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Anyone. Along with dubious stock tips and offers for Viagra online, these
unsolicited and unwanted e-mail messages flood my in-box.
Spam, named for the venerable tinned meat product, is part of the dark side
of the Internet revolution. Nettlesome junk postal mail is restrained by the
expense of sending it. Telemarketing calls, which are even more annoying, are
expensive, too. But e-mail spam is virtually free of cost to the sender, so
there is little to keep it from growing.
There’s not much that individuals can do to limit the junk. Spammers rarely
honor the offers they provide to take recipients off lists, and unlike postal
mail, there is no legal requirement for them to do so. Mail programs, including
Microsoft Outlook, AOL, Yahoo!, and Hotmail, offer not-very-effective tools to
deal with junk mail. The spammers always stay one step ahead of the tricks the
programs use to identify junk. As a result, automatic filters tend either to
misidentify spam as legitimate mail or, worse, brand real mail as junk.
There are, however, steps that the Internet community could take, both on its
own and in conjunction with governments, to control the problem. One simple
measure is fixing a flaw in the design of the Internet. The Net was designed as
a friendly, cooperative tool for academics, and it was set up so that if a
University of California at Los Angeles mail server was down, a researcher there
could send messages through a server at Stanford University. Today, such
“open relays” make it easy for spammers to disguise the source of
their mail and avoid being nailed for abuse of accounts by their own Internet
A sort of Net vigilantism is gradually shutting down relays. Organizations
such as the Mail Abuse Prevention System and the Open Relay
Behavior-Modification System publish lists of servers used as relays by spammers.
Subscribers refuse to accept any mail coming from the listed servers. Since this
stops legitimate mail as well as spam, any ISP that ends up on the list comes
under intense pressure from unhappy customers and will block the offender. It’s
rough justice, but it works.
Other approaches require government intervention. In the US, it is illegal to
send an unsolicited ad by fax. What puts some teeth in this prohibition is a
requirement that every fax carry a legitimate phone number from which it
originated, creating easy grounds for action against violators. Similarly, every
piece of e-mail should be required to carry a valid return address instead of
the bogus addresses spammers use. This won’t stop spam, but it could
drastically reduce it, as it has junk faxes.
Success will require international action. Increasingly, the spam I see
appears to originate overseas, especially in Eastern Europe, though most of the
goods and services being offered are American. Spammers may be using open relays
abroad, foreign ISP accounts, or just fake foreign addresses, but the problem is
clearly international and may have to involve bodies such as the International
A final area for action is plain old law enforcement. Many of the services
advertised are obviously illegal. You don’t get stuff like this in your
mailbox because postal inspectors enforce mail-fraud laws. But there’s no
law-enforcement agency interested in fighting illegal spam. We need one.
Spam is more than a nuisance. The volume clogs mail servers and fills inboxes
with junk. And the slimy nature of most of
these mailings is a threat to legitimate e-commerce. It’s time to end the
spammers’ free ride.
By Stephen H Wildstrom
in BusinessWeek. Copyright 2001 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc
that the underpinnings for smart robots are falling into place, researchers in
dozens of corporate and academic labs are racing to develop working models that
within a few years may become our cohabitants and co-workers.
Personal robots won’t even approach their full potential in this decade,
but robot makers have already fielded many commercial previews. Although
sometimes clumsy and unpredictable, service robots are functioning as guards in
warehouses, delivering hospital food trays, and carrying documents from one
office to another. The Japan Robot Association (Jara) estimates that by 2002,
some 11,000 service robots will be deployed, 65% of them in hospitals and
nursing homes. By 2005, give or take a year, Jara projects that health-care
robots will be a $250 million market. As for personal bots, a panel of industry
and academic experts last year predicted they will be as common as PCs and cell
phones within 10 or 15 years.
One of the first robo sapiens on the market will be Honda’s Asimo, a
1.2-meter-tall android that resembles a child astronaut. It strides confidently,
climbs stairs, and negotiates corners. It can turn out the lights, and to show
off, walk a figure eight or compete with Sony’s SDR bots on the dance floor.
The hitch is that Asimo currently is blind, deaf, and dumb–and must be
remotely controlled. This fall, for an undisclosed fee, Honda will start renting
Asimo to companies and museums for use as a visitor’s guide.
Sony has already proved that mechanical companions are a promising market.
Now, sales of entertainment robots, it believes, are primed to explode. These
include electronic critters like the $1,500 Aibo, which can learn tricks and
respond to voice commands. The latest model looks like a lion cub. Over the next
five years, an expanding menagerie of mechanical pets from Sony and others could
whet consumer demand. And then, around mid-decade, Sony’s acrobots should hit
the market–probably at prices comparable to a high-end PC. Come the 2010s,
predicts Toshi Doi, head of Sony’s Digital Creatures Lab, each of Japan’s 46
million households will have two or three robots, including a humanoid.
Researchers everywhere are equally fascinated by the potential of home robots
and cyber-companions. Ironically, some European and North American labs are
counting on biological approaches to help produce mechanical beings–a tack
called evolutionary robotics. The basic idea is to raise a machine like a child,
letting it learn from its own experiences and sensory impressions, rather than
feeding it canned software written by humans.
MIT’s Cog and Kismet are probably the most famous of the self-educated
bots. Cog is the brainchild of Rodney Brooks, head of MIT’s AI Lab. This
humanoid torso has been learning to interact with its surroundings and with
people since its “birth” in 1993. Cog has mentally progressed to the
crawling-infant stage–although its legs have yet to be attached. Cog’s face
is less expressive than Kismet’s, but even so, it can be engaging. Its camera
eyes track moving people, and it establishes eye contact with people facing it.
No matter how personable Cog may seem, fulfilling Brooks’s dream of a robot
with human-level intelligence remains on the distant horizon. Still, many
experts believe truly smart robots are inevitable, given the ever-growing power
of computer chips.
There are a lots of BEAM proponents in Europe–and many researchers there
also share Japan’s view of the near-term need for personal robots. For
example, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute has developed Care-O-Bot, to help
elderly and infirm people maintain independent lifestyles. It can guide and
support people who are unsteady on their feet, run errands around the house, and
operate home electronics.
In the US, though, getting the funds to turn robot research into a going
business has been a problem, laments Joseph Engelberger. Widely hailed as the
father of the industrial robot, Engelberger co-founded Unimation. 40 years ago
and created the factory-robot industry from scratch. After cashing out in 1983,
he founded HelpMate Robotics to build service robots. His flagship: wheeled
cabinets that scurry around hospitals, distributing medicines and patient
records. But Engelberger always had his eyes on domestic robots because the
market potential is clearly far bigger.
In 1997, HelpMate built a two-armed, wheeled prototype for NASA to evaluate
as a helpmate in space. Engelberger intended to adapt it for home use, since its
touch-sensitive hands and two arms could make beds and prepare meals for
seniors. But it was not to be. He couldn’t raise the $5 million he needed to
bring it to market, and financial problems forced him to sell the company in
1999. This lack of interest in robotics puzzles the Japanese. Many reckon it’s
because Hollywood often depicts robots as monsters, whereas the Japanese view
them as helpers.
As a result, Japan has amassed a formidable stockpile of robotics knowhow,
producing twice as many as the rest of the world combined.
Furthermore, Japan has an army of young, savvy robotics experts. Close to
half of its 4,500 registered robot engineers are focused on AI or related
disciplines aimed at enhancing robot intelligence.
Song and dance
Shoestring budgets at Waseda University and other academic labs nourished
Japan’s early robot dreams. Now, well-heeled Japanese corporations are
transforming research into commercial products. Backed by ample resources,
corporate engineers are now busily refining sensors and rewriting algorithms to
create more sophisticated machines.
As margins dwindle on consumer electronics and industrial equipment, Japan’s
manufacturers are desperately seeking new genres of products. Smart robots that
combine a virtuoso entertainer, flawless social secretary, compliant
maid-butler, patient listener, and multimedia communications system could be
just the ticket. Such companions could record the passing years and regale
people with intricately detailed multimedia stories of family triumphs and
personal exploits. Anything that owners forget, their cyber-companions would
The chief blemish on Japan’s bullish outlook is that buyers might expect
too much from the first crop of bots. Early androids may not have enough finesse
to poke around inside packed refrigerators, and people might be wise not to
trust them to iron shirts. “Just because robots can sing and dance doesn’t
mean they’ll soon do everything,” cautions Shigeo Hirose, a robotics
professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology. Aibo the robo pet has proved they
don’t have to. Robots can ease their way into our lives, step by mechanical
By Irene M Kunii and Otis Port in BusinessWeek. Copyright 2001 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc