Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 38, 2014

This is the online version of UNU-MERIT’s I&T Weekly which is sent out by email every Friday. If you wish to subscribe to this free service, please submit your email address in the box to the right.

Issue 38, 2014

This week's headlines:

Scientists create 'feel fuller' food ingredient
December 10, 2014

Scientists from London's Imperial College and at the University of Glasgow, have developed an ingredient that makes foods more filling, and say initial tests in overweight people showed that it helped prevent them gaining more weight. The ingredient contains propionate, a natural substance that stimulates the gut to release hormones that act on the brain to reduce hunger.

Propionate is produced naturally when fibre in the diet is fermented by microbes in the gut, but the new ingredient, inulin-propionate ester (IPE), provides much larger amounts of propionate than people can generate in a normal diet.

In a study the team gave 20 volunteers either IPE or inulin, a dietary fibre, and then allowed them to eat as much as they liked from a buffet. The team found that those given IPE ate 14% less on average and had higher concentrations of appetite-reducing hormones in their blood.

In a second phase, 60 overweight volunteers took part in a 24-week study in which half were given IPE powder to add to their food and half given inulin. Only one out of 25 volunteers given IPE who completed the study gained more than 3.0% of their body weight, compared with six out of 24 given inulin. None of the IPE group gained more than 5.0% of their body weight, compared with four in the inulin group. After 24 weeks, the IPE group also had less fat in their abdomens and livers compared with the inulin group.

Full story: Reuters / Gut Back to top

HP to release a 'revolutionary' new operating system in 2015
December 08, 2014

Hewlett-Packard will take a big step toward shaking up its own troubled business and the entire computing industry next year when it releases an operating system for an exotic new computer. The company's research division is working to create a computer called The Machine.

The Machine is designed to compete with the servers that run corporate networks and the services of internet companies such as Google and Facebook. Elements of its design could one day be adapted for smaller devices too.

A working prototype of The Machine should be ready by 2016. The team aims to complete an operating system designed for The Machine, called Linux++, in June 2015. Software that emulates the hardware design of The Machine and other tools will be released so that programmers can test their code against the new operating system. Linux++ is intended to ultimately be replaced by an operating system designed from scratch for The Machine, which HP calls Carbon.

The main difference between The Machine and conventional computers is that HP's design will use a single kind of memory - in the form of memristors - for both temporary and long-term data storage. Not having to move data back and forth should deliver major power and time savings. Memristor memory also can retain data when powered off, should be faster and promises to store more data than comparably sized hard drives today.

The Machine's design includes other novel features such as optical fibre instead of copper wiring for moving data around. HP's simulations suggest that a server built to The Machine's blueprint could be six times more powerful than an equivalent conventional design, while using just 1.25%t of the energy and being around 10%t the size.

Full story: Technology Review Back to top

Study hints at the geography of plagiarism
December 11, 2014

New analyses of the hundreds of thousands of technical manuscripts submitted to arXiv, the repository of digital preprint articles, are offering some intriguing insights into the consequences and geography of scientific plagiarism. It appears that copying text from other papers is more common in some nations than others, but the outcome is generally the same: The papers don't get cited much.

Since its founding in 1991, arXiv has become the world's largest venue for sharing findings in physics, math, and other mathematical fields. It publishes hundreds of papers daily. Anyone can send in a paper, and submissions don't get full peer review. However, the papers do go through a quality-control process. The final check is a computer program that compares the paper's text with the text of every other paper already published on arXiv. The goal is to flag papers that have a high likelihood of having plagiarised published work.

To explore some of the consequences of 'text reuse', US researchers compared the text from 757,000 articles submitted to arXiv between 1991 and 2012. They found that the more text a paper poaches from already published work, the less frequently that paper tends to be cited.

Researchers from countries that submit the lion's share of arXiv papers - the US, Canada, and industrialised countries in Europe and Asia - tend to plagiarise less often. For example, more than 20% of authors who submitted papers from Bulgaria were flagged, more than eight times the proportion from New Zealand. In Japan, about 6% of submitting authors were flagged, compared with over 15% from Iran. Such disparities may be due in part to different academic cultures. The team chalk up scientific plagiarism to 'differences in academic infrastructure and mentoring, or incentives that emphasize quantity of publication over quality'.

Full story: Science Magazine / PNAS Back to top

Optical illusions fool computers into seeing things
December 11, 2014

Computers are starting to identify objects with near-human levels of accuracy, enabling them to do everything from creating automatic picture captions to driving cars. But now a collection of bizarre optical illusions for these artificial-intelligence systems (AIs) has revealed that machines don't see the same way we do, which could leave them vulnerable to exploitation.

Image-recognition algorithms learn to recognise objects by training on a large number of images and identifying patterns that mark out a cat from a coffee cup, for example. Researchers from the University of Wyoming in Laramie wanted to know if they could hook up a particular type of image-recognition algorithm called a deep neural network (DNN) to a second algorithm designed to evolve different pictures.

They used one of the best DNNs, called AlexNet. It turned out that the genetic algorithm produced images of seemingly random static that AlexNet declared to be pictures of a variety of animals with more than 99% certainty. Other images, generated in a different way, look like vaguely evocative abstract art to humans, but fool AlexNet into seeing a baseball, electric guitar or other household object.

The algorithm's confusion is due to differences in how it sees the world compared with humans. While we identify a cheetah by looking for the whole package, a DNN is only interested in the parts of an object that most distinguish it from others. The team now want to figure out how to help DNNs ignore the illusions. If they can be fooled by static, an attacker may be able to bypass facial-recognition security systems, or even trick driverless cars into seeing misleading road signs.

Full story: New Scientist / arXiv Back to top

Personality affects maths-enhancing brain-zap method
December 09, 2014

Zapping your brain might make you better at maths tests - or worse. It depends how anxious you are about taking the test in the first place.

A recent surge of studies has shown that brain stimulation can make people more creative and better at maths, and can even improve memory, but these studies tend to neglect individual differences. Now, researchers from the University of Oxford have shown that brain stimulation can have completely opposite effects depending on your personality.

Previous research has shown that a type of non-invasive brain stimulation called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) - which enhances brain activity using an electric current - can improve mathematical ability when applied to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area involved in regulating emotion. To test whether personality traits might affect this result, the team tried the technique on 25 people who find mental arithmetic highly stressful, and 20 people who do not.

They found that participants with high maths anxiety made correct responses more quickly and, after the test, showed lower levels of cortisol, an indicator of stress. On the other hand, individuals with low maths anxiety performed worse after tDCS.

Full story: New Scientist / Journal of Neuroscience Back to top

Communication app works without a cellular network
December 10, 2014

A new smartphone app lets you send text messages to your friends without a Wi-Fi or cellular network. It could make it a lot simpler to stay in touch wherever there are plenty of other people but the normal networks are either overloaded or nonexistent.

Called MeshMe, the app allows you to chat with several people at a time while your phone is in airplane mode as long as you keep Wi-Fi or Bluetooth radio on. An iPhone MeshMe app was released last month, and an Android version is expected to be ready in several months.

MeshMe uses mesh networking. It treats each smartphone running the app as a router, passing data from one handset to the next to get messages to recipients via the most efficient pathway. Even if you are acting as a node in this network, you can't read data sent over MeshMe unless it is routed to you, according to the MeshMe company.

The distance over which MeshMe will work varies according to the amount of wireless signal interference in the area. The iPhone 6 should be able to transfer data at a distance of about 20 to 30 meters using Wi-Fi. In one test, the startup positioned a person with MeshMe on each floor of a 13-floor building, and it took less than half a second to send a message from the user on the ground floor to the user on the top floor.

Full story: Technology Review Back to top

Space solar observatory will look for ripples on sun's surface
December 11, 2014

Suborbital spacecraft such as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne aren't just for super-rich space tourists. At the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco next week, researchers will be showing off a new miniature solar observatory for use during the 5 minutes in space of a suborbital flight.

Designed by researchers at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas, the SwRI Solar Instrument Pointing Platform is initially pointed toward the sun by the spacecraft pilot and then locks on automatically. Its first experiments will look for ripples of ultrasound on the sun's surface and it will be carried aloft by XCOR's Lynx spacecraft, which begins flight testing next year.

Such experiments used to be carried out using sounding rockets-one-shot missiles designed to take instruments to the edge of the atmosphere-but instruments got a rough ride and often took months or years to recondition. SwRI researchers calculate that suborbital flights will be 30 times cheaper and can be carried out many times per week.

Full story: Science Magazine Back to top

Facebook offers solution to end drunken posts
December 11, 2014

Facebook is working on software that could prevent users posting unflattering photos of themselves. Combining image recognition and artificial intelligence (AI), the system would be able to distinguish between drunk and sober pictures. It would ask: 'Are you sure you want your boss and your mother to see this?'

The plan was revealed by the head of Facebook's artificial intelligence research lab. Speaking to Wired magazine, Yann LeCun said he wanted to build a Facebook digital assistant. In the future, this assistant might also be able to help identify when someone else has uploaded a picture of a user without permission, he said.

Facebook already uses image recognition technology to help identify faces and allow users to tag them correctly. AI is already being used to examine overall Facebook behaviour in order to identify the right content for news feeds, Mr LeCun said. The next stage will be to analyse text in posted statuses and automatically suggest relevant hashtags. He also spoke about a future where an intelligent digital assistant could "mediate your interaction with your friends".

Such a future is likely to prove controversial, with both consumers and privacy advocates who will demand that such services are opt-in rather than offered as a default.

Full story: BBC News Back to top