Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Solar Winds Spark Extra Lightning Strikes on Earth

Solar winds capable of triggering spectacular displays of the Northern Lights in the sky may also boost the rate of lightning strikes on the ground. The finding could allow researchers to use sun-monitoring satellites to improve weather forecasts of hazardous thunderstorms in the future.

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Most Technologists Upbeat About Future Internet of Things, Says Pew Survey

In the future, cars will be smart enough to communicate with each other to avoid collisions and sensors placed beneath your skin will transmit your vital signs to medical professionals. Your personal computer will be on your wrist and you will input information with your voice, rather than typing on a screen.

These are just some of the visions spun by a group of more than 1800 technologists surveyed by the Pew Research Internet Project, which released its report on the Internet of Things yesterday. There is general agreement that the Internet of Things, also called the Cloud of Things, will grow dramatically by 2025. But there were diverging opinions over how it will take shape and how much the benefits will outweigh the tradeoffs.

As you might expect, the technically savvy people interviewed for the report were bullish on the conveniences and economic productivity that widespread embedded computing and connectivity can bring. But a number expressed concerns about privacy, security, and the technical complexity of a vastly bigger network than today's Internet. Overall, 83 percent of respondents said the Internet of Things will bring beneficial effects to everyday lives by 2025, with 17 percent answering no.

With cheaper, low-power sensors attached to everything from bridges to home thermostats, computing will become ubiquitous to the point where it will be like the availability of electricity and part of our surroundings, many survey respondents said.

For individuals, the Internet of Things can mean wearable computers, which devices such as Google Glass and fitness bands have helped popularize. And as computing becomes part of our person, it opens up the possibility of an "augmented reality" to enhance people's senses with wearable or implantable technologies.

"Our ability to use nerve impulses to engage with information will expand dramatically," predicts JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for "We will see today’s connected devices become smaller and smaller and slowly merge into the part of the body from where the particular sense related to that device operates." 

As computing becomes embedded into our daily environment, it will introduce a host of new privacy and security issues, some respondents warn. Frank Pasquale, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law, says that a workplace with devices connected to an Internet of Things will be more productive but it also sets the stage for a new level of employee monitoring. "It sets the stage for extraordinarily targeted monitoring and manipulation of these individuals," he said.

There is also a wide set of less-personal applications, such as monitoring energy and water infrastructure, vehicles, or the environment. For example, roadways instrumented with sensors could report maintenance issues before they threaten safety, and smart cities with pervasive sensors and high-resolution location services could smooth out traffic and advise people on the best way to commute to work. 

With many more devices producing a stream of information, collecting and analyzing all the data will be a problem. For individuals, too, wearable computers and the Internet of Things could make it harder to disconnect from the flow of available information.

"I’m not sure that moving computers from people’s pockets (smartphones) to people’s hands or face will have the same level of impact that the smartphone has had, but things will trend in the similar direction," said Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "Everything that you love and hate about smartphones will be more so.”

Can You Make the Internet Forget?

Tuesday the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that its member states can force Internet search engines to remove links to material deemed to invade the privacy of European citizens. The court argued for balancing privacy against the public's interest, and the ruling is in line with pending European legislation that seeks to establish an explicit right to be forgotten, or at least to make it harder to find unflattering personal information.

In Tuesday's case, which sets a precedent for around two hundred pending cases in Spain, Google will have to remove search results linking to 14-year-old newspaper notices about the plaintiff's home repossession. The newspaper itself is not required to remove the notices. Instead, the Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) appears to have found a pragmatic choke point for helping individuals cultivate a more favorable online presence without resorting to outright censorship of published material.

Certain non-governmental organizations and journalists may look at this as a sneaky workaround, but software engineers have been trying to find ways for users to share information on a temporary basis since at least the birth of email recall requests.

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Space Hackers Prepare to Reboot 35-Year-Old Spacecraft

Early next week, a team of volunteers will use the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to see if they can make contact with a spacecraft that hasn't fired its thrusters since 1987. If all goes well, the effort could bring the 35-year-old spacecraft, the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3), back into position near the Earth, where it could once again study the effect of solar weather on Earth's magnetosphere.

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Analysis Reveals Google Glass Costs Just $152 to Make

Owners of Google Glass pay US $1500 for a prototype that costs Google just $152.47 in hardware and manufacturing costs, according to a recently published analysis by a technology research firm. But that doesn't mean Google is getting away with a huge profit by charging ten times as much as its hardware costs for the smart glasses.

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Cobalt Could Help Ease Chip Wiring Woes

When it comes to talk of keeping Moore's Law on track, transistors seem to get all the attention. But the effort to boost the density of interconnect—the metal lines used to wire all those transistors together—is facing troubles of its own. 

On Tuesday, Applied Materials, one of the leading manufacturers of tools for semiconductor fabs, announced they'd come up with a new process that could address a few of the big stumbling blocks.

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Combining Light and Sound For Accurate, Painless 3-D Mammograms

Breast cancer screening today requires exposure to X-ray radiation. The X-ray images are difficult to interpret, causing anxiety-inducing false alarms and extensive follow-up tests that include biopsies. Besides, getting a mammogram is quite literally a pain, requiring an uncomfortable compression of the breast tissue.

Startup OptoSonics in Oriental, N.C. aims to make breast imaging more accurate, quick, painless, and radiation-free. The company’s technology relies on the photoacoustic effect—the generation of sound from light absorption—to create high-resolution 3-D images of the network of blood vessels inside the breast. “The idea is that because tumors induce the creation of additional blood vessels, you’d see a brighter spot and individual vessels feeding into the mass,” says Robert Kruger, the company’s president and co-founder. Kruger and his colleagues presented details of the technique at the Acoustical Society of America meeting last week.

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European Court Grants the Right to Be Forgotten

Mario Costeja Gonzalez's Google search results will change, thanks to a ruling today by the Court of Justice of the European Union, in Luxembourg. Costeja sought to force Google to stop linking to a newspaper announcement of a government auction of seized property of his. But even if he had not won his case Costeja's name would already return an avalanche of results related to a controversial battle in Europe over the so-called right to be forgotten. Around 200 court cases in Spain are pending this ruling, and more are sure to emerge here and across the European Union, where the ruling applies.

Costeja's battle dates to 2009, when the newspaper La Vanguardia digitized its archive, unintentionally reviving a chapter of Costeja's life he thought was resolved. The archive included a 19 January 1998 official announcement of government-seized properties on auction to settle Social Security debts, and a related March 1998 announcement.

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Aero-X Hoverbike To Go on Sale in 2017

When Aerofex showed off its "hoverbike" almost two years ago, the California firm received a flood of emails from people asking when they could buy one of their own. Now Aerofex has unveiled plans to begin selling a commercial model in 2017 for about US $85 000—but anyone eager for a head start on living the "Star Wars" dream can put down a preorder deposit of $5000 toward the final price.

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New Gadget Gives Consumers At-Home Lab Tests

human os iconDo you want to know your current level of testosterone? Are you curious about the amount of vitamin D in your blood? Typically your doctor would send a sample of your bodily fluids to a lab to find out such information, but soon consumers willing to plunk down their money will have DIY lab tests via a new gadget called Cue.

Customers can pre-order the device beginning today, with shipping expected in spring 2015. At launch, Cue will be able to perform five different tests, but its makers say this is just the beginning. "The large majority of tests you do in the lab today, we want to give you access to in your own home," says Ayub Khattak, cofounder and CEO of the eponymous startup Cue.

Khattak sees his company as the next step forward for the quantified self movement, in which consumers are using various gizmos to count their steps, chart their blood pressure, monitor their sleep, and so on. But Cue goes beyond the easily collected metrics of health, and delves into biochemical markers.

For now, Cue offers the ability to test for testosterone, vitamin D, the flu virus, luteinizing hormone, which indicates a woman's fertility, and C-reactive protein, which serves as a marker of inflammation. That may seem like a rather hodgepodge selection, but Cue cofounder Clint Sever claims these are the most common tests run by labs, and they will therefore be of the most use to the public.

For each test, the device uses a different customized cartridge, which contains microfluidic channels and the necessary reagents. When a cartridge is inserted, Cue prompts the user to collect a sample with the included sample wand. The testosterone test requires saliva, the flu test needs a nasal swab, and the others require a drop of blood. It remains to be seen whether consumers will be willing to bleed themselves in their quests for optimum health. Khattak believes they will, and says that the use of a blood sample will give people faith in the test's validity. "If you want a real answer when you go to the doctor, that's where you get the answer from," he says.

Once the sample wand is inserted into the cartridge, Cue takes over. The reagents combine with the sample inside the cartridge, and a sensor looks for the target molecule (such as testosterone or vitamin D) and detects its quantity. Cue then transmits the information via Bluetooth to the user's smartphone (iPhone or Android). The smartphone app lets the user track results over time, and also offers suggestions for the user. If a man is trying to boost his testosterone, Sever says, Cue might recommend certain foods or exercises.

Despite the fact that one of the Cue cartridges detects the presence of the flu virus, the company's founders explain that it can't be considered a diagnostic device. At the moment, it's just an "investigational device" that consumers can experiment with, but the company is pursuing FDA approval. As for that flu test, Sever says the device isn't meant to replace a doctor's visit. "It just gives you more information so you can have an informed conversation with your doctor," he says. "It's like taking your temperature with a thermometer."

We've seen some remarkable examples lately of serious science packed into small consumer-electronics packages. Just a few weeks ago, we blogged about a hand-held spectrometer that people can use to examine the molecular content of their food. The engineering in these devices is undoubtedly impressive, but we're still waiting to see if these catch on as products. Cue might have a tough time because it requires users to keep buying single-use cartridges. It also seems a bit unlikely that users will be as dedicated to their Cues as the people are in the company's launch video, which shows, for example, a surfer on a beach checking his inflammation levels before catching a gnarly wave.


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