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New App Could Improve Earthquake Warning Using GPS

A new Android app uses smartphone GPS sensors to detect earthquakes and estimate their locations and magnitudes in real time. The technology could lead to a dense global seismic network that can warn people who are a few kilometers away from a quake’s epicenter, giving them a few seconds to find a safe spot before the strongest tremors hit. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have released the free app, called MyShake, on Google Play. 

Earthquake early-warning systems exist today only in Japan and Mexico. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is currently testing a system called ShakeAlert for the western United States. These systems use data from networks of tens to a few hundred seismic stations spaced kilometers apart.

GPS accelerometers, which can take continuous measurements at a particular location, can also detect long-term ground movement at a geological fault that, with a sudden release of built-up forces, results in an earthquake. And since most smartphones today come with these accelerometers, they could become a free, crowdsourced seismic monitoring network.

“A smartphone network will be very dense, with a sensor or two on every block,” says Qingkai Kong, a graduate student who developed the algorithm at the heart of the MyShake app. “It can supplement the current seismic network. And in places like Haiti or Nepal, where there is no traditional seismic networking but millions of smartphones, this could be a low-cost system to issue warnings and save lives.”

Researchers at the USGS recently reported that the measurements gleaned from commercial GPS devices could indeed improve quake warning.

But the new app is the first practical way to tap into the data the smartphone GPS sensors provide. For one, its clever algorithm can differentiate between quake tremors and normal human activity. It does this by analyzing the frequency and amplitude of the accelerometer signals, Kong says. In simulated tests, the algorithm accurately distinguished quakes from other movement 93 percent of the time. The researchers detailed their algorithm in the journal Science Advances

The other key feature of the app is that it runs in the background on a handset and draws a minuscule amount of power. Because GPS is power-hungry, the app uses it only when absolutely necessary. It will briefly activate the phone’s GPS and send information on time, amplitude of the shaking, and the phone’s GPS coordinates only when the handset's accelerometers detect motion that fits an earthquake profile. For most users, a phone running MyShake wouldn’t need to be charged any more frequently than phones without the app, Kong says.

The data is sent from phones to a processing center at the Berkeley lab. There, a network detection algorithm calculates the location, origin time, and magnitude of the earthquake based on triggers from multiple phones. Then this information can be used to estimate the tremor intensity and the remaining time until damaging waves arrive at a target location.

In a series of proof-of-concept simulations using data from various California earthquakes, the researchers show that smartphones equipped with the app can record magnitude 5 earthquakes at distances of 10 kilometers or less. The earthquakes were first identified 5 seconds after the tremors started. This performance was similar to that of the ground-based ShakeAlert warning system that the USGS is currently testing, which issues alerts 5.3 seconds after quake origin. “In most cases these phones can only detect very strong parts of shaking, not the early portion of the wave,” Kong says. 

A denser network of app-equipped phones would yield a network capable of detecting an earthquake faster and better, Kong says. “Usually within a 110-by-110-km area and [with] more than 300 smartphones, we could make a relatively accurate estimate of location, magnitude, and origin time.”

Once enough people are using the app and the bugs are worked out, the Berkeley team plans to build a real-time warning system. They’re also working on an iPhone app.

How LIGO Found a Gravitational Wave in a Haystack

Washington, D.C.—The wait is over. After months of rumors, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) today announced the first direct detection of a gravitational wave.

Standing before a packed room at National Press Club on Thursday, LIGO executive director David Reitze made a declaration that was decades in the making: “Ladies and gentlemen we have detected gravitational waves. We did it.”

The signal, which hit LIGO’s two detectors on 14 September before the observatory’s revamped detectors had even begun their science run, was created by two black holes that spiraled into one another and merged. Computational modeling suggests the two objects—29 and 36 times the mass of the sun—coalesced to create a black hole of 62 solar masses.

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Stent Electrode Reads Brain Signals From Inside a Vein

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Brain-machine interfaces have in recent years allowed paralyzed patients to control robotic arms, computer cursors, and exoskeletons simply by thinking about it. These interfaces require electrodes that are surgically implanted into or on top of the brain to read electrical signals from firing neurons.

But a novel stent-like electrode can record brain signals without the need for risky open-brain surgery. The matchstick-size “stentrode” made by Australian scientists can instead be inserted into a vein that runs beside the brain. From that spot, it can record high-quality electrical signals.

Doctors would implant the device by snaking a catheter up into the skull via a vein in the neck. The device picks up electrical signals and sends them through wires that go through the neck to a transmitter implanted on chest muscle under the skin. The wireless transmitter’s signals are read through the skin, then decoded using sophisticated software, and used to control an exoskeleton.

The research team used the stentrode to record high-frequency neural signals from a freely moving sheep for over six months. The spectral content and bandwidth of the signals from the stentrode matched those from electrode arrays that the researchers surgically implanted on the sheep’s brain. The results are published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

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Injectable Radios to Broadcast From Inside the Body

Implantable medical devices usually have to trade smarts for size. Pacemakers and other active devices with processors on board are typically about a cubic centimeter in size, and must be implanted surgically. Smaller implantable electronics tend to be passive, lacking computing smarts and the ability to actively broadcast signals, says David Blaauw, a professor of electrical engineer and computer science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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20,000 Leagues Under the Cloud

In the 2015 film “Creed,” aged boxing legend Rocky Balboa stares up at the sky in confusion after his young protege tells him a smartphone picture has been saved in the cloud. Rocky might feel even more befuddled if he heard about Microsoft’s experiment in putting the cloud’s computer servers under the sea. As crzay as it sounds, the underwater data center initiative, called Project Natick, could revolutionize the way companies Internet services such as streaming video, music, or games.

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The Secrecy Cryptography Giveth to Criminals, the Internet of Things Taketh Away

In the rock-paper-scissors game of technology, the Internet of Things beats cryptography. This is the conclusion of a new Harvard Law School report focusing on the FBI’s claims that increasing levels of cryptography in consumer devices means that law enforcement loses. 

The report retorts that even if cryptography closes some doors, new Internet-connected devices and services will open others.

The stakes are certainly high, said FBI director James Comey in congressional testimony last summer. Bad guys benefit from increased end-to-end cryptography on both devices and networks, as he and others have argued in the media. And that, they say, means losing access to key surveillance opportunities for fighting crime and terrorism.

“We in law enforcement often refer to this problem as ‘going dark,’” Comey said.

But the new report, from Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says Comey is missing the larger picture. While increasingly pervasive cryptography in consumer devices may close some surveillance channels, plenty of other channels are opening up that allow law enforcement to continue to keep an eye on suspected criminals. Most of these new inroads, the report says, come courtesy of two other tech innovations that are dramatically changing the way we use consumer electronics: the cloud and the Internet of Things (IoT).

“We think there are some things that are missing from the debate that really have not been discussed,” says David O’Brien, senior researcher at the Berkman Center and head of the Center’s joint effort with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation—the so-called “Berklett” Cybersecurity Project.

“Perhaps the future is not one where we have gone dark completely but instead one where there are actually spots of darkness and spots of light at the same time,” O’Brien says. “There’s also this emerging Internet of Things. And if it’s as wildly successful as people forecast it to be, that could really change a lot of methods of conducting surveillance.”

The report notes that for all the powerful encryption a user’s smartphone might offer, other Internet-connected devices have less stringent encryption protocols (if any) on them. So rather than cops being stymied because the bad guy’s iPhone conversations are encrypted, they can find new inroads by turning to his smart TV or voice-activated car entertainment system.

As long ago as 2001, O’Brien says, the FBI was already exploring such a backdoor approach for monitoring a suspected mobster.

“The FBI was surveilling people who were suspected of being members of organized crime, and the suspects… would only talk when they were in the car driving,” O’Brien says. But the suspects’ car was equipped with voice-activated in-car technology—like those used by OnStar, ATX and others. So the FBI asked for permission to wiretap the car through this technology.

The courts ultimately denied the order, but only because enabling the FBI to wiretap the car in that case would have meant turning off other safety features.

The decision, O’Brien says, “Leaves the door pretty wide open…It’s certainly plausible that you could repurpose a microphone or a camera that’s capable of taking video or still images for surveillance purposes.”

Ultimately, O’Brien says, strong cryptography in consumer tech means increased inconvenience and fewer and less powerful features and services. Given the choice, for instance, would you want a perfectly encrypted cloud backup service that would leave you out in the cold if you lost the key, or would you rather have backup that could still restore data even after losing your key? The biggest consumer tech company in the world has an answer to that question.

“iCloud is enabled by default on Apple devices,” the report says. “Although Apple does encrypt iCloud backups, it holds the keys so that users who have lost everything are not left without recourse. So while the data may be protected from outside attackers, it is still capable of being decrypted by Apple.”

Bruce Schneier, one of the report’s co-authors, adds that there’s still plenty for consumers to be concerned about with the technologies the report considers.

In a recent blog post, Schneier calls the problem the “world-sized web”—the increasingly pervasive encroachment of internet-connected devices into every aspect of our lives. So the FBI’s warnings about an individual’s ability to “go dark,” are a paradox, he says, because they highlight just how many points of “light” investigators have now or will soon enjoy.

“We’re not being asked to choose between security and privacy. We’re being asked to choose between less security and more security,” Schneier writes in the new report.

“Ubiquitous encryption protects us much more from bulk surveillance than from targeted surveillance,” he says. “For a variety of technical reasons, computer security is extraordinarily weak. If a sufficiently skilled, funded, and motivated attacker wants in to your computer, they’re in. If they’re not, it’s because you’re not high enough on their priority list to bother with. Widespread encryption forces the listener—whether a foreign government, criminal, or terrorist—to [select a] target. And this hurts repressive governments much more than it hurts terrorists and criminals.”

The bottom line is that, as long as market forces continue to shape consumer technology, it’s doubtful that the FBI’s dire forecasts about losing back doors that enable it monitor criminal behavior will ever come true. The cloud and the Internet of Things will likely provide plenty of snooping opportunities for the agency and others like it.

What’s Behind North Korea’s Space Launch? A View From the Inside

Update, 7 February 2016: North Korea declares that at 9 a.m. local time it launched an “earth observation satellite” into orbit. The launch was followed by condemnation by Japan, South Korea, and the United States, who doubt the peaceful intentions of such a test. Jim Oberg’s own doubts stem from his on-the-ground observations of the North Korean space program in 2012.

North Korea has told the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization that it plans to launch a new space rocket this month, its first in more than three years. The stated aim of the launch is to deliver an Earth-observation satellite into orbit. But the plan, which comes hot on the heels of the country’s nuclear test last month, has drawn criticism and concern from a number of countries, who point out that this same technology can be used to produce a ballistic missile with a range of thousands of miles. There is very good reason to suspect that the peaceful objective is camouflage for a weapons program. To dispel any ambiguity about that point, let me offer some on-the-ground perspective.

Four years ago this April, I stood with a small group of journalists on the site of this coming launch, a rocket base called Sohae. The launch site is on a long concrete apron set amongst hills just inland from the rugged northwestern coast of the Korean peninsula. We had been invited to the site by the North Korean government to see a rocket and verify its peaceful purpose, which we were told was to launch a small observation satellite to monitor the country’s agriculture.

Everything we saw suggested just the opposite. The rocket was based on 1950s Soviet military missile designs. And the launch pad used road transport to move its rocket sections, deliver propellant, and perform other logistics. This is typical for a system that needs to be dispersed quickly to hide from enemy attacks (civilian spaceports usually use rail for transporting components and lengthy buried pipelines for fueling).

These then were features of a missile site. But I did see evidence to the contrary. Standing at one end of the apron, perhaps 50 meters from the rocket and its latticework tower, I turned and looked in the other direction. The far end of the apron was empty. But there were insets into the concrete as if for a future rail line that might lead there. And when I turned back to the rocket itself, I saw those lines lead right up to the rocket’s railway-style wheeled base. It became clear what belonged at the opposite, empty end of the apron: an unbuilt mobile service structure for assembly of even larger rockets. Such a structure—expensive to build and difficult to hide—is a feature of a space launch facility, not a military base.

We never saw the launch we’d been promised. Five days later, in total secrecy, the rocket took off and exploded. Had we been warned of the launch, we could have seen it high in the western sky from our hotel parking lot. Our hosts never told us what happened. In stunning Orwellian fashion, they seemed to forget what we’d originally been invited for, and expressed hope we’d enjoy our new activity plan: watching the unveiling of new statue of Kim Jong Il.

Once back at home, I remembered all I had seen there—especially the empty south end of the apron where the future rocket service towers were clearly intended to appear. And so you can imagine my interest when I recently saw a new set of satellite images of the launch pad. There, on the formerly empty end of the apron, was not just one tower structure, but two. And already on the pad, shrouded by weather drapes we’d also seen before, could have been a new rocket.

A rocket service tower does call to mind other civilian space efforts. Ostensibly, this new launch is a repeat of the April 2012 launch we didn’t see, and a subsequent launch in December 2012, which did succeed in putting something into orbit (North Korea’s first “something” of the sort, though it was never observed to send any radio signals).

So what is it this time? Is North Korea aiming to launch a satellite? Or will this be a test of its military missile technology?

As was the case in 2012, this new test could very well be both. It’s not clear how many stages the new rocket has, but the first and second stages of a ballistic missile launch vehicle—all that’s needed for such a launch—and a space launch vehicle are practically identical. North Korea could send up a dummy mass to test those stages. It could plan the launch so that it appears to be aiming for a north-south ‘sun synchronous’ orbit, and just drop the rocket stages along the way. The second stage nominally falls into the western Pacific near the Philippines. An additional falling object—a warhead or a mass standing in for one—would be unnoticed in the clutter. Recovery wouldn’t even be necessary. A brief burst of telemetry after a successful reentry, followed by ocean impact and sinking into very deep water, would be adequate to pull off the ruse. The masquerade could be completed by including a smaller third stage that would press on into orbit. Or, if the warhead or dummy atop the second stage is too heavy, the third stage and satellite can be entirely omitted and a “sad failure” can be announced afterwards.

Nothing we were shown in 2012 ruled out this last scenario. In fact, while we were shown a spacecraft that we were told was going to be launched, we never saw it installed atop the rocket. We saw a pointed cylindrical shroud on top of the second stage that could have held a large warhead or a third rocket stage along with a satellite or warhead; we never found out what was inside it.

I got so insistent on this issue that the exasperated control center director asked me if I wanted a chair installed on the third stage for me to ride on, to verify the presence of the satellite. I immediately accepted his offer with a grin, but offered a compromise: pictures. Then I gave him my hotel room number for delivery. He promised to send some, but they never arrived.

North Korea’s push for its own satellites is somewhat puzzling to me. As a small country, it can easily monitor its agriculture with aerial photos from aircraft. If space views are required, they can be purchased commercially from a number of companies.

But the country insists on “self reliance,” and it has pushed to create the impression among its own citizens that it already has a robust space program. The coming launch, supported by vastly upgraded launch facilities, could very well be just an insanely expensive ego-boost for the regime. That it might be camouflage for a weapons program cannot prudently be excluded. That it might be a wise investment to improve living conditions is probably the most preposterous suggestion. But the fact of the matter is that even if the goal of mission is exactly what North Korea says it is, the rocket test will still have a military benefit.

I’ll be watching with great interest—but this time, from a distance.  I will never personally set foot on that launch site concrete again—of that I’m sure. In 2012, Pyongyang made two mistakes that they won’t repeat: First, they let me in; then they let me out.

A Deep Learning AI Chip for Your Phone

Neural networks learn to recognize objects in images and perform other artificial intelligence tasks with a very low error rate. (Just last week, a neural network built by Google’s Deep Mind lab in London beat a master of the complex Go game—one of the grand challenges of AI.) But they’re typically too complex to run on a smartphone, where, you have to admit, they’d be pretty useful. Perhaps no more. At the IEEE International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday, MIT engineers presented a chip designed to use run sophisticated image-processing neural network software on a smartphone’s power budget.

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Fastest Light Pulses Show Electrons Are Sluggish

Electrons move fast, especially within an atom. But they have their limits, and those limits might put a top speed on future optoelectronic circuits. In this week’s issue of Nature  a team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute (MPI) of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, the Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and the Lomonosov Moscow State University report that it takes electrons in krypton atoms slightly more than 100 attoseconds to respond to extremely short light pulses. It is the first direct measurement of the electron’s innate sluggishness.

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To Respond to a Disease Outbreak, Bring in the Portable Genome Sequencers

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Using a genome sequencer smaller than a stapler, geneticists have demonstrated the role they can play in combating outbreaks of infectious disease. An eight-month experiment in Guinea during the tail end of the Ebola outbreak, described today in a the journal Nature, showed the potential of a genome sequencing technology that can be packed inside a suitcase and deployed in rural outposts.

With the Zika virus outbreak gaining momentum in the Americas, the Ebola experiment may offer useful lessons. “Having genome data is becoming part of the fundamental response to an outbreak,” says lead researcher Nick Loman, a geneticist at the University of Birmingham. By studying the genetic material of the virus across many patients, researchers can look for telltale mutations that reveal the paths of transmission. And if those routes are discovered quickly enough, public health officials could make decisions to change the course of the epidemic. 

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