Mothers telling their kids to only spend their lunch money on, well, lunch may now have a new way to enforce the rule.

Researchers in Penn's Department of Computer and Information Science have developed a "smart card" that lets users program their own limits. By using a modified credit card reader hooked up to a home PC, users will be able to use special software to program their own spending parameters into the cards.

"There are three potential applications," said Carl Gunter, a professor of Computer and Information Science who led the research with Rajeev Alur, a professor in the same department. Businesses will be able to determine what their employees purchase and where they do so. Ultimately, this will reduce companies' need for internal audits.

But parents could also use the technology to their advantage -- it would allow them to ensure that their children only spend a certain amount of money on specific items or at certain locations, Gunter said.

The new technology could also be adapted to cell phones. The idea for this application came from Gunter's own experience with his nanny, he said. He gave her a cell phone, but discovered at the end of the month that she had used the phone to call her friends, and, in the process, far exceeded the number of minutes he had expected her to use.

With the smart card technology, people would be able to ensure that all users on a shared plan would not go over a set number of minutes each month, or would only be able to call certain numbers, he said.

The smart card took one year to develop, Gunter said. However, it is part of a broader, two-year project on Open Embedded Systems, known in computer science circles as OpEm.

Embedded systems consist of tiny computers in appliances, such as microwaves or cell phones. Since they have limited hardware resources, programming them is problematic, Alur said.

Open application programming interfaces, or APIs, allow users to customize these computers.

"The smart card is the first time someone has been able to create an API for a credit card," Alur said.

"I think we are advancing the state of the art" by improving flexibility and security, said Michael McDougall, a second-year graduate student who worked on the project. Penn computer science graduate students Alwyn Goodloe and Jason Simas, as well as staff member Watee Arjsamat, were also on the development team.

So far, the research has resulted in two papers, with a third one recently submitted to a journal for review, McDougall said.

The smart card was unveiled at the end of July at a European conference on object-oriented programming, Alur said.

Alur said the Office of Technology Transfer has filed a provisional patent, and is in the process of obtaining a full one. Ultimately, the University wants to license the technology to private corporations.

Alur expects the patenting and licensing process to take around a year, but noted that "it's hard to predict these things."

"We're always interested in exploring new ways to be more efficient," Senior Vice President for Finance and Treasurer Craig Carnaroli said when asked if Penn would adopt the technology if it became commercially available. "But we would need to study it first."

"I guess it's not a bad thing," College junior Mary Hoang said. "If parents are going to give their kids money, they should have some control over what [the kids] buy."

"If the teenager feels that they want more freedom, he or she should find their own source of income," she added.

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