Tag Archives: technology

What is Quantum Computing?

The stream of data we generate is not harnessed to its full potential. When you consider the billions of search algorithms processed by Google each second, the surge of clickable likes Facebook sees every minute and the amount of photos shared online, a lot of data is going to waste because we still lack the computational power to make sense of it all.

Can you imagine what we could achieve if we had a computer capable of optimising all the personal data that we generate?

In the wake of the smartphone revolution, almost every minute detail of our lives is recorded: we use apps to track our heartbeat, diet and fitness, e-commerce tracks our behavioural and shopping patterns, in-built GPS takes note of our precise whereabouts, while institutions keep track of the economy, news and weather.

Scientists have long theorised that one day, a computer which channels the mind-bending principles of quantum mechanics will be capable of solving the mightiest mathematical calculations in lightning speeds.

This would present results that today’s computers would take years to calculate.

Very broadly, quantum mechanics relies on the central principle that particles at subatomic scale exist in all possible states simultaneously. At this level, light can act both like a particle and a wave. Two subatomic particles are known to be linked even when miles apart: in his theory of special relativity, Albert Einstein described this as “spooky action at a distance”. In this entanglement, changing one would change the other in the exact same way.

This might sound like a difficult concept to unpack and perhaps one that is ultimately futuristic. However, it seems that a quantum computer operating on these mind-boggling principles to promise a revolution in data processing, already exists. In Vancouver, Canada, a start-up called D-Wave wowed the scientific community back in 2007 by announcing that it had built the world’s first quantum computer, a feat which was hitherto thought to be decades away from being achieved.

Four years later, the company went on to release its first commercial quantum computer and is expected to launch a more powerful chip towards the end of this year. The quantum computer lives in a black box the size of a garden shed approximately 10 feet high, with a white neon logo embellished on its belly in a futuristic font. Its constituents – a single remarkable chip made of tiny loops of silver-grey niobium wire – is kept inside a freezer that cools to a temperature around 150 times colder than interstellar space. These temperatures are essential to achieve quantum effects.

The circuits in D-Wave’s processors are superconducting: they have zero electrical resistance and generate no heat. The superconducting circuit gives these computers unprecedented speed and power. But apart from the bizarre temperatures, what makes a quantum computer essentially different and so revolutionary compared to the computers that we currently use? In its rawest form, data stored digitally on a computer can occur in two possibilities. These possibilities are called bits and can be either active or inactive. On the other hand, quantum computers use quantum bits (qubits) where the 1 and the 0 can occur simultaneously.

This means that they can perform multiple calculations simultaneously. So whereas today’s computers can represent a single number in a calculation, a quantum computer’s qubit can be on, off or in a mixed state in between, enabling them to be in multiple places at the same time and thus capable of performing single tasks at ridiculously faster speeds and more effectively. The D-Wave is capable of crunching numbers faster than any other comparable machine on earth. It is in fact 3,600 times faster than a traditional computer.

To compare, home computers run on a 32-bit processor while the D-Wave One is a 128-qubit machine. It comes as no surprise that two of the world’s intelligence giants, Google and the US Space Agency NASA, pounced on D-Wave’s project. At NASA’s Ames Research Centre in Mountain View, California, Google and NASA are using their co-owned D-Wave computer for a branch of artificial intelligence with applications in areas as diverse as voice recognition and detecting credit card fraud. NASA is studying effective means for D-Wave to calculate the optimal route and method for Curiosity rover to land on Mars.

Meanwhile, Google is using D-Wave to further ­develop its Google Chauffeur software in self-driven cars, teaching it to better navigate the roads and react to obstacles in a more similar way to the human brain. The quantum computer could represent an enormous new source of computer power, potentially a computer working closer to how the human brain works, without the margin of human error. It would solve problems that will bury conventional computers into centuries by revolutionising artificial intelligence.

Even though the engineering difficulties for building a quantum computer are still a hurdle due to the environment within which it needs to operate, researchers continue to hope that quantum architecture will eventually be used to optimise solutions across complex and interconnected sets of data variables, currently still beyond the capabilities of conventional computing.

Even if today’s computer software is already sequentially very fast, quantum computers will consider so many more factors sim­ultaneously that its capabilities will one day rival that of our brains. D-Wave’s next chip, consisting of 1,024-qubits, is currently undergoing careful assessment, ahead of its planned release this year.

Quantum computing: the effects

Health: Medical professionals would diagnose specific health conditions and diseases more accurately. A quantum computer would crunch data instantaneously, detecting problems in DNA in the blink of an eye with amazing accuracy. For instance, cancer would be detected earlier and its computational models would help determine how the disease develops.

Environment: The devastating Haiyan Typhoon in the Philippines last year would have been anticipated with precision, giving people more time to retreat to safety. This would surely help prevent weather related disasters in the age of quantum computing.

Marketing: Marketers already have a lot of intelligence at their disposal: however, a quantum computer would translate into even more hyper-personalised advertising because consumer data can be optimised faster.

Travel: Travellers would be able to map their routes down to the minutest detail since the quantum computer would be able to consider ­exponentially more options: like the weather within each kilometre, the size of the plane, the amount of space you would have in your seat or the extra options available on each flight.

Originally published in The Sunday Times of Malta on August 10, 2014.


Bridging the digital divide

Elderly people and technology don’t flock together. They move at different speeds. And yet, Lewis Spiteri has managed to adopt the latest technology. Perhaps it’s his capacity to be curious and critical that has seen him successfully cross the bridge between a world without a phone to using a smartphone.

Lewis, 71, has been using an iPhone as a communication and file-sharing medium for the past five years and has recently also upgraded to an iPad. He also owns a Kindle, even though he still prefers reading a bound book since the scent and feel of the paper draw him deeper into the character.

He has always chosen to remain abreast with evolving technology trends that have within the past decade changed so rapidly. In fact, as we chat, we weave in and out of episodes from his life, for which technology remains a common thread.

Lewis was brought up in Vittoriosa and currently resides in a cosy apartment in Santa Luċija with his wife Josephine. Together, they raised three children and now have seven grandchildren, the eldest of whom is my friend. In fact, we coupled the interview with one of her visits. So on a sunny Saturday afternoon we drive south to be greeted by the bubbly Josephine, who kindly leads us to the living room, where Lewis is sitting on a sofa, enjoying a game of local football on a large screen.

While Josephine can be heard clinking in the kitchen preparing our tea and biscuits, Lewis and I gear up our conversation. He comes across as a courteous and reserved man, one who weighs his words carefully.

“It’s unbelievable,” he tells me. “I started my working life with an afro and now I’m as bald as an onion. I was still a teen when I started out as an apprentice at the dockyard, which was, in my belief, a technology hub. I learnt a lot about technology there. I remember having to come up with my own tools every day, and this skill allowed me to sharpen my thinking and learn how to be innovative. No ship we worked on was identical, so I always woke up to develop new concepts, to fail and try again until something worked. After around 30 years, I moved into an office to work in administration and later as a teacher.

Photo: Yentl Spiteri

“In the 1960s, we taught using a blackboard and a box of white chalk. Eventually, we had coloured chalk, so by the end of class, my hand would resemble a rainbow splashed in coloured dust.

“Thankfully, we soon got anti-dust chalk. By then, the blackboard was also rotational, a new innovation which reduced the annoying process of having to constantly erase what I wrote. I still remember the introduction of the epidiascope. Have you ever seen one? I’m not sure you have. Gone are the days when I used to buy a set of transparencies. I remember I used to prepare the slides at home and then project them on the wall during class. This was a major improvement over the blackboard because we didn’t have to erase everything and the teaching material could be reused. However, this is nothing compared to now. Today I prepare Powerpoint presentations and can also use internet in class.

“The internet made life so much easier for me, especially as a teacher. I remember having to print handouts which I would pass round in class. Now, I gather a list of my students’ e-mail addresses and send them their notes directly. Also, if someone asks a question, I can easily go on You Tube and explain through a video. Looking back, I barely believe how we used to get any work done before. Today, it only takes me five minutes of preparation before a lesson, because all I do is enter the class, switch on my laptop, and I’m set,” he says.

“I have recently bought two external hard drives of 16Gb each, just to make sure I’ll never run out of storage space. It’s unbelievable how external memory has changed the concept of filing. In my time, filing was literally papers, files, cabinets and a lot of physical space. Data retrieval has also become so easy. Before, I used to stress over a paper I might have misplaced, whereas now, all it takes is typing out the first three letters of the name of the document and it’s right there in front of you. Back in the days, only a magician could do that,” he smiles.

In 2000, Lewis was encouraged to read for an MBA.

“To be completely honest with you, I was initially quite hesitant since I didn’t think I would be that competent,” Lewis admits. “You see, my typing skills were close to nil – I used to type with only one finger. However, I went for it. I learnt the computer on my own, because I had no time to go for lessons on how to use it. I remember back then, we still had a tower and a printer which sounded like a stone grinder. And of course, no internet so all my research had to be done manually. I believe a lot in research. When you’re doing your own research, you’re learning how to search and gather information, how to be critical of what you are reading.

“I frequented the public library and the University. Basically, it was all about hard copies. And since a lot of my work was done through distance learning, I had to send my assignments by post. Just imagine how difficult it would have been if I hadn’t adapted to new technologies and learnt how to use the computer. I surely wouldn’t have managed, but I did. I got my MBA. I learnt on my own, the hard way.”

Curious to know at what stage our conversation has arrived, Josephine tiptoes back into the room to switch on the light, and as she leaves, I’m compelled to ask him one final question. How did the two meet?

“I met my wife in Valletta more than 50 years ago. We’re talking about the days when Paceville didn’t even exist. We were both in some teahouse and she caught my attention. I remember she was with a group of girls and I said to myself if I had to date one of them, it would be her. In our time there was no such thing as meeting someone online.

“I think that this is the only negative aspect of technology because social media is shunning us from physical encounters and this is changing human nature. When we meet people face-to-face, we are studying each other not just through the words we say but even through the way we say things. Right now, I’m actually seeing you and you’re answering me in the here and now. I’m listening to your voice, noting your tone – there’s personal contact.

“I think when I first met my wife, it was love at first sight. Well, let’s not call it love at first sight, but I’m sure the emotion exists, because the phrase didn’t come out of nowhere. That deep feeling you get when you see a person for the first time can’t be replaced when seeing someone’s picture online.

“Anyway, Josephine and I didn’t date for a long time, maybe three weeks, or a month at most. Let’s say it was a month. Then I met her parents. Before we got married, I used to go to her house in Birkirkara after work. Remember, we’re still talking about the days when there was no telephone, so I literally had to go to her house in order to see her! And if I had to work overtime, I used to ask the bakery close to where I worked whether it would be okay for them to call and pass on the message.

“When I look back, I realise how life has gone by so fast that I never had the chance to stop and think. I started working at the age of 14, married at 21 and today, I’m 71. I never stopped, I just kept on learning. I believe the human being was created to move forward, to walk, to run. Unless you’re dead, keep going. It’s true there is a lot going on and society is constantly changing fast, but you can never stop progress. I believe that if you don’t accept new technologies, you’re very likely to fall behind, because technology offers so many advantages and it makes life so much easier.”

This interview was originally published in The Sunday Times of Malta on April 13, 2014. 

Does tech detract childhood experiences?

My friend’s son Billy is now two-and-a-half years old. He is familiar with the Youtube app on his dad’s iPhone and knows it is a source of cartoons. Once his dad renders a search, he can scroll through similar videos on his own and chooses the one he would like to watch. He knows a smartphone can take photos, and often requests a selfie.

Even though still very young, Billy is relatively savvy with his dad’s smartphone. But he’s not the exception: most kids his age are pretty much the same. If Billy is more likely to be the rule in today’s touch-screen based and app-dominated society, what are the implications for today’s kids in their experience of childhood?

Childhood is an exciting period of exploration. Through play, children develop and categorise their thoughts. They explore surroundings, materials, social realities and situations in a safe and unthreatening environment. Play offers social, emotional and intellectual development which is crucial during any child’s early years.

During our first two years of life, the brain is highly malleable and the number of connections formed during this period are formative for the child’s future and learning. Thus, the natural conclusion would be that since the Internet is the present and the future, children should be exposed to tablets and smartphones as early as possible so as to prepare them for the tech-saturated lifestyle beyond their strollers.

Even though educational cartoons and video-games contribute positively to a child’s knowledge, problem-solving and academic abilities, consumption must be selective. International studies demonstrate that too much early exposure to screen technology may inappropriately stimulate the developing brain in such a way that it may be harmful.

Play therapist Jacqueline Abela DeGiovanni suggests that parents are often unprepared for the challenge, especially when it comes to regulating their child’s time with such technologies.

“My work includes working closely with families, and I do believe that excessive television viewing and offering little or no time regulation when it comes to any use of tech gadgets is proofing to be somewhat problematic in our society,” she says.

Some of the health implications include a decline in physical activity, which could lead to child obesity and also a decline in pretend or make-believe play.

“Technology could be binding children indoors with little or no time to physical exercise and social interaction. Play activities, such as pretend play and make-believe play are on the decrease due to children preferring to use technology gadgets to occupy their time.”

For me, growing up in the 1990s meant that a home-computer was an essential part of our home décor, much like having a fridge in the kitchen. And listening to my mother narrating stories of her childhood, filled with days playing with neighbours in the streets of her village somehow always made me nostalgic for her past. By the age of four, I was already spending most of my time indoors, playing games off a floppy disc with quirky 2D graphics and annoying sounds, while my mother holds memories of childhood that are based on authentic experiences and intimate friendships.

From my experience, I don’t think that technology is necessarily the cause of a decline in physical and make-believe play, but rather the effect of an accelerated lifestyle. With the traffic laden roads and compact housing bearing no room for a garden, and the very little neighbourhood fields left where children could roam around, climb trees and play freely with one another, it is not surprising that they are resorting to technology to play and interact.

Speaking with Billy’s dad, he explains that his son still loves toys and spends much more time playing with cars and trains or reading books, than on a smartphone. But of course it’s his parents who are consistently trying to instil a sense of discipline and giving their son ‘time-out’ from tech.

“He is definitely more excited about a friend coming over to play rather than watching TV or a video on Youtube,” Billy’s dad says.

This shows that children still have the natural capacity to create their own games and play with one another, despite being brought up in an electronic era. It is the fast-paced lifestyle that our society exposes us to that permits them from freely doing so.

Today’s children are growing up in a digitally distracting environment and it’s more than obvious that this isn’t going to wipe out. It is thus understandable that parents should also move with the times, but not entirely. The key is to opt for a balanced approach between technology consumption and traditional forms of play.

Moreover, we must distinguish between passive and active media consumption since the media landscape has changed drastically over the past decades: television and radio now compete with tablets and gaming consoles, which are far more engaging on a cognitive level, than the passive consumption of television and radio.

Screens are but a delivery mechanism and what is important is to focus on the content that they are conveying.

In fact, the Centre for Child, Health, Behaviour and Development at the Seattle’s Research Institute in the US studied two groups of children aged 18-24 months: one who was asked to play with blocks, and the other was asked to watch television. The former group scored significantly better on subsequent language tests. This illustrates how an interactive component during play promotes language development.

Dr Dimitri Christakis, the Director of the Seattle Research Institute is currently set to replicate this study, in order to compare the effects of TV and interactive iPad games. Even though the research is still in progress, Dr Christakis predicts that the effect of tablets on the brain will be much closer to the blocks than the television. This could suggest the potential touch-screen devices might yield as academic tools.

So, instead of fully depriving our children from using or interacting through new technologies in favour of traditional play, we need to help make use it mindfully – perhaps even through the help of Facebook pages such as APPropriate, which is aimed at providing information about suitable iPad or Android applications young children will love learning from.

Speech and language pathologist Veronica Montanaro, who specialised in augmentative and alternative communication, has recently studied the way children below the age of three interact with an iPad and established developmental milestones which would certainly be helpful to parents, professionals and application developers to understand age-appropriate iPad use. The study reveals the ages at which iPad-specific behavior emerge including attention skills, behavior, cognitive skills, language and communication skills, exploration of the iPad, posture and iPad handing and motor skills.

Billy’s generation is the first to grow up in a networked society with constant connectivity. The way they will process and present information, as well as their expectation of one another will undoubtedly be different from any of our childhoods. Different doesn’t necessarily mean worse.

Detractors may fear that today’s children will eventually grow up to be zombies, lacking interpersonal and social skills, but I believe this is a generalised overstatement. Given the right tools, within the right context and timing, Billy’s generation could potentially be the smartest and most creative – but they cannot accomplish this alone.

Billy’s dad believes in the importance of restricting the amount of tech consumption during the day.

“We should look into exposing the younger generation to more pretend, make-believe and outdoor play,” says Ms Abela DeGiovanni. “My recommendation to parents is to do their utmost to set a time limit on the use of technology gadgets.”

If you’re there to guide your children, these devices could be an opportunity for both you and your child to bond and learn from one another.

This was originally featured in The Sunday Times of Malta on February 16, 2014.