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Volume 8, Issue 895:  January 30, 2006

  • "What Happened to the Robot Age?"
    BBC News (01/27/06); Duffy, Jonathan

    Sony's disbanding of its robot development team is emblematic of the failed promise of the much-anticipated robotic age, where automated domestic servants would handle the household chores, promising the housewife a life of luxury, and manufacturing would be revolutionized by robotic assembly line workers. While self-guiding lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners are now readily available, their advantages over human labor are marginal at best. Honda has developed the Asimo robot, which can run, climb stairs, and greet people, though it is still in the research stages. Sony's Aibo robot dog was actually brought to market, though after a six-year run, the company will discontinue Aibo when it eliminates the rest of its robotics division. After 20 years of unrealized potential, roboticists are rethinking their approach. A team of researchers at the University of Hertfordshire is approaching the field from a social perspective, noting that packing robots full of raw intelligence may enable them to defeat the world's top chess players, but it does not equip them to form complex relationships, which has now become a widely used measure of human intelligence. Roboticists are now taking a multi-disciplinary approach, working with developers on the technical side as well as psychologists and sociologists. The Hertfordshire researchers are examining issues such as personal space and the best manner for a robot to approach a human to get his attention. "We've this notion of the personalized robot companion and we are seriously looking into people's likes and dislikes and how they can be useful to people," said artificial intelligence professor Kerstin Dautenhahn. The researchers have also found that while most people do not object to robots wandering through their homes, a fair minority is unnerved by their presence, which will be as significant an obstacle for developers to overcome as the technical aspects impeding the widespread adoption of robots.
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  • "Microsoft Would Put Poor Online by Cellphone"
    New York Times (01/30/06) P. C1; Markoff, John

    Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and CTO Craig Mundie support the concept of giving poor people in Third World countries Internet access and computing capability via cell phones. Microsoft is exploring this possibility after an apparent falling-out with MIT Media Laboratory founder Nicholas Negroponte, who proposed cheap laptop computers but elected to use open-source software rather than Microsoft's Windows. Mundie says though he thinks Negroponte's project is a worthy ambition, "We have a lot of concerns about the sustainability of his approach." Negroponte has said he is open to the idea of constructing a low-cost computer using a cell phone, but decided that a laptop was more practical. Some business and development policy experts have cited the cost of Internet connectivity as a possible hindrance to Negroponte's plan, but Negroponte said the ability of laptops to connect automatically in a mesh network would address networking costs. The Media Lab researchers intend to propose the establishment of a standard to permit cheap, educational use of wireless network capacity at an upcoming conference of the international consortium that supervises GSM for cell phones. Negroponte explained that this concept involves laptops sending and receiving Internet data only when no transmission of higher-paying commercial data is taking place.
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  • "The Future of Computing: PC PCs"
    SciScoop (01/27/06)

    While many computers have the ability to see and hear, they cannot interpret their user's mood, though researchers at CeBIT 2006 will present techniques to address that very issue. Recent studies have demonstrated that user abuse of computers is a serious problem, and that if computers were able to read emotions, they could respond accordingly. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics identified peripheral physiological processes as the indicator of a person's emotional state, some of which can be recognized by a camera endowed with image analysis software, such as slouching, fidgeting, or frowning. The researchers have created a glove with sensors to measure more subtle mood indicators, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature. The glove links to a device that stores the data, and the researchers are also exploring techniques to facilitate computer recognition of emotions embedded in facial expressions and voice signals, though interpretation of data that are inherently subjective and vague remains a challenge. Nevertheless, the researchers have successfully trained computers to synthesize the data, and will present their findings at the CeBIT 2006, held from March 9-15 in Hanover.
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  • "Blindfolding Big Brother, Sort Of"
    Technology Review (01/30/06); Greene, Kate

    In a recent interview, IBM's Jeff Jonas discussed his controversial Anonymous Resolution software, a cross-referencing technology that can match individuals between different databases. Whereas a bank or other institution would normally send encrypted customer data to a database marketing company for analysis, Jonas' approach goes a step beyond encryption and anonymizes the data, assigning a nonreversible numeric value to each piece of personal information that cannot be calculated by running the math backwards. Traditionally, the database marketer would have to decrypt the information to analyze it, then encrypt it again to transmit it back to the original entity, though if the database company is the victim of internal corruption or a security breech, the data are imperiled. The Anonymous Resolution system enables the original entity to share information with the database marketer simply by linking their two databases with common identifiers, so that the information is never decrypted. Currently, the system is used principally by governments seeking to facilitate internal communication, such as various divisions within a law enforcement agency trying to determine if their investigations overlap. The particular encryption method that the software employs, known as one-way hash, is extremely sensitive, and it was a challenge for Jonas to overcome subtle differences in the way identities are expressed, such as upper and lower cases and middle initials. Jonas reports that he spends roughly 40 percent of his time addressing privacy and civil liberties issues concerning the contents of government watch lists and the creation of an immutable audit log, which would help ensure that those with access to the lists are not manipulating them of using them for personal or frivolous applications.
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  • "Optical Race"
    HPC Wire (01/27/06) Vol. 15, No. 4; Ricker, Kathleen

    The data requirements of researchers and industry developers always outpace the advance of technology, which, despite operating in the terabyte range, is now expected to facilitate real-time transmission of vast datasets to geographically diffuse areas. By establishing a scheme of dynamically controllable optical networks, the NSF-funded OptIPuter seeks to bring middleware to end-user software so that researchers can access data over the Lambda Grid's fiber-optic cables, linking research sites such as TRECC, NCSA, UCSD, and EVL at UIC. EVL and TRECC are partnering to extend the Continuum at TRECC program to make the site an OptIPuter node. "They should be extremely display-rich environments, with the ability to wallpaper a high-definition video stream and high-resolution visualization content, and to be able to work collaboratively with this data over distance," EVL's Jason Leigh said of the OptIPuter collaboration environments. Leigh devotes considerable attention to the future of visual display, so that researchers throughout the world have a common interface. To this end, Leigh developed the Scalable Adaptive Graphics Environment (SAGE), which enables people to break free from the limitations of a desktop mouse and interact with a wall-sized display, effectively digitizing the bulletin boards and Post-it notes that currently adorn the walls of most research environments. The six-tiled screen produces different images for the left and right eyes, which together combine into a single three-dimensional image.
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  • "Looking for Innovation in the East, Where the Engineering Pool Is Deep"
    BusinessWeek (12/12/05); Edmondson, Gail

    Central Europe has become a hot spot for high-tech companies that are looking for college graduates with degrees in computer science and engineering. According to a new survey from Ernst & Young International of approximately 17,000 foreign direct-investment projects, European companies plan to make 38 percent of their total investments in R&D in Central Europe. Microsoft, Nokia, and Intel saw the potential of the region as a hub for R&D as early as the mid-1990s because of its talented students, and local commitments to improving infrastructure, reforming economies, and joining the European Union after 2000 made it even more attractive to the industry. Poland has claimed about 25 tech and research-related investments, and is particularly attractive because its universities are graduating 55,000 students a year in math, science, computing, and engineering. IBM will be the latest to join the likes of Motorola, Capgemini, and Delphi near Krakow, which has three universities within a 100-kilometer radius. Siemens has about 500 telecom-software and systems-software engineers at its Wroclaw R&D center. "Where R&D goes, innovation and growth follow," says Dalia Marin, an economics professor at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Nonetheless, the region could fall out of favor as an R&D hub if wages rise too quickly, according to some observers.
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  • "RFID-Tagged Driverless Cars on Roads by 2056" (01/26/06); McCue, Andy

    High-tech cities with unmanned vehicles similar to those appearing in the film "Minority Report" is one of the scenarios that the Foresight think tank envisions for the U.K. transportation infrastructure over the next 50 years. A new report by the government agency suggests that the use of RFID tracking tags, embedded sensors, GPS technology, 4G networks, Wi-Fi, and artificial intelligence could transform the transportation infrastructure into an "intelligent infrastructure." The technologies could create a "network cloud" that could be used to manage traffic and the speed of vehicles, which could ultimately help to unclog the roadways. Such an intelligent infrastructure would be in line with the road-user charging strategy of U.K. officials. "Vehicles will incorporate hundreds of network nodes to manage fuel efficiency, security, passenger monitoring and passenger comfort, as well as inter-vehicle distances and optimal vehicle speeds," according to the think tank. The report also notes that other technology-related trends such as teleworking will have an impact on motorway travel in the years to come.
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  • "In Grids We Trust"
    IST Results (01/26/06)

    Endowing objects with information about their origins and histories that can be managed and relayed within distributed networks will engender a new level of confidence in computers, which is the central mission of the EU Provenance project. This information is critical in medicine, science, and supply management, as well as many other environments where researchers need to trace the origin of a certain result. The Provenance project attempts to streamline data transmission among users at different locations in a grid by creating trusted mechanisms for data verification, enabling users to inspect the processes that created a particular result and ensure that all regulatory issues were addressed. The project developed a set of requirements governing the logical architecture, which addresses the mechanisms for recording, maintaining, and analyzing process documentation, as well as process architecture, which concerns security and scalability. The project's architecture is generic, and can translate into a real-world application through interactions with experts to meet the expected domain applications. The logical architecture that the researchers are currently implementing will serve as a model for applications in organ transplant management and aerospace engineering. "We also are developing a methodology that will facilitate the development of provenance-aware systems in other domains," said the project's Steve Munroe. "Furthermore, we aim to develop preliminary standardization proposals for provenances systems to submit to the relevant standardization bodies." Eventually, the information about an object's history will be managed in a grid system.
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  • "Spintronics Is Focus of Zutic's Work"
    University at Buffalo Reporter (01/26/06) Vol. 37, No. 18; Keltz, Jessica

    As a recent addition to the University at Buffalo's physics department, Igor Zutic will bring a focus on the underdeveloped field of spintronics. Zutic will join fellow spintronics researcher Bruce McCombe, Buffalo's SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Physics. Holding the potential to power a host of technologies that are beyond the reach of traditional electronics, spintronics capitalizes on the spin of an electron as a novel way to express binary information. Spin, which can either move in the up or down direction, is responsible for the electron's magnetism. If used effectively, spintronics could lead to smaller devices that consume less power, because they would retain their magnetic properties even if their power source was cut off. Zutic notes that magnetic hard drives only scratch the surface of the capability of spintronics, as lofty projects such as spin-based computers and transistors have largely been ignored. The magnetic materials for spin-based devices would have to be able to function at room temperature, as heat disrupts the symmetry of spintronics and undermines the effectiveness of the technology, though Zutic allows that "spintronic research still offers many surprises. I anticipate that it will be possible to find a material in which by heating it up, you can actually strengthen or promote magnetism." At Buffalo, Zutic will investigate the fundamentals of the phenomenon, as well new potential applications. Intel and IBM have already expressed interest in his work, and he has received grants from the U.S. Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation.
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  • "Panel: Cybercrime Will Grow in 2006"
    Federal Computer Week (01/25/06); Arnone, Michael

    Federal cybersecurity experts at a Washington, D.C. discussion on cybersecurity crime, sponsored by Symantec, said cybercrime will increase dramatically this year and have more incidents than in 2005, which can be attributed to the desire to make a profit, rather than fame. Criminals are now going after retirement and 401(K) accounts, says the U.S. Secret Service's Larry Johnson. Symantec's Art Wong says that in the next 12 to 18 months, more cyber attacks will be driven by financial gain with an emphasis on creating malware, bot networks, and other harmful tools that are designed to take down a network. Wong advises consumers to educate themselves on the dangerous environment to avoid becoming victims. Andy Purdy at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expects criminals to eventually move from committing financial crimes to attacking critical infrastructure and government operations. Purdy says the DHS has released a revised draft version of the National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP) to help protect the nation's cyber infrastructure. "It's important to realize that there is a tendency to think we know what we're supposed to do," says Purdy. "As attacks become more sophisticated, we need more-sophisticated defenses."
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  • "The Future of Business Communications"
    Network World (01/25/06); Greene, Tim

    The future of business communications could look less like a strict division between voice and data and more like a collection of communications components that can be blended with business applications as needed, according to two opening day keynote addresses at the Internet Telephony conference Tuesday. According to keynote speakers Bill Rich of PingTel and Eric Shepcaro of AT&T, instead of considering VoIP as a separate communications function that happens to run over an IP network, voice itself will become just a tool that may or may not be useful within applications. Rich added that he foresaw corporate communications becoming more broadly controlled than it is now, with most communications directed by groups of SIP proxy servers and presence servers that establish communication paths through business networks and publish information about how individuals are connected to the network. As a result, businesses will lose the sense of a PBX as a free-standing device, and will instead consider VoIP and its features as simply applications and features that can be blended with other applications to produce needed services. According to Rich, a simple example would be enabling business applications with presence information so a worker who spends most of the day working in a finance application would not have to activate a separate application to communicate with a colleague about the work they are doing. Presence information about colleagues would be displayed in the finance application, and users would have the ability to contact them via voice, video, instant messaging, or email. Rich said open source software will be a key element in bringing about the more open communications architecture he described. With free code for the essential elements of the architecture, businesses that want to develop integrated business/communications applications can do so less expensively and more quickly.
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  • "System Lets People Use Computer Just by Thinking"
    Nikkei Weekly (01/23/06) Vol. 44, No. 2218, P. 17

    Researchers at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (Riken) have created a computer operating system that can read a user's brain waves and manipulate the cursor accordingly. An electroencephalograph, which monitors the electrical activity of the brain, and roughly 200 electrodes placed on a user's head link to software that synthesizes the data and moves the cursor. Though brain waves are typically created by an action such as speech or movement, people can be trained to trigger that same brain activity simply by intending to perform an action. The Riken team expects the research to improve the accessibility of computers for handicapped people. The researchers matched each signal to appear from moving a part of the body with a particular movement of the cursor. This way, a user's intention to move his right hand would consistently move the cursor in the same direction. When conducting tests of people who had been trained to produce brain waves merely by intending to make a motion, the researchers reported that the cursor moved at an accuracy rate of 70 percent to 80 percent.

  • "Freedom Fighter"
    InformationWeek (01/23/06) No. 1073, P. 54; Jones, K.C.

    Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman has drawn both praise and criticism with his fervent crusade against what he calls unfair restrictions, which cover areas that include patents, copyrights, the tracking of people with radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, and "digital-restrictions management." In a recent lecture at Cooper Union, Stallman argued for the direct and voluntary exchange of music and money by artists and fans over the Web in an effort to counter laws that show preference for the major music companies. He has also refused to use a cell phone until a model that works entirely on free software--and thus incapable of being tracked--is rolled out. Stallman views free software and open-source software as two separate things. Stallman's many accomplishments include the founding of the GNU project and the authoring of the GNU Emacs text editor, the GNU C Compiler, and the GNU Debugger. He earned a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, is the recipient of ACM's 1990 Grace Murray Hopper Award, and has won awards from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Takeda Foundation.
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  • "Patent 'Reform' Movement"
    eWeek (01/23/06) Vol. 23, No. 4, P. 56; Rapoza, Jim

    EWeek Labs director Jim Rapoza is disappointed by proposed reforms from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and writes that they "are a step in the right direction, but...a far cry from real reform." In fact, he argues that the proposals do not even come halfway in terms of software patent reforms. Rapoza says the USPTO suggestions primarily emphasize implementing processes for identifying bad patents. This is not a bad idea, as it would make it less difficult to track such patents and give examiners solid tools to distinguish between good and bad patent submissions; but there is a critical absence of incentives or provisions that would force examiners to use the tools. Patent experts also note that examiners are pressured to rush most submissions through because of a heavy workload, while true patent reform would dramatically reduce the amount of patents the USPTO processes, and thus the amount of money the office collects from application fees. Rapoza says the proposal's biggest deficit is its lack of any solution to the overarching problem of business method patents, which he thinks should be eliminated entirely.
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  • "Innovation Envy"
    Red Herring (01/30/06) Vol. 3, No. 3, P. 40

    Governments that attempt to recreate an industry cluster similar to Silicon Valley or a thriving biotechnology cluster such as the one found in the Research Triangle in North Carolina will not necessarily fail, which is the prevailing belief. New research from the Harvard Business School, the Cluster Mapping Project of professor Michael Porter, suggests otherwise. The formation of a cluster, the creation of high-wage jobs, and the benefits enjoyed by the local community are more of a static nature. Many areas around the world are working to develop the right mix of innovation, expertise, and capital that gave rise to clusters such as Silicon Valley. In October, the European Software Association announced plans to create a "virtual Silicon Valley," while Israel is focusing on nanotechnology. Oregon's "Silicon Forest" initiative in 1990s, while only somewhat successful, left the state with an advanced fiber-optic infrastructure that the state is now using to build a biotechnology cluster. Texas is building on its information technology base to develop technologies to boost the state's other industries. "This is an evolutionary process, and being a successful cluster, like Silicon Valley--that's not the end of it," says Christian Ketels, principal associate at Harvard's Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, who oversees some of the project. "Some people thought that because of globalization, clusters would disperse, but instead what we see is that existing clusters become more specialized, and more focused on specific things that create value and employment." For example, in biopharma, New York and New Jersey are leaders in employment, but the region is not the hub for innovation. Ketels adds that the key is sound planning in linking what a region already does to what it is trying to do.

  • "Scribes of the Digital Era"
    Chronicle of Higher Education (01/27/06) Vol. 52, No. 21, P. A34; Young, Jeffrey R.

    The nonprofit Internet Archive led by Brewster Kahle has begun a digital library project called the Open Content Alliance that is looking at the world's resources of post-copyright books and plans to make them available as free e-books to scholars and readers at Begun in October 2005, the Internet Archive-led project is backed by Microsoft and Yahoo! and has 34 contributing libraries. The project uses a special scanner partially built by Internet Archive called "The Scribe" that keeps scanning costs down, and the Internet Archive charges libraries 10 cents per page to scan. Right now two scanners are working on material from the University of California and two are at the University of Toronto. Meanwhile, Google is scanning every book from five major libraries, including from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, to be viewable at Google's project includes copyright material against the chagrin and potential lawsuits of publishers. "The Scribe" from the Internet Archive resembles a photo booth in which two cameras photograph a page that is raised to press against a pane of glass by a foot pedal; the machine in good hands scans 500 pages per hour. An e-book from can be printed and bound by a print-on-demand company for a fee, and optional fee services may be appended to these free e-books in the near future. Kahle says the digital form gives books new life, and the Internet Archive has developed an on-screen interface for the e-books for easy reading and searching. Eventually, versions in large print and Braille should be available, as well as the ability to download them to cell phones and PDAs. Meanwhile, some library participants are also working on digitizing films to add to the shared online library, and others are working on digitizing hard-to-capture materials such as manuscripts and documents that are not in book form.
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  • "U.S. Innovation Not Hurt by Expanding Foreign Research"
    Computerworld (01/23/06) P. 16; Ribiero, John

    In an interview with IDG News Service last week, Microsoft executive Rick Rashid said opening research labs around the world will not necessarily hurt U.S. innovation because innovation has always had a global nature and that will likely continue. Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research, said he does not look at Ph.D.s returning to their home countries as a blow to U.S. innovation because opening labs overseas allows him to hire the best people in India, China, or elsewhere. In Bangalore for a research conference hosted by Microsoft's lab in India, Rashid said hiring the best talent is the reason for opening new labs and not for help in building products for local markets. He said Microsoft is involved in 55 different areas of research, including computer vision, image editing, graphics, 3D imagery, software engineering technologies, and non-core computer science work such as AIDS research. And he added that he has a team that focuses on finding ways to integrate the research into technology. "Almost everything I can think of that we have done has wound up in some product at some point," said Rashid.
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  • "E-Waste Epidemic"
    Government Technology (01/06) Vol. 19, No. 1, P. 32; Watkins, Sherry

    As the junkpile of electronic waste continues to grow, U.S. legislators are looking for environmentally safe and economically sound solutions, while private industry is split on the best way to tackle the problem. Some states have enacted their own e-waste management legislation, but divergent state laws concerning how manufacturers contribute financially can make compliance difficult for global manufacturers; a federally mandated national system could mitigate or eliminate this confusion. California law funds recycling programs through advanced recovery fees charged to consumers upon purchasing electronics, while the state of Maryland holds both local government and manufacturers responsible. In Maine, e-waste collection and transportation to consolidation centers is financed by manufacturers and performed by municipalities, and the consolidation centers must prepare the waste for shipment to recycling facilities and assign each device to a specific manufacturer to ensure appropriate billing. Natural Resources Council of Maine staff attorney Jon Hinck says the manufacturer responsibility model encourages manufacturers to improve product design and reduce waste costs, but he expects some manufacturers to oppose such measures. Director of Hewlett-Packard's Americas Products Take Back program Renee St. Denis says California's consumer responsibility model is flawed because the rules that e-waste collectors and recyclers must follow are not rigorously enforced, while bureaucracy and administrative difficulties also complicate things. Educating members of Congress and their staff about e-waste management and disposal issues and investigating the federal government's responsibility in this regard is the goal of the bipartisan Congressional E-Waste Working Group, reports Goodwill federal affairs manager Jay Hutchins.
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  • "Recognition Engines"
    Scientific American (01/06) Vol. 294, No. 1, P. 80; Stix, Gary

    Researchers at IBM Zurich have created a general-purpose, readily programmable stream processor that can accommodate multiple networking applications that are not easily applied to parallel processing. IBM Zurich's Jan van Lunteren and Ton Engbersen have invented a "pattern-matching" engine for spotting viruses, spam, and other shady applications, and the Balanced Routing Table hash function van Lunteren developed to make data routing more efficient plays an instrumental role in the stream processor. The researchers based the processor on the concept of the finite-state machine, which processes data streams by concurrently matching every input character against many different characters indicative of a specific item--spam, for example--stored in memory. Most CPUs, however, use the von Neumann architecture, in which the machine must assess the characters in its memory one at a time. Van Lunteren and Engbersen's stream processor design employs a state diagram in which circular nodes represent states, and connections between nodes represent shifts between states; IBM's finite-state machine allows for a given state connecting to more than two nodes. Van Lunteren reported at the Hot Chips conference in August that there is a significant improvement in the performance of streaming applications when a finite-state machine is applied to them. IBM's machine can process characters for viruses, spam, and other applications 10 to 100 times faster than conventional processors, while its hardware can retain as many as 25,000 characters in less than 100 KB, a mere fraction of the storage requirements for some other finite-state machines.

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