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The percentage of patents filed by foreigners living in the U.S. has tripled in the last decade, yet the tight cap on permanent visas may force entrepreneurs back home to create rival companies in China, India, and elsewhere. The Associated Press reports that researchers from Harvard, Duke, and New York University have published an analysis of international patent filings, calling the trend "reverse brain drain." They warn that, without immigration reform, skilled immigrants will leave the U.S. and possibly erode the nation's competitiveness. The EB (permanent) visa for skilled workers is currently capped at about 120,000 per year. Based on U.S. data used in the analysis, more than one million foreign nationals were waiting for permanent residency in 2006, including more than 500,000 highly skilled immigrants. The research team created a database of inventors who filed patent applications with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) from 1998–2006. Accordingly, foreign nationals accounted for 7.3% of WIPO patents filed from the U.S. in 1998, but by 2006, they more than tripled to 24.2%. Applications filed by foreigners were greatest in such tech hubs as California, Massachusetts, Texas, New York, and New Jersey.

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Positioning Nanoparticles

One of the tiniest artworks ever made was recently unveiled by IBM researchers. This image of the sun is made up of 20,000 gold nanoparticles and measures just 80 microns wide, or less than one-tenth the size of a pinhead. The printing method, detailed in Nature Nanotechnology, could be used to inexpensively fabricate tiny sensors and components for future microchips, reports BBC News. IBM researchers are no strangers to tiny artwork, but processes like this have been too expensive and time-consuming to be used to mass-produce products. The new printing method offers a solution. To print an image, nanoparticles are precisely arranged on a soft silicon template. A substrate of glass or silicon, for example, is then laid on top and the image transferred. "This method opens up new ways to precisely and efficiently position various kinds of nanoparticles on different surfaces," says IBM researcher Heiko Wolf. The firm believes the technique could be used to print nanocircuits for tiny high-performance chips as well as being used to produce tiny sensors to monitor diseases in the body.

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Armed Robotic Forces

The U.S. Army quietly entered a new era a few months ago when it sent the first armed ground robots into action in Iraq. Not quite an invasion, only three of the so-called special weapons observation remote reconnaissance direct action system (SWORDS) were initially deployed last summer. Their exact whereabouts and missions are classified, but officials have confirmed they were used in reconnaissance tasks and street patrols. National Defense Magazine reports the Army has authorized the purchase of 80 more robots—which are being touted as a potentially lifesaving technology—but acquisition officials have not yet provided related funding. Whether SWORDS or other armed robots become effective weapons remains to be seen. The U.S. military is moving forward with dozens of other robot programs—from ubiquitous surveillance drones to ground robots that perform security and logistics duties. SWORDS could be the first step leading to a larger robot army. Officials note that insurgents will attempt to defeat them with new counter-roadside bomb technology, warning robots could last weeks rather than months in the field.


"I'll have malaria vaccine or tuberculosis vaccine or high school curricula in America...things that, at least the way my mind works, where I sit and say, `This is so important; this is so solvable. You've just got to get the guy who understands this, and this new technology will bring these things together.'"—Bill Gates, on projects he expects will keep him busy upon stepping down as Microsoft's chairman next summer.


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Wireless in Afghanistan

About 150,000 people subscribe to cell phone service each month in Afghanistan and the country's leaders see "no end in sight" to the growth in demand. While the Afghan economy is growing quickly, due mostly to the infusion of foreign aid since the military action against the Taliban in 2001, its living standard is among the lowest in the world, and it faces increasing security problems. The Afghan economy is predominantly rural, and trade and industry are badly hampered by crumbling roads and a chronic shortage of electricity. But as seen in other developing nations, cell phone service providers have done a brisk business, bringing communication to poor villagers who until four years ago rarely, if ever, used a telephone. Calling rates are currently approximately 10 cents a minute, with the cheapest phone cards going for the equivalent of $1. Today, over 12% of the country's 25 million people have cell phones. Communications minister Amirzai Sangin predicts the telecommunication and IT sector will be the engine of growth for Afghanistan.

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Deep Sea Change

As if the world's oceans do not host enough fiber optic cable, about 800 more miles of it will soon thread the sea floor off the coast of the U.S. Pacific Northwest as part of the Ocean Observatories Initiative—a $331 million global program to study the ocean in the ocean. The New York Times reports a central goal of the program is to better understand how oceans affect life on land, including their role in storing carbon and in climate change; the causes of tsunamis; the rise and fall of fish populations; and the growing seasons via ocean temperature. The equipment, expected to be in place by 2009, will include Internet-linked cables, buoys atop submerged data collection devices, robots, and high-definition cameras. Several scientists cite improved technology—from increased bandwidth to the ability to provide constant power to instruments at sea through underwater cables or solar or wind power—as critical to making the program possible. As data results are immediately accessible via the Internet, oceanographers hope to engage other scientists and the public more deeply in ocean issues.

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Happy Day

Carnegie Mellon University professor Scott E. Fahlman says he was the first to use three keystrokes—a colon followed by a hyphen and a parenthesis—as a horizontal smiley face in a computer message. This serious contribution to emotional icons celebrated its 25th anniversary in September by introducing an annual student contest for innovation in technology-assisted, person-to-person communication. The Smiley Award, sponsored by Yahoo Inc., will carry a $500 cash prize. Fahlman says he posted the emoticon in a message to an online bulletin board at 11:44 A.M. on Sept. 19, 1982, during a discussion about the limits of online humor and how to denote comments meant to be taken lightly. "I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: :-)," wrote Fahlman. "Read it sideways." The smiley, so the story goes, spread from CMU to other universities, then businesses, and eventually worldwide as the Internet gained popularity. Computer science and linguistic professors contacted by The Associated Press said they were unaware of who first used the symbol. Fahlman contends he knows of no hard evidence that the sequence was in use before his original post nor has anyone else laid claim to it.

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