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An illustration of satellites orbiting earth and connected to each other by beams and arcs of various colors

Quantum Cryptography System Breaks Daylight Distance Record

Satellites can now set up quantum communications links through the air during the day instead of just at night, potentially helping a nigh-unhackable space-based quantum Internet to operate 24/7, a new study from Chinese scientists finds.

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Hyperloop tube on a platform in the desert

Musk Claims "Verbal" Approval for a Hyperloop Tunnel From New York to D.C.

Elon Musk today tweeted that he has verbal approval from unnamed governmental officials to build a Hyperloop tunnel from New York City to Washington, D.C., adding that this would allow for a trip of 29 minutes.

The tunnel would be dug by Musk’s appropriately named firm, The Boring Company, and it would make stops in Philadelphia and Baltimore. That’s pretty much a straight line, and it comes to around 360 kilometers (225 miles), implying an average speed of about 720 kph (450 mph).

Just received verbal govt approval for The Boring Company to build an underground NY-Phil-Balt-DC Hyperloop. NY-DC in 29 mins.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 20, 2017

City center to city center in each case, with up to a dozen or more entry/exit elevators in each city

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 20, 2017

Still a lot of work needed to receive formal approval, but am optimistic that will occur rapidly

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 20, 2017

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Photograph of Prof. Dr. Karl Landsteiner, a string theorist at the Instituto de Fisica Teorica UAM/CSIC and co-author of the Gravitational Anomaly paper

Black Hole Power: How String Theory Idea Could Lead to New Thermal-Energy Harvesting Tech

A new class of exotic materials could find its way into next-generation technologies that efficiently convert waste heat into electrical current according to new research. Both the exotic materials and the means by which they generate electricity rely on a hybrid of advanced concepts—including string theory combined with black holes combined with cutting-edge condensed matter physics.

But the end result is straightforward: A strip of the material niobium phosphide (NbP), in the presence of strong magnetic fields, appears to be good at harvesting thermal energy and translating that into possibly usable current.

NbP represents a new class of material that’s neither metal nor semiconductor but a little bit of both, says Johannes Gooth, research scientist at IBM in Zurich. “Classically we have materials like metals, semiconductors, and insulators; this is the toolbox we use to make devices,” Gooth says. But Weyl semimetals, named after the physicist Hermann Weyl who first began to describe the strange physics these materials obey, are “exactly in the middle between metal and semiconductor. It has [conduction] bands, but they touch. The band gap is basically zero.”

Which means a Weyl semimetal like NbP occupies a sort of intermediate zone between true conductive metal and pure semiconductor. And as a material in no man’s land, bridging two different regimes of physical properties, it might also find applications no one has yet imagined, Gooth says.

Since their discovery in 2015, Weyl semimetals have been the subject of some curiosity and speculation. And this is for good reason, says Karl Landsteiner, a string theorist at the Instituto de Fisica Teorica UAM/CSIC in Madrid, Spain. He’s one of the co-authors, along with Gooth, of a letter in this week’s issue of Nature that reveals the discoveries they made about NbP.

Before collaborating on this latest study, Landsteiner had been studying the physical laws that quantum mechanics sometimes allows to be broken. And until recently he thought these violations happened in too rarified environments to be observed in the lab—let alone potentially finding their way into future generations of technologies.

“For me this is amazing,” Landsteiner says. “When we started working on these kinds of problems, we never thought there would be any practical way of doing this in the lab. We always thought about the beginning of the universe, very exotic states of matter heated up trillions of degrees. But now we find all our equations and everything we did applies equally to this exciting class of new materials.”

“For us, whenever we build transistors, we are always bound to conservation laws,” says IBM’s Gooth. “These define and limit everything. And now suddenly we have materials where these high-energy, quantum mechanics equations allow for us to break some of these laws. It opens up a completely new playground for device design. Because it’s simply new physics, which circumvents classical limits.”

The quantum equations Gooth references concern the sort of law-bending that quantum physics—with its uncertainty relations enabling mischief at the fringes at sub-atomic scales—has become known for. For instance, the flash memory at the heart of our smartphones and other portable electronics is based on quantum particles tunneling across barriers they wouldn’t be able to cross if the laws of classical physics always prevailed.

In this case, the quantum lawbreaking comes in via the currents of electrons traveling through a Weyl semimetal. According to standard, common sense, conservation laws, electrons should normally travel through a material in such a way that their number is conserved. That is, the number that goes in is the same number that comes out, minus any electrons that the material ate up as it passed through, plus any extra electrons the material itself gave off. (Unfortunately, there’s an additional complication here, though. Each electron’s spin adds a second ledger in the account books. So technically, two currents are conserved: The current with electron spins aligned in the direction of travel is conserved, and completely separately, the current with electron spins anti-aligned with their direction of travel is also conserved.)

The present discovery steals a page from string theory and black hole physics. Theorists in these disciplines have found quantum exceptions to conservation laws like the above. For instance, they’ve established that strong gravitational and magnetic fields together allow for sometimes breaking conservation of both kinds of currents—the kind where spin is parallel to travel direction and where spin is anti-parallel to travel direction.

And here is where Landsteiner presumed his and his colleagues’ work would remain untouched by practical applications. But thanks to work tracing back to the 1960s, a useful analogy has been developed over the years that gravitational fields sometimes behave strikingly similarly to thermal gradients. So when the string and black hole theory idea emerged that “gravitational” fields can bend the conservation laws of current in the presence of strong magnetic fields, Gooth realized he might be able to apply the thermal analogy.

Gooth thought he might try to mimic the same gravitational quantum anomaly with just a simple thermal gradient: In this case, a strip of Weyl semimetal (NbP) that’s really hot on one end and cool on the other. Put this Weyl semimetal inside a superconducting magnet, one that can generate strong (9 Tesla) fields sufficient to generate the quantum effect, and see if the thermal gradient can be converted into extra streams of electrons. In other words, use the above quantum trick to transform thermal energy into electrical current.

And it worked. Now Gooth and Landsteiner say they’ll be busy finding ways to tweak the recipe. Both practical applications like thermal energy harvesters and more fundamental physical research are in their sights now.

“You now can use physics from outer space to create new applications—it’s fantastic,” Gooth says. “It opens a new world.”

Says Subir Sachdev, a solid state physicist at Harvard unaffiliated with the discovery, this discovery opens a door to a new kind of material and a new approach to studying materials. “This experiment is an important step in a wider field of the study of ‘quantum materials,’ ” Sachdev said via email. “And I think advances here could have a strong impact on future developments in this wider field.”

Blind quantum computing in the cloud could keep computation results secret even for remote classical computer users

Even Ordinary Computer Users Could Access Secret Quantum Computing

You may not need a quantum computer of your own to securely use quantum computing in the future. For the first time, researchers have shown how even ordinary classical computer users could remotely access quantum computing resources online while keeping their quantum computations securely hidden from the quantum computer itself.

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Two pictures of Barack Obama side-by-side

AI Creates Fake Obama

Artificial intelligence software could generate highly realistic fake videos of former president Barack Obama using existing audio and video clips of him, a new study [PDF] finds.

Such work could one day help generate digital models of a person for virtual reality or augmented reality applications, researchers say.

Computer scientists at the University of Washington previously revealed they could generate digital doppelgängers of anyone by analyzing images of them collected from the Internet, from celebrities such as Tom Hanks and Arnold Schwarzenegger to public figures such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Such work suggested it could one day be relatively easy to create such models of anybody, when there are untold numbers of digital photos of everyone on the Internet.

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A man in a helmet lowers a yellow torpedo-shaped submersible over the side of a boat

NATO Unveils JANUS, First Standardized Acoustic Protocol for Undersea Systems

Aquatic robots are busier than ever. They have seabeds to mine, cable pathways to plough, and marine data to gather. But they and their aquatic brethren—including submarines and scuba divers—still struggle to communicate.

For decades, global standards defining Wi-Fi and cellular networks have allowed people to exchange data over the air. But those technologies are worthless below the waves, and no such standards have existed for underwater communications.

Aquatic systems have instead used a mishmash of acoustic and optical signals to send and receive messages. However, manufacturers sell acoustic modems that operate at many different frequencies, which means those systems often can’t speak to each other.

“We live in a time of wild west communications underwater,” says João Alves, a principal scientist for NATO.

Now, Alves and other NATO researchers have established the first international standard for underwater communications. Named JANUS, after the Roman god of gateways, it creates a common protocol for an acoustic signal with which underwater systems can connect.

Acoustics has long been a popular medium for underwater communications. Generally, optical signals can deliver high data rates underwater at distances up to 100 meters, while sound waves cover much greater distances at lower data rates.

The main role of JANUS is to bring today’s acoustic systems into sync with one another. It does this in part by defining a common frequency—11.5 kilohertz—over which all systems can announce their presence. Once two systems make contact through JANUS, they may decide to switch to a different frequency or protocol that could deliver higher data rates or travel further.

In this way, Alves compares JANUS to the English language—two visitors to a foreign country may speak English to one another before realizing they are both native Spanish speakers, and switch to their native tongue.

Chiara Petrioli, a specialist in underwater sensors and embedded systems at La Sapienza, the University of Rome, says JANUS could be the first step toward an “Internet of Underwater Things"—a submerged digital network of sensors and vessels. 

In addition to designating a frequency, JANUS also provides a modulation encoding scheme to describe how data should be encoded onto a sound wave, and describes the particular waveform that should be used (known as FH-BFSK). It also spells out which redundancies should be added to the data stream to minimize transmission errors.

In order to use JANUS, a system would first emit three optional tones to indicate that it intends to broadcast a JANUS data packet hitched to a sound wave. Then, the system would pause for about 400 milliseconds to allow other devices in its vicinity to “wake up.” Next, the system would broadcast a fixed series of tones to ensure both systems were properly synchronized to the JANUS protocol. Finally, the system would send the JANUS packet, consisting of 56 bits followed by a redundancy check, which tests for transmission errors.

The JANUS standard was developed by Alves’ team at NATO’s Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation in La Spezia, Italy and sponsored by NATO’s Allied Command Transformation. It is the first underwater communications standard to be defined by an international body. 

Milica Stojanovic, an expert in oceanic engineering at Northeastern University, expects other standards will soon follow. She says the 11.5 kHz frequency used by JANUS is great for transmitting data between 1 and 10 kilometers, but a lower frequency, perhaps 1 kHz, would be better for sending data over longer distances of 10 to 100 km.  

Even with JANUS and other standards, any future underwater Internet will probably be cursed by far lower data rates than modern Wi-Fi or cellular networks. Sound travels at much lower frequencies, and on much longer waves, than the signals used for consumer electronics. Though sound waves travel faster in water than on land, they still travel more slowly through water than radio waves through air.

To develop JANUS, Alves’ team relied on the Littoral Ocean Observatory Network, a collection of tripods that NATO researchers have placed on the seafloor in the harbour of La Spezia, Italy. Each tripod emits acoustic signals to other tripods, which send performance reports to researchers through undersea cables. Those reports helped the team understand how fluctuations in water temperature, and other environmental changes, will affect JANUS signals.

The tripods also allowed researchers to build a JANUS receiver, advanced versions of which could minimize decoding errors and account for the Doppler effect. The Doppler effect describes shifts in sound waves caused by motion, such as the whirl of an ambulance siren as it drives by.

In another series of tests, researchers aboard the research vessel Alliance, a NATO ship operated by the Italian Navy, measured the performance of JANUS signals along the surface of the ocean.

Once deployed, aquatic systems could use JANUS to send data directly to each other, or to “gateway buoys” bobbing on the water’s surface. The buoys could then use radio waves to relay that data to nearby control centers.

In one demonstration, Alves’ group helped the Portuguese Navy set up a buoy that converted data about the positions and speeds of nearby ships to JANUS. The buoy rebroadcast this information to Portuguese submarines lurking below.

Based on their work, Alves says submarines could also use JANUS to issue calls for help to ships and rescue crews. “Using an open scheme like JANUS to issue distress calls would increase incredibly the chances of those being picked up,” he says.

Now that JANUS is available, manufacturers of aquatic systems must decide whether or not to adopt it. Alves is confident they will, and Petrioli, who contributed feedback to the development of JANUS, agrees that adoption is essential to the industry’s future.

But Stojanovic is not so sure. “If there starts to develop a serious market, then everybody will have to play to the same tune,” she says. “If not, and everybody finds their own niche market with their own protocols, then they will do that.”

two laptops facing each other with blue conversation bubbles above them

In FutureLearn's MOOCs, Conversation Powers Learning at Massive Scale

“Personalized learning” is one of the hottest trends in education these days. The idea is to create software that tracks the progress of each student and then adapts the content, pace of instruction, and assessment to the individual’s performance. These systems succeed by providing immediate feedback that addresses the student’s misunderstandings and offers additional instruction and materials.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has reportedly spent more than US $300 million on personalized learning R&D, while the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative—the investment and philanthropic company created by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan—has also signalled its commitment to personalized learning (which Zuckerberg announced on Facebook, of course). Just last month, the two groups teamed up for the first time to jointly fund a $12 million program to promote personalized classroom instruction.

But personalized learning is hard to do. It requires breaking down a topic into its component parts in order to create different pathways through the material. It can be done, with difficulty, for well-structured and well-established topics, such as algebra and computer programming. But it really can’t be done for subjects that don’t form neat chunks, such as economics or psychology, nor for still-evolving areas, such as cybersecurity.

What’s more, this latest wave of personalized learning may have the unintended consequence of isolating students because it ignores the biggest advance in education of the past 50 years: learning through cooperation and conversation. It’s ironic that the inventor of the world’s leading social media platform is promoting education that’s the opposite of social.

Interestingly, one early proponent of personalized learning had a far more expansive view. In the 1960s, Gordon Pask, a deeply eccentric British scientist who pioneered the application of cybernetics to entertainment, architecture, and education, co-invented the first commercial adaptive teaching machine, which trained typists in keyboard skills and adjusted the training to their personal characteristics. A decade later, Pask extended personalized learning into a grand unified theory of learning as conversation.

For the layperson and even for a lot of experts, Pask’s Conversation Theory is impenetrable. But for those who manage to grasp it, it’s quite exciting. In essence, it explains how language-using systems, including people and artificial intelligences, can come to know things through well-structured conversation. He proposed that all human learning involves conversation. We converse with ourselves when we relate new experience to what we already know. We converse with teachers when we respond to their questions and they correct our misunderstandings. We converse with other learners to reach agreement.

This is more than an abstract theory of learning. It is a blueprint for designing educational technology. Pask himself developed teaching machines that conversed with students in a formalized language, represented as dynamic maps of interconnected concepts. He also introduced conversational teaching methods, such as Teachback, where the student explains to the teacher what has just been taught.

Pask’s theory still has relevance today. I know, because for the past four years, I’ve helped develop a new MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) platform based on his ideas. The platform is operated by FutureLearn, a company owned by The Open University, the UK’s 48-year-old public distance learning and research university.

As Academic Lead for FutureLearn, I was determined not to copy existing MOOC platforms, which primarily focus on delivering lectures at a distance. Instead, we designed FutureLearn for learning as conversation, and in such a way that learning would improve with scale, so that the more people who signed up, the better the learning experience would be.

Every course involves conversation as a core element. Each teaching step, whether video, text, or interactive exercise, has a flow of comments, questions, and replies from learners running alongside it. The steps make careful use of questions to prompt responses: What was the most important thing you learned from the video? Can you give an example from your own experience?

There are also dedicated discussions, in which learners reflect on the week’s activity, describe how they performed on assessments, or answer an open-ended question about the course. And online study groups allow learners to work together on a task and discuss their learning goals.

Even student assessment has a conversational component. Learners write short structured reviews of other students’ assignments, and in return they receive reviews of their assignments from their peers. Quizzes and tests are marked by computer, but the results come with pre-written responses from the educator.

When we began designing FutureLearn, previous research suggested that students don’t like to collaborate and converse online. Other online learning platforms that provide forums to discuss a course find these features are generally not well used. But that may be because these features are peripheral, whereas we put conversation at the heart of learning.

From the start, the conversations took off. In June 2015, the British Council ran the largest ever online MOOC, on preparing for the IELTS English language proficiency exam. Some 271,000 people joined the FutureLearn course, including many based in the Middle East and Asia. Just one video on that course attracted over 60,000 comments from learners. By then, we had realized that the scale of conversation needed to be tamed by using the social media techniques of liking and following. We also encouraged course facilitators to reply to the most-liked comments so that learners who were following the facilitators would see them.

We had expected to deal with abusive comments on courses like “Muslims in Britain” and “Climate Change.” That hasn’t happened, and we aren’t entirely sure why. The initial testers of FutureLearn were Open University alumni, so perhaps they modelled good practice. Comments are moderated to remove the occasional abusive remark, but most of the conversation streams are so overwhelmingly positive that dissenters get constructive responses rather than triggering flame wars.

To be clear, students aren’t required to take part in a discussion to complete a FutureLearn course, but the learning is definitely enriched when students read the responses of other learners and join in. On average, a third of learners on a FutureLearn course contribute comments and replies.

FutureLearn is now a worldwide MOOC platform, with more than six million total registrations. We’re continuing to consider new conversational features, such as reflective conversations where learners write and discuss annotations on the teaching material, and experiential learning where learners share their personal insights and experiences.

FutureLearn has taken the path of social learning and proven that it can work at scale. Going forward, the big challenge for FutureLearn and for educational technology in general will be to find ways of combining the individual pathways and adaptive content of personalized learning with the benefits of learning through conversation and collaboration.

About the Author

Mike Sharples is Professor of Educational Technology at The Open University and Academic Lead at FutureLearn. He is Associate Editor in Chief of IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies and a Senior Member of IEEE.

A close-up of a University of Washington researcher holding a prototype of a battery-free phone made from a printed circuit board.

Building a Battery-Free Cellphone

Batteries can be a real drag. They’re expensive and must be constantly recharged. Though some battery-free sensors can passively transmit small amounts of data, most consumer electronics today still rely on bulky batteries to store power.

A team from the University of Washington has built a battery-free cellphone that can harness power from radiofrequency (RF) waves sent to it from a nearby base station. The phone not only harnesses the power it needs to operate from those waves, but can also place a voice call by modifying and reflecting the same waves back to the base station, through a technique known as backscattering.

The UW team has shown their device (built from off-the-shelf components) can use harvested power to place a call from a distance of 9.4 meters away from a customized base station. They also built a version outfitted with photodiodes that collect ambient light to passively power the device, allowing them to place a call from a distance of 15.2 meters.

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stylized computer-drawn chat bubble shown over 1s and 0s

How Bots Win Friends and Influence People

Every now and then sociologist Phil Howard writes messages to social media accounts accusing them of being bots. It’s like a Turing test of the state of online political propaganda. “Once in a while a human will come out and say, ‘I’m not a bot,’ and then we have a conversation,” he said at the European Conference for Science Journalists in Copenhagen on June 29.

In his academic writing, Howard calls bots “highly automated accounts.” By default, the accounts publish messages on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media sites at rates even a teenager couldn’t match. Human puppet-masters manage them, just like the Wizard of Oz, but with a wide variety of commercial aims and political repercussions. Howard and colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute in England published a working paper [PDF] last month examining the influence of these social media bots on politics in nine countries.

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An illustration of a handshake with patterns from a circuit board projected onto the hands.

The Corporate Blockchain

Hundreds of financiers, Wall Street analysts, and C-suite executives gathered in New York City this week to peer into the future of finance at the CB Insights’ Future of Fintech conference. And on Wednesday afternoon, they took a moment to ponder one of the greatest existential threats to their industry—and how they might turn it to their advantage.

Attendees crammed into a standing-room-only session to hear about the role that blockchains would play in existing businesses. To many in finance, it’s a perplexing topic. After all, the Bitcoin blockchain was long ago predicted to render modern finance—and finacial firms—obsolete.

Instead, many financial firms have embraced blockchain technology, and even become rather bullish about it in the process. But companies have also found that preparing a blockchain to go live, and integrating it with existing systems, can be a daunting process. 

Up on stage, and tasked with guiding the crowd through its mixed bag of emotions, were: Marley Gray, principal program manager for Microsoft’s Azure Blockchain Engineering; Joe Lubin, founder of the blockchain consulting firm ConsenSys; and Rumi Morales, executive director of CME Ventures, the investment arm of CME Group which manages the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Gray set the tone for the discussion from his vantage point at Microsoft, which offers a platform that it calls blockchain-as-a-service (BaaS) to help companies build their own blockchain-based networks and applications. As a result, Gray has seen how early experiments have fared across many industries.

“One of our goals was to make it ridiculously easy to roll [blockchains] out,” he said. “Now we’re at the next phase of—now I’ve got this blockchain, what do I do with it? So we’re kind of stuck on that piece right now.”   

Many banks and stock exchanges are on the cusp of moving from pilots and proof-of-concepts to actual blockchain implementations. Morales, who has overseen her firm’s investments into Ripple and Digital Currency Group (which owns the cryptocurrency news site CoinDesk and has funded Coinbase, a trading service), suggested the industry is facing a moment of truth.

“Last year, we saw a number of companies announcing that they would be building things, or had a use case, for [the blockchain],” she said. “This is the year they need to prove that.”  

There has been some progress on that front—in May, Nasdaq, Citi, and Chain revealed a blockchain-based payments system for private equity and earlier this week, IBM announced that it was building a system to manage trade finance with seven European banks that would go live by the end of the year.

But there’s a significant back-office bottleneck for people looking to deploy systems. Developers have a limited set of software tools at their disposal, and there is fierce competition for their talent. Consortiums, startups, and incumbents such as IBM and Microsoft are developing dozens of different ways to build blockchain-based networks and applications, without any reference architecture or standards to lean on.

This process can be frustrating, to say the least, said Morales. “For many people I know, they’ve moved on to pulling out their eyelashes because they’ve finished pulling out their hair,” she said. “It can be very painful.”

Even so, Morales and her fellow panelists were not keen on the idea of establishing comprehensive standards anytime soon. “I really think we’re going to have to be very, very specific about the definition of blockchain if we’re going to talk about standards,” she said.

Gray from Microsoft put it more bluntly. “It’s way too early for standards,” he said.

In the end, of course, the agony of blockchain development could very well result in big pay offs. For many, the thrill of the technology is its potential to overturn so many aspects of how business is done today. Throughout the week, I heard attendees and speakers batting around dozens of possible uses for blockchains in sessions and hallway meetings.

On stage, Lubin described one of his favorite projects at ConsenSys—a solar power system in which batteries automatically sell or buy extra juice through a blockchain, thereby improving the efficiency of the entire grid. “It prevents the need to spin up billion-dollar petrol plants to handle peak load in hot days in the summer,” he said.  

And for every discussion of a practical use that has already been identified, there were countless mentions of the technology’s unexplored possibility. “It’s like trying to predict Facebook back in 1995,” Gray said. “Who would have known?”

While everyone else is dreaming about blockchain’s killer app, Gray believes the highest value of the technology will be to bridge industries and simplify all kinds of interactions across companies, individuals, public entities, and real-world events. “The true promise is ultimately getting to a place where we can have business contracts that weave together across verticals,” he said.

This also means that Gray expects the current industry-wide preference for permissioned blockchains—those which are cordoned off from public access—will eventually erode. Instead, he thinks society will gradually embrace the power and functionality of decentralized, public chains, such as the one that underlies Bitcoin.

First, though, public blockchains must prove that they can scale up to handle millions upon millions of transactions every day. Currently, no public blockchains could do this, said Lubin.

Looking ahead, Lubin expects both public and private blockchains to evolve over a long development period that has only just begun. “Blockchains in two, five, and 10 years from now are going to look completely different,” he said.

For all the work ahead, many speakers and attendees at the conference remained optimistic—and at times, positively upbeat—about the future of blockchain technology. For the finance industry, the promise of reducing costs, settling trades, and streamlining transactions is particularly intoxicating. “That gain is hopefully going to be worth the pain,” Morales said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on 07/10/17 to clarify the roles of CoinDesk, the cryptocurrency news site, and Coinbase, the trading service.

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