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DARPA Wants a Memory Prosthetic for Injured Vets—and Wants It Now

human os iconNo one will ever fault DARPA, the Defense Department's mad science wing, for not being ambitious enough. Over the next four years, the first grantees in its Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program are expected to develop and test prosthetic memory devices that can be implanted in the human brain. It's hoped that such synthetic devices can help veterans with traumatic brain injuries, and other people whose natural memory function is impaired. 

The two teams, led by researchers Itzhak Fried at UCLA and Mike Kahana at the University of Pennsylvania, will start with the fundamentals. They'll look for neural signals associated with the formation and recall of memories, and they'll work on computational models to describe how neurons carry out these processes, and to determine how an artificial device can replicate them. They'll also work with partners to develop real hardware suitable for the human brain. Such devices should ultimately be capable of recording the electrical activity of neurons, processing the information, and then stimulating other neurons as needed. 

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Freeman Dyson Predicts the Future

Interactive Video: Choose the sections you want to watch by clicking on subjects on the video’s menu screen.

When we started making a list of visionaries to interview for our special issue commemorating IEEE Spectrum’s 50th anniversary, Freeman Dyson was one of the first names to come up.

The celebrated physicist’s career got off to a quick start in the late 1940s, with a critical contribution to the then-nascent field of quantum electrodynamics. Since then it’s ranged far and wide, touching on subjects as varied as solid-state physics, biology, and climate change.

But for many, Dyson is known for his most speculative ideas. He is the man for whom the Dyson sphere is named—a hypothetical structure, built by an alien civilization, that could capture most or all the energy emitted by a star (and leave a telltale excess of infrared light that could be picked up by our telescopes). Dyson was also one of the key players on Project Orion, which ran from 1958 to 1963 and which conceived of a spacecraft, powered by a series of controlled nuclear explosions, that could have potentially carried humans to Saturn by 1970.

We wanted to see what this bold and imaginative thinker might have to say about humanity’s next 50 years. He welcomed IEEE Spectrum to his office at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., last October, just a few days after a celebration honoring his 90th birthday.  

In the video posted here, you’ll find an interactive version of his discussion with Associate Editor Rachel Courtland. Topics include the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life, the future of space exploration, and what might become of our efforts to better understand the human brain. One of Dyson’s wilder ideas is a sort of “super-chicken,” a biological system that could allow people without a wealth of natural resources to grow their own chairs, tables, and other objects.

Toward the end of the discussion, Courtland couldn’t help but ask Dyson what it’s like to make predictions about the far future. “The point about prediction is not that it’s true. Prediction is just either a warning or a hope,” he responded. “Predictions should never claim to be true. But you can certainly claim that they’re possibilities you ought to think about.”

Boeing Gets $2.8 Billion to Help Build World's Most Powerful Rocket

The most powerful rocket ever built will use four space shuttle engines and two solid rocket boosters to propel NASA astronauts to Earth orbit and beyond—and that translates into a lot of rocket fuel. The U.S. space agency recently finalized a $2.8 billion contract with Boeing to build the rocket's core stage, which will contain the hundreds of of metric tons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen needed to fuel the four main engines.

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Printed Diode Is Fast Enough to Speak With Smartphones

One day, your smartphone will have conversations with your refrigerator, and your car will ask a city’s streets for tip-offs about free parking spaces. The ‘Internet of Things’ describes a world where pretty much everything is connected to everything else, enabling myriad applications from streamlined shopping to energy conservation.

It’s easy to imagine giving home appliances the hardware needed to plug into the Internet of Things – but what about a T-shirt, a magazine, or even an orange? These things need electronic labels—flexible, printed electronics that can draw power from their environments and use it to dispense useful information about the object.

A research team based in Sweden and the UK has now created the first printed e-label than can communicate with a smartphone. As a proof of principle, the device harvests energy from the smartphone’s signal, and uses it to illuminate a small display. The device was unveiled today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

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No Tech Solution for Civilian IED Threat

The U.S. military's approach in dealing with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has been described by an expert at a military academic institution as "hide and pray: hiding behind more armor and praying that there’s a technical solution to all this." But there is no hiding for ordinary civilians caught in IED blasts. Even the latest battlefield technologies for countering IEDs may not be practical as protection for civilians in crowded urban areas.

Homemade bombs that represented the signature weapon used against United States and coalition military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken an increasingly deadly toll on civilians in recent years, according to The Guardian. The latest data suggests that IEDs have killed or maimed more than 53,000 civilians over the past three years during incidents ranging from the conflicts in the Middle East to the Boston Marathon bombings.

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IBM's Watson Learns to Cook from Bon Appetit Magazine

IBM's artificial intelligence program Watson has been training to be a doctor over the last few years, applying its machine learning skills to genetics and cancer. But apparently the AI likes to cook in its spare time. 

In a just-announced collaboration with Bon Appetit, Watson is using the 9000 or so recipes in the magazine's database to generate new recipes based on available ingredients and a suggested cuisine style. The AI uses both the magazine's archive and its own database of flavor compounds to determine what ingredients will go well together, and comes up with surprising new combinations. For more on how this works, check out the IEEE Spectrum article about IBM's cooking initiative for Watson from last year's special issue on food and technology

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Commercial Use of Google Glass Faces Tough UK Data Protection Act

British regulators began circling Google's smart glasses like buzzards even before the wearable device went on sale in the UK last week. Google Glass wearers using their device for personal reasons have less to worry about, but commercial users will have to comply with British data protection rules aimed at safeguarding personal privacy.

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Google's Cardboard Virtual Reality Kit

What do you need for a virtual reality experience? You need one image going into one eye and a different image going into the other – it’d be good if the images changed once in a while – and that’s basically it. Google Cardboard brings that to you with only a smartphone, a couple of lenses, and cardboard (and some magnets and rubber bands).

Wednesday at their I/O conference in San Francisco Google handed out unfoldable packages that assembled – via Velcro and some tearing on the dotted line – into fully functional 3-D displays upon adding an Android phone and a Cardboard-compatible app.

Like an old-school stereoscope, the Cardboard uses a lens in front of each eye to focus a user’s eyesight to two evenly-sized windows, creating the illusion of viewing a 3-D landscape. In this case, though, those windows are each half of a smartphone’s screen. The demos within the Cardboard app offer exploration of Google Earth and virtual environments, and there are some additional simple games and displays accessible via Chrome. The setup uses the smartphone’s movement sensors to explore a virtual interface, and a metal ring paired with a magnet clinging to the side of the device moves up and down, allowing users to click by triggering a phone’s magnetometer (normally used to measure the phone’s orientation compared to the Earth’s magnetic field).

Google also put do-it-yourself instructions with equally simple materials online for those who missed the conference.

The trickiest part to find are the lenses: Google’s recommendation is now unavailable on Amazon, and users on Cardboard’s quickly-expanding Google+ group have recommend substituting everything from disassembled reading glasses to extra Oculus Rift lenses. In addition to following the cardboard-based instructions, some adventurous group members report assembling headsets via laser-cut fiber board and 3-D printing, not to mention retro stereoscopes, magnifying glasses, and toys intended for still images. Nobody’s yet followed Google’s own suggestion for the frame: an extra-large pizza box.

Besides the built-in demo, developers have been creating their own free and paid apps—including a Minecraft-like game and a roller coaster simulation—with the help of the VR Toolkit. The toolkit is intended to help with perspective changes, head tracking, and movement in order to optimize apps for 3-D.

Cardboard is clearly not intended as an immersive virtual reality experience on par with the Rift or Sony’s Morpheus, and there's the possibility of blurriness,discomfort, and the inherent motion lag when using today's smartphones. But as a barebones 3-D platform, it's hard to resist. And if the next big app appears on Android for 3-D, you can bet Google will have a higher-quality successor to Cardboard out in a hurry.

That Toy Is Now a Drone, Says the FAA

According to my best reading of a notice the FAA announced on Monday, things like the US $154 Husban X4 quadcopter are no longer toys—they are true drone aircraft in the FAA's eyes and cannot be flown without a certificate of authorization or special airworthiness certificate.

Huh?

Up to now, the FAA has been distinguishing model aircraft from small drones (or small unmanned aerial systems, to use the FAA’s preferred terminology) according to whether they are flown for recreation or for commercial purposes. If you want to fly a 20-kilogram, turbine-powered radio-controlled model airplane, go right ahead, so long as you only do it as a hobby. Fly a 2-kilogram electric foamy for compensation, and you’re breaking the rules against commercial drone use, though. That was the basic argument the FAA had made against Raphael Pirker, who was issued with a $10,000 fine for flying a model airplane for hire in 2011.

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SCOTUS Rules That Cellphone Searches Require Warrants

In a unanimous ruling yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that a police officer must obtain a warrant to search a cell phone. This will likely apply to computer and tablet searches as well, and acknowledges that a phone these days is far more like a file cabinet in a home, which historically cannot searched without a warrant, than a wallet, which can.

The court had looked at two cases, Riley v. California, in which officers searched a cell phone during a traffic stop and found information on the phone that connected the phone's owner to gang activity, and United States v. Wurie, in which information on the phone led the police to an apartment that was searched and found to contain drugs and a weapon.

The Justice Department, defending warrantless searches of cell phones, had argued that evidence on a phone could be destroyed remotely, were officers to wait to obtain a warrant to conduct the search. Preventing such destruction, however, can be as simple as switching a phone into airplane mode or slipping it into a Faraday bag, and these precautions are well understood by the law enforcement community.

Digital privacy advocates are relieved. Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that filed briefs in the two cell phone search cases considered by the Supreme Court, stated yesterday that “these decisions are huge for digital privacy.”

“The court,” Fakhoury said, “recognized that the astounding amount of sensitive data stored on modern cell phones requires heightened privacy protection and cannot be searched at a police officer’s whim.”

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