Technology and marketing to turn start-ups into global business
There appears to be literally nothing microbes cannot do. From the invention of photosynthesis to lifecycles that require no sunlight—even surviving extreme radiation—the most extreme microbes thrive almost everywhere scientists look. And now microbiologists have added two more energy-related tricks to the microbial arsenal.
At the European Society for General Microbiology meeting this week, Richard Johnson and his fellow scientists from the University of Essex will present research showing that a mixed ecosystem of particular bacteria can survive—and clean up—one of the most lethal man-made environments: the residue from extracting petroleum from oil sands.
Extracting this heavy oil and refining it produces a slew of toxic waste, particularly water with naphthenic acid (one of the secret ingredients of napalm). In Athabasca region of Canada—home to much of the oil sands industry—there are at least one billion cubic meters of such polluted water sitting in local ponds.
What to do? Unleash bacteria, Johnson says. The microbes can break down the naphthenic acid into more benign byproducts in a few days rather than the decade or more it can take naturally. This can cut down on the environmental impact of producing oil from tar sands, of which there is an estimated 3.6 trillion barrels (double known conventional oil reserves).
It does not, however, address that other related byproduct: climate change caused by the greenhouse gases emitted when the oil is burned. Maybe microbes can help with that too (after all, they were responsible for the composition of the atmosphere until humans came along).
And it turns out E. coli—most famous for its role in food poisoning—does a pretty good job of cleaning up another potentially important but lethal energy source: radioactive waste. Lynne Macaskie and colleagues at the University of Birmingham show in another presentation at the same meeting how said E. coli, in conjunction with a cheap, widely available chemical (inositol phosphate), can recover uranium from the polluted waters of mines.
Basically, the E. coli break down the chemical and free the phosphate, which then bonds with the uranium and forms a precipitate on the exterior of the cell that can be harvested.
The researchers estimate that such recovered uranium would cost about 15 cents per gram of the nuclear fuel element. But it also offers an environmental protection advantage, removing radioactive material from the mine tailings. The process could even be used on spent fuel rods and other nuclear waste.
Image: Courtesy of USDA Agricultural Research Service / Photo by Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher
for National Geographic News
For all its might, the World Wide Web is still limited to, well, our world.
But that’s quickly changing with the advent of an “interplanetary internet” that planners say will revolutionize space communication.
The Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) system, which entered another phase of testing this week, will allow astronauts to Google from the moon or tweet their observations from space.
But DTN provides far more than a connection to check your email. It’s also essential for simplifying space command and control functions—such as power production or life-support systems—crucial for future space initiatives.
“You need an automated communications technology … to sustain planetary exploration on the scale that NASA and others want to perform over the next decade,” said Kevin Gifford, a senior research associate at BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
“DTN enables the transition from a simple point-to-point network, like a walkie-talkie, to a true multimode network like the Internet.”
After a decade of development DTN has advanced quickly over the past year, and NASA missions are planning to adopt the network by 2011. In November 2008 NASA test-drove the network by sending space images to and from the EPOXI spacecraft, some 20 million miles (32 million kilometers) from Earth.
DTN protocols were also installed on the International Space Station in May, and summer testing began the first week of July.
Houston, We’re Fixing a Problem
Though tweeting astronauts have gotten a lot of press, “the reality is that they [don’t really] tweet or have browsing capability on the International Space Station,” explained Gifford, who is part of a large, cooperative DTN effort that has also included NASA and Internet veterans.
“Right now they actually voice down a simple blurb, and the tweet is operated manually from Houston,” he said. In fact most current space communication involves humans manually scheduling each and every link, sometimes weeks or even months in advance for distant spacecraft, and dictating exactly which data are sent and when.
“Typically spacecraft go off and do their thing, gather up data, and then on some schedule they connect to the ground and [we] pull down the results of what it has been doing and send up instructions for the next time period,” Hooke said.
Such manual operations are inefficient and expensive. But simply extending Earth’s Internet into space won’t work.
The Web uses Transmission-Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), a type of communication language in which hosts and computers must be constantly connected.
This rarely happens in space, where intermittent connections are the norm because of the vast distances involved and the tendency of orbiting moons, rotating planets, and drifting satellites to temporarily disrupt wireless lines of communication.
Typical space delays, even those caused by solar storms, are handled in stride by DTN, Hooke said.
Each node in the network—whether it’s the International Space Station or a small orbiting robot—stores all the data it receives until a clear opportunity arises to pass its “bundle” along to the others in the network. DTN nodes do not discard data when a destination path can’t be identified.
Hooke likens this “store and forward” process to a basketball team systematically passing the ball downcourt to players closer to the hoop.
The result, he explained, will be a communications leap akin to that between the post office and the telephone.
“A letter is a pretty self-contained story, it says do this or order that, and you mail it off and wait for a response.”
But the new DTN system will open a more consistent line of back-and-forth communication.
Edge of the Solar System
DTN is already used for earthbound projects.
Scientists, for instance, are using the system to tag and track wildlife with a data-delivery capacity far more reliable than past satellite-based networks.
DTN can also bring broadband Web to remote areas with few communication structures, connecting remote humans such as the Arctic’s Sami people via satellite with far shorter time lags.
The U.S. military has also embraced the technology to help keep lines of communication open in remote areas—or when other infrastructure is destroyed.
So far, DTN doesn’t seem to have a catch, experts say.
“There are no physical limits on where the protocols would stop working,” Hooke said.
“We could use it to [send messages to] the edges of the solar system—the question is, how long will you wait for a response?”
Computers may be good at crunching numbers, but can they crunch feelings?
Margaret Francis and Mars Hall of the San Francisco company Scout Labs.
The rise of blogs and social networks has fueled a bull market in personal opinion: reviews, ratings, recommendations and other forms of online expression. For computer scientists, this fast-growing mountain of data is opening a tantalizing window onto the collective consciousness of Internet users.
An emerging field known as sentiment analysis is taking shape around one of the computer world’s unexplored frontiers: translating the vagaries of human emotion into hard data.
This is more than just an interesting programming exercise. For many businesses, online opinion has turned into a kind of virtual currency that can make or break a product in the marketplace.
Yet many companies struggle to make sense of the caterwaul of complaints and compliments that now swirl around their products online. As sentiment analysis tools begin to take shape, they could not only help businesses improve their bottom lines, but also eventually transform the experience of searching for information online.
Several new sentiment analysis companies are trying to tap into the growing business interest in what is being said online.
“Social media used to be this cute project for 25-year-old consultants,” said Margaret Francis, vice president for product at Scout Labs in San Francisco. Now, she said, top executives “are recognizing it as an incredibly rich vein of market intelligence.”
Scout Labs, which is backed by the venture capital firm started by the CNet founder Halsey Minor, recently introduced a subscription service that allows customers to monitor blogs, news articles, online forums and social networking sites for trends in opinions about products, services or topics in the news.
In early May, the ticket marketplace StubHub used Scout Labs’ monitoring tool to identify a sudden surge of negative blog sentiment after rain delayed a Yankees-Red Sox game.
Stadium officials mistakenly told hundreds of fans that the game had been canceled, and StubHub denied fans’ requests for refunds, on the grounds that the game had actually been played. But after spotting trouble brewing online, the company offered discounts and credits to the affected fans. It is now re-evaluating its bad weather policy.
“This is a canary in a coal mine for us,” said John Whelan, StubHub’s director of customer service.
Jodange, based in Yonkers, offers a service geared toward online publishers that lets them incorporate opinion data drawn from over 450,000 sources, including mainstream news sources, blogs and Twitter.
Based on research by Claire Cardie, a former Cornell computer science professor, and Jan Wiebe of the University of Pittsburgh, the service uses a sophisticated algorithm that not only evaluates sentiments about particular topics, but also identifies the most influential opinion holders.
Jodange, whose early investors include the National Science Foundation, is currently working on a new algorithm that could use opinion data to predict future developments, like forecasting the impact of newspaper editorials on a company’s stock price.
In a similar vein, The Financial Times recently introduced Newssift, an experimental program that tracks sentiments about business topics in the news, coupled with a specialized search engine that allows users to organize their queries by topic, organization, place, person and theme.
Using Newssift, a search for Wal-Mart reveals that recent sentiment about the company is running positive by a ratio of slightly better than two to one. When that search is refined with the suggested term “Labor Force and Unions,” however, the ratio of positive to negative sentiments drops closer to one to one.
Such tools could help companies pinpoint the effect of specific issues on customer perceptions, helping them respond with appropriate marketing and public relations strategies.
For casual Web surfers, simpler incarnations of sentiment analysis are sprouting up in the form of lightweight tools like Tweetfeel, Twendz and Twitrratr. These sites allow users to take the pulse of Twitter users about particular topics.
A quick search on Tweetfeel, for example, reveals that 77 percent of recent tweeters liked the movie “Julie & Julia.” But the same search on Twitrratr reveals a few misfires. The site assigned a negative score to a tweet reading “julie and julia was truly delightful!!” That same message ended with “we all felt very hungry afterwards” — and the system took the word “hungry” to indicate a negative sentiment.
While the more advanced algorithms used by Scout Labs, Jodange and Newssift employ advanced analytics to avoid such pitfalls, none of these services works perfectly. “Our algorithm is about 70 to 80 percent accurate,” said Ms. Francis, who added that its users can reclassify inaccurate results so the system learns from its mistakes.
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Translating the slippery stuff of human language into binary values will always be an imperfect science, however. “Sentiments are very different from conventional facts,” said Seth Grimes, the founder of the suburban Maryland consulting firm Alta Plana, who points to the many cultural factors and linguistic nuances that make it difficult to turn a string of written text into a simple pro or con sentiment. “ ‘Sinful’ is a good thing when applied to chocolate cake,” he said.
The simplest algorithms work by scanning keywords to categorize a statement as positive or negative, based on a simple binary analysis (“love” is good, “hate” is bad). But that approach fails to capture the subtleties that bring human language to life: irony, sarcasm, slang and other idiomatic expressions. Reliable sentiment analysis requires parsing many linguistic shades of gray.
“We are dealing with sentiment that can be expressed in subtle ways,” said Bo Pang, a researcher at Yahoo who co-wrote “Opinion Mining and Sentiment Analysis,” one of the first academic books on sentiment analysis.
To get at the true intent of a statement, Ms. Pang developed software that looks at several different filters, including polarity (is the statement positive or negative?), intensity (what is the degree of emotion being expressed?) and subjectivity (how partial or impartial is the source?).
For example, a preponderance of adjectives often signals a high degree of subjectivity, while noun- and verb-heavy statements tend toward a more neutral point of view.
As sentiment analysis algorithms grow more sophisticated, they should begin to yield more accurate results that may eventually point the way to more sophisticated filtering mechanisms. They could become a part of everyday Web use.
“I see sentiment analysis becoming a standard feature of search engines,” said Mr. Grimes, who suggests that such algorithms could begin to influence both general-purpose Web searching and more specialized searches in areas like e-commerce, travel reservations and movie reviews.
Ms. Pang envisions a search engine that fine-tunes results for users based on sentiment. For example, it might influence the ordering of search results for certain kinds of queries like “best hotel in San Antonio.”
As search engines begin to incorporate more and more opinion data into their results, the distinction between fact and opinion may start blurring to the point where, as David Byrne once put it, “facts all come with points of view.”
A robotic sub called Nereus has reached the deepest-known part of the ocean.
The dive to 10,902m (6.8 miles) took place on 31 May, at the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, located in the western Pacific Ocean.
This makes Nereus the deepest-diving vehicle currently in service and the first vehicle to explore the Marianas Trench since 1998.
The unmanned vehicle is remotely operated by pilots aboard a surface ship via a lightweight tether.
Its thin, fibre-optic tether to the research vessel Kilo Moana allows the submersible to make deep dives and be highly manoeuvrable.
THE NEREUS SUBMERSIBLE
Weight on land: 2,800kg
Payload capacity: 25kg
Maximum speed: 3 knots
Batteries: rechargeable lithium ion
Nereus can also be switched into a free-swimming, autonomous vehicle.
Virtual worlds and web ‘merging’
CEO of Second Life, Mark Kingdon
Second Life boss, Mark Kingdon, said identity is key in virtual worlds
“You take one avatar and you cross multiple virtual worlds… that is going to be a really powerful and important part of the virtual world future,” predicted Mark Kingdon, the boss of Second Life.
This online fantasy space had 1.4m users over the past two months, out of its 17m registered users, who can access to products and places replicated from real life.
The residents can spend their time visiting exact replicas of actual tourist hotspots, shops, or even bizarre fantasy lands.
Videos on the site’s homepage aim to help users find content that interests them within the vast 3D environment.
Second Life may have been one of the first virtual worlds of its kind, but six years on, the competition is fierce.