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


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Volume 7, Issue 756: Friday, February 18, 2005

  • "How to Make the PC Beautiful"
    Financial Times (02/18/05) P. 8; Morrison, Scott

    A key differentiator and selling point of consumer technology is its "sexiness," a quality that PC manufacturers are trying to instill within their products by enlisting industrial design specialists to transform generic office machines into sleek entertainment systems. Hewlett-Packard brand designer Sam Lucente observes that making PCs fashionable is becoming a matter of increasing urgency at tech companies, which are looking to capture a bigger share of the $114 billion consumer electronics market. The leading drivers of the need for innovative PC design are the standardization of the fundamental technology and growing competitiveness of low-cost overseas manufacturers. The consumer technology groups reaping the biggest rewards are those that successfully marry slick hardware design with intuitive, easy-to-use software interfaces. Apple's iPod has become the standard for such products, one that calls attention to the fact that most other technologies are still too cumbersome and complicated for average consumers. NPD Group analyst Stephen Baker remarks that most manufacturers do not account for the 80/20 rule, in which 80 percent of consumers use no more than 20 percent of a product's features. "Consumers don't want the computer to get in the way, they just want it to do what they want," explains Ideo co-founder Bill Moggridge. He also says future consumer technologies must incorporate "learning loops," such as those used by video games to encourage players to proceed to more challenging levels, if they are to be successful.
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  • "The Fight Over Cyber Oversight"
    Wired News (02/17/05); Zetter, Kim

    Opinion was split at the recent RSA Conference on whether government regulation of corporate accountability for intrusions would improve corporate network security. Advocates such as former national cybersecurity czar Richard Clarke said such a measure would be beneficial, while opponents such as Information Technology Association of America President Harris Miller argued that it would hurt innovation. "Whether it's fear of lawsuits or fear of going to jail, regulation increases the cost of not doing security, which will increase security," remarked Counterpane CEO Bruce Schneier, noting that companies skimp on security in order to lower costs without fear of liability for any customer fallout. A target of discussion at the conference was ChoicePoint, which last fall suffered a hack that may have compromised sensitive information on tens of thousands of customers: The firm started notifying California customers of the breach last week, in accordance with state laws; but though ChoicePoint also announced revisions to avoid similar hacks, it refused to be held accountable for any losses customers sustained. Software companies and ISPs also lack an economic incentive to bolster the security of their products or services. Clarke suggested that customers be allowed to assess products' security through the forced disclosure of producers' quality-assurance procedures and best practices. He said a combination of security regulations and standards for complying with regulations would help establish a level playing field for companies, eliminating any economic drawbacks for firms that spend money on improved security against those that do not. Schneier cited the onus placed on U.S. banks in cases of ATM fraud as an example of forced regulation that resulted in improved security.
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  • "EU Parliament Approves Software Patent Restart"
    eWeek (02/17/05); Broersma, Matthew

    The way is now clear for the European Parliament to formally request the European Commission to restart the legislative process around IT patenting following the EP Conference of Presidents' decision to reject the European Union's proposed directive, which drew fierce criticism from EU member states. Detractors claimed the text of the current proposal would permit a wide range of software and business processes to be patented, making European patent policy more in line with U.S. policy and hurting smaller companies and the open-source software industry. Meanwhile, the EU Council still wants to push through the current directive in May and re-submit the proposal to the EP for a second reading, where parliamentary members will have a tougher time making revisions. An almost unanimous vote for requesting a restart from the Commission was reached by JURI, the EP's legal affairs committee, on Feb. 2, and the Conference of Presidents adopted the motion on Feb. 17. A withdrawal of the proposal will obviate the Commission's introduction of another IT patenting proposal for two years. Although the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) supports the move to discard the current text, FFII President Helmut Pilch argues that a better proposal is more desirable. Pilch says the public should heed a study commissioned on behalf of the EP's Directorate General for Economic and Scientific Policy concluding that the current directive would establish excessively broad software and business method patent practices that are a virtual duplicate of those in the United States.
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  • "Engineering the Services of Tomorrow"
    IST Results (02/18/05)

    Projects funded by Information Society Technologies have developed software engineering solutions to pave the way for new end-user service economies. The CAMELEON project was launched to give designers and software developers of interactive ubiquitous services techniques, tools, and models that would enable them to better meet new challenges stemming from an expanding spectrum of devices with distinctive modes and features for accessing such services. The project delivered a number of tools, including the publicly available TERESA and RevesiXML. The former can edit logical task specifications and automatically or semi-automatically assemble device-adaptive user interfaces from them; the latter enhances reverse engineering by identifying a system's components and dependencies through analysis of its code, documentation, and behavior. Another IST-funded project, POLOS, focused on the creation and validation of open architectures, tools, and technologies to effect the provision of diverse applications as networked services over a commonly available infrastructure. Among the POLOS platform's distinctive properties is its portability, multiple operation paradigm support, independence from underlying technologies, reusability, multi-infrastructure roaming, and partitioning between service creation, service provision, and the network. The MOBICOSSUM project, meanwhile, developed an integrated informative system to improve the management of utility facilities by making supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), decision support system (DSS), and geographic information system (GIS) components more usable and user-friendly through the deployment of mobile devices and generic Internet browsers. "We particularly addressed the automation of management processes to improve the performance of systems managed by mobile technicians, managers and field crews," remarks project coordinator Massimo Bosco.
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  • "Software Firms Fault Colleges' Security Education"
    CNet (02/16/05); Lemos, Robert

    In a panel session at the Secure Software Forum on Feb. 14, software companies such as Oracle and Microsoft laid a lot of blame for flawed software on a lack of education in secure programming for computer science graduates. The software industry is a target of criticism for some security researchers, who note that people skilled in secure programming usually do not merit any special treatment. Panelist Fred Rica of PricewaterhouseCoopers' Threat and Vulnerability Assessment Services said that software makers "have to be very clear what types of skills [they] need from future graduates." Rica also warned that software will not improve until companies are willing to pay for security, and complained that software makers always emphasize functionality over security. Meanwhile, a report from Gartner found that companies assign a low priority to funding developer training on their budgets, even though they list a lack of skills as a leading problem in need of remediation. Microsoft and other security companies are attempting to help shape college curricula by funding scholarships and competitions, while federal agencies such as the National Security Agency and the Defense Department are also getting into the act by deeming college programs National Centers of Excellence in a wide array of security fields. Oracle chief security officer Mary Ann Davidson pointed out that education must be complemented by tools that more effectively detect common programming errors, and that all developers should use such tools.
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  • "A 3-D View of the City, Block by Block"
    New York Times (02/17/05) P. E8; Eisenberg, Anne

    Companies are building three-dimensional digital simulations of cities and other urban areas whose potential applications include virtual shopping, navigation, socializing, video games, tenant leasing, and urban planning. Tel Aviv-based GeoSim Systems is stitching together models of central Philadelphia, Milan, Ramat Gan, Israel, and other places from aerial and ground-level photos. The data contained in these images is blended by software, and then the information is inserted within a commercial software package and rendered as 3D shapes and textures. GeoSim founder Victor Shenkar refined the 3D modeling and virtualization technology building a virtual Golan Heights as a training simulation for Israeli soldiers during his tenure as director of research and development for the Israeli air force. He says the modeling operation follows a production line configuration that includes software to simplify elements of the process and techniques that enable workers to perform tasks concurrently. All the photographic data is warehoused in a single server connected to 25 workstations. "Everyone connected to the server gets a piece of the city, and the production manager monitors the progress of the work online," Shenkar explains. President of the central Philadelphia business district Paul Levy notes that Shenkar's technology dramatically expedites modeling, allowing city-scale simulations to be carried out faster. Modeling a square kilometer carries an average price tag of $150,000.
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  • "Women Make Inroads Into IT"
    New Zealand Herald (02/16/05); Bland, Vikki

    Statistics New Zealand estimated that women accounted for 27.5 percent of computer science graduates in 2001, but just 11 percent of technical IT professionals. The firm also reckoned that there are three male IT professionals for every female across all IT careers. Meanwhile, a 2004 Waikato Institute of Technology study found that only 20 percent of IT students were female despite women comprising 56 percent of the student body, while Fairfax Business Media calculated that the percentage of female senior IT managers in the biggest New Zealand organizations declined from 15 percent in 2002 to 11 percent in 2004. The University of Waikato and Wintec collaborated on a paper that attributed women's evasion of technical IT jobs to pre-conceived notions of the IT industry as male-dominated, dull, and not conducive to women's ways of thinking. This view is disputed by prominent female professionals such as Microsoft New Zealand small business manager Jan Ferguson and ProximityID general manager Angela Day, who characterize the IT industry as creativity-oriented and supported by social, visual, and collaborative components in addition to technical elements. Certus general manager Penny White reports that females "are generally better at multi-tasking, people-management and customer communication, all crucial to the industry." Ferguson notes that IT can also accommodate women with family responsibilities, although the industry's global nature and the rigorous commitments of an IT career can be a burden for working parents; indeed, some women are prioritizing their careers over having children.
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    For information on ACM's Committee on Women and Computing, visit http://www.acm.org/women.

  • "Geeks to the Corps"
    Technology Review (02/16/05); Krotoski, Aleks

    Founded as an altruistic organization for bridging the digital divide between the world's technology haves and have-nots, the International Executive Service Corps/Geekcorps recruits volunteer programmers, network designers, and other tech-savvy individuals to help set up sustainable tech infrastructures in poor countries. Geekcorps' libertarian credo was recently bolstered with its adoption of open source software, which reinforces the organization's commitment to deploying community solutions rather than nurturing global competition. Geekcorps program manager Wayan Vota says open source software can now outclass proprietary systems in terms of functionality, and offers an ideal total cost of ownership profile for developing nations. "One of the main reasons that we chose open source tools is that we wanted the product of our work to be replicable," notes Ian Howard, Geekcorps program coordinator for Mali. In addition, volunteers who hail from the corporate ranks no longer have to worry about implementing solutions from competitors. After an intense selection process, Geekcorps volunteers are paired up with a partner business according to their experience and the local requirements of areas where IT is already an important factor in economic growth; the volunteers then spend three to four months applying their computing know-how to the deployment of technology in impoverished regions throughout eleven countries. Thus far, Mali is the only country with a Geekcorps presence that has "almost completely" gone open source.
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  • "A Little of Everything at Demo"
    USA Today (02/17/05) P. 5B; Baig, Edward C.

    Edward C. Baig was impressed by numerous offerings at the 15th annual Demo conference, where some 73 companies showcased their latest wares. Notable products exhibited at the conference included AutoXray's CodeScout, an automotive plug-in that scans cars for malfunctions and identifies them in code; Novint Technologies' Falcon tactile PC interface; Xfire's free file-distribution system where users subscribe to channels that download files to the PC once they become available; PhotoLeap, a simple way for sharing large files of digital images in a single transmission; and VKB, a Bluetooth wireless device that projects a virtual keyboard onto flat surfaces by laser. Other interesting products on display included Intellifit, a technology that collects body measurements via low-power radio scanning, which could be very useful for ordering custom-fit apparel. Baig was also interested in several 3D technologies from Canada's MDA: One product was a 3D "Ice Camera" used to ascertain the best time to de-ice aircraft, while another was a Instant Scene Modeler that can build 3D images for applications in mining, architecture, crime investigations, and video gaming, among other things. Also on hand at Demo were such products as Lusora's Pendant, a wearable device that summons help when its wearer has fallen; Audiotrieve's OutBoxer, which scans outgoing email for sensitive or improper content; and Homestead Technologies' QuickSites, a service that lets users download pre-tailored Web sites and insert their own content.
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  • "Rambling Robots Show Human Efficiency"
    New Scientist (02/17/05); Knight, Will

    Three robots that stride like human beings made their debut at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Feb. 17. The machines, which were produced by researchers at the University of Michigan, MIT, Cornell University, and Delft University in the Netherlands, amble along using simple mechanical dynamics and minimal motorization; each robot's frame and joints are configured so that they can walk without overexerting themselves. "Our robots demonstrate that utilizing the natural dynamics of the body can make robots much more efficient," said the University of Michigan's Steve Collins. The robots' designs were inspired by mechanical walking toys that automatically respond to gravity by striding down a slope, and this capability was refined to accommodate flat surfaces with the addition of a few motors. The Cornell and Delft robots boast exceptional power efficiency, consuming around the same amount of energy as the average walking human--about 10 times less than is consumed by Honda's Asimo android. The MIT bot, nicknamed "Toddler," was hailed by one robotics researcher as the most conceptually innovative of the three because it adapts to terrain via a learning algorithm. University of Michigan researcher Art Kuo noted that practical walking bots must be made capable of climbing stairs through a combination of simple dynamics and greater control.
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  • "Inside the Future"
    Sydney Morning Herald (02/15/05); Gray, Patrick

    British Telecom's resident futurist Ian Pearson predicts that computers synthesized from biological cultures will appear within a generation, and raises the possibility that computer intelligence will equal human intelligence after 2015. He theorizes that in 15 years' time a bacterium could be engineered with DNA that assembles circuits within cells, and that could replicate itself into a computer of considerable size. Pearson also foresees a potential integration of machines with the human brain, revolutionizing education and perhaps even facilitating a kind of immortality by allowing copies of one's brain to be stored on a computer. Other technology-related trends Pearson anticipates include ubiquitous, non-intrusive computers embedded in all significant objects, and a new culture of social openness nurtured by next-generation communications technologies. The futurist believes that innovation in the next two decades will match the innovation of the last five centuries in terms of quantity. Meanwhile, BT research foresight manager Robin Mannings thinks the social advantages of location-tracking technologies--more easily finding friends, for example--will make people more comfortable with the idea of having their movements monitored. Mannings also expects intellectual property cartels to be demolished by open source's penetration into silicon chip design, while PCs and mobile phones will boast shared processing and storage capacity via grid computing. Advanced technology efforts at BT include researcher Richard Tateson's work to decentralize cellular phone networks' allocation of frequencies or channels by using self-organizing fruit fly cells as a model. BT's Mike Carr says anticipating future developments is strategically valuable, as it allows companies to position themselves for disruptive changes.
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  • "Building Open Blocks for Composite Web Services"
    IST Results (02/17/05)

    The IST's ADAPT program is developing open-source middleware for building adaptable, scalable, and composite Web services. "The problem has been that although distributed applications are being used on an increasingly wide scale there has not been much work on advancing the provision of services, particularly database replication techniques to guarantee consistency and stability," notes project coordinator Ricardo Jimenez-Peris. "What we are doing is providing a solution that is as integral as possible--it is more than an academic research result, it is a system that is virtually ready to be used commercially as an industrial application." The usual methods for supplying distributed Web services are the transmission of database information via parallel servers, and demand-based data updates, also known as lazy replication. Jimenez-Peris says the first method requires costly hardware while the second offers less consistency and stability. ADAPT implements replication at both the database server and the applications server, enabling the applications server to record prior actions and thus providing stability and consistency with an affordable deployment cost. A demo involving the system's application to a supply chain model that includes inventory data, client orders, and billing information has been devised as a validation test for the ADAPT method.
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  • "Making Your IM Secure--and Deniable"
    CNet (02/14/05); Lemos, Robert

    University of California at Berkeley researchers Nikita Borisov and Ian Goldberg have devised a plug-in for the Gaim instant-messaging clients that can be used to keep IM conversations confidential and unverifiable by encrypting the messages without a key. Their off-the-record (OTR) messaging software was detailed at the annual CodeCon developer convention on Feb. 12. Goldberg says other messaging solutions leave behind logs and encryption keys that can prove the conversation took place; the new add-on uses perfect forward security to encrypt messages without digital signatures. OTR conversations require both parties to install the software on Gaim, or use AOL's Instant Messenger with a server implemented as a proxy by other software created by Goldberg and Borisov. When a previously unregistered user desiring an OTR conversation contacts the other party, a dialog box appears with a digital key identifying the sender; acceptance of the sender's credentials allows the key to be stored on the recipient's computer, establishing the sender as trustworthy for future conversations. Goldberg says conversation logs can be recorded by either party using existing IM clients as well as the OTR messaging plug-ins, but those logs have little meaning once the conversation ends, and their content is editable.
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  • "Malware 101: University Offers Course on Spyware"
    TechNewsWorld (02/10/05); Mello, John P.

    The University of Calgary's computer science department next fall will offer a class on spyware and spam that will lead to each student writing their own spyware program. The class is not the department's first controversial offering; two years ago the department began a course on computer viruses that also had students writing their own virus. "The best way to teach people something so that they really understand it is to have them do it," says University of Calgary assistant professor John Aycock, who designed both class offerings. The spyware course will involve the students writing their own spyware programs for testing in a separate and secure environment created especially for the course. Enrollment in the class involves a heavy screening process, sometimes an admissions essay, and a signature on an agreement that information from the course will not be misused. Aycock says, "Spam and spyware are huge problems for society, so in some ways it would seem irresponsible not to be teaching our students about these topics." Still, others are not so sure. ClearSwift threat lab manager Pete Simpson lacks trust for college students who could eventually use this knowledge for financial gain, while CipherTrust strategic development vice president Phyllis Schneck believes the students will avoid misuse with the teachings of proper ethical framework.
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  • "Spring Comes to AI Winter"
    Computerworld (02/14/05) P. 28; Havenstein, Heather

    Artificial intelligence research is starting to bounce back after a long fallow period with a resurgence of interest in neurobiology and a concentration on practical medical, educational, manufacturing, and customer service applications. Redwood Neuroscience Institute founder Jeff Hawkins attributes the failure of most AI projects to the false assumption that applications must function in the manner of a computer, when in fact they should be modeled after the human brain's mechanisms for intelligence. He believes that incorporating neocortical functions such as memory and language into systems will lead to AI applications for drug discovery, remote sensing, robotics, computer vision, and other tasks that are currently too tough to automate by traditional methods. Projects in this vein include the Intelligence Distribution Agent (IDA) created by the University of Memphis' Institute for Intelligent Systems for the purpose of helping assign sailors new jobs following their tours of duty via email negotiation. Institute co-director Stan Franklin explains that IDA employs a cognitive cycle that perceives email language as a sequence of symbols and selects a response based on the meaning it extracts from those symbols; he expects IDA to be capable of negotiating with people in unstructured English and basing decisions on company policies or client preferences retrieved from a database in the next five to 10 years. Meanwhile, Fair Isaac's Robert Hecht-Nielsen is developing a system that understands language and adapts via trial and error by using a cognition algorithm patterned after the brain's cerebral cortex. The system has a "confabulation" architecture based on a model of human cognition in which everything in the mind is represented by lists of symbols that assign object attributes. Hecht-Nielsen doubts that AI research will one day yield cyborgs popularized by movies, but is confident that practical tools based on human intelligence will emerge.
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  • "Mind Over Machines"
    Scientist (02/14/05) Vol. 19, No. 3, P. 27; Constans, Aileen

    Brain-computer interface (BCI) technology is still in an infant stage of development, but promises to enable severely disabled patients to live fuller, more independent lives. There are two leading interface models: Implantable interfaces that tap brainwaves through a direct neural connection, and noninvasive interfaces in which brainwaves are recorded by electrodes off the surface of the scalp. Which technology will become the most popular may depend on how reliable, precise, and easy to use they can become. Researchers familiar with both technologies believe implantable BCIs may ultimately deliver more functionality; Brown University neurobiologist John Donoghue argues, "The implantable technology actually goes after and records the brain cells and the very information that's related to what you want to do." On the other hand, the deciding factor could be whether insurance companies will pay for BCI implantation. Other researchers are working on biomodal chips that both stimulate and record from brain cells. Examples include a group of rat neurons cultured on a 60-channel multielectrode array by University of Florida biomedical engineer Thomas DeMarse, who "trained" the neurons to pilot a flight simulator by translating the aircraft's pitch and roll angles into stimulation pulses of varying frequency; this setup allows DeMarse to analyze the neurons' computational performance and their shifts in connectivity in response to stimulation. DeMarse and University of Florida neurologist Paul Carney are now studying microelectrode recordings of neurophysiological network changes in live rats and recordings from cultured neurons in the hopes of identifying aberrant brain patterns that trigger epileptic fits, and preventing such episodes by stimulating neurons to return to normal activities.

  • "Rugged Computers Get Flexible to Fit Any Application"
    Military & Aerospace Electronics (01/05) Vol. 16, No. 1, P. 30; Ames, Ben

    Rugged computers can now be adapted for almost any military application through modular design that allows on-the-fly assembly and repair. The pervasiveness of rugged computers in the military carries design challenges if they are to support almost all tasks. Kontrol America's Embedded Computer Module, which integrates commercial off-the-shelf components with a generic I/O port, was developed to simplify this process by serving as a self-contained basic unit for military applications. Delivering rugged, high-performance computers entails its own set of design challenges, such as finding a way to boost computer power without losing durability or mobility, addressing increased heat output efficiently, and resolving performance/size conflicts. Getac's Andy Ho reports that computers remain expensive because of the price of their screens, rather than their drives or keyboards, and his company offers a customizable unit with a 14.1-inch screen that complies with diverse military standards and runs a cooler Pentium M processor. To eliminate the need for hard drive cushioning necessary for the protection of mechanical disks, M-Systems is developing rugged machines with embedded solid-state flash disks, which supporters prefer for their superior ruggedness, security, power efficiency, and data read/write speeds. "As flash prices continue to go down and higher density of flash disks can be supported, many end customers are requesting flash disks," notes M-Systems' Ofer Tsur. The U.S. Army has purchased 800 M-Systems solid state drives to be used in fighting vehicles under the aegis of the Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade, and Below program, whose goal is to clarify forces' positions for strategists and use input from individual troops to keep the battlefield picture up-to-date.
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  • "Testing Darwin"
    Discover (02/05) Vol. 26, No. 2, P. 28; Zimmer, Carl

    Scientists at Michigan State University's Digital Evolution Laboratory are using digital organisms to explore and test Darwin's theories. These organisms consist of command strings that can replicate themselves into tens of thousands of copies within minutes, and they can also mutate and compete with each other; the life cycle of each generation is tracked using the Avida software program. Researchers determined with Avida that digital organisms, like their real-world counterparts, evolve in spasms, and the software's flexibility and speed has encouraged them to put some of the most cherished tenets of evolutionary science to the test. One experiment concentrated on how complex organisms evolve from simple ones by documenting the evolution of a complex operation in which binary numbers are compared bit by bit to see if they are equal: The Avida team established rewards for simpler operations and bigger rewards for more sophisticated operations, and then watched as the digital organisms replicated for 16,000 generations; the experiment was repeated 50 times, and the organisms in the 23 successful tests evolved along different evolutionary paths, illustrating Darwin's theory that the same function can evolve in diverse ways. Another experiment explored how organisms continue to evolve despite seemingly unbreakable controls, and Digital Evolution Laboratory director Charles Ofria devised a scheme designed to halt adaptation by killing off organisms that exhibited beneficial mutations. The digital life-forms defied Ofria's best attempts to control their evolution by essentially "playing dead" and not processing numbers when he tested them for mutations. The Avida team is also developing new commands that will enable digital organisms to exchange information packages in a test for cooperation, and Ofria thinks a successful outcome would indicate that the organisms could maybe be coaxed into cooperatively solving real-world problems.