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June 21, 2006

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Welcome to the June 21, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Supercomputers Are About to Get a Lot More Super
Knight-Ridder Wire Services (06/20/06) Boyd, Robert S.

To meet the challenge of processing the proliferating volume of military, scientific, and technical data being amassed by new telescopes, climate satellites, particle accelerators, and other instruments, the federal government is leaning on computer scientists and engineers to ramp up the development of faster, more powerful supercomputers. The U.S. government wants to have a computer system capable of processing at least one quadrillion calculations a second, or roughly a thousand times the capacity of the most advanced current machines. IBM's Blue Gene/L, the fastest system in the world today, measured a peak performance of 280 trillion calculations per second, well short of the petascale systems the government envisions. Petascale systems will be required to solve the major scientific questions that confound scientists today, according to Henry Tufo, a computer scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He says, "Petascale systems will open up new vistas (for) scientists." To address these computing needs, the NSF has called for proposals for the development of the necessary infrastructure to prepare a petascale system for deployment by 2010. The NSF identified problems that only a petascale system could handle, such as simulating the trillions of proteins that comprise living organisms, climate modeling, and the evolution of the universe. The Department of Energy is also awarding $70 million in funding for computer scientists to develop software and data-management solutions for petascale computing, such as tools that would enable computers to determine the 3-D structure of certain molecules that could be instrumental in the fight against cancer and resources to overcome obstacles to its nuclear fusion program.
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Half-Terahertz Performance: Georgia Tech/IBM Team Demonstrates First 500 GHz Silicon-Germanium Transistors
Georgia Institute of Technology (06/20/06)

Researchers from IBM and the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed the first silicon-germanium transistor that can run at frequencies greater than 500 GHz, indicating that devices based on silicon germanium could have a higher peak performance than originally thought. Prior to the breakthrough, the only integrated circuits capable of reaching such speeds were made of costly III-V compound semiconductor materials. "For the first time, Georgia Tech and IBM have demonstrated that speeds of half a trillion cycles per second can be achieved in a commercial silicon-based technology, using large wafers and silicon-compatible low-cost manufacturing techniques," said John Cressler, Georgia Tech professor of electrical and computer engineering. "This work redefines the upper bounds of what is possible using silicon-germanium nanotechnology techniques." The transistors achieved their peak speed at a temperature 451 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, however, and only operated at about 350 GHz at room temperature, though the researchers are confident that the technology could eventually support frequencies that approach the Terahertz range at normal temperatures. Low-cost silicon-based communication devices that yield such extreme performance could have a major impact on emerging markets and defense applications, Cressler said. The next step for the researchers will be to explore the physical processes that give silicon germanium its curious properties at extremely low temperatures. The technology has been of great interest to the electronics industry because infusing silicon with germanium can greatly boost performance while still using conventional, low-cost manufacturing techniques. "This new speed record provides encouragement to keep pushing forward on silicon-germanium devices," Cressler said. "There is a lot more fruit available from silicon-germanium technology if we invest the effort to get there."
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Virtual Reality in a Real Lab
CNet (06/21/06) Terdiman, Daniel

One of the hottest research developments to have emerged from the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HITLab) is the VirtuSphere, a large plastic sphere in which a person wearing a head-mounted display is immersed in a virtual environment where the entire visual experience is controlled by how the person moves his body and head. If commercialized, the VirtuSphere could be used for applications such as combat training or exercise. Much of the work at the HITLab, which was founded in 1989 and quickly developed close partnerships with Microsoft, Intel, and other major technology players, is medical research aimed at finding cures or therapies for diseases, though many of the technologies can also be applied to education, architecture, or construction. Today the lab is one of the leading institutions researching virtual reality and augmented reality technology, such as the HiSpace table, an apparatus that enables people to move objects on a table by moving their hands through the air. An infrared beam is projected at a large mirror from underneath the table, and reflection is then captured by an overhead camera. Movements above the table are then translated into instructions that manipulate objects on the table, which itself is set up like a Windows desktop. Another project under development at the lab is the "Magic Book," a technology that brings the contents of a book to life for a reader wearing virtual reality glasses. The computer powering the equipment superimposes the reader's vision onto the information inside a box on the page, so that, for instance, the reader might see an image of a princess while reading a children's book. One of the lab's augmented reality projects, the virtual retinal display, projects an image onto a human retina, enabling the user to see an image superimposed on his natural field of vision.
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Microsoft Sets Its Sights on Robots
IDG News Service (06/20/06) Niccolai, James

Microsoft has unveiled a preview of its new suite of software tools for developing robots that it believes will have the same impact on the robot market that Windows did on the PC market two decades ago. Microsoft says robots are poised to take off, driven by inexpensive and abundant high-performance hardware components, though a shortage of tools and lack of a uniform software platform have impeded the market's development. Just as Windows galvanized PC development, Microsoft says a common software platform will mobilize a new wave of interest in creating robots and compatible tools to support development. The new Robotics Studio suite targets robot builders at all levels, from commercial and academic developers to hobbyists working out of a garage. Microsoft has also said that it will fund a robotics center at Carnegie Mellon University, slated to open toward the end of the year. Microsoft's move could accelerate the development of the robot market, though Sun Microsystems and others have already rolled out robot development software packages. Robotics Studio will offer information for other vendors on how to make their products compatible with the software, and will run on devices with systems ranging from 8-bit hardware to 32-bit multicore processors. The suite will support development in the languages in Microsoft's Visual Studio and Visual Studio Express applications: C#, Visual Basic .Net, JScript, and Iron Python.
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Ambient Networking Solutions for Anytime, Anywhere, Anyplace Communication
IST Results (06/20/06)

The WWI Ambient Networks project has developed a proof of concept demonstrator that suggests seamless connectivity of different wireless and mobile networks could become a reality. The cooperation of the different networks would enable end users to select the best network for a particular service or multimedia content, regardless of their location. The IST-funded project has developed Smart Multimedia Routing and Transport (SMART) technology, a prototype that is also designed to provide operators with the network configuration and management necessary to support such flexibility. "The comprehensive prototype will include multi-access technologies that will give the user or networks the choice of using the appropriate radio technology automatically, such as switching between different flavors of Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, Wideband Code Division Multiple Access, Code Division Multiple Access, the Wireless LAN, Bluetooth or a forthcoming 4G radio," says project coordinator Henrik Abramowicz at Ericsson AB. "Users will be able to instantly connect without a commercial contract." As the industry comes to agreement on ambient networking concepts, mobile network service providers will have new business opportunities in integrating user networks.
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Scientists Taking Cues From Nature
Associated Press (06/19/06) Bluestein, Greg

A growing number of biologists is looking to apply the study of evolutionary processes to areas of study such as robotics, where they the hope is to make devices that can mimic human locomotion. "If you think of organisms as products, all the bad ones have been recalled. Those that have survived evolved over millions of years," said Marc Weissburg, professor of biology at Georgia Tech and co-director of the Center for Biologically Inspired Design, which the school opened last year. Weissburg is at work on a project studying how a blue crab can devour a piece of shrimp in 15 seconds despite the notable handicap of not being able to see. Other projects include the study of a worm's brain to develop sensors that can detect scents, and the examination of a bat's ears to improve sonar technology. In a project that could have a direct impact on robotics, Robert Full, a researcher from the University of California, Berkeley, is exploring the principles that keep four-, six-, and eight-legged creatures standing upright. Critics argue that the few successes fall far short of recouping the substantial development costs, but scientists in the field claim that it is only a matter of time before they make a major breakthrough that silences the critics. "If you think about true biology, sensing and actuation are working at a really, really small scale," said S.K. Gupta, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Maryland. "Thirty years ago we weren't able to construct anything at the micro scale. I think recent advances that are taking place in the area of micro-fabrication will help us tremendously."
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Groups Push Alternate Net Neutrality Proposals
IDG News Service (06/20/06) Gross, Grant

Two days in advance of the Senate Commerce Committee's debate on the net neutrality issue, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and New Yorkers for Fair Use have released their own net neutrality proposals, which aim to force broadband providers to treat all content equally on the public Internet while permitting them to reserve portions of their network for specialized offerings. CDT executive director Leslie Harris says her organization would prefer a "narrowly tailored" series of net neutrality regulations, though big broadband providers claim such measures are unnecessary because there is no evidence of content discrimination. Harris says the scarcity of broadband competition presents a "significant risk" for such abuse. Under the CDT plan, Congress would be authorized to watchdog the Internet for signs of discrimination, and broadband providers would be allowed to offer tiered services such as broadband video while maintaining equal treatment for all public Internet content and services. New Yorkers for Fair Use member Seth Johnson's net neutrality proposal, endorsed by David P. Reed and others, would also permit the provision of tiered services, but their categorization as Internet services would be disallowed if they discriminate against rival content. In an email, the Johnson group said Congress has to elucidate the definition of Internet connectivity. "IP-layer neutrality is not a property of the Internet. It is the Internet," they wrote.
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Artificial Intelligence Turns 50
Dartmouth News (06/19/06)

This summer Dartmouth College will host AI@50, a conference celebrating the golden anniversary of the discipline of artificial intelligence. Fifty years ago, researchers working on the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence hoped to improve machines' cognition and develop a better general understanding of human intelligence. Today, the goals are essentially the same, though intelligence research has splintered into specialized areas of study such as learning, reasoning, and vision, according to James Moor, Dartmouth philosophy professor and director of AI@50. "When I'm asked whether computers will ever really mimic humans, I say, 'yes and no,'" Moor says. "Yes, neural net computers are being built that operate somewhat analogously to the brain and no, humans are biological creatures with emotions, feelings, and creativity that are unlikely to be fully captured by machines, at least for the foreseeable future." Moor's research explores the differences and similarities between humans and robots, examining the defining characteristics of creativity, decision making, and machine brains. On one level, artificial intelligence focuses on practical applications to develop expert computing and robotic systems to help humans with a host of everyday tasks. On a more philosophical level, researchers such as Moor are trying to answer big questions about the nature of intelligence. Moor admits that artificial intelligence has not yet lived up to its promise, as applications such as language translation have proven to be far more difficult than anticipated, though he believes that the field has a promising future.
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Androids Dream of Soccer Glory
Wired News (06/19/06) Borland, John

The 10th annual RoboCup in Bremen, Germany, illustrates at once how far robots have come and how far they have yet to go to imitate what on the surface seems like simple human locomotion. RoboCup has a stated goal of fielding a robotic soccer team that can beat the World Cup champions by 2050, though the spectacle of two robotic teams competing against each other today testifies to the distance of that goal. Some observers said that this was the first year that the action was actually interesting, because the robots in previous years had trouble walking and the action was slow. The tall, thin German robots called NimbRos are prone to falling down after they kick a ball or collide with an opposing player, though they can right themselves by pushing up with their elbows and shifting their weight forward. The defending world-champion Osakans, however, are shorter and thicker and again claimed the two-on-two title, though they were bested by the German team in a penalty-kick challenge. Soccer is a useful environment in which to test a number of skills that are key to developing robots, such as behavioral programming, motion, and vision. The RoboCup draws both two-legged humanoid robots and four-legged Aibo devices, which, freed from the challenges of bipedal motion, are useful instruments to examine responses to behavioral and environmental conditions. Researchers contend that a vision system capable of doing more than simply recognizing colors will be key to any breakthrough in the robots' ability to play the game. "Every year the teams get better and better, but there's no quantum improvements this year," said University of Freiburg professor Raul Rojas. That breakthrough could come in the form of a 51-inch tall robot developed at the Technical University of Darmstadt named Lara. Instead of motors, Lara has sleek wire muscles that respond to the heating and shrinking effects of electrical pulses.
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The Engine Ain't Broke But Should We Fix It?
Financial Times: Special Report (06/21/06) P. 5; Bradbury, Danny

Critics of the Internet charge that it is not evolving quickly enough to address the emergence of major threats, such as denial-of-service attacks, viruses, and worms. Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf says the architecture was designed to support a "dumb" network, and that it was built simply to route a wide range of traffic indiscriminately. Cerf acknowledges that while the Internet was built for adaptability, he and his colleagues had no way of anticipating how commercial models would evolve and adapt, citing what began as the use of email as a marketing tool but eventually gave rise to an email-authentication industry built around protecting users from spoofed email. Because it simply verifies where an email is coming from, email authentication does not protect against mail generated from botnets, networks of commandeered computers controlled remotely. "Spammers have become early adopters of this technology. Most spam is now sent via botnets from infected machines with perfectly valid authentication records," said F-Secure's Mikko Hypponen. Meanwhile, HTML, now 17 years old, is showing its age, and companies such as Microsoft and Adobe are working to replace it with more intelligent markup languages that could enable sophisticated animation or allow users to complete purchases without having to submit multiple forms, for instance. Critics charge that such "improvements" could bring their own share of problems, and call for industry-wide standards to ensure cohesive development, which Cerf dismisses as an attempt by companies to grab market share that would undermine innovation. The World Wide Web Consortium is leading the Semantic Web initiative to make searches more intelligent by giving Web content meaning. Cerf says that any attempt to overhaul the Internet should be seen as an incremental upgrade, rather than a replacement, because the network cannot simply be shut down overnight for repairs.
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Schools Get Ambitious With Game Degrees
Investor's Business Daily (06/20/06) P. A5; Riley, Sheila

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has joined the ranks of colleges and universities offering students an opportunity to major in game design and development. This fall, the school in Troy. N.Y., is offering a major in game and simulation arts and sciences through its School of Humanities and Social Science, in an effort to provide students with an education that is not limited to writing code. Interactive narrative and theater will be among the required classes that students take, along with advanced calculus and artificial intelligence, and students can graduate with a double major. The second major can have nothing to do with game design, research, or business. The program is designed to please parents who may have concerns about their son or daughter majoring in game design and development, as well as potential employers who want their hires to know more than just games. "What we've tried to do is really include all the elements that go into educating a future leader in the game industry," says James Watt, professor of communication and director of RPI's Social and Behavioral Research Lab. The video game market looks promising, with games now being written for mobile phones, handheld devices, and other wireless gadgets.
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H-1B Pay Drags Down All Salaries
EE Times (06/19/06)No. 1428, P. 1; Roman, David

The Department of Labor reports that H-1B workers might be earning as much as 23 percent less than American engineers in comparable positions, and Labor Condition Applications (LCA) suggest that they might drive down salaries for other electronics professionals. While LCA statistics do not reflect actual salaries, EE Times used LCA data to determine that H-1B workers are paid less than their American counterparts on average, which is illegal, according to the Labor Department. "There are plenty of studies, including my own, that show this disparity in wages," said Norm Matloff, computer science professor at the University of California, Davis, claiming that the low salaries argue against employers' claims that they resort to H-1B workers only when unable to find qualified Americans. "Otherwise, salaries would be rising." A study of LCAs for electronics engineers, electrical engineers, and computer hardware engineers revealed that H-1B workers in each of those professions earn less than the average annual salary for those jobs as reported by the Labor Department, lending credence to the oft-repeated argument that underpaid foreign workers are an anchor on wages across the IT industry. Intel and IBM, which respectively employ 3,000 and 2,500 H-1B workers, both claim that their compensation is structured in accordance with the prevailing wage. President Bush called the current H-1B cap of 65,000 a "problem" in February, and the Senate has voted to raise the annual limit to 115,000 for fiscal 2007; the House has yet to take up the issue. Critics of the caps argue that they undermine U.S. innovation because they are met almost immediately, forcing companies to farm out work overseas. Some economists argue that the number of H-1B visas is far too small to have an overall effect on wages in the technology industry.
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Interview: Why DNS Defences Need Bolstering
IT Week (06/19/06) Muncaster, Phil

Albert Gouyet, the vice president of marketing for Nominum, describes the security threats to the Domain Name System (DNS), which tend to be overlooked, he says. The security threats to the DNS have the potential to erode users' trust in the Internet, which will affect the visible Web presences of governments and companies, Gouyet says. There are new DNS vulnerabilities being exploited each quarter, and companies "don't spend enough time reviewing [the DNS] like they do auditing the network security layer," he says. These threats can be mitigated with DNSsec, which authenticates IP addresses. The Swedish government is implementing DNSsec for the .se domain name, and the United States is also looking to adopt DNSsec. DNSsec requires an upgrade to the DNS servers and it takes multiple levels of cooperation in order to work properly. "You must have people sign their domain names, and DNS service providers must upgrade their servers to recognize when the signatures are there and when they are not," Gouyet says.
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Money Granted for Digital Preservation
Stanford Report (06/14/06)

Stanford University's CLOCKSS program, a collaborative endeavor to develop a large-scale repository to archive digital scholarly resources, will receive about $700,000 in funding over three years from the Library of Congress. To ensure that the research community will still be able to access scholarly content in the event of a disaster, the CLOCKSS program will establish a "dark" archive that will only be accessible once a specific trigger event has occurred. Based on the open-source LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) project begun at Stanford in 1999, CLOCKSS, or Controlled LOCKSS, builds on the earlier initiative to produce a cost-effective tool for libraries to ensure the preservation of their digital resources. When the scientific community began to publish articles exclusively in digital formats, it became evident that libraries would have to develop systems so that those digital resources would be as well-protected as printed materials. Taking a lesson from history, LOCKSS director Victoria Reich says the burning of the Library at Alexandria illustrates the importance of keeping copies in more than one place. CLOCKSS uses the same technology as the LOCKSS program, and both are based on the assumption that local library collections serve as memory organizations. CLOCKSS has a distributed architecture so that no single entity has complete control over the archive or the ability to compromise its materials. Users will be able to access materials once a trigger event (the resource is orphaned by its owner or becomes subject to an extended business interruption, for example) occurs and the request is reviewed by a group representing the larger community. Once the trigger event occurs and the review board agrees to grant access, the resource will become available for all users.
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How Much Do We Need to Know?
New Scientist (06/17/06) Vol. 190, No. 2556, P. 54; Huang, Gregory T.

In a recent interview, pioneering computer scientist Bill Joy discussed his ongoing campaign to implement mechanisms to keep technology out of the hands of people who would use it to destructive ends, what is sometimes known as an asymmetric threat. Earlier this year, Joy's venture capital firm announced that it will launch a $200 million program to fund initiatives in biodefense and pandemic preparation. Joy describes the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as "essentially a collision of early 20th-century technology: the aeroplane and the skyscraper." Today's technology could be far more destructive, he warns, citing the availability of gene sequences and pathogens on the Internet that could be used to cause a pandemic. Joy criticizes scientists who continue to publish sensitive biological data on the Web, and argues that there needs to be a public-policy initiative that limits the availability of information without stifling innovation. The $200 million project investigating biodefense and pandemic preparedness has begun to study bird flu, and Joy hopes that it will continue to promote research in antivirals, surveillance, and rapid diagnostics. Joy predicts an extension of Moore's Law that will increase chip capacity by a factor of 100, with a corresponding drop in prices, which he hopes will translate into improved educational tools. To meet the demands of an urban population projected to more than double to 6 billion this century, Joy says that scientists will have to look to new materials, such as carbon nanotubes, to create fuel cells, produce clean water, or generate ethanol for transportation. Joy is optimistic that the human race will survive the next 100 years, though he believes that the possibility of a severe pandemic is very real, and that the only way for humans to fully understand the extent of the threat of a pandemic is to live through one.
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Scholars Begin to Begin to Profit From Software Invention
Chronicle of Higher Education (06/23/06) Vol. 52, No. 42, P. A35; Foster, Andrea L.

The University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa has sold a patent for a software application that is able to identify the computer user based on the pace at which the individual presses and releases lettered keys on a keyboard as he or she types. The software is somewhat similar to research presented at ACM's annual conference on communications security in November. At the ACM convention, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley discussed software that analyzes keystroke sounds in order to determine the identity of the computer user. Marcus E. Brown, an associate professor of computer science at Alabama, and his former graduate student Joey Rogers developed the software 13 years ago, but the university encountered some setbacks over the years in its effort to patent and market their invention. Brown, an expert in human-computer interaction, says the software could be used with a password to verify the identity of a computer user, and that the application could be integrated into an operating system to work in the background.
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Sneak Peek At Cellphone Future
IEEE Spectrum (06/06) Vol. 43, No. 6, P. 15; Boyd, John

Five years ago third-generation (3G) cell phones were supposed to become an exciting multimedia tool, but instead they turned into a disappointment because of limited bandwidths. Network operators have since moved on and are looking toward next generation (4G) technology that integrates voice and data transmitted at high speeds. NTT DoCoMo, Japan's largest mobile phone company, recently transmitted 2.5 Gbps of packet data in a downlink to a moving vehicle. DoCoMo used bandwidth more effectively as well as multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO). "In terms of our research progress in [4G] wireless technology, we are satisfied," says Seizo Onoe at DoCoMo's R&D Center. "I believe we are at the top level, globally. But we will probably face many difficult challenges in the development phase and in commercializing the system." Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein analyst Kirk Boodry says he is not impressed with the progress of 4G, since he predicts the technology will probably not be implemented until 2013. The 4G system has potential to offer a powerful multimedia experience, but it needs a new infrastructure first.
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Slow Forward
Discover (06/06) Vol. 27, No. 6, P. 46; Bodanis, David

An apparent acceleration in the speed of technological innovation actually belies the continuing long-term use of the same fundamental technology, according to former Oxford lecturer and author David Bodanis. He attributes this dependence to higher corporate investment in current technology with a proven track record, a phenomenon he terms the "Greenspan effect." "America is changing so slowly compared with many countries in East Asia precisely because we have so much invested in our success this far," Bodanis writes. "When a technology is central to our life, who's going to shut it down for uncertain, aiming-in-the-dark upgrades?" Bodanis also cites the mess the patent system has become, thanks to excessively broad patents that create a minefield of legal obstacles companies must negotiate to use and build on existing inventions, as a further choker of innovation. Another possible hindrance to innovation is the proliferation of advanced communications technology such as cell phones, which increasingly clamor for users' attention and eat up precious time that might be better utilized researching fresh ideas. Bodanis concludes that a number of factors are combining to erode the diversity of research the world over, which in turn stifles innovation. Such factors include the spread of broadband, less and less student interest in the hard sciences as a career choice (at least in the United States), security and immigration concerns discouraging foreign talent from coming to America to study, and the growing economic power of other countries spurring top foreign researchers in the United States to come home.
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