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India Launches First Mission to Mars, Some Oppose It

The successful launch of the Mars Orbiter Mission today marked a promising start for India's ambitions to become the fourth in the world to reach the red planet. The mission kicks off in the midst of what some see as a growing Asian space race and amidst some reflection among Indians regarding their country's national priorities.

The Indian spacecraft represents one of the cheapest missions to take aim at Mars with a price tag of just US $72 million. But the relatively low cost has not stopped some Indians from wondering about the wisdom of launching a mission to Mars while the country still faces huge health and economic challenges at home, according to the BBC.

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10 Things We Wish the Google Barge Was Instead of a Showroom for Google X

Intriguing update on 26 November: Our Silicon Valley editor, Tekla Perry, just received an invitation from Google that says in part: 

Google is getting ready to help Santa deliver presents with a very large, floating, nautical sled.

The blogosphere has been going absolutely bananas this week trying to figure out what Google was hiding on a barge docked at an island in the San Francisco Bay. The latest reporting says that the structure, which is made out of shipping containers, will be a party space and showroom for technologies that come out of Google X, the company skunkworks that birthed Google Glass.

Frankly, we're a bit disappointed. If you're going to have a secret lair in San Francisco Bay, it should be something really cool. Here's some ideas we thought would be cooler, or at least more fun to cover. Leave yours in the comments.

Singularity Induction Center: With Ray Kurzweil onboard, Google has moved swiftly to realize the vision of a transhuman future, in which minds and machine merge. The barge provides a scanning center to digitize and upload humans into a digital paradise, while also incorporating a mulching unit that converts discarded physical bodies into fish food, burnishing the companies environmental credentials.

Island Generators: Not generators for islands, but generators of islands. Using the latest in 3-D printing techniques, these barge can "print" an entire island in international waters up to 200 meters deep, allowing the construction of new sovereign microstates outside the reach of pesky U.S. or E.U law.

The Holodeck: Want to pilot an F-35 fighter? Take a Formula-1 car for a spin through the streets of Monaco? Jog across the Martian deserts? Be chased by ravenous hordes of zombies? The barge will provide simulated experiences with an unprecedented degree of physical immersion, with rooms that can tilt, vibrate, and accelerate in any direction. Of course, it will also constantly rock with the swells and waves, so we hope you don’t get sea sick.

The world's largest hard disk drive: Flash memory is zippy, but very pricy compared to good old fashioned magnetic material. Still, having endless hard drive enclosures is inefficient, in terms of volume and energy. By constructing a stack of platters three stories tall and 10 meters across, suspended in a vacuum, Google plans to store the entire searchable Internet on a single drive. A barge is needed in case mechanical problems arise: The platters act like flywheels with immense angular momentum. In an emergency a floating structure can spin and gently bleed off momentum rather than eject a giant flying disk of doom.

Ghost Containment Grid: Google's founders were inspired in their youth by the 1984 movie Ghostbusters to find a way to truly use modern science in the service of taming the supernatural. (The Google search engine actually grew out of an early attempt to catalog the information required to build unlicensed nuclear accelerators.) The movie got a lot of things wrong, but one thing it got right was the need for a secure place to put captured, or "busted," ghosts, and preferably one out of the reach of Environmental Protection Agency pencil necks.

The base for a space elevator: Supposedly, Sergei Brin and Larry Page were keen to use some of their billions to build a space elevator. Former CEO Eric Schmidt talked them out of it, but where is he these days?

The bottom of the foot of the world’s largest humanoid robot: They’ll call it the Colossus of Nodes.

Document Storage: Maybe Google Drive is actually powered by physical printouts of everyone's documents, and Google needs a place to hide all the filing cabinets.

Zombie-proof Data Center: Much of the early speculation about the barge was fueled by a patent Google filed for a floating data center. That would be neat, but why would you need one? Because zombies can't swim. We’ll all need Google Maps and the ability to do social networking to survive the zombie apocalypse, right? Alternatively, something has gone horribly wrong over at Google X and this is a zombie detention center. Again, because zombies can't swim.

Employee Office Space/Prison: Google has always been trying to keep its employees on campus. (Marisa Mayer exported the principle to Yahoo! when she took over that outfit.) What better way to keep employees at work than to maroon them on a barge, in the middle of a bay, surrounded by zombies?

That’s no barge: It's a fully armed and operational battle station, manned by zombies.

Illustrations: Randi Klett; Google Barge: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Automating Anesthesia For Medically Induced Comas

In some scenarios it can be safer for health professionals to put certain patients, those with persistent seizures or brain trauma for example, into medically induced comas during treatment or recovery. But this requires full time supervision from hospital staff because the process involves watching a patient's EEG and manually adjusting the anesthesia drugs to keep brain activity stable. But a new system tested in animals and published in PLOS Computational Biology yesterday automates the monitoring and dosage modification.

The team, which includes scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), modified some of its existing software which measures brain activity, and integrated algorithms to evaluate EEG patterns, set goals for appropriate brain activity, and control devices that administer anesthesia, all in real time. The group tested the their closed loop control in a rodent model and found that the system's EEG measurements were almost perfect.

In a press release, Emery Brown, an anesthesiologist and the senior author on the paper noted that, "As far as we know, these are the best results for automated control of anesthesia that have ever been published. We're now in discussions with the FDA for approval to start testing this in patients.

Anesthesiologists currently work with some computer assistance, but the FDA hasn't yet approved a fully automated system for monitoring patients' brain activity and modulating their anesthesia doses appropriately. This research is important because it is some of the first, if not the very first, to show both aspects functioning at once in real time with a safe level of precision and control. Since medically induced comas require keeping patients at the correct level of brain activity for hours or often days, a system that is totally controlled by a computer would reduce the manpower needed in Intensive Care Units and could even hold patients' brain activity stable with lower doses of anesthesia.

Photo: iStockphoto

NSA Intercepts Links to Google, Yahoo Data Centers

National Security Agency spooks can apparently scoop up millions of records every day from the internal networks of Google and Yahoo by secretly tapping into the communication links connecting the Silicon Valley tech giants' data servers. The new revelations suggest that NSA surveillance goes well beyond the court-approved, front-door access to Google and Yahoo user accounts under the now-infamous PRISM program.

The new story from the Washington Post refers to "top-secret accounting dated Jan. 9, 2013" that shows how the NSA collected more than 181 million records from Yahoo and Google networks in 30 days—data including text, audio, video and metadata indicating who sent or received emails. The NSA accomplished this through a project called MUSCULAR, operated with the NSA's British counterpart known as Government Communications Headquarters, which intercepts the flow of data in the fiber-optic cables linking data centers around the world.

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Human Brain Project Needs Artificial Brains to Understand Real Ones

If neuroscientist Henry Markram had a dollar for every neuron he wants to map, he still wouldn't have enough money.

As it happens, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) researcher has a billion euros, or $1.38 billion, from the European Union to spend over the next ten years, but the normal means of determining a neuron's activity can cost $1 million and take a year. By the time he got through the 3000-odd pathways shown in the photograph of a pinhead-sized slice of brain behind him in a conference room last month, he'd be flat broke, decades older, and he'd still have to map countless more pinheads' worth of neurons to understand the brain.

As Markram has been telling everyone since he got the €1 billion nod to lead the Human Brain Project, the way researchers study the brain needs to change. His approach—and it's not the only one—stands on an emerging type of computing that he and others claim will let machines learn more like humans do. They could then offer generalizations from what's known about a handful of neural pathways and find shortcuts to understanding the rest of the brain, he argues. The concept will rely as much on predictions of neural behavior as on experimental observations.

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Speeding Ticket Cites Google Glass Use

Google Glass has made its first appearance on a speeding ticket issued in California. The  smart glasses' unfortunate run-in with the law probably won't set any landmark legal precedents, but the incident has caused plenty of debate over the proper use of such devices while driving. 

The case became public knowledge when Cecilia Abadie, a member of Google's Explorer program allowed to own an early edition of the smart glasses, posted on her Google Plus account about being stopped and issued a ticket by a San Diego police officer. Her ticket's second violation read: "Driving with Monitor visible to Driver (Google Glass)."

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IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference Points Engineers at the World’s Problems

Last week, 250 engineers and technologists came from 31 countries to the third annual IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference held in Santa Clara, Calif. There were papers and posters, of course, covering such subjects as using cell phones to monitor the movements of Asian elephants, mining the web and social media to create maps of gas station closures after Hurricane Sandy, and using tweets to find trapped survivors in a disaster. But the real business of the conference was not happening in the session rooms, but in the lobby area, where engineers were connecting with each other and people who are already in the business of tackling tough humanitarian issues around the world and were looking for a few good engineers to help.

This is the third year of the conference. And this is the second year of the SIGHT program, IEEE’s Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology, an effort to bring together groups of people in a section or chapter to focus on humanitarian issues.

The mood in the room seemed similar to that in the early days of mobile devices, or in the early days of the web. At such nascent stages it wasn't really the particular projects or products being created that were important. Rather, it was about knowing that technology was about to take a huge leap into a new realm, that needs and ideas were about to be spring up everywhere, and that the people around you—and maybe you too—are going to be doing some amazing things.  Nobody was exactly sure what those things would be, and certainly there would be failures as well as success, but being at the beginning of a groundswell is a good place to be.

So I can’t report on this conference as I did DemoFall earlier this month, calling out the hits and misses and identifying a few trends. The main point for the attendees was simply to be there, to raise a flag and say, yes, I’m one of those engineers who think technology can save the world. Instead, I’ll just share a few of the more striking comments speakers made at the sessions I attended.

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Video: Augmented Reality for the Motorcycle Helmet

Skully Helmets, based in Redwood City, Calif., is hoping simplified GPS that reduces distractions and a 180-degree rear-view camera to eliminate blind spots will make life on the road safer for motorcyclists. The company, launching at DemoFall 2013 this month, expects the final product to retail well within the under-$1500 range of today’s high-end helmets. In the video, founder Marcus Weller explains his technology.

Trouble Hearing In A Noisy Room? There’s An App For That

Anyone parenting a member the iPod generation has lost track of the number of times she’s said “Take those earbuds out of your ears so you can hear me!” So how weird is it going to be if some years from now that same generation is saying to us, “Put those earbuds in your ears so you can hear me!”

Real Clarity, introduced by SoundFest, Franklin, Mass., at DemoFall 2013, is a brilliant concept. It’s the hearing aid for people who don’t really need a hearing aid. Yet. Or maybe they simply want to pretend they don’t need a hearing aid. Or don’t want the expense of a hearing aid. But they still need help hearing a conversation in a noisy room.

The app asks you to input your age then adjusts its algorithms to optimize its audio enhancements accordingly. People who have a more precise diagnosis of hearing deficiencies can set the app’s parameters manually. Then you put in your earbuds, set the mobile device down in front of you, and it will raise the volume on the conversation and lower the volume on the noise around you.

Cofounder Mark Eisner says that there are other apps that do amplification with some noise reduction, but because they are more generalized, they don’t compensate well for age-related hearing loss. The algorithms that detect and clarify the sounds of speech, he says, were developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; SoundFest’s challenge was making them run fast enough so the delay introduced didn’t cause a perceptible echo. He says that the typical delay time in the Real Clarity app is 5 milliseconds.  The app will sell for about $30 when it is available towards the end of the year.

How well does it work? I’m not sure. The onstage demo, using generated background noise, seemed effective. When I tried it myself in the somewhat noisy demo hall, I didn’t see much of a difference. But the room wasn’t so noisy that I had any trouble following a normal-level conversation to begin with. But fortunately I’m not the target market, at least not quite yet.

Photo: iStockphoto

A Bouncing Ball To Make Danger Zones Safer

Some of the best gadgets seem obvious in retrospect. One of those may turn out to be the Explorer Ball from Bounce Imaging, in Boston.

The appeal of the Explorer Ball is simple. Firefighters, disaster rescue workers, SWAT teams, or military troops can find themselves needing to enter an environment about which they know nothing. And surprises, in a military or rescue situation, can be a really bad thing. So getting an instant, up-to-the minute, detailed panoramic view of the environment would be really helpful.

The technology is clearly available. After all, a smartphone can create a panoramic image in seconds, one that you can easily scan through or enlarge. But how do you get that kind of smartphone capability into a potentially dangerous place before going into the place itself?

The answer, it seems, is obvious. You throw it.

Getting from that obvious answer to a camera-toting, Wi-Fi connected, extremely durable, throwable object is the hard part. And Bounce Imaging, launching at DemoFall 2013 last week, admitted that it’s not quite there yet. But it’s close. The prototype Explorer Ball carries six cameras and a Wi-Fi transmitter; it sends the images to a mobile device, where an app stitches them together into a panorama. It includes the capability to add sensors, say, temperature or carbon monoxide. And it carries a microphone and can transmit audio. What it can’t do quite yet is survive a hard fall, but the company is working on that and expects to have durability testing finished this year, in time to start field testing in a few months.

Bounce Imaging is planning to sell an emergency responder version for about $1000, a military version for something under $3000.

Photos: Bounce Imaging

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