University of Lincoln Graduation Ceremony 2012

My graduation ceremony was last week month (Wednesday 5th) and it couldn’t have been better. The setting combined with perfect weather really made for the best day possible. Lincoln Cathedral really is one of the best settings for such a ceremonious occasion and the gowns really look at home there. On a more practical note it’s also a naturally cool building (even on the hottest days) and its seating capacity limits the congregation size, which in turn keeps the ceremony from dragging on.

I graduated with a 1st Class Honours in Computer Science, so couldn’t be more pleased. The day marked the end of my formal education (for now) and although I will miss the fast paced education I am also enjoying the challenges of growing Mamu Computing, which has already grown in terms of turnover and client base as well as becoming a partnership.

Daniel Hill Lincoln Graduation 2012

New Website for Mamu Computing

We’ve worked hard to expand and re-style the Mamu Computing website. The new website now demonstrates a variety of website features including:

  • drop down menus
  • rolling image gallery
  • text that reveals on hovering over
  • sliding panels
  • blog feed

The new website also showcases a hand crafted background to demonstrate our creative side. We have also introduced a glossary of terms, which will continue to grow and evolve (feel free to make suggestions). And to top it off we even included an about us page where you can find out a little more about the people behind Mamu Computing

Jon Platts on Unmanned Air Vehicles

Today was the last of the scheduled guest speakers, Jon Platts of Muretex. Muretex specialises in aircraft autonomy and unmanned air vehicles and was founded by Jon after leaving the air force. Despite covering the same subject as Isabella Panella the talk was significantly different. One element of the talk was the political and moral implications of autonomy; the fear of terminator-like drones. Autonomy is already in use and accepted in many aircraft, the majority of commercial flight time is controlled by autopilot, but the technology is capable of going much further the question is are people. As a result decisions tend to have various levels of autonomy: fully automated, automated unless halted by pilot, automated with pilot’s authority, pilot only decision. This allows the designers to categorise the system, allowing them to prevent the system from making a decision that is politically or morally considered to be a human decision.

Jon played a clip from the very fun film Spinal Tap, where Nigel explains that their amps go to eleven, to demonstrate the fact that clients are not entirely sure what autonomy is but are sure they want more of it. This relates back to the subject raised by Ken Evans that getting the requirements correct is often difficult.

The talk covered the hardware used in their UAV systems, but focussed more on the relation between the pilot and machine. Many scenarios were covered, one of which was automating the control of the aircraft, so instead of controlling each element of the plane (wings, thrusters, etc.) the pilot simply give the plane a direction. Another example given was the automation of landing a Harrier on a carrier ship, which emphasised the importance of feedback from the system to the pilot. The pilot was provided with a constant feed of what the system is doing and what it is planning to do, giving the pilot confidence in the system. As well as improving user interface it came across that reducing workload on pilots it a key issue for Muretex and was an important measurement when testing any new systems. An example of this was the recent development of one pilot controlling four UAVs in addition to his own aircraft. A pilot typically controls a targeting pod, mounted on the underside of the plane, to survey the environment, but Muretex sought to test how putting the pilot in control of four UAVs would affect the pilot’s workload. Jon presented the results of the system at several stages throughout its development, showing that while the system was being tested using simulators they were able to alter the system to improve performance and lower the pilot workload required. After simulation testing and development the system was then tested in the air. The system was found to be no more demanding than using a targeting pod, but far more effective, significantly reducing the time taken to find, identify and attack a target.

Overall the talk proved interesting, looking at the subject of unmanned vehicles from political, moral and user’s points of view, which lead to a talk that was both technically interesting and philosophically thought provoking.

Karl Hilton on Crytek, CryENGINE & The Games Industry

The talk today was definitely one for the computer games students as the speaker was Karl Hilton, currently the MD at Crytek UK. The talk covered a brief history of Karl’s career before looking at the structure of the gaming industry. The presentation was interesting, well delivered and packed with stunning videos and images, as you would expect from a media industry professional.

I found Karl’s background interesting as he had initially studied Part 1 in Architecture, but due to his interest into the computer visualisations used in Architecture and the lack of job opportunities at the time decided to return to University and study Computer Visualisation and Animation. I have had several years’ experience working both for and with Architectural practises and am familiar with the visualisation techniques used, so was able to appreciate the similarities between the two industries. I feel it is quite fitting that one of Karl’s current ventures is to sell CryENGINE (a games development environment) to Architects as a visualisation tool. Karl pointed out that most Architects are far behind computer games when it comes to visualisations and my experience coincide with this.

After finishing his studies in Computer Visualisation and Animation Karl started his computer games career working for Rare (a company that had the biggest contribution to my childhood gaming) before reaching where he is today. Having been in the industry over fifteen years and reached such a high position, Karl was able to explain in great detail how the industry is structured, Crytek operates and where the UK stands in relation to the rest of the world. Karl also explained how that structure is changing, in particular how the pricing structure is changing from purchasing games to micro-transactions where the game itself is available for free and users purchase additional elements for use within the games: items, upgrades, etc.

Despite not studying games computing I still found the talk very interesting and relatable. The Architectural angle of the talk highlighted the fact that the tools used by the games industry are not only also suited to other industries, but are also better than many of those currently in use.

Shan He on Swarm Intelligence

The guest speaker yesterday was Dr Shan He, a lecturer in Computational Biology at the University of Birmingham. The subject of the talk was swarm intelligence, Dr Shan He’s area of research for several years. The talk demonstrated Dr Shan He’s research into simulating the ways animals aggregate into swarms, starlings for example. The presentation made good use of videos that really added to the explanations, despite early technical problems.

One aim Dr Shan He’s research was to understand how animals maintain swarm formations. Swarms have been modelled before, but Dr Shan He took a different approach, modelling using artificial neural networks. Using such a method requires far fewer definitions and depends strongly on the system learning by trial and error. The prey have a defined field of view, travel speed and that they should always flee from predators. After running numerous cycles the system is able to develop the most successful rules for survival and the different patterns types observed in nature can be seen in the computer model. After studying the resulting rules of the neural networks, it was found that many of the networks did not demonstrate either metric or topological models, but instead only interacting with the nearest two neighbours. When modelled using only the two neighbour method the same swarm patterns will still formed, but with far lower computational overheard than either metric or topological methods.

I have touched upon artificial neural networks during my studies of Artificial Intelligence and find the subject very intriguing. As a result I found this presentation very interesting and would like to look further into artificial neural networks. Programming without programming, allowing the system to take many different approaches to identify the best fit seems a little supernatural, but very effective. If the solution to a problem is highly difficult to obtain, but you have a significant volume of data to train an artificial neural network, then this provides a very beneficial solution. Allowing a system to learn by its mistakes and carry forward the most successful results allowed for replication of evolution that has occurred in nature. Surely this could also be used to predict other developments in nature; possibly the spread of disease or future evolution?

A very interesting presentation on artificial intelligence that due to the reference to swarms in nature was relatively easy to relate to.

Isabella Panella on Unmanned Air Vehicles

Today’s guest speaker was Isabella Panella, an unmanned systems technical consultant at the electronics defence firm Selex Galileo. The talk covered the company’s development of unmanned vehicles, primarily unmanned air vehicles (UAVs). The talk covered the issue of autonomous systems in great detail and was delivered enthusiastically although felt a little like a corporate presentation for the company.

The issue at the heart of the talk was developing a system that is able to adapt to a changing environment while at the same time being highly reliable. As such the talk included the topics of artificial intelligence and systems modelling. The talk effectively demonstrated the issues associated with design automated systems for UAVs including accurate sensing, quick decision making and physical limitations (size and weight). Due to the nature of unmanned vehicles the presentation also included many engineering aspects. I found myself able to relate to this as I have previously studied mechanical engineer and found it added to the overall understanding of the subject.

The presentation had relevance to my studies, in particular the ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and ‘Computer Vision and Robotics’ modules. Despite being focused on unmanned vehicles the topics covered can be applied to the wider topic of decision making systems. As such, the talk was informative, interesting and relevant to my studies.

Ken Evans on Object-Role Modelling (ORM)

The guest speaker today was Ken Evans, a visiting senior research fellow at the University of Lincoln with a career including the RAF and IBM. His research interests include management systems, data modelling and software engineering. The presentation covered many topics, firstly posing a few questions about the value of data in industry and how it is mismanaged. Then, after a brief summary of Ken’s varied career, the talk moved onto data modelling and management. Overall the talk was interesting, even if at times rambling, providing a thought provoking insight into how data systems are modelled.

The talk explained the age old problem of determining the true requirements for a system and how to translate those requirements into a design. It was at this point Ken began to discuss his latest venture: object role modelling (ORM). This aspect of the talk was of great interest to me as I am studying the suitability of UML and ORM for reverse engineering database driven systems as part of my third year project. In addition to discussing modelling using ORM, Ken also gave a demonstration using a Microsoft Visual Studio plugin. I found the demonstration very interesting as it had such a direct relation to my third year project, so interesting in fact that I stayed behind after the talk to discuss the subject in detail with Ken for several hours.

Although the topic was of interest to me I think many of the audience struggled to see much relevance and as such switched off when Ken went into greater detail. However, the point of ensuring correct requirements and accurate design is essential for any project producing a system that is fit for purpose. For me this talk has provided an insight into a topic I will continue to explore and am sure I will be speaking with Ken throughout the remainder of the academic year.

Roy Isbell on Computer & Network Security

Today’s guest speaker was Roy Isbell, a very experienced computer and network security professional in both the public and private sectors. The theme of the presentation was computer attacks and their detection and prevention. The talk itself provided an interesting overview with some areas going into greater detail. The speaker himself came across as a charismatic, well-informed professional, delivering a good mix of knowledge and humour.

One aim of the presentation was to bring home both the severity and diversity of computer based security threats; virtually every aspect of our lives is at least partly managed by a computer of some variety  and more and more of these are connecting to the world wide web. Whether it’s the computer systems that hold our money, keep supermarkets stocked or just our family photos on the home computer they all connect to the same worldwide network. So how can you keep control?

As a network administrator I know it can be tough enough to stay on top of even a small, single location network, and you must ensure all computers regularly have any vulnerabilities patched, old devices are removed when no longer in use and try to keep people from accidentally breaching your security measures. However, this is nothing in comparison to the threats you open yourself up to when connecting to the internet. Now that the world is on your network, the connected hardware, software and protocols vary vastly, as do the users. Not only are you trying to prevent accidental security breaches, but now you have to be far more aware of malicious attacks. But the most daunting aspect of connecting a network to the internet has to be that there are many people out there that know far more than you, and as network administrator it will be deemed your responsibility to fend them off. So how do you protect against such a potentially overwhelming threat?

The first instinct is to lock the door: don’t connect. I am aware of businesses that do this, running two networks – the “working network” where there product is produced and the “internet network” which acts as the gateway to the web for communication and reference. However, the more technologies you close off to your network, the more resources you deny. A big example of this would be remote access, a highly valuable asset to most firms, yet comes with equally high levels of threat if not managed effectively. Unfortunately security comes at a cost, so much so that it is not economically viable for a small company to implement many of the remote technologies with sufficient security to be sure that they are entirely safe from attack.

But how secure do you need to be? Technically you need to be secure enough to fend off your greatest threat. The size of that threat will depend on several aspects of your company: the value of the assets you are trying to secure, company size, fame, and ethics, just to name a few. Essentially, this boils down to how much of a target is your company? The bigger the target, the greater level of security you require. For example, at home you simply need a lock on your door, whereas a bank requires a vault. In order to assess yourself as a target you need to look at yourself from an outside perspective. Would you even be aware of your company if you didn’t work there? Are there any large rivals looking to gain that competitive edge? Does the company do to anything to antagonise any activist organisations? Essentially you need to perform a risk assessment, determining the damage and likelihood of each threat and cost to protect against them; the decision is likely to then be made by whoever controls the purse strings.

Although computer security is very much on the rise, security in general has been around a very long time. Security is not a new term; like many terms in computing they relate back to far older systems. In the title of the presentation “Computer & Network Security”, all three words predate the electronic computer of today, as do the issues. If it weren’t for undesirable traits in humanity we would not have locks on our doors and alarms on our cars; similarly we would not have firewall and antivirus software. Yet houses get broken into, cars get stolen and computers will still get hacked and infected, so in essence human nature is simply progressing alongside technology and until we can address ourselves, how can we expect to address Computer & Network Security?

As you can see the presentation left me contemplating these issues, answering a few questions while at the same time posing dozens more, as any good talk should.