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ACM TechNews
December 10, 2007

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Welcome to the December 10, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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The Robots Among Us
San Francisco Chronicle (12/09/07) P. P14; Abate, Tom

Human-level machine intelligence is predicted to emerge within the next three to five decades by author and technology forecaster Marshall Brain, while director of the San Francisco State University Robotics Institute David Calkins notes that robots are already functioning in everyday human society, although their profile is considerably lower than the walking, talking machines popularized in movies and television. Consumer robots such as the Roomba vacuum cleaner have emerged through the convergence of smart software, miniaturized electronics, and wireless network access. Furthering the development of robotics is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's "Grand Challenges" to create unmanned ground vehicles for the military through competitive systems development between corporate and non-corporate teams. So far such automated vehicles are being used to limit U.S. casualties or conduct reconnaissance, and DARPA's Jan Walker says the rules for operational use of autonomous robots will be worked out "deliberately and cautiously." As robots penetrate the consumer sector, the issues of safety and product liability are being raised. People such as Bill Thomasmeyer of The Technology Collaborative speculate that a time may come when Congress will need to be consulted to determine the level of accountability for firms whose products malfunction. Challenges that will have to be met before autonomous machine servants are viable include refining sensors and software to navigate environments, and one area that is gaining credibility is telepresence, or the remote control of robots by human operators over the Internet.
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Project to Build Virtual Learning Platform Within Popular Online Worlds Wins Financial Support
Chronicle of Higher Education (12/10/07) Foster, Andrea L.

Boston College instructor Aaron E. Walsh is leading a multimillion-dollar project backed by the Federation of American Scientists and the Kauffman Foundation to develop virtual-reality software that can be used for educational purposes. Researchers are working with an international consortium of colleges, research institutes, and companies to develop standards and best practices for the virtual-reality platform. The project, called Immersive Education, will build on Walsh's experience teaching Boston College students online in virtual spaces. Immersive Education includes plans to create mini-games and interactive lessons within virtual spaces, including Second Life, Croquet, and Project Wonderland. At a conference announcing Immersive Education, Walsh demonstrated how virtual worlds can be used to teach students about real-world places, events, and ideas. During the demonstration, the virtual avatar of a student, standing in front of a digital jackal, explained that to the ancient Egyptians the jackal helped transport the dead to the underworld. Three-dimensional models of archaeological sites and tombs in Egypt, developed by the Theban Mapping Project, provided a virtual tour of an otherwise inaccessible site. Meanwhile, Gene Koo, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, described how students at Emerson College and Boston residents are using Second Life to foster civic engagement, and how virtual worlds are being used to design real-world spaces.
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The Team That Put the Net in Orbit
New York Times (12/09/07) P. BU5; Markoff, John

The scientists and engineers who created the NSFnet--the scientific data network that would ultimately develop into the commercial Internet--subscribed to a spirit of cooperation that has become an emblem of the open source software movement. The key to the success of the NSFnet project and its Internet successor was the serendipitous nature of technology design and a public-private partnership that was exceptionally managed. This rested with the National Science Foundation's decision to support the relatively unproven TCP/IP software protocols developed at Stanford University with support from the Pentagon. TCI/IP created a common language for all computing platforms, according to IBM researcher Allan H. Weis. "If we learned one thing with the NSFnet experience, I think it was that the government has the ability to help advance science and technology in this country by holding out a carrot, and using the stick as a pointer," he says. Splitting financial risks between government and industry is important, as it helps drive forward momentum in many diverse technological areas, Weis argues. Many scientists involved with the NSFnet project credit former senator Al Gore with playing an important role in the commercialized Internet's development through his introduction of legislation to fund a "national data highway" to enhance the productivity of corporations. The NSF funded Gore's bill to establish a National Research and Education Network, which vastly helped speed up the academic and scientific network backbone that would pave the way for the commercial Internet. About 220 of the original scientists who helped develop the Internet met at the end of November to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the NSFnet.
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Web's Architect Looks to the Next Level
Mercury News (12/07/07) Takahashi, Dean

World Wide Web Consortium director Tim Berners-Lee has been working on improving the online experience and developing new technologies that will make using the Web more natural. Berners-Lee has been working on the semantic Web, often referred to as Web 3.0, following the original Web (Web 1.0) and the social Web (Web 2.0). The purpose of the semantic Web is to create a system of universal data exchange that allows for more natural and easier to use search engines and Internet tools. "We're trying to get the Web to live up to its full potential," says Berners-Lee. "We're trying to keep it good, keep it useful, and keep it working." Berners-Lee says there are two basic types of files on the Web--documents and data. Documents are already easily accessed, but data such as computerized calendars or banking information are harder to access and use in applications while maintaining privacy. Berners-Lee believes Web sites should be able to share data between each other automatically, so changing your schedule on one site, for example, would automatically update other sites on your plans. Berners-Lee says the semantic Web should be smart enough to understand all of the permissions between Web sites without exposing personal information to security risks or privacy violations. Berners-Lee is also promoting the idea of Web science, hoping to involve the research community in deciphering the living, breathing Web.
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Largest Civilian IT Project Seeks More Partners
EE Times (12/07/07) Holland, Colin

Wearable technology has the potential to transform human-computer interaction, according to researchers participating in the WearIT@work project. Users would no longer have to sit at a screen, a keyboard, and a computer unit because a wearable computer would provide support in a particular environment, similar to the way in which a vehicle navigation system serves drivers. Forty-two IT companies are participating in the WearIT@work project, which has developed the Open Wearable Computing Framework for creating a central, wearable, and hardware-independent computing unit that serves as an information and communication technology (ICT) environment. Basic components of the project include wireless communication, positioning systems, speech recognition, interface devices, and low-level software platforms or toolboxes for seamless collaboration. The project is testing applications in aircraft maintenance, emergency response, car production, and health care environments through mid-2008, and then will look for ways to transfer and exploit the technology.
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Computers Advancing for Better Voice Recognition
ABC Online (Australia) (12/07/07) McDonald, Timothy

Speech recognition technology is still in its infancy and often easily confused by accents, difficult words, poor diction, or simply insufficient tools. However, researchers are working to improve voice recognition systems and within a few years the technology may be able to communicate in ways that more closely reflect human interaction, advancing so far as to be able to read lips or find a song using a few hummed notes. Macquarie University computer science professor Robert Dale says speech recognition software is like being in a foreign country and not knowing the language. "You might be able to pick up little bits here and there, but understanding the full message is pretty hard. And that's exactly the position that speech recognition systems are in today," Dale says. "They don't have the full vocabulary. They have only a noise of the words which are very specific to the thing that they're trying to do at that point and time." Dale says researchers are studying how musicians breathe because it could lead to an understanding of how breathing is related to emotions, which could help emotionless machines detect human feelings. Humans also communicate through visual cues, which may someday be picked up by mobile phones with cameras. "Also the technology that we now have for tracking faces and working out what's going on in the face is much, much more advanced," Dale says. "And it turns out that when you can actually see someone's lips more, you can understand far better what they're saying."
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Engineering Professor Creates Animated Science Education Program
Vanderbilt University (12/03/07) Beckham, Joanne

Vanderbilt University computer science professor Gautam Biswas has developed Betty's Brain, an animated computer program that is being used in public classrooms to teach science to middle school students. Betty's Brain is being tested on fifth and sixth grade students and so far results show that the students not only learn science but carry over the learning process to new subjects, including the ability to monitor themselves and have fun while learning. Using a simplified visual representation called a concept map, the students teach a cartoon character named Betty about the river ecosystem process, including the food chain, photosynthesis, and the waste cycle. The students test Betty to see if she has learned the lesson, but unless students periodically check to see if Betty understands the concepts, Betty will refuse to take the test. By checking Betty's understanding of the subject, the students are really checking themselves and discovering that self-monitoring is an important learning strategy for all subjects. "In order to teach, they first have to learn," Biswas says. "What we are trying to animate is thought." Biswas says that teachable agents such as Betty's Brain not only help students learn but make the process more enjoyable.
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Internet Society CEO Sets Her Sights on Next Billion 'Net Users
Network World (12/05/07) Marsan, Carolyn Duffy

Internet Society CEO Lynn St. Amour is seeking to add another 1 billion Internet users through her efforts to increase her nonprofit organization's staff and broaden its outreach projects, and she says in an interview that her group is looking for input from network operators and ISPs and similar communities into standards development. She says the most formidable challenges to the Internet Society's goal of open development and global growth of the Internet include government regulation and policies regarding the transition from IPv4 to IPv6, and Internet governance activities via the United Nations and other agencies. "Trying to put a level of formality or structure around the development of the Internet and the management of the Internet will significantly impact the value of the Internet," St. Amour explains, adding that this is "a bad thing." She says the Internet Society is promoting the implementation of IPv6 because it sustains the Internet's open, end-to-end nature, and she notes that market demand for IPv6 is currently nil. The challenge lies in stimulating such demand, St. Amour points out. Her organization also attributes enormous importance to the development of standards for internationalized domain names and internationalized email addresses, and St. Amour reports that her group is more focused on making content available in local languages. The Internet currently boasts 1.3 billion users, and St. Amour believes it will take less than 10 years for another 1 billion users to enter the picture if the Internet continues to expand organically. She reports that Internet deployment is lagging in very poor nations as well as countries with aggressive filtering regimes.
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Planning Made Easier: MU Engineers Develop Software Solution for Complex Space Missions
University of Missouri-Columbia (12/03/07)

Engineers at the University of Missouri have developed a mathematical algorithm that may make it easier to plan the mission of an unmanned spacecraft to Mars. Craig Kluever, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the College of Engineering, and Aaron D. Olds, a former MU graduate student who collaborated on the project, have implemented the algorithm as mission-design software based on optimization methods patterned from genetic evolution. The researchers used the complex 1997 Cassini Mission to test the software, and the generated trajectory matched the route developed by scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. More complicated software is needed for missions to a comet, asteroid, moon of Saturn, or beyond, which require adventurous maneuvers and orbital tricks. For future robotic missions, "it will need software like this to solve those types of problems," says Kluever. Their research, "Interplanetary Mission Design Using Differential Evolution," appears in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.
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Toyota Aims to Put Robots to Use Early Next Decade
Reuters (12/06/07) Kin, Chang-Ran

Toyota Motor recently announced that it plans to deploy humanoid and other advanced robots for practical use in factories, hospitals, homes, and public areas soon after 2010. Along with the unveiling of two new robots, one called the "mobility robot" and the other the "violin-playing robot," Toyota announced that it would increase its research and development effort in robotics, including doubling the number of engineers to about 200 in about three years and building a robot technology research facility next year. "Over the next two to three years, we will put the robots to the test through trial applications and see what kind of business possibilities they present," says Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe. The violin robot currently has 17 joints in both of its hands and arms, but Toyota plans on further advancing the robot's dexterity and flexibility to make it better able to assist with household chores. The mobility robot, which looks like a bulky high-chair on wheels, is designed to help people with short-distance transport, and is essentially an intelligent wheelchair that can travel on uneven ground and around obstacles. Toyota envisions a "Partner Robot" that could help with domestic duties, nursing and medical care, manufacturing, and short-distance personal transport.
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Biologists Develop Data Handling System
Newcastle University (12/05/07)

U.K. researchers are developing a new system that will allow a wide range of biological datasets to be linked, integrated, and visualized through graph analysis techniques. The sophisticated system for handling data could be used for transcription analysis, protein interaction analysis, data and text mining, and other applications. Researchers at Newcastle University's Systems Biology Resource Center (SBRC) and Rothamsted Research, Manchester and Edinburgh are behind the ONDEX framework. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is providing funding to the researchers to develop the ONDEX system. "Bringing data together coherently is a huge undertaking in any systems biology project," says SBRC director Dr. Anil Wipat. "ONDEX will play a very important role in making this possible." At SBRC, computer scientists team up with biologists, mathematicians, and engineers to provide computational resources, tools, and research expertise that help address key scientific issues.
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Troy University Gets $180,000 Grant for Computer Science
Troy Messenger (ALA) (12/06/07) Bell, Misty

Troy University is collaborating with two other universities in the United States and three universities abroad in a computer science education project. The project will bring together experts on computer science issues, especially the teaching of computer science, and give them an opportunity to work in diverse groups and network. Troy has received a $180,000 grant for the initiative, which will have study abroad and faculty exchange components for students and teachers. The University of Arkansas, San Diego State University, Fern University in Germany, the University of Sunderland in the United Kingdom, and the University of Algarve in Portugal are also participating in the program. "We're doing a lot of things collaboratively online ... but this is an international knowledge-building community for computer science education," says Hal Fulmer, associate provost and dean of undergraduate studies at Troy. "If you have a network of people worldwide and ... give them the opportunity to interact with each other, then good ideas happen."
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Software: Serious Games in Virtual Worlds
ICT Results (12/05/07)

European researchers are attempting to improve the accessibility of serious games to businessmen through the PRIME project to make action learning more affordable, available, powerful, and flexible via the development of a software platform that employs serious game methods to let users perceive the effects of their decisions in a virtual environment. The uniqueness of the platform resides in its applicability to any business and its accommodation of multiple players. "It is not tailored to a specific business, because that gets into simulation, and that's difficult and needs to be customized," says PRIME project coordinator Bjorn Andersen. "Instead, it is modeled on principles and how the business model works." The platform is comprised of a Virtual Business Environment (VBE) and a workplace integration module called PRIME-Time. The VBE is a serious game featuring a "micro world" where users can engage with the software and each other, and that approximates the real world using a simulation model that controls the micro world's macro-economic and micro-economic aspects. The environment boasts real-time tracking of business decisions' impact, and the experience users gain through participation in the game can be applied to reality. PRIME-Time integrates PRIME employment within current work environments, which can cultivate new ways of working.
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Experts Advocate Joint Partnership for Software Development
Business Day (Nigeria) (12/03/07) Nwankwo, Chidiebere

Nigeria should embrace public-private partnerships if it wants to see an improvement in the pace of ICT deployment and enhance software development in its public and private sectors, according to the nation's information technology exports. "Private public partnerships are popular as a means of building infrastructure all over the world," says Emmanuel Onibere, of the University of Benin's computer science department. "Private software development organizations need to engage in cooperative software development activities in the public sector to enhance productivity and increase IT usage for a broader audience that include government employees, students, and the general public." Onibere recommends Build-Operate-Maintain and Build-Train-Maintain for public organizations without ICT staff specializing in software development, and Build-Train-Transfer for public organizations that have ICT staff with experts in software development. The growth of a local software industry will depend on the support and patronage of the public sector, says Connect Technologies' Chris Uwaje.
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New Software to Aid Early Detection of Infectious Disease Outbreaks
National Institute of General Medical Sciences (12/06/07) Carlson, Emily

A team of epidemiologists and computer scientists from the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS) has developed TranStat, software that will help health authorities at the site of an infectious disease outbreak quickly analyze data, improve the detection of new cases, and deploy effective interventions. MIDAS is an international program dedicated to building computational models for studying the spread of diseases and supported by the National Institutes of Health through the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). "A main goal of MIDAS is to make the models developed by the researchers available to the public health community and policymakers," says NIGMS director Jeremy M. Berg. TranStat is available for free online and can be used by public health officials to systematically enter and store infectious disease data. TranStat also prompts field personnel to enter information on exposed but uninfected individuals. TranStat does not collect names or other personally identifying information. The program uses the information to statistically determine the probability that people contracted the disease from each other. It also estimates in real time the average number of people an individual could infect and the rate at which that infection occurs in a particular setting, which can help health officials develop and execute strategies to prevent further spreading of a disease.
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Computers Spot Drug's Deadly Side Effects
New Scientist (12/10/07)No. 2633, P. 15; Giles, Jim

Computing experts believe they have developed a technique that can spot potentially dangerous and deadly side effects in pharmaceuticals. While the technique is not foolproof, it can provide a relatively quick and easy method for finding side effects that current tests may miss. University of California researcher Philip Bourne and his colleagues have adapted the process pharmaceutical companies use to develop drugs to find side effects. As a proof of concept they studied a class of drug that was previously approved. The drug, selective oestrogen receptor modulators, are used to treat breast cancer and other diseases. The researchers looked at about 800 human proteins to find sites that the drug might bind to and found that the drug binds to a protein that helps control the movement of calcium in and out of cells. The results suggest that the technique works as problems with the drug can best be explained by a disruption in calcium levels. Laszlo Urban, head of safety profiling at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, says his firm uses a similar technique, but notes that the technique has its limitations. About 25,000 proteins have been identified from the sequence of the human genome, but not all proteins have been studied in detail, and a significant amount of detail on a particular protein's binding site needs to be understood before computer simulations can be used to check for side effects.
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