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Screenshot from MyShake
Screenshot from MyShake

Researchers Create Phone App That Detects Earthquake Tremors

Screenshot from MyShake
Screenshot from MyShake

A new app could turn the world’s 3 billion smartphones into a massive seismic network, listening for tiny tremors and improving our earthquake early warning capability.

Up until now, researchers have considered using smartphone GPS to measure large ground movement—but if you’ve ever taken a long road trip, you know the effect this would have on battery life. Now, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have partnered with Deutsche Telekom to develop an app that works effectively without draining the battery, and can help improve earthquake detection without new infrastructure.

“The idea is to take advantage of the millions of smartphone accelerometers that already exist,” Richard Allen, director of UC Berkeley's Seismological Laboratory, said on February 11 at a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

The app is called MyShake, and it uses a carefully designed algorithm that can sift through the background noise of your normal physical activity, and distinguish the faint seismic signals that can precede a quake.

The idea is that given a big enough network of smartphones, real-time earthquake estimates can start to unfold.

The app, available for download today, beams the network data to a central server, which analyzes it in real time and calculates the quake location, origin time, and magnitude. Then, it can estimate the intensity of shaking and the amount of time before damaging waves arrive at a given point. It can detect quakes upwards of magnitude 5, as much as 6.2 miles away.

The scientists tested it by simulating the magnitude 5.1 La Habra earthquake in Los Angeles in 2014, and comparing MyShake response time and magnitude estimate with those of the existing ShakeAlert, an early warning system developed by the U.S. Geological Survey and several university partners—including UC-Berkeley—that has been in testing for the past four years. MyShake performed better than ShakeAlert.

It was just a simulation, but the potential is huge. Consider California alone: It has a dense network of 400 traditional seismic stations to track almost constant tectonic activity. It also has 16 million smartphone users. The data from their phones could massively improve our ability to detect earthquakes and send out warnings quicker.

Screenshot from MyShake

The system isn’t meant to be a substitute for traditional earthquake sensors. “A smartphone will never replace a traditional seismic station,” Allen emphasized. Instead, the researchers hope MyShake can augment existing monitoring systems, and see a big role for it in areas without detection infrastructure.

One potential spot for its use is Nepal. When the country was hit by a magnitude 7.8 quake in April 2015, it had no earthquake detection stations—but it did have 6 million smartphone users. The scientists think that if MyShake technology had been available, the 600,000 smartphones in Katmandu could’ve generated a warning as much as 20 seconds before the big shaking began—and perhaps avoided some of the thousands of deaths that resulted from the quake.

Twenty seconds doesn’t sound like much, but according to disaster prevention researcher Masumi Yamada, of Kyoto University, who also spoke at the presentation, tens of seconds is pretty standard for an early warning system. Japan’s seismic network is even denser than California’s, and a warning system has been operating there since 2007. In 2011, it issued a warning within seconds when the magnitude 9 Tohoku quake began, saving lives. 

Even a few seconds can be enough to slow or stop transit and heavy machinery, or halt surgeries—and in developing regions like Nepal, where building safety codes are poor or nonexistent, it offers precious time for people to simply get outside, clear of buildings that could come down on top of them. 

The app also includes safety tips and information on past earthquakes in the local region. And like most scientific efforts, a mobile seismic network requires teamwork. It needs users in areas that aren’t tectonically active, so the algorithm can better distinguish the difference between ordinary human movement and actual shaking. So even if you don’t live in a seismically active area, consider downloading the app at Google Play. It could help reduce the impact of future seismic hazards by contributing data that helps researchers better understand earthquake physics.

When it comes to being prepared for The Big One—a quake like the one predicted to destroy the Pacific Northwest one day—Allen said, "Are we ready? The answer is no, we’re not ready. But I’m very hopeful that here in the U.S., we might actually be able to implement an earthquake early warning system before we have the next big earthquake. We’re making progress.”

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Big Questions
What Could the Repeal of Net Neutrality Mean for Internet Users?
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What could the repeal of net neutrality mean for the average American internet user?

Zouhair Belkoura:

The imminent repeal of net neutrality could have implications for Americans beyond the Internet’s stratification, increased costs to consumers, and hindered access to content for all. Net neutrality’s repeal is a threat to the Internet’s democracy—the greatest information equalizer of our time.

With net neutrality’s repeal, ISPs could be selective about the content and pricing packages they make available. Portugal is a good example of what a country looks like without net neutrality

What people may not realize is that a repeal of net neutrality would also give ISPs the ability to throttle people’s Internet traffic. Customers won’t likely have visibility into what traffic is being throttled, and it could substantially slow down people’s Internet connections.

What happens when this type of friction is introduced to the system? The Internet—the greatest collective trove of information in the world—could gradually be starved. People who experience slower Internet speeds may get frustrated and stop seeking out their favorite sites. People may also lose the ability to make choices about the content they want to see and the knowledge they seek.

Inflated pricing, less access to knowledge, and slower connections aren’t the only impact a net neutrality repeal might have. People’s personal privacy and corporations’ security may suffer, too. Many people use virtual private networks to protect their privacy. VPNs keep people’s Internet browsing activities invisible to their ISPs and others who may track them. They also help them obscure their location and encrypt online transactions to keep personal data secure. When people have the privacy that VPNs afford, they can access information freely without worrying about being watched, judged, or having their browsing activity bought and sold by third-party advertisers.

Virtual private networks are also a vital tool for businesses that want to keep their company data private and secure. Employees are often required by their employers to connect to a VPN whenever they are offsite and working remotely.

Even the best VPNs can slow down individuals' Internet connections, because they create an encrypted tunnel to protect and secure personal data. If people want to protect their personal privacy or company’s security with a VPN [they] also must contend with ISP throttling; it’s conceivable that net neutrality’s repeal could undermine people’s freedom to protect their online safety. It could also render the protection a VPN offers to individuals and companies obsolete.

Speed has always been a defining characteristic of the Internet’s accessibility and its power. Net neutrality’s repeal promises to subvert this trait. It would compromise both people's and companies’ ability to secure their personal data and keep their browsing and purchasing activities private. When people don’t have privacy, they can’t feel safe. When they don’t feel safe, they can’t live freely. That’s not a world anyone, let alone Americans, want to live in.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Pop Culture
An AI Program Wrote Harry Potter Fan Fiction—and the Results Are Hilarious
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Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

“The castle ground snarled with a wave of magically magnified wind.”

So begins the 13th chapter of the latest Harry Potter installment, a text called Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. OK, so it’s not a J.K. Rowling original—it was written by artificial intelligence. As The Verge explains, the computer-science whizzes at Botnik Studios created this three-page work of fan fiction after training an algorithm on the text of all seven Harry Potter books.

The short chapter was made with the help of a predictive text algorithm designed to churn out phrases similar in style and content to what you’d find in one of the Harry Potter novels it "read." The story isn’t totally nonsensical, though. Twenty human editors chose which AI-generated suggestions to put into the chapter, wrangling the predictive text into a linear(ish) tale.

While magnified wind doesn’t seem so crazy for the Harry Potter universe, the text immediately takes a turn for the absurd after that first sentence. Ron starts doing a “frenzied tap dance,” and then he eats Hermione’s family. And that’s just on the first page. Harry and his friends spy on Death Eaters and tussle with Voldemort—all very spot-on Rowling plot points—but then Harry dips Hermione in hot sauce, and “several long pumpkins” fall out of Professor McGonagall.

Some parts are far more simplistic than Rowling would write them, but aren’t exactly wrong with regards to the Harry Potter universe. Like: “Magic: it was something Harry Potter thought was very good.” Indeed he does!

It ends with another bit of prose that’s not exactly Rowling’s style, but it’s certainly an accurate analysis of the main current that runs throughout all the Harry Potter books. It reads: “‘I’m Harry Potter,’ Harry began yelling. ‘The dark arts better be worried, oh boy!’”

Harry Potter isn’t the only work of fiction that Jamie Brew—a former head writer for ClickHole and the creator of Botnik’s predictive keyboard—and other Botnik writers have turned their attention to. Botnik has previously created AI-generated scripts for TV shows like The X-Files and Scrubs, among other ridiculous machine-written parodies.

To delve into all the magical fiction that Botnik users have dreamed up, follow the studio on Twitter.

[h/t The Verge]

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