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Bitcoin is a Tax Nightmare, But LibraTax Has Got You Covered

Happy April, 15th! For U.S. citizens and residents, today is tax day. And if you're one of the many Americans who was pulled into the cryptocurrency fray last year—if you traded Bitcoin on online exchanges, if you bought a ticket to space with bitcoins, even if you just used it to buy your morning coffee—then filing your taxes just got a lot more complicated. Last month, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) published its guidance for "virtual currency" holders, in which it defines Bitcoin and all other digital currencies as property rather than foreign currency. In order to comply with the rule, Bitcoin holders who are U.S. taxpayers must now calculate a capital gain or loss on every transaction they make. If you bought your Bitcoin at US $600, but it was valued at $800 when you used it to buy that coffee, then you owe taxes on the difference. 

With Bitcoin's crazy price swings—the exchange rate of Bitcoin soared past $1000 last December, went down to $800 in February, and it's around $500 today—that makes for a lot of messy calculations. Fortunately, the Bitcoin community doesn't tend to sit on its problems for very long, at least not when they are technical in nature. Companies are already emerging to offer simple, automated tax preparation for Bitcoin users. This will be the primary product of a company called LibraTax, which plans to officially launch this fall.

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A Cloud-Connected Car Is a Hackable Car, Worries Microsoft

Way back in the 1980s I watched my computer-geek friend manipulate the hot-rolling process of his client's steel mill in Cleveland in real time—from his home. I wondered whether millions of dollars and dozens of lives might be destroyed should this great power somehow fall into the wrong hands.

"Yes," he explained.

That's the difference between hacking a physical rather than a virtual entity.

Nowadays steel plants and other super-sensitive industrial machinery are (or should be) walled off from the Internet. That's why the worm Stuxnet, the only known cybersaboteur to derail physical processes, apparently had to wend its way to Iran's nuclear enrichment plant via memory sticks. Once inside it would seem to have spread on local networks. 

But tomorrow's autonomous cars will be far more vulnerable because they will be networked, says Michal Braverman-Blumenstyk, the general manager of cybersecurity at Azure, Microsoft’s cloud service. She was speaking today at a Tel Aviv conference, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

“Some of the functionality of connected cars can be accessed remotely—velocity adjustment for example,” she said. “If police are chasing a criminal, you’d want the police to be able to slow the suspect’s car down. However, if a malicious entity gets hold of the car, the damage is limitless.” 

It's a sobering thought to entertain just as the cyberworld is scrambling to fix the OpenSSL vulnerability, aka "Heartbleed," which appears to have stripped connected devices naked the world over. 

Tomorrow's autonomous cars will need to access networks to augment their onboard sensors. But even today's semi- or non-autonomous cars are getting connected. Already governments are speaking of mandating a capability for "car2car" talk, as it's called, which would let cars learn through the grapevine about what may lie on the other side of a coming bend in the road. A similar "car2I" capability would let vehicles query infrastructure to learn about traffic routing and local rules of the road. 

Car companies, including GM, Chrysler and Audi, are already beginning to use wireless connections to update software. After battery fires in Tesla's Model S electric car, the company sent an "over-the-air software update" to the cars' active suspension systems that directed them to maintain a greater clearance with the ground. That way, debris kicked up would be less likely to damage the battery pack.

This could be big, according to Bill Fleming, senior editor of IEEE Vehicular Technology Magazine.  "Nearly 60 to 70 percent of vehicle recalls in major automotive markets in North America and Europe are due to software glitches," he writes in the March issue. The problem will only grow along with the software line-count.  

Face Aging Software Can Show Your Child's Future

Parents who want to know how their baby might look as an adult could eventually see their child's visual transformation from a toddler to an 80-year-old in less than a minute. The world's first automated aging software can make a set of predictions based on a photo of a child's face and then turn out a series of images illustrating those guesses—all in about 30 seconds on a standard computer.

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Electrical Spine Stimulation Helps Paralyzed Patients Regain Some Movement

Four individuals diagnosed as having complete paralysis of the legs were able to intentionally move their knees, ankles, and toes while undergoing electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, according to a study published yesterday in the journal Brain. The novel therapy has the potential to change the grim prognosis of people who have been paralyzed for years, say the researchers involved in the study based out of the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

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Game Controller Senses Players' Excitement Levels

Video games capable of detecting player boredom could someday ratchet up the excitement by sending in a new wave of virtual zombies or triggering an on-screen ambush by enemy soldiers. That intriguing possibility comes from Stanford University's experimentation with a video game controller that can detect a gamer's heart rate, blood flow, breathing rate, and other physiological signs.

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Tiny Microbial Fuel Cell Runs On Spit

Researchers have made a fingernail-sized microbial fuel cell that runs on saliva. The cell generates 1 microwatt of power, enough to power lab-on-a-chip diagnostic devices in rural settings or battlefields, the researchers say.

Conventional microbial fuel cells contain a cathode and anode chamber separated by a proton-exchange membrane. At the anode, anaerobic bacteria break down organic matter from liquids, releasing carbon dioxide, electrons and protons. The electrons flow to the cathode through an external circuit while the protons go through the membrane. Employed at factories or wastewater treatment plants, microbial fuel cells could produce clean water and electricity while significantly cutting down sludge produced.

The new cells are nothing like their liter-size cousins, though. These 25-microliter devices have a radically different design featuring unique, carefully chosen electrodes and fuel sources, says Muhammad Hussain, a professor of electrical engineering at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. Hussain and his colleagues at KAUST and Penn State University published their results recently in the journal Nature Asia Materials.

Conventional microbial fuel cells contain carbon-based anodes and cathodes made of carbon brushes or carbon cloth. The essential requirement for the electrodes is that they be conductive and have a high surface-to-volume ratio so that most of the bacteria have access to the waste material.

Graphene meets both of those conditions, so the KAUST researchers used that for their anode. They went with an air cathode, which is commonly used in large-scale microbial fuel cells. Most importantly, the researchers got rid of the expensive membrane. “We figured you don’t need the membrane, you just need to bring anode and cathode as close as possible, which becomes much easier on the micro scale,” says Hussain. “At the same time, current generation depends on the internal resistance of the whole fuel cell. Without the membrane you reduce resistance.”

The team starts with a 1-by-1-centimeter sheet of graphene film. They place a rubber spacer with the same dimensions on top and cut a 5-by-5-millimeter hole in the center of the spacer. The hole acts as the anode chamber. The researchers loaded the device with bacteria from wastewater and then added saliva via syringe tips inserted into both sides of the rubber. The device can easily be built on plastic, Hussain points out.

Acetate is a common fuel source for microbial fuel cells. But Hussain and his colleagues wanted an easily accessible fuel, so they tested saliva. “Soldiers in a battlefield don’t have time to put chemicals in fuel cells to make it operational,” he says. “People in rural areas might not have access to specialty chemicals. So the easiest thing is saliva. Saliva’s organic content is much higher than known chemicals like acetate, making it a good fuel source.”

The device generates higher current densities than other micron-sized microbial fuel cells made so far. The graphene anode also generates 40 times as much power as its carbon cloth counterpart.

The researchers are now exploring ways to increase their device’s power output by making more efficient electrodes and stringing multiple cells in series.

Computers Learn and Teach Each Other by Playing Pac-Man

Video games can be educational—for computers.  Researchers at Washington State University developed an algorithm that helps computers learn and teach each other by playing Pac-Man, an iconic video game that has eaten up the spare time of gamers since the 1980s. Advances in robot intelligence could potentially lead to robots teaching humans. Matthew E. Taylor, an expert in artificial intelligence at WSU, published these findings online in the journal Connection Science.   

The virtual robots, nicknamed "student agent" and "teacher agent," learn from each other as the student agent navigates through a dizzying maze trying to outrun four colorful ghosts all while gobbling up pellets. When the teacher agent detects its disciple is in trouble, it jumps in to give advice.

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NASA Cuts Russian Ties Over Crimea in Favor of Resuming U.S. Human Spaceflight

A spirit of scientific cooperation has long existed between U.S. and Russian space agencies even when the two countries faced off as hostile adversaries during the Cold War. So NASA's recent decision to suspend some ties with its Russian counterpart seems to come as a blow to those who take pride in placing space exploration above politics.

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Small Robot Surgeon Designed to Work Inside Astronauts' Bodies

Tiny medical robots capable of operating inside an astronaut's body could someday provide emergency surgery in space without the mess. A fist-sized robot is scheduled for its first zero-gravity test in the next several months—one small step toward enabling robotic medical attention for humans stuck on deep-space missions lasting for months.

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DARPA Boosts Funding for All Things Biological

DARPA, the U.S. defense agency devoted to high-risk, high-reward research, has traditionally dedicated its resources to the physical sciences: nuclear bomb test detection, the stealth fighter, and the Internet are just a few of the technologies that DARPA pioneered. Today, however, the agency announced a new emphasis on biology with the establishment of its Biological Technologies Office, BTO. 

The agency began taking a greater interest in the life sciences over the last decade, spurred in particular by the needs of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs and neural problems. The new office will incorporate existing bio-related programs, and plans to start others across a wide range of scales—from individual cells to humans to global ecosystems.

Geoff Ling, director of the BTO, says that biological research is a natural complement to the agency's existing engineering knowhow. For example, he says, warfighters' capabilities must match those of their tools. "There’s a recognition that our technology is improving, but there still remains a human in the loop," he says. Ling sees an obligation to ensure that "the human can perform optimally in that entire system."

BTO has three announced research areas. The first will focus on restoring and maintaining warfighter abilities, and will further DARPA's recent efforts on advanced prosthetics and neural engineering. Its successful Revolutionizing Prosthetics program has already developed several sophisticated mechatronic arms, including prosthetics that can be wired into the wearer's remaining nerves or muscles. The next step may come from the HAPTIX program, currently open to proposals, which calls for prosthetics that can send sensory information back to the user. The neural engineering programs will include the recently announced SUBNETS, which will investigate deep brain stimulation therapies for neural and psychiatric disorders, and RAM, which will develop implantable memory prosthetics. 

The second research area covers synthetic biology programs like the Battlefield Medicine effort. "Can we develop a capability so that warfighters can make the medication they need on the spot?" Ling asks. DARPA imagines a bacterium that could be reprogrammed to make the necessary pharmaceutical molecules on the fly, but Ling says that basic research must lead the way. "To do that, you of course need deep knowledge of the genetic machinery," he says. 

BTO's final concentration calls for research to better understand the dynamics of ecosystems. This component seems the least well-defined at the moment, but its sketchy description, with references to the microbiome that resides in each human's gut and to disease epidemics, suggest a health focus. 

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