Tag Archives: surveillance

D-Wave passes 1000-qubit barrier

A local (Vancouver, Canada-based, quantum computing company, D-Wave is making quite a splash lately due to a technical breakthrough.  h/t’s Speaking up for Canadian Science for Business in Vancouver article and Nanotechnology Now for Harris & Harris Group press release and Economist article.

A June 22, 2015 article by Tyler Orton for Business in Vancouver describes D-Wave’s latest technical breakthrough,

“This updated processor will allow significantly more complex computational problems to be solved than ever before,” Jeremy Hilton, D-Wave’s vice-president of processor development, wrote in a June 22 [2015] blog entry.

Regular computers use two bits – ones and zeroes – to make calculations, while quantum computers rely on qubits.

Qubits possess a “superposition” that allow it to be one and zero at the same time, meaning it can calculate all possible values in a single operation.

But the algorithm for a full-scale quantum computer requires 8,000 qubits.

A June 23, 2015 Harris & Harris Group press release adds more information about the breakthrough,

Harris & Harris Group, Inc. (Nasdaq: TINY), an investor in transformative companies enabled by disruptive science, notes that its portfolio company, D-Wave Systems, Inc., announced that it has successfully fabricated 1,000 qubit processors that power its quantum computers.  D-Wave’s quantum computer runs a quantum annealing algorithm to find the lowest points, corresponding to optimal or near optimal solutions, in a virtual “energy landscape.”  Every additional qubit doubles the search space of the processor.  At 1,000 qubits, the new processor considers 21000 possibilities simultaneously, a search space which is substantially larger than the 2512 possibilities available to the company’s currently available 512 qubit D-Wave Two. In fact, the new search space contains far more possibilities than there are particles in the observable universe.

A June 22, 2015 D-Wave news release, which originated the technical details about the breakthrough found in the Harris & Harris press release, provides more information along with some marketing hype (hyperbole), Note: Links have been removed,

As the only manufacturer of scalable quantum processors, D-Wave breaks new ground with every succeeding generation it develops. The new processors, comprising over 128,000 Josephson tunnel junctions, are believed to be the most complex superconductor integrated circuits ever successfully yielded. They are fabricated in part at D-Wave’s facilities in Palo Alto, CA and at Cypress Semiconductor’s wafer foundry located in Bloomington, Minnesota.

“Temperature, noise, and precision all play a profound role in how well quantum processors solve problems.  Beyond scaling up the technology by doubling the number of qubits, we also achieved key technology advances prioritized around their impact on performance,” said Jeremy Hilton, D-Wave vice president, processor development. “We expect to release benchmarking data that demonstrate new levels of performance later this year.”

The 1000-qubit milestone is the result of intensive research and development by D-Wave and reflects a triumph over a variety of design challenges aimed at enhancing performance and boosting solution quality. Beyond the much larger number of qubits, other significant innovations include:

  •  Lower Operating Temperature: While the previous generation processor ran at a temperature close to absolute zero, the new processor runs 40% colder. The lower operating temperature enhances the importance of quantum effects, which increases the ability to discriminate the best result from a collection of good candidates.​
  • Reduced Noise: Through a combination of improved design, architectural enhancements and materials changes, noise levels have been reduced by 50% in comparison to the previous generation. The lower noise environment enhances problem-solving performance while boosting reliability and stability.
  • Increased Control Circuitry Precision: In the testing to date, the increased precision coupled with the noise reduction has demonstrated improved precision by up to 40%. To accomplish both while also improving manufacturing yield is a significant achievement.
  • Advanced Fabrication:  The new processors comprise over 128,000 Josephson junctions (tunnel junctions with superconducting electrodes) in a 6-metal layer planar process with 0.25μm features, believed to be the most complex superconductor integrated circuits ever built.
  • New Modes of Use: The new technology expands the boundaries of ways to exploit quantum resources.  In addition to performing discrete optimization like its predecessor, firmware and software upgrades will make it easier to use the system for sampling applications.

“Breaking the 1000 qubit barrier marks the culmination of years of research and development by our scientists, engineers and manufacturing team,” said D-Wave CEO Vern Brownell. “It is a critical step toward bringing the promise of quantum computing to bear on some of the most challenging technical, commercial, scientific, and national defense problems that organizations face.”

A June 20, 2015 article in The Economist notes there is now commercial interest as it provides good introductory information about quantum computing. The article includes an analysis of various research efforts in Canada (they mention D-Wave), the US, and the UK. These excerpts don’t do justice to the article but will hopefully whet your appetite or provide an overview for anyone with limited time,

A COMPUTER proceeds one step at a time. At any particular moment, each of its bits—the binary digits it adds and subtracts to arrive at its conclusions—has a single, definite value: zero or one. At that moment the machine is in just one state, a particular mixture of zeros and ones. It can therefore perform only one calculation next. This puts a limit on its power. To increase that power, you have to make it work faster.

But bits do not exist in the abstract. Each depends for its reality on the physical state of part of the computer’s processor or memory. And physical states, at the quantum level, are not as clear-cut as classical physics pretends. That leaves engineers a bit of wriggle room. By exploiting certain quantum effects they can create bits, known as qubits, that do not have a definite value, thus overcoming classical computing’s limits.

… The biggest question is what the qubits themselves should be made from.

A qubit needs a physical system with two opposite quantum states, such as the direction of spin of an electron orbiting an atomic nucleus. Several things which can do the job exist, and each has its fans. Some suggest nitrogen atoms trapped in the crystal lattices of diamonds. Calcium ions held in the grip of magnetic fields are another favourite. So are the photons of which light is composed (in this case the qubit would be stored in the plane of polarisation). And quasiparticles, which are vibrations in matter that behave like real subatomic particles, also have a following.

The leading candidate at the moment, though, is to use a superconductor in which the qubit is either the direction of a circulating current, or the presence or absence of an electric charge. Both Google and IBM are banking on this approach. It has the advantage that superconducting qubits can be arranged on semiconductor chips of the sort used in existing computers. That, the two firms think, should make them easier to commercialise.

Google is also collaborating with D-Wave of Vancouver, Canada, which sells what it calls quantum annealers. The field’s practitioners took much convincing that these devices really do exploit the quantum advantage, and in any case they are limited to a narrower set of problems—such as searching for images similar to a reference image. But such searches are just the type of application of interest to Google. In 2013, in collaboration with NASA and USRA, a research consortium, the firm bought a D-Wave machine in order to put it through its paces. Hartmut Neven, director of engineering at Google Research, is guarded about what his team has found, but he believes D-Wave’s approach is best suited to calculations involving fewer qubits, while Dr Martinis and his colleagues build devices with more.

It’s not clear to me if the writers at The Economist were aware of  D-Wave’s latest breakthrough at the time of writing but I think not. In any event, they (The Economist writers) have included a provocative tidbit about quantum encryption,

Documents released by Edward Snowden, a whistleblower, revealed that the Penetrating Hard Targets programme of America’s National Security Agency was actively researching “if, and how, a cryptologically useful quantum computer can be built”. In May IARPA [Intellligence Advanced Research Projects Agency], the American government’s intelligence-research arm, issued a call for partners in its Logical Qubits programme, to make robust, error-free qubits. In April, meanwhile, Tanja Lange and Daniel Bernstein of Eindhoven University of Technology, in the Netherlands, announced PQCRYPTO, a programme to advance and standardise “post-quantum cryptography”. They are concerned that encrypted communications captured now could be subjected to quantum cracking in the future. That means strong pre-emptive encryption is needed immediately.

I encourage you to read the Economist article.

Two final comments. (1) The latest piece, prior to this one, about D-Wave was in a Feb. 6, 2015 posting about then new investment into the company. (2) A Canadian effort in the field of quantum cryptography was mentioned in a May 11, 2015 posting (scroll down about 50% of the way) featuring a profile of Raymond Laflamme, at the University of Waterloo’s Institute of Quantum Computing in the context of an announcement about science media initiative Research2Reality.

Hummingbirds and ‘nano’ spy cameras

Hummingbird-inspired spy cameras have come a long way since the research featured in this Aug. 12, 2011 posting which includes a video of a robot camera designed to look like a hummingbird and mimic some of its extraordinary flying abilities. These days (2014) the emphasis appears to be on mimicking the abilities to a finer degree if Margaret Munro’s July 29, 2014 article for Canada.com is to be believed,

Tiny, high-end military drones are catching up with one of nature’s great engineering masterpieces.

A side-by-side comparison has found a “remarkably similar” aerodynamic performance between hummingbirds and the Black Hornet, the most sophisticated nano spycam yet.

“(The) Average Joe hummingbird” is about on par with the tiny helicopter that is so small it can fit in a pocket, says engineering professor David Lentink, at Stanford University. He led a team from Canada [University of British Columbia], the U.S. and the Netherlands [Wageningen University and Eindhoven University of Technology] that compared the birds and the machine for a study released Tuesday [July 29, 2014].

For a visual comparison with the latest nano spycam (Black Hornet), here’s the ‘hummingbird’ featured in the 2011 posting,

The  Nano Hummingbird, a drone from AeroVironment designed for the US Pentagon, would fit into any or all of those categories.

And, here’s this 2013 image of a Black Hornet Nano Helicopter inspired by hummingbirds,

Black Hornet Nano Helicopter UAVView licenseview terms Richard Watt - Photo http://www.defenceimagery.mod.uk/fotoweb/fwbin/download.dll/45153802.jpgCourtesy: Wikipedia

Black Hornet Nano Helicopter UAVView licenseview terms
Richard Watt – Photo http://www.defenceimagery.mod.uk/fotoweb/fwbin/download.dll/45153802.jpg Courtesy: Wikipedia

A July 30, 2014 Stanford University news release by Bjorn Carey provides more details about this latest research into hummingbirds and their flying ways,

More than 42 million years of natural selection have turned hummingbirds into some of the world’s most energetically efficient flyers, particularly when it comes to hovering in place.

Humans, however, are gaining ground quickly. A new study led by David Lentink, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford, reveals that the spinning blades of micro-helicopters are about as efficient at hovering as the average hummingbird.

The experiment involved spinning hummingbird wings – sourced from a pre-existing museum collection – of 12 different species on an apparatus designed to test the aerodynamics of helicopter blades. The researchers used cameras to visualize airflow around the wings, and sensitive load cells to measure the drag and the lift force they exerted, at different speeds and angles.

Lentink and his colleagues then replicated the experiment using the blades from a ProxDynamics Black Hornet autonomous microhelicopter. The Black Hornet is the most sophisticated microcopter available – the United Kingdom’s army uses it in Afghanistan – and is itself about the size of a hummingbird.

Even spinning like a helicopter, rather than flapping, the hummingbird wings excelled: If hummingbirds were able to spin their wings to hover, it would cost them roughly half as much energy as flapping. The microcopter’s wings kept pace with the middle-of-the-pack hummingbird wings, but the topflight wings – those of Anna’s hummingbird, a species common throughout the West Coast – were still about 27 percent more efficient than engineered blades.

Hummingbirds acing the test didn’t particularly surprise Lentink – previous studies had indicated hummingbirds were incredibly efficient – but he was impressed with the helicopter.

“The technology is at the level of an average Joe hummingbird,” Lentink said. “A helicopter is really the most efficient hovering device that we can build. The best hummingbirds are still better, but I think it’s amazing that we’re getting closer. It’s not easy to match their performance, but if we build better wings with better shapes, we might approximate hummingbirds.”

Based on the measurements of Anna’s hummingbirds, Lentink said there is potential to improve microcopter rotor power by up to 27 percent.

The high-fidelity experiment also provided an opportunity to refine previous rough estimates of muscle power. Lentink’s team learned that hummingbirds’ muscles produce a surprising 130 watts of energy per kilogram; the average for other birds, and across most vertebrates, is roughly 100 watts/kg.

Although the current study revealed several details of how a hummingbird hovers in one place, the birds still hold many secrets. For instance, Lentink said, we don’t know how hummingbirds maintain their flight in a strong gust, how they navigate through branches and other clutter, or how they change direction so quickly during aerial “dogfights.”

He also thinks great strides could be made by studying wing aspect ratios, the ratio of wing length to wing width. The aspect ratios of all the hummingbirds’ wings remarkably converged around 3.9. The aspect ratios of most wings used in aviation measure much higher; the Black Hornet’s aspect ratio was 4.7.

“I want to understand if aspect ratio is special, and whether the amount of variation has an effect on performance,” Lentink said. Understanding and replicating these abilities and characteristics could be a boon for robotics and will be the focus of future experiments.

“Those are the things we don’t know right now, and they could be incredibly useful. But I don’t mind it, actually,” Lentink said. “I think it’s nice that there are still a few things about hummingbirds that we don’t know.”

Agreed, it’s nice to know there are still a few mysteries left. You can watch the ‘mysterious’ hummingbird in this video courtesy of the Rivers Ingersoll Lentink Lab at Stanford University,

High speed video of Anna’s hummingbird at Stanford Arizona Cactus Garden.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper, H/T to Nancy Owano’s article on phys.org for alerting me to this story.

Hummingbird wing efficacy depends on aspect ratio and compares with helicopter rotors by Jan W. Kruyt, Elsa M. Quicazán-Rubio, GertJan F. van Heijst, Douglas L. Altshuler, and David Lentink.  J. R. Soc. Interface 6 October 2014 vol. 11 no. 99 20140585 doi: 10.1098/​rsif.2014.0585 Published [online] 30 July 2014

This is an open access paper.

Despite Munro’s reference to the Black Hornet as a ‘nano’ spycam, the ‘microhelicopter’ description in the news release places the device at the microscale (/1,000,000,000). Still, I don’t understand what makes it microscale since it’s visible to the naked eye. In any case, it is small.

Does more nano-enabled security = more nano-enabled surveillance?

A May 6, 2014 essay by Brandon Engel published on Nanotechnology Now poses an interesting question about the use of nanotechnology-enabled security and surveillance measures (Note: Links have been removed),

Security is of prime importance in an increasingly globalized society. It has a role to play in protecting citizens and states from myriad malevolent forces, such as organized crime or terrorist acts, and in responding, as well as preventing, both natural and man-made disasters. Research and development in this field often focuses on certain broad areas, including security of infrastructures and utilities; intelligence surveillance and border security; and stability and safety in cases of crisis. …

Nanotechnology is coming to play an ever greater title:role in these applications. Whether it’s used for detecting potentially harmful materials for homeland security, finding pathogens in water supply systems, or for early warning and detoxification of harmful airborne substances, its usefulness and efficiency are becoming more evident by the day.

He’s quite right about these applications. For example, I’ve just published (May 9, 2014) piece ‘Textiles laced with carbon nanotubes for clothing that protects against poison gas‘.

Engel goes on to describe a dark side to nanotechnology-enabled security,

On the other hand, more and more unsettling scenarios are fathomable with the advent of this new technology, such as covertly infiltrated devices, as small as tiny insects, being used to coordinate and execute a disarming attack on obsolete weapons systems, information apparatuses, or power grids.

Engel is also right about the potential surveillance issues. In a Dec. 18, 2013 posting I featured a special issue of SIGNAL Magazine (which covers the latest trends and techniques in topics that include C4ISR, information security, intelligence, electronics, homeland security, cyber technologies,  …) focusing on nanotechnology-enabled security and surveillance,

The Dec. 1, 2013 article by Rita Boland (h/t Dec. 13, 2013 Azonano news item) does a good job of presenting a ‘big picture’ approach including nonmilitary and military  nanotechnology applications  by interviewing the main players in the US,

Nanotechnology is the new cyber, according to several major leaders in the field. Just as cyber is entrenched across global society now, nano is poised to be the major capabilities enabler of the next decades. Expert members from the National Nanotechnology Initiative representing government and science disciplines say nano has great significance for the military and the general public.

For anyone who may think Engel is exaggerating when he mentions tiny insects being used for surveillance, there’s this May 8, 2014 post (Cyborg Beetles Detect Nerve Gas) by Dexter Johnson on his Nanoclast blog (Note: Dexter is an engineer who describes the technology in a somewhat detailed, technical fashion). I have a less technical description of some then current research in an Aug. 12, 2011 posting featuring some military experiments, for example, a surveillance camera disguised as a hummingbird (I have a brief video of a demonstration) and some research into how smartphones can be used for surveillance.

Engel comes to an interesting conclusion (Note: A link has been removed),

The point is this: whatever conveniences are seemingly afforded by these sort of technological advances, there is persistent ambiguity about the extent to which this technology actually protects or makes us more vulnerable. Striking the right balance between respecting privacy and security is an ever-elusive goal, and at such an early point in the development of nanotech, must be approached on a case by case basis. … [emphasis mine]

I don’t understand what Engel means when he says “case by case.” Are these individual applications that he feels are prone to misuse or specific usages of these applications? In any event, while I appreciate the concerns (I share many of them), I don’t think his proposed approach is practicable and that leads to another question, what can be done? Sadly, I have no answers but I am glad to see the question being asked in the ‘nanotechnology webspace’.

I did some searching for Bandon Engel online and found this January 17, 2014 guest post (about a Dean Koontz book) on The Belle’s Tales blog. He also has a blog of his own, Brandon Engel where he describes himself this way,

Musician, filmmaker, multimedia journalist, puppeteer, and professional blogger based in Chicago.

The man clearly has a wide range of interests and concerns.

As for the question posed in this post’s head, I don’t think there is a simple one-to-one equivalency where one more security procedure results in one more surveillance procedure. However, I do believe there is a relationship between the two and that sometimes increased security is an argument used to support increased surveillance procedures. While Engel doesn’t state that explicitly in his piece, I think it is implied.

One final thought, surveillance is not new and one of the more interesting examples of the ‘art’ is featured in a description of the Parisian constabulary of the 18th century written by Nina Kushner in ,

The Case of the Closely Watched Courtesans
The French police obsessively tracked the kept women of 18th-century Paris. Why? (Slate.com, April 15, 2014)


Republished as: French police obsessively tracked elite sex workers of 18th-century Paris — and well-to-do men who hired them (National Post, April 16, 2014)

Kushner starts her article by describing contemporary sex workers and a 2014 Urban Institute study and then draws parallels between now and 18th Century Parisian sex workers while detailing advances in surveillance reports,

… One of the very first police forces in the Western world emerged in 18th-century Paris, and one of its vice units asked many of the same questions as the Urban Institute authors: How much do sex workers earn? Why do they turn to sex work in the first place? What are their relationships with their employers?

The vice unit, which operated from 1747 to 1771, turned out thousands of hand-written pages detailing what these dames entretenues [kept women] did. …

… They gathered biographical and financial data on the men who hired kept women — princes, peers of the realm, army officers, financiers, and their sons, a veritable “who’s who” of high society, or le monde. Assembling all of this information required cultivating extensive spy networks. Making it intelligible required certain bureaucratic developments: These inspectors perfected the genre of the report and the information management system of the dossier. These forms of “police writing,” as one scholar has described them, had been emerging for a while. But they took a giant leap forward at midcentury, with the work of several Paris police inspectors, including Inspector Jean-Baptiste Meusnier, the officer in charge of this vice unit from its inception until 1759. Meusnier and his successor also had clear literary talent; the reports are extremely well written, replete with irony, clever turns of phrase, and even narrative tension — at times, they read like novels.

If you have the time, Kushner’s well written article offers fascinating insight.

Surprise: telepresent Ed Snowden at TED 2014′s Session 2: Retrospect

The first session (Retrospect) this morning held a few surprises, i.e, unexpected speakers, Brian Greene and Ed Snowden (whistleblower re: extensive and [illegal or nonlegal?] surveillance by the US National Security Agency [NSA]). I’m not sure how Snowden fits into the session theme of Retrospect but I think that’s less the point than the sheer breathtaking surprise and his topic’s importance to current public discourse around much of the globe.

Snowden is mostly focused on PRISM (from its Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

PRISM is a clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining program launched in 2007 by the National Security Agency (NSA), with participation from an unknown date by the British equivalent agency, GCHQ.[1][2][3] PRISM is a government code name for a data-collection effort known officially by the SIGAD US-984XN.[4][5] The Prism program collects stored Internet communications based on demands made to Internet companies such as Google Inc. and Apple Inc. under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 to turn over any data that match court-approved search terms.[6] The NSA can use these Prism requests to target communications that were encrypted when they traveled across the Internet backbone, to focus on stored data that telecommunication filtering systems discarded earlier,[7][8] and to get data that is easier to handle, among other things.[9]

He also described Boundless Informant in response to a question from the session co-moderator, Chris Anderson (from its Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Boundless Informant or BOUNDLESSINFORMANT is a big data analysis and data visualization tool used by the United States National Security Agency (NSA). It gives NSA managers summaries of the NSA’s world wide data collection activities by counting metadata.[1] The existence of this tool was disclosed by documents leaked by Edward Snowden, who worked at the NSA for the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.[2]

Anderson asks Snowden, “Why should we care [about increased surveillance]? After all we’re not doing anything wrong.” Snowden response notes that we have a right to privacy and that our actions can be misinterpreted or used against us at any time, present or future.

Anderson mentions Dick Cheney and Snowden notes that Cheney has in the past made some overblown comments about Assange which he (Cheney) now dismisses in the face of what he now considers to be Snowden’s greater trespass.

Snowden is now commenting on the NSA’s attempt to undermine internet security by misleading their partners. He again makes a plea for privacy. He also notes that US security has largely been defensive, i.e., protection against other countries’ attempts to get US secrets. These latest programmes change US security from a defensive strategy to an offensive strategy (football metaphor). These changes have been made without public scrutiny.

Anderson asks Snowden about his personal safety.  His response (more or less), “I go to sleep every morning thinking about what I can do to help the American people. … I’m happy to do what I can.”

Anderson asks the audience members whether they think Snowden’s was a reckless act or an heroic act. Some hands go up for reckless, more hands go up for heroic, and many hands remain still.

Snowden, “We need to keep the internet safe for us and if we don’t act we will lose our freedom.”

Anderson asks Tim Berners-Lee to come up to the stage and the discussion turns to his (Berners-Lee) proposal for a Magna Carta for the internet.

Tim Berners-Lee biography from his Wikipedia entry,

Sir Timothy John “Tim” Berners-Lee, OM, KBE, FRS, FREng, FRSA, DFBCS (born 8 June 1955), also known as “TimBL”, is a British computer scientist, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web. He made a proposal for an information management system in March 1989,[4] and he implemented the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server via the Internet sometime around mid November.[5][6][7][8][9]

Berners-Lee is the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which oversees the Web’s continued development. He is also the founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, and is a senior researcher and holder of the Founders Chair at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).[10] He is a director of the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI),[11] and a member of the advisory board of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.[12][13]

The Magna Carta (from its Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Magna Carta (Latin for Great Charter),[1] also called Magna Carta Libertatum or The Great Charter of the Liberties of England, is an Angevin charter originally issued in Latin in June 1215. It was sealed under oath by King John at Runnymede, on the bank of the River Thames near Windsor, England at June 15, 1215.[2]

Magna Carta was the first document forced onto a King of England by a group of his subjects, the feudal barons, in an attempt to limit his powers by law and protect their rights.

The charter is widely known throughout the English speaking world as an important part of the protracted historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law in England and beyond.

When asked by Anderson if he would return to the US if given amnesty, Snowden says yes as long as he can continue his work. He’s not willing to trade his work of bringing these issues to the public forefront in order to go home again.

German nanotechnology industry mood lightens

A March 11, 2014 news item on Nanowerk proclaims a mood change for some sectors, including nanotechnology, of German industry,

For the German companies dealing with microtechnology, nanotechnology, advanced materials and optical technologies, business in 2013 has developed just as the industry had predicted earlier that year: at a constant level. But things are supposed to get better in 2014. The companies do not expect an enormous growth, but they are more positive than they have been ever since the outbreak of the financial and economic crisis. Orders, production and sales figures are expected to rise noticeably in 2014. Areas excluded from an optimistic outlook are staff and financing: the numbers of employees is likely to remain static in 2014 while the funding situation might even reach a new low.

The March 11, 2014 IVAN news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about this change of mood,

The situation and mood of the micro- and nanotechnology industry, which the IVAM Microtechnology Network queried in a recent economic data survey, coincides with the overall economic development in Germany and general forecasts for 2014. According to publications of the German Federal Statistical Office, the gross domestic product in Germany has grown by only 0.4 percent in 2013 – the lowest growth since the crisis year 2009. For 2014, the Ifo Institute predicts a strong growth for the German economy. Especially exports are expected to increase.

The German micro- and nanotechnology industry is expecting increases during 2014 above all in the area of orders. Production and sales are likely to rise for more than 60 percent of companies each. But just a quarter of companies intend to hire more staff. Only one tenth of companies expect increases in the field of financing. Nevertheless, 30 percent of companies are planning to make investments, which is a higher proportion than in previous years.

The new research funding program of the European Union, Horizon 2020, has aroused certain hopes of enhancing financing opportunities for innovation projects. Compared to the 7th Framework Program, Horizon 2020 is designed in a way that means to facilitate access to EU funding for small and medium-sized enterprises. Especially small companies are still a little sceptical in this regard.

In the IVAM survey, 43 percent of micro- and nanotechnology companies say that EU funding is essential for them in order to implement their innovation projects. Three quarter of companies are planning to apply for funds from the new program. But only 23 percent of companies think that their opportunities to obtain EU funding have improved with Horizon 2020. Many small high-tech enterprises presume that the application still takes too much time and effort. However, since the program had just started at the time of survey, there are no experiences that might confirm or refute these first impressions.

The NSA surveillance scandal has caused a great insecurity among the micro- and nanotechnology companies in Germany concerning the safety of their technical knowledge. The majority of respondents (54 percent) would not even make a guess at whether their company’s know-how is safe from spying. A quarter of companies believe that they are sufficiently safe from spying. Only 21 percent are convinced that they do not have adequate protection. A little more than a third of companies have drawn consequences from the NSA scandal and taken steps to enhance the safety of their data.

Most companies agree that each company is responsible to ensure the best possible safety of its data. But still, almost 90 percent demand that authorities like national governments and the European Commission should intervene and impose stricter regulations. They feel that although each company bears a partial responsibility, the state must also fulfil its responsibilities, establish a clear legal framework for data security, make sure that regulations are complied with, and impose sanctions when they are not.

IVAM has provided this chart amongst others to illustrate their data,

Courtesy: IVAM. [downloaded from http://www.ivam.de/news/pm_ivam_survey_2014]

Courtesy: IVAM. [downloaded from http://www.ivam.de/news/pm_ivam_survey_2014]

You can access the 2014 IVAM survey from this page.

Robotic sea jellies (jellyfish) and carbon nanotubes

After my recent experience at the Vancouver Aquarium (Jan.19.12 posting) where I was informed that jellyfish are now called sea jellies, I was not expecting to see the term jellyfish still in use. I gather the new name is not being used universally yet, which explains the title for a March 23, 2012 news item on Nanowerk, Robotic jellyfish built on nanotechnology,

Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas and Virginia Tech have created an undersea vehicle inspired by the common jellyfish that runs on renewable energy and could be used in ocean rescue and surveillance missions.

In a study published this week in Smart Materials and Structures (“Hydrogen-fuel-powered bell segments of biomimetic jellyfish”), scientists created a robotic jellyfish, dubbed Robojelly, that feeds off hydrogen and oxygen gases found in water.

“We’ve created an underwater robot that doesn’t need batteries or electricity,” said Dr. Yonas Tadesse, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UT Dallas and lead author of the study. “The only waste released as it travels is more water.”

Engineers and scientists have increasingly turned to nature for inspiration when creating new technologies. The simple yet powerful movement of the moon jellyfish made it an appealing animal to simulate.

The March 22, 2012 press release from the University of Texas at Dallas features images and a video in addition to its text. From the press release,

The Robojelly consists of two bell-like structures made of silicone that fold like an umbrella. Connecting the umbrella are muscles that contract to move.

Here’s a computer-aided image,

A computer-aided model of Robojelly shows the vehicle's two bell-like structures.

Here’s what the robojelly looks like,

The Robojelly, shown here out of water, has an outer structure made out of silicone.

This robojelly differs from the original model,which was battery-powered. Here’s a video of the original robojelly,

The new robojelly has artificial muscles(from the Mar. 22, 2012 University of Texas at Dallas press release),

In this study, researchers upgraded the original, battery-powered Robojelly to be self-powered. They did that through a combination of high-tech materials, including artificial muscles that contract when heated.

These muscles are made of a nickel-titanium alloy wrapped in carbon nanotubes, coated with platinum and housed in a pipe. As the mixture of hydrogen and oxygen encounters the platinum, heat and water vapor are created. That heat causes a contraction that moves the muscles of the device, pumping out the water and starting the cycle again.

“It could stay underwater and refuel itself while it is performing surveillance,” Tadesse said.

In addition to military surveillance, Tadesse said, the device could be used to detect pollutants in water.

This is a study that has been funded by the US Office of Naval Research. At the next stage, researchers want to make the robojelly’s legs work independently so it can travel in more than one direction.

DARPA/Google and Regina Dugan

One of my more recent (Nov. 22, 2011) postings on DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) highlighted their entrepreneurial focus and the person encouraging that focus, agency director Regina Dugan. Given that she’s held the position for roughly 2.5 years, I was surprised to see that she has left to joint Google. From the Mar.13, 2012 news item on physorg.com,

Google on Monday [March 12, 2012] confirmed that Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency chief Regina Dugan is taking a yet-to-be-revealed role at the Internet powerhouse.

Dugan’s Wikipedia entry has already been updated,

Regina E. Dugan was the 19th Director of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). She was appointed to that position on July 20, 2009. In March 2012, she left her position to take an executive role at Google. She was the first female director of DARPA.

Much of her working career (1996-2012) seems to have been spent at DARPA. I don’t think I’m going to draw too many conclusions from this move but I am intrigued especially in light of an essay about a departing Google employee, James Whitaker. From Whitaker’s March 13, 2012 posting on his JW on Tech blog,

The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.

Technically I suppose Google has always been an advertising company, but for the better part of the last three years, it didn’t feel like one. Google was an ad company only in the sense that a good TV show is an ad company: having great content attracts advertisers.

He lays out the situation here,

It turns out that there was one place where the Google innovation machine faltered and that one place mattered a lot: competing with Facebook. Informal efforts produced a couple of antisocial dogs in Wave and Buzz. Orkut never caught on outside Brazil. Like the proverbial hare confident enough in its lead to risk a brief nap, Google awoke from its social dreaming to find its front runner status in ads threatened.

Google could still put ads in front of more people than Facebook, but Facebook knows so much more about those people. Advertisers and publishers cherish this kind of personal information, so much so that they are willing to put the Facebook brand before their own. Exhibit A: www.facebook.com/nike, a company with the power and clout of Nike putting their own brand after Facebook’s? No company has ever done that for Google and Google took it personally.

Larry Page himself assumed command to right this wrong. Social became state-owned, a corporate mandate called Google+. It was an ominous name invoking the feeling that Google alone wasn’t enough. Search had to be social. Android had to be social. You Tube, once joyous in their independence, had to be … well, you get the point.  [emphasis mine] Even worse was that innovation had to be social. Ideas that failed to put Google+ at the center of the universe were a distraction.

That point about YouTube really strikes home as I’ve become quite dismayed with the advertising on the videos. The consequence is that I’m starting to search for clips on Vimeo first as it doesn’t have intrusive advertising.

Getting back to Whitaker, he notes this about Google and advertising,

The old Google made a fortune on ads because they had good content. It was like TV used to be: make the best show and you get the most ad revenue from commercials. The new Google seems more focused on the commercials themselves.

It’s interesting to contrast Whitaker’s take on the situation, which suggests that the company has lost its entrepreneurial spirit as it focuses on advertising, with the company’s latest hire, Regina Dugan who seems to have introduced entrepreneurship into DARPA’s activities.

As for the military connection (DARPA is US Dept. of Defense agency), I remain mindful that the military and the intelligence communities have an interest in gathering data but would need something more substantive than a hiring decision to draw any conclusions.

For anyone who’s interested in these types of queries, I would suggest reading a 2007 posting, Facebook, the CIA, and You on the Brainsturbator blog, for a careful unpacking of the connections (extremely tenuous) between Facebook and the CIA (US Central Intelligence Agency). The blog owner and essayist, Jordan Boland, doesn’t dismiss the surveillance concern; he’s simply pointing out that it’s difficult to make an unequivocal claim while displaying a number of intriguing connections between agencies and organizations.

DARPA and the Panopticon

Before I get to DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) new spy satellite, here’s a brief description of the Panopticon from the Wikipedia essay,

The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.

Although the Panopticon prison design did not come to fruition during Bentham’s time, it has been seen as an important development. It was invoked by Michel Foucault (in Discipline and Punish) as metaphor for modern “disciplinary” societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalise. Foucault proposes that not only prisons but all hierarchical structures like the army, schools, hospitals and factories have evolved through history to resemble Bentham’s Panopticon. The notoriety of the design today (although not its lasting influence in architectural realities) stems from Foucault’s famous analysis of it.

Building on Foucault, contemporary social critics often assert that technology has allowed for the deployment of panoptic structures invisibly throughout society. [emphasis mine] Surveillance by closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in public spaces is an example of a technology that brings the gaze of a superior into the daily lives of the populace. Furthermore, a number of cities in the United Kingdom, including Middlesbrough, Bristol, Brighton and London have recently added loudspeakers to a number of their existing CCTV cameras. They can transmit the voice of a camera supervisor to issue audible messages to the public. Similarly,critical analyses of internet practice have suggested that the internet allows for a panopticon form of observation. ISPs are able to track users’ activities, while user-generated content means that daily social activity may be recorded and broadcast online.

And now,  DARPA’s new satellite as described by Nancy Atkinson (Universe Today) in a Dec. 21, 2011 news item on Physorg,

“It sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake” could be the theme song for a new spy satellite being developed by DARPA. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s latest proof-of-concept project is called the Membrane Optical Imager for Real-Time Exploitation (MOIRE), and would provide real-time images and video of any place on Earth at any time — a capability that, so far, only exists in the realm of movies and science fiction. The details of this huge eye-in-the-sky look like something right out of science fiction, as well, and it would be interesting to determine if it could have applications for astronomy as well.

It’s not here yet (from the physorg.com news item),

The MOIRE program began in March 2010 is now in the first phase of development, where DARPA is testing the concept’s viability. Phase 2 would entail system design, with Ball Aerospace doing the design and building to test a 16-foot (5 m) telescope, and an option for a Phase 3 …

You can read more about the MOIRE program here and about Universe Today here.

Surveillance by design and by accident

In general, one thinks of surveillance as an activity undertaken by the military or the police or some other arm of the state (a spy agency of some kind). The  Nano Hummingbird, a drone from AeroVironment designed for the US Pentagon, would fit into any or all of those categories.

AeroVironment's hummingbird drone // Source: suasnews.com (downloaded from Homeland Security Newswire)

You can see the device in action here,

The inset screen shows you what is being seen via the hummingbird’s camera, while the larger screen image allows you to observe the Nano Hummingbird in action. I don’t know why they’ve used the word nano as part of the product unless it is for marketing purposes. The company’s description of the product is at a fairly high level and makes no mention of the technology, nano or otherwise, that makes the hummingbird drone’s capabilities possible (from the company’s Nano Hummingbird webpage),

AV [AeroVironment] is developing the Nano Air Vehicle (NAV) under a DARPA sponsored research contract to develop a new class of air vehicle systems capable of indoor and outdoor operation. Employing biological mimicry at an extremely small scale, this unconventional aircraft could someday provide new reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities in urban environments.

The Nano Hummingbird could be described as a traditional form surveillance as could the EyeSwipe iris scanners (mentioned in my Dec. 10, 2010 posting). The EyeSwipe allows the police, military, or other state agencies to track you with cameras that scan your retinas (they’ve had trials of this technology in Mexico).

A provocative piece by Nic Fleming for the journal, New Scientist, takes this a step further. Smartphone surveillance: The cop in your pocket can be found in the July 30, 2011 issue of New Scientist (preview here; the whole article is behind a paywall),

While many of us use smartphones to keep our social lives in order, they are also turning out to be valuable tools for gathering otherwise hard-to-get data. The latest smartphones bristle with sensors …

Apparently the police are wanting to crowdsource surveillance by having members of the public use their smartphones to track licence plate numbers, etc. and notify the authorities. Concerns about these activities are noted both in Fleming article and in the August 10, 2011 posting on the Foresight Institute blog,

“Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Institute based in Palo Alto, California, warns that without safeguards, the data we gather about each other might one day be used to undermine rather than to protect our freedom. ‘We are moving to a new level of data collection that our society is not accustomed to,’ she says.”

Peterson’s comments about data collection struck me most particularly as I’ve noticed over the last several months a number of applications designed to make life ‘easier’ that also feature data collection (i. e., collection of one’s personal data). For example, there’s Percolate. From the July 7, 2011 article by Austin Carr for Fast Company,

Percolate, currently in its “double secret alpha” version, is a blogging platform that provides curated content for you to write about. The service taps into your RSS and Twitter feeds, culls content based on your interests–the stuff that “percolates up”–and then offers you the ability to share your thoughts on the subject with friends. “We’re trying to make it easy for anyone to create content,” Brier says, “to take away from the frustration of staring at that blank box and trying to figure out what to say.”

It not only removes the frustration, it removes at least some of the impetus for creativity. The service is being framed as a convenience. Coincidentally, it makes much easier for marketers or any one or any agency to track your activities.

This data collection can get a little more intimate than just your Twitter and RSS feeds. Your underwear can monitor your bodily functions (from the June 11, 2010 news item on Nanowerk),

A team of U.S. scientists has designed some new men’s briefs that may be comfortable, durable and even stylish but, unlike most underpants, may be able to save lives.

Printed on the waistband and in constant contact with the skin is an electronic biosensor, designed to measure blood pressure, heart rate and other vital signs.

The technology, developed by nano-engineering professor Joseph Wang of University of California San Diego and his team, breaks new ground in the field of intelligent textiles and is part of shift in focus in healthcare from hospital-based treatment to home-based management.

The method is similar to conventional screen-printing although the ink contains carbon electrodes.

The project is being funded by the U.S. military with American troops likely to be the first recipients.

“This specific project involves monitoring the injury of soldiers during battlefield surgery and the goal is to develop minimally invasive sensors that can locate, in the field, and identify the type of injury,” Wang told Reuters Television.

I realize that efforts such as the ‘smart underpants’ are developed with good intentions but if the data can be used to monitor your health status, it can be used to monitor you for other reasons.

While the military can insist its soldiers be monitored, civilian efforts are based on incentives. For example, Foodzy is an application that makes dieting fun. From the July 7, 2011 article by Morgan Clendaniel on Fast Company,

As more and more people join (Foodzy is aiming for 30,000 users by the end of the year and 250,000 by the end of 2012), you’ll also start being able to see what your friends are eating. This could be a good way to keep your intake of bits down, not wanting to embarrass yourself in front of your friends as you binge on some cookies, but Kamphuis [Marjolijn Kamphuis is one of the founders] sees a more social aspect to it: “On my dashboard I am able to see what the ‘food match’ between me and my friends is, the same way Last.FM has been comparing me and my friend’s music taste for ages! I am now able to share recipes with my friends or hook up with them in real life for dinner because I notice we have similar taste.”

That sure takes the discovery/excitement aspect out of getting to know someone. As I noted with my comments about Percolate, with more of our lives being mediated by applications of this nature, the easier we are to track.

Along a parallel track, there’s a campaign to remove anonymity and/or pseudonymity from the Internet. As David Sirota notes in his August 12, 2011 Salon essay about this trend, the expressed intention is to ensure civility and minimize bullying but there is at least one other consequence,

The big potential benefit of users having to attach real identities to their Internet personas is more constructive dialogue.

As Zuckerberg [Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook executive] and Schmidt [Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO]  correctly suggest, online anonymity is primarily used by hate-mongers to turn constructive public discourse into epithet-filled diatribes. Knowing they are shielded from consequences, trolls feel empowered to spew racist, sexist and other socially unacceptable rhetoric that they’d never use offline. …

The downside, though, is that true whistle-blowers will lose one of their most essential tools.

Though today’s journalists often grant establishment sources anonymity to attack weaker critics, anonymity’s real social value is rooted in helping the powerless challenge the powerful. Think WikiLeaks, which exemplifies how online anonymity provides insiders the cover they need to publish critical information without fear of retribution. Eliminating such cover will almost certainly reduce the kind of leaks that let the public occasionally see inconvenient truths.

It’s not always about whistleblowing, some people prefer pseudonyms.  Science writer and blogger, GrrlScientist, recently suffered a blow to her pseudonymity which was administered by Google (from her July 16, 2011 posting on the Guardian science blogs),

One week ago, my entire Google account was deactivated suddenly and without warning. I was not allowed to access gmail nor any other Google service until I surrendered my personal telephone number in exchange for reinstating access to my gmail account. I still cannot access many of my other accounts, such as Google+, Reader and Buzz. My YouTube account remains locked, too.

I was never notified as to what specifically had warranted this unexpected deactivation of my account. I only learned a few hours later that my account was shut down due to the name I use on my profile page, which you claim is a violation of your “community standards”. However, as stated on your own “display name” pages, I have not violated your community standards. I complied with your stated request: my profile name is “the name that [I] commonly go by in daily life.”

My name is a pseudonym, as I openly state on my profile. I have used GrrlScientist as my pseudonym since 2000 and it has a long track record. I have given public lectures in several countries, received mail in two countries, signed contracts, received monetary payments, published in a number of venues and been interviewed for news stories – all using my pseudonym. A recent Google search shows that GrrlScientist, as spelled, is unique in the world. This meets at least two of your stated requirements; (1) I am not impersonating anyone and (2) my name represents just one person.

GrrlScientist is not the only writer who prefers a pseudonym. Mark Twain did too. His real name was Samuel J. Clemens but widely known as Mark Twain, he was the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and many more books, short stories, and essays.

Minimzing bullying, ensuring civility, monitoring vital signs in battle situations, encouraging people to write, helping a friend stay on diet are laudable intentions but all of this leads to more data being collected about us and the potential for abusive use of this data.

EyeSwipe nano: harbinger for the future?

The promise is always that technology will make it better—whatever it may be. Austin Carr’s article, EyeSwipe Nano: Cheap, Dollar Bill-Size Iris Scanner Replaces Card Reader Apps on the Fast Company website, is touting a new iris scanner, which has the word nano in it for the same reason Apple calls one of their products iPod Nano—good marketing (from the article),

“This is going to put the ability to do a biometric scan in the hands of virtually everyone in the world for a price that is comparable and competitive to card readers,” says company [Hoyos Corporation] CDO Jeff Carter, explaining that orders at volume will make the Nano a sub-thousand dollar product. “The Nano has roughly the footprint of a dollar bill, and I think it’s going to allow us to target virtually everything–any applications where you’d have a typical card reader, whether entry to office buildings or banks or apartments.”

Carter says the company’s scanners have already received “tons and tons of business” from around the globe, and pre-orders for the Nano, which begin today, will ship by the end of January. Between the EyeSwipe Nano and EyeSwipe Mini, it almost feels the company is modeling its products and names after Apple’s–don’t the iPod Nano and EyeSwipe Nano have a similar ring? And perhaps it’s no coincidence: Thanks to the device’s shrinking size, Carter says the companies next step is entering the mobile space, allowing Big Brother to scan your eyes on the go.

Carter is not fantasizing as there is a city in Mexico (Leon) which is already testing installations of earlier and current models of the company’s scanners. From an Aug. 18, 2010 article by Austin Carr on the Fast Company website,

Biometrics R&D firm Global Rainmakers Inc. (GRI) [now called Hoyos Corporation] announced today that it is rolling out its iris scanning technology to create what it calls “the most secure city in the world.” In a partnership with Leon — one of the largest cities in Mexico, with a population of more than a million — GRI will fill the city with eye-scanners. That will help law enforcement revolutionize the way we live — not to mention marketers. [emphases mine]

“In the future, whether it’s entering your home, opening your car, entering your workspace, getting a pharmacy prescription refilled, or having your medical records pulled up, everything will come off that unique key that is your iris,” says Jeff Carter, CDO of Global Rainmakers. Before coming to GRI, Carter headed a think tank partnership between Bank of America, Harvard, and MIT. “Every person, place, and thing on this planet will be connected [to the iris system] within the next 10 years,” he says.

Carter has more to say,

Leon is the first step. To implement the system, the city is creating a database of irises. Criminals will automatically be enrolled, their irises scanned once convicted. Law-abiding citizens will have the option to opt-in.

When these residents catch a train or bus, or take out money from an ATM, they will scan their irises, rather than swiping a metro or bank card. Police officers will monitor these scans and track the movements of watch-listed individuals. “Fraud, which is a $50 billion problem, will be completely eradicated,” says Carter. Not even the “dead eyeballs” seen in Minority Report could trick the system, he says. “If you’ve been convicted of a crime, in essence, this will act as a digital scarlet letter. If you’re a known shoplifter, for example, you won’t be able to go into a store without being flagged. For others, boarding a plane will be impossible.”

It’s definitely an eye-opening view of the future (pun intended).  As for not being able to trick the system—there’s always, always a way. And, there’s always a way to abuse it.

Carter’s belief that most people will want to opt in to the system, i.e., voluntarily have their irises scanned is a distinct possibility. After all great swathes of the population have opted into points systems (handed over personal data for tracking purposes) so they can get reduced prices on groceries, airplane miles, etc.