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Evan-Amos via Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Happy Birthday, Sinclair ZX81 Computer!

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Evan-Amos via Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

On March 5, 1981, Sinclair Research launched the ZX81 home computer in the U.K. (It was also known as the Timex-Sinclair TS1000 in the U.S.) It came with just one kilobyte of memory, and was a self-contained unit with a rather crappy keyboard. The keyboard didn't have moving key switches; instead it used membrane buttons similar to those often used on microwave ovens.

Despite its limitations, the ZX81 was a revolution, because it cost just £49.95 in the U.K.—massively cheaper than anything else on the market. It was also available in normal retail stores, rather than specialty computer shops.

It really was the people's computer, and for many it was their introduction to home computing and computer programming. Incidentally, at that cheap price, it was a kit you assembled at home (a soldering iron was required). You'd have to pay an extra £20 if you wanted a pre-assembled unit. In the U.S., the fully-assembled unit cost $149.95.

The ZX81 was also expandable. You could upgrade it from its RAM using an external cartridge to bring it up to 16k—making it vastly more usable for real work. If you needed to store programs, you saved them on cassette tapes using a tape recorder. This was a finicky process, as you had to fiddle with the volume to get things just right...but for the price, it was unbeatable.

The ZX81/TS1000 sold millions, despite its limitations. Although it didn't take over the computing world, its serious focus on retail price made it a common computer in the early home computing market. (My family had one!) It was literally a fraction of the price of competing systems. Here's a detailed remembrance of the ZX81, showing some of what it could (and could not) do:

Here's more detail from that interview, including a discussion of the "wobbly" RAM pack:

If you want to go deeper, read this 1982 interview with Clive Sinclair, watch this long interview with Sinclair employee Ruth Bramley. The ZX81 Wikipedia page is also quite solid.

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Google's AI Can Make Its Own AI Now
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Artificial intelligence is advanced enough to do some pretty complicated things: read lips, mimic sounds, analyze photographs of food, and even design beer. Unfortunately, even people who have plenty of coding knowledge might not know how to create the kind of algorithm that can perform these tasks. Google wants to bring the ability to harness artificial intelligence to more people, though, and according to WIRED, it's doing that by teaching machine-learning software to make more machine-learning software.

The project is called AutoML, and it's designed to come up with better machine-learning software than humans can. As algorithms become more important in scientific research, healthcare, and other fields outside the direct scope of robotics and math, the number of people who could benefit from using AI has outstripped the number of people who actually know how to set up a useful machine-learning program. Though computers can do a lot, according to Google, human experts are still needed to do things like preprocess the data, set parameters, and analyze the results. These are tasks that even developers may not have experience in.

The idea behind AutoML is that people who aren't hyper-specialists in the machine-learning field will be able to use AutoML to create their own machine-learning algorithms, without having to do as much legwork. It can also limit the amount of menial labor developers have to do, since the software can do the work of training the resulting neural networks, which often involves a lot of trial and error, as WIRED writes.

Aside from giving robots the ability to turn around and make new robots—somewhere, a novelist is plotting out a dystopian sci-fi story around that idea—it could make machine learning more accessible for people who don't work at Google, too. Companies and academic researchers are already trying to deploy AI to calculate calories based on food photos, find the best way to teach kids, and identify health risks in medical patients. Making it easier to create sophisticated machine-learning programs could lead to even more uses.

[h/t WIRED]

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Who Betrayed Anne Frank? A New Investigation Reopens the Case
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TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The tale of Anne Frank’s years spent hiding with her family in the secret annex above her father’s warehouse is known around the world. Yet despite years of research by Otto Frank (Anne's father and the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust) and scholars, we still don’t know exactly what circumstances led to Anne and her family’s discovery. A new investigation is reopening the cold case in the hopes of finally finding out the truth, The Guardian reports.

The long-accepted theory of the Franks’ discovery and subsequent arrest is that an anonymous tip to the Sicherheitsdienst, the Nazi intelligence agency, gave their hiding place away. The 30 potential suspects identified over the years have included a warehouse worker, a housekeeper, and a man possibly blackmailing Otto Frank. In December 2016, researchers at the Anne Frank House floated a new theory: The discovery was incidental, the result of a police raid looking for proof of ration fraud at Otto Frank’s factory, in which police just happened to uncover two Jewish families living in secret. However, none of these theories has been proven definitively.

Now, a team of investigators led by a former FBI agent is taking on the cold case, reviewing the archives of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, examining newly declassified material in the U.S. National Archives, and using data analysis to find a conclusive answer to the decades-old mystery.

“This investigation is different from all previous attempts to find the truth,” according to the Cold Case Diary website. “It will be conducted using modern law enforcement investigative techniques. The research team is multidisciplinary, using methods of cold case detectives, historians, but also psychologists, profilers, data analysts, forensic scientists and criminologists.” Thijs Bayens and Pieter Van Twisk, a Dutch filmmaker and journalist, respectively, came up with the idea for the project, and recruited the lead investigator, retired FBI agent Vince Pankoke. Pankoke has previously worked on cases involving Colombian drug cartels.

The new Anne Frank case will focus on investigative techniques that have only become available in the last decade, like big data analysis. Already, the investigators have uncovered new information, such as a German list of informants and the names of Jews that had been arrested and betrayed in Amsterdam during the war, found in the U.S. National Archives.

The investigators hope to provide answers in time for the 75th anniversary of the Frank family’s arrest in August 2019.

[h/t The Guardian]

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