Monthly Archives: August 2008

Chinese cop-killer becomes internet hero

Yang Jia, a Chinese man accused of murdering six policemen, has become an internet hero. Mr Yang is rumoured to have been badly beaten and maimed by police.

A Chinese man accused of murdering six policemen has attracted increasing levels of approval and adulation from internet users as his trial begins in Shanghai.

Telegraph | Aug 27, 2008

By Malcolm Moore

Yang Jia, a 28-year-old unemployed man from Beijing, appeared in court in Shanghai charged with an alleged attack against the police on July 1, the anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

Mr Yang is said to have thrown molotov cocktails into a police station in Zhabei, a northern suburb of the city, before entering the building and attacking a group of unarmed officers with a knife. He was arrested at the scene.

However, instead of condemnation, he has received widespread approval from Chinese internet users, or netizens, for his apparent act of defiance.

He has become a symbol for the growing number of people who are attacking Chinese police in protest at the brutality of the state.

Mr Yang has even been compared to Wu Song, one of the greatest heroes in Chinese literature, who killed a tiger with his bare hands.

One message left on his MySpace page said: “You have done what most people want to do, but do not have enough courage to do”.

The prosecution said Mr Yang had acted out of “revenge” after he was caught by police riding an unlicensed bicycle last October and interrogated. He later sued the Shanghai police for 10,000 yuan (£803) for psychological damage, but his claim was rejected.

Mr Yang is rumoured to have been badly beaten and maimed by police.

One blogger, Zi Bingyue, wrote: “Yang Jia is not bad. He has no previous criminal record. On the contrary, he has a strong sense of the law. He gave seats to older people on the bus and carried luggage for weak travellers.”

His father, Yang Fu, said his son must “have been greatly wronged” and added that he hoped Mr Yang’s almost inevitable death sentence would help spur the Chinese legal system to change in the future.

Another blogger, Qing Feng, wrote that Mr Yang had been ground down by the reality of being unemployed in China. “He would have self-destructed one way or another since he has lost hope. He has no job, no degree, no income, no background, no relationship or normal family,” he said.

Since Mr Yang’s arrest, his lawyers have been uncontactable. An attempt by the Telegraph to trace them to a second-floor office in north Shanghai was met with a simple note saying that the office would be closed for the foreseeable future.

In addition, blogs mentioning Mr Yang have been deleted and bloggers have been told by websites that sensitive articles will be blocked.

Thousands of traumatized war veterans locked away in British prisons

War veterans make up around nine per cent of the prison population Photo: GETTY IMAGES

One in 11 prisoners serving time in UK jails is a former member of the armed forces, a new report reveals.

“Most of the soldiers who had served in either the Gulf or Afghanistan were suffering from post traumatic stress.”

Telegraph | Aug 31, 2008

By Ben Leach

One in 11 prisoners serving time in UK jails is a former member of the armed forces, a new report reveals

More than 8,000 veterans are currently behind bars, many of whom have served their country in Iraq or Afghanistan, researchers found.

A high proportion of the convicts interviewed in the study had suffered some form of post-traumatic stress disorder after leaving the forces. Often their convictions were for drug- or alcohol-related violence.

Ex-services charities said the findings highlighted the difficulty which many former soldiers face in making the transition to civilian life.

The National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO), which carried out the research, called on the Government to do more to tackle mental health problems suffered by people who have fought in war zones.

It said that around 24,000 veterans are either in jail, on parole or serving community punishment orders after having been convicted of crimes. They make up around nine per cent of the prison population.

Opposition MPs and charities called the findings another example of ministers breaking the ‘military covenant’ – the guarantee that soldiers receive fair treatment in return for putting their lives on the line.

They claimed that if the Ministry of Defence properly screened those discharged from the military for mental illnesses, problems could be identified earlier.

NAPO’s conclusions are based on the findings of three separate studies: MoD research at HMP Dartmoor, a survey at eight jails by the Veterans in Prison support groups last year, and a series of Home Office research projects between 2001 and 2004.

In addition, probation officers provided case histories of 74 individuals so that researchers could assess the factors that drove ex-services personnel to commit crimes.

The report concludes: “Most of the soldiers who had served in either the Gulf or Afghanistan were suffering from post traumatic stress. Little support or counselling was available on discharge from the forces.

“Virtually all became involved in heavy drinking or drug taking and in consequence involvement in violence offences, sometimes domestically related, happened routinely.”

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of NAPO, called the findings a “real concern”. He said: “The vast majority of the offending is drug or alcohol related violence. There is no systematic availability of stress related counselling.

“Had support services been available at the point of discharge and when personnel first came in touch with the criminal justice system, custody could have been avoided probably in the majority of cases.”

The Royal British Legion said that while most people in the armed forces manage the transition into civilian life easily, “a select few get into a vortex that drags them downwards”.

A spokesman said: “We believe more effort should be made to tackle the acceptance of heavy drinking that still occurs among sections of the Armed Forces, to identify causes for alcohol misuse, to help vulnerable personnel reduce their alcohol intake, and to investigate the long-term psychological health effects of alcohol over-use among service personnel.”

A spokesman for SSAFA, the services charity, said: “The majority of people that leave the armed forces leave having had a life-changing experience.

“Some do find it difficult to adjust and feel isolated and lonely. In some cases people will descend into alcohol or substance abuse, lose their job and spiral into homelessness and eventually end up in jail. Military operations in recent years have placed the armed forces under increased pressures.”

Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, said the Conservatives had concerns about the level of mental health care available for services personnel.

An MoD spokesman said: “Robust systems are in place to treat and prevent PTSD and other stress disorders. Counselling is available to service personnel at all times, and all troops receive pre- and post-deployment briefings to help recognise the signs of stress disorders.”

The large number of ex-services personnel in prison runs counter to the argument that the reintroduction of national service could make Britain’s youth more law-abiding.

Last week the MoD announced that eighteen sailors face being thrown out of the Royal Navy after they tested positive for cocaine on a warship which has been used to combat drug smuggling.

Cases of ex-services personnel being jailed include that of an former soldier from the West Country who was imprisoned for three years for threatening a drug dealer with a firearm.

He suffered from PTSD after serving in Northern Ireland and the 2003 Gulf War, and told probation officers he felt the authorities “had washed their hands of him”.

A former soldier from West Yorkshire, who served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, and obtained the rank of acting-sergeant, was sentenced for a drug offence. He told probation officers he missed the camaraderie of the army, started using and selling drugs, then found it difficult to hold down a day job. He was diagnosed with PTSD and became depressed, experiencing financial problems.

Lee Holt, 34, a former Army private, left the armed forces after a tour in Bosnia. He was jailed for a year for assault after he got into a fight with friends after drinking in a pub. He suffers from PTSD and paranoia, and still has panic attacks and nightmares.

“There was a real drinking culture in the army,” he said. “That’s when I started to drink heavily. Everybody did it – it was the norm.

“It took me a long time to realise I was suffering from PTSD and now I look back at the way that I used to be violent in the past and I really regret it.

“I have a wife and kid now, and a steady job, so it’s difficult to understand just why I was doing it.”

Britain in grip of worst economic crisis in 60 years

Telegraph | Aug 30, 2008

By Andrew Porter, Political Editor

Britain is in the grip of its worst economic crisis for 60 years, Alistair Darling has admitted.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer warns that the slump is going to be “more profound and long-lasting than people thought”.

In an astonishingly frank interview, Mr Darling admits that voters are “p***** off” with Labour and says the party must recover the “zeal” which won it three successive general elections.

Since taking up the post, Mr Darling is said to have faced a crisis “every week”, including the collapse of Northern Rock and the loss of millions of people’s personal details from HM revenue & Customs.

Such is the public concern over the economic crisis, Mr Darling said that he has been challenged while filling up his own car by motorists demanding to know how he intends to improve the situation.

A wine waiter also warned him from ordering a second bottle of wine during a restaurant meal, he reveals.

The Chancellor, who had been tipped for a move in a possible Cabinet reshuffle later in the Autumn, also candidly admits that he is “not a great politician.”

The article in The Guardian is a clear sign that Mr Darling is determined not to be blamed for Gordon Brown’s troubles.

During the interview he claims people are trying to take his job and says they are “actively trying to do it,” a remark that will be widely interpreted as a sideswipe at the Prime Minister.

There have been clear tensions between the Treasury and Number 10 in recent months and many of his comments will be read with dismay in Downing Street.

Mr Darling makes clear that he was not the source of a story earlier this month that he might temporarily suspend stamp duty in order to stimulate the housing market. The leak – which the Treasury suspects came from Downing Street – backfired and led to accusations that the uncertainty caused had actually caused home sales to stall.

The Chancellor says he has spent all his political life trying to avoid “this kind of interview”. But his advisers have long claimed that he does not conform to his “boring” caricature and have chosen the eve of the new political season to improve his public image. However, many of his comments will be seized upon by his opponents.

Mr Darling says the economic times we are facing “are arguably the worst they have been in 60 years.” “And I think it’s going to be more profound and long-lasting than people thought,” he adds. Further evidence that Britain is on the brink of recession emerged this week.

A report into house prices showed they had dropped 10 per cent in the last month – the biggest drop in prices since 1990.

And on Thursday David Blanchflower, a member of the Bank of England monetary policy committee, warned unemployment would hit two million by Christmas. Mr Darling admits Labour – currently 19 points behind the Tories in the latest Telegraph opinion poll – is in trouble.

He says: “We’ve got our work cut out,” he said. “This coming 12 months will be the most difficult 12 months the Labour party has had in a generation, quite frankly.

“In the space of 10 months we’ve gone from a position where people generally felt we were doing ok to where we’re certainly not doing ok.

“We’ve got to rediscover that zeal which won us three elections, and that is a huge problem for us at the moment – people are p***** off with us.”

He adds: “I was at a filling station recently, and a chap said, ‘I know it’s to do with oil prices – but what are you going to do about it?’ People think, well surely you can do something – you are responsible – so of course it reflects on me.”

The Chancellor also said he heeded a warning from a waiter when out for dinner with friends recently not to have a second bottle of wine, seemingly because it would look like he was pushing the boat out while others were being forced to live more frugally.

A year on from the start of the credit crunch Mr Darling admits that the first time he really became aware of a problem was while on a Mediterranean holiday when he read a newspaper report about the European Central Bank ploughing billions of pounds into the money market.

In addition to the economic problems he has faced, Mr Darling also recalls the moment he discovered that millions of child benefit records contained on computer disks had been lost by the government.

“I just thought this is a disaster. This is terrible…I phoned Gordon up….We knew it was bad.”

He takes aims at two of Labour’s senior female figures, calling former Scottish leader Wendy Alexander “not likeable at all” and Cherie Blair’s memoirs “awful.”

And recalling the celebrations at the Millennium Dome – a project championed by New Labour – he says: ‘Thank God I didn’t have to go there on Millennium night.”

Automated air-traffic network developed for robo-planes

US Predator drones will be controlled by the network as they spy on Americans. Would also be good for flying cars.


The Register | Aug 29, 2008

By Lewis Page

Good news today for people who like flying cars or flying robots, but clouds on the horizon for professional pilots and air-traffic controllers. Trials by US aerospace colossus Lockheed have shown that lightweight, distributed, automated systems can easily deconflict pilotless aircraft operating in crowded airspace.

Lockheed boffins from the globocorp’s Advanced Technology Laboratories (ATL) arm announced their success this week. The kit in question is called Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Airspace Management System (UAMS), and it has now proven itself in trials with aerial robots near Pittsburgh.

“The successful use of UAMS on in-flight UAVs caps three years of program development,” said David Van Brackle, ATL’s top auto-air-traffic brain.

“Our work will improve safety and mission success for future UAV systems and for the Warfighters who depend upon them.”

The UAMS project is funded by the US Army, which already issues its ground combat units with many small UAVs for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. However, air-traffic conflicts often mean that these aircraft can’t be used as often as the soldiers would like.

On the face of it, deconfliction of unpiloted aircraft should be relatively simple in the modern era. GPS satnav is a negligible capability, present in almost every UAV, and it can tell an aircraft where it is to within a few metres.

Up-to-date digital networking can thus create an accurate 3D picture in real time of all the planes and what they’re doing, and follow simple rules to direct them out of each other’s way. Even if the decisions are still made by humans and communicated by voice, the greater accuracy and faster update rate of networked GPS (as compared to radar) allows more aircraft to be in a given amount of airpspace.

There are, in fact, steps being taken in America to use this sort of kit for normal manned aviation in place of centralised radar control – facing strong opposition, as one might expect, from air-traffic controllers’ unions. But the US Army, operating unmanned aircraft in a warzone or a military exercise area, can largely disregard civil regs.

Hence UAMS, envisaged by the Army as a “battalion echelon system” – that is, one which is fairly lightweight and easily deployed by smaller ground units, and which requires little manpower. UAMS uses a ground-based server and intelligent software agents aboard the aircraft to be managed, and also offers onboard “see and avoid” sensors to deal with intruders which aren’t hooked up to the UAMS net. According to Lockheed ATL, the system can distribute most of the work to the airborne programs, handle it mainly on the server, or combine the two approaches flexibly.

So now US Army ground formations – at least in airspace free of manned aircraft – can send up as many robo-craft as they like, happy in the knowledge that they will deconflict themselves automatically and suffer no collisions. That’s all good news for soldiers wanting to use their rapidly proliferating skydroids more easily.

It’s also, perhaps, good news for other kinds of pilotless aircraft – such as the long-anticipated flying cars of the future. One of the most serious barriers to everybody having an aerial car is the fact that normal air-traffic systems could never cope with such numbers. Another problem is that handling an aircraft under tight ground control – as is necessary in crowded airspace and/or cloudy weather – is a highly involved task, calling for advanced skills and qualifications on the part of a human pilot. Not many ordinary people would have the necessary time, money and aptitude to acquire such skills; fewer still would be rich enough to hire instrument-qualified chauffeur pilots. Even a basic private pilot’s licence, allowing flights only in good weather and open skies, is a significantly bigger cost and time hurdle than a driver’s licence.

Thus, a flying car for ordinary consumers would in effect have to be an aerial passenger-carrying robot, able to pilot itself – much like the latest UAVs of today, which can fly an entire mission including takeoff and landing without any remote piloting by humans. But aerial cars would also have to work with a high-capacity, affordable, probably distributed automatic air traffic networks; ones rather like UAMS, in fact.
Of course, there are many other obstacles standing in the way of flying cars – scepticism, cost, noise, takeoff run, genuine ability to drive on roads as well as fly. It will also be a long road from today’s UAMS to automated urban air-traffic networks as ubiquitous as traffic lights; a road that may well never be travelled.

But at least it’s been shown to be possible. And, while automated civil flying cars remain far-fetched, automated military aircraft are already a reality.

“Child Protection” database will be used to prosecute children

“Every Child Matters” database slammed as data mining

Troubled kids’ pasts open to investigators

Last week the government said it was storing the genetic profiles of 40,000 innocent children in the National DNA Database.

The Register | Aug 26, 2008

By Chris Williams

A new database purporting to help protect vulnerable children could be used by authorities to gather evidence against them for criminal prosecutions, it has emerged.

The ContactPoint database is being promoted as a tool to ease cooperation between schools, social services and other authorites who hold information on kids. The £224m scheme is part of the government’s “Every Child Matters” initiative, launched in 2003 in the wake of the inquiry into the murder of Victoria Climbié, whose abuse was repeatedly overlooked by authorities.

But now The Telegraph reports that ContactPoint will also serve as an investigative data mine until young people reach their 24th birthday. Guidelines on the databases’ applications say archives will be available “for the prevention or detection of crime” and “for the prosecution of offenders”.

The database will not include specific case information, but will record if a child has contact with police and drug workers, for example. This has prompted fears from civil liberties groups it will be used to insinuate a troubled past in court. No2ID’s Phil Booth said: “Parents should know that this is not for the protection of their children, it could be used to prosecute them. This is a serious step on from what little has been told to the public.”

An estimated 330,000 people will have access to ContactPoint, which government contractor CapGemini will open for business this autumn. Its launch was delayed by the inquiry into repeated data losses by HMRC and other government bodies.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families defended the scheme. “To access ContactPoint for the purposes of prevention or detection of crime or for the prosecution of offenders, police would have to make a special request directly to the Secretary of State or Local Authority and make a case for disclosure,” it said.

Last week the government said it was storing the genetic profiles of 40,000 innocent children in the National DNA Database.

British police question and arrest people for taking pictures

No snapping: Photographers get collars felt

Watch where you point that thing this weekend

The Register | Aug 23, 2008

By John Ozimek

Fancy getting your camera out this Bank Holiday weekend? Best be careful who you point it at.

For instance, don’t go taking snaps of unmarked police cars. This was the mistake made by amateur photographer David Gates, who photographed a Police BMW parked illegally at a bus stop in Portsmouth, Hants. Before you could say “Cheese!”, the Police were on him and asking questions under the Terror Act 2000.

Then there’s the sorry tale of Andrew Carter, who spotted a police van ignoring no-entry signs to reverse up a one-way street to reach a chip shop, and felt it was his public duty as a citizen to record both the van and the officer involved, PC Farooq.

For his pains, Mr Carter was abused, had his camera knocked to the ground, arrested, bundled into the van and finally held in police cells for five hours.

Then there’s the recent survey released by the ATL, which reveals that while teachers are pretty cool about using CCTV to spy on their pupils – even in the toilet – they are a little worried about the appalling notion that the same cameras could be turned on them in the classroom.

How very odd. As a society, it is widely acknowledged that we are (one of) the most observed in the world. At present, Britain boasts 4.2 million cameras – that’s one for every 14 people – or allegedly one-fifth of the CCTV cameras on the planet. It is estimated that you are likely to be caught on camera on average 300 times a day. The total number of cameras is predicted to double (to 8.6 million) by 2018.

More recently, Police and Parking Enforcement Officers have begun to be kitted out with mobile cameras – so they can record every tiny detail of interaction with the public.

Any argument that this might be a little intrusive is met with the bland old reassurance that “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear”. Quite apart from ignoring the effect on society of gradually moving to a situation in which we can no longer have any expectation of privacy in any open space, what these stories have in common is an emerging double standard: “They” may photograph us when, where and how they like, but we should think twice about photographing them.

Of course, there can be legitimate reasons for opposing the use of cameras. In talking to El Reg about the law on photography, several Police Forces made the fair comment that there were individuals who had learnt how to use cameras at demonstrations as a means to wind individual officers up.

Undoubtedly, this happens – although as with any such abuse, perhaps it should be punished appropriately when it does, rather than used as a reason for clamping down more widely. Part of the problem, as far as authority is concerned, is the sheer scale of public photography.

The general consensus by analysts, Gartner, is that around 80 per cent of mobile phones in the UK can be used as cameras, whilst the Mobile Data Association’s first quarterly statistics for 2008 (pdf) on the sending of MMS (picture texts) show 449 million picture texts were sent in 2007 – and December 2007 represented 55 per cent growth year on year.

Some of the results of this private photography are suitably documentary in nature. But others purport to expose in graphic detail illegal arrests or worse on the part of the authorities. Sometimes, such exposure can have drastic consequences – remember the Rodney King affair?

It seems likely that there will be more news of this ilk in coming months. Here at El Reg, we are in two minds. On the one hand, we aren’t especially in favour of the stripping away of privacy that it represents – but then we do believe that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

As New Labour increasingly looks to pry into every detail of our private lives, some sort of reciprocal right to peer into theirs seems only fair, doesn’t it?

Under international criticism, China lifts labor camp sentence for protesting grandmas

These two elderly Chinese women — 79-year-old Wu Dianyuan, left, and Wang Xiuying, 77 — had been sentenced to a year of “re-education” through labor. Goh Chai Hin / AFP-Getty Images

Labor camp was ordered after two sought protest permit during Olympics

The re-education system, in place since 1957, allows police to sidestep the need for a criminal trial or a formal charge and directly send people to prison for up to four years to perform penal labor.

“In the glare of international attention, it seems that even the government itself has acknowledged that this punishment was harsh and inappropriate,” Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, said in a statement.

MSNBC | Aug 30, 2008

BEIJING – Chinese authorities have reversed their decision and will not send two elderly women to a labor camp after they applied for a protest permit during the Olympics, a human rights group said Saturday.

No reason was given for the reversal, New York-based Human Rights in China said in a statement. The Public Security Bureau had no immediate comment.

On Aug. 17, authorities sentenced Wu Dianyuan, 79, and her neighbor Wang Xiuying, 77, to a year of re-education through labor for “disturbing the public order.” The sentence provoked widespread international criticism.

The order followed the pair’s repeated attempts to apply for permission to hold a protest against being forced from their homes at one of three areas designated by the government during the Beijing Olympics.

The two went five times between Aug. 5 and Aug. 18 to apply for demonstration permits, Human Rights in China said, but they received no word on their requests.

“In the glare of international attention, it seems that even the government itself has acknowledged that this punishment was harsh and inappropriate,” Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, said in a statement.

Some 77 applications were lodged to hold protests in the Olympic zones, most of them far from the Olympic venues, but none were staged.

The re-education system, in place since 1957, allows police to sidestep the need for a criminal trial or a formal charge and directly send people to prison for up to four years to perform penal labor.

Critics say it is misused to detain political or religious activists, and violates suspects’ rights.

Police raid homes of Republican convention protesters

Police target protesters at RNC convention

‘They will not crush our spirit,’ one protester says of police raids

MSNBC | Aug 30, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Republican National Convention protesters targeted in a series of police raids Friday night and Saturday say they won’t back down from their plans to march on the event’s opening day.

Organizers have said they hope to attract up to 50,000 people to the protest Monday.

Four people were arrested at two Minneapolis homes and booked on probable cause of conspiracy to commit a riot, said Gina Berglund, an attorney helping to represent protesters. There were no arrests at a third home targeted. Later, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office said a fifth person was arrested at an undisclosed location.

“A lot of people in the activist community are really on pins and needles about who’s next,” Berglund said.

Protester Michelle Gross said a fourth home, this one in St. Paul, was being raided Saturday afternoon. Two people were outside the home in handcuffs while police awaited a search warrant, she said. St. Paul police spokesman Tom Walsh said a search warrant was being executed but could not confirm whether anyone had been arrested.

On Friday night, Ramsey County sheriff’s deputies raided an organizing site of a group — the RNC Welcoming Committee — that has publicized plans to disrupt convention activities. No one was arrested.

“They will not crush our spirit,” said protester Lisa Fithian from Austin, Texas, at a gathering of about 300 people in a Minneapolis park Saturday afternoon. “Our organization will continue. We will be on the streets.”

The raids drew criticism from other than the targets.

Dave Thune, a St. Paul city councilman whose district includes the theater building used as a hub for the protesters, denounced the raid, saying people had a legal right to assemble there.

“We spent so much time trying to welcome people to the city and now this is the way we start out,” he said. “It pretty much sucks.”

Black helicopters menace Portland skies in urban warfare exercise

Urban Warfare Training Returns To Portland


Portland to black helicopters: Stick to Jantzen Beach area

KPTV | Aug 27, 2008

PORTLAND, Ore. — The black military helicopters that had many Portlanders looking skyward with concern returned to the city Wednesday.

U.S. military Special Forces units held a training exercise Wednesday night in the Jantzen Beach area.

On Monday, the low-flying helicopters buzzed around downtown Portland, leading many Portland residents to worry there was an emergency.

Black helicopters over Portland for DOD terror drills

However, the city had previously given the U.S. Navy permission for helicopters to train over Portland this week. The exercises are part of routine training performed by the Department of Defense in large cities across the country.

During Monday’s exercise, dozens of people frightened by the low-flying helicopters called police, who later asked the Department of Defense to move the training out of the downtown area.

Nearly 200 people are involved in the realistic urban warfare training, according to the Department of Defense.

After Wednesday night’s exercise at an abandoned hotel in Jantzen Beach, the Department of Defense takes its on-going training mission to the Salem area Thursday.

Officials haven’t specified where exactly or when they will conduct the training.

Intel sees future with shape-shifting humanoid robots

Chip maker’s CTO says at IDF that human, machine intelligence will be similar by 2050

Computer World | August 22, 2008

By Sharon Gaudin

The intelligence gap between man and machine will largely close by the year 2050, according to Intel Corp.’s chief technology officer, who yesterday reiterated that point during a keynote address at the Intel Developer Forum.

At the IDF event in San Francisco, Intel CTO Justin Rattner said that the chip maker’s research labs are working on human-machine interfaces and looking to foster big changes in robotics and the way computers interact with humans. He specifically pointed to work that Intel is doing on wireless power and on developing tiny robots that can be programmed to take on the shape of anything from a cell phone to a shoe or even a human.

“The industry has taken much greater strides than anyone ever imagined 40 years ago,” Rattner said. “There is speculation that we may be approaching an inflection point where the rate of technology advancements is accelerating at an exponential rate, and machines could even overtake humans in their ability to reason in the not-so-distant future.”

Just last month, Rattner, who also is a senior fellow at Intel, made similar comments in an interview with Computerworld, saying that perhaps as early as 2012, the lines between human and machine intelligence will begin to blur. The intelligence gap should become awfully narrow within the next 40 years, he added, predicting that by 2050, computing will be less about launching applications and more about using systems that are inextricably woven into our daily activities.

In that same vein, Rattner talked about programmable matter during his IDF speech. He explained that Intel researchers are working to figure out how to harness millions of miniature robots, called catoms, so they could function as shape-shifting swarms.

“What if those machines had a small amount of intelligence, and they could assemble themselves into various shapes and were capable of movement or locomotion?” he said. “If you had enough of them, you could create arbitrary shapes and have the assembly of machines that could take on any form and move in arbitrary ways.”

The basic idea is that the catoms, which one day should be about the size of a grain of sand, could be manipulated with electromagnetic forces to cling together in various 3-D forms. Rattner said that Intel has been expanding on research work done by Seth Goldstein, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

“We’re actually doing it for real,” Rattner said. He added that Intel started “at the macro scale,” with catoms that were “inches across.” The robots had microprocessors associated with them and could attract or repel one another via electromagnetism or the use of electrostatic charges, according to Rattner. “It’s programmable matter,” he said.

During his speech, Rattner showed off millimeter-scale 3-D catoms and said that electronics could be embedded inside the miniature robotic spheres.

Jason Campbell, a senior researcher at Intel, said in an interview that the development and use of catoms will change the way people interact with computers and other devices in significant ways.

“Think of a mobile device,” Campbell said. “My cell phone is too big to fit comfortably in my pocket and too small for my fingers. It’s worse if I try to watch movies or do my e-mail. But if I had 200 to 300 milliliters of catoms, I could have it take on the shape of the device that I need at that moment.” For example, the catoms could be manipulated to create a larger keypad for text messaging. And when the device wasn’t being used, Campbell said, he could command it “to form its smallest shape or even be a little squishy, so I can just drop it in my pocket.”

Campbell envisions that each catom would have a computer processor and some form of memory. Four years ago, he thought it would take 30 to 50 years for this kind of technology to be realized. Now, though, he estimates that the time it will take is much closer to 10 years.

Both Campbell and Rattner said the biggest obstacle will be figuring out how to make the micro-bots think like a swarm. Instead of sending individual directions to each catom, one set of instructions will have to be sent to make the catoms work together, so each one takes the correct position to create the desired 3-D shape. But both were optimistic that it will happen, eventually.

“Sometime over the next 40 years, this will become everyday technology,” Rattner said in an interview before his speech. And could catoms actually take human form? “Sure,” he said. “Why not? It’s an interesting thing to speculate on.”

Wireless power

Another technology that Rattner said will change the way users deal with computers is wireless power. Imagine, he said, being able to take your laptop, cell phone or music player into a room and have them begin to charge automatically. What if it could be done in a certain area of an airport or at your office desk? No more power cords. No more need to find a place to plug in.

Working off of principles proposed by MIT physicists, Intel researchers have been working on what they’re calling a Wireless Resonant Energy Link. During his keynote address, Rattner demonstrated how a 60-watt light bulb can be powered wirelessly and said that doing so requires more power than would be needed to charge a typical laptop.

“Wouldn’t it be neat,” he said in the interview, “if we could really cut the cord and not be burdened with all these heavy batteries, and not worry if you have the charger? If we could transmit power wirelessly, think of all the machines that would become much more efficient.”

Joshua Smith, a principal engineer at Intel, said in a separate interview that the company’s researchers are able to wirelessly power the light bulb at a distance of several feet, with a 70% efficiency rate — meaning that 30% of the energy is being lost during the power transfer.

Even so, “it’s a big step,” said Smith. Within a few years, he envisions having laptops that recharge themselves via a wireless connection if they’re within 10 feet of a base station.

“You could certainly imagine integrating it into existing computer equipment,” Smith added. “You’d have power hot spots in your house or office. Where you have a wireless hot spot, you could [also have a power hot spot] and get data and power there. That’s the vision.”