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China's New Supercomputer Is World's Most Powerful

For the last three years, China has topped the Top500 list of the most powerful supercomputers with its massive Tianhe-2. But today, the Top500 group announced that Tianhe-2 has been ousted by another Chinese supercomputer, the Sunway TaihuLight. The new machine, which is based at the National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi, can perform a key benchmark test called Linpack at 93 petaflops (a thousand trillion floating point operations per second)—nearly three times the speed of the Tianhe-2. 

The new rankings further solidify China’s status as a supercomputing force to be reckoned with. In addition to this new machine, the United States has, for the first time, lost its status as the country with the most systems on the list; China now has 167 systems to the U.S.’s 165.

Unlike the Tianhe-2, which used Intel Xeon chips to take the top spot, the processors inside the Sunway TaihuLight are homegrown. At each of the machine’s 40,960 nodes, the supercomputer uses a new 260-core chip, designed by the Shanghai High Performance IC Design Center.

According to the Top500 site, Sunway TaihuLight will be used for research and engineering work, including weather modeling and advanced manufacturing.

Although supercomputing progress has slowed in recent years, there are still-more-powerful machines on the horizon. The United States, for one, has a batch of new machines in the works. According to a report on Sunway TaihuLight by Top500 team member Jack Dongarra, 2018 could see the arrival of three new U.S. Department of Energy machines, the speediest of which will be Summit, a 200-petaflop supercomputer to be installed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

The top 10 supercomputers from the June 2016 list.
Name Country Teraflops Power (kW)
Sunway TaihuLight China 93,015 15,371
Tianhe-2 China 33,863 17,808
Titan United States 17,590 8,209
Sequoia United States 17,173 7890
K Computer Japan 10,510 12,660
Mira United States 8,587 3,945
Trinity United States 8,101 N/A
Piz Daint Switzerland 6,271 2,325
Hazel Hen Germany 5,640 N/A
Shaheen II Saudi Arabia 5,537 2,834

Illustration by Getty Images

DAO May Be Dead After $60 Million Theft

In the world of cryptocurrency, seven-figure heists are a rite of passage. And today, Ethereum, a much-hyped blockchain currency and autonomous software platform, has come of age. This morning, participants in a lavishly-funded investment vehicle called The DAO woke up to an onslaught of alarm bells when it was discovered that a hacker had utilized a vulnerability in the code to drain the fund. 

At 4 a.m., Griff Green, a developer for, a company based in Germany that is building on the Ethereum blockchain and created The DAO, sent out this alert on the community’s Slack channel:

The DAO is being attacked. It has been going on for 3-4 hours, it is draining ETH at a rapid rate. This is not a drill.”

By midday, the attacker had stolen over 3 million Ether (Ethereum’s native currency), which at the time was worth more than 60 million U.S. dollars.

The DAO is a public investment fund that exists as a bundle of software on the Ethereum network. In a sale this spring, participants signed up for the fund by using their Ether to buy DAO tokens. This, in turn, gave them proportional ownership as well as the right to vote on investment proposals. The DAO software was intended to autonomously coordinate and enforce voting and fund allocation, thereby creating an investment vehicle that could operate without third-parties. The sale was much more successful than anyone expected, and by the end of May, Ether holders had dumped more than $150 million worth of their cryotocurrency into The DAO.

A day before the fund opened for business, a group of researchers identified critical flaws and biases in the process whereby participants vote on spending proposals. There was an appeal for a moratorium until fixes could be made, but today’s losses were caused by a bug that had gone unnoticed until now.

The DAO software gives token holders the ability to take their contributions and split from the larger group into their own identical DAOs. Once the split occurs, the person who created the new DAO has full control over what happens to the tokens, and after 27 days he or she is free to sell the tokens on an exchange to recoup the investment. People who choose this route should be able to leave with only as many tokens as they rightfully own. But late last night, someone found a way to split off with more than their fair share. According to sources, the hacker who did this now controls a satellite DAO that contains 100 times the amount of tokens that he initially invested.

Already, Ethereum developers are proposing ways to fix the situation. The easiest, and least controversial solution is for the network to adopt a new version of the Ethereum software that blacklists the address holding the hacker’s stolen funds, making it impossible for him to cash out on the heist.

But this would do nothing to recoup the losses sustained by The DAO. In order to return the funds back to their rightful owners, the Ethereum community would have to agree to a radical maneuver called a “hard fork” which would essentially roll back Ethereum’s historical record of transactions to a point in time before the heist occurred. This option will inevitably inspire heated debate as it calls into question the immutability of the Ethereum blockchain, which is one of the defining characteristics of the technology.

There is no telling yet whether The DAO will survive this hack. But the theft has undeniably harmed the reputation of decentralized financial instruments and the Ethereum project in general. Since Ethereum went live in the spring of 2015, developers have rushed to build autonomously functioning services on the platform. It is now becoming apparent that properly implementing these applications requires expertise in both coding and game theory.

When contracts are not properly vetted, we now know that it is not only the people using that particular application that suffer. The plaform as a whole also takes a hit. In the hours following the heist, the price of Ether has dropped by over 30 percent on online exchanges. 

Remembering When Grand Central Terminal's Trains Went Electric

Despite what the old saying purports, there are new things under the sun. And they get all the press. All too often the old stuff gets short shrift—particularly if it’s under the earth.

Yesterday, at Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal, attention was paid to the old in an IEEE Milestone ceremony commemorating the electrification of its rail traffic (much of it underground, even then) in 1913. Present at the unveiling of the plaque was John L. Sprague, grandson of Frank J. Sprague, a chief consultant on the project. The elder Sprague was already famous for electrifying the trolleys of Richmond, Va., in the 1880s.

The Milestone was given its due recognition by the IEEE History Center, which is funded in part by the IEEE Foundation.

The electrification project got its start in 1902, when a train engineer, temporarily blinded by smoke from a locomotive’s stack, drove his train into another one, killing 15 people. As a result, the New York State Legislature banned steam-powered locomotives from entering the city after 1908, leaving engineers no alternative to electricity.

In 1903, plans were drawn up, money was appropriated, and train tracks—many already conveniently sited below grade—were encased in tunnels and covered in earth and greenery. The result was what is now known as Park Avenue. The contrast with its smoke-besmirched past jacked up real estate prices—including the associated “air rights,” the sale of which helped to fund the project.

Grand Central was fully operational by 1913, about 11 years after the idea had been proposed. (People worked faster then, didn’t they?) For a stark contrast, look no further than New York City’s Second Avenue subway line, whose first 3-kilometer stretch is supposed to open any day now—about 10 years after workers broke ground.

What’s most striking about the train propulsion technology introduced back then is how little it has changed over the past century. At the plaque-unveiling ceremony, a rusty old segment of the famed, current-carrying third rail was juxtaposed with a new version, and the only visible difference is in the shinier, more conductive alloy. The shape is as Frank Sprague and his colleague William Wilgus described in their patent; the design allows the train’s “shoe” to complete the circuit by touching the rail from underneath. That way, snow and rain can’t easily interfere.

Now is a good time to put up a plaque. Grand Central Terminal is in the midst of a US $210 million facelift, and every bolt is being polished and every slab is being refurbished. Vanderbilt Hall, where the plaque was unveiled, is a marble vault with stately chandeliers and three-story windows worthy of a cathedral. It’s all very old-timey—as is the technology itself.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Most technology never dies, and much of it doesn’t even fade away. Instead it continues, right alongside all the newfangled stuff. In his 2006 book, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, British historian David Edgerton argues that seemingly futuristic inventions often become museum pieces (think Concorde) while some old standbys just keep on going (think the B-52).  

Nothing has come along to shove electric light rail technology aside, and it’s not for lack of trying. Just ask Elon Musk!

Expert to FBI: Please Join the 21st Century, We Could Use the Help

The FBI needs to update its investigative toolkit and embrace the 21st century, a provocative editorial in this week’s Science magazine argues. The Bureau’s recent squabble with Apple over unlocking a terrorist’s iPhone only underscores the magnitude of the problem, the editorial writer argues. 

In February, the FBI took Apple to court to force the smartphone maker to override the password protection of an iPhone 5C that’d been used by one of the shooters in December’s San Bernadino terrorist attack. Apple held out, saying that caving in would set a dangerous precedent. As both Apple and legal analysts at the time argued, Apple would then have had little recourse but to bow to similar future demands by law enforcement — and repressive governments overseas. 

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Pro-ISIS Online Groups Use Social Media Survival Strategies to Evade Authorities

One of ISIS’ most dangerous weapons has been the Internet. The extremist group relies heavily on social media to spread news and recruit soldiers. And many “lone wolf” criminals including the couple that terrorized San Bernardino, Calif. and the Orlando shooter, are thought to have been radicalized at least in part online. 

Counterterrorism units and law enforcement agencies have struggled to fight back against these new virtual tactics. Now, computer scientists led by Stefan Wuchty at University of Miami have released the first formal survey of how pro-ISIS online groups behave. In particular, their work identifies three popular strategies many groups have used to evade censorship in social media networks. They published their work in Science on Thursday.

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Virtual reality scene from a Tuscan village simulation

Dynamic Field of View Restriction Makes Virtual Reality Less Barfy

We're incredibly excited for the near future of immersive virtual reality, which will let you explore worlds real and imaginary without having to leave the house or even put on clothes. Lack of clothes will come in especially handy, since a not insignificant percentage of VR users messily end up in pukesville. The disconnect between what your vision is telling you and what the rest of your (sedentary) body isn't can be disconcerting at best, and at worse, can lead to nausea, cold sweats, tossed cookies, and a desire to never try VR ever again. I speak from (bad) experience.

This is a common enough (and serious enough) problem that the National Science Foundation is tossing money at researchers with ideas on how to fix it it, and a group from Columbia University has come up with a deceptively simple but apparently very effective method of mitigating the hurl factor: dynamically restricting the field of view displayed in your VR headset while you move. 

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Malaysia Bets on Internet Access and Public Wi-Fi for Its Global Debut

Driving to the small public Internet center in Semenyih, Malaysia from nearby Cyberjaya is to pass from one side of the digital divide to the other. Cyberjaya was carved out of a palm oil plantation in 1997 to become Malaysia’s first “cybercity.” It forms the heart of the nation’s “Multimedia Super Corridor,” a special economic zone for high-tech businesses. Just 32 kilometers (20 miles) away in the agricultural town of Semenyih, students have laptops but no Internet in their classrooms.

As Malaysia stretches to place itself among the world’s global economic leaders, its citizens straddle broad digital extremes. At both ends, the federal government is carefully orchestrating an ambitious plan for digital growth. Since 2010, Malaysia’s leaders have invested heavily in technology, among other sectors, to land itself in the elite upper echelon of global economies.

Though it’s grabbed fewer headlines than Cyberjaya, a massive public Internet project led by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission is a key part of this strategy. Quietly, the government has installed 674 public Internet centers since 2007 and plans to finish another 165 by the end of this year.

This network is branded as 1Malaysia Internet Centres to coincide with a nationwide campaign of unity. Each center has 20 computers. The government provides the facility and pays service providers to install equipment, hire managers, and bring it online.

In Semenyih, the center operates from a modest one-story building next to those Internet-less local schools. Guests remove their shoes at the door, where rules including “No gambling” and “No pornography” are clearly posted. During a visit last week, two women wearing hijabs leaned close and laughed at a shared terminal along one side of a brightly colored room. Atop stools against the opposite wall, two young boys in headphones clicked through YouTube videos.

Policymakers see places like Semenyih as an opportunity to improve digital literacy and expand homegrown industries. The government offers free training for entrepreneurs on weekends. Anwar Bin Masood, a manager at the Semenyih center, says local women who weave baskets, mats, and jewelry have begun to sell their wares online.

Students and seniors receive one free hour of access each day, while others pay a small fee to log on. If they become members, the service is cheaper. So far, 475 of the 2,300 people who live in Semenyih have signed up since it opened in 2014. About 65 percent of the people who log on are students. The oldest member is 68 years old.

Photo: Amy Nordrum
Users in Semenyih enjoy Internet sessions in their local 1Malaysia Internet Centre.

To further improve access, MCMC has developed a second program called WiFi Komuniti to distribute the Internet from each center to the surrounding community. The agency uses a hub-and-spoke model to transmit Wi-Fi around the clock to a few sites within 5 kilometers of a center, which in turn re-broadcast it to homes within a 250-meter range.

In Semenyih, one of these access points (which is basically three routers strapped to a pole) is erected just outside an open-air cafe littered with plastic chairs for surfers to linger. A signature blue sign designates it as part of an official Pusat Internet 1Malaysia (or PI1M), or 1Malaysia Internet Center in Malay.

Both projects are continually revised as leaders figure out how to best serve their many new users. Coordinators recently reduced the number of spokes in the WiFi Komuniti model from five to three, to boost data speeds from 2 Mbps to 4 Mbps. Meanwhile, users at the hubs enjoy 8 Mbps speeds, and that bandwidth is re-allocated to the spokes once the centers close each night.

There are some persistent challenges. Malaysia’s lush vegetation and incessant rain absorb radio signals and generates greater than normal losses, says Siva Karan of local service provider Maxis. The company works around this by caching some websites on a local server and keeping Wi-Fi access points, Internet centers, and microwave towers that provide service within easy sight of each other.

Another major obstacle MCMC has faced is securing a reliable power supply for centers in remote areas. Also, maintenance is a high hurdle. There are 98 centers in the largely wild state of Sarawak on Borneo, more than in any other state; rotating the computers and printers there through quarterly maintenance checks is expensive.

Still, residents have welcomed the centers, and the MCMC office fields many requests from community members who want one in their town. “We can say that the 1Malaysia Centers are the one most successful project ever implemented in MCMC,” Nor Azhar Hassan, head of the infrastructure division, says.

Despite their popularity, the centers were never meant to be a permanent solution to the lack of connectivity in places such as Semenyih. MCMC hopes the projects will encourage more people to sign up for service to their homes, and persuade companies to expand infrastructure there.

“At the moment, we think of the Internet centers as a change agent,” Hassan says. “This is not meant to be a total solution.” To achieve those long-term goals, the government has built 1,000 towers and industry has installed 10,000 since 2010. Another 700 are in progress.

Hassan and his colleagues share anecdotes about the positive impact Malaysia’s Internet centers have had on residents. However, Araba Sey, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Information School, says it’s difficult to assess what, if any, boost public Internet centers such as these actually bring to communities or countries. “The question of social and economic impact is still up in the air,” she says.

In Semenyih, the most common online activity is checking social media. That’s meaningful to users, of course, but might not further Malaysia’s economic goals as much as its funders had hoped.

This quandary has run aground similar projects in other countries, which Sey says inevitably lose public funding and can’t garner enough commercial support to stay afloat. Malaysia’s Internet centers are currently funded through the nation’s Universal Service Provision until 2020.

“We shouldn’t be looking for these short term and very direct impacts,” Sey says. “You can't prescribe what specifically will happen and how it will happen and when it will happen. If you’re trying to do that, you’re missing the point.”

For now, Malaysia remains on track to achieve its goal of being recognized by the World Bank as a high-income nation (those achieving a gross national income of US $12,736 per capita) by 2020 (even while its prime minister is embroiled in a US $1 billion corruption scandal).

Back in the pair of matching towers that now house the MCMC offices in Cyberjaya, Zefe Fazilah, a deputy director for project coordination, says the strategy is working from their perspective. (The agency was unable to provide an estimate for the total cost of the public Internet initiative to date.)

They’ve heard from dozens of entrepreneurs who have expanded their reach through the centers, including one seaweed farmer who went from making RM400 to RM20,000 a month. Industry partners also seem enthused by the demand the project has drummed up in remote corners of the country.

Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings Institution, believes Malaysia will eventually realize the benefits it seeks from its investment. He says the economic case for Internet access has been demonstrated in fishing villages and agricultural regions around the globe.

Nearby to MCMC, construction teams busily convert a vast tract of land the size of 120 football fields to “CCC” or Cyberjaya City Center. Once complete, the RM11 billion project will feature wireless sensors for virtually every possible purpose, including a “social noise meter.” One way or another, Malaysia remains determined to forge its digital destiny.

Illustration of LISA Pathfinder in space

LISA Pathfinder Sets the Stage for a Gravitational Wave Hunt in Space

A diffuse clutch of spacecraft fly through space, connected only by the laser beams that register tiny changes in position across the millions of kilometers that separate them.

This basic vision for a space-based gravitational wave observatory, which those planning a European mission generally call the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), is about 30 years old. And it could be 20 years more before we see it in action. But results released today by the European Space Agency’s LISA Pathfinder team suggest it’s possible to achieve the sensitivity needed to build it. Such a space-based observatory would use a technique similar to its Earth-bound cousin LIGO—which announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves earlier this year—to detect slight ripples in the fabric of space-time. But the quarry would be gravitational waves in a frequency range that’s inaccessible here on Earth, one that includes sources such as merging supermassive black holes in the heart of colliding galaxies. 

LISA Pathfinder, which launched late last year, contains a small pair of gold-platinum “test masses” and a laser interferometer to measure changes in the distance between them.  The mission, a shrunken-down version of what in LISA would be an “arm” made by two spacecraft, isn’t designed to detect gravitational waves. Instead, it’s intended to test out some of the basic technologies required to do so and show that a spacecraft can have low enough noise to be sensitive to passing gravitational waves. A big part of that is creating an environment where the test masses are in near-perfect free fall, protected from the confounding nudges of forces other than gravity and floating free of the rest of the spacecraft.

The results, published today in Physical Review Letters, indicate that LISA Pathfinder exceeded its requirements. At the frequencies gravitational wave scientists are interested in, the spacecraft can discern an acceleration between the test masses of less than a femto-g, or one millionth of a billionth of the acceleration due to gravity on the surface of the Earth. Says principal investigator Stefano Vitale: “The closest thing to a force on the test masses corresponding to a femto-g is the weight a bacterium in your hand.”

“This paper is a green light for LISA,” adds Vitale, a professor at the University of Trento in Italy. “For us it’s an enormous sense of achievement."

The results must also be an enormous relief for Vitali and his colleagues. The LISA Pathfinder mission was originally set to fly in 2006, but it ran into technical hurdles. “There were a number of technologies that appeared to be relatively easy [that] turned out to be significantly more challenging once people got into it,” says Fabio Favata, who coordinates the science program at the European Space Agency. The team had to change direction when it came to the thrusters in the spacecraft’s micro-propulsion system, Favata says. These are used to gently reposition the spacecraft, a key technology needed to make sure the test masses never come in physical contact with the surrounding spacecraft. The caging mechanism, which secures the test masses during launch so they don’t rattle around like a bowling ball in a washing machine—and then gently releases them—also proved a challenge.

In the end, it all came together. The test masses, the team says, have achieved a new record for free fall. Accounting for and curbing the many non-gravitational phenomena that could perturb the masses and swamp a gravitational wave signal was no easy task. Housed inside the spacecraft, the test masses are protected from the pressure of solar radiation. But other potential sources of acceleration remain. Magnetic fields can have an effect. So, too, can the buildup of charge on the test masses created when cosmic rays pass through the shielding of the spacecraft, as well as the collision of residual gas molecules. “Our error budget is a book,” Vitale says.

System engineering is critical for this sort of experiment, Vitale adds. The mass in LISA Pathfinder, for example, had to be carefully distributed to prevent the spacecraft’s own gravity from preferentially pulling the test masses in any particular direction. “This is a single flying instrument,” he says. “It’s not a satellite carrying an instrument. The entire system is an instrument.”

“The results reported by the [LISA Pathfinder] team are, quite simply, a tour de force in precision measurement,” David Reitze, the executive director of LIGO, wrotin a commentary accompanying the team’s results, which were published on Tuesday in Physical Review Letters. “These results bode extremely well for the future LISA mission.”

The exact shape of that mission is still up in the air, says ESA’s Fabio Favata. There is a plan in place to launch a gravitational wave detecting mission in 2034, he explains, but the exact specifications have yet to be decided. Favata says the plan is to issue a call for mission proposals soon, perhaps later this year. A report (pdf) issued earlier this year by the curiously acronymed Gravitational Observatory Advisory Team (GOAT) recommended using laser interferometry (the technology used by LIGO that has long been on the table for a space mission) for the 2030s mission. 

But a good amount of technology development still needs to be done, Favata says. In particular, he cites the laser systems and the telescopes that would be used to aim those lasers across the millions of kilometers between spacecraft. The GOAT group said that much of the technology development that needs to happen isn’t dependent on the particulars of the laser interferometry mission. “This allows us to begin technology development in advance of the mission concept,” says Favata. That work, he adds, has already begun. 

Haptic Taco Helps You Navigate By Feel

Using technology to navigate around an urban area completely monopolizes, at minimum, one of your senses. Either you're staring at a map on your phone or the car’s center console, or listening to spoken directions through headphones or the car speakers. If you're truly inept at navigating, you might need to see and listen at the same time. Unfortunately, your eyes and ears come in handy for other things, like not smashing into lamp posts or avoiding getting plowed into by other vehicles.

Adam J. Spiers, a member of the GRAB Lab at Yale, has been developing small haptic peripherals that are designed to help drivers navigate using touch alone. He presented his latest research last month at the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society’s International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Stockholm, Sweden. In a paper titled Development and Experimental Validation of a Minimalistic Shape-Changing Haptic Navigation Device, he and several collaborators described the “Haptic Taco,” a little cube that expands and contracts in your hand to lead you straight to your destination.

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Picture of a star in the Alpha Centauri system

How Do You Fly to Alpha Centauri in Just 20 Years? Ride a Laser Beam

In the 1960s, the physicist and space futurist Robert Forward proposed a radical method of sending a spacecraft to the stars. Roughly speaking, the idea was to attach the spacecraft to a large light sail, and then push it by illuminating the sail with an enormous laser. Forward suggested that a powerful laser could accelerate a spacecraft to a large fraction of the speed of light, allowing it to reach some of our nearest stellar neighbors within a few decades.

Until very recently, this idea remained solidly within the realm of science fiction. But today the outlook is beginning to change. In April, the physicist-turned-internet-billionaire Yuri Milner, together with Stephen Hawking and other notable scientists and engineers, announced that the Breakthrough Foundation would begin funding work on the concept of a laser-propelled starship, with the long-term goal of reaching the closest neighboring star system to our own, Alpha Centauri. Their initiative, dubbed Breakthrough Starshot, is a Silicon Valley take on Forward’s vision that imagines shrinking the spacecraft down to a mass of a few grams. A fleet of such “nanocraft”, each tethered to a light sail a few meters wide, could be economically launched into space and then accelerated toward Alpha Centauri with a terrestrial laser system. Illuminated by tens of gigawatts of laser light, the miniature spacecraft would reach 20 percent of the speed of light in about 4 minutes.  After a 20-year cruise, they would zip through the Alpha Centauri system in a few hours and send data and images back to Earth from the brief encounter.

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