New Smartphone Device Can Test Sperm Quality

A new smartphone device can analyse a man’s sperm quality and let him know in a matter of minutes whether he suffers from infertility, US researchers said Wednesday.

Infertility affects more than 45 million couples worldwide. Over 40 percent of fertility problems are due to poor quality sperm.

New Smartphone Device Can Test Sperm Quality

The technology described in the journal Science Translational Medicine aims to make it easier and cheaper for men to test their sperm at home.

“We wanted to come up with a solution to make male infertility testing as simple and affordable as home pregnancy tests,” said co-author Hadi Shafiee, a doctor in the division of engineering in medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“Men have to provide semen samples in these rooms at a hospital, a situation in which they often experience stress, embarrassment, pessimism and disappointment.”

The new test, however, “can analyze a video of an undiluted, unwashed semen sample in less than five seconds.”

It works by using a combination of an optical attachment that can connect to a smartphone and a disposable device for loading a semen sample, said the report.

Researchers tested the device using 350 semen specimens at the Massachusetts General Hospital Fertility Center.

The smartphone-based device detected abnormal semen samples – based on World Health Organization thresholds on sperm concentration and motility – with an accuracy of 98 percent.

The cost of the materials used to assemble it came to $4.45.

“The ability to bring point-of-care sperm testing to the consumer, or health facilities with limited resources, is a true game changer,” said co-author John Petrozza, and director of the MGH Fertility Center.

“This development will provide faster and improved access to fertility care.”

The device is not yet available to the public and is still in the prototype stage.

Researchers are planning additional tests before filing for US Food and Drug Administration approval.

NASA to Use Laser Communication for High-Speed Space ‘Internet’

In a step towards verifying the efficacy of laser communications for speedier data rates for connections between spacecraft and the Earth, NASA said it is developing a trailblazing, long-term technology demonstration mission.

The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) mission, scheduled for launch in 2019, will help NASA understand the best ways to operate laser communications systems, the US space agency said in a statement on Wednesday.

NASA to Use Laser Communication for High-Speed Space 'Internet'

They could enable much higher data rates for connections between spacecraft and the Earth, such as scientific data downlink and astronaut communications.

“LCRD is the next step in implementing NASA’s vision of using optical communications for both near-Earth and deep space missions,” said Steve Jurczyk, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which leads the LCRD project.

“This technology has the potential to revolutionize space communications, and we are excited to partner with the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate’s Space Communications and Navigation program office, MIT Lincoln Labs and the US Air Force on this effort,” Jurczyk said.

Laser communications, also known as optical communications, encodes data onto a beam of light, which is then transmitted between spacecraft and eventually to Earth terminals.

This technology offers data rates that are 10 to 100 times better than current radio-frequency (RF) communications systems.

Just as important, laser communication systems can be much smaller than radio systems, allowing the spacecraft communication systems to have lower size, weight and power requirements.

Such capability will become critically important as humans embark on long journeys to the moon, Mars and beyond.

“LCRD is designed to operate for many years and will allow NASA to learn how to optimally use this disruptive new technology,” Don Cornwell of the Space Communications and Navigation programme office at NASA Headquarters said.

“We are also designing a laser terminal for the International Space Station that will use LCRD to relay data from the station to the ground at gigabit-per-second data rates,” Cornwell said.

“We plan to fly this new terminal in 2021, and once tested, we hope that many other Earth-orbiting NASA missions will also fly copies of it to relay their data through LCRD to the ground,” Cornwell added.

The LCRD team is led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Partners include NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory.

Seriously, this skull-drilling robot is good news for humanity

When someone invents a robot specifically made to drill into the skulls of unconscious, immobile humans, you’d be forgiven for feeling a natural reaction along the lines of “for the love of God, why?” But trust me, this particular robotic trepanation station is a good idea.

The issue surrounds what is called microsurgery, in particular, installing cochlear implants, tiny devices that relay sound directly to the inner ear of someone with a hearing impairment.

The procedure to implant these things is performed tens of thousands of times per year, but it’s a risky and extremely fiddly one where the slightest error or involuntary movement can cause permanent damage.

As in other situations where precision is critical, machines can be of help. In this case, researchers from the University of Bern have been working on a robot that performs the most delicate and potentially damaging step: drilling into the skull at the precise location and depth to give access to the right part of the cochlea.

The team’s paper, published today in Science Robotics, reports the success of using the robot for drilling purposes, and proposes further applications, such as the actual implantation processes.

In the meantime, they use the drilling process as a platform to prove that the robot can hook into surgery planning systems, stereo vision, live detection of tissue types and so on. Other microsurgeries could also benefit from the technology.

If the robocalypse comes, they won’t need a treatment plan to drill into your brain. Until that happens, robots like this could provide some much-needed consistency in surgical procedures that, like this one, exist at the boundary of what humans are capable of.

Privacy hawks in Congress call on Homeland Security to warn Americans of SS7 hacking threat

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and California Representative Ted Lieu are pressing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on a mobile network vulnerability that they consider to be a systemic digital threat. In a new joint letter, the two members of Congress questioned DHS Secretary John Kelly about flaws inherent in Signaling System 7 (SS7), a global telecommunications protocol that allows phone networks to route calls and texts between users.

In a study publicized during a 2014 security conference in Hamburg, researchers demonstrated how hackers could insert themselves into a device’s call-forwarding function, redirecting calls, and any private information discussed therein, to themselves before bouncing them back to the receiver. In another SS7 technique, hackers could collect nearby texts and calls using a dedicated antenna, going so far as to obtain temporary encryption keys from a wireless carrier, which would later be used to decrypt the content of the correspondence. According to the researchers, end-to-end encryption — widely considered to be the most robust mobile precaution a user can take — could withstand such an attack, but the vast majority of users do not employ such measures.

Some digital privacy advocates suggest that there is little focus on the vulnerability of SS7 because governments are actively exploiting it in their own spying efforts. For example, SS7 tracking systems pair well with IMSI catchers (more commonly called “Stingrays“) used by some U.S. law enforcement agencies, zeroing in on a target’s general location in order to intercept their communications.

Another problem is that because so many wireless providers around the world use the protocol to connect devices on other mobile networks, the system is insecure by design. “SS7 is inherently insecure, and it was never designed to be secure,” GSMA security director James Moran told The Washington Post in a 2014 story about the threat posed by SS7. “It is possible, with access to SS7, to trigger a request for a record from a network.”

 In Wednesday’s letter, Wyden and Lieu demanded to know what steps DHS had taken to inform the public about the threat, how the agency plans to protect the private sector, as well as U.S. government officials and the extent to which foreign adversaries may be leveraging SS7-enabled surveillance on U.S. citizens.

“We suspect that most Americans simply have no idea how easy it is for a relatively sophisticated adversary to track their movements, tap their calls, and hack their smartphones,” the letters reads. “We are also concerned that the government has not adequately considered the counterintelligence threat posed by SS7-enabled surveillance.”

Sen. Wyden, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been one of the government’s most vocal advocates in the digital privacy movement. Congressman Lieu, similarly a privacy hawk, appeared in a 60 Minutes segment on SS7’s flaws that aired last year. The FCC is expected to release its own report on an investigation into SS7 risks this month.

Jeff Bezos wants Blue Origin to be the Amazon of the Moon

Not one to be left out, Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos is also making plans to go to the Moon, just like fellow space magnate Elon Musk. Bezos’ plan, uncovered by The Washington Post via a draft proposal presented to NASA and Trump’s administration, outlines Blue Origin’s plan to create a cargo spacecraft destined for the Moon that would help it ferry supplies, experiments and even people to Earth’s largest natural satellite by around July 2020.

Bezos has a pretty keen grasp of terrestrial shipping via Amazon, so it makes sense that he would envision providing similar services at a lunar scale. The CEO told the Washington Post that he believes it’s time for the U.S. to not only make its way back to the Moon – but also to stick around this time, with the goal of establishing a “permanently inhabited lunar settlement.”

The Moon is on the mind of many at the moment: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced earlier this week that his company would be sending two private individuals in a crewed tourist mission around the Moon, with a target flight date of next year. Even sub-orbital space tourism is still taking its first shaky steps, relatively speaking, so that’s quite the leapfrog if Musk and co. can pull it off.

Blue Origin’s initial proposal focuses on getting the goods necessary to establish a permanent colony on the Moon, rather than zipping humans or tourists to the destination. And it also seeks resource commitment from NASA, both in terms of funding and expertise, though Bezos says in the proposal he’s more than happy to invest his own funds alongside those of the space agency.

In the white paper, the plan is to land the spacecraft at the Moon’s south pole, where there’s enough sunlight to power it via external solar panels, and where it has proximity to water ice, which is key for both human sustenance and the creation of rocket fuel. Its design could allow for flying 10,000 pounds of supplies and materials, and it’s intended to be usable with NASA’s own launch craft, the ULA’s Atlas V rocket or its own New Glenn rocket, which is still in development.

We’re a long way off from Amazon Prime same-day delivery to the Moon, but this is yet another sign that we’re headed towards a public-private space race which could user in a new boom in space exploration.

Uber plans to turn its app into a ‘content marketplace’ during rides

Uber can’t seem to avoid headlines for the wrong reasons right now, as it gets slammed for its toxic work culture, its connections to a polarizing U.S. President, and its CEO’s attitude to Uber drivers.

But despite all that, the transportation company — currently valued as high as $68 billion — continues to grow and is expanding its business into ever more areas. One of the latest, TechCrunch has learned, involves the app itself.

Uber wants to turn it into a “content marketplace” — a feed of entertainment and other features with potentially dozens of third party content partners, designed to grow engagement in the Uber app itself — going beyond the basics of ordering rides and rating drivers.

According to documents seen by TechCrunch, the marketplace will be based on a new version of Trip Experiences, a smaller feature first launched a year ago with a select group of partners.

In the future, when a user gets into an Uber, the Uber app will turn “into a rich feed of cards,” in the words of Uber itself: a series of third-party apps will provide you with more information about the area or specific place you are going; some entertainment while you’re travelling; work and productivity integrations; and communications with the place where you are going specifically.

The expanded marketplace, according to a presentation, is currently planned for an early April launch.

Uber declined to comment to TechCrunch about its future plans.

Initially, Uber will not charge developers to be a part of the new Trip Experiences feature, according to our source, who was provided the presentation in a capacity as a third-party developer. Another source who talked to TechCrunch said there are no plans for Uber to include advertising in the feed.

However, there are elements of the redesigned Trip Experiences that do appear borrow from world of ad tech, as well as Facebook’s app platform. It will include a carousel-like app gallery, where services and apps can be “discovered” by users and connected into the Uber app.

And there is a second option for “re-engagement”, which enables apps to submit content into the Uber Feed, if the user already has the app on their phone. This can be used to notify users of the temperature of their smart thermostat while they are on their way home, or show a to-do list while they are headed to work — all within the Uber app.

Uber is also pushing contextual engagement that might, for example, enable a Snapchat user to unlock special stickers or filters, or showcase Instagram searches of the destination they are headed to, or, in the case of Uber Pool rides, show if they share mutual Facebook friends with other passengers (presumably only if you opt in, otherwise this could prove to be a privacy nightmare).

In the case of app showcasing, Uber could provide an opportunity for developers or companies seeking to target an audience of relatively tech-savvy users. (We’ve created our own images above that roughly show how some of these formats will look, based on images in the presentation leaked to us by a developer.)

 Considering all of the above, you can see how a revenue share on transactions, or fee for a content partner to appear in the feed, clearly could become a new business opportunity for Uber if this takes off.

But for now, the idea seems to be something else that Uber is positioning itself as having a wider purpose for its customers, beyond providing basic transportation from point A to point B.

It taps into the fact that Uber has a captive audience (its passengers sitting in vehicles). Uber users have completed over 2.5 billion rides to date, according to the company, with 10 million rides each day across the more than 70 countries and 400 cities where Uber is active.

And it has potentially a very wide reach into the lives of that captive audience. Uber notes that “commute time” in the U.S. alone is 19 hours per month, making it second in time spent only to Facebook and Spotify at 21 hours/month each. Of course, not every commute is an Uber commute — and that is likely another reason for building out Trip Experiences: a useful feed of information, tailored to your ride, gives Uber another way to attract users amid competition from a number of other apps and other transportation options.

Going from A to C(ontent)

Expanding Trip Experiences to take over your feed is also a natural progression of what Uber has been developing for the past year.

Trip Experiences first launched in January 2016 to help Uber users fill dead time while on the move. The feature was originally focused around a select group of content — it included news from the Washington Post and Bay Area hyperlocal blog Hoodline; searching for coffee and internet-friendly cafes near your destination with Cupper and Work Hard Anywhere; podcasts timed to the duration of your journey with Otto Radio; and more.

Uber then expanded some of that in-app activity in November 2016, when an app update brought in a feed to “make the most of your ride” with the ability to browse Yelp and Foursquare; play with Snapchat filters; stream Pandora songs and order Uber EATS to arrive at the same time as you do.

Uber has often been described not as a transportation but a technology company, and the growth of this content marketplace — which theoretically could even be used when you’re not even in an Uber vehicle — underscores that. But it also, crucially, can help corral users back into Uber’s core transportation business: developers putting content into Uber’s feed can also use Uber’s “Ride Request Button” API in their own apps to give users the option to book Uber services.

In its pitch to developers, Uber is positioning this content play as one of its four key ways that it can help businesses grow. The other three are rides (by way of that API that lets businesses integrate ordering an Uber directly into their apps); delivery-on-demand via Uber Rush; and “making driving more rewarding” for its drivers — that is, a separate Driver API where developers can build services that target these drivers as customers/users.

The new program will give Uber a way to widen its content partners, but it isn’t quite an open door for all. Uber, we understand, is working closely with selected partners who come on to the platform to ensure that what they bring is the right blend of contextual experience or entertainment, so don’t expect the Uber app to be overridden with unapproved messages and services. But, if Uber has its way, this could become the next big push to help tie Uber closer to your life.