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Developmental Gaming System for Autistic Children

To help children with autistic spectrum disorder improve their social skills, researchers from the University of Kentucky have developed a prototype of a social narrative and gaming system, called MEBook.

A Microsoft Kinect camera wired to a PC tracks a child’s facial expressions, body movements and other behavioral patterns. The system’s current instantiation uses video self-modeling (VSM), an evidence-based approach in which kids watch videos of themselves successfully performing social behaviors, such as waving or smiling, during the intervention. Video footage of the successful moments are spliced together and reviewed with the child afterward. Researchers hope to release a free, downloadable version of MEBook for parents to use at home by the end of this year.

“The incorporation of the gaming system encourages the child to practice what s/he has learned in the social narrative by rewarding the correct behaviors with points and praises,” says Sen-ching Samson Cheung, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Kentucky.

Inspired by his own son’s autism spectrum disorder, Cheung is leading this project and searching for ways to help others affected by the same disorder. “Since his diagnosis six years ago, I have been thinking of different ways to apply my research to improve autism diagnosis and interventions,” he says.

The problem with teaching autistic children using social narratives such as animated stories illustrating social situations, Cheung says, is that kids on the autism spectrum have difficulty relating the social behavior in fictitious scenarios to those that occur in real life. The researchers believe that showing “real” videos of the child himself, as the main character, performing precise behavioral patterns, will help him or her relate those patterns to real life. Eventually, this helps the child build confidence for similar social environments.

Nkiruka Uzuegbunam, a Ph.D. student collaborating with Cheung on this project, talks about the system in the video below.

The system uses computer vision and signal processing algorithms to separate the subject from the background and to identify when certain behaviors emerge. Some of these algorithms are based on the researchers’ previous work, in which a video surveillance system protected the privacy of certain individuals by detecting them and erasing them from the video footage.

Cheung says they’ve already finished a preliminary clinical study utilizing the prototype system with three autistic children. “The results are very encouraging; all of our subjects showed an increase of social greeting skills after the intervention,” he says. His team is currently summarizing the results for an IEEE journal.

His team of collaborators in education, psychology, and medicine are also in the early alpha stage of developing a virtual-mirror system. They are looking to start clinical studies on it in 2016. With that system, the child’s behavior is captured and modified in real-time, and the image is rendered on a mirror-like display. This is part of a four-year NSF grant to apply advanced multimedia technology to enhance “self-model and mirror feedback imageries” for behavior therapies for children with autism.

Electric Glue Can Set Anywhere

Glue is playing an increasingly important role in manufacturing and technology—for example, in cars and airplanes, new and lighter materials, such as carbon composites and plastics are now an important constituant. And with such material, instead of bolts, screws and welds to hold things together, manufacturers are increasingly using high-quality glues.

The glues most of us are familier with are hardened and become adhesive by chemical means.  For example superglue hardens due to a chemical interaction with the water vapour in air.  Other ways glues rely on chemical changes induced by heat or  light.  However, these glues usually  don't work in wet environments:  Superglue will preferentially stick to water molecules instead of solid surfaces, for example.

Now a research group led by chemist Terry Steele at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore has developed a glue that  hardens when a low voltage is applied to it.  They recently reported their research with the new adhesive, nicknamed “Voltaglue,” in Nature Communications.

“We had to find a way to make glue which cures (hardens) when we want it to without being affected by environmental conditions, so electricity was the best approach for us. The hardness of our glue can be adjusted by the amount of time we apply a voltage to it, which we call electrocuring,” says Steele in a NTU press release.

Steele cited two applications that highlighted the advantage of a glue whose hardness was easily adjustable: joining materials immersed in water or replacing sutures during surgery in human tissue. “For example, if we are gluing metal panels underwater, we want it hard enough to stick for a long time. However, for medical applications we want the glue to be more rubber-like so it wouldn’t cause any damage to the surrounding soft tissues,”  Steele also says  in the press release

The glue consists of a layer of hydrogel, a water based gel into which are dissolved carbon molecules called carbenes that are attached to plastic dendrimers, which are typically spherical large molecules.  Using electrodes to apply two volts across the glue causes the carbenes to start bonding with other dendrimers and nearby surfaces.  Once the voltage is removed, the bonding activity stops. 

The researchers have patented Voltaglue through NTUitive, NTU's innovation and enterprise company.

The new glue may also make recycling easier.  Cars could be designed in such a way that their components could become unglued and so more easily dissassembled.  Steele and his colleagues are now researching ways to make the action of the glue reversible by, for example, changing the polarity of the applied voltage.  

Estimate: Human Brain 30 Times Faster than Best Supercomputers

An artificial intelligence project recently funded by Silicon Valley pioneer Elon Musk aims to find a new way to compare supercomputers to the human brain. Instead of trying measure how quickly wetware or hardware can do calculations, the project measures how quickly the brain or a computer can send communication messages within its own network. That benchmark could provide a useful way of measuring AI’s progress toward a level comparable with human intelligence.

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Li-Fi in the ER

Imagine if you could eliminate the tangle of wires that snake across a hospital patient’s body so machines can monitor his or her vital signs. Sounds like a great idea. But wirelessly transmitting data from the patient to the machines cluttering hospital rooms creates the risk of electromagnetic interference. So one group of researchers in South Korea is proposing that some machines use Li-Fi instead.

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Gigantic Antarctic Instrument, IceCube, Finds Mysterious Cosmic Neutrinos

In a research published last week in Physical Review Letters, an Antarctic detector has managed to confirm the existence of a small handful of cosmic neutrinos: ultra high energy particles that likely originated from unknown sources far outside of our galaxy. These particles are nearly impossible to detect—it took a specially designed system of sensors burried in a cubic kilometer of ice. But the few we've seen have energies up to a thousand times greater than what the Large Hadron Collider can generate, and we're just starting to be able to get a sense of where they might be coming from.

(Go here for the incredible story of the engineering of the detector, called IceCube.)

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System Routes Internet Traffic Around Countries You Don't Trust

Whenever someone sends a website request or email, Internet data packets crossing the world can run afoul of data censorship or modification in certain countries, such as China. A new system provides a way for Internet users to route their data around specified “forbidden” countries and gives proof of whether or not the routing succeeded, its inventors revealed last week.

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Google Delays Market Trial of Modular Ara Smartphone

Google has delayed the real-world debut of its modular Ara smartphone, a handset that would allow users to easily upgrade or swap hardware parts, until at least 2016. The Project Ara team blamed the delay on an unexpected number of design changes.

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Adam Back Says the Bitcoin Fork Is a Coup

Bitcoin is heading into a wholly avoidable crisis, according to one camp of developers. It is being forced to evolve, according to the other. How it’s all happening is as much at issue as whether it will all work out.

Perhaps you’ve heard that Bitcoin is forking. In fact, a fork is only one possible outcome of the current situation: A faction of the core development team has splintered off, proposed a new and controversial version of Bitcoin, and is now standing back to see whether people will adopt it. That’s dangerous because if these developers to have their way, the Bitcoin blockchain would have to bifurcate into two competing, incompatible chains, and thus two distinct currencies. And if a split like this does not happen in a clean, organized fashion, it could potentially cause chaos for every participant in the Bitcoin network.

(To get up to speed on how the Bitcoin blockchain works, watch this video. We’ll wait right here until you’re done.)

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Broadband Laser Sees Infrared

A new laser could lead to fast and easy detection of explosives or toxins and may help NASA explore other planets.

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