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Death, Taxes, and Fingerprint Sensors

Today AuthenTec reported the shipment of its 25 millionth fingerprint sensor.

The company is celebrating the milestone by sponsoring an international contest for "the 25 best application ideas that take advantage of AuthenTecâ''s award-winning fingerprint sensors." If you win, you get a fingerprint-protected laptop. Second place through 25th gets a $25.00 gift card.

Someone's already thought of fingerprint-authenticated cell phones, PDAs, PCs, laptops, door locks, ATM machines, and national ID cards. Now itâ''s your turn.

Before you begin, let me remind everyone that a chopped-off finger won't fool the sensors.

Contest rules and so on:

Millions of people each day draw upon the Power of Touch to eliminate passwords, protect their phones and laptops from theft, shop online, or open their front door. The uses and applications in which fingerprint sensors can make life better are almost endless. The 25 winning ideas will be selected by a panel of technology enthusiasts, and winners will be awarded prizes which include the first place prize of an AuthenTec-enabled laptop PC and a $25 gift card for the 24 runners up. Big Ideas may be submitted until November 30, 2007 at the contest Web site, 25Mandcounting.com.

25 million is a lot of fingerprint sensors. If youâ''re wondering why you havenâ''t noticed this embarrassment of riches, you must not be living in Japan. Itâ''s no secret that Japan is usually the early adopter of new technologies, and this is no exception.

There, the market adoption has followed what the company refers to as a "hockey stick" growth curve. Over nine steady years the company sold 10 million sensors, and over the next 16 months, that number shot up to 25 million. AuthenTec sensors are now in about 17 million laptops and 7 million cell phones. Confirming the prediction made back in September, the company now says nearly one in five laptops shipped during 2007 will include a fingerprint sensor.

Getting Nanowires into Correct Position Could Lead to Industrial Scaling

There have been a number of methods developed for growing nanowires. The problem for electronics applications has been attaching nanowires to components and once attached getting them organized into a two-dimensional array.

A solution to the first problem has been to use nanowires both for the components and the interconnections.

But the second problem has been a little trickier--getting them in the right position. Fluid flow has been experimented with, where the nanowires fall into parallel orientations just like logs in a river.

Later, researchers exploited this phenomenon by employing the Langmuir-Blodgett

Technique. Basically, the nanowires were collected in large groups on the surface of water and then transferred to a substrate.

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) Surface and Interafce Research Group, led by Dr. Babak Nikoobakht, have taken a different approach. They have grown the nanowires directly onto the substrate, and done it so they are aligned horizontally to the substrate rather than perpendicularly.

A schematic of the photolithography process for scalable fabrication of nanowire devices can be seen below. (a) Gold pads and fiducial marks are deposited on the surface. (b) NWs are grown selectively from the two sides of the gold pads. (c) Metal electrodes and bonding pads are placed exactly on NWs by alignment of fiducial marks.

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By growing the nanowires directly on the substrate, multiple steps are eliminated that are needed in the other methods to get the nanowires in the correct orientation on the substrate.

As Nikoobakht relates in a recent interview , "Our method has a minimum number of steps. It combines a chemical growth method with well known optical lithography techniques. Nanowires are grown where they need to be."

The devices created in the lab can work as Field-Effect Transistors (FETs), but Nikoobakht concedes that it could take years to establish their performance and stability.

Sierra Club's Global Warming cartoon gets an Emmy

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The Sierra Club, Project 3650.org, and Pecos Pictures just got an Emmy for Public Service for the animated short, "Big Fun with Global Warming." (No, you didn't miss the ceremony on TV, the Academy hands out public service awards at a nice lunch, not at a televised extravaganza.) This is only the second time the Emmy organization gave out an award in the category of National Public Service Announcement/Broadband, that is, the cartoon never played on traditional television, but found its viewers over the Internet, cell phone, or other portable devices.

The video features "Stinky," a "nasty little office man" who thinks global warming is "a bunch of hooey." Check it out here.

Cheap Laptops + Mobile Broadband = Huge Market, Says Microsoft

Microsoft and GSMA, the trade association of GSM mobile phone operators, are pushing PC manufacturers to roll out a new line of low-end notebooks that can connect to the internet through mobile phone networks. They just released the results of a joint survey that suggests a potential market for 70 million laptops, worth about $50 billion, targeted at mainstream users.

The two parties are basically arguing that PC designers and manufacturers need to rethink how they approach potential buyers of low-end laptops. To capture more first-time buyers, Microsoft and GSMA are championing the inclusion of hardware that enables notebooks to connect to the internet through mobile phone networksâ''a move that is thought to make the existing technology of data access through mobile broadband much simpler for mainstream computer users. â''We need to show the PC industry that they need to innovate and push hardware design, because the needs of those buyers is not the same as the typical road warrior,â'' says Ken Pawlak, Microsoftâ''s director of mobile operator PCs.

Instead, the surveyâ''consisting of some 12,000 in-person interviews conducted across 13 countries in Europe and Asiaâ''reveals that mainstream users want computers primarily for entertainment and easy internet access from more places than just the homeâ''indeed, wherever a cell phone signal is available.

With the exception of a few high-end notebooks with built-in mobile broadband capabilities, most users who now tap into their mobile networks for data do so through external cards that they plug in to their machines. The future manufacturers of these cheap consumer laptopsâ''and at least six PC makers have signed on to do soâ''will use basically the same chip sets that are currently in smart phones. The transition is merely expected to make the process of connecting to mobile broadband networks as easy as using wi-fi is now, with the added advantage of those phone networksâ'' broader reach. So as the software giant and the telecom trade association spread the word in the form of a design competition (winner gets a press release), expect to see a flurry of cheap, mobile-broadband-ready notebooksâ''in the US $500 to $1000 rangeâ''surfacing on the market midway through 2008.

Get a Laptop, Give One to a Poor Child

The campaign to give low-cost computers to the children of the developing world has come up with a novel way to kick-start the giving. And it coincides with the start of the traditional developed world's holiday season. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative yesterday announced a program in which supporters can purchase one of their XO-1 laptops for a child of their own and fund the cost of giving one to an underprivileged child. The program runs from 12 November to 26 November in the United States and Canada.

On a special Web site devoted to the Give One Get One (G1G1) program (laptopgiving.org), the OLPC states:

This is the first time the revolutionary XO laptop has been made available to the general public. For a donation of $399, one XO laptop will be sent to empower a child in a developing nation and one will be sent to the child in your life in recognition of your contribution. $200 of your donation is tax-deductible (your $399 donation minus the fair market value of the XO laptop you will be receiving). For all U.S. donors who participate in the Give One Get One program, T-Mobile is offering one year of complimentary HotSpot access.

To get the giving going, the non-profit group, started by MIT's Nicholas Negroponte, has taken out a full-page ad in the current issue of The Economist. On it's own progress site, the group wrote: 'While we have no idea what the response will be, Hilary and the â''volunteer armyâ'' that includes Pentagram, Nurun, W2, Racepoint, Digital Influence Group, Eleven, Inc., and Len Fink did a fantastic job raising the public awareness of the campaign.'

This publication has written often on the merits of the OLPC movement. For a little background on the technology and people behind the children's laptop initiative, please see two recent articles from our pages: "The Laptop Crusade" by Senior Editor Tekla S. Perry and "Mary Lou Jepsen: Laptops for All" by Associate Editor Sandra Upson.

Negroponte yesterday told CNN International, "In the Give One Get One program, the likely recipient in the developed world is a child. For that child to be using the same laptop as a kid in Africa is especially meaningful."

We're not really supposed to endorse products at Spectrum; but I think if you read between the lines, you might come to the conclusion that this is one offer that could bend the rules a bit.

As Negroponte pointed out yesterday: "Don't buy it because it is an inexpensive laptop. Buy it to join a movement to change the world."

Looj, the gutter cleaning robot, and I

document_resize.jpegI fell in love over email, in love with Looj. IRobot, maker of Roomba and Scooba and other cute little household robots, sent me a press release announcing a gutter-cleaning robot, the Looj. I loved the name; it seemed so soft and friendly. I liked the price, $100 to $170, depending on accessories. I loved the concept, stick a cute little gizmo in the gutter and stand back and watch it blast through the mulch; here in Silicon Valley, in a two-story house with a steep roof, directly under 200 year old live oaks that drop nasty spiky leaves year round, clogged gutters are a nasty fact of life that Iâ''d love to have someone else (besides my husband perched precariously on an extension ladder) take care of. Someone, or something, I guess, like Looj.

So I thought Looj and I could have a serious, long-term relationship. Looj would be my first real robot friend, since Petster. (Admittedly cute, but did nothing useful.)

But though I lusted after Looj, Looj didnâ''t want me.

â''Looj is designed for standard K or J style gutters,â'' the folks at iRobot said.

Weâ''ve got K style gutters, brand new last October, so I figured I was good, this new, they had to be standard; the only choice I recall being offered was color.

I was wrong. My husband printed out the Looj template, climbed up on the roof, and tried to put it into the gutter. It didnâ''t fit. It was too wide.

â''We estimate that over 23 million homes can use Looj,â'' an iRobot spokesperson told me.

Guess Iâ''m just special.

But I figured if I couldnâ''t have Looj for my very own, maybe someone else at IEEE Spectrum could, and I could at least have a once-removed relationship with the critter. Spectrum business manager Robert Ross, with a colonial house in Southampton, N.Y., was game, and he printed out the template. Nope, Looj didnâ''t want him either; his 87-old copper gutters are decidedly non-standard.

Since it looks like Iâ''ll be Looj-less for some time (iRobot has no plans right now to make the device in any other form factors), my husband this weekend rigged together a gutter cleaner out of an electric leaf blower and lots of PVC pipe. Itâ''s big, and clunky, and loud---not nearly as lovable as little Looj. Sigh.

Intel 45-nanometer processors arrive

On 11 November Intel announced the release of 16 server and high-end PC processors based on the first fundamental redesign of the CMOS transistor in 40 years. The chips are built using a manufacturing process that can make structures as small as 45 nanometers. The transistors it makes arenâ''t just small; they include several materials not previously used. The gates are now made from metal instead of polycrystalline silicon, and the insulating layer between the gate and the transistor channel are made from a hafnium-based high-k dielectric material instead of silicon dioxide.

The materials switch eliminates a serious problem that has been plaguing transistors for the several generations. Transistors had shrunk to the point where quantum mechanical effects have been causing current to leak through the thin silicon dioxide insulation layer between the gate and the channel. Switching to a high-k dielectric stemmed the leak, but also necessitated a switch to a metal gate.

The leaders of the epic engineering effort that developed the new transistor and manufacturing process laid out all the details in the October issue of IEEE Spectrum.

The specific chips the company is launching are 15 server processors under the Xeon Hi-k brand (itâ''s codename during development was Penryn). In addition it is launching a desktop processor called Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650 quad core processor.

For Xeon performance specs go here.

For the press briefing and 45-nm backgrounders go here.

Jacksonville air traffic controllers are having a really bad day

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This afternoon at the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center, one of 22 such centers that oversee U.S. airspace, most of the radar system went down for nearly an hour, along with half of the radio frequencies on which controllers talk to pilots. Landline phone communications at the center, which controllers use to share information with controllers at other centers, failed also. It's not clear if controllers used cell phones to try to deal with the situation as they did when a similar incident happened in Memphis in September.) Officially, cell phones are not allowed in the work area of FAA centers.

The FAA ordered a ground stop on Jacksonville Center, that meant that aircraft around the country planning to cross Jacksonville's airspace had to sit on the tarmac. Jacksonville is the seventh busiest en route center in the United States, handling airspace bounded roughly by the Florida-Alabama border, Orlando, southern Georgia, and the North Carolina-South Carolina border.

No cause for the failures has been announced. This looks like just one more symptom of an air traffic control system that has fallen behind the technological curve and, perhaps, is reaching its breaking point.

Forward Bias

Friday, November 9

Todayâ''s Theme: Cross-pollination and inspiration

Some interesting mash-ups this week:

Tree-inspired computer. The design won the Dyson award.

Chair-inspired sound (or sound-inspired chair, Iâ''m not sure). â''Translating sound into furniture and furniture into sound.â''

Space-inspired fashion show. Looks like it's really warm in space. Sure. Boingboing has video.

A.I.-inspired wardrobe. This fully intelligent wardrobe application would probably advise against wearing the space fashion in space.

Congress Presses NASA on Asteroid Program

The U.S. Congress is taking NASA to task for short-changing its program for tracking asteroids with the potential to impact Earth.

At a hearing yesterday before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives, the managers of NASA's Near Earth Object Program, run by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), were criticized for not meeting spending recommendations included in the current annual budget for the space agency, according to reporting today by Agence France Presse.

The chief of NASA's office of program analysis and evaluation, Scott Pace, countered, however, that the agency believes the odds of a very large asteroid striking the earth are presently too small to justify spending more within the tight constraints of overall program budgeting.

Pace told members of the House space and aeronautics subcommittee that devoting more money to tracking near earth objects (or NEOs) is currently not practical "given the constrained resources and the strategic objectives NASA already has been tasked with."

The current budget for the NEO program is US $4.1 million.

Part of the concern displayed by the lawmakers centered around plans by the National Science Foundation to end funding of the giant Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico four years from now unless private-sector investors stepped in to meet its operating costs. NASA's NEO program is one of the leading users and contributors to the work done on studying asteroids by Arecibo, which has become famous over the years for its fictional use in movies such as "Contact."

"We're talking about minimal expense compared to the cost of having to absorb this type of damage," Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said dramatically of the potential threat. "After all, it may be the entire planet that is destroyed!"

The NASA officials on hand reassured the lawmakers that, even if Arecibo were to be retired from government work, the NEO program would still be able to do its job by using newer resources coming online, such as a a network of four telescopes being built in Hawaii by the U.S. Air Force.

During the hearing, the subcommittee members struck on the potential harm a relatively small asteroid called Apophis could wreak if it were to strike the planet. Designated 99942 Apophis by astronomers, the nearly 250-meter long asteroid up till recently was thought to have about a 3 percent chance of hitting Earth in 2029. Further study, though, reduced that number to zero. Still, those calculations posited that the 2029 near miss could result in Apophis coming even closer in its next encounter with us only seven years later.

The space agency representatives told the legislators that science put the odds of this resulting in an impact at 1 in 45 000.

"It's a very unlikely situation and one we can drive to zero, probably," said JPL's Donald Yeomans, who manages the NEO program.

(For more on the threat of Apophis, please see our recent blog entry "MIT Study Aims to Understand 'Killer' Asteroids".)

Despite the histrionics of some politicians and the doomsday plots of movies such as "Armageddon," the scientists at JPL (and MIT and elsewhere) seem to have a fairly good handle on where our natural threats from space are headed. However, space is an extremely big place, and $4.1 million is an awfully small amount to spend on studying the bogies of our nightmares (probably less than the production budget of an episode of "Stargate: SG-1"). So, maybe there's some reason for concern on the part of government leaders.

Let's just hope we're not being penny wise and pound foolish.

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