Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 28, 2004

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Issue 28, 2004

This week's headlines:

Microsoft wins again in Eolas patent dispute
August 18, 2004

The US Patent and Trademark Office has handed Microsoft a second victory in its dispute with Eolas, rejecting browser patent claims that could roil the web if upheld. The patent in question, owned by the University of California and licensed exclusively to its Eolas software spinoff, describes the way a web browser opens third-party applications, or 'plug-ins', within the browser.

In the second of what are projected to be three opinions, or 'office actions', on the case, the Patent Office rejected all 10 patent claims under review, according to a source familiar with the document. The agency's first office action on the matter came in February.

Eolas and the university still have at least one more chance to argue their case before the patent examiner in a decision being watched closely by the software industry. Even if UC and Eolas fail to sway the patent office and it winds up ruling against them, they have two levels of appeal, the first to the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences and the second to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington DC.

Full story: ZDNet / CNET News Back to top

Global anti-spam taskforce to fight junk email threat
August 12, 2004

A global taskforce has been set up to bring together regional efforts at tackling the growing problem of spam email. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which includes most of the world's industrialised countries, says the taskforce will marshal government and business anti-spam initiatives, in one of the most comprehensive and strategic efforts to date.

Key objectives of the OECD anti-spam group include coordinating international policy responses in the fight against spam, encouraging best practices in industry and business, promoting enhanced technical measures to combat spam along with improved awareness and understanding among consumers. The OECD says the initiative will also support efforts to facilitate cross-border law enforcement.

The taskforce has been given two years to develop and promote an anti-spam 'tool-kit' with practical anti-spam strategies and to devise a public awareness campaign to support a global crackdown on junk email.

Full story: Back to top

Quantum teleportation across the Danube river demonstrated
August 19, 2004

Scientists at the Institute for Experimental Physics in Vienna have successfully teleported photons more than 600 metres across the Danube.

The researchers fired a laser through a barium borate crystal to generate two pairs of photons. One pair is entangled, which means that if something disturbs the state of one, the other feels the effects as well - even when they are not physically connected. By separating the entangled pair, the scientists successfully transported information about the state of one photon to the other.

Using fibre-optic cable laid under the water in sewer pipes, together with microwaves sent across the air above the water, three distinct states were teleported across the Danube. Over the course of a 28-hour experimental run, the system was correct 97 per cent of the time.

The results indicate that quantum teleportation is feasible over long distances and under real-world conditions, the scientists say.

Full story: Scientific American / Nature Back to top

Scientists: Nanotech risks need study
July 29, 2004

Nanotechnology offers tremendous potential, but regulation is needed to minimise any future risks, scientists warn. The technology could lead to more powerful computers, very light but strong materials, and advanced medical techniques. But a report by Britain's Royal Society, an academy of leading scientists, and the Royal Academy of Engineering, said more research is needed to discover any negative effects it may have.

Prophets of doom have painted a nightmare scenario of nanotechnology leading to self-replicating robots and turning the Earth into a 'gray goo'. Fears have also been raised that people could breathe in designer materials so small that they can slip through membranes inside the body.

The report, commissioned by the UK government, suggested that nanoparticles and nanotubes be treated as new chemicals under European legislation because they have different properties from the same chemical in larger form. It also called for exposure limits in the workplace and said nanoparticles should be approved by an independent scientific safety committee before they are used in consumer products.

Full story: ZDNet / Reuters Back to top

Mobile phones 'pose rural risk'
August 19, 2004

People who use mobile phones in remote, rural areas are significantly more at risk from potentially harmful emissions, according to a Swedish study. The study found the power required by mobile phones in the countryside was up to 1,000 times greater than in urban areas because phone base stations are further away.

The Institute of Environmental Medicine looked at 230,000 hours of phone calls in four different places - a small village with open countryside, a small town, a suburb and Stockholm. They found greater number of signal transmitters in built-up areas meant the power required to get a signal was significantly lower and concluded this should be taken into account by people who make a lot of calls in rural areas.

There have been claims that mobile phones can cause cancer and reduce male fertility but experts have not yet reached any firm conclusions.

Full story: The Scotsman Back to top

Researchers find high cancer rates near AM transmitters
August 16, 2004

Korean scientists have found that regions near AM radio-broadcasting towers had 70 per cent more leukaemia deaths than those without. The study also found that cancer deaths were 29 per cent higher near such transmitters. Two years ago an Italian study found death rates from leukaemia increased dramatically for residents living within two miles of Vatican Radio's powerful array of transmitters in Rome.

The Koreans looked at the death rates in 10 regions with AM radio transmitting towers broadcasting at more than 100 kilowatts and compared them with control areas without transmitters. The substantially higher cancer mortality in those who lived within two kilometres of the towers led researchers to conclude that more investigation was needed but they said did it not prove a direct link between cancer and the transmitters.

Meanwhile, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Health Organisation are urging more studies, especially of radio waves from cell phones.

Full story: Wired News Back to top

Nanotubes may have no 'temperature'
August 17, 2004

Physicists have made a bizarre discovery: the concept of temperature is meaningless in some tiny objects. Although the concept of temperature is known to break down on the scale of individual atoms, research now suggests that it may also fail to apply in rather larger entities, such as carbon nanotubes that could be used to make tiny electronic devices.

Researchers from the University of Surrey, Guildford, UK say that if you took the temperature at one end of a 10-micrometre nanotube, it would not necessarily have the same temperature as the other end, no matter how long it was left to reach a thermal equilibrium.

The finding could shock some scientists working on nanoscale devices, who may not expect temperature to behave in this way. 'If you're down to a scale where temperature is not relevant, the fluctuations in physical properties of that system could be unpredictable, and that is potentially bad for any device,' says Peter Atkins, a physical chemist at University of Oxford.

Full story: Nature Back to top

Virtual 3D heart to treat babies
August 18, 2004

Virtual reality techniques are helping Danish doctors diagnose heart defects in newborn babies. The system turns flat images produced by conventional MRI body scanners into giant, rounded models of the child's heart, which surgeons can navigate through and explore from every angle.

Research published in last month's Circulation magazine shows that these VR heart images can highlight defects that would be easily missed by doctors studying conventional scans. The system also lets a doctor to revert to the baby's original, flat MRI scan.

The technique has been developed by the Aarhus University Hospital in collaboration with the University of Aarhus Centre for Advanced Visualisation and Interaction. Future developments of the system will allow surgeons to practise the surgical treatments they are planning to use on their tiny patients.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Quantum dots can print secret codes
August 18, 2004

Researchers from the Canadian National Research Council have devised a way to use quantum dots to print invisible secret codes onto surfaces such as documents. The dots measure between 3 and 6 nanometres in diameter. The method could eventually be used to authenticate valuable documents such as passports and certificates, the researchers say.

Quantum dots can be made to emit one wavelength of light when hit with a second wavelength of light. The method uses three quantum dots that emit three different colours of light. The intensity levels of the three lightwave peaks represent a three-digit code. The code can be kept secret because the intensity levels change depending on the colour of the light source. For example, three single-colour quantum dots can emit fluorescence corresponding to the code of 2-7-3 when hit with 470nm light waves, but the code changes to 3-5-3 when hit with 450nm light.

The correct code can be read only by a person who knows the key, which is the correct wavelength of light for each set of three quantum dots contained in the cryptograph.

Full story: Technology Research News Back to top

Handwriting analysis goes 3D
August 18, 2004

A new technique that uses three-dimensional holograms to analyse handwriting samples exposes writing characteristics that forgers cannot fake. The method may prove to be the most powerful tool yet in identifying fraudulent signatures on checks and other legal documents.

Traditionally, forensic handwriting experts have tried to spot forgeries by analysing the sequence of pen strokes used by the author to create a word. But experts often have a hard time discerning these 'stroke dynamics', especially if a skilled forger is at work.

But scientists at the Università degli Studi 'Roma Tre' in Rome used a hologram generator to create 3D images of writing samples. The device transforms seemingly flat letters into landscapes of hills and valleys that reveal the pressure and stroke sequence used to create each word.

The researchers tested their system by comparing writing samples made with various combinations of pen and paper types. They found that the holographic image indicated the proper stroke order in almost 90 per cent of cases.

Full story: Science Now Back to top

DNA technique protects against spam
August 19, 2004

A technique originally designed to analyse DNA sequences is the latest weapon in the war against spam. The algorithm named Chung-Kwei is based on the Teiresias algorithm, designed to search different DNA and amino acid sequences for recurring patterns.

Instead of chains of characters representing DNA sequences, the research group fed the algorithm 65,000 examples of known spam. Each email was treated as a long, DNA-like chain of characters. Teiresias identified six million recurring patterns in this collection. Each pattern represented a common sequence of letters and numbers that had appeared in more than one unsolicited message. The researchers then ran a collection of known non-spam through the same process, and removed the patterns that occurred in both groups.

Incoming email was given a score based on how many spam patterns it had. The Chung-Kwei correctly identified 64,665 of 66,697 test messages as being spam or 96.56 per cent. More importantly, its rate of misidentifying genuine email as spam was just 1 in 6,000 messages.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Stealth wallpaper keeps company secrets safe
August 04, 2004

A type of wallpaper that prevents Wi-Fi signals escaping from a building without blocking mobile phone signals has been developed by a British defence contractor.

BAE Systems, formerly British Aerospace, has developed anti-Wi-Fi wallpaper, made from a 0.1-millimetre-thick sheet of kapton, the same plastic used to make flexible printed circuit boards in lightweight portable gadgets like camcorders. The kapton is coated on each side with a thin film of copper.

On one side most of the copper is removed, leaving a grid of copper crosses. On the other side, matching crosses, turned through 45 degrees, are etched away leaving a film of copper with a grid of cross-shaped holes. By carefully changing the size of the crosses and their spacing, the sheet can pass precisely defined frequencies, while blocking all others. BAE is now working on a transparent version to cover windows.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Sun thinking turns to floating chips
July 30, 2004

In the future, chips might just loosely float around in some oil-like substance instead of being stuck to a circuit board, if researchers at Sun Microsystems are right.

Sun's 'proximity communications' technology will eliminate the need for a chip to have a physical connection to the motherboard and other chips within a system, resulting in a dramatic speed increase while delivering a fivefold power reduction. Instead of being connected with physical wires, chips will float on top of each other divided by a space just a few microns wide. This effectively creates a capacitor, allowing the chips to communicate without physically touching.

A new technology, yet to be developed, will hold the chips in place and aligned to each other, as well as correct for the chips if they become misaligned. Scientists involved with the technology said that, at the current pace, they did not expect any real applications before 2009.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

Wireless net to get speed boost
August 15, 2004

Wi-fi is set to accelerate Wireless networks could soon be running 10 times faster than they do now. Competing technology groups are proposing different ways to speed up the data rates of wi-fi.

The battling technologies, called WWise and TGn Sync, are being assessed by the US Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which rubber stamps improvements to wireless technology. Both proposals to speed up wi-fi exist largely on paper and could take years to find their way into hardware. The IEEE oversees developments to wi-fi technology, the most well known of which is 802.11. Currently the fastest 802.11 technology works at speeds of 54mbps.

By fiddling with the way wi-fi transmits data the WWise group claims it can reach speeds of 540mbps. Using a more standard approach the group believes it can boost speeds to 135mbps. Details about TGn Sync are sketchy but it too is aiming for speeds in excess of 500mbps. Final decisions on the 802.11n standard are not expected before 2007.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Unpatched PCs down to 20min 'survival time'
August 18, 2004

An unpatched Windows PC connected to the internet will last for only around 20 minutes before it is compromised by malware, according to security experts - down from 40 minutes in 2003. The Internet Storm Centre calculated the 20-minute 'survival time' by listening on vacant IP addresses and timing the frequency of reports received there.

The drop from 40 minutes to 20 minutes is worrying because it means the average 'survival time' is not long enough for a user to download the very patches that would protect a PC from internet threats.

In a guide to patching a new Windows system, the Internet Storm Centre recommends that users turn off Windows file sharing and enable the Internet Connection Firewall. Microsoft's latest security update, Windows XP Service Pack 2, will set such a configuration, but users will have to go online to get the update, opening themselves up to attack.

Full story: / CNET News Back to top