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A Chinese Internet Giant Starts to Dream

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 00:00

Baidu is a fixture of online life in China, but it wants to become a global power. Can one of the world’s leading artificial- intelligence researchers help it challenge Silicon Valley’s biggest companies?

Punk bands from Blondie to the Ramones once played in Broadway Studios, an age-worn 95-year-old neoclassical building surrounded by strip clubs in San Francisco’s North Beach. But early on this bright June morning, a different sort of rock star arrives. A small crowd attending a tech startup conference swarms around a tall, soft-spoken man in a blue dress shirt and navy suit who politely poses for photos. Andrew Ng, newly appointed chief scientist at Baidu, China’s dominant search company, is here to talk about his plans to advance deep learning, a powerful new approach to artificial intelligence loosely modeled on the way the brain works. It has already made computers vastly better at recognizing speech, translating languages, and identifying images—and Ng’s work at Google and Stanford University, where he was a professor of computer science, is behind some of the biggest breakthroughs. After his talk, the audience of about 200 entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and tech workers sends him off with two rounds of applause.

Bendable Displays Are Finally Headed to Market

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 00:00

Flexible displays haven’t been usable as touch screens, or durable—those problems have now been solved.

By the end of this year, a startup called Kateeva will start shipping manufacturing equipment that could finally bring flexible displays to market.

Turning a Regular Smartphone Camera into a 3-D One

Mon, 08/11/2014 - 17:13

Microsoft researchers say simple hardware changes and machine learning techniques let a regular smartphone camera act as a depth sensor.

Just about everybody carries a camera nowadays by virtue of owning a cell phone, but few of these devices capture the three-dimensional contours of objects like a depth camera can.

Spotting Cancer in a Vial of Blood

Mon, 08/11/2014 - 12:40

He watched his brother die from a cancer that no drug could cure. Now one of the world’s most renowned cancer researchers says it’s time for Plan B.

The answers Bert Vogelstein needed and feared were in the blood sample. 

A Mouse with the Same Cancer as You

Mon, 08/11/2014 - 00:00

For $12,000, a company grafts a patient’s cancer into rodents and tests drugs on them.

At a laboratory in Baltimore, hairless mice kept in racks of plastic crates are labelled with yellow cards, each identifying a person fighting cancer. These mice are cancer “avatars”—the lumpy tumors visible under their skin come from actual patients.

Malware Traffic Spikes Preceded Russian and Israeli Conflicts

Fri, 08/08/2014 - 17:50

Government hackers apparently went to work as Israel and Russia ramped up military action this year.

A study of malware operating on corporate and government networks suggests that the communication patterns of these programs could warn of major conflicts.

Micro Chiplets

Fri, 08/08/2014 - 00:00

PARC’s technique of mincing chips into printer ink could revolutionize the way electronics are made.

In the same research lab where the ethernet, laser printer, and graphical user interface were born, engineers are forging an entirely new way to assemble electronic devices—a technique that could be faster, cheaper, and more versatile. 

IBM Chip Processes Data Similar to the Way Your Brain Does

Thu, 08/07/2014 - 12:53

A chip that uses a million digital neurons and 256 million synapses may signal the beginning of a new era of more intelligent computers.

A new kind of computer chip, unveiled by IBM today, takes design cues from the wrinkled outer layer of the human brain. Though it is no match for a conventional microprocessor at crunching numbers, the chip consumes significantly less power, and is vastly better suited to processing images, sound, and other sensory data.

Stacking Cells Could Make Solar as Cheap as Natural Gas

Wed, 08/06/2014 - 16:59

A novel manufacturing method could make it practical to stack solar cells and convert more of the energy in sunlight into electricity.

When experts talk about future solar cells, they usually bring up exotic materials and physical phenomena. In the short term, however, a much simpler approach—stacking different semiconducting materials that collect different frequencies of light—could provide nearly as much of an increase in efficiency as any radical new design. And a new manufacturing technique could soon make this approach practical.

Challenges Remain for Technologies to Fight Ebola

Wed, 08/06/2014 - 00:00

Efforts to contain Ebola in West Africa suffer from a lack of effective tools to treat and prevent the disease, although several are in development.

As of last week, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has claimed the lives of 88 percent of the more than 1,000 confirmed cases. While several technologies for controlling the spread of the disease are under development, deploying them will not be straightforward.

This Company Thinks Your Car Wants Google Glass

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 14:43

A heads-up display could be safer than glancing at your smartphone while driving—but some features may be more distracting than others.

If you own a smartphone, you’ve no doubt been tempted to take a look at a map or see what message just popped up on the screen while you’re behind the wheel of a car.

The Amazon Fire’s Fanciest Features Fail to Impress

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 00:00

The Amazon Fire Phone tries hard to impress, but often ends up just being annoying.

The Amazon Fire is a good smartphone, but not because of all the high-tech new features Amazon is touting. In fact, some of those features are more wearying than truly useful.

A Room Where Executives Go to Get Help from IBM’s Watson

Mon, 08/04/2014 - 00:00

Researchers at IBM are testing a version of Watson designed to listen and contribute to business meetings.

Photocopiers, PCs, and video conferencing rooms all rose from being technological novelties to standard tools of corporate life. Researchers at IBM are experimenting with an idea for another: a room where executives can go to talk over business problems with a version of Watson, the computer system that defeated two Jeopardy! champions on TV in 2012.

Using Your Ear to Track Your Heart

Fri, 08/01/2014 - 00:00

Although smart watches and fitness bands are proliferating on wrists, there could be an even better spot on the body for wearable tech.

If you’re going to choose a place on the body to measure physical signals, Steven LeBoeuf says two places are far and away the best: the ear or the rear.

Chinese GMO Research Outpaces Approvals

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 00:00

The fact that China hasn’t approved of any commercial GMO planting since 2009 reflects public fears.

Despite recent research advances, such as a new strain of wheat that resists destructive mildew (see “Chinese Researchers Stop Wheat Disease with Gene Editing”), commercial planting of genetically modified food crops has stalled in China, the world’s most populous nation and one with a fast-tightening food supply.

Adaptive Material Could Cut the Cost of Solar in Half

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 00:00

A new material, combined with a cheap tracking system, could unleash the promise of concentrated solar power.

A material with optical properties that change to help it capture more incoming sunlight could cut the cost of solar power in half, according to Glint Photonics, a startup recently funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E).

Startup Wants You to Capture the World in 3-D

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 00:00

Mantis Vision is developing 3-D scanning technology that could end up in lots of tablets.

Gur Bittan envisions a future where you’re not just capturing a regular video of a child’s first steps with a smartphone; you’re doing it in 3-D, and sharing it with friends who can manipulate the video to watch it from different perspectives—even the kid’s point of view, providing you’ve scanned the scene from enough angles.

LCD Hacking Trick Could Make Virtual Reality More Real

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 00:00

Stacking components from two LCD panels more than doubles the pixel density of a video display.

Donning a pair of virtual reality goggles like the Oculus Rift can instantly transport you into another place. But being able to see the pixels that make up that computerized world can be a niggling reminder that your brain is being tricked by an LCD panel strapped to your face.

A Q&A with Gene Wolfe

Fri, 07/25/2014 - 12:00

A Twelve Tomorrows exclusive: Science fiction legend Gene Wolfe looks back on his career.

Gene Wolfe was born in New York City in 1931 and spent his early childhood in Peoria, Illinois, where he lived near his future wife, Rosemary. He moved to Houston with his parents at the age of six, attended Lamar High School, and enrolled at Texas A&M. But when Wolfe dropped out of college, he was drafted into the Army, and fought in Korea as a combat engineer. He returned home, by his own account, “a mess”: “I’d hit the floor at the slightest noise.” Rosemary, whom he met again shortly after he was discharged, he says simply, “saved me.”

Urban Jungle a Tough Challenge for Google’s Autonomous Cars

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 14:06

It may be decades before autonomous vehicles can reliably handle the real world, experts say.

After catching the world and the auto industry by surprise with its progress with self-driving cars, Google has begun the latest, most difficult phase of its project – making the vehicles smart enough to handle the chaos of city streets.