Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 12, 2008

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Issue 12, 2008

This week's headlines:

MIT and Fraunhofer team up on solar research
April 15, 2008

MIT and the Fraunhofer Institute are to establish a research centre in Massachusetts focused on reducing the cost of solar energy over the next five years.

The MIT-Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems is being established to develop technologies and materials aimed at designing and producing better solar modules.

The facility will be built alongside the MIT campus and will specialise in solar research and other areas of sustainable energy sources. Start-up costs of the centre will be funded with USD 5m from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

Google tackles child pornography
April 14, 2008

Google engineers have adapted a software program to help track child sex predators and search for patterns in images of abuse on the web. Google has created the technology for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

Google says its aim in teaming up with the centre's Technology Coalition Against Child Pornography is to develop solutions that would make it harder for people to use the web to exploit children or traffic in child pornography.

Since 2002 the NCMEC has pored over 13 million child sex abuse images and videos in an effort to help police identify and rescue children from harm. In the last year they have looked at five million pictures. Google says the new tools will enable the centre's analysts to search their systems more quickly and easily as they try to sort and identify files that contain images of child sex abuse victims.

The tool was originally developed to block copyrighted videos on the Google's YouTube division. The program uses pattern recognition to enable analysts to sort and identify files containing child sex abuse.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Terahertz speed circuits get closer
April 16, 2008

Tools to direct and combine signals carried by terahertz radiation are bringing super-fast data-processing closer, say US researchers. Their new devices are to high-frequency waves what wires are to electricity.

Terahertz frequencies are the only part of the electromagnetic spectrum not used by humans and are now being explored for higher bandwidth wireless communications or security scanners able to look through clothing. But engineers at the University of Utah, US, are more interested in using them to process information.

The Utah team built and designed the first waveguides that can steer terahertz signals around corners, and even split and combine them. Waveguides perform the job that pipes or wires do for electromagnetic waves like light or radio. Electric circuits use wires, but electromagnetic circuits need waveguides.

The terahertz waveguides were made by etching out trails of tiny regular rectangular holes 50 by 500 micrometres in size in stainless steel sheets just under a millimetre thick. Each trail can guide terahertz waves about 10 cm across the metal surface. As well as turning terahertz waves around corners, waveguides can split signals into two using Y-shaped junctions and combine them using X-shaped junctions.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Researchers promise 500,000GB iPod
April 17, 2008

A nanotechnology breakthrough at the University of Glasgow could pave the way for MP3 players with a storage capacity 150,000 times greater than today's top-of-the-range devices. Researchers claim to have developed a molecule-sized switch which dramatically boosts storage capacity without the need to increase the physical size of players.

The technology could see 500,000GB crammed into a square inch microchip, allowing users to store hundreds of millions of video clips and music tracks on a single device, well in excess of the 40,000 songs on today's largest capacity players. The research could also transform storage on other consumer electronics, including DVD players.

The fact that these switches work on carbon means they could be embedded in plastic chips so silicon is not needed. The system becomes much more flexible both physically and technologically, according to the researchers.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

Webpages have 'come alive and started breeding'
April 16, 2008

For two decades, computer scientists have played around with evolutionary software that can gradually evolve and mutate to carry out a task efficiently, or hone the design without the need for a programmer to get involved. Now these techniques are being used to allow websites to keep themselves up to date and to adapt to the latest fads and fashion. Not only are they quicker to evolve than possible with human intervention, they offer the chance to come up with new ways to organise material in the web that work best for users.

Researchers at Creative Synthesis, a non-profit organisation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have created evolutionary software that alters colours, fonts and hyperlinks of pages in response to what seems to grab the attention of the people who click on the site. The software treats each feature as a 'gene' that is randomly changed as a page is refreshed. After evaluating what seems to work, it kills the genes associated with lower scoring features.

The pages gradually morph to be more pleasing. Interestingly, they do not simply reflect a consensus of what people want to see, since the random element means the exercise is truly creative. The mutations will always occur and while they are responsive to human attention, they are not bound by them. It is possible to develop unique mutations that may actually influence human goals, rather than the other way around, according to the researchers.

Full story: Daily Telegraph / New Scientist Back to top

Neanderthals speak out after 30,000 years
April 15, 2008

Talk about a long silence – no one has heard their voices for 30,000 years. Now the long-extinct Neanderthals are speaking up.

Robert McCarthy, an anthropologist at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton has used new reconstructions of Neanderthal vocal tracts to simulate the voice. He says the ancient human's speech lacked the 'quantal vowel' sounds that underlie modern speech. Quantal vowels provide cues that help speakers with different size vocal tracts understand one another, says McCarthy.

McCarthy teamed up with Linguist Phil Lieberman to simulate Neanderthal speech based on new reconstructions of three Neanderthal vocal tracts. By modelling the sounds the Neanderthal pipes would have made, the team engineered the sound of a Neanderthal saying 'E'. They plan to eventually simulate an entire Neanderthal sentence.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Water-proof edible packaging
April 14, 2008

Edible films have been increasingly used in recent years to protect food items from oxygen and also as a more sustainable alternative to traditional packaging.

But the most commonly used material for an edible film, a polysaccharide such as starch, has one significant disadvantage: it is broken down by water. That means that so far edible packaging is much less useful than more traditional and less sustainable materials like plastics.

Now Jung Han at the department of food science at the University of Manitoba in Canada says that adding beeswax to starch from peas produces an edible material that can be spread into thin films but is water resistant too.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top