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Timely Topics for IT Professionals

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Volume 5, Issue 549:  Wednesday, September 24, 2003

  • "Davis Signs Bill to Ban Online Spam"
    Los Angeles Times (09/24/03) P. A1; Ingram, Carl

    California Gov. Gray Davis signed Sen. Kevin Murray's (D-Calif.) anti-spam legislation into law Sept. 23, thus criminalizing the sending of unsolicited commercial email to Californians and allowing state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, ISPs, and individual residents to file civil suits against spammers and their advertisers. Spam marketers and advertisers exempt from the law, which imposes a $1,000 fine for every unsolicited message, are those who get specific requests from recipients to send them email or who have previous business relationships with recipients. In addition, a fine of up to $1 million can be charged against bulk emailers who conduct blitz campaigns, in which hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of unsolicited messages are sent out on a daily basis. Murray, who called his legislation "the toughest [anti-spam] bill in the nation," said the measure is the first to target advertisers as well as spam marketers. Some legislators foresee problems in recovering damages from out-of-state or overseas spammers that do business in California, though Murray said that practically all online transactions involve the use of four U.S.-based, internationally acknowledged credit card firms, thus making spammers' bank accounts traceable. Still, industry observers insist that the most infamous spammers, who reside outside the United States, would be immune from the California law. Davis declared that he had or would soon pass other bills as part of a package that aims to uphold Californians' privacy and shield them from identity theft, although he cautioned against pushing for federal legislation that could roll back new state privacy safeguards and already existing identity-theft laws. In a letter to leaders on Capitol Hill, Davis proclaimed that "Congress should consider California legislation as a model for the rest of the nation."
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  • "New ISO Fees On the Horizon?"
    CNet (09/19/03); Hansen, Evan

    Information technology standards groups are worried about a fee proposal at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the world's largest standards group governing some 13,000 standards worldwide. At stake are simple international standards sets that define country, currency, and language software codes. Currently, the codes are used for free in many software applications, but the ISO sells the code compilation documents. Attaching a royalty to the ubiquitous codes is akin to attempts to earn money from other supposedly free standards, such as was done with the MP3 music compression and GIF image formats, and with SCO Group's current claims against Linux users. Other standards groups such as the International Committee for Information Technology Standards and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) say adding royalties to country and language codes, especially, would drive companies and organizations to create their own codes and ruin the standard. Unicode President Mark Davis says the ISO codes in question are used in nearly every commercial software product, including Java, Unix, XML, and Windows. In addition, recent decisions within the standards community has eschewed royalties attached to standards, as was decided at the W3C earlier this year. W3C director Tim Berners-Lee wrote in a letter to ISO chief operating officer Steven Bratt that charging for use of the country and language codes would have an especially adverse affect on international and multilingual Web sites. The ISO proposal is not finalized, but was a serious suggestion that elicited an equally serious response from outside opponents, explained Unicode's Davis, saying he believes the proposal will "die a well-deserved death."
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  • "Supercomputer Goes Online"
    Collegiate Times (09/24/03); Nieder, Bryan

    The Virginia Tech supercomputing cluster, which consists of 1,100 Apple G5 machines housing 4.4 TB of memory, goes online Sept. 24, meeting its target of starting operations by Oct. 1. Terascale Computing Facility director Srinidhi Varadarajan, who believes the cluster will be ranked "very highly" among the world's leading supercomputers, notes that the machine will cost only $5.2 million, in contrast to the $80 million to $100 million typical of similarly-sized projects. He partly attributes the lower cost to the project's accelerated development cycle, which ran three months instead of 12, thus allowing buys to be made at current prices rather than inflated future prices. Varadarajan says the supercomputer's rapid construction was due to the tireless efforts of the development team, which worked 16- to 18-hour days with no weekends off. Varadarajan also devised the cluster's "Deja vu" software package, which is designed to maintain computer stability by transferring a failed application to another location without alerting the computer, thus keeping the application intact. Lynn Nystrom of the College of Engineering says the project's cost will be distributed over five years; the supercomputer is expected to generate millions of dollars in research funding so that other research centers can be established. Virginia Tech grad student Mike Heffner notes that volunteers who helped build the cluster were enlisted with the assistance of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), but specific project details were divulged to few of them. The supercomputer will allow Virginia Tech to receive grants from the National Science Foundation's proposed Cyberinfrastrusture Funds project.
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  • "Tech Pros Get to Know Their Enemy"
    USA Today (09/23/03) P. 3B; Swartz, Jon

    The Intense School is where "white hat" or ethical hackers take a five-day crash course on hacking techniques in order to shore up their own networks against worms, viruses, and other cyberthreats. The need for better security among high-tech professionals has become an overriding concern in the wake of hack attacks that have plagued networks in recent months and are responsible for more than $17 billion in annual damage, according to Computer Economics; security experts anticipate even worse attacks as malicious code becomes more sophisticated and hacker ranks swell thanks to the availability of software tools on the Internet. Eric Byrnes of the British Columbia Institute of Technology reports that more and more cyberattacks are automated, which makes tracking down perpetrators almost impossible. Intense School offers 400 hacking and computer seminars in Florida, Ohio, Washington, Las Vegas, and San Diego, and plans to unveil more advanced courses on managing security programs in 2004. The institution, which was co-founded by Defense Department and National Security Agency trainer Barry Kaufman, has attracted students from the United States, Canada, and Latin America. Participants spend the first two days of the course scanning their networks for vulnerabilities, or planning coordinated attacks on bogus networks. Some students demonstrate craftiness by exploiting fellow employees to collect sensitive information, or going through garbage to find passwords. Most white hat students are in their 30s and 40s, while their black hat counterparts are often in the 20-something range.
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  • "Cyber Threat"
    ABCNews.com (09/23/03); James, Michael S.

    Computer attacks could very well become a part of the arsenal of terrorists, some security experts believe. The Northeast power blackout was the latest cause of concern that terrorist will turn to computers to target nuclear plants, 911 systems, train service, ATMs, or air traffic control capability. "[There are] a lot of people in the Department of Homeland Security that believe the only terrorist events worth worrying about are the ones with explosions and bodybags, and that's a very 20th-century way of looking at the problem," says Richard Clarke, the former cybersecurity czar who is now an ABCNEWS consultant. Alan Paller, director of research for the SANS Institute, which trains computer security experts, adds that key targets may be accessible online because a large number of systems that run critical infrastructure are connected to the Internet. Clarke says the federal government is spending just under $5 billion annually to shore up its cyber networks, while private industry is spending more money to protect its systems from terrorists, hackers, and identity thieves. Although computer security experts are unsure whether terrorist groups have ever launched a cyber attack on American infrastructure, they are aware that al Qaeda uses hacking tools and the Internet to communicate. Other security specialists are not convinced terrorists would use computers to plan a 9/11-style attack, but Winn Schwartau, author of "Information Warfare: Chaos on the Electronic Superhighway," maintains the impact of a software programming error, a mistake, or an attack is the same. Clarke adds that terrorists could plant moles in industrial sites just as al Qaeda had operatives train as pilots in preparation for 9/11.
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  • "Putting Your Calls Into Context"
    Wired News (09/23/03); Gardiner, Debbi

    Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Institute of Technology (CIT) have devised SenSay, a context-aware cell-phone technology that keeps track of sent emails, phone calls, and the user's location while employing sensors to analyze the environment so that users can be alerted to calls appropriately and non-intrusively. "Because people can see when you are available, the time it takes to hand off or receive information is greatly reduced," explains Dr. Asim Smailagic of Carnegie Mellon's Institute for Complex Engineered Systems. SenSay features an armband containing motion sensors, a microphone, galvanic skin-response sensors, and a heat-flux sensor to measure body temperature, while a global positioning system device relays the user's position; based on these readings, the phone can automatically adjust ringer volume, vibration, and phone alerts, and assign variable levels of urgency to calls. Intel helped finance SenSay's development and is interested in being the CIT lab's manufacturing partner, while the military has also expressed an interest. SenSay will not be able to expand its usability until storage and computational capacity is added and one-piece integration is achieved, while privacy experts are concerned that the technology could be abused. "Something that is a tracking device can, for social reasons, become something that tracks you," notes Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Smailagic says all of these issues have been considered by CIT researchers, who are working on ways to address them. Carter Driscoll of the Independent Research Group thinks SenSay may only have limited market appeal among travelers or high-tech executives who need to be contacted at any time.
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  • "Will You Love Your PC More When It's 64?"
    Financial Times (09/24/03) P. 9; Foremski, Tom

    The move to 64-bit PCs likely will be gradual, as software and PC architectures struggle to keep pace with rapidly advancing chip technology, but the performance advantages 64-bit chips offer is expected to attract new buyers. Intel argues that Advanced Micro Devices' (AMD) new 64-bit Athlon desktop processor is too much, too soon for normal PC users; Intel's 64-bit Itanium chip is specifically designed for use only in servers. However, the same obviating claim was made when Transmeta launched its speed-changing notebook processor four years ago, after which Intel had to develop one of its own. In addition, Apple Computer has already seen brisk sales for its G5 64-bit PC, released earlier this year. Analysts give AMD a good chance at marketplace success, even if 64-bit processing is overkill for many normal PC functions and cannot even be fully utilized until the PC has at least 2 GB of "fast" memory. AMD expects to attract new PC buyers who want to ensure their system's future usefulness, as well as technophiles. PC gamers are central to AMD's 64-bit strategy, and game maker Epic Games, which licenses to big names such as Electronic Arts, already offers a 64-bit version of its Unreal Tournament game. AMD has won a crucial ally in Nvidia, a leading graphics chip maker, which has created a tailored version of its product for Athlon. Hollywood industry users are expected to use the increased graphics capabilities offered by AMD's 64-bit environment, says Mental Images chief Rolf Herken, whose company makes graphics processing programs for movie makers. Banc of America Securities analyst John Lau says several Asian PC hardware firms are looking at the premium-priced Athlon for their high-end PC designs. Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood guesses that Intel continues to brush off the 64-bit PC push because launching its own 64-bit PC chip would undercut the Itanium server chip, which Intel spent years building and is just now starting to see success with.
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  • "Is Life the Key to New Tech?"
    CNN (09/22/03); Easen, Nick

    Researchers are looking to DNA, the building blocks of life, for the basis of next-generation computing. Potentially, DNA computing would allow for trillions of calculations at once, according to University College London's Peter Bentley. Recent experiments in DNA computing have shown that basic functions can be performed with DNA computers, but even some of those scientists are skeptical about DNA as a replacement for silicon in computing. Columbia University's Milan Stojanovic believes that biological computing technologies will be important for cybernetic interfaces--linking human's bodies with silicon-based computers--but that silicon will remain the best performer for advanced computational problems. Stojanovic recently designed a enzyme-powered tic-tac-toe machine that cannot be beaten. Israel-based Weizmann Institute of Science professor Udi Shapiro last February created a biological computing device from three trillion DNA computing elements floating in a microliter of saline solution. If optimized, the device could perform 66 billion calculations per second. Shapiro says the most obvious application for biological computing is in medicine, where "doctor-in-a-cell" devices could be engineered to analyze and solve problems on a cellular level. But for biological computing to reach the mainstream, Shapiro says the platform must be flexible enough to accommodate many different applications as silicon-based computing does today. Another related research field is looking to replicate biological computing in silicon-based devices, so that computers operate in the same way biological systems do. Scientists following this track are studying insect swarms, brains, immune systems, and evolutionary dynamics for application in computer architectures.
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  • "UC Institute Helping Solve Society's Problems"
    Silicon Valley Biz Ink (09/19/03); Graebner, Lynn

    A collection of four University of California campuses won $100 million in special funding from the state of California three years ago to establish the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), and has since raised another $200 million from corporations and federal agencies. CITRIS executive director Gary Baldwin says the effort is tackling the type of research that Bell Laboratories and Xerox PARC are not able to address in such open fashion anymore. Wireless sensor networks are being developed, for example, to monitor the environment and bolster disaster preparedness capabilities. Motion sensors attached to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, for example, alert state officials when the bridge sways too much, signifying high winds or other disturbance. Smart thermostats and power meters in large buildings are also being developed that will give people more information about the cost of electricity and impact of certain temperature settings. Baldwin says a large amount of CITRIS funds come from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation. The Homeland Security Department, he says, recently awarded CITRIS a large contract to develop cybersecurity protections. Even before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Baldwin says a CITRIS group was designing technology that could be of great use to emergency responders, especially firemen inside burning buildings. Originally intended for motorcycle riders, helmet visor display technology could give firemen building schematics, as well as let them know where the fire is spreading and where colleagues are located. The helmet display technology is currently being tested in Berkeley, Oakland, and Chicago fire departments.
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  • "Berners-Lee Talks Up Semantic Web"
    EarthWeb (09/23/03); Olavsrud, Thor

    Internet pioneer and World Wide Web Consortium director Tim Berners-Lee explained his vision of the Semantic Web to Britain's Royal Society on Sept. 22. The concept is to enable humans and machines to more fully use data by expanding that data's meaning with the addition of metadata. For example, a person looking for a specific event listing online would usually find mostly static data such as the lecture's location, start time, end time, speaker, and a number to call for further information; the Semantic Web, however, would allow a computer to automatically schedule the event in the user's planner and include the above data, as well as furnish information about the lecturer and a map to reach the event. Berners-Lee also extolled the Semantic Web's potential impact on Enterprise Application Integration (EAI): "Wherever there is a connection of common concepts between different applications, then it becomes interesting to connect those applications together, to break them out of their boxes," he noted. "The Semantic Web starts to connect them together." One of the root components of the Semantic Web is the Resource Description Framework (RDF), a general framework for describing metadata that is built on top of XML allowing applications that exchange machine-readable data on the Web to be interoperable. Companies can connect documents and information contained in dissimilar databases by deploying RDF-based products as an EAI "hub;" this also facilitates the linkage of related concepts when information is studied. Before the vision of the Semantic Web can come to pass, around 20 standards such as Web Ontology Language have to be finalized, while Berners-Lee added that the Semantic Web must interoperate with the existing Web. He also advised that the Semantic Web's infrastructure specifications remain royalty-free.
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  • "Britain's "Cyborg Scientist" Spreads Cyber-gospel"
    Associated Press (09/23/03)

    British cyber-evangelist Kevin Warwick is on a government-funded tour around Asia to promote robotics education at all grade levels. Warwick recently enthralled a gathering of 300 students in Singapore with his collection of robots and video clips of his past cybernetic implants. Warwick says Hollywood-style cyborg technologies will be possible soon, allowing speechless communication, human brains tapping supercomputer power, and robotics assistance for the physically impaired. Warwick and his wife last year inserted implants that interacted with nerve endings in their wrists. All of his implants have been removed within months, but the recent microchip implants were more difficult to remove as they became intertwined with surrounding tissue. Warwick predicts blind people will have bat-like sonar capabilities and people with multiple sclerosis or spine injuries will be able to use implants to help them move. Brain implants, he says, will allow people to communicate their thoughts to others at will, or to perform complex mathematical computations at computer speed. Another application is location-tracking devices that would help solve missing children cases, such as those that have been highly publicized in Britain.
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  • "Termites Inspire Paper Pusher"
    Wired News (09/23/03); McKay, Niall

    Software and device engineers are looking to simple, but powerful systems found in nature for inspiration. Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Bell Laboratories, and IBM Research are all pursuing "biomimetics." PARC scientists are trying to mimic the distributed computing schema found in a termite colony, where each individual node operates according to simple rules and the group is able to tackle large problems as a whole. The PARC research has produced the AirJet paper mover design to be used in copy and printer machines. The AirJet device is a long circuit board with tens of thousands of optical sensors and microcontrollers, as well as 144 sets of four jets that blow air in different directions. The board can be bolted to another board, and will help move paper through the machine more effectively than current systems--using no moving or mechanical parts and by not directly touching the paper. The difficult part does not have to do with the physical pieces, says PARC scientist David Beigelsen, but rather with how to link the sensors and air jets so they can make independent decisions like termites. Beigelsen points out that termites do not receive centralized commands about how to achieve the group's goals, and that capability is difficult to reproduce in science. IBM Researchers in Zurich are looking to combine proteins with plastic electronics in order to create biochips that can identify dangerous biohazards, such as anthrax. Bell Laboratories scientists are seeking to deconstruct and reproduce the growth of shells, which are made more cheaply, stronger, and lighter in nature than their synthetic equivalents. The synthetic shells could be used as consumer electronics cases.
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  • "UMass Students Take First Place in Computer Science Competition"
    Massachusetts Daily Collegian (09/23/03); Walsh, Sara-Megan

    A group of University of Massachusetts (UMass) computer science graduate students won first place in a data mining competition held by the ACM's Special Interest Group on Knowledge Discovery in Data and Data Mining (ACMSIGKDD). The team competed against students in more than 15 other countries to study a large collection of high-energy physics articles, formulate a question of interest, and then use data mining techniques to derive insights. ACM's SIGKDD works to discover new algorithm principles and data mining techniques to help in practical areas, such as fraud detection, scientific data analysis, and Web searching. The "Open Task" portion of the contest began in May, when the teams had to figure out questions of interest pertaining to 12 years' worth of high-energy physics articles, numbering 29,555 articles, found on a certain research Web site. The UMass team aimed to find publication patterns in the collection and divided the papers' authors into two groups based on influence in their field, which was in turn determined by award citations and other factors. The team found many interesting patterns, such as the frequent partnering of influential scientists and individual preferences to be published in certain journals.
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  • "NASA, Information Technology and the Future of Collaboration"
    TechNewsWorld (09/23/03); Halperin, David

    NASA's recent troubles have an important impact on its use of technology, even though criticism of NASA's shuttle program did not fault IT directly. The Apollo moon mission is said to have required less computing power than an average PC today, and though that claim can be disputed, it cannot be refuted that IT plays an integral role in nearly all of NASA's space and non-space programs. However, the agency is under pressure from the recent Columbia shuttle disaster and also a changing federal IT climate that is demanding more accountability in IT spending. NASA Internet services manager Brian Dunbar says Office of Management and Budget oversight requires rigorous business cases for IT projects. Perhaps if proponents of more non-human robotic missions win out, IT spending will be more easily justified. The Communication and Navigation Demonstration on Shuttle (CANDOS) mission, for instance, recently tested Internet performance in space, including performing control tasks, FTP transfer, and other standard Internet protocol applications. However, the most important immediate use of IT, says Dunbar, will likely be the enterprise systems that are making corporations more competitive by eliminating redundancy. NASA's Integrated Financial Management Program, for example, has already replaced 145 legacy financial systems with a single core financial module. Dunbar also says IT will help increase collaboration between NASA's 10 centers nationwide.
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  • "MIT Everyware"
    Wired (09/03) Vol. 11, No. 9, P. 132; Diamond, David

    Starting in September, people with the appropriate Internet connection will be able to access material from 500 MIT courses through the university's OpenCourseWare program, with an additional 1,500 courses to be posted online over the next three years. The course material is free to all, and the original purpose behind its dissemination was to encourage educators around the world to exchange knowledge and improve their teaching methods. Teachers are using OpenCourseWare to complement their own classes, while students are using it to further their education. The OpenCourseWare Web site is easy to navigate and well organized, and contains lecture notes, quizzes, links to online resources, syllabi, etc. Still, the program is not without its share of problems: The material is based on lessons from an earlier term and may be somewhat outdated, and students lack the benefits of instant-messaging faculty to ask questions and live interaction with professors; OpenCourseWare administrators must also address the challenge of preventing people from using the freely distributed content to make a profit. Furthermore, a 2002 United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization forum determined that a great deal of the world lacks the wired infrastructure to take full advantage of OpenCourseWare, particularly when it comes to overcoming the "last mile" barrier. MIT has entered into a partnership with Universia to translate the OpenCourseWare material into Spanish and Portuguese, and its success may lead to similar partnerships. In the end, MIT officials realize that the program cannot succeed without online communities to support individual courses, and project director Anne Margulies says the university is looking for third parties to develop tools that students and teachers can employ to build and manage groups around OpenCourseWare material.
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  • "Computers Learn New ABCs"
    Technology Review (09/03) Vol. 106, No. 7, P. 28; Erard, Michael

    Linguists at the University of California's Berkeley campus are working to encode almost 100 more scripts in the Unicode standard, which allows computers to render, process, and send textual data in specific languages. The project "is an effort to rectify an oft-overlooked aspect of the digital divide: Many scripts used by languages of under five million speakers in the world today are not represented in the international standard," explains project leader Deborah Anderson, who estimates that a decade will pass before the initiative is complete. The more arcane writing systems, such a N'Ko, Balinese, and Tifinagh, are not yet included in the Unicode standard, which has so far encoded 52 scripts. The university is enlisting and financing linguists and script users to help encode the 100 additional scripts. These participants will ascertain the number of characters contained in each script, develop fonts, and navigate proposals through bureaucratic red tape. The Berkeley project aims to make the Internet available all over the world, but computer companies' support of the Unicode standard has diminished recently because users of unencoded scripts comprise a very small market. Domain names can be registered in these new scripts thanks to the efforts of the World Wide Web Consortium. American national security agencies' intelligence operations could also benefit from the successful completion of the Unicode project, according to National Virtual Translation Center director Everette Jordan.
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  • "Built-In Spam"
    Discover (09/03) Vol. 24, No. 9, P. 28; Johnson, Steven

    The Internet has become a beehive of commercial advertising with the rampant proliferation of spam, pop-ups, and promotional content, while normal software applications are an ad-free center of tranquility in comparison. However, applications have started to emerge that feature embedded commercial transactions and sales pitches, one of the most well-known being Apple's iTunes Music Store. The application, which is component of the iTunes music file organizer program, allows users to shop for and buy new music without the need of a Web browser. It is a concern that this trend will spark a radical shift in software design principles, one in which programs will not only be designed to fulfill users' functional requirements, but persuade them to purchase stuff as well. "When it comes to computing experiences, the elements of influence are creeping into software products, such as applications created for productivity or creativity," notes B.J. Fogg of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. "People can be caught off guard because the influence elements can be sometimes hard to identify." There is also the risk that the commercialization of traditional applications will undermine their usability if the commercial features become meddlesome, irritating, and inconvenient.
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  • "The Man Who Mistook His Girlfriend for a Robot"
    Popular Science (09/03); Ferber, Dan

    K-Bot, the brainchild of University of Texas at Dallas grad student David Hanson, stands out from other high-profile robot projects because it strives for an unprecedented degree of realism: It is a mechanized head with realistic, flesh-toned skin and 24 servomotors designed to mimic the movements of human facial muscles. K-Bot flies against the popular wisdom of many roboticists, who do not wish to traverse the Uncanny Valley--Japanese researcher Masahiro Mori's theory that a lifelike robot ultimately repels people. Hanson's argument is that refusing to cross the Uncanny Valley can actually discourage artificial intelligence researchers from creating "integrated humanoid robotics" by marrying natural language processing, adaptive vision, and other robot capabilities. Hanson recalls that "The idea was always hanging in my mind of turning a sculpture into a smart sentient being," and his desire to explore such a possibility led him to a job at Walt Disney; he later worked with Yoseph Bar-Cohen of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the development of a humanoid robot called Andy-roid. Perfecting the technology that led to K-Bot involved intense research into facial muscular function and appearance, and Hanson had to invent F'rubber, a new polymer, that was flexible and stable enough to use as an artificial skin that conveys realistic facial expressions. In its current incarnation, K-Bot tracks people watching it with digital cameras, and will soon boast software that allows the robot to imitate viewers. Hanson, who describes K-Bot as "a face for social robotics," explained at a February conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that such a device could be used as a compassionate robot. Vanderbilt University's Craig Smith notes that a humanoid robot could help psychologists determine how emotions are communicated through the movements of specific facial muscles.
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