Tech Talk iconTech Talk

IBM's Brain-Inspired Computer Chip Comes from the Future

Brain-inspired computers have tickled the public imagination ever since Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” uttered: “My CPU is a neural net processor; a learning computer.” Today, IBM researchers backed by U.S. military funding unveiled a new computer chip that they say could revolutionize everything from smartphones to smart cars—and perhaps pave the way for neural networks to someday approach the computing capabilities of the human brain.

Read More

NASA's Abandoned ISEE-3 Spacecraft To Fly Past Moon

In a few days time, ISEE-3 will begin its long goodbye, as it zips some 12,000 kilometers above the surface of the moon on Sunday before continuing on back into deep space.

For the volunteers who have tried to bring the 35-year-old NASA spacecraft back home, it's likely to be a bittersweet moment. A "reboot" team led by Dennis Wingo, CEO of California-based Skycorp Incorporated, and Keith Cowing, editor of the websites NASAWatch and SpaceRef, worked for months to return the spacecraft to an orbit close to the Earth's, where it could resume its original mission observing the solar environment.

The team raised nearly $160,000 in a crowd-funding campaign, redeveloped the capability to communicate with the spacecraft, obtained permission from NASA to command the spacecraft, and successfully took control.

But attempts to fire the thrusters fizzled. Although there was some early hope that creative plumbing might fix the problem, in the end, the team determined that there wasn't enough nitrogen pressurant left to force hydrazine fuel through the spacecraft's thrusters. "It obviously leaked away, but the mechanism for how that happened is undetermined at this time," Wingo says.

The team is not yet done with ISEE-3, however. At least four of the spacecraft's instruments are returning good data, Wingo says. That includes a magnetometer that can explore the front where the Earth's magnetosphere meets the solar wind, and an experiment that can be used to measure the flux of protons coming from the sun. 

Radio dishes on the ground will be able to pick up ISEE-3's science signals for months to come. The last to be able to do so—the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico—will likely lose contact with the spacecraft in about a year, Wingo says.

Although ISEE-3's nitrogen leaked away, the spacecraft has shown incredible longevity otherwise. Its solar arrays draw more than 90 percent of the power they did in 1980—about 150 W—and the spacecraft's 1970's CMOS circuitry—which consists of 4000-series RCA state logic—is still largely functional. When it comes to the solar arrays, Wingo says, it's possible that some low-temperature self-annealing process might have helped repair radiation damage. 

The spacecraft will have to hold up even longer if we're to make contact once more. It will be another 15 years before ISEE-3 gets this close to Earth again.

Rachel Courtland can be found on Twitter at @rcourt.

Your Candy Wrappers are Listening

“I had to double check I wasn’t playing the wrong audio file.”

The first time Abe Davis coaxed intelligible speech from a silent video of a bag of crab chips (an impassioned recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) he could hardly believe it was possible. Davis is a Ph.D. candidate at MIT, and his group’s image processing algorithm can turn everyday objects into visual microphones—deciphering the tiny vibrations they undergo as captured on video. 

The research, which will be presented at the computer graphics conference SIGGRAPH 2014 next week, builds on work from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to capture movement on video much smaller than a single pixel. By seeing how border pixels on an object fluctuated in color, the group’s algorithm can measure and calculate the object's minuscule movements (and even magnify a wine glass’s oscillations when a tone is played or visually reveal a heartbeat under the skin).

“It was clear for us quickly that there’s a strong relation between sound and visual motion,” says Michael Rubinstein, a postdoc at Microsoft Research who worked on this and the earlier CSAIL research. “We had this crazy idea: can we actually use videos to recover sound?”

Read More

An NMR Chip The Size of a Seed

Engineers at Harvard University have made a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy chip so small you can hardly see it. It fits on a 2mm-by-2mm silicon chip and is the smallest NMR system built yet. The chip could lead to an ultra-compact, affordable NMR machine for spotting bacteria or cancer proteins in a doctors office or for quality control in drug and chemical production lines.

Read More

Is There Any Way to Avoid Standards Wars in the Emerging Internet of Things?

Smart cars, smart gear, smart homes, smart offices and smart cities are all being developed and prototyped today, in hopes they’ll benefit from the so-called “Internet of Things” (IoT). Equipping just about every object so that it can connect to the Internet is no different than bringing out single new technologies. Well, at least in one respect: Wherever there are rival standards—as purchasers of junked consumer electronics standards like Betamax and HD-DVD know—there are winners, and there are losers.

Jeffrey Kaplan, managing director of Think Strategies, Inc. in Wellesley, Mass., says he suspects IoT standards will have broad impacts for consumers, especially if differences in competing standards can’t be negotiated and settled behind the scenes.

“It requires a tremendous amount of standards debate, deliberation and decision-making to ensure that the various parties play nice together,” he says.

He points to three industry-wide groups that are each attempting to establish their own IoT standards—one of which is the IEEE, publisher of IEEE Spectrum. The other groups, small consortia of companies with IoT interests are: the Open Interconnect Consortium, which includes Intel, Atmel, Broadcom, Dell, Samsung, and Wind River; and the Thread Group, comprising Nest Labs, Samsung, Yale Security, Silicon Labs, Freescale Semiconductor, ARM, and Big Ass Fans. (No, that was not a typo. Samsung has decided to hedge its bets by joining both of the corporate groups.)

“If you want to know where the pot of gold is around all this, it has to do with the fact that the Internet of Things is fundamentally about capturing data from all these things and tracking the behavior of these things—and, of course, whoever is using those things,” says Think Strategies' Kaplan. The data from, say, a network-connected thermostat or network-connected car then streams back to third parties (the original manufacturer or a partner company) so the firm can “try to gain a competitive advantage in winning more business from the user of those things.”

Of course, today, nearly everyone carries one Internet-connected “thing” around in their pockets or purses. They often use it to make calls or send text messages, while another connected “thing” sits on their desk, often attached to a keyboard and mouse. Standards for how these devices talk to each other (Wi-fi and Bluetooth, to give two examples) already exist. (And, in the interest of full disclosure, IEEE is also a stakeholder in some of those standards as well.)

So, why can’t we use the standards that are already in place?

IoT companies already do, Kaplan says. Wi-Fi is the presumed default communication standard for devices with their larger networks. But he says security, privacy, efficiency and other concerns also make additional standards necessary.

Consider the Internet-connected car. “Anything that’s software enabled will, by definition, have to be updated on a regular basis,” says Kaplan. “The standards that will govern how that update process works [are now being debated]…The automobile industry is trying to figure this out as well as the software industry.”

Kaplan says he expects to see standards-making activity in commercial IoT applications outpace consumer-dominated spaces like smart homes and smart cars in the early going. (He suspects that workplace applications were a key consideration in Google’s recent purchase of smart thermostat maker Nest Labs. Like the high-priced business software that is keeping Microsoft afloat, the cost-per-unit Nest can charge for its devices will be higher in work spaces than in homes, he says.)

This year, for instance, AT&T, Cisco, GE, Intel, and IBM have partnered to develop what they’re calling the “Industrial Internet.” And the Industrial Internet Consortium, Kaplan says, should really be mentioned alongside the aforementioned usual suspects of IoT standards bodies.

“The Industrial Internet is an underpinning for the Internet of Things,” he says. “Like a lot of the technology world, the Internet of Things has two sides to the coin. One is the consumer Internet of Things. The other is the industrial.”

So the standards governing heightened security, reliability, performance, and throughput that the Industrial Internet partners hope to promote might more closely resemble the standards that we’ll actually see for IoT devices in the coming years than will the ones being pitched for consumer Internet standards, he says.

"It's a Pandora's Box that's been created here," he says. "The promise of the Internet of Things has brought with it a whole lot of challenges. And for good reasons, a lot of folks are coming together to say, If we don't figure out how to address these problems, people aren't going to buy into the promise."



USB Flash Drives Are More Dangerous Than You Think

You would have had to be living on the moon not to know by now that USB flash drives are a serious security risk: They spread computer viruses the way reused needles spread real ones. If you didn’t realize that before, news that the Stuxnet computer worm (which hobbled Iran’s uranium-enrichment program) was distributed through infected flash drives should have clued you in. Now specialists at Security Research Labs in Berlin say that many other types of USB peripherals can also spread malware. They are presenting their ideas next week in Las Vegas at the Black Hat security conference in a talk entitled, “BadUSB—On accessories that turn evil.

The researcher’s basic thesis is this:

1. Many peripheral devices incorporate special USB-controller chips that themselves can be reprogrammed.

2. There are no protections in place to prevent a malicious party from manipulating one of these USB-controller chips in this way.

3. Such a hack could enable the peripheral to inject malware into your computer, which could do nasty things, including manipulating the firmware in other peripheral devices that you later plug in.

4. Rinse and repeat.

The researchers claim that a USB peripheral could, for example, pretend to be a network card and surreptitiously redirect your Internet communications by changing your DNS settings. Or it could impersonate a keyboard and issue command-line instructions to do almost anything.

What’s not clear, though, is whether these are examples of things that could be done using just the memory available to a typical USB-controller chip. My guess is that these tasks would take more space than what's found in the EEPROMs normally attached to these chips. A keyboard, for instance, might have only an 8 kilobyte EEPROM connected to store such variables as the USB-device description and special key mappings. Malware is typically much bigger. The experimental hacks these researchers have carried out probably run a large chunk of code stored invisibly in the flash memory of a USB thumb drive. If that surmise is correct, it would suggest that USB peripherals with minimal data storage are perhaps not so threatening.

The researchers haven't uncovered an actual instance of this kind of infection in the wild, but they emphasize that there is really no way to protect against such attacks should they come to pass. Malware scanners won’t check the firmware on USB peripherals, so these programs wouldn’t be able to detect an infection, much less remove it. Even a fresh install of your computer’s operating system would be of little use, because it wouldn’t affect what's on peripheral devices. Indeed, it would seem to me that the USB-controller firmware on computers (the “host” side of the USB communications) might also be vulnerable to hacking and would be very difficult to scan or clean.

So what’s to be done? In the short term, avoiding USB promiscuity might be a good idea. That’s already de rigueur for thumb drives, which, I'm supposing at the moment, are where the real threat lies here. Over the longer term, though, the manufacturers of USB devices will have to engineer their products so the USB-device firmware simply cannot be modified or so that modification requires some concrete action from the user—a button push or temporary jumper placement. Such a strategy could indeed help prevent malware from spreading to embedded devices of all sorts, including routers and printers, which have also been of concern of late. I for one would welcome the nuisance of a small button push now and again in return for greater piece of mind.

Google Explains How It Forgets

Google can forget, but unlike the rest of us, the process is not automatic.

Yesterday Google told a European government data protection working party how it handles requests for search result link removals. The removals began in June after a May European court ruling (see our coverage) upholding a Spanish man's right to be forgotten.

The working group had earlier sent Google a questionnaire on the practicalities of the removals and met with Google and two other unnamed U.S. search engines. Google's reply revealed that it is handling the requests on a case-by-case basis, with decisions resting on recently-hired staff.  Companies that help individuals request link removals have begun receiving rejections, The New York Times reported.

Read More

No Need for Reading Glasses With Vision-Correcting Display

These days, people reach for their smartphone after stumbling out of bed in the morning, but many see just a blurry mess instead of an alarm, messages, or pictures. A new vision-correcting display would pre-distort a digital screen so their imperfect vision renders it crystal clear—without glasses.

Fu-Chung Huang started working on vision-correcting displays in 2011 as a graduate student at University of California, Berkeley (he's now at Microsoft Corp). “Photoshop can deblur a photo,” he says, “so why can’t I correct the visual blur on a display?”

Earlier attempts to make a vision-corrected view led to quality issues: an image-processing algorithm on a normal 2-D screen or two screens layered on top of each other led to low image contrast, and a light-field display projected multiple images from different perspectives with low resolution. Huang and his collaborators at UC Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology realized they’d have to fine-tune both a specialized display and an algorithm to make the system work.

Huang constructed a simple prototype: an ordinary iPod whose screen was covered with a clear film sandwiching a thin grid of pinholes. From any given point in space only some of the pixels are revealed through the pinholes, which lets the algorithm choose the selection of pixels making their way to different parts of the eye by controlling their position on the screen. This can compensate for a viewer's incorrect focus—for instance, by presenting pixels as if the screen was half the distance away for a nearsighted viewer, or varying their distance if the viewer's field of vision is irregular. Similar technology is used to show a 3-D effect on displays like the Nintendo 3DS, where each eye sees a slightly different view.

Future incarnations of the display might use tiny lenses or a more sophisticated barrier to make the image brighter and sharper, but for now the researchers chose to keep it simple with an array that could easily be added as a screen cover to existing devices.

“The overall cost is less than $10,” says Huang. “I can build the thing in a few minutes.” (And he posted instructions here.)

In order to test the algorithm’s compensation for different eyesight problems, the researchers turned a DSLR camera (with lens similar in shape to the human eye) on the display. Focusing the camera too far away simulated farsightedness, and the researchers could tell whether the display was working by examining the pictures. To test other, more complicated visual problems, the researchers ran simulations and found that their algorithm was able to make a clear picture even for irregular eye shapes that current glasses cannot correct.

Although the group didn't run a human study, Huang tested the algorithm out with his own nearsighted vision. “It requires precise calibration between the eye and the display,” says Huang, “and it took some time to find the sweet spot for my eye.” But with eye-tracking technology, like that on the new Amazon Fire Phone, the next version could compensate for the viewer’s movement and adjust the picture to stay in focus.

Gordon Wetzstein, one of the project's MIT collaborators, focuses his research on compression algorithms for 2-D and 3-D displays—which he believes are key to unlocking creative new uses for the technology.

“I think this is what people need to spend more effort on,” says Wetzstein. “Finding new applications like vision correction, new user interfaces, heads-up displays for augmented virtual reality—these kinds of things are very hot. Finding the right killer app is something nobody’s really solved yet.”

Explanatory video from MIT below.

Gaza Power Station Wrecked

The Gaza Strip's only power plant was hit by Israeli shelling and caught fire earlier this week, according to news reports. "The power plant is finished," its director, Mohammed al-Sharif told The Guardian. The plant and its engineers were the subject of a profile in the December 2009 issue of IEEE Spectrum.

Residents were only getting about four hours of power per day even when the plant was functioning. According to The New York Times, the plant was the main source of electricity for the territory, as eight of the 10 power lines coming from Israel had been damaged prior to the power plant's destruction.

An Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, told the Times the plant “was not a target.”

Read More

How to Catch a Memory Copycat

In 2008, allegedly, a technician left SanDisk with a particularly good gift for his new employer—proprietary details about memory chips made by SanDisk and its partner on the project, Toshiba. Last Monday Toshiba revealed that it was suing the alleged receiver of that gift, SK Hynix, for US $1.1 billion and demanding that the company remove any chips from the market that use the trade secrets.

The chips in question are NAND flash memory chips, the nonvolatile memory of smartphones, tablets, USB drives, you name it. In this case the lawsuit is clear-cut: An employee allegedly downloaded and passed on files, and if the companies can prove it, the case is closed. But many times stolen trade secrets or patent infringements have to be found the old fashioned way—by reverse engineering.

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