Monthly Archives: February 2017

An Early Door to Cyberspace: The Computer Memory Terminal

COMMUNITY MEMORY is the name we give to this experimental information service. It is an attempt to harness the power of the computer in the service of the community. We hope to do this by providing a sort of super bulletin board where people can post notices of all sorts and can find the notices posted by others rapidly.

We are Loving Grace Cybernetics, a group of Berkeley people operating out of Resource One Inc., a non-profit collective located in Project One in S.F. Resource One grew out of the San Francisco Switchboard and has managed to obtain control of a computer (XDS 940) for use in communications.

Pictured above is one of the Community Memory teletype terminals. The first was installed at Leopold’s Records, a student-run record store in Berkeley. The terminal connected by modem to a time-sharing computer in San Francisco, which hosted the electronic bulletin-board system. Users could exchange brief messages about a wide range of topics: apartment listings, music lessons, even where to find a decent bagel. Reading the bulletin board was free, but posting a listing cost a quarter, payable by the coin-op mechanism. The terminals offered many users their first interaction with a computer.

Among the volunteers who made up Loving Grace Cybernetics and Resource One was Lee Felsenstein, who would go on to help establish the Homebrew Computer Club and who played a number of other pioneering roles in the nascent personal computing industry. For Felsenstein, Community Memory was important for, among other things, opening “the door to cyberspace.”

The Community Memory project continued into the 1980s, when the terminal pictured here was created, and eventually evolved to include the idea of creating a national network of terminals and resources. [For more on the history of bulletin-board systems, see “Social Media’s Dial-Up Ancestor: The Bulletin Board,” in IEEE Spectrum.] But the underlying purpose remained unchanged: to increase the accessibility of computing as a means for communication and information exchange.

To learn more about the Community Memory project, see the Computer History Museum’s extensive collection on the topic.

Part of a continuing series looking at photographs of historical artifacts that embrace the boundless potential of technology.

Ordinary Computer Can Access The Secret of Quantum Computing

You may not need a quantum computer of your own to securely use quantum computing in the future. For the first time, researchers have shown how even ordinary classical computer users could remotely access quantum computing resources online while keeping their quantum computations securely hidden from the quantum computer itself.

Tech giants such as Google and IBM are racing to build universal quantum computers that could someday analyze millions of possible solutions much faster than today’s most powerful classical supercomputers. Such companies have also begun offering online access to their early quantum processors as a glimpse of how anyone could tap the power of cloud-based quantum computing. Until recently, most researchers believed that there was no way for remote users to securely hide their quantum computations from prying eyes unless they too possessed quantum computers. That assumption is now being challenged by researchers in Singapore and Australia through a new paper published in the 11 July issue of the journal Physical Review X.

“Frankly, I think we are all quite surprised that this is possible,” says Joseph Fitzsimons, a theoretical physicist for the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore and principal investigator on the study. “There had been a number of results showing that it was unlikely for a classical user to be able to hide [delegated quantum computations] perfectly, and I think many of us in the field had interpreted this as evidence that nothing useful could be hidden.”

The technique for helping classical computer users hide their quantum computations relies upon a particular approach known as measurement-based quantum computing. Quantum computing’s main promise relies upon leveraging quantum bits (qubits) of information that can exist as both 1s and 0s simultaneously—unlike classical computing bits that exist as either 1 or 0. That means qubits can simultaneously represent and process many more states of information than classical computing bits.

In measurement-based quantum computing, a quantum computer puts all its qubits into a particular state of quantum entanglement so that any changes to a single qubit affect all the qubits. Next, qubits are individually measured one by one in a certain order that specifies the program being run on the quantum computer. A remote user can provide step-by-step instructions for each qubit’s measurement that encode both the input data and the program being run. Crucially, each measurement depends on the outcome of previous measurements.

Fitzsimons and his colleagues figured out how to exploit this step-wise approach to quantum computing and achieve a new form of “blind quantum computation” security. They showed how remote users relying on classical computers can hide the meaning behind each step of the measurement sequence from the quantum computer performing the computation. That means the owner of the quantum computer cannot tell the role of each measurement step and which qubits were used for inputs, operations, or outputs.

The finding runs counter to previous assumptions that it was impossible to guarantee data privacy for users relying on ordinary classical computers to remotely access quantum computers. But Fitzsimons says that early feedback to the group’s work has been “very positive” because the proposed security mechanism—described as the “flow ambiguity effect”—is fairly straightforward.

Human OS ComputingHardware Low Cost Play Materials

Researchers have made a low-cost smart glove that can translate the American Sign Language alphabet into text and send the messages via Bluetooth to a smartphone or computer. The glove can also be used to control a virtual hand.

While it could aid the deaf community, its developers say the smart glove could prove really valuable for virtual and augmented reality, remote surgery, and defense uses like controlling bomb-diffusing robots.

This isn’t the first gesture-tracking glove. There are companies pursuing similar devices that recognize gestures for computer control, à la the 2002 film Minority Report. Some researchers have also specifically developed gloves that convert sign language into text or audible speech.

What’s different about the new glove is its use of extremely low-cost, pliable materials, says developer Darren Lipomi, a nanoengineering professor at the University of California, San Diego. The total cost of the components in the system reported in the journal PLOS ONE cost less than US $100, Lipomi says. And unlike other gesture-recognizing gloves, which use MEMS sensors made of brittle materials, the soft stretchable materials in Lipomi’s glove should make it more robust.

The key components of the new glove are flexible strain sensors made of a rubbery polymer. Lipomi and his team make the sensors by cutting narrow strips from a super-thin film of the polymer and coating them with conductive carbon paint.

Then they use a stretchy glue to attach nine sensors on the knuckles of an athletic leather glove, two on each finger and one on the thumb. Thin, stainless steel threads connect each sensor to a circuit board attached at the wrist. The board also has an accelerometer and a Bluetooth transmitter.

Complex Biological Computer Commands Living Cells

Researchers have developed a biological computer that functions inside living bacterial cells and tells them what to do, according to a report published today in Nature. Composed of ribonucleic acid, or RNA, the new “ribocomputer” can survive in the bacterium E. coli and respond to a dozen inputs, making it the most complex biological computer to date.

“We’ve developed a way to control how cells behave,” says Alexander Green, an engineer at The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, who developed the technology with colleagues at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. The cells go about their normal business, replicating and sensing what’s going on in their environments, “but they’ve also got this layer of computational machinery that we’ve instructed them to synthesize,” he says.

The biological circuit works just like a digital one: It receives an input and makes a logic-based decision, using AND, OR, and NOT operations. But instead of the inputs and outputs being voltage signals, they are the presence or absence of specific chemicals or proteins.

The process begins with the design of a DNA strand that codes for all the logic the system will need. The researchers insert the synthesized DNA into E. coli bacteria as part of a plasmid—a ring of DNA that can replicate as it floats around in the cell.

The DNA serves as a template for the biological computer’s machinery. The cell’s molecular machinery translates the DNA into RNA, essentially copying the DNA code onto a different molecule for use by the cell. RNA links up with a cell’s ribosome and instructs it to produce a protein specified in the RNA’s code.

Here’s where the system behaves like a computer, rather than just a genetically engineered organism: The RNA only does its job when it receives an input that activates it. That’s because the engineered RNA contains codes not just for a protein, but also for logic functions. The logic portions must receive the right inputs in order to activate the RNA in a way that allows the ribosome to use it to produce the circuit’s output—in this case a protein that glows.