Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Taiwan Engineers Around Export Restrictions and Winds Up with a Better Satellite

Since it launched its first satellite in 1999, Taiwan has been operating at a disadvantage. It’s had to maneuver through a thicket of export restrictions from European countries, such as France, Germany, and the United States to acquire a key component, without which its satellites would be lost. That component, a space-based GPS receiver helps fix the flying direction for a satellite and accurately calculate which way a spacecraft’s antenna should point. 

According to Chen-Tsung Lin, director of Flight Control Division of the National Space Organization (NSPO), dealing with those country’s export restrictions regarding space systems could take up to six months, and the lengthy process has seriously hampered Taiwan’s satellite projects.

Three years of hard work by Lin’s team resulted in the creation of Taiwan’s first home grown space-based GPS receiver. What’s more, the receiver is actually better than what Taiwan had been able to import in several ways.

Read More

Tesla's $5 Billion Battery Factory: Spending Big to Save Big

Tesla Motors plans to build a huge U.S. battery factory capable of supplying 500 000 electric cars annually by 2020. The $5-billion "Gigafactory" is expected to produce more lithium ion batteries in 2020 than all the lithium-ion batteries produced worldwide in 2013—a huge step on the road to driving down the cost of battery packs and mass-market electric cars.

Read More

The Future of Bitcoin Exchanges: Comments From a Mt. Gox Competitor

[UPDATE: According to news reports, Mt. Gox has filed for a form of bankruptcy in Japan.]

Mt. Gox, the Japan-based exchange which until recently handled the majority of trades between Bitcoin and fiat currencies, went offline this Tuesday, hours after the media got its hands on a document (supposedly leaked from within Mt. Gox) that described the company as insolvent and preparing for bankruptcy. Panic quickly spread among traders many of whom are still waiting for reimbursement from the exchange.

While some questioned the document's authenticity, there's little doubt now about its provenance. Shortly after shutting down his website, Mark Karpeles, the CEO of Mt. Gox, agreed to an IRC chat with an "industry specialist," named Jon Fisher. Fisher asked him point blank, "Is that Crisis Strategy Draft even legit?" To which Karpeles (writing under his well-known pseudonym, "MagicalTux") replied, "More or less. As the name suggests it's a draft, and it's a bunch of proposals to deal with the issue at hand, not things that are planned and/or done [sic]."

With Mt. Gox teetering on the brink of collapse, one of the biggest questions Bitcoiners will have to ask themselves is: How did we arrive at a situation where a currency, which was explicitly designed to be decentralized and transparent, is so intimately tied to the fate of an opaque, centralized institution such as Mt. Gox? And what, if anything, can be done to put trust back into the system?

I threw this question out to Michael Gronager, the chief operating officer at Kraken, an up-and-coming Bitcoin exchange.

Gronager shared some damning insights about the state of affairs at Mt. Gox. While stressing that he has no internal knowledge of their finances, and that his comments do not reflect an official statement from Kraken, he wrote in an email:

I rather believe that they ran the exchange in two to three years as a complete fractional reserve business. According to the leaked documents, Gox are also short in USD. They probably started buying up bitcoin on their exchange to ensure the bitcoin prices stayed higher there. That would ensure more sellers than buyers of bitcoin on their exchange. They might even have purposely delayed their USD withdrawals to further secure the trend of a high bitcoin price.... Don't subscribe to malice what can be explained by stupidity. But the levels of stupidity involved here are just overwhelming.

When these things happened in the past (although Mt. Gox's transgressions are the biggest yet, they were by no means the first), they unfolded before a select audience of early adopters. That audience has now grown to include law makers, regulators, and potential investors. 

And already, they are responding. The Manhattan U.S. attorney has served subpoenas to Mt. Gox and other competing exchanges. Joe Manchin, a U.S. senator for West Virginia also made news today when he sent a letter to regulators requesting a complete ban on Bitcoin. 

This situation puts people like Gonager in an interesting position. The downfall of Mt. Gox opens the market for a new wave of Bitcoin exchanges—for Kraken, and for its competitors, BitStamp and BTC China. But Mt. Gox's unnerving death spasms have managed to erode the trust necessary to operate a functioning exchange. Regardless of who fills the hole that Mt. Gox has left, they will once again be responsible for securing client funds. 

One alternative would be a decentralized exchange, where buyers and sellers can trade with each other directly by negotiating over a peer-to-peer network, thus eliminating the trusted third-party from the equation. This idea gains traction whenever Bitcoiners find themselves betrayed by an exchange. So far, however, no one has found a way to do it. There is still some hope that Ripple (a very different digital currency system detailed here) or MasterCoin (which enhances the functionality of Bitcoin by building layers on top it), will introduce a functioning P2P currency exchange.

But, according to Gronager, any time you have fiat money trading hands, trust will be part of the equation.

He writes:

If you want to exchange fiat for crypto you need to impose trust—you need to trust either an escrow to store the cash safely or the receiver to hand them to you as part of the deal. It is intrinsic to the nature of normal money. Hence, building a decentralized exchange will no matter how you twist it involve trusting someone, which to a large extent voids the whole purpose of a decentralized exchange.... What you need is to be able to ensure trust on your escrow, that is the exchange, for a bitcoin to fiat deal. You need to ensure that he is not spending your fiat but actually keeps them safe, and also that he is not spending your crypto.


Because Bitcoin exists as a public ledger, there are ways for exchanges to prove that they are holding the amount of cryptocurrency that they claim. But the same is not possible with government issued currencies. 

And this is why, according to Gronager, exchanges will have to reinforce the trust of their customers by resorting to old fashioned measures.  

"My take on this entire distrust in exchanges issue is actually plain old normal audits! You ask Deloitte to audit your customers funds, that they are there and that they are kept reasonably secure. They will then weigh in on this in their audit report which you can make public and do so four times a year or even more often."

At the moment, he says, professional auditors such as Deloitte, probably don't know enough about Bitcoin and how it works to handle the job. As they are catching up, the community would have to find some other trusted party. Gronager suggests pulling from Bitcoin's group of core developers. "I see this only as a temporary solution until one of the Big Four learn enough about bitcoin to be able to provide such reviews," he says.

Image: iStockphoto

Nanotubes Make Logic Circuits that Use Both Light and Current

Engineers trying to speed up communication between computer chips have been working on using beams of light to replace the copper traces that shuttle data between microprocessors. Now a pair of researchers at Northeastern University in Boston think they can turn up the speed even more by doing some of the computing with light as well.

Physicist Swastik Kar and mechanical engineer Yung Joon Jung lay belts of carbon nanotubes on top of a silicon wafer. The junction created by the intersection of the two materials proved to be highly sensitive to light; shining a laser spot on it caused a sharp rise in the light-induced current. That allowed the pair to build logic circuits that could be manipulated both electrically and optically.

“What we’ve done is built a tiny device where one input can be a voltage and the other input can be light,” Kar says.

The researchers built an optoelectronic AND gate and a two-bit optoelectronic ADDER/OR gate. They also built a four-bit digital-to-analog converter. Shining spots of light onto an array of these junctions converts the digital signal of the laser into an analog current, with the strength of the current depending on the on/off pattern of the laser.

Jung creates the nanotubes in solution, and they can then be placed on a patterned silicon/silicon oxide substrate, so the technology should be compatible with existing CMOS processes, he says. The process should also be reproducible and scalable to large numbers of junctions.

Using light to both move data around a chip and perform some of the logic operations should save time and make the chip work faster, according to the pair. Just how much faster they can’t say yet, as this is only an early step toward an actual chip.

A paper describing the work was published online in the journal Nature Photonics.

Image: Getty Images

Netflix Ad Spoofs Amazon's Drone Dreams

In my recently posted article, "Chris Anderson's Expanding Drone Empire," I made the bold claim that Amazon's Jeff Bezos got "one of the biggest free advertisements in high-tech history" in November, when CBS broadcast his company's video pre-enactment of a program to deliver packages to customers' doors.

But you get what you pay for. It turns out Bezos also opened himself up to an epic wave of mockery. Of course, most of the catcalls have come from the peanut gallery, but now comes a full-scale, mocking faux advertisement [above] that hits Amazon right in the nose. And it comes from no less a corporate archrival than Netflix:

Note how the ad mentions, in passing, how trivial it will be to work out the bugs in the "Drone2Home" scheme. 

It's easy for Netflix to laugh at Amazon—Netflix is well into a long-planned transition from the postal delivery of things to the Internet-based transmission of bits.

Car Food the Volvo Way

A computer-scientist friend of mine opined long ago that the Internet will truly come of age only when he can download a beer. He was referring to the last-meter problem of online shopping: that of getting stuff through the door of an unoccupied house.

Maybe someday robot trucks will push containerized products through cat-flap-style openings in your garage. But why go to the garage when you can have access to the trunk of the car?

That's the solution proffered this week by Volvo. The company's plan for “roam delivery” would have stores deliver groceries straight to your locked car, using a one-time-only public encryption key. The transaction relies on Volvo on Call, an app that helps owners keep track of their cars when they’re away from them. The app tells the store where your car is parked so a courier can fill the trunk with groceries. Or maybe a hot pizza.

Tests went well in Sweden, an extremely orderly country, by all accounts. There are certain sectors of New York City, however, that I wouldn’t advise this app to invade, at least not until sensor-rich cars are able to instantly photograph whoever tries to open their trunks.  

Mitsubishi Planning Predictive User Interface for Cars

It’s Saturday afternoon and you have to drive your daughter to soccer practice and pick up her friend on the way. You also want to listen to a particular radio program and make some important phone calls. To make your driving experience easier, Mitsubishi Electric is developing predictive technology that will suggest a route based on your previous driving history, come up with an alternative route if you hit a traffic jam, and make it simple as pushing a button to find that radio program, make those phone calls, and even adjust the air conditioning to boot.

Mitsubishi expects to ship its Ultra-simple HMI (human-machine interface) technology for in-car operations to auto manufacturers from spring 2018. It demonstrated a prototype system in a recent Open House event at its headquarters in Tokyo.

In a mock-up driver’s seat, the driver was able to easily operate four main functions: navigation, phone, air conditioner, and audio-visual system. This was done in one or two steps using a set of three buttons on the steering wheel while viewing three predicted operations on a 44-cm heads-up display (HUD) on the windshield above the dashboard—operations such as Go to soccer practice ground, Call boss, Tune to radio station XYZ.Voice commands can also be used to control such operations and is activated by long-pushing one of the buttons. For navigation control, the voice recognition technology uses “data stored on board, as well as up-to-date cloud-stored destinations data covering about 10 million locations,” explains Hiroaki Sugiura, general manager of Mitsubishi’s design center.

The predictive technology relies on such operational history as past destinations and routes taken, and previous use of in-car functions, as well as time and day, location, speed, fuel level, and current traffic and driving conditions. It then estimates the three most likely operations to be used and displays them on the HUD. They can be overridden using a set of four separate buttons that provide direct access to the main functions.

The Slow and Painful Death of the Mt. Gox Bitcoin Exchange

I've always considered the death scene in Cyrano de Bergerac to be a bit too drawn out and overly wrought. But when watching it, you at least know that Cyrano is in fact going to die, that the show will end and catharsis will be yours.

Today, I'm watching what I think may be the last gasping breaths of Mt. Gox, Bitcoin's most fabled online exchange. And yet, neither I nor anyone else seems to know whether it is actually going to die.

Last night, the Mt. Gox rumor mill caught fire and exploded. Kindling for the blaze was supplied at around midnight when a mysterious and unverified document surfaced on Ryan Galt's blog, "The Two-Bit Idiot." The document, which allegedly originated from within Mt. Gox (a claim which Galt has not been able to prove) details the finances of the Mt. Gox Bitcoin exchange and outlines a strategy for its gradual re-entry into the market. It claims that, over a period of several years, theft and incompetence drained the company of more than 744 000 bitcoins. The theft was blamed primarily on a flaw in the Bitcoin software, called transaction malleability, which Mt. Gox highlighted earlier this month but which the core developers of the Bitcoin protocol have understood for many years. If the numbers in the document are correct, the amount of lost coins adds up to a staggering six percent of the total bitcoins in circulation.

And now, everyone who has money tied up in the Mt. Gox exchange has nothing to do but wait and see whether the rumors are true. Mt. Gox itself is remaining defiantly taciturn. The company has deleted the entire history of tweets from its official Twitter account and just this morning, after initially disabling its website, Mt. Gox has put it back up with a short message that, in essence, says absolutely nothing.

Dear MtGox Customers,

In the event of recent news reports and the potential repercussions on MtGox's operations and the market, a decision was taken to close all transactions for the time being in order to protect the site and our users. We will be closely monitoring the situation and will react accordingly.

Best regards,
MtGox Team

Other Bitcoin companies seem to know more about what is going on behind the curtain at Mt. Gox, but as yet, none have gone on record to definitely accuse Mt. Gox of being insolvent. Today, Coinbase, a bitcoin wallet provider located in San Francisco, published a joint statement signed by the CEOs of five influential Bitcoin companies (including Mt. Gox's main competitors, Kraken, BitStamp, and BTC China).

They write, "as with any new industry, there are certain bad actors that need to be weeded out, and that is what we are seeing today. Mtgox [sic] has confirmed its issues in private discussions with other members of the bitcoin community."

However, the statement neglected to elaborate on what those issues were. Instead, it looked to the future. "We strongly believe in transparent, thoughtful, and comprehensive consumer protection measures. We pledge to lead the way."

The comments were clearly calibrated to shore up confidence in a community of rattled investors. These most recent disruptions arrived just as the value of Bitcoin was floating high at around US $800. Today, it has crashed down around $500.

Since the document in question was published, Bitcoiners have rallied on both sides, either calling it a fake or embracing it as the evidence they've been needing. After a day spent parrying threatening emails and a deluge of backlash in the comment section of his blog, Galt, who also writes about Bitcoin for CoinDesk, is standing by his decision to publish the document. Galt claims to have sold all of his own bitcoins shortly after acquiring the leaked document.

At this point, it doesn't even matter whether it is a fake. At the very least, it is a reflection of what everyone fears. And today, those fears are ruling the market.

Ford's Smooth-Driving Autonomous Research Car

Ford's first autonomous research vehicles, with protruding sensors and instruments, “kind of look[ed] like a science project” says Chris Attard, a Ford research engineer who works on their replacement. The new one, a Ford Fusion Hybrid test vehicle—announced in December and displayed here at at this week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain—looks like someone installed a few gas canisters on the car's roof rack, except that the canisters spin.

Read More

Most Commented Posts

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