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February 12, 2007

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Intel Prototype May Herald a New Age of Processing
New York Times (02/12/07) P. C9; Markoff, John

Intel today will demonstrate its 80-core Teraflop Chip, which the company believes will serve as the model for chips used in desktops, laptops, and servers within five years. A commercial version, compatible with current Intel chips, is in the works and is expected to have tens or hundreds of microprocessors. A manufacturing breakthrough has enabled Intel to shrink transistors down to sizes that allow for higher speeds and lower power consumption. At an IBM briefing, an air-cooled computer based on the chip was shown to run basic scientific calculations at speeds over one trillion calculations a second, equal to the world's fastest supercomputer a decade ago. Systems with so many cores present an incredible amount of potential, but no proof exists of how these chips can be programmed for many applications. University of California, Berkeley computer scientist and former ACM President David A. Patterson says, "If we can figure out how to program thousands of cores on a chip, the future looks rosy. If we can't figure it out, then things look dark." A group of Berkeley computer scientists made a formal request that microprocessor manufacturers begin producing chips with thousands of cores, claiming that if software is not given the chance to catch up with hardware advances, the chip companies will find themselves up against a wall of diminishing returns. In response to this request, Intel CTO Justin R. Rattner said the Teraflop chip was the best solution for problems such as "recognition, mining, and synthesis." He added that the "network-on-chip" processor would be ideal for heterogeneous computing in the corporate world. Intel researchers were able to move data between tiles in as little as 1.25 nanoseconds, meaning 80 billion bytes per second could be transferred among internal cores. The chip could also have a memory chip stacked directly on top of the microprocessor, which would allow data to be moved back and forth between memory and processor at a much faster rate than today's chips.
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Report Predicts Job Losses to Offshoring
Mercury News (02/12/07) Wong, Nicole C.

A report released by the Brookings Institute is the first of its kind to focus on expected job losses in specific locations due to offshoring, and shows that over the next decade Silicon Valley is at risk of losing one in five of its computer programming, software engineering, and data-entry jobs that existed in 2004. "The offshore phenomena is not something like a peanut-butter sandwich--spread evenly across the country, says Information Technology & Innovation Foundation President Robert Atkinson. "It's very spiky. Federal, state, and regional policy hasn't caught up to that fact, and we need to take that seriously." The report predicts jobs lost to offshoring in 246 U.S. metropolitan areas between 2004 and 2015. Silicon Valley was shown to have the highest potential for job losses with 20 to 24 percent; San Francisco, Boulder, Colo., Lowell, Mass., and Stamford, Conn. were also among the cities with the highest percentage of predicted job loss. However, many are not taking the report as a reason for alarm: due to San Jose's recent restructuring, "it's not clear that what's left are those easily offshorable jobs," says UC Berkeley economist Cynthia Kroll. Others are skeptical of the report's regional accuracy since sample sizes were small. The study is meant to be taken as "the Ghost of Christmas Future," says co-author Howard Wial. "It's not a prophecy that all these jobs will be lost ... It's an opportunity while there's still time to use public policy do to something about it.''
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Wireless Sensors Extend Reach of Internet Into the Real World
Associated Press (02/12/07) Chang, Alicia

The growth of wireless sensor networks presents the possibility of connecting people with physical locations and conditions in the same way the Internet connects people with computers. Thanks to an NSF grant, a UCLA building has been converted into a testing ground for wireless sensor technology, monitoring traffic, weather, and acoustics, among other things. "I see this as the next wave of extending the Internet into the physical world," says Deborah Estrin, a UCLA computer scientist and head of the Center for Embedded Networking Sensing, a six-school consortium. Many companies are beginning to manufacture cheap and reliable sensors, while other groups are focusing on the privacy and security issues that would be brought about by large-scale sensor networks. Today's sensors range in size from one square inch to the size of a matchbox, but some have envisioned "smart dust," or sensors the size of dust particles. The global market for sensor network technology could rise from several hundred million dollars currently to $8 billion by 2010, on the strength of home, agricultural, and health care use. However, "If poorly secured networks are deployed and exploited, people may have significant concerns about sensor technology," explains Carnegie Mellon University electrical and computer engineering professor Adrian Perrig. The ZigBee Alliance, which has about 150 companies as members, has been formed to make network interoperability rules, although such standards are still years from being completed.
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The Human Factor in Gadget, Web Design
CNet (02/12/07) Olsen, Stephanie

The success of products like the iPod and Web services such as YouTube has made it very clear that effective user design is every bit as important as technical advancement. Gone are the days where "If I had a better algorithm, I would win," according to NASA scientists Alonso Vera. When the field of usability was pioneered by Jakob Nielsen in 1983, there were a few hundred, obscure usability consultants, and now there are several thousands of them, and more corporations are beginning to hire them. NASA usability experts were able to reduce the time it takes scientists to plan the Mars rover's activities from 90 minutes to 10 minutes, simply by redesigning the interface. Effective design "must be optimized for body or brain, it has to be deeply human, something that you desire and aspire to," says MIT Media Lab computer scientist John Maeda. The field of human-computer action began as "human factors," the post-WWII effort to improve airplane cockpits for ease of use, but has taken off as computers have become ubiquitous in society, and the demand is skyrocketing for computing professionals that understand the way people interact with technology. Imagination and insight have proven incredibly profitable in products such as the Nintendo Wii, which owe more to creative design than to technological breakthrough. AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley, says the role of technology in modern society requires engineers with broad skills. She says, "U.S. engineers need a broader training than simply programming and engineering. They increasingly need to have an understanding of working with multicultural teams and being able to understand the social components of the products. We believe those types of people will add the most value in the coming decades."
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Supercomputing's Super Storage Issue
InternetNews.com (02/09/07) Schiff, Jennifer

Phase III of IBM and Cray's work on DARPA's High Productivity Computing Systems (HPCS) program will address performance, programmability, portability, robustness, and especially, cutting-edge petascale storage systems. "Petascale applications require a very high-performance scratch file system to ensure that storage is not a bottleneck preventing these applications from obtaining full system performance," Cray's Rigsbee explains. "The permanency of this storage requires it be cost-efficiently archived and protected for many years." Cray will address these concerns by making use of technologies such as NFSv4, pNFS, scalable NAS, and MAID-based virtual tape, according to Rigsbee. IBM aims to build a highly-scalable multi-tiered petabyte storage system. Primary storage will be handled by IBM's General Parallel File System (GPFS), and backup duties will be handled by its High Performance Storage Subsystem (HPSS). IBM believes that this "integration of its GPFS and HPSS products" should address "the most significant problems of traditional archive systems," according to IBM engineer Rama Govindaraju. "As files age, migration policies move them to cheaper storage automatically, transparently and in parallel," explains Govindaraju. The company predicts that this technology will make its way into low end, enterprise computing. The supercomputers being designed by Cray and IBM will be smaller than the DARPA HPCS goal of two petaFLOPS sustained performance, but will be more capable than today's supercomputers.
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Building the Cortex in Silicon
Technology Review (02/12/07) Singer, Emily

A Stanford University project to construct a model of the cerebral cortex in silicon could help scientists gain a better understanding of the brain, in order to create more capable computers and advanced neural prosthetics. "Brains do things in technically and conceptually novel ways--they can solve rather effortlessly issues which we cannot yet resolve with the largest and most modern digital machines," says Rodney Douglas, a professor at the Institute of Neuroinformatics in Zurich. In the 1980s CalTech's Carver Mead had the idea of using transistors to construct computer chips that could replicate the electrical properties of neurons, which communicate using electrical pulses. The Stanford project, led by neuroengineer Kwabena Boahen, will first build a circuit board consisting of 16 chips, each with a 256-by-256 array of silicon neurons. Researchers will be able to model different types of neurons as well as different areas of the cortex. Where past work has used hundreds of thousands of neurons, the project will use a million-neuron grid that will have the equivalent of a processing speed of 300 teraflops, meaning real-time operation. Douglas compares Boahen's work of assembling a structure on a scale never before attempted to the transition from using logic gates to building computer chips. Boahen plans to make his chips available to other scientists to test theories on the cortex's functioning and use the information to create the next generation of computer chips.
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The Graying of the IT Workforce
Network World (02/07/07) Musthaler, Linda

As the American IT workforce ages, the percentage of IT workers over the age of 55 is expected to increase from 13 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich predicts that while 21 million new IT workers will be needed in the next five years, the field will come up 4 million workers short. This is largely due to the 39 percent decrease in the number of students choosing computer science as a field of study between 2000 and 2004. On a positive note, 70 percent of workers between the age of 45 and 74 told an AARP survey that they want to continue working. Companies can prepare for the impending shortage by offering current employees options such as telecommuting to keep them contributing for longer; recruiting entry-level employees that can be prepared to step into critical roles when needed; establishing mentoring programs so more experienced workers can pas along their skills; training current employees, especially older workers, since they are more likely to stay around longer if they're skills are kept up-to-date; and consolidating technologies so less people are required to operate and maintain them. Competition for skilled IT workers will only get more intense in coming years, so companies should not be caught off guard when older employees begin retiring.
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'Augmented Reality' Helps Kids Learn
eSchool News (01/31/07) Devaney, Laura

The researchers behind a project that incorporates 'augmented reality' (AR) into an educational setting believe it could change the way students learn in the future. The Handheld Augmented Reality Project (HARP) is a joint effort between Harvard, MIT, and the University of Wisconsin that allows students to traverse an actual landscape, gathering information at specific "hot spots." The idea is the result of "trying to think about where society is going, what students will need, what the educational properties of these devices are, and how we can design something interesting with these devices," says Harvard professor of learning technologies Chris Dede. AR, which layers virtual images over actual images on a portable device, can either be place-dependent or place-independent. For the pilot "Alien Contact" project, the researchers designed a place-independent system, thinking that it is much easier for schools to implement if they don't have to travel. High school students were put into groups that walked around the school's athletic field using an AR map on a handheld computer that showed different "hot spots." Each of these locations presented them with puzzles and math problems via AR. Their goal was to use the information gleaned from the "hot spots" and form a theory as to why the aliens have come to Earth. The game-like approach of "Alien Contact!" is thought to be something that grabs the interest of students. While most schools do not own such handheld devices, Dede is confident that AR technology will be incorporated into cell phones in the near future.
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Work Visas May Work Against the U.S.
Business Week (02/08/07) Elstrom, Peter

Information from the federal government suggests that the H-1B temporary visa program appears to be doing the most good for Indian outsourcing firms rather than U.S. companies. The firms often recruit workers from India to train in United States for jobs waiting for them back home. It is the opinion of some experts that although the H-1B program may have been set up to help U.S. companies hire workers with much-needed skills, what it is actually doing is helping the offshoring of domestic jobs. Some prominent American tech companies are concerned that the visa program could be abused by outsourcers and impede their ability to draw overseas talent. The Indian outsourcing firms counter that the program enables them to help U.S. companies' improve their flexibility and competitiveness in the global economy. The H-1B program has no provision requiring employers to try to hire American employees first before looking overseas, but there is a requirement that companies pay the prevailing wages and benefits for specific jobs in specific markets; the government says this creates a financial incentive to hire Americans. But government officials admit that there is nothing to prevent companies from giving preference to foreign workers, in theory. Major technology companies as well as the president want the cap of H-1B visas to be raised, but Kara Calvert of the Information Technology Industry Council says that "it's important to ensure that the visas are used for the purpose for which they were intended."
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New U.S. Cybersecurity Chief Lays Out Guidance
IDG News Service (02/09/07) McMillan, Robert

Gregory Garcia, the new assistant secretary for cybersecurity and telecommunications at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said at the RSA Conference that U.S. companies and federal agencies need to do more to correct problems in their computer networks. Garcia said the majority of world communications will probably be handled by the Internet within the next 10 years, and outlined two objectives for the coming year. The first is for all federal agencies to adapt common security practices, and the second is for his office to get private companies to adhere to a process called the National Infrastructure Protection Plan. Garcia was adamant that the DHS expects U.S. companies to participate in the industry-by-industry effort to evaluate security risks and develop a process to eliminate them, saying 90 percent of critical infrastructure is owned by the private sector, and it is up to them to make sure it is secure. "There are a lot of plans in Washington. This one is going to stick," Garcia said. "The private sector owns and operates 90 percent of the critical infrastructure, and it's up to you all, not just the DHS, to secure this infrastructure."
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Nice Talking to You, Machine
New Scientist (02/10/07) Logan, Tracey

Researchers are working to overcome the irritation people feel toward artificial voices by developing natural-sounding synthesized voices. Stanford University communication professor and author Clifford Nass says the lack of emotion in even the most advanced artificial voices is the reason people are so turned off by them, and he conducted experiments between 2000 and 2005 to determine if modifying the qualities of artificial voices--pitch, intonation, volume, speed--could make them more friendly-sounding and a cceptable to people. In one experiment Nass and colleagues ascertained that people are more likely to follow the advice of an artificial voice that sounds like their own gender, while another study determined that a voice's "personality" rather than its actual speech can be more important if it is making a sales pitch. A third experiment showed that motorists were less likely to have accidents, at least in the virtual realm, if the in-car digital voices that help them navigate more closely match their emotional state. Research indicates that the most successful artificial voice is that which is similar to the user, but systems will need to be capable of detecting and recognizing human moods in order to furnish such a voice. Work on mood detection software has focused on the emotions of anger and stress, and the former is slightly harder to detect than the latter. T-Systems' Felix Burkhardt, whose company supplies businesses with communications systems, says an effective anger-detection system must be right 98 percent of the time. "Faithful mimicry of human speech, while helpful, is not sufficient to overcome the annoyance of [this kind of] service," says Ben Shneiderman at University of Maryland, Dept of Computer Science & Human-Computer Interaction Lab.
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Robots Draw Girls to Science
Victoria Times Colonist (BC, CAN) (02/08/07) Wilson, Carla

The upcoming Lego Robotics Festival will give the University of Victoria in Canada an opportunity to show young girls that math, science, and technology are fun. Scheduled for Feb. 17, 2007, 30 girls, from grades six to 12, working in teams of five, will assemble a Lego Mindstorms NXT robot and program it for a hovercraft rescue mission across a simulated river. Anissa Agah St. Pierre, coordinator for Women in Engineering and Computer Science at the university, says the one-day event will introduce some technical skills and programming concepts to the girls. "They learn that math is cool and important," she says. St. Pierre adds that by the sixth grade girls may no longer have a favorable opinion of math, but on Monday a group of 25 sixth-graders had the opportunity to run robots through obstacle courses at the university and really enjoyed it. "You should have heard the noise level," says a laughing St. Pierre. Women only account for about 17 percent of computer science students and 11 percent of engineering students at universities, she says. Career opportunities exist, but there are not a lot of role models for girls.
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Let the Games Begin
Sacramento State Bulletin (02/05/07)

Gaming could become a focus of the computer science department at Sacramento State in the near future, but currently the university only offers the course, "Computer Game Architecture & Implementation." Taught by professor John Clevenger, the class recently wrapped up the fall semester by having its 11 computer science students present games they developed as part of small teams. Clevenger says playing games was not the focus of the course, considering students needed to have a working knowledge of advanced data structures, 3D computer graphics, artificial intelligence techniques, sound, animation, and Newtonian mechanics. Some students were more interested in the science, but others were thinking about a career in the booming 3D computer game industry. However, 3D games are not limited to the entertainment industry, considering the various applications corporations, the military, the medical profession, and emergency response groups have found for 3D games. One student, Tyler Karaszewski, believes his game could become a commercial product with five more years of improvement. "I've got enough knowledge after taking this class to get started working in the industry," he says.
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Beyond the Box
CIO Insight (02/07) Alter, Allan E.

An entirely new way of thinking will be necessary for personal computing to take a long overdue evolutionary step, according to Turing Prize winner and computing pioneer Alan Kay. Technical limitations are not solely responsible for the PC's status as a chronic underachiever, Kay says. Also playing a role is a dearth of imagination and fascination among computer scientists; resistance from users in making an effort to employ computers; the dulling bombardment of popular culture; and the initiative to instill more ease of use in the technology. A disregard for or disinterest in past research--such as the work of computing innovator Doug Engelbart--is for Kay a major indicator of the computing profession and the Web's stagnation, and he observes that this is also a symptom of pop culture. "People who live in the present often wind up exploiting the present to an extent that it starts removing the possibility of having a future," Kay warns. He says the PC's operating systems are not all they could be, because developers' comfort and familiarity with the layered OS architectures runs so deep that their acceptance is unconscious. Kay cites several projects his nonprofit Viewpoints Research Institute is involved in, including MIT scientist Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop per Child initiative to build ultracheap computers for the world's poor, a project funded by the National Science Foundation that plans to encompass the entire spectrum of the personal-computing experience in less than 20,000 lines of code, and the construction of a new kind of user interface that helps people learn. "If you were to change the approach to the user interface ... to a more learning-curve-oriented system, then you would be able to accelerate the acceptance of the newer ideas about what computers can do," Kay explains. He believes the best way to ensure the adoption of this new approach to computing is to cultivate a different kind of thinking in young, questing minds.
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Split Decision
Government Technology (02/07) Vol. 20, No. 2, Opsahl, Andy

Direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines have been fraught with controversy because of allegations that they do not, as advertised, boast adequate security or reliability. Advocates claim that e-voting systems' primary advantage is their ability to substantially reduce voter error, but observers say there are still lingering vulnerabilities that must be addressed before the systems can be widely accepted by election officials. Critics blame the lack of openness of the systems' technology and procedures for the inability to determine the cause of irregularities such as mass undervoting recorded in a recent congressional race in Florida. Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Matthew Zimmerman says it is difficult to hold DRE machine vendors and election officials liable for errors because vendors are permitted to shield the systems' proprietary code so competitors cannot duplicate their work, and this allowance ruins transparency in government. "It's only by going through public record requests and fighting election officials across the country that we get a better idea of what kind of performance these machines have," he notes. Vendors have responded to claims that elections could be rigged by undetectable malware with counter-arguments that no real-world election environment offers sufficient system access for such a breach to be successful, and they believe a test election prior to actual voting could tell whether the DREs have been compromised. Zimmerman cites inadequacies in the certification awarded to e-voting systems, maintaining that "There isn't a very substantive review of the code and the components that go into these systems." There is much support for the inclusion of a paper trail in DRE machines, but the existing models need reliability-boosting design improvements, according to Doug Lewis with the National Association of State Election Directors.
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Chipping In
Scientific American (02/07) Vol. 296, No. 2, P. 18; Griffith, Anna

Scientists are working on a "brain chip" designed as a memory aid, especially in cases where the patient has suffered neural damage. A team from the University of Southern California is getting ready for live tests of a neural prosthesis in brain-damaged rats, which may be carried out in the spring. In January 2006 USC researcher Theodore W. Berger and his team engineered a silicon chip that imitates biological neurons in tissue slices of rat hippocampus as a replacement for a section of brain that was surgically removed, and that returns function by processing neural input into appropriate output with a 90 percent rate of accuracy. The expense and timeframe for constructing the brain chip necessitates the spring test actually using a mathematical model of the chip in the form of a field programmable gate array (FPGA). One of the study's collaborators, Wake Forest University professor Sam Deadwyler, has shown that stimulating the hippocampus of living rats with a specific activity pattern can boost performance on a memory task, and in several months he will employ the FPGA model to predict hippocampal activity; memory restoration in rats with drug-induced amnesia via the neural prosthesis should be possible if the model is correct. USC physicist Armand Tanguay thinks a module that uses light beams to transmit signals between neuron units on multiple chip layers may be necessary for more complex animal models. Factors that may need to be addressed include the avoidance of rejection by the immune system and neural plasticity, according to USC chemist Mark Thompson. There is also the possibility that such implants could make memory indelible because circumventing damaged hippocampal neurons might also circumvent connections with other areas of the brain that filter memory.
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Open vs. Closed
ACM Queue (02/07) Vol. 5, No. 1, Ford, Richard

Richard Ford of the Florida Institute of Technology writes that resolving the debate of whether open source or closed source software involves defining open source, closed source, and, perhaps most critical of all, security. The traditional definition of security is the maintenance of confidentiality, integrity, and availability (CIA) of information, but Ford notes that this offers little guidance in terms of measuring security; he cites the two obvious measurement approaches of quantifying the vulnerabilities in a product and estimating the chances of a CIA component being compromised, neither of which offers an objective measure of security. The current inability to measure the deep-seated security outcomes of open/closed source processes in an ordinal manner "means that our 'experimental' approach to determining which approach leads to better security is off the table: Until the science matures, we will have to examine the pros and cons of each approach independently and try to balance them ourselves," the author reasons. Ford makes the case that closed source, simply put, does not allow access to source code while open source does; similarly, most open source advocates support the legal modification and redistribution of distributed source code, while closed source proponents tend to oppose derivative works. Open source has advantages to both software hackers and defenders--for hackers, open source offers complete disclosure on the implementation of software features and transparent discussion of vulnerabilities and design decisions, while defenders can inspect the code to determine how secure features are. Meanwhile, closed source only provides code access to the small segment of a given community, meaning hackers must undertake an arduous process of reverse engineering, while users have little choice but to trust the vendor as to the product's security. Ford observes that software vendors lack inherent trustworthiness, and notes that in such a scenario open source at least provides the means by which an entity can check that all is well. The author concludes that "both development methodologies have intrinsic properties: Which set of properties most appropriately fits for a particular application is contextual."
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