Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 1, 2004

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Issue 1, 2004

This week's headlines:

Scientists warn on potential nanotech health risk
January 08, 2004

British scientists are calling for more research into the safety of nanoparticles, materials so small that their dimensions can be measured in atoms, following evidence they can lodge in the brain.

Nanotechnology, which could revolutionise the healthcare, consumer goods and construction industries, has been touted as a potential multibillion dollar industry. However, research on rats by scientists at the University of Edinburgh has shown nanoparticles deposited in the nose can migrate to the brain and move from the lungs into the bloodstream. So far, it is unclear whether this poses any health threat to humans.

Modern humans breathe in considerable numbers of nanoparticles in traffic fumes and even from cooking. In some people they can trigger asthma or even cardiovascular problems, by setting off an inflammatory response from the body's immune system. The new materials being developed through nanotechnology might trigger more severe reactions, scientists warn and urge for more research.

Full story: Yahoo / Reuters Back to top

Record labels sued over copy-protected CDs
January 05, 2004

A European consumer-watchdog body is suing the world's largest music companies for selling copy-protected compact discs that will not play in car stereos and on computers. The Belgian-based group, Test-Aankoop, said it has received more than 200 complaints from consumers who objected to a technology that prevents consumers from making a back-up version on a blank disc and limits playback on certain devices.

Industry observers believe Test-Aankoop's suit is the biggest European legal challenge yet to the music industry's controversial campaign to release copy-protected discs, in order to minimise the impact that digital piracy is having on sales.

Test-Aankoop cited more than a dozen top-selling releases that could not be played on multiple devices. EMI, Universal Music, Sony Music and BMG have been named in the suit, which is expected to be heard this week in a Belgian court. Warner Music is the only one of the five major music labels not named. The group said it wants the labels to end the practice of issuing protected discs and to reimburse customers.

Full story: / Reuters Back to top

Downloading of music on decline, study hints
January 05, 2004

The recording industry's legal onslaught against internet song-swappers appears to be having its desired effect. The percentage of Americans who download music online has been sliced in half, according to a report.

Fourteen per cent of internet users surveyed from November 18 to December 14 said they sometimes download songs to their computers, according to the report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and comScore Media Metrix, a Web tracking firm. That number was 29 per cent in May, the same as in February 2001.

The survey did not distinguish between use of free, 'peer-to-peer' music-sharing networks such as Kazaa, and licensed, commercial downloading sites. But the study attributed the plunge to the Recording Industry Association of America's strategy of suing individual song-swappers.

Full story: AZCentral / AP Back to top

Cyber blackmail targets office workers
December 29, 2004

Cyber blackmail artists are shaking down office workers, threatening to delete computer files or install pornographic images on their work PCs unless they pay a ransom, police and security experts said.

The extortion scam, which is believed to have surfaced one year ago, indiscriminately targets anyone on the corporate ladder with a PC connected to the internet. It usually starts with a threatening e-mail in which the author claims to have the power to take over a worker's computer through an exploit in the corporate network, experts said. The e-mail typically contains a demand that unless a small fee is paid - they will attack the PC with a file-wiping programme or download onto the machine images of child pornography.

Police say crime gangs have turned cyber extortion into a tidy business of late. A preferred tool is the crude, but effective DoS attack on a company's network. Fraudsters also send out streams of menacing e-mails with hollow threats of cyber sabotage. The scam works even if only a handful of the countless recipients follow through and pay up.

Full story: CNN / Reuters Back to top

Finnish study shows handset radiation within limits
January 08, 2004

A survey of some of the world's most popular cell phones found they emit radiation well below agreed limits and largely in line with the data published by manufacturers, a Finnish regulator's study showed.

The survey by Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority Finland (STUK) covered 12 models made by the world's top handset makers. All models showed the radiation emitted, or the specific absorption rate (SAR), was well below the agreed level in Europe of two watts per kilogram. The study did not look at possible harmful effects of the radiation.

Despite worries about possible negative health effects of mobile phone use, various studies over the past few years have proved inconclusive. There is no scientific evidence that second-generation mobile phones cause brain tumours, while a long-term study by the International Agency on Research on Cancer is still underway. A Dutch study released in September did show that radio signals emitted from third-generation mobile base stations can cause headaches and nausea.

Full story: Yahoo / Reuters Back to top

Colours expand neural net
January 02, 2004

Artificial neural networks mimic the brain's structure — many neurons that each have many connections to other neurons — and consequently have the ability to learn. Improving artificial neural networks means making more connections, adding processors, or speeding communications between nodes. And using lightwaves rather than electric current to carry communications is one way to speed information flow.

Researchers from the University of Tokyo have worked out a way to form an especially fast optical neural network by tapping the wave nature of lightwaves rather than just the amplitude, or strength of a signal. The many different frequencies makes it possible to generate many signals.

The researchers' lightwave neural network system could be used to process massive amounts of information that can be read from and written to ultrahigh capacity optical memory devices such as holograms. The system can handle a lot of information at once because of the vast frequency range of the lightwaves involved, and also fast processing speed because different frequencies can be processed in parallel.

Full story: Technology Review / TRN Back to top

Scientists turn DNA tubes into nanowires
January 06, 2004

Scientists at Duke University have recruited DNA to manufacture minuscule wires that could be used for nanoscale electronic devices. Tiny tubes that self-assemble can be coated in metal to form highly conductive wires.

The researchers first assembled tiles from synthetic DNA molecules, which they used as building blocks. Under the right chemical conditions, these tiles arrange themselves into tubes that measure just 25 nanometres in diameter and up to 20 microns in length. The scientists then created smooth, uniform silver nanowires from the tubes through a two-step chemical reaction.

The benefit of utilising DNA to assemble nanotechnology lies in its specificity. Because DNA bonds according to well-understood base-pairing rules, the scientists hope to exploit it in order to place nanowires at precise locations on a relatively large chip without having to directly manipulate them.

Full story: Scientific American Back to top

Squid may inspire new nanolights
January 09, 2004

A Hawaiian squid is shining new light on optical nanotechnology: the creature has a built-in flashlight made up of a previously unknown type of proteins. The discovery could help researchers design novel nanoreflectors.

Researchers at the University of Hawaii-Manoa studied the three-inch-long squid Euprymna scolopes, commonly called the Hawaiian bobtail squid. The animal has a light-producing organ on its underside that helps it feed in dark waters and may help provide camouflage from predators. Glowing bacteria provide the light source, which is surrounded by stacks of reflective plates. But unlike previously studied reflective plates in other aquatic animals - most of which are made up of crystals of purine - the squid's reflective tissue is protein-based.

The group of proteins, dubbed reflectins by the authors, has an unusual amino acid composition. The team notes that the reflectins are 'a marked example of natural nanofabrication of photonic structures' and should inspire bottom-up synthesis of new spectroscopic and optic devices.

Full story: Scientific American / Science Back to top

Micro fuel cell runs cool
January 07, 2004

One key to making practical fuel cells for portable devices is finding a design that allows the chemical reaction that extracts energy from fuel to happen at a reasonably cool temperature.

Researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles and Pennsylvania State University have made a tiny methane fuel cell that works at 60 degrees Celsius. They have also shown that the fuel cell can use high concentration methanol to increase its operating time. The tiny fuel cell could eventually be used in portable and microelectronics devices, according to the researchers.

The fuel cell takes in methanol and water on one side and air on the other side of a 750-micron-wide, 400-micron-deep channel bisected by a membrane. Hydrogen ions diffuse through the membrane, causing electrons to flow. The fuel cell waste products are methanol, water, air and carbon dioxide.

Full story: Technology Review / TRN Back to top

Philips shows off 'contactless' payment prototype
January 08, 2004

Philips Semiconductors has unveiled a new technology in cooperation with credit card provider Visa International that it said promises to make wireless commerce as easy as the wave of a hand.

Philips' Near Field Communication, or NFC, is a technology to enable a new kind of 'contactless' payment. As opposed to well-known limited- distance wireless standards such as Bluetooth, NFC has a much shorter range - about 10 centimetres - and does not require secured pairings as Bluetooth devices do.

Philips says its goal is to incorporate the NFC technology in a wide range of computers, handheld devices and cell phones. Visa said the technology could also be built into a new generation of credit cards. Philips is working with its frequent partner Sony on the NFC technology and has linked up with Visa for payment processing and security.

Full story: Yahoo / Reuters Back to top

Computer predicts facial future
January 08, 2004

Patients about to undergo complex facial surgery could be shown an computer-generated image of how their face will look afterwards. The software, developed at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, US, uses data from MRI scans to model layers of skin on the face. It predicts how they will knit together after surgery.

At the moment the computer is able to manipulate images of the various layers of skin and fat close to the surface, rather than the bone and muscle deeper down. Surgeons cutting out, for example, a tumour on the face, must cut the skin into flaps and fold it away from the operation site, then reposition them once they have finished. However, it is hard to predict how the skin will bunch or sag following this.

By calculating the relative thicknesses of the skin layers and the fat beneath, the software gives a rendering of how the face will look afterwards. Once the structure of the face has been mapped, a series of equations is applied to every segment to work out what it will do in response to the stresses and strains of surgery.

Full story: BBC News / New Scientist Back to top

Sony develops 40-hour mini disc
January 07, 2004

Sony has developed a technology that boosts the recording capacity of its mini disc by 30-fold to 40 hours. Sony plans to start selling the mini discs and recorders later this year.

The new disc is the same size as current discs, which record 80 minutes of sound, and the new machines will be able to play both new and current discs.

Sony's offering may be able to compete against digital audio products already on the market such as Apple Computer's iPod digital music player that holds up to 10,000 songs on a hard drive.

Full story: Ananova Back to top

French DVD gadget raises legal issue
January 07, 2004

Hollywood's bid to control how its films are copied, stored and played is being challenged again by a French company. Archos SA makes a small hand-held device that can record and then play back scores of films, TV shows and digital photos on its colour screen or a TV set. The gadget already has sold 100,000 units world-wide during the past six months, beating the big consumer electronics makers to the US market.

Archos's device ignores an anticopying code found on a majority of prerecorded DVDs. That means consumers can plug the Archos device into a DVD player and transfer a film to it. Users also can transfer recorded TV programs and digital music files to the Archos device. The Archos uses MPEG-4 compression to cram as many as 320 hours of video at near-DVD quality onto its hard drive.

A second kind of anticopying protection thwarts users from recording a playable copy of a DVD movie onto a PC's hard-drive and then onto the Archos. But videos can be transferred from the Archos to a PC, where they could be burned onto a DVD.

Full story: CNN / Wall Street Journal Back to top

Managers told to go easy on email warnings
January 08, 2004

Managers who write aggressive emails to staff have been warned they are counterproductive because they make workers feel 'negative'. New research has showed that receiving a strongly worded or threatening email, peppered with capital letters or with the word 'warning' is likely to increase blood pressure, leading to possible health problems.

Psychologists at the Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College sent emails to students to test their response. The highest blood pressure was recorded when students read an aggressive message sent by someone in a position of authority. The difference in blood pressure from reading a threatening message from a more softy worded one was said to be 'clinically significant'.

The researchers say it is possible that someone's health is damaged by high blood pressure caused by reading a threatening or aggressive email. The study showed that writing an aggressive e-mail was counterproductive.

Full story: Ananova Back to top