Innovation & Technology
Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

New network promises to be even more secure than Tor
July 13, 2016

Are you concerned about the privacy of your web surfing? Tor is free software that enables users to communicate anonymously. It hides a user's location and usage from anyone who might be snooping around. Tor makes it difficult to trace internet activity back to the user.

However, a hacker can still compromise Tor's users anonymity. But now researchers from MIT and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) might have created something better with Riffle. This new anonymity network promises to keep transactions private as long as one's server remains safe.

The secret behind Riffle is the use of a mixnet. Mixnets or mix networks are routing protocols that use a chain of proxy servers that take messages from different senders and shuffle them. Then the messages are sent to the destination in a random order.

This makes it hard for an eavesdropper to link the source with its receiver. In the case of Riffle it relies on a verifiable shuffle across all servers for the initial connection then an authentication encryption, where you have to prove the validity of the encrypted message itself, for the rest of the process. This way, even malicious servers have to shuffle the messages correctly so that things don't get messed up.

The technique is also exceptionally efficient, where it takes just a tenth of the time it takes a conventional anonymity network to transfer data. Riffle is still far from being perfect, but with its tougher security, it might become the top choice for those who don't like their business to be easily spied upon.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

Too much light weakens bones and changes immune system
July 14, 2016

Too much light is bad for your health. So suggests research in mice, which found that six months of continuous lighting led to a loss of strength and bone mass, and signs of increased inflammation. The findings are worrying for people who experience prolonged light exposure – such as shift-workers and hospital patients.

The experiment at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands involved 134 mice, which experienced no dark for half a year. By the end, the mice had lost about half their strength compared with controls, as measured by grip endurance tests and their ability to cling to bars, while the signals of their internal body clocks were weakened. Their bones were affected too. The bulbous, spongy parts of their bones lost a third of their volume, and became 10% thinner - just as in the early stages of osteoporosis. There were also signs of increased inflammation, such as a rise in the number of neutrophil white blood cells – usually associated with stress or infection.

These effects may be connected to disruption of the animals’ internal clocks. Under normal conditions, there is a clear difference between the signals given by clock neurons in the brain during the day and the night. When exposed to constant light, the difference in the strength of these signals was reduced by 70%.

The results support evidence from studies that have suggested that prolonged light exposure in people can affect health. For example, women who experience longer periods of light are more likely to fracture their bones, and such conditions also seem to be linked to an increased risk of cancer and metabolic diseases. However, the team found that the animals recovered when their dark night-times were restored.

Full story: New Scientist / Current Biology Back to top

Europe backs lunar drilling technology
July 14, 2016

The European Space Agency has signed a contract to build a prototype drill and chemistry lab that will be flown on a Russian mission to the Moon in 2021. Known as Prospect, the instrument package will be a key contribution to Moscow's Luna-Resurs venture. The equipment will pull up sub-surface material and analyse it for the presence of water and other substances. The contract to build the package has been signed with Italian aerospace giant Leonardo-Finmeccanica.

To take Prospect to full implementation will require European ministers to agree a further EUR 65m at their end-of-year gathering in Lausanne, Switzerland. That money will however also include the funds for the autonomous navigation system, called Pilot, which will be used to land the probe.

The touchdown location has not yet been agreed but many scientists would like it to be in South Pole Aitken Basin, a huge impact crater on the far side of the Moon. A primary mission goal is to see what resources may be in place to support future manned exploration. Finding water obviously is a big objective - but there will be other volatiles and minerals that could be exploited, according to ESA.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Mobile app for rain forecasts raising farmers’ yields
July 14, 2016

A mobile phone-based innovation that can predict rain is helping farmers in six Sub-Saharan Africa countries sow, fertilise and harvest crops at the optimum time.

The innovation is being used in Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal to improve crop yields and optimise food production through information and communication technology weather forecasting model that produces GPS-specific forecasts.

The mobile weather forecast innovation created by Sweden-based Ignitia was placed second at the US Agency for International Development and partners’ first Agricultural Innovation Investment Summit, which was held in Washington DC last month, winning a USD 5,000 prize. Ignitia says its innovation has a weather prediction accuracy rate of 84%.

Ignitia now wants to expand into other West Africa countries using a USD 2.5 million grant from the Securing Water for Food challenge funded by the governments of the US, Sweden, South Africa, and the Netherlands.

Full story: SciDev Back to top

Painting eyes on cows’ butts to stop lions getting shot
July 12, 2016

Scientists have come up with a solution that will reduce the number of lions being shot by farmers in Africa - painting eyes on the butts of cows. Early trials suggest that lions are less likely to attack livestock when they think they’re being watched - and less livestock attacks could help farmers and lions co-exist more peacefully.

The new technique is being tested by scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia, after they noticed that lions tended to back off when their prey, such as impala, looked at them. The use of fake eyes is found throughout nature as a way to repel predators - just think of butterflies, who can often have wing patterns that look like eyes to ward off predators.

But it’s not something that’s been done with larger predators before - and alternatives are definitely needed. There are now estimated to be between 23,000 and 39,000 African lions left in the wild, and they’re listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. But despite their conservation status, SAVE Wildlife Conservation Fund cites farmers killing lions in retaliation as one of the biggest threats to the species.

When the researchers stamped painted eyes onto a third of a herd of 62 cattle, and counted the returning cows over a 10-week period, no painted cows were killed by lions, while three unpainted cows were. The researchers admit that the sample size is too small to rule out chance in this experiment, but his team will be returning to Botswana in July for a further three-month test.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

Robots can crack the Turing test just by staying quiet
July 08, 2016

While it has its fair share of critics, the Turing test has become one of the most well-known ways of measuring artificial intelligence. The test, originally developed in 1950, states that if a human being can't tell the difference between an AI and a real human over a chat programme, the AI has passed. But now scientists have discovered a loophole of sorts in the Turing test, and it involves one of the oldest tricks in the book: simply staying silent.

It turns out that silence on the part of the AI can help skew the perception of the person on the other end of the conversation, who is left wondering whether he or she is dealing with a shy or offended human being or a broken AI-powered bot. Scientists from Coventry University in the UK looked at six transcripts from earlier Turing tests and found that when the machines stopped speaking, it put doubt in the minds of the judges. Often the silence wasn't any intentional coyness on the part of the AI, and was simply due to technical problems. If the judge is unsure, the AI has succeeded.

As the researchers note in their study, there's still plenty of controversy over the 'rules' of the Turing test, and plenty of ambiguity about what exactly its creator Alan Turing intended the challenge to actually measure. The interpretation used in this case is the basic 'imitation game' described by Turing: the AI has to be able to pretend to be human to a reasonably convincing level.

The team suggests that clever bots could keep quiet to avoid giving themselves away with a stupid answer, and that future Turing tests could be tweaked so silence automatically disqualifies a contestant, whether they're artificial or human.

Full story: Science Alert / Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence Back to top