Archive for October 26, 2008

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New Device Will Sense Through Concrete Walls

Wired Danger Room:

The Pentagon wants to be able to peer inside your apartment building — picking out where all the major rooms, stairways, and dens of evil-doers are.

The U.S. military is getting better and better at spotting its enemies, when they’re roaming around the streets. But once those foes duck into houses, they become a whole lot harder to spot. That’s why Darpa, the Defense Department’s way-out research arm, is looking to develop a suite of tools for “external sensing deep inside buildings.” The ultimate goal of this Harnessing Infrastructure for Building Reconnaissance (HIBR) project: “reverse the adversaries’ advantage of urban familiarity and sanctuary and provide U.S. Forces with complete above- and below-ground awareness.”

By the end of the project, Darpa wants a set of technologies that can see into a 10-story building with a two-level basement in a “high-density urban block” — and produce a kind of digital blueprint of the place. Using sensors mounted on backpacks, vehicles, or aircraft, the HIBR gear would, hopefully, be able to pick out every room, wall, stairway, and basement in the building — as well as all of the “electrical, plumbing, and installation systems.”

Darpa doesn’t come out and say it openly.  But it appears that the agency wants these HIBR gadgets to be able to track the people inside these buildings, as well. Why else would these sensors be required to “provide real-time updates” once U.S. troops enter the building? Perhaps there’s more about the people-spotting tech, in the “classified appendix” to HIBR’s request for proposals.

There are already a number of efforts underway, both military and civilian, to try to see inside buildings. The Army has a couple of hand-held gadgets that can spot people just on the other side of a wall. Some scientists claim that can even catch human breathing and heartbeats beyond a barrier.

Darpa’s Visibuilding program uses a kind of radar to scan structures. The problem isn’t sending the radio frequency (RF) energy in.  It’s “making sense of the data produced from all the reflected signals” that come back, Henry Kenyon wrote in a recent Signal magazine article. Besides processing data from the inside a structure, the system also must filter a large amount of RF propagation in the form of randomly reflected signals. Although radar technologies exist that can track people in adjacent rooms, it is much more difficult to map an entire building. “Going through one wall is not that bad, but a building is basically an RF hall of mirrors. You’ve got signals bouncing all over the place,” Darpa program manager Dr. Edward J. Baranoski says. Field trials are supposed to get underway this fall.

Ignorance Is Futile:

AGI is the equivalent of what many typically envision when talking about (human level or greater) “AI”. So to simply say ‘Google is funding AI’ means almost nothing. “AI” in itself means a wide range of everyday things such as the ‘computer’ player in video games going back to the beginning. But to factually say that Google is now publicly funding AGI is a far more profound statement.

Meet Novamente, and Dr. Ben Goertzel. Novamente’s mission statement is to have self modifying human level intelligence in roughly 2012. I’ve been well aware of the mad doctor and his activities (such as working for NIH and other government and military agencies (I have video of Ben stating this somewhere) for some time. I also took note of his recent OpenCog, an open source project to accelerate progress toward safe, beneficial artificial general intelligence. I haven’t the time to do huge writeups on everything happening in the world of AGI, although I have certainly given mention to Ben in many various writings.

For being what I consider a ‘government’ (or rather Technological Establishment) insider, I do give him props for being much more open and ‘honest’ about the AGI ordeal than many of his other contemporaries. In contrast, Ray Kurzweil tells us it’s coming but then tells us not for another 20 years give or take a few. The absurdness of Ray’s claims, assuming that AGI is possible of course, is that he basically sets the ‘date’ to be about the same time that commercially availible $1000 CPU’s match roughly human complexity in regards to transistors.

The DARPA insider that Ray is, he doesn’t like to discuss things like what if there were an AGI ‘Manhattan Project’, like Ben does. Aside from the aforementioned Novamente claims of their own AGI due-date, Ben has claimed in many videos and writings that all they need to solve the “Strong AI ‘Problem‘” to enable rapid AGI genesis is for there to be an AGI “Manhattan Project”. As I demonstrated in my recent ‘Google … God On Earth‘ article, such a project (Google + NASA + DARPA) exists. But one thing lacking from my recent ‘Google God’ analysis was outside funding by Google, but now that intel exists on my radar screen.

Google is listed as sponsor of the OpenCog project, specializing in financial support for OpenCog programmers via Google Summer of Code. And this isn’t Ben’s first noteworthy interaction with Google, either. Watch Ben’s ‘Google Tech Talk’, “Artificial General Intelligence: Now Is the Time“, from last October, on Google’s official Tech Talk Youtube channel.

In summary, this intel should put to rest some of the notions of Google not directly seeking AGI although their entire operation is merely ‘Narrow AI’ claims I’ve been seeing around.

New Scientist:

For all its sophistication and power, your brain is built from unreliable components – one neuron can successfully provoke a signal in another only 40% of the time.

This lack of efficiency frustrates neuroengineers trying to build networks of brain cells to interface with electronics or repair damaged nervous systems.

Our brains combine neurons into heavily connected groups to unite their 40% reliability into a much more reliable whole.

Now human engineers working with neurons in the lab have achieved the same trick: building reliable digital logic gates that perform like those inside electronics.

Built from scratch

Elisha Moses at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and his students Ofer Feinerman and Assaf Rotem have developed a way to control the growth pattern of neurons to build reliable circuits that use neurons rather than wires.

The starting point is a glass plate coated with cell-repellent material. The desired circuit pattern is scratched into this coating and then coated with a cell-friendly adhesive. Unable to gain purchase on most of the plate, the cells are forced to grow in the scratched areas.

The scratched paths are thin enough to force the neurons to grow along them in one direction only, forming straight wire-like connections around the circuit.

Using this method the researchers built a device that acts like an AND logic gate, producing an output only when it receives two inputs.

Better together

The gate is made from a network of neurons in a square shape approximately 900 micrometres on a side. Three of the sides form a “horseshoe” 150-micrometres wide, and packed with neurons. On the fourth side an isolated neuron island is linked to the other sides by two thinner bridges (see image, top right).

Neurons send their wire-like extensions that carry signals – axons – across those narrow bridges to the neuron island.

When stimulated with a small dose of a drug, the neurons send signals around the circuit. An ion blocker is used in the centre of the horseshoe to electrically isolate one side from the other.

By changing the width of the bridges, the researchers are able to control how many axons link to the neuron island, and tune their device to behave like an AND gate.

The neurons on the island only produce an output after receiving signals through both of the thin bridges. Like a natural system, the device transcends the performance of individual neurons – achieving 95% reliability from a collection of 40% reliable components.

Brain interface

Rotem thinks that this provides a useful model for real brain function. “The existence of a threshold level for activation plays a central role in neuronal computation,” he says. In his logic gates and real brains alike, many neurons contribute to generate a signal strong enough to excite another group of neurons, he says.

Charles Stevens at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, is not so sure, pointing out that real brain “circuits” do not resemble logic gates.

But achieving reliable performance from lab-grown neurons is still impressive, he adds. “There is a sort of fascination with neural networks grown in culture, and this paper improves on the usual random networks,” he says.

Rotem says that brain-cell logic circuits could serve as intermediaries between computers and the nervous system. “It’s difficult to physically interface [neural prosthetics] with live neurons,” he says.

Brain implants can allow the paralysed to control robot arms or learn to talk again, but suffer a drop-off in performance when scar tissue coats their electrodes. “An intermediate layer of in vitro neurons interfacing between man and machine could be advantageous,” he says.

Journal reference: Nature Physics, DOI: 10.1038/nphys1099

The Human Brain – With one hundred billion nerve cells, the complexity is mind-boggling. Learn more in our cutting edge special report.

Newsweek:When Congress passed a landmark electronic-spying bill last summer, the measure included a key provision that ordered the inspectors general of U.S. intelligence agencies to produce the first-ever public report on President Bush’s warrantless-surveillance program.

The report isn’t due until next July-long after Bush leaves office. But when the inspectors general recently submitted their first “interim” report to Congress under the measure, it wasn’t made public. Instead, the brief document, written by CIA inspector general John Helgerson, was marked classified-a move that has drawn a stiff protest from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes.

In an Oct. 10 letter, Reyes complained to Helgerson (who is coordinating the review by 16 different inspectors general) for submitting a secret interim report when Congress envisioned a document that could be shared with the public. The letter essentially said, “Here’s what the law says, please explain why you’re not following the law,” Courtney Littig, a spokeswoman for the House Intelligence Committee, tells NEWSWEEK.

Reyes’s letter also included a request that the inspectors general issue a “preservation order” preventing White House or intelligence community officials from removing or destroying documents relating to the warrantless-surveillance program. With barely three months left in the administration, Reyes wanted to make sure that “they don’t destroy anything before they walk out the door,” Littig says.

The dispute might not seem entirely unexpected. A veil of super secrecy has surrounded the program since President Bush, in the weeks after 9/11, directed the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct surveillance of phone calls and e-mails of terror suspects inside the United States without judicial warrants. The little-noticed provision for a public inspectors-general report was crucial to gaining the support of some liberal Democrats—including Sen. Barack Obama—for last summer’s bill, which allowed a modified version of the program to continue.

At the time, Obama was attacked by liberal bloggers for reversing his position on one of the most controversial provisions in the bill: a section, strongly backed by the White House, that granted blanket immunity to telecommunications companies facing lawsuits for participating in what critics charged was an illegal program. But Obama pointed to the mandate for a public report as a reason he was finally prepared to back the measure—even though it would squash lawsuits that could have led to a public airing of the extent of warrantless spying conduct by the administration. “The Inspectors General report provides a real mechanism for accountability and should not be discounted,” Obama wrote in a statement posted on his Web site on July 3. “It will allow a close look at past misconduct without hurdles that would exist in federal court because of classification issues.”

Asked for comment, Michael Ortiz, a spokesman for Obama, said: “Senator Obama continues to believe that the public deserves to know that there is accountability and oversight of the surveillance program and urges that a nonclassified report from the IG be made available to Congress.” But a U.S. intelligence community official, who asked not to be identified, talking about sensitive matters, insisted there was no intent on the part of Helgerson or the other inspectors general to ignore the congressional requirement for a public report on the surveillance program. The official said the National Security Agency—which conducted the warrantless surveillance—was still reviewing the material in the interim report in an effort to see what can be declassified. “This is simply the first step. The review is not over by any means,” the official said.

Sources familiar with the interim report said there is nothing all that sensitive about it. The document merely outlines the “scope” of the review that the inspectors general plan to conduct in preparation for the final report due next July.

As for the demands for a preservation order, the official said: “Directives have been issued to preserve records relating to this surveillance program. But, as Congress is aware, intelligence community inspectors general have clearly defined authorities. Those authorities don’t, as a rule, extend to giving orders to the White House.”

Littig says the intelligence committee has no evidence that documents about the surveillance program were being destroyed. But, she adds that given the tangled history of the program—and the limited disclosure provided to Congress over the years—”we’ve learned to be very specific.”

ars technica:

Longtime Ars readers know that I’ve had my own problems in the “Constitution-free zone” that exists in US airports, but an aggressive new ACLU campaign highlights a fact of which I was previously unaware: the Constitution-free zone that exists a US borders and airports actually extends 100 air miles inland and encompasses two-thirds of the country’s population. The US Border Patrol can set up checkpoints anywhere in this region and question citizens.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution contains a border-related exception to unreasonable search and seizure laws, permitting searches at border checkpoints that wouldn’t be permitted elsewhere. But federal statute 8 CFR 287.1 (a)(1-3) defines the border zone for enforcement purposes as encompassing an area within 100 miles of the actual border, with the possibility of extending it further under certain circumstances. This means that the US Border Patrol could conceivably set up random checkpoints asking travelers for a passport in places like Columbus, Ohio; Houston; or anywhere in the state of Florida. And, in fact, it appears that it has been doing exactly this.

Papers, please

In 2003, the Seattle Times reported on random “spot checks” of cars and luggage that border patrol agents were performing on US citizens who were taking the ferry between Washington State and the San Juan islands. Because most of the passengers on these ferries had not actually crossed an international border, the ACLU advised them at the time not to answer any questions asked of them by federal agents.

In the intervening years, the ACLU has been collecting other reports of such inland “border” checkpoints, and has built its new “Constitution-Free Zone” campaign around them. Unfortunately for the ACLU, few of the folks who have been subject to search at such checkpoints have actually come forward with complaints, but the ones who did speak up have compelling and troubling stories.

Take the story of Vince Peppard from San Diego, who crossed the border to buy tiles at a discount store in Mexico. Upon crossing back into the US, he was subject to the usual check at the border, but on driving further inland he was stopped a second checkpoint, where agents asked to search his car.

Peppard, a member of the ACLU, refused the search, at which point he was questioned repeatedly, and eventually escorted from his car while the agents searched it. Segments of Peppard’s account of the incident, which the ACLU has posted in video form on their site, would almost be funny if the issue weren’t so serious.

“He starts looking at the passport and the driver’s license,” says Peppard, “and he goes to my wife, ‘Where were you born?’ because she has an accent, but she’s a US citizen. And so she says, ‘I was born in Syria,’ and he goes, ‘Ah! A Syrian!’ like he’d hit the jackpot or something.”

Peppard then goes a little overboard in expressing worry that he may be stopped and asked for his passport at Home Depot or in other random locations, but he finishes off the clip with a concern that may not be so far-fetched. Specifically, Peppard worries that, because he has talked to the ACLU and has filed a complaint with the Border Patrol, he may be singled out for further harassment at border checkpoints.

Ultimately, one wonders just how far the Feds will push this internal checkpoint idea in a non-emergency situation; given the likely reaction to citizens being asked to show papers on a mass scale, it seems unlikely that the government will truly install checkpoints north of Columbus and begin screening in large numbers. But vigilance, as the saying goes, is the price of freedom, which is why the ACLU and its allies intend to challenge the practice before we have a chance to find out.



Using data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, the ACLU has determined that nearly 2/3 of the entire US population (197.4 million people) live within 100 miles of the US land and coastal borders.

The government is assuming extraordinary powers to stop and search individuals within this zone. This is not just about the border: This ” Constitution-Free Zone” includes most of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

We urge you to call on Congress to hold hearings on and pass legislation to end these egregious violations of Americans’ civil rights.

> Fact Sheet on Border “Constitution-free Zone”
> Border Security Technologies
> Remarks of Craig Johnson
> Constitution-Free Zone: The Numbers

In the News

“Homeland Security Assuming Broad Powers, Turning Vast Swaths of U.S. into “Constitution-Free Zone”,” ACLU Blog of Rights, October 22, 2008.  Online>

“ACLU Assails 100-Mile Border Zone as ‘Constitution-Free’,” Wired (Blog,) October 22, 2008. Online>

“Expanded Powers to Search Travelers at Border Detailed,” The Washington Post, September 23, 2008.  Online>

“Citizens’ Border Crossings Tracked, Data From Checkpoints to be Kept for 15 years,” The Washington Post, August 20, 2008. Online>

“Ferry worker denounces Anacortes patrol agent,” Associated Press, June 19, 2008. Online>

“Checkpoint Sticks In Forks’ Craw,” The Seattle Times, March 21, 2007. Online>