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Intel Jumpstarts its Move Into Wearables With Acquisition of Basis Science

Intel may be inside a lot of computers these days, but it’s not on a lot of wrists. And that’s where the action has been in technology this year, as consumers embrace wristbands—including no-tech Rainbow Loom bracelets, simple-tech fitness trackers, and sensor-laden health trackers.

At the International Consumer Electronics Show in January, Intel General Manager of Perceptual Computing Mooley Eden made no secret about Intel’s ambitions to get into the wearables game.

The devices of the future, Eden said at CES, you will “carry on you, not with you.”

Eventually, he predicted, “we’ll see implantable devices, we’ll get constant information about our health that will interface directly with our brain.”

Eden expects he’ll live to see implantable technology in use. But before Intel gets inside your brain, it needs to get on your wrist. But it’s been having some trouble achieving that goal. As a huge variety of wristbands and watches come on the market, Intel’s attempts to fill them with chips have been lagging behind competitors like STMicroelectronics and Qualcomm.

Intel is spending a reported $100 million-plus to catch up by acquiring health-tracker company Basis Science Inc., maker of a sensor-laden watch. The Basis watch is not cheap, at $200. And it’s not the market leader, trailing far behind Fitbit and Jawbone, according to research firm Canalyst. But it does far more than the typical $100 fitness tracker, adding heart rate, skin temperature, and perspiration sensors to the standard accelerometers. With all these extra sensors, it goes beyond counting steps and hours of sleep to automatically detecting the difference between walking, running, and biking, charting sleep cycles, and detecting moments of stress.

Intel says it does not plan to market wearables itself (though Basis will continue to do so for the foreseeable future), but rather plans “to create wearable reference devices, SoCs [Systems on Chips] and other technology platforms ready to be used by customers in development of wearable products.”  Basis is clearly the kind of sensor-laden gizmo any chipmaker wishes would become standard.

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Happy Lévy Day

Every child asks why there's a mother's day and a father's day but no children's day and gets the same answer: "Every day is a children's day." (Actually, there's a Universal Children's Day on 20 November, but parents keep that a secret.)

An eerie parallel suggests itself: every day is surely some sort of constant day, but only one gets any respect. That would be Pi day, which was marked with great fanfare nearly two weeks ago: 3.1415..., don't you know.

So today, the 27th day of the 3rd month, we at IEEE Spectrum raise a toast to Pi Day's forgotten cousin, Lévy Day, named for the Lévy constant, 3.27582291872....

It was found in 1936 by the French mathematician Paul Lévy, some time after the necessity of its existence had been demonstrated by the Soviet mathematician Aleksandr Khinchin. It is defined as e (a constant itself) raised to the power (π squared divided by (12 natural log 2)). That looks awful as a sentence, so let me draw you a picture instead. 

Yes, it's hard to grasp, and that's one big reason why it hasn't got as much media coverage as pi.

Other reasons: on Pi Day you get to eat pie, pi is easy to pronounce, and it's uncannily useful in physics, engineering, and mathematics itself. Lévy's constant is of interest mainly to those interested in numbers; it helps to describe the behavior of the continued fraction expansion of most real numbers. 

Also, people love the Greek letter π. And that suggests a way to build up Levy Day: Rename it for γ, the Greek letter that represents the constant. It's all part of a classicizing nomenclature that was popularized in the 18th century by the great Swiss mathematician Leonard Euler. True, the letter is already used to represent a host of constants in engineering, physics, math, and even finance. Perhaps the weightiest of them all includes the Swiss giant's name: the Euler-Mascheroni constant.

But so what? How many of those other gamma constants spell out a calendar date?

So, Happy Gamma Day!

U.S. Suspicions of China's Huawei Based Partly on NSA's Own Spy Tricks

Fears of Chinese espionage based on "back doors" built into computer hardware have prompted the U.S. government to block China's technology giant Huawei from doing business on U.S. shores. Such suspicions may come in large part from the knowledge that U.S. spies have already learned how to install similar "back doors" in computer hardware and software.

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Sulon Cortex Headset Seeks to Meld Real and Virtual Worlds

Last week at the 2014 Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco, three promising new virtual reality headsets were introduced. One of them, from a Canadian startup called Sulon Technologies, caught our eye because they decided to tackle one of the most challenging issues that VR has to conquer: when you're wandering around a virtual environment, how do you keep from running into real walls?

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New Computer Vision System: "Nope. She's Faking It"

A new computerized system is better than humans at telling a genuine expression of pain from a fake one.

Researchers who developed the system say it could be used to detect when someone is feigning illness or pain to escape work. It could also spot attempts to minimize or mask pain, which could be useful during, say, interrogations or health assessments.

According to a report in Wired, the new system is based on something called the Facial Action Coding System, developed by psychologist Paul Eckman. The system is used by animators to give their computerized characters realistic human expressions. The idea is that any facial expression can be mapped to a specific group of muscles in the face.

When people attempt to fake pain, they use the exact same facial muscles that are contracted during real pain. What distinguishes a deliberate expression from a spontaneous one is the dynamics: things like when, how much, and how quickly the muscles move. Humans, it turns out, aren’t great at picking up on this subtle difference in the dynamics of facial motion.

To test this, researchers at the University of California at San Diego and the University of Toronto first recorded videos of volunteers’ facial expressions as they experienced real pain by dipping their arm in icy water and also as they faked pain while putting their arm in warm water. Then the researchers showed the videos to 170 people and asked them tell real pain expressions from fake ones. The observers could only guess correctly about half the time. With training, their accuracy went up to only 55 percent.

The researchers’ computer vision and machine learning system, on the other hand, was much better at spotting the difference in the dynamics of muscle movement. It could distinguish between real and fake expressions with 85 percent accuracy.

The study, which was published today in the journal Current Biology, shows that the single most predictive feature of fake expressions is the mouth, and how and when it opens. The researchers found that when people fake pain, their mouth-opening action during grimaces is too regular. Both the interval between mouth opening and the time for which they open their mouth is too consistent.

In a press release, Marian Bartlett, research professor at UC San Diego's Institute for Neural Computation and an author of the study, said: "Our computer-vision system can be applied to detect states in which the human face may provide important clues as to health, physiology, emotion, or thought, such as drivers' expressions of sleepiness, students' expressions of attention and comprehension of lectures, or responses to treatment of affective disorders."

A Transistor that Stands Up to Blistering Nuclear Reactor Temperatures

Wonderful as silicon-based transistors are, they break down at temperatures above 350 °C. For higher-temperature environments, such as those found in jet engines and deep oil wells, researchers have had to turn to other options such as silicon carbide circuits, which can survive up to 550 °C.

Now, researchers at the University of Utah have made tiny plasma-based transistors that work at the blistering temperatures found inside nuclear reactors. While plasma transistors were first reported five years ago, the new devices are 500 times smaller than those early versions.

The new micro-plasma transistors work at temperatures of up to 790 °C. They could be used to make electronics for controlling robots that conduct tasks inside a nuclear reactor, says Massood Tabib-Azar, the professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah who developed the  devices. Such extreme-temperature logic circuits could also control nuclear reactors in case of emergencies or nuclear attacks. Tabib-Azar and his postdoctoral researcher, Pradeep Pai, reported the plasma transistors online today in the journal IEEE Electron Device Letters.

In a conventional three-terminal field-effect transistor, the voltage applied at the gate terminal controls the current flowing through a semiconductor channel. A voltage that is above a certain threshold turns the device on.

The channel in a plasma transistor consists of a partially ionized gas, or plasma, instead of a semiconductor. An electron emitter, typically silicon, injects electrons into the plasma when a voltage is applied to it. Plasmas are generated at very high temperatures, making them suitable for an extreme-environment transistor. Today’s plasma transistors, which are used in light sources and medical instruments, are about 500 micrometers long and operate at more than 300 volts, requiring special high-voltage sources.

The new devices are between 1 and 6 microns in length and operate at one-sixth the voltage. Tabib-Azar and Pai made the transistors by first depositing layers of a metal alloy to form the gate on a 10-centimeter glass wafer. They deposited a thin layer of silicon on top of the gate. Then they etched away portions of the silicon film using a chemically reactive gas, creating cavities and empty spaces that they could fill with the plasma to form the transistor's channel. They used helium as the plasma source.

The researchers are working on connecting the devices to make logic circuits that they plan to test in the experimental nuclear reactor at the University of Utah.

In addition to working in nuclear reactors, the new extreme-temperature transistors could be used to generate X-rays. Instead of using bulky lenses and X-ray shaping devices, engineers could use these tiny devices to pattern microscale devices in silicon. Or this type of transistor could be incorporated in a smartphone, creating an X-ray imaging source to collect images of wounded soldiers in the battlefield, says Tabib-Azar.

Photo: Dan Hixson/University of Utah

Academic Inventions Funded by Industry Benefit Innovation

Industry money in university labs can raise eyebrows among researchers who worry that corporate interests might hoard academic inventions through exclusive licensing deals and stifle broader innovation. But a new study based on two decades of evidence from the University of California system suggests such fears surrounding industry-funded university research may be overblown.

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Laser Makes More Accurate Radar System

Using a laser to generate radio-frequency radar pulses, a group of researchers has demonstrated a radar system that they say can be smaller, more efficient, and more accurate than anything available today.

The work could make it easier for radar systems to use software-defined radio, which allows users to rapidly change the signal they generate using software rather than analog hardware components such as mixers, amplifiers, and the like. Dispensing with these electronic components would make radars smaller, lighter, and more energy efficient, making them attractive for use aboard airplanes and in remote locations. They could even be switched on the fly from acting as radars to working as communications devices, says Paolo Ghelfi, an optical communications researcher at the National Inter-University Consortium for Telecommunications in Pisa, Italy. Ghelfi, head of research Antonella Bogoni, and their colleagues describe their photonics-based, fully-digital radar system, PHODIR, in this week’s issue of Nature.

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IBM Watson Takes on the Genetics of Brain Cancer

Twenty patients with an aggressive form of brain cancer will have a new doctor on their medical team: the learned geneticist known as IBM Watson. In a collaboration announced today between IBM and the New York Genome Center, IBM's Jeopardy-beating AI will analyze the genomes of those 20 patients in hopes of providing insights for their oncologists. 

IBM has been promoting its AI as a killer app for health care, thanks to Watson's natural language processing skills and machine learning abilities. Over the past two years Watson has been engaged in a separate project at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, in which doctors are training the AI to understand the language of medicine. In that project, Watson is being taught to read patients' records and search the medical literature for relevant suggestions on treatment. 

This new project will show that Watson can provide deeper analysis for such point-of-care applications, said IBM Research's Raminderpal Singh after a press conference in New York today. For these 20 cancer patients, Watson won't just scan the medical literature for information. The AI will also scan the genetic data from the patients' own healthy cells and cancer cells, and will then search for information that's relevant to the genetic mutations in the tumor. "As genome sequencing becomes more commonplace—and it will—we'll need a way to go from mutation information to clinically actionable information," said Singh.   

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The Earth Was Lucky to Dodge a Massive Solar Magnetic Storm in 2012

When the largest magnetic storm ever recorded struck Earth in 1859, telegraph systems failed across North America and Europe and gave electric shocks to some telegraph operators. Researchers recently analyzed a similarly huge magnetic storm that missed Earth by just nine days in 2012, which could have caused trillions of dollars worth of damages to satellites and power grids.

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