Tech Talk iconTech Talk


Bitcoin Needs (Gasp!) Formal Governance

If you have even a casual interest in Bitcoin, then by now you probably know that on Friday developer Mike Hearn publicly declared the Bitcoin project a failure. And if you’ve followed Bitcoin over the years, then you also know this isn’t the first time the mourning bells are tolling. According to the scorekeepers, the count is now up to 89. 

This one, however, is different from the rest. The person throwing dirt over the coffin last week was not an outsider, as has most often been the case. It was not some mainstream economist who just “doesn’t get it.” It was not a misinformed journalist fishing for clicks. It was Mike Hearn, a former Google developer, the guy who wrote the first java implementation of Bitcoin. He’s a regular presence at conferences and a tireless educator of Bitcoin novices. And his most passionate vituperations were aimed at the people he is now leaving behind. Bitcoin failed, he wrote, “because the community has failed.”

Regardless of what you think about Mike Hearn and his assessment of Bitcoin’s woes, his words must be taken seriously, if only because there are plenty of other people out there who take his words seriously—enough, in fact, to inspire a 15 percent fall in the market price of Bitcoin on the day he published his diatribe.

The bulk of Hearn’s condemnation comes down to this: Bitcoin has a technical problem. It doesn’t scale and it’s finally reaching a level of adoption where this will soon  cause major disruptions in the speed and reliability of Bitcoin transactions. Some, including Hearn, say the technology has actually already reached the breaking point. 

Solutions have been proposed. But the developers responsible for making the decisions about what gets incorporated into the Bitcoin Core source code, who were at first slow even to proceed with a discussion, are now mired in stalemate over which option is best.

Read More
DreamChaser spacecraft docked at the International Space Station.

NASA Picks Dream Chaser Shuttle for Space Station Resupply

A winged spacecraft that resembles a mini space shuttle will join the fleet of private rockets ferrying supplies to the International Space Station. NASA has announced that its new round of US $14 billion in commercial resupply contracts for the space station includes the Dream Chaser spacecraft made by the Sierra Nevada Corporation.

Read More

Human Life Is a Gas

Changes in production of certain gases in the human gut have been linked to gastrointestinal disorders including painful constipation, irritable bowl syndrome (IBS), and colon cancer. Yet how and why this happens is not well understood. Without resorting to stressful invasive means, measuring and tracking gas concentrations in our stomachs and small and large intestines has to date been impractical.

That’s about to change. Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, have designed and custom-manufactured indigestible capsules that can measure the concentration of different gases during digestion in the gut of animals and humans—a world’s first, they claim. The capsules meet the standards necessary for such testing, and after conducting a series of trials on pigs, the researchers have begun recruiting human volunteers on which to test the next version of the pill.

An electronic capsule is composed of: an indigestible cladding; a gas-permeable membrane covering a sensor for detecting hydrogen, methane or carbon dioxide; a microcontroller; a 433-megahertz wireless transmitter; and four silver oxide batteries. The latest version of the capsule measures just 2.6 by 1.1 centimeters, which is “about the size of a 000 fish-oil capsule,” lead researcher Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, a professor at RMIT’s Centre for Advanced Electronics and Sensors, told IEEE Spectrum.

“Nothing in the capsules is really expensive,” he added. “The batteries cost around $5 or $6 in total, as does the thermal-conductivity sensor, while the microcontroller is only 50 cents. We estimate the materials cost at $15, depending on component prices. This would come down with large scale production.”

The sensor data is transmitted straight from the gut to a custom-made coder-decoder unit that can be clipped onto a cellphone. The processed data is then sent to the phone for viewing via Bluetooth.

In one of the first animal trials, pigs—which have similar digestive systems to humans—were divided into two groups and fed the capsules along with high-fiber and low-fiber diets. The capsules sent data every five minutes and went into sleep mode between transmissions to conserve battery power. Minimum life of a battery was four days, more than long enough for a capsule to complete its job and be excreted by the pig.

“The data showed that a low-fiber diet produced four times more hydrogen in the small intestine than a high-fiber diet,” said Kalantar-zadeh. “This surprised us greatly, given that hydrogen is made through fermentation; we expected more fiber would produce more of the fermented gas.”

In addition, high-fiber diets produced more methane gas in the large intestine than the low-fiber diet, suggesting that painful gas retention could be avoided by reducing the intake of high-fiber foods. They found that the ratio of carbon dioxide and methane gases in the large intestine wasn’t affected by the amount of fiber the pigs consumed, suggesting that neither diet would help people suffering IBS problems associated with methane concentrations.

The implications of these findings, Kalantar-zadeh believes, could lead to “trashing misconceptions everyone has about certain kinds of food being good for certain conditions.”

The group’s research started in 2009, when the first capsule was produced. The newest capsule, Version 5, which will be used on human volunteers, will employ a temperature sensor and two gas sensors. One gas sensor will detect oxygen and hydrogen; the other is a hydrogen sensor that is not sensitive to oxygen but can also detect methane and carbon dioxide.

In conveying the importance of the research, Kalantar-zadeh explains that microorganisms form a significant part of our gut and work with us in symbiotic fashion. When they digest food and when they interact with each other, they produce gases. If they are healthy, they produce gases with normal profiles. If they are under stress or if there is any disorder, then the gas profiles change.

“This provides us with very good health biomarkers that no one has looked at before because they were hidden from sight inside our bodies. But now we have an easy means to measure gas concentrations in the gut.” Consequently, he says, this method can be used to build libraries of healthy gas profiles, against which the gas profiles of individuals can be compared.

The researchers are working on modifications aimed at further increasing the value of the data measured by the capsules. For instance, more sensors need to be included in a capsule to provide multi-gas measurements. They’re also seeking a way to precisely track the location of a capsule as it travels through the gut.

It’s only a matter of time, Kalantar-zadeh believes, before the technology will help medical researchers “design personalized diets and drugs that can target problem areas in the gut and help millions of people around the world affected by digestive disorders and diseases.”


Power Harvesting Sensor Patch Uses Your Body As a Battery

In theory, wearable electronics are great. In practice, they’re great—until you have to charge them, at which point they become annoying. We're counting on wireless power to come along and save us all, but in the meantime, there are other creative ways to keep lower power devices running. At CES last week, we saw a prototype of a wireless sensor patch that can monitor your hydration levels and send data to your phone, while getting all the power it needs from your own body heat.

Read More

Lessons from CES: How VR Can Avoid the Fate of 3D TV

“Your quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all.” So says Galadrial to the fellowship sent to destroy the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. But that advice might as well be directed to the burgeoning virtual reality industry. Early optimism that the second coming of VR, after a false start in the 1990s, will blossom into a new mainstream medium could collapse into despair, with the technology joining 3D television as another misfire.

Read More

Why Wireless Power Is the Most Exciting Thing at CES 2016

The reason that people like me keep coming back to CES isn't to see slightly bigger televisions, incrementally upgraded laptops, or ridiculous niche gadgets that only a handful of bleeding-edge techies in the known universe might ever actually use. Fundamentally, CES is about the tantalizing promise of the next big thing.

The major electronics companies want you to believe that it's 4K (now that they've essentially given up on 3D) but that's just because they want to sell you a new TV. Lots of smaller companies are sure that it's wearables, but I find it hard to get super-excited about those. Car companies are pushing autonomy, but that's more like the next big thing after the next big thing.

What I'm looking for at CES are technologies that will change how I experience or interact with the world in a unique way. Flawless consumer virtual reality, for example. Or interactive eye tracking. Or anything else that generates that magical "wow, I live in the future" feeling. This year, it's wireless power, and let me tell you why.

Read More

CES is Dead. Long Live CES

Recently, every new year occasions a certain amount of grumbling about CES in some techie circles. Pundits fear CES has become over-managed, with carefully choreographed exercises in PR replacing real tech news. It’s certainly true that the show has undergone some gentrification, as mainstream interest in what was once a deeply geeky event has dramatically increased. Celebrities are to be seen—and not all of them show up at the event to pick up an easy paycheck yucking it up at a corporate event.

There’s also the fact that it’s been a while since a new product category made a really big splash. Tablets are probably the most recent “Next Big Thing.”

But rather than marking some kind of terminal decline, this is actually a normal part of the innovation cycle. Take a look at CES’s official list of breakout stars, which includes the VCR, the CD player, the Xbox, and the IP TV. There are substantial gaps in time between many of the entries. But that’s not to say that the wheels of innovation grind to a halt in the so-called down years.

Instead, two important things happen. One is that for the big product categories, a period of refinement and—critically—cost reduction is what turns gee-whiz first-generation products into things that actually influence daily life. (Recall that the first CD player cost about US $1000.) Only a sharp drop in price allowed the digital revolution to really take off.

And the absence of a big headliner category that draws all of the industry’s focus—like when e-readers first made a splash and it seemed for a while that every company with a designer capable of combining a mobile processor and screen was obsessed with nothing elseleaves room for diversity of innovation.

This was certainly in evidence last night at CES Unveiled, one of the big demo events surrounding the show (another is Pepcom’s Digital Experience, which we’ll be live tweeting tonight). Companies turned up with lots of ideas for radically different products: an alarm clock that wakes you up with blasts of scent; a wearable pendant that can translate languages back-and-forth on the fly; a phased-array acoustic loudspeaker; a re-invented piano; and many other weird and wonderful ideas. Now, sure, not all of these are going to be winners. But the level of imagination and invention, even if not on the scale of some juggernaut breakout, means that CES is far from going the way of Comdex.


CES: The Engineer’s Scorecard

Once upon a time, world-changing technologies flowed from the wants and needs of large institutions. The government or a large company would develop something (or have someone invent it for them)—say, a computer small enough to fly a spacecraft, or a way to amplify long-distance conversations in telephone exchanges—and then eventually the technology would filter down to the consumer level, as, say personal computers or portable radios. Consumer electronics was seen as a field where technologies were applied, not invented.

Today—as seen on the boisterous show floor of the International CES, taking place this week in Las Vegas—this relationship has been inverted. More and more, technology is driven by the wants and needs of individuals. The list of the world’s biggest tech companies is dominated by companies that cater to consumers as a core part of their business: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Facebook, Amazon, and more.

CES also holds a particular interest for me and my colleagues as the organizers of the annual IEEE International Conference on Consumer Electronics (ICCE). It’s no coincidence the ICCE is co-located with CES and starts as CES ends. The CES showfloor is kind of like a scorecard for us, as we look to see how technologies that first announced themselves in papers and technical sessions in ICCE events in past years are now faring in this fractious bazaar.

Some technologies seem to be emerging right on schedule: We expect Virtual Reality to really start hitting its stride this year, with prototype and first-generation devices for both capturing and displaying 3-D scenes being replaced by more polished products. Home health and wearable products too are expected to expand their presence, and smart vehicle technologies of various kinds are also beginning to proliferate.

Some technologies seem to be lagging: Beyond the success of the Roomba line of floor cleaning robots (the first robot that consumers actually bought in numbers to perform a domestic chore, rather than just for its novelty value), home robotics seems perpetually caught just a little bit short.

Perhaps this year’s show will bring a surprise breakout hit, or it may just take some more time. We can trace the current frenzy around the Internet of Things back to technologies presented at ICCE events that stretch back to the 1990s, when always-on, always-connected consumer devices first started appearing.

Indeed, the theme for the 2016 IEEE ICCE is “The Internet of Me,” with a focus on the next generation of consumer connectivity.  All consumer devices are becoming digital extensions of ourselves, allowing us to interact with the world around us as well as each other in new and amazing ways.

The core areas at this year’s ICCE are: Services in the Internet of Me; Devices in the Internet of Me; Infrastructure and Enabling Technologies of the Internet of Me; Security and Privacy in the Internet of Me; RF and Wireless & Network Technologies; Entertainment, Games and Services; AV Systems, Image/Video Processing; Automotive Entertainment and Electronics; Sensors, MEMs and Enabling Technologies; Energy Management as well as Health and Wellness. 

The conference schedule also includes a mini-Technology Time Machine session on Saturday that will focus on technologies likely to shape the future of consumer electronics such as Big Data, the Internet of Things, Rebooting Computing, and Digital Senses. (A panel of speakers will deliver a top-line breakdown of some of the hottest areas at a Friday CES session.) You’ll be able to judge the quality of our predictions on the floor of future CES shows. 

Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out our live team coverage of CES starting Monday, January 4 at 7 pm ET.

About the Author

Tom Coughlin is an IEEE Senior Member and Chair of the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society (ICCE) Future Directions Committee.


Processor With Photonic Interconnects Built

Chip designers would love to use light beams rather than copper wires to move data between microprocessors. Such optical interconnects would overcome the bandwidth bottleneck inherent in the wires and take full advantage of the leaps in processor speed, but marrying two very different technologies—electronics and photonics—has been a high hurdle to overcome.

Now a group of researchers has proposed a way to build transistors and optics on the same chip, doing so for the first time without a major overhaul of the chip-making process. And they used it to build an IC containing 70 million transistors and 850 photonic components, which together provide all the logic, memory, and interconnection functions a processor needs.

Read More

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Load More