Software turns dog barks into bytes

What are dogs really saying when they bark? A team of researchers (led by ethologist Csaba Molnár from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest) set out to find out. Using specially designed software, the group studied the acoustic qualities of more than 6,000 barks from 14 Hungarian sheepdogs in six different situations: alone, engaged in a dogfight, in an encounter with a stranger, on a leisurely stroll, exercising with a ball, and playing. The team recorded the pooch calls on tape, which was then transferred to and digitalized on a computer, which coded, classified and evaluated the individual barks. The software correctly linked the bark with the situation in 43 percent of cases. The best recognition rates came during dogfights and stranger confrontations; the software had the least success in trying to analyze the pups at play. The researchers say that the different states—aggressive, friendly or submissive—resulted in acoustically different barks. In a second experiment, the software correctly matched individual canines with their barks in 53 percent of the cases. The researchers insist that the research "opens new perspectives" for the understanding of animal communication, but we're betting that most dog owners could pick their pet's bark out of a crowd without fancy software to tell them what it means.

Microsoft taking spyware to a whole new level

Think that your boss monitoring your e-mail is intrusive? Well, get a load of this: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is weighing an application from Microsoft for a patent on a "unique monitoring system" that can automatically detect (and alert employers of) an individual worker's stress, frustration and productivity levels. According to the application, the software would use "physiological or environmental sensors to detect at least one of [a series of stress markers such as] heart rate, galvanic skin response, EMG (electromyography), brain signals, respiration rate, body temperature and movement, facial movements and expressions, and blood pressure." The software would keep taps on productivity via company-issued desktop computers, laptops, cell phones, pocket PC phones, PDAs and / or compact handheld PCs; employees flagged as slackers would receive messages inquiring whether they need assistance and identifying "at least one other user that can assist them," Microsoft said. In addition to keeping an eye on individuals, the software would also monitor members of project teams to enhance communication and chances of making deadlines, not to mention help management determine who is—and isn't—pulling his or her own weight. Microsoft appears to be re-writing the definition of spyware.

A new test for early-stage Alzheimer's

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University report that they have developed a new device that may be able to detect mild cognitive impairment, an early warning sign of Alzheimer's disease. The device, called DETECT, involves a 10-minute test that measures memory and reaction time. It includes an LCD display in a visor placed around a patient's head with an onboard dedicated computer, noise reduction headphones and a controller. The display projects the visual aspect of the test, the headphones provide the verbal instructions and the wearer records his or her response via the controller. The portable test runs patients through a battery of visual and auditory stimuli such as pictures and words that assess cognitive abilities relative to age, gauging reaction time and memory capabilities. Its software can track cognitive capabilities—and decline—year to year during annual appointments. Because the device blocks outside sound and light from the patient's environment, it can be administered in virtually any setting, providing more consistent results. The researchers are hoping to make the device available to physicians by year's end.

New GPS warning system could prevent car crashes

Researchers for Europe's Relative Positioning For Collision Avoidance Systems (Reposit) project are developing a warning system that uses global positioning system technology and wireless networking to give drivers a heads-up any time other vehicles come dangerously close. Current radio-frequency collision detection systems are generally located either in the front or the rear of new cars, and "aren't prepared for lateral situations," says José Ignacio Herrero Zarzosa, an industrial engineer with GMV S.A., in Madrid, Spain, who is working on the new system. "The goal was to demonstrate how GPS can be used as an active safety system." During a recent test—performed using a computer to simulate driving conditions—collision warning systems successfully gathered raw GPS data on vehicles in their vicinity and enabled wireless communication among vehicles using an emerging technology known as Vehicle2Vehicle protocol. The result: simulated cars received a two- to five-second warning that a collision was about to occur. Zarzosa says that researchers will now develop a prototype to show carmakers, who will hopefully install it in new vehicles.

Beating rat heart grown in laboratory

In a trick worthy of the fictional Dr. Frankenstein himself, researchers from the University of Minnesota announced this week that they had created beating rat hearts by removing all of the cells from newborn rat hearts and replacing them with muscle and endothelial cells (which line blood vessels). Scientists would like to engineer human organs from scratch, but so far have only had success with structurally simple organs such as skin and experimental bladders. Tissue engineer Doris Taylor and her team report in Nature Medicine that they removed the cells from rat hearts by pouring detergent down the arteries, leaving behind a translucent scaffold, which they filled with neonatal cells and implanted into the abdomens of living rats or pulsed with electricity to bring about beating. Taylor told reporters she is testing the cellular switcheroo on pig hearts and that it may work for other organs, from kidneys to lungs. (Nature Medicine; The New York Times)

Company claims human cloning success

The scientific cloning community looked on skeptically this week when a private research company announced that it had cloned the first human embryos. Researchers at Stemagen, based in La Jolla, Calif., reported in the journal Stem Cells, that they had produced three cloned blastocysts (early-stage embryos) from 25 donated egg cells by the procedure of somatic cell nuclear transfer, which involves replacing an egg nucleus with that of an adult donor's skin cell. (In this case, one donor was the company's CEO, Samuel Wood.) Although Stemagen said the cloned embryos grew to the stage that yields embryonic stem cell lines—the company's stated goal is to created cloned cell lines for therapeutic purposes—other experts in the field told news outlets that the blastocysts in published photographs didn't look that healthy. (Stemagen; The Washington Post)

FDA green-lights meat n' milk from cloned animals

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week gave its nod to meat and milk made from cloned animals, culminating years of fiery debate over the safety of such products. The agency, in a bulky "final risk assessment," said it did not find any health risks from eating meat produced from healthy cloned pigs, goats and cows—or from the milk of cloned bovine or their offspring. But the agency reportedly said that it needed more info before determining the safety of meat and milk from cloned sheep and concluded that meat from newborn cattle clones "may pose some very limited human food consumption risk." The agency two years ago reached a preliminary decision that it was safe for human consumption, but it was required to collect more safety data before issuing a final decision. Despite the ruling, there's a question of whether cloned products will ever be used: one reason being the estimated $15,000–to–$20,000 price tag to create a cloned cow, for instance. Experts said it was more likely that, if anything, offspring of cloned animals would be used, which is at least three years down the road. The Senate last month passed a measure that would bar the FDA from okaying the move pending further study of potential health effects. The Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the 968-page report, reported that it contained hundreds of pages of raw data apparently designed to ease a jittery public. The Consumers Union called on Congress to require tracking and labeling of milk and meat from cloned animals. "There is simply too little data," said CU senior scientist Michael Hansen, for consumers to be completely confident that eating cloned food is safe."