You still can’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s possible to read one without ever opening it.
That certainly adds a new wrinkle to an age-old idiom.
But it’s true; researchers at MIT and Georgia Tech built a prototype — key word prototype — imaging system that can read individual pages in a stack of papers. It’s an early demonstration, so we’re talking a stack of only nine pages, but it’s a start.
And as the technology improves, it could someday give, say, museum curators, another tool to study ancient, fragile books they wouldn’t dare open.
To peer through stacks of paper, the system relies on terahertz radiation, which is a frequency band of electromagnetic radiation that falls between microwaves and infrared light. Terahertz imaging systems emit short bursts of radiation that can penetrate a variety of materials. Substances such as water, plastics, gases and biofuels absorb specific terahertz frequencies, which makes it easy to identify them.
NASA used the technique to inspect foam insulation structures on its shuttle fleet, and it’s the same technology used in full body scanners at the airport. You know, those scans that produced quasi-pornographic images of airplane passengers.
Researchers used a standard terahertz camera to blast radiation at a stack of 20 papers with a single letter printed on each, and a sensor detected the reflected radiation. The paper and ink each absorb their signature frequencies, revealing the letters. There are also tiny pockets of air between each sheet of paper, and this boundary affects when of the reflected signal hits the sensor.
The resulting images aren’t exactly pretty — the device’s electronics produce a background hum, and some of the radiation bounces between pages before returning to the sensor. So Georgia Tech and MIT designed algorithms that clean these images up and interpret each page’s contents. Those algorithms, which can decipher contents of tightly stacked pages, are the big improvement here.
Researchers published details about their new technique Friday in the journal Nature Communications.
Seeing Without Touching
Peeking at documents without opening them isn’t a new trick. Using the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, for example, researchers from France bombarded ancient Herculaneum scrolls with extremely high-intensity X-rays, in a process called scanning X-ray fluorescence. This caused the metallic inks inside to emit photons, and “light up.”
Terahertz imaging has also been used to see inside an ancient Egyptian jar at the Museum of Aquitaine in France. Terahertz radiation revealed previously unknown, organic contents that X-rays wouldn’t have.
Automated financial trading machines can make complex decisions in a thousandth of a second. A human being making a choice – however simple – can never be faster than about one-fifth of a second. Our reaction times are not only slow but also remarkably variable, ranging over hundreds of milliseconds.
Is this because our brains are poorly designed, prone to random uncertainty – or “noise” in the electronic jargon? Measured in the laboratory, even the neurons of a fly are both fast and precise in their responses to external events, down to a few milliseconds. The sloppiness of our reaction times looks less like an accident than a built-in feature. The brain deliberately procrastinates, even if we ask it to do otherwise.
Massively Parallel Wetware
Why should this be? Unlike computers, our brains are massively parallel in their organization, concurrently running many millions of separate processes. They must do this because they are not designed to perform a specific set of actions but to select from a vast repertoire of alternatives that the fundamental unpredictability of our environment offers us. From an evolutionary perspective, it is best to trust nothing and no one, least of all oneself. So before each action the brain must flip through a vast Rolodex of possibilities. It is amazing it can do this at all, let alone in a fraction of a second.
But why the variability? There is hierarchically nothing higher than the brain, so decisions have to arise through peer-to-peer interactions between different groups of neurons. Since there can be only one winner at any one time – our movements would otherwise be chaotic – the mode of resolution is less negotiation than competition: a winner-takes-all race. To ensure the competition is fair, the race must run for a minimum length of time – hence the delay – and the time it takes will depend on the nature and quality of the field of competitors, hence the variability.
Fanciful though this may sound, the distributions of human reaction times, across different tasks, limbs, and people, have been repeatedly shown to fit the “race” model remarkably well. And one part of the brain – the medial frontal cortex – seems to track reaction time tightly, as an area crucial to procrastination ought to. Disrupting the medial frontal cortex should therefore disrupt the race, bringing it to an early close. Rather than slowing us down, disrupting the brain here should speed us up, accelerating behavior but at the cost of less considered actions.
This has been hailed as the year of virtual reality. By the end of 2016, four major headsets backed by tech giants such as Facebook, Sony and Samsung will have debuted with the promise of providing total immersion inside virtual worlds. But tech industry leaders still say that augmented reality technologies which blend virtual elements with the real world offer even more promise in the long run.
You would be forgiven if you got the impression that the future is all about virtual reality. Maybe it’s because Hollywood and pop culture have already spent years putting the idea of virtual reality in many people’s heads through films such as “The Matrix.” Maybe it’s awareness of virtual reality benefiting from a previous boom and bust cycle of mainstream excitement in the 1990s. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that the latest generation of more refined virtual reality headsets have grabbed all the headlines recently. Whatever the case, it’d be easy for casual news readers to miss the fact that much of the tech industry is betting big on augmented reality instead of virtual reality.
When Apple’s Tim Cook said that the market for augmented reality would be larger than virtual reality in an ABC News interview, he was not making a visionary statement about the future. Instead, he was simply stating the common wisdom in Silicon Valley. A survey of 650 startup founders, tech company CEOs and investors found that two thirds believe revenue from augmented reality (AR) products and services would surpass revenue from the virtual reality (VR) market. The VR market is currently far bigger than the AR market, but a separate report by the consultancy firm Digi-Capital predicted that the AR market would reach $90 billion by 2020 compared to the VR market’s $30 billion.
Augmented Reality’s PR Problem
So why such a huge disconnect between the attention focused on virtual reality and the predicted rise of augmented reality? Part of the issue may be the fact that augmented reality probably remains even more baffling and mysterious than virtual reality for most people. Google’s commercially unsuccessful Google Glass experiment did not enlighten many folks about augmented reality outside the tech industry.
Virtual reality did not always dominate augmented reality in terms of public attention. Starting in June 2009, interest in augmented reality surpassed interest in virtual reality—based on Google searches and news coverage—for almost five years. But by February 2013, interest in virtual reality had begun skyrocketing in terms of both Google searches and news coverage to overshadow augmented reality.
It wasn’t until the phenomenal success of the free-to-play mobile game “Pokemon Go” this summer that many Americans and people around the world finally got their first taste of what augmented reality could enable. Millions of people roamed the streets and backwoods while staring at their smartphone screens in the hope of catching and collecting rare Pokemon specimens found in specific real-world locations. Some experts have since pointed out that “Pokemon Go” isn’t quite augmented reality, but the important thing is that it got many people thinking about augmented reality.
But even the “Pokemon Go” phenomenon and related flurry of news coverage about augmented reality may not have completely solved augmented reality’s PR problem. A recent ReportLinker survey found that more than half of Americans said they’re still unfamiliar with augmented reality as a technology. On the other hand, just over half of Americans say they would use augmented reality sometime in the near future.
With a new collection of eight experiments, Google is opening up its artificial intelligence research to the masses.
Encompassing a few different areas of AI research, the various experimentsallow you to play, draw and type along as the computer attempts to guess what you’re up to. The goal is two-fold: allow the uninitiated to experience AI for themselves, and help train the AI. Every time you participate in one of the experiments, you add a little more data to help the computer fine-tune its decision-making algorithms.
For example, in the drawing experiment, you’re asked to sketch six objects and given 20 seconds to do so. As you doodle, the computer guesses what you’re drawing, based on its previous experience. Both correct and false guesses strengthen its confidence, and make it just that much more likely to pick the right answer next time.
A “Giorgio Cam” combines image recognition with musical creation. Take a picture of an object, and the AI will guess what it is, and then set its guess to a beat courtesy of legendary Italian electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder. Each guess is accompanied by percentage indicating how confident the program is that its guess is correct.
Another experiment explores sonic inputs, grouping a variety of everyday sounds by similarities to form a cloud of interrelated clicks, clangs and crackles. Using the simple controls at the bottom, users can loop various combinations of sounds to create their own naturally-sourced beats.
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