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ACM TechNews
July 25, 2007

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Welcome to the July 25, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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E-Voting Systems 'Hacked' for Flaws
San Jose Mercury News (CA) (07/23/07) Harmon, Steven

As part of a "top-to-bottom" review ordered by California's Secretary of State Debra Bowen, several computer scientists recently finished two months of testing to see if the state's touch-screen voting machines should be certified for use in the upcoming elections. The testing included general hacking and attempts to manipulate the voting systems. Bowen is expected to give a report on Aug. 3, six months before the Feb. 5 presidential primaries, but election officials are worried that there may not be enough time if the systems are determined to be vulnerable. The level of testing Bowen's hackers put the machines through is unprecedented and went farther than any other state or federal testing of electronic voting machines, according to Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. "Previous testing looked at whether the systems work the way vendors said they're supposed to work," Alexander says. "It didn't include scenarios that would crop up in real elections, such as a software attack or the taking down of a polling place through technical manipulation." County registrars are worried that the decertification of any of the machines could lead to a shortage of machines on election day and some criticized the testing process as unnecessary. "Show me where the systems have actually been hacked and where votes have been changed," says Contra Costa Country registrar and California Association of Clerks and Election Officials president Stephen Weir. "There's no evidence of it." Weir also says the tests did not account for the defenses that clerks set up to prevent security breaches. For information on ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Humans Narrowly Beat Computer in Poker Battle
Middle East Times (07/25/07)

Computer scientists are lauding the performance of the artificial intelligence program Polaris in a poker competition against the best poker players in the world, even though it lost. Machines are able to regularly defeat humans in chess, checkers, and backgammon, but poker is viewed as more of a challenge because of its psychological nature, which involves intentional deception, the influence of unpredictable emotions and chance, as well as mathematics. Phil Laak and Ali Eslami narrowly defeated Polaris by 570 points in the fourth and final game, after one draw, and a victory each for them and the machine. Darse Billings, lead architect of the Polaris team at the University of Alberta, says the program played exceptionally well. "I wouldn't be surprised if we can beat them tomorrow," Billings says, whose team will continue to improve Polaris. Eslami, a former computer consultant, says he has never had a more exhausting match. "I'm surprised we won ... it's already so good it will be tough to beat in the future." The championship took place during an artificial intelligence conference in Vancouver that was attended by approximately 1,000 scientists.
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From UF and IBM, a Blueprint for "Smart" Health Care
University of Florida News (07/24/07) Hoover, Aaron

New technology from the University of Florida and IBM creates what is being called the first roadmap for the widespread deployment of "smart" medical devices that, for example, monitor a person's blood pressure, temperature, respiration rate, and any other important medical information. Electronically monitoring patients could eliminate the need for many visits to the doctor, which can be difficult for the elderly or sick, and could help doctors determine which patient should receive treatment first. "We call it quality-of-life engineering," says University of Florida professor of computer science and lead researcher on the project Sumi Helal. The project provides the technological foundation for a company to manufacture and sell smart, networked, and user-friendly devices. "UF and IBM both see the need and the opportunity to integrate the physical world of sensors and other devices directly into enterprise systems," says IBM's Richard Bakalar. "Doing so in an open environment will remove market inhibitors that impede innovation in critical industries like health care and open a broader device market that's fueled by uninterrupted networking." Helal previously created several devices that can provide care givers with information on a patient's activity and over health indicators, including a microwave that can monitor the salt content of food and a device that records how many steps a person takes, but these devices needed to be installed by a team of engineers. To create a device that is ready to use out of the box, Helal created middleware based on open standards that "self integrates" to provide a standard connection for any health care device to use. "When you bring it in to the house and plug it in, it automatically provides its service and finds a path to the outside world," Helal says.
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Submissions Sought for Reconfigurable Computing Workshop
HPC Wire (07/18/07)

A workshop on High-Performance Reconfigurable Computing Technology and Applications will be held in conjunction with SC07, and submissions of papers on high-performance reconfigurable computing (HPRC) related topics will be accepted through Sept. 15, 2007. Topics of interest include architecture of HPRC devices and systems; languages, compilation techniques, and tools for HPRC; algorithms, methodology, and best practices in application development for HPRC; applications of HPRC in science and engineering; and trends and latest developments in HPRC. The best papers could be included in a special issue of the ACM Transactions on Reconfigurable Technology and Systems (TRETS). The workshop is scheduled for Nov. 11, in Reno, Nev., and will give academic researchers and industry representatives a chance to learn more about trends and developments, and establish a research agenda for the years to come.
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Antique Engines Inspire Nano Chip
BBC News (07/24/07) Fildes, Jonathan

U.S. researchers have designed a nano computer that casts aside modern high-speed silicon chips in favor of a computing idea that was first proposed nearly 200 years ago. In a paper published in the New Journal of Physics, the scientists said the mechanical computer would be built from nanometer-sized components and could be used in places that would damage silicon components. "What we are proposing is a new type of computing architecture that is only based on nano mechanical elements," says University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Robert Blick, one of the authors of the paper. "We are not going to compete with high-speed silicon, but where we are competitive is for all those mundane applications where you need microprocessors which can be slow and cheap as well." The tiny, hypothetical computer could be built out of ultra-hard material such as diamond or piezoelectric material, which changes shape when exposed to an electrical current. Unlike current computers, which use the movement of electrons on circuits to solve problems, the nano mechanical computer would use the push and pull of tiny parts to perform calculations. The military is interested in a nano mechanical computer because, unlike electronic silicon computers, nano mechanical devices would not be vulnerable to electromagnetic pulses that would disable traditional computing systems. The researchers also believe that nano mechanical chips would be better at maintaining Moore's law than silicon chips because they run much cooler than silicon. The University of Southampton's Michael Kraft says nano mechanical research may lead to hybrid chips because nano mechanics consume less power, which is becoming increasingly important for mobile devices. "The battery is the big bottleneck, so anything that reduces the power consumption is a real advantage," Kraft says.
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A Baby Step for Computer Learning
ScienceNOW (07/23/07) Cevallos, Marissa

Stanford University researchers have developed a program that is able to determine vowel categories from human sounds. James McClelland, a cognitive neuroscientist, and colleagues had in mind the ability of infants to sort out vowel sounds on their own as they pursued the project, which involved the use of so-called neural networks. The researchers recorded 30 mothers reading aloud to their infants, then fed the audio clips into a computer and limited the categories to "beet," "bait," "bit," and "bet" vowel sounds, but did not tell the neural network how many categories there would be. The neural network analyzed thousands of sound clips to determine the number of categories, then quickly placed them into the vowel categories. According to a report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the program placed the vowel sounds into the four categories more than 80 percent of the time. With a more powerful neural network, McClelland wants to develop a program that can "lip-read" by analyzing sounds and a picture of a mouth.
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UI Professor Seeks to Harness Strength of Amoeba Into Computer Cores
News-Gazette (07/23/07) Kline, Greg

University of Illinois professor of electrical and computer engineering Rakesh Kumar believes that the single-celled amoeba may be a good model to base how super-fast computers handle parallel processing. Kumar's "amoebic computing" is a way to take better advantage of the growing number of cores in computer processors. As technology advances, single-core processors are being replaced by multi-core processors. The problem, however, is that because humans think sequentially, they also program that way, so only one task is being processed at a time. Kumar's solution looks to the amoeba to improve processing speed. An amoebic computing system could, like the amoeba, replicate tasks waiting to be processed and run them on other cores as needed. The idea is to break sequential programs into component parts, or services, and send them to available cores instead of having them wait in line. In addition to replication, amoebic computing mimics the amoeba's ability to adapt to its environment. For example, the system would be able to change how it manages tasks as new ones surface and old ones are completed, in the same way an amoeba can change its shape in response to the conditions around it. The system could also send work to the processor that would be most advantageous, be it the closest processing space, or one with more available resources. It could even set aside or create new space to handle tasks as needed, much like how the human brain handles tasks.
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Intel Scores Speed Breakthrough
Wall Street Journal (07/25/07) P. B4; Clark, Don

Intel researchers say they have developed the first modulator made from silicon that can encode data onto a beam of light at a rate of 40 gigabits per second, which the company says is a major milestone on the way to creating inexpensive optical components that could provide drastically faster communication speeds. Modulators are necessary when using lasers to send data down fiber-optic cable. Obtaining speeds of 40 gigabits per second, which is currently about 40 times faster than the most sophisticated corporate data networks, requires expensive materials and available 40 gigabit modulators can cost thousands of dollars. Intel wants to use the material to create less-expensive components as part of an effort the company calls "silicon photonics." Intel has been making increasingly faster silicon-based laser components, including a 1-gigabit modulator in 2004 and a 10-gigabit modulator in 2006. Intel's photonics technology lab director Mario Paniccia says, "It's been a phenomenal ride in terms of the rate of advancement in silicon photonics." Paniccia described components that could send data between computers or circuit boards at a rate of one trillion bits per second; data transfer speeds that are well beyond current demands on computing systems but likely will be necessary eventually. Paniccia says Intel is committed to commercializing silicon photonics products by the end of the decade.
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Playing Piano With a Robotic Hand
Technology Review (07/25/07) Singer, Emily

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University have demonstrated that it is possible to control fingers on a robotic hand by directly tapping into the brain's electronic signals using a neural interface. To create the neural interface, researchers recorded brain-cell activity from monkeys as they moved their fingers. Previous research showed that a particular part of the motor cortex controls finger movement. The recorded brain activity was used to create algorithms that decode the brain signals by identifying the specific activity patterns associated with specific movements. When the algorithm was connected to the robotic hand and given a new set of neural patterns, the robotic hand performed the correct movement 95 percent of the time. These initial experiments were performed "off-line," meaning the system was receiving pre-recorded neural activity, but the researchers are planning a demonstration with a live neural feed within the next six months. Monkeys implanted with an array of recording electrodes will be connected to a virtual version of the prosthetic arm and monitored to see how well they can use brain activity to control the virtual hand. The preliminary results are encouraging, but the scientists know it will be a long time before the system has the dexterity of a real hand and that a practical human version of the neural interface is still a long way off. "We would hope that eventually, we'll be able to implant similar arrays permanently in the motor cortex of human subjects," says University of Rochester neurologist and project researcher Mark Schieber. Schieber says the long-term objective is to get the robotic hand to move however the user wants it to in real time, but getting the decoding algorithm to understand unscripted and general movements will be the challenge.
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Graphene Nanoelectronics: Making Tomorrow's Computers From a Pencil Trace
Rensselaer News (07/23/07)

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute associate professor Saroj Nayak, working with graduate student Phillip Shemella and other students, made a key discovery that could advance the use of graphene as a possible replacement for copper and silicon in nanoelectronics. After two years of research and dozens of computer simulations, the researchers were able to demonstrate that the length and width of the graphene directly impacts the material's conduction properties. Graphene has unique electrical properties that include either metallic or semiconducting behavior. Generally, the process of synthesizing graphene causes both metallic and semiconductor materials to be produced, but the researchers' findings create a blueprint that should allow entire batches of either to be produced as needed. Computer chips have gotten increasingly smaller over the past decade, but as copper interconnects continue to shrink, the copper's resistance increases and its ability to conduct electricity degrades. As a result fewer electrons can pass through and more electrons get caught in the copper, creating heat that can hinder a computer chip's speed and performance. Graphene would be a good choice as a replacement for copper because graphene has excellent conductivity and has an extremely low resistance, meaning electrons could pass effortlessly and create almost no heat. It will likely be several years before graphene interconnects become a reality, but Nayak says graphene shows serious potential for use in interconnects, transistors, and as a replacement for silicon as the primary semiconductor used in all computer chips.
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Q&A: Google Finds R&D Opportunities, Pitfalls Abroad
IDG News Service (07/23/07) Lemon, Sumner

Kannan Pashupathy, Google's director of international engineering operations, oversees the company's rapidly expanding network of international R&D centers. Over the past three years Pashupathy has increased the number of international research and development centers from three to more than 20. Pashupathy says Google has made such a rapid push in establishing international R&D centers because the company is doing simultaneous releases in multiple languages. The various R&D centers stay in touch with each other using fairly traditional telecommunications such as telephone and video, and every center is connected to a corporate videoconferencing system so teams can constantly engage each other. To avoid time-zone problems, Google has a simple set of rules that enables it to avoid distributing work across too many locations that are not collocated, and to minimize day-to-day communications between teams in different areas. When hiring people, the company actually looks for people with strong cultural backgrounds and submits applicants to a test to see if they will fit culturally. Part of the test is to see if applicants have an open mind and believe there is a richness in different cultures. Google avoids the traditional hierarchy and someone who is fresh out of college is given the same say as a 20-year veteran, which can be difficult for senior management types who are used to one way of doing business and have a difficult time adjusting. This free-range and autonomy for new hires has led to problems, such as when Google released a Chinese software tool that included a database developed by a competitor, but Pashupathy believes Google is very innovative in how it manages its employees and as such everything is a learning experience, for employees and managers.
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Environmental Songlines for IT Systems
IST Results (07/18/07)

Effective public-private collaboration to manage environmental dangers such as floods and forest fires is often hindered by incompatibility between IT systems, but the EU-funded ORCHESTRA project seeks to address this challenge through an IT architecture that defines the interaction of proprietary IT systems. "You can't expect everyone to throw away their legacy systems and invest huge resources into a common IT infrastructure," explains ORCHESTRA project coordinator and Atos Origin operations manager Jose Esteban. "ORCHESTRA allows all these different systems to interoperate with the minimum of investment." The ORCHESTRA architecture's reference model particularizes a set of functional "modules" or services and the manner in which they must be "plugged together" to produce compatible risk management applications. The architecture is oriented around ISO, W3C, and Open Geospatial Consortium standards, and Esteban hopes the OGC will adopt the ORCHESTRA reference model as an example of best practice for interoperability in the risk management domain. The model has already been adopted by the SANY and DEWS projects in Europe. Esteban notes that remote interoperability between disparate systems is currently facilitated by Web services, but says the ORCHESTRA platform's universal application to any IT technology will keep the architecture relevant even if the means of enablement changes in the future.
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Evaluations Aim to Advance Translation Technology
NIST Tech Beat (07/20/07) Blair, John

To help American military forces communicate with the local population, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is evaluating prototype translations systems for the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA's TRANSTAC (Spoken Language Communication and Translation System for Tactical Use) project is intended to produce real-time, two-way translation systems, particularly for translating Iraqi Arabic. NIST recently ran a series of laboratory and outdoor evaluation tests on prototype systems to determine their abilities in speech recognition, machine translation, noise robustness, user interface design, and efficient performance on limited hardware platforms. "Effective two-way translation devices would represent a major advance in field translators," says NIST evaluation project leader Craig Schlenoff. During the tests, English speaking Marines and Iraqi Arabic speakers acted out 10 different scenarios requiring verbal communication. Participants looked directly at each other during the question and answer sessions. The conversation was recorded on the laptop, and background noises were precisely controlled so the system could be evaluated in a predictable environment. In the outdoor tests, background noises included other speakers, generators, garage doors, running vehicles, radio broadcasts, and other simulated conditions. DARPA hopes that once the technology is fully developed, it will be able to deploy an automatic translator system in a new language within 90 days of receiving a request for that language.
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Technology Summer Camp Welcomes Disabled High-School Students
University of Washington News and Information (07/17/07) Hickey, Hannah; Bellman, Scott

The University of Washington program DO-IT, which stands for Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology, will allow more than 50 college bound high-school students with disabilities the opportunity to participate in an intensive program designed to promote college and career success. DO-IT program participants will learn about careers in fields such as technology, science, engineering, and mathematics. "DO-IT scholars earn about college life by living in a dorm, getting along with a roommate, participating in academic classes, preparing for challenging careers, and having fun," says DO-IT founder and director Sheryl Burgstahler. "After the summer study ends, they communicate via the Internet with their new friends and are mentored by successful adults with disabilities. Year after year, they connect through DO-IT activities and are supported as the transition to college and careers." The DO-IT program targets high-school sophomores and juniors with disabilities who are interested in attending college. After attending the summer program, students are loaned computers, software, and adaptive technology to be used at home on additional DO-IT activities, including independent projects, and online interaction with mentors, teachers, and fellow students. "Many successful DO-IT scholars continue in the program as mentors to younger participants," Burgstahler says.
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On the Trail of Servers Gone Bad
Government Computer News (07/16/07) Vol. 26, No. 17, Dizard, Wilson P. III

Cybersecurity experts say that federal agencies are increasingly pursuing "honeyclient" technology to detect and analyze Web sites that store and distribute malware. Honeyclients are virtual machines that travel over the Web searching for sites that show signs of being infected with malware, says Mitre computer scientist Kath Wang. Wang says honeyclients "provide the capability to potentially detect client-side exploits" that can be used in malware attacks. The exploits on malicious sites often allow the site's server to capture the visiting computer to be used as part of a bot herd of zombie computers. Botnet herders then rent out hijacked computers to launch spam and other attacks, with prices ranging from a few cents a month for a home computer to several dollars a month for a computer inside a corporate network. Wang says online criminals are already starting to install honeyclient avoidance technology on malicious servers, so Mitre, which operates six autonomous honeyclients, is building a honeyclient prototype that mimics human behavior by displaying the same delays and bandwidth footprint as a human visitor. The Department of Homeland Security's assistant secretary for cybersecurity and communications Greg Garcia says his department has received more than 21,000 reports of cyberincidents through May of this fiscal year, as opposed to only 24,000 for the entire 2006 fiscal year. Garcia says DHS will be working more closely with Information Technology and Communications information sharing and analysis centers. "Increasingly, we are finding that IT and communications are one and the same," he says.
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True Random Number Generator Goes Online
PressEsc.com (07/18/07) Panditaratne, Vidura

Academics and members of the scientific community will not be able to accurately predict the next number that comes out of the Quantum Random Bit Generator Service (QRBGS). The QRBGS is unlike the random number generators of most computers, which employ different algorithms to choose a number from large databases that use methods such as rolling the dice to compile their numbers. Such random number generators deliver essentially pseudo-random numbers, but QRBGS uses photon emission, the unpredictable quantum process, to produce true random numbers. QRBGS makes use of a fast non-deterministic random bit generator, and its random quality comes from the quantum physical process of photonic emission in semiconductors, followed by detection from the photoelectric effect. Developed by computer scientists at the Ruder Boskovic Institute (RBI) in Zagreb, Croatia, QRBGS has been made available online, connected by computer clusters and GRID networks, free of charge. Potential applications include advanced scientific simulations, cryptographic data protection, security applications, and virtual entertainment.
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How to Forecast the Future
Computerworld (07/16/07) Vol. 41, No. 29, P. 32; Melymuka, Kathleen

Seasoned forecaster Paul Saffo explains that forecasting "gives a context for decision-makers to act in the face of uncertainty." He says forecasting should be a concern of CIOs because they play a central role in corporate strategy enablement, and the tools they employ are undergoing changes that are commensurate with the pace of Moore's Law. Saffo says intuition can be informed through forecasting, and he cites the value of the "cone of uncertainty" visual aid as helpful in forecasting in that it forces one to consider all potential outcomes. The forecaster defines wild cards as an occurrence or trend whose likelihood is either very low or unquantifiable, and he uses the timetable of quantum computing's arrival as an example of a wild card. Saffo notes that change only has the illusion of rapidity because people tend to ignore precursors. "Most ideas take 20 years to become overnight successes," he exclaims. Saffo recommends that CIOs keep an eye on sensor technology, which he predicts will become the source of most information over the next decade. Information, in other words, will become ubiquitous.
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Petascale Era Will Force Software Rethink
HPC Wire (07/20/07) Vol. 16, No. 26, Sexton, Jim

A key challenge of the petascale age is designing software that aligns well to petascale architectures so that previously unsolvable scientific and business problems can be tackled by the community, writes Jim Sexton, lead for IBM Blue Gene applications at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center. Although Sexton projects that Moore's Law will continue to progress through the petascale era, he notes that "performance increases will now come through parallelism and petascale systems will deliver performance by deploying hundreds of thousands of individual processor cores." The inherent programming challenge involves the concurrent management of algorithmic and systems architectures, which Sexton likens to "a creative art form." He points out that justifying the investment needed to sponsor the construction of a complete parallel programming infrastructure from the ground up requires more programs to be running on parallel systems and yielding significant results. The community will need to see a definite cost/benefit to parallelism so that mainstream/commercial adoption can be encouraged. Mindful of this goal, the Scientific Discovery Advanced Computing Discovery program is setting up nine Centers for Enabling Technologies to address major petascale computing problems. Mainstream adoption of petascale computing could also be helped along by industrial applications, Sexton speculates.
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