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A photo illustration shows a money sign on a blue background.

Citi Launches Blockchain-Based Payments Service with Nasdaq for Private Equity

A major U.S. bank and financial exchange have married two blockchain-based systems to enable clients who are raising funds or swapping private shares through Nasdaq to take advantage of payment services provided by Citi.

The Citi-Nasdaq partnership is one of the first examples of an enterprise blockchain system to enter production. Citi says the project went live on Monday in an announcement at the annual Consensus conference in New York City.

Over the past year, many banks and financial institutions have completed proofs of concept for projects that rely on blockchain or distributed ledger technology. But so far, few of those projects have graduated into functioning systems.

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An out of focus face behind a hand holding a green and black computer chip.

Memristor Image Processor Uses Sparse Coding to See

Every time you open your eyes, a magnificent feat of low-power pattern matching begins in your brain. But it’s very difficult to replicate that same system in conventional computers.

Now researchers led by Wei Lu at the University of Michigan have designed hardware specifically to run brain-like “sparse coding” algorithms. Their system learns and stores visual patterns, and can recognize natural images while using very little power compared to machine learning programs run on GPUs and CPUs. Lu hopes these designs, described this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, will be layered on image sensors in self-driving cars.

The key, he says, is thinking about hardware and software in tandem. “Most approaches to machine learning are about the algorithm,” says Lu. Conventional processors use a lot of energy to run these algorithms, because they are not designed to process large amounts of data, he says. “I want to design efficient hardware that naturally fits with the algorithm,” he says. Running a machine-learning algorithm on a powerful processor can require 300 watts of power, says Lu. His prototype uses 20 milliwatts to process video in real time. Lu says that’s due to a few years of careful work modifying the hardware and software designs together.

The device design is based on a 32-by-32 array of resistive RAM memory cells based on tungsten oxides. The resistance of these cells can be changed by applying a voltage. “As memory, the device is already pretty mature—it’s available commercially at a large scale,” says Lu. (He co-founded Crossbar, a company that sells resistive RAM.) In a traditional memory application, high resistance in a a resistive RAM cell might represent a 0 and low resistance a 1.

These cells can also be operated in analog mode, taking advantage of a continuum of electrical resistance. This allows them to behave as memristors, a kind of electronic component with a memory. In memristors, the resistance of the cell can be used to modulate signals—in other words, they can both store and process data. That contrasts with conventional computing, where there is a strict delineation between logic and memory.

The Michigan group used the memristor arrays to run a kind of algorithm that performs pattern matching. The algorithm is based on vector multiplication, a way of checking the stored data against incoming data. “The vector multiplication process directly tells you which stored pattern matches the input pattern,” says Lu.

Then the Michigan group took things a step further, programming the memristor array using a brain-inspired approach called sparse coding to save energy. “The firing of neurons is sparse,” he says. In the brain, only a small number of neurons fire in response to an image when matchin it to something you’ve seen before. In Lu’s system only the memory cells storing the relevant visual patterns become active. The sparse code was “mapped” onto the memristor array by training it against a set of sample images.

Lu says these memristor arrays can be stacked on an image sensor, since they don’t use much energy. Instead of sending all the image data to the processor, like in existing designs, the sparse coding hardware could sort out the most important parts and pass those along. He expects this will enable more energy-efficient and speedier video systems for self-driving cars. Lu’s group is currently working on integrated designs.

A white Phazr base station is shown in front of the Ridgeland, Mississippi headquarters of C Spire during a trial last week.

C Spire and Phazr Complete 5G Trial with Millimeter Waves in Mississippi

C Spire, a privately-held wireless provider that serves the American South, completed a technical trial with Phazr last week at C Spire’s headquarters in Ridgeland, Miss. The goal was to test the startup’s millimeter wave base station technology, which could become a key component of future 5G networks.

Though several national carriers have announced 5G trials in major cities across the U.S., C Spire is a rare example of a regional provider investing in new 5G technology primarily for rural areas.

“When you look at this tech, I think it holds a lot of opportunities for serving that market,” says Stephen Bye, C Spire’s president. “We're very bullish about it.”

Millimeter waves are high-frequency waves that fall between 30 and 300 gigahertz, where spectrum remains empty—unlike bands below 6 GHz, which have become crowded with wireless signals. Phazr’s technology, called Quadplex, uses these waves to deliver over-the-air Internet service to homes and businesses within range of a Phazr base station.

C Spire has a problem that it hopes Quadplex can help solve. Though C Spire owns fiber optic cables that run by many rural communities, countless areas still lack broadband service because it’s financially impractical for the company to extend that cable to serve a smattering of households.

“It's just buried gold for a lot of small towns and rural folks,” says Craig Sparks, vice president of technology strategy and planning for C Spire. “We just need to pop it up with solutions that make delivering it quicker.”

In the United States, the average broadband connection delivers data at a clip of 55 megabits per second. But the average Internet speed in Mississippi, which makes up the bulk of C Spire’s service area, is only 26 Mbps.

With Phazr’s technology, C Spire could, in a sense, bring its buried cables to the surface by providing wireless service to homes in the area. Sparks hopes it will allow the company to deliver service with downlink speeds of hundreds of megabits per second to homes that are getting by today on only a fraction of those rates.

A unique aspect of Phazr’s approach is that the company uses only millimeter waves for the downlink carrying data from a base station to its customers. For the uplink, or data sent from customers to a base station, Phazr relies on the traditional cellular frequencies used today.

This strategy has proven popular with wireless providers eager to roll out improved services while 5G standards are still in the works. C Spire, which refers to its work with Phazr as “pre-5G,” sounds particularly optimistic about the company’s ability to help.

“The system’s performing, and we’re seeing the numbers we want,” said Sparks in the midst of the Phazr trials.

For now, Phazr’s setup is only meant to provide wireless service to devices that are inside of a home or other building. The version that C Spire tested does not provide the on-the-go mobile broadband that smartphones require.

A Phazr base station broadcasts signals over millimeter waves to a device called a Gazer that is placed at a customer’s home. The Gazer converts the signal to a lower frequency and then rebroadcasts the signals on Wi-Fi to nearby wireless devices.

To upload data, a device in the home sends it over Wi-Fi to a Gazer mounted on a wall or window, which converts it to a traditional cellular frequency and then sends it back to the Phazr base station. 

Sparks says that for C Spire to deploy Phazr’s technology across its network, its base stations would need to be modestly priced and capable of serving customers up to a kilometer away. During last week’s trials, Phazr showed speeds of 250 Mbps as far as a kilometer away from a base station, with a clear line of sight.

Farooq Khan, CEO of Phazr, says he believes the economic sweet spot for any provider to deploy Phazr’s technology will be if they can find areas where the combined cost of installing base stations and providing customers with Gazers works out to be $1,000 or less per subscriber. 

When Khan, a soft-spoken former Samsung engineer, first began working on millimeter waves, conventional wisdom in the field held that higher frequencies were cursed with higher signal propagation losses. But Khan realized that, by using directional beams that focus a wave’s energy on one device, such as a Gazer, it’s possible to still deliver reliable service from a distance. 

Now, each Phazr base station, called a Rabacks, has 384 millimeter wave antennas and 108 low-frequency antennas that form these directional beams. A Phazr cell site, consisting of three base stations, can support up to 36 beams, which together provide 360-degree coverage.

Rabacks can operate at any frequency between 24 and 40 GHz. For its tests with C Spire, Phazr used 28 GHz. This week, Verizon and Phazr will begin trials near Fort Worth, Texas using Phazr’s equipment at both 28 GHz and 39 GHz. Verizon recently paid $3.1 billion to acquire Straight Path Communications and its spectrum holdings at 39 GHz.

Sanyogita Shamsunder, Verizon’s director of network planning, downplayed the significance of its trials with Phazr in a recent interview. “We test a lot of different technologies in the network,” she says. “It’s routine for us.” She also wouldn’t say what role, if any, Phazr’s tech would have in a series of 11 fixed wireless trials that Verizon will conduct this year.

In one test with C Spire, Phazr sent six high-definition video streams, at 28 GHz, from a Raback to a Gazer mounted to the inside of a trailer containing six televisions. The Gazer rebroadcast the streams over Wi-Fi to the televisions nearby. Meanwhile, the base station also broadcast an “always on” application, which is an app that runs continuously in the background, to three Gazers. During this test, overall throughput for the network of three Gazers connected to one Raback reached 2.53 gigabits per second.

In a real-world deployment, as more customers, and Gazers, are added to a base station, performance will change. Khan says one Raback maintain download speeds of 1 Gbps to as many as six Gazers at a time in a sparsely populated area, or provide speeds of 100 megabits per second to as many as 60 Gazers at once in a more crowded community. In reality, not all customers use their devices at the same time, so providers often oversubscribe their networks by a factor of five or 10.

Though beamforming has helped Phazr to overcome the signal losses known to plague high frequencies, one thing still stands in the company’s way: leafy trees. Foliage causes higher signal losses for millimeter waves than traditional cell signals, and Khan admits it is a problem.

To avoid as many trees as possible during leafy summers in Mississippi, Phazr plans to attach its base stations to water towers or other tall fixtures in rural areas, and advise customers to install Gazers high up in their homes for the best service.

“We think if you can put this on top of water towers, those heights are hundreds of feet, we expect the range could be several kilometers,” Khan says.

Khan says even without a clear line of sight, and surrounded by lots of foilage, their base station has delivered hundreds of megabits per second to devices 300 to 400 meters away.

Moving forward, says Khan, Phazr will launch a commercial product for millimeter waves and fixed wireless that will be ready by the second half of 2017. Around the same time, Sparks says C Spire plans to begin trials with friendly users who can test the system’s performance in real-world settings.

Editor's note: This story was updated on 5/24 to correct Stephen Bye’s title (he was formerly CTO and is now president of C Spire) and to change “uplink” to "downlink” in referring to the speeds that Sparks hopes to achieve with Phazr’s system.

This prototype chip learns a style of music, then composes its own tunes.

A Neuromorphic Chip that Makes Music

A chip made by researchers at IMEC in Belgium uses brain-inspired circuits to compose melodies. The prototype neuromorphic chip learns the rules of musical composition by detecting patterns in the songs it’s exposed to. It then creates its own song in the same style. It’s an early demo from a  project to develop low-power, general purpose learning accelerators that could help tailor medical sensors to their wearers and enable personal electronics to learn their users’ patterns of behavior.

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Computer immersed in liquid cooling system with blue light emanating from tank

Fujitsu Liquid Immersion Not All Hot Air When It Comes to Cooling Data Centers

Given the prodigious heat generated by the trillions of transistors switching on and off 24 hours a day in data centers, air conditioning has become a major operating expense. Consequently, engineers have come up with several imaginative ways to ameliorate such costs, which can amount to a third or more of data center operations. 

One favored method is to set up hot and cold aisles of moving air through a center to achieve maximum cooling efficiency. Meanwhile, Facebook has chosen to set up a data center in Lulea, northern Sweden on the fringe of the Arctic Circle to take advantage of the natural cold conditions there; and Microsoft engineers have seriously proposed putting server farms under water.

Fujitsu, on the other hand, is preparing to launch a less exotic solution: a liquid immersion cooling system it says will usher in a “next generation of ultra-dense data centers.” 

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A white box with an open side displaying many green circuit boards stacked edge on.

A Circuit That Sees Radiation Strikes Could Keep Errors at Bay

For a short time, it looked like the worlds electronics would be safe (well, safer) from radiation. With the switch from planar transistors to FinFETs, ICs suddenly became naturally resistant (literally) to having their bits flipped by a neutron splashing into them and blasting lose a small cloud of charge. But two things are now making them vulnerable again: One is the move to operating at voltages so low, that it’s easier for a pulse of radiation-induced charge to flip a transistor on or off. The other is how the unprecedented density of those transistors is giving radiation more targets than ever.

Engineers at the University of Minnesota are nearing a solution that could help bring down the rate of so-called logic soft errors—signals temporarily flipped by a radiation strike. It’s a circuit called a back-sampling chain that has, for the first time, allowed them to reconstruct the strike pulse—called a single event transient—resulting from the radiation strike. In research to be presented in June at the IEEE VLSI Symposia in Kyoto, Kim’s team shows that the back-sampling chain (BSC) circuit—a kind of cross-connected chain of inverters—can detect orders of magnitude higher number of strikes compared to previous approaches.

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New fintech regulations give cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin an aura of respectability--and the market is responding

Japan Takes Lead in Legitimizing Digital Currencies

The financial industry is usually no cheerleader of new regulations imposed on it by government authorities. But when the Japanese government amended its Payment Service Act by promulgating the Virtual Currency Act this April, fintech (financial technology) service companies and institutional investors generally welcomed the move. 

“Normally, regulation is not a good thing,” says Mike Kayamori, CEO and co-founder of Quoine (pronounced “coin”), a Singapore-based B2B fintech startup that also has operations in Japan and Vietnam. “But for cryptocurrencies regulation is a blessing.” 

Until now, these virtual currencies have been operating in a gray market, a situation that has made long established companies in the financial industry hesitant to take them up. 

“We need to work within [financial] regulations,” says Kayamori. Quoine, which is funded with $20-million, provides a cryptocurrency exchange platform for other companies to trade off of or to use as a white label technology for their own customers. “We need to work in the financial eco-system. No financial services or institutions will work or partner with a company that’s in a gray zone.”

The Japanese bill currently recognizes only certain well-established cryptocurrencies, namely Bitcoin and Ethereum, as legal means of payment, and as products that can be bought and sold without Japan’s 8 percent consumption tax coming into play. 

Nevertheless, the new law falls short of declaring these volatile currencies to be legal tender. And though the amendment now sanctions the use of cryptocurrency exchanges, it also imposes regulations on the operators. These injunctions include mandatory registration with the government, minimum capital of 10 million yen ($90,000), a secure IT system to prevent theft, and mandatory annual auditing by a certified accountant. 

Despite the ultra-cautious reputation Japan’s conservative financial authorities and institutions have earned over the years, this move to legitimize cryptocurrencies through government registration and regulation makes Japan the first nation to take such bold steps, notes Kayamori. While registration is also being introduced in the United States, it is being conducted on a state-by-state basis, which makes obtaining all the proper paperwork a byzantine process. 

“It’s very difficult in the U.S., where there are a lot of government bodies you need to get approval from,” he adds. “Whereas in Japan, you just need the FSA (Financial Services Agency) approval. And that’s it.”

What changed the Japanese governent’s attitude toward virtual currency? The Mt. Gox calamity in 2014. The Bitcoin exchange company based in Japan folded after more than 800,000 Bitcoins went missing. The financial disaster led to the arrest of the company’s CEO Mark Karples on charges of embezzlement, and the news damaged the reputation of cryptocurrencies for a time. Notably, this occurred at a time when regulations were nonexistent in Japan. “So Japan, almost out of necessity, had to regulate the cryptocurrency market,” says Kayamori. 

To date, at least 16 companies including Quoine have registered with the FSA to set up cryptocurrency exchanges. They have a six-month grace period for their registrations to be accepted, or be forced to withdraw their services should registration be denied, Kayamori explained. 

Quoine’s current and only product is a B2B trading platform for the exchange of fiat and crypto currencies. According to Kayamori, it is the most advanced platform in the industry, and can conduct one million transactions a second, and boasts a 99.96 percent uptime.

In June, the two-and-a-half-year-old start-up will launch Qryptos, an exchange for trading between ten cryptocurrencies minus fiat currency involvement. However, Qryptos will not be available in Japan, given that the government is presently recognizing only Bitcoin and Ethereum as sound products.

In the January to March quarter, Quoine conducted transactions swapping ten cryptocurrencies for mostly Japanese yen and U.S. dollar fiat currencies to the value of $5.6 billion. That’s a tiny amount when compared to the financial industry’s overall volume of transactions. “But from a startup perspective, we are already operationally profitable, and growth is enormous,” says Kayamori.

On 11 May, Coindesk, an online news site focusing on digital currencies, tracked the price of Bitcoin passing the $1,800 mark for the first time, and the price of other cryptocurrencies also rose sharply. In January, the value of Bitcoin was less than $1,000. Financial analyst Brian Kelly told CNBC in the US that he believed the rally was a result of Japan legalizing Bitcoin, which encouraged institutional investors to buy the virtual currency.

But Kayamori also injected a cautionary note when talking about such wild fluctuations. “People can say this an irrational market, but markets tend to be irrational. As I’ve said, it is difficult to know if this is a bubble or not.”

Simulations suggest old ICs should consume less power than they did in their youth

The Benefits of Old Age (for Transistors)

“What a drag it is getting old.”—Mick Jagger

“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil”—Alfred Lord Tennyson

In case you didn’t know, the transistors in your computer’s processor, your smartphone’s memory, and your car’s autobrake system get old. The systems are designed so that you’ll probably never notice, but it’s true. Just like we do, they accumulate defects, slow down, and even fail altogether. [For the why’s and hows see “Transistor Aging,” IEEE Spectrum, May 2011.]

But aging isn’t all bad—at least for us meat-brains. “People get older, but they also get wiser,” says Bashir Al-Hashimi, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southampton, in England. “As you age there are a lot of bad things, but there are also some good things.” He decided to see if the same was true of transistors, and found evidence that one aspect of their power consumption improves with age.

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3D printed metamaterial door lock mechanism

Mechanical Metamaterials and Other 3D Printing Tech from CHI 2017

The ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems is taking place in Denver this week, and just like last year, it’s host to some amazing, incredible, and utterly bizarre technology demos. This year’s theme is “Explore, Innovate, Inspire,” which is just exactly the sort of theme you want when you really have no idea what the theme should be. We’ve gone through hundreds of 30-second video clips to find the most interesting, craziest stuff, and today, we're bringing you everything brand new and amazing in 3D printing, along with the project abstracts for all the details. Don’t forget to check out our earlier posts on Interesting Interfaces and Virtual Reality.

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