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The Purpose of Silicon Valley

Fri, 01/30/2015 - 00:00

Capital and engineering talent have been flocking to seemingly trivial mobile apps. But would we really be better off if more startups instead went directly after big problems?

The view from Mike Steep’s office on Palo Alto’s Coyote Hill is one of the greatest in Silicon Valley.

Why the Time Seems Right for a Space-Based Internet Service

Tue, 01/27/2015 - 00:00

New micro-satellite technology is enabling satellite Internet services that could reach billions of new users.

Providing Internet access from orbiting satellites—a concept that seemed to have died with the excesses of the dot-com boom—has returned thanks to SpaceX founder (and dot-com billionaire) Elon Musk. And while such a service would be expensive and risky to deploy, recent technological trends mean it’s no longer so out-of-this-world.

Technology Repaints the Payment Landscape

Mon, 01/26/2015 - 00:00

As technology-driven payment ideas give cash a run for its money, the big winners could be established banks and credit card companies.


In developed economies, money has been digitizing for decades. Few Westerners touch a paycheck anymore. Through direct deposit, digital money is transferred electronically from our employer to our bank account every pay period. A similar process moves contributions into our 401(k) accounts or zaps money over to pay the rent, the utility bill, a student loan, or any other expense.

Alipay Leads a Digital Finance Revolution in China

Mon, 01/26/2015 - 00:00

What started as a service to help customers buy goods from Alibaba retailers has grown into a serious finance business all its own.

Not many years ago, Jane Yang, a 26-year-old civil servant in Beijing, paid her landlord in three-month installments with a stack of 100-yuan notes. To pay her utilities—water, electricity, and home Internet bill—she went to three separate banks, where she handed cash to a teller. The process was “very time-consuming and irritating,” she remembers. Even as skyscrapers and gleaming shopping malls cropped up around China’s capital, most middle-class residents had never seen or used a simple checkbook.

A Weekend in Bitcoin City: Arnhem, the Netherlands

Mon, 01/26/2015 - 00:00

Is it possible to live for 48 hours on nothing but Bitcoin?

Propped up next to me on the red sofa in my room at the boutique Hotel Modez in Arnhem, the Netherlands, my iPad has its screen on the Bitcoin exchange ­Bitstamp.net, and the value of the crypto­currency is dropping, moment by moment. At breakfast one bitcoin had been worth over $400, but the value has been sinking for the past 30 minutes and has now hit $383. I know I’m blowing it.

Resurrecting a Meltdown-Proof Reactor Design

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 15:30

A new molten salt nuclear reactor design could make nuclear power safer and more economical.

A new take on an old reactor design could make nuclear power cleaner and safer, and therefore more competitive with fossil fuels.

Microsoft’s New Idea: A Hologram Headset to Rewrite Reality

Wed, 01/21/2015 - 17:30

A wearable display set for release by Microsoft later this year can augment your world with realistic, interactive virtual objects.

Microsoft today showed off an augmented reality headset slated for release later this year. The compact, visor-style device, called Hololens, generates holograms that make 3-D objects appear to the wearer to be overlaid on the real world.

Microsoft Researchers Get Wrapped Up in Smart Scarf

Wed, 01/21/2015 - 00:00

In the quest to make wearable electronics useful, researchers take a close look at the neck.

Microsoft researchers have created a scarf that can be commanded to heat up and vibrate via a smartphone app, part of an exploration of how the accessory could eventually work with emerging biometric- and emotion-sensing devices. It could, perhaps, soothe you if a sensor on your body determines you’re down—a function that could be particularly useful for people who have disorders such as autism and have trouble managing their feelings.

Hawaii’s Solar Push Strains the Grid

Tue, 01/20/2015 - 00:00

Kauai’s utility takes a second stab at battery storage as solar heads toward 80 percent of peak power.

The prospect of cheaper, petroleum-free power has lured the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) to quintuple utility-scale solar capacity over the past year, building two 12-megawatt photovoltaic arrays. These facilities are the biggest and a significant contributor to the island’s 78-megawatt peak power supply. When the second plant comes online this summer, peak solar output on Kauai will approach 80 percent of power generation on some days, according to Brad Rockwell, the utility’s power supply manager.

Is Genius Smarter Than Past Attempts to Annotate the Web?

Mon, 01/19/2015 - 00:00

A site that began as place to annotate hip hop lyrics thinks it’s figured out how to spread annotation to the wider Web.

Tom Lehman has a vision of the near future. Everything you see online, whether Taylor Swift lyrics or government press releases, will come with crowdsourced annotations that provide expert commentary. Think of it as an extra layer of knowledge spread by the masses over the entire Web.

Google’s Modular Smartphone to Debut in Puerto Rico

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 16:00

An attempt to release customizable smartphones made up of interchangeable modules is inching forward.

Google’s vision of cheap modular smartphones made up of interchangeable pieces is getting closer to reality. The company showed off the latest prototype on Wednesday, and said that it will start selling its first modular phone in Puerto Rico later this year.

Something Lost in Skype Translation

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 12:00

Skype’s real-time translation software highlights remarkable progress in machine learning—but it still struggles with the subtleties of human communication.

It sometimes seems as if the highest praise an innovative new technology can earn is a credulous comparison to Star Trek. The Oculus Rift is like the Holodeck; 3-D printers are like matter replicators; Qualcomm is even sponsoring an X-Prize contest to build a working tricorder.

A Brain-Computer Interface That Works Wirelessly

Wed, 01/14/2015 - 16:10

A wireless transmitter could give paralyzed people a practical way to control TVs, computers, or wheelchairs with their thoughts.

A few paralyzed patients could soon be using a wireless brain-computer interface able to stream their thought commands as quickly as a home Internet connection.

Can GM Go from Volt to Bolt?

Mon, 01/12/2015 - 17:21

GM revealed a concept all-electric hatchback today that it claims has a 200-mile range.

GM today unveiled an all-electric concept car, called the Bolt, which it says will have a 200-mile range. That’s comparable to the range of Tesla’s electric luxury cars, but the Bolt will cost around $30,000 (while a Tesla will sell for between $70,000 and $94,000).

SpaceX Claims Partial Success with Rocket Crash Landing

Mon, 01/12/2015 - 13:42

Success would redefine the economics of space travel, but SpaceX’s reusable rocket shows that it’s still hard to perform a safe landing.

As if launching a rocket into space weren’t enough, on Saturday SpaceX tried to bring one safely back to earth by setting it down on a floating landing pad.

Robot Journalist Finds New Work on Wall Street

Fri, 01/09/2015 - 16:20

Software that turns data into written text could help us make sense of a coming tsunami of data.

Software that was first put to work writing news reports has now found another career option: drafting reports for financial giants and U.S. intelligence agencies.

A Bendable Implant Taps the Nervous System without Damaging It

Thu, 01/08/2015 - 14:00

Swiss researchers allow rats to walk again with a rubbery electronic implant.

Medicine these days entertains all kinds of ambitious plans for reading off brain signals to control wheelchairs, or using electronics to bypass spinal injuries. But most of these ideas for implants that can interface with the nervous system run up against a basic materials problem: wires are stiff and bodies are soft.

CES 2015: Unleash the Drones!

Wed, 01/07/2015 - 15:00

Prepare for takeoff. Unmanned aircraft are a rapidly growing category in consumer electronics.

At the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it sometimes felt as if an army of drones had been released and was looking for something useful to do.

CES 2015: Nvidia Demos a Car Computer Trained with “Deep Learning”

Tue, 01/06/2015 - 17:21

A commercial device uses powerful image and information processing to let cars interpret 360° camera views.

Many cars now include cameras or other sensors that record the passing world and trigger intelligent behavior, such as automatic braking or steering to avoid an obstacle. Today’s systems are usually unable to tell the difference between a trash can and traffic cop standing next to it, though.

Nvidia Demos a Car Computer Trained with “Deep Learning”

Tue, 01/06/2015 - 17:21

A commercial device uses powerful image and information processing to let cars interpret 360° camera views.

Many cars now include cameras or other sensors that record the passing world and trigger intelligent behavior, such as automatic braking or steering to avoid an obstacle. Today’s systems are usually unable to tell the difference between a trash can and traffic cop standing next to it, though.

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