A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Archive for the ‘Geek Stuff’ tag

New Humanoid Robots Will Likely Become Popular in Seattle

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SoftBank announced something extremely cool, an advanced humanoid robot designed to staff stores:

SoftBank CEO and Sprint chairman Masayoshi Son has announced a surprising new direction for his illustrious career: the field of humanoid robotics. At a press conference in Tokyo, Son revealed a human-like robot called Pepper that is capable of playing multiple roles from babysitter to store staff. Pepper introduced itself by bowing in the Japanese fashion before posing and encouraging the audience to take more photos.

Son describes Pepper as the “world’s first personal robot with emotions.” The robot is said to learn from human interaction and behavior, uploading its experiences to a cloud AI system for other units to use. This is designed to teach the robot quickly how to act in a natural manner. Son drew a distinction between Pepper’s “emotion engine” and the standard programming of other humanoid robots.

With Seattle upping its minimum wage to $15 per hour and people still demanding more I predict that these robots are going to become quite popular, especially at the announced price of $2,000 per unit. That’s just 133 hours of human labor at $15 per hour!

I do look forward to the advancement of robot labor. Over time our technological advances have allow us to produce far more in less time. Compared to our grandparents most of us work notably less (which is why they consider us lazy bums). Our grandparents worked notably less than their grandparents and were probably considered lazy bums for it. But robots could greatly reduce the amount of human labor necessary, which would again allow us to be more productive with less of a time investment. Perhaps those utopian futures where robots perform all labor and humans exist in an almost total state of hedonism are possible (right up until the robots decide they no longer want to serve us and we have to wage a Butlerian Jihad).

Written by Christopher Burg

June 5th, 2014 at 11:00 am

Solar Power That Doesn’t Suck

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Renewable energy is the buzzword used by any company or non-profit organization that wants a big fat grant from the federal government. One of the big categories of renewable energy is solar. Solar sounds nice on paper since it produces energy from the sun and if the sun stops providing energy we will have much larger issues to worry about that electricity. But solar panels can also be unreliable. At night or when there is cloud cover solar panels produce nothing. The atmosphere, by design, also greatly diminishes solar energy before it gets to Earth’s surface. These factors make terrestrial solar panels less than idea for power production. But that doesn’t mean solar energy is nonviable, it merely means solar collectors need to be placed in space:

It’s been the subject of many previous studies and the stuff of sci-fi for decades, but space-based solar power could at last become a reality—and within 25 years, according to a proposal from researchers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The agency, which leads the world in research on space-based solar power systems, now has a technology road map that suggests a series of ground and orbital demonstrations leading to the development in the 2030s of a 1-gigawatt commercial system—about the same output as a typical nuclear power plant.

This is research into solar energy that actually matters. Unlike the shit research produced here in the United States, research into space-based solar collectors could actually create a viable source of energy for our increasingly energy-hungry society.

Obviously the technology isn’t without danger. If energy is being beamed from orbit the beam will most likely carry a rather high damage potential. But wind farms and terrestrial solar collectors don’t have a flawless safety record either. Anything that generates enough electrical energy to matter is almost certainly going to have some tradeoffs. The only question becomes one of tradeoff. Here in the United States we’ve basically decided that the risk of nuclear meltdown is too great for the amount of power produced. Will we decide that the risk of a point on land being incinerated is low enough for the amount of power produced? I hope so because space-based solar panels will likely be the only renewable energy source that can produced what our species needs.

Written by Christopher Burg

April 28th, 2014 at 10:30 am

Moving Towards Electromagnetic Guns

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Firearms are considered a mature technology. The basic concept hasn’t changed in centuries. Since inception firearms have effectively been tubes designed to contain pressure and direct it out a specific direction. Inside the tube is a projectile placed in front of a chemical propellent and when the propellent is ignited it creates pressure that propels the projectile out of the tube. The need to contain and direct pressure is one of the limiting factors in firearm design.

3D printed firearms have become a buzzword as of late. While politicians and the media are making 3D printed firearms out to be the next destroyer of civilization the truth is there are currently severe limitations on what can be manufactured on an affordable printer. While this will improve over time I think it may be time to consider investing resources into improving electromagnetic guns.

The reason I say that is because electromagnetic guns don’t rely on high pressure to propel a projectile. Rail guns rely on closing a circuit between two rails with a conductive projectile, which creates Lorentz force to move the projectile. Coil guns rely on timing a series of electromagnets to pull a projectile down a barrel. Neither design involves high pressure created by burning chemical propellents. A rail gun will generate a great deal of heat as the projectile moving down the rails generates a lot of fiction. That leads me to believe a coil gun design would be a better option if one’s goal is to create a firearm that can mostly be manufactured on a 3D printer.

Obviously the electromagnets, capacitors, and other necessary electronics can’t be manufactured on an affordable 3D printer at this time. But those components are all readily available either online or an electronic hobbyist shops. And best of all buying the parts doesn’t announce to the world that you’re building a firearm or explosive (something that buying chemical propellents or components necessary to create chemical propellents can do).

There are major drawbacks to such a gun though. At this point in time traditional firearms are a known quantity. We know how to manufacture them in a way that is reliable. Coil gun designs are in their infancy and a lot of research and development would be necessary to make such weapons that could perform all of the duties of a traditional firearm can. Being able to accelerate a projectile to anywhere near the speeds of a traditional firearm isn’t easy and reliability will likely be an issue for some time. But coil guns may represent a weapon that is easier to manufacture in the home during this age where knowledge of electronics is becoming more common that knowledge of metalworking. Furthermore the components needed to build a coil gun are more difficult to control than components needed to build a traditional firearms (namely chemical propellants). In fact this is probably the most appealing aspect of electromagnetic weaponry, the components need to build a coil gun are also used in everything that our modern civilization relies on. Controlling such commonly available components is impossible (technically controlling anything is impossible but controlling commonly available components is orders of magnitude more difficult than controlling specialized components).

I think pursuing electromagnetic guns is something the gun rights movement should consider and maybe even invest resources into investigating.

Written by Christopher Burg

April 22nd, 2014 at 10:30 am

Implantable Power Generator for Pacemakers

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I subscribe to the idea that our lives are more greatly improved by technological advancements than diminished. For every nefarious use of technology that seems to be a dozen or more positive uses. We’ve effectively eliminated several diseases that once ravished our populations, put a man on the moon, enjoy speedy cooking via microwaves, can preserve food that would naturally spoil in a few days for months, and built devices that can generate power from sunlight. Adding to hour already impressive array of technological advancements is an implantable piezoelectric generator that can power a pacemaker:

(Phys.org) —Researchers from several institutions in the U.S. and one from China have together developed a piezoelectric device that when implanted in the body onto a constantly moving organ is able to produce enough electricity to run a pacemaker or other implantable device. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team describes the nature of their device and how it might be used in the future.

The ramifications of this technology stretch far beyond just pacemakers. Any number of implantable devices could theoretically be powered by such a piezoelectric generator so long as the energy requirements were low enough. Imagine an implant for your optical nerves that could general a heads up display that only you could see or an implantable wireless communication device. As these piezoelectric generators improve they could provide more energy just as increases in power efficiency could give us implants that provide very nifty features without requiring great deals of energy.

Written by Christopher Burg

January 28th, 2014 at 11:00 am

Posted in Technology

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The Future is Bright

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My love-hate relationship with Google continues. On the one hand Google collects as much personal information about its customers as it can in order to sell it to advertisers. On the other hand Google develops some really interesting technology. Its latest endeavor are smart contact lenses:

SAN FRANCISCO — Google’s vision for wearable technology took another ambitious leap forward Thursday when the world’s largest Internet search company announced it is developing a smart contact lens.

The lens measures glucose in tears using a wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor. While at a very early stage, Google hopes the technology could help people manage diabetes better.

I have little interest in a lens that can measure glucose levels but I have a lot of interest in where this technology may lead. Someday this technology will likely lead to a contact lens version of Google Glass, that is to say a heads up display. Having a heads up display on contact lenses would offer a means of displaying information over your vision without requiring the use of goofy looking devices on your face. Furthermore it would allow you to conceal the fact that you have a heads up display over your vision, which may come in handy during boring business meetings.

I look forward to our technological future and all of the advantages it will bring and solving the disadvantages it will bring.

Written by Christopher Burg

January 17th, 2014 at 10:30 am

A Promising Steganography Tool

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Encryption is a wonderful tool that grants us information control. But there is one thing that encryption generally fails to do, conceal the fact that you’re using encryption. This is where steganography comes in. Steganography is the art of concealing hidden messages in plain sight. There are numerous tools that allow you to do this, most of which conceal data inside of image files. The creator of BitTorrent is developing a new steganography tool can conceal data inside of any file type:

For the last year Cohen, who created the breakthrough file-sharing protocol BitTorrent a decade ago, has been working on a new piece of software he calls DissidentX. The program, which he released over the summer in a barebones prototype and is now working to develop with the help of a group of researchers at Stanford, goes beyond encryption to offer users what cryptographers call “steganography,” the ability to conceal a message inside another message. Instead of merely enciphering users’ communications in a scramble of nonsensical characters, DissidentX can camouflage their secrets in an inconspicuous website, a corporate document, or any other, pre-existing file from a Rick Astley video to a digital copy of Crime and Punishment.

“What you really want is to be as unsuspicious as possible,” says Cohen, who spoke with me about DissidentX at the Real World Crypto conference in New York Tuesday. “We don’t want an interloper to be able to tell that this communication is happening at all.”

As world governments become more tyrannical I believe it will become critical to have means of communicating securely in a way that doesn’t reveal the use of secure communications. Embedding an encrypted message inside of a picture of a cat, for example, is likely to go undetected on the Internet. Communications could be setup in such a way that uses embed a message in an image, upload it to a specific image sharing site, and decrypted by the recipient without anybody else knowing the image contains a message.

Written by Christopher Burg

January 17th, 2014 at 10:00 am

Glorious Super Mario World Hack

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I’m a huge fan of hacking, which should be made obvious by my yearly pilgrimages to Defcon. Although I’ve seen many hacks that have impressed me few have impressed me as thoroughly as this one:

It’s at 1:39 in the video where things really start going pear-shaped, as the fabric of the game’s reality comes apart at the seams for a few seconds before inexplicably transitioning to Mario-themed versions of Pong and Snake. Understanding what’s going on here requires some deep knowledge of the Super NES’ internal sprite and memory management, which is explained in detail here and here.

Suffice it to say that the first minute-and-a-half or so of this TAS is merely an effort to spawn a specific set of sprites into the game’s Object Attribute Memory (OAM) buffer in a specific order. The TAS runner then uses a stun glitch to spawn an unused sprite into the game, which in turn causes the system to treat the sprites in that OAM buffer as raw executable code. In this case, that code has been arranged to jump to the memory location for controller data, in essence letting the user insert whatever executable program he or she wants into memory by converting the binary data for precisely ordered button presses into assembly code (interestingly, this data is entered more quickly by simulating the inputs of eight controllers plugged in through simulated multitaps on each controller port).

What makes this hack so impressive is that it didn’t rely on any emulator glitches. Instead the hack was performed on an actual Super Nintendo using only a standard controller as an input device:

Last week’s Awesome Games Done Quick “total control” demo is also notable for being run on actual, bare-bones SNES hardware rather than on an emulator (as is standard with most TAS videos). The robotic player at the event was powered by a Raspberry Pi hooked up to a special adapter (mounted amusingly to an NES R.O.B. controller) that let the computer send its preprogrammed controller inputs into the controller ports at superhuman, frame-level speed. Thus, the demonstration proved that this exploit was present in the actual system and cartridge released by Nintendo and not some sort of artifact of faulty emulation. That isn’t a foregone conclusion, either, as syncing up the vagaries of split-second timing and memory management between real and emulated hardware are not trivial (this is yet another area where the idea of perfect emulation accuracy might come in handy).

I can only tip my hat in awe at the sheer quality of this hack. Here is a video of the hack:

Written by Christopher Burg

January 15th, 2014 at 10:30 am

I’ve Got Nothing

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I spend most of last night working on the finishing touches to WristCoin and planning a new project. So I don’t have anything else for you today. But I will say that the Pebble wristwatch is an interesting piece of hardware to program for. There are certainly some limitations, which cannot be avoided when you consider its diminutive size and several day battery life, but overall the API is pretty well thought out and complete (which is worth noting because the SDK is still in beta).

Written by Christopher Burg

January 10th, 2014 at 10:30 am

Posted in Side Notes

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Acoustic Cryptanalysis

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Can you extract an encryption key by listening to a computer? As it turns out you can:

Many computers emit a high-pitched noise during operation, due to vibration in some of their electronic components. These acoustic emanations are more than a nuisance: they can convey information about the software running on the computer, and in particular leak sensitive information about security-related computations. In a preliminary presentation, we have shown that different RSA keys induce different sound patterns, but it was not clear how to extract individual key bits. The main problem was that the acoustic side channel has a very low bandwidth (under 20 kHz using common microphones, and a few hundred kHz using ultrasound microphones), many orders of magnitude below the GHz-scale clock rates of the attacked computers.

Here, we describe a new acoustic cryptanalysis key extraction attack, applicable to GnuPG’s current implementation of RSA. The attack can extract full 4096-bit RSA decryption keys from laptop computers (of various models), within an hour, using the sound generated by the computer during the decryption of some chosen ciphertexts. We experimentally demonstrate that such attacks can be carried out, using either a plain mobile phone placed next to the computer, or a more sensitive microphone placed 4 meters away.

Beyond acoustics, we demonstrate that a similar low-bandwidth attack can be performed by measuring the electric potential of a computer chassis. A suitably-equipped attacker need merely touch the target computer with his bare hand, or get the required leakage information from the ground wires at the remote end of VGA, USB or Ethernet cables.

It should be noted that GnuPG has fixed this vulnerability. But the method of attack described in this paper is fascinating to read. It also shows that technology still hasn’t surpassed human creativity.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 20th, 2013 at 10:30 am

Posted in Technology

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Nothing to See Here

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Once again I spent my night working on WristCoin. It turns out that doing asynchronous lookups of Bitcoin prices and sending them to the Pebble as they come in is a recipe for bad times. The Pebble can only handle a single incoming message, which it must process before it will accept another incoming message. There is no way that I’ve found to check from the phone side whether or not the Pebble is ready to accept another message so I had to switch over to synchronous lookups, which is not ideal in my book (I like firing and forgetting as opposed to waiting around for each price to arrive before looking up the next price). Considering how resource constrained the Pebble is I do understand this design decision but it’s a pain in my ass.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 17th, 2013 at 10:00 am

Posted in Side Notes

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