Tech Talk iconTech Talk

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.

Data Centers, Heal Thyselves

Microsoft is announcing today the appointment of Daniel A. Reed to the impressive title of Director of Scalable and Multicore Computing. Itâ''s an interesting announcement for a number of reasons.

Reed comes from heading an organization called the Renaissance Computing Institute, a collaboration between the state of North Carolina and its three so-called Research Triangle schoolsâ''the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke, and NC Stateâ''that, according to a press release, â''focuses on finding solutions to complex, multidisciplinary problems and exploring the interactions of computing technology with the sciences, arts and humanities.â''

Reed is also â''a member of the U.S. Presidentâ''s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and is the current chair of the Board of Directors of the Computing Research Association.â'' Microsoft says it wants him to continue to work on information technology research policy.

In a phone interview, Reed says heâ''s going to focus on the two big problems that his title names, the problems of large data centers and the software challenges of multicore computing, especially as the number of cores rises from 4 and 8 to 100 or more. â''Clocks speeds arenâ''t going to rise significantly, so our advances will come from more cores.â''

The issue has been handled so far largely through multithreading, but Reed says new methods are soon going to be needed, and â''there isnâ''t a silver bullet. Like most complex problems, it wonâ''t have a single solution.â''

He divided the data center problem into that of reliability and scalability, on the one hand, and the environmental and other physical problems created by putting so many computers in one place. â''Itâ''s an important problem,â'' he says. â''As we move to a service model of computing, the rate of growth of these data centers is phenomenal.â'' (In addition to Reedâ''s hiring, Microsoft announced this week a pair of $500 million investments in data centers, one in Illinois and the other in Ireland.)

He sees some of the answers as coming from the same forces that are creating large databases in the first placeâ''sophisticated control systems, large numbers of sensors, and data analysis. â''Weâ''re using some of the results of sensors and computational fluid dynamics, for example, to analyze and model the air-flow in data centers.â''

There are three things to notice about Reedâ''s appointment.

First, the position reports directly to Rick Rashid, the head of Microsoft Research. That says that Microsoft considers this area pretty important.

Second, that Reed is moving to Microsoft, instead of, say, Intel or IBM. Microsoft Research is, in his opinion, â''the best computing research organization on the planet.â'' The research, he says, needs to be done in a company that itself has large data centers, and works with other companies that do as well, â''and there arenâ''t that many of those.â'' Finally, he says, â''these are in large part software issues, and while I have some background in architecture, Iâ''m first and foremost a high-end software person.â'' He will be assembling and managing a team, but plans to â''roll up my sleeves as well.â''

Third, Reed is moving to the corporate world after 25 years in academiaâ''20 years at the University of Illinois, where Mosaic, the first Web browser, was invented, then the last 5 in the Tarheel state. He says that the twin challenges of large data centers and multicores are creating the biggest tech revolution since the Web. â''I watched the first revolution at Illinoisâ'¿ I resolved I wouldnâ''t watch the second one on the sidelines.â''

Nanotechnology and Politics: "Cherry Picking" Nanotechnology Intelligence

I have read and heard many of the complaints about how politics gets its dirty fingers into nanotechnologyâ''s development, and sometimes even suffered the consequences.

But now, for the first time, I have read in a new blog, primarily authored by the Chief Scientist at the Project for Emerging Technologies, Andrew Maynard, an analogy between the Bush administrationâ''s â''cherry pickingâ'' of intelligence to go to war in Iraq with its approach to dealing with toxicology issues surrounding nanotech.

This will certainly get the environmentalists in a stir. Yes, the same bad guys who got the US into a war in Iraq are planning to poison us with nanotech by selecting out all the bad intelligence. When it will all get on the Bill Maher show?

Maynard takes a clever blow at Floyd Kvamme, the co-chair of the Presidentâ''s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), for his testimony before Congress last week in which he related how research has shown that nanomaterials have little environmental impact, but more research should be ongoing.

Maynard figuratively, and I imagine literally, is holding a bag of carbon nanotubes he bought from Cheap Tubes Inc. as he writes his piece to illustrate his point. Poor Cheap Tubes, they sell nanotubes to the research and industrial communities, and they get reduced to a prop for the sake of argument.

Maynardâ''s argument goes, or so I understand it, Kvamme is off base because he thinks the only risk we really need to address is the safety of the product in which the nanomaterials are integrated. Not so, because you can buy a bag of carbon nanotubes for $80--free (that is, not fixed in a matrix) manufactured nanoparticles .

Hmmhâ'¿I can go to a plumbing supply store and buy 90% concentration sulfuric acid too, and used improperly it would most certainly send me to the hospital. I guess we should ban its use, but say goodbye to nylon.

Hazard x Exposure=Risk. Many of the products we use everyday, including the computer you are reading this blog on, contain toxic materials, which by themselves and not integrated into the material matrix that makes up the final product would pose a hazard. Our exposure to the actual hazard is reduced when they are fixed in another material matrix, thereby reducing the risk.

Industries and governments have developed safeguards and regulations to ensure that the risks posed by these hazardous materials are reduced for those manufacturing the products, and then in the final product we buy and use.

The non-hysteric approach to containing the risk of nanoparticles being integrated into our consumer products was laid back in 2004 by the Royal Society.

You first have to distinguish between â''manufacturedâ'' versus â''environmentalâ'' nanoparticles. You see, man-made nanoparticles have been quite abundant since we started driving rubber tires over asphalt roads (carbon black) and you can even go back to the harnessing of fire. But the â''manufacturedâ'' type we discuss today are nanoparticles like carbon nanotubesâ''nanoparticles that are designed and manufactured to enable other materials.

Then the Royal Society rightly pointed out that attention and research should be focused on â''freeâ'' nanoparticles as opposed to those that are confined in a â''matrixâ''. The concern was for the workers using the nanomaterials in free form in the manufacturing of final products.

But unfortunately none of this will come down to strength of one argument over another. It will be decided by who can move the political machinery more effectively, whether it be within the halls of Congress or on the street of public opinion.

The Over- and Under-Hype of RFIDs

The Wall Street Journal is throwing off mixed signals regarding RFIDs. On 30 October, it excoriated the technology, placing it under a â''Beware Hot Techâ'' banner. Yesterday, a mere 9 days later, the paper ran a long article, â''After Being Overhyped, RFID Starts to Deliver.â''

RFIDs, which are essentially small sensors embedded in or placed on goods or shipping cartons and containers, were supposed to be tracking all sorts of goods, and sometimes people, by now. So the first article cited the fact that fewer, logistics providers are testing or planning to use RFIDs than the year before, according to a Northeastern University survey. As well, in the tests that companies are doing, the technology is not robust enoughâ''95 percent accuracy, instead of 99.9 percent, according to a VP at Penske Corp. The tags themselves are still too expensive â'' 20 cents instead of 5.

The second article cites some other disappointing stats in the marketplace, such as the fact that the RFID market was about $2.5 billion in 2006, and only growing about 15 percent per year, far short of a 2002 Frost and Sullivan analyst prediction of a $7.25 billion market by 2008. It noted that WalMart withdrew a requirement it tried to impose on suppliers to start using RFID tags.

Such surveys and market analyses are best taken with enough salt to toss back a case of tequila, though, and the second article cited a number of encouraging signs. An influx of venture capital in 2002-2005 led to maturing companies with maturing technologies, even if the market for them is less than predicted. Essentially, what has happened is the WalMart initiative, and similar smaller ones from companies like Proctor & Gamble, spurred a bunch of investment, research, and inflated market predictions. In withdrawing the initiative, some of the air went out of the RFID tires, which WalMart had overinflated in the first place.

Meanwhile, as the second article notes, RFIDs are being quietly used on â''campuses, airports, prisons, semiconductor companies, and jet-engine manufacturers.â'' Spectrum discussed RFIDs as the centerpiece of an award-winning special report, â''Sensor Nation,â'' in July 2004. One particular article, â''Sensors and Sensibility,â'' said about RFIDs, â''Itâ''s alarming! It's no big deal! How your personal information is being collected and protected, used and misused.â''

This past March, we returned to the topic in a big way. In â''Hands On,â'' Amal Graafstra, an entrepreneur and geek based in Bellingham, Wash., described his experiences â''chippingâ'' himselfâ''inserting glass-enclosed RFID tags into his hands in order to keylessly unlock his car and the front door of his house.

Meanwhile, two other authors, Kenneth R. Foster and Jan Jaeger, examined â''The murky ethics of implanted chips,â'' and a blog entry described the useful, if grim process of using RFIDs to track corpses after Hurricane Katrina.

The idea of wirelessly and automatically tracking everything from shipping containers to razor blades, and people, incarcerated or free, living or dead, is inevitable. Like solar energy, RFIDs will succeed as a technology and a market, whether it takes 5 years or 25, and whether individual companies make or save money today with them. The Wall Street Journal is, of course, obsessed with the latter issue, but itâ''s the former one thatâ''s important to technologists.

Tired Shuttle Astronauts Return to Earth

With Commander Pamela Melroy at the controls, the Discovery orbiter touched down on the tarmac of Cape Canaveral today at 1:01 pm local time. By the time the space shuttle's wheels had rolled to a stop, the crew of the current mission, known as STS-120, had logged some 6.25 million miles in flight around the Earth. And in the words of the old joke, "Boy, were their wings tired."

After unbuckling from their seats, two of the crew had to be assisted from the spacecraft. For obvious reasons, Flight Engineer Clayton Anderson, newly returned from a stay of nearly five months aboard the International Space Station (ISS), could not find his land legs, a normal reaction after living in weightlessness so long. Somewhat puzzling, though, was the situation of Mission Specialist Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency, who also had to be helped off the shuttle and given medical attention. Nespoli had served as a consultant from Italy on the delivery of Discovery's main payload, the Italian-built Harmony crew portal.

According to an afternoon statement from NASA, both astronauts were receiving extra medical evaluation but said they were feeling fine.

The end of the 15-day mission closed a chapter on one of the most hectic missions in the long history of the shuttle transport system. The STS-120 crew had originally been tasked with making key upgrades to the ISS, such as attaching the Harmony module and deploying an extension to the portside solar-power array, but ran into some unexpected problems that taxed their efforts to the maximum (see our recent blog entry "Shuttle Leaves Space Station a Better Place").

The other four returning astronauts under Melroy's command, Pilot George Zamka and Mission Specialists Scott Parazynski, Doug Wheelock, and Stephanie Wilson joined in the traditional post-flight inspection of Discovery and pronounced their vehicle to be in good shape.

"We could not have done this mission without Discovery being as clean and beautiful as it was," Melroy said on the runway. "I think the whole agency had to pull together for this particular mission. We saw a lot of very unusual things happen."

The STS-120 re-entry approach was a bit unusual this time. Mission controllers gave Discovery permission to fly across the continental United States, as opposed to the normal oversea pattern used by shuttles, because Melroy wanted to land during the day and to allow her crew to get some extra rest after such a long and arduous experience.

The work her crew had pulled off, despite the setbacks, put the effort to build the final components of the ISS in space back on schedule. It literally was a mission that was "one for the record books," as a NASA spokesperson said recently.

"It's a thrilling day for both the space shuttle and the space station programs," Melroy added. "We are thrilled to be back home."

File under: Nanotechnology Weirdness


There are a host of bizarre little articles that get written about nanotechnology by people for whom this is likely the first time they have heard the word.

Here is one that came across my desktop â''Light like an iPod in a Beautiful Sky. Thanks to Nanotechnologyâ''.

Even the title of the piece is odd, but here are some of the priceless quotes:

â''There will be probably only two choices: to forget and then invent the gadgets all over again or to change our directors [sic] towards nanotechnology, for example.â''

â''The nanotech is said to be able to replace the magnetic disk drives even in the tiny popular iPods, as well as in laptops and servers.â''

Yes, â''the nanotechâ'' is said to do a great many things.

It is one thing to give a nanotechnology-related article to a professional editor under deadline and get a few hiccups here and there. But is it really necessary to publish articles that appear as though they were written by a second grader or were translated from another language by some online program?

They, Robots

A recent internal newsletter here at the IEEE mentioned that we have the top-cited journal in the field of robotics.

â''IEEE Transactions on Roboticsâ'' is the top ranking journal in the robotics category in the 2006 â''Journal Citation Reportsâ'' with an impact factor of 1.763, the highest in this category. The impact factor is a calculated figure indicating the average number of times articles published in the previous two years are cited in the current year, 2006, in this case.

Here at Spectrum, we're proud of our robotics coverage as well. There's our popular Automation blog.

Current coverage includes a web-only piece, "Why Toddlers Love Robots,"

and an October feature, "Cracking GO," by Feng - Hsiung Hsu, who headed IBM's Deep Blue team before turning his attention to the even harder-to-automate ancient Japanese game.

Other feature articles include one of mine from August, "Robots, Incorporated,"

"Learn Like a Human: Why Can't a Computer be more Like a Brain?"

by Jeff Hawkins, the founder of Palm and Treo,

"Mom vs. Bomb," a profile of researcher Naomi Zirkind, who wants IEDs to kill only robots instead of human soldiers,

and two articles by senior editor Jean Kumagai,

"A Robotic Sentry For Korea's Demilitarized Zone,"

"Halfway to Mars," about the nextgeneration planetary rover.

The IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, which publishes the Transactions on Robotics, can be found here.

Astronomers find a five-planet solar system in the Sunâ¿¿s backyard

Nov 6, 2007 -- Astronomers reported today that they have found a planetary system with five planets orbiting a nearby Sun-like star. The star, 55 Cancri, in the constellation of Cancer, was previously known to have 4 planets. The newest member of the 55 Cancri planetary system was discovered the same way the other four planets around 55 Cancri were found â'' inferring their presence from the wobble they introduce into the starâ''s motion.

â''We now know that our Sun and its family is not unusual,â'' said astronomer Geoff Marcy of the University of California at Berkeley at a NASA press conference earlier today.

The latest results are the culmination of a 18-year quest, the team of astronomers making the announcement reported. The first exoplanet around 55 Cancri was reported 11 years ago.

The fifth planet around 55 Cancri is about 45 times more massive than the Earth, which means it is somewhere larger than Neptune but less than Saturn in mass. It orbits its parent star in 260 days. Debra Fischer of San Francisco State University, one of the team members making the announcement, speculated that the planet may look like â''a beefy Neptuneâ'' or even be like a â''Saturn with rings.â''

Telescopes on Earth cannot image the planets around other stars because of technological limitations. It is extremely hard to resolve a planet, which only reflects light from its parent star, next to the star itself, given how far even the nearest stars are from Earth. 55 Cancri, for instance, lies about 41 light years away. (A light year is the distance that light travels in 1 year, at the headlong speed of 300,000 kilometers per second.)

So, astronomers have resorted to using measurements of the motions of the stars to infer the existence of planets. It turns out that a planet will introduce a signature gravitational wobble into the starâ''s motion. The larger the planet, the more the wobble introduced. Conversely, the tiny wobble from a small planet is extremely hard to distinguish from detector noise. Thus, most planets found using this technique tend to be large.

The first exoplanet was found about 12 years ago. Since then, about 260 plus exoplanets have been discovered. However, there are very few multi-planet systems known. 55 Cancri is the only quintuple-planet system known; there is a star that is known to have four planets and some have three planets.

Astronomers are excited about the newest planet around 55 Cancri because it seems to lie in the habitable zone â'' an area around a star where temperatures are thought to be favorable to life. Although the planet itself is probably too massive to harbor life as we know it, it could have large moons that may be suitable for life. Astronomers also pointed out that there is a large gap around 55 Cancri where no planets have been found. This does not imply that there are no planets there, they said, just that the planets are too small to be detected using current technology. It is possible that an Earth-mass planet lurks in that gap, said Fischer.

Astronomer Jonathan Lunine of the University of Arizona summed up todayâ''s announcement, saying astronomers â''are beginning to move from finding lots of stars with planetsâ'' to finding real planetary systems like ours, something astronomers have suspected are fairly common.

â''The new planetary system is reminiscent of our own Solar System,â'' said Marcy.

The discovery had him â''jumping out of my socks,â'' he said.

For images and visualizations, see:

I voted touch screen today


I voted touch screen today. At one p.m., one of the five machines at my local polling place was already down. A screen failure, the poll worker reported, that happened about an hour after the polls opened.

The poll workers were not expecting a repeat of last Novemberâ''s debacle, in which printers ran out of paper and the machines locked up. (The paper is in a tamper proof housing and cannot be changed on site.) Not because a solution to the problem has been found, but because with only a few school board and city council seats in contention, voting today is extremely light.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, concerns about the accuracy of the machines that automatically count paper ballots means that each ballot will be reviewed by an election worker to make sure that the voter used a special black ink pen, and the results wonâ''t be reported for weeks.

How is high tech voting going in your part of the country?


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Load More