Tweet This! :)

Friday, February 24, 2017

NASA's laser in space to 'carry' communications

©Mark Ollig 

An exciting plan is in the works at NASA for speeding up radio reception from distant satellites, future space missions to Mars, and beyond.

For more than 50 years, NASA has been using traditional radio-frequency (RF) wave spectrum for communicating with spacecraft and satellites.

RF waves are used because of their ability to be transmitted over long distances in space.

Besides, what else would we use?

How about light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, more commonly called a laser?

A laser beam travels at the speed of light.

So does a radio signal; however, the big difference is the radio signal is transmitted within a much lower frequency range than a laser.

According to NASA, using laser optical communications in space will significantly increase the transfer-rate speed of information broadcasted to Earth from satellites, and other spacecraft.

Using a laser beam for the communications medium is analogous to the “pipe” through which the radio information is carried and transported back to Earth in.

Use of lasers as a deep-space communications medium will allow scientists and researchers on Earth to more quickly obtain data; especially video, from spacecraft landings or satellites traversing out-worldly celestial bodies.

According to NASA, the “pinpoint precision of laser communications” is well suited to the goals of NASA mission planners.

“Laser technology is ideal for boosting downlink communications from deep space,” said Abi Biswas, the supervisor of the Optical Communications Systems group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, CA.

Other advantages of using laser communications include receiving much higher-resolution images from satellite or spacecraft missions to other planets.

Astronauts performing an extravehicular activity will be able to select and view laser-carried video feeds to quickly aid in whatever task they are performing.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is currently 185 million miles from Earth.

It transmits data at a minimum of 500 kbps (kilo or thousand bits per second) from its furthest distance away from Earth; about 250 million miles.

From about 60 million miles, its closest distance from Earth, it can send data at 3 to 4 Mbps (mega or million bits per second).

If it was using laser communication technology, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s maximum data rate could be a speedy 250 Mbps.

NASA’s Deep Space Network antennas are located in Australia, Spain, and California. These are primarily used for X-band (8 to 12 GHz) radio frequency range communications with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter via its ultra-high frequency antennas.

We know some of the advantages of using laser communications technology in space, when will NASA begin using it?

First, they needed to demonstrate the communications laser overall effectiveness, reliability, and long life operation in space by making an experimental launch of a laser- equipped, communications relay satellite.

NASA did this in 2013, with the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD) mission.

The mission’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environmental Explorer (LADEE) satellite launched Sept. 6, 2013, and aligned itself in the proper orbit over the moon.

Its onboard communications laser system was prepared for the test.

Oct. 18, 2013, NASA’s ground station located in White Sands Complex in Las Cruces, NM, activated its communications laser beam, which traveled 239,000 miles to the LADEE spacecraft in lunar orbit.

The LADEE satellite used a communications laser beam focused on a special ground transmitting/receiving station on Earth.

The download data speed of the satellite information sent to the Earth from the moon reached an amazing maximum rate of 622 Mbps.

Worth mentioning; an error-free upload rate of 20 Mbps was also accomplished during the LLCD mission.

The LLCD mission proved laser communications could be successfully transmitted to Earth from a satellite in space with greater speed and efficiency than current RF signaling methods.

Unfortunately, the LADEE ended up crashing onto the moon’s surface a couple months later; however, it did answer the important question about successfully using long-range laser communications in space.

The next high-profile NASA laser test is the LCRD (Laser Communications Relay Demonstration) mission slated to launch in 2019.

This mission will last for two years, and will test long-term, regularly used laser communications from the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, and ground stations located in Hawaii and California.

NASA hopes this mission will be the prelude to the launching of future laser-communications equipped satellite missions to Mars, the other planets, moons, and spacecraft traveling beyond our solar system.

Perhaps, future laser communications technology will be used to obtain more information (or even communicate?) with NASA’s recently announced TRAPPIST-1 solar system containing exoplanets or earth-like planets, where life may have evolved.

Stay tuned.

Be sure to follow me here on Earth via Twitter at @bitsandbytes.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

A 'personal computer' from the 1950s

©Mark Ollig

While yours truly was programming a Sinclair ZX81 computer at the start of the 1980s, other computer hobbyists had already been using personal computers during the previous decade.

Personal computers from the 1970s included the Apple II, Tandy TRS-80, and the Altair 8800, just to name a few.

Aside note: While writing this column, I sent out a message on Twitter saying; “Writing the next Bits & Bytes column about a 1950s ‘personal computer.’”

One of my faithful followers tweeted back; “Hahaha, was it as big as a house?”

“Not this one!” I replied.

In one 1956 glossy brochure, the Bendix G-15 computer was advertised as “a complete computational facility” and a “general purpose digital computer.”

This description sounds a lot like how one might possibly describe a personal computer.

The Bendix G-15 was manufactured by the Bendix Computer Division of the Bendix Aviation Corporation, headquartered in Los Angeles, CA.

After seeing the size of the Bendix G-15, it could easily fit in the corner of any office or living room, as would any other personal computer.

Its physical dimensions were approximately 2.5 feet deep by 2.3 feet wide, and a little over 5 feet tall.

The Bendix G-15 weight was listed at 850 pounds in their brochure, although I have seen 950 pounds referenced in other sources.

Remember folks, I said it was possibly the first personal – not portable – computer.

The main computer input console, called the “Master Writer,” was, in fact, an electric typewriter cabled to the Bendix G-15 computer. This was used for inputing data at a maximum typewriting speed of 8 characters per second.

Other ways to input programs into the Bendix G-15 included: Punched or perforated high-speed paper tape, standard IBM punched cards, and the use of peripheral magnetic tape units.

Up to four model MTA-2 magnetic tape units (each about the size of a small refrigerator) could be wired into a single Bendix G-15 computer.

One MTA-2 magnetic tape drive unit stored up to 300,000 words of information.

Word length used with the Bendix G-15 could be set for 29 or 58 binary digits.

A paper digital graph plotter (think printer) was used to see the output data at up to 12-inches-by-18-inches.

Its main memory was stored on a rotating magnetic drum, with general storage of 2,160 29-binary-bit words.

The central processing unit used vacuum tube technology.

The Bendix G-15 had a random memory access time of 14.5 milliseconds; its clocking speed was 0.069MHz.

The electronics used to operate this digital computer included 180 vacuum tube and 300 diode “packages” wired onto plug-in printed circuit boards.

The Bendix G-15 was powered by standard 110-120 volt AC using 60 cycles, single phase input and was cooled via internal forced air – however, I imagine the vacuum tubes and electronic components gave off some heat.

User commands were entered into the computer using the Bendix G-15’s programming system called INTERCOM.

Using a single command would result in a number of simultaneous internal operations being performed.

This sounds like how yours truly uses macro commands.

I build macros or shortcut command strings using the basic text editor within my WRQ Reflection for UNIX and OpenVMS (open virtual memory system) program.

Using a single macro command will execute strings of lengthy individual commands I would otherwise need to type when programming the digital telephone processing switches I maintain.

INTERCOM commands are single address access, and will reference information stored within the computer’s memory positions.

Users of the Bendix G-15 had access to over 1,000 pretested programs.

Its numbering system allowed decimal input and output, but used binary coding internally.

An important safeguard to verify maximum error-free operation of the G-15 included reliability checks using certain command strings.

The basic Bendix G-15 computer could be purchased for around $50,000 in 1956, which equals about $450,000 in 2017 dollars.

“What applications would a 1956 Bendix G-15 computer be used for?” you might ask.

Here are some of the applications:

• Numerical control of machine tool operations.

• Real-time data processing for the aircraft industry.

• Electrical transmission and pipe lines.

• Trajectories and missile performance.

• Mathematical analysis and academic research.

• A teaching tool for universities.

• Construction civil engineering for highway design.

• Petroleum exploration and refining.

The G-15 digital computer was built by the Bendix Aviation Corporation using the drawings and designs they purchased from American computer designer, Harry Douglas Huskey.

Huskey discussed the Bendix G-15 in this 2011 video provided by the Computer History Museum:

Harry Douglas Huskey worked at the National Physical Laboratories in Britain for a year with the famous mathematician, computer scientist, and cryptanalyst, Alan Turing, whom Huskey credits in the video.

During World War II, Turing cracked the secret Nazi Enigma code, which significantly aided the Allies in defeating Germany.

I learned Huskey is still with us today at age 101 years young.

An estimated 300 Bendix G-15 computers were sold in the US.

In 1963, Bendix Aviation Corporation sold their computer division to a well-known Minnesota company based in Minneapolis.

This Minneapolis company was the Control Data Corporation.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @bitsandbytes.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Still remembering 'The Computer Chronicles' -- and Sinclair ZX81

©Mark Ollig 

The Sinclair ZX81 was the first computer I ever owned.

I purchased it via mail order in 1981.

Short programs were coded for this small-sized computer using Sinclair BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code).

Using the Sinclair ZX81 marked my entrance into the personal home computing revolution.

While I was attending high school, computers were not yet seen in the classroom.

The only keyboard I was punching on back then was attached to a Smith Corona typewriter.

But, I digress back to the start of the 1980s.

Being I worked in the telecommunications industry, I felt it was time to educate myself about personal computers and their potential.

I decided to learn about MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System).

The first Microsoft Windows platform would not be available for a few more years.

Yours truly purchased a lot of MS-DOS books and VHS tapes (what are those, grandpa?), which introduced me to computer basics, and how to use MS-DOS script coding for creating useful batch commands and utility programs.

Other folks decided on going with the Apple computer, and its proprietary operating platform and software programs.

By 1983, I was using an IBM personal computer with a 4.77 MHz Intel 8088 processor, 512K (kilobytes) of RAM (random access memory), and a 20MB (megabyte) hard drive the size of an eight-slot toaster.

This computer included a monochrome CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor, and an IBM printer using a parallel cable plugged into the computer’s DB-25 connector.

My DOS programs written onto 5.25-inch floppy disks were loaded into the computer via a single-sided 160K 5.25-inch floppy drive.

As the 1980s progressed, computer hobbyist clubs were started, as were a network of online virtual communities made up of hundreds of telephone dialup CBBS’s (computer bulletin board system) in cities all across the country.

The internet in the 1980s was navigated using text commands; the World Wide Web was not yet established.

In 1983, a new computer program began broadcasting Friday evenings on my local PBS (public broadcasting service) television channel.

“The Computer Chronicles,” created and hosted by Stewart Cheifet, focused on the excitement generated by the personal computer industry.

This weekly program featured the latest in computer technology, software, and people with expertise inside the industry.

Cheifet was a correspondent for the PBS “Nightly Business Report” covering the high-tech industry located in the famous Silicon Valley of California.

We were always greeted at the start of the show with these familiar words: “Welcome to the Computer Chronicles.”

Cheifet talked about the evolving computing industry in a knowledgeable, relaxed manner; he demonstrated how various computers worked and enjoyed delving into the latest technology.

He presented personal computer technology in an easy-to-understand approach; often having guests on who would address the latest in computer technology, and the companies creating the hardware and software.

“The Computer Chronicles” encompassed more than just IBM and Microsoft; they also included segments of the show covering the Apple and Macintosh computer world.

Another of the show’s segments, “Random Access,” highlighted the past week’s computing news.

The show was right for the times. It was like going to school each week – and enjoying it.

Software and hardware representatives from the computer industry would appear on the show to demonstrate their products, and to be interviewed by Cheifet.

As this fast-evolving personal computer technology exploded upon us, many took comfort in knowing Cheifet would be there to explain it, and teach us something new when we tuned in each week.

Every week, it seemed some new technological revolution in the personal computing world occurred.

Tuning into this weekly television program kept us informed concerning the computing news which occurred during the past week, and what we could look forward to.

This program, on the air nearly 20 years, reported on the personal computing revolution, the internet, and the World Wide Web.

“The Computer Chronicles” had a very loyal fan base.

When the program was cancelled in 2002, letters and emails (including mine) were sent to PBS asking them to keep the show on the air.

Today, many of those past programs have been archived on the internet and are available for viewing.

“The Computer Chronicles” television program from July 14, 1988 began with Cheifet looking at a desk where a Commodore Amiga personal computer was located.

“Welcome to the Computer Chronicles,” spoke the computer.

“A computer that talks!” excitedly exclaimed Cheifet.

Feeling nostalgic? Then re-experience those exciting times when the personal computer revolution was at its beginning.

The internet archive website stores many of the original “The Computer Chronicles” programs at:

Follow Cheifet @cheifet and myself @bitsandbytes on Twitter.

This column was originally published April 30, 2007 and was recently modified by the writer.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Artificial intelligence: Legal concerns, applications

by Mark Ollig
©Mark Ollig 

Geographically located southeast of Australia, New Zealand is undertaking the legalities of artificial intelligence (AI).

“A three-year project to evaluate legal and policy implications of artificial intelligence for New Zealand,” reads the message on the Artificial Intelligence and Law webpage of New Zealand’s University of Otago.

All of us have some understanding of what artificial intelligence is.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines artificial intelligence as “an area of computer science that deals with giving machines the ability to seem like they have human intelligence; the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior.”

AI will be merged with future autonomously driven cars, robotics and machines used in manufacturing companies, healthcare facilities, businesses, and in-home Internet of Things (IoT) devices; including the home vacuum cleaner of the future I mentioned in last week’s column.

Please note this column will continue to be written by a human; namely, yours truly.

AI technologies are able to learn and adapt for themselves, according to Professor Colin Gavaghan, head of the University of Otago’s three-year project: Artificial Intelligence and Law.

“Posing fascinating legal, practical, and ethical challenges,” are among concerns mentioned about AI technologies, according to Gavaghan.

“If intelligent machines are employed by companies, might we need legal mechanisms for defining their obligations and rights? Should they perhaps be regarded as ‘legal persons,’ for some purposes?” These are two of the questions being addressed by the Artificial Intelligence and Law project.

This project is funded by a $400,000 grant from the New Zealand Law Foundation organization.

This organization sites a specific application being used by some police departments here in the US called PredPol, a crime prevention software platform.

Being curious, I visited their website and learned PredPol means “predictive policing.”

PredPol began as a research project with UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), and the Los Angeles Police Department.

Using historical data, mathematicians, behavioral scientists, and police data, they determined the three best pieces of information to use for crime forecasting are: crime type, crime location, and crime data and time.

“The theory is that you prevent them from committing the crime to begin with . . . burglars and thieves work in a mathematical way, whether they know it or not,” said Police Chief Galen Carroll of Modesto, CA, in a quote taken from the Modesto Bee newspaper.

“Predictive policing” is a term I had not heard of before, but it reminds me of the 2002 Steven Spielberg sci-fi movie, “Minority Report.”

This movie takes place in 2054, and finds law enforcement using a “future-seeing” division called the Pre-Crime unit.

The protagonist; Chief John Anderton, played by actor Tom Cruise, is arrested long before he commits the crime for which he is charged: a homicide Anderton is seen carrying out – in the future.

The website for PredPol is

Some law firms are currently using artificial intelligence legal services provided by a Canadian company called ROSS Intelligence.

Their website’s front page reads: “Supercharge lawyers with artificial intelligence.”

ROSS (not an acronym) is an artificial intelligence, cloud-based, legal assistant program human lawyers can consult with from any Internet-accessible device.

Legal research can be supported by using ROSS, proposes the ROSS Intelligence YouTube video titled: “Meet ROSS, Your Brand New Artificially Intelligent Lawyer.”

This video can be seen at

Questions can be asked of ROSS using the same natural language one would use speaking with a human lawyer.

Andrew Arruda, a former lawyer, and co-founder of ROSS Intelligence, recently gave a detailed presentation about artificial intelligence and how ROSS operates, during a Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) conference in France.

He nicely summed up AI as four technologies: machine learning, natural language processing, visual recognition, and speech recognition.

Arruda said they created ROSS to answer legal research questions, and intelligently collaborate with the human lawyer performing the research.

He also stated how ROSS becomes “smarter each and every single day” through its interactions with human lawyers.

Andrew Arruda’s informative presentation was uploaded to YouTube by CCBE, and can be watched here:

Young people studying to become a lawyer may want to consider the legal research services provided by an AI lawyer assistant.

You can freely interact with this HI (human intelligence) via Twitter at @bitsandbytes.

(Photo: License to use paid for by Bits & Bytes)