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With the Internet firmly established as an invaluable source of everyday information, it was only a matter of time before automobile companies started offering Net access in their vehicles. The arrival of a voice-driven system called OnStar, developed jointly by General Motors (GM) and General Magic, Inc. of Sunnyvale, California, makes it possible for people to drive safely and surf the Net at the same time.
OnStar, based on a hands-free cellular phone system called Personal Calling, now offers an optional add-on called Virtual Advisor, which is a speech-based browser that reads out Web pages according to a driver’s spoken commands. More sophisticated than an average voice-recognition system, Virtual Advisor is programmed to screen out the plethora of background noise generated by passing traffic. Although it does not allow access to the full range of Web content, it does provide a useful range of real-time information, such as news, weather, sports results, and stock quotes, and it can also read e-mail. Perhaps of most interest to drivers, Virtual Advisor offers detailed traffic reports that check for incidents in a 15-mile radius around the vehicle and cover most urban areas of the United States. OnStar has proved so popular that it now boasts 2 million paid subscribers and expects to double that number by 2004. GM is also licensing the profitable new technology to some of its rivals, including Toyota, Audi, and Honda.
Concerns about the dangers of drivers being distracted by their cellular phones has worked in the favor of hands-free systems such as OnStar. But although drivers like to receive up-to-date and local information such as news and traffic reports, it remains to be seen whether they would rather get it through the Internet or simply through their car radios.
Brain-scanning images produced by a technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) seem to show parts of the brain lighting up when they become active, but neuroscientists have only just worked out why. According to Nikos Logothetis and his associates, writing in the July 12, 2001, issue of Nature, the illuminated areas show neurons receiving inputs and processing information.
Until now, scientists were uncertain how to explain the bright areas in fMRI brain scans, a scanning system widely used in neuroscience research since the 1990s. Were these areas caused by inputs to neurons, outputs from neurons, or something quite different? Logothetis and his team, based at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, solved the mystery. While macaque monkeys looked at complex checkerboard patterns, researchers used electrodes to scan the visual cortex of the monkeys’ brains with fMRI to sample the electrical and magnetic activity in the same area of the brain. By comparing these two pictures of active monkey brains, researchers found that the bright areas in fMRI scans were most closely related to the inputs received by the neurons in the visual cortex and the signals they processed, not with the outputs from those cells. The bright areas in an fMRI scan are a sign of increased blood flow, which, according to Logothetis, is precisely to be expected, because cells that are receiving and processing