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Hand-Held Spectroscopy Tool Lets You Examine the Molecular Composition of Your Food

Up on Mars, the Curiosity Rover uses its spectrometers to examine the chemical composition of the rocks and dirt on the red planet. Now the Israeli startup Consumer Physics has developed a tool that lets you conduct similar experiments in your own backyard or at your dinner table.

The company launched a Kickstarter campaign today with the goal of raising US $200 000 to fund the first production run of its hand-held spectrometer, which is about the size of a flash drive. Using near-infrared spectroscopy, the device, called SCiO, shines light on a sample and measures the light absorption patterns of the molecules therein. It then identifies the object by its optical signature, and gives the user information about the object's molecular composition. It uses bluetooth to link to the user's smartphone, where an app manages the data.

In a product demo for IEEE Spectrum last week, company CEO Dror Shalon held up a prototype SCiO to a block of Gouda he had just bought at Walgreens. After a brief flash of light and a few seconds of analysis, Shalon's smartphone reported that the item was: cheese. While that might not seem like the most useful announcement for a functional human being with eyes, the SCiO can provide more info. After following a prompt to enter the portion size (which was on the cheese's packaging), the app displayed that cheese's calories per serving, as well as fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Of course, all that info was also on the cheese's packaging. But Shalon says the SCiO's abilities will shine forth at restaurants and anywhere people are grabbing food on the go. 

Shalon thinks that consumer spectroscopy is an idea who's time has come. Today's quantified self gadgets let us track our bodies with unprecedented precision—we can count our steps taken, calories burned, and much more. But people who want that kind of information about the materials around them have been out of luck so far. "When we came up with this vision, I went to Amazon to search, because I was sure that it must exist already," says Shalon. When his search came up empty, he and his team started working.

Kickstarter backers who donate $149 will get the SCiO in December, along with free downloads of all the SCiO-specific apps that Consumer Physics will develop over the next two years. The company has already developed apps for identifying and authenticating pharmaceuticals, for checking the hydration of plants, and for measuring the sugar content of fruit. Shalon is hoping that third-party developers will find many other things to do with SCiO. "That's the major reason we’re doing the Kickstarter campaign, to get the device into the hands of the early adopters," he says.

Liquid Metal Reconnects Severed Nerves in Frogs

Severed nerves in the body can lead to the loss of muscle function and muscle atrophy, unless the severed nerve endings get reconnected. One possible new solution devised by Chinese researchers uses liquid metal to create an electrical conduit capable of transmitting  signals between the severed nerve ends.

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New 3-D Printer Makes Soft Interactive Objects

A new type of 3-D printer can turn yarn into soft, cuddly objects. 3-D printing typically uses metals and plastics, although researchers are also using them to make food stuff, tissue, and body parts. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University who designed the new printer say they wanted to extend 3-D printing to a new class of materials for making objects that people would interact with.

The device is a kind of printer-sewing machine hybrid. It takes designs from a computer and converts them into 3-D objects using a loose felt material. The resulting objects are similar to hand-knitted versions, said CMU computer science professor Scott Hudson in a press release. Hudson developed the new printer with Disney Research support, and presented it at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Most common low-end 3-D printers are based on Fused Deposition Modeling, a process in which melted plastic is extruded to create objects layer by layer. The felting printer works in a similar fashion, but emits yarn instead of melted plastic. A barbed felting needle at the printer head repeatedly pierces the yarn, entangling new fibers into the yarn layers below and bonding the layers together.

A key difference, of course, is that because yarn is thick, the printer doesn’t  achieve the same dimensional accuracy as conventional 3D printers. So the printed objects don’t look exactly like the computerized design.

The printer could be used to make clothes, scarves, and plush toys. It could also be used to make parts for soft robots that are designed to work near or with people. Whats more, Hudson said it should be possible to design a printer that could produce both fabric and plastic elements in a single fabrication.

Quantum Cryptography Done Over Shared Data Line

Researchers have sent quantum keys over a "lit" fiber-optic network, a step towards using quantum cryptography on the networks businesses and institutions use every day.

A group of U.K.-based research groups last week said the demonstration opens the door to more research that will make the technology more commercially viable. The researchers were from Toshiba Research Europe, BT, ADVA Optical Networking, and the U.K.'s National Physical Laboratory (NPL). 

In quantum cryptography, the keys to unlock the contents of communications are represented with photons. It starts with a laser that sends a pair of photons over a fiber-optic network. The polarization of photons—whether they’re oscillating horizontally or vertically, for example—can be detected by a receiver and read as bits, which are used to generate the same encryption key at both ends of the network connection. If an interloper attempts to intercept the keys to decrypt a message, the receiver will be able to detect a change, according to the laws of quantum mechanics. If that happens, the receiver can reject the keys and the message stays encrypted.

Until now, quantum key distribution (QKD) has been done over dark fiber, or unused optical fiber lines, which means that a separate fiber optic line is needed for transmitting other data. But dark fiber networks are not always available and are expensive. Being able to transmit quantum keys over a lit fiber network means that institutions and businesses will be able to run quantum cryptography over their existing networking infrastructure, the researchers said.

"Using techniques to filter out noise from the very weak quantum signals, we've shown that QKD can be operated on optical fibers installed in the ground and carrying conventional data signals," said Andrew Shields from Toshiba Research Europe in a statement

The National Physics Laboratory developed a series of measurements for identifying individual particles of light from the stream of photons sent over a fiber-optic line. That will allow the system to detect attempts to intercept the transmission of keys, which should improve customer confidence in quantum cryptography, said Alastair Sinclair from the National Physics Laboratory in a statement.

The test was conducted over a live BT fiber link between its research campus in Suffolk and another BT site in Ipswich, U.K. In an interview with Nature, Toshiba's Shields said the quantum key distribution was done alongside data transmitted at 40 gigabits per second, the fastest multiplexing of regular data with quantum keys to date. But he notes that implementing QKD in the "real world" is more challenging than a laboratory environment because there are environmental fluctuations that can cause data loss in fiber lines.

Another technical challenge facing widespread use of QKD is the distance keys can be sent. Light pulses sent over a fiber optic line fade, which means that key distribution can only be done at a distance of about 100 kilometers. (See Long-Distance Quantum Cryptography.) But as governments and companies seek out the most secure ways to send data, quantum cryptography could become an appealing option.

Christopher Yoo Thinks Net Neutrality's End Might Not Be So Bad

Net neutrality's principle of treating all Internet traffic equally may no longer hold under a new U.S. regulatory proposal for broadband providers. But one law and technology expert doesn't think that the sky is falling just because Comcast or Verizon could charge Internet content providers extra for faster delivery of Internet services.

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IBM Prints World’s Smallest Magazine Cover in 3-D

Kids will look through a microscope at the world’s smallest magazine cover at today and tomorrow’s USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, DC. When they do, they will see a fuzzy pair of panda twins on the March 2014 cover of National Geographic Kids, the defending champion of Guinness World Records for the smallest magazine cover. This year’s is 11 by 14 micrometers (National Geographic video). Engineers and researchers looking through the microscope, however, might see the cover for what it really is: a demonstration of scanning probe nanolithography’s growing prowess.

Researchers at IBM Research in Zurich, Switzerland, began developing a new method for etching polymers several years ago, as IEEE Spectrum reported in 2010 (“IBM Develops Patterning Technique That Could Replace E-Beam Lithography”). That patterning method used a heated silicon probe to evaporate the material in the substrate, leaving behind the desired pattern in three dimensions. Part of the breakthrough was choosing the right chemistry for the substrate, so that the evaporated chemicals went into a less reactive phase, preventing them from sticking to nearby surfaces.

One of the researchers involved, Urs Duerig, says that was more elegant and cleaner than related lithographic methods, some of which left the excavated debris on nearby surfaces. At first, however, it was too slow for most applications. But by 2011, the team reported a 1000x increase in the speed of their system in the journal Nanotechnology. That speed brings the method on par with existing commercial nanolithography techniques.

The method has another advantage: built-in inspection. After a heated silicon tip evaporates the unwanted material, a second relatively cold tip inspects the results. That’s handier than the industry standard, electron-beam lithography, which requires a separate inspection process. Scanning probe nanolithography may also offer researchers greater control over the depth of the cavities they produce. Duerig claims that they can achieve 1-nm precision. That would enable researchers to create tiny optical cavities, for example, or to create curved structures such as lenses. 

IBM licensed the technology to SwissLitho, a spinoff startup founded by researchers from the original team. That team set about creating a machine they could sell to other researchers, and shipped their first one a few weeks ago to a lab at McGill University, which promptly drew a micro-map of Canada.

Maybe for their next publicity stunt they should map the Vatican City.

FCC Plan for Internet Fast Lanes Leaves Net Neutrality Behind

Open Internet rules that have preserved equal treatment for all Web traffic could undergo a radical shift in the coming days. U.S. federal regulators plan to propose new rules today that would allow broadband providers such as Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable to charge extra fees to companies for access to faster Internet lanes—perhaps signaling the death knell for net neutrality.

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Error-Free Quantum Computing Made Possible in New Experiment

For quantum computing to ever fulfill its promise, it will have to deal with errors. That's been a real problem until now, because although scientists have come up with error correction codes, the quantum machines available couldn't make use of them. But researchers report today that they've created a small quantum computing array that for the first time performs with enough accuracy to allow for error correction—paving the way toward practical machines that could outperform ordinary computers.

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Supreme Court Debates Aereo's Fate, Future of TV and Cloud

Should scrappy, tech-savvy entrepreneurs be able to design their way around laws that regulate rebroadcasting? That was the underlying issue on 22 April as the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., et al. v. Aereo, Inc.

Aereo, which IEEE Spectrum profiled earlier this year, is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based startup that lets subscribers stream TV shows from certain channels to their digital devices. Its tagline is “Watch live TV online. Save shows for later. No cable required.” Aereo does that by picking up free television broadcasts and storing them in a cloud-based DVR system.

But here's the key technological detail: Each Aereo subscriber is assigned an individual, postage-stamp-size antenna, which is attached to one of the company's servers and picks up TV signals for that user. Because customers rent their own antennas, Aereo argues that its service does not violate rebroadcasting laws.

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Many Americans Wary of Drones, Robot Caregivers and Google Glass

Many Americans who see technology as changing life for the better don't seem ready to embrace commercial drones, robot caregivers and wearable computing devices such as Google Glass. A new survey shows certain technologies remaining controversial despite a majority of respondents having an optimistic view of technology's long-term impact on life.

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