Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 19, 2009

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Issue 19, 2009

This week's headlines:

New radio chip mimics human ear
June 04, 2009

MIT engineers have built a fast, ultra-broadband, low-power radio chip, modelled on the human inner ear or cochlea, that could enable wireless devices capable of receiving cell phone, Internet, radio and television signals. The chip, dubbed the 'radio frequency (RF) cochlea', mimics the structure and function of the biological cochlea, which uses fluid mechanics, piezoelectrics and neural signal processing to convert sound waves into electrical signals that are sent to the brain.

As sound waves enter the cochlea, they create mechanical waves in the cochlear membrane and the fluid of the inner ear, activating hair cells. The cochlea can perceive a 100-fold range of frequencies - in humans, from 100 to 10,000 Hz. The researchers used the same design principles in the RF cochlea to create a device that can perceive signals at million-fold higher frequencies, which includes radio signals for most commercial wireless applications.

The RF cochlea, embedded on a silicon chip measuring 1.5 mm by 3 mm, works as an antilog spectrum analyzer, detecting the composition of any electromagnetic waves within its perception range. Electromagnetic waves travel through electronic inductors and capacitors. Electronic transistors play the role of the cochlea's hair cells. The analogue RF cochlea chip is faster than any other RF spectrum analyzer and consumes about 100 times less power than what would be required for direct digitization of the entire bandwidth. That makes it desirable as a component of a universal or 'cognitive' radio, which could receive a broad range of frequencies and select which ones to attend to.

Full story: Science Daily / IEEE Journal of Solid-State Circuits Back to top

Bridging the gap to quantum world
June 03, 2009

Scientists at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (Nist) in the US have 'entangled' the motions of pairs of atoms for the first time. Entanglement is an effect in quantum mechanics and describes how properties of two or more objects can be inextricably linked over 'vast' distances. The results further bridge the gap between the world of quantum mechanics and the laws of everyday experience.

This is the first time entanglement has been seen in a so-called 'mechanical system'. The phenomenon suggests that a measurement performed on one object can affect the measurement on another object some distance away. It also implies that the behaviour of two separate objects is linked by some unseen connection.

Entanglement could be exploited in future quantum computers, because the inherent probability-based nature of quantum systems means they can compute certain kinds of problems significantly more quickly than current 'classical' computers.

Full story: BBC News / Nature Back to top

Robot sub reaches the world's deepest abyss
June 02, 2009

A robotic submarine named Nereus has become the third craft in history to reach the deepest part of the world's oceans, at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean. The dive to Challenger Deep, an abyss within the Mariana Trench that reaches 11,000 metres beneath the waves, was completed on 31 May by a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Massachussetts, US.

For the expedition, the team had to build a new breed of remotely-operated submarine, called Nereus, which is capable of going deeper than any other while still filming and collecting samples. Sunday's dive makes it the world's deepest-diving vehicle, and the first vehicle to explore the Mariana Trench since 1998.

Only two other vehicles have ever reached the bottom of Challenger Deep: US bathyscaphe Trieste, which carried Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in 1960, and the Japanese robot Kaiko, which made three unmanned expeditions to the trench between 1995 and 1998. Trieste was retired in 1966, and Kaiko was lost at sea in 2003.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Software 'gives children a voice'
June 04, 2009

Scientists say they have developed the first technology of its kind to allow children with communication problems to converse better. 'How was school today?' is software to help children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy communicate faster. The system is the result of a project between computing scientists from the Universities of Aberdeen and Dundee, and Capability Scotland.

For a child with severe motor disabilities and limited or no speech, holding a conversation is often very difficult and limited to short one to two word answers. To tell a longer story a communication device is often needed to form sentences but this can be very time consuming, putting a lot of strain on holding and controlling the conversation.

The new software uses sensors, swipe cards, and a recording device to gather information on what the child using the system has experienced at school that day. This can then be turned into a story by the computer - using what is called natural language generation - which the pupils can then share when they get home. The system is designed to support a more interactive narration, allowing children to easily talk about their school day and to quickly answer questions, according to the researchers.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Density triggers cultural explosions
June 05, 2009

Increasing population density, rather than boosts in human brain power, appears to have catalysed the emergence of modern human behaviour, according to a new study by University College London scientists.

High population density leads to greater exchange of ideas and skills and prevents the loss of new innovations. It is this skill maintenance, combined with a greater probability of useful innovations, that led to modern human behaviour appearing at different times in different parts of the world.

The team found that complex skills learnt across generations can only be maintained when there is a critical level of interaction between people. Using computer simulations of social learning, they showed that high and low-skilled groups could coexist over long periods of time and that the degree of skill they maintained depended on local population density or the degree of migration between them.

Using genetic estimates of population size in the past, the team went on to show that density was similar in sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and the Middle-East when modern behaviour first appeared in each of these regions. The paper also points to evidence that population density would have dropped for climatic reasons at the time when modern human behaviour temporarily disappeared in sub-Saharan Africa.

Full story: ScienceDaily / Science Back to top

Text messages can quench plants' thirst
May 29, 2009

Carrots might not scream when pulled from the ground, but new technology is giving vegetables a voice in how they are raised. Microchipped plants can now send text messages to a farmer's cell phone and ask for water.

For areas that receive regular and plentiful rainfall, such detailed crop monitoring might not be useful or economical. But in the western United States, where much of the water comes from underground aquifers, conserving water, and more importantly, conserving the electricity that pumps it to the surface and across fields, could save farmers hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

The original cell phone for plants was developed years ago by scientists working with NASA on future manned missions to the moon and Mars. To reduce the amount of time and supplies necessary to grow crops, scientists clipped sensors, wired to a central computer, to plants so astronauts would know exactly when and how much water to give them. During the initial NASA tests the scientists were able to reduce the amount of water necessary to grow plants by 10% to 40%.

Full story: MSNBC Back to top

Doctors see more cases of 'cellphone elbow'
June 03, 2009

As people spend more time gabbing on cellphones, doctors in the US say they are seeing more cases of numbness, tingling and pain from 'cellphone elbow'. Cubital tunnel syndrome is similar to carpal tunnel syndrome that causes pain in the hand and wrist, but in this case it is the ulnar nerve that crosses the inside of the elbow that gets pinched.

Patients with cubital tunnel syndrome often notice numbness inside the hand in the ring and little finger but symptoms vary between people. When the ulnar nerve is stretched and tensed for a long time, it will become irritated and not perform well. Physiotherapy and acupuncture can settle the inflammation, and shaking and pumping the arm can also help.

If the nerve compression persists, symptoms may worsen to hand fatigue and weakness, including difficulty opening bottles or jars. In most cases, lifestyle changes can help prevent or resolve symptoms.

Full story: CBC News Back to top

Artificial sun gives salad its colour back
June 03, 2009

Unhealthily pale lettuce can make even the best salads look wan and unsavoury. But a couple of days under weak ultraviolet light before you pick it can make the lettuce more palatable.

Tests at a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) lab in Maryland show that an LED radiating just a few milliwatts in the UV-B band stimulates red-leaf lettuce to make the antioxidants that give it its characteristic colouring.

Growing crops in greenhouses, done to supply fresh greens all year round, blocks the UV in sunlight that normally prompts lettuce and other crops to make antioxidants outdoors. Fluorescent lamps could be used to provide the missing UV, but that would require vast arrays of lamps containing mercury, which could contaminate food.

Curious to see if cheap, mercury-free UV LEDs could do the job instead, researchers suspended one a few centimetres above a red-leaf lettuce plant. After 48 hours, the leaves were a deep red, but others away from the UV LED remained green. The team is now trying to work out which wavelength in the UV-B band does the job best.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Radio-controlled bullets leave no place to hide
June 04, 2009

A rifle capable of firing explosive bullets that can detonate within a metre of a target could let soldiers fire on snipers hiding in trenches, behind walls or inside buildings. The US army has developed the XM25 rifle to give its troops an alternative to calling in artillery fire or air strikes when an enemy has taken cover and can't be targeted by direct fire.

The rifle's gunsight uses a laser rangefinder to calculate the exact distance to the obstruction. The soldier can then add or subtract up to 3 metres from that distance to enable the bullets to clear the barrier and explode above or beside the target.

As the 25-millimetre round is fired, the gunsight sends a radio signal to a chip inside the bullet, telling it the precise distance to the target. A spiral groove inside the barrel makes the bullet rotate as it travels, and as it also contains a magnetic transducer, this rotation through the Earth's magnetic field generates an alternating current. The chip uses fluctuations in this current to count each revolution and, as it knows the distance covered in one spin, it can calculate how far it has travelled.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top