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Crowdsourcing Smartphone GPS Could Improve Earthquake Warnings

Smartphones and other GPS-enabled devices could serve as a network to provide early warning for large earthquakes, scientists at the United States Geological Survey say. Such a crowdsourced system could rapidly detect the start of a quake and warn people seconds before tremors or tsunami waves reach them.

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Smart Sewers Will Reveal What’s in Cambridge Citizens' Guts

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Newsha Ghaeli reached down the open manhole yesterday morning and grabbed the hose dangling in the rushing streams of the sewer below. As she pulled up the hose she spotted a wad of toilet paper clinging to its end and recoiled in disgust, accidentally splashing a few drops of water on strands of exposed hair sticking out from her face mask. A Cambridge, Mass., city sanitation worker offered comfort: “A little caca won’t hurt you,” he said.

Ghaeli is an architect and research fellow at MIT who, beginning on Wednesday morning this week, oversaw a 24-hour effort to collect water samples from the sewer beneath an East Cambridge neighborhood. Every hour, the team pulled up half a liter of precious sludge.

The team was doing the groundwork for an ambitious project that aims to understand the wellbeing of a city by tracking its residents’ biological and chemical waste. Eventually, with robotic samplers placed below the streets, Cambridge may have a “smart sewer” that will let public health officials study the city’s collective microbiome—the communities of microorganisms that live in humans’ guts. 

“The idea is to look at patterns of sewage relative to how we live our daily lives,” says Yaniv Jacob Turgeman, research director of the project. “We want this to be something that has actionable insights that enables public health in a meaningful way.”

The project—dubbed Underworlds, and supported by a US $4 million grant through the Kuwait-MIT Center for Natural Resources and the Environment—has been embraced by the city that the research team calls home. “If you get information closer to real time, you can rally resources to try to address a problem before it becomes a much bigger problem,” says Sam Lipson, director of environmental health for the City of Cambridge. “Those kinds of metrics are generally not available in public health.”

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Laser Li-Fi Could Blast 100 Gigabits per Second

Struggling with spotty Wi-Fi? Li-Fi might be the answer. The technology uses LED-based room lighting instead of radio waves to transmit data. But one of the leading Li-Fi proponents is already looking beyond LEDs to laser-based lighting, which he says could bring a tenfold increase in data rates.

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Chip Fingerprinting Scheme Could Secure IoT Devices Against Malware

With the coming Internet of Things (IoT) in mind, Mitsubishi Electric, Ritsumeikan University, and the Japan Science and Technology Agency have developed a security scheme that can be used to identify individual logic chips by their “fingerprints.” The scheme provides a means of preventing device spoofing, as well as a way to authenticate embedded software running on networked devices and so prevent malicious programs from being introduced.

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ESA and NASA Will Try to Smash an Asteroid Out of Its Orbit in 2022

The odds of you personally getting killed by an asteroid are not that high: About 1 in 75,000 seems to be a reasonably accurate number based on  available data. The thing about asteroids, though, is that while it’s very unlikely that Earth is going to be hit by one capable of doing significant damage, if it does happen, it’s going to trigger bad times for a lot of people—millions, if not billions. That 1 in 75,000 means that you're almost twice as likely to die from a globally destructive asteroid impact as you are from either an earthquake or a lightning strike.

Does this mean we should panic? I mean, sure, go ahead, if you’ll feel better afterwards. But really, what it means is this: if we can agree that it makes sense to allocate resources towards reducing the risk of people getting killed by things in proportion to the likelihood of those things actually occuring, then asteroid detection and intervention is definitely worth our attention. Probably more so than some other things. Like terrorism. But I digress.

The European Space Agency and NASA have a good understanding of the importance of finding and (hopefully) avoiding asteroids, and they’re joining forces on an Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment mission called AIDA. The objective of this mission is awesome: to slam a spacecraft into an asteroid with as much force as possible, and see what happens.

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Superslim Liquid Loop Will Keep Future Smartphones Cool

If you’ve worked with a notebook computer resting on your knees for any length of time, or held a smart phone to your ear for a long chat, you’ll know how hot these portable devices can get. Given that smaller portable devices such as tablets and phones are unable to accommodate water-cooling pumps or even fans, manufacturers have relied on conductive sheets of metal or other materials to carry the heat away from the really hot spots and keep high temperatures from damaging chips. But it’s increasingly clear that if portable devices are to continue to improve, we’ll need something better.

Engineers at Fujitsu Laboratories in Kawasaki, Japan, think they have that something. The lab recently announced development of a loop-shaped heat pipe that could do the job.  The device is a super-thin loop of copper filled with water. At one end is the evaporator, which sits over the smartphone or tablet’s hottest chip—the CPU—using the heat to boil the water. At the other end is the condenser, where heat escapes and the water recondenses and flows back to the evaporator.

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Large Hadron Collider Starts Up

After a two-year shutdown, engineers and scientists at CERN have started up the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Last Friday, a first proton beam with an energy of 6.5 TeV started circulating in the machine, followed by a second proton beam that started circulating in the opposite direction about an hour and half later.

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With Compass Hooked to the Brain, Blind Rats Act Like They Can See

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By hooking up the brains of blind rats to compasses, scientists in Japan found the sightless rodents could navigate a maze nearly as well as normally sighted rats. These findings suggest that a similar kind of neuroprosthesis might one day help blind people navigate, and grant people novel superhuman senses, the researchers say in the 2 April  in the journal Current Biology.

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The Simplest Flexible Printed Transistors

Using only two materials and a room temperature process, researchers in Korea have made extremely simple thin-film transistors on a plastic sheet. The transistors could pave the way for cheap, disposable flexible electronics, the researchers say.

Thin-film transistors are used today to turn pixels on and off in flat-panel displays. They are generally made of amorphous silicon deposited on rigid glass.

The new flexible transistors are made of indium oxide, which belongs to a class of materials known as amorphous oxide semiconductors. Amorphous oxides boast better electrical properties than amorphous silicon. Researchers believe that, compared to amorphous silicon, amorphous oxides could make for smaller, more energy efficient transistors that switch quickly. That would translate to sharper, faster displays. Plus, amorphous oxides can be cheaply printed on plastic.

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IBM Bets $3 Billion on the Internet of Things

IBM sees the huge river of data streaming from Internet-connected smartphones, home appliances, and vehicles as a big business opportunity for the near future. “Big Blue” announced on Monday that it would invest US $3 billion over four years on a new business aimed at helping filter the data coming from the growing swarm of sensor-equipped devices.

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