PRISM Magazine Online - March 2000
briefings
International
Tunnel Story 2

LONDON —The British and French like the Channel Tunnel so much, they're thinking of building Photograph courtesy of QA Photos Ltd.another one—in about 25 years. An engineering marvel, the rail tunnel opened in 1995 and links the British mainland with France 31 miles away. Though the "Chunnel" has proved immensely popular, it cost so much to build that it will be years before it becomes profitable. But Eurotunnel, the operator, says in an advisory report that a second tunnel could be built for $4.43 billion by 2025, around the time the current tunnel reaches full passenger capacity. The new Chunnel would be an auto tunnel that would allow drivers to cross the English Channel in 30 minutes. Buses and trucks would be banned.

Roger Mackett, a transport studies expert in the engineering department at University College London, says building a second tunnel would require even more engineering ingenuity. One of the biggest problems—ventilating the tunnel of car exhaust—would have to be solved. Also, new construction technology that could keep costs down may be of little use. There is a new method that floats a pre-constructed tunnel, sinks it, then pumps out the water so that it rests on the ocean bed.  But with a project this size, that may not be feasible, Mackett says. Moreover, because the current Chunnel is buried beneath solid rock below the sea bed, it's essentially bomb-proof—a security factor that designers would want to incorporate in the next tunnel.

How likely is it that Chunnel Mark II will be built? Who knows? The politicians won't even get around to thinking about it until 2010.
                                                                                                            —Thomas K. Grose

Health
Robots Lend a High-Tech Hand

Robots, once the stuff of science fiction, have become industrial mainstays. Whether spraying paint, spot-welding metal, or inserting rivets, robots have helped industry save money and become more productive. Now two Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers believe that robots can revolutionize the physical therapy industry. Neville Hogan, a professor of mechanical engineering and brain and cognitive sciences, and Hermano Igo Krebs, a mechanical engineering research scientist, have developed a robot that they say "significantly improves" the short- and long-term recovery of stroke patients, based on the results of two clinical trials.

Photograph courtesy MIT-Newman LaboratoryLike many "old industries," Krebs says, physical therapy is labor-intensive and costly—which leaves it wide open for the kind of productivity improvements robots can deliver. The United States spends $30 billion a year treating stroke patients, and that figure could surely multiply as the American population grays. Still, Krebs is quick to note that robots won't replace human therapists, but will give them a new and efficient tool. "In some instances, robot aids will permit allocating scarce human resources more appropriately," he says, "for example, via a classroom in which one therapist oversees three or four patients each interacting with a robot aid."  That could cut costs and improve quality.

But don't expect R2D2 in scrubs. Krebs explains that the MIT-Manus robot, as it has been dubbed, is nothing like fictional humanoid robots. It also differs greatly from industrial robots, which are not interactive. The MIT robot guides patients through a variety of computer-game-like exercises, moving patients' arms when they can't move their own. Once patients are moving on their own, the machine measures and records each arm movement with "exquisite" precision, allowing therapists to track their progress.

Hogan has a long-standing interest in studying how humans interact with tools, and Krebs joined him on this project as part of his Ph.D. thesis. The pair have formed a small company with the intent of bringing their robot to market within a few years. Meanwhile, they also see the potential use of robots for treatment of such neurological disorders as Parkinson's disease, and they are studying the possible use of home-based robotic therapy delivered via the Internet.

Washington Online

Now that plans are afoot for Internet giant America Online—which is based in the greater Washington, D.C. area—to subsume media biggie Time Warner in the largest merger ever, it would seem that Washington is about to become the center of the new-media world. But despite AOL's success in the Internet sweepstakes, let's face it, Washington is strictly old business, and that business is politics, politics, and more politics. Right? Well, perhaps not.

Apparently, the nation's governmental heart has also become a main high-tech artery, according to a new study by the Greater Washington Initiative, an arm of the local board of trade. It found that last year, AOL was just one of 12,183 tech companies operating in the Washington area, five times more than the total found in a 1995 survey (see Databytes, p. 15). To be sure, few of the region's tech companies are in AOL's league—nearly 9,000 of the Washington companies are very small, employing nine or fewer people. Still, the burgeoning industry employs 230,660 people, or one in seven residents.

GWI is using these impressive statistics to underpin a newly launched, $800,000 ad campaign to refashion Washington's identity and sell the region as a digital hotbed. GWI spokesperson Mary Tibor says the aim is to show that "Washington is not just a one-industry town," to attract more tech business to the area, and to lure more tech workers because there are not enough to fill all of the available jobs.

Tibor admits that "government contracts are certainly a unique draw." The federal government is the largest purchaser of computer services, pumping about $25 billion into local tech firms. More than 60 percent of the tech companies in the D.C. area are data-processing and computer services companies, while 20 percent are engineering services firms. So is Washington indeed diversifying? Or does it remain a one-horse town supporting a huge auxiliary service industry that just happens to have gone digital?

Profile
At the Helm

Photograph courtesy of Smith CollegeDomenico Grasso

Position:

    Director of Smith College's new Picker Program in Engineering and Technology

Career Highlights:

    Head of the civil and environmental engineering department at the University of Connecticut; member of the science advisory board of the EPA; NATO Fellow

Age:

    44

Education

    B.S. from WPI, M.S. from Purdue University, Ph.D. from the University of Michigan

You had a simultaneous offer from an Ivy League school—what led you to choose Smith?

    The Smith position is a unique opportunity to make a difference. Though it is important that Smith is a women's college, it is equally important that Smith is a liberal arts school. In a technologically rich age, engineering programs will be increasingly offered at liberal arts schools, so Smith has a chance to be a real pioneer.

Why an engineering program at a women's college?

    Smith aims to empower women, and the character of Smith students is such that they will be leaders and role models for other women in engineering—they will create a ripple effect. I have often had only one or two women in engineering classes that I teach, and it may be uncomfortable to be in such a minority. I find that women tend to be quieter in class, but also more thoughtful when they do give their opinions. Self-confidence is pervasive at Smith, and Smithees may take a few more risks.

What is the status of the program?

    We will enroll the first class of about 25 women in the fall of 2000, and we expect admission to be highly competitive. We are also teaching an introduction to engineering course this year, and we'll have to determine if current students can transfer into the program. We're hiring a total of five faculty members for the program, myself included.

Do you foresee any problems convincing employers and grad school admissions officials that Smith's program, although new, is of top quality?

    We will dispel any doubts that these women are going to be highly sought after. This is going to be a high-caliber program from the start—we aren't going to have to convince anyone of that. These women are going to impress anyone they work for or attend graduate school with.

Are there any advantages to starting a program from scratch?

    ABET is trying to push reform with Engineering Criteria 2000, but some schools may just retrofit their old curricula. At Smith, we're taking EC2000 to heart, trying to produce well-educated liberal engineers. We want them to be the Renaissance individuals of the next millennium. Historically, engineers have poorly understood the human condition. The Smith engineering program will be a bridge between science and the humanities; that bridge traditionally has not been well constructed on the humanities side.

Quotable

"Imagine the possibilities. Materials with 10 times the strength of steel and only a small fraction of the weight . . . detecting cancerous tumors when they are only a few cells in size. Some of our research goals may take 20 or more years to achieve, but that's precisely why there is an important role for the federal government."

    —President Clinton, speaking to faculty members and students at the California Institute of Technology in January