Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 38, 2011

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Issue 38, 2011

This week's headlines:

Signs of ageing halted in the lab
November 02, 2011

The onset of wrinkles, muscle wasting and cataracts has been delayed and even eliminated in mice, say researchers in the US. It was done by 'flushing out' retired cells that had stopped dividing. They accumulate naturally with age. The scientists believe their findings could eventually 'really have an impact' in the care of the elderly.

The study by researchers from the Mayo Clinic, in the US, focused on what are known as 'senescent cells'. They stop dividing into new cells and have an important role in preventing tumours from progressing. These cells are cleared out by the immune system, but their numbers build up with time. The researchers estimated that around 10% of cells are senescent in very old people.

The scientists the devised a way to kill all senescent cells in genetically engineered mice. The animals would age far more quickly than normal, and when they were given a drug, the senescent cells would die. The researchers looked at three symptoms of old age: formation of cataracts in the eye; the wasting away of muscle tissue; and the loss of fat deposits under the skin, which keep it smooth.

Researchers said the onset of these symptoms was 'dramatically delayed' when the animals were treated with the drug. When it was given after the mice had been allowed to age, there was an improvement in muscle function. The treatment had no effect on lifespan, but that may be due to the type of genetically engineered mouse used.

Full story: BBC News / Nature Back to top

EU and US cybersecurity experts stress-test defences
November 03, 2011

EU and US cybersecurity officials have tested how they would co-ordinate their response to a hacking attack. The exercise in Brussels marked the first time the two bodies have role-played the scenario together. The stress tests follow a similar event involving the European nations last year. Organisers said afterwards that states 'must increase their efforts'.

UK intelligence agency, GCHQ, recently warned of a 'disturbing' number of cyber attacks against Britain. Other countries have also seen a rise in the number of targeted strikes. Security experts have highlighted a number of recent attacks. They include a Trojan used to try to steal information from chemical and defence firms, and Duqu malware attacks against organisations in at least eight countries.

Two scenarios were tested. The first involved a cyber-attack which attempted to steal secret information from the EU's security agencies and publish it online. The second focused on an effort to disrupt energy industry control systems. The scenarios were designed to ensure that everyone knew who was available to support them on the other side of the Atlantic, and what assistance they could offer.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Report questions long-term safety of composite planes
November 03, 2011

On 1 November the first aircraft with a pressurised fuselage and wings made from carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) flew its first passengers from Tokyo to Hiroshima. The Boeing 787's composite structure makes it around 15% lighter than a typical aluminium-based plane of that size, increasing fuel efficiency and making aviation greener.

But the media hoopla over the flight disguised some worrying questions about the long-term safety of composite aircraft. On 20 October, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report which, while accepting that the 787 has been certified as airworthy, questions the ability of the US regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration, to ensure that inspectors are capable of assessing and repairing damage to composite structures over the long life of a plane.

Until now, only smaller, isolated pieces of secondary structure, such as tail fins and wing leading edges, have been made from composites. The GAO reviewed the scientific literature and interviewed engineers about the evidence underpinning the expansion of composite use to incorporate the whole fuselage. On damage and ageing issues it found the science wanting. The GAO found that engineers don't know how such materials will behave when damaged, what such damage will look like, and how these factors change as the material ages. Because composite damage is hard to detect working out what risk a dent poses is difficult. Too few inspectors are being trained to diagnose such damage, the report adds.

A composite has a higher strength-to-weight ratio than aluminium and resists corrosion. But it has different fatigue problems: it tends to snap, rather than bend or stretch over time like a metal. Although the Boeing 787 is deemed safe, the GAO says regulators must focus on assessing composite damage in service.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Dutch psychologist admits he made up research data
November 02, 2011

A Dutch psychologist has admitted making up data and faking research over many years in studies which were then published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Diederik Stapel, a psychologist working at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, said he had 'failed as a scientist' and was ashamed of what he had done, but had been driven to falsifying research by constant pressure to perform. Stapel was suspended from his position at Tilburg University in the Netherlands in September when an investigation was launched by the university into his work.

The journal Science, which published some of Stapel's work earlier this year, issued an 'expression of concern' editorial in which it said it now had serious concerns about the validity of Stapel's findings. Science published a study by Stapel and colleague Siegwart Lindenberg in April which found that people are more likely to discriminate against others when their surroundings are disordered and messy.

The process of peer review, in which other scientists are asked to critique and analyze a paper before it is accepted for publication in a journal, is designed to minimise the risk that false data will get through, but it is not infallible.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Fake Mars mission to open hatch on 520 days isolation
November 03, 2011

The crew of an isolation experiment to simulate a 520-day mission to Mars are in the final countdown before the opening on Friday of the hatch on the windowless cells in which they have been locked away since June last year. The Mars500 experiment aims to answer one of the big questions of deep-space travel: could people endure the stresses of a voyage of more than six months to the Red Planet?

The six male volunteers from Europe, China and Russia are not exposed to weightlessness or solar radiation, but in just about every other way life inside the 550-cubic-metre mock spaceship in Moscow resembles that of a real space flight. The 'astronauts' take daily urine and blood samples, eat rations like those of real astronauts and do not shower often. Communication with the outside world comes with a 20-minute lag and the crew have faced power outages and other impromptu glitches. Halfway through, two crew members donned 32-kg spacesuits to clomp about in a dark sand-filled container meant to imitate the surface of Mars.

Psychologists fear a return to the noise and activity of ordinary life will come as a shock to the crew, and plan a period of rehabilitation. A previous 420-day experiment ended in drunken disaster in 2000, when two participants got into a fistfight and a third tried to forcibly kiss a female crew member. But Mars500 is being hailed as a success. The emergency exit remained sealed and it proved an unexpected publicity coup for the European Space Agency, a collaborator on the project.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Socialbots used by researchers to 'steal' Facebook data
November 02, 2011

Researchers from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, have demonstrated a new technique capable of stealing personal information from Facebook using 'socialbots', computer programs that mimic real Facebook profiles.

In a traditional botnet, a network of computers are infected by a virus to allow a hi-tech criminal to use them remotely. Often botnet controllers steal data from victims' PCs or use the machines to send out spam or carry out other attacks. What makes a socialbot different is that it is able to pass itself off as a real Facebook user. The software takes over control of a social networking profile and from there performs basic activities such as posting messages and sending requests.

The researchers created 102 socialbots for use in their experiment and one 'botmaster' - software that sent commands to the other bots. The researchers employed their socialbots over a period of eight weeks. In total the bots attempted to make friends with 8,570 Facebook users. 3,055 accepted the friendships. To prevent triggering Facebook's fraud detection software, the fake accounts only sent 25 requests per day. From the profiles of those they befriended and the extended networks of those friends, the researchers claimed to have 'stolen' 46,500 email addresses and 14,500 home addresses. The researchers estimated that a real-life malicious attack could have a success rate of 80%.

Facebook said that the experiment was unrealistic because the IP addresses used came from a trusted university source, whereas the IP addresses used by real-life criminals would raise alarm bells. It also said that it had disabled more of the fake accounts than the researchers claimed.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Screen-spy program can read texts and emails
November 02, 2011

Next time you're tapping off a private text message or sensitive email in a public place, consider this: someone could be reading every letter you type from up to 60 metres away.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina have built a program, dubbed iSpy, that can identify text typed on a touchscreen from video footage of the screen or even its reflection in windows or sunglasses. Video from an ordinary mobile phone camera can be used to spy on a person from 3 metres away. And a snoop with a digital SLR camera that shoots HD video could read a screen up to 60 metres away.

Their method exploits a feature meant to aid typing on small touchscreens: magnified keys. Letters on a virtual keyboard pop up in larger bubbles when pressed. The program analyses video footage and identifies the letters based on the bubble locations on screen. Pop-ups for neighbouring letters like E and R can overlap, so the program assigns an accuracy probability to each detected letter. The program correctly identifies letters more than 90% of the time. The software then identifies words, both individually and in the context of the message being sent.

Reflections are harder to decode because the screen image is smaller. Still, the program can identify text from video taken with a digital SLR camera from a distance of 12 metres.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top