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Contracts awarded for DARPA's Trust in Integrated Circuits program

Trust, but verify. Ronald Reagan said it in 1987 to characterize US-Soviet relations, and the Pentagon is saying it in 2007 to characterize its relationship with foreign-made microchips. Given the past yearâ''s adventures in dog food, toys and toothpaste, itâ''s hard to fault them for their caution. A year shy of its 50th birthday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has launched the Trust in Integrated Circuits program, the goal of which is a microchip verification process. Itâ''s basically a Pentagon Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. A chip bearing the Trusted imprimatur will be guaranteed free of malicious content.

DARPA just issued a press release listing contract awards for the program [PDF] and some more details about what those contracts specify. Cliff notes after the jump.

It's not just offshoring that worries the Defense Department. Because the Pentagon now only makes up one percent of the global chip market, it no enjoys leverage over anyone's chipmaking techniques or policies, even that of US-based manufacturers.

Itâ''s too expensive to build your own fab. Even the Defense Department canâ''t afford $3 billion every few years as state-of-the art manufacturing plants slouch toward obsolescence. NSA has a Trusted Foundries program, but as Victoria Stavridou-Coleman (former director of Intel's trust and manageability labs) told me, it â''blesses a process and not a product.â''

The problem is that chips are so complicated at this point that testing them, either physically or logically, is pretty much impossible. The Pentagon wants tests for hardware Trojans, back doors and kill switches (just three in its extensive database of fever dreams), and the testing needs to be nondestructive.

The project consists of three one-year phases, each phase more difficult than the previous. The Phase 1 contracts have been awarded (sorted here by almighty dollar).

AwardContractRole
$11,941,368 RaytheonHardware and Software
$4,521,299Luna InnovationsField Programmable Gate Arrays
$4,484,286 University of Southern Calif. Information Sciences InstituteGovernment Test Article Team
$2,347,760ISI/XRadiaX Ray Analysis
$940,217Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics LaboratoryGovernment Metrics Team
$600,000MIT Lincoln LabsGovernment Red Team Leader

EVS-23: Rumors & comments & questions, oh my! (1 of 2)

Anaheim, Californiaâ''Is EVS already dead? That was just one of the questions thatâ''s been debated late into the night here at the Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS-23).

Among the plenaries, the workshops, the auditorium sessions (on no fewer than six parallel tracks, damnit), the small lecture series, the lunches, the receptions, and of course gallons of urn coffee are hallway chats, sidebar conversations, and random comments.

So hereâ''s my list of factoids, comments, questions, suppositions, and a bit of opinion (broken into two parts, â''cause there were so many). Theyâ''ve been gathered from three intensive days of discussions with engineers, technologists, researchers, and executives. They were from automakers, battery companies, research institutions, regulatory bodies and more.

Consider this food for thought on the state of electric vehicles today:

- Is EVS already dead? Many of us have debated whether, within 10 years, thereâ''ll simply be no need for EVS. By then, its topics will routinely be part of mainstream auto and utility industry conferences. When Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) conferences start running tracks on energy storage alternatives, and electric-drive systemsâ'¿itâ''s over. Some say five years, some say 10. But where will the true believers and garage converters go then?

- Could it be? Did Toyota goof, big-time? Itâ''s starting to appear that they initially put their money on the wrong lithium-ion chemistry. Their long-term partner Panasonic, which makes nickel-metal-hydride battery packs for the Prius and other Toyota hybrids, has most experience with cobalt-based lithium-ion batteriesâ''the ones behind those videos and pictures of flaming laptops youâ''ve seen on TV or YouTube. Most automakers view them as simply too risky to use in vehicles. GM, on the other hand, put out solicitations to dozens of battery makers for its Volt battery pack, got back 13 proposals, and issued development contracts to Continental (using new vendor A123â''s iron-nanophosphate cells) and to another new vendor, Compact Power Inc. (using LG Chemâ''s manganese spinel cells). Perhaps tight kereitsu relationships arenâ''t so useful when transformative technologies come along?

- Toyota has clearly changed its tune on plug-in hybrids. The company expressed polite skepticism on the topic as recently as six months ago. But as part of the opening plenary here, Koei Saga, the senior general manager in the companyâ''s hybrid-vehicle system engineering division, said clearly, â''We think a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle is the most practical approach for normal-size passenger cars.â'' On Sunday and Monday the company offered drives in its own Prius plug-in conversion (adding a second NiMH battery pack to the standard one, for an all-electric range of 7 to 10 miles). Gratuitous advice to GM, Ford et al.: Never, ever count Toyota outâ''as many of you have learned, painfully, over the last three decades.

- Fun factoid: According to a GM insider, for a short while the project now known as Chevrolet Volt was internally called the EV2. But the firestorm around the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? gave that name too many unfortunate connotations, hence Volt.

Iâ''m headed back home in a few hours. If anyone has specific follow-up questions theyâ''d like me to explore, please contact me: J V [dot] spectrum [at] ieee [dot] org.

VeriChip Plans Glucose-Sensing RFID Implant

VeriChip, everyone's favorite implantable-RFID-tag company, announced plans to develop a glucose-monitoring tag yesterday for diabetics. VeriChip expects to put the sensor through preliminary clinical trials within 30 months.

According to a white paper released yesterday, the device has three parts: a passive transponder, integrated circuitry, and a glucose sensor, which can calculate the proportion of glucose in the bloodstream. From what I understand, some glucose molecules seep in through a semipermeable membrane and enter a chamber containing a substance that glucose can bind to. The glucose has to fend off a "competition component," and the outcome of that interaction indicates how much glucose is in the bloodstream. Another part of the system detects the mass of the glucose that successfully binds to whatever substance they've chosen and records that in the chip for communication to the outside world.

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It's pretty exciting technology, if they can get it to work, and could make for much simpler glucose monitoring without requiring blood samples. Here's what we've had to say about the ethical issues surrounding implantable chips.

EVS-23: Reader questions on battery buzz, plug-in hybrids & V2G technology

Anaheim, Californiaâ''Thanks to everyone whoâ''s written in over the last couple of days. Below are two answers to reader questions I felt had broad interest. Keep â''em coming!

Q: I was wondering what the buzz was about around the show: Batteries, Capacitors, or Fuel Cells? Which ones are being touted as the long-term winner? Do any battery companies stand out? Are they showing any new products? â'' Michael Short

A: As I noted this morning, much of the buzz is about plug-in hybrids, though several speakers warned that their promise is already over-hyped. Remember, less than 100 working plug-in hybrids now exist anywhere on the globe. Some attendees are surprised at the glossy displays of the â''realâ'' automakers exhibiting (Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Honda and Toyota).

No oneâ''s handicapping the many battery options, including several distinct chemistries for lithium-ion. (For a discussion of A123â''s iron nano-phosphate cells, see â''Lithium Batteries Take to the Roadâ''.) But others marvel at the broad array of electric vehicles now offered for sale, from three- and four-wheeled low-speed vehicles to medium-duty urban delivery trucks. Theyâ''re not garage conversions; theyâ''re real-world products from large companies sold at authorized dealers. And, said Efrain Ornelas of Pacific Gas & Electric in a well-attended lecture, in the near term, those medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles may offer the most convincing case for the benefits of plug-in hybrids.

Q: Is there any discussion or actual technology for vehicle-to-grid (V2G) interconnection being discussed or shown? Iâ''m all for plug-in hybrids, but Iâ''m hoping the automakers donâ''t lock in too much on a â''charge-onlyâ'' standard (like thereâ''s any danger theyâ''ll lock in on a standard soon). â'' Glenn Skutt

A: Oh yes. The concept of V2G permeates the conference, though few people agree on exactly what it means. Some go directly to the concept that utilities could use smart grid technology and intelligent meters to draw a small amount of energy from each of millions of grid-connected electric drive vehicles. Those vehicles could be recharged at night, when excess capacity is readily available, and owners could agree to make a small portion of their battery energy available at times of peak demand to let utilities meet the peak of their demand curve.

Others caution that such a vision is a couple of decades away. First, smart meters must be in place. Second, automakers and utilities must meet, learn to speak each othersâ'' languages, and agree on communications protocols for the information to be exchangedâ''and where and how metering and battery control actually happen. Cyriacus Beijs, of the French utility EDF, presented a paper on a simple, inexpensive, and universal communication protocol for identifying a charging vehicle to the utilityâ''and asked the automakers in the crowd to help him make it a reality.

Iâ''ll be posting once or twice more from EVS-23. If anyone has specific issues theyâ''d like me to explore, please contact me: J V [dot] spectrum [at] ieee [dot] org.

No-cubicle trend will increase jobs for physical therapists

Cisco is the poster company for a new trend in workplace design, the no-cubicle open office. In a study reporting on the topic, the company touts the efficiency of not wasting empty offices on employees who are out that day, the ability to form flexible work groups, and the less drab, more pleasant look to an open office.

The San Jose Mercury News is the latest publication to write about this trend; itâ''s been covered in much of the business press and discussed at conferences,

Youâ''d think it was the greatest workplace innovation, since, well, cubicles.

The photo of a Cisco no-cubicle office in the recent San Jose Mercury News article set off my alarm bells, however. The no-cubicle environment in the picture is an ergonomic nightmare. I canâ''t believe the article didnâ''t discuss this downside to the wonders of the new office.

I called Lisa Voge-Levin, an ergonomic consultant who helps companies design healthy work environments, and asked her to look at the Cisco photo with me. Hereâ''s what she had to say.

â''The chairs look like armchairs. They donâ''t seem to be adjustable for different sizes of people. They are giving no lumbar support. That puts people at risk of lower back injury.â''

â''The people have some kind of support under their laptops, it appears to be the kind with a beanbag or pillow that molds to the legs, with a hard surface on top of it. This makes the computer more stable. If you look at the peopleâ''s postures, their elbows are

bent at 90 degrees, that is good, but their wrists are bent up, and their necks are bent down; thatâ''s bad for the neck, and the taller the person is the worse heâ''ll have it.

â''Notice the one man has water lined up on the ground. That is where heâ''ll be putting things. So how many times a day will he be bending down? Will he bend down to put his laptop on the ground when he gets up to go to the bathroom? So much bending can cause back issues.â''

â''And look at the cords; theyâ''re a huge tripping hazard.â''

All this, Voge-Levin says, contributes to neck and back injuries including muscle and tendon strain as well as such serious injuries as ruptured discs. She also notes that in such an environment, it is hard to control lighting, glare, or noise; all can lead to headaches.

On the positive side, she points out, people have gotten isolated in the workplace, to the point where they spend their days emailing instead of talking to the person in the next cubicle. Addressing the isolation problem is good, but, she says, this solution goes overboard. You can eliminate or reduce the height of cubicles, but still place workers at adjustable desks, with adjustable chairs, working on laptops sitting on stands that prevent neck strain.

These Cisco workers are going to be uncomfortable very soon, she concludes.

U.S. Students Still Trail Others in Science, Math

The song remains the same for American teens when it comes to science and mathematics: "We don't need no education."

Despite attempts in recent years to bolster education in fundamental areas, a major international study released today found that youngsters in the U.S. still lag behind their peers in the developed nations when it comes to the technical disciplines. Sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study found that in standardized tests conducted in 30 industrialized countries American kids performed near the bottom of the ranks.

U.S. students recorded an average science score lower than the average in 16 other OECD nations; in math, American teens did even worse, posting an average score lower than the average in 23 of the other leading industrialized countries, according to a report today from the Associated Press.

The 2006 PISA tests given to 15-year-olds around the world focused primarily on science but included a mathematics portion, as well. There was no change in the math results among the U.S. teens compared to the findings recorded four years ago when the last PISA study was conducted, according to the AP. The science scores aren't comparable between 2003 and 2006, because the tests were not the same.

Interestingly, American girls and boys did about the same on the science and math portions of the test.

As far as international competition went, it was youngsters from Finland who performed at the top of the class in science and math, with their peers from Hong Kong, Canada, Taiwan, and South Korea rounding out the top five.

A press release from the OECD highlighting the results of the study stated that the PISA tests found that students in general were not particularly attracted to science and math:

While most students polled said they were motivated to learn science, only a minority aspired to a career involving science: 72% said it was important for them to do well in science; 67% enjoyed acquiring new knowledge in science; 56% said science was useful for further studies; but only 37% said they would like to work in a career involving science and 21% said they would like to spend their life doing advanced science.

The organization's leader, Secretary-General Angel Gurría, in his remarks in Tokyo today on the OECD findings said: "Successful learning experiences involve enabling environments at school, at home, everywhere. To get it right requires a deep understanding of how the system works. PISA is one of the tools at hand to improve performance, not only for policy makers but for all of us striving to give our children the best education we can. But getting it right also requires courage to take the right measures and to reform when needed."

Apparently, this message has not gotten through sufficiently to policy makers in the United States -- despite all the rhetoric of the last several years.

Atomically Precise Manufacturing Gets a Roadmap

One of the obstacles for scientists taking molecular nanotechnology (MNT) as seriously as its loyal adherents is that its vision is so technologically distant from what we can accomplish today that good, old-fashioned scientific skepticism just canâ''t be overcome.

But a good step-by-step roadmap for the research, outlining what research can be conducted now, and if that is successful what the next steps could be, would help make some more believers.

To this end, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers held a workshop in October in Washington, DC entitled Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems (TRPN) that was the culmination of two years worth of work by the Foresight Institute in collaboration with the Waitt Family Foundation and the Battelle Memorial Institute, among others.

Dr. Paul Burrows, a Laboratory Fellow at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory gives a thoughtful rundown of the meeting and what it could mean in Small Times.

The roadmap has not yet been completed, but the Foresight Institute is expected to publish something soon.

What may be most heartening about this news is the flexibility afforded the roadmap with the understanding that APM may not be achievable with universal assemblers.

According to Burrows, Eric Drexler himself concedes 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.

EVS-23: It's About the Plug-ins, Stupid!

Anaheim, Californiaâ''Itâ''s not every day that an engineer from a global automaker gets hissed at a major industry conference.

But when Hondaâ''s Dan Bonowitz spoke during the plenary session of the Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS-23), there was actualâ''though mutedâ''hissing from the back of the room.

The offending statement? â''We do not believe that [lithium-ion batteries] are ready for real-world deployment in high-discharge applications.â''

The tenor of the conference clearly indicates otherwise. As noted yesterday, so much has changed in a year that electric-drive vehicles from major automakers are now assumed to be fact, and the question is not whether but whenâ''and of course how.

Bonowitz got off on the wrong foot, attempting to show a video that had accompanied the launch of the companyâ''s FCX Clarity fuel-cell sedan at the LA Auto Show a few weeks earlier. It took several minutes to bring up the volume, and even then the picture was small and murky from most of the seats at the packed plenary session. He finally cut it off and acknowledged that he hadnâ''t made a good start.

Does Honda seriously believe lithium-ion batteries aren't ready for primetime? Battery makers say no, though they donâ''t want to go on the record. Just like any other automaker, they say, Honda is talking to the companies that make large-format lithium-ion batteries for automotive applications.

The FCX Clarity already uses a lithium-ion battery in conjunction with its fuel cell, in fact. â''We believe itâ''s the first use of lithium-ion batteries for motive powerâ'' that will hit the road, said Bonowitz. (This neatly excluded Toyotaâ''s use of a tiny lithium-ion pack for idle-stop restarting in a mild-hybrid Vitz sold only in Japan several years ago).

The FCX Clarity will be leased for $600 a month, starting next summer, to selected customers in Southern California. â''That means,â'' said one bystander, â''that Hondaâ''s picking up the other $600,000 on each vehicle.â'' Which is as good a way as any to summarize the cost challenges of fuel-cell vehiclesâ''even before looking at the infrastructure challenges.

If one statement sums up this conference so far, itâ''s this one, overheard in the hallways: â''Itâ''s all about the plug-ins, stupid!â''

Iâ''ll be posting every day from EVS-23. If anyone has specific issues theyâ''d like me to explore, please contact me: J V [dot] spectrum [at] ieee [dot] org. To those who've already sent me notes, thank you! I'll address them or respond over the next few days, I promise.

NASA Redesigns Site to Be More Social

Aiming to keep abreast of the times, the U.S. space agency today rolled out a major upgrade to its presence on the Web. The new site has the same address, NASA.gov, but it features many of the newer bells and whistles that surfers have grown to expect from contemporary online resources in the mode of the Web 2.0 revolution. The move comes as NASA prepares to mark its fiftieth anniversary in the upcoming year.

The site, which is one of the federal government's most robust and content-intensive resources on the Internet, has generally been adept at keeping up with serving its users' needs in the past, but it's been nearly four years since the agency has given it a major makeover. The designers of the new iteration, dubbed NASA.gov 5.0, say the revamped site has received more than a cosmetic facelift. It features a new level of interactivity and customization and provides the opportunity to comment on selected NASA stories, create personal playlists of favorite NASA videos, and share agency content with social networking sites on the Internet, according to NASA.

"We're very excited to roll this new version of NASA.gov out for the public," said Brian Dunbar, NASA's internet services manager, in Washington, D.C. "We've been able to add new functionality to the site, broaden and simplify the navigation to NASA's wide range of content, and still keep the features that users liked best about the old design. All together, the new design will make it much easier for users to complete their top tasks."

Following a partnering arrangement worked out two years ago with Google (see our blog entry "Google Goes Into Space"), the new site also features Google's Customer Search Engine, as well as tools to apply "crowd wisdom" to search results by weighting findings according to how many previous searchers clicked on a particular link.

The agency has revamped the customized MyNASA feature to allow users to collect their favorite content, including videos and news feeds, all in one location, NASA stated. This could be a fan favorite among today's more savvy users, as content from NASA is free of usage restrictions for U.S. citizens, because of its status as government property.

In addition to the internal NASA team, the re-launch owes its enhanced technical capabilities to contractors from Critical Mass, of Toronto (for the new interface), and eTouch Systems, of Fremont, Calif. (for design implementation and infrastructure support).

"This new approach to the NASA home page arose from ongoing feedback from the site's users, which we get continuously through e-mails, customer-satisfaction surveys, and traffic statistics," Dunbar added. "The initial concepts and subsequent iterations have been put through three rounds of user testing with external audiences. We're proud of the initial reaction to the new design and the entire NASA Web team looks forward to adding new features and listening closely to user feedback."

So give it a look. Kick the tires. And offer your thoughts on it directly to the space agency. After all, you paid for it.

Taser International On The Defensive

It's been a busy couple of months for the PR department of Taser International, the maker of the controversial Taser stun gun. Canada is in the midst of 9 separate inquiries investigating the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski after he was shocked repeatedly with a Taser gun at Vancouver's main airport. Just last week, a Canadian died in custody, 4 days after being shot with a Taser gun--right on the heels of another Canadian who died 30 hours after being shocked. According to CBS News, at least 6 North Americans died after being shocked by Taser guns in late November. Taser International has successfully defended itself in court in all post-Taser death cases, and it's easy to see why: why would it take 4 days for an electric shock to kill someone? But I can't help but be a little spooked by these unexplained deaths.

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On Nov. 23, the United Nations Committee Against Torture issued a memo suggesting that the use of the TaserX26â''the model of the weapon commonly used by police departmentsâ''might constitute torture. Newspapers the world over picked up the story, including here, here and here.

But let's take a closer look at the text of that UN report.

This is all it says about Taser guns:

The Committee was worried that the use of TaserX26 weapons, provoking extreme pain, constituted a form of torture, and that in certain cases it could also cause death, as shown by several reliable studies and by certain cases that had happened after practical use.

The text was embedded in a section on prison deaths in Portugal. Taser International lashed back, saying that the committee was â''out of touchâ'' with the challenges faced by police departments. I can understand why, in an environment where prisoners are already treated poorly, the abuse of captives would be a valid concern. Nonetheless, I have to side with Taser on this one: the UN document's vague references to supporting evidence and the indeterminate mention of â''the use of TaserX26 weaponsâ'' does nothing to clarify what makes it torture. Do all Taser uses constitute torture, even when electric shock is used as an alternative to a bullet?

A few days later, a study by the United Kingdom Defence Science and Technology Laboratory was published, which concluded that Taser guns are unlikely to harm human hearts under normal conditions, and Taser Internationalâ''s stock rose the most it had in four months.

But if that is the case, what explains the rash of deaths in the last few weeks? Is it just an unlucky coincidence? Are they really, as Taser International would have us believe, more cases of a mysterious disorder known as â''excited delirium,â'' which the company describes as a potentially fatal condition? The medical literature so far supports the theory that Tasers do not cause cardiac arrest in normal hearts, but that doesn't say anything about stressed or diseased hearts. For IEEE Spectrum's in-depth discussion of why the human heart is generally safe from a Taser shock, check out this piece, written by Mark Kroll, a prominent biomedical engineer. For an accessible look at how Taser experiments are carried out in the lab, take a look at this piece written by Pat Tchou, a cardiac electrophysiologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

At the core of this debate is a whole lot of sloppy talk. The lack of nuance in the UN committee's statement suggests that its members didn't really do their homework, whereas Taser's reliance on apocryphal diagnoses is not helping the company make its case.

For more on excited delirium, read the Globe & Mail's coverage of the second annual "Sudden Death, Excited Delirium and In-Custody Death Conference," which took place last week.

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