Science X Newsletter Friday, Sep 25

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Here is your customized Science X Newsletter for September 25, 2020:

Spotlight Stories Headlines

The realization of active microscale Marangoni surfers

Using deep learning to control the unconsciousness level of patients in an anesthetic state

Machine learning takes on synthetic biology: algorithms can bioengineer cells for you

Materials scientists learn how to make liquid crystal shape-shift

Astronomers model, determine how disk galaxies evolve so smoothly

Provably exact artificial intelligence for nuclear and particle physics

Reprogrammable shape morphing of magnetic soft machines

Research challenges conventional wisdom about key autism trait

Simpler models may be better for determining some climate risk

3-D camera earns its stripes

The male Y chromosome does more than we thought

Tree rings show scale of Arctic pollution is worse than previously thought

US probe to touch down on asteroid Bennu on October 20

How to bounce back from stretched out stretchable sensors

Atom billiards with X-rays: A new approach to look inside molecules

Physics news

The realization of active microscale Marangoni surfers

Marangoni surfers are small particles that self-propel while straddling a fluid-fluid interface in a way similar to that in which a surfer moves on the surface of a wave. In recent years, self-propelling particles have become the focus of numerous physics studies, as they could serve as a model to study the motion of active Brownian objects with a broad range of velocities and interactions.

Provably exact artificial intelligence for nuclear and particle physics

The Standard Model of particle physics describes all the known elementary particles and three of the four fundamental forces governing the universe; everything except gravity. These three forces—electromagnetic, strong, and weak—govern how particles are formed, how they interact, and how the particles decay.

3-D camera earns its stripes

Stripes are in fashion this season at a Rice University lab, where researchers use them to make images that plain cameras could never capture.

Atom billiards with X-rays: A new approach to look inside molecules

In 1921, Albert Einstein received the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery that light is quantized, interacting with matter as a stream of particles called photons. Since these early days of quantum mechanics, physicists have known that photons also possess momentum. The photon's ability to transfer momentum was used in a novel approach by scientists of the Max Born Institute, Uppsala University and the European X-ray Free-Electron Laser Facility to observe a fundamental process in the interaction of X-rays with atoms. The detailed experimental and theoretical results are reported in the journal Science.

Spin clean-up method brings practical quantum computers closer to reality

Quantum computers are the new frontier in advanced research technology, with potential applications such as performing critical calculations, protecting financial assets, or predicting molecular behavior in pharmaceuticals. Researchers from Osaka City University have now solved a major problem hindering large-scale quantum computers from practical use: precise and accurate predictions of atomic and molecular behavior.

Physicists develop a method to improve gravitational wave detector sensitivity

Gravitational wave detectors have opened a new window to the universe by measuring the ripples in spacetime produced by colliding black holes and neutron stars, but they are ultimately limited by quantum fluctuations induced by light reflecting off of mirrors. LSU Ph.D. physics alumnus Jonathan Cripe and his team of LSU researchers have conducted a new experiment with scientists from Caltech and Thorlabs to explore a way to cancel this quantum backaction and improve detector sensitivity.

Physicists reveal connection between two nonperturbative parameters to help predict heavy meson production

Prof. Jia Yu from the Institute of High Energy Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and his collaborators, unveiled for the first time some deep connections between two fundamental nonperturbative parameters that characterize the intrinsic properties of heavy mesons—helpful for predicting heavy meson hard exclusive production processes with better accuracy. The study was published in Physical Review Letters, following up on a study published in Physical Review D in 2019.

Piezoelectric and laser ultrasonic system takes 3-D ultrasound images of solids

A new system, developed by Tohoku University researchers in Japan in collaboration with Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, takes 3-D images that can detect defects in metallic structures. The approach was published in the journal Applied Physics Letters and could enhance safety in power plants and airplanes.

The use of graph neural networks to discover particles

Machine learning algorithms can beat the world's hardest video games in minutes and solve complex equations faster than the collective efforts of generations of physicists. But the conventional algorithms still struggle to pick out stop signs on a busy street.

Antiferromagnet lattice arrangements influence phase transitions

Antiferromagnets contain orderly lattices of atoms and molecules, whose magnetic moments are always pointed in exactly opposite directions to those of their neighbors. These materials are driven to transition to other, more disorderly quantum states of matter, or 'phases,' by the quantum fluctuations of their atoms and molecules—but so far, the precise nature of this process hasn't been fully explored. Through new research published in EPJ B, Yoshihiro Nishiyama at Okayama University in Japan has found that the nature of the boundary at which this transition occurs depends on the geometry of an antiferromagnet's lattice arrangement.

Scientists capture light in a polymeric quasicrystal

ITMO University scientists have conducted several experiments to investigate polymeric quasicrystals that ultimately confirmed their initial theory. In the future, the use of quasicrystals may open up new possibilities for laser and sensor design. This paper was published in Advanced Optical Materials.

Researchers work to create a roadmap on quantum materials

The term 'quantum materials' was introduced to highlight the exotic properties of unconventional superconductors, heavy-fermion systems (materials with unusual electronic and magnetic properties) and multifunctional oxides. More recently, the definition has broadened to cover all the materials that allow scientists and engineers to explore emergent quantum phenomena and their potential applications.

Columbia leads effort to develop a quantum simulator

Quantum technologies—simulators and computers specifically—have the potential to revolutionize the 21st century, from improved national defense systems to drug discovery to more powerful sensors and communication networks.

Astronomy and Space news

Astronomers model, determine how disk galaxies evolve so smoothly

Computer simulations are showing astrophysicists how massive clumps of gas within galaxies scatter some stars from their orbits, eventually creating the smooth, exponential fade in the brightness of many galaxy disks.

US probe to touch down on asteroid Bennu on October 20

After a four-year journey, NASA's robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx will descend to asteroid Bennu's boulder-strewn surface on October 20, touching down for a few seconds to collect rock and dust samples, the agency said Thursday.

Pair of massive baby stars swaddled in salty water vapor

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), astronomers spotted a pair of massive baby stars growing in salty cosmic soup. Each star is shrouded by a gaseous disk which includes molecules of sodium chloride, commonly known as table salt, and heated water vapor. Analyzing the radio emissions from the salt and water, the team found that the disks are counter rotating. This is the second detection of salt around massive young stars, promising that salt is an excellent marker to explore the immediate surroundings of giant baby stars.

First candidate for an extragalactic planet identified

A team of researchers from the U.S. and China has found the first evidence for a candidate planet in another galaxy. In their paper uploaded to the arXiv preprint server, the team describes their work studying the possible planet and what they have found so far.

New measurements show moon has hazardous radiation levels

Future moon explorers will be bombarded with two to three times more radiation than astronauts aboard the International Space Station, a health hazard that will require thick-walled shelters for protection, scientists reported Friday.

Back to Venus: Upstart company wants to beat NASA in search for life

Can a small American aerospace company get to Venus before NASA returns to our superheated planetary neighbor?

Technology news

Using deep learning to control the unconsciousness level of patients in an anesthetic state

In recent years, researchers have been developing machine learning algorithms for an increasingly wide range of purposes. This includes algorithms that can be applied in healthcare settings, for instance helping clinicians to diagnose specific diseases or neuropsychiatric disorders or monitor the health of patients over time.

Reprogrammable shape morphing of magnetic soft machines

Shape-morphing magnetic soft machines have diverse applications in minimally invasive medicine, wearable devices and soft robotics. However, most magnetic programming approaches are inherently coupled to the fabrication processes, therefore they prevent reprogrammability of the machines. In a new report in Science Advances, Yunus Alapan and a multidisciplinary research team in Germany, Turkey, Switzerland and the U.S. described a high-throughput, magnetic programming strategy. To accomplish this, they heated magnetic soft materials containing embedded ferromagnetic particles above the Curie temperature of the embedded particles and reoriented their magnetic domains by applying external magnetic fields during cooling. The team demonstrated discrete, three-dimensional (3-D) and reprogrammable magnetization with high spatial resolution. Then, using the reprogrammable capacity, they configured the mechanical behavior of three objects—an auxetic metamaterial structure, tunable locomotion of a surface-walking robot and adaptive grasping of a soft gripper. The approach facilitated high-throughput magnetic programming to establish a rich design space and mass manufacturing potential to develop multiscale, reprogrammable soft robots.

How to bounce back from stretched out stretchable sensors

Elastic can stretch too far, which could be problematic for wearable sensors. A team of researchers at Yokohama National University has proposed a fix to prevent too much stretching while improving the sensing ability of electronics. This could lead to advanced prosthetics or disaster recovery robotics.

Google launches AI lip-sync challenge

Google has launched a lip-sync challenge for anyone who cares to participate. Those interested can visit the site Google has set up and test their lip-synching skills. The challenge is being run by Google's AI Experiments group—the same group behind Google's Pixel device.

New storage battery more efficient and heat-resistant

The share of energy from renewable sources is constantly on the rise in Germany. At the beginning of 2020, for the first time ever, renewable energy was able to cover more than half of the electricity consumed in Germany. But the more important renewable energy sources become, the more urgent is the need to store the electricity produced in this way. Green energy could then also be used when the sun is not shining on the solar panels or no airflow is driving the wind turbines. To achieve this, suitable energy storage devices are indispensable. Researchers at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena (Germany) have recently developed promising new polymer electrolytes for redox flow batteries, which are flexible, efficient, and environmentally friendly. They report on their success in the current issue of the renowned research journal Advanced Energy Materials.

Bolstering AI by tapping human testers

Advances in artificial intelligence depend on continual testing of massive amounts of data. This benchmark testing allows researchers to determine how "intelligent" AI is, spot weaknesses and then develop stronger, smarter models.

Hacked software provider won't say if ransomware involved

A day after informing customers that it had been hacked by an unknown intruder, a major U.S. provider of software services to state and local governments —including posting election data online— said the impact appeared limited and there is no reason to believe its customers were affected.

Justice Dept. expected to file antitrust action vs. Google

The Justice Department is expected to bring an antitrust action against Google in coming weeks, focusing on its dominance in online search and whether it was used to stifle competition and hurt consumers, a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press Thursday.

BMW fined $18 mn in US over inflated sales data

US securities regulators charged BMW with inflating its retail sales volumes to investors, fining the luxury car company $18 million in a settlement announced Thursday.

Did I leave the stove on? Amazon's flying camera can check

Amazon wants to be able to answer the nagging question: Did I leave the stove on?

EU Commission appeals after losing Apple $15B tax case

The European Commission said Friday it is appealing a court decision that Apple doesn't have to repay 13 billion euros ($15 billion) in back taxes to Ireland.

Report finds AI and blockchain could transform Australia's transport sector

Curtin University-led research has found that applications of artificial intelligence and blockchain technology are set to revolutionize the transport sector in the coming decade and Australia needs to move quickly in order to capture the benefits.

Your personal data is the currency of the digital age

The commodification of the internet in the early 1990s brought western societies into the digital age and has changed the way consumers interact with commercial enterprises.

Facebook critics start rival, independent 'oversight board'

A group of prominent Facebook critics, including one of the social network's early investors and a journalist facing jail time in the Philippines, are launching their version of an "oversight board" to rival the company's own.

Boeing 737 MAX could get EU clearance 'by year's end'

Boeing's troubled 737 MAX airliner, grounded for 18 months after two deadly accidents, could receive certification to fly again in Europe "by the end of the year", the EU's air safety chief said Friday.

Neural network for low-memory IoT devices

A scientist from Russia has developed a new neural network architecture and tested its learning ability on the recognition of handwritten digits. The intelligence of the network was amplified by chaos, and the classification accuracy reached 96.3%. The network can be used in microcontrollers with a small amount of RAM and embedded in such household items as shoes or refrigerators, making them 'smart.' The study was published in Electronics.

Blockchain contact tracing app aims to win public trust to tackle COVID-19

A new form of digital contact tracing which uses unbreakable encryption to secure personal data could help win the level of public engagement required to fight the spread of COVID-19, scientists say.

Google to increase push for apps to give cut of in-app purchases

Google plans to push harder for developers to give the company a cut of in-app purchases through its Play app store, according to people with knowledge of the move.

Google's search business targeted in looming US antitrust case

Google's search engine, one of the most-profitable businesses in history, is about to face its biggest challenge as the U.S. government readies an antitrust lawsuit accusing the company of crushing competition to protect and extend its monopoly.

How to bring Zoom to your TV (coming soon) with Alexa

If you're also tired of taking daily Zoom calls on your laptop, maybe you'd prefer to just turn on the TV, lay back, and learn or conduct business from the couch.

Apple Watch Series 6: Is it worth it to upgrade?

It's been just over a week since Apple unveiled its latest fitness device: the Apple Watch Series 6.

Google removes street view virtual tour of Australia's Uluru

Google has removed images from its Street View that allowed users to virtually walk on Australia's Uluru, a sacred Aboriginal site closed to tourists since last year, the company said Friday.

House backs bill to boost 'clean energy,' enhance efficiency

The House has approved a modest bill to promote "clean energy" and increase energy efficiency while phasing out the use of coolants in air conditioners and refrigerators that are considered a major driver of global warming.

Uber banned more than 1,250 riders for not adhering to its mask policy, app says

Uber has removed more than 1,250 riders from its platform for not adhering to its mask wearing rules, the company says. And it is expanding its tools to identify those who are intentionally defiant moving forward.

Neural networks restore microscopic images

Skoltech Ph.D. student Valeriya Pronina presented her work on microscopy image restoration at the computer vision conference ECCV 2020. For the idea behind this research, Valeriya was awarded the Ostrogradski scholarship from the French government and invited to conduct a joint research in a laboratory at the Lyon National Institute of Applied Sciences (INSA Lyon) in France.

Hacked software provider acknowledges ransomware attack

A major U.S. provider of software services to state and local governments acknowledged Friday it was hit by a ransomware attack two days after telling clients an unknown intruder had compromised its phone and information technology systems.

How British grannies are spreading QAnon conspiracy theory memes on Facebook

A headteacher in Stoke-on-Trent told me that, alongside ensuring a COVID-safe return to school for her pupils this September, she's having to reassure parents that their children will not be forcibly taken away and isolated in a secret location if they start coughing in class.

US won't back off plan for TikTok download ban: court filing

The Trump administration said Friday it would not back down from a plan to ban new US downloads of the popular video-sharing app TikTok, setting up a court showdown ahead of a Sunday deadline.

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The Ring drone is just the latest Amazon privacy puzzle box

"I'd be more worried about the camera on your phone than I would be about a drone," Amazon devices SVP Dave Limp told me in an interview a few hours after yesterday's big Echo event. The drone in question is the Ring Always Home Cam, an autonomous indoor drone that can use a map of your home to independently fly around to check out strange noises or run a patrol when you're not home.

The drone was just one of well over a dozen product announcements Amazon made yesterday — including a full-on game streaming service to compete directly with Microsoft and Google. But everybody's visceral reaction to the idea of an Amazon-powered drone flitting its camera about your house is what will be remembered.

Box CEO Aaron Levie pretty much summed it up, tweeting, "If 2020 wasn't already dystopian enough for you, Amazon just announced an indoor flying drone camera." The second-most popular response is that this thing would get absolutely wrecked by an overeager cat or dog.

More on the reaction -- and what I really think about it -- after the links.

- Dieter

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All the news from Amazon's event

┏ Amazon's fall hardware event: the 13 biggest announcements.

Echo news

┏ Amazon redesigns the Echo with a new spherical design and a custom machine learning processor.

┏ Amazon rolls out new ball-shaped Echo Dots, starting at $50.

┏ Amazon's new Echo Show 10 moves to look at you.

┏ Amazon's Echo Show smart displays will soon stream Netflix video.

┏ Amazon unveils new Guard Plus subscription for $4.99 per month.

┏ Amazon's AZ1 Neural Edge processor will make Alexa voice commands even faster.

┏ Don't worry, you can still buy a dot-shaped Echo Dot.

A new gaming service, Luna

┏ Amazon announces new cloud gaming service called Luna.

┏ Amazon's Luna cloud gaming service sounds an awful lot like the cable of video games.

Ring news

┏ Ring plans to offer end-to-end encryption by the end of the year.

┏ Ring announces new line of security cameras for cars.

┏ Ring's latest security camera is a drone that flies around inside your house.

┏ Amazon's new Ring drone stops the world's most hapless thief in bass-slapping ad.

┏ We have a few questions about Amazon's flying indoor security camera drone.

More Amazon news

┏ The latest Eero mesh Wi-Fi routers support Wi-Fi 6.

┏ Alexa's latest upgrades help it listen to multiple people and ask clarifying questions.

┏ Amazon announces $29.99 Fire TV Stick Lite and upgraded Fire TV Stick.

The Ring drone is just the latest Amazon privacy puzzle box

Recoiling was my first reaction, too — and even now, when I look at a video of the drone floating out of its dock to roam an empty house, I still feel unsettled. But I also feel unsettled by the idea of having a security camera connected to a cloud inside my house in the first place. In fact, I would argue that's worse. At least with this drone, you are very aware when it's recording because it's loudly making drone noises. Amazon hilariously calls this "privacy you can hear."

Hilarious, but also accurate. With a compromised indoor security camera, you'd never know somebody was looking in. And it's happened — with people experiencing strangers taking over their cameras because they reused their password. Or worse, because a Ring employee was looking at video they shouldn't have been.

But the drone creeped people out in ways the existing security cameras didn't, and I think it's because it moves without directly being controlled. That adds a level of agency and intentionality. A stationary camera sees what we point it at. A drone could see anything in our house. Instead of rising from a plastic docking station, it might as well be rising straight out of the uncanny valley.

Amazon is building a track record of products that make people do a double-take when they think about how it might affect their privacy. The drone, the other Ring cameras and features, the Sidewalk mesh network, the Halo app that asks you to be scanned in your underpants: there's almost a shamelessness to them. It's like Amazon has taken a dare to make the most unsettling consumer products it could.

There is also a strange tension between products that genuinely feel creepy and the reality that Amazon is doing a lot of the right things when it comes to privacy. It has added two-factor authentication to Ring cameras and will soon offer the option for end-to-end encryption for video, so nobody but you could possibly access it. It's adding more ways to delete your data by talking to Alexa, and it has a privacy control dashboard that is quite good.

I'm no Amazon apologist, though. Even though I don't think the drone is nearly as problematic as the rest of the internet seems to, I still have a boatload of worries about other products from Amazon. Ring has toed (and sometimes crossed) the line of being too cozy with law enforcement, and I worry about its effects on neighborhood cultures, in general.

Then there's Sidewalk. It's Amazon's new mesh network that allows its devices and third-party devices to see and communicate with each other at medium distances — say, less than half a mile. As with trackers like Tile (which will soon work with Sidewalk), devices can securely communicate their location through the mesh network, and Sidewalk can also be used for simple commands for IoT devices, like checking to see if your mailbox was opened.

Sidewalk isn't live yet, but it was mentioned as a key spec in many of the products Amazon announced yesterday. That means, as people buy these products, Amazon's Sidewalk network will soon begin blanketing cities. It won't take very many of them, either, as Amazon noted last year.

For example, just a week ago Amazon employees and their friends and family joined together to conduct a test using 700 Ring lighting products which support 900 MHz connections. Employees installed these devices around their home as typical customers do, and in just days, these individual network points combined to support a secure low-bandwidth 900MHz network for things like lights and sensors that covered much of the Los Angeles Basin, one of the largest metropolitan regions in the United States by land area.

I've written about my concerns with Sidewalk in the past. As with the drone, I instinctively recoil at the idea of an unregulated wireless mesh network that can locate gadgets being built simply because people want an Echo or a Ring doorbell.

But again, as with the drone, Amazon has privacy-focused answers for each of the most obvious concerns I could think of. It's spent the past year stress-testing its security to harden it against hackers who might want to use it to reveal your location. There are multiple layers of encryption and limits on bandwidth usage to prevent malfeasance. It's opened up an API for developers and gotten Tile on board as a third-party vendor. Amazon says that any Sidewalk gateway (like an Echo) will allow a customer to turn off Sidewalk if they don't want to participate.

(As an aside: Apple might have similar ambitions for the UWB chips it has begun putting into its more recent products. It still hasn't announced those AirTags, and it seems to me that its UWB chips are meant for something more than just AirDrop and unlocking luxury cars.)

I probably (and yes, probably naively) trust that Amazon has carefully thought through much of that in good faith. I even believe Limp when he tells me that it's doing a lot to protect it from hackers, that Amazon doesn't intend to collect more data than it needs, and that it will never share location data with third parties. He can't help but also point out that our phones' location data has already been bought and sold by sketchy companies multiple times over.

Responsibly maintained, Sidewalk will enable all sorts of neat use cases. Ring will have a little auto-accident-detection gadget you can buy for 60 bucks that only communicates via Sidewalk — obviating the need for the subscription plans other companies and carriers charge. The fact that Amazon is confident enough to release that kind of product without bothering with an LTE connection tells me that it expects it won't need one for it to work. Sidewalk will be everywhere.

Here's another one: Halo, Amazon's fitness service that allows you to create a 3D scan of your body that it can use to measure your body fat. Again: very creepy. And again, Amazon has answers for most of the immediate what-abouts when it comes to privacy and security.

It's not the known problems that worry me. It's the unknown unknowns. If there is any lesson we should take from the last decade, it's that new technologies have both vast unforeseen consequences and surprising, weird loopholes.

The current form of the drone, the mesh network, and the body scanner may all be private enough to be safe to use, but even then, they still seem creepy. They come right out of a future that we suddenly aren't so eager to rush toward anymore after the last half-decade of technological convulsions have wracked the country.

The worry isn't necessarily that this year's products are the problem, although it's fair and maybe even reasonable to have that worry. It's that this year's products push the envelope of acceptability again, opening up a space for future products and services that will harm our privacy — or even our society.

Amazon has answers for my biggest privacy concerns, and some of them are even pretty good. But it's the problems I haven't thought to worry about that worry me, and I'm not sure anybody can really have an answer for those.

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You are reading Processor, a newsletter about computers by Dieter Bohn. Dieter writes about consumer tech, software, and the most important news of the day from The Verge. This newsletter delivers about four times a week, at least a couple of which include longer essays.

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