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New Path to Better X-ray Breast Cancer Imaging

Researchers in Switzerland have improved the ability of x-rays to help early diagnosis of breast cancer. The new x-ray technique, called “phase contrast imaging” (PCI), has been in development as a medical imaging technology since the 1990s, and it's a more sensitive kind of camera that can examine soft tissue inside the body without requiring a person to swallow kidney-compromising “contrast agents” like iodine or barium.

As IEEE Spectrum reported earlier this year, PCI compares the propagation speed of X-ray wavefronts as they pass through a subject, using algorithms that infer the composition of the X-rayed material from the signal delays the device detects along each beam. So while old-fashioned X-rays could only take photo negative pictures of hard and dense objects that stopped x-rays cold — like bones — PCI instead examines X-rays that pass through its subject. That gives it the soft tissue sensitivity and imaging precision of CT scans but at a fraction of CT scans’ high X-ray doses.

The catch to date has been that the best PCI methods require X-ray sources that produce a wavefront that is well synchronized. And this has traditionally meant only the kind of (synchrotron) x-rays that giant particle accelerators can produce, which of course limits the number of patients that can use PCI and makes it really expensive and inaccessible to boot.

Yet new, cheaper and more compact X-ray sources are being developed now that could enable synchrotron-like X-ray PCI without the need for any big, rare, and expensive particle accelerators.

Spectrum previously reported on an X-ray chip developed at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital. The new effort, led by researchers at  ETH Zurich, the Paul Scherrer Institute, and the Kantonsspital Baden, instead relies on a more traditional X-ray tube but one whose rays pass through a series of fine metal grates, providing coherence enough for PCI. (A 2010 review of the various experimental techniques in x-ray PCI mammography described this “grating interferometry” method as “promising” though still time consuming and technically challenging.)

For a patient, PCI would enable earlier and more accurate cancer detection, though it remains unclear if the new development will offer the most effective X-ray source for real-world mammograms. (The researchers explain that they have, to date, only run their PCI method on tissue samples and not yet on human patients.),

$17-Million Longitude Prize Aims at Scientific Challenge of the Century

The original Longitude Prize represented one of the earliest examples of using prizes to spur scientific discovery and innovation back in 1714. Three centuries later, the British government has helped establish a new Longitude Prize worth almost $17 million (£10 million) to solve the greatest scientific challenge of the 21st century.

But what is the greatest scientific challenge of this century? The Longitude Committee, a group of British science and engineering experts, narrowed down the possible challenges to six choices: antibiotics, dementia, flight, food, paralysis and water. The public will get to choose among the six challenges by voting online at the BBC Horizon TV show or by texting between May 22 and June 25.

  • Antibiotics: Can we create a cheap, accurate, rapid, and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow doctors and nurses all over the world to administer the right antibiotics at the right time and stop the rise of antibiotic resistance?
  • Dementia: Can we develop intelligent, yet affordable technologies based on robotics and social networks that revolutionize care for people with dementia and enable them to live truly independent lives?
  • Flight: Can we design and build a zero or close-to-zero-carbon airplane that is capable of flying from London to Edinburgh, at comparable speed to today's aircraft, by 2025?
  • Food: Can we invent the next big food innovation that helps ensure a future where everyone has enough nutritious, affordable, and environmentally sustainable food that people want to eat? (See the IEEE Spectrum special report: The Age of Plenty)
  • Paralysis:  Can we invent a solution that gives people with paralysis close to the same freedom of movement that most of us enjoy?
  • Water: Can we create a cheap, environmentally sustainable desalination technology that enables low carbon, sustainable production of water for drinking or agriculture?

Such challenges seem worlds apart from the very first challenge tackled by the original Longitude Prize of 1714. The original prize of £20 000, based on the British Parliament's Longitude Act of 1714, sought a reliable solution for sailors to always find their ship's longitudinal location. Such a solution could provide a huge advantage for seafaring nations such as the UK by allowing its Royal Navy and merchant ships to more easily navigate the globe.

The man who came closest to receiving the reward money was John Harrison, a working-class joiner and clockmaker who developed a precise marine timekeeper called H4. That instrument, later known as the marine chronometer, allowed sailors to always carry a set reference time around for comparison with their local time as calculated according to the sun's position. The time difference corresponds with a certain degree of longitude either west or east of Prime Meridian located in Greenwich, England.

Such a finding helped the UK spread its maritime-based empire around the world as the strains of "Rule, Britannia!" rolled across the waves. This time around, the new Longitude Prize developed by Nesta, an innovation foundation in the UK, in partnership with the UK's Technology Strategy Board, aims to have an even bigger (if perhaps slightly more benevolent) impact on the world.

Small, Simple Terahertz Detector Converts The Pulses To Sound

Terahertz waves, which are non-ionizing and can penetrate fabrics and body tissue, could be used to reveal hidden weapons and spot skin cancer and tooth decay. But they are notoriously difficult to detect.

Engineers at the University of Michigan have invented a simple new way to sense them. They use a carbon nanotube-rubber material to convert terahertz pulses into sound waves, which they pick up with an acoustic sensor. The scheme, reported in the journal Nature Photonics, promises a speedy, compact device for real-time video-rate terahertz imaging.

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US Charges Chinese Military Hackers With Cyber Espionage

Five Chinese military hackers became the first "state actors" ever charged by the U.S. Department of Justice with using "cyber means" to steal U.S. trade secrets. The unprecedented step seems to signal the Obama administration's determination to turn up the pressure on China for what the U.S. sees as rampant Chinese corporate espionage targeting U.S. businesses.

The announcement by the U.S. Department of Justice named five officers of China's People's Liberation Army indicted by a grand jury in the Western District of Pennsylvania on charges of computer hacking, economic espionage and other offenses, according to The Diplomat. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made the announcement on Monday while laying out the traditional U.S. stance on distinguishing cyber espionage from cyber attacks aimed at collecting national intelligence. More details were made available in a press release by the U.S. Department of Justice.

"This is a case alleging economic espionage by members of the Chinese military and represents the first ever charges against a state actor for this type of hacking. The range of trade secrets and other sensitive business information stolen in this case is significant and demands an aggressive response. Success in the global market place should be based solely on a company's ability to innovate and compete, not on a sponsor government's ability to spy and steal business secrets. This Administration will not tolerate actions by any nation that seeks to illegally sabotage American companies and undermine the integrity of fair competition in the operation of the free market."

The named victims of the five Chinese military hackers include six U.S. companies and unions: Westinghouse Electric, Alcoa, Allegheny Technologies Incorporated, U.S. Steel, the United Steelworkers Union and SolarWorld. The U.S. commercial interests supposedly harmed in this case include nuclear power and solar power companies, as well as the iron and steel industries.

China's Foreign Ministry reacted by condemning the U.S. indictment. It denied any cybertheft of trade secrets by the Chinese government or military, and described itself as the frequent victim of U.S. cybertheft, wiretapping, and surveillance. It also suspended the activities of the China-U.S. Cyber Working Group—a group set up last year to improve dialogue on cybersecurity issues—as an additional act of protest.

"This U.S. move, which is based on fabricated facts, grossly violates the basic norms governing international relations and jeopardizes China-US cooperation and mutual trust," said Qin Gang, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, in a press release.

There is little doubt that both the U.S. and Chinese governments regularly attempt to hack one another's government agencies, military networks and companies for "national security" purposes. For instance, U.S. National Security Agency documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden show how the NSA allegedly infiltrated the internal networks of Chinese telecom giant Huawei—part of a broader U.S. intelligence effort to find any suspicious links between Huawei and the Chinese military.

But the U.S. government has drawn a strong distinction between hacking in the name of national security and hacking in the name of stealing trade secrets and committing economic espionage. The latter has been a longstanding sore point for many U.S. companies that feel victimized by Chinese hackers, but the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice has laid out charges against specific individuals within the Chinese military suggests it's gathering concrete evidence on such efforts.

Such a U.S. move is more symbolic than anything because China would undoubtedly refuse to extradite the named military hackers for prosecution, according to The Diplomat. It may also do little to improve U.S.-China relations or achieve a cyber detente, given how China could just as easily retaliate by bringing charges against the NSA for its hacking activities.

 

Velo Labs Launches a Connected, Solar-Powered Bike Lock

A new bike lock on the market can do a whole lot more than keep a bicycle out of the hands of thieves.

Skylock, which was built by engineers from Boeing and Jawbone, starts by bringing new features to its primary function. The U-lock uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to connect to a smartphone, so owners—or anyone they authorize—can wirelessly unlock the device. If the lock senses that someone is holding on to it for too long, potentially to try to break it, it can send an alert, according to NPR.

There are other smart bike locks on the market, but none that rely almost completely on renewable energy. The Skylock, developed by startup Velo Labs in San Francisco, claims to be the first-ever to be equipped with a small solar panel and rechargeable battery system, which will “virtually eliminate manual charging,” the company says in a statement.

Even riders in foggy San Francisco shouldn’t need to plug in. Velo Labs says just an hour of sunlight will charge it for an entire week and a full charge can last about a month. “So unless the rider lives in a cave with little or no sunlight,” the company says, “the Skylock will always be ready to go.”

But that’s just the beginning.

“We wanted to take on the challenge of bringing cycling into the future,” Velo Labs co-founder Jack Al-Kahwati, who was formerly an engineer at Boeing, said in a statement. “I have spent years working on tanks, helicopters and aircraft, and while these forms of transportation have made huge leaps in safety and connectivity, the bike is still stuck in the 19th century,”

Beyond preventing theft, the Skylock can also be similar to the OnStar of the cycling world. Using its wireless function, it can compare data from its built-in accelerometer to that generated by a smartphone to determine if the rider has been in an accident. In the case of an impact, the Skylock can send a push notification to make sure the rider is OK. If the person doesn’t respond, the Skylock will send for emergency responders.

The connectivity also allows Skylock to be part of the sharing economy. Users can choose to lend their bikes to people in their networks using the app. And if you don’t entirely trust your friends, or you lend it to strangers, you can also track it via the app when it’s out of your hands.

Velo Labs is currently running a crowdfunding campaign and expects to start shipments by early 2015. It will retail for US $249, but is selling for an introductory price of $159 during the campaign. Despite all of the functionality Skylock promises, it cannot change a flat tire. 

Velo Labs Launches a Connected, Solar-Powered Bike Lock

A new bike lock on the market can do a whole lot more than keep a bicycle out of the hands of thieves.

Skylock, which was built by engineers from Boeing and Jawbone, starts by bringing new features to its primary function. The U-lock uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to connect to a smartphone, so owners—or anyone they authorize—can wirelessly unlock the device. If the lock senses that someone is holding on to it for too long, potentially to try to break it, it can send an alert, according to NPR.

There are other smart bike locks on the market, but none that rely almost completely on renewable energy. The Skylock, developed by startup Velo Labs in San Francisco, claims to be the first-ever to be equipped with a small solar panel and rechargeable battery system, which will “virtually eliminate manual charging,” the company says in a statement.

Even riders in foggy San Francisco shouldn’t need to plug in. Velo Labs says just an hour of sunlight will charge it for an entire week and a full charge can last about a month. “So unless the rider lives in a cave with little or no sunlight,” the company says, “the Skylock will always be ready to go.”

But that’s just the beginning.

“We wanted to take on the challenge of bringing cycling into the future,” Velo Labs co-founder Jack Al-Kahwati, who was formerly an engineer at Boeing, said in a statement. “I have spent years working on tanks, helicopters and aircraft, and while these forms of transportation have made huge leaps in safety and connectivity, the bike is still stuck in the 19th century,”

Beyond preventing theft, the Skylock can also be similar to the OnStar of the cycling world. Using its wireless function, it can compare data from its built-in accelerometer to that generated by a smartphone to determine if the rider has been in an accident. In the case of an impact, the Skylock can send a push notification to make sure the rider is OK. If the person doesn’t respond, the Skylock will send for emergency responders.

The connectivity also allows Skylock to be part of the sharing economy. Users can choose to lend their bikes to people in their networks using the app. And if you don’t entirely trust your friends, or you lend it to strangers, you can also track it via the app when it’s out of your hands.

Velo Labs is currently running a crowdfunding campaign and expects to start shipments by early 2015. It will retail for US $249, but is selling for an introductory price of $159 during the campaign. Despite all of the functionality Skylock promises, it cannot change a flat tire. 

Solar Winds Spark Extra Lightning Strikes on Earth

Solar winds capable of triggering spectacular displays of the Northern Lights in the sky may also boost the rate of lightning strikes on the ground. The finding could allow researchers to use sun-monitoring satellites to improve weather forecasts of hazardous thunderstorms in the future.

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Most Technologists Upbeat About Future Internet of Things, Says Pew Survey

In the future, cars will be smart enough to communicate with each other to avoid collisions and sensors placed beneath your skin will transmit your vital signs to medical professionals. Your personal computer will be on your wrist and you will input information with your voice, rather than typing on a screen.

These are just some of the visions spun by a group of more than 1800 technologists surveyed by the Pew Research Internet Project, which released its report on the Internet of Things yesterday. There is general agreement that the Internet of Things, also called the Cloud of Things, will grow dramatically by 2025. But there were diverging opinions over how it will take shape and how much the benefits will outweigh the tradeoffs.

As you might expect, the technically savvy people interviewed for the report were bullish on the conveniences and economic productivity that widespread embedded computing and connectivity can bring. But a number expressed concerns about privacy, security, and the technical complexity of a vastly bigger network than today's Internet. Overall, 83 percent of respondents said the Internet of Things will bring beneficial effects to everyday lives by 2025, with 17 percent answering no.

With cheaper, low-power sensors attached to everything from bridges to home thermostats, computing will become ubiquitous to the point where it will be like the availability of electricity and part of our surroundings, many survey respondents said.

For individuals, the Internet of Things can mean wearable computers, which devices such as Google Glass and fitness bands have helped popularize. And as computing becomes part of our person, it opens up the possibility of an "augmented reality" to enhance people's senses with wearable or implantable technologies.

"Our ability to use nerve impulses to engage with information will expand dramatically," predicts JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com. "We will see today’s connected devices become smaller and smaller and slowly merge into the part of the body from where the particular sense related to that device operates." 

As computing becomes embedded into our daily environment, it will introduce a host of new privacy and security issues, some respondents warn. Frank Pasquale, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law, says that a workplace with devices connected to an Internet of Things will be more productive but it also sets the stage for a new level of employee monitoring. "It sets the stage for extraordinarily targeted monitoring and manipulation of these individuals," he said.

There is also a wide set of less-personal applications, such as monitoring energy and water infrastructure, vehicles, or the environment. For example, roadways instrumented with sensors could report maintenance issues before they threaten safety, and smart cities with pervasive sensors and high-resolution location services could smooth out traffic and advise people on the best way to commute to work. 

With many more devices producing a stream of information, collecting and analyzing all the data will be a problem. For individuals, too, wearable computers and the Internet of Things could make it harder to disconnect from the flow of available information.

"I’m not sure that moving computers from people’s pockets (smartphones) to people’s hands or face will have the same level of impact that the smartphone has had, but things will trend in the similar direction," said Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "Everything that you love and hate about smartphones will be more so.”

Can You Make the Internet Forget?

Tuesday the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that its member states can force Internet search engines to remove links to material deemed to invade the privacy of European citizens. The court argued for balancing privacy against the public's interest, and the ruling is in line with pending European legislation that seeks to establish an explicit right to be forgotten, or at least to make it harder to find unflattering personal information.

In Tuesday's case, which sets a precedent for around two hundred pending cases in Spain, Google will have to remove search results linking to 14-year-old newspaper notices about the plaintiff's home repossession. The newspaper itself is not required to remove the notices. Instead, the Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) appears to have found a pragmatic choke point for helping individuals cultivate a more favorable online presence without resorting to outright censorship of published material.

Certain non-governmental organizations and journalists may look at this as a sneaky workaround, but software engineers have been trying to find ways for users to share information on a temporary basis since at least the birth of email recall requests.

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Space Hackers Prepare to Reboot 35-Year-Old Spacecraft

Early next week, a team of volunteers will use the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to see if they can make contact with a spacecraft that hasn't fired its thrusters since 1987. If all goes well, the effort could bring the 35-year-old spacecraft, the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3), back into position near the Earth, where it could once again study the effect of solar weather on Earth's magnetosphere.

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