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A robot that house-sits

Worried about leaving your house empty while you go on vacation? Japan has the answer: a house-sitter robot armed with a digital camera, infrared sensors and a videophone.

Stores across Japan started taking orders this week for the Roborior — a watermelon-sized eyeball on wheels that glows purple, blue and orange — continuing the country's love affair with gadgets.

Roborior can function as interior decor, but also as a virtual guard dog that can sense break-ins using infrared sensors, notify homeowners by calling their cellular phones, and send the owner's cell phone videos from its digital camera.

"We've had robots before that were just toys, but the Roborior can actually be put to practical use in the home," said Takako Sakata, a spokeswoman for the department store chain Takashimaya.

Such technology doesn't come cheaply. Takashimaya will sell the machines, developed by Japanese robot maker Tmsuk Co. Ltd. and electronics company Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd., for $2,600 each.

The State Of Surveillance

Artificial noses that sniff explosives, cameras that I.D. you by your ears, chips that analyze the halo of heat you emit. More scrutiny lies ahead.

Lost in the recent London bombings, along with innocent lives, was any illusion that today's surveillance technology can save us from evildoers. Britain has 4 million video cameras monitoring streets, parks, and government buildings, more than any other country. London alone has 500,000 cameras watching for signs of illicit activity. Studying camera footage helped link the July 7 bombings with four men -- but only after the fact. The disaster drove home some painful reminders: Fanatics bent on suicide aren't fazed by cameras. And even if they are known terrorists, most video surveillance software won't pick them out anyway.

Tomorrow's surveillance technology may be considerably more effective. But each uptick in protection will typically come at the cost of more intrusion into the privacy of ordinary people. For now, the public seems to find that trade-off acceptable, so scientists around the world have intensified efforts to perfect the art of surveillance, hoping to catch villains before they strike.

Research laboratories envision tools that could identify and track just about every person, anywhere -- and sound alarms when the systems encounter hazardous objects or chemical compounds. Many such ideas seem to leap from the pages of science fiction: An artificial nose in doorways and corridors sniffs out faint traces of explosives on someone's hair. Tiny sensors floating in reservoirs detect a deadly microbe and radio a warning. Smart cameras ID people at a distance by the way they walk or the shape of their ears. And a little chemical lab analyzes the sweat, body odor, and skin flakes in the human thermal plume -- the halo of heat that surrounds each person.

All of these projects are on a fast track since September 11. Meanwhile, consumer demand is speeding their development by lowering the cost of the underlying technologies. Camera phones, nanny cams, and even satellite photos are commonplace. Biological sensors are flooding into households in the form of tests for HIV, pregnancy, and diabetes -- some of which can relay data to a doctor -- and soon there will be far more sensitive DNA-based tests. Next up are radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags. They're showing up in stores to help track inventory, and 50 people in the U.S. have had them planted under their skin to broadcast their ID and medical data, in case of an emergency.

Together these developments herald a high-tech surveillance society that not even George Orwell could have imagined -- one in which virtually every advance brings benefits as well as intrusions. Rapid DNA-based probes, for example, could help protect us from bioweapons and diagnose diseases, but they might also reveal far too much about us to health insurers or prospective employers. The trade-offs are uncomfortable, in part, because corporations and governments will continue to wield the most advanced surveillance systems. But ordinary citizens will also gain capabilities to monitor their surroundings with consumer technologies, from Web cams to Net search and tracking tools, allowing the watched to observe other watchers.

One great worry is that those who stand out from the norm or express unpopular views, minorities, the poor, or just the ill-mannered, may get stomped in new and surprising ways. A recent incident in South Korea shows how this can play out. A subway commuter posted on the Internet some cell-phone photos he took of a passenger who had refused to clean up after her dog relieved itself during the ride. In no time, a vigilante mob on the Web identified her by her face and the purse she was carrying, and she became the object of national vilification. "You can move into a surveillance society one tiny camera at a time," says Deirdre Mulligan, director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley.

If terrorism becomes endemic in Europe and America, emerging surveillance tools may be abused in even more egregious ways. At the same time, the overhead burdens of a police state, from the dossier-building to the endless security checkpoints, could impose crippling costs on a free-market economy. Witness the U.S. clampdown on foreign student visas, which could end up crimping universities' ability to do advanced research. "We could bankrupt ourselves, much like the Soviet Union did," notes Kim Taipale, executive director of Manhattan's Center for Advanced Studies in Science & Technology Policy.

Experts disagree about when the most visionary tools to thwart terrorist acts will arrive on the market -- and whether they will deliver on their promise. Sensors that can detect bombs, radiation, and toxins exist today, and will be far more sophisticated a decade from now. But strewing them across every city in America would cost untold billions of dollars. High-tech electronic eavesdropping on communications networks can be effective, but only if terrorists use telecom systems. And even with improvements in cameras, biometric devices such as iris scans, bomb sniffers, and tracking software, it will be years before they can pick a terrorist out of a crowd. In short, the march toward a surveillance society may be inevitable, but no simple cost-benefit equation can assure us that the sacrifices will be worth it. We'll be debating the point for decades to come.

Security law would unlock Net


The federal cabinet will review new legislation this fall that would give police and security agencies vast powers to begin surveillance of the Internet without court authority.

The new measures would allow law enforcement agents to intercept personal e-mails, text messages and possibly even password-secure Web sites used for purchasing and financial transactions.

A law professor and privacy expert involved in consultations over the bill said a draft version of the legislation circulated this year did not require court authority for police to intercept communications or demand information from Internet servers.

"I think it's the kind of legislation that is literally going to shock millions of Canadians," University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist said.

Justice Minister Irwin Cotler disclosed the plan during a speech to a conference of police boards from across the country. He told reporters he and Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan are preparing a memorandum to cabinet following months of discussions with police, privacy experts and the Internet industry.

Cotler said law enforcement agencies have lagged behind as use of the worldwide Web exploded over the last decade.

An internal briefing note for the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service last February said it has become increasingly difficult for the agency to intercept communications for surveillance purposes and supported legislation to give law agencies more powers.

Geist said the version of the legislation that was circulated by the government failed to protect the privacy and legal rights of citizens. It also placed a severe requirement on Internet service providers to hold data and records of Internet and e-mail use by their clients.

He said the draft version allowed police the right to telephone Internet service providers around the clock, and require them to provide records and data on client files within 30 minutes.

Verichip to feature live demonstrations of its human-implantable RFID microchip


VeriChip Corporation, the world's premier RFID company for people and a subsidiary of Applied Digital, announced that this week it will be featuring live demonstrations of its state-of-the-art, human-implantable RFID microchip as part of its VeriGuard Local Area Location & Access application at the ASIS International 2005 Seminar and Exhibits show in Orlando, Florida. This marks VeriGuard's first public demonstration in North America, providing security industry professionals the opportunity to see an RFID security solution based on the use of implantable microchip technology.

"As a provider of leading-edge RFID security solutions, we consider the ASIS International conference a key event for us, as it gives us the perfect opportunity to showcase our patented implantable technology and the related security applications," said Kevin McLaughlin, Chief Executive Officer of VeriChip Corporation. "To those wishing to see the latest in RFID security solutions - including applications using implantable, wearable, and attachable RFID tag technology - we extend the invitation to visit the VeriChip booth at ASIS."

In October 2004 VeriChip received FDA clearance to market its human-implantable RFID microchip for medical applications. About the size of a grain of rice, the chip is inserted just under the skin. With its unique 16-bit electronic ID, the chip can be used in such applications as patient identification in emergency departments or for access control in high-security areas. Unlike conventional forms of identification, the chip cannot be lost, stolen, or duplicated, ensuring a level of identification and protection never possible before.

At the ASIS show, VeriChip Corporation will be demonstrating its chip technology integrated with its security application, VeriGuard. VeriGuard, a featured new product by ASIS this year, provides individual location and distress alert capability, access control, and asset tracking for the identification, location, and protection of individuals and assets. VeriChip's market-leading infant protection and wander prevention solutions will also be on display.

Plans advancing for world's first face transplant


In the next few weeks, five men and seven women will secretly visit the Cleveland Clinic to interview for the chance to have a radical operation that's never been tried anywhere in the world.

They will smile, raise their eyebrows, close their eyes, open their mouths. Dr. Maria Siemionow will study their cheekbones, lips and noses. She will ask what they hope to gain and what they most fear.

Then she will ask, "Are you afraid that you will look like another person?"

Because whoever she chooses will endure the ultimate identity crisis.

Siemionow wants to attempt a face transplant.

This is no extreme TV makeover. It is a medical frontier being explored by a doctor who wants the public to understand what she is trying to do.

It is this: to give people horribly disfigured by burns, accidents or other tragedies a chance at a new life. Today's best treatments still leave many of them with freakish, scar-tissue masks that don't look or move like natural skin.

These people already have lost the sense of identity that is linked to the face; the transplant is merely "taking a skin envelope" and slipping their identity inside, Siemionow contends.

Her supporters note her experience, careful planning, the team of experts assembled to help her, and the practice she has done on animals and dozens of cadavers to perfect the technique.

But her critics say the operation is way too risky for something that is not a matter of life or death, as organ transplants are. They paint the frighteningly surreal image of a worst-case scenario: a transplanted face being rejected and sloughing away, leaving the patient worse off than before.

Such qualms recently scuttled face transplant plans in France and England.

Ultimately, it comes to this: a hospital, doctor and patient willing to try it.

The first two are now in place. The third is expected to be shortly.

The "consent form" says that this surgery is so novel and its risks so unknown that doctors don't think informed consent is even possible.

Here is what it tells potential patients:

Your face will be removed and replaced with one donated from a cadaver, matched for tissue type, age, sex and skin color. Surgery should last 8 to 10 hours; the hospital stay, 10 to 14 days.

Complications could include infections that turn your new face black and require a second transplant or reconstruction with skin grafts. Drugs to prevent rejection will be needed lifelong, and they raise the risk of kidney damage and cancer.

After the transplant you might feel remorse, disappointment, or grief or guilt toward the donor. The clinic will try to shield your identity, but the press likely will discover it.

The clinic will cover costs for the first patient; nothing about others has been decided.

Another form tells donor families that the person receiving the face will not resemble their dead loved one. The recipient should look similar to how he or she did before the injury because the new skin goes on existing bone and muscle, which give a face its shape.

All of the little things that make up facial _expression — mannerisms like winking when telling a joke or blushing at a compliment — are hard-wired into the brain and personality, not embedded in the skin.

Some research suggests the end result would be a combination of the two appearances.

'CyberBug' can drop in and quietly gather intelligence


A U.S. company has begun marketing a stealth micro-unmanned aerial vehicle that can blend in with its surroundings.

The micro-UAV, dubbed CyberBug, weighs less than a kilogram and was designed for both military and security surveillance. The battery-powered UAV can fly undetected into a hostile environment, land on rocks or trees and relay video images and voice.

The platform was developed by Proxity Digital Networks, based in West Palm Beach, Fla. Proxity's subsidiary, Cyber Aerospace, has marketed the platform to the U.S. military, law enforcement and state and federal agencies. Executives said the company also plans to market CyberBug abroad, Middle East Newsline reported.

"The CyberBug acts as the eyes and ears of the remote operator," Proxity said in a statement. "It can be flown into a problem area while a remote operator with a headset observes and listens. Running on battery power, it quietly gathers intelligence and can be used to replace humans that are in harms way."

The CyberBug can provide GPS coordinates of hostile or problem areas, facilitate line-of-sight communications as well as provide day or night surveillance of remote areas. The UAV could also help protect forests, pipelines, bridges or other vital facilities.

The UAV has been presented as a security solution for the U.S. military in Iraq. The Army and Marines have employed tactical, engine-powered UAVs to monitor insurgency strongholds.

Proxity said the CyberBug costs $5,500 per unit and can be acquired in bulk and used simultaneously in a range of operations.