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Iowa Wants Smartphone App to Replace Driver's Licenses

Iowa could become the first U.S. state to make smartphone apps official stand-ins for driver’s licenses as soon as 2016. But the idea of having police officers scan a driver’s smartphone during a traffic stop has left some legal experts wondering about possible privacy and security complications.

The Iowa Department of Transportation hopes to offer drivers the choice of using either the traditional plastic card or digital licenses on their smartphones, according to The Des Moines Register. The mobile app version of the driver’s license would be usable as identification during both traffic stops and airport security screening.

Iowa is among more than 30 states that already allow drivers to show electronic proof of insurance on their smartphones. Many airport travelers have also become used to airline e-tickets that contain scannable barcodes displayed on their smartphone screens.

The Iowa Department of Transportation has said it envisions the smartphone never leaving the owner’s hand during the scanning process. A spokesperson told the New York Times that a privacy feature might also block users from looking at other information while the digital license app is open on a smartphone.

Still, both legal experts and police officers have begun raising concerns about how the digital driver’s license would work in practice. The Iowa State Patrol currently has no handheld scanners, which means police officers would have to take the smartphones back to the license scanners in their patrol cars. That idea may not appeal to drivers concerned about the privacy of data on their mobile devices, according to Sgt. Scott Bright, public information officer for the Iowa State Patrol.

“What happens if I drop your phone on the highway and a semi runs over it? Who will be liable?” said Sergeant Bright said in a New York Times interview. “What happens if your phone locks automatically? What happens if someone sends you a text message while I have the phone? I don’t want to see anyone’s text messages.”

The Iowa Department of Transportation still has time to coordinate with the Iowa State Patrol and local police departments on the digital driver’s license proposal—it doesn’t envision making the option available to the public until 2016 at the earliest. But it seems that there are still plenty of legal, technical, and logistical road bumps to overcome.

U.S. Officials Say North Korea Responsible for Sony Cyber Attack

The idea of North Korea hacking a Hollywood studio in retaliation for making a comedy film about an assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong un might have sounded absurd at first. But U.S. officials say they have uncovered evidence of North Korea’s involvement in the cyberattack on Sony Pictures and subsequent public leaking of a slew of internal corporate files ranging from embarassing executive e-mails to the upcoming slate of unreleased films.

News publications such as the New York Times cited “senior administration officials” as saying President Obama’s administration was debating whether to formally accuse North Korea of launching the equivalent of a cyberterrorism attack. The Sony Pictures hack recently took on an even darker tone when the purported hackers invoked the memory of the 11 Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks and threatened attacks on movie theaters if Sony went ahead with the theatrical release of its comedy film “The Interview.”

Such threats led all four major theater chains in the U.S. to cancel showings of “The Interview” and prompted Sony Pictures to officially put the film’s release plans on hold, according to Deadline. The chill descending over the freedom of artistic expression may be felt for a long time in Hollywood: an untitled thriller set in North Korea involving director Gore Verbinski and actor Steve Carell has also been scrapped.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest deflected questions about North Korea’s involvement at a press briefing held today (18 December), but President Obama is scheduled to speak during his usual end-of-year press briefing tomorrow. Earnest only described the cyberattack as a “serious national security matter” involving a “sophisticated actor.” He also confirmed that the U.S. Department of Justice is working with the FBI on the investigation.

Attributing responsibility for cyberattacks is notoriously difficult. According to the New York Times, the forensic evidence from the Sony Pictures hack suggests the attackers used commonly available commercial tools and techniques found in previous cyberattacks on a Saudi Arabian oil company and on South Korean banks and media companies. Experts also suspect insider help because of the names of Sony servers and administrative credentials found in the malware code that infiltrated Sony’s computer network. (See IEEE Spectrum’s previous story “How Not to Be Sony Pictures.”)

The New York Times added that the U.S. National Security Agency has attempted to penetrate North Korea’s computer networks to keep track of the country’s cyber activities. But many of North Korea’s cyberattacks originate from China, a country that also has swarms of hackers for hire. Criminal hacker organizations also exist in many other countries worldwide.

U.S. officials potentially face a dilemma in deciding how to respond to North Korea, if they decide the Sony hack constitutes a serious act on the level of something like cyberterrorism. Coincidentally, Hollywood’s Universal Studios recently released a second trailer for its upcoming Michael Mann thriller “Blackhat,” which stars Chris Hemsworth as a hacker helping U.S. and Chinese law enforcement track down a cyberterrorist.

Skype's Real-Time Translator Previews English and Spanish

Skype conversations between people who speak different languages could soon become the norm for an interconnected world. Skype has kicked off the first preview of its real-time translation service for spoken English and Spanish, along with translation options for more than 40 languages within instant messaging conversations.

The preview of the Skype Translator app is available for anyone using Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 Technical Preview on their desktop or tablet devices, the company said early this week. Skype also posted a video showing off the real-time translation during a spoken conversation between Spanish-speaking students in Mexico City and English-speaking students in Tacoma, Wash.

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Cell Towers Can Double As Cheap Radar Systems

How do you see ships without a pricey radar system? The question has troubled seaports around the world as they work to improve security. Without radar installations, it can be hard for port employees to detect small ships like those employed by pirates or by the terrorists who attacked the USS Cole in 2000. A team of researchers in Germany can now offer security teams a new option, though: putting existing cellular towers to work as quick and dirty radar systems.

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Measure Planck's Constant and Define the Kilogram with LEGOs

Now you (yes, you) can measure Planck’s constant and use quantum mechanics to measure mass from the comfort of your own home or classroom—using LEGOs.

In 1960, the meter was re-defined in terms of time (the current definition is the distance light travels in 1/299 792 458 seconds). That left the kilogram as the lone fundamental unit of the International System of Units (SI) defined by a physical object rather than universal constants.

In 1990, some electrical measurements split off from the SI, establishing a “conventional” system that defined basic electromagnetic units in terms of the Josephson and von Klitzing constants (KJ=2e/h and RK=h/e2, respectively, where e is the charge of an electron and h is Planck’s constant—and h90=6.626 x 10-34 m2 kg /s is the best value for h available in 1990).

The movement for a physical-constant-defined kilogram gained urgency late in that decade, when an international recalibration some reference kilograms were putting on weight, thanks to the thinnest of possible coatings deposited from the air. Since Planck’s constant explicitly connects the kilogram to units that are already constant-defined, it is the final key to a system of measurements that can be replicated, in theory, by anyone, at any time, at any place.

The pursuit of the quantum kilogram has focused on instruments called Watt balances, with occasional side-trips into matter waves. Watt balances at the U.S. National Institutes of Standards (NIST) and other national laboratories have pushed measurement precision to a few parts per hundred million, using techniques that are beyond the reach of the classroom or kitchen metrologist. Thanks to this work, it appears that a redefined kilogram may be achieved by 2018, allowing a fundamental revision of the SI and its reunification with the “conventional system.”

The physics and the testing methodology are both complex. But over the past few years, researchers at NIST’s Physical Measurements Laboratory have developed a do-it-yourself device that demonstrates the Watt balance’s physical principles and measurement methods at a scale, and a price, suitable for a classroom or home.

In a paper posted on ArXiv and submitted to the American Journal of Physics, the NIST researchers (joined by collaborators from the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland) show how to build—and understand—a Watt balance that can measure Planck’s constant and mass to within one part in a hundred. The device measures the electric power needed drive an electromagnet to balance a given mass. It uses 392 LEGO bricks, a USB data acquisition (DAQ) controller, a USB-controlled four-channel analog output device, a photodiode, two $15 lasers, some miscellaneous resistors, four ring magnets, some brass rod and a scrap of PVC pipe. The total cost is $633.77 or less: The two USB controllers account for $389 of the price tag; if you have them, or make a less expensive substitution, the project cost plummets.

In 2013 and 2014, a quintet of NIST researchers—Leon S. Chao, Stephan Schlamminger, DB. Newell, J.R. Pratt and Xiang Zhang—built three prototype LEGO Watt balances. These were “received with enthusiastic responses“ by science fair attendees, students, and NIST visitors. The demonstration project ties together elements whose relationships may not be readily evident: Planck’s constant at the quantum level and mass at the level of the gram, kilogram, or even galaxy.

The LEGO Watt balance is patterned on the familiar analytical balance, with a two-armed rocking beam balanced on a knife edge. Weighing pans hang on gimbals at the end of each arm. And beneath each pan hangs a short piece of wire-wrapped PVC pipe. Each induction coil can move up and down over a pair of neodymium ring magnets, threaded on a vertical brass rod affixed to a base plate. Two sub-milliwatt lasers report beam displacement: One shines under the beam onto the photodiode (at about $62, the most expensive component after the controllers). As the balance beam rocks, it casts a shadow on the diode; the photodiode output measures the balance’s oscillations. The other laser is fixed to the top of the beam. It shines on a ruler or a sheet of graph paper taped to a wall a couple of meters away. This gives very sensitive reading of the beam’s total displacement. When fully assembled, the balance weighs about 4 kilograms and stands about 36 centimeters tall, with a 43 cm by 10 cm footprint

In operation, the balance illustrates concepts of mass, gravity, current, and voltage, along with flux density and flux integral, while teaching some fundamentals of metrological practice.

The LEGO balance works in two modes: a “velocity mode” for electrical calibration and a “force mode” for measuring mechanical forces and mass.

In velocity mode, the LEGO instrument senses current in one of the coils (under Pan A, say) as it moves through the field of the static magnets. To calibrate the system, operators drive the opposite coil (under Pan B) with an oscillating current. By plotting displacement against current, the NIST researchers (and the students who, one hopes, will follow them) calculate the velocity-mode flux integral (flux density times wire length, in units of volts/velocity).

In the force-mode step, the device is used to measure the current needed produce enough force to counteract masses in the pans. In seven steps, the operator adds and removes weights on both sides of the balance, each time changing the voltage to bring the laser dot on the wall back to the balanced position. (An experienced operator can complete calibration and measurement in about 30 minutes.)

  • Step 1: Balance the empty pans.
  • Step 2: Add an arbitrary mass of a few grams to Pan B, and record the current needed to re-center the balance.
  • Step 3: Add a calibrated reference mass to Pan A, and again alter the current to re-center.
  • Step 4: Remove the calibrated mass from Pan A; measure current again.
  • Step 5: Put the calibrated mass back in Pan A, and measure again.
  • Step 6: Remove the calibrated mass from Pan A again, and re-center.
  • Step 7: Remove the arbitrary mass from Pan B and verify that the unloaded balance remains stable.

The user combines the current readings to calculate how much current would be needed to balance the calibrated Mass A alone. From the measured current and the known mass, the operator calculates the force-mode flux integral.  (This is the current divided by the product of the mass and the gravitational constant, g. The value of g varies slightly from place to place, so LEGO balance users should consult the U.S. National Geological Survey web service that provides predicted local values for g, based on the user’s latitude, longitude, and elevation.)  

The force-mode flux integral (BFF) depends on SI units. The velocity-mode flux (BFV), is based on purely electrical measurements and implicitly includes h90. And the ratio of the two is the same as the ratio of the SI Planck’s constant to h90 (that is, BFF/BFV = h/h90). Solve for h and you’re at the forefront of metrology. 

Edited 16 December 2014 to update affiliations to conform to revised ArXiv paper.

Google Lunar XPrize Deadline Extended To 2016

Teams competing for the US $30 million Google Lunar XPrize have another year to make it to the moon.

The contest, which was first announced in 2007, offers a grand prize of $20 million for the first private team to land safely on the lunar surface, move 500 meters, and transmit high-definition images and video back to Earth. Additional money is set aside for second place and for other accomplishments.

Today, the XPrize Foundation announced it has extended the time for accomplishing the feat to 31 December 2016. The announcement cited both technical and financial challenges facing competitors.

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Skin Patches Enable Smartphone-Controlled Pain Relief

Millions of athletes and arthritis patients turn to disposable pain relief patches designed to soothe aching joints and muscles. The new development of a flexible smart patch could eventually enable users to wirelessly control the exact temperature of their heat therapy with their smartphones.

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Diagnosing Ear Infections With a New Smartphone Gadget

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One of the most welcome trends in health care is the emergence of consumer gadgets that can help people deal with their medical needs at home, avoiding the agony of doctors’ offices and, even worse, emergency rooms. The newest entry in field is the Cellscope Oto, a clip-on gadget that turns a smartphone into an otoscope, the tool that doctors use to peer into an ear and check out a patient’s eardrum.

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Will Tomorrow's Supercomputers Be Superconducting?

Today, the list of the 500 fastest supercomputers is dominated by computers based on semiconducting circuitry. Ten years from now, will superconducting computers start to take some of those slots?

Last week, IARPA, the U.S. intelligence community’s high-risk research arm, announced that it had awarded its first set of research contracts in a multi-year effort to develop a superconducting computer. The program, called Cryogenic Computing Complexity (C3), is designed to develop the components needed to construct such a computer as well as a working prototype. 

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