25 leading-edge IT research projects

While universities don't tend to shout as loudly about their latest tech innovations as do Google, Cisco and other big vendors, their results are no less impressive in what they could mean for faster, more secure and more useful networking. Here's a roundup, in no particular order, of some of the most amazing and colorful projects in the works.

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1. Exploiting T-rays

Who needs electricity to run superfast computers when there's terahertz radiation, or T-rays? University of Utah engineers have reached deep into the electromagnetic spectrum to find this new way to build circuits for computers that would run a thousand times faster than today's gigahertz-speed computers. The development involves creation of waveguides to send and manipulate T-rays, also known as far-infrared light.

"We have taken a first step to making circuits that can harness or guide terahertz radiation," says Ajay Nahata, study leader and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, in a statement. "Eventually - in a minimum of 10 years - this will allow the development of superfast circuits, computers and communications."

2. Hybrids: Computers, not cars

A multi-university research team funded by the Department of Defense is working to combine computer memory functions typically performed by magnetic components and computer logic operations typically handled by semiconductor components into a hybrid material. The benefit would be faster and more compact machines that chow down less power and are less expensive to build.

"In this approach, the coupling between magnetic and non-magnetic components would occur via a magnetic field or flow of electron spin, which is the fundamental property of an electron and is responsible for most magnetic phenomena," says Giovanni Vignale , a University of Missouri physics professor in the College of Arts and Science, in a statement. "The hybrid devices that we target would allow seamless integration of memory and logical function, high-speed optical communication and switching, and new sensor capabilities."

The Department of Defense awarded a $6.5 million grant to the University of Iowa for the project. In addition to the Iowa and Missouri schools, also working on the project are researchers from New York University, University of California at Berkeley and the University of Pittsburgh.

3. Getting to bottom of Web searches

Web search might seem like a complex issue, but it really boils down to three basic kinds of searches: informational, navigational and transactional (related to buying something).

That's the word from researchers at Penn State University's College of Information Sciences and Technology and Australia's Queensland University of Technology who looked at more than 1.5 million queries from hundreds of thousands of search engines users.

The bulk of searches (80%) proved to be informational, with the other 20% split between navigational and transactional. The researchers used an algorithm that they say classified searches with a 74% accuracy rate.

"Other results have classified comparatively much smaller sets of queries, usually manually," said Jim Jansen, assistant professor in Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology, in a statement . "This research aimed to classify queries automatically.

The researchers' work is outlined in a paper titled "Determining the informational, navigational and transactional intent of Web queries" that will appear in the May issue of Information Processing & Management.

4. Mapping the whole Internet

Israeli researchers have created a topographical map of the Internet by enlisting more than 5,600 volunteers across 97 countries who agreed to download a program that tracks how Internet nodes interact with each other.

The result is "the most complete picture of the Internet available today," Bar Ilan University researcher Shai Carmi told the MIT Technology Review.

"A better understanding of the Internet's structure is vital for integration of voice, data and video streams, point-to-point and point-to-many distribution of information, and assembling and searching all of the world's information," Carmi and fellow researchers state in a new report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "It may reveal evolutionary processes that control the growth of the Internet."

Carmi's research uses a program called the DIMES agent, which is downloaded onto volunteers' computers and performs Internet measurements such as traceroute and ping. The project's Web site promises that, along with providing a "good feeling," using the DIMES agent will provide maps to users showing how the Internet looks from their homes. Users of the program chat about their findings at this forum.

Another project that tracks Internet traffic growth is called the Minnesota Internet Traffic Studies (MINTS) site.

5. The Fluid Project

A handful of universities, including the University of Toronto and the University of California, Berkeley, is working to build a software architecture and reusable components that can make Web applications easier to develop and use. The Fluid Project's work focuses on user-centered design practices. Vendors such as Mozilla Foundation, IBM and Sun are also taking part.

The latest news out of the project is that a grant has been awarded to the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto from the Mozilla Foundation to promote DHTML accessibility and the adoption of ARIA (the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative's Accessible Rich Internet Applications specification).

6. Attila: one radio on many wireless networks

Today's wireless networks are in a rut: Most radios that form the networks can only work on one frequency band of the spectrum. If that band is glutted, glitchy or jammed, the radios are useless.

Enter Attila the Radio, invented by two researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J. The concept is simple: Attila parcels out a stream of data packets over any and all available wireless spectrum at the same time. The packets could stream, for example, over a Wi-Fi mesh, Verizon's Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) cell network, rival AT&T's Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) airwaves, and over a WiMAX link.

Current prototypes use several radios, one for each of the networks being used, but the goal is a single radio. The future of Attila the radio lies now with Attila the company, formally known as Atilla Technologies, which was founded in 2005 by two Stevens Institute of Technology researchers.

7. Sniffing out insider threats

Researchers are developing technology they say will use data mining and social networking techniques to spot and stop insider security threats and industrial espionage.

Air Force Institute of Technology researchers have developed software that can spot insider threats using an extended version of automated document indexing known as Probabilistic Latent Semantic Indexing (PLSI). This technology can discern employees' interests from e-mail and create a social network graph showing their various interactions, researchers said.

The technology could help any organization sniff out insider threats by analyzing e-mail activity or find individuals among potentially tens of thousands of employees with latent interests in sensitive topics. The same technology might also be used to spot individuals who feel alienated within the organization as well as unraveling any worrying changes in their social network interactions. The researchers explain that individuals who have shown an interest in a sensitive topic but who have never communicated to others within the organization on this subject are often the most likely to be an insider threat.

The software can reveal those people either with a secret interest in that topic or who may feel alienated from the organization and so communicate their interest in it only to those outside the organization, researchers said. Another important signal of alienation or a potential problem is a shift in the connections between an individual and others within the organization. If an individual suddenly stops communicating or socializing with others with whom they have previously had frequent contact, then the technology could alert investigators to such changes.

The research team tested their approach on the archived body of messages from the liquidated Enron company e-mail system.

8. All about Twitter

University of Maryland students have written a paper called "Why We Twitter: Understanding Microblogging Usage and Communities" examining why people Twitter. Also known as microblogging, Twittering is a new form of communication in which users can describe their current status in short posts distributed by instant messages, mobile phones, e-mail or the Web," according to the paper's abstract.

The authors, Akshay Java, Xiaodan Song, Tim Finin and Belle Tseng, say the paper "presents our observations of the microblogging phenomena by studying the topological and geographical properties of Twitter's social network." They concluded that figuring out why individuals microblog is elusive, but that by analyzing an aggregate of data across a community can provide insight into why a group of people microblog.

9. Spotting phishers

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have developed an online game designed to teach Internet users about the dangers of phishing.

Featuring a cartoon fish named Phil, the game, called Anti-Phishing Phil, has been tested in CMU's Privacy and Security Laboratory. Officials with the lab say users who spent 15 minutes playing the interactive, online game were better able to discern fraudulent Web sites than those who simply read tutorials about the threat.

The game focuses on teaching Internet users how to tell the URL of a fraudulent site from a legitimate one, officials say. It offers tips such as examining URLs for misspellings of popular sites, dissecting a Web address to understand where it's pointing to, and using Google to validate a URL against search results. More here.

10. RFID and the heart

Telemedicine researchers have been awarded a $400,000 grant to work on integrating RFID technology with cardiac sensor networks used to monitor patients' heartbeats.

The Rochester Institute of Technology says its work will make cardiac sensor networks more secure, reducing the chances of identity theft or other abuse. The work could also make the healthcare process work more efficiently by supporting RFID tags on medicine bottles, the school says.

"Telemedicine technology can greatly increase the quality of medical care while also decreasing healthcare costs," said Fei Hu, assistant professor of computer engineering at RIT, in a statement. "Through this project we hope to increase the integration of RFID into existing cardiac sensor networks, ensure the overall security of the system and promote the implementation of the technology in nursing homes and adult care facilities across the country."

11. Analyzing the "Dark Web"

Computer scientists at a University of Arizona lab have created a project called Dark Web that is designed to track and analyze the moves of terrorists and extremists using the Internet to spread propaganda, recruit members and plan attacks (click here to read our feature on cyberwar).

The project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies, is led by Hsinchun Chen at the Artificial Intelligence Lab in Tucson. Dark Web's specialty is tracking massive amounts of information scattered across thousands of Web sites and in e-mail and other online programs. Spidering, link analysis, multimedia analysis and other techniques are used, according to the NSF.

A method dubbed Writeprint is used to strip away the anonymity of terrorists online by analyzing language, semantic and other features of content and comparing it with other content posted across the Internet. Authors can be identified and new information published by the authors can be flagged as it is posted and spread. One recent study by the Dark Web team identified stories and videos used to train terrorists in building improvised explosive devices.

Not that the terrorists are unaware they're being watched.

"They can put booby-traps in their Web forums," Chen said in a statement, "and the spider can bring back viruses to our machines."

12. Really, really fast wireless

Scientists at the Georgia Electronic Design Center (GEDC) at the Georgia Institute of Technology have designed a system that can transfer data at 5Gbps at a range of 5 meters.

Joy Laskar, the GEDC's director, says many of the products designed for the 60GHz band initially will be marketed to consumers for home use, because businesses are more likely to take wait-and-see attitudes with new technology that hasn't yet proved reliable. Even so, he says he can imagine several business applications for multigigabit networks, especially in the field of large-scale data transfer. "Imagine that you have a portable device that's essentially an evolved iPod that has hundreds of gigs of storage," he says. "One scenario would be to have several kiosks around an office that could wirelessly send information to your device."

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