Lethal Lasers, Alien Fossils

A Roundup of Undercovered Technology News

Even with concerns about privacy on the increase, the presidential election fiasco has triggered talk of voting systems that would make Big Brother proud. Several companies, universities (including M.I.T.), and state governments are spending time and money to create ballot-casting devices that incorporate retina scans, fingerprinting, and "smart" ID cards with encrypted signatures. Besides the obvious Orwellian implications, digital technology such as touch screens and online voting will make fraud much easier to commit and harder to detect, since there won't be any butterfly ballots or dimpled chads to pore over when problems arise. "An electronic system is inherently corruptible," computer scientist Peter Neumann told the Christian Science Monitor, sounding an ominous note in an otherwise uncritical article. "It's a disaster waiting to happen."

The free ride for users of MP3s and e-books may be coming to a swift end. The excellent cybernews site The Register (www.theregister.co.uk) is reporting that the computer industry is well on its way to implementing a copy protection scheme in the next generation of hard drives, possibly starting this summer. Any time you wanted to copy or even play a file, your computer would check against a centralized database to see if you were authorized to do so. Think you could just refuse to get a new computer or perhaps find one that doesn't have this standard built in? Maybe you could, but then you couldn't open any protected files.

The Register has also reported that cable moguls are hatching a plan to make VCRs unable to record programs restricted by networks. To work with future generations of digital cable, all TVs and VCRs would have to incorporate the protection scheme. If a TV station coded a show as "copy never," your VCR would simply refuse to record it.

In a story that might—just might—make you see Bill Gates in a new light, The Boston Globe reports, "Giving away money steadily, tens of millions of dollars at a time, Bill Gates has become the single most influential force attempting to reverse the growing health crisis afflicting the world's poor." In 1999, his foundation gave $1.44 billion to fight malaria, TB, and other afflictions around the world. This is almost $300 million more than the U.S. government spent that year, and more than one-quarter of the expenditures from all industrialized countries combined.

You may recall the worldwide headlines that resulted when scientists announced in 1996 that a meteorite from Mars contained signs of primitive life. Strangely, an equally exciting announcement made headlines only briefly in Australia last month. Richard Hoover, an astrobiologist with NASA, says that a meteorite contains fossils of at least two types of bacteria similar to those found in other extreme conditions, such as in the Arctic. The 4.6 billion-year-old chunk of space-rock Down Under is just one of six meteorites NASA is studying for microfossils, according to the Herald Sun of Melbourne.

It used to be that there was only one way to make a baby, but the times keep changing. Scientists in Japan have announced that they can now grow sperm cells in a lab using stem cells from a mouse, and they'll soon be trying the process with adult men. This could develop into a technique in which infertile men could grow their own sperm in test tubes. The Sunday Times of London further notes that the researchers "believe they will be able to reprogramme male cells into producing eggs so that men can both father and `mother' children. This could allow gay men to be parents together." An earlier Sunday Times article revealed that Britain's leading fertility expert has patented a technique for modifying sperm in ways that can prevent or cause certain characteristics in the resulting kid. As a scientist who worked on the project put it: "This does provide the capability of making designer babies, and it will be up to society to decide what to do with it."

It sure is a good thing that the World Health Organization hasn't said anything about mad cow disease spreading beyond Britain and Europe, isn't it? That would be scary. Well, drop that burger, because the WHO has issued a warning to all corners of the globe that animal feed contaminated with BSE—the virus that causes animals' brains to turn to sponge—might very likely have been shipped worldwide. United Press International has quoted an ineloquent WHO doctor as saying, "We have concerns that there was sufficient international trade in meat and bonemeal and cattle that there has actually been exposure worldwide already....We are certain there was international movement of materials that could have contained infectivity." The doc stressed that so far they haven't confirmed any non-European cases of mad cow disease—or its human equivalent, which is acquired by eating tainted meat—but they're only now putting major effort into tracing the disease around the planet.

Of course, science is still hard at work as the handmaiden of the military. A well-known London scientist has created a working prototype for a "phaser." Mixing two forms of laser, the device creates an ionized beam that immobilizes people by overloading them with electrical impulses. Kind of like a stun gun, except this scary device never touches the person and can work from over a mile away. Although the phaser is being pushed as a nonlethal weapon, a bigger charge can short out the target's heart. On a larger scale, the military's High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office in late December awarded $8.6 million in grants to researchers who are in the process of developing "lethal laser devices." Despite using the word "lethal," an article from the Copley News Service details only the antimissile uses of the lasers, overlooking the possibility of frying large groups of people with the flick of a switch.

 
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