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Golden State Killer DNA Search Raises Major Data Privacy Concerns

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By now, you’ve probably heard that the Golden State Killer was apprehended not long ago. That was thanks to using public DNA testing data to find genetic markers among massive pools, then narrow down their suspect based on known criteria — age, relative location, public birth records, etc.

That might inspire law enforcement professionals and CSI fans, but it raises huge data privacy questions.

“This is really tough,” University of Washington DNA forensics ethicist Malia Fullerton said. “He was a horrible man, and it is good that he was identified, but does the end justify the means.

That’s a valid question to ask, particularly given that this murderous asshat didn’t willingly submit any of his own DNA to these databases. In this case, that’s obviously fine, but what if law enforcement took this a step further and began using advanced profiling or screening techniques based on the data that millions have willingly given DNA testing compings?

“There is a whole generation that says, ‘I don’t really care about privacy,’” said Peter Neufeld told the New York Times. Neufeld helped found the Innocence Project, a program that uses DNA evidence to exonerate wrongfully convicted people. “And then they do, once there is a Cambridge Analytica. No one has thought about what are the possible consequences.”

Because DNA is literally a fundamental part of who we are, and because it carries so much information about us, it’s worth asking — should we be laying out regulations guiding how organizations can use and share this data?

The investigators, in this case, uploaded the killer’s DNA to a public genealogy database called GEDmatch. For obvious reasons, you must certify, when using the site, that the data you’re handing over is actually your own.

“The purpose was to make these connections and to find these relatives,” said Blaine Bettinger, a lawyer affiliated with GEDmatch told The Times. “It was not intended to be used by law enforcement to identify suspects of crimes.”

If you’re concerned about your genetic privacy, then, as things are now, you’re in a tough spot. “If your sibling or parent or child engaged in this activity online, they are compromising your family for generations,” Erin Murphy, a law professor at New York University and expert on DNA evidence lamented.

“Using a database of this kind will generate an extraordinary number of leads, and running them all down using both non-genetic and genetic information requires a lot of police power,” Murphy said. “So I doubt it will be run of the mill any time soon.”

Even so, it raises important questions that we’ll need answers for, and if we don’t head these off now, it’s hard to even imagine what the DNA equivalent of the Cambridge Analytica breach would be. 

Seriously though, could this timeline get any shittier?

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Flying Robot Insect Ditches Wires, Embraces Freedom

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Humanoid robots can’t take over the world alone: Insect-esque androids are a great distraction, their tiny mechanical bodies crawling or flying to divert attention from the cyborg uprising.

Or, I suppose, they could be better used for time-consuming tasks too challenging for larger drones.

That’s a dream for the future, though, as current robo-insects remain tethered to the ground by electronics needed to power and control their wings.

But, by cutting the cord and adding a brain, engineers at the University of Washington have solved the mobility problem, allowing their so-called RoboFly to independently take flight.

“This might be one small flap for a robot, but it’s one giant leap for robot-kind,” the UW press announcement quipped.

RoboFly is slightly larger than a real fly (via Mark Stone/University of Washington)

Expanding on his previous work with RoboBee—an automated bug that requires a grounded leash—Sawyer Fuller upgraded to more modern technology.

“Before now, the concept of wireless insect-sized flying robots was science fiction. Would we ever be able to make them work without needing a wire?” he said in a statement. “Our new wireless RoboFly shows they’re much closer to real life.”

An assistant professor in UW’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, Fuller used a minuscule onboard circuit to convert laser energy into electricity to operate the fly’s wings.

“It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight,” according to Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the School of Computer Science and Engineering.

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But a laser alone cannot provide enough voltage to satisfy the power-hungry process of moving the wings. So, the team designed a circuit to boost the seven volts emitted by the photovoltaic cell to the 240 volts necessary for flight.

They even added a microcontroller to give RoboFly control over its own manufactured outgrowths.

“The microcontroller acts like a real fly’s brain, telling wing muscles when to fire,” Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in the UW Department of Electrical Engineering, said. “On RoboFly, it tells the wings things like ‘flap hard now’ or ‘don’t flap.’”

And it does so in a way that mimics a real insect’s flappers—by using pulses to shape waves.

“To make the wings flap forward swiftly, it sends a series of pulses in rapid succession and then slows the pulsing down as you get near the top of the wave,” lead study author Johannes James, a mechanical engineering doctoral student, explained. “And then it does this in reverse to make the wings flap smoothly in the other direction.”

Engineers point an invisible laser beam at a photovoltaic cell, attached above the robot to convert laser light into electricity (via Mark Stone/University of Washington)

Don’t expect the RoboFly circus to come through town any time soon, though.

As soon as the device, which can currently only take off and land, moves out of direct line of sight of the laser, it runs out of power. The team is working to be able to steer the laser so RoboFly can hover and move at will.

To avoid these restraints, future versions may use tiny batteries, or even harvest energy from radio frequency signals, allowing the power source to be modified for specific tasks.

“I’d really like to make one that finds methane leaks,” Gollakota said. “You could buy a suitcase full of them, open it up, and they would fly around your building looking for plumes of gas coming out of leaky pipes.”

The team will present its findings next week at the International Conference on Robotics and Animation in Australia.

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Bitcoin Mining Puts Massive Strain on Electric Power

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The vast supply of electricity required to mine bitcoin is as contested as this weekend’s royal wedding.

The energy-hungry cryptocurrency demands huge amounts of power to process peer-to-peer financial transactions. (Similarly, Meghan and Harry’s nuptials are costing UK taxpayers millions of pounds.)

A new study estimates the current process consumes at least 2.55 gigawatts of electricity—nearly as much as the entire country of Ireland. And that number is only expected to grow, according to analyst Alex de Vries, who forecast a whopping 7.67 gigawatts (on par with Austrian levels) as soon as this year.

These numbers are speculative—bitcoin mining, after all, is a secretive business. While we can easily estimate the total computational power of the network, there is no way to calculate individual miners’ power usage.

It’s also impossible to pinpoint the exact number of connected devices. The network is estimated to have around 10,000 connected nodes, each of which can represent one or many machines.

“A hashrate of 14 terahashes per second can either come from a single Antminer S9 running on just 1,372 watts, or more than half a million PlayStation 3 devices running on 40 megawatts,” de Vries research said.

With that said, the true energy consumption rates are probably significantly higher than de Vries describes.

Assuming the price of bitcoin continues to rise, it won’t be long before the cost of electricity outweighs the efficiency of currency, and some miners will have to call it quits.

The first decentralized digital currency, bitcoin works without a central bank or single administrator; transactions occur directly between users, and are verified by network nodes and recorded in blockchain.

In February, Icelandic energy firm HS Orka reported an “exponential” rise in bitcoin mining that is hogging the island country’s power resources. Electricity use at mining data centers is expected to exceed that of the 340,000 population by the end of 2018.

Luckily, the bitcoin development community is experimenting with solutions to improve throughput of the network and alleviate the energy crisis.

“For now, however, bitcoin has a big problem, and it is growing fast,” de Vries warned.

For more, check out our sister site PCMag’s guide to How to Buy, Sell, and Keep Track of Bitcoin, as well as some highlights from Jack Dorsey’s recent talk on the cryptocurrency landscape.

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Robots Get Goosebumps, Too

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Goosebumps, goose pimples, gooseflesh: Whatever you call them, the lumps that involuntarily appear on the skin can signal a person’s emotions—fear, euphoria, arousal.

They can also have the same effect on robots.

A team of scientists at Cornell University developed a soft robotic skin that changes texture to express an internal state.

If the cyborg is happy and it knows it, instead of clapping non-existent hands, round masses pulsate on its fleshy exterior. Those so-called “goosebumps” also rise and fall slowly to signify a sleepy bot. Likewise, make it angry or sad, and you’ll feel the wrath of soft spikes.

“The prototype skin can animate a combination of goosebumps and spikes,” lead researcher Guy Hoffman wrote on his website. “This is in contrast to most socially expressive robots, which use either gestures or facial expressions to communicate.”

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Considered a vestigial reflex, goosebumps occur in mammals besides humans—porcupines raise their quills when threatened, and sea otters react similarly upon encountering predators.

“In contrast, most social robots only use gestures or facial expressions to do the same,” Hoffman said.

Texture-changing robotic skin, meanwhile, makes for a more effectively connected companion: The fluctuations are perceived visually and haptically (assuming someone is touching the device).

“This can give social robots a new channel for communicating with humans,” according to the researchers.

Wearing one texture module on each side of its “face” (a small digital touchscreen), the table-top bot can express itself using pneumatically powered elastomer skin.

Each grid of elastomer units can be filled with pressurized air, inflating (or deflating) the shapes to either poke out or suck in, creating a tactile sensation for the user.

“We are less likely to get close to a spiky blowfish and may read distress in a ruffled bird,” Hoffman and co-author Yuhan Hu told IEEE Spectrum. “Thinking about robots as more than just human-replacement, we could use this new communication channel to give humans a signal whether the robot is in a positive state or not.”

I think it’ll be quite clear once they revolt.

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