Sean's Technology and Writing Blog

Can AI automatically negotiate contracts?

21 November 2023

My latest article for the BBC looks at how AI can help to negotiate contracts automatically. It's based on a demonstration I saw of a new technology called Luminance Autopilot, which uses artificial intelligence (AI). In the demo, I saw two computers running the software to negotiate a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). The tool is trained on an organisation's repository of previous contracts, so it can learn the terms that the organisation routinely agrees to, and can make edits to terms that are unacceptable. Technologies like this have the potential to free up lawyers to focus on negotiating the clauses or contracts that really need their attention.

This is the second piece I've written about AI recently, following my earlier article about using ChatGPT to create computer code.

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Play BAS Invaders - a new type-in for the Amstrad CPC

27 October 2023

I've written a new Amstrad CPC type-in for a one-off collectors' magazine called Amstrad Addict. The program is a simple version of Space Invaders called BAS Invaders, which was written 100% in Amstrad BASIC.

I remember trying to do a Space Invaders type game when I was just starting to learn Amstrad BASIC in 1985. It took so long to draw the characters on the screen that it was impossible to get anything resembling a game working.

For this type-in, I revisited the challenge and used colour swapping so that I don't need to redraw the aliens on the screen. They're all there, in every position, all the time, but most of them are drawn using an invisible ink. You can change the ink colour of something on the screen instantly, so fast animation becomes possible. It's a bit like a version of those early LCD and LED games where all the character positions are fixed on the display and light up in turn.

You can play the game in your browser, or download it to try in your emulator (where it runs a bit faster).

It was an interesting challenge to write something that makes sense as a type-in in 2023, when we can download any software we want easily. I hope that the listing and its explanation in the magazine make for an interesting read, whether or not you type the game in or run it.

Several of my other Amstrad games run in your browser too:

You can order Amstrad Addict here.

I also contribute to Amtix CPC magazine, a regular publication. If you're curious about what it's like, you can view a flipbook of issue #7 of Amtix CPC. (I don't have anything in that issue). Order back issues and subscribe here. Also available is the Amtix CPC Annual, a hardback A5 publication.

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How can companies securely recycle e-waste?

07 June 2023

Photo of a hard drive.Did you know that millions of storage devices are shredded each year to stop their data leaking? Yet, even fragments as small as 3mm still have data on them that could be recovered. It's actually safer to use secure deletion today, which also means the drives can be reused.

I explored this concept in my latest article for BBC News Online: Why millions of usable hard drives are being destroyed.

This year, many of the 375 million hard drives that were sold in 2018 are ending their warranty period. Large data centres are disposing of them, mostly to landfill. I spoke to the Circular Drive Initiative, storage company Seagate, and security company ESET about alternatives.

Devices that have left warranty are often still fully functioning, and can be reused by others. Smaller data centres would love to get their hands on the cast-offs from the hyperscalers, for example. My article looks at purging by deleting the encryption key, and offers advice on planning for the end of life of storage and other digital devices.

I hope the article helps to raise awareness of the new standards for secure deletion, and the work that the Circular Drive Initiative and its members are doing to improve storage sustainability.

This my second piece on tech sustainability for the BBC, following my previous article about website sustainability.

Thanks to Benjamin Lehman at Unsplash for the photo

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Three new articles on AI and hidden messages in Spectrum games

01 June 2023

Photo showing Bedtime Stories running on a Raspberry Pi, with an astronaut image shown on a HyperPixel screen.Here's a round-up of articles I've written recently. ChatGPT features in two of them, and one of them gets under the skin of classic 80s computer games.

  • For The MagPi magazine, I wrote a tutorial called Bedtime Stories (pictured on the right). This uses ChatGPT to create a story featuring your chosen heroes, and DeepAI's AI image generation API to create an image for each paragraph of the story. The stories are read aloud using text-to-speech (using the same library as Raspberry Radio), while the relevant image for each section is displayed. Bedtime Stories features in issue 130 of The MagPi, which is out now, and you can see the Bedtime Stories code and example images here.

  • For the BBC, I wrote an article about using ChatGPT to create computer code. From my own experiments, I've found ChatGPT to be surprisingly good at writing Python programs, as long as you know enough to guide it. I have come up against its limitations when developing fairly simple programs, but it has a good knowledge of lots of Python libraries, so it can get you results quicker than reading the documentation. For my BBC article, I interviewed developers about how ChatGPT has helped them to make games, what the security risks are, and how ChatGPT could be a programming companion.

  • For issue 15 of Crash magazine, for the ZX Spectrum community, I wrote an article about the hidden messages in game code. Programmers often left messages to hackers or their friends hidden in their game code, which were never displayed on the screen. Some of these messages reveal a little bit of what it was like writing games in the 80s, with complaints about the pay, tales of all-night coding sessions, and the drama of copyright infringement claims.

I've also recently redesigned the articles page on my website, so it showcases some of my favourite pieces more clearly. At the bottom of the page are the links to take you into the sections for articles on topics such as Raspberry Pi, Scratch and web design. For updates on new articles and projects, please subscribe to my newsletter!

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Shortlisted for Best Feature 2023

30 May 2023

Logo for Freelance Journalism AwardsI’m delighted to say that my article about sustainable web design for the BBC has been shortlisted for the inaugural Freelance Journalism Awards 2023, in the Best Feature category.

The article shows how simple changes in a website’s design can have a dramatic effect on its carbon emissions. One company cut its website carbon emissions by 96% by making some simple design changes, and the article includes practical tools for measuring website carbon emissions and tips for positive design changes to make. My accompanying blog post on sustainable web design includes additional tools and tips.

I hope that the article has inspired business owners to make some small tweaks to their website that will help to drive down carbon emissions.

There were 333 entries across the seven award categories. The organisers said: “As we shortlist the work we are looking out for originality, writing / production flair, impact, resonance and representation of unheard voices.”

If you're looking for more web design advice, the updated 7th edition of Web Design in Easy Steps is out now. You can read more of my favourite feature articles on my revamped articles page.

UPDATE: Congratulations to Amelia Tait who won this award for her Guardian article about super-organised homes. Thanks to Freelancing for Journalists for organising the awards, and to the judges and sponsors for making them possible.

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TikTok, BookTok and ChatGPT at the London Book Fair 2023

21 April 2023

Photo of me standing behind life size robot trousers made of cardboard, looking like the pair in the film The Wrong Trousers. It looks like I'm wearing the robot trousers. Yesterday, I attended the London Book Fair for the first time since the pandemic. It was great to meet up with my publishers and talk about the state of the market and opportunities to work together. At the show, I also got to see the new 7th edition of Web Design in Easy Steps in print for the first time. I even got to try on Wallace's Wrong Trousers, courtesy of Paper Engine, who make fabulous cardboard model kits.

I attended two talks in the Tech Theatre about TikTok and ChatGPT.

First, Jon Air and Sam Deacon from RedCards shared some interesting data about TikTok and its impact on the book industry:

  • Generation Z (born 1997-2012) make up 60% of TikTok users.
  • 68% of those surveyed said the #BookTok hashtag inspired them to pick up a book they might not otherwise have done.
  • That hashtag was responsible for 3% of book sales in 2022.

I haven't done anything with TikTok so far, but it's clear that there is an audience there for authors and publishers to reach, and that promotions there can convert into sales.

The speakers made a strong case for serialised content, at a time when many young people prefer reading on their phones and want to consume books in small doses. This isn't about abridging content: the longest web novel is 4.1 million characters (i.e. letters, rather than people!), compared to 1.25m for War and Peace. It's more about making books easier to read, by getting them onto phones, with less content per page. The presenters pointed to the success of Duolingo (14.2 million active daily users in 2022) and audiobooks (which enable multitasking), and suggested authors and publishers look for opportunities to use audio and gamification in their work.

Chris Singleton of the Style Factory marketing blog delivered a great introduction to ChatGPT, which he described as "a very clever, articulate chatbot". He outlined six ways it could help content creators:

  • Generating ideas. He gave examples such as asking it to write the structure of a blog post on a particular topic, or asking it for ideas for a novel about AI.
  • Research. ChatGPT has been known to invent facts, so everything needs confirmation. However, he shared an example of someone writing a novel about a musician set in the 1960s who could ask ChatGPT for five venues they might have visited. It would be easy to validate one of those suggestions.
  • Editing. The example was to rewrite Shakespeare's "to be, or not to be" speech for a modern audience, which ChatGPT did well.
  • Translation. Singleton suggested that ChatGPT could be used for translation, with a human then proofreading the result. I can see this happening in some cases, but I think the risk is that the translation ends up being proofread for grammar and not for the accurate translation of the meaning. If the proofreader is comparing the source and output documents, I'm not sure how big the time savings and cost savings would be. However, ChatGPT could be useful for translating foreign sources for research purposes. It would be interesting to compare its output with dedicated tools such as Google Translate.
  • Marketing and PR. The example given here was to write a press release about the republication of Robert Harris's Fatherland. ChatGPT did this brilliantly, although this is a bit of an edge case. Given that ChatGPT is only trained on data up to September 2021, and press releases are mostly about new things, ChatGPT will often fail at this. However, it understands how to structure a press release well, so if you can provide enough information in the prompt, ChatGPT can write it up for you.
  • Novel writing. Singleton showed this as an example, but said he'd probably use ChatGPT more for idea generation. My own experiments (coming soon!) in writing fiction with ChatGPT suggest the results can be impressive for AI but nowhere near what a human writer achieves.

Singleton encourages content creators to approach ChatGPT with a positive and curious mindset and to start trying it to work out ways to improve their creativity and productivity. He said he was neither an advocate for ChatGPT nor an enthusiast, more of a realist. It was an inspiring talk with some great examples of how content creators could benefit from incorporating ChatGPT into their creative process, and it's given me some ideas for new experiments to try.

Thank you to the speakers for sharing their insights, and to everyone who helped make the London Book Fair a success.

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How to cut the carbon emissions of your website

23 March 2023

Photo of the Earth from Space by NASA.

I recently wrote an article for BBC News Online about how websites can reduce their carbon footprint.

You may not have considered it before, but every web visit results in pollution. It uses energy on your device, in the network and on the server. A visit to my homepage, for example, produces 0.17g of CO2, which is better than 83% of websites tested by the Website Carbon Calculator. If I had 10,000 visitors per month, though, that would be the same amount of carbon that a tree absorbs. It would take a whole tree just to offset my website.

There is lots you can do to reduce the carbon footprint of your website:

  • Use green energy on the server. The Green Web Foundation has a directory you can use to verify the green credentials of your hosting company.
  • Measure your carbon footprint. There are several tools for this, including the Website Carbon Calculator, Ecograder, and the Webpage Carbon Emissions Tool, which checks a page against the Eco-Friendly Web Alliance’s 1g target. The measurements give you a benchmark to track your progress against and Ecograder also gives you tips for how you can improve.
  • Reduce your file sizes. You could, for example, use a less image-heavy design, remove background videos and compress your files.
  • Reduce unnecessary visits. You could do a content audit to delete anything that isn't still useful to visitors, and check your SEO and analytics to make sure you're not attracting visitors who end up leaving straight away.

Those are the first steps. There is much more you can do if you dig deeper. I recommend the books Sustainable Web Design by Tom Greenwood and Designing for Sustainability by Tim Frick.

As for my own website, I hope to be able to drive the carbon footprint down further. I've already made a few refinements, including deleting some images that were used on nearly every page. When I created this site design, my objective was to have something that works well on mobile and is also fast. Sites that meet those goals tend to be relatively low carbon. Faster sites use fewer and smaller files, and so have a smaller carbon footprint. That said, there are still improvements I can make. It's a journey.

It's also an editorial process. When I was writing this blog, I had to decide whether to include the image of the Earth, courtesy of NASA, which I thought would look good and also represent what's at stake in the climate emergency. There's no doubt, though, that there would be a tiny bit less carbon being emitted if I left it out. We all have to work out where we draw the line, given that nobody wants to use a text-only website today.

I hope to write more on this topic in the future. If you'd like to keep up to date with my writing projects, please sign up to my newsletter here.

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