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November 6, 2006

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Welcome to the November 6, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Glitches in State Databases Could Turn Away Voters
Computerworld (11/06/06) Songini, Marc

The November 7 elections will mark the first use of a centralized voter database in a general election in Florida and many other states. These databases are governed by state selection officials in accordance with the Help America Vote Act. However, the databases require that new-voter information match information in other databases, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, says Dianne Wheatley-Giliotti, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida (LWVF). The databases were compiled quickly, providing IT workers minimal time for proper training. Leon County, Fla., has the benefit of having previously used a database system on which the new system was built, so IT personnel there will be better prepared, but according to Ion Sancho, head of elections for the county, "Other counties don't know all the ins and outs." Discrepancies, such as "Bill" in one database and "William" in another, would mean that this voter would receive a provisional ballot, and would need to furnish proper documentation within three days; contrary to the belief of many that a voter in this position would simply be sent home, says a spokeswoman for Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb. Some ineligible voters have been sent warnings, but many will find out at the poll site. Justin Levitt, associate counsel with the democracy program at New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice, cites Ohio's eligibility practices that are quite unclear, explaining, "Where the systems are less transparent, there's greater reason for concern." The provisional ballot is meant to assuage voters' fears concerning ineligibility, but LWVF's Wheatley Giliotti sees it as yet another obstacle for a shrinking pool of voters to negotiate. To read USACM's report on "Statewide Databases of Registered Voters," visit http://www.acm.org/usacm/VRD
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NASA Science and Engineering Achievements to Be Featured
SpaceRef.com (11/02/06)

The Supercomputing 2006 (SC06) conference will give attendees an opportunity to learn how NASA is using high-end computing resources to accomplish its science and engineering goals. For example, the space agency will demonstrate how supercomputing systems helped develop a new Crew Launch Vehicle, which will be used to send astronauts into space. Among other demonstrations, NASA will show how high-end computing has enabled the agency to simulate and visualize gravitational waves resulting from a collision between two black holes. "Experience throughout the agency has shown that high-end computing resources are essential to helping meet NASA mission goals," says Rupak Biswas, chief of the NASA Advanced Supercomputing Division at Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. "We are excited to be showing some high-impact science and engineering results generated on NASA's high-end computing systems, including the Columbia supercomputer--one of the world's largest, most capable production supercomputers." ACM is a co-sponsor of the International Conference for High-Performance Computing, Networking, Storage, and Analysis, which is scheduled for Nov. 11-17, 2006, at the Convention Center in Tampa. SC06, which will have more than 250 research and industry booths, is expected to draw more than 10,000 visitors in industry, academia, and government from across the globe. For more information about SC06, or to register, visit http://sc06.supercomputing.org
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Building the Government's Translation Machine, One Year at a Time
Associated Press (11/04/06) Bergstein, Brian

DARPA is using competition between three research teams to encourage the creation of the best possible text and speech translation machine for Chinese and Arabic. Teams from IBM, BBN Technologies, and SRI International are now beginning their second year of work on the project, after each successfully met the standard of 75 percent accuracy of translation required after the first year. The project known as Global Autonomous Language Exploitation (GALE) is more complex than anything BBN has taken on before, according to researcher Owen Kimball. DARPA's goal is to have 90 percent to 95 percent translation ability in both languages by 2010; such a level of interpretation may even exceed even that of humans. Huge pools of sample speech are fed into the computers, which analyze structure and content, adding this information to its library of how words are spoken as well as rules for each language. The work of researchers consists almost completely of tweaking algorithms, and the chance of decreasing the computers translation ability does exist. "It's sort of trial and error guided by intuition and some knowledge," says BBN's Schwartz. The next yearly test, after which one team will probably be eliminated, will require a higher degree of accuracy over a high percentage of a document, and batches of bad translation will not be averaged away.
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Robots Are Your Friends---or They Will Be
ABC News (11/03/06) Poland, Annabella

Experts foresee robots playing a large role in our everyday lives, performing tasks such as housework or providing security, by 2031. "The robot would be able to bathe people, help them dress, feed them...without making people feel they have lost their privacy and dignity," says Jun Ho Oh, a professor at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology at the National University of Korea who has built a robot named Albert that can conduct conversations and even express intricate facial expressions. One of Oh's goals is to develop the ability for robots to sense human intentions and serve them without being explicitly commanded. However, right now, Oh says, "An unstable robot could easily cause involuntary harm, and these are the issues that still need [to be] resolve[d]." David Hanson, of Hanson Robotics, has been enlisted by Oh to develop Albert's face. He sees compassion as necessary for a safe robot: "Without compassion and human emotions, robots could be come sociopaths." Another robot, named Grace, has successfully navigated through a conference and interacted with people, trying to discern their intentions so that she can act in a appropriate manner, explains Marek Michalowski, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University who works on human interaction with Grace. A third robot, named Quasi, was built at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center to research how characters can be built to be emotionally expressive and personable. He has eyelids that can move, and antennae and eyes that can change color to show emotion. Interactions between test subjects and Quasi have been successful, even yielding a strong emotional connection, according to the CMU team.
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E-Voting, As It Advances, Faces Big Risks
Baseline (11/03/06) Hertzberg, Robert

The Defense Department's Interim Voting Assistance System is the latest electronic voting initiative to come under fire from critics who are concerned about voting security risks. Former ACM President Barbara Simons criticized IVAS in a paper in late October, questioning whether the complex program was hastily put together from June 15 through Sept. 1. Simons is also concerned about the Pentagon's decision not to implement encrypted email for the system. Having overseas military personnel send their votes via unencrypted email could make soldiers victims of identity thieves or hackers and foreign governments who want to tamper with the vote count. "I'm personally offended that people who are fighting and dying for our country are being told they have to give up their right to vote in secret," she says. Meanwhile, Simons says the security measures implemented by e-voting system manufacturers such as Diebold Election Systems will not be enough to safeguard elections because the companies are only addressing problems they know about. She says, "You can fix the problems you know about. But somebody's going to attack you at your weak point, on something you haven't thought about." Barbara Simons was co-chair of the USACM e-voting committee that produced the recent report: "Statewide Databases of Registered Voters;" http://www.acm.org/usacm/VRD
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US Losing IT Edge, Expert Says
ITworldcanada.com (10/27/06) Arellano, Nestor E,

U.S. production of technology professionals is suffering as a result of education shortcomings and government policies, says SAS Institute CEO Dr. James Goodnight. "At a time when we are experiencing massive economic expansion, our schools are not graduating as many high school students as we're supposed to," says Goodnight. A study by Achieve found that only 69 percent of American students graduated from high school last year. Goodnight says, "Children need to be challenged and exposed to tools that have relevance to them." Thornton May, an IT futurist and executive director and dean of the IT Leadership Academy, says the failure to rapidly and comprehensively change teaching methods around market realities is to blame for America's shortcomings. He recommends American universities "emulate Canadian universities such as McGill and Waterloo, which without a doubt, are North America's leading source of IT talent." May adds that these schools, unlike American schools, ensure "humanity," the ability to work with others, in IT students. According to the Global Competitive Index of the World Economic Forum, North America ranks third with 21 percent, behind Asia with 36 percent, and Europe with 28 percent, in Internet use last year. In addition to that of Europe and Asia, growth in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America supports the fear of SAS senior VP Jim Davis: "If we don't speed up our ability to innovate there are a lot of hungry regions out there who would be glad to take our position."
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Computers Boost Surgical Success
University at Buffalo Reporter (11/02/06) Vol. 38, No. 10, Fryling, Kevin

High-performance computers, using pattern recognition and visual processes, are providing neurosurgeons with real-time planning of operations. MRI and CT scans have been used to map the brain for the surgeon, but these images taken hours earlier do not truly display the brain as it is during surgery. "The problem is that the brain structure moves," as a result of cerebrospinal fluid being lost after the incision is made, says Vipin Chaudhary, associate professor of computer science and engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "And different structures move at different rates because the brain is not homogeneous. There's no reason, with today's technology, that surgeries should go on the way they do," he explains. Chaudhary's research team includes about 30 members, comprised of electrical engineers, computer scientists, bioengineers, and neurosurgeons. Brain scans are even made available to neurosurgeons via PDAs, allowing them to pre-plan an upcoming operation. He is currently designing and building high-performance computational-accelerator platforms and associated software that he says are superior to supercomputers available today. By using reconfigurable processes, graphics processors, and floating-point processors, as well as traditional PCs, he says that, "This will enable an order-of-magnitude-better performance with less power and space requirements for specific applications."
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IT Industry Hopes for Change After Midterms
InfoWorld (11/06/06) Roberts, Paul F.

This week's elections could serve as the catalyst that prompts lawmakers to take up more meaningful legislation that would impact the technology industry. Thus far, lobbyists for the information technology industry have been disappointed that the 109th Congress has not addressed the issue of H-1B visas, funding for R&D, or reforms at the U.S. Patent Office. Earlier in the year, for example, the Senate decided to add H-1B visa reforms to an immigration bill, which failed to pass when the House compromise legislation was put on hold in favor of pursuing immigration reform. Nonetheless, the tech industry still believes there is a chance Congress will pass legislation raising the cap on the H-1B visa program during the lame duck session after the elections. They are also optimistic that lawmakers will move to restore funding for R&D after the elections. Although industry officials did not want to talk about whether a Congress that was controlled by Democrats would help IT, one lobbyist said Democratic representatives from Silicon Valley and Route 128 near Boston would be beneficial.
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E-Voting: Dispatch From the Future
Washington Post (11/05/06) P. B1; Dreschler, Wolfgang

Estonia conducted the world's first nationwide online election on October 16, 2005, which came off without a hitch. Ever since claiming independence following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Estonia has been dedicated to integrating technology into society, including chip-based ID cards with digital signatures carried by citizens and more sophisticated e-banking system than the U.S. The rate of Internet use is 60 percent, compared with 70 percent in the U.S. Voters had the choice of voting over the Internet, or actually coming to the polls, and online voters were given the option of a paper ballot in order to confirm their vote. Only 2 percent of voters did so online, yet the Reform Party, whose members are considered the most tech-savvy, did better among online voters than traditional voters, while the less tech-savvy Center Party did better among traditional voters. The only problem encountered was the need for e-voters to buy an ID-card reader (about $15) and install it using software that many found difficult to use. Estonia is planning to use e-voting in its 2007 parliamentary elections. Although the option of voting over the Internet did not appear to boost voter turnout in Estonia's election, it's likely that the parties that attract more tech-savvy users will benefit, a fact that has implications as more and more countries inevitably move to e-voting in the future. For more on ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usam
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Quantum Coherence Possible in Incommensurate Electronic Systems
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (11/02/06) Kloeppel, James E.

New research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign indicates quantum coherence in electronic systems is not disrupted at nanoscale when electrons are diverted or scattered. The finding helps move researchers a step closer to developing a quantum device, considering quantum coherence and interference phenomena are key factors in nanoscale devices. The researchers studied electron fringe structure in silver films on highly doped silicon substrates, which were lattice mismatched and incommensurate. Nonetheless, the wave functions were compatible and could be matched over the interface plane, producing a coherent state throughout the entire system, according to physics professor Tai-Chang Chiang. The fringes represent the electronic states extending over the silver film as a quantum well and into the silicon substrate as a quantum slope, coupled in a coherent manner through the incommensurate interface structure. The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the Petroleum Research Fund. "An important conclusion drawn from the present study is that coherent wave function engineering, as is traditionally carried out in lattice-matched epitaxial systems, is possible for incommensurate systems, which can substantially broaden the selection of materials useful for coherent device architecture," say the researchers.
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World Internet Conference Near Athens Ends With Promise and Concern for Future
Associated Press (11/02/06) Gatopoulos, Derek

The first Internet Governance Forum near Athens, Greece, concluded this week with hope but no definitive answers to the issues discussed. At the conference, the International Telecommunication Union renewed its call for the internalization of Internet governance, and ICANN announced the final stage of testing of technology that will allow the use of non-Latin characters in Web addressed. Also at the event, Amnesty International, pointing a finger at China, Vietnam, Syria, and Iran, warned against online censorship and accused companies such as Google of complicity. ICANN Chairman Vint Cerf, a Google vice president, said that although Google was not exactly proud of its enabling of censorship, its technology is helping the Chinese. "Google has offered service in conditions we don't like...but it's (one) of those games of patience where you just keep pushing like water eroding rock," Cerf said. Highlighted as a key issue for the next scheduled forum meeting in Rio de Janeiro to address was Internet and network security. "Most national infrastructures--water, electricity, nearly everything else--is based on networking," said David Belanger, chief scientist of AT&T Labs. "Right now they're probably based on more classical networks, which are far more closed. But since nearly all communications networks are moving to (Internet technologies) over time, I think that we will have to be extraordinarily careful in trying to create nearly bulletproof networks."
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The Yin and Yang of Understanding Data
HPC Wire (11/03/06) Vol. 15, No. 44,

The upcoming SC06 supercomputing conference in Tampa, Fla., will feature an overview of the Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing (SciDAC) Visualization and Analytics Center for Enabling Technologies (VACET) project, which the Department of Energy's Office of Science announced in September. Project co-leader and director of the Scientific Computing Institute of the University of Utah Wes Bethel claims that analytics is nearly impossible to define, but "to me, analytical reasoning means being able to draw conclusions based on hypothesis testing and the exploration or large, complex, and occasionally incomplete data." Bethel says visualization and analytics complement each other, but cannot be completely separated: "Visualization helps accelerate analytics by relying on humans vast cognitive processing abilities, the 'yin' side of data understanding," he explains. "Analytics gives hard, quantifiable measures, and is the 'yang' side of data understanding." These tools are used to find "relationships between cause and effect in a highly complex systems that produces many terabytes worth of data," according to Bethel. Today's computers are capable of producing data faster than anything can be done with it, a state which he calls an "information big bang." Two pre-existing open source efforts in visualization will be used to deploy new technologies, says Bethel: "The VisIT application from LLNL...[that] perform[s] parallel and distributed visualization and analysis of ASCI's large datasets, including those from BlueGene/L;" and the SCIrun, a University of Utah application that "provid[es] both domain-specific visualization applications as well as infrastructure and supporting visualization research." For more information about SC06, or to register, visit http://sc06.supercomputing.org
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Software Adds Smarts to Sensor Nets
EE Times (10/30/06)No. 1447, P. 18; Wirbel, Loring

A University of California at Berkeley team that produced the TinyOS embedded operating system has created a company that will provide software intelligence to wireless sensor networks. The company, known as Arch Rock, will offer the Primer Pack environment that builds on middleware work done by Berkeley on three generations of "motes," which are sensor nodes designed into meshes that employ TinyOS 2 for self-discovery and monitoring. "We have developed TinyOS and TinyDB environments, but we intend to be responsible members of the open source community, which is important as open-source tools move into the industrial and factory automation worlds," says CEO Roland Arca. Companies are taking advantage of the opportunity to use the software for motes without adopting Arch Rock's hardware: "We have been using the Layer 7 features of primer pack first, because we have our own custom motes," says Bikash Sabuta, chief technology officer of Aginova, a system integrator that develops software for wireless sensor nets. Sensor nets often exist in their own realm, so addressability using IP addresses or higher-layer service-oriented architecture tools have not been a goal in the past; but this must change if sensor networks are going to contribute to the IT infrastructure. The system's nodes can be used for sensing environmental characteristics such as temperature, light, and humidity. Simple high-layer commands are capable of rapidly altering conditions, for example, turning on a light as a door opens.
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The Future of Engineering
Electronic Design (10/20/06) Vol. 54, No. 23, P. 45; Schneiderman, Ron

Despite a risky outlook for engineering employment, the U.S. Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics' 10-year employment forecast predicts that eight of the top 30 occupations by growth rate will be in engineering and computer science, while network systems, data-communications analysis, and computer software engineers will have the strongest demand through 2014. Demand for technical professionals with security clearances is also projected to be very strong, while wireless technologies represent another lucrative opportunity for engineers. Most respondents to Electronic Design's 2006 Reader Profile Survey listed alternative power as the technology area in greatest need of higher government research and development funding, followed by nanotechnology, homeland security, broadband infrastructures, and robotics; respondents also said there must be more investment in exposing people to engineering in primary schooling. The lack of engineering education in elementary and high school is a sticking point, and efforts to remedy this situation include the IEEE Center for Pre-University Engineering Education. The jettisoning of federal R&D support in favor of wholly private research was favored by Hewlett-Packard Distinguished Technologist J.P. Miller, who argued that private research is more creative. Increasingly sophisticated wireless products are cultivating alliances between competing companies in order to facilitate the pooling of resources needed to develop such technologies. The impending retirement of many baby boomers in the engineering sector could lead to a drain of important knowledge as well as mentors of future engineers, and bridging this knowledge gap is the goal of a collaborative venture of the Computing Technology Industry Association, AARP, and other groups in the Alliance for an Experienced Workforce.
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No Help in Sight?
InfoWorld (10/30/06) Vol. 28, No. 44, P. 25; Roberts, Paul F.

U.S. government agencies and enterprises are under siege by hackers who have the organization, creativity, and business savvy to wreak havoc and steal sensitive data while not necessarily having a highly technical background, thanks to outfits that make and sell hacker toolkits and develop business partner programs to aid such criminals. These miscreants often launch incursions within networks so low-key as to be hardly noticeable, raising doubts about the effectiveness of signature-based security products. "With spear phishing and [zero-day] vulnerabilities there's really no perimeter," notes SANS Institute research director Alan Paller. "And once somebody's in, if nobody is watching, this stuff spreads like a metastasis." To combat such threats will require investment in "out of the box" or often glossed-over technologies and processes such as secure coding and insider-threat detection, according to security experts. IT personnel must grow proficient in how attackers exploit software vulnerabilities in programs to infiltrate the network and steal information, and understanding network "physics" can help spot such attacks, according to Intrusic co-founder Peiter Zatko. The most realistic cyber-defense strategy is to discourage hackers by making attacks increasingly expensive, and the best starting point for such a strategy is to correct obvious problems. Companies should determine their most critical assets before investing in security technology, while experts agree that the most effective defense is to debug software at the code level; but software quality remains a difficult issue to address, says Ron Ritchey with Booz Allen Hamilton. "Once you get past a couple hundred thousand lines of code, the complexity reaches a point where understandability goes out window," he says.
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Rage Against the Machine
Fortune (11/13/06) Vol. 154, No. 10, P. 84; Gimbel, Barney

Diebold has been demonized for the insecurity and unreliability of its voting machines, but while the company attempts to extricate itself from the resulting firestorm of controversy, Diebold CEO Thomas Swidarski chiefly blames ignorance as the culprit. "We didn't know a whole lot about the elections business when we went into it," he explains. "Here we are, a bunch of banking folks thinking making voting machines would be similar to making ATMs. We've learned some pretty painful lessons." Diebold's election business windfall came with the passage of the Help America Vote Act, a mandate to modernize voting systems; as demand for product peaked, Diebold's Global Electronic Systems subsidiary, a maker of touch-screen voting machines, was swamped with orders and suffered from a lack of technical skill. In addition, the machines' software was flawed from the outset, and a lack of demand prior to the Help America Vote Act discouraged Global from investing heavily in software development. The disclosure of the Diebold systems' security vulnerabilities in 2003 ignited widespread suspicion of electronic voting, and Diebold became a scapegoat as charges of lying, misleading clients, and withholding information were leveled against it in a highly publicized lawsuit. The appointment of Swidarski as head of Diebold's elections business and later its CEO was accompanied by the dismissal of many Global staffers and leading executives, but despite healthy profits and stock performance since Swidarski's assumption of duties, Diebold's voting machines are still stigmatized because experts such as Princeton's Edward Felten continue to find software bugs. Though Diebold and other experts do not agree with the results of hacking experiments such as Felten's, there is agreement that Diebold is still woefully ignorant of security issues such as election fraud by insiders. In the meantime, Swidarski is considering whether Diebold should remain in the elections business. For more on ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usam
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Technologies That Make You Smile: Adding Humor to Text-Based Applications
IEEE Intelligent Systems (10/06) Vol. 21, No. 5, P. 33; Mihalcea, Rada; Strapparava, Carlo

The automatic recognition, generation, or use of humor has been almost totally ignored by human-computer interaction research, and University of North Texas computer science professor Rada Mihalcea and Istituto per la ricerca scientifica e Tecnologica researcher Carlo Strapparava explored crucial research questions related to the recognition and utilization of verbally expressed humor in order to empirically illustrate the viable use of computational approaches, as well as the employment of classification techniques based on stylistic and content features to yield good performance. Research shows that it is feasible to automatically build a large collection of humorous texts, that automatic classification methods can be effectively employed to make distinctions between humorous and nonhumorous texts, and that an automatic technique for the selection and insertion of contextualized humorous text can enhance the user experience and the general quality of several highly popular computer-based applications. To address the problem of manually building a large data set of one-liners given the lack of many such jokes on most Web sites and mailing lists, Mihalcea and Strapparava deployed a Web-based bootstrapping algorithm that could compile numerous one-liners beginning with a brief seed list comprised of a few manually-identified jokes. Once a sufficiently large collection of one-liners was organized, the authors went about the task of finding a way to automatically recognize humor in text by modeling the problem as a traditional machine learning process. Compilations of nonhumorous sentences with similar structure and composition as the one-liners were identified to create a basis for comparison and facilitate the automatic learning of computational models for humor recognition as well as the assessment of the models' performance. In order to automatically insert humor into computer-based applications, the authors determined the need for the measurement of semantic similarity between two input text segments to ascertain the most appropriate one-liner for a given context, and the automatic evaluation of a text's affective semantic orientation. It is Mihalcea and Strapparava's contention that machines with humorous capabilities will help stimulate users' emotions and offer motivational support.
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A Head for Detail
Fast Company (11/06)No. 110, P. 72; Thompson, Clive

Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell has embarked on an ambitious project to digitize all aspects of his daily life, thus providing a perfect, uncontestable record, but the potential implications of his experiment go beyond mere recall. The idea of "lifelogging" becoming a routine practice does not seem so far-fetched when one takes into account the increasing storage capacity of computers and the Internet, and the rapidly falling cost of storage. Bell records everything he hears and sees and saves it in a computer using his custom-designed "MyLifeBits" software, but the project has advantages and disadvantages. Though Bell says recording everything he experiences gives him more room for his mind to be creative, he worries that his brain's natural memory retention capabilities might be slowly deteriorating. Other critics are concerned that lifelogging will cheapen memory and hurt human spontaneity. Another formidable challenge of the MyLifeBits project is making the accumulated recordings easily searchable, while Microsoft's FacetMap project aims to reveal the linkages between information by organizing data by time and people, in the same way humans organize memory. The value of the visual component of Bell's work, the SenseCam, seems dubious, because computers cannot "see" the pictures taken by the device; but Dublin University professor Alan Smeaton discovered that fast-forwarding through the sequence of SenseCam photos actually helps stimulate short-term memory. Experiments are also underway to harness artificial intelligence to unlock hidden patterns in memory.
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