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The robots walk among us

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Almost exactly a century after the term ‘robot’, was coined in fiction, the automatons have finally gone mainstream. In the first of a series, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK meets a trio of humanoid consumer robots.

I first met Pepper the life-sized robot waiter at a conference in Hungary last year, and was smitten. As soon as he/she/it greeted me with the words, “Hello, human”, I was captivated. However, I knew it would be many years before I would meet my new friend in a local restaurant.

But what about Pepper’s smaller relatives? What about humanoid robots designed for education, entertainment and service in the home, office and school? Back then, they seemed just as distant. But suddenly, they walk among us.

It was almost exactly a century ago, in 1920, that the term was first coined by Czech writer Karl Capek in his science fiction play, R.U.R. – short for Rossum’s Universal Robots. Since then, fiction has mostly treated these constructions as a threat to humanity. Now, the tide has finally turned.

Today, one can buy robots off the shelf, or online. It seems that only budget dictates the limitations of what the gadgets can do, say or sing. Here are some of the models I’ve recently tested, previewed, or encountered:

Cady Will

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If there’s such a thing as an entry–level for robots, this is the starter model, but you’d have to go online to bring it under your control. It costs a mere $42 from Gearbest, although shipping adds $14, but for a total that is still under R1000.

For that, you get an “Intelligent combat robot with multi-control modes”.  These modes include sending instructions via a handheld remote control device,  touching its head, shaking its body and – most startling of all – gesture control. While that is expected in higher-end robots, it is rare to find a gesture sensor in a budget robot.

The clue that this is about fun rather than education lies in the word “combat”, but Cady Will accepts rudimentary programming. One can set sequences of movements, sounds, and actions, ranging from walking and sliding to dancing and singing. This means that, even while used exclusively as a toy, it exposes one to the principles of basic programming.

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This doesn’t mean one needs a thinking cap for engaging with Cady Will, though. The remote control is clearly labelled, with instructions like Right hand Up, Turn Left, Speed Up, Dance, and Music.

You would quickly get tired of hearing it perform Gangnam Style but, in reality, it is more of a demo of the moves the robot can make.  It comes with a set of missiles that can be launched from one hand, while the other sports a “laser cannon” that is probably going to scare a good few pets.

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Cady Will probably personifies the phrase, “bang for your buck”. Buy it here:

https://www.gearbest.com/rc-robot/pp_924336.html?lkid=11958179

Alpha 1 Pro

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At the opposte end of the scale, a robot that is both taller and sleeker than Cady Will, Alpha 1 Pro, will set you back R8 499, or the price of a mid-range smartphone. For that, however, you get a delightful educational and entertainment tool. Controlled via an app – Android or iOS – it features numerous built-in modes, moods and content.

Yes, the obligatory Gangnam Style puts it through its dance moves, but then it features a collection of songs, an action-version of the story of Troy, and bedtime stories. If those aren’t enough, music can be played through the Alpha 1 via Bluetooth. Demonstrations of exercises, yoga moves and martial arts turn the robot into a coach and gym partner.

The key to a robot’s movements is its servo motors, and Alpha 1 packs in 16 high precision servos, and can rotate 180 degrees,

As with Cady Will, basic programming comes in the form of recording actions in sequence. However, true programming is also introduced, using a visual programming language called Blockly. One chooses a code module in the app and adjusts the parameters to program the robot to dance, demonstrate specific moves or go off on a secret mission.

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Manufactured by UBTech, it is dsitributed in South Africa by branded technology specialist Gammatek. For more information on Alpha 1 Pro, visit: http://gammatek.co.za/product/ubtech-alpha-1-smart-toys/

UBTech Cruzr

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At the distant high end of the scale, a corporate answer to Pepper has arrived in the form of Cruzr. It is described by UBTech as “a cloud-based intelligent humanoid robot” designed for both industrial applications and domestic environments. Taller than the average human, its key features include an 11.6” touch screen, flexible arms, facial recognition, video recording, navigational mapping, video conferencing, and surveillance capabilities.

That makes it ideal for anything from security to remote employee interaction and data collection. Combined with customisable artificial intelligence business applications, including big data analysis and question and answer libraries,  it also becomes a tool for collaboration, sales and customer support.

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A two-channel stereo speaker and a camera with depth perception rounds out the multimedia features. A sensor array in the head, along with one one Lidar sensor, six sonar sensors and 12 infrared sensors, make it not only good at aviding obstacles, but position the Cruzr as the state of the interactive robot art.

It has between five and eight hours active battery life and, best of all, when it runs low, it automatically returns to its self-charging dock.

Local distributors Gammatek doesn’t have pricing for the Cruzr, as it is individually customised and priced for corporate clients.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.

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Which IoT horse should you back?

The emerging IoT is evolving at a rapid pace with more companies entering the market. The development of new product and communication systems is likely to continue to grow over the next few years, after which we could begin to see a few dominant players emerge, says DARREN OXLEE, CTOf of Utility Systems.

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But in the interim, many companies face a dilemma because, in such a new industry, there are so many unknowns about its trajectory. With the variety of options available (particularly regarding the medium of communication), there’s the a question of which horse to back.

Many players also haven’t fully come to grips with the commercial models in IoT (specifically, how much it costs to run these systems).

Which communication protocol should you consider for your IoT application? Depends on what you’re looking for. Here’s a summary of the main low-power, wide area network (LPWAN) communications options that are currently available, along with their applicability:

SIGFOX 

SigFox has what is arguably the most traction in the LPWAN space, thanks to its successful marketing campaigns in Europe. It also has strong support from vendors including Texas Instruments, Silicon Labs, and Axom.

It’s a relatively simple technology, ultra-narrowband (100 Hz), and sends very small data (12 bytes) very slowly (300 bps). So it’s perfect for applications where systems need to send small, infrequent bursts of data. Its lack of downlink capabilities, however, could make it unsuitable for applications that require two-way communication.

LORA 

LoRaWAN is a standard governed by the LoRa Alliance. It’s not open because the underlying chipset is only available through Semtech – though this should change in future.

Its functionality is like SigFox: it’s primarily intended for uplink-only applications with multiple nodes, although downlink messages are possible. But unlike SigFox, LoRa uses multiple frequency channels and data rates with coded messages. These are less likely to interfere with one another, increasing the concentrator capacity.

RPMA 

Ingenu Technology Solutions has developed a proprietary technology called Random Phase Multiple Access (RPMA) in the 2.4 GHz band. Due to its architecture, it’s said to have a superior uplink and downlink capacity compared to other models.

It also claims to have better doppler, scheduling, and interference characteristics, as well as a better link budget of 177 dB compared to LoRa’s 157 dB and SigFox’s 149 dB. Plus, it operates in the 2.4 GHz spectrum, which is globally available for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so there are no regional architecture changes needed – unlike SigFox and LoRa.

LTE-M 

LTE-M (LTE Cat-M1) is a cellular technology that has gained traction in the United States and is specifically designed for IoT or machine‑to‑machine (M2M) communications.

It’s a low‑power wide‑area (LPWA) interface that connects IoT and M2M devices with medium data rate requirements (375 kb/s upload and download speeds in half duplex mode). It also enables longer battery lifecycles and greater in‑building range compared to standard cellular technologies like 2G, 3G, or LTE Cat 1.

Key features include:

·       Voice functionality via VoLTE

·       Full mobility and in‑vehicle hand‑over

·       Low power consumption

·       Extended in‑building range

NB-IOT 

Narrowband IoT (NB‑IoT or LTE Cat NB1) is part of the same 3GPP Release 13 standard3 that defined LTE Cat M1 – both are licensed as LPWAN technologies that work virtually anywhere. NB-IoT connects devices simply and efficiently on already established mobile networks and handles small amounts of infrequent two‑way data securely and reliably.

NB‑IoT is well suited for applications like gas and water meters through regular and small data transmissions, as network coverage is a key issue in smart metering rollouts. Meters also tend to be in difficult locations like cellars, deep underground, or in remote areas. NB‑IoT has excellent coverage and penetration to address this.

MY FORECAST

The LPWAN technology stack is fluid, so I foresee it evolving more over the coming years. During this time, I suspect that we’ll see:

1.     Different markets adopting different technologies based on factors like dominant technology players and local regulations

2.     The technologies diverging for a period and then converging with a few key players, which I think will be SigFox, LoRa, and the two LTE-based technologies

3.     A significant technological shift in 3-5 years, which will disrupt this space again

So, which horse should you back?

I don’t believe it’s prudent to pick a single technology now; lock-in could cause serious restrictions in the long-term. A modular, agile approach to implementing the correct communications mechanism for your requirements carries less risk.

The commercial model is also hugely important. The cellular and telecommunications companies will understandably want to maximise their returns and you’ll want to position yourself to share an equitable part of the revenue.

So: do your homework. And good luck!

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Ms Office hack attacks up 4X

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Exploits, software that takes advantage of a bug or vulnerability, for Microsoft Office in-the-wild hit the list of cyber headaches in Q1 2018. Overall, the number of users attacked with malicious Office documents rose more than four times compared with Q1 2017. In just three months, its share of exploits used in attacks grew to almost 50% – this is double the average share of exploits for Microsoft Office across 2017. These are the main findings from Kaspersky Lab’s Q1 IT threat evolution report.

Attacks based on exploits are considered to be very powerful, as they do not require any additional interactions with the user and can deliver their dangerous code discreetly. They are therefore widely used; both by cybercriminals looking for profit and by more sophisticated nation-backed state actors for their malicious purposes.

The first quarter of 2018 experienced a massive inflow of these exploits, targeting popular Microsoft Office software. According to Kaspersky Lab experts, this is likely to be the peak of a longer trend, as at least ten in-the-wild exploits for Microsoft Office software were identified in 2017-2018 – compared to two zero-day exploits for Adobe Flash player used in-the-wild during the same time period.

The share of the latter in the distribution of exploits used in attacks is decreasing as expected (accounting for slightly less than 3% in the first quarter) – Adobe and Microsoft have put a lot of effort into making it difficult to exploit Flash Player.

After cybercriminals find out about a vulnerability, they prepare a ready-to-go exploit. They then frequently use spear-phishing as the infection vector, compromising users and companies through emails with malicious attachments. Worse still, such spear-phishing attack vectors are usually discreet and very actively used in sophisticated targeted attacks – there were many examples of this in the last six months alone.

For instance, in late 2017, Kaspersky Lab’s advanced exploit prevention systems identified a new Adobe Flash zero-day exploit used in-the-wild against our customers. The exploit was delivered through a Microsoft Office document and the final payload was the latest version of FinSpy malware. Analysis of the payload enabled researchers to confidently link this attack to a sophisticated actor known as ‘BlackOasis’. The same month, Kaspersky Lab’s experts published a detailed analysis of СVE-2017-11826, a critical zero-day vulnerability used to launch targeted attacks in all versions of Microsoft Office. The exploit for this vulnerability is an RTF document containing a DOCX document that exploits СVE-2017-11826 in the Office Open XML parser. Finally, just a couple of days ago, information on Internet Explorer zero day CVE-2018-8174 was published. This vulnerability was also used in targeted attacks.

“The threat landscape in the first quarter again shows us that a lack of attention to patch management is one of the most significant cyber-dangers. While vendors usually issue patches for the vulnerabilities, users often can’t update their products in time, which results in waves of discreet and highly effective attacks once the vulnerabilities have been exposed to the broad cybercriminal community,” notes Alexander Liskin, security expert at Kaspersky Lab.

Other online threat statistics from the Q1, 2018 report include:

  • Kaspersky Lab solutions detected and repelled 796,806,112 malicious attacks from online resources located in 194 countries around the world.
  • 282,807,433 unique URLs were recognised as malicious by web antivirus components.
  • Attempted infections by malware that aims to steal money via online access to bank accounts were registered on 204,448 user computers.
  • Kaspersky Lab’s file antivirus detected a total of 187,597,494 unique malicious and potentially unwanted objects.
  • Kaspersky Lab mobile security products also detected:
    • 1,322,578 malicious installation packages.
    • 18,912 mobile banking Trojans (installation packages).

To reduce the risk of infection, users are advised to:

  • Keep the software installed on your PC up to date, and enable the auto-update feature if it is available.
  • Wherever possible, choose a software vendor that demonstrates a responsible approach to a vulnerability problem. Check if the software vendor has its own bug bounty program.

·         Use robust security solutions , which have special features to protect against exploits, such as Automatic Exploit Prevention.

·         Regularly run a system scan to check for possible infections and make sure you keep all software up to date.

  • Businesses should use a security solution that provides vulnerability, patch management and exploit prevention components, such as Kaspersky Endpoint Security for Business. The patch management feature automatically eliminates vulnerabilities and proactively patches them. The exploit prevention component monitors suspicious actions of applications and blocks malicious files executions.
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