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Online dating platforms: privacy challenge and open-data goldmine

With Covid-19 restrictions still in place and Spring approaching, many Brits are turning to online dating sites as a way of getting back into the mating game.

A user poll on British online dating platform Bumble suggested many started using it after a pandemic-related breakup. User behaviour also shifted. There is now a trend to leave more data on these platforms.

User analytics for some platforms suggests messages sent back and forth have grown longer and more frequent since the start of the pandemic. That helped valuations of platforms like Bumble and its plans for a public debut where it was reported to be seeking to raise more than $1bn

In the open data world, online dating apps pose both risks and advantages. Needless to say, increased interest is a boon for the operators of these sites. For users, the benefits in times of social distancing and limited personal interaction seem obvious, too. Instead of meeting people in bars that are now shut, technology helps singles to connect.

Users can set up elaborate profiles and charm the other sex via Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, OkCupid, Once, or flirt with the same sex via Scissr, Grindr or Her.

All these platforms are now minted with extremely sensitive private user data. A paper on unexplored open-source intelligence data sources in IEEE Acess Journal put it this way: “Unlike other social networks, where many users restrict their personal details, more intimate aspects are usually revealed in here. Tinder or Badoo are useful for investigating the background information, personal character, interests, preferences or behaviour of the target.”

image of user

Image credit: Tinder

Such open data can have advantages for transparency and help protect singles who are unsure who is reaching out to them. Open data investigators and citizen journalists can use it to feel safer after verifying that the person they are flirting with is genuine.

An example is Tinder, for which people have started to write open-source intelligence guides. Even without a profile, these allow you to query usernames via the URL. Using DuckDuckGo, for its ability to respect users' privacy, you can search for a username. As people often use their real name as their username, anyone with browser-access can have a go. Search for http://tinder.com/@<Username> and then play around with the search query. False positives are possible, so keep this in mind.

Nonetheless, the data, which is a photo (or multiple photos), a name, an age, and an occupation, is often enough to verify an identity. Reverse image and facial search platform, as well as facial comparison platforms such as Microsoft’s Facial image tool, can connect the dots to other open-data repositories on the web. There are also Exif data tools that can be used for images which examine the GPS location of where they were taken. Exfiltool to examine Exif data is one example but be aware that scammers can embed fake data, too.

To verify an identity with a name there are websites like WebMii411.com or Social Catfish that can help. If you have an email address, you can perform a reverse email lookup and target dating sites.

Open data from other open repositories allows us to perform 'rough' background checks. One such tool is Truthfinder.com, which makes it possible to add information on individuals based in the US. 

Free databases dating site users can also check the US National Sex Offender lists, for which there is a UK equivalent, the convicted sex offenders list.

There are risks associated with making such data public. Bad actors or stalkers, as a blogger explains here, may actually write code to have a bot program cycle through various variants of usernames – in this case, a name containing a number, like Ashley1, Ashley2 and so on.

Hackers and impersonators could use the data or the image for nefarious causes. Tactics involving con artists and catfishers during lockdown isolation have increased in Hong Kong's online dating market, the BBC reported.

Anyone with the knowledge could write code to query open-data APIs from dating platforms and geolocate other users. A python tutorial which explains 'for educational purposes' how to do this for Tinder warns that it gives user location information to all other users and is “dangerous to the privacy of users”.

The open data would allow anyone [with a verification token accessing the Tinder API] to abuse the data for malicious purposes, which “seems a big issue as we live in a period where stalking on the internet is a serious problem,” the blogger writes.

Users might try to spoof their location on Tinder by using an emulator like Genymotion that allows them to access GPS settings and change locations on the go. There is also Bluestacks which does a similar job.

Why would anyone want to do this? Manipulating your Tinder location may allow you to reveal military personnel's position at secret or isolated military bases. If you set the GPS on your phone to the location you expect your target to be can allow to identify soldiers on a specific military base (if they use Tinder locally, that is). It might be one reason why the Indian army now prohibits its personnel from using platforms like Tinder (see a leaked list from last year, below).

A Python library called Pynder is a client for the Tinder API. Its authors warn that recorded requests may contain personal data.

One final thought is how to address these privacy issues. Examples such as the Ashley Madison data breach show data is at risk to be exploited and shared freely. Maybe less surprising, it also shows that there are a high percentage of fake accounts on these platforms.

Open data can be a blessing and a curse. A boon if you want to verify whether the person you are flirting with is real. It's often a curse when it comes to your own privacy. What’s the answer to the dilemma? A start would be to hold dating apps accountable for encouraging oversharing. For Forbes, cybersecurity columnist Joe Gray criticised that “the [dating] sites may ask questions that are too invasive or possibly enabling that level of oversharing”. This is something dating site operators need to work out, even if this means to be a turn-off for some users.

Next-gen tube trains boast air-con, higher capacity, and real-time info screens

Developed in partnership with Siemens, the new trains will replace the Piccadilly Line’s ageing fleet which were first introduced in the 1970s.

The trains are expected to come into service by 2025 and will use an articulated design that helps to boost passenger capacity by 10 per cent, as well reducing the number of ‘bogies’ located underneath train carriages that house the wheels, motors and suspension.

Siemens said that by taking out some of the bogies, which are the heaviest part of the trains, they can improve energy efficiency by 20 per cent as well as cause less wear and tear on the tracks.

The new trains have been designed with sustainability in mind, they are 95 per cent recoverable and also offer regenerative braking capability, cutting-edge traction systems and LED lighting throughout.

Real-time information screens will inform passengers about the status of the network and the next stop.

The Piccadilly Line is one of the hottest on the tube network, with TfL reporting that temperatures soared to an unbearable 27°C in the summer of 2017. The new carriages will be the first to offer air conditioning on the London Underground deep-level lines.

Speaking at the unveiling, Andy Lord, London Underground’s managing director, said that the intention was to eventually introduce the same trains on the Bakerloo, Central and Waterloo and City lines.

“94 of these trains will soon be in production to replace the existing fleet which were built and entered service in the early 1970s,” he said. “At the time, I'm sure nobody could have imagined them continuing to serve London until well into the 2020s.”

“Despite being maintained by an incredibly professional and dedicated team, the trains currently running on the Piccadilly line have become more unreliable, and expensive to maintain, which isn't surprising given they are nearly 50 years old. That's why these new trains are so desperately needed.”

“These new trains will be more reliable, and have 10 per cent more capacity, plus walk-through trains are more spacious, which is great news for accessibility. These new designs really are state of the art, they a huge improvement on what we have at the moment, a train to see the Piccadilly line into the future.”

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said the new trains were “a key part” of his modernisation strategy for the Underground.

“But we need investment to continue this work,” he warned. “I will keep lobbying the government to deliver a long-term, viable funding model for TfL, which would enable us to carry out more upgrades to the network’s ageing infrastructure, boost our economy and deliver a green recovery for London and the wider country.”

In January, TfL admitted that it would need years of extra funding from central government to stay afloat due to the massive reduction in passengers travelling on the network as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, the number of rail journeys fell to levels not seen since the Victorian era as passengers were warned to only travel when strictly necessary and many people moved to home working.

As part of its Financial Sustainability Plan, which it is currently discussing with the government, TfL is requesting £1.6bn in capital funding per year between 2023 and 2030 that will help it become less reliant on fares income.

Half of the new Piccadilly Line trains will be built in Goole in East Yorkshire in Siemens’ new rail manufacturing facility, in a move that it says will create “thousands of jobs”.

Money & Markets: Governments splurge money to keep interest rates low

The last week of February 2021 was the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis that global interest rates took a run up. The stock markets of the world quivered.

The interest rate on debt is a big deal because very few listed engineering companies would not go bust if they were unable to renew their borrowings. There is a mighty system of liquidity that keeps pumping money from one part of the economic body to another to keep it functioning, and interest rates are core to that process.

In 2007-2008 that system had a seizure because a large part of the system had morphed to pumping money into real estate using financial instruments that malfunctioned and consequently froze the whole system. Unaddressed, that would have wrecked the global economy for decades. Happily, the governments of the world synced up to defibrillate the system and then spent the next decade tidying up. However bad that outcome, the situation would have been dramatically worse if what was then called ‘unorthodox monetary policy’ had not been invested.

What governments learnt was that ‘unorthodox monetary policy’ not only worked but was a fabulous new method whereby every downturn could be softened. It became the new orthodoxy.

It turns out that interest rates can be magicked away by the stroke of a pen and that debt is in fact wealth, not a milestone to crush and shame the borrower. Well let’s hope so, because debts are now mushrooming to unprecedented levels and at the centre of it all, interest rates must remain incredibly and historically low.

To keep them low there need to be lenders, and those lenders need to have money to lend. Under the new rules, the government lends the money for nothing to itself and others, with the others responsible for spreading their loan out at a higher rate to those on the lower rungs of finance and society. You could envision it like this: the government prints money and gives it to banks for near free to charge you very little to borrow the money to buy a house at what amounts to ever-inflating prices, so the seller can spend a little more or the buyer borrow some on top too. Asset prices inflate and that becomes an ATM of sorts.

The government prints this money via swapping its highly rated bonds for not so highly rated bonds, so there is not an immediate gush of cash, just a stream of new assets that can be swapped later into others and then into numbers on a screen that mean the economy has more money. This is where the ‘liquidity’ idea comes from.

So, for example my £100 Clem Bond is worth £0, because no one will buy it, but the moment the Bank of England will give me £90 of government bonds for it, I am in business. I can sell that government bond for £90 and go play. The government might even buy that same bond back a little later from whoever bought if off me for freshly printed pound notes, so up goes the money supply and everybody is happy.

So what could go wrong?

It would be inconvenient if central banks became not only the buyer of last resort but also the only buyer in the market at all. When other parties stop wanting to put their cash on deposit for ‘zero point very little per cent’ interest, then interest rates in the bond markets will rise unless the central bank takes up the slack. It is not the rising interest rates that count as much as the lowering of the amount of money flowing that causes the problem. The more flowing money the lower the rates, so a bond-buyers’ strike means there simply isn’t the money out there in the system to borrow, and that is when all those companies get into cashflow problems and start to go bust. That would be bad.

Right now many a Covid-poleaxed company has access to generous funding because the central banks of the world have made so much money available that it is worth funders punting money into risky situations. These huge liquidity moves continue to save whole swathes of the economy from ceasing to exist.

So when suddenly there is the beginning of a buyers’ strike in bonds as per the last week of February 2021, then panic quickly spreads in the stock market.

The good news is this. Government cannot afford for interest rates to rise and therefore the money printing cannot and will not stop. Even when serious inflation sets in, they will not stop because they cannot. The loss of GDP through this crisis means that the only way for the state to maintain its spending is to make up the gap between its budget and its income through printing money. To get back to a 3-4 per cent deficit to GDP will take years and that goal can’t be reached through austerity even if it was politically possible.

The upshot is that there will be a never-ending flow of hot money coming into the economy and prices will surge – as well as taxes, perhaps. That means rather than fear interest rate rises and retrenchment, the way to go is ‘pedal to the metal’ because we may be looking at shifting the decimal point to the right this decade in prices, and if you don’t dive head first into the liquidity you are going to be left stranded on the muddy banks of this Amazon of money.

SpaceX Starship prototype explodes after initially successful landing

The Starship model, known as SN10, came far closer to achieving a safe, vertical touchdown than the two previous models SN8 and SN9.

In December, SN8 performed the first high-altitude test flight, demonstrating most of the atmospheric re-entry manoeuvres, but exploded as it landed. Last month, SN9 attempted a 10km flight, but once again exploded on landing after one of the Raptor engines failed to ignite.

SN10, which is a full-scale prototype of the final Starship design, triggered its automated fire-suppression system upon landing which trained a stream of water on flames still burning at the base of the rocket. But this was not enough to prevent the Starship exploding, causing it to launch back into the air, before slamming back into the ground in flames.

sn10 explosion spacex rocket

SN10 explodes after its initial landing

Image credit: reuters

While there was no immediate comment from SpaceX on what went wrong, its founder Elon Musk said in a tweet: “Starship 10 landed in one piece! RIP SN10, honorable discharge.”

“SpaceX team is doing great work! One day, the true measure of success will be that Starship flights are commonplace,” he added.

The complete Starship rocket, which will stand 120m tall in combination with its super-heavy first-stage booster, is SpaceX's next-generation fully reusable launch vehicle and the centre of Musk's ambitions to make human space travel more affordable and routine.

A first orbital Starship flight is planned for year's end. Musk has said he intends to fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the Moon with the Starship in 2023.

Last June, SpaceX delivered Nasa astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station, which marked the first time a SpaceX rocket had been used to transport humans into space.

Chinese astronauts in training for four crewed missions

China is working towards completion of its first permanent orbiting station. The Chinese Space Station will be approximately one-fifth the mass of the ISS at 80-100 tonnes. Under the CNSA’s timetable, it will be launched into low-earth orbit later this year.

The station’s core module, Tianhe, could be launched as early as April, according to the CNSA and international observers. Last month, the heavy-lift Long March-5B Y2 and its payload were moved into place at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan Province. Assembly and testing work is continuing on the launch vehicle.

The launch will mark the first of 11 CNSA missions over the next two years to finish constructing the space station by the end of 2022. Two more modules; four Tianzhou cargo supply missions, and four Shenzhou crewed missions will be launched following the core module launch. The core module also has docking stations to permit the attachment of modules for experimentation at a later stage.

The CNSA has released details of 12 astronauts now in training for these missions, including men, women, newcomers and Shenzhou veterans. Up to three astronauts at a time will live in the core module. The space station will permit stays of up to six months, similar to the ISS.

China has already launched two small experimental space stations in preparation for the full-scale space station launch; these are used to test measures for docking, life support and rendezvous.

The space station is intended to have a 15-year lifetime. This could allow it to last beyond the projected end of the ISS, as that station enters its final years. The ISS will reach its 30th anniversary in 2028, with no concrete plans at present for its longer-term future.

While the ISS is principally backed by the space agencies of US, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada, the CNSA was blocked from participating. This was largely at the insistence of the US, due to national security concerns.

Since its establishment in 2003, the CNSA has made rapid leaps and bounds to become a space power. China became the first country to conduct a soft landing on the far side of the Moon in 2019. Last month, a Chinese spacecraft reached Mars; the spacecraft is lowering its orbit (entering a 'parking orbit') to prepare for a landing in the coming weeks. If successful, this will make China only the second country to land a spacecraft on Mars, following the US.

This week, it was also reported that China is undergoing work on the development of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle (Long March 9) over five years. The rocket is expected to be 93m long with a core 10m in diameter. It aims to lift around 130 tonnes to low-earth orbit or around 45 tonnes to trans-lunar injection. The rocket’s payload would make it more powerful than the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. The head of China’s lunar exploration programme Luan Enjie told state broadcaster CCTV this week that the rocket will be capable of reaching the Moon and that the project is underway with feasibility studies already complete.

The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology will also continue develop of a next-gen crew launch vehicle in the same timescale.

More sustainable F1 series could see teams from Volkswagen

Broadcast company the BBC quoted Porsche Motorsport vice-president Fritz Enzinger as saying it would be “of great interest if aspects of sustainability - for instance, implementing e-fuels” played a role. Porche is owned by the Volkswagen Group.

Enzinger added: “Should they [FIA] confirm these aspects, we will evaluate them in detail within the VW Group and discuss further steps. Porsche and Volkswagen AG are observing the constantly changing regulations in all relevant racing series around the world. This is also the case regarding the emerging new engine and drivetrain regulation for Formula One from 2025.”

The FIA, F1’s governing body, last year delivered the first barrels of 100 per cent sustainable fuel made from bio-waste to engine manufacturers for testing and validation. It said the aim was a mandatory requirement of 100 per cent sustainable fuels in F1, which has a target of being a net-zero carbon sport by 2030.

“Our top sustainability priority now is building a roadmap for the hybrid engine that reduces emissions and has a real-world benefit for road cars,” said Ross Brawn, F1's managing director for motorsport, said in December 2020. “We believe we have the opportunity to do that with a next-generation engine that combines hybrid technology with sustainable fuels.”

F1’s new chief executive Stefano Domenicali, former head of the Volkswagen-owned luxury marque Lamborghini, said in January that the sport was in discussions with auto manufacturers not currently involved with the sport.

“For the moment, they prefer to stay still quiet, but the good news is that there are other companies, very important companies, that are really keen to understand what is the value that they can bring home using the F1 platform,” he said.

In February this year, Red Bull announced it will continue to use Honda’s Formula One (F1) power units from 2022 until 2025, with the F1 team introducing its own powertrain company.

National Robotarium construction underway as UK aims to lead in robotics

The facility is intended to be a world-leading research centre for robotics and AI and the largest and most advanced of its type in the UK. The doors are expected to open in Spring 2022.

Based at Heriot-Watt University’s Edinburgh campus, the National Robotarium is supported by £21m from the UK Government and £1.4m from the Scottish Government as part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

The National Robotarium has been planned as a centre of excellence for pioneering research, creating innovative solutions to global challenges using cutting-edge research, product design and industry collaboration. Bringing together academics and global companies, the facility will provide a catalyst for entrepreneurship and is expected to deliver sustainable economic benefit locally to Edinburgh, as well as the whole of the UK and beyond.

Although research projects led by the National Robotarium have already begun, the new building will provide extensive world-class facilities for researchers and knowledge exchange. Key areas of research application will include hazardous environments; offshore energy; manufacturing; healthcare; human-robot interaction; assisted living; and agritech.

Professor Helen Hastie and Professor Yvan Petillot are joint academic leads of the National Robotarium. Describing the vision for the new facility, Professor Hastie said: “As a world-leading facility that will promote entrepreneurship and drive forward early-stage product development, the National Robotarium will play a significant role in supporting the UK’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.”

“By drawing upon the world-class talent of the staff at Heriot-Watt and our collaborative partner, the University of Edinburgh, alongside students at the Centre for Doctoral Training in Robotics and Autonomous Systems, the National Robotarium will form a centre of excellence for fundamental research and knowledge exchange to address real-world challenges and industry needs.”

“The new building will facilitate a collaborative approach that is at the heart of the National Robotarium’s ethos, helping to accelerate research from laboratory to market and paving the way for the UK to take a leadership role in AI and robotics technology.”

National Robotarium CGI of external building

Image credit: National Robotarium

Professor Yvan Petillot added: “The cutting-edge resources provided by the new facility combined with the expertise of our researchers will put us in a highly competitive position to elevate the UK onto the global stage in robotics and AI technologies. Our existing and new students will have the opportunity to apply their knowledge by working on real-world problems through internships and industry-led group projects facilitated by the Robotarium, accelerating their skills as they actively shape the future of the field.

“We hope to inspire subsequent generations about the positive impact of robotics and artificial intelligence, building trust, ethics and understanding into our research outputs and engaging the public regularly through school visits and open days.”

Iain Stewart, Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, said: “The creation of the UK’s first National Robotarium in Edinburgh will place Scotland at the forefront of a technological revolution that is changing the way we work. This exciting new facility will create opportunities for Scotland’s entrepreneurs and innovators and bring jobs and prosperity to the entire region. The UK government has now committed more than £1.5bn to city region and growth deals, which will help communities to build back better from the pandemic.”

Funded as part of the ‘Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal’, the National Robotarium is a collaboration between Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh. The 3,700 square-metre building will house three distinct research and development areas, providing bespoke facilities for robotics and autonomous systems; human and robotics interaction, and high-precision manufacturing. Amongst the specialist equipment will be dedicated laser labs, an autonomous systems laboratory, and a living lab for trialling technology in a realistic home setting.

In keeping with the National Robotarium’s commitment to foster a responsible and collaborative approach, the building will include a ‘partner suite’ dedicated to industry, academic and government collaboration.

National Robotarium Internal atrium

Image credit: National Robotarium

Innovative design means the cutting-edge resources will be matched by the building itself, with a focus on sustainability and energy efficiency. In winter, the intelligent façade will provide solar heat and recycle warm air. An ecological zone will integrate sustainable urban drainage systems, while a solar PV array will be installed on the roof. EV charging spaces will also be available. To support the facility’s commitment to public engagement activities, linear grazing luminaire technology and an exterior projector will display graphics on the façade.

The National Robotarium will be home to numerous research projects aimed at addressing a wide range of global challenges. Examples of projects include Spring (Socially Pertinent Robots in Gerontological Healthcare); developing the world’s first multi-user conversational robot for healthcare, intended to support the care of elderly patients, and the EPSRC ORCA Hub (Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets), a national hub of five universities led by Heriot-Watt that is advancing technologies to remove humans from hazardous work environments. The building’s assisted living lab will utilise technology to help individuals live independently for longer, with research ranging from robotics and conversational assistants to IoT devices and wireless monitoring techniques.

As part of the UKRI Trustworthy Autonomous Systems programme, in November 2020 it was announced that the National Robotarium will spearhead research into ways to manage trust between humans and autonomous systems to support adoption in scenarios that require human interaction, such as in self-driving cars or autonomous wheelchairs.

The National Robotarium forms part of the City Deal’s Data Driven Innovation theme, which aims to establish the region as the data capital of Europe.

More information about the National Robotarium is available online.

Contact lenses featuring gold nanoparticles could correct colour blindness

Some daily activities, such as determining if a banana is ripe, selecting matching clothes or stopping at a red light, can be difficult for those with colour blindness.

Most people with this genetic disorder have difficulty discriminating red and green shades, and red-tinted glasses can make those colours more prominent and easier to see. However, such lenses are bulky and experts cannot make the lens material to fix vision problems.

Because of this, researchers turned to the development of specially tinted contact lenses. And although the prototype hot-pink dyed lenses improved red-green colour perception in clinical trials, they leached dye, which led to concerns about their safety.

In a quest to find an alternative, researchers Ahmed Salih, Haider Butt, and their colleagues at Khalifa University wanted to see whether incorporating gold nanoparticles into contact lens material instead of dye could improve red-green contrast safely and effectively. Gold nanocomposites are non-toxic and have been used for centuries to produce 'cranberry glass' because of the way they scatter light.

To make the contact lenses, the researchers evenly mixed gold nanoparticles into a hydrogel polymer, producing rose-tinted gels that filtered light within 520-580nm, the wavelengths where red and green overlap.

They found the most effective contact lenses were those with 40nm-wide gold nanoparticles because, in tests, these particles did not clump or filter more colour than necessary. In addition, these lenses had water-retention properties similar to those of commercial ones and were not toxic to cells growing in petri dishes in the lab, according to the researchers.

The researchers then directly compared their new material to two commercially available pairs of tinted glasses and their previously developed hot-pink dyed contact lens. Here, they found that gold nanocomposite lenses were more selective in the wavelengths they blocked than the glasses.

The new lenses matched the wavelength range of the dyed contact lenses, the team concluded, suggesting the gold nanocomposite ones would be suitable for people with red-green colour issues without the potential safety concerns.

The team, which also includes Ali Yetisen from the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London, said that the next step is to conduct clinical trials with human patients to assess comfort.

The research paper, ‘Gold Nanocomposite Contact Lenses for Color Blindness Management’, is available on ACS Nano.

In January, an international team developed a multifunctional ultra-thin sensor using a new manufacturing process – an innovation that could pave the way for the production of smart contact lenses.

Why the pandemic is a game-changer for digital transformation

If there were ever any doubts about the necessity of digital transformation to business continuity, they should now have been silenced. As Covid-inspired lockdown and social-distancing restrictions first came into play in March last year, it quickly became clear that innovation is vital to the survival of businesses both large and small.

The pandemic has proved to be something of a reality check for companies that were overly reliant on legacy software, and who have previously been hesitant to adopt new tech. Over the past 12 months, many organisations have found themselves under-equipped to continue their operations in a contactless world.

Indeed, almost half (49 per cent) of businesses recently surveyed by Studio Graphene say that Covid-19 has exposed weaknesses within their business’s IT infrastructure and digital processes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this figure rises to 59 per cent among the bigger companies surveyed (those with more than 250 employees), which traditionally lag far behind early adopters.

More reassuringly, 58 per cent of the businesses surveyed stated that the pandemic has prompted their organisation to overhaul the way it adopts and implements new tech, with 66 per cent of large businesses committing to giving their digital transformation strategy a reboot in 2021.

With this in mind, what can large corporates learn from the pandemic to bolster their digital maturity in the year ahead?

One of the biggest takeaways from Covid-incentivised digital transformation plans, is that the companies that had developed and executed on their digital strategies prior to the pandemic – and these are often start-ups and SMEs – have been better equipped to deal with the shift to online.

Thankfully, the Studio Graphene survey has shown that businesses of all sizes intend to go all-in when implementing new tech in the next 12 months, and on average, 69 per cent of organisations plan to launch new digital projects, tools or initiatives. A further 65 per cent are aiming to go the extra mile and invest in completely new areas, such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, big data and cloud computing.

As businesses begin to deploy emerging technologies, I would urge large organisations to look to their smaller counterparts for inspiration. The truth is, smaller teams and budgets don’t necessarily mean diminished outputs. In fact, younger and leaner organisations are able to implement new tech more efficiently and at a much greater pace thanks to their company cultures. This is because the success of digital transformation efforts often boils down to company cultures that promote fast-paced innovation, and an ability to quickly pilot new initiatives.

Large organisations with masses of employees and bureaucratic structures frequently have a hard time gearing up their workforces for digital change. In the past, established companies with long-standing members of staff may have found it difficult to persuade their employees of the merits that new tech has to offer. As a result, these businesses often stuck to deeply entrenched mindsets and legacy software as an easy way forward. In cases like these, digital transformation strategies tend to be set out far in advance with overly formal procedures hindering quick adoption.

In part, this is to avoid risk; surely, tech must function well and be relatively error-free to fit the needs of any organisation. But in the current climate, rigid implementation schedules and red tape just won’t do.

Instead, companies should start thinking smaller. Like start-ups, they should work with procedures that champion iterative design, enabling teams to gradually implement new solutions and improve upon them at each stage of delivery.

Taking an ‘all at once’ approach generally leaves wide open the opportunity for glaring mistakes when the project is finally delivered, as well as running the risk that information collected at the project’s inception quickly becomes outdated as company needs shift. After all, slow and steady doesn’t always win the race when it comes to the roll-out of new initiatives – quick and gradual efforts will put businesses on the path to truly effective digital maturity.

Aside from offering a competitive advantage to businesses looking for commercial growth, tech has also been an important driver of continuity behind the scenes.

Now, more than ever, businesses must also consider remote-working conditions when developing their digital transformation strategies. To this end, 67 per cent of organisations plan to invest more heavily in cyber security in the coming months; meanwhile, the same number of businesses are laying down the groundwork for further investment in workplace collaboration software and video conferencing tools.

As digital natives, nimbler startup organisations adapted to flexible working practices quickly, and for the most part, without any impediment to their day-to-day operation. However, larger businesses are more likely to be set in their ways when it comes to working in line with more conventional procedures, and many have been under-prepared when mobilising their workforce to work from home.

For example, although these companies are ordinarily better equipped with cyber security in office settings owing to their larger budgets, they are also more vulnerable to cyber attacks, in part due to their complex company structures. Particularly when working from home, these challenges are magnified. With the digital economy growing, it is encouraging to see companies ramping up their cyber-security spend and seeking out new ways to protect their data. Indeed, the new working environment should be reason enough to start stripping away some of the red tape, and moving tech initiatives forward quickly in response to new challenges and priorities.

The path to digital innovation has finally come into sharper focus over the past 12 months. But that said, the need for businesses to adapt their ways of working to become leaner and more efficient will still remain long after the pandemic has ceased. Thankfully, organisations seem to be moving in the right direction, and I look forward to seeing the many wonderful innovations that emerge from this difficult period.

Ritam Gandhi is the founder and director of Studio Graphene.

Tiny photonic devices could help detect disease and spot exoplanets

A microcomb is a photonic device capable of generating a range of optical frequencies on a tiny optical cavity known as a microresonator. These colours are uniformly distributed, such that the microcomb behaves like a 'ruler made of light' for measuring or generating frequencies with extreme precision.

The Chalmers University researchers developed a new kind of microcomb of a chip, based on not one but two microresonators. The two microresonators interact with each other, similar to how atoms bind together when forming a diatomic molecule; this arrangement is known as a “photonic molecule”.

The device is a coherent, tuneable and reproducible device with up to ten times higher net conversion efficiency than the current state of the art devices.

“The reason why the results are important is that they represent a unique combination of characteristics, in terms of efficiency, low-power operation and control, that are unprecedented in the field,” said PhD candidate Óskar Bjarki Helgason.

While this is not the first time a microcomb on a chip has been demonstrated, this method overcomes a number of well-known limitations through the use of a second microresonator. This arrangement results in its unique characteristics. It is small enough to fit on the end of a human hair, and the gaps between the “teeth” of the comb are extremely wide. As almost any measurement can be linked to frequency, the large width of the teeth opens up the possibility of wide opportunities for both researchers and engineers.

The microcomb could, for instance, radically decrease the power consumption in optical communication systems, with tens of lasers being replaced by a single chip-scale microcomb in data centres. They could be used in lidar for autonomous driving vehicles in order to measure distances, or to calibrate the spectrographs used astronomical observations (such as for the discovery of exoplanets). Other possibilities include more accurate optical clocks, health monitoring apps for phones, and diagnostic tests based on analysis of exhaled air.

“For the technology to be practical and find its use outside the lab, we need to co-integrate additional elements with the microresonators, such as lasers, modulators, and control electronics,” said Dr Victor Torres-Company, who leads the Ultrafast Photonics Laboratory at Chalmers University. “This is a huge challenge, that requires maybe five to 10 years and an investment in engineering research, but I am convinced that it will happen.

“The most interesting advances and applications are the ones that we have not even conceived of yet. This will likely be enabled by the possibility of having multiple microcombs on the same chip. What could we achieve with tens of microcombs that we cannot do with one?”

Research contributes to understanding of hypersonic flow Using data collected in a NASA wind tunnel, researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign replicated the hypersonic flow conditions of a compression ramp flow using Direct Numerical Simulation. The simulation was run on Frontera, a supercomputer system at the Texas Advanced Computing Center.
Air pollution fell sharply during lockdown Analyses by the University of Innsbruck show that traffic restrictions during the first lockdown last March led to a sharp drop in air pollutant emissions, significantly more than for carbon dioxide. The study confirms the assumption that traffic is significantly underestimated as a source of nitrogen oxide pollution in cities and is responsible for over 90 percent of these pollutants.
Major cardiovascular risk factor rates are high in the U.S. Hispanic/Latino population While most Hispanic/Latino people in the U.S. were aware of their cardiovascular risk factors, less than half of the adults in a study of stroke survivors had healthy blood pressure and cholesterol, and about half had healthy blood sugar levels.Targeted prevention programs may help Hispanic/Latino people avoid a second stroke and other events, especially among older adults, women, the uninsured and those born or living in the U.S. for more than 10 years.

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