Monday, September 18, 2023

On Our Virtual Route 66 This Week: Some #RandomThoughts

Today's selection -- from Applied Minds: How Engineers Think by Guru Madhavan.  In 1975, Steven Sasson invented the world’s first digital camera:

“Sasson went to college at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His freshman physics professor was a quiet, whimsical man, and a renowned educator. ‘OK, what problems have you had this week?’ he'd ask the class. Sasson always had a question, since he struggled with his homework. The professor would go to the chalkboard and ‘start off with an equation like F = ma, and three lines later he'd have the whole thing,’ Sasson recalled. ‘It was so elegant. It was so freaking elegant. Even if I had the right answer it took me three pages, but it took him just two or three lines. It was like watching Michael Jordan play basketball. It looked so smooth and freaking easy, but when you tried to do it you couldn't do it.’

“A few years later, Sasson read a biography of George Eastman. Eastman, who had dropped out of high school, was self-taught. An accountant by trade and an avid kitchen sink experimenter, Eastman eventually revolutionized film photography and founded Kodak. Sasson's core belief about engineering was influenced by Eastman's motto: an artistic technology like the camera should be as ‘convenient as the pencil.’ 

“Sasson joined Kodak. 

“As one of his first projects, Sasson was asked by his supervisor to explore the potential uses of a new technology called the charge-coupled device. The CCD is an electronic light sensor that was pioneered by Bell Labs. ‘It was at best a forty-five-second conversation with my supervisor,’ Sasson recalled. There were no formal reviews or expectations for the project. 

“Kodak then had a profusion of mechanical engineers. As one of the very few electrical engineers on staff, Sasson thought he should build an image-capturing system ‘with absolutely no moving parts.’ As an early-stage technology, the CCD was ‘very, very difficult to work with,’ Sasson remembered. Its resolution was 10,000 pixels (or 0.01 megapixel). ‘On top of the actual device was a folded piece of paper on which the twelve voltage designations were printed,’ he added. ‘Next to each one, handwritten in pencil, were specific voltage settings for each pin. At the bottom, it said, “‘Good luck!’” Sasson spent long hours in a back lab doing tests, incrementally inching toward a groundbreaking technology. He barely spoke with his supervisor. ‘Our plan was unrealistic. No one was paying attention. We had no money. Nobody knew where we were working,’ Sasson explained. ‘In summary, the situation was just about perfect!’ A year later-in 1976-the twenty-five-year-old Sasson finished a prototype. It was a clunky contraption, more like an 8-pound toaster, requiring sixteen AA batteries. 

“‘It was a dopey little device,’ Sasson said.

“‘It was my baby.’ 

Steven J. Sasson, inventor of the first digital camera, comparing his device with today's digital cameras.

“In a windowless conference room, cushioned chairs surrounded a long table in the center. Sasson was ready to demonstrate his prototype of the first digital camera to Kodak's upper management. He took a head-and-shoulder shot of one of the executives. Then he began to describe what he had done, cleverly trying to hide the twenty-three-second lag required to record each digital image on the magnetic cassette tape that stored them. The tape was then removed from the camera and placed in a purpose-built playback device that connected to a television. A black-and-white picture of the executive then appeared on the screen. 

“The people at the table were stunned. Some really loved the idea, and some hated it. Some were so shocked they said nothing. ‘The technical people were impressed that some stupid little kid in the lab could build this thing,’ Sasson recounted. But others launched a fusillade of questions and concerns. ‘Well, where would you store these images? You're not making a print. People love prints. People don't want to look at their pictures on a television set. Well, that image quality isn't good enough.’ 

“Sasson had no answers. 

“‘It was like ... shit!’ Sasson told me. ‘I immediately wanted to pull back.’ 

“In hindsight, who could blame those critics? Kodak was, after all, an institution anchored in Eastman's film photography. Here was Sasson showing pictures that didn't require film, photographic paper, or darkroom processing. This was a digital eruption in an analog world. ‘It was not a good way to get invited to the Christmas party,’ Sasson said. ‘The whole thing was too far out there to be seriously considered.’ 

"A colleague of Sasson told him privately, ‘Don't worry, the world will get there. They don't know it yet.’"

Applied Minds: How Engineers Think
author: Guru Madhavan 
title: Applied Minds: How Engineers Think 
publisher: W. W. Norton & Company 
page(s): 138-141

Apple said it will release iOS 17, its latest software update for the iPhone, for free to the public this Monday, September 18. The update brings major changes to key iPhone apps and services, including new ringtones, the ability to create iMessage stickers from photos, and the ability to leave FaceTime audio and video messages.

Additional features include:

  • Live voicemail transcripts on the Home Screen.
  • The ability to set more than one timer.
  • A new StandBy mode that acts as a clock/information hub when the iPhone is horizontal and connected to a charger
  • The ability to activate Siri without having to say “hey."
  • Smarter autocorrect.
  • Interactive widgets on the Lock Screen and Home Screen.
  • "Check in" location sharing in the Messages app.
  • new Journal app with AI capabilities, which will likely launch later with iOS 17.1 or iOS 17.2.


Q: For iPhone users, are the new features in iOS 17 what you were hoping for? Share your thoughts and join the conversation here.


France ordered Apple to stop selling iPhone 12 models due to concerns about excessive electromagnetic radiation emissions. Apple disputed the agency's claims, providing lab results from both the company and third parties to support the phone's compliance with specific absorption rate (SAR) limits. 


  • The French regulatory agency, ANFR, found that the iPhone 12 emitted excessive electromagnetic waves when in contact with the body.
  • In testing, ANFR found that limb absorption rates, such as when holding the phone or keeping it in a pocket, recorded a SAR of 5.74 W/kg, exceeding the 4 W/kg limit.
  • The agency ordered Apple to prevent phones in the supply chain from reaching the market. For phones already sold, Apple must issue a software update or face recalls, it said.


  • The findings contradict the World Health Organization's stance, which, based on extensive studies, states that no adverse health effects have been linked to mobile phone use.
  • Apple said it plans to challenge ANFR's review and work with the agency to demonstrate compliance.
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After successful initial testing, the U.S. Army has ordered more of Microsoft's latest HoloLens-based combat goggles. While previous headsets caused nausea and dizziness, the Army tested 20 new prototypes in August for improved comfort, reliability, and low-light performance.


  • The devices, based on the HoloLens mixed reality goggles, offer improved battlefield awareness including night vision, health stats, and infantry position tracking.
  • The new pre-production models are reportedly slimmer, lighter, and more balanced.
  • During tests at Fort Drum, New York, the latest prototypes showed enhanced reliability, improved low-light sensor performance, and a superior form factor, an Army spokesperson said.
  • On Sept. 5, the Army granted a new contract for more and to gauge Microsoft's capacity for large-scale production, without disclosing details like amount or quantity.

Zoom out:

  • The new models will undergo intensive combat testing from April to June 2025.
  • If successful, the Army could spend up to $21.9B to acquire as many as 121,000 of the headsets.

WhatsApp Channels, its Telegram-like broadcast service, is expanding to over 150 countries. WhatsApp users can now follow channels to receive "one-to-many" private messages from creators, brands, and organizations, such as celebrities and sports teams.


  • The expansion includes new features, such as the ability for users to react to channel posts with emojis and view the number of reactions.
  • Users will now see recommendations of accounts to follow. An improved directory allows users to filter channels by country and sort them by newness, activity, and popularity.
  • Channel admins can edit their updates within a 30-day window, after which WhatsApp will automatically delete them.
  • WhatsApp said new channels include Olivia Rodrigo, the MLB, and Mark Zuckerberg. It plans to open channel creation to everyone soon.

Zoom out:

  • Channels debuted on Instagram, another Meta-owned company, in February.
  • In June, Meta began rolling out Channels on WhatsApp to select organizations in Colombia and Singapore.

AI policy meeting in US Senate an 'unprecedented moment'

Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg arrive at the US Capitol. AFP
Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg arrive at the US Capitol. AFP

In brief | The US Senate welcomed tech bosses, labour leaders and civil rights advocates to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for a closed-door forum on the need to set AI safeguards.

Congress is grappling with how to mitigate the dangers of the emerging technology, which has experienced a boom in investment and consumer popularity after the release of OpenAI's ChatGPT.

Microsoft's Satya Nadella, Alphabet's Sundar Pichai, Meta's Mark Zuckerberg, Nvidia's Jensen Huang and OpenAI’s Sam Altman were among the tech leaders in attendance for the hearing convened by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“Today, we begin an enormous and complex and vital undertaking: building a foundation for bipartisan AI policy that Congress can pass,” Mr Schumer said.

Why it matters | Regulators globally have been scrambling to draw up laws governing the use of generative AI. The Biden administration is preparing an executive order on “responsible innovation” and this week’s gathering was the first in a series of listening sessions before US politicians start writing up new rules. The approaching US presidential election has added urgency to the proceedings, with protections needed against potentially dangerous deepfakes, election interference and attacks on critical infrastructure.

Quoted | “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for Congress – we need AI experts, ethicists, labour leaders, civil rights groups, the world of academia, defence and beyond helping us with the work ahead” – US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer


Future in focus

The aftermath of the floods in Derna, Libya. Reuters
The aftermath of the floods in Derna, Libya. Reuters

Flood fears | After Storm Daniel, Mediterranean cities 'need to prepare' flood defences. Intense precipitation of the kind that caused devastation in the Libyan port city of Derna could become more common as global warming continues.

Cost of change | What getting to a net-zero world would take. Report by energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie calculates cost of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Fast and autonomous | High-speed armed drone boats ready to protect offshore oilfields. Travelling at up to 60 knots (111kph) and armed with a heavy machinegun and ship arrester nets, the P38 Aggressor will be among the fastest autonomous boats launched.


Predicting the future: Signal or noise?

Concern about technology making one’s job obsolete is on the rise. Getty Images
Concern about technology making one’s job obsolete is on the rise. Getty Images

Are you experiencing Fobo? You are not alone. The fear of becoming obsolete has grown in the past two years among US workers, with 22 per cent now saying they worry that technology will make their job redundant, up from 15 per cent in 2021, a survey by US analytics and advisory company Gallup found.

This is a signal. About one in four jobs is expected to change in the next five years as generative AI “comes of age”, creating and destroying millions of jobs in the process, the World Economic Forum said back in May.

“It’s easy to foresee the concerns mounting in the coming years – particularly among the college-educated – as technology continues to improve,” Lydia Saad, Gallup’s director of US social research said.

“It is no longer only about robots standing in for humans in warehouses and on assembly lines, but has expanded to online programs conducting sophisticated language-based work, including writing computer code.”