Science X Newsletter Thursday, Nov 14

Dear ymilog,

Here is your customized Science X Newsletter for November 14, 2019:

Spotlight Stories Headlines

A unifying approach for controlling flying robotic insects

A new theoretical model to capture spin dynamics in Rydberg molecules

Graphene: The more you bend it, the softer it gets

Simulation reveals how bacterial organelle converts sunlight to chemical energy

Researchers generate terahertz laser with laughing gas

Research team develops tiny low-energy device to rapidly reroute light in computer chips

IPTF14hls may be a variable hyper-wind from a very massive star, study suggests

Evolution can reconfigure gene networks to deal with environmental change

New RNA molecules may play a role in aging

Study finds 'hyperhotspots' that could predict skin cancer risk

Climate may have helped crumble one of the ancient world's most powerful civilizations

Future rainfall could far outweigh current climate predictions

No deliveries: How cells decide when to accept extracellular packages

China tests Mars lander in international cooperation push

Top cosmologist's lonely battle against 'Big Bang' theory

Physics news

A new theoretical model to capture spin dynamics in Rydberg molecules

Rydberg molecules are giant molecules made up of tens or hundreds of atoms bound to a Rydberg atom. These molecules have a permanent dipole (i.e., a pair of oppositely charged or magnetized poles), as one of their atoms is in a highly excited state.

Researchers generate terahertz laser with laughing gas

Within the electromagnetic middle ground between microwaves and visible light lies terahertz radiation, and the promise of "T-ray vision."

Research team develops tiny low-energy device to rapidly reroute light in computer chips

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and their colleagues have developed an optical switch that routes light from one computer chip to another in just 20 billionths of a second—faster than any other similar device. The compact switch is the first to operate at voltages low enough to be integrated onto low-cost silicon chips and redirects light with very low signal loss.

Top cosmologist's lonely battle against 'Big Bang' theory

James Peebles won this year's Nobel prize in physics for helping transform the field of cosmology into a respected science, but if there's one term he hates to hear, it's "Big Bang Theory."

Quantum transition makes electrons behave as if they lack spin

The common phase transitions are those that occur as a function of temperature variation. Ice changes phase to become liquid water at 0 degrees Celsius. Liquid water changes phase to become water vapor at 100 degrees Celsius. Similarly, magnetic materials become nonmagnetic at critical temperatures. However, there are also phase transitions that do not depend on temperature. They occur in the vicinity of absolute zero [-273.15 degrees Celsius] and are associated with quantum fluctuations.

Physicists irreversibly split photons by freezing them in a Bose-Einstein condensate

Light can be directed in different directions, usually also back the same way. Physicists from the University of Bonn and the University of Cologne have, however, succeeded in creating a new one-way street for light. They cool photons down to a Bose-Einstein condensate, which causes the light to collect in optical "valleys" from which it can no longer return. The findings from basic research could also be of interest for the quantum communication of the future. The results are published in Science.

Quantum physics: Our study suggests objective reality doesn't exist

Alternative facts are spreading like a virus across society. Now it seems they have even infected science—at least the quantum realm. This may seem counter intuitive. The scientific method is after all founded on the reliable notions of observation, measurement and repeatability. A fact, as established by a measurement, should be objective, such that all observers can agree with it.

From a cloud of cold and a spark, researchers create and stabilize pure polymeric nitrogen for the first time

Scientists have long theorized that the energy stored in the atomic bonds of nitrogen could one day be a source of clean energy. But coaxing the nitrogen atoms into linking up has been a daunting task. Researchers at Drexel University's C&J Nyheim Plasma Institute have finally proven that it's experimentally possible—with some encouragement from a liquid plasma spark.

New solar power generator to be deployed to space station

A new solar power generator prototype developed by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and research teams in the United States, will be deployed on the first 2020 NASA flight launch to the International Space Station.

From sci-fi to science lab: Holograms you can 'feel'

Walking, talking holograms have been a staple of sci-fi films since Princess Leia was magically brought to life in "Star Wars".

How do you make the world's most powerful neutrino beam?

What do you need to make the most intense beam of neutrinos in the world? Just a few magnets and some pencil lead. But not your usual household stuff. After all, this is the world's most intense high-energy neutrino beam, so we're talking about jumbo-sized parts: magnets the size of park benches and ultrapure rods of graphite as tall as Danny DeVito.

Astronomy & Space news

IPTF14hls may be a variable hyper-wind from a very massive star, study suggests

A source known as iPTF14hls, assumed to be a Type IIP supernova, may be a long-term outflow similar to stellar winds, according to a new study published November 5 on arXiv.org. The new research proposes that iPTF14hls is most likely a so-called "hyper-wind"—an extreme mass outflow from a massive star.

China tests Mars lander in international cooperation push

China showed off its Mars spacecraft during a landing test Thursday as the country pushes for inclusion in more global space projects.

Two cosmic peacocks show violent history of the magellanic clouds

Two peacock-shaped gaseous clouds were revealed in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) by observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). A team of astronomers found several massive baby stars in the complex filamentary clouds, which agrees well with computer simulations of giant collisions of gaseous clouds. The researchers interpret this to mean that the filaments and young stars are telltale evidence of violent interactions between the LMC and the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) 200 million years ago.

What's the best way to sail from world to world? Electric sails or solar sails?

In the past decade, thousands of planets have been discovered beyond our solar system. This has had the effect of renewing interest in space exploration, which includes the possibility of sending spacecraft to explore exoplanets. Given the challenges involved, a number of advanced concepts are currently being explored, like the time-honored concept of a light sail (as exemplified by Breakthrough Starshot and similar proposals).

Now in space: A cutting-edge satellite the size of a shoebox built by students

Just be thankful there are students like Paige Northway and Nathan Wacker, two University of Washington students who think it's neat to work on stuff like a satellite the size of a shoebox.

New moon-seeking sensor aims to improve earth observations

A new instrument with its eye on the Moon is taking off aboard a high-altitude NASA plane to measure the Moon's brightness and eventually help Earth observing sensors make more accurate measurements.

NASA warned of safety risks in delayed private crew launches

NASA auditors warn the space agency faces "significant safety and technical challenges" that need to be solved before astronauts fly in private capsules.

Technology news

A unifying approach for controlling flying robotic insects

One of the key problems confronting researchers in the field of microrobotics is designing and implementing reliable controllers for insect-scale micro air vehicles (FWMAVs), which are tiny flying robots typically inspired by insects. In fact, although these insect-size robots could have numerous useful applications, for instance, assisting humans in search and rescue missions or in agriculture, developing controllers that match their size and structure has so far proved to be difficult.

Security problems found in 5G protocol

A combined team of researchers from the University of Iowa and Purdue University has found nearly a dozen security breaches in the 5G protocol. They have written a paper describing both their findings and a security breaching tool they developed called 5GReasoner, and have uploaded it to the Documentcloud server.

Design flaw could open Bluetooth devices to hacking

Mobile apps that work with Bluetooth devices have an inherent design flaw that makes them vulnerable to hacking, new research has found.

A new parallel strategy for tackling turbulence on Summit

Turbulence, the state of disorderly fluid motion, is a scientific puzzle of great complexity. Turbulence permeates many applications in science and engineering, including combustion, pollutant transport, weather forecasting, astrophysics, and more. One of the challenges facing scientists who simulate turbulence lies in the wide range of scales they must capture to accurately understand the phenomenon. These scales can span several orders of magnitude and can be difficult to capture within the constraints of the available computing resources.

AI for plant breeding in an ever-changing climate

How might artificial intelligence (AI) impact agriculture, the food industry, and the field of bioengineering? Dan Jacobson, a research and development staff member in the Biosciences Division at the US Department of Energy's (DOE's) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), has a few ideas.

Modeling every building in America starts with Chattanooga

Buildings use 40 percent of America's primary energy and 75 percent of its electricity, which can jump to 80 percent when a majority of the population is at home using heating or cooling systems and the seasons reach their extremes.

Facebook says AI getting better at spying unwanted content

Facebook on Wednesday said that its software is getting more skilled at spying banned content at the social network, then working with humans to quickly remove terrorist videos and more.

Taiwan halts sales of three Huawei phones in wording row

Taiwan has suspended sales of three Huawei smartphone models that listed it as "Taiwan, China" for timezones and contacts—a designation the self-ruled, democratic island bristles at.

Motorola flips for its futuristic foldable phone

Motorola is bracing for the future by returning to the past. The company is adapting its historical flip-phone design for a smartphone with a foldable screen.

Software helps planners design walkable cities

Walkable cities reduce traffic congestion, which causes around 3.3 million deaths and $121 billion in economic losses every year. But when architects are developing pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, they often rely on trial and error, intuition or specialized simulations that are hard to use and to incorporate into their designs.

Report exposes flaw in iVote system used in New South Wales election

Flaws in the iVote internet and telephone voting system used in the 2019 New South Wales election could have made it vulnerable to undetectable voter fraud, a new report has revealed.

Convoy, the 'Uber for Trucking' app, scores $400 million in new round of funding

Convoy, the Seattle-based company whose app promises to make the freight process more reliable and efficient, said it has raised $400 million in its latest funding round, announced Wednesday.

Buddy Adventures and Niantic Wayfarer coming to 'Pokémon Go'

Augmented reality has always been a key component to "Pokemon Go." It was a major feature when the mobile game was released, and over time, Niantic has expanded that element and refined it.

Five years ago Amazon introduced Alexa. The name may never be the same. Here's what happened

About 4,250 Alexas are turning five in the U.S. this year. One of them is Amazon's.

Google Flights aims to save air travelers money with new alerts on nearby airports, travel dates

Google Flights is trying to make the process of booking a flight a little easier—and less stressful—with some new updates.

Consumer Reports finds vehicle redesigns come with glitches

When it comes to buying a new car, the latest and greatest may not be the most dependable.

Scientists design built-in controls for mini-chemical labs on a chip

Since the 1990s, scientists have been exploring the possibilities of miniaturized chemical "laboratories" on a chip, which have potential as point-of-care diagnostics, analysis kits for field research and someday even conducting chemical tests on other planets.

WPI engineers creating miniaturized, wireless oxygen sensor for sick infants

Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) are developing a sensor the size of a Band-Aid that will measure a baby's blood oxygen levels, a vital indication of the lungs' effectiveness and whether the baby's tissue is receiving adequate oxygen supply. Unlike current systems used in hospitals, this miniaturized wearable device will be flexible and stretchable, wireless, inexpensive, and mobile—possibly allowing the child to leave the hospital and be monitored remotely.

WeWork loses $1.25 billion in third quarter

WeWork racked up $1.25 billion in losses in the third quarter as it geared up for, and ultimately scuttled, its debut as a public company.

Robots with benefits: How sexbots are marketed as companions

When thinking of sexbots, companionship might not be the first word that comes to mind. But sexbot advertising promises more than sex toys. It is also selling emotional intimacy: robots marketed as if they are capable of meeting both physical and psychological needs.

Tech Q&A: Some slow PCs can't be made much faster

Q: About three months ago, I purchased an HP Pavilion laptop, model 17-ar050wm, that is clearly the slowest PC I've ever owned or used. I had a technician look for anything that could be turned off or deleted to make the PC run faster, but it hasn't helped. Is this a problem with the PC that I'll have to live with, or is there a remedy?

Review: 'Death Stranding' is 'Oregon Trail' with detours through Kojima's imagination

Look up the word "enigma" in the dictionary and you'll find a picture of "Death Stranding." Since it was revealed in 2016, the game raised more questions than answers. The project seemed like an amalgamation of random images with gameplay that was equally as mysterious.

Computer scientists develop new tool that generates videos from themed text

In a world of novice photographers and videographers, capturing a deluge of content via their smartphones and handheld devices, there is a need for an intelligent, easy-to-use tool for automating the creation of movies and video montages. To date, many quality videos still rely on professional frame-based editing tools to manipulate raw footage and produce a coherent video with a captivating storyline.

A turbocharger for the supercomputer JUWELS

The Jülich supercomputer JUWELS will have a big brother, a so-called booster module, as Forschungszentrum Jülich, Atos, and ParTec have agreed. The module, equipped with several thousand graphics processors, is designed for extreme computing power and artificial intelligence tasks. It is designed as a Franco-German project together with NVIDIA and Mellanox using the co-design process. With the launch of the booster in 2020, the computing power of JUWELS will be increased from currently 12 to over 70 petaflops. This is equivalent to 70 trillion computing operations per second or the power of more than 300,000 modern PCs—no computer in Europe currently calculates faster.

New Jersey seeks $640M from Uber for misclassifying workers

New Jersey is seeking more than $640 million from Uber in taxes and penalties, saying the ride-hailing company misclassified its drivers as independent contractors.


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What is BCI? Everything you need to know about brain-computer interfaces and the future of mind-reading computers


Systems that allow humans to control or communicate with technology using only the electrical signals in the brains or muscles are fast becoming mainstream. Here's what you need to know.

By  |  | Topic: Digital Health and Wellness



What is a brain-computer interface? It can't be what it sounds like, surely? 

Yep, brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are precisely what they sound like -- systems that connect up the human brain to external technology.

It all sounds a bit sci-fi. Brain-computer interfaces aren't really something that people are using now, are they?

People are indeed using BCIs today -- all around you. At their most simple, a brain-computer interface can be used as a neuroprosthesis -- that is, a piece of hardware that can replace or augment nerves that aren't working properly. The most commonly used neuroprostheses are cochlear implants, which help people with damaged aural nerves to hear. Neuroprostheses to help replace damaged optic nerve function are less common, but a number of companies are developing them, and we're likely to see widespread uptake of such devices in the coming years.
SEE: Sensor'd enterprise: IoT, ML, and big data (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)
So why are brain-computer interfaces described as mind-reading technology?

That's where this technology is heading. There are systems, currently being piloted, that can translate your brain activity -- the electrical impulses -- into signals that software can understand. That means your brain activity can be measured; real-life mind-reading. Or you can use your brain activity to control a remote device. 
When we think, thoughts are transmitted within our brain and down into our body as a series of electrical impulses. Picking up such signals is nothing new: doctors already monitor the electrical activity in the brain using EEG (electroencephalography) and in the muscles using EMG (electromyography) as a way of detecting nerve problems. In medicine, EEG and EMG are used to find diseases and other nerve problems by looking for too much, too little or unexpected electrical activity in a patient's nerves.

Now, however, researchers and companies are looking at whether those electrical impulses could be decoded to give an insight into a person's thoughts.
Can BCIs read minds? Would they be able to tell what I'm thinking right now?

At present, no. BCIs can't read your thoughts precisely enough to know what your thoughts are at any given moment. Currently, they're more about picking up emotional states or which movements you intend to make. A BCI could pick up when someone is thinking 'yes' or 'no', but detecting more specific thoughts, like knowing you fancy a cheese sandwich right now or that your boss has been really annoying you, are beyond the scope of most brain-computer interfaces.

OK, so give me an example of how BCIs are used.
A lot of interest in BCIs is from medicine. BCIs could potentially offer a way for people with nerve damage to recover lost function. For example, in some spinal injuries, the electrical connection between the brain and the muscles in the limbs has been broken, leaving people unable to move their arms or legs. BCIs could potentially help in such injuries by either passing the electrical signals onto the muscles, bypassing the broken connection and allowing people to move again, or help patients use their thoughts to control robotics or prosthetic limbs that could make movements for them. 
They could also help people with conditions such as locked-in syndrome, who can't speak or move but don't have any cognitive problems, to make their wants and needs known
What about the military and BCIs?
Like many new technologies, BCIs have attracted interest from the military, and US military emerging technology agency DARPA is investing tens of millions of dollars in developing a brain-computer interface for use by soldiers.
More broadly, it's easy to see the appeal of BCIs for the military: soldiers in the field could patch in teams back at HQ for extra intelligence, for example, and communicate with each other without making a sound. Equally, there are darker uses that the army could put BCIs too -- like interrogation and espionage. 
What about Facebook and BCIs?  

Facebook has been championing the use of BCIs and recently purchased a BCI company, CTRL-labs, for a reported $1bnFacebook is looking at BCIs from two different perspectives. It's working with researchers to translate thoughts to speech, and its CTRL-labs acquisition could help interpret what movements someone wants to make from their brain signals alone. The common thread between the two is developing the next hardware interface.
Facebook is already preparing for the way we interface with our devices to change. In the same way we've moved from keyboard to mouse to touchscreen and most recently to voice as a way of controlling technology around us, Facebook is betting that the next big interface will be our thoughts. Rather than type your next status update, you could think it; rather than touch a screen to toggle between windows, you could simply move your hands in the air. 
I'm not sure I'm willing to have a chip put in my brain just to type a status update.

You may not need to: not all BCI systems require a direct interface to read your brain activity.
There are currently two approaches to BCIs: invasive and non-invasive. Invasive systems have hardware that's in contact with the brain; non-invasive systems typically pick up the brain's signals from the scalp, using head-worn sensors. 
The two approaches have their own different benefits and disadvantages. With invasive BCI systems, because electrode arrays are touching the brain, they can gather much more fine-grained and accurate signals. However, as you can imagine, they involve brain surgery and the brain isn't always too happy about having electrode arrays attached to it -- the brain reacts with a process called glial scarring, which in turn can make it harder for the array to pick up signals. Due to the risks involved, invasive systems are usually reserved for medical applications. 
Non-invasive systems, however, are more consumer friendly, as there's no surgery required -- such systems record electrical impulses coming from the skin either through sensor-equipped caps worn on the head or similar hardware worn on the wrist like bracelets. It's likely to be that in-your-face (or on-your-head) nature of the hardware that holds back adoption: early adopters may be happy to sport large and obvious caps, but most consumers won't be keen to wear an electrode-studded hat that reads their brain waves. 
There are, however, efforts to build less intrusive non-invasive systems: DARPA, for example, is funding research into non-surgical BCIs and one day the necessary hardware could be small enough to be inhaled or injected. 
Why are BCIs becoming a thing now?

Researchers have been interested in the potential of BCIs for decades, but the technology has come on at a far faster pace than many have predicted, thanks largely to better artificial intelligence and machine-learning software. As such systems have become more sophisticated, they've been able to better interpret the signals coming from the brain, separate the signals from the noise, and correlate the brain's electrical impulses with actual thoughts. 
Should I worry about people reading my thoughts without my permission? What about mind control?

On a practical level, most BCIs are only unidirectional -- that is, they can read thoughts, but can't put any ideas into users' minds. That said, experimental work is already being undertaken around how people can communicate through BCIs: one recent project from the University of Washington allowed three people to collaborate on a Tetris-like game using BCIs
The pace of technology development being what it is, bidirectional interfaces will be more common before too long. Especially if Elon Musk's BCI outfit Neuralink has anything to do with it. 
What is Neuralink? 

Elon Musk galvanised interest in BCIs when he launched Neuralink. As you'd expect from anything run by Musk, there's an eye-watering level of both ambition and secrecy. The company's website and Twitter feed revealed very little about what it was planning, although Musk occasionally shared hints, suggesting it was working on brain implants in the form of 'neural lace', a mesh of electrodes that would sit on the surface of the brain. The first serious information on Neuralink's technology came with a presentation earlier this year, showing off a new array that can be implanted into the brain's cortex by surgical robots.
Like a lot of BCIs, Neuralink's was framed initially as a way to help people with neurological disorders, but Musk is looking further out, claiming that Neuralink could be used to allow humans a direct interface with artificial intelligence, so that humans are not eventually outpaced by AI. It might be that the only way to stop ourselves becoming outclassed by machines is to link up with them -- if we can't beat them, Musk's thinking goes, we may have to join them.