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March 17, 2008

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Welcome to the March 17, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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High-Tech Companies Focus Their R&D Spend
Financial Times (03/17/08) P. 16; Allison, Kevin; Waters, Richard

Technology companies are focusing their research and development spending by limiting the number of projects they work on. A Financial Times analysis shows that all but a few of the biggest U.S. technology companies are limiting their research efforts. John Kelly, IBM's new head of research, has refocused IBM's efforts on the tech markets with the greatest long-term potential, including cloud computing, pooled computing, new systems to boost corporate compliance, and data security. IBM says that Kelly's new focus will not lead to significant cutbacks in other research efforts, but the company has already redirected its R&D budget to cut spending in areas that are not expected to yield big returns or competitive advantages. Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard recently revealed a new focus at HP Labs that will consolidate funding for 150 smaller projects and focus on 20 to 30 big projects in an attempt to sharpen its research efforts. Some research executives say the slow growth in R&D spending is exaggerated by the shift in emphasis toward more profitable services. However, analysts say that even in difficult times there are many incentives for tech companies to maintain their R&D spending. Sanford C Bernstein researchers found that companies that increase R&D as a percentage of their sales over a five-year period tend to be rewarded with higher profit margins and share prices in later years. Bernstein analyst Richard Keiser says the message is that management is a better judge of R&D spending than the market.
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Racing to Gain Edge on Multicore Chips
Wall Street Journal (03/17/08) P. B4; Clark, Don

Intel and Microsoft tomorrow will announce plans to spend $10 million over five years for university research programs designed to find new techniques for programming multicore computers. Sources say the companies have chosen the University of California, Berkeley and another unnamed university. Computer makers are increasingly incorporating multicore processors in new machines, but developing programs that can effectively utilize the technology is a complex challenge. "Everybody is madly racing toward multicore technology, and they don't have a clue about how to program it," says Stanford University professor William Dally. Dally says his school was one of about two dozen educational institutions that submitted proposals to Microsoft and Intel to win funding to study the problem. He says Berkeley's proposal won. UC Berkeley professor David Patterson declined comment, but he and fellow Berkeley researchers have been working on the problem since at least 2005. They have been focusing on identifying the applications that stand to benefit the most from parallel processing. Advanced Micro Devices chief technology officer Phil Hester says media-rich applications are particularly well suited to multicore chips, while others say analyzing financial transactions with multicore technology could offer huge payoffs.
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U.S. Engineering Gap: Number of Degrees Declining
EE Times (03/14/08) Riley, Sheila

Enrollment at U.S. engineering schools remains stable, but the overall number of engineering degrees is declining, concludes an Engineering Trends report. The report says that although U.S. universities are awarding more engineering PhDs than in the past, small but steady declines in bachelor's degree programs have occurred over the past three academic years, which means the pattern of slowly declining degree numbers should continue for another three or four years. For example, the number of computer and electrical engineering bachelor's degrees reached 14,584 in 2004-05, but dropped to 14,209 in 2005-06 and 13,783 in 2006-07. Master's degrees also dropped between 2006 and 2007, though master's programs reported a 2 percent rise in fall 2006 enrollment, meaning graduation rates could rise in 2008 and 2009. Engineering Trends founder Richard Heckel says the recent rise in doctorates was the result of increases in enrollment several years ago, and a reduced rate of doctoral degrees should begin next year and continue for at least three years. Albert Helfrick, chair of electrical and systems engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, says the population of experienced engineers is aging, and if large numbers of engineers retire, the U.S. faces a severe engineering shortfall.
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House Politicians Propose 'Emergency' H-1B Hike
CNet (03/14/08) Broache, Anne

Two bills were recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives designed to boost the number of H-1B visas available. The first bill, sponsored by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), would increase the cap to 130,000 starting in 2008, and would increase it to as much as 180,000 if the limit is reached in the preceding year. The bill would also exempt from the cap anyone who has received a master's or doctorate degree from a U.S. university in technology fields such as math, science, and engineering. The second bill, sponsored by Lamar Smith (R-Texas), would raise the visa cap to 195,000 in 2008 and 2009, the highest level for H-1B visas since its peak between 2001 and 2003. Both bills are more aggressive than previous attempts to increase the H-1B visa cap. Critics say the H-1B visa program lowers wages and displaces qualified American workers. They also allege that offshore firms, particularly Indian ones, have been acquiring H-1B visas, recruiting foreign workers, and outsourcing them to foreign companies. Other bills in the House and Senate would place new obligations on U.S. employers before hiring H-1B workers, including requiring companies to recruit Americans first.
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DARPA Chief Outlines Expansive Array of Future Networking Projects
Network World (03/14/08)

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency director Tony Tether says the goal of DARPA's networking programs is to tie together tactical and strategic users through networks that are capable of automatic and autonomous configuration, maintenance, and protection. The objective of the neXt Generation Communications program is to increase available spectrum tenfold by exploiting spectrum that is assigned yet idle at any particular moment through technology that enables real-time sensing and dynamic allocation. To link different tactical ground, airborne, and satellite communications terminals, DARPA's Network Centric Radio System program devised a mobile, self-repairing ad hoc network gateway strategy that delivers complete radio/network compatibility on-the-move in any terrain. The Optical and Radio Frequency Combined Link Experiment showed that Global Information Grid information can be relayed to operation assets at the edge by combining high-speed free-space optical communications with high-reliability radio communications. DARPA intends to design, build, and demonstrate a prototype tactical network that connects ground-based and airborne elements in order to develop a high data rate backbone network through several airborne assets that usually fly at very high altitudes and are distanced from each other by several hundred kilometers. The focus of DARPA's Dynamic Quarantine of Computer-Based Worm Attacks program is the creation of dynamic quarantine defenses for U.S. military networks against large-scale malicious code attacks via development of an integrated system that automatically detects and responds to worm-based attacks against military networks, delivers advanced warning to other DoD enterprise networks, examines and ascertains the malware's propagation and epidemiology, and automatically inoculates the network against these threats.
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Beyond the Keyboard and Mouse
BBC News (03/14/08) Vallance, Chris

The next-generation interface was a hot topic of discussion among experts during panels at SXSW in Austin, Texas. The popularity of Guitar Hero suggests that the video game's controller could influence new ways to make computers accessible, says RedOctane CEO Kai Huang, creator of the game that relies on a guitar style interface. The Microsoft Surface interface, which makes use of other spaces, is also gaining some momentum in the consumer world, and Microsoft's Kristin Alexander says interfaces will not be limited to table top screens in the longer term. Meanwhile, Rick Barraza of Cynergy Systems showed off a homemade "Minority Report-style" gesture interface made from a Nintendo Wii controller, a gutted computer mouse, and a pair of baseball gloves dotted with infra-red LEDs. However, design professor Nathan Shedroff says gesture-style interfaces are physically demanding, which could limit their appeal. Interfaces that allow people to control computers with their brains could have more potential. "In 20 to 40 years that technology is going to advance," Huang says.
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Robots May Soon Feel and Touch Like Humans
Economic Times of India (03/17/08) Donde, Ritwik

University of Sheffield robotics and artificial intelligence professor Noel Sharkey says that as robotic technology advances, humans will have to answer some difficult questions. Currently, service robots in industry are the most common type of robot, but there are about 3.5 million personal robots in use, and the industry continues to grow. Most interestingly, Sharkey says, is the growth in the use of surgical robots, particularly for use in bypass surgery and the removal of prostate cancer. Robotic surgery can be done by cutting four tiny holes and inserting robots through these openings, which allow patients to recover much faster than with normal surgery. Robotic surgery also makes it possible for the surgeon and the patient to be in different places. Military robots are also showing significant growth. The U.S. plans to spend $4 billion on unmanned systems through 2010, with increases in spending to $24 billion by 2015. Robots will become increasingly human in terms of touch and feel. Researchers are also experimenting with combining animals and robots, using technology to manipulate the instruction set within animals. For example, American researchers have succeeded in putting a chip inside the spinal column of a centipede to remotely control its feet movement. Sharkey says robots will become as pervasive as computers, but the robots will be more like gadgets than humanoid robots.
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Some Viruses Come Pre-Installed
Associated Press (03/13/08) Robertson, Jordan

A number of electronics products made in Chinese factories have been found to contain viruses that steal passwords, distribute spam, and open up computers to hackers. For instance, digital picture frames sold at Sam's Club contained a previously unknown virus that steals gaming passwords and disables antivirus software, according to security researchers at Computer Associates. Viruses have also been found on digital picture frames sold by Best Buy and Target, as well as on Apple iPods and TomTom navigation equipment. Security experts say the viruses are being loaded during the final stage of production, in which the devices are plugged into a computer and tested to ensure that they work properly. Experts note that the viruses are probably coming from a careless factory employee plugging an infected device into the testing computer, rather than hackers or the factories themselves. Nonetheless, hackers could someday use infected Chinese-made devices as an avenue of attack, security experts say. "We'll probably see a steady increase over time," says Symantec computer researcher Zulfikar Ramzan. "The hackers are still in a bit of a testing period--they're trying to figure out if it's really worth it."
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York Investigates Evolving 'Swarm' Robots
York University (03/13/08) Garner, David

University of York researchers are developing an artificial immune system for the Symbiotic Evolutionary Robot Organisms (Symbrion) project, which is studying how swarms of miniature robots can form a single artificial organism. Dr. Jon Timmis and professor Andy Tyrrell of the Intelligent Systems Group in the Department of Electronics are heading York's effort to create an artificial immune system that is similar to the human body's natural immune system. Symbrion would be capable of detecting faults in both individual robots and the larger collective organism, and recommending a corrective action to the high-level control system. Each robot would be capable of sharing key information with others in the single organism, which also would be capable of evolving as it responds to a new problem. Timmis says multi-robot organisms have the potential to perform real-world tasks in situations where human intervention would be limited. "For instance, a Symbrion swarm could be released into a collapsed building following an earthquake, and form themselves into teams to lift rubble or search for survivors," he says. "This kind of thing is clearly a long way from being realized, but work in this project will allow us to start building the robots of the future."
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Searching as a Team
Technology Review (03/13/08) Naone, Erica

Microsoft Research's Meredith Morris is developing SearchTogether, a search tool designed for collaborative use. Most search "tools are designed for a single person, working alone by him or herself, but that's not the way that we work," Morris says. SearchTogether is intended to help groups with members who are working on different computers, whether they are all logged in simultaneously or at different times. The tool is a plug-in for Internet Explorer 7 and requires a Windows Live ID. Using SearchTogether, one person can initiate a Web search and invite others to join. The tool tracks the work done by the group, making it easier to assign tasks and keep track of what has been accomplished. Before designing the tool, Morris conducted a survey to determine the most common problems groups have when doing online research. Among the problems identified were redundant efforts and inefficient communication about results. If users are searching simultaneously, they can use SearchTogether's "peek and follow" feature to view the pages others are looking at and to instant message each other as they view the search results. Morris says she is interested in adding more sophisticated sorting capabilities. For example, if a doctor and a patient are searching together for information, more technical results might be sent to the doctor while the patient receives simpler results.
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Researchers Show Off Laser-Guided Robot
Associated Press (03/13/08) Bluestein, Greg

Roboticists from Georgia Tech and Emory universities recently unveiled the EI-E, a robot that is capable of grabbing objects that a user targets with a laser. The robot has two lenses spaced together like eyes and a 5.5-foot-tall body. "The entire world becomes a point-and-click interface. Objects become buttons. And if you point at one, the robot comes to grab it," says Charlie Kemp, director of Georgia Tech's Center for Healthcare Robotics. To operate EI-E, a user points a laser at something for a few seconds. The robot responds with a beep, focuses on the target, travels to the object and grabs it with a mechanical arm. The robot starts the return trip when the laser is pointed at the user's feet. After returning, the robot looks for a human face before handing over the object. Kemp says engineers are often focusing too much on making robots behave like people and are overlooking other forms of interaction. "How can you make robots that are actually useful? That was bugging me," Kemp says. The researchers say the robot successfully fetches the desired object 90 percent of the time. EI-E works by using dozens of sensors, lasers, and cameras to help it find its target and determine the grip needed to retrieve it. The researchers hope the robot will eventually be able to open doors, switch light panels, and guide patients.
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The Future's in the Wink of an Eye
Toronto Star (03/13/08) Graham, David

Breakthroughs in computerized facial expression and voice recognition technology could lead to human-computer interfaces that require almost no physical movement whatsoever. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has predicted that such advancements will be made within 10 years and launch what he calls "the second digital decade." University of Toronto professor Parham Aarabi says the traditional interaction between humans and computers is unnatural, and that natural interactions will be more visual and acoustic. Austin Shoemaker, a former Apple Computer software engineer and current chief technology officer at Coolris, says people should view computer interfaces as an extension of themselves or an extension of their mind. Like the voice command technology currently being used in cars, much of the computerized communication technology is being developed in bits and pieces. After disabled physics professor Stephen Hawking became too weak to move his hands to control the computer that enabled him to speak, he started using a device that allows him to control the computer with eye movement. The National Research Council in Ottawa patented an invention called the Nouse, which uses Webcam technology and motion-detection software to track a user's nose, allowing users to move a cursor around the screen using subtle nose movements. Blinking an eye replaces the mouse click. NRC's George Forester says such technology is of enormous value to multitaskers, and will become increasingly easy to understand.
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Google Could Be Superseded, Says Web Inventor
Times Online (UK) (03/12/08) Richards, Jonathan

Tim Berners-Lee says that Google may eventually be replaced as the most popular brand on the Internet by a company that harnesses the power of next-generation Web technology. He says Google's search technology would pale in comparison to programs that utilize the "Web of the future," which he says would allow any piece of information to be linked to any other. Similarly, the current craze over social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace will eventually be replaced by networks that connect all types of things, not just people, through the semantic Web. He says the semantic Web will allow for direct connections between more low-level pieces of information, which will lead to new services. "Using the semantic Web, you can build applications that are much more powerful than anything on the regular Web," he says. "Imagine if two completely separate things--your bank statements and your calendar--spoke the same language and could share information with one another. You could drag one on top of the other and a whole bunch of dots would appear showing you when you spent your money." The challenge lies in finding a way to represent all that data so that when it is connected to the Web links to relevant information can be recognized and established. "In the semantic Web, it's like every piece of data is given a longitude and latitude on a map, and anyone can 'mash' them together and use them for different things," Berners-Lee says.
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Virtual Reality and Computer Technology Improve Stroke Rehabilitation
University of Haifa (03/12/08)

Researchers at Israel's University of Haifa have developed a system that enables hospitals to use virtual reality and computer technology to rehabilitate stroke patients. The program is capable of accurately diagnosing 90 percent to 98 percent of the time whether a patient is healthy, or has suffered a traumatic brain injury or a stroke. The researchers have also developed the technology to determine which treatment options would be best for the patient and how much the individual will be able to rehabilitate. The program uses virtual reality to simulate a patient's response to therapy, which has the potential to keep hospitals from pursuing treatments that would be of no benefit to the patient or even harm the individual. Haifa computer scientist Dr. Larry Manevitz says the group will now focus on finding connections in the behavior of people in sub-groups of brain injuries. "The human eye may not be able to see such similarities, but a computer would easily be able to pick them up," Manevitz says.
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Computer Destiny
Washington Times (03/13/08) P. C8; Keely, Harrison

When Apple released the iMac in 1998, many said the absence of a floppy drive would doom the machine, but the iMac became the best-selling computer of all time and heralded the downfall of the floppy disk. Now, Apple's MacBook Air could do the same for the compact disc. Leander Kahney, author of the upcoming book, "Inside Steve's Brain," says that the MacBook Air signals the death of not only the internal optical drive but the hard disk as well. Engadget editor Ryan Block says that new computers are increasingly featuring storage devices similar to the storage cards used by digital cameras, and that the lines between external and internal storage technology are blurring. "There may never be a full transition to SSDs as replacements for hard drives," Block says. "Bigger is always better, and hard drives will always be bigger than SSDs." He says that local storage will always be an option, even though some analysts say that in 10 years computers will essentially be stripped-down Web-based machines with everything stored online. Meanwhile, although some experts believe that all content will shift to digital distribution, others say that people will still want to be able to purchase products on a disk.
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Mind Over Body: New Hope for Quadriplegics
ICT Results (03/10/08)

The MAIA project has developed a non-intrusive brain-computer interface (BCI) that could give more independence to people whose mobility is limited by spinal injuries or neurodegenerative conditions by allowing them to manipulate objects and perform tasks through an electrode-studded headpiece that picks up brain signals. Unlike other BCIs, the MAIA system's operation is supplemented by artificial intelligence. The MAIA trials had users guide a wheelchair around obstacles, but the wheelchair itself boasted AI protocols to spare users from the responsibility of avoiding collisions and allow them to focus exclusively on direction. MAIA coordinator Jose del R. Millan says the purpose of the experiment was to determine how often the wheelchair's movements were controlled by the user's thoughts and how often they were directed by the AI component. During testing, the wheelchair took control 10 percent to 40 percent of the time depending on the user and the environment. The chair can recognize from the user's brain waves if it has made an error and send feedback to users about direction via tactile devices. "We have demonstrated that it is possible for someone to control a complex mechanical device with their mind, and this opens up all sorts of possibilities," Millan says.
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The Art of Cataloging Art
Computerworld (03/10/08) Vol. 42, No. 11, P. 36; Pratt, Mary K.

The J. Paul Getty Trust aimed to address a lack of cataloging tools in the art community with the provision of its Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT). "It was to provide a standardized tool, to provide a central point so everyone creating these terms can contribute them to one vocabulary, and we in turn could make them available to the entire community," says Murtha Baca, who directs the Getty Research Institute's Getty Vocabularies program. The trust's information technology services unit has developed a thesaurus construction and publication system that currently supports the Getty's Global Art Resources, a Web-based resource that includes the three volumes that make up the AAT. In addition to the AAT, the Getty created the Thesaurus of Geographic Names and the Union List of Artist Names, and project manager Joan Cobb says one of the first challenges was putting all three resources onto a single system prior to their release on the Internet--a task complicated by the lack of suitable commercial applications. The Getty built the Vocabulary Coordination System (VCS), which yields a single production system that lets Getty staff gather, analyze, edit, merge, and circulate terminology produced by Getty departments and contributors at other institutions. In addition to the VCS, the Getty's technical staff currently supports the Getty Vocabularies on the Web, Web-based forms for the automated contribution of single records, programs to automatically load batches of contributed data in XML format, and programs to generate annual exports in XML, relational tables, and the Machine-readable Cataloging format for institutions and commercial entities that license datasets.
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