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November 27, 2006

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Welcome to the November 27, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Experts Worry as Poll Problems Resist Overhaul
New York Times (11/26/06) P. 1; Urbina, Ian; Drew, Christopher

Despite spending over $4 billion on new voting equipment, America is yet to solve its elections problems. During the 2006 mid-term election, tens of thousands of voters, in 25 states, experienced serious hindrances at the polls ranging from long lines, to shortages of replacement paper ballots, to voting and registration machine malfunctions. Problems reported in Florida affected over 60,000 votes; in Colorado up to 20,000 voters went home before voting due to repeated crashes of the voter registration systems; and in Arkansas, officials in one county conducted three different counts, each of which varied by more than 30,000 votes. Electionline.org director Doug Chapin says, "If the success of an election is to be measured according to whether each voter's voice is hear, then we would have to conclude that this past election was not a success." Many officials feel that a greater number of technicians available to immediately address problems that arise would significantly help future elections, as would assuring that polling places have enough voting machines and adequately trained workers. "These types of low-tech problems threaten to disenfranchise just as many people, if not more, but they tend to get less attention," says Century Foundation election expert Tova Wang. "We still have a long way to go toward fixing the biggest problems with our election system." However, some point out that any system takes a long time to work the kinks out of, so such difficulties come with the territory when implementing such wide-ranging changes.
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Offshoring: Risk to U.S. Innovation?
EE Times (11/22/06) Leopold, George

While offshoring is picking up speed, the effect it has on the U.S. engineering community is a subject of debate. The U.S. is still the world leader in many areas, such as chip design, but changing global economic conditions, including rising costs, lower overseas wages, and competitive pressures, could put this prominence in jeopardy. What difference the location of manufacturing makes is not agreed upon, but as MIT President Emeritus Charles Vest says, "Globalization is the new reality." About 60,000 plants were built in China by foreign companies between 2002 and 2003, according to the National Academy of Engineering, a time when 40,000 U.S. IT jobs were lost, according to an estimate by a presidential advisory council. With the growing value of speedy innovation, only those companies able to maneuver the best will survive, says Vest. As far as America's position of world leader, with the best universities and R&D infrastructure, Vest explains, "The enemy I fear most is complacency." While offshoring has led to the growth of U.S. companies that in some cases has created more jobs for U.S. workers in the short run, there is no consensus as to the longevity of the trend, partially because of the fact that this growth is also being experienced by Chinese and Indian markets. Many hope that costs facing companies that offshore jobs, such as reduced productivity, and extra controls on intellectual property, will offset any long-term benefits. In order to maintain its position at the front of technological innovation, the U.S. must continue to improve its universities, promote investment in innovation, and retain as many foreign graduates from U.S. schools as possible.
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Supreme Court to Examine 'Obviousness' of Patents
CNet (11/27/06) Broache, Anne

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear arguments concerning the standards courts should use when ruling whether a patent is too "obvious" to be protected. Many tech companies favor a revision of the current standard, which allows "combination" patents, rather obvious combinations of existing products, unless hard evidence exists that another researcher has considered the innovation earlier, because they feel that innovation is limited when such insignificant patents are protected. The Computer and Communications Industry Association's Will Rodger argued that if the desired changes are made "you will have more real investment in our research and development, you will have more confident innovators, and you won't have companies worrying about potentially infringing a patent they know is bogus in the first place." Open source and free software developers are also looking to the courts to reform the patent process; because their work is so out in the open, they are an easy target to exploit, while many lack the resources to defend their patents in court. Some people, known as "patent trolls," even look at IT trends and predict small changes to current tech products, in order to get the patent before companies do and they can take them to court. Progress and Freedom Foundation senior fellow Jim DeLong explains that, "This results in a diversion of creative energy away from solving problems and into calculations of planting landmines." Those for the current "obviousness" standards include large patent-dependent companies as well as small ones, who claim the standard is necessary for innovation: A change would remove the "predictability" on which they have based their innovative approach, and bring too much subjectivity into decisions of what is obvious or not. Should the changes be made, hundreds of thousands of patents issued in the last 25 years would be put in danger.
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Giving Robots More than a Shred of Humanity
Washington Post (11/23/06) P. C12; Borenstein, Seth

An important element of developing artificially intelligent robots that can help people in their everyday life is a field known as human-robot interaction. M.I.T. robotic life group director Cynthia Breazeal explains that, "Robots have to understand people as people. Right now, the average robot understands people like a chair. It's something to go around." Robots being developed with this aspect of robotics in mind include one that can play hide-and-seek with its creator, and one that makes eye contact with people and nods when they speak. While researchers spent time teaching robots complex functions, such as how to play chess, the ability to perceive and interact surroundings were ignored; these functions were thought of as things a child can do, thus being of little importance for roboticists. Many in the field have stepped away from hardware and software for the time being, and joined social scientists, language experts, and doctors, among others, in order to address the very relevant concerns of human-robot interaction. Rather than simply programming a dictionary into a robots memory bank, efforts are being made to teach robots to understand body language used by humans. While some argue that there is no replacing humans in areas such as caring for the elderly and children, there are simply not enough people to provide all the attention that should for these people, and in one case, that of low-functioning autistic children, robots are more effective than humans in relating and getting a reaction. Woman are playing a lead role in this burgeoning field, unlike most areas of robotics.
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Xerox Seeks Erasable Form of Paper for Copiers
New York Times (11/27/06) P. C8; Markoff, John

Xerox researchers are working to develop a type of paper that can be reused by the company's machines. A study revealed that of 1,200 pages printed by the average office worker each month, 44.5 percent of them are for daily use such as email, drafts, or assignments, and 21 percent of those printed with black ink end up in the trash the same day they are printed. Such a change from paper being used as a way to store information to a way to display information temporarily spurred Xerox Research Center anthropologist Brinda Dalal to undertaken the project of developing the new paper, which she refers to as "transient documents." The current prototype prints without toner on a yellow-tinted specially coated paper, creating a low-res document from which the print disappears in 16 hours to 24 hours. Each piece of this type of paper can be used for as long as it stays in good shape, some have lasted 50 printings at the center. The technology utilizes compounds in the paper that change color when a certain wavelength of light is absorbed. PARC computer scientist Eric J. Shrader says researchers are still working to extend the print process lifespan and boost the contrast, with the goal of developing a system in which the specially coated paper costs about two to three times that of regular paper. Still, given the popularity of reading information from electronic displays, Xerox is faced with the challenge of assuring a market for its reusable paper: Past attempts to market similar technology have failed. "I worry that this would be like coming out with Super 8 just before the video camera," says Paul Saffo, Silicon Valley researcher who has worked with Xerox. "This would have been a bigger deal 10 years ago."
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Augmented Reality: Hyperlinking to the Real World
TechNewsWorld (11/22/06) Mello, John P Jr.

After being abandoned for years, augmented reality (AR) is once again being considered as a commercial possibility. While AR is currently used in sports broadcasts, the continued innovations in cell phones such as improved GPS, video cameras, and Internet connections could bring the technology to everyday life. University of North Carolina computer science professor Henry Fuchs explains, "In the future we will not be getting information principally or exclusively through looking at a computer screen, but by looking at something that's in the real world and a display that's integrated with that." AR users could potentially toggle between a live view, with imagery integrated into their surroundings, and a satellite image. Current shortcomings in the GPS capabilities of cell phones could be remedied by a database of decoded imagery that could identify locations seen by the camera, in real time, according to Columbia University computer science professor Steven K. Feiner, who sees the technology allowing users access to the menu of a restaurants they pass, or historical information about a certain building, for example. A Nokia project, known as Mobile Augmented Reality Applications (MARA), has developed a prototype phone that can utilizes AR, but the commercial availability of AR depends more on marketing than technological considerations, analysts say.
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'Perfect Storm' Could Stifle IT
Financial Times Digital Business (11/22/06) P. 8; Bradbury, Danny

The technology industry continues to have a difficult time convincing up-and-coming students to enroll in technology programs at the university level. Experts in Canada say there has been a 50 percent to 70 percent decline in students pursuing IT studies, and reports from the United Kingdom show applications for computer science and software engineering degrees are down by 50 percent and 60 percent, respectively. The industry is facing a climate in which young people have negative perceptions of IT, there will be fewer 14-18 year-olds in the years to come, and in which more design and specification skills are needed. Also, science teachers at the secondary level are not always specialists in the subject matter. In the United States, IT observers say the fragmented educational system has not done a good enough job to provide gadget-loving youngsters with tech fundamentals such as knowledge of file structure and the workings of email. Students are often more comfortable with the emerging devices produced by the unpredictable world of technology, which some teachers do not understand and advise against as a career.
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Towards Truly Ubiquitous Life Annotation
University of Southampton (ECS) (11/15/06) Smith, Ashley; Hall, Wendy; Glaser, Hugh

A group of researchers at the University of Southampton is developing a system whereby personal data is collected and stored indiscriminately with no lifestyle changes required, creating annotations for the life of an individual. Currently, people would like to have such a system, but few are willing to put forth the effort that would be required. Handheld devices such as mobile phones and PDAs would be able to collect information on a user's schedule, a user's location as it changes over the course of a day, and who the user contacts. Such a system would be able to let the user know where they were or what they did on any given day. A desktop program that is always running would be set to regularly extract the logs from mobile devices and place it in a local RDF knowledge store. These "data collectors" could also be set to gather information concerning traffic and weather, for example, from the Web. Though what value such an annotation system would actually have is unknown, but the researchers wish to gather as much information as possible so it is available when uses become apparent. The current system, being tested with a single subject, requires nothing but hardware available off-the-shelf.
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Robot With 'Human Soul' Explores Remotely
New Scientist (11/21/06) Simonite, Tom

Researchers in Germany are developing technology that will allow a robot to relay what it feels, sees, and hears to a human in a remote location. The robot, which sits atop a wheeled platform and has an extendable arm, continues to be tested by Anjelika Peer of Munich University and colleagues Ulrich Unterhinninghofen and Martin Buss. The remote user can move the robot by walking or with a foot pedal, look around by donning a head-mounted display that is connected to the robot's twin cameras, control the robot arm through a touch sensitive (haptic) interface, and move its three-fingered hand via a wearable glove. The robot also makes use of force-feedback so the operator can sense any physical resistance such as bumping into or picking up an object, as well as microphones to deliver sounds to the human user wearing a pair of headphones. Such a "tele-operation" system could be helpful in situations in which robots are used to roam around areas that are too dangerous for humans to enter. "Having the feeling of moving around helps the user feel immersed in the remote environment," says Peer. The German team plans to have a two-armed robot by next summer.
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War Games Go Virtual
Chronicle of Higher Education (11/24/06) Vol. 53, No. 14, P. A36; Carlson, Scott

The U.S. Army primarily supports the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), a think tank where experts in simulation, language-recognition, and animation technology collaborate with people from the entertainment industry to deliver realistic virtual reality applications for military training. Innovations are making virtual environments increasingly immersive, incorporating such elements as shadows, military strategy, and simulated firearms that use pneumatics to deliver the kick and bang of actual weaponry. Army director for research and laboratory management John Parmentola explains that virtual war games are envisioned by the military as a less expensive alternative to live war games, in terms of financial cost, the potential for injury, and environmental impact. ICT program manager at the Army's Simulation & Training Technology Center Jeff Wilkinson notes that training via simulation can be standardized, and that soldiers' progress can be recorded and tracked so that instructors can more easily point out errors or illustrate concepts to trainees. "ICT's strength is not so much in making a better battle simulation, but in taking more social types of interactions, which are crucial in any campaign, and training soldiers on that," says Stanford University communication professor Jeremy Bailenson. "There may be some who are doing natural-language processing better than [the institute], and there may be some doing graphics better than them, but there is not an institution in the world that has put together all of the small pieces of social interaction in a psychologically meaningful way like they have." ICT director of technology William Swartout thinks the military simulation research will yield the enablement of new types of experiences that can be applied beneficially to education as well as entertainment, such as computer games.
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Future Interaction Technologies: The ITWales Interview
ITWales.com (11/22/06) Earls, Sali

Dr. Matt Jones, who plays a key role in the development of the Future Interaction Technologies (FIT) Lab in the computer science department of the Swansea University in Wales, recently spoke with ITWales.com. The Lab addresses interactivity between people and machines, going beyond the simple aspects of "user-friendliness." Jones, who feels that computer science is just as applicable to general society as any other discipline explains that, "The grand challenges in the FIT Lab will come from engaging with national and international governments and commercial organizations," including educational initiatives. When discussing the Lab's "Bridging the Global Digital Divide," Jones points out the problem "that [too many people] see technology as some kind of healing, and that we'll be able to go in there, to parachute in, with the latest mobile devices and Web software, and somehow make these people's lives better. It turns out that these people in this Indian village have a vibrant culture, social, and educational life, and what were going to do is celebrate this through technology," he explains. They have created a system whereby villagers capture their stories on video camera to be wirelessly transmitted to neighboring villages. Rather than simply promoting the latest technology, the Lab sees its mission as addressing people's lives and values, what they truly desire, which Jones says has always been "to relate to other people."
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Robots Find Roles in Nursing Care
Nikkei Weekly (11/06/06) Vol. 44, No. 2259, P. 13

Robotic technology is being developed in Japan to help those in need of hospital or rehabilitative care, as a way to prepare for the rapid aging of the population. The RI-Man (Robot Interacting with Human) robot has been developed by the government-affiliated Riken research institute. It features soft silicone skin, two arms, a head, and a mobile base, that can lift and move a person (up to 40 kg. for now). It has two microprocessors that communicate with each other to stabilize a patient in its arms; it is able to detect and correct an imbalance faster than a human could. A suit has been developed to help prevent atrophy in stroke patients that experience partial paralysis, and at this stage it helps paralysis of one arm. The suit fits on the upper body with different sleeves for the working and paralyzed arms; by moving the working arm, the paralyzed arm is moved in the same way by rubber muscles inside the sleeve. Another exoskeleton suit has been developed for the feeble or elderly, which is able to detect bio-electrical signals that are sent when the user thinks to move a muscle. By making the movement before the user's muscles even get the signal, the suit takes the burden off of the body. The companies developing these technologies expect a significant increase in the global market for rehabilitative and other types of robotics in coming years.
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Web Chief Warns of Domain Name Chaos
Age (Australia) (11/21/06) Moses, Asher

ICANN chief executive Paul Twomey, responding to international pressure to internationalize the DNS, says that fast-tracking the process could "break the whole Internet," noting that if non-English letters are allowed, the number of possible characters that can be used in domain names will skyrocket from 37 now to over 50,000. "The Internet is like a 15-story building, and with international domain names what we're trying to do is change the bricks in the basement," said Twomey. "If we change the bricks there's all these layers of code above the DNS...we have to make sure that if we change the system, the rest is all going to work." Twomey warned of security risks that could arise by the fact that characters in various scripts resemble one another, meaning that fraudsters could misdirect Internet users by registering domain names that use letters that look the same as other letters. ICANN is now conducting "laboratory testing" of IDNs and is working with Web browser developers and e-commerce software makers to ensure problems are kept to a minimum.
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A Smarter Computer to Pick Stocks
New York Times (11/24/06) Duhigg, Charles

With the use of algorithms and traditional quantitative techniques having become widespread among Wall Street firms and hedge funds in recent years, stock pickers are now looking for new advantages in finding historical patterns in the market. The next frontier appears to be neural networks and genetic algorithms that will allow investments firms to pursue more advanced pattern recognition analysis of stock market fluctuations. "Most software fails in pattern recognition because there aren't enough sequential rules in the world to teach a computer to discern between two faces, or to find almost imperceptible relationships between stocks," explains Orhan Karaali, a computer scientist and director at the hedge fund Advanced Investment Partners. "But a machine that can generate complicated rules a person would never have thought of, and that can learn from past mistakes is a powerful tool." A year ago, automatic algorithms had a hand in approximately a third of all stock trades, studies estimate. The algorithms and traditional quantitative techniques have helped some stock pickers become rich, but their profits have declined in recent years as more investment firms have adopted the technology. A few firms have graduated to nonlinear techniques, or processes that more closely resemble the way in which the human brain operates. Experts say the downside to the technology is not always understanding why it may find patterns in certain data or relationships.
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Mastering the Three Worlds of Information Technology
Harvard Business Review (11/06) McAfee, Andrew

An excess of available technologies and the often poor performance of corporate IT projects are fueling reluctance among business leaders to get involved in IT, but Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee writes that their participation is essential, and splits executives' IT management responsibilities into three roles: They must help choose technologies, cultivate their adoption, and guarantee their utilization. He notes, "Different types of IT result in different kinds of organizational change when they are implemented, so executives must tailor their roles to the technologies they're using. What's critical, though, is that executives stop looking at IT projects as technology installations and start looking at them as periods of organizational change that they have a responsibility to manage." Executives often lack an expansive model for IT's corporate benefits, its organizational impact, and what they must do to ensure the success of IT projects; McAfee says placing IT in a historical context can help build such a model, and it is suggested by research that a quartet of organizational complements--workers with improved skills, higher levels of teamwork, redesigned processes, and new decision rights--can squeeze better performance from process general purpose technologies (GPTs). The author says his research demonstrates that IT does not boast the same relationships with these complements that other process GPTs have, and he points to the classification of IT into three categories: Function IT (IT that helps execute discreet tasks), Network IT (IT that effects interactions without parameter specification), and Enterprise IT (IT that particularizes business processes). McAfee reasons that this categorization can help managers comprehend which technologies they must invest in as well as what must be done to generate the most returns. To select the right technology, executives must clearly understand the company's business needs; the next step is to facilitate adoption by helping produce the complements that will get the most value out of IT; and the third responsibility for business leaders is to exploit the technologies to the fullest. Each IT category has unique requirements and practices for fulfilling these three roles, concludes McAfee.
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Tangled Web
Government Technology (11/06) Vol. 19, No. 11, P. 16; Vander Veen, Chad

It is the position of Net neutrality proponents that the Internet needs federal regulation to survive as a free and open resource and avoid its degeneration into a biased, tiered medium dominated by telco and cable companies. One of the central challenges of the debate is that there is no single, universally acknowledged definition for Net neutrality. The contention of the telco and cable companies is that there must be a "fast lane" for bandwidth-intensive Internet applications of the future, and supporting the necessary network investments to realize such accommodations requires them to charge higher fees to content providers; Net neutrality activists counter that such a scheme would establish a two-tiered Internet that condemns average consumers to the "slow lane," while the lack of federal regulation would give the Web's controllers license to reduce or impede access to Web sites they object to. "If we allow what has, in a way, been public to become fully privatized...governments, citizens and consumers may find there are increased costs and other obstacles related to accessing government information, electoral information, and it has impact in local economies as well," posits the Center for Digital Democracy's Jeff Chester, who adds that a free and open Internet is essential to ensuring the good quality of democracy in the United States. Among the arguments that Net neutrality opponents are making against federal regulation is its basis on mostly speculative conclusions, while AT&T's Claudia Jones contends that there will be less investment on network infrastructure if regulation goes forward. "If you allow companies to manage their network, manage the content, and build intelligence into the network so that it operates more efficiently...then consumers will have a better experience," she says. The Senate Communications Act of 2006 mandates that providers maintain a consistent level of access in keeping with what the subscriber is paying for, but the bill does not include regulation for ISP business models, which Net neutrality advocates want. NetCompetition.org Chairman Scott Cleland argues that there is no such thing as Net neutrality, insisting that "there are vast disparities of usage; on price, speed; between technologies; on how these industries are regulated or have been regulated in the past; between how applications work and need to work; and lastly in the way different players align and negotiate with other businesses."
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Technology's Promise
Futurist (12/06) Vol. 40, No. 6, P. 41; Halal, William E.

Breakthroughs in every scientific discipline capable of transforming industries are proliferating thanks to information system innovations, and George Washington University professor and TechCast President William Halal cites TechCast predictions as "possibly the best forecast data ever assembled, based on trends that outline how the technology revolution is poised to transform life over the next 20 to 30 years." Among the major technology areas TechCast focuses on are information technology, manufacturing and robotics, and e-commerce. In the information technology domain, TechCast sees important progress in the field of biometrics and the emergence of nearly foolproof multimodal systems; quantum computers are predicted to become commercially available around 2021, within a five-year safety margin. TechCast predicts mainstream use of nanotechnology applications somewhere between 2010 and 2020, while smart robots should start entering the household by the end of the current decade, with mainstream use emerging about 10 years later. Breakthroughs such as Apple's iTunes and iPod are ushering in a revolution in on-demand entertainment, and TechCast projects that 30 percent of the world population will be using phones, TV, the Internet, and other kinds of IT within a decade thanks to the advent of lower-cost technologies. Virtual education is also expected to penetrate the mainstream market around 2015. The evolution of these advances is projected by TechCast to unfold in several phases: Intelligence in information systems and e-commerce is expected to be the focus until 2010, when major innovations in artificial intelligence should initiate a wide array of breakthroughs through 2020. The industrialization of most developing countries through 2030 is likely to spur momentum toward globalization to address challenges that are beyond technology's scope, while 2040 to 2050 should see a mature world society that is more or less peaceful.
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