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July 19, 2006

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Welcome to the July 19, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Brainy Robots Start Stepping Into Daily Life
New York Times (07/18/06) P. A1; Markoff, John

Fifty years after the term "artificial intelligence" was coined, scientists and engineers claim that their work simulating the human brain is progressing rapidly, leading to a new wave of practical applications. Artificial intelligence researchers have already developed robotic cars and virtual enemies that engage players in video games, but new technologies promise to have sweeping effects on safety, security, and entertainment, as well as the basic tasks of everyday life. Stanford researchers are working on a robot that can clean up after a party, take out the trash, and even assemble an Ikea bookshelf using a screwdriver and hammer. Drawing on a wealth of biological information about the workings of the brain, some researchers have begun to describe their work as cognitive computing, rather than artificial intelligence. "There's definitely been a palpable upswing in methods, competence, and boldness," said Microsoft's Eric Horvitz, who is president-elect of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence. "At the conferences you hear people say 'human-level AI,' and people are saying that without blushing." Despite some notable accomplishments, progress in the field continues to be measured incrementally, and research and development projects are scattered among enclaves in the academic and corporate communities. A major breakthrough came last year, when a robot car developed at Stanford University traversed 132 miles of desert road without human intervention. Next year, DARPA will raise the bar with the "urban challenge," tasking the vehicles with negotiating a simulated traffic setting. As scientists continue to learn more about the brain, further advances can be expected. Using an IBM parallel supercomputer, researchers at Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne have developed the most sophisticated model to date of a column of 10,000 neurons in the neocortex. Researchers working under the Blue Brain project claim that their highly detailed models will help scientists attempting to replicate brain functions in machines.
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Carnegie Mellon, University of Pittsburgh Receive $15 Million From NSF to Establish Center Focused on Improving Americans' Quality of Life
Carnegie Mellon News (07/17/06) Watzman, Anne; Spice, Byron; McElhinny, Kelli

The NSF has issued a five-year, $15 million grant to Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh to create an engineering research center that will focus on technologies to enable the elderly and disabled to live more independent and productive lives. Scientists at the Quality of Life Technology Engineering Research Center (QoLT ERC) will establish a base of knowledge that will support the creation of intelligent systems, such as a device a person could wear, a mobile system that can be ridden, or an environment furnished with devices to keep track of the health and activity levels of people living alone. The center will also try to improve current assistive technologies, such as wheelchairs, and could develop systems to prolong the age at which the elderly can safely drive. The activities of the center will expand on recent research in the fields of robotics, machine perception, learning, and communication. The center will seek to develop the technologies to address the challenges of a population swelling with the ranks of the elderly and disabled. "The purpose of our new center is to foster independence and self-determination among older adults and people with disabilities," said Takeo Kanade, Carnegie Mellon professor of computer science and robotics and co-chair of the center. "If the technology we develop at the QoLT ERC can delay the need to send people from their homes to assisted-living or nursing facilities by even one month, we can save our nation $1.2 billion annually. We need to apply the same ingenuity that we've used for military, space, and manufacturing applications to improve the human condition." The center will also be mindful of accessibility and user-acceptance issues, says Rory Cooper, professor of rehabilitation science and technology at the University of Pittsburgh and the center's other co-chair.
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Microsoft Gathering Seeks Ways to Get Kids Thinking IT
Seattle Times (07/18/06) Romano, Benjamin J.

While IT has historically been a male-dominated field, a Microsoft researcher believes the reasons why women are exiting the field could explain why fewer students are pursuing technical courses of study. Women who studied computer science for a year or two in college but then quit the discipline for another area of study said that they did not see a broader relevance or impact in their work, according to Microsoft's Kevin Schofield. "It just felt like they were getting lost in this sort of endlessly geeky field that was all about taking the box apart and understanding how it worked," said Schofield. "Now we're seeing that notion across a larger set of people." Microsoft recently brought about 350 computer scientists from academia to its headquarters to discuss the spate of challenges facing American competitiveness in a globalizing technology economy. Nationwide enrollment in computer science programs has fallen 60 percent in four years, according to Lucy Sanders, CEO and co-founder of the National Center for Women in Information Technology. "We're not seeing the best and the brightest...and we're certainly not seeing women and minorities," she said. Putting computer science in a real-world context, discussing applications such as robotics or health care, particularly in introductory courses, could help overcome the relevance issue that stems partially from simply teaching abstract programming languages, many participants said. Despite the reality that 1.5 million IT jobs will be added to the U.S. economy by 2012, many students are still operating under the post-dot-com perception that IT is a declining field. "In the United States, we just don't celebrate engineers," Microsoft's Craig Mundie said. "Kids have genetically a better chance of growing up and being Bill Gates than growing up and being Tiger Woods...we should probably publish these statistics." For information about ACM's Committee on Women and Computing, visit http://women.acm.org
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Maybe We Should Leave That Up to the Computer
New York Times (07/18/06) P. C4; Heingartner, Douglas

Computer models can do a better job than people of making the basic decisions that managers face in their routine work day, according to Chris Snijders, sociology professor at the Eindoven University of Technology. So confident is Snijders that he has issued a challenge, claiming that his algorithms can best the top managers of any company. "As long as you have some history and some quantifiable data from past experiences," Snijders says, his formula can make better decisions than any human. Snijders says that he can back up his claims, citing data from a comparison between the purchasing decisions that managers made at more than 300 companies and the results of computer models given the same tasks. The algorithms outscored the managers in categories such as promptness of delivery, satisfaction of budgetary requirements, and accuracy of order details. Researchers have known for decades that mathematical models make predictions with greater accuracy than humans, such as the rate of recidivism among parolees, certain medical diagnoses, and selecting the winning dogs at the racetrack. The reason for computers' decision-making superiority is the vast base of knowledge and experience on which they draw, as well as the absence of emotion. Studies have found that some of the qualities most valued in managers, such as intuition and experience, may be of little if any benefit. Indeed, experience can often lead to poorer decisions over time because of bad habits that get reinforced due to a lack of feedback, while some studies have concluded that face-to-face interviews frequently detract from the quality of a final hiring decision. In addition to freeing up managers to work on other tasks, computer models work faster than humans and do not suffer from fatigue. Still, some skeptics argue that many decisions that managers encounter in the business world cannot be quantified, and that computers will never be able to entirely replace humans' ability to notice when something unexpected happens that might violate the rules predicating the computer model.
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Audio Software for the Moody Listener
Technology Review (07/19/06) Nasr, Susan

University of Munich researchers have developed a digital music player that organizes songs by mood. Music players such as the iPod force their users to scroll through extensive lists, according to Munich graduate student Otmar Hilliges. "A lot of people who own iPods tell me they don't read the list anymore," he said. "They remember where spatially on the list their favorite artists are and scroll." Users often do not even have a particular artist in mind, but simply with to hear a certain type of music. Broad categories such as "jazz" do not convey the feeling of a particular song, and some users have given up entirely, resorting instead to the "shuffle" function. In developing AudioRadar, the Munich group used algorithms to comb through a music collection and evaluate songs by qualities such as tempo, volume, harmony, and chordal shifts. The program then orders the songs by four metrics: fast or slow, rhythmic or melodic, calm or turbulent, and clean or rough. The program then produces a radar map of songs grouped by their sounds and similarities. Users can create their own mood-based playlists, or allow the program to choose songs for them. The two programs most similar to AudioRadar are still under development. Playola, the work of a student at Columbia University, fits songs into genres by measuring patterns and allows users to adjust specific criteria to inform the selection of the next song. Sun's Search Inside the Music also measures song features and groups them by sound similarity. Though there is clearly a market need for improved navigation systems for digital music collections, the three applications under development have not been commercialized because they are still relatively inefficient. AudioRadar's algorithms, for instance, take 5 percent to 10 percent longer than the song's play length to process. Matching human similarity judgments is another obstacle for the systems.
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New Recruits Still Scarce
Computerworld (07/17/06) Robb, Drew

The inverse relationship between the declining number of students seeking degrees in IT and the mounting demands of the industry could lead to a critical worker shortage in the coming years, analysts warn. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that one in four jobs created between now and 2012 will be related to IT, according to IBM's Mark Hanny. At the same time, the percentage of college freshman whose intended major is computer science dropped 70 percent from 2000 to 2004. The figures are even more striking among women, who account for more than half of all college students, yet receive just 28 percent of all computer science bachelor's degrees awarded, down from 38 percent in 1984. To stem this tide, initiatives are under way to stimulate interest in the primary-school level, and to help students who are already enrolled in computer science classes finish their programs, though some believe that even these efforts will fall short. "In the K-12 area, it would be so much better to see this come together as a national effort," Hanny said. "If we want to continue to maintain our leadership, we must get more out of our students excited about this as a career at a very young age." To explain declining student interest in IT, experts point to a variety of factors, including the post-dot-com bust, the fear of jobs lost to outsourcing, and the reductive effect on the potential IT applicant pool brought on by the emergence of fields such as biology. Parents and guidance counselors frequently steer high school students away from IT, said Wanda Dann, associate computer science professor at Ithaca College. IT also is fighting an uphill battle against perception. "The field has a well-deserved reputation for people who are socially inept introverts," said Randy Pausch, computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Putting that image to rest will require outreach activities, particularly for women and minorities, Pausch says.
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Internet Pioneers Debate Net Neutrality
IDG News Service (07/17/06) Gross, Grant

Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor David Farber and Google chief Internet evangelist Vint Cerf took opposite sides in a debate on the issue of net neutrality at the Center for American Progress. Farber argued that a congressionally approved net neutrality law was a bad idea, because antitrust laws already offer sufficient protection from uncompetitive practices by broadband carriers. He further contended that broadband carrier regulation could encourage Congress to pass similar regulation for Internet content. Cerf countered that there are several congressional efforts to regulate content already underway, including moves to criminalize online gambling and law enforcement's Internet wiretapping program. He said net neutrality rules would not constitute new regulation, citing the FCC's August 2005 decision to strip DSL providers of "common carrier" requirements that they carry all traffic. Farber retorted that there is thus far no proof of broadband providers discriminating against competing content, and warned that there could be unintentional fallout from a poorly worded law. Cerf disputed Farber's claim that antitrust laws are an adequate safeguard, noting that antitrust lawsuits can take a long time, and the majority of broadband subscribers have little, if any, choice of providers. The Senate is preparing to consider sweeping broadband legislation criticized for not including strong net neutrality provisions, and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has pledged to "do everything to block this bill and kill it" unless such provisions are added.
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Tech Researchers Creating Software to Protect Children
Roanoke Times (VA) (07/15/06) Manese-Lee, Angela

Researchers at Virginia Tech are developing software designed to verify that a Web site has the parental consent to begin collecting information on their children. The POCKET (Parental Online Consent for Kids' Electronic Transactions) software is designed to make it easier for parents to guard against Web sites that request information from their Web-surfing children. "Right now, every single Web site that the child goes to that wants to collect information, they are required to go get their parent, bring their parent to the computer, and, through several methods depending on what the Web sites are doing with the information, get the parent to consent for the child to enter the information," explains Janine Hiller, professor of business law at Va. Tech's Pamplin College of Business. "This system is like an agent for the parent." Parents and Web sites must contribute to POCKET for the software to be effective. POCKET has parents fill out a privacy preference form on what information, from the full name of their child to their street address, is okay to be shared, and Web sites fill out a similar form that details the information they collect. The software will allow a child to connect to a Web site if it does not ask for more information than the parent has entered into a privacy preference form. POCKET is the focus of a three-year project that received $450,000 from the National Science Foundation Cyber Trust program last year, and the researchers have several issues to address as they continue to develop the software, such as how to effectively authenticate parental registration and how to block only a certain part of a Web site where more information is requested.
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DHS Bill Slashes Research Funds
Federal Computer Week (07/17/06) Arnone, Michael

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will receive a fiscal 2007 appropriations bill that will include a large portion of funding for technology, as approved by the Senate. The new bill is still not enough to appease critics who are critical of the lack of funds cybersecurity receives, which will be $82.4 million, as well as the lack of vision. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency will receive $6.64 billion, while the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency will receive $3.86 billion. The bill is dominated by border security and disaster preparedness. "We�re putting our economy on the line here in terms of vulnerability to cyberattacks," says Warren Suss president of Suss Consulting. "This is a complete blind spot in the budget." The bill will provide $818.5 million for the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, a 37 percent decline from the fiscal 2006 budget of $1.3 billion. The directorate is looking to mold DHS in the same fashion as the CIA by having private-sector companies handle all of the agency's scientific research.
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Research Dishes Out Flexible Computer Chips
UW-Madison (07/18/06) Beal, James

University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers have developed novel thin-film semiconductor techniques that could bring sensing, computing, and imaging capabilities to an extensive litany of materials. The new semiconductor-fabrication process removes from the substrate a single-crystal semiconductor film of only a couple hundred nanometers. The film can then transferred to flexible materials such as glass or plastic, inviting a host of possibilities in flexible electronics. Since the film can be flipped as it is transferred to the substrate, more components can be added to its other side. Three-dimensional electronic devices could be created by repeating the process and stacking the layers. "It's important to note that these are single-crystal films of strained silicon or silicon germanium," said Zhenqiang Ma, a UW-Madison electrical and computer engineer. "Strain is introduced in the way we form the membrane. Introducing strain changes the arrangement of atoms in the crystal such that we can achieve much faster device speed while consuming less power." Flexible electronics could have broad applications to a host of non-computing applications, such as solar cells, RFID tags, and smart cards. Embedding semiconductors in fabric could lead to wearable electronics or rollable computer monitors. "This is potentially a paradigm shift," said UW-Madison materials scientist Max Lagally. "The ability to create fast, low-power, multilayer electronics has many exciting applications." Lagally especially touts the prospect of silicon germanium membranes, because incorporating germanium without degrading the material's quality could create devices with much greater light sensitivity.
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Next-Gen IT Workforce: Computers Classes Seen as 'Shop Class' at Many Schools
InformationWeek (07/17/06)No. 1098, P. 44; McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

Although about 25 percent of high schools require a computer course, few classes go beyond teaching users basic skills such as typing and point-and-click, according to the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA). School districts are inconsistent in their approach to computer science courses and they often lack a computer science requirement. Some school districts offer computer-related courses as electives, but parents often do not want their kids to take the courses if their children plan to attend college. College admissions departments might look at the courses, such as the Cisco computer networking class offered through vocational programs, as a wood shop class. Some districts include tech classes in their honors or advanced placement curriculum, but they are starting to cut back on electives because of budget restraints, standardized testing regulations, and curriculum restrictions as a result of the impact of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Computer science should be viewed as a building block for future studies involving engineering, core sciences, medicine, and even business. "Just because you're not going to be a physicist shouldn't mean I shouldn't teach you physics," says CSTA President Chris Stephenson. For more information about CSTA, visit http://csta.acm.org
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The Future of Computing
Dr. Dobb's Journal (07/17/06) Fomitchev, Max

Penn State computer science professor Max Fomitchev explains that computing has evolved in a spiral pattern from a centralized model to a distributed model that retains some aspects of centralized computing. Single-task PC operating systems (OSes) evolved into multitasking OSes to make the most of increasing CPU power, and the introduction of the graphical user interface at the same time reduced CPU performance and fueled demands for even more efficiencies. "The role of CPU performance is definitely waning, and if a radical new technology fails to materialize quickly we will be compelled to write more efficient code for power consumption costs and reasons," Fomitchev writes. Slow, bloated software entails higher costs in terms of both direct and indirect power consumption, and the author reasons that code optimization will likely involve the replacement of blade server racks with microblade server racks where every microblade executes a dedicated task and thus eats up less power. The collective number of microblades should also far outnumber initial "macro" blades. Fully isolating software components should enhance the system's robustness thanks to the potential of real-time component hot-swap or upgrade and the total removal of software installation, implementation, and patch conflicts. The likelihood of this happening is reliant on the factor of energy costs, which directly feeds into the factor of code optimization efficiency. "Therefore further increase in energy prices is likely to result in gradual reduction of the role of CPU in computer system, more optimized code and return towards single-processor/single-task special-purpose computing paradigm," concludes Fomitchev.
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Voting Software
Embedded.com (07/17/06) Ganssle, Jack

With the November elections fast approaching, the uncertainties that still pervade the multitude of e-voting systems in use throughout the country will likely result in the candidates who lose tight races crying foul, writes Jack Ganssle. The machines are not the only part of the process that is suspect, according to a recent ACM report on the software used to register voters. "In light of recent events and legislation that have underscored the core importance of voting and of public confidence in our electoral system, one might conclude that all VRDs should be built and operated to the highest possible standards. While the highest standards of reliability, privacy, accountability, usability, and security are desirable, they may be impractical because of resulting expense or system response," report reads. What ACM describes as "system response" is merely a subterfuge aimed at convincing the non-technically inclined that good code is too slow, and that the only code that will run fast enough will be plagued with glitches. ACM recommends testing, though Ganssle claims that most tests only inspect half the code, and that it is more important to look at the internals of the system. While e-voting will ultimately lead to a faster and more secure election process, as well as opening the door to more absentee votes, the machines must be built on an operating system that has been certified and vetted by the open-source community. To read the report "Statewide Databases of Registered Voters" in its entirety, visit www.acm.org/usacm/VRD
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Animation Can Be Outlet for Victimized Children, a Tool for Research
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (07/17/06) Chamberlain, Craig

Researchers at the University of Illinois have developed a computer-animation program that can help victimized children produce "animated narrative vignette situations" that help them cope with their troubled past, according to Sharon Tettegah, professor of curriculum and instruction. Dubbed Clover, the program can also help gauge the level of empathy in teachers who may deal with these children. Users write the narrative and dialog, lay out the graphics and storyboard, and add voice and animation. Tettegah has conducted extensive research in animation as a teaching aid, and will be on hand at the upcoming ACM SIGGRAPH conference to present some of her work. Animation has a stronger storytelling power than a simple narrative, yet is not as distracting as video, Tettegah says. "Think about when you're watching a cartoon: You focus more on what they're saying and not on how they look," she said. Her studies have found that instead of empathizing with the victimized child, most subjects concentrate more on the perpetrator or other issues. In one experiment, Tettegah showed 178 subjects (142 women and 36 men) an animated scenario in which a boy refused to work with a girl on a class project because he was afraid her skin color would rub off on him. After viewing the vignette, each subject was given unlimited time and space to respond to a series of open-ended questions. Tettegah and four assistants coded the content of the responses and turned them over to a statistical expert for analysis using latent variable modeling. Just 10 percent of the subjects displayed a high level of empathy, while fewer than half showed even low levels of empathy, leading Tettegah to conclude that education courses should include some degree of training in empathy awareness. For more information about SIGGRAPH 2006, or to register, visit http://www.siggraph.org/s2006/
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US Government Told to Take Its Hands Off Internet
Register (UK) (07/15/06) McCarthy, Kieren

The U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has discovered that an overwhelming majority of responders want the U.S. to end its role as primary overseer of the Internet and transition to an international model. NTIA garnered this response from its call for comments on the topic of Internet governance, which the NTIA issued in May 2006 ahead of the Sept. 30, 2006, expiration of the ICANN contract. NTIA received 632 comments overall, and found that 305 directly addressed Internet governance issues in a substantial way. Of these 305 comments, 87 percent of responders want an international oversight of the Internet. Comments harshly critical of ICANN's management were roughly two comments against for each positive comment. The renewal of the .com contract and the proposed .xxx drew the most criticism and cries of concern. In addition, 153 responders wrote in on the issue of Net neutrality even though the NTIA was not looking to address this topic. The NTIA plans to host a meeting on July 26, 2006, to discuss these comments.
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Wiring Girls for the Computer Field
Beaumont Enterprise (07/16/06) Lane, Jacqui

Lamar University in Southeast Texas hopes to get more young women interested in computer science by holding a computer camp for girls in middle and high school. The university held a session of its "Girls WIRED for Computer Science" camp this weekend, drawing girls from Nederland Central Middle School, and plans to host students from Port Neches Middle School in August. On Saturday, the girls programmed robots and computer hardware; designed Web pages; listened to speakers discuss how computer science impacts medicine, science, business, and entertainment; and received information that would help them prepare for college. The camp comes at a time when the nation is facing a shortage in computing professionals, and when women account for less than 20 percent of those receiving computer science bachelors degrees. At Lamar, women represent about 15 percent of computer science majors. Peggy Doerschuk, a computer science professor at Lamar who is helping to lead the camp, says there is a misconception that computer science is for boys, and that computer scientists work alone. "Girls stay away because they don't see many other girls in the profession," says Doerschuk.
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What's in It for Them?
InformationWeek (07/17/06)No. 1098, P. 32; McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

To halt the decline of IT professionals in the United States, leaders in business and technology must collaborate with employers, educators, and policy makers to address the problem by encouraging youth to take up IT via a passionate, focused, and unified effort. Projections of a tech talent shortage are fueled by the impending retirement of baby boomers and young people's reluctance to enroll in computer science because of doubts about their career prospects due to offshore outsourcing and foreign competition. "We've got to make sure everyone understands that this is important," says Stevens Institute of Technology associate dean and professor Jerry Luftman. "We need to spread the word." Tech vendors are among the most proactive organizations to engage in collaboration with educational institutions, but their efforts are often independent of other vendors and motivated by self-interest; a collective campaign uniting competitors and a greater portion of charitable contributions would be a distinct improvement. Increasing the practicality and relevance of university courses is the goal of the most innovative education-industry joint ventures, and interaction between professors and business technology executives is critical to the success of such initiatives, according to Indiana University professor Daniel Conway. Internships should be encouraged to help students gain the business and industry acumen that is so highly desired among entry-level IT employees. Internships and special programs should also be made available to high school students, not just university students. Such programs should provide a concentration in hands-on experience.
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DAC: Let the Games Begin
Electronic Design (07/06/06) Vol. 54, No. 15, P. 50; Maliniak, David

The organizers of ACM's 43rd Design Automation Conference (DAC), taking place July 24-28 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, concur that gaming systems, multimedia equipment, and entertainment constitute the future of the EDA industry, as evidenced by the event's emphasis on MEGa (Multimedia, Entertainment, and Games). Former Cadence CEO Joe Costello will study current macro consumer trends in a discussion where he will communicate his concept of true technology convergence in the context of what the EDA industry must do to give the industry at large the tools and technologies necessary to fulfill consumers' needs. For Costello's vision to be fleshed out, true innovation in the design cycle's back end must be realized. A great deal of the conference's activities will focus on design-for-manufacturability (DFM) tools as the industry keeps looking for the most durable DFM approach. New verification tools and methodologies are also an area of concentration at DAC. The creation of advanced multimedia, entertainment, and gaming products involves considerable design challenges and design technology requirements, and these will be the focus of various panels, papers, and DAC Pavilion sessions. One panel session will convene experts who are formulating the definition of next-generation gaming, mobile TV, display, multimedia processing, and digital home platforms to work out issues of chip architectures and major design challenges. For more information about DAC, or to register, visit http://www.dac.com/43rd/index.html
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