Driverless cars could speed up traffic flow by one third.

Research from a Cambridge University study has reported that autonomous cars could speed up traffic flow and reduce congestion on UK roads by up to a third – even for those not using them.

Researchers commissioned a fleet of 16 miniature robotic cars on a dual lane track and made observations about changes in traffic flow once one of the cars had stopped.  They tested the fleet in “egocentric” and “co-operative” driving modes, using both normal and aggressive driving behaviours, and observed how the fleet reacted to a stopped car.

When the cars were not driving cooperatively, any vehicles behind the stopped car had to either stop or slow.  Much as in a real road scenario, they had to halt their progress and wait for a gap in the oncoming traffic before resuming their journey.  As you may expect, a queue quickly formed behind the stopped car, and overall traffic flow slowed.

However, when the researchers facilitated ‘conversation’ between the vehicles and they were driving cooperatively, traffic flow drastically improved.  As soon as one car stopped in the inner lane, it sent a signal to all the other vehicles.  Cars in the outer lane that were near to the stopped car slowed slightly, allowing vehicles in the inner lane to quickly pass the stopped car without having to alter their speed.  Traffic flow and therefore journey times, were seen to improve by 35 %.

In an attempt to disrupt the vehicles and create ‘real road’ conditions, researchers introduced an aggressively driven human-controlled car to the track.  Even in this situation, the other cars were able to give way to avoid the aggressive driver, thus improving safety.

The study’s co-author Michael He believes that autonomous cars could remedy many of the problems experienced on the roads by motorists.  However, he does remark that “there needs to be a way for them to work together”.

He and his colleagues plan to report the findings of the study to the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Montreal, Canada.  They will contribute to the debate surrounding how autonomous cars can communicate with each other, and with vehicles controlled by human drivers on real roads in the future.

This study is particularly insightful. As a rule, tests for multiple autonomous driverless cars are conducted digitally.  Alternatively, scale models are used that are either too large or too expensive to allow indoor experiments involving multiple vehicles.

However, on this occasion, the study was able to use 1:24 scale models of around 20 cm by 8cm.  As such it was possible to carry out indoor testing at a low cost.

Going forward, this research model has got legs to significantly address some of the complexities involved in the development and introduction of autonomous vehicles.   In the future, the researchers plan to use the fleet to test multi-car systems in more complex scenarios including roads with more lanes, intersections and a wider range of vehicle types.

To see the test in action, follow this link!

Panasonic add to the list of firms turning their back on Huawei.

In what is fast becoming dubbed as “the cold war of tech”, Panasonic have become the latest in the line of big names who have turned their back on Chinese tech conglomerate, Huawei.  They join the likes of Intel, Qualcomm and Google following the much publicised US trade ban enforced by the Trump administration.  

In compliance with the ban, Panasonic announced that it will stop supplying Huawei with some components in line with the ruling.

Joe Flynn, a Panasonic spokesman, stated that the Japanese firm had “stopped all business transactions with Huawei and its 68 group companies … that are subject to the US government ban”.

Overall, it has not been a great week for Huawei.  On Wednesday, British chip company ARM Holdings relayed that it had halted relations with Huawei in order to comply with the US ban.  

It gets worse. BT-owned telecoms company EE, were due to bring Huawei’s first 5G phone to the UK as part of their battle to win the race to launch 5G.   EE have postponed this alliance following questions over security; it has been suggested that Huawei may be under pressure from the Chinese government to spy on customers and the use of their data.  

To substantiate this, Marc Allera EE chief executive, confirmed that EE have “paused” the launch of Huawei’s product “until we get the information and confidence and the long-term security that our customers… are going to be supported”.

The group also said it would phase out the use of Huawei equipment in the most sensitive “core” elements of its network infrastructure, while peers Vodafone followed suit.  Vodafone announced a “temporary” suspension of pre-orders for Huawei handsets, “while uncertainty exists”.

Pressure from Washington has now extended into territory previously allied with China.  On Thursday it was reported that the US government was lobbying South Korea to reject Huawei products.

This stand-off between the US and China has had significant repercussions on the stock exchange;  Asia Pacific shares fell to their lowest point in four months on Thursday. Meanwhile, Japan’s Nikkei lost 1%, while South Korea shed 0.7%.

What the future holds is anyone’s guess.  However, analysts at financial holdings company, Nomura believe that both sides are gearing up for a prolonged period of trade conflict and that domestic pressures on both sides will drive further escalation.  They warned that “without a clear way forward…we see a rising risk that tariffs will remain in effect through end 2020.”

Microsoft makes a push for service mesh interoperability.

Firstly, what is a services mesh, and why is this such big news?

For our readers who may not be familiar with the latest from the developer world, a services mesh is a way for devs to control how different parts of an application share data with one another.  Unlike other systems for managing this type of communication, a service mesh is a dedicated infrastructure layer built right into an app, and they are the hot new things within the cloud-native community.

On Tuesday, Microsoft became the latest to unveil their plans to disrupt the services mesh space.  They chose the cloud-native festival, KubeCon as the very visible platform from which to announce their latest collaboration.  Microsoft have partnered up with some big names to create a generic service mesh interface.  Developers will be able to adopt the concept without locking them into one specific technology.  

Microsoft divulged that this broad and illustrious coalition includes some of the biggest names in the arena; Buoyant, HashiCorp,  Solo.io, Red Hat, AspenMesh, Weaveworks, Docker,  Rancher, Pivotal, Kinvolk and VMware all make up the team.  Notably absent though are Google; the name behind Istio and AWS.  

Microsoft’s lead product manager for containers, Gabe Monroy remarked;

“I’m really thrilled to see that we were able to pull together a pretty broad consortium of folks from across the industry to help us drive some interoperability in the service mesh space”.  

Essentially, with these plans for interoperability, Microsoft and partners have gone one step further with their plans to upskill the network.   By handling encryption, traffic management and other functions, this new service mesh will mean that the actual applications don’t have to worry about dealing with any of this themselves.   

For developers, this is all useful in a world where the number of network endpoints continues to increase.  New micro-services, containers and other systems are being launched at a rapid rate. Of the new SMI, Monroy goes on to say that such rapid expansion is the reason why their tech is so hot right now…

“The cloud-native ecosystem is driving the need for smarter networks and smarter pipes…service mesh technology provides answers.”

In his statement, Monroy was quick to point out that these developments will not limit the options previously available to developers.  Although the common interface will allow the different service mesh tools to innovate, developers will always be able to work directly with their APIs when needed.   

Ultimately, the aim of Microsoft’s SMI product is to drive interoperability, however for now these features will only focus on traffic policy, telemetry and traffic management.   In Monroy’s opinion, this triad of issues are the most pressing of the moment.

Across the space there are a number of competing service mesh technologies including the likes of the aforementioned Istio and Linkerd…Devs need to decide which one of these to support!

At the current time, perhaps the best-known service mesh is Google’s Istio which was launched in conjunction with Lyft and IBM a couple of years ago.  However, it is not unlikely that Microsoft’s SMI will disrupt the market and provide an element of competition…not least because it will allow developers to bet on the overall idea of a service mesh instead of one specific implementation.  

Microsoft’s SMI proposition wasn’t the only development to come from the software giants at KubeCon.  Also on the agenda is the first alpha of the Helm 3 package manager and more updates to their Kubernetes package…an extension to their Visual Studio Code.  They also announced general availability of its AKS virtual nodes, using the open source Virtual Kubelet project.

Back in April, Microsoft became the third company to hit a trillion dollar valuation, citing the growth of its cloud offerings to be the catalyst to of it’s rocketing value.  They certainly look to have their sights firmly set on exploiting the potential of this arm of business. It looks like the sky (or should we say the clouds) is the limit for these tech heavyweights!  

Investor appetite grows within British Fintech sector.

Investors can’t get enough of British fintech! London based startup TransferWise has raised $292 million, doubling its value to the tune of $3.5bn.  

The investment comes at a time when British fintech firms have been attracting significant interest.  Despite the uncertainties around their ability to offer services in Europe post-Brexit, investment around the British fintech startup scene has never looked stronger.  Confirming this, Taavet Hinrikus, co-founder of TransferWise, believes that Britain’s departure from the EU would have “zero” impact on the company’s operations.

Since it’s 2011 inception date, TransferWise have built a substantial customer base.  From their 12 global office locations they service over 5m customers worldwide and handle a transaction volume of over $5.1bn each month.   In a hint at where some of these additional funds will go, TransferWise have indicated that they plan to expand over the next 12 months, growing their team by around 750 people.

Kristo Käärmann, chief executive and co-founder of the fintech company states that “TransferWise is experiencing phenomenal growth and this investment is testament to that”.  He goes on to say that despite such overwhelming success, “this is still early morning for TransferWise”.

TransferWise are not the only startup to have caught the eye of eager investors looking to reap the benefits of this fintech boom.  Just a short time ago, Monzo revealed their intentions to raise a further $127m in funding having already attracted a substantial $108m round last autumn.  Preceding this, was Goldman Sachs. The US investment bank led a $57m round in Nutmeg, who manage customer investment.

TransferWise’s latest cash injection was led by a number of investors including Lead Edge Capital and Lone Pine Capital.   They were followed by Vitruvian Partners who came in with secondary funding.

Andreessen Horowitz and Baillie Gifford are already current investors.  They both expanded their holdings in the firm, while asset management firm BlackRock also jumped in on the opportunity and added to the tally.

And Finally:

Digital Assistants; Siri, Alexa and her sisters entrench gender bias.

Results from a UN agency UNESCO report released earlier this week confirm that the female voice given to digital assistants is helping to entrench female subservience and gender bias.

The report claims that the female voice sends the signal that women are obliging, docile and eager to please. Furthermore, that women are available at the “touch of a button” or will respond willingly to blunt, rude commands.

The real concern lies with the fact that these digital assistants have no power of agency over what commands are asked of it, or how “she” responds.  In fact, when researchers explicitly insulted a digital device, it responded with a submissive “Thanks for the feedback”.

In response to the findings of the study, UNESCO’s director for gender equality, Saniye Gülser Corat remarked that “we need to pay more attention to how, when and whether AI technologies are gendered and, crucially, who is gendering them”.    It is no secret that the firms creating these devices are staffed overwhelmingly by male engineering teams.

It appears that UNESCO believe that these large tech firms are missing a crucial opportunity to re-address the balance in a world that is predominantly male.  Indeed, the relatively recent introduction of such technology should provide an opportunity to develop less damaging norms rather than reinforce the years of gender stereotyping which precede it.

Off the back of the findings, the UN agency provide clear and indisputable guidelines.  In no uncertain terms, UNESCO believe that digital assistants should not be made female by default and that tech firms should explore the opportunities open to them.  They ought to be developing a gender-neutral machine; one that is neither male nor female. One particularly strong theme of the research was to investigate how female voiced assistants responded to insulting, threatening and abusive language.  In line with these results, UNESCO remark that the tech should be programmed to discourage both gender-based insults and the abusive language that is so often paired with it. It was also recommended that the assistants should be designed to be interchangeable across devices and define them as “non-human at the outset of interactions with human users”.

Definitely interesting research and ought to provide food for thought within The Valley.  It seems to us that even the branding of these devices suggests a female identity…Alexa, Siri and Cortana.  We tried popping these names into a few different baby naming websites. It’s unanimous. They are all “Team Pink”.  

What do you think?  We’d love to hear your views on this and all the stories we’ve featured this week.  Leave your comments below!

About the author: I work hard to find the best opportunities for my candidates and the best talent for my clients. My honest and pragmatic approach helps me to build lasting relationships and deliver real value.  I have extensive experience helping organisations overcome their critical challenges in the digital environment, and have worked with everything from start-ups to major global brands.

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