петак, 04. октобар 2013.

23andMe receives patent to create designer babies, but denies plans to do so

Thanks to personal genomics companies like 23andMe, it's becoming quicker and easier for us to find out who we are. But will the same technology one day allow us to decide who our babies will be — before they're even born? That's the question raised by a newly issued patent, which grants 23andMe rights to a system that allows parents to pick and choose their children's traits prior to undergoing fertility treatment. Since 2009, 23andMe has offered a service called the "Inheritance Calculator," which lets parents see the odds that their future child will inherit a selection of traits, from brown hair to lactose intolerance. This latest patent, which the company applied for in 2008, covers the technology that comprises the calculator. But it also goes several steps further, by describing a system that would allow parents to select their preferences for a host of traits, some of them medical ("I prefer a child with longest expected lifespan"), and others not so much ("I prefer a child with high probability of blue eyes"). Already illegal in Canada and the UK The system, according to the patent, could be used to "[identify] a preferred donor among the plurality of donors," based on genetic information. A woman undergoing in vitro fertilization using a sperm donor, for example, could ask 23andMe to crunch numbers on her own genetic profile and those of various donors — and then recommend a donor who'd most likely yield a child with the traits she desires. Of course, genetic analysis to check for some serious inheritable diseases already occurs. But the kind of non-medical trait selection that 23andMe describes is extremely controversial, and already illegal in Canada and the UK. There are no plans to actually implement the system According to the company, however, they won't actually be implementing the system described by this patent. "At the time 23andMe filed the patent, there was consideration that the technology could have potential applications for fertility clinics," reads a post published today on the 23andMe blog. "The company never pursued the concepts discussed in the patent beyond our Family Traits Inheritance Calculator, nor do we have any plans to do so." And even if they did, it might not yet yield the results some parents are looking for. The genetic foundations of traits like hair color or athleticism are markedly more complex than researchers had surmised several years ago — meaning that anyone trying to design a baby might be sorely disappointed with the end result.

Facebook's check-in based free Wi-Fi rolling out nationally with Cisco's help

Last year, Facebook began trialing a novel approach to Wi-Fi: it gave consumers free access to high-speed internet in exchange for checking in at a business. Starting today, it's expanding that initiative even further with the help of Cisco. The two companies are collaborating on what's being called CMX for Facebook Wi-Fi. That branding is a bit of a mouthful, but for end users it's largely the same experience. When you visit a participating retailer, hotel, or other business, hopping onto Wi-Fi is as easy as joining the local network and checking in with your Facebook account. For users, it offers a near-instantaneous login process that gets them browsing faster. "We like to think of everything first and foremost from the user perspective," Facebook's Erick Tseng tells The Verge. He says the company decided it could improve upon the convoluted Wi-Fi sign-in process that's prevalent at so many coffee shops and other gathering spots. Businesses stand to gain even more, as they'll have access to aggregate anonymous user demographics that include age, gender, hometown, likes, dislikes, and native language. "Using Facebook Insights, you can now go deep into understanding who these people are who are physically walking into your store," Tseng said. "It allows you to not only to reach out to those individuals who have physically come to your store before, but also target people that are like them and expand your marketing reach." Even before today's announcement, Facebook Wi-Fi has been installed at over 1,000 merchants in over 50 countries, but the social network still sees huge room for growth. "Our vision is that every business in the world who have people coming in and visiting should have Facebook Wi-Fi," says Tseng. Businesses interested in participating can reach out to Cisco for more information. It's not necessarily a cheap endeavor: merchants must pay for the equipment and bandwidth themselves, but for many businesses, the data they take back may make Facebook Wi-Fi worth the investment.

The PicoBrew Zymatic is the Nespresso of beer brewing

An 18-year Microsoft veteran has set out to reinvent homebrewing with the PicoBrew Zymatic, a table-top brewing machine that promises to simplify the process of making a batch of custom beer. Co-founder Bill Mitchell, who worked on PDAs, smartphones, automotive, and wearable computing" during his time at Microsoft, says on his proect's Kickstarter page that he got tired with the overly long process of homebrewing as well as the difficulty of repeating a beer recipe once you found one you liked. After a few years of prototyping, he's now put his PicoBrew Zymatic up on Kickstarter, and the project met its $150,000 funding goal in just one day. The device itself looks somewhat like an oversized metal microwave that you can hook a five-gallon cornelius keg to — once you select a recipe and load the machine with the appropriate amount of grain and hops (and the keg with water), you can turn it on and walk away. In less than four hours, your keg will be filled with unfermented beer. From there, you just need to chill the keg, add yeast, and seal the keg to let it ferment. A week later, you just need to carbonate your beer and it's good to go. Obviously, the process still takes some time and patience, but the actual beer brewing appears a lot simpler and takes up far less space than conventional setups. It's also a more repeatable process thanks to the web-side software that lets you find and share exact recipes designed specifically for the PicoBrew Zymatic. The custom "recipe crafter" lets you choose different beers by styles and get the specs needed for your brew, and users can share recipes they invent themselves. It also lets you translate more traditional beer recipes shared in the BeerXML standard into something you can use on the PicoBrew Zymatic. All in all, this seems like a pretty clever idea — Mitchell compares it to an espresso machine or breadmaker for beer — but of course the real test is how the beer tastes. Purists might scoff at this setup, but if you don't have a garage or basement for a full-on beer brewing system (or just don't have the time to muck around with it), the PicoBrew Zymatic might be worth a shot if it manages to make its way to production. Right now, you can reserve one from the first or second round of production with a $1,499 or $1,599 (all of the earlier, pilot-run machines are already reserved). It's a lot of money, but if you're willing to trust the that PicoBrew Zymatic can brew good beer, it might be worth your support on Kickstarter. Thanks, Corey!

Obama's $100 million effort to map the human brain suspended by government shutdown

The US government's shutdown has put about 800,000 people out of work, and caused stoppages at NASA, the Department of Health and Human services, the CIA and NSA, and nearly every other federal agency. Now the start of the Obama Administration's Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, which was set to officially begin early next year, is in jeopardy too. The BRAIN project is already an ambitious one running on a tight schedule — $100 million is to be set spent in 2014 to start the daunting task of trying to map the human brain. But now, due to the government's failure to pass a federal budget, BRAIN has been indefinitely placed on hold, putting the effort's start and its progress as a decade-long process at serious risk. "This is no way to run a government." Bill Newsome, one of BRAIN's co-chairs and a Stanford University professor, told Popular Science that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was set to spend the first $40 million of the project's budget. That money is supposed to hire scientists to begin working on understanding normal brain functions, he said. "Those understandings of brain function are critical to understanding what goes wrong in neurological and psychiatric disorders," Newsome said. "Every month and year we delay in getting this going are going to have consequences." The setbacks will, of course, also delay the discoveries of potential therapies that could come out of the research initiative — which aims to map the brain as a means to develop new technologies that could help fight diseases such as Alzheimer's and epilepsy. Several private research organizations have pledged money to the project over the next 10 years, and the Defense Adcanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Fountation — both of which are also dealing with the shutdown — are involved too. But the NIH is where the project begins, Newsome explained to Popular Science. "To write good proposals, to get them evaluated, to get the money committed "It's pretty much a disaster." for this next year flowing, that’s a long process — even with the NIH process moving at warp speed, it takes the better part of a year," he said. "We on the working group, we delivered our end of the bargain. NIH wants to deliver on its end of the bargain, but they simply can't do it if they're sitting at home on an unwanted furlough." Newsome said that he isn't even able to get email responses from NIH officials to talk about all the ways that the shutdown will impact BRAIN. "The whole thing is just at a complete standstill. I don’t know what to say," he said. "I just know that this is no way to run a government, and it's no way to run support for science… it's pretty much a disaster."

Why we don't want our Roombas to look human

We may have plenty of ideas about what a robot should look like — make something too machine-like, and we may not be able to connect with it; make a humanoid robot, and we might become too attached or view the result as creepy. According to new research, however, these preferences are far from uniform: they depend on both our age and what the robot would be doing. Georgia Tech graduate student Akanksha Prakash and professor Wendy Rogers showed groups of college-age students and senior citizens pictures of several robots. Some were real, like Nexi. Others were artistic renderings of cyborgs. Some were simply pictures of people. Which one, Prakash and Rogers asked, was the participant's ideal robot? When participants were just asked to pick a favorite, the groups split down age lines, as NBC News reports. The older group wanted human robots, while the younger subjects slightly preferred present-day robots, which may have human faces but are indisputably metal and plastic. "Humans lie, but machines don't," said one test subject. Cyborgs, it seemed, were the worst of both worlds, as no group preferred them. "Humans lie, but machines don't." Asking participants what robot they would pick for a specific test, however, produced a new set of preferences. For menial tasks like vacuuming, mechanical-looking robots were best, NBC reports. As tasks got more nuanced, though, people started to prefer humans. A robot that would help people invest, the younger group said, should look smart — and therefore human, despite their previous preferences. In other cases, this kind of reasoning could lead participants in completely opposite directions. When asked what a robot that helped with personal care — bathing, for instance — some people wanted an entirely machinelike robot, saying it wouldn't make them feel like they were being watched. But others wanted something human, trustworthy, and empathetic. While this study focused on different levels of "humanity" in robots, other studies have found that this isn't all that people look at when selecting their ideal helper for a task. In one study, people were given a pair of similar robots, of which one appeared more masculine and the other more feminine (with long hair and upturned lips), then asked which tasks they were more suited for. Despite being nearly identical, participants essentially broke the two robots' tasks down based on stereotypes. This research, however, shows that our relationship is more complex than simply looking for a pretty face.

Despite blocking 'Catcher in the Rye' films, J.D. Salinger didn't actually hate all movies

The Catcher in the Rye has famously avoided a Hollywood adaptation because of J.D. Salinger's refusal to sell the movie rights, and many have assumed that Salinger must have felt about films the same way that his novel's protagonist, Holden Caulfield, did: “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies," he writes. "Don’t even mention them to me.” But it turns out, that's far from the case. "I like certain kinds of films inordinately." In research for the documentary Salinger, director Shane Salerno uncovered a letter from the author dating back to 1967 that refutes his rumored distaste for film. "It isn't true, at all, that I 'hate' or dislike all films, and it's always more than a little off-putting, not to say irritating, to hear that I do," he writes in the letter, which has been published by Variety. "The fact is, I like certain kinds of films inordinately." Salinger goes on to explain that he simply has no "professional interest" in writing for the screen or stage. "The only theater I want to write for is the little marvelous one inside the individual reader's mind," he writes. Salinger says that he provides readers with all that they might need in order to bring the events of his books to life. Even so, that's unlikely to stop film studios from going after his work now that he's no longer around to guard it.

Snowden's email provider Lavabit fought government surveillance with ultra-tiny font

Earlier this summer, a few weeks after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's leaked documents on the agency's surveillance practices were published, the encrypted email service provider he used, called Lavabit, shut itself down. At that time, Lavabit's founder Ladar Levison said he was shuttering his website to avoid "becom[ing] complicit in crimes against the American people," which many took to mean he was resisting further surveillance demands by the US government. It turns out we didn't know the half of it: new court documents unsealed today in the US District Court for Virginia's Eastern District, obtained by Wired, reveal that Levison fought the US government tooth-and-nail to avoid handing over the encryption keys that would allow government agents to read his customers' emails. In the harrowing saga recounted in the newly unsealed documents, it turns out the government obtained a search warrant in July and demanded Lavabit hand over the encryption and secure-socket layer (SSL) keys to its system. The government was pursuing the emails sent by a single target, whose name has been redacted, but as Wired points out, it's highly likely that user was Snowden himself. Rather than comply with the order outright, Levison went to court, where his attorney argued handing over the keys would put the security of Lavabit's 400,000 users' communications in jeopardy. The judge, however, was swayed with the government attorney's argument that agents would filter the communications, and so Lavabit was still required to hand over the data. Levison complied, but did so by submitting an 11-page-long document in size 4 font, which the government called "illegible." Wired quotes a newly unsealed government filing complaining about the move: "To make use of these keys, the FBI would have to manually input all 2,560 characters, and one incorrect keystroke in this laborious process would render the FBI collection system incapable of collecting decrypted data." Although the court later ordered Levison to make a more usable copy, his shuttering of Lavabit on August 8 threw another obstacle in the government's path. Levison is still appealing the order, and has been ordered not to discuss the details of the case, but the documents reveal that he's willing to go to great lengths to try and protect the privacy of his users.