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The Cutting Edge: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Cells Inspire His Silicon Cilia Chips

February 07, 1996|KATHLEEN WIEGNER

As computers and other electronic devices become smaller and more delicate, automating the assembly of them becomes more and more difficult. Working with the help of microscopes, humans still insert tiny components into multichip modules and miniature circuit boards by hand.

But the day is near when the human hand will simply be too large for the job. Drawing on bacteria and protozoa for inspiration, University of Southern California roboticist Peter M. Will is working on a way to design robots to take over the job.

But these are not ordinary mechanical arms and hands. In a series of computer simulations, Will has shown that surfaces covered by simple robotic devices resembling cilia--the wispy, whip-like organs that allow microorganisms to move--can perform all the manipulations needed in the assembly process.

While these simple silicon appendages only wave in one direction--thus doing little more than carrying a miniature part in that direction--Will's simulations have shown that highly complex tasks can be accomplished by what he calls an "intelligent motion surface," or IMS. Such a surface is made up of different patches of cilia, each moving in an independently programmable direction. A properly arrayed IMS can form a sort of assembly line where parts entering one end of the pipeline are sorted, spaced, aligned and ultimately inserted into another part. Will has created prototypes of his silicon cilia chips, but they are still too weak to do useful work.

Help for Help Lines: By now we're all familiar with call forwarding, call holding and call blocking. To this lexicon, Natick, Mass.-based SystemSoft Corp. would like to add "call avoidance." The calls the company would like to help you avoid are not the incoming ones from telemarketers or your ex-spouse, but those outgoing calls computer users make to technical support hotlines.

Market researchers at Dataquest estimate that more than 200 million calls will be received at technical support centers nationwide this year. With the average cost of handling each call exceeding $20, the PC industry will spend more than $3.9 billion on help desk support this year. Even the "plug and play" capability Microsoft built into Windows 95 does not solve all of the problems users encounter.

With the assistance of Digital Equipment and Intel, SystemSoft is developing software that will automatically identify, diagnose and resolve most of the common problems faced by computer users using the power of the system's own processor. The software, which SystemSoft will ship to PC manufacturers by the end of the year, is based on the "wizard" technology that is being used in portables to resolve plug-in problems.

If a problem cannot be automatically resolved locally, the software can access and download solutions via an Internet connection. The hope is that products resulting from this development could reduce the number of calls to support lines by 30%--a potential annual savings of more than $1 billion. And it could also save users countless hours on the telephone waiting for "the next available representative."

Mother of All Pearls: Abalone is a lucrative harvest for fishermen: The meat of a single mollusk can fetch $40 to $50. But Peter Fankboner, a marine biologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, has found a way to make abalone even more valuable: Use them as a bed for cultured pearls.

Unlike oysters, which are the natural source of pearls, abalone don't normally produce pearls because they possess muscular innards that routinely expel foreign objects. Fankboner seeds the abalone by using a diamond drill to cut a hole in the shell. He then plugs the hole with a "nucleus" that protrudes inside the shell far enough to raise the inside wall, but not so far that it harms the animal.

Over time the abalone creates a larger and larger cavity around that protrusion as it repeatedly coats it with nacre, the material that makes up a pearl. By increasing the plug's size, Fankboner can increase the size of the pearl. The result is a semi-spherical shape known as a blister pearl.

The technology is being established using the red abalone found off California. Seven California abalone farmers have licensed the patented technology.

Drive-Through Detection: A Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory technology developed to help soldiers detect land mines during the Gulf War has been enlisted to detect problems in America's highway bridges. The technology--called dual-band infrared computed tomography--locates land mines by detecting the heat given off by buried munitions. The same technique can be used to find early cracking and corrosion in bridge decks by reading their heat signatures.

Current bridge deck inspection methods involve closing lanes, dragging a chain over the bridge deck and listening for anomalous sounds. Inspectors also look for rust stains in girders, potholes, cracks or broken pavement. The lab's infrared tomography method does not require closing lanes and is more accurate. A vehicle-mounted system can simply be driven over a bridge deck to locate the problems.

It can also detect faults in their earliest stages, which could save millions of dollars in maintenance costs. The system successfully completed its first road test last month in Northern California.

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