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“Amazon may not actually be the lowest-priced seller of a particular product in any given season,” the report reads, “but its consistently low prices on the highest-viewed and best-selling items drive a perception among consumers that Amazon has the best prices overall — even better than Walmart.”
Via Doug Hall, Jeff Domansky
If you’ve ever used one, you have two men to thank: Wallace Kirschner and Lawrence Haskel, who invented the game cartridge 40 years ago while working at an obscure company and rebounding from a business failure. Once the pair's programmable system had been streamlined and turned into a commercial product—the Channel F console—by a team at pioneering electronics company Fairchild, it changed the fundamental business model of home video games forever. By injecting flexibility into a new technology, it paved the way for massive industry growth and the birth of a new creative medium.
Engineers at a Polish start-up have crammed an entire computer into the tiny space inside a mouse, and are now looking for help to bring it to market.
Via Alexander Crépin
By rewriting the DNA of Escherichia coli so that the bacterium requires a synthetic amino acid to produce its essential proteins, two research teams may have paved the way to ensure that genetically modified organisms don’t escape into the environment. The life-or-death dependence of the newly engineered E. coli on synthetic amino acids makes it astronomically difficult for the genetically modified organism to survive outside the laboratory, explains Harvard Medical School’s George M. Church, who led one of the teams reporting the discovery in Nature (2015, DOI: 10.1038/nature14121).
That’s because no pool of synthetic amino acids exists in nature, he explains. A similar strategy was simultaneously published by Farren J. Isaacs and his colleagues at Yale University, also in Nature (2015, DOI: 10.1038/nature14095). The discoveries help construct improved containment barriers for genetically modified bacteria currently used in the biotech-based production of products as diverse as yogurt, propanediol, or insulin, Isaacs says. They also set the stage for expanding the use of genetically modified organisms in applications outside the lab, Isaacs adds. For example, he says, the bacteria could be used as the “basis for designer probiotics for diseases that originate in the gut of our bodies, or for specialized microorganisms that clean up landfills or oil spills.”
“There are all these ideas for using engineered cells [outside the confines of a lab], but the problem is that they’re not contained,” comments Christopher A. Voigt, a synthetic biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “This is the proof-of-principle work for addressing that problem.” To make the genetic firewall, both teams made changes to E. coli’s genome so that the bacteria’s protein production machinery inserts a nonnatural amino acid when it reads a specific three-base-pair codon. “They’ve extended the genetic code so that it can take a 21st amino acid,” explains Tom Ellis, a synthetic biologist at Imperial University, in London, who was not involved in the work. The two teams used different synthetic amino acids, but both groups selected mimics of phenylalanine, a bulky, hydrophobic amino acid.
Next, both teams scoured E. coli’s genome for essential proteins that the organism needed to survive. They looked for areas in those proteins where the synthetic amino acids might replace natural amino acids. Although both teams combined computational design and evolutionary biology to select which amino acid to replace in three essential proteins, Church’s team relied more on the former approach and Isaacs’ team on the latter.
Finally, they showed that when the engineered bacteria have access to a pool of the synthetic amino acids, they can build their essential proteins. With no access to the synthetic amino acids, protein production stalls and the bacteria die.
The teams performed extensive tests to see whether the newly engineered bacteria could evolve ways to sidestep the need for synthetic amino acids. Whenever the microbes managed the feat, the researchers tweaked the DNA until the bacteria depended solely on the synthetic amino acids.
Previous strategies for containing genetically modified bacteria seem “naive” in hindsight, Ellis says. These earlier strategies employed kill switches, which are “systems where the organism dies if some compound or environmental cue wasn’t given,” he adds. “Here the kill system is fully embedded in the heart of the bacteria.”
In theory, the strategy could be extended to other genetically modified organisms, such as plants, Voigt says. “It will probably be really hard, but not impossible,” he adds. According to Ellis, the next step is to get the platform working in yeast, which will be “an order of magnitude harder than bacteria.”
Another important step is to improve containment by ensuring that all DNA engineered into the organism relies on the synthetic amino acid, Ellis says. “If you accidentally spill the bacteria into the environment, it’s going to die,” he says. “But that DNA is left behind. The genetically modified genes could be incorporated into other bacteria through horizontal transfer,” he warns. “To alleviate all fears, we need to ensure that all genes you add to an organism—say for making insulin or biofuels—are also behind the genetic firewall and somehow encode the 21st amino acid.”
Via Dr. Stefan Gruenwald
I didn't know why synthetic biology might ensure our safety to a certain degree. I love this quote: "Another important step is to improve containment by ensuring that all DNA engineered into the organism relies on the synthetic amino acid, Ellis says. “If you accidentally spill the bacteria into the environment, it’s going to die,” he says. “But that DNA is left behind. The genetically modified genes could be incorporated into other bacteria through horizontal transfer,” he warns. “To alleviate all fears, we need to ensure that all genes you add to an organism—say for making insulin or biofuels—are also behind the genetic firewall and somehow encode the 21st amino acid.”"
Volition, like intelligence, is an element of interest and utility to both philosophers and researchers in artificial intelligence. Could looking at the biological roots of volition help define a way to approach artificial general intelligence?
UCLA neurophysicists have found that space-mapping neurons in the brain react differently to virtual reality than they do to real-world environments. Their findings could be significant for people who use virtual reality for gaming, military, commercial, scientific or other purposes.
Via Charles Tiayon
Today, humans suffer from a wide range of diseases and disorders that didn't exist in the past, a trend that will likely continue well into the future. Here are 10 unexpected and wholly unpleasant diseases we'll eventually have to contend with.
George Dvorsky, 04/12/2014
Via Pierre Tran
Using convolutional neural networks, a team of researchers has taught robots how to manipulate objects by having them watch videos from the Internet.
"The researchers found that their CNN system achieved 93% success in object recognition, and 76% on grasp recognition. This ended up with a 83% success rate for manipulation actions by the robots, although they admit the robot did get confused about how to handle the tofu." :excerpt
A widening probe of the foreign-exchange market is roiling an industry already under pressure to reduce costs as computer platforms displace human traders.
Electronic dealing, which accounted for 66 percent of all currency transactions in 2013 and 20 percent in 2001, will increase to 76 percent within five years, according to Aite Group LLC, a Boston-based consulting firm that reviewed Bank for International Settlements data. About 81 percent of spot trading -- the buying and selling of currency for immediate delivery -- will be electronic by 2018, Aite said.
“Foreign-exchange traders are much like stock floor traders: a rapidly dying breed,” said Charles Geisst, author of “Wall Street: A History” and a finance professor at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York. “Once the banks realize they are costing them money, the positions will dwindle quickly.”
Related:Swaps Pioneers Recall Wild West Days as Trades Go Digital
At least a dozen regulators are investigating allegations first reported byBloomberg News in June that traders colluded to rig benchmarks in the $5.3 trillion-a-day currency market. That scrutiny may give banks an opportunity to cull more staff, say analysts including Christopher Wheeler of Mediobanca SpA in London. It’s also boosting demand from clients for greater transparency in pricing and transaction charges, accelerating a longer-term shift in trading onto electronic platforms.
“The margins are very, very skinny in foreign exchange because it’s easy to move onto a trading platform,” said Wheeler, who tracks European lenders. “The move by banks into electronic trading in other areas has cost a large number of jobs, and we’ve seen revenue come off sharply. The foreign-exchange probe won’t help this.”
The push toward electronic trading probably will lower costs for customers and boost transparency of pricing, according to Cormac Leech, an analyst at Liberum Capital Ltd. in London. It may also squeeze margins for banks, he said.
Human traders have maintained their role in the foreign-exchange market while disappearing in areas such as equities because most trading takes place away from exchanges. That means clients don’t have a central repository showing the flow of completed orders, forcing them to piece together information about the direction of rates from traders and salesmen with knowledge of other clients’ orders. People were also needed because early computerized trading systems weren’t reliable and couldn’t handle larger transactions, according to dealers.
“Many algorithms in previous foreign-exchange platforms were very, very basic -- not a lot more than egg timers,” Chris Purves, London-based global head of foreign-exchange, rates and credit electronic trading at UBS AG (UBSN), said in an interview. “The equities world, on the other hand, had advanced algorithms with gaming technology inside of them -- they would randomly split up clip sizes to provide best execution. A lot of that technology has now been brought into the foreign-exchange world.”
Deutsche Bank AG (DBK), Citigroup Inc., Barclays Plc and UBS AG are the four biggest currency-trading banks, according to a May survey by Euromoney. The investigation of alleged manipulation already is reducing the number of spot traders at these and other firms. At least 21 traders have been fired or suspended as a result of the probe. Some are leaving of their own volition. Banks including UBS, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup have banned dealers from using multiparty chat rooms.
Firms such as London-based Barclays (BARC) have started to cut employees amid a wider squeeze in revenue from fixed income, currencies and commodities, according to people with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
“A handful of traders in a few banks have a huge information advantage they can transform into profits,” said Andre Spicer, a professor at Cass Business School in London. “They know what order flows are, and research shows order flow is one of the few decent predictors of price in this market. Ongoing inquiries may erode this information advantage by restructuring the market. This will kill off opportunities for relatively easy profit.”
Banks’ income from foreign exchange already has been squeezed. Volatility, a key driver of revenue, is declining as concern that Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis would trigger the breakup of the euro eased and central banks provided unprecedented liquidity to stabilize markets.
Deutsche Bank’s Currency Volatility Index, which measures the market’s expectation of future price swings for nine currency pairs, slumped to 7.53 percent on Feb. 17. The index was as high as 15.8 percent in September 2011.
That decline is crimping revenue at firms including Citigroup (C) and UBS. New York-based Citigroup said last month that revenue in its rates and foreign-exchange business was down slightly in the fourth quarter from the previous period. UBS said this month that foreign-exchange revenue declined in the fourth quarter because of “lower liquidity and reduced client risk appetite.”
Regulators are helping push more trading away from humans to electronic platforms by making some transactions more expensive for banks. The latest rules from the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision will make foreign-exchange derivatives -- contracts with values derived from changes in currency rates -- less attractive for banks by imposing charges for holding positions and products that aren’t cleared through exchanges.
“No matter how you slice it, foreign-exchange options will be more expensive for clients to trade and for banks to take on,” said Kevin McPartland, head of market-structure research at consulting firm Greenwich Associates. “Shrinking profits from higher operational costs and the increased cost of capital may cause banks to focus on generating revenue from their traditional cash business and redirect money into technology that facilitates trading through an agency model.”
European regulators are also pushing firms to move more currency trading onto regulated exchanges to boost transparency. German Deputy Finance Minister Michael Meister this month gave his backing to such an overhaul after it was suggested in January by Bafin, the country’s financial regulator.
The Basel rules are spurring the development of a currency futures market, based on exchanges. In 2005, the volume of such futures traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange was less than one-third of daily spot trading on EBS, an electronic trading platform owned by ICAP Plc. In 2013, CME surpassed EBS for the first time, and by December, the volume of futures traded on the CME was almost 30 percent greater than that logged through EBS.
“The aggressive growth of the futures model demonstrates a clear shift in the landscape, with market participants looking at alternative sources of liquidity and hedging tools alongside the over-the-counter market,” said Derek Sammann, a managing director at the CME.
Two of the biggest currency-trading banks are taking different approaches to defend their share of the market. Barclays has developed an addition to its electronic platform that gives clients foreign-exchange rates aggregated from external sources. Zurich-based UBS is trying to retain the human element in its platform, allowing clients to connect directly with its sales and trading desks, in addition to accessing research covering fixed income, credit, equities products and foreign exchange.
Barclays, the U.K.’s second-largest bank by assets, last year started Gator, which allows clients to trade foreign exchange with the same technology its traders already used internally to quote prices. Gator, an extension of Barclays’s earlier BARX platform, is the first offering from an investment bank to aggregate currency prices from external sources such as EBS, Currenex and FXall, which is owned byThomson Reuters. EBS was started by a group of banks in 1990 before being acquired by ICAP, the world’s largest interdealer broker, in 2006.
Officials at Barclays, Deutsche Bank and Citigroup declined to comment on their trading operations. Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, competes with Thomson Reuters and EBS in providing news, information and currency-trading systems.
In October, Switzerland’s largest bank started UBS Neo, a platform that replaced almost 100 internal systems with one that allows institutional clients to trade a range of asset classes. The system, which enables clients to connect with traders and salespeople, mimics the way Twitter lets users to follow one another.
While the system uses computer algorithms to complete client orders, a service for which clients once relied on dealers’ judgment, some trades are still passed on to the dealing desk in Zurich. The firm still has about 25 spot currency traders, said a person with knowledge of the matter.
About 70 percent of Barclays’s trading is electronic today, compared with less than half when it opened its first currency platform in 2005, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
“A good chunk of spot traders, maybe 30 percent to 40 percent of them are at high risk of electronification eating their lunch,” said Javier Paz, senior analyst at Aite.
A decade ago, France’s BNP Paribas SA (BNP) employed about 15 spot traders and one electronic foreign-exchange team member in Paris. Today, the team has moved to London and includes six spot traders and eight people dealing with electronic trading, according a person with knowledge of the matter.
The shift to electronic trading may concentrate trading at an even smaller number of banks, forcing out competitors with a lower market share, according to Chirantan Barua, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein Ltd. in London. Some firms also may move toward the equities sales-trader model, where salesmen handle orders as well as provide market information.
“The old model is going away,” said John Taylor, founder of New York-based FX Concepts LLC, once the world’s biggest currency hedge fund before it went bankrupt last year. “But it’s better to say the old model has gone away several times. This is just the latest of those times.”
Via Stéphane Bisaillon
Almost 100 years ago physicists Werner Heisenberg, Max Born und Erwin Schrödinger created a new field of physics: quantum mechanics. Objects of the quantum world – according to quantum theory – no longer move along a single well-defined path. Rather, they can simultaneously take different paths and end up at different places at once. Physicists speak of quantum superposition of different paths. At the level of atoms, it looks as if objects indeed obey quantum mechanical laws. Over the years, many experiments have confirmed quantum mechanical predictions. In our macroscopic daily experience, however, we witness a football flying along exactly one path; it never strikes the goal and misses at the same time. Why is that so?
But it could also be that footballs obey completely different rules than those applying for single atoms. "Let us talk about the macro-realistic view of the world," Alberti explains. "According to this interpretation, the ball always moves on a specific trajectory, independent of our observation, and in contrast to the atom." But which of the two interpretations is correct? Do "large" objects move differently from small ones?
The physicists describe their research in the journal Physical Review X: With two optical tweezers they grabbed a single Caesium atom and pulled it in two opposing directions. In the macro-realist's world the atom would then be at only one of the two final locations. Quantum-mechanically, the atom would instead occupy a superposition of the two positions.
"We have now used indirect measurements to determine the final position of the atom in the most gentle way possible," says the PhD student Carsten Robens. Even such an indirect measurement (see figure) significantly modified the result of the experiments. This observation excludes – falsifies, as Karl Popper would say more precisely – the possibility that Caesium atoms follow a macro-realistic theory. Instead, the experimental findings of the Bonn team fit well with an interpretation based on superposition states that get destroyed when the indirect measurement occurs. All that we can do is to accept that the atom has indeed taken different paths at the same time.
"This is not yet a proof that quantum mechanics hold for large objects," cautions Alberti. "The next step is to separate the Caesium atom's two positions by several millimetres. Should we still find the superposition in our experiment, the macro-realistic theory would suffer another setback."
Via Dr. Stefan Gruenwald
The Omniprocessor is a safe repository for human waste. Today, in many places without modern sewage systems, truckers take the waste from latrines and dump it into the nearest river or the ocean—or at a treatment facility that doesn’t actually treat the sewage. Either way, it often ends up in the water supply. If they took it to the Omniprocessor instead, it would be burned safely. The machine runs at such a high temperature (1000 degrees Celsius) that there’s no nasty smell; in fact it meets all the emissions standards set by the U.S. government.
With all the hype about the Internet of Things—new connected products intended to bring greater efficiencies and simplicity to life—it may be surprising how few consumers are actually adopting these new technologies. "Despite predictions of rapid...
As real as that daydream may seem, its path through your brain runs opposite reality. Aiming to discern discrete neural circuits, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have tracked electrical activity in the brains of people who alternately imagined scenes or watched videos.
"A really important problem in brain research is understanding how different parts of the brain are functionally connected. What areas are interacting? What is the direction of communication?" says Barry Van Veen, a UW-Madison professor of electrical and computer engineering. "We know that the brain does not function as a set of independent areas, but as a network of specialized areas that collaborate."
Van Veen, along with Giulio Tononi, a UW-Madison psychiatry professor and neuroscientist, Daniela Dentico, a scientist at UW-Madison's Waisman Center, and collaborators from the University of Liege in Belgium, published results recently in the journal NeuroImage. Their work could lead to the development of new tools to help Tononi untangle what happens in the brain during sleep and dreaming, while Van Veen hopes to apply the study's new methods to understand how the brain uses networks to encode short-term memory.
During imagination, the researchers found an increase in the flow of information from the parietal lobe of the brain to the occipital lobe -- from a higher-order region that combines inputs from several of the senses out to a lower-order region. In contrast, visual information taken in by the eyes tends to flow from the occipital lobe -- which makes up much of the brain's visual cortex -- "up" to the parietal lobe.
"There seems to be a lot in our brains and animal brains that is directional, that neural signals move in a particular direction, then stop, and start somewhere else," says. "I think this is really a new theme that had not been explored."
The researchers approached the study as an opportunity to test the power of electroencephalography (EEG) -- which uses sensors on the scalp to measure underlying electrical activity -- to discriminate between different parts of the brain's network.
Brains are rarely quiet, though, and EEG tends to record plenty of activity not necessarily related to a particular process researchers want to study.
To zero in on a set of target circuits, the researchers asked their subjects to watch short video clips before trying to replay the action from memory in their heads. Others were asked to imagine traveling on a magic bicycle -- focusing on the details of shapes, colors and textures -- before watching a short video of silent nature scenes.
Using an algorithm Van Veen developed to parse the detailed EEG data, the researchers were able to compile strong evidence of the directional flow of information.
"We were very interested in seeing if our signal-processing methods were sensitive enough to discriminate between these conditions," says Van Veen, whose work is supported by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. "These types of demonstrations are important for gaining confidence in new tools."
Via Dr. Stefan Gruenwald