Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 11, 2003

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Issue 11, 2003

This week's headlines:

Scientists develop 'brain chip'
March 12, 2003

The world's first brain prosthesis - an artificial hippocampus - is about to be tested on rats by researchers of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The researchers hope the silicon chip implant will eventually help people who have suffered brain damage due to stroke, epilepsy or Alzheimer's disease.

The hippocampus' function is to 'encode' experiences so they can be stored as long-term memories elsewhere in the brain. Since no one understands how the hippocampus encodes information, the team simply copied its behaviour by stimulating slices of rat hippocampus with electrical signals, millions of times over, until they could be sure which electrical input produces a corresponding output.

Putting the information from various slices together gave the team a mathematical model of the entire hippocampus. They then programmed the model onto a chip, which in a human patient would sit on the skull rather than inside the brain. It communicates with the brain through two arrays of electrodes, placed on either side of the damaged area.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

European Commission dispels Microsoft rumours
March 13, 2003

The European Commission is playing down claims that it has found Microsoft in breach of competition law, saying any decision is likely to be months away.

Reports this week suggested that an internal panel had found Microsoft guilty of abusing its dominant position with the Windows operating system to boost market share by bundling software such as its media player. The Commission would not comment on the speculation, claiming that the pressure for information from the media was interfering with the 'due process' of the investigation.

If found guilty, the software giant could face a fine of up to 10 per cent of annual sales and an order to provide rivals with valuable technical information on its products.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

Europe opens its deep space link
March 06, 2003

The European Space Agency's first deep space listening post was opened in Western Australia last week, providing a crucial communications link to remote parts of the Solar System. The new antenna will provide a link to spacecraft up to 900 million kilometres away, well past the orbit of Jupiter. This capability will be crucial for keeping in touch with a number of planned European missions into deep space.

Weight and power constraints make it difficult for spacecraft in deep space to send a strong signal back to Earth. This means sensitive antennae are needed to receive the data.

The 630-tonne antenna is 40 metres tall and holds a dish 35 metres across. It cost €28m to build. The antenna is capable of transmitting and receiving standard 2 GHz and 8 GHz frequency communications. It also has the capacity to operate at the 32 GHz frequency, which is proposed for future missions into deep space. ESA plans to build a second deep space antenna at a European latitude sometime in the future.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Scientists develop DNA fingerprinting technology
March 12, 2003

A UK scientist from the School of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Ulster has developed a revolutionary computer-based DNA fingerprinting technology that he hopes could save thousands of lives.

The computerised technique can identify bugs far more quickly than current methods. Authorities could use it to identify killer bugs contained in biological attacks launched by terrorists and speed up the treatment of victims.

Current methods of tracing potential bio-terrorist agents such as Cryptosporidium or Clostridium botulinum can take up to five days. Using the new DNA fingerprinting technique takes only 15 minutes.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

Net has few degrees of separation
March 06, 2003

Researchers from Israel's Bar-Ilan University have found that the average number of connections needed to get from one point to another in real-world networks, such as internet and social networks, is smaller than the number needed for randomly-connected networks. The finding has to do with the small world concept, which says that any two people in the US are connected by less than six degrees of separation.

The researchers found that in naturally-formed networks the degrees of separation are fewer than in a randomly-connected network model, and this number increases extremely slowly as a network grows. Randomly- connected network models are often used in designing internet tools.

The researchers' work can be used to design tools that route traffic more efficiently, improve searches, and better immunise networks against viruses or to design networks that have shorter paths between points. The method can also be used to develop algorithms to improve the workings of networks, according to the researchers.

Full story: Technology Review / Technology Research News Back to top

Rubber stamp writes data
March 11, 2003

Scientists from IBM's Almaden research centre have found a way to quickly transfer information from a magnetic mask to a magnetic disk.

The method promises to make it considerably quicker to format and copy magnetic media in bulk. Currently, when a magnetic drive is formatted or an operating system is loaded onto a disk, the information is written one line at a time. Today's magnetic disk drive speeds are about 200 megabits per second. The researchers' prototype transferred information about five times faster, at the equivalent of one gigabit per second.

The researchers' method uses a stamp of soft patterned magnetic material built on a thin plastic base. The stamp has enough give to allow the magnetic material to be in full contact with the recording disk. The method could be used in practical applications in two to five years, according to the researchers.

Full story: Technology Review / Technology Research News Back to top

RNA forms nanomotor
March 11, 2003

Researchers from Purdue University have constructed a tiny motor from DNA and RNA molecules. The device, fuelled by ATP, a molecule that powers our own movements, could eventually power nanomachines.

The motor, which measures about 30 nanometres long, is made from six strands of RNA surrounding a centre strand of DNA. In the presence of ATP, the RNA strands push the DNA axle in succession, spinning it around. This produces 50 to 60 piconewtons. A falling apple exerts about one newton of force.

The motor has potential in biological applications. The researchers have driven the tiny motor axle through the protective protein coat of a virus. The motor could eventually be used to deliver genes or therapeutic molecules into live cells, according to the researchers who think it could be used in practical applications in two to five years.

Full story: Technology Review / Technology Research News Back to top

Music companies fear new 100-hour discs
March 12, 2003

The music industry this week condemned the launch of two recording systems that will let people copy between 30 and 100 hours of music onto a single disc. The launches, from electronics giants Sony and Philips, are being seen as a potential pirates' charter.

The launches come as the global music industry suffers its worst downturn since the CD format was introduced. Free online downloading and disc copying have been widely blamed for the slump in sales.

Sony's system will use the ultra-efficient data compression system used in MiniDiscs, to squeeze 30 hours of MP3 music onto a single blank CD. The discs will play on a new generation of personal stereos. Philips's system uses a computer DVD recorder to save at least 100 hours of MP3 music on a blank DVD, which will play on a new portable DVD player.

The International Federation for the Phonographic Industry has not yet said how it will react to the new recorders.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Microsoft promises end to 'DLL hell'
March 10, 2003

Windows Server 2003 will bring an end to one of the biggest headaches for Windows users and administrators, which relates to Dynamic Link Libraries - software modules that can be shared by several applications.

Problems typically occur when an application is installed that uses an updated version of a DLL that is already used by another application. If the original application cannot work with the updated DLL, then the user gets an error message. Windows and Windows applications have no notion of DLL version numbers, and so the problem can be difficult to find.

Microsoft will build into Windows Server 2003 a system that will stop updated DLLs installed by new applications from overwriting older versions of the same DLLs that may still be used by other applications.

Full story: / ZDNet Back to top

Survey shows lack of faith in techs
March 12, 2003

A new study of investor confidence shows that investors and analysts have little faith in technology firms. Capital markets intelligence firm Brendan Wood International surveyed more than 2,200 institutional investors, financial advisers and analysts to determine which companies and sectors were the most highly rated among equity and investment experts. Unsurprisingly, the tech sector ranked lowest in the survey.

Out of a possible score of 1,100 points for any sector, the technology hardware and equipment sector scored a mere 679, coming in last in the survey. Only slightly higher was the telecommunications sector, which scored 697 points. The software and services sector performed marginally better, coming in at 734 points. Healthcare equipment and services was the highest-scoring industry with 804 points.

Brendan Wood International said that dim hopes of a recovery in global stock markets were to blame for the poor scores among tech firms. Turnover in management and poor leadership were also among the reasons given for the sector's lacklustre showing.

Full story: Yahoo / ENN Back to top

Software program designed to spot musical hits
March 12, 2003

Picking the next worldwide hit song could soon be as easy as running a software program. Hit Song Science (HSS), software developed by Barcelona-based company Polyphonic HMI, is designed to spot the hits before they are released. The company says it picked out Norah Jones for stardom months before her debut album garnered eight Grammy awards.

The HSS software looks for songs that match the musical traits of known hits. It identifies characteristics such as melody, harmony, beat variation, tempo, rhythm and pitch that send songs to the top of the charts.

Although there are millions of songs on the market, the biggest sellers are found in clusters with similar characteristics. But those special traits are not always obvious. Irish rock group U2 and Beethoven had similar values according to the software. The Beatles and Elvis also matched up with their distinctive traits. Several major record companies are currently testing the software.

Full story: Yahoo / Reuters / New Scientist Back to top

Smart phones will know when you are busy
March 12, 2003

Smart telephones may one day be able to sense when you are too busy to be interrupted and ask the caller to leave a message. Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania are working on the technology that could be used in instant messaging systems and telephones.

Tiny microphones, cameras and sensors reveal body language and software analyses the signals to determine whether someone is too occupied to take a call. Pounding a computer keyboard, closed office doors, speaking and the time of day are possible signals of being busy.

In tests the computer was better than people at predicting when someone was too busy to be interrupted. The scientists think the system could be available in a few years.

Full story: Yahoo / Reuters / New Scientist Back to top

Dutch firm opens new front in music file-swapping
March 06, 2003

A Dutch internet company says it has developed software that could be used to compensate musicians whose songs are swapped online, a move it said could cut out the embattled music industry. PGR BV has its own new file-sharing service known as The Honest Thief and is helping companies start up services such as Kazaa and Morpheus in the Netherlands.

The firm has developed software enabling file-sharing providers to capitalise on the unused computing power of their members. That in turn would allow them to raise money to compensate artists for the use of their material. The software, known as ThankYou 2.0, enables a file-sharing client to turn the computers of digital music fans into a node in a network of computers linked through the internet.

The idea is that by leasing out the unused processor power on those multiple PCs to research facilities the software could generate revenues that would be distributed back to the musicians. 'The record companies are not dead yet, but they're certainly on life support. And The Honest Thief pulls the plug,' said Pieter Plass, founder of PGR BV.

Full story: CNET / Reuters Back to top