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i-LIMB prosthetic hand grabs UK's top engineering award

A day in the life of the i-LIMB

The i-LIMB hand, an advanced prosthesis developed by UK-based Touch Bionics, has won the UK's prestigious MacRobert award. Since 1969, that award has rewarded the year's best engineering project with a gold medal and a cash prize of £50,000 (US $98,630.50). The committee announced the 2008 winner at last night's Annual Awards Dinner.

The i-LIMB has five individually powered articulating digits, and it has been commercially available since mid-2007. So far, more than 200 people have been fitted for the hand, including U.S. soldiers who lost limbs in the Iraq war.

"The hand has two main unique features," said Touch Bionics CEO Stuart Mead in a BBC News article:

"The first is that we put a motor into each finger, which means that each finger is independently driven and can articulate.

"The second is that the thumb is rotatable through 90 degrees, in the same way as our thumbs are.

"The hand is the first prosthetic hand that replicates both the form and the function of the human hand."

On May 15, TouchBionics made its U.S. presence a permanent reality by acquiring

LIVINGSKIN, a New York-based company that makes the lifelike prosthetic skin on the i-LIMB hand. The company's realistic looking "skin" resembles human skin by simulating the three dermal layers of natural human skin.

I don't know what's happening with DEKA's Luke Arm, but it looks like Dean Kamen has some competition.

Nano Blogosphere Comments on Spectrum's Singularity Report

The Foresight Instituteâ''s Nanodot blog has commented on Richard Jonesâ'' â''Rupturing the Nanotech Raptureâ'' and has rightfully pointed out the somewhat problematic assertion contained in the contents page leading to the article that states â''Tiny robots that can fix all our bodily flaws sound lovely, but they violate the laws of physics.â''

Nanodot illustrates how other statements of Jones seemingly contradict this position. While I blog for Spectrum, I am not involved in their editorial team, so I can only venture a guess that the subheading was not written by Jones. So, this is not so much self-contradiction, but rather Jones simply doesnâ''t hold this rather polemic position.

Surely Jones expresses many of the problems in physics for diamondoid mechanosynthesis such as van der Waal force and Brownian motion, but he presents these as rather significant challenges, among others.

On the other end of the nano blogosphere comes TNTLogâ''s response to Nanodotâ''s comments, which wonders about the Foresightâ''s own contradiction in now arguing that â''the diamondoid mechanosynthesis approach is only in the very early stages of computer simulationâ'' while ten years ago it was presented rather as an advanced technology.

However, despite all the debate, it seems that discussion of mechanosynthesis has become a little less contentious over the last few years at least since the rather polarizing debates between Richard Smalley and Eric Drexler back in 2003.

Maybe science, which is inherently skeptical, will continue to be the guiding principle as opposed to dogma. Perhaps one of the more encouraging examples of this has been last yearâ''s release of a Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems, which was accompanied at its release by Drexler himself conceding that even if self-replicating assemblers may be feasible, they may not be the best method for achieving APM, and that further refinements of the vision are to be expected.

New Champion Crowned in World of Supercomputers

Say hello to the new greatest computer on the planet--weighing in at a svelte 500 000 pounds.

Working with computer scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), engineers from IBM Corp. have created the most powerful computing machine to ever crunch a number. Dubbed Roadrunner by its LANL backers in New Mexico, after the official state bird, it clocks in at a blistering 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second on a standardized test. It now assumes the mantle of world champion over its predecessor, IBM's BlueGene/L at sister research institute Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

According to a statement from IBM, Roadrunner is the world's first hybrid supercomputer, which means it runs thousands of the firm's Cell Broadband Engine units in conjunction with thousands of x86 microprocessors. The US $133 million project at LANL was designed to build a revolutionary computing system that could run at 1 petaflop (or 1000 trillion floating point operations per second). IBM notes that this is twice as fast as the BlueGene/L, which itself is nearly three times faster than the leading contenders on the current TOP 500 list of worldwide supercomputers.

The tasks ahead for this calculating marvel will consist mainly of ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile for the Department of Energy, as well as facilitating research into astronomy, energy, human genome science, and climate change.

In its announcement, IBM made the following points about its groundbreaking system:

  • Roadrunner connects 6948 dual-core AMD Opteron chips with 12 960 Cell engines on IBM blade servers. It has 80 terabytes of memory and is housed in 288 refrigerator-size IBM BladeCenter racks occupying 6000 square feet. Its 10 000 network connections require 57 miles of fiber-optic cable.

  • The machine was built, tested, and benchmarked by IBM in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Software development was led by IBM engineers in Austin, Tex., and by researchers in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. It uses the open-source Linux operating system from Red Hat Inc., of Raleigh, N.C.

  • Compared to most traditional supercomputer designs, Roadrunnerâ''s hybrid format sips power (3.9 megawatts) and delivers world-leading efficiency--376 million calculations per watt.

IBM also noted that it is developing new software to make Cell-powered hybrid computing broadly accessible. With corporate and academic partners, IBM is developing an open-source ecosystem that will bring hybrid supercomputing to financial services, energy exploration, and medical imaging industries among others.

"You do these record-setting things because you know that, in the end, we will push on to the next generation, and the one who is there first will be the leader," Nicholas M. Donofrio, an executive vice president at IBM told The New York Times, in an article published today.

Still housed at its design center in Poughkeepsie, IBM plans to ship the 250-ton Roadrunner system to LANL's supercomputing center, loaded onto 21 tractor-trailer trucks, later this summer.

[Editor's Note: Please see our early article on the Cell micrprocessor, Winner: Multimedia Monster, from our Winners and Losers special issue of January 2006.]

IEA Energy Prognosis Confirms Stern Climate Review

The International Energy Agency, the Paris organization that reports to the advanced industrial countries, has just issued the latest of its biennial Energy Technology Perspectives, saying the worldâ''s present course is not sustainable. If current trends continues, weâ''ll be consuming 70 percent more oil and generating 130 percent greater carbon dioxide emissions in 2050 than we are now. To get emissions back to present-day levels or lower by 2050 will require a necessary but achievable revolution in global energy technology, IEA director Nobuo Tanaka said last week.

The IEA report evaluates three scenarios and broadly confirms the controversial conclusions reached by Britainâ''s Stern Review last year. Getting CO2 emissions back to present levels by 2050 would require that a price of $50 per ton be put on carbon emissions, and reducing them by 50 percent would imply a price of $200/t. Achieving the 50 percent reduction target would require a total of $45 trillion in new energy investments, equivalent to roughly 1.1 percent of average annual GDP during the next four decades.

The Stern Review found that to keep carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere no more than twice as high as they were before the industrial revolution began, emissions levels would have to be about 25 percent lower in 2050 than they are now. Attaining that goalâ''which Stern would pay for itself in terms of damages avoided and risks avertedâ''would cost about 1 percent of global GDP per year.

To achieve a 50 percent emissions cut by 2050, the IEA says the world each year would have to outfit 35 coal and 20 natural gas generating plants to capture carbon, at a cost of $1.5 billion each. It would have to build 32 new nuclear power plants and 17,500 wind turbines each year. The whole transportation sector would have to become more efficient by a factor of eight.

To achieve the 25 percent reduction needed to stabilize carbon levels at twice pre-industrial, the Stern Review said that the power sector would have to become 60-75 percent carbon-free. Exactly as the IEA now says, Stern said, â''Deep cuts in the transport sector are likely to be more difficult in the shorter term, but will ultimately be needed.â''

Out of Africa: Safaricom's large profits co-evolve with African broadband gap

For anyone who still thinks that poverty alone holds back the growth of telecommunications in sub-Saharan Africa isn't reading the financial results from Safaricom, a Kenyan mobile-phone operator that is controlled by Vodaphone, the giant British mobile conglomerate. As recently as 2000, Safaricom was a struggling phone company in East Africa, with just 20,000 customers. Eight years later, the Nairobi-based Safaricom now has 10 million customers. More impressive, Safaricom earned a whopping $223 million in its financial year ending in March, 2008.

Communications networks are key to technological and economic development. Safaricom, as a new article from The Economist amply documents, is one of Africa's pacesetters. The Economist wants readers to believe that Michael Joseph, the company's chief, has found a way of profiting from African poor, providing pay-as-you-go service to plain folks who can only afford to dish out money for mobile calling in small increments.

The Economist quotes Joseph, who spent his youth in South Africa, as saying that the increased availability of mobile-phone lines -- a new one costs as little as one dollar in Kenya -- "has been hugely more effecient than aid."

That's open to debate. Safaricom's success underscores the rise of a new upper-class in Africa's fastest-growing countries, of which Kenya surely counts as one. Mobile telephone providers are essentially skimming the cream from the top of Africa's economic "tigers." Safaricom is only the most successul in doing so.

To be sure, the company has distinguished itself from rivals by innovating a key service that does assist the poor. The service, called M-PESA, allows customers to transfer electronic money to one another through text messages. The Economist says M-PESA moves about $1.5 million a day across Kenya. That's still only a tiny fraction of what Western Union and Moneygram and mainstream banks move electronically, but it is indeed an impressive achievement.

As The Economist concludes: "Mobile banking could be the next stage of mobile-driven economic transformation."

Privately-owned companies such as Safaricom will surely take leadership roles in this next phase. But they cannot do it alone. Africa remains hampered by significant gaps in public infrastructure. In the latest issue of Science magazine, Calestous Juma, a professor at Harvard University, argues that African governments must do more to bring "affordable connectivity to Africa in general."

Juma insists that international aid donors do have a role to play in this transformation -- to help insure that "bandwidth must be sold at a fair price to all buyers" rather to the monopolies emerging in Africa's telecom markets.

Good point. Which brings us back to Safaricom's enormous profits. Whether they are extracted from the bulging wallets of East Africa's new wealthy or more "democratically" removed from the working poor, Safaricom's impressive earnings fundamentally flow from very high prices.

In Africa, per unit costs for mobile phone calls are among the highest in the world -- and Kenyans pay some of the highest rates in Africa. In the long run, the combination of technological change and competition should drive down those prices. But not any time soon.

Federal Trade Commission Investigating Intel Again

It looks like another chapter is being opened in the ongoing series of inquiries into the status of Intel Corp. as a monopoly. According to an article in today's New York Times, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has begun a new investigation of the world's leading manufacturer of microprocessors on grounds of possible anticompetitive business practices.

Officials at the FTC told the Times that the agency has issued subpoenas to Intel, as well as its competitors, to seek evidence of any actions by the Santa Clara, Calif., chipmaker that might violate U.S. antitrust regulations. Today's news focused chiefly on Intel's pricing policies, which its critics have repeatedly called unfair in recent times. Those critics, mainly from Intel's rivals such as Advanced Micro Devices (or AMD), charge that the chip giant uses its position in the marketplace and superior resources to sell sophisticated microprocessors to computer vendors below the cost of their manufacturing, an illegal practice known as dumping.

While Intel is by far the leading maker of these chips (a market valued at US $225 billion), its status as a near-monopoly is not a violation of federal antitrust statutes in the United States, where practical monopolies are legal as long as they do not conduct what are known as predatory business practices against their smaller competitors.

The new investigation appears to be a re-opening of a similar inquiry from a decade ago by the FTC. That case escalated into a full-blown antitrust proceeding against Intel by the federal government. It was only resolved when newly appointed litigators for the nascent Bush administration decided to settle the matter out of court in 2001.

The Times report today notes that the re-opened case coincides with a change of leadership at the FTC, where outgoing Chairman Deborah P. Majoras (an architect of the Justice Departmentâ''s antitrust settlement with Microsoft in 2001 coincidentally) has been replaced by incoming Chairman William E. Kovacic, who has acted with the approval of the other members of the trade commission.

The Times reports that the investigation is still in its early stages and will undoubtedly require months to come to a preliminary conclusion as to whether more intensive measures are necessary. This will almost certainly leave the prosecution of a potential case against Intel up to the next presidential administration to consider, beginning in 2009.

Meanwhile, similar investigations against Intel concerning the same or similar charges are proceeding apace in European and Asian nations.

As of today, no information has been posted on the matter at the Web sites of either Intel or the FTC.

Apple store not friendly to Palo Alto teens caught hacking an iPhone

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Downtown Palo Alto boasts the ninth oldest Apple store in the country, opened in October 2001. From the beginning, the store encouraged kids to hang out; a low round table, surrounded by appealing round seats, held computers with games for the younger kids, the multimedia applications running on computers on taller tables drew the teens. And in the early days, before every kid had a cell phone, the staff generously let kids call home when they needed to tell their parents that they were running late. I used to have to haul my youngest away from the skateboard game running at the kid stations when he was a toddler; the Apple store has been a hangout for my 16-year-old and his friends since they were in grade school.

Basically, itâ''s a place that, for Palo Alto kids, feels like home. So it really freaked out four local teensâ''some friends of my sonâ''sâ''last week when they were messing around at the Apple store, as theyâ''d done so many times before, and suddenly got into huge trouble. In fact, store management told them that they were banned for life. From every Apple store. Everywhere in the world.

Daniel Fukuba, Eric Vicenti, and Noah Rogers were hanging out downtown last Saturday, killing time before meeting up with another kid, and went into the Apple store to play with the iPhones. Fukuba showed his friends how to download third-party applications onto one of the phones, specifically, a racing game called â''Raging Thunder.â'' (Apple originally discouraged adding such applications, threatening that they wouldnâ''t be compatible with software updates, but has announced that it will be changing that policy soon.)

A store employee, Vicenti says, came over and asked what the boys were doing. â''We said that we were just playing around with the phones,â'' he says, â''which is exactly the truth. Sure, it is slightly evasive, but that was the whole point.â'' The store manager also checked up on the boys, and then walked away. The fourth teen arrived, and the group left the store; they were half a block away when the store manager caught up with them and demanded that they come back to the store; the manager called the police. An

officer soon arrived, and the manager lectured the teens, but no arrests were made.

The teens were photographed and told that their pictures would be sent to all Apple stores. â''They said,â'' Vicenti reports, â''that we were banned for life from all Apple stores everywhere.â''

â''They kept us there for at least two hours,â'' Vicenti says. â''Eventually, because Danny and I were minors, our parents had to be called to pick us up.â''

The story hit the local papers; journalists called Apple for comment, and a spokesman for the company insisted that the teens were not banned from that or any store.

â''I was completely shocked when I read that,â'' Vicenti says. â''They did say we were banned.â'' They have gone back to the store since, and a different manager has told them that the ban wouldnâ''t be enforced.

Says Vicenti: â''After all this, I really have nothing against Apple, they still make great products. This is really the mess of Apple Retail, and the way they treat customers. While I might be allowed in the store, I am a bit repelled by the place now.â''

Perhaps the Apple stores should post a sign, â''If you hack it, you bought it.â''

Photo credit: Adriana Lukas

Plug-In Priuses: Now from your Toyota dealer!

One of the challenges of converting your Prius to a plug-in hybrid--aside from the cost ($10K to $30K)--has been the garage-shop nature of the converters.

Hymotion, owned by lithium-ion cell maker A123 Systems, has now announced that its six initial installers include four Toyota dealerships. They're in Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Washington, DC.

The conversion module still has to be ordered through the Hymotion website. But this now offers one-stop shopping for the Prius owner who wants to expand the car's full-electric running time, and juice it up from the wall socket at night--but doesn't want to haul the car to a third party.

One worry about the conversions, by the way, has been whether they void the manufacturer's powertrain warranty. While Toyota is clearly unhappy about any modifications to its very carefully engineered hybrid system, plug-in advocacy sites like Calcars report that many dealers either miss or ignore such conversions.

Another small step toward Plug-In Priuses, whether Toyota wants them or not ....

Mars Lander Standing By for Radio Instructions

The Phoenix science vehicle is patiently waiting on the northern plains of Mars for its handlers back on Earth to sort out a couple of communications glitches before getting to work.

Phoenix uses a pair of satellites orbiting the red planet to boost its radio signals to and from its mission control center at the University of Arizona. Since touching down 11 days ago (please see Phoenix Landing on Mars Makes History), the lander has been idled, first, by a radio cut-off with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, then by a similar shutdown with the orbiting Odyssey observatory.

NASA said the problem with Odyssey started yesterday, when the satellite's communications equipment went into "safe mode" and stopped transmitting. The cause for the shutdown was probably caused by high-energy particles from space interrupting the satellite's computer memory. NASA engineers are busy at work trying to reestablish the radio relay but don't expect the problem to be resolved before Saturday. In the meantime, the two satellites' controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., have tinkered remotely with the Reconnaissance Orbiter to get its radio system working properly.

Before the second radio glitch occurred, Phoenix was able to conduct two practice rounds of digging and dumping the clumpy soil into its onboard analysis instruments, according to a statement released yesterday by the lander's mission control center, in Tuscon, Ariz. The University of Arizona team expects to be able to resume contact with the lander later today via the Reconnaissance Orbiter and resume preliminary operations.

Phoenix will then complete a sequence of commands that are already stored in its computer. That sequence includes instructions for the lander to continue taking images required to assemble a 360-degree high-resolution panorama.

The two practice digs have already enticed scientists about some bright material in the soil just beneath the surface.

"Two scoops into the soil we see there's a white layer becoming visible in the wall of the trench," said Carol Stoker of NASA Ames Research Center, at Moffett Field, Calif., a member of the Phoenix science team.

Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith said, "We've had an impassioned discussion of whether that may be salts or ice or some other material even more exotic."

Climate Legislation Showdown

This week, the U.S. Senate opened discussion of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which would institute a system of carbon trading in which emitters would buy or sell allowances, having received an initial allotment partly for free, partly in an auction. Though the bill is not likely tp pass Congress this year and is sure to be vetoed even if it does, itâ''s considered almost a foregone conclusion that the new Congress will enact some kind of carbon trading bill next year and that the newly elected president will sign it. McCain cosponsored a lineal ancester of Lieberman-Warner, and Obama promised in his victory speech on Tuesday night, June 3, to forecefully address the climate issue.

Precisely because it seems so clear that climate legislation is on its way, business and labor are squaring off, seeking to influence and mold the bill that finally makes it to the presidentâ''s desk. Yesterday, June 4, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the Senateâ''s members saying that Lieberman-Warner â''fails to preserve American jobs and the domestic economy, does little to address the international nature of global climate change, and does not sufficiently promote accelerated technology development and deployment.â''

Citing six macroeeconic studies (without actually naming them), the chamberâ''the U.S. business communityâ''s main political representativeâ''said that on any reckoning the bill would cost the United States â''a staggering amount of money.â'' It said the bill could cause the GDP to decrease as much as 3.4 percent, and that the average annual household cost of the bill could be between $1,000 and $6,700.

Those claims are not going unchallenged. The Natural Resources Defense Council has issued a study assessing â''costs and opportunities â'' under Lieberman-Warner arguing that higher energy costs will be offset by improvements in energy efficiency, aggressive deployment of renewables, andâ''starting about 2020â''extensive carbon capture and storage. â''Lieberman-Warner CO2 recuction tarets are achievable with mimla increase in total discounted energy system costs,â'' the report says.

The NRDC cooperated on a second report with CERESâ''an organization representing major institutional investors with assets that would be affected by carbon regulationâ''and two top California utilities. The report, an analysis of how the countryâ''s 100 largest electric utilities would be affected by carbon legislation, argued that auctioned allowances would provide funds for energy efficiency programs, clean energy technologies, and consumer benefits offsetting higher electricity costs.

On Tuesday this week, June 3, University of Massachusetts economists also issued a report taking issue with the chamberâ''s claims. â''Job Opportunities for the Green Economy,â'' an analysis done in cooperation with the United Steelworkers and the Center for American Progress, evaluates six climate-fighting strategies in terms of how many workers in existing occupations could find new opportunities. For example, more rapid deployment of high-performance wind turbines could provide work for the countryâ''s 168,000 sheet workers. Affordable solar energy will increase employment for 150,00 â''electrical engineersâ''â''technicians, presumably, not, sorry to say, the engineers who read and support IEEE Spectrum magazine!

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