Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 24, 2002

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Issue 24, 2002

This week's headlines:

Scientists develop transistor the size of an atom
June 13, 2002

Scientists at Cornell University in New York have shrunk transistors to their smallest possible limit - the size of a single atom.

Transistors, traditionally made from silicon, are components that regulate the passage of electric current through them. The researchers implanted a 'designer' molecule between two gold electrodes to create a circuit. At its heart was a cobalt atom surrounded by carbon and hydrogen atoms and held in place by 'handles' made of the chemical pyridine. When voltage was applied to the transistor, electrons passed from one side to the other by 'hopping on and off' the cobalt atom.

Simultaneously a team at Harvard University, Massachusetts, reported a similar result using two atoms. In both cases the scientists were able to start and stop the flow of current by adjusting the voltage near the bridging molecule.

Full story: Ananova Back to top

'Punch card' could store one terabit of data
June 11, 2002

IBM researchers have developed a data storage method using nano- technology that allows a trillion bits of information to be packed into a square inch. The Millipede chip stores single bits of data in the form of tiny indentations. The indentations are made in the chip's surface using tiny 'spikes' or tips on the end of pivoting arms.

The chip's surface consists of a layer of plexiglass on top of silicon. 'Writing' data involves heating a tip to 400°C, which enables it to make an indentation in the surface. To erase data, the tips apply heat to the edges of the indentations, smoothing the surface. To read the chip, the tip's temperature is reduced to 300°C. As the tip runs over an indentation it cools further - and that change in temperature is measured.

So far, the researchers have created a prototype chip with 1024 arms, creating indentations 40 nanometres across, giving a storage capacity of 200 gigabits per square inch. But by making the indentations smaller the capacity could potentially be increased to one terabit.

Full story: New Scientist / Infoworld Back to top

Light's information-carrying capacity doubles
June 12, 2002

Scientists can use light to encode information because photons exist in one of two possible spin states. But photons also carry a property known as orbital angular momentum (OAM), which can take on an infinite number of values. A reliable method of measuring OAM might therefore lead to a way of packing significantly more data into a beam of light.

Researchers at Glasgow University have succeeded in sorting individual photons according to their OAM and encoding two bits of information on a single photon. The team split a light beam into two and rotated each arm to varying degrees. When the beams were recombined, the researchers could sort the photons based on whether or not the beams remained identical because the phase shift between two beams is governed by OAM.

By sending sorted beams through additional prisms, the team could discriminate among four different values of OAM. By lowering the intensity of the beam, only a single photon entered the equipment at any one time, allowing them to separate individual photons according to OAM.

Full story: Scientific American Back to top

JPEG worm breaks new ground
June 13, 2002

Antivirus companies warned on Thursday of a new virus that communicates through digital images.

Dubbed the first 'JPEG infector' by security company Network Associates, the W32/Perrun virus has two parts: infected JPEG images that contain the virus's payload and a viral program that extracts the code from the images and infects other JPEGs on the system as they are opened.

Because PCs have to be infected by the extractor virus before any code hidden in image files can affect them, the program is more a computer- science curiosity than a threat, according to Network Associates.

The extractor file only infects computers running Microsoft Windows and does not include a mass-mailing component. However, the code has opened up a debate among antivirus researchers as to whether viruses with multiple parts could represent a new threat to PC users.

Full story: ZDNet Back to top

Tech alliance seeks universal wireless standard
June 12, 2002

Nearly 200 technology companies, including Motorola, Nokia, Vodafone, NTT DoCoMo and Microsoft, have signed on to the latest industry effort to forge a universal wireless standard for all cell phones and handheld computers.

The new Open Mobile Alliance will replace the WAP Forum, whose Wireless Application Protocol is the most widely used platform for web browsers on cell phones, but has fallen short of expectations.

The new group plans to define minimum specifications for any wireless platform or application, thereby enabling compatibility and inter- operability among different mobile devices regardless of the software used. Its members hope that the resulting standards will accelerate the development and adoption of new services and capabilities such as multimedia messaging, game playing and entertainment.

Full story: Nando Times / AP Back to top

New programming language for graphics released
June 13, 2002

A new programming language will help give game programmers the option of trading some speed and smoothness to create more detailed images. The language, called Cg, was developed by graphics chip leader Nvidia in collaboration with Microsoft and is similar to Microsoft's series of C languages for writing Windows code.

Cg, released Thursday, will give game developers tools to write code for advanced graphics effects such as vertex shading and pixel shading - techniques that let programmers tackle long-standing graphics challenges such as rendering fur and grass. To date, such effects have had to be written in low-level 'assembly language', making the process so complex and lengthy that most use it for only a few graphical tricks.

The Cg Toolkit is available now for developers to download. Nvidia said it will make the basic Cg code available for other makers of graphics chips to write their own compilers.

Full story: ZDNet Back to top

Cellphones help locate traffic jams
June 12, 2002

A system that spots when drivers with mobile phones are stuck in a traffic jam could soon be used to help motorists dodge queues. Network providers will be able to detect when traffic congestion is building up on with the new program, which is being tested in the UK and Sweden.

When switched on, cellphones are in regular communication with the nearest base station, giving a precise location for the phone. As the user moves around, their phone sends signals to other base stations, allowing the network's computer to log their route. By monitoring the activity of hundreds of users, the system can build up a picture of where delays are occurring. It also detects peaks in the number of calls being made, as drivers reach for their phones to say they will be late.

UK-based Applied Generics says the program will provide more accurate traffic information than that which is currently available. The company hopes the system will be up and working in Europe in the next few months.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Web design 'causes confusion'
June 13, 2002

A gap between how web designers and ordinary surfers think is causing frustration on the net. In a study at Kansas State University in the US, surfers were asked to look through a website and then draw a diagram of how the site was organised. Most of the drawings were inaccurate, grouping together similar bits of information rather than reflecting the site's real layout. Some even drew pages that did not exist.

The researchers argue that designers should organise information on websites in categories that are obvious to users. Therefore they need to focus on how users mentally organise the information that is displayed. As people have a certain idea of how certain pieces of information are organised, designers should present the information in a way that is consistent with this idea, according to the researchers.

Other experts have questioned web design in the past. Net guru Jakob Nielsen believes designers often take their work too seriously, with the result that websites are less easy to use and ultimately less satisfying.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Teaching computers common sense
June 12, 2002

For the past 18 years, US company Cycorp's diverse team of programmers, botanists, philosophers, and others have been working to give computers a common-sense education. The $60m project has led to a database called Cyc, which contains about 1.4m assertions about daily life, such as 'creatures that die stay dead'.

What makes Cyc valuable is its ability to apply reasoning to those generalities, its creators say. So if Cyc knows that people usually sleep in their homes at night and they do not like to be awakened unless it is an important matter, it can also determine that a 3am phone call should only be an urgent one.

Cyc is also programmed to answer questions based on different contexts, allowing it to deal with contradictions. Lycos has used Cyc to improve web searches, and the US Defence Department is using it for military- intelligence projects. But anyone with Web access can test Cyc's common sense - an open-source version is available at

Full story: InformationWeek Back to top

Wireless switches rely on finger power
June 10, 2002

Light switches that can be fitted anywhere in a building without wiring or a power supply have been created by German company, EnOcean.

When the switch is pressed, piezoelectric crystals convert the mechanical energy into electricity. A transmitter then sends a radio signal to a receiver, which activates a corresponding light. An identifying code embedded in each radio transmission matches a particular switch to an individual light, allowing thousands of switches to be used in the same building without any interference. Each signal can be received up to 300 metres away.

The light switches will go on sale towards the end of 2002. EnOcean also plans to market a battery-less car key in 2004 and self-powered sensors for monitoring tyre pressure and temperature in 2005. The technology was developed in cooperation with the German company Siemens.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

London police hunting cellphone-stealing chimp
June 10, 2002

Police in London are hunting a monkey that may have been trained to steal mobile phones. Officers believe that two people may have been victims of the monkey business over the weekend after two burglaries were reported in as many hours.

One victim, Mustapha Riat, confirmed seeing a hairy black chimpanzee climb through his ground floor flat window at about 8.30am on Sunday morning. The chimp stole his mobile phone from the bedside table before making a quick exit. Police think that the chimp may also be responsible for another break-in at a house 20 doors down from Riat, at 6.30 the same morning. The victim, Gina Davidson, said that a watch had been taken and that the chimp had apparently attempted to take a DVD player.

A report in the Sun said that Scotland Yard had investigated a fair at nearby Victoria Park, but confirmed that no monkeys were among the acts. The police now believe that the monkey is a pet especially trained to steal. Scotland Yard apparently has its 'greatest minds' on the case.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top