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February 8, 2006

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Welcome to the February 8, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Electronic Voting on Rise, Study Says
Associated Press (02/07/06) Tanner, Robert

The United States is doing away with old voting systems because they are prone to error, but problems still should be expected in the November elections because so many voters will be using unfamiliar equipment. "You throw that many people in on something new, you're always bound to see something go wrong," says Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, which tracks election equipment. According to a new survey from the political consulting firm, this fall at least 80 percent of voters will use new machines that are either ATM-style touchscreen units or devices that ask users to fill in the blanks. Ten percent of voters will use a lever machine, and 3 percent will use punch cards, which were the subject of the contested votes in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. At that time, about 20 percent of voters used levers, and approximately 17 percent used punch cards. Meanwhile, critics of the new voting systems maintain that they can be manipulated, and the charges have prompted 25 states to pass laws that require the equipment to verify votes and to yield paper receipts. After the 2006 elections, approximately 48 percent of the nation's 170 million registered voters will have used a new voting system.

[For information on ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm]

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College Coders Converge on San Antonio for 30th Annual International "Battle of the Brains"
LinuxElectrons (02/06/06)

San Antonio will host the 30th annual World Finals of the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest from April 9-13, drawing the best students from around the world in the highest profile university competition for computing science and engineering. Last fall's competition included more than 5,600 teams from 84 countries and 1,733 universities, which produced the 83 finalists that will compete in San Antonio. They will be given at least eight sophisticated programming problems drawn from real life, such as determining optimal travel routes or creating a network strategy for the ideal placement of cell phone towers, to solve within five hours. The winning team will receive scholarships and awards from IBM, which sponsors the program as part of its academic outreach initiative, ultimately aiming to further open-source development and innovation. "This event offers collegiate programmers the opportunity to become familiar with Java, Linux, Eclipse, and other open computing platforms being adopted by industries around the world," said IBM's Doug Heintzman. "Open source and open standards are driving the next great innovations in the industry, and this contest challenges students who will be responsible for that innovation for decades to come." North America will send 22 teams to the contest finals, with 17 coming from the United States. Three teams will come from Africa/Middle East, 22 from Russia and Europe, 29 from Asia and the South Pacific region, with seven coming from Latin America.

[For more information on the upcoming ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest, visit http://icpc.baylor.edu/icpc/]

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'Net Neutrality' Debate Heats Up at Senate Hearing
Wall Street Journal (02/08/06) P. B7; Brown, Emily Ann

Several Internet companies and Google are urging Congress to pass a law that would ban telecommunications networks from charging consumers more for some services and controlling what they can get off the Internet. The "net neutrality" debate has been heating up for some time now after some phone companies suggested they plan to bill companies for delivery of specific Internet services while Congress is considering amending the 1996 telecommunications act. Net neutrality is the idea that network operators should be neutral providers of Internet content and consumers should have the option of accessing whatever they want on the Internet. "There are 250,000 networks that make up the Internet," says Google's Vinton Cerf. "They are compensated by its users. Allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the Internet such a success." Cerf has been a strong advocate for net neutrality and also says the openness of the Internet is being threatened, and that a new law would protect consumers by limiting they ways carriers can interfere in the decisions of their Internet users. National Cable and Telecommunications Association CEO Kyle McSlarrow disagrees with Cert and is requesting that lawmakers refrain from making premature legislative decisions. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) plans to introduce net neutrality legislation in the beginning of March.
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LISP Deserves a Fresh Look
eWeek (02/07/06) Coffee, Peter

LISP and other development tools that are friendly to programmers but translate poorly to end-user hardware have typically been reserved for research-oriented arenas such as artificial intelligence, though Web-facing applications may bring them more into the mainstream. Because programmers are more of a rarity than hardware, LISP and other languages designed for the humans involved in the development process deserve another look. An increasing portion of the computing environment is based on distributed networks of inexpensive PCs, where the workload and cost are shared. Processing speed is increasing at a faster rate than developers' skills, arguing for a more programmer-friendly language, even if it makes things a little harder for the machine. LISP presents both its data and programs as a connected list of symbols. While LISP grew out of the artificial intelligence and machine learning environment, it can be used for designing a host of other customized systems, such as the AutoCAD drafting tool. Symbolic reasoning schemes such as OPS5 and PROLOG also rely heavily on LISP in their development, and both appear in Franz's Allegro Common Lisp 8.0. In addition to Franz's commercial product, LISP also appears in many open-source applications, though, as with any old language, it is dogged by outdated misconceptions of what it can and cannot do. While it labors under the perception that it is a slow language, LISP can produce functions with run-time speeds comparable to C and C++ applications. While the fastest C and C++ applications can outperform the best that LISP has to offer, the median speed of LISP doubles that of the C family programs. LISP is more memory-intensive that C and C++, though less so than Java, which it can also outperform.
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More R&D Spending Proposed, Earmarks Criticized
National Journal's Technology Daily (02/06/06) Barrett, Randy

The Bush administration's 2007 budget includes $137.2 billion for spending on research and development, an increase of just 2.6 percent, or $3.4 billion, from fiscal 2006. Basic research spending would rise only 1.3 percent, or $357 million, to $28.2 billion. Although White House science advisor John Marburger said science funding in 2007 would remain flat, he noted that non-defense R&D would rise 1.9 percent, while agencies also stand to benefit from $50 billion in funding over the next 10 years that's called for by the new American Competitiveness Initiative, including $1.3 billion in new funding and $4.6 billion for the R&D tax credit next year. The National Science Foundation would receive a $349 million increase to $4.5 billion for R&D, the National Institute of Standards and Technology would obtain a $104 million boost to $535 million, and the Energy Department would get a $595 million increase to $9.2 billion. Spending on networking and information technology would climb 9.4 percent, or $239 million, to $2.78 billion. "[The] increase in support for advanced networking research in 2007, primarily by NSF, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and [Energy] will ensure that large-scale networking technologies will keep pace with the rapid developments in petascale computing systems," says the budget. Funding for the National Nanotechnology Initiative would jump about $77 million to $1.3 billion, and spending for Homeland Security would be about $4.8 billion, with $535 million going toward Pentagon projects on cybersecurity, domestic nuclear detection, explosives research, and food- and livestock-protection.
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The Spy Who Didn't Shag Me
Slate (02/06/06) Schaffer, Amanda

While the Senate is investigating the legality of the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program, University of Pennsylvania computer scientists have developed simple, inexpensive methods for eluding the eavesdropping net. Phone taps commonly rely on the absence of a C-tone, the sound conveyed when a receiver is on the hook, to trigger recording. C-tones can be created by playing two frequencies in tandem, tricking the wiretap by simulating the noise that a phone makes when the receiver is idle. Military phones with C-tone buttons can be found on eBay, or, alternatively, the parts to generate the sound can be purchased at Radio Shack. UPenn computer scientist Matt Blaze tested a variety of wiretapping devices, and found that the older loop extender systems were especially susceptible to the C-tone trick. The government more commonly uses CALEA systems now, which the FBI claims are nearly impervious to the C-tone defense--a claim that Blaze disputes. In presenting his findings at the International Federation for Information Processing Conference on Digital Forensics last week, Blaze also presented tricks that can stymie software intended to intercept email, Web traffic, and file sharing. Since all the information that travels over the Internet is contained in packets, Blaze dispatched decoy packets, carrying bogus information and packaged in such a way to ensure that only the eavesdropper would receive them, not the original recipient. Blaze took advantage of the different ways of routing and processing packets, ensuring that the eavesdropper and the intended recipient would receive different versions of the same message.
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IMEC Outlines Wireless Body Area Networks Advances
EE Times (02/06/06) Walko, John

The Belgian research group IMEC has demonstrated the results of the first stages of its Human++ initiative, aiming to develop wearable wireless body area networks. IMEC unveiled plans for a completely integrated low-power ultrawideband (UWB) receiver designed for applications of low data rates at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco, as well as research detailing a high-speed analog-to-digital converter (ADC) with a conversion step of record low power. The UWB receiver runs between 3 GHz and 5 GHz, with a variable channel filter that enables pulse processing at bandwidths of up to 2 GHz. The front end of the receiver is ideally suited for carrier-based impulse radio, offering a flexibly defined spectrum of minimal complexity. IMEC expects the device to yield practical applications for sensor networks of low data rates. The ADC project, undertaken as a part of IMEC's 90 nm RF CMOS project, will figure prominently in reducing the power consumption of wireless devices. The ADC has an oxide thickness of 1.5 nm and a 70 nm physical gate length. Another group detailed a read-out front-end created through a 0.5 micron CMOS process to extract bio-potential signals emanating from portable electroencephalography, electrocardiography, and electromyography.
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Programming Contest Pits World's Geeks in Battles Over Coding
Wall Street Journal (02/08/06) P. B1; Gomes, Lee

While TopCoder's weekly contests among programmers from all over the world occupy a relatively obscure place on the Internet, and only occasionally draw media attention when they pit contestants against each other in the finals, the program is nonetheless reflective of the shift under way in the broader international computing scene. Just three years ago, all but 10 percent of the top 50 programmers in the TopCoder program were American. Today, Americans account for just 12 percent of the best TopCoders, and the United States has been surpassed by Russia, Poland, and Canada. Participants must solve three complex problems of increasing difficulty in 75 minutes in the first round of each contest. In Round 2, contestants can challenge each other's code, gaining points if they cause an opponent's program to fail, and losing points if their own sabotage is unsuccessful. Contestant Oded Wurman, a recent Stanford graduate now employed by Nvidia, notes that players will often systematically attack the solutions that novice entrants offer up to the most difficult problems, assuming that there must be a flaw that they can exploit to earn points. While each unsuccessful attempt at busting another programmer's code loses you points, Wurman says that many contestants will spend much of the first round devising attack strategies, rather than solving the problems themselves. This stiff competition is about more than just pride, though, as TopCoder contestants can win prizes and job interviews with the sponsoring companies.
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Princeton Dean: Comp Sci Field Needs Women
Brown and White (02/05/06) Cohen, Clark

Princeton University Dean of Engineering Maria Klawe warned against the negative myths and stereotypes that discourage women from pursuing computer science in her recent speech, "Gender, Lies and Video Games: the Truth about Females and Computing." Klawe, a former president of ACM, hopes to boost female participation in computer science by helping women overcome the myths that computers are built for men and that women are inherently less capable of understanding technology. While women do spend more time on the Internet than men, the misguided perception that computer scientists toil endlessly at an isolated terminal has curtailed female enrollment in computer science courses and kept women out of computing careers. Further, Klawe notes, "computer science majors are snatched up first by employers, and they are being paid $10,000 more starting than many other majors looking for work." Tracing the disparity in interest back to adolescence, video games shoulder much of the blame for captivating the attention of boys, leaving girls essentially uninterested. High schools teachers often favor boys in computer science courses, inviting them to help teach the class while ignoring the girls. Before they get to college, women show a preference for disciplines such as the arts and psychology, while boys gravitate more toward computer science, physics, and engineering. Klawe hopes to draw more women to computing with humanizing elements such as games, media, and outreach programs, placing an emphasis on the applications of computing, rather than the technical aspects of programming.
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Nuclear War Over Software Patents?
Business Week (02/06/06) Woellert, Lorraine

When Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman voiced his concerns about software patents undermining innovation in 1991, he was largely ignored and branded an alarmist. With the draft update to the GPL, he is now seeking to limit the growth of patent-protected digital content and proprietary software. While Stallman readies for an embittered struggle between open-source advocates and defenders of the proprietary software model, IBM is leading a coalition of open-source groups, including Red Hat and Open Source Development Labs, to improve the quality of patents and guard against attempts to patent work already in use. The group will start by compiling a list of prior art, which runs counter to Stallman's strategy of completely sheltering GPL code from the patent process. The draft update also restricts GPL code from being used to protect movies and music. Stallman's vision would provide universal access to free software, effectively undermining the current patent protections, which has sparked staunch opposition from the entertainment industry, as content distributors use open-source code to safeguard their digital property rights, while Linux powers a growing number of devices, such as the TiVo digital video recorder. Linus Torvalds has already repudiated GPLv3, setting the stage for what could be a showdown between Stallman and the free software ideologues and the larger and more pragmatically-minded open-source community. The looming confrontation could undermine the availability of GPL software, which has many observers hoping that IBM will be able to broker a solution that continues the flow of innovation.
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Paid E-Mail Seen as Sign of Culture Change
Washington Post (02/07/06) P. D5; Musgrove, Mike

Yahoo! and America Online have announced that they will soon start offering companies the voluntary option of paying for ensured delivery of emails in their subscribers' inboxes, a move that SpamCop founder Julian Haight called "another nail in the coffin of email in general." He said the concept "kills the whole openness of the email system on the Internet," while AOL's Nicholas Graham said the idea is to provide a choice "for people who simply want to have their email delivered in a different way." He added that AOL is providing this service in response to subscriber complaints that they have no way of telling if their emails are legitimate or a ruse by con artists. Emails sent through the new service will be accompanied by a seal of certification to establish confidence among recipients that the messages are authentic. Companies using the service will pay a cent or less per piece to send; Goodmail Systems will handle email sent via the program, and the messages will not be filtered as most emails to AOL subscribers are as part of AOL's anti-spam efforts. Anti-Spam Research Group Chairman John Levine finds the prospect of paid email to be both "depressing and inevitable," while Heller Information Services President Paul Heller said a lot of people are unsettled by the Yahoo! and AOL programs because Web users have always looked upon email as a free and open service. "Logically, it's just an extension of advertising that you see on the page when you log on to AOL," he noted. AOL is slated to roll out its paid email service in the next few months, while Yahoo! remains mute about its program.
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Programmers Get Their Own Search Engine
Linux-Watch (02/06/06) Vaughan-Nichols, Steven J.

The Silicon Valley startup Krugle has developed a search engine designed to help developers find source code on the Internet, parsing and indexing the code and presenting it in a user-friendly interface. Krugle combines open-source and proprietary elements in its own technology, drawing heavily on the Apache Software Foundation's Nutch and Lucene and the Antir parser generator. "Today, programming is more about efficiently assembling and integrating code, than it is about writing new code from scratch," said CEO and co-founder Steve Larsen. "The problem is, finding and evaluating the available code takes too much time. That's the problem Krugle solves." Co-founder Ken Krugler added that while existing search engines can crawl the Web to retrieve individual sites, they are unable to mine repositories of source code. Krugle's founders also claim that the tool can help developers negotiate issues such as licensing and documentation, as well as providing advice on which code to use. Developers can augment Krugle with tags and commentary over top of the code, similar to the way that Wiki users supplement content with metadata. Krugle expects to go live with the search engine on March 8 at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference.
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The Rise of Real-Time Linux
SDA Asia (02/06/06) Thorsten-Dietrich, Sven

The widespread adoption of the open-source Linux operating system as an embedded platform for innovative Internet-enabled applications is being driven by the emphasis on fairness, progress, and resource sharing in basic design decisions, and the applications developed through this platform offer greater reliability, versatility, cost efficiency, and faster time-to-market than competing products, notes Sven Thorsten-Dietrich of MontaVista Software. The Linux community is working to improve Linux so that it can accommodate the real-time performance needs of embedded systems; one such advance is MontaVista's O(1) scheduler in the Linux 2.6 kernel, which mimics the behavior of previous Linux schedulers while also supporting bounced-back time scheduling. Thorsten-Dietrich writes that a reevaluation of the original Linux design principles was necessitated by Linux's expanded versatility in the embedded segment, along with the incessantly increasing demand for time-critical functionality. A real-time operating system must be designed to identify assigned task priorities, and respond to time-critical events by moving to the equivalent tasks within a determined period. The occurrence of a time-critical event in a real-time system requires preemption, in which the currently running task is suspended and the task responsible for processing the event is scheduled. Making Linux fully preemptable involved the development of the Mutex, an alternative mechanism that would let the kernel permit preemption while executing in the most important sections. "Overall, the real-time effort is helping to expose existing problem areas in the kernel, stimulating discussions about efficiency and optimization, in addition to guiding development efforts towards a continually higher standard of implementation and performance for the evolving Linux ecosystem," notes Thorsten-Dietrich.
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It's Time to Arrest Cyber Crime
Business Week (02/02/06) Horn, Paul

Profits from cyber crime were higher than profits from the sale of illegal drugs for the first time last year, according to Valerie McNiven, the U.S. Treasury Department advisor. "Cyber crime is moving at such a high speed that law enforcement cannot catch up with it," McNiven says. Cyber crime is now driven by profit with an estimated 85 percent of malware created specifically for profit. The FBI lists fighting cyber and technology crime at number three on its list of top 10 priorities. Since cyber criminals are becoming more organized, experts say a new approach to fighting cyber crime is needed in three key areas: people, policies, and technology. The "people factor" aspect of the solution is figuring out how hackers work and what makes them tick. Behavioral insight will help fight intrusions as well as extrusion into the network. Policy is another issue that must be dealt with by organizations by establishing expectations for behaviors and outcomes in order to create a secure business environment. The implementation of security policies allows companies to protect their data. More than 40 organizations recently came together to form the Data Governance Council, a group designed to go beyond the traditional approaches to security, privacy, compliance, and operational-risk policy. Technology such as encryption is another challenging issue companies must face and learn how to extend it to every touchpoint on the network. It is estimated that more than half of all corporate data is on someone's PC, PDA, or cellular phone. Cyber crime is now the crime of the 21st century, but with the right people, policies, and technology in place, it can be fought, writes IBM Research vice president Paul Horn.
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Get a Grip
New Scientist (02/04/06) Vol. 189, No. 2537, P. 46; Huang, Gregory T.

One of the most exciting areas in the field of robotics is "autonomous mobile manipulation," which focuses on the development of machines whose manual dexterity matches that of humans. Projects in the field include NASA's Human-Robot Technology program, which seeks to create robots that are as dexterous as a six-year-old child within two years. Breakthroughs in robotic dexterity are now possible because sensor, actuator, and computing technology has advanced to the point where robots can more accurately sense their surroundings, improve their fine motor skills, and interact with objects in a more natural manner. Such advances enable robots' movements to be controlled according to the exertion of force instead of the absolute position of each limb or digit. The arms of NASA's Robonaut, the most dexterous machine in the world, boast 150 sensors programmed to detect such variables as joint positions, contact forces, stresses and strains on the limb, and heat flow; an on-board computer analyzes sensor readings and transmits commands to the electric motors in the arm. However, Robonaut is a remote-controlled machine rather than fully autonomous, and achieving full automation requires teaching the robot to use tools, keep track of objects, and recognize speech and gestures. Robots with autonomous mobile manipulation can carry out tasks that are too dangerous or just undesirable for humans, and although current technology is likely to be restricted to menial chores such as garbage collection rather than more complex tasks such as repairs in space, the advances necessary for such operations could lead to important milestones in prosthetics, automated elderly care, and surgical tools.
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Software That Learns by Doing
Computerworld (02/06/06) P. 28; Anthes, Gary H.

Improved algorithms and faster computers are taking machine learning beyond the realm of speech recognition and fraud detection and placing it more into the mainstream, says Stanford computer science professor Sebastian Thrun. With the applications becoming larger and less manageable, coupled with their increasing commercial appeal, the ability to self-adapt is fast becoming an imperative. Thrun applied some of the new methods of machine learning to Stanley, the self-guided robotic car that won the top prize of $2 million in the recent DARPA contest. Machine learning helps automated devices perform tasks such as image and speech recognition that are simple for humans, but difficult to explicate in computer code. Tom Mitchell, director of the Center for Automated Learning and Discovery at Carnegie Mellon University, is exploring the idea of pairing two learned algorithms together to train each other, approaching a problem from different perspectives and comparing notes. With a twofold reduction in errors, Mitchell's research is significant for deploying algorithms that learn from test cases that other software, rather than humans, has labeled. University of California, Berkeley computer science professor Stuart Russell is researching the application of machine learning to gaps in areas of otherwise sound human knowledge, an application that he calls partial programming. Russell writes his applications in Alisp, a variation of Lisp, allowing the computer to decide how best to fill in knowledge gaps in instruction sequences such as driving directions to the airport. Researchers are also developing an area of machine learning known as genetic programming, where many, often thousands of versions of a program are dispatched to solve a problem, and a form of natural selection takes hold and the strongest applications beget progeny in a process that can last for generations without human guidance.
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Winner: Multimedia Monster
IEEE Spectrum (01/06) Vol. 43, No. 1, P. 20; Moore, Samuel K.

IBM, Sony, and Toshiba have jointly developed the Cell Broadband Engine Architecture, or Cell, as a multicore microprocessor whose support of graphics and multimedia trumps all others. Developed at a cost of $400 million, Cell is being incorporated into game consoles, televisions, and other broadband-linked consumer items in an attempt to control the "digital living room." Cell runs 36 times faster than the PlayStation 2's processor with a peak speed of 192 gigaflops. The transition to multicore architectures is being driven by the technical limitations of shrinking processors and raising clock speed, which eventually becomes unworkable because of heat output. Unlike most multicore architectures currently on the market, Cell's architecture is asymmetrical, with two varieties of cores: A Power processing element that runs the Linux operating system, and eight Synergistic processing elements that perform tasks distributed among them by the Power element. The Synergistic elements are designed to manage multimedia applications such as video compression/decompression, encryption and decryption of copyrighted content, and graphics rendering and modification. A Synergistic element works only on data kept in its own 256 KB of memory accessible via a high-bandwidth link, while Cell's engines for managing memory can be programmed to maintain the flow of data through the processor. Cell's ability to fragment problems into pieces that can be done in parallel also plays an important role in the processor's speed advantages. Software tools that can exploit Cell's benefits to the fullest are critical to the processor's commercial success.
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Is the Next Economy Taking Shape?
Issues in Science and Technology (01/06) Vol. 22, No. 2, P. 62; Atkinson, Robert D.

Progressive Policy Institute vice president Robert Atkinson cites "neo-Schumpetarian" analysis, which posits that productivity gains become harder to generate as an old economy reaches the edge of its technology innovation and diffusion capacity, for playing a role in economists' view that productivity fueled by IT-based technology will slacken and stagnate fairly soon. Atkinson disputes this assumption, arguing that the diffusion of technology to other adopters besides the primary ones has historically kept productivity climbing. He also takes issue with Stanford University historian Paul David's postulation that the IT system's impact on overall productivity statistics was slow in coming because learning how to use new technology is a time-consuming process. Atkinson says David's theory does not take into account the fact that IT technologies are relatively easy to learn and are never fully-formed when they are first introduced. The author attributes the dramatic resurgence in productivity growth between Q4 1996 and Q4 2004 to the advent of an IT system whose affordability, power, and networking capability was enough to improve efficiency and productivity of services to a vast degree, primarily through automation. Atkinson writes that at least four needs must be met for the digital revolution to reach its full potential: Technology's ease-of-use and reliability must be improved; many devices must be converged and integrated; better technologies (intelligent agents, expert system software, voice recognition, etc.) must be introduced; and more ubiquitous adoption must be facilitated. The author thinks technologies stemming from nanoscale advances or the need to increase productivity in human-service functions are likely candidates for the core drivers of the next economic wave.
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