TRN's Top 10 Stories

July 13/20, 2005
The first half of 2005 was an exciting time for science and technology. TRN's top 10 picks encompass a wide range of technologies, from robotics to tissue engineering to natural language understanding.

The top 10 stories include a digital camera that sees the backs of objects, a video system that tracks desktop papers, robots that walk like humans, DNA that forms fractals, a machine that reproduces, human tissue grown complete with blood vessels, microscopic wires that route light signals, software that turns English to programming code, software that gives descriptive directions, and a system that makes videoconferencing seem more like being there.

These breakthroughs advance computer vision, humanoid robotics, computer understanding of human languages, self-assembly at the nanoscale and at the visible scale, tissue engineering, the next generation of optics, and videoconferencing.

Making machines to do the dirty work

Computer vision, natural language processing and humanoid robotics are all about making machines more like people with the goal of handing off tedious, dangerous and dirty jobs to machines.

Although computer vision is already widely used in assembly lines for pattern recognition tasks, researchers are still refining the basic capabilities of detecting objects and tracking motion.

Natural language processing, which is one of the cornerstones of artificial intelligence, has proven to be a tremendously difficult challenge, but scientists are harvesting useful technologies along the way to creating machines that understand language.

These two abilities would go a long way toward enabling humanoid robots that could work side-by-side with humans. The first robots of this type are likely to be models developed for specific tasks like assisting the elderly, and could emerge in the next five to ten years.

Making materials and robots that self-assemble

Self-assembly and tissue engineering are about copying nature at a more basic level -- how things grow and form. Self-assembly is a broad concept that promises to enable molecular-sized machines, robots that build themselves, and ways of growing replacement parts for humans.

Self-assembly is a key strategy for nanotechnology because it promises to make it easier to construct things at the size-scale of molecules. It is also a key strategy in building machines at the visible scale that repair and reconfigure themselves. And tissue engineering, which involves guiding nature in growing replacement parts for humans, could become a significant part of the medical tool kit in the next decade.

Nanowires are poised to become a fundamental building block of important technologies like computer chips and chemical sensors. Scientists have gotten good at growing nanowires; the main barrier to their widespread use is finding ways to control them so they can be arranged and positioned in bulk to enable practical manufacturing methods.

Making good on an old promise

Videoconferencing is a decades-old, seemingly simple idea that has struggled to live up to its potential. Advances in computer vision, projectors and screens promise to realize the dream of making videoconferencing a common and relatively lifelike experience.

Computer Vision

Advances in computer vision and image processing enable a pair of different areas: making machines that see as well as humans do, and making machines that see in ways humans can't.

In the realm of seeing in ways that humans can't, a camera that can pull off a classic magic trick -- reading a playing card facing away from the camera -- has advanced efforts aimed at collecting all of the visual information about a scene by sensing light scattered off objects within it.

The project, in addition to enabling the impressive card trick, combines a digital camera and a digital projector to show a scene from the point of view of the projector as well as that of the camera. The advances are a step toward using a camera to collect enough information to create views of a scene from any angle under any lighting condition. (Camera sees behind objects, TRN June 1/8, 2005)

Another advance gives computers the relatively simple ability -- for humans -- to glance at a desk top and recognize the printed documents lying on it. Combining this with computers' traditional strong suit of file management results in a system that can answer questions like Where is the third quarter budget report? with the information that the report is in the right hand pile four pages down. (Video organizes paper, TRN January 12/19, 2005)

Humanoid Robotics

Humanoid robotics is one of the most ambitious fields in technology research because it involves replicating human abilities to see, hear, walk and grasp objects -- abilities that evolved over millions of years. Most of this work involves complicated science and tricky engineering.

Several recent advances in bipedal locomotion, however, are quite simple. Three teams of researchers have built walking robots whose knees are unpowered. The robots resemble human skeletons and take advantage of the skeleton's lead role in our ability to walk. (Humanoid robots walk naturally, TRN February 23/March 2, 2005)

In a development that deserves mention, researchers have given a bipedal robot the ability to run in a remarkably human-like fashion.

Self-Assembly

Self-assembly is among the most common processes in the natural world. In the context of technology, self-assembly is the practice of harnessing natural forces to cause objects to assemble themselves into useful configurations.

The champion of self-assembly is DNA, the molecule that encodes the instructions for making the proteins that control life's processes. Researchers have been using DNA to self-assemble various structures and devices for several years.

In a recent project, scientists made short strands of artificial DNA spontaneously assemble into a fractal pattern known as a Sierpinski triangle. The work demonstrated that theoretically possible to program DNA to carry out any type of computation and nanoscale fabrication. (Programmed DNA forms fractal, TRN April 6/13, 2005)

A related development that deserves mention is a DNA machine that links molecules, opening a route to making sophisticated materials molecule-by-molecule.

Related to the notion of self-assembly are machines that reproduce, reconfigure and repair themselves. In a significant milestone, researchers developed simple modular robots that reproduce themselves. The robots consist of cubes that can rotate on a diagonal axis and attach to each other. Given a supply of the cubes in the right places, a machine can assemble a copy of itself, which in turn can go on to assemble another copy, which in turn can assemble another... (Machine reproduces itself, TRN May 18/25, 2005)

Tissue Engineering

A long-standing dream of biotechnology researchers is the ability to grow replacement organs. One of the main challenges to growing replacement organs is finding ways to get blood vessels to form inside the tissue before it is placed inside the body.

Researchers have brought tissue engineering a significant step forward with a method for growing muscle tissue that contains blood vessels. They also showed that tissue grown using the method survives better in mice and rats than tissue formed using previous techniques.

The key to the breakthrough was seeding several types of cells on a three-dimensional scaffold to form skeletal muscle tissue. (Cell combo yields blood vessels, TRN June 29/July 6, 2005)

Cells also feature prominently in a biochip development that deserves mention: a sensor that measures changes in the size of cells, including human cancer cells and bacteria, in order to quickly gauge the cells' reactions to changes in their environment like anticancer drugs.

A new shape-shifting material also deserves mention. It could bring about stents and sutures that automatically undo themselves when immersed in water.

Nanowires

Nanowires have been around for a few years now, and they hold a lot of promise for making the smallest, and thus fastest, of electronic circuits. One of the latest developments in nanowires demonstrates that these tiny circuits also have a lot of potential as optical circuits for high-speed communications devices and eventually ultrafast all-optical computer chips.

One nanowires breakthrough has proved that nanowires and nanoribbons are efficient at transmitting light even though they are narrower than the wavelengths involved, and that light pulses can be routed through networks of nanowires and filtered by color through nanowires of different diameters. (Nanowire networks route light, TRN June 29/July 6, 2005)

Other nanowire developments that deserve mention include ring oscillator circuits made from nanowires and a nanoscale motor from two droplets of liquid metal and a carbon nanotube. Ring oscillators consist of a set of interconnected transistors, and constitute simple computer circuits.

Natural Language Processing

Natural language processing research encompasses the long-term goal of giving computers the ability to understand language and shorter-term projects aimed at building tools that interpret and/or generate natural language for specific tasks.

One area of atoms research focuses on converting natural language to computer code in order to allow nonprogrammers to write software. A key development in the field is a tool that converts English to an outline of a software program. The tool could be used to make rough drafts of programming projects and to help teach programming. (Tool turns English into code outline, TRN March 23/30, 2005)

Another advance is software that turns data into understandable language. The tool generates walking directions between two chosen points. It identifies landmarks and uses phrases like "turn right at the end of the hallway" and "when you enter the lobby, turn left" rather than giving directions based on distances.

(Software gives descriptive directions, TRN February 23/March 2, 2005)

There are four developments that deserve mention in the related field of speech recognition systems: an interactive voice system that switches among multiple topics, a database of common sense knowledge that improves speech recognition, a system that taps natural language processing techniques to organize email messages by task, and a smart computer clipboard that identifies the type of data copied and automatically formats it.

Videoconferencing

Videoconferencing is a wonderful extension of the telephone because it allows you to look the other person in the eye -- in theory. Though one-to-one video connections work pretty well, group video conferences often produce confusing experiences that make it difficult to tell who is looking at whom.

A videoconferencing system that uses projectors and a special screen that reflects light rays back in the direction they came from gives each participant in a conference a unique view and provides a more realistic experience of sitting across the table from the remote parties. (Conference system makes shared space, TRN May 18/25, 2005)

Energy and light

Developments in other areas of research that deserve mention include an all-silicon laser built into a chip. The silicon laser makes it easier to integrate light sources into computer chips, which promises smaller and cheaper high-speed communications devices.

A pair of clean energy advances are also worthy of mention. A spray-on material that harvests infrared light could lead to cheap solar cells that can be painted onto surfaces. And titanium dioxide nanotubes that serve as a catalyst for extracting hydrogen from water using sunlight could make a clean method of generating hydrogen fuel more practical.


Page One

Stories:
TRNís Top 10 Stories
Letter to Readers

Briefs:
Invisible ink is rewritable
Light powers biochip gears
Self-assembly goes around bends
Magnetics drives particle patterns

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