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August 2, 2006

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Robotics Competition Gets Grant From NASA
Technology News Daily (08/01/06)

NASA has provided the University of Houston with a $20,000 grant that will aid the campus in its effort to successfully host annual robotics competitions for young people who are interested in mathematics, science, engineering, and technology. The university's College of Technology has hosted the Texas Regional Botball Robotics Tournament for the past four years, as well as the Lone Star FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Robotics Tournament since 2002. "The NASA grant enables the college's efforts in promoting these efforts, and this endorsement lends credence to and assists the outreach effort," says William Fitzgibbon, dean of the College of Technology. Students from around the state are drawn to the campus for competitions that have them use special LEGO equipment to build and program autonomous robots. The college's Coordination of Robotics Education (CORE) puts on Botball and FLL each March and December, respectively. "UH has turned into this region's control center for junior high and high school robotics education," says Lucien Junkin, a robotics engineer for NASA Johnson Space Center.
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Quantum Leap
Fortune (08/07/06) Vol. 154, No. 3, P. 76; Schwartz, Peter; Koselka, Rita; Tkaczyk, Christopher

Silicon-based computing power is expected to reach its physical limits in 2015, when it becomes impossible to keep up with Moore's Law; squeezing more power past the silicon barrier requires a transition to quantum computing, which some of the world's top research agencies and technology companies are pursuing. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was a primary mover in the development of magnetic random-access memory (MRAM) chips, which made their commercial debut in July. MRAM supports very high speeds via the giant magnetoresistive effect, which enables a shift in the direction of an electron's spin; a magnetic device retains memory even if the power is cut off, while the elimination of electricity makes overheating a non-issue. The quantum phenomenon of superposition means that quantum bits (qubits) can encompass all values simultaneously, allowing quantum computers to rapidly calculate tough problems such as reliably forecasting weather or traffic. Another unique property of subatomic particles is entanglement, in which a pair of particles mirror each other's movements no matter how far the distance is between them. If this capability could be tapped, completely secure communications would become a reality. Many scientists agree that the most likely application of quantum computing will be the ubiquitous--and for the most part invisible--presence of computers. True artificial intelligence and a neural network that mimics the human brain are expected to be supported by exponentially smarter machines based on quantum computing. Concepts that currently lie in the realm of science fiction, such as telepathy, are also believed to be possible via quantum computing.
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Boffins Give Mice the Finger
VNUNet (07/31/06) Jaques, Robert

In an attempt to bridge the gap between human knowledge and computer knowledge, researchers at the University at Buffalo have developed a technology that enables computers to read the gestures of human hands. The Fingertip Digitizer, a device that users wear on the tip of their index fingers, reads gestures such as pointing and tapping and translates them into the virtual environment. Users can direct the functions of a device with the Fingertip Digitizer in a similar fashion as a mouse guides a computer, but with greater accuracy, according to the researchers. "The gesture-recognition function of this device, in particular, has great potential for a wide range of applications, from personal computing to medical diagnostics to computer games," said Young-Seok Kim, director of the Virtual Reality Lab at Buffalo. The device, which the researchers claim is a major breakthrough in haptic technology, could eventually replace a joystick or a mouse. They modeled the device around the biomechanical attributes of a human finger so that it can intuitively sense an object's properties. To detect movement and touch, the Fingertip Digitizer uses a force sensor, an accelerometer, and a motion tracker. The device reads the force feedback an object exerts when it is touched, and the system reads hand gestures by tracking its acceleration and location.
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UK's Blair Seeks Secret of Silicon Valley's Success
Reuters (07/30/06) Croft, Adrian

British Prime Minister Tony Blair met with technology leaders in Silicon Valley on Monday to pick their brains about the secrets behind the United States' culture of innovation. "We're trying in our way in Britain to make sure the U.K. is a dynamic, innovative country," Blair told the executives. Among the chief executives at the roundtable session were Apple's Steve Jobs, Cisco's John Chambers, AMD's Hector Ruiz, and Sun's Jonathan Schwartz. The panel told Blair that U.S. innovation has been driven by a culture of taking risks and close partnerships with universities. That culture does not look at failure as a dead end, they said. "In the U.S. and especially Silicon Valley, if you have taken a risk and you fail, you in fact become more interesting and potentially more valuable because now you know something," Schwartz said. "Frankly, if you hop over the pond you end up with a very, very different perception of risk and how risk should be viewed." He also suggested that government leaders such as Blair keep blogs. Blair's trip to Silicon Valley followed the visit by George Osbourne, the Conservative Party member whose comments questioning why Britain had produced no major Internet companies such as Yahoo or Google drew sharp criticism from British researchers.
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Video-Game Project Hopes to Expose Middle-Schoolers to Science Fun
Athens News (OH) (07/31/06) Waititu, Ernest

Ohio University has launched an outreach project that partners graduate students with middle-school teachers to boost student interest in science. Working under an National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, the STEAM (Science and Technology Enrichment for Appalachian Middle-schoolers) program will develop educational video games exploring subjects such as the relationship between the moon and sea levels and measuring mass and density. The program aims to use technology "to enrich, excite, and engage students in learning difficult science concepts," said Teresa Franklin, associate professor of instructional technology at OU. Given the amount of time that children already spend playing video games, the medium is a natural vehicle for instruction on otherwise unappealing subjects, the program developers say. The program also hopes to help students see the social dimension of science. If it is a success, the program could be expanded to a national level, says Chang Liu, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science.
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Media Grid Takes Step Forward
Grid Today (07/31/06)

Sun Microsystems is partnering with MediaGrid.org to develop international standards for working with digital media in grid computing environments. The partnership was announced at the ACM SIGGRAPH conference in Boston. The program will link the Sun Grid to the public Media Grid network. "We look forward to collaborating with Sun Microsystems and the Sun Grid to develop a new generation of grid-based digital media infrastructure and application standards," said MediaGrid.org director Aaron Walsh. "Connecting Media Grid and Sun Grid will have an immediate impact on open Grid Gateway standards by providing a significant real-world gateway implementation and corresponding technical specifications, upon which MediaGrid application standards--such as those for rendering, gaming, and virtual reality--ultimately build." The combined platform will support a host of computationally intensive applications in fields such as aerospace, health care, and education. The Media Grid also supports immersive education, massive media on demand, real-time high resolution rendering, and immersive virtual reality environments.
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BYU Scientists Create Tool for 'Virtual Surgery'
Deseret Morning News (UT) (07/31/06) Collins, Lois M.

Researchers at Brigham Young University have developed a software tool that enables surgeons to derive 3-D images from medical scans. The "virtual surgery" application, called Live Surface, which could prove useful preoperative exams, diagnosis, and evaluation, could also help patients see their medical information in an understandable form, according to William Barrett, the BYU computer science professor who developed the software with graduate student Chris Armstrong. Barrett added that the technology could potentially preclude some exploratory surgeries, though he admits that the it is still experimental. By extracting a 3-D image from data such as MRI or CT scans, the software allows surgeons to visualize any part of a patient's body faster and with less effort than previous applications. The technology could also be used to extract images of an actor's performance or inanimate objects from a video clip. With only minimal input from the user, Live Surface uses an algorithm to produce a simple, interactive image. Recent developments in algorithms have enabled programs like Live Surface to produce increasingly refined images in much less time. "We're able to traverse 10-15 levels of the hierarchy in less than a half-second," Barrett said. The program enables users to cut out broad chunks of an image that they do not need to analyze with coarse mouse selections, and then refine the area of interest to produce an interactive image that could, for instance, be projected onto the patient's body during surgery, serving as a virtual road map throughout the operation.
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Future Shocks, Visions: Techies, Artists Flock to Event
Boston Herald (07/30/06) Noyes, Jesse

This week's ACM SIGGRAPH convention will feature the world's largest digital art exhibit, a performance by a robotic percussionist, and a computer animation festival that will include short films by major studios such as DreamWorks and Pixar. The annual conference on computer graphics and interactive technologies is expected to draw as many as 25,000 participants. One exhibit will feature the world's largest Etch A Sketch, a 30-foot by 60-foot screen that can be manipulated by audience members. Like its handheld counterpart, the giant toy can be shaken to clear the existing drawing. "You'll see some pretty cool technology that feels futuristic," said John Finnegan, chairman of the conference and an associate professor at Purdue University. "If I had to boil [the conference] down to a single thing, it's about visual communication." The offsite SIGGRAPH fashion show will feature devices such as the No-Contact Jacket, which can emit a jolt of 80,000 volts of electricity when someone attempts to make unwanted contact. Also on display will be the Day-for-Night dress, which consists of 436 white circuit boards, and the Computer Hood, which is made of a material that can stretch over the head and create a soundproof privacy filter by attaching to a computer. "It really ties into the idea of fashion being second skin," said Amanda Parkes, curator of the fashion show.
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Momentum Builds for 'Revolution' to Recycle Electronic Waste
Christian Science Monitor (07/31/06) P. 13; Moore, Elizabeth Armstrong

A growing number of grass-roots, nonprofit "e-cycling" outfits are emerging throughout the country to address the mounting environmental problem caused by discarded electronics. There are more than 100 chemicals in computers alone, including lead, cadmium, barium, and mercury. Each year, more than 250 million personal computers and 100 million cell phones are discarded, prompting some states to enact legislation governing their disposal. Many domestic manufacturers are now using free e-cycling programs as an additional selling point. "In the last several years...we discovered that this was an issue that resonated with many consumers," said Ted Smith of the Silicon Valley Toxics Association. "More and more people realized that they didn't know what to do with the old electronic gear that was building up in their homes." The five-year-old nonprofit Free Geek has recycled 760 tons of electronics that otherwise would have ended up in landfills. Partners of the nonprofit build computers from donated parts for low-income families throughout the world, addressing both the issue of electronic waste and the digital divide, according to Oso Martin, founder of Free Geek. Electronic recycling is reshaping the consumer side as well, as a growing number of customers are becoming as concerned with the environmentally friendly disposal of their old electronics as they are with cutting-edge features in new products. In September, Dell will roll out the first totally free recycling program in the country where customers will not be required to purchase a computer to have their old PC shipped to a recycling center at no cost, but the United States is still well behind Europe in e-cycling. In 2002, the European Union began requiring manufacturers to shoulder the entire cost of recycling electronic devices that they produce. The "producer responsibility model" includes everything from toasters to laptops, and similar laws have since been passed at the state level in the United States. While he admits that Dell's program is a breakthrough, Smith says that even by the most generous estimates, only 10 percent of the equipment sold is returned to manufacturers or vendors for recycling under existing programs. With the average life span of a PC down from four and a half years in 1992 to two years in 2005, the problem is only exacerbated. Ultimately, the success of e-cycling programs will depend on consumer restraint in terms of how quickly they replace their electronics and how they dispose of them.
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Grad Students in San Diego Build Biometric Vending Machine
Contactless News (07/31/06) Williams, Andy

Graduate students at the University of California, San Diego, are outfitting a soda machine with a small computer, a barcode scanner, a fingerprint reader, and a Web cam to enable facial recognition. If someone wants a soda, he can simply place his thumb on the reader and it recognizes his account. The idea for the SodaVision project came from UCSD associate engineering professor Stefan Savage, who purchased a soda machine last year with an eye toward improving the system at UCSD's snack and soda cooperative. "I bought the soda machine and a touch screen and the fingerprint reader," Savage said. "We looked for a fingerprint reader that would work with our software and with Linux. Now they [the students] have actually torn [the fingerprint reader] apart and rewired it to work with the machine." The students created the interface, and they are now working on the facial-recognition technology. "Recognition requires detecting a face, morphing the face, running preprocessing on the face, looking up the face in the repository, running an election over many frames, and finally logging in the user with the most votes in the election," wrote graduate student Tom Duerig in a paper detailing the project. The system currently recognizes faces with 80 percent accuracy, but the researchers are hoping to reach 95 percent.
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Can Grid Computing Help Us Work Together?
Science (07/28/06) Vol. 313, No. 5786, P. 433; Clery, Daniel

Grid computing could make it easier for research teams around the world to work collectively using networked computers. "Centers without walls," also known as virtual organizations and collaboratories, have emerged as a new way for scientists to work together, and grid computing would make it easier for the researchers to share their resources. Grid computing would enable each institution in a virtual organization to share their computer processing power, which would essentially create a supercomputer for the participants. The institutions could also use grid computing to contribute their databases, memory storage facilities, and scientific instruments such as telescopes. CERN has a test-bed grid that will become operational in October, and next year research centers from around the world will be able to access it to archive, process, and study data from the Large Hadron Collider (LCH) at the organization's particle physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland. Although grid computing holds much promise for virtual organizations, some observers note that the technology has been slow to catch on because of concerns that it was not user-friendly and due to institutions possessive over resources. "Policy, culture, and behavior will all have to adapt," says Malcolm Atkinson, director of the e-Science Institute at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom. "That's why it's not going to happen in five years."
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Google to Host Repository for Open-Source Projects
IDG News Service (07/28/06) Gohring, Nancy

Google has offered developers 100 MB of disk storage space and a host of software tools such as issue tracking to support and share their open-source projects. Google claims the offer comes from a desire to foster productive, healthy open-source communities, though the response from developers has been muted. There will be no advertisements on the pages of the new service, but users will be required to have a Gmail account. Only projects with a single license will be supported, and, as part of an effort to standardize development under strong, popular licenses, developers will only have a limited number of licensing options. Google's service is similar to one offered by SourceForge.net, which had hosted 100,000 projects since its introduction, according to an announcement SourceForge made last May. In online discussions, some developers complained that SourceForge's service performs poorly, and expressed hope that Google's would work better. Others complained that Google's service will only offer limited support for tools and licenses.
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A Mind of Their Own
Los Angeles Times (07/28/06) Verrier, Richard

Using artificial intelligence, computers are emulating human thought to guide the actions of lifelike characters in animated movies. Developed by computer graphics expert Stephen Regelous, the technology, known as Massive, has been used in numerous productions, including "King Kong" and a Budweiser commercial that featured 97,000 animated fans hoisting cards to form a collective image. Now in use at major digital graphics houses, the technology is enabling complex animation that was previously deemed too costly. "Artificial intelligence software is going to continue to allow us to tell more interesting and complex stories," said Chris DeFaria of Warner Bros. Though the technology has made a splash in the animation community, some fear that it will come at the expense of human creativity. "There's always concern by the animators when a new piece of software comes out that it reduces their artistry by making it all mechanical," said Joan Carey, chair of the Los Angeles chapter of SIGGRAPH. "Once they understand they are not threatened, then they embrace it." Peter Jackson enlisted Regelous to design the animation for the elaborate battle scenes for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. To build characters that could interact with each other and their environments, Regelous developed three-dimensional computer agents that recreated the movements of human actors. He then created "brains" for the agents consisting of thousands of nodes that enabled the agents to respond to environmental activity.
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Senate Subcommittee Hears Testimony on HPC
HPC Wire (07/28/06) Trader, Tiffany

The importance of high performance computing to national competitiveness was the focus of a hearing held by the Senate Subcommittee on Technology, Innovation, and Competitiveness on July 19, 2006. Dr. Simon Szykman, director of the National Coordination Office for Networking and Information Technology Research and Development, testified that federal funding and interagency coordination are key to the competitiveness of high performance computing on a global level, adding that the budget of the NITRD Program has increased 65 percent over five years with a budget request of more than $1.3 billion for fiscal year 2007. Advancements in supercomputing and its impact on all facets of society, from defense and national security to weather and climate research, health care, and business were highlighted by Dr. Irving Wladasky-Berger, vice president of technical strategy and innovation at IBM. And in written testimony, Tom West, CEO of National LambdaRail, noted that its high-capacity optical network is the type of national research infrastructure that can take advantage of the high performance resources that are able to improve the competitiveness of the country. The hearing could lead to a companion legislation in the Senate for the High Performance Computing Revitalization Act (HR 28), which was passed last April. Panel minority leader Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said the House version is "a good framework to start with."
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Linux Creator Torvalds Still No Fan of GPLv3
IDG News Service (07/28/06) Martens, China

After the release of the second draft of GPLv3, Linux creator Linus Torvalds remains steadfast in his opposition to the proposed update, and says he still has no intentions of adopting it for the Linux kernel. The recent update toned down the language and clarified the provisions concerning DRM. "I don't actually see any real fundamental changes there, and it all seems to boil down to the same meaning in the end," Torvalds said. "The FSF [Free Software Foundation] is trying to make some things no longer permissible under the GPLv3 that the GPLv2 left open, and I just happen to think that those things were better off being left open." Though it is not a complete repudiation of DRM, the second update bars third parties from limiting the ability to use or modify software licensed under the GPL through technical means. Though the GPL has not been updated in 15 years, Torvalds questions the need for a new version, and sees no incentives for making the change. "I just don't see any advantages to the new limitations, and am personally much happier with the older version 2," he said. "I'll always leave the door open for future input and improvements, but the way things look right now, the new v3 license will not actually impact the kernel, although it probably will affect a number of other projects." Torvalds is also disappointed with the comment process by which the FSF solicited feedback from the community, claiming that emotions generally tend to muddle the discussions and undermine their value in terms of the core issue of actually writing code.
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Carnegie Mellon's Storage Guru
Network World (07/24/06) Vol. 23, No. 27, P. 56; Schultz, Beth

Working at Carnegie Mellon University's Data Center Observatory (DCO), lab director Greg Ganger is developing automated, cost-effective techniques for managing massive storage infrastructures. Run by CMU's Parallel Data Laboratory, the DCO will provide access to campus constituencies with projects that require extensive computing and storage resources. Instead of researchers exploring fields such as scientific visualization, earthquake simulation, and nanotechnology, each using their own computing cluster, Ganger is hoping to make the DCO's shared infrastructure the hub for university computing resources. The system is using generic servers and storage systems that take up 12 racks. The team intends to add three enclosures over the three years, by which time Ganger expects the system to hold more than a petabyte of data. The systems will have 4,000 GHz of processing power and consume 774 kw of power.
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The Sensor Web: Distributed Sensing for Collective Action
Sensors (07/06) Vol. 23, No. 7, P. 18; Delin, Kevin A.

Wireless sensor networks cannot become truly ubiquitous without first recognizing and meeting real-world needs, and the Sensor Web stands out by having a synchronous and router-free communication architecture that enables every node or pod to know what every other pod is doing throughout every measurement cycle. The Sensor Web architecture supports both omni- and bidirectional information flows, allowing information to be extracted from raw data input registered at a specific pod; post-processed sensed data from a pod or cluster of pods; commands inputted into the distributed instrument by an external end user through the portal pod; and commands inputted via a component pod. Sensor Web technology is ready to be specially tailored for many practical applications, particularly those that involve macroscopic, off-the-cuff data fusion and reaction. The Sensor Web exists as a distributed instrument, providing a snapshot of the area it is observing. Each pod's awareness of every other pod's activity allows the aggregation, organization, and processing of its collective information, which is very important when the Sensor Web is positioned remotely in the absence of Internet access. The Sensor Web facilitates global pod-to-pod information exchange, which is highly valuable in scenarios calling for situational awareness, such as urban search and rescue of collapsed buildings. Sensor Web technology is advancing toward applications where new kinds of operations can be effected by its collective action properties. The stability of the Sensor Web's platform enables algorithms to be crafted from the data flow coming from the whole distributed instrument, which guarantees performance for real-world needs.
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