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Open wide, venture catalyst, robot jocks


Bar codes are meant to speed and ensure accuracy at retail checkouts by eliminating keypunching and its potential for human error. But scanning the codes is often clumsy work, and all too often the clerk has to punch in the numbers by hand anyway. The solution appeared to be radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that beam the product information—price and model or serial number—to a base station.

Developed by Marlin Mickle, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Engineering, and Richard E. Billo of Oregon State University, RFID technology stores product data on a Complementary Metallic Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) chip that is affixed, along with an antenna, to a paper or a plastic tag. But Mickle admits that at 30 to 50 cents each, RFID tags are too costly to manufacture, which limits widespread use. So now he and Billo have come up with the Product Emitting Numbering Identification (PENI) tag, which fits the antenna onto the CMOS chip. And the PENI tag can be manufactured for just pennies, he says. Certainly there's great commercial interest in the PENI tag already, and Mickle expects to see it used in stores by early next year. Because the PENI chip itself is actually the tag, it can be embedded directly into a product, eliminating the need for attached tags. It could also be integrated into fabric. “The embedding may or may not be directly through weaving, but it can be conveniently incorporated,” Mickle explains. As an embedded chip, it can also contain shipping and supply data that manufacturers will find useful.

Beyond retailing, “the chips can also be medically implanted to measure conditions or produce an action within the body,” Mickle adds. This may be particularly useful to heart and epilepsy patients. It can only be hoped, of course, that human users won't, in the future, set off store alarms while out shopping.


Some of the same engineering that keeps airplanes flying smoothly may soon make trips to the dentist less of a white-knuckles experience, as well. Last year, the Georgia Tech Research Institute opened a Dental Technology Center, headed by Jeffrey J. Sitterle, GTRI's chief scientist and an aerospace engineer. And in February, Georgia Tech signed a licensing agreement with DentAART, Inc., for the marketing of a “virtual mouth” that produces a computerized 3-D, 360-degree image of a patient's mouth enabling dentists to more accurately design a treatment plan. DentAART's founders, and the inventors of the virtual mouth, approached Georgia Tech to confirm their mathematical proof. Sitterle and his team then fully computerized and enhanced the technology. Eventually, Sittlerle says, it became obvious that a number of existing aerospace technologies developed from physics, electrical, mechanical, and aerospace engineering could be used to create new or improved dental tools. For example, minor bits of decay can be removed using an air abrasion instrument. In aerospace, so-called flow control uses miniature jets of air to “remove mechanical control surfaces” on wings, and has also recently been applied to reduce drag on truck trailers. Another aerospace tool, a spectral sensor, may help detect oral cancer. Researchers are also investigating ways of quieting drills and producing “higher efficiency, longer-lasting bits used for shaping teeth,” he says.

Georgia Tech's dental center recently began talks with the Medical College of Georgia, which has a dental school, on collaborative research projects. “There is a lot of interest within and outside of Georgia Tech for the center, and it's not difficult to attract researchers,” Sitterle explains. So far, he's signed up researchers from such disciplines as materials science, electrical engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering, and aerospace engineering. The only difficulty so far, he says, is that the market for dental products is not vast, so there's been limited outside funding available. At least donors can be reassured they're putting their money where the mouth is.


Online degrees are hardly new. But so far no online engineering degrees have been conferred, mainly because of all the necessary lab time the degrees require. That could soon change, however. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) is using a $30,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to evaluate the effectiveness of online labs. And A. Frank Mayadas, director of the foundation's Asynchronous Learning Networks, is convinced that accredited, online undergraduate degrees for engineers may be a reality within two years. Robert Ubell, dean for online learning at the Stevens Institute of Technology, agrees, especially if the Sloan/ABET project “confirms that online undergraduate degrees can be accredited by ABET (and that) remote undergraduate labs, now being created by Stevens, MIT, and others, are shown to be as effective—or maybe more effective—than on-campus labs.”

Of course, some engineering professors are not so sure that students can be entirely divorced from hands-on lab work. But Ubell counters that “some experts claim that the conventional hands-on laboratory experience does not provide students with the learning experiences that are essential in global, high-technology corporate environments—simulations, modeling, remote access, collaboration at a distance, experiences that are largely provided online.” It may be, Ubell argues, that hands-on labs merely teach students “ancient arts of craft engineering, when what they need is up-to-the-minute digital engineering, coupled with large-scale global project management skills.”

The grandfather of distance learning, Britain's Open University, uses a hybrid method. It mails lab kits to students and requires students to attend a few on-campus lectures. Ubell says there will likely be various hybrid solutions used by different U.S. schools, including kits, robotics, and some hands-on work. “Clearly, there will be a number of different paths taken,” he says. But he's also sure that some schools will introduce entirely online degrees using remote labs “and other unconventional lab experiences.” Ubell says it's too early to say which route will offer the “best” solution, and there may not be a “best” way. “My guess is that each student and each school will need to come to their own conclusion about what works best for them.”

Success with Startups
The Venture Café
By Teresa Esser
$24.95, Warner Books

During the dot-com boom, it seemed like every other scientist and engineer in the world was becoming an entrepreneur, launching a high-tech company, raking in millions of venture-capital bucks, and, in some instances, taking their companies public and racking up market capitalizations that rivaled long-established Blue Chips. Of course, the bubble eventually burst and many of those companies have since been consigned to the dustbin of history. But others have survived and thrived. And because success is possible—since many entrepreneurs view failures and bankruptcies as acceptable parts of the process—the dream lives on. Now comes Teresa Esser with a road map of sorts for entrepreneurs. Esser, an MIT grad with undergraduate degrees in brain and cognitive science, as well as creative writing, has written a book, “The Venture Cafe,” that makes potent use of many real-life examples to diagram why some startups succeed and many fail dismally.

One of the better stories Esser knew first-hand. She's married to Pehr Anderson, who took an MIT class project—which earned him a “B”grade—and developed it into the NBX Corporation, a voice and data telecom service that was eventually sold to 3Com Corporation for $90 million. But the heart of the book is the Muddy Charles Pub, a signless, cheap watering hole amid the MIT campus. There, Joost Bonsen, who calls himself a “venture catalyst,” hosts a monthly networking event for entrepreneurs, technologists, and the money and legal people. Bonsen's high-tech shindigs have helped spawn many successful companies, including NBX.

While “The Venture Cafe” offers lessons in the art of entrepreneurship, it's not a dry book, thanks mainly to the many profiles, stories, and anecdotes culled from the high-tech boom. One ongoing theme is the single-mindedness of most successful entrepreneurs. Notes David Gill, who's financed startups for London's HSBC bank: “Entrepreneurs have to be completely driven by vision, such that they only see what they want to see.” Andy Mulkerin is a typical obsessive entrepreneur. He's a process manager for a company called E Ink Corporation who has devised elaborate schemes to avoid leaving his office—like bringing in a change of socks to avoid going home.

Esser devotes many pages to Phillip Greenspun, whose online posting of photos and comments about a Boston-to-Alaska drive he took led to his creating ArsDigita, a Web publishing company. The company was a success and—uniquely for many young high-tech enterprises—profitable, but in the end Greenspun fell out with his financial backers and professional managers. Lawsuits were filed and counter-filed. The issues were eventually settled out of court confidentially. And Greenspun was last reported working as a lab director for a new research center and teaching an MIT course he developed on software engineering.

In the wake of the dot-com bust, money for startups, no matter how promising, all but dried up. But as markets once again begin to pick up steam and signs of a recovery become more evident, there's little doubt that venture money will once again begin to flow. Budding entrepreneurs who hope to tap into that cash vein to fund their latest vision would be wise to first read Esser's cautionary tales.


Most people probably think of R2D2 and 3CPO of Star Wars' fame as state-of-the art robots. (Yes, yes, the more recent Steven Spielberg movie, AI, featured much more advanced humanoids. However, let's face it—how many people saw AI compared to the Star Wars films?) But as brainy and mobile as the bot buddies were, they exhibited little, if any, athletic prowess. Yet researchers from around the globe are convinced they can create a robot team by 2050 that can beat that year's human World Cup champs. RoboCup: The Robot World Cup Soccer Games and Conferences is an annual event that pits dozens of robot teams, in a variety of leagues based on size, against one another. In programming robots to manage the intricacies of playing soccer—collaboration, strategy, real-time reasoning, etc.— it's hoped that the contest will foster AI and intelligent robotics research. It's meant to be fun, but the goal is taken seriously. Researchers call it a landmark project: Its accomplishment in and of itself will produce little economic effect, but by sparking off countless new and significant technologies along the way, the means justify the end. “The important issue for the landmark project is to set the goal high enough so that a series of technical breakthroughs is necessary to accomplish the task...technologies that can form the foundation of the next generation of industries,” sponsors claim. Adds Jacky Baltes, a senior lecturer for computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: “Fifty years is a long time, but I think it is important to have this overall goal.”

Baltes—a former Olympic speed skater for Germany—manages two teams, the All Botz and the 4 Stooges, which compete in a small-size league. The All Botz are standard toy cars that rely on a ceiling-mounted camera to provide global vision. His team costs less than $300 to field; some rivals spend as much as $30,000 per team and use bots fitted with dribble bars and high-speed kickers. He mainly competes, he says, “to evaluate my research in artificial intelligence.” Other more expensive teams score more goals, he admits, “but I don't see how you learn anything about human or artificial intelligence by doing this.” His 4 Stooges are fully autonomous robots fitted with cameras and small computers. They have a poorer field of vision but are more versatile. Baltes thinks that the most interesting problem is how to instill intelligence and reasoning in the robot players. Getting robots to deal with the unexpected and knowing when to pass or shoot is no easy chore, he says. And vision remains a big issue. The bots must work out where they are on the field (localization) and where other players are (object recognition), things humans find easy. “This is an example of the AI paradox. It turns out that things that humans think are hard are easy to implement on a computer—like playing chess—but things humans think are easy—including seeing and movement—are much, much harder to implement on a computer,” Baltes says. Other important aspects of designing robot athletes include motors, sensors, and control systems. “There is still lots of work to be done in all these areas,” he says. So for at least the next 40 years or so, human superiority on the soccer pitch seems secure.