05 September 2016

Sheep puns reach critical mass as Google finally gets involved in Sheep View

Google Sheepview

Somehow managing to badger Google both incessantly and without snark, Durita Dahl Andreassen has finally seen it happen: Google got formally involved in her homebrew project to put the heretofore unnoticed Faroe Islands on Street View.

There are 50,000 people in the Faroe Islands, but more than 70,000 sheep. The place is pretty rural, and up til now it hasn’t exactly been a hot property on the Google Street View acquisition list. There’s been a Street View camera inside the White House, at CERN, down Diagon Alley and even inside the TARDIS but never yet to the Faroe Islands. But with her campaign to get Street View making the news all over the web, suddenly that has changed. Where there’s a wool, there’s a way.

Andreassen started her project by teaming up with other Islanders to build bespoke camera harnesses that she then strapped to her sheep. Loosing them at particularly important or picturesque places around the Faroe Islands archipelago, she then collected the images and turned to the Internet for help. The project even received official endorsement from the tourism bureau of the Faroe Islands, making its way onto their website. They’ve been calling it Sheep View 360, after the 360 cameras the sheep are carrying.

Sheep aren’t really supposed to be on the roads, though, which presents an obvious difficulty when trying to get the roads mapped using Street View.

Google obviously heard about Sheep View 360, and it didn’t take long for them to figure out how to respond. They sent a Street View trekker and 360 cameras via their Street View camera loan program, and even dispatched a Google Maps team to the Faroe Islands to help train the locals, ensuring that the humans and sheep will both be capturing the absolute best images they can get.

Better still, it won’t just be sheep anymore. Faroe Islanders and tourists both can help collect Street View imagery of the remote, beautiful islands using “selfie-sticks, bikes, backpacks, cars, kayaks, horses, ships and even wheelbarrows.” This, too, has received official approval: the Visit Faroe Islands office in Tórshavn (hilariously, not yet findable on Street View), along with Atlantic Airways at the airport, will be lending out Street View 360 cameras to those willing to help out with the mapping adventure.

Only a true connoisseur of sheep-based humor will be able to make it out alive from Google’s blog post about Sheep View. Be thankful I wasn’t feeling clever when writing this, or the sheep puns would surely have killed you (ewe? Ed) by now.

source: extremetech

10 August 2016

BAE Systems wants to grow military aircraft in chemical vats

grow military aircraft in chemical

BAE Systems and the University of Glasgow foresee a time when new aircraft can be designed and chemically grown in a matter of weeks (Credit: BAE Systems)

Modern military aircraft are so complex that fighters like the F-35 Lightning II or the Typhoon take 20 years to go from drawing board to deployment at phenomenal costs. With design work already starting on next-generation fighters for the 2040s, BAE Systems and the University of Glasgow are looking at a faster, cheaper way to produce unmanned air vehicles (UAV), where they aren't constructed, but grown in computer-controlled chemical vats in a matter weeks.

This vision of the future of aircraft design and manufacturing was outlined ahead of the upcoming Farnborough International Airshow, which runs from July 11 to 17. The purpose of this concept isn't just to cut cost and the painfully long development cycle of military aviation hardware. It's also a reflection of the growing emphasis on swarms of smaller drone aircraft that can be built to custom specifications for specific missions over manned aircraft.

Such use of bespoke UAVs would require radically shorter development and manufacturing cycles, which inspired BAE's vision of growing them in huge chemical vats to create near-complete airframes and systems.

The key to this is the "Chemputer" a combination of the computer with chemical manufacturing. Originally developed by Regius Professor Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow, and Founding Scientific Director at Cronin Group PLC, it's a sort of advanced 3D printer that works on a molecular level. It's original purpose was to use simple, locally-available chemicals to produce pharmaceuticals quickly and cheaply. Now, the technology is being envisaged as a way to produce full-blown aircraft and their electrical systems.

For the BAE concept, the Chemputer would be part of a system to enable the building of UAVs or multi-functional parts for large manned aircraft on a molecular level out of environmentally sustainable materials using advanced chemical processes. The result would be be to allow mission specific drones to be built in a very short timeframe. Developers could choose from a menu of capabilities and the Chemputer would bring together the necessary technologies and grow them.

In this way, fleets of small drones that could be made quickly to carry out a variety of missions. They could drop supplies to special forces, carry out surveillance, or operate at speeds and altitudes that would make them invulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles.

"This is a very exciting time in the development of chemistry," says Cronin. "We have been developing routes to digitize synthetic and materials chemistry and at some point in the future hope to assemble complex objects in a machine from the bottom up, or with minimal human assistance. Creating small aircraft would be very challenging but I'm confident that creative thinking and convergent digital technologies will eventually lead to the digital programming of complex chemical and material systems."

The animation below shows how the warplanes of the future might be created.

Source: BAE Systems, gizmag

10 July 2016

Computer coughs up passwords, encryption keys through its cooling fans

hackers can hear what you speak using cpu cooling fan

Here’s a security update to haunt your dreams, and to make the FBI’s quest for un-exploitable cryptographic backdoors look all the more absurd: a team of Israeli researchers has now shown that the sounds made by a computer’s fan can be analyzed to extract everything from usernames and passwords to full encryption keys. It’s not really a huge programming feat, as we’ll discuss below, but from a conceptual standpoint it shows how wily modern cyber attackers can be and why the weakest link in any security system still involves the human element.

In hacking, there’s a term called “phreaking” that used to refer to phone hacking via automated touch-tone systems, but which today colloquially refers any kind of system investigation or manipulation that uses sound as its main mechanism of action. Phone phreakers used to make free long distance phone calls by playing the correct series of tones into a phone receiver but phreaks can listen to sounds just as easily as they can produce them, often with even greater effect.

curiosity hackers

That’s because sound has the potential to get around one of the most powerful and widely used methods in high-level computer security: air-gapping, or the separation of a system from any externally connected network an attack might be able to use for entry. (The term pre-dates wireless internet, and a Wi-Fi-connected computer is not air-gapped, despite the literal gap of air around it.)

So how do you hack your way into an air-gapped computer? Use something that moves easily through the air, and which all computers are creating to one extent or another: Sound.

One favorite worry of paranoiacs is something called Van Eck Phreaking, in which you listen to the sound output of a device to derive something about what the device is doing; in extreme cases, it’s alleged that an attacker can recreate the image on the screen of a properly mic’ed up CRT monitor. Another, more recent phreaking victory showed that it is possible to break RSA encryption with a full copy of the encrypted message and an audio recording of the processor as it goes through the normal, authorized decryption process.

chinese military at computers possibly hacking

Note that in order to do any of this, you have to get physically close enough to your target to put a microphone within listening range. If your target system is inside CIA Headquarters, or Google X, you’re almost certainly going to need an agent on the inside to make that happen and if you’ve got one of those available, you can probably use them to do a lot more than place microphones in places. On the other hand, once placed, this microphone’s security hole won’t be detectable in the system logs, since it’s not actually interacting with the system in any way, just hoovering up incidental leakage of information.

This new fan-attack actually requires even more specialized access, since you have to not only get a mic close to the machine, but infect the machine with a fan-exploiting malware. The idea is that most security software actively looks for anything that might be unusual or harmful behavior, from sending out packets of data over the internet to making centrifuges spin up and down more quickly. Security researchers might have enough foresight to look at fan activity from a safety perspective, and make sure no malware turns them off and melts the computer or something like that, but will they be searching for data leaks in such an out of the way part of the machine? After this paper, the answer is: “You’d better hope so.”

Stuxnet virus life cycle

A diagram of the life-cycle of the Stuxnet virus.

The team used two fan speeds to represent the 1s and 0s of their code (1,000 and 1,600 RPM, respectively,) and listened to the sequence of fan-whines to keep track. Their maximum “bandwidth” is about 1,200 bits an hour, or about 0.15 kilobytes. That might not sound like a lot, but 0.15KB of sensitive, identifying information can be crippling, especially if it’s something like a password that grants further access. You can fit a little over 150 alpha-numeric characters into that space that’s a whole lot of passwords to lose in a single hour.

There is simply no way to make any system immune to infiltration. You can limit the points of vulnerability, then supplement those point with other measures that’s what air-gapping is, condensing the vulnerabilities down to physical access to the machine, then shoring that up with big locked metal doors, security cameras, and armed guards.

But if Iran can’t keep its nuclear program safe, and the US can’t keep its energy infrastructure safe, and Angela Merkel can’t keep her cell phone safe how likely are the world’s law enforcement agencies to be able to ask a bunch of software companies to keep millions of diverse and security-ignorant customers safe, with one figurative hand tied behind their backs?


On the other hand, this story also illustrates the laziness of the claim that the FBI can’t develop ways of hack these phones on their own, a reality that is equally distressing in its own way. The FBI has bragged that it’s getting better at such attacks “every day,” meaning that the only things protecting you from successful attacks against your phone are: the research resources available to the FBI, and the access to your phone that the FBI can rely on having, for instance by seizing it.

Nobody should be campaigning to make digital security weaker, to any extent, for any reason as this story shows, our most sensitive information is already more than vulnerable enough as it is.


"Wearable" for plants to let you converse with a chrysanthemum

plant speaks

The Phytl Signs device picks up the tiny electrical signals emitted by plants.

Houseplants have never been known as great conversationalists, but it's possible we just can't hear what they're saying. Swiss company, Vivent SARL, is hoping to rectify that with its Phytl Signs device that picks up the tiny electrical signals emitted by plants and broadcasts them through a speaker. The ultimate goal is to translate what the plants are actually "saying."

chat with plantschat with plants

speak with plantsspeak with plants

The system, which is currently the subject of a crowdfunding campaign, features two receptors – a stake that is inserted into the soil next to the plant, and a clip that gently connects to a leaf. These measure the voltage coming from the plant, which feeds into a signal processor. From there the plant-speak is output through a built-in speaker. A smartphone app can also receive raw data from a plant, allowing analysis of the signals using data analysis software.

Unlike current plant monitors on the market that measure environmental metrics like soil moisture and sunlight, the Phytl Signs device is claimed to pick up on whether your plant is thriving or stressed, active or quiet, or besieged by pests. The plant responds immediately to a change in lighting or the cutting of a leaf with a spike in sound, which is an electronic howl akin to a theramin. But decoding what the audio output means is still being worked out by the company.

To that end, the company encourages device owners to share their data with an online community of fellow users, allowing the company to crowdsource the data to help them decode and translate the plant signals so they can be understood.

Ultimately, if and when the signals are translated, it would allow plant owners to provide the best growing conditions possible. The company also envisions using the devices for agriculture research, and on a commercial scale to monitor crops and potentially improve yields and minimize water use. It can be used on any plant as long as the leaf is wide enough for the clip to connect.

The company has launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce its gadgets, improve its software and further study what the plant signals mean. The minimum pledge level for an Explorer kit is CHF129 (approx. US$130), with shipping slated for April, 2017 if everything goes as planned.

Source: Phytl Signs, gizmag

Google’s ‘FASTER’ undersea cable goes online with 60 Tbps of bandwidth


You probably have a wireless network at home, but for some applications a wired connection is still more reliable. It’s the same in internet backbone communications satellites help keep the world in sync, but the best connections across the globe rely upon undersea fiber optic cables. A new undersea cable constructed with Google’s backing has just gone online linking the US west coast with Japan.
The cable, which has the fitting name “FASTER,” can transmit 60 terabytes of data per second, more than any other active undersea cable. It’s about 10 million times faster than your home broadband connection on a good day. The new cable will benefit users near one end or the other when they need to ping a server on the other end. It doesn’t boost their own bandwidth, but it could allow them to take fuller advantage of it. FASTER also includes an additional connection from Japan to Taiwan, which has 20 Tbps of bandwidth and is owned completely by Google.

Google joined this ambitious construction project back in 2014 when it partnered with five other companies: NEC, China Mobile, China Telecom, Global Transit, and KDDI. The project has cost about $300 million to complete, but it will offer huge speed increases for data transmission between Asia and North America. Google’s participation in the project guarantees it 10 Tbps of dedicated bandwidth on the FASTER cable. Google is also planning to launch its Google Cloud Platform East Asia in Tokyo this year. The dedicated bandwidth from FASTER will result in faster transfers and lower latency for its customers.

Google FASTER undersea cable map

FASTER stretches some 9,00 kilometers (5,592 miles) across the ocean. The US end is in Bandon, Oregon, and the Japanese end plugs into Shima and Chikura. The US cable location places it very near to Google’s data center in The Dalles. FASTER uses six fiber pairs to push all that bandwidth using 100 different wavelengths of light. Every 60 kilometers, there’s a repeater that re-energizes the data to ensure no data is lost along the way, according to Google’s senior vice president of technical infrastructure Urs Hölzle.

This cable might be the speed king right now, but that won’t be the case for long. Earlier this year, Microsoft and Facebook announced they would be laying a cable from the US to southern Europe with a capacity of 160 Tbps across eight cable pairs. I guess Google will just have to limp along with FASTER.


12 April 2016

Experimental battery uses bacteria to charge and recharge

bacteria battery

Rechargeable battery technology has been improving incrementally in recent years, but we’re still working with the same heavy, dangerous, expensive materials. A group of researchers from The Netherlands has devised a new biological battery that charges and discharges with the aid of bacteria. They’ve tested this system on the small scale and managed 15 charge cycles in a row.

This “bioelectrochemical” battery consists of two parts. There’s a microbial electrical synthesis (MES) module that takes electrons and uses them to generate acetate. This is a metal salt that can be used to store electrical charge. The other side of the battery is a microbial fuel cell (utilizing various anaerobic bacteria) that processes that acetate via reduction/oxidation, resulting in the release of electrons. These are then fed into a circuit to harvest the power that was stored in the first step. More power can be added to the MES system to recharge, and the whole process starts over again.

The team tested this design by feeding power in over the course of 16 hours. It then provided power over the course of 8 hours. Does that sound like it might mesh well with any particular type of technology? Yep, it’s a great match for solar power, and indeed that’s the application the researchers have in mind. In areas that have lots of sunlight, there’s an almost unlimited supply of power during the day, but you have to store that power for use at night.

bacteria battery working

The bacterial battery described in the paper might be ideal for storing energy from solar power, but first some improvements need to be made. For one, the efficiency isn’t what we’d expect from a modern lithium-polymer battery. The team reports roughly 30-40% cycle efficiency, compared with upward of 80% in the best batteries we have now. The bacterial batteries would also need a bit more care than a lithium-ion system. If the bacteria inside were to die, the battery would stop working.

Despite these shortcomings, the study authors believe that this is an important first step. The study includes data from 15 charge cycles of the battery, and it maintained very consistent performance throughout. The self-renewing nature of bacterial colonies might mean this approach has better longevity than lithium-ion, which only works for a few hundred cycles.

With additional research, bioelectrochemical batteries may have similar capacity and efficiency compared with conventional ones, but with much lower costs and fewer volatile chemicals. Like so many other proposed battery technologies, this one is a few years off.

Source: extremetech

Ultrasound makes for palm-based computer displays you can feel

Ultrasound palm computer
Researchers at the University of Sussex are working to augment palm-based displays by adding tactile sensations to the mix.

From buzzing phones to quivering console controllers, haptic feedback has become indispensable in modern computing, and developers are already wondering how it will be felt in systems of the future. Sending ultrasound waves through the back of the hand to deliver tactile sensations to the front might sound a little far-fetched, but by achieving just that UK scientists claim to have cleared the way for computers that use our palms as advanced interactive displays.

For years now scientists have been chipping away at the idea of using human skin as a computer display. It sounds unlikely, but with technology becoming more miniaturized, the uptake in wearable devices and more time spent gazing into computer screens, in some ways it seems natural that we use our most readily available surfaces as gateways to the digital realm.

While we're not expecting the very next Fitbit to project your calories burned onto your forearm, some promising prototypes have emerged in this area. The Skinput display system from 2010 used a bio-acoustic sensing array to translate finger taps on the palm into input commands, while the Cicret wristband concept from 2014 envisioned beaming an Android interface onto the arm and used proximity sensors to follow finger movements.

Researchers at the University of Sussex are working to improve palm-based displays by adding tactile sensations to the mix. Importantly, they are aiming to do so without using vibrations or pins, approaches they say have plagued previous efforts as they require contact with the palm and therefore disrupt the display.

So they are looking to sneak in the back door. Their SkinHaptics system relies on an array of ultrasound transmitters that when applied to the back of the hand, send sensations to the palm, which can therefore be left exposed to display the screen.

The team says it was able to achieve this through something it calls time-reversal processing. As the ultrasound waves enter through the back of the hand they begin as broad pulses that actually become more targeted as they move through to the other side, landing at a specific point on the palm. The researchers liken it to water ripples working in reverse.

"Wearables are already big business and will only get bigger," says Professor Sriram Subramanian, who led the research. "But as we wear technology more, it gets smaller and we look at it less, and therefore multisensory capabilities become much more important. If you imagine you are on your bike and want to change the volume control on your smartwatch, the interaction space on the watch is very small. So companies are looking at how to extend this space to the hand of the user. What we offer people is the ability to feel their actions when they are interacting with the hand."

You can see a prototype of the SkinHaptics system demonstrated in the video below.

Source: University of Sussex, gizmag

24 March 2016

In the future, we might clean our clothes using nothing but light

silver nanoparticles in fabric

Red indicates the coverage of silver nanoparticles in a fabric in this image that's been magnified 200 times (Credit: RMIT University).

Even though we no longer have to beat our clothes on rocks to get them clean, laundry is still a pretty tedious chore. If researchers at Australia's Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) have their way though, the amount of time we spend measuring capfuls of liquid, scraping out the lint filter and refolding our duds may soon get slashed thanks to a new coating that cleans fabrics whenever they're exposed to light.

Imagine being able to simply hang your shirt in a lit closet to get it clean. Or taking a walk on a sunny day and arriving home with a perfectly clean shirt. Both things might be possible with RMIT's new technology that grows copper and silver-based nanostructures on fabrics.

When the tiny metallic constructs are exposed to light either from a manmade or natural source they create "hot electrons" that in turn release energy bursts that dissolve organic matter. So that grass stain you got from playing football would be blasted away, but the ink from changing the cartridges in your printer might not.

To create the self-cleaning fabric, the MIT team dipped the cloth into various solutions which caused the nanostructures to grow on the textile. It took about 30 minutes for the nanostructures to form. After that, they deliberately stained the fabric and witnessed the cleaning action take place in as little as six minutes.

The team says the technique is cheap and efficient and can easily be scaled up to an industrial scale, and it is these attributes that give it advantages over similar self-cleaning fabric technologies.

cotton coated with silver nanoparticles
This image of the cotton coated with silver nanoparticles is magnified 150,000 times

Although you won't be seeing self-cleaning clothes hitting the rack in your local shops just yet, RMIT researcher Dr Rajesh Ramanathan said that the next step for he and his team is to test the fabrics with staining agents relevant to consumers, like tomato sauce or wine.

"There's more work to do to before we can start throwing out our washing machines, but this advance lays a strong foundation for the future development of fully self-cleaning textiles," he said.

Source: RMIT University

20 March 2016

Methane explosion craters off Norwegian coast linked to fringe Bermuda Triangle theory

Norwegian coast Bermuda Triangle theory

Scientists at the Arctic University of Norway have stirred things up this week by announcing that they’ve found giant underwater craters off their coast, which they believe were formed by exploding natural gas buried in the seafloor. This is not itself controversial. What’s controversial is that the scientists suggested the phenomenon could explain the Bermuda Triangle.

The researchers described craters in the Barents Sea that are up to half a mile wide and 150 feet deep. The craters appear to have been caused by the explosive release of methane hydrate, also known as methane clathrate or natural gas, that had been deposited long ago in the sediment below.

Norwegian coast Bermuda Triangle theory

The Bermuda Triangle. Image: Wikipedia

We don’t know yet whether these methane explosions even happen in the Bermuda Triangle region. If they did, though, the scientists suggest that the violent disturbances to the water and atmosphere could buffet a ship or a plane, capsizing it or causing some other sudden calamity. While the risk to passing ships has yet to be conclusively established, though, gas hydrates are very real. We used to think methane hydrates were only found on ice planets, but more recent exploration and research have determined that we do find these crystalline deposits of methane in Earth’s ocean floors.


Methane - four hydrogen atoms connected to a single carbon atom is one of the simplest organic compounds

Methane is a colorless, odorless gas, and it’s also nonpolar normally, it behaves like oil in water, stubbornly refusing to mix or blend. But a great deal of Earth’s methane was produced by the long-ago decomposition of vast, ancient beds of plankton buried in the seafloor under the crushing pressures of the deep ocean. The sheer pressure means that molecules of methane are physically forced to mingle with water molecules hence the name, hydrate. The resultant substance is kept stable in a solid, even crystalline form by the weight of all that water. This is also why we don’t find methane clathrates in shallow seas; the pressures there aren’t enough to keep the methane solid. But with the right kind of disturbance, parts of the deep-ocean crystalline hydrate deposits can break off and even explode violently as they transition from solid to gas. Oil workers call these gas explosions “burps of death.”

There have been a number of conspiracy theories about the Bermuda Triangle, some better substantiated than others, but many experts remain unconvinced the zone even exists as an anomaly. It’s a heavily trafficked region and has been for a long time. Comparing the data shows that ships and planes disappear from the Bermuda Triangle at about the same frequency as they disappear from anywhere else, raising questions about whether the Triangle is nothing more than a collective case of confirmation bias. And the waters might not even be deep enough for the methane hydrate deposits to form in the first place. If the scientists are right, though, as climate change warms the oceans (helped along by, poetically, methane as a potent greenhouse gas), more and more of these tumultuous releases of methane will occur, making them more easily studied.

(Top Image credit: NOAA/Hurricane Joaquin, 2015)

Source: Extremetech

12 February 2016

World record Internet data transfer rate almost 50,000 times faster than broadband

Internet data transfer rate almost 50,000 times faster than broadband

Using advanced digital signal processing techniques, researchers have created an optical data transmission system able to transfer information at a rate of 1.125 terabytes per second (Credit: Shutterstock)

At a blistering 1.125 terabytes per second, a new optical communication system developed by University College London (UCL) researchers has created a new record for the fastest ever data transfer rate for digital information. At the quoted rate, say the researchers, the entire HD series of the TV show Game of Thrones could be downloaded in less than one second.

To help achieve these incredibly fast transfer rates, the researchers took recent developments from the realm of information theory in regard to the maximum amount of information that can be transmitted being limited by the finite signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), and applied advanced digital signal processing techniques to optimize the SNR and maximize data throughput.

In other words, the team determined the most efficient way to encode data in optical signals, taking into account the limitations of the transmitter and receiver. They then cleverly used noise reduction techniques normally found in wireless communications and applied them to optical transmission. In this way, the team was able to ensure that the transmitted signals were able to be minimally effected by distortions in the system electronics.

"While current state-of-the-art commercial optical transmission systems are capable of receiving single channel data rates of up to 100 gigabits per second, we are working with sophisticated equipment in our lab to design the next generation core networking and communications systems that can handle data signals at rates in excess of 1 terabit per second," said Lead researcher, Dr Robert Maher, of UCL Electronic & Electrical Engineering. "For comparison this is almost 50,000 times greater than the average speed of a UK broadband connection of 24 megabits per second, which is the current speed defining "superfast" broadband."

Building on previous work, where the team transmitted optical signals over a world-record 5,890 km (3,660 mi) error-free, the new system employs a total of fifteen separate data transmission channels, with each carrying an encoded optical signal of different wavelengths. Modulated using the 256QAM format normally employed in cable modems, the 15 signals were combined and then sent to a single optical receiver for detection. In this way, by arraying the transmission channels, the researchers created a "super-channel" that they believe may form the basis for future high-capacity communication systems.

"Using high-bandwidth super-receivers enables us to receive an entire super-channel in one go," said Dr Maher. "Super-channels are becoming increasingly important for core optical communications systems, which transfer bulk data flows between large cities, countries or even continents. However, using a single receiver varies the levels of performance of each optical sub-channel so we had to finely optimize both the modulation format and code rate for each optical channel individually to maximize the net information data rate. This ultimately resulted in us achieving the greatest information rate ever recorded using a single receiver."

Though initial research has been conducted with the transmitter feeding directly to the receiver in order to realize the maximum data transfer rate, the team now intends to run the system with long cable lengths. In this way, performance tests will be conducted to measure the achievable data rates over long distances where distortion is introduced by the optical cables themselves.

The results of this research were recently published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

Source: University College London, gizmag

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