Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 28, 2012

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Issue 28, 2012

This week's headlines:

MIT pencil 'draws' gas sensors onto paper
October 10, 2012

Chemists from MIT have created a pencil-shaped device which can draw tiny sensors onto a sheet of paper that detect harmful gases. The 'pencil lead' is made out sheets of carbon rolled into tubes 50,000 times smaller than a human hair. The researchers said it was a safer alternative to an existing process that used a toxic substance which could damage humans' nervous systems. The development was funded by the US Army - suggesting a military use.

The chemists have used their technique to make sensors capable of detecting ammonia - a colourless gas used by farms and industry, which has also been identified by the US authorities as a poison that might be used by terrorists. The researchers said that the nanotubes could also be adapted to detect other types of dangerous gases.

To produce their 'pencil lead' the team compressed a powder made up of the carbon nanotubes until it formed a solid substance. This was then placed in a pencil and used to scribble on paper imprinted with broken gold stripes. The technique takes advantage of the fact that ammonia binds to the nanotubes when it passes through them. Other gases can be targeted by adding metal atoms to the tubes' walls or wrapping other materials around them.

The gold stripes on the paper act as electrodes. By running electricity through them the team can measure how much current flows through the gaps coated with the nanotube scribble. If a gas has bound to the nanotubes it will impede the electron flow, altering the current.

Full story: BBC News / Angewandte Chemie Back to top

RSA splits passwords in two to foil hackers' attacks
October 10, 2012

A product that scrambles and then splits users' passwords in two before storing them on different computer servers has been unveiled by RSA. The security firm says the distributed credential protection (DCP) facility offers better protection against hackers, who would only gain access to half a 'randomised' password in the case of a successful attack.

LinkedIn's leak of 6.5 million passwords, Yahoo's loss of more than 450,000 usernames and codes, and dating site eHarmony's exposure of 1.5 million passwords are among this year's highest profile cases. In the case of LinkedIn and eHarmony, the breaches involved encrypted passwords - meaning that the hackers would have needed to decode their haul before being able to make use of it.

RSA aims to offer an extra level of protection by allowing its customers to re-randomise and re-split log-in data if they suspect a breach. So, unless hackers manage to break into both associated servers before this step is taken, they would be unable to marry up and unscramble stolen information.

All of this would be behind the scenes, and a user logging into a site would still only have to type a single username and password into the appropriate interface.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Heisenberg's uncertainty principle in doubt
October 05, 2012

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is looking a little, well, uncertain, with the discovery that observation needn't disturb systems as much as thought.

Over a century ago, physicist Werner Heisenberg came up with a formula for one of the most important aspects of quantum physics: that not all properties of a quantum particle can be measured with complete accuracy. When measuring the location and momentum of an electron, for example, increased certainty in the first measurement automatically leads to less in the second. Now, though, researchers from the University of Toronto say they have gathered experimental evidence that Heisenberg's original formulation is wrong.

They set up an experiment to measure the polarisation of a pair of entangled photons, aiming to quantify how much the act of measuring the polarisation disturbed the photons. They did by this by observing the light particles both before and after the measurement. But there's an obvious problem here: if the 'before' observation disturbs the system, the 'after' observation would be tainted.

However, the researchers found a way around this Catch-22 by using techniques from quantum measurement theory to sneak peeks at the photons before their polarisation was measured. By comparing thousands of 'before' and 'after' views of the photons, the researchers found that their precise measurements disturbed the system much less than predicted by the original Heisenberg formula. The results provide the first direct experimental evidence for a new measurement-disturbance relationship, mathematically computed by physicist Masanao Ozawa in 2003.

Full story: TG Daily Back to top

Water-mining lunar robot revealed
October 10, 2012

Carnegie Mellon University spinoff Astrobotic Technology has completed a full-size prototype of a solar-powered robot designed to search for water ice at the moon's poles. The plan is to launch the robot from Cape Canaveral on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

Polaris will carry a drill to bore one meter down into the lunar surface and is designed to operate in the low-light conditions of the poles.

Observations by NASA and Indian spacecraft suggest that a substantial amount of water ice could exist at the lunar poles - a potential source of water, fuel and oxygen for future expeditions. But finding it will be tricky, as the rover will need to operate close to the dark poles, while still using its three large solar arrays. Arranged vertically, these are designed to capture light from low on the horizon and should be capable of an average of 250 watts of electrical power.

While the lunar day lasts about 14 Earth days, only about 10 days are suitable for water prospecting at the poles. The Astrobotic team expects Polaris could drill between 10 and 100 holes during that time - and repeat the feat indefinitely if it can, as expected, survive the long, cold lunar nights.

Full story: TG Daily Back to top

Unstaffed drone refuelling test 'successful'
October 08, 2012

Two unmanned drones were able to fly close enough together for an automated refuel to take place, in tests carried out by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the US.

The two planes flew closely at an altitude of 48,000ft (14,630m) for the majority of a 2.5 hour flight, the agency said. The fuel probe could only be 100ft (30m) at most from the fuel receiver. During earlier tests this had only been possible with a pilot on board.

The drones used in the experimental flights were modified RQ-4 Global Hawk planes, which are generally used for surveillance. The result is the culmination of a two-year research project called the Autonomous High Altitude Refuelling (AHR) programme. The team said the conclusion of the project was better than expected.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Super-sponge polymer turns oil spill into floating gel
October 09, 2012

Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, many new ways of cleaning up oil have been proposed. Now researchers from Pennsylvania State University have developed a novel approach using a super-absorbent material that turns an oil slick into a gel.

The material is a kind of polymer called a polyolefin, and can quickly soak up crude oil without mopping up water, absorbing up to 45 times its own weight. The gel that forms can then be removed and shipped to a refinery, where about 19 litres of oil can be recovered from a pound of the material. This is an advantage over existing absorbents, which become industrial waste after use.

According to the researchers, the material's low cost makes it a viable solution.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Pulsing blob makes memories sans brain
October 09, 2012

A dollop of living yellow ooze has aced a test of navigation, showing that you don't really need a mind to make spatial memories. The egg-yolk-coloured slime mould Physarum polycephalum is a single cell without any nervous system. But this blob of a creature uses its slime trails as a form of external spatial memory, according to biologists from the University of Sydney. Given a choice, slime moulds won't crawl over their old slime, the team found.

These simple external 'memories' work quite well. When lured into a U-shaped dead-end in front of a sugar treat, slime moulds were able to escape. Instead of just throbbing futilely against the closed end of the U or crawling around in circles, 39 out of 40 managed to ooze their way back out of the blind alley and creep to the treat by an outside route.

As a brainless blob it can solve some remarkable problems. Given some time, a single slime mould oozing through a maze tends to consolidate into strands along the shortest paths. Given a surface with food flakes placed at important population centres or other points of interest, a slime mould eventually forms a pattern similar to road maps of real countries or real subway systems.

Navigation by avoiding slime trails has been predicted for these remarkable organisms by researchers of Tel Aviv University in Israel. Using a computer simulation of a cell wandering a maze, they predicted that avoiding past paths would be enough to succeed.

Full story: Science News / Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Back to top

Hate parking? This car parks itself while you shop
October 06, 2012

If you find yourself hunting for an elusive parking space at the mall this holiday season instead of picking out that perfect gift, you might want to put Nissan's self-parking car technology on your wish list.

The concept vehicle was shown off this week at an electronics show in Tokyo. It uses onboard sensors and cameras to park itself, allowing shoppers to shop instead wasting precious time in the parking garage.

In theory, drivers will pull up to the main entrance, hop out and hit a 'park' button on their smartphone. Once they're done shopping, another press of the button summons the car, which detects the owner's position and drives to them.

And if the car parks itself in a shady corner of the lot prone to break-ins, don't worry. The cameras monitor the car and send alerts if it detects suspicious activity.

Nissan says that the self-parking ability could also be useful for non-contact charging systems for electric vehicles, which requires precision parking best left to the car than harried drivers.

The technology will be fully viable by 2015, according to Nissan.

Full story: NBC News Back to top

Predictive text errors inspire AI comedians
October 11, 2012

As anyone who has used them knows, text prediction systems in phones, search engines and word processors often get things wrong, sometimes hilariously. A team at the University of Helsinki in Finland want to harness that to liven up our interactions with software. The researchers reckon they can write programs that mimic this inadvertent humour.

Making computers funny is tricky, warns Mike Cook, a computer scientist at Imperial College London. 'With research on humour, there is always that danger that by analysing it too closely it loses some magic.' But the Finnish team think autocorrect humour is ripe for automation, because the funniest mistakes are based on 'simple and unintentional puns', says researcher Hannu Toivonen.

Their software plays the humour card in two steps. The first is timing - if the software turned words in every sentence in an application into offbeat puns, it would just be tiresome. So it changes words only occasionally, interjecting at random intervals. Second, it derives comical terms by plundering dictionaries of related words on subjects that are favourite comedy staples, such as religion and sex.

One application for the software is to inject such humour into a reminder system, so instead of being told your cakes are about to burn, you might get an absurdly comical message that still encourages you to turn off the oven. The team is not limiting their work to text. By combining it with a speech recognition system, they hope to enable a computer to anticipate and complete your spoken sentences with a witty remark.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top