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Brain on a Chip, DARPA-style


At places like Janelia Farm (the "Bell Labs for neurobiology" run by Howard Highes Medical Institute) engineers are already trying to apply existing knowledge about the intricate wiring diagrams of integrated circuits to the inseparable mess of synapses that clogs our brains.

Now DARPA is joining the fray, to the tune of $3 million. In its $3.29 billion FY 2009 budget, the DOD's research wing specifies a program to make a chip that looks and acts like a brain (whether that's a human brain or a fruit fly brain remains to be specified). They're calling it Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics, or SyNAPSE.

"The program will develop a brain inspired electronic 'chip' that mimics that function, size, and power consumption of a biological cortex," DARPA promises us. "If successful, the program will provide the foundations for functional machines to supplement humans in many of the most demanding situations faced by warfighters today" -- like getting usable information out of video feeds, and starting tasks.

Wired's Danger Room has much more, including (but not limited to) the proposed unmanned ambulance in the sky.

Hulk Smash Fort Bliss, TX!

[see update here, with video goodness]


On February 19th, DARPA's 6.5-ton behemoth unmanned autonomous vehicle, which they've lovingly nicknamed Crusher, will be going through field trials in Fort Bliss, TX. As it happens, I will be there taking video and attempting to liveblog the event.


This video offers a slightly disconcerting peek at the six-wheeled monstrosity that I really kind of really really want to test drive.



Photo Credit: Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute


But I can't, because this vehicle is autonomous by design--it was built without room for passengers, which leaves room for all kinds of sensors and goodies, like a six-meter telescopic mast.


Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute has been tinkering with the unmanned autonomous vehicle since 2003, so it's really about time someone did something useful with it. Unconfirmed reports have indicated that the Army is taking over the project this year.


Check back on February 19, for some original video and maybe even some answers.



The Microsoft - Yahoo Merger: For Instant Messaging, It's Already Happened

Michael Robertson has something interesting to say about the Microsoft-Yahoo merger, still on hold, but likely, in the view of many observers, to eventually be consummated.

Robertson is a pretty sharp guy. He founded, which was bought by Vivendi Universal for a whole boatload of money in 2001, right before the dot-com crash. He founded Linspire, a flavor of Linux with a user interface that was inspired, if that's the word, by a very familiar one. I won't say which, except that the software's original name was Lindows, which I mention mainly to retell one of my favorite comments ever by a federal judge. When Microsoft sued Robertson's company over the name, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour said,

Although certainly made a conscious decision to play with fire by choosing a product and company name that differs by only one letter from the world's leading computer software program, one could just as easily conclude that in 1983 Microsoft made an equally risky decision to name its product after a term commonly used in the trade to indicate the windowing capability of a GUI.

Anyway, here's what Robertson has to say about the merger, predicting Microsoft's eventual success.

Both companies are getting trounced by Google in search, but there's more to the world then just search. Yahoo has enormously valuable net assets which, when combined with Microsoft, will create a giant in several areas. One example is IM (instant messaging).

Many may be surprised to learn that Microsoft's IM network is now more than twice as big as anyone else and Yahoo has moved past Granddaddy AOL into second place. If Microsoft and Yahoo combine their IM networks (which are already interconnected) it would be multiple times bigger than anyone else.

In other words, if you're on MSN Messenger, you can add Yahoo Messenger contacts, and vice versa.

Robertson has a particular thing for instant messaging, because his latest project is something called Gizmo5, which is an interoperability program for instant messaging and voice over Internet-protocol. (In fact,it might be fair to say that the IM is a freebie to attract users to Robertson's Skype-like VoIP offering). Robertson has a nice little chart delineating which IM programs are already interoperable with which others. For some reason, the chart doesn't have a row for Meebo, a Web-based IM program that lets you manage, and IM, from all your different accounts, whether they're multiple accounts on one IM platform, or across several platforms, including AIM, Yahoo, Google Talk, and MSN.

I have a particular thing for IM as well, having written about it several times, including an article last month that looked at IM on cellphones ("IM Doing Fine"). But Robertson's comments go beyond IM. Generally, analysts aren't looking for these sorts of inner compatibilities between the companies, and that's a shame, because ultimately the success of a merger, and whether it makes business sense, stands or falls in large part on such considerations. I'll have more to say about that in a future post.

Shuttle Carries Columbus Laboratory into Space

The Atlantis orbiter roared from its launch pad at Cape Canveral, in Florida, today at 2:45 pm EST. In its cargo bay, it carried the Columbus Laboratory, which has been waiting transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) for nearly two years. Early forecasts calling for overcast conditions at launch time evaporated in the Florida sunshine and lift-off occurred exactly on schedule.

The flight, the 24th shuttle mission to the ISS and known as STS-122, took about 8.5 minutes to rise into orbit. Its principal mission is to attach the Columbus science module, built by the European Space Agency (ESA), to the space station.

Columbus has long been considered a key element to the ISS platform and was approved for construction by the participating members of ESA some 22 years ago originally. Once installed and integrated into the ISS, in future spacewalks, it will double the capabilities for scientific research from orbit, joining the U.S.-made Destiny Laboratory. Command and control of the new science lab will be handled by the Columbus Control Centre, in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany. Its launch today brings an end to flight delays caused by backlogs in the American space program brought on chiefly by the tragic loss of the Columbia orbiter in 2003.

According to NASA, the crew of Atlantis consists of Commander Steve Frick, Pilot Alan Poindexter, and Mission Specialists Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Stanley Love and the European Space Agency's Hans Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts.

For those online, NASA has provided an STS-122 Blog, where space junkies can get caught up on every detail of the mission, as well as plenty of video and podcasts. For sports junkies, Atlantis is carrying three starter's flags for the upcoming Daytona 500 stock-car race (see Atlantis to Help Mark NASCAR Milestone). NASA is marking the 50 anniversary of its creation this year and the big NASCAR race is celebrating its 50th annual running, as well. Upon the return of Atlantis, scheduled 11 days from now, one of the flags will be used to start the "Great American Race."

The current mission of Atlantis was first targeted for early December, but persistent problems with sensors in the vehicle's external liquid-fuel tank caused administrators to postpone its launch on multiple occasions. (See our previous blogs Bad Day for a Space Launch, Glitch Grounds Space Shuttle for Weeks, and NASA Sets New Dates for Next Shuttle Launches.) Today, the four sensors worked perfectly.

Atlantis will also pick up American astronaut Daniel Tani, whose stay aboard the ISS has been extended far longer than anticipated by the faulty fuel sensor problem. Tani has been working on space station assignments since late October. He had been scheduled to return home in time to spend the December holidays with his young family. Sadly, his mother was killed in an auto accident days after his return was postponed (see our item Sad Holiday for Space Station Astronaut). He will be replaced on the ISS by Eyharts, a general in the French Air Force.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told the Associated Press today: "We're coming back, and I think we are back, from some pretty severe technical problems that led to the loss of Columbia." He said he was looking forward to a stretch of problem-free space flights that " should be like some of those earlier times when we had some fairly interrupted stretches with no technical problems where we could just fly."

Stanford's High Energy Physics Lab goes to....the dump


This week, bulldozers are knocking down and carting away the Stanford High Energy Physics Laboratory, a.k.a. Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory, to make room for a new Science and Engineering Quad. The 1949 building, originally funded by the Office of Naval Research, housed a long line of pioneering accelerators and led to the development of the Stanford Linear Accelerator. From 1952 to 1990 alone it was a home to more than 700 research projects, 13 National Academy of Science members, three Nobel Laureates, and 750 Ph.D.s. Experiments included the first large-scale superfluid accelerator and the first high-energy colliding beam test.

The tunnel housing Stanfordâ''s free electron laser lies four stories below the building; it will be preserved.

The site above ground will become the universityâ''s second Science and Engineering Quad, encompassing the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Enviroment and Energy Building (Y2E2), the School of Engineering Center, the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technlology, and the Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering Building.


Karl Brown at the controls of the Mark II accelerator in 1949 or 1950.

Top photo by Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

What's Up with All the Slashed Internet Cables?

As the pace of repair work picked up on three Internet cables in the Middle East this week, word that more damage has occurred to nearby undersea fiber-optic lines in the last 24 hours arrives. The slew of slashed cables has caused a frenzy of speculation on their causes in the blogosphere. As of today, Egyptian officials still had no explanation as to the cause of the damage to the first two lines, slashed a week ago, but they said there was no evidence that ship's anchors caused the breakage.

The two new damaged lines being reported are to some of the same systems as were cut recently, namely the FLAG Europe-Asia and SeaMeWe-4 networks. Landline and satellite connections have ameliorated some of the outages in the Middle East and South Asia regions, but it is estimated that some 85 million Internet users have been adversely affected. According to one report, nearly 90 per cent of Internet traffic is routed through undersea cables in these parts of the world.

Officials for the cable operators predicted that engineers working on repair ships at sea should be able to restore service in approximately one week for the earlier incidents. FLAG Telecom, operator of two of the damaged cables, told the Associated Press today that it is laying an entirely new "fully resilient" cable that will be able to withstand harsher treatment in underwater conditions.

"We are still treating this as a crisis," a FLAG spokesman told the AP. "But the new cable will provide a diversity in routes and be more resilient."

[See our earlier entry, "Internet Problems Mount for Asia/Europe Connection" for more details on last week's cable outages.]

Bush S&T Funding Initiative Keeps US Nanotechnology Funding Near Present Level

Itâ''s not clear whether President Bushâ''s latest announcement of the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) is just a pie-in-the-sky funding proposal from a lame duck president, or if it really has a chance of being funded. But if it does receive funding, the already top-tier government funding of the US will inch just a little higher in some areas, but grow significantly in others.

According to an article on the new funding proposal, fiscal year 2009 will see the National Science Foundation (NSF) receive $397 million for nanotechnology research, up from $389.9 proposed for the 2008 budget, a slight percentage increase of 1.8%.

But the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would get a 20% boost in its overall budget, with part of that increase going towards nanotechnology along with four new facilities for astronomy and physics research budgeted at $148 million.

Nanotechnology aside, the recently announced R&D funding of a record $147 billion, representing a 3% increase over 2008, has observers calling the budget proposal â''unrealâ'' and landing the R&D budget in the same fate of the last two yearâ''trouble.

With the US facing the specter of a recession, the idea of investing in science for future economic growth is not the worst idea to come from inside the beltway.

Low-tech voting on Super Tuesday

276493969_77c117b99a.jpg Hanging chads never looked so good.

After several years of voting touch screen in California elections, sometimes smoothly, sometimes with difficulty, itâ''s back to old technology. Old old technology. Paper and pen technology.

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen last summer decertified machines made by Diebold Election Systems, Sequoia Voting Systems, and Hart InterCivic; they can only now be used under special security precautions. So I voted the old-fashioned way. And it was chaos. There didnâ''t seem to be much organization to the way poll workers handed out the paper ballots; it would have been easy to get one without signing in, or verifying that I was at the right precinct. There was absolutely no privacyâ''the ballots were huge and easy to read at a distance. â''Privacy envelopesâ'' were supposedly available, a poll worker told me theyâ''d only received three, as I handed him my completely visible ballot. Somewhere in the back of all of this, a poll worker told me, sat one electronic voting machine for the visually impaired.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the city just settled a $3.5 million lawsuit against voting machine manufacturer AutoMARK, which had sold the city uncertified machines, necessitating hand counting of paper ballots in the November election. The city replaced them with machines from Sequoia Voting Systems for todayâ''s race, mostly devices that read paper ballots, but a few touch screens are out there for those who want to use them. This morning, blogger Kevin Ho faced the Sequoia voting machine red screen of death and watched voters using paper ballots stream past him as the system rebooted.

And, in New Jersey, Gov. John Corzineâ''s scheduled 6:15 a.m. vote was delayed nearly an hour as poll workers struggled to fix touch screen machines. These were also from Sequioa Voting Systems.

For those eager to hear election results, it may be a long night.


My polling place again suffered from an election day paper shortage. Last year they ran out of paper for the printers and had to shut down the electronic voting machines. This year, many polling sites, including mine, ran out of paper ballots towards the end of the day. Late night news showed video of election workers xeroxing stacks of ballots to be driven out to the polls, where voters were waiting long past closing to vote.

So high-tech wasn't the answer, low-tech isn't the answer...November should be interesting.

Nanotechnology's Role in Reducing CO2 Emissions

If you accept that man-made CO2 emissions are a major contributing factor to global warming, then finding ways to combat those emissions with nanotechnology are an application area of increasing interest.

A recent column in Nanotech-Now poses the question of whether nanotechnology can be economically used to fight CO2 emissions. The brief column mainly focuses on the main contributor to man-made CO2 emissions: electric power plants.

The nanotechnologies being investigated for reducing carbon emissions in this area are still somewhat speculative, and certainly suffer from the prospect of not ever achieving an economical solution. Retrofitting power plants with bioenzyme â''scrubbersâ'' appears to remain price prohibitive.

But an attempt was made last year to quantify the impact nanotechnology could have on reducing carbon emissions. The company I work for, Cientifica, released in 2007 a free Whitepaper entitled: Nanotech/Cleantech: Quantifying the Effect of Nanotechnologies on CO2 Emissions.

The results indicated that impact of nanotechnologies in emission reductions will be in three main areas:

â'¢ The reduction of emissions from transportation through weight reduction and improved drive train efficiency

â'¢ The use of improved insulation in residential and commercial buildings

â'¢ The generation of renewable photovoltaic energy


Reduction Of Emissions Due To Use Of Nanotechnologies Source: Cientifica

So by using available technologies, nanotechnology was estimated to be able to reduce carbon emissions by 200,000 tons by 2010, mainly through weight savings and improved combustion in transport applications.

Sounds greatâ'¿but by 2010 this will only reduce carbon emissions by 0.00027%.

However, if the materials-based advances enabled by nanotechnologies that are still under development as discussed in the Nanotech-Now column are successfully applied than the impact could be far more dramatic.

Realism might not matter for next-gen prostheses

Both of DARPA's Revolutionizing Prosthetics programsâ''Deka's 2007 "Luke arm" and the larger 2009 projectâ''are working on a cosmesis for their bionic arm; a flesh-colored, hand-shaped, natural looking glove to disguise the alloy and plastic underneath. Theyâ''ve gone to great lengths to make it look like the real thing. At Deka, I saw a silicon hand that had been painstakingly hand-painted from the inside out to keep the paint from ever rubbing off. The paint job convincingly mimics veins, knuckles and tendons. The realistic nails are added on later, the fingertips felt real enough to creep me out, and the thing felt like a real (if cold, dead) hand.

Todd Farrington, a software engineer at Deka, has been wearing two classic hook and cable prosthetic arms since he was electrocuted at the age of 12. He still has his arms above the elbow. We share the same hunt-and-peck approach to keyboard use, but thereâ''s an important difference between us: he can write poetry. Farrington is eager to start test piloting the Luke arm.

But Farrington and another Deka test pilot, Chuck Hildreth, made it clear to me that making the new arm look real was the last thing on their minds.

Farrington says that cosmeses are important to people who have recently lost limbs. They want to get back a feeling of normalcy. But within a few years, Farrington says, looking normal stops being the most important thing. â''Theyâ''re only going to care about functionality,â'' he says. Thatâ''s one of the many reasons why todayâ''s prosthetic limbs, skin-color-matched and hand-shaped though they may be, end up collecting dust in the closet instead of on the patient.

The problem with cosmeses is that while they look pretty, especially Dekaâ''s $10,000 model, they impede the function of the prosthesis beneath. In fact, Farringtonâ''s own prosthetics illustrate his point: â''Face it, itâ''s never really going to look real,â'' he says. â''Itâ''s not going to be convincing.â'' So even though his right arm is a pale peach-colored plastic to approximate his skin, when it was time to get the left arm, Farrington called the prosthetist and told him to go with the less expensive carbon fiber. He pulls up his sleeve and shows me silver-black carbon fiber, shimmering with a pattern of subtle scales. I ask him if he would wear a cosmesis over the Luke arm. He grins and shakes his head quickly.

I think while these next-gen arms were being conceived, the idea of the cosmesis came and went. When you see an arm that moves as naturally and gracefully as the real thing, you stop caring if itâ''s got skin. Itâ''s a weird little cognitive dissonance trick your brain plays on you: last year at DARPATech, I met Jesse Sullivan, who was wearing the Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2009 Proto-2 arm. Heâ''s got it wired into his reinnervated pectoral muscles, so when he wants to move his hand, he doesnâ''t have to stop and think about it. He just moves his hand. After about a minute, my brain could not compute the prosthetic hand/natural movement paradox and just gave up. My primate brain could not keep up, and so against my will, I perceived Jesse as having a fully functioning arm, covered by a robot suit.

Now that weâ''re not giving people hooks and claws anymore, thereâ''s no need to be so insistent with the camouflage. With the Blade Runner making headlines, it seems like everyoneâ''s starting to get used to the idea of being modded. Somehow, an amputee just isnâ''t all that pitiable when he can outrun you and everyone you know.


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