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Antimatter Starship Scheme Coming to Kickstarter

A spaceship departs Earth on a one-way, 42-year trip to Alpha Centauri. It runs on an antimatter engine that blasts the ship out of the solar system at one-tenth the speed of light. This is not the premise for a new Ridley Scott sci-fi drama but rather the endgame of a crowdfunded spaceship project launching this month.

West Chicago, Ill.-based Hbar Technologies plans a Kickstarter effort to raise US $200,000 for the next phase design of an antimatter-propelled spaceship. The two scientists behind this design effort are a veteran Fermilab particle accelerator scientist and a former Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist and founding director of the U.S. Center for Space Nuclear Research. They originally developed it for NASA at the turn of the millennium.

Because of budget cutbacks, the U.S. space agency dropped the antimatter-driven spaceship project in 2004. But the scientists say the plans they’re developing are technically feasible—if admittedly still quite optimistic in terms of the breakthroughs needed to enable antimatter to be stored in a fuel tank.

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Could Satellite Messaging Startup Higher Ground Bring Down the 911 System?

Higher Ground might be the only Silicon Valley startup promising not to disrupt its entire industry. This small satellite messaging business is battling claims by telecoms companies that its SatPaq device could interfere with their services, interrupt life-saving emergency calls and even cause major outages across the United States.

IEEE Spectrum can reveal that for the past several years, Higher Ground has been quietly developing SatPaq, a smartphone case with a flip-up antenna that communicates with geostationary satellites. Connecting to a smartphone messaging app via Bluetooth, SatPaq can send and receive text messages and email almost anywhere in the United States, including the wilds of Alaska.

The problem is that SatPaq works in the same C-band microwave frequencies used by CenturyLink and other companies for voice and data communications in rural areas and as part of their national networks. They fear that the widespread use of SatPaqs could result in catastrophic interference.

“[This] is not just potential interference to one or two specific links in a particular location but… potential interference to each and every such link of the network throughout the country,” wrote CenturyLink in a submission to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). “This seems to be a recipe for disaster.”

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Bigelow Space Habitat on Its Way to ISS as NASA Prepares to Blow It Up

While the most interesting piece of cargo on its way to the ISS after SpaceX's successful Falcon 9 launch is almost certainly some intrepid Tokyo Bekana cabbages, a close second has to be the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a pleasingly round inflatable space habitat that the astronauts are going to attach to the ISS and then blow up to see what happens. If everything goes according to plan, explosions will be minimal, and BEAM will inflate to its maximum curvaceousness. This will prove, over the course of the next two years, that the future of space habitation is something to get pumped up about.

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U.S. Court Postpones Decision On .africa Domain Name

On Monday 4 April, a California court cancelled a hearing to determine whether the .africa domain could be released to a South African domain-name registry by the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). According to ICANN, which issues and manages generic top-level domains on behalf of the global Internet community, the court will issue a ruling at an unspecified future date. The delay prolongs a four-year debate over which of two registries should control the continent’s prized domain. Registries resell domain name rights to registrars such as GoDaddy, which, in turn, sign up Web addresses from customers under that domain.

ZA Central Registry technically won the rights to .africa back in 2013 via ICANN’s official process for delegating geographic domain names. ICANN’s decision was challenged in court by a rival registry called DotConnectAfrica.

The legal battle to determine .africa’s true owner could take months or years to resolve. Though DotConnectAfrica has requested an injunction asking the court to prevent the immediate transfer of .africa to ZA Central Registry, the cancellation of Monday’s hearing is no guarantee that it won’t still grant ZA Central Registry a green light to launch .africa in the meantime.

Neil Dundas, executive director of the organization that backs ZA Central Registry told IEEE Spectrum in March that if the injunction were dismissed, ICANN could probably issue the .africa domain to ZA Central Registry within two weeks. Then, ZA Central Registry would be required to host a live .africa site for a month-long trial period. The public sale of .africa sites would begin soon after.

The popularity of so-called “not com” domains has exploded in recent years as website owners find the most commonly used extensions (.com and .org) have become too crowded, and the shortest and easiest-to-remember addresses were already taken.

In response, ICANN invited registries to apply to create new domain names for the Internet. Since 2012, the organization has released more than 900 new domain names for public use, including .yoga, .bar, and .viking.

How Livermore Scientists Will Put IBM's Brain-Inspired Chips To The Test

Last week, Dharmendra Modha said goodbye to a computer some six years in the making: a set of 16 interconnected TrueNorth chips built to mimic the ultra-low-energy, highly-parallel operation of the human brain.

On Thursday, a team from IBM Research-Almaden in California hopped in a car and drove the unit some 75 minutes north to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. There, scientists and engineers will evaluate whether the technology could be a useful weapon in their computing arsenal.

It was a big moment for the IBM program, which devised the TrueNorth concept in 2010 and unveiled the first chip in 2014. Developed in collaboration with Cornell University, the TrueNorth chips use traditional digital components to implement a decidedly more brain-like behavior; each 5.4-billion-transistor chip can consume as little as 70 milliwatts (for more on how that could possibly work, see our 2014 story “How IBM Got Brainlike Efficiency From the TrueNorth Chip”).  

Although these were not the first TrueNorth chips to ship, the array is notable, Modha says, because it integrates 16 chips onto a single board, allowing the company to demonstrate that it can “scale up” the approach to larger and larger systems. The entire 16-chip array can require as little as 2.5 watts (other systems, such as communications fabric, add some overhead to that).

Livermore, which has some of the world’s fastest supercomputers and signed a $1 million contract with IBM for the TrueNorth unit, will be exploring how this new technology might play a role in areas such as cybersecurity and physical simulation. 

I was particularly excited to see exascale computing mentioned in the press release announcing the system. Probably the looming question among high-performance computer makers is how we’ll reach the exascale—when machines are some 30 times as fast as the fastest supercomputer today—without also creating staggering (and probably infeasibly expensive) utility bills.

But as it turns out, chances are slim that we’ll be simulating nuclear weapons or designing tomorrow’s nuclear reactors on supercomputers composed entirely of chips modeled on the human brain. Although TrueNorth can, in principle, perform any computation, the speed and efficiency of such neuromorphic chips only shines in particular applications such as pattern recognition. Traditional computers will still be with us, Modha says: “What we’re offering is a complementary architecture.” 

Engineers are still sorting out the best way to build an exascale supercomputer, says Brian Van Essen, a computer scientist at Livermore’s Center for Applied Scientific Computing. Heterogeneous computing, which could mix of different computing technologies such as CPUs, graphics processing units, FPGAs, and neuromorphic chips—“is definitely one potential path,” he says. But, he adds, “it’s not clear what the final system design is going to look like.”

Van Essen says one area Livermore hopes to explore with the TrueNorth chips is their potential role in large-scale simulation. “As we scale simulations and modeling [of] physical systems up to large sizes, sometimes the simulations can get into an area where the numerics get kind of garbled up,” he says.

He says a team is in the midst of evaluating whether machine learning can be used to detect problems before a simulation crashes and correct for the behavior. Van Essen says that if the approach looks promising, one could envision chips distributed thoughout the system that will monitor the progress of a simulation. It would take a “nontrivial amount of horsepower to monitor the system,” Van Essen says, adding that it would be a good application for a l0w-power technology such as TrueNorth. 

If you’re looking to keep track of TrueNorth developments, Dharmendra Modha maintains a detailed blog

Follow Rachel Courtland on Twitter at @rcourt.

5 Ways Cyber Experts Think the FBI Might Have Hacked the San Bernardino iPhone

Last week, the FBI announced that it had, with the help of a third party, successfully broken into the passcode-protected iPhone 5C owned by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. It’s not clear yet whether the FBI found any information useful to its investigation, but the hack brought at least a temporary reprieve to the very public battle between Apple and the FBI over encryption and privacy rights. 

The agency hasn’t named its accomplice nor has it revealed how it gained access to the iPhone’s contents. To shed some light on the possibilities, IEEE Spectrum spoke with nine computer security experts and mobile phone forensics specialists about a few techniques that may have been behind this controversial hack:

1. The easy way in

Perhaps the simplest hack of all would be to exploit a vulnerability in iOS 9, the version of Apple’s operating system installed on Farook’s phone. Several experts including Robert Cunningham, chair of the IEEE Cybersecurity Initiative, and Dudu Mimran, chief technology officer for the Telekom Innovation Laboratories at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, believe this is the most likely approach.

Armed with the right security hole, also called a zero-day exploit, a hacker could potentially switch off functions that thwarted the FBI’s entry. These include a built-in delay that prohibits a user from trying too many incorrect password combinations at once, and an optional setting that prompts an iPhone to erase its memory after 10 failed entries. Once a hole is identified, there are many ways to deploy a bug to take advantage of it. The code can be sent as a malicious text message or by exploiting the driver that connects a charger to a laptop to enable new software to be uploaded to a phone.

As an added bonus, maneuvering via a bug is relatively low risk since these strategies avoid tampering with the iPhone’s physical components (more on that approach later). Joel Bollo, CEO at the MSAB, says the vast majority of mobile forensics solutions that his company executes for law enforcement clients are software-based.

So what kind of zero-day may have helped authorities slip in? It’s not entirely clear, but it’s not unreasonable to think that one could exist. There’s a healthy market for uncovering such flaws: The cybersecurity firm Zerodium paid a $1 million bounty last fall to a team that exposed a hole in iOS 9. As Mimran says, “There is no software that is considered bulletproof.”

2.  Trick the OS

Inside the iPhone 5C is an A6 chip that features both processors and RAM, which work together to achieve faster speeds than those that were available in previous models. In order to keep track of passcode attempts, this “system on a chip” also communicates with non-volatile memory stored elsewhere, such as in flash memory.

This setup leads experts to a second theory: that hackers may have circumvented the iPhone’s passcode protection by hijacking operations between the A6 and the non-volatile memory.

Ran Canetti, a computer scientist at Tel Aviv University and head of the school’s Check Point Institute of Information Security, says one way to do this would be to tamper with the physical line of communication that carries password recovery instructions between the two. A knowledgeable hacker could use this line to re-route Apple’s software, which typically receives marching orders from both the phone’s flash and RAM, to an external device. The FBI and its silent partner could’ve used such a device to instruct the software to continue accepting failed passcode attempts until the investigators arrived at the correct one.

“They can basically reset the place where it says, ‘Now you've tried nine times,’” Canetti says. “When the phone asks, ‘How many times have you tried?’ they say—‘No, you’ve only tried one time.’”

With the software rejiggered, the FBI could launch a traditional “brute force” attack, employing a software program to rapidly try password combinations until it arrived at the correct one. Since Farook’s iPhone 5C used a four-digit passcode, a program could run through every one of the 10,000 possible password combinations in a matter of minutes.

“That brute force technology isn't very sophisticated,” says Dylan Ayrey, a security engineer with the information security company Praetorian. “You could go on Ebay right now and purchase ways to brute force older versions of the iPhone.”

3. Reset (and reset and reset) the memory

One of the most popular theories among crypto-experts, including Gary McGraw, chief technology officer at the software security consulting firm Cigital, is that the FBI hacked the iPhone through a tactic called NAND mirroring. NAND is a form of flash technology used in memory chips for high-capacity and long-term storage.

Within an iPhone, NAND is thought to play a role in erasing a digital key required to unlock an iPhone’s memory after logging 10 failed password attempts. But if someone knows how to circumvent or reset the tally after each attempt, they could help themselves to unlimited tries.

One way to manually do that might be to remove the memory chip that NAND protects and make a digital copy of it. Once the copy is made, a hacker could test out combinations and simply reload the memory back onto the original chip before the 10-attempt limit is reached. iPhone forensics expert Jonathan Zdziarski has said this strategy is a lot like hitting “save” on a video game. If you die (or, in this case, lose your data) you simply go back and pick up where you left off.

Though it’s a crowd favorite among cybersecurity experts, FBI Director James Comey said in a press briefing in March that this approach, also called a replay or reset attack, wouldn’t work on Farook’s phone. But many remain skeptical of Comey’s insistence; shortly after he made that statement, Zdziarski contradicted it with a demonstration of the technique in a blog post.

That’s the post that won Citigal’s McGraw over to this theory, and he’s not the only one. Praetorian’s Ayrey says, “I think that strategy is very likely and I think that's basically the same sneak we would do here.”

4. Tear the whole thing apart  

An iPhone’s memory chips are shrouded in layers of both physical and digital protections to block hackers. To uncover its secrets, hackers must sometimes mount a physical attack in order to bypass certain tamper-resistant features.   

There are a few ways to do this. A hacker could start by heating up the device in order to detach a memory chip. The next step: using acid to remove the surface layers of the chip in an act known as “decapping.” That could be followed up with some precision work with a tiny laser drill for reaching sections of the chip the hacker wants to more closely examine.

Ari Juels, a professor in the Cornell Tech Security Group, says the goal in the Farook case would be to extract the handset’s unique ID, which is a special digital key that Apple assigns to each device during manufacturing and could be used to decode an iPhone’s memory.

Apple said in a white paper published last fall that in order to obtain this key, a hacker would have to mount a “highly sophisticated and expensive physical attack.” This is certainly an option the FBI may have considered, but runs the risk of obliterating the memory forever if a technician makes even the slightest miscalculation.

“This is a very invasive and expensive and tricky thing to do,” Dan Wallach, a computer security expert at Rice University, warns. “It's a destructive process that has a percentage chance of destroying the device.”

5. Sneak in through the side

A device that is hard at work can offer clues about the information it is handling. These clues include its power consumption, acoustic properties, electromagnetic radiation, or the time it takes for a specific component to complete a task.

In what’s known as a side-channel attack, experts can use specialized tools to monitor these properties and use the data they gather to infer what’s happening inside a device. For example, a hacker could hook up a resistor to the iPhone’s internal circuits and read the amount of energy that flows by with each passcode attempt. Ben-Gurion University’s Mimran likens it to putting your ear up to a safe, listening for a satisfying click as you turn the dial.

While Cunningham of the IEEE Cybersecurity Initiative says a hacker wouldn’t likely be able to read a PIN or passcode through this method, a would-be invader could almost certainly glean details about the size or complexity of the key and the nature of the cryptographic system within.

For example, a passcode retrieval process that relies on a form of encryption called Montgomery multiplication requires a chip to repeatedly square a large string of numbers. Eventually, it instructs the chip to multiply its result with the last integer used in this massive calculation. Depending on the integers and at what point the chip performs this computation, this process could require more or less energy.

Rice University’s Wallach says the best place to start when mounting a side channel attack would be to order specs on the iPhone 5C from a company such as Chipworks or iFixit. These firms specialize in breaking down commercial devices and writing detailed reports about their components, as well as offering their best guesses as to how information flows throughout a device.

But even with a cheat sheet, a side channel attack is also a very delicate process given the tiny wires and chips that make up a smartphone’s circuitry and internal components. What’s more, chipmakers have wisened up to this strategy, so many now install features that cause a chip to generate electromagnetic noise or maintain a steady power draw no matter what function they’re performing in order to confuse attackers.

MIT turns Wi-Fi Into Indoor GPS

Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite technology comes in handy for tracking cruise missiles, doing in-car navigation, and finding secluded restaurants. But step inside an airport, museum, or mall, and you’re often relegated to studying a paper map or asking for directions.

There are positioning systems designed for indoors, but they rely either on GPS-like radio or magnetic beacons, or on mapping the ever-shifting morass of Wi-Fi access points. Such methods have proved expensive to install and difficult to scale. What’s more, these indoor GPS systems are far from accurate enough to let you do cool things like a have a robot follow or avoid you.

Now researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence lab (CSAIL) have developed a way for adjacent Wi-Fi devices, including smartphones, to locate each other within centimeters. The technology, called Chronos, relies on making the devices emulate multi-gigahertz wideband radios.

Chronos starts by having two Wi-Fi devices, a transmitter and receiver, hop simultaneously between all 35 frequency bands in the 2.4 gigahertz to 5.8 GHz Wi-Fi range. At each frequency, the rate at which signals accumulate phase naturally varies. The transmitter skips between bands every 2 to 3 microseconds, with the receiver comparing the phase differences at each step. Chronos can then calculate the time of flight of signals—and thus the distance—between the devices.

If one of the devices has multiple Wi-Fi antennas, as do most modern smartphones and laptops, Chronos can also calculate the angle between the two devices, and locate them in space. In experiments in everyday environments like an apartment or coffee shop, Chronos was able to localize devices to within 65 cm (or about 10 times the accuracy of GPS) using only off-the-shelf Wi-Fi cards.

The MIT researchers, PhD student Deepak Vasisht and Professor Dina Katabi, envisage Chronos being used to count people in smart homes for lighting control, to offer password-free Wi-Fi in cafés (while excluding freeloaders outside), and for robots to operate safely around humans.

“Because Wi-Fi is widely used and in every cellphone, it would be good to use this amazing technology for as many applications as we can,” Katabi told IEEE Spectrum.

There are some limitations, however. Although Chronos can run on existing Wi-Fi devices using just an app (or a firmware upgrade for an access point), each device has to undergo a one-time distance calibration. And because Chronos takes around one-tenth of a second to sweep all the Wi-Fi bands, its accuracy plunges if the devices are moving relative to one another during this initial setup.

So, do you have to place your cellphone on a counter—or on a table in the food court if you’re at the mall—so it’ll be perfectly still? “Walking is fine, but we’re not talking about somebody in a car,” says Katabi. “However for a drone, it’s actually better if it moves. Because its movement is controlled and you know the speed, you can leverage that information in a feedback loop to boost your results.”

Vasisht and Katabi tested Chronos on an AscTec Hummingbird quadcopter fitted with an Intel 5300 Wi-Fi card and a Go-Pro camera. The drone was set to stay 1.4 meters from a netbook, shooting photos of the computer as it moved. Chronos was able to keep the drone within just 4 cm of its programmed distance.

The next step for Vasisht and Katabi is to improve the resolution of Chronos even further, and to start building functions such as geo-fencing, which sets virtual boundaries. The researchers are in discussions with MIT about commercializing the technology. If all goes well, using your phone to find the way to your departure gate, with your robotic carry-on following close behind, could be just a few years away.

The Fight Over the .africa Domain Name

An explosion of domain names has reshaped the Internet by offering hundreds of new ways to end a Web address. Lawyers can now advertise websites with “.lawyer” while toy companies can register with “.toys.” Jokers who want to build a site that finishes with “.fail” or “.wtf” can do that, too.  

But one highly sought domain remains stubbornly out of reach for roughly a billion people. Africans still can’t register sites to “.africa” because the right to operate that domain is the subject of a tussle between rival registries that is now dragging through its fourth year. While the domain’s ultimate fate could remain the subject of legal battles for years, a California court will decide on 4 April whether to finally permit .africa to go live.

The domain could prove quite lucrative for whichever registry wins it, though both competing registries pledge to spend profits on charitable activities. Registries act as domain name wholesalers. They sell the right to resell a domain name to many registrars such as GoDaddy, which make their money by signing people up.

Wayne Diamond, who runs a registrar based in South Africa, says many of his clients want to list websites with .africa, but are stuck waiting. “I think there's growing impatience with what's happening now that it's being held up in legal wranglings,” he says. “The delay has had a significant impact on the growth of the domain space in Africa.”

The two registries vying for control of .africa have also pitched the domain as an emerging economic engine and cultural exchange. DotConnectAfrica, a charitable trust that operates out of Kenya, promotes .africa as “your online African identity” while the South African nonprofit ZA Central Registry says the new domain will enable “e-commerce, technology and infrastructure to flourish.”

Those promises have so far gone unfulfilled. The tug-of-war began in 2011 when the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the nonprofit that manages domain names, noticed many of the shortest and most memorable addresses that ended in “.com,” “.org” and “.net” were taken.

The organization invited registries to apply to add more options, and has released 938 new domains in the time since. Most disputes were resolved amicably or by offering domains up for auction. For example, in January GMO Registry Inc. beat seven competitors with its $41.5 million bid for the “.shop” domain.

The .africa domain, however, didn’t go up for sale because of its geographic and cultural importance. In fact, ICANN requires applicants for a geographic domain to demonstrate support from 60 percent of national governments.

That requirement lies at the heart of the disagreement over which of the rival registries is better suited to manage .africa. Both candidates submitted their applications in 2012 and claimed that they had the support of the African Union Commission. DotConnectAfrica says it received the commission’s blessing in 2009, but the commission later formally withdrew that support and backed ZA Central Registry.

Sophia Bekele, head of DotConnectAfrica, says the process wasn’t “transparent and accountable” and that the commission failed to represent African governments. Neil Dundas, executive director of ZA Central Registry, points out that DotConnectAfrica has relatively few staff on the continent and would work with UK-based registry CentralNic to manage the domain. Filings with ICANN indicate DotConnectAfrica will charge only US $10 per year for website registrations, versus the $18 that ZA Central Registry plans to collect should it win the domain rights.

In 2014, ICANN agreed to issue .africa to ZA Central Registry. To fight back, DotConnectAfrica requested an internal review. After two more years, ICANN’s board passed a resolution in March reaffirming their decision and stating that DotConnectAfrica had not garnered enough government support.

That decision would have cleared the way for ZA Central Registry to begin registering Africa’s websites, but DotConnectAfrica filed a legal complaint against California-based ICANN, and asked a U.S. district court to block the organization from awarding .africa to ZA Central Registry while the case proceeds.

In a hearing scheduled for Monday, 4 April, the court will decide whether to grant DotConnectAfrica’s petition for a temporary stay that would prevent the transfer of the long-awaited .africa to ZA Central Registry while the suit against ICANN is adjudicated. If the court rules in its favor, ZA Central Registry estimates that it could have .africa sites up and running within four months. Dundas says he would love to see over a million sites signed up within three to five years.

But if not, the delay will drag on, and the promise of a new domain to jumpstart economic growth and build a shared online identity among Africans will remain nothing more than untapped potential.

My Subterranean Tour of London’s Crossrail

It’s a damp, freezing cold day in January, and I’m at the bottom of a massive hole in the ground. This is one of a pair of 41-meter-deep shafts in a part of east London called the Limmo peninsula, a spit of land on the banks of the River Thames. From a drone’s-eye view, it looks as though a giant hole punch has taken two neat circles out of the silty earth.

Back in late 2012, two enormous tunnel-boring machines were lowered into these shafts. Workers fired up the 1,000-metric-ton behemoths (named Elizabeth and Victoria), and their rotating cutting heads slowly gouged their way westwards. When they finally reached Central London in May 2015, it marked the completion of the tunneling work on Crossrail, a new underground railway system that spans London.

Crossrail will be fully operation by the end of 2019, with an expected 200 million passengers carried through its arteries every year. For now, it is Europe’s biggest construction project, with a budget of £14.8 billion (about US $21 billion).

This is my second visit to Crossrail. A few months earlier I strolled around the network’s immaculate new Canary Wharf station, where I learned about the innovations that are helping to bring this railway to life—including wireless sensors and lasers that monitor construction, smart components that warn of their impending failure, and a 3-D virtual model of the whole network that can be explored from an iPad. [For more on all that, see my article, “London’s Crossrail Is a $22 Billion Test of Virtual Modeling.”]

Here at the Limmo site, though, you can see the blunt end of this construction project. The area is packed with cranes, concrete mixers, and dumpsters. Warning alarms rip through the air as heavy loads are hoisted around. The workers wear scarves and balaclavas above their bright orange coats to ward off the cold.

My hosts and I descend the shaft using cramped stairs built from scaffolding and boards. Halfway down is a bizarre sight: a small shrine bolted to the wall, containing a figure of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of mineworkers and tunnelers. Dozens of these statues were blessed by priests and placed at the mouths of Crossrail’s tunnels before work began.

“It’s a tradition, hundreds of years old,” explains site manager Peter Kelly.

At the bottom, we walk along the eastbound tunnel as it curves upwards at a slight incline. Automated lighting brightens and dims as we pass, while bangs and crashes from the shaft echo around us. Rails laid out on the floor are ready to be welded together and mounted on ties by a mobile gantry, a vehicle that looks like a huge robotic spider on wheels. The gantry is currently less than 1 km to the east of here, and closing fast. Kelly says they’re now racing to finish all the civil engineering work at the site by the end of March. And in a few years’ time, trains will come barreling through here at about 65 kilometers per hour, tilting gently as they round the bend.

As we return to the surface, I notice that the short section of tunnel between the two shafts is strewn with rubble. Workmen are loading the hunks of concrete into wheelbarrows, their breath clouding the air from the exertion.

There’s no doubt that Crossrail is a high-tech railway—but building it still involves a whole lot of mud, concrete, shovels, and sweat. 

Machines Just Got Better at Lip Reading

Soccer aficionados will never forget the headbutt by French soccer great Zinadine Zidane during the 2006 World Cup final. Caught on video camera, Zidane’s attack on Italian player Marco Materazzi after a verbal exchange got him a red ticket. He left the field, making it easier for Italy to become world champions. The world found out later about Materazzi’s abusive words of Zidane’s female relatives.

“If we had good lip-reading technology Zidane’s reaction could have been explained or they would’ve both gotten sent out,” says Helen Bear, a computer scientist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. “Maybe the match outcome would be different.”

Bear and her colleague Richard Harvey have come up with a new lip-reading algorithm that improves a computer’s ability to differentiate between sounds—such as ‘p’, ‘b,’ and ‘m’—that all look similar on lips. The researchers presented their work at the IEEE International Conference on Acoustics, Speech and Signal Processing (ICASSP) in Shanghai.

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