In this issue: Rising fraud blamed on technology, synthetic fuel used for superjumbo, postgrads turning away from technology, CPU cores to create their own law, and more.

Core values to create their own law

By Paul Dempsey

A 'core's law' could succeed Moore's Law in determining computing performance, according to a panel at this year's International Solid State Circuits Conference.

Anant Agarwal, founder of multi-core processing specialist Tilera, directly transplanted the 18-month density-doubling in Moore's Law to core volumes. This would, he said, take the market to 4,096 cores by 2017.

However, Agarwal warned that this was more likely in embedded computing, with servers at 512 cores by 2017 and desktop computing at 128 cores. Today's server and PC chips in both spaces have four cores, although there are application-specific 64-core devices for embedded software.

Speaking for Gordon Moore's alma mater, Intel's director of microprocessor research Shekhar Borkar broadly agreed with Agarwal's numbers for servers at "256, possibly 512" but expects PCs to settle at 32 or 64 in ten year's time. Atsushi Hasegawa, general manager of the CPU core and IP division of Renesas Technology, bid 256 cores for servers, and Rick Hetherington, CTO of Micro-electronics at Sun Microsystems went for 128, but doubted that PCs would exist in a decade.

A key issue in determining how these views might translate into more specific performance metrics lies in a parallel debate as to whether on-chip cores will be homogenous (stamped out identically) or heterogeneous (different and optimised for particular functions/power consumption).

Agarwal described heterogeneous as "the wrong direction". "It flies in the face of the economics in software," he added, referring to problems programmers already face in turning code for today's devices.

However, Brad McCredie, chief engineer on IBM's Power7 series server chips, noted that multi-core R&D must respond to customers who demand more complex devices.

"The problem with chips for bigger data centres is that you are dealing with complex piles of goofy applications, and there's not much homogeneity to that to start with," he said.

Technology to blame for rising fraud

By David Sandham

Fraud in the UK appears to be rising, according to a new study, and technology is partly to blame. "Technology can allow the industrialisation of fraud," said Tim Scott-Smith, senior manager at KPMG Forensic, in an interview with 'E&T'.

Frauds previously carried out for small amounts of money are now being perpetrated for millions. Recently, 14,000 false self-assessment tax returns were submitted by 50 purported tax agents, in an attempt to obtain £34m.

"Technology also allows anonymity," said Scott-Smith. There has been a proliferation in VAT frauds, ID thefts and other forms of white collar crime, which now account for nearly 90 per cent of fraud by value, according to the KPMG study, the 'Fraud Barometer'. Over £1bn of fraud came to court in the UK in 2007, the highest value since 1995. 'Carousel fraud' (a type of VAT scam) on items such as mobile phones represents a substantial proportion of fraud.

"Technology allows you to commit old crimes in new ways," said Scott-Smith. "But technology can also help us fight fraud. Data analytics allows you to pick out anomalies." For example, suspicious patterns of purchases at retail outlets can be detected. One Northern Ireland man routinely removed barcodes on items in a hardware store and replaced them with his own false barcodes so that he paid less for them. He then sold the goods on eBay and made an estimated profit of £100,000 before he was finally caught.

In another case, a Manchester man attached an MP3 player to cash machines to steal customer details, a technique first used by gangs in Malaysia. This involves unplugging the line running from the cash machine to the wall socket, inserting a two-way adaptor, and placing the MP3 player between the cash machine's output cable and the wall socket. The MP3 player then records the tones emitted, which are interpreted using a modem line tap or special software.

Trust versus security 'a paradox of online banking'

Tighter security measures for online banking do not necessarily improve customers' sense of security, according to research by New Zealand's Massey University. If anything, the more identity-checking steps are imposed, the less trusting customers feel.

Information sciences resear-cher Kansi Zhang investigated whether increasing the number of steps preceding a transaction would affect customers' sense of trust and security. His experiment involved four mock registration pages similar to those used for actual online transactions. The first required completion of only two steps, with the other three requiring four, six, and eight steps.

Usability/user-friendliness is key to ensuring online customers feel their funds are safe, says the study's co-author Dr Hokyoung Ryu, from Massey's Centre for Mobile Computing. "People struggle to recall a baffling array of pin numbers, passwords and personalised questions," Ryu says. "They resented the time these steps took."

Most New Zealand banks require two security steps to access an account online, Rya adds. Banks in China, Japan, and Korea commonly demand up to eight steps. "In our systematic search on many online-banking systems across the world, the West seems to have fewer log-on steps compared to the East. We are not yet sure whether there is any cultural difference in the standardisation."

Ryu avers that customers are likely to switch banks if they find their online security measures too onerous. "Designers of online-banking systems seem obsessed about making their systems more secure with more log-in steps, but the customers see this process as highly unnecessary."

Mobile industry unites against child pornography

By David Sandham in Barcelona

Mobile industry leaders have formed an alliance to block access to child pornography on mobile phones, but they say the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Speaking at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, where the initiative was launched, Telenor executive vice president Morten Karlsen Sorby told 'E&T' that people accessing child pornography generally use the fixed-line Internet, "but I think the use of mobile broadband will reach that level", he said.

Telenor figures show that websites on a Norwegian child-abuse blacklist receive 15,000 hits a day (more than five million a year) over the fixed-line Internet, whereas the number of hits from mobile phones is 25,000 since 2005, the year that Norway set up a website filter for mobile phones.

Members of the Mobile Alliance against Child Sexual Abuse Content will take a variety of technical measures to block access to blacklisted sites. They will also share information and encourage customers to report abuse. However, the blocking of websites is not likely to be foolproof. "If someone is really intent on getting through the filters then that is possible," said Sorby.

Moreover, tighter rules in some countries could merely drive criminals to others where controls are weaker. "The criminals move the content from country to country to keep it available on the Internet," said Boris Nemsic, CEO of Telekom Austria.

Dr Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the ITU, the United Nations body, commented: "The criminal in cyberspace is not committing new crimes, but the same crimes at a larger scale and at a higher speed. And he no longer needs to be at the scene of the crime. We need to ensure there is no single spot on earth where criminals can be free."

The ITU is to ask its members to introduce conditions against child pornography into national mobile phone licences.

However, users will look for ways to bypass controls, warned Samu Konttinen, vice president of the mobile solutions business unit at F-Secure. "If the Internet Service Providers had been capable of stopping child pornography they would have stopped it already," he said.

Watchdog clears Razr 2 ads

The UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has decided not to uphold complaints received against Motorola which claimed the mobile phone company's RAZR 2 campaign glamorised knife-related violence.

In its defence, Motorola said the campaign featured highly stylised fantasy characters engaged in energised, fluid dance movements, rather than confrontation, and that the images clearly presented the characters as existing within a fantasy world.

Motorola added that the marketing messages for the RAZR phone related to its 'razor' thinness and the fact that it was on the cutting edge of technology.

The ASA disagreed with Motorola that the ads made no reference to knives. "Although no direct reference was made, the intended link that the product resembled a razor, a knife-like object, was clear," it said. However, the watchdog concluded that the ads were not irresponsible and were unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.

Academy for bright sparks

By Mark Langdon

Six UK companies have set up an academy to encourage students to study within the field of electrical energy engineering. The E3 Academy will offer participating students the opportunity of an intensive support programme throughout their studies.

GE Aviation, Converteam, Siemens, Cummins Generator Technologies, Control Techniques and Parker SSD are all backing the initiative, which is endorsed by the Institution of Engineering and Technology. It aims to address the skills shortage in industrial automation, following a similar model to the Power Academy for power engineering.

Sponsoring companies provide not only financial support, in the form of bursaries worth £2,500 (2007-8 rate) for each year of study, but also eight weeks of paid summer vacation training.

There will also be Academy events, such as a summer school, where the students can become acquainted with the electrical energy engineering community.

The E3 Academy is solely for students applying to study for degrees at the Schools of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the Universities of Nottingham or Newcastle that will cover energy conversion, power electronics, machines and generators, electrical drives and control engineering. Principal applications are in aerospace, automotive, marine, industrial manufacturing, renewable energies, and process and utility industries.

Bob Owen, who represents Siemens at the E3 Academy, explained why the company decided to get involved. "Siemens Automation and Drives, in common with others in this industry, has noticed the ongoing decline of young people going into electrical and electronic engineering," he said.

"There is a trend that fewer people are doing maths and sciences at A Level, and for engineering, you need qualifications in maths and science.

"We have been thinking about how we secure the future of the company. We were asked whether we would be interested in forming a partnership to create an industrial version of the Power Academy and we realised that a lot could be gained by forming an alliance with other competitors as we all have the same problems."

Siemens' aim is to provide a system, similar to that provided by Power Academy, whereby from a position of strength it could project a picture of good, healthy careers in the industrial automation marketplace.

A smart tutor at your chld's bedside

Patients at Sheffield Children's NHS Foundation Trust are using smart bedside terminals to keep up with their schoolwork during long stays in hospital. The JAOtech Obie platforms can be configured to provide access to the hospital's education service, while computing facilities enable children and young people to maintain and develop ICT skills. The multifunction units give medical staff access to records and diagnostic images, and are specifically designed for sterile environments.

Entertainment (radio, TV, Internet) and communication with the outside world (telephony) is also provided free-of-charge to patients, their families and friends. Services are funded by the hospital's charitable trust.

Yahoo aims to make mobile phones more socially aware

As delegates at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona ogled demonstration phones running Google´s new operating system, called Android, rival Yahoo fought back by launching oneConnect, a socially-aware address book for mobiles.

OneConnect aggregates all a user's messages and contacts in one socially-connected address book. They can switch from email to SMS during a conversation. They can see when their friends arrived, where they are now on a map, and what they last posted to Flickr or Facebook. OneConnect will also let its users know who else, even outside the current groups of friends, is in the vicinty.

"Privacy is of utmost concern," said Marco Boerries, executive vice president of Yahoo´s Connected Life Division. "Everything is for users to opt in. By default you are invisible." He said that a combination of GPS, mobile base station triangulation, and Bluetooth would be used to make the location services work.

Yahoo hopes to make money from oneConnect by selling advertising. It plans to promote the service to consumers in the spring.

Faster flash unveiled

By Paul Dempsey

The technology partner-ship between Toshiba and SanDisk used ISSCC to unveil a trio of flash memory technologies that will feed the apparently insatiable hunger of the portable device market.

They have developed the first NAND flash memories with 3bit/cell density, confirmed that they are moving production of 2bit/cell devices to a more cost-effective 43nm manufacturing process, and released details of an all-bit-line programming technology that allows multi-level flash chips to be programmed as quickly as single-level ones. Cheap, high-performance, high-capacity flash is becoming increasingly important to the consumer electronics market as the handheld player graduates from being a music device to incorporating video and gaming, and also to being integrated on phones.

SanDisk CEO Eli Harari said products that incorporate all three innovations will be available by the year end.

Intel innovations

By Paul Dempsey

Intel's two-billion transistor Itanium (Tukwila) server chip stole much attention at ISSCC by virtue of its sheer scale, but two other announcements offer clearer indications of the chip giant's future direction.

First was the Silverthorne chip aimed at what Intel calls the "mobile Internet device" (MID) space, a notch above today's smartphones. It is a highly power-efficient implementation of a traditional x86 architecture.

Some performance is sacrificed by having the chip execute commands in-order rather than out-of-order with the whole instruction being reassembled thereafter. However, this gives Silverthorne a 'typical' power rating of 0.6-2.0W, and it also features a new ultra-low-power mode (C6) at far below this range. C6 allows it to store certain application states while shutting down virtually everything else.

The second innovation, announced with STMicroelectronics, was the first phase-change memory test chip. This technology is based on switching the storage material between crystalline and non- crystalline states – the Intel-ST version uses chalcogenides.

It is touted as a replacement for NOR-type flash when it reaches physical manufacturing limits in three to five years. The new part has 128Mbit capacity and was manufactured in a 90nm process.

Speedy downloads on the horizon

By Paul Dempsey

Downloading HD movies and other multi-gigabyte content in a matter of minutes could become a reality far sooner than had been expected, thanks to an innovative chip unveiled at ISSCC by NEC.

The performance of existing fibre-optic networks can drop significantly because of random waveform distortion resulting from environmental conditions. Typically, networks suffer most in winter, and the problem is already being seen on 10Gbit/s systems.

NEC's prototype LSI chip has a waveform monitor, decision point detector and proprietary data recovery circuit that counter such distortion, even in 40Gbit/s networks. The company says the technology will scale to 100Gbit/s.

The important economic factor underpinning NEC's work is that it enables the use of existing cable when operators upgrade head-end equipment to reach higher speeds.

The cost of overbuilding networks with cable that is less susceptible to distortion had been seen as a major obstacle to higher transmission rates, and has led to forecasts that 40Gbit/s – and certainly 100Gbit/s – are a decade away from the mass market. NEC says that a production version of its chip could be available later this year.

Postgrads turning away from technology

By Dominic Lenton

The UK's position as a leader in world higher education is under threat, warns a Royal Society report, as universities are failing to increase the number of engineering PhDs they award at a time when doctorates in other subjects are growing rapidly.

The study found that engineering and technology now represents only 5.7 per cent of PhD graduates, compared with 9.3 per cent in 1998. According to 'A Higher Degree of Concern', universities and the government should consider reducing course fees and introducing more bursaries if they are to stave off an impending skills gap.

Based on its analysis of figures produced by the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency, the Royal Society claims that although doctoral degrees increased by 79 per cent between 1995 and 2005, with many students coming from overseas, physics, chemistry and engineering have not benefited.

Physical and mathematical sciences have grown at slightly below average rates, engineering remained static, and chemistry and physics declined significantly. In comparison, biological sciences including psychology and sport sciences have enjoyed spectacular growth.

The report follows a 2006 review of undergraduate degrees.

The Royal Society working group was chaired by Professor Judith Howard, a crystallographer at the University of Durham who has established a centre of expertise to study molecular structures using X-ray diffraction techniques. Howard believes that while the UK is successful in terms of the overall number of people studying and the income generated for universities, the country's skills base is still well behind its competitors.

"The technological breakthroughs that are required to keep us competitive will come from our labs, but only if they have enough people with the best education and skills," said Howard. "Any investment now will pay dividends in the long-term."

Financial support through cheaper courses and bigger grants is just one of the report's recommendations. It also suggests that the UK should allow a norm of eight years from starting as an undergraduate to finishing with a PhD, with flexibility of time- scales and mode of study to suit students and the subject matter. There should also be a national strategy for funding.

The Royal Academy of Engineering welcomed the report, saying it echoed concerns the Academy raised more than five years ago that new engineering graduates were faced with a choice between low academic pay and far higher starting salaries in industry and commerce.

Copper aims for solder's socket

Researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology believe they have found a way to improve the connections between chips and boards, by using copper instead of solder.

Although highly conductive copper is used throughout printed circuit boards and in many chips for wiring, the link between the two is normally made using some kind of solder. Since the prohibition of lead-based solders in Europe and Japan, manufacturers have faced a range of reliability issues on their replacements.

Professor Paul Kohl of Georgia Tech said replacing solder-ball connections with copper pillars gives the ability to create more connections.

With funding from the Semi- conductor Research Corporation (SRC), Kohl and graduate student Tyler Osborn have developed a novel fabrication method to create all-copper connections through a process of plating and annealing.

The researchers have been working with Texas Instruments, Intel and Applied Materials to test their technology.

A phone to please any pocket

Product designers have developed a feature-rich 3G smartphone that is likely to cost less than $100, a fraction of the cost of similar devices, putting it in the price bracket of users in emerging markets and the developing world.

The prototype, which has been developed jointly by NXP Semiconductors and Purple Labs, is likely to be available in approximately 18 months, claimed an NXP spokesperson.

The Purple Magic reference phone is based on the NXP Nexperia Cellular System Solution 7210 for 3G, coupled with the Purple Labs Linux suite.

"During the recent holiday period, mobile operators were purchasing entry-level 3G phones for $120 to $145," said Simon Wilkinson, CEO of Purple Labs, who claimed that his smartphone will sell at a transfer price below $100.

Typically, a smartphone is built around two or more processors, with one dedicated to core functions such as voice and network connectivity and others used to control the various PDA and feature-rich applications.

The Purple Magic runs on a single ARM926 processor which Michel Windal, NXP's business development director, claims will be able to handle all the functions of a smartphone without diminishing quality.

Steven Hartley, senior analyst at Ovum Research, believes that the phone would sell well in the technology-savvy emerging markets of India and China, but would be far more difficult to market in the most deprived regions of the world.

"$100 is a hefty chunk out of the salary in sub-Saharan Africa where GDP per capita is the poorest," commented Hartley, adding that these markets would find little use for the 3G technologies where the network has still to be built out.

Hartley believes that any smartphone would have to build on the capabilities of the existing 2G networks and perhaps add to them with mesh networking capabilities.

Can science mobilise the swing vote?

By Paul Dempsey

Meet Karl Rove, aka 'Bush's brain', the Republican mastermind behind his party's last two presidential victories. His strategy was to reject the notion that the unaffiliated 'swing' vote wins elections. Instead, Rove sought a "permanent Repub-lican majority", built on a coalition of economic conservatives, so-called 'Reagan Democrats' ("my heart's on the left, but my wallet's on the right"), libertarians, and religious evangelicals.

The consensus today is that Rove failed, after his party's meltdown in the last election. But his approach has changed campaigning. It exploited 'wedge' issues and used them to cement loyalties. It fell short for two obvious reasons and a third we'll address later. First, Rove could not deliver enough new Republicans. Second, his rejection of one electoral fundamental eventually foundered on another: "It's the economy, stupid!"

So where does science fit in? In one key regard, it was Rove's favourite whipping boy. Evolution vs. intelligent design. Climate change vs. the US rejection of Kyoto. There is as much anger in the US science community today as there was among the evangelicals Rove targetted when he set up those confrontations. Ignoring that was the third flaw in the battleplan.

Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), has already linked frustration over trade and technology policy to US economic woes (E&T, Vol 3 #1). Now, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has entered the fray, joining other associations representing practitioners and academia to undertake coordinated lobbying during the election. Two early features of this programme are a website and a call for a debate.

The website describes the contenders' technology policies. Given the AAAS's non-partisan remit, it has three objectives. Let the politicians know we are watching. Give the science community independent information so members can make informed choices. Inform and alert the media.

It does this largely by making the connection between science and the economy, based around five related themes: competitiveness and innovation; education and the workforce; healthcare; energy and the environment; and security. "We looked at the issues that were already part of the discussion and decided that it was best to make our ground there," explained Joanne Carney, director of the association's Centre for Science, Technology and Congress and leader of its online effort.

ScienceDebate2008 wants the final Republican and Democratic candidates to expose themselves to detailed probing on their proposals for the technology economy.

The funds available to the AAAS look minuscule, but other examples suggest you can do a lot with very little. Consider candidate Ron Paul.

The only Republican contender to oppose the Iraq war, Paul also attracts independents with laissez-faire economic policies. This combination has seen him raise millions of dollars while receiving just 3-5 per cent of the primary vote. His support includes a large, motivated Silicon Valley fan club.

The swing vote still exists and maybe 'science' can establish itself as a crucial slice of it. [new window]

Superjumbo makes test flight with synthetic fuel

By Bob Cervi

Airbus has completed the world's first commercial-aircraft flight using a liquid fuel processed from gas.

An A380 aircraft flew from the manufacturing centre at Filton, UK, to Airbus's headquarters in Toulouse, France, as the first stage of a programme to evaluate the environmental impact of alternative fuels in the airline market.

During the flight, one of the plane's four engines was fed with a blend of the GTL ('gas to liquids') synthetic fuel and conventional jet fuel. The remaining three were fed with standard jet fuel.

The aim of the programme is to look at the feasibility and potential benefits of using GTL synthetic jet fuels. GTL is a technology that takes natural gas and converts it to liquid kerosene.

The properties of GTL kerosene are largely similar to conventional jet fuel, making it a 'drop in' replacement for conventional kerosene, capable of being used in today's aero-engines, aircraft and airports, but it contains less sulphur.

The focus of the research will be on evaluating potential improvements in local air quality, fuel economy and overall reduction in CO2 and other emissions. Specific studies will also look at operational benefits for airlines, such as enhanced payload-range, reduced fuel-burn and increased engine durability.

Airbus said that testing GTL today will support future second-generation biofuels, which are not currently available in sufficient commercial quantities. The company will study viable second generation biofuels when they become available.

The A380 is powered by Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines. Shell International Petroleum provided the fuel, which was manufactured in Malaysia. The tests are running in parallel to the agreement signed in November 2007 with the Qatar GTL consortium partners and the results will be shared.

Sjoerd Post, vice president of Shell Aviation, said: "We are pleased to have successfully completed this flight, which will pave the way for approval of synthetic jet fuel in the future, we are proud to be part of this consortium which is exploring cleaner fuels for the aviation industry."

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