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March 23, 2007

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Welcome to the March 23, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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House Bill Seeks to More than Double H-1B Visa Cap
Computerworld (03/22/07) Thibodeau, Patrick

An immigration reform bill introduced in the House this week would raise the annual H-1B visa limit to 180,000 and do away with limits on visas issued to foreign nationals that have an advanced degree in science, technology, engineering, or math from U.S. universities. The measure, known as Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy (STRIVE Act), was proposed by Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). The initial cap on H-1B visas would be set at 115,000, but if this limit was reached, it could be automatically increased to 180,000 based on market demand. Under the bill, advanced degree holders would no longer be exempt from some of the requirements for obtaining a green card. The STRIVE Act is very similar to last year's SKIL Bill, which died after becoming entangled in the larger immigration debate. Both Gutierrez and Flake are members of the House Judiciary Committee, which means the bill will at least get a hearing there. The bill has received the backing of Compete America, which says the H-1B cap for fiscal 2008 will be reached next month, even though fiscal 2008 doesn't begin until October. A Senate bill with similar intentions is also in the works.
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Son of TIA Will Mine Asian Data
Wired News (03/22/07) Weinberger, Sharon

Singapore is set to launch a data-mining effort that goes beyond the Pentagon's controversial 2003 Total Information Awareness Program (TIA) proposal, which was scrapped due to an uproar from privacy groups. The Singaporean program, known as Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS), will search for threats to national security by collecting data across all government agencies, making it the most comprehensive data-snooping program in the world. RAHS creates "a large network that is constantly scanning the horizon looking for weak signals that point toward the possibility of a significant event that would have important implications for Singapore," says the Arlington Institute's John Peterson, who is consulting for the Singapore project, along with others formerly involved in the TIA program, including Dave Snowden and former national security advisor and TIA architect John Poindexter. Snowden stresses RAHS' ability to spot "weak signals" that would normally be missed by humans. He says, "Instead of having analysts trawl through huge amounts of data to decide what it means, the data is tagged very quickly, then they decide what the patterns in the metadata mean." He also defends the program against privacy advocates, stating that only metadata, not the data itself, would be shared among agencies. RAHS will initially focus on "open source" information until the procedures for working with classified information can be worked out, according to Singapore security official Patrick Nathan, who adds that the city-state is currently piloting a data anonymization system. Privacy advocates claim that surveillance by a machine rather than humans does not serve to protect individual privacy. Snowden applauds the "pragmatic and forward-thinking" attitude behind RAHS. He says, "Singapore just walked around and saw what they liked, and said, 'The hell with it, let's just make it operational.'"
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Moore's Law Hits Physics in Memory Chips
Reuters (03/21/07) Hillins, Scott

Memory chip manufacturers know the day will come where the laws of physics and memory prevent them from making their chips any smaller, meaning a new technology will need to emerge, but there is no clear solution on the horizon. "I'm quite nervous about this because 25 nanometers is not that far away, and if you have to change a process in a couple generations, then that is really challenging," said Applied Materials CEO Mike Splinter. The end of Moore's law is expected to come sooner for memory chips than for processors, because the chips use pools of charged electrons to store data, and as the amount of electrons in the pool shrinks, data becomes harder to read. "It's a question we've had forever, and we've always had an answer," said Samsung's Tom Trill. "There's been a resurgence in terms of pessimism ... in the last few months." Potential alternatives include M-RAM, P-RAM, molecular memory, and carbon nanotubes. IBM's creation of a prototype chip that is 500 times faster than current flash memory and uses half the power, as well as circuits as small as 20 nanometers, is "like a green light to the industry to say, OK, let's invest in this technology going forward," says IBM's Spike Narayan. In order for a new technology such as magnetic memories, polymer, or custom-design molecules with electrons that can be easily manipulated to catch on, it must display its effectiveness and either use current manufacturing processes or prove so valuable that it would convince companies to invest in new factories. "Every two years someone comes up and says they have found better memory technology, but there's always some technical limitation, and this has gone on for 30 years," says In-Stat analyst Jim McGregor.
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IBM Makes Software, Web Accessibility Push
InternetNews.com (03/22/07) Needle, David

IBM intends to make accessibility a more important part of IT education, with the goal that all applications would eventually be built with the disabled in mind. A recent survey conducted by IBM showed that accessibility is not covered in the majority of IT classes. To instill accessibility in IT education, the company will team with six universities and the U.S. Department of Education to create and distribute a wealth of repeatable learning materials that will expose student developers to the concepts of accessibility and help them build more accessible software. "To create a truly inclusive society, all forms of information technology need to be more accessible," said the Department of Education's Dr. Bonnie Jones. "If we can't do this, people with disabilities land on the wrong side of the 'digital divide.' We have to capture the intelligence and imagination of our next generation of IT developers now." By influencing education, IBM hopes to create a generation of developers that will create applications that allow for increased productivity and Web sites that more people can access. Three students recently won an IBM Open Document Format (ODF) contest for their code that checks word processing documents for adherence to the ODF. The company is also involved in a variety of other accessibility projects, including a software-hardware project to help people with tremors use a mouse, and a system that transfers spoken words to text. Universities involved in the imitative include the University of Illinois, California State University at Long Beach, Georgia Tech, the University of Toronto, and the Rochester Institute of Technology.
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Discussing the Many-Core Future
HPC Wire (03/23/07) Vol. 16, No. 12, Tulloch, Paul

The introduction of multi-core technology by the hardware industry has set us down a path that could eventually lead to a world where thousands of processing cores could reside on a single chip, and the transition from serial-based thinking to parallelism represents a frustrating challenge for the software community, according to Statistics Canada economist/data analyst Paul Tulloch. Indeed, many in the software industry argue that such a challenge can never be met, and that technological innovation will screech to a halt as a result. Tulloch suggests that the end of single-core technology and the limitations of serial computational speed-up should be a cause for celebration, because the shift to many-core technology brings the dream of implementing cheap, high-performance computing on the desktop within reach. Several demonstrations show that hardware architecture is on a trajectory toward combined specialized CPU and GPU type cores, and Tulloch thinks the software community "unjustly focuses criticism on the most difficult of future challenges that parallelism presents, while seemingly discounting a whole new array of possibilities." He calls this focus unjust because "it is precisely the asymmetrical distribution of how these cores and threads will be unleashed and applied to a whole new set of programming challenges that is the key to realizing and envisioning this new dynamism and its potential." In terms of intensive parallel innovations, Tulloch thinks the most immediate upgrade appears to be offered by data parallel efforts, while initiatives that will have the most widescale market rollout will probably be lightly parallelized applications comprised of helper or add-on enhancements to numerous popular apps such as word processing, spreadsheets, and databases. To realize these and other advancements, the relationship between the hardware and software industries needs to be rethought into something more organic, Tulloch concludes.
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Researchers Develop Intelligent, Driverless Car
University of Essex (03/20/2007)

Researchers at the University of Essex plan to test an autonomous model car this summer, and believe the intelligent, driverless car can serve as the prototype for the development of smart model cars. A standard remote control model vehicle will be used to build the completely anonymous car. "Similar principles have been applied to full-size cars in the past--for instance in the DARPA challenge to navigate across the Mohave Desert--but the cost implications of developing the technology using real cars mean it just isn't viable for most researchers," says Dr. Simon Lucas, a researcher in the Department of Computer Science. "By using model cars, we will be able to investigate the possibilities of the technology far easier and more cheaply." A PC mounted on the chassis, a video camera, sensors, and special software will be part of the system that will allow the car to navigate the Colchester campus race track and make tactical decisions. The IEEE Computational Intelligence Society is funding the research, and plans to hold a race for autonomous cars at the IEEE World Congress on Computational Intelligence in 2008 in Hong Kong. Lucas believes driverless cars could be seen on city streets in the next 15 years.
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UCF's Conservatory Theatre Beams Actors Onto Stage Performance in Illinois
University of Central Florida (03/22/07) Kotala, Zenaida Gonzalez

An audience at Bradley University in Illinois was treated to a play performed by two virtual actors, whose images were projected onto the stage from their physical locations in Florida and Canada universities via Internet 2, and one live actor. The project was "the first successful adaptation of an emerging art form and culture of multimedia that enables seamless presentations," says University of Florida professor James Oliverio. Two computers at Bradley University handled up to 130 Mbps of data from both the University of Central Florida and the University of Waterloo as it received the virtual actors' images and projected them along side the actual actor in real time on a stage comprised of 2D and 3D sets on multiple screens. At some points in the show the audience was unable to tell real from virtual. The next step for the theatre is to have shows put on simultaneously at each of the three schools, made by projecting the two virtual actors from the other schools on stage with the each school's actual actor. Logistics and technical considerations for this novel performance are currently being worked out. "The collaborators involved in this project believe we are on the cusp of another creative movement and we are happy to be part of the exploration," says UCF "techtheatre" expert John Shafer.
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Communication With Emotional Body Language
Tubingen University (03/21/07) Katz, Ellen

The European Commission's Communication with Emotional Body Language (COBOL) project will provide three years of support for research into the way humans perceive and use body language. The project will involve psychologists, computer scientists, and engineers. Researchers are currently collecting data concerning behavior and developing techniques for synthesizing and simulating body language for use in communications technology. Motion capture software and computer graphic technology are being used to create body movements for neuropsychological study of the way they are perceived. Graphics specialists have developed applications that analyze and animate dance and aspects of locomotion that relate to emotions. Various computer vision algorithms that are able to model and quantify intricate movements will be used to analyze emotional expressions in video data. Recently, the ability to express basic emotions has been implemented in robots that interact with people, and is also thought to have great market potential in various types of computer programs. One of the main goals of COBOL is to study the ways body language is perceived across different cultures, and the extent to which culture influences body language. In addition to insights about communication, increased understanding of body language could aid our understanding of illnesses such as autism, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's.
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Tool Turns Unsuspecting Surfers Into Hacking Help
CNet (03/20/07) Evans, Joris

A new security tool that can make the PCs of unknowing Web surfers search for flaws in Web sites shows that JavaScript can be used for malicious purposes, a fear expressed by many security experts. SPI Dynamics security researcher Billy Hoffman developed the tool, known as Jikto, to enhance Web security. "Jikto turns any PC into my little drone," he explains. "Your PC will start attacking Web sites on my behalf, and you're going to give me all the results." The tool, which audits public Web sites by silently crawling through them and sending vulnerability information to a third party, can be embedded in an attacker's site or injected into a trusted site by exploiting a cross-site scripting flaw. Jikto can then connect back to its controller for further instructions. "Half of hacking is collecting information and then sorting it," says Hoffman. "An attacker can now distribute this job to many people." Although Jikto shows that JavaScript can be used maliciously, the traditional vulnerability scanners that hackers use to break into systems are probably more effective. Operating from compromised machines, these vulnerability scanners "can generally scan pretty widely with impunity, or they can just use a chain of proxies," explains Nmap Security Scanner inventor Fyodor Vaskovich. However, since it is JavaScript, Jikto can run in most Web browsers without any way of the user knowing. "As a user you really can't do much against Jikto or other JavaScript-based threats," Hoffman says. "I am not really compromising your computer. That is what makes this so scary." Next, Hoffman plans to work on a version of Jikto that can exploit vulnerabilities and extract data.
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UCLA Among Six Universities to Collaborate in Study of Biologically Assembled Quantum Electronic Systems
UCLA News (03/19/07) Abraham, Melissa

A five-year $6 million grant from the U.S. Defense Department will allow researchers at several universities to work with biological assembly to study quantum electronic systems that could eventually change the way electronics are made. "Highly interacting and correlated systems will be extremely important in creating future robust nanoscale electronic devices," said UCLA Engineering's Kang Wang. Working with nanoparticle arrays requires extreme precision, especially given the etching techniques used to assemble semiconducting devices, but biologic assembly could present new possibilities. "By exploiting biology to precisely control size, spacing, composition, and coupling in the arrays, we will be able to examine the effects of electronic, magnetic, and optical interactions at much smaller dimensions than in the past," says project leader Richard A. Kiehl of the University of Minnesota. DNA technology will first be used to build 2D and 3D scaffolding for the nanoparticle arrays, then peptides and proteins will be used to make nanoparticle clusters to be assembled on the scaffolding. Metallic and magnetic nanoparticles with organic shells will self-assemble to the scaffolding and manipulate the interparticle coupling. The electronic, magnetic, and optical properties of the arrays can then be observed. "While our goal is to use biology to construct a 'nanoscale test vehicle' for the systematic study of basic physics today, this work could lead to a practical biological route for the assembly of quantum electronic systems in the future," said Kiehl. Other participating universities include New York University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University.
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National Experts Explore Cutting Edge Computing Models at University of Maine Conference
University of Maine (03/21/07)

A meeting hosted by the University of Maine brought together experts in different fields to discuss possible directions and challenges for ubiquitous computing. Originally imagined before the birth of the Internet, ubiquitous computing has become increasingly plausible as "our world is becoming more and more full of small but powerful computing devices and of sensing instruments in cars, warehouses, appliances ... and even clothing," explains University of Maine spatial information science and engineering professor Kate Beard. "These devices must be able to 'know' where they are located in space and time, where the people or phenomena they monitor are located in space and time." Ubiquitous computing technology will rely on the ability of devices to communicate with each other and to respect the principles valued by humans, while making their lives more convenient. University of Maine researchers have focused on four issues: Modeling spatial and temporal elements of a ubiquitous computing environment; sensor networks and the ability to process information; interaction between humans and devices; and how privacy can be protected in a world with ubiquitous computing. "We worked to outline a set of research priorities to help build a ubiquitous computing environment that serves human needs, rather than the other way around," explains University of Maine spatial information science and engineering professor Harlan Onsrud. Important areas of research cited at the conference included developing models for continuous data streams generated from many sources that allows data evaluation and predication of possible data, creating ways for devices to question each other and provide answers using a common querying language, and accounting for gaps in data, either spatially or temporally, when drawing conclusions based on sensor data.
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If You're Happy, the Robot Knows It
New Scientist (03/22/07) Biever, Celeste

Robots that respond to people's emotional cues are increasingly relevant in a world where machines are assuming a greater, more interactive presence in daily life, and research projects are underway to advance the technology. One example is RoCo from MIT's Media Lab, which debuted at a human-robot interaction conference on March 11; RoCo is a computer monitor and display that can shift its position via a jointed neck in order to establish sympathy with the user's mood, as indicated by his or her posture. "Emotion informs cognition, people whose emotion is inhibited don't perform intelligently," notes Media Lab researcher Cynthia Breazeal, who is hoping expressive robots such as RoCo could improve the emotional states, and thus the performance and productivity, of users. She thinks RoCo could be programmed to assume the correct posture to encourage greater attention and persistence in kids, among other things. In another experiment, iRobot researchers tested to see whether people would have greater engagement with a physical humanoid robot, a projection of the robot on a computer monitor, or an image of the robot with animated lips. The physical robot was rated by volunteers as the most lifelike, competent, sociable, respectful, and responsive of the three options, and was most likely to influence the volunteers' behavior.
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Software Pinpoints Traffic Accident 'Hotspots'
Ohio State Research News (03/19/07) Gorder, Pam Frost

Scientists at Ohio State University have developed software that can identify areas on state roadways where accidents are likely to occur. The system uses statistics concerning injuries, fatalities, and the causes of accidents to generate predictions for all roads, conditions, and times. "Everyone would love to be able to predict exactly where and when the next crash would be, but there are just too many factors involved, and too much randomness to do that," says OSU Department of Statistics' Christopher Holloman. "We can confidently make broad statements, like whether a particular piece of roadway is riskier at a particular time." The software serves as a supplement to the highway patrol officer's expertise, and has mostly confirmed what they already knew. Although it cannot tell why a certain area might be prone to a certain type of accident, the software could help the highway patrol gain insight into such questions. Holloman and his team have recently incorporated Google Earth technology into the software, which allows the system to color-code roadways so users can zoom in to see the probability of an accident in any area of the state. The software uses a 900MB database that contains details on every accident on Ohio highways between 2001-2005 and produces 50GB of output data. To customize the software for another state would cost about half of what Ohio has spent, and the effectiveness of the system would depend on the quality of the state's accident data.
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New Brunswick University Hosts Hi-Tech Research Hub
IT World Canada (03/16/07) De Guzman, Mari-Len

Collaboration between the University of New Brunswick (UNB) and Q1 Labs led to the establishment of the Information Security Center of Excellence, one of the first Canadian research facilities that concentrates exclusively on information and network security. The center's lead researcher, UNB professor Ali Ghorbani, said most of the center's funding comes from a 2004 federal government grant of approximately $2.2 million. "There's a lot of information that security systems have to gather and analyze," noted Q1 Labs COO Brendan Hannigan. "And then there are some fundamental algorithms that can be applied to that data to try and figure out what's important and what's not important; that's a very complex process." Five areas of information security--network anomaly detection, automatic discovery and classification of network applications, multi-stage attack graphing and visualization, attack simulation, and automated security rule tuning, learning, and adaptation--will comprise the research center's study focus. A large chunk of research will be committed to the automation of network security and intrusion detection functions, while Ghorbani said network anomaly detection research will emphasize the development of technologies that detect without signature and can build a nominal network profile where any aberration would be treated as suspicious. Another focus of the research center is the creation of a system that enables automatic discovery and classification of network applications with little or no administrator participation. This would yield technology that can intelligently spot and flag unauthorized or unfamiliar applications running in the system, stated Ghorbani.
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'Sensornets' Watching Wildlife or Oilfields Make Batteries Last Longer Using New Communications Protocol
Science Daily (03/21/07)

The Viterbi School's Information Sciences Institute has released a new communication protocol that will allow for a more than 10-fold improvement in energy efficiency for wireless sensor networks. ISI research scientist Wei Ye, project leader John Heidemann, and programmer Fabio Luis Silva in the ISI Laboratory for Embedded Networked Sensor Experimentation developed SCP-MAC, and they presented their research in November at the Proceedings of the Fourth ACM SenSys Conference in Boulder, Colo. Sensor networks are being used to monitor places that are difficult to access and wire, such as wilderness parks and oilfields, and a number of battery-powered, sensor units are strewn across such wide areas. SCP-MAC makes use of power listening, or switching units on for a short period of time, and scheduled channel polling, or synchronized and scheduled listening, to achieve its results, which also include reducing monitoring time to less than two minutes each day. "To minimize the listening cost, SCP-MAC utilizes 'low-power listening,' which detects channel activity very quickly," says Ye. "It further reduces the transmission cost by synchronizing the listening schedules of nodes, so that a unit can wake up its neighbors by transmitting a short tone."
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Privacy for Domain Owners Moves Forward
Associated Press (03/21/07) Jesdanun, Anick

Domain name owners may soon have more privacy options when entering contact data in the publicly available Whois database, thanks to a new proposal that was recently endorsed by an important task force. ICANN will hold hearings on the proposal, known as "operational point of contact," during its upcoming meeting in Lisbon, Portugal. Tucows representative Ross Rader, a member of the Whois task force, goes so far as to predict that a big change is coming and that domain name owners will no longer have to publicly display their personal contact data on Whois. The database has caused controversy because it stores domain name owners' contact information, including names, email addresses, and phone numbers. This information is publicly accessible and is used by a variety of parties, including law enforcement, ISPs, lawyers, journalists, and spammers. Some domain owners choose to enter fake data, which puts them at risk of losing the domain. But under terms of the new proposal, domain name owners would have a standard option of listing the contact information of third parties--lawyers, service providers, and the like--instead of their own contact data.
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On the Heels of a Quantum Revolution
Imprint (University of Waterloo) (03/16/07) Vol. 29, No. 31, Pinto, Brendan

Research that could usher in revolutionary technologies that apply the unique properties of quantum mechanics is being conducted at the University of Waterloo's Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC), whose mission is to "advance fundamental experimental and theoretical knowledge in relevant areas of engineering, mathematics and science to enhance the developments in the field of Quantum Computation and Information Processing." In the six years since its launch, IQC has been credited with expanding its quantum computer's size from 10 qubits to 12 qubits, which represents something close to a 3,100 percent gain in computing power. The superposition property of quantum systems is the phenomenon in which a particle exists in two different states simultaneously, and it is within this property that the computational potential of quantum technology resides. Quantum computers can efficiently factor immense numbers via superposition, which could facilitate unbreakable encryption, to name just one application. Quantum cryptography exploits the quantum universe's underlying randomness; the quantum property of entanglement, in which particles separated by distance maintain a direct link that affects each other's state; and the law that measurement of a system changes the system in a fundamental way. IQC is focused on the development of an open-air system for transmitting quantum-encrypted information over vast distances. Waterloo was chosen to be the IQC's home because the institute needed a large amount of electrical and computer engineering, physics, computer science, applied math, chemistry, and combinatorics and optimization expertise on hand to tap.
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Continued Drop in CS Bachelor's Degree Production and Enrollments as the Number of New Majors Stabilizes
Computing Research News (03/07) Vol. 19, No. 2, Vegso, Jay

A Computer Research Association survey of Ph.D.-granting CS and computer engineering departments in North America shows that although the number of incoming undergrads planning to major in CS seems to be stabilizing, the annual numbers of students enrolled in undergraduate CS degree programs and CS Bachelor's degrees granted continue to decline. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of incoming undergrads planning to major in CS fell 70 percent. The past six years of decline have left the total number of CS majors in the fall of 2006 at approximately 8,000, half of what it was in 2000. However, the decline from 2005 to 2006 was relatively small, suggesting that the trend may be coming to an end. As a result of incoming CS students decreasing, CS enrollment fell 14 percent between 2004/2005 and 2005/2006. Overall enrollment in CS has dropped 39 percent from its peak of approximately 57,000 in 2001/2002. Total degrees granted by Ph.D.-granting CS departments fell 28 percent between 2003/2004 and 2005/2006, and the decline is expected to continue. A similar drop in degree production among CS departments happened in the 1990s: After a fourfold increase between 1980 and 1986 raised the number to more than 42,000, degree production fell and leveled at 25,000, only to surge again in the late 1990s to more than 57,000 by 2004. Given the economic downturn and slow job growth during the early 2000s, the present decline was predictable.
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The Thinking Machine
Wired (03/07) Vol. 15, No. 3, P. 104; Ratliff, Evan

Engineer Jeff Hawkins, who counts the creation of the Palm Pilot and the Treo among his credits, is focusing on the fulfillment of a long-gestating dream through his new company, Numenta: The development of software that mimics the human brain and that can facilitate many functions that have so far thwarted computers such as vision and locomotion. The software is similar to the human brain in that it has no knowledge when it is created, and uses sensory input to learn, construct a model of its environment, and predict things based on that model. Hawkins' hope is that the software will enable machines to solve hugely complex problems by perceiving them as a flow of new sensory data to be interpreted. A "research release" of Numenta's platform will be comprised of a central problem-solving engine modeled after Hawkins' vision of the cortex, a suite of open source software tools, and the code for the learning algorithms, which can be modified by users. The hierarchical temporal memory (HTM) can identify images of distorted objects, for example, by processing them through low-level nodes that view individual pixel segments of the image and pass the pattern they perceive to intermediate nodes that combine input to form shapes. The shapes are then sent to top-level nodes that compare the shapes against a database of objects and choose the best match. That information is handed back to the intermediate nodes to improve their prediction of the next shape they will see, while data from higher-up nodes lets the bottom nodes clean up the image by disregarding pixels that do not correlate with the expected pattern. The HTM functions according to Hawkins' perception of the cortex as a tool for creating intelligence through the fundamental mechanism of prediction.
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