GENEVA â€" Unbeknownst to the general public, an international group of children and teengers, together with a swarm of Swiss-made robots, pulled off a stunning mission to save the future of Mars exploration.
Their heroics took place on the "Campus des Nations," part of the International School of Geneva in the Le Grand-Saconnex area, where we were on hand one afternoon last November as a group of roboticists aged 11 to 15 â€" members of a group called the "Dev Club" â€" helped remotely program robots on Mars and thus save the red planet's international base.
It sometimes happens that great technological achievements have spectacular malfunctions. Take the R45 Martian base, for instance. The generator that powers the base is maintained by hundreds of hamster-size "Thymio" robots. "They are very versatile, quite simple and inexpensive, as adapted to uses in kindergarten schools as to European research projects," says Francesco Mondada, head of the Miniature Mobile Robots Group (MOBOTS), from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (SFITL).
But unfortunately, the designers of the international Martian base forgot to program the Swiss-made robots to make repairs in the case of meteorite showers. As it turns out, just such a shower knocked the generator out of commission, threatening the survival of the base unless somehow, someway a collaborative rescue initiative â€" a world first for this age group â€" could be launched to reprogram the robots. Fortunately, the group in Le Grand-Saconnex, working with peers in five other countries (France, Austria, Italy, Russia and South Africa), proved they really do have the right stuff.
Lessons for Mars...and Earth
The resuce mission was make-believe of course: the Martian base is really just a model set up in the SFITLâ€™s Robotic Systems Laboratory; and no meteorite actually fell on it. The Hollywoodesque scenario worked wonders, nevertheless, as a motivating framework for a mission where inter-human cooperation is as important as interaction with machines.
After a bit of hesitation, one boy is appointed "communications officer," in charge of managing contacts with the other teams via an instant messaging service that goes with the broadcasting of a video on YouTube. "Yellow has a connection problem," he says. "Blue has lost control." Thirty second later the robots collide. In reality, the event took place 30 seconds before. The communications delay is the result of the huge distance between here and Mars.
Programming a Thymio robot â€" Photo: aslteam screenshot
The aim of the mission is of course educational. Francesco Mondada and the â€œRobotics-Intelligent Robots for Improving the Quality of Lifeâ€ team from the National Center of Competences in Research (NCCR) are working towards spreading technological education around schools. "This event is proof that, if we give means to pupils, they can produce miracles. Now those means just need to be provided," says Mondada.
The stakes are high. This isn't just about saving the exploration of Mars; it's about giving young people tools they need right here on Earth. "In the way we teach children languages and math, we should also give them the basics that would allow them to handle the technological world around them, not only in a consumerist way, but in a critical and creative way," the roboticist explains. "If we donâ€™t train them, they will be left to serve the sole interests of multinational companies."
A robot with universal appeal
Two years ago, as part of its educational section, NCCR Robotics created Thymio, a small, white object with wheels. It is produced by a non-profit association and was developed according to a model based on total access to information by the public, in open hardware and open software. There are now more than 2,000 Thymios in Swiss and French schools.
The designers, working in collaboration with the Lausanne Cantonal Art School (ECAL), wanted an object that would be neutral from an age point of view â€" so that a four-year-old child can find it interesting, while an academic can use it without the impression of working with an object made for babies â€" and in terms of gender. Gender stereotypes is "very serious" concern, says Mondada.
"We offer courses for primary school teachers," he explains. "The idea is that children should be able to approach technology in a very direct way, at an age where girls are still not excluded in this field. There are operations targeting older children, but itâ€™s too late: choices are already cast in concrete."
Back to Mars and the Campus des Nations. A visitor arriving here by accident couldnâ€™t imagine that these children are carrying out, in such a relaxed atmosphere, an inter-planetary achievement. It is surprising to realize that our host group, supervised by David Shaw and Fabien Bruttin, is calmly completing its task before all the others.
The pupils applaud each other, receive diplomas with the prestigious SFITL logo, talk about one of their local heroes, Arthur Zagaryan, the co-founder of the Dev Club and now a student at the Kingâ€™s College in London. Meanwhile, two pupils go to another corner of the room, where they set themselves a new mission: program a Thymio for "a disco dance with annoying lights and noises."
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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