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ACM TechNews
January 19, 2007

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Welcome to the January 19, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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At Mashup Camp, Geeks Plot Future of Web
CNet (01/18/07) LaMonica, Martin

Mashup developers convened in Cambridge, Mass., for the third annual "Mashup Camp" where they discussed the current and future states of mashups, as well as the legal barriers they face. "Mashups are the most fun [type of Web development] just because there's so much potential," said Alan Taylor, one of about 200 developers and technologists attending Mashup Camp. "The biggest barriers have been artificial barriers, legal barriers," added Taylor. Although major software vendors have created service-oriented architecture (SOA), intricate suites of Web services, standards, and infrastructure based on a modular format, mashup developers have concentrated on speed and simplicity, using streamlined methods for patching together different Web sites. "This is taking the SOA idea and applying it to the mess that is the real world," explained Web developer Joe Radcliff. "You can grab pieces from here and there. It makes it a lot more informal, which increases adoption." Mashup developers are now being courted by established technology providers, as the success of mashups compared with the relative struggles of Web services and SOAs was stressed at the conference. Application programming interfaces (APIs) can normally be taken from Web sites without asking permission, but the biggest fear of a mashup creator is a cease-and-desist order. Ironically, mashups normally get shut down when they become very popular, since they begin to use up too much of a Web service's resources, such as bandwidth. As a result, the field has taken a great interest in licensing and commercialization, even dedicating a session at the conference to these concerns. "The idea is that we want to make this ecosystem sustainable, not just go to fun conferences in cool places," said Eran Shir, co-founder of a company that helps mashup developers take data from Web sites that do not offer APIs.
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Touch Screens for Many Fingers
Technology Review (01/18/07) Greene, Kate

The unveiling of the Apple iPhone presented the public with a touch screen that allows more than one finger at a time to be used, but Jeff Han believes his own multi-touch screens will make the technology more useful. This month, his new company, Perceptive Pixel, will ship its first wall-sized touch screen this month, which allows several people to gather around the screen and "become collaborators," according to the New York University consulting research scientist. "The new iPhone is too small to be a very interesting multi-touch device," Han adds. The inexpensive screens Han has developed can accommodate as many as 10, 20, or more fingers, and he envisions them becoming embedded in tables and digital walls. Multi-touch technology has been explored since the 1980s, and while it never completely went away, Han's work has shown that the technology is emerging in new ways. Han's displays consist of a clear piece of six-millimeter thick acrylic illuminated with infrared light by light-emitting diodes attached at the edges. Light from the diodes exhibits internal reflection within the acrylic, but when a finger or other object makes contact with the acrylic, the internally reflected light diffuses at this point and scatters outside the acrylic. A camera behind the surface of the acrylic captures this light, which is then translated in real time as touches or strokes, using simple image-processing software. "For almost two decades, we've been trapped by the tyranny of the screen, the mouse, and the keyboard," says Northwestern University professor and author of "The Design of the Future" Don Norman. "It's nice to think we're breaking away from that and going toward touch-screen manipulation in the real physical world." Some researchers are now working on utilizing haptics to provide the user of a multi-touch screen with sensations corresponding to their contact inputs.
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Research Removes Major Obstacle from Mass Production of Tiny Circuits
EurekAlert (01/17/07)

A Princeton-led research team has found a way to possibly eliminate the tiny air bubbles that have troubled an innovative technique used to form intricate circuits, marking a major step in the direction of producing smaller, less expensive microchips. Princeton University Joseph C. Eglin professor of engineering Stephen Chou, who led the research, developed a method for patterning computer chips using a nanometer-scale mold in the 1990s, known as nanoimprinting. This technique made it possible to produce circuits and devices with features measuring about one nanometer long, over 10 times smaller than the mass-produced chips today, and less expensive. Beyond computer chips, nanoimprinting allowed for advancements in manufacturing nanodevices used in optics, magnetic data storage, and biotechnology. A modification of this technique led to dispensing-based nanoimprinting, where liquid droplets on the surface of a silicon wafer are pressed into a pattern, which rapidly solidifies to form circuitry. Although dispensing-based nanoimprinting was very attractive to manufacturers because it did not have to be done in a vacuum chamber, its widespread implementation was obstructed by the formation of gas bubbles that can disturb an intended pattern. Chou's team studied the cause of these bubbles and found that by increasing the pressure of imprinting or using liquids with higher air solubility, the likelihood of the bubbles dissolving before the liquid solidified could be significantly increased. "This is an important step because to benefit from the technology of nanoimprinting you need to be able to use it in mass manufacturing at low cost," said Chou.
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A Good Year for the IT Professional's Salary
Computerworld Australia (01/17/07) Tay, Liz

Australia's Minister for Education, Science, and Training, Julie Bishop, is considering spending $52 billion (AUD) over the next half-decade to raise the public profile of science and technology professionals. Her plan comes at a time in which the country is facing an IT skills shortage, and observers believe many students are shunning mathematics and science studies because they do not have a healthy view of the contributions of scientists and technology professionals to society. According to the latest job sector update from APESMA (Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists, and Managers, Australia), first-year tertiary IT enrollments are down by up to 50 percent, and nearly two-thirds of graduates plan to look for better job opportunities abroad. Young students continue to express concern about the local IT job market, according to observers, and the cost of pursuing science and technology-related studies does not help the situation. Science studies trail only medicine and law in cost. Companies in need of IT workers have embraced increased annual leave, retention payments, part-time and work from home contracts and overseas exchange as benefits. APESMA also reports that $85,610 is the average IT salary, with private and public sector pay having risen 5 percent and 3.8 percent, respectively.
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U.S.: No Net Governance Changes Expected
CNet (01/16/07) Broache, Anne

Senior White House officials said yesterday that they do not see U.S. control over Internet governance as being a major issue in the future. Their optimism was fueled by comments made by new International Telecommunications Union Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure, who said that under his leadership the organization will not seek "to take over the governance of Internet." Rather, Toure says ITU will focus on cybersecurity and bridging the digital gap. As recently as last fall's Internet Governance Forum, representatives from developing nations expressed their discontent with the current system of governance, saying the U.S. held too much sway and calling for international oversight of the system. U.S. Ambassador David Gross and Assistant Secretary of Commerce John Kneuer said Toure's comments assure that the United Nations will let ICANN continue to oversee technical management of the Internet. Gross, in charge of information policy and coordinating international communications, said the ITU's new position is "very much in harmony with our views." Meanwhile, Kneuer confirmed that the U.S. still plans to eventually privatize ICANN's operations. Kneuer said "coordinating the transition of the [domain name system] to the private sector...remains important for us."
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Ethics Dilemma in Killer Bots
The Australian (01/16/07) P. 29; Argy, Philip

Guard robots being deployed on the northern border of South Korea are capable of firing on human targets without receiving any direct commands from humans, and have brought up many important ethical questions. Each Intelligent Surveillance and Security Guard Robot will be equipped with a daylight camera capable of identifying targets within a 4-kilometer radius, and an infra-red night vision camera that has a range of 2 kilometers. While humans can use a joystick and touchscreen to control the robots, they are programmed to respond autonomously when an intruder does not provide a correct password. The robot's responses include sounding an alarm, using non-lethal force, or firing a machine gun or rifle; these would be the world's first robots with such capabilities. While the manufacturer says the robots are superior to human guards because they are immune to weather conditions and fatigue, many point out that a human soldier could utilize discretion and understand the consequences of his actions. Australian Computer Society's Mike Bowern expresses concerns over the potential for "software and hardware defects" to "influence the robot's conduct." He also points out that little is known of the ethical considerations taken by the robots' designers, or any code they must follow, since Korea doesn't have an independent professional association such as the ACM or the ACS, and the Korean Ministry of Information and Communication seems to place greater importance on technical aspects than it does on professional or ethical concerns. Many worry that these robots could eventually be sold to private customers. Computer ethicist James Moor points out the robots could not be held legally or morally responsible for their actions, leaving such responsibility up to technology professionals.
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Interview With Bill Cheswick
Security Focus (01/15/07) Biancuzzi, Federico

In an interview with Federico Biancuzzi, Internet Mapping Project creator and Lumeta chief scientist Bill Cheswick says useful information about attacks could be culled through a combination of data about firewall probes and other information about an assault on an organization, and he notes that he prefers placing such logs in a big, cheap drop-safe. Cheswick describes network intrusion detection systems (NIDS) as an ongoing network monitoring effort, and notes that false negatives and false positives are a recurring problem for the technology; potential subversion of the NIDS is another significant minus. In terms of finding a solution to distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, Cheswick says, "I see no theoretical possibility of doing anything more than mitigating attacks, and ultimately throwing large amounts of computing and network capacity at the problem." Cheswick harbors doubts about intrusion prevention systems or reactive firewalls, which on the surface seem logical but are actually difficult to execute, and carry the danger of turning on their users through the machinations of a clever attacker. Network security research that has drawn Cheswick's attention or excitement includes a SANE paper at Usenix that rethinks intranet design by shifting from an end-to-end scheme to centralized control, which Cheswick thinks could be potentially useful for military and corporate networks; a paper detailing a proactive Microsoft project to find browser exploits on malevolent sites; and investigations into the use of virtual machines such as Xen and VMware. Cheswick anticipates the continued exploitation of susceptible machines for underhanded money-making schemes such as spam email, phishing, and DDoS extortion attacks, because the incentives remain strong. It is his hope that there will be fewer vulnerable systems with the implementation of Vista.
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The Bookshelf Talks With Steven Casey
American Scientist (01/07) Vol. 4, No. 1, Ross, Greg

Ergonomics and human-factor expert Steven Casey has recently released his second book focusing on accidents caused by user error that might have been prevented by more enlightened design efforts. The incidents detailed in the new book, "The Atomic Chef," "make examples of instances in which engineers or designers didn't incorporate human factors or ergonomics into the design of the system or the product," Casey says. As technology advances, Casey observes that a single person has more ability to disrupt a system. He uses the term "design-induced error" rather than user error, since he chooses to cite stories "where there is a deficiency in the system or the actual interface that the operator uses could have been done better." The story for which the book is named involves Japanese nuclear scientists who disobeyed rules and accidentally created the same type of deadly chemical combination that the rules were put in place to protect against. Although the users were directly at fault, Casey says, "The whole social aspect of that setting was as important as, say, a one-on-one operator interface and these 'macroergonomic' issues, I think, will become increasingly important in the future." His work regularly concerns vehicles, where he has observed that migrating technology from one type of vehicle to another is the major cause of design-induced error. While Casey does not expect human error to ever be completely be removed from technology, the effort is being made to minimize it by involving experts such as himself, and users themselves, in the design process.
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A Nano Solution to Increasing Bandwidth
Technology Review (01/17/07) Bullis, Kevin

MIT Researchers have developed a way to remedy the fundamental problem facing the use of photonics in communications, which could facilitate cheaper, more intricate, and better performing optical networks. Though photonic devices have been successfully miniaturized in the past few years, inefficiency still plagues these devices. Light delivered through cylindrical fiber optics gets broken up into varying orientations of light waves, and outputs in devices at the microscale change if the light is either horizontally or vertically polarized, so devices were made to process only specific polarizations. For example, only horizontally polarized light would be used, and the vertically polarized light discarded, but this technique results in weak signals. The MIT researchers approached this problem not by building different devices to process the different light polarizations, but by creating a device that can convert vertically polarized light into horizontally polarized light by gradually rotating it. With all the light having the same polarization, it can all be processed by identical devices, which means clear, robust signals. This current advance only applies to photonic applications involving light with multiple polarizations, mostly communications applications that utilize fiber-optics. A surplus of bandwidth in past years reduced the attention given to improving these applications, while communications demands have been once again been increasing the need for advancement. One of the researchers on the project, MIT electrical engineering and physics professor Erich Ippen, explains that his team's work will help satisfy the needs of next-generation telecommunications: "When you integrate things like this, the complexity and the performance of the kinds of filtering we can do are a little more advanced than the methods that are used today," he notes.
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Computer Privacy in Distress
Wired News (01/17/07) Granick, Jennifer

Recent court cases have brought the question of computer privacy into the spotlight, as it pertains to the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Recent cases have proposed that border agents can search PCs of individuals crossing the border, without reasonable suspicion or a warrant. Though "routine" searchers are allowed to take place without reasonable suspicion, no court has directly addressed the question of whether searching a PC at the border is a routine or non-routine search. Due to the amount of private information on PCs, the length of time searches take, and the probability of finding contraband, courts may rule that reasonable suspicion is needed for such searches. U.S. v. Zeigler, heard in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, has stated that employees of private companies have no reasonable expectation of privacy, meaning no Fourth Amendment rights, concerning their workplace computers. Unless defense attorneys' requests for a rehearing are granted, the government could walk into an office without cause or a warrant and search the entire contents of the computer of any employee. The 9th Circuit is also trying to figure out a way to make sure authorities get the information they need without accessing or disturbing private, unrelated material that may be on the same disk drive. For example, in prosecuting United States v. Comprehensive Drug Testing, the government obtained warrants and seized databases containing drug test results for the 10 baseball players suspected of taking steroids, as well as the test results for hundreds of other athletes, and despite a lower court ruling that said the government must return the unrelated information, the 9th Circuit upheld a government appeal. This case shows that warrants must not only state what authorities can seize, but what they may not access on these seized machines. Courts, and possibly Congress, have a complicated road ahead in crafting a computer privacy compromise that is supported by both privacy advocates and investigating authorities.
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You Talkin' to Me?
New Scientist (01/13/07) Vol. 193, No. 2586, P. 42; Buchanan, Mark

Trapping photons so that they can interact and become a quantum material composed of light is the goal of researchers that include University of Melbourne scientist Andrew Greentree, and such a breakthrough could perhaps even clear a path to a practical quantum computer. Three separate groups, including one led by Greentree, have developed models demonstrating that the generation and testing of photon materials within several years is a feasibility. University of Cambridge researcher Dimitris Angelakis, who leads one of the other groups, says the approach they took involves coaxing "light to talk to light through matter" in a manner that enables the concurrent interaction of many photons. Their concept is the placement of atoms inside cavities in a photonic crystal. Each cavity is tuned to absorb precisely one photon and repel others, creating a photon blockade, and a phase transition is caused by disturbances induced by a beam of laser light striking each cavity. Photons can then flow unimpeded throughout the array. A new understanding of numerous weird quantum effects could be achieved with a "quantum simulator" comprised of interacting photons. Greentree's team has thought up an alternative method for building photon materials by exploiting defects in the crystal lattice of thin sheets of diamond rather than two-level atoms in cavities.
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Factories of the Future
CIO (01/01/07) Vol. 20, No. 6, P. 43; Hapgood, Fred

Adaptive manufacturing is manufacturing that makes spur-of-the-moment adjustments based on sudden economic changes, and it requires an infrastructure where information processes and information management issues are prevalent, using emergent technologies such as sensor networks and 3D printing. The interest in adaptive manufacturing is being fueled by several things, including a shift in economists' perception of markets and economies from predictable to chaotic systems, and the philosophy that managers employ natural selection as a business tool. Greater efficiency--an essential element of adaptive manufacturing--is facilitated by technologies such as machine vision, which involves the recognition of objects in an image and their association with specific properties. Potential benefits of this approach include reduced maintenance and quality control costs. Prototyping can be accelerated through the use of desktop manufacturing or 3D printing, a process in which a product is taken from blueprint to three dimensions in a matter of hours via the deposition of stacked layers by a printer. High-resolution sensor and actuator networks enable the detection of environmental changes and the introduction of those changes: Increasing the number of actuators translates into more control points, while boosting the number of sensors means more focused and intelligent control; networking the devices allows control from any physical point. These technologies add flexibility to manufacturing and open the way for the incorporation of new managers, partners, and other participants into the assembly process. Adaptive manufacturing allows little time for companies to build the skill sets they may need, and addressing this problem is the goal of a new form of collaboration in which short-term alliances with companies that possess the needed skills are forged.
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Is Your Car Smarter Than You Are?
Popular Mechanics (12/06) Vol. 183, No. 12, P. 88; Stewart, Ben

Computerized automotive control systems are beginning to supplant drivers as the decision-makers in such critical areas as accident avoidance. Electronic stability control (ESC) applies pressure to individual brakes to prevent oversteering and understeering. Logically, the next step is to incorporate within vehicles software and sensors that anticipate hazardous conditions and take over if the drivers' avoidance tactics are determined to be insufficient. Motorists who enjoy participating in the driving experience do not like this prospect, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently proposed a new federal safety standard that calls for the inclusion of ESC in all light vehicles by the 2012 model year. "We're developing safety systems that cut in only when critical situations occur--when we are absolutely certain that the driver needs some support," explains Mercedes-Benz's Dr. Joerg Breuer. ESC may become invisible to the motorist once a certain level of sophistication is reached: Lexus is working on a Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system that facilitates smooth, concurrent operation of stability control, steering, and braking systems. Spring 2007 will see the rollout of Lexus' intelligent cruise-control system, which uses cameras and radar to spot obstacles such as people and vehicles, and issues an alert if the driver does not see them.
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Making Every E-Vote Count
IEEE Spectrum (01/07) Vol. 44, No. 1, P. 13; Cherry, Steven

A team of graduate computing engineering students from U.S. and Canadian universities presented a voting system two months ago that reportedly jettisons all the problems of commercial e-voting systems. The team is led by cryptography researcher David Chaum, and the system, Punchscan, is easy to explain and can be deployed with commercially available equipment. Among the key problems with commercial systems that Punchscan addresses are ballots that cannot be recounted in disputed elections; vulnerability to malware and hackers; and the possibility of election rigging through the exploitation of secret computer code contained in commercial e-voting systems. The Punchscan ballot is designed so that it can be torn in half, with candidates' names and assigned letters on one half and a set of holes on the other that correspond to the letters, which show through when the ballot is folded. A unique number is assigned to the ballot and is printed on both halves, and the voter indicates the candidate of their choice with a special pen that marks both the hole on the top sheet and the number on the bottom sheet; either half of the ballot can be used to record the votes via a portable scanner, while the other half is shredded. Since letters are randomly assigned to candidates, no one can determine the voter's selections by studying just one half of the ballot, but Punchscan can because the random assignment is recorded in a database keyed to the ballot number. No database connects the ballot number with the name of the voter, so the voter's personal choices are kept private. Since at no point in the voting process do the computers contain more than half the data needed to know how someone voted, there is no need to physically safeguard the machines.
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The Discover Interview: Marvin Minsky
Discover (01/07) Vol. 28, No. 1, P. 14; Kruglinksi, Susan

MIT professor and artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, who co-founded MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, wishes to build a thinking machine capable of self-reflection, which he outlines in his book, "The Emotion Machine." He believes the only way to analyze a tool as complex as the brain or mind is to simulate it, and what does and does not work in the simulation should be considered. Minsky cites several initiatives to give AI human-like common sense, but what he thinks is really needed "are the right kind of answers to questions that a 3-year-old child would be filled with." The MIT professor [who received ACM's A.M. Turing Award in 1969] disagrees that a failure to deliver on early promises caused the AI field to go bust, when what actually happened is the depletion of high-level thinkers; "Nowadays everyone in this field is pushing some kind of logical deduction system, genetic algorithm system, statistical inference system, or a neural network--none of which are making much progress because they're fairly simple," Minsky remarks. He adds that research support to flesh out radical new system concepts is lacking because of funders' overriding emphasis on practical applications. Minsky sees a need for intelligent robots because of the population explosion; in addition, the aged will need automated caretakers, while artificial physicists and scientists could help solve problems that are beyond the capacity of human researchers.
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Robot Gives Snipers Owl Eyes
Popular Science (01/07) Mone, Gregory

A robotic head that can identify snipers using both audio and visual cues could soon be deployed in Iraq. The device, know as RedOwl, is controlled by a laptop and can read a nametag from a distance of 100 yards and identify the make and model of a rifle from a mile away, just from the sound of the blast. When RedOwl hears a gunshot, it analyzes the sound to tell if it is enemy fire, and if it is the head swivels in the direction the shot came from. Then a thermal imager picks out the person firing and an infrared spotlight with a range of one mile allows troops using night-vision to see the sniper without the sniper knowing he has been spotted. RedOwl could be placed on top of a tank robot built by iRobot, which can be steered using a modified video game controller, to lead troops into buildings. The robot's ears consist of four microphones that receive incoming sound waves, and a processor that immediately analyzes the data to locate the exact source and identity of the sound. The eyes consist of a central camera that shows RedOwl's operator where the robot is going, and a powerful zoom that allows the operator to observe potential enemies from a distance. RedOwl uses a laser rangefinder that bounces a beam off a target to calculate the distance to the object, and since it is aware of its own GPS location, the robot can inform troops as to exact locations of targets up to 3,000 feet away.
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Advisory Council Seeks Tighter Cyber Security Net
GovExec.com (01/16/07) Marino, Jonathan

The National Infrastructure Advisory Council will send a report to the White House that declares the need for greater cooperation between private and public interests in order to establish a cybersecurity network that can defend against an increasing terrorist threat. The report states that sufficiently critical cybersecurity is needed by 2015, and that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must work with infrastructure owners and operators to build sector-specific maps that could help organize efforts should a disaster or attack take place. Council member Margaret Grayson said during her presentation that regulatory oversight might be required to make sure the mandated tasks are being carried out satisfactorily by both the public and private bodies involved. The report follows the Homeland Security Advisory Council recommendation that DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff extend the department's research to look into how a terrorist attack could utilize the Internet to obstruct homeland security.
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Novel Interfaces Pursued for Increased Content
EE Times (01/16/07) Mokhoff, Nicolas

Three groups presenting interface devices at the International Conference on Consumer Electronics displayed innovative ways to access large amounts of content on both stationary and mobile computers. A joint project between the Hitachi Human Interaction Laboratory in Tokyo and the Interaction Design of the Royal College of Art in London produced a book-like device that allows a user to turn pages to find desired content. Using light-dependent resistors, the device can detect three states: Open or closed, the page the book is opened to, and if the book is facing up or down. The intention is for the device to act like a book, in that a user can easily find a favorite, "well-creased" page and can simply place the book face down to save a page for later. Media on a hard-disk can be linked to the pages, and although the device was displayed as a TV remote control, it could be used for radio, digital photos, or Web sites. Researchers from Mitsubishi Electric Microcomputer Application Software and Ryukoku University showed an interface that allows a user to change the display by moving the device itself, without the need for any additional input tools. The interface works like a magnifying glass, letting users choose what is highlighted on a crowded mobile screen. The third device, developed by Kyungpook National University's Department of Information and Communications and School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is capable of recognizing a user's hand gestures, such as throw, push, or pull, as well as the user's posture, by analyzing the output signals from a two-axes accelerometer. The presenters said their approach was suitable for low-end mobile devices since the accelerometer can be easily embedded into them.
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Humanoid Robots Gain Ability--Slowly But Steadily
Nikkei Weekly (01/08/07) Vol. 45, No. 2267, P. 16; Matsuda, Shogo

The University of Tokyo is collaborating with Toyota Motor, Matsushita Electric Industrial, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and four other major companies on research to integrate robotic technologies and information technologies so that practical humanoid robots can be developed and put to use. The project is expected to consume approximately $8.4 million annually, and the plan calls for robot caregivers within 10 years, to be preceded by incremental breakthroughs such as robots that can help put things away, bed-making robots, and robots that can carry people and provide other kinds of assistance. Toyota's effort is focused on improving robotic leg movement and dexterity; developments in this area include a one-legged hopping robot and a prototype with a motor in the torso linked to limbs via wires, allowing for lighter, faster-moving arms and legs. A research group led by University of Tokyo professor Yasuo Kuniyoshi has devised a humanoid machine that can adjust its movements according to the condition of the ground it rests on as well as get to its feet from a supine position using a "skin" of tactile sensors. Enhancing humanoid robots' precision in action is the goal of a group at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, which has developed a jointed robotic hand that can mimic the finger and thumb movement of a real hand. Meanwhile, professor Makoto Shimojo of the University of Electro-Communications is concentrating on the creation of robots that can adjust their actions by determining the state of the person or object they are caring for or conveying. His group has developed a sensor-equipped robot hand that can securely grasp and hold objects through adjustment of finger strength.
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