Start-ups, Software, & Technology


Privacy and Technology

Have you noticed the increased clash between technology and privacy?

In March, there was the FBI vs. Apple debacle where the FBI wanted to unlock the iPhone from the man responsible for shootings in California, and Apple said no. This went on for a few weeks until eventually the FBI announced they hired hackers who successfully unlocked the phone for them (http://www.wired.co.uk/article/apple-fbi-unlock-iphone-5c-court-order-dropped)

In May, a Brazilian judge ordered all mobile phone operators in the country to block Whatsapp for 72 hours (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/may/02/brazil-whatsapp-block-72-hours). The gist is that the judge was trying to get Facebook (who owns Whatsapp) to hand over the chat history of a specific user as part of an investigation. Facebook said they don’t have access to that data since conversations are encrypted. The judge’s ruling generated widespread protests in the country (like there aren’t enough of those there already) but in the end Whatsapp was only blocked for 24 hours and a high court judge eventually overruled the blocking decision and Whatsapp could be used again.

Why are Apple, Facebook and other tech companies taking data protection so seriously?

The case for privacy

This topic first came into my radar when I got involved with Bitcoin. In the Bitcoin world, privacy is a big deal and discussions about privacy in the forums are frequent. As you probably know, using Bitcoin people can send any amount of money from one to another instantaneously without paying fees. Crucially, the money is sent from one Bitcoin address to another (think of a Bitcoin address as being like an e-mail address) and anyone can create an address for free and without identifying themselves. This means that the transactions are essentially private (however anyone can see the actual transaction including the amount sent, the source and destination Bitcoin addresses. The point is that no one knows who actually sent and who actually received the money).

So in the Bitcoins forums, you basically had some people vehemently defending that privacy in Bitcoin is paramount and that this is the killer feature of Bitcoin. But for an even larger number of people, privacy was irrelevant as they didn’t feel they had anything to hide.

At first I thought the privacy defenders must obviously be doing something illegal if they are so concerned about keeping their identify private. Given projects such as the infamous Silk Road, it wouldn’t surprise me. Surely some users were probably like that. But then, I went to meet a friend that lives in Berlin and he told me how Hitler used previously collated lists of Jews to persecute them. When the lists were compiled several years earlier, most Jews happily gave away all their personal details, thinking they have nothing to hide and not imagining the terror that would follow. “You normally only realize how important privacy is, after you lost it“, my friend said.

I can see now plenty of examples of why privacy is important in Bitcoin. There have been many cases of Bitcoin theft and if hackers know you have a lot of Bitcoin then you are a good target. There are also other situations where privacy proved important, for example Russia criminalized the use of Bitcoin and while I believe this is a temporary situation and teething problems of an emerging technology, if you happen to be Russian and a technology enthusiast, you probably don’t want to make it very public that you own Bitcoins.

Everyone that read George Orwell’s 1984 knows well the dangers of having an all-too-powerful state that can from one day to the next, decide to use information for the wrong purposes. It’s not an accident that the USA constitution, in its fourth amendment makes it clear that the government should not remove individual’s privacy.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported

So when people argue that it’s okay for the government to have access to all personal information, I half agree because after all I have nothing to hide but then I remember the story of my friend from Berlin.

Obama has a good point

President Obama gave an interview during  SWSX where he discussed these issues. It’s pretty good and worth 10 mins of your time.

His central argument is that we need to allow some way of authorities to get access to our devices, just as it happens with a search warrant. I believe he is right, unfortunately there are bad and mentally sick people in the world and I don’t want to live in a society where these guys have a powerful and impenetrable tool where they can hide money, information, pictures and etc.

What I would argue though is that what makes people nervous about Government having access to phones is that it happens in secrecy. Think about it, in the case of a search warrant, the police shows up in your house, wake you up, your neighbors can see it so it’s pretty clear and transparent what is going on. Furthermore, there is only so many houses that the police can visit at the same time, so this gives some degree of confidence that this power will not be overused.

So what’s the solution?

Where we got so far is that a) we need to allow authorities to access private information when there is probable cause but b) when such access happens it needs to be transparent, authorized and punctual (i.e. not allow the government to access all iPhones in the country at the same time).

Granting access to all smartphones and other devices needs to be equivalent to letting the FBI access a houses with a search warrant. Could technology solve this problem?

Here’s one possible solution that I believe deserves careful consideration: The Estonian government has an interesting project with healthcare data, where they are using blockchain technologies (the same one that powers Bitcoin) to secure the healthcare information of its population. In Estonia’s case, the technology is used to record every time the health data of an individual is accessed, altered or deleted (http://www.coindesk.com/blockchain-startup-aims-to-secure-1-million-estonian-health-records/).

How about we use this technology to have a record of each access to someone’s private data in their mobile phone? A public record that cannot be tampered with and can even serve as the official authorization for access?

It could work like this: every smartphone is already encrypted. The decryption key could be stored in a blockchain (for example NXT’s data storage system) whereby only the person that has the blockchain password/key can see the smartphone’s decryption key. Every time someone accesses the blockchain to see the phone’s decryption key, a public record is made. This way the public can check how many times authorities claimed access to private information in phones, and the owner of the phone being investigated could see that his phone has been accessed, just like you do if your house is searched.

Living forever

What if we could live forever?

I have spent the last 10 years working in high technology healthcare companies, building software that analyses data created by machines (from CT and PET scanners to DNA sequencers). To be fair, even if we could stop aging, living forever would still require the universe to exist forever and that’s not so clear (see this recent BBC article about the end of the universe – that’s a topic for another post). But what if we could live say, 200 years? Or perhaps 1,000 years? What about 10,000 years? Impossible? Maybe not.


From a life expectancy of 35 to 80 years – and where this is going

Take a look at this graph (data courtesy of Office for National Statistics):


During the last 200 years, we saw the average lifespan of human beings going from about 40 years in the mid 1800s to about 80 years in the developed world today. There is still work to be done in many countries that don’t enjoy the same level of healthcare, safety and hygiene as developed countries, but we should eventually get to a point where this is available universally.

All of this improvement has been achieved by preventing and curing diseases and a general improvement in the levels of safety (for example in transportation – cars are much safer today than they were in 1950, laws and policing reduced death from violence). But even in developed countries, most people still don’t reach 120 years.


Because we still have diseases such as Cancer, Alzheimer’s and Heart Disease. According the WHO, these are some of the 3 top killers in the USA along with Influenza, Diabetes, Chronic Respiratory Disease (see http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/282929.php).

So if we are to live even longer, perhaps even past 122 years which is what’s currently thought of as being the maximum life span of human beings  (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximum_life_span) the following needs to happen:

STEP 1: Curing all diseases

I believe that we will get to a point where all diseases are curable. Normally, when I say this, people laugh. Do you have any doubts that all diseases will one day be curable?

Look at infectious diseases. The biggest killer in the early 1800s was tuberculosis (see http://www.thornber.net/medicine/html/causesofdeath1839.html). How is TB nowadays? Pretty manageable. I know, I know, there are concerns around antibiotic resistance, but this is problem that will be solved. The point is that during the last century, modern medicine managed these diseases.

What about cancer? In the 1950s only 35% of cancer patients survived 5 years after diagnosis. In the early 2000s this number was around 67% (see this study). Nowadays, it’s even better. Do you see the trend? And with the latest advances in genetics and genomics, the future looks promising, and I expect that not long in the future, cancer will become a manageable disease, just like tuberculosis.

Remember, while infectious diseases are caused by mutating infectious organisms, which means that they are always evolving and the mutations acquired by one set of individuals can be used again when they infect a new host, in cancer this doesn’t happen. If you have a group of people infected with HIV at a given time, that’s billions of viruses going through trial and error mutations trying to evolve and trying to find ways to avoid our drugs while in cancer, a limited number of cells in an individual have a chance of evolving and once the individual dies the cells die too and cannot pass any evolutionary tricks to a new individual. So in a sense, once we dominate cancer, that’s it – it’s dominated.

STEP 2: Replacing aging organs

I am not sure if this will really come after STEP 1 above or if there will be some overlap. Probably the latter.

If we want to live longer, simply curing all diseases is not enough. The problem, is that most of the increase in lifespan we got in the last couple of hundred years has been achieved by simply eliminating the reasons why people die prematurely. We cured diseases, and we got very good in preventing them. But despite all this, no one ever lives past about 122 years. This is because it seems that 122 years is the absolute maximum lifespan of a human being (see again https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximum_life_span)

Once you get too old, there is so much damage in your DNA that your cells won’t replicate anymore and a range of issues arise in your body. For example, your heart won’t pump like before, your lungs start to collapse, your immune system isn’t as effective, your kidneys start to fail.

So one nice prospect is being able to replace old organs with new ones. You could get a new heart every 50 years or so, made out of your own cells. When you reach 100 years of age, you would have a young person’s heart again.

When I talk about new organs, I also mean blood and skin. You should be able to receive new skin and look like you are 25 when you are 75. Recent research has shown that receiving young blood may make your body operate like new again (at least the brain, for now: https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2014/01/122211/blood-work-scientists-uncover-surprising-new-tools-rejuvenate-brain).

Young blood making you younger is great and it means that there must be something in the plasma that we don’t yet know/understand that is having this effect, but what I find really interesting is thinking about the possibilities of stem cells. The promise with stem cells is that you can take a cell from your own body and convert it into something called a pluripotent cell which can then be made to reproduce and build entire new organs.

While these approaches wouldn’t necessarily make us live way past 122 years since we are basically just replacing old organs with new ones, it would certainly make us live a much better life in old age, and this is already a huge benefit for the human race. A good life always, as it should be.

If you want to know more about stem cell, there is good information in this NIH website.

STEP 3: Molecular modifications

Now this is the possibility that I find most exciting of all. Imagine being able to have your DNA edited, so to programatically increase your lifespan. I say programatically because this is what DNA is – the set of instruction code that tell our cells how to behave. Pretty much like a computer code tells the computer how to behave.


The latest editing techniques known as CRISPR promises to allow easy and precise genetic editing. It’s like a molecular scalpel that cuts our DNA in a precise location to change the code.

The most accepted theories today stipulate that aging is the accumulation of damage to cells – and more specifically DNA – which eventually leads to the cell being unable to reproduce and even committing suicide in a process called apoptosis. So it may be possible to edit the DNA in such way to either tell cells to reproduce more times before ending their life-cycle or altering the way that they deal with their death.

Think about it this way: A mother in her 30’s who only have a lifespan of 92 years left in the best case scenario can give birth to a new human being who has a brand new lifespan of 120 years. The cells of the baby are created inside the mother’s body. So surely, there is a way for a 30 year old body to produce cells with normal lifespan, which means that there must be a mechanism that determines what a cell’s lifespan is, and we just need to understand what that is.

Social implications of longer lifespans

One of the first things people mention in a discussion about life extension is the fact that we will run out of resources and space on earth to deal with so many people.

Ray Kurzweil Picture

Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil is a futurist who’s work I have been following for a while, mostly due to his software engineering skills rather than his futurology work. He published a series of books and defends the idea of a “singularity” which is when computers will be as smart as human beings and humans will be able to upload their brains to computers and live in virtual reality worlds. He makes bold predictions about the dates when things will happen (you can check them out here).

According to him, we would be able to edit genes and rejuvenate our body’s skin by altering the DNA still in the 2010s and in the 2020s we would see the nanotechnology revolution with the use of nanobots in medicine and all sorts of ways. Now, I think that Ray is a super smart guy but his predictions seem to strangely rely too much on Moore’s law (which has worked well for the past few decades but is showing signs of breaking these days) and his own desire of living forever, so many of the dates he sets seem to gravitate around his own lifespan.

I don’t think anyone can make accurate predictions about when exactly the steps above are going to happen. One thing I learned in all my years working with healthcare and pharma companies is that things in healthcare take longer than you think.

Irrespective of what you think about Ray, there is one point he makes that I fully agree: that the same technological advances that will enable us to live longer, will also solve other problems along the way in terms of natural resources and space. Many things come to my mind, from using solar energy instead of oil (and therefore much cleaner) to desalinizing water (since we have cheap and clean electricity) to creating colonies in space stations, the moon, mars and other planets.

It is up to us to make sure that this technological advances go in the direction that we want – in a direction that will improve the standards of living of people and at the same time making us more human (and here’s another point I disagree from Ray since he thinks we will all become machines). Allowing us to live life to its fullest, enjoying all the sensations and emotions that make us who we are. This will not happen by default, we need to keep an eye on the companies that are developing these technologies and demand that our governments act as to ensure that technologies are used for the good of humankind.


What if the emDrive really works?

From your garden to the surface of the moon in 4 hours?

I am a big Star Trek and Star Wars fan. The Enterprise can travel many times the speed of light and because of this, it can go to different planets and meet all sorts of strange creatures. Sometimes I forget this is all fiction and that the reality in 2015 is that until recently we weren’t even sure if planets existed outside of the solar system (the first planet was 51 Pegasi discovered in 1995 – see BBC article)! Going from London to California takes 12 hours! Imagine going to other stars? Simply impossible!

But this may all be about to change. A British engineer called Roger Shawyer proposed a new propulsion system that he named emDrive (after electromagnetic drive). It’s still in early tests and most physicists say it’s can’t work because it violates Newton’s 3rd law (For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction).

But… how come academic centers and even NASA are reporting it actually works?

Nasa and Academic tests 

Shawyer proposed and built a prototype of the engine in 2001. He promoted the idea, but the problem is that there are so many blue sky propulsion ideas out there that simply don’t work, or even worse – seem to work but then fail when scrutinized – so it’s understandable that no one really paid much attention to Shawyer’s claims.

Shawyer's emDrive

Shawyer’s emDrive

But slowly some centers decided to test it and surprisingly reported that it does indeed work!

First an academic group in China. Then a group in Germany. Finally, in 2015 a small group in NASA called EagleWorks also tested it and reported that it works. This is when it went mainstream, and several news outlets picked up the story. Unfortunately, many tabloids also did pick it up. The main problem is that despite all tests, most high profile scientists are firm in saying it can’t possibly work.

Breaking Newton’s 3rd law

The coolest thing about the whole story is that if it does work, no one understands why. Roger has provided an explanation but most physicists don’t buy it. It can’t work because the engine doesn’t use propellant, it does not throw anything out in order to move in the opposite direction, and therefore it should not work.

The most advanced space engine we have currently, is called the Ion Engine and it works in a totally different way to the emDrive. It actually throws ions (charged atoms) at very high speeds to one direction and so the engine moves in the opposite direction.

Ion engine being tested

Ion engine being tested

The emDrive on the other hand works the following way: you take a microwave generator (the same kind you have in your microwave oven at home) and connect it to a resonant cavity (which is basically a cone shaped piece of metal). Because of the difference in shape between the top and the bottom part of the cone, the microwaves generate trust and move the engine. Since the cone is completely closed and nothing comes out of it, the engine is being classified as a reaction-less drive, which in the science world is kind of saying the words “perpetual motion machine”.

Hobbyists and enthusiasts

Given the controversy, many people decided to build an engine themselves to check if it works. Youtube is filled with people that show how to build the engine and measure its trust.

Reddit built a whole community around it (https://www.reddit.com/r/EmDrive/) where enthusiasts discuss their latest prototypes and tests.

You can see one of the first amateur test videos in Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSZT5plA4a4

Flying cars, holidays in the moon and other applications

It is fun to think about some of the possible applications of this technology. A couple of the most mentioned ones:

No need to keep refueling the international space station
The space station’s orbit decays every day. Eventually they need to fire the rockets to get it up to the appropriate altitude again. Many of the missions that fly there (the rockets) need to bring fuel which is heavy and expensive, just to refuel the station so that it can keep firing the rockets every now and then. With the emDrive, this would not be necessary, simply get electricity from the solar panels and use the drive to reestablish the desired orbit.

Going from the surface of earth to the surface of the moon in 4 hours
You can imagine that if it’s that easy and cheap to go to the moon, many people would go. We would finally have a settlement there, and who knows, there could be a nice vacation resort with indoor pools overlooking the stars.

Going to Alpha Centauri in 80 years
Alpha Centauri is the closest star to our sun. It’s just about 4.3 light year away (a light year is the distance that light travels in one year). For example, with the space shuttle, at a maximum speed of about 17,600 mph (about 28,300 kph), it would take it about 165,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri. Now with the emDrive and assuming that it performs at the theoretically optimum levels, a non-decelerating trip to Alpha Centauri (so forget about stopping by) under a constant acceleration would result in an speed of 9.4 percent the speed of light and result in a total trip time of just 92 years. Still not something you can do for your next holidays, but at least it wouldn’t take 1,650 centuries!

Cheap rockets
It is super expensive to get things into orbit. As Elon Musk already made public, there is a myth that the fuel is the expensive part, but actually it’s not. The fuel is cheap, but the rocket is expensive! Why? Because it’s a very big and complicated machine. Imagine if you could simply fly to space with a ship as big as your car and then return to your house, having used nothing else but electricity in the process. How cheap would that be?

Flying cars!
This is one of my favorites because it would have an immediate impact in society. Imagine having self-driving super safe flying cars? You can call one with your Uber app, it would land in your street, you hop in and it takes you anywhere in the world, from the theatre a few blocks away to your room (not the lobby, the actual room) in a resort in Thailand. No more traffic, no more planes, airports… no more need to even own a car!

I went ahead and did some math to figure out whether the currently proposed emDrive would work using a Tesla model S as a basis:

  • A Tesla model S weights about 2,000kg and has a 70 kWh battery (meaning that the battery can output 70kW for 1h). Since you need 9.8 Newtons to lift each Kg here on earth, you would need at least 2,000 x 9.8 =  19,600 Newtons of thrust to lift the Tesla S.
  • Shawyer claims that he managed to get a performance of 0.1N per 300W (see article)
  • Therefore, to generate 19,600 Newtons of thrust you would need 19,600N / 0.1N x 0.3KW = 58MW which unfortunately is way off what can be delivered with current technology in terms of power.
  • But according to this site (http://emdrive.com/faq.html) a new superconducting version of the emDrive is being built which should allow 30kN/1kW. If this really happens, then a single kW could easily lift a car.

There is a huge list of things that would be better with this technology From drones that don’t need propellers, to jet packs that don’t need jets. Faster trains, self-delivering pizza, and so much more.

Roger Shawyer Interview

Watch an interview with Roger Shawyer and see for yourself.

He does sound credible and if the whole thing doesn’t work then my take is that he didn’t know about it.

Ethan Siegel recently published an article in Forbes titled “The EM Drive, NASA’s ‘Impossible Engine,’ Highlights Our Greatest Failing” arguing that the emDrive falls in the same category as perpetual motion engines, cold fusion machines and other “impossibilities”. Even if those things never really work, I think it’s not a bad thing to excite the public imagination and make them wonder what we could achieve through science. Of course we need rigorous testing and reproducible results (which are underway) and eventually the emDrive may be proven to work – or not! That’s fine, that’s how we make progress. He finished his article with a quote from Richard Feynman, so I think it’s only appropriate if I finish mine with a quote from Carl Sagan:


Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
– Carl Sagan

Why I think the future of Bitcoin is bright

A money printer working in your shed while you sleep?

When I first heard about Bitcoin, I was fascinated. It was late 2012 and I just couldn’t resist the idea of building a machine that could basically print money in my shed 24/7! My wife wasn’t so keen on the idea, she was concerned that it would set the shed on fire. Luckily it never did.

I had some PC spare parts (I like to assemble my own PCs, a tradition I have been cultivating since 1990 when I built my first 486), but I was missing a crucial part: the GPU (Graphic Processing Unit – also known as “graphics cards”). You see, in order to mine Bitcoin in late 2012, you needed a fast GPU to help solve the complex math formulas, otherwise you wouldn’t make enough money. So I went to ebay and bought 2 used AMD GPUs. A couple of days later, my miner was built. There was only one problem: My WiFi signal wouldn’t reach the shed! So I went back to ebay and I bought a highly directional antenna, which in the right position would be able to get the WiFi signal in the shed (If someone moved it by 1mm it would stop working, and I would learn later that the connection dropped whenever it was raining – but it was good enough).

I spent in total something like $150 and in a month I had recouped it. I quickly became addicted to the idea of Bitcoin, so I joined forums and started to learn the technology behind it. My coding skills helped, and I became quite proficient in encryption and understood the inner workings of Bitcoin and other crypto currencies.

But then I realised that when it comes to Bitcoin, it’s not just about the encryption and the technical implementation. There is a lot of economics there, people trade Bitcoins in exchanges, measure things like M1 Rank, and somewhere around 2013 I learned you could trade virtual assets using Bitcoin. I wanted to understand all that.

So I did an online course in Economics from the University of Rochester. It was harder than I anticipated, but I finished it with high grades and by the time I finished, I understood not just the technical side of Bitcoin but also the economics behind it.

Those were fun days. Unfortunately, nowadays you can’t mine them with GPUs anymore, as the technology quickly progressed and the competition was so hard that you need something called an ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit) to mine them. You can still buy one and have it in your shed, but it’s not easy to recoup the investment, and it’s not so fun like assembling your own gear.

I have been following Bitcoin ever since, I have an app called ZeroBlock (https://zeroblock.com/) installed in my iPhone and I admit it’s the first thing I check every morning when I wake up (even before checking my e-mails!).

I am sure that there are a lot of people like me out there, that just feel the same way as me about Bitcoin. People that are interested in the technology, the innovation the possibilities. It just seems magical.

Why Bitcoin?

People that study networks are probably familiar with something called Metcalfe’s Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metcalfe%27s_law). The argument goes something like this: If you had the only FAX machine in the world, how much would that machine be worth? The answer is “nothing” because you would have no one to send a FAX to! The more people that buy FAX machines, the more valuable the entire network becomes. The same applies to Bitcoin. It is really, really hard for another crypto currency to take its place because so many people already have it (probably a few millions as of now – end of 2015).

Whenever I had other altcoins (i.e. those crypto currencies that are not Bitcoin), I always saw myself wanting to “play it safe” and exchange them for Bitcoin. I guess many people feel like this, and this comes to show how Bitcoin has established itself as the thought leader in terms of crypto currencies.

So if any crypto currency is to succeed, I would bet in Bitcoin.

But do we really need Crypto Currencies?

Well, I could now start a new article about this topic. Perhaps we do, perhaps not. I think it is great to be able to pay for something without having to stand up and go get my wallet. But the same can be said about Paypal. Both are really useful.

Unfortunately, Bitcoin was so useful that criminals decided to start using it too (just like they use cash), and that gave Bitcoin a bad reputation.

People like to say that governments will block Bitcoin. But that’s like saying governments will ban P2p file sharing networks. They have tried, but it’s a very difficult (probably impossible) task. Bitcoin is a P2P network itself, so it cannot be completely blocked.

So, between Bitcoin and Paypal, why choose one versus the other? There is no real reason, but I can’t see Bitcoin going away, and I believe that there is space for both. Some people will prefer Paypal, some will prefer Bitcoin. But there is one advantage in the long term with Bitcoin that is the fact it’s a new technology and usually new technologies end up sparking follow-up technologies. Just like the internet gave birth to the web that gave birth to the browser that gave birth to Google.  You see?

Perhaps while you are reading this, someone, somewhere is busy creating the new Google of Bitcoin. I hope so.

Copyright Bueluk 2015