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Volume 4, Issue 395: Friday, September 6, 2002

  • "Tech Firms Urged to Aid Security Efforts"
    CNet (09/05/02); McCullagh, Declan

    Speaking to attendees of the InfoWarCon conference on Thursday, Phyllis Schneck of the FBI's InfraGard program declared that technology companies will be better protected from cyberattacks if they have closer relationships with federal agents. Most of the attendees agreed that legislators and CEOs have become more willing to invest in stronger electronic security as a result of Sept. 11. "The best strategy for defending against attacks requires the cultivation of an alert network, both government and businesses," explained Bracewell and Patterson's Jill Warren, who once was the assistant attorney general for Texas. The prioritization of cyberterrorism following the attacks prompted mandates for additional authority for law enforcement, which stirred up civil libertarians who criticized such measures as an invasion of privacy. Philip Lago of the CIA said that some laws can actually inhibit intelligence-gathering. InfraGard unites the FBI, the National Infrastructure Protection Center, private firms, state and local law enforcement, and universities under one banner so they can share information. "Secure" InfraGard members are subjected to detailed background checks, and Schneck noted she is pushing for such investigations to be extended to all members. She added that InfraGard members who travel frequently are urged to report any suspicious activity they witness to the FBI.

  • "Web May Hold the Key to Achieving Artificial Intelligence"
    Washington Post (09/06/02) P. A1; Cha, Ariana Eunjung; Drezen, Richard A.

    The controversy over artificial intelligence and how the Internet could shape it has been re-ignited by the advent of "chatterbots" such as Active Buddy's SmarterChild, a marketing tool that can "talk" to people via real-time text messages and answer questions by tapping into the Web's vast informational resources. A few such bots have progressed to the point that they can pass the Turing test and convince people they are actually human. Some experts worry that the ultimate goal of turning the Internet into a "global brain" by developing the technology further would give computers too much information and power, and lead to a "hive mind" that erodes freedom and individual expression. However, several challenges must be solved before such a goal is even possible: Computers cannot easily read Web pages, and lack common sense. World Wide Web Consortium director Tim Berners-Lee is trying to overcome the first problem by leading an effort to link keywords and tags to text, sounds, and images. Meanwhile, Push Singh of MIT's Media Lab and others are trying to solve the common sense problem by building a "knowledge base" in which volunteers contribute observations about commonsense behavior. At the Free University of Brussels, scientists are leading an international initiative to make computers understand how humans access data online, thus allowing them to comprehend the interactions between people, objects, and concepts. The work was pioneered by Old Dominion University's Johan Bollen, who conceived of a program that studies how people seek out information, and then streamlines the process.

  • "A Theory of Evolution, for Robots"
    Wired News (09/05/02); Sandhana, Lakshmi

    Chalmers Institute of Technology researchers Krister Wolff and Peter Nordin have conceived of a winged robot that can learn how to fly on its own; such a design circumvents scientists' own lack of knowledge about the mechanics of flight. The robot's creators turned to genetic programming to generate the instructions fed into the machine that helps it learn how to lift off. After being assessed, the most successful liftoff instructions were paired up, while randomly swapping instructions between these optimal pairs sired next-generation "offspring" commands that were transmitted to the robot. Techniques that the robot has learned include standing on its wings, pulling itself up by grasping convenient objects, and a more effective flapping methodology. The University of Reading's David Corne explains that evolutionary computation is key to solving control problems, such as what sequences of movements will allow a robot that is heavier than air to lift off and stay airborne. Meanwhile, engineering difficulties--the fast and flexible movement of joints--also need to be solved. The barrier to developing effective flying robots is a lack of funding for testing designs so that improved models can be developed, according to Corne. Nordin believes that such robots could be in operation within three years if enough funding is provided, and he also says that such research is important if better-performing aircraft are to be developed.

  • "Give and Take"
    ABCNews.com (09/04/02); Shipman, Claire; Gahagan, Kendra

    A government-funded IT training program at San Jose's Evergreen Valley College has been targeted for dissolution by President Bush's budget team, which describes it as "ineffective." Funding for the program is provided by the fees American companies pay so they can secure more H-1B visas for foreign professionals, its purpose being to train American workers in order to reduce dependence on overseas tech help. Participating employers say the program's domestic graduates, most of whom hail from minority and underprivileged San Jose-area communities, are especially valuable, in light of the tech implosion and the increasing difficulty firms face in justifying additional foreign labor. But administration officials such as assistant labor secretary Emily Stover DeRocco argue that the initiative's performance numbers have been small compared to the $196 million in grants that has been invested. They further contend that there have not been wide-scale hirings of the program's graduates, nor has the need for foreign visa workers been reduced. In addition, officials claim there are much more successful training programs. Evergreen Valley College's Henry Estrada, who teaches the training course, insists that the program is worthwhile: He notes, for instance, that every student has graduated, and almost 50 percent of graduates have been hired by high-tech companies. In addition, he estimates that it only costs the government $5,000 for each student, while the benefits to graduates are even more valuable.
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  • "Britain's Curb on Hiring Overseas Techies Slammed"
    Siliconindia Online (09/05/02)

    Indian experts are worried about restrictions Britain recently imposed on the hiring of foreign IT workers. Since Sept. 2, all British firms have been required to advertise IT job openings to the domestic work force before considering overseas candidates, per a directive from Work Permits U.K. British Home Minister Bob Ainsworth said the new restrictions are designed to strike a balance between ensuring enough jobs for British employees and allowing companies to hire foreigners to fill the void during "temporary skill shortages" in order to keep the country economically competitive. "It is not a good sign that [the] U.K., which has been a path breaker in globalization, is closing market access to free movement of services personnel," declared National Association of Software and Services Companies President Kiran Karnik. "Overall there might not be much of an impact on Indian IT professionals as most of them work in Britain under inter-company transfers." He is optimistic about Britain's plan to review the new permit plan in three months, but worries that other nations will adopt similar legislation. T.K. Bhaumik of the Confederation of Indian Industry has a bleaker outlook--new economic sectors cannot grow unless professionals are given more room to maneuver. India and other developing nations have been lobbying the World Trade Organization for such freedoms.
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  • "What Can Nanotech Do for You?"
    NewsFactor Network (09/04/02); Lyman, Jay

    Experts expect nanotechnology to yield a wide array of applications across many industries, such as medicine, computing, and sensory technology. Potential medical applications include gains in health care and diagnosis through micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) such as nanoprobes, nanotubes, and nanotags; Given Imaging in Israel has made strides with the creation of a diagnostic capsule comprised of a battery, transmitter, light-emitting diode, and optical sensor. Nanotech also promises to usher in a revolution in information processing through the advent of molecular or optical computing, according to Gartner Dataquest analyst Jim Walker. He also notes the possibilities of "intelligent sensing," in which the surrounding environment is monitored by "a digital sensor network." Such technology promises a hyper-awareness of surroundings, and applications include better inventory control, automatic purchasing, and instant location of people through talking radio frequency tags. Walker says the biggest hurdle the field faces is controlling the behavior of molecules and nano-sized components. Meanwhile, Leo O'Connor of Frost & Sullivan notes that nanotech is already being incorporated into a variety of products, such as catalysts, sunscreens, magnetic recording media, adhesives, and magnetic seals. Other current nanotech applications he cites include inkjet printers, automotive accelerometers, and temperature and pressure sensors.

  • "Staking Out Space in a Handheld for Higher Fidelity Sound"
    New York Times (09/05/02) P. E9; Austen, Ian

    As mobile devices proliferate, so does the need for developing speaker technology to give these devices better sound reproduction capabilities. One option comes from Matsushita Electric engineers, who have created a speaker device that uses small LCD panels to reverberate sound. Because speaker sound quality improves with larger sizes, cell phones and handheld devices have not been able to reproduce high-quality signals or clear voice over a speakerphone. The Matsushita approach overcomes a key barrier that had prevented cell phone and mobile device manufacturers from using LCDs as speaker components by separating the speaker driver from the diaphragm--in this case the LCD panel--while using 25 times less power. Usually the driver, which vibrates air molecules that in turn hit the speaker diaphragm to produce sound, is placed directly behind the diaphragm, but that space is expensive real estate on a cell phone or similar small gadget with an LCD. Matsushita, the parent company of Panasonic, was able to use a special acoustic port tunnel moving air molecules from the driver unit to the LCD, which also was fitted with a super-thin layer of air between the screen itself and another transparent panel. Because that space contained less air than previous attempts at an LCD stereo, it also required far less power to make it vibrate, saving battery life so precious to mobile devices.
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  • "Viral Nanoassemblers for Electronics"
    Scientific American Online (09/02/02); Rosenthal, Anne M.

    Researchers from Montana State University in Bozeman have discovered that virus protein coats or capsids can be genetically tweaked to form nanoscale electronics. Mark Young and Trevor Douglas learned that new molecules can be formed via the introduction of negatively charged particles to the positively charged interiors of vacant viral capsids. The scientists experimented with the Cowpea chlorotic mottle virus to see if they could adjust the capsid's protein subunits, and thus change the interior charge. This achievement allowed them to produce identical nanocrystals of a variety of metal oxides, including iron oxides, nickel-alloy oxides, and cobalt oxides. Young and Douglas learned that two-dimensional and three-dimensional lattices could be formed from these crystals. By altering the size, configuration, and traits of the nanocrystals during the manufacturing process, scientists can produce magnetic RAM (MRAM) from such lattices. Furthermore, capsids can be produced cheaply through the introduction of viral genes into yeast cells, while larger glassware counterparts are more costly to manufacture.
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  • "Musical Approach Helps Programmers Catch Bugs"
    New Scientist Online (09/02/02); Knight, Will

    Paul Vickers of the University of Northumbria and James Alty of Loughborough University have devised a system that "auralizes" computer code into musical patterns to see if the method is helpful in detecting programming errors. Pascal language constructs were keyed to produce specific musical phrases--for instance, a conditional statement such as "IF TRUE" is represented by a synthesized chord. The integration of specific code sections should ideally produce a harmonious tune, while coding errors should generate discord that the programmer can hear. The system was tested on 22 Loughborough University students, and results indicate that those who "heard" the code found more bugs than those who detected errors visually. Stephen Brewster of the University of Glasgow believes the musical system could prove very useful, since ears may be better attuned for identifying temporal patterns than eyes. Vickers intends the system to be tested further, since it is difficult to determine how much musical aptitude and programmer ability played into the Loughborough test results.

  • "Fast Forward to the Future of Games"
    BBC News Online (08/30/02); Ward, Mark

    At the Game Designers Europe Conference in London, game experts discussed the changes gaming technology is likely to undergo over the next five years, and what problems will crop up as a result. Some participants noted that as game environments become more detailed and realistic, game designers will be pressed to fulfill players' raised expectations of better quality. Designer Peter Molyneaux warned that graphics improvements could force studios to employ vast numbers of animators to design all the creatures, objects, and units populating artificial environments, and added he is concerned that designers could neglect game play in favor of modeling all these objects. Every expert was in agreement that networking will become critical to players and games in the near future, especially as multiplayer gaming proliferates. Some noted that gamers could be charged for every episode of a title, if multiplayer games dominate the market. "It has taken Internet gamers a long time to get over the fact that good games are not free," observed Argonaut Games head Jez San. Frontier Developments head David Braben advocated that game characters must advance in parallel to graphics, and be imbued with more intelligence, speech, and interactive capacity. "Once you move away from shooting games, when you are face to face with characters and you are not necessarily blowing their brains out the speech part becomes much more important," he explained.

  • "Hooray for Today's OSs"
    San Francisco Chronicle (09/02/02) P. E1; Norr, Henry

    Current operating systems are a vast improvement over those in use just five years ago, and the trend is toward even better computing environments to come, writes Henry Norr. For example, Sun Microsystems recently pledged to pioneer work on a Linux-based desktop system, and Microsoft's first update for Windows XP comes this month. Operating systems today are much more stable than previous iterations, and can remain running without crashing for months at a time as opposed to frequent crashes of earlier OS versions. Complexity, meanwhile, has decreased, especially with the advent of "plug and play" technology such as Universal Serial Bus and a much less complicated driver installation process. Still, new problems always emerge. For example, computers today have been totally blindsided by the security problems accompanying online connections, and require antivirus software, Norr says. For more robust security, firewall software does a good job, though creating a second perimeter with a low-cost, home-use router with built-in firewall hardware is even better. The new Windows XP Service Pack 1, available this month, contains a number of refinements reflecting Microsoft's increasing user-friendliness. For example, desktop users or hardware manufacturers can customize their tool bar to eliminate bundled Windows applications, and the updated XP will not pester users into signing up for Microsoft's Passport service.
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  • "Feds Plan Cybersecurity Center"
    Computerworld (09/02/02) Vol. 36, No. 36, P. 1; Verton, Dan

    An aide to presidential cybersecurity adviser Richard Clarke acknowledged that the White House's long-awaited National Plan for Protecting Cyberspace includes a provision for constructing a cybersecurity network operations center (NOC), but denied that its purpose will be to collate email and data traffic and increase federal surveillance of private information, despite a published report that suggests the contrary. Clarke's assistant Tiffany Olson said the plan is being finalized this week, so the report is probably inaccurate. In addition, Critical Infrastructure Protection Board co-Chairman Howard Schmidt explained last week that the NOC will act as a central collection hub for the analysis of government security gathered from other federal NOCs, including the Pentagon's Joint Task Force for Computer Network Defense and the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center. The Incident.org Web site and Internet Storm Center of the SANS Institute will serve as a model for the federal NOC, while the operations of the NOCs that report to the central hub will be modeled after the private sector's Information Sharing and Analyses Centers (ISACs). SANS Institute director Alan Paller expressed his hope that the ISACs will set up independent Storm Center networks of their own, a goal that may be reachable thanks to efforts from Check Point Software Technologies to supplement each of its 260,000 gateways with a Storm Center client. Information Technology Association of America President Harris Miller noted last week that the White House cybersecurity plan is still "in a state of flux," so any information released to the public may not necessarily be included in the final draft. The plan will be officially released on Sept. 18, while Schmidt said at a press briefing that the Bush administration could issue a revision as early as January.
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  • "Feeling the Heat"
    eWeek (09/02/02) Vol. 19, No. 35, P. 35; Popovich, Ken

    Scientists at IBM, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard believe that fan-based cooling systems will no longer be adequate to manage the heat generated by high-speed microprocessors within three to five years, and recommend that computer manufacturers turn to alternative technologies. HP is looking into the introduction of robotic spray heads that dispense coolant on chips when overheating is imminent, while Intel supports a method that involves "growing" carbon nanotubes on silicon. Intel is also touting a design that includes radiator-like tubes filled with liquid, although Tomm Aldridge of Intel Labs admits that issues such as reliability and the safest liquid to use remain unresolved. IBM Austin Research Lab director David Cohen believes creative cooling solutions will emerge quickly, and is currently leading an effort to create computing systems that are more efficient and consume less energy. "After all, we're going to have hot machines that we're going to try to sell in the next three to five years, so we're going to have to find innovative ways to cool them," he explains. However, system performance rather than cooling dominates computer makers' marketing pushes. Intel and HP will be among the computer makers discussing new cooling techniques at the Intel Developer Forum in San Jose next week.

  • "The Brain as User Interface"
    IEEE Spectrum Online (08/02); Moore, Samuel K.

    Recent breakthroughs have demonstrated that the brain can control prosthetic devices. Research by neuroscientist John Chapin, Miguel Nicolelis, and others showed that electrodes implanted within a monkey's motor cortex enabled it to control a robotic limb; this prompted Arizona State University bioengineer Andrew Schwartz to develop a coadaptive system in which a small number of neurons in a monkey's brain are trained to direct the 3D movements of a cursor on a screen. However, a major challenge of perfecting the technology lies in converting feedback sensations felt by the prosthetic into signals that the brain can translate. Chapin and colleagues at the State University of New York (SUNY) have been exploring this conundrum with the development of the roborat, an implant that allows scientists to direct the movement of rodents by stimulating the parts of their brains associated with pleasure and touch via electronic signals. To avoid the use of bulky current control devices that would have made the experiment impractical, IEEE member Emerson Hawley organized a simple transistor-to-transistor logic system that includes a microcontroller and a battery-operated 433MHz radio. Chapin's project was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The effectiveness of the implant was tested last fall at the Southwest Research Institute, where the roborats negotiated a maze of rubble, climbed trees, and performed other activities. The tests showed that their movement through tunnels inhibited radio transmission, but Chapin believes the problem could be mitigated by creating a networked group of rats that would perform as repeaters.
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  • "The Vision Thing"
    CommVerge (08/02) Vol. 3, No. 7, P. 36; Haystead, John

    The introduction and acceptance of display technology has followed a parallel track to that of new electronic products and applications, and iSuppli/Stanford Resources estimates the global liquid crystal display (LCD) market will generate revenues of $27.7 billion in 2002 and $51 billion in 2006. Some of the latest display industry innovations were showcased at the recent Society for Information Display (SID) conference. Displays are boasting larger size, lower cost, and better resolution thanks to advances in the fabrication and refinement of glass substrates. The industry is concentrating on hastening adoption by driving down end-product cost and reducing complexity via greater functionality and system integration: On the horizon are products that are both manufactured and packaged as one-piece, multifunction items, such as computers that are built entirely on the display glass; such achievements will be possible through the advent of technologies and materials such as low-temperature polysilicon (LTPS). Organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) offer brighter and thinner non-backlit LCDs, and their cheapness and versatility will increase with the emergence of more efficient production processes--Kodak, Universal Display, and Samsung SDI are planning to introduce active-matrix OLEDs. However, Corning business technology director Peter Bocko says that, rather than being a breakthrough technology, OLED is "really much more of an evolutionary technology to LCDs, using much of the existing expertise and industry platform."
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