Archive for category Technology News

Bad memories written with lasers

By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

Fruit fly head (SPL)

This work in flies will help understand how the human brain makes memories

Laser-controlled flies may be the latest addition to the neuroscientist’s tool kit, thanks to a new technique.

Researchers have devised a way to write memories onto the brains of flies, revealing which brain cells are involved in making bad memories.

The researchers said that in flies just 12 brain cells were responsible for what is known as “associative learning”.

They describe their findings in the journal Cell.

Associative memories are made when an animal learns to link a cue to a particular outcome. It might for example learn that a certain odour is a sign that a predator is nearby.

“So the appearance of that odour predicts that something bad is going to happen,” explained Gero Miesenbock from the University of Oxford, UK, who led this study.

Previous research had already identified that the brain cells or neurons responsible for this type of learning are those that produce dopamine. This is a chemical which acts as a signal that can be transmitted from cell to cell in the brain.

Professor Miesenbock and his team “tapped into these gene regulatory mechanisms” of the neurons – programming them to respond to a laser.

Fly brain (Science)

A laser flash releases a chemical that activates the neurons

They modified the neurons by adding a sort of trigger, or receptor, to each one. This receptor was activated by a chemical called ATP.

“Since there’s no ATP floating around in the fly’s brain, the [modified] receptors remain closed and the flies behave just like normal flies that don’t have the receptor,” said Professor Miesenbock.

Now for the laser-activated trickery.

The scientists injected ATP into the flies’ brains, in a form that was locked inside a light-sensitive chemical cage.

“[Then] we turned on the laser light and the light sensitive cage fell apart,” Professor Miesenbock explained. “The ATP was released and acted only on the cells [with] the receptor.”

Memory circuit

The laser flash was paired with an odour, which allowed the scientists to find out if their memory-writing experiment had been successful.

They gave the flies a simple choice between two odours – one of which the flies had been exposed to just before the laser flash.

“[The flies] moved along a narrow chamber and at the midpoint they were presented with an odour on the left and an odour on the right,” said Professor Miesenbock.

He knew that the laser had successfully written a bad memory into the fly’s brain when the insect avoided the odour that had been paired with the laser flash.

This is a real breakthrough in our understanding of how memories are formed
David Shepherd, neuroscientist

The flies associated the smell with a bad experience, so the laser flash gave the fly a memory of a bad experience that it never actually had.

Simply by looking inside the flies’ brains with a microscope, the researchers were able to narrow this memory formation process down to just 12 neurons.

“We labelled the cells …. that were made responsive to light and which ones were not, so by elimination we could narrow it down.”

This finding, said Professor Miesenbock, has begun to unravel how animals and humans learn from mistakes and how “error signals” drive animals to adapt their behaviour.

“In the fly we have isolated and manipulated these error signals, so what we can now do is try to understand how these signals are calculated in the brain and how this works mechanistically.

“I have every expectation that the fundamental mechanisms that produce these error signals are the same in the brain of the fly as they are in the brain of the human.

David Shepherd, a neuroscientist from the University of Bangor in North Wales described the study as “a fantastic piece of work”.

Professor Shepherd, who was not involved in this study, told BBC News: “We have known for years that flies are capable of sophisticated behaviours such as learning and memory. We have also been able to manipulate gene and cell function in flies.

“This work combines these elements to make a real breakthrough in our understanding of how memories are formed.”

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‘Tweeting’ medics expose patients (BBC)

Twitter homepage

Twitter content is user-generated

Medics posting messages on networking websites like Facebook and Twitter are breaching patient confidentiality, a leading journal reveals.

Research in the Journal of the American Medical Association found examples of web gossip by trainee doctors sharing private patient stories and details.

Over half of 78 US medical schools studied had reported cases of students posting unprofessional content online.

One in 10 of these contained frank violations of patient confidentiality.

Most were blogs, including one on Facebook, containing enough clinical detail that patients could potentially be identified.

‘Blue’ blogs

Many postings included profanity and discriminatory language.

Sexually suggestive material and photos showing drunkenness or illicit drug use were also commonplace.

While most incidents resulted in informal warnings, some were deemed serious enough to lead to dismissal from medical school.

But few of the medical schools had policies that covered online social networking and blogging.

Patient confidentiality is paramount and medical students and doctors obviously need to be very careful about any information they post online
A British Medical Association spokesman

The investigators, led by Dr Katherine Chretien of the Washington DC VA Medical Center, said medical students may not be aware of how online posting can reflect negatively on medical professionalism or jeopardise their careers.

Similarly, patient confidentiality breaches may be unintentional.

“Sharing patient stories that are de-identified and respectful, as health professionals might do on personal blogs, can encourage reflection, empathy and understanding.

“However, content may risk violation of patient privacy, even without using names or other identifiers,” they warned.

Also, the line separating freedom of speech and inappropriate postings can be unclear – for example, derisive comments about a student’s institution or profession might not be considered unprofessional by some, they said.

Dr Chretien’s team say medical students should be taught as part of their training about the risks associated with making postings on the Internet.

As a matter of course, students should be shown how to elect privacy settings on social networking sites and should be told to perform periodic Web searches of their own name to vet listed online content.

A spokesman for the British Medical Association said: “Patient confidentiality is paramount and medical students and doctors obviously need to be very careful about any information they post online.”

The UK’s regulator of doctors, the General Medical Council, does not have guidance that covers medics’ blogging.

But a spokeswoman advised doctors: “You must make sure that your conduct at all times justifies your patients’ trust in you and the public’s trust in the profession.”

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‘Open internet’ rules criticised (BBC)

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

Man using phone on the move, AFP/Getty

Studies show 60% of users are interested in mobile internet access

Mobile providers have said that US proposals to ensure all traffic on the internet is treated equally should not be applied to wireless traffic.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants rules to prevent providers blocking or slowing down bandwidth-heavy usage such as streaming video.

Providers claim a two-tiered system is essential for the future vitality of the net.

Mobile operators said any regulation would damage innovation.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said doing nothing was not an option.

In his first major speech since his appointment earlier in the summer, he told an audience in Washington that the rules were “not about government regulation of the internet”.

“History’s lesson is clear. Ensuring a robust and open internet is the best thing we can do to promote investment and innovation,” he told the audience at Washington think tank the Brookings Institution.

“And while there are some who see every policy decision as either pro-business or pro-consumer, I reject that approach; it’s not the right way to see technology’s role in America.”

The FCC’s proposals are meant to ensure that internet service providers cannot block or slow down traffic, such as bandwidth-hogging video downloads. Operators must also be transparent about network management, it said.

But providers have argued that a two-tiered internet is essential to effectively manage their networks.

‘Phenomenal success’

Almost as soon as Mr Genachowski stepped off the podium, industry critics condemned the inclusion of wireless traffic in the new policy proposals.

Ethernet cable

The FCC says the internet is at a crossroads

“We are concerned the FCC appears ready to extend the entire array of net neutrality requirements to what is perhaps the most competitive consumer market in America – wireless services,” said AT&T’s Jim Cicconi.

“The internet in America has been a phenomenal success that has spawned technological and business innovation unmatched anywhere else in the world,” said David Cohen, executive vice-president at Comcast.

“So it’s still fair to ask whether increased regulation of the internet is a solution in search of a problem.”

Verizon, the nation’s biggest cellphone operator, said it believed the FCC had no reason to impose “a new set of regulations that will limit customer choices and affect content providers, application developers, device manufacturers and network builders”.

Politicians also weighed in on the proposals.

Six Republican senators introduced a measure that would cut the FCC’s funding to “develop and implement new regulatory mandates”.

Meanwhile, the two Republicans on the FCC’s board said they were not convinced that there were widespread problems of internet providers blocking or slowing traffic that needed to be addressed with new rules.

‘Pivotal moment’

However, just as many supporters as critics stood up to praise the FCC’s move.

iPhone (Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

Touch screens are changing the way people use mobiles

The FCC “took an important step in… ensuring that the internet remains a platform for innovation, economic growth, and free expression”, wrote Google internet evangelist Vint Cerf, on a company blog.

Consumer groups saw the move as a victory.

“This is a tremendous day for millions of us who have been clamouring to keep the internet free from discrimination,” said John Silver, executive director of advocacy group Free Press.

Mr Genachowski said the increasing number of people who went online using their mobile phones could not be ignored.

“The revolution in wireless technologies and the creation of path-breaking devices like the Blackberry and iPhone have enabled millions of us to carry the internet in our pockets and purses.”

Gigi Sohn of digital rights group Public Knowledge told BBC News the move was necessary given that “wireless is the next frontier and where the great growth of internet access is going to come from”.

Mr Genachowski said he wants as much feedback from consumers, the industry and others on the proposals.

“This is about fair rules of the road for companies that control access to the internet,” said the FCC chairman.

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Microsoft increases search share (BBC)

Bing.com

Microsoft recently introduced visual search

Microsoft’s Bing search engine is making inroads into Google’s dominance of the search market according to data from US net measurement firm ComScore.

Its latest figures show Microsoft’s share of the search market has grown from 8.9% in July to 9.3% in August.

The news saw Microsoft’s shares rise while Google’s dipped slightly.

Microsoft’s modest 9.3% share of the US search market is small but is a significant increase for a new entrant, say analysts.

The Bing search engine was launched by Microsoft in June 2009 and was followed in July by a search tie-up with rival Yahoo.

Google is still far and away the search leader, with 65% of the US market.

Tiny ripple

The fact Google is losing any market share to Microsoft could indicate that it is no longer the immediate choice for everyone, thinks search expert John Batelle.

“I think the service is starting to gain footholds with users who see it as a regular alternative to Google,” he wrote in his blog.

He is a fan of Bing’s newly-released visual search interface.

“I think it augurs some serious new – and useful – approaches to sifting through massive amounts of related data,” he said.

In the UK, Bing has also made small inroads into Google’s market share.

In August the number of searches on Bing increased by 5%, while Google searches were down 1.7%, according to UK online measurement firm Nielsen.

“It is a very tiny ripple but reflects that Microsoft has done a lot of marketing around it and that people are curious about anything new that is launched,” said Alex Burmaster, communications director at Nielsen.

Google is already working on an update to its current search engine.

Nicknamed “Caffeine” the new version is still in the testing phase and will replace the current engine once tests are complete.

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Hacker admits world’s biggest identity theft (TG Daily)

The Miami man dubbed the world’s most prolific identity thief has admitted stealing 40 million credit and debit cards records from US retailers.
By Emma Woollacott

Monday, September 14, 2009

Albert Gonzalez appeared on Friday in a Boston court and pleaded guilty to 20 charges. He admitted exploiting vulnerabilities in the security systems of TJX, OfficeMax, BJ’s Wholesale Club and other retailers¬† back in 2003. The records were sold and the money laundered through accounts in Latvia.

His technique – known as ‘wardriving’ – involved cruising around with a laptop and searching for accessible wireless internet signals. Once Gonzalez and his colleagues found a vulnerable network, they installed sniffer programs to capture the card numbers.

Things went from bad to worse: after his arrest, Gonzalez began secretly collaborating with the US Secret Service to catch other hackers. But he now admits that during this period he warned off his co-conspirators to help them avoid arrest.

Gonzalez had already agreed to plead guilty to the charges. He now faces up to 25 years in prison, and must hand back more than $1.65 million. Sentencing is set for December 8th.

His attorney says he feels “really bad”.

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‘Next generation’ wi-fi approved (BBC)

laptops

manufacturers have been selling 802.11n products for many years

The next-generation of wi-fi technology has finally been approved for use, despite being on sale in laptops and other equipment for several years.

The 802.11n technology, as it is known, was ratified by the IEEE, a body that oversees all wi-fi standards.

It was conceived seven years ago and offers speeds at least six times faster than current approved technology.

Electronics firms have sold PCs and routers using the standard for many years, labelled “802.11n draft”.

But without the IEEE’s approval, there were no guarantees that future networking equipment would be compatible with the devices.

The IEEE’s rubber stamp has changed that.

All existing draft 802.11n wi-fi products will work with the final standard, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance, a group that tests wireless products to ensure compliance.

“This was an extraordinarily wide-ranging technical challenge,” said Bruce Kraemer of the IEEE.

“When we started in 2002, many of the technologies addressed in 802.11n were university research topics and had not been implemented.”

Under ideal conditions, 802.11n technology can offer speeds of 300 megabits per second (Mbps) and above, many times higher than the previous 802.11g, which operates at speeds of up to 54 Mbps.

It is also able to transfer data over distances of 90m (300ft) indoors, double that of previous technologies.

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Flight site hacker ‘identified’ (BBC)

Avsim logo

Avsim is one of the largest sites serving the flight sim community

The publisher of a flight simulator site targeted by a hacker in May says it has presented a file of evidence to UK police identifying the perpetrator.

Avsim said it had “incontrovertible evidence” about the hacker’s identity.

The attack wiped data held on two servers and “effectively destroyed” the site, which is still being rebuilt.

The US firm said it expected the criminal complaint, filed with London police, to lead to the alleged hacker spending “time behind bars”.

“We will not name any names, but have incontrovertible evidence of the individual that performed the hack,” said Tom Allensworth, the publisher and CEO of Avsim.

“We have protected the forensic evidence and provided that evidence to the London police. We are committed to bringing justice to bear on this case.”

Mr Allensworth told BBC News that the evidence was submitted on Monday to the Southwark division of the Metropolitan Police, which was “acting on behalf of another constabulary”.

‘Next level’

The US site, launched in 1996, covers all aspects of flight simulation, although its main focus is on Microsoft’s Flight Simulator.

In addition it hosts a forum and allows enthusiasts to download extra content for flight simulations, such as new landscapes.

The firm claims it is the most-visited flight simulation site on the internet.

“Its contribution has been immeasurable,” said Derek Davis, editor of PC Pilot magazine, following the attack.

The firm said it had spent $50,000 (£30,000) to bring Avsim back online since the 12 May attack, including $25,000 from users.

It said it had filed the criminal complaint after giving the alleged hacker “two opportunities to settle” the case.

“The individual did not avail himself of the opportunity – in fact, he has ignored our proffers,” Mr Allensworth said in the statement.

“We are now doing as we promised this person we would do: ratcheting this up to the next, criminal, level.”

“We fully expect that the criminal complaint…will result in the perpetrator spending some time behind bars – under UK law.”

The firm said it was seeking prosecution under laws that “deal with unauthorised use of a computer, unauthorised and criminal theft of data, and numerous other violations of other computer and online laws”.

The Metropolitan Police could not confirm whether it had received the complaint.

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Robots ‘to revolutionise surgery’ (BBC)

By Jane Elliott
BBC News health reporter

Within ten years some doctors and scientists are predicting that all surgery could be scarless.

They say by using the natural orifices of the body and the body’s own natural scar the belly-button (or umbilicus), it will be possible to insert robots into the body which can help perform every surgical procedure.

It sounds fantastical, but prototypes are already in existence that can crawl and swim inside the body taking pictures of difficult to access areas.

There are particularly big hopes for Ares (Assembling Reconfigurable Endoluminal Surgical System), developed by Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Italy, with the support of the European Commission.

This is a robot that will self assemble inside the body, after the patient has swallowed up to 15 separate parts, and then aid the surgeon to carry out procedures.

It is almost inconceivable as surgeons that in 10 years time we will be putting our hands in patients
Mr Justin Vale
Urological surgeon

By operating from inside the body, surgeons could avoid external incisions, minimising pain and shortening recovery time for the patient.

In many areas surgeons are already using robots for their daily surgical work.

Head movements

Robots such as ‘FreeHand’, a robotic camera controller for minimally invasive surgery.

Traditionally the laparoscopic (keyhole) camera was been moved by an assistant, but the ‘FreeHand’ allows the surgeon to control the camera themselves using head movements and a foot pedal.

Da Vinci robot

The Da Vinci robot offers surgeons great precision

Another example is the ‘Da Vinci Robot’ which is mainly used to carry out prostatectomies (removal of all or part of the prostate), tumour removals, gastro and neurological operations.

Its robotic arms rotate 360 degrees allowing surgeons more precision than they would have using their own hands.

Mr Justin Vale, a urological surgeon from Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust said robots already feature heavily in his daily work.

He uses the Da Vinci robot for all his prostatectomies and half his kidney tumour removals.

“I say to all my trainees and NHS managers that it is almost inconceivable as surgeons that in 10 years time we will be putting our hands in patients,” he said.

“As long as they can bring the price down and make them smaller it is almost inevitable they will take off.”

But he said there were training issues and that learning to use the computers required a new approach.

Sense of touch

“It does have limitations. One that surgeons will talk about is that there is no sense of touch.

“When you use your hands or standard keyhole instruments you do get a feeling of tension and pressure and whether something is soft or hard, but you can’t do that to the same degree with a robot.

Many mini and micro-robots have biologically inspired designs which emulate the crawling and wriggling motion of worms and insects
Dr Arianna Menciassi
Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna

“It is difficult when you are learning as you have lost one of your senses, but when you are a skilled robotic surgeon you develop to overcome that minor loss.”

The growth of interest in this area has led the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) to hold a special exhibition to mark the work of robots.

‘Sci-Fi Surgery: Medical Robots’ at the Hunterian Museum, London, will run from 8 September to 23 December.

Dr Arianna Menciassi, is one of the experts in biomedical robotics leading work at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna.

She said nature had been their inspiration for much of their work.

“Many mini and micro-robots have biologically inspired designs which emulate the crawling and wriggling motion of worms and insects, or the swimming motion of bacteria,” she said.

“We turned to biological inspiration because worms have locomotion systems suited to unstructured, slippery environments and are ideally suited for use in the human body.

“The dream for us is that in the future no more incisions will be necessary for operations because we can exploit the natural orifices of the human body.

“We are also working on the real possibility of building a robot inside the person (Ares), inside their abdomen or stomach and there would be several module which are very small like pills and that can combine together inside and the idea is to introduce these robots from the mouth or anus or the umbilical

“This is the dream, but at the moment it is not so advanced to satisfy the dream but this is the direction.”

The idea of the exhibition is to put before the public the idea that surgeons can be assisted by robots – they are not competition to the profession
Mike Larvin
Royal College of Surgeons

The London exhibition will also feature some famous medical robots from the world of science fiction, including the Pyschophonic Nurse, dreamed up in the 1920s.

As a 10-year-old Mike Larvin, Director of Education at the RCS said he had been inspired by the film ‘Fantastic Voyage’ in which a miniaturised medical team is injected into the bloodstream of an ailing diplomat to try to make him better.

That might remain a far-fetched fantasy, but Mike said medical robotics was a branch of science that was advancing at phenomenal speed.

“The idea of the exhibition is to put before the public the idea that surgeons can be assisted by robots – they are not competition to the profession,” he said.

“They are something that helps make operations safer and better.”

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Websites ‘breaking consumer laws’ (BBC)

Phone and keyboard

The investigation covered 28 European countries

More than half of websites selling electronic goods were breaking European laws aimed at protecting consumers, according to an EU investigation.

The analysis of 369 websites selling mobiles, DVD players and games consoles in 28 European countries found that 203 of them held misleading information.

The biggest failure surrounded the right to return a product bought on the internet within seven days.

Any websites which continue to break the law face fines.

“We know from the level of complaints coming into European Consumer Centres that this is a real problem area for consumers,” said EU consumer commissioner Meglena Kuneva.

“We discovered that more than half of the retailers selling online electronic goods are letting consumers down.”

Sweep

Authorities, such as trading standards departments, carried out the investigation in May. They were checking to see if the websites followed rules on providing clear information about the trader, the product, the price, and customers’ rights.

There is a lot of work to be done in the months ahead to clean up this sector, Europe’s consumers deserve better
Meglena Kuneva, EU consumer commissioner

Some 369 websites – across 26 EU member states (all members except Slovakia) as well as Norway and Iceland – were checked as they sold electronic goods including digital cameras, mobile phones, personal music players, DVD players, computer equipment and games consoles.

Two hundred of the sites were chosen because they were the biggest in the EU and another 100 were checked because they had been the subject of previous consumer complaints.

Of the 203 cases facing further investigation:

  • Two-thirds (66%) failed to adequately explain that consumers had seven days to return a product bought over distance for a full refund and without giving a reason. Others failed to explain the right to have a faulty product repaired or replaced for at least two years after sale
  • Details about extra delivery charges were missing or difficult to find on the website in 45% of cases
  • A third (33%) did not fully outline the trader’s name, address or email details so they could not be contacted if there was a problem.

All of these traders will now be contacted by the authorities and asked to clarify the position or correct the problems identified in the investigation.

Meglena Kuneva

Meglena Kuneva is the EU consumer commissioner

Any website that fails to make corrections could face warning letters and then enforcement action. If this was ignored the operators could be prosecuted and face fines.

“This is a Europe-wide problem which needs a European solution. There is a lot of work to be done in the months ahead to clean up this sector, Europe’s consumers deserve better,” said Ms Kuneva.

Every website checked in Cyprus and Hungary during the sweep was found to require further investigation. Six of 14 websites checked in the UK revealed irregularities.

Only Iceland, Norway and Latvia have published a list of the websites that will face further investigation.

About one in four consumers across the EU who has ever bought anything on the internet bought an electronic product, according to the European Commission. The market is valued at an estimated 6.8bn euros (£5.9bn).

Some 34% of complaints about online shopping in 2007 featured the sale of electronic equipment.

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Home fibre plans survive downturn (BBC)

Telephone cables, BT

The benefits of fibre to the home go beyond speed

More than two million people in Europe now have fibre broadband direct to their home, suggests a survey.

The latest figures on superfast broadband delivered by fibre to the home (FTTH) shows 18% growth over the last survey compiled in late 2008.

The continued growth suggests that the global economic downturn has not hit plans to build a fibre infrastructure.

Sweden tops the list of nations rolling out the technology, with 10.9% of its broadband customers using fibre.

Karel Helsen, president of Europe’s Fibre-To-The-Home Council, said the growth matched predictions that were revised when the credit crunch started to make itself felt.

TOP FIBRE NATIONS
1) Sweden – 10.9%
2) Norway – 10.2%
3) Slovenia – 8.9%
4) Andorra – 6.6%
5) Denmark- 5.7%
6) Iceland – 5.6%
7) Lithuania – 3.3%
8 ) Netherlands – 2.5%
9) Slovakia – 2.5%
10) Finland – 2.4%

“The numbers in 2009 are in line with the latest forecasts,” said Mr Helsen.

By 2012, the FTTH Council expects that 13 million people across 35 European nations will have their broadband delivered by fibre. Such services would start at speeds of 100 megabits per second (mbps), said Mr Helsen.

Around Europe more than 233 projects were underway to lay the fibres that would connect homes or buildings to the net, said Mr Helsen. Many of those, he said, were being operated by local governments or smaller net firms.

Local governments were interested in FTTH because of the economic and social benefits it brought in its wake, said Mr Helsen.

The low latency or delay inherent in high-speed fibre networks made possible novel uses of broadband, he said.

“No delay is very important,” he said, “specifically if you talk about applications that are time dependent such as personal communications, conference calls or video calls where delays cause a lot of interference.”

While early FTTH services were concentrated in cities, said Mr Helsen, many more were reaching out to rural areas for e-health and e-learning projects.

Separate studies show that an FTTH infrastructure can have a direct impact on local economic output, said Mr Helsen.

The UK, France and Germany have yet to break into the list of top ten FTTH nations.

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