venture catalyst, robot jocks
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 informationprice
and model or serial numberto a base station.
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.
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.
TRIP TO THE DENTIST
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.
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.
THE DISTANCE IN ENGINEERING LABS
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 effectiveor
maybe more effectivethan on-campus labs.
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 environmentssimulations,
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.
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.
The Venture Café
By Teresa Esser
$24.95, Warner Books
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 possiblesince many entrepreneurs view failures and bankruptcies
as acceptable parts of the processthe 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.
the better stories Esser knew first-hand. She's married to Pehr Anderson,
who took an MIT class projectwhich earned him a Bgradeand
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.
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 officelike bringing in a change of socks
to avoid going home.
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 anduniquely
for many young high-tech enterprisesprofitable, 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.
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.
OUT World Cup
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 ithow 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 soccercollaboration, 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.
former Olympic speed skater for Germanymanages 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 computerlike playing chessbut things humans think are
easyincluding seeing and movementare 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.