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ACM TechNews
November 30, 2007

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Welcome to the November 30, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Software That Learns From Users
Technology Review (11/30/07) Naone, Erica

University of Washington computer science professor Pedro Domingos is developing CALO, a massive, four-year-old artificial intelligence project to help computers understand human intentions. The DARPA-funded project involves researchers from 25 universities and corporations focusing on many areas of artificial intelligence, including machine learning, natural-language processing, and Semantic Web technologies. CALO, which stands for "cognitive assistant that learns and organizes," tries to help users by managing information about key people and projects, understanding and organizing information from meetings, and learning and automating routine tasks. For example, CALO can learn about projects and who is involved in those projects, so emails from those people can be given priority and categorized based on subject matter. CALO can also be used to make transcripts of meetings through voice recognition, or perform routine tasks such as purchasing books online, searching for a hotel that meets specific criteria, scheduling meetings, and coordinating people's schedules. The ultimate goal is to build an artificial intelligence that can serve as a personal assistant that can learn about a user's needs and preferences and adapt to them without having to be reprogrammed. "It's an amazingly large thing, and it's insanely ambitious," Domingos says. "But if CALO succeeds, it'll be quite a revolution."
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20 Percent of Election Printouts Were Unreadable
Plain Dealer (Cleveland) (11/28/07) Guillen, Joe

Recently discovered problems with the paper records produced by electronic voting machines in Cuyahoga Country, Ohio, could make a recount after next year's presidential election a disaster. More than 20 percent of the paper printouts from touch-screen voting machines were found to be unreadable. The recount was necessary because the vote counting software crashed twice on election night and the margin of victory was one-half of one percent or less. Election workers found the unreadable ballots while conducting a recount of two races, which involved only 17 of the county's 1,436 precincts. Board of Elections director Jane Platten says recounting the ballots for the entire county in the 2008 presidential election could take more than a week. Cuyahoga County uses Premier Elections Solutions (formerly Diebold) touch-screen voting machines that store votes on a memory card inside each machine. During the election a paper record of each vote is printed on a long reel of paper that is stored inside the machine. The paper record is used during recounts, but can be damaged or unreadable, usually because of a paper jam while printing. Premier Elections Solutions' Chris Riggall says the company will investigate the situation.
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General Motors, Virginia Tech Scientists Collaborate to Advance Neuroinformatics
Virginia Tech News (11/28/07) Daniilidi, Christina

Technological advancements in sensing technology makes it possible to take more accurate measurements of brain activity, something computer scientists and neuroscientists say could lead to the discovery of the complex neuronal networks in the brain that allow for simple, automatic movements such as reaching for a glass of water. Virginia Tech and General Motors Research are opening the Laboratory for Neuroinformatics for the purpose of creating algorithms that process the massive amounts of data neuroscientists collect from the brain. The lab will be co-directed by Virginia Tech computer science professor Naren Ramakrishnan and General Motors research scientist K.P. Unnikrishnan. "Neuroscientists are making the transition from studying neurons to studying networks--the sequences of firings and spikes of activity across big groups of neurons," Ramakrishnan says. "What we are trying to do is analyze all this data and discover something about the network--the connections and relationships." Unnikrishnan says the many possible applications of neuroscience-related research include analyzing data from cars and maintaining vehicle health. But even greater applications are possible, Unnikrishnan says. "Creation of brain-machine interfaces is the next frontier," Unnikrishnan says. "Giving senses to people who have lost them--vision, touch, hearing, and motor--would be a contribution to humanity."
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New Grant Program Designed for 'Transformative' Computing Research
Chronicle of Higher Education (11/30/07) Vol. 54, No. 14, P. A23; Carnevale, Dan

The Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation program will award $26 million in grants next year to support research into a wider range of uses for high-powered computing. Recipients will be called on to apply computational thinking to real-world problems involving engineering and computer science, as well as for biology, economics, and other social sciences. Sirin Tekinay, head of the National Science Foundation's new program, says advanced computational thinking is about the process of sorting out data, deriving knowledge, gaining an understanding of complexity, and then developing new sociotechnical systems. All areas of science and engineering stand to benefit from this type of computing, which has helped clear the way for the decoding of the human genome, the production of complex real-time, satellite-aided maps, and the development of the Internet. For the program, innovation is defined as research that has the potential to produce transformative outcomes. Research institutions can apply for more than one grant, but a researcher cannot be named in more than two proposals during a competition cycle.
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Continued Growth in Science and Engineering Doctorate Production
CRA Bulletin (11/28/07) Vegso, Jay

The number of doctorates awarded in science and engineering (S&E) fields has risen for the fourth consecutive year, according to the National Science Foundation. Last year the United States produced 29,854 doctorate degrees in S&E fields, an increase of nearly 7 percent from the previous year. Computer science doctorates led the way with a 28 percent increase to 1,452 degrees, following a double-digit increase in CS doctorates from the previous year. CS doctorates are up 79 percent since 2002 and now represent a considerable share of not only S&E doctorates but all doctorate degrees. Non-U.S. citizens have been key to the growth in CS doctorate degree production. In the mid-to-late 1990s permanent or temporary visa holders received about half of CS doctorates, but last year they accounted for 61 percent. CS doctorates to U.S. citizens rose 42 percent from 2002 to 2006, but jumped 115 percent for non-U.S. citizens over the same period.
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Software Strikes a Chord for Disabled Students
eSchool News (11/29/07)

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's "Adaptive Use Musical Instruments for the Physically Challenged" program enables students with severe physical disabilities to make music by just moving their heads. The system uses a digital video camera to track a student's head movements on a computer screen and then translates the movements into piano scales or drum beats. Zane Van Dusen, a RPI undergraduate student in computer science and electronic media arts and communication, developed the idea of using a digital video camera to track the user's head. A cursor is digitally placed on a portion of the student's head, usually the tip of the nose, to follow the user's movements. As the cursor moves, sounds are created based on the user's movements. Moving the head completely in one direction will create a scale climb on the piano or a quick series of drum beats or a drum roll. The project's ultimate goal is to eventually enable students to compose their own pieces to help students learn the creative process and build communication skills. "The client or patient doesn't have to be a musician to participate," says the American Musical Therapy Association's Al Bumanis. "The goal is not usually a performance, it's increasing communication skills, understanding, relearning lost skills."
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Robots Dazzle at Japanese Exhibit
Associated Press (11/29/07) Tabuchi, Hirkoko

At the 2007 International Robot Exhibition, Japan's largest robotics convention, several revolutionary robots were on display, showing why Japan is a world leader in service and industrial robotics. One robot, called Simroid for "simulator humanoid," is a human-like robot that dentistry students can practice procedures on. Simroid has realistic skin, eyes, a mouth fitted with replica teeth, and sensors where nerve endings would be to alert the student when he or she is drilling too close to the nerve. Simroid designers are still ironing out several bugs, including a function that allows students to inject anesthetic into the robot's gums. Another robot, called Mr. Cube, uses color sensors and a pair of dexterous hands to solve a Rubik's Cube puzzle. Although Mr. Cube is significantly slower than humans at solving the puzzle, the ability to quickly detect and differentiate between colors is a breakthrough in industrial robotics. Meanwhile, a panda-shaped robot developed by Waseda University uses a Web camera and software to scan a person's face for smiles to help relieve stress by making people laugh. When a hint of a smile is detected the robot joins in the celebration by giggling and wiggling its arms and legs. Japan had more than 370,000 robots in use in 2005, about 40 percent of the global total, or about 32 robots for every 1,000 Japanese manufacturing employees.
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Microsoft Preps Parallel Developer Tool
eWeek (11/29/07) Taft, Darryl K.

Microsoft has released an early preview of ParallelFX (Parallel Extensions to the .Net Framework), a set of programming tools designed to help developers approach issues related to coding for parallel environments. ParallelFX contains new APIs to make programming on the .Net Framework simpler and to support documentation and samples. Microsoft's S. "Soma" Somasegar wrote in a blog post that ParallelFX runs on the .Net Framework 3.5 and relies on features available in C# 3.0 and Visual Basic 9.0. ParallelFX also includes imperative data and task parallelism APIs, including parallel "for" and "foreach" loops, to make the transition from sequential to parallel programs simpler, as well as declarative data parallelism in the form of data parallel implementation of LINQ-to-Objects, which allows users to run LINQ queries on multiple processors. A new MSDN center dedicated to concurrent programming was also launched with the ParallelFX release and features a collection of whitepapers, including one that describes the broader vision for parallel computing at Microsoft. "The shift to multi- and many-core processors that is currently underway presents an exciting opportunity for everyone in the software industry," Somasegar writes in his blog. "With an expected increase of 10 to 100 times today's compute power, the opportunities to deliver powerful and immersive new user experiences and business value are just awesome."
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Petascale Computers: The Next Supercomputing Wave
IT News Australia (11/29/07) Tay, Liz

Academics are focusing their attention on petascale computers that can perform 1 quadrillion, or 1 million billion, operations per second, almost 10 times faster than today's fastest supercomputers. Petascale computing is expected to create solutions to global challenges such as environmental sustainability, disease prevention, and disaster recovery. "Petascale Computing: Algorithms and Applications," by Georgia Tech computing professor David A. Bader, was recently released, becoming the first published collection on petascale techniques for computational science and engineering. Bader says the past 50 years has seen a fundamental change in the scientific method, with computation joining theory and experimentation as a means for scientific discovery. "Computational science enables us to investigate phenomena where economics or constraints preclude experimentation, evaluate complex models and manage massive data volumes, model processes across interdisciplinary boundaries, and transform business and engineering practices," Bader says. However, petascale computing will also create new challenges in designing algorithms and applications. "Several areas are important for this task: scalable algorithm design for massive concurrency, computational science and engineering applications, petascale tools, programming methodologies, performance analyses, and scientific visualization," Bader says. He expects to see the first peak petascale systems in 2008, with sustained petascale systems following shortly behind.
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An Open Approach to Smarter Homes
ICT Results (11/29/07)

Today's advanced electronic devices could become the foundation for the smart homes of the future if they could be designed to work together intelligently. Home automation systems have become more common and consumer electronics are increasingly network compatible, but so far no one has united all of the technology in a home, which could lead to fridges that can send a message to the television announcing that the door has been left open or heating systems that turn on or off automatically when someone enters or leaves the house. "People are finding themselves with all these networkable devices and are wondering where the applications are that can use these devices to make life easier and how they could be of more value together than individually," says Philips researcher Maddy Janse. The major obstacles preventing such smart homes are a lack of interoperability between individual devices and the need for context-aware artificial intelligence to manage the devices. The European Union-funded Amigo project, coordinated by Janse, is developing a middleware platform that will allow all networkable devices in a home to communicate as well as provide artificial intelligence to control the devices. The Amigo system consists of a base middleware layer, an intelligent user services layer, and a programming and development framework so developers can create individual applications and services. Amigo's software is open source to encourage consumer electronics and telecom firms to develop products and services for home networks and to ensure interoperability with different brands.
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Getting to Core of the Problem
Chicago Sun-Times (11/28/07) Guy, Sandra

A Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has developed CoreWall, software that scientists at the Antarctic Drilling program in Antarctica are using to study rock cores more effectively. When the researchers drill for core samples to determine what the climate of the Earth was like millions of years ago, they do not have much time to collect data because the cores shrivel up in about a week. With CoreWall, developed by Julian Chen, the researchers are able to develop full-resolution digital images of the core and upload the images back to the United States overnight using a satellite Internet connection. CoreWall also features a visualization tool that is capable of enlarging the high-resolution core photos for closer examination as well as annotation. "It's something new that commercial Photoshop packages don't have," says UIC computer science professor Jason Leigh, director of UIC's Electronic Visualization Laboratory. "Now that we have low-cost computers and display screens, scientists can look at the cores in their perfect form when they are first dug out" and preserve the images. The UIC team has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to add new capabilities to the software, and has proposed developing "mashup" software that would allow the scientists to gather and share data quickly over superfast networks.
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Canadian Student Maps Brain Power to Image Search
Computerworld Canada (11/28/07) Schick, Shane

University of Ottawa Master's student Kris Woodbeck is mapping how the human brain interacts with technology to power a search engine for visual images. The search engine mimics how the brain processes visual information and capitalizes on the processing capabilities of graphics processors. "The brain is very parallel. There's lots of things going on at once," Woodbeck says. "Graphics processors are also very parallel, so it's a case of almost mapping the brain onto graphics processors, getting them to process visual information more effectively." Woodbeck believes his research has potential for use in medical and military applications as well as facial recognition. Search engine specialist Guy Creese says vendors are struggling to find the right kind of artificial intelligence to extract the content of an image to create accurate metadata. "In text, you've got a lot of metadata compared to images," Creese says. "For images, it might be when you took it, with what camera, with what exposure, that's about it ... How do you surface that metadata so it becomes much more searchable?" Creese says the biggest problem is that indexing image content is a manually intensive job that most organizations do not have the manpower to accomplish. Woodbeck says he has been testing his search engine on academic datasets that include between 60,000 and 100,000 images.
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Argonne's Nuclear Energy Research Moves Toward Greater Reliance on Computer Simulation
Innovations Report (11/29/07) Hardin, Angela

The U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory is increasingly relying on computer simulation and modeling to carry out nuclear energy research. "The traditional approach to developing nuclear energy technologies is to do a bunch of experiments to demonstrate a process or reaction," notes Argonne's program manager for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership Mark Peters. "What Argonne is doing is creating a set of integrated models that demonstrate and validate new technologies, using a smaller number of experiments." Argonne's nuclear simulation project leader Andrew Siegel adds that virtual experimentation can substantially lower facilities' costs by improving the identification and targeting of the physical experiments underlying their design. He says Argonne computational researchers are developing SHARP (Simulation-based High-efficiency Reactor Prototyping) software components that digitally emulate physical processes that transpire within a reactor core. The SHARP toolkit has been devised to exploit the lab's Advanced Leadership Computing Facility featuring IBM's Blue Gene/P computer, which runs at a sustained rate of 1 petaflop per second. SHARP could ultimately supplant computer codes that are used to carry out safety assessments of aging nuclear reactors, and Siegel says simulation tools such as SHARP could potentially save millions of dollars in reactor design development and assembly.
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Futurologist Predicts Life in 2030
VNUNet (11/26/07) Williams, Ian

Futurologist and author Ray Hammond predicts that by 2030 the Internet will evolve into a super-intelligent network, our bodies will contain neurological interfaces, robots will play a major role in our daily lives, and replacement organs will help extend the average life span to 130. Hammond's predictions are part of a report, "The World in 2030," which was produced independently following a year-long study. "If you think this picture of life in 2030 sounds unrealistic, consider this: how many people in 1985 would have thought that computers and mobile phones would play such a central role in our lives today?" Hammond says. He says that no one can accurately predict the future, but that the report identifies key trends that are likely to shape the coming decades leading to 2030. "One thing is certain: the rapid change that we have seen since the 1980s will not slow down," Hammond says. "It will speed up so much that, in some ways, our lives in 2030 will be unrecognizable today." People will be wirelessly tagged for their own protection, with data on location and health constantly being transmitted so help can be called in case of emergency or sudden illness. The Internet will develop into a "super combined Web" that is always on and always connected to every device.
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Torvalds on Where Linux Is Headed in 2008
InformationWeek (11/25/07) Babcock, Charles

Linus Torvalds says he believes Linux development is a lot more efficient than any other commercial development method, not only for the kernel but also for satellite products surrounding the kernel. Torvalds says that Linux virtualization efforts particularly benefit from an open source model because virtualization can mean many different things to different people. The open source model prevents one person's, or company's, interest from dominating the project. Torvalds says that current work on upcoming kernels includes a lot of hardware-related work, both in terms of peripheral drivers and platform changes. Graphics and wireless networking and weaknesses in current Linux systems are receiving a lot of attention, as is virtualization and switching to solid-state drives (SSD) disks. While SSDs are currently too expensive to create a major change, Torvalds expects them to play a bigger role in 2008 as they can make a significant difference in reducing latency.
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Digital Preservation: Alliance Set to Tackle Science's New Frontier
European Science Foundation (11/22/07)

The creation of a European digital information infrastructure that maintains accessibility to scientific works is the goal of the Alliance for Permanent Access, a coalition of major national and international scientific organizations dedicated to digital preservation that was launched at the Second International Conference on Permanent Access to the Records of Science. The alliance includes such groups as the European Science Foundation, CERN, ESA, the Max Planck Society, and libraries. Meeting the coming challenges of creating the digital information infrastructure requires the support of scientific communities, according to the alliance. The organization will also focus on the development of funding models and economic analyses to evaluate the cost of sharing and accessing data and find ways to embed these costs within all funding mechanisms for science. Stakeholders generally concur that data must be retained in a manner that ensures open access, interoperability so that datasets can be compared within and across scientific disciplines, and repositories must be furnished to fulfill these requirements in a quality-controlled and sustainable way. The European Union realizes that a cultural shift is required, and the European Commission has assumed the role of leveraging stakeholders and devising policy efforts on a strategic and technical level, with an emphasis on digitization and digital preservation. Projects the commission is undertaking include the establishment of economic incentives for preserving data, and a proposal to develop a study on the socio-economic drivers and ramifications of longer-term digital preservation is underway. Up next for the alliance is the creation of a forum on preservation and access, and the development of a manual of good practices.
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Computer Simulations Advance Beyond Hollywood
New Scientist (12/01/07)No. 2632, P. 28; Marshall, Jessica

University of California, San Diego computer scientist Henrik Wann Jensen says photorealistic computer graphics have advanced to the point where they can be used in other industries besides gaming and special visual effects for movies. For example, the software developed for realistic hair simulation in "King Kong" could be used to virtualize hair product applications, sparing companies the expense of manufacturing the products before trying them out. Skin rendering has also made enormous progress, and an important advance was the recognition of skin's translucency, which led to the development of software that takes this property into account. Jensen is now boosting the realism of skin models with a version that divides sub-surface light into an epidermis layer containing models of two kinds of melanin and a dermis that contains hemoglobin. "Without this, there's a uniformity to the skin that may not be quite right," he notes. "Things start to look a bit like wax." Jensen plans to embed individual fibers and cells within the skin layers, and he says such models could be employed by the cosmetics industry to generate more natural-looking foundation. Jensen adds that a future version of the skin model could be used to simulate the propagation of light of particular intensities through the skin of cancer patients, which could be used to ascertain the proper dosage of laser or radiation therapy.
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Hire Learning
Redmond Developer News (11/07) Richards, Kathleen

A major decrease in U.S. computer science enrollment is leading to a paucity of enterprise-level graduates, sparking concerns and projections about the makeup of the future IT workforce. Experts such as Northwest Cadence's Jeff Levinson note that CS majors' coursework generally fails to equip students with the real-world experience and business skills that are an increasingly critical component of IT positions. "When CS graduates come out of school, 95 percent of the time they haven't seen or heard of use cases, have never written or read a requirements document, and don't possess any soft skills or understanding of business consequences," he laments. Some institutions are working with tech companies such as Google and IBM to overhaul curriculums, bolster research programs, and draw a wider range of students, particularly women and minorities. Associate dean of California State University Fullerton Dorota Huizinga maintains that there has been very little change in the software engineering curriculum over the years, and in many undergraduate programs students are exposed to a few descriptive courses that do not adequately train them for the discipline, while there is also little concentration on the design of user interfaces and improving the friendliness of software and services. Director of Microsoft Research's External Research and Programs Group Sailesh Chutani believes CS enrollment can be boosted by placing computing in a socially relevant context or in the context of interesting fields such as robotics and gaming. Some people are suggesting that students should receive at the very least a Master of Science in CS or software engineering in order to qualify as a professional. "Once you've gone to the master's level, chances are you have more depth and you're more likely to fit right into what the industry is trying to do," says Chutani.
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