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May 12, 2006

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Right Questions Key to Data Mining
Chicago Tribune (05/12/06) Van, Jon

Homeland security agents are hoping that sophisticated computer programs will help them cull through the records of millions of phone calls that Americans have made to each other as they search for information about terrorist plots. Some researchers question whether even the most advanced computers will ever be able to perform the necessary link mining operations, and congressional leaders are insisting that the Bush administration answer questions about whether the domestic surveillance program violates an individual's right to privacy. Others argue that the necessary data mining operations will be difficult, but possible. "It's a massive data problem, but you can do it," said Karl Hammond, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Northwestern University. "If it were impossible to get specific answers to specific questions from a huge database, Google couldn't exist." Hammond believes the key will be asking targeted questions, such as limiting a query to the mobile phones in Washington, D.C., that made calls to Tehran over a given period, and whether those phones made calls to San Francisco in another period. "If you approach the data without specific questions and just look for patterns, you can find hundreds of millions of patterns," Hammond said. Government agents may not realize that computers, unlike human detectives, cannot make inferences and instantly change their assumptions, according to Yali Amit, professor of statistics and computer science at the University of Chicago. Amit also warns that it may be impossible to extract meaningful data about such a small subset--suspected terrorists--from the vast repository of phone records. Computer researchers are also having to consider social networking phenomena such as instant messaging and buddy lists as they develop new data mining techniques.
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Reversing Course on Electronic Voting
Wall Street Journal (05/12/06) P. A4; Cummings, Jeanne

Citing the spate of demonstrated vulnerabilities in e-voting machines, some supporters of the 2002 Help America Vote Act have grown concerned that the law intended to improve the voting process could have made things much worse, and have begun filing lawsuits to block the compliance efforts of some state election officials. The law, passed to ensure that the confusion surrounding the 2000 presidential election is not repeated, requires states to upgrade their voting systems to electronic machines, which at the time were considered more reliable than the archaic paper ballots being used in many states. Arizona was sued last week over the e-voting machines that it purchased with federal money authorized by the act, and a suit is likely to be filed against Colorado election officials next week. The Arizona lawsuit charges that the e-voting machines are unreliable, susceptible to fraud, and that electronic ballots are more difficult to recount than paper ones. The Help America Vote Act "has been turned on its head and it's causing more problems than solutions at this point," said Lowell Finley, co-founder of Voter Action. Diebold argues that its equipment is secure, and that it runs on technology that has been in use for at least a decade. Several states returned to paper ballots after experiencing glitches in electronic machines in the 2004 election. In addition the charge that they are unreliable, critics of touch-screen systems claim that the sophisticated technology gives too much control over the election process to equipment makers. Investigations into glitches in e-voting systems have uncovered both technical flaws and cases of user error. Although, there has not yet been a proven instance of anyone electronically manipulating votes in an actual election, computer scientists say it's possible. A 2005 report from the Commission on Federal Election Reform warned that "Software can be modified maliciously before being installed into individual voting machines. There is no reason to trust insiders in the election industry any more than in other industries." To view a report entitled "Statewide Databases of Registered Voters," by ACM's U.S. Publica Policy Committee, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm/VRD
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This Is Your Brain on a Microchip
CNet (05/11/06) Olsen, Stefanie

The parallels between the current interest in cognitive computing and the preliminary emergence of mobile computing are not lost on Jeff Hawkins, co-founder of Palm Computing. Endowing a computer with the ability to process information like a human brain--the essence of cognitive computing--will either occur "'not in our lifetime' or 'any moment now,'" Hawkins wryly observed to a crowd at this week's cognitive computing conference. "We've been trying to do this for 50 to 60 years. Artificial intelligence, fuzzy logic, neural networks, the Fifth Generation project--they've all had big moments in the sun." The researchers at the conference agreed that in spite of the many disappointments and failed projects over the years, some cognitive computing initiatives are actually beginning to pay off. Hawkins himself launched a company called Numenta in March 2005 that is developing an open-source computer memory platform modeled after the human brain that will allow programmers to develop applications for artificial intelligence, computer vision, and machine learning. James Albus of the National Institute of Standards and Technology called for a national program to formulate a scientific theory of the mind, proclaiming that cognitive computing is approaching a watershed. The technology required to conduct conclusive experiments is rapidly emerging and intelligent systems are becoming commercially viable in areas such as the automotive and entertainment industries, Albus noted, adding that government and industry will invest billions of dollars in cognitive computing research over the next 10 years. Scientists are increasingly focusing their research on the neocortex, the area which accounts for around 80 percent of the brain and controls sophisticated thought. Several projects are underway to create complex simulations of different aspects of the neocortex.
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French Digital Music Copyright Bill Advances
New York Times (05/12/06) P. C3; Crampton, Thomas

French lawmakers have moved closer toward passing a copyright law that could reshape the landscape of digital music. Bowing to pressure from Apple, the Senate amended the bill to modify the provisions that would have required Apple to make all the music sold at its iTunes store playable on devices other than the iPod. The Senate version of the bill also only allows companies to appeal to the courts to force Apple to open its music, while the version in the National Assembly permits such requests from consumers. The material effect of the legislation on companies such as Apple and Sony will only be determined by committee sessions, but the issue reflects the broader debate playing out around the world over patents and copyrights in the age of Internet distribution. "France has adopted an entirely new and unique approach to managing digital music and films that could be a model for other countries to follow," said Ovum's Jonathan Arber. "Everyone will be watching the impact six months down the line to see whether consumers or companies have benefited." The penalties for piracy are reduced to the level of a traffic infraction and software makers must disclose details of their programs to the government in both versions of the bill. Apple, Vivendi, and Time Warner are aggressively lobbying against the bill, claiming it is tantamount to sanctioning piracy, though the French government argues that it will encourage innovation.
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As Tech Advances, Privacy Laws Lag
Los Angeles Times (05/12/06) P. A1; Menn, Joseph; Granelli, James S.

Privacy laws are struggling to keep up with rapid advancements in data-tracking technology, a fact that was underscored by Thursday's revelation that three of the top telephone companies in the country provided customer calling records to the National Security Agency (NSA). The advent of powerful database tracking programs has made American's personal data easier to collect and distribute than ever before. A wide range of parties, including credit card companies, online retailers, curious neighbors, and county law enforcement, now have the capability to collect this personal data. And companies that collect this type of data can suddenly find themselves at the center of a privacy controversy when their customers' privacy expectations collide with the U.S. government's national security needs, which is what happened when AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth complied with the NSA's request for customer calling records. Online retailers such as Amazon.com use powerful software to make recommendations to customers, and credit card companies also tailor their offers to consumers by tracking consumer purchases. "You have to think about how that information could be misused or used too zealously," says Martin Flaherty, a law professor at Fordham Law School.
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3 States Mandate More Security for Diebold E-Voting Machines
Associated Press (05/11/06) Goodin, Dan

Diebold is developing a permanent solution for a flaw in its electronic voting machines that some observers believe could be used to conduct unauthorized functions, and even sabotage an election. Researchers with Black Box Voting, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization, discovered the feature that could theoretically allow a hacker to load authorized software on Diebold Election Systems e-voting machines, and the Oakland Tribune reported the vulnerability this week. Black Box Voting also plans to release a report on its finding this week. "It's a deliberate feature that was added by Diebold that we all believe is unwise," says Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Michael Shamos, who has been briefed on the flaw. Diebold maintains that there has been no evidence that any voting on its machines has been compromised, adding that following its existing security procedures will make it difficult for anyone to take advantage of the vulnerability. Although Pennsylvania officials say someone would need to have physical access to the memory card slot while the system booted up in order to exploit the vulnerability, they have ordered local officials to reinstall the authorized software just before testing Diebold machines and certifying them for use. California and Iowa have mandated similar policies for Diebold computerized machines until the company delivers a permanent solution. For information on ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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AJAX Experts Tackle Security, Other Issues
eWeek (05/11/06) Taft, Darryl K.

A group of experts met to discuss the major issues concerning AJAX, such as tooling, security, support, and the stance of Microsoft at this week's AJAX Experience conference. Members of the audience were most concerned about security, and panelist Alex Russell, co-founder of The Dojo Toolkit, noted that the basic security issues have not changed over the past five years, and that trust is still at the center of computing security, irrespective of the introduction of AJAX. There have been some recent developments that could optimize the browser capabilities and improve the cross-domain problem, said Brent Ashley, consultant and scripting expert who specializes in AJAX. "There are JSON [JavaScript Object Notation] requests that don't exchange cookies during the request. And [Adobe] Flex and ActionScript have a cross-domain file that says, 'These sites are allowed to cross-domain with me.' That gives some control back to the server side. So while there are issues now, here's a new set of constraints." Some panelists expressed frustration at the lack of compatibility between AJAX and Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Russell also noted that the numerous AJAX frameworks that have emerged generally have a high level of interoperability. When asked about mobile AJAX, Sun's Greg Murray said that his company is looking into developing an AJAX platform to support portable devices.
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U. of I. Goal: To Revamp Computers
Chicago Tribune (05/11/06) Van, Jon

Researchers at the University of Illinois have launched an ambitious project to overhaul large-scale computing, improving both reliability and security, and have built a prototype called Trusted ILLIAC that will soon connect some 500 processors to form a new supercomputer. The scientists have partnered with government and industry leaders to develop a technique for predicting a system's reliability and security that will ultimately lead to an essential test-bed for private industry. "We expect within two or three years that our industrial partners will be demonstrating this technology," said Ravi Iyer, head scientist at the university's Information Trust Institute. By developing a system equipped with hardware and software to recognize the applications running on a computer, the scientists are taking a more basic approach to security than the current system of ad hoc patches. The system can work through software bugs and reconfigure itself as new security threats emerge, bringing IBM's longstanding goal of automated computing a step closer to reality. Though it is designed to improve the large-scale computing systems at major corporations such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard (which are both partners in the project), the technology could improve the experience of all Internet users. William Sanders, director of the Information Trust Institute, says, "It will have a big impact on pervasive computing and the handheld devices like the PDAs and BlackBerrys that people use."
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From Geek to Chic: The Changing Face of Computing
Florida State University (05/11/06) Elish, Jill

Professors from 10 universities have formed the Students and Technology in Academia, Research, and Service (STARS) Alliance to promote diversity in IT. The consortium recently received a $2 million grant from the NSF to recruit a diverse body of students to pursue college degrees in IT, computer science, and other fields related to computing. "We want to encourage more people--particularly women, underrepresented minorities, and people with disabilities--to pursue careers in computer science and information technology," said Larry Dennis, dean of the College of Information at Florida State University. Other FSU professors agree that nurturing the IT workforce is a matter of vital national importance, and that diversity is essential for the future of IT in the United States. With fewer highly skilled foreigners coming to the United States and the demographic trend of declining white male representation in the workforce, women and other groups have an unprecedented opportunity to claim their share of the 1.5 million IT and computing jobs projected to be created by 2012, according to FSU research associate Anthony Chow. The perception that computing is the sole province of white, male nerds is a serious obstacle to recruiting a diverse group of students, and the STARS Alliance is trying to give the field an image makeover. The consortium will hold up role models in industry to report market trends and debunk the myths that plague computing, such as the assumption that men are superior at solving technical problems. The Star Alliance will create and maintain a Web site promoting, among other things, the Student Leadership Corps, which will support a variety of initiatives, including peer mentoring, research opportunities, community involvement, and professional development.
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Students & Turtles Mesh
Unstrung.com (05/10/06) Martin, Richard

Computer scientists at the University of Massachusetts have developed a Wi-Fi network based on the theory of discontinuous networks. The UMassDieselNet project is a large-scale network spread across Amherst's 150-square-mile bus system that provides riders with real-time information on the location and arrival times of individual buses. The system creates what associate computer science professor and project head Brian Levine calls "unpartitioned networks," which are absent in many Wi-Fi-enabled environments. "There are lots of places that have partitions," he says. "For instance, a region like New Orleans that's been hit with a natural disaster, when all the infrastructure has gone down. The power's out, cell towers are down, how can you maintain a network? Or areas where no infrastructure exists in the first place--like India in particular." The researchers attempted to develop a model that would tolerate disruptions in service, such as a bus traveling in and out of hotspots as it follows its route. Each bus is outfitted with a Linux-based computer with an onboard Wi-Fi access point for passengers and an additional 802.11b USB card that continually scans for access points while the bus is en route. Constantly pulling data from its surroundings, the system is intrinsically imperfect, though it is built to work in less-than-perfect settings. Levine's colleague Mark Corner has applied the idea of discontinuous networks to tracking an endangered population of wild turtles near Amherst, equipping each turtle with a package containing a small computer, a GPS tracker, a solar cell and battery, and a wireless transmitter that makes it a node in the network.
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New Supercomputing Center to Advance the Science of Nanotechnology
Rensselaer News (05/10/06)

Nanotechnology research will be the focus of a new supercomputing center on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that is expected to be up-and-running by the end of the year. Scientists who work at the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations (CCNI) will pay close attention to the time and cost of shrinking the dimensions of materials, devices, and systems, as well as the industries that stand to benefit from nanotechnology, including semiconductor makers. "The CCNI will bring together university and industry researchers under one roof to conduct a broad range of computational simulations, from the interactions of atoms and molecules up to the behavior of the complete device," explains Omkaram Nalamasu of Rensselaer. The creation of CCNI is the result of a $100 million partnership between Rensselaer, IBM, Cadence Design Systems, and AMD. CCNI will be the most powerful university-based supercomputer center in the world, with a system comprised of massively parallel Blue Gene supercomputers, POWER-based Linux clusters, and AMD Opteron processor-based clusters, which will yield a speed of 70 teraflops. Such computing muscle will make CCNI one of the top 10 supercomputing centers in the world. In addition to modeling, simulating, and optimizing nanoelectronic devices and circuitry, CCNI will be used for other research projects on campus, such as for biocomputation research.
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Right-Brained Programming
Dr. Dobb's Journal (05/08/06) Murphy, Niall

Thinking outside the box may help programmers find better solutions to problems than they would by using routine algorithms, writes Niall Murphy of Embedded Systems Design. "It's sometimes necessary to throw away the current way of doing things in order to see that alternatives are possible," he explains. Murphy recalls how in his university days lateral thinking was used to build a rubber band-driven miniature car, since the mechanism to force the rubber bands to unwind more slowly so that the wheels had sufficient traction to avoid spinning was hard to design or implement. The solution was to replace the wheels with spikes, allowing the car to slide over the surface by means of a catapult. Murphy cites the traditional strategy for picking the timeout period for a watchdog timer in an embedded system--approximating the time a system takes to traverse its main loop and multiplying by some factor to accommodate loop time variation--as an approach to avoid in favor of considering the outcome of a lengthy timeout. "It's better to choose the timeout based on the external impact of the system, rather than starting with the system's internal performance," he advises. Murphy also takes note of new email spam filters based on algorithms that spot genuine messages instead of following rules to detect spam, and points out that such a strategy might be optimal considering the percentage of online email traffic that is currently spam.
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Sense of Speed
The Engineer Online (05/09/06)

Computer science researchers in the United Kingdom believe wireless sensing technology can be used to improve the performance of sprinters who have dreams of competing in the 2012 Olympics. Over the next four years, Dr. Stephen Hailes from the Computer Science department of University College London will head a project to outfit sprinters with lightweight sensors that are able to relay real-time data on limb position, orientation, muscular function, and physiological status. "We want something that an athlete can wear without being aware of it," says Hailes. He says current systems use components that are too big and do not provide an easy interface for wireless networking, while video motion capture features that can be disruptive to training, and data obtained is not easy to interpret. The researchers face challenges in attaching sensors to athletes in a manner that will facilitate the production of accurate data, and developing a mechanism for quickly and effectively interpreting data upon arrival. "We will have to extract meaning from that data in a way coaches and the athletes can use, which is difficult as it is often noisy and imprecise," says Hailes. As a way to provide real-time feedback to coaches and sprinters, the researchers are considering having the wireless sensing system produce a certain sound to indicate when an athlete's foot should strike the track, and overlaying data on video imagery so information can be easily understood.
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Bush Broadband Goal Fading
InternetNews.com (05/09/06) Mark, Roy

Enthusiasm toward the president's goal to establish "universal, affordable" broadband access is waning, as indicated by a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study estimating that just 28 percent of Americans had broadband connectivity last year, while 30 percent of polled households access the Internet via dial-up and 41 percent of the country lacks an Internet connection of any kind. Rural Americans are less likely than urban Americans to subscribe to broadband, and broadband has penetrated a mere 17 percent of rural U.S. homes. Factors impeding broadband take-up include price, availability of broadband applications and services, and technical issues, according to the GAO. The study points out that many households cannot acquire DSL given the limited range of copper DSL connections, while wrangling over rights-of-way, pole attachments, and wireless tower sites can also hinder broadband implementation. "The disparity of broadband deployment between rural and urban America cited in the GAO report raises serious concerns," stated Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). "High-speed Internet access is absolutely essential to all Americans, whether you live in Manhattan or a remote village in Alaska." Stevens recently issued a draft bill calling for numerous measures designed to boost broadband deployment, including national video franchises, municipal broadband services, wireless use of white space spectrum, emergency network interoperability, and the application of Universal Service Fund (USF) rules to "communications providers" that include VoIP and broadband suppliers. The new USF fees would be committed to broadband deployment in rural and high-cost U.S. regions.
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System-Level Design Language Arrives
EE Times (05/08/06)No. 1422, P. 1; Goering, Richard

Proponents of the System Modeling Language (SysML) believe that their vision of a modeling language that represents all features on an electronic system--from hardware to software--will soon be a reality. SysML can be used to specify, analyze, and design hardware, data, personnel, procedures, and facilities in elaborate systems, though the language is just beginning to realize its potential in the area of hardware design, and advocates believe that it could soon be used for system-on-chip (SoC) design. "Our emphasis is to look at how we can integrate with electrical design," said Lockheed-Martin's Sanford Friedenthal, chair of the SysML team, adding that the language should be compatible with implementation languages such as VHDL. "I believe it's totally feasible, and I believe we have a lot of constructs that are very natural for supporting integration with electrical design." The SysML 1.0 specification received unanimous approval from two committees on the Object Management Group in April, and a final approval is expected in February, though after the April vote standardization is considered all but a formality. The origins of SysML date to the mid 1990s, when software developers commonly used the Unified Modeling Language (UML) to support different kinds of structure, behavior, and interaction diagrams. SysML, which grew out of a request for proposals issued in March 2003, builds a stronger bridge between software and hardware design than UML 2.0 with its block component that abstracts away from UML's software-specific features. Other key features of SysML include requirements modeling and the ability to support parametric models that describe the properties and relationships within systems. "SysML is more tailored to the entire system," said Alberto Rosti of STMicroelectronics, "whereas UML is for modeling the software artifacts."
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Accessibility Issue Comes to a Head
Computerworld (05/08/06) Sliwa, Carol

Bruce Sexton Jr. has joined a lawsuit filed by the National Federation of the Blind as a plaintiff alleging that the Target Web site violates the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the California Unruh Civil Rights Act, and the Disabled Persons Act. Sexton, who is legally blind, claims that certain information on Target's site cannot be read by his screen-reader software, and that the site requires a mouse to navigate. The lawsuit is shaping up to be a landmark referendum on Internet accessibility, since Target is only one of many sites that could be accused of inhibiting access for the disabled, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys. The problem has been exacerbated by the shift from text-based to visually oriented content that is only likely to continue with the emergence of Web 2.0 technology, which could update information without refreshing the entire screen through the use of Asynchronous JavaScript, XML, and Dynamic HTML. Assistive technology such as screen readers and magnifiers would have no way of knowing what information has been updated unless developers take steps to ensure that the updates are readable. Working within the W3C, IBM is heading up a dynamic accessible Web project calling for such measures as a development syntax that would relay information about a site's accessibility to assistive technology applications so they would know which parts of a Web page have been changed, though the proposals are still in draft form. The Mozilla Foundation included support for the technology in its Firefox 1.5 browser, but the forthcoming 7.0 version of Internet Explorer will not support it. Gartner's Ray Valdes claims that most Fortune 500 companies are largely unaware of how accessible their public Web sites are, and that cost is a prohibitive factor in improving their accessibility. The lawsuit could finally clarify the question of whether the ADA, enacted in 1990, applies to Web sites.
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One Qubit at a Time
The Economist (05/04/06) Vol. 379, No. 8476, P. 79

As the miniaturization of computing components approaches the atomic scale, physical limitations will halt the process, forcing scientists to use alternative methods to improve performance. Scientists are looking to quantum computing as one possible solution, harnessing the quirky properties of quantum physics to perform a theoretically infinite number of calculations in parallel. While quantum computers hold the potential to solve problems that stymie existing computers, scientists have only been able to make very basic models that often work only in tightly defined conditions. The superposition of qubits is only preserved if they are isolated from external conditions, though researchers are working to resolve this problem. Andrew Briggs, an Oxford University neuroscientist, leads a team of scientists that successfully used the electrons of a caged nitrogen atom as a qubit, managing to keep it in superposition for 500 nanoseconds, longer than any other molecule previously studied, but not nearly long enough to perform a calculation. Another approach, advocated by Hitachi's David Williams, calls for using existing silicon chips to power quantum computers, manufacturing quantum dots on the chips' surface that would function as qubits. Other groups are developing techniques for oscillating electromagnetic waves to trap ions and use them as qubits. A fourth approach involves a recently discovered form of matter known as a Bose-Einstein condensate, which is cold enough to reduce atoms to their lowest quantum state, exciting the possibility that they could function as qubits in an environment where conditions close to absolute zero can be maintained.
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AI Gets a Brain
Queue (05/06) Vol. 4, No. 4, P. 24; Barr, Jeff; Cabrera, Luis Felipe

Enabling software developers and enterprises to simply and efficiently harness human intelligence as a core constituent of their applications and businesses is the purpose of Amazon Mechanical Turk, a program that would free up people to innovate by giving them the ability to instill human intelligence within software. The Turk is characterized as an "artificial artificial intelligence" that conceals the presence of human processing power and intelligence supplied by a global, Internet-scale workforce that completes tasks submitted by developers to the Amazon Mechanical Turk Web site. Software applications request that flesh-and-blood people execute tasks best suited to human intelligence through Amazon Mechanical Turk's Web service interface, and the requesting application is alerted upon completion of the tasks and the availability of the results. Among the internal tasks Amazon initially classified as aligning particularly well with the kind of processing facilitated by the Turk was data improvement, Japanese text orientation, and image selection, which have in common high volume and business value, human centricity, varied demand, and a self-contained nature. Key issues that had to be addressed in building the Amazon Mechanical Turk system included scalability, reputation tracking, accountability, flexibility, and quality control, and the resulting system is capable of managing task submission, assignment, and completion, matching qualified people to jobs that call for specific skills, providing feedback to encourage quality work, and storing task details and results. The point of interaction between the Turk's five central concepts--human intelligence tasks (HITs), workers, qualifications, assignments, and requesters--is the Turk Web site, where the requester identifies the task to be done, designs the appropriate HIT and qualifications, and funds the workers through an Amazon account deposit. The qualifications and HITs are loaded into the Turk via Web service calls made by the requester's application, and workers regularly visit the site to look for jobs. The requester approves assignments after it polls for reviewable HITs and acquires enough data to make final checks and tweaks, and then corresponding payments are released to the workers.
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