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July 14, 2006

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The Tech Industry's Newest Power Player
CNet (07/13/06) Cooper, Charles

In a recent interview, newly elected ACM President Stuart Feldman shared his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities he will face during his two-year tenure heading the organization. ACM has more than 78,000 members, 30 percent of whom are not from North America, punctuating the unique challenges Feldman will face as the computing industry comes to grips with the realities of outsourcing. Feldman is careful not to comment on the pros and cons of outsourcing, referring instead to ACM's recent report on the issue and describing the phenomenon as a symptom of growth and development in foreign countries, rather than a decline of industry in the United States. "When you take a look at the numbers, the number of IT jobs in the U.S. is not shrinking and there is an incipient shortage of high skills," Feldman said, citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which indicate that the worker shortage in the United States is a supply-side issue. A major concern in the academic community is the declining enrollment in computer science programs, as well as the drop of participation among women after the considerable improvement a few years ago, Feldman said. "These are very real concerns because the pipeline of people takes four or eight years before people who think they want to go into a field come out educated in it." Feldman hedges on choosing between China and India as the country that will emerge as the leading technical producer in the developing world. In the coming years, Feldman looks for the development of ultra-fast supercomputers that will be able to solve problems that humans have never been able to address.
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Paralyzed Man Uses Thoughts to Move a Cursor
New York Times (07/13/06) P. A1; Pollack, Andrew

The new issue of the journal Nature includes a paper on an implant system that has enabled a paralyzed man to use his thoughts to move a cursor, open email, play the video game Pong, and draw a circle on a computer screen. In a commentary in Thursday's journal, Stephen H. Scott, professor of anatomy and cell biology at Queen's University in Ontario, writes that the device helps move implantable neuromotor prosthetics from the realm of science fiction to reality. Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems in Foxborough, Mass., developed the BrainGate implant system, which makes use of a 4 millimeter by 4 millimeter sensor with 100 tiny electrodes, and is designed to eavesdrop on the electrical signals emitted by neurons in the motor cortex region. Matthew Nagle, 26, of Weymouth, Mass., volunteered for the experiment, which involved connecting the device to a pedestal that protruded out of the top of his skull, and plugging a cable connected to a computer into the pedestal to use the implant system, similar to the "Matrix" movies. Although performance may need to be improved, Cyberkinetics hopes to have BrainGate approved for marketing by 2008 or 2009. Also, the ability of electrodes to detect brain signals tends to weaken after several months, daily recalibration of the system takes about half an hour, and a wireless version would make a permanent hole in the head unnecessary. Krishna V. Shenoy, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and neurosciences at Stanford University, believes the system would work faster if the brain implant was made to eavesdrop on neurons expressing the intention to make a move.
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Bush Compromises on Spying Program
Washington Post (07/14/06) P. A1; Babington, Charles; Baker, Peter

President Bush, in a deal with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), has agreed to submit his warrantless wiretapping program to a secret court review if Specter passes a compromise bill regulating the program through Congress. White House officials and Specter have been negotiating the deal behind close doors for weeks. One of the bill's provisions would erase a stipulation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) stating that FISA is the sole governing authority for conducting U.S. government surveillance; another would permit the Justice Department to revise the warrantless spying program numerous times in order to win FISA court approval. The National Security Administration's (NSA) warrantless wiretapping program also would be permitted to track subjects for one week under the Specter bill, compared to 72 hours under FISA currently, though the NSA program currently does not follow FISA guidelines. Lastly, the bill would funnel all lawsuits challenging the NSA program to the secret FISA court for hearings. The FISA court is set up to review warrant requests for domestic eavesdropping, and the court consists of seven federal District Judges appointed by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Specter says his bill will provide a judicial check and balance on the executive program. House Intelligence Committee ranking Democrat Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.) blasts the Specter bill as providing the president with a "blank check" to continue warrantless wiretapping.
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Georgia Tech Preps Personal Robots for Computer Science Students
EE Times (07/13/06) Mannion, Patrick

A team of academics at Georgia Institute of Technology is set to develop robots that will aid in computer science education and combat the discipline's declining enrollment nationwide. The robot will be used to generate enthusiasm for entry-level computer science courses, but the researchers are also planning to develop robots for use in secondary schools, and possibly even primary schools. "We want to bring robots into computer science courses to make them more exciting and effective," said Tucker Balch, an associate professor at Georgia Tech, and the director of the Institute for Personal Robots in Education (IPRE). Microsoft will contribute more than $1 million over three years to help create the institute, which is jointly sponsored by Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr College. The emergence of efficient high-performance processors, reliable motors, and high-bandwidth wireless networks have all brought practical applications of robotics closer to reality, according to Balch. He believes the next step will be to bring costs down. "It's hard to say if we will do that in two or five years, but seeing a company like Microsoft invest in this area is the writing on the wall." With the launch of its freely available Robotic Studio software suite, Microsoft helped address the shortage of tools for amateur robotics developers, Balch said. The first robots slated for development by the institute will be designed to bring some hands-on fun to computer science and cost less than $200. The robots will likely use a basic wireless technology such as Bluetooth, and will include speakers, microphones, and other features to engage students.
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Congress Begins Push for Energy-Efficient Servers
Computerworld (07/12/06) Thibodeau, Patrick

The House has approved a bill that requires the EPA to conduct a study of the use of energy-efficient servers to lower the power demands of data centers. The study that would be required by the bill, which now goes to the Senate, will encourage the use of energy-efficient servers through a combination of regulatory measures and tax incentives, according to Rep. Michael Rogers (R-Mich.), who authored the bill. With the U.S. server market expected to increase from 2.8 million units in 2005 to 4.9 million in 2009, power consumption and cooling have become major issues for managers of data centers. In the business world, energy-efficiency is often subordinated to performance, however. "Our main consideration on servers is processor speed. That's going to trump the energy efficiency of a server," said Dawn Sawyer of GuideStone Financial Resources, though she notes that placing energy-efficiency ratings on servers could heighten awareness and influence corporate purchasing decisions. In crafting the bill, Rogers cites the success of the voluntary Energy Star rating system first developed by the EPA in 1992.
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Marvin Minsky on Common Sense and Computers That Emote
Technology Review (07/12/06) Roush, Wade

An event at Dartmouth College commemorating the 50th anniversary of artificial intelligence will be attended by pioneers of the field such as John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, and three other participants of the 1956 Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence. Though the field was originally conceived out of an unbridled optimism, scientists realized by the late 1960s how difficult of a task it is to get computers to replicate even the most basic forms of human thought. In a recent interview, Minsky shared his thoughts on the evolution of the field. Minsky is disappointed at how few scientists have been researching the way people think, a subject that he addresses in his forthcoming book. Even the reasoning capacity of a three-year-old is beyond the current ability of scientists to replicate in a machine. Computers need to know a staggering amount of information to conduct the simplest common-sense reasoning. Unlike physics, research in artificial intelligence cannot look for a universal solution because of the widely varying nature of the human brain. Over the years, DARPA has turned away from supporting visionary researchers, while corporate research in the United States began declining in the early 1970s, Minsky said. Research today is more driven by the short-term demands of entrepreneurs, he claims. While Doug Lenat began developing the Cyc database in 1985 to establish a vast stable of knowledge to facilitate common-sense reasoning in machines, Minsky notes that it is proprietary and difficult to use. Minsky hopes to make the publicly available Open Mind database capable of using natural language, emphasizing that a common-sense database does not need to be completely logically consistent. "When you represent something, you should represent it in several different ways," he says.
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Fitting Software to Students
USC Information Sciences Institute (07/11/06)

Researchers at the University of Southern California are working to improve computer-based teaching programs, also known as Intelligent Tutoring Systems (ITS), by making them more responsive to the needs of individual students. USC's Information Sciences Institute has become the site of research into which students are more likely to take advantage of an ITS program's help feature in order to obtain an answer to a problem. The researchers have found that students who say they are motivated are less likely to constantly ask an IST program for help, and also found that students who say they have the ability to learn a subject are less likely to simply guess an answer. "The opportunity to learn from software may offer an appealing alternative because the student can seek help in private," according to a paper ISI researcher Carole Beal will present at the AAAI 21st National Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Boston July 20. Although use of ITS is on the rise, the learning tools are not being used effectively, she says. The ISI researchers now plan to use models of learning based on expert human tutors in an effort to determine how a student uses an ITS program. Human tutors work "through a repertoire of feedback messages, sophisticated problem selection, and judicious offers of learner control when the learner appears to be flagging," writes Beal.
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A Year Later, Cybersecurity Post Still Vacant
Washington Post (07/13/06) P. A21; Krebs, Brian

The high-tech community continues to question the White House's commitment to shoring up the nation's critical technological infrastructure from a cyber attack. The nation still does not have an assistant-secretary in the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate cybersecurity efforts, a new position Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced July 13, 2005, amid mounting concern over the cybersecurity policy of the Bush administration. By not filling the post, the United States has left its information systems that support everything from telecommunications networks, power grids, and chemical manufacturing and transportation systems as unprepared for an attack as the Gulf Coast region was for a major hurricane, according to critics. Security experts maintain that the nation needs a cybersecurity advocate in Homeland Security who can influence its policy and spending priorities. Paul Kurtz, a former cybersecurity advisor in the Bush administration, says, "Having a senior person at DHS...is not going to stop a major cyber-attack on our critical infrastructure...but it will definitely help us develop an infrastructure that can withstand serious attacks and recover quickly." Critics say the administration is dragging its heels in filling the post because the White House does not want to divert money away from securing physical infrastructure. George W. Foresman, DHS undersecretary for preparedness, says it has been difficult finding qualified candidates, but the agency is in the final stage of approving a candidate for the cybersecurity post. John McCarthy, director of George Mason University's critical infrastructure program, says, "I believe that as we as a society and economy move towards a greater reliance on these vulnerable communications networks, that those who would wish us harm will find ways to target those infrastructures in ways we haven't thought about, and that's going to present a major challenge for whoever is picked for that position."
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Developers Working to Overcome AJAX Accessibility Issues
eWeek (07/11/06) Taft, Darryl K.

Though it offers many advantages over conventional Web-application techniques, AJAX poses accessibility issues for certain users. The dynamic changes that occur in AJAX-based technologies, which enable dynamic interactions without reloading a page, can take place undetected by users with site impairments or other disabilities, though several developers are working to address those issues. MB Technologies, for instance, spent over a year modifying its Bindows application to improve its accessibility. "It was nothing short of a huge undertaking for Bindows to build an AJAX framework that enabled the construction of AJAX and Web 2.0 sites that support accessibility," said MB Technologies CEO Yoram Meriaz. One of the main challenges that MB Technologies faced was getting the platform to support multiple browsers and assistive-technology tools. Microsoft has also been working to improve accessibility in its set of tools for Web-application development, and IBM is planning to donate critical intellectual property to the open-source community to deal with AJAX accessibility issues. Through a variety of assistive technologies, IBM is working to improve the accessibility of the Dojo toolkit for both international and disabled users. With numerous lawsuits having recently appeared when users found their access to AJAX restricted, accessibility is becoming an increasingly important issue, according to Dion Almaer, co-founder of Ajaxian.com. Despite the increased attention that AJAX accessibility has been receiving lately, Almaer notes that complete accessibility is difficult to achieve. Compatibility with non-AJAX browsers and the accessibility of the AJAX interface are the two main barriers to the accessibility of AJAX applications, said Nexaweb Technologies CTO Coach Wei.
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Competitiveness Initiative Aims to Keep U.S. Ahead of Global Trends
Fox News (07/11/06) Vlahos, Kelley Beaucar

The Senate is expected to take up the issue of funding President Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) when the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science meets this week. President Bush views ACI as a funding commitment for education, research and development, and workforce training that will help the United States remain the leader in innovation in the years to come. For example, he has proposed $5.9 billion for research and development and $380 million for education programs, favorable tax policies for businesses, and skilled worker training programs for fiscal year 2007. The United States could slip in competitiveness as more U.S. students perform poorly in math and science and shun technology-related careers, as skilled foreign workers choose to return to their homeland, and as other countries devote more money to research and development. The U.S. tech industry has taken issue with federal investment in research and development in recent years, and Bush has responded by requesting $137 billion for R&D over 10 years. Bush is also concerned that as more tech jobs head overseas, U.S. tech workers may begin to leave as well. The House helped advance ACI in part by approving a $6.5 billion bill that funds programs at the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology before the July 4 recess.
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Europeans Debate 'Hopelessly Complex' Software Patent System
TechWeb (07/12/06) Gardner, David W.

The issue of software patents could derail discussions between members of the European Union concerning the future of the region's patent system. A new wrinkle to this year's discussions is the proposal to create the European Patent Litigation Agreement, which would serve as a central European patent court. The issue of how to address concerns about the future of the patent system is controversial. For example, German-based software expert Florian Mueller is attempting to gain support to counter major patent portfolios, including those of Microsoft and Nokia. The European Patent Office (EPO) has given thousands of software patents to applicants, though the existing rules prohibit such actions, according to Mueller. However, individual European countries are responsible for enforcing their own patent rules and many national courts have not honored software patents granted by the EPO in court cases.
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Is Your Code Ready for the Next Wave in Commodity Computing?
JavaWorld (07/10/06) Sheil, Humphrey

CedarOpenAccounts chief technical architect Humphrey Sheil notes that processor architecture is transitioning to a multicore scheme in which multiple processing units are the norm, and writes that parallel computing hardware is necessary to satisfy demands for faster and more scalable applications. "We want to--in fact we need to--parallelize hardware if we are to 'kick on' and provide more computing resources in a sustainable way to software applications," he maintains. Java programmers face the dual challenge of finding a way to exploit the new hardware platform and optimally using the vendor-supplied operating system without deviating from Java's Write Once, Run Anywhere (WORA) potential. Future trends Sheil foresees include the emergence of tools that reflect the expectation that software engineers will possess more explicit knowledge about concurrency, and the extension of the core Java programming language to explicitly and exceptionally support parallel computing within five years. The author concludes that "The next wave of hardware currently filtering onto the client fundamentally differs from what it replaces in one important regard: As a programmer or architect, you must explicitly take advantage of the new parallel computing resources through the efficient creation and utilization of threads to pass performance improvements on to your end users." Sheil adds that Java programmers must fulfill the new requirement of guaranteeing that their applications continue to properly function on the new multicore hardware.
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Scientists Build Brain Box Computer
University of Manchester Press (07/13/06) Hunter, Simon

Researchers at the University of Manchester are involved in a project to develop a computer that functions similar to how nerve cells interact in the human brain. The so-called "brain box computer" will be the first project of its kind. University professor Steve Furber is heading the research team involved in the project, which is receiving 1 million euros from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The university's School of Electronics and Computer Science is also involved the project. Furber noted that the aim of the project is to provide researchers with knowledge of how the brain operates "at the level of spike patterns." He added that understanding the "fault-tolerant characteristic" could provide researchers with knowledge that could be applied to improving the reliability of computers. The computer involved in the research will be able to model a high number of neurons in real time, plus monitor neural spike patterns. The real-world applications of the technology would allow use of dozens of microprocessors on individual silicon chips, which would provide cost and power consumption benefits.
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On Space Station, Droids Get a Workout
Christian Science Monitor (07/11/06) Spotts, Peter N.

A trio of robotic balls dubbed SPHERES, about the size of bowling balls, have been developed by students of professor David Miller at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The devices might someday be used to make large space telescopes or serve as inexpensive satellites that gauge changes on Earth. The sponsors of the initiative, NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, hope the devices can create smart docking system that identify problems and use their thrusters to compensate. Earlier in July, the second of three orbs was brought to the International Space Station (ISS) via the space shuttle Discovery. The devices feature small-scale computers, location sensors, and thrusters for making precise movements, and each of the robotic balls weighs roughly nine pounds, and 12 thrusters using carbon dioxide are used for moving and shifting position. Twenty-four small microphones can detect sound from ultrasonic transmitters along station walls. The spheres can also communicate with each other using radio, and ISS crewman Colonel Jeffrey Williams can send software to them to obtain test information. In May, the first robotic sphere performed basic docking moves and also reported changes in position.
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Security Agency War Game Tries to Teach Net Defense
CNet (07/10/06) Broache, Anne

In a notable departure from its rigid climate of secrecy, the National Security Agency sent representatives to an event at the SANS Institute to share some of the "lessons learned" from their recent cyberdefense activities. In the exercise, students from the U.S. military academies and the Air Force's postgraduate technology school matched wits against mock attackers at NSA headquarters. Though the public presentation was the first of its kind, the exercise has been taking place for six years. The agency representatives hope that it will be a wake-up call for network administrators throughout government and industry. "Even in four days, a network can be had," said Major Thomas Augustine, the coordinator of the event. "Imagine, if you will, those individuals who have a year or two to spare and are waiting to get into your networks." In the exercise, each team had two weeks to detect as many errors and security threats as possible in network software that the NSA representatives had corrupted. At that point other agency representatives, unaware of the preset vulnerabilities, set to work hacking into the networks that the military teams had created. The Air Force Academy boasted the winning team, whose relatively inexperienced members created a network based on some of the simplest design principles. "We know there's a tendency for students to think they have to build some sort of whizbang network with bells and whistles," said Rigo MacTaggart, who participated on the NSA's side of the exercise. "What has been shown to work best in previous (exercises) is a simpler-works-better" approach. In addition to a simplified network structure, MacTaggart and his colleagues at the agency recommend that network managers restrict access to ports and services and remove from servers all unnecessary user accounts, software, and services. Network managers should also develop contingency plans for the worst-case scenario.
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Hard Cores: Multicore Chips Provide Power But Make App Development Tough
Computerworld (07/10/06) Anthes, Gary

The successful exploitation of chip multiprocessors (CMPs) by application software entails a rethinking of design, coding, and debugging, which is underway among both hardware and software vendors. In-Stat analyst Tom Halfhill projects that microprocessor chips in servers will boast eight to 16 cores in five years, while desktop machines will have four to eight. Each core will be capable of processing at least four software threads concurrently. Intel's James Reinders outlines three challenges for code writers in the multiprocessor/multicore arena: Scalability, correctness, and ease of programming. The scalability challenge deals with the problem of keeping each additional processor active, and the correctness challenge focuses on the avoidance of bugs such as deadlocks and race conditions. Reinders explains that compilers can help meet the third challenge by spotting and taking advantage of opportunities for parallel processing in source code, while programmers can contribute by inserting "a few little hints"--such as those contained in the new OpenMP standard--within the code. At the root of CMPs' performance advantages over systems with multiple, separate processors is the greater speed of on-chip interprocessor and processor-memory communication, and Rice University computer science professor Ken Kennedy foresees hybrid systems composed of computer clusters running multicore processors. Reinders says the ability of CMPs to facilitate more fine-grained machine partitioning will bolster hardware virtualization, whereby a computer is enabled to run multiple operating systems.
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IT's Identity Crisis
Network World (07/10/06) Vol. 23, No. 26, P. 1; Desmond, Paul

Many IT professionals feel their careers are being derailed as automated systems, outsourcing, new regulatory requirements, and other factors make once-vaunted skills redundant or burdensome, while declining computer science enrollment and IT's flagging influence in boardrooms are eroding its status as a career choice. There are less instances of an identity crisis among IT workers in companies that recognize the business advantages of IT and accord their employees proper respect and roles. TCG Advisors' managing director Geoffrey Moore believes the IT commoditization outlined by Nicholas Carr in an industry-shaking report is a positive force, in that it will liberate corporate resources to focus on core functions separated from context via automation or outsourcing. Cisco's Lance Perry asserts that a concentration on core functions can help sustain IT personnel's excitement and fuel innovation. Increasing dependence on formalized processes such as ITIL will increase network uptime, reduce costs, and raise user satisfaction, according to advocates; aligning business closely with IT, a strategy that frequently dovetails with process, improves employee satisfaction by giving staffers the sense that their contributions are vital to the company's well-being. Many IT executives think the key to winning respect and influence in the company is to gain an expert knowledge of end customers and their wants, while University of North Carolina Wilmington professor Ken Lau argues that a good marketing strategy can help IT workers overcome their natural reservation and better serve customers. Organizations are recommended to help IT staff advance their careers through business training, particularly in the area of soft skills such as negotiation, persuasion, and relationship building. Good training programs can lower the likelihood of resentful employees.
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Ninth Annual Global Security Survey: Invincible
InformationWeek (07/10/06)No. 1097, P. 38; Greenemeier, Larry

U.S. business technology professionals' attitude toward their IT systems' resistance to viruses and other cyberthreats demonstrates misplaced confidence, according to the results of InformationWeek Research's Global Security Survey 2006. Despite many reports of intrusions and the ranking of security complexity management as a leading challenge, an overwhelming majority of American respondents believe their companies' vulnerability has not significantly increased over the past year. The likelihood of attack is rising as hackers become more profit-motivated, a trend reflected in the nearly twofold surge in the number of U.S. companies that reportedly suffered identity theft and the exposure of customer records in the past year. American companies are less likely than their European counterparts to formalize rules that govern access and storage of customer data, and just 28 percent of U.S. security policies require data encryption. Many IT managers say too much of their attention is focused on external attacks, even though internal attacks are a bigger threat to American businesses that no amount of training, security measures, or policies can prepare them for. Wireless network security and VoIP security are of growing concern to survey respondents, and Clark County, Nev., CIO Rod Massey points to the need for more effective, manageable, and easy to use security products. Accenture's Alastair MacWillson says a clear demonstration that a more secure IT environment will enable company growth makes it easier to obtain additional security funding. Meanwhile, throughout the world, new regulations are forcing companies to reform security practice.
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A Farewell to Keywords
Scientific American (07/06) Vol. 195, No. 1, P. 91; Stix, Gary

Content-based image retrieval is making strides toward becoming a more effective alternative to keyword-based retrieval though industrial and academic research efforts aided by the increasing sophistication and pervasiveness of technology such as Web-based camera phones. Microsoft Research has developed a system that can search the Web for images or information related to an image taken by a cell phone camera. The image server the picture is sent to matches the picture with training images compiled from the Web, and the server attempts to delineate distinctive features of the image, some of which are clustered in groups of three based on an estimation of how far they are from one another. A match is found by comparing triplets, or groups of the patches, from the query image with triplets from the training images, and then the Web pages featuring a matched image are relayed to the user's cell phone. Google is also focused on more practical content-based image retrieval, and among its areas of concentration is the generalization of many images' content to avoid such things as getting image query results with unwanted pornographic material. "We want to make sure that images are classified as containing adult content by using not only keywords and URLs but also image analysis," explains Google researcher Shumeet Baluja. He has worked on a system that combines modules for spotting 27 features such as skin hue, skin texture, faces, connected pixels, and distinctive elements of objects that resemble skin but are not skin. Baluja and fellow Google researcher Henry Rowley have also developed gender and facial-pose filters to boost performance by recognizing the sex or orientation of a face, shrinking processing time.
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