By: William Messner, Tufts University

Driverless carWhen a May 2016 crash killed the person operating a Tesla Model S driving in Autopilot mode, advocates of autonomous vehicles feared a slowdown in development of self-driving cars.

Instead the opposite has occurred. In August, Ford publicly committed to field self-driving cars by 2021. In September, Uber began picking up passengers with self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, albeit with safety drivers ready to take over.

October saw Tesla itself undeterred by the fatality. The company began producing cars it said had all the hardware needed for autonomous operation; the software will be written and added later. In December, days after Michigan established regulations for testing autonomous vehicles in December, General Motors started doing just that with self-driving Chevy Bolts. And just one day before the end of his term, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx designated 10 research centers as official test sites for automated vehicle systems.

Three of the most significant developments in the industry happened earlier this month. The 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and the North American International Auto Show in Detroit saw automakers new and old (and their suppliers) show off their plans and innovations in this arena. And the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued its report on the Tesla fatality. Together, they suggest a future filled with driverless cars that are both safer than today’s vehicles and radically different in appearance and comfort.

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By using one of the world’s most powerful electron microscopes, a team of researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has successfully mapped the exact location and chemical type of 23,000 atoms in a nanoparticle made of iron and platinum. The team believes this work could reveal more information about material properties at the single-atom level, opening the doors to improving magnetic performance for next-generation hard drives.

“Our research is a big step in this direction. We can now take a snapshot that shows the positions of all the atoms in a nanoparticle at a specific point in its growth,” says Mary Scott, who conducted the research. “This will help us learn how nanoparticles grow atom by atom, and it sets the stage for a materials-design approach starting from the smallest building blocks.”

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E-Waste Volume Hits New Peak

E-wasteAs the demand for newer, faster electronics rises, so does the amount of e-waste across the globe.

E-waste refers to discarded electrical and electronic equipment, the amount of which has risen by 63 percent in just the past five years. Globally, it’s observed that the volume of e-waste has hit an astonishing new peak, totaling in at over 40 tons – seven percent of which includes communication devices such as smartphones and computers.

The challenge of rising levels of e-waste is a global issue. A report from U.N. think tank, United Nations University, shows that in 12 Asian countries, the volume of e-waste increased by nearly two-thirds between 2010 and 2015. Hong Kong, for example, produced nearly 48 pounds per person in digital trash. To compare, the average waste from Europe and the Americas is approximately 34 pounds per person.

Because Asia buys about half of all electronics on the market, the uptick in e-waste is expected. However, the infrastructure to recycle and the laws that mandate such actions do not exist in these countries. In the United States, however, states such as New York have implemented bans on disposing of unwanted electronics, posing fines to those who do not properly recycle their devices.

E-waste shows both great potential and hazards for the world. On one hand, it’s estimated that in the United States alone, the over $50 billion is wasted in the form of digital trash that can be recycled for alternative uses.

Additionally, e-waste – which includes components such as lithium-ion batteries – if not properly disposed of, could lead to substantial amounts of health-threatening toxins such as mercury, cadmium, chromium, and ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons.

By: Jeff Inglis, The Conversation

Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of archival stories.

Net neutralityWith the selection of Ajit Pai to chair the Federal Communications Commission, President Trump has elevated a major foe of net neutrality from the minority on the commission to its head. Pai, already a commissioner and therefore needing no Senate approval to become its chair, would need to be reconfirmed by the end of 2017 to continue to serve.

But what is net neutrality, this policy Pai has spent years criticizing? Here are some highlights of The Conversation’s coverage of the controversy around the concept of keeping the internet open:

Public interest versus private profit

The basic conflict is a result of the history of the internet, and the telecommunications industry more generally, writes internet law scholar Allen Hammond at Santa Clara University:

Like the telephone, broadcast and cable predecessors from which they evolved, the wire and mobile broadband networks that carry internet traffic travel over public property. The spectrum and land over which these broadband networks travel are known as rights of way. Congress allowed each network technology to be privately owned. However, the explicit arrangement has been that private owner access to the publicly owned spectrum and rights of way necessary to exploit the technology is exchanged for public access and speech rights.

The government is trying to balance competing interests in how the benefits of those network services. Should people have unfiltered access to any and all data services, or should some internet providers be allowed to charge a premium to let companies reach audiences more widely and more quickly?

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By: William Bentley, University of Maryland and Gregory Payne, University of Maryland

CellsMicroelectronics has transformed our lives. Cellphones, earbuds, pacemakers, defibrillators – all these and more rely on microelectronics’ very small electronic designs and components. Microelectronics has changed the way we collect, process and transmit information.

Such devices, however, rarely provide access to our biological world; there are technical gaps. We can’t simply connect our cellphones to our skin and expect to gain health information. For instance, is there an infection? What type of bacteria or virus is involved? We also can’t program the cellphone to make and deliver an antibiotic, even if we knew whether the pathogen was Staph or Strep. There’s a translation problem when you want the world of biology to communicate with the world of electronics.

The research we’ve just published with colleagues in Nature Communications brings us one step closer to closing that communication gap. Rather than relying on the usual molecular signals, like hormones or nutrients, that control a cell’s gene expression, we created a synthetic “switching” system in bacterial cells that recognizes electrons instead. This new technology – a link between electrons and biology – may ultimately allow us to program our phones or other microelectronic devices to autonomously detect and treat disease.

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Just one day after Volkswagen agreed to pay $4.3 billion to settle allegations over its diesel emissions cheating scheme, another major auto company is being accused by the Environmental Protection Agency for violating the Clean Air Act.

The EPA claims that Fiat Chrysler installed software that alters emission readings in over 100,000 cars and trucks. According to reports, the car company’s software resulted in increased emissions of nitrogen oxides beyond the allowances detailed in the Clean Air Act.

“The software is designed such that during the emissions tests, Fiat Chrysler’s diesel cars meet the standards that protect clean air,” EPA Assistant Administrator Cynthia Giles told NPR. “However, under some other kinds of operating conditions, including many that occur frequently during normal driving, the software directs the emissions control system to operate differently, resulting in emissions that can be much higher.”

Fiat Chrysler responded to the claims in a statement, saying “FCA US looks forward to the opportunity to meet with the EPA’s enforcement division and representatives of the new administration to demonstrate that FCA US’s emissions control strategies are properly justified and thus are not ‘defeat devices’ under applicable regulations and to resolve this matter expeditiously.”

Nano-chimney to Cool Circuits

Overheating has emerged as a primary concern in the development of new electronic devices. A new study from Rice University looks to provide a solution to that, offering a strategy to vent heat away from nano-electronics through cone-like chimneys.

By putting these “chimneys” between the graphene and nanotube, the researchers effectively eliminate a barrier that typically blocks heat from escaping.

This from Rice University:

Researchers at Rice University discovered through computer simulations that removing atoms here and there from the two-dimensional graphene base would force a cone to form between the graphene and the nanotube. The geometric properties of the graphene-to-cone and cone-to-nanotube transitions require the same total number of heptagons, but they are more sparsely spaced and leave a clear path of hexagons available for heat to race up the chimney.

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There’s a major player in the autonomous, electric car industry that may just outpace transportation mogul Tesla. Faraday Future, an American start-up focused on developing intelligent electric vehicles, just unveiled its first self-driving supercar called the FF91.

Faraday Future states that the vehicle’s 130 kWh battery delivers a range of 378 miles on a single charge. Additionally, 10 cameras, 13 radar sensors, and 12 ultrasonic sensors help power the vehicle’s autonomous abilities.

But Nick Samson, Faraday Future’s senior vice president of engineering, says that the FF91 is “more than just a car,” rather an “intelligent entity.”

In addition to the batter and self-driving tech, the FF91 boasts an infotainment system that allows passengers to watch TV based on your preferences, which are known by the car due to an online profile.

By: David Danks, Carnegie Mellon University

Autonomous driverless carIn 2016, self-driving cars went mainstream. Uber’s autonomous vehicles became ubiquitous in neighborhoods where I live in Pittsburgh, and briefly in San Francisco. The U.S. Department of Transportation issued new regulatory guidance for them. Countless papers and columns discussed how self-driving cars should solve ethical quandaries when things go wrong. And, unfortunately, 2016 also saw the first fatality involving an autonomous vehicle.

Autonomous technologies are rapidly spreading beyond the transportation sector, into health care, advanced cyberdefense and even autonomous weapons. In 2017, we’ll have to decide whether we can trust these technologies. That’s going to be much harder than we might expect.

Trust is complex and varied, but also a key part of our lives. We often trust technology based on predictability: I trust something if I know what it will do in a particular situation, even if I don’t know why. For example, I trust my computer because I know how it will function, including when it will break down. I stop trusting if it starts to behave differently or surprisingly.

In contrast, my trust in my wife is based on understanding her beliefs, values and personality. More generally, interpersonal trust does not involve knowing exactly what the other person will do – my wife certainly surprises me sometimes! – but rather why they act as they do. And of course, we can trust someone (or something) in both ways, if we know both what they will do and why.

I have been exploring possible bases for our trust in self-driving cars and other autonomous technology from both ethical and psychological perspectives. These are devices, so predictability might seem like the key. Because of their autonomy, however, we need to consider the importance and value – and the challenge – of learning to trust them in the way we trust other human beings.

Autonomy and predictability

We want our technologies, including self-driving cars, to behave in ways we can predict and expect. Of course, these systems can be quite sensitive to the context, including other vehicles, pedestrians, weather conditions and so forth. In general, though, we might expect that a self-driving car that is repeatedly placed in the same environment should presumably behave similarly each time. But in what sense would these highly predictable cars be autonomous, rather than merely automatic?

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Detecting Disease Through Your Breath

One of the major challenges in modern medicine is how to accurately detect disease when people are still feeling healthy. Researchers and doctors alike have long since wondered how to diagnose diseases such as cancer before it progresses too far.

Now, the medical community may find that answer in a new development out of Technion – Israel Institute of Technology called the Na-Nose.

The Na-Nose is a newly developed device that can analyze the chemical signature of exhaled gases to diagnose diseases with 86 percent accuracy. The science behind the device uses carbon nanotubes and gold particles to isolate volatile biomarkers in a patient’s breath.

Researchers then used a computer algorithm to recognize the biomarkers, creating a tool that can quickly and accurately detect diseases such as ovarian cancer or multiple sclerosis in early stages without any invasive procedures.

“It works in the same way we’d use dogs in order to detect specific compounds,” Hossam Haick, co-author of the study, told Smithsonian. “We bring something to the nose of a dog, and the dog will transfer that chemical mixture to an electrical signature and provide it to the brain, and then memorize it in specific regions of the brain … This is exactly what we do. We let it smell a given disease but instead of a nose we use chemical sensors, and instead of the brain we use the algorithms. Then in the future, it can recognize the disease as a dog might recognize a scent.”

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