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This prototype chip learns a style of music, then composes its own tunes.

A Neuromorphic Chip That Makes Music

A chip made by researchers at IMEC in Belgium uses brain-inspired circuits to compose melodies. The prototype neuromorphic chip learns the rules of musical composition by detecting patterns in the songs it’s exposed to. It then creates its own song in the same style. It’s an early demo from a  project to develop low-power, general purpose learning accelerators that could help tailor medical sensors to their wearers and enable personal electronics to learn their users’ patterns of behavior.

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Computer immersed in liquid cooling system with blue light emanating from tank

Fujitsu Liquid Immersion Not All Hot Air When It Comes to Cooling Data Centers

Given the prodigious heat generated by the trillions of transistors switching on and off 24 hours a day in data centers, air conditioning has become a major operating expense. Consequently, engineers have come up with several imaginative ways to ameliorate such costs, which can amount to a third or more of data center operations. 

One favored method is to set up hot and cold aisles of moving air through a center to achieve maximum cooling efficiency. Meanwhile, Facebook has chosen to set up a data center in Lulea, northern Sweden on the fringe of the Arctic Circle to take advantage of the natural cold conditions there; and Microsoft engineers have seriously proposed putting server farms under water.

Fujitsu, on the other hand, is preparing to launch a less exotic solution: a liquid immersion cooling system it says will usher in a “next generation of ultra-dense data centers.” 

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A white box with an open side displaying many green circuit boards stacked edge on.

A Circuit That Sees Radiation Strikes Could Keep Errors at Bay

For a short time, it looked like the worlds electronics would be safe (well, safer) from radiation. With the switch from planar transistors to FinFETs, ICs suddenly became naturally resistant (literally) to having their bits flipped by a neutron splashing into them and blasting lose a small cloud of charge. But two things are now making them vulnerable again: One is the move to operating at voltages so low, that it’s easier for a pulse of radiation-induced charge to flip a transistor on or off. The other is how the unprecedented density of those transistors is giving radiation more targets than ever.

Engineers at the University of Minnesota are nearing a solution that could help bring down the rate of so-called logic soft errors—signals temporarily flipped by a radiation strike. It’s a circuit called a back-sampling chain that has, for the first time, allowed them to reconstruct the strike pulse—called a single event transient—resulting from the radiation strike. In research to be presented in June at the IEEE VLSI Symposia in Kyoto, Kim’s team shows that the back-sampling chain (BSC) circuit—a kind of cross-connected chain of inverters—can detect orders of magnitude higher number of strikes compared to previous approaches.

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New fintech regulations give cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin an aura of respectability--and the market is responding

Japan Takes Lead in Legitimizing Digital Currencies

The financial industry is usually no cheerleader of new regulations imposed on it by government authorities. But when the Japanese government amended its Payment Service Act by promulgating the Virtual Currency Act this April, fintech (financial technology) service companies and institutional investors generally welcomed the move. 

“Normally, regulation is not a good thing,” says Mike Kayamori, CEO and co-founder of Quoine (pronounced “coin”), a Singapore-based B2B fintech startup that also has operations in Japan and Vietnam. “But for cryptocurrencies regulation is a blessing.” 

Until now, these virtual currencies have been operating in a gray market, a situation that has made long established companies in the financial industry hesitant to take them up. 

“We need to work within [financial] regulations,” says Kayamori. Quoine, which is funded with $20-million, provides a cryptocurrency exchange platform for other companies to trade off of or to use as a white label technology for their own customers. “We need to work in the financial eco-system. No financial services or institutions will work or partner with a company that’s in a gray zone.”

The Japanese bill currently recognizes only certain well-established cryptocurrencies, namely Bitcoin and Ethereum, as legal means of payment, and as products that can be bought and sold without Japan’s 8 percent consumption tax coming into play. 

Nevertheless, the new law falls short of declaring these volatile currencies to be legal tender. And though the amendment now sanctions the use of cryptocurrency exchanges, it also imposes regulations on the operators. These injunctions include mandatory registration with the government, minimum capital of 10 million yen ($90,000), a secure IT system to prevent theft, and mandatory annual auditing by a certified accountant. 

Despite the ultra-cautious reputation Japan’s conservative financial authorities and institutions have earned over the years, this move to legitimize cryptocurrencies through government registration and regulation makes Japan the first nation to take such bold steps, notes Kayamori. While registration is also being introduced in the United States, it is being conducted on a state-by-state basis, which makes obtaining all the proper paperwork a byzantine process. 

“It’s very difficult in the U.S., where there are a lot of government bodies you need to get approval from,” he adds. “Whereas in Japan, you just need the FSA (Financial Services Agency) approval. And that’s it.”

What changed the Japanese governent’s attitude toward virtual currency? The Mt. Gox calamity in 2014. The Bitcoin exchange company based in Japan folded after more than 800,000 Bitcoins went missing. The financial disaster led to the arrest of the company’s CEO Mark Karples on charges of embezzlement, and the news damaged the reputation of cryptocurrencies for a time. Notably, this occurred at a time when regulations were nonexistent in Japan. “So Japan, almost out of necessity, had to regulate the cryptocurrency market,” says Kayamori. 

To date, at least 16 companies including Quoine have registered with the FSA to set up cryptocurrency exchanges. They have a six-month grace period for their registrations to be accepted, or be forced to withdraw their services should registration be denied, Kayamori explained. 

Quoine’s current and only product is a B2B trading platform for the exchange of fiat and crypto currencies. According to Kayamori, it is the most advanced platform in the industry, and can conduct one million transactions a second, and boasts a 99.96 percent uptime.

In June, the two-and-a-half-year-old start-up will launch Qryptos, an exchange for trading between ten cryptocurrencies minus fiat currency involvement. However, Qryptos will not be available in Japan, given that the government is presently recognizing only Bitcoin and Ethereum as sound products.

In the January to March quarter, Quoine conducted transactions swapping ten cryptocurrencies for mostly Japanese yen and U.S. dollar fiat currencies to the value of $5.6 billion. That’s a tiny amount when compared to the financial industry’s overall volume of transactions. “But from a startup perspective, we are already operationally profitable, and growth is enormous,” says Kayamori.

On 11 May, Coindesk, an online news site focusing on digital currencies, tracked the price of Bitcoin passing the $1,800 mark for the first time, and the price of other cryptocurrencies also rose sharply. In January, the value of Bitcoin was less than $1,000. Financial analyst Brian Kelly told CNBC in the US that he believed the rally was a result of Japan legalizing Bitcoin, which encouraged institutional investors to buy the virtual currency.

But Kayamori also injected a cautionary note when talking about such wild fluctuations. “People can say this an irrational market, but markets tend to be irrational. As I’ve said, it is difficult to know if this is a bubble or not.”

Simulations suggest old ICs should consume less power than they did in their youth

The Benefits of Old Age (for Transistors)

“What a drag it is getting old.”—Mick Jagger

“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil”—Alfred Lord Tennyson

In case you didn’t know, the transistors in your computer’s processor, your smartphone’s memory, and your car’s autobrake system get old. The systems are designed so that you’ll probably never notice, but it’s true. Just like we do, they accumulate defects, slow down, and even fail altogether. [For the why’s and hows see “Transistor Aging,” IEEE Spectrum, May 2011.]

But aging isn’t all bad—at least for us meat-brains. “People get older, but they also get wiser,” says Bashir Al-Hashimi, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southampton, in England. “As you age there are a lot of bad things, but there are also some good things.” He decided to see if the same was true of transistors, and found evidence that one aspect of their power consumption improves with age.

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3D printed metamaterial door lock mechanism

Mechanical Metamaterials and Other 3D Printing Tech from CHI 2017

The ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems is taking place in Denver this week, and just like last year, it’s host to some amazing, incredible, and utterly bizarre technology demos. This year’s theme is “Explore, Innovate, Inspire,” which is just exactly the sort of theme you want when you really have no idea what the theme should be. We’ve gone through hundreds of 30-second video clips to find the most interesting, craziest stuff, and today, we're bringing you everything brand new and amazing in 3D printing, along with the project abstracts for all the details. Don’t forget to check out our earlier posts on Interesting Interfaces and Virtual Reality.

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Head-mounted display that lets everyone into your virtual world

FaceDisplay and Other Bizarre Virtual Reality Projects from CHI 2017

The ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems is taking place in Denver this week, and just like last year, it’s host to some amazing, incredible, and utterly bizarre technology demos. This year’s theme is “Explore, Innovate, Inspire,” which offers enough room to encourage the weirdness that CHI is so well known for. We’ve gone through hundreds of 30-second video clips to find the most interesting and crazy stuff. Today, we're bringing you some unreal projects in virtual reality, along with the project abstracts for all of those extra little details. Don’t forget to check out yesterday’s post on Interesting Interfaces; tomorrow we’ll have some amazing 3D-printing-related stuff.

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All the weirdest computer interfaces from CHI 2017

Cheek Haptics and Other Weird Computer Interfaces from CHI 2017

The ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems is taking place in Denver this week, and just like last year, it’s host to some amazing, incredible, and utterly bizarre technology demos. This year’s theme is “Explore, Innovate, Inspire,” which, as far as we can tell, has no specific meaning and therefore does not constrain the weirdness that CHI is so well known for. We’ve gone through hundreds of 30-second video clips to find the most interesting and craziest stuff, and we can promise you won't be disappointed. Today, we're bringing you some interesting ways of interfacing with technology. In addition to videos showing off these breakthroughs, the researchers behind them describe their brainchildren. We’ll have even more videos on virtual and augmented reality and 3D printing later this week.

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satellite in space

Scientists Figure Out Possible New Threat to Spacecraft

Given how hard it is to diagnose failures from thousands of kilometers away, perhaps it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that more than half of satellite electrical failures remain unexplained. According to scientists and engineers at Stanford University and Boston University one culprit could be dust-size particles streaking through space at tens of kilometers per second. These micrometeoroids don’t pack enough punch to get through a spacecraft’s hull. But according to new simulations reported this week in the journal Physics of Plasmas, when these micrometeoroids hit, they vaporize into a plasma that generates a potentially crippling pulse of radio-frequency radiation.

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