The optical pony express

Suppose you want to send messages as fast as possible. What’s the best way to do it? That is what Polina Bayvel, a Professor at UCL has dedicated her research career to: exploring the limits of how fast information can be sent over networks. It’s not just messages that it’s about nowadays of course, but videos, pictures, money, music, books – anything you can do over the Internet.

Cowboys at dawn crossing the range

Send a text message and it arrives almost instantly. Sending message hasn’t always been that quick, though. The Greeks used runners – in fact the Marathon athletic event originally commemorated a messenger who supposedly ran from a battlefield at Marathon to Athens to deliver the message “We won” before promptly dying. The fastest woman in the world at the time of writing, 2011, Paula Radcliffe, at her quickest could deliver a message a marathon distance away in 2 hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds (without dying!) … ( now in 2020, Brigid Kosgei, a minute or so faster).

Horses improved things (and the Greeks in fact normally used horseback messengers, but hey it was a good story). Unfortunately, even a horse can’t keep up the pace for hundreds of miles. The Pony Express pushed horse technology to its limits. They didn’t create new breeds of genetically modified fast horses, or anything like that. All it took was to create an organised network of normal ones. They set up pony stations every 10 miles or so right across North America from Missouri to Sacramento. Why every 10 miles? That’s the point a galloping horse starts to give up the ghost. The mail came thundering in to each station and thundered out with barely a break as it was swapped to a new fresh pony.

The pony express was swiftly overtaken by the telegraph. Like the switch to horses, this involved a new carrier technology – this time copper wire. Now the messages had to be translated first though, here into electrical signals in Morse code. The telegraph was followed by the telephone. With a phone it seems like you just talk and the other person just hears but of course the translation of the message into a different form is still happening. The invention of the telephone was really just the invention of a way to turn sound into an electrical code that could be sent along copper cables and then translated back again.

The Internet took things digital – in some ways that’s a step back towards Morse code. Now, everything, even sound and images, are turned into a code of ones and zeros instead of dots and dashes. In theory images could of course have been sent using a telegraph tapper in the same way…if you were willing to wait months for the code of the image to be tapped in and then decoded again. Better to just wait for computers that can do it fast to be invented.

In the early Internet, the message carrier was still good old copper wire. Trouble is, when you want to send lots of data, like a whole movie, copper wire and electricity are starting to look like the runners must have done to horse riders: slow out-of-date technology. The optical fibre is the modern equivalent of the horse. They are just long thin tubes of glass. Instead of sending pulses of electricity to carry the coded messages, they now go on the back of a pulse of light.

Up to this point it’s been mainly men taking the credit, but this is where Polina’s work comes in. She is both exploring the limits of what can be done with optical fibres in theory and building ever faster optical networks in practice. How much information can actually be sent down fibres and what is the best way to do it? Can new optical materials make a difference? How can devices be designed to route information to the right place – such ‘routers’ are just like mail sorting depots for pulses of light. How can fibre optics best be connected into networks so that they work as efficiently as possible – allowing you and everyone else in your street to be watching different movies at the same time, for example, without the film going all jerky? These are all the kinds of questions that fascinate Polina and she has built up an internationally respected team to help her answer them.

Multiple streams of binary data flowing in an optical cable.

Why are optical fibres such a good way to send messages? Well the obvious answer is that you can’t get much faster than light! Well actually you can’t get ANY faster than light. The speed of light is the fastest anything, including information, can travel according to Einstein’s laws. That’s not the end of the story though. Remember the worn out Marathon runner. It turns out that signals being sent down cables do something similar. Well, not actually getting out of breath and dying but they do get weaker the further they travel. That means it gets harder to extract the information at the other end and eventually there is a point where the message is just garbled noise. What’s the solution? Well actually it’s exactly the one the Pony Express came up with. You add what are called ‘repeaters’ every so often. They extract the message from the optical fibre and then send it down the next fibre, but now back at full strength again. One of the benefits of fibre optics is that signals can go much further before they need a repeater. That means the message gets to its destination faster because those repeaters take time extracting and resending the message. That, in turn, leaves scope for improvement. The Pony Express made their ‘repeaters’ faster by giving the rider a horn to alert the stationmaster that they were arriving. He would then have time to get the next horse ready so it could leave the moment the mail was handed over. Researchers like Polina are looking for similar ways to speed up optical repeaters.

You can do more than play with repeaters to speed things up though. You can also bump up the amount of information you carry in one go. In particular you can send lots of messages at the same time over an optical fibre as long as they use different wavelengths. You can think of this as though one person is using a torch with a blue bulb to send a Morse code message using flashes of blue light (say), while someone else is doing the same thing with a red torch and red light. If two people at the other end are wearing tinted sunglasses then depending on the tint they will each see only the red pulses or only the blue ones and so only get the message meant for them. Each new frequency of light used gives a new message that can be sent at the same time.

The tricky bit is not so much in doing that but in working out which people can use which torch at any particular time so their aren’t any clashes, bearing in mind that at any instant messages could be coming from anywhere in the network and trying to go anywhere. If two people try to use the same torch on the same link at the same time it all goes to pot. This is complicated further by the fact that at any time particular links could be very busy, or broken, meaning that different messages may also travel by different routes between the same places, just as you might go a different way to normal when driving if there is a jam. All this, and together with other similar issues, means there are lots of hairy problems to worry about if coming up with a the best possible optical network as Polina is aiming to do.

Polina’s has been highly successful working in this area. She has been made a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering for her work and is also a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award holder. It is only given to respected scientists of outstanding achievement and potential. She has also won the prestigious Patterson Medal awarded for distinguished research in applied physics. It’s important to remember that modern engineering is a team game, though. As she notes she has benefited hugely by having inspiring and supporting mentors, as well as superb students and colleagues. It is her ability to work well with other people that allowed her build a critical mass in her research and so gain all the accolades. All that achieved and she is a mother of two boys to boot. Bringing up children is, of course, a team game too.

Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London, Autumn 2011

Download the special issue of the cs4fn magazine “The women are here”.

Download Electronic Engineering For Fun Magazine Issue 1.

Smart bags

In our stress-filled world with ever increasing levels of anxiety, it would be nice if technology could sometimes reduce stress rather than just add to it. That is the problem that QMUL’s Christine Farion set out to solve for her PhD. She wanted to do something stylish too, so she created a new kind of bag: a smart bag.

Christine realised that one thing that causes anxiety for a lot of people is forgetting everyday things. It is very common for us to forget keys, train tickets, passports and other everyday things we need for the day. Sometimes it’s just irritating. At other times it can ruin the day. Even when we don’t forget things, we waste time unpacking and repacking bags to make sure we really do have the things we need. Of course, the moment we unpack a bag to check, we increase the chance that something won’t be put back!

Electronic bags

Christine wondered if a smart bag could help. Over the space of several years, she built ten different prototypes using basic electronic kits, allowing her to explore lots of options. Her basic design has coloured lights on the outside of the bag, and a small scanner inside. To use the bag, you attach electronic tags to the things you don’t want to forget. They are like the ones shops use to keep track of stock and prevent shoplifting. Some tags are embedded into things like key fobs, while others can be stuck directly on to an object. Then when you pack your bag, you scan the objects with the reader as you put them in, and the lights show you they are definitely there. The different coloured lights allow you to create clear links – natural mappings – between the lights and the objects. For her own bag, Christine linked the blue light to a blue key fob with her keys, and the yellow light to her yellow hayfever tablet box.

In the wild

One of the strongest things about her work was she tested her bags extensively ‘in the wild’. She gave them to people who used them as part of their normal everyday life, asking them to report to her what did and didn’t work about them. This all fed in to the designs for subsequent bags and allowed her to learn what really mattered to make this kind of bag work for the people using it. One of the key things she discovered was that the technology needed to be completely simple to use. If it wasn’t both obvious how to use and quick and simple to do it wouldn’t be used.

Christine also used the bags herself, keeping a detailed diary of incidents related to the bags and their design. This is called ‘autoethnography’. She even used one bag as her own main bag for a year and a half, building it completely into her life, fixing problems as they arose. She took it to work, shopping, to coffee shops … wherever she went.

Suspicious?

When she had shown people her prototype bags, one of the common worries was that the electronics would look suspicious and be a problem when travelling. She set out to find out, taking her bag on journeys around the country, on trains and even to airports, travelling overseas on several occasions. There were no problems at all.

Fashion matters

As a bag is a personal item we carry around with us, it becomes part of our identity. She found that appropriate styling is, therefore, essential in this kind of wearable technology. There is no point making a smart bag that doesn’t fit the look that people want to carry around. This is a problem with a lot of today’s medical technology, for example. Objects that help with medical conditions: like diabetic monitors or drug pumps and even things as simple and useful as hearing aids or glasses, while ‘solving’ a problem, can lead to stigma if they look ugly. Fashion on the other hand does the opposite. It is all about being cool. Christine showed that by combining design of the technology with an understanding of fashion, her bags were seen as cool. Rather than designing just a single functional smart bag, ideally you need a range of bags, if the idea is to work for everyone.

Now, why don’t I have my glasses with me?

– Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London, Autumn 2018

Download Issue 25 of the cs4fn magazine “Technology Worn Out (and about) on Wearable Computing here.

Machines Inventing Musical Instruments

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

based on a 2016 talk by Rebecca Fiebrink

Gesturing hands copyright www.istock.com 1876387

Machine Learning is the technology driving driverless cars, recognising faces in your photo collection and more, but how could it help machines invent new instruments? Rebecca Fiebrink of Goldsmiths, University of London is finding out.

Rebecca is helping composers and instrument builders to design new musical instruments and giving them new ways to perform. Her work has also shown that machine learning provides an alternative to programming as a way to quickly turn design ideas into prototypes that can be tested.

Suppose you want to create a new drum machine-based musical instrument that is controlled by the wave of a hand: perhaps a fist means one beat, whereas waggling your fingers brings in a different beat. To program a prototype of your idea, you would need to write code that could recognize all the different hand gestures, perhaps based on a video feed. You would then have some kind of decision code that chose the appropriate beat. The second part is not too hard, perhaps, but writing code to recognize specific gestures in video is a lot harder, needing sophisticated programming skills. Rebecca wants even young children to be able to do it!

How can machine learning help? Rebecca has developed a machine learning program with a difference. It takes sensor input – sound, video, in fact just about any kind of sensor you can imagine. It then watches, listens…senses what is happening and learns to associate what it senses with different actions it should take. With the drum machine example, you would first select one of the kinds of beats. You then make the gesture that should trigger it: a fist perhaps. You do that a few times so it can learn what a fist looks like. It learns that the patterns it is sensing are to be linked with the beat you selected. Then you select the next beat and show it the next gesture – waggling your fingers – until it has seen enough examples. You keep doing this with each different gesture you want to control the instrument. In just a few minutes you have a working machine to try. It is learning by example how the instrument you are wanting works. You can try it, and then adjust it by showing it new examples if it doesn’t quite do what you want.

It is learning by example how the instrument you are wanting works.

Rebecca realised that this approach of learning by example gives a really powerful new way to support creativity: to help designers design. In the traditional ways machine learning is used, you start with lots of examples of the things that you want it to recognize – lots of pictures of cats and dogs, perhaps. You know the difference, so label all these training pictures as cats or dogs, so it knows which to form the two patterns from. Your aim is for the machine to learn the difference between cat and dog patterns so it can decide for itself when it sees new pictures.

When designing something like a new musical instrument though, you don’t actually know exactly what you want at the start. You have a general idea but will work out the specifics as you go. You tinker with the design, trying new things and keeping the ideas that work, gradually refining your thoughts about what you want as you refine the design of the instrument. The machine learning program can even help by making mistakes – it might not have learnt exactly what you were thinking but as a result makes some really exciting sound you never thought of. You can then explore that new idea.

One of Rebecca’s motivations in wanting to design new instruments is to create accessible instruments that people with a wide range of illness and disability can play. The idea is to adapt the instrument to the kinds of movement the person can actually do. The result is a tailored instrument perfect for each person. An advantage of this approach is you can turn a whole room, say, into an instrument so that every movement does something: an instrument that it’s impossible not to play. It is a play space to explore.

Playing an instrument suddenly really is just playing.

Return of the killer robot? Evil scientist?! Helpless woman?!?

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Digital blond copyright www.istock.com 439194

In an early issue of the cs4fn magazine we looked at how robots, female scientists and women generally were portrayed in 20th century science fiction movies. It wasn’t great. Robots were killers, scientists evil. Computer scientist’s were introverted and thickheaded. Women were either sexbots or helpless love interest to be rescued by the hunky male star. 1995’s film Hackers was about as good as it got. At last a woman had expert computing skills. It’s hardly surprising some girls are led to believe computing isn’t for them with a century-long conspiracy aiming to convince them their role in life is to be helpless.

As our area on women in computing shows the truth is far more interesting. Women have always played a big part in the development of modern technology. So have things improved in films? There are more films with strong action-heroine stars now, though few films pass the Bechdel test: do two women ever talk together about anything other than a man? So can we at least find any 21st century films with realistic main character roles for women as computer experts? Here goes…

1999-2003: Matrix Trilogy

Hero Neo discovers reality isn’t what it seems. It is all a virtual reality. Trinity is there to be his romantic interest – she’s been told by the Oracle that she will fall in love with the “One” (that’s him). It’s not looking good. In film 2 Neo has to save her. Oh dear. At least she is supposed to be a super-hacker famous for cracking an uncrackable database. Oh well.

2009: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

This is the story of super-hacker Lisbeth Salander. Both emotionally and sexually abused as a child she looks after herself, and that includes teaching herself to be an expert with computers. She uses her immense skills to get what she wants. She is cool and clever and absolutely not willing to let the men treat her as a victim. Wonderful.

2014: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This film is all about a male hunk, so it’s not looking good, but then early on we see Agent Natasha Romanoff, (also known as superheroine the Black Widow). She is the brains to Captain America’s brawn and from the start she is clearly the expert with computers. While Captain America beats people up, her mission is to collect data. Let’s hope she gets her own film series!

2015: Star Wars: Episode VII – the Force Awakens

Rey is a scavenger with engineering skills. She is very smart, and can look after herself without expecting men to save her. She’s not a hacker! Instead, she creates and mends things. She repurposes parts she finds on wrecked spaceships to sell to survive. She learnt her engineering skills tinkering in old ships and fixes the Millennium Falcon’s electro-mechanical problems. She is even the main character of the whole film!

 

There are plenty of moronic films, made by men who can’t portray women in remotely realistic ways, but at least things are a bit better than they were last century. The women are already here in the real world. They are slowly getting there in the movies. Let’s just hope the trend speeds up, and we have more female leads who create things, like the real female computer scientists.

Email your reviews of female characters in science fiction films (good or bad) to cs4fn@eecs.qmul.ac.uk