Tag: computers

"Sexy Math" Helps App Amp Up Car Services

By Patrick Morgan | April 5, 2011 5:16 pm

What’s the News: Cool new apps come out every day, but not every app comes with its own car service. Starting in San Francisco, one company lets pedestrians hail a car using their iPhone or Android phone (or any old text-messaging clunker), providing a more expensive, yet faster alternative to cabs. To make this possible, computer scientists had to find a way to make driving routes as efficient as possible, which is actually quite complicated when you’re dealing with a city-ful of car-hailing people. As Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told Wired, “It’s really fun, sexy math.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Technology

Physicists Find New Way to Store Quantum Information in Impure Diamonds

By Valerie Ross | March 28, 2011 4:39 pm

What’s the News: Physicists have worked out a new method of storing information in the quantum states of atoms in diamond crystals. The scientists linked the spin of individual nitrogen atoms in the diamond—impurities at the jewelry counter, but boons in the physics lab—to the spin of nearby electrons. They could form a quantum link between the spin of the nitrogen atom and the spin of a nearby electron, letting the electron store information more stably than if it were spinning on its own.

How the Heck:

  • When a nitrogen is next to an empty spot in a diamond’s carbon framework, it lets off an extra electron, leaving that electron free to have its quantum played around with.
  • Using what they call “intense microwave fields” [PDF], the physicists were able to link the spin of a nitrogen atom to a neighboring electron, a pairing sparked by magnetic fields.

What’s the Context:

  • Scientists have been looking at diamonds—with and without nitrogen impurities—as a quantum computing material for several years, in part because it can store quantum memory at room temperature, not the far-below-freezing temps required by some other materials.
  • Some have even proposed the idea of diamond supercomputers, which would store millions of times as much data as today’s machines.
  • One hurdle in quantum computing is getting the information to last long enough to use it. In the recent study, the nuclear spin stayed coherent for more than a millisecond—enough time for a ten petaflop supercomputer to do ten trillion operations.

Not so Fast:

  • Don’t start rooting around in your hard drive for a rock just yet; diamond-based quantum computing is still a long way off.

Reference: “Quantum control and nanoscale placement of single spins in diamond.” David D. Awschalom, invited talk, American Physical Society March Meeting 2011

Image: Flickr / Swamibu


Nerve Cells Reach Out and Touch Someone: Electronic Components

By Patrick Morgan | March 24, 2011 10:44 am

What’s the News: Scientists have discovered a new technique for linking semiconducting tubes with mouse nerve cell tendrils: They let the cells do the work for them. After creating biologically friendly semiconductor tubes, they found that nerve cells’ tendril-like axons didn’t shy away. “They seem to like the tubes,” University of Wisconsin-Madison biomedical engineer Justin Williams told Science News. This represents a step toward new technology involving computer-brain networks.

How the Heck: The trick was to create tubes of layered germanium and silicone (which insulate the nerve’s electrical signals) that were big enough for the nerve cell’s threadlike projections to enter but too small for the cell body: When seeded with live mouse nerve cells, the only way the cells could interact with the tubes was be sending tendrils into it—which is just what they did.

What’s the Context:

Not So Fast: The researchers don’t yet know whether the connected nerves are actually talking with each other.

Next Up: Now they want to hook the tubes to voltage sensors that can “listen” to the cells communicating with each other. If successful, this could lead to new drug tests where doctors can actually measure how nerve cells respond to certain types of drugs, leading to further innovations in the battle against neurological diseases like Parkinson’s.

Image: Minrui Yu, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Reference: “Semiconductor Nanomembrane Tubes: Three-Dimensional Confinement for Controlled Neurite Outgrowth”  Minrui Yu et al. DOI: 10.1021/nn103618d


Engineers Can Now Wirelessly Hack Your Car

By Patrick Morgan | March 16, 2011 4:11 pm

It wasn’t too surprising when scientists first hacked into a car using its own onboard diagnostic port—sure, it’s easy to get into a car’s electronic brain if you’re already inside the car. Now the science of car-hacking has received a digital upgrade: Researchers have have gained access to modern, electronics-riddled cars from the outside. And in so doing, they’ve managed to take control of a car’s door locks, dashboard displays, and even its brakes.

The oddest part of these findings, which were presented this week to the National Academy of Science’s Committee on Electronic Vehicle Controls and Unintended Acceleration, is that they weren’t entirely intentional: It was all part of an investigation prompted by the Toyota acceleration problems, and was meant to probe the safety of electronic automotive systems. But testing those system’s safety also uncovered some flaws.

How It Works

The researchers took a 2009 sedan (they declined to identify the make and embarrass the manufacturer) and methodically tried to hack into it using every trick they could think of. They discovered a couple good ones.

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News Roundup: Japan Nuclear Fears, Sperm-Whale Names, Internet on Steroids

By Patrick Morgan | March 14, 2011 9:21 pm
  • Japan update: Authorities have been having trouble keeping enough water around Fukushima Daiichi’s  nuclear fuel rods, leading Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano to respond, when asked whether they were melting: “Although we cannot directly check it, it’s highly likely happening.” Still, radiation levels remain at “tolerable levels.”
  • Call me Ishmael: Slight variations in sperm-whale calls may act as “whale names,” or personal identifiers that allow these social creatures to tell individuals apart.
  • Star wars turns to trash: NASA is looking to create a cheap, ground-based laser that would be capable of blasting (ok, slightly nudging, slowing down, and de-orbiting) Earth-orbiting space junk in danger of crashing.
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, News Roundup

Robots That Talk Like Cave-Dwelling Crickets: Using Silent Puffs Of Air

By Patrick Morgan | March 9, 2011 5:32 pm

Ant trails, airborne chemicals, wood vibrations—scientists have a long history of borrowing clever communication techniques from the animal kingdom. Inspired by the odd social habits of a cave-dwelling cricket, scientists have now taught robots to communicate by firing rings of pressurized air at each other.

The cricket in question is the African cave cricket (Phaeophilacris spectrum), which rapidly flicks its wings to launch donut-shaped air rings, a type of vortex, to both potential mates and enemies. Reduced to two kinds of messages, its “language” is pretty simple: It sends isolated vortices to threaten its rival, and a rapid sequence of vortices to woo would-be lovers.

When Andy Russell, an engineer at Monash University in Australia, learned about the cricket, he thought this technique would improve robots’ ability to communicate in noisy environments—but that wasn’t the only benefit. “Like the cave crickets, there may be times when a robot does not want its communications intercepted,” Russell told New Scientist. Researchers speculate that the cricket uses vortices to communicate undetected by predators—so why not robots? Chris Melhuish, a researcher at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the UK said, “This could be a useful addition to the communication armoury of future robotic systems.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Technology

So, Did Tech-Lovers Get What They Wanted With Apple's iPad 2?

By Andrew Moseman | March 2, 2011 2:53 pm

Tech bloggers can relax those fingers and recover from endurance live-blogging: The iPad 2 has been revealed by the turtlenecked wonder himself, Steve Jobs. Now that the world has had a look at the next-gen tablet, do its improvements satisfy the wants of the computing masses?

No surprise, the specs are impressive. Apple’s iPad 2 is one-third skinnier and 0.2 pounds lighter than its predecessor. It boasts cameras on both the front and the back, and a video camera which can sync up with iPhones for video chat. It has a 1GHz dual core processor but maintains the 10-hour battery life of the original. The base price is the same, $499, and it goes on sale in the U.S. on March 11. And yes, the rumors are true: It’s coming out in white as well as black.

The toys aren’t bad, either. The new version of iPad’s operating system includes Photo Booth, the standby application for taking gratuitous photos of yourself and mutilating them in new and interesting ways. The app iMovie—which has long been on Apple laptops—is on iPad now, too, allowing users edit film on the tablet. And Jobs gleefully spent much of the presentation fiddling with the iPad version of Apple’s music creation program, Garage Band.

You can play a piano on the iPad, as well as a whole mess of other instruments. There’s a button for a sustain pedal, and the virtual keys are touch sensitive. Play a key softly, the sound is soft. Play it hard, and the sound changes. The iPad uses its accelerometer to measure the force with which the keys are struck. [The New York Times live blog]

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"What Is Champion?" IBM's Watson Seals Its Jeopardy Victory

By Andrew Moseman | February 17, 2011 10:35 am

The scores (and the facial expressions of the beleaguered humans) say it all: Last night on Jeopardy, IBM’s Watson supercomputer completed its dominating victory over former champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The carbon-based life forms managed a few correct answers during the final game of the three-day match, but not nearly enough to overcome Watson’s smarts and speed.

Facing certain defeat at the hands of a room-size IBM computer on Wednesday evening, Ken Jennings, famous for winning 74 games in a row on the TV quiz show, acknowledged the obvious. “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords,” he wrote on his video screen. [The New York Times]

Jennings, who spent much of the three-day extravaganza grimacing with frustration at not being able to buzz in ahead of Watson, wrote up his experiences for Slate today. Once the machine acquired the human skill of parsing Jeopardy questions, he writes, there was really no stopping it. If Watson knew the correct response, it was going to ring in first.

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MORE ABOUT: computers, IBM, Jeopardy!, Watson

Jeopardy, Day 2: IBM's Watson Hammers Pitiful Human Competition

By Andrew Moseman | February 16, 2011 9:52 am

Perhaps even a supercomputer needs a little time to get loosened during a big performance. After an admirable but not perfect round of Jeopardy on Monday in which it finished tied for the lead, IBM‘s Watson computer crushed human champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Tuesday’s episode and takes a huge lead into the final episode tonight.

Last night’s play began with Watson and Rutter at $5,000 apiece, with Jennings trailing at $2,000. After Watson’s dominance, last night’s show ended with the machine having tallied $35,734 to $10,400 for Rutter and $4,800 for Jennings.

Watson elegantly saw off the puny humans with responses on the likes of Franz Liszt, dengue fever, violin, Rachmaninoff and albinism. Even host Alex Trebek seemed spent: with Watson wanting to wage the extremely specific amount of $6,435 on a Daily Double, the laconic Trebek simply replied, “I won’t ask” (naturally, Watson was spot on here too). [TIME]

Though Watson steamrolled the best competition humanity could provide, its foibles are as telling as its dominance—especially when the seemingly unstoppable machine makes mistakes that would be laughable from a human contestant.

Watson’s one notable error came right at the end, when it was asked to name the city that features two airports with names relating to World War II. Jennings and Rutter bet almost all their money on Chicago, which was the correct answer. Watson went for Toronto. Even so, the error showed another side to Watson’s intelligence: knowing that it was unsure about the answer, the machine wagered less than $1000 on its answer. [New Scientist]

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MORE ABOUT: computers, IBM, Jeopardy!, Watson

How the Stuxnet Worm Formed Its Attacks—and Who Might Have It Now

By Andrew Moseman | February 15, 2011 1:57 pm

Stuxnet seems to become scarier every time you hear about it. The sophisticated piece of malware came to the world’s attention in September; shortly thereafter we heard that it was perfectly designed to attack nuclear centrifuges, and in fact had disrupted some nuclear research in Iran. Now comes more news about how it works, and who might be using it next.

The security group Symantec has been trying to analyze and understand the waves of Stuxnet attacks against Iran, and now its researchers have found the base of the attacks, according to Symantec’s Orla Cox.

The new research, which analysed 12,000 infections collected by various anti-virus firms, shows that the worm targeted five “industrial processing” organisations in Iran. “These were the seeds of all other infections,” said Ms Cox. The firm was able to identify the targets because Stuxnet collected information about each computer it infected, including its name, location and a time stamp of when it was compromised. [BBC News]

Though Symantec isn’t naming the five targets in Iran, another security expert studying Stuxnet’s code, Ralph Langner, told CNET the likely target of the whole attack was the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant.

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