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ACM TechNews
June 9, 2008

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Welcome to the June 9, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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American Military Supercomputer Sets Speed Record
New York Times (06/09/08) P. C7; Markoff, John

An American military supercomputer created from components originally designed for video-game machines has passed the petaflop threshold by processing more than 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second. "This is equivalent to the four-minute mile of supercomputing," says University of Tennessee computer scientist Jack Dongarra. The Roadrunner is more than twice as fast as the previous fastest computer, the IBM BlueGene/L based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Roadrunner cost $133 million to build and will be used primarily to solve classified military problems to ensure the nation's stockpile of nuclear weapons will continue to work correctly as they age. The simulations will examine the first fraction of a second during a weapons detonation. Before the supercomputer is placed in a classified environment it will be used to explore scientific problems such as climate change. The Roadrunner is based on a radical design that uses 12,960 modified IBM Cell microprocessors, a chip originally created for Sony's PlayStation 3 video-game console. Roadrunner consumes roughly 3 megawatts of power and requires three different programming tools because it uses three types of processors. Programmers need to be able to keep all of the 116,640 processor cores in the machine simultaneously occupied so the computer runs efficiently. "Roadrunner tells us about what will happen in the next decade," says Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory director Horst Simon. "Technology is coming from the consumer electronics market and the innovation is happening first in terms of cell phones and embedded electronics."
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MSU Research: The More 'Wired' the Hospital, the Happier the Patients
Michigan State University Newsroom (06/05/08)

Patients at wired hospitals tend to be happier with their health care experience than other patients, reports Michigan State University professor Pamela Whitten. In an analysis of patient-satisfaction surveys from 1,382 hospitals across the country, Whitten found that most patients expressed higher overall satisfaction with 42 medical centers. The 42 medical facilities were listed on the 2005 "most wired" list from Hospital and Health Networks. "Patients from the most-wired hospitals reported higher satisfaction related to the admission process, their experiences with physicians, and personal issues such as sensitivity and pain," Whitten says. With information technology, hospitals will be able to improve care and evaluate their performance, Whitten says. "It's all about using technology in ways that enable health care providers to use information to better manage patient care throughout the hospital experience," she says. The research appears in the April 2008 edition of Communications of the ACM.
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Prototype of Machine That Copies Itself Goes on Show
University of Bath (06/04/08)

An open-source prototype machine has successfully reproduced a set of its own printed parts. The machine, called RepRap, short for replicating rapid-prototyper, uses a technique called additive fabrication to produce 3D objects. The technique uses thin layers of molten plastic that solidify to make objects. The RepRap project was created and is directed by the University of Bath's Adrian Bowyer. "The possibilities are endless. Now, people can make exactly what they want," Bowyer says. "If the design of an existing object does not quite suit their needs, they can easily redesign it on their PC and print that out, instead of making do with a mass-produced second-best design from the shops. They can also print out extra RepRap printers to give to their friends. Then those friends can make what they want too." Both the original RepRap machine and a RepRap machine printed by the original one will be on display at the Cheltenham Science Festival. Complete plans for the prototype RepRap printer, and detailed tutorials to assist motivated amateurs and professionals in the assembly, are available for free at the RepRap Web site.
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Information at Thieves' Fingertips
Times Union (06/05/08) Rulison, Larry

The New York State Cyber Security Conference recently hosted cyber security experts who demonstrated some of today's biggest cyber security threats. University at Albany professor Sanjay Goel and a team of researchers demonstrated how easy it is to steal personal information off of "swipeless" credit cards by using small sensors, a laptop, and special software. "The lesson is that as we advance technology, we're creating new vulnerabilities we're not aware of," Goel says. One of the cards the team demonstrated on was the American Express Blue card, which features a RFID chip to enable quick swipeless payment. American Express spokeswoman Molly Faust says the security measures used in the card and the company's payment system would make any information downloaded from the card useless. Other speakers at the convention discussed threats facing consumers, businesses, and government agencies in the age of wireless Internet and advanced computing technology. Keynote speaker Patrick Gray, a senior security strategist for Cisco Systems and a 20-year veteran of the FBI, says terrorists and nation states are constantly trying to attack the United States and government agencies through cyberspace. New York's cyber security office director William Pelgrin says the threats range from international terrorists to teens trying to pull pranks, though such "pranks" could cause significant damage. "The amount of malicious activity out there is just getting louder and louder," Pelgrin says.
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Adapting Websites to Users
Technology Review (06/09/08) Naone, Erica

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management are working to enable Web sites to automatically adapt to each visitor so the sites present information in a way that each user wants to see it. Although some Web sites already offer personalized features, they primarily use information taken from a user's profile, stored cookies, or lengthy questionnaires. The Sloan system adapts to unknown users within the first few clicks on a Web site by analyzing each user's choices. Sloan professor John Hauser says a Web site running the system would detect a user's cognitive style, watching for traits such as whether or not they are detail oriented, and would adjust accordingly. Every time the system learned something new about the user the Web site would make a subtle change until the Web site suddenly feels more natural, comfortable, and easy to navigate. Hauser says users should not even realize the Web site is being personalized. A prototype developed for British Telecom's Web site is designed so that the first few clicks visitors make are likely to reveal aspects of their cognitive style. For example, the first page users see asks them to choose to compare plans using a chart or to interact with a broadband advisor. Within about 10 clicks, the system understands the user's cognitive style and morphs the Web site. In addition to guessing each user's cognitive style, the system can track which versions of the Web site are most effective for each cognitive style.
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Secret Messages Could Be Hidden in Net Phone Calls
New Scientist (06/02/08) Marks, Paul

Polish information scientists are developing a system for hiding messages in Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone calls. Wojciech Mazurczyk of the Institute of Telecommunications in Warsaw says it is possible to replace some of the voice data packets that someone is sending with a hidden message because VoIP uses the data transmission routine User Datagram Protocol (UDP). With UDP, packets are not guaranteed to arrive in the same order they were sent, and a voice message can survive if some go missing, which means there is an opportunity to embed a message. "We intentionally hold on to secret message packets for some time before sending them," Mazurczyk says of the "steganographic" system for VoIP networks. "This means when they are received they will not be treated as voice packets but as lost ones." Mazurczyk is working with Krzysztof Szczypiorski, and they hope to limit the number of packets needed to maintain audio quality, as degradation would suggest someone may be eavesdropping to pick up a message hidden in a call.
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Little Sensors Are Heavyweights in Rainforest Information Gathering
University of Alberta (06/02/08) Poon, Ileiren

University of Alberta scientists are creating wireless sensor networks for use in remote locations. One of the first projects, called ECOnet, will place small sensors in rainforests in Brazil and Panama this fall. The sensors will form a network that will create a 3D image of what is happening in the atmosphere, says Alberta professor Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa. He says the sensor network is like taking a MRI of the forest. To test the system, six sensors have been placed in the university's Atrium Oasis, a tropical display greenhouse. Data collected during ECOnet is available online for anyone to examine, allowing scientists to collect information daily from remote locations without having to travel. "You can take a snapshot of the environment you're monitoring, or you can get more, long-term data, which will allow scientists to determine if there are certain patterns that emerge or if there are any anomalies occurring," Sanchez-Azofeifa says. The sensors are still evolving, and Sanchez-Azofeifa expects them to become smaller and less expensive to the point where it may be possible to fly over a location and drop thousands of the sensors into the canopy. The sensors are currently powered by small lithium batteries and have a life of about three years, though that may change as well. Sanchez-Azofeifa says the school's computer engineers are working on using the motion of the forest to power the sensors.
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To Fight Cyberwars, Air Force Recruits Part-Time Geeks
Christian Science Monitor (06/05/08) P. 3; Lasker, John

The year-old Air Force Cyber Command (AFCYBER) is striving to recruit enough cyberwarriors to establish the United States' cyber supremacy. The Air Force is recruiting in new places and is relying heavily on the Air National Guard to find enough computer experts. For example, the 262nd Information Warfare Aggressor Squadron, an Air National Guard unit in Washington state, has recruited guardsmen that work at Microsoft, Adobe, and Cisco Systems. Meanwhile, the 177th Information Aggressor Squadron in Kansas draws from Sprint and Boeing. Air Force secretary Michael Wynne says the military must capitalize on the talent and expertise of the Guard and Reserve members who may have direct ties and significant experience in the high-tech industry. In addition to recruiting experienced high-tech workers, the Air Force may make exceptions to their recruitment standards and accept ex-hackers who may have committed computer-related crimes or have a felony conviction for unlawfully cracking a network. The Air Force's focus on cyberwarfare is raising questions abroad over what will happen if the United States deploys offensive operations against foreign Web sites and systems. The Air Force has already hinted that it may use offensive tactics. "The pervasive nature of pro-jihad Web sites represents a tangible and highly visible example of how our adversaries use elements of cyberspace against us," Wynne says. "We cannot allow our adversaries to operate freely there." There are also questions surrounding the military's recruitment of IT professionals. Some worry that cyberwarriors from Cisco or Microsoft could use their inside knowledge of a company's product to help disable a foreign country or that back doors will be written into popular programs.
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Robotics Handbook Explores Past, Present and Future
IT News Australia (06/02/08) Tay, Liz

University of Naples, Italy, professor Bruno Siciliano and Stanford University professor Oussama Khatib have published a "Handbook of Robotics," a book designed to make the increasingly complex field of robotics more accessible to engineers, doctors, computer scientists, and designers. Siciliano says the project was inspired by the rapid growth of robotics, because the increasing amount of publications in journals, conference proceedings, and monographs is making it difficult for those involved in robotics to keep track of the field's developments. The multidisciplinary nature of robotics makes staying current on developments even more difficult, Siciliano says. He says a common denominator in all fields of robotics is the need to operate in a scarcely structured environment, which requires increased abilities and a higher degree of autonomy. Robotics is quickly becoming one of the leading fields in science and technology, and very soon humanity is going to coexist with a new class of technology artifacts, which will usher in a new wave of ethical, social and economic problems, Siciliano says, requiring the creation of Roboethics. Siciliano says Roboethics is an applied ethics with the objective of developing scientific, cultural, and technical tools that can be shared by different social groups. These tools aim to promote and encourage the development of robotics for the advancement of society and individuals and help prevent its misuse.
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Researchers Look to Cut Quantum Cryptography Costs
eWeek (05/29/08) Prince, Brian

National Institute of Standards and Technology researchers are supporting a new method that will lower the cost of quantum key distribution. NIST researchers have outlined a technique called detection-time-bin-shift (DTBS), which is based on NIST's previously developed conventional fiber-based QKD system. DTBS uses time-division multiplexing of a single photon detector between two photon bases in a QKD system. The DTBS QKD system generates sifted keys at a rate of more than 1 Mbps with a quantum bit error rate of less than 2 percent over 1.1 kilometers of fiber. The researchers set up an optical component to make the diagonally polarized photons rotate another 45 degrees so they arrive later and in a separate time bin at the same detector than the horizontal/vertical polarized photons. This means that one pair of detectors can be used to record information from both kinds of polarized photons in succession, reducing the required number of detectors from four to two. In another protocol, called B92, the researchers were able to lower the number of necessary detectors from two to one. The researchers have gone a step further so that the most common polarization-based protocol, known as BB84, now requires one detector instead of four.
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A Flexible Approach to New Displays
ICT Results (06/02/08)

European researchers are working on the FlexiDis project, an effort to create a new generation of robust, flexible displays that can be curved to fit the shape of a product or even rolled up like a magazine. FlexiDis project coordinator Eliav Haskal of Philips Research says the research needed to develop flexible displays is too great a job for one company, institute, or university. As a result, many organizations have combined their resources to test a variety of materials and techniques. Creating a flexible display requires developing an alternative to glass. One possibility was thin metal, which is particularly promising for a new kind of light-emitting element called organic light-emitting diodes (OLED). However, constructing metal-based backplanes suitable for OLEDs was too difficult, so the FlexiDis partners turned to plastic as the basis of the display backplane, which had its own challenges. Conventional transistors are typically made at temperatures that are too hot for most plastics. Instead of trying to reduce the temperature of the standard process, the researchers developed two alternatives. The first used a heat resistant plastic called polymide. The other alternative was to use organic thin-film transistors (TFTs), which can be deposited at much lower temperatures. Now, the FlexiDis partners have developed three new technologies for producing flexible, plastic backplanes.
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Paralyzed Man Takes a Walk in Virtual World
Agence France Presse (06/02/08)

Researchers in Japan have enabled a paralyzed man to meet another person in the Second Life virtual world and hold a conversation. The man, who is unable to use a mouse or a keyboard in the conventional way, used his imagination to walk and chat with another virtual person. The researchers at Keio University had the 41-year-old patient wear headgear with three electrodes that monitored brain waves related to his hands and legs. The meeting and the conversation, which were aided by an attached microphone, was a first for a paralyzed person in such Internet-based virtual worlds. The researchers also hope to allow paralyzed people to use only their brain waves to create text messages. "In the near future, they would be able to stroll through Second Life shopping malls with their brain waves ... and click to make a purchase," says Junichi Ushiba of the department of biosciences and informatics.
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Instant Messaging Proves Useful in Reducing Workplace Interruption
Ohio State University Research News (05/20/08)

Researchers at Ohio State University and the University of California, Irvine have found that workers who use instant messaging software at work report fewer interruptions than colleagues who do not. The study challenges the belief that instant messaging leads to an increase in disruption. Some researchers have speculated that workers would use instant messaging in addition to email and the phone, leading to additional interruptions and lower productivity. However, the researchers found that instant messaging is often used as a substitute for another, more distracting form of communication. Ohio State professor and study co-author R. Kelly Garrett says using instant messaging leads to more conversations on the computer, but those conversations are briefer. "The key take away is that instant messaging has some benefits where many people had feared that it might be harmful," Garrett says. "People who used instant messaging reported than they felt they were being interrupted less frequently." Garrett says the key to using instant messaging efficiently hinges on for what purpose the technology is being used. For example, instead of dropping in on someone unexpectedly, many use instant messaging to see what coworkers are doing and where they are in a project. Many also use the technology to get quick answers to general questions or inquire about current work tasks instead of engaging in longer face-to-face conversations.
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Researchers Breach Microsoft's CardSpace ID Technology
IDG News Service (05/30/08) Kirk, Jeremy

Three researchers from the Horst Gortz Institute for IT Security at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, say they have been able to breach Microsoft's CardSpace technology, which aims to protect Web users from identity theft. In their attack on the technology, the researchers modified the victim's DNS settings and directed him to a malicious Web server. The Web server then stole an authentication token containing information such as the victim's address and credit card number. This token is normally sent by a CardSpace-affiliated third-party identity provider to verify the identity of the user to the Web site that is asking for this information. Although this method of breaching CardSpace has yet to be used in the real world, attacks could begin to occur in the near future, the researchers noted. For its part, Microsoft said that it is looking into the research.
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Digital Journal Mavericks: The Woman Creating New Human-Tech Relationships
Digital Journal (05/31/08) Silverberg, David

The deeper integration of people's digital lives and services within their daily physical lives through the development of electronic devices that can learn how to engage with people is the mission of MIT's Ambient Intelligence Group, according to lab founder Pattie Maes. "We want to make it possible to access digital info that is relevant to what you're currently doing," Maes says. "If you meet someone in person, you should be able to get info about that person, like what online interactions they had that relate to you." Maes says this rationale dovetails with younger generations' preference for constant connection. One project the group is focused on is next-generation Post-It notes or Quickies, which feature a special stylus that communicates with ultrasound to a pair of sensors on a clip-on part of the note. The handwriting digitization element can learn certain words and their meaning by character recognition, while an RFID tag affixed to each Quickie enables the note to be efficiently organized and stored for easy access on a PC. Another project devised by Maes' lab is the Augmented Mirror, which can display personalized information based on which family member is looking into it. Still another Ambient Intelligence Group project is the Relational Pillow, a pillow that can transmit light-filled messages to another pillow using light and touch sensors as well as a Wi-Fi connection.
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Birth Pangs for the 'Semantic Web'
New Scientist (05/31/08)No. 2658, P. 26; Giles, Jim

Wikipedia and several other large data sources have over the past year made the change to formats that will ease the combination of their data as a step toward the establishment of a Semantic Web, while software that integrates these sources is also under development. The semantic version of Wikipedia, named DBpedia, was created by a team at Germany's University of Leipzig and the Free University of Berlin, who have devised software that analyzes Wikipedia content and restructures it into a list of statements about "things," such as people and places. This format will ultimately enable users to find information using questions rather than by searching for phrases. Web pages can be tagged in a manner that allows computers to comprehend what kind of information they contain and thus combine data from different sources in interesting ways, using the World Wide Web Consortium's Resource Description Framework. A Semantic Web could place the ability to develop mashups in the hands of users rather than programmers, but the lack of an easy method for searching the Semantic Web, among other things, makes the likelihood of its realization uncertain. Some Web experts say that Semantic Web proponents have devoted too much attention to the technical aspects of their schemes, and this has failed to make content creators buy into the Semantic Web concept. Web developers and users may instead employ less complicated semantic systems, such as the metadata tags currently used to represent shared bookmarks.
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When Robots Live Among Us
Discover Magazine (05/27/08) Hapgood, Fred

As scientists project that humanoid robots will play increasingly vital roles as caregivers, servants and even sexual and parental surrogates in the future, the issue of people having emotional relationships with robots--and how this could affect humans' relationships with each other--arises. The migration of robots to humanoid forms and behaviors is a reflection of their growing versatility, and the fact that the human form is the most practical design for solving real problems. Another factor in the move toward humanoid robotics is the shift in thinking away from centralized control of the body by a brain or central computer and toward the body's distributed interaction with the environment. University of Vermont roboticist Josh Bongard is exploring this theory with machines that evolve models for bodily behavior and learn to perform actions--say, traversing uneven terrain--through refinement of these models. Human-robot interaction--and thus human-robot relationships--would be a necessary element of domestic robotic applications, and the effectiveness of collaborations between robots and people would be boosted by easier understanding between the participating entities. Sustaining an emotional relationship with a robot may depend on the level of sincerity exhibited by the machine, and there is considerable debate over how humanlike a robot has to be before it is judged to be sincere. Empathizing with robots may not require a perfectly realistic machine when only a humanoid face may do, says Bryce Huebner, an experimental philosopher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Some experts doubt that people will prefer robots to other people because robots do not follow a biological life cycle and thus do not cultivate the complex relationships facilitated by that cycle as humans do; others see no reason why intimate relationships with robots--including erotic relationships--should be precluded by human psychology.
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