting us updates on the action.  Andrew Kitzenberg (@AKitz) tweeted as law enforcement engaged the suspects outside his window and did a TV interview during the lockdown via Skype where he was able to point out the bullet holes in his walls.  Watertown was overwhelmed with boots on the ground but at the climax it was thermal imaging equipment and a police robot that provided essential functions that made sure all those boots got home safe.

So now that it seems this crisis has reached its conclusion, we'd be wise to contemplate on how technology is transforming the world we live in.  Technology contributed greatly to the bombing investigation but it also gave us a view of the ethical and societal issues we'll be facing in the digital age.  Laying in hospitals across Boston, the survivors of that terrible day are the ones who need it most of all now.

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Friday, April 12, 2013

5th Anniversary of

Funny how time flies.  As I checked my calendar, I was surprised to see that today is the 5th Anniversary of  It's hard for me to imagine that it has only been 5 years but then again I'm even more amazed at how far we've come.

I consider myself fortunate to have latched onto the 21st Century movement in Education when I did.  I don't know if that makes me one of the pioneers, but I started this journey in good company.  Real World Math was my Masters project in Educational Technology after starting my graduate work in 2006.  At this time, Google was just gaining in prominence and expanding its offerings to other areas; they acquired YouTube, and Google Earth was just a couple of years old.  This was also the time when social media was beginning.  Twitter was born and Facebook was growing exponentially.  Leaders in Educational Technology began to emerge.  Steve Hardagon was starting Classroom 2.0, Jerome Burg was about to launch GoogleLitTrips, and bloggers, such as Will Richardson, began to provide a narrative for thought leadership.  The Web 2.0 phenomenon was in full swing with a plethora of blogs, wikis, and personal websites being added every day - an Internet Renaissance.  It was all new to me but as I look back now I realize that it was new to most people.  

At that time, it wasn't the notion of creating a website for the Internet that I found daunting but rather creating a website that anyone would notice.  Perhaps the true power of the Web wasn't realized yet.  After moving RWM last summer it has been harder for me to get an accurate count, but I place the number of unique visitors to the site to be well over 200,000.  What I find incredible about that number is that one can assume that, for the most part, it is made up almost entirely of math educators.  That pleases me greatly not only for the sense of accomplishment but it also validates the work that I set out to do - a transformation of math learning.  Whether you lean more towards Dan Meyer's work or Sal Khan, I think the bar is moving, and that is a good thing for everyone.

The other thing I find encouraging about the 200,000+ visitors is that they've come from over 141 countries.  I get the most traffic from English speaking countries (United States, Canada, and Australia) but RWM has also gotten the attention from countries on every other continent.  I feel the true global impact of the Internet is still to be seen, but once people of different languages can collaborate without restriction I think we'll see another large shift in what gets accomplished.

So, in retrospect, maybe it doesn't seem like it's been five years because gauging time with technology is like calculating in dog years.  Maybe one year for you and me is like 5 years of technology?  No doubt it's an exciting time to be living in for anyone who lives on the web.  Let's hope the next five years will be good for Real World Math.  As alway, I thank you for your support.

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