Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 19, 2005

This is the online version of UNU-MERIT’s I&T Weekly which is sent out by email every Friday. If you wish to subscribe to this free service, please submit your email address in the box to the right.

Issue 19, 2005

This week's headlines:

US gives allies extra year on biometric passports
June 15, 2005

Washington on Wednesday retreated from its demand that close allies, including many European countries, begin to issue new high-tech passports from the end of October.

The decision will give the 27 'visa-free' countries an extra year to start adopting full-scale biometric passports. It is a big shift in US policy. It follows lobbying by the US travel industry, which feared losing billions of dollars if visitors were put off. The EU had also warned that countries needed another year to finish the documents, which are part of 'anti-terror' drives.

Washington has for more than two years insisted visa-free countries begin introducing biometric passports to prevent terrorists using fakes. The passports will include digital photographs and personal data embedded on an electronic chip. The US has issued passports with digital photographs since 1998, but is not yet producing biometric passports.

Full story: Financial Times Back to top

Europe to push ahead with digital snooping law
June 09, 2005

Legislation that would require telephone companies and internet service providers (ISPs) to save information about customers' communications is set to proceed despite being rejected by the European parliament.

The legislation's draft proposal was introduced jointly by France, Ireland, Sweden and the UK to aid law enforcement in combating terrorist acts. It will require phone companies and ISPs to retain customer data such as the time, date and location of sent and received emails and phone calls for 12 to 36 months. The content of the communications, however, will not be retained.

The European parliament rejected the proposal on June 7, partly on grounds it could be illegal. In spite of this rejection, the Council of Ministers will stand by the proposal, which has now been referred back to the parliamentary civil liberties committee. The European Commission is also getting involved. It has said it will introduce a new proposal for communications data retention with a different legal basis by the summer.

Full story: Back to top

UK drives plans for united tech Europe
June 13, 2005

The UK will use its forthcoming presidency of the EU to drive through stronger initiatives for interoperable and collaborative ebusiness and e-government solutions across Europe, as well as seeking to liberalise the telecoms industry.

The UK takes over the presidency on 1 July and it lasts until the end of the year. During that time UK's Department of Trade and Industry is adamant it will be a force for change within Europe's IT infrastructure, policy control and regulation.

The UK presidency will address full implementation of the 2003 EU Telecoms Package. This plan would consolidate regulation in communications across the EU and provide a level playing field for competition.

Full story: Back to top

Data 'smuggling' opens websites to attack
June 13, 2005

Thousands of websites may be at risk from a new form of network attack that involves burying harmful packets of data within seemingly legitimate ones. Researchers at US computer security firm Watchfire discovered the attack technique, which they dub 'HTTP Request Smuggling' (HRS). It exploits discrepancies in the way different combinations of software deal with HTTP, the language used to transfer webpages.

Carefully crafting HTTP packets to make use of these discrepancies could enable hackers to carry out a range of nefarious acts, the researchers say. For example, an attacker could replace pages on a website, or sneak destructive code past defences designed to filter out unsafe data packets. The problem affects scores of different products and there are many possible variations, the researchers say.

Ben Laurie, a UK software programmer specialising in internet security, expects HTTP smuggling to be exploited by hackers before long and that the only sure way to counteract the threat is to carefully follow the HTTP guidelines strictly.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Scientists ready to implant artificial eye
June 14, 2005

Scientists at the Rheinisch Westfälische Technische Hochschule in Aachen, Germany, have developed an artificial eye which they say they are now ready to implant into a human patient.

The researchers have fitted a pair of glasses with a tiny video camera and an encoder that sends the images to an implant fitted at the back of the eye. The implant will let the user recognise outlines of objects and also see in black and white, and differentiate between different shades of light and dark.

Initially it will target sufferers of the hereditary disease Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) which causes gradual deterioration of the light sensitive cells of the retina. But the researchers are hoping the technology could also be used for other types of blindness if initial trials are a success.

Full story: Ananova Back to top

Finger scanner fine-tunes car safety settings
June 14, 2005

A dashboard finger scanner could prevent thousands of car injuries each year by fine-tuning crash restraint systems to a passenger's bone density.

The ultrasound scanner, developed by researchers at Cranfield Impact Research Centre (CIRC) and Nissan Technical Centre Europe, UK, assesses an individual's tolerance to injury, allowing an onboard computer to adjust the force applied by their seatbelt and airbag accordingly.

The ultrasound sensor tries to determine how much strain a passenger can take by firing harmless sound pulses through a finger and measuring the amount of time they take to pass through. This reveals the density of the bone, allowing an onboard computer to configure the smart seatbelt and air bag settings to prevent injury. Crash simulations suggested that the system could reduce chest injuries in older men and women by about 20 per cent.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

'Walking' octopus inspires soft robots
June 07, 2005

The surprise discovery that octopi can 'walk' along the sea bed on two tentacles has inspired scientists seeking to create of a new generation of soft, flexible robots. Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley believe they can develop artificial muscles for use in a new field of soft robotics using the studies of the octopus's movement.

While the octopus walks on two arms, the other six are pulled up under the body. Importantly, the movement is much more fluid than in creatures with a skeleton. Researchers believe the octopus is an excellent model for how robots that move might be built without hard parts.

A prototype of a segment of what might become an octopus-like arm has already been built. It is a 'rolled' artificial muscle - a tube with a spring inside, into which electric current can be put. The tube can shorten, lengthen, and bend in all directions. It is hoped the technology can feed into the creation of rescue robots, which can move into spaces that no other robot could get into.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

IBM flogs 'human brain' supercomputer
June 06, 2005

IBM has sold a multimillion-dollar model of its new Blue Gene/L supercomputer to simulate the workings of the human brain.

The Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland, purchased the supercomputer, dubbed Blue Brain, and its researchers will collaborate with experts from IBM on the project.

The two-year project will build a three-dimensional model that simulates the electrochemistry of a major portion of the brain, the neocortex, with plans to simulate other parts and eventually the entire brain. The researchers hope to understand processes such as perception, thought and memory and to illuminate how malfunctions in the brain's circuitry can lead to problems such as autism or schizophrenia.

The system will also be used for semiconductor, physics and protein research.

Full story: / CNET Back to top

Touch screens jog social memories
June 15, 2005

An easy-to-use touch screen multimedia system has helped people with dementia be more interactive with carers. The Computer Interactive Reminiscence and Conversation Aid (Circa) packages clips of old films, music and photos which can be played via a touch screen.

Reminiscence therapy is important for dementia sufferers, but they are often led and controlled by the carer. Circa instead lets the individual take control by choosing clips that may trigger some memory and conversation.

The team from St Andrews University, UK, who developed and tested the system over three years is now looking at creating a similar one which individuals could use alone. They hope the research could be built on to help people with learning problems and head injuries in the future. The Circa system is based on so-called hypermedia - linked content that works like internet hyperlinks. It uses the carefully chosen media as memory aids and prompts instead.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Pacman comes to life virtually
June 06, 2005

A human version of the classic arcade game Pacman, superimposing the virtual 3D game world on to city streets and buildings, is being developed by researchers at the Mixed Reality Lab, National University of Singapore.

Players equipped with a wearable computer, headset and goggles can physically enter a real world game space by choosing to play the role of Pacman or one of the Ghosts. A central computer system keeps track of all their movements with the aid of GPS receivers and a wireless local area network. Merging different technologies such as GPS, Bluetooth, virtual reality, wi-fi, infrared and sensing mechanisms, the augmented reality game allows gamers to play in a digitally-enhanced maze-like version of the real world.

It has been selected as one of the world's top 100 high-impact and visionary technologies and will be showcased at the Wired NextFest 2005 in Chicago, US, which runs from June 24 to 26.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Hacker 'was trying for proof of aliens'
June 15, 2005

A Briton said to be the 'biggest military hacker of all time' was accused of breaking into 97 US government computers during an extradition hearing in London this week. The US government says that Gary McKinnon, 39, an unemployed computer engineer, had caused around $700,000 damage.

McKinnon says he had broken into systems partly in an attempt to prove aliens exist. He believes the US government knew about UFOs and has been concealing it. He also wanted to expose weaknesses in the American security systems because he is a pacifist.

McKinnon now faces a US jail term of up to 70 years on 20 charges. The court heard he had recently started a temporary computer job and would be contesting the extradition request.

Full story: Daily Telegraph Back to top