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Study: DNA Test Agreements Disregard Consumer Privacy

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Some personal genomics companies rely on so-called “clickwrap” contracts—agreements to which consumers could one day regret having clicked “Agree.”

Anyone today who spends time in the digital world also enters into contracts in the digital world. And while many consumers today just click through so-called “clickwrap” contracts without reading them, one new study suggests that they take greater caution when clicking “Agree” to the legal terms underpinning, say, a personal DNA test. 

The new study also leaves the door open for consumer advocates to begin pushing toward stronger consumer standards in personal genome contracts, starting with questioning the very logic of the clickwrap model in the personal genome industry. It’s one thing, after all, to breeze through a lengthy contract when the worst-case scenario is the possible dissemination of, say, your history of iTunes purchases or the contents of your Amazon shopping cart.

It’s quite another to blithely risk losing control of parts or the whole of your own genome sequence—arguably the one string of personal data that is both the core of a person’s identity, and a nugget of information that could never be changed if it were compromised.

Andelka Phillips, a doctoral (D.Phil.) candidate at the University of Oxford law school in the U.K., recently completed her thesis, which looked at the practices of some 228 personal genetics companies around the world. For detailed analysis and comparison of their personal genomics contracts, she zeroed in on the 71 companies that sold health-related genomics services and made the whole of their consumer contracts available for public perusal.

Phillips says she was struck by how much they resembled standard clickwrap contracts for conventional tech companies on the Internet.

“They’ve inherited this model which they didn’t really adapt,” Phillips says of the genomics company contracts her study considered. “Because no one has really been policing the terms, often companies include clauses that give them additional advantage that doesn’t really relate to the purpose of the contract…From what I’ve seen, a lot of people are still not reading these things in the way they should be.”

For instance, she discovered that less than half of the documents contained any contractual language about the privacy protections the companies have in place. Indeed, probably because of the standard clickwrap contract’s Web-based origins, she found that much of these contracts’ privacy assurances concerned browser cookies and Web metadata—with less emphasis on the more pressing matter of keeping private a consumer’s genome.

Phillips found that 48 percent of the contracts discussed disclosure of personal and genetic data to third parties, while just 28 percent precluded the company from selling a customer’s data.  Only 10 percent of the documents explicitly stated that the company would destroy a customer’s physical sample after sequencing or communicating test results.

Meanwhile, clickwrap contracts for genomics have also inherited a provision that Phillips says favors the company over the consumer. Of the contracts studied, 72 percent reserved the company’s right to change the contract after the consumer clicked Agree; 39 percent of the documents said the companies could do this at any time, and 23 percent said they could make these changes without notice. On the other side of the coin, only 6 percent of the agreements obligated the companies to notify consumers by e-mail of any contractual changes.

By contrast, Phillips says, companies could enact a few simple changes to their contracts that would go a long way towards restoring some balance back to the consumer.

“If we’re going to use these kinds of contracts, they need to be a lot shorter,” she says of the often lengthy clickwrap agreements. “And it could be more interactive. They could have things that allow people to opt out and opt in to services. And while that might not be perfect either, it would at least give a little bit of control back to the consumer.”

Traditional tech company clickwrap agreements have grown like weeds to the point that today, Amazon and Apple’s iTunes contracts are longer than Hamlet and Macbeth, respectively. The latter has even inspired an extended graphic novelization. And while courts have often validated clickwrap contracts, Phillips says the sanctity of a genomics consumer’s data raises the stakes.

“I think things can be improved,” she says.

This is a relatively new industry. And e-commerce more generally, in the scheme of things, is relatively new. … It might just be that we really need to police some of these terms and think about how to improve some of these contracts. My feeling is some of these documents overall shouldn’t be treated as valid contracts. Because I don’t think people are necessarily validly agreeing to the contract.

“The person has to be giving their free and informed consent,” she says. “There shouldn’t be any undue influence or coercion. And I think, at present, sometimes people don’t have enough information to be making informed decisions about this.”

Concrete slab melts ice and snow

Conductive Concrete for Ice-Free Roadways

If you’re tired of shoveling snow, conductive concrete could be your savior. Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineered concrete that melts ice

The energized concrete can be used on driveways, roadways, and bridges. Since magnetite-rich aggregates are blended into the specially-designed mix, it can also be used for military applications in electromagnetic shielding.

For DIY-enthusiasts, it may seem tempting to whip up a batch of homebrewed conductive-concrete mix. But, it’s not as simple as plunging a steel rod into concrete and juicing it up with a power source.

Firstly, a precise formula of conductive components—steel fibers, steel shavings, and carbon particles—is added to conventional concrete mix. Then, angle iron acting as an electrode is cast in the concrete and connected to a power supply. Precut holes in the angle iron allow concrete to flow through the mix, providing proper anchorage. To ensure safety, the spacing between electrodes is also fine-tuned. 

Here’s the reseacher’s time-lapse video of the concrete slab in action.

“It saves time. It saves money. It saves lives,” says Chris Tuan, professor of civil engineering at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For bridge applications, this could be an alternative to de-icing liquid, which could potentially weaken bridges.

In 2002, Tuan installed 52 slabs of conductive concrete [pdf] on the 45-meter-long Roca Spur Bridge that spans the Salt Creek at Lincoln, Neb. A power line near the bridge supplied a three-phase, 600-ampere, 220-volt AC power source. Whenever embedded sensors detected that the slabs’ temperature dropped below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the power source turned on until they reached 55 degrees Fahrenheit. A “current-monitoring unit” enabled system operators to safety restrict the amount of electrical current.

Conductive concrete, which costs roughly 2.5 times as much as traditional concrete, is not a new concept. In fact, National Research Council Canada has already been issued patents in Canada, the United States, and Europe. But Tuan’s research, funded by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is focusing on cost-effective, electrically conductive materials that also have long-term durability and mechanical strength. 

“A lot of researchers that were using carbon fibers, their products cannot be implemented because it’s cost inhibitive,” Tuan says.

Phase one of the research project wraps up in March. If the FAA green lights phase two, says Tuan, power consumption and construction costs will be evaluated by building a 45-by-15-meter test pad at the FAA’s technical center in Atlantic City, N.J. 

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Wi-Charge Promises Phone Charging by Infrared Laser

In the world of wireless gadgets, charging is still a big problem Israeli startup Wi-Charge is looking to change that by allowing us constant wireless charging using infrared laser technology.

Broadly speaking you can divide wireless power technologies into two general categories: near field (a few centimeters or even physical contact) and far field (several meters or more). In the near field category there are quite a number of companies and several protocols including Qi, PMA/Rezence, and Open Dots all competing for close range wireless power delivery. All common commercial near field wireless power technologies today use either tightly coupled (inductive, physical contact between the transmitter and the receiver) or loosely coupled (resonant, with up to a few centimeters of distance). In both cases the transmitter and receiver need to be very close to each other.

Far field technologies on the other hand are still in their infancy, though some startups—such as uBeam and Energous—are promising big steps soon. For the most part all these approaches are limited in either distance or power, or both.

Wi-Charge believes its solution is different enough from its competitors to overcome their limits. Ortal Alpert, Wi-Charge's founder, had worked for years developing advanced optical storage solutions for his former startup. During this time he frequently travelled the globe on business, which forced him to constantly look for places to charge his mobile devices. Based on his experience as an optical engineer, he developed a new technology for wireless charging that uses infrared lasers and relies on two unique, and now patented, ideas.

To understand these ideas we first need to go back to the laser and how it works. A laser is usually described as a device that bounces light between a pair of mirrors on either end of a gain medium, which amplifies the light with each successive pass. Usually one of the mirrors inside this cavity is partially transparent allowing some of the light to exit as a laser beam.

Wi-Charge's ingenious idea was to take this cavity, which is typically a closed device, and turn it into an "open unit" where one of the mirrors is located for example in a light fixture on the ceiling and the other one on the receiving device. The semiconductor gain medium is located in the transmitter and provides the photons that are harvested by the photovoltaic cell at the receiver. 

Powerful lasers can be dangerous, however Wi-Charge uses a class 1 infra red laser (safe under all conditions of normal use) and more importantly the "external cavity" design means that the instant anything crosses the path of the laser—your hand, your eye—amplification will stop and the energy will drop.

The second unique idea has to do with being able to fix and maintain the connection between the transmitter and the receiver. Wi-Charge's design uses retro reflective mirrors instead of regular mirrors. These reflect light back to its source with minimum scattering. (You can sometimes find retro reflective mirrors on road signs and bicycles and a few were even left on the moon by the Apollo team.) Using retroreflectors makes aligning the mirrors unnecessary hence the beam is maintained even when the receiver is moving around—something demonstrated to us during a visit last year. During operation the transmitter continuously sends a very low power infrared signal across the room and when it hits the retro reflector on the receiver, the signal is returned and a connection is made and amplification begins. The connection will be maintained as long as it is in range and there is a line of sight.

Using a laser does have one distinct disadvantage–it requires a line of sight between the transmitter and the receiver. This means that you won't be able to charge your smartphone while it is in your pocket and instead need to put it face up on the table. According to Alpert, "we use our phones every 15 minutes on average, for Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, email and even for talking. It means that once we're seated for more than 15 minutes, the phone is usually out on the table— and ripe for wireless charging".

One of the big advantages of Wi-Charge's technology is its ability to deliver almost any amount of power, from few milliwatts for sensor powering to hundreds of watts used in industrial or even military applications. For the consumer market with devices such as smart phones and wearables, Wi-Charge is looking to start with a system capable of delivering 10 W.

Unlike other far field technologies, Wi-Charge has a pretty small footprint. A receiver can be as small as your phone's camera module and still charge from a distance of ten meters, Wi-Charge claims. For more power demanding applications and longer ranges both the transmitter and receiver will have to be larger, but not dramatically so. One potential application of the technology can be for powering a drone for border patrol or installation security. In this scenario a drone will receive power along its way from a transmitter mounted on a patrol car or on top of a building or tower from a distance of dozens or even hundreds of meters away and can stay in the air for countless hours or even days.

Laser power beaming isn't a new concept. Researchers from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the University of Alabama powered a small-scale aircraft that flew solely by means of propulsive power from a ground-based 1-kw infrared laser back in 2003. Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) presented an even more ambitious wireless power project in early 2015. Researchers from JAXA were able to deliver 1.8 kW "with pinpoint accuracy" to a receiving antenna 55 meters away, using carefully directed microwaves.

Seattle-based LaserMotive, which in 2006 won NASA's Power beam challenge is working on over the air as well as over fiber optic cable transfer of power to flying drones. Wi-Charge says it's inherent safety and small footprint would allow it to ground-power private and commercial drones in urban environment.

In a typical use case scenario, one transmitter in the ceiling (within a light fixture for example) will be able to charge up to four devices inside a room. In a demo that at Wi-Charge's offices in Rehovot, Israel, we saw a working prototype that included a transmitter in the ceiling and a smartphone with a special case containing a mirror and photovoltaic cell. It was able to charge from a distance of about 3 meters. The modified phone charged slower than if it had been plugged in to a wall socket, but according to Wi-Charge, the final product will be able to charge one smartphone at the same rate as a wired charger; though two devices will take longer. We were also shown a modified music player and speaker that worked without any batteries in the same way.

Alpert promises that the first product based on Wi-Charge's technology will be available in late 2016 and would be Internet-of-Things or smart home related. A year later the company is planning to release a residential mobile phone charging solution that will include a transmitter and phone case at the retail price of just under US $200. 

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Smart Wearable Sensor Takes Sweat-Monitoring To Next Level

Sweat might not be pleasant but it contains dozens of chemical compounds whose concentrations change in real time, compounds that could reveal your body’s response to disease, drugs, diet, injury, and stress, among other things. To tap into that treasure-trove of information, researchers have built a wearable sensor that measures levels of specific molecules in sweat and then wirelessly relays the data to a smartphone via a Bluetooth module.

The smart device, fashioned as a wristband or headband, combines a panel of plastic chemical sensors with silicon integrated circuits made on a flexible circuit board. It continuously measures levels of four different components of sweat: two electrolytes, potassium and sodium ions, and two metabolites, glucose and lactate. Ali Javey, electrical engineering and computer sciences professor at the University of California, Berkeley and his colleagues reported the sensor in Nature.

Other research groups have demonstrated wearable sweat sensors before. But those measure one analyte at a time or don’t have the signal processing circuitry and calibration mechanism to accurately monitor analyte levels.

Javey and his colleagues built an array of chemical sensors, each 3-mm wide, on a flexible plastic substrate. The sensors are similar to ones reported before. They are based on enzymes or special chemical cocktails that react with the metabolite or ion to be measured and generate an electrical signal. But the researchers built on previous sensors by treating electrodes with specific added chemicals that reduce potential drift and make the new sensors more stable and reliable.

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Monster Machine Cracks the Game of Go

A computer program has defeated a master of the ancient Chinese game of Go, achieving one of the loftiest of the Grand Challenges of AI at least a decade earlier than anyone had thought possible.

The programmers, at Google’s Deep Mind laboratory, in London, write in today’s issue of Nature that their program AlphaGo defeated Fan Hui, the European Go champion, 5 games to nil, in a match held last October in the company’s offices. Earlier, the program had won 494 out of 495 games against the best rival Go programs.

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Roll to Roll Electronics Manufacturing Rolls On

Imagine a future where everything—your bed, your wallpaper, the box your cereal comes in—is capable of connecting to the Internet and the windows and walls of skyscrapers harvest energy from the sun. It’s a scenario many technologists talk about, but it would certainly strain today’s infrastructure for building silicon-based electronics. The future many depend on a more old-fashioned production process—roll-to-roll printing.

That, at least is what scientists and engineers argued at a session on the future of roll-to-roll processing at the Material Research Society’s fall meeting in Boston last month. Existing fabs and foundries produce about 20 billion silicon chips a year, far fewer than would be needed if the Internet of Everything is to become a reality, Donald Lupo, a professor of electronics and communications engineering at Tampere University of Technology in Finland, said at the meeting. Estimates hold that 50 to 200 billion objects will be connected to the Internet within five years, some with multiple devices on them, and many more coming in subsequent years, he added.

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Health Apps Study Raises Questions About Digital Medicine's Future

Smartphone apps designed to monitor patients with diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease may help reduce health care costs in the long run. But one of the most rigorous studies to date has found no big difference in health care costs for patients using mobile health apps and similar patients who did not rely on smartphone monitoring.

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Bitcoin Needs (Gasp!) Formal Governance

If you have even a casual interest in Bitcoin, then by now you probably know that on Friday developer Mike Hearn publicly declared the Bitcoin project a failure. And if you’ve followed Bitcoin over the years, then you also know this isn’t the first time the mourning bells are tolling. According to the scorekeepers, the count is now up to 89. 

This one, however, is different from the rest. The person throwing dirt over the coffin last week was not an outsider, as has most often been the case. It was not some mainstream economist who just “doesn’t get it.” It was not a misinformed journalist fishing for clicks. It was Mike Hearn, a former Google developer, the guy who wrote the first java implementation of Bitcoin. He’s a regular presence at conferences and a tireless educator of Bitcoin novices. And his most passionate vituperations were aimed at the people he is now leaving behind. Bitcoin failed, he wrote, “because the community has failed.”

Regardless of what you think about Mike Hearn and his assessment of Bitcoin’s woes, his words must be taken seriously, if only because there are plenty of other people out there who take his words seriously—enough, in fact, to inspire a 15 percent fall in the market price of Bitcoin on the day he published his diatribe.

The bulk of Hearn’s condemnation comes down to this: Bitcoin has a technical problem. It doesn’t scale and it’s finally reaching a level of adoption where this will soon  cause major disruptions in the speed and reliability of Bitcoin transactions. Some, including Hearn, say the technology has actually already reached the breaking point. 

Solutions have been proposed. But the developers responsible for making the decisions about what gets incorporated into the Bitcoin Core source code, who were at first slow even to proceed with a discussion, are now mired in stalemate over which option is best.

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DreamChaser spacecraft docked at the International Space Station.

NASA Picks Dream Chaser Shuttle for Space Station Resupply

A winged spacecraft that resembles a mini space shuttle will join the fleet of private rockets ferrying supplies to the International Space Station. NASA has announced that its new round of US $14 billion in commercial resupply contracts for the space station includes the Dream Chaser spacecraft made by the Sierra Nevada Corporation.

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Human Life Is a Gas

Changes in production of certain gases in the human gut have been linked to gastrointestinal disorders including painful constipation, irritable bowl syndrome (IBS), and colon cancer. Yet how and why this happens is not well understood. Without resorting to stressful invasive means, measuring and tracking gas concentrations in our stomachs and small and large intestines has to date been impractical.

That’s about to change. Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, have designed and custom-manufactured indigestible capsules that can measure the concentration of different gases during digestion in the gut of animals and humans—a world’s first, they claim. The capsules meet the standards necessary for such testing, and after conducting a series of trials on pigs, the researchers have begun recruiting human volunteers on which to test the next version of the pill.

An electronic capsule is composed of: an indigestible cladding; a gas-permeable membrane covering a sensor for detecting hydrogen, methane or carbon dioxide; a microcontroller; a 433-megahertz wireless transmitter; and four silver oxide batteries. The latest version of the capsule measures just 2.6 by 1.1 centimeters, which is “about the size of a 000 fish-oil capsule,” lead researcher Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, a professor at RMIT’s Centre for Advanced Electronics and Sensors, told IEEE Spectrum.

“Nothing in the capsules is really expensive,” he added. “The batteries cost around $5 or $6 in total, as does the thermal-conductivity sensor, while the microcontroller is only 50 cents. We estimate the materials cost at $15, depending on component prices. This would come down with large scale production.”

The sensor data is transmitted straight from the gut to a custom-made coder-decoder unit that can be clipped onto a cellphone. The processed data is then sent to the phone for viewing via Bluetooth.

In one of the first animal trials, pigs—which have similar digestive systems to humans—were divided into two groups and fed the capsules along with high-fiber and low-fiber diets. The capsules sent data every five minutes and went into sleep mode between transmissions to conserve battery power. Minimum life of a battery was four days, more than long enough for a capsule to complete its job and be excreted by the pig.

“The data showed that a low-fiber diet produced four times more hydrogen in the small intestine than a high-fiber diet,” said Kalantar-zadeh. “This surprised us greatly, given that hydrogen is made through fermentation; we expected more fiber would produce more of the fermented gas.”

In addition, high-fiber diets produced more methane gas in the large intestine than the low-fiber diet, suggesting that painful gas retention could be avoided by reducing the intake of high-fiber foods. They found that the ratio of carbon dioxide and methane gases in the large intestine wasn’t affected by the amount of fiber the pigs consumed, suggesting that neither diet would help people suffering IBS problems associated with methane concentrations.

The implications of these findings, Kalantar-zadeh believes, could lead to “trashing misconceptions everyone has about certain kinds of food being good for certain conditions.”

The group’s research started in 2009, when the first capsule was produced. The newest capsule, Version 5, which will be used on human volunteers, will employ a temperature sensor and two gas sensors. One gas sensor will detect oxygen and hydrogen; the other is a hydrogen sensor that is not sensitive to oxygen but can also detect methane and carbon dioxide.

In conveying the importance of the research, Kalantar-zadeh explains that microorganisms form a significant part of our gut and work with us in symbiotic fashion. When they digest food and when they interact with each other, they produce gases. If they are healthy, they produce gases with normal profiles. If they are under stress or if there is any disorder, then the gas profiles change.

“This provides us with very good health biomarkers that no one has looked at before because they were hidden from sight inside our bodies. But now we have an easy means to measure gas concentrations in the gut.” Consequently, he says, this method can be used to build libraries of healthy gas profiles, against which the gas profiles of individuals can be compared.

The researchers are working on modifications aimed at further increasing the value of the data measured by the capsules. For instance, more sensors need to be included in a capsule to provide multi-gas measurements. They’re also seeking a way to precisely track the location of a capsule as it travels through the gut.

It’s only a matter of time, Kalantar-zadeh believes, before the technology will help medical researchers “design personalized diets and drugs that can target problem areas in the gut and help millions of people around the world affected by digestive disorders and diseases.”

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