2019-09-04 (Wednesday)

Today, I learned that:

There is finally something really BIG happening in the world of serial communication between electronic devices. Last Thursday, 2019-08-29, was officialized the release of a new version of the popular USB interface, version 4, USB4 to be short, with a maximum data rate of 40 Gbit/s. See also reference #1 below.

From RS-232 to USB4

So, what is so special with this version then? Well, it seems that we now, almost 60 years after the RS-232 serial protocol was introduced, have returned to only one standard, regardless of the brand of the device.

It all started in 1960, when the American industry organisation EIA (Electronic Industries Association) introduced the RS-232 standard, initially to be used between electromechanical teletypewriters as DTEs (data terminal equipment) and modems as DCEs (data circuit-terminating/communication equipment). According to today’s standards, it was extremely slow, maximum 20 kbits/s.

RS-232 had some successors, such as RS-422 and RS-485, where both the speed and maximum cable length had been improved. For example, RS-422 is specified for a maximum bitrate of 10 Mbits/s and a maximum cable length of 1500 m.

We now jump to the 1990s, when the emerging personal computer (PC) industry found that maintaining the RS-232 communication was not feasible. There were then started two different initiatives to make communication between a PC and its peripherals much easier and faster. On January 1, 1996, was released the first version of the universal serial bus (USB). It had been developed by a consortium of companies such as Compaq, DEC, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, NEC, and Nortel. The data rate of USB 1.0 was 12 Mbits/s, which was improved to 480 Mbits/s with version 2.0 in 2001 and 5 Gbits/s through USB 3.0 in 2014, 10 Gbits/s by USB 3.1 in 2014, and 20 Gbits/s specified by USB 3.2 in 2017.

As you can see above, Apple did not participate in the USB consortium. Instead they had decided to develop their own communication interface, and attracted other companies such as Sony, Panasonic, Philips, LG, Toshiba, Hitachi, Canon, Thomson, and Texas Instruments. This group developed what came to be known as FireWire 400, aka standard IEEE 1394-1995. The data rate of this version was a maximum of 400 Mbits/s in half-duplex mode. It was followed by FireWire 800, which reached the speed of its name in 2006. However, Steve Jobs declared that FireWire was dead in 2008 when many camcorders were still using USB 2.0, instead of the faster FireWire.

Intel, which as you saw before already was a leading force in the USB consortium, now started to develop a new hardware interface together with Apple. It was dubbed Thunderbolt, and the first version appeared on MacBook Pro computers in 2011. Sony also used it in a Vaio line of notebooks in 2011. It was later followed by Thunderbolt 2 in 2013, with a maximum data rate of 20 Gbits/s.

And then, in 2016, Thunderbolt 3 was introduced, and as of now we can see that both standards are coming closer to each other, because they share the same USB-C connector. Intel decided in April 2019 to release the Thunderbolt without charging royalties from the companies who would use it, and that was the signal to finally use Thunderbolt 3 as a starting point for the specification of USB 4.

Will this mean that there is now unanimity in the electronics industry to start using only USB 4? Let us hope so, and that we will see the concrete result starting to appear in about a year or so.

There is much more to be said about this interesting topic of data communication, please see references # 2 through 7 below for details.

If you can’t beat them, join them!

A big problem in the crazy traffic in major cities around the world is of course that so many different categories of people on the move need to share the same physical space. Maybe the most troublesome is when motorbikes try to squeeze their way through in the small corridors between the cars. In 1997, when the most recent Brazilian Code for traffic was published, it permitted that they could do so, contrary to safety measures. And as a consequence, every day quite a few of those bikers are involved in severe accidents, even deaths.

If you can’t beat them, join them! In order to reduce the conflict between cars and motorcycles, in the largest avenues in São Paulo have been implemented a buffer zone, exclusive to the bikers, in front of the pedestrian crossing. That way, they can race off without messing with the cars. Photo taken at Avenida Ipiranga on 2019-08-08.

However, one of the ways to mitigate somewhat this conflict was created in 2013 in São Paulo. You can see it in the photo above, taken downtown on 2019-08-09 at Avenida Ipiranga. It shows that motorbikers and other bikers, as well, have a privileged zone in front of the cars, when they need to stop for a red light. That way, when the light turns into green, they can speed away without needing to negotiate space with the car drivers. This method is called “Frente segura”, which means ‘Safe front’. More about it can be seen in reference #8 below (in Portuguese).

That’s what I learned in school !

Refs.:

1: USB4 Specification merges Thunderbolt 3 and USB with transfer speeds up to 40 Gb/s

2: RS-232

3: RS-422

4: RS-485

5: USB

6: IEEE 1394

7: Thunderbolt

8: Frente segura

*: What did you learn in school today ?

2016-03-10 (Thursday)

Today, I learned that:

The world is undergoing a constant evolution, and in the field of technology it seems more evident than ever.

Do you remember Deep Blue, the first computer to beat a human world champion in chess? It happened in 1996, when it won the first game of six against Garry Kasparov, although Kasparov came back and won the series with 4-2. But in 1997, Deep Blue got its revenge, winning a tough series of games with 3,5-2,5. Deep Blue was a joint project between IBM and Carnegie Mellon University. Kasparov accused IBM of cheating and demanded a rematch, but IBM denied it. Later it was the inverse, IBM challenged Kasparov again, in vain. However, Deep Blue gave inspiration to other chess playing programs and nowadays it is quite common to see human chess players go up against their virtual opponents. See also reference #1 below.

DBW

To the left: Deep Blue (photo by James the photographer – http://flickr.com/photos/22453761@N00/592436598/), and to the right: Ken Jennings, Watson, and Brad Rutter in their Jeopardy! exhibition match (Wikipedia)

Then came Watson, yet another implementation from IBM. In 2011, a computer won the popular quiz game of Jeopardy! against the champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. IBM later continued development of Watson further into a commercial application for management decisions in lung cancer treatment, announced in 2013, see reference #2 below, and an update in January 2016 (reference # 3 below) gives more recent examples of where Watson is finding applications for its skills.

Both Deep Blue and Watson are good examples of what is commonly called Artificial Intelligence (AI), and yesterday, 2016-03-09, represented another historic date for AI. This time, the application is playing the ancient Chinese boardgame Go, considered to be far more complex than chess. The British company Deep Mind started in 2010 to develop a computer system which purpose was to play Go the way no man (or machine) had ever done before. Google acquired the company in 2014 and here comes the graduation task for AlphaGo: beat the world’s leading Go player.

The series of best of 5 games, which is held in Seoul, started yesterday, when AlphaGo won the first game of Go against the world’s best player, the Korean Lee Sedol. Also in the second game, held today, AlphaGo defeated its opponent, and unless Sedol wins the remaining three games, we will have proof, once more, that well designed computers can beat the best players in the world in their respective specialities. The following images show the result of the first two games. For more information about the match and Go in general, see references #4 and #5 below.

go12

The two first games of the historic match between AlphaGo and Lee Sedol, played in Seoul 2016-03-09–10. Graphic produced by Google.

Finally, although the machines are clever, do not forget that there are humans behind them, responsible for the programming. Reference #6 below talks about a case revealed today about how hackers were able to transfer US$ 81 million from the US Federal Reserve Bank in New York to Asia, completing thus 4 of the assigned 13 transfers. But on the fifth task, a routing bank in Germany detected a misspelling of “foundation” as “fandation”, which stopped the remaining US$ 850 million from getting stolen.

This reminds me of the old slogan for Esso gasoline to “put a tiger in the tank”. Such a procedure will not have any effect if there is “a jackass sitting behind the wheel” !!!

… That’s what I learned in school !

Refs.:

1: Deep Blue (chess computer)

2: Watson (computer)

3: The Rise Of Thinking Machines: How IBM’s Watson Takes On The World

4: AlphaGo’s ultimate challenge: a five-game match against the legendary Lee Sedol

5: Go (game)

6: Hackers tried and failed to steal a billion dollars from bank

+: What did you learn in school today ?