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GE Brings ByteLight-enabled Smart LED Lights to Stores

Controlling LED light bulbs in your home with a smart phone certainly makes for a cool demo. But lighting companies think they have a more compelling commercial application for smart lighting: retail. 

Next week, General Electric and startup company ByteLight will demonstrate a network-connected lighting system for stores at the LightFair industry conference in Las Vegas. The idea is to offer repeat customers personalized offers, perhaps based on their shopping history, as well as maps to find items in stores.

GE will embed chips made by ByteLight in its LED-based overhead lights, the type normally used in offices and big-box stores. The chips will communicate with consumers' smart phones and use sensors to track the direction a person is moving inside a store.

Until now, ByteLight only made a chip that communicated via Visual Light Communications (VLC), which uses light pulses to transmit data. The flickers are too fast to be detected by the human eye, but a smart phone's image sensor can read the signals.

VLC can accurately locate a person to within less than a meter, but it can't "talk" to a phone that's inside a pocket or purse because the link requires line of sight.

The technology demonstrated with GE will include a chip that can communicate via both VLC and Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE. The Bluetooth radio signal can alert a customer to a special offer, inducing him or her to pull out the handset to read the come-on. Once the phone is out, it can can communicate using VLC, a company representative explained.

At this point, the companies do not have any commercial customers, but will be targeting big-box retailers, such as Walmart, which last month said it will upgrade to GE's LED lights. 

Upgrading to efficient LED lighting can save companies on energy bills. But increasingly, LED companies are pitching the benefits of electronic controls. For example, by adding sensors for daylighting to overhead office lights, LED lights can dim automatically and save more energy.

Connected LED lighting allows store owners or, say, museums to go further by using lights as network access points that consumers connect to. "The value proposition for LED lighting is becoming less about elimination and more about innovative applications and services that digital light enables," said ByteLight CEO Dan Ryan in a statement.

Apple has already started using its iBeacon technology, which uses iPads and other devices to communicate with consumer smart phones using Bluetooth. New York City drugstore chain Duane Reade said earlier this month that it will use iBeacon to offer coupons and other services to shoppers with iPhones.

And earlier this year, Phillips introduced its own VLC-based smart LED lighting system and said it is testing it with retailers.

As light fixtures become more intelligent and potentially track people's movements, they raise privacy concerns. But for consumers who love a special offer, smart lighting could make shopping a new interactive experience. 

Requests to be Forgotten: Now on Google

Time to do some spring cleaning on your Google vanity search. Tired of looking up your name only to find reminders of past bankruptcies or acrimonious court cases? If you can persuade Google or a European data protection agency that search results about you are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed," then the search provider will have to remove the links. The form for making such requests went up today but the company says it has not yet begun processing them.

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U.S. Military Aims for Brain Implants to Treat Wounded Soldiers

This post was corrected on 1 June 2014.

A new U.S. military program focused on brain implants could help diagnose and treat soldiers suffering from psychiatric disorders. The program funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects  Agency (DARPA) will develop a new generation of devices inspired by deep brain stimulation—a technology that uses implanted electrodes to electrically stimulate parts of the brain. But the new brain implants would start out by monitoring the brain activity of patients instead of stimulating them. The aim is to provide new insights into the workings of psychiatric disorders such as depression. The implants could then use targeted stimulation of certain brain regions to restore normal brain function over time.

"If you have been injured in the line of duty and you can't remember your family, we want to be able to restore those kinds of functions," said Justin Sanchez, DARPA program manager, during a conference held in Washington, D.C. in early May, AFP reported. "We think that we can develop neuroprosthetic devices that can directly interface with the hippocampus, and can restore the first type of memories we are looking at, the declarative memories."

Illustration: Massachusetts General Hospital and Draper Labs

DARPA's Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) program is part of President Obama's Brain Initiative, a $100 million program unveiled in April 2013 aimed at funding new technologies for tackling neurological and psychiatric diseases.

The University of California, San Francisco is spearheading one arm of SUBNETS with up to $26 million from DARPA. It will focus on understanding and treating anxiety and depression. Success with such initiatives could go a long way toward lessening the suffering of millions of people and helping reduce the economic cost to Americans of dealing with psychiatric problems. Anxiety disorders alone cost the United States about $42 billion each year.

The other arm of the program is a $30-million grant to a team led by Massachusetts General Hospital. That group will work on traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and severe depression.

The electronic implant program relies on neural plasticity, which allows the brain's anatomy and physiology to change over time. Deep brain stimulation already takes advantage of the brain's plasticity, but DARPA program aims to combine diagnostic and therapeutic functions into the same implanted device.

One brain implant prototype developed by Draper Labs and Massachusetts General Hospital uses both commercial electrodes and custom technology. The hermetically-sealed device also has a rechargeable battery that can be recharged via inductive coupling. DARPA expects a variety of brain implants to be developed through this program over the next five years.

Space Hackers Take Control of ISEE-3 Spacecraft

After a few days of waiting for transmission approval from NASA and an earthquake that shook the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico on Wednesday, a private team of space enthusiasts has established two-way communication with the 35-year-old ISEE-3 spacecraft. The probe is now sending back telemetry, team member Keith Cowing says. Over the coming days, the team will analyze the data ISEE-3 is transmitting in order to assess the health of the spacecraft and see if they will be able to fire its thrusters, beginning a process that could bring the spacecraft back to its original orbit near the Earth.

The ISEE-3 reboot team, which raised nearly $160,000 on RocketHub to fund the effort, has been racing to cobble together what they need to communicate with ISEE-3, including transmitters as well as software-defined modulators and demodulators. Everything was in place by last Friday, the team reported, but they had to await clearance from NASA. That put some pressure on the team's already tight schedule: they expect they have until mid-June to command the spacecraft to fire its thrusters for the first time. 

I called NASA on Wednesday to ask about the source of the delay. NASA signed an agreement last week that handed over control of the spacecraft to the team, which is led by the California-based firm Skycorp. But that agreement still requires NASA to approve certain steps.

In this case, the main source of the hold-up was getting authorization from the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration to send signals to the spacecraft from Arecibo using the team's 400W transmitter.

"Because NASA still owns the spacecraft, NASA actually has to apply for the license on behalf of Skycorp," David Chenette, the director of the heliophysics division within NASA's Science Mission Directorate, told me. One concern, he says, is damage to other spacecraft. "The power levels are high enough to damage receivers that operate on this frequency should they be going through the beam," Chenette said. That list of potentially vulnerable probes includes NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Earth Observing-1, JAXA's WINDS spacecraft, and ESA's Cluster and Swarm spacecraft.

Because of this issue, the team only has clearance to transmit to the spacecraft until May 31, Skycorp's CEO Dennis Wingo wrote to me over Skype from Puerto Rico, shortly before today's attempt at communication. "After that we have to say 'mother may I' again," he wrote, adding that going forward his team hopes to automate the communications process so that transmission will not occur if any spacecraft that might be affected are in the area.

In the meantime, the team will be working out how to interpret the data that ISEE-3 is now sending back to Earth. "We will use that data to debug the demodulator software, then we get bits out, then we process for telemetry," Wingo wrote. He hopes that by early next week they'll have some initial idea of how well the spacecraft's systems are faring.

Skype Will Translate Multilingual Conversations by Next Year

Picture this, an English-speaking man carries on a full conversation with a German-speaking women. Did I mention that the man doesn’t understand a word of German and the woman doesn’t understand a word of English? Yet, they still understand each other.

On stage at the Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., Gurdeep Pall, corporate vice president of Skype and Lync at Microsoft, demonstrated Skype Translator, a new app that translates multilingual voice calls in real time. This means that users can speak in their native tongue to someone who speaks a different language while Microsoft translates. By the end of this year, Skype Translator will be available as a Windows 8 beta app.

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Quantum Cryptography with Ordinary Equipment

Researchers in Japan have come up with a way of doing quantum cryptography that could overcome two of the technology's big problems. The new protocol is designed to work with off-the-shelf equipment and use less bandwidth than existing methods. It’s just a mathematical proposal, but it could help make quantum key distribution more commercially viable. 

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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.


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