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ACM TechNews
June 27, 2007

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Welcome to the June 27, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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ECE Professor Introduces New 'Desktop Supercomputing'
University of Maryland (06/24/07)

University of Maryland professor Uzi Vishkin, along with his colleagues at the A. James Clark School of Engineering, have developed a prototype of what may be the next generation of personal computers. The prototype is based on the idea of parallel processing operating on a single chip and is capable of computing speeds 100 times faster than current desktops. The prototype uses a circuit board about the size of a license plate and has 64 parallel processors. A parallel computer organization the researchers developed allows the processors to work together and make programming easy for software developers. Large-scale parallel processing has been used in supercomputers for years, but any desktop application of parallel processing has been difficult because of major programming challenges. In early June, Vishkin and his Ph.D. student Xingzhi Wen published a paper on the parallel processing technology for the ACM Symposium on Parallelism in Algorithms and Architectures, and showcased it at the ACM International Conference on Supercomputing. "The single-chip supercomputing prototype built by Prof. Uzi Vishkin's group uses rich algorithmic theory to address the practical problem of building an easy-to-program multicore computer," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer science and engineering professor Charles E. Leiserson. "Vishkin's chip unites the theory of yesterday with the reality of today." Vishkin believes his technology will revitalize the computer industry as it could someday include 1,000 processors on a chip the size of a fingernail. "The manufacturers have done an excellent job over the years of increasing a single processor's clock speed through clever miniaturization strategies and new materials," Vishkin says. "But they have now reached the limits of this approach. It is time for a practical alternative that will allow a new wave of innovation and growth--and that's what we have created with our parallel computing technology."
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Billionaire Thinks in Trillions for His Computer Designs
New York Times (06/26/07) P. C1; Markoff, John

At a high-performance computing conference is Dresden, Germany, Sun Microsystems co-founder Andreas Bechtolsheim plans to introduce a supercomputer called the Sun Constellation System that will compete for the title of the world's fastest computer when installation is finished later this year. Bechtolsheim remains just as dedicated to computer design today as when he was a graduate student at Stanford University. "It is hard to believe that 30 years later I am still working on the same problem," Bechtolsheim says. Bechtolsheim has been lauded for his ability to create elegant and simple computer engineering designs. "A lot of these high-end systems are superego machines," Bechtolsheim says, referring to an industry practice of competing to make computers that can perform a single type of mathematical calculation the fastest, but then struggle when given problems that require moving significant amount of data between processors. Bechtolsheim believes he found a solution to that problem by modifying an industry standard data switch, which allowed any of the 13,000-plus AMD Barcelona microprocessors to communicate with each other more than 10 times faster than existing switches. Bechtolsheim described the technological advancement at an annual retreat of the world's leading supercomputer designers. "It's a pretty interesting architecture," says University of Tennessee computer scientist Jack Dongarra, who tracks the world's fastest computers. Bechtolsheim's newest machine will be tested against IBM's redesigned version of its BlueGene supercomputer, named BlueGene/P, which will be installed next year and is expected to break the petaflop computing barrier, or the ability to execute a thousand trillion mathematical operations per second.
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Computer Scientists Pull a Tom Sawyer to Finish Grunt Work
Wall Street Journal (06/27/07) P. B1; Gomes, Lee

Computer scientists are using Internet users, including children, to finish boring and repetitive grunt work by turning the work into games. The practice, known as "human computation," was developed because humans still perform certain tasks better than computers. Human computation was first developed by Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis con Ahn, who developed the ESP Game. To play the ESP Game, a player is matched with another unknown user. The two players view an image and must write in a key word to describe the image. If the two users' entries match, points are awarded. While it appears to be a simple matching game, in reality, previously unlabeled pictures collected on the Internet are being assigned keywords that can be used to retrieve or find the image during a search. Other researchers are starting to adopt the idea of soliciting Web users to help with their projects. University of California, San Diego, graduate student Douglas Turnbull developed a similar game that asks players to match descriptions of musical pieces so the text descriptions can be used in a program to help with musical recommendations. Human computing games have some limitations, however. The games tend to produce very common and simplistic responses because players are trying to earn points so they submit what they believe other players will. Players are also of little or no help when trying to identify technical or scientific images. Nevertheless, the use of human computing is expanding as Google has suggested that human responses may help weed out low-quality Web sites from search results, and Amazon offers a site called "Mechanical Turk" that pays people tiny amounts for performing simple tasks. Von Ahn says human computation is only a temporary solution, and that eventually image recognition and similar computing problems will be solved.
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Transparent Transistors to Bring Future Displays, 'E-Paper'
Purdue University News (06/26/07) Venere, Emil

Purdue University and Northwestern University researchers have developed transparent transistor circuits using nanotechnology. The nanowires were made of zinc oxide or indium oxide, and unlike traditional metal computer chips, the thin-film transistors can be made for less and at lower temperatures, making them well-suited plastic films that melt during high-temperature processing. The transparent transistors could be used to created devices such as "e-paper," flexible color screens on consumer electronics, smart cards, information displays on eye glasses, and "heads-up" displays on auto windshields. Northwestern University chemistry professor Vladimir N. Ipatieff and professor of materials science and engineering Tobin J. Marks say that while other researchers had previously created nanowire transistors, the metal electrodes in the transistors were not transparent, which made the structure opaque. "Our study demonstrates that nanowire electronics can be fully transparent, as well as flexible, while maintaining high performance levels," Marks says. "This opens the door to entirely new technologies for high-performance transparent flexible displays." One possible technology is e-paper, which is designed to mimic ordinary paper and ink. The difference between traditional displays and e-paper is that traditional displays backlight to illuminate pixels, while e-paper reflects light like ordinary paper and can hold text and images indefinitely without using electricity, but allowing the image to be changed later. E-paper could be used as a low-cost, energy efficient way to display information and video. The transparent transistors could also be combined with another emerging technology called organic light-emitting diodes to create more vibrant and power efficient televisions.
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Which Supercomputers Rule?
CNet (06/27/07) Ogg, Erica

The latest Top500 List of Supercomputers is marked by more turnover than the last report, but IBM's BlueGene/L at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory heads the list again, reaching speeds of 280.6 teraflops. Cray's Jaguar system at Oak Ridge National Laboratory jumped from No. 10 to No. 2 at 101.7 teraflops, and the only other supercomputer to top 100 teraflops was Cray's Red Storm at Sandia National Laboratory at 101.4 teraflops. Newcomers to the list include IBM's New York Blue at Stony Brook University at No. 5, IBM's similar Blue Gene system at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at No. 7, and Dell's Abe PowerEdge 1955 server at the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications at No. 8. IBM has six of the top 10 supercomputers, but Hewlett-Packard has 203 of the top 500, or 40 percent. However, HP has a total teraflop sum of 1,202, which IBM nearly doubles with 2,060. The 500 top supercomputers offer a total performance of 4.92 petaflops, or 1,000 teraflops, which is up from 3.54 petaflops from the previous list. The latest report will be released Wednesday at the International Supercomputing Conference in Dresden, Germany.
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Researchers Hope to Help Computers Think Like Humans
Telegraph-Journal (New Brunswick) (06/25/07) P. B1; Shipley, David

University of New Brunswick computer science professor Michaela Ulieru, the Canadian Research Chair in adaptive information infrastructures, is part of an international effort to incorporate the human ability to think into computers and networks. Assisting Ulieru is Dietmar Dietrich, head of the Institute of Computer Technology at Vienna University of Technology. Dietrich uses neuro-psychoanalysis, the use of biology and psychology, to develop human intelligence in models and machines. "The results of artificial intelligence or cognitive computing are not enough," Dietrich says. "We have to find a paradigm shift in this area and that's why I'm looking at the neuro-psychoanalytic model." Dietrich believes that engineers looking to create intelligent machines should not try to re-invent the wheel, but should build on the work being done by neuro-psychoanalytic scientists. Ulieru says a scientific understanding of how the human brain works will allow it to be emulated, which can be used to create intelligent machines that help improve human safety and security. For example, when a power outage is imminent, instead of shutting down the system, an intelligent network could self organize and evolve to a high level of resilience, Ulieru says. Dietrich and Ulieru, and several others, are organizing a conference called "Emulating the Mind," which will be held in Vienna in July.
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Students Pitch Software Ideas to Gates
IDG News Service (06/26/07) Gohring, Nancy

Microsoft's Bill Gates and Craig Mundie on Tuesday asked questions and tested software innovations developed by students from Egypt, Japan, France, Poland, Korea, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The students are some of the leading competitors in Microsoft's Imagine Cup, a worldwide software design competition for students. This year over 100,000 students from 100 countries participated in the challenge to build a product designed to improve education for everyone. The Egyptian team designed software that would allow teachers to input questions for a test and automatically generate a test designed for students with special needs. For example, a math test would be converted to pictures of houses instead of numbers for dyslexic students. The U.K. project would allow kids to learn software programming. A user looking at an image of a fish bowl could move one of the fish and simultaneously see on the side of the screen the code that makes the fish move. For another project students developed social networking services that let students with similar interests meet online, while the U.S. team created a service that allows students to help each other learn foreign languages, improving their rankings on the site each time they help another student. The final competition will be held in Korea in August.
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Baby Steps Robots Are a Long Way From Dancing, But U-M Professor is Taking Them Closer
Ann Arbor News (MI) (06/25/07) Hamon, Amanda

Hollywood often shows robots capable of walking, running, and even dancing, but in reality bipedal robots still have difficulty operating smoothly. However, University of Michigan electrical engineering and computer science professor Jessy Grizzle is working to improve robotic dexterity. Grizzle is working on a project that he hopes will provide an invaluable contribution to robotics, and to education as a whole. The unnamed robot is a collaborative effort between the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon University. "The idea is to make it energy efficient, and to study the dynamics of running," Grizzle says. If everything works as designed, the robot will be the first bipedal machine with spring-infused joints and feedback control, which would allow the robot to recover if pushed off course. After being tested, the robot, which is funded by a $450,000 National Science Foundation grant, will be used as a teaching aid in Michigan. The project was started in 2004, and when completed the robot will stand 5 feet, 9 inches and weigh 150 pounds, though there is still significant work still to be done. "The challenge for me is writing the algorithms that allow the robot to move smoothly and to run," Grizzle says. Grizzle says the technology could lead to the creation of robots capable of going where humans are unable. A better understanding of bipedal motion could also lead to improved prosthetic limb technology and new approaches to stroke and accident victim rehabilitation methods.
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GPLv3 Upgrade Set for Friday
InfoWorld (06/26/07) Krill, Paul

The Free Software Foundation is likely to release the new update to the GNU GPL (General Public License) on Friday. GPL version 3 for open-source software offers copyright technology with uniformity for everywhere in the world, and ensures that users will be able to modify software installed on personal computers or household devices. The controversial update protects contributors to free software from being sued for patent infringement, and allows users to copy Apache-licensed code into GPL projects. Still, there are some concerns whether developers will migrate to GPLv3. Only a small number of projects are likely to use the license at this time, says Black Duck Software CEO Doug Levin, adding that the number could change. "GPL version 3 does clean up a lot of things about GPL that were sort of implicit in previous and become much more explicit here," says Mark Spencer, chairman and CTO of Digium. "There are some complications around the patent terms that place some additional requirements upon the developers and distributors that we need to fully understand in more detail."
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Puzzles Will Save the World
Boston Globe (06/24/07) Karafin, Amy

Martin Demaine, an artist-in-residence at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, believes that puzzles and alternative ways of solving problems have already made cars safer, candies easier to unwrap, and may one day help cure diseases. Demaine sees computer science as a type of riddle. "For me, the excitement is to solve a puzzle that's never been solved before," Demaine says. "As a researcher, you don't solve things that have been done; you ask questions, you create puzzles." Demaine and his colleagues, which includes his son Erik who is also on the faculty at the MIT lab, have used puzzles and games to make important contributions to engineering, computer science, and mathematics. An example is the "fold and cut" problem, which asks if there is a way to fold a piece of paper so that making a single cut can create a hole of any given shape. The Demaines created a solution that has since been used in the manufacturing of car air bags. The MIT researchers are also working on folding nanostructures, which could be described as DNA origami. Martin Demaine says that if protein-folding can be understood, it would be possible to design proteins to cure diseases. The purpose of the Demaines' research is not to create applications, but to show there are more efficient ways to build things and that research can be fun. "Puzzles will save the world," Demaine says.
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Robotic Cars Could Take Pressure Off Nation's Highways
Los Angeles Times (06/23/07) Greenberg, Joel

Stanford University associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering Sebastian Thrun believes that widespread use of robotic cars will lead to accident-free, unclogged highways. "There is no other way out of the current disaster that happens on U.S. highways," Thrun says. "There are so many aspects of society you could change if you just make cars drive themselves." Thrun, who leads Stanford Racing Team and their efforts to create a fully autonomous vehicle for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's 2007 Urban Challenge, says a robotic automotive vehicle would "combine the convenience of a train with the convenience of a car." About 50 teams will compete in the DARPA Urban Challenge, a 60-mile test of city driving whose purpose DARPA says is to promote "the development of robotic-vehicle technology" on the battlefield. However, civilian researchers see limitless applications. "This is the point in time where cars are really ready to become robotic," says Mike Montemerlo, a senior research at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab. "We're excited about the potential this might have for reducing the number of fatalities on the road." Montemerlo and Thrun believe that eventually high-occupancy vehicle lanes, and even entire highways, will be filled bumper-to-bumper with fast-moving robotic cars carrying commuters focused on other tasks. Thrun says the U.S. inefficiently uses its extensive road system. "What hasn't been done is to make cars drive closer together in a safe way," Thrun says. "It is absolutely feasible."
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The IT Girls
Austin American-Statesman (TX) (06/23/07) P. F1; Gallaga, Omar L.

Project IT Girl is a three-year program for young women in the Austin, Texas, area interested in computer science and tech-related fields. Participants meet every Wednesday and one Saturday every month starting their sophomore year of high school and continue to meet through the summer following their senior year. The project, funded by the National Science Foundation and administered by the nonprofit Girlstart, was developed to boost the percentage of women in tech-related professions. According to the National Science Foundation, only 9 percent of engineers, 29 percent of computer scientists, and 29 percent of computer programmers in the United States are women. During a two-week summer academy, the 61 young women participating in the program researched and shot public service announcements about problems such as AIDS in Africa, racial strife, and drug abuse. The research, data management, and filming process is intended to teach participants how to work on large-scale projects that require teamwork, problem solving, and goal setting, simulating how engineers and scientists work. Participants who complete the program receive a paid internship and scholarship from the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) in North Austin, Texas. TACC associate director Kelly Gaither says she is not at all surprised by the IT Girls' enthusiasm and skill. "I think they're capable of tremendous things," Gaither says. "They're getting past the stereotype that things like this are male-oriented activities."
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ICANN to Tackle Transparency
IDG News Service (06/25/07) Perez, Juan Carlos

ICANN's week-long meeting began on Monday to discuss critical topics such as the organization's efforts to be more transparent and accountable. The international public meeting was the second of three ICANN has scheduled for this year and included discussions on significantly expanding available Internet Protocol addresses and the process of accrediting registrars. The meeting also includes the first General Assembly of the Latin American and Caribbean Regional At Large Organization, which was formed in March. Critics frequently complain that ICANN is not transparent enough in its decision-making process and needs to be more accountable. ICANN commissioned an independent study focusing on its transparency and accountability from London's One World Trust, which reported in March that ICANN is very transparent, but that it can improve in certain areas, including providing better explanations of how it uses input from stakeholders. At the meeting, ICANN will release a set of principles and frameworks for accountability. ICANN CEO Paul Twomey says ICANN wants to make it easier for people to find information on its Web site, and be quicker in posting information online about its meetings and initiatives. However, analysts say true transparency and accountability will likely remain open for discussion and criticism until ICANN removes all ties with the U.S. government. The meeting also will examine the Internationalized Domain Names initiative, which hopes to redesign the domain name system to support domain names in a variety of languages and alphabets that cannot be represented in the ASCII character set. "You'd think this would be simple," says ICANN Chairman Vint Cerf. "It has turned out to be really hard, technically."
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Five Ideas that Will Reinvent Modern Computing
PC Magazine (06/20/07) Metz, Cade; Bsales, Jamie

A quintet of projects at top high-tech research labs promises to radically enhance computing. One such project is HP Labs' Pluribus, described by its creators as "cluster computing for projectors." Pluribus software integrates multiple projected images into a cineplex-quality image that boasts a high degree of redundancy, and which could be particularly applicable to 3D games. Moving closer and closer to the dream of a working quantum computer is the goal of Bell Labs' "topological quantum computing" project, which seeks to facilitate the execution of quantum computations while avoiding decoherence by "forming knots in the space-time path," according to researcher Steven Simon. Meanwhile, Microsoft Research is developing Soap, a wireless optical mouse that allows PC navigation via hand gestures. "Basically, it's a mouse and a mouse pad in the same device," explains Soap creator Patrick Baudisch. "But instead of moving your mouse over your mouse pad, you move your mouse pad over your mouse." Palo Alto Research Center scientist Van Jacobson intends to shift the center of the network from the server to the data, removing many of the inefficiencies of classic point-to-point networking, through the Content-Centric Networking project. Researchers at IBM's Almaden Research Center are attempting to make artificial intelligence a reality by constructing a brain out of hardware and software, rather than following the more traditional route of mimicking the human cortex. The Cognitive Computing project's first step is to build a "massively parallel cortical simulator" that replicates a mouse's brain, and the project leader believes simulators of increasing complexity will be possible through the dual advancement of computing power and neuroscience.
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Virtual World Sharpens Mind-Control
New Scientist (06/26/07) Knight, Will

A collaborative project involving the Graz University of Technology in Austria and the University College London (UCL) has developed a simulated virtual world that can be explored through thoughts and may provide new rehabilitation possibilities for disabled patients. The Graz University of Technology specializes in measuring brain signals with electrodes or implants while UCL works on creating immersive virtual worlds. The two schools' projects were united by a European consortium called PRESENCCIA. The system uses electrodes attached to a person's scalp and electroencephalograms (EEGs) to monitor electrical activity in the brain. The system can be trained to recognize neuronal activity patterns when the person is thinking about walking or moving their arms. The thoughts can then be used to move forward or turn. The user views the virtual world as video footage projected on a wall, utilizing a pair of shuttered glasses to create the illusion of a 3D environment. After testing the system on a test subject, the researchers asked a man paralyzed almost completely from the neck down to think about walking up to the virtual characters and wait for each character to say hello. The paralyzed subject was able to successfully control the system 90 percent of the time. UCL researcher Doron Friedman says the patient loved the feeling of thinking about walking and seeing his environment change. Friedman says that virtual reality is becoming a popular physical and psychological rehabilitation tool, and the new system could provide novel possibilities. Eventually, such technology may be used to allow disabled people to operate devices using their mind.
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Flexible and Fearless, Seeking Rescue Work
New York Times (06/25/07) P. A12; Blumenthal, Ralph

Texas A&M University's Texas Engineering Extension Service operates a 52-acre "Disaster City" where fire fighters and other emergency responders from across the globe can participate in training exercises. The site was recently the scene of a robotics exercise sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate and the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology. Several varieties of rescue robots participated in the exercise, which included obstacle courses based on mock set-ups of the Oklahoma City bombing, 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Mexico City earthquake. The robots included a 30-foot, snake-like optic robot that slinks through crevasses and holes while providing images of its discoveries. That robot, produced by university researchers in Japan, is attached to the operator's body, unlike most robots, which are operated via consoles or laptops. One Texas A&M official predicted that robots will soon become a regular part of rescue work.
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Can the Internet Be Saved?
Chronicle of Higher Education (06/29/07) Vol. 53, No. 43, P. A25; Fischman, Josh

The Internet is bowing under constant pressure from spam, malware, mobile devices, a lack of security, and spotty connections, and the National Science Foundation officially launched the Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI) project to reinvent the Net in May. The biggest problem with the Internet is security, and at the root of this problem is the lack of authenticated identity and the erroneous assumption that every network insider is to be trusted; Princeton professor Larry L. Peterson thinks one solution is to construct a network that can contain attacks launched by end-users' machines. To effect more reliable data transmission, researchers are investigating the potential of using more programmable routers that communicate with each other, facilitating a more global perspective and allowing operators to split the network into virtual "slices" so management is easier. As for the problem of increasing numbers of mobile devices and the strain this places on the network, researchers are experimenting with ad-hoc networking on facilities that include Internet2 and the National LambdaRail network. The GENI project office is run by BBN Technologies engineer Chip Elliott, who thinks the effort calls for two strategies. "First, if you don't like conventional Internet protocols, try something completely different," he explains. "Second, do it on a large enough scale, with enough users, so that your results actually mean something." Among those involved in the GENI planning process are researchers from MIT, UC Berkeley, USC, and Princeton University, as well as Intel and other industry players.
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