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ACM TechNews
June 25, 2008

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Welcome to the June 25, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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DARPA Looking for Wicked Cool Researchers for Advanced Study Group
Network World (06/24/08)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is accepting scientists' applications for its Computer Science Study Group (CSSG), which was established to quickly identify ideas in computer science that could lead to revolutionary advances. CSSG has a wide variety of projects it is recruiting for. For example, the Bio-inspired Exploitation Systems project is examining bat sonar, ant colonies, and immune systems to develop algorithms that can be applied to large problems in a variety of areas, including genetic and evolutionary algorithms, neural networks, and new ideas for developing routing algorithms in wireless networks. Potential applications include autonomous intelligent vehicles, adaptive video processing algorithms, flight and other control systems, and medical data analysis. DARPA is also interested in developing novel and improved biometric technologies for measuring and analyzing human body characteristics such as fingerprints, eye retinas and irises, voice patterns, facial patterns, and hand measurements for authentication purposes. Computer vision, particularly methods that include the implementation of machine learning and methods that solve specific tasks more effectively than previous systems, is another DARPA research topic. Complexity theory, which deals with classifying computational problems by the amount of computational resources they require, as well as detecting deviation from normalcy through pattern recognition, are also focal points. A variety of other projects dealing with machine learning, network management and modeling, smart surveillance systems, and information accessibility are also being explored. The cutoff date for applications is August 11, 2008. DARPA estimates that up to 12 researchers will be accepted as part of the 2009 CSSG.
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Gates Looks Into PC's Future as Career Shift Approaches
USA Today (06/25/08) P. 1B; Baig, Edward C.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates will soon retire from his full-time duties, but he will continue to work on the natural user interfaces that he believes will advance computing beyond the keyboard and mouse. Devices such as Tablet PCs with handwriting recognition and Surface tabletop computers that recognize objects and human touch are the machines of the future, Gates says. No one expects natural user interface technologies to completely replace the keyboard, as there is no better interface for inputting text, not even voice recognition. Microsoft's Chris Pratley says people talk at about 20 to 30 words a minute while many people can type twice as fast as that. Furthermore, voice will always have some small error rate, probably more than typing, Pratley says. Still, Gates estimates that the keyboard and mouse account for about 95 percent of the interaction between people and computers, and he believes that percentage will drop significantly. While Microsoft has invested heavily in alternative interfaces, so far Apple and its iPhone have made the most progress in converting multitouch technology into mainstream products, says Gartner analyst David Smith. In addition to touch technology, Gates is still a strong supporter of Tablet PCs, which have not seen the sales Gates once predicted. However, improved Tablet PCs are increasingly being adopted in insurance and medicine, and Gates says there is still a significant opportunity for the technology in education.
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Bush Administration: Tech Workers Won't Be Hurt by Visa Extension
Computerworld (06/24/08) Thibodeau, Patrick

The Bush administration has filed court papers that say it extended student visas to ease the burden of having to wait for a H-1B visa. "The extension of time permitted in this rule simply spares [foreign students] the hardship of leaving the country to change their status," the government says. Earlier this year the White House extended the amount of time a foreign student can work in the United States before obtaining a H-1B visa from one year to 29 months. The administration filed the papers in response to a lawsuit filed in May by the Immigration Reform Institute, the Programmers Guild, and other groups. U.S. tech workers have argued that the extension of the Optional Practical Training provision will lower their wages. However, the government says the change does not create more H-1B visas. The move "will not cause plaintiffs to be unemployed or underemployed in the future," the Bush administration says.
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UC San Diego Computer Scientist Turns His Face Into a Remote Control
University of California, San Diego (06/25/08) Kane, Daniel

University of California, San Diego computer science Ph.D. student Jacob Whitehill has developed a system that allows him to use his face as a remote control for video playback. The system is part of a larger project intended to make robots more effective teachers through facial expression recognition. The project builds on facial expression detection technology in development at UC Sand Diego's Machine Perception Laboratory. Whitehill and his colleagues recently demonstrated that information within the facial expressions people make while watching recorded video lectures can be used to predict a person's preferred viewing speed and how difficult a lecture is to understand. The objective is to make robotic teachers better at understanding a student's reaction to lecture material. In the pilot study, facial movements made when the viewer perceived the subject matter to be difficult varied greatly from person to person, but most of the subjects blinked less frequently during difficult parts of the lecture than during simpler parts. The researchers are now working to determine what facial movements someone naturally makes when exposed to difficult or easy lecture material, which could be used to train a user-specific model that predicts when a lecture should be slowed down or sped up. "I wanted to see the kinds of cues that students and teachers use to try to modulate or enrich the instruction," Whitehill says. "To me, it's about understanding and optimizing interactions between students and teachers."
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Technology Leaders Favor Online ID Card Over Passwords
New York Times (06/24/08) P. C8; Flynn, Laurie J.

Microsoft, Google, PayPal, and several other companies; industry analysts; and technology leaders have formed the Information Card Foundation, an organization that aims to create an industry-wide identity verification system based on information cards instead of user names and passwords. Under the system, computer users would be able to gain access to Web sites by using a secure digital identity card overseen by a third party. Users would control the information in a secure place and transmit only the information needed to access the site. Burton Group's Robert Blakeley says the information cards would be based on open standards and would reduce the number of phishing and fraud incidents because consumers would not have to rely on passwords to gain access to Web sites. Despite the advantages of using information cards, the group faces a number of challenges in establishing such a system. For instance, it will likely take the group several years to get the millions of sites on the Web to support the system, Blakeley says. "The mission of the group is to assure everybody that the industry is working together," he says.
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Discovery by UCR Physicists Could Enable Development of Faster Computers
University of California, Riverside (06/23/08) Pittalwala, Iqbal

University of California, Riverside physicists have made an accidental discovery that could potentially change how digital information can be stored and transported. While experimenting with ferromagnet/semiconductor (FM/SC) structures, key building blocks for spintronic devices, the researchers discovered that by altering the thickness of the magnesium oxide (MgO), which serves as an atomically thin layer of insulation between the ferromagnet and semiconductor, they were able to control which kinds of electrons, identified by spin, traveled from the semiconductor, through the interface, to the ferromagnet. In the researchers' experiment, both spin up and spin down electrons were allowed to travel from the semiconductor to the ferromagnet. The researchers found that when the structure's MgO interface was less than two atomic layers thick, spin down electrons could pass through to the ferromagnet but spin up electrons were reflected back, leaving only spin up electrons in the semiconductor. The researchers also found that when the interface is thicker than six atomic layers, both spin up and spin down electrons are reflected back, leaving electrons with zero net spin in the semiconductor. However, the surprising result was that at an intermediate thickness, ranging from two to six atomic layers, the selectivity of the interface was completely different. With an intermediate thickness, spin up electrons could pass through while spin down electrons were reflected back. The researchers say such a "spin reversal" could be used to control current flow. The researchers will now work on making electronic devices based on the spin reversal.
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EU to Fund Technology for the Elderly
VNUNet (06/24/08) Charlesworth, Andrew

The European Union has proposed a new European Joint Research Program to promote the development of technology that will benefit older people as they age. The EU, which will have a quarter of its population over the age of 65 by 2020, wants to focus on smart home technologies, electronic alarm systems, and remote health facilities. Smart devices, mobile technologies that monitor vital signs, and user-friendly interfaces for people with impaired vision or hearing have the potential to improve the quality of life of elderly people. "There is no reason for older people in Europe to miss out on the benefits of new technologies," says EU commissioner Viviane Reding. "The solutions and services resulting from this program will help them to remain active in society as well as staying socially connected and independent for longer."
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A Closer Look at the Rand Report on U.S. Competitiveness in S&T
Computing Research Association (06/18/08) Cho, Dustin

The RAND report concluded that U.S. science and technology is as competitive as ever and the United States is in no danger of being overtaken because U.S. research and development growth rates are in line with the rest of the world. Many have oversimplified this statement as saying that there is nothing to worry about, when in fact the underlying message of the report is that R&D should not be viewed as a horse race and that strong R&D is critical to the United States' future regardless of what other countries are doing. It is currently cheaper to do science and technology research in the United States because of the country's infrastructure, labor, and funding advantages, but if other countries overtake the U.S. in these areas, their lower wages may give them the comparative advantage. Harvard economist Richard Freeman says poorer countries will somewhat succeed in this by specializing in certain subfields and producing a great amount of highly educated researchers. However, the U.S. will be better equipped to maintain its comparative advantage if it encourages the immigration of skilled researchers, increases federal funding, and improves R&D infrastructure. The RAND report also found that life sciences have received a disproportionate amount of federal funding, resulting in an overabundance of life sciences PhDs, hurting salaries. Meanwhile, other science and technology fields are experiencing insufficient degree production, particularly in mathematics, computer science, and physical sciences.
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McMaster Partners With India for RFID Traffic Project
McMaster University (Canada) (06/19/08)

The McMaster University RFID Applications Lab (MRAL) is heading a partnership with Indian organizations that will develop a cost-effective RFID solution for an intelligent transportation system framework. The project seeks to develop technology for capturing and analyzing traffic use and capacity data. In addition to helping to design new RFID tags/readers, MRAL will focus on antenna design, wireless communications, networking, systems design, and business process re-engineering. "Pacing traffic to flow more evenly can reduce commuting time, fossil fuel use, and harmful exhaust emissions," says MRAL manager Pankaj Sood. "Managing existing road capacity more efficiently through intelligent transportation systems is also much more affordable than undertaking large infrastructure projects." The Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, IPICO, and Strategic Consultants in New Delhi are participating in the $2.5 million initiative, which is receiving matching funding from International Science and Technology Partnerships Canada and the Global Innovation & Technology Alliance.
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Scripting Languages Spark New Programming Era
InfoWorld (06/23/08) Krill, Paul

Scripting or dynamic languages are opening up a new age of programming for the masses thanks to their flexibility and ease of use, says analyst Michael Cote. The Perl Foundation's Joshua McAdams says scripting languages have become viable platforms thanks to the growing power of computers. JavaScript, which is popular for facilitating rich client activities in browsers, is thought by many to be the lead scripting language, while PHP is dominant in the server side. Both JavaScript and PHP deliver more simplicity than older languages, while core PHP developer Andi Gutmans says PHP is superior to Java in terms of time to completion and cost. McAdams emphasizes the Perl scripting language's flexibility and speed of development, as well as its access to extensions through the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network. Meanwhile, core Python developer Raymond Hettinger cites the language's readability and reliability, adding that it is significantly easier to program with than compiled languages as well as boasting substantially more conciseness. FiveRuns software developer Bruce Williams says Ruby is "a very elegant language, it's easy to work with, and because it's not compiled, it's also very quick." The Ruby on Rails Web framework complements the Ruby language, with Williams listing rapid development as its major advantage.
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Coming Soon: Meet the Wife, She's a Robot
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) (06/20/08)

David Levy, author of the book "Love + Sex With Robots," believes humans could have loving relationships with robots in about 40 years. Scientists are already building robots that seem life like, and sexual robots should hit the market within the next five years, Levy said during an international conference at the University of Maastricht in Holland. Meanwhile, the industry is also studying artificial personality, emotion, and consciousness, but Levy notes that scientists will need to equip robots with human-like conversation skills in order for humans to think seriously about making the machines their partners. "You want a partner who has some similar interest to you, who talks to you in a manner that pleases you, who has a similar sense of humor to you," Levy says. "You will find robots, conversation partners, that will talk to you and you will get as much pleasure from it as talking to another human." British scholar Dylan Evans says Levy's ideas raise ethical and relationship issues, while Dutch researcher Vincent Wiegel of Delft's Technological University says the industry still cannot create AI that would be comparable to the mind of a two-year-old child.
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Designing Semantic Software by Numbers
ICT Results (06/23/08)

European researchers in the NeOn project are developing tools designed to make it easier to create semantic software programs. Semantic software could be used to turn massive amounts of data into machine-readable, easily identifiable and actionable information, but developing semantic applications is currently a difficult, expensive, and time-consuming process. NeOn researchers are trying to simplify semantic application development. One team of researchers is working on the dynamics of managing and updating ontologies across networks. Another team is working to develop collaborative tools to allow distant teams to work together. A third group is studying how ontologies can be adapted for different applications or contexts. Lastly, researchers are examining human-ontology interactions. The project's goal is to create a fully functional development environment for semantic applications. NeOn's tools are being tested by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and by Spain's pharmaceutical industry. FAO is testing the tools as a means of creating an over-fishing alert system to improve the management of the world's fisheries. Spain's pharmaceutical companies want to use NeOn's tools to enable the industry to share data resources and exchange information on diseases, epidemiology, treatments, and other medical issues.
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The Race Is On: Get Your Own Internet Domain
International Herald Tribune (06/22/08) Carvajal, Doreen

ICANN is considering a proposal that would create a number of new generic top-level domains. For instance, the proposal would allow companies such as eBay to turn their brand names into a domain. In addition, the proposal would allow cities and regions such as New York, Paris, Berlin, and Quebec to use their names as domain names. The proposal would also make it possible to create domains that represent broad product groups, such as .car or .bank. "We're talking about introducing potentially thousands more names," says ICANN executive officer Paul Levins. "The addressing system hasn't fundamentally changed since its invention. These changes have the potential to have a huge impact on the way we express ourselves on the Net." Applications for one of these domain names would cost anywhere from about $39,000 to $390,000. In the event competing groups bid on the same name, the domain would be auctioned off by ICANN. If ICANN approves the proposal as expected, the new domain names could begin appearing by the beginning of 2009. However, the proposal is being criticized by some who say that it would create bureaucratic headaches for companies trying to prevent people from attempting to create new domain names that infringe on their trademarks. Nevertheless, many groups have been formed to promote domains based on various communities, such as dot-Berlin's efforts to create a .berlin domain. "[ICANN's board has] discussed scenarios where someone wants to have .football and how to cope with it if it means soccer or football. And they've also talked about what happens if someone proposes .jihad," says dot-Berlin's Lenz-Hawliczek. "It's a really complex issue, and we've been discussing it for the past three years."
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Irish ICT Sector: Skills Group Proposes Incentives to Encourage Engineering and Computer Science Graduates
Finfacts Ireland (06/23/08)

Ireland's Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN) recently released "Future Requirement for High-Level ICT Skills in the ICT Sector," a report highlighting what is needed to secure the Irish information and communication technologies (ICT) sector. EDFSN chairperson Anne Heraty says Ireland is facing a threefold challenge to its ICT sector: Boosting the supply of high-level graduates, improving the skills of professionals already working in the ICT sector, and continuing to attract highly skilled individuals through migration where necessary. The report found that the Irish ICT industry has largely recovered from the global downturn experienced in 2001 and that demand for ICT skills is expected to exceed domestic supply. The report recommends creating a system of college entry bonus points for higher level math to compensate students for greater effort required for the subject, and to introduce bursaries to increase the number of students studying ICT-related disciplines. These bursaries would be partially funded by industry and could provide up to 4,000 euros annually, conditional on students maintaining acceptable grade averages and undertaking relevant industrial experience. The report also recommends improving the communication of career opportunities and the skills needed in the ICT sector, as well as better preparing graduates for the workplace and more postgraduate training.
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After 15 Years Developing Wine, It's Time
Linux Insider (06/18/08) Noyes, Katherine

The first stable version of Wine, an open source implementation of the Windows application programming interface that runs on top of X, OpenGL, and Unix, is available after 15 years of development and beta testing. Wine enables Windows applications to run on other operating systems, including Linux and Mac OS, without having to run Windows as well. The software's source code is available for free, and binary packages are currently being created, say Wine developers. Wine development began in 1994 when a Usenet hierarchy was created for development discussion. Word and Excel reportedly worked on Wine in early 1996, and the Wine HQ Web site was created in late 1997. One of the major contributions of Wine is significantly enhanced support for ActiveX controls within Internet Explorer, which greatly expands the number of Web sites that can be used on a Linux or Mac system. Analyst Raven Zachary says Wine received a lot of attention about a decade ago, with the vision of running Windows apps on Linux without the use of the Windows operating system, but since then desktop virtualization has taken off and stolen a lot of Wine's thunder by providing a faster, albeit more expensive option. Zachary says Wine should still appeal to users who want to run simple games or simple vertical applications without having to pay the cost of virtualization.
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Shape-Shifting Robot Squeezes Onto Military Radar
Network World (06/17/08)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently gave iRobot a $3.3 million contract to build a shape-shifting, flexible robot for dangerous or hard-to-reach combat duties. The shape-shifting robot is part of DARPA's Chemical Robots (ChemBots) program, which aims to build soft, flexible, mobile objects that identify and maneuver through openings smaller than their static structural dimensions. DARPA's Mitchell Zakin says gaining covert access to denied or hostile space can be important during military operations, and unmanned platforms such as mechanical robots are of limited use if the only available points of entry are small openings. "We believe that a new class of soft, flexible, meso-scale mobile objects that can identify and maneuver through openings smaller than their dimensions to perform various tasks will be quite valuable in many missions," Zakin says. DARPA adds that nature provides many examples of ChemBot features, including mice, octopi, and insects, which can readily traverse openings barely larger than their largest "hard" component by exploiting a variety of reversible mechanisms, such as using elastic materials to twist, crumple, and bend with many degrees of freedom, utilizing the flexibility of the musculoskeletal structure to squeeze through openings, and exploiting reversible changes in modulus to achieve dimensional reductions that can exceed 10:1 ratios. IRobot also recently received an award under the DARPA LANdroids program to develop new portable communications relay robots that are small, inexpensive, intelligent, and robust.
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MSU Researcher Creates System Helping Police to Match Tattoos to Suspects
Michigan State University Newsroom (05/27/08)

Michigan State University professor Anil Jain has developed Tattoo-ID, an automatic image retrieval system that law enforcement agencies can use to match scars, marks, and tattoos to identify suspects and victims. "There is a need to recognize people based on physical characteristics like fingerprints, iris, or face," Jain says. "This is the field of biometric recognition where we have been working for the past 15 years." Tattoo-ID features an annotated database containing images of scars, marks, and tattoos provided by law enforcement agencies. Each tattoo image in the database is linked to the criminal history records of all suspects and convicts who have a tattoo. If a law enforcement officer submits a photo of a tattoo for query, the system automatically retrieves the most similar tattoo images from the database along with the linked criminal history records. About 20 percent of the population has at least one tattoo, and the percentage is even higher among delinquents, Jain says, with many gangs having unique membership tattoos. Scars cannot uniquely identify a person like tattoos, but being able to match scars can help authorities narrow the list of potential identities by indicating membership in a gang, social or religious group, or military unit.
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Digital Image Forensics
Scientific American (06/08) Vol. 298, No. 6, P. 66; Farid, Hany

The field of digital image forensics has grown around commercial software that allows photographs to be convincingly doctored, writes Dartmouth College professor Hany Farid, who, with his team, has developed a number of tools designed to identify signs of digital image manipulation by understanding what statistical or geometric characteristics of an image are disturbed by tampering. One common image manipulation strategy is the copying and pasting of a region of an image, a technique known as cloning. To spot cloning, Farid's team has developed a method that works with small blocks of pixels, using an algorithm to compute a quantity that represents the colors of the pixels in the block, which it then applies to order all the blocks in a sequence that has identical and very similar blocks in close proximity. The program then searches for identical blocks and tries to "grow" larger identical regions from them block by block. Another technique developed by Farid's team looks for subtle differences in lighting conditions that may be characteristic of composite images by estimating the direction of the light source for each object or person through measurement of the brightness and orientation along several points on a contour. A third method to uncover evidence of digital doctoring focuses on the specular highlights of people's eyes, which can be measured to make deductions about lighting and image authenticity. The algorithm estimates the orientation of a person's eyes from the shape of the irises in the image, and uses this data and the position of the specular highlights to estimate the direction to the light. Farid notes that several state and federal rulings have determined that juries should not be asked to ascertain the authenticity of digital images because of the sophistication of computer-generated images.
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