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ACM TechNews
April 14, 2008

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Welcome to the April 14, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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N.J. Voting Technology in Question After Discrepancies in February Vote
Daily Princetonian (04/14/08) Wolff, Josephine

An investigation into discrepancies recorded by several of New Jersey's electronic voting machines shows that some of the tallies from February's primary elections may not add up. On April 8th, a court subpoenaed electronic voting machines used for the primary elections in six New Jersey counties, questioning the accuracy and security of the machines. Later that day, Sequoia Voting Systems, the manufacturer of the machines, filed a motion to suppress the subpoenas, arguing that the subpoenas sought to test their machines under "unknown circumstances and protocols," which could unfairly undermine the reputation of Sequoia's machines and the public's confidence in election results. The controversy surrounding the New Jersey primaries started in March, when a Union County clerk noticed that the number of Democratic and Republican voters recorded by the DRE paper reports generated after the election did not match the number of votes cast in each primary on those machines. For example, one machine recorded that 60 Republican and 362 Democrat ballots were activated, but 61 votes were cast for Republican candidates and only 361 were cast for Democrats. Princeton University professor Ed Felten says it is not the size of discrepancy that is alarming, but that a single machine is disagreeing with itself on how many voters voted. Similar discrepancies have been discovered on at least eight other machines in Union County and several more throughout the state. Sequoia has issued a memo blaming the discrepancies on New Jersey poll workers.
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Robots, Our New Friends Electric?
Guardian Unlimited (UK) (04/14/08) Jha, Alok

Engineers, psychologists, and computer scientists from across Europe this week will start Lirec, a European Union-backed project that aims to develop the first robot personalities. "What we're looking at here is long-term interactions between people and robots in real situations," says Lirec coordinator Peter McOwan of Queen Mary, University of London. "The big question is: What sort of properties does a synthetic companion need to have so that you feel you want to engage in a relationship with it over an extended period of time?" Lirec (Living with Robots and Interactive Companions) is a collaborative project between 10 university partners from seven countries that will run for just over four years. In the future, McOwan imagines robots that help around the house and act as companions, capable of tasks such as ordering groceries online. Robotic personalities could also be used to assist the elderly. A concept called "spirit of the house" would use an artificial intelligence with personality to make sure elderly residents have not fallen or forgotten to take their pills. University of Hertfordshire artificial intelligence professor Kerstin Dautenhahn has developed a robot in the shape of a two-year-old boy capable of making facial expressions and playing simple games. Dautenhahn created a study in which a home-help robot interacts with volunteers so researchers can study how people make longer-term relationships with machines. The study has found that the look of the robot should depend on the person it mostly interacts with, with extroverts preferring humanoid robots and introverts preferring more mechanical robots.
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He Wrote 200,000 Books (But Computers Did Some of the Work)
New York Times (04/14/08) P. C1; Cohen, Noam

Insead professor Philip M. Parker has developed computer algorithms that collect publicly available information on a subject and, with the help of 60 to 70 computers and six or seven programmers, combine the results into books in a variety of genres, printing them only when a customer buys one. Parker has generated more than 200,000 books using his technique, making him "the most published author in the history of the planet," he says. Parker says medical libraries collect nearly everything he produces. He has expanded the technique to crossword puzzles, rudimentary poetry, and scripts for animated game shows. Parker admits that his books are essentially worthless to someone who is good at using the Internet, but that there are people who are not Internet savvy who find the books useful. Artificial intelligence researchers say computers are far from being able to substitute for what the general public would consider authors. Rutgers computer science professor Chung-chieh Shan says being able to write a text with the variety one would expect from a typical human English speaker is actually the holy grail of computer linguistics, and Parker's program falls somewhere between there and a more simple program capable of automatically writing a telephone directory.
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A Field Guide to Genetic Programming
Press Release (04/14/08) Poli, Riccardo; Langdon, William B.; McPhee, Nicholas Freitag

The automated programming technique known as genetic programming (GP) is the subject of "A Field Guide to Genetic Programming," a new book by Riccardo Poli, William B. Langdon, and Nicholas Freitag McPhee. GP is a systematic, domain-independent method that computers can use to solve problems automatically, starting from a high-level statement of the task, says Poli, a professor in the Department of Computing and Electronic Systems at the University of Essex. The technique makes use of ideas from natural evolution, initially starting from random computer programs, then refines them through processes that are similar to mutation and sexual recombination, and the result is high-fitness solutions. Users do not have to know or specify the form or structure of the solution in advance, Poli says. Novel scientific discoveries and patentable inventions have already emerged from GP. The book is available for free under a Creative Commons license.
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Google Aims to Penetrate the Deep Web With HTML Forms Crawling
Computerworld (04/11/08) Havenstein, Heather

Google has been using HTML forms such as drop-down boxes and select menus to find Web pages in the "Deep Web," content that is otherwise invisible to search engines. The company sees HTML forms crawling as another way to improve its coverage of the Web, and says the ability to lead users to documents in the Deep Web ultimately will enhance the search experience. With text boxes, computers automatically select words from the site that has the form; and for select menus, check boxes, and radio buttons on the form, the crawling and indexing team selects from among the values of the HTML. "Having chosen the values for each input, we generate and then try to crawl URLs that correspond to a possible query a user may have made," say Google's Jayant Madhavan and Alon Halevy in a blog post. "If we ascertain that the Web page resulting from our query is valid, interesting, and includes content not in our index, we may include it in our index much as we would include any other Web page." The team does not engage sites that include instructions against crawling, and omits forms that require passwords or personal information. The method does not affect page ranking.
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DHS Offers First Take on Cyber Storm Exercise
IDG News Service (04/10/08) McMillan, Robert

Roughly 2,500 emergency response managers from government agencies and companies in the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand took part in Cyber Storm II, a week-long cybersecurity simulation held by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The simulation featured several mock attacks on computer and transportation systems. In one of the simulated attacks, a disgruntled employee of a chemical company sabotaged his former employer's computer network. In addition to responding to the attack, participants also had to monitor the simulated media responses to the incident and determine the level of hearsay in news reports. Dow Chemical's Christine Adams says the simulation allowed emergency response managers to determine whether their plans worked as they expected them to, and if people responded to an incident in the manner that planners expected them to. "You think you know how people are going to respond ... but they surprise you sometimes," says Michigan CISO Daniel Lohrmann, a Cyber Storm II participant. The DHS is not planning to release specific information about the simulation until it releases the after-report, which is expected in August at the earliest. Another simulation, dubbed Cyber Storm III, is being planned for 2010.
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CMU at Forefront in Building Thinking Machines
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (04/06/08) Houser, Mark

Carnegie Mellon University is at the vanguard of efforts to create intelligent machines, and one CMU initiative focuses on building robots that can work in teams, with the goal of trouncing the world's champion soccer team by 2050. Other CMU artificial intelligence projects include driverless vehicles, computer vision, speech recognition, imbuing computers with creativity, and brain simulation. CMU professor Alexei Efros is expected to introduce a computer program that guesses where a photo was shot by comparing the image to millions of others posted on an Internet-sharing site where users mark their images with location coordinates. A vastly enhanced Google-like search engine that not only looks for matching words on Web pages but also reads and understands the pages and drafts a summary is the brainchild of researchers Jaime Carbonell and Anatole Gershman. Meanwhile, CMU's Tom Mitchell and Marcel Just earned a private grant of $1.1 million to map neurons in the human brain that are stimulated by thoughts about individual objects, with the aim of mapping the neural pattern for all English common and abstract nouns. "My guess is that there's nothing in principle that makes it impossible for computers to be intelligent," Mitchell says. "It's just our own stupidity and our inability thus far to figure out how to do it."
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Sun Labs Open House Highlights Community Contribution to Research Projects
HPC Wire (04/10/08)

Sun Microsystems Laboratories' recent open house included demonstrations of the lab's current research projects, including Project Wonderland, a toolkit for building 3D virtual worlds, and Project Fortress, a new high-performance computing programming language. "Sun Labs has delivered measurable and results-oriented innovation through its history and by increasingly adding collaboration to our innovation, we're taking the our research projects even further," says Sun Labs director Bob Sproull. "Our open-sourced prototypes are effectively building communities of research partners, inviting participation and disruptive thinking from developers outside of Sun Labs and the broader Sun community." Other research projects underway at Sun include Project Darkstar, a Java-based software infrastructure platform designed to simplify the development and operation of massively scalable online games, virtual worlds, and social networking applications; and Project Caroline, which includes research into technologies for rapid and efficient development and delivery of dynamically scalable Internet-based services. Other projects include Project Sun SPOT (Small Programmable Object Technology), a Java-based platform for developing wireless sensor, robotics, and swarm intelligence applications.
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Tai-Chi - Future Interactive Interface
The Future of Things (04/10/08) Rattner, Ehud

European human-computer interaction researchers are trying to create tangible interfaces that will make computer interaction possible via augmented physical surfaces, graspable objects, and ambient media such as walls and tabletops. The goal is to make interaction natural and eliminate the need for a handheld device. The Tangible Acoustic Interfaces for Computer Human Interaction (Tai-Chi) Project is currently researching acoustics-based remote-sensing technologies with the goal of transferring information pertaining to an interaction by using the structure of the object as the transmission channel. Possible applications could include wall-sized touch panels, three-dimensional interfaces, and robust interactive screens capable of withstanding harsh environments. The project's goal is to develop acoustics-based remote-sensing technology that could be adapted to physical objects to create tangible interfaces. Tai-Chi project scientists say users will be able to communicate freely with a computer, interactive system, or the cyber-world using ordinary, everyday objects. The project is developing different methods for contact-point localization. Efforts include utilizing the location-signature embedded in the acoustic wave patterns caused by content, and triangulation and acoustic holography.
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Software Program Helps the Disabled
University of Southern California (04/10/08) Guerrero, Jean

Project:Possibility, a nonprofit organization created at the University of Southern California last year, is working to develop free and accessible software for the disabled community. Project:Possibility chair Christopher Leung, a USC computer science graduate, says he started the organization because he wanted to use his engineering skills for a worthy cause and encourage others to do the same. Leung says Project:Possibility will develop programs to help disabled people complete everyday tasks, such as helping the visually impaired dial calls on a cell phone or type words on a keyboard. Last November, 30 students met for the project's first event, a competition called "SS12, Code for a Cause," in which they were given 24 hours to create useful software for the disabled community. Project:Possibility is now giving students 12 weeks to create whatever is feasible that will empower users in some way. The 25 student developers have been divided into five groups, each under the direction of a representative from Google, Amgen, or NASA. Software under development includes a search engine specifically designed to help people find technology for the disabled, a cell phone currency reader for people with visual impairments, a gesture recognition program that will translate movement into computer actions, a Web captioning system, and word prediction software that predicts the words people are trying to type based on eye movements directed toward an on-screen keyboard.
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Cryptographers Speak of Threats, Voting, and Blu-Ray Rumors
CNet (04/08/08) Vamosi, Robert

The creators of the Diffie-Hellman key exchange and the EMC security division discussed the state of security over the past year and answered questions posed by a moderator during the annual cryptographers' panel at RSA 2008 in San Francisco. Sun Microsystems' Whitfield Diffie said pure defense does not work on the Internet, and added that the government might consider going after opponents where they live and using different ways to shut them down. Stanford University professor Martin Hellman said thinking something is 99.9 percent safe is the greatest risk, and he warned about becoming complacent. MIT professor Ronald Rivest, who is part of a group that has released a public proposal on voting system standards, said he favors software-independent voting systems, which do not entirely depend on software and use paper or another way to capture votes. Meanwhile, Weizmann Institute of Science professor Adi Shamir said the rumor that Blu-Ray offers better overall security than HD DVD could be a sign that security is becoming a factor in consumer electronics.
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Professor Studies Use of Robot Teams for Rescue, Soccer
Daily Texan (04/10/08) Winchester, Lauren

After developing a team of soccer playing robots, University of Texas (UT) at Austin professor Peter Stone will turn his attention to collaborative rescue missions. Stone recently received a 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship, and he plans to spend a year in Israel to study the use of teams of robots for rescue situations following natural disasters. "At a disaster scene, people go and look for victims, but it is less risky for the building to collapse on robots," says Stone, in reference to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "People brought in individual robots to help with the rescue." The reason why robots are often unable to coordinate and share information with each other is because they are programmed by different people. Stone started the UT Austin Villa robotic soccer team in 2002, and this effort would inspire his research into the interaction of robots programmed by different individuals. The UT Austin soccer robots were programmed by the same group, but Stone had to figure out a way to get the robots to play against other teams that were programmed differently.
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Open Source 3D Printer Copies Itself
Computerworld New Zealand (04/08/08) Hedquist, Ulrika

The Replicating Rapid-prototyper printer (RepRap) is an open source, self-copying 3D printer that works by building objects in layers of plastic, primarily polylactic acid, a bio-degradable polymer made from lactic acid. Unlike existing prototyping printers, RepRap can replicate and update itself, including printing its own parts, says RepRap software developer Vik Olliver. The RepRap development team, is spread throughout New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. By making the project open source, the team hopes to be able to continue to improve the machine until it can do what people want it to do. Improvements received by the team are then sent back to users, allowing RepRap to evolve as a whole. A recent feature added to RepRap are heads that can be changed for different kinds of plastic. Olliver says a head that deposits low melting-point metal is in development, which means low melting-point metal could be put inside higher melting-point plastic, allowing for the production of structures such as motors. RepRap could also allow people to build circuits in 3D and in various shapes. Having the machine be able to copy itself is the most useful feature the team can give it and is the primary goal of the project, Olliver says.
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Memory in Artificial Atoms
University of Copenhagen (04/07/08)

Nano-physicists Jonas Hauptmann, Jens Paaske, and Poul Erik Lindelof with the Nano-Science Center and the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen have demonstrated that when using carbon nanotubes as transistors a single electron spin can be controlled. "One can picture this single electron spin caught on the nanotube as an artificial atom," Hauptmann says. For several years, researchers have considered direct electrical control over a single electron spin to be a theoretical possibility, but the Copenhagen team has demonstrated the mechanism in practice for the first time. Their new transistor concept makes use of a carbon nanotube or a single organic molecule, rather than the traditional semiconductor transistor. "Our discovery shows that the new transistor can function as a magnetic memory," Paaske says, which will allow much faster and more accurate computer data storage in the future.
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EC to Encourage 'Internet of Things' Standards
Using RFID (04/07/08)

Global standards, regulatory, and other issues concerning radio frequency identification and its role in making an "Internet of Things" a reality will be the focus of a strategic EU-funded 7th Framework effort that will include the participation of a group of international partners representing Europe, the United States, Japan, Korea, and China. Coordination and Support Action for Global RFID-related Activities and Standardization (CASAGRAS) says the construction of a "global integrated intelligent infrastructure that will exploit developments in pervasive networking and interfacing with the physical world through existing and future developments in RFID and associated technologies" is the goal of the initiative, and it is the group's intention to supply a framework of foundation studies to help the European Commission and the global community define and address international issues and developments relating to RFID, with a specific concentration on the Internet of Things. The CASAGRAS partners will engage in a review of standards and procedures for international standardization tied in with RFID, regulatory issues and global numbering systems in relation to RFID standards, RFID utilization's socioeconomic elements, application and standards areas, functional developments and associated standards, and RFID's implications for ubiquitous computing, networking, and the Internet of Things. The RFID Global networking facility will be established in alliance with the new European Center for automatic identification and data capture for the purpose of enabling global RFID stakeholders' participation and contribution to program development.
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Standardizing the Brain-Machine Interface
IEEE Spectrum (04/08) Vol. 45, No. 4, P. 16; Peck, Morgen E.

Operating a neural prosthetic requires algorithms to decode brain signals in order to drive whatever device the subject is attempting to move or manipulate by thought, and some people in the field of brain-machine interface research say the time has come to develop a standard decoder algorithm. One project in this vein is an effort led by MIT computer scientist Lakshminarayan Srinivasan, whose goal is to unify elements from all algorithms designed at major brain-machine interface labs in an attempt to create a generic approach that supports and augments each design. Approaches to neural prosthetics have varied across different projects, with some interfaces featuring direct brain or skull implants and others featuring electrodes attached to the scalp. Srinivasan's algorithms have performed as well or better than those he sought to bring together, at least in simulation. But simulation is no measure for evaluating an algorithm, says Duke University Medical Center engineer Mikhail Lebedev. Brain-machine interfaces involve the adaptation of the brain and the algorithms to one another. The brain also learns, to a certain degree, how to game the algorithms' rules to achieve the desired outcome, so the algorithms' performance cannot be completely predicted. Srinivasan says he is currently learning electrophysiology methods and will soon begin human tests of his algorithms.
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