Weekend news roundup: manifesto for 21st-century education; China’s cyber civil war

2 Apr 2012

Technology news coverage in some of the weekend’s newspapers, including a manifesto for 21st-century computer science learning, how China is at war with its bloggers, inside the labs of Nuance, the power behind Siri, and a Carlow manufacturer’s hit product in America.

Manifesto for 21st-century learning

The Guardian‘s John Naughton wrote a “manifesto for teaching computer science in the 21st century” addressed to the UK’s Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove MP with his proposals for rebooting the ICT curriculum.

In a powerful list of key points, Naughton emphasised how computer science will transcend life in the 21st century and responsible countries, no matter how low a base they are starting from, need to do something.

We can’t list all his points here but here is a flavour of the evocative article: “We believe every child should have the opportunity to learn computer science, from primary school up to and including further education. We teach elementary physics to every child, not primarily to train physicists but because each of them lives in a world governed by physical systems. In the same way, every child should learn some computer science from an early age because they live in a world in which computation is ubiquitous. A crucial minority will go on to become the engineers and entrepreneurs who drive the digital economy, so there is a complementary economic motivation for transforming the curriculum.”

A technology world powered by voice

The New York Times had an interesting story from inside the labs of Nuance Communications, the leading force in voice technology, and the speech-recognition engine behind Siri, the virtual personal assistant on the Apple iPhone 4S.

Here, Vlad Sejnoha, the company’s chief technology officer, and other executives are plotting a voice-enabled future where human speech brings responses from not only smartphones and televisions, cars and computers, but also coffee makers, refrigerators, thermostats, alarm systems and other smart devices and appliances.

It is a wildly disruptive idea. But such systems are already beginning to change the way we interact with the world and, for better and worse, how we think about technology. Until now, after all, we’ve talked only to one another.

What if we begin talking to all sorts of machines, too – and, like Siri, those machines respond as if they were human?

China’s cyber civil war

The Observer reported that China has intensified online censorship by closing 16 websites, taking the toughest steps yet against major microblogs and detaining six people for spreading rumours of a coup amid Beijing’s most serious political crisis for years.

The moves underline official anxieties ahead of this year’s leadership transition, particularly since the sacking of Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai led to widespread speculation about infighting at the top.

As the mood on microblogs grew increasingly febrile, there were even claims of an attempted coup in the Chinese capital – complete with photographs of military vehicles that turned out to be from a parade three years ago.

State news agency Xinhua said Beijing police detained six people for spreading rumours of “military vehicles entering Beijing and something wrong going on in Beijing”. Citing a spokesman for the state internet information office, it said the claims were “fabricated by some lawless people” and had been a bad influence on the public.

Carlow manufacturer’s vapouriser is the right stuff

The Sunday Independent reported how an Irish-engineered and manufactured gas-powered tobacco vapouriser has become the hottest must-have accessory for America’s dedicated marijuana smokers.

The “Iolite” vapouriser, designed by machine-tool manufacturer Oglesby & Butler of Carlow, is believed to have contributed significantly to the company’s leap in earnings, with sales rising by more than 60pc to €11.5m last year.

Oglesby & Butler was once the smallest company on the Irish stock market before it was bought out by a consortium led by Tom and Kevin Anderson in 2010.

The vapouriser, which looks like a walkie-talkie, launched in the US in 2008. It is a device for smoking “dried tobacco” products – but in the United States, where 16 states have legalised medical marijuana growth and sale, the device is selling like hotcakes.

The hand-held vapouriser has attracted massive online interest in the US and has featured in the HBO comedy series Bored to Death, starring Ted Danson and Jason Schwartzman. In the comedy, the two actors play characters who smoke considerable amounts of marijuana while getting into scrapes. The Iolite is mistaken for a walkie-talkie in one of the gags.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years