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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Elon Musk's Boring Machine 'Godot' Completes the First Section of an LA Tunnel

Godot is here, and operational.
As reported by The Verge: Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk says his ambitious tunnel-boring endeavor, aptly named The Boring Company, has officially started digging underneath Los Angeles. Musk announced the news on Twitter, where he said “Godot,” the Samuel Beckett-inspired name of the company’s tunnel boring machine, had completed the the first segment of a tunnel in the Southern California metropolis. Prior to today, it was unclear how long it would take Musk to convince the city to allow him to move the experimental effort beyond the SpaceX parking lot in Hawthorne.
Musk has made a rather public showing of his offbeat tunnel-digging venture over the last few months, with an occasional flurry of Twitter announcements and Instagram posts to commemorate each new milestone. In May, Musk posted videos of test runs of the electric sled mechanism that would theoretically ferry cars at speeds up to 124 mph. Back in April, the company also put out a pretty neat concept video showing what an interconnected tunnel network might look like in a decade or two when it’s fully built out.
Along the way, Musk has attracted a ton of interest from his usual fans, as well as and the expected crowd of naysayers who think his idea of an underground tunnel network to cut down on traffic congestion is just a pipe dream. Proving his critics wrong, as Musk seems engineered to do, The Boring Company has made substantial progress since it became a real company late last year.
We don’t have details on what Musk hammered out with the city of LA. But he did tweet earlier this month about a meeting with L.A Mayor Eric Garcetti to lay the groundwork for the necessary permits and regulatory approvals he’d need to start digging with Godot, which weighs about 1,200 tons and runs about 400 feet long. Musk said last month that the first tunnel would run from LAX to Culver City, Santa Monica, Westwood, and Sherman Oaks, with later tunnels covering more of the greater LA area. Now, it looks like the LAX to Culver City route appears underway.

Monday, June 26, 2017

SpaceX Is Making Commercial Space Launches Look like Child’s Play

Two successful launches in a weekend, one using a recycled rocket—and the booster landed successfully each time.

As reported by MIT Technology Review: Late Friday, SpaceX launched a satellite into orbit from Florida using one of its refurbished Falcon 9 rockets. Then on Sunday, for good measure, it lofted 10 smaller satellites using a new version of the same rocket, which it launched from California. The feat is a sign that the private space company seems more likely than ever to turn its vision of competitively priced, rapid-turnaround rocket launches into reality.

Ever since it was established, SpaceX has sought to turn commercial spaceflight into a profitable venture. A fundamental part of that vision is its reusable rockets, which were one of our 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2016. By launching, landing, and refurbishing boosters, it hopes to massively cut the cost of putting satellites into space. But it hopes to crank up the frequency of launches, too, in order to generate as much revenue as possible.

It showed in March that the first of those goals was achievable. But numbers from the weekend’s launch activity show that it’s doing a very good job on the second, too. The successful missions notch the firm’s current launch count for 2017 up to nine—the most it’s ever achieved in a calendar year, and we’re still only six months in. The firm has now managed to land 13 of its rockets after launch, and Friday’s mission was the second time it’s successfully reused a rocket.

Meanwhile, the rest of the space industry looks on. While plenty of organizations are trying their hand at developing ways to reduce the cost of launches, none can match SpaceX’s success to date. Its president, Gwynne Shotwell, said earlier this year that the cost of flying a refurbished booster was potentially less than half that of building a new one for each launch. And its CEO, Elon Musk, knows from experience that those successes are positioning SpaceX to become an incredibly powerful force in the future of space exploration.

“Imagine if we were an aircraft company selling aircraft that could be flown many times, and everyone else was selling aircraft that could be flown once,” he said after the first successful reuse of a SpaceX rocket booster. “I mean, you know, that’s not a very competitive position to be in.” And this point, it looks more than ever as if the commercial space race is SpaceX’s to lose.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Air Force and IBM are Building an AI Supercomputer

Supercomputers today are capable of performing incredible feats, from accurately predicting the weather to uncovering insights into climate change, but they still by and large rely on brute processor power to accomplish their tasks. That's where this new partnership between the US Air Force and IBM comes in. They're teaming up to build the world's first supercomputer that behaves like a natural brain.

IBM and the USAF announced on Friday that the machine will run on an array of 64 TrueNorth Neurosynaptic chips. The TrueNorth chips are wired together like, and operate in a similar fashion to, the synapses within a biological brain. Each core is part of a distributed network and operate in parallel with one another on an event-driven basis. That is, these chips don't require a clock, as conventional CPUs do, to function.

What's more, because of the distributed nature of the system, even if one core fails, the rest of the array will continue to work. This 64-chip array will contain the processing equivalent of 64 million neurons and 16 billion synapses, yet absolutely sips energy -- each processor consumes just 10 watts of electricity.

Like other neural networks, this system will be put to use in pattern recognition and sensory processing roles. The Air Force wants to combine the TrueNorth's ability to convert multiple data feeds -- whether it's audio, video or text -- into machine readable symbols with a conventional supercomputer's ability to crunch data.

This isn't the first time that IBM's neural chip system has been integrated into cutting-edge technology. Last August, Samsung installed the chips in its Dynamic Vision Sensors enabling cameras to capture images at up to 2,000 fps while burning through just 300 milliwatts of power.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

It's Time to Embrace the eSIM

Goodbye, and good riddance, to SIM cards.
As reported by Engadget: It's a downright shame that eSIMs aren't commonplace by now. Embedded-SIM technology has the potential to make getting connected to cellular networks much more convenient, but there hasn't been a consumer-friendly set of specifications for it since its 2013 introduction. That is, until last year, when the GSM Alliance (GSMA) released updated guidelines to add support for multiple profiles and devices (more on that later). Since then, thanks to partnerships between Microsoft, Intel and Qualcomm on a new generation of connected PCs with eSIMs onboard, we're going to see the technology feature in all sorts of gadgets over the next few years.

For the uninitiated, SIM stands for subscriber identity module, and it's generally a tiny, fingernail-size piece of plastic that you slide into a tray on your phone, laptop, tablet or smartwatch. Typically, it's found in your phone and contains a unique reference number for your account so that your mobile service provider knows whom to charge and how much access to grant you. The card also has some onboard memory to store a small number of your contacts and SMS messages.

But fiddling with a tiny physical card is archaic and frustrating (who wants to carry around a SIM ejector?), and eSIMs can alleviate that pain. Embedded SIMs integrate the identification technology of the plastic card into the device's processor or modem itself. For Intel-branded chips, this will be supported in its existing XMMTM 7260 modem and upcoming XMM 7360 model, while Qualcomm offers it in the Snapdragon 835 chipset. But that doesn't mean you'll have to buy a new device. If your machine already has a SIM card tray, you'll be able to slide in an adapter.

And don't worry about being locked to one carrier. Thanks to the new version of what's called "remote SIM provisioning (RSP)," eSIMs can store and adopt different profiles (or accounts) so you can simply switch carriers without having to get a new card (we'll get to what this looks like on your device in a bit). This means you could get wireless plans when you're traveling or buy specific amounts of data without having to visit a carrier's physical store. The GSMA, which represents the interests of about 800 mobile operators worldwide, updated its RSP specifications in March to extend this capability to gadgets other than phones.

The Samsung Gear S3 pictured above is one of the first consumer devices to use an eSIM.

Carriers will have to support this technology before you can access their networks over eSIM. So far, T-Mobile, AT&T and about 20 providers worldwide have said they'll work with Microsoft to let eSIM-connected PCs buy data from the Windows Store. What that process will look like isn't clear yet. Microsoft said it's working on making the carrier-selection process part of the Windows 10 interface. It could be as easy as picking a wireless operator the way you select a WiFi network, then going to the Windows Store to buy the amount of data you think you'll need.

Based on a presentation made by Deutsche Telecom/T-Mobile at the GSMA's March event, it could also involve entering an activation code provided by the operator in your device's settings.

Not only will eSIMs save you trips to physical stores and remove the need to fiddle with a tiny piece of plastic, the space saved by eliminating the card tray could also make for smaller gadgets. Because SIM cards don't take up all that much room in laptops and phones, the space gained is most significant in things like wearables and connected devices. If they didn't have to accommodate physical SIM trays, device makers could design LTE-capable smartwatches that are a bit slimmer.

We're still at least a few months away from seeing the benefits of eSIM and the resulting carrier flexibility. But given the support from big brands like ASUS, Lenovo and HP, which have all signed on to make eSIM-enabled PCs, it's clear we'll see much more of the feature soon. Plus, who knows? In a few more years, we could even say goodbye to physical SIM cards altogether. And good riddance.

Friday, June 16, 2017

China's Quantum Satellite is a Big Leap

Micius was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China's Northwest.
As reported by the BBC: The term "spy satellite" has taken on a new meaning with the successful test of a novel Chinese spacecraft.
The mission can provide unbreakable secret communications channels, in principle, using the laws of quantum science.
Called Micius, the satellite is the first of its kind and was launched from the Gobi desert last August.
It is all part of a push towards a new kind of internet that would be far more secure than the one we use now.
The experimental Micius, with its delicate optical equipment, continues to circle the Earth, transmitting to two mountain-top Earth bases separated by 1,200 km (745.6 miles).
The optics on-board are paramount. They're needed to distribute to the ground stations the particles, or photons, of light that can encode the "keys" to secret messages.
"I think we have started a worldwide quantum space race," says lead researcher Jian-Wei Pan, who is based in Hefei in China's Anhui Province.

'Messy business'

Quantum privacy in many ways should be like the encryption that already keeps our financial data private online.
Before sensitive information is shared between shopper and online shop, the two exchange a complicated number that is then used to scramble the subsequent characters. It also hides the key that will allow the shop to unscramble the text securely.
The weakness is that the number itself can be intercepted, and with enough computing power, cracked.
Quantum cryptography, as it is called, goes one step further, by using the power of quantum science to hide the key.
As one of the founders of quantum mechanics Werner Heisenberg realized over 90 years ago, any measurement or detection of a quantum system, such as an atom or photon of light, uncontrollably and unpredictably changes the system.
This quantum uncertainty is the property that allows those engaged in secret communications to know if they are being spied on: the eavesdropper's efforts would mess up the connection.

Artwork satelliteImage copyrightNSSC
Image captionArtwork: The two Earth stations are 1,200km apart

The idea has been developed since it was first understood in the 1980s.
Typically, pairs of photons created or born simultaneously like quantum twins will share their quantum properties no matter how long they are separated or how far they have traveled. Reading the photons later, by shopper and shop, leads to the numerical key that can then be used to encrypt a message. Unless the measurements show interference from an eavesdropper.
A network established in Vienna in 2008 successfully used telecommunications fiber optics criss-crossing the city to carry these "entangled photons", as they are called. But even the clearest of optical fibers looks foggy to light, if it's long enough. And an ambitious 2,000 km link from Beijing to Shanghai launched last year needs repeater hubs every 100 km or so - weak points for quantum hackers of the future to target.
And that, explains Anton Zeilinger, one of the pioneers of the field and creator of the Vienna network, is the reason to communicate via satellite instead.
"On the ground, through the air, through glass fibers - you cannot go much further than 200 km. So a satellite in outer space is the choice if you want to go a really large distance," he said.
The point being that in the vacuum of space, there are no atoms, or at least hardly any, to mess up the quantum signal.
That is what makes the tests with Micius, named after an ancient Chinese philosopher, so significant. They have proved a spaced-based network is possible, as revealed in the latest edition of the journal Science.

Technical tour de force

Not that it is easy. The satellite passes 500 km over China for just less than five minutes each day - or rather each night, as bright sunlight would easily swamp the quantum signal. Micius' intricate optics create the all-important photon pairs and fires them down towards telescopes on some of China's high mountains.
"When I had the idea of doing this in 2003, many people thought it was a crazy idea," Jian-Wei Pan told the BBC World Service from his office in the University of Science and Technology of China. "Because it was very challenging already doing the sophisticated quantum optics experiments in a lab - so how can you do a similar experiment at a thousand-kilometer distance and with optical elements moving at a speed of 8 km/s?"
Additional lasers steered the satellite's optics as it flew over China, keeping them pointed at the base stations. Nevertheless, owing to clouds, dust and atmospheric turbulence, most of the photons created on the satellite failed to reach their target: only one pair of the 10 million photon pairs generated each second actually completed the trip successfully.
But that was enough to complete the test successfully. It showed that the photons that did arrive preserved the quantum properties needed for quantum crypto-circuits.
"The Chinese experiment is a quite remarkable technological achievement," enthused mathematician Artur Ekert in an e-mail to the BBC. It was as a student in quantum information at Oxford University in the 1990s that Ekert proposed the paired-photon approach to cryptography. Relishing the pun, he added wryly "when I proposed the scheme, I did not expect it to be elevated to such heights."
Alex Ling from the National University of Singapore is a rival physicist. His first quantum mini-satellite blew up shortly after launch in 2014, but he is generous in his praise of the Micius mission: "The experiment is definitely a technical tour-de-force.
"We are pretty excited about this development, and hope it heralds a new era in quantum communications capability."

Vienna quantum experimental set-upImage copyrightSPL
Image captionJian-Wei Pan is now set to team up with his old PhD supervisor, Anton Zeilinger, who is based in Vienna

The next step will be a collaboration between Jian-Wei Pan and his former PhD supervisor, Anton Zeilinger in the University of Vienna - to prove what can be done across a single nation can also be achieved between whole continents, still using Micius.
"The idea is the satellite flies over China, establishes a secret key with a ground station; then it flies over Austria, it establishes another secret key with that ground station. Then the keys are combined to establish a key between say Vienna and Beijing," he told the BBC's Science in Action program.
Pan says his team will soon arrive in Vienna to start those tests.
Meanwhile, Zeilinger is working on Qapital, a quantum network connecting many of the capitals of Europe, Vienna and Bratislava. Existing optic fibers laid alongside data networks but not currently used could make the backbone of this network, Zeilinger believes.
"A future quantum internet," he says, "will consist of fiber optic networks on the ground that will be connected to other fiber networks by satellites overhead. I think it will happen."
Pan is already planning the details of the satellite constellation that will make this possible.
The need? Secrecy is the stuff of spy agencies, who have large budgets. But financial institutions which trade billions of dollars internationally day by day also have valuable resources to protect.
Although some observers are skeptical they would want to pay for a quantum internet, Pan, Zeilinger and the other technologists think the case will be irresistible once one exists.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

It Takes a Smart City to Make Cars Truly Autonomous

As reported by Engadget: Artificial intelligence is driving the autonomous car. Coupled with robust computers, automobiles of the future will be more powerful than any other device we own. But they'll only be as powerful as their surrounding allows. If your vehicle doesn't know about a traffic jam along its route, like its human counterparts, it'll get stuck in gridlock. That's where connectivity comes in. When self-driving cars hit the road, they'll not only be computing juggernauts but also sharing data with everything all the time.

One of the places where a connected infrastructure is already being built is Nevada. More accurately, Las Vegas. The city known for gambling has to deal with 42 million tourists and the traffic they bring with them every year. Controlling all of that is the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. The agency oversees all the city and surrounding area's transit infrastructure and has been proactive in its embrace of vehicle communication, including working with Audi on its traffic-light countdown system that displays the time before a light turns green on the dash of the car.

Helping to navigate Nevada's foray into vehicle-to-infrastructure communications is the Nevada Center for Advanced Mobility, which facilitates partnerships between the state and private and academic entities. Innovation Director Dan Langford told Engadget that the goal is to create a safer, smoother transportation and pedestrian experience for residents, visitors and businesses working within the state.

But the state is doing more than just looking at ways to make traffic flow smoothly and helping folks get to their destination; it's actively implementing solutions. Agencies that traditionally deal with slow-moving transportation projects and bureaucracy are acting quickly as new sensors, applications and data become available. "The level of risk and innovation that some of the agencies are open to has increased," Langford said.

An example of that is the recent partnership between the state and Nexar, which builds systems for automobiles to communicate with one another. Co-founder and CTO Bruno Fernandez-Ruiz likened it to air traffic control but for the ground to increase not only the capacity of the roads but also their safety.

It's helping Nevada track vehicles and what they see while the state focuses on the infrastructure. Approximately 18 months ago the Center for Advanced Mobility pivoted from working on autonomous vehicles to focusing on the actual infrastructure that self-driving cars will need to get around while automakers figure out the in-car solution. The fragmentation in the automotive world will continue until there's a government mandate from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the industry sits down and figures out a standard. The state can't control that aspect of the transportation. What it can do is make sure the roads are ready. Nexar and Nevada realize that if the state is to stay ahead of the curve, it needs to start working on how roads will interact with these cars now instead of waiting.

But Nevada isn't the only state looking at the future of infrastructure. On a 35-mile stretch of US 33 in Ohio, the state in partnership with Honda, the Transportation Research Center at East Liberty and the Ohio State University Center for Automotive Research will build a "smart road" by laying down highway sensors, expanding fiber optic networks and outfitting government and research vehicles with data-collecting hardware. When it's complete the information collected can be instantaneously shared with researchers. That data will be used to understand how traffic flows in all sorts of conditions and can help in the testing of autonomous vehicles outfitted with vehicle-to-infrastructure technology.

The state won't stop with US 33: It plans to make other smart roads. The information gathered from this pilot program will likely be watched closely by other states as more and more of our cars become rolling data centers eager to consume and share data.

Meanwhile automakers like BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and GM have been outfitting their vehicles with V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) and V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) technology. It's early days, but the benefits are already showing up in the high-end models like the upcoming Mercedes S-Class with its ability to change speeds based on road conditions.

The transportation infrastructure of tomorrow is only available in a few places, with only high-end vehicles able to access and share data. But the work is happening both at the car and street level. Even if you don't own a car, the work will benefit public transportation and the shipping of goods.

Like self-driving cars, it'll be years (possibly decades) before cars and roads are sharing data on a nationwide level. But those robot cars need this network if they're going to fundamentally transform how we get around.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Tesla Model X Earns a Perfect NHTSA Safety Rating

"This thing's a freakin' tank."
As reported by Engadget: Tesla has yet another achievement to crow about. On Tuesday, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its assessment of the company's Model X SUV and awarded it the agencies highest possible rating: 5 stars across every test category. That makes the Model X the safest SUV on the road today.
Every Model X variant -- the 60D, 75D, 90D, P90D and 100D -- all scored perfectly in front impact, side impact, rollover and overall safety. In fact, the NHTSA was unable to even tip one over during its dynamic test and gave the Model X only a 9.30 percent chance of rolling over during an accident.

The company credits its electric drivetrain and power system, as well as the vehicle's low center of gravity thanks to its battery packs being located under the cabin floor, for its impressive rollover resistance. "Of all the cars NHTSA has ever tested, Model X's overall probability of injury was second only to Model S," the company wrote in its press release.