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ACM TechNews
January 24, 2007

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E-mail From the Grave? Microsoft Seeks Patent on 'Immortal Computing'
Seattle Post-Intelligencer (01/22/07) Bishop, Todd

Microsoft researchers are pursuing a patent for their work on a project that would let information be stored indefinitely and accessed by future generations, or perhaps civilizations. This long-term "immortal computing" project would ideally do away with the problems posed by the currently limited life spans of information storage methods. One imagined possible application has been tombstones that allow visitors to access information stored by, and possibly about, the deceased, or even to see and hear a holographic representation of the deceased themselves. "Maybe we should start thinking as a civilization about creating our Rosetta stones now, along with lots of information, even going beyond personal memories into civilization memories," said Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft principal researcher who is working on the project. The patent filing suggests the use of nonmoving parts, to avoid damage over time, alternative means of energy, as well as independent interfaces for retrieval of the information, so the means of access could evolve even though the means by which the information is stored could not. Those storing information could decide who to grant access to, using DNA or biometrics to confirm identity. These artifacts would be "self revealing," meaning that no other information besides the artifact itself would be needed for access; a similar idea was incorporated into the Golden Record, taken on board the 1970s Voyager spacecraft, which provided instructions for building a player for the record. A similar system currently online is the Handle System, which utilizes unique identifiers that allow online information to be retrieved even if it has been moved. While the project has received general praise, some worry that Microsoft's application for a patent will keep other researchers from working on similar technology.
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OSDL, FSG Merge to Create Linux Foundation
eWeek (01/21/07) Galli, Peter

In order to help open-source products compete with proprietary platforms, the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) and the Free Standards Group (FSG) are merging to form the Linux Foundation. The merger must first be ratified by the members of both groups, but is expected to be completed in early February. "We need to provide services that are useful to the community and industry, as well as protect, promote and continue to standardize the [Linux] platform," explains Linux Foundation leader and former FSG executive director Jim Zemlin. The foundation will also make it possible for community members to contribute to technical work and even serve on the board of directors. "This organization needs to be responsive to everyone who has a big investment in the platform," said Zemlin. Competing with proprietary platforms in enterprise data center deployments will be a big concern of the foundation, as it looks to promote Linux in a "vendor neutral way," according to Zemlin. Other missions of the foundation are to provide a forum for Linus Torvalds to work on the new Linux development kernel, manage the Linux trademark, provide legal protection initiatives such as the Legal Defense Fund and the Patent Commons, and "develop a standard that enables backward compatibility and interoperability in the heterogeneous environments that characterize today's computing," says Zemlin. Those who have a strategic interest in the success of Linux, such as open-source vendors, will now be able to fund the cause through a single body.
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NIST Announces Competition for New Cryptographic Hash Algorithm
Network World (01/23/07)

Citing recent attacks on the cryptographic hash algorithm currently used to establish digital signatures and authenticate data, the National Institute of Standards and Technology will hold a competition to choose a new algorithm to become the federal information processing standard. The current standards include variations of the Secure Hash Algorithm, SHA-1, SHA-2, SHA-256, SHA-384, and SHA-512. The Advanced Encryption Standard used today was also chosen from a worldwide competition and improved through peer review. "As a first step in this process, NIST is looking for comments on its recently published draft minimum acceptability requirements, submission requirements, and evaluation criteria for candidate algorithms," said NIST's Jan Kosko. According to a NIST statement in the Federal Register, NIST is interested in "unclassified, publicly disclosed" algorithms that are "royalty-free" and "capable of protecting sensitive government information well into the foreseeable future." The statement also said the "draft minimum acceptability requirements, submission requirements, and evaluation criteria for candidate hash functions" will be presented at the RSA Conference in San Francisco. A baseline is planned to be completed by the third quarter of this year, followed by a round of submissions due by the third quarter of 2008. Public comments on the selected candidates would last until the fourth quarter of 2009, at which point NIST will decide whether to extend the proceedings or to enter chosen submissions into public workshops for discussion.
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'Yahoo Research Uses Artificial Intelligence Everywhere'
Financial Express (India) (01/22/07) Mahalakshmi, BV

Yahoo Research VP of Worldwide Research Operations Ronald Brachman discusses the history of artificial intelligence (AI), its current state, and where it may go in the future. He describes AI as being "about understanding intelligent behavior in machines and converting them to natural languages. We want to produce PCs that can perform natural language conversations." Yahoo R&D contains three entities: The Product Engineering Group, which constructs global platforms and applications; the Technology Research Group, which seeks to change or enhance user behavior through the use of novel technology platforms that can be "leveraged across the board," according to Brachman; and the Market Innovation Group, which focuses on value propositions prototyping, market testing, and processing new technologies. Specific areas of focus currently include vertical search applications, blogs, avatars, and message boards, but the main use of AI at the R&D labs is to analyze the more than 12 TB a day worth of information concerning advertising. The goal is to "make the user experience more meaningful without violating users' privacy," according to Brachman.
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Military Builds Robotic Insects
Wired News (01/23/07) Hambling, David

Military researchers in the United States, Britain, and Israel are developing Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) that can gain access to secure locations and carry out varying levels of attacks. British Special Forces are currently using six-inch MAVs called WASPs for reconnaissance in Afghanistan. Though truly insect-sized MAVs will not take flight for a few years, U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory Munitions Directorate Assessment and Demonstration Division technical director Fred Davis explains that the United States has been looking into tiny MAVs that could avoid detection and achieve "functional defeat" of enemies, such as spraying a catalytic depolymerization agent on the tires of a vehicle, shorting a building's circuit box, or releasing a cloud of metal-coated fibers that would destroy PCs and electronic gear in a building. Davis also says that the tiny craft itself could be made out of an explosive material. Other techniques discussed include "fire-ant warfare" where many tiny robots that can each inflict small amounts of damage can work together to neutralize an enemy. However, some fear that MAV technology could fall into the hands of terrorists who could use it for attacks on civilians or politicians. Dortmund University physicist Juergen Altmann, who works on assessing new technologies, is quite wary of the dangers posed this research and is promoting an international ban on armed MAVs.
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Intel Speeds Up Silicon Photonics
Technology Review (01/22/07) Greene, Kate

A team of researchers at Intel have developed a silicon modulator that is able to encode data at a rate of 30 Gbps, which makes it the fastest silicon modulator in the world. And Mario Paniccia, Intel research fellow and director of the Silicon Photonics Technology Lab, believes the researchers can achieve the same speed as commercial nonsilicon modulators by changing the chemical structure of silicon diodes. "We believe this design will be extendable to 40 gigabits per second in the future," according to Paniccia. At such speeds, the optical device of photons and beams of light would be able to replace electrons and copper wires in computer processors. Photonic chips would lead to faster computers, and an all-silicon photonic chip could result in more affordable fiber-optic network hardware, which would reduce the cost of bandwidth. Intel researchers are focusing on developing an integrated photonic chip, although Paniccia says silicon modulators or lasers could hit the commercial market by 2010. "If you take 25 of those [silicon] lasers and direct them into an array of 25 modulators, then you have a terabit of information all on a piece of silicon the size of my fingernail," he says.
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ICCE's Call to Designers: Consider the User First
EE Times (01/22/07) Mokhoff, Nicolas

Several speakers and papers at the International Conference of Consumer Electronics encouraged designers to pay more attention to how consumers actually use a certain device rather than focusing on impressive features. Now that downloadable content is available from a growing number of sources and in a growing number of venues and devices, the consumer must take priority in the designers mind over the device itself, said Pragmatics Technology director of engineering William Lumpkins, in his ICCE keynote address. Lumpkins also stressed the value of a "multidisciplinary approach to design, saying, "If you take a look at the industry's best [innovators], you discover that they have multidisciplinary approaches." He also cited a bright-colored ATM that was more popular among users than a dull-colored ATM that was exactly the same machine, as well as the successful Glucoboy, which connected to a Gameboy and rewards diabetic children with programs if they maintain healthy glucose levels. "The human body is becoming an Internet data source, and that is saving money in the highly costly health field," said Lumpkins. Several innovations presented at ICCE embodied Lumpkins ideas, including a book-like interface equipped with light-dependent resistors that can tell what page the device is open to and if it is open, closed, or face-down, so users can turn pages to navigate content, or even place the device on a table so it stays open to a desired page. Another device presented was a magnifying glass-like interface that can sense its own movement and change its display in real time, allowing users to find desired information. Another interface can comprehend several hand gestures and postures. Finally, a Phillips modular architecture for cars uses various serial buses of different speeds to optimize the use of bandwidth for several multimedia applications. A bridge that connects to the car could even access automotive networks, possibly using Ethernet technology.
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Exploding Robots May Scout Hazardous Asteroids
New Scientist (01/22/07) Shiga, David

Scientists are contemplating the use of small, cheap robotic probes to investigate and possibly destroy dangerous asteroids. A fleet of the probes could be released from a spacecraft and land on the asteroid, where they would scan the asteroid's surface; once the initial scan was complete, some of the probes could blow themselves up while the others analyze the vibrations given off by the explosions to tell scientists on Earth about the composition of the asteroid. Though NASA has a list of over 800 potentially dangerous asteroids, none has ever had its interior studied, and a 2005 Japanese mission failed to land small robots on an asteroid, showing the difficulty of creating correct mathematical models for this task. U.S. researchers have designed relatively cheap 12-kilogram probes that could be launched from a single spacecraft, and potentially be pushed by the craft to land on the asteroid. The probes would use battery power, rather than solar power, conserving weight but limiting their lifetime. Another method for diverting an asteroid, known as a "gravity tractor" involves a spacecraft hovering next to the asteroid to use its own gravity to steer the asteroid off course, but this technique could not work on asteroids that are actually collections of smaller, unbound rocks. With funding, the probes could be built in the next few years, and several asteroids have already been identified as appropriate for trials. Since they are so cheap, many of the probes could be launched, allowing researchers a good deal of experimental data.
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Cyberthreat Experts to Meet at Secretive Conference
CNet (01/22/07) Evers, Joris

Meetings will be held later this week at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters to provide a confidential forum for representatives from security companies, government, and law enforcement to discuss the threats facing the Internet. High on the list of priorities are botnets and the use of zero-day bugs, but many topics will be covered. Trend Micro's Douglas Otis will give a presentation on email authentication technology named Sender ID, which would be exploited to launch denial-of-service-attacks. Another presentation, given by the Anti-Phishing Workgroup's Dave Jevans, will provide an overview of phishing statistics and cover new patterns in data-theft, including subdomains, man-in-the-middle style attacks, and the way attack patterns are changed to target smaller banks and payment services. MessageLabs' Alex Shipp will give a presentation on Trojan horses that attack a small number of businesses or individuals. Shipp believes the event will allow for valuable discussion that will make those involved better equipped with deal with security threats: "What are the bad guys doing now and how can we stop them?" he asked. "Can we do better than we are currently or do we need a seismic shift in the way we do things now to solve the problems? What kind of co-operative efforts can we put in place that would benefit us all?" In order to solve the security problem, communication and cooperation within the industry are vital, says Norman Data Defense Systems chief research officer Richard Zwienenberg. "Without worldwide laws and cooperation, we might lose the battle in the end," he warns.
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New Software Will Help Children Design Their Own Games and Aid Learning
Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (01/22/07)

Many hope that innovative game-designing software being deployed in U.K. schools will invigorate students' desire to learn, specifically in the fields of computer science and engineering. The program, known as Adventure Author, is the result of a project undertaken by the computer science department at Heriot-Watt University, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), whose aim is help Britain meet future technological challenges. Designed for students between the ages of 10 and 14, Adventure Author allows users to build interactive 3D environments, write dialogue, develop characters, and tackle technical programming and testing issues using simple tools. "Because they see games as 'play' not 'work,' many children are much more receptive to the idea of designing computer games than to conventional schoolwork," says project leader Dr. Judy Robertson. "The value of teaching through play is increasingly being recognized--we're simply extending the concept to see if learning can be improved not just by playing computer games but also by creating them in the first place." Educational consultants, software developers, and students themselves were all involved in the creation of Adventure Author in order to optimize the program's ability to cultivate useful skills. Previous studies into non-education-specific game-authoring software have shown positive results and suggest that there is great educational and inspirational potential for Adventure Author.
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Survey: Tech Sector Brightens Its Outlook
eWeek (01/22/07) Perelman, Deborah

A December 2006 survey by staffing and recruitment firm Spherion reveals growing optimism among IT professionals entering the new year. The report, which was released Jan. 22, showed that 46 percent of respondents planned to look for a new job in the next year, a 6 percent increase from the third quarter of 2006, and 10 percent greater than the total U.S. workforce. There was also a 6 percent increase in the number of respondents who believed that there were more jobs available than there were previously. No respondents feared for their own job this quarter, or for the future of their employer. Thirty-two percent of respondents believed that the job market was improving in the fourth quarter of 2006, an increase of 13 percent from the third quarter of 2006, and 7 percent greater than the total U.S. workforce. Many attribute the high confidence to the perpetual need for more project management and application development workers. "The confluence of a low unemployment rate and continued growth in the technology sector has increased the number of employment prospects for IT professionals," said Spherion's Brendan Courtney. "In particular, we are seeing an increase in demand for IT professionals with strong project management and application development skills and expect that trend to continue throughout the year."
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Falling Dominos and Future Computers
Earth & Sky (01/16/07) Salazar, Jorge

Constructing tomorrow's computers through nanotechnology is the focus of IBM Almaden Research Center research fellow Don Eigler. He and his colleagues devised a way to trap electrons in a "quantum corral" of atoms arranged on a copper surface in order to study their properties, and the scientist explains that this experiment "gave us a leg up into understanding and investigating how electrons will behave in these really small structures, where the wave properties of the electrons were really important." Eigler says there is a big distinction between transmitting data by sending electrons down wires and transmitting data via waves. Harnessing wave properties allows the transmission of multiple threads of information through the same space. Another nanoscale innovation Eigler is investigating is molecule cascade logic circuits that facilitate computation by flipping carbon monoxide molecules like dominos. To address the challenge of resetting the molecular dominos, Eigler's researchers are looking into exploiting electrons' magnetic property, or "spin." "We can see building computer circuits, at least in our laboratory, which have length scales on the order of, or sizes of the order two or three atoms across," notes Eigler.
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The Secret to Secure Code--Stop Repeating Old Mistakes
Between the Lines (Blog) (01/16/07) Farber, Dan

Though programmers will never be able to put an end to hackers, the Fortify Technical Advisory Board believes they can take a considerable step in the right direction by not repeating their mistakes, and implementing security within products from the ground up. "The industry is currently defaulting to a small number of platforms�Windows, Java and a few others," explains Windows Live China managing director Li Gong. "Once the platform is built it is hard to make it more secure. You only get one or two chances to make it more secure, especially once it ships. Because [of] its layers, you have to solve the security problems at each layer." The board also blames the poor status of security on the lack of security experts in development teams, stressing that simply adding a few security experts is not enough if the rest of the programmers are ignorant of security. "There is the issue of security and the issue of good coding practices," says University of California, Berkeley, computer science professor Matt Bishop. "They are interlinked. Everyone has to use best practices--the chain is only as strong as weakest link." Focusing on the idea that security applies to the system as a whole, not just as a single element, the board explained how as layers are improved, hackers are looking to more obscure parts of code to tamper with, as many programmers do not have the time to deal with such seemingly peripheral concerns. A constant need for updated textbooks was also discussed. However, the experts did praise Microsoft as a leader in integrating security measures into its entire development process.
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Ring for a Robot
The Engineer Online (01/17/07)

Several European universities are taking part in EU-funded development of swarms of robots that could reduce the burden on hospital staff, letting them spend more time attending to patients. The project, known as IWARD, could also make hospitals more sanitary, according to project leader Thomas Schlegel of Fraunhofer Institute's human-computer interaction division. The robots will consist of a basic platform on which a module of sensors and different equipment would be mounted. In addition to being able to handle an array of tasks, the robots could operate semi-autonomously, communicate with each other, and collaborate when necessary. Off-the-shelf technology will be used as much as possible, but some new developments will be needed. "The idea is not only to have mobile robots but also a full system of integrated information terminals and guide-lights, so the hospital is full of interaction and intelligence," said Schlegel. "Operating as a completely decentralized network means that the robots can coordinate things between themselves, such as deciding which one would be best equipped to deal with a spillage or to transport medicine." Sensors will allow the robots to avoid collisions while moving through hallways or rooms, and high speed-lanes could be built that would allow the robots to traverse the hospital with ease. Schlegel admits that the most difficult part of the development of these robots will be the "human-robot-interactivity," as conditions, injuries, and disabilities will vary from patient to patient. After a three-year project that begins this month, the team hopes to create a three-robot prototype system.
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Conceptualizing a Cyborg
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (01/17/07)

Researchers at the University of Penn School of Medicine are looking to use lab-grown nervous tissue to connect a patient's nervous system to an artificial or paralyzed limb. "We're at a junction now of developing a new approach for a brain-machine interface," says senior author Douglas H. Smith, MD, Professor of Neurosurgery and Director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at Penn. "The nervous system will certainly rebel if you place hard or sharp electrodes into it to record signals. However, the nervous system can be tricked to accept an interface letting it do what it likes--assimilating new nerve cells into its own network." Signals for a limb to move sent by undamaged nervous tissue could be picked up by lab-grown transplantable living nervous tissue and sent to electrodes connected to a device, such as a prosthetic limb. The challenge, however is to not only transmit signals from the undamaged tissue to the device, but to provide the undamaged tissue with sensory feedback. Smith's lab pioneered a process for stretch growth of nerve fibers called axons, which connect to two adjacent plates of neurons that are grown in a bioreactor. Over a few days, these plates are pulled apart until they are the desired distance apart. One plate contains an electrical microchip, and since the axons are able to transmit electrical signals, the nervous tissue-device interface, using the microchip, could pick up and transmit real-time signals from the nerves, which would provide sensory feedback to the undamaged tissue through the axons. "Whether it is a prosthetic device or a disabled body function, the mind could regain control," says Smith.
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The Future of Robotics
Living on Earth (01/12/07) Gellerman, Bruce

Living on Earth's Bruce Gellerman recently interviewed several roboticists from MIT to discuss the current state of robotics, and where it is going. Graduate student Aaron Edsinger is currently working in the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) on a humanoid robot named Domo, which is capable of human interaction, including the ability to reach out to a person and respond to physical contact. About 15 computers are used to control Domo, and most of them are used for computer vision. "At a certain level it's hard to know...how [Domo is] going to respond because its behavior is not scripted," explained Edsinger. "It's really responding to its environment and reacting to that." MIT CSAIL director Rodney Brooks, who is also chief technology officer for Roomba manufacturer Irobot, stressed the current drive to produce robots that can safely interact with humans, since the world population has begun aging considerably. Whether robots resemble humans or not, Brooks explained that no one will buy them unless they can have "the intuitive understanding of what it is we're trying to do and then co-exist with us and help us." One of the lab's biggest motivations has been to ask the question of "what is human and trying to understand that by building models," said Brooks. According to him, the social interaction aspects are the easiest to build, while object recognition and manipulation remain a challenge. When asked about robots in 100 years, Brooks explained that it is very possible that truly intelligent machines could exist, but he also brought up the fact that humans are biochemical machines and that no one knows whether humans are capable of building such machines.
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Distractions in the Wireless Classroom
Chronicle of Higher Education (01/26/07) Vol. 53, No. 21, P. C1; Bugeja, Michael J.

The transition to a wireless classroom carries the risk of distraction, such as students Web surfing, playing games, or text messaging instead of taking notes or paying attention to lessons. Because of this trend, warnings about the misuse or abuse of technology are poised to become a standard component of syllabi, writes Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication director Michael Bugeja. Ball State University sociology professor Ione DeOllos notes that last year the University Senate embraced a policy "that allows professors to limit technology use in classrooms." But shutting off wireless networks is a virtual impossibility, according to Dennis Adams of the University of Houston, who covered the subject in the September 2006 edition of Communications of the ACM. Adams says he tries to make important points stick in the classroom by asking students to close their laptops and pay attention. University of Virginia neurology professor Lawrence H. Phillips points out that wireless access is actually an advantage in the medical sciences, but Rockefeller University professor David D. Ho says the rapid data processing abilities of computers or search engines cannot match people's ability to formulate questions. Boosting students' sensitivity to classroom etiquette through educational campaigns is a practice being followed by some schools. "We have an online class offered to freshmen that includes a Responsible Computing' module, with a section on netiquette," notes University of Iowa IT security officer Jane Drews.
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A Peek Inside DARPA
Computerworld (01/22/07) Anthes, Gary

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has an army of computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and other researchers conceptualizing and developing new technologies for military use that in many cases are eventually commercialized. "Our mission is ... to prevent technological surprise, but also to create technological surprise for our adversaries," DARPA director Tony Tether told a congressional subcommittee two years ago. The six DARPA offices--the Information Processing Technology Office (IPTO), the Information Exploitation Office, the Microsystems Technology Office, the Defense Sciences Office, the Strategic Technology Office (STO), and the Tactical Technology Office--are engaged in scores of projects, including "cognitive" technologies that imbue systems with reasoning, experiential learning, explanatory, and self-reflection abilities; a super-small atomic clock; a supersonic flying wing with no tail or fuselage; and methods that deepen the penetration of communications signals below ground. Consideration of a project focuses mainly on its military value, while its commercial applications are often perceived as a secondary "byproduct," according to STO director David Honey. One exception is the High Productivity Computing Systems supercomputing program, whose goal is to use new programming languages and development tools to facilitate a 10-fold increase in application productivity. A great deal of the STO's efforts are committed to making military networks robust and capable of self-repair, which was the motivation behind the development of the Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet. IPTO director Charles Holland says his office aims to serve "warfighters and military decision-makers" by emphasizing "computing for human productivity," and examples of IPTO projects include technology that translates and analyzes voices from Chinese and Arabic TV and radio broadcasts, as well as "distillation" technology that eliminates redundant and irrelevant information from translated text.
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Keeping Research and Leadership at Home
Business Week (01/18/07) Wadhwa, Vivek

Maintaining U.S. innovation leadership and keeping our top talent on the continent is a formidable challenge, and an array of business experts offers their thoughts on what can be done to meet this challenge. An improvement in K-12 education, encouraging students to study engineering and mathematics, importing top foreign talent, and increasing funding for basic research are some of their suggestions. Intel Chairman Craig Barrett recommends the "Rising Above the Gathering Storm Report" as a guide for keeping research domestic, while Sun Chairman Scott McNealy suggests open-source education and lifting the cap on H-1B visas. CNN anchor Lou Dobbs foresees disaster for the U.S. middle class with the continuation of unregulated job offshoring, unless industry becomes conscientious and adjusts its business practices, or the government adjusts public policy. Sycamore Networks Chairman Gururaj Deshpande calls for establishing a link between innovation and relevance, a role his Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at MIT fulfills as an intermediary between professors and inventors and the business community; Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin stresses the need for studying issues of economic security as a whole rather than separately in order to ensure the competitiveness of the American workforce. Microsoft's Rick Rashid advocates "investments in education and a greater emphasis on producing a diverse community of students with strong math, science, and engineering skills." President of IEEE-USA Dr. Ralph Wyndrum Jr. says the government must improve the collection of information about the overseas migration of research and development, devote more money to the physical sciences, and develop tools that can better protect intellectual property. IBM's Nick Donofrio says Congress should boost basic funding for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards & Technology, and the Energy Department's Office of Science, as well as pass legislation that trains more students in science, math, technology, and engineering; nurtures cross-disciplinary study and research for a services-oriented economy; facilitates more effective tapping of intellectual capital by companies; makes the R&D tax credit permanent; and attracts and retains leading talent worldwide.
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