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Engineering Education May Leave Students Apathetic About Social Issues

Engineering students leave college less concerned about public welfare compared to when they first started out, according to a new study. Such a decline in concern about social issues could prove problematic in a technologically-driven world shaped by engineers—especially if engineering students go on to become influential tech leaders such as Larry Page or Marissa Mayer.

The new Rice University research blames a "culture of disengagement" in engineering education as a big reason why students slacken off in their concern about public welfare. The latter Rice defined as beliefs about professional and ethical responsibilities, understanding the consequences of technology, understanding how people use machines, and social consciousness. But the study also suggested how engineering programs could reverse the sense of apathy toward social issues.

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If Senators Really Like Bitcoin They Should Encourage Banks To Cooperate

From Right: Anthony Gallippi, co-founder of BitPay; Mercedes Kelley Tunstall of Ballard Spahr LLP; Sarah Jane Hughes of the Maurer School of Law; Paul Smocer of the Financial Services Roundtable

The U.S. Senate held two days of hearings this week on the decentralized currency known as Bitcoin. And the posture of lawmakers may be best exemplified by the comments Sen. Chuck Schumer made at the tail end of Tuesday's session.

"I do not want to shut down or stamp out Bitcoin," Schumer said. "The potential for a new payment platform and the rise of alternative currencies could have profound and exciting implications for the way we conduct financial transactions."

It was a remarkable reversal (or a clarification, if we want to be generous) from a letter sent by Schumer in 2011 to the Attorney General which all but equated Bitcoin with money laundering and black markets. The fact that most of the other senators—and even the witnesses, including some from law enforcement—embraced the same cautious regulatory approach brought a sigh of relief from the Bitcoin camps as well as a major rally on the stock market. The price of Bitcoin has since continued a jagged but steep incline to its current price of US $670.

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Self-Driving Cars Gain Backing of U.S. Regulators

U.S. federal officials apparently like what they see in self-driving cars: their potential to operate more safely and fuel-efficiently than the vast majority of human drivers. These huge possible benefits prompted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to give a cautious green light to the autonomous driving projects of automakers and technology companies.

The federal agency's endorsement of self-driving car technology came during the Connected Car Expo held ahead of the Los Angeles Auto Show this week, according to the Wall Street Journal. But they made sure to emphasize caution and restraint. Kevin Vincent, chief counsel of the NHTSA, told conference attendees that it would be "premature" for automakers to put autonomous vehicles on the road immediately.

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"Princess Machine": Encouraging Girls in STEM with a Rube Goldberg Contraption Music Video

Update on 27 November: After a controversy with the Beastie Boys over the use of the band's music in what is essentially an advertisement, Goldieblox yesterday took down the original video, which had gotten more than 8 million views. The company posted a replacement video yesterday, with a different musical track. That video now appears in the post below. The lyrics displayed at the bottom of this post refer to the original, no-longer-available video.

Start-up toy company GoldieBlox believes “there are a million girls out there who are engineers. They just might not know it yet.”

GoldieBlox makes engineering construction kits for girls ages 4 to 9. These aren’t just pink versions of Lego sets; instead, they include books that put the engineering projects in the context of a story. The idea is that the girls using these toys are building gizmos to help characters they care about. (The toy-plus-story model works; witness the success of toy company American Girl.) Founder Deborah Sterling majored in mechanical engineering at Stanford. Her first toy in the series, Goldie Blox and the Spinning Machine, came out this spring after a successful Kickstarter campaign.

This week, GoldieBlox showed it not only knows how to make toys, it knows how to make viral videos. The company took the Beastie Boys’ song “Girls,” changed the lyrics more than a little, and brought in an 8-year-old female rapper to sing it, along with two other young girls to perform in the video:

A team of adults led by 39-year-old Brett Doar created a Rube Goldberg contraption, the “Princess Machine” out of toys; it took about two and a half weeks to build, reported Doar, who has a masters degree in arts, computation, and engineering from the University of California at Irvine. Doar previously worked on the Rube Goldberg machine created for the pop group OK Go, alongside Brent Bushnell, profiled in IEEE Spectrum’s 2012 article, Rube Goldberg 2.0. But the Princess Machine was a project that was as much a labor of passion as it was an engineering job for Doar.

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World's Tiniest FM Transmitter Made From Graphene

Graphene has many talents. And now it can count radio transmission among them.

A team led by James Hone and Kenneth Shepard at Columbia University in New York has demonstrated a device built from a strip of graphene that can transmit FM radio signals. The device, the team says, is the smallest FM transmitter yet made

Many research groups have built graphene transistors that could be used in future RF circuits such as signal processors. Hone and his colleagues decided to test a different radio application for graphene, by building a moving, vibrating, electromechanical device. The team reckons that such graphene-based nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) could be more compact and easier to integrate onto chips than silicon MEMS and quartz devices, which are used today to pick up and filter RF signals in smartphones and other gadgets.

To build a graphene transmitter, the team suspended a 2-4 micrometer-long strip of graphene above a metal electrode. By applying a voltage to the electrode, they could draw the strip of graphene down. The resulting strain altered the strip's resonant frequency, tuning it up much as you might tighten a guitar string. By altering the voltage on the gate, the team found they could use the graphene device to generate a frequency-modulated electromagnetic signal. In a paper published this week in Nature Nanotechnology, they report the device could transmit radio signals at 100 MHz, right in the center of the FM band. 

For an aural demonstration, the team queued up the now classic K-pop song "Gangnam Style" on an iPhone and fed it into one of their graphene devices. They picked up the result on a regular FM radio tuner that Hone had brought in from home. Here’s what it sounds like:


You’ll notice a fair amount of static in the audio clip. That’s partly because the graphene oscillator is quite sensitive to electrical noise: a small voltage on the gate electrode can dramatically shift the frequency, Hone says. The team didn't add insulation in order to optimize their set-up for this demonstration. “We were also trying to operate at 100 MHz, right smack in the middle of the FM spectrum, where you can pick up a lot of FM signals,” he adds.

But the transmitter was just a proof of principle demonstration. “I think the big kinds of applications here are in filters and signal processing," Hone says. The team next hopes to show that they can integrate graphene NEMS devices onto silicon chips. 

Tianhe-2 Remains the Biggest of Computing’s Big Iron

Photo: Imaginechina/AP Photo

The TOP500 supercomputer tabulators announced yesterday (18 November) at the SC13 conference in Denver that the world most powerful number-crunching machine is…drum roll please…the very same computer that was leading the pack in June: the Tianhe-2 (“Milky Way 2”) supercomputer developed by China’s National University of Defense Technology. (See below for the latest listing of the top 10 supercomputers.)

As was reported in June, Tianhe-2 completed an astronomical 33.86 petaflops in benchmark tests. That’s 33.86 x 1015 floating point calculations per second, making it the almost twice as powerful as the next runner up, the Titan supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which clocked 17.59 petaflops on the same tests. So the Tianhe-2 must be twice as useful, right?

Maybe not.

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New Twists On Autofocus, Multitouch, And Energy Harvesting

The annual MEMS Executive Congress, held earlier this month in Napa, Calif., is more about contemplating trends than specific product innovations. But attendees did get a few glimpses of technologies soon to come out of startup companies. Three of those startup efforts stood out.

The Memscam from Digitaloptics Corp. Ten years, US $100 million, and 1000 patents—that’s what Eric Sigler, vice president of product marketing for Digitaloptics Corp., says it took Digitaloptics to create a camera module that autofocuses by moving tiny lens elements electrostatically. Sigler says that the tiny camera, intended for use in smart phones, uses two orders of magnitude less power than autofocusing cameras typically used in cell phones, which use voice-coil motor technology to operate. He also promised that the Memscam focuses 10 times as fast as existing cell phone cameras. Sigler expect the first phones to use the camera will come out in China, from manufacturer Oppo.

Energy harvesters from Microgen Systems.  Powering the Internet of Things—the connected world of the future that anticipates sensors all over the place, constantly communicating with each other—is going to require power that doesn’t come through wires. Companies have looked at using thermoelectric effects and harvesting radio waves as possible solutions. Robert Andosca, president and CEO of Microgen Systems, says he has a better way—converting vibrations into electricity using a MEMS device. It  incorporates a multilayered cantilever, with at least one piezoelectric layer that converts the movement of the lever into electrical energy. The company calls this device the Bolt Micro Power Generator. He demonstrated the energy harvester by placing it on a standard Parrot AR Drone.

FingerSense from Julia Schwarz thinks it’s time to stop just poking at our smart gadgets. And she has me convinced. Her company, Qeexo, has not built a new MEMS device; rather, it’s using information from the accelerometers already built into smartphones and tablets in a new way. Commercializing algorithms she developed as part of her PhD research at Carnegie Mellon University, Qeexo’s software analyzes the vibration generated when you touch the screen and determines whether you’re using your fingertip, knuckle, fingernail, or a stylus. Apps can then use that information to allow different types of touches to perform different function—a knuckle swipe, for example, could highlight text instead of scroll down the page; a fingernail could bring up a menu. It seems simple, but it’s not so easy to implement: Schwarz said she’s met with manufacturers who aren’t interested at first, then come back and tell her that they tried and failed to replicate the technology and are now ready to talk. Carnegie Mellon has six patents on the technology, which Qeexo is exclusively licensing.

Quantum Bit Stored for Record 39 Minutes at Room Temperature

A physical state crucial for quantum computing has managed to survive at room temperature for 39 minutes in a record-breaking experiment. The new study gives a huge boost to quantum computing's prospects of storing information under normal conditions for long periods.

The quantum state of superposition allows quantum bits (qubits) of information to exist as both 1s and 0s simultaneously—unlike classical computing bits that exist as either 1 or 0. That makes superposition one of the main keys to unlocking quantum computing's potential of performing calculations much faster than classical computers. But past experiments had only succeeded in maintaining superposition at room temperature for mere seconds, compared to the latest record-breaking run of 39 minutes at 25 degrees C. The longer a quantum state can last, the more quantum computing calculations can be performed with it.

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MEMS Makers Want to Put Even More Sensors in Smartphones for Total Situational Awareness

Yeah, yeah, so your phone can sense when you hold it close to your head, it tracks your location and helps you navigate, and it dims automatically when you turn down the lights. But just when you thought your smartphone was, well, pretty smart, it turns out that it has a long way to go. Because it isn’t yet tracking things like air pressure, humidity, and temperature. And it could and should.

That's according to sensor industry leaders attending the MEMS Executive Congress held this month in Napa, Calif. Of course, they would be expected to argue for more sensors in phones—their companies sell sensors, after all—but they made did make a pretty compelling case for adding at least a few new ones.

The first (of what turned out to be many) times that I heard the case made for these additional sensors I was skeptical. Pressure, humidity, and temperature are useful, I thought, only if you’re a weatherman. With Siri, who can fetch me a weather forecast in an instant, do I build my own? Actually, Stefan Finkbeiner, CEO of Bosch Sensortec told me, I do. Or rather, I need my mobile device to build a hyper-local weather report for me, because it could tie that reading of the extremely micro climate to my fitness tracking program and suggest when I might want to dial down my work out—or push a little harder, based on how I’ve handled such weather conditions in the past. It also might look at the temperature and humidity of a room, compare it to a more general weather forecast, connect it to information from a sleep tracker, and let me know when I might want to open a window to sleep better. Of course, that would just be frustrating in a hotel room with sealed windows, but the idea makes sense.  (To date, Samsung is the only major manufacturer that has added pressure, humidity, and temperature sensors to a phone, the Galaxy S4. The pressure sensor has gotten a lot of attention from indoor navigation system developers.)

Both these scenarios—linking my workouts and sleep quality to ambient conditions—assume I’m always attached to some kind of wearable device. That is actually becoming a reasonable assumption. Indeed, many of my Silicon Valley friends are so attached to their Fitbits and other fitness trackers that they are naming them. If you assume everyone has a smartphone and a wearable, Ivo Stivoric, vice president of research and development for Jawbone told me, there are all sorts of things that become possible. If a phone is tracking the temperature in the room, and a wearable tracks when you fall asleep, the wearable could alert the phone, which in turn could tell your smart thermostat to turn down the heat. In the morning, as you start stirring, your wearable would know you were starting to wake up, and the smart thermostat could raise the heat in response, rather than going with a pre-programmed setting.

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Remote Mappers Enable Relief to Reach Filipino Typhoon Victims

The typhoon that hit the Philippines last week killed thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands more, according to the BBC. The damage to infrastructure and the dislocation of all those people make it difficult for relief agencies to know where to route aid. Yet this typhoon, called Yolanda in the Philippines and Haiyan elsewhere, hit just as the technology to update maps and sift through social media is maturing. Filipinos and their faraway friends may be in the best position yet to respond to a typhoon, thanks to better digital coordination among volunteers.

Crowd-sourced crisis mapping dates back to at least the 2007-2008 Kenyan election violence. That prompted a group now called Ushahidi ("testimony" in Swahili) to build a platform for people to report violence through text messages or via the Web. The idea spread: The OpenStreetMap community responded to a 2009 cyclone in the Philippines, and again helped volunteers find their way around after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, says Kate Chapman, executive director of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) .

Those first attempts, however, did not make the best use of all the available volunteers. "We didn't have a way to coordinate it," Chapman recalls, "We just sort of said, 'Go map somewhere that's blank,' so you had to be a seasoned mapper to help." Since then, with funding from the Australian aid agency, HOT has developed an online task manager that allows even non-experts to chip in. "The difference is now we can say, 'Just log into the server and you can go through and it'll give you a square to work on,'" Chapman says.  One volunteer has compiled just such a map, with updates to the Philippines OpenStreetMap; volunteers can now see where their work would be most useful. The latest iteration was built with input from over 600 volunteers who have contributed over 1.3 million updates.

Some of the work, done ahead of the typhoon's landfall, involved routine things such as tracing roads. But the group obtained its first post-disaster imagery, from a U.S. government agency, just today, says Chapman. Imagery from European agencies and other sources are also beginning to appear. "We can look at what roads are closed and where damage is worse," Chapman says. HOT has already sent PDF maps to volunteers and agencies such as the American Red Cross for printing before traveling to disconnected parts of the Philippines.

Volunteers can enrich maps with information from social media, too, reports IRIN. A Wall Street Journal article notes that doing so requires filtering through tens of thousands of tweets—a task that can be aided by software, but still requires many volunteers to verify information. Another disaster-recovery tool maturing now is Google's person finder, which it tested after the Japanese tsunami of 2011.

Readers interested in helping can consult the Digital Humanitarian Network for a list of participating groups. The Red Cross also has a recent big-picture look at the role technology plays in disaster relief.

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