Developments to Watch
A PROGRAM THAT NEVER FORGETS A FACE
CROOKS WON'T BE ABLE TO HIDE BEHIND MASKS, fake beards, and other disguises if new face-recognition technologies deliver on their promises. These devices can automatically identify bad guys on the basis of features inherent in the structure of their skulls--features that can't be altered except by radical plastic surgery.
One of the technologies is the "faceprint" algorithm developed by Visionics Corp. in Jersey City, N.J. It creates a cranial blueprint using 140 measurements of various parts of the face, such as the distance from the eyes to the nose. Once criminals have had their mug shots mapped, the system can tag them even on fuzzy videotape. If a ski mask obscures enough measurements to preclude a positive identification, the computer can still spit out a short list of suspects.
Visionics says its technology is currently being tested at an airport, scanning crowds for terrorists or crooks.
Zeda ABM Ltd. in Lichfield, England, uses the Visionics software in its Profile system, which is now being evaluated by British police. Meanwhile, Miros Inc. in Wellesley, Mass., recently delivered a rival system to Scotland Yard for evaluation. By Heidi DawleyReturn to top
DNA EVIDENCE FOR POLLUTION SLEUTHS
FORENSICS EXPERTS USE DNA EVIDENCE to track murderers and robbers. And if Dan E. Krane, a biology professor at Wright State University is successful, detectives may soon use DNA to solve environmental crimes. He has pioneered a quick and accurate DNA test for ecosystem contamination.
To gauge pollution, he rounds up and compares DNA samples from a dozen or more crayfish--as opposed to human victims. Contamination, Krane and other scientists say, reduces biodiversity in an ecosystem. As a result, bits of DNA collected from different crayfish would look almost exactly alike. Conversely, the less damage there is to the environment, the healthier the crayfish population, and the more diverse their DNA samples.
Field mice, earthworms, and other insects may be equally revealing bio-barometers. And what efficiency! Typical environmental surveys today last weeks or months and require a whole team of scientists. Krane's crayfish test, on the other hand, can be completed in two days by just one person. Krane is collaborating with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a DNA test for use by regulators worldwide. It could be on the market within two years.EDITED BY ELLEN LICKINGReturn to top
WHEN THE SECONDHAND SMOKE CLEARS
IT IS WIDELY ACCEPTED THAT SECONDHAND SMOKE CAN LEAD TO LUNG CANCER and heart disease. Now there's evidence that constant exposure also causes bronchitis and impairs lung function. In the Dec. 9 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from the University of California at San Francisco report that concentrated doses of secondhand smoke irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, and diminish lung capacity, so that a person must take shallower breaths more often to get the same amount of oxygen.
The study zeroed in on bartenders, who are exposed to about five times more secondhand smoke than the average person. Scientists monitored the respiratory symptoms and lung capacities of bartenders before and after California passed a law making bars smoke-free. One month before the law went into effect, 75% of the 53 bartenders reported respiratory ailments such as wheezing and coughing. Just one to two months later, 59% were completely symptom-free. Lung function also improved significantly, even for bartenders who were smokers themselves. Public health experts hope the study will spur legislators in other states to pass laws that protect workers from secondhand smoke.EDITED BY ELLEN LICKINGReturn to top