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Is smart tech the new domestic battle ground? | Life and style

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I came into the kitchen recently to find my husband cradling our electricity smart meter with the kind of tender attention more usually directed to a new-born, his phone clutched in his free hand. “You didn’t turn your office heater off last night,” he said. I didn’t like his tone.

“I did! I went in this morning to turn it on again!”

“You can’t have. Look.” He waved his phone. “Last night we used 10…” (here he added a unit, presumably of electricity, but all that stuff is Martian to me. Ten zaps? Ten whizzes?). “It shouldn’t be that high.”

“But I turned it off!”

But our smart home had spoken and it is far more reliable than me, his life partner of 26 years. Our house now has app-enabled devices to control the heating and the boiler remotely, to check temperature, CO2 and noise levels and to see who is at the door. There are motion-detector cameras in the garden that send us videos of foxes threatening my hens, or his tortoises escaping. Since we installed a few solar panels, my husband’s smart-home management has become more urgent and more granular. An app tells him how much we are consuming, but also how much we are producing, in real time. Now he bursts in when it’s sunny, shouting “We’re giving electricity to the grid! Use more!” In the evenings, I watch Succession; he studies our energy statistics. Technology has transformed him into a one-man home hub. “I used to think home smart technology was pointless,” he tells me. “But it really makes sense.”

I hate it. I don’t want my home to see me when I’m sleeping and know when I’m awake. It makes me feel bamboozled and disenfranchised: how do I make it warmer when I can’t just press a button on the wall? Why do I need an app to answer the door? I also get defensive: the climate emergency means my husband is absolutely right to try to limit our energy consumption, but we end up arguing about how long the heated clothes airer can run (“It’s 6p an hour!” I protest. “That’s not nothing if you leave it on all night,” he counters.) “Aren’t you worried,” I ask him, “You’ll end up like Facebook? The robots will malfunction and you’ll need an angle grinder to boil the kettle?” But he’s an engineer: no angle-grinder scenario could faze him.

‘Alexa is a soldier of the patriarchy. She refuses to listen to women.’
‘Alexa is a soldier of the patriarchy. She refuses to listen to women.’ Illustration: Phil Hackett/The Observer

I am the one who is out of step: our homes are smarter than ever. Tools with cosy, nature-inspired names (Nest, Hive) allow us to monitor and control homes even when we aren’t in them; other one-word devices (Blink, Ring) keep them safe. A 2019 survey found 57% of British homes have at least one kind of smart device; back in 2018 YouGov found 8% of homes have two or more. It’s too early for definitive research, but it seems Covid #stayathome living, perhaps combined with feeling life was out of control in other ways, increased our desire to micro- manage our environments. A government report found almost half of UK residents purchased at least one smart device during the pandemic and more than half said their smart device usage had increased. But what does this mean for the home-environment variable you can’t control with an app: human relationships?

“It’s almost inevitable that you wouldn’t both be equally keen on it,” says technology writer Charles Arthur. “You almost have a new way of living in your house, which you thought you knew, but now it’s: ‘Don’t touch that!’” For Hilda Burke, psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, smart tech has facilitated a perennial source of relationship conflict: temperature and energy usage. “It’s something that has been around for ages, but (now) it’s more data-driven and quantifiable. Before, you might not have evidence, but now there is.” Burke wonders if the urge to control and manage our homes is some kind of evolutionary throwback expressed through technology. “It is probably down to something quite basic and primal, like keeping a balance between being safe and warm and not depleting resources.”

Plenty of others feel there are three people in their relationship and one of them plugs in. I asked around and gathered their tales of domestic techno-woe. Joel and Anna live in Sydney with two young children and a house full of smart tech: a voice-controlled home pod that uses Siri, Google Home for shopping lists and a raft of programmed, motion-activated lights. Joel is the enthusiast: “I have always been into computers and gadgets,” he says. “I tolerate it because a man must have his hobbies,” says Anna. Some elements, however, she finds challenging. “I have been driven to minor furies with settings not working the way I think they have been set up. Joel’s not here and I’m bustling around trying to turn things on and off and it simply won’t respond to me.” She’s also wary of the home pod: “It does a little ‘boop’ noise, like ‘I’m listening to you,’ which is creepy.”

Anna likes the smart lights, which dim in the evening, go red for nocturnal loo trips and switch on automatically when they return home. But even these cause problems, leaving babysitters plunged in darkness, or turning on unexpectedly: Joel set the lights to notify him when an Uber arrived, then went out to find it, leaving Anna and her mother in an inexplicably flashing house. “It was terrifying,” says Anna; “I can see that was a mistake,” concedes Joel.

dog runnig off with an alexa speaker
‘Some households have seamlessly integrated virtual assistants, viewing them as a drawback-free life enhancement.’ Photograph: Phil Hackett/The Observer

Things get weirder when we invite Alexa, Siri and friends into our relationships. One recurrent complaint about virtual home assistants is their tendency to only obey one half of a couple. “Our Alexa refuses to respond to me,” says Robert. “She’s linked to our lights, only answers to my husband, who has to rescue me when it gets dark. This morning she inexplicably put every light on. Point blank refused to turn them off when I asked.” When Robert’s husband gets involved, Alexa is “entirely compliant”. My friend Rhian feels similarly snubbed. “Alexa is a soldier of the patriarchy,” she says. “Fully ignores me, while responding immediately to Paul. She refuses to listen to women.”

Joel and Anna have experienced this too, though Joel believes his tech is not inherently misogynistic. “Because I set it up, I know exactly the phrase that needs to be used and Anna doesn’t,” he explains. “She’ll say it slightly wrong, then I say it and to her ear it sounds like I’m saying exactly the same thing in a calmer voice.” “It’s very annoying,” says Anna. They have both also struggled with shopping items that the Google Home mangled (‘Mississippi’ for miso soup; ‘shut up little Caesars’ for sharp little scissors’). Some have it even worse: “My Alexa interpreted ‘maple syrup’ as ‘nipple rings’, says Leona. “It was an unpleasant episode.” Rebecca’s Alexa told her son “Every Christmas present that was being delivered to him.”

It’s not all relationship doom. There are happy robot-human thruples out there. Some households have seamlessly integrated virtual assistants, viewing them as a drawback-free life enhancement. They include my friend Lydia’s. “Siri is a valued member of our family,” she says. “She tells us stories and jokes and how to spell things.” Sara’s family uses Siri to resolve arguments – “So much so that I feel we need Siri on retainer as our therapist,” she says.

Smart tech can also be a godsend for people living with a disability or health condition. Lisa-Marie has limited mobility and fine motor skills following a spinal injury; she loves the Google Home installed by her partner: “I find it genuinely useful, particularly on bad health days. My best bit is being able to switch the lights on and off from the sofa or bed.” Grudgingly, I see the benefits, but resent living in a house full of gadgetry I don’t understand, digitally highlighting my failings (yes, maybe I did leave that heater on). Hilda Burke urges those of us feeling left behind or irritated by a partner’s smart home tech to analyse whether it’s their behaviour, or our reactions, that are the problem. “We can get quite meddlesome, when it’s their time and their choice,” she cautions. For those, like me, occasionally feeling judged and found wanting by a coalition of robot-harvested data plus partner, Burke says: “There are parent, adult, or child ways we can respond. It’s not easy to be an adult: that parental voice – when someone says, ‘Did you put the radiator on?’ – brings us back to childhood.” The key to avoiding conflict is to respond calmly, as an adult: “Yes, I was feeling cold,” rather than expletive-laden bluster.

Perhaps we hold-outs will grow to love the cosy glow of a warm, bright home greeting us as we come in from the cold; a playlist starting up as the smart lock lets us in. But that might not be the end of our problems: what if we’re not smart enough for our smart homes? My husband is happy with all the circuitry he learned in his engineering studies, because some smart tech is genuinely tricky to install and maintain.

“I hope I die first,” is a common sentiment among tech-averse householders. “I live in fear of my husband dying before me, because I have no idea how any of it works and will be facing a dirty, cold, housebound life,” says Candida. Tom, who is responsible for the smart tech invasion in his home, worries that if he died, his family would be unable to function and would “grieve in cold darkness, soundtracked by the noise of the burglar alarm.”

Spurred by this, and my husband’s imminent two-week trip to the States, I delicately raise the question of what happens if he falls out of the sky. “You need to find and remove the circuit breakers,” he says, instantly losing me. “But it won’t be easy.” I’m urging him to update his will accordingly. The robot takeover may be imminent (I hope you’ve said please and thank you to Alexa and Siri), but who inherits them before it happens?

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Tech neck: what are smartphones doing to our bodies? | Life and style

Voice Of EU

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Name: Tech neck.

Age: Two years old.

Appearance: The next stage of human evolution.

This sounds exciting! Are we all going to be cyborgs soon? Not exactly.

Then what on earth is tech neck? That’s easy. It’s the hunch you develop from staring at your phone too much.

That’s less exciting. And less deniable. It has been claimed by the Australian Chiropractors Association that our compulsive use of mobile devices is changing the shape of our bodies.

How? Let’s say you hold your phone at an angle that makes you lower your head by 60 degrees. That adds approximately 27kg (60lbs) of weight through your spine. Now, imagine doing that for several hours every day. That’s one messed up back.

Hang on, you said that tech neck is only two years old. Phones are older than that, and “text neck” was identified as an ailment in 2011, but the pandemic made things so much worse.

Posed by model Hunchbacked person with wrong bad posture, back bones pain and problems
All in the angle … tilting the head forward adds pressure (posed by model). Photograph: Михаил Руденко/Getty Images/iStockphoto

It did? For month after month you were starved of normal human contact, and had to communicate with the rest of the world through your phone. And when you weren’t doing that, you spent your time doom-scrolling in horror through a barrage of some of the worst news in modern history.

That sounds just like me. Me too. And guess what? All that bad news was a pain in the neck.

Well, on the plus side phones have only harmed us in one way. Or two, if you count “phone thumb”, a condition where your thumb can become inflamed from prolonged texting.

OK, fine, two ways. Or three, if you factor in the claim that the blue light emitted by phones can interfere with melatonin production. Or four, if you count the eye strain you get from prolonged use. And a couple of years ago it was suggested that humans are growing bone spurs at the base of their skulls to counter all the terrible phone-related posture.

Please, stop! Do you want to know the good news?

Yes! Anything! The posture problem is easy to correct. You can do a simple stretch, where you interlock your fingers behind your head and hold your elbows against a wall.

That’s promising. Or you could try holding your phone at eye level, to reduce the pressure on your spine. Or make an extra effort to stay active throughout the day.

This is good. I can do this. Then again, there is a better way to combat tech neck.

This sounds ominous. You could always try not using your phone as much.

Never! The humps are worth it! Suit yourself.

Do say: “The best way to avoid tech neck is to put your phone down.”

Don’t say: “You know, in a minute, after you’ve watched all those TikToks.”

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VMware demos ‘bare-metal’ performance from virtualized GPUs • The Register

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The future of high-performance computing will be virtualized, VMware’s Uday Kurkure has told The Register.

Kurkure, the lead engineer for VMware’s performance engineering team, has spent the past five years working on ways to virtualize machine-learning workloads running on accelerators. Earlier this month his team reported “near or better than bare-metal performance” for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) and Mask R-CNN — two popular machine-learning workloads — running on virtualized GPUs (vGPU) connected using Nvidia’s NVLink interconnect.

NVLink enables compute and memory resources to be shared across up to four GPUs over a high-bandwidth mesh fabric operating at 6.25GB/s per lane compared to PCIe 4.0’s 2.5GB/s. The interconnect enabled Kurkure’s team to pool 160GB of GPU memory from the Dell PowerEdge system’s four 40GB Nvidia A100 SXM GPUs.

“As the machine learning models get bigger and bigger, they don’t fit into the graphics memory of a single chip, so you need to use multiple GPUs,” he explained.

Support for NVLink in VMware’s vSphere is a relatively new addition. By toggling NVLink on and off in vSphere between tests, Kurkure was able to determine how large of an impact the interconnect had on performance.

And in what should be a surprise to no one, the large ML workloads ran faster, scaling linearly with additional GPUs, when NVLink was enabled.

Testing showed Mask R-CNN training running 15 percent faster in a twin GPU, NVLink configuration, and 18 percent faster when using all four A100s. The performance delta was even greater in the BERT natural language processing model, where the NVLink-enabled system performed 243 percent faster when running on all four GPUs.

What’s more, Kurkure says the virtualized GPUs were able to achieve the same or better performance compared to running the same workloads on bare metal.

“Now with NVLink being supported in vSphere, customers have the flexibility where they can combine multiple GPUs on the same host using NVLink so they can support bigger models, without a significant communication overhead,” Kurkure said.

HPC, enterprise implications

Based on the results of these tests, Kurkure expects most HPC workloads will be virtualized moving forward. The HPC community is always running into performance bottlenecks that leaves systems underutilized, he added, arguing that virtualization enables users to make much more efficient use of their systems.

Kurkure’s team was able to achieve performance comparable to bare metal while using just a fraction of the dual-socket system’s CPU resources.

“We were only using 16 logical cores out of 128 available,” he said. “You could use that CPU resources for other jobs without affecting your machine-learning intensive graphics modules. This is going to improve your utilization, and bring down the cost of your datacenter.”

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By toggling on and off NVLink between GPUs, additional platform flexibility can be achieved by enabling multiple isolated AI/ML workloads to be spread across the GPUs simultaneously.

“One of the key takeaways of this testing was that because of the improved utilization offered by vGPUs connected over a NVLink mesh network, VMware was able to achieve bare-metal-like performance while freeing idle resources for other workloads,” Kurkure said.

VMWare expects these results to improve resource utilization in several applications, including investment banking, pharmaceutical research, 3D CAD, and auto manufacturing. 3D CAD is a particularly high-demand area for HPC virtualization, according to Kurkure, who cited several customers looking to implement machine learning to assist with the design process.

And while it’s possible to run many of these workloads on GPUs in the cloud, he argued that cost and/or intellectual property rules may prevent them from doing so.

vGPU vs MIG

An important note is VMware’s tests were conducted using Nvidia’s vGPU Manager in vSphere as opposed to the hardware-level partitioning offered by multi-instance GPU (MIG) on the A100. MIG essentially allows the A100 to behave like up to seven less-powerful GPUs.

By comparison, vGPUs are defined in the hypervisor and are time-sliced. You can think of this as multitasking where the GPU rapidly cycles through each vGPU workload until they’re completed.

The benefit of vGPUs is users can scale well beyond seven GPU instances at the cost of potential overheads associated with rapid context switching, Kurkure explained. However, at least in his testing, the use of vGPUs didn’t appear to have a negative impact on performance compared to running on bare metal with the GPUs passed through to the VM.

Whether MIG would change this dynamic remains to be seen and is the subject of another ongoing investigation by Kurkure’s team. “It’s not clear when you should be using vGPU and when we should be running in MIG mode,” he said.

More to come

With vGPU with NVLink validated for scale-up workloads, VMware is now exploring options such as how these workloads scale across multiple systems and racks over RDMA over converged Ethernet (RoCE). Here, he says, networking becomes a major consideration.

“The natural extension of this is scale out,” he said. “So, we’ll have a number of hosted connected by RoCE.”

VMware is also investing how virtualized GPUs perform with even larger AI/ML models,

Kurkure’s team is also investigating how these architectures scale with even larger AI/ML, like GPT-3, as well as how they can be applied to telco workloads running at the edge. ®

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The Irish start-up tackling employee mental wellbeing

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Pause offers coaching, audit, supervision and training services in a bid to deliver measurable mental wellbeing improvements for organisations.

A new Irish start-up called Pause aims to help employers implement good mental wellbeing practices in the workplace following a tough couple of years for workers.

The company is led by Báirbre Meehan, who has been in senior leadership roles for 25 years and is a trained executive coach with a master’s in business and executive coaching.

Future Human

Meehan realised that there was a gap in the market when it came to managing employee mental wellbeing, which was only widened by the stresses of the pandemic.

She undertook a research project into mental wellbeing after seeing first-hand the impact that mental health issues were having on employee performance. For five years, she worked with GPs, psychotherapists and word-of-mouth referrals to support and monitor mental wellbeing improvements in more than 100 people.

Her research found that short-term coaching intervention led to a 70pc improvement in collective employee mental wellbeing, with positive mental wellbeing maintained at six-month and two-year review stages.

Meehan used what she found out to develop Pause. She is now launching the company at a pivotal time for employer-employee relations, as workplaces continue reopening and companies negotiate hybrid and remote work policies with staff.

Pause offers coaching, audit, supervision and training services in a bid to deliver measurable mental wellbeing improvements for organisations.

Recent Pause research, carried out in 2021, revealed that senior HR leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to support employee mental wellbeing due to the distance involved in hybrid and remote working arrangements.

New ways of working have made identifying employees struggling with their mental wellbeing challenging, and it is also difficult to convince employees to seek support, according to the findings.

‘People are finding it difficult to cope’

Meehan acknowledged that the pandemic had a “significant impact on people’s stress levels, which were already high before the pandemic, but are now at an all-time high”.

“The pace of life and working life has escalated to such an extent that people are finding it difficult to cope. The phased return to the workplace is causing a large amount of anxiety for varying reasons,” she said.

She added that people are finding it hard to draw boundaries between work and home, pointing to the introduction of the right to disconnect in Ireland last year to help people switch off and achieve a better work-life balance.

“In addition, the global pandemic caused people to re-evaluate their attitudes to work-life balance,” Meehan said.

“This makes employee retention and attraction a critical issue for organisations, and one they are struggling to manage. This is a really complex area, but Pause has developed a provable and measurable system of improving employee mental wellbeing, which has a clear positive impact on business results and employee retention.”

Meehan was the 2021 winner of the Empower Start pitching competition for women entrepreneurs based on her work with Pause. This was a Dragon’s Den-style competition delivered through the innovation hubs at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, IT Sligo and Letterkenny IT, which recently amalgamated to form Atlantic Technological University (ATU).

Pause is based at ATU Sligo’s innovation centre. The team currently includes Meehan and two other coaches, one of whom is a psychotherapist based in the UK.

Meehan plans to employ and train more coaches in the Pause method over the coming years.

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