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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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Big tech’s pro-climate rhetoric is not matched by policy action, report finds | Environment

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The world’s biggest tech companies are coming out with bold commitments to tackle their climate impact but when it comes to using their corporate muscle to advocate for stronger climate policies, their engagement is almost nonexistent, according to a new report.

Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Facebook and Microsoft poured about $65m into lobbying in 2020, but an average of only 6% of their lobbying activity between July 2020 and June 2021 was related to climate policy, according to an analysis from the thinktank InfluenceMap, which tracked companies’ self-reported lobbying on federal legislation.

The report also sought to capture tech companies’ overall engagement with climate policy by analyzing activities including their top-level communications as well as lobbying on specific legislation. It found that climate-related engagement levels of three of the five companies – Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft – had declined compared to the previous year.

Tech companies, which have some of the deepest pockets in corporate America, have been racing to come out with increasingly ambitious climate pledges. Amazon has a target to be net zero by 2040 and to power its operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025, and Facebook has a target of net zero emissions for its entire supply chain by 2030.

In 2020, Microsoft pledged to become carbon negative by 2030 and by 2050 to have removed all the carbon the company has ever emitted. Apple has committed to become carbon neutral across its whole supply chain by 2030.

And Google has pledged to power its operations with 100% carbon-free energy by 2030, without using renewable certificates to offset any fossil-generated power. “The science is clear, we have until 2030 to chart a sustainable course for our planet or face the worst consequences of climate change,” the Google and Alphabet CEO, Sundar Pichai, said in a video announcing the policy.

Yet this strong pro-climate rhetoric is not being matched by action at a policy level, according to the report. “These gigantic companies that completely dominate the stock market are not really deploying that political capital at all,” said the InfluenceMap executive director, Dylan Tanner.

Tech companies have not been entirely silent. Apple, for example, has expressed support for the Biden administration’s proposed clean energy standard, which aims for all US-generated electricity to be renewable by 2035.

But these efforts are significantly outweighed by those of big oil and gas companies, which have ramped up their climate lobbying over the same timeframe, according to the report. “Most of their political advocacy is devoted to climate change and it’s negative,” said Tanner.

A lack of engagement is especially disappointing given the new momentum around climate action under the Biden administration, said Bill Weihl, a former Facebook and Google sustainability executive and now executive director of Climate Voice, which mobilizes tech workers to lobby their companies on climate action. “The dominant business voice on these issues is advocating against the kind of policies that we need,” he said.

Joe Biden’s $3.5tn budget reconciliation bill, which includes large investments for climate action, is facing fierce opposition from some industry groups. The US Chamber of Commerce, the country’s most powerful business lobbying group, has said it will “do everything we can to prevent this tax raising, job killing reconciliation bill from becoming law”. All of the tech companies, with the exception of Apple, are members of the Chamber.

“Our best chance to lead the planet to safety in the race against climate change is through this reconciliation bill, yet InfluenceMap has shown that big tech is still MIA on climate in Congress,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and longtime advocate for climate legislation.

Microsoft and Apple declined to comment on the report and Alphabet did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Amazon said the company engages at local, state and international levels to “actively advocate for policies that promote clean energy, increase access to renewable electricity, and decarbonize the transportation system”.

A Facebook spokesperson said “we’re committed to fighting climate change and are taking substantive steps without waiting for any legislative action”, adding that the company supports the Paris climate agreement goals and helped found the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance.

But these actions are not enough given the scale of the crisis, said Tanner. The UN warned in a report published on Friday that even if current climate emissions targets are met, the world is still on a “catastrophic pathway” for 2.7C of heating by the end of the century. “We’re running out of time,” Tanner said, “physically on climate but also on a public policy level.”

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Some of you have dirty green credentials • The Register

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TechUK – the UK’s digital trade association representing computer giants and start-ups alike – has called on firms to check their green credentials and make sure they stand up to scrutiny.

The warning comes as UK businesses were told to brush up on their eco-claims or risk public humiliation and enforcement action by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

Businesses have until the New Year to make sure their environmental claims – such as those regarding energy consumption, packaging, recycling, and product lifecycle assessments – comply with the law and are not simply an exercise in greenwashing.

As part of its efforts to steer companies, the CMA has published a six-point Green Claims Code in a bid to make it clear that anyone spouting eco-friendly claims “must not omit or hide important information” and “must consider the full life cycle of the product.”

The CMA is targeting sectors that some onlookers may regard as low hanging fruit including textiles and fashion, energy-hungry travel and transport, and fast-moving consumer goods.

However, any sector and the companies that operate within it – including tech – could fall within the CMA’s crosshairs.

In a statement, Andrea Coscelli, chief exec of the CMA, said: “We’re concerned that too many businesses are falsely taking credit for being green, while genuinely eco-friendly firms don’t get the recognition they deserve. Any business that fails to comply with the law risks damaging its reputation with customers and could face action from the CMA.”

However, there are worries the new rules may lead to confusion. In its evidence to the CMA, techUK said the six principles set out in the guidance were “not specific enough” and also called for more information to help tech firms. It also warned that different variables made in lifecycle assessments could lead to misleading results [PDF].

In a statement, Susanne Baker, associate director for Climate, Environment and Sustainability, techUK, told us: “The CMA’s guidance is important for any company making a green claim about their services, products and company. With more green claims being made by the tech sector than ever before, it’s absolutely vital that these aren’t deemed to be greenwashing.

“Firms have until the new year to address this and will need to think carefully about any green claim they make, be sure they can substantiate them, that they aren’t misleading, and are truthful and accurate,” she said.

The CMA announced that it was investigating the impact of green marketing on consumers last year when it found that 40 per cent of green claims made online could be misleading – suggesting that thousands of businesses could be breaking the law.

In June, The Register reported how a shortage of plastics – rather than a desire to protect the planet — could be one reason why recycled plastics may be working their way into laptops and other gadgetry.

Amazon recently found itself fending off a whistle-blower’s claims alleging it dumped unsold goods to landfill, and later bragged that it had achieved lower carbon “intensity” in its business practices. The latter claim was shot down by an unimpressed scientist close to The Reg who remarked that the fact Amazon’s business was growing was not “helpful to Earth”, and the fact it polluted less per unit of activity didn’t change the bottom line “which is that they are polluting more this year than they did last year.”

Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently announced the electric car maker will stop accepting Bitcoin payments for its vehicles, due to the “increasing use” of fossil fuels, particularly coal, to support Bitcoin’s electricity-hungry mining and transaction processing.

An Intel sponsored report by non-profit Resilience First, highlighted in June the role of tech in reaching net-zero carbon emission goals. However, making chips has been a dirty business, with a 2002 study concluding that a single 2g semiconductor chip required a whopping 1.6kg of secondary fossil fuels and 72g of chemical inputs to be put into production. ®

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Fivetran nears five times its unicorn valuation as it plans further growth

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The data integration business growing its EMEA HQ in Dublin is set for further expansion following a $5.6bn valuation and key acquisition.

Silicon Valley-headquartered Fivetran has announced $565m in Series D funding alongside a deal to acquire HVR.

This latest funding round sees the automated data integration provider’s value reach $5.6bn just over a year after it first reached unicorn status.

The funding round from new and existing investors included General Catalyst, CEAS Investments and Matrix Partners. Andreessen Horowitz led the round, which also brought in new investors Iconiq Capital, D1 Capital Partners and YC Continuity.

In total, Fivetran has raised $730m to date. And in tandem with its Series D funding round, the company also announced a $700m cash and stock deal to acquire data replication business HVR.

‘Without an always-on, accurate and reliable way to centralise data, global organisations aren’t maximising the use of data or data infrastructure’
– MARTIN CASADO, A16Z

For Fivetran’s mission to help businesses make use of the data they have, in a way that is quicker and requires fewer resources, HVR brings database replication performance along with enterprise-grade security.

“HVR is a recognised leader for enterprise database replication and shares our same vision – to make access to data as simple and reliable as electricity,” said Fivetran CEO George Fraser. “Their product is the perfect complement to our automated data integration technology and will be instrumental for us to help enterprise organisations that want to improve their analytics with a modern data stack.”

Fraser added that the latest injection of funding from investors will enable the company to expand its capabilities and accelerate its global growth.

Fivetran established its EMEA HQ in Dublin in 2018. The following year, fresh investment saw the company plan to double its Irish workforce. Last summer, a $100m funding round saw these expansion plans furthered.

In terms of market opportunity, Andreessen Horowitz general partner Martin Casado says Fivetran is a “critical component” of the modern data stack, which represents “a paradigm shift for global enterprises, with billions of dollars of revenue at stake”.

“Without an always-on, accurate and reliable way to centralise data, global organisations aren’t maximising the use of data or data infrastructure,” said Casado.

The acquisition deal has been approved by the boards of both companies and is expected to close in early October, subject to regular approvals.

Customers from both companies are expected to benefit from each of the business offerings. On the side of Fivetran, this client list includes Autodesk, DocuSign, Forever 21, Lionsgate and Square, while HVR services dozens of Fortune 500 brands.

“Combining HVR and Fivetran will enable a next-generation solution that will better inform business decisions by providing the freshest data available,” said HVR CEO Anthony Brooks-Williams.

“We’re thrilled to be joining forces with Fivetran and look forward to what this incredible opportunity will provide for our growing team, partners and customers.”

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