PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - MARCH 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 7
briefings
PRISM - BRIEFINGS

ITECHNOLOGY - ROBOTS WHO CAN SCHMOOZE

TOKYO—The antidote to becoming the world's fastest graying society? In Japan, the solution is obvious. Recruit intelligent machines to help care for, entertain, and comfort the elderly. Humanoids have long been a staple of Japanese robot research. A slew of friendly bots designed for therapeutic use have been the focus of study in recent years and, today, Japanese humanoid research has started to leave the lab and enter the home, thanks to software advances that drastically lower costs while boosting functionality.

One of the latest incarnations is a chatty 18-inch model, named ifbot, that has attracted strong advance orders despite a hefty price tag of nearly $6,000. Programmed to comprehend and assemble millions of phrases, this bot is geared to serve as a companion and senility-prevention device for the elderly. A menu of 15 programs enables it to discuss the news, quiz its owner, and even prompt a round of karaoke.

Scientists are also perfecting robotic pets for nursing homes and children's hospital wards. They anticipate that these soft, furry bots can achieve some of the same results as flesh-and-blood pets. Indeed, in such environments, bots may be preferable to real animals: They're more sanitary and safe for patients with allergies. And, of course, there's no need to groom, feed, or walk them.

Humanoid bots—including entertainment bots, bipedal models, and handicapped assistants—are set to hold center stage at the upcoming 2005 World Exposition in Aichi, central Japan, this March.—Lucy Craft


ACADEMIA - LEFT OF CENTER

If you are a faculty member at an American college, chances are you're also a Democrat. A recent survey of more than 1,000 academics by Santa Clara University economist Daniel B. Klein found that humanities and social science academics tended to vote Democrat over Republican by a ratio of at least 7 to 1. In another study, Klein looked at the party registration records of faculty members at the University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University. He determined that the ratio of Dem-ocrats to Republicans at Berkeley was 10 to 1 and nearly 8 to 1 at Stanford. In some departments—including sociology, anthropology, and journalism—there were no registered Republicans. In other departments—including political science, English, and history—only a few registered Republicans cropped up. Republicans fared only slightly better among engineering academics at the two schools. The ratio of Democrats to Republicans at Berkeley's civil engineering department was 14 to 4; it was 10 to 3 at Stanford. The Democratic ratio was 22 to 7 in Berkeley's electrical engineering department, and 18 to 6 in Stanford's.

Conservative groups, like the National Association of Scholars (NAS), claim that America's college campuses have become fiefdoms of liberal academics who have little tolerance for opposing, conservative voices. Stephen H. Balch, NAS president, charges that liberals "talk until they're blue in the face about a lack of diversity in the academy" except when it comes to conservatives. Balch supports efforts to have state legislatures enact an "academic bill of rights" to protect conservative scholars from discrimination. Opponents call such laws unnecessary, saying that academics and students of all political stripes are already protected. And some liberals argue that conservatives are welcome on campus but tend to be less interested in academic careers than their left-of-center counterparts. —THOMAS K. GROSE


CELLPHONES - IN FULL BLOOM

While consumers replace their cell- phones, on average, every nine months, efforts to recycle them have largely faltered. Cellphone innards contain a lot of useful, valuable materials—platinum and gold, for example—but there's no market for the plastic casings. As a result, only about 10 percent of all phones get recycled. Most others end up in the trash, and ultimately, in landfills. But engineers at England's Warwick University's Manufacturing Group have now developed a cell-phone cover that not only biodegrades easily, but contains a sunflower seed that will bloom several weeks later, once the plastic disintegrates. The prototype phones show the seed through the clear plastic cover. Research leader Kerry Kirwan says the idea is to get consumers to remove the cases and plant them, which would immediately remove the plastic from the waste stream. And, he believes, that would also encourage users to then put the phones' guts into cell-phone recycling bins.

It has taken Kirwan's team two years to bring the flowering cell phone to life. Most of that time was spent reformulating the polymer so that it not only biodegrades quickly but has a smooth finish. Cell phone manufacturer Motorola has already expressed an interest in the blooming phones. So why sunflowers? "We just like them," Kirwan explains. —TG

 

QUOTED  
"Four of the 10 campuses at the University of California are run by women, who are all highly respected in their field."
— Denice Denton, chancellor of the University of California–Santa Cruz, and former dean of engineering at the University of Washington. She was referring to remarks by Harvard president Lawrence Summers suggesting that because of family responsibilities women are less likely to achieve top professional positions than men.

 


POLITICS - ENGINEER AS ENERGY HEAD

President Bush's nominee to replace Spencer Abraham as Energy Secretary is a former MIT chemical engineer. Samuel Bodman—deputy secretary of the Treasury, and a former deputy Commerce secretary—will take over the Department of Energy with a charge from Bush to make the United States less dependent on foreign gas and oil. Bodman, 66, received his doctorate from MIT in 1966, then spent six years there as an associate professor of chemical engineering. He's also headed the Boston Chemical Co., and Cabot Corp.; and was president of Fidelity Investments. Critics of Bush's energy policies reacted cautiously to Bodman's nomination. The Sierra Club, noting Bodman's scientific and financial background, said it hoped he would look for solutions beyond a continued reliance on fossil fuels. At the Department of Commerce, Bodman had oversight of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. —TG


SECURITY - A BYTE FOR SCHOOL BUDGETS

Information technology may be revolutionizing the way higher education is delivered and consumed, and how research is conducted, but the cost of keeping campus computer systems secure is taking bigger chunks out of college budgets. That's the key finding of a recent survey of 501 colleges and universities by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Nearly 60 percent reported that IT security costs required a higher percentage of spending in 2004 than in 2003. Fully 55 percent say they now have full-time staff devoted to computer security, though for most of these schools, that "staff" is made up of one person.

The results of the survey show that there's a need for more security measures. Every college that responded reported virus and/or worm attacks, and 73 percent said such attacks increased last year. Denial-of-service attacks affected 53 percent of respondents, while 41 percent reported that their systems had been compromised. Website vandals hit 22 percent of the schools, and 14 percent reported unauthorized access to student data. Nearly 90 percent of the schools had taken action against students for irresponsible online behavior.

Schools are fighting back. All have invested in antivirus software; 98 percent have firewalls; 96 percent have spam filters; 88 percent have software to combat spyware; and 83 percent use virtual private networks. So far, only 28 percent of the schools are making use of cutting-edge biometric security systems. —TG


RESEARCH - SIMULATING TSUNAMIS

The new Tsunami Wave Basin at Oregon State University's Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory enables scientists from around the world to remotely conduct experiments on the behavior of tsunamis—especially how they affect populated land areas—in hopes of finding ways to minimize loss of life. The $4.8 million facility, built with National Science Foundation support, contains a 7-foot deep, 160-foot long pool, or basin, that can simulate tsunamis in a variety of ocean terrains and their potential aftermath. But when a major tsunami strikes, like the one that devastated south Asia late last year, do the resulting investigations render tsunami simulators superfluous, at least temporarily?

Not really, says director Dan Cox, an associate professor of engineering. While site inspections after a tsunami roars through an area are valuable, "they can't give you a complete picture." Investigators can see the type of damage a tsunami can wreak, but not how it happened. Was it the wave's direction or speed? The first impact or the second wave? "Unfortunately, most of the important clues are swept away." That means the study of these potent and deadly forces of nature will continue to rely on computer modeling and cutting-edge wave machines like Oregon's. —TG

 

NOW YOU KNOW  
School that awarded the most bachelor's degrees in engineering to women in 2003:
Georgia Tech, with: 317

 


COMMERCE - TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

The commercialization of academic research continues to offer big dividends—for a few top schools anyway. In 2003, 165 American universities earned $1.02 billion in gross income from licensing, according to the latest annual survey by the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM). Of that amount, $825 million came from licensing; $38 million from equities; and $157 million, other sources, mainly damage awards from successful copyright infringement lawsuits.

Topping the list of schools was New York University, which saw revenues of $86 million. Second was the University of California system at $61 million (two other institutions earned more than UC, but requested anonymity). NYU's main breadwinner was a drug that treats rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's Disease. That's not surprising: Much of the big money came from drug discoveries.

Academic research sparked 374 new companies in 2003, and more than 25 percent of those startups came from just seven institutions: the UC system, Cornell, Stanford, the universities of Florida and Pennsylvania, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and MIT. Another 3,841 new licenses and options were executed by 158 other universities. Total research expenditures in 2003 for universities, research hospitals, and government labs rose 10 percent to $38.5 billion. Federal funding accounted for 66 percent of that spending, while 7 percent came from industrial sources. New patent applications from universities, hospitals, and labs totaled 7,921, and 3,933 new patents were issued to them in 2003.


RECONSTRUCTION - HELPING OUT THE HOMELAND

AUSTRALIA.—Australian engineers and IT specialists of Iraqi descent are helping reconstruct the war-ravaged nation's education system. The program is based at the University of Technology-Sydney, which earlier helped rebuild the Royal University in Cambodia after the Southeast Asian nation emerged from the Pol Pot regime's self-imposed isolation and subsequent civil war.

Technology professor Ban Al-Ani - COURTESY the University of Technology-SydneyTechnology professor Ban Al-Ani (right)—who is an Iraqi-Australian—recommended a similar project in connection with Iraq, and university administrators approved the idea. The university is planning to sponsor student and researcher exchanges, and to initiate joint research projects, with special focus on electronic learning for off-campus students.

The University of Baghdad is "damaged but functioning," says Hussain Al-Shahristana, the president of the Iraqi Academy of Science, who is working with the Australians. He notes that higher salaries are luring back some exiled academics. Iraq's involvement in learning has been long and impressive. It was the country that invented the wheel and gave the world the number zero.—Chris Pritchard


BIOENGINEERING - SLIPPERY SOLUTION

Lamprey eels are among the most primitive of fish. Nevertheless, researchers at the University of Maryland and at Johns Hopkins University are studying the serpentine critters in hopes of developing a neuro-implant that could help the paralyzed walk. Ralph Etienne-Cummings, an electrical engineer at Johns Hopkins, and Avis H. Cohen, a Maryland biologist, are working with lamprey spinal cords not only because they're easy to study but also because they control locomotion in a way that's very similar to human cords. Moreover, the eel spine can be removed and kept alive in a solution, yet still be induced to send nerve signals—just like a live fish.

Most research to help the paralyzed walk focuses on stimulating the muscles directly. Etienne-Cummings and Cohen think they can design a microchip to control the nerves that control the muscles. When a spinal column is severed, the central pattern generators that process brain signals and move our legs are cut off from those signals. The researchers' goal is a neuro-implant that will mimic the brain signals, thus activating the generators. If they succeed with the eels, they'll move on to small mammals. A human chip, however, is at least a decade away. —TG


SPORTS - HIGH-TECH SLUG FEST

Prior to last year's Olympic games, the Australian Institute of Sport wanted a new, high-tech way to train its boxing team. So it sought assistance from Victoria's Swinburne University of Technology. A small team of students led by Kane Partridge developed a "boxing suit," consisting of gloves, a vest, and headgear. The suit is embedded with microprocessors and communicates using wireless Bluetooth technology. It can monitor a match in real time, instantly noting the location and timing of punches, including those that land below the belt. And coaches and boxers can review the data afterward. Partridge believes the suit can help make boxing less dangerous "by shifting [its] emphasis from brute force to target and defense skills, making it a more modern-day game." The boxing suit may also find application in other sports such as martial arts and rugby. Alas, despite the computational help, the Aussie's boxing team came home from Athens with nary a medal. —TG


BOOK NOTES - MIND FUEL

Juice: The Creative Fuel That Drives World-Class Inventors, by Evan I. Schwartz; Harvard Business School Press.Juice: The Creative Fuel That Drives World-Class Inventors, by Evan I. Schwartz; Harvard Business School Press.

In his new book, Juice: The Creative Fuel That Drives World-Class Inventors, author Evan I. Schwartz argues that while we all marvel at the fruits of inventors' labors—from Dean Kamen's Segway scooter to Woody Norris's hypersonic sound system—the process of invention remains mysterious to most of us. His book, however, posits that we're all latent inventors and "invention is a set of strategic thinking tools that you can teach, learn, and practice." What we need to find is the "juice," Schwartz's term for the mental energy needed to pinpoint problems and then solve them. To make his point, Schwartz details the efforts of many inventors, both recent and historic, including Kamen, Norris, and fuel-cell pioneer Geoffrey Ballard, as well as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. —TG


 

 

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THE MECHANICS OF A CAREER - By Thomas K. Grose
A CLICK AWAY - By Barbara Mathias-Riegel
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ifbot can help care for the Toyota's robot can play the trumpet. Sony's humanoid robot can jog, dance and play soccer. Honda's robot, Asimo,  can recognize voices and distinguish specific human faces. Sony's robo-dog, Aibo, can serve as a companion