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November 12 2013

Four short links: 13 November 2013

  1. ISS Enjoys Malware — Kaspersky reveals ISS had XP malware infestation before they shifted to Linux. The Gravity movie would have had more registry editing sessions if the producers had cared about FACTUAL ACCURACY.
  2. Big Data Approach to Computational Creativity (Arxiv) — although the “results” are a little weak (methodology for assessing creativity not described, and this sadly subjective line “professional chefs at various hotels, restaurants, and culinary schools have indicated that the system helps them explore new vistas in food”), the process and mechanism are fantastic. Bayesian surprise, crowdsourced tagged recipes, dictionaries of volatile compounds, and more. (via MIT Technology Review)
  3. Go at 4 — recapping four years of Go language growth.
  4. Las Vegas Street Lights to Record Conversations (Daily Mail) — The wireless, LED lighting, computer-operated lights are not only capable of illuminating streets, they can also play music, interact with pedestrians and are equipped with video screens, which can display police alerts, weather alerts and traffic information. The high tech lights can also stream live video of activity in the surrounding area. Technology vendor is Intellistreets. LV says, Right now our intention is not to have any cameras or recording devices. Love that “right now”. Can’t wait for malware to infest it.

September 12 2013

Science Podcast - DNA identification and disaster, antibodies in HIV vaccines, Voyager's exit, and more (13 Sep 2013)

Alex John London breaks down the role of DNA identification in disaster zones; Michel Nussenzweig discusses a new tactic using antibodies to battle HIV; Richard Kerr reports on new data that may finally settle the debate surrounding Voyager.
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September 01 2013

May 30 2013

Science Podcast - Super-strong graphene, Mars and radiation, science in India, and more (31 May 2013)

Jeffrey Kysar tests graphene's super strength as manufacturing processes scale up; Cary Zeitlin estimates the radiation a crew might encounter on a voyage to Mars; Pallava Bagla talks about using science to alleviate India's poverty; and more.

May 24 2013

April 08 2013

Four short links: 8 April 2013

  1. mozpaya JavaScript API inspired by but modified for things like multiple payment providers and carrier billing. When a web app invokes navigator.mozPay() in Firefox OS, the device shows a secure window with a concise UI. After authenticating, the user can easily charge the payment to her mobile carrier bill or credit card. When completed, the app delivers the product. Repeat purchases are quick and easy.
  2. Firefox Looks Like it Will Reject Third-Party Cookies (ComputerWorld) — kudos Mozilla! Now we’ll see whether such a cookie policy does deliver a better user experience. Can privacy coexist with a good user experience? Answers on a tweet, please, to @radar.
  3. How We Lost the Web (Anil Dash) — excellent talk about the decreasing openness and vanishing shared culture of the web. See also David Weinberger’s transcription.
  4. 3D From Space Shuttle Footage? — neat idea! Filming in 3D generally requires two cameras that are separated laterally, to create the parallax effected needed for stereoscopic vision. Fortunately, videos shot from Earth orbit can be converted to 3D without a second camera, because the camera is constantly in motion.

February 18 2013

Science Podcast - Science From the International Space Station - AAAS Meeting [Feb 18, 2013]

Cheryl Nickerson explains how microgravity can aid in research on pathogens and infectious diseases.

August 08 2012

Curiosity rover: why does sci-fi always look more marvellous than reality? | Jonathan Jones

These ordinary looking views of Mars sent by Nasa's rover are beautiful and moving precisely because they are so ordinary

The landscape of Mars glows in a dust-rich sunset. The sky is yellow. The rocks are red. It is a place of – literally – unearthly beauty. But have we already ruined it? In the week that Nasa landed its latest robot explorer Curiosity on the surface of Mars, this picture reveals the wreckage of earlier landers cluttering up the Martian desert, reducing its pristine strangeness to a dumping ground of human space dreams. How typical of the earthlings to make a wasteland of Mars.

No, wait, I misread the caption. This is not a picture taken by Curiosity in its first week on Mars. It is a digitally created image by artist Kelly Richardson. It imagines what Mars might look like in 200 years if we keep sending probes there. It is, in other words, science fiction.

Why does science fiction always look more marvellous than the real landscapes of alien worlds? The pictures that have so far come from Curiosity are nothing like as grabbing as this fantastic image. The first photograph it sent showed a skewed vista of dust and heat with just the misty outline of a horizon. Nasa had to patch it into previous images of the planet to make sense of it. It's all very well scientists saying these first pictures from Curiosity are the most beautiful things they have ever seen – the red planet is far more spectacular in art and other fantastic images.

Richardson is in a very long line of artists who have pictured Mars. Long, long ago, Mars was a god. Botticelli's painting Venus and Mars depicts the god of war lulled to sleep and invokes the magical influence of his planet.

This might seem like ancient baloney but it is no more far fetched than the Mars of sci-fi. A lurid painting of Martians disporting themselves under the planet's glorious sky in a landscape of pyramids, towers and blue canals epitomises the image of Mars that was dreamed up in 20th science fiction before Viking, the first unmanned Nasa lander, started to reveal Martian realities in 1976. Mars was for a long time the favourite planet for imagined alien life. It seemed utterly alien and the "canals" visible on its surface from Earth were held to be the work of some grand civilisation. Even today, science fiction images of Mars outdo mere reality. A 2008 Doctor Who special pictured Mars as the home of a base where the first human explorers are attacked by watery beings from below. A base – there's always a base. Bases are so much more glamorous than unmanned computerised buggies with cameras on front.

Enough. The scientists are right of course. The comparative dullness of Curiosity's first pictures from Mars is the point (and their vagueness will be forgotten when it starts sending back high-definition images). These ordinary looking views of Mars are beautiful and moving precisely because they are so ordinary.

The ordinariness of Mars is its magic. It looks like a red desert on Earth because it is the mirror of Earth – as are all planets everywhere. Everything in the universe is made of the same elements, according to the same physical laws. The discovery that nothing in space is truly "alien" and every object out there (or rather out here – we're just another thing in space) started when Galileo aimed his telescope at the moon. From one point of view the history of astronomy and space exploration is the story of how the universe became banal. But this banality is more glorious than any imaginary spectacle of an alien world where little green men drive motorboats up and down their glittering canals. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 07 2012

Artist Kelly Richardson brings a taste of Mars to Whitley Bay

Mariner 9, an ambitious video installation imagining the Martian landscape, is being shown at Spanish City in the seaside town

A beautiful but horribly scarred Martian landscape, perhaps 100 or 200 years in the future, dominates the interior of a seaside fun palace whose fun days have long gone.

The unlikely pairing of futuristic art and faded historic grandeur is in Whitley Bay, once the liveliest and most exciting seaside town in north east England.

The Canadian artist Kelly Richardson – who moved to the area about 10 years ago and stayed – has installed a work called Mariner 9 in Spanish City, part of a wider retrospective being given to an artist making a name for herself internationally, but perhaps less so in the UK.

Eight miles down the coast, the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland is staging Richardson's first UK solo show, giving all its available space to work never seen in this country.

"Kelly is able to do things that no-one else has done in her field," said the NGCA's programme director Alistair Robinson. "She has been based in this region for nearly 10 years but no-one even in this region has seen her work. She's been showing around the world but in this country she is, as yet, an unknown quantity. She is definitely going to go very far, she already has – just not here but that will change, and quite soon I believe."

Richardson is part of a new generation of digital artists using technology to create hyper-real landscapes.

More often than not she films real places, whether it is a Texas swamp or an idyllic Lake District wood, and transforms them into something completely and disconcertedly unreal.

With Mariner 9, an enormous 12-metre wide video work commissioned by Newcastle's Tyneside Cinema, it was always going to be much trickier.

"Obviously I couldn't film on Mars," Richardson said. "But I found out Nasa knows how Mars is constructed and had all the digital data for that so I was able to take all the data, put it in a 3D programme and recreate the lay of the land faithfully."

It is a remarkable film, showing Mars littered with real and imagined space crafts and rovers; some of which are forlornly continuing to find signs of life. Its premiere coincides with the landing of Nasa's Curiosity rover on Monday.

As with the works on display in Sunderland, viewers can spend time finding out the stories or imagining their own. It does not feel as if you are simply looking at a screen with something on it, it feels like you are in the environment on screen.

Robinson said the artist is "an astonishing perfectionist" with an attention to detail that sometimes verged on the lunatic.

For Mariner 9 Richardson had to learn an entirely new software programme, investigate the texture of Mars and all the missions to it, and then speculate on what future Mars rovers and space craft would look like. "It has been a lot of research – a lot of geeking out basically," she said. "It has been a real challenge and [there were] various points where I didn't think it was possible. Even people in the industry were telling me I wouldn't be able to do some things."

One of the biggest challenges was creating a 3D dust storm that goes on for 20 minutes. Richardson was repeatedly told it was not possible. "I was like, 'no I can do that – I will.'"

Mariner 9 is in a memorable building. When Spanish City was built in 1910 it had, it is said, the largest dome in the UK after St Paul's cathedral. For most of its life it was a fairground before it fell into neglect and disrepair. It closed in 2000 but was restored in 2010.

This installation fits perfectly into the raw interior of a building about to embark on a new phase of life, with redevelopment plans to create a hotel, residential accommodation and an entertainment centre in the dome itself.

After Sunderland, the Richardson show will go on tour to Blackpool, Eastbourne and Buffalo in the US.

• Legion is at the NGCA until 29 September. Mariner 9 is at Spanish City, Whitley Bay, from 3-19 August © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 03 2012

They promised us flying cars

We may be living in the future, but it hasn’t entirely worked out how we were promised. I remember the predictions clearly: the 21st century was supposed to be full of self-driving cars, personal communicators, replicators and private space ships.

Except, of course, all that has come true. Google just got the first license to drive their cars entirely autonomously on public highways. Apple came along with the iPhone and changed everything. Three-dimensional printers have come out of the laboratories and into the home. And in a few short years, and from a standing start, Elon Musk and SpaceX has achieved what might otherwise have been thought impossible: late last year, SpaceX launched a spacecraft and returned it to Earth safely. Then they launched another, successfully docked it with the International Space Station, and then again returned it to Earth.

The SpaceX Dragon capsule is grappled and berthed to the Earth-facing port of the International Space Station’s Harmony module at 12:02 p.m. EDT, May 25, 2012. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

Right now there is a generation of high-tech tinkerers breaking the seals on proprietary technology and prototyping new ideas, which is leading to a rapid growth in innovation. The members of this generation, who are building open hardware instead of writing open software, seem to have come out of nowhere. Except, of course, they haven’t. Promised a future they couldn’t have, they’ve started to build it. The only difference between them and Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Steve Jobs is that those guys got to build bigger toys than the rest of us.

The dotcom billionaires are regular geeks just like us. They might be the best of us, or sometimes just the luckiest, but they grew up with the same dreams, and they’ve finally given up waiting for governments to build the future they were promised when they were kids. They’re going to build it for themselves.

The thing that’s driving the Maker movement is the same thing that’s driving bigger shifts, like the next space race. Unlike the old space race, pushed by national pride and the hope that we could run fast enough in place so that we didn’t have to start a nuclear war, this new space race is being driven by personal pride, ambition and childhood dreams.

But there are some who don’t see what’s happening, and they’re about to miss out. Case in point: a lot of big businesses are confused by the open hardware movement. They don’t understand it, don’t think it’s worth their while to make exceptions and cater to it. Even the so-called “smart money” doesn’t seem to get it. I’ve heard moderately successful venture capitalists from the Valley say that they “… don’t do hardware.” Those guys are about to lose their shirts.

Makers are geeks like you and me who have decided to go ahead and build the future themselves because the big corporations and the major governments have so singularly failed to do it for us. Is it any surprise that dotcom billionaires are doing the same? Is it any surprise that the future we build is going to look a lot like the future we were promised and not so much like the future we were heading toward?


May 28 2012

Lynette Wallworth: the alien world of coral reefs

The Australian artist reflects on her underwater film, Coral: Rekindling Venus, which premieres to coincide with a rare astronomical event

Timing is always important in art but it is nothing less than crucial when your project is tied to an event so rare that it will happen next month – and then not again for 105 years.

The Australian artist Lynette Wallworth is in that position. She spoke of her hugely ambitious film work that has been five years in the making and will be premiered next month as part of the London 2012 festival, the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad. "It is a call to action," she said. "A harking back to a possibility."

It is inspired by a rare astronomical event, Venus's transit of the sun, when that planet passes directly between the sun and Earth. The transits come in pairs, few and far between – 2004, 5-6 June this year and then not again until 2117 and 2125. The previous pair was in 1874 and 1882 and before that 1761 and 1769.

It is the 18th-century transits that have particularly fascinated Wallworth because they led to what was perhaps the first example of worldwide scientific co-operation.

One of the big challenges of the age was to work out how big the solar system was and how much distance was there between Earth and the sun. One man occupied with the question was English astronomer Edmund Halley who speculated that observing the transit from extreme parts of the globe would help scientists come close to the calculation.

"He also knew he wouldn't live to see it," said Wallworth. "That was the part of the story that, in the beginning, hooked me in."

Halley wrote a letter to the Royal Observatory, the astronomers of the future, "begging them that when the time came they would go in ships around the world to observe this event".

And they did. It has a resonance today because it was not a problem that could be solved in one place; observers had to be all over the planet – around 120 in 1761 (French, British, Danish, Swedish, German, Italian, Portuguese) and an even more in 1769. It was the reason Captain Cook was in Tahiti.

Some remarkable things happened. The French allowed British ships safe passage, even though the two countries had recently been at war and were far from friends. "It was an undertaking that was for the benefit of all humanity," said Wallworth. "An attempt by countries to act globally for a scientific problem. It was amazing … beautiful, sort of mind boggling. There are so many moments that caught me as an artist."

That inspired her to make a "call to action" film showing the extraordinary, almost alien beauty of coral reefs – one barometer of climate change. "Coral is the canary in the coalmine of the ocean," the artist said. "They can handle very little temperature change. It is impossible for us to imagine a sky without stars but we have to be able to contemplate an ocean without coral and they are extraordinary communities."

Wallworth commissioned filming by underwater cinematographers, including the Emmy award-winning Australian David Hannan who shot around three-quarters of it. The film is strange and beautiful to look at and will be even more incredible for viewers as it will be shown at planetariums across the world.

"People will think they are in space, think they are moving through stars," said Wallworth.

Almost trance-inducing music has come from artists including Antony and the Johnsons and the Australian Aboriginal singer Gurrumul.

Wallworth said the film is "a harking back to a possibility. Is there a way to think forward, like Halley did, in terms of imagining what we might need to do? Is there a possibility of acting in unison?"

The film will initially be shown at planetariums in 25 cities across the world but Wallworth hopes it will have a life beyond that. She said: "I'm hoping it will build a new audience and that is part of what makes it exciting."

• Lynette Wallworth's Coral: Rekindling Venus will launch on 6 June and be shown at the Royal Observatory planetarium in Greenwich, London from 7 June-6 July and the Birmingham planetarium at various dates in June. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 19 2012

February 04 2012

TERRA 701: Earth & Moon: A Planetary Fairytale

For his second year project, Refah Seyed Mahmoud built a rear projection dome and crafted an animated film, Earth & Moon, to experiment with the visual possibilities of anamorphic displays. Earth & Moon is a story of coincidence, consequence, and interstellar romance: a scientific fairytale that tells the story of the unique relationship between the earth and the moon.
TERRA 701: Earth & Moon: A Planetary Fairytale

For his second year project, Refah Seyed Mahmoud built a rear projection dome and crafted an animated film, Earth & Moon, to experiment with the visual possibilities of anamorphic displays. Earth & Moon is a story of coincidence, consequence, and interstellar romance: a scientific fairytale that tells the story of the unique relationship between the earth and the moon.

December 25 2011

2011 showed us new ways of seeing

The sense of new images hitting our eyes from everywhere is one of the most remarkable aspects of 2011

Reasons to be cheerful in 2011? Let's see.

It was a year when eyes opened a bit wider, when images from Earth and space and the enigmatic microverse of quantum physics expanded our field of vision – and the spread of new means of communication made those images more accessible and shareable than ever before.

David Attenborough showed us what life is like under the surface of the Arctic's frozen sea. In a different way, images from Egypt and Libya showed us the previously hidden and denied passions of entire peoples. Meanwhile from Cern came visualisations of the elusive and mighty Higgs boson.

The silly slurs on Frozen Planet for filming polar bear cubs in a zoo drew attention to how extreme our visual information now is. This detail simply could not have been filmed in the wild, but so many marvels were captured that people were actually surprised by the so-called "faking". That's what the BBC gets for raising expectations. Its polar documentary was full of images such as wolves hunting, seen from above, that were never possible in the past. Similarly, pictures from the frontier of science, showing such wonders as Earth-like planets, go beyond previous astronomy and make outer space seem close.

This sense of new images hitting our eyes from everywhere is one of the most remarkable aspects of 2011. I know it has nothing to do with art as such. Yet art created one or two remarkable images of its own. In particular, Urs Fischer's melting candle sculptures moved me deeply and are themselves images of science – instances of entropy.

Uh-oh, entropy – the universe running down. The news in 2011 was sometimes exhilarating but mostly terrifying. In the media that circulate such news faster than ever before, the content was often disturbing. But the images that showed us the ever-changing world, and the ways they reached us, were eye-popping. So a reason to be cheerful is that new ways of seeing are being born in our time. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 23 2011

Snaps from space: Astronauts' photographs go on sale

Vintage prints of pictures taken by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and others to be auctioned by Bloomsbury in London

They often used Hasselblad cameras from Sweden modified only by the addition of a bigger button to press, but then taking pictures when you are an astronaut in a bulky, pressurised suit is clearly tricky.

Many of the astronauts' early space photographs have become extremely famous, more for their otherworldly beauty than their scientific value.

And now some are to appear in the UK's first dedicated sale of vintage Nasa photographs.

Bloomsbury Auctions in London has announced details of the first specialist sale of images showing how man came to land on the moon.

"We are thrilled," said Sarah Wheeler, Bloomsbury's photographs specialist.

"What we are offering are historic artefacts – rare, iconic, vintage photographs taken by the astronauts themselves and printed within days of their return to Earth and very different from today's downloadable images."

More than 280 photographs, with estimated values ranging from £200 to £10,000, will be auctioned. They have been collected over decades by Frenchman Victor Martin-Malburet, who has exhibited them in Paris and Saint-Etienne.

Some of the most striking images in the collection are of Ed White's spacewalk in 1965, part of the Gemini 4 mission.

White was the first American to walk in space. His walk was photographed by fellow astronaut James McDivitt – who was looking out of the craft without really being able to see what he was shooting at.

"He was remarkably successful considering he couldn't really frame the pictures," said a Bloomsbury spokesman.

Other highlights include the first view of Earth from the moon, taken on 23 August 1966 and shown publicly on 10 September.

It is a grainy image but the technological feat of making it happen at all should not be underestimated – the pictures were taken by an unmanned satellite which also developed them and sent them back to Earth as radio waves.

There are also images of a Gemini 12 spacewalk by Buzz Aldrin in November 1966 including one taken by the astronaut himself – using his modified Hasselblad with the big button – which Bloomsbury has billed as the "first self-portrait in space".

One of the most recognisable images is Earthrise, taken by William Anders on Christmas Eve in 1968 from Apollo 8.

Anders explained that they had spent all their time on Earth studying the moon and when they got there, they could see a fragile and delicate-looking Earth.

"I was immediately almost overcome by the thought that we came all this way to the moon, and yet the most significant thing we're seeing is our own home planet, the Earth."

And of course there is Apollo 11 – the mission that landed the first men on the moon – and photographs by Aldrin of his footprints.

Because flight leader Neil Armstrong was often taking the photographs, there are not many pictures of him. But there is the famous image Armstrong took of Aldrin in which he is reflected in Aldrin's goldplated visor.

The photographs are all vintage prints – made soon after the event depicted. The more expensive ones are the large-format prints that were often presented to scientists or dignitaries. The sale takes place on 3 November. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 21 2011

Architecture blasts off into space

Richard Branson reaches for the stars and Zaha Hadid goes down the toilet

Our dreams of blasting off for a lunar mini-break took another small step towards reality this week (even if the advent of space tourism has been announced and postponed about every six months since, ooh, 1961). In a blaze of publicity that was probably visible from Jupiter, Richard Branson held a "dedication ceremony" for the Virgin Galactic Spaceport, the world's first purpose-built space-tourism launch facility, in the New Mexico desert.

After abseiling down the glass facade spraying champagne, Branson admitted commercial flights were still more than a year away, but guests could at least marvel at the building, designed by Norman Foster in association with local firms URS and SMPC Architects.

The no-frills terminal looks something like the prow of the Starship Enterprise emerging from the desert sands, though the guiding principles were less to do with science fiction than environmental impact. By being half-buried, the terminal blends into the landscape more, and the subterranean section contains 100-metre-long tubes to passively cool air for the building. Recycled materials were used where possible and everything was sourced within a 500-mile radius of the site, Foster says.

How much this will offset the whopping carbon footprint of space tourism remains to be seen. But what architect would pass up the chance to design a building requiring "astronaut changing rooms"?

Back on earth, in a small London gallery, a new exhibition has opened showing the work of Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, called The Abolition of War. This industrial designer turned art provocateur regularly engages with architecture and the city in ingenious, sometimes hilarious ways. He literally brings buildings to life by projecting eyes, ears, hands and other features on to their facades, but there's always a political point. In 1985, for example, he fooled London authorities into allowing him to project images of Pershing missiles on to Nelson's Column and tank tracks on the surrounding lions (he had been given permission to project hands); then, for good measure, he directed a swastika at the South African embassy.

Wodiczko also designed mobile shelters for homeless people (which look like live-in shopping trolleys or props from Doctor Who), and repurposed military vehicles as anti-war propaganda machines, one of which is in the exhibition: War Veteran Vehicle, a Land Rover that projects statements ("Have killed") from British Iraq and Afghanistan veterans on to surfaces, to the sound of cannon fire. Among his more ambitious projects is a fabulous World Institute for the Abolition of War which, he proposes, would be built over and around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Anyone want to buy a museum? Now that the Design Museum is moving to the Commonwealth Institute, with a new fit-out by Rem Koolhaas, its old Thameside building is surplus to requirements, and on the market. It was converted from a 1950s banana warehouse in 1989 and remains a crisp, white modernist presence on the waterfront, ripe for another incarnation. But what should we do with it now? Anyone with a bright idea and a few million quid to spare should contact global estate agents Cushman & Wakefield.

Further proof that Britain has finally learned to love Zaha Hadid: the opening of a new gallery designed by her. This is Hadid's third building in England, following the pool (the London 2012 Aquatic Centre) and the school (the Evelyn Grace Academy, which won the Stirling prize earlier this month). But Roca London Gallery, in Chelsea Harbour, doesn't actually display art; it's, er, a bathroom showroom. Not that you'd guess it from the promotional video.

As showrooms go, it's admittedly outstanding. Zaha's fluid curves fit right in with the watery theme, and the ground-floor space is reminiscent of a riverbed. A smooth, canyon-like corridor winds through irregular spaces with curvy openings, and globules of lighting hang overhead like water droplets. There's barely a straight line in the place, and the palette of pale concrete, glass and white fittings is fittingly futuristic.

When Richard Branson finally gets round to building that lunar hotel, he should give Hadid a call. She could at least help him source a space-age bidet. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 12 2011

Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2011 shortlist – in pictures

Shortlisted images for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year. Winners will be announced on 8 September at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich

April 11 2011

The quiet rise of machine learning

The concept of machine learning was brought to the forefront for the general masses when IBM's Watson computer appeared on Jeopardy and wiped the floor with humanity. For those same masses, machine learning quickly faded from view as Watson moved out of the spotlight ... or so they may think.

Machine learning is slowly and quietly becoming democratized. Goodreads, for instance, recently purchased, presumably to make use of its machine learning algorithms to make book recommendations.

To find out more about what's happening in this rapidly advancing field, I turned to Alasdair Allan, an author and senior research fellow in Astronomy at the University of Exeter. In an email interview, he talked about how machine learning is being used behind the scenes in everyday applications. He also discussed his current eSTAR intelligent robotic telescope network project and how that machine learning-based system could be used in other applications.

In what ways is machine learning being used?

Alasdair AllanAlasdair Allan: Machine learning is quietly taking over in the mainstream. Orbitz, for instance, is using it behind the scenes to optimize caching of hotel prices, and Google is going to roll out smarter advertisements — much of the machine learning that consumers are seeing and using every day is invisible to them.

The interesting thing about machine learning right now is that research in the field is going on quietly as well because large corporations are tied up in non-disclosure agreements. While there is a large amount of academic literature on the subject, it's actually hard to tell whether this open research is actually current.

Oddly, machine learning research mirrors the way cryptography research developed around the middle of the 20th century. Much of the cutting edge research was done in secret, and we're only finding out now, 40 or 50 years later, what GCHQ or the NSA was doing back then. I'm hopeful that it won't take quite that long for Amazon or Google to tell us what they're thinking about today.

How does your eSTAR intelligent robotic telescope network work?

Alasdair Allan: My work has focused on applying intelligent agent architectures and techniques to astronomy for telescope control and scheduling, and also for data mining. I'm currently leading the work at Exeter building a peer-to-peer distributed network of telescopes that, acting entirely autonomously, can reactively schedule observations of time-critical transient events in real-time. Notable successes include contributing to the detection of the most distant object yet discovered, a gamma-ray burster at a redshift of 8.2.

eStar Diagram
A diagram showing how the eSTAR network operates. The Intelligent Agents access telescopes and existing astronomical databases through the Grid. CREDIT: Joint Astronomy Centre. Eta Carinae image courtesy of N. Smith (U. Colorado), J. Morse (Arizona State U.), and NASA.

All the components of the system are thought of as agents — effectively "smart" pieces of software. Negotiation takes place between the agents in the system. each of the resources bids to carry out the work, with the science agent scheduling the work with the agent embedded at the resource that promises to return the best result.

This architectural distinction of viewing both sides of the negotiation as agents — and as equals — is crucial. Importantly, this preserves the autonomy of individual resources to implement observation scheduling at their facilities as they see fit, and it offers increased adaptability in the face of asynchronously arriving data.

The system is a meta-network that layers communication, negotiation, and real-time analysis software on top of existing telescopes, allowing scheduling and prioritization of observations to be done locally. It is flat, peer-to-peer, and owned and operated by disparate groups with their own goals and priorities. There is no central master-scheduler overseeing the network — optimization arises through emerging complexity and social convention.

How could the ideas behind eSTAR be applied elsewhere?

Alasdair Allan: Essentially what I've built is a geographically distributed sensor architecture. The actual architectures I've used to do this are entirely generic — fundamentally, it's just a peer-to-peer distributed system for optimizing scarce resources in real-time in the face of a constantly changing environment.

The architectures are therefore equally applicable to other systems. The most obvious use case is sensor motes. Cheap, possibly even disposable, single-use, mesh-networked sensor bundles could be distributed over a large geographic area to get situational awareness quickly and easily. Despite the underlying hardware differences, the same distributed machine learning-based architectures can be used.

At February's Strata conference, Alasdair Allan discussed the ambiguity surrounding a formal definition of machine learning:

This interview was edited and condensed.


March 08 2011

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