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Briefings

Studying Hard, Nose Job, Slow Progress

Robots Having Sex? WHAT'S NEXT?

Is it 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 chip—the bird brain—controlled 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.

Now, the male bowerbird scores by first building an elaborate bower—a love nest that acts as his stage—and 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.

Walsh 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 even notice.


More Than Its Share of Quakes

TOKYO—A sudden rattling of windows, TV shows interrupted by earthquake announcements, school earthquake drills—quakes 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.

But 2001 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 coming home.

The magnitude 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.

The most 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 magnitude quakes.

In their 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.

Japan's 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

It's 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.

So who 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?

AUSTRALIA—Mmmm! 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.

Inside 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 chemicals—including acetone, a mucosa irritant, and benzene, a known carcinogen—and 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.

The researchers 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.

What was 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, Please

Fifty 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.

“There 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 Knocks

Talk about 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 Go

In 1965, 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 in engineering.

Here are some key findings:

  • The 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.”
  • The 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.
  • For 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 positions.
  • Women who have families more often have part-time careers in science and engineering. Family men, however, have high rates of full-time employment.

Although 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.


Spintronics Doctors Create More Spin

Spintronics may sound like a science practiced by political spin doctors. But spintronics—or spin electronics—is 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.

Scientists 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

The National 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.

Fromm 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.


Listening With Their Eyes

LONDON—Cell phones are phenomenally popular in Europe, in part because young Europeans are obsessed with text messaging—sending 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.

There are problems, however. Text messages use a “language” all their own—Sample: 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

Graduating 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 history now.

Given 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.

A spot 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.