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Your Face Here: The instant virtual you could soon be everywhere you look

Face-Animation.jpgThe last time I had my head turned into a virtual me, it took hours. The results were impressive. Weird, but impressive. Have a look.

So when I heard about a company getting ready to launch a technology that promised to create a virtual me instantly, without a long makeup session, multiple takes, and extended processing time, I thought it was worth taking a look. Potentially, I could collect virtual meâ''s. Not sure what Iâ''d do with them, but Iâ''ve got all sorts of things sitting on my computer Iâ''m not entirely sure what to do with.

Unfortunately, while X-iD, based in Redwood Shores, Calif., and Singapore, could show me other virtual people, it wasnâ''t quite ready to live demo and create a virtual me on the spot; Iâ''ll have to wait until June 15 for that. This week, X-iD was introducing a face recognition system for personal computer security (you smile at your webcam

instead of typing in a password when you boot up your computer). The 3-D head comes later.

Both products stem from the companyâ''s face recognition software, used for several years in building security. The software reconstructs a 3-D image of a face from a mug shot and simple identification of key points, like the eyes, sides of the face, and the ears. In building security applications, X-iD uses the 3-D image to recognize a person entering the building even if his head is turned or tilted. It recently occurred to company principals that not only are these image files really cool, they could have consumer applications.

Hence the computer log-on, available now for $19 or free for a one-month trial. And on June 15, X-iD will launch a social network (I wish they had called it something else, but everybody wants to play in the social network game these days) in which you can create your own virtual face and stick it onto an avatar or into a greeting card. The application is currently called FaceTheater, soon to be renamed Tycoona. (You actually donâ''t have to use your own face, anything with basic eyes, mouth, nose will workâ''the sphinx, your dog, Mona Lisa.) Eventually, the company hopes video game companies will use the technology to put you (or your friends or enemies) into video games to make them a little more personal.

Who Will Resurrect the Electric Car?

Two years ago, the controversial documentary film â''Who Killed the Electric Car?â'' caused quite a stir, with its claims that GM went out of its way to discredit and destroy the electric car it had developed, the EV1, preferring to keep its customers hooked on the gasoline engine. At the time, the director of Sonyâ''s electric car post-mortem, Chris Paine, hoped to follow it up with a documentary that heâ''d call, â''Who Saved the Electric Car?â'' Evidently he gave up for lack of plausible protagonists. Perhaps itâ''s time for him to take another look.

The auto industry turnaround wizard Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan and Renault, is promising to be the person who will breathe life back into the idea of an all-electric, zero-emissions car. Reporting on Nissanâ''s recent performance the week of May 12, Ghosn said that Nissan would introduce an electric car in the United States and Japan in 2010 and market it worldwide in 2012. Nissanâ''s strategic partner Renault announced earlier this year that it will produce electric cars for sale in Israel and Denmark. But Nissan would be the first to market an electric car globally, and the company is eying a whole range of electric vehicles, from city cars to small vans.

It seems to be Ghosnâ''s intention to leapfrog the Chevrolet Volt, the electric car that GM plans to introduce in 2010. GM bills the Volt as a true electric car and not a hybrid, because its electric motor will always turn its wheels. But critics contend itâ''s still a kind of hybrid, inasmuch as a backup gasoline engine will recharge its lithium ion batteries for ranges greater than 60 kilometers. Just recently, GM got much more specific about the Volt design, as described in Spectrum, but the issue of whether the car deserves to be called a true EV lingers.

Ghosn puts a formidable name and reputation behind the behind the old vision of a pure, zero-emissions EV. After taking the reins at Nissan, he engineered an instantaneous rescue, making himâ''a French citizen born in Brazil and raised in Lebanonâ''a national hero in Japan. In 2006, the year after he became CEO of Renault as well, Kirk Kirkorian tried to concoct a GM-Nissan-Renault alliance, with Ghosn at the helm.

Ghosn enunciated his electric vision this week in the context of disappointing financial results. Nissanâ''s profits, though better than those at Fiat, Peugeot, VW or BMW, were deemed disappointing. And the companyâ''s most recent three year plan, for the first time since Ghosn took over, did not meet targets. Europeâ''s financial press put more emphasis on those developments than on Ghosnâ''s plans to resuscitate the EV.

Still, Ghosnâ''s bold announcements make the quest for the EV a two-way contest, at least, and is sure to reinvigorate debate about what went wrong the last time around and whether things could go better now. â''Who Killed the Electric Car?â'' made a good case that California air regulators had caved to industry pressure, seduced by the fantasy that hydrogen cars would provide a better path to zero emissions. But the film was weaker on technology, failing to fully acknowledge that car battery improvements had fallen short of expectations. Maybe itâ''s time for director Paine to dust off his plans for â''Who Saved?,â'' taking recent advances in lithium ion batteries and supercapacitors into account.

The road to hell: you know what it's paved with.

I said in my last update that a lot of the IEEE Homeland Security conference attendees were acting like they were at an ACLU convention: that was behind the scenes. The scenes themselves were the stuff of an ACLUerâ''s worst nightmares. I call to your attention the panel on air traffic safety (this was the same one that included the naked pictures). One presenterâ''s talk was titled, optimistically, "A new concept of airport security screening." Now, granted, I went in expecting a lot, so I was set up to be underwhelmed.

But the underwhelmage was simply egregious. An Analogic Corp. presenter itemized the offenses of current security screening practices very well: you have to remove your laptop, your cell phone, your shoes, and your 3-1-1s (yes, the allowed amount of liquids in a baggy has been converted into jargon); you have to wait in line at a metal detector; and you have to wait while someone whisks a wand over the surface area of your body.

Her objection to all this? Not what I was expecting: it takes up too much airport personnel, hence money.

Her solution shaved 10 TSA personnel off a shift by multiplying the invasiveness by 10.

Step 1: Do extensive background checks on everyone who is traveling. (Do they do this already? I got all itchy with paranoia sitting there in the dark audience.) Step 2: Feed background checks on all passengers into a database that tells you the likelihood of a specific passengerâ''s desire to blow the plane to smithereens. Step 3: Passengers can now breeze through a metal detector that expects them to be carrying a laptop and a cell phone. Since "most passengers are low risk," the Analogic rep said, you're saving time by reducing false alarms. A last minute ticket would put you on higher alert mode. Last-minute business traveler? No problem! Your frequent flier status will cancel out your "last-minute ticket" alert.

Someone piped up from the audience: "So if I forget my laptop, does that mean I'm a security risk?"

Snark aside, someone posed a good question: What happens if one passenger needs help? Now, instead of occupying 10 percent of available personnel, that person's by-no-means-unreasonable needs have 33 percent of the personnel tied up, presumably creating an even bigger bottleneck. But staff has been reduced, and yes, money has been saved.

It's easy to see how the privacy invasion happens: once you invest in one technology, you start to see the loopholes. Every technology can be spoofed or cheated in countless ways. If plugging those holes is your main priority, a little something like taking naked pictures of passengers is going to seem irrelevant. This focus on one thin sliver of reality seems to plague engineers across the board (take, for example, the engineer at the Trinity test, the debut of the A-bomb into human history, the dawn of the nuclear age! "What were you thinking right before?" "I sure hope my detonator works!").

It wasnâ''t all bad: The one actually quite good idea that emerged from all this was her suggestion of a bin return system, like the kind you see at bowling alleys that brings your bowling ball back to you automatically. That would get rid of, she said, "the bin return personnel." Another eureka moment for me in the back: I never realized that these people are there specifically to return bins. I thought they had other duties, but intermittently turned their attention to the pileup of bins. I was wrong.

But that is seriously picayune compared to the promise of the title. I just can't countenance elevating the recycled bin return system to the status of "new concept in airport security.â''

The best question, though, was whether any of this had been simulated or modeled on a computer. The answer was a resounding no.

Analogic, indeed.

IEEE Homeland Security Conference redux

The annual IEEE homeland security conference, as one attendee tells me, is the opposite of most of the conferences she attends, which cover in great depth a wafer-thin section of one field. Here, huge amounts of information are crammed into 20-minute presentations that are often too tightly timed even for questions.

Iâ''ve learned some interesting things. The first: the cargo that piggybacks on commercial airplanes does not get screened for nuclear/biochemical contamination. The second: that cargo is way more important to the airline than I am: about 86,000 pieces of mail depart Boston's Logan airport each month. Their originators have paid the airline more dollars per weight than I have. If there are weight restrictions issues, I'll be leaving the plane before that cargo does. (I wonder if the inverse is also true in a crash landing?)

So what do engineers dealing with homeland security worry about? Air safety. Chemical and biological agent detection. The seemingly limitless risks of legacy software (and new software too). Emergency response. Pretty much what you'd expect.

But between the lines, there's a sense of frustration with two things: bureaucracy and technology. "Bureaucracy is forced on you when you're a government contractor," Chief DHS Technology Commercialization Officer Thomas Cellucci said at a business panel this morning. A hostile response to bureaucracy is never surprising, but technology? At an IEEE conference?

It turns out a lot of these guys consider technology solutions the last resort of the imbecile. They tell me in droves that if your idea or your enterprise doesn't work, slathering more layers of technology "solutions" on top is just going to make you really efficient at doing everything wrong. For example, at one panel, an American Science and Engineering, Inc. presenter discussed an x-ray backscatter technique for airline security checkpoints. You may have heard of it. The short version: with their technique, they can create photo-like images of screened passengers, minus clothing. American Science and Engineering has been making the news for this technology since 2000, and they actually won Privacy Internationalâ''s annual â''Big Brotherâ'' award for technology that most invades a personâ''s privacy.

The idea raised a lot of questions about unreasonable search and seizure, with the definition of unreasonable shifting daily with more warnings about terrorists. I can't put it any better than the ACLU put it in a 2002 report:

â''Passengers expect privacy underneath their clothing and should not be required to display highly personal details of their bodies such as evidence of mastectomies, colostomy appliances, penile implants, catheter tubes, and the size of their breasts or genitals as a prerequisite to boarding a plane.â''

Would you enjoy having a picture of your naked rear end uploaded to some humor or porn site (I leave it to the reader as an exercise to determine which would be worse)? To address these concerns, American Science and Engineering, Inc. *promises* to have the operators somewhere far away, and they *pinky swear* to have only same-sex people looking at your x-ray backscatter centerfold. The presenter dismissed privacy concerns thusly: â''If these images excite you, you have more problems than I can help you with.â''

But after the panel ended, I was relieved to hear two engineers dismiss the entire enterprise. â''Terahertz imaging does the same thing better without the privacy concerns,â'' said one young engineer in a snappy suit. Others expressed doubt that x-ray backscatter was still relevant.

However, itâ''s worth noting that the company just got a contract for the Beijing Olympics. So, if youâ''re going, pack your lead bathing suit.

There are more questions and comments about such topics floating around here than I would have expected. The issues the attendees are discussing outside of the panels makes it seem more like an ACLU conference than IEEE. Frankly, Iâ''m pretty happy about that.

The Babbage Engine: More family fun Silicon Valley style

Ahh sunny California, where weekends are for beach picnics and hikes among the redwoods and rides on cable cars fighting crowds to see strange mechanical and electronic contraptions in operation. The first weekend in May I packed my kids into the car and headed off to the Maker Faire in San Mateo, where, after an hour sitting in traffic behind other geek families, we repeatedly watched a life-sized recreation of the game of Mousetrap go through its paces. Last weekend the big draw was the opening of the Babbage Exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, where the five-ton 8000-part Difference Engine cranks through polynomial calculations.

Charles Babbage designed the Difference Engine, a.k.a. the Babbage Engine, in the 1800s, but never successfully built a version that worked. The working Engine displayed at the Computer History Machine is the second full-size working Difference Engine built (small models and virtual versions also exist); the first, completed in 2002, is on display at the Science Museum, London. Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO of Microsoft and now CEO of Intellectual Ventures, commissioned the project.

In a world in which computers are getting smaller and smaller, with little electrons whizzing around invisibly, thereâ''s something satisfying about seeing technology thatâ''s

gigantic and obvious: the bowling ball of the Mousetrap game lumber down its track (photo below), the numbered wheels of the Babbage Machine turn with satisfying precision (see video above).

IMG_1970.JPG

The Babbage Machine will be on display for a year, and then it will become part of Myhrvoldâ''s private collection.

Microsoft Brings the Cosmos to Your Desktop

We are all stargazers. Anyone who has ever looked up at the sky at night has been fascinated by the beauty of the cosmos. Some go on to transfer that fascination into a passion for astronomy, either as an avocation or a profession. Astronomers have developed powerful tools to peer deeper than ever into the vast distances of the universe. These have been networked to provide the scientific community with the latest discoveries from telescopes around the planet, even in orbit. Now, the images they have recorded are available for stargazing on your personal computer.

A team from Microsoft Research has launched a portal, still in beta, on the Internet called the WorldWide Telescope (WWT), where amateurs and professionals alike can take part in a social networking environment dedicated to exploring the heavens virtually.

Users of the WWT (Windows only) can take guided tours of the universe led by professionals from some of the most advanced observatories in the world. Contributors can add multimedia slideshows to the WWT in much the same way they create PowerPoint presentations.

The technology used to build the WWT is based on Microsoft's Visual Experience Engine, which lets users pan and zoom through images. The company says that the WWT blends terabytes of images, data, and stories from multiple sources over the Web into an immersive experience.

"Users can see the X-ray view of the sky, zoom into bright radiation clouds, and then cross-fade into the visible light view and discover the cloud remnants of a supernova explosion from a thousand years ago," said Roy Gould, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in yesterday's announcement. "I believe this new creation from Microsoft will have a profound impact on the way we view the universe."

The Microsoft Research team believes the WWT should serve as a model educational resource for students, fostering a lifelong interest in astronomy and science in general.

"Our hope is that it will inspire young people to explore astronomy and science, and help researchers in their quest to better understand the universe," Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates noted.

Microsoft Research is dedicating the WWT project to the memory of Jim Gray, a former IBM and Microsoft computer scientist who won the prestigious Turing Award in 1988 for his work in database and transaction processing. He was a team leader on Microsoft's Virtual Earth platform, which enables users to create geospatial mapping applications. A boat Gray was sailing disappeared at sea 12 months ago and has never been found.

Microsoft said it is releasing the WWT freely to the science and education communities as a tribute to Gray with the hope that it will inspire and empower kids of all ages to explore and understand the universe in an unprecedented way.

U.S. Energy Dept Sees High Growth Potential in Wind

The U.S. Department of Energy released a report today, May 12, saying that the country could in principle generate one fifth of its electricity with wind by 2030. Assessing this purely hypothetical scenario, a DOE task force concluded that aggressive installation of wind turbines could significantly cut reliance on fossil fuels as well as greenhouse gas emissions at a total additional cost that would be equivalent to 50 U.S. cents per month per electricity customer. U.S. wind capacity is growing at a rate of nearly 6 GW per year at present, but to achieve a 20 percent generation share by 2030, wind capacity would have to be increasing by roughly 16 GW per year by the end of the next decade.

The biggest obstacle to that much reliance on wind is transmission capacity, both to get the energy from where itâ''s generated to where itâ''s needed, and to provide a cushion against local and regional doldrumsâ''confirming Europeâ''s recent experience. But the report estimates that addressing grid issues would increase the cost of wind generated electricity by only 11 percent. For wind to achieve a 20 percent share, given DOEâ''s expectation that electricity demand will be 39 percent higher in 2030 than in 2005, wind capacity would have to go from 11-12 GW today to about 300 GWâ''a staggering amount by any reckoning.

But if the United States actually managed to do that, the added wind could reduce the power sectorâ''s thirst for natural gas by half and its coal consumption by nearly a fifth. It should be noted, in this connection, that long-term projections of natural gas prices and supplies are highly uncertain, and that coal costs could be strongly affected by carbon regulation policies. That is, if natural gas prices turned out to be much higher two decades from now, or carbon emissions much more expensive, the impact of 20-percent wind could be quite different from what the report guesses.

The report does not evaluate what the impact of stronger carbon regulation might be, but it does mention prominently that 30 states already have taken steps to limit carbon emissions and encourage greater use of renewables.

Despite the clarity of its disclaimers, the DOE report is bound to be misunderstood and misrepresented. It is not a statement of policy, or an action plan, or even a recommendation. Itâ''s just what it says: an evaluation of what the U.S. electric sector could look like if one fifth of power came from wind. It concludes that such a scenario is technically feasible and economically affordable. Thatâ''s all.

Out of Africa: New Broadcasting Tool

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the emergence of a new generation of African film and television producers is the high cost of air-time. Most African cities still only support a few television networks (largely because of the reluctance of governments to permit more).

And even these few networks often do not broadcast many hours, even in the capital (and even less hours in rural areas).

A new technology is available â'' from a Silicon Valley startup named Qik â'' that permits real-time broadcast over 3G cell phones such as Nokiaâ''s N95. Amazingly, these video-equipped phones can stream video live over the Web.

While people so far have thought of the technology as a way to broadcast live events, Qik could also be used (and this is my idea) to inexpensively broadcast pre-recorded material â'' or live music or theater performances â'' thus permitting artists and media creators in African to bypass a television network system that imposes unaffordable high â''taxesâ'' on them.

The Qik technology is getting interest from both professional media and citizen journalists such as Ground Report.

The chief technical officer and cofounder of Qik is a former Oracle engineer from India named Bhaskar Roy.

Africa remains on the periphery of Qikâ''s radar but Bhaskar is enthusiastic about the socially-conscious and developmental benefits that the technology might deliver. He envisions an army of streaming-videomaniacs, using their cell phones to discipline rogue governments, document abuses against the powerless and instigate reforms in the delivery of public services.

"By streaming human-rights abuses, people with cell phones can help stop them," Roy says.

The technology is contributing to the rise of a "video advocacy" movement that is still on in its infancy in Africa, but is gaining steam elsewhere in the world.

Poll Finds U.S. Climate Concern Remarkably Unchanged

A recently released Gallup Poll indicates that the proportion of U.S. citizens who worry a great deal about global warming is remarkably unchanged in the last 18 years: about 37 percent now, versus 35 percent in 1990. That, even much large numbers of Americans report that they are indeed concerned about climate change and consider themselves quite a bit better informed than before. Four out of five Americans consider themselves very well or fairly well educated on the issue now, compared to barely more than half in 1990.

Three out of five U.S. citizens believe that global warming has already begun, compared to less than half eighteen years ago, and 40 percent think it will pose a serious threat to their way of life in their lifetimes, compared to 25 percent in 1990. Even so, climate change ranks only tenth on a list of environmental problems that most concern Americans, and the fraction of the citizenry that advocates â''additional, immediate, drastic actionâ''â''34 percentâ''is essentially unchanged from what it was when public discussion of the subject got going in earnest at the beginning of the 1990s.

Morgan Sparks, Creator of Practical Transistor (1916-2008)

The man who turned the earliest transistor into a practical device, launching a revolution in electronics, has passed away at the age of 91 in Fullerton, Calif.

Morgan Sparks was a researcher at AT&T Bell Labs when he was recruited by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley to help exploit a breakthrough circuit they were calling the point-contact transistor.

Working with fellow AT&T engineers Gordon Teal and John Little, Sparks took the invention and fashioned a low-power variation on it that the laboratory dubbed the bipolar junction transistor, which improved on the work of the original trio of inventors, who were awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the transistor principle.

Sparks grew up in Colorado and Texas and attended Rice University in Houston and the University of Illinois at Urbana, where he received his Ph.D. for research in physical chemistry. He joined Bell Labs at the outset of World War II, under a national security exemption. He was assigned to wartime projects such as developing batteries that could operate in seawater for electric torpedoes.

After the war, his expertise in semiconductor materials, such as germanium, attracted the attention of Shockley, who was heading a team seeking to create a circuit that could supplant the bulky and inefficient vacuum tubes that had come to dominate the electronic applications of the era.

Shockley's team had invented the original semiconductor transistor in 1947, and Shockley himself developed the junction (or "sandwich") transistor just a year later. Pressing on, the AT&T researchers developed techniques to add impurities to crystals to control the flow of electrons; and by 1951, they demonstrated a tiny microwatt bipolar junction transistor that could amplify a signal 100 000 times its input.

After nearly 30 years at AT&T, Sparks accepted a post as the director of Sandia National Laboratories, one of the United States' most eminent research labs, where he served from 1972 to 1981. Sandia is a key supplier of research and development projects for the American nuclear defense regime under the U.S. Department of Energy.

In a press release issued Wednesday, the current administration at Sandia lauded Sparks as someone who was "a credit to the lab and, true to our mission, provided exceptional service to the nation."

Tom Hunter, the current director of Sandia, said of Sparks: "Morgan was president when I was a young staff member at Sandia. He set the framework for Sandia to become a multiprogram lab. He was widely recognized for his ability to engage the labs in many new areas that proved to be important for our future."

U.S. Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) said of his passing: "Morgan Sparks set the standards for the professional, efficient management of Sandia National Labs. He recognized the future need to brand science into technology transfer, and he laid the groundwork to link defense-based research to applications that impact all our lives every day."

Sparks is survived by his children: Margaret Potter of Waitsfield, Vt., Gordon Sparks, also of Waitsfield, Patricia Fusting of Fullerton, Calif., and Morgan Sparks, of Burlington, Vt. A memorial service will be held in his honor in Albuquerque later this month.

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