Computing Applications News track

News Track

  1. Sniffing Out Trouble
  2. Home Improvements
  3. Patent Number 977
  4. On the Nose
  5. Take a Number
  6. Sick Thoughts
  7. Author

Six airports in the U.S are currently beta sites for the latest in checkpoint security. A $150,000 high-tech detection portal called the Ionscan Sentinel II can identify traces of more than 40 types of explosives and related chemicals, as well as over 40 types of narcotics. Here’s how it works: A traveler steps into the portal where gusts of air shake loose particles from clothing and skin. Intake vents suck in the particles and vapors, which are analyzed in 4–6 seconds; its computer displays the results as a red or green light. Another nine airports will be testing the system within the year, as will nuclear facilities and popular tourist sites worldwide. Transportation Security Administrative spokesperson Mark Hatfield says the results from the beta sites have been so encouraging, he expects the systems to be deployed on a fairly routine basis within the next few years: "This is really part of the checkpoint of the future."

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Home Improvements

The use of household robots to vacuum, mow lawns, and manage an array of chores is expected to surge sevenfold by 2007, according to the annual United Nations World Robotics survey. The latest such report noted that 607,000 automated domestic helpers were in use by the end of 2003; two-thirds of them purchased that same year. Most (570,000) were robotic lawnmowers. In the next two years, however, some 4.1 million domestic robots will likely be in use. Mowers are still expected to dominate, but look for sales of window-washing and pool-cleaning bots to soar. Industrial robots are also recovering from a three-year slump. In the first half of 2004, business orders for robots were up 18%, mostly in Asia and North America. The Associated Press reports Japan remains the most robotized economy, followed by the European Union countries, primarily Germany, Italy, and France. Robots are also flourishing in wealthier developing countries including, Brazil, China, and Mexico, spurred by plummeting prices.

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Patent Number 977

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has established a registration category for nanotechnology inventions. The New York Times reports the patent office’s decision to set up Class 977, as the new category is called, is evidence that a swarm of nanoscale inventions is in the offing. The patent office’s definition requires that at least one dimension of an invention be less than 100 nanometers, but being small alone does not a nano product make. Indeed, the nanoscale element must be critical to whatever properties make the invention unique. "People looking for venture capital money will call anything small `nanotechnology’," says Bruce Kisliuk, coordinator of 977 matters. The patent office is familiar with the complexity of assessing claims of innovation in ways that do not match how examiners are accustomed to categorizing them. Nanotechnology, however, brings that complexity to a whole new scale and spans so many different fields of science that fears of overlapping concepts and relevant claims of patentability will be a challenge to pinpoint.

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On the Nose

A computer vision scientist at the National Research Council of Canada made headlines a couple of months ago with the introduction of the nouse—a system that allows for cursor control by tracking the tip of the user’s nose. Researchers over the years have explored several methods for tracking facial and eye movements, including Dmitry Gorodnichy, whose latest effort zeroed in on the nose because of its convenient location on the face (from a computer-vision standpoint). Gorodnichy’s team focused on using one camera, a basic ($25) computer Webcam, and wrote the software to track the nose with precision, despite the resolution issues that come with a bargain camera. The eyes are also used to turn the system on and off (by double-blinking). The nouse system "will not replace the mouse. It’s to add extra features to the computer," its inventor told the New York Times. Gorodnichy expects the first nouse application to be in a system for hospital patients who are largely paralyzed. With the software and an appropriate camera, he foresees these patients being able to summon help on their own. For more on the project, visit

"This is very significant. Spam may not go away, but if you’re caught, you will go to prison."
—Lisa Hick-Thomas, senior assistant district attorney of Virginia, where the first felony prosecution of spammers in the U.S. resulted in a jury’s conviction of the three defendants.

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Take a Number

Millions of U.S. federal employees, and millions more U.S. citizens, are on alert over a new report by the Government Accountability Office saying Social Security numbers are more vulnerable than ever to identity theft. The Washington Post reports that despite warnings by security experts over the years not to employ the nine-digit SSNs for identification purposes, the numbers today appear on 42 million Medicare cards, as well as on millions of government employee ID cards and federal employee health insurance cards. The numbers were also found accessible in public records held by 41 states and the District of Columbia. Moreover, more than 75% of counties, representing about 94% of the U.S. population, collect at least one public record that shows SSNs, according to the GAO. "These things are posted all over the place, and it’s a huge problem with identity theft," says Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R-FL, author of a bill to impose new restrictions of the use of SSNs. "The more attention we bring to this matter, the more pressure there will be for Congress to limit the use of it further."

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Sick Thoughts

A new study from University College London found that people who use the Web to get information about their chronic diseases often wind up in worse physical shape, reports Time magazine. Researchers reviewed 28 studies involving more than 4,000 patients, all experiencing some ongoing illness, such as asthma, cancer, or diabetes. They found Web-based health programs and chat rooms offered patients social support but had a striking negative effect on health outcomes. Researchers speculate that patients become so overwhelmed with information, they make their own treatment decisions, often ignoring their doctors’ advice. Moreover, the unfavorable consequences of their behavior (like stopping medication) may not become obvious until it’s too late.

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