Computing Applications News track

News Track

  1. Flash in the Pan
  2. iPods Packing
  3. Athletic Harmony
  4. Hooking Big Phish
  5. Robotic Infusion
  6. Author
  7. Footnotes
  8. Sidebar: 10 Weirdest Computers

Researchers at IBM Almaden Research Center have demonstrated the feasibility of a class of data storage called racetrack memory that combines the data storage of a magnetic hard disk with the speed and strength of flash memory at relatively low cost. Technology Review reports that, unlike flash, racetrack memory would not degrade over time. A recent Science article depicted racetrack memory as an array of billions of nanowires on silicon. Each nanowire is able to hold hundreds of bits of data, encoded by changing the magnetic properties along the wire, thus creating a series of magnetic barriers called domain walls. In order to move the domain wall down the nanowire, the team uses principles from spintronics, injecting a small electrical current into the nanowire, causing the electrons in the current to become polarized so their spins are uniformly oriented, handing off the changes to the atoms in the wall. Team leader Stuart Parkin calls the effort a milestone in developing a prototype. While still in the early stages of research, racetrack memory is seen as an attractive replacement for both hard disks and flash memory, leading to smaller computers and extremely inexpensive memory for iPods and other portable devices that now rely on flash memory.

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iPods Packing

Researchers at Glasgow University in Scotland also claim a storage breakthrough that could see memory capacity of mobile devices like iPods increase astronomically. BBC News reports Lee Cronin and Malcolm Kadodwala, from the university’s chemistry department, have developed a molecule-size switch that could boost data storage without having to increase the size of the devices. The biggest iPod player today holds about 40,000 songs. New nanotechnology could theoretically allow users to store millions of video and music tracks. Indeed, the work could see 500,000GB squeezed onto a microchip. The microscopic switch—consisting of two clusters of molecules positioned just 32 millionths of a millimeter apart—allows scientists to easily manipulate an electrical field. By placing these switches on a gold or carbon surface, they could fit up to one billion transistors on a single chip. The technology could also be used in other electrical devices, such as DVD players, to increase memory and performance. Says Cronin: "The fact that these switches work on carbon means they could be embedded in plastic chips so silicon is not needed and the system becomes more flexible both physically and technologically."

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Athletic Harmony

A high-tech armband is helping athletes find their rhythm on the court by playing a special tune when they move their arms correctly. Technology Review reports that researchers at the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization in Victoria, Australia, developed the device as a training tool to improve a player’s skills. The "interactive throwing sleeve" includes two sensors at the wrist and elbow connected by thin conductive fibers. As the athlete shoots the ball the sleeve measures the position, velocity, and acceleration of the arm, then wirelessly transmits the data to a laptop for monitoring. Once the system is programmed correctly the armband tracks the player’s movements and plays the corresponding tones. The more the player uses the device the more he or she will begin to recognize the pattern of tones associated with a successful shot. The Australian Institute of Sport is working with the researchers to test the device on elite netball players (a sport similar to basketball and popular in the Caribbean, U.K., Australia, and elsewhere).

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Hooking Big Phish

An email scam targeting top executives in the U.S. is raising new alarms about the ease with which people and companies can be deceived by online criminals. The New York Times reports thousands of high-ranking executives received email messages that appear to be official subpoenas from the U.S. District Court in San Diego, CA. Each message included the executive’s name, company, and phone number, and commanded the recipient to appear before a grand jury in a civil case. A link embedded in the message purported to offer a copy of the entire subpoena, but any recipient opening the document would unwittingly download and install software that secretly recorded keystrokes and send the data to a remote computer allowing the criminals to capture passwords and other personal or corporate information. Another piece of software allowed the computer to be controlled remotely. According to researchers who have downloaded the file, less than 40% of commercial antivirus programs were able to recognize and intercept the attack. Security analysts contend the tactic of aiming at the rich and powerful with an online scam, called whaling (a play on phishing, as in big phish), is one they expect to see grow with disturbing results. The real danger, they say, is in the second level of deception, where digital credentials may be gleaned without the recipient’s knowledge. At press time, researchers examining the scam message claimed it probably originated in China. "If all the key players are in China," said one security expert, "there is not much the FBI can do."

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Robotic Infusion

Robots could fill the jobs of 3.5 million people in graying Japan by 2025, helping avert worker shortages as the country’s population shrinks. Japan faces a 16% reduction in the size of its work force by 2030, while the number of elderly increases greatly, according to government estimates. This scenario raises concerns about who will do the work in a country unaccustomed to, and to date unwilling to, consider large-scale immigration. The Machine Industry Memorial Foundation, a Japanese think tank, says robots ranging from micro-size capsules that detect lesions to high-tech vacuum cleaners can help fill the gaps. Rather than expecting each robot to replace one person, the foundation says robots could make time for people to focus on more important things. Japan could save about 2.1 trillion yen ($21 billion) of elderly insurance payments in 2025 by using robots that monitor the health of older people so they do not need to rely on human nursing care. Robotic devices can also alleviate housework and some childcare responsibilities.

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