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See-Through Sensors for Better Brain Implants

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Brain scientists first discovered how to use light to remotely control genetically-modified brain cells about a decade agoa breakthrough that has enabled new scientific studies of depression, addiction and Parkinson’s disease. Now a new generation of transparent brain sensors could record brain cell responses without blocking the light’s access to the underlying brain tissue.

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Nobelist's New Microscope Captures Life in Action

In December Eric Betzig is expected to fly to Stockholm to receive his share of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for expanding the frontiers of microscopy. It seems he just couldn’t leave those frontiers alone. 

In a tour de force paper in Science, Betzig and his collaborators have introduced a new method for imaging biological processes with unprecedented resolution in space and time.  Betzig and Bi-Chang Chen, Wesley R. Legant, and Kai Wang from his lab at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus were joined by collaborators from 14 other groups around the world to come up with the new microscopy method.

The technique, called lattice light-sheet microscopy, generates extraordinarily sharp, 3-D images and videos of live organisms at scales ranging from single molecules to early-stage embryos. It builds on other methods Betzig has pioneered. 

One of those methods was something  the Nobel Prize committee mentioned in making their award, Betzig’s development of photoactivated localization microscopy (PALM). PALM lets researchers see objects smaller than the half-wavelength diffraction limit—by shining less light on the subject, rather than more.

The diffraction limit is the light microscopist’s nemesis. Violet light has the shortest wavelengths most humans can see, down to about 380 nanometers (though some people who have lost their corneas to cataract surgery can see into the ultraviolet, to perhaps 300 nanometers). Thus, objects smaller than about 200 nanometers are invisible to conventional light microscopy. In PALM, Betzig linked fluorescent molecules to proteins in the feature he wanted to study, and then shined a light to stimulate them. The labeled molecules responded weakly, with only a small, widely separated percentage of the fluorescent molecules emitting a few photons. When the emitting molecules were farther than 200 nm apart, each produced a single, highly localized bright spot on the image. Betzig then stimulated and imaged the sample over and over again, hundreds of times, to build a mosaic of sub-200 nm detail.

The new lattice light-sheet technique is also based on a Bessel beams method the Janelia group introduced in 2011. Bessel beams are nondiffracting wave patterns, vanishingly-thin rings of light produced by shining a laser through an annular mask. These beams keep their shape, and don’t spread out as they propagate, allowing researchers to generate extremely thin sheets of light.

In their new paper, Betzig’s team says that they have “crafted ultrathin light sheets.” Crafted is the right word: they shape the light the way a carpenter turns, shaves, and carves a baulk of lumber into a graceful table leg.

First, the laser beam is squeezed and stretched into a thin vertical line. Then it is bounced off a spatial light modulator (SLM)—an ultra-fast LCD that flashes a series of black-and-white patterns that reflect the incoming stripe of laser light back in a defined lattice of high and low intensity. (The SLM is the main feature distinguishing the lattice sheet method from its Bessel beam predecessor.) The reflected pattern passes through a thin transform lens, which throws a Fourier transform of the pattern onto the annular Bessel beam mask. The light then bounces between galvanometer-controlled mirrors that determine where the nodes of the lattice will fall in the light sheet. Only then does the beam pass through a lens to be focused into the sample, producing a hexagonal pattern of illuminated dots that spread in a sheet right and left of the beam. If the pattern is chosen wisely, interference effects actually sharpen the definition of the points, increasing resolution.

A piezoelectric stage moves the sample incrementally through the light sheet, which activates fluorescent markers in an ultrathin slice of the sample.

The lattice light-sheet device works in two modes—structured illumination microscopy (SIM) for high spatial resolution and “dithered” for better time resolution. SIM can resolve features in the 150-280 nm range. In the high-speed dithering mode, the lattice is swept across the sheet faster than the camera’s exposure time, illuminating a whole slice in a single step to reduce the number of steps necessary to photograph an entire volume. Dithered mode functions at 100 frames per second—about 7.5 times faster than SIM mode but, at  at 230-370 nm, it only has two-thirds SIM’s resolution.

No matter how kindly intended, a flood of photons pouring into a cell can injure or kill it—especially if it is dividing or otherwise vulnerable. The lattice light-sheet technique doesn’t do that. “The chief benefit of lattice light-sheet excitation… is its exceptionally low photobleaching and phototoxicity,” the researchers write. Each of the examples presented in the paper “was distilled from tens or hundreds of thousands of raw 2-D images,”  a figure one or even two magnitudes higher than the number of exposures allowable with other light methods.

The research produced remarkable images from a large collection of experiments conducted in collaboration with colleagues from 14 other groups around the world. Here are just a few of them:

  • Repeatedly imaging a non-living fixed sample to localize 4.2 million individual proteins in the nucleus’ membrane to within 8 to 45 nm.
  • Tracking single molecules of the protein that marks the ends of growing microtubules, the fibers that latch onto and reposition the replicating chromosomes during cell division, to build a comprehensive dynamic map of their growth [image above]. 
  • Keeping the light sheet stationary to follow extremely rapid changes in a protozoan at more than 300 frames per second, including stop-action images of moving cilia that could allow biologists to calculate the force each of the tiny tails generates.
  • Filming details of key stages in the development of live fruit fly embryos in unprecedented detail.

The researchers have patented the lattice light-sheet microscopy system. They’ve licensed it to microscope maker Zeiss and will also share the detailed instructions to researchers who wish to build their own instruments.

Where many scientific abstracts close with a guarded boast about future potential, this one ends:  “The results provide a visceral reminder of the beauty and complexity of living systems.”

Rapid muscle contractions in a C. elegans embryo in the three-fold stage, with labeled GFP-PH domains (green) and mCherry-histones (magenta), as recorded in a single 2D optical section at 50 frames/sec. Scale bar, 10 um. (Video: Betzig Lab/HHMI)

Samsung Demos Multi-Gbps Speeds Using 60 GHz Wi-Fi

Samsung has announced that it plans to bring a new multi-gigabit-per-second wireless technology to consumer devices as soon as next year. The technology is an implementation of the IEEE 802.11ad standard, operating in the 60 gigahertz frequency band. The company said the technology supports data transmission rates of up to 4.6 Gigabits per second, or about five times as fast as current Wi-Fi systems. 


Operating at a much higher frequency than standard Wi-Fi, which uses the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, the 60-GHz wireless connections would let users share data and stream movies between connected devices much faster. With a speed of 4.6 Gbps you can send a 4-gigabyte movie from your computer to your TV in less than 7 seconds. 

But the 60-GHz signals are also much easier to disrupt, failing to propagate through walls and losing signal integrity after just a few meters. This means that the 802.11ad technology, which some call WiGig, won’t replace your conventional Wi-Fi routers anytime soon. When it comes to device-to-device connections like those between a computer and a TV, though, the technology could provide a welcome speed boost.

In a press release, Samsung boasted that it has improved on the technology for consumer use by allowing multiple devices to connect to a 60-GHz network without interfering with one another. Isolating those channels, the company said, has helped improve the speed of the 60-GHz connections. 

Advances in beam-forming technology are also helping Samsung make the technology ready for market. Precision steered beams can avoid interference and signal blockages, ensuring that a tablet can maintain a connection with a home entertainment system, for instance, even if the user is walking around their living room.

Other technologies (including ultra-wideband and WirelessHD) have been proposed to connect devices wirelessly, but none has become widely used in consumer products. The Wi-Fi Alliance, the trade group that promotes Wi-Fi standards, adopted WiGig into the fold  in 2013. It says the technology could be useful not only for streaming video but also for connecting devices like laptops to external monitors and keyboards without a nest of cables and connectors. Last year, Dell released a 60-GHz wireless laptop and docking station combo that allows for exactly that.

Samsung expects to incorporate the 802.11ad standard into a variety of devices next year, including entertainment gear and medical equipment. In the long term, the company also expects that the technology will also find applications in smart home technology, connecting a wide variety of devices over larger areas as the technology matures.

XPrize Announces Finalists Building Next-Gen Medical Sensors

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Today’s home medicine kit is fairly limited when it comes to diagnostics: You can take your temperature, check your blood pressure, and give yourself a home pregnancy test, but that’s about it. The Nokia Sensing XChallenge (from the XPrize folks) aims to improve that situation by spurring inventors to create portable gadgets that consumers can use to collect accurate, real-time health information. The 11 finalist teams, announced today, are building gadgets that do lab tests, monitor heart disease, check vital signs, and more. 

The Sensing XChallenge is distinct from a very similar competition, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize, in which teams are vying to create a universal diagnostic tool along the lines of the handheld tool wielded by Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy. In the Tricorder contest, the devices are required to diagnose a specific list of 15 ailments, whereas in the sensing challenge the tools can be designed to do just about anything.   

However, the XPrize doesn’t see redundancy here, but rather a symbiotic relationship, says Grant Campany, senior director of the sensing challenge. The Nokia contest is intended to reward teams for developing technologies that could be incorporated into a Tricorder device, he told IEEE Spectrum in an email. Several sensing teams are validating technologies for collaborating Tricorder teams, Campany says, which are racing to build at least 30 working Tricorder devices for consumer testing next year.

The Nokia contest’s judges will have some apples vs. oranges decisions to make, because the 11 finalists’ gadgets are designed for a wide variety of applications. How do you compare a handheld spectrometer, which can detect biomarkers of liver function in a drop of blood, to a pressure sensor implanted in the pulmonary artery of a heart disease patient? Other devices include a wearable sensor to detect sleep apnea, a mobile phone-based imaging app to find symptoms of eye disease, and a variety of mobile lab gadgets. Which among these is the most meritorious, and therefore worthy of the $525,000 grand prize? 

Campany says the judges have a list of criteria that include technical innovation, reliability, ease of use, and relevance to a public health need. He also notes that crowd voting accounts for 10 percent of the teams’ scores; you can cast your vote for the winner through the end of the month. The winning team will be announced in November at the Exponential Medicine conference. 

4-D Printing Turns Carbon Fiber, Wood Into Shapeshifting Programmable Materials

Just as 3-D printers create objects that have three-dimensional characteristics, 4-D printers create objects that have four-dimensional characteristics, in that they include a dynamic component that causes their structure to change over time—relying on water, heat, or light to activate them.

Using a multi-material printer, it’s possible to generate objects with these properties all in one go. Such “programmable materials” may one day mean that you can buy flat-pack furniture at Ikea, take it home, and hit it with a garden hose while you watch it slowly assemble itself. We don’t even have to speculate: MIT is working on this exact thing.


To understand how a programmable material works, think about what often happens to a thin strip of wood if you get it wet: It warps, as different parts of the wood swell in slightly different ways. Usually, this is bad, because the warping is unpredictable and related to the type of wood, the patterns in the grain of that wood, how and where it gets wet, and so forth. If you could somehow predict the warping, though, you might be able to find a piece of wood that you could deliberately warp into a shape that you wanted, just by adding water.

This is not a thing that we can do with natural wood, but that’s fine, because we don’t need natural wood anymore. With 3-D printing, it’s possible to manufacture pieces of wood with whatever composition, thickness, and grain characteristics that you want, meaning that with a comprehensive understanding of how the material behaves, along with computer models, you can 3-D print a piece of artificial wood that’s been “preprogrammed”— using carefully constructed layers of various thicknesses and grain directions—to warp itself from flat into exactly the shape you want. Just add water:

The MIT Self-Assembly Lab (under the direction of Skylar Tibbits) has been developing a variety of programmable materials, not just wood. The Lab’s also working on textiles (imagine a flat piece of cloth that turns into a cowboy hat whenever it starts to rain), along with slightly more exotic materials like flexible carbon fiber:

Working closely with Carbitex, an advanced materials company with a radical new flexible carbon fiber technology, CX6™, we have developed a system to produce programmable carbon fiber material that can fold, curl, twist and respond to a variety of activation energies. By printing various materials within the flexible carbon fiber grain, we are able to promote local curvature when subject to heat, light or moisture. Programmable carbon fiber enables a wide range of applications from morphable airplane flaps to self-regulating air intake valves, adaptive aerodynamics, tunable stiffness structures and a variety of other dynamic applications. These capabilities were previously impossible or required expansive and complex robotics but are now feasible through programmable material transformations.

The big advantage of these programmable materials (besides the potential for easy furniture assembly) is that you can make things that move and react to their environment without having to introduce complex, expensive, heavy actuation systems and the electronics required to drive them. The aerospace industry is already interested in this sort of thing (Airbus is working with MIT on a jet engine air intake regulator), but Tibbits was willing to speculate to Fast Company about such things as self-lacing McFly sneakers from Back to the Future II. And that self-assembling flat-pack furniture? MIT is already talking with an unnamed furniture company (that may or may not be based in Sweden) about making it a reality.

[ MIT Self Assembly Lab ] via [ Fast Company ]

Mars Comet Shames Earth Dithering

Comet siding Spring will make a spectacular fly-past of the planet Mars on 20 October. Among the observers will be seven robotic space probes sent from Earth.

Only discovered less than two years ago, the newborn comet, fresh from the Oort Cloud nursery far beyond Pluto, probably carries secrets of the origins of the solar system. Its arrival was so sudden and unexpected that no Earthborn probe could have been built and launched in time to intercept it. Instead, by the most freakish of improbabilities, it fell directly into range of a space fleet that had assembled for an entirely different reason.

On Sunday the comet is to flash through the Mars-and-moonlets system, travelling south-to-north nearly perpendicular to their orbital plane. It’ll miss Phobos and Deimos by 112,000 kilometers, and skate by Mars by about the same. When its potentially dangerous dust trail follows, four of the five orbiting probes will be snuggling safely behind the planet's bulk. The two surface rovers will be protected by the Martian atmosphere. The aged Opportunity will look for the comet in pre-dawn twilight, and the more-recently-arrived Curiosity, on the opposite side of the planet, will be in evening twilight.

Besides carrying cosmic secrets, the comet is also carrying a question. Why aren’t there people out there front-row-center for what might have been the greatest solar system spectacle of all human history? Where are the human eyeballs and human souls that should have been rising from the Martian surface at this marvel. The sight would likely have been a literally astronomical reward for the boldness and ingenuity that had placed humans there?

Fifty years ago, during the hey-day of the Apollo Program development, the issue of human flight to Mars wasn’t even open to doubt or debate – the only issue was the time frame. Could it be done within 20 years of a moon landing, as optimists hoped? Or would it take 30, or 40, as the realists expected?

True, these visions rested on the wispy foundations of imaginary engineering breakthroughs and in blissful ignorance of the real challenges of long-term space operations and human physiology. The maturity of the independently-developed technologies that when harnessed together in the 1960s enabled— barely enabled—brief lunar surface sorties by astronauts also misled futurists into thinking a new crop of advanced engineering capabilities could easily be mustered.

In hindsight, sophisticated reliability assessments, which properly assessed Apollo mission success at 80 percent and crew survival at 95 percent, when applied to even the best humans-to-Mars strategies, gave the likelihood of success at  less than5 percent and of crew survival as less than 50 percent. We didn’t even know how much we didn’t know.

But was that really an excuse for not even seriously trying? It’s not as if we couldn’t have afforded it. Did not trying to get humans to Mars really saved the world’s governments any serious money?

So instead of on-site living eyewitnesses to this spectacle, we’ve sent R2D2, and been lucky at that. The robots will perform just fine, and it will still be an amazing event. Yet it can also serve as a slap-in-the-face reminder that just as on Earth, “fortune favors the bold”. It would have vastly increased human culture if bold humans now on Mars— and the bold societies that might have existed to send them— would be justifiably exulting in this unexpected reward from the inanimate Universe, seen first-hand instead of through robot eyes.

There are more glorious surprises in the infinite “Out There”, waiting to be stumbled across and recognized. Let’s not be caught flat-footed like this again.

The opinions expressed are those of the author, not IEEE Spectrum, the IEEE, or its organizational units.

Google Funds New Brazil – U.S. Undersea Fiber Optic Cable

This week, Google announced its investment in a new undersea fiber optic cable connecting the United States and Brazil that will help ensure that its services continue to run smoothly in South America.

 The $60 million project, which will be capable of carrying up to 64 terabits of data per second, is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2016. It also marks Google’s second investment in continent-connecting cables this year.

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Will Humans Start Colonizing Mars in Ten Years?

Colonizing Mars has long represented one of the more ambitious dreams for space travel proponents ranging from NASA scientists to Silicon Valley entrepreneur and SpaceX founder Elon Musk. The latter also envisions sending humans to Mars sometimes in the next several decades, and has mused about how to build a Mars colony population of 1 million people in an Aeon interview.

Mars One — a nonprofit organization based in the Netherlands — shares some of the Musk’s goals and indeed, the Mars One vision relies on Musk’s SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. But Mars One’s concept of seeding Mars with human colonies by launching one-way missions recently received some close scrutiny from a team of MIT researchers.

The MIT team’s critique identified potential challenges and estimated that settling the first batch of Mars colonists would require about 15 launches of the Falcon Heavy rocket being developed by Musk’s firm SpaceX at a cost of $4.5 billion. MIT also suggested that Mars One may want to dial back its aggressive schedule of sending four-person crews every 26 months starting in 2024.

The MIT paper took a particularly close look at the Mars One idea that it could establish a sustainable colony on Mars using existing technology starting in the 2020s, according to Space Policy Online. MIT’s researchers concluded that Mars One was overreaching with its statement that “no new major developments or inventions are needed” to make such an effort possible. In a Reddit AMA, they also urged Mars One to take a slower-paced approach that field-tested all the necessary habitat equipment on the red planet before sending humans.

“We believe this is a time for boldness in space exploration, but there is also a necessary amount of caution,” said MIT’s team, a group overseen by Olivier de Weck, an aeronautics and astronautics engineer at MIT. “A catastrophe in the early days of Martian colonization may cripple the endeavor in today’s risk-averse society.”

In 2012, Mars One first proposed sending Mars settlers on a one-way trip to the red planet starting in 2024 — a project based on the idea of making such a Mars endeavor into a multimedia reality show. Mars One also envisions first sending robotic missions to set up the crew habitat between 2018 and 2023, before the first humans ever set foot on the red planet.

MIT’s simulation of the Mars One mission plan highlighted a few areas in particular.

First, the study found that the cost of the permanent colony would grow steadily over time because of the increasing requirement for spare partsspares would account for an estimated 62 percent of mass transported to Mars after almost 11 years of settlement.

Second, the study identified a potential problem of managing excessive oxygen levels if the Mars One effort grew all its food as crops on the red planet.

Third, it pointed out that carrying all food from Earth could be more efficient than growing Mars crops because of Martian agriculture’s equipment requirement.

The MIT paper presented at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014) in Toronto has sparked a firestorm of online debate between supports of the Mars One vision and the more skeptical side of the space enthusiast community. But the MIT team clarified during the Reddit AMA that it did not set out to “discredit” Mars One and simply wanted to clarify the technology road map required for such an effort. (MIT team leader Olivier de Weck talked Mars mission logistics in IEEE Spectrum’s 2009 special report on going to Mars.)

Suggestions from the MIT team during the Reddit AMA session included testing all life support and in situ resource utilization (ISRU) technologies on Mars for at least 26 months before sending humans. The researchers also pointed out that slowing down the rate of sending settlers could reduce the impact of the increasing spares requirement on mission mass. They also raised the future possibility of 3-D printing and other ISRU technologies reducing the need for spares.

Anonabox Promises Total Online Anonymity That's Easy, Open Source, and Cheap

Nobody likes giving up their privacy. But as much as we complain about it, relatively few of us are willing to put time, money, or effort into consistently protecting our privacy online. And it’s not like it’s that hard, relatively speaking: the Tor Project offers excellent, free software that lets you browse the Internet in complete anonymity, if you use it properly. With Tor, data you send over the Internet are encrypted and stripped of any identifying information (namely, your IP address) before reaching their destination. It’s one of the most reliable methods that you can use to protect your identity online. However, it does take some amount of experience to use, along with a conscious decision to choose security over convenience. If that sounds like too much work (and it sure sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it?), the Anonabox could be exactly what you need.


The Anonabox, now on Kickstarter, is a tiny little networking tool that will sit there and invisibly do all of the Tor-related stuff that you’d want it to do, without you ever having to think about it.

The appeal of Anonabox (relative to other, similar products) is threefold. First, it’s about as easy to use as you could possibly hope for: plug one end into a free port on your modem or router, add power (USB), and that’s it. The Anonabox will set up its own wireless access point (in tandem with any existing network) that you can connect to when you want to, and all the data that are sent through it will be anonymized through Tor. No wireless? No problem, it’s got an ethernet port, too.

Second, it’s completely open source, which means that people way smarter than you can make sure that there aren’t any security holes in the software.

And third, it’s cheap: the people behind this thing have spent years refining it for their own use, which has driven the price down to something equivalent to a cheap router. Add all of these things together, and your total investment (time, money, space, effort, frustration, embarrassment, emotional anguish, etc.) drops to the point where even those with a vague interest in the option for online privacy would have a hard time justifying not getting an Anonabox.

So, since Anonabox is entirely based on Tor, why not just use the Tor browser, which is free? The simple answer is that Anonabox anonymizes everything that your computer is sending out over the Internet, not just the websites that you visit through your browser. Email, instant messaging, filesharing, all of it. In that respect, using a piece of hardware that runs everything through Tor like this certainly makes things safer, but it can’t keep you perfectly safe.

Most of the time, when a Tor user is compromised, it’s because that user (or the user’s computer) did something that shouldn’t have been done: security and privacy are as much about you using good browsing practices and exercising caution as they are about anonymizing hardware and software. For example, if you browse the Internet through Anonabox with the same Web browser that you’ve been using, it’s possible to identify you through the unique characteristics of the cookies that your browser has probably picked up. Instead, you should be using a different browser, or ideally the Tor browser itself, which is specifically designed to prevent things like that from happening. The point is this: no combination of hardware or software is capable enough to protect your privacy if you use it wrong.

Anonabox was looking for $7,500 for an initial production run on Kickstarter, and they’ve surpassed that by just a bit, clocking in at well over $150,000 in funding with 28 days to go. You’ve missed the early bird version of the Anonabox ($45), so instead you’ll have to pay $51, with delivery expected early next year.

[ Anonabox ] and [ Kickstarter ] via [ Wired ]


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