Researchers make RAM from a phase change we don’t entirely understand

Illustration of atoms.

We seem to be on the cusp of a revolution in storage. Various technologies have been demonstrated that have speed approaching that of current RAM chips but can hold on to the memory when the power shuts off—all without the long-term degradation that flash experiences. Some of these, like phase-change memory and Intel’s Optane, have even made it to market. But, so far at least, issues with price and capacity have kept them from widespread adoption.

But that hasn’t discouraged researchers from continuing to look for the next greatest thing. In this week’s edition, a joint NIST-Purdue University team has used a material that can form atomically thin sheets to make a new form of resistance-based memory. This material can be written in nanoseconds and hold on to that memory without power. The memory appears to work via a fundamentally different mechanism from previous resistance-RAM technologies, but there’s a small hitch: we’re not actually sure how it works.

The persistence of memristors

There is a series of partly overlapping memory storage technologies that are based on changes in electrical resistance. These are sometimes termed ReRAM and can include memristors. The basic idea is that a material can hold a bit that is read based on whether the electrical resistance is high or whether electrons flow through like it was a metal. In some of these, the resistance can be set across a spectrum that can be divided up, potentially allowing a single piece of material to hold more than one bit.

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Weather and technical issues forced multiple launch scrubs Tuesday, but…

SpaceX held its Falcon 9 launch with 7 minutes, 1 second left in the countdown.

Tuesday had the potential to be a pretty amazing day of rocket launches, with SpaceX, Arianespace, and United Launch Alliance all on the pad for their final orbital missions of 2019. Blue Origin, too, said it intended to fly the tenth mission of its New Shepard Launch system from West Texas.

But by early Tuesday, Mother Nature and the intricacies of rocketry had other ideas.

By around 8am ET, Arianespace said it was scrubbing the launch of a Russian-made Soyuz launch vehicle from the Guiana Space Center in South America due to “high-altitude wind conditions.” Launch has been pushed back a day in hopes of better weather.

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How computers got shockingly good at recognizing images

How computers got shockingly good at recognizing images

Right now, I can open up Google Photos, type “beach,” and see my photos from various beaches I’ve visited over the last decade. I never went through my photos and labeled them; instead, Google identifies beaches based on the contents of the photos themselves. This seemingly mundane feature is based on a technology called deep convolutional neural networks, which allows software to understand images in a sophisticated way that wasn’t possible with prior techniques.

In recent years, researchers have found that the accuracy of the software gets better and better as they build deeper networks and amass larger data sets to train them. That has created an almost insatiable appetite for computing power, boosting the fortunes of GPU makers like Nvidia and AMD. Google developed its own custom neural networking chip several years ago, and other companies have scrambled to follow Google’s lead.

Over at Tesla, for instance, the company has put deep learning expert Andrej Karpathy in charge of its Autopilot project. The carmaker is now developing a custom chip to accelerate neural network operations for future versions of Autopilot. Or, take Apple: the A11 and A12 chips at the heart of recent iPhones include a “neural engine” to accelerate neural network operations and allow better image- and voice-recognition applications.

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Conservation of energy used to parallelize quantum key distribution

A large number of keys against a light-colored wooden background.

It has been a while since I wrote about quantum key distribution. Once a technology is commercially available, my interest starts to fade. But commercial availability in this case hasn’t meant widespread use. Quantum key distribution has ended up a niche market because creating shared keys with it for more than one connection using a single device is so difficult.

That may all change now with a very inventive solution that makes use of all the best things: lasers, nonlinear optics, and conservation of energy.

Quantum key distribution in less than 500 words

The goal of quantum key distribution is to generate a random number that is securely shared between two people, always termed Alice and Bob. The shared random number is then used to seed classical encryption algorithms.

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Genetic information as self-fulfilling prophecy

Genetic information as self-fulfilling prophecy

If the TV ads are at all effective, plenty of people will be getting the gift of their genetic tests this Christmas. These tests frequently allow people to explore their inherited tendencies toward health problems and, in some cases, may suggest lifestyle changes to ward off future problems—although studies have indicated that few people do.

However, DNA test results can also cause issues that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Genetic information can exert a potent placebo effect—or the opposite, the nocebo effect, wherein if you think that something can harm you, it in fact does. And the potency of this effect has not been studied until now.

Experimental ethics

Some psychologists at Stanford wondered if the perception of genetic risk could actually increase people’s risk, independent of their actual genetic risk. In other words, could simply learning that you have a genetic propensity for something elicit physiological changes akin to really having that propensity, regardless of whether you have it? The team designed experiments to find out.

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Archaeologists reconstruct pre-Columbian temple with 3D-printed blocks

Archaeologists reconstruct pre-Columbian temple with 3D-printed blocks

The unfinished temple in a southern valley of the Lake Titicaca Basin in modern-day Bolivia has been a mystery for at least 500 years. Now known as the Pumapunku—”Door of the Jaguar” in the Quechua language—the complex stone structure is part of a sprawling complex of pyramids, plazas, and platforms built by a pre-Columbian culture we now call the Tiwanaku. Construction began around 500 CE and proceeded off and on, in phases, over the next few centuries until the Tiwanaku left the site around 900 or 1000 CE.

When the Inca Empire rose around 1200 CE, they claimed the sprawling ceremonial complex as the site of the world’s creation, although they didn’t finish the Tiwanaku’s temple.

Old school and high tech

Spanish visitors in the 1500s and 1600s describe “a wondrous, though unfinished, building” with walls of H-shaped andesite pieces and massive gateways and windows carved from single blocks. These were set on remarkably smooth sandstone slabs, some of which weighed over 80 tons. But after centuries of looting, the stones of the Pumapunku are so scattered that not one lies in its original place. The Tiwanaku left behind no written documents or plans to help modern researchers understand what their buildings looked like or what purpose they served.

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Tuesday may deliver a triple-header of big launches to cap 2018

A Delta IV Heavy rocket last launched in August, 2018, with the Parker Solar Probe.

So far this year there have been 106 orbital launches around the world, the most in a calendar year since 1990. That works out to roughly one launch every three days. Now, as we approach the end of this year, the launch industry has a treat for us—potentially three launches in a single day on Tuesday.

For rocket fanatics, this should make for a fun day, especially with some bigger rockets on the launch pad. Here’s a rundown on what to expect and the significance of each launch.

Falcon 9: Cape Canaveral, Florida

SpaceX’s final launch of the year, its 21st overall, will be an important one for the company. It is scheduled for 9:11am ET (14:11 UTC) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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Trump will replace Interior Department Secretary next week

Ryan Zinke

On Friday, President Trump announced on Twitter that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will step down from his post in the coming weeks. Zinke has headed the Department of the Interior (DOI) since 2017 and overseen some of the more significant rollbacks in environmental policy in the US.

Trump said a successor to Zinke would be named in the coming week. A likely successor, according to Reuters, is David Bernhardt, the current Interior Deputy Secretary and a former oil, gas, and water industry lobbyist. According to Politico, Bernhardt played an active role in weakening Endangered Species protections to make it easier for oil and gas drilling to occur on ecologically sensitive land.

Zinke’s time in office was marked by a similar effort to stymie the environmental protections put in place by the Obama Administration in the name of oil and gas interests. In one of his most controversial moves, Zinke reopened vast tracts of federal waters that had previously been off-limits to offshore oil and gas drilling. The Secretary drew sharp criticism for opening up federal waters adjacent to states that didn’t want offshore drilling, while exempting Florida from the same treatment after a meeting from the state’s Republican governor.

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