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24 July 2014

ICT Feature: Keeping An eye on apps for children

 - Thursday, 23 February 2012, 00:00

Mothers have become the latest app vigilantes. Teams of mothers who are app developers in Silicon Valley and other states are increasingly trying to solve two problems that this booming industry is facing. They are fighting to ensure that the apps are appropriate for children whilst at the same time promote their own work.

As apps targeting children of a young age increase so do parents’ concerns. According to developers, thousands of apps are reaching millions in total downloads. This rapid growth has drawn attention from privacy advocates and regulators generating new rules around children and online privacy. Among the new groups now vetting children’s apps is Moms with Apps, which shares tips on how to build and sell child-friendly apps in meetings held every month or so and in an online forum. In the past year, the group has doubled to more than a thousand members, from developers to big publishers. It’s organiser, Lorraine Akemann, who previously worked in Cisco Systems Inc’s education sector, recommends apps on the group’s website based on a sixth sense of whether they are “kid friendly” or not. Her motto is that interactivity is good, advertising isn’t.

Members are able to publicise the app via Twitter, Facebook and other new social networking sites, such as the latest Pinterest. Ms. Akemann also examines developers to be included in the Moms with Apps app, where iPhone and iPad users can browse more than 2,500 child-friendly apps.

Ms. Akemann, who founded the group with other mothers, monitors apps which integrate with social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, which can potentially expose children to content parents don’t want them to see. “Parents need to be vigilant,” she says. App developers like Caroline Hu Flexer, co founder of the app Duck Duck Moose, says that promoting her apps with the group has helped her company compete with developers within the same genre of children’s apps like Walt Disney Co. and Nickelodeon. Ms. Akemann and other members of Moms with Apps have been meeting several key players, such as members of Congress and the mobile trade group. Another group of mothers which screens apps, Kind Kids Apps, based in the Netherlands has more stringent standards. Apps must stick to some dozen rules, including “Don’t be sneaky” and “Don’t be boring”. Only about 15% to 20% of submissions from developers are approved, giving them permission to add the group’s seal of approval to their app. Group organiser, Diana van Ewijk said she recently rejected an app that had a large “Try me” button that linked to an app store. “We don’t think kids understand what is going on when they hit that button,” she said.

It’s these types of groups which will safe guard the innocence of children. They are still keeping with the app trends but ensuring that their children as well as others are being exposed to the right content.

EU plans to be world leader in high-performance computing

For industries which rely on precision and speed such as the automotive, aviation and health sectors, High Performance Computing (HPC) is a crucial factor. Having access to fast simulations carried out by improved super computers can mean a difference between life and death, between new jobs or profits and bankruptcy. Analysis of 3D brain imaging through HPC has allowed earlier diagnosis of diseases. Hospitals in Germany are making use of the latest HPC technology to avoid last-minute decisions during childbirth. This technology has enabled car makers to develop new vehicle platforms in just 2 years rather than 5 years, in turn saving the European car industry up to €40 billion. 97% of the industrial companies that utilise HPC consider it an indispensable tool to improve innovation, competition and market survival.

In light of this, the European Commission has set a plan for the EU to reverse its decline in HPC use and capabilities. Under this plan the EU will double its investment in HPC, from €630 million to €1.2 billion, so that computers can potentially perform 1 quintillion (that’s 18 zeros) operations per second before 2020. Half of the investment would be dedicated to development and training and also for new centres of excellence, creating thousands of jobs.

Neelie Kroes, European Commission Vice-President responsible for the Digital Agenda, said, “High Performance Computing is a crucial enabler for European industry and for more jobs in Europe. It’s investments like HPC that deliver innovations improving daily life. We’ve got to invest smartly in this field because we cannot afford to leave it to our competitors.” The Commission’s plans will substantially strengthen HPC in Europe by:

Strengthening the Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe (PRACE) as the leading pan-European HPC e-infrastructure, pooling national and EU funds to service academic and industrial research

Creating a workforce sufficiently trained in HPC

Stimulating the European market for HPC by supporting more purchases of HPC systems and services and faster uptake of HPC by industry and SME’s

Encouraging Member States to jointly procure leading HPC systems and share costs

Establishing centres of excellence for software in scientific fields like energy, life-sciences and climate

Supporting the HPC industry and research to maintain an independent and state-of-the-art EU supply chain through research and innovation funding and pre-commercial procurement

Working to ensure that the EU HPC industry has fair access to global markets

Guaranteeing adequate ICT infrastructures to support innovation is a priority of the Digital Agenda for Europe. At a macroeconomic level, returns on investment in HPC are very high – the companies and countries which invest most in HPC are leading the science and economic sectors towards greater success. Advances in the area of HPC like new computing technologies, energy efficiency and storage applications power the ICT industry and the consumer mass market. Advanced computing technologies developed for the consumer are now being used in HPC. Securing high-quality jobs and growth in Europe requires developing the achievements of PRACE to increase coordination between governance and acquisition of super-computing power.

The Malta Independent ICT Feature

Technology is constantly creating opportunities for people to improve their lives. This week we’ll look at a new way in which hand gestures can be translated into songs. This innovation will provide help to those who may have speech difficulties. We will also be seeing a similar technology able to translate mental thoughts into speech.

Also creating wider opportunities are groups of mothers with their children’s well-being in mind. With the app industry increasing rapidly, children are becoming more and more exposed to content which might not be suitable for them. A group of mothers called Moms with Apps are offering advice on how to create and share child-friendly apps. They increase awareness on child-friendly apps by communicating with other people via social networking sites. This keeps parents on their toes and vigilant to what their children are absorbing.

Such industries, as the app business, rely on speed and accuracy. For this, super computers are often used. High Performance Computing (HPC) is the back-bone which powers this need for speed. In today’s feature we’ll read how the EU is planning to double its investment in HPC to increase the content generated from computers. This will improve daily life and deliver innovations to the public guaranteeing adequate ICT infrastructures.

Roderick Spiteri is Marketing and Communications Manager at MITA and editor of Malta Independent ICT feature

Gestures become songs

Gestures can now be deciphered, not only translated into words but also into song. Although the system isn’t ready for stardom, its name - Digital Ventriloquized Actor (DiVA) - gives you an idea of where the technology is going. “It is a singing synthesizer,” said Sidney Fels, director of the University of British Columbia’s Media and Graphics Interdisciplinary Centre, or MAGIC. Fels explained how DiVA is shown during the Vancouver annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

DiVA’s operator controls the pitch and the character of the sounds by using the gestures of the right hand. Consonants are produced using close-hand gestures while open-hand gestures create vowel sounds. Meanwhile, the left hand is attached to finger contacts to create stop sounds like ‘and’ and ‘buh’. “We designed a gestural space that mimics the vocal tract,” Fels explained. If DiVA goes commercial, it could provide a new way for people with speech disabilities to make themselves heard. But what does this new speech technology have above other speech synthesizers? “The problem with that is, you won’t be able to sing. You won’t be able to be expressive,” Fels said. One of the intended uses for the technology is to create new types of singing musical instruments that can be played in real time. Fels said that five compositions have been written for DiVA to date, played by musicians trained to use the device.

“It takes about 100 hours for a performer to learn how to speak and use the system,” stated Fels in a recent news release. Components such as gloves, volume-control foot pedals and a magnetic-sensor system bring DiVA to life but can become quite cumbersome at times. Fels describes the equipment as “a backpack full” which he wouldn’t travel everywhere with. However, Fels and his team are developing a version that can be used with a computer tablet. This gives us a hint at the sort of mobile applications which we can expect in the near future. The DiVA project began as a way to educate people how to control a complex system using gestures and giving them feedback whether they’re doing the gestures right. Fels also said that other possible purposes for this technology are interfaces to make tasks easier, for example, controlling cranes or other heavy machinery. It’s also possible that this gesture based technology could provide a different way of learning and practicing foreign languages like Asian which depends on precise tonal control.

Recently, similar technology has also been created by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. They’ve developed ways to translate the words a person thinks into real speech. Researchers from the University used 15 patients undergoing neurosurgery. By placing electrodes on the subjects’ brains, they recorded the brain activity as they listened to a conversation. This recorded data was restructured and played back. Algorithms were used to process the data. The subjects were exposed to both English and words which they didn’t recognise, and the system worked equally well for both.

This proved that once the technology becomes practicable it could be used anywhere. Research team leader, Brian Pasely, a post-doctoral student at UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute says that the technology wasn’t based on auditory features so it’s not specific to English. In 2005, Matt Nagle who became paralysed from the neck down after being stabbed in an attack, participated in a clinical trial in which a neural interface system was implanted on the surface of his brain. This system allowed him to control a computer mouse cursor to check his email, control a TV and send commands to an external prosthetic hand (among other commands) using only his thoughts.

Pasely adds that in order to further this type of technology we need to understand how the brain processes speech imagery. The main hurdle at the moment is the question of whether speech imagery is similar to speech perception. Principle analyst at the Enderle Group, Rob Enderle, speculates that this type of technology could be possible if you bypass the vocal chords altogether and use a form of encryption that would make it more private than normal speech. “Think of a reporter being able to report on an event without having to actually say anything.”

These types of technologies might eventually help people with speech defects or those who are unable to speak due to an illness or injury.

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