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Math

When Blind People Do Algebra, the Brain's Visual Areas Light Up (npr.org) 69

People born without sight appear to solve math problems using visual areas of the brain. NPR has a fascinating report on this: A functional MRI study of 17 people blind since birth found that areas of visual cortex became active when the participants were asked to solve algebra problems, a team from Johns Hopkins reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "And as the equations get harder and harder, activity in these areas goes up in a blind person," says Marina Bedny, an author of the study and an assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University. In 19 sighted people doing the same problems, visual areas of the brain showed no increase in activity. "That really suggests that yes, blind individuals appear to be doing math with their visual cortex," Bedny says. The findings, published online Friday, challenge the idea that brain tissue intended for one function is limited to tasks that are closely related.
United States

Bank of America Analysts Say There's A 50% Chance We Live In The Matrix (independent.co.uk) 284

Bank of America analysts have suggested that there is a 20 to 50 percent chance that the world around us is a "Matrix-style virtual reality." The report stated, "It is conceivable that with advancements in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and computing power, members of future civilizations could have decided to run a simulation of their ancestors." The idea is certainly nothing new, as many influential visionaries have come to similar theories. What some may find most unusual about the report is who issued it. According to Business Insider, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America's wealth management company, sent out a briefing to investors outlining their Matrix theory. In response, Slashdot reader marmot7 writes: Personally, I'd like to see all that brain power go toward a better and more stable banking system, not toward the promoting the nihilistic and self-indulgent idea that this might be the Matrix. Don't worry that banks behave in ways that create instability, it's not real. Just relax and enjoy the ones and zeroes. I have no doubt there are good, well meaning people there. I just don't really need my bank weighing in on the mystery of reality any more than I need them to come up with a unified theory of physics at long last. Well, unless it's in their spare time then by all means.
Businesses

Airbnb Unveils Changes To Address Racial Discrimination (npr.org) 314

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NPR: Acknowledging that his company has "been slow on this issue," Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky is rolling out changes aimed at addressing discrimination complaints against the home rental service. Among the changes: de-emphasizing the role of user photos in arranging stays. Here are some of the other changes Airbnb announced Thursday: Providing assistance to people who feel they've experienced discrimination; Anti-bias training for all staff; Setting public diversity goals for staff; Partnering with historically black colleges and universities to strengthen their recruitment pipeline. The move comes after longstanding complaints from African-American Airbnb customers who said their booking requests were turned down at a high rate. Black Airbnb users vented their frustration with the phenomenon of being rejected for a booking date -- only to see the same place get listed once again -- spawning the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack on Twitter. And those frustrations were borne out in a study that sent 6,400 requests to AirBnb hosts in five large U.S. cities; the requests were identical except for the customer's name. As the Hidden Brain podcast reported, "requests with African-American sounding names were roughly 16 percent less likely to be accepted than their white-sounding counterparts."
Science

We Risk Programming Inequality into Our DNA (vice.com) 367

An anonymous reader writes:Imagine having a chip in your brain to boost your concentration, or pumping artificial blood into your veins to improve stamina. With gene editing, this may be possible. Scientists are pioneering the ability to tweak our DNA to wipe out disease and maybe even allow us to choose desirable traits in our unborn children, like height or intelligence. None of these technologies have moved out of the lab, but Americans are already uncomfortable with them. In a survey from Pew Research Center, almost half said they wouldn't want to edit their baby's genes -- whether it were to combat disease or shop for traits. Nearly 70 percent of survey participants also said they were more worried than enthusiastic about the possibility of synthetic-blood and brain-chip implants. They saw these options as "meddling with nature," even though we've been using technology to enhance our lives for thousands of years.
Science

Toxic Air Pollution Particles Found In Human Brains (theguardian.com) 93

Damian Carrington, writing for The Guardian: Toxic nanoparticles from air pollution have been discovered in human brains in "abundant" quantities, a newly published study reveals. The detection of the particles, in brain tissue from 37 people, raises concerns because recent research has suggested links between these magnetite particles and Alzheimer's disease, while air pollution has been shown to significantly increase the risk of the disease. However, the new work is still a long way from proving that the air pollution particles cause or exacerbate Alzheimer's. "This is a discovery finding, and now what should start is a whole new examination of this as a potentially very important environmental risk factor for Alzheimer's disease," said Prof Barbara Maher, at Lancaster University, who led the new research. "Now there is a reason to go on and do the epidemiology and the toxicity testing, because these particles are so prolific and people are exposed to them." Air pollution is a global health crisis that kills more people than malaria and HIV/Aids combined and it has long been linked to lung and heart disease and strokes. But research is uncovering new impacts on health, including degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, mental illness and reduced intelligence.
Biotech

Brain-Zapping Gadgets Need Regulation, Say Scientists (ieee.org) 51

the_newsbeagle writes: You can now buy gadgets online that send electric current through your scalp to stimulate your brain. Why would you want to do that? Because the easy technique, called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), is being investigated as a treatment for depression, a rehab aid for stroke patients, a learning enhancer for healthy people, and for many other neuropsychiatric applications.

However, the technique is so new that companies selling brain-zapping gadgets aren't bound by any regulations, and experts are worried that consumers will end up buying devices that aren't safe or simply aren't effective. So scientists and some manufacturers recently got together to discuss the scope of the problem, and what can be done about it.

Earlier IEEE reported that "Professional basketball, baseball, and American football teams are also experimenting with it," adding that some Olympic athletes, including sprinters and swimmers, even used a premarket version of one brain-zapping device to prepare for the Olympics in Rio.
Software

Linus on Linux's 25th Birthday (zdnet.com) 110

The creator of Linux, Linus Torvalds, posted his famous message announcing Linux on August 25, 1991, claiming that it was "just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu." ZDNet's Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols caught up with Linus Torvalds and talked about Linux's origins in a series of interviews: "SJVN: What's Linux real birthday? You're the proud papa, when do you think it was? When you sent out the newsgroup post to the Minix newsgroup on August 25, 1991? When you sent out the 0.01 release to a few friends?

LT: I think both of them are valid birthdays. The first newsgroup post is more public (August 25), and you can find it with headers giving date and time and everything. In contrast, I don't think the 0.01 release was ever announced in any public setting (only in private to a few people who had shown interest, and I don't think any of those emails survived). These days the way to find the 0.01 date (September 17) is to go and look at the dates of the files in the tar-file that still remains. So, both of them work for me. Or either. And, by the way, some people will argue for yet other days. For example, the earliest public semi-mention of Linux was July 3: that was the first time I asked for some POSIX docs publicly on the minix newsgroup and mentioned I was working on a project (but didn't name it). And at the other end, October 5 was the first time I actually publicly announced a Linux version: 'version 0.02 (+1 (very small) patch already).' So you might have to buy four cakes if you want to cover all the eventualities."
Vaughan-Nichols goes on to pick Linus' brain about what he was doing when he created Linux. In honor of Linux's 25th birthday today, let's all sing happy birthday... 1... 2... 3...
Social Networks

Researchers Create Algorithm That Diagnoses Depression From Your Instagram Feed (inverse.com) 84

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Inverse: Harvard University's Andrew Reece and the University of Vermont's Chris Danforth crafted an algorithm that can correctly diagnose depression, with up to 70 percent accuracy, based on a patient's Instagram feed alone. After a careful screening process, the team analyzed almost 50,000 photos from 166 participants, all of whom were Instagram users and 71 of whom had already been diagnosed with clinical depression. Their results confirmed their two hypotheses: first, that "markers of depression are observable in Instagram user behavior," and second, that "these depressive signals are detectable in posts made even before the date of first diagnosis." The duo had good rationale for both hypotheses. Photos shared on Instagram, despite their innocent appearance, are data-laden: Photos are either taken during the day or at night, in- or outdoors. They may include or exclude people. The user may or may not have used a filter. You can imagine an algorithm drooling at these binary inputs, all of which reflect a person's preferences, and, in turn, their well-being. Metadata is likewise full of analyzable information: How many people liked the photo? How many commented on it? How often does the user post, and how often do they browse? Many studies have shown that depressed people both perceive less color in the world and prefer dark, anemic scenes and images. The majority of healthy people, on the other hand, prefer colorful things. [Reece and Danforth] collected each photo's hue, saturation, and value averages. Depressed people, they found, tended to post photos that were more bluish, unsaturated, and dark. "Increased hue, along with decreased brightness and saturation, predicted depression," they write. The researchers found that happy people post less than depressed people, happy people post photos with more people in them than their depressed counterparts. and that depressed participants were less likely to use filters. The majority of "healthy" participants chose the Valencia filter, while the majority of "depressed" participants chose the Inkwell filter. Inverse has a neat little chart embedded in their report that shows the usage of Instagram filters between depressed and healthy users.
Privacy

WikiLeaks Published Rape Victims' Names, Credit Cards, Medical Data (arstechnica.com) 306

Joe Mullin, writing for ArsTechnica: Even as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sits trapped in the Ecuadorean embassy, the WikiLeaks website continues to publish the secrets of various governments worldwide. But that's not all it's publishing. A report today by the Associated Press highlights citizens who had "sensitive family, financial or identity records" published by the site. "They published everything: my phone, address, name, details," said one Saudi man whose paternity dispute was revealed in documents published by the site. "If the family of my wife saw this... Publishing personal stuff like that could destroy people." One document dump, from Saudi diplomatic cables, held at least 124 medical files. The files named sick children, refugees, and patients with psychiatric conditions. In one case, the cables included the name of a Saudi who was arrested for being gay. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is punishable by death. In two other cases, WikiLeaks published the names of teenage rape victims. "This has nothing to do with politics or corruption," said Dr. Nayef al-Fayez, who had a patient with brain cancer whose personal details were published.
Robotics

Intel Demos A New Robotics Controller Running Ubuntu (hackerboards.com) 21

Intel demoed their new robotics compute module this week. Scheduled for release in 2017, it's equipped with various sensors, including a depth-sensing camera, and it runs Ubuntu on a quad-core Atom. Slashdot reader DeviceGuru writes: Designed for researchers, makers, and robotics developers, the device is a self contained, candy-bar sized compute module ready to pop into a robot. It's augmented with a WiFi hotspot, Bluetooth, GPS, and IR, as well as proximity, motion, barometric pressure sensors. There's also a snap-on battery.

The device is preinstalled with Ubuntu 14.04 with Robot Operating System (ROS) Indigo, and can act as a supervisory processor to, say, an Arduino subsystem that controls a robot's low-level functions. Intel demoed a Euclid driven robot running an obstacle avoidance and follow-me tasks, including during CEO Brian Krzanich's keynote (YouTube video).

Intel says they'll also release instructions on how to create an accompanying robot with a 3D printer. This plug-and-play robotics module is a proof-of-concept device -- the article includes some nice pictures -- but it already supports programming in Node.js (and other high-level languages), and has a web UI that lets you monitor performance in real-time and watch the raw camera feeds.
Security

People Ignore Software Security Warnings Up To 90% of the Time, Says Study (phys.org) 125

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Phys.Org: A new study from BYU, in collaboration with Google Chrome engineers, finds the status quo of warning messages appearing haphazardly -- while people are typing, watching a video, uploading files, etc. -- results in up to 90 percent of users disregarding them. Researchers found these times are less effective because of "dual task interference," a neural limitation where even simple tasks can't be simultaneously performed without significant performance loss. Or, in human terms, multitasking. For example, 74 percent of people in the study ignored security messages that popped up while they were on the way to close a web page window. Another 79 percent ignored the messages if they were watching a video. And a whopping 87 percent disregarded the messages while they were transferring information, in this case, a confirmation code. For example, Jenkins, Vance and BYU colleagues Bonnie Anderson and Brock Kirwan found that people pay the most attention to security messages when they pop up in lower dual task times such as: after watching a video, waiting for a page to load, or after interacting with a website. For part of the study, researchers had participants complete computer tasks while an fMRI scanner measured their brain activity. The experiment showed neural activity was substantially reduced when security messages interrupted a task, as compared to when a user responded to the security message itself. The BYU researchers used the functional MRI data as they collaborated with a team of Google Chrome security engineers to identify better times to display security messages during the browsing experience.
Medicine

Startup Aims To Commercialize a Brain Implant To Improve Memory (ieee.org) 85

the_newsbeagle writes: Neuroscientist Ted Berger has achieved some remarkable feats in his work on an implanted brain prosthetic to boost memory. Working with rats, he recorded the electrical signals associated with a specific memory from one animal's brain, then inserted that signal -- and thus the memory -- into another animal's brain. Working with monkeys, the implanted device enhanced the animals' recall in difficult memory tasks.

Still, it's startling to learn that a startup is ready to commercialize Berger's work, and is trying to build a memory prosthetic for humans suffering from Alzheimer's, brain injuries, and stroke. The new company, named Kernel, will fund human trials and develop electrodes that can record from and stimulate more brain cells.
"An implanted memory prosthetic would have electrodes to record signals during learning, a microprocessor to do the computations, and electrodes that stimulate neurons to encode the information as a memory," writes Eliza Strickland via IEEE Spectrum.
Twitter

Former Twitter Employees: 'Abuse Problem' Comes From Their Culture Of Free Speech (buzzfeed.com) 465

Twitter complained of "inaccuracies in the details and unfair portrayals" in an article which described their service as "a honeypot for assholes." Buzzfeed interviewed 10 "high-level" former employees who detailed a company "Fenced in by an abiding commitment to free speech above all else and a unique product that makes moderation difficult and trolling almost effortless". An anonymous Slashdot reader summarizes their report: Twitter's commitment to free speech can be traced to employees at Google's Blogger platform who all went on to work at Twitter. They'd successfully fought for a company policy that "We don't get involved in adjudicating whether something is libel or slander... We'll do it if we believe we are required to by law." One former Twitter employee says "The Blogger brain trust's thinking was set in stone by the time they became Twitter Inc."

Twitter was praised for providing an uncensored voice during 2009 elections in Iran and the Arab Spring, and fought the secrecy of a government subpoena for information on their WikiLeaks account. The former of head of news at Twitter says "The whole 'free speech wing of the free speech party' thing -- that's not a slogan. That's deeply, deeply embedded in the DNA of the company... [Twitter executives] understand that this toxicity can kill them, but how do you draw the line? Where do you draw the line? I would actually challenge anyone to identify a perfect solution. But it feels to a certain extent that it's led to paralysis.

While Twitter now says they are working on the problem, Buzzfeed argues this "maximalist approach to free speech was integral to Twitter's rise, but quickly created the conditions for abuse... Twitter has made an ideology out of protecting its most objectionable users. That ethos also made it a beacon for the internet's most vitriolic personalities, who take particular delight in abusing those who use Twitter for their jobs."
Medicine

8 Paralyzed Patients Learn To Walk Again Using Virtual Reality (gizmodo.com) 17

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Gizmodo: In a new study published in Scientific Reports, eight patients paralyzed with spinal cord injuries exhibited partial restoration of muscle control and sensations in their lower limbs following an extensive training regimen with non-invasive brain-controlled robotics and a virtual reality system. Developed by Duke University neuroscience Miguel Nicolelis and colleagues, the system tapped into the patients' own brain activity to simulate full control of their legs, causing the injured parts of their spinal cord to re-engage. Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) work by establishing direct communication between the brain and a computer, which then allows patients to control external devices with their thoughts, including prosthetic limbs or exoskeletons. Earlier this year, Nicolelis showed that it was possible for a monkey to control a wheelchair with its mind, though with an implanted brain chip. In the new experiment, the system non-invasively recorded hundreds of brain patterns emitted by the brain, collecting these motor commands from those signals, and then translating them into movements. During the year long experiment, Nicolelis and his team investigated the ways in which BMI-based training could influence the ability of paraplegics to walk using a brain-controlled exoskeleton. To augment this process, they turned to virtual reality, which assisted with visualization and mind-body awareness. While in a virtual reality environment, and when hooked up to the exoskeletons, the patients could see virtual representations of the own bodies, and even receive tactile feedback.
Medicine

Brains of Overweight People Look Ten Years Older Than Those of Lean Peers, Says Report (theguardian.com) 184

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: The brains of people who are obese or overweight appear to have aged an extra 10 years compared to their lean peers from middle age onwards, brain scanning research has revealed. The difference, scientists say, corresponds to a greater shrinkage in the volume of white matter, although they don't know the cause. It might be down to genes causing both brain-shrinking and obesity, or it could be that changes occurring in the brain lead to overeating. Either way, it does not appear to affect cognitive performance. White matter is tissue, composed of nerve fibers, that aids communication between different regions of the brain. The volume of white matter in a human brain increases during youth and then decreases with age for both lean people and those who are overweight or obese. But researchers have discovered that this shrinkage differs depending on a subject's BMI. "The overall message is that brains basically appear to be 10 years older if you are overweight or obese," said Lisa Ronan, first author of the study from the University of Cambridge. Despite a higher BMI being linked to a smaller volume of white matter, it did not appear to have any link to mental prowess, with no difference seen between lean and overweight or obese participants when they were subjected to IQ tests. Scientists from the University of Cambridge and Yale University have published their findings in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.
Earth

IBM Creates World's First Artificial Phase-Change Neurons (arstechnica.com) 69

An anonymous reader writes from a report via Ars Technica: IBM has created the world's first artificial nanoscale stochastic phase-change neurons and has already created and used a population of 500 of them to process a signal in a similar manner as the brain. Ars Technica reports: "Like a biological neuron, IBM's artificial neuron has inputs (dendrites), a neuronal membrane (lipid bilayer) around the spike generator (soma, nucleus), and an output (axon). There's also a back-propagation link from the spike generator back to the inputs, to reinforce the strength of some input spikes. The key difference is in the neuronal membrane. In IBM's neuron, the membrane is replaced with a small square of germanium-antimony-tellurium (GeSbTe or GST). GST, which happens to be the main active ingredient in rewritable optical discs, is a phase-change material. This means it can happily exist in two different phases (in this case crystalline and amorphous), and easily switch between the two, usually by applying heat (by way of laser or electricity). A phase-change material has very different physical properties depending on which phase it's in: in the case of GST, its amorphous phase is an electrical insulator, while the crystalline phase conducts. With the artificial neurons, the square of GST begins life in its amorphous phase. Then, as spikes arrive from the inputs, the GST slowly begins to crystallize. Eventually, the GST crystallizes enough that it becomes conductive -- and voila, electricity flows across the membrane and creates a spike. After an arbitrary refractory period (a resting period where something isn't responsive to stimuli), the GST is reset back to its amorphous phase and the process begins again." The research has been published via the journal Nature.
Medicine

Olympic Swimmers 'Certain' To Pick Up Virus From Three Teaspoons of Rio Water (independent.co.uk) 280

An anonymous reader writes from a report via The Independent: The Associated Press has released a 16-month-long study that shows just days before the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro begin, the waterways in the city are teeming with dangerous viruses and bacteria. The report says both athletes and tourists are at risk of getting ill from the contaminated water. "The first results of the study published over a year ago showed viral levels at up to 1.7 million times what would be considered worrisome in the United States or Europe," reports The Independent. "At those concentrations, swimmers and athletes who ingest just three teaspoons of water are almost certain to be infected with viruses that can cause stomach and respiratory illnesses and, more rarely, heart and brain inflammation -- although whether they actually fall ill depends on a series of factors including the strength of the individual's immune system." Many of the athletes have been taking antibiotics, bleaching oars and donning plastic suits and gloves to prevent illnesses, but antibiotics combat bacterial infections, not viruses. The AP investigation found that infectious adenovirus readings turned up at nearly 90 percent of the test sites over 16 months of testing. What's more is that "the beaches often have levels of bacterial markers for sewage pollution that would be cause for concern abroad -- and sometimes even exceed Rio state's lax water safety standards," reports The Independent.
Nintendo

Nintendo NX Is a Portable Console With Detachable Controllers, Says Report (eurogamer.net) 158

An anonymous reader writes from a report via Eurogamer.net: We now have a good idea as to what the Nintendo NX will consist of thanks to a new report from Eurogamer. According to a number of sources, Nintendo's upcoming NX will be a portable, handheld console with detachable controllers. Eurogamer.net reports: "On the move, NX will function as a high-powered handheld console with its own display. So far so normal -- but here's the twist: we've heard the screen is bookended by two controller sections on either side, which can be attached or detached as required. Then, when you get home, the system can connect to your TV for gaming on the big screen. A base unit, or dock station, is used to connect the brain of the NX -- within the controller -- to display on your TV. NX will use game cartridges as its choice of physical media, multiple sources have also told [Eurogamer]. Another source said the system would run on a new operating system from Nintendo. It won't, contrary to some earlier rumors, simply run on Android. [...] The system will harness Nvidia's powerful mobile processor Tegra. Graphical comparisons with current consoles are difficult due to the vastly different nature of the device -- but once again we've heard Nintendo is not chasing graphical parity. Quite the opposite, it is sacrificing power to ensure it can squeeze all of this technology into a handheld, something which also tallies with earlier reports. Finally, we've heard from one source that NX planning has recently moved up a gear within Nintendo ahead of the console's unveiling, which is currently slated for September. After the confused PR fiasco of the Wii U launch, the company is already settling on a simple marketing message for NX -- of being able to take your games with you on the go."
Medicine

Can Computerized Brain Training Prevent Dementia? (newyorker.com) 49

"Researchers believe they have found a link between speed-of-processing training and a reduction in cognitive decline among the elderly," reports the New Yorker. An anonymous Slashdot reader quotes an article about how this new long-term study actually contradicts much of the previous science. In October of 2014 a group of more than seventy academics published what they called a consensus statement, asserting that playing brain games had been shown to improve little more than the ability to play brain games... no brain game, nor any drug, dietary supplement, or lifestyle intervention, had ever been shown in a large, randomized trial to prevent dementia...until today, when surprising new results were announced at the Alzheimer's Association annual meeting, in Toronto.
Nearly 3,000 participants with an average age of 73.6 participated in the study, with some receiving "speed of processing" training -- and some later receiving four hours of additional training. "The researchers calculated those who completed at least some of these booster sessions were 48% less likely to be diagnosed with dementia after ten years than their peers in the control group." Signatories of the 2014 consensus statement panning brain games are now calling these new results "remarkable" and "spectacular".

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