All posts by MTechnology

Radio Pollution Creates Space Shield for Satellites

People are big polluters, on the land, in the sea and even in outer space, that can include anything from a hammer that floats away from the space station, to radiation from a nuclear weapons test in the atmosphere.

“This can range from little chips of paint all the way up to spent rocket bodies and things like that,” said Dan Baker, director of the Laboratory of Atmosphere and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “We’ve been trying to figure out how can we most effectively eliminate this debris without causing more of a problem.”

Space debris travels so fast, even an orbiting chip of paint can poke a hole in a satellite. But Baker says something tinier, and natural, is a bigger hazard: It’s the highly charged “killer electrons” of the magnetized zone above the earth called The Van Allen Belts.

“We’ve observed them to cause very significant problems for spacecraft,” Baker said.

Electro-magnetic planetary blanket

The doughnut-shaped Van Allen Belts around our planet protect life on earth from solar winds and cosmic rays. But their highly energetic charged particles can damage the circuitry in space stations, weather satellites and other machines that travel through that region of space.

Baker notes that “killer electrons” can also come from some human activities, like the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.

“Back in the 1950s and especially in the 1960s, there were nuclear explosions that put huge amounts of radiation into space that caused many satellites to ‘die’ because of radiation damage,” he said. “And if that were to happen today, we know that there are over 1,400 satellites operating in space around the earth and all of those could be subject to very severe consequences.”

Most nations adhere to treaties that prohibit atmospheric weapon testing. But Baker says that’s no guarantee.

“What is worrisome to us from a political standpoint today is that there are nations, for example, North Korea and others, that may be thinking once again, and who may not be adherent to such treaties, that this might be an interesting way to mess with modern technology,” Baker said.

Mysterious space shield

Radiation particles in the Van Allen Belts already “mess” with modern technology. So when satellites must spend time in that region, they are built with thicker materials. That armor makes them heavier, and more expensive. Fortunately, spacecraft and satellites that orbit just under the Van Allen Belts don’t need this heavy shielding. Baker says that’s because, at the lower edge of the Van Allen Belts, the killer electrons abruptly stop.

He compares it to the shields that protected Captain Kirk’s ship, the Enterprise, from phasers and asteroids on Star Trek.

Scientists have known for years that something here on the earth creates an invisible bubble that clears killer electrons from the lower edge of the Van Allen Belts. Just what makes that shield has been a mystery.

But recently, Baker’s teams figured out its source. The “bubble maker” is very low frequency radio transmissions, also known as VLF. Militaries use VLF to communicate with submarines underwater. It turns out those radio waves also travel up, through the atmosphere, to the Van Allen Belts.

“So the VLF bubble is made up of these intense waves. These waves act to sort of scatter and scrub the inner part of the Van Allen Belts,” Baker said, admitting, “I would prefer that we not be messing with nature. However, in this particular case I would say that there is some evidence that this is beneficial.”

John Bonnell, a researcher at the University of California Berkeley’s Space Sciences Lab, agrees that VLF “pollution” is probably benign, and he points to the high-energy radiation emitted by lightning bolts as evidence.

“We’ve had natural clearing of the radiation Belts with lightning, for as long as we’ve had lightning. So in essence, you’ve had a long-running experiment that you can look at and say, ‘Well, if we’re going to do things on sort of a sporadic basis, whereas lightning’s been doing it daily for hundreds of millions of years, the likelihood of there being a bad side effect is pretty minimal,'” he said.

Bonnell says that discovering a man-made way to clear killer electrons from the Van Allen Belt does not mean we will soon create “shields up” devices that use magnetics or radio transmissions. At least, he says, we’re not making them yet.

“It’s a fascinating possibility and it’s a fascinating technology that could enable us in the future, to explore more of the solar system with people, with robots. And so it’s definitely something that people pick away at slowly over time,” he said.

Bonnell says scientists, engineers and astronomers have teamed up to make amazing discoveries about how to study, and travel through, outer space. And while the future shape of space exploration is a mystery, our new understanding about the man-made “pollution” that shields satellites may be an important part of it.

Retailers Offer New Tools to Help Shoppers Find Clothes That Fit

Stores watching Amazon take a larger share of clothing sales are trying to solve one of the most vexing issues for online shoppers: finding items that fit properly.

The retailers are unleashing tools that use artificial intelligence to replicate the help a salesperson at a store might offer, calculate a shopper’s most likely body shape, or use 3-D models for a virtual fitting room experience. Amazon, which some analysts say will surpass Macy’s this year as the largest U.S. clothing seller, is offering some customers an Alexa-powered device that doubles as a selfie-stick machine and a stylist.

Retailers want to reduce the rate of online returns, which can be up to 40 percent, and thus make customers happier — and more likely to be repeat shoppers. And the more interaction shoppers have with a brand, the more the technology will learn about shoppers’ preferences, said Vicky Zadeh, chief executive of Rakuten Fits Me, a tech company that works with QVC and clothing startup brands.

 

“It’s all about confidence,” she said. “If they have the confidence to buy, they will come back to the retailer time and time again.”

The push is coming from big names like Levi’s and The Gap and startups like Rhone and Taylrd.

Levi’s new Virtual Stylist texts back and forth with online customers to offer recommendations, based on their preferences. Marc Rosen, Levi’s president of global e-commerce, said early tests show the chatbot is driving more browsers to become buyers.

Reliance on body shape

Rakuten Fits Me, which works with QVC and other companies, fine-tuned its fitting technology this summer and said its retail partners now offer garments that should fit shoppers’ body shapes when the customer first does the initial search. Shoppers provide three measurements — height, weight and age — and then it calculates a person’s most likely body shape, not size, to determine the fit for any garment and offer more accurate recommendations.

And Gap Inc. has an augmented reality app in collaboration with Google and startup Avametric that allows shoppers to virtually try on clothes. Shoppers enter information like height and weight and then the app puts a 3-D model in front of them. However, the tool only works on Google Tango smartphones.

Sebastian DiGrande, executive vice president and strategy and chief customer officer at Gap, said the augmented reality app had produced good feedback, but the company is still determining whether shoppers really want a virtual 3-D model.

Clothing brand Tommy Hilfiger similarly has built its mobile app around the camera and image recognition. It has an augmented reality feature enabling shoppers to see what the clothes look like on a virtual runway model — but not their own body type.

And men’s online clothier Bonobos, now owned by Wal-Mart, launched an app that offers customers a virtual closet to see items they bought and saved. The app is converting browsers to buyers at a faster rate, said Andy Dunn, founder of Bonobos.

Companies are smart to offer new tools, but many are too “gimmicky,” said Sapna Shah, principal at Red Giraffe Advisors, which makes early-stage investments in fashion tech.

“If it’s not Amazon, will brand-specific apps be the way for people to shop in the future?” she said. “How many apps are people going to have on their phone?”

And all the companies need to win over customers who prefer to touch and see things in person.

“It’s great that they’re busting their tail with all these apps, but I am skeptical,” said Doug Garnett of Portland, Oregon. Garnett said he buys some clothes online when he knows and understands the brands, but otherwise, “I really need to see them on my body before I act, and really prefer that to be in a store.”

Personalized offers

As Amazon dives further into fashion, it could use its base of data to spur trends and personalize offers for its customers. Its Echo Look features a built-in camera that photographs and records shoppers trying on clothes and offers recommendations on outfits. It works with its Style Check app, using machine learning and advice from experts. The potential: Learn shoppers’ styles and recommend outfits to buy. Amazon reportedly is exploring the idea of quickly fulfilling online orders for custom-fit clothing.

The company also reportedly acquired Body Labs, which creates true-to-life 3-D body models.

“We’re always listening to our customers, learning and innovating on their behalf and bringing them products we think they will love,” said Amazon spokeswoman Molly Wade. She wouldn’t comment on the prospect of custom-fit or the reports about Body Labs.

Steve Barr, the U.S. retail and consumer sector leader at consultants PwC, said that Amazon was trying for a curated experience based on massive data analytics. But he said he thought such an approach had limitations.

“No matter how great Amazon is with artificial intelligence and predictive behaviors,” Barr said, “they can’t put a red tab on a pair of a jeans or a swoosh on a pair of shoes.”

Facebook Moves to Increase Transparency in Political Ads

Under pressure in advance of hearings on Russian election interference, Facebook is moving to increase transparency for everyone who sees and buys political advertising on its site.

Executives for the social media company said Friday they will verify political ad buyers in federal elections, requiring them to reveal correct names and locations. The site will also create new graphics where users can click on the ads and find out more about who’s behind them.

More broadly, Rob Goldman, Facebook’s vice president in charge of ad products, said the company is building new transparency tools in which all advertisers, even those that aren’t political, are associated with a page, and users can click on a link to see all of the ads any advertiser is running.

Users also will be able to see all of the ads paid for by the advertisers, whether those ads were originally targeted toward them.

3,000 Russia-linked ads

The move comes after the company acknowledged it had found more than 3,000 ads linked to Russia that focused on divisive U.S. social issues and were seen by an estimated 10 million people before and after the 2016 U.S. elections.

Facebook, Twitter and Google will testify in Congress Tuesday and Wednesday on how their platforms were used by Russia or other foreign actors in the election campaign. The Senate and House intelligence committees and the Senate Judiciary Committee are all holding hearings as part of their investigations into Russian election interference.

Facebook’s announcement comes a day after Twitter said it will ban ads from RT and Sputnik, two state-sponsored Russian news outlets. Twitter also has said it will require election-related ads for candidates to disclose who is paying for them and how they are targeted.

Federal election ad archive

Facebook’s Goldman said the company also will build a new archive of federal election ads on Facebook, including the total amount spent and the number of times an ad is displayed, he said. The archive, which will be public for anyone to search, would also have data on the audience that saw the ads, including gender and location information. The archive would eventually hold up to four years of data.

Goldman said the company is still building the new features. They plan to test them in Canada and roll them out in the United States by next summer ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

“This is a good first step but it’s not at all the last step, there’s a lot to learn once we start testing,” Goldman said in an interview.

Facebook already had announced in September that the platform would require an advertiser to disclose who paid for the ads and what other ads it was running at the same time. But it was unclear exactly how the company would do that.

​Heading off legislation

The moves are meant to bring Facebook more in line with what is now required of print and broadcast advertisers. Federal regulations require television and radio stations to make publicly available the details of political ads they air. That includes who runs the ad, when it runs and how much it costs.

It is also likely meant to head off bipartisan legislation in the Senate that would require social media companies to keep public files of election ads and try to ensure they are not purchased by foreigners. Though Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democratic co-sponsor of the legislation, has said his bill would be “the lightest touch possible,” social media companies would rather set their own guidelines than face new regulation.

Facebook has responded swiftly to the attention it has received in recent months on Capitol Hill, boosting staff and lobbying efforts. The company has spent more than $8.4 million in lobbying Congress and the rest of the government through the third quarter of this year, according to federal records.

Some analysts have warned that policing such online election ads can be difficult. It’s one thing to enforce advertising rules for a print newspaper or a TV station, where real humans can vet each ad before it is printed or aired. But that is much more complicated when automated advertising platforms allow millions of advertisers, basically anyone with a credit card and internet access, to place an ad.

New Gadgets We May (or May Not) Need

The ever expanding field of consumer technology just got several dozen new specimens, showcased at the Netherlands’ first Consumer Electronics Show. None are expected to spectacularly change our lives … but at least some of them may prove to be truly useful. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Tech Companies Ready to Face Congress Over Foreign Interference in US Election

Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election nearly a year ago, there has been increasing scrutiny of how Russian-backed operatives used accounts on Facebook, Google and Twitter to try to influence its outcome.

Executives from those companies appear before at least three congressional hearings starting Tuesday, facing questions from lawmakers about what happened and how they plan to respond.

What happened on the internet companies’ services during the 2016 election “was the undermining of our political process,” said Ann Ravel, a lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley’s law school and a former chair at the Federal Election Commission, the federal agency that enforces campaign finance law.

The congressional spotlight on the internet marks a shift in how lawmakers and the public think of the global communications network, observers say. 

View of the internet

For years, the internet was viewed as “an egalitarian force, basically giving voice to the voiceless,” said Nate Persily, a Stanford University law professor.

The 2016 election, with Russian-backed operatives reportedly placing political ads on social networks or posing as Americans talking about hot-button issues, changed that utopian view of the internet.

“We realized that once you allow anyone to speak to as many people as they want no matter when they want, that enables certain types of speakers who hold undemocratic speech,” Persily said.

On the streets of San Francisco, people interviewed echoed frustrations heard around the country that little is known yet about how and why Russian-backed actors used internet firms.

But some say tech companies should take responsibility for what happens on their services and play more of a monitoring role than they have done.

“Social media is accessible to everyone,” peer counselor Moinnette Harris said. “People can engage in it or put whatever they want on there, whether it’s true or false.”

Lia McLoughlin, a stay-at-home parent, said, “I think Facebook has a responsibility. … If you know that there’s something that is affecting our democracy, and if you have any idea that it might be fake, there is a reason to stand in there. It’s our democracy.”

Facebook and other companies share responsibility if their services were used by foreign agents, said Christian Simonetti, an administrative assistant. But any new rules or penalties the internet companies face should be done “without infringing on people’s democratic rights to express themselves,” he said.

Proposed legislation

Law lecturer Ravel said that congressional leaders and regulators should require that internet companies be transparent about who is using their services for political ads, something that billboards, TV stations and newspapers have to do.

In recent weeks, some of the companies have vowed to make changes in reaction to the scrutiny. Twitter and Facebook have said they will do more to make political advertisements more transparent.

Twitter also banned RT and Sputnik, two Russian-backed media companies, from advertising on its site.

But almost everyone agrees it would be harder to regulate — for the government and internet firms — so-called “issue-based ads,” which are about hot topics such as gun rights and gay marriage. Those ads may not be tied to a specific candidate or ballot measure.

Even harder would be fake Facebook or Twitter accounts created overseas but purporting to have been created by people living in a targeted community.

“There is currently no clear industry definition for issue-based ads,” Twitter said in a blog post.

How the U.S. navigates these issues will matter to the rest of the world, Ravel said.

“It’s important for the United States to be a leader to balance innovation we want from the internet for people to speak openly on the internet,” Ravel said, “yet to do something to prevent the intervention in the election.”

New Styles, Smarter Machines and Next-Generation Safety Highlight Tokyo Motor Show

Automakers from around the world take the stage this weekend at the 45th annual Tokyo Motor Show. Designers will showcase electronic cars with advanced artificial intelligence and at least one concept car with safety features for the world around it. Arash Arabasadi reports.

Twitter Surprises With Third Quarter Earnings

Twitter is reporting a loss of $21.1 million in its third quarter, but turned in a better-than-expected profit when one-time charges and benefits are removed.

 

Shares of Twitter Inc. soared almost 9 percent before the opening bell Thursday.

 

The San Francisco company had a loss of 3 cents, but a gain of 10 cents if those non-re-occurring events are removed.  That’s 2 cents better than industry analysts had predicted, according to a survey by Zacks Investment Research.

 

Revenue was $589.6 million in the period, in line with expectations.

Twitter Toughens Abuse Rules – and now has to Enforce Them

Twitter is enacting new policies around hate, abuse and ads, but creating new rules is only half the battle – the easy half.

The bigger problem is enforcement, and there the company has had some high-profile bungles recently. That includes its much-criticized suspension of actress Rose McGowan while she was speaking out against Harvey Weinstein, and the company’s ban, later reversed, of a controversial ad by a Republican Senate candidate.

 

The twists and turns suggest that Twitter doesn’t always communicate the intent of its rules to the people enforcing them. The company says it will be clearer about these policies and decisions in the future.

Ancient Origami Art Becomes Engineers’ Dream in Space

Robert Salazar has been playing with origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, since he was 8 years old. When he sees a sheet of paper, his imagination takes over and intricate animals take shape.

“Seeing the single uncut sheet, it has everything you need to create all of the origami that have ever been folded. It is all in the single sheet so there is endless potential,” Salazar said.

The endless potential of origami, folding a single sheet of paper into an intricate sculpture, reaches all the way to space.

Salazar’s 17-year experience with origami is appreciated at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As a contractor and intern, Salazar is helping create objects that may one day be used in space exploration.

“Origami offers the potential to take a very large structure, even a vast structure, and you can get it to fit within the rocket, go up, then deploy back out again. So it greatly magnifies what we are capable of building in space,” Salazar said.

Folding a large object into a relatively small space is not a simple task.

“A big challenge in origami design in general is that because all of these folds share a single resource, which is a single sheet … everything is highly interdependent, so if you change just one feature it has an impact on everything else,” Salazar said.

“One of our guide stars really is keep it as simple as can be,” said Manan Arya, a technologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Don’t add unnecessary complexity because every piece of complexity, every piece of hardware you add, that ends up being another potential point of failure.”

Starshade

Folding an object the size of a baseball diamond so that it could fit into a rocket is the goal of a NASA project called Starshade.

Once it opens in space, Starshade would allow a space telescope to better see the planets around bright stars.

“Seeing an exoplanet next to its parent star is like trying to image a firefly next to a search light, the searchlight being the star,” said Arya, who is  working on the Starshade project. “Starshade seeks to block out that starlight so you can image a really faint exoplanet right next to it.”

Origami robot

Origami is also used in designing a robot called the Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot, or PUFFER. It has a body that can fold itself flat and roll under small spaces. PUFFER has been tested on desert terrains and snowy slopes. It may one day end up on a mission to another planet.

 

“It [PUFFER] is to explore environments otherwise inaccessible to a robot that could not fold itself to fit inside these cracks, [to] explore cave systems, could be other planets, even on our own,” Salazar said.

Origami antenna

Another application for space origami design is to pack an antenna into satellites the size of a briefcase, called CubeSats.

“The bigger the antenna you have, the more gain your antenna has, so it is useful to have a big antenna that gets packaged into this tiny space that unfolds out to be a large antenna. The biggest CubeSat antennas right now are about half a meter,” Arya said.

Unexplored territory

There are also largely unexplored surfaces that can utilize origami concepts in designing new technologies.

“So often, origami design has been tailored toward materials that are already lying flat,” Salazar said. “But there is actually a vastly, a much larger field of application for which the surfaces are not flat, so they could be parabolic. They could be spherical. They could be many combinations of doubly curved surfaces coming together. All of these things can also be folded.”

In the current origami-inspired technologies being developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, there is a graceful beauty to the folding and unfolding of designs such as the Starshade, which unfurls into what looks like a sunflower. In origami, Salazar said, art, science and engineering are only superficially different.

“Really, when it comes down to it, you’re looking at the world,” he said. “You’re making observations. You’re finding patterns in these observations. [You’re] developing an understanding of what you see, then using that understanding to create. And when you’re creating, [it] can either be creating with the intention of solving a physical problem or it could be nonphysical. It could be aesthetic. You’re trying to find a particular impact on people when they see your work. So really, the practice is the same.”

In origami, Salazar said art, science and engineering are quite similar. They draw on making observations and creating something that produces an impact.