Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Geeking with Gary

[Editor's Note: This has (almost) nothing to do with photography.  I do this from time to time.] 

In this issue:
  • A STEM Program on Steroids
  • Sony's new Image Authentication System
  • Grandpa's Inventions

A STEM Program on Steroids

For the past year I’ve been volunteering at an organization called Beaver Works Summer Institute, a nonprofit subsidiary of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  It’s an extraordinary program which challenges high school students to tackle subjects you wouldn’t expect high school students to tackle: Learning to program a quantum computer.  Building an AI-based personal assistant.  Building an autonomous vehicle.  Learning to hack into Internet Of Things devices (so when they grow up and become programmers they can know how to defend against these common techniques).  Things like that.  The program makes use of gifted expert volunteers from MIT Lincoln Laboratory to create and teach courses that high school students can clearly understand. 

The challenge I participated in had them building a prototype CubeSat.  And it was a remarkably thorough course; it included learning to program in Python, and introduced the students to orbital dynamics, the space environment, communications, power engineering, propulsion, thermal management, control systems, systems engineering, CAD software, and satellite development tools.  At a HIGH SCHOOL level!!  (As I said, gifted educators!)

Then the teams were then given about $400 in computer hardware and were told “Take this and build a prototype CubeSat and demonstrate its effectiveness to detect plastics in the ocean”.

You can imagine the skills that developed while accepting that challenge: the students had to design their own mission, create a software architecture, calculate a power and link budget, break up the design into subsystems (and program them all) and test each module independently before integrating them into one functional demonstration.  Along the way they developed the kinds of communication and problem solving skills that usually come with project-based learning.  At the end of the course there was a final event where teams presented their projects, from design to video demonstrations showing their effectiveness.  (I actually hosted that event.  I was quite impressed at their designs and software architectures!  It's a little long but you can watch it here.  (I appear 5 times in the credits! :-)) 

I’ve seen first-hand what programs like this can do.  When my younger brother was in high school he attended a similar summer program at Caltech centered on problem solving; that course changed the way his brain worked and he excelled in college, ending up with a Ph.D. in biology, and he spent 20+ years working at Vanderbilt University. 

As you might be able to tell, I am a fan of this program. :-) Shortly after the final event, I approached the staff saying, “How else can I contribute to your program?  The world needs more engineers.  I can create course content for you, I can do high school outreach, I can even do boring administrative work to allow more students to participate in this incredible program.”  15 minutes into that meeting it became clear that their greatest need was not for more volunteer engineers, but rather for corporate grants to allow them to scale the program by paying their volunteers and establishing a solid infrastructure to allow further outreach and growth.  

Without making any promises, I committed to working with them to seek additional grant funding so they can grow the program.  I've never done grant writing or fundraising before, but I can learn.  This is a worthwhile project that deserves my support.

(Any of you have any connections to a foundation that would like to support a STEM program on steroids? :-) )

Sony's new "Anti-Forgery" Image Authentication System

A couple of weeks ago Sony announced the ability for one of their cameras (currently the A7 IV) to "prove" that an image taken with that camera had not been manipulated by computer.  No price or availability was given, but this interested me greatly because it appears to work exactly like my image authentication patent that was granted back in the 1990's.  

Nikon and Canon tried to do this almost two decades ago but a poor implementation made it susceptible to hacking, and in fact a bunch of Russian hackers compromised both systems.  Newer, better versions of these products never appeared.

In a nutshell, the system employs something called Public Key Encryption, where the key used to encrypt a file is different from the key used to decrypt it.  And only the private key needs to be kept a secret.  Public keys (as the name implies) can be publicly known and widely distributed, but if you can successfully decrypt the file with this key you can be assured (to any required degree) that the image is as the camera had captured it.  My implementation not only authenticated the bits of the image, but also metadata about the image, including date, time, GPS coordinates, exposure info, and what direction the camera was pointing.

I immediately contacted a friend at Sony, sent him a copy of my patent, and asked to test out their system.  I'll be looking for two things:
  1. Is the private key stored in the camera's firmware, or in a special secure cryptoprocessor chip whose contents can't be externally probed?  (If the latter, that explains why it would work with only certain cameras and not be added to other cameras via a firmware update.)
  2. Will they provide the same private key for all of their devices?  (That was Nikon's and Canon's downfall when they tried to enter this space.)

If I ever get a test system you can be sure I'll be blogging about my findings!

Grandpa's Inventions

The grandkids are always asking about my inventions from my previous life as an engineer.  I think I finally created an approachable summary of a couple of dozen of my favorites.  Some of these relate to photography, and others were things I thought of years before others made them commercially available.  (It's murder being a pioneer!)  You can read the byte-sized summaries here:

(There's a few photography-related inventions in there, too!)

Until next time,
Yours truly, Gary Friedman


  1. I would strongly consider approaching MIT or Lincoln Labs for a grant...God knows they have tons of $$$ in endowments.

    1. I thought the same thing at first. Turns out that's a common misperception. You're thinking of Harvard, which is a hedge fund with a library. :-) MIT is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

  2. Love those inventions Gary... Wish that Guitar hadn't been a flat


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