Extracting the valuable metals from your smartphone

A BBC summit dedicated to exploring world-changing innovations in science, technology and health has been taking place in Sydney, Australia.

One of the speakers was Prof Veena Sahajwalla who wants to create a swathe of miniature furnaces that will recover valuable metals from discarded mobile phones.

She is championing the micro-factory: a recycling and reclamation system small and efficient enough that it can be set up in every community across the globe.

BBC Click’s Jen Copestake finds out more.

Find out more about BBC Future’s World-Changing Ideas.

More at BBC.com/Click and @BBCClick.

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The iPhone at 10: How the smartphone became so smart

Steve Jobs unveiling the first iPhone in January 2007 Image copyright Getty Images On 9 January 2007, one of the most influential entrepreneurs on the planet announced something new – a product that was to become the most profitable in history.

It was, of course, the iPhone. There are many ways in which the iPhone has defined the modern economy.

There is the sheer profitability of the thing, of course: there are only two or three companies in the world that make as much money as Apple does from the iPhone alone.

There is the fact that it created a new product category: the smartphone. The iPhone and its imitators represent a product that did not exist 10 years ago but now is an object of desire for most of humanity. There’s the way the iPhone transformed other markets – software, music, and advertising.

But those are just the obvious facts about the iPhone. And when you delve more deeply, the tale is a surprising one. We give credit to Steve Jobs and other leading figures in Apple – his early partner Steve Wozniak, his successor Tim Cook, his visionary designer Sir Jony Ive – but some of the most important actors in this story have been forgotten.

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy highlights the inventions, ideas and innovations which have helped create the economic world we live in.

It is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can listen online or subscribe to the programme podcast.

Ask yourself: what actually makes an iPhone an iPhone? It’s partly the cool design, the user interface, the attention to detail in the way the software works and the hardware feels. But underneath the charming surface of the iPhone are some critical elements that made it, and all the other smartphones, possible.

The economist Mariana Mazzucato has made a list of 12 key technologies that make smartphones work: 1) tiny microprocessors, 2) memory chips, 3) solid state hard drives, 4) liquid crystal displays and 5) lithium-based batteries. That’s the hardware.

Then there are the networks and the software. So 6) Fast-Fourier-Transform algorithms – clever bits of maths that make it possible to swiftly turn analogue signals such as sound, visible light and radio waves into digital signals that a computer can handle.

At 7) – and you might have heard of this one – the internet. A smartphone isn’t a smartphone without the internet.

At 8) HTTP and HTML, the languages and protocols that turned the hard-to-use internet into the easy-to-access World Wide Web. 9) Cellular networks. Otherwise your smartphone not only isn’t smart, it’s not even a phone. 10) Global Positioning Systems or GPS. 11) The touchscreen. 12) Siri, the voice-activated artificial intelligence agent.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Apple’s designer Sir Jony Ive has been widely lauded for his contribution to the iPhone’s success

All of these technologies are important components of what makes an iPhone, or any smartphone, actually work. Some of them are not just important, but indispensable. But when Mariana Mazzucato assembled this list of technologies, and reviewed their history, she found something striking.

The foundational figure in the development of the iPhone wasn’t Steve Jobs. It was Uncle Sam. Every single one of these 12 key technologies was supported in significant ways by governments – often the American government.

A few of these cases are famous. Many people know, for example, that the World Wide Web owes its existence to the work of Sir Tim Berners-Lee. He was a software engineer employed at Cern, the particle physics research centre in Geneva that is funded by governments across Europe.

And the internet itself started as Arpanet – an unprecedented network of computers funded by the US Department of Defense in the early 1960s. GPS, of course, was a pure military technology, developed during the Cold War and opened up to civilian use only in the 1980s.

Other examples are less famous, though scarcely less important.

Image copyright Thinkstock Image caption Smartphones have all benefited from government investment in technology

The Fast-Fourier-Transform is a family of algorithms that have made it possible to move from a world where the telephone, the television and the gramophone worked on analogue signals, to a world where everything is digitised and can therefore be dealt with by computers such as the iPhone.

The most common such algorithm was developed from a flash of insight from the great American mathematician John Tukey. What was Tukey working on at the time? You’ve guessed it: a military application.

Specifically, he was on President Kennedy’s Scientific Advisory committee in 1963, trying to figure out how to detect when the Soviet Union was testing nuclear weapons.

Smartphones wouldn’t be smartphones without their touchscreens – but the inventor of the touchscreen was an engineer named EA Johnson, whose initial research was carried out while Johnson was employed by the Royal Radar Establishment, a stuffily-named agency of the British government.

The work was further developed at Cern – those guys again. Eventually multi-touch technology was commercialised by researchers at the University of Delaware in the United States – Wayne Westerman and John Elias, who sold their company to Apple itself.

Image copyright Science Photo Library Image caption Touchscreen technology has gone on to drive the development of tablet computers

Yet even at that late stage in the game, governments played their part: Wayne Westerman’s research fellowship was funded by the US National Science Foundation and the CIA.

Then there’s the girl with the silicon voice, Siri.

Back in the year 2000, seven years before the first iPhone, the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, Darpa, commissioned the Stanford Research Institute to develop a kind of proto-Siri, a virtual office assistant that might help military personnel to do their jobs.

Twenty universities were brought into the project, furiously working on all the different technologies necessary to make a voice-activated virtual assistant a reality.

Seven years later, the research was commercialised as a start-up, Siri Incorporated- and it was only in 2010 that Apple stepped in to acquire the results for an undisclosed sum.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Increasingly sophisticated lithium-ion batteries have been essential for smartphone growth

As for hard drives, lithium-ion batteries, liquid crystal displays and semiconductors themselves – there are similar stories to be told.

In each case, there was scientific brilliance and plenty of private sector entrepreneurship. But there were also wads of cash thrown at the problem by government agencies – usually US government agencies, and for that matter, usually some arm of the US military.

Silicon Valley itself owes a great debt to Fairchild Semiconductor – the company that developed the first commercially practical integrated circuits. And Fairchild Semiconductor, in its early days, depended on military procurement.

Of course, the US military didn’t make the iPhone. Cern did not create Facebook or Google. These technologies, that so many people rely on today, were honed and commercialised by the private sector. But it was government funding and government risk-taking that made all these things possible.

That’s a thought to hold on to as we ponder the technological challenges ahead in fields such energy and biotechnology.

Steve Jobs was a genius, there’s no denying that. One of his remarkable side projects was the animation studio Pixar – which changed the world of film when it released the digitally animated film, Toy Story.

Even without the touchscreen and the internet and the Fast-Fourier-Transform, Steve Jobs might well have created something wonderful.

But it would not have been a world-shaking technology like the iPhone. More likely it would, like Woody and Buzz, have been an utterly charming toy.

Tim Harford is the FT’s Undercover Economist. 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy was broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can listen online or subscribe to the programme podcast.

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Make a Temporary Car Smartphone Mount with a Rubber Band

If you’re driving a rental or loaner and need a way to see the GPS on your phone, as long as you have a rubber band, you have a smartphone mount. You’ll also need a pen or any other object that can go through your car’s air conditioning vents.

Thread the rubber band through the top of the vent, and pull it out through the bottom. Snap both ends around your phone, so that it’s held from the top and bottom. It won’t conceal your screen and still hold the phone in place, ready to use.

Obviously, the ideal solution is to buy one of a good smartphone mount, but if you’re in a rental or a friend’s vehicle, this is a nice trick to go hands-free and much easier than using office supplies.

5 Awesome Car Life Hacks | DaveHax (YouTube)

Smartphone riddle

a pile of smartphones Image copyright Thinkstock Image caption Heaven or hell? Smartphones are not for everyone In a university lab in Jerusalem two computer science students and their professor have hit upon a potential game-changer in the touchscreen market.

With 37 million people said to own a smartphone in the UK, touchscreen is king.

Phones, tablets, many cash points and self-service check-outs are all designed to give the consumer control at the swipe of a finger. But what if you can’t use them?

Political reporter Esther Webber recently posted a snapshot of her battered Nokia on Facebook accompanied with the caption “Goodbye my lover” a reference to James Blunt’s hit. It was like 2005 all over again.

But her love for the old phone wasn’t some kooky style choice, it was a necessity which came with chunky buttons and physical mechanisms. The tremors from her cerebral palsy making touchscreen surfaces almost impossible to use.

“Pressing a button, however small, is a cruder, more definite movement than the sensitive skidding of the touchscreen,” she says.

“My imprecise hand movements make it impossible to tap out anything resembling an intelligible sentence. At primary school I used an electric typewriter and at secondary school, a laptop.

“But when smartphones arrived, for the first time, I felt excluded.”

Image copyright Esther Webber

According to The Hebrew University of Jerusalem 11 million people have cerebral palsy globally, an additional 10 million have Parkinson’s Disease and with an aging population there is growing demand for a solution.

It was a situation noted by two of the university’s students – Aviva Dayan and Ido Elad – and their Professor Yuval Kochman who went on to develop a potentially “life-changing”, but yet-to-be-named, tremor absorbing software which could open up touchscreen technology to millions of people.

Dayan says: “A close friend of our family, who we refer to as uncle, has cerebral palsy and he took a huge, daily, part in my upbringing. A few years ago I found myself frustrated that I couldn’t Skype him because he can’t use it.

“I want to be able to Skype with my uncle and I hope to do the same for other people in similar situations. The next step is to allow people like my uncle to generally use all touchscreen functionality, everywhere, like anyone else.”

Dayan describes the software as a “translation programme” which intercepts and “listens” to the shaky screen touches, cancelling out the “noise” of the tremors for the operating system to understand and act upon without delay.

Image copyright Yissum Image caption Contact point vs target point by someone who does not have a tremor Image copyright Yissum Image caption Image on the left show the target (pink) and contact points (blue) for user with Parkinson’s while images on the right show the target (pink) and the result with the tremor absorber (yellow)

It’s still being discussed how the technology can be rolled out. Options include having an app available to download or getting a deal to incorporate it directly into phone operating systems.

Dayan says: “As far as the user is concerned, they just press the icons on the screen, and the computer works just the same as it works for anyone else.”

She says the bonus is that it would work with any phone and not “come with ‘special needs’ adaptations”.

For Webber that is music to her ears compared to current options.

“Voice commands? OK, but the other passengers on the bus don’t really need to know where I’m planning to go for drinks. Detachable keyboards? Yes, but the process of assemblage takes the ‘mobile’ out of mobile phone.”

Image copyright The Hebrew University of Jerusalem Image caption The students at this university in Jerusalem think their software could change lives

At Scope, Assistive Technologist Kim Lawther says this type of technology could “change lives”.

“Quite a number of my students experience involuntary spasms, which makes certain technologies impossible to use, so if you’re able to almost cancel those out then the technology is usable,” she says.

“The pros are obvious. If it works, that would change lives but the cons are all the unanswered questions, until you get the final software it’s hard to be too excited.”

For now, she acknowledges Webber’s frustrations but says voice commands to “do the hard work” such as updating a Facebook status or keyboard adaptations remain “the best thing” for now.

Robin Christopherson, the Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet agrees the product being nurtured is “powerful” and something he would “love to see built into the operating system,” but it comes with a warning to the aspiring entrepreneurs.

“iOS and Android build in lots of cleverness, so I do ask myself why can’t Apple or Google just build the extra level of noise cancellation into the accessibility settings?”

He predicts if the system piques a company’s interest it might just buy it out saying “it wouldn’t be the first time by any means”.

Image copyright Getty Images

Apple did not respond to requests to talk about the potential of the tremor absorber, and Android simply highlighted its voice activation services – both companies perhaps keeping any future plans to themselves.

The potential of the students’ project was first identified at a science fair by Tamir Huberman a business development specialist for the university’s for-profit company, Yissum, which aims to turn the best ideas originated at the university into businesses.

He says “as a rule of thumb” about $500,000 is needed to help fund the wider trials and get this technology into development . It is hoped it will be available within two years.

Following the “death” of her Nokia, Webber opted for a BlackBerry with keyboard, although the company recently announced plans to stop designing its smartphones in-house leaving her fearing facing her touchscreen “nemesis” sooner rather than later.

She says: “What’s happening in Jerusalem sounds like something that would make a big difference. Other people with fine motor impairments tell me they’ve just ‘got used’ to typing gobbledygook or rearranging all their apps with one errant movement. As someone who writes for a living this idea horrifies me.

“I just hope technology catches up soon.”

Image copyright Reuters

Voice recognition on Android: Converts the user’s speech into text for typing messages and launching applications

Speak passwords on Android: A system which will read out passwords to the user with TalkBack making is easier to fill in passwords

Touch and hold delay on Android: When having to tap and hold something on the screen to activate it, users can set a delay between the two motions so the device can tell the difference between a quick and long press

Inverting colours on Apple: Changing the colour combination of the device can improve the contrast between text, image and background making items easier to identify

Switch control on Apple: This highlights items one by one before the user can then make a selection by activating a switch

Guided access on Apple: This limits what can be accessed at any one time so you concentrate on a selected app which can use useful for those with attention and sensory challenges

Source: Ability Net

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Barclays tests smartphone cash withdrawals

Barclays Image copyright Barclays Image caption Barclays customers are able to trigger cash withdrawals via an app Barclays is trialling new cash machines that allow customers to make withdrawals via their smartphones.

The facility is limited to Android handsets, which trigger the money’s release via a “contactless” NFC (near-field communication) transmission.

The bank suggests the facility is more secure than slotting in a bank card as it avoids the risk of having the card’s details hijacked by a skimming machine.

But one security expert said there were still risks involved.

Barclays is not the first lender to allow customers to make cardless withdrawals.

Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) introduced its Get Cash facility four years ago. It allows £130 to be taken out of an ATM by messaging the user a code via their smartphone that must be typed into the terminal.

But Barclays aims to simplify this further by just requiring the account holder to wave the handset near to the bank machine and type their normal Pin code into either one of the two devices.

Alternatively, a payment can be triggered by waving an NFC-enabled card close to the reader and typing in the Pin.

Apple is more restrictive than Google’s Android about access to its phones’ NFC chips.

But its NFC-dependent Apple Pay facility has been used by some US banks to trigger cash withdrawals. However, Barclays has chosen not to enable the facility in the UK at this time.

Barclays is piloting the “contactless cash” service in the north of England at 180 branches ahead of a wider rollout in 2017.

Image copyright Thinkstock Image caption Cash machine users are unlikely to notice skimming equipment hidden inside an ATM

The goal is, in part, to prevent criminals compromising or stealing card details, which typically occurs by one of three methods

Attaching a skimming device to an ATM to record details from entered cards’ magnetic stripes. The technique is often carried out in conjunction with the use of a miniature camera to record the Pin code being typed in for each one. The details can then be used to create cloned cards, which can be used in overseas ATMs that have yet to be upgraded to chip and pin technology, or to make online purchases via stores that do not require a CVV security codeAdding an entrapment device to a cash machine’s slot that stops the card being returned. The criminal fools the account owner into re-entering their Pin number. Once the victim leaves, the criminal removes the device, retrieves the card and then uses it with the recorded Pin to withdraw moneyEngaging in distraction fraud, whereby the thief looks over the cardholder’s shoulder to see them enter their Pin and then distracts them or pickpockets their wallet to steal the card

Last year, 92,670 UK accounts were defrauded because of the use of counterfeit cards and a further 152,727 accounts because of lost or stolen cards, according to Financial Fraud Action UK.

In many of the cases, it will have been the banks, rather than the cardholders, that will have borne the loss.

If adoption of the new system becomes widespread, such crime might be reduced. But one banking security expert said new types of theft might take their place.

Image copyright Thinkstock Image caption Criminals may find new ways to defraud bank customers

“There could be malware on your phone, which is recording the Pin as it’s typed in – that would be a new risk,” commented Dr Steven Murdoch, a cybersecurity expert at University College London.

“The malware might also be able to copy your credentials from one phone to another, allowing the other handset to make a withdrawal.

“Barclays probably has defences against that, but those defences are unlikely to be perfect.”

Dr Murdoch noted that RBS had to temporarily halt its Get Cash scheme in October 2012 after it was compromised by a phishing campaign.

But a spokeswoman for Barclays played down the risks posed to its system.

“We have no higher priority than the protection of our customers,” she said.

“Our Mobile Banking app has the British Standard Institute Secure Digital Kitemark, which is subject to independent testing, to make sure customers’ financial and personal details are protected.”

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