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Living in the Future: August 19, 2013

This Week: Batteries not included – and not needed, hacking Facebook, and new precise GPS!

Time was, the phrase “Batteries not included” meant that you had to go out and purchase batteries – and often, over and over again. But new wireless devices no longer require batteries, instead getting their energy and communicating using a technique known as “ambient backscatter.” All around us, the wireless waves of radio, television, and wifi bounce about – but these new devices repurpose those signals to provide miniscule amounts of power and bandwidth for local applications – enough to send text messages, or other short data bursts, without requiring batteries. This is a huge step toward the so-called “Internet of Things” – imagine, a small device that sends a signal to your power company when the power goes out – or keeps track of what you throw away, and automatically adds it to a shopping list. The possibilities of this are huge, and the tech is in the magical place of being small and cheap!

Facebook, among other social media companies, has a “bug finding bounty” program, that pays “white-hat hackers” to report bugs to Facebook’s security team. When one hacker discovered a bug that allowed him to post on anyone’s wall, whether he knew them or not, he reported it to try to get the $500 bounty. But, Facebook security insisted that it wasn’t a bug – twice over. That hacker then used the bug to post an announcement on the wall of one of the friends of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. That got the attention that the bug was worthy to be fixed, but the hacker is not being awarded the bounty. The practice of white-hat hacking, or hacking to prevent security breaches is not new, but the frustration of white-hats to use the programs set up by the tech companies is prompting debate in the tech community.

GPS – the Global Positioning System – works by sending data to several satellites in orbit, and looking for the overlap of their signals, but it relies on long-waves to make it the distance required, which limits the accuracy to within a few meters. A recent idea combining error checking with a shorter message within the longer waveform has resulted in a civilian GPS device with an accuracy of about an inch – which promises to be much more useful for drones and devices. Previously, devices with this level of accuracy were used by governments and oil companies, and cost upwards of $10,000. This new real-time kinematic device, called the Picksi, currently costs less than $1000, and the hope is that it can be reduced even further. While still expensive, it may open new opportunities for precise flying and location tracking in the future!