Technology: December 2006 Archives

Robots? Windows? Help!

13 December 2006

I'm sure not whether to be very scared about Microsoft's plan to dominate the world of robotics software, or feel relieved. The press release that breathlessly introduces us to the glorious new world of robots - with control presumably wrestled from the grip of Far Eastern technocrats who want everybody to feel the cold metal embrace of in-home automatons - tells us about "surveillance robots that can defuse roadside bombs" and "robotic arms that perform surgeries" as well as "automatons that seek out and smash all forms of Macintosh computer". Sorry, I made that last bit up.

But it's hard to get over the fact that this is Microsoft we're talking about. The company that wrote the operating system that now powers many cash registers in shops - something I have recently become aware of after watching several crash in quick succession. Well, the crashes were quick. The reboots were the painful bits as the queues behind doubled in size.

You can imagine that bomb defusing robot getting to the blue wire, red wire decision suddenly discovering that two security updates and a new version of AntiBomb are now available - "You must restart now for these updates to take effect", as the LED counts down to the last five seconds.

The good news is that we need no longer fear an army of unstoppable Terminators bent on the destruction of the human race. Only bot-net armies reprogrammed by spammers to sell V!@gra door to door.

For years, the semiconductor industry has been under threat of consolidation as companies try to build enough scale to let them fund successive generations of high-integration devices. But the consolidation has failed to happen, much to the bemusement of analysts and other observers. It remains a process that is about to happen.
Wolfgang Ziebart, president of German chipmaker Infineon Technologies, pointed out at the recent Electronica trade show that the process is not likely to be a repeat of what happened in industries such as aluminium and steel. Instead specialists will form that dominate niches but are barely heard of outside their chosen markets. Weaker players will retreat from niches that they cannot control or influence rather than face price wars at the bottom of the market.

Polonium's smoky history

3 December 2006

It was going to happen eventually - that the latest polonium scare would end up being tied to a different kind of radiation scare 40 years in the past.

Like a lot of people after the death of Alexander Litvinenko, I did a bit of a Google to get more familiar with a poison that is "a trillion times more toxic than cyanide". I vaguely recalled how the Curies gave the element its name but little else. References to smoking and polonium kept popping up - but with very little evidence of what researchers had actually said.

Polonium in cigarette smoke is something that has popped up about every ten years since the publication of a paper in the journal Science in early 1964. It's strange because very little in the way of new work actually seems to drive the stories about polonium in smoke.

The problem with the story of polonium and smoke is similar to the problem people have today with assessing the risk of polonium on planes and in hotels and sushi bars. That word "significant" keeps coming up and in relation to tiny numbers. The trouble is, the inability to visualise what tiny numbers mean lead people to the wrong conclusions. You can see the logic that Proctor is applying. Litvinenko was poisoned by a tiny amount of polonium. There is a tiny amount of polonium in cigarette smoke. There is, in fact, a tiny amount of polonium in the food we eat. Oh crap. We're in trouble.

Only kidding: there is a yawning gap between the numbers involved.

It's Robert Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford University, who we can thank for raising the issue of polonium in tobacco once again. He wrote an opinion column, "Puffing on polonium", for the New York Times about a much larger source of polonium-210 than what is apparently available to shady hitmen. "The [tobacco] industry has been aware at least since the 1960s that cigarettes contain significant levels of polonium...about a quarter of a curie of one of the world’s most radioactive poisons is inhaled along with the tar, nicotine and cyanide of all the world’s cigarettes smoked each year. Pack-and-a-half smokers are dosed to the tune of about 300 chest X-rays," he wrote. It's that word "significant" again.