Computing Applications News track

News Track

  1. Robot Run
  2. Top of the Flops
  3. Foresighted Driving
  4. 'Hits' Miss the Mark
  5. Super PCs
  6. Thinking Cap
  7. Author

A team of roboticists are using the lessons of 1930s physiologist Nikolai Bernstein to build the world’s fastest walking robot. BBC News reports Runbot, a self-learning, dynamic robot, is helping scientists unravel the mystery of walking. The small, bipod robot can move at speeds of more than three leg lengths per second, slightly slower than the fastest walking human. Bernstein claimed that animal movement was not under total control of the brain but rather "local circuits" did most of the command and control work. The brain gets involved in the process only when the understood parameters change, such as on uneven surfaces. Following this theory, a team of scientists from a variety of European labs built Runbot’s walking steps to be controlled by peripheral sensors on its joints and feet, as well as an accelerometer that monitors pitch. As the robot takes each step, control circuits ensure that joints are not overstretched and that the next step begins. Florentin Woegoetter, a professor at the University of Gottingen in Germany, explains the human gait cycle requires little brain input as we typically just fall forward. "We are propelling ourselves over and over again—like releasing a spring. In a robot, the difficulty lies in releasing the spring-like movement at the right moment in time—calculated in milliseconds—so that the robot does not fall forward and crash."

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Top of the Flops

IBM has devised a new Blue Gene supercomputer capable of processing more than three petaflops—a potential record. CNET News reports that Blue Gene/P is designed to continuously operate at more than one petaflop in real-world situations. This latest Blue Gene model marks a significant milestone in computing. Last November, the Blue Gene/L was ranked the most powerful computer in the world topping out at 280 teraflops. In other words, a Blue Gene/P operating at a petaflop is performing more operations than a stack of laptops 1.5 miles high. The "P" chip consists of four PowerPC 450 cores running at 850MHz each. A 2 x 2-foot circuit board containing 32 of these chips can churn out 435 billion operations per second. Thirty-two of these boards can be stuffed into a six-foot-high rack. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory will deploy the first Blue Gene/P in the U.S. later this year, as will the Max Planck Society and the Forchungszentrum Julich Research Centre in Germany.

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Foresighted Driving

Car manufacturers around the world are working on car-to-car communications technologies to help make driving safer. The aim of these future vehicles is to employ Wi-Fi technologies to allow neighboring cars to share details on speed, direction, and road conditions to create "foresighted driving." Moreover, the car-to-car communications will be successful only if systems work across all models and makes, reports BBC News. In Europe, BMW, GM, Volkswagon, and Audi are working together to create industry standards. The Car-to-Car Consortium combines three technologies: a GPS antenna, a wireless data system, and a computer that interprets the information it receives. The Wi-Fi system transmits and receives data to and from nearby cars, creating an ad hoc network. Data transmitted between the cars and the onboard computers can build a picture of road and traffic conditions based on information from multiple vehicles across a great distance. Drivers receive warnings through messages on in-car displays, audio alerts, and even seat vibrations. The next phase of this endeavor is a live trial in Frankfurt with 500 to 1,000 cars equipped with the latest technology ready for a test drive.

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‘Hits’ Miss the Mark

Nielsen/NetRatings, a leading online measurement service, will scrap rankings based on page views and begin tracking how long visitors spend at sites. This bold move comes as online video and new technologies increasingly make page views less meaningful, according to the Associated Press. Although Nielsen already measures average time spent and average number of sessions per visitor, it will start reporting total time spent and sessions for all visitors to give advertisers, investors, and analysts a broader picture of what sites are most popular. Yahoo Inc. and others increasingly use a software trick called Ajax to improve the user experience. It allows sites to update data automatically and continually, without users needing to pull up new pages. As a result, page views decline. Moreover, sites (such as AOL and YouTube) draw people to spend more time IMing and watching videos and less time moving site-to-site.

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Super PCs

A team of researchers from the University of Maryland introduced a prototype of what may be the next generation of PCs. Capable of computing speeds 100 times faster than current desktop models, the technology is based on parallel processing on a single chip. The prototype uses a circuit board about the size of an automobile license plate on which 64 parallel processors are mounted. To control these processors, a parallel computer organization has been developed that allows them to work together and make programming practical and simple for software developers. To increase awareness of this new technology, research team leader Uzi Vishkin is inviting the public to propose names for it. A name should reflect the features and aspirations of the new machine. The winner will receive a $500 cash prize and be credited with naming this technology. For more on the technology and the contest, visit The deadline for entries is Sept. 15, 2007.

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Thinking Cap

A brain-machine interface developed by Hitachi controls some electronic devices by reading brain activity. The Associated Press reports on a demonstration in which a journalist donned a cap of optical fibers that connect to a mapping device, which, in turn, linked to a toy train set via a control computer and motor. The reporter was asked to perform simple math calculations (in her head) or to sing a song (silently)—activities performed by the brain’s frontal cortex. By activating that region of the brain, the train moved forward; when the calculations stopped, so did the train. The optical topography that underlies the interface sends a small amount of infrared light through the brain’s surface to map changes in blood flow. Although such technology has traditionally focused on medical applications, Japan’s Hitachi and Honda Motors have been racing to refine the technology for a variety of commercial applications. Hitachi scientists are looking to develop a brain TV remote controller that would allow users to turn a set on/off or change channels simply by thinking about it. Honda is keen to apply the interface to intelligent, next-generation cars. Obstacles remain, however; a major one being how to move anything without wearing this cap.

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