Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 35, 2016

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Issue 35, 2016

This week's headlines:

EU's Galileo satellite system goes live after 17 years
December 15, 2016

The EU's Galileo satellite system has gone live, aiming to supply the world's most accurate satellite navigation technology. It follows 17 years of development, plagued by delays and budget increases.

The 18 satellites initially launched will be of only limited use at first for smartphones and in-car systems. But officials hope the system will eventually provide greater location accuracy than either the US or Russian military services.

As the programme went into operation, European Commission officials signed contracts with technology companies to provide the microchips that enable applications to use Galileo information. Galileo will increase geo-location precision 10-fold - to within one metre compared to the current US-controlled Global Positioning System (GPS), which is accurate only to within several metres - when it becomes fully operational in 2020, according to the Commission.

Galileo was originally envisaged to be operational in 2008 with a budget of some EUR 3bn. It now seems set to cost about EUR 10bn by 2020. It was created by the EU Commission and European Space Agency, but numerous countries from outside Europe contributed, including India, Israel, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

The Commission hopes Galileo will bring significant returns to member-state economies in the form of new businesses that can exploit this better precision and the guarantees that will come with the new civilian-run service.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Microsoft won't help build Muslim registry
December 15, 2016

Microsoft says it would not assist government authorities in building software designed to discriminate against Muslims or any other group.

'We've been clear about our values,' the company said in a statement. 'We oppose discrimination and we wouldn't do any work to build a registry of Muslim Americans.' The statement came in response to inquiries about a petition making the rounds in technology circles in which signatories pledge to not assist with US government in any effort designed to target Muslims, immigrants, or other groups.

The open letter is a reference to President-elect Donald Trump's campaign-season statement that he supported requiring Muslims in the US sign on to a registry. As of Thursday, more than 1,300 people, including employees of Microsoft,, Facebook and Google, had signed the pledge, which makes references to a history of genocides and mass deportations carried out, at times, with the aid of businesses.

The technology to build such a database already exists, in both basic off-the-shelf software for sale now, as well as from the demographic markers collected or inferred by companies such as Facebook and Google.

But questions surrounding discriminatory software have taken on symbolic importance as the technology industry, generally open to immigration and a believer in the inclusive public tone of much Corporate America, reacts to the election of a president-elect whose hardline stance on immigration and other policies have raised fears of discrimination.

Full story: Seattle Times Back to top

First test of rival to Einstein's gravity kills off dark matter
December 15, 2016

A controversial approach to gravity that challenges Albert Einstein and suggests dark matter doesn't exist has passed its first test.

The vast majority of physicists agree that gravity acts according to rules laid down in Isaac Newton's law of gravitation and Einstein's theory of general relativity. Yet observations of the universe show that the motion of the galaxies can't be explained by the gravitational pull of all the ordinary matter out there - hence the belief in unseen, dark matter that exerts its own pull.

Now, a team of astronomers from Leiden University studying the distribution of matter in more than 30,000 galaxies say their observations can be explained by an alternative theory that does away with dark matter. The team looked at the gravitational lensing of these galaxies - the way they bend the light of more distant galaxies as predicted by Einstein's theory - to measure their dark matter content. They discovered the observed lensing could just as readily be accounted for by a new model of gravity, without invoking dark matter.

Erik Verlinde, a theoretical physicist at the University of Amsterdam, has been developing a competing model of gravity. Verlinde's calculations fit the new study's observations without resorting to free parameters - essentially values that can be tweaked at will to make theory and observation match. By contrast, conventional dark matter models need four free parameters to be adjusted to explain the data.

So if Verlinde's is the better match, what's the problem? Gravitational heresy. Verlinde's gravity is stronger and dies off more slowly with distance compared with the models of Newton and Einstein. To most physicists and astronomers today, that's an issue, to put it mildly. Newton's and Einstein's theories of gravity have been so rigorously and comprehensively validated experimentally that it borders on sacrilege to suggest gravity could be something other than what they describe.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Wikipedia 'facts' depend on which language you read them in
December 13, 2016

A new website lets you uncover geographical biases in Wikipedia articles by tracking down where editors of different languages source their information. Insert the URL of any Wikipedia page into Wikiwhere and the site's algorithm trawls the web to find out where the references cited in the entry originate from.

Researchers from the University of Koblenz-Landau, Germany, made the tool to compare how Wikipedia articles about the same topic but in a different language might be influenced by different sources.

In the English language version of an article on Russia's annexation of Crimea, for example, they found that 24% of linked references came from Ukrainian news sources while nearly 20% came from Russian sources. In the German version of the same article, however, the balance tipped, with Russian sources making up 10% of the total citations and Ukrainian sources only representing 3%.

These differences mean that people reading about the same thing in different languages may be confronted with very different versions of the truth, according to the researchers. Wikipedia uses bots to undo malicious edits and flag potential hate speech, but volunteer editors are free to source their material from anywhere.

Full story: New Scientist / Back to top

We will soon be able to read minds and share our thoughts
December 14, 2016

The first true brain-to-brain communication in people could start next year, thanks to huge recent advances.

Our brains work in unique ways, and the way each of us thinks about a concept is influenced by our experiences and memories. This results in different patterns of brain activity, but if neuroscientists can learn one individual's patterns, they may be able to trigger certain thoughts in that person's brain. In theory, they could then use someone else's brain activity to trigger these thoughts.

So far, researchers have managed to get two people, sitting in different rooms, to play a game of 20 questions on a computer. The participants transmitted 'yes' or 'no' answers, thanks to EEG caps that monitored brain activity, with a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation triggering an electrical current in the other person's brain. By pushing this further, it may be possible to detect certain thought processes, and use them to influence those of another person, including the decisions they make.

Another approach is for the brain activity of several individuals to be brought together on a single electronic device. This has been done in animals already. Three monkeys with brain implants have learned to think together, cooperating to control and move a robotic arm.

Similar work has been done in rats, connecting their brains in a 'brainet'. The next step is to develop a human equivalent that doesn't require invasive surgery. These might use EEG caps instead, and their first users will probably be people who are paralysed. Hooking up a brainet to a robotic suit, for example, could enable them to get help from someone else when learning to use exoskeletons to regain movement.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

New light-reflecting particles could cool Earth and fix the ozone layer
December 14, 2016

Honouring the commitments made at last year's historic Paris climate deal will take a huge international effort to lower carbon emissions - but scientists say there's another way we can help reduce rising global temperatures at the same time.

In a process called solar geoengineering, light-reflecting particles could be introduced into Earth's stratosphere to bounce the Sun's rays back into space and keep the planet cooler. While this controversial concept has been discussed for decades, the risks of geoengineering have kept the research largely sidelined - but now researchers say they might have a way of making it safe.

Solar geoengineering usually refers to dispersing sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere. This naturally occurs during volcanic explosions, where the particles reflect sunlight and have a cooling effect on the planet. But the problem with sulphate aerosols is that they produce sulphuric acid in the stratosphere, which damages the ozone layer.

But now, looking for particles capable of neutralising sulphuric, nitric, and hydrochloric acid on their surface, researchers from Harvard University discovered that calcite was what they needed, as it can convert the acids into stable salts. Mimicking stratospheric conditions in lab experiments, the team says that calcite can indeed reflect light while countering ozone loss - and its abundance on Earth would also make it a practical resource for geoengineering.

But despite the promising new lead, the team says a huge amount of additional research needs to be done. The potential dangers of a botched geoengineering endeavour aren't to be understated - it even ranked as a high-risk environmental threat on a list of global catastrophic risks published earlier this year.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top