Tag: cambridge university

Airplane 'database in the sky' could ease traffic concerns

Researchers are proposing a smart plane ‘database in the sky’ to help deal with the growing burden on airports.

With air traffic across Europe likely to double expected to double by the end of the decade, airports across the continent will struggle to provide for the increase. In the, accounts for 2.2 million flights carrying 200 million passengers were handled by the National Air Traffic Services in the past year .

For the UK in particular this has been a major problem. Debates have raged over proposals to build extra capacity at Heathrow airport, already bursting at the seams, with fierce opposition to even more runways being added to one of the busiest airports in the world.

However, Cambridge University engineers and academics believe that they have come up with a way to reduce the burden on flightpaths already heaving with planes.

They believe that by updating the systems used to control the in-air traffic, more aircraft can be managed with greater efficiency along flight paths. Currently airports use systems that in some cases involve air traffic management (ATM) equipment from the 50s, according to the researchers. 

The researchers contend that by fitting airplanes with onboard computers to predict future positions of other aircraft, and sharing information with other aircraft in-flight, a dynamic database of information could be established. This would allow fuel and time efficient flight paths to be quickly determined without needing to rely on the staff on the ground.

Such an automated system would allow for a more coordinated and intelligent management of flight paths, meaning that up to six times more planes could safely be flown on air traffic routes, or so the researchers hope.

Introducing such a system would require stringent security testing, but the Cambridge researchers are confident. According to one of the researchers, Professor Jan Maciejowski, the team has already approached airport staff, and has received positive reaction to the proposals.

“I’ve been delighted by how positively airport operators have reacted already,” Maciejowski said.  “It’s a sign of the times – airports are running at capacity and it’s becoming a matter of urgency to look at how systems can be improved.”

Cambridge study claims UK overspending on antivirus

A government backed study has claimed that too much is being spent on antivirus software in the fight against cybercrime, but this is a view one security expert believes is too simplistic.

A study at the University of Cambridge has concluded that the amount spent on preventing computer based criminal attacks is out of proportion to the cost of the threat itself.

The study, described as the first systematic estimate of the direct and indirect costs of cyber crime, claims that more should be spent on actually apprehending criminals rather than in the anticipation of the events.

Previous reports into the cost of cybercrime have been deemed wide of the mark. A Cabinet Office backed study reported that online criminality is hitting the UK economy to the tune of £27 billion every year.  This figure has been disputed by industry figures.

In fact, the report claims that the online scams are costing citizens on average a few pennies a day.  

Each year, the country spends US$1 billion on fighting threats,  with $170 million going on antivirus software. This contrasts with $15 million spent on law enforcement.

The “straightforward conclusion” that the researchers draw from this is to “spend less on defence and more on policing”.

This contrasts with the view of MPs recently backing calls to invest more in cyber crime awareness campaigns such as Get Safe Online, which aim to stop cybercrime becoming a problem in the first place.

Speaking with TechEye, Security expert at Sophos, Graham Cluley, said both prevention and policing are required.

“It seems very simplistic just to say let’s stop spending money on antivirus and let’s go and get some cops,” Cluley said. “We need to invest in fighting computer crime both on the legal level and protecting your computer”.

“It is not an ‘either’ ‘or’, you need both of these things,” Cluley said. “Anyone who goes online without antivirus software and goes browsing around the web will pretty quickly come to the conclusion that they should have got some antivirus”.

Cluley believes police time spent fighting crime is admirable, but it is difficult to provide immediate protections against cyber criminality.

“Sometimes these investigations take years to gather all the evidence and bring people to justice,” he said. 

“In the meantime you are going to have to do something lse to protect your computer as well,” Cluley said.

Videogames can save the world

With the computer games industry marching towards ever greater profits, a group of researchers has been attempting to find out how to use the technology to raise conservation awareness.

According to a team at Cambridge University, there is an increasing trend towards games with an underlying message, with biodiversity becoming more apparent.

Of course, the mainstream games market may be unswerving from its predilection for the enjoyable highs of a couple of hours of escapist violence.  But with the games industry growing and evolving at a rapid pace, there is a possibility to expand on the environmental themes that were once upon a time played out on the Sega Megadrive’s Ecco the Dolphin.

According to one of the researchers, Bill Adams, a professor of Conservation and Development at Cambridge, games like the PlayStation’s Flower have updated natural themes for modern consoles. Professor Adams also points to Red Redemption’s Fate of the World, which the Guardian described as being close to a Football Manager take on conservationist themes. He believes that such games are a growing field of ‘serious games’ which have a social context.

With at times astonishing leaps in the ways that computer games can represent the real world, from the cinematic fluidity of Uncharted or the facial movements of LA Noire, gamers can feel connected ever more easily.

Certainly, games can be used for persuasive means. The US military famously launched its own propaganda-laden shooting game to court a new generation of soldiers.  The work at Cambridge University aims to show that there are other, dare we say, more noble uses too.

With this in mind, Adams and other researchers have been conducting workshops to discover how best to raise awareness of conservationist and nature themes.  It is hoped that a platform for further collaboration with gamers can be made in future.

This has thrown up a number of questions. The project asks:

“Can games adequately explain the complex ecological, political and social basis of biodiversity loss? Will virtual nature start to outshine living nature in the eyes of a game-obsessed world? Or can games engage a generation who have already lost contact with wild nature?”

For Adams, what is vital  to promote ‘green themes’ is not to tackle problems in an educational or preaching manner: “You don’t make computer games just to change attitudes, people only play them if they are enormous fun, but they do pick up attitudes if they are fun,” he told TechEye. “You write stories in games, and can create particular dilemmas, inviting people to think about problems.”

“In the past,” Adams says, “people haven’t particularly done that for the environment but there is a lot of potential.”

Evidently, Adams is aware of the suspicion with which the vast majority of gamers would approach what may sound a little like a public service announcement.  There isn’t much less inviting than the thought of whiling away a few hours being lectured of one’s civic responsibilities.

“You can’t write a game to make people eat more vegetables or save the world because it is not a lot of fun,” Adams contends. “You can make it part of the context, and part of the game, but it is no good trying to design games which are worthy but boring as no one will buy them, or they won’t buy them twice.”

Ultimately, gamers will be attracted to games which offer the most enjoyment. Sometimes, this often happens to be the ones which involve decapitating passers-by, and this is not likely to be something that is likely to change.

But with the games industry worth so much, and swiftly approaching the gravitas and exposure of the film industry, which it more than meets financially, there is certainly scope to approach a range of themes.

Whether this will mean that such ‘green’ themes proliferate in the mainstream is another question, with the strong attraction of gamers towards big titles. But for Adams, if game developers are willing to engage on certain themes, there are benefits to be had for all.

Inkjet printers bang out graphene circuits

Another application of that wonder material graphene has emerged, adding to its growing list of strange and exciting potential uses, with a breakthrough in printed circuits.

According to work by Cambridge University, the possibilities of using graphene in printed circuits has received a significant boost with a new production method.

Printed circuits are nothing new, but the main problem that has held back cheaply produced thin film electronics, leading to flexible and transparent electronics, is that the processing power is far too slow.

This usually involves mixing in conducting polymers with inks that can be printed right onto substrates.  Compared to traditional chips they are miles behind producing computional speeds that consumers have grown accustomed to.

However, advances made by graphene expert Andrea Ferrari and colleagues at Cambridge have shown that the revolutionary properties of graphene could mean that printed circuitry could soon be viable.  Among the multitude of graphene applications currently researched in labs around the world, its use in next generation chips is strongly touted as it has the potential for extremely high speed processing.

The problem up until now is that it is difficult to get graphene to incorporate with droplets needed to function with an inkjet printer.

The results of the study, published on Arxiv, shows a method involving chipping flakes of graphene from a block of graphite with a chemical process, and filtering out any printer clogging bits.

Apparently the team has been able to knock out a number of circuits for thin film transistors, according to Technology Review, but the research appears to be in its infancy.

According to the team, the discovery will pave the way for “all-printed, flexible and transparent graphene devices on arbitrary substrates”.

TechEye spoke to Professor Andrea Ferrari, who told us that the developments with inkjet printing could lead to flexible and transparent electronics, smart textiles, games, toys and RF tags.

According to Ferrari, even though he and the team have just completed early stage research, the technology is already looking promising: “This is a first demonstration, but already at this stage, at the first attempt, our mobility is much bigger than the biggest reported to date for printed semiconductor electronics.

“This is just the beginning. We are in contact with potential industrial partners and we hope to have some prototypes ready in the near future.” 

Banks attempt to censor student thesis

The UK banking trade association has attempted to have a Cambridge University student’s thesis censored because it documents a well-known flaw in the chip-and-pin system.

Melanie Johnson of the UK Cards Association wrote to the University complaining that Omar Choudary’s thesis, titled The Smart Card Detective:a hand-held EMV interceptor, gave away information about the ‘No-Pin’ vulnerability.

This is despite the fact that the flaw was discovered last year by other Cambridge scientists and published last February – and has in any case recently been fixed.

Johnson said that the association was worried that the department’s work could undermine public confidence in the chip-and-pin system – which couldn’t be allowed to pass, obviously.

And she was bothered by the way Choudary tested the vulnerability by making a transaction in a local shop: “Concern was expressed to us by the police that the student was allowed to falsify a transaction in a shop in Cambridge without first warning the merchant,” she wrote.

“Consequently, we would ask that this research be removed from public access immediately.”

Choudary had created a device called a Smart Card Detective designed to monitor chip-and-pin transactions. The main aim was to offer a trusted display for credit card users, helping them avoid scams such as tampered terminals.
However, the final result was a more general device, which could be used to analyse and modify any part of a transaction based on the EMV protocol. Choudary and a journalist did indeed test the device in a shop, but paid for their goods in full.

The letter was passed on to Ross Anderson of the university’s Computer Laboratory to deal with – and he’s refusing to take the association’s orders lying down.

After ticking off Johnson for failing to understand that the university is ‘a self-governing community of scholars rather than a corporate hierarchy’, he accuses the UK banks in a letter of trying to cover up their weaknesses.

“You seem to think that we might censor a student’s thesis, which is lawful and already in the public domain, simply because a powerful interest finds it inconvenient. This shows a deep misconception of what universities are and how we work,” he wrote.

“Cambridge is the University of Erasmus, of Newton, and of Darwin; censoring writings that offend the powerful is offensive to our deepest values.”

Indeed, he says, he’s now authorised the thesis to be issued as a Computer Laboratory Technical Report. “This will make it easier for people to find and to cite, and will ensure that its presence on our web site is permanent,” he explains brightly.

Cambridge University uses Dell's High Performance Computing

Dell and The University of Cambridge have teamed up to launch the Cambridge High Performance Computing (HPC).

The partnership between the two is said to be an effort to form the EMEA region’s top HPC community. This applies to both academic and commercial sectors.

The Centre is said to combine large-scale, commodity-based HPC infrastructure with experienced and specialised research, which is hoped to overcome the traditional barriers of entry to HPC.  Teams from Dell, The University of Cambridge and other vendors will build and test research-specific HPC tech, with the findings released through a series of free whitepapers and technical bulletins.

The University of Cambridge is of course no stranger to research and technology, claiming to  form the central hub of Europe’s largest technology centre with more than 1,200 technology companies located in science parks surrounding the city.

The Centre will be based out of the existing Cambridge HPC Service building, a facility already being used for delivering HPC services via a cloud computing model. On the University campus, the HPC cluster supports around 400 internal users spread across 70 research groups ranging from traditional hard sciences such as chemistry, physics and biology.

Dr. Paul Calleja, Director HPC Service, who is leading the project said: “We have amassed a considerable and focused pool of expertise and compute power that we hope will help speed up research within a wide range of fields. For researchers taking their first steps into HPC, we can provide the perfect platform to trial applications and for those looking to take things to a new level, we have the necessary support and understanding to really get research off the ground.”

The new centre will research lustre parallel file systems, storage design, implementation and operation as well as GPU Clusters – CUDA programming and GPU cluster system integration.

Other research will look at scientific visualisation, application optimisation and benchmarking, MPI profiling.

Boffins find "brain training" games don't work

If you’ve sat about boasting about your incredible intellect after playing a brain training game on the DS Lite, then it’s time to stop, because according to research these games don’t actually work.

A joint investigation between the BBC and boffins at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University results showed no evidence that the benefits of playing brain training games transfer to other mental skills.

Scientists Dr Adrian Owen, Dr Adam Hampshire, and Dr Jessica Grahn launched the research in September 2009. They tested 11,430 adults across the UK during a six-week training regime, where they completing computer-based tasks on the BBC’s website designed by scientists at  the Medical Research Council and the Alzheimer’s Society, to improve reasoning, memory, planning, spatial skills and attention. If you think you’re tough enough try them out here.

Each person’s brain function was measured before and after training in four computer-based tests sensitive to changes in brain function. It found that people who completed computer-based training exercises did improve at the games, but these improvements were simply due to practice and were no help to them on tasks on which they had not trained, even when they tapped into similar areas of the brain as those used during training.

In their paper, published in the Nature journal yesterday, the boffs concluded: “Brain training’, or the goal of improved cognitive function through the regular use of computerised tests, is a multi-million pound industry, yet in our view scientific evidence to support its efficacy is lacking.

“Modest effects have been reported in some studies of older individuals and preschool children, and video-game players outperform non-players on some tests of visual attention. However, the widely held belief that commercially available computerized brain-training programs improve general cognitive function in the wider population in our opinion lacks empirical support.

“The central question is not whether performance on cognitive tests can be improved by training, but rather, whether those benefits transfer to other untrained tasks or lead to any general improvement in the level of cognitive functioning.”

Nintendo, which uses celebrities such as Nicole Kidman and Ant and Dec to promote its Dr Kawashima brain training games, hit back at the research claiming it’s games were not scientifically proven to improve cognitive function.

In a statement it said the games require users to perform a number of “fun challenges incorporating simple arithmetic, memorisation and reading”.

“In this way it is like a workout for the brain and the challenges in the game can help stimulate the player’s brain,” it said.

And those hoping to beat Alzheimers in a later age by playing such games, which include Sudoku and crosswords, will have to do more than sit and twiddle their thumbs on the DS Lite.