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9 ‘left field’ patents by Apple, Facebook and Google

Tech firms are always keen to patent new ideas, even if they do not seem to serve any tech-based purpose. Huge companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google did not make their billions by letting business opportunities slide by. Here is a list of nine of the most oblique patents filed by the leading tech companies.

1 – The driverless car (Google)

The days of carefree motoring will soon be over if Google gets its way. Driverless cars are legal in California, Michigan, Florida and Nevada, and other US states are likely to follow suit. So far the only records of driverless cars being involved in accidents are by the fault of other drivers.

2 – The wireless charger (Apple)

While Apple has filed its patent for a wireless charger, the product has yet to be released onto the market. Other companies – including Samsung – have released wireless chargers, but with mixed results.

3 – The data centre layout (Facebook)

In 2014 Facebook actually patented the way in which its data centres are designed. Computer servers typically reach high temperatures which affects performance. Facebook alternates hot aisles and cool aisles to make sure their servers are properly air conditioned.

4 – Location-based reminders (Google)

The pop-up notification kings, Google, patented their location-based reminders as long ago as 2012. You can set reminders by geographical zone, so that the next time you enter a specific zone your mobile phone will remind you of the task you had planned there.

5 – Fingerprint recognition (Apple)

No longer the stuff of sci-fi movies, Apple patented the first reliable fingerprint recognition system in 2015. The application creates a ‘ridge map’ from a user’s finger print, rather than simply using image recognition software.

6 – Wearable trackers (Facebook)

More than a simple tracking device, Facebook’s wearable trackers can detect by motion the activity that the wearer is currently engaged in, such as walking or running. It then uses GPS technology to track and record activity, calculating energy expenditure. It is also intuitive, so it ‘learns’ about the user’s lifestyle.

7 – Hot air balloon (Google)

Google’s ‘Loon’ project aims to provide internet access to remote areas by using high-altitude balloons that will be placed in the stratosphere at altitudes of twenty miles. This patented technology will hopefully create a wireless network with spends close to 3G.

8 – Parking spot locator (Apple)

Apple hopes to stop your search around the car park if you’ve forgotten where you have parked. Their patent concerns technology that recognises when you are on a car journey and when that car journey has ended. It then logs the geographical position of your car so you can find it if you forget where it is.

9 – Card recognition system (Google)

Google has patented a system were you can read in your credit card to pay for goods over the internet by presenting the back of it to an image capture system. The software can read the indented details on front of the card via the back, and the required info on the back itself.

Achieving the work-life balance – Asana co-founder gives advice

It’s an aspect of a contemporary lifestyle that continues to exasperate many – the expectation from companies that employees need to work excessive hours or under unreasonable levels of demand to be deemed useful.

It’s no surprise that plenty of studies performed on stressed workers have ascertained that overwork leads to burnout and a decrease in productivity. It can also lead to serious health issues, including depression.

The co-founder of Asana – Dustin Moskowitz – has come up with several suggestions on how employees can be helped to achieve an acceptable work-life balance, and the responsibilities employers need to address in order to help them to do so.

Dustin Moskowitz certainly knows a thing or two about work, and working hard. Moskowitz was one of the five co-founders of Facebook, of which Mark Zuckerberg is of course the most well-known. In 2008, Moskowitz left Facebook to help co-found the project management software website Asana. In 2011, the US business magazine Forbes announced that Moskovitz – at the age of twenty-six, had become the world’s youngest-ever self-made billionaire. By the summer of 2015, Moskowitz’s net worth had spiralled to close to ten billion US dollars.

Awareness of the working environment

Moskowitz stresses that company managers need at all times to be fully aware of what is happening both internally and externally in relation to their organisation and employees. Leaders should:

  • Remind members of their team to monitor their own well-being: Employees should be encouraged to be honest with themselves if they are feeling stressed or unfulfilled, and be alert and open about aspects of their personal life that may be affecting their performance at work, such as relationship or health issues.
  • Encourage employees to take regular breaks: There has been enough evidence written about the importance of taking regular breaks to make George R. R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’ saga look like a small pamphlet, and yet still employees seem reluctant to leave their desks. Employees should be ‘gently encouraged’ to not only leave their desks, but also to leave the company building two or three times a day, even if it is just for a walk around the block.
  • Managers need to keep an eye out for burnout, and take action accordingly: Team leaders need to develop the ability to watch for employees who are on the verge of burnout or – even better – spot employees who have taken the first steps towards being overworked. Early diagnosis prevents issues that may become seriously debilitating health problems.

Moskowitz also suggests that companies should provide gym facilities, or at least access to free gym facilities, and fill their vending machines with healthy alternatives to crisps and chocolate.

A mindset of ‘work ’til you drop’ still permeates through the working world, as recent exposés of working practices at Amazon and Sports Direct have proven. However, Moskowitz truly believes that the creation of a healthy work-life balance is much more important and beneficial than treating employees as if they were rowing Roman galleys. A successful company is like a machine, and if components of that machine – no matter how seemingly inconsequential – are on the verge of falling part, then it’s a machine that’s not running as efficiently as it should do.

Technology and business, sitting in a tree …

There’s barely any type of business these days which is free from technology. If you run any form of company, then tech more than likely plays a decisive role. How would your business cope without emails, or its website, or your spreadsheets?

As technology has developed, so have we as tech-savvy individuals. Ground-level IT is no longer a specialist position. Most people can work out how to set up an email account or attach a wireless printer, and most people know that the solution to a frozen or unresponsive PC is to ‘turn it off and on again.’

As a result, IT has become misunderstood. An IT professional is regarded as nothing more than a computer handyman. Is the company intranet refusing to talk to the internet? Call the IT guy. Is the main server running low on capacity? Call the IT guy. Has a crucial Excel macro stopped running since January 1? Call the … well, you get the picture.

Except … well … how does a company send emails to external clients without access to the internet? How do crucial systems run if there is insufficient disk space? How does BAU continue if Excel macros won’t? Isn’t IT kind of, important? A handyman is someone who fixes annoyances. Someone who maintains crucial systems is a technician or an engineer, yet when it comes to IT, a firm’s IT department is seldom recognised as a crucial business component. It’s not surprising that in the UK sitcom ‘The IT Crowd’ the IT department is located in the basement.

When it comes to the upper echelons of any major firm, the senior management team is made up of the business version of the holy trinity – the CEO, the COO and the CFO. That covers operations, management, marketing, sales and finances, but what about the core engine that physically enables most businesses to operate – namely the technological infrastructure?

The person in charge of IT is usually known as the Chief Information Officer or the Chief Technology Officer. It’s a role that largely involves fighting the company’s finance department to syphon some cash away from sales and marketing and actually spending it on IT – and usually unsuccessfully. As a result, the demands of the CIO or CTO are seen as nothing but annoyances.

Yet companies who do not invest enough in their infrastructure leave themselves open to hacker attacks that can destroy them. Take the example of Ashley Madison – the online-dating service for people already in relationships. Their infrastructure was so underfunded and lacking in sophistication that they listed credit card transactions in unencrypted text files on an insecure server. They were hacked, and suddenly intimate details of millions of people were in the hands of joyful hackers.

The business world needs to start taking IT as seriously as it does its finances. Those ‘IT Crowd’ characters should no longer be left to fester in the basement – they deserve to be an integral part of their company’s BAU and advancement strategies. Companies who fail to invest in their IT department will soon start lagging behind companies that do.

Want to be a data scientist?

Lots of people are good with numbers. Accountants crunch financial figures, and statisticians pound numbers into shape so information can be retrieved. Data scientists look beyond the numbers to see trends and insights. If you’ve seen the film ‘The Matrix’ you might recall one of the characters claiming he could see beyond the columns of green characters scrolling down the screen. That is – in effect – exactly what a data scientist sees.

So, what do you need to become, or be regarded as (because you might already be) a data scientist?

You must love numbers

Not everyone does. Some people can crunch even gargantuan numbers together in their heads. If some other people try to do this, the numbers tend to fall out of their ears. If you’d rather spend an evening battling a sudoku than binge watching a box set, then data science may work for you.

You must have the ability to think logically

Numbers don’t lie. One plus one always equals two. There’s no pressure groups that will argue until they are blue in the face that one and one is three. You must be able to see logical patterns and treat data is the way the rules dictate.

You must be able to code

Computer and numbers are invariably linked. No matter how sophisticated computers get, they are – when striped bare – number crunchers. They will save you hours and hours of work, but you need to be able to tell them what you want them to do. You don’t have to be an expert coder – try an open source language like Python. Open source languages possess huge libraries that you can download and load up to help you along.

You need to be patient

Huge amounts of data means huge amounts of time, and a lot of data is simply superfluous and serves no purpose. You need to get the data to work for you, and that takes patience. As a data scientist, you will spend the majority of your time cleaning up your data. The rest of your time is actually spent analysing it.

You need to understand statistics

This is the real ‘meat’ of being a data scientist, and there’s no getting away from the fact the statistical models, concepts and formulas can be fiendishly complicated. There are plenty of methods that you need to be aware of, and if there are gaps in your statistical expertise, then you need to fill them.

You need to interpret results

Statisticians prepare data, bash it around a bit then give it someone else to look at. Data scientists need to work out the benefits and insights that can be gained from what the figures tell them. Without this ability, you’d be as useful as an art critic who can’t tell a masterpiece from a child’s potato print painting.

Data science can be a very rewarding career, and companies are always on the lookout for people who can give them insights on the data that’s available, and the reasoning behind them. If you are genuinely ‘good at numbers’, then data science is a career you need to seriously consider.

Tech companies not doing enough to retain female talent

Tech companies not doing enough to retain female talent

The lack of women in the tech profession is becoming an increasing serious issue. Earlier this year Google released figures which indicated that only thirty percent of their workforce was female, and four out of every five of their leadership roles were filled by men. Even US President Barack Obama has stressed his dis-satisfaction with the lack of gender diversity in science and technology.

The question then has to be asked – what are tech companies doing in order to retain their best female staff? The answer seems to be clear – not enough!

Some companies though are making plans to improve their gender imbalance:

  • In July, Pinterest announced their targets with regards to diversity among their workforce by 2016. Their CEO, Evan Sharp, said that in his opinion the majority of tech companies have made hardly any progress in increasing their female headcount, attributing this to the fact that ‘companies haven’t stated specific goals.’
  • Etsy – the online handmade marketplace – encouraged more women to go through Hacker School and then recruited those females who successfully completed the program. As a result, the female component of their tech team rose from six percent to thirty-one percent in two years.
  • At the University of California, in 2014 the number of men who enrolled in an ‘introduction to computer science’ course was lower than the number of women for the first time ever.

Despite these encouraging numbers, most women say they leave the tech sector because they feel unsupported and unfulfilled. In a recent survey conducted by Culture Amp, only fifty-five percent of women who were questioned said they saw themselves remaining at their current company for at least two years. Another survey – this time by the Center for Talent Innovation – showed that women were forty-five percent more likely to leave the tech industry within the next twelve months than their male counterparts.

To retain female employees, tech companies must learn to treat them differently to males. Males seem to be driven by success and salary, whereas for women it’s more about job satisfaction and a work-life balance.
There is also the salary gap to consider. Despite efforts from countless bodies, women are still paid less, on average, than men in identical or similar roles.

Once lost, never to return …

Another concern is that once a woman leaves the tech industry, they seldom return. A survey in 2014 by Textio asked over 700 women who had deserted the tech industry if they had plans to return. Almost ninety percent of them said they did not.

Efforts in encouraging more women into the tech industry are all well and good for short term success, but it is the culture prevalent within the industry that needs to change. It’s one that needs to learn how to support woman and respond to their specific employment requirements, and to encourage their growth as employees. Women also need to be encouraged to seek out leadership roles.

If the culture is not fixed, then women will simply continue to leak away from the tech industry, and a gender balance will never be obtained.

Big Brother Boss is watching you

Staff motivation has always been an issue for companies both big and small. Most of us would both prefer to be somewhere else and be doing something else other than working, so companies offer bonuses, additional employee benefits and other incentives to get us all to work a little bit harder.

Wearable tech has given rise to a new wave of devices capable of monitoring how an employee is performing throughout the day. These devices work by keeping track of a person’s well-being, hence building up a biological profile detailing when an employee is at their best, and when they’d be better off enjoying a ‘duvet day’.

Human optimisation – optimising the workforce

This process is being called ‘human optimisation’, and has already been used by top sports teams and athletes all over the world. This process, by which it is made sure that elite athletes are in the best condition possible ahead of the next big event or tournament, has begun to interest top companies from all over the UK.

Dr John Coates is a fellow at Cambridge University who specialises in neuroscience and finance. He says he is now receiving weekly calls from firms who have noted his work on the effects on both physical and mental well-being due to risk taking, and hope to apply his findings across their workforce.

‘Up to now, if you weren’t doing well at your job, most people thought the corrective was more information or better reasoning, some kind of psychological intervention,’ said Dr Coates. ‘People are just wrapping their brain around this idea that if your body’s a mess, you’re not going to do very well at anything cognitive.’

So far, companies that have used wearable tech in the workplace have largely focused on matters such as improving efficiency and workplace safety. It is hoped that new gadgets would give companies the ability to link physiological data with the level at which their employees are performing. This would prevent employees from working in stressful environments or from making important decisions when they are feeling low.

The most interested companies are those that exist in high-risk sectors, such as finance. In these environments, employees can find themselves under huge amounts of stress. Bad decisions have the potential to cost companies millions of dollars. If a key decision maker – such as a trader or a broker – can be warned via wearable tech that they are not currently physically or psychologically right, it may prevent them from making costly mistakes.

‘The public doesn’t really know what’s going on in sports physiology because the really good ones don’t publish – they want gold medals,’ said Dr Coates. ‘I’m working with some really good ones, and what they know right now is extraordinary. They can predict whether an athlete’s going to be in the zone in three days’ time, and if he or she isn’t going to be in the zone they know how to put them there. That’s going to happen in the work world.’

Some suitable wearable tech devices are already on the market. The company Equivital markets a chest band that monitors multiple indicators – including heart rate and skin temperature. It seems likely that one day soon such monitors will form part of a company’s dress code, as much as a smart shirt and a suitable tie.

8 great innovators in engineering and tech

Engineers are a creative bunch. Technology has become so advanced these days that if an engineer can imagine it, it can probably be built.

Here are eight great tech innovators in the realm of engineering.

Manu Prakash

We take aspects of health care for granted, but that’s only because we can afford them. What about people who live in countries where finding the resources to simply live through the day is challenge? Manu Prakash is helping to advance what he calls ‘frugal science’ – the manufacture of universally affordable healthcare instruments. He has already developed a piece of kit that can detect malaria in a single drop of blood, and the device costs less than a national daily newspaper.

Abe Davis

If you have a video with no sound, then Abe Davis and his team of MIT researchers can help. They’ve devised a way of extracting audio from silent videos. They measure the tiny vibrations of items filmed by a camera, and reconstruct the sound.

Nat Turner and Zach Weinberg

Cancer remains one of our biggest killers, but people like Nat Turner and Zach Weinberg are among the people who are hoping to change that. They have developed a software platform that enables cancer centres all across the US to work in collaboration to develop a cure.

Google bought Turner and Weinberg’s company – Invite Media – in 2010 for $80 million, and four years later invested a further $100 million. By May this year Invest Media’s Flatiron Health initiative had secured over $139 million in funding.

Hugh Herr

The saying ‘physician heal thyself’ certainly applies to Hugh Herr. He has helped to design and develop advanced bionic limbs, and is a double amputee himself. The limbs he helps to develop use microcomputers that respond to aspects of limb movement such as gait and the pressure on joints. The results are limbs that respond in exactly the same way that biological limbs do.

Bertolt Meyer

The documentary ‘The Incredible Bionic Man’ has helped to dispel some of the stigmas surrounding physical disability. The host of that documentary was Bertolt Meyer, who himself wears an artificial limb – a prosthetic hand known as an i-limb.

John Donoghue

People with physical disabilities have been wearing prosthetic limbs for decades, but ‘wearing’ and ‘using’ are two very different aspects of prosthetics. John Donoghue is leading research in ways in which amputees can control limbs simply by their thoughts, in exactly the same way that they would control a biological limb.

Stewart Coulter

Coulter is the project manager at DEKA Research and Development. He is helping develop what has been dubbed the ‘Luke’ arm – named in honour of Star Wars character Luke Skywalker. This robotic arm is the most complex prosthetic arm that has ever been developed, and enables users to perform tasks that normal prosthetics have never been able to complete, such as unlocking doors and using chopsticks.

IT Contracting – is it right for you?

If you’ve worked in IT for some time, no doubt you’ve come into contact with plenty of IT contractors. The ‘mavericks’ of the IT world, they seem to be remunerated at much higher levels than permanent staff, although they do have to usually have to work away from friends and family for days, weeks or even months at time.

You’re a contractor if you work for a company that you’ve no other attachment to for a fixed-term contract, rather than a full-time employment contract. You’re usually taken on board by a company on a fee-per-hour basis because of your skills, with the purpose of helping them to complete a project. Once the project has ended and your contract has run its length, then your association with that company ends.

So, what do you need to consider if you’re thinking about becoming an IT contractor?

What the client gets out of it …

Many organisations are quite happy to use contractors in conjunction with permanent staff. Contractors are generally more flexible when it comes to the hours they are willing to work, and offering someone a short-term contract only to then discover that they do not have the skills necessary means they are much easier to discard once the contract has expired.

Contractors also come fully-loaded with necessary skills, saving time and money on training. They have experience in different working environments and on different kinds of projects, which can be invaluable.

There are also no issues to deal with regarding sick pay, vacation pay, redundancy pay and national insurance contributions.

What the contractor gets out of it …

Because of their experience and niche talents, contractors usually earn more money than regular employees. They are also – to most intents and purposes – their own boss, which means if there are plenty of roles available across the industry, they can pick and choose where they work and whom they work for, and can take extended breaks if they choose.

It also helps them build up an impressive CV with many varied employers and locations. Some opportunities – such as working in a different country or different continent – are only open to contractors as relocation is usually only temporary.

What to be wary of …

Contracting can be more stressful than regular employment. You’re in competition with lots of other contractors with the same skills, many of them are likely to be more skilled and more experienced than you, so there is never any cast-iron guarantee of work. If you’re a regular employee and you leave work on a Friday it’s extremely unlikely that your job will not be there for you come Monday morning.

You also do not receive sick or holiday pay, and you’ll have to cover your own travel and accommodation issues, as well as making sure you’re meeting all your tax liabilities.

How to be a successful IT contractor …

You need to be skilful and be able to transfer those skills to different environments. You also need to be approachable and communicative, and know when to speak up and when to keep quiet. You also need to patient as you build up a solid portfolio of clients and successfully completed projects.

If you’re tempted to make the leap of faith, make sure you do your research. You can’t sell your skills if no one wants them. If you do your homework correctly, then a successful contracting career could just be around the corner.

Tech sector to be harmed by Britain’s new immigration policies?

UK-based tech-driven companies could face difficulties in hiring people beyond the European Union if proposed alterations to the UK’s immigration laws are adopted.

A shortage of EU-based skills in programming and software engineering means that UK tech companies are more often than not forced to look to the USA and Asia in order to secure the necessary talent. It’s a skills shortage that recent government initiatives have done little to redress.

Matters could become even more desperate if UK Prime Minister David Cameron sanctions a further tightening of immigration rules. Among the proposed changes are guidelines that would reduce the number of non-EU residents entering the country via skilled work visas.

The Migration Advisory Committee, or MAC, have been asked by the government to review the current ‘Tier 2’ skilled work visa as it is known. Currently, a little over 20,000 individuals enter the UK each year using this visa from beyond the European Union.

The MAC has proposed that the minimum salary threshold – which currently stands at £30,000 – be raised for the Tier 2 visa. The MAC is suggesting that this minimum annual salary requirement be raised by at least £10,000, and possibly as much as £25,000. This would hit UK tech companies who would then have to pay more to recruit the best in non-EU, overseas talent.

High profile companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook are unlikely to impacted by these proposed changes, as they already pay their employees salaries over and above standard industry levels. However, even these tech behemoths could be impacted if they look to bring young and largely untested talent into the UK from non-EU countries. At the moment, Google and co pay fresh-faced employees with less than five years experience between £35,000 and £40,000 per annum.

Lower profile tech companies cannot match the salaries offered by such global giants, so it is those who will be hardest hit by these proposed changes. Such companies will have no choice: they either pay to meet these new salary thresholds, or they stop recruiting from outside the EU and attempt to fill skills gaps by finding sufficiently-talented EU nationals.

The review of the Tier 2 skilled work visa was commissioned by Home Secretary Theresa May in June this year. The MAC will submit its proposals back to May on 21 July.

The co-managing director of Migreat, Josephone Goube said ‘By raising the annual minimum salary threshold of non-EU migrant workers to at least £30,000, the UK is putting a lot of pressure on small businesses and startups that do not pay such high salaries at entry level – even though they might be made of highly-skilled workers and talents.’ Migreat are a company that specialises in the provision of visa information.

The timing of this change comes just as figures reveal that more tech-roles in the UK are being filled by non-EU employees. In 2013/14 6,500 available Tier 2 visas went unclaimed. In 2014/15 this dropped to a mere 200, and so far in 2015 hardly any Tier 2 visas have remained unused.

If these proposals are adopted tech firms across the UK will be forced into a radical rethink of where they source their technology-skilled employees from.

Tech lessons – new GCSE to be offered in coding and internet security

With computers now seemingly dominating all aspects of day-to-day life, a new GCSE is to be launched that will involve learning about cyber security and how to create apps.

For this new qualification, students will be taught how to thwart internet hackers by learning about the methods employed to obtain information nefariously, such as by creating trojans, data miners and viruses. Students will also learn how to create secure coding solutions such as firewalls and anti-virus programs.

Additionally, students will be allowed the opportunity to hone their programming abilities – ideal if they have designs on creating the next Instagram or Flappy Bird.

This exam has been created by the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR) board, and is designed to ‘boost essential 21st century computing skills.’

Computing became compulsory within the national curriculum in 2014, but many independent observers felt that the curriculum for computing was a little outdated, and that a toughening up was in order. The former secretary of education, Michael Gove, had scrapped the previous ICT curriculum in 2012, describing it as ‘demotivating and dull’.

This new course (and sixty percent of the final mark) will be focused upon how students are able to establish a computational mindset. This involves the understanding of a complex problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts. A pattern has then to be established and any unnecessary parts eliminated. The final stage will involve providing programmable solutions to each specific part, and then creating a solution to the original, complex problem by successfully integrating all the separate solutions together, as would be necessary in the creation of a complicated tech application.

Students undertaking the course will also need to learn coding skills in order for them to work on their own coding project. This part of the course will contribute twenty percent to the final grade and students will need to create an app that has real-world use, such as a game or a productivity aid.

The subject specialist in computer science at OCR, Rob Leeman, said: ‘This specification builds on OCR’s pioneering qualification development in this subject area. We have consulted with companies such as Google, Microsoft and Cisco, as well as teachers and higher education academics and organisations like Computing At School (CAS) to ensure that the content is relevant. There is growing demand for digital skills worldwide. Whether students fancy themselves as the next cyber-spook, Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, our new qualification will be the first exciting step towards any career that requires competence in computing.’

According to predictions from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, there will be nearly 150,000 job openings for coders and software developers over the next ten years. People employed in creative IT roles can expect to earn salaries of around £38,000.

Students now require at least a C grade in GCSE computer science if they will to complete an English Baccalaureate qualification. They all need at least a C grade, in English, maths, science, either history or geography and one foreign language.

Matt Smith of recruitment consultants Quantica Technology commented ‘This is really good news, we see the effect on our client’s business when they can’t easily find the skills they need. Whilst we are always able to provide a solution, there will come a time in the future where demand outweighs supply and it is important that we do something to counteract that now.’