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My AI Will Soon Be Watching You (Part 1)

Time is a funny old thing. On the one hand, we don’t even know what it is. On the other hand, we never seem to have enough of it. I remember being a kid with several days remaining until Christmas. The second hand on the clock seemed to barely move, desperately straining to make its way to the next mark on the clock-face. Each minute seemed to take an hour; each hour took at least a day; and each day was an eternity. Now, all I need to do is blink to see yet another Christmas receding into the distance in the rear-view mirror of my life.

I never planned on growing old. The amazing thing is that all my childhood friends have grown old as well. I didn’t see that coming. When I was in my teens, a bunch of us hung out together. Since many shared the same names, most ended up being qualified by descriptors, like Little Steve, Blond-Haired Keith (who is now gray), Zero Keith, and Fuzzy-Haired Mick (who is now bald). (“Hair is fleeting, but nicknames live forever,” as some unknown ancient Greek philosopher infamously failed to turn into a quotable quote.)

Speaking about philosophy (we weren’t, but we are now), I highly recommend A Phrankly Phenomenal History of Philosophy (Without the Poncy Bits) by John Farman. As it says on Amazon: “This is a succinct summary of ‘everything you will ever need to know about philosophy.’ The author defines philosophy as ‘talking about thinking’ and this book is a ‘who they were and what they thought’ guide to the subject.” All I know is that I’ve spent a lot of time not thinking about what I learned in this book, which really does explain things in terms even I could understand.

I met Blond-Haired Keith in the playground at school when I was 5 years old, so that’s more than 60 years ago as I pen these words. I’ll have to remind him that he owes me a toy car. We are all still friends. I was just chatting with Little Steve a few days ago. He told me that his dad said he couldn’t believe that all three of his kids (Steve and his two sisters) were now old age pensioners. If he was trying to cheer Little Steve up… he didn’t succeed.

As I may have mentioned before, we graduated high school in 1975. We were all 18 years old. Some of us were headed to university; others were headed to jobs. We spent most of that summer in the local park, alternating between kicking a soccer ball around and lying on a grassy bank looking at the sky and talking about life, the universe, and what the future might hold.

We noted that the year 2000 was a quarter of a century in the future. That seemed to be an unimaginable temporal distance away. We couldn’t really wrap our brains around the possibility of living that long. Now, Y2K is almost a quarter of a century in the past. I can’t really wrap my brain around the actuality of having lived that long.

We all hated wearing our school uniform, which consisted of black trousers, a crisp (or crumpled, in my case) white shirt accompanied by a tie in the school’s colors, and a black jacket with the school’s crest emblazoned on the breast pocket. We couldn’t believe our ears when one of our number told us he’d signed up for a 20-year stint in the Royal Navy. In addition to the fact this was longer than we’d been alive, it meant he was going to be obliged to wear a uniform again. When he retired after his 20 years, it was as the captain of a British warship, which means he must be on a good pension. Of course, he was only 38 when he returned to civilian life, which means he’s been basking in his retirement for almost 30 years now, the lucky $%^%^^ (sea dog)! 

Why am I waffling on about time? I’m glad you asked, although you may soon wish you hadn’t. Do you recall my recent Issuing a Challenge to Edge AI Processor Manufacturers column? Just to summarize the situation, a few years ago I decided to build a Countdown Timer whose task it would be to display the time remaining to my 100th birthday, which will take place at 11:45 a.m. British Summer Time (BST) on 29 May 2057. Mark your calendar now. No flowers please (cold, hard cash will suffice).

My first pass at this was a beauty. People say that size doesn’t matter, but this was 42” wide (I’m just sayin’). It featured 12 Lixie displays; two each for the years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. Each Lixie was 4” tall, 2” wide, and about 1” thick, being composed of 10 sheets of transparent acrylic presented one in front of the other. Each of these sheets was etched with one of the digits 0 through 9; and each was edge-lit from the bottom using two WS2812B tricolor LEDs (a.k.a. NeoPixels).

The reason I’m talking in the past tense is that I temporarily stored my creation in a closet on a high shelf that transmogrified itself into a low shelf by breaking away from the wall while I wasn’t looking. In the process, it smashed all my Lixie displays and converted my Countdown Timer into a shadow of its former self.

“Oh Dear!” I said to myself (or words to that effect).

I was moaning and groaning about this to my friend, Joe Farr, who is based in the UK. Joe and I have worked together on a lot of interesting projects over the years. Some of them have even been work-related. Joe has a workshop that makes me drool with envy. It’s jam-packed with interesting bits and pieces. Joe suggested that we recreate my Countdown Timer using the IV-6 incarnation of vacuum fluorescent displays (VFDs).

Based on an image of a real tube and the IV-6’s dimensions as gleaned from an online data sheet, I threw a quick Visio sketch together as shown below (I’m just showing the year, month, day portion of the display here).

First Visio sketch (dimensions in mm) (Source: Max Maxfield)

Since this looked so tasty, Joe and I both placed an order for a set of 20 IV-6 tubes (14 for the display—YYYY, MM, DD, HH, MM, SS—and 6 spares “just because”). Then Joe started work on the printed circuit board (PCB). In hindsight (the one exact science), we should have tied the PCB design down before ordering the tubes (more about this later).

Once we’ve finished, we intend to make this project open-source so anyone can build one. As part of this,  we’ve decided to base everything on a small, 1-tube board. In addition to the tube, this board will carry a tricolor NeoPixel mounted under the tube, two integrated circuits (ICs) in the form of an 8-bit shift register and a VFD tube driver, and “In” and “Out” connectors. Users will be able to daisy-chain these boards together, with the entire chain requiring only 6 pins on the user’s microcontroller of choice (5 pins to drive the shift register chain and 1 pin to drive the chain of NeoPixels. This means that other hobbyists will be able to use as many or as few elements as they wish in their own interpretations of this project.

This is so simple. What could possibly go wrong? I’ll tell you next time in Part 2. In the meantime, feast your orbs on a short video showing a first-pass implementation that commences by displaying the current time and then performs a random walk.

I’m currently reading Silicon: From the Invention of the Microprocessor to the New Science of Consciousness by Frederico Faggin. On the one hand, this is a riveting first-person perspective on the creation of the first commercial microprocessor, which is arguably one of humankind’s most significant inventions. On the other hand, being British, one was brought up to be self-deprecating (I pride myself on my modesty) and to not blow one’s own flugelhorn. Thus, I have to say that Frederico’s braggadocious banter gets up my nose, as it were.

Be this as it may, I must acknowledge a debt to Signore Faggin, because microprocessors and their microcontroller cousins have brought much joy to my life.

In the case of a project like my new Countdown Timer, there are two main sources of fun. The first is designing and building the hardware portions of little scamp, and the second is creating the software to run on it. We will be talking about all of this in the future, including the fact that I have the answer to my Issuing a Challenge to Edge AI Processor Manufacturers column. In the meantime, as always, I welcome your penetrating comments, your insightful questions, and your sagacious suggestions.

3 thoughts on “My AI Will Soon Be Watching You (Part 1)”

  1. As they say, time telescopes, at least perception-wise; When you were Five, a year was 1/5th of your entire time/life experience, while at Fifty, a year is only 1/50th.
    I’m sure you’ve heard of “The Long Now” project? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clock_of_the_Long_Now

    RE: Your Project
    Design-wise, when the year 9999 flips over, yer gonna have a Y10K moment, and all your work will have been in vain… Just sayin – and perception-wise, a year’s gonna be kinda snappy then too: 1/8043rd of your entire time/life experience should just wizz past!

    1. Hi John — I’ve long wanted to visit the demo version of the Clock of the Long Now project at the London Science Museum — I missed it the last time I was there (sad face).

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