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ACM TechNews
February 15, 2008

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Welcome to the February 15, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

ACM will be closed on Monday, February 18th in observance of President's Day. The next edition of TechNews will publish Wednesday, February 20th.


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Wintel Will Fund Parallel Software Lab at Berkeley
EE Times (02/13/08) Merritt, Rick

A new Parallel Computing Lab at the University of California at Berkeley will receive about $2 million a year over five years to research a parallel programming model for next-generation multicore computer processors. The new lab was up and running on Jan. 21, and the grant from Intel and Microsoft will make it possible for about 14 faculty members to work in the facility. Defining parallel programs based on flexible sets of standards similar to the way serial programs are currently written will allow software to keep up with advances in microprocessor design. A new approach is needed to schedule parallel tasks from the modules across available hardware in complex heterogeneous multicore CPUs. "To make effective use of multicore hardware today you need a PhD in computer science," says Advanced Micro Devices fellow Chuck Moore. "That can't continue if we want to enable heterogeneous CPUs." Software systems have already been prototyped based on discussions and a white paper on the issue by Berkeley researchers dating back to 2005 and 2006, and the preliminary results could be published in a few months.
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Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing Opens Call for Participation
Business Wire (02/14/08)

The eighth annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which takes place October 1-4, 2008, at the Keystone Resort in Keystone, Colo., has issued a call for participation under the theme "We Build a Better World." Submissions on both technical and professional topics that reflect the theme in the areas of innovation within the business world, academia, or individual contribution through social and environmental entrepreneurship will be accepted through March 16, 2008. The three-day technical conference will feature presentations from leaders in various fields in the industrial, academic, and government communities, and special sessions on the role of women in computer science, information technology, research, and engineering. The event also offers keynote addresses, invited technical speakers, panels, workshops, new investigator technical papers, PhD forums, technical posters, birds-of-a-feather sessions, the ACM Student Research Competition, and an awards celebration. More than 1,436 people from 23 countries attended last year's event, which offered more than 250 presenters. ACM co-presents the Grace Hopper Celebration, which is sponsored by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.
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Bridging Engineering's Minority Gap
Business Week (02/15/08) Kelly, John E. III

Presidents day marks the start of National Engineers Week, which will place a special emphasis on diversity this year, writes IBM's John E. Kelly. Statistics from a 2007 National Science Foundation report titled "Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science & Engineering" show that women and minorities have made progress in science and engineering fields, but there is still room improvement. Hispanics have become better represented in undergraduate engineering programs, and the number of engineering degrees awarded to women has steadily increased every year since 1966. Moreover, 42 percent of science and engineering graduate students were women in 2004, up from 37 percent in 1994. However, just 6 percent of engineering undergraduate students were African American in 2004, and women's share of bachelor's degrees in computer science dropped from 37 percent to 25 percent between 1985 and 2004. People with physical disabilities are also underrepresented. The private industry needs to be concerned about the shortage of minorities and women in the industry because cultivating talent from different backgrounds makes good business sense, Kelly writes, and the number of retiring workers from science and engineering is expected to drastically increase over the next 20 years. By 2010, the United States will need 20 percent more engineers, but the growth rate in the number of engineering, math, and science graduates is expected to be about 2 percent. The key to filling the gap is to create better cooperation between academia, private industry, and the government to establish programs that encourage and support enthusiasm and skills in the sciences. Private industry needs to sponsor community mentoring, internships, and workshops for women, minorities, and the physically challenged, Kelly says.
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Study: Web Sites Influence Users, Even When They Don't Communicate Directly
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (02/07/08) Dennis, Jan

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor Mu Xia says his study shows that mass endorsement of musical genres, videos, and other online content is more influential than many realize, and that the seemingly impersonal voting, tagging, ratings, and even music catalogs offered on Web 2.0 sites can influence users. "This is a new way to communicate," Xia says. "Before I could only read what one person wrote. Now I know what everyone else thinks." Xia calls Web technology that tells users what everyone else thinks "ballot box technology." On popular Web sites such as YouTube and Digg, for example, user ratings determine what videos and news stories are given the most prominent position on the page. "You could say it's human nature," Xia says. "If I know a lot of people have chosen a particular video, I also want to experience that." Xia's study analyzed searches, browsing, and other commands on popular Web sites and found that demand for certain content increased as other users began including more of that content in their own online inventories. Xia says the findings show that users are swayed by the tastes of others, and that researchers should further explore these evolving online communities to better gauge how they influence users and society as a whole. His research will appear in Communications of the ACM.
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EDemocracy Research Requires All-Inclusive Approach, Conference Told
European Science Foundation (02/14/08) Lau, Thomas

An argument that the study of how technology influences democratic processes cannot proceed without more interdisciplinary, comparative, and collaborative eDemocracy research was presented to delegates at a recent European Science Foundation conference, with Herbert Kubicek of Germany's University of Bremen noting that the current stage of eDemocracy research is one of experimentation. He cited several challenges to European eDemocracy research, including a disproportionate number of researchers drawn to different areas, and the need for scientists to combine conventional citizen interaction analysis techniques with studies of people's engagement with computers and computer usability. "The only way to move forward is that e-democracy research has to be interdisciplinary, socio-technical, and cover what we call the micro-level of individual use as well as the meso-level of institutions and the macro-level of societal conditions, trends and effects," Kubicek contended. He pointed out that one of the conference's conclusions was that comparisons of multiple case studies rather than individual case studies are vital to achieving the needed insights and differentiation of eDemocracy research. Director of the University of Oxford's Oxford Internet Institute William Dutton observed that the networking of people with each other as well as with information and services through the Internet is giving rise to a "Fifth Estate" that is superseding and undercutting existing institutions, and thus generating a new form of social responsibility in politics, government, and other areas. To ensure that these networks are nurtured and protected, they must be identified and better understood by researchers, he said.
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NSF Preparing for the Demise of Moore's Law
InfoWorld (02/13/08) Shah, Agam

The National Science Foundation wants to spend $20 million researching replacements for current silicon technology. NSF's "Science and Engineering Beyond Moore's Law" effort would fund academic research in such technologies as carbon nanotubes, quantum computing, and massively multicore computers, all of which could improve and replace current transistor technology. NSF's Michael Foster says that human and economic progress in the U.S. over the past 20 years has relied on continued advancements in computing and information processing. "If the current technological basis of that ends, we've got to find some way to replace it, or we're going to stop moving forward," Foster says. He says radical new microprocessor structures are needed to push the technology forward, such as transistors based on nanostructures. Carbon nanotubes could be used as interconnects for circuits, though that would require new research and improvements to chip architectures, and quantum computing could also advance technology by providing inherent parallelism, which would require improvements in parallel programming. Foster says it may ultimately be difficult to replace current transistors, so researchers may need to develop better architectures and chip designs that use current transistor technology to maintain the growth rate.
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Computer Analysis of 9-1-1 Calls from California Wildfires Offers Potential Early Warning System for Future Emergencies
University of California, San Diego (02/13/08) Zverina, Jan

Researchers from the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California, San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have developed a method to analyze and visually display emergency 911 calls to detect specific patterns. The goal is to assist in developing an early warning system and coordinate responses on a wider scale to eventually help save lives and limit property damage. "Because of the time-critical element within the first-responder community, this research could assist emergency service providers and organizations in allocating appropriate levels of both human and financial resources as part of their overall planning," says UCSD scientist Chaitan Baru, one of the project's principal Investigators. The researchers analyzed nearly three years of 911 call data from the San Francisco Bay area and more than 20 months of similar data from San Diego County to develop a computer algorithm that detects 911 call patters. The call data was combined with topographical images from Google Earth to conduct a spatiotemporal analysis, which combines space and time. The spatiotemporal analysis can detect abnormally high call rates, or hotspots, that can be directly correlated to specific events in those areas, such as earthquakes, explosions, or fire. The researchers say the retrospective data collection and analysis is a critical first step toward developing a real-time visualization technique that could complement available 911 systems.
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Could Smart Traffic Lights Stop Motorists Fuming?
New Scientist (02/12/08) Glaskin, Max

Romanian and U.S. researchers recently demonstrated in simulations that traffic lights that wirelessly track vehicles could speed up trips, reduce fuel consumption, and improve urban air quality. Such "smart" traffic lights could reduce the amount of time drivers spend waiting at intersections by more than 28 percent during rush hours. The researchers recorded peak traffic flow at a major intersection in Bucharest, Romania, and used the distributed computing lab at Rutgers University to model traffic flow. In the simulations, the traffic lights were given the position and speed of all vehicles on nearby roads, and were programmed to calculate how to phase color changes to optimize traffic flow. In addition to reducing waiting times, the researchers calculate that the improved traffic pattern could reduce CO2 emissions by 6.5 percent. Rutgers University researcher Liviu Iftode says that trip times, fuel consumption, and emissions could be further improved if the traffic lights transmitted information back to the vehicles. If the lights told drivers when they were about to change, drivers could adapt their speed to avoid useless accelerations or to react faster to green lights. In-vehicle software could also recommend appropriate speeds based on when the current light setting will change and how many cars have already been queued.
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Power Shirt: Fiber-Based Nanotechnology in Clothing Could Generate Electricity by Harvesting Energy From Physical Movement
Georgia Institute of Technology (02/13/08) Toon, John

Georgia Institute of Technology nanotechnology researchers have developed a prototype microfiber nanogenerator that could be built into clothing and is capable of producing a small electrical current. The device could enable anyone that moves to harness and convert their physical motion into electrical energy. Pairs of textile fibers covered with zinc oxide nanowires are used to create an electrical current using the piezoelectric effect. Combining the energy generated from numerous pairs of fibers woven into a shirt or jacket could allow the wearer's body movement to power a variety of portable electronic devices. The fibers could also be woven into curtains, tents, or other structures to capture energy from wind motion, sound vibration, or some other mechanical energy. So far the researchers have made more than 200 nanogenerators. A nanogenerator about a centimeter long is capable of producing a current of about four nanoamperes and an output voltage of about four millivolts. With an improved design, Georgia Tech professor Zhong Lin Wang estimates that a square meter of fabric made from the fibers could theoretically generate as much as 80 milliwatts of power. One major obstacle for the technology is the ability to be washed.
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Could IP Address Plan Mean Another IPv6 Delay?
Network World (02/13/08) Marsan, Carolyn Duffy

The transition to IPv6 could perhaps be delayed further if Internet policymakers approve of changes to IP address distribution that could enable network operators to reap profits by transferring idle blocks of IPv4 address space to others in need. "Industry demand for IPv4 addresses will not stop, but the current supply channel, namely the unallocated IPv4 address pool, will have run out," says Asia Pacific Network Information Center scientist Geoff Huston. "So, as with any other commodity out there, trading and pricing gets included into the distribution function." Permitting ISPs to transfer IPv4 address registrations is a proposal that the American Registry for Internet Numbers is expected to soon post on its Web site, and in such a scenario the agency would supply a list of IPv4 address blocks that are available for transfer. The proposal would create an economic incentive for organizations to make IPv4 addresses available, although no one knows the exact profit potential. Huston says the Internet can no longer avoid developing an IPv4 transfer protocol for ISPs because the available pool of IPv4 addresses will be depleted before the IPv6 switchover is complete. However, the practice of IPv4 address trading is surrounded by unresolved issues, such as whether such a move will establish a financial market for IPv4 address space; whether it will postpone the IPv6 transition; and whether the Internet's core routers will be inundated with routing table announcements from ISPs. IPv4 address trading would probably yield the biggest advantages to companies, universities, and U.S. federal agencies that were assigned many IPv4 address blocks during the Internet's infancy. There is consensus among experts that the transition to IPv6 would be pushed back by several more years if IPv4 address transfer is allowed.
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Bandwidth on Demand
Technology Review (02/14/08) Naone, Erica

The Internet2 consortium is designing a dynamic circuit network intended to provide on-demand bandwidth for specific uses. A researcher testing telesurgery technologies, for example, would be able to use the network to temporarily create a dedicated path for an experiment. Although the new network's immediate applications are academic, its underlying technologies could be applied to the commercial Internet and could be used, for example, to carry high-definition video to consumers. "The idea here is to basically look at the network in a different way," says Internet2 CTO Rick Summerhill. Under the current Internet, large data transfers can cause traffic jams at routers that cause data packets to get delayed, which in turn causes the user at the final destination to experience interruptions in the data stream and overall jittery performance. Summerhill says the dynamic circuit network would allow a researcher to establish a temporary connection to another location that would work like a phone call. The user's data would be carried directly to that location without the interruptions caused by the traffic of other users. The dynamic circuit network is essentially an enhancement of a traditional network, and not a replacement. What makes the network different is that it uses a circuit-switched network, which can be set up so all data packets follow the same path, but the circuits do not have to be permanently in place.
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Web Browsing, Search, and Online Ads Grow More Risky, Google Says
InformationWeek (02/12/08) Claburn, Thomas

Google security engineer Niels Provos has found that Web browsing and searching are increasingly becoming channels for the distribution of malware. Provos says that more than 1 percent of all search results in the past few months contained at least one result that was believed to point to malicious content. He says that in the 18 months that Google has been tracking malicious Web pages, the company has found more than 3 million unique URLs on over 180,000 Web sites that attempt to install malware on users' computers. A recent paper Provos co-authored with Google colleague Panayiotis Mavrommatis and Johns Hopkins University computer scientists Moheeb Abu Rajab and Fabian Monrose blamed the problem in part on Internet advertising, Google's main source of revenue. Provos found that an average of 2 percent of malicious Web sites were delivering malware via Internet advertising, based on an analysis of about 2,000 known advertising networks. But since Internet ads target popular sites, search engine users are more likely to find them than that statistic suggests. The report noted that an average of 12 percent of overall search results that returned landing pages were associated with malicious content due to unsafe ads. Provos says there are no readily-apparent solutions to the problem.
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Roving Eyes
The Engineer Online (02/13/08)

Surrey Space Centre scientists are working on a two-year project to make space rovers fully autonomous and more efficient by developing a "brain" that uses vision-based navigation techniques. Focusing on cameras and laser-based equipment, the team wants to develop software that utilizes low-cost components. Surrey space autonomy specialist Dr. Yang Gao says researchers are exploring different vision sensors and how to utilize the information from the sensors to enable totally autonomous navigation by the rover. "That involves sensing technology, planning and navigation techniques, and a lot of artificial intelligence techniques involved with planning the trajectory of autonomous vehicles," Gao says. "One of the work packages will focus on how we could make use of the image from the cameras and, in combination with other sensors, make the data fusion work for space applications." A camera could be used to see things in the distance, while lasers could be used to complement the vision to help avoid obstacles and to quickly detect and respond to obstacles within smaller ranges. In previous rover missions, most of the rovers had automatic control but little autonomy, and it currently takes at least a day to send new commands to rovers to overcome obstacles. The goal is to create a rover that is capable of planning its own route, automatically adjusting for obstacles.
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Workplace Autopilot Threatens Security Risk Perception
University of Leeds (02/08/08)

Human psychology and the way we perceive risk make it impossible for organizations to completely secure their data, no matter what preventative steps they take, concludes research conducted by Britain's Leeds University Business School. During the study, people who regularly used IT systems at work were asked to list examples of possible data security risks, either imaginative or ones they have seen in their personal experiences. Another group was asked to comment on the probability, underlying causes, likely consequences, and impacts of the scenarios that were most commonly listed. The study found that many of the risk examples listed by the participants matched recent security breaches, despite the fact that the survey data was collected over a two-year period. Professor Gerard Hodgkinson, director of the Center for Organizational Strategy, Learning, and Change, says the research shows that organizations will never be able to remove all of the latent risks in the protection and security of data stored on IT systems because people's brains naturally run on "automatic pilot" in routine situations. Dr. Robert Coles, the study's co-author, says the results of the study show that employees exhibit a highly-sophisticated perception and categorization of risk, as well as insight into the consequences of risk scenarios, when asked to focus on potential problems. But since this perception is not always translated into practice, errors are still happening and will continue to happen in the future, Coles says.
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Researchers Looking at Tiny Robots for Big Changes
9News (CO) (02/13/08) Lucas, Ward

Dr. Rahmat Shoureshi, dean of the School of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Denver, says nanotechnology researchers are close to building tiny machines that are capable of doing everything from curing cancer to warning that a bridge will collapse. "It's going to take a while to get FDA approval, but in terms of the technology readiness we will have those machines ready in five years," Shoureshi says. DU researchers are developing a shoe insole that is capable of calculating biological and balance problems in the elderly, and warning people when they are about to fall. DU professor Corinne Lengsfeld says nanotechnology will have an enormous impact in medicine, and expects the tiny robots to play an important role in fighting diseases once researchers determine how to teach the machines to attack certain cells. "You're going to see cures to diseases that we didn't think were curable, and I think that those will evolve rather quickly," Lengsfeld says.
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Wearable Tracking Tags Test Privacy Boundaries at the U. of Washington
Chronicle of Higher Education (02/15/08) Vol. 54, No. 23, P. A15; Dotinga, Randy

Determining the effectiveness as well as the appropriateness of tracking people through radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags is the goal of the University of Washington's RFID Ecosystem project. Researchers have installed 140 antennas and 35 RFID readers to monitor areas of the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering so that between 100 and 150 computer-science students, faculty, and staff members can eventually track people--and can themselves be tracked--on the project Web site. The objective of the effort is to "create a future world where RFID's are everywhere," says computer science professor Gaetano Borriello. The idea is to analyze the choices participants make in terms of when and how frequently they monitor their own and other people's activities, and what information they wish to acquire. Monitoring is not allowed in certain areas of the building--such as restrooms--in order to prevent RFID surveillance from becoming too intrusive, and participants will be allowed to control who can view data about their movements and even instantly exit the network. University of Washington graduate student Evan Welbourne says the point of this exercise is to ascertain whether people will tend to opt in or opt out. He says that so far the project has concluded that "technology itself is not an inherent risk to privacy, or at least not in any way that can't eventually be fixed." An earlier experiment at the University of California at San Diego involved students tracking each other's whereabouts via Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs, and professor William G. Griswold notes that some students elected not to be monitored while others broadened the level of access to their locations.
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Atomic Logic: In Search of Shape-Shifting Circuits
New Scientist (02/09/08)No. 2642, P. 44; Jamieson, Valerie

Murray Holland of the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics in Boulder, Colo., envisions technology that is fashioned from an atomic current, a field he calls atomtronics. Atoms can theoretically be trapped within an optical lattice, a chessboard-like arrangement of laser beams that produce dark patches of interference wherever they intersect, with the atoms being corralled within these patches. Making the concept workable involves cooling the atoms, whose kinetic energy at room temperature thwarts capture in an optical lattice. Holland conceives of an atomtronic negative terminal composed of a dense cloud of ultracold atoms contained by laser beams. Identical beams are employed by the positive end of the battery, while an optical lattice serves as the wire between the positive and negative terminals. At some point, the repulsive interactions among atoms in the cloud would cause some atoms to tunnel along the optical lattice wire and into the empty trap. Last year Holland's team disclosed a plan for an easy-to-fabricate atomtronic diode, which generates a one-way flow of atoms when linked to an atomtronic battery. Although it is doubtful that atomtronics will ever supplant silicon chips, they could conceivably lead to faster PCs and aid in the development of quantum computers.
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ICs Poised to Get Under Your Skin
EE Times (02/11/08)No. 1513, P. 1; Merritt, Rick; Mokhoff, Nicolas

Papers presented at the International Solid State Circuits Conference proposed innovations that marry electronics with biology, such as brain implants and a wireless, wearable health monitor powered by a custom chip. An implantable chip combined with a wearable controller that could function as a commercial artificial retina was described at the conference by University of Ulm professor Albrecht Rothermel, while a prototype chip for recording deep-brain signals was detailed by Medtronic researchers. Another Medtronic research effort revolves around the development of an artificial pancreas capable of automatically checking blood sugar levels and supplying insulin when needed. Other sessions focused on chips that can enhance medical test equipment while also reducing its size and cost. One such example was a small module devised by a Harvard University team on which a nuclear magnetic-resonance-imaging system could be run. However, Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology CEO Kyu Lim said in a keynote that "the system complexity and implementation of ... future [health care] services will be costly due to the high level of machine intelligence required."
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A New Theory Changes the Thinking Behind Creating Robots and Smart Machines
Knowledge@W.P. Carey (02/13/08)

The school of Connectionism postulates that the human brain learns when neurons link experiences and understandings, and that the development of artificial intelligence hinges on emulating this capability with computers. But W.P. Carey School of Business professor Asim Roy has challenged these long-cherished notions in an academic paper where he argues that while connections between neurons are necessary, the system still requires organization by a controller. Roy presents a theory that elements of the brain are controlled by other elements, and has partly validated it by demonstrating that Connectionist brain-like learning systems are guided by higher-level controllers, in defiance of the Connectionist view that they employ only local controllers at the neuron level. "What I did was structurally analyze Connectionist algorithms to prove that they actually use control theoretic notions even though they deny it," says Roy, adding that he used neuroscientific evidence to support his argument. The design of various types of robots will eventually be affected by the rethinking of human learning and brain function that Roy's paper has engendered. Roy cautions, however, that his theory may not effectively change computer operations for decades.
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