Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Installment 2.11

Denice wrapped her hands around her coffee cup and settled into the seat at the head of the table with a big sigh.

She was taking a break from meeting people in the community and was spending time tending the home fires.

“So, Dilip,” Denice said, “I haven’t had time to chat with you very much.  Tell Liz and me a little bit about yourself.”

Dilip said, “I was working on an advanced degree at UCLA in computer science, for one thing.”

“Leaving the family business?” Liz asked.  Liz already knew that Dilip’s family was in the “motel” business in a very big way.

“Nope.”  Dilip said in his faintly British sounding accent.  “The family is looking ahead to what it is likely to take to stay in the hospitality business over the next five or ten years.  They are ‘reading the tea-leaves’, if you will.”

“Can you tell us anything about your project?  I am sure Liz would understand jargon but I would really appreciate it if you could describe what you were working on in layman’s language.” Denice said.

Dilip said, “Do you notice how lights turn themselves on when you enter a room and off when you leave?” 

Both women nodded.

“Those are smart controllers.  Every lamp has a controller.” Dilip said.

“I don’t see why that needs computer science.  It looks like a mature product/process to me.” Liz said.

“What most people don’t realize is that every lamp controller includes a microphone, processing power and memory.” Dilip said.  “The original specs called for sound activation.  The thinking was that the microphone could hear, say a fork truck, coming toward it and could light up the room ahead of the vehicle.  Or the microphone could hear your breathing and not turn the lights off if you did not move for a while.  Word got out and people were afraid that their rooms would be bugged by “Big Brother” and the spec was cancelled.”

“The companies burning the chips for the controllers left the capability in place.  It was easier to leave it there, but not activated, than to redesign the entire circuit.  In fact, that is why they have such overkill for CPU and memory…it was just easier to cut and paste regions from other, recent projects.”

“Besides”, Dilip said, “everybody expects that Bona-Brown will force the implementation of sound-active controls in a few years regardless of objections.  My family wanted to find out if we could simply flip a switch to activate the capability in the controllers that we already bought and installed in 60,000 motel rooms.”

“Let me get this straight,” Denice said, “every ‘smart’ lamp has a microphone?  Even that one?”  looking up at the LED fixture illuminating the conference room.

Dilip smiled.  “That one” he said while pointing up, “experienced a microphone failure about five minutes after you assigned me this office.  The microphone technology uses the ground capacitance of the chipset and the vibration of the sheet metal backing of the fixture.  Squirting glue between the chip and the fixture is enough to disable the mic.”

“So how far along is the technology?  Is there a risk that the feature got activated?” Liz asked.

“Turning it on is trivial.” Dilip said.  “In fact, after squirting in the glue I pinged the CPU on the lamp and saw that the ‘listen’ flag was still null.  I have yet to find one that was turned on that I did not personally turn on myself.”

“The hard part was the second generation capabilities we expect Bona-Brown to mandate.” Dilip said.

“And what capabilities would those be?” Denice asked.

“You know, the usual distributed voice-to-text processing, flagging of ‘scary words’ all that stuff.” Dilip said.

“Wait a minute.  What usual stuff?” Denice asked.

Dilip sighed.  “It is already in place with smart phones.  That is why we put our phones in the soundproof Faraday cage when we have these meetings.  The mics never turn off.  They monitor every conversation.  They convert the verbal to text and then run apps to assess ‘imminent danger’.  It is both key-word and configural.”

Liz interjected, “That means that the phone would ignore a phrase like ‘I need to put this list into bullet format’ but would flag ‘I need some bullets to shoot the Prime Minister’”

Denice nodded her thanks to Liz for the clarification.

“How close were you to figuring out how to get the capability up and running?” Denice asked.

“Oh, I got that nailed about six months ago.  You know how things are.  Staying in school and looking like I was working on the problem seemed smarter than showing folks how to turn lights into spies.” Dilip said.

“The hardest part was not bragging.  I could not even trust my classmates.”  Dilip said.  “I had English and Spanish in the bag and was working on Tagalog.”

Next Installment

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