Meet the Nimble-Fingered Interface of the Future

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Japan develops self-propelled capsule endoscope

It’s a fact of life that sometimes your doctor has to put an endoscope inside your body cavities to have a look around. At least Japan has developed a pill-sized model that’s self-propelled.

According to AFP, Japanese researchers said Tuesday that they finished a self-propelled remote controlled capsule endoscope that can "swim" inside the digestive tract. 

Why is that a good thing? In the past Capsule endoscopes weren’t able to propel themselves. That means they had to rely on muscle contractions to move them through the cavity. Now people don’t have to simulate a bowel movement just to get the camera to come back out.   That’s progress. The researchers have been successful in capturing images from inside a person’s stomach and colon using the tadpole-like capsule as an initial step towards its medical application.
More importantly, is it the first time that a self-propelled endoscope has moved from one part of the digestive tract to another with success. Combine that with the images and you have a huge breakthrough in medicine.
The device is called the “Mermaid, and it’s about 0.4 inches in diameter and 1.8 inches long. It has magnetic driving gear that gives the user precise control over its direction and location.
Doctors use a joystick to control the capsule’s movements; they use a monitor to watch the movements as they happen. The endoscope can be swallowed for a look inside of the stomach. If you want to look inside of the colon then it will need to be inserted rectally. At least it’s small.
The research was made public at an international digestive diseases conference in Chicago, Illinois, in May, according to the team, which included scientists from Ryukoku University and Osaka Medical College. Capsule endoscopes have been in development since the 1980s and have been widely used since the 2000s.
They first tested the self-propelled endoscope capsule inside of a dog’s stomach in 2009. It has been tweaked and made smaller since then.
The Mermaid was displayed for Japanese media at Osaka Medical College in Osaka's suburbs on Tuesday.
"By remotely controlling the capsule, we can precisely photograph the area which needs to be tested," Osaka Medical College professor Kazuhide Higuchi said. "It can examine the digestive canal from the esophagus to the colon in a few hours. It reduces burdens on patients and can lead to the discovery of cancer," he said.

By Chris Nova 

T-Shirt Uses Sound Waves To Charge Smartphones

As is the trait of Glastonbury Festival-sponsor Orange, the carrier has shown off its annual eco-friendly festival prototype, and would you guess that it'll match those phone-charging wellington boots from last year? Anna Wintour will be ever so pleased.

Orange proposes that the Sound Charge t-shirt can power a smartphone completely, just by harnessing soundwaves while watching a musical act such as Beyonce or U2. If you're wondering just how it works, Orange has the answer here:

"The eco charging device uses an existing technology in a revolutionary way; by reversing the use of a product called Piezoelectric film, allowing people to charge their mobile phones whilst enjoying their favourite headline act at Glastonbury. Usually found in modern hi-fi speakers, an A4 panel of the modified film is housed inside a t-shirt which then acts much like an oversized microphone by ‘absorbing' invisible sound pressure waves. These sound waves are converted via the compression of interlaced quartz crystals into an electrical charge, which is fed into an integral reservoir battery that in turn charges most makes and models of mobile phone. As the ‘device' is worn, a steady charge is able to be dispensed into the phone via a simple interchangeable lead which fits most handsets."

They're planning on testing the t-shirt this weekend at Glastonbury, which has quite the reputation for being a complete mudfest due to the delightfully winter-like English summer, but according to creators GotWind, the piezoelectric film panel and other electronics in the t-shirt can actually be removed once it's time for a clean. It's just a shame that won't be for at least five days, such is the depravity of the conditions at Europe's largest festival.

By Kat Hannaford
From gizmodo 

Unexpected Function of Dyslexia-Linked Gene: Controlling Cilia of Cells

Dyslexia is largely hereditary and linked to a number of genes, the functions of which are, however, largely unknown. This present study from Karolinska Institutet and Helsinki University now shows that one of these genes, DCDC2, is involved in regulating the signalling of cilia in brain neurons.

 Full-length V5-tagged DCDC2 localizes to the primary cilium in neurons. Confocal images of rat primary hippocampal neurons transfected with DCDC2-V5 and labeled with a centriolar marker gamma-tubulin (A) or the neuronal ciliary marker Ac3 (D) and the V5 epitope (B and E). Nuclei were stained with DAPI (blue). The merged image shows colocalization of Ac3 and DCDC2-V5 in the primary cilium (F). Neurons transfected with deletion constructs of DCDC2 lacking either of the two doublecortin domains do not show ciliary localization of the protein (G–L). Scale bars indicate 10 µm. (Credit: Massinen S, Hokkanen M-E, Matsson H, Tammimies K, Tapia-Páez I, et al. (2011) Increased Expression of the Dyslexia Candidate Gene DCDC2 Affects Length and Signaling of Primary Cilia in Neurons. PLoS ONE 6(6): e20580. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020580)

"Our discovery presents us with a possible new neurobiological mechanism for dyslexia," says Professor Juha Kere, who co-led the study with Professor Eero Castrén of Helsinki University.

Cilia are hair-like structures that project from the surface of most cells. Their purpose has long remained something of a mystery, but recent research has revealed that the cells use them to communicate and that they play a crucial part in the development of the body's organs.

These results tie into previous research in mice showing that DCDC2 and two other dyslexia genes are involved in cell migration, a process by which nerve cells are moved to their correct location in the brain during embryonic development.

"The cilia are important parts of the machinery that controls cell migration," says Professor Kere. "Just what they do and how it could result in dyslexia are interesting questions that will be given further study."

The new findings, which are presented in the scientific journal PLoS ONE show that DCDC2 governs the length of the cilia and activates two different signal systems in the cell, depending on the degree of gene activity. When the human variant of the gene was transferred to nerve cells in the roundworm C. elegans, it gave rise to unusual neural projections exclusively in ciliated cells.

Ciliary dysfunction in different organs has been associated with a wide range of disorders from rare genetic diseases such as polycystic kidney disease and Kartagener's syndrome, to diabetes, obesity and schizophrenia.


Crypto-currency Security under Scrutiny

Reports that $500,000 worth of Bitcoin currency was stolen from one user's computer this week has highlighted the poor security of the digital cash and the systems available for managing it. For the currency to gain large-scale popularity, it may need to create or work with financial institutions—making Bitcoin less distinct from the conventional currencies some users hope to supplant.

To use Bitcoin, a person downloads the official software client, which connects over the Internet to a global network of other copies of the program. Together, these implement the mathematical scheme that ensures that bitcoins can be transferred, created, and verified without any need for a central authority such as a bank (read TR's explainer on how Bitcoin works).

That official client stores the security needed to use a stash of bitcoins with minimal security, in an unprotected file known as wallet.dat. In a forum post this week, a bitcoin user whose screen name was "allinvain" claimed that a remote attacker gained access to his or her wallet file and stole over 25,000 bitcoins. The value of a single bitcoin at the time of writing (just over $19) makes the alleged heist worth nearly $500,000, although in practice converting such a large number of bitcoins at once would be tricky. It is impossible for the alleged victim to know who stole the money because the cryptographic architecture of Bitcoin is designed to preserve the anonymity of people transferring the currency. Today the security company Symantec reported it had caught a piece of malicious software that infects computers over the Internet and attempts to steal wallet files.

The vulnerability highlighted by the controversy is very real, says Jeff Garzik, one of the lead developers of the official Bitcoin client and one of a few individuals who are the closest thing the currency has to official spokespeople. Today, anyone able to access the machines of Bitcoin users, either directly or remotely—via malicious software—can grab their wallet files, he acknowledges.

An upgraded version of the client, which will encrypt a person's wallet and ask for a password each time it is accessed, will be released in "just a week or two," says Garzik. 

Yet users will still essentially be maintaining their own bank vaults on their computers. "[Wallet encryption] does nothing against many modern malware techniques, such as keystroke logging," says Garzik. He advises Bitcoin users to keep encrypted backups of their wallet files away from the Internet, for example on a USB stick, since the file is needed only when sending money to others.

This may be an option for technically minded early adopters. But if the currency is to be used more widely, a new generation of simple and secure tools for using bitcoins is needed, says Amir Taaki, who leads a U.K.-based consultancy of software developers working on a range of technologies for use with Bitcoin, which operates the exchange site Britcoin.

"Bitcoin is in the very early stages as a piece of software, and if you're a regular home user, then it's not for you at the moment," says Taaki. "It started as a plaything, and now we're at the stage that for Bitcoin to grow, it needs the software used to get money in and out to be more solid and secure."

Earning wider trust will likely require the Bitcoin ecosystem to become more like that of a conventional currency. Taaki and Garzik both say that in the future, there will be established, trustworthy exchanges to look after users' bitcoins, and online services to manage and disburse their cash.

That might go against the libertarian aspirations of some Bitcoin users, who are attracted by its decentralized nature and lack of any controlling authority. Yet the currency will still offer those features, says Patrick Strateman, a developer working on building more robust, secure software for bitcoin exchange sites. "The big difference here is that people will have a real option," says Strateman. "Everyone has the options offered by the old system, plus they have new options as well." Even if many users turn to bank-like organizations to keep their bitcoins safe, it will still be possible to use the less controlled (if riskier) methods that prevail today, he says.

Bitcoin exchanges would benefit from becoming friendlier to investigations of fraudulent transactions, says Taaki, though their doing so would make them even more like conventional banks. Claims by two U.S. senators last week that bitcoins' "untraceable" nature facilitated the purchase of illicit drugs were unfounded, says Taaki: the Bitcoin protocol is built around a public record of every transaction made with the currency. That log, called the "block chain," is maintained and stored by all Bitcoin clients and can be used to trace the movement of any and all bitcoins. But it records only the cryptic public keys that swapped funds, not the identities of the people using them. For example, an online version of the block chain can be used to see how the address "1KPTdMb6p7H3YCwsyFqrEmKGmsHqe1Q3jg" received 25,000 bitcoins this week, the transaction that allinvain complained about. 

But Taaki says his Britcoin exchange will help authorities interpret the block chain in cases like money-laundering investigations, and could even correlate it with records of the identities of users of the exchange. The operator of the Mt Gox exchange, the largest bitcoin exchange in the world, has made a similar pledge, says Taaki. "We don't want Bitcoin to be outlawed by well-meaning but ignorant regulators." 

By Tom Simonite
From Technology Review

A Preview of Future Disk Drives

A new type of data storage technology, called phase-change memory, has proven capable of writing some types of data faster than conventional flash based storage. The tests used a hard drive based on prototype phase-change memory chips.

 Fast access: This prototype hard drive made using phase-change memory chips can read some data faster than a commercial flash hard disk.

Disks based on solid-state, flash memory chips are increasingly used in computers and servers because they perform faster than conventional magnetic hard drives. The performance of the experimental phase-change disk drive, created by researchers at University of California San Diego, suggests that it won't be long before that technology is able to give computing devices another speed boost.

The prototype created by the researchers is the first to publically benchmark the performance of a phase-change memory chips working in a disk drive. Several semiconductor companies are working on phase-change chips, but they have not released information about storage devices built with them.

"Phase-change chips are not quite ready for prime time, but if the technology continues to develop, this is what [solid state drives] will look like in the next few years," says Steve Swanson, who built the prototype, known as Onyx, with colleagues. It had a data capacity of eight gigabytes and went head-to-head with what Swanson calls a "high-end" 80 GB flash drive made for use in servers. When it came to writing small chunks of data on the order of kilobytes in size, Onyx was between 70 percent and 120 percent faster than the commercial drive. At the same time, the prototype placed significantly less computational load on the processor of the computer using it. It was also much faster at reading data than the flash drive when accessing blocks of data of any size. The kind of large volume, small read and write patterns that Onyx excelled at are a hallmark of the type of calculations involved in analyzing social networks like those of Twitter, says Swanson. However, Onyx was much slower at writing larger chunks of data than its commercially established competitor.

Onyx was built using prototype phase-change chips made by Micron, a company working to commercialize the technology. The chips store data in a a type of glass, using small bursts of heat to switch sections of the material between two different states, or phases, that represent digital 1s and 0s. In one phase, the atoms of the glass are arranged in an ordered crystal lattice, in the other they have an amorphous, disorganized arrangement.

Onyx's performance springs from the much simpler process of writing data to a phase-change chip compared to a flash chip, which stores data as islands of electric charge on chunks of semiconductor, says Swanson. Flash chips cannot rewrite single bits of information—1s or 0s—on demand. Instead they have to erase data in "pages" of a fixed size and then go back to program in the desired data. That  limits the technology's speed. "It requires a flash memory device to have software keep a little log as it goes along of which data is correct," says Swanson. "With phase-change memory you can just arbitrarily rewrite what you need."

Sudhanva Gurumurthi, who researches computer architecture at Virginia Tech, says the San Diego project is a valuable demonstration of the true capabilities of phase-change memory chips. "Much research has simulated how they would perform, but this gives insights into complexities a simulation can't capture," he says. But it will be the price of the technology that will determine when it becomes a competitive technology, says Gurumurthi.

Gurumurthi's research suggests that using phase-change memory in combination with flash memory could see the new technology reach the market earlier than the day it is cheap enough to be used in dedicated drives. Simulations showed that adding a small buffer of phase-change memory to a flash-based drive could simplify the process of writing small chunks of data, the kind of operation where flash performs least well. "We found it significantly improves performance," says Gurumurthi. "That might be enough to offset the cost of adding a small amount of phase-change memory."

By Tom Simonite
From Technology Review

A Practical Way to Make Invisibility Cloaks

A new printing method makes it possible to produce large sheets of metamaterials, a new class of materials designed to interact with light in ways no natural materials can. For several years, researchers working on these materials have promised invisibility cloaks, ultrahigh-resolution "superlenses," and other exotic optical devices straight from the pages of science fiction. But the materials were confined to small lab demonstrations because there was no way to make them in large enough quantities to demonstrate a practical device.

 Light warp: This is the largest sheet ever made of a metamaterial that can bend near-infrared light backwards.

"Everyone has, perhaps conveniently, been in the position of not being able to make enough [metamaterial] to do anything with it," says John Rogers, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who developed the new printing method. Metamaterials that interact with visible light have previously not been made in pieces larger than hundreds of micrometers. 

Metamaterials are made up of intricately patterned layers, often of metals. The patterns must be on the same scale as the wavelength of the light they're designed to interact with. In the case of visible and near-infrared light, this means features on the nanoscale. Researchers have been making these materials with such time-consuming methods as electron-beam lithography.

 Light mesh: The large-area metamaterial is made up of a layered mesh of metals patterned on the nanoscale.

Rogers has developed a stamp-based printing method for generating large pieces of one of the most promising types of metamaterial, which can make near-infrared light bend the "wrong" way when it passes through. Materials with this so-called negative index of refraction are particularly promising for making superlenses, night-vision invisibility cloaks, and sophisticated waveguides for telecommunications. The Illinois group starts by molding a hard plastic stamp that's covered with a raised fishnet pattern. The stamp is then placed in an evaporation chamber and coated with a sacrificial layer, followed by alternating layers of the metamaterial ingredients—silver and magnesium fluoride—to form a layered mesh on the stamp. The stamp is then placed on a sheet of glass or flexible plastic and the sacrificial layer is etched away, transferring the patterned metal to the surface. So far Rogers says he's made metamaterial sheets a few inches per side, but by using more than one stamp he expects to increase that to square feet. And, he says, the stamped materials actually have better optical properties than metamaterials made using traditional methods.

"We can now bang out gigantic sheets of this stuff," Rogers says. Making the mold for the stamp takes care, but once that mold has been created, it doesn't take long to make many reusable stamps.

Xiang Zhang, chair of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, says this work represents an important step toward applications for optical metamaterials. "Various metamaterials could be made bigger by this method," says Zhang, who in 2008 created the design that Rogers used for this first demonstration. "For example, macroscale 2-D lenses and cloaks may be possible, and possibly solar concentrators, too." One potential application is in lenses that integrate multiple functions in single devices, for telecommunications and imaging. 

"This printing technique is quite powerful and has the potential to scale to very large areas," says Nicholas Fang, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. Fang says this type of metamaterial would be particularly interesting for infrared  imaging devices. 

By Katherine Bourzac
From Technology Review

CERN physicists trap antihydrogen atoms for more than 16 minutes

 This is an artistic representation of the ALPHA neutral antimatter trap, suggesting the nature of the ALPHA apparatus as a container for antihydrogen. Credit: Chukman So, copyright © 2011 Wurtele Research Group. All rights reserved.

"We've trapped antihydrogen atoms for as long as 1,000 seconds, which is forever" in the world of high-energy particle physics, said Joel Fajans, UC Berkeley professor of physics, faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a member of the ALPHA (Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus) experiment at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.

The ALPHA team is hard at work building a new antihydrogen trap with "the hope that by 2012 we will have a new trap with laser access to allow spectroscopic experiments on the antiatoms," he said.

Fajans and the ALPHA team, which includes Jonathan Wurtele, UC Berkeley professor of physics, will publish their latest successes online on June 5 in advance of print publication in the journal Nature Physics. Fajans, Wurtele and their graduate students played major roles in designing the antimatter trap and other aspects of the experiment.

Their paper reports that in a series of measurements last year, the team trapped 112 antiatoms for times ranging from one-fifth of a second to 1,000 seconds, or 16 minutes and 40 seconds.

Since the experiment first successfully trapped antihydrogen atoms in 2009, the researchers have captured 309.
"We'd prefer being able to trap a thousand atoms for a thousand seconds, but we can still initiate laser and microwave experiments to explore the properties of antiatoms," Fajans said.

In November 2010, Fajans, Wurtele and the ALPHA team reported their first data on trapped antihydrogen: 38 antiatoms trapped for more than one-tenth of a second each. They succeeded in capturing an antiatom in only about one in 10 attempts, however.

Toward the end of last year's experiments, they were capturing an antiatom in nearly every attempt, and were able to keep the antiatoms in the trap as long as they wanted. Realistically, trapping for 10-30 minutes will be sufficient for most experiments, as long as the antiatoms are in their lowest energy state, or ground state. 

"These antiatoms should be identical to normal matter hydrogen atoms, so we are pretty sure all of them are in the ground state after a second," Wurtele said.

"These were likely the first ground state antiatoms ever made," Fajans added. Antimatter is a puzzle because it should have been produced in equal amounts with normal matter during the Big Bang that created the universe 13.6 billion years ago. Today, however, there is no evidence of antimatter galaxies or clouds, and antimatter is seen rarely and for only short periods, for example during some types of radioactive decay before it annihilates in a collision with normal matter.

 In an antihydrogen atom (top), a positively charged antielectron, or positron, orbits a negatively charged antiproton: the mirror image of an ordinary hydrogen atom (bottom). Credit: Chukman So, copyright © 2011 Wurtele Research Group. All rights reserved.

Hence the desire to measure the properties of antiatoms in order to determine whether their electromagnetic and gravitational interactions are identical to those of normal matter. One goal is to check whether antiatoms abide by CPT symmetry, as do normal atoms. CPT (charge-parity-time) symmetry means that a particle would behave the same way in a mirror universe if it had the opposite charge and moved backward in time.
"Any hint of CPT symmetry breaking would require a serious rethink of our understanding of nature," said Jeffrey Hangst of Aarhus University in Denmark, spokesperson for the ALPHA experiment. "But half of the universe has gone missing, so some kind of rethink is apparently on the agenda."

ALPHA captures antihydrogen by mixing antiprotons from CERN's Antiproton Decelerator with positrons – antielectrons – in a vacuum chamber, where they combine into antihydrogen atoms. The cold neutral antihydrogen is confined within a magnetic bottle, taking advantage of the tiny magnetic moments of the antiatoms. Trapped antiatoms are detected by turning off the magnetic field and allowing the particles to annihiliate with normal matter, which creates a flash of light.

 This is an artist's image of the ALPHA trap which captured and stored antihydrogen atoms. 

Because the confinement depends on the antihydrogen's magnetic moment, if the spin of the antiatom flips, it is ejected from the magnetic bottle and annihilates with an atom of normal matter. This gives the experimenters an easy way to detect the interaction of light or microwaves with antihydrogen, because photons at the right frequency make the antiatom's spin flip up or down. Though the team has trapped up to three antihydrogen atoms at once, the goal is to trap even more for long periods of time in order to achieve greater statistical precision in the measurements.

The ALPHA collaboration also will report in the Nature Physics paper that the team has measured the energy distribution of the trapped antihydrogen atoms.
"It may not sound exciting, but it's the first experiment done on trapped antihydrogen atoms," Wurtele said. "This summer, we're planning more experiments, with microwaves. Hopefully, we will measure microwave-induced changes of the atomic state of the antiatoms."

From physorg

Hard... soft... New nanomaterial switches properties

The 51-year-old researcher from the Saarland referred to his fundamental research, which opens the door to a multitude of diverse applications, as “a breakthrough in the material sciences”. The new metallic high-performance material is described by Prof. Dr. Jörg Weißmüller and the Chinese research scientist Hai-Jun Jin in the latest issue of the renowned scientific journal Science. Their research findings could, for example, make future intelligent materials with the ability of self healing, smoothing out flaws autonomously.

The nanomaterial under the scanning electron microscope.

The firmness of a boiled egg can be adjusted at will through the cooking time. Some decisions are, however, irrevocable – a hard-boiled egg can never be reconverted into a soft-boiled one. There would be less annoyance at the breakfast table if we could simply switch back and forth between the different degrees of firmness of the egg.

Similar issues arise in the making of structural materials such as metals and alloys. The materials properties are set once and for all during production. This forces engineers to make compromises in the selection of the mechanical properties of a material. Greater strength is inevitably accompanied by increased brittleness and a reduction of the damage tolerance. 

Professor Weißmüller, head of the Institute of Materials Physics and Technology at the Technical University of Hamburg and also of the department for Hybrid Material Systems at the Helmholtz Center Geesthacht, stated: “This is a point where significant progress is being made. For the first time we have succeeded in producing a material which, while in service, can switch back and forth between a state of strong and brittle behavior and one of soft and malleable. We are still at the fundamental research stage but our discovery may bring significant progress in the development of so-called smart materials.”

A Marriage of Metal and Water
In order to produce this innovative material, material scientists employ a comparatively simple process: corrosion. The metals, typically precious metals such as gold or platinum, are placed in an acidic solution. As a consequence of the onset of the corrosion process, minute ducts and holes are formed in the metal. The emerging nanostructured material is pervaded by a network of pore channels. The pores are impregnated with a conductive liquid, for example a simple saline solution or a diluted acid, and a true hybrid material of metal and liquid is thus created. It is the unusual “marriage”, as Weißmüller calls this union of metal and water which, when triggered by an electric signal, enables the properties of the material to change at the touch of a button.
As ions are dissolved in the liquid, the surfaces of the metal can be electrically charged. In other words, the mechanical properties of the metallic partner are changed by the application of an electric potential in the liquid partner. The effect can be traced back to a strengthening or weakening of the atomic bonding in the surface of the metal when extra electrons are added to or withdrawn from the surface atoms. The strength of the material can be as much as doubled when required. Alternatively, the material can be switched to a state which is weaker, but more damage tolerant, energy-absorbing and malleable. 

Specific applications are still a matter for the future. However, researchers are already thinking ahead. In principle, the material can create electric signals spontaneously and selectively, so as to strengthen the matter in regions of local stress concentration. Damage, for instance in the form of cracks, could thereby be prevented or even healed. This has brought scientists a great step closer to their objective of ‘intelligent’ high performance materials. 

From physorg

Texas Instruments announces multi-core, 1.8GHz OMAP4470 ARM processor for Windows 8

When Qualcomm announced a pair of Windows 8-compatible ARM processors yesterday, we knew Texas Instruments wouldn't be far behind. Sure enough, the company has just announced a new addition to its OMAP 4 family of ARM SoCs, with the 1.8GHz OMAP4470. TI's new chip is powered by a pair of 1.0GHz ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore engines, as well as two, 266MHz ARM Cortex-M3 cores that handle multimedia duties. According to the company, this multi-core structure will enable faster web browsing and more frugal power usage, while putting the OMAP4470 in square competition with quad-core chips like NVIDIA's Kal-El and Intel's latest Sandy Bridge line. The SoC was designed for tablets, netbooks and smartphones running Android, Linux, or the next version of Windows, and can support a max QXGA resolution of 2048 x 1536, and up to three HD displays. There's also a single-core PowerVR SGX544 GPU capable of running Direct X 9, OpenGL ES 2.0, OpenVG 1.1, and OpenCL 1.1. The OMAP4470 is expected to hit the OEM and OED markets in the first half of 2012, but you can find more information in the specs sheet and press release, after the break.

By Amar Toor
From engadget

Source of Key Brain Function Located: How to Comprehend a Scene in Less Than a Second

The key is to process the interacting objects that comprise a scene more quickly than unrelated objects, according to corresponding author Irving Biederman, professor of psychology and computer science in the USC Dornsife College and the Harold W. Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience.
The study appears in the June 1 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

The intraparietal sulcus (IPS), a groove in the brain closer to the top of the head, is engaged with implementing visual attention. Above: Lateral surface of left cerebral hemisphere, viewed from the side. Intraparietal sulcus visible at upper right, running horizontally.

The brain's ability to understand a whole scene on the fly "gives us an enormous edge on an organism that would have to look at objects one by one and slowly add them up," Biederman said. What's more, the interaction of objects in a scene actually allows the brain to identify those objects faster than if they were not interacting.

While previous research had already established the existence of this "scene-facilitation effect," the location of the part of the brain responsible for the effect remained a mystery. That's what Biederman and lead author Jiye G. Kim, a graduate doctoral student in Biederman's lab, set out to uncover with Chi-Hung Juan of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at the National Central University in Taiwan.

"The 'where' in the brain gives us clues as to the 'how,'" Biederman said. This study is the latest in an ongoing effort by Biederman and Kim to unlock the complex way in which the brain processes visual experience. The goal, as Biederman puts it, is to understand "how we get mind from brain."

To find out the "where" of the scene-facilitation effect, the researchers flashed drawings of pairs of objects for just 1/20 of a second. Some of these objects were depicted as interacting, such as a hand grasping for a pen, and some were not, with the hand reaching away from the pen. The test subjects were asked to press a button if a label on the screen matched either one of the two objects, which it did on half of the presentations.
A recent study by Kim and Biederman suggested that the source of the scene-facilitation effect was the lateral occipital cortex, or LO, which is a portion of the brain's visual processing center located between the ear and the back of the skull. However, the possibility existed that the LO was receiving help from the intraparietal sulcus, or IPS, which is a groove in the brain closer to the top of the head.

The IPS is engaged with implementing visual attention, and the fact that interacting objects may attract more attention left open the possibility that perhaps it was providing the LO with assistance.

While participants took the test, electromagnetic currents were used to alternately zap subjects' LO or IPS, temporarily numbing each region in turn and preventing it from providing assistance with the task.
All of the participants were pre-screened to ensure they could safely receive the treatment, known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which produces minimal discomfort.

By measuring how accurate participants were in detecting objects shown as interacting or not interacting when either the LO or IPS were zapped, researchers could see how much help that part of the brain was providing. The results were clear: zapping the LO eliminated the scene-facilitation effect. Zapping the IPS, however, did nothing.

When it comes to providing a competitive edge in identifying objects that are part of an interaction, the lateral occipital cortex appears to be working alone. Or, at least, without help from the intraparietal sulcus.

The research was funded through Biederman's National Science Foundation grants as well as a competitive grant awarded to Kim by the National Science Foundation designed to allow US students to collaborate with scientists in East Asia. Kim worked with Chi-Hung Juan, an expert in transcranial magnetic stimulation.

From sciencedaily

Google disrupts massive phishing campaign

Google has detected and disrupted a massive phishing operation that apparently originated in Jinan, China.
The campaign affected the personal Gmail accounts of hundreds of users including, among others, senior U.S. government officials, Chinese political activists, officials in several Asian countries (predominantly South Korea), military personnel and journalists. According to Google security rep Eric Grosse, the phishing operation was executed with the intention of monitoring the contents of emails, as the perpetrators apparently exploited stolen passwords to alter forwarding and delegation settings.  

"We have notified victims and secured their accounts," Grosse confirmed in an official blog post.
"In addition, we have notified relevant government authorities."

However, Grosse emphasized Google's internal systems remain unaffected, as the account hijackings were not the result of a security problem with Gmail itself. 

"[Still], we believe being open about these security issues helps users better protect their information online," he added. 

By Trent Nouveau 
From tgdaily

Researchers Crack Audio Security System

A team of computer scientists with expertise in artificial intelligence, audio processing, and computer security has come up with a way to automatically defeat the systems that prevent spammers from creating new accounts on sites like Yahoo, Microsoft's Hotmail, and Twitter. 

Many websites require users to correctly transcribe a string of distorted characters—a puzzle known as a CAPTCHA—to gain access. These tests are relatively easy for people, but very hard for computers. Most sites also make CAPTCHAs available in audio form, for vision-impaired users, and the researchers found that their algorithm could solve many of these audio CAPTCHAs. Researchers at Stanford University have demonstrated the vulnerability of audio CAPTCHAs before, in 2008, but the new work targets newer, more secure versions.

The ability to automatically defeat CAPTCHAs could make it cheaper for spammers to churn out spam. Right now, spammers pay humans sweatshop wages to solve CAPTCHAs, but this can cost up to one cent apiece.
Team leader Elie Bursztein, of Stanford University, says the team's algorithm, called deCAPTCHA, was able to defeat audio CAPTCHAs from Microsoft and Yahoo in almost half of all cases. Microsoft has since switched to another type of CAPTCHA, which the algorithm is still able to defeat in 1.5 percent of cases.

"[In defeating security measures,] if you cross the 1 percent threshold, you are in a lot of trouble," says Burzstein. "It's almost a free pass."

Luis Von Ahn, who invented the CAPTCHA, says that, in reality, companies can control the rate at which audio CAPTCHAS are compromised by limiting the number of them that can be solved per day, or by limiting the number that can be solved by a single IP address. But, says independent security expert Markus Jakobsson, "it's very important to understand how we can break things before the bad guys do."

An audio CAPTCHA reads aloud a string of letters or numbers with added audio distortion. The Stanford team created a learning algorithm to "process the sound in a way that was as close as possible to the way that we think the human ear is made," says Bursztein. This meant focusing on lower-frequency sounds, which humans are especially good at processing, and eliminating as much of the noise from audio CAPTCHAs as possible.

Bursztein's team is also working to crack several new types of audio CAPTCHA. One type plays two voices reading different strings of letters or words at the same time. Humans are especially good at picking out one voice when surrounded by many competing conversations in a crowded room, but computers are terrible at this task. A second type combines words with music. 

Even if many existing CAPTCHAs are vulnerable to attack, says Jakobsson, their failure isn't as severe as the compromise of a password system. "[CAPTCHA defeat] is a gradual decay of security. You don't have to keep everybody out to feel like you have security—some failure is tolerable."

By Christopher Mims  
From Technology Review

Tapping Quantum Effects for Software that Learns

In a bid to enable computers to learn faster, defense company Lockheed Martin has bought a system that uses quantum mechanics to process digital data. It paid $10 million to startup D-Wave Systems for the computer and support using it. D-Wave claims this to be the first ever sale of a quantum computing system.

The new system, called the D-Wave One, is not significantly more capable than a conventional computer. But it could be a step on the road to fuller implementations of quantum computing, which theoreticians have shown could easily solve problems that are impossible for other computers, such as defeating encryption systems by solving mathematical problems at incredible speed.

 Quantum calculation: At the center of this image, a series of prototype chips designed to use quantum mechanical effects to work with data.

In a throwback to the days when computers were the size of rooms, the system bought by Lockheed, called the D-Wave One, occupies 100 square feet. Rather than acting as a stand-alone computer, it operates as a specialized helper to a conventional computer running software that learns from past data and makes predictions about future events. The defense company says it intends to use the new purchase to aid identification of bugs in products that are complex combinations of software and hardware. The goal is to reduce cost overruns caused by unforeseen technical problems with such systems, Lockheed spokesperson Thad Madden says. Such challenges were partly behind the recent news that the company's F-35 strike fighter is more than 20 percent over budget.

At the heart of the D-Wave One is a processor made up of 128 qubits—short for quantum bits—which use magnetic fields to represent a single 1 or 0 of digital data at any time and can also exploit quantum mechanics to attain a state of "superposition" that represents both at once. When qubits in superposition states work together, they can work with exponentially more data than the equivalent number of regular bits. Those qubits take the form of metal loops rich in niobium, a material that becomes a superconductor at very low temperatures and is more commonly used as the magnets inside MRI scanners. The qubits are linked by structures called couplers, also made from superconducting niobium alloy, which can control the extent to which adjacent magnetic fields, representing qubits, affect one another. Performing a calculation involves using magnetic fields to set the states of qubits and couplers, waiting a short time, and then reading out the final values from the qubits.

D-Wave's machine is intended to do one thing better than a conventional computer: finding approximate answers to problems that can only be truly solved by exhaustively trying every possible solution. D-Wave runs a single algorithm, dubbed quantum annealing, which is hard-wired into the machine's physical design, says Geordie Rose, D-Wave's founder and CTO. Data sent to the chip is translated into qubit values and settings for the couplers that connect them. After that, the interlinked qubits go through a series of quantum mechanical changes that result in the solution emerging. "You stuff the problem into the hardware and it acts as a physical proxy for what you're trying to solve," says Rose. "All physical systems want to sink to the lowest energy level, with the most entropy," he explains, "and ours sinks to a state that represents the solution."

"You stuff the problem into the hardware and it acts as a physical proxy for what you're trying to solve," says Rose. 

Although exotic, this hardware is intended to be used by software engineers who know nothing of quantum mechanics. A set of straightforward protocols—dubbed APIs for application programming interface—make it easy to push data to the D-Wave system in a standard format.

"You send in your problem and then get back a much more accurate result than you would on a conventional computer," says Rose. He says tests have shown software using the D-Wave system can learn things like how to recognize particular objects in photos up to 9 percent more accurately than a conventional alternative. Rose predicts that the gap will rapidly widen as programmers learn to optimize their code for the way D-Wave's technology behaves.

Google has been experimenting with D-Wave's technology for several years as a way to speed up software that can interpret photos. The company's software engineers use it as a kind of cloud service, accessing a system at D-Wave's Vancouver headquarters over the Internet. In 2009, the company published papers showing that using the quantum system outperformed conventional software running in a Google data center.

Allan Snavelly at San Diego Supercomputer Center has used conventional versions of the algorithms like those that are built into D-Wave's system. He says that the kind of "needle in a haystack" problems they are designed for are important in computer science. "These are problems where you know the right answer when you see it, but finding it among all the exponential space of possibilities is difficult," he says. Being able to experiment with the new system using conventional software tools will be tempting to programmers, says Snavelly. "It's intriguing to consider the possibilities—I would like to get my hands on one."

D-Wave's technology has been dogged by controversy during the 12 years it has been in development, with quantum computing researchers questioning whether the company's technology truly is exploiting quantum effects. A paper published in the science journal Nature on May 12 went some way to addressing those concerns, reporting that the behavior of one of the eight-qubit tiles that make up the D-Wave One is better explained by a mathematical model assuming quantum effects at work than by one assuming only classical physics was involved. 

However, the experiment did not show the results of running a computation on the hardware, leaving doubt in the minds of many quantum computing experts. Rose says the technology definitely uses quantum effects, but that to programmers only one thing really matters. "Compared to the conventional ways, you get a piece of software that is much better."

By Tom Simonite
From Technology Review

Software Transforms Photos Into 3-D Models

Ever wished you could take an object in a museum home with you instead of settling for some photos?
The design software company Autodesk will release free software next week that could turn those snapshots into your own personal replica from a 3-D printer. Called Photofly, the software extracts a detailed 3-D model from a collection of overlapping photos.

 Body double: Photofly can build a detailed 3-D model of a person’s head using just 40 photos taken from different viewpoints.

"We can automatically generate a 3-D mesh at extreme detail from a set of photos—we're talking the kind of density captured by a laser scanner," says Brian Mathews, who leads a group at the company known as Autodesk Labs. Unlike a laser scanner, though, the equipment needed to capture the 3-D rendering doesn't cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. An overlapping set of around 40 photos is enough to capture a person's head and shoulders in detailed 3-D, he says.

The software, which will be available for Windows computers only, uploads a user's photos to a cloud server for processing and then downloads the results. The 3-D rendering can be viewed as a naked wire-frame model of the captured scene or a version with realistic surface color and texture. The colored models can also be shared for viewing in an iPad app, while the underlying wire frame can be exported in standard 3-D design formats for editing.

Models produced from a well-taken set of photos will be spatially accurate to within 1 percent or less, says Mathews, high enough quality to be used for professional design projects. "You could send that model from your photos to a 3-D printing service to physically re-create what you saw, perhaps at a different scale," says Mathews. In recent years, the cost of 3-D printers and printing services has fallen, with hobbyist machines like the MakerBot and consumer services such as ShapeWays that will print out 3-D models in a variety of ceramics, plastics, and metals. Autodesk's is the first consumer software capable of producing models accurate enough for 3-D printing, says Mathews. Similar projects, such as Microsoft Research's PhotoSynth, and an app based on the same technology that enables a cell phone to convert its photos into 3-D models, only capture 3-D data good enough to add an extra dimension to the content of photos, says Mathews. The same was true of a previous version of Photofly. "Generating accurate geometry from what we see in the photos is far more exciting."

Photofly runs through several steps to distill an accurate model from a collection of photos. First, it calculates the position from which each photo was taken by triangulating based on the different views of certain distinctive features. Once the camera positions have been determined, the software goes through a second round of more detailed triangulation, using contrasting views to generate a detailed 3-D surface for everything visible.

"This technology and the popularity of cameras and cell phones means there are now a couple billion sensors out there that anyone can use to create 3-D content," says Yuan-Fang Wang, a computer scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and founder of VisualSize, which is working on technology similar to Autodesk's.

Wang says the technology has become robust and simple enough for the consumer market, but there are still limitations that may frustrate some people. "An object cannot be too plain, because the software has nothing to compare, or too shiny, and it cannot be moving much," he says. Because few ordinary users have experienced the technology yet, it is still unclear how people will handle that, or just which applications will prove popular, Wang adds.

Photofly can be used on objects large and small, from bugs to buildings, and can also handle photos from different sources. A video shows a model of Mount Rushmore created from a variety of online images taken by many different people.

After seeing a demo of the technology at the TED conference earlier this year, paleontologist Louise Leakey has been using Photofly in Kenya to capture early human bones at high detail. The models provide her team with a way to collaborate with distant colleagues and to record accurate measurements of specimens, such as the spacing and size of teeth, without actually handling them (see a video of a specimen captured by Leakey).
Autodesk will also explore using Photofly to capture 3-D models of buildings to speed retrofits designed to boost their energy efficiency. "You can take a bunch of photos and very quickly have a model to make the key measurements needed to figure out what needs to be done to make a building greener," says Mathews.

By Tom Simonite
From Technology Review

Powering Your Car with Waste Heat

At least two-thirds of the energy in gasoline used in cars and trucks is wasted as heat. Thermoelectrics, semiconductor materials that convert heat into electricity, could capture this waste heat, reducing the fuel needs of the vehicle and improving fuel economy by at least 5 percent. But the low efficiency and high cost of existing thermoelectric materials has kept such devices from becoming practical in vehicles. 

 Power from heat: A thermoelectric generator that converts waste heat from a car’s exhaust system into electricity could improve fuel economy.

Now researchers are assembling the first prototype thermoelectric generators for tests in commercial cars and SUVs. The devices are a culmination of several advances made independently at thermoelectric device-maker BSST in Irwindale, California, and at General Motors Global R&D in Warren, Michigan. Both companies plan to install and test their prototypes by the end of the summer—BSST in BMW and Ford cars, and GM in a Chevrolet SUV.

BSST is using  new materials. Bismuth telluride, a common thermoelectric, contains expensive tellurium and works at temperatures of only up to 250 °C, whereas  thermoelectric generators  can reach 500 °C. So BSST is using another family of thermoelectrics—blends of hafnium and zirconium—that work well at high temperatures. This has increased the generator efficiency by about 40 percent.

At GM, researchers are assembling a final prototype based on a promising new class of thermoelectrics called skutterudites, which are cheaper than tellurides and perform better at high temperatures. The company's computer models show that in its Chevrolet Suburban test vehicle, this device could generate 350 watts, improving fuel economy by 3 percent. Fabricating skutterudites, which are cobalt arsenide compounds that are doped with rare earth elements such as ytterbium, is a time-consuming, complicated process, and incorporating them into devices is difficult, says GM scientist Gregory Meisner. The crucial challenge is making good electrical and thermal contacts. The large temperature gradient across the device puts mechanical stress on the contact-thermoelectric interface. Plus, joining the different materials introduces resistance that heats up the contact, degrading the device. "By a suitable choice of materials, you can affect resistance," he says. "The challenge is in arriving at the right formula for materials—both the semiconductor thermoelectric and the contact."

A peek inside: An artist’s rendering of a Chevrolet Suburban shows the muffler-like thermoelectric generator inserted into the exhaust system.

Another key challenge will be integrating the device into vehicles. The researchers have already tested a bismuth telluride generator in an SUV. "Right now, the device is just inserted into the exhaust system," Meisner says. "A section of pipe is cut out and the device, which looks like a muffler, is inserted. We need to design something that's more integrated into the vehicle system rather than an add-on device."

Both BSST and GM researchers also need to find ways to make larger volumes of the new materials cheaply. Meisner cautions that it might be at least another four years before thermoelectric generators make it into production vehicles.

By Prachi Patel
From Technology Review