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MIT's Planning Algorithms are Like Siri, Except Creative and Helpful

People have trouble with realistic planning. By “people,” I mean humans in general, particularly those of us who have jobs and families and hobbies and all that other stuff that makes life variable and complicated. We can’t do it all, but we try anyway, and it frequently involves failures of varying levels of catastrophe. While there are plenty of interactive tools to assist us with scheduling, they mostly just do what we say, whether or not it makes sense. MIT engineers are trying to inject some sense into personal planning. They are trying to make a better version of Apple’s Siri virtual assistant by factoring in risks and probabilities of success, and offering alternatives, even if those alternatives bend the rules a little bit.

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The Germanium-Tin Laser: Answer to the On-Chip Data Bottleneck?

Photonics engineers dream about using light to zap data between processor cores on multicore CPU chips. By replacing copper wires, such optical interconnects could make chips much faster and more power efficient. The holy-grail for optical on-chip communication is a laser made of silicon.

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2014 U.S. Venture Funding Was Highest Since Dot-Com Boom

2014 was the biggest year for venture capital since the peak of the dot-coom boom in 2000. Venture capitalists poured US $48.3 billion across 4,356 deals with U.S. startups last year, according to a new report by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association. That’s 61 percent higher than the $30 billion startups got from investors in 2013 and twice the $20.4 billion invested in 2009.

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Lost Beagle 2 Robot Found Intact on Mars After a Decade

A decade-long search for a lost Martian robot has finally discovered the UK-led mission’s fate. The Beagle 2 Mars Lander apparently made it down to the red planet in one piece but failed to fully deploy properly in order to make contact with mission controllers on Earth.

The discovery of the lost robot brings some measure of closure to UK and European Space Agency team members after Beagle 2’s silence following its Christmas Day descent to the red planet in 2003. But the partial deployment of  just two or three of Beagle 2’s four solar panels likely blocked the robot’s RF antenna and made it impossible for mission controllers to send a signal to revive the mission remotely.

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Obesity-Fighting Implant Approved by FDA

A medical device company in Minnesota has had a big win. It can now sell its weight-loss implant in the heaviest country on the planet. In the Lancet’s list of nations with the most obese people, the United States came out on top with 13 percent of the world’s 671 million. Now Enteromedics, the Minneapolis company, can offer those considering gastric-bypass surger—or similar drastic measures—a less radical alternative.

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Google Glass: Not Dead, Just Resting

Google Glass looks like its poised to become the latest inductee into the Hall of Technological Hubris.

The Hall is for those products that were introduced, with great fanfare, as things that could alter the daily lives of millions, but which either died completely or found only a niche existence. (Think of the Segway, the Microsoft SPOT watch, and the Apple Newton.)

As announced yesterday—almost as a sidenote—in a post on Google+, Google is ending its Explorer program on 19 January. That program allowed anyone to buy the current “beta” version of Glass for US $1,500. While Google promises new versions of the wearable computer are in the works, no hints have been given as to when these might be available or what form they might take.

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Malware Could Steal Data from iPhones Using Siri

A pair of computer scientists based in Europe have found a security vulnerability in the iPhone 5 series of smartphones that could be exploited by malicious software and compromise a user’s personal information. And the gatekeeper that makes this possible is Siri, they report in the January issue of IEEE Computer.

The security flaw relies on steganography—the practice of hiding a message within another message. It’s related to cryptography (and oftentimes used jointly), but whereas cryptography is the concealment of a message’s contents, steganography hides the fact that a secret message is being sent at all. Classic examples include embedding a message in a digital photo. But the computer scientists involved in the iPhone exploit have also found ways to hide messages using the network protocols of Skype calls, Google searches, Bit Torrent, and Wi-Fi.

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Fighting Ebola with Simulations and Algorithms

Researchers are working to improve public health responses to Ebola outbreaks by enhancing computational models of the disease’s spread. A team led by researchers at Arizona State University received two grants from the National Science Foundation—one for $120,000 awarded in December and one for half a million awarded in 2013—to make it happen. 

The research team aims to improve disease models by making them more specific to Ebola epidemics. They will use a combination of analytical tools and algorithms to sift through tens of thousands of simulations of an Ebola epidemic to determine which parameters provide the key patterns of the virus’s transmission. They will combine that with real mobility data—observations of social behviors, interventions, and ground and air traffic patterns collected during the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

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