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ACM TechNews
December 21, 2007

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Welcome to the December 21, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

Due to the holidays, the next edition of ACM TechNews will be Friday, 12/28/07.


HEADLINES AT A GLANCE:

 

Lab Comes One Step Closer to Building Artificial Human Brain
Guardian Unlimited (UK) (12/20/07) Witchalls, Clint

Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, working with IBM, have successfully completed the first part of an ambitious project to reproduce a functioning brain on a supercomputer by replicating a rat's neocortical column. The neocortical column is the basic building block of the neocortex, the high functioning part of the brain that is responsible for functions such as reasoning and self-awareness. Blue Brain project director Henry Markram believes it is possible to build an entire rat's neocortex, which is the next phase of the Blue Brain project, and eventually a cat, monkey, and even human brain, if Moore's law holds true. Markram is not trying to build a conscious silicon brain, but rather a model to help scientists understand the brain and disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and dementia. Many doubt that a human brain can be successfully modeled, arguing that the integration between different regions of the brain is too complex for computer simulation, but Markram argues that many people thought the project would never be able to accomplish anything. "The critics were unbelievable, says Markram. "Everybody thought we were crazy. Even the most eminent computational neuroscientists and theoreticians said the project would fail."
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Virtual Extras
Technology Review (12/19/07) Graham-Rowe, Duncan

UCLA professor Demetri Terzopoulos has developed software that can create computer-generated crowds for movies and video games that behave much more realistically because the software gives each character a unique and complex personality. Terzopoulos says each individual created by the software demonstrates complex, rational behaviors that collectively create a much more lifelike representation of human activity. Until recently, crowd-animation algorithms were generally based on some type of flocking activity, which had each character base its actions off of what neighboring characters were doing. This technique worked well for animal behavior, but simulated humans should be able to portray a better level of cognitive capacity. The "autonomous pedestrians" designed by Terzopoulos and graduate student Wei Shao are controlled by three different layers of behavior. A motion layer controls basic movement such as walking, running, standing, and sitting. On top of the motion layer, a reactive layer allows characters to respond to obstacles and other characters, as well as more complex movements such as walking around an object or sitting down. The final layer, the cognitive layer, adds the realistic complexity by creating scenarios characters need to accomplish. Norm Badler, director of the Center for Human Modeling and Simulation at the University of Pennsylvania, says Terzopoulos' software makes it easier for animators to assign goals than with other cognitive animation software, and that it is also possible to create longer scenes with up to 1,400 realistic characters. In addition to movies and games, there is an increasing interest in crowd simulation for emergency simulations.
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Japan Robot Prize Goes to Mechanical Arm
Associated Press (12/20/07) Kageyama, Yuri

A mechanical arm capable of grabbing 120 items in a minute from a conveyor belt won Japan's Robot of the Year award, one of Japan's recent efforts to display the country's advanced robotics technology. Other entries included a walking humanoid and a clear torso for simulating surgery. The award, now in its second year, was given to the assembly line arm for its practicality, and shows that utility and business, instead of entertainment or academia, are the focus of Japan's robotic push. The robotic arm from Fanuc is already being used at food and pharmaceutical plants, where sanitation is critical and human error can have disastrous effects. The Fanuc robots have no exposed wiring and are easily washed and sanitized. "The trend these days is to try to avoid having human workers at all. People can get dirty and introduce unwanted objects," says Fanuc manager Ryo Nihei. The surgery robot, called Eve, costs $2,200. "We made it affordable because we want as many people to take advantage of this as possible," says Seiichi Ikeda, head of a university-sponsored project to create a tool for improving doctors' surgery skills. A 24-inch tall human robot by Fujitsu was one of the more popular entries, and NASA and the University of Hamburg, among others, have already bought the $53,000 robot, which is designed to aid research in artificial intelligence. A firefighting robot by machinery-maker Komatsu was also on display. The tank-like robot can be remotely controlled into dangerous areas, and can send 1,300 gallons of water as far as 110 yards, more than three times farther than a human is capable of.
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A New Generation of Web Savvy 'Super-Communicators'
InternetNews.com (12/19/07) Corbin, Kenneth

The Pew Internet Project study "Teens and Social Media" shows that 64 percent of Internet users between 12 and 17 years old create and post some type of online content. These teenage "super-communicators" have advanced beyond email to new forms of communication, largely due to the rise of social networking sites and other Web 2.0 tools. The super-communicators, which represent 28 percent of teenagers, use all types of technology for these communications, including cell phones, text messaging, social-networking cites, and as a last resort, email. "Access to social networks and cell phones has opened up new channels for today's teens," says study co-author Mary Madden. "New technology increases the overall intensity and frequency of their communication with friends, with email being the one glaringly uncool exception in their eyes." Social networks have evolved beyond a self-publication forum, with 41 percent of teens who are on social networks saying they use the networks regularly to send messages to their friends. The Pew study found teenagers posting blogs, videos, and other content are trying to start conversations just as much as they are trying to find a creative output. "For teens, the beauty of the Internet, particularly social-networking Web sites, is that content can be created and easily shared among a network of friends," says study co-author Amands Lenhart. "Even more compelling is that people in those social networks can easily comment and give feedback on shared content."
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UCLA Scientists Working to Create Smaller, Faster Integrated Circuits
UCLA News (12/19/07) Wolpert, Stuart

UCLA scientists have successfully used computer-aided design software based on better mathematical algorithms to design substantially improved integrated circuits. "We can get circuits designed with 30 percent less wire length using improved optimization than what we had demonstrated three years ago, based on circuits that were samples from industry," says UCLA professor Jason Cong. "We believe that when you apply these methods to current industry circuits, you will see similar gains. Industry says even 5 percent is very significant." Traditionally, smaller, faster integrated circuits are made by using smaller transistors and thinner wires, but Cong and fellow UCLA processor Tony Chan focused on improving the design of the chip itself. Cong says part of the challenge is placing the nodes on a two-dimensional surface while minimizing the total interconnections between nodes. Cong's laboratory has found strong evidence that existing computer-aided programs for integrated circuit design are far from optimal, and the researchers believe their work will lead to improved software for enhanced chip design.
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E-Voting Activists Praise Ohio Plan to Fix E-Voting System
Computerworld (12/18/07) Weiss, Todd R.

E-voting activists from three e-voting watchdog groups recently praised a report from Ohio that calls for major security and election integrity-related changes, but urged state officials to proceed cautiously when implementing changes for next year's presidential primary and general election. The analysts' concern is that moving too quickly without adequate analysis could create new problems without solving the existing ones, and that many of the recommendations made in the Ohio report cannot be implemented before the 2008 elections. "We're concerned about some of the recommendations, particularly because they would be implemented in a short time before two critical elections," says Lawrence Norden, counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice Program at the New York University School of Law. One of the recommendations made by Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner is that the state begin counting vote totals in a centralized location, instead of at each individual voting place. Norden says the problem with centralized vote counting is that a hardware or software glitch could lead to system-wide problems that cause large-scale vote losses. "I'm concerned this would make voting less secure in Ohio," says Norden. He is also concerned over a recommendation that would allow voters to cast ballots by mail on a larger scale, arguing that there are security issues with counting ballots in one place without an audit, and that Ohio post offices do not have enough experience delivering ballots by mail to ensure they system will be secure and accurate. Verified Voting Foundation President Pamela Smith says that instead of implementing some of the more controversial recommendations in the report, Ohio should focus on short-term improvements that are realistic.
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Defense Report Looks at Unmanned Systems Future
Scoop (NZ) (12/19/07) Gilmore, Gerry J.

A new report from the Department of Defense titled "Unmanned Systems Roadmap: 2007-2032" examines how the U.S. military should advance in the development, acquisition, and integration of air-, land-, and sea-based unmanned technology over the next 25 years, according to Dyke Weatherington, deputy director of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force. "The publication of this most-recent roadmap will further our strategic planning and our overall objective of developing, procuring and integrating unmanned systems into the force structure of the Department of Defense to support our various military mission capabilities," says Weatherington. The report is the result of more than 18 months of work between the Department of Defense and various military and government agencies. Drone aircraft and ground-based robots have already been successfully deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and combat commanders contributed to the report by pointing out possible improvements to such systems. Weatherington says among commanders' recommendations is the need to develop an integrated infrastructure that would allow information and intelligence data collected by unmanned systems to be more rapidly and readily shared among users, including allies and coalition partners. The commanders' also emphasized the need for better sensor technology for use on unmanned systems to identify underwater mines and land-based improvised explosive devices. The report also says the continued development of artificial intelligence and robot technologies may eventually lead to autonomous, "thinking" unmanned systems that could, for example, be used in aerial platforms to suppress enemy air defenses.
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Unlocking Encryption Management
InfoWorld (12/19/07) Hines, Matt

More and more organizations are turning to standalone encryption platforms to augment IT security, including the Career Education Corporation (CEC), a postsecondary education provider that operates more than 75 institutions worldwide. The increase in use is fueled by the growing number of regulations being implemented to guard sensitive data and the wider availability of products that address issues that served as barriers to use in the past, including policy enforcement and key management. "From my previous experience with e-mail encryption, I had two major concerns with using the tools: Key management and any dependence on the end-user to make the systems work right," says Michael Gabriel, corporate information security officer for CEC. "I haven't ever seen an encryption project where management wasn't a major sticking point, that has been the history of the technology, but it seems that the vendors are finally getting it right." CEC is using encryption in combination with data leakage prevention and e-mail filtering to guard sensitive data. Gabriel says that the best aspect of the encryption technology, provided by global data protection company PGP, is its embedded key management capabilities, a feature that was not available in past products.
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New Specialization Will Focus on Supercomputing
Purdue University News (12/17/07) Medaris, Kim

Purdue University is currently developing courses that focus on high-performance computing, making Purdue one of a few universities in the country to offer such courses. The supercomputing curriculum will include a course this spring in which each student will build a high-performance computing about four times more powerful than a standard personal computer. "As high-performance computing becomes more commonplace in industry, businesses are finding that they need employees who know how to assemble and maintain these machines," says Department of Computer and Information Technology professor Thomas Hacker. "There is a huge unmet demand. Students who go through our program will have a definite advantage in the workplace." The special curriculum is still under development, but courses in bioinformatics are already available. Future courses will be determined by student demand, but could include courses in software development, computational biology, molecular pharmacology, and data management. In the spring course, students will assemble a supercomputer from recycled computers for the College of Technology and the Rosen Center for Advanced Computing. Each supercomputer will be built from four nodes, and students will learn how to link each node and combine all four computers.
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Ohio E-Voting System Security Bashed in New State Report
Computerworld (12/17/07) Weiss, Todd R.

The findings of a study requested by Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner show that e-voting in Ohio has numerous shortcomings that are a danger to the accuracy of elections and require a variety of changes in security, equipment, and processes. Between Oct. 5 and Dec. 7, teams of academic researchers and accredited e-voting system testing scientists evaluated Ohio's e-voting hardware and software, and made several recommendations for improvement as part of the Evaluation & Validation of Election-Related Equipment, Standards & Testing (EVEREST) project. "The findings appearing in the reports necessitate that Ohio's voting process be modified to eliminate as many known risks to voting integrity as possible, while keeping voting accessible to Ohio's voters," the study states. The report says the main problem is that while security and privacy standards generally exist for critical technology systems, the computer-based voting systems in Ohio do not meet computer industry security standards and are vulnerable to breaches of security that could jeopardize the integrity of the voting process. The report recommends that Ohio switch to a centralized counting system where all ballot choices are sent electronically, rather than tracking votes in individual precincts. The report also suggests that the state switch from the direct-recording electronic (DRE) touch-screen e-voting machines it current uses to optical-scan machines that use a paper ballot that is electronically scanned at tabulated, which creates a paper-verifiable record so the voter can confirm the correct votes are about to be recorded. Additionally, the report suggests that counties that use DRE machines offer paper ballots to voters who do not want to use touch screen machines. Patrick Gallaway with Brunner's office says the report will be reviewed by the state legislature, the governor, county election officials, and others to decide what changes to make, and that the recommendations are "in no way set in stone."
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The Semantic Web In Action
Scientific American (12/07) Vol. 297, No. 6, P. 90; Feigenbaum, Lee; Herman, Ivan; Hongsermeier, Tonya

The Semantic Web is a series of languages and formats that analyze data on the World Wide Web and enable people to understand all types of useful online information, and a diverse assortment of Semantic Web applications are coming out, and some of the most advanced and innovative systems are the result of scientific research. Possibly the most visible examples of the Semantic Web are tagging systems in which people choose common terms to describe information they find or post on certain Web sites, which allow Web programs and browsers to locate and comprehend the tagged information in a limited fashion, although scalability is an issue because the tags are not interoperable between systems. Increasing the accessibility and ease-of-use of the Semantic Web is the goal of standards development being carried out by companies and universities working through the World Wide Web Consortium. Some of the biggest Semantic Web advances are occurring in the life sciences and health care fields. For instance, personalized medical treatments will come closer to realization through the integration of various data sets, and a research team at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center is applying semantic capabilities toward the creation of a system that can pinpoint the genetic causes of heart disease. Eli Lilly researchers are also using Semantic Web technology to gain a complete perspective of the must probable drug targets for a given disease, which would be immensely helpful for drug discovery. Meanwhile, the nonprofit organization Science Commons provides Semantic Web tools for affixing legally binding copyright and licensing information to openly posted research data. Some people are concerned that the interlinking of data from disparate sources could infringe on privacy, but Semantic Web supporters claim that the protections remain consistent across the linked and non-linked domains.
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Sshhh, It's Listening: Totally New Computer Interfaces
ICT Results (12/12/07)

European scientists working with the Tangible Acoustic Interfaces for Computer-Human Interaction (TAI-CHI) project have used acoustic sensors to turn wooden tabletops and even three-dimensional, everyday objects into a new type of computer interface. By attaching sensors to solid materials, the researchers were able to locate and track acoustic vibrations. Tapping on certain areas of a whiteboard could generate musical notes on a computer, and tracking the sound of a finger writing words on a sheet of hardboard could be recorded, in real time, as handwriting on a computer screen, eliminating the need for interfaces like keyboards. Sensing vibrations in a solid material and converting them to electrical signals is easy, but exactly locating the source of the vibration has been difficult due to the complex structures of solids and the variations they cause in wave propagation. For example, knots in wood will alter how acoustic vibrations travel. The TAI-CHI team explored four different technologies including Time Delay of Arrival (TDOA), time reversal, Multi-Sensor Tracking through the Reversal of Dispersion, and in-solid acoustic holography. Tangible acoustic interfaces will not replace keyboards and mice anytime soon, but there are certain situations that would benefit from having alternative interfaces, such as in dirty environments or hospitals where keyboards could becoming hiding places for bacteria and viruses. "Time reversal is a beautiful technology," says researcher Ming Yang. "Unlike TDOA, it works with any object and does note require special materials. Because it needs only a single sensor and a normal computer, it is very simple and cost effective. One spin-off company from the University of Paris is working on commercial applications for this."
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Light Speed Communications for Supercomputers
PhysOrg.com (12/17/07)

Through a U.S. Department of Energy/NNSA project, researchers at IBM and Corning have successfully used optical networks to transfer data using light, demonstrating the most advanced and powerful optical packet switch. The optical switch is capable of transmitting 2.5 terabits of data, the equivalent of about 20 high-definition movies, in a single second. IBM researchers have been exploring the use of light for data transmissions in different computer parts, including on chips, between two processors, and throughout complex communication networks. Optical transmission has the ability to transfer data with minimum losses over larger distances and with less power consumption than with conventional techniques. Computer scientists at the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory and optical engineers at Corning concentrated on developing optical communication components, specifically focusing on the switches that control data flow and prevent congestion within the complex network. The four-year project, called OSMOSIS for Optical Shared MemOry Supercomputer Interconnect System, culminated in the demonstration of the most powerful optical packet switch, which combines 64 optical data links, each running at 40 Gbps, which results in transmissions up to 2.5 terabits per second. "We will need such powerful optical interconnect systems in the future if we want to scale supercomputing capabilities and efficiency well beyond the petaflop range," says OSMOSIS project leader at IBM's Zurich Research Lab Ronald Luijten. One of the challenges preventing such systems is a lack of optical memory, as it is not yet known how to store and retrieve optical data easily and in a cost-effective manner. Luijten's team overcame this issue by adopting a hybrid electro-optical approach that uses electronics to buffer and schedule data and optics for the transmitting and switching process. The team also developed a state-of-the-art electronic controller that computes an optimal switch configuration during each packet slot of 51.2 nanoseconds, essentially allowing bufferless operation while maximizing throughput and reliability.
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Congress Slow on Tech Issues in '07
IDG News Service (12/18/07) Gross, Grant; `

Some in the tech community say it is still too early to judge the current session of Congress, even though only a few bills lobbied by the industry were passed this year. The tech community experienced some success as Congress passed the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act, which became law in August; and approved a free-trade agreement with Peru in December. However, the seven-year extension to a moratorium on access taxes and other taxes unique to the Internet, passed by Congress in October, and the one-year extension to a research and development tax credit for U.S. companies, passed by the Senate in December, are partial victories. What is more, Congress failed to act on patent reform, H-1B visas, data breaches, and net neutrality, and did not move forward on tougher penalties for copyright infringement. The session, which went through a change in party control, continues through 2008, and still has a chance to take action on tech issues, considering many are not partisan. "I think we have a lot of interest [from lawmakers], and this has the potential to be a tech-friendly Congress," says Kevin Richards, federal government relations manager at cybersecurity vendor Symantec.
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For Chips, the Next Step Is a Great Leap
Government Computer News (12/10/07) Jackson, William

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has teamed up with Semiconductor Research Corp.'s Nanoelectronics Research Initiative (NRI) to explore the development of next-generation semiconductors that will overcome the inevitable physical limits of current CMOS chip technology. NIST announced three months ago that it would apportion nearly $3 million in research grants for NRI projects this year as the first stage in a five-year program to supply over $18 million in semiconductor research funding. NRI director Jeff Welser stressed the importance of NIST's involvement, noting that the research needs a government program's long-term vision and financing, while expertise in highly sophisticated testing and measurement is essential in turning a theory into an commercial product. "This is very much what NIST is good at," said Welser. Figuring out a way to represent the ones and zeroes used in digital processing is a major point of inquiry, and researchers are considering concepts such as electron spin and molecular conformational technology. The ability to make accurate measurements is crucial to comprehending and commercially replicating technology, according to Joaquin Martinez at NIST's Office of Microelectronics Programs.
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Digital Libraries Are Taking Form
IEEE Distributed Systems Online (12/07) Vol. 8, No. 12, Goth, Greg

Mass-market penetration of digital libraries and book digitization projects is on the horizon, but cooperation between commercial, nonprofit, and publicly funded resource organizations will be essential to ensuring that materials are easily accessible to users across projects. Internet Archive co-founder Brewster Kahle says the real challenge in advancing digital libraries will be in convincing communities that the technology is not costly, and they do not have to cede the responsibility to commercial entities. "At 10 cents a page, or $30 a book, the idea of taking 1,000 books or 10,000 books that are important to a community, library, or individual is now easy," he notes. More important is preventing the digitization process and access to content from being rigidly monopolized by corporations. The World Digital Library (WDL) is a joint venture between the U.S. Library of Congress and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization that seeks to digitize unique cultural artifacts from throughout the world and make them freely and globally accessible online. Unlike other multinational projects, the WDL intends not to use copyrighted content, while its partner institutions will use the same technological platform, which promotes interoperability. A gap has opened up between supporters of open access and proponents of commercial library-scanning efforts, with the public generally losing out in the latter instance in terms of access to materials, according to Kahle. He thinks the early commercially funded book digitization projects may eventually stumble as libraries start adapting traditional, unconstrained funding mechanisms for their new digital requirements.
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