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DARPA Boosts Funding for All Things Biological

DARPA, the U.S. defense agency devoted to high-risk, high-reward research, has traditionally dedicated its resources to the physical sciences: nuclear bomb test detection, the stealth fighter, and the Internet are just a few of the technologies that DARPA pioneered. Today, however, the agency announced a new emphasis on biology with the establishment of its Biological Technologies Office, BTO. 

The agency began taking a greater interest in the life sciences over the last decade, spurred in particular by the needs of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs and neural problems. The new office will incorporate existing bio-related programs, and plans to start others across a wide range of scales—from individual cells to humans to global ecosystems.

Geoff Ling, director of the BTO, says that biological research is a natural complement to the agency's existing engineering knowhow. For example, he says, warfighters' capabilities must match those of their tools. "There’s a recognition that our technology is improving, but there still remains a human in the loop," he says. Ling sees an obligation to ensure that "the human can perform optimally in that entire system."

BTO has three announced research areas. The first will focus on restoring and maintaining warfighter abilities, and will further DARPA's recent efforts on advanced prosthetics and neural engineering. Its successful Revolutionizing Prosthetics program has already developed several sophisticated mechatronic arms, including prosthetics that can be wired into the wearer's remaining nerves or muscles. The next step may come from the HAPTIX program, currently open to proposals, which calls for prosthetics that can send sensory information back to the user. The neural engineering programs will include the recently announced SUBNETS, which will investigate deep brain stimulation therapies for neural and psychiatric disorders, and RAM, which will develop implantable memory prosthetics. 

The second research area covers synthetic biology programs like the Battlefield Medicine effort. "Can we develop a capability so that warfighters can make the medication they need on the spot?" Ling asks. DARPA imagines a bacterium that could be reprogrammed to make the necessary pharmaceutical molecules on the fly, but Ling says that basic research must lead the way. "To do that, you of course need deep knowledge of the genetic machinery," he says. 

BTO's final concentration calls for research to better understand the dynamics of ecosystems. This component seems the least well-defined at the moment, but its sketchy description, with references to the microbiome that resides in each human's gut and to disease epidemics, suggest a health focus. 

Electronic Skin Patch With Memory and Drug Delivery Capability Could Treat Parkinson’s

Researchers have made an electronic skin patch that can monitor muscle movement, store the data it collects, and use stored data patterns to decide when to deliver medicine through the skin. The patch could be useful for monitoring and treating Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy, its creators say.

Wearable devices that continuously monitor physiological cues can help doctors understand and treat diseases such as epilepsy, heart failure, and Parkinson’s. A few research groups have been trying to develop discreet health monitoring devices based on flexible, stretchable electronics that can be plastered on the skin, heart or brain.

But the new system is the first that can store data and deliver drugs, says Dae-Hyeong Kim, a chemical and biological engineering professor at Seoul National University and one of the device’s creators. In the "closed-loop feedback system," says Kim, the stored data is used for statistical pattern analysis, which helps to track symptoms and drug response. "For more quantitative tracking of progression of symptoms and responses to medications, wearable healthcare devices that monitor important cues, store recorded data, and deliver feedback therapeutic agents via the human skin in a controlled way are highly required," he says.

Kim and his collaborators at the University of Texas at Austin and wearable health-monitoring device-maker MC10 integrated the sensors, memory, and drug-delivery components, all made of nanomaterials, onto a stretchable polymer substrate that is soft and flexible like human skin. They reported their design in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

On the topside of the skin-like polymer patch, the research team printed three things: silicon nanomembrane strain sensor arrays; serpentine chromium-and-gold nanowires that act as both heaters and temperature sensors; and drug-loaded porous silica nanoparticles. The strain sensors detect motion such as Parkinson’s tremors. The heater controls the temperature of the polymer, which in turn controls the diffusion of the drugs into the skin (heat degrades the physical bonding between the nanoparticles and the drugs). The temperature sensors monitor skin temperature during drug delivery to prevent burns.

What’s most unique about the new electronic patch is the stretchable memory. Researchers have previously made resistive random access memory, an up-and-coming class of nonvolatile memory, using metal oxide nanomembranes. Those devices were stiff and brittle. Here, the researchers have made stretchable memory devices by sandwiching three layers of gold nanoparticles between ultra-thin titanium oxide nanomembranes printed on aluminum electrodes.

The memory device can be bent and twisted, it works when stretched to 125 percent of its original length, and works well even after 1000 stretching cycles.

As a simple demonstration, the researchers placed the wearable patch on the wrist. The motion sensors measured frequency of simulated tremors by sensing tension and compression of the muscle. The frequency was recorded and fed through a control circuit that recognizes characteristic patterns of Parkinson’s disease. This, in turn, triggered drug release.

Right now, the memory element requires a power supply and a data transmitter. The researchers say that they will need batteries or wireless power transmission and wireless communication in stretchable formats to make a truly wearable and wireless patch.

Photo: Donghee Son and Jongha Lee


Quantum Computing Experiment Adds "Control Knob" for D-Wave Machine

D-Wave's claim to having built the world's first commercial quantum computers depends upon the workings of helium-cooled machines chilled to just 20 millikelvin (-273 degrees C).That frigid temperature is necessary to prevent thermal "noise" from overwhelming any quantum effects that might be present in the machines. But now researchers have come up with a "tunable noise knob" that allows them to collect a wider range of experimental data to test whether D-Wave's machines actually harness the spooky effects of quantum mechanics in their computing processes.

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Intel Jumpstarts its Move Into Wearables With Acquisition of Basis Science

Intel may be inside a lot of computers these days, but it’s not on a lot of wrists. And that’s where the action has been in technology this year, as consumers embrace wristbands—including no-tech Rainbow Loom bracelets, simple-tech fitness trackers, and sensor-laden health trackers.

At the International Consumer Electronics Show in January, Intel General Manager of Perceptual Computing Mooley Eden made no secret about Intel’s ambitions to get into the wearables game.

The devices of the future, Eden said at CES, you will “carry on you, not with you.”

Eventually, he predicted, “we’ll see implantable devices, we’ll get constant information about our health that will interface directly with our brain.”

Eden expects he’ll live to see implantable technology in use. But before Intel gets inside your brain, it needs to get on your wrist. But it’s been having some trouble achieving that goal. As a huge variety of wristbands and watches come on the market, Intel’s attempts to fill them with chips have been lagging behind competitors like STMicroelectronics and Qualcomm.

Intel is spending a reported $100 million-plus to catch up by acquiring health-tracker company Basis Science Inc., maker of a sensor-laden watch. The Basis watch is not cheap, at $200. And it’s not the market leader, trailing far behind Fitbit and Jawbone, according to research firm Canalyst. But it does far more than the typical $100 fitness tracker, adding heart rate, skin temperature, and perspiration sensors to the standard accelerometers. With all these extra sensors, it goes beyond counting steps and hours of sleep to automatically detecting the difference between walking, running, and biking, charting sleep cycles, and detecting moments of stress.

Intel says it does not plan to market wearables itself (though Basis will continue to do so for the foreseeable future), but rather plans “to create wearable reference devices, SoCs [Systems on Chips] and other technology platforms ready to be used by customers in development of wearable products.”  Basis is clearly the kind of sensor-laden gizmo any chipmaker wishes would become standard.

Follow me on Twitter @TeklaPerry

Happy Lévy Day

Every child asks why there's a mother's day and a father's day but no children's day and gets the same answer: "Every day is a children's day." (Actually, there's a Universal Children's Day on 20 November, but parents keep that a secret.)

An eerie parallel suggests itself: every day is surely some sort of constant day, but only one gets any respect. That would be Pi day, which was marked with great fanfare nearly two weeks ago: 3.1415..., don't you know.

So today, the 27th day of the 3rd month, we at IEEE Spectrum raise a toast to Pi Day's forgotten cousin, Lévy Day, named for the Lévy constant, 3.27582291872....

It was found in 1936 by the French mathematician Paul Lévy, some time after the necessity of its existence had been demonstrated by the Soviet mathematician Aleksandr Khinchin. It is defined as e (a constant itself) raised to the power (π squared divided by (12 natural log 2)). That looks awful as a sentence, so let me draw you a picture instead. 

Yes, it's hard to grasp, and that's one big reason why it hasn't got as much media coverage as pi.

Other reasons: on Pi Day you get to eat pie, pi is easy to pronounce, and it's uncannily useful in physics, engineering, and mathematics itself. Lévy's constant is of interest mainly to those interested in numbers; it helps to describe the behavior of the continued fraction expansion of most real numbers. 

Also, people love the Greek letter π. And that suggests a way to build up Levy Day: Rename it for γ, the Greek letter that represents the constant. It's all part of a classicizing nomenclature that was popularized in the 18th century by the great Swiss mathematician Leonard Euler. True, the letter is already used to represent a host of constants in engineering, physics, math, and even finance. Perhaps the weightiest of them all includes the Swiss giant's name: the Euler-Mascheroni constant.

But so what? How many of those other gamma constants spell out a calendar date?

So, Happy Gamma Day!

U.S. Suspicions of China's Huawei Based Partly on NSA's Own Spy Tricks

Fears of Chinese espionage based on "back doors" built into computer hardware have prompted the U.S. government to block China's technology giant Huawei from doing business on U.S. shores. Such suspicions may come in large part from the knowledge that U.S. spies have already learned how to install similar "back doors" in computer hardware and software.

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Sulon Cortex Headset Seeks to Meld Real and Virtual Worlds

Last week at the 2014 Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco, three promising new virtual reality headsets were introduced. One of them, from a Canadian startup called Sulon Technologies, caught our eye because they decided to tackle one of the most challenging issues that VR has to conquer: when you're wandering around a virtual environment, how do you keep from running into real walls?

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Need a Space Robot? There’s An App for That

NASA's SPHERES smart-phone enabled robot travels on a bed of air when it's on the ground; it will navigate in three dimensions aboard the Space Station.


Last week, the New York Times Magazine published “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem,” complaining that, among other things, the ability to crank out code is trumping other tech talents like expertise in semiconductors or data storage, and that all the cool kids want to work for the same sexting app. Author Yiren Lu pointed to “the vague sense of a frenzied bubble of app-making and an even vaguer dread that what we are making might not be that meaningful.” The takeaway question: Should we be worried that apps are taking over the Silicon Valley mindshare? Bill Gates quickly weighed in, telling Rolling Stone that we shouldn’t worry. I wasn’t quite sure what I thought about the debate.

Then on Monday, I found myself at NASA Ames Research, invited to trail along with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on a quick tour of a few laboratories.

Now, NASA is the last place I thought I’d find folks developing smart phone apps. But find them I did, in a laboratory dedicated to turning SPHERES—free-flying basketball-sized satellites that have been on board the International Space Station since 2006—into robots. SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) are 18-sided polyhedrons that move themselves in a weightless environment by shooting out puffs of carbon dioxide; they can be navigated remotely from the ground and oriented using beacons strategically placed inside the Space Station.

Turning the Spheres into robots involves giving them sensors and more smarts. The team working on this project started out by making a list of what kinds of sensors they needed to add, jotting the suggestions down on their smartphones. Then they suddenly had a light bulb moment: everything they needed was right in front of them, in their phones. So they made some modifications on a standard Android phone (removing the cellular modem—that is, putting it permanently into “airplane mode”—and swapping out the flammable lithium ion battery with alkaline batteries) and docked it to a test Sphere. The gyros on the phone tell the Sphere its orientation, the accelerometer tells it where it’s going, and the camera allows it to do visual inspections, as well as navigate. The phone also lets Sphere communicate by Wi-Fi; a capability it previously lacked.

A researcher working on the project told me that once this realization dawned and they had a phone attached to the test Sphere, developing the software was just a matter of writing an Android app. And with all the developer tools out in the world, that was fast and easy. They sent the Spheres units on board the Space Station their first smartphone, a Samsung Nexus S, in 2011. This year, that handset will be replaced with a Project Tango (Google’s smartphone development effort) prototype that includes a 3-D position sensor.

NASA researchers expect the robotic Spheres to be able to freely move about the Space Station, beyond the small section delineated by navigational beacons. So far, one has been sent off to do visual inspections of the payload racks. Eventually, future generations (with different propulsion schemes and the sensors and smarts built in, instead of packed in a phone perched on the outside) will be able to go outside the Space Station to do external inspections, said Chris Provencher, Smart Spheres Project Manager.

So, what of that New York Times article, Silicon Valley’s youth problem, and all the effort going into apps? Like Bill Gates, I’m no longer worried. Because yes, young techies may be wasting energy writing the latest version of “Hot or Not,” (the latest variant on that, FYI, is the an app called Tinder. Or it was last week.) But far more energy is being saved by using apps and smartphones to jumpstart engineering development, instead of pulling together platforms and code from scratch. And the gap between a smartphone app and rocket science is turning out to be a lot smaller than it seems.

Follow me on Twitter @TeklaPerry.

New Computer Vision System: "Nope. She's Faking It"

A new computerized system is better than humans at telling a genuine expression of pain from a fake one.

Researchers who developed the system say it could be used to detect when someone is feigning illness or pain to escape work. It could also spot attempts to minimize or mask pain, which could be useful during, say, interrogations or health assessments.

According to a report in Wired, the new system is based on something called the Facial Action Coding System, developed by psychologist Paul Eckman. The system is used by animators to give their computerized characters realistic human expressions. The idea is that any facial expression can be mapped to a specific group of muscles in the face.

When people attempt to fake pain, they use the exact same facial muscles that are contracted during real pain. What distinguishes a deliberate expression from a spontaneous one is the dynamics: things like when, how much, and how quickly the muscles move. Humans, it turns out, aren’t great at picking up on this subtle difference in the dynamics of facial motion.

To test this, researchers at the University of California at San Diego and the University of Toronto first recorded videos of volunteers’ facial expressions as they experienced real pain by dipping their arm in icy water and also as they faked pain while putting their arm in warm water. Then the researchers showed the videos to 170 people and asked them tell real pain expressions from fake ones. The observers could only guess correctly about half the time. With training, their accuracy went up to only 55 percent.

The researchers’ computer vision and machine learning system, on the other hand, was much better at spotting the difference in the dynamics of muscle movement. It could distinguish between real and fake expressions with 85 percent accuracy.

The study, which was published today in the journal Current Biology, shows that the single most predictive feature of fake expressions is the mouth, and how and when it opens. The researchers found that when people fake pain, their mouth-opening action during grimaces is too regular. Both the interval between mouth opening and the time for which they open their mouth is too consistent.

In a press release, Marian Bartlett, research professor at UC San Diego's Institute for Neural Computation and an author of the study, said: "Our computer-vision system can be applied to detect states in which the human face may provide important clues as to health, physiology, emotion, or thought, such as drivers' expressions of sleepiness, students' expressions of attention and comprehension of lectures, or responses to treatment of affective disorders."

A Transistor that Stands Up to Blistering Nuclear Reactor Temperatures

Wonderful as silicon-based transistors are, they break down at temperatures above 350 °C. For higher-temperature environments, such as those found in jet engines and deep oil wells, researchers have had to turn to other options such as silicon carbide circuits, which can survive up to 550 °C.

Now, researchers at the University of Utah have made tiny plasma-based transistors that work at the blistering temperatures found inside nuclear reactors. While plasma transistors were first reported five years ago, the new devices are 500 times smaller than those early versions.

The new micro-plasma transistors work at temperatures of up to 790 °C. They could be used to make electronics for controlling robots that conduct tasks inside a nuclear reactor, says Massood Tabib-Azar, the professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah who developed the  devices. Such extreme-temperature logic circuits could also control nuclear reactors in case of emergencies or nuclear attacks. Tabib-Azar and his postdoctoral researcher, Pradeep Pai, reported the plasma transistors online today in the journal IEEE Electron Device Letters.

In a conventional three-terminal field-effect transistor, the voltage applied at the gate terminal controls the current flowing through a semiconductor channel. A voltage that is above a certain threshold turns the device on.

The channel in a plasma transistor consists of a partially ionized gas, or plasma, instead of a semiconductor. An electron emitter, typically silicon, injects electrons into the plasma when a voltage is applied to it. Plasmas are generated at very high temperatures, making them suitable for an extreme-environment transistor. Today’s plasma transistors, which are used in light sources and medical instruments, are about 500 micrometers long and operate at more than 300 volts, requiring special high-voltage sources.

The new devices are between 1 and 6 microns in length and operate at one-sixth the voltage. Tabib-Azar and Pai made the transistors by first depositing layers of a metal alloy to form the gate on a 10-centimeter glass wafer. They deposited a thin layer of silicon on top of the gate. Then they etched away portions of the silicon film using a chemically reactive gas, creating cavities and empty spaces that they could fill with the plasma to form the transistor's channel. They used helium as the plasma source.

The researchers are working on connecting the devices to make logic circuits that they plan to test in the experimental nuclear reactor at the University of Utah.

In addition to working in nuclear reactors, the new extreme-temperature transistors could be used to generate X-rays. Instead of using bulky lenses and X-ray shaping devices, engineers could use these tiny devices to pattern microscale devices in silicon. Or this type of transistor could be incorporated in a smartphone, creating an X-ray imaging source to collect images of wounded soldiers in the battlefield, says Tabib-Azar.

Photo: Dan Hixson/University of Utah

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