All posts by Roland Moore-Colyer

Bee-based AI software could power next-generation drones

Roland Moore-Colyer

18 Feb, 2020

Next-generation drones could be powered by artificial intelligence software inspired by how bees adapt to and navigate their surroundings, 

That’s because scientists from Sheffield University have demonstrated how they are reverse engineering bee brains to create a drone prototype that’s influenced by the flying insects’ ability to navigate accurately over several kilometres and learn environmental features on the fly to then find their way back to their hive. 

Professor James Marshall from Sheffield University presented his team’s work at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Seattle, detailing how they aim to create small drones that can effectively navigate their surroundings as bees do.

“Bees are really consummate visual navigators,” said Marshall, according to the Financial Times. “They can navigate a complex 3D environment with minimal learning very robustly, using only a million neurons in a cubic millimetre of brain.” 

“For us they’re at a sweet spot for brain size and intelligence,” added Marshall. Despite their tiny size, bee brains can multitask and they optimise the distances the bee flys from its nest to forage for nectar, meaning the brain learns and adapts to new scenarios very fast. 

Currently, AI systems used for image processing can’t compute what they see any anywhere near as quickly as some of the smallest natural brains. 

To try and replicate how bees navigate, the researchers have split the project, into two experiments.

The first involves attaching radar transponders to bees and analysing their flight paths so that the researchers can gain insight into their neural processes. 

The second experiment involves the more gruesome process of inserting a tethered electrode into a bee’s brain and then observing its movements around a virtual reality environment. By analysing the neural signals, it is hoped the scientists will gain a deeper look into bee movements. 

“We’ve modelled maybe 25 per cent of the honeybee brain, maybe a touch more,” said Marshall. “We have bee-like robots which can fly around lab behaving as a bee would, extracting information from the world.” 

The researchers have two drones, one 600g model and one 250g; the latter is much bigger than a bee, but still rather small, yet can still hold all the computational equipment it needs to navigate like a bee, according to Marshall. 

The project has been funded by a £4.8 million government grant from the UK research and innovation agency. That has meant the research is moving towards becoming a commercial venture, with a spinout company called Opteran Technologies aiming to eventually sell the AI software to drone companies and businesses, such as logistics companies that use drones for delivery purposes. 

Not only does this research show there’s a healthy appetite for AI development in the UK, but it’s also a sign of the potential cutting-edge tech to come that will help fuel digital transformation doctrines in enterprises keen to use such AI technology

Dropbox finally fills vacant COO role amid company transformation

Roland Moore-Colyer

31 Jan, 2020

Dropbox has named former Google Cloud executive Olivia Nottebohm as its chief operating officer, filling a job role that has been vacant for more than a year.

The appointment of Nottebohm comes at a time when Dropbox is undergoing a major overhaul of its company and services. It’s looking to centre its business around a workspace app called Spaces, which can facilitate the file synching and sharing of Dropbox, and will work closely with other productivity tools such as Slack.

Effectively, Dropbox is working towards becoming an enterprise collaboration workspace designed for use across multiple devices and enable better task management, and thus see it evolve from beyond a cloud-based file storage platform.

Some elements of the new Dropbox could see the company compete with Google’s G Suite, which would mean Nottebohm would be helping Dropbox challenge her former employer.

But Nottebohm seems prepared to help lead a new Dropbox into the 2020s.

“As a mother my whole day is fragmented, and I am constantly switching frames,” she said, Reuters reported. “The vision of de-cluttering in a work environment is a very powerful message. We see in our customers that they are constantly changing frames and topics.”

While she was at Google Cloud, Nottebohm was the vice president responsible for selling to small and medium-sized businesses, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see her take that expertise and use it to help the redesigned Dropbox target that market.

Nottebohm will be taking the place of Dennis Woodside, the former COO who left the company in September 2018. Woodside helped grow Dropbox’s sales force and helped the company pursue larger customers.

He also helped oversee the creation of Dropbox’s own cloud infrastructure to help the company become less reliant on Amazon Web Service’s cloud storage services.

After Woodside left, the position of COO was vacant for some 16 months, with Dropbox showing no intention to fill it at the time of Woodside’s departure.

Lloyd’s of London will invest £300m in digital transformation doctrine

Roland Moore-Colyer

12 Dec, 2019

Lloyd’s of London has secured £300 million to fund a digital transformation overhaul to cut its costs and streamline its processes.

A major part of this overhaul, dubbed Blueprint One, will involve the creation of new digital platforms.

A “digital end-to-end platform” will be used to create a portal and a suite of services for handling complex risks in the insurance and reinsurance market, with the goal of supplementing face-to-face negotiations.

APIs will also be used to help connect the platform to insurance brokers’ own systems, while centralised tools such as a tax calculator and compliance checker will help simplify processes. The platform will be supported with information taken from a common data platform.

A digital Lloyd’s risk exchange will also be created for handling less complex risk agreements at high volumes, allowing for brokers to easily create and purchase policies, while also accessing Lloyd’s products and services. To speed up the placement of risks and reduce their costs, algorithms will automatically rate the risks. Again, a centralised tax calculator, compliance checker, and data platform will help ensure risks are created effectively and above board.

“The risk exchange will build on the market’s current investment in e-trading platforms and other technologies to digitise the placement of less complex risks. It will not replace these systems, but will integrate them so they are compatible,” explained the Blueprint One document. “This will benefit market participants by giving them access to a wider customer base, enabling them to leverage the Lloyd’s brand, its global distribution network, economies of scale and lower costs.” 

A suite of other proposed changes, which will be funded by debt rather than charges made on the market’s members, come in response to poor performance and complaints around the high cost of doing business with Lloyd’s of London. 

As such, the digital transformation process, which will enter its first phase next year, is not just a way for Lloyd’s of London to improve internally but to also help bolster its insurance market. 

“This first Future at Lloyd’s blueprint marks an exciting new chapter for Lloyd’s. It sets out how we are going to combine data, technology and new ways of working with our existing strengths to transform the culture we work in and everything we do – from placing risks and paying claims to attracting capital and developing new products,” said Lloyd’s of London’s CEO John Neal. 

This is yet another example of a long-established organisation undergoing a digital transformation doctrine. But such projects vary in scale, with Lloyd’s of London’s Blueprint One being a major undertaking, while other projects can be of a smaller scale, such as the Department for Transport’s goal to create a digital transport data mapping tool

Some projects can be rather different altogether, such as Massachusetts Police’s use of Boston Dynamic robot dogs to sniff out bombs and explore hazardous areas.

Yet regardless of size and scope, there’s a healthy appetite for digital transformation in all manner of organisations and industries, with the goal of taking the latest technology and using it to streamline or redefine how an organisation operates.

Google reveals UK’s most searched for terms in 2019

Roland Moore-Colyer

11 Dec, 2019

Google has revealed the most searched for terms and questions in 2019, with its Year in Search, with the UK taking a bigger interest in the Rugby World Cup than Brexit.

The most searched for term in the UK for 2019 was the aforementioned Rugby World Cup, followed by the Cricket World Cup, and then Game of Thrones.

The search results are largely explained by a strong British showing in both tournaments, while the incredibly popular HBO series Game of Throne came to an end after eight seasons in May, with tensions and plotlines ramping up.

However, both the term Chernobyl and Thanos took the fourth and fifth positions respectively. Those results are a little more surprising, as, given the heavy media coverage of Brexit and other governmental machinations, one could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Brexit’ would be a highly searched term, but in the end, it failed to even make the top ten list for Google searches in the UK.

In fact, no political terms made it into the top 10 list, with the likes of the iPhone 11 and Caitlyn Jenner proving more popular than Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corby. Neither did Extinction Rebellion get a look in, despite the protests and demonstrations in the year gaining high-profile coverage, as well as support and equal measures of condemnation.

When it came to the most searched for news events, ‘revoke Article 50 petition’ came in third place, behind the ‘iPhone 11’ and ‘Notre Dame’ at the top spot.

As for the questions being asked by the Google Search users in the UK, ‘how to watch Champions League Final’, ‘how to watch Game of Thrones’ and ‘how to floss dance’ took the first, second, and third positions respectively.

‘How to register to vote’, seemingly pertinent given the General Election on Thursday 12 December, came in eighth place, being beaten by ‘how to eat a pineapple’.

While IT Pro endeavours to bring you the latest IT news and its effect on the UK public sector, politics and society, it would appear that many of Britain’s Google Search users are more interested in finding out about subjects that matter to them in the here and now, rather than longer-term effects of politics and technological change.

1. Rugby World Cup
2. Cricket World Cup
3. Game of Thrones
4. Chernobyl
5. Thanos
6. Notre Dame
7. Avengers Endgame
8. iPhone 11
9. Caitlyn Jenner
10. Joker

Salesforce will buy Tableau Software for $15.3bn to augment its analytics

Roland Moore-Colyer

10 Jun, 2019

Salesforce is set to buy data visualisation company Tableau Software for $15.3 billion (£12 billion), as the cloud-centric CRM company looks to boost its analytics capabilities.

The acquisition will be an all-stock deal for Salesforce and is set to be the company’s largest to date. It also plays into Salesforce’s healthy appetite for purchasing companies that can complement its main cloud services; the company has purchased 60 other firms in just 20 years.

While Salesforce already has its own data analytics service in the form of Salesforce Einstein, once the acquisition is complete Tableau’s analytics software is set to augment and expand the CRM platform’s scope for delivering analytics and data visualisation.

“Tableau helps people see and understand data, and Salesforce helps people engage and understand customers. It’s truly the best of both worlds for our customers–bringing together two critical platforms that every customer needs to understand their world,” said Marc Benioff, chairman and co-CEO of Salesforce. “I’m thrilled to welcome Adam [Selipsky, president and CEO of Tableau ] and his team to Salesforce.”

Keith Block, co-CEO at Salesforce added: “Data is the foundation of every digital transformation, and the addition of Tableau will accelerate our ability to deliver customer success by enabling a truly unified and powerful view across all of a customer’s data.”

Selipsky said that by joining Salesforce, Tableau will be able to “help people everywhere see and understand data”.

How exactly Salesforce will work Tableau into augmenting analytics services remains to be seen, as Tableau will still operate independently of the Salesforce band and remain in its Seattle headquarters with Selipsky at its helm.

But it will mean Salesforce is set to gain access to Tableau’s customer base, numbering some 86,000 organisations worldwide, which include Netflix, Schneider Electric, and Verizon.

The acquisition of Tableau is slated to be completed by the close of Salesforce’s third fiscal quarter of its current financial year, which ends 31 October.

Microsoft and Sony partner on cloud-based gaming and tech development

Roland Moore-Colyer

17 May, 2019

Despite being rivals in the gaming world, Microsoft and Sony have entered into a partnership to work on cloud technology to support game streaming and AI services.

Both companies have signed a memorandum of understanding which will see them jointly work on future cloud services based on Microsoft's Azure infrastructure that will support more "enhanced entertainment experiences", notably centred on streaming content and games.

The partnership is an odd one at first glance, given Microsoft's Xbox division is a direct rival to Sony's PlayStation business. Sony also has an existing game streaming service, PlayStation Now, and Microsoft is poised to launch its own offering with xCloud.

At a base level, Sony could boost its PlayStation Now service with the reach and power of the Azure cloud, while Microsoft could gain another major customer on its world-spanning infrastructure.

But the partnership looks to be more about exploring and developing cloud technologies with Microsoft noting that it will involve "building better development platforms for the content creator community".

Sony's chief executive, Kenichiro Yoshida, acknowledged the rivalry between the two companies, but painted the partnership as one that will be more focused on the exploration and creation of new technologies.

"For many years, Microsoft has been a key business partner for us, though of course the two companies have also been competing in some areas. I believe that our joint development of future cloud solutions will contribute greatly to the advancement of interactive content," said Yoshida. "Additionally, I hope that in the areas of semiconductors and AI, leveraging each company’s cutting-edge technology in a mutually complementary way will lead to the creation of new value for society."

Speaking of semiconductors and AI, the partnership will see the joint development to new intelligent image sensor technology, tapping into Sony's work on image sensors for cameras combined with Microsoft's Azure-based AI technology.

This proposed work will not only involve Microsoft and Sony creating semiconductors and services that can be incorporated into their own products and services, notably cloud and edge computing systems, but will also be aimed at producing products for enterprises to use.

Furthermore, the joint venture will also explore how Microsoft's AI platform and tools can be integrated into Sony's consumer products to create "highly intuitive and user-friendly AI experiences".

By working together both companies could improve their overall gaming, cloud-based service, and smart tech portfolios. And while details of how exactly this will work are vague, it could see the development of new technologies that have an immediate benefit to both companies' consumer customers and yield benefits for their enterprise customers later on down the line.

Intel’s data centre business struggles but 10nm server chips are coming sooner than later

Roland Moore-Colyer

26 Apr, 2019

Despite being a leader in the server chip market, Intel’s revenue from its data-centric business has dropped by 5%, according to the company’s 2019 first quarter financial results.

While the chip maker reported a 5% hike in cloud revenues in its Data Centre Group, revenues for the arm dropped by 6%. What’s more, overall revenue from its data-related businesses raked in $4.9 billion, which is down from $5.2 billion in the same quarter for 2018.

One of the areas contributing to this decline was the 4% drop in average selling prices and the 8% drop in the volume of units Intel shifted for its data centre platform, which is a continuation of the rather sharp slowdown Intel’s server equipment sales encountered last year. Historically, this has been a booming business for the chip maker.

Yet, while Intel’s data-centric business isn’t as healthy as it would like, revenue from selling desktop and laptop processors rose by 4% to generate $8.6 billion for the company. This rise came in spite of static PC shipments and problems Intel encountered around chip shortages.

Intel’s chief executive Robert Swan also noted that next-generation laptop processors built on the 10nm process node – thereby increasing the number of transistors in a processor to improve power and efficiency – will arrive this year.

“Our confidence in 10nm is also improving,” Swan said in an earnings call transcribed by Seeking Alpha. “In addition to the manufacturing velocity improvement I described earlier, we expect to qualify our first volume 10nm product, Ice Lake, this quarter and are increasing our 10nm volume goals for the year.”

This next-generation of processor could help keep Intel’s PC-centric business ticking along. Swan noted 10-nanometre chips will be rapidly brought from the PC business and into Intel’s data centre chips.

“Historically there has been a 12-18 month gap between client chips and servers. On 10nm that will be much shorter, all we’ll say is it will be a fast follow, some time in 2020, and earlier rather than later,” Swan added.

With a decline in demand from data centre customers and the investment Intel is making into getting its 10nm fabrication ready for the production of chips at volume, the company has reduced its earnings forecast for the full 2019 fiscal year to $69.0 billion from a previously estimated $71.05 billion.

Nevertheless, the determined push to 10nm chips in both the PC and data centre space world could see Intel continue to do well in the PC market while also giving its data-centric business a shot in the arm come some point in the future, most likely 2020.

Microsoft rakes in $30.1bn thanks to strong cloud growth yet again

Roland Moore-Colyer

20 Jul, 2018

Microsoft has reported strong revenue results in its 2018 fourth quarter financial results, unsurprisingly thanks to growing its cloud sales.

The Redmond company raked in $30.1 billion in total revenue for the quarter, a 17% increase over the same quarter 12 months earlier, with the company netting more than $8 billion in profit.

A large part of that revenue hike was driven by the 23% growth Microsoft’s cloud business enjoyed, bringing in $9.6 billion for the company.

“Our early investments in the intelligent cloud and intelligent edge are paying off, and we will continue to expand our reach in large and growing markets with differentiated innovation,” said Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella.

Redmond boasted customers such as Marks & Spencer, General Electric, Starbucks and Telefonica as users of its cloud services, helping fuel its growth.

And that growth is likely set to continue as Microsoft also revealed a strategic partnership with Walmart, which will see the US retail giant make use of Microsoft Azure and the Microsoft 365 suite across its entire enterprise.

With a plethora of large businesses adopting digital transformation doctrines, whereby they shift from legacy IT systems to cloud-based services and make deeper use of digital systems and data, and Microsoft offering the second largest cloud platform in the world, it is no surprise that cloud is driving Redmond’s business success.

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That being said other areas of Microsoft are also enjoying growth, notably its More Personal Computing arm, which includes the Surface and Xbox hardware and services, that grew by 17% to haul in $10.8 billion.

Refreshed models of the Surface Pro line up and the release of the Surface Go are likely to help keep the More Personal Computing arm ticking along in hardware revenue, especially now that PC sales seem to be growing again for the first time in six years.

Microsoft closed out its entire fiscal year with a record-breaking $110 billion in total revenue, a 14% rise on the year before and an indicator that Microsoft is in rude health. 

Image credit: Microsoft 

Microsoft 365 gains smart video conferencing with automatic speech-to-text transcription

Roland Moore-Colyer

13 Jul, 2018

Microsoft 365, Redmond’s complete software suite for enterprises and education, now supports live video conferencing augmented with facial reignition and autonomous speech-to-text transcription features.

The new video conferencing feature allows users to set up either live or on-demand streams of events within the cloud-powered Microsoft 365.

Facial recognition automatically detects who in a group video conference is chatting and allows watchers to jump to a specific speaker, while automated speech-to-text transcription provides transcripts and timecodes to the conference which Microsoft 356 users can then use to search for specific quotes or parts of a video conference.

“Events can be as simple or as sophisticated as you prefer. You can use webcams, content, and screen sharing for informal presentations, or stream a studio-quality production for more formal events,” explained Ron Markezich, corporate vice president at Microsoft.

Such features demonstrate how Microsoft is keep to put its work on machine learning and artificial intelligence into its cloud-based products and services. Examples of that in action can also be seen with Microsoft putting its Cortana artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistant into Windows 10 by default, as well as pushing elements of the smart technology into some of its analytics services.

Alongside the new video conferencing features, Microsoft also revealed MyAnalytics, a tool that surfaces reminders and tips for employees, which Redmond has dubbed “nudges” that are aimed to prevent workers from taking on more work than they can handle based on analysis of their activity in Microsoft 365, say reminding them of other commitments before accepting an Outlook invite for another meeting or working out of hours.

Workplace Analytics is a similar tool that has also been added to Microsoft 365, only the data it collects is based on teams of workers activities and, through the use of Microsoft Graph, analyses how said teams can work more effectively, serving up information to help users run more effective meeting or create time to focus on work. That data can be aggregated across an organisation to help it work out where it can work more collaboratively and effectively.

Microsoft also noted its Teams collaboration service is now free to use, which will likely boost its appeal in the face of other popular workplace services such as Slack and Workplace by Facebook.

Image credit: Microsoft 

Microsoft Azure Stack underpins Thales’ military Nexium Defence Cloud

Roland Moore-Colyer

14 Jun, 2018

Defence firm Thales has taken Microsoft’s Azure Stack and repurposed it for use in military field operations, to enable armies to keep their data secure while benefitting from working within a cloud environment.

Microsoft worked with the French contractor to integrate its ‘cloud-in-box’ platform with Thales’ own connectivity, encryption, and end-to-end cyber security products, allowing armed forces to keep sensitive data within their own infrastructure.

“Together with Thales, we will be able to provide a flexible cloud platform with an unequalled level of security that will help overcome challenges within the defence industry,” said Jean-Philippe Courtois, Microsoft’s executive vice president and president of global sales, marketing and operations.

Providing a form of cloud connectivity in the field is not the most complex of operations, given it’s fairly straightforward to package servers, network connectivity, compute and storage components into a portable and durable package – SAP has done this with onshore data harvesting and processing systems for the Extreme Sailing series.

But doing it in a secure fashion that keeps data within a military infrastructure but still enables developers to build apps and services on top of the cloud system, is more of a challenge.

Thales’ Nexium Defence Cloud works around this by creating a “highly secluded” private cloud that uses the Azure Stack as a baseline system onto which Thales adds its security and connectivity technology. This keeps the data within the system either when it’s at military headquarters or deployed to forward operating bases.

Given connectivity can be disrupted in conflict zones and operations theatres, the cloud can operate offline, giving it a degree of autonomy from the infrastructure based back at a military headquarters.

This level of flexibility is something Thales claims other secured defence clouds cannot currently offer.

In the future, Thales plans to boost Azure Stack with the Guavus Reflex analytic platform to allow for real-time in-the-field data analysis without relying on a connection back to HQ. This could make it easier for military forces to tap into sensor data gathered by field sensors or exchange data with mobile apps used by soldiers “augmented” with the latest technology.

The military industrial complex is vast and a lucrative market with a healthy appetite for technology, which both Thales and Microsoft could further tap into with the Nexium Defence Cloud.

Image credit: Microsoft