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“Loading” Symbols Take Over Internet In Net Neutrality Protest

If the Internet seems a little slower than usual today, it’s probably not. But it may look that way due to a protest from Net Neutrality advocates around the web. Sites like Netflix, WordPress, and Reddit will be displaying loading symbols on their front pages to show their support for equal treatment of all the data flowing through the Internet.

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Wearable Tech Could Help Track Gun Violence

Some convicted criminals released on parole or probation are required to wear electronic monitoring devices so that police officers and court officials can track their movements. Despite these precautions, individuals serving their sentences in the community are still responsible for almost half of the incidents of gun violence prosecuted in the United States, says University of Pennsylvania criminology professor Charles Loeffler. Adding existing technology to current monitoring devices, though, could help deter these shooters by recording and reporting when they fire a gun.

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Intel Finally Goes Fanless

PC and laptop sales may be recovering, but tablets are still what's hot. So many hardware developers have tried, unsuccessfully, to generate interest in tablet-laptop hybrids that combine the best of both worlds. Consumers have been turned off by high prices, low battery life, noise, and bulk. Intel's hoping to solve those problems with the release of the Core M processor.

Codenamed Broadwell, the processor is the latest thrust in Intel's effort to develop lower-power processors, and the first to be implemented on the company's 14-nanometer FinFET manufacturing process.

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At the Mayo Clinic, IBM Watson Takes Charge of Clinical Trials

human os iconThe typical ways in which patients get matched up with clinical trials aren't exactly state of the art. At hospitals, clinical coordinators painstakingly sort through patient records, looking for people that fit the requirements of a given experimental treatment; meanwhile, patients bring their own Internet research to their doctors, asking if some new drug might help them. The Mayo Clinic is now seeking to improve this process by putting IBM Watson on the job.

The artificial intelligence known as IBM Watson can scan enormous troves of written information thanks to its natural language processing skills, and its machine learning programming means it quickly gets better at using that information to complete a given task. Most famously, it quickly got better at answering Jeopardy questions, and tromped the human competition in a 2011 exhibition match. More recently, IBM has been promoting the AI as the killer app for health care, where so much information is contained in written medical records and medical journal articles. Several hospitals and research institutions are testing Watson's abilities to suggest personalized treatment plans for cancer patients.

At the Mayo Clinic, Watson will start by analyzing the medical records of patients with breast, colorectal, and lung cancer. (If all goes well, other patients will gradually be included in the project.) Watson will also be continuously scanning databases that list clinical trials, such as, and will suggest appropriate matches for patients. There will be a lot to look through: The Mayo Clinic has about 8,000 clinical trials going on right now, in addition to the 170,000 that are ongoing worldwide. Mayo doctors will start consulting Watson in early 2015.

IBM vice-president of healthcare Sean Hogan says this system will provide new treatment options and new hope for patients, and will also speed the pace of medical research. And once Watson gets to work, it should get better and better at its job. "It’s designed to learn and improve," he told IEEE Spectrum. "As it gets the iterative feedback, as it interacts with the experts, it gets better."

Google Hires Quantum Computing Expert John Martinis to Build New Hardware

Google recently unveiled its intention to build new quantum computing hardware—possibly laying the foundation for a super-fast computer capable of solving problems that would take forever on today's classical computers. The technology giant has already experimented with machines created by D-Wave, a Canadian company that says it has built the world's first commercial quantum computers. But Google's new project has recruited an outside expert with a very different mindset for transforming quantum computing into a practical technology.

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Graphene Offers a Better Way to Capture T-rays

Researchers are already aware of the potential benefits of electronic devices that send and receive digital pulses at frequencies in the terahertz region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Devices for airport security, medical imaging, drug and food inspection, and high-speed communication, will be much more sensitive than today’s versions—that is, if researchers can develop better sources and detectors for that type of radiation. Now a team of scientists at the University of Maryland reports that it has used graphene to build a terahertz device that is at least as sensitive, and many times as fast, as existing detectors.

Graphene, a sheet of carbon atoms only one atomic layer thick, works well as a terahertz detector because of its ability to absorb radiation, from the ultraviolet to the terahertz regions, equally well. Meanwhile, terahertz radiation, also known as T-rays, can penetrate a wide variety of materials without the ionizing effects of x-rays, and can spectrographically identify materials, making it ideal for applications such as identifying drugs or explosives without harming people.

“[The graphene-based device] as good as any room-temperature detector in this spectral range, and potentially much better,” says Dennis Drew, a research scientist at the University of Maryland’s Center for Nanophysics and Advanced Materials. Drew and his colleagues presented their findings in the latest issue of Nature Nanotechnology.

The detector relies on the photothermoelectric effect. Photons striking the graphene cause electrons in the material to jump to a higher energy level. The affected graphene molecules want to dissipate the resulting thermal energy, but because the electrons lose the heat to the surrounding molecules rather slowly, placing metal contacts on the graphene allows the material to shed excess energy by pushing electrons to the metal. If the contacts are made of two different metals with different conductivity—in this case, gold and chromium—the result is a current. Measuring the current reveals how much terahertz power is being absorbed by the graphene.

Drew says the new detector is as sensitive as the Golay cell, another device used to detect terahertz rays. But while the Golay cell has a response time on the order of a second, the graphene detector makes the measurement in 0.1 nanosecond. Another alternative, a pyroelectric detector, has response times measured in milliseconds, and tends to be somewhat less sensitive.

The graphene detector’s ability to pick up terahertz rays might be further improved by various means, Drew says. Using multiple layers of the material may allow it to capture more radiation. Adding voltage gates to create P-N junctions could also raise such a detector’s performance. Contacts made from metals other than the ones used in the experiments detailed in the paper—aluminum, for example—might also increase the efficiency, though it’s harder to get aluminum to adhere to graphene. Drew says optimizing the performance is a relatively easy engineering challenge.


Iran Eases Restrictions on High-Speed Mobile Internet

Most cell phone users take mobile Internet services for granted. But Iran had to overcome the objections of hardliners before issuing the first 3G and 4G licenses for its mobile operators last week—an action that has finally empowered ordinary Iranians to swiftly upload images to Twitter and make video calls on their phones.

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Mind-blowing Advance? Direct Brain-to-Brain Communication Between Humans Demonstrated

In an experiment that one rival scientist dubbed a "stunt," Spanish researchers claim to be the first to have demonstrated direct brain-to-brain communication between humans. The researchers, led by Giulio Ruffini, CEO of Starlab in Barcelona, successfully transmitted the words "hola" and "ciao" in binary code from the brain of a person in India to the brains of three people in France. Electroencephalography (EEG), which monitors electric currents in the brain, was used to record the information from the sender's brain, and robotized transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which causes neurons to fire from an electric current that is generated by a rapidly changing magnetic field, was used to deliver the message to the brains of the receivers in France. 

Researchers have for years been developing noninvasive systems for translating information directly from the human brain to the computer. These systems, called brain-computer interface, often involve brain activity-sensing tools such as EEG, functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), and functional magnetic resonance imagine (fMRI). Researchers have also, to a lesser extent, experimented with translating information from the computer to the brain, using brain stimulating tools such as TMS — variations of which have also been used to treat depression — and transcranial focused ultrasound (FUS), which has been used to link the brains of rats

The Starlab experiment integrates two of these existing technologies to move a message from human brain to computer to human brain. The experiment was set up like this: While hooked up to an EEG device the sender was asked to imagine moving his hands or feet when shown an image that represented a 1 or 0, respectively. The EEG data was transmitted to the computer, translated into binary code, and emailed to the system at the recipients' end. The recipients, blindfolded, received electric pulses from the robotized TMS system in the visual cortex of their brains. That triggered the experience of phosphenes: the perception of seeing flashes of light that are not actually there. The recipients reported verbally when they experienced a flash, and this was translated into binary code and then to the message. It's super slow — the equivalent of telepathic Morse code. Still, the message was delivered. 

The authors published the experiment in PLoS One, describing it as "the first human brain-to-brain interface." Ruffini at Starlab said the work stemmed from his company's involvement in a four-year collaborative project funded by the European Commission to develop noninvasive brain stimulation technologies. The paper was "a way to show that our technologies work," said Ruffini in a phone interview.

It's a fun experiment, and it's exciting to think about potential (but far-fetched) applications, like soldiers with high-tech helmets communicating silently behind enemy lines. But some researchers not involved with the experiment say the paper doesn't really present a "first" and smacks of publicity grubbing. It's "pretty much a stunt I think as it's all been shown before," said Christopher James, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Warwick in the UK, in an email to IEEE Spectrum

A group at the University of Washington in Seattle led by Rajesh Rao last year demonstrated in an unpublished pilot study a very similar experiment involving EEG on the brain-to-computer end of the experiment and TMS on the computer-to-brain end. In that study, the researchers stimulated the motor cortex of the brain, causing the message receiver's hand to move subconsciously to strike a keyboard. The university declared it "the first noninvasive human-to-human brain interface." That was in August 2013. Rao told IEEE Spectrum he was "surprised and disappointed" that his experiment wasn't acknowledged in some way in Ruffini's paper.

Ruffini says he had seen Rao's experiment before publication of his, but that since it was unpublished "there was no paper to refer to." And he maintains that his paper was no stunt. "I believe such comments stem from not having read carefully the paper and missing the point," he says. Ruffini's experiment adds to scientific literature because unlike previous work, including Rao's, he stimulated the visual cortex, bypassing all peripheral nervous system involvement, and resulting in a conscious, rather than subconscious, brain-to-brain communication, Ruffini says. Rao's experiment "is interesting work. But I don't think's it's really brain-to-brain," he says.

Future experiments will no doubt help us define what "brain-to-brain interface" really means. In the meantime, we'll have to squabble over the few experiments under our belts. 

Converting Charge into Spin for Spintronics

Electronic circuits can only get so small before they’re overwhelmed with heat problems. Encoding bits using the spin of electrons, instead of the usual charge, promises to allow even smaller circuits—but the known processes of flipping electrons’ spins with external magnetic fields are inefficient and require very low temperatures, making such “spintronic” devices impractical.

Now, a team of researchers from Germany, the UK, the Czech Republic, and Japan have found a way to manipulate the spin of electrons using electric fields instead of magnetic ones. Their method, reported in the August issue of Nature Materials, could drastically reduce computers’ energy consumption and lessen heat problems caused by miniaturization.

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Medtronic Sees a High-Tech Solution to Global Health Woes

human os iconIf you believe that health care is a human right, as does Stephen Oesterle, Medtronic's VP of medicine and technology, you need to look for global health solutions that scale up. "We can't build enough hospitals or train enough physicians to take care of all these people," Oesterle says. The answer, he says, is a distributed model of medicine in which we put sensors in people's bodies and "a physician in every phone."

Medtronic is known for making pacemakers, brain implants, and other sophisticated medical devices that cost a pretty penny and are therefore primarily available to patients in the developed world. That's a market of about 1.5 billion people, Oesterle said in a talk at last week's meeting of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. Another 1.5 billion people around the world have access to some rudimentary heath care, and 4 billion others have none. Oesterle is calling on engineers to design the tech that will bring medical care to these masses.

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