Archive for November, 2009

Photos: International Robot Exhibition 2009

Friday, November 27th, 2009

Hundreds of robots have gathered at the International Robot Exhibition (IREX) now underway at Tokyo Big Sight. Here are a few photos from the event, which runs until November 28.

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Yaskawa Electric Corporation displayed a variety of Motoman industrial robots able to perform tasks ranging from menial factory work to synchronized swordplay.

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Taizo, a clown-like assistant trainer robot by General Robotix, encouraged passersby to do stretching exercises.

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Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru) exhibited their AV-T3 autonomous cargo transport robot.

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Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru) also showcased their autonomous floor cleaning robot (developed jointly with Sumitomo), which was recognized as Robot of the Year in 2006.

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Neko-Tencho, a cat robot developed by RT, danced with its naked skeleton.

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The Manoi PF01 and AT01 athlete humanoids relaxed on a table at the Kyosho booth.

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Figla exhibited an interactive robot (prototype) with remote camera.

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An Actroid was on hand at Kokoro’s booth to demonstrate new camera-based face mimicking technology.

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TOPIO, a ping pong playing robot by TOSY (Vietnam), waited for a worthy opponent.

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The iRobi home robot by Yujin (Korea) can monitor the home, provide weather information and news, respond to voice commands, and entertain the kids with songs.

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NT Research (Korea) demonstrated their RAMeX humanoid with tele-operated arms and hands.

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An intelligent building guide robot with arms, speech capabilities, and face/voice recognition skills was on display at the “Premium Korea” booth.

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Alderbaran Robotics (France) exhibited Nao, a fully-programmable autonomous humanoid.

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NEC’s display included the Papero-mini tele-collaboration robot, which lacks the AI brain of its big brother and functions as a home videoconferencing tool.

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Fujitsu’s Enon robot received some minor adjustments at the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) booth.

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NEDO also exhibited a Muratec receptionist robot.

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A mini-humanoid blended into the crowd.

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CMC Technology Development Co., Ltd. exhibited Robockle, a collision avoidance robot loaded with an array of CMCTD’s sensors.

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Kawada Industries demonstrated their NEXTAGE next-generation industrial robot.

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They also exhibited their HIRO humanoid upper body for R&D purposes.

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Saya, a receptionist robot, was on display at the Kobayashi Laboratory (University of Tokyo) booth.

Source | Pink Tentacle

Origami Solar Cells

Friday, November 27th, 2009

One way to squeeze more power out of sunlight is to ensure that it always hits a solar panel at the ideal angle. This means either tracking the sun and maneuvering a panel to face it, or using complex optics to redirect the sun’s rays to hit the panel’s surface from above.

nuzzo_22_x220.jpgResearchers at the University of Illinois have now come up with self-assembling spherical solar cells capable of capturing more sunlight than flat ones. The shape is a simpler way to make more use of the sun’s rays, but has been difficult to realize in a solar cell. These new microscale solar cells are made using conventional lithography combined with self-assembly. If they prove practical, the devices could be wired up into large arrays that have the same power output as conventional cells, but that save on materials costs by using less silicon.

“Instead of a big slab of semiconductor fitted with concentrating lenses and motors to move it around, we want to make compact cells that still have a significant power output,” says Ralph Nuzzo, professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Fold-up silicon: In these images, three thin films of silicon fold up into 3-D shapes under the force of surface tension as water droplets placed in their centers evaporate. The top row depicts the first step, when the water droplets are large, and the images below it show a time progression as the water droplets shrinks.

Curved surfaces capture more light than flat ones because they have a greater surface area. But making solar cells that are curved or spherical is challenging, says Nuzzo, because the techniques used to process semiconducting materials such as silicon work best on flat surfaces. Nuzzo’s group has overcome this problem by making microscale 3-D structures that self-assemble from flat sheets.

The Illinois researchers start by treating the surface of a thin, high-quality silicon wafer and using conventional lithography to etch out a thin, two-dimensional shape. To make a sphere, the researchers cut the silicon into a flower shape. They then use an adhesive to secure a small piece of glass inside. The glass helps the structure maintain its shape once it is assembled. Finally, as a drop of water placed in the center of the flower shape evaporates, surface tension pulls its petals up, eventually bringing them together to form a sphere.

“The challenge in this is, how do you get things to follow the necessary sequence of steps to fold into the desired shape?” says Nuzzo. The Illinois group came up with mathematical models to help predict the mechanical properties of silicon sheets of different shapes and thicknesses, as well as how they interact with water, which can be tuned by chemically treating their surfaces.

Full Story | Technology Review

Fonlad #05_09 – Digital Arts Festival

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

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The sci-fi legends who shaped today’s tech

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Science fiction has long inspired real-world technology, but have the authors of sci-fi stories finally run out of steam? Stuart Andrews investigates

From the earliest days of Jules Verne and HG Wells, science fiction and technology have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. Sci-fi stories and novels expressed man’s desire to conquer space, find new worlds or explore the ocean depths, and while man would probably have landed on the moon or launched deep-sea expeditions without them, these tales inspired those who made such giant leaps.

In turn, real-world technology has inspired the science-fiction writer. After all, it’s science fiction that charts what happens when humanity meets high technology, asking what will happen, where it will take us, and what we’ll find when we get there. This is as true of computer technology as it was of the space race. Perhaps, even more so.

The geek and hacker cultures that have powered so much of the PC and internet revolution are hugely sci-fi literate. Writers and experts have even crossed paths; the academics and software engineers becoming sci-fi writers, the writers earning a name as futurologists.

In this feature, we’ll explore how science fiction has motivated trends and products in computing, and catch a glimpse of where this relationship might take us in the future.

Visions of the future

Does sci-fi really have that great an impact on the technology that emerges from the labs of the world’s biggest technology companies? Labs that are so well funded (Microsoft alone spent $8 billion on research last year) that they can afford to scoop up the brightest talent emerging from MIT and beyond? Indeed it does, according to Bruce Hillsberg, director of storage systems at IBM Research in Almaden. For him, the value of science fiction is that it “paints visions of the future that cause people to think about possibilities beyond what is possible today”.

Hillsberg believes the fact so many hi-tech visionaries are sci-fi fans, tied to fiction’s power to stimulate creative thought processes, means that an interest in the genre can lead to real breakthroughs. “I don’t believe sci-fi necessarily sets the agenda for researchers,” said Hillsberg. “That is, I don’t think most researchers try to invent what they read about or see in movies. Rather, they try to move science or technology forward, and sci-fi can consciously or unconsciously help them think outside the box.”

History bears out his theory. Do a little digging and you’ll be surprised to find how many big names in the computing world are sci-fi fans: Apple’s Steve Wozniak, Netscape’s Marc Andreessen, Tim Berners-Lee, Google’s Sergey Brin and the GNU Linux creator Richard Stallman, to name only a few of the tech elite. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has even helped fund a museum of science fiction in Seattle.

To Hal and back

It wasn’t long into the history of computing that the sci-fi greats began to see technology’s potential. During the 1950s, Isaac Asimov wrote a sequence of stories featuring Multivac, a huge, artificially intelligent computer, culminating in the classic The Last Question – a tale that tracks the evolution of Multivac and the human race.

Asimov recognised that computers would grow both smaller and more powerful, with Multivac transforming from a sprawling giant into an entity that exists outside of space and time. He merely underestimated the timescale – Asimov thought it would take thousands of years for Multivac to shrink to a vaguely mobile form.

Computing owes an even greater debt to Asimov’s contemporary, Arthur C Clarke. In his work on the 1968 film and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke created HAL, the model for all future dedicated, logical, mildly psychotic AI. In creating HAL, Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick sought guidance from Marvin Minsky, co-founder of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT. In turn, the film would inspire a new generation of engineers and designers, including a young Rodney Brooks, who would go on to be director of that same institution.

In the book HAL’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality, Brooks describes the movie as “a revelation, because I grew up in a place without a lot of technology and I was really interested in AI and then to see that movie, it told me that there were other people in the world with the same sort of weird ideas that I had.” For Brooks, “the film really inspired me and pushed me to push my whole life towards Artificial Intelligence”.

Clarke also influenced the man who would go on to create the World Wide Web. In a 1997 interview with Time magazine, Tim Berners-Lee mentions a youthful fascination with Clarke’s 1964 short story Dial F for Frankenstein, where computers networked together pass a critical threshold and learn to think autonomously. In the interview, Berners-Lee makes it clear that he doesn’t see the web as the fulfilment of Clarke’s prophecy, but he does see it as having emergent properties with the potential to transform society – and 12 years later, he’s been proven right.

Full Article | PC Pro

Time-travelling browsers navigate the web’s past

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Finding old versions of web pages could become far simpler thanks to a “time-travelling” web browsing technology being pioneered at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Bookmarking a page takes you to its current version – but earlier ones are harder to find (to see an award-winning 1990s incarnation of newscientist.com, see our gallery of web pages past, right). One option is to visit a resource like the Internet Archive‘s Wayback Machine. There, you key in the URL of the site you want and are confronted with a matrix of years and dates for old pages that have been cached. Or, if you want to check how a Wikipedia page has evolved, you can hit the “history” tab on a page of interest and scroll through in an attempt to find the version of the page on the day you’re interested in.

It’s a lot of hassle. But it shoudn’t be, says Herbert Van de Sompel, a computer scientist at Los Alamos. “Today we treat the web like a library in which you have to know how to go and search for things. We’ve a better way.”

That “better way” is a system that gives browsers a “time-travel” mode, allowing users to find web pages from particular dates and times without having to navigate through archives.

Total recall

Called Memento, the system Van de Sompel is developing alongside colleagues from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, harnesses a function of the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) – the system which underpins the world wide web by defining how web pages are formatted and transmitted from servers to browsers.

One of HTTP’s standard functions is called content negotiation. This allows one URL to send multiple types of data, depending on the settings of the browser that contacts the URL: for instance, a browser in France accessing a URL may retrieve an HTML page in French, while accessing the same URL from the US may deliver an English version.

“Your browser does this negotiation all the time, but you don’t notice it,” says Van de Sompel. But HTTP content negotiation is not limited to arbitrating between media formats and languages – it can cope with any data type. So the team are adding another dimension to page requests: date and time.

“In addition to language and media type, we negotiate in time. So Memento asks the server not for today’s version of this page, but how it looked one year ago, for instance,” says Van de Sompel.

Browsing the past

Memento comprises both server and browser software. On a server running the open-source Apache web system, just four lines of extra code are needed to build in date-and-time negotiation. On the browser, a drop-down menu will let users enter the date and time for which they want to view a page.

So far, the team has developed a Memento plug-in for the open-source Firefox browser, plus a “hacked” version of Firefox with built-in Memento capability. Web pages need no extra features: the web server just needs to intercept the date-time requests of users. A demonstration of what Memento can do is available for any browser.

Of course, the whole idea requires website owners to store many more time-stamped versions of their pages than they do now, but the team think Memento will encourage them to do this.

“I would love to see Memento supported,” says Van de Sompel. “It would be such fun to set our browsers back in time and just browse the past.”

Dig deep

Jakob Voss, a developer with the Common Library Network in Göttingen, Germany, is an early Memento user – and he is already advocating use of Memento for sites with frequently updated pages like Wikipedia.

“Memento is only a proof of concept but it looks very promising and could be a great enhancement to the web. There is little support in today’s browsers for digging into archives, especially those with dynamic content management systems like wikis and weblogs,” Voss says.

“Tracking versions, and the provenance of web information, is becoming more and more important and Memento could help manage this complex task.”

He’s not alone in that view. Ian Jacobs, a spokesman for the World Wide Web Consortium in Boston, Massachusetts, agrees that “URL persistence” is a valuable aim – and that users should be able to browse the latest version of a page or one on a given date.

“The browser should allow the user to choose,” says Jacobs.

Van de Sompel is presenting the Memento technology today at a meeting of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

Source | New Scientist

The Methuselah Manifesto

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Los Angeles, California—If you’re under age 30, it is likely that you will be able to live as long as you want. That is, barring accidents and wars, you have centuries of healthy life ahead of you. So the participants in the Longevity Summit convened in Manhattan Beach, California, contend. Over the weekend Maximum Life Foundation president David Kekich gathered a group of scientists, entrepreneurs, and visionaries to meet for three days with the goal of developing a scientific and business strategy to make extreme human life extension a real possibility within a couple of decades. Kekich dubbed the effort the Manhattan Beach Project.

Tech entrepreneur and futurist Ray Kurzweil opened the conference with a virtual presentation on exponential technology trends that are bringing the prospect of achieving longevity escape velocity ever closer. “We are very close to the tipping point in human longevity,” asserted Kurzweil to the conferees. “We are about 15 years away from adding more than one year of longevity per year to remaining life expectancy.” This has been labeled by summiteer and life-extension guru Aubrey de Grey as longevity escape velocity. Achieving escape velocity, according to Kekich, would mean that “your projected day of reckoning moves further away from you rather than closing in on you.”

“Health and medicine will be a million times more powerful in 20 years,” Kurzweil declared. He predicted that the complexity of biology will yield to the exponential powers of applied information technology and take off. He cited Moore’s Law which predicts doubling of microchip functionality and halving their costs every two years. The decrease in cost and increase in speed of sequencing whole human genomes is outpacing even Moore’s Law. In 2000, the first genome was sequenced after 14 years and at a cost of $3 billion. Now various startups offer the potential to sequence an individual’s DNA for less than $100 in under an hour. The goal of the summit was to devise scientific and business strategies with the goal of demonstrating the capability to reverse aging in an older human being by 2029. By then, Kurzweil argued, people will be beginning their intimate merger with information technologies, biotechnologies, and nanotechnologies. Kurzweil, age 61, emphasized, “Something I am personally interested in is not just designer babies, but designer baby boomers.”

Source | Reason

SmartHand: Merging Mind and Machine

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

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Dubbed SmartHand, “the smart bio-adaptive hand prosthesis,” this intelligent artificial prosthetic hand mimics the movement of a real human hand and gives the wearer a true sensation of feeling and touch. Four electric motors and 40 sensors are directly linked to the brain and activated when a SmartHand touches an object. “I am using muscles which I haven’t used for years. I grab something hard, and then I can feel it in the fingertips, which is strange, as I don’t have them anymore. It’s amazing,” says Robin af Ekenstam of Sweden, the project’s first human wearer.

SmartHand is a highly innovative, interdisciplinary project, combining forefront research from material sciences, bio and information technologies with cognitive neuroscience. Drawing on the earlier work of The Artificial Hand Project (biocompatibility, recognition of bio-signals), Cyberhand (biomechatronics), and FreeHand (nerve recordings and stimulations), SmartHand is very much like the prosthetic hand that Luke Skywalker receives after his rescue from Cloud City — except lacking skin. While the prototype looks somewhat “robotic” now, SmartHand researchers plan to equip it with artificial skin in the future that will give the wearer’s brain even more tactile feedback. “Perfectly good nerve endings remain at the stem of a severed limb,” says Dr. Shacham-Diamand. “Our team is building the interface between the device and the nerves in the arm, connecting cognitive neuroscience with state-of-the-art information technologies.”

Source |  H+ Community

Honda CR-Z

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Although Honda still calls it a concept car, the CR-Z hybrid hatchback is slated for production early next year in Japan.

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The two-seater is powered by a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and has a six-speed manual transmission. [More]

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Honda EV-N

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

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Honda’s EV-N concept, which looks like a 21st-century version of the classic Honda N600 of the late 60s and early 70s, has a solar roof that charges the battery-powered motor, interchangeable seat fabrics, and a car-to-car communications system in the front bumper.

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The passenger-side door includes space for storing a Honda U3-X personal mobility vehicle. [More]

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The 10-kilogram (22-lb) U3-X is a self-balancing unicycle equipped with Honda’s state-of-the-art omni-directional wheel system.

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Using the latest in balancing technology obtained from Honda’s ASIMO robot, the U3-X is capable of detecting slight changes in weight shift and adjusting its directional path accordingly. By leaning, the rider can steer the U3-X forward, backward, side-to-side and diagonally, as seen in the video below.


Honda Skydeck

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Honda will debut the Skydeck concept, a six-passenger hybrid minivan featuring a strikingly odd combination of doors.

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The Skydeck is equipped with scissor doors up front and a sliding door on the side.

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Other features include an all-glass roof, translucent green wheels, and a minimalist interior with center-mounted floating seats.

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Honda Skydeck

Bigger Not Necessarily Better, When It Comes to Brains

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Tiny insects could be as intelligent as much bigger animals, despite only having a brain the size of a pinhead, say scientists at Queen Mary, University of London.

“Animals with bigger brains are not necessarily more intelligent,” according to Lars Chittka, Professor of Sensory and Behavioural Ecology at Queen Mary’s Research Centre for Psychology and University of Cambridge colleague, Jeremy Niven. This begs the important question: what are they for?

Research repeatedly shows how insects are capable of some intelligent behaviours scientists previously thought was unique to larger animals. Honeybees, for example, can count, categorise similar objects like dogs or human faces, understand ‘same’ and ‘different’, and differentiate between shapes that are symmetrical and asymmetrical.

“We know that body size is the single best way to predict an animal’s brain size,” explains Chittka, writing in the journal Current Biology. “However, contrary to popular belief, we can’t say that brain size predicts their capacity for intelligent behaviour.”

Differences in brain size between animals is extreme: a whale’s brain can weigh up to 9 kg (with over 200 billion nerve cells), and human brains vary between 1.25 kg and 1.45 kg (with an estimated 85 billion nerve cells). A honeybee’s brain weighs only 1 milligram and contains fewer than a million nerve cells.

While some increases in brain size do affect an animal’s capability for intelligent behaviour, many size differences only exist in a specific brain region. This is often seen in animals with highly developed senses (like sight or hearing) or an ability to make very precise movements. The size increase allows the brain to function in greater detail, finer resolution, higher sensitivity or greater precision: in other words, more of the same.

Research suggests that bigger animals may need bigger brains simply because there is more to control — for example they need to move bigger muscles and therefore need more and bigger nerves to move them.

Chittka says: “In bigger brains we often don’t find more complexity, just an endless repetition of the same neural circuits over and over. This might add detail to remembered images or sounds, but not add any degree of complexity. To use a computer analogy, bigger brains might in many cases be bigger hard drives, not necessarily better processors.”

This must mean that much ‘advanced’ thinking can actually be done with very limited neuron numbers. Computer modelling shows that even consciousness can be generated with very small neural circuits, which could in theory easily fit into an insect brain.

In fact, the models suggest that counting could be achieved with only a few hundred nerve cells and only a few thousand could be enough to generate consciousness. Engineers hope that this kind of research will lead to smarter computing with the ability to recognise human facial expressions and emotions.

Source | Science Daily

Keeping Pacemakers Safe from Hackers

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

Manufacturers have started adding wireless capabilities to many implantable medical devices, including pacemakers and cardioverter defibrillators. This allows doctors to access vital information and send commands to these devices quickly, but security researchers have raised concerns that it could also make them vulnerable to attack.

Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control have now developed a scheme for protecting implantable medical devices against wireless attacks. The approach relies on using ultrasound waves to determine the exact distance between a medical device and the wireless reader attempting to communicate with it.

The potential risks of enabling radio communication in implantable medical devices were first highlighted by Kevin Fu, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Tadayoshi Kohno, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Washington. They showed how to glean personal information from such a device, how to drain its batteries remotely, and how to make it malfunction in dangerous ways. The two researchers stress that the threat is minimal now, but argue that it is vital to find ways to protect wireless medical devices before malicious users discover and exploit vulnerabilities.

Since Fu and Kohno went public with their work, other researchers have begun looking for ways to address this problem. Claude Castelluccia, a senior research scientist at the French National Institute who was involved with designing the new access-control system, says that any scheme designed to protect medical devices has to balance preventing unauthorized access with ease of use for medical staff.

Castelluccia and his colleagues came up with the idea of restricting access to implantable medical devices depending on the physical proximity of the communicating device. Under their plan, a device will always be accessible from up to 10 meters away, and will normally enforce a series of authentication steps before allowing access. In an emergency, however, when the device detects that the patient using it is in trouble, it will grant access to anyone who is physically close to the patient (within about three centimeters).

Other researchers have suggested requiring wireless reading devices to be physically close to an implant in order to access it. But Castelluccia says that attackers can get around this by using a strong radio transmitter to mimic close proximity. To solve this issue, his plan calls for ultrasound waves to be used in addition to radio signals–the speed of sound allows the device to calculate with confidence how far away the reader is.

Castelluccia says the device only needs a microphone in order to detect the ultrasound and that he doesn’t expect the protocol to consume much power–a key concern with an implantable medical device because it’s hard to replace the battery. Because the device won’t respond to requests that come from outside the predetermined distance, it would also be harder for an attacker to wear down the battery by forcing it to process one request after another.

Kohno says the work being presented this week is promising, but argues that researchers have so far only scratched the surface of medical-device security. He argues that any solutions will require extensive testing in conjunction with medical professionals. “If for some reason this component had a problem, the consequences could be very serious,” he says.

But Castelluccia believes the protocol is mature enough to begin moving toward deployment. His group has built and tested a prototype system, and has patented the technology. It’s currently talking with manufacturers about developing a prototype.

Source | Technology Review

‘Power Loader’ exoskeleton suit

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

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Engineers from Activelink, a Kyoto-based subsidiary of Panasonic, are hoping to turn science fiction into reality with a powerful robotic exoskeleton suit that gives its operator superhuman strength.





The so-called “Power Loader” suit — which takes its name from the fictional hydraulic exoskeleton suit appearing in the sci-fi classic “Aliens” (1986) — is built on an aluminum-alloy frame and weighs 230 kilograms (500 lbs). Described as a “dual-arm power amplification robot,” the exoskeleton suit is currently equipped with 18 electromagnetic motors that enable the wearer to lift 100 kilograms (220 lbs) with little effort. In addition, the Power Loader’s simple, intuitive control system employs direct force feedback, allowing the operator to directly feel the movement of the robot while controlling it.

power_loader.jpgPower Loader exoskeleton suit in “Aliens”

Not unlike the film version of the suit, which was used for carrying cargo around on spaceships and colonies, the Power Loader is being created to help humans with heavy lifting, particularly in construction and disaster relief operations.

The Power Loader is still in the development phase, but Activelink plans to have a marketable version of the suit by the year 2015.

Mazda Kiyora

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

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Mazda plans to exhibit an updated version of the Kiyora, a compact and lightweight concept car first unveiled in 2008.

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Equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission, the new Kiyora is powered by a fuel-efficient 1.3-liter gasoline engine that gets up to 75 mpg with the help of regenerative braking, advanced aerodynamics and a system that shuts the engine off at stops.

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Source | The Car Connection

Toyota FT-EV II

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

 oyota will debut the FT-EV II, an ultra-compact electric vehicle.

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With a range of 90 kilometers (56 mi) and a top speed of around 100 kph (62 mph), the FT-EV II — which stands for “Future Toyota Electric Vehicle II” — is designed for short-distance urban driving.

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Despite the vehicle’s tiny size, there is seating for four inside. The designers were able to free up interior space by removing items found in traditional vehicles, such as the brake and acceleration pedals, which have been replaced by joystick controls. Other features include a dye-sensitized solar panel, electric sliding doors, and a retro-futuristic interior.

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By incorporating a variety of communications functions into the dashboard, Toyota aims to demonstrate how the electric vehicle might function as a powerful information device in the networked society of the future.

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In addition to connecting with navigation services, the FT-EV II can download music and movie content, make recommendations tailored to individual preferences, and communicate with the driver’s home network, thus allowing the driver cruise the information superhighway while tooling around town.

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Source | Autoblog Green