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12th September 2016

New Zealand to get nationwide gigabit broadband

New Zealand's largest telecoms firm, Chorus Limited, has announced that it will extend its one gigabit (1Gbps) residential and SME business fibre broadband service across its entire Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) footprint from 1st October 2016.

This move follows Chorus leading the introduction of gigabit services to New Zealand – proving both the demand and the technical viability – after the launch of its gigabit services in Dunedin last year. The company has long had national gigabit broadband on its product roadmap and from October will make it available on any UFB connection.

"We are delighted that other fibre providers have joined Chorus in championing gigabit residential and business services," said Mark Ratcliffe, the CEO. "Making New Zealand a true 'Gignation', beyond the 5,000-plus connections we have in Dunedin, should see us catapulted up the league tables of broadband speed rankings and reinforce the high quality of the broadband infrastructure we're rolling out."


new zealand gigabit broadband


Currently, the average download speed across Chorus' networks is 30.5 megabits per second (Mbps). Gigabit broadband offers real world download speeds approaching 1,000Mbps and uploads of 500Mbps. This is equivalent to uploading 25 high resolution images to Facebook in under five seconds; downloading 25 MP3 songs in a second or streaming ultra-HD movies to 40 different devices simultaneously.

Chorus' Gigabit broadband service will run at the maximum speed the network electronics allows today. In practice, this means customers will see download speeds between 900Mbps and 970Mbps and upload speeds of up to 500Mbps.

Chorus' residential wholesale gigabit broadband will be available to broadband retailers at an introductory price of $60 per month until 30 June 2017 after which it increases to $65 per month. The business service will be priced at $75 per month from launch. Existing fibre customers looking to upgrade to a gigabit plan will not require a Chorus technician to visit their home.


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15th August 2016

Computer program learns to replicate human handwriting

Researchers at University College London have devised a software algorithm able to scan and replicate almost anyone's handwriting.


computer handwriting


In a world increasingly dominated by the QWERTY keyboard, computer scientists at University College London (UCL) have developed software which may spark the comeback of the handwritten word, by analysing the handwriting of any individual and accurately replicating it.

The scientists have created "My Text in Your Handwriting" – a programme which semi-automatically examines a sample of a person's handwriting that can be as little as one paragraph, and generates new text saying whatever the user wishes, as if the author had handwritten it themselves.

"Our software has lots of valuable applications," says lead author, Dr Tom Haines. "Stroke victims, for example, may be able to formulate letters without the concern of illegibility, or someone sending flowers as a gift could include a handwritten note without even going into the florist. It could also be used in comic books where a piece of handwritten text can be translated into different languages without losing the author's original style."

Published in ACM Transactions on Graphics, the machine learning algorithm is built around glyphs – a specific instance of a character. Authors produce different glyphs to represent the same element of writing – the way one individual writes an "a" will usually be different to the way others write an "a". Although an individual's writing has slight variations, every author has a recognisable style that manifests in their glyphs and spacing. The software learns what is consistent across an individual's style and reproduces this.


computer handwriting


To generate an individual's handwriting, the software analyses and replicates the author's specific character choices, pen-line texture, colour and the inter-character ligatures (the joining-up between letters), as well as vertical and horizontal spacing.

Co-author, Dr Oisin Mac Aodha (UCL Computer Science), said: "Up until now, the only way to produce computer-generated text that resembles a specific person's handwriting would be to use a relevant font. The problem with such fonts is that it is often clear that the text has not been penned by hand, which loses the character and personal touch of a handwritten piece of text. What we've developed removes this problem and so could be used in a wide variety of commercial and personal circumstances."

The system is flexible enough that samples from historical documents can be used with little extra effort. Thus far, the scientists have analysed and replicated the handwriting of such figures as Abraham Lincoln, Frida Kahlo and Arthur Conan Doyle. Infamously, Conan Doyle never actually wrote Sherlock Holmes as saying, "Elementary my dear Watson" but the team have produced evidence to make you think otherwise.

To test the effectiveness of their software, the research team asked people to distinguish between handwritten envelopes and ones created by their automatic software. People were tricked by the computer-generated writing up to 40% of the time. Given how convincing it can be, some may believe this method could help in forging documents – but the team explained it works both ways and could actually help in detecting forgeries.

"Forgery and forensic handwriting analysis are still almost entirely manual processes – but by taking the novel approach of viewing handwriting as texture-synthesis, we can use our software to characterise handwriting to quantify the odds that something was forged," explained Dr Gabriel Brostow, senior author. "For example, we could calculate what ratio of people start their 'o's' at the bottom versus the top and this kind of detailed analysis could reduce the forensics service's reliance on heuristics."





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30th July 2016

Vortex laser offers hope for Moore's Law

A new laser that travels in a corkscrew pattern is shown to carry ten times or more the information of conventional lasers, potentially offering a way to extend Moore's Law.


moores law vortex laser


Like a whirlpool, a new light-based communication tool carries data in swift, circular motions. This optics advancement could become a central component of the next generation of computers designed to handle society's growing demand for information sharing. It may also help to ease concerns for those worried about the predicted end of Moore's Law – the idea that researchers will find new ways to make computers ever smaller, faster and cheaper.

"To transfer more data while using less energy, we need to rethink what's inside these machines," says Liang Feng, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University at Buffalo's (UB) School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

For decades, researchers have been able to cram exponentially increasing numbers of components onto silicon-based chips. Their success explains why a typical handheld smartphone has more computing power than the world's most powerful computers of the 1980s, which cost millions in today's dollars and were the size of a large filing cabinet.

But researchers are approaching a bottleneck, in which existing technology may no longer meet society's demand for data. Predictions vary, but many suggest this could happen within the next five years. This problem is being addressed in numerous ways, including optical communications, which use light to carry information. Examples of optical communications vary from old lighthouses to modern fibre optic cables used to watch television and browse the web. Lasers are a key part of today's optical communication systems and researchers have been manipulating them in various ways, most commonly by funnelling different signals into one path, to pack more information together. But these techniques are also reaching their limits.


moores law vortex laser


The UB-led research team is pushing laser technology forward using another light control method, known as orbital angular momentum. This distributes the laser in a corkscrew pattern with a vortex at the centre, as pictured above. Usually too large to work on today's computers, they were able to shrink the vortex laser to the point where it is compatible with modern chips. Because the laser beam travels in a corkscrew pattern, encoding information into different vortex twists, it can deliver at least 10 times the information of conventional lasers, which move linearly.

However, the vortex laser is just one component of many – such as advanced transmitters and receivers – which will ultimately be needed to continue building more powerful computers and data centres in the future.

The study was published yesterday in the peer-reviewed journal Science. The research was supported with grants from the U.S. Army Research Office, the U.S. Department of Energy and National Science Foundation.


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19th July 2016

Smallest ever hard disk writes information atom by atom

Scientists in the Netherlands, working at the limits of miniaturisation, have used one bit per atom to create 1 kilobyte of data storage.




Every day, modern society creates more than a billion gigabytes of new data. To store all this information, it is increasingly important that each single bit occupies as little space as possible. A team of scientists at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft University, Netherlands, managed to bring this reduction to the ultimate limit: they built a memory of 1 kilobyte (8,000 bits), where each bit is represented by the position of one single chlorine atom.

"In theory, this storage density would allow all books ever created by humans to be written on a single post stamp", says lead scientist Sander Otte. They reached a storage density of 500 Terabits per square inch (Tbpsi), 500 times better than the best commercial hard disk currently available. His team reports on this breakthrough in Nature Nanotechnology.

In 1959, physicist Richard Feynman challenged his colleagues to engineer the world at the smallest possible scale. In his famous lecture, There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom, he speculated that a platform allowing us to arrange individual atoms, in an exact orderly pattern, would make it possible to store one piece of information per atom. To honour the visionary Feynman, Otte and his team have now coded a section of Feynman's lecture on an area 100 nanometres wide.


smallest ever hard disk atom nanotechnology
STM scan (96 nm wide, 126 nm tall) of the 1 kB memory, written to a section of Feynman's lecture, There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom.


The team used a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), in which a sharp needle probes the atoms of a surface, one by one. Using these probes, scientists not only see the atoms, but can also push them around: "You could compare it to a sliding puzzle", Otte explains. "Every bit consists of two positions on a surface of copper atoms, and one chlorine atom that we can slide back and forth between these two positions. If the chlorine atom is in the top position, there is a hole beneath it – we call this a 1. If the hole is in the top position and the chlorine atom is therefore on the bottom, then the bit is a 0." Because the chlorine atoms are surrounded by other chlorine atoms, except near the holes, they keep each other in place. That is why this method with holes is much more stable than methods with loose atoms and more suitable for data storage.

The researchers from Delft organised their memory in blocks of 8 bytes (64 bits). Each block has a marker, made of the same type of 'holes' as the raster of chlorine atoms. Inspired by the pixelated square barcodes (QR codes) often used to scan tickets for airplanes and concerts, these markers work like miniature QR codes that carry information about the precise location of the block on the copper layer. The code will also indicate if a block has been damaged, for instance due to some local contaminant or an error in the surface. This allows memory to be scaled up easily to very big sizes, even if the copper surface is not entirely perfect.

The new method offers excellent prospects in terms of stability and scalability. Still, this type of memory should not be expected in commercial use anytime soon: "In its current form, the memory can operate only in very clean vacuum conditions and at liquid nitrogen temperature (77 K), so the actual storage of data on an atomic scale is still some way off," explains Otte. "But through this achievement, we have certainly come a big step closer".


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21st June 2016

The first supercomputer to reach 100 petaflops

China has announced the Sunway TaihuLight – the world's fastest supercomputer, with a Linpack rating of 93 petaflops and peak performance of 125 petaflops.


100 petaflop supercomputer china 2016
Credit: ©Science China Press


The Sunway TaihuLight is the first system in the world to reach a peak performance of over 100 petaflops (100,000,000,000,000,000 floating point operations per second). It is a completely home-grown machine, designed and operated by the National Supercomputing Centre in Wuxi (NSCC-Wuxi), eastern China.

As the world's fastest supercomputer, it will contribute to research such as Earth system modelling, ocean surface wave modelling, atomistic simulations, phase-field simulations, hi-tech manufacturing and big data analytics. With advancements in these and other fields, the models that scientists use are becoming increasingly complex, and the temporal and spatial resolutions they require are also increasing rapidly. All of these factors contribute to the demand for exponential improvements in computing power.

The Sunway TaihuLight is three times faster than the previous record holder, Tianhe-2, which ran at 34 petaflops. In fact, it actually surpasses the next five machines on the TOP500 list combined. It has a total of 10.6 million CPU cores and features 1.3 petabytes of RAM. The system is so powerful that it requires about 15 megawatts (MW) of electricity. However, this is actually less than the 17.8 MW needed by Tianhe-2, making it far more energy efficient. The system runs on its own operating system, Raise OS.

"As the first number one system of China that is completely based on home-grown processors, the Sunway TaihuLight system demonstrates the significant progress that China has made in the domain of designing and manufacturing large-scale computation systems," said director of the NSCC, Prof. Guangwen Yang.

China now has more supercomputers among the world's top 500 than any other nation. Although lagging behind in the supercomputer race, America is planning to launch a new machine of its own in 2018 called the Summit that should run between 150-300 petaflops. By 2019, experts believe the first exaflop computer may arrive. Longer term, zettaflop and yottaflop machines could arise in the 2030s and 2040s, respectively. If trends continue, a billion human brains could be simulated in real time by the 2050s.


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17th May 2016

IBM scientists achieve storage memory breakthrough

A new technology developed at IBM can speed up machine learning and access to the Internet of Things, mobile phone apps and cloud storage.


ibm storage memory breakthrough 2016


For the first time, scientists at IBM Research have demonstrated reliably storing 3 bits of data per cell, using a relatively new technology known as phase-change memory (PCM).

The current memory landscape spans from venerable DRAM to hard disk drives to ubiquitous flash. But in the last several years, PCM has attracted the industry's attention as a potential "universal" memory technology, based on its combination of read/write speed, endurance, non-volatility and density. For example, PCM won't lose data when powered off (unlike DRAM), and endures at least 10 million write cycles, compared to an average flash USB stick, which tops out at 3,000 write cycles.

This research breakthrough provides fast and easy storage to capture the exponential growth of data from mobile devices and the Internet of Things. Along with standalone PCM, hybrid applications could be possible, which combine PCM and flash storage together, with PCM as an extremely fast cache. For example, a mobile phone's operating system could be stored in PCM, enabling the phone to launch in a few seconds. For enterprise-level systems, entire databases could be stored in PCM for blazing fast query processing of time-critical online applications, such as financial transactions. In addition, machine learning algorithms using big datasets would see a speed boost by reducing the latency overhead when reading data between iterations.


ibm memory storage breakthrough 2016


PCM materials exhibit two stable states – the amorphous (without a clearly defined structure) and the crystalline (with structure) phases, of low and high electrical conductivity, respectively.

To store a '0' or a '1', known as bits, on a PCM cell, a high or medium electrical current is applied to the material. A '0' can be programmed to be written in the amorphous phase or a '1' in the crystalline phase, or vice versa. Then to read the bit back, a low voltage is applied.

Previously, scientists at IBM and other institutes have demonstrated the ability to store 1 bit per cell in PCM, but today at the IEEE International Memory Workshop in Paris, IBM scientists presented, for the first time, successfully storing 3 bits per cell in a 64k-cell array, at elevated temperatures and after a million endurance cycles.

To achieve multi-bit storage, the researchers developed two innovative enabling technologies: a set of drift-immune cell-state metrics and drift-tolerant coding and detection schemes.

"Phase change memory is the first instantiation of a universal memory with properties of both DRAM and flash, thus answering one of the grand challenges of our industry," said Dr. Haris Pozidis, manager of non-volatile memory research at IBM. "Reaching 3 bits per cell is a significant milestone, because at this density the cost of PCM will be significantly less than DRAM and closer to flash."





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11th May 2016

Samsung announces 256GB microSD card

Samsung Electronics has introduced the EVO Plus 256GB MicroSD Card, featuring the highest capacity in its class.


256gb microsd


Samsung Electronics has unveiled its newest memory card globally – the EVO Plus 256GB microSD card. This device offers the highest capacity for any microSD card in its class. The previous record holder was a 200GB offering from SanDisk, announced in March 2015.

Samsung's new card provides fast speeds and expanded memory storage for use in premium smartphones and tablets, 360-degree video recorders, action cameras, drones and more. Consumers can now record up to 12 hours of 4K UHD video or 33 hours of Full HD video on their mobile device or action camera without needing to change or replace the memory card, allowing them to experience more and worry less about running out of memory.

The EVO Plus 256GB raises the bar for capacity and performance of microSD cards, thanks to Samsung's advanced V-NAND technology offering high read and write speeds of up to 95MB/s and 90MB/s, respectively. This level of performance will provide general consumers and professionals with superb user convenience for storing heavy-loaded, high-resolution photography and 4K video recording, as well as graphic intensive multimedia like virtual reality (VR) and gaming.

"With the upward trend of consumers using high-performance, high-capacity mobile devices, our new, V-NAND-based 256GB microSD card allows us to deliver the memory card consumers have been craving," said Un-Soo Kim, Senior Vice President of Brand Product Marketing. "Our card will provide consumers with large capacity, and high read and write speeds. We are excited to offer our customers convenient and seamless multimedia experiences when they access, store and share all of the content they create and capture."

The card is water, temperature, x-ray and magnet proof, and comes with a full 10-year warranty. It will be offered in more than 50 countries including the USA, Europe, China and other regions starting in June 2016 for $249.99 (manufacturer's suggested retail price). Given the continued rapid progress of microSD card storage capacities, it surely can't be long before the first 1TB card emerges.


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