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Jun. 3, 2002/Vol. 159 No. 22

Tech Watch
A world of innovation 


DANIEL NORMAN/EASTWING for TIME



ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
A Room with a Mind of Its Own

Machines with sinister minds of their own have been standard fare in popular sci-fi chillers like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stephen King's bestseller Christine. But the fiction behind these devices is rapidly becoming fact, and Ada — a room-sized artificial intelligence system on show at the 2002 Swiss National Exhibition in Neuchâtel until Oct. 20 — is living proof. Developed at the Institute for Neuroinformatics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Ada is a mirror-clad room outfitted with its own electronic eyes and ears that is capable of interacting and communicating with visitors. A matrix of ceiling cameras monitors guests as they move about inside the room, while directional microphones pick up sounds ranging from whispers to shouts. Even the floor is equipped with pressure sensors that can track a person's progress through the room. Should Ada want to communicate with visitors, it can do so through complex light and sound projections. If it's feeling talkative, for example, Ada can generate music that corresponds to its state of mind: a tinkling sound, for instance, might indicate amusement. Alternatively, the machine can express itself via stunning light shows that may suggest confusion or disappointment through different hues and patterns. Or, if Ada wants to direct visitors' attention to something in particular, it can illuminate colored lamps in the floor that outline the route they should take to find the desired object. Ada, named after 19th century British programming pioneer Ada Lovelace, performs all these feats thanks to neural network technology, layers of computer circuits that work in ways analogous to the human brain. If its intelligent space architecture proves a success, Ada may help pave the way for the acceptance and development of commercially constructed "smart" rooms and buildings that can dynamically adapt themselves to the needs of their inhabitants.

MEDICAL TECHNOLOGY
Fashion That Makes You Feel Good

It used to be an apple a day was the best trick to avoid the doctor, but soon just putting your clothes on in the morning could help. Palmers Lingerie of Austria offers tights that react to body heat and release vitamins A, B and C into the skin. Scientists at Germany's Hohenstein Institute Textile Research Center are working on a range of healing clothes, including a fabric that combats dermatitis. The textile is woven with tiny repositories that contain an anti-dermatitis agent; in response to body heat, the fabric releases the agent onto the skin. The Life Shirt System by California's VivoMetrics, a prizewinner at this year's Avantex high-tech apparel fair in Frankfurt, allows patients who normally need regular hospital checkups to go about their business while the shirt continuously monitors their condition. And the JoyDress by Italian designer Alexandra Fede uses a network of fine, flexible pads to give a soothing massage at the touch of a button.

EXOSKELETONS
Strength in Bubbles

New inflatable muscles could provide enhanced mobility to the elderly and infirm. Developed at Tokyo's Science University by Hiroshi Kobayashi, whose previous research focused on lifelike robotic faces, this Lycra suit employs tiny air canisters to inflate rubber muscles that boost the strength of the wearer's actual muscles. Pressure sensors detect the wearer's movements and direct the suit accordingly.

AUTO SECURITY
Remote Control

Car thieves beware. A student in Bangalore, India has devised a system that can remotely immobilize a car after it has been stolen. The N-S Aero-Stop uses a transmitter and antenna to send a signal to an onboard device that shuts down power to the engine and ignition — as long as the pilfered vehicle is within a 1-km radius. Inventor Vinay Verma believes the device could be developed to reach a 10-km range.

SPACE EXPLORATION
Galactic Gardening

Astronauts could soon be tucking in to roast vegetables instead of rehydrated foods during long space missions. Experiments are due to begin at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands using computer-controlled climate chambers to simulate interstellar agriculture. Next year trials are set to be carried out on the International Space Station. Robots will be used to tend the garden and take samples, which will be studied to learn more about how plants grow in microgravity.




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