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Satellites Watch for Warnings of Volcano Eruptions

Volcanoes erupting like angry boils across the face of the Earth no longer need seem as mysterious as the unpredictable moods of the gods. Satellites flying 36,000 kilometers above the Earth's equator have proven they can take the temperature of volcanic lava as effectively as thermal cameras on the ground—a step toward making better predictions of future eruptions.

The new satellite measurement technique used the SEVIRI (Spinning Enhanced Visible and InfraRed Imager) instrument aboard a Meteosat satellite to monitor the temperature of a lava lake within Mount Nyiragongo, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. European researchers who pioneered the technique also used the same trick to study a lava fountain at Sicily's Mount Etna, in August 2011.

"We found a very similar radiant heat flux curve—that's the measurement of heat energy being given out—from the ground-based thermal camera placed a few kilometers from Etna and from SEVIRI at 36,000 kilometers above the Earth," said Gaetana Ganci, a researcher at the the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV) in Italy, in a press release.

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Virtual Tween Passes Turing Test

Eugene Goostman, a chatbot masquerading as a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy (with a notably short attention span), finally passed his exams. The program, whose development started in 2001—so he is really 13 years old—beat competitors by scoring 33 percent in Turing Test 2014, an event held at the Royal Society in London and organized by the University of Reading.

Eugene (or “Zhenya,” as he told one judge he likes to be called) thus became the first in that competition to meet the criteria of the “imitation game” for artificial intelligence, suggested by cybernetics pioneer Alan Turing in 1950. The test is simple: converse so naturally that human interlocutors think they are talking to another person.

Eugene Goostman started a-life in Saint Petersburg, as a project of Vladimir Veselov (whose LinkedIn page indicates that his day job is engineering software for Amazon), Eugene Demchenko, and Sergey Ulasen. According to Eugene’s Wikipedia page, he hails from Odessa, is the son of a gynecologist, and owns a pet guinea pig.

As impressive as the technology is, the developers’ ability to craft a backstory that makes the machine’s responses credible is the real key. Context is all.

“Our main idea,” said Veselov after the win, “was that he can claim that he knows anything, but his age also makes it perfectly reasonable that he doesn't know everything. We spent a lot of time developing a character with a believable personality. This year we improved the 'dialog controller' which makes the conversation far more human-like when compared to programs that just answer questions. Going forward we plan to make Eugene smarter and continue working on improving what we refer to as 'conversation logic.'"

The competition called for a judge to conduct a series of five-minute conversations in real time with two “people,” one of whom was carbon-based and the other, digital. Eugene Goostman persuaded 10 judges that he was the human participant in 33 percent of the 30 conversations in which he participated.  Each of the five competing AIs participated in 30 conversations.

The competition’s cut-off is 30 percent. Eugene Goostman hit 29 percent in Turing Test 2012, the previous competition. That was the top mark of the year, but not quite enough to be declared (almost) a real, live boy. This year’s 33-percent score was enough to pass.

The developers have reportedly made an instantiation of Eugene Goostman available online, but the surge in traffic following the Turing Test 2014 announcement seems to have crashed the server. And transcripts of this year’s Turing Test are not yet available. But Time writer Doug Aamoth published an interview with Eugene Goostman on 9 June. As Aamoth observes:

Passing the Turing Test is less about building machines intelligent enough to convince humans they’re real and more about building programs that can anticipate certain questions from humans in order to pre-form and return semi-intelligible answers.

In their opening exchange, Aamoth asks Eugene, “How are you adjusting to all your new-found fame?” To which Eugene replies,I would rather not talk about it if you don’t mind. By the way, what’s your occupation? I mean—could you tell me about your work?”

The Guardian published samples of Eugene’s conversations from Turing Test 2012. And those interested in a more detailed report of that test should take a look at a 2013 paper by the Turing Test director in IEEE Transactions on Computational Intelligence and AI in Games.

In both sets of exchanges, there are lapses of grammar, gaps in knowledge, and sudden changes of subject that might only be plausible in an early adolescent whose native language is not English, and who may have just a touch of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But the pattern will not seem totally alien to anybody who has had a tween child, taught in middle school, or, indeed, been a 13-year-old boy himself.

As The Guardian points out:

In 2011, at the Techniche festival in Guwahati, India, an application called Cleverbot took part in a Turing-type test and was perceived to be human by 59.3% of its interlocutors (compared with a score of 63.3% for the average human participant). However, because the program draws on a database of real conversations, many disputed whether it was in fact exhibiting true "intelligence."

 

Medtronic Wants to Implant Sensors in Everyone

human os iconToday, when doctors suspect that a patient has a cardiac arrhythmia that could lead to a heart attack, they can implant a tiny cardiac monitor smaller than a AAA battery in the patient's chest, directly over the heart. The company that makes that monitor, Medtronic, thinks the day will come when perfectly healthy people will be clamoring to have that gear inside them as well.

At a Medical Design & Manufacturing conference today, Medtronic program director Mark Phelps described his company's successful efforts to miniaturize its cardiac technologies. In February, the company began a clinical trial of its pill-sized pacemaker, which is implanted inside the heart. While Phelps presented that tiny pacemaker as a remarkable feat of engineering, he saved his real excitement for the tiny Linq cardiac monitor, which went on sale this year. Phelps declared that the device heralded "the beginning of a new industry" in diagnostic and monitoring implants.

Phelps argued that such an implant could be enhanced with more sensors to give people reams of biometric information, which would improve their healthcare throughout their lives. Young healthy people could use the sensors to track heart rate and calories burned, the kind of information that quantified selfers get today from wearable gadgets like the Fitbit. Later, the sensors would help with disease management, as they could be programmed to monitor particular organs or systems. Finally, they could enable independent living for the elderly by allowing doctors to keep watch over their patients remotely. "I would argue that it will eventually be seen as negligent not to have these sensors," Phelps said. "It's like driving without any gauges of your feedback systems."

The data generated by these implants would be provided to both the patient and the physician, Phelps said, and would allow both to see how lifestyle changes affect the patient's health over time, or how his or her body reacts to certain pharmaceuticals. This Big Data approach could enable a shift from reactive, symptom-based medicine to a preventative care model.

Such a medical system would be intrusive in two senses, Phelps admitted: Not only would doctors be physically cutting into a patient's body, they would also be exposing a great deal of the patient's biometric data. Yet Phelps believes that people will embrace the sensor-enabled lifestyle. "You'll get so used to having that feedback and information, you won't be able to imagine life without it," he said.

Report: NASA Needs Vision, “Horizon” to Get to Mars

Since the last Apollo moon mission in 1972, NASA has enjoyed many bold interplanetary success stories with unmanned programs like Voyager, Cassini, and the Mars rovers. However, the agency’s human spaceflight program during the same period—from Skylab, to the Space Shuttle, to the International Space Station—for all its successes, has remained firmly in low-earth orbit.

And if NASA and its partner agencies want to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon and perhaps ultimately to Mars, it needs both international cooperation and bold leadership, not just the careful, incremental vision its manned program has become known for in the post-Apollo era.

So says a new report commissioned by Congress and authored by the National Research Council (NRC).

After all, the study says, “no single rationale alone seems to justify the value of pursuing human spaceflight.” NASA needs to make a case that the report calls “inspirational and aspirational” that can bolster public support and enable the agency to weather any budgetary battles, economic downturns, technological setbacks or unfortunate accidents along the way.

When the report’s authors requested the public’s input on the future of human spaceflight, they received more than 200 white papers and 1600 original Tweets (#HumansInSpace).

The overriding theme of these comments, the report says, was emphasis of commercial partnerships — such as its existing ones with Orbital Services Corp and Space X, partnerships that are themselves the subject of a separate new agency report. The comments also pointed out the economic and technological benefits of international arrangements (especially with China) that could enable the entire world to participate in getting humans to Mars.

The report arrives at many similar conclusions. For instance, its authors argue, it is in the United States' best interests to seek international cooperation, in part because any actual manned mission to Mars would be so expensive that NASA would likely need to defray those costs with extensive international partnerships. And the report delicately but deliberately trains attention on the 2011 Congressional ban on any NASA collaborations with the Chinese space program. The ban, it says, “reduces substantially the potential international capability that might be pooled to reach Mars.”

And Mars, it says, is what the report calls a “horizon goal,” an overarching vision that is needed to jumpstart NASA’s human spaceflight program. Not since President Kennedy’s 1961 speech announcing what became the Apollo program has the agency had such a “horizon” goal. Mars, says the report, could be that next horizon. However, says the NRC report, human spaceflight “conducted by the U.S. government today has no strong direction and no firm timetable for accomplishments.”

Prickless Glucose Monitor That Uses Spit Takes Giant Step Forward

Researchers have developed a new biochip sensor that could enable diabetic patients to monitor their blood sugar levels without drawing any blood. The findings are based on a two-step process, the first part of which Spectrum blogged about in 2012.

The basic idea is to use the hypersensitive technique of interferometry to tease out and then quantify the presence of glucose molecules in a person’s saliva.

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Wrist Sensor Tells You When to Chug a Gatorade

human os iconAnyone who works up a strong sweat (and a "mean mean thirst") has to eventually replace the lost body salts and fluids by chugging sports drinks or taking electrolyte replacement tablets. A new prototype of a wrist-worn sensor could help eliminate the guessing games by monitoring the electrolyte levels of runners, professional athletes and U.S. soldiers at all times.

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Google Lunar Race Teams Discuss Next Steps, House on the Moon

The 18 teams still running for the Google Lunar X Prize are gathered today and tomorrow in Budapest, Hungary, for the competition's annual summit, where they'll describe their progress, trade notes, and get updates on the next stages of the race. Some also served hors d'oeuvres via rover (photos 14 and 15 in the slideshow)

Time is getting short for the main course, though. Google and X Prize Foundation announced the Lunar X Prize in 2007, and the competition is set to expire at the end of 2015, though the organizers have already extended the original 2012 deadline once.

No teams have announced firm launch dates, but of the 18 participants, a group of five teams has demonstrated good progress. These teams have been named finalists for $6 million in additional milestone prizes if they are able to perform a series of imaging, mobility, and landing tasks. While the results won't be announced until September, the teams are already showing off rover technology.

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Google Aims for Billion Dollar Satellite Fleet to Spread Internet Access

Google has considered both balloons and drones in its quest to spread high-speed Internet access across the globe. Now the Internet giant aims to go even higher by investing billions in a fleet of satellites that could help reach "the other 3 billion" people who live in regions of the world lacking broadband Internet access.

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Conflict Minerals Reporting Deadline Makes Tech Companies Scramble

Yesterday marked a tough deadline for technology companies: It was the date by which U.S. companies had to report on their use of conflict minerals. According to early reports, tech giants such as Apple, Intel, and HP met the deadline, but many other companies have yet to file or they've filed incomplete reports. 

Conflict minerals are mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and their sale can profit warlords in the country's violent eastern provinces. In an attempt to deprive these militias of funds, new U.S. regulations require companies to declare whether they use tin, tantalum, tungsten, or gold in their products. If they do, the companies were required, by June 2, 2014, to audit their supply chains to determine the source of these minerals. 

While the rules affect many industries, they're having a particular impact in the tech world. Electronics companies use all four of the metals in various products, and the electronics industry is the biggest consumer of tantalum, which is used in capacitors. 

The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), a trade group, has been helping companies prepare for the filing deadline for years, says Julie Schindall, the EICC's director of communications. "Because of the breadth of who’s affected, we do still have a lot of companies who don’t know what’s going on," Schindall told IEEE Spectrum. "We’re working on getting those companies to the table, and giving them the resources they need to go conflict-free."

The biggest resource may be the conflict-free smelter program that the EICC helped set up. That program audits smelters that deal in the four metals in question, and determines whether their ores are sourced from the Congo's conflict mines. 

Apple and Intel have been notably proactive in addressing conflict minerals concerns, with Apple pledging in February to remove all conflict minerals from its supply chain. Apple's report says it has already ensured that its entire supply of tantalum comes from conflict-free smelters. Intel has been heavily involved in the conflict-free smelter program, and its report states that all of its microprocessors are now conflict-free. Campaigners hope those companies that haven't yet scrutinized their supply chains will follow the tech giants' lead, if only to avoid the bad publicity of being linked to the war in the Congo. 

The campaign against conflict minerals is gaining some ground elsewhere. In March, the European Commission proposed a voluntary self-certification program for European companies that sell the raw minerals. 

Solar Plane With Global Aims Makes First Flight

Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered airplane built to fly around the world next year, took its first test flight yesterday morning. Test pilot Markus Scherdel took off in the plane at 5:38 Central European Time from Payerne airport, Switzerland, and landed at 7:52, according to the Solar Impulse website. Scherdel reported some unintended vibration but the team attributes it to the landing gear.

Solar Impulse is a project spearheaded by Bertrand Piccard, an adventurer who circumnavigated the Earth in a hot air balloon in 1999, and is funded by a large private consortium. The consortium built a prototype, dubbed Solar Impulse 1, in 2009. That plane achieved solar-powered flights across the Mediterranean and across the United States with four stops. It also flew for an entire night, using energy it had captured during the previous day's flight (see also IEEE Spectrum's Q&A with a Solar Impulse rep during the first 24-hour solar-powered flight).

Solar Impulse 1's bigger, more advanced sibling weighs 2300 kg, of which 633 kg are lithium batteries for storing the energy generated by the plane's 17 000 solar cells. The batteries have new electrolytes intended to achieve an energy density of 260 watt-hours per kilogram, and the plane uses a new kind of carbon fiber that keeps its weight down. The plane takes off at bicycle speeds, which is handy since its wings, which span 72 meters, need spotters on bicycles to ensure that they do not strike the runway.

The team will spend this summer testing and certifying the new model ahead of next year's attempt.

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