TRN's Top 10
The year 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
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
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
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
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
Making good on an old
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.
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,
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 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
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
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)
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
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
A new shape-shifting material also deserves mention.
It could bring about stents and sutures that automatically undo themselves
when immersed in water.
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
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 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
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