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Australia's epic scheme to farm its northern wilds

The government wants to dam northern rivers to create a giant food bowl – but no one knows how it will effect the environment or Indigenous people. Australia has a daring plan: to convert its tropical north into a huge "food bowl". NewScientist 10/07/2014 Michael Slezak

The area being considered spans 3 million square kilometres. The plan offers many benefits, but the environmental risk has not yet been properly measured and may be huge. Developing the north is a major aim of the Liberal party governing Australia. They want to double the country's agricultural output by mid-century. In a policy paper last June, they said: "No longer will northern Australia be seen as the last frontier: it is in fact, the next frontier." They are now preparing a white paper. At first glance, north Australia is promising. It gets 1 quadrillion litres of rain a year. Most falls in just four months, so the idea is to build dams to store these wet season rains, and irrigate the land during the eight bone-dry months.


Laser Demonstration Reveals Bright Future for Space Communication

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has completed its Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) mission, showing significant potential for increasing broadband capabilities in space using laser communications. NASA News (23/12/13) Dewayne Washington

The LLCD tested laser communication capabilities from a distance of almost 250,000 miles. The mission achieved record-breaking data download speeds to the moon of 622 Mbps and uploads of 20 Mbps, and demonstrated that it could operate as well as any NASA radio system. "Throughout our testing we did not see anything that would prevent the operational use of this technology in the immediate future," says NASA's Don Cornwell. LLCD provided error-free communications during broad daylight and when the moon was low on the horizon, proving that wind and atmospheric turbulence did not significantly impact the system. Cornwell says LLCD was able to download the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer's (LADEE) entire stored science and spacecraft data of 1 GB in less than five minutes, while downloading the same data using LADEE's onboard radio system would take several days. As a next step, NASA will conduct its Laser Communications Relay Demonstration to confirm continuous laser relay communication capabilities at more than 1 billion bits per second between two Earth stations using a satellite in geosynchronous orbit.


First-of-Its-Kind Online Master's Draws Wave of Applicants

Since implementing a new low-cost online master's program in computer science based on massively open online course (MOOC) technology, Georgia Tech has received almost twice as many applications for the program in the past three weeks as its residential program receives in a year. Wall Street Journal (10/30/13) Douglas Belkin

Unlike most MOOCs, the course is not offered for free, with applicants paying about $6,600 to participate, compared with approximately $44,000 for residential students. The number of U.S.-resident applicants for the Georgia Tech program also was 14 times higher than those for the residential class. College of Computing dean Zvi Galil estimates that 79 percent of the online master's applicants were U.S. citizens, versus 9 percent of the residential applicants. This trend indicates a strong demand among adult students to receive an education while also staying at home, or being employed or raising a family, says Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun. Udacity created the program in partnership with Georgia Tech and AT&T, and also announced the Open Education Alliance, which lets students earn a free certificate based on courses developed with the company's partners. "I think this is symptomatic of a lot of what we're going to be seeing in the future," says the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute's Ronald Ehrenberg.


Software Beats CAPTCHA, the Web's 'Are You Human?' Test

California-based startup Vicarious says it has developed software that can successfully crack any text-based Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart (CAPTCHA) program, defeating Google's reCAPTCHA program 90 percent of the time. New Scientist (28/10/13) MacGregor Campbell

The software employs virtual neurons arranged in a network modeled after the human brain. The network begins with nodes that detect real-world input, such as whether a specific pixel in an image is black or white, and the next nodal layer fires only if the nodes identify a specific pixel configuration. A third layer fires only if its nodes recognize pixel arrangements cohering into whole or partial shapes, and the process repeats on between three and eight nodal levels, with signals passing between up to 8 million nodes. The network eventually makes a best guess on the letters contained in the image. The strength of each neural link is determined by training the network with solved CAPTCHAs and videos of letters in motion, enabling the system to create its own representation of particular letters. Vicarious CEO Scott Phoenix hopes the company's innovation will lead to more human-like artificial intelligence, and he says the company plans to apply the tool toward beating more Turing tests.


How Machine Learning Changes the Game

Machine learning is making significant advances, as increasingly effective algorithms emerge that enable computers to learn on their own. Federal Computer Week (15/07/13) Konstantin Kakaes

Several converging factors are contributing to the real-world applicability of machine learning, including the availability of large datasets that can train learning algorithms and inexpensive computational power that enables rapid training. In addition, methodological changes, such as Flickr users tagging millions of images online, are making large datasets more useful. Speech- and facial-recognition technologies are already transforming society and are poised to make an even larger impact. For example, speech-recognition technologies have radically altered call and contact centers, and as the tools improve, government agencies with significant public interaction will gauge the extent to which automated voice-recognition systems can carry out public-facing tasks. Meanwhile, Stanford University professor Andrew Ng and his colleagues recently presented a paper showing that it is possible to train networks with as many as 11 billion parameters within days on a cluster of 16 commercial servers. After training on a dataset of 10 million unlabeled YouTube video thumbnails, the neural network had an 86.5 percent success rate in differentiating 13,152 faces from 48,000 distractor images. Autonomous vehicles also are rapidly advancing, and researchers worldwide are creating robots capable of learning.


Driverless Cars to Be Tested on UK Roads By End of 2013

The United Kingdom's Department of Transport recently released plans to test driverless cars on public roads by the end of 2013. The driverless cars are guided by a system of sensors and cameras, and could be safer and more efficient than conventional vehicles. BBC News (16/07/13)

The testing is being led by researchers at the University of Oxford, who have been developing the technology on an adapted Nissan Leaf at Oxford Science Park. The plan to test autonomous vehicles is part of a 28-billion-euro investment in British roads to reduce congestion. The driverless vehicles initially will be tested in "semi-autonomous" mode on lightly-used rural and suburban roads with a back-up driver ready to take over in case of an emergency. The cars feature lasers and small cameras that memorize regular journeys and draw upon knowledge of the environment in which they will be driving. "It's a great area to be working in because it's IT and computers and that's what changes things," says Oxford professor Paul Newman. "The British government sees that engineering is important." In the private sector, Google has led autonomous vehicle development, with its fleet of prototypes of a converted Toyota Prius covering more than 300,000 miles on public roads.


Universities Face a Rising Barrage of Cyberattacks

Research universities in the United States are facing millions of hacking attempts weekly, most of which are believed to emanate from China and some of which university officials concede have been successful. New York Times (16/07/13) Richard Perez-Pena

The threat is serious because each year U.S. universities and their professors are awarded thousands of patents in a variety of areas, many of which hold significant potential value. "The attacks are increasing exponentially, and so is the sophistication, and I think it's outpaced our ability to respond," says Educause's Rodney J. Petersen. Some universities are prohibiting professors from bringing their laptops to certain countries, which should be standard practice, says James A. Lewis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There are some countries, including China, where the minute you connect to a network, everything will be copied, or something will be planted on your computer in hopes that you'll take that computer back home and connect to your home network, and then they're in there," Lewis says. "Academics aren't used to thinking that way." The University of Wisconsin's Bill Mellon says his university is spending more than $1 million to upgrade computer security for just a single program that works with infectious diseases.


Google Creates Developers Cloud Playground for Code Testing

Google has created a Cloud Playground environment in which developers can quickly try out new ideas without having to commit to setting up a local development environment that is safe for testing coding experiments outside of the production infrastructure. eWeek (26/06/13) Todd R. Weiss

The Cloud Playground is an open source project that includes mimic, a regular Python App Engine app that serves as a development server, and bliss, a browser-based code editor that enables users to edit code in the mimic virtual file system. Earlier this year, Google opened its Google Maps application programming interface (API) to developers so they can build consumer and business applications. By using the Maps API, developers can now use Google's cloud infrastructure to add their data on top of a Google Map and share that custom presentation with other users. Google also recently created the new Mobile Backend Starter, which enables developers to focus on building and selling their apps by automating the back end of apps development.


Mathematicians Think Like Machines for Perfect Proofs

A team of mathematicians led by Vladimir Voevodsky with Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study have devised a new mathematical framework that forces people to think more like machines to check perfect proofs in collaboration with computers. New Scientist (25/06/13) Jacob Aron

The team's manual explains the use of type theory as an alternative mathematical basis. Type theory stipulates that all proofs must describe how to mathematically construct the object they concern, which is the opposite of set theory. Once mathematicians have completed this task, their proof would automatically be supported by unshakable computational checks. It is impossible to write an incorrect proof, assuming the underlying code is defect-free, along with the automated proof assistants that verify everything as the mathematician goes along. Voevodsky's team also says it is far easier to check the code than the entire proof in most instances. Not only does the new framework make proof-checking easier, it also is a move toward computers that one day could execute mathematics by themselves, which might potentially clear a path toward more advanced forms of artificial intelligence (AI). "My expectation is that all these separate, limited AI successes, like driving a car and playing chess, will eventually converge back, and then we're going to get computers that are really very powerful," says project collaborator Andrej Bauer.


NSF and Mozilla Announce Breakthrough Applications on a Faster, Smarter Internet of the Future

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and Mozilla unveiled 22 winning applications for the open innovation challenge Mozilla Ignite at the recent US Ignite Next-Generation Application Summit. National Science Foundation (25/06/13) Lisa-Joy Zgorski

The competition sought innovative apps that run on ultra-fast, programmable networks, focusing on healthcare, energy, transportation, and education. Gigabit fiber enables data transfer three to 10 times faster than today's infrastructures, expanding the limits of app design. One of the winning applications, Real Time Emergency Response, enables emergency operators and responders to process multiple, real-time data streams from mobile phones and social media into forms that are useful for responders. The app, which will target agencies such as the National Guard, eventually should integrate street-level and highway cameras into the system to improve monitoring capabilities. Another winning application is the Collaborative Science Learning Environment (CIZZLE), which offers an interactive, video game learning environment for children. "CIZZLE stands to transform the way students all across the country learn," says NSF's Suzi Iacono. "Together with the 21 other exciting new tools spotlighted here today, it demonstrates how next-generation gigabit apps offer the potential for significant positive impact across all sectors of society."