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Meet the Maynooth researcher making sure that tech doesn’t let us down

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With software being injected into everything from medical devices to cars, mitigating tech fails becomes increasingly important. Enter Dr Rosemary Monahan from Maynooth University.

Dr Rosemary Monahan has been working at Maynooth University since 1999. Following a revelation during her undergraduate degree studies in University College Dublin, her focus and her passion has been centred on computer science for all this time.

With a PhD from the Dublin City University School of Computing, she has become an associate professor in Maynooth’s Department of Computer Science and an affiliate of the university’s Hamilton Institute. This multidisciplinary research centre is dedicated to providing a bridge between mathematics and its applications in ICT, biology and other disciplines.

In her time at Maynooth, Monahan has conducted software research in collaboration with major tech businesses such as Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, as well as the United Technologies Research Center and INRIA, the French national institute for research in digital science and technology.

‘The past year has shown the huge role that technology plays in each of our lives, and it’s more important than ever that we can guarantee its dependability’
– DR ROSEMARY MONAHAN

What inspired you to become a researcher?

As a child, I was always interested in maths, chemistry and, in particular, how things worked. I went to university to study chemistry but discovered computer science as a subject within my degree programme.

I vividly remember having a light-bulb moment in my first year of university, while reviewing my computer science lecture notes. Suddenly everything just clicked. I began to realise the power of computer programming, the logic behind it, and the potentially devastating consequences if software was poorly designed and implemented incorrectly.

What research are you currently working on?

There are two main strands to my research.

The first is software verification which focuses on ensuring software is implemented correctly. Here, we work with software developers to build tools and techniques to ensure the ‘correctness’ and dependability of software.

The second strand focuses on computational thinking where, together with members of the PACT team in Maynooth University, we work with primary and secondary schools to develop resources which teachers can use to advance problem-solving skills in the classroom. Our resources guide children to develop computational thinking skills such as abstraction, decomposition and pattern recognition, allowing them to learn elements of computer science, without necessarily labelling it so.

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Two postdoctorates, a research assistant and two PhD students are currently working with us on these research projects.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

It’s crucial to develop good problem-solving skills at an early age, so our work with primary and secondary school students is vital. It allows them to explore these skills without being overwhelmed by the technical aspect of what they are doing and it helps them to become good problem-solvers.

When exploring software verification, we are examining problem solutions to ensure that everything is correct and dependable. Our research is about building tools and techniques that make software development processes better, and to incorporate them into software engineering to make sure software is reliable. This is essential in technology in all areas of our lives, from medical devices to driverless cars. The past year in particular has shown the huge role that technology plays in each of our lives, and it’s more important than ever that we can guarantee its dependability.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

When it comes to software verification, we are seeing more global companies like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook using techniques to ensure there are no repercussions if their software encounters errors. They are ensuring that verification techniques are built into the systems they develop. I hope, and expect, that verification techniques will become an even larger part of mainstream software development as our reliance on technology increases.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a software researcher?

Like any researcher, securing funding can often be an issue. But specifically for my research field, the biggest challenge we face is often that with software verification, it has to be an all-or-nothing approach. In reality, we focus in on verifying the safety-critical components of the software systems and integrate these components with those developed in a more traditional and less formal approach.

Are there any common misconceptions about software research?

People often think that you have to be very mathematically minded to use techniques in this area. Although a deep understanding of maths is important, the tools and techniques have developed in such a way that many of the program verifications can be automated and built into tools that are used directly by software developers, without a disproportionately large mathematical overhead.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

As society increases reliance on AI-based automated devices, such as driverless cars and IoT connected devices, the need for scalable techniques guaranteeing software dependability becomes urgent, both in terms of human life and the economic cost of software failure. Combining approaches from software engineering and artificial intelligence to produce software development techniques that provide such guarantees is an area I would like to see progress.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.

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Google deliberately throttled ad load times to promote AMP, claims new court document • The Register

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More detail has emerged from a 173-page complaint filed last week in the lawsuit brought against Google by a number of US states, including allegations that Google deliberately throttled advertisements not served to its AMP (Accelerated Mobile) pages.

The lawsuit – as we explained at the end of last week – was originally filed in December 2020 and concerns alleged anti-competitive practice in digital advertising. The latest document, filed on Friday, makes fresh claims alleging ad-throttling around AMP.

Google introduced AMP in 2015, with the stated purpose of accelerating mobile web pages. An AMP page is a second version of a web page using AMP components and restricted JavaScript, and is usually served via Google’s content delivery network. Until 2018, the AMP project, although open source, had as part of its governance a BDFL (Benevolent Dictator for Life), this being Google’s Malte Ubl, the technical lead for AMP.

In 2018, Ubl posted that this changed “from a single Tech lead to a Technical Steering Committee”. The TSC sets its own membership and has a stated goal of “no more than 1/3 of the TSC from one employer”, though currently has nine members, of whom four are from Google, including operating director Joey Rozier.

According to the Friday court filing, representing the second amended complaint [PDF] from the plaintiffs, “Google ad server employees met with AMP employees to strategize about using AMP to impede header bidding.” Header bidding, as described in our earlier coverage, enabled publishers to offer ad space to multiple ad exchanges, rather than exclusively to Google’s ad exchange. The suit alleges that AMP limited the compatibility with header bidding to just “a few exchanges,” and “routed rival exchange bids through Google’s ad server so that Google could continue to peek at their bids and trade on inside information”.

The lawsuit also states that Google’s claims of faster performance for AMP pages “were not true for publishers that designed their web pages for speed”.

A more serious claim is that: “Google throttles the load time of non-AMP ads by giving them artificial one-second delays in order to give Google AMP a ‘nice comparative boost’. Throttling non-AMP ads slows down header bidding, which Google then uses to denigrate header bidding for being too slow.”

The document goes on to allege that: “Internally, Google employees grappled with ‘how to [publicly] justify [Google] making something slower’.”

Google promoted AMP in part by ranking non-AMP pages below AMP pages in search results, and featuring a “Search AMP Carousel” specifically for AMP content. This presented what the complaint claims was a “Faustian bargain,” where “(1) publishers who used header bidding would see the traffic to their site drop precipitously from Google suppressing their ranking in search and re-directing traffic to AMP-compatible publishers; or (2) publishers could adopt AMP pages to maintain traffic flow but forgo exchange competition in header bidding, which would make them more money on an impression-by-impression basis.”

The complaint further alleges that “According to Google’s internal documents, [publishers made] 40 per cent less revenue on AMP pages.”

A brief history of AMP

AMP was controversial from its first inception. In 2017 developer Jeremy Keith described AMP as deceptive, drawing defensive remarks from Ubl. Keith later joined the AMP advisory committee, but resigned in August saying that “I can’t in good faith continue to advise on the AMP project for the OpenJS Foundation when it has become clear to me that AMP remains a Google product, with only a subset of pieces that could even be considered open source.”

One complaint is that the AMP specification requires a link to Google-hosted JavaScript.

In May 2020 Google stated it would “remove the AMP requirement from Top Stories eligibility”.

This was confirmed in April 2021, when Google posted about an update to its “page experience” whereby “the Top Stories carousel feature on Google Search will be updated to include all news content, as long as it meets the Google News policies. This means that using the AMP format is no longer required.” In addition, “we will no longer show the AMP badge icon to indicate AMP content.” Finally, Google Search signed exchanges, which pre-fetches content to speed page rendering on sites which support the feature, was extended to all web pages where it was previously restricted to AMP pages.

This is evidence that Google is pulling back from its promotion of AMP, though it also said that “Google continues to support AMP”.

As for the complaint, it alleges that Google has an inherent conflict of interest. According to the filing: “Google was able to demand that it represent the buy-side (i.e., advertisers), where it extracted one fee, as well as the sell-side (i.e., publishers), where it extracted a second fee, and it was also able to force transactions to clear in its exchange, where it extracted a third, even larger, fee.”

The company also has more influence than any other on web standards, thanks to the dominant Chrome browser and Chromium browser engine, and on mobile technology, thanks to Android.

That Google would devise a standard from which it benefited is not surprising, but the allegation of deliberately delaying ads on other formats in order to promote it is disturbing and we have asked the company to comment. ®

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What is COP26 and what can we expect from climate talks?

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Shelley Inglis from the University of Dayton explains how global climate negotiations work and what’s expected from the upcoming Glasgow summit.

Click here to visit The Conversation.

A version of this article was originally published by The Conversation (CC BY-ND 4.0)

Over two weeks in November, world leaders and national negotiators will meet in Scotland to discuss what to do about the climate crisis. It’s a complex process that can be hard to make sense of from the outside, but it’s how international law and institutions help solve problems that no single country can fix on its own.

I worked for the United Nations for several years as a law and policy adviser and have been involved in international negotiations. Here’s what’s happening behind closed doors and why people are concerned that COP26 might not meet its goals.

What is COP26?

In 1992, countries agreed to an international treaty called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which set ground rules and expectations for global cooperation on combating climate change. It was the first time the majority of nations formally recognised the need to control greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming that drives climate change.

That treaty has since been updated, including in 2015 when nations signed the Paris climate agreement. That agreement set the goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, to avoid catastrophic climate change.

COP26 stands for the 26th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC. The “parties” are the 196 countries that ratified the treaty, plus the European Union. The UK, partnering with Italy, is hosting COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, from 31 October to 12 November 2021, after a one-year postponement due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Why are world leaders so focused on the climate crisis?

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, released in August 2021, warns in its strongest terms yet that human activities have unequivocally warmed the planet, and that climate change is now widespread, rapid and intensifying.

The IPCC’s scientists explain how climate change has been fuelling extreme weather events and flooding, severe heat waves and droughts, loss and extinction of species, and the melting of ice sheets and rising of sea levels. UN secretary-general António Guterres called the report a “code red for humanity.”

Enough greenhouse gas emissions are already in the atmosphere, and they stay there long enough, that even under the most ambitious scenario of countries quickly reducing their emissions, the world will experience rising temperatures through at least mid-century.

However, there remains a narrow window of opportunity. If countries can cut global emissions to “net zero” by 2050, that could bring warming back to under 1.5 degrees Celsius in the second half of the 21st century. How to get closer to that course is what leaders and negotiators are discussing.

What happens at COP26?

During the first days of the conference, around 120 heads of state, like US president Joe Biden, and their representatives will gather to demonstrate their political commitment to slowing climate change.

Once the heads of state depart, country delegations, often led by ministers of environment, engage in days of negotiations, events and exchanges to adopt their positions, make new pledges and join new initiatives. These interactions are based on months of prior discussions, policy papers and proposals prepared by groups of states, UN staff and other experts.

Non-governmental organisations and business leaders also attend the conference, and COP26 has a public side with sessions focused on topics such as the impact of climate change on small island states, forests or agriculture, as well as exhibitions and other events.

The meeting ends with an outcome text that all countries agree to. Guterres publicly expressed disappointment with the COP25 outcome, and there are signs of trouble heading into COP26.

What is COP26 expected to accomplish?

Countries are required under the Paris Agreement to update their national climate action plans every five years, including at COP26. This year, they’re expected to have ambitious targets through 2030. These are known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs.

The Paris Agreement requires countries to report their NDCs, but it allows them leeway in determining how they reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The initial set of emission reduction targets in 2015 was far too weak to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

One key goal of COP26 is to ratchet up these targets to reach net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century.

Another aim of COP26 is to increase climate finance to help poorer countries transition to clean energy and adapt to climate change. This is an important issue of justice for many developing countries whose people bear the largest burden from climate change but have contributed least to it.

Wealthy countries promised in 2009 to contribute $100bn a year by 2020 to help developing nations, a goal that has not been reached. The US, UK and EU, among the largest historic greenhouse emitters, are increasing their financial commitments, and banks, businesses, insurers and private investors are being asked to do more.

Other objectives include phasing out coal use and generating solutions that preserve, restore or regenerate natural carbon sinks, such as forests.

Another challenge that has derailed past COPs is agreeing on implementing a carbon trading system outlined in the Paris Agreement.

Are countries on track to meet international climate goals?

The UN warned in September 2021 that countries’ revised targets were too weak and would leave the world on pace to warm 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. However, governments are also facing another challenge that could affect how they respond: energy supply shortages have left Europe and China with price spikes for natural gas, coal and oil.

China – the world’s largest emitter – has not yet submitted its NDC. Major fossil fuel producers such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and Australia seem unwilling to strengthen their commitments. India – a critical player as the second-largest consumer, producer and importer of coal globally – has also not yet committed.

Other developing nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa and Mexico are important. So is Brazil, which, under Jair Bolsonaro’s watch, has increased deforestation of the Amazon – the world’s largest rainforest and crucial for biodiversity and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

What happens if COP26 doesn’t meet its goals?

Many insiders believe that COP26 won’t reach its goal of having strong enough commitments from countries to cut global greenhouse gas emissions 45pc by 2030. That means the world won’t be on a smooth course for reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and the goal of keeping warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But organisers maintain that keeping warming under 1.5 degrees is still possible. Former US secretary of state John Kerry, who has been leading the US negotiations, remains hopeful that enough countries will create momentum for others to strengthen their reduction targets by 2025.

The cost of failure is astronomical. Studies have shown that the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius can mean the submersion of small island states, the death of coral reefs, extreme heat waves, flooding and wildfires, and pervasive crop failure.

That translates into many premature deaths, more mass migration, major economic losses, large swathes of unliveable land and violent conflict over resources and food – what the UN secretary-general has called “a hellish future.”

The Conversation

By Shelley Inglis

Shelley Inglis is executive director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Dayton in Ohio. She is a research professor of human rights and law, and previously held various management positions with the United Nations Development Programme.

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Ransomware attacks in UK have doubled in a year, says GCHQ boss | GCHQ

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The head of the UK spy agency GCHQ has disclosed that the number of ransomware attacks on British institutions has doubled in the past year.

Jeremy Fleming, the director of GCHQ, said locking files and data on a user’s computer and demanding payment for their release had become increasingly popular among criminals because it was “largely uncontested” and highly profitable.

His comments, made on Monday to the Cipher Brief annual threat conference, follow warnings that Russia and China are harbouring criminal gangs that are successfully targeting western governments or firms.

“I think that the reason [ransomware] is proliferating – we’ve seen twice as many attacks this year as last year in the UK – is because it works. It just pays. Criminals are making very good money from it and are often feeling that that’s largely uncontested,” he told delegates.

GCHQ has declined to give the exact numbers of ransomware attacks recorded in the UK this year or last. However, a US Treasury report released this month disclosed that suspicious ransomware-related transactions in the US over the first six months of this year were worth around $590m. The top 10 hacking groups believed to be behind criminal activity had moved about $5.2bn worth of bitcoin over the past three years, the report claimed.

Amid growing concerns over China and Russia’s ties to ransomware gangs, Fleming also called for more clarity over the links between criminals and hostile states.

“In the shorter term we’ve got to sort out ransomware, and that is no mean feat in itself. We have to be clear on the red lines and behaviours that we want to see, we’ve got to go after those links between criminal actors and state actors,” he said.

Ransomware is malware that employs encryption to hold a victim’s information at ransom. A user or organisation’s critical data is encrypted so that they cannot access files, databases, or applications. A ransom is then demanded to provide access. It has been used as part of a number of high-profile cyber-attacks in recent years, including the 2017 attack on the NHS.

Specialists believe Russian ransomware will continue to expand given the proliferation of cyber hacking tools and cryptocurrency payment channels.

Lindy Cameron, chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), said this month that ransomware “presents the most immediate danger” of all cyber threats faced by the UK, in a speech to the Chatham House thinktank.

In May this year, the then foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said states such as Russia could not “wave their hands” and say ransomware gangs operating from their territory had nothing to do with them.

Since then the west has sought to ramp up the pressure on the Kremlin. Joe Biden twice raised the issue with Vladimir Putin over the summer and he hinted that the US would be prepared to attack computer servers belonging to the gangs if nothing was done.

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