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


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Volume 7, Issue 765:  Monday, March 14, 2005

  • "Spirit of Innovation Survives the Turmoil"
    San Jose Mercury News (CA) (03/12/05); O'Brien, Chris

    Silicon Valley's creative drive has not been subdued by the dot-com implosion: Area inventors continue to innovate, the number of patents awarded continues to rise, Stanford University researchers continue to churn out new inventions, and federal research funding keeps flowing in. Some inventors consider the dot-com collapse to be a blessing, in that it has shifted priorities away from money and back toward creativity and better thought-out innovations. "No longer does it count to have an idea that you sketch on the back of an envelope that you call dogfood.com," notes former Xerox Palo Alto Research Center director John Seely Brown. The downturn has also renewed interest in the life sciences and ratcheted up research in fields such as biotechnology and nanotechnology. The number of patents granted to Silicon Valley inventors rose 18.1 percent between 2000 and 2003; more Silicon Valley firms started up than shuttered annually from 2000 to 2002; there was a 55.4 percent increase in non-defense federal R&D funding to Silicon Valley, to total $811 million in 2003; the number of new technology disclosures filed by Stanford University researchers increased from 253 in 2000 to 350 in 2003; and initial public stock offerings and fast-growing "gazelle" companies increased in 2004 after a three-year lull. However, former McKinsey & Co. consultant John Hagel warns that Silicon Valley's advantage is threatened by other countries whose strength and reputation as technological innovators is on the rise. India, China, and other regions have built up robust tech infrastructures partly thanks to the offshoring of U.S. high-tech manufacturing and product development, while their ranks of engineering graduates continue to swell. Meanwhile, a Joint Venture report notes that publicly traded companies in Silicon Valley have been scaling back their R&D budgets over the last decade.
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  • "Snapshots Save Digital Evidence"
    Technology Research News (03/16/05); Patch, Kimberly

    Computer crime investigations could be aided with a system devised by University of Florida researchers that combines intruder detection techniques with checkpointing methods that take "snapshots" of a computer's state. The process forensics method, which was detailed in the summer edition of the International Journal of Digital Evidence, enables investigators to trace the data for a given process used in a computer attack by saving address space information via the Uclik checkpointing software. Such software typically generates a checkpoint by halting the execution of a process, saving the address space and kernel state, and then resuming the process; the UF researchers' system tweaks the software to collect the terminal checkpoint as well. Forensic investigators usually search for traces of a computer crime by studying log files, swap files, and unallocated space and slack space, while checkpointing saves data held in memory that is typically jettisoned when the computer is deactivated or when the process no longer requires it. UF researcher Mark Foster says this space houses potentially valuable forensics data, such as process identification that reveals a user's ownership of a given process. The address space of a process also houses a stack, which can be analyzed to extract the execution sequence of process steps; this information can be helpful in buffer overflow investigations by revealing where and how the attack was made practicable, and Foster says the data could also help prevent future attacks. He reports that checkpointing is a good technique for accumulating data about malicious processes because the data collection is fast, transparent, and can be done without altering the process and alerting a potential attacker.
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  • "'Oracle' Computer Could Have All the Answers Built In"
    Duke University News & Communications (03/11/05); Lemmons, Phil

    Duke University researchers envision a computer fabricated from self-assembling DNA molecules that can answer questions instantaneously because the answers are built in. "We call this kind of computer an oracle because, like the oracles of ancient times, the computer is ready to answer your question as soon as you ask," explains Duke computer science professor Chris Dwyer, who says massive numbers of question-and-answer pairs will compose virtually the entirety of the machine's processors. Dwyer and fellow Duke computer science professors Alvin Lebeck and Daniel Sorin detailed the possibilities of such a concept in a paper published in the January 2005 issue of IEEE Computer Magazine. Lebeck is overseeing the National Science Foundation-funded "Troika" project to build an electronic computing device via DNA self-assembly by striking a balance between the regularity of patterns generated by such assembly, the necessary variations for constructing complex computers, and methods for tackling unavoidable flaws in self-assembly. The oracle computer project is sponsored by an Air Force Research Laboratory grant, and Lebeck says that practical DNA self-assembled computers are at least 10 years away. He notes that "before you can arrange for DNA to assemble a computer, you have to understand what sort of computer you want the DNA to assemble," and the oracle framework shows promise. Dwyer cautions that coaxing DNA strands to assemble electronic circuits and later large-scale computers will be a formidable challenge. But the mechanisms for binding complementary strands can be harnessed to compute answers to problems, thus making it feasible to consider computing all solutions for a problem during assembly, Dwyer says.
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  • "Can a Virus Hitch a Ride in Your Car?"
    New York Times (03/13/05) P. SP12; Zeller Jr., Tom; Mayersohn, Norman

    Online message boards recently buzzed with a rumor that Lexus cars and SUVs were vulnerable to a virus that spread via built-in Bluetooth networking, and though the claim has been investigated by parent company Toyota Motors and found unsubstantiated, it has generated scrutiny about whether--or how soon--viruses will be infecting increasingly networked vehicle computer systems. So far, experts say the possibility of viruses hijacking vehicle systems is relatively low due to the variety of proprietary operating systems and lack of standardization; but more and more car functions are becoming dependent on electronics--even basic systems such as acceleration and braking are migrating toward "drive-by-wire," where the links between pedal and throttle are electronic instead of mechanical. Vehicle computer systems are also becoming more integrated so as to share processing, sensing, and memory resources and enable advanced safety functions such as anti-skid systems, emergency-brake assist, and "active steering." Networking is more common in cars as well, with the proliferation of telematics systems such as General Motors' OnStar and traffic updates in the Acura RL. Experts say car computer viruses could more easily be introduced through peripheral bus connections that link electronic mirrors or GPS antennas to the larger system. If a hacker could physically expose bus wires from the outside of a car, they would be able to introduce malware with a PDA or laptop. Bluetooth connectivity could enable similar infections, though wirelessly over short distances. University of Bielefeld computer networks and distributed systems professor Peter Ladkin says publicity such as the Lexus virus rumor are beneficial in that they raise awareness among automakers.
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  • "A View Into the Future of Computer-Human Interaction"
    Market Wire (03/09/05)

    Cross-discipline collaboration will be a focus of the upcoming Computer and Human Interaction conference, ACM's CHI 2005, which will feature keynote speakers who have applied technology in the areas of medicine, art, and entertainment. Carnegie Mellon University's Randy Pausch will open CHI 2005, scheduled for April 2-7, in Portland, Ore, with a talk on designing effective cross-disciplinary projects. "I have worked with neurosurgeons to build user interfaces for neurosurgical planning; designers, artists and engineers at Walt Disney Imagineering to build theme park attractions; and psychologists to evaluate virtual environments," says Pausch. The conference will be closed by Michel Waisvisz, the director of STEIM (STudio for Electro-Instrumental Music) Foundation in Amsterdam who has created live-electronic music and electronic theater. Waisvisz will give an interactive demonstration with a comprehensive view of user interfaces. "Too much of the computer has been designed and used as an exclusive extension of the formalistic capabilities of humans," says Waisvisz. ACM's Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (ACM SIGCHI) is sponsoring the six-day event, which is expected to draw participants from more than 40 countries.
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    For more information, or to register for CHI05, visit http://www.chi2005.org/.

  • "Senate Republicans Set High-Tech Policy Goals"
    IDG News Service (03/10/05); Gross, Grant

    Eleven members of the Senate Republican High Tech Task Force (HTTF) announced their policy agenda at a March 9 press conference, citing such goals as patent and telecom regulation reforms; a permanent research and development tax credit for private companies; federal spyware laws to avoid patchwork state legislation that could choke innovation and undermine consumer confidence in e-commerce; more congressional encouragement of math and science education; the removal of regulations that "stifle innovations" such as broadband; and the reduction of health care costs by enabling technology use. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he expected two-thirds of future U.S. jobs to be technology-related. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) urged an end to the practice of diverting patent application fees from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's budget back into the general budget so that the patent office can be reformed and brought up to date. Also on the HTTP agenda is the establishment of administrative elements for boosting patent quality by permitting interested parties to provide more input during the review process, which would help sustain patents' strong incentives for innovation and economic growth. Another HTTF target is to encourage the safeguarding of intellectual property from copyright infringement by the private sector while avoiding government regulation, and aggressively promoting the enforcement of current copyright laws as well as the legal digital distribution of copyrighted content. Shielding Americans from malicious computer activity and setting up 21st century communication laws are also on the HTTF's slate, as is improving U.S. math, science, and computer skills by re-directing federal retraining and job skills programs. Additional information can be found at http://republican.senate.gov/httf/index.cfm?FuseAction=PressReleases.Detail&PressRelease_id=66.
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  • "Feds Line Up Women for ICT Summit"
    ZDNet Australia (03/08/05)

    The Australian government has named ICT recruitment industry expert Penny Coulter to an advisory group that will help organize a Women in ICT summit this year. The summit is an effort to raise the number of women working in the ICT industry, says Senator Helen Coonan, Minister for Communications, Information Technology, and the Arts. "The government made a commitment at the last election to convene a summit involving leaders in the ICT industry and education to identify and address the barriers that may be keeping women out of the ICT sector," says Coonan. The Australian Computer Society has lauded the government for addressing the issue. "The ACS has already begun to explore this issue with interested parties and is calling for a summit to allow a range of views to be aired and further work to be commissioned," says ACS President Edward Mandla. The panel will feature a contingent from the corporate world that includes Qantas CIO Fiona Balfour, Thoughtware Australia CEO Sonja Bernhardt, Aspect Computing founder Lyndsey Cattermole, Expertise Australia Group CEO Megan Cornelius, and industry veteran Sheryle Moon. The education sector will be represented by Flinders University deputy vice-chancellor Joan Cooper, Pymble Ladies' College head of information technology Rathika Suresh, Griffith University associate professor Liisa von Hellens, and Tasmanian Department of Education manager of Web strategy Beth Warren.
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  • "Thinking Robots--Not Quite Yet"
    Yorkshire Post (03/09/05); Bond, Chris

    Sheffield University computer science professor and robotics expert Noel Sharkey doubts that conscious robots will emerge anytime soon, despite assertions from other researchers that artificial intelligence is evolving rapidly. "We are getting on incredibly well mechanically and with computers, but artificial intelligence [AI] is still not forthcoming compared to what you see in the movies," he explains. Sharkey says the current level of robotic intelligence is closer to that of a bacterium than a rat, as many scientists assert. He is also concerned by the rapid decline in the number of engineers the United Kingdom is churning out, and says remedial steps must be taken in order to compete with the huge numbers of people pursuing engineering degrees in China and India. Sharkey credits the technological superiority of Japanese robots, which can walk, run, somersault, and dance, to Japan's abundance of manufacturers with the money to develop such innovations. All the same, the Sheffield professor notes that it has taken about 50 years of research to produce such breakthroughs. He argues that "[AI is] still what I would call artificially stupid--it can do all these things but it has no capacity to think." Sharkey also points to the slow development of technologies that appear to be deceptively simple, such as vision.
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  • "Technology of Tracking"
    Washington Times (03/10/05) P. B1; Widhalm, Shelley

    Global Positioning System (GPS) and related technologies are being developed and employed to monitor the location of people, vehicles, and objects, with their accuracy and applicability determined by the technologies' limitations. The satellite-based GPS navigation system, which can triangulate a user's precise whereabouts within meters of accuracy, cannot function indoors, while Garmin International's Ted Gartner notes that a typical GPS receiver cannot be used as a tracking device because it does not transmit data. University of Maryland College Park researchers employ an alternative approach with Horus, a navigational and positioning system that uses wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) access points to facilitate indoor tracking. "Horus measures the signal's strength that it's getting from the access points in an area and, based on that, determines its location," explains system developer and professor Ashok Agrawala, director of the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies' Maryland Information and Network Dynamics (MIND) Lab. Agrawala is also developing another system, Pinpoint, that uses portable access points to track people and objects in areas without Wi-Fi. The nodes will broadcast signals back and forth and to another node affixed to the object or person to be monitored, using the distance measured to ascertain location. GPS receivers can help track people and vehicles when they are integrated with transmitters; one such deployment is a Nextel Communications system for tracking 1,300 school buses in the Prince George's County School District through the use of built-in GPS-enabled cell phones that monitor each bus' location and speed and transmit that data to the transportation department in real time. GPS is also being used by the Virginia Cooperative Extension office in Arlington County to map diverse species of invasive plants.
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  • "UF's Virtual Reality 'Patient' Teaches Bedside Manners to Medical Students"
    University of Florida News (03/02/05)

    Improving doctors' patient interview skills is the goal behind DIgital ANimated Avatar (DIANA), a virtual patient devised by University of Florida researchers as an educational tool medical students can use to practice asking questions that lead to better diagnosis, as well as learn more subtle ways of communicating, such as through eye contact and gestures. DIANA is a life-sized image of a young Caucasian woman that is projected onto a wall along with a simulated doctor's office. Users wear headsets to communicate with the avatar, don LED pointer-equipped gloves so the system can track gestures, and take notes with a digital notepad. The system responds to keywords and phrases and is designed to participate in highly structured conversations. Computer science professor Benjamin Lok, the project's lead researcher, says doctors interacted with DIANA more naturally then they did with regular computer programs during the testing phase. DIANA was tested by seven medical students last August and by another 20 in December; by that time, the avatar's average realism and usefulness rating was almost equal to that of the live actors usually used to train students. Lok notes that though the virtual patient can look up when addressed, look down during pauses in conversation, and extend her arm to get a handshake, there are still other communicative gestures--body language, hand gestures, etc.--that the system is not yet equipped to handle. However, he says virtual patients will one day permit students to participate in an almost infinite range of interview models accounting for variances in medical conditions, race, gender, and age.
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  • "A New Paradigm of Human Computer Interaction"
    University of Massachusetts Amherst (03/01/05)

    In her capacity as Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs' (MERL) senior research scientist and associate director, University of Massachusetts graduate Chia Shen is supervising the research and development of tabletop computer systems that support multiple-user interaction. Shen notes that a tabletop display of a conventional window system inhibits user interaction, and she and Dr. Frederic Vernier, her post-doc, have devised the DiamondSpin Java tool kit to address this problem. DiamondSpin enables displayed documents to be flexibly rotated and translated, allowing users seated at any side of the table to view those documents and objects from an agreeable perspective, as well as pass these items between each other by sliding their finger across the display's surface. Another system being developed under Shen's tenure is ExpressiveTouch, a tabletop for integrating bimanual input techniques. Designing a practical ExpressiveTouch system depends on understanding the operational relationship, balance, and symmetry between the user's dominant and non-dominant hand. "The research question is not how to replicate today's desktop computing on tabletops and electronic walls, but is to ask what are the potentials of these interactive surfaces, what are the appropriate and effective interaction techniques and user interface metaphors for them," Shen explains. A third system Shen's group is focusing on is UbiTable (Ubiquitous Table), a display and interaction surface that facilitates the transfer of documents between personal devices while also making those documents irretrievable once the session ends; a related project, DiamondSpace, seeks to create an interactive room with multiple digital surfaces using the UbiTable concept. Human-computer interaction forums where Shen's work has been published and presented include UbiComp and the Association for Computing Machinery's CHI forum.
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  • "UML Integration Reaches Impressive Degree"
    eWeek (03/07/05) Vol. 22, No. 10, P. D6; Coffee, Peter

    Unified Modeling Language (UML) offers software architects, developers, and business process owners the ability to manage both high-level workflows and lower-level implementation details. Supporting collaborative software requires a number of "right-brain" tasks, such as identifying relationships, ensuring proper understanding, and fostering group commitment to goals; but those aims are achieved through "left-brain" formalisms, specification languages, modeling interface definitions, software asset libraries, and collaboration environments. UML is becoming more popular as a common notation for collaborative software projects, but developers need to be careful about UML representation, since non-UML experts can easily misunderstand something that would have been clear to UML experts--navigation arrows, for instance, are often mistaken for flows in graphical representations. Developers should keep in mind different methods of expressing meaning in UML diagrams and choose the easiest understood option. UML tool integration provides more tightly coupled interaction between diagrams and conventional source code views, especially in end-to-end object-oriented Java environments such as Borland's JBuilder, Oracle's JDeveloper, and Sun Microsystems' Java Studio Enterprise. Those tools offer interface definitions that help developers protect collaborators' code when refining implementations. Bertrand Meyer's Eiffel programming language takes the concept even further with "programming by contract," where conditions are verified between modules. UML diagramming and assertion-based verification included in the tool set boost developer productivity, since they can apply those disciplines without leaving the flow.
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  • "The Dark Side--Looming Threats for the Future of IT"
    Computerworld (03/07/05) P. 36; Anthes, Gary H.

    A group of panelists convened by Computerworld to discuss threats to IT's future finds software quality, notorious for its unreliability, complexity, and insecurity, to be the most pressing issue. Network Services CIO Michael Hugos says the major software vendors are the root cause of poor software quality, and he and other panelists foresee a comeuppance on the horizon. "There is a great pent-up demand for alternatives, and now, thanks to open-source software and commodity IT platforms, there are beginning to be industrial-strength alternatives to the products of the big software vendors," notes Hugos. Panelist and IT consultant Paul Strassman predicts the software quality issue will spur users to demand performance guarantees and warranties from vendors, while Meta Group analyst Howard Rubin expects application service providers and other third parties to be goaded into offering guarantees because their economies of scale make them better positioned to address security and reliability issues. CSC research director David Moschella says end users will not remain idle, as their increasingly refined IT use will compel them to explore sources of help outside of corporate IT. "They will look to the Internet and wireless worlds and will find an abundance of inexpensive and easy-to-use services...[that] will be competitive and even superior to the offerings of corporate IT," he predicts. The panelists cited other issues that have a bearing on the future of IT, including information security and the erosion of U.S. tech leadership to overseas rivals; continued confusion from executives battered by the economic downturn, 9/11, and other calamities over the part IT plays in competitive advantage; a stifling of creativity and innovation because of IT's domination by a few large vendors; and a "cyberwar" that targets critical online infrastructure.
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  • "Missing the Boat, or Penny-Wise Caution?"
    Chronicle of Higher Education (03/11/05) Vol. 51, No. 27, P. A33; Kiernan, Vincent

    Most American colleges are practicing a waiting game when it comes to upgrading their networks to Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), in keeping with critics' view that a gradual adoption is cheaper and less disruptive in the long run than a mad-dash transition. Advocates claim IPv6 will resolve a looming Internet address shortage that threatens to impede the ubiquitous spread of Net connectivity by making accommodations for vastly more unique Internet addresses; other purported IPv6 benefits include better security features, and guarantees that high-priority online activity will not be brushed aside by lower-priority traffic. Critics counter that the address crisis is not due for a long time, and American institutions are already enjoying a surplus of IPv4 addresses because they had the foresight to be embrace the Internet early on. Installing IPv6 on a campus network is a three-step process: The first step, linking the campus network to the rest of the Internet via IPv6, can be a challenge because not all ISPs handle IPv6 traffic; campus computing officials claim the second step of configuring desktop computers for IPv6 is simple and cheap since computers running Microsoft Windows XP or Apple OS X are already IPv6-enabled; step three, configuring and debugging the IPv6 setup, may constitute the biggest challenge for campus computing technicians. Institutions that have deployed IPv6 are usually research institutions, and the few U.S. colleges that are moving to implement the new protocol are doing so at the urging of researchers, which is sporadic. IPv6 boosters maintain that colleges will realize the need for an upgrade sooner or later. New applications, distance education, and access to online international research and collaboration are all factors driving to move up to IPv6.

  • "Taming Your Tech"
    U.S. News & World Report (03/14/05) Vol. 138, No. 9, P. 48; LaGesse, David

    Technology is often a source of frustration for users because of complexity, unreliability, and an overemphasis on frills, but analysts report that entire industries appear to be returning to a simpler and friendlier design paradigm, which could build enough brand loyalty to offset the higher cost of such products. Manufacturers add bells and whistles to differentiate their products in an increasingly competitive marketplace, but these extras, though initially welcomed by consumers, appear to add to the products' complexity while lowering performance. "We're all trapped in an economic myth that more is better," notes MIT media arts and sciences professor John Maeda. Apple's iPod music player is an example of simply designed, easy-to-use technology that broke from competing products that frustrated users with multiple buttons thanks to elements such as its uncomplicated navigation wheel. Usability consultant Donald Norman of the Nielsen Norman Group attributes Apple's ability to operate without an internal user-design team to the company's relatively small size, and to a deeply rooted cultural priority on good design. The iPod's success is a reflection of a migration toward embedded computing that spans the entire tech industry. Friendlier PCs are also being developed, an example being IBM ThinkPad laptops equipped with secure equipment that helps the system recover from crashes.
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  • "Our Frankenputer"
    Forbes (03/14/05) Vol. 175, No. 5, P. 64; Ross, Philip E.

    Philip E. Ross writes that PCs are insecure because they were not designed with security in mind; PCs prioritize economy and convenience over security and thus incorporate software and data in memory together. Microsoft Research senior researcher Jonathan Pincus supports the separation of data and software via virtualization. VMware recently released a new PC software package that allows employees to work in a software "environment" that is independent from the rest of the PC. Though software companies are partly responsible for the insecurity of PCs, customers are also culpable for failing to think ahead, says SRI Computer Science Lab principal scientist Peter G. Neumann. Ross suggests that malware's virulence could be mitigated if software companies phase out the Windows-on-Intel monoculture in favor of more diverse products. Vulnerabilities stemming from the monoculture have prompted many software customers to consider open-source products such as the Firefox browser and the Linux operating system, although the latter's highly-touted immunity to malware is in doubt. Nevertheless, Linux proponents still cite the open source model for building in security, and Red Hat's Mark Cox notes that when malicious programs attack, "there's competition as well as collaboration to produce patches." Meanwhile, Carnegie Mellon University's CyLab is pursuing a way to preserve PCs' interoperability while modifying memory and data registers so no two machines are identical as a defensive measure against worms that proliferate by exploiting a single vulnerability.
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  • "Nano's Road to the Future"
    Small Times (02/05) Vol. 5, No. 1, P. 24; Karoub, Jeff

    The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), now entering its fifth year, has been a rousing success thus far: It has served as an inspiration for at least 40 similar programs, has come out ahead of some objectives while keeping pace with others, and, most critically, has cultivated true collaboration among the 22 federal agencies involved in the program. The importance of nanotech to the government was validated in December 2003 with President Bush's approval of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, which authorized a four-year grant of $3.7 billion for R&D, public hearings, expert advisory panels, and a center for examining nanotech's social, environmental, and ethical implications. James Murday with the Naval Research Laboratory's chemistry division reports that this "recognizes the fact that [the NNI] truly is a national effort--not a Democratic effort, not a Republican effort--it is a national effort." However, the fiscal 2005 spending bill calls for significant budget cuts in the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other agencies, even as experts such as NSF senior advisor and chief NNI architect Mike Roco call for additional funding to facilitate the transition from basic research to application development in such fields as electronics and pharmaceuticals. They also cite the need for more federal/industry partnerships, as government research alone cannot support application development. The United States is lagging behind many other nations in the cultivation of such alliances. Roco and colleagues expect federal agencies to continue to support nano, even in the face of declining budgets, because they are convinced that the return on investment is greater for them.
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