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Volume 4, Issue 398: Friday, September 13, 2002

  • "GAO to Study Impact of H-1B Program on Hiring"
    Computerworld Online (09/11/02); Thibodeau, Patrick

    Critics have long complained that technology companies are using the H-1B visa program as an excuse to hire foreign tech workers over American candidates because they are willing to work for less, while industry groups claim that the United States is not producing enough qualified domestic professionals to meet demand. The General Accounting Office (GAO) is hoping to resolve this argument by conducting a study to see if there is indeed a corporate preference for H-1B workers, once a research methodology has been outlined. The study, which was requested a year ago by Michigan Democrats Rep. James Barcia and Rep. Lynn Rivers, is due next year, probably during a congressional debate on whether to scale back the visa program's current cap of 195,000 workers to 65,000 after Sept. 30, 2003. Information Technology Association of America President Harris Miller opposes the plan and says the visa program is not being abused, as evidenced by a 54 percent decline in approved H-1B visas over a nine-month period, as reported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. However, George McClure of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers cites rising unemployment figures among computer and electronic engineers as proof of abuse, but he doubts that the GAO can accurately measure the program's impact without talking to unemployed workers. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has deemed the H-1B training program "ineffective" on the grounds that it has not supplied sufficient training to reduce demand for foreign professionals.
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  • "Nanowire or Nanotube? Intel Looks Ahead"
    CNet (09/12/02); Kanellos, Michael

    At Intel's Developer Forum on Thursday, the company outlined new technology research it is investing in to drive future chip development; among the products that Intel is focusing on is a Tri-Gate transistor that will reportedly boost the electrical capacity and performance of transistors and microprocessors, and silicon nanowires and carbon nanotubes, either of which could supplant standard transistors after 2010. Senior vice president of technology and manufacturing Sunlin Chou said the key factor between which of the latter two technologies will emerge as the best transistor replacement will be how well they lend themselves to mass production. He predicted that the nanotechnology age will truly begin in 2003 with the introduction of 90-nm chips, but producing them will require changes in their assembly process. Conventional lithography will give way to Extreme Ultraviolet lithography, while performance will be improved with the incorporation of strained silicon and high-k dielectrics into chips; such developments can only be achieved through additional research. Intel is also investigating the possibilities of Atomic Layer Deposition as an alternative manufacturing process. Meanwhile, IBM and AMD announced initiatives to develop dual-gate transistors, which could compete with Intel's Tri-Gate transistor effort. Intel CTO Pat Gelsinger and others contended that the shrinking size and cost of chips, coupled with their increasing power, will lead to ubiquitous computing and wireless, and Gelsinger forecasted that the company will be able to combine silicon chips with radios by 2005. Intel also issued a database and operating system for advanced sensors that could be easily networked in the future.

  • "Digital Rights Outlook: Squishy"
    Wired News (09/12/02); King, Brad

    As media companies continue to push for stringent digital copyright controls, some technology firms are going ahead with less restrictive digital rights management technology. The debate over copy protection controls appears to now preclude the possibility of no controls whatsoever, as evidenced by a recent statement by Philip Bond, the undersecretary of commerce for technology. He said at the beginning of a congressional hearing on the topic that the Commerce Department was looking for "a consistent and reliable and predictable level of legitimate copyright protection." Consumer protection advocates and technology firms are working to define what exactly constitutes "legitimate" copyright protection. Thomson Multimedia has developed a new Super MP3 file that includes video and other special components--as well as a digital fingerprint identifying who first encoded the file. Thomson's Henry Linde calls the system "lightweight" digital rights management, because it does not put any controls on consumer use, but brings some accountability and benefits to file-trading. This approach is markedly softer than Microsoft's proposed solutions, for example, which pre-determine what consumers can do with their legally purchased software and hardware. Technology firms, especially hardware vendors, have traditionally sided with consumers against such stringent controls because they would restrict the capabilities of their devices.

  • "Mind Power"
    Sydney Morning Herald Online (09/12/02); Taylor, Nathan

    The science of bionics has progressed to the point where the effects of certain disabilities can be mitigated to a small degree by neural interfaces. In Australia, 2,000 people boast cochlear implants that transmit audio signals directly to the brain, while researchers at the Dobelle Institute in the United States are developing a bionic eye that enables the brain to receive images from camera-equipped glasses via electrodes hooked up to the wearer's visual cortex. Research teams at Germany's Bonn and Stuttgart Universities have created chips that circumvent dead retinas and send visual data captured by cameras through the optical pathways, while a joint team from the Universities of Newcastle and NSW announced in August that they had created an artificial retina. Some bionic technologies could theoretically help people with Alzheimer's and other neurological problems by enhancing or supplanting brain functions: One such project is underway at the University of Southern California, where Professor Theodore Berger is researching computer chips that replicate the functions of the human hippocampus. Meanwhile, other neural interface technologies give hope to paralysis victims--the American Neural Signals company has developed a chip that, when implanted into the motor cortex, allows the recipient to control the movement of a computer cursor by thought, and MIT has conducted experiments in which a monkey was able to control a robotic limb via a neural interface; the MIT Touch Lab is considering its virtual reality applications. A recent report from the U.S. National Science Foundation and Commerce Department forecasts significant "social and business reform" within 20 years as a result of developments in bionics, genetics, and nanotechnology. Advances it predicts include wireless "telepathy," direct computer-brain interaction, and anti-aging technologies.

  • "Quantum Transistor May Put a New Spin on Spintronics"
    NewsFactor Network (09/11/02); Martin, Mike

    McGill University's Hong Guo expects silicon-based microelectronics to quickly reach its miniaturization threshold, and he is leading a team of Canadian and Chinese physicists looking into spintronics--the harnessing of an electron's spin to power electronics--as the key to transitioning from micro- to nano-electronics. The team has devised a "quantum spin field effect" transistor that runs on spin current, and although Guo admits that the current produces heat, he is confident that it should be significantly less than the heat generated by devices powered by charge current. Andy Sachrajda of the Canadian National Research Council's Institute for Microstructural Sciences believes Guo's proposed transistor shows promise as a low-power device. Computer data bits are produced by a "spin-flip" mechanism in the transistor that switches the up-and-down spin states back and forth. However, "spintronic devices have been fabricated and operated still using charge current," notes Guo. Current transistors keep logic and memory functions separate, but Sachrajda says spintronics will integrate them. He adds that controlling the spin is perhaps the single greatest challenge that engineers face. Chinese members of Guo's team include Baigeng Wang and Jian Wang of the University of Hong Kong.

  • "A Gaze That Dictates, With Intuitive Software as the Scribe"
    New York Times (09/12/02) P. E5; Eisenberg, Anne

    Dr. David J.C. MacKay of Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory and a fellow physicist have developed an intuitive software program called Dasher that could be particularly helpful to computer users who suffer from physical handicaps. Dasher, which can be downloaded off the Web for free, is a significant step up from the onscreen keyboards that quadriplegics and others use to type out words by directing their gaze to specific letters: The basic principle is the same, but Dasher makes the process more efficient--onscreen keyboard users can write up to 15 words per minute, while experienced Dasher users can produce as many as 25 per minute. "[McKay's] approach may be more advantageous than pointing to a keyboard with fixed-size keys that must be pushed usually by activating a physical switch or pausing over a key," commented Dr. Fraser Shein of the University of Toronto. The program displays the letters of the alphabet in a column; each letter that the user considers, either by gaze or pointing gesture, is enlarged, and the software anticipates the letters that are likely to follow each selected letter. Gazes are measured by an eye tracker, while a conventional mouse can also be used to control Dasher. The researchers reported on the software in the August issue of Nature, and described an experiment in which the program was fed 90 percent of the novel "Emma," after which users transcribed the remaining 10 percent using Dasher. Dr. Shein cautioned that Dasher may not be very useful to people who need a complete suite of writing and editing functions to do their jobs, and added that the display could induce eyestrain in viewers. Meanwhile, Dr. John Paul Hansen of the IT University of Copenhagen announced his intention to test the program to see how well elderly users can adapt to it.
    (Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)

  • "Months After the Hype: Is Segway Still It?"
    CNN.com (09/12/02); Walton, Marsha

    In the 10 months since its unveiling, Dean Kamen's Segway human transporter has made positive progress, says Segway's Tobe Cohen. He notes that the machine is being used in pilot programs involving law enforcement, emergency medical technicians, utilities, and the New York Transit Authority, among others. The Atlanta Regional Commission's (ARC) Bob McCord says that his organization has demonstrated two units to hundreds of people over the last several months, for the purpose of evaluating their effectiveness in metropolitan areas; thus far, he notes that the Segway has been most beneficial for professionals who must take meetings outside the office at locations that would take too long to walk to. The Segway is designed to respond to changes in the rider's position, and its top speed can be programmed for various environments--the vehicle's speed limit is six mph in training mode, nine mph in "sidewalk" mode, and 12.5 mph in "open environment" mode. Postal workers are testing out the Segway in its "sidewalk" mode, which is considered ideal for urban areas with many pedestrians, while Cohen says the "open environment" mode is favored by warehouse workers. The addition of Segways into crowded pedestrian areas has raised concerns among senior citizens groups and proponents for the blind, but ARC's Tom Weyandt argues that the vehicle's success will be chiefly driven by rider courtesy. Meanwhile, the Segway will not be available for consumer purchase for another 12 to 18 months.

  • "'Nintendo-Style' Cars"
    Australian IT (09/10/02); Eisenstein, Paul

    General Motors and other automobile manufacturers are developing prototypes of vehicles with cutting-edge electronic systems designed to enhance the driving experience and support drive-by-wire technologies. GM's Hy-wire prototype incorporates all controls--steering, acceleration, and braking--into a handheld device called an X-drive that technology chief Larry Burns describes as "sort of like a Nintendo unit." The unit can be slid back and forth so that either front occupant can control the vehicle. Conventional foot pedals are also absent, emphasizing the lack of mechanical controls. Burns notes that the X-drive allows for a much roomier interior, while the car also sports an environmentally friendly hydrogen-powered fuel cell. Meanwhile, X-drive developer SKF has altered an Opel Astra to test the steering applications, and added force feedback into the steering wheel. Some drive-by-wire concepts have moved beyond the prototype phase and become incorporated into automotive design. The Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan features an electrically controlled accelerator and brakes, and comes with a computer that can occasionally override the driver's instructions if it senses problems, such as lost traction.
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  • "Japanese Gadget Makers Aim Smaller, and Smarter"
    Washington Post (09/12/02) P. E7; Greimel, Hans

    Matsushita Electric Industrial and other Japanese companies are touting high-tech gadgetry that aims to enhance consumer households. Products that Matsushita recently put on display in its new Tokyo showroom include a fridge that incorporates a camera capable of transmitting pictures to mobile phones; a closet that recommends what owners should wear after they enter the day's weather forecast and preferred style; a bathroom mirror that snaps infrared images of a person's hair and suggests the best way to treat it; and a toilet that takes urine samples and automatically alerts the doctor of any suspicious results via the Internet. The company also makes a kitchen table featuring a built-in touch-screen computer. Meanwhile, Sanyo Electric has devised a bedsheet that relays a sleeper's vital signs so that room temperature and lighting can be adjusted to maximize comfort. Many Japanese homes are already familiar with "smart" technology: Such dwellings often sport toilets that feature remote flushing and seats that automatically adjust to the user's height, lights that automatically turn on whenever someone enters a room, and Web access. The development of smart home technology in Japan has moved ahead of the effort in the United States, where it is considered a luxury that only wealthy consumers can afford. Matsushita's products are expected to hit the market in 2005 or later.

  • "Laser Blasts Make Cheap Memory"
    Technology Research News (09/11/02); Smalley, Eric

    Scientists from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Japan have streamlined the manufacturing process for memory chip cells by shining lasers directly onto silicon wafers, rather than focusing them through patterned masks and etching away the exposed portions with chemicals. By varying the temperature, the researchers were able to heat the material in such a way that it became superconductive or insulating. AIST's Jooho Kim reports that they have blasted 50-nm superconductor and insulation dots into the layers using the process; the dots could be used to generate dynamic random access memory cells. He notes that replacing the laser with an electron beam would facilitate the creation of 5-nm dots, which could lead to chips that boast storage densities of 250 billion bits per square inch. Kim adds that conventional lasers could generate chips capable of storing 25 GB per square inch. However, Franz Himpsel of the University of Wisconsin says that resolution could be limited by the AIST process. Kim estimates that it could cost as little as 10 percent of current manufacturing costs to make memory chips with this method. He adds that solar cells and photodiodes for light sensors could also be produced with the technique, and predicts that practical applications using this process could emerge within two to five years.
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  • "Surveillance Society"
    San Francisco Chronicle (09/09/02) P. E1; Evangelista, Benny

    Privacy proponents are concerned that the United States has embarked upon a path that could lead to the creation of a "surveillance society" as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks. They cite the significant increase of video camera installations around the country and the testing of biometric facial recognition systems as indicators of this trend. A March 2002 study by the California State Library's research bureau indicates that the use of closed-circuit video cameras and associated hardware is "rapidly expanding," and co-author Marcus Nieto says reports show that most people approve of the spread of video surveillance to public areas and the use of facial recognition technology designed to single out suspected terrorists; this is a significant reverse of the "vocal opposition" to video surveillance the public demonstrated prior to Sept. 11. "Everybody's using the threat of terrorism to justify a lot of things that don't have a lot to do with terrorism," warns Jay Stanley of the ACLU. His organization and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) are lobbying for the establishment of standards and public oversight to ensure that citizens' rights are not circumvented by surveillance systems. Stanley says that abuse of video surveillance has been documented: For instance, studies show that minorities are more often targeted by such systems, while predominantly male security monitors pick out one in 10 women for "voyeuristic reasons." The resolution and automated monitoring potential of video surveillance equipment is increasing with the development of technologies such as HDTV and video content analysis. Meanwhile, biometric facial recognition technology has invited controversy spurred by critics' contention that it is faulty and infringes on privacy.
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  • "Warm Party for a Code Group"
    Wired News (09/13/02); Lidor, Danit

    Ten years after the debut of the historically secretive cypherpunk community, which advocates the use of encryption and cryptography to maintain online privacy, its philosophy of limiting the proliferation of data has become popular among the mainstream, according to "Translucent Databases" author Peter Wayner. Whereas at the start most cypherpunks were thought of as cryptography enthusiasts, cypherpunk J.A. Terranson indicated in a posting that today's members come from all walks of life. Mathematician Nina Fefferman praises the community as a place where people with multiple perspectives and backgrounds can communicate. Shortly after its emergence in 1992, the community was closely monitored by the National Security Agency; when computer programmer Phil Zimmermann was charged with committing a criminal act by freely distributing the open-source Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) software, the cypherpunks added their voices to those of civil libertarians who pressured the government to drop the charges. However, Wayner and others believe that some of the group's energy has been diluted by the broadening of its membership. "It's not just a few guys talking about the importance of some mathematical equations," he argues. "It's like debating the importance of indoor plumbing now. No one disputes it, they just want to argue about copper versus PVC."

  • "New Wearable Computer Helps Blind Navigate"
    NewsFactor Network (09/12/02); Lyman, Jay

    A wearable computer project at the University of Florida aims to give blind people directions using a global positioning system (GPS) device, wireless connection, and spatial database. Users can walk about the university campus and receive voice prompts telling them where they are in relation to obstacles, pathways, and destinations. The spatial database already has records of walkways, bridges, fences, and similar items, while speech recognition technology allows for spoken prompts to be understood by the computer. The Xybernaut MAV wearable computer connects with the database via a WLAN connection or Motorola iDEN phone, and the system is able to determine location with the GPS device. University of Florida master's degree student Steve Moore leads the project and plans to produce a commercial product within two years. In the future, a network of cameras could be substituted for GPS in places where the GPS signal does not reach. Currently, Moore says the most work needs to be done on the speech function and in updating the database.

  • "China Blocks Web Search Engines"
    Washington Post (09/12/02) P. E1; Goodman, Peter S.; Musgrove, Mike

    The Chinese government has begun blocking access to Web search engines in advance of the upcoming national Congress of the Communist Party, which will select new party leadership. Google, because of its extensive Chinese-language search capability, was restricted by Chinese authorities early in September, but recently most of its content has become available again. However, search results relating to banned spiritual movement Falun Gong and Tibetan independence, for example, were not accessible. Sources say Chinese government officials were alarmed at the availability of critical and invasive international news reports, especially regarding a possible change in government leadership. The Chinese government has technology similar to the U.S.'s Carnivore system that pins down suspect Web material. That technology helps authorities filter Web content, and has apparently been applied to the newly available Google site in China. After first completely blocking access, Chinese officials began redirecting hits on Alta Vista and Google to other, China-based search engine sites, such as the one run by Beijing University. Analysts and Chinese businesspeople decry the restrictions, saying they put Chinese businesses at a disadvantage in an economic environment where fresh information is increasingly critical.

  • "CPUs Cut the Power"
    Computerworld (09/02/02) Vol. 30, No. 36, P. 30; Anthes, Gary H.

    Advances in mobile processing promise to allow for new uses, according to those in the computer notebook industry. Intel's Banias processor, due out next year, will be the first designed specifically for notebooks and increase performance while decreasing the drain on batteries, says the company. In smaller devices, processors that use less power and run faster will allow full computer operating systems, such as Windows XP, to run for a sustainable amount of time. IBM is pioneering the technology behind such use with its scaling PowerPC 405LP processor, which IBM Microelectronics emerging products director Lisa Su says would enable more multimedia capabilities for PDAs, for example. Meanwhile, Transmeta's Crusoe design utilizes "code morphing" technology that dramatically cuts power consumption in notebooks. Transmeta's David Ditzel says other technologies affecting mobile devices, such as wireless networking, are changing how people use notebooks--taking computers into meetings, for instance. Intel notes that portable computer displays devour about one-third of total power, while CPUs and associated chipsets consume between 10 percent and 25 percent.

  • "Pocket Sockets"
    Science News (09/07/02) Vol. 162, No. 10, P. 155; Weiss, Peter

    The advantages of micro fuel cells include shorter recharge times and longer battery life, and would likely be widely used in laptop computers, cell phones, and other portable electronic devices once safe and reliable products are developed. Allied Business Intelligence's Atakan Ozbek forecasts annual sales of 200 million units by 2008; the huge market potential is spurring numerous micro fuel cell initiatives. Ahead of most other efforts are direct-methanol fuel cells, which could be commercialized within the next year, but suffer from uneven electrical output and susceptibility to humidity and outside temperatures. Methanol is also toxic and flammable, which limits its use in certain situations. Some researchers are trying to meet these technical challenges by installing dynamic controls--minute sensors, pumps, and circuits--or employing capillary action, diffusion, evaporation, and other passive processes to control the cell's functions. Alternative approaches to methanol fuel cells include an ethanol cell developed by Medis Technologies, a formic acid cell from researchers at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and a dry electrolyte that incorporates carbon buckyballs from Sony. Meanwhile, NEC claims that it can manufacture improved electrodes through atomic-scale manipulation of carbon structures, while Adam Briggs of MillenniumCell reports that sodium borohydride, in addition to being nontoxic, can generate hydrogen gas more efficiently than methanol. Another area of research involves hot fuel cells that produce more power: A team at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena have built a cell that runs on propane or butane at extremely high temperatures, and Case Western Reserve scientists have developed a dry, solid-polymer electrolyte that can withstand temperatures above the boiling point. Establishing micro fuel cells as a replacement for batteries will greatly depend on their safety, reliability, low cost, and ease of assembly.

  • "IT's Generation Gap"
    InformationWeek (09/09/02) No. 905, P. 47; Goodridge, Elisabeth; McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

    IT departments whose members span several generations could complement one another, but getting them to work together is a major challenge. There is resentment between older and younger workers for a variety of reasons: Older workers often view the younger generation as lazy, while younger professionals see senior employees as unwilling to share their knowledge. Younger people also tend to blame older people as the reason they cannot find jobs, while older workers complain that age is the reason they are being laid off or forced to take lower-paying positions. Rapidly developing technology and the increased need for certification in hot tech sectors are exacerbating the situation, and younger employees' questioning attitude can also be a hindrance to cooperation. There are also differences in the way these generations have trained--younger employees are more expert in teamwork skills, while older workers take a more isolated approach to IT. Meanwhile, independent recruiting consultant Howard Adamsky says the sluggish pace of the economy is fostering an "every man for himself" mentality. However, some companies have successfully bridged the generation gap: Kindred Healthcare CIO Rick Chapman observes that his company's practice of having older, more experienced IT staffers act as mentors for younger employees mixes business savvy with fresh ideas. Procter & Gamble has a mentoring initiative of its own, in which sometimes younger IT professionals mentor senior executives who lack a technical background; in this way, the former group learns about business and the latter learns about IT.

  • "PCs and Speech: A Rocky Marriage"
    Business Week (09/09/02) No. 3798, P. 64; Keenan, Faith

    Speech-recognition technology has made significant strides over the past 20 years, but PC dictation programs still suffer from numerous disadvantages, including their tendency to garble words and a lack of automatic sentence punctuation. Consumer disappointment, bankruptcies, and the educational emphasis on typing have helped dilute the PC dictation market, but speech-recognition advocates have not given up on the technology, and have focused on other applications. Companies such as Amtrak and Yahoo! have invested in electronic agents that respond to natural speech from callers and can provide such information as weather forecasts, train fares, and schedules; Wells & Fargo's credit-card users will be able to check the status of their balances and pay their bills via a speech program the company plans to test later this year. However, most companies with call-center operations are slow to adopt speech software. International Data (IDC) analyst Steve McClure says that voice software is highly error-prone and suffers from excessively long deployment time. Amtrak has spent $4 million on its speech technology initiative thus far, and it took 18 months to develop its automatic call-center agent to the point where it could accurately relay train arrival times, and an additional 12 months to make it capable of answering questions about scheduling and fares. On the positive side, Amtrak executive Robert Hackman estimates that the average number of satisfied callers has risen 11 percent, and adds that a single voice systems call costs just 25 cents, compared to about $5 with human operators. Critics complain that true speech recognition will remain an elusive goal, while enthusiasts draw hope from the voice-synthesis software sector and projects such as IBM's Super Human Speech Recognition Program.

  • "The Future in Gear"
    PC Magazine (09/03/02) Vol. 21, No. 15, P. 88; Janowski, Davis D.; Rupley, Sebastian; Rhey, Erik

    PC Magazine editors showcase 15 innovative prototypes that hold enormous potential, and are expected to become commercially available in one to five years. University of California, Berkeley researchers are developing hybrid nanorod-polymer solar cells that could lead to cheap mass-production of flexible solar cells. Philips has produced a 3D LCD display that eliminates the need for bulky glasses, while IBM has developed InfoScope, a handheld that can translate textual images captured by digital cameras into other languages. Fuel cell technology such as the MicroFuel Cell will power a wide variety of devices--automobiles, PDAs, smart cards, etc.--using longer-lived batteries, while holographic video storage, as represented by a prototype from InPhase Technologies, promises tremendous storage capacity and a speedy data-transfer rate. A portable monitor from E Ink and Philips uses electronic ink for high character resolution at low power, and such displays will soon be flexible. Immersion's CyberForce System Haptic Hand imparts virtual sensations to the wearer so he can interact with 3D environments; meanwhile, AT&T's Sample-Based Visual Text to Speech technology promises to improve human/machine interaction by enabling computers to present more human-looking and human-sounding virtual agents to users. The Phone-Or Everbeam microphone uses microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) technology to filter out background noise with an ultra-sensitive optical membrane, while the MIT Media Lab Media House is one possible model of the smart house of the future, in which connectivity is incorporated from the ground up. Videoconferencing could be significantly enhanced with Microsoft's RingCam, a recording device featuring a 360-degree visual and aural perspective, and software that enables users to focus on specific parts of the meeting.

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