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Security and Privacy Risks with Household Robots

WowWee Rovio

Imagine purchasing a new Rovio robot. This wheeled mobile robot sports a webcam and can be accessed easily through the internet. Often these and other robots are bought as toys, used by the owners to check on their home during a vacation, perhaps for teleconferencing, or to check on an elderly loved one.

Now imagine a malevolent hacker from Russia or China, or your next door neighbor, or a even stalker gaining access to this robot. Now they have free access to your home, roving about checking to see if the owner is home, spying on your children, or perhaps taking embarrassing video of you or your family. What if the robot is commanded to break items in your home, hide your keys, or drive under the feet of granny to harm her? Millions of these robots have been sold, meaning they are quite ubiquitous and therefore prime targets of malicious hackers.

Source: IEEE Spectrum blog.


UK leak warns of growing Chinese tech spying

A document recently leaked by the website Wikileaks has revealed the concerns of British intelligence agencies about the focus of Chinese spies increasing in scope from stealing technology and reverse-engineering it to include the understanding of production techniques and methodologies in order to reproduce them cheaply and also warns of the military implications of such an increased focus.

The 2,389 page document, in its estimate of Chinese intelligence aims, says, “Chinese intelligence activity is widespread and has a voracious appetite for all kinds of information; political, military,commercial, scientific and technical. It is on this area that the Chinese place their highest priority and where we assess that the greatest risk lies.”

The document elaborates, “The Chinese have realized that it is not productive to simply steal technology and then try to `reverse engineer it’. Through intelligence activity they now attempt to acquire an in-depth understanding of production techniques and methodologies. There is an obvious economic risk to the UK. Our hard earned processes at very little cost and then reproduce them with cheap labor. ”

Source: StratPost.

The Political Roots of “Overhumanism”

This paper argues that the emergence of “overhumanism”* in Italy is a troubling development, both for Italian and international transhumanism, due to overhumanism’s association with Fascism. The main overhumanist writers seem to view their version of transhumanism as a cultural and spiritual movement with deep historical roots, and see Fascism as its first political manifestation. Italian overhumanism is heavily influenced by the “Nouvelle Droite”, a fringe political movement that emerged from the French neofascist microcosm in the late ’70s/early ’80s, and which attempted to bring far-right ideas into the mainstream by discarding the trappings of historical Fascism in order to convey a similar message in a less unpalatable form. In common with the Nouvelle Droite, it borrows heavily from the extreme left (anti-americanism, anti-clericalism, opposition to globalisation), and has adopted neopaganism as a religious stance. While affirming the importance of science in modern life, this hybrid offspring of neofascism also maintains more traditional far-right positions such as elitism, antiegalitarianism and an interest in ethnic identity that crosses into differentialist racism.

Source: Estropico.

Tests Begin on Drugs That May Slow Aging

It may be the ultimate free lunch — how to reap all the advantages of a calorically restricted diet, including freedom from disease and an extended healthy life span, without eating one fewer calorie. Just take a drug that tricks the body into thinking it’s on such a diet.

It sounds too good to be true, and maybe it is. Yet such drugs are now in clinical trials. Even if they should fail, as most candidate drugs do, their development represents a new optimism among research biologists that aging is not immutable, that the body has resources that can be mobilized into resisting disease and averting the adversities of old age.

This optimism, however, is not fully shared. Evolutionary biologists, the experts on the theory of aging, have strong reasons to suppose that human life span cannot be altered in any quick and easy way. But they have been confounded by experiments with small laboratory animals, like roundworms, fruit flies and mice. In all these species, the change of single genes has brought noticeable increases in life span.

Source: NYTimes.

Robots to get their own operating system

Image: Aldebaran Robotics

THE UBot whizzes around a carpeted conference room on its Segway-like wheels, holding aloft a yellow balloon. It hands the balloon to a three-fingered robotic arm named WAM, which gingerly accepts the gift.

Cameras click. “It blows my mind to see robots collaborating like this,” says William Townsend, CEO of Barrett Technology, which developed WAM.

The robots were just two of the multitude on display last month at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI) in Pasadena, California. But this happy meeting of robotic beings hides a serious problem: while the robots might be collaborating, those making them are not. Each robot is individually manufactured to meet a specific need and more than likely built in isolation.

This sorry state of affairs is set to change. Roboticists have begun to think about what robots have in common and what aspects of their construction can be standardised, hopefully resulting in a basic operating system everyone can use. This would let roboticists focus their attention on taking the technology forward.

Source: New Scientist.

Japan’s Cyberdyne shows of new robot suit in Tokyo

Cyberdyne said its 22 pound (10 kilogram) HAL – short for hybrid assistive limb – is equipped with sensors that read brain signals directing limb movement through the skin.

Wearing HAL, the three people took an hour-long train ride Monday from Tsukuba, north of the Japanese capital, to downtown Tokyo.

“HAL is to help people with weak leg muscles and mobility problems … We wanted to show HAL is very useful for our daily life,” said company official Takatoshi Kuno.

Source: AP/Forbes. For background see Huffington Post.

Halted ’03 Iraq Plan Illustrates U.S. Fear of Cyberwar Risk

John Arquilla

It would have been the most far-reaching case of computer sabotage in history. In 2003, the Pentagon and American intelligence agencies made plans for a cyberattack to freeze billions of dollars in the bank accounts of Saddam Hussein and cripple his government’s financial system before the United States invaded Iraq. He would have no money for war supplies. No money to pay troops.

“We knew we could pull it off — we had the tools,” said one senior official who worked at the Pentagon when the highly classified plan was developed.

Source: New York Times.

Scientists fear a revolt by killer robots

Advances in artificial intelligence promise many benefits, but scientists are privately so worried they may be creating machines which end up outsmarting — and perhaps even endangering — humans that they held a secret meeting to discuss limiting their research.

At the conference, held behind closed doors in Monterey Bay, California, leading researchers warned that mankind might lose control over computer-based systems that carry out a growing share of society’s workload, from waging war to chatting on the phone, and have already reached a level of indestructibility comparable with a cockroach.

Source Sunday Times.

Humans, not robots, responsible for robotic threat

Who made who?
T600 from the movie Terminator Salvation

When the legendary science fiction writer Isaac Asimov penned the “Three Laws of Responsible Robotics,” he forever changed the way humans think about artificial intelligence, and inspired generations of engineers to take up robotics.

In the current issue of journal IEEE Intelligent Systems, two engineers propose alternative laws to rewrite our future with robots.

The future they foresee is at once safer, and more realistic.

1. A human may not deploy a robot without the human-robot work system meeting the highest legal and professional standards of safety and ethics.

2. A robot must respond to humans as appropriate for their roles.

3. A robot must be endowed with sufficient situated autonomy to protect its own existence as long as such protection provides smooth transfer of control which does not conflict with the First and Second Laws.

Source: Ohio State University via PhysOrg.

Documentary: Anthrax War

Synthetic cells get together to make electronics

A network of artificial cells that work together to act as an AC/DC converter has been built. Demonstrating that synthetic cells can team up to achieve such feats is a step towards building synthetic tissues to interface biology with electronics, says the team of chemists behind the work.

Synthetic biologists have show they can reprogram living cells to make them produce drug compounds, and are even working towards building cells from scratch to create artificial life.

But that work focuses on only individual cells, says Hagan Bayley at the University of Oxford. He’s more interested in making artificial tissue in which individual synthetic cells work together.

Bayley’s group, working with colleagues at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, has made a step towards that goal by connecting together multiple artificial “protocells” so that they share electrical signals.

Source: New Scientist.

Israeli military robot snake

Geoengineering: More Political and Moral Than Scientific?

The prospect of geoengineering continous to spark debate among scientists, environmentalists and politicians. Recently NPR carried an article on the topic:

Engineering our climate to stop global warming may seem like science fiction, but at a recent National Academy of Sciences meeting, scientists discussed some potential geoengineering experiments in earnest.

Climate researcher Ken Caldeira was skeptical when he first heard about the idea of shading the Earth a decade ago in a talk by nuclear weapons scientist Lowell Wood.

“He basically said, ‘We don’t have to bother with emissions reduction. We can just throw aerosols — little dust particles — into the stratosphere, and that’ll cool the earth.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, that’ll never work,’ ” Caldeira said.

But when Caldeira sat down to study this, he was surprised to discover that, yes, it would work, and for the very same reasons that big volcanoes cool the Earth when they erupt. Fine particles in the stratosphere reflect sunlight back into space. And doing it would be cheap, to boot.

Tim Harper (Cientifica), a long time commentator on ethics and nanotechnology recently blogged about geoengineering:

I recently suggested that we need a New Green Agenda, one based on solving problems not just mitigating them, and drawing on everything that science and technology can offer to create a more sustainable future. Greenpeace, rather surprisingly from a scientific viewpoint but obviously from a political one refused to countenance any funding for geoengineering or any trials, even small scale local ones and put up the rather weak argument that it would take funding away from other areas of environmental science.  One of the attractions of geoengineering is that it is cheap and uses mainly existing technologies, so a few tens of millions of dollars spent evaluating options is hardly going to handicap the the rest of the research community. I tend to agree with David Keith and growing number of others that if we are serious about climate change then we should be trying to do something about it rather than delaying research.

Probing further it seems that geoengineering horrifies Greenpeace and other NGOs precisely because it does offer a solution. The real reason Greenpeace dislikes ideas such as this is that it may offer politicians an excuse to stop buying into the sustainable/renewable argument which they have been promoting for thirty years, or to put it their terms “may reduce the political and social impetus to reduce carbon emissions.”

The many vested interests in climate politics may feel threatened by an actual solution to the problem of global warming. The conspiracy crowd feel threatened by the possible harmful effects on humans by experiments in tweaking the atmosphere.

A Thermodynamic Limit on Brain Size

If our brains have to be cooled like computer chips, is there a limit on how big they can be?

In recent years, chip makers have conlcuded that the race to produce ever faster circuits is a fool’s game. As the clock speed increases, the amount of energy lost as heat becomes too large to dissipate efficiently and in any case, the waste is unjustifiable.

That raises some interesting questions about the human brain, says Jan Karbowski at the Sloan-Swartz Center for Theoretical Neurobiology at the California Institute of Technology. Karbowski points out that the problem of heat transfer could be a serious factor shaping brain evolution and so has embarked on a program to determine the relationship between brain temperature, its size, cerebral power generated and neural activity.

The question on Karbowski’s mind is whether there is any thermodynamic limit on brain size. And if so, does 5 kg, which Karbowski says is the mass of the largest mammalian brain, approach that limit?

Source: Arxiv blog.

Also see “Why Worry About This Sci-Fi Stuff Now? Mindfiles, Mindware and Mindclones” on IEET.

Quantum tunneling with nanowires


Quantum tunneling is the capability of a particle to inhabit regions of space that would normally be off-limits according to classical mechanics. This research observes a process called a quantum phase slip, whereby packs of roughly 100,000 electrons tunnel together from higher electrical current states to lower ones. The energy locked in the motion of the electrons as they phase slip is dissipated as heat, causing the nanowires to switch from a superconducting state to a more highly resistive one.

Source: University of Illinois. The researchers hope this effect could be used for quantum computing.

Also read “New rotors could help develop nanoscale generators” about more breakthroughs in nanotechnology from Eurkalert.

Latest human cloning claims leave sour taste

It’s clone-mania again, for the second time in just a few weeks. This time, it’s fertility expert Panayiotis Zavos, founder of the private Zavos Organization in Lexington, Kentucky, claiming that he made 14 human cloned embryos and transferred 11 of them into the wombs of women.

None of the embryos survived this time (allegedly), but “the cloned child is coming”, Zavos told The Independent newspaper in the UK. “There is absolutely no way that it will not happen.”

Last month, we had the spectacle of Italian fertility expert Severino Antinori’s assertion that three clones already exist: two boys and a girl. He told Italy’s Oggi magazine that the children are now nine years old and living in eastern Europe.

But as usual, he provided no scientific proof to confirm that they were indeed clones. Nor did he submit any scientific data for publication. How on earth are we supposed to believe these claims?

Source: New Scientist.

Manning the barricades

Ill. “Blackouts and Cascading Failures of the Global Markets”,
Scientific American.

The credit crunch is dragging down the global economy and raising political tensions

Collapsing credit has plunged the world economy into the deepest recession in more than 70 years. What began as a property bubble in the US has spread rapidly as troubled banks have stopped lending and consumers and businesses have stopped spending. As demand in the US and Europe evaporates, once-thriving emerging markets are losing their best customers and biggest investors. An increasingly synchronised global economy will contract in 2009 for the first time since World War II.

Eighteen months after it began, this economic chain reaction—from banks to markets to consumers to companies—is entering a new phase. Economic pain, reflected in millions of lost jobs and destroyed savings, has entered the political realm, causing some governments to collapse and threatening others. The risk of political instability is leading to a wave of trade protectionism, which is rippling across the globe. It was just such a political response in the 1930s, exemplified by America’s infamous Smoot-Hawley tariffs, that deepened and prolonged the Great Depression.

Source: “Introduction: Banks, busts and batons”, The Economist Intelligence Unit. Download the entire report “Manning the barricades: Who’s at risk as deepening economic distress foments social unrest” (PDF).

Artificial human body parts

Exact replicas of a man’s thumb bones have been made for the first time
using a printer that uses natural materials for ink

EXACT replicas of a man’s thumb bones have been made for the first time using a 3D printer. The breakthrough paves the way for surgeons to replace damaged or diseased bones with identical copies built from the patients’ own cells.

“In theory, you could do any bone,” says Christian Weinand of the Insel Hospital in Berne, Switzerland, head of the team that copied his thumb bones. “Now I can put spares in my pocket if I want,” he says.

Weinand “grew” his replacement bones on the backs of laboratory mice, in the same way that Jay Vacanti of Massachusetts General Hospital famously grew a human ear from human cartilage cells back in 1997.

Source: “Thumbs up for 3D bone printer”, New Scientist.

The smooth cartilage that covers the ends of long bones provides a level of lubrication that artificial alternatives haven’t been able to rival – until now. Researchers say their lubricating layers of “molecular brushes” can outperform nature under the highest pressures encountered within joints, with potentially important implications for joint replacement surgery.

With every step we take, bones at the knee and hip rub against each other. That would quickly wear them away if it wasn’t for the protection afforded by the thick layer of smooth and slippery cartilage that covers their ends.

No amount of polishing can remove all of the small imperfections from the stainless steel used in artificial joints. Any raised areas that are left grind against each other and release debris particles that soften the bone, explains Jacob Klein at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

Like bone, artificial joints must be covered with a cartilage-like layer. However, while it’s possible to match cartilage’s slick properties at low pressure, at the high pressures found in joints synthetic alternatives “seize up”.

Source: “Artificial cartilage performs better than the real thing”, New Scientist.

Hacking the planet: The only climate solution left?

Click image to enlarge.

Geoengineering schemes range from the low-tech, such as planting trees, to sci-fi, such as placing mirrors in orbit between Earth and the sun. All would work either by diverting solar energy away from Earth or by sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to dampen the greenhouse effect (see diagram).

Previously, the idea of tweaking the climate in this way was anathema to most scientists. Apart from the technical challenges and environmental risks, many argued that endorsing the concept might scupper international negotiations for a post-Kyoto protocol to reduce global emissions. But it’s becoming clear that moves to cut global carbon emissions are too little and too late for us avoid the worst effects of climate change. “There is a worrying sense that negotiations won’t lead anywhere or lead to enough,” says Lenton. “We can’t change the world that fast,” says Peter Liss, who is scientific adviser to the UK parliamentary committee investigating geoengineering. Extraordinary measures may now be the only way of saving vulnerable ecosystems such as Arctic sea ice.

Source: New Scientist.

Quantum dance: Discovery led by Princeton researchers could revolutionize computing

Theorists have long predicted that atoms placed in certain configurations would trigger electrons to behave in odd “quantum” ways. The Princeton-led team has been searching for a material that would produce these conditions. In the Feb. 13 issue of Science, the team has reported it witnessed the exotic behavior in a carefully constructed crystal made of an antimony alloy laced with bismuth.

Surveying the structure on an atomic level with new techniques, the scientists have recorded swarms of electrons spinning in a synchronized quantum dance. The coordinated behavior observed involves a strange form of rotation. Unlike most objects, which return to their original “face” when revolved full circle or 360 degrees, the harmonized electrons need to be twisted two full turns or 720 degrees in order to go back to the same face at the surface of the material.

Source: Princeton University.

Israel launches covert war against Iran

Israel has launched a covert war against Iran as an alternative to direct military strikes against Tehran’s nuclear programme, US intelligence sources have revealed.

It is using hitmen, sabotage, front companies and double agents to disrupt the regime’s illicit weapons project, the experts say.

The most dramatic element of the “decapitation” programme is the planned assassination of top figures involved in Iran’s atomic operations.

Despite fears in Israel and the US that Iran is approaching the point of no return in its ability to build atom bomb, Israeli officials are aware of the change in mood in Washington since President Barack Obama took office.

Source: Telegraph.

Military’s killer robots must learn warrior code

Autonomous military robots that will fight future wars must be programmed to live by a strict warrior code or the world risks untold atrocities at their steely hands.

The stark warning – which includes discussion of a Terminator-style scenario in which robots turn on their human masters – is issued in a hefty report funded by and prepared for the US Navy’s high-tech and secretive Office of Naval Research .

Source: Times Online. Read the report here.

Invisibility-Cloak Breakthrough

A new device that can reroute microwave radiation is made up
of about 600 I-shaped copper structures and works over a broad spectrum.

Metamaterials interact with light in ways that appear to violate the laws of physics. They can bend light around an object as if it weren’t there, or narrow the resolution of light microscopes down to a few nanometers. But metamaterials must be painstakingly structured at the nano- and microscales in order to achieve these exotic effects. Now the Duke University researcher who built the first invisibility cloak in 2006 has created software that speeds up the design of metamaterials. He and his colleagues have used the program to build a complex light cloak that’s invisible to a broad band of microwave light–and they did it in only about 10 days.

David R. Smith of Duke and Tai Jun Cui of Southeast University, in Nanjing, China, led the work, which is a landmark in the field of metamaterials. The cloak that the researchers built works with wavelengths of light ranging from about 1 to 18 gigahertz–a swath as broad as the visible spectrum. No one has yet made a cloaking device that works in the visible spectrum, and those metamaterials that have been fabricated tend to work only with narrow bands of light. But a cloak that made an object invisible to light of only one color would not be of much use. Similarly, a cloaking device can’t afford to be lossy: if it lets just a little bit of light reflect off the object it’s supposed to cloak, it’s no longer effective. The cloak that Smith built is very low loss, successfully rerouting almost all the light that hits it.

Source: Technology Review.

Biodesign Institute researchers use nanoparticles to make 3-D DNA nanotubes

In the January 2, 2009 issue of Science, Yan and Liu, researchers at ASU’s Biodesign Institute and faculty in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, reveal for the first time the three-dimensional character of DNA nanotubules, rings and spirals, each a few hundred thousandths the diameter of a human hair. These DNA nanotubes and other synthetic nanostructures may soon find their way into a new generation of ultra-tiny electronic and biomedical innovations.

Source: EurekAlert (original source).

The Next 100 Years: George Friedman

New book released by George Friedman, CEO of Stratfor.

Broad Use of Brain Boosters?


Off-label use of stimulants, such as Ritalin, is on the rise among college students. Studies show that 5 percent to 15 percent of students use prescription drugs as study aids, and surveys suggest the practice may be common among academics as well. The trend has sparked debates over how and when these cognitive enhancers should be used. Military personnel routinely use stimulants while on active duty, but should that practice also be permitted among surgeons working long shifts? What about scientists working late nights in the lab? Or students taking exams?

Source: Technology Review. See also “Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy” in Nature.

Pentagon hires British scientist to help build robot soldiers that ‘won’t commit war crimes’

The American military is planning to build robot soldiers that will not be able to commit war crimes like their human comrades in arms.

The US Army and Navy have both hired experts in the ethics of building machines to prevent the creation of an amoral Terminator-style killing machine that murders indiscriminately.

By 2010 the US will have invested $4 billion in a research programme into “autonomous systems”, the military jargon for robots, on the basis that they would not succumb to fear or the desire for vengeance that afflicts frontline soldiers.

Source: The Telegraph.

2025: the end of US dominance

The United States’ leading intelligence organisation has warned that the world is entering an increasingly unstable and unpredictable period in which the advance of western-style democracy is no longer assured, and some states are in danger of being “taken over and run by criminal networks”.

The global trends review, produced by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) every four years, represents sobering reading in Barack Obama’s intray as he prepares to take office in January. The country he inherits, the report warns, will no longer be able to “call the shots” alone, as its power over an increasingly multipolar world begins to wane.

Source: Guardian.

UPDATE: “Russian analyst predicts decline and breakup of U.S.”, RIA Novosti.

Whole Brain Emulation Roadmap

From the makers of the artificial medicine – Placebo, Substitute Materials.

Whole brain emulation (WBE) is the possible future one-to-one modelling of the function of the human brain. It represents a formidable engineering and research problem, yet one which appears to have a well-defined goal and could, it would seem, be achieved by extrapolations of current technology. Since the implications of successful WBE are potentially very large the Future of Humanity Institute hosted a workshop in Oxford on 26-27 May, 2007. Invited experts from areas such as computational neuroscience, brain-scanning technology, computing, and neurobiology presented their findings and discussed the possibilities, problems and milestones that would have to be reached before WBE becomes feasible. The result of the workshop is the following roadmap (FHI’s third report).

Authored by Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg at the Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford. Download the report here.

US, Russia competing for Asian nanotech alliances?

US-Japan young scientists symposium on nano-mechanics related systems
A joint US-Japan nanotechnology meeting was held on 8 October 2008 at the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS). This one-day meeting is a part of one-week visit of US team to several Japanese institutions, including University of Tokyo (6 October), AIST (Tsukuba, 7 October), NIMS (8 October), Kyoto University (10 October) and Osaka University (11 October).

Source: NanoNet Japan.

Russia and China Signs Agreement on Strategic Collaboration in the Field of Nanotechnology
The signing of the agreement took place during the visit to Russia of Wen Tszyabao, Chairman of State Council of China. Anatoly Chubais, Director General of RUSNANO, and Tsao Tszenlin, Deputy Minister for science and technology signed the document.

Source: NanoChina.

Also: Impressive developments in proteomics for fighting infectious disease at Berkley Labs.