Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 12, 2004

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Issue 12, 2004

This week's headlines:

Nanoparticles toxic in aquatic habitat, study finds
March 29, 2004

The first study to look at the health effects of manufactured 'nanoparticles' on aquatic animals has found troubling evidence that the molecules can trigger organ damage. At modest concentrations, the particles triggered damaging biochemical reactions in the brains of fish and wiped out complete populations of 'water fleas'.

The findings by researchers at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas underscore the growing recognition that the hot new field of nanotechnology may bring with it a number of old-fashioned trade-offs in terms of potential environmental damage and health risks.

Nanotechnology is an emerging field of science that deals with tiny engineered molecules. Because of the novel arrangements of the atoms in these molecules - and because the laws of physics behave differently at such scales - nanoparticles display bizarre chemical properties, making them potentially useful in products such as computer components, but also making them potentially biologically disruptive.

Full story: Washington Post Back to top

Google plans rival e-mail service
April 01, 2004

The web's most popular search engine Google has revealed plans to provide a free online email service in a bid to rival Yahoo and MSN. 'Gmail', which is currently being tested by a relatively small number of users, will permit storage of up to one gigabyte of data for free.

Yahoo, which leads the free online email market with over 52 million users, provides four megabytes of storage space. And Hotmail gives its 45 million users just two megabytes of free space.

For every million users Google attracts, it will have to provide 1,000 terabytes of storage. However, some estimates suggest it will cost Google only a few dollars per gigabyte. The company intends to make money from Gmail by displaying text advertisements next to email messages, selected to reflect the content of those messages. A possible downside is that users must be willing to have their email routinely searched by Google, even though this will be an automated process.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

EU orders legislation on spam and cookies
April 01, 2004

The European Union ordered eight countries Thursday to enact privacy legislation governing spam and internet cookies. It was the second warning sent to the countries, which have two months to comply or face lawsuits before the European Court of Justice.

Since the initial warning was sent last November, Sweden has enacted the legislation, but Belgium, Germany, Greece, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Finland have not.

Last July, the EU adopted a tough privacy regulation on electronic communications. It bans all commercial e-mail unless a recipient has asked for it. The regulation also sets strict rules for installing cookies which hook a computer into a website. However, the regulation must be approved by each national parliament to become effective.

Full story: CNN / AP Back to top

Europe's song-swappers face court
March 30, 2004

The music industry is to take legal action against 247 online song-swappers across Europe in the biggest crackdown against music piracy outside the US. The International Federation for the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) has said it will pursue serious offenders across the continent through the court system.

The first wave of legal actions will affect Germany, Italy, Denmark and Canada, and will be implemented according to those countries' laws. In Italy, 30 people have already been charged with copyright infringement, while computers and files have been seized as evidence. In Denmark, 120 people have been sent civil demands asking them to stop illegal file-sharing and pay compensation - or face legal action.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

IBM to develop self-configuring chips
March 31, 2004

Future microprocessors from IBM will optimize their performance by altering themselves, adding memory or removing unneeded bits of circuitry on the fly, the company's chief technologist said Wednesday.

The self-morphing chips, still in development, were disclosed as IBM revealed wide-ranging plans for the company's current generation of chips, the Power5. IBM hopes to work with outside technology developers to make Power chips a flexible, widely used driver of several kinds of computing systems, from high-end corporate servers to video game consoles and handheld devices.

For decades, microprocessors have gotten ever faster by cramming more and more transistors onboard, but the physical limitations of the materials involved is making it harder to shrink the dimensions much further. IBM's vision is that instead of relying on continual improvements in chip speed, chips must be more cleverly designed to combine more computing functions.

Full story: Yahoo / AP Back to top

Simputer for poor goes on sale
March 29, 2004

A cheap handheld computer designed by Indian scientists has been launched after a delay of nearly three years. The Simputer was officially launched on Friday and the basic model costs around $240.

The Simputer is the first computer to be designed and manufactured in India. It was developed by scientists and engineers at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore who were looking for a way of taking the internet revolution to India's rural masses. But it had a troubled time moving out of the development labs and into commercial production.

People can use the Simputer to surf the net, send e-mails or organise their finances, using a stylus to write on screen. It also comes with software to let users type notes and letters in Hindi and Kannada. In order to keep costs down, the computer uses the Linux operating system.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Japanese rush to buy 3G mobiles
March 31, 2004

Japanese mobile telephone company NTT DoCoMo has said more than three million people have signed up for its third-generation (3G) service. More than one million users switched to the option in the past month.

DoCoMo launched the world's first 3G service in 2001, enabling callers to see each other and send video footage via their phones. Its success is being watched closely in Europe where there has been huge investment in 3G services.

DoCoMo aimed to sign up 2.4 million users for its Foma service by the end of the financial year. Surpassing that figure, the company said it expected its subscriber base to continue to grow at a 'rapid pace'.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Curved lens array widens 3D display
March 31, 2004

Although 3D screens have been around in different forms for decades, they generally have downsides. Some types require glasses, others cannot be viewed from much more than a 15-degree angle or are fairly dim.

Researchers from Seoul National University in Korea have showed that using curved lenses doubles the viewing angle of three-dimensional integral imaging systems without sacrificing brightness. The technique could eventually be used for three-dimensional billboards and three-dimensional television, according to the researchers.

Current integrated imaging systems project sections of images through an array of lenses. The sections are combined, or integrated, at a point in front of the display to produce a 3D image. These displays have a limited viewing angle because the image sections must be wider the farther they are from the centre of the display, and can be only so wide before they overlap. The researchers' prototype uses a lens array that is curved rather than flat. This increases the viewing angle because the lenses angle around the viewer, keeping the image sections proportional.

Full story: Technology Research News Back to top

Smell cannon targets virtual reality users
April 01, 2004

A new device can track an individual, shoot an aroma directly at their nose, and leave the person next to them unaffected. The air cannon was developed by researchers at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Kyoto, Japan, as a technique for directing evocative smells to people exploring virtual-reality environments. But marketing specialists could seize on the air cannon as a way of tempting shoppers.

The main components of the air cannon are a chamber with a fine nozzle at one end and a flexible diaphragm at the other, plus a jet that delivers a variety of smelly vapours into the chamber. When the cannon is fired, a coil pushes the diaphragm forward to compress air inside the chamber, forcing a fine jet of aroma-rich air in the required direction.

The device tracks the person with a camera, which follows the target's eyes. Software on a PC analyses the video images and controls motors that steer the gun in three dimensions. Once it has a fix on the eyes, it aims low to direct the puff of air at the target's nose.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Scientists put on thinking caps
March 31, 2004

A device that could be the forerunner of a creativity-boosting 'thinking cap' has been built and tested by scientists at Australia's Centre for the Mind. The machine applies a magnetic pulse to the left frontotemporal lobe of the brain.

In tests it produced notable effects in four of 11 volunteers, who were able to draw more 'natural' pictures of people and animals. Two participants also showed a greatly enhanced ability to spot non-obvious mistakes in written phrases. The theory behind the technique, called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is that by shutting off part of the brain hidden talents are allowed to come to the fore.

The scientist hit on the idea after investigating the phenomenon of autistic savants - mentally impaired people who display amazing skills in art, language or mathematics. One theory is that autism can damage a part of the brain that allows unconscious raw data to shine through. Under normal circumstances these raw data are simplified to prevent the brain from being overloaded.

Full story: Ananova / New Scientist Back to top

Snapshot chat creates automatic captions
March 31, 2004

Digital photography is booming, and people are storing ever greater volumes of photos on their PCs. The trouble is that they rarely label their photos, making it often very difficult to locate a picture. Now, researchers' at Hewlett Packard aim to tap into the wealth of information in the conversations people have when they talk about their photos with friends.

To harness this information, special software records these conversations to hard disc, converts the speech to text using a speech-recognition program, and then extracts keywords with which the photos are captioned and indexed.

The current prototype runs on a PC equipped with a microphone, and automatically starts recording when a digital photo album is opened and a commentary on the pictures has started. It stops after 30 seconds of verbal inactivity.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Flash mob to attempt supercomputing feat
March 29, 2004

On Saturday 3 April, over 1,000 laptop owners will converge on the gym of University of San Francisco in an attempt to build a 'flash mob' supercomputer. The organisers hope that FlashMob will run fast enough to beat supercomputers in the list of the world's top 500 supercomputers.

The majority of the supercomputers in the top 500 are billion-dollar custom-made machines, available only to governments and researchers at top institutions. In contrast, FlashMob's only costs are 1,000 CDs containing the software and cables to wire the laptops together.

The team wrote software that not only allows the computers to share lots of data quickly, but also determines each processor's speed and memory as it goes. This allows the computational tasks to be allocated in the most efficient way possible. To beat the slowest computer in the top 500, FlashMob will have to perform a rigorous mathematical calculation called Linpack at a rate of at least 403 billion flops (floating point operations per second).

Full story: New Scientist Back to top