Computing Applications News track

News Track

  1. Who Gets the Last Word?
  2. Pay Up or Scram
  3. Smart Stepping
  4. China Follows Own Drummer
  5. Elusive E-Government
  6. In the Groove
  7. Author

Technology creates many legal quandaries in life, and now it appears, in death, too. While there is currently no case law involving legal access to a person’s data after that person dies, experts contend this situation must change as baby boomers—the first generation of widespread and regular computer users—grow older. The New York Times reports legal experts in estate and probate matters agree that anything stored on a computer is considered "intangible" property, meaning it is probably worth more than the tangible property it occupies: disk space on a computer. Estate executors and survivors are rarely left with passwords needed to access data; often opting to toss PCs before realizing what treasures they may contain. Lawyers point out that should a discarded computer end up in the wrong hands, and its contents tapped, the estate executor could be held responsible for its dissemination. To combat these growing estate dilemmas, a cottage industry of password crackers is emerging to help frenzied survivors. "Not having a simple password causes a lot of needless stress at exactly the wrong time," says Bob Weiss, president of Password Crackers, who charges $40 to open most files. Of course, once the data is obtained, there’s the legal matter of who actually owns it.

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Pay Up or Scram

Charge spammers for every message they send and the spam problem will disappear in a couple of years, say University of Michigan researchers who recently presented a proposal to the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Economics for such a system. EurekAlert reports the Attention Bond Mechanism (ABM) would have recipients and senders negotiate the terms of communication without third-party assistance. "The sender who believes his or her message is not spam is willing to put up that money—to risk it—to prove that if recipients read the email they will agree it is not spam," explained Marshall van Alstyne, assistant professor in the UM School of Information. The research team contends the technology needed to build the ABM system exists, although changes in the infrastructure and wiring are necessary. This anti-spam technology, they say, would enhance the quality of information exchange, as well as cut the costs that come with spam-clogged networks.

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Smart Stepping

Stakes in the highly competitive $15 billion sneaker market are about run in a new direction with the upcoming debut of a smart shoe able to sense, calculate, and adapt to its physical environment in real time. The new Adidas line, called 1, represents a giant step forward in wearable technology, reports the New York Times. A battery-powered sensor built atop the sneaker’s heel measures the magnetic field emitted by a magnet in the bottom of the heel approximately 1,000 times per second. A data logger in the shoe’s tongue transmits the information to an embedded 20MHz processor controlling the mechanical operation using a mathematical language developed by the Adidas team over a three-year period. The input prompts the sneaker to adjust itself to current conditions and the wearer’s needs as they occur. The sneakers have push-button controls, LEDs to display settings, and come packaged with a CD-ROM instruction manual. They should be in stores by December with a price tag of $250.

There are more opinions on privacy than there are U.S. citizens. There are people who want no information sharing but would be willing to be subjected to a great deal more physical scrutiny. There are people who want no physical scrutiny but would be willing to give up a lot of personal information to an airline."
—Nuala O’Connor Kelly, Chief Privacy Officer, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

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China Follows Own Drummer

Proliferating news reports paint China as a country bent on embracing the technology market on its own terms. In the standards domain, the Chinese market continues to shun established protocols, electing instead to create its own. Certainly the Chinese markets for DVDs, cell phones, and other mobile devices reflect this conviction. "Dependency on foreign technology and ease to escape it have been very important themes in modern Chinese history," says Richard P. Suttmeier, who studies China’s technology policy for the National Bureau of Asian Research, and who has described China’s current status in technology as fueling a kind of "techno-nationalism." China Daily reports the Ministry of Science and Technology plans to spend $1.3 billion to energize the country’s technology and research efforts. Still, demand in China has been limited to date and industry observers wonder if it’s worth the extra effort. "It’s a risky strategy," Suttmeier contends. "It could backfire."

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Elusive E-Government

Governments worldwide have invested heavily to provide citizens with a digital means for accessing services. However, a recent survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicates that despite leading-edge Web-based options, most U.S. and U.K. citizens still prefer old-fashion people skills like talking to someone on the phone. The study found only 18% of the respondents would use email to communicate with government offices. "In sum, e-gov is a helpful tool among several options for reaching out to government, but it is by no means the `killer app’ among them," the study concludes.

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In the Groove

When grad student Devin Balkcom decided to build an origami-making robot for his doctoral thesis, many in Carnegie-Mellon’s CS department—including his robotics professor—thought he would fold himself into a corner, ultimately without publishable results or a degree. But Balkcom is set to pick up that doctorate this month, having built a robot that can crank out paper airplanes and hats—a feat overcoming great odds in mathematical expression. Where humans use stereoscopic vision, hand dexterity, and sensory information from their fingertips to perform the intricate art of paper folding, a machine handles the task in a far different way. Pittsburgh’s Post Gazette reports Balkcom placed suction cups on a robotic arm to hold the paper and began the painstaking task of mathematically modeling the paper and folding instructions to the machine (for details, photos, and video of this work see Although the robot can produce simple origami shapes, Balkcom admits it would take "10 Ph.D.’s worth of work" to make a swan. Still, he and his once doubtful professor Matthew Mason contend robotic origami could potentially become a benchmark for measuring progress in the field of robotic manipulation, much as chess is for AI and the Grand Challenge desert race is for autonomous vehicle navigation.

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