Research team introduces 'phyjama,' a physiological sensing pajama

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Introducing 'phyjama,' a physiological-sensing pajama
UMass Amherst researchers have developed physiological-sensing textiles that can be woven or stitched into sleep garments they have dubbed “phyjamas.” Their work rests on the insight that though sleepwear is worn loosely, in places sensors may press against the body through contact with external surfaces, such as the torso against a chair or bed, an arm resting on the body or light pressure from a blanket. Credit: UMass Amherst/Andrew lab

Scientists expect that in the future, electronically active garments containing unobtrusive, portable devices for monitoring heart rate and respiratory rhythm during sleep, for example, will prove clinically useful in health care. Now researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have developed physiological-sensing textiles that can be woven or stitched into sleep garments they have dubbed “phyjamas.”

Graduate students Ali Kiaghadi and S. Zohreh Homayounfar, with their professors Trisha L. Andrew, a materials chemist, and computer scientist Deepak Ganesan, will introduce their health-monitoring sleepwear at the Ubicomp 2019 conference this week in London, U.K. A paper detailing the work has been chosen for publication in the Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies (IMWUT).

As Andrew explains, “The challenge we faced was how to obtain useful signals without changing the aesthetics or feel of the textile. Generally, people assume that smart textiles refer to tightly worn clothing that has various sensors embedded in it for measuring physiological and physical signals, but this is clearly not a solution for everyday clothing and, in particular, sleepwear.”

Ganesan adds, “Our insight was that even though sleepwear is worn loosely, there are several parts of such a textile that are pressed against the body due to our posture and contact with external surfaces. This includes pressure exerted by the torso against a chair or bed, pressure when the arm rests on the side of the body while sleeping, and light pressure from a blanket over the sleepwear.”

Introducing 'phyjama,' a physiological-sensing pajama
Fabric-based pressure sensor combined with a triboelectric sensor. Credit: UMass Amherst/Andrew lab.

“Such pressured regions of the textile are potential locations where we can measure ballistic movements caused by heartbeats and breathing,” he explains, “and these can be used to extract physiological variables.” The difficulty is that these signals can be individually unreliable, particularly in loose-fitting clothing, but signals from many sensors placed across different parts of the body can be intelligently combined to get a more accurate composite reading.

Andrew, Ganesan and colleagues explain that their team had to come up with several new ideas to make their vision a reality. They realized that there is no existing fabric-based method to sense continuous and dynamic changes in pressure, particularly given the small signals that they needed to measure. So they designed a new fabric-based pressure sensor and combined that with a triboelectric sensor—one activated by a change in physical contact—to develop a distributed sensor suite that could be integrated into loose-fitting clothing like pajamas. They also developed data analytics to fuse signals from many points that took into account the quality of the signal coming in from each location.

The authors report that this combination allowed them to detect physiological signals across many different postures. They performed multiple user studies in both controlled and natural settings and showed that they can extract heartbeat peaks with high accuracy, breathing rate with less than one beat per minute error, and perfectly predict sleep posture.

“We expect that these advances can be particularly useful for monitoring elderly patients, many of whom suffer from sleep disorders,” says Andrew. “Current generation wearables, like smartwatches, are not ideal for this population since elderly individuals often forget to consistently wear or are resistant to wearing additional devices, while sleepwear is already a normal part of their daily life. More than that, your watch can’t tell you which position you sleep in, and whether your sleep posture is affecting your sleep quality; our Phyjama can.”

This work was enhanced by Ganesan and Andrew’s affiliation with UMass Amherst’s Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS), which focuses on translating life science research into products that improve human health. Director Peter Reinhart at IALS says, “It’s exciting to see the next generation of wearable technology that is zero effort and addresses the issue of comfort and unobtrusiveness head-on. The data generated by fabric-based sensors have the potential to improve health and well-being, and could possibly contribute to the early diagnosis of multiple disorders.”


‘Smart’ pajamas could monitor and help improve sleep

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University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Ukrainian man pleads guilty to hacking, wire fraud charges

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hack
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

A member of a sophisticated international hacking group that authorities say targeted businesses in 47 states to steal credit and debit card records pleaded guilty to hacking and wire fraud charges in Seattle.

Fedir Hladyr, a 34-year-old Ukrainian, also agreed to pay $2.5 million in restitution as part of his plea Wednesday in U.S. District Court. He could face up to 25 years in prison.

Defense lawyer Arkady Bukh said Hladyr agreed to enter guilty pleas to the two counts because he could have faced a possible sentence of hundreds of years in prison if he was convicted of multiple other counts initially filed against him.

The issue at sentencing will be the number of victims and the dollar amount of losses, Bukh said.

“His wife in Ukraine and his family supports him and they’ll wait for him to come back home,” the lawyer said.

The plea agreement says Hladyr was a member of a hacking group called FIN7 that launched attacks against hundreds of U.S. companies to steal financial information between 2015 and 2019. It’s accused of stealing information involving about 15 million credit and debit cards, with more than $100 million in losses

Companies hit by the hacking included Chipotle, Arby’s Red Robin and Jason’s Deli, prosecutors said.

Under the plea agreement, the U.S. attorney’s office will dismiss 24 counts in the indictment, but the previous charges can be considered by the judge at sentencing.

Greg Otto, a cybersecurity expert, said the plea agreement “hints at a cooperation deal to give more information about the FIN7 group.”

“This group has been pretty brazen in the face of these arrests, so the U.S. government is going to continue to go after them through any means necessary,” Otto said.

Hladyr was arrested in Germany last year. He was FIN7’s systems administrator and maintained the group’s servers, prosecutors said.

Two other members of the group were charged in the hacking conspiracy. Dmytro Fedorov was being held in Poland and Andrii Kolpakov was arrested on May 31, according to court records. His trial is set next year.

The group used phishing emails containing malware that compromised computers, prosecutors said. The emails were sent to people working at hotels and restaurants. The hackers would follow up with phone calls to get them to open attachments sent in the emails, FBI Special Agent Jay Tabb has said.

Once the hackers were inside the computer system, they would access sensitive financial information.

FIN7 then offered the information for sale and it was used to conduct fraudulent transactions, authorities said.


Three Ukrainians arrested for hacking over 100 US companies

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Google settles with labor board over employee speech

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Google settles with labor board over employee speech
In this May 1, 2019, file photo, a person walks past a Google sign in San Francisco. Google says it’s reached a settlement over employees’ ability to speak out about workplace issues. Under the settlement with the National Labor Relations Board, Google has agreed to post a notice to remind employees of their rights.. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Google has reached a settlement over employees’ ability to speak out about workplace issues after a former worker filed a complaint.

Under the settlement with the National Labor Relations Board, Google said, the company will post notices to remind employees of their federal rights. That includes the ability to talk to each other about workplace conditions and push for changes such as pay raises and safety improvements.

A Wall Street Journal report says the tech giant also has to make sure employees know they are allowed to discuss matters with the media and with each other. Google did not specifically address how employees can talk about issues outside the company, and the NLRB has not yet made the settlement public.

Google employees are known for being some of the most outspoken in the tech industry and have advocated for such topics as equal pay and sexual misconduct investigations. Thousands of employees walked out of work last fall to protest how Google handled the departure of an executive accused of sexual misconduct.

Since then, Google has told employees it would be more forceful and transparent about its sexual misconduct investigations, and it ended mandatory arbitration for all worker disputes.

Thursday’s settlement stems from a complaint made by a former employee, Kevin Cernekee, who filed the complaint saying Google had violated his rights to engage with other employees about workplace issues. He previously said he was fired for expressing conservative viewpoints on company chat forums. Google said Cernekee was fired for downloading confidential company documents onto a personal device.

Cernekee’s case got national attention last month when Fox News and eventually President Donald Trump hyped his claims that Google will try to influence the 2020 election against Trump. There is no evidence those claims are true, and Google has denied them.

Google said the settlement has no mention of political activity and will not change employee guidelines, updated last month, addressing mailing lists and internal forums.

“While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not,” Google’s updated guidelines read.


Google tells workers to avoid arguing politics in house

© 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Semiconducting material more affected by defects than previously thought

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Semiconducting material more affected by defects than previously thought
Credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

A promising semiconductor material could be improved if flaws previously thought irrelevant to performance are reduced, according to research published today in Nature Communications. A group of researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and other universities has shown that a specific defect impacts the ability of halide perovskite to hold energy derived from light in the form of electrons.

“Defects could be good or bad in semiconductors,” said Jian Shi, associate professor of materials science engineering. “For some reason, people did not pay attention to dislocations in halide perovskite, but we have shown that this defect is a problem in halide perovskite.”

Research on halide perovskite has rapidly improved the efficiency of the material from about a 3% conversion of light to electrical energy to 25%—equivalent to state-of-the-art silicon solar cells—over the course of a decade. Researchers wrestled with silicon for decades to reach that material’s current level of efficiency.

Halide perovskite also has promising carrier dynamics, which are roughly defined as the length of time that light energy absorbed by the material is retained in the form of an excited electron. To make a good prospect for solar energy conversion, electrons in the material must retain their energy long enough to be harvested by an electrode attached to the material, thus completing the conversion of light to electrical energy.

The material had long been considered “defect tolerant,” meaning flaws like missing atoms, shoddy bonds across grains of the crystal, and a mismatch known as crystallographic dislocation were not believed to have much impact on efficiency. More recent research has questioned that assumption and found that some defects do affect aspects of the crystal’s performance.

Shi’s team tested whether the defect of crystallographic dislocation impacts carrier dynamics by growing the crystal on two different substrates. One substrate had a strong interaction with the halide perovskite as it was being deposited, producing a higher density of dislocations. The other had a weaker interaction and produced a lower density of dislocations.

The results show that dislocations negatively impact the carrier dynamics of halide perovskite. Reducing dislocation densities by more than one order of magnitude is found to lead to an increase of electron lifetime by four times.

“A conclusion is that halide perovskite has a similar dislocation effect as conventional semiconductors,” Shi said. “We need to be careful of dislocations in halide perovskite, which is a factor people have been ignoring as they work on this material.”

Shi’s last significant work on halide perovskite revealed the role of pressure on this semiconductor’s optical properties published in Science Advances in 2018.

At Rensselaer, Shi was joined by researchers in both the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Department of Physics, Applied Physics and Astronomy. Researchers from the Kunming University of Science and Technology, Tsinghua University, University of Science and Technology Beijing, Forschungszentrum Julich, and Brown University also contributed to the research.

“Carrier lifetime enhancement in halide perovskite via remote epitaxy” was published September 12 in Nature Communications.


Discovery sheds light on synthesis, processing of high-performance solar cells

More information:
Jie Jiang et al, Carrier lifetime enhancement in halide perovskite via remote epitaxy, Nature Communications (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-12056-1
Provided by
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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Semiconducting material more affected by defects than previously thought (2019, September 12)
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Facebook expands new tool aiming to shrink 'news deserts'

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Facebook expands new tool aiming to shrink 'news deserts'
This July 16, 2013, file photo shows a sign at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Facebook is trying to coax “news deserts” into bloom with the expansion of a tool that provides people with local news and information, but says it still has a lot to learn. The social media giant said Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, it is expanding its “Today In” service to 6,000 cities and towns across the U.S., up from 400 previously. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

Facebook is trying to coax “news deserts” into bloom with the second major expansion of a tool that exposes people to more local news and information. But the social network confesses that it still has a lot to learn.

The social media giant said Thursday it is expanding its “Today In” service to 6,000 cities and towns across the U.S., up from 400 in its previous iteration . Launched in early 2018, the service lets Facebook users opt into local news and information from local organizations. Such news can include missing-person alerts, local election results, road closures and crime reports.

The tool lives within the Facebook app; turning it on adds local updates to a user’s regular news feed. In areas with scant local news, Facebook will add relevant articles from surrounding areas.

The service won’t automatically turn on for people even in the areas it serves, which could limit its reach. So far, Facebook says, 1.6 million people have activated Today In. They receive news from some 1,200 publishers every week.

The service aggregates posts from the official Facebook pages for news organizations, government agencies and community groups like dog shelters. It uses software filters to weed out objectionable content.

Facebook employs no human editors for Today In, so tweaking its algorithm to find relevant local stories has been a complicated process. Does a road closure matter if it’s 100 miles away? How about a murder?

Some 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States over the past 15 years, according to research from the University of North Carolina . Newsroom employment has declined by 45% as the industry struggles with a broken business model partly caused by the success of companies on the internet, including Facebook.

“There is no silver bullet,” Campbell Brown, head of global news partnerships at Facebook, said in an interview. “We really want to help publishers address challenges in local markets.”

Brown, a former news anchor and host at NBC and CNN, said local reporting remains the most important form of journalism today. She said Facebook has a responsibility to support journalism, while also noting that the media industry has been in decline “for a very long time.”

Local news is just one part of the Today In feature, which also includes posts from local groups along with events and community announcements from schools and governments. A news section within the section shows stories from local newspapers, blogs and TV stations. Facebook isn’t paying licensing fees or sharing ad revenue with these outlets, but says the tool is driving new readers to local news outlets.

Already, Facebook says it’s learned from publishers’ input about what doesn’t work. For instance, it now only allows posts from publishers registered with its “News page index,” which means they meet guidelines such as a focus on current events and information, citing sources and including dates and don’t have a record of publishing false news and misinformation. This means that obituaries from funeral homes, or real estate posts—both of which previously showed up under “news”—are no longer eligible.

The company says publishers featured in Today In see a significant increase “referral traffic” to their websites from Facebook, more so than when people see the same stories in their regular news feed, based on data from its test partners.

Google also announced changes to its news service Thursday, saying it would slightly alter its search system so original news stories on a topic show up before follow-ups or repeated news from other publications. Similar to Facebook, the company has been working on showing news articles from authoritative, proven publications.

Jimmy O’Keefe, a product marketing manager at Facebook, said that while people scroll through their news feeds passively, people engage with articles more when they appear in Local In.

Outside researchers studying local news data provided by Facebook found that about half of the news stories in the Today In feature met what they called a “critical information need” in the communities it served. This could be helpful for news publishers in determining coverage priorities and for Facebook as it tweaks how it presents news to its users.

Facebook has also learned that local news doesn’t work like national news. Political stories, for instance, don’t generate a lot of local interest.

When researchers looked at the types of news stories Facebook showed and how users interacted with them, finding that Facebook users interacted the most with stories serving a critical need—such as information on emergencies, transportation and health. While there were more “non-critical” stories available, on sports, for instance, people didn’t interact with those to the same degree. The researchers—Matthew Weber at the University of Minnesota and Peter Andriga and Philip Napoli at Duke University—received no funding from Facebook.

The expansion to 6,000 cities still doesn’t include large metro areas such as New York City, Los Angeles or San Francisco, where the abundance of news and population density makes it more difficult to provide relevant local information. A big local story in Brooklyn, for instance, might be irrelevant in the same borough just a few miles away.


Facebook wants to keep you ‘in-the-know’ about emergencies, active shooters in your area

© 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Researchers design roadmap for hydrogen supply network

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UBC researchers design roadmap for hydrogen supply network
Walter Mérida Credit: UBC

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in British Columbia. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have developed a hydrogen supply chain model that can enable the adoption of zero-emission, hydrogen-powered cars—transforming them from a novelty into everyday transportation in just 30 years.

In a new study published this week, UBC researchers provide an analysis of the infrastructure needed to support hydrogen cars, SUVs and mini vans in British Columbia. They recommend a refuelling infrastructure extending from Prince George in the north to Kamloops and Vancouver in the south and Victoria in the west. Production plants would capture by-product hydrogen from chemical plants or produce it from water electrolysis and steam methane reforming. A network of refuelling stations would be established to serve consumers in major urban centres.

“Hydrogen-powered vehicles are a strong alternative to battery electric vehicles, which don’t always comply with fast-refuelling, long-distance travel or cold weather requirements,” says lead author Hoda Talebian, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of mechanical engineering at UBC. “We believe we have created the most comprehensive model for hydrogen adoption in a region like B.C., where demand is still low for these types of vehicles.”

The researchers, all affiliated with UBC’s Clean Energy Research Centre (CERC), analyzed future demand for light-duty hydrogen vehicles and included the potential effects of policy tools like B.C.’s carbon tax and the low carbon fuel standard.

UBC researchers design roadmap for hydrogen supply network
Hoda Talebian Credit: UBC

“Provided B.C. maintains those policies, and assuming enough hydrogen vehicles are available, our model sees hydrogen demand growing significantly every year,” said co-author and CERC program manager Omar Herrera.

The researchers note that hydrogen cars like the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai’s Nexo are already available in B.C., and a public retail hydrogen station opened in Vancouver last year—Canada’s first. By 2020, Greater Vancouver and Victoria are projected to have a network of six stations.

“The momentum for hydrogen vehicles is growing, and B.C. is leading developments in Canada by providing supports like car sales rebates and incentives for building fuelling stations,” said senior study author Walter Mérida, an engineering professor at UBC who studies clean energy technologies and leads the transportation futures research group in the faculty of applied science.

“However, we need a solid refuelling network to truly promote mass adoption. We hope that our framework contributes to its development and to the CleanBC plan, which includes a zero-emission vehicle mandate by 2040.”

“We do see a future where hydrogen can be economically competitive with gasoline, while significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” added Mérida. “This study is part of a broad, multidisciplinary effort on the future of transportation. As the energy system becomes smart and decarbonized, hydrogen will become a critical bridge between renewable energy and transportation.”


Will hydrogen-powered cars gradually become mainstream in Europe?

More information:
Hoda Talebian et al, Spatial and temporal optimization of hydrogen fuel supply chain for light duty passenger vehicles in British Columbia, International Journal of Hydrogen Energy (2019). DOI: 10.1016/j.ijhydene.2019.07.218
Provided by
University of British Columbia

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Scientists are teaching computers to diagnose soybean stress

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Machine learning in agriculture: scientists are teaching computers to diagnose soybean stress
Unmanned aerial vehicles could be equipped with hyperspectral technology capable of detecting wavelength ranges beyond those detectable by the human eye. Such technology could combine with machine learning techniques under development at Iowa State to help farmers anticipate stress among their crops before symptoms appear. Credit: Arti Singh

Iowa State University scientists are working toward a future in which farmers can use unmanned aircraft to spot, and even predict, disease and stress in their crops. Their vision relies on machine learning, an automated process in which technology can help farmers respond to plant stress more efficiently.

Arti Singh, an adjunct assistant professor of agronomy, is leading a multi-disciplinary research team that recently received a three-year, $499,845 grant from the U.S Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to develop machine learning technology that could automate the ability of farmers to diagnose a range of major stresses in soybeans. The technology under development would make use of cameras attached to unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to gather birds-eye images of soybean fields. A computer application would automatically analyze the images and alert the farmer of trouble spots.

“At its most basic, machine learning is simply training a machine to do something we do,” Singh said. “When you want to teach a child what a car is, you show them cars. This is what we’re doing to train computer algorithms, showing a large number of images of various soybean stresses to identify, classify, quantify and predict stresses in the field.”

The research team has assembled an enormous dataset of soybean images, some healthy and some undergoing stress and disease, which they then labeled. A computer program goes through the labeled images and assembles algorithms that can recognize stress in new images. Singh said the machine learning program could be capable of spotting a wide range of common soybean stresses, including fungal, bacterial and viral diseases, as well as nutrient deficiency and herbicide injury.

The use of hyperspectral imaging, or cameras that capture wavelength ranges beyond those seen by the human eye, could allow the technology to predict the presence of stresses before symptoms even appear, giving farmers additional time to manage the problem, she said.

Singh’s fascination with machine learning began in 2014 when she attended a seminar on the topic hosted by the ISU Plant Sciences Institute. She immediately thought the technology held promise for plant breeding and plant pathology, but a survey of the academic literature showed the bulk of work in the field came from engineering disciplines, not plant sciences. She realized more collaboration would be necessary to advance this field in agriculture.

“We need to include plant scientists as well,” she said. “Otherwise, we’ll have engineers working on plant science problems. The collaboration among disciplines is what makes it possible.”

She helped to assemble an interdisciplinary team that created an app that allows smartphone users to take pictures of soybean plants to determine if the plants suffer from iron deficiency. Now, the research team aims to scale up their work from the original app, which requires manually shot photos to diagnose a single stress, to algorithms capable of taking images from UAVs and identifying a range of stresses.

The future of the technology rests on the ability of scientists and engineers to gather the right kind of dataset and then develop the ability to analyze that data. By the end of the grant, Singh said the team intends to have completed a framework of best practices for data collection using UAVs. That includes figuring out optimal image resolutions, as well as optimal heights and speeds for the UAVs. The researchers hope to seamlessly integrate data collection, curation and analysis leading to its application in farm fields to detect and mitigate plant stresses in a timely manner. Singh said the team will make all their findings publicly available at the conclusion of the project.

The approach has the potential for application in many other crops as well, Singh said.


Aerial imaging of plant heights could help farmers manage field crops more effectively

Provided by
Iowa State University

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A robot with a firm yet gentle grasp

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A robot with a firm yet gentle grasp
A robotic gripper developed in the lab of University at Buffalo engineer Ehsan Esfahani uses repulsion between magnets to adjust the stiffness of its grip, improving safety. Credit: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

Human hands are remarkably skilled at manipulating a range of objects. We can pick up an egg or a strawberry without smashing it. We can hammer a nail.

One characteristic that allows us to perform a variety of tasks is the ability to alter the firmness of our grip, and University at Buffalo engineers have developed a two-fingered robotic hand that shares this trait.

The design of the robotic hand enables it to absorb energy from impacts during collisions. This prevents whatever the robot is holding from breaking, and also makes it safer for people to work with and near the machines.

Such grippers would be a valuable asset for human-robot partnership in assembly lines in the automotive, electronic packaging and other industries, says Ehsan Esfahani, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“Our robotic gripper mimics the human hand’s ability to adjust the stiffness of the grip. These grippers are designed for collaborative robots that work together with people,” Esfahani says. “They’re going to be helpers, so they need to be safe, and variable stiffness grippers help to achieve that goal.”

A new study published online on Sept. 10 in IEEE Transactions on Industrial Electronics highlights the device’s safe design, including through experiments showing how the gripper’s shock-absorbing features keep a spaghetti stick from breaking during a collision.

A robot with a firm yet gentle grasp
A robotic gripper developed in the lab of University at Buffalo engineer Ehsan Esfahani. The gripper is attached to a commercially available robot arm. Credit: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

Magnets give this robot a soft touch

Esfahani explains that magnets are the secret behind the robotic gripper’s versatility.

Instead of having two fingers that are fixed in place, each of the gripper’s fingers has a magnetic base that sits between two neodymium magnets that repulse, or push against, the finger.

The air gap between the magnets acts like a spring, creating a little give when the hand picks up an object or collides with an external force. The stiffness of the grip can also be adjusted by increasing or decreasing the space between magnets.

In the new paper, Esfahani and Amirhossein Memar, a former UB Ph.D. candidate in mechanical and aerospace engineering, report on these safety features.

In one set of tests, the engineers placed a short stick of spaghetti lengthwise between the fingers of the robotic hand. When the gripper crashed into a fixed object, the device detected the external force being applied, which caused the magnets to adjust their position, temporarily reducing the stiffness of the grip and allowing the gripper to absorb some of the energy from the collision.

The end result? The spaghetti stick stayed in one piece.

Next steps in development

Esfahani notes that the gripper his team is developing can be attached to commercially available robot arms that are already in use in many facilities. This could lower the cost of adapting the technology for companies interested in improving the safety and capabilities of existing machines.

Esfahani is launching a startup company to commercialize the gripper, licensing technology from UB.

His team has received $55,000 from the Buffalo Fund: Accelerator—funded by the Innovation Hub, which is administered by UB and supported by Empire State Development—to further develop the robotic hand. In addition to refining the current design of the gripper, the team may also explore advances such as adding a third finger.

Researchers who have been involved in designing and testing the gripper include Ph.D. student Sri Sadhan Jujjavarapu and Memar, the co-author on the new spaghetti stick study, who has received his Ph.D. from UB and is now a postdoctoral research scientist at Facebook Reality Labs.


This soft robotic gripper can screw in your light bulbs for you

More information:
Amirhossein H. Memar et al, A Robot Gripper with Variable Stiffness Actuation for Enhancing Collision Safety, IEEE Transactions on Industrial Electronics (2019). DOI: 10.1109/TIE.2019.2938475
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A robot with a firm yet gentle grasp (2019, September 12)
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Tracking coordinated disinformation campaigns online made easier with new BotSlayer tool

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Tracking coordinated disinformation campaigns online made easier with new BotSlayer tool
An infographic about BotSlayer Credit: Indiana University

Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media has launched a new tool in the fight against online disinformation: BotSlayer.

The software, which is free and open to the public, scans social media in real time to detect evidence of automated Twitter accounts—or “bots”—pushing messages in a coordinated manner, an increasingly common practice to manipulate public opinion by creating the false impression that many people are talking about a particular subject. The method is also known as “astroturfing” because it mimics the appearance of legitimate grassroots political activity.

By leveraging the observatory’s expertise and technological infrastructure, BotSlayer gives groups and individuals of any political affiliation the power to detect coordinated disinformation campaigns in real time—without any prior knowledge of these campaigns. The software’s development was supported by a gift from Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

“We developed BotSlayer to make it easier for journalists and political campaigns to monitor potential new disinformation campaigns that attempt to manipulate public opinion using bots,” said Filippo Menczer, a professor in the IU School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering and director of the Observatory on Social Media. “If there is a suspicious spike in traffic around some specific topic, BotSlayer allows you to spot it very quickly so you can investigate the content and its promoters and, if there appears to be abuse of the platform, report it or communicate to your followers about it.”

Tracking coordinated disinformation campaigns online made easier with new BotSlayer tool
The upper image from BotSlayer shows a group of bots retweeting two impostor accounts to promote a cryptocurrency, a common “pump-and-dump” scheme used to artificially boost the currency’s value. The lower image shows a visualization of this activity in Hoaxy. Credit: Indiana University Observatory on Social Media

The use of deceptive bots to sway public opinion is a growing issue in politics in the U.S. and internationally, added Menczer, who is also a part of a group of researchers who found prevalent use of bots in the runup to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Other bot campaigns have sought to influence votes related to the U.K. Brexit movement and elections in France, Germany and Italy.

During the runup to the midterm elections in 2018, for example, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee used publicly available tools created by the observatory to report over 10,000 bots spreading voter suppression messages to Twitter, which shut down the accounts. The tools used to inform the report were Botometer, which uses an algorithm to assign a score to Twitter accounts based upon the likelihood they’re automated, and Hoaxy, which lets individuals search and visualize the spread of specific topics on Twitter in real time. Botometer is one of the observatory’s most popular tools, currently receiving over 100,000 queries per day.

BotSlayer, which combines technology from Hoaxy and Botometer, was created in part based on feedback from political and news organizations asking to make the observatory’s tools faster, more powerful and more user-friendly. These organizations include The Associated Press, The New York Times and CNN.

The system uses an “anomaly detection algorithm” to quickly report trending activity whose sudden surge is likely driven by bots, Menczer said.

Tracking coordinated disinformation campaigns online made easier with new BotSlayer tool
Filippo Menczer is the director of the Indiana University Observatory on Social Media. Credit: Indiana University

For example, BotSlayer could be used during a presidential debate to not only instantly detect when a candidate’s username or related hashtags are trending, but also automatically assign a “bot score” to indicate whether the surge appears related to bot activity. In business, BotSlayer could help organizations protect against reputational threats that rely on automated accounts to amplify messages. In journalism, the tool could be used to monitor against manipulation of reporting on trending topics, or warn the public against disinformation attacks.

In addition to detecting trends, BotSlayer can instantly generate a “network map” that illustrates how a particular topic is spreading over time. A bot score is also assigned to each user in the network, providing an easy way to see the most influential accounts—real or fake—in the conversation. Each trending “entity”—a hashtag; a user handle; an image, video, gif or meme; or a keyword or phrase—is also assigned a percentage to indicate how quickly it’s surging. A percentage of 5,000 indicates a 50-fold increase in mentions in the past four hours, for example.

To use BotSlayer, users can download the software through an online form and follow simple instructions to install it in the cloud or on their own server. This process can be performed in a few clicks, and at no cost. It lets users personalize their use of the tool and protects privacy. The system is accessed through a web dashboard integrated with the observatory’s other tools.

What they’re saying

“BotSlayer has the potential to be a very powerful new tool in our global battle against misinformation and disinformation. During the 2018 elections, we used an earlier version of BotSlayer to identify and ultimately take down malicious accounts throughout the general election. It was very effective and easy to use. This cutting-edge work by IU’s Observatory on Social Media is an extraordinary public service and very welcome. My hope is that actors in democracies throughout the world take advantage of it as we did for the last election here in the U.S.”—Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist and senior advisor to the DCCC during the 2017-18 election cycle.


What’s trending in fake news? Tools show which stories go viral, and if ‘bots’ are to blame

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Poland to launch cyberspace defence force

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hacker
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

NATO member Poland will launch a cyberspace defence force by 2024 made up of around 2,000 soldiers qualified in cybersecurity, the defence minister said on Thursday after formally approving it.

“We’re well aware that in today’s world it’s possible to influence the situation in states by using these methods (cyberwar),” Mariusz Blaszczak told local media at a military cyber training centre in Zegrze, near the capital Warsaw.

Blaszczak said that the force’s command unit would begin operation in 2022.

Poland would have enough IT graduates by 2024 to provide the force with 2,000 personnel qualified in cyberdefence, he added.

Poland’s defence ministry is already looking for talent by partnering with the HackYeah hackathon to offer a total of 30,000 zlotys (6,900 euros, $7,650) in cash prizes for top hackers, according to a post the ministry’s website.

The two-day hackathon, billed as the biggest event of its kind in Europe, takes place on Saturday and Sunday weekend near Warsaw.


France’s Macron announces creation of a new space force command

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