Category: Science

Kids are mostly alright

the-who-the-kids-are-alrightSince the 1990s there has been an outcry about the rise of violent computer games which were supposed to corrupt children and turn them into psychopaths. Now studies have shown that the violent games did not make a blind bit of difference.

A group of researchers, led by biological psychologist and video game violence skeptic Peter Etchells, has published an analysis suggesting that players of violent games might face a very small increase in risk for behavioural problems.

The area is tricky because it is possible that people with behavioural problems would seek out violent media rather than have it caused by violent games. Then if you focus on the violence, rather than things like the fact that they are challenging, competitive, fast-paced, these could also cause the problem.

Etchells and his team used a study which was based on games from the ’90s.

The data used in this analysis came from people participating in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), which had started with more than 14,000 pregnant women in 1991 and 1992. Around 2,400 of the children in the study had answered a questionnaire on their gaming habits when they were eight or nine years old, and around 5,000 had completed an interview called the Development and Well-Being Assessment (“DAWBA”) at the age of fifteen. Approximately 1,800 children fell into both categories.

The researchers focused on two outcomes of the DAWBA: risk for depression, and risk for “conduct disorder.”

Then, they tried to eliminate or control for as many confounding factors as possible. They looked for children who had been rated as high-risk for conduct disorder by their parents when they were seven years old and removed them from the study. The researchers included family history of mental health, maternal education and socio-economic status, religiosity, family structure, gender, bullying victimhood, IQ, and social and emotional problems in their model as well.

Children who had reported playing shoot-em-up games at the age of eight or nine had a slightly increased chance of conduct disorder. The effect was weak, though; just on the border of statistical significance.

The weakness is that ’90s games are not the same sort of thing. However the research suggests that the problem is small potatoes.

“Some have claimed that the magnitude of this effect is larger than the effect of exposure to smoke at work on lung cancer rates. Our findings do not support such claims.”

MIT comes up with deep learning for mobile

mybrainhurtsMIT researchers have emerged from their smoke filled labs with a new chip which can provide mobile gear deep learning properties.

At the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco this week, MIT researchers presented a new chip designed specifically to run mobile neural networks. The chip is 10 times as efficient as a mobile GPU and means mobile devices could run powerful AI algorithms locally.

Vivienne Sze, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at MIT whose group developed the new chip said that deep learning was useful for many mobile applications including object recognition, speech, face detection.

“Right now, the networks are pretty complex and are mostly run on high-power GPUs. You can imagine that if you can bring that functionality to your cell phone or embedded devices, you could still operate even if you don’t have a Wi-Fi connection. You might also want to process locally for privacy reasons. Processing it on your phone also avoids any transmission latency, so that you can react much faster for certain applications.”

Dubbed Eyeriss, the new chip could be useful for the Internet of Stuff. AI armed networked devices could make important decisions locally, entrusting only their conclusions, rather than raw personal data, to the Internet. And, of course, onboard neural networks would be useful to battery-powered autonomous robots.

Sze and her colleagues used a chip with 168 cores, roughly as many as a mobile GPU has.


Eyeriss’s minimized the frequency with which cores need to exchange data with distant memory banks, an operation that consumes time and energy. The GPU cores share a single, large memory bank and each Eyeriss core has its own memory. The chip has a circuit that compresses data before sending it to individual cores.

Each core can communicate directly with its immediate neighbours, so that if they need to share data, they don’t have to route it through main memory.

The final key to the chip’s efficiency is special-purpose circuitry that allocates tasks across cores. In its local memory, a core needs to store not only the data manipulated by the nodes it’s simulating but data describing the nodes themselves. The allocation circuit can be reconfigured for different types of networks, automatically distributing both types of data across cores in a way that maximizes the amount of work that each of them can do before fetching more data from main memory.

At the conference, the MIT researchers used Eyeriss to implement a neural network that performs an image-recognition task, the first time that a state-of-the-art neural network has been demonstrated on a custom chip.

New terror algorithm developed

spyBoffins at the University of Pennsylvania have developed an algorithmic framework for conducting targeted surveillance of individuals within social networks which do not net “untargeted” people.

Presenting the code to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) the team say that the tools could facilitate counterterrorism efforts and infectious disease tracking while preserving the privacy of those who should not be looked at.

The boffins said that the need for useful or essential gathering and analysis of data about citizens and the privacy rights of those citizens was little tricky.

“The most striking and controversial recent example is the revelation that US intelligence agencies systemically engage in ‘bulk collection’ of civilian ‘metadata’ detailing telephonic and other types of communication and activities, with the alleged purpose of monitoring and thwarting terrorist activity.”

The Penn researchers said that there are similar problems around medical data and targeted advertising. They said that in every case, the friction is between individual privacy and some larger purpose, whether it’s corporate profits, public health, or domestic security.

They said that there is a protected subpopulation that enjoys (either by law, policy, or choice) certain privacy guarantees.

“Protected individuals might be nonterrorists, or uninfected citizens (and perhaps informants and health care professionals). They are to be contrasted with the ‘unprotected’ or targeted subpopulation, which does not share those privacy assurances.”

It claims that its algorithms can output a list of confirmed targeted individuals discovered in the network, for whom any subsequent action (e.g., publication in a most-wanted list, further surveillance, or arrest in the case of terrorism; medical treatment or quarantine in the case of epidemics) will not compromise the privacy of the protected.”

The algorithms are based on a few basic ideas. The first is that every member of a network has a sequence of bits indicating their membership in a targeted group. The algorithms have a budget where it can only reveal so many bits and no more. The algorithms then optimise this scenario so that as many bits-of-interest are revealed as possible.

Using real social networks with stochastically (randomly) generated, artificial target groups, the Penn team found that they could indeed search a network for targeted members while not revealing information about individuals in privacy-protected populations.

“Our work is of course not a complete solution to the practical problem, which can differ from our simple model in many ways. It is just one interesting modeling question for future work.”


Apple buys more intelligence

mybrainhurtsDesperate to find a way out of its ever shrinking share price and desert of ideas, the fruity cargo cult Apple has decided to buy some intelligence.

Apple has bought Emotient which is an artificial intelligence startup that reads people’s emotions by analysing facial expressions.

The tech giant’s plans for Emotient were not immediately clear and Apple is not talking about it other than to say that the deal is going ahead.

Emotient’s software reads the expressions of individuals and crowds to gain insights that can be used by advertisers to assess viewer reaction or a medical practitioner to better understand signs of pain in patients.

The software could be used for anything Applish but it might be part of Jobs’ Mob’s move into the health market. Equally though it could be used by a device to assess a response to a pushed advertisement.

San Diego-based Emotient had previously raised $8 million from investors including Intel Capital.
There are hints that the move might be to counter something that Tesla Motors Chief Executive Elon Musk did late last year by announced $1 billion in funding for an artificial intelligence non-profit called OpenAI. If that sexy technology goes OpenSource then Apple will have to make more open source projects, and we can’t have that.

Japanese boffins create Star Trek hologram Christmas lights

Aubrey Beardsley's Ali BabaA Japanese team has emerged from their smoke filled labs with a Star Trek style 3D volumetric display that you can actually touch by zapping the air until it glows using a laser.

The hologram has a million and one uses but one which is appropriate this week is to create a set of Christmas lights which cannot be destroyed by the cat. So far 3D holograms have used a high-power laser which heats a spot in the air until it ionises and glows with a bright blue light. This would be cat proof but would probably ionise the cat, or any small child which touches them.

The Japanese boffins worked out that if you used a really fast laser, a femtosecond laser, that heats a small spot to a high temperature but only for a very short time. This is much safer because the total energy involved is smaller. You can touch sparks without getting burned.

So far the “holograms” are small very small – Christmas tree light sized.

The system could be scaled up and be used in entertainment or in augmented reality systems. If you are thinking of the sort of “hard light” projector that created holograms in Star Trek.

Nano tech promises laser printer resolution revolution

3D printer - Wikimedia CommonsScientists at the Technical University of Denmark said they’ve made a major nanotechnology breakthrough which will “revolutionise” laser printing technology.

The technique will allow high resolution data and colour images of microscopic dimensions and very high resolutions.

The Danish scientists promise resolutions of 127,000 dots per inch (DPI) compared to today’s omnipresent 300 DPI.

The breakthrough has been patented by the boffins who intend to develop the technology to replace the current laser printers we’re using.

Professor Anders Kristensen said it will mean saving data that’s invisible to human eyes. “This includes serial numbers or bar codes of products and other information. The technology can also be used to combat fraud and forgery as the products will be labelled in a way that makes them very difficult to reproduce,” he said.

The good professor said a number of companies have already expressed interest in the technology.

Quantum computer is dead, alive or hacked

schrodingers_catNASA’s Quantum computer may or may not have a security problem.

The D-Wave 2X quantum computer at NASA’s Advanced Supercomputing facility is being used to research a new area of computing.

The machine is also being used by researchers at universities, and it’s hooked up to the internet, like other NASA supercomputers made available to academics.

But NASA engineers, while happy to talk about its capabilities, were less happy about mentioning the security measures in place to stop hackers.

“It’s behind various security firewalls, with RSA security tokens to get in,” said David Bell, a director at the Universities Space Research Association, in response to a question. ”We are very much aware of systems being hacked,” said Rupak Biswas, who heads exploration technology at the NASA Ames Research Centre, in response to another question. “NASA, of course, is a major target”.

But hacks asking about hacking were quickly shut down by a NASA moderator, who said the topic was “for later discussion at another time”.

But given everyone’s obsession about security it is one which might not go away that easily.

What a D-Wave machine does in a second” would take a conventional computer with a single core “10,000 years” to perform a similar task, said Hartmut Neven, director of engineering at Google, told the same news conference.

Hacking such a computer would be a major challenge, but if you did get control of it you could programme it to solve some serious encryption problems rather quickly.  It should make brute force password guessing a doddle.


Brits invent Star Trek tractor beam

1413849918201_wps_10_Star_Trek_Tractor_BeamBritish researchers have built a sonic tractor beams that can lift and move objects using sound.

Boffins from the University of Bristol and Sussex,teamed up with Ultrahaptics, a spin-off set up by Sussex Professor of Informatics, Sriram Subramanian. The technology, used high-amplitude soundwaves to generate an acoustic hologram that can pick up and move small objects.

According to the popular science magazine  Nature Communications the device allows the manipulation of small spherical objects in mid-air by individually controlling 64 miniature loudspeakers to generate the acoustic hologram without physical contact.

The speakers are controlled at a frequency of 40 kilohertz  creating high-pitched and high-intensity sound waves to levitate spherical, expanded polystyrene beads of up to 4 millimeters in diameter.

The tractor beam surrounds the balls with high-intensity sound to create a force field that can keep the beads in place, move them or rotate them.  It has been dubbed an acoustic hologram, which sounds like a good name for a 1970’s jazz band.

Previous examples of tractor beam technology have involved using light. It was a very powerful focalized laser and it was able to trap the particles and move it towards the laser, towards the source. The downside of this was the particles had to be very small.

An acoustic tractor beam, acoustic manipulation, needs much less power and it’s more powerful in terms of the materials that it can trap.

The next plan is to lift a beach ball  ten meters away and we think this could be useful for zero gravity environments, like under water or in the International Space Station. I

A sonic production line could transport delicate objects and assemble them, without physical contact. But the Bristol researcher’s main goal is the revolution of surgery, with a miniature tractor beam transporting drug capsules or micro-surgical instruments through living tissue.


Thrifty Scots make graphene cheap

scotGraphene has been seen as a material with magical properties if it were not for the fact it costs an arm and a leg to make.

A large part of this expense is the substrate on which graphene is generally produced.

By using a process of chemical vapour deposition (CVD), graphene has often been grown as a monolayer – a layer one atom thick -by exposing platinum, nickel or titanium carbide to ethylene or benzene at high temperatures. Recent production methods have lowered these costs somewhat by incorporating copper as a substrate, but even this method can still prove expensive.

Now boffins at the University of Glasgow have discovered a way to create large sheets of graphene using the same type of cheap copper used to manufacture lithium-ion batteries.

They worked out that you could deposit high-quality graphene on the surface of inexpensive copper foils often used to make the ultra-thin cathodes (negative electrodes) in lithium-ion batteries. The surface of the copper proved to be both completely smooth and a superior substrate on which to form the graphene.

Dr Dahiya, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering said the commercially-available copper used in his process sells for around one dollar per square meter, compared to around $115 for a similar amount of the copper currently used in graphene production,” said.

“Our process produces high-quality graphene at low cost, taking us one step closer to creating affordable new electronic devices with a wide range of applications, from the smart cities of the future to mobile healthcare.”

The research was conducted in partnership with colleagues at Bilkent University in Turkey and results of this research were recently published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

Engineers more likely to become terrorists

Terrorist_58349e_70892A new book as outed engineers as a group more likely to generate terrorists than any other profession.

Writing for the European Journal of Sociology Diego Gambetta, of the Italian European University Institute and Steffen Hertog, an associate professor have a theory.

They added up all the numbers and divided it by their shoe size and found that engineers are much more prone to become members of violent terrorist organisations.

Apparently twice as many members of violent Islamist organisations have engineering degrees as have degrees in Islamic studies. Nearly half of those terrorists who had degrees had degrees in engineering.

There was an opposite pattern among non violent Islamic groups. In these groups, people with other degrees than engineering were over represented.

Left-wing terrorists are likely to be humanities graduates rather than engineers, except in movements in Turkey and Iran.

The leaders of extreme right-wing groups in the US may be more prone to be engineers than chance would predict.

Gambetta and Hertog dismiss claims that terrorist groups want to recruit engineers because engineers have valuable technical skills that might be helpful, such as in making bombs. Many of Hamas’ engineers have admin roles.

Gambetta and Hertog think that engineers are more likely to become terrorists because of the way that they think about the world. They are more likely to be conservative and far more likely to be religious. They are seven times as likely to be both religious and conservative as social scientists.

They also have a marked preference towards finding clearcut answers. Radical Islamist groups deal with the complexities of modernity by getting rid of it.

This notion combines with frustrated expectations in many Middle Eastern and North African countries, and among many migrant populations, where people with engineering backgrounds have difficulty in realising their ambitions for good and socially valued jobs.

Places where there are fewer radical Islamists, are those which hire engineers with engineering. A particular religiously fundamentalist ideology gives engineers a philosophy that is in tune with their mind-set and an understanding of the world that helps make sense of their poor economic prospects.

It also means that those who bang on about the dangers of refugees should perhaps be making similar statements about engineers.