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Photo of IEEE Life Fellow Charles Kao in the lab

How Charles Kao Beat Bell Labs to the Fiber-Optic Revolution

Fifty years ago this month, a 32-year-old Chinese-born research engineer named Charles Kao published a milestone paper that set off the entire field of fiber-optic communications and eventually earned him a share of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics. The story of how that 1966 paper came to be is a wonderful example of how the key to a big technological breakthrough can come down to asking the right question.

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DARPA Challenge Tests AI as Cybersecurity Defenders

Today’s malicious hackers have an average of 312 days to exploit “zero-day” computer software flaws before human cybersecurity experts can find and fix those flaws. The U.S. military’s main research agency focused on disruptive technologies aims to see whether artificial intelligence can do a better job of finding and fixing such exploits within a matter of seconds or minutes.

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Mostly white-garbed pilgrims during the Hajj, in Saudi Arabia.

Hajj Pilgrims to Get Electronic Bracelets to Prevent a Repeat of 2015 Stampede

A stampede that killed hundreds and perhaps thousands of Hajj pilgrims made the 2015 disaster the deadliest on record for the world’s largest Islamic gathering. Hoping to prevent another accident this September, officials plan to issue electronic bracelets to guide and keep track of the millions of pilgrims expected to visit Islam’s holy sites at Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi Press Agency described the water-resistant bracelets as GPS-linked devices containing personal identification and medical records that Saudi officials and security forces could access via smartphone, according to BBC News. Personal information on each pilgrim would include passport numbers and addresses. In addition, Saudi officials have installed 1,000 new surveillance cameras to keep an eye on the pilgrims as they walk along pilgrimage routes and crowd inside holy sites.

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For Best Results, Send Molecular Messages Using MIMO

Just as cell phones propagate radio waves to connect users, it’s also possible to transmit messages by emitting molecules. A sender can compose a message by diffusing bursts of a specific type of molecule, so long as a recipient can detect that molecule and interpret the pattern. Using this method, nanodevices could create a digital signaling system within the body, a locale where radio waves are quickly absorbed and where there is little space for bulky antennas.

Neurons and other cells in the body already communicate through the transfer of neurotransmitters, hormones, and other signaling molecules. And researchers have shown in early experiments that molecular digital communications through the air works but only with a fairly low data rate. Now, a team from Toronto’s York University and Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea found that they can nearly double that data rate by applying multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) technology.

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Adam Savage pedal-powered beest walking machine

Watch Adam Savage’s Pedal-Powered Beest Machine Take Its First Steps

Adam Savage, the former co-host of Discovery Channel’s popular television show MythBusters, is accustomed to testing the limits of human ingenuity. Do you remember when he and his team of tinkerers tested the tensile strength of duct tape by suspending a car with it? After that episode, I never looked at my ratty duct tape the same way.

Since MythBusters ended earlier this year, Savage has had some extra time on his hands. Which in the case of an avid designer and maker like Savage means spending three days hunkered down at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco building his latest creation. He called it the “Pedal-Powered Beest.” And the thing does look beastly, except for the bright-red All Star sneakers pinned to its 12 feet.

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Use a GPU to Turn a PC Into a Supercomputer

As Moore’s Law slows for CPUs, dedicated graphics co-processors are picking up some of the slack. Just as GPUs are changing the game in deep learning and autonomous cars, the GPU-powered desktop PC might even begin to keep pace with the conventional supercomputer for a portion of supercomputer applications. 

For instance, a group of Russian scientists are reporting this month that they’ve been able to solve computational problems in nuclear physics using an off-the-shelf, high-end PC containing a GPU. And, they say, after fine-tuning their algorithm for GPUs, they were able to run their calculations faster than the traditional, CPU-powered supercomputer their colleagues use. Bonus: they ran those calculations for free as opposed to their colleagues, who must pay for access to the supercomputer to run their computations.

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Your Smart Watch Can Steal Your ATM PIN

Mobile systems and cyber security expert Yan Wang doesn’t wear a smart watch.

“It knows too much,” says Wang, an assistant professor of computer science at Binghamton University in Upstate New York. “If you are using a smart watch, you need to be cautious.”

Wearable devices can give away your PIN number, according to research by professor Yingying Chen at Stevens Institute of Technology and three of her current and former graduate students including Wang. By combining smart watch sensor data with an algorithm to infer key entry sequences from even the smallest of hand movements, the team was able to crack private ATM PINs with 80 percent accuracy on the first try and more than 90 percent accuracy after three tries.

“This was surprising even to those of us already working in this area,” Chen, who led the research, said in a press release. “It may be easier than we think for criminals to obtain secret and private information from our wearables by using the right techniques.” 

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Photos: University of Washington

One Million Faces Challenge Even the Best Facial Recognition Algorithms

Helen of Troy may have had the face that launched a thousand ships, but even the best facial recognition algorithms may have had trouble finding her face in a crowd of one million strangers. The first benchmark test based on one million faces has shown how facial recognition algorithms from Google and other research groups around the world can still fall short in accurately identifying and verifying faces.

Facial recognition algorithms that had previously performed with more than 95 percent accuracy on a popular benchmark test involving 13,000 faces saw significant drops in accuracy when faced with the new MegaFace Challenge  involving one million faces. The best performer on one test, Google’s FaceNet algorithm, dropped from near-perfect accuracy on five-figure datasets to 75 percent on the million-face test. Other top algorithms dropped from above 90-percent accuracy on the small datasets to below 60 percent on the MegaFace Challenge. Some algorithms made the proper identification as seldom as 35 percent of the time.

“Megaface's key idea is that algorithms should be evaluated at large scale,” says Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Washington in Seattle and the project’s principal investigator. “And we make a number of discoveries that are only possible when evaluating at scale.”

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Thomas 'Tom' Wheeler, chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

More 5G Spectrum Coming Soon, FCC Chair Says

The United States will rush to make high-frequency spectrum bands available for emerging 5G technologies, promised Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in an address on Monday. Wheeler said he will share his plan for opening these bands on Thursday, with an official FCC vote scheduled for 14 July.

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A woman attaches GPS buoys to wooden sea turtle replicas.

Dead Turtles Equipped with GPS Trackers to Solve the Mystery of Their Own Murders

Hundreds of dead sea turtles wash up on the shores of Chesapeake Bay each year. Strangely, these events known as strandings seem to occur more often along certain stretches of shoreline. But even while so many turtles wind up in these spots, no one knows exactly where they’re coming from or how most of them died.  

To try to figure it out, a master’s student is setting a handful of GPS-equipped turtle carcasses afloat in Chesapeake Bay this summer. Bianca Santos, a graduate student at William and Mary’s School of Marine Science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, released two so-called “drifters” from a boat last week and hopes to launch up to 10 this season.

She hopes that by tracking how the carcasses are pushed along by wind and ocean currents, she can figure out where those hundreds of beached turtles floated in from, and whether some spots in the ocean might prove more deadly to turtles than others.

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