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Can You Trust Your Toaster?

Developments to Watch


IT'S AN OFT-TOLD TALE IN science-fiction thrillers: A security system or flight controller goes berserk and threatens to coldly delete squishy biological life forms. But the plot might not be pure fiction. A growing number of scientists worry that machines might become so intelligent they'll gain the upper hand.

At the recent annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, a researcher warned that a silicon revolution is probably inevitable. Smart machines could be looking down their noses at us in 15 to 20 years, says Roland S. Burns, an engineering professor at England's University of Plymouth.

The silicon takeover will start innocently enough. Take the kitchen. Next-generation refrigerators will automatically replenish food stocks, keeping track of what comes and goes with lasers that scan the bar codes on packages, and using telecom links to order more food. Then someone will write a dieters' program listing foods the fridge shouldn't order. Next thing we know, refrigerators may be dictating people's eating patterns. And similar trends will unfold in cars, factory machines, and most equipment built with chips.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top


ANYONE WITH A KID WHO operates a toy railway system will appreciate what Futrex Inc. is trying to do. The Charleston (S.C.) company has designed a modular urban transit system that snaps together, slashing costs compared with traditional rail systems.

Futrex' "monobeam" concept resembles a monorail. But instead of two separate rails for trains running in opposite directions, Futrex hangs the cars on either side of a single triangular beam. Cruising speed is only 55 mph, but Futrex figures that's adequate for urban transport. And the modular design, with beams and supports that plug together like toy train tracks, lowers capital costs to $20 million to $25 million per mile--less than half that of the competing rail systems.

In June, Futrex demonstrated a quarter-scale model, with the help of Battelle Memorial Institute and $1.25 million in government funds. Now the company is seeking $40 million for a full-scale, 1.6-mile prototype.EDITED BY OTIS PORT By Neil GrossReturn to top

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A FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH FOR CHIPS? WELL, SORT OF. Researchers at Cornell University can now remove the wrinkles on silicon wafers. That smooths the way for continuing progress in chips.

The wrinkles are really ultratiny ridges between adjacent silicon terraces at different levels. The ridges typically rise just 1.5 nanometers, or a few tiers of silicon atoms. Even the best silicon-polishing technology can't avoid such tiny imperfections. This is no problem today because circuit lines are so plump they easily bury the ridges. But eventually the ridges will cause breaks in the circuits. So a team led by materials scientist Jack M. Blakely developed a method to peel off the tops of terraces.

First, the researchers use an electron-beam system to build microscopic fences around each chip-to-be. Then the wafer goes into a high-vacuum furnace. Heated to more than 1,000C in the vacuum, the silicon atoms on the edges of the terraces are successively dislodged. They roll across the silicon, and when they hit a fence, they stick. Soon, all the elevated terraces are level. Cornell is now looking to license the technology.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

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