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Tesla’s EV plants are shuttered due to the coronavirus, but like other automakers, it’s retooling its operations to build ventilators.

Now, the company has released a YouTube video showing a prototype built with EV parts including the Model 3’s display and infotainment system, as spotted by TechCrunch.

Hospital-grade oxygen goes into Tesla’s mixing chamber (a car part used in Tesla’s vehicles). It’s subsequently pumped through Tesla’s custom designed manifold, which is powered by vehicle computers and controlled by the infotainment system. All the patient parameters are then displayed on the Model 3’s main display.

Tesla, along with Ford and GM, have promised to donate or build ventilators, and CEO Elon Musk said recently that the New York factory could reopen soon to produce ventilators. The company recently donated 1,000 ventilators, though critics said that the non-invasive models were the wrong kind. That’s because critical COVID-19 patients need invasive ventilators that can inflate a patient’s lungs with air via intubation.

However, New York governor Andrew Cuomo said that the so-called BiPAP non-invasive ventilators could be converted into the right type to help offset the “burn rate” of critical invasive ventilators. Elon Musk subsequently tweeted that “all hospitals were given exact specifications of [the donated models] & all confirmed they would be critical.” He added that Tesla has now started delivering critical intratracheal ventilators from Medtronic for “worst case situations.”

Reporter: Steve Dent

Many people are lending their computing power to efforts researching and fighting COVID-19, and that now includes NVIDIA. The GPU maker has joined the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium group tackling the disease; that group plans to support researchers by giving them time with 30 supercomputers offering a combined 400 petaflops of performance. NVIDIA will add to this by providing expertise in AI, biology and large-scale computing optimizations. NVIDIA is also providing access to its own SaturnV supercomputer, but the primary focus is on its AI experience.

The company likened the Consortium’s efforts to the Moon race. Ideally, this will speed up work for scientists who need modelling and other demanding tasks that would otherwise take a long time.

NVIDIA has a number of existing contributions to coronavirus research, including the 27,000 GPUs inside the Summit supercomputer and those inside many of the computers from the crowdsourced Folding@Home project. This is still a significant step forward, though, and might prove lifesaving if it leads to a vaccine or more effective containment.

Correction, 2:25PM ET: This story and its headline originally claimed that NVIDIA was donating 30 supercomputers to the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium. NVIDIA is not directly providing computers (aside from its SaturnV supercomputer); instead it is using its background in AI and optimizing supercomputer throughput to the group. We apologize for the error.

Reporter: Jon Fingas

The coronavirus pandemic is blinding us to the future. While medical professionals around the globe fight to snatch as many lives as possible from the jaws of COVID-19, the pandemic continues to impact increasingly broad swaths of modern life. It has, for example, flat-out decimated global air travel to a degree not even seen in the aftermath of 9/11 or the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010. And the effects of this aerial drop-off is already hampering our ability to predict future weather patterns.

As most meteorologists (and anyone who regularly watches the local news) will tell you, predicting the weather is an inexact science. But that’s not for a lack of resources. The World Meteorological Organization’s Global Observing System -- one third of the WMO’s overarching World Weather Watch program -- was established in 1963 and provides a variety of atmosphere and ocean surface measurements to the WMO’s 193 member states. These measurements are gathered from satellite and ground-based observation platforms, as well as commercial aircraft. They’re then disseminated via the WMO’s Global Telecommunication System (GTS) before being processed by the Global Data-processing and Forecasting System (GDPFS).

The ground and satellite components of that system are largely automated and generally immune to at least the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lars Peter Riishojgaard, Director, Earth System Branch in WMO’s Infrastructure Department believes that the impact of losing those aerial observations will still be “relatively modest.” However, he explained in a recent press release, “as the decrease in availability of aircraft weather observations continues and expands, we may expect a gradual decrease in reliability of the forecasts.”

“The same is true if the decrease in surface-based weather observations continues, in particular if the COVID-19 outbreak starts to more widely impact the ability of observers to do their job in large parts of the developing world. WMO will continue to monitor the situation, and the organization is working with its Members to mitigate the impact as much as possible,” he continued.

More immediate is the problem with the system’s aircraft-based sensors; primarily that they’re no longer in the sky, collecting vital ambient temperature, wind speed and direction readings. Aircraft rely on the Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay program (AMDAR) to collect the necessary data using onboard sensors, process and transmit it to relay stations on the ground via radio or satellite link.

“More than 3,500 commercial aircraft normally provide over 250 million observations per year,” a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokesperson told Engadget. “Throughout the flight path… these aircraft provide pressure, temperature, wind speed and direction, and in some cases humidity.”

The COVID-19 crisis has severely curtailed the commercial air travel industry. According to FlightRadar24, commercial traffic declined by 4.1 percent year-over-year in February followed by a 21.6 percent YOY drop in March. We could potentially see an overall 8.9 percent reduction of global air traffic compared to last year, according to one Bloomberg analyst.

“As of March 31, the daily output of meteorological data from U.S. commercial aircraft has decreased to approximately half of normal levels,” the NOAA rep continued. They were also quick to point out that “even though a decrease in this critical data will possibly negatively impact forecast model skill, it does not necessarily translate into a reduction in forecast accuracy since National Weather Service meteorologists use an entire suite of observations and guidance to produce an actual forecast.”

However, a 2017 study conducted by NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory suggests that including aircraft-based data reduces six-hour forecast errors in wind, humidity and temperature by up to 30 percent in the Rapid Refresh (RAP) model for North America. As such, "we would expect some decrease in skill at least in some specific situations from the [current] decline in aircraft data volume," Stanley Benjamin, the study’s co-author, told Weather.

A separate study conducted at the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) found that eliminating aircraft data from their models reduced the accuracy of Northern Hemisphere jet-stream level forecasts by 15 percent and 3 percent for surface pressure. What’s more, as of February, the National Weather Service reports that it is only incorporating around 65 percent of the aircraft-based observations into the GSF model that it normally does.

"We are anticipating the substantial reduction in the availability of US AMDAR data to continue over the coming weeks, likely to generate some measure of impact on the output of our numerical weather prediction systems," Christopher Hill of the NOAA said in a March news release. That same release revealed that between March 3rd and March 23rd the number of aircraft reports over Europe received and used at the ECMWF dropped 35 percent with a 42 percent reduction, globally.

Thankfully, meteorologists won’t be flying completely blind with so many airlines effectively out of commission. The ECMWF began pulling wind data from the Aeolus satellite in January. As for the NOAA, “while the automated weather reports from commercial aircraft provide exceptionally valuable data for forecast models, we also collect billions of Earth observations from other sources that feed into our models, such as weather balloons, surface weather observation network, radar, satellites and buoys,” the spokesperson told Engadget. “Additionally, NOAA will soon be using COSMIC-2 GPS radio occultation satellite data to further increase observations throughout the depth of the tropical atmosphere.”

Reported By: Andrew Tarantola

Go back to the dawn of 2020 and the notion of everyone downloading an app to track our encounters with other people would have been worrying if not absurd. Today, with cases of COVID-19 ballooning in the US, it’s becoming increasingly probable that this kind of surveillance will be a key component in restoring society to normalcy.

The proposal is to use our smartphones for digital contact tracing. In the journal Science, a key paper by University of Oxford researchers recommends the technique. Even the European Data Protection Supervisor has advocated for an EU-wide app. Meanwhile, after Singapore and South Korea used tracing apps as part of their strong response to the spread of COVID-19, governments in France and the UK (through its National Health Service) are developing their own tracing apps. And the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the method is under “aggressive evaluation” as projects in the US sprout up from coast to coast.

The unprecedented collaboration on an interoperable infrastructure between Apple and Google — which came together in two weeks and was announced last Friday — has now set the stage for a robust, potentially global contact tracing system.

The idea of contact tracing is straightforward. When someone contracts a disease, public-health workers need to know who that person has had recent contact with to be able to locate, test and possibly isolate those contacts to stop the disease spreading even further.

For decades, this technique has required painstaking drudgery — interviewing patients about their every move, calling airlines and managers of restaurants, examining hotel records — to determine everyone that’s been exposed. This was the case in tracking the paths of HIV, Ebola and measles.

The challenge is that tracing each case typically takes many days. In Wuhan, China, more than 9,000 epidemiologists performed this task, working in teams of five, according to the WHO. Latest figures show there are about 83,000 cases of COVID-19 in China. In the US, there are currently tens of thousands of new known cases every day; a former CDC director has said the country would need “an army of 300,000 people” for effective contact tracing.

This is where digital stalking comes in. All that detective work could happen in an instant, using a tracking app. Anyone who has had contact with a patient— shared an elevator or office, bus or train — gets a message to instruct them on how to get tested. In one UK survey, about three in four respondents said they’d definitely or probably install this sort of app.

Right now, most of the US is under stay-at-home orders because we don’t know who has COVID-19 and who doesn’t; to be safe, we’re presuming that anybody could. In San Francisco and Massachusetts, local authorities are beefing up their contact-tracing capabilities, but for the most part, experts say, we’ve missed the boat on tracking the exact path of virus transmission for now.

However, effective tracing paired with widespread testing will be pivotal in containing COVID-19 after social distancing ends. For people to work and congregate again, we need to continuously identify and test people so they can be individually quarantined if they have contracted the virus. Knowing who does and doesn’t have it could allow us to separate the safe from the vulnerable, allowing society and the economy to gradually sputter back to life.

Here’s the first catch: For contact tracing to be effective, a lot of people need to opt in to tracking. David Bonsall, an Oxford researcher and co-author of the Science paper, has placed ‘a lot’ at about 60 percent of a country’s population. And while smartphone ownership in the US is just over 80 percent, the question is How do you get three quarters of the nation’s smartphones to all persistently share locations?

Enter Apple and Google. Unlike startups, NGOs and university initiatives, these companies already have a critical mass of users. With nothing but a software update, about 3 billion phones globally could have contact-tracing functionality.

Around now, alarm bells might start ringing. Consenting to this kind of global surveillance appears to fly in the face of everything we’ve learned about sound data hygiene. Trust in the technology industry was in decline before COVID-19. In a worst case scenario, privacy experts fear contact tracing could create the architecture for a more invasive surveillance state —and new norms that can’t be rolled back.

Consider that Google has hardly covered itself in glory when it comes to being honest about its use of our location. Separately, the US Department of Homeland Security has reportedly bought cellphone location information from private companies for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (aka ICE) to detect undocumented immigrants.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Israel has tapped cell phone data from its domestic intelligence agency to identify people potentially exposed to the virus. In Korea, mobile alerts broadcast information — which might include family name, age and recent locations — about nearby people who have COVID-19. In some areas of China, an opaque algorithm built into wallet app Alipay determines someone’s health risk, which in turn determines their ability to take public transport.

The location-based data initiatives we’ve seen in the US so far have relied on aggregated, anonymized location data — the kind you might rely on in everyday apps like Google Maps — released by companies like Facebook, Google and Foursquare. The CDC and regional governments have also reportedly been using this data to see trends of where people congregate. But this data doesn't give away individual locations.

“There’s no question that civil liberties have to give way when it comes to a public health crisis like this,” said Jay Stanley, a Senior Policy Analyst at the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “But any incursions on civil liberties have to be necessary, they have to be effective and they have to be proportional.”

With GPS location data considered too revealing, the safe solution that projects like COVID Watch and the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) have been pushing for uses Bluetooth. The system would have every opted-in phone regularly emit anonymous beacons via Bluetooth. Other phones in the vicinity receive and store those unique beacons — which frequently change — and emit their own. This creates a record of two phones in proximity to each other, but only known by the two phones.

Should one person later test positive for COVID-19, a health official could ask the patient to send their records to a server that broadcasts to other phones and alert any phone whose records indicate they’ve recently encountered a person with the virus, perhaps encouraging them to get tested.

Based on the details so far — more are still forthcoming — this is, for the most part, the system Apple and Google have thrown their weight behind.

First, they will introduce an interoperable API on both Android and iOS for Bluetooth-based contact tracing on public-health apps. This should be ready by mid-May. Then, they’ll add their own contact-tracing functionality into their respective operating systems. But this is months away and would still require a public-health app for a full range of functions.

There are some potential downsides to Bluetooth — it doesn’t track transmission of the virus via surfaces (the reason we’re all sterilizing our deliveries) and could create false positives, depending on the range of a phone’s Bluetooth signal and the amount of time apps determine you need to be close to someone to register an encounter.

But from a privacy perspective, the key idea is that there will be no recording of where you were or when. The only thing you know is whether you’ve encountered someone who tested positive in the last 14 days, and there would be no revelation of who that person was. It would be opt-in only and minimize the data that goes to a central server. Apple and Google say they cannot see users’ encounters and have published early technical specifications for scrutiny online. The fact that the two major smartphone giants have built this architecture means that every NGO, academic and government health department is now incentivized to work within it.

Apple and Google’s announcement looks to address two important challenges: making contact tracing available to as many people as possible and institutionalizing strong privacy practices. But it’s still unclear if people will opt in — both to the system and to the eventual public-health apps.

The main challenge here is not necessarily the tech — Apple and Google probably have more granular location data about us in their stores than a new system of Bluetooth signals would reveal. The challenge is to make the technology respectful of privacy, then prove it to enough people that 60 percent sign up. Everyone from hacker collectives to privacy advocates to new coalitions of technologists during the pandemic have listed their best practices for what that should look like.

We all have a natural incentive to comply with an ambitious public-health measure — to stay healthy and get the right people treated — said the ACLU’s Stanley. But to buy into a new level of surveillance takes the kind of public trust in the tech industry that has been eroding in recent times.

“This kind of approach cannot succeed unless it achieves wide adoption. And in a country like the United States, which is very suspicious of authority and government, being able to assure people that this is not any kind of broader tracking device will make it more successful as a public-health measure,” he said. “This is a situation where privacy and public health are very aligned.”

Source: Aaron Souppouris

s the coronavirus pandemic continues, hospitals are working to prevent overcrowding and keep healthcare workers safe. According to the CDC, more than 9,000 healthcare workers across the US have contracted COVID-19, and at least 27 have died. To address this, a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) developed a wireless monitor that lets doctors monitor patients from a distance.

The device, called Emerald, is similar to a large WiFi router and is mounted on a wall. It emits wireless signals, which reflect off of patients. The system then uses AI to analyze those patterns and infer a persons’ breathing rate, sleep patterns and movement. Emerald is sensitive enough to detect chest motion (which translates into breathing rate) and to distinguish between multiple people. It can tell when a patient is having trouble breathing, and all of that info can be accessed by a doctor remotely.

The CSAIL team has already put Emerald to use at an assisted living facility, where they used it to remotely monitor a COVID-19 patient. As the patient recovered, the system detected that her breathing rate decreased from 23 to 18 breaths per minute, her sleep improved and she was walking more quickly around her apartment.

“Given how Emerald can generate important health data without any patient contact, it could minimize the risk that doctors and nurses will catch the disease from their patients,” says Dr. Ipsit Vahia, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. That could be especially helpful in places like skilled nursing and assisted living facilities, where so many patients are at a high risk for contracting COVID-19.

As the number of COVID-19 cases spike, Emerald could allow less severe patients to stay at home but remain under the supervision of healthcare providers. In the future, Emerald could be used to monitor other conditions, like anxiety, insomnia and sleep apnea. And along with telehealth, it could spur the shift toward tech-driven remote care.

Latest Technology / Tesla's Autopilot could soon detect traffic lights
« on: March 28, 2020, 07:13:34 AM »
It looks like Tesla's Autopilot feature will soon be able to recognize traffic lights. A video shared on Twitter, shows a Tesla cruising through several green lights and slowing to a stop when it detects a red light. There is some speculation that Tesla will include the feature in its next Autopilot update.

Tesla's Autopilot can already recognize other cars on the road, and last fall, an update allowed it to spot traffic cones. If you use Navigate on Autopilot, your EV will also plan lane changes to avoid those cones. Of course, it's probably best not to put your full faith in features like these. Users and groups like Consumer Reports have raised a few red flags, and the National Transportation Safety Board went as far as to blame Autopilot's design as a contributing factor in at least one fatal Tesla crash.

Still, Tesla is pushing to have fully self-driving cars on the road soon. Elon Musk previously said they'd be ready in 2019 and that over a million robo-taxis would arrive in 2020. It's fair to say that most bets are off for 2020, but updates like the ability to stop for red lights will get us one step closer to fully autonomous vehicles.

Many companies have offered to build much-needed ventilators during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, notably GM, Ford and Tesla. However, Dyson has now stepped up to the plate and the UK company known for vacuum cleaners and fans might have an edge over other non-ventilator makers. It developed the "CoVent" device in just ten days using Dyson's current digital motor technology, according to CNN, and has already received an order for 10,000 units from the UK's National Health Service (NHS).

In a letter to employees seen by Fast Company, founder James Dyson said the CoVent "can be manufactured quickly, efficiently and at volume," noting that it's "designed to address the specific clinical needs of COVID-19 patients." He also promised to donate 5,000 ventilators to the "international effort," including 1,000 for the UK.

The ventilator can be mounted on a bed, run on batteries or wall power and doesn't require a fixed air supply, according to Med-Tech News. It's also efficient in conserving oxygen and has a user interface designed specifically for healthcare providers.

Many patients with COVID-19 develop severe respiratory symptoms and can't breathe on their own, so a ventilator is essential for treatment. In countries hit hard by the pandemic like Italy and Spain, hospitals don't have enough for every critically-ill patient. With coronavirus victims flooding hospitals, that has forced doctors to essentially decide who gets to live or die.

The UK government has been criticized for its slow and disorganized response to the coronavirus crisis compared to other European nations. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who just confirmed that he now has COVID-19, personally contacted James Dyson to ask for help with the ventilators. Existing ventilator makers criticized that move, with one company saying that "the government should have given funding to existing ventilator manufacturers, and existing companies like us."

The device still needs to be approved by UK regulators, though Dyson has pledged to help get it through as quickly as possible. On the manufacturing side, a company spokesperson told CNN that the ventilators would be ready to go by early April. "The race is now on to get it into production," Dyson said.

Verily -- Google's sibling healthcare brand -- has launched a website that will help adults in northern California determine whether they need a test for coronavirus. The "triage" pilot is available to those in Santa Clara Country and San Mateo County, and asks users questions about their recent health and travel. The site will, if necessary, help users obtain a free test.

The site represents the first phase of Alphabet's bid to assist the US government in managing the coronavirus outbreak. The tech giant said yesterday that it was working on a "nationwide website" that will provide information about COVID-19 symptoms, risks and testing info -- an announcement hurriedly brought forward after President Trump revealed joint plans ahead of schedule.

However, it does appear that there is some confusion over the way the Verily site should be used. People already showing symptoms of the virus are asked to seek medical advice, rather than a test through the platform. As such, the screening tool will only trigger if users answer "no" to having symptoms, which has led some to conclude the site is working incorrectly. However, it's no surprise that a program rolled out so swiftly in the face of an event already surrounded by confusion and misinformation would be subject to some misunderstanding.

A statement on the new triage site reads, "We are working to rapidly expand testing in every way that we can; please check back soon as we add more testing sites and may expand eligibility criteria."

If you feel sick and think you might have contracted the COVID-19 virus, one thing you shouldn't do is walk into a clinic without calling ahead. There's a chance of putting healthcare workers and other patients at risk, not to mention yourself if the visit is unnecessary and unplanned. An intermediary online step could help you decide if you need to be tested, though. Ro -- better known for its erectile dysfunction medication program Roman -- set up a system earlier this month that connects patients with physicians to decide on if and how they should be tested. A Ro representative says that the company hopes to make the service available to everyone in the US by the end of the week.

If you feel like you have signs or symptoms associated with the coronavirus, you can complete Ro's online assessment. If it seems like you may have contracted COVID-19, Ro will connect you with a US-licensed physician who will conduct a free video or phone evaluation and provide next steps. Ro does not provide a diagnosis or testing for COVID-19 -- it's leveraging its existing infrastructure to help people connect with physicians and find the proper guidance. The company uses telehealth systems for its men's and women's health services (Roman and Rory) as well as its smoking cessation program Zero.

Other companies like LiveHealth have been providing telehealth services for years, but it seems like most solutions aren't specific to COVID-19 -- patients simply set up a video call as normal. Alphabet's Verily has an online screening tool, and Nurx does have a COVID-19 testing solution in place, though it has yet to launch. Nurx will focus on patients who have had direct exposure to the virus or who are experiencing symptoms, and will send at-home testing kits to those who need them.

Ro's approach, meanwhile, seems to help fast-track people who think they may have contracted the coronavirus and quickly connect them with a healthcare provider. The company claims that using its system will help unburden the medical system and increase public safety. Hopefully, it will help more patients be able to stay at home in an effort to "flatten the curve."

In an effort to keep seniors at home during the coronavirus outbreak, Medicare is expanding coverage for telehealth nationwide. Medicare patients can now connect with doctors and other providers through phone or video. This should allow millions of older adults to seek medical advice without potentially exposing themselves or others to the virus.

Until now, telehealth coverage under traditional Medicare has been limited. It's available in rural areas, but patients needed to go to specially-designated sites for their visits. Now, patients will be able to access telehealth at home and from anywhere in the country.

Patients and clinicians will need a two-way visual and voice connection, and standard copays and deductibles will apply. Though, healthcare providers may be able to waive or reduce cost-sharing for telehealth.

The risk of serious illness from the coronavirus is much higher for older people and those with underlying health conditions, so keeping those populations at home while still providing healthcare makes sense. Now, older patients with diabetes, for instance, won't have to postpone routine visits, and if a patient is concerned they may have the coronavirus disease, they can consult with their doctor via telehealth.

This policy change is made possible by a waiver of Medicare rules authorized by Congress, as well as emergency declarations made by the Trump administration. The expanded telehealth coverage will remain in effect during the outbreak, but this could be an important step toward making remote healthcare more widely available in the future.

Addressing concerns that the US lacks sufficient ventilators to effectively tackle the COVID-19 pandemic is, fundamentally, all about right to repair. That's the argument put forward by Nathan Proctor, head of the Right to Repair campaign at the US Public Interest Research Group. He says that a lack of devices can, and will, be exacerbated when hardware begins to break down with no easy options to fix them. In a statement, he calls for device manufacturers to release all repair documentation for essential medical kit.

"In order to keep equipment that is critical to treat COVID-19 working with the least possible downtime, medical device manufacturers should immediately release all repair documentation and software, schematics and manuals for that equipment, especially ventilators." said Proctor. He added that the statistics show that independent repair, not conducted by a technician authorized by the company, is safe. And that, where personnel are stretched and medical equipment overtaxed, it could mean the difference between life and death.

Currently, iFixit, which has often partnered with the PIRG on its own right to repair campaigns, has begun building a catalog of ventilator service manuals. In a statement, the company's Kyle Wiens says that during other crises -- like the 2017 Las Vegas shootings -- ventilator access was a problem. He added that, if there is a crisis in the US, there's a risk of machines failing en-masse, with people powerless to fix them. That's why the company is asking people in the medical community to share service manuals and information about how the technology is used in hospitals.

The PIRG doesn't name the event that likely motivated its intervention, but it was likely inspired by the events unfolding in Italy. An Italian hospital was overwhelmed with patients needing ventilators, each one requiring a valve that can only be used for eight hours at a time. With the valves in short supply and no fresh stock available, the hospital was put in touch with a local 3D-printing company. Its engineers took one of the valves and reverse-engineered a version in just three hours that could be 3D-printed. Unfortunately, the company that made the valves originally refused to make the designs available, and has threatened legal action.

It's likely that the next few months will be a flashpoint between right to repair advocates and companies fighting the push for new legislation. The battle has been brewing for a while, with gadget fans saying that major tech companies have prevented repair technicians from keeping devices working for longer. It's also impacted industries like farming, where John Deere uses restrictive technology to prevent unauthorized maintenance. Given Europe's push for far broader right to repair legislation, it'll be interesting to see what happens on this side of the Atlantic.

The Folding@Home community has turned its attention toward the fight against COVID-19, and it now has massive computational power at its disposal as a result. The distributed computing project is now working with about 470 petaflops of output in its quest to fold proteins, or enough to eclipse the world's top seven supercomputers combined. That's more than twice the 149 petaflops of sustained output from the record-setting Summit supercomputer -- helped in part by the Summit team joining the project over two weeks ago. There's been a roughly 1,200 percent increase in contributors, Folding@Home said, with 400,000 new members in the past two weeks.

The surge in computing power is helped in part by the technology many home users have at their disposal. Users have multi-core CPUs and many-core GPUs that deliver far more power than they would have even a few years ago. Moreover, there's an abundance of cryptocurrency mining machines that are practically tailor-made for data crunching projects like this.

There are positive early signs. Summit, for instance, already found 77 drug compounds that might be helpful for fighting the coronavirus. While we wouldn't absolutely count on Folding@Home accelerating the development of a vaccine or treatment, there's a real chance that your spare computer could help make an important discovery.

Amid the spreading outbreak of COVID-19, Engadget reader Bill Gates has apparently decided "to dedicate more time to his philanthropic priorities including global health, development, education, and his increasing engagement in tackling climate change." He's stepping down from the board of directors at the company he co-founded in 1975 as well as his position on the board of Berkshire Hathaway, but will still be a "technology advisor" to current CEO Satya Nadella and other executives.

Gates posted a statement on LinkedIn that said "I have made the decision to step down from both of the public boards on which I serve – Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway – to dedicate more time to philanthropic priorities including global health and development, education, and my increasing engagement in tackling climate change. The leadership at the Berkshire companies and Microsoft has never been stronger, so the time is right to take this step."

He continued, "With respect to Microsoft, stepping down from the board in no way means stepping away from the company. Microsoft will always be an important part of my life's work and I will continue to be engaged with Satya and the technical leadership to help shape the vision and achieve the company's ambitious goals."

In a statement, Nadella said "The board has benefited from Bill's leadership and vision. And Microsoft will continue to benefit from Bill's ongoing technical passion and advice to drive our products and services forward. I am grateful for Bill's friendship and look forward to continuing to work alongside him to realize our mission to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more."

The move comes twenty years after he moved aside to make Steve Ballmer CEO, twelve years after he left a day-to-day role at the company, and six years after he last served as chairman of the board. When he left Microsoft in 2008 Gates cited his interest in public health, and the timing of this move certainly reflects his focus on trying to prepare for pandemics, as explained in a 2018 lecture. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has publicly announced it's committing $100 million to the fight against COVID-19, including a collaboration with Wellcome and Mastercard that's funding an accelerator project for treatments.

Source: Microsoft, Bill Gates (LinkedIn)

Despite best efforts, we're still decades if not generations away from regularly living and working off-planet -- whether that's in LEO habitation rings, moon bases, or on the Martian surface. Until humans can colonize space ourselves, we must rely on robotic orbitals, landers and rovers to physically interact with the galaxy around us. As Lucy Condakchian, General Manager of Robotics at Maxar, noted to an assembled audience at TechCrunch Sessions on Tuesday, actually touching the stars is still no easy feat.

Maxar Technologies knows a thing or two about building space-based systems. The company has been developing and deploying satellite technology since 1969. It's built robotic arms for NASA since the Apollo era, as well as for commercial customers -- over 75 in total. In fact, all five robotic arms currently on the surface of Mars were built by Maxar.

"I would absolutely call it a collaborative partnership," Condakchian told Engadget. "Over the years as NASA has changed, what their pursuits are, what our administration has asked them to do, we just bend in flux."

The company's sixth Mars-bound arm, dubbed the Sample Handling Assembly (SHA), will be aboard the Mars 2020 Rover. This mission is part of NASA's larger Mars Exploration Program and is scheduled to launch in July.

Once safely upon the Red Planet, the SHA will drill into the Martian dirt to collect soil and rock core samples from the most interesting sources it can find, then squirrel them away in a secure cache on the planet's surface. The hope is that a future mission might be able to collect the samples and return them to Earth for study.

"You build on the heritage," Condakchian told the Sessions audience, pointing out that the first arm to arrive on the Martian surface was barely a meter long with "five degrees of freedom and five joints that actually moved." But over the course of numerous iterations, the latest arm boasts double that length with seven joints and seven degrees of freedom.

The company is also working on a sampler arm -- conveniently named the Sample Acquisition, Morphology Filtering and Probing of Lunar Regolith or SAMPLR -- as part of the 2024 Artemis mission to the moon. The $5 million piece of space hardware will be the first robotic arm deployed to the moon in 50 years, where it will sift through layers of dust to determine "the geotechnical properties of lunar regolith."

Maxar is even looking beyond planetary surfaces and is currently developing arms for use in orbit to service and repair aging satellites, such as the SPIDER for NASA's Restore-L program. However that environment provides its own unique set of challenges compared to planetside operation.

On Earth, "you know where you're going to set that robotic arm, you know what [conditions] you'll encounter... and you also can go and service it," Condakchian said. "Our robotic arms, once they're in space, we're done. If it's mission critical, it cannot fail. It has to survive." And in space, she continued, "You've got radiation to deal with. You've got temperature swings, you've got materials that you cannot use."

As such, each arm is largely built to the specific mission requirements, though some overlap between individual mission designs does occur. "We don't want to reinvent the wheel every single time, right?" Condakchian explained. "There's definitely elements of it that we build on and we've learned that this kind of actuator design works well for this type of application gives you this type of output, etc... Most of our government customers actually want a lot more tailored solutions."

Recent advances in 3D printing are helping tailor those solutions more easily and with a greater degree of precision than conventional subtractive manufacturing techniques. Condakchian points out that issues of around machining components to the exacting tolerances that modern spacecraft require are negated with 3D-printed pieces. What's more, "some parts are going to actually be lighter because your load paths within the components of that robotic arm," she said. "You don't need to think abou
w to machine this off of a block of aluminum or titanium."

Improvements in AI systems are also improving the performance of these arms, providing them a greater degree of autonomy. However, that expanded capability must be carefully balanced against the massive investment required. "It's a balance of adding that new capability and technology without impacting the integrity or increasing the risk of the mission," Condakchian told the Sessions audience.

Currently NASA retains human-in-the-loop oversight, wherein if the rover detects an anomaly in the environment or its actions, it can enter a Safe Mode and phone back to mission control for clarification and further instruction. Problem is that it takes a signal 13 minutes to make it from Mars to Earth plus another 13 minutes back plus however much time it takes the NASA boffins to determine the best course of action. It's a slow process but still better than wrecking a multimillion dollar piece of equipment because the onboard AI flummoxed itself.

Maxar is also looking into wireless energy transmission as a potential weight saving measure. "Trying to send energy down the whole robotic arm to get video feedback, that's extra mass and that's extra power draw," Condakchian said. "That's a limiting factor."

And though only two of the five robotic arms on Mars are currently operational, Condakchian explained, the inoperable ones from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers as well as the Phoenix lander are actually rugged enough to be brought back online and put back to work if we were somehow able to clear the Martian dust that has caked their solar panels. If only they had an extra arm equipped with a squeegee.

Source: NASA

To date, teaching a robot to perform a task has usually involved either direct coding, trial-and-error tests or handholding the machine. Soon, though, you might just have to perform that task like you would any other day. MIT scientists have developed a system, Planning with Uncertain Specifications (PUnS), that helps bots learn complicated tasks when they'd otherwise stumble, such as setting the dinner table. Instead of the usual method where the robot receives rewards for performing the right actions, PUnS has the bot hold "beliefs" over a variety of specifications and use a language (linear temporal logic) that lets it reason about what it has to do right now and in the future.

To nudge the robot toward the right outcome, the team set criteria that helps the robot satisfy its overall beliefs. The criteria can satisfy the formulas with the highest probability, the greatest number of formulas or even those with the least chance of failure. A designer could optimize a robot for safety if it's working with hazardous materials, or consistent quality if it's a factory model.

MIT's system is much more effective than traditional approaches in early testing. A PUnS-based robot only made six mistakes in 20,000 attempts at setting the table, even when the researchers threw in complications like hiding a fork -- the automaton just finished the rest of the tasks and came back to the fork when it popped up. In that way, it demonstrated a human-like ability to set a clear overall goal and improvise.

The developers ultimately want the system to not only learn by watching, but react to feedback. You could give it verbal corrections or a critique of its performance, for instance. That will involve much more work, but it hints at a future where your household robots could adapt to new duties by watching you set an example.

Source:MIT News, IEEE Xplore, NIPS Proceedings

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