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Micro Aerial Vehicles Get 15 Seconds of Fame on "Saturday Night Live"

If you were watching "Saturday Night Live" last week, you would have seen a spoof news item on the show's Weekend Update segment focusing on work for the U.S. military to create a new generation of miniature flying vehicles.

"It's been confirmed that the government is developing tiny, insect-like robots which would be used to spy on enemies and possibly attack them," announced SNL's Seth Myers. "So, sorry for ever doubting you, Gary Busey."

The joke was lame, but the news was exciting, especially for the intelligence community.

Suppose you're a potential terrorist in the future. You attend a meeting of your fellow fanatics at a safe house. So you talk freely, because you're absolutely sure that nothing but a fly on the wall could overhear your conversation. Then you're overheard, by a thing that looks like a fly on the wall. That's what you have to look forward to, spies that look like flies.

The thing that looks like a fly will be a micro aerial vehicle (MAV), a tiny version of the autonomous flying devices heard about so much in the war on terrorism, particularly in Afghanistan. The full-size unmanned aerial vehicles are capable of firing missiles at targets in remote regions where conventional delivery platforms are impractical.

The MAVs envisioned for the future will use their size to upset the potential actions of enemies. A recent report from the Associated Press outlines the status of research on the small robots.

"If we could get inside the buildings and inside the rooms where their activities are unfolding, we would be able to get the kind of intelligence we need to shut them down," Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., told the AP.

Here at IEEE Spectrum, we hardly needed SNL or the AP to deliver the news about MAVs. We've known about them for years. For example, Associate Editor Sandra Upson filed this video report on the tiny flying vehicles.

And we have filed full background reports on the technology here and here.

We don't know what Gary Busey has to do with any of this, but we do know an interesting technology story when we see one.

Working on the Nanoscale Could Slow the Shrinking of Transistors

Back in May of this year, I commented on this blog about Sally Adeeâ''s article here on Spectrum about â''The Mysterious Memristorâ''. It was a thrilling read about how R. Stanley Williams and his team of researchers at Hewlett Packard had demonstrated the existence of a postulated but never found â''fourth elementâ'' of fundamental electronic components.

Now on Spectrumâ''s website and available in the December issue of the magazine, Stanley Williams himself relates how he and his team found the missing memristor.

While I imagine Williams would probably object to this analogy, to me this article reads like getting the first-hand account from Einstein on how he came up with the Theory of Relativityâ''not years later, but within the same year.

Itâ''s moments such as these that make laymen, such as myself, so interested and excited by science.

One of the promises that the memristor makes possible is combining a number of transistors into one memristor. With fewer transistors on the chip, the need to make the transistors smaller to fit on the chip decreases.

This leaves us with the appealing paradox that our ability to work on smaller and smaller scales may make us able to keep things bigger. There is far greater potential available to us through the memristor as the article shows, but I kind of liked the symmetry of that paradox.

Nanotech Innovation for the Automobile...Just not those made in Detroit

While last week I offered little hope that Detroitâ''s Big Three automakers could turn around their poor business sensibilities through nanotech or any other technological innovation, I do believe that nanotech will make it possible for other, letâ''s say more foresighted, automakers to improve their profits, and maybe even their revenues.

I came across this year-old video below from the CNET website that describes how Nanostellar is improving catalytic converters for diesel engines to the point where automakers could save $30 per vehicle by eliminating the need to use expensive platinum.

Letâ''s see, multiply the number of cars produced by $30â'¿and well, itâ''s a significant number.

I thought the telling line in the interview with Pankaj Dhingra, the CEO of Nanostellar, was when he says the automaker with whom they are in discussion to adopt their technology is a European one.

DARPA's SyNAPSE: Seat Of Your Pants-On-A-Chip

By now it's been all over the news that IBM has received DARPA funding to create "cognitive" computers-- "systems that simulate the human brain's abilities for sensation, perception, action, interaction and cognition."

DARPA's brain-on-a-chip venture, called Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics ("SyNAPSE"), seeks to "develop a brain-inspired electronic 'chip' that mimics that function, size, and power consumption of a biological cortex."

To what end? They want something that can quickly analyze massive amounts of data. "For example," the press release explains, "bankers must make split-second decisions based on constantly changing data that flows at an ever-dizzying rate."

So... what are we building here? A brain in a shoebox that can analyze the world's financial data?

"No," mulls Jim Olds, a neuroscientist at George Mason University, where researchers are also competing for a spot on the SyNAPSE team. "But if we did, it would probably do a lot better than Hank Paulson."

What DARPA is building is easily confused with any number of other projects that trumpet their intention to "reverse engineer the brain." Misunderstandings are inevitable. The New York Times, for example, described the effort as â''the quest to engineer the mind by reverse-engineering the brain.â''

Perhaps the NYT is talking about Blue Brain, because that's not true. (But given that the lead investigator for IBM/SyNAPSE is the same person who has been involved with IBM's other Blue Gene Brain effort, the confusion is understandable.)

The SyNAPSE project is almost exactly the opposite of engineering a mind. Instead of a neuroscience basic research effort, SyNAPSE is an applied physics endeavor that seeks to cherry-pick only the most useful elements of the brain--and that most certainly does not include the mind or consciousness--and use that to augment a machine.

DARPA has distanced itself from morally thorny projects that look into psychologically-based and neurobiology-based cognitive architectures.

But they do want to cull the the finer qualities of cognition and use them to make smarter machines.

Jim Olds was kind enough to take me through some possible applications.

Intelligent MRAPs

A lot of soldiers are getting killed in Iraq because of bombs blowing up under their trucks. "It'd be great if instead of soldiers driving the trucks, the trucks drove themselves," Olds says, "like what they were trying to do with the DARPA Grand Challenge." Sadly enough though that Grand Challenge did not work out so well, because autonomous cars kinda suck. Here's why: "Our brains have all these capabilities that digital computers and robots don't," Olds says. "Basically our brains can multitask. You can be talking to someone on the phone, eating your lunch and looking something up on wikipedia, all at the same time and without breaking a sweat. That ability to multiprocess complex data streams is nearly impossible for a computer. Well, it's possible, but only in a very specific, pre-rigged situation."

The bottom line: a computer can't deal with surprises.

In controlled situations, computers win hands down. A computer can land a plane far better than any captain-- in fact, any smooth landing you've had recently has probably been executed by the on-board computer. The problem is exemplified by the recent near-catastrophe when a British Airways 777 crash-landed at Heathrow after ice clogged its engines. 300 feet above the ground, the plane's engines cut out. This was an event that Boeing's engineers had not anticipated and therefore not programmed into the computer's frame of reference. Therefore, the computer's response was essentially, "Oh hai! I can has engine restart?" The pilots put the kibosh on that immediately. They understood that 300 feet from the ground, that would have killed everyone. Instead, their best hope was to pancake the plane down by the seat of their pants. And they did. It wasn't pretty, but no one got killed.

"Human brains can react in real time to low-likelihood events and generate a possibility of responses that computers just can't," Olds says. Those pilots saved a lot of lives-- and that's what human brains can do.

On the other hand, about once a month some cortically-challenged individual decides to drive the wrong way down into a tunnel.

So the goal is to keep the reasoned logic of a computer and cherry pick the things you like about the way the human cortex does business.


Imbuing these with some cognitive abilities would make UAVs more accurate and more useful. Taking the pilots out of the equation would reduce errors, and anecdotal evidence shows that remote pilots suffer the same amounts of post traumatic stress as people who are in theater. So there's really nothing good about having remote pilots operating these things.

(Readers of Asimov, you may stop reading here and go crawl under a desk. The rest of you, go watch Battlestar Galactica and meditate on Cylon raiders.)

Mars Rovers

The best (rad: non-creepy military autonomous things blowing up defenseless humans) application is for deep space exploration. The lag time for a radio signal between us and Mars is about 10 minutes. 10 minutes is an eternity when it lies between an earth-bound "Hey! There's a steep cliff! Should I keep rolling?" and the subsequent Mars-bound "Nooo! stopstopstopstop!"

"We want our rovers to be smart enough to decide it's probably not a good idea to get near that cliff," says Olds.

If you could create a chip that takes advantage of the kind of seat-of-your-pants multitasking humans are (generally) better at than computers, you could have a Mars Rover that does not accidentally commit hari kari. You can't really argue with that.

Though I admit I remain confused about one thing: the project's apparent goal to replicate the neural structure of a cat. According to Danger Room, which had the goods on this story about a month before it went public,

"the follow-on phases of the project will create a technology that functions like the brain of a cat, which comprises 10^8 neurons and 10^12 synapses," Dr. Narayan Srinivasa, SyNAPSE Program Manager and Senior Scientist, said. "The human brain has roughly 10^11 neurons and 10^15 synapses."

Certainly no one is counting on even a cyborg-kitteh to properly operate a HMMVW in Fallujah?

But I digress: the point is that you want a chip with the best of both worlds: a computer's inability to panic, succumb to attention deficit disorder, or fall asleep at the wheel combined with a human being's ability to deal with a completely surprising, out-of-left-field scenario. That, in a nutshell, is SyNAPSE: reverse engineering the good parts of our brains while leaving the rest, well, to us.

The Space Station Turns 10 Years Old Today

Where were you 10 years ago today? If you were in Kazakhstan, you could have looked up and perhaps seen a Proton launch vehicle rising through the atmosphere toward an orbit in space, carrying atop it a payload consisting of the first component of the International Space Station (ISS).

On 20 November 1998, the Russian space agency placed the 19,300-kilogram (21.3-ton) Zarya control and cargo module (also known as the Functional Cargo Block) into an orbit 400 kilometers (250 statute miles) above. According to an online statement from NASA, "The launch began an international construction project of unprecedented complexity and sophistication."

The Zarya (Russian for "dawn") was built at the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center in Moscow, funded by a grant of US $220 million from the United States. It featured: three docking ports for connections to other modules and spacecraft; two solar power arrays; six nickel-cadmium batteries providing 3 kilowatts; 16 external fuel tanks filled with over 6 metric tons of propellant; and 24 large steering jets, 12 small steering jets, and two large engines for reboost and major orbital changes.

The U.S. space agency launched the second component to the ISS, the Unity Module, on 4 December 1998 aboard the shuttle Endeavour. American astronauts connected it to the Zarya three days later. Zarya was initially supposed to fly autonomously for only six to eight months, but production delays affecting the Russian Service Module, Zvezda, the third ISS module, delayed human occupancy and control of the orbital platform for nearly two years (until 26 July 2000).

A CNN article from 10 years ago observed that the launch of the Zarya represented the start of the "most complex and costly engineering project ever attempted." The same article noted that the ISS consortium expected to continue construction of the space station until 2004 at a cost of between $40 billion and $60 billion. Today that figure has reached an estimate somewhere between $35 billion and $100 billion, depending on accounting standards.

The ISS is a joint venture between NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and 11 members of the European Space Agency (ESA): Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. More than 100,000 people from space agencies and contractors throughout the world are involved in ISS-related activities, according to NASA.

Ten years later, the mass of the ISS has expanded to more than 314 tons. Since Zarya's launch as the early command, control and power module, there have been 29 additional construction flights to the station, according to NASA. Zarya passed the 50,000-orbit mark in 2007.

"The station's capability and sheer size today are truly amazing," NASA ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini noted this week. "The tremendous technological achievement in orbit is matched only by the cooperation and perseverance of its partners on the ground. We have overcome differences in language, geography, and engineering philosophies to succeed."

We congratulate everyone involved around the world in this truly historic cooperative engineering project at the high frontier of human enterprise.

Bart Gordon retains Science and Technology Committee chair

Today Bart Gordon was re-elected to chair the Committee on Science and Technology.

Why do you care? Since he got the job in 2006, Gordon has been a pit bull for science and tech initiatives. He was the one who pushed the America COMPETES Act through congress last year, among whose provisions was the authorization to create the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). That resource remains underfunded and underutilized but provides an excellent infrastructure for President-elect Obama's plans to revamp U.S. energy policy.

Gordon also led the fight earlier this year against letting Italian nuclear waste collect in Utah landfills.

Gordon hasn't always been a favorite around these parts (certain National Nanotechnology Initiative shenanigans raised some hackles) but usually his staunch opposition or intense support is on the right track.

Gordon has proven himself to be a good steward of the Science and Technology committee the past two years. I have high hopes for the next four: â''I want this to be the committee of good ideas,â'' he says. We need them.

The Charlie Rose of Nanotech Talk Shows?

I was excited to see that there was a new video talk show dedicated solely to the subject of nanotechnology. The new interview series is called Nanotech Today and is available both for download and real-time viewing on

As the brief introduction to the show describes, the program brings together two 21st Century technologies (some might say, the two most over-hyped technologies of the new century): Internet TV and Nanotech.

But I knew, after my experiences with various Podcasts and other assorted multi-media venues discussing nanotech, that there would be a catch.

In this case, everyone (with the exception of one guest) that is interviewed comes from just one institution: Northwestern University.

While Dr. Chad Mirkin is a true innovator in the world nanotech, and no doubt has assembled a top-flight team of researchers, it would be nice sometimes to get a little different point of view.

Itâ''s a budget thing, I know. But maybe some of that 21st Century Internet TV technology could be applied so that an interview could be conducted with someone who was not in the studio.

Bad News Bearish II: The Sequel

A reader alerts me to an oversight in my last post: And, yes, Freescale and Motorola indeed deserve to be let into the clubhouse. I took the opportunity to shoehorn in a couple of other oversights. So here it is, your new, Wednesday-based bad-news roundup:

The Bad NewsThe Good NewsThe Numbers
FreescaleTrying to save $400 million in 2009? Why not try laying off at least 10% of your 2,400 employee base in Q4?At least they're still making other companies cry.Freescale reported Q3 net sales of $1.41 billion, down from $1.45 billion in Q3 2007. Freescale's loss from operations, however, was a different story: in September they lost $3.37 billion, compared to $202 million in the same period in 2007.
MotorolaRumored to be laying off 3,000 workers, with more than two-thirds of the job cuts coming from the handset division, starting in Q4. That's more than 10,000 job cuts since January.Nope.Q3 sales of $7.5 billion, down from $8.8 billion in Q3 2007.
QualcommChief Executive Officer Paul Jacobs told Bloomberg that he's stopped hiring and is eliminating some research projects after a "dramatic'' contraction in chip orders from mobile-phone makers. They have basically "shut off new hiring growth," switching Qualcomm's strategy from "bloom" to "prune".Nope.Qualcomm fell $2.50, or 7.1 percent, to $32.57 on the Nasdaq Stock Market, bringing this year's total decline to 17 percent.
CiscoGoldman Sachs booted the stock from its "Conviction Buy" list.But Cisco landed on the "Buy" list.Earnings were flat, but at least they beat the estimates. Cisco shares fell 84 cents, or 5.1 percent, to $15.61.
IntelSales could fall as much as 19 percent in the fourth quarter.It's Intel. They'll be all right.Expected fourth-quarter revenue of $8.7 billion to $9.3 billion, down from the earlier projection of $10.1 billion to $10.9 billion.
AMDPlans to lay off 500 people, or around three percent of its work force.AMD bought itself a little bit of breathing room with its Shanghai quad-core Opteron processors.AMD reported a net loss of $67 million, or 11 cents a share, in the third quarter, compared with a loss of $396 million, or 71 cents a share, in the year-ago quarter.
CadenceOn October 16, its chief executive and four other senior executives took offâ''"an unusually sweeping shake-up."Not much.Cadence shares plunged about 15%, or 80 cents a share, to $4.80 on the Nasdaq. A month later, they're hovering around $3.91. Cadence's projection of a third-quarter loss is due to industry-wide issues that include weaker demand for the software to make chips.
SunPlans to lay off 5,000 or 6,000 workers, more than 15 percent of its global workforce, over the next year.Not much.Stock price has plummeted, closing at $4.08 on Thursday, down from a 52-week high of $21.55. And last month, Sun reported a $1.67 billion loss in its most recent quarterâ''mostly due to a $1.45 billion charge to write down the value of past acquisitions.
Plans to cut 1,800 jobs, close to 12 percent of its workforce.Not much.45 percent drop in fourth-quarter profit to $231 million, down from $422 million last year. Sales tumbled 14 percent, to $2.04 billion from $2.37 billion last year.
Nvidia74 per cent drop in profit for its third quarter of 2008. Being sued by Rambus (but then again, who isn't?); losing market share to ATi due to poor VGA card pricing and lower than expected performance; the famous notebook video card recallâ'¿

Even this was better than what Wall Street was expecting.Net profit of $61.7 million, or 11 cents a share, in the three-month period. Last year it made $235.7 million, or 38 cents a share, in the comparable period.
HPIn September, the company said it will lay off 24,600 people over the next three years, or nearly 8 percent of its workers.UPDATE! HP surprised Wall Street on Tuesday by saying its earnings will be slightly above analysts' expectations, going against the grain of the sagging tech-economy. HP was down more than 7% on Wednesday, bringing it to HP's stock down more than 40 percent this year. As of 11-19-08, the company expects earnings of 84 cents per share and adjusted earnings of $1.03 per share. This is slightly better than the $1 per share, excluding special items, that Wall Street expected. HP forecast revenue of $33.6 million, just ahead of analysts' expectations. Are you starting to feel queasy too?
Dell chief technology officer Kevin Kettler plans to step down soon; in August, the company said it had cut 8,500 jobs. Countless variations on "Dude, youâ''re not getting a Dell."Dell shares fell as much as 15 percent on Wednesday; for 2008, Dell shares are off more than 60 percent.

New top supercomputers list

It's that time of year again. In June and in November the supercomputing world submits its scores to see who has outFLOPped whom.

The new list at shows that Roadrunner remains on top, but only because it's had some upgrades in the last 6 months. The good folks at top500 say Roadrunner (which is among the most energy efficient because of its Cell processors) narrowly fended off a newcomer, Oak Ridge National Lab's Jaguar, which became only the second machine to top a petaflop.

1 DOE/NNSA/LANL Roadrunner

2 Oak Ridge National Laboratory Jaguar XT-5

3 NASA/Ames Research Center/NAS Pleiades


5 Argonne National Laboratory Blue Gene/P

6 Texas Advanced Computing Center/Univ. of Texas Ranger

7 NERSC/LBNL Franklin

8 Oak Ridge National Laboratory Jaguar XT-4

9 NNSA/Sandia National Laboratories Red Storm

10 Shanghai Supercomputer Center Dawning 5000A

The geography of supercomputing has gotten pretty skewed of late in favor of the United States. The New York Times did a nice infographic showing the location of the top 50. Of the new top 10 only number 10, Shanghai-based Dawning 5000A, is outside the United States. From the entire list of 500, 290 are in the United States. My personal favorite this year, India's EKA, was ejected from the top 10 back in June.

Nanotech Medicine: Yes...Nanotech Enhanced Humans: No

It seems that one of the largest areas of research in nanotech is becoming surveys. See here, here, or here.

In keeping with this general research trend, North Carolina State University in cooperation with Arizona State University have released their findings on what the public sees as the correct directions for nanotech.

Apparently, nearly 90% of respondents support medical breakthroughs enabled by nanotechnology, while only 30% are in favor of human enhancement brought about by nanotechnology. At least thatâ''s how the results are parsed here.

I am not sure if the researchers are again indulging in that fun parlor game of demonstrating how ill-informed US respondents are on the subject of nanotechnology, or what. But apparently the division between medical breakthroughs and human enhancement doesnâ''t really exist except in the prejudices of the respondents.

The example given that nearly 90% of people supported would be a â''video-to-brain link that would amount to artificial eyesight for the blindâ''. On the other hand, the example for which only 30% of respondents supported was â''implants that could improve performance of soldiers on the battlefield.â''

Just to clarify, both examples concern human enhancement. Except one is for military use and the other one is for the blind.

I guess if someone called me up and asked if I were pro or con on the subject of euthanasia for cuddly little puppy dogs, or rabid, baby killing pit bulls, my response would say less about my position on euthanasia and more about how I preferred puppies to rabid dogs.


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