Association for Computing Machinery
Timely Topics for IT Professionals

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ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


ACM TechNews is intended as an objective news digest for busy IT Professionals. Views expressed are not necessarily those of either AutoChoice Advisor or ACM. To send comments, please write to technews@hq.acm.org.
Volume 6, Issue 675: Friday, July 30, 2004

  • "Nanotechnology Precaution Is Urged"
    Washington Post (07/30/04) P. A2; Weiss, Rick

    A joint report by Britain's Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering warns that nanoparticles carry enough potential risks to health and the environment to legitimize sanctions against certain cosmetic products for now, as well as prohibitions against the deliberate release of nanomaterials into the environment. The behavior of such particles is unpredictable and can be toxic in certain circumstances, the report concludes. The study directs criticism toward U.S. experiments whereby earth was exposed to nanoparticles, which could constitute a threat to organisms that inhabit soil as well as groundwater. The report recommends that manufacturing facilities consider nanoparticles harmful until proven otherwise, while products should be labeled appropriately to alert consumers to the presence of such materials. At the same time, the study suggests that consumers be made aware of nanotechnology's positive aspects so that it can avoid being hamstrung by bad public perception in the way genetically enhanced food and nuclear power was. Scientists and activists are concerned about nanoparticles because they sometimes exhibit extreme reactivity, and are small enough to insinuate themselves into living cells; furthermore, preliminary experimentation with animals has uncovered evidence of organ damage by nanoparticles. The difficulty of anticipating the risks posed by nanomaterials is partly the reason why U.S. regulations pertaining to worker safety, environmental protection, cosmetics sales, and drug approvals have not been modified to accommodate such substances, but several agencies are undertaking safety analyses: "I think we have an appropriate level of research and development underway to look into potential risks associated with nanoscale materials," asserts National Nanotechnology Coordination Office director E. Clayton Teague.
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  • "E-Voting Debate Shifts Focus to Reliability, Accessibility"
    Computerworld (07/28/04); Verton, Dan

    Critics of electronic voting systems complain that the emphasis on security problems is drawing attention away from equally important issues of accessibility and reliability, and grass-roots organizations have been pursuing court action to address these issues. The ACLU of Florida and the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition want the 15 Florida counties that will use e-voting systems in November to provide voter-verifiable paper trails. The ACLU also recently asked a Florida court to annul Gov. Jeb Bush's ban on manual recounts of direct recording equipment (DRE) touch-screen systems in the wake of disclosures that almost all electronic records from the DRE systems used in Miami-Dade County in the 2002 gubernatorial primary were lost last year following a computer crash. Meanwhile, the Verified Voting Foundation, the Citizens' Alliance for Secure Elections, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed an amicus brief in an Ohio federal court to bar the use of any e-voting system that lacks a paper ballot, and cited 18 incidents that led to disabled voter disenfranchisement and election administration problems over the past four years. Among such incidents was a 2002 gubernatorial race in Maryland in which touch-screen machines registered votes for the wrong candidate, and a January election for a House Seat in Broward County, Fla., in which e-voting systems recorded 134 undervotes despite the fact that only one candidate was on the ballot. Advocacy groups report that current DRE technology prevents many disabled voters from voting in private. "The American public can't afford to trust the foundation of our democratic system to machines that have failed repeatedly and are vulnerable to tampering," declared VerifiedVoting.org executive director Will Doherty.
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    For information on ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm.

  • "Sandia Supercomputer to Be World's Fastest, Yet Smaller and Less Expensive Than Any Competitor"
    Sandia National Laboratories (07/27/2004)

    The Red Storm supercomputer to be installed at the National Nuclear Security Administration's Sandia National Laboratories will be the fastest machine in the world while remaining smaller and less costly than any preceding supercomputer, according to researchers. Red Storm, which is being built from mostly off-the-shelf components at a cost of $90 million, will be capable of 41.5 teraflops, a tenfold increase in processing speed over Sandia's ASCI Red computer system, while 100 teraflops should be obtainable with the incorporation of dual-processor chips; the first quarter of the supercomputer is expected to be fully online by January 2005, says Sandia director of Computation, Computers, Information, and Mathematics Bill Camp. Cray, who is co-developing Red Storm with Sandia, says the machine will begin testing less than three years after conceptual work started, whereas the typical concept-to-first-product cycle for new supercomputers is four to seven years. Red Storm's work will be primarily associated with the U.S. nuclear stockpile, and include the design of new components, the virtual testing of components under diverse conditions, and weapons engineering and physics. Camp notes that Red Storm's low-cost design may become the core template of future Cray supercomputers. The self-monitoring, self-managing Red Storm can scale up from one cabinet containing 96 processors to about 300 cabinets. There are four processors to a board, and each processor can support as many as 8 GB; atop each processor board is a daughter board upon which four Cray SeaStar networking processors sit, and Camp explains that all SeaStars communicate amongst themselves "like a Rubik cube with lots of squares on each face." Messages are encoded in the Message Passage Interface Standard and travel from processor to processor at a sustained speed of 4.5 Gbps both ways, and it takes less than 5 microseconds to transfer the first data bit from one processor to another across the system.
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  • "NSU to Host ACM International Programming Contest"
    Daily Star (Bangladesh) (07/28/04) Vol. 5, No. 62

    The annual Asia Regional Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) is scheduled to take place on the campus of North South University (NSU) in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Oct. 8, 2004. Interested participants have until Sept. 25 to register for the event, which will be hosted by NSU's Computer Science & Engineering department. Nine foreign teams have already signed up for the competition, which will have a total of 80 teams. A preliminary round at NSU on Sept. 30 will be employed to whittle the contest down to participating teams, which will consist of three students and one teacher from the same institution. The best all-female team will receive special incentive as well as a secure spot among the top 10 teams. Dhaka has been the site of the Asia regional contest six times in the past seven years, and Dr. Hafiz G.A. Siddique, vice chancellor of NSU and head of the Dhaka Site Steering Committee, says the ACM-ICPC contests have helped to boost interest in programming in the country. Shanghai, China, will be the site of the final round of the competition on April 2-3, 2005.
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    For more information ACM's International Programming Contest, visit http://icpc.baylor.edu/icpc/.

  • "Tinkering With Their Minds"
    Boston Globe (07/29/04) P. B1; Anthes, Emily

    A summer program at MIT's Research Science Institute has given more than 50 high school seniors the opportunity to participate in research projects at local labs in the hope of encouraging them to pursue research careers at a time when the United States is in desperate need of domestic brainpower. The National Science Foundation's National Science Board says the number of U.S. jobs requiring expertise in science and engineering is rising at an annual rate of nearly 5 percent, while the number of American professionals with those skills is falling. Meanwhile, the percentage of foreign researchers and engineers working in the U.S. with doctorates increased from 24 percent in 1990 to 38 percent by 2000, but declines are expected as other nations develop competing science programs and U.S. visas become harder to obtain because of stricter security. Specialists warn that the continuation of these trends could lead to the stagnation of national scientific progress. Gerry Wheeler with the National Science Teachers Association reports that science education is getting short shrift because of national learning standards that emphasize math and English, increased standardized testing, and budget cuts. The Research Science Institute program's director, Matt Paschke, explains that its goal is "to take the best of the best, give them the best resources, and give them an experience that will move them along in science." He adds that many of the institute's students often choose research careers, although MIT professor Frank Solomon says concerns about job security, long hours, and barriers to independent research often discourage students from acquiring graduate degrees in science.
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  • "Virtual Worlds Meet the Real One"
    Wired News (07/29/04); Delio, Michelle

    This summer's Digital Day Camp (DDC), a program sponsored by the nonprofit media arts organization Eyebeam, brought together Manhattan high-school students and computer professionals to develop computer games that model urban renewal projects, which will be showcased in an art gallery from July 27-31. The DDC participants were immersed in the bureaucracy and history of urban renewal in order to gain a perspective on the problems they needed to solve. The students were then split into four teams to develop games that ran renewal scenarios oriented around a real-world location. Team 1 created a shooter game in which players run a gauntlet of private developers and their underlings in order to save the site from demolition. Team 2's game was based on an actual proposal to build a roller coaster on the site, and was set up so that players could drag and drop image fragments to assemble roller coasters. Team 3 devised a classic adventure game where players pick up and use objects to organize their own unique redevelopment projects, while Team 4 created a game where players race each other to promote the idea of turning the site into a racetrack, although it was changed to a more socially beneficial scenario whereby players race for money to build a homeless shelter. Team 4 noted in its documentation that their original plan was to make a four-player game. "We decided to scrap that idea because we couldn't make four people move at the same time, and we couldn't have the people all on the keyboard at the same time," they explained. "We also learned that you have to be very organized with all of your work, otherwise something will most likely go wrong or crash, or both."
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  • "A Few Cars Controlled By Computer Can Keep Rest of Traffic Flowing"
    Wall Street Journal (07/30/04) P. B1; Begley, Sharon

    University of Michigan physicist L. Craig Davis postulates in the June issue of Physical Review E that many traffic jams could be avoided if just one in five vehicles on the road employed adaptive cruise control (ACC). "With ACC, by eliminating the spacing you need because of driver reaction time, you can get four times more volume on a road by letting vehicles follow each other closely at high speed," explains civil engineer Hani Mahmassani of the University of Maryland, College Park. Scientists have drawn parallels between vehicles and gaseous molecules, most notably in the tendency for cars that stop or decelerate to trigger a backward-propagating compression wave that can linger for hours after the initial group of cars brakes, leaving most drivers who never saw the deceleration with little clue as to why they are stopped. Traffic jams often arise from a state called "synchronized flow," in which traffic is moving steadily yet so densely that the vehicles are synchronized. The slightest fluctuation changes the state of the system and causes jams, but physicists such as Davis think ACC might be an effective solution to this problem. ACC uses a radar sensor to scan the distance between cars so that it can adapt instantly to changes in the lead car's speed in order to maintain a safe distance. ACC enables more cars to be packed within a mile of highway, but Davis says ACC can prevent jams under such circumstances by desisting from overbraking and avoiding the compression wave. Using computer simulation, Davis has theorized that traffic jams could be completely eliminated on single-lane roads with highway traffic if just 20 percent of vehicles use ACC.

  • "Wiring a Convention, Version 2004"
    New York Times (07/29/04) P. E1; Schiesel, Seth

    The Democratic National Convention this year is awash with wireless signals, but only those approved by wireless enforcement head Louis Libin, who sits in a pavilion skybox monitoring the crowd with binoculars and advanced detection equipment. In the first two days, Libin shut down roughly 65 rogue television broadcasts and about 35 other violators of his radio frequency regime, which he says governs what is, for a time, probably the most noisy radio frequency environment in the world. Convention technology director Christopher Gruin says the stakes are much higher than simply keeping different media and convention operations running. As with everything at the convention, technical competence carries a political message: "If something goes really wrong, it's like, well, if you can't run a convention, how can you run the United States?," Gruin says. Technology is changing the way media outlets are operating, and enabled CNN to operate directly on the convention floor instead of in a cloistered skybox; reporters and other staff use earphones and microphones with advanced noise-reduction technology. The control room is also no longer on site, but feeds are sent at about 200 Mbps to CNN's network headquarters in Atlanta. Wired network technology is still important at the convention site, even with the proliferation of wireless devices, while Gruin says wireless connections are still too insecure and unreliable for critical applications. Verizon has supplied a network that can handle 4.5 Gbps, although the company had to disable Internet service in the main press pavilion for about 90 minutes while it addressed a core network problem.
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  • "Networking Tech Promises Speedy Set-Ups"
    CNet (07/28/04); Reardon, Marguerite

    In a July 28 disclosure to the FCC's Technological Advisory Committee, Dan Stevenson of the MCNC Research & Development Institute announced a "Just in Time" (JIT) signaling protocol that simplifies and speeds up the installation of connections on large-bandwidth networks employed by telephone carriers. Whereas manually setting up connections to an optical network can take months, JIT can automatically install connections in a matter of microseconds, Stevenson boasted; in contrast, the Generalized Multiprotocol Label Switching (GMPLS) protocol takes between several seconds and several minutes to install or tear down an optical link. Stevenson noted that MCNC researchers are investigating how JIT could be applied to wireless networks, although standards for the technology have yet to be worked out. JIT advocates attribute the protocol's speediness to the fact that it is not held up waiting for acknowledgments from destination devices when it configures a new connection, unlike GMPLS and Asynchronous Transfer Mode. However, Stevenson confessed that service could be disrupted by data being dropped because it is sent to an overloaded switch or to a gap in the fiber network. He said methods such as wavelength conversion could be tapped to improve the protocol's reliability. Stevenson reported that physicists are sending large amounts of data across grid computing networks with JIT since conventional IP routing techniques are too sluggish to sustain interactive links in scenarios where terabytes of data must be routed across the country. JIT is being employed by the U.S. Defense Department in its Washington, D.C.-based Advanced Technology Demonstration Network.
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  • "Democrats Pledge Their Tech Support"
    IDG News Service (07/29/04); Krazit, Tom

    The Democratic National Convention held several sessions this week focusing on the Democratic Party's stance on technology. In one session, a panel of government and industry representatives advocated the continued support of open trade policies as well as higher funding for science and technology research. Although Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and running mate Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) harbor a generally negative view of offshoring, the panelists advised the attending delegates and industry executives to avoid the retardation of tech industry growth by protectionist policies. Electronic Industries Alliance President and former Democratic Representative from Oklahoma Dave McKurty estimated that nearly 95 percent of future opportunities for the high-tech industry will originate overseas, which is why the country needs to assertively espouse an open trade policy and raise funding to create more jobs and improve education. Increased federal funding for U.S. science and technology education was urged by nearly every member of the panel. McKurty said the sustained growth of the high-tech industry is vital to the U.S. economy, while several congressmen attested that the Democratic Party's ability to draw a line between religion and science makes it better suited to upholding the prosperity of science and technology. "We are not going to let ideology trump science and technology," declared Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who added that sales tax regulations and other laws are lagging behind scientific and technological progress. He noted that Kerry supports a "holistic" strategy to Internet taxes that will permit Capitol Hill to develop a policy for e-commerce taxation.
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  • "Amplified Intelligence"
    Astrobiology (07/28/04)

    Dr. Ken Ford, director of the Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), is focusing on the two-way interaction between people and machines, and a key field of study in this area is Amplified Intelligence, which is chiefly concerned with improving how humans work with new and dynamic machine environments. Ford characterizes the IHMC as a non-traditional machine intelligence research facility, in that its research is directed at human-centered computing, whose goal is to adapt technology to human beings instead of the other way round. He notes, "We like to refer to it as building cognitive prostheses, computational systems that leverage and extend human intellectual capacities, just as eyeglasses are a kind of ocular prosthesis," as opposed to artificial intelligence's goal to get machines to mimic human abilities. Ford's opinion is that people will come to regard such technology as an extension of themselves rather than something to be fought into submission. Designing cognitive prostheses involves collaboration between a broader spectrum of disciplines than traditional AI research is usually associated with, such as computer science, cognitive science, social science, physical sciences, and even philosophy. Adjustable autonomy, biologically-inspired robotics, computer-mediated learning systems, expertise studies, human strength and endurance amplifying devices, intelligent data understanding, knowledge representation, natural language processing, and work practice simulation are just a few research areas IHMC currently supports, according to Ford. He thinks that both robots and humans will have roles in future space exploration, and notes that in such a scenario humans could be based on Earth, in orbit, on the surface of the planet being explored, or in a combination of such areas in sequence. One interplanetary exploration proposal involves redundant modules deployed by a mother ship that travel individual routes and share their data, and Ford sees parallels in the "sensor webs" currently used on Earth for environmental monitoring.
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  • "U. of Tokyo, Fujitsu Advance Towards Quantum Cryptography"
    IDG News Service (07/23/04); Williams, Martyn

    Japanese scientists have developed a new photon generator that can send single photons reliably over regular telecommunications networks for use in quantum cryptography. Public key encryption schemes rely on a private key that encodes the public one, but transmission over telecommunications lines leaves that private key vulnerable to tampering. Quantum cryptography takes advantage of the physical properties of photons, which cannot be observed by a third party without the recipient knowing; however, if more than one photon is generated by the sender, the security of the system is compromised. To date, quantum cryptography efforts have focused on using lasers to generate photons, but these systems do not consistently produce single photons, says University of Tokyo research leader Yasuhiko Arakawa, whose group teamed with Fujitsu on the project. Moreover, producing single photons with lasers means dramatically lowering the power and speed of the transmission. With the new photon generator, speeds of up to 100 Kbps might be possible, says Arakawa; the new generator relies on material embedded with quantum dots, which control electron energy. By altering the size and shape of the quantum dots, the photon wavelength can be made suitable for commercial telecommunications infrastructure, but the Japanese system uses additional filters to ensure only photons of appropriate wavelength are passed through the lines, says Fujitsu researcher Tatsuya Usuki. The team has already verified single photon generation at the 1.3-micron wavelength and is now focusing on verifying single-photon transmission at the 1.55-micron wavelength, while Arakawa predicts a commercially available quantum cryptography system to be produced in five years' time. The research will be detailed at the International Conference on the Physics of Semiconductors, which begins on July 26.
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  • "Internet Snagged in the Hooks of 'Phishers'"
    Washington Post (07/29/04) P. E1; Walker, Leslie

    Phishing attacks are occurring more frequently, worrying the e-commerce and banking industries. According to Gartner, some 57 million U.S. adults have received a phishing email, and nearly 11 million clicked on a false link, while 1.8 million actually gave out personal information. The Federal Trade Commission is planning a summit this autumn to focus on authentication tools guarding against phishing attacks, and the FBI will start a drive to identify and catch phishers next month. SAIC chief scientist James Jones says that phishers seem to be getting pickier about their targets and appear to be culling target lists. Meanwhile, companies such as Earthlink are feeling the pain along with their customers. Each time a phishing exploit targets Earthlink customers, the company receives 40,000 phone calls from users, says senior manager Scott Mecredy. Earthlink offers ScamBlocker software that keeps a blacklist of known phishing sites on people's Web browsers. VeriSign notes that the attacks are becoming more sophisticated, with 93 percent of the emails the company examined containing spoofed return addresses to make them look more legitimate. Phishers are also getting better at making their fake sites look like the real thing and can camouflage the real Internet address or replicate the small padlock icon at the bottom right-hand corner. There is a need for universal tools to verify the authenticity of emails and Web sites. Next month the FBI will launch a new concerted effort with various law enforcement agencies called Digital Phishnet designed to identify and catch phishers. Meanwhile, experts say online commerce is suffering due to Internet security concerns. Gartner analyst Avivah Litan says, "I think we will see the slowdown accelerate. And if the problems aren't fixed, people will use the Internet for surfing, but they won't transact online."
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  • "'Wiki' May Alter How Employees Work Together"
    Wall Street Journal (07/29/04) P. B1; Swisher, Kara

    A number of startups offering wiki online collaboration products are gathering venture capital money in a sign that the mid 1990s technology may be finally coming into its own. Business technology experts have long touted the benefits of online Web collaboration, and major IT vendors have made workplace collaboration products a mainstream of their product lines, but those offerings are often expensive and difficult to deploy. Today's business IT does not do a good job of enhancing people naturally to collaborate and instead forces them to fit unnatural workflows, says Joe Kraus, who is working on a business-focused wiki startup called Jot and is co-founder of the once-popular Excite Web portal; "What a wiki does is codify the paths people are already making themselves," he says. Wiki was created by programmer Ward Cunningham to let people edit a common Web document without programming skills. The idea gained grass-roots support among engineers and became the focus of some open-source efforts, but has been shunned by IT departments because it is not easy to control. Commercial wiki offerings are making the technology easy to integrate with existing workplace applications and building in necessary protections and management functions: Wiki advocates say the technology is what the original Web was supposed to be like and is much more efficient than email, which some have derided as "occupational spam" because of its sometimes inane use. One of the most successful deployments of wiki and a good example of what it enables is the Wikipedia free online encyclopedia, which has grown to include hundreds of thousands of entries from volunteer writers, making it the largest encyclopedia in just a few years' time. New York University social software expert Clay Shirky says people are discovering the Internet's value as a tool for collaborating in small groups, not just for large, passive audiences.

  • "New OGC Digital Rights Management and University Working Groups"
    Business Wire (07/23/04)

    The OGC has two new Technical Committee working groups in the Geospatial Digital Rights Management (GeoDRM) Working Group and the University Working Group. The GeoDRM Working Group was created in response to the need to protect the rights of producers of geographic content and users, as the data gains wider distribution over ubiquitous networks, where it can be shared, copied, and altered. The working group will establish a forum for discussing a standards environment for protecting spatial data, as well as technical solutions. "The GeoDRM Working Group will make it possible to build a viable business based on Web accessible geospatial data and services," says GeoDRM chair Graham Vowles of the U.K. Ordnance Survey. Meanwhile, the University Working Group (UWG) was started to get academic institutions more involved in OGC, which is a global voluntary consensus standards group. An academic advisory group will be formed, universities will be given a greater role in pushing spatial data infrastructures, and an effort will be pursued to get GIScience and computer science departments to embrace geoprocessing interoperability in research agenda, methods, and curricula. UWG chair Ingo Simonis of the University of Muenster, in Germany, says, "This is an exciting time for the OGC's academic members. Adopted OpenGIS(R) Specifications are being used in a rapidly increasing number of academic applications as their value becomes apparent to researchers, instructors and university-based software developers. At the same time there has never been a larger number of pending specifications and emerging interoperability research areas to engage researchers within the OGC."
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  • "Caging Wireless"
    CIO (07/15/04) Vol. 17, No. 19, P. 75; Gruman, Galen

    The management of wireless local access networks (LANs) is a tricky business: CIOs must make sure they have the proper management systems in place before setting up a wide-scale wireless LAN. Security shortcomings in early wireless equipment convinced CIOs to keep initial wireless LANs separate from the core network, a strategy that does not suit enterprise-wide deployments. Meta Group analyst Chris Kozup believes that better built-in security and improved security specifications such as Wi-Fi Protected Access and 802.11i should encourage CIOs to broaden their wireless strategies to encompass centralized management, an approach that would let wireless LANs be deployed as part of the general corporate network. The knitting of wireless segments and the corporate LAN cannot be done without traditional LAN management tools, but additional tools are required to accommodate the quirky behavior of wireless LANs, such as sudden buildups of wireless access point links when hundreds of people move into range. Analysts say tools that can ably support this and many other functionalities are rare. The typical approach is for CIOs to use one vendor to manage the wireless LAN and another to manage the wired LAN and directory services that store user profiles, and CIOs must rigorously evaluate the suppliers' technology, customer base, and industry support to determine if the technology can weather the wireless management industry's high degree of turnover. Analysts predict that traditional LAN management tools will incorporate more and more wireless functionality and enable companies to stick to just one vendor over the next several years, although they admit that many companies will hire specialty vendors to manage unique business requirements. Sage Research says most wireless LAN users say that less than 10 percent of employees use them, though nearly 80 percent plan to increase wireless LAN deployments.
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  • "War of Machines"
    Government Executive (07/15/04) Vol. 36, No. 12, P. 76; Cahlink, George

    Increasing military applications for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)--many of which were used to find enemy targets and scout for advancing troops in the Iraq campaign--are a sign of the technology's maturation, and more sophisticated sensors, new wireless and network communication technologies, and the falling cost of computing are hastening the deployment of drones in missions that are too dangerous, demanding, or monotonous for people in all military services. This in turn is fueling a shift in military culture and management. The Defense Department wants one-third of its deep-strike air fleet to be unmanned by the end of the decade, and one-third of all ground vehicles autonomous by 2015. UAV technology has not changed dramatically over the last 10 years, but its uses differ across the services, observes Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Mathewson with the Air Combat Command: For instance, the Air Force's Predator UAV has been used for intelligence gathering and as a missile launcher, while the Marine Corps' gas-powered Silver Fox UAV was employed in Iraq for reconnaissance. The Navy has used an unmanned inflatable boat studded with sensors to investigate threats detected by radar, while wheeled robots with cameras and mechanical arms are finding and disposing of ordnance. A more advanced flying drone being developed under the aegis of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) $4.3 billion Joint Unmanned Combat Air System project is designed to deploy guided bombs, while the armed forces are collectively planning to invest $3.5 billion annually on UAVs by 2009. The Army plans to purchase autonomous ground systems using $500 million from its $13 billion Future Combat Systems account over the next five years, and DARPA has been trying to jump-start the advancement of unmanned ground vehicle technology by hosting a desert race between competing engineers.
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  • "The Humanoid Race"
    Wired (07/04) Vol. 12, No. 7, P. 123; Capps, Robert; Lam, Brian; Jardin, Xeni

    Advances in computer speed, hardware miniaturization, software capability, and battery capacity are bringing the world closer to robotics' Holy Grail of a bipedal android capable of walking, speaking and feeling emotions; MIT roboticist Cynthia Breazeal predicts that robots will make the leap from appliances to friends and companions in five years. Notable achievements in robotic muscle systems include Festo's Tron-X, a humanoid robot that can perform complicated movements through pneumatics, and Environmental Robot's EWA-1, an artificial arm that gets its strength from electrically conductive graphite fiber bundles. Examples of cutting-edge robotic hand research include an appendage designed by the Shadow Robot Company whose range of movement is reportedly superior to similar efforts by NASA and the German Space Agency, and Carnegie Mellon's Anatomically Correct Testbed hand, which precisely mimics human bones, joints, and control by neural impulse. Japan's Robovie robot is equipped with a sensitive silicone layer containing metalized piezoelectric sheets that make the machine responsive to touch, while a platinum-cured silicone skin substitute invented by David Hanson at the University of Texas is designed to make android robots more lifelike and expressive. Robotic eye breakthroughs include Jerry, an MIT research robot that mimics how people depend on contextual hints to make quick and accurate visual guesses, while ear breakthroughs include Japan's SIG2, which can understand three people talking concurrently. "Gastrobots" such as the Ecobot have internal digestive tracts through which they process organic substances into fuel, while a Monash University researcher has developed a "smellbot" that follows specific chemical trails. Significant achievements in robotic walking include Honda's Asimo, which can climb stairs and perform fancy moves through sensors and a gyroscope; Sony's Qrio, which can run, stand on one foot, and recover from falls thanks to advanced movement software and highly tuned motors; and robot dinosaurs from MIT whose movements are influenced by how much resistance they encounter.
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  • "Magnetic Field Nanosensors"
    Scientific American (07/04) Vol. 291, No. 1, P. 70; Solin, Stuart A.

    Nanoscopic devices could be used to harness the phenomenon of extraordinary magnetoresistance (EMR) in faster computer disk drives with denser data capacity as well as many other applications involving magnetic field detection. EMR is a variant of magnetoresistance (MR)--the increase or decrease of a metal or semiconductor's electrical resistance in response to a magnetic field--that is thousands of times greater than previously recorded MRs; the phenomenon is dependent on the nanoscale geometry of hybrid structures built out of nonmagnetic conductive metals and semiconductors. Increasing the storage density of a computer disk drive requires the shrinkage of the information bit, which means the disk-drive read head must become smaller and more sensitive to the shrunken bit's weaker magnetic field. In addition, the head must have a faster response time to the field, since a smaller bit on the spinning disk spends less time underneath it. EMR-based read heads with no magnetic material would support faster speed and greater storage density than giant MR-based read heads, while at the same time producing less magnetic noise and boosting performance. A team of researchers at the NEC Research Institute in Princeton, N.J., has successfully constructed a viable nanoscopic prototype using cutting-edge electron-beam lithography with the help of Japanese physicists. They found that the response of the EMR read heads increases with the square of the magnetic field strength, which gives the device both the advantageous trait of high sensitivity and the disadvantageous trait of nonlinearity. Other technologies that EMR could be applied to include medical devices, position-sensing robots on assembly lines, automotive systems such as antilock brakes and "smart" shock absorbers, flip-phone switches, and nonvolatile memory in inexpensive appliances.