Monthly Archives: June 2006

I Robot, Your Companion

I Robot, Your Companion

Robotic technology is advancing apace and now a top team of European scientists and engineers hope to make the leap from single function ‘dumb’ machines to adaptive learning machines.

The concept of a cognitive robotic companion inspires some of the best science fiction but one day may be science fact following the work of the four-year COGNIRON project funded since January 2004 by the IST’s Future and Emerging Technologies initiative. But what could a cognitive robot companion do?

“Well, that’s a difficult question. The example that’s often used is a robot that’s able to fulfil your needs, like passing you a drink or helping in everyday tasks,” says Dr Raja Chatila, research director at the Systems Architecture and Analysis Laboratory of the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (LAAS-CNRS), and COGNIRON project coordinator.

“That might seem a bit trivial, but let me ask you a question: In the 1970s, what was the use of a personal computer?” he asks.

It’s a good point. In fact, it was then impossible to imagine how PCs would change the world’s economics, politics and society in just 30 years. The eventual uses, once the technology developed, were far from trivial.

COGNIRON set out on the same principle, given that society is constantly evolving, and the project partners hope to tackle some of the key issues that need to be resolved for the development of a cognitive robot companion, which could be used as assistants for disabled and elderly people or the general population. Who wouldn’t like, for instance, their breakfast ready when they awoke, deliveries accepted while they were at work and their apartment cleaned upon their return?

Solar Power To Be Revolutionized By Nanorods

BP, Caltech to devise ‘nanorod’ solar cells .

Energy giant BP plc and the California Institute of Technology have teamed up in a research program that will develop a new type of solar-cell technology called nanorods.

In the five-year, multi-million dollar program, BP (London) and Caltech (Pasadena, Calif.) will explore a concept based on growing silicon by creating arrays of nanorods, as opposed to the more convention method of casting ingots and cutting wafers.

Nanorods are small cylinders of silicon said to be 100 times smaller than a human hair. A solar cell based on an array of nanorods will be able to absorb light along the length of the rods by collecting the electricity generated by sunlight more efficiently than a conventional solar cell, according to claims made by BP and Caltech.

The program will also investigate uses of nanotechnology to create designer solar cell materials — such as nanorods and nanowires — in order to change the conventional paradigm for solar cell materials.

Not long ago, solar energy was considered a niche market. Now, solar-cell vendors are scrambling to expand their capacities to meet huge demand from homes and businesses worldwide. Companies that have recently announced new and massive solar-cell production plants include Energy Conversion Devices, Evergreen Solar, Sharp, SunPower and Suntech.

Indeed, solar is here today, but the technology is at about three times the cost of conventionally generated electricity However, thanks to advances in conventional and thin-film technologies, some believe that the cost of solar will be on par with that of conventional electricity within 10 years.

The Future Generation Of Cars

GM has built a revolutionary car called the Hy-wire. It’s an amazing piece of machinery.

It has no pedals, but is entirely hand-operated. It rides on a fuel cell, and the engine is a flat block which basically forms the bottom of the car. The body of the car can be modified in half an hour.

You’ve gotta see the movieclip (gets interesting from 1:15) to believe it: The Next Generation Of Cars.

The GM Hy-wire, appropriately named for its technology, incorporates the features first envisioned in the AUTOnomy concept vehicle at the 2002 North American International Auto Show in Detroit and the Geneva Motor Show. Hy-wire was introduced to the public at the Paris Motor Show last year.

“ The fact that we developed Hy-wire as a driveable concept vehicle in just eight months (from its introduction in Detroit) shows our commitment to this technology and the speed at which we are progressing,” said Rick Wagoner, GM’s president and CEO.

“ With AUTOnomy, GM shared a vision. Hy-wire accelerates our progress with a functional proof of concept which strengthens our confidence in our ability to gain marketplace acceptance of production fuel cell vehicles.”

British and American Scientists Creating Mind-Reading Computer

British and American Scientists Creating Mind-Reading Computer.

Computers are about to get a whole lot more advanced, as British and American scientists have announced they are creating a PC that is “emotionally aware.”

A raised eyebrow, a puzzled facial look or a nod of the head are just some of the expressions the computer will be able to read. Scientists say their new computer, which simply points a video camera at an individual’s face, will be able to determine a person’s thoughts by analyzing basic facial expressions that portray inside feelings.

Peter Robinson, a professor at the University of Cambridge in England, says his team’s mind-reading computer could eventually be used to do everything from teaching people to drive better to developing better ad campaigns that target people’s moods.

“Imagine a computer that could pick the right emotional moment to try to sell you something, a future where mobile phones, cars and websites could read our mind and react to our moods,” Robinson told Reuters.

Robinson said the computer he and his team designed is already doing quite well at recognizing various expressions generated by actors. His team is currently trying to get more data to teach the computer when a person is bored, confused, interested or agreeable. The PC will be put on display at a London exhibition today.

Brains Can Be Made To Self-repair

Brain can be made to self-repair.

Stimulating a protein on the surface of the brain’s stem cells helps rats recover after a stroke, US researchers have found. The discovery suggests that in humans it could be possible to provoke the body’s own stem cells into repairing an injury, rather than laboriously growing and transplanting new cells.

Researchers believe that many of the body’s tissues harbour stem cells capable of dividing to make new tissue. But some of these are recalcitrant and do not naturally divide to repair damage wreaked by severe injuries such as stroke or spinal-cord damage.

Ronald McKay and his colleagues at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, have now shown that one protein, called Notch, can boost the survival of three different types of stem cell. Notch sits on cell surfaces and is vital for the correct growth of embryos.

Honda Building Cheap, Clean Diesel Engine

Honda Bets Scientists in Secret Engine Lab Can Outsmart Toyota.

une 20 (Bloomberg) — In 1973, junior engineer Takeo Fukui helped put Honda Motor Co. on the U.S. map with a Civic subcompact that met clean-air standards without a $1,000 tailpipe filter known as a catalytic converter. He was 28.

Today, as Honda’s chief executive officer, Fukui, 61, is racing to repeat his triumph at a lab 68 miles (109 kilometers) north of Tokyo. There, engineers are building a diesel engine for 2009 that Honda says will meet both new U.S. limits and more stringent California rules on soot and nitrous oxide emissions and still use 30 percent less fuel than gasoline models.

Honda allows no media visitors to the lab. Fukui is guarding it as his secret weapon as U.S. gasoline prices soar to an average $2.87 a gallon and global warming worries 62 percent of Americans, a March Gallup Organization Inc. poll found.

“People want cars that emit less pollutants, use less fuel and protect their occupants,” says John Casesa, an auto industry consultant at Casesa Shapiro Group LLC in New York. “These trends play directly to Honda’s strengths.”

Amazing Robot Animation

Android 207.

Even though it’s only an animation, it makes me think…

How long until real life robots posess this level of cognition?

Two other robot related articles I recently spotted:

Microsoft fosters robotics.

It might take many years, but Microsoft believes robotics could present a big opportunity as the market grows, said Tandy Trower, general manager of the Microsoft Robotics Group. He cited estimates predicting that consumer robotics alone will grow into a multibillion-dollar industry in five to 10 years.

Androids Dream of Soccer Glory.

Already a few teams are working on stereoscopic vision, which would help with depth perception. Next year, the humanoid robots are likely to leave behind their Pocket PC brains, which most teams have used for weight reasons.

“Every year the teams get better and better, but there’s no quantum improvements this year,” Rojas says. “It has been a continuous evolution.”

The Future Of Heart And Artery Repair

Synthetic Blood Vessels Not Such a Stretch.

The rapidly advancing world of regenerative medicine just got wilder as a team of researchers has reported a better technique for growing starter arteries for people with vascular disease who need replacements.

The synthetic blood vessels could eventually be used in patients undergoing heart surgery to have their hardened or blocked arteries removed and replaced with prosthetics or grafts that would allow the regeneration of a new artery.

In recent years, specialists called tissue engineers have begun to figure out how to help patients grow new tissues and even entire organs to replace ailing and failing parts such as blood vessels, skin, cartilage, bone, stomachs, bladders and even hearts. The process involves seeding specially shaped artificial scaffolds with human cells such that the body eventually grows a functional new body part around the implant.

The trick with tissue engineering is to come up with synthetic parts that can withstand the mechanical strain of doing the body’s work while also biodegrading slowly as the body rebuilds the real thing.

With blood vessels, experts already have shown that it is possible to make synthetic arteries that work in the lab.

The new work is important because the team, at Virginia Commonwealth University, was able to create grafts that include elastin, which makes it so the cells seeded into the synthetic artery are much more likely to recognize and interact properly with the body. Elastin also makes the synthetic artery strong enough to work much more like our original blood vessels. The body’s elastic fibers, found in nearly all organs and tissues, are made of elastin.

Engineering electrically conducting tissue for the heart.

Patients with complete heart block, or disrupted electrical conduction in their hearts, are at risk for life-threatening rhythm disturbances and heart failure. The condition is currently treated by implanting a pacemaker in the patient’s chest or abdomen, but these devices often fail over time, particularly in infants and small children who must undergo many re-operations. Researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston have now taken preliminary steps toward using a patient’s own cells instead of a pacemaker, marking the first time tissue-engineering methods have been used to create electrically conductive tissue for the heart.

Cowan’s team, including first author Yeong-Hoon Choi in Children’s Department of Cardiac Surgery, obtained skeletal muscle from rats and isolated muscle precursor cells called myoblasts. They “seeded” the myoblasts onto a flexible scaffolding material made of collagen, creating a 3-dimensional bit of living tissue that could be surgically implanted in the heart.

When the engineered tissue was implanted into rats, between the right atrium and right ventricle, the implanted cells integrated with the surrounding heart tissue and electrically coupled to neighboring heart cells. Optical mapping of the heart showed that in nearly a third of the hearts, the engineered tissue had established an electrical conduction pathway, which disappeared when the implants were destroyed. The implants remained functional through the animals’ lifespan (about 3 years).

500GHz Chip Built By IBM

Chip breaks speed record in deep freeze.

IBM and Georgia Tech have coaxed a chip to run at 500GHz, a record for a silicon-based device, by dropping the temperature to minus 451 degrees Fahrenheit.

The experiment is part of a project to explore the ultimate speed limits of silicon-germanium (SiGe) chips. SiGe chips are similar to standard silicon chips, but they also contain germanium for better performance and lower power consumption.

Adding germanium, however, increases the price of producing wafers and chips that come out of the wafers, so SiGe chips are typically only found in a few select markets. IBM has sold hundreds of millions of SiGe chips since it began selling them in 1998, but the cell phone industry gobbles up billions of plain silicon chips annually. (Germanium is sprinkled into standard silicon chips: Intel adds minute amounts of the element to create strained silicon in its processors).

At room temperature, the IBM-Georgia Tech chip operates at 350GHz, or 350 billion cycles per second. That’s far faster than standard PC processors today, which range from 3.8GHz to 1.8GHz. But SiGe chips can gain additional performance in colder temperatures.

To that end, IBM and Georgia Tech scientists turned down the temperature and cryogenically froze the chip at minus 451 F. It’s about as cold as things get. An extremely cold temperature like that is found naturally only in outer space, but can be artificially achieved on Earth using ultracold materials such as liquid helium. Absolute zero comes at minus 459 F.

SiGe chips, the scientists theorized, could eventually hit 1 terahertz, or 1 trillion cycles a second.

Kurzweil Predicts Longer, Healthier Life And Immersive Virtual Environments

Reprogramming Biology.

We are developing the tools to reprogram the processes involved in disease and aging, says Ray Kurzweil in his article, “Reprogramming Biology,” in the July 2006 Scientific American and available free in an extended Web version.

He also cites accelerating progress in turning specific genes off by blocking the messenger RNA; adding beneficial genes to patients’ bodies; activating and deactivating enzymes, to increase good cholesterol, for example; regrowing our own cells, tissues and even whole organs; capturing stem cells out of the bloodstream, to create new heart cells, for example; using nanoparticles that recognize and destroy cancer cells; and understanding and even reprogramming the brain.

Kurzweil is also optimistic about radical life extension. “I expect that within 15 years, we’ll be adding more than a year each year to remaining life expectancy. So my advice is: take care of yourself the old-fashioned way for a while longer and you may get to experience the remarkable century ahead.”

The New Human.

By 2020, virtual reality will allow for a full-immersion sensual encounter involving all five senses, says Ray Kurzweil in “The New Human,” an interview in the July 2005 issue of Playboy.

“You’ll feel as though you’re really with that person…. The whole idea of what it means to have a sexual relationship will be different.

“Computers used to be remote: now they’re in our pockets,” says Kurzweil. Next, they’ll make their way into our clothing, our body, and our brain. “You can’t point to a single organ for which we haven’t made enhancements or started work on them.” The latest FDA-approved neural implant even allows you to “upload software from outside the patient.

Ray Kurzweil has been making predictions for a long time now. So far, he just keeps on being right. He’s got a good track record.

His models, which are basically exponential extrapolations of technologies, seem to be quite reliable when it comes to looking into the future. That’s why I choose to take him seriously.