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ACM TechNews
June 4, 2008

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Welcome to the June 4, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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ACM Elects New Leaders Committed to International Initiatives
AScribe Newswire (06/03/08)

Wendy Hall, a professor of computer science at the University of Southampton, U.K., has been elected president of ACM. Hall says her goal for her two-year term is to help ACM reach its full potential by expanding international initiatives and increasing gender diversity in all aspects of computing. Also elected to two-year terms were SceneCaster.com CEO Alain Chesnais who will serve as Vice President, and Virginia Tech Head of the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering Barbara Ryder, who will act as Secretary-Treasurer. The election of officers by ACM's worldwide membership of nearly 90,000 computing professionals and students is the culmination of six years of increased efforts aimed at guaranteeing the health of the computing discipline and the profession. Over the past two years, ACM has opened an office in Beijing, China, established the Education Policy Committee, and launched a project with the WGBH Education Foundation, run by the Boston public broadcasting station, to enhance the image of computer science among high school students in the U.S., focusing on Latina girls and African-American boys. Hall, a former president of the British Computing Society, and a researcher with many international connections, is committed to guiding ACM toward more initiatives in India and China, as well as in rethinking the society's relationship with Europe, and exploring relevant opportunities in South America and other parts of the world. Alain Chesnais says the international arena is a key challenge for ACM, and is committed to helping ACM expand its role as an international organization. Chesnais also supports expanding ACM's online presence to better serve the needs of young researchers and practitioners.
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Groundbreaking University of California, San Diego Research Study to Measure 'How Much Information?' Is in the World
University of California, San Diego (06/03/08) Jagoda, Barry

The type and amount of information businesses and consumers generate globally will be the focus of a new three-year study led by researchers at the University of California, San Diego. "Experts say that we live in an information economy, but how much information is there, and do countries count and value information comparably?" asks Peter F. Cowhey, dean of the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS), which is the home of UCSD's Global Information Industry Center (GIIC). Researchers have already studied information in terms of countable bits and bytes and its growth, but next-generation studies call for a focus on the implications of information growth, says Cowhey. The Jacobs School of Engineering and the San Diego Supercomputer Center will provide support for the How Much Information (HMI) program, which will also receive contributions from specialists at MIT and University of California, Berkeley, and industry experts from AT&T, Cisco Systems, IBM, LSI, Oracle, Seagate Technology, and PARC. HMI ultimately is about learning how information works, HMI program co-leader James Short adds. "How information works is about measuring and counting the uses and applications driving the massive increases in networking and data growth, allowing businesses and consumers to use information more effectively to make better decisions," he says.
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Anita Borg Institute Announces Registration Is Open for 2008 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing
Business Wire (06/03/08)

The first woman to be named an IBM Fellow and the first CTO of One Laptop per Child (OLPC) will give the keynote addresses for the world's largest conference for women in computing. Fran Allen, IBM Fellow Emerita and 2007 Turing Award winner, is an expert on compilers, compiler optimization, parallelism, and high-performance systems. Mary Lou Jepsen, who developed the sunlight-readable display technology and co-invented the power management system for the low-cost computers, has since launched the for-profit company Pixel Qi to bring the OLPC technologies to the commercial market. Registration for the 8th Annual Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing conference is now open, and early bird discounts will be available through Aug. 17, 2008. "We Build a Better World" is the theme of the conference, which will recognize the contributions of women in developing and using technology that has improved conditions around the world. The conference is scheduled for Oct. 1-4, at the Keystone Resort in Keystone, Colo., and is expected to draw more than 1,600 women from industry, academia, and government. GHC also will offer more than 88 sessions, invited technical speakers, panels, workshops, new investigator technical papers, Ph.D. forums, technical posters, "birds of a feather" sessions, the ACM Student Research Competition, and an awards celebration.
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Long-Promised, Voice Commands Are Finally Going Mainstream
Wired News (06/04/08) Gelfand, Alexander

Advances in computer power could make voice recognition technology the next big thing in electronic security and user-interface design. A variety of highly advanced speech technologies, such as emotion and lie detection, are finally moving from the lab to the marketplace. Datamonitor analyst Daniel Hong says the technology is not new, but it took a long time for Moore's Law to make the technology viable. Voice biometrics is a particularly promising area. Every individual has a unique voice print that is determined by the physical characteristics of his or her vocal tract. Analyzing speech samples for individual acoustic features allows voice biometrics to verify a speaker's identity either in person or over the phone. The technology has also been useful in other ways. For example, when the Australian social services agency Centrelink started using voice biometrics to authenticate users of its automated phone system, the software identified welfare fraudsters who were claiming multiple benefits, something a password system would never accomplish. Computer scientists have also developed software that can identify emotional states and even truthfulness by analyzing acoustic features such as pitch and intensity, which could be used by law enforcement as lie detectors, or by automated answering systems to switch users to a live representative.
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Exploiting Security Holes Automatically
Technology Review (06/03/08) Naone, Erica

Researchers led by Carnegie Mellon University professor David Brumley have found that software patches could be just as harmful as they are helpful because attackers could use the patches to automatically generate software in as little as 30 seconds that attacks the vulnerabilities the patch is supposed to fix. The malicious software could then be used to attack computers that had not received and installed the patch. Microsoft Research's Christos Gkantsidis says it takes about 24 hours to distribute a patch through Windows Update to 80 percent of the systems that need it. "The problem is that the infrastructure capacity that exists is not enough to serve all the users immediately," Gkantsidis says. "We currently don't have enough technologies that can distribute patches as fast as the worms." This distribution delay gives attackers time to receive a patch, find out what it is fixing, and create and distribute an exploit that will infect computers that have not yet received the patch. The researchers say new methods for distributing patches are needed to make them more secure. Brumley suggests taking steps to hide the changes that a patch makes, releasing encrypted patches that cannot be decrypted until the majority of users have downloaded them, or using peer-to-peer distribution methods to release patches in a single wave.
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The Future Is Now? Pretty Soon, at Least
New York Times (06/03/08) P. D1; Tierney, John

At the World Science Festival in New York, futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted that within five years solar power will be cost-competitive with fossil fuels, that within 10 years there will be a drug that lets people eat whatever they want without gaining weight, that after 15 years life expectancies will keep rising every year faster than people are aging, and that within 20 years all our energy will come from clean sources. Kurzweil also predicts that before 2050 the Singularity will occur, which is when humans and machines will start evolving into immortal beings with ever-improving software. While these predictions may be improbable, Kurzweil's track record has earned him enough credibility for the National Academy of Engineering to publish his forecast for solar energy. Kurzweil makes his predictions based on what he calls the Law of Accelerating Returns, a concept that he illustrates using a history of his own inventions for the blind. In 1976, Kurzweil pioneered a device that could scan books and read them aloud that was, at the time, the size of a washing machine. Two decades ago, Kurzweil predicted that "early in the 21st century" blind people would be able to read anything using a handheld device, and in 2002 he narrowed the date to 2008. At the World Science Festival, Kurzweil unveiled a cell phone-sized device that was able to read aloud a brochure for the science festival. "Certain aspects of technology follow amazingly predictable trajectories," Kurzweil says, illustrating his point with graphs that track the progress of computer technology and the explosive growth of the Internet, highlighting how the technology doubles every two years, then eventually every year.
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Trinity Researchers Collaborate With CRC on Virtual Dublin
TechCentral.ie (Ireland) (06/03/08)

Trinity College Dublin researchers from the School of Computer Science & Statistics are working with staff and students from the Central Remedial Clinic (CRC) school in Clontarf to design a computer game based in a virtual Dublin. The game is part of a four-year project called "Metropolis," funded by the Science Foundation Ireland. The researchers are creating a virtual Dublin to explore new technologies that may be required for future online communication, collaboration, and entertainment. The interdisciplinary project combines computer graphics, engineering, and cognitive neuroscience. The project's primary objective is to apply principles of human multi-sensory perception to create a highly realistic depiction of a virtual urban environment. The project will be useful to urban planning projects, developing assistive technology for people with disabilities, and virtual entertainment. Metropolis principal investigator professor Carol O'Sullivan says the idea for the game came from one of the students, Conor Nolan, who has attended the CRC school since he was three. Conor, who was born with spina bifida, enjoys games that involve driving, flying, and other vehicle and movement activities. The project team saw his interest as an excellent opportunity to illustrate how interactive entertainment technology could be used for educational and therapeutic purposes.
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Microrobotic Ballet
Duke University News & Communications (06/02/08)

Duke University researchers have developed autonomous, self-organizing microscopic robots. "It's marvelous to be able to do assembly and control at this fine resolution with such very, very tiny things," says Duke professor Bruce Donald. Each microrobot is shaped similarly to a spatula, but measures only a few millionths of a meter. The microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) microrobots are almost 100 times smaller than any previous robotic designs of their kind, Donald says. The researchers produced one video in which two microrobots are dancing to a Strauss waltz on a dance floor only 1 millimeter in size, and another video in which the devices pivot in a precise fashion whenever the microrobots drop their boom-like steering arms down to the surface. The research group's latest accomplishment was getting five of the devices to group-maneuver in cooperation under the same control system. Donald says the research is the first implementation of an untethered, multi-microrobot system. The microrobots are built with microchip fabrication techniques and are designed to respond differently to the same single global control signal. Donald says a key to the research was designing multiple microrobots that all work independently, even while they receive the same power and control, which is accomplished through slightly different dimensions and stiffness levels in each microrobot.
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Malicious Software Threatens Internet Economy
New Scientist (06/02/08) Barras, Colin; Simonite, Tom

Malicious software is a growing threat to national economies and security interests, concludes an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report. The report says communities that fight malware only manage to offer a fragmented local response to what is a global threat, noting that about one in four personal computers in the United States, or 59 million PCs, is already infected with malware. Furthermore, a booming malware market is making it easier to launch cheaper and more sophisticated attacks. Zombie computers infected by malware are used to send out roughly 80 percent of all spam, and to attack commercial Web sites and other Internet-linked systems with crippling amounts of traffic as part of extortion schemes. Although the largest botnets have included up to 1 million computers, and the number of computers infected is increasing, OECD found that the number of computers in each botnet is actually shrinking to avoid detection. OECD says that international organizations and agreements are needed to properly measure and counteract the impact of malware attacks.
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Perception Gap Fuels Skills Shortage
Silicon Republic (05/29/08) Smith, Gordon

The United States is not the only company suffering from a technology-skills shortage: Ireland has many well-paying jobs opportunities in the IT sector that are going unfilled because the country is not producing enough skilled computing graduates to fill the available positions. This is not the first time that such a skills shortage has occurred, but there are troubling signs that this time could be more deeply embedded than before. At Dublin City University (DCU), which has one of the most respected computing courses in the country, 224 people graduated from its computing course in 2005; in 2006 that number dropped to 92, and in 2007 it fell again to 78. DCU professor Michael Ryan says the numbers applying to study computing dropped by more than 70 percent in the space of two years, fewer than 80 students are expected to graduate in computing this year, and between now and 2010 the number of graduates will be in the 70s. Irish Software Association director Shane Dempsey says that the current trend will lead to a skills gap that could threaten the future of the industry. The problem is not the quality of the graduates being produced, but the quantity. "We see a lot of great talent coming out of third-level education in Ireland, but unfortunately the overall numbers are falling and that's something we should be concerned about," says Fiona Mullen of Microsoft Ireland. "We need to continue to encourage higher-skilled graduates and Ph.Ds in the area of computer science." The ISA has identified weaknesses in teaching math at the secondary level as a reason why many students do not pursue science, engineering, and computing courses. The industry is also working to promote the sector as a good career destination by raising awareness among parents, career guidance counselors, and students. Mullen says more can be done to create interest in careers in technology, and that people inside the industry have to be better at selling the fantastic opportunities for innovating and working in the technology sector.
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Holodeck 1.0? Star Trek-Style 3-D Displays Make Their Debut
ICT Results (06/04/08)

European researchers are working on the COHERENT project, an interactive 3D environment similar to Star Trek's famous holodeck. The European Union-funded project has developed HoloViso, a commercial 3D display that will enable designers to visualize 3D models of cars, engines, or components, and enable them to manipulate the models through gesture recognition by waving their hands. "The aim of the COHERENT project was to create a new networked holographic audio-visual platform to support real-time collaborative 3D interaction between geographically distributed teams," says researcher Akos Demeter. The researchers based COHERENT's display component on holographic techniques that can present realistic animated 3D images to an unlimited number of freely moving viewers. Users do not need to wear goggles, and the 3D image is maintained as users move around. In addition to the display, the researchers developed applications that show off the system's potential. For example, the COMEDIA application uses raw data from medical imaging devices to create 3D models of anatomy. Meanwhile, a COHERENT scan of the statue David shows that the eyes diverge, indicating Michelangelo may have wanted to present two different faces of the same character.
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Word/Logic Bank to Help Build 'Thinking' Machines
NIST Tech Beat (05/28/08)

Experts in word meanings and in the use of words to build actionable machine commands have agreed to develop a "concept bank" that would assist programmers in their efforts to build thinking machines. The Open Ontology Repository (OOR) would be an Internet facility for storing, retrieving, and connecting to a wide range of collections of concepts, or ontologies, such as dictionaries, compendiums of medical terminology, and classifications of products. Programmers developing an application for manufacturing machines, for example, would be able to search multiple computer languages and formats for the unambiguous words and action commands. The OOR would offer support for standard Internet languages as well as advanced logic systems such as Resource Description Framework, Web Ontology Language, and Common Logic. "It will save enormous amounts of time and money and facilitate new, complex systems in all sectors for manufacturing control, supply chain management, and even biomedical management systems," says NIST's Steve Ray.
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A $5300 PC Challenges $4.6 Million Supercomputer
TG Daily (05/30/08) Gruener, Wolfgang

Vision Lab researchers at the University of Antwerp have developed Fastra, an advanced PC that outperforms a multimillion dollar supercomputer at its target application. Fastra was created with a focus on the development of new computational methods for tomography, a technique used in medical scanners to create 3D images of the internal organs of patients. The images are based on a large number of x-ray photos taken from different angles, which uses advanced reconstruction techniques to create 3D images, requiring significant amounts of computing time. Fastra uses four graphics cards, which have a total of eight GPU cores, that run CUDA-optimized tomography applications. Compared to the 512-processor, $4.6 million CalcUA supercomputer purchased in 2005, the PC easily keeps pace. The projection of image slices took 23.4 seconds on the supercomputer and 35.1 seconds on the PC, and the reconstruction of slices took 67.4 seconds on the supercomputer and only 52.2 seconds on the Fastra. The Vision Lab researchers believe that real-time construction of images is possible using GPU processors and is building a cluster of such systems. Nevertheless, computer scientists working with GPUs and supercomputers say that future supercomputers are unlikely to completely transition to GPU clusters, and instead they predict the rise of hybrid systems that combine traditional supercomputing and GPU capabilities.
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Simulation Challenge: Mimicking Earth and the Brain
EE Times (05/28/08) Tippu, Sufia

Simulating the human brain and the Earth's climate are two of the most important challenges facing scientists today, says Robert Bishop, chairman of the advisory board to the Blue Brain Project, a 10-year collaborative research initiative between Ecole Polytechnique Fdrale de Lausanne (EPFL) and IBM. The two organizations are collaborating on simulating the brain, a project that started about two years ago. Bishop says the project needs six to seven more years as it moves up the mammalian chain from mouse, rat, cat, primate, and finally the human brain. "If we were able to understand the architecture and functioning of the human brain accurately, it is quite possible that we could eventually mimic the brain in our own semiconductor design," Bishop says. "If we were able to understand the architecture and functioning of planet Earth in all of its detail, then we could ultimately predict natural disasters before they occur." The human brain contains well over 100 billion neurons and more than 100 trillion synapses that need to be modeled. Modeling the Earth is an equally difficult task, with countless substances and materials that interact to create complex structures and processes. Bishop says governments and other institutions need to work harder to advance simulation technology.
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ICANN Makes a Very British Compromise Over Net Policing
Guardian (UK) (05/29/08) Sarson, Richard

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is the closest thing the Internet has to a governing body. The IGF, which consists of carriers, ISPs, governments, and international organizations, meets once a year to discuss issues and advise the organizations that run different aspects of the Internet, including ICANN. The IGF was set up in 2005 as a compromise between governments that believed the Internet was too fast-moving to police bureaucratically and those who were concerned that the United States had too much control. Not much was achieved at the first IGF meeting in 2006, but the 2007 meeting in Rio de Janeiro was a success. About 1,600 delegates attended workshops that covered a variety of topics, including expanding Internet infrastructure, helping emerging countries build their Internet, and how to prevent the sexual abuse of children. DTI minister Alun Michael is taking steps to create an IGF for the United Kingdom, which will give more stakeholders a chance to voice their opinions. A spokesperson for Nominet, the UK domain name registry, said that national IGFs would help introduce new ideas and viewpoints to the international meetings. The international bodies involved in governing the Internet are already becoming more global and using the IGF to encourage wider participation.
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Academics to Make Science Fiction Fact
Newcastle Journal (UK) (05/29/08) Wood, Sam

Technology companies are showing interest in a new approach to security and privacy that has a device act somewhat as an electronic "pet." Called biometric daemons, the technology is designed to store personal information that would be carried by the owner at all times. About the size of a card, the device would be able to recognize the owner by the way he or she walks, their fingerprint, voice print, and other unique indicators, and would allow it to be used to obtain money from an ATM or gain access to a building. "As soon as the daemon is away from its owner it will realize, become 'unhappy,' and make some kind of signal such as a noise or something similar," says Newcastle University computer scientist Patrick Olivier. "It will not be able to be used and would eventually die if it wasn't reunited with its owner." Olivier, who believes the device is as secure as biometric systems and is not a privacy concern because no other organization would have the data, says he still has to find a way to shrink the technology on to something about the size of a credit card. The inspiration for biometric daemons was borrowed from a concept in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series.
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Weizmann Institute Scientists Produce the First Smell Map
Weizmann Institute of Science (05/27/08)

Scientists at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, have created a multidimensional map of smells that can be used to determine the relative distance between odors. The researchers started with 250 odorants and created a list of about 1,600 chemical characteristics for each, before reducing the number of traits to about 40. They considered whether the brain recognized the map, reviewed previous research on the neural response patterns of smells in lab animals, and discovered that two smells that are close on the map tend to have similar neural patterns. A test to predict the neural patterns of odors showed that the results were close to the unpublished work of University of Tokyo researchers involved in olfaction experiments. Rafi Haddad, a graduate student with professor Noam Sobel in the Neurobiology Department, professor David Harel of the Computer Science and Applied Mathematics Department, and their colleague Rehan Khan led the project, and they believe there are universal laws that govern the organization of smells and the way the brain perceives them. Also, odors might be digitized and transferred via computer in the years to come, as a result of the research.
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The Semantics of the Dublin Core--Metadata for Knowledge Management
Semantic Report (05/08) Cho, Allan

Computer scientists and software engineers have talked about the Semantic Web (SemWeb) extensively, but Allan Cho of the University of British Columbia's Irving K. Barber Learning Centre writes that the work of the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI) has often flown under the radar. The DCMI has been promoting widespread acceptance of interoperable metadata standards for 13 years, and develops specialized metadata vocabularies for representing resources that facilitate more intelligent information discovery systems. The Dublin Core has furnished a Metadata Element Set for describing things online so that they are easier to find, and the simplicity of this suite of elements has enabled the core to be used with other types of materials, and for applications demanding increased complexity. Cho writes that the role the Dublin Core has played in knowledge management activity representation will be a significant factor in the advent of the SemWeb. "Since SemWeb rules add a high level of automation to the processing of business documents across companies, the SemWeb will be significant in the future of [business-to-business], particularly since metadata plays a critical role in investments in data warehousing, data mining, business intelligence, customer relationship management, enterprise application integration, and knowledge management," he writes. The investigation of metadata issues that the business community is specifically interested in was the goal of a special interest group, and following that workshop the DCMI embarked on an effort to engage members of the corporate world in the development and application of the Dublin Core standard.
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