Robots Having Sex?
possible for a robot to be a sexy chick? Well, if the satin bowerbird
fembot designed and built by a University of Maryland engineering professor
and his students is anything to go by, the answer is an enthusiastic
yes. To better study the amazing mating ritual of the bowerbird, a denizen
of the Australian rainforest, biology graduate student Gail Patricelli
and her professor, Gerald Borgia, asked mechanical engineering professor
Gregory Walsh to create a remote-control female bowerbird that could
mimic the key movements of the real thing. Immediately I realized
it made a great student project, Walsh recalls. So he and a small
team of students watched hours of videotape to better understand the
bird's most important maneuvers: a back-and-forth head movement,
a fluffing of her wings, a crouch. Each of the first generation birds
was then fabricated from sheet metal, covered with feathers (with a
taxidermist's help) and fitted with four motors each. An inexpensive
computer chipthe bird braincontrolled the bird's movements.
The first birds were battery operated, but a power cable was used to
power the second-generation fembots. The later birds were also slimmer
because Walsh ditched the radio-control and they required less wiring
and machinery. A more powerful chip was also used in version two.
male bowerbird scores by first building an elaborate bowera love
nest that acts as his stageand then putting on a spectacular song-and-dance
routine. By using the robotic love interest, the biologists learned
that the most successful males were those who were sensitive enough
to pay attention to m'lady's reactions. They would tone down
their mating dance if she seemed startled by its intensity, or pep things
up a bit if she started acting bored.
is proud to say that almost always the male bowerbirds were completely
fooled by his robots. I am sad to report that the males are just
not that picky, he jokes. Indeed, one fembot literally lost her
head when two males began fighting over her. The robots are speechless,
though Walsh considered giving them a squawk to scare away overly ardent
males. We were a little worried about our robots being ripped
up in a passionate moment, he says. They needn't have worried.
Having defeated his rival, the fight's winner had his split-second
of pleasure with his mechanical mate. The robot survived intact. But,
Walsh admits, Once the moment passed, I am not exactly sure what
went through that bird's head. The brute probably didn't
More Than Its Share
sudden rattling of windows, TV shows interrupted by earthquake announcements,
school earthquake drillsquakes are as common as rain in Japan.
Almost one-tenth of all the energy released on earth by earthquakes,
according to the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, is concentrated
on the Japanese archipelago or its immediate vicinity. Still seared
into the national subconscious are images of the horrific Great Hanshin
Earthquake of 1995, which leveled the western port city of Kobe and
claimed over 6,000 lives.
wasn't particularly earthshaking for the temblor-plagued islands
of Japan. The country's Meteorological Agency said the number of
perceptible quakes in 2001 totaled a mere 1,513. That was
a fraction of the whopping 17,677 earthquakes jolting the nation the
previous year, many of which were concentrated in the tiny Izu Islands
200 kilometers south of the capital. The 3,800 inhabitants of scenic
Miyake, part of the Izu chain, remain in evacuation limbo, forced to
abandon their houses because of deadly gas, large-scale eruptions, and
pyrocastic flows from the island's Mount Oyama. Poisonous sulfur
dioxide is still venting from the volcano, preventing residents from
of quakes is measured using a Japanese system that differs slightly
from the familiar Richter scale. While both systems gauge the energy
released from an earthquake's epicenter, Japan looks at horizontal
movement. The Richter scale measures vertical shifts.
powerful quake last year, a magnitude 6.7, shook Hiroshima and Ehime
prefectures, killing two people. That event was one of 37 quakes registering
4 or more, paling in comparison to the previous year's 357 high
continuing quest to become more adept at prophesying geological upheavals,
Japanese researchers have been known to adopt some novel tactics, such
as studying the twitching of catfish, said to be unusually sensitive
to pre-quake tremors. Specialists scrutinize not only local fault lines
but travel well beyond their own borders. Recently, researchers at Japan's
Showa base on Antarctica simulated quake activity by setting off dynamite.
The specialists are collecting data on the speed of seismic waves.
deadliest quake in recent memory shattered the port city of Kobe in
1995, with 6,432 people losing their lives. More than 3,000 Kobe area
schoolchildren still suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome and, while
the local population has been restored to pre-quake levels, city officials
say rebuilding won't be completed until 2005.
Logging On In Beijing
boom time for the Internet in China. According to the China Internet
Network Information Center, 33.7 million Chinese were online as of January,
a 50 percent increase from January 2001. Moreover, the number of computers
in use jumped 40 percent to 12.5 million. While that kind of growth
is phenomenal, Internet penetration in China is only just scratching
the surface of its potential. Those 33.7 million users represent a mere
3 percent of the total population. Still, for U.S. technology suppliers,
the speed of growth has be encouraging.
are these 33.7 million computer mavens? Sixty percent are male. And
most are young: 36 percent are 18 to 24, 16 percent are 25 to 30, and
18 percent are younger than 18. A mere 1.1 percent are over 60. They're
primarily urbanites and educated, as well. Beijing has the highest online
population, 9.8 percent of total users, followed by Shanghai at 9.2
percent. Thirty percent have a bachelor's degree, and a like percentage
have a high-school diploma. The main activity online in China is sending
e-mails, with nine out of 10 people using that facility. Search engines
are regularly used, too. Popular destinations include news and information
sites, hardware and software dealers, and entertainment Web sites.
Smells Swell But
Is It Good For You?
There's nothing like that new car smell. An old car industry joke
suggests that you'd make a fortune if you bottled it and sold it
as a perfume.
But new research says the odor may be a health hazard. A two-year government-funded
study discovered that numerous dangerous substances, called volatile
organic compounds, are emitted by interior components such as plastics
and seals. The scientists say that auto engineers and designers need
to look for ways of reducing the use of these compounds.
the vehicles that were examined, they found toxic air emissions up to
130 times higher than the levels recommended by Australia's National
Health and Medical Research Council. The researchers describe the new
car smell as a cocktail of chemicalsincluding acetone, a mucosa
irritant, and benzene, a known carcinogenand suggest that people
driving newer cars make sure they have good ventilation. Health effects
include drowsiness, fatigue, confusion, irritation of eyes, nose, and
throat, headaches, and neuro-behavioral problems.
found the total volatile organic compound concentrations to be very
high, up to 64,000 micrograms per cubic meter in new cars, up to 10
weeks after manufacture. These levels decreased by approximately 60
percent in the first month, but still exceeded the Australian health
guidelines of 500 micrograms per cubic meter.
particularly surprising, says Steve Brown, head of research at the Australian
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, was that
the level of chemicals in the cars tested was higher than what is usually
found in new buildings. While the researchers only looked at two brands
of cars built in Australia and one import, whose names they would not
reveal, they assume their results apply across the board. These
chemicals may have adverse health effects, particularly for those with
significant exposure, he says. People should know there
are very high levels of pollutants in new cars.
Take My Computer,
bucks a month is not a huge sum of cash, to be sure. But if someone
wanted to hand you, on average, $50 every month for doing nothing, wouldn't
you take it? No, there's no catch. Just sell your PC's down
time computing power. Michael Frank, an assistant professor of computer
and information science and engineering at the University of Florida,
and some cohorts have devised a plan they call OCEAN, or Open Computation
Exchange & Auctioning Network. Once it gets going, it will work
a bit like a power grid. When your PC is not in use, you sell its computing
power online. Harnessing the processing power of millions of resting
PCs could help companies, scientists, and government agencies who sometimes
need the strength of a supercomputer but can't afford one. But
they have got the money to buy some of your PC power when necessary.
Sellers who can guarantee a certain amount of time on a regular schedule
would probably make a bit more than those who would occasionally have
to interrupt and suspend transmission.
are some security issues, Frank says, since outsiders would be
accessing people's hard drives. But, he adds, off-the-shelf technology
can solve those problems. There are precedents for sharing PC power,
the most famous being SETI@Home, a University of California at Berkeley
project that uses a network of PCs to search the skies for extraterrestrial
life. Frank envisions OCEAN as a global project. There's
no need to have national boundaries. And there won't be platform
boundaries, either, he adds. So users of Macintosh and Unix machines
can earn extra cash, too.
School of Hard
a degree where the course work is hard. The Middle Tennessee State University
in Murfreesboro is offering a four-year degree in concrete. The Concrete
Industry Management program, which has 100 students and graduated its
first 20 last year, was created with the assistance of the concrete
industry, including a $1 million grant. The American Concrete Institute's
Ward Malisch, who helped design the curriculum, says the industry was
concerned that fewer hours and more tech courses meant that civil engineering
students were graduating with little knowledge about a dominant building
material. Concrete was getting squeezed out of the curriculum,
he says. The intent was to build a program that would prepare
students for jobs in the industry. Malisch says that concrete
may be basic, but it's really not low-tech, either,
because the various mixes require a vigorous knowledge of chemistry.
Moreover, he adds, the heart of the ready-mix concrete industry is scheduling
and dispatching trucks, which now requires a knowledge of global positioning
satellite technology. The program is cemented together with a number
of business courses, as well, including sales and accounting. While
the dot.com bust has wiped out many high-tech jobs, Malisch says concrete
graduates are assured of high-paying jobs, and that's not likely
to change. It looks like the road to riches may be paved with concrete.
Still A Way To
the regarded psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim had this to say about his
female colleagues: . . . as much as women may want to be good
scientists or engineers, we must remember that they want first and foremost
to be companions of men and to be mothers. Yikes. A top male scientist
uttering a similar remark today would be rightly considered an embarrassment
to his profession. But even though overt discrimination against women
scientists and engineers has been largely eradicated, females still
face more subtle forms of unfair treatment, according to a recent study
on gender differences among the lab coat set by the National Research
Council. The study found that although much progress has been made in
the last 20 years, the gender gap stubbornly persists, particularly
some key findings:
total number of baccalaureate degrees awarded to women increased from
44 percent to 55 percent between 1973 and 1996, while the number awarded
in science and engineering rose from 30 percent to 46 percent (doctorates
in those fields jumped from 8 percent to 32 percent). That is the
good news. Alas, the report notes that while women are now visible
in fields from which they were once virtually excluded (engineering
and mathematics), they continue to cast a very small shadow.
number of women in the workforce has grown impressively in the social/behavioral
and life sciences, but their presence remains low in engineering,
mathematics, and the physical sciences. While the number of women
working in engineering jumped four-fold between 1973 and 96,
they still comprise just 5 percent of the workforce. This scarcity
can make it harder to attract young women students, because there
are fewer role models for them to identify with. Moreover, this lack
of a critical mass makes it harder for women to overcome
socialization problems in male-dominated environments.
a variety of cultural and background reasons, women often take longer
to complete their degrees, which is a disadvantage in preparing for
a career. The late start can later reduce their chances for tenure
and promotions. Indeed, women are underrepresented in senior faculty
who have families more often have part-time careers in science and
engineering. Family men, however, have high rates of full-time employment.
the study doesn't make recommendations, J. Scott Long, a sociologist
at Indiana University who led the study, says schools need to do more
to address issues that hold women back. For instance, he says, while
daycare facilities are commonplace in industry, they remain rare on
campuses. Universities should do more to accommodate women with
families, he says. Being a mother should be no more disruptive
to a career in science or engineering than is fatherhood.
Create More Spin
may sound like a science practiced by political spin doctors. But spintronicsor
spin electronicsis actually a growing branch of electronics in
which the spin of electrons is manipulated in a magnetic field to allow
for information storage. Electrons rotate in one of two directions,
up or down. A magnetic field can be used to exploit and control the
spins, and information is written in the 0s and 1s of digital language
by assigning a value to an up or down spin. The spinning electrons attach
themselves to mobile electrons and are carried along a wire and read
at a terminal. Laptops have gotten smaller, and today's computer
hard drives hold more than 100 gigabytes of memory because of spintronics.
The read heads in computers are now all giant magnetoresistive (GMR)
sandwich structures, constructed of alternating ferromagnetics and nonmagnetic
metal layers. As a hard drive spins, magnetized areas flip the electrons
in the read head to transmit data. These read heads can detect weak
magnetic fields, a process that allows for smaller bits of data.
are now working to create spintronic semiconductors. But Sankar Das
Sarma, director of the Condensed Matter Theory Center at the University
of Maryland, says semiconductor spintronics, where spin plays
an active role, is still a research subject and has not gone into any
use, but there are many novel ideas which may eventually allow semiconductor
memories to do processing and storage on the same chip. M-RAM,
or magnetic random access memory, would use the same technology, only
putting magnetic sandwiches on a chip stitched with wires through which
an electric current flows that can flip the spinning electrons to either
up or down. The amount of electricity used in M-RAM is minute, which
means it requires less power that today's chips. Once M-RAM is
perfected for commercial use, all of today's chip-enabled devices,
from cell phones to personal digital assistants, will gain enormous
amounts of memory storage capacity. Das Sarma says the delay in releasing
M-RAM commercial products comes from unanticipated fabrication and manufacturing
problems, which should soon be solved. IBM is working hard on
the manufacturing problems, he says. And, if the industry spin
doctors are right, the first M-RAM computers should be available in
about two years.
A Top Prize
Academy of Engineering has awarded its inaugural Bernard M. Gordon Prize
for inventiveness in engineering and technology education to Drexel
University's Eli Fromm, a Roy A. Brothers University Professor and an
instructor of electrical and computer engineering.
is known for developing a revolutionary teaching program that focuses
on making engineering courses available to freshmen and sophomores,
incorporating liberal arts into the engineering curriculum and teaching
students in a lab. Called Enhanced Education Experience for Engineers,
the program was introduced at Drexel in 1989 and has expanded to 60
universities across the globe.
As the Gordon Prize recipient, Fromm received a gold medallion and a
half million dollar award to be split with Drexel.
phones are phenomenally popular in Europe, in part because young Europeans
are obsessed with text messagingsending brief, spelling-challenged
notes to one another using the phones' Short Messaging System (SMS)
function. In Britain alone, a billion text messages are transmitted
each month. But it now emerges that text messaging also has become popular
among the 8.7 million deaf or hearing-impaired people in Britain. There
are no exact figures available, but Linda Issacs of the Royal Association
for Deaf People says anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that the hearing-impaired
find text messaging a useful way to communicate while on the move. Certainly
all of the deaf people I know carry a mobile phone and communicate using
SMS, Issacs says. Britain's Automobile Association now provides
an SMS number for the hearing-impaired, and many police departments
are setting up SMS numbers for them, as well.
are problems, however. Text messages use a language all
their ownSample: IF U CAN READ THIS U R GR8.which may be
particularly hard to decode by those for whom sign language is the language
of choice. Another problem is that the radio signals from cell phones
can interfere with hearing aids, causing wearers to hear an irritating
cacophony of hums and clicks. But Orange, a British wireless operator,
has begun selling the Soundmate, an electronic gadget that mitigates
the interference. Though mobile phones were not designed with the hearing-impaired
in mind, it's clear that for many people with hearing difficulties,
wireless technology is opening the world of distance communication.
Sitting Out The
Recession In Grad School
seniors and grad students nearing completion of their degrees are facing
a much tougher world than the one they left behind for academia. A few
years ago, the United States was still in the middle of a technology-generated
boom, unemployment was at historic lows, and jobs were plentiful. But
all booms go bust eventually, and the recession that took hold last
year has dried up many job opportunities. Michigan State University's
Collegiate Employment Research Institute predicts that the job market
in the 2001-02 school year will shrivel 6 percent to 13 percent from
the previous year for graduating seniors. For advanced degree holders,
there will be 20 percent fewer jobs, it says. But wait, it gets worse.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers says there's
less money available, as well. Its Job Outlook 2002 Update says 36.7
percent of employers will offer college grads signing bonuses in the
2001-02 year, down from 55.3 percent in 2000-01. Students in the West
will find things particularly tight. Only a quarter of employers in
western states plan to offer bonuses, down from 62.2 percent last year.
Notes Camille Luckenbaugh of the NACE: A year or two ago, when
there were more jobs than graduates to go around, many employers made
signing bonuses part of their recruitment package. But that's
the chilly job market, it's not surprising that many seniors are
opting instead to chill out on campus for a few more years. The American
Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers says there
is a huge amount of anecdotal evidence from its members that applications
to graduate schools are on the increase. That is our impression,
says Barmack Nassirian, the group's associate executive director.
The one exception: medical schools. That may be because in today's
tough economic climate, students are balking at taking on the huge loans
needed to attend med school.
check of a few tech schools around the country found applications on
the increase at all of them, but at varying degrees. At the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, applicants for the current school year rose
2.25 percent from the previous year to 13,580. At Georgia Tech, applications
were up 12.6 percent, and Virginia Tech had a 10 percent increase. At
Caltech, the jump was more stark: 4,550 applications, an increase of
41 percent. Moreover, unlike the other schools, Caltech is already keeping
track of the number of applications for the coming school year, and
it sees the trend continuing. As of early February, it had already received
3,700 applications for next fall, and the filing deadine is still months
away. Nassirian says the flood of applications will likely fuel another
ongoing trend: allowing schools to raise the entrance bar to graduate
schools. It's a seller's market.