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Volume 6, Issue 683:  Wednesday, August 18, 2004

  • "Sound System Lets Listeners Move"
    Technology Research News (08/18/04); Patch, Kimberly

    University of California at Davis research engineer Richard Duda laments that sound is poorly utilized in human-computer interaction, and this fact serves as the motivation behind the design of a headphone-based spatial sound system that give users the impression that sounds are moving with them, a breakthrough that could enhance experiences of virtual environments in multimedia applications such as gaming, augmented reality systems, and industrial and military training. Duda's project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, diverges from the traditional approach to making binaural recordings, in which microphones are placed in the ears of a dummy head, a situation that requires the user to be facing the same direction as the dummy in order for sounds to be reproduced accurately. "When the cues [for azimuth, elevation, and range] all change consistently, the perception of a well-defined spatial location for the source is strong; if the cues are inconsistent, the perception can be so vague that the listener has no idea where the source is," notes Duda. One solution is to employ a head tracker to define the location of the user's ears and a servo mechanism to effect real-time rotation of the dummy-mounted microphone array in order to mirror the user's head movements, but the Davis researchers have eliminated the need to move the dummy's head by incorporating a series of mikes into the head and sampling from the nearest mike as the user rotates her head. Combining or interpolating signals from two mikes when an ear is between mikes is critical to the system; "The key technical question is how to interpolate the signals without introducing spectral distortion or requiring an unaffordable number of microphones," says Duda. The researchers' system uses eight mikes for speech and 16 mikes for music, whereas at least 128 mikes would have been needed for the most obvious technique. The prototype features a torso, and Duda observes that its removal can change both the perceived elevation and perceived distance of a sound source. The researchers have completed a basic audio/visual demo set up in their lab, and could create a practical audio/visual application within 12 months, according to Duda.
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  • "Crypto Researchers Abuzz Over Flaws"
    CNet (08/17/04); McCullagh, Declan

    Researchers have announced preliminary indications of previously unknown vulnerabilities in popular security algorithms that could permit hackers to easily install undetectable back doors into computer code or to counterfeit electronic signatures. French computer scientist Antoine Joux reported on Aug. 12 his discovery of a flaw in the MD5 algorithm, which is often used with digital signatures. The algorithm is known as a hash function, which extrapolates from all input a unique fingerprint; however, if a hacker could produce the same fingerprint with a different input stream, then the resulting hash collision would authenticate software as safe to download and execute even though it contains a back door. MD5 is employed by the open-source Apache Web server product as well as Sun Microsystems' Solaris Fingerprint Database, and the flaw Joux uncovered means that a hacker can produce one hash collision in a few hours on a standard PC. Meanwhile, four Chinese researchers issued a paper reporting that the SHA-0 Secure Hash Algorithm could be subverted, while Israel Institute of Technology researchers Eli Biham and Rafi Chen revealed at the Crypto 2000 conference on Aug. 17 that they were investigating possible flaws in the SHA-1 algorithm, the only signing algorithm approved for use in the U.S. Digital Signature Standard. SHA-1, which is incorporated into popular programs such as SSL and PGP, is thought to be secure because knowingly producing hash collisions via existing methods is impossible. SHA-1 depends on a computer executing a routine 80 times as it tries to create a unique fingerprint, and Biham declared that he was able to copy the fingerprint for 36 of those 80 executions. If SHA-1 shares similar vulnerabilities with SHA-0, then attempts to falsify a fingerprint would be sped up about 500-fold.
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  • "Pentagon Turns to Linux for High-End Battlefield Simulations"
    Computerworld (08/17/04); Weiss, Todd R.

    As part of the Defense Department's High Performance Computing Modernization Program (HPCMP), Linux Networx has set up 256-processor Evolocity cluster supercomputers at the U.S. Air Force Maui High Performance Computing Center (MHPCC) in Hawaii and the Aeronautical Systems Center Major Shared Resource Center (ASC MSRC) in Ohio for running more complex virtual battlefield simulations. The machines, which are equipped with dual Intel Xeon 3.06 GHz processors, DataDirect Technologies' disk storage, Linux Networx's Clusterworx and Icebox management tools, and Gigabit Ethernet technology, are part of a larger contract the Pentagon awarded Linux Networx for deploying six cluster computer systems in HPCMP centers, including a 2,132-processor supercomputer for the Army Research Laboratory. The ASC MSRC and MHPCC clusters are being employed by the Department of Defense Joint Forces Command (J9) to model combat operations on a global virtual battlefield. Military staff at J9 and other U.S. sites can interact directly with the ASC MSRC and MHPCC systems as they engage in combat scenarios that were impossible on the old hardware. MHPCC program manager Maj. Kevin Benedict says the Networx system replaces a 512-processor cluster that lacked the power to carry out more sophisticated military simulations, while MHPCC technical director David Morton reports that the Linux clusters were selected because they offered the optimal price/performance ratio for the project. The clusters can support simulated clashes between American and enemy forces that involve approximately 1 million troops, tanks, vehicles, and ordnance. "It's still in the lab, but these same capabilities will move out to support actual war [battles]," Morton remarks.
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  • "SMS: The Thumb as Power Digit"
    TechNewsWorld (08/16/04); Richtel, Matt

    Text messaging, in which people use their thumbs to tap out short electronic messages on cell phones, is catching on the United States after flourishing in Europe and Asia. The Yankee Group reports that the number of text messages sent on cell phones in the United States has more than doubled from 1.2 billion to 2.6 billion between the first quarter of 2003 and the first quarter of 2004. Smithsonian science historian and author Edward Tenner explains that short message service (SMS) has re-invigorated the thumb's prominent role in operating keyboards, which was first established 250 years ago with the emergence of the musical keyboard. "The thumb is the new power digit," he boasts. About half of U.S. cell phone users in the adolescent and young adult age bracket regularly use text messaging, which is twice the rate among all adults, according to the Yankee Group. Text messaging is also growing in stature among businesspeople who appreciate being able to inconspicuously check email in conferences or on the go. James Katz, director of Rutgers University's Center for Mobile Communications Studies, notes that keypad-equipped mobile phones were not originally designed for text messaging. People familiar with SMS are starting to use their thumbs for other tasks, such as pointing and ringing doorbells--at least in Asia, where text messaging gained an initial foothold.
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  • "Second Hat in Ring for Faster Wi-Fi Standard"
    CNet (08/16/04); Shim, Richard

    A second coalition has submitted a proposal for the 802.11n Wi-Fi standard with Task Group N (TGn), the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) 802.11n task group, in time for the Aug. 13 deadline. This submission follows an earlier one from the World Wide Spectrum Efficiency (WWiSE) consortium, and the two proposals' employment of multiple input and multiple output technology should reduce the chances of a heated standards battle over 802.11n, according to analysts. The 802.11n specification will permit throughput rates as high as 100 Mbps, whereas the current fastest Wi-Fi standard can only reach as high as 54 Mbps under optimal conditions. TGn Sync's proposal differs from the WWiSE proposal in several ways: TGn Sync's spec incorporates techniques to cut power consumption of phones linked to 802.11n networks, and requires more wireless spectrum so that future products are interoperable. "We want to build upon the core technology and add special features to better support specific markets and a broader range of products--cell phones, HDTVs, Blu-ray products and corporate [networking gear]," explains TGn Sync representative and Atheros Communications product line manager Sheng Li. He also notes that TGn Sync is pursuing throughput rates of about 640 Mbps, while WWiSE's highest throughput rates are 540 Mbps. A greater diversity of companies has been signed up to TGn Sync than WWiSE, which means that TGn Sync is probing 802.11n applications beyond the computing industry, according to Li. Farpoint Group analyst Craig Mathias believes that market pressures will spur the competing consortia to quickly bring their work to a conclusion once they get close to an 802.11n standard: "Once buyers become aware of a faster standard, long delays will have a negative impact on the market, because buyers will wait--and the industry can't afford that," he explains.
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  • "Biometric Technology Creeping Into Everyday Life"
    Associated Press (08/12/04); Bergstein, Brian

    Biometric technology has made its way to the Statue of Liberty as a customer-facing application, and industry analysts say the greater public will be increasingly exposed to biometrics within the next five years. People who intend to use public lockers at the Statue of Liberty are now required to touch an electronic reader that scans fingerprints when renting, opening, and closing lockers. In addition to the Statue of Liberty, the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, Chicago's Union Station, and Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure theme parks in Florida use the fingerprint locker technology. Meanwhile, the Nine Zero hotel in Boston uses a camera that analyzes the iris patterns of guests, the Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain has installed a touch fingerprint scanner at four stores in South Carolina, and McDonalds has tested a pay-by-fingerprint system. While the technology has been used in the military and corporate world to restrict access, the biggest deployment of biometrics will be US-VISIT, a system for tracking travelers that requires visitors to put their visas and passports, which will have facial-recognition data, through biometric scans. Biometrics is being increasingly used to control access to computers. "Within the next five to 10 years, we're going to see biometrics play an increasingly large part of consumer transactions," predicts Dean Douglas, a services vice president at IBM.
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  • "Starfish Gene Could Be Key to Regenerating Lost Limbs"
    New Zealand Herald (08/13/04); Collins, Simon

    At the Pacific Rim International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Auckland, Dr. Rick Lathrop of the University of California declared that the convergence of new genetic knowledge and modern computers will lead to a new understanding of genomic science that will in turn revolutionize medicine. "It's going to unlock the basic secrets of life," he predicted. Lathrop said that computers could search massive sets of genetic data to detect disease-causing proteins or gene mutations, as well as genes with special properties, such as the ability to regenerate limbs. Such a breakthrough would have dramatic ramifications for amputees, and genetic engineers are already probing starfish, which can rebuild lost limbs, to locate the regenerative gene. University of California genetic researchers have synthesized artificial genes from smallpox as well as the human papilloma virus, and are developing genetic mutations to inhibit P53, a protein designed to suppress tumors, when it fails and allows cancer cells to proliferate. The project employs Waikato University's Waikato Environment for Knowledge Analysis software. Auckland University professor Garth Cooper reported that New Zealand scientists hope to use similar methods to rejuvenate brain cells lost to Huntington's disease and other degenerative illnesses.
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  • "Nanotech Funding to Grow to $8.6 Billion"
    CNet (08/15/04); Kanellos, Michael

    This year's global nanotechnology research and development budget is estimated at $8.6 billion, and the private sector's segment of that funding is growing. Lux Research's annual state of the industry report finds that nanotech R&D spending will more than double from 2003's total of $3 billion; $4.6 billion will come from governments while corporations will contribute $3.8 billion. Approximately 1,500 firms have announced nanotech R&D plans, although venture investing in nanotech start-ups is expected to fall from $325 million last year to $200 million this year. Lux reports that the United States is pouring the most money into nanotech, with local U.S. governments expected to constitute 35 percent of the global public sector's total--about $1.6 billion--while Asia will invest $1.6 billion and Europe $1.3 billion. Forty-six percent of the global private sector's $3.8 billion investment will come from U.S. companies, while Asian and European companies will account for 36 percent and 17 percent, respectively. U.S. entities own 64 percent of the approximately 89,000 nanotech patents registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office since 1976. "We expect 2004 to be the last year that governments outspend corporations on nanotechnology," declared Lux Research managing director F. Mark Modzelewski. Nanomaterials used in products such as stain-resistant pants are expected to remain symbolic of the nanotech market, although the electronics industry could soon receive a boost thanks to successful demonstrations of nanoscale electronics fabrication techniques.
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  • "Can You Spell Standard In Chinese?"
    Electronic News (08/11/04); Sperling, Ed

    China is creating indigenous standards for consumer electronic devices in collaboration with outside partners in the hopes of reducing the country's reliance on intellectual property with costly licensing terms. This development could ripple throughout the worldwide electronics industry if China starts exporting these products. Lili Zheng with Deloitte & Touche's China Services Group reports that Chinese standards can lower royalty payments as well as the cost of consumer product manufacturing, while perhaps being more user-friendly in the bargain. ISuppli analyst Byron Wu explains that the success of standards within China hinges on establishing a balance between the interests of Chinese companies, foreign companies, and the Chinese government. He adds that as many as 10 years could pass before standards penetrate other markets, and technology breakthroughs within China must occur in order for this to happen. A report furnished by Zheng's group lists many consumer electronics standards under development in China, including an advanced DVD standard called enhanced versatile disk; a fourth-generation cellular phone standard that can support videoconferencing, streaming video, and high-speed Internet access with its 100 Mbps transfer rates; a new video and audio compression standard that will compete with H.264 and MPEG-4; a radio frequency ID standard that may or may not interoperate with the international standard; a Linux-based standard operating system being developed in conjunction with Japanese and Korean industry groups; and equipment based on the wireless authentication privacy infrastructure, which the Chinese government has reportedly mandated for national security reasons.
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  • "An Imperfect Spy Act"
    Technology Review (08/13/04); Asbrand, Deborah

    An anti-spyware bill approved by the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection on June 17 has met heavy resistance from industry and consumer organizations, technology vendors, and even the FTC, who allege that the proposal is inadequate. The current draft of the Spy Act (Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass) requires software that gathers users' personal information to alert users to its installation, acquire their consent beforehand, and supply simple uninstall options; penalties for violators could run as high as $3 million. Opponents, however, do not like the bill's requirement that the software provide a uniform notice and consent screen, which they claim could befuddle consumers trying to tell the difference between genuine software and programs designed to pinch personal data. Critics are additionally concerned that consumers could unintentionally consent to have spyware installed on their computers by failing to read the notices. Meanwhile, the FTC has stated that the deceptive business practices spyware is based on are adequately covered by current legislation. The Business Software Alliance and the Internet Commerce Coalition argue that the process of addressing the spyware issue is demonizing important commercial software, while the Center for Democracy and Technology explains that a key issue of the spyware debate is the consumer notice that spyware would provide under the Spy Act and the way consumers would receive the alert. Internet Commerce Coalition general counsel James Halpert notes that spyware is a problem of growing concern, but its technical aspects complicate the issue. "It's hard for policymakers to come up with solutions that work, and it hasn't caught fire with consumer groups yet," he points out, adding that the congressional passage of spyware legislation may not take place until 2005.
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  • "E-voting Pioneer Plays Politics With Open Source"
    LinuxWorld (08/11/04); Deare, Steven

    The first use of e-voting in an Australian election was in 2001 during the last Australian Capital Territory (ACT) elections, and even more people are expected to vote electronically in the next round of ACT elections, according to ACT Electoral Commissioner Phillip Green. However, future versions of the e-voting software's source code will not be published under the GNU general public license (GPL). "We need to find a way that still ensures transparency and access, but protects our intellectual property," explains Carol Boughton, managing director of e-voting software provider Software Improvements, which was mandated by the Australian Capital Territory Electoral Commission (ACTEC) to use open-source software. By being published under the GPL, Software Improvements' electronic voting and counting system (eVACS) can be employed by others for commercial advantage, but the company reports that later versions will be available through "controlled open source" in which the source code can only be disclosed to authorized persons. Company director Dr. Clive Boughton contends that the GPL lacked the scope needed to fulfill the high integrity needs of election system source code while still supporting transparency. ACTEC guarantees that eVACS is independently reviewed and tested by a reference group composed of interest organizations such as political parties, while Green says that the upcoming ACT election's pre-poll will feature centers with at least 15 horizontal-screen terminals. Voters who decide to vote electronically receive a barcode once their attendance is registered; after choosing their language options at the terminal, they swipe the barcode to display the correct ballot paper for their electorate, select their candidate, and then swipe the barcode again to transfer their votes to the server. EVACS has been modified for this election to randomize the cursor's initial position on each screen, and tablet PCs will be employed for the first time.
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  • "Helping Develop Wireless Internet Services"
    IST Results (08/12/04)

    Project WISE is bringing attention to new architectural guidelines that are designed to help programmers develop wireless Internet services for 3G devices. The architectural guidelines serve as a unified and organized approach to describing software architecture that addresses issues such as small screen sizes, different bandwidth, and mobility. Descriptions were produced from three iterations. "In each iteration, we produce three papers: an abstract implementation of the service, an analysis of the processes to develop the services and architecture to support the services, and guidelines for devices," explains Maurizio Morisio, coordinator of the project, which is funded by Information Society Technologies. The WISE architectures are a J2ME Java Fat Client and a Thin Client. WISE pilot trials include a game that uses mobile phone GPRS data connections, and an online trading application for high-volume share trading. WISE is in talks with a publisher to publish the WISE architecture handbook, and consortium partners have inked a deal with Telecom Italia Mobile to use the online trading service commercially.
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  • "Linux Skills in High Demand as IT Jobs Pick Up"
    IT Management (08/11/04); Gaudin, Sharon

    Estimates from Dice.com, a tech professional job board, indicate significant growth in demand from employers for people with Linux skills and experience: Dice CEO Scott Melland says that job listings calling for Linux skills have risen 190 percent over the past 12 months, from about 25,000 jobs this time last year to over 50,000 jobs. The number of Linux-related jobs listed on Dice.com has also skyrocketed from between 860 and 900 last year to 2,500 currently. Seventy percent of those Linux job listings call for developers, 20 percent to 25 percent call for systems administrators, and the remainder are for people with blended skills; Melland explains that employers appear to be placing greater value on on-the-job experience than certifications. "The demand for Linux skills is absolutely growing and it's growing faster than the overall demand for tech professionals," Melland reports. The gradual economic recovery is prompting companies to start looking into either converting older systems to Linux or constructing new systems. The growth of salaries for Linux-related IT professionals is concurrent with growth in Linux-related jobs. The average listed salary for a Linux-related IT job is $67,000, a 6 percent gain over wages in other IT fields, while contractors and consultants working with Linux can expect to earn roughly $87,000, on average. Melland concludes that the IT job market has shown remarkable growth over the last year, to the degree that opportunities for tech professionals have doubled.
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  • "CAPPS II's Mysterious Successor"
    Defense News (08/09/04) Vol. 19, No. 31, P. 22; Matthews, William

    The federal government abandoned its CAPPS II project in July, but continues to work on a computerized airline passenger-screening system. Privacy advocates were critical of CAPPS II, and the European Union expressed concerns about its impact on the civil liberties and privacy rights of EU citizens. CAPPS II, expected to be operational last November, would have been an updated version of the 1998 passenger prescreening system that scoured reams of personal data to weed out terrorists from typical airline passengers. Privacy advocates took issue with the federal government probing personal information every time a passenger flies, and using credit reports, voter registrations, real estate transactions, driving records, commercial market profiles, and other records to determine who can fly, considering commercial databases are filled with errors. Even the General Accountability Office raised issues such as the impact of identity theft on circumventing the computerized system. The Transportation Security Administration has revealed few details about the new screening system, which will be used to find travelers with links to terrorist groups. The new system is expected to check airline passengers against a more comprehensive terrorist watch list, with the hope of lowering the number of travelers who are falsely identified for needing closer screening.

  • "Emerging Field Shifts Perceptions of Human, Machine Limits"
    Electronic Engineering Times (08/09/04) No. 1333, P. 4; Mokhoff, Nicolas

    Electronic perception technology was on display last week at ACM's SIGGRAPH 2004 Conference and Expo in Los Angeles. Perception technology pioneer Canesta, based in San Jose, Calif., used the SIGGRAPH event to unveil a commercial development kit for its 3-D sensor machine vision chip. Like other perception technologies, the Equinox 3-D sensor perception chip is designed to bring the sense of sight to everyday devices and machines. A single-chip 3-D camera, USB interface, and a Windows-based software development environment comprise Canesta's platform, which developers will be able to use to prototype an application and code on a Windows PC, and embed the application and Equinox chip in the end product. Intelligent automobile airbag systems, security systems, and robotic tools are among the potential applications for electronic perception technology. Canesta's technology is considered a breakthrough because of its low-cost, standard CMOS. "True 3-D image sensing is extremely useful for applications that need to look at a scene and decompose it into objects," says Canesta's Jim Spare.
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  • "Radio Chip Heralds the Smarter Home"
    New Scientist (08/07/04) Vol. 183, No. 2459, P. 22; Graham-Rowe, Duncan

    About 70 electronics companies are hoping the new ZigBee radio technology will make the intelligent home, in which appliances and other electrical devices communicate with each other, more of a reality. Companies such as Motorola, Honeywell, Samsung, Mitsubishi Electric, and NEC, in forming the ZigBee Alliance, have placed their hopes on a wireless network to control home appliances and devices, embedded with two-way radio microchips, remotely. ZigBee is a low-power alternative to the Bluetooth short-range radio system, which drains power from devices because it is always monitoring transmissions. In comparison, the ZigBee network synchronizes the transmissions so they are always on or in sleep mode at the same time. The result is that transceiver chips in ZigBee devices require a change of batteries in three to five years, while transceiver batteries for Bluetooth may not last a week. The ZigBee approach is also notable because it is high-speed, offers optional encryption, and can form "mesh" networks, in which each device acts like a node. Meshing, for example, would enable light switches to act as sensors for a burglar alarm, sounding the alarm when an intruder turns on a light. The ZigBee radio technology is scheduled to be introduced in 2005.

  • "Anonymous Trust"
    Scientific American (08/04) Vol. 291, No. 8, P. 20; Grossman, Wendy M.

    Direct anonymous attestation (DAA) is a scheme that promises more secure machines and transactions while eliminating concerns about monitoring and privacy infringement. The scheme works by establishing a secure mode for computers in which the applications they run are restricted to those that have been authenticated by remote trusted certification authorities. A security chip or trusted platform module embedded in the computer motherboard or in other devices would act as gatekeeper by containing a private cryptographic key, and operate according to Trusted Computing Group specifications. When a device's security needs to be authenticated, the chip generates a new cryptographic key for one session and transmits it as a message signed with its private key to a third party, which employs the message, the key signature, and the known public key to confirm the trustworthiness of the source. DAA is based on the concept of zero-knowledge proofs, in which a person or device proves that he or she has knowledge of a secret without actually disclosing it; it also takes a cue from cryptographer David Chaum's proposal that messages from group members could be signed by a group manager, who would be the only one to know which member originated which message. DAA was developed by IBM Research's Jan Camenisch, Intel's Ernie Brickell, and Hewlett-Packard's Liqun Chen, who built on the above concepts. Although the trusted platform module is designed to be immune to tampering, vendors can still invalidate keys if illegal activity is suspected. Director of the Trusted Computing Group's technical committee Graeme Proundler notes that the DAA scheme allows transactions to be completely anonymous or trackable, depending on the name parameter, which he notes is an important consideration.

  • "Nanotechnology to Supercharge Internet"
    EurekAlert (08/11/04)

    In a study published in the Aug. 11 edition of Nano Letters, University of Toronto professor Ted Sargent and associates report that nanotechnology can set the foundations for a supercharged, light-based Internet that is 100 times faster than current networks. Sargent notes that up to now, molecular materials employed to switch light signals with light have not been as strong as basic physics states they could be. "With this work, the ultimate capacity to process information-bearing signals using light is within our practical grasp," he proclaims. The project involves the blending of "buckyball" carbon molecules and an engineered polymer into a hybrid film that allows photons to pick up each other's patterns, a challenge met by Carleton University researchers Wayne Wang and Connie Kuang. Sargent and U of T associate Qiying Chen have analyzed the material's optical properties, and concluded that the substance can process information carried at communications wavelengths. The hybrid material demonstrates a new type of substance that can support the engineering requirements of future fiber-optic communications systems that boast picosecond switching times, according to Sargent. Washington State University physicist Mark Kuzyk, who outlined the failure of real molecular materials to reach their theoretical potential, declares, "This intelligent nanoscale approach to engineering nonlinear-optical materials, which is guided by principles of quantum physics, is the birth of a new and significant materials development paradigm in synthetic research."
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