Communications

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Short items of interest.

PROTOTYPE

Bling Booster
How do you make a diamond even more valuable? Tony Holden and Matee Serearuno, of the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Manufacturing, believe they know. Their automated system for stonecutters, called iGem, works out the best way to cut a rough stone to maximize its value and reduce wastage. Descriptions of stones, which could eventually be derived from x-rays or surface scans, are fed to iGem, which classifies the stones according to size, shape, and clarity, based on variables identified by expert stonecutters. It then uses an optimization process to see, for example, whether the value of a borderline stone could be increased by a different cut that removes imperfections; in some cases, a smaller, clearer stone winds up being more valuable than a larger one. “Even small improvements can yield significant increases in profits,” says Holden. In tests, the system boosted gems’ value by up to 23 percent. The researchers’ next goal is to integrate the system with a desktop x-ray scanner; they are discussing commercialization with a South African firm.

Keyboard Clues
Trying to use keyboard shortcuts in an unfamiliar software program is like trying to use a physical shortcut in an unfamiliar neighborhood: you’re likely to get lost. San Jose, CA-based United Keys will soon release tech­nology designed to make shortcuts – and therefore software – more usable. The startup is developing small liquid-crystal displays that are built into the keys of a PC keyboard. Each screen displays an icon that indicates the function of its key for whatever pro­gram is running. The system can also sense what users are doing within a program, anticipate which functions they might need next, and assign those functions to handy keys. Similar keyboard displays exist but are now limited to industrial applications, like cash registers, because of their high cost. United Keys says that by making its technology more compatible with PC keyboard industry standards, it can cut costs by more than half and broaden the tech­­-nology’s reach. The firm says enhanced key­boards could be available this year.

This story is part of our May 2005 Issue
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Supersecret Search
The Web isn’t as anonymous as you might think: website operators, Internet providers, and hackers can track your activities if they really want to. So for those who want to search medical, legal, and other potentially sensitive sites but don’t want anybody to know what they’re looking for, computer researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beer Sheva, Israel, have developed a new search system. When a user conducts a search on a medical site, for instance, the system generates extra, decoy queries – requests for information about other ailments, say – to mask the user’s true interests. That may sound suspiciously like Internet saboteurs’ methods for flooding websites. “Yes, it does generate more traffic,” says Yuval Elovici, who created the system with Bracha Shapira, “but with no malicious intent. That is the price you pay for privacy.” Elovici and Shapira are currently using the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website to test their system, which could be available for public use later this year.

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R&D
U.S. Corporate Research

One-fifth of the more than one million U.S. corporate and federal R&D scientists and engineers work on computer hardware and electronics. Another 16 percent develop software, design networked computer systems, or provide computer consulting, meaning more than one in every three U.S. corporate and government R&D employees works in information technology. Industries often considered R&D intensive, such as pharmaceuticals and aerospace, actually employ comparatively fewer workers and spend less overall. Aerospace companies, however, spend the most per worker.

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BIOTECH
U.S. Agricultural Innovation Withers

The number of U.S. field trials of genetically modified crops has climbed since the mid-1990s. But the number of new biotech crops approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has declined in the same period, and many of the crops being submitted for review have the same traits as existing products, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. What’s more, regulatory review times have doubled, exacerbating the dearth of novel submissions.

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ELECTRONICS
Micro Fuel Cells Go Big

December marked the first commercial launch of a micro fuel cell-powered device: a handheld RFID tag reader. Technological, marketing, and regulatory hurdles have made it tough to bring these longer-lasting battery replacements to market. Still, says Frost and Sullivan, micro fuel cells could begin to power laptops and PDAs in 2007. By 2010, shipments of fuel cell-equipped mobile devices could exceed 120 million.

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25 YEARS AGO IN TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
Can Space Profits Save the Space Program?

This year is a critical year – and the 1980s a critical decade – for the future of the U.S. in space. With the flight of the Space Shuttle will come the moment of decision: we must then move decisively to open the new window it will provide to economic and intellectual progress.

That coming necessity should be more obvious than it is, say Gilbert W. Keyes and John T. Bosma of Boeing Aerospace Co. “From a viewpoint of technical and financial risk,” they told the American Association for the Advancement of Science last winter, “space ventures rate well below industries such as offshore oil, and, to a certain extent, electronics.”

“Space is a surprisingly ordinary economic environment,” they said. And they think that fact will become obvious when the shuttle begins regular flights sometime in the 1980s.

But most of the plans for space do not sound ordinary at all….[An] example, from…the Franklin Institute’s Research Center: a solar-powered sphere one mile in diameter to be placed in the stratosphere at an altitude of 30 kilometers as a base for surveillance, research communications, and solar energy generation….

The obstacles to…commercial exploitation of space are financial, organizational, and political – but not technological, [Keyes and Bosma] said. What’s needed are “sharp increases” in NASA’s budgets for 1980-85 together with tax and other financial incentives “to reduce the risks and costs for industries that participate in fledgling space industries.” The goal is to let private industry make space systems self-sustaining so that NASA can concentrate on research….

Without [new appropriations for space science], space may well turn into a military jurisdiction. “We are only beginning to appreciate the full potential of military space systems,” Robert A. Davis of Aerospace Corp. told the AAAS. Here, too, the problem is likely to be money. But superimposed on that problem for the military space planner, said Dr. Davis, is the question sharpened by the ever-increasing development time needed for new weapons systems: “How can we be sure that new technology can be introduced at a pace commensurate with its need as well as its availability?”

John. I. Mattill (May 1980, p. 80)

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