Fitbit news: Charge 3 software update, Black Friday deals save you $30 to $70 on a tracker

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The Fitbit Charge 3, see our full review, is an excellent activity tracker with advanced sleep metrics, week long battery life, and more.

Fitbit recently released a software update that adds quick replies for Android users, the ability to accept and reject calls from the Charge 3, and a new celebration animation when you meet your daily step goal. In addition, new weight, hydration, and exercise tiles are now available on the Charge 3 dashboard.

In addition, the Charge 3 Special Edition is now available for a $20 premium over the Charge 3. The two Special Edition models bring support for Fitbit Pay with new lavender woven and white sport bands.

Black Friday Fitbit specials

If you have been considering any newer model Fitbit, now is the time to buy one. From 21 to 26 November you can save $30 to $70 on five Fitbit trackers purchased at Here are the special prices and savings you can realize this week:

  • Fitbit Versa: Regular price-$199.95, Black Friday price-$149.95 for a $50 savings. Check out our full review.
  • Fitbit Charge 3: Regular price-$149.95, Black Friday price-$119.95 for a $30 savings. Check out our full review.
  • Fitbit Ionic: Regular price-$269.95, Black Friday price-$199.95 for a $70 savings. Check out our full review.
  • Fitbit Ionic Special Edition: Regular price-$299.95, Black Friday price-$229.95 for a $70 savings.
  • Fitbit Ace: Regular price-$99.95, Black Friday price-$59.95 for a $40 savings.

While I personally like wearing a watch every day, the Charge 3 was refreshing to wear while I evaluated it for my full review. The great thing about Fitbit is that you can jump between using bands and watches with everything syncing up to the Fitbit servers and ecosystem.

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Bendgate Pro? Apple's new iPad is easily bent out of shape


Flexible. (Screenshot by ZDNet)

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In recent years, new devices have been a little straight-laced.

There was a time, you see, when the most important thing about a new phone was whether it could be easily bent.

Also: Best Black Friday 2018 deals: Business Bargain Hunter’s top picks

The iPhone 6 Plus, for example, was the subject of the famous Bendgate. Initial tests by instant examiners showed that it wasn’t wise to put the phone in your back pocket and sit on it.

Now, though, we may have a new, warped Apple problem.

Famed tester Zach Nelson, aka Jerry Rig Everything, got hold of the new iPad Pro and bent it completely out of shape.

“The iPad Pro doesn’t have any of that structural integrity stuff,” says Nelson in his usual, inflexibly deadpan mode.

He adds that it’s like “tinfoil wrapped around mashed potatoes.”

Well, it’s quite thin. And, when things are quite thin they’re often quite bendable and easily mashed.

What’s perhaps a little surprising, though, is how easily this new iPad Pro bends and breaks. It doesn’t seem as if Nelson exerts too much energy to achieve his destructive ends.

It is, of course, often entertaining when the first thing people want to do with a new product is attempt to destroy it.

It’s also, though, a wily reminder that when manufacturers try to give customers what they (think they) want, a few compromises might just occur along the way.

Ultimately, when you buy an extremely useful, extremely thin, and extremely light device, it’s worth being extremely responsible in the way you look after it.

Many people — dare I even suggest, most people — aren’t.

CNET: Black Friday deals 2018 | Best Holiday gifts 2018 | Best TVs for the holidays

Phones are thrown into pockets and end up stuffed with lint.

Tablets are thrown into bags and their survival depends on what else is in the bag, how hard the bag is thrown, what sort of surface it strikes when the throwing is complete, and whether the bag is ever used as a cushion to sit on or as a goalpost for an impromptu game of soccer.

Of course, this just might contribute a little to Apple’s repair profits — I’m sure they get shoved under “services.”

With phones, most people display their lack of taste and wrap their phones in cases for added protection.

Though there are cases for the new iPad Pro, I’m not sure how much they can do to protect the entire structure.

TechRepublic: A guide to tech and non-tech holiday gifts to buy online | Photos: Cool gifts for bosses to buy for employees | The do’s and don’ts of giving gifts to coworkers

Yes, this means you’re going to have to look after your new machine.

Can you cope with that?

Previous and related coverage:

Best tablet Black Friday deals: Apple iPad, Amazon Fire, and more

There are plenty of sales to be found in this year’s Black Friday ads, even if tablets are no longer the must-have holiday gifts they were a few years ago.

HP takes on the iPad in the classroom with new Education Edition PCs and services

HP aims to transform the classroom – and perhaps slow down Apple’s efforts to expand iPad usage in schools – with a range of new Education Edition PCs.

Here’s the iPad Pro that professionals really want

Apple keeps trying to position the iPad Pro as a replacement to a desktop. But there’s one limitation that Apple seems to stubbornly refuse to do anything about.

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Hands-on with the new Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ and new Raspbian Linux release


Raspberry Pi 3 Model B Plus, 3 Model A Plus, and Original Model A Plus

Image: J.A. Watson

The Raspberry Pi Foundation made two significant announcements last week. First, the availability of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+, which has been eagerly awaited; then, the next day, a new release of the Raspbian Linux operating system. That means I have a lot to talk about today, so let’s get busy!


Raspberry Pi 3 Model A Plus

Image: Raspberry Pi Foundation

First, the new Pi 3 Model A+. This is a scaled-down and lower cost version of the Pi 3 Model B+. In the most important functional areas it is identical to the Pi3 B+: it has a 1.4GHz 64-bit quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 CPU, and dual-band 802.11ac wireless LAN and Bluetooth 4.2/BLE. That means the performance is very similar to the Model B+.

Where it is scaled down is:

  • Size: it has the smaller HAT form, identical to the original Pi A+
  • Memory: 512MB, half of what the Pi 3 Model B+ has
  • Networking: No wired ethernet connection
  • USB: Only one USB port, and no on-board USB hub

The size of the Pi 3 A+ board and the location of all of the external connections is identical to the original Pi A+ board, so existing A+ cases or mounting arrangements should still work.


Image: Raspberry Pi Foundation

There is as yet no “official” case for it, but the product announcement says that one is in the pipeline, and should be available before Christmas. It looks like it will be very similar to the existing B+ and Zero cases.

There is one significant difference, however. The power and disk activity LEDs have been moved to the opposite edge of the board (from the bottom left to the bottom right in the picture above). This is a small thing, but it could be significant (or at least irritating) in some situations or with some cases. For example, if the new case is made in the same way as the B+ case, this will mean that while the original Model A+ board will fit into it, the LEDs will not be visible.

Oh, one other small change, the 3A+ has a press-and-pray (friction) microSD card slot, like the 3B and 3B+, rather than the spring-loaded click-lock slot that the original A+ has.

The Pi 3 Model A+ seems to have two objectives: reduce the price compared to the Pi 3 Model B+, and improve the performance compared to the existing Pi Model A+. It looks to me like it has hit the mark very well on both of those.

In Switzerland (at the it sells for CHF 27.-, compared to 39.- for the 3B+; in the U.K. it is about £10 less than the 3B+, and in Germany and France it is about €10 less. All of those are consistent with the $10 price difference in the U.S.

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF)

The performance advantages of the 3A+ over the original Pi Model A+ should be obvious. My very simplistic timing shows that from power-on to desktop-ready, the original Pi Model A+ takes about a minute, and the Pi 3 Model A+ takes about 25 seconds.

Also, having the on-board WiFi and Bluetooth adapter means that you can set up network connectivity, keyboard and mouse without using the USB port.

The bottom line is that the Pi 3 Model A+ looks really good to me, and it fills a gap which had been steadily growing as the Pi 2 and Pi 3 came along with only a Model B. Good stuff.

Moving on to the Raspbian update. The big news here is that a new Raspbian image has been added to the mix, a “minimal desktop” variant, specifically to reduce the size of the download. So now there are three distribution options:

  • Lite (~350MB), includes only the text interface (CLI)
  • Minimal Desktop (~1.0GB), includes the PIXEL desktop, Chromium browser, VLC media player and Python programming language. Does NOT include LibreOffice, Mathematica, Scratch programming language, Sonic Pi and various others.
  • Full Desktop (~1.8GB): Includes the PIXEL desktop and all associated software. This has been the standard GUI image until now.

The differences in the new version can be seen in the PIXEL desktop menus:


Raspbian Linux Minimal Version (left) and Full Version (right) Side-by-Side

Image: J.A. Watson

A quick comparison of the main menu shows that the minimal version doesn’t have Education, Office and Games. The Programming menu on the full version shows how many different programming languages and development tools it includes, whereas the minimal version only has the Geany programmer’s editor and the Python IDLE development environment.


Image: J.A. Watson

In fact, the software which has been removed corresponds nicely with the (relatively) new Recommended Software utility.

Each of the packages is listed with a short description, and a check-box so that you can install or remove them as you see fit. If you want even more information on a specific package, just highlight it in the list and click More Info at the bottom of the window.

This utility is included in both the minimal and full versions, so you can use either one as your starting point, and then easily add or remove packages to suit your needs and taste.

This kind of split has been coming for some time, as the Raspbian image size got larger and larger — it has roughly doubled in size since the initial release 5 years or so ago. I suspect that it was pushed over the edge by the recent discussion (and controversy) about including Mathematica in the base distribution.

I downloaded both PIXEL editions, then copied the minimal edition to a microSD card which I put into an original Pi Model A+, and I copied the full edition to another microSD card that I put into the new Pi 3 Model A+. Both ran just fine, and they were the sources for the two desktop images above. I wish that I had an original Pi Model A around here, because I would have downloaded the Lite image (text/CLI only) and put that on the Model A, so that I would have a matched set. There’s something about the symmetry of that which appeals to me.

Ah, but that’s not all! The other big news about the new Raspbian release is that it includes a custom hardware-accelerated version of the VLC Media Player. VLC is a very well known and widely used media player, and has long been my favorite on most other Linux distributions. The version that is now included in Raspbian uses the VideoCore engine to accelerate playback of H.264 video; in addition, if you have purchased the MPEG and VC-1 codec licenses it will use the VideoCore engine for those as well.

So, that sum’s up the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s big week of announcements. The new hardware is quite nice, and although it is not a huge step forward, it will be very much appreciated in the specific areas where the Model A and A+ have already found quite a bit of popularity. Likewise the new Raspbian images will be appreciated by those who missed Mathematica when it disappeared from the previous release, and those who have slower Internet connections and were spending inordinate amounts of time downloading the full Raspbian PIXEL images. Very nice.


Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ out now: $25 for cut-down Pi 3 B+ with quad-core CPU

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A Raspberry Pi-style computer you can build yourself: Blueberry Pi

Provided you can think of something useful to do with a board with only 64MB of on-chip RAM.

Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ review: A $25 computer with a lot of promise (TechRepublic)

Get the lowdown on how well the latest Raspberry Pi board performs with benchmarks and the full specs.

Raspberry Pi: Hands-on with Kali, openSUSE, Fedora and Ubuntu MATE Linux

There has been considerable progress made since the last time I tried a variety of Linux distributions other than Raspbian on the Raspberry Pi, so I’ve given four of them another try.

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Microsoft: We've pulled buggy Outlook 2010 patches over crashes

Microsoft has withdrawn two updates for Outlook 2010 published on November 6, after reports that they have been causing the app to crash on startup.

Windows 10

Microsoft’s run of botched updates continues, this time affecting users of its Outlook 2010 productivity suite.

The company has pulled both KB4461522 and KB2863821, and notes on their respective support pages that after installing them, users “may experience crashes in Microsoft Access or other applications”.

The two updates were non-security patches and affect Microsoft Office 2010 Service Pack 2. The updates were pulled on November 15.

However, Microsoft has also posted an alert about the security update KB4461529, once again because it causes Outlook to crash.

“After updating Outlook 2010 to the November 2018 Public Update KB 4461529 Outlook crashes or closes suddenly on start-up. The issue only affects 64-bit installations of Outlook 2010,” Microsoft warns.

SEE: 20 pro tips to make Windows 10 work the way you want (free PDF)

That patch, released on last week’s November Patch Tuesday, fixed four remote code execution flaws that could be exploited via email or a malicious website.

While it does cause Outlook to crash too, because it resolves security issues that Microsoft considers are likely to be exploited, it does not recommend users remove the security update.

Until it has a fix, Microsoft is suggesting users try Outlook Web Access instead.

“Microsoft is investigating the issue and we will update this page when further details become available. As a workaround, you could try using Outlook Web Access,” it said.

After finally rereleasing the Windows 10 October 2018 Update, having removed the data-destroying bug, Microsoft last week acknowledged the release had a known mapped-drives bug.

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Intel accidentally pushed an incompatible audio driver to Windows 10 devices through Windows Update.

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Microsoft makes changes to its Feedback Hub after failing to notice early reports flagging up data losses caused by the Windows 10 October 2108 Update.

Windows 10 October update problems: Wiped docs, plus Intel driver warning

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Plus: Windows 10 October 2018 Update is now available.

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Texas hospital becomes victim of Dharma ransomware

The Altus Baytown Hospital (ABH) has revealed a ransomware outbreak which may have led to the leak of patient data.

More security news

In a statement on its website, the Texas-based hospital said that ABH discovered an unauthorized threat actor rifling through the organization’s systems on roughly September 3.

The “unauthorized party” deployed malicious code and infected the hospital’s systems with a strain of ransomware.

The ransomware at fault for the infection is known as Dharma. As with most strains, the malware was able to encrypt files and then demanded a ransom payment in return for access.

Many of the hospital’s records were encrypted due to the attack, and these included files containing patient information such as names, home addresses, dates of birth, social security numbers, driver license numbers, credit card information, phone numbers, and medical data.

See also: Most antivirus programs fail to detect this cryptocurrency-stealing malware

It would be unusual for ransomware to encrypt and then exfiltrate information should the malware’s purpose be simply to secure a blackmail payment. However, as the threat actor was present on ABH servers and details are thin on the ground, it is possible this data has made its way into the wrong hands.

ABH has not revealed how many patients may be affected.

“As a result of our investigation, ABH believes that the records were simply encrypted and there is currently no indication that the information itself has otherwise been accessed or used by any unauthorized individual,” the organization says.

In addition to the hospital itself, affiliate parties including Altus Women’s Center of Baytown, Oprex Surgery (Baytown), Clarus Imaging (Baytown), LP, Clarus Imaging (Beaumont), Zerenity Baytown, and Altus Radiation Oncology Baytown are involved in the incident as information from these entities was stored on the same systems.

After the ransomware executed, the hospital chose not to pay the ransom; instead, ABH hauled in external cybersecurity help which was able to decrypt backup files and restore ABH’s servers.

Dharma was then eradicated from the compromised systems.

TechRepublic: Why 31% of data breaches lead to employees getting fired

“We have been working with our IT consultants to review and analyze the security of our computer systems, and we have updated certain technical, administrative and physical safeguards to ensure the security and confidentiality of your data in the future,” ABH added.

The patients potentially impacted by the security incident have been informed, and as with all cases of data compromise, those involved should keep an eye on their credit reports and watch for any suspicious activity or transactions which may be fraudulent.

CNET: Yahoo must pay $50M in damages for security breach

Dharma, also known as CrySIS, has been making the rounds over the course of this year. According to security researchers from FortiGuard Labs, the malware strain has been used in recent attacks against a brewery and maritime ports. New loaders and file systems have been found in recent, upgraded variants.

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​Can this magic wand teach your kids (or you) to code?

As Arthur C Clarke’s third law has it, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

More on innovation

Cars that drive themselves, speakers that play music when you talk to them, or lightbulbs that switch on when you ask them to can certainly seem like magic — even if we know they are powered by millions of lines of software and the Internet of Things rather than wizardry.

London-based start-up Kano’s latest device is a wand that aims to help you learn to write code, neatly bridging the worlds of magic and tech. The idea is to help kids and other Harry Potter fans explore and understand some of the magic and mystery of software code.

The Harry Potter Kano Coding Kit consists of a wand containing a slim printed circuit board that includes the microcontroller, a Bluetooth antenna (which is how it connects to your PC or tablet), sensors (including gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetometer) plus a codeable light and vibration controller. Once assembled, this can be used as part of coding tasks on a PC or tablet — setting up code so that waving the wand upwards makes Bertie Bots Every Flavour Beans jump into the air, for example.

“In the world of Harry Potter there’s this secret subsection of society, this mysterious class of wizards, and they have extraordinary powers: they can speak these magic words and move objects; they can get into your mind and make you do things; they can predict the future,” says Alex Klein, CEO of Kano, which offers a range of build-it-yourself computing devices.


The Kano programming interface.

Image: Kano

“There’s a similarity between the world of Harry Potter and our world, which is there’s that class of wizards here — the computer scientists, the programmers, the machine-learning experts — and they are writing the rules of society in a pretty meaningful way,” Klein adds.

The big difference, he says, is that in the world of Harry Potter you have to be born a wizard or accept life as a boring Muggle: “But in our world these powers are accessible to you — the idea is to take technological wizardry and introduce it to anyone in an accessible product.”

The wand is fun to play with (see below) but there’s also a serious message behind the Quidditch and magic spells; to demystify the software that’s around us all the time, and maybe even to democratise it a little.

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF)

If the technology we use is only being built by this “really small class of wizards in the Hogwarts of Silicon Valley with shared ideologies” then we will risk creating yet more hugely powerful platforms arising that don’t represent or support the broader make-up of society, Klein argues. Encouraging more kids with broader interests to take another look at coding could help with that.

“We start you with art making, with music making. If the first thing you do with code is this purposeless, personal thing called art, I have this intuition that people will come through the system not just to get to the end result of getting a job at Facebook, or becoming a millionaire, or having a app in the top 10 of the app store, but for a different reason, which is curiosity, playfulness.”

Next year a camera kit and speaker kit are promised (these were due to ship back in 2017, but have since been pushed back significantly) that will also aim to educate as well as entertain. “With those products we’re going to be looking to demystify voice recognition and face recognition, and give people the ability to understand, at least at one level, the way those algorithms work. The direction has always been to progressively demystify the latest and most interesting and most socially relevant [technologies],” says Klein.


Alex Klein, Kano: “There is that class of wizards here and they are the computer scientists, the programmers, the machine-learning experts and they are writing the rules of society.”

Image: Kano

Assembly & setup

The wand itself comes elegantly packaged, with the disassembled wand covered by some gauzy transparent fabric that adds some mystery to the unboxing. Building the wand involves following the extremely clear instructions in the nicely illustrated booklet, which points out the different elements of the PCB like the accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer, and explains what each do.

However, compared to DIY computer kits, there isn’t really much assembly to do other than putting in the batteries and dropping the circuit board into the handle of the wand, which only takes a few seconds. Still, you’ll at least understand what’s inside and why. The wand itself is solid and has a programmable light and a button for casting spells (more on this later). After a quick pause to update the firmware on my magic wand (a phrase I’m pretty sure I’ve never typed before) it’s straight into the coding.

If you’ve used another Kano device before you’ll be familiar with the coding interface, which allows you to drag-and-drop chunks of code and build it up Lego-style.

Here the coding tasks are scattered over a map filled with Harry Potter landmarks like Diagon Alley and a Quidditch pitch, and the tasks themselves will be Potter-themed. You’ll start to learn how to use the wand in The Leaky Cauldron, then onto the Owlery, which is the first real brush with coding.


The general idea is to use a mouse (or touch on a tablet) to drag code components into the right order so that waving the wand in a particular way will lead to an output that completes the task — building the code so that waving the wand up or down will change the colour of an on-screen creature, for example. As such, the wand functions as a physical add-on to make the on-screen coding lessons a bit more fun and interactive.

The drag-and-drop design makes it easy even for a coding beginner to understand the logic and the order required to achieve the right result. Although there are plenty of on-screen prompts if you get lost, it would be nice to have a little more explanation of the various functions here and there. Perhaps the idea is to fiddle with the variables and try them out for yourself. There’s plenty of direction as to how to complete the early tasks, but you don’t have to do exactly what you’re told: you can experiment and get things wrong, which I liked.

SEE: Cybersecurity in an IoT and mobile world (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

As you travel around the map the tasks gradually get harder and harder, so that after a while they start to be quite challenging. In particular, the ‘puzzles’ that test your learning can be quite tough if you haven’t been paying attention. As you work through the challenges there are the usual gamification elements — levelling up and unlocking items for your avatar, for example — to keep you interested. Kids can tweak the existing projects or create their own Harry Potter-flavoured apps or games once they have mastered the basics.

Some functions are accessed by using ‘spells’, which means holding down the button on the wand and waving it in a special pattern; these are illustrated on a poster included with the kit. This adds an extra level of fun — even magic — to the proceedings, although I found it difficult to master the correct patterns myself.


Image: Kano

In some respects I found the wand a little frustrating in that you’d like to take the experience further. The tool outputs in JavaScript so you could connect to other data feeds, says Klein, giving the example of making the wand vibrate when your favourite cryptocurrency hits a particular price, or when the International Space Station is overhead. But I can also imagine that kids would like to use it to switch on lights or the TV, or to engage with IoT devices around the home.

The Harry Potter Kano Coding kit is a fun package: the Potter branding and the ability to build and use your own wand is likely to be a big lure for fans of the boy wizard, while the chance to encourage kids to learn something about coding while playing at magic is likely to go down well with parents too.


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Robots and the NHS: How automation will change surgery and patient care

From the surgery robot in the operating theatre to the care robot that looks after you at home, robots are beginning to make their way into healthcare across the globe, and their potential to cut costs and improve results for patients means that soon they could be as much a part of hospital practice as bedpans and blood pressure cuffs.

More on innovation

Surgeons are one of the first medical specialties to welcome their robot overlords: in the NHS, surgical robots can already be found assisting with a range of operations, including urology, colorectal, and prostate procedures. These robots — which are made up of a set of arms wielding cameras, lights and medical instruments — are controlled by a surgeon sitting at a console who is then able to control the actions of the robot’s arms with great precision.

Using robots means surgeons can make smaller incisions, reducing blood loss and pain for patients, which can mean a faster recovery time and a shorter stay in hospital. That’s good news for the patients, who can get back to their normal life quicker, but also good news for the NHS, which has fewer infections and complications to deal with, and sees beds freed up faster.

Another attraction is that these robots can reduce the physical burden on surgeons — bending over patients for several hours a day over years is not kind on the back — which can allow clinicians to carry on operating for longer.

However, surgical robots are expensive and prices haven’t come down as fast as the NHS might require to invest more substantially in their use, despite the benefits. That might be about to change: a new surgical robot company, CMR Surgical, has begun selling its Versius robots to the NHS. With greater competition and falling prices, it’s likely the NHS will begin rolling out robots to new hospitals.

SEE: How to implement AI and machine learning (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Shafi Ahmed, a consultant abdominal surgeon at Barts Health NHS Trust, is hopeful that there is a wider role for robots within the NHS.

“What we need is other robots in the market to improve [surgery] standards and drive the price down — at the moment it’s really expensive overall to purchase the equipment. What that would allow is for more people to be accessing the robots for surgical operations and ultimately around the world this would be the first step in democratising surgery, using robots to augment our practice,” he says.

While the use of robots in surgery has so far focused on a handful of specialties, there is work ongoing to expand the number of procedures and disciplines that the robots can be used for. Future generations of surgeons may be trained exclusively to perform robotic surgery in the same way that today’s surgeons are being taught mainly laparoscopic ‘keyhole’ surgery, rather than the open surgery that was once common practice.

“A lot of trials have shown that robotic surgery is equivalent to laparoscopic surgery, although the views are enhanced and the usability is better in terms of the interface, and it’s more intuitive to the human hand. Overall I’m in favour — I think it’s necessary,” Ahmed added.

While talk about the greater use of robots is often coupled with fears about job losses, surgeons are rated as one of the least likely jobs to be automated. And although the word ‘robot’ implies a level of autonomy, surgical robots can only work with a human surgeon driving them. So even as surgical robots are likely to move towards greater levels of automation, they’re unlikely to become fully autonomous for some time.

“I don’t there will be a complete surgery that will be fully autonomous — where you’ll roll the patient in and then leave the patient there for the robot,” says Sanja Dogramadzi, professor in medical robotics at the University of the West of England’s Bristol Robotics Laboratory. “I think part of the system will gain autonomy in order to make sure the surgeon is supported in the best way, so that the surgeon can do the surgery in, say, one hour rather than four hours,” he says.

“I don’t think there will a fully autonomous system for the next, maybe, 20 years, but in the years to come we will see subsystems gaining more autonomy in order to allow the surgeon to do things faster, better, and more precisely,” he adds.

SEE MORE ON OUR NHS REPORT: VR, AR and the NHS: How virtual and augmented reality will change healthcare

As well as being partially autonomous, the surgical robots of tomorrow may also look very different to the ones used today. Various research is being conducted on creating robots that prevent the need for large incisions during surgery: Carnegie Mellon has developed a prototype ‘snake robot’, which can be used to navigate to the surface of the heart through a small incision.

As well as making their way into NHS operating theatres, robots are helping out in radiology too: stereotactic radiosurgery, also known as Gamma Knife, uses robots to position patients during radiotherapy, making sure that radiation is delivered precisely to a given target — such as a brain tumour — and not to the healthy tissue just millimetres away.

Smaller robots are being developed which could be used in both the diagnosis and treatment of patients.

MIT researchers are working on a robot that can be swallowed and patch stomach wounds or retrieve foreign bodies, the Max Planck Institute is working on one that can be used to biopsy or image the stomach, CalTech has created one that can precisely deliver drugs within the digestive tract, and Auris Robotics is undertaking a trial of an endoscopy robot that can be used to visualise the inside of the lungs.

As well as robots for surgery and treating our ailments, there is also likely to be significant growth in therapeutic robots, ones to help rehabilitate patients after an accident or illness, and assistance robots, which can help people perform their activities of daily living, such as washing, dressing, and preparing food. Care robots are already being tested in Japan, looking after elderly people when there’s not enough care home places or human carers to do the job.

Many patients need a ‘package of care’, including carers and physiotherapists, to visit them at home after a significant or disabling illness. But often the patients are well enough to go home before their package of care is ready, and so rather than discharge them, hospitals tend to keep patients in to ensure their safety. As a result, they face extra days in hospital, and desperately needed hospital beds are occupied by people who ought to be at home.

While setting up the package of care is today the work of social services, in future it’s possible that care robots might be provided by the NHS in the same way that it provides you with crutches now, enabling patients to get back home far quicker than they otherwise would. On the downside this move to robot carers could mean that after a life-changing medical event or serious illness, patients are left at home with only a robot for company, and no human contact.

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A recent report by the IPPR think tank argues that similar technologies could make it onto the wards, too.

“It is possible to envisage a future of digital-first triage of patients in fully automated assessment suites. For inpatients, ‘bedside robots’ may become a reality, assisting patients with meals, transportation and mobilisation (portering patients between places, helping in-patient rehabilitation and moving patients in and out of beds),” the report said.

“Unlike many industries, where there are fears that automation will result in mass unemployment, in health and care automation, it will primarily complement human skills and talents, by reducing the burden of administrative tasks — communicating medical notes, booking appointments, processing prescriptions — while freeing up time for clinical decision-making and caring,” it added.

It’s far from clear whether robot assistants would be cost effective or practical in the short term at least. With any new robots, says Dogramadzi, the main question about whether or not they’ll be rolled out is one of cost efficiency. “Is it more cost efficient to have these robots, or to employ two or three nurses that will actually do more than that robot can do, because they take the blood pressure, measure temperature, and other things. As always, it is just a balance between the cost of such systems as opposed to real people doing more than the machine can do.”

There are many challenges to the arrival of carebots on the wards, not least cost and the AI that will be needed to power them. However, other experimental robots with more narrow functions are likely to make their way into hospitals far sooner. When it comes to robotics in healthcare, for now, less is definitely more.


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​Department of Health wants to up security posture to Commonwealth standard

The Department of Health is seeking help with Australian government security compliance, publishing a request for tender (RFT) for a privileged access management (PAM) solution.

The solution, the department said, is required to support Health’s “move towards compliance with the Essential Eight Security Controls”.

“Ultimately, the solution will increase the risk posture for the department and safe guarding its people and information from potential threats related to privileged accounts,” the RFT explains.

The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) published its Essential Eight strategies to mitigate cybersecurity incidents in February 2017 as an update to its Top Four mitigation strategies that were published initially in 2011 and made mandatory by the Australian government in 2013.

The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit last year recommended the Essential Eight be mandated by June 2018 in a bid to “save organisations considerable time, money, effort, and reputational damage compared to cleaning up after a compromise”.

The Australian National Audit Office currently uses the Top Four mitigation strategies when auditing the security posture of government entities, and found out earlier this year that only four out of 14 government entities were compliant with the five-year-old requirement.

The department specifically wants the new solution to reduce the risks associated with privileged accounts on its network by providing the monitoring, controlling, responding, and auditing capabilities of privileged accounts.

The Department of Health has approximately 6,500 standard user accounts, 150 of which are classed as privileged. Its environment consists of: A total of 1,700 servers comprised of 900 Windows, 500 RHEL, and 100 Unix installations; 500 network devices including routers, switches, firewalls, load balancers, WAP, and WAN accelerators; 20 domains; and a combination of Microsoft Azure/Office 365 and Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud-based environments.

The solution tendered for must be able to manage accounts across Google cloud and IBM Blue Mix, in addition to Azure and AWS.

Currently, the Department of Health uses a level 3 Delegated Security Model (DSM) for privileged account management, a Cherwell service management tool, and employs Splunk for centralised logging, security incidents, and event management.

With its new solution, the department wants licensing for 100 privileged accounts. It also wants the adopted solution to integrate to Splunk and Cherwell, as well as the 50-odd existing admin and privileged account users from those services.

“The solution must have the ability to proxy privileged access to multiple ICT resources (including applications, services, servers, or network appliances), on premises and in the cloud, in multiple forests, domains, and stand-alone instances,” the RFT explains.

The Department of Health also wants three years of support as standard with the new software.

Submissions close December 11, 2018, with the department eying off January 16, 2019, as the commencement date for the chosen solution.


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Website geoblocking is not that widespread, study finds

Geoblocking, the practice of websites blocking users from certain countries from accessing their content, is not as widespread as most people believe, a recently published study has revealed.

Scans of the Alexa Top 10,000 and Top 1 Million sites have unveiled low percentages of websites engaging in geoblocking.

More precisely, researchers found that only 596 websites from the Alexa Top 10,000 list of sites engaged in geoblocking (also known as geofencing), and only 1,595 sites did so from the Alexa Top 1 Million.


Image: McDonald et al.

The study was carried out by a team of academics from the University of Michigan and verified against additional data provided by Cloudflare, one of the content delivery networks (CDNs) that provides geoblocking services to its customers.

Researchers said they used vantage points in 177 countries to test if they could access popular websites on the Alexa lists. The vantage points were provided by Luminati, a commercial platform that sells access to proxy servers operated by users of the Hola VPN service.

According to the research team, the most blocked countries were Iran, Sudan, Syria, and Cuba, who stood in a category of their own, with geoblocking numbers far bigger than countries ranked from the fifth position down, such as China, Russia, Ukraine, and Nigeria.

All four are countries on which the US has imposed export sanctions, and which most online websites and even CDNs won’t provide services, hence the higher detection numbers.

Lacking from the list is North Korea, but this wasn’t because websites didn’t block users from the hermit kingdom, but because the Luminati service, as well as many other proxy and VPN services, aren’t able to provide a server located within North Korea’s borders, for testing.

In both results sets, the Alexa Top 10,000 and Top 1 Million, researchers said that shopping websites were the ones that usually enforced the most geoblocks, followed by business domains, and IT-related sites.

But while the overall geoblocking numbers are low, researchers also suspect that some sites don’t engage into a generic geoblock that can be detected using automated scripts, like the ones they created and used. For example, some online stores may allow users to navigate their sites, but not ship to certain countries, which is also the equivalent of a geoblock, at the service level.

Researchers also believe that geoblocking numbers might have also gone down in recent year after the European Parliament passed down regulation in 2017 forcing EU states to remove geoblocking limitations within the EU’s internal market.

More details about this research are available in an academic paper entitled “403 Forbidden: A Global View of Geoblocking” [1, 2], presented last month at the 18th ACM Internet Measurement Conference (IMC ’18), held in Boston, USA.

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NBN satellite business plan 'a matter of urgency': Joint committee

It is a “matter of urgency” that the National Broadband Network (NBN) company release its business-grade satellite product, the Joint Standing Committee has said in its second report looking into the regional and rural rollout.

“The committee notes that NBN has yet to deliver the Sky Muster Business Enterprise Plans sought by large regional and rural agribusinesses, which was promised for December 2017,” the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network: The rollout of the NBN in rural and regional areas 2nd Report of the 45th Parliament said.

“The committee recommends NBN address the release of these plans as a matter of urgency.”

In total, the report published on Monday afternoon, made 20 recommendations, with the first swathe dealing with the Sky Muster satellite service.

The first recommendation was that NBN “materially expand” its layer 3 capabilities for the better utilisation of its satellite capacity and to increase satellite monthly data allowances significantly — which follows NBN last week announcing that it would be uncapping usage across email, web browsing, internet banking, and critical software updates.

The committee also recommended that NBN work with retailers to promote Sky Muster uptake, and that the government provide data on how many premises with ADSL connections are within the Sky Muster footprint.

The report follows NBN last month flagging that it would have further details on its wholesale business-grade satellite service in the next few months.

The satellite is targeted at agricultural businesses along with the oil, mining, and gas industries, NBN said. The service will make use of underutilised spectrum from its existing satellites when it launches its two wholesale category products in the first half of next year.

Across NBN’s other regional and rural broadband offering, fixed-wireless, the joint standing committee then made 12 recommendations, including recommendations to provide better information for how it decides between designating premises as being satellite or fixed-wireless, and how users can move from one to the other.

The joint committee is also concerned about congestion across the fixed-wireless network, including to move away from using the same wholesale product tiers that “deliver sub-optimal outcomes for consumers”, after NBN amended its network design rules in July to reduce the number of premises able to connect to each fixed-wireless cell, as well as updating the maximum bandwidth capacity available.

“The committee recommends that NBN in consultation with RSPs, develops a policy to govern the addition of new customer sign-ups on highly congested fixed-wireless cells,” the report added.

To reduce congestion, it also suggested that NBN expand its layer 3 capabilities to improve utilisation of fixed-wireless capacity; look into using existing fibre backhaul; report publicly on the number of fixed-wireless cells that don’t meet the 6Mbps metric; provide retailers with information on congested locations and advice on its proposed remedial programs; and ensure the upcoming 3.6GHz 5G spectrum auction does not disadvantage regional Australians.

The report also recommended that NBN should also work with the Northern Territory government and Telstra on utilising existing optic fibre to expand both fixed-wireless and fixed-line networks.

“It is of concern to the committee that existing fibre infrastructure has not been mapped in all states. Better mapping of existing infrastructure will be useful for considering how to improve regional connectivity in the future,” it said.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and the government should also look into whether to audit existing fibre infrastructure across the nation and make the geospatial data public “where it does not compromise national security or other legitimate interests”.

Geospatial data should also be made publicly available on for each network footprint.

Lastly, the committee recommended that the government update its Regional Broadband Scheme (RBS) — the rural broadband tax — levy amount within two weeks, and to pass the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2018 and amend the Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2018 “in recognition that the RBS levy does not constitute a sustainable funding mechanism, and is better repurposed as a level playing field competition measure”.

In response to the report, the opposition Labor party noted the “deterioration” of the fixed-wireless network due to congestion.

“The regrettable decision by NBN Co to reduce its fixed-line footprint and instead over-subscribe the fixed-wireless network has compounded this problem, leaving regional Australians worse off in the short-term, and taxpayers worse off over the medium-term,” a joint statement by Shadow Minister for Regional Communications Stephen Jones and joint standing committee deputy chair Josh Wilson said.

The joint standing committee had announced in February that after completing its initial report last year, it would be holding inquiries into NBN’s business case as well as its rollout in regional and rural Australia.

In September, it then said it needed more time to consider the inquiry after receiving multiple submissions — including from state and territory governments and retail service providers — and holding public hearings across the nation.

The original joint standing committee NBN inquiry had in September 2017 recommended that NBN connect as many premises with its fibre-to-the-curb (FttC) and FttP networks as possible, with its final report making 23 recommendations in total.

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