Another sliver of sunshine in the economic clouds – two of them, actually – as the U.S. service sector shrank in January, but less severely than expected, according to a report released by The Institute for Supply Management. The ISM reported that its non-manufacturing index came in at 42.9 in January compared with 40.1 in December. Analysts had expected the number to come at 39.2. Basically, any number of over 50 indicates growth, and anything under points to a weakening service sector.

With thousands of technology companies firmly ensconced in the service sector, a three-percent bounce back up toward the magical 50 level is a promising development.

Elsewhere, more and more analysts are stepping out on the ledge and predicting actually positive economic growth during the last half of 2009. Says Ashwani Kaul, director of research at Thomson Reuters on CNBC this morning; “There are only two sectors where we’re looking for positive growth right now, and that’s healthcare and consumer staples. The rest of the sectors in the S&P are sharply negative.”

But all not may be lost. “If we do see an earnings recovery, we’re looking at the latter part of 2009,” says Kaul. “The third quarter (and) the fourth quarter look positive right now, but those are obviously subject to change based on market conditions.”

CNBC offered another financial guru who said basically the same thing. According to Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at Standard & Poor’s; “We’re thinking that possibly the second half could actually start to see a bit of a recovery. (But in the) first quarter we’re still expecting to see about seven of the 10 sectors in negative territory,” he added. “We think 32 of the industries in the S&P will post either a zero earnings or a negative earnings, and only 15 industries are expected to show an increase in earnings, so it’s still a very tough quarter.”

I’ve also been taking a longer look at medical technology companies that specialize in a new cutting edge technology called robotic surgery.

Robotics is changing the face of medical surgery, and there are some interesting companies out there that make the tools that surgeons used in robotics. Routinely performed these days, robotics surgery is executed through small incisions, or operating ports, rather than large incisions. Research has concluded that robotics surgery leads to shorter recovery times, fewer complications, reduced hospitalization costs and reduced trauma to the patient.

In the U.S. robotics has been used for 50,000 surgical procedures in 2007, up from 1,500 procedures in 2001 (two years after the technology was green-lit by U.S. regulators. Prostate surgery is the most common application – more than half of all prostate removals in 2007 were done using robotics – 60,000 in all.

One leading robotics company is Intuitive Surgical, a stock has climbed more than $20 in the past week. Rumors are touting Intuitive as a takeover target by Johnson & Johnson. Keep a eye on it and read up on robotics. In tough times, we have to be creative about where our tech money goes. Intuitive could be such a play.