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ACM TechNews
June 23, 2008

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Welcome to the June 23, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Richard Karp, Renowned Computer Theorist, Wins 2008 Kyoto Prize
University of California, Berkeley (06/20/08) Yang, Sara

University of California, Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences Richard Karp has been named a laureate of the 2008 Kyoto Prize, Japan's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, awarded by the Inamori Foundation. Karp is being recognized for his lifetime achievements in computer theory. A senior research scientist at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, he is considered one of the world's leading computer theorists. Karp's work has significantly advanced the theory of NP-completeness, conceived in 1971 by former UC Berkeley math professor Stephen Cook. Karp developed a standard method for characterizing combinatorial problems into classes and identifying their level of intractability. Combinatorial problems that are NP-complete are the most difficult to solve. "Karp's theory streamlined algorithm design for problem-solving, accelerated algorithm engineering, and brought computational complexity within the scope of scientific research," says the Inamori Foundation. NP-completeness theory has become a cornerstone in modern theoretical computer science, and in the 1980s Cook and Karp received an ACM A.M. Turing Award for their contributions to the concept of NP-completeness. Karp has recently focused on bioinformatics and computational biology, including the development of algorithms for constructing various kinds of physical maps of DNA targets, and methods for classifying biological samples on the basis of gene expression data.
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Whatever Happened to Artificial Intelligence?
Network World (06/23/08) Gaskin, James E.

Artificial intelligence (AI) researchers have underestimated the challenge of reproducing human cognition, and progress toward AI--in terms of self-aware, self-learning, and mobile systems--has floundered as a result, writes James E. Gaskin. Nevertheless, AI is deeply incorporated into everyday life in the form of telephone voice recognition systems, automated product recommender services, robotic home appliances, search engines, and other tools developed from research into intelligent systems. "Big AI projects have largely gone by the wayside, but you can see effective behavior that solves real world problems," says iRobot CEO Colin Angle. Fullpower Technologies CEO Phillipe Kahn says his company focuses on developing software that can translate raw data generated by sensors into actionable information, and he speculates that sensor-enabled devices and networks of such devices will facilitate the most practicable and successful advances in machine vision. Another challenge is language processing, but progress is being made in this area through the efforts of companies such as EasyAsk Software, which translates more than 60,000 natural language questions into queries each month, says company founder Larry Harris. He adds that advances in AI are incremental, while Microsoft's Eric Horvitz says about 25 percent of all Microsoft's research is committed to AI initiatives. The Vista operating system's kernel, for example, uses machine learning to anticipate, by user, the next application that will be opened, based on past usage and the time of the day and week.
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Intel Researchers Shine Light on Ray Tracing
CNet (06/19/08) Crothers, Brooke

Three-dimensional graphics rendered with complex light interactions--a technique known as ray tracing--can yield crisper, brighter, and more photorealistic images, and Intel is pursuing the refinement of this method so that it may one day compete with traditional raster-based graphics. Intel researcher Daniel Pohl says that ray tracing, for example, allows reflections to be zoomed in on without any loss of resolution, because "the rays get bounced off and follow the reflected path and that way we get the physically correct reflection." Co-director of Intel's Tera-scale computing research program Jerry Bautista says graphics generated through ray tracing can be better handled when more processing cores are added. Intel says ray tracing runs better on general-purpose processors than on traditional graphics processors. Bautista describes ray tracing as basically collision detection, as in the collision of light rays with surfaces that employs fundamental physics. He says that physics comprises a very general-purpose computing challenge, and thus matches well with a general-purpose compute engine. Bautista predicts that ray tracing will initially be incorporated into cutting-edge games, adding that "they all initially appear on high-end things and then eventually find their way to the masses." However, Bautista and Pohl do not think that ray tracing will supplant raster-based graphics anytime soon, and that the two methods will co-exist for quite a while.
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Linux-Powered, Clarinet-Playing Robot Wins Prize
Computerworld Australia (06/19/08) Hendry, Andrew

Researchers at National ICT Australia (NICTA) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have developed a Linux-based robot that plays the clarinet. Project leader John Judge of NICTA says the robot is an embedded computer system that uses specially constructed electronics to manipulate actuators that control the keys and mouthpiece of the clarinet. Judge says two CPUs control the robot, one that runs Linux to process the music and set up a series of events, and a microcontroller that determines how much pressure to exert on the mouthpiece and what keys to depress. "We're actually sending a stream of midi-events to the microcontroller and it just reacts to each event as a node-on/node-off type thing," Judge says. "The software running on the microcontroller is our code written in C." Controlling the reed and air pressure flowing through the clarinet was accomplished by collaborating with students and professor Joe Wolfe from UNSW's music acoustics lab. Playing a clarinet requires the right air pressure and the right dampening at the same time, otherwise the instrument will create an unpleasant squeak. The robot is not as good as a human player, and has difficulty jumping from a very low note to a very high note. It also has trouble playing notes cold or creating the warmth a human player can. Still, it beat a Dutch-built robot-playing guitar to win the Artermis Orchestra competition. In the competition, the robot was able to play Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" and Ravel's "Bolero," both of which avoid large octave jumps and other difficult notes.
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Birth of First Modern Computer Celebrated in Manchester
University of Manchester (06/20/08)

The birth of the first modern computer is being celebrated at the University of Manchester and the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI). On June 21, 1948, the Small Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) ran its first program, marking the birth of the world's first stored program digital computer. Nicknamed the Baby, SSEM was designed and built at the University of Manchester by Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams. The celebration of the birth of the Baby was part of Digital 60 Day, which included a large event for hundreds of students from across greater Manchester and Britain, including the announcement of the U.K. Schools Computer Animation Competition winners. The celebration also featured a live video link to MOSI to broadcast a demonstration of the working Baby replica housed at the museum. "The University is extremely proud of what Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams achieved in 1948," says University of Manchester professor John Perkins says. "The birth of Baby changed the world forever and we hope the Digital 60 Day celebrations will raise the profile of computer science and encourage the brightest and best of the next generation to engage in the challenges facing computing over the coming decades."
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Experimental Phone Network Uses Virtual Sticky Notes
Duke University News & Communications (06/19/08) Merritt, Richard

Duke University engineers have created a "virtual sticky note" that enables users to leave area-specific messages that others can pick up and view on their mobile phones. Duke professor Romit Roy Choudhury says the software system allows users to obtain location-specific, real-time information, either passively or directly, from other mobile phone users from around the world, allowing each individual access to information through a virtual network. Virtual sticky notes could be used to leave reviews about restaurants or notes on tourist attractions. The phones could also detect movement and relay information to the network to create a map indicating where traffic jams are. "We can now think of mobile phones as a 'virtual lens' capable of focusing on the context surrounding it," Choudhury says. "By combining the lenses from all the active phones in the world today, it may be feasible to build an Internet-based 'virtual information telescope' that enables a high-resolution view of the world in real time."
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Carnegie Mellon System Estimates Geographic Location of Photos
Carnegie Mellon News (06/18/08) Spice, Byron; Watzman, Anne

Carnegie Mellon University researchers have developed the first computerized method that can analyze a single photograph and identify where the image was likely taken. The IM2GPS algorithm is made possible by searching through millions of images on Flickr that are tagged with GPS locations. The algorithm, developed by computer science graduate student James Hays and professor Alexei A. Efros, analyzes the composition of the photo, noting how textures and colors are distributed and recording the number and orientation of lines in the photo. The algorithm then searches Flickr for photos that are similar in appearance. Efros says the program is simply trying to find other photos that look like it, which he says is surprisingly effective. Hays and Efros discovered they could accurately geolocate images within 200 kilometers for 16 percent of more than 200 photos in their test set, which is 30 times better than chance alone. Even if the algorithm failed to identify the specific location, it was often able to narrow the possibilities by identifying the locale. Hays says estimating geographic information from images is a difficult but very doable computer vision problem.
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Scientific Group Develops Computer Software That Permits Tourists to Customize Their Visits According to Their Preferences
Universidad de Granada (06/20/08)

Spanish researchers have developed SAMAP, software that is capable of creating a tourist itinerary for travelers based on their preferences and needs. The software has been incorporated with artificial intelligence to enhance its effectiveness in combing a tourist database for artistic and cultural events, dietary preferences, lifestyle, and favorite hours of an individual traveler or group of tourists. Users can also have the software search for events and locations that can accommodate the disabled, and they can set their spending parameters. The Web-based tool is designed for use on various computers, including mobile units and PDAs. SAMAP was developed by the University of Granada, Technical College of Valencia, UNED (Spanish Open University), Carlos III of Madrid, and the Research Institute on Artificial Intelligence of the CSIC.
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Sir Tim Talks Up Linked Open Data Movement
InternetNews.com (06/17/08) Joyce, Erin

During a keynote address at the Linked Data Planet conference, Sir Tim Berners-Lee said the grass-roots linked open data movement, what some say is the beginning of Web 3.0, is about information that is free to use in the Linked Data format. Berners-Lee said that organizations can still decide what information they make available to the public realm and what they keep behind a firewall, and that the decision to not trade data should be made because you do not want to, not because your data does not understand or work with another party's data. Berners-Lee said that Web 3.0, the Semantic Web, and Linked Data enable one format to be used across numerous applications. He said that with Web 3.0 shopping can be done automatically, based on specific parameters and boundaries set by the user. Berners-Lee urged attendees to look over their data, take an inventory of it, and decide which data sets would be the most likely to be reused on the Web. Data owners should determine their priorities, the benefits of data reuse, and look for existing ontologies on the Web on how to reuse data, Berners-Lee said. "If you're not going to give your data to me, let it be because you decided to, not because you can't," he said.
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Tiny Refrigerator Taking Shape to Cool Future Computers
Purdue University News (06/19/08) Venere, Emil

Purdue University researchers are working on a miniature refrigeration system that could significantly improve the cooling systems in computers while simultaneously improving performance and reducing the size of computers. Miniature refrigeration could significantly increase how much heat can be removed from computers, says professor Suresh Garimella. The Purdue researchers have developed an analytical model for designing tiny compressors that pump refrigerants using diaphragms the size of a penny, and have validated the model with experimental data. The elastic diaphragms are made from ultra-thin sheets of a plastic called polyimide and coated with an electrically conducting metallic layer, which allows electrical charges to move the diaphragm back and forth and produce a pumping action. Garimella says new types of cooling systems will be needed for future computer chips that could generate 10 times more heat than current microprocessors. Professor Eckhard Groll says refrigeration has a significant advantage over other cooling systems because it can cool below surrounding temperatures. However, miniature refrigeration systems will require as many as 100 diaphragms operating in parallel to pump a large enough volume of refrigerant.
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Compressed Web Phone Calls Are Easy to Bug
New Scientist (06/12/08) Robson, David

Johns Hopkins University researchers say compressing Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone calls could expose them to eavesdroppers. The team has developed eavesdropping software that can find chosen phrases in the encrypted data, without decoding a conversation. The software is capable of breaking down a typed phrase into its constituent sounds using a phonetic dictionary, pasting together a version of the phrase from audio clips of phonemes taken from a library of example conversations, and showing how the phrase would look in a real VoIP stream. A close match found in a real call prompts the software to alert the eavesdropper. The software had an average accuracy rate of about 50 percent in testing, but that increased to 90 percent for longer, more complicated words. "I think the attack is much more of a threat to calls with some sort of professional jargon where you have lots of big words that string together to make long, relatively predictable phrases," says Charles Wright of the Johns Hopkins team. Many service providers plan to implement the variable bitrate compression technique to reduce bandwidth for VoIP calls. "We hope we have caught this threat before it becomes too serious," Wright says.
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May We Have Your Attention, Please?
BusinessWeek (06/12/08) Jackson, Maggie

Computer scientists are developing tools to help people prioritize the flood of information they face by developing software that blocks or reroutes irrelevant pieces of information. New types of email and phone messaging programs will wait for an opportune time to alert a user to a new message. One program sends the user a "whisper" to signal the arrival of an important message. Such innovations belong to a sub-branch of computer science called attentional user interfaces, which strive to find a way to obtain benefits from the data deluge without completely disturbing a user's attention and concentration, says Carnegie Mellon University professor Scott E. Hudson. One solution might be a work environment that is supported by highly-observant, ultra-organized digital assistants. Microsoft principal researcher Eric Horvitz has spent more than a decade developing artificial intelligence systems that observe humans at work. These systems watch and listen to a user, tracking digital calendars and noting key contacts, and applying mathematical formulas known as Bayesian probability models to predict the cost and benefit of interrupting someone at work. Another effort being developed by IBM is an instant-message answering machine that can sense when the user is away or busy based on typing and mouse patterns, telling would-be interrupters that the user is not available when working.
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EU to Double Its R&D Investment in Robots
Euroalert.net (06/10/08)

The European Commission (EC) says the European Union will double its investment in robotics research between 2007 to 2010 in an effort to create stronger links between academia and industry. The EC also plans to fund widespread experimentation by academic researchers and industry and has challenged the industry to intensify its efforts in producing critical components in Europe to meet competition in Asia and avoid strategic dependencies on other regions of the world. The robotics market's growth rate will become an important part of the world economy within the next two decades, and the International Federation of Robotics estimates the current world market for industrial robots at about 4 billion euros and predicts a 4.2 percent increase per year until 2010. The EC is working to establish a technology transfer scheme between academia and industry, which would allow European research labs to use industrial-strength robots for large-scale experimentation. Scientific knowledge obtained for this experimentation will be directed back to participating companies.
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MU Researchers Enhancing Motion-Capture Technology to Benefit Older Adults
University of Missouri (06/10/08) Smith, Emily

University of Missouri Center for Eldercare and Rehabilitation Technology (CERT) researchers are using a $900,000 National Science Foundation grant to help older adults live better by developing and evaluating motion-capture technology that monitors the physical functioning of seniors while preserving their privacy. CERT's Marge Skubic says frequent assessment of physical function is a key indicator for detecting initial decline of health in older adults, and the technology being developed by CERT researchers will help health care providers identify potential health problems, giving them a window of opportunity to intervene and obtain treatment to alleviate problems before they become worse. CERT researchers have used existing motion-capture methods to develop an exercise feedback system to increase exercise effectiveness and safety for older adults. The automated system uses standard Web cams to capture the silhouette sequences of participants while exercising, and provides feedback on posture, gait, stride, balance, and body position. The feedback is intended to help older adults understand more about their posture and movement during exercise, and lead to more effective and safer exercise regimens. CERT researchers have also completed an evaluation of a video-based fall recognition system for older adults, which preserves privacy by extracting silhouettes from multiple cameras viewing the same scene. The silhouettes are used to build a 3D object, which is then analyzed to distinguish between fall and non-fall activities. The researchers will use the results of these projects to study vision-based detection methods designed to capture continuous and automated assessments of older adults' physical functioning in multiple-person environments.
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Supercomputing Experts Guide Myanmar Relief Efforts
Arizona State University (06/06/08)

Arizona State University's High Performance Computing Initiative (HPCI) is aiding humanitarian organizations attempting to provide disaster relief to victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. HPCI has established a Web site to provide aid organizations with up-to-date satellite images of conditions on the ground in Myanmar. "The people planning relief efforts can use this data to determine if and how aid workers can gain access to areas where victims are," says HPCI director Dan Stanzione. "The imagery is sharp enough so that they could determine if aircraft could land in an area, if roads remain open or are blocked by debris or flooding, and if heavy equipment is needed to open those roads." HPCI is providing highly detailed geospatial visualization of Myanmar using digital imagery from U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency satellites. HPCI visualization director Perry Miller says the government generally does not make such information available, but it is making an exception for the disaster relief effort. HPCI's visualization team has developed a 3D geospatial viewer called Minerva that can load large, geo-referenced images onto a computer so users can zoom in and find areas damaged by the cyclone and take screenshots for humanitarian aid workers to use. Aid groups can download the images for free, and the data can be formatted and modified for their particular purposes, says ASU's Joseph Adams.
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Beware, Your Computer May Betray You
New Scientist (06/07/08) Vol. 198, No. 2659, P. 26; Barras, Colin

Non-repudiation is a system whereby sensitive data sent over the Internet is digitally signed at the source with a signature that can be traced to the user's computer as a safeguard against fraud, but Len Sassaman of the Catholic University of Leuven warns that making this system the default setting for all traffic on a network would enable authorities to trace the source of any online activity and take away users' anonymity. Worse still, Sassaman and University of Ireland colleague Meredith Patterson say that the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) foundation is unintentionally engaged in establishing such a system throughout the Third World by supplying inexperienced users Internet-ready laptops. Theft of the laptops is discouraged with a security model called Bitfrost in which each laptop automatically phones an anti-theft server and sends its serial number once a day so that it can get an activation key, and any machine reported stolen is refused activation. Sassaman and Patterson caution that the security model's use of non-repudiable digital signatures could be exploited by oppressive regimes to identify and silence dissidents. "They may not intend for the signatures to be used for non-repudiation, but it's possible to use them for this purpose," Sassaman says. Although the OLPC laptops are primarily intended to be used for educational purposes, which some people claim would preclude government monitoring, Sassaman says it is unlikely that the systems will be used solely by children, and that conditions in some developing nations might actually encourage children to act as whistleblowers. Sassaman and Patterson are modifying the Bitfrost security model to enable the laptops to identify each other without compromising their users' privacy, based on existing cryptographic methods that cannot be employed for non-repudiation.
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Summit: Save STEM or Watch America Fail
eSchool News (06/01/08) Vol. 11, No. 6, P. 1; Stansbury, Meris

A national summit of education leaders, lawmakers, and cabinet members recently concluded that the United States must make a greater investment in math, science, and research programs. "Authorizations are not enough," said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.). "We won't get anywhere without funding." Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) noted in an op-ed piece published prior to the summit that the United States' neglect of its science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education is starting to yield serious consequences, such as China overtaking America as the world's biggest IT product exporter. Federal funding has not been elevated in spite of such trends, while policymakers have been unable to reach consensus on visa and permanent resident green-card reform for highly educated professionals. Wolf said the country lacks the funds to support STEM programs or give NASA and the National Science Foundation more money because of depreciation of the U.S. dollar and the country's $54 trillion debt. Sally Ride Science CEO Sally Ride said there is a major lack of personal investment in STEM education among parents and students, and Charles Vest of the National Academy of Engineering cited complacency bred from the prosperity that America enjoyed thanks to the advent of STEM education in the 1950s and 1960s. He added that a sense of urgency must be cultivated to jolt policymakers into aggressively supporting STEM programs.
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