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Short items of interest.


Roach Bot
You never know where cockroaches are lurking – maybe clinging to a pantry door or skulking on the underside of a commode. That creepy ability to cleave to almost anything was the inspiration for SpinyBotII, a six-legged, half-meter-long prototype spy robot capable of scaling vertical surfaces ranging from stucco to smooth concrete. Developed by mechanical engineer Mark Cutkosky and his team at Stanford University, the robot skitters around on feet that, like roach feet, grip climbing surfaces with tiny spines that can find pits and protrusions even in seemingly smooth terrain. Each of SpinyBotII’s feet has 20 hardened steel spines whose tips are just 25 micrometers across. There are other climbing robots, which use everything from suction to adhesive pads to ascend. But they have trouble finding firm footing on dusty or irregular surfaces, and none of them is capable of hanging around securely for weeks on end. The Stanford prototype can do both, so it could augur not only new spy robots but also robots that inspect the outsides of buildings and, maybe someday, the surfaces of other planets.

Tiny polymer patches on the surfaces of living cells might soon help drug developers and medical researchers see if drugs are reaching their targets or if viruses are mounting attacks. Such events cause changes to the membranes that enclose cells, but the changes are usually imperceptible with standard monitoring techniques. Raz Jelinek of the chemistry department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel, has found a way to attach 30- to 150-nanometer-wide patches of a color-changing polymer to human cells. If something perturbs the cells’ membranes, the patches turn red and fluoresce. When, for example, Jelinek adds the anesthetic lidocaine to a sample of cells, the nanopatches affixed to them spark on like minuscule red Christmas lights. Jelinek hopes to soon develop a kit that would marshal the technology for use in both drug development and basic research.

Elevator Mus-eek!
Anyone who’s ever been stuck in an elevator knows how hard it can be to get help. But soon elevators should be able to lend a sympathetic ear, automatically detecting calls of distress. Ajay Divakaran and his colleagues at the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories in Cambridge, MA, have developed a system that analyzes sounds’ characteristic frequencies. The system is trained with typical elevator sounds – people talking, bags rustling, and so forth. Once in operation, it will compare noises in the elevator against the acoustical signatures stored in its comprehensive list of known sounds, raising an alarm if it fails to find a match. One of the system’s functions is to detect attacks, says Divakaran, since even when elevators are equipped with video cameras, buildings often lack the personnel to monitor their video feeds. One remaining problem, says Divakaran: the system doesn’t yet distinguish between a scream for help and a child throwing a tantrum.

Airborne Outbreak

In July 2004, computer security labs received samples of the Cabir worm – the first demonstration of a malicious software program capable of spreading from mobile phone to mobile phone.

As of February 2005, Cabir had been reported “in the wild” in 12 countries.

Approximately 12 cell-phone viruses, worms, or other types of malware now exist; they can infect phones when users install games or accept unsolicited files./>

Mobile-phone viruses target smart phones, which will account for 20 percent of mobile phones worldwide by 2009.

In 2003, computer malware caused an estimated $55 billion in damages.

95 percent of the world’s personal computers run on the Windows operating system; most computer viruses target Microsoft’s OS.

73 percent of smart phones use the Symbian operating system.

90 percent of U.S. households that are online employ PC virus protection.

NTT DoCoMo is the only mobile carrier that distributes antivirus software with all of its smart-phone handsets.

Sources: ABI Research, Jupiter Research, F-Secure, McAfee, Cahners In-Stat, Forrester Research

By Spencer Reiss

Online publishing can be an intensely personal affair. So says Mena Trott, cofounder and president of San Francisco–based Six Apart, which makes the weblogging software Movable Type and runs blogging services TypePad and LiveJournal.

How many bloggers are out there now?
There’s a new Pew Center report that says eight million adult Americans have blogs. We think the global number might be twice that: we’ve got just under seven million ourselves.

Your competition includes Google and Microsoft. Nervous?
Actually, that’s a good thing. It’s hard for a company our size – we’ve got 80 people – to evangelize for blogging.

Why evangelize a technology that’s already on everybody’s hot list?
Our message is that blogging isn’t just for people with strong opinions who want to reach a big public audience. Only six people in the world may want to know what you did for dinner last night, but if they’re six people you know and care about, it’s worth it. Most people don’t actually want to be an instapundit.

Microsoft Masala

Microsoft knows that at least a few of the world’s best software developers live beyond the confines of Redmond, WA. That’s why Microsoft Research, the division charged with inventing the company’s next generation of products, has set up satellite labs in San Francisco, Beijing, and Cambridge, England (see “Microsoft: Getting from ‘R’ to ‘D,’” March 2005). Now the company wants to tap into the growing supply of high-tech talent in India: its newest lab opened in Bangalore in January. Led by Microsoft Research veteran P. Anandan (left), the lab will focus in part on geographical information systems that integrate satellite imagery, sensor data, and other inputs into a geographically indexed database that could be used to guide precision agriculture in India.

Molecular Diagnosis

Tests that analyze DNA or RNA are already helping doctors spot infectious diseases and determine a patient’s likelihood of developing certain cancers. Researchers project that the next big market for these so-called molecular diagnostics is in pharma­co­genetics – using a patient’s genetic makeup to predict which drugs will most effectively treat a disease. Pharmaco­genetic tests will likely be of particular use in handling neuropsychiatric disorders, which are extremely difficult to diagnose and treat.

Planet Number 9

Another planet has swum into hu­man ken and Neptune loses its distinction of marking the frontier of the solar system….The discovery…consisted in photographing the planet through an extremely delicate lens, designed and used in accordance with a mathematical theory which pointed the way. It was a brilliant triumph for the scientific method as well as for American astronomy. The astronomers who participated in the discovery are C. O. Lampland, E. C. Slipher, J. C. Duncan, K. P. Williams, E. A. Edwards, and T. B. Gill. These men estimate that the new planet, yet unnamed, is 45 times as far from the earth as the earth is from the sun, but they have not yet determined its size beyond the fact that it is as large as the earth. (April 1930, p. 298)

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