server farm


A High-Speed Spin on Data Storage

Behind the Internet’s explosive growth, server farms are proliferating to meet the rising demand of cloud, streaming, and new media companies—Amazon, Netflix, Facebook—for data storage. Energy-guzzling installations, many sprawl beyond the size of football fields. But “racetrack memory” could transform that. It’s “a huge change in the way you store information, in the energy you would use, and the capacity you could generate,” says physics professor Andrew Kent. His team of NYU researchers, including Yassine Quessab, a postdoctoral fellow at NYU’s Center for Quantum Phenomena, is collaborating with outside scientists to develop the new digital data storage technology.

Here’s the difference. Server farms are essentially vast collections of hard drives: motorized spinning disks, like vinyl records, that can be imprinted with data and read with an electronic current. Racetrack memory does away with the mechanical parts. It stores information in magnetic quasiparticles called skyrmions, which can be moved and induced to spin with tiny electric pulses, encoding each skyrmion as a “1” and its absence as a “0”—a single bit. To read the information, only the skyrmions—the naturally frictionless, high-speed “racing cars”—need to move. Everything else—the “racetrack”—is stationary.

“The question is, can we move them as fast as we would like, and can they be moved reliably?” asks Kent. If they show the answer to be “yes,” then the energy-consumption savings could be vast and USB flash drives, laptop hard drives, and even those server farms could shrink—as each skyrmion is only about the size of 10 atoms. “That could be a very, very high information density.”

—Audrea Lim

camera lens


Exposing Phony Photos

Doctoring photos used to be so much more of an endeavor—back before everyone carried a camera in their pocket and apps were invented to convincingly erase wrinkles, brighten smiles, and change eye color. Of course, there’s a much darker side to tampered photos: Incredibly sophisticated technology allows for so-called deepfakes, or photos and videos that are virtually indistinguishable from the real deal. They’re especially insidious because they’re so convincing, often shocking, and easy to share. But Nasir Memon, a professor of computer science and engineering at the Tandon School of Engineering, hopes to address the problem using artificial intelligence.

Memon and his colleagues have developed a way to apply a neural network (a form of AI) to the photo developing process, essentially inserting a digital watermark at every point along the way. With this technology, the cameras themselves—every cell phone, every DSLR—would have AI built into the signal processors, and image files would be coded from the very beginning, from the snap of the shutter, to embed the files with a kind of watermark at every step. These watermarks would be fragile, though, and it would be clear when a photo was tampered with. “This could be used in forensics scenarios,” says Memon, who has a background in the security industry. In tests, this prototype technology doubled the ability to detect manipulation, from 45 percent to more than 90 percent, without sacrificing image quality. If you thought your iPhone was amazing for its geotagging and timestamping, this “makes metadata look like kindergarten stuff,” he jokes.

Memon allows that there is a place for deepfakes—and that spot is under the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. “A lot of movies are deepfakes. Spider-Man is a deepfake,” he points out. “Deepfakes are just synthesized content, not coming from a camera. Early deepfakes were just face-swapping, the eyes would not blink, that was dumb. But now it’s much harder to detect inconsistencies.”

And while using deepfakes for fiction is one thing, using it for facts is quite another: Memon thinks about the pernicious power of doctored imagery in much larger, philosophical terms. “As deepfakes become more prevalent, the notion of truth comes under attack,” he says. “You see an image, is it real? You see a person shooting someone, is it real? You make decisions based on bias. It’s bad for society when you can’t believe what you see.”

—Rory Evans

cyberstalking illustration

(Visual Generation/iStock)

Cyberbusting Cyberstalkers

You plan to meet a friend at a specific place at a specific time… and your ex just happens to be there too. Or you’re dropping your kids at their dad’s house and he magically—no, creepily—knows where you were coming from. Without even realizing it, your everyday technology can be used against you as a weapon for cyberstalking. Which is why Damon McCoy, associate professor of computer science and engineering at the Tandon School of Engineering, set out to build a tool to scan your devices for hidden spyware or stalkerware. “Some malware is designed to snoop or spy on a person’s computer, and this technology was being used in intimate-partner involved settings,” says McCoy, who joined forces with the NYC Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence to help combat the problem.

The scanning tool is being employed at a free consulting service that McCoy, along with Cornell scientists, established for cyberstalking victims referred by the city’s Family Justice Centers. Before the program began, the team’s initial field study found that nearly half the domestic violence victims they met with had been hacked. “It really hit us,” he says. “I thought maybe one or two survivors [of abuse] would have stories, but every survivor said that technology was playing a central part—that they were being harassed or stalked and it was facilitated through their phones.”

And the ex might not even be pulling some genius-level feat of hacking, McCoy points out. “Your keyword search could be ‘spy on my husband’ and if you look at the app, it’s meant to be used to monitor your kids or employees. But you could install it on your intimate partner’s device,” he says of what he calls “dual-use apps” that can be repurposed for stalking or harassment. McCoy and his colleagues did go to Google with the concern, and they agreed to not allow advertising for these apps on their platforms. “They disallowed mutual-tracking couple type apps and those that are marketed directly for that,” he says.

While the researchers followed up with a program to flag them, “we didn’t find much installing of apps. A lot more of the problems centered around iCloud settings and Google maps, things that are set to share your location,” McCoy says. “We found much more of these tactics, which makes sense, because it requires less technological sophistication on the part of the abuser.” He adds that their diagnostic service has been valuable because even when no spyware is detected on a phone, and when various share settings are deactivated, the victim of abuse can get great peace of mind.

To that end, it can’t hurt to check your settings for all such apps, he says. And, of course, never share your password or passcode with anyone—even if you share a life together.

—Rory Evans  

panel of painted bricks in the form of a lion

(Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Grand Entrance

Built around 575 BCE, the Ishtar Gate—an awe-inspiring, bright-blue monument—marked the ceremonial entrance to the ancient city of Babylon, in present day Iraq. When German archeologists came across the structure’s ruins in the 1890s, they knew they had hit, well, pay dirt: the towering mounds of mud brick fragments contained stunning examples of Babylonian iconography and flashes of dazzling, lapis-hued glaze. For decades, specialists worked to put the pieces back together, reconstructing a facsimile of the original at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, where it stands today. Panels and pieces that weren’t used, meanwhile, have travelled for exhibitions around the globe, including A Wonder to Behold: Craftsmanship and the Creation of Babylon’s Ishtar Gate at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW). Since the show closed early due to COVID-19, ISAW associate director for exhibitions and gallery curator Clare Fitzgerald (CAS ’04) gave us an inside look.

Puzzle Masters
“We wanted to examine not just the gate’s construction but it’s reconstruction, since that process was such a huge undertaking in itself,” says Fitzgerald. To that end, the show included a crate of mud brick shards, one of hundreds shipped from the dig site to the Pergamon around the turn of the 20th century. Before archeologists set about the seemingly impossible task of fitting the thousands of bits together, the material—like all pottery that has been buried—had to be desalinated, to prevent cracking and remove discoloration. To get the job done, museum staff came up with a particularly German method: soaking the rubble in beer vats full of water.

Something Fierce
Perhaps the most visually dramatic artifact in the show is a panel featuring a nearly life-size lion (above), one of 120 such beasts that lined the gate’s processional walls “to project the idea of Babylon’s power,” says Fitzgerald. “They’re shown snarling and ready to bite, so as visitors came toward them, they felt as if they were walking into the lions’ mouths.” Still, the ferocious cats had nothing on the mušhuššu dragons. These mythical creatures, which also decorated the gate, have snake heads, lion paws, raptor talons, and scorpion tails. “To the Babylonians, mušhuššu represented the scariest bits of real animals all smushed into one,” says Fitzgerald. “Though to me they look sort of cute and friendly.”

The Little Things
The towering 38-foot-tall Ishtar Gate “was designed to intimidate,” says Fitzgerald. The ISAW show sought to look at the ancient icon from a different vantage point. “We thought to kind of reverse it, to start with the small pieces and see what they can tell us,” she says. The answer, it turns out, is a lot. The back of each individual brick, for instance, is emblazoned with an elaborate system of fitter’s marks, which told masons exactly where to place it after glazing. And most were also inscribed with the name, titles, and military triumphs of King Nebuchadnezzar II, the monarch who commissioned the monument.

Divine Inspiration
Ishtar, the monument’s namesake, was a complicated woman. “She was both the goddess of war and the goddess of love,” says Fitzgerald, “benevolent or bellicose depending on her orientation.” Though not considered the most powerful Babylonian deity—that would be Marduk—she was still shown plenty of reverence. “A lot of the streets in the city were named for her,” says Fitzgerald. “She was not a goddess to be messed with!”

—Jenny Comita