Security software for autonomous vehicles

Before autonomous vehicles participate in road traffic, they must demonstrate conclusively that they do not pose a danger to others. New software developed at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) prevents accidents by predicting different variants of a traffic situation every millisecond.

A car approaches an intersection. Another vehicle jets out of the cross street, but it is not yet clear whether it will turn right or left. At the same time, a pedestrian steps into the lane directly in front of the car, and there is a cyclist on the other side of the street. People with road traffic experience will in general assess the movements of other traffic participants correctly.

“These kinds of situations present an enormous challenge for autonomous vehicles controlled by computer programs,” explains Matthias Althoff, Professor of Cyber-Physical Systems at TUM. “But autonomous driving will only gain acceptance of the general public if you can ensure that the vehicles will not endanger other road users — no matter how confusing the traffic situation.”

Algorithms that peer into the future

The ultimate goal when developing software for autonomous vehicles is to ensure that they will not cause accidents. Althoff, who is a member of the Munich School of Robotics and Machine Intelligence at TUM, and his team have now developed a software module that permanently analyzes and predicts events while driving. Vehicle sensor data are recorded and evaluated every millisecond. The software can calculate all possible movements for every traffic participant — provided they adhere to the road traffic regulations — allowing the system to look three to six seconds into the future.

Based on these future scenarios, the system determines a variety of movement options for the vehicle. At the same time, the program calculates potential emergency maneuvers in which the vehicle can be moved out of harm’s way by accelerating or braking without endangering others. The autonomous vehicle may only follow routes that are free of foreseeable collisions and for which an emergency maneuver option has been identified.

Streamlined models for swift calculations

This kind of detailed traffic situation forecasting was previously considered too time-consuming and thus impractical. But now, the Munich research team has shown not only the theoretical viability of real-time data analysis with simultaneous simulation of future traffic events: They have also demonstrated that it delivers reliable results.

The quick calculations are made possible by simplified dynamic models. So-called reachability analysis is used to calculate potential future positions a car or a pedestrian might assume. When all characteristics of the road users are taken into account, the calculations become prohibitively time-consuming. That is why Althoff and his team work with simplified models. These are superior to the real ones in terms of their range of motion — yet, mathematically easier to handle. This enhanced freedom of movement allows the models to depict a larger number of possible positions but includes the subset of positions expected for actual road users.

Real traffic data for a virtual test environment

For their evaluation, the computer scientists created a virtual model based on real data they had collected during test drives with an autonomous vehicle in Munich. This allowed them to craft a test environment that closely reflects everyday traffic scenarios. “Using the simulations, we were able to establish that the safety module does not lead to any loss of performance in terms of driving behavior, the predictive calculations are correct, accidents are prevented, and in emergency situations the vehicle is demonstrably brought to a safe stop,” Althoff sums up.

The computer scientist emphasizes that the new security software could simplify the development of autonomous vehicles because it can be combined with all standard motion control programs.

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Materials provided by Technical University of Munich (TUM). Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Brown Dog Gadgets unboxing!

We’ve played with a few of Brown Dog Gadgets’ LEGO-compatible modules before, as well as their excellent, 3-axis-conductive Maker Tape. But we also have an ancient mystery package that’s been burning a hole in our shelf. Let’s crack it open!

// Robotics kit:
// Deluxe kit:
// Maker Tape:
// Emotive Maker Tape ‘bot:


Small quake clusters can’t hide from AI

Researchers at Rice University’s Brown School of Engineering are using data gathered before a deadly 2017 landslide in Greenland to show how deep learning may someday help predict seismic events like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Seismic data collected before the massive landslide at a Greenland fjord shows the subtle signals of the impending event were there, but no human analyst could possibly have put the clues together in time to make a prediction. The resulting tsunami that devastated the village of Nuugaatsiaq killed four people and injured nine and washed 11 buildings into the sea.

A study lead by former Rice visiting scholar Léonard Seydoux, now an assistant professor at the University of Grenoble-Alpes, employs techniques developed by Rice engineers and co-authors Maarten de Hoop and Richard Baraniuk. Their open-access report in Nature Communications shows how deep learning methods can process the overwhelming amount of data provided by seismic tools fast enough to predict events.

De Hoop, who specializes in mathematical analysis of inverse problems and deep learning in connection with Rice’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, said advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are well-suited to independently monitor large and growing amounts of seismic data. AI has the ability to identify clusters of events and detect background noise to make connections that human experts might not recognize due to biases in their models, not to mention sheer volume, he said.

Hours before the Nuugaatsiaq event, those small signals began to appear in data collected by a nearby seismic station. The researchers analyzed data from midnight on June 17, 2017, until one minute before the slide at 11:39 p.m. that released up to 51 million cubic meters of material.

The Rice algorithm revealed weak but repetitive rumblings — undetectable in raw seismic records — that began about nine hours before the event and accelerated over time, leading to the landslide.

“There was a precursor paper to this one by our co-author, Piero Poli at Grenoble, that studied the event without AI,” de Hoop said. “They discovered something in the data they thought we should look at, and because the area is isolated from a lot of other noise and tectonic activity, it was the purest data we could work with to try our ideas.”

De Hoop is continuing to test the algorithm to analyze volcanic activity in Costa Rica and is also involved with NASA’s InSight lander, which delivered a seismic detector to the surface of Mars nearly two years ago.

Constant monitoring that delivers such warnings in real time will save lives, de Hoop said.

“People ask me if this study is significant — and yes, it is a major step forward — and then if we can predict earthquakes. We’re not quite ready to do that, but this direction is, I think, one of the most promising at the moment.”

When de Hoop joined Rice five years ago, he brought expertise in solving inverse problems that involve working backwards from data to find a cause. Baraniuk is a leading expert in machine learning and compressive sensing, which help extract useful data from sparse samples. Together, they’re a formidable team.

“The most exciting thing about this work is not the current result, but the fact that the approach represents a new research direction for machine learning as applied to geophysics,” Baraniuk said.

“I come from the mathematics of deep learning and Rich comes from signal processing, which are at opposite ends of the discipline,” de Hoop said. “But here we meet in the middle. And now we have a tremendous opportunity for Rice to build upon its expertise as a hub for seismologists to gather and put these pieces together. There’s just so much data now that it’s becoming impossible to handle any other way.”

De Hoop is helping to grow Rice’s reputation for seismic expertise with the Simons Foundation Math+X Symposia, which have already featured events on space exploration and mitigating natural hazards like volcanoes and earthquakes. A third event, dates to be announced, will study deep learning applications for solar giants and exoplanets.

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Materials provided by Rice University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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COVID-19 Trackers Launch in Virginia and Alabama

Before jumping into the US news regarding COVID-19 tracker apps, I’ll reiterate a universal grain of salt to take whenever reading about tracker apps: the success of these apps hinges entirely on users self-reporting a positive test result. ProgrammableWeb has a working list of APIs launched with the aim of assisting the effort to battle COVID-19. This article covers the first active efforts in the sphere of tracker-apps launched by states in the US.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has made the first fully active leap into a contact-tracing app using the Apple-Google APITrack this API. The app, called COVIDWISE, runs in the background of a smartphone after being enabled by the user, relying on Bluetooth to exchange anonymous user tokens in lieu of using GPS to track physical locations. Instead, the anonymous Bluetooth Low Energy collects and stores signals from nearby phones. Phones trade anonymous keys, which change every 15 minutes. So long as Bluetooth is turned on, the app downloads a daily list of anonymous tokens associated with positive COVID-19 cases. The app then checks them against a list of anonymous tokens from the phones which have been within 6 feet of the user’s phone for at least 15 minutes, over the past two weeks (14 days). When sets of tokens match for the anonymous reports, users receive a notification of possible exposure.

This anonymity is central to the point of the app: the goal is to catch new cases earlier on and help patients isolate. Per Virginia Governor Grant Northam, “No one is tracking you, none of your personal information is going to be saved.” This guarantee of anonymity means that the app isn’t tracking user movements, and users will receive general exposure notifications without identifying a where, or when (beyond a window of the prior 14 days).

The COVIDWISE was developed by SpringML, a data analytics company headquartered in Pleasanton, CA. When reporting a positive test result for the coronavirus, the report is first verified with the department through the issuance of a pin number. iPhone software must be current to at least iOS 13.6 for the app to work properly. 

Seven hundred miles south of Virginia, the first American pilot-test of an app built with the Apple-Google API is live in the state of Alabama. GuideSafe was developed by the Alabama Department of Public Health, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Birmingham-based tech company MotionMobs. After beta-testing in April of this year, the closed pilot test has launched, focused on tracking the virus on higher education campuses. The pilot began in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, and opened to eleven other locations on August 4, 2020. The development process was boosted by a thirty million dollar grant from the federal CARES act, passed March 2020. 

Tracking apps are a moving target, we invite you to look at our coverage of tracking apps across the United States. 

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Author: <a href="">Katherine-Harrison-Adcock</a>


Representation Matters

Representation matters! But if you haven’t thought about it before, it can be hard to know how to help. If you live every day as a marginalized person, it can be hard to find resources to support you. So, here are a few places to start.

Whether you’re looking for speakers for your conference, a cofounder for your next robotics startup, or just cool and inspiring people to follow – check out these resources supporting Black scientists, engineers, and other STEM specialists.




How cosmic rays may have shaped life

Before there were animals, bacteria or even DNA on Earth, self-replicating molecules were slowly evolving their way from simple matter to life beneath a constant shower of energetic particles from space.

In a new paper, a Stanford professor and a former post-doctoral scholar speculate that this interaction between ancient proto-organisms and cosmic rays may be responsible for a crucial structural preference, called chirality, in biological molecules. If their idea is correct, it suggests that all life throughout the universe could share the same chiral preference.

Chirality, also known as handedness, is the existence of mirror-image versions of molecules. Like the left and right hand, two chiral forms of a single molecule reflect each other in shape but don’t line up if stacked. In every major biomolecule — amino acids, DNA, RNA — life only uses one form of molecular handedness. If the mirror version of a molecule is substituted for the regular version within a biological system, the system will often malfunction or stop functioning entirely. In the case of DNA, a single wrong handed sugar would disrupt the stable helical structure of the molecule.

Louis Pasteur first discovered this biological homochirality in 1848. Since then, scientists have debated whether the handedness of life was driven by random chance or some unknown deterministic influence. Pasteur hypothesized that, if life is asymmetric, then it may be due to an asymmetry in the fundamental interactions of physics that exist throughout the cosmos.

“We propose that the biological handedness we witness now on Earth is due to evolution amidst magnetically polarized radiation, where a tiny difference in the mutation rate may have promoted the evolution of DNA-based life, rather than its mirror image,” said Noémie Globus lead author of the paper and a former Koret Fellow at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC).

In their paper, published on May 20 in Astrophysical Journal Letters, the researchers detail their argument in favor of cosmic rays as the origin of homochirality. They also discuss potential experiments to test their hypothesis.

Magnetic polarization from space

Cosmic rays are an abundant form of high-energy radiation that originate from various sources throughout the universe, including stars and distant galaxies. After hitting the Earth’s atmosphere, cosmic rays eventually degrade into fundamental particles. At ground level, most of the cosmic rays exist only as particles known as muons.

Muons are unstable particles, existing for a mere 2 millionths of a second, but because they travel near the speed of light, they have been detected more than 700 meters below Earth’s surface. They are also magnetically polarized, meaning, on average, muons all share the same magnetic orientation. When muons finally decay, they produce electrons with the same magnetic polarization. The researchers believe that the muon’s penetrative ability allows it and its daughter electrons to potentially affect chiral molecules on Earth and everywhere else in the universe.

“We are irradiated all the time by cosmic rays,” explained Globus, who is currently a post-doctoral researcher at New York University and the Simons Foundation’s Flatiron Institute. “Their effects are small but constant in every place on the planet where life could evolve, and the magnetic polarization of the muons and electrons is always the same. And even on other planets, cosmic rays would have the same effects.”

The researchers’ hypothesis is that, at the beginning of life of on Earth, this constant and consistent radiation affected the evolution of the two mirror life-forms in different ways, helping one ultimately prevail over the other. These tiny differences in mutation rate would have been most significant when life was beginning and the molecules involved were very simple and more fragile. Under these circumstances, the small but persistent chiral influence from cosmic rays could have, over billions of generations of evolution, produced the single biological handedness we see today.

“This is a little bit like a roulette wheel in Vegas, where you might engineer a slight preference for the red pockets, rather than the black pockets,” said Roger Blandford, the Luke Blossom Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford and an author on the paper. “Play a few games, you would never notice. But if you play with this roulette wheel for many years, those who bet habitually on red will make money and those who bet on black will lose and go away.”

Ready to be surprised

Globus and Blandford suggest experiments that could help prove or disprove their cosmic ray hypothesis. For example, they would like to test how bacteria respond to radiation with different magnetic polarization.

“Experiments like this have never been performed and I am excited to see what they teach us. Surprises inevitably come from further work on interdisciplinary topics,” said Globus.

The researchers also look forward to organic samples from comets, asteroids or Mars to see if they too exhibit a chiral bias.

“This idea connects fundamental physics and the origin of life,” said Blandford, who is also Stanford and SLAC professor of physics and particle physics and former director of KIPAC. “Regardless of whether or not it’s correct, bridging these very different fields is exciting and a successful experiment should be interesting.”

This research was funded by the Koret Foundation, New York University and the Simons Foundation.

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Quantum effect triggers unusual material expansion

You know how you leave space in a water bottle before you pop it in the freezer — to accommodate the fact that water expands as it freezes? Most metal parts in airplanes face the more common opposite problem. At high altitudes (low temperatures) they shrink. To keep such shrinkage from causing major disasters, engineers make airplanes out of composites or alloys, mixing materials that have opposite expansion properties to balance one another out.

New research conducted in part at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory may bring a whole new class of chemical elements into this materials science balancing act.

As described in a paper just published in the journal Physical Review Letters, scientists used x-rays at Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II) — a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science user facility — and two other synchrotron light sources to explore an unusual metal that expands dramatically at low temperature. The experiments on samarium sulfide doped with some impurities revealed details about the material’s atomic-level structure and the electron-based origins of its “negative thermal expansion.”

This work opens avenues for designing new materials where the degree of expansion can be precisely tuned by tweaking the chemical recipe. It also suggests a few related materials that could be explored for metal-mixing applications.

“In practical applications, whether an airplane or an electronic device, you want to make alloys of materials with these opposite properties — things that expand on one side and shrink on the other when they cool down, so in total it stays the same,” explained Daniel Mazzone, the paper’s lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at NSLS-II and Brookhaven Lab’s Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science Department.

But materials that mimic water’s expansion when chilled are few and far between. And while the expansion of freezing water is well understood, the dramatic expansion of samarium sulfide had never been explained.

Like other materials Mazzone has studied, this samarium-based compound (specifically samarium sulfide with some yttrium atoms taking the place of a few samarium atoms) is characterized by competing electronic phases (somewhat analogous to the solid, liquid, and gaseous phases of water). Depending on external conditions such as temperature and pressure, electrons in the material can do different things. In some cases, the material is a gold-colored metal through which electrons can move freely — a conductor. In other conditions, it’s a black-colored semiconductor, allowing only some electrons to flow.

The golden metallic state is the one that expands dramatically when chilled, making it an extremely unusual metal. Mazzone and his colleagues turned to x-rays and theoretical descriptions of the electrons’ behavior to figure out why.

At NSLS-II’s Pair Distribution Function (PDF) beamline, the scientists conducted diffraction experiments. The PDF beamline is optimized for studies of strongly correlated materials under a variety of external conditions such as low temperatures and magnetic fields. For this experiment, the team placed samples of their samarium metal inside a liquid-helium-cooled cryostat in the beam of NSLS-II’s x-rays and measured how the x-rays bounced off atoms making up the material’s crystal structure at different temperatures.

“We track how the x-rays bounce off the sample to identify the locations of atoms and the distances between them,” said Milinda Abeykoon, the lead scientist of the PDF beamline. “Our results show that, as the temperature drops, the atoms of this material move farther apart, causing the entire material to expand up to three percent in volume.”

The team also used x-rays at the SOLEIL synchrotron in France and SPring-8 synchrotron in Japan to take a detailed look at what electrons were doing in the material at different stages of the temperature-induced transition.

“These ‘x-ray absorption spectroscopy’ experiments can track whether electrons are moving into or out of the outermost ‘shell’ of electrons around the samarium atoms,” explained co-corresponding author Ignace Jarrige, a physicist at NSLS-II.

If you think back to one of the basics of chemistry, you might remember that atoms with unfilled outer shells tend to be the most reactive. Samarium’s outer shell is just under half full.

“All the physics is essentially contained in this last shell, which is not full or not empty,” Mazzone said.

The electron-tracking x-ray experiments revealed that electrons flowing through the samarium-sulfide metal were moving into that outer shell around each samarium atom. As each atom’s electron cloud grew to accommodate the extra electrons, the entire material expanded.

But the scientists still had to explain the behavior based on physics theories. With the help of calculations performed by Maxim Dzero, a theoretical physicist from Kent State University, they were able to explain this phenomenon with the so-called Kondo effect, named after physicist Jun Kondo.

The basic idea behind the Kondo effect is that electrons will interact with magnetic impurities in a material, aligning their own spins in the opposite direction of the larger magnetic particle to “screen out,” or cancel, its magnetism.

In the samarium-sulfide material, Dzero explained, the almost-half-full outer shell of each samarium atom acts as a tiny magnetic impurity pointing in a certain direction. “And because you have a metal, you also find free electrons that can approach and cancel out these little magnetic moments,” Dzero said.

Not all elements subject to the Kondo effect have electrons fill the outermost shell, as it can also go the other way — causing electrons to leave the shell. The direction is determined by a delicate energy balance dictated by the rules of quantum mechanics.

“For some elements, because of the way the outer shell fills up, it is more energetically favorable for electrons to move out of the shell. But for a couple of these materials, the electrons can move in, which leads to expansion,” Jarrige said. In addition to samarium, the other two elements are thulium and ytterbium.

It would be worth exploring compounds containing these other elements as additional possible ingredients for creating materials that expand upon cooling, Jarrige said.

Finally, the scientists noted that the extent of the negative thermal expansion in samarium sulfide can be tuned by varying the concentration of impurities.

“This tunability makes this material very valuable for engineering expansion-balanced alloys,” Mazzone said.

“The application of highly developed many-body theory modeling was an important part of the work to identify the connection between the magnetic state of this material and its volume expansion,” said Jason Hancock, a collaborator at the University of Connecticut (UConn). “This collaboration between Kent State, UConn, Brookhaven Lab, partner synchrotrons, and synthesis groups in Japan could potentially guide new materials discovery efforts that make use of the unusual properties of these rare-earth materials.”

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For ‘blade runners’ taller doesn’t necessarily mean faster

Before hitting the track to compete in an officially sanctioned race, some elite Paralympic sprinters must do something most runners would find incredibly unsettling: remove their legs and swap them out with ones that make them shorter.

The unusual mandate results from a recent International Paralympic Committee rule change that lowered the Maximum Allowable Standing Height (MASH) for double, below-the-knee amputees racing in prosthetic legs. The rule, intended to prevent unfair advantages, stems from the long-held assumption that greater height equals greater speed.

But a small, first-of-its kind University of Colorado Boulder study published today in the journal PLOS ONE concludes that isn’t the case.

“We found that height makes no difference when it comes to maximum speed,” said senior author Alena Grabowski, an assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Physiology an Director of the Applied Biomechanics Lab. “These athletes are having to buy new configurations and go through a lot of hardship and expense for a rule that is not based in science.”

For the study, Grabowski and her co-authors recruited five elite sprinters with double below-the-knee amputations for a series of running trials on a treadmill. The runners sampled three different brands of blades, and five different combinations of stiffness and height within each brand for a total of 15 different tests. In each test, they were asked to start at a jog and push themselves to the maximum speed possible. Some achievied speeds as fast as 10.8 meters per second — about a two minute, 30-second per mile pace.

Meanwhile, the researchers measured how the runners’ biomechanics and pace changed with each blade configuration.

They found the shape of the prostheses undoubtedly made a difference in speed, with runners achieving maximum speeds about 8% faster in “J-shaped” prostheses — think the sleek carbon-fiber blades Oscar Pistorius used in his famous 2012 Olympic sprint — than in “C-shaped” prostheses. But stiffness and height made no difference in runner speed.

“Biomechanically, the idea makes sense: Longer legs equal longer steps, so you would think you should be able to run faster,” said first author Paolo Taboga, an assistant professor of biomechanics at Sacramento State University who worked on the study while a postdoctoral researcher in Grabowski’s Applied Biomechanics Lab. “But we found that while you do take longer steps, you cycle your legs slower so in the end the two even out.”

That reality probably holds true for runners with biological legs, too. “Being taller does not make you faster,” said Grabowski.

The assumption that it does is taking a heavy toll on Paralympic hopefuls.

Since the rule change took effect in January 2018, some athletes have had to spend thousands of dollars on new prostheses and months retraining themselves to run at a shorter height.

Team USA Paralympic sprinter Regas Woods, whose profile states his height as 5’10,” had to lower his standing height inches after the change and expressed his discontent on Twitter: “I’m not 5 foot 4. Thanks for making me more disabled.”

Olympic hopeful Blake Leeper, a double-below-the-knee amputee vying to compete against runners with biological legs at the 2020 Games, has also been affected, with the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) prohibiting him from racing in the IAAF World Championships in Qatar last fall due, in part, to the fact that his blades hadn’t been classified under the new standing-height formula.

Some athletes have suffered injuries while trying to adjust to their shorter blades.

The rule could also effectively exclude amputees whose residual limbs are already long from competing at the Paralympic level, noted co-author Owen Beck, now a postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology.

“We would like to see fair and inclusive rules and regulations, which is the beauty of the Paralympic Games,” Beck said.

The authors acknowledge that their sample size of five is small. But so is the pool of double, below-the-knee amputees sprinting at the elite level.

They see the need to do a larger study.

For now, they hope the International Paralympic Committee will take a look at their research and reconsider the height restriction.

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IEEE Spectrum

Sea Jellies Triple Swimming Speed Through Cybernetic Implants

It’s going to be a very, very long time before robots come anywhere close to matching the power-efficient mobility of animals, especially at small scales. Lots of folks are working on making tiny robots, but another option is to just hijack animals directly, by turning them into cyborgs. We’ve seen this sort of thing before with beetles, but there are many other animals out there that can be cyborgized. Researchers at Stanford and Caltech are giving sea jellies a try, and remarkably, it seems as though cyborg enhancements actually make the jellies more capable than they were before.

IEEE Spectrum

Researchers Exploit Low Entropy of IoT Devices to Break RSA Certificates

Many Internet of Things (IoT) devices rely on RSA keys and certificates to encrypt data before sending it to other devices, but these security tools can be easily compromised, new research shows.

Researchers from digital identity management company Keyfactor were able to compromise 249,553 distinct keys corresponding to 435,694 RSA certificates using a single virtual machine from Microsoft Azure. They described their work in a paper presented at the IEEE Conference on Trust, Privacy, and Security in Intelligent Systems and Applications in December.

“With under $3,000 of compute time in Azure, we were able to break 435,000 certificates,” says JD Kilgallin, Keyfactor’s senior integration engineer and researcher. “We showed that this attack is very easy to execute now.”