Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 4, 2015

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Issue 4, 2015

This week's headlines:



How sequencing foods' DNA could help us prevent diseases
January 29, 2015

Ensuring that every piece of food pushed through the supply chain is safe enough to eat is no small task. Some food companies test their ingredients before cooking and shipping, but there's no way to test for unknown pathogens or impurities that may cause contamination.

This week scientists from IBM and Mars Incorporated have announced the Sequencing the Food Supply Chain Consortium, a collaborative food safety organisation that aims to leverage advances in genomics and analytics to further our understanding of what makes food safe.

The researchers will conduct the largest-ever metagenomics study of our foods, sequencing the DNA and RNA of popular foods in an effort to identify what traits keep food safe and these can be effected by outside microorganisms and other factors. Eventually, the researchers will extend the project 'from farm to fork', examining materials across the length and breadth of the supply chain.

In order to reach their lofty goal, the scientists are embarking on a massive experiment to sequence both the DNA and RNA of major food ingredients in various environments. Leveraging the computing muscle at IBM's Accelerated Discovery THINKLab - which puts over 500 computing nodes at their disposal and can be scaled up as needed - the researchers will be running sequencers for weeks at a time to determine the necessary depth of coverage.

Apart from sequencing the food as deeply as possible, researchers plan to deliberately expose some ingredients to impurities along the way in a controlled study. Then they'll see if their system will catch it.

Full story: Wired Back to top


Just four credit card clues can identify anyone
January 29, 2015

Four pieces of information is all that's needed to match individuals to their anonymised credit card records, according to researchers from MIT. The findings suggest that tougher measures must be put in place to protect users' privacy, because real identities may be too tied in to the rich metadata, such as GPS coordinates, collected by modern devices.

The team looked at three months of credit card records, scrubbed of personal information like names or account numbers, from 1.1 million people in an unidentified country. They wanted to know what it would take to match a person to their transactions. Would it be possible to uncover which record was whose from information about where someone had gone on a few different days - say, from a tweet about dinner with friends, or an Instagram snap of a new top from a shopping trip?

For the most part, the answer was yes: the researchers found that for 90% of people, just four pieces of information about where they had gone on what day was enough to pick out which card record was theirs. Those four clues didn't have to include anything about what had been bought, although a guess at the approximate price of the transaction did sharpen their accuracy. Women and people with higher incomes were even easier to spot, perhaps because these groups had more diverse behaviour, making individuals distinct from their peers.

The research highlights how hard it is to make data anonymous, even for well-intentioned organisations that take steps to strip the data of personal information. Some have suggested using new tools - like openPDS and the EU's di.me project - that allow users to control how much of their data third parties can see.

Full story: New Scientist / Science Back to top


How to unboil an egg
January 27, 2015

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, have found a way to return hard-boiled egg whites to something like their clear, original form.

It's not something that has any immediate benefits for home cooks - in fact, it would take a kitchen full of equipment to do it - but it does have important implications for other fields, including food processing and even cancer treatment.

When an egg is boiled, the protein in the egg white changes shape from tightly wound individual clumps to long tangled strands. This is why a raw egg white is clear while a cooked egg white appears solid - the tangled strands don't allow light to pass through.

To return those proteins to their original form, the team first added a chemical that turned the solid back into a liquid. Then they used a high-powered machine called a vortex fluid device to disentangle those stuck-together protein strands.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald / LA Times Back to top


3-D printing of prostheses to be trialled in Uganda
January 29, 2015

Researchers from the Christian Blind Mission (cbm) in Canada are to 3-D print cheap, custom-made prosthetics for child amputees in the developing world after winning USD 90,000 from the Canadian government. The money is coming through the Grand Challenges Canada fund, which supports health-related innovation in developing countries.

Conventional prosthetic sockets for the remaining part of patients' injured limbs are made using plaster-of-Paris moulds, but these take up to a week to dry in the sun. Children also require at least two fittings a year to adjust for body growth, making the process expensive for their families. The researchers think they can expedite this whole process with 3-D scanning and printing and hope to produce prostheses for around USD 250 in developing countries.

The first step is to measure a patient's residual limb using a handheld infrared laser scanner. This produces a digital, 3-D image in less than a minute, which is used to design a matching prosthetic socket. The digital model is then sent to a 3-D printer that takes between six and 12 hours to print a socket using cornstarch-based plastic. The socket connects to a patient's residual limb and a standard artificial limb provided by aid agencies.

The team is currently teaching staff from the Comprehensive Rehabilitation Services for Uganda hospital to use the technology. It is also creating and testing sockets for four hospital patients, who already use traditionally made sockets, to gather their feedback. Over the next six months, the team plans to conduct clinical field trials with 35 patients to compare its technology with current methods.

Full story: SciDev Back to top


Laser flight path caught on camera for the first time
January 27, 2015

Watching laser beams fly through the air makes for dramatic battles in sci-fi films, but they're not so easy to see in real life.

In order to observe a laser, or any other light source, photons from it must directly hit your eyes. But since laser photons travel in a tightly-focused beam, all heading in the same direction, you can only see them when the laser hits something that reflects a portion of the light and produces a visible dot. A tiny proportion of photons scatter off air molecules, but normally these are too faint to see.

Now, researchers from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK, constructed a camera sensitive enough to pick up those few scattering photons. It is built from a 32 by 32 grid of detectors that log the time a photon arrives at them with incredible precision, equivalent to snapping around 20 billion frames a second.

The team arranged the camera to film a side-on view of a green laser firing at an arrangement of mirrors. By firing 2 million pulses over a 10 minute period and subtracting background noise, they were able to build up enough air-scattered photons in the camera to track the laser's path as it bounced.

What comes out is a frame by frame of the light moving through the system. In the team's video, this position data is overlaid on a background photograph taken with a regular camera, and coloured green to match the laser's true colour.

Full story: New Scientist / Nature Communications Back to top


Data archaeology helps builders avoid buried treasure
January 29, 2015

Hitting archaeological remains is a familiar problem for builders, because the land they are excavating has often been in use for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Democrata, a UK data analytics start-up, wants to help companies guess what's in the ground before they start digging. Using predictive algorithms, their new program maps where artefacts might still be found in England and Wales, in order to help companies avoid the time and cost of excavation. Archaeological services can amount to between 1% and 3% of contractors' total construction cost.

The Democrata team scoured documents from government departments such as the Forestry Commission, English Heritage and Land Registry to find out what the land was used for in the past, for example, and about known archaeological sites. This included 'grey literature', the massive set of unpublished reports written by contractors every year.

With the aid of a supercomputer, they developed models that can pinpoint where treasures are likely to be hidden underground. For instance, land close to water, tin mines or sites of religious significance was ranked more highly than land elsewhere. Other factors like the local geology, animal and plant life also contributed to the score.

This week, Democrata will present the program to engineering companies and the government to hear their feedback.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top


Smart clothes double as pregnancy health tracker
January 23, 2015

Wire up your baby bump in style. The latest in smart maternity clothes can track the vital signs of pregnant women via conductive silver fibres woven discreetly into the fabric.

The clothing line, designed by Blake Uretsky, a fashion student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, aims to help pregnant women keep tabs on their changing bodies. To learn more about pregnancy fashions, Uretsky donned a fake bump and visited several stores to try on their clothing. She also interviewed 30 local mothers about their experiences with maternity wear.

The result was 'B' Maternity Wearables, a line of 10 pieces including blouses, trousers, skirts and even an evening gown. The clothing comes in neutral colours and adjusts to a growing bump.

Silver wires made by Pennsylvania firm Notable Biomaterials are threaded through the empire waistline and register the wearer's temperature, heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. A small device on the belt relays this data back to a smartphone app. With the help of doctors, users can set the app to ping them if their vital signs veer out of whack - perhaps because of stress or inactivity. The clothing line has won an award from the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund in New York.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top


Coder creates smallest chess game for computers
January 28, 2015

French coder Olivier Poudade has developed what is thought to be the smallest-sized chess computer program. BootChess is only 487 bytes in size, and the code can be run on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux computers. That makes it smaller than 1K ZX Chess - a Sinclair ZX81 computer game, which contained 672 bytes of code and had held the record for 33 years.

Today's computers typically ship with chips that can store millions of times that amount. For comparison's sake, even a couple of image-less tweets take up roughly the same amount of data as Poudade's complete program.

To achieve his goal, Poudade - a member of the Red Sector Inc coding group - had to make the look of his game even more basic than its 1982 predecessor. The board and pieces of BootChess are represented by text alone, with P representing pawns, Q used for the queens and full stops put in the place of empty squares.

Full story: BBC News Back to top