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September 6, 2006

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The State of Research Isn't All That Grand
New York Times (09/03/06) P. BU3; Bernasek, Anna

U.S. spending on research and development, long a barometer for a company's future success and a general indicator for the prevailing state of the economy, has tailed off in recent years compared with some of the country's most determined competitors. The United States remains the largest spender on research and development, though it dropped for the first time in 50 years after the tech bubble burst. Though R&D spending increased in 2003 and 2004, government funding in some areas has tailed off, and it is now primarily channeled toward defense projects. Per share of national economic output, federal R&D funding is expected to drop from 0.5 percent this year to 0.4 percent in 2007, according to Kei Koizumi of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In the eyes of the budget makers, R&D has been a declining priority for decades, as the federal government's portion of total U.S. R&D spending has fallen from 67 percent 40 years ago to just 30 percent today. "The government is spending a smaller and smaller among of our economy on R&D, and that comes at a time when other countries are dramatically increasing their investments," Koizumi said. "It raises big concerns for the future of U.S. innovation." Historically, the corporate community has been reluctant to invest heavily in basic research, and as the government scales back its R&D spending, the private sector investment only grew 0.3 percent from 2000 to 2004, compared with an average real growth rate of 7.2 percent from 1994 to 2000. Outsourcing raises another important issue, as an increasing number of companies are looking to supplement their workforces with inexpensive foreign labor. Meanwhile, nations such as China and South Korea have been stepping up their own government spending on R&D. While the United States still leads the rest of the world in total spending, the nation falls down on measures such as R&D spending as a proportion of overall economy.
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NSF Solicits Bids to Run Next-Gen Web Project Office
Federal Computer Week (09/05/06) Sternstein, Aliya

The NSF has put out a call for bids to establish and run an office for the Global Environment for Networking Innovations (GENI), a research initiative to test novel architectures for a next-generation Internet. "GENI promises to support the experimental exploration of robust new networking and distributed systems architectures and services that will revolutionize computing and simultaneously contribute to U.S. competitiveness in [information technology] and economic growth," NSF officials said. Unlike most testing environments, GENI will allow essentially unlimited freedom in exploring network architectures, services, and applications. GENI will support clean-slate projects and give researchers a chance to experiment with real users in everyday settings. NSF officials said that it is important for GENI's activities to be driven by fundamental research. The future Internet, the officials said, will provide greater accessibility, universal mobility and connectivity, and more information online, while also satisfying commercial needs and supporting privacy. GENI will also have a strong focus on security, as it attempts to restore trust to the online world. Today's Internet, which owes its origins to the work of researchers making architectural decisions in the 1970s, will never be able to tap into the full potential of wireless communications and other emerging technologies, the officials said.
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'Molecular Computers' Act as Tiny ID Tags
New Scientist (09/03/06) Kleiner, Kurt

Researchers have developed molecules with the ability to perform rudimentary logic operations, potentially functioning as tiny identification tags for cells or nanodevices. The idea was born from research conducted at Queen's University in Belfast, UK, that focused on molecules that emulate the behavior of silicon logic gates. As an input, the molecules use a chemical or a mix of chemicals, with light as an output. Research in molecular computation holds the potential to perform billions of calculations simultaneously, although it has thus far proven difficult to piece together the simple operations required to enable complex functionality. In search of a more immediate use for computational molecules, Queen's University's Prasanna de Silva developed a technique to use them as molecular tags, which are similar to RFID tags, only smaller. De Silva's technique could eventually be automated, with individual cells tagged with a sequence of figures such as a license plate number. "What really makes the numbers go through the roof is combining operations," De Silva said. The process can be streamlined by combining the logical functions so that a large group of tags can be produced that each provide a different answer. Medical researchers could ultimately use the research to tag and isolate individual cells. "The study shows that molecular computation can indeed find real applications today," said University of Bologna chemist Vincenzo Balzani.
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Putting Patent Trolls on the Defensive
Technology Review (09/06/06) Kintisch, Eli

Overly broad patents that companies can use to threaten or undermine competitors with wasteful and costly lawsuits are among the biggest problems facing software companies. Dan Ravicher, head of the Public Patent Foundation, is leading the charge to get the Patent and Trademark Office to reexamine overly broad patents. Ravicher has already challenged the Microsoft-owned patents for the FAT file-tracking standard, Forgent Networks' patents covering the JPEG standard, and patents held by Pfizer and Columbia University. Ravicher, who discussed the relationship between patents and innovation in a recent interview, feels that many existing patents should never have been issued because the concepts that they protect are obvious. Securing a patent is not a primary motivation for programmers, Ravicher claims, noting that they are more likely to be driven by money, name recognition, or a passion for their work. Even though patent holders' claims are often rejected, the cost of defending an innovation in court can be prohibitive for many developers, Ravicher says. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many startups simply abandoned their software development activities when they started receiving letters asserting patent claims. At the other end of the spectrum, Microsoft has had to divert resources that could have been used for development to address the claims of patent trolls, says Ravicher, who is quick to dispel the notion that open-source developers are the only victims of patent trolls. The development community, he claims, tends more to favor free, open, and shared software, while the patent system is simply an intrusive form of government regulation that ultimately compromises innovation. "The winners in the software marketplace should be determined by consumer choice--whichever products are cheaper and faster -- not by some regulatory scheme."
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Microsoft Research Builds 'BrowserShield'
eWeek (09/04/06) Naraine, Ryan

Microsoft researchers have developed a Web-security application to enable the Internet Explorer browser to intercept and remove malicious code concealed in Web pages, presenting users instead with safe versions of those pages. The BrowserShield project, which was born from the company's Shield initiative that sought to block network worms, ferrets out malicious code in real time, presenting a potential solution to zero-day browser attacks such as last December's Windows Metafile. "This can provide another layer of security, even on unpatched browsers," said Microsoft's Helen Wang, architect of the project. "If a patch isn't available, a BrowserShield-enabled tool bar can be used to clean pages hosting malicious content." Designed to delete embedded scripts before a Web page appears on a browser, BrowserShield scrutinizes both static and dynamic content. On pages where hackers have embedded scripts to trick users into downloading Trojans, bots, and other forms of malware, BrowserShield could rewrite a page's HTML to block any efforts at running harmful code. The program inserts a layer of code at run-time to shore up Web pages for the end user, Wang says. In testing, BrowserShield invisibly rewrote the HTML code in many popular Web sites that contain JavaScript. Testing against eight Internet Explorer patches released last year found that the application, when used in conjunction with normal antivirus and HTTP filtering, would have provided the same level of security as the patches. The design could even be applied in servers or at the enterprise-firewall level. The prototype also has support built in for securing AJAX applications and phishing prevention.
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'Chatty George' Talks Himself Up
BBC News (09/03/06) Leadbeater, Eli

Drawing on the experience from millions of online chatroom conversations, programmer Rollo Carpenter has developed a series of chat robots, or chatbots, that can converse electronically with live chatters and pass itself off as a human. When considering how to respond to a specific query, George remembers the course of past conversations and selects answers that will arrive at a similar endpoint. "In a sense, it's borrowing the intellect of the people that come talk to it, taking their words and finding the most matching contextual moment from previous conversations," said Carpenter. "Unlike many other conversational programs, it's not trying to merely be logical. It's trying to form relationships, to be entertaining, and it can seem rather alive." George has existed for years as a disembodied textual interface, but now has a completely animated 3D body thanks to Televirtual founder Tim Child. George also has a whole complement of gestures and expressions, and is now working toward full-fledged conversations with people. However, George still has trouble describing itself, given that the software's memory turns on what people have previously said about it. George can also come off short-tempered and rude, having adopted some of the abrasive informalities of the Internet chat community. "Time spent with him offers a unique insight into how natural languages science is capable of reproducing patterns of human behavior, and progressing towards true machine intelligence," said Child.
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University Research Aims at More Secure Wi-Fi
InformationWeek (09/01/06) Shandle, Jack

Researchers at Carleton University in Canada continue to improve signal fingerprinting technology that has the potential to serve as a solution for protecting wireless networks from unauthorized users. The signal fingerprinting technology makes use of the RF signal fingerprints or profiles, which differentiate wireless transceivers. Jeyanthi Hall, a graduate student who is heading the research initiative, says the unique fingerprint characteristics are the result of the differences in silicon and other electronic components of wireless transceivers, particularly the variations in transient signals when the transceiver tries to connect to the network. The fingerprint is compared to authentic versions stored in the access point or another central location in the network using a probabilistic neural network. For example, RF fingerprinting would be able to reveal when a hacker has tried to use a spoofing technique to give a transceiver a specific MAC address. Self-organizing map technology and clustering technology could be used to ease storage of authenticated signatures and make authentication faster. The researchers also plan to use a DSP-based data acquisition board to pick up transient RF signals rather than Anritsu's Signature High Performance Signal Analyzer. Scalability and effectiveness of algorithms are issues that still need to be addressed before the Carleton team moves forward with any commercial aspirations.
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Internet2 to Support the DoE's Next Research Net
Network World (08/31/06) Pappalardo, Denise

The U.S. Department of Energy will lean on Internet2 while the DoE builds a new research network for its scientists and research partners. DoE will initially use Internet2's new next generation platform to operate the latest version of the Energy Sciences Network, running ESnet4 on two dedicated 10 Gbps wavelengths. DoE and Internet2 say ESnet4 will "seamless scale by one wavelength per year for the next four to five years." Bandwidth concerns over DoE's ability to contribute to projects such as the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator have prompted the department to pursue plans for a new research network for its 30 labs, 100,000 scientists, and 18,000 researchers. The Internet2 network gives DoE scientists and researchers access to greater bandwidth capacity, and it also provides support for more advanced IP services and new optical capabilities. Brookhaven National Laboratory's Scott Bradley says that ESnet4 "will provide a quantum leap in providing the network support required by our scientific research community, and is a natural culmination of the extremely close working relationship the [Department of Energy] networking community has with Internet2."
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Will Vista Stall Net Traffic?
CNet (09/06/06) Evers, Joris

The man widely credited with inventing the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS), Paul Mockapetris, now chief scientist at Nominum, is warning that the launch of Microsoft's new Windows Vista operating system could slow down or stall traffic on the Net. That is because Vista will be the first version of Windows to support the new IP version 6, which is designed to provide a broader range of IP addresses than the current IP version 4 standard. But since IPv6 is still far from being universally used, Vista will also support IPv4--which means that a Vista PC will make two DNS requests, one for each IP version, instead of just one, Mockapetris said. Those extra requests could bog down traffic on the Internet because they would put a greater burden on the DNS servers run by ISPs, Mockapetris added. With many DNS servers running close to capacity, he said, the extra DNS requests could have serious consequences. "You're going to see brownouts," Mockapetris said. "All of a sudden, it is going to be mud season on the Internet, where things will just be kind of slow and gooey." Although other researchers say Vista could cause problems, they are not predicting dire scenarios. Independent research Dan Kaminsky says, "Vista, due to its support for IPv6, will cause somewhat higher load on name servers as it checks to see which protocol to use. But this is not the stuff that blackouts are made of." For its part, Microsoft says Vista will not query twice every time it sends out a DNS request. And although it acknowledges that Vista will generate some additional traffic, Microsoft says Vista machines will not affect the overall functionality of the Internet.
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Other Nations Catching Up to United States
Science (09/01/06) Vol. 313, No. 5791, P. 1235; Rattner, Justin

The United States needs to make a stronger commitment to science and mathematics if it does not want to see other nations surpass it in scientific breakthroughs and technical innovation within the next 10 years, writes Intel CTO Justin Rattner. Rattner, who keeps a close eye on the research that is taking place at Intel labs around the world, notes that India and China are making huge investments in their education systems, such as building new facilities and creating new departments and degree programs. The education systems are attracting talented, young faculty members, and are now producing 10 times more engineering students than their U.S. counterpart. The next big thing could very well come from another nation, considering the decline in the number of U.S. students pursuing majors in science and engineering, and the performance of U.S. students in math and science at the grade-school level. Rattner believes the nation must improve science and mathematics education, and create science programs that capture young people's imagination. He recalls how a summer program field trip to Hughes Research Laboratory in Malibu, Calif., while a junior high school student, influenced his decision to study applied physics at Cornell. Rattner also believes teacher pay should be improved to attract educators who have a passion for science and math, and that a new national mission in science and engineering that focuses on issues such as energy independence and health care is needed.
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New Robot Can Identify Wines, Cheese
Associated Press (09/02/06) Talmadge, Eric

Researchers at NEC and Mie University have developed a robot capable of identifying dozens of wines and cheese in a blind test. While numerous robots are already capable of performing many tasks, NEC's Hideo Shimazu decided that he and his team were ready for a challenge. Now, after two years of work, Shimazu and his colleagues have unveiled the prototype with a swiveling head and a mouth that lights up when the device speaks. An infrared spectrometer attached to the robot's left arm emits a beam of infrared light that is then analyzed to determine the chemical composition of the object. "All foods have a unique fingerprint," said Shimazu. "The robot uses data to identify what it is inspecting right there on the spot." The robot adopts a child-like voice when it identifies a wine, then adding the brand's name and a comment or two that could help with the tasting. The robot can also warn the health-conscious about the chemical composition of food placed in front of it. Shimazu is currently working to get the cost of his technology down so that it might have commercial applications. "We are getting a lot of business offers and a lot of interest," he said. "But we see this more as a symbol of our technological ability than as a profitable product right now."
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Stealth Attack Drains Cell Phone Batteries
UC Davis News and Information (08/24/06)

Cell phones capable of transmitting or receiving multimedia files could be the target of an attack that surreptitiously drains their battery power, according to computer security researchers at the University of California, Davis. "Battery power is the bottleneck for a cell phone," said Hao Chen, assistant professor of computer science at UC Davis. "It can't do anything with a dead battery." By spending most of their time in standby mode, cell phones are designed to conserve battery power. The MMS protocol, which enables cell phones to transmit media files, can be used to send packets of unwanted information to a cell phone, waking the device from standby mode. The cell phone promptly discards the junk packets without alerting the user. Repeated reception of junk data keeps the device in active mode, running down the phone's batteries as much as 20 times faster than normal use. All an attacker would need to know, Chen says, is the phone number and Internet address of the victim's cell phone. Chen and his graduate students have discovered other flaws in the MMS protocol, including one that would enable users to send multimedia files for free by circumventing the billing processes for multimedia services.
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'Augmented Reality' Glasses Tackle Tunnel Vision
New Scientist (08/31/06) Inman, Mason

Harvard Medical School ophthalmologist Eli Peli has developed a device that superimposes computer-generated images over real scenes to help people with tunnel vision find objects outside of their narrow field of view. The so-called augmented reality system makes use of eyeglasses that have a small camera designed to feed wide-angle images to a small computer the viewer wears. The computer, about the size of a pack of cigarettes, strips away all details in a scene other than the edges of objects, then forwards the cartoon-like outline of the objects to a transparent display on one lens of the glasses. The computer updates the image 30 times per second, changing the scene every time the viewer moves his or her head. The device allows people with tunnel vision to find objects faster, and more details of test results will be available in the September issue of Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science. "This is the most promising thing that I've seen in years," says ophthalmologist Henry Greene at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "It's the only one able to combine electronically produced imagery with normal vision to allow patients to become aware of things they couldn't before." The device may benefit people who have other vision problems, observers believe.
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Net Neutrality, Broadband Legislation on Back Burner
Computerworld (09/01/06) Gross, Grant

Experts are doubtful that Congress will settle the Net neutrality debate currently standing in the way of passage of a compromise package that would streamline the cable television franchising process for new providers before the scheduled Oct. 6 adjournment for the year. The debate has become a contentious issue and few believe that with the elections rolling around, lawmakers will settle the issue anytime soon. For the most part, Net neutrality has split Democrats and Republicans, with the former supporting its maintenance. During August's congressional recess, players on both sides of the debate pressed on with lobbying efforts. Rallies in 25 cities were held by net neutrality supporters, who also used the Web to spread their message. Likewise, groups opposed to a measure calling for net neutrality, such as the Communications Workers of America, have voiced their opinion that government should stay out of the debate. Net neutrality advocacy group It's Our Net says the momentum has shifted toward to it's side of the debate. The coalition's Jim McGann says, "From where I stand, the grassroots support is building." However, Mike McCurry, co-chairman of the Hands off the Internet coalition, says most U.S. residents are unfamiliar with the Net neutrality debate, but many would favor legislation designed to boost competition for cable TV. He says, "If you walk into any shopping mall and hold up a Net neutrality sign, I don't expect you're going to get a response. People just don't understand it."
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The Non-Denial of the Non-Self
Economist (08/31/06) Vol. 380, No. 8493, P. 72

Taking a cue from the philosopher Carl Hempel, who in the 1940s demonstrated that the logical statement "all ravens are black" could be manipulated to form the equivalent "all non-black objects are non-ravens," computer scientists are looking to apply similar negative representations to secure sensitive data by creating a database that contains everything in a particular set of things but the information of interest. The idea of the negative database, whose leading researcher is Yale University computer scientist Fernando Esponda, materialized a couple years ago when Esponda was studying the human immune system. In that case, "everything" refers to the set of potential biological molecules. The immune system can guard against pathogens without knowing what the pathogen might look like. Rather, it uses a negative database to identify which pathogen it needs to destroy. The immune system knows which biological molecules are "self," or common parts of the body that it is protecting, so when a "not-self" molecule appears, it assumes that it is part of a pathogen and destroys it. The correlation to computer databases is imperfect, as the number of biomolecules, though very large, is not infinite. But by defining "everything" as a finite group, such as phrases with a set maximum number of characters, the technique could be used to compile a database containing names, addresses, and Social Security numbers, for instance. While it would not promise perfect security, the technique could be used to guard against phishing ventures that might, for instance, troll for all the Social Security numbers of the people who live on a particular street. Esponda points to the technique's potential to shore up applications where multiple datasets with different owners need to be compared, providing an effective backup to traditional cryptography.
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Bills to Train More Scientists Go Down to the Wire
Chronicle of Higher Education (09/08/06) Vol. 53, No. 3, P. A19; Brainard, Jeffrey

With Congress' adjournment for the midterm elections imminent, university leaders are clamoring for the passage of some kind of legislation designed to relieve a perceived shortage of American scientists and engineers. Bills for raising the federal allotment of physical sciences research funding stand a good chance of being passed, but there is less enthusiasm among legislators for upping funding for college-level science training, which has been cited by experts as a critical requirement for America's continued economic competitiveness in the global arena. Both the House and Senate have proposed bills that would raise the budget of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) education programs, but they would apportion funding below the division's 2005 level of $844 million; there would be no increase at all for the National Institutes of Health, which is another vital source of funding for science training. A proposal for an authorization bill that includes support for science education, which establishes annual spending caps for specific programs over several years without providing any actual funding, is gaining favor among administration officials, if only because executing some of the president's proposals for new science-education initiatives for elementary and secondary schools requires legislative changes. Some of the congressional bills suggest raising the number of NSF-awarded graduate fellowships as a measure to help finance students' graduate education and thus encourage their pursuit of science careers, but Harvard University economics professor Richard Freeman says more fellowships may fail to stimulate the production of scientists, given researchers' low salaries in comparison to lawyers and MBAs. There are also experts who think improving science training at colleges is a better investment than boosting math and science education at elementary and secondary schools, as it would encourage more college students interested in science to complete their degrees. Furthermore, there is considerable debate whether the country is truly facing a shortage of scientists and engineers.
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Thinking of Child's Play
Scientific American (09/06) Vol. 295, No. 3, P. 30; Hornyak, Tim

A collaborative project by Advanced Telecommunications Research (ATR) Institute International and Honda Research Institute Japan is a robot hand that can translate the manipulations of a subject in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine into movements of its own mechanical digits with 85 percent accuracy through a brain-machine interface. "We have been working on methods for decoding brain activity," notes ATR cognitive neuroscientist Yukiyasu Kamitani. "A brain-machine interface is only one of many possible applications of the decoding technique." Changes in the subject's blood flow linked with neural activity in the motor cortex are examined by a machine-learning algorithm and the data is sent to the robot hand, which replicates the finger movements. The advantage of the fMRI approach, as opposed to faster brain-reading methods such as EEG, is that no training is required. The interface cannot become a practical device until Kamitani's group identifies mental activity of greater complexity. Technical refinements include a significant reduction in the scanning equipment's weight and size. The researchers' short-term goal is to make their decoding method capable of reading pure intention instead of the actual movement, making the robot hand capable of forming shapes through thought alone.
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Computational Photography--The Next Big Step
Computer (08/06) Vol. 39, No. 8, P. 28; Bimber, Oliver

Although the switch from analog to digital photography is proceeding apace, the technique is still restricted to the camera obscura paradigm, in which only intensities and colors of light rays projected linearly by a simple lens system onto the image plain at a single moment in time and under fixed illumination can be recorded. The shift to computational photography should enable the recording of a wider range of information, which could perhaps be processed afterward. Among the features that could be facilitated by computational photography are 3D recording, synthetic re-illumination, digital refocusing, and better motion compensation and noise reduction. Future cameras are expected to register the video frames that correspond to filmed sequences into a spacetime lab, which will yield higher image quality and enable consistent group shooting, playback of motion loops, motion-invariant image stitching, and other applications. Multisperspective panoramas and synthetic aperture photography could be realized with new imaging technology that captures a wider array of light rays that move in many parameterized directions. Scenes could be illuminated by light rays traveling along multiple paths via advanced lighting systems. Wide-angle, high-dynamic range, multispectral, and depth imaging applications could also be supported by optical extensions such as curved mirrors or special filters in conjunction with new computer vision methods.
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