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ACM TechNews
September 10, 2008

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Welcome to the September 10, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Future Nanoelectronics May Face Obstacles
Umea University (Sweden) (09/08/08)

Researchers from Umea University in Sweden and the University of Maryland have demonstrated that there is a limit to how small light-based electronics can be. The researchers say that when components are shrunk to the nanometer level, all information will disappear before it can be transferred. "Our findings throw a monkey wrench in the machinery of future nanoelectronics," says Umea University professor Mattias Marklund. "At the same time, it's a fascinating issue to address just how we might be able to prevent the information from being lost." For several years, plasmonic components have provided a possible way around the dilemma of combining electronics and photonics. By combining photonics and electronics, scientists have shown that information can be transferred with the help of plasmons, which are surface waves consisting of electrons. However, the Swedish-American research team found that difficulties arise when the size of such components are reduced to the nanometer level. At that scale, the dual nature of electrons comes into effect, with the electrons no longer acting as particles but instead having a diffuse character, with their location and movement no longer clearly defined. This elusive characteristic causes the energy of the plasmon to dissipate and be lost in the transfer of information. Marklund says the effects the researchers discovered cannot be completely avoided, but the behavior of plasmons could be controlled through meticulous component design that compensates for the quantum nature of nanoscale-based electronics.
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Google to Digitize Newspaper Archives
New York Times (09/09/08) Helft, Miguel

Google has started scanning microfilm from some newspapers' archives to make old newspapers searchable online, first through Google News and eventually on each paper's own Web site. The program builds on a two-year-old service that allows Google News users to search the archives of some major newspapers and magazines. Readers will be able to search through archives using keywords to view articles as they originally appeared in the print pages of the newspapers. Similar to Google's book-scanning project, Google will cover the cost of digitizing newspaper archives. Google will place advertisements with the search results and share the revenue from those ads with the newspaper publishers. "This is really good for newspapers because we are going to be bringing online an old generation of contributions from journalists, as well as widening the reader base of news archives," says Google's Marissa Mayer. Many newspaper publishers view search engines such as Google as a threat to the industry, and while some recognize search engines as a potential source of revenue, it is unclear whether they will willingly submit their archives to Google. Google says it is working with more than 100 newspapers and with partners Heritage Microfilm and ProQuest, which collect historical newspaper archives on microfilm. The project has already scanned millions of articles.
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Robots to Take Load as the World Ages
Australian IT (09/09/08) Foo, Fran

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Rodney Brooks believes that in less than 50 years robots will be deployed in all aspects of everyday life. He says the aging population and looming skills shortage will eventually force people to turn to robots for aid with simple tasks. "Around the world, the ratio of the elderly to working-aged people is changing dramatically," says Brooks, who also sits on the board of NICTA, Australia's Information and Communications Technology Research Centre of Excellence. "Not only are social security funds going to get even more stressed as the number of people paying into the system decreases, the services that older people need won't be there or will come at a premium." Brooks says there are companies working to design robots capable of doing the low-level grunge work in hospitals, such as collecting dirty sheets and moving around equipment, to allow nurses to spend more time on patient care. Brooks notes that improvements in robotics technology are delivering early results. For example, InTouch Technologies has developed technology that enables doctors to visit a patient without having to be physically present. Using a laptop and high-speed Internet connection, doctors and patients can see each other through a robot stationed by the patient's bed. The robot, remotely controlled by the doctor, can move around the patient's room and conduct certain tasks such as checking the patient's vital signs. In addition to health care, Brooks expects robots to become common in other areas such as retail.
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Researchers Build Malicious Facebook Application
IDG News Service (09/05/08) Kirk, Jeremy

Researchers from the Foundation for Research and Technology in Heraklion, Greece, and the Institute for Infocomm Research in Singapore, have built Facebot, a malicious program for Facebook as part of an experiment to demonstrate the dangers of social networking applications. The researchers developed a Photo of the Day application that provides a new National Geographic photograph daily, but every time the application is activated it sends a flood of traffic to a victim's Web site, causing a denial-of-service attack. The researchers uploaded the Facebot application to Facebook in January and nearly 1,000 people have installed it in their profiles. The researchers then monitored traffic on a Web site they established for a Photo of the Day attack. If the traffic patterns observed could be applied to a Facebook application with a million or more users, the researchers estimate that a victim's Web site could be flooded with as much as 23 megabits per second of traffic. The researchers say Facebook applications have a highly-distributed platform, offering significant firepower for anyone that controls the applications. Facebook applications also can access users' personal data, making it possible to record and transfer personal data to a remote server. Social networking sites can take measures to prevent such malicious applications, by ensuring that applications cannot interact with hosts that are not a part of the social network, and by vigorously verifying new applications added to the social networking site.
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CACM Reports: Making Sense of Data From Diverse Sources
AScribe Newswire (09/08/08)

The September issue of Communications of the ACM (CACM) features an article written by researchers at Microsoft and IBM on the tools and technologies that manage information integration from different and diverse sources. The cover article, "Information Integration and the Enterprise," by Microsoft Research's Philip A. Bernstein and IBM Almaden Research Center's Laura M. Hass, examines examples of a typical integration problem, describes different types of information integration tools commonly used, and reviews core technologies at the heart of integration tools. In CACM's Viewpoints section, two Rice University researchers outline a world in which textbooks are free for everyone through the Web and adapted to numerous backgrounds and learning styles. Rice University professor Richard G. Baraniuk and professor emeritus C. Sidney Burrus examine opportunities for significantly improving and advancing the world's standard of education through the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. OER uses technologies such as the Internet, XML, Web 2.0 tools, and advanced visualization and graphics tools, combined with open copyright licenses, to make teaching and learning materials available as low-cost print materials. OER also is working to make course notes, curricula, labs, and textbooks available for students with a variety of backgrounds and learning styles.
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Seabed Archaeology Goes Virtual
BBC News (09/09/08) Mitchell, Elizabeth

The Virtual Exploration of Underwater Sites (Venus) consortium has used a simulator to recreate two European shipwrecks. Computer scientists and other experts on the Venus project team used a sophisticated system to generate three-dimensional digital maps of the seabed, and a multi-beam sonar to locate the exact position of the artifacts. Divers and remotely-operated unmanned vehicles provided the high-resolution photographic data. The statistical information from the data will enable archaeologists to determine where the cargo from the shipwrecks is likely to be found. Meanwhile, the simulator is being displayed at the BA Science Festival in Liverpool and the Deep Aquarium in Hull to allow the public to sense what it is like to explore underwater archaeological sites. People will also be able to access the software online. "Members of public can experience the actual dive process--from coming off the vessel and piloting a submarine down to an accurate model of the seabed," says the University of Hull's Paul Chapman.
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Real-Life Robots Obey Asimov's Laws
ICT Results (09/08/08)

Achieving a balance between safety and performance in interactions between people and robots lies at the crux of Isaac Asimov's laws of robotics, the most important of which states that robots must not harm humans. The European Union-funded Phriends project coordinated by Antonio Bicchi of the University of Pisa seeks to create a new generation of robots that have the intrinsic safety and versatility to interact with people. Bicchi says the robots' "safety is guaranteed by their very physical structure, and not by external sensors or algorithms that can fail." The Phriends project has focused on the development of new concepts and prototypes for actuators, new reliable algorithms for supervision and planning, and new control algorithms for handling safe human-robot physical interactions. Its main area of concentration is robot arms, specifically the development of a prototype Variable Stiffness Actuator that emulates the muscular movement of humans and animals through the employment of two antagonistic motors to manipulate a nonlinear spring that functions as an elastic transmission between each of the motors and the moving part. So that inevitable impacts with the arm are not damaging, the project has investigated a number of solutions, including soft visco-elastic covering on the links, mechanically decoupling the heavy motor inertia from the link inertia, and lightweight robot design. "The real challenge for the future of robotics is not to do something shockingly complex, but to do even simple things in a way that is safe, dependable, and acceptable to ordinary people, thus making human-robot coexistence possible," Bicchi says.
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Opening Search to Semantic Upstarts
Technology Review (09/08/08) Greene, Kate

The facilitation of semantic search is being aided by Yahoo's Build Your Own Search Service (BOSS), an open-search platform through which programmers and entrepreneurs can avail themselves of Yahoo's index of the Web. "We're trying to break down the barriers to innovation," says Yahoo Research director and Stanford University professor Prabhakar Raghavan. Semantic Web companies are using BOSS in their development of software for processing concepts and meanings so that information on the Web can be better organized. For instance, Hakia uses the BOSS index to determine a set of relevant results from a given query, and the company's software then ascertains whether its semantic software has already analyzed the pages, processing them if it has not. The Cluuz semantic startup presents BOSS results that are reorganized according to the company's own semantic search technology. "Instead of looking at pages being linked based on the physical links, we're looking at them in terms of whether or not they are talking about the same concepts," says Cluuz's Alex Zivkovic.
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MIT Probe Could Aid Quantum Computing
MIT News (09/03/08) Hamill, Gregory P.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have found a way to overcome a major obstacle preventing the development of quantum computers. Characterizing energy levels is fundamental to understanding and engineering any atomic-scale device, but artificial atoms have energy levels that correspond to a variety of frequencies, ranging from tens to hundreds of gigahertz, making standard spectroscopy costly and difficult to apply. William Oliver of MIT Lincoln Laboratory's Analog Device Technology Group and MIT's Research Laboratory for Electronics developed a complementary approach called amplitude spectroscopy that allows for the characterization of quantum entities over broad frequency ranges. Oliver says that obtaining a greater knowledge to such supercomputing structures could quicken the development of a quantum computer. Amplitude spectroscopy obtains information about a superconducting artificial atom by probing its response to a single, fixed frequency that is strategically selected to be "benign," Oliver says. The probe pushes the atom through its energy-state transitions, and can even be made to jump between energy bands at nearly unlimited rates by adjusting the amplitude of the fixed-frequency source. The radiation emitted by the artificial atom as a response to the probe exhibits interference patterns, which Oliver calls "spectroscopy diamonds" because of their geometric regularity, which can serve as fingerprints of the artificial atom's energy spectrum.
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Robot Builders Seek a Little Help From Sci-Fi
New Scientist (09/04/08) Simonite, Tom

Washington University in St. Louis roboticist Bill Smart and researcher Lara Bovilsky recently held a workshop on people's wariness of robots at the RO-MAN conference on human-robot interaction in Munich, Germany. "Most people have never seen a robot before," Smart says. "Their experiences--such as they are--all come from movies or literature." Smart says that people have a pre-established theory about how things should behave, and if a robot does not match that theory they get nervous. For example, not everyone reacted well to a robot Smart and colleagues built that moved around a room taking photos of people. Smart says people who thought of the robot as a camera with legs were satisfied, but people that thought of it as a photographer were disappointed. Smart believes that these heightened expectations are the result of unrealistic human-like robots in movies and books. Instead of forcing people to change their expectations, Smart believes it makes sense to study how people's ideas on robots are influenced by fiction. This knowledge could then be used to design robots that match those expectations. Sheffield University roboticist Noel Sharkey says that studying how computer animators make us connect with simple, nonhuman objects also could help people connect with robots.
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Safer Skies for the Flying Public
EurekAlert (09/03/08)

University of Texas professor Constantine Caramanis is working with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a computer model that would serve as the foundation for an air traffic control system that optimizes the flow of air traffic. The system would be capable of taking thousands of variables into consideration and quickly changing flight recommendations without input from humans. The system would track weather conditions, current airplane locations, probable routes, and other variables. "The complicated nature of the process, and the need to make quick adjustments when changes occur, will best be addressed with a mathematical model that combines theories and calculations from probability, statistics, optimization modeling, economics and game theory," Caramanis says. "There is currently no unified decision-making framework for air traffic flow optimization." Timeframes for taking off and landing are provided by the federal government, and they are estimates that are based on a number of variables. The air traffic optimization model also will be designed to help reduce delays and flight cancellations.
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Welcome to the Petacentre
Nature (09/04/08) Vol. 455, No. 7209, P. 16; Doctorow, Cory

The data center at the U.K. Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is a work in progress to store an exponentially expanding corpus of data generated by scientific research, writes digital-rights activist Cory Doctorow. The center functions as an open-computing facility for the global research community, and empty space is set aside at the data center for the inevitable day when the facility will have to upgrade to next-generation machines. The data center of Switzerland's CERN particle-physics lab is currently an interim measure as a larger, faster center that will store 15 petabytes of experimental data annually generated by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is constructed. The LHC data is stored on tape so that it can be reassessed regularly. The primary XS4ALL facility at the World Trade Center in Amsterdam hosts a mirror copy of the Internet Archive, which is stored in two PetaBoxes, or racks that each contain more than a petabyte's worth of data. System administrators at each of these data centers listed heat as their biggest threat, and the facilities are laid out in alternating hot and cool aisles. Related to the heat problem are power management issues, particularly since most of a data center's computing capacity is not in use for most of the time yet still consumes power and produces heat. Commodity components are gaining ground as the solution to information storage and processing problems, as the need for specialized hardware no longer exists, Doctorow says.
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A Pioneer Looks to Balance Internet Scale
Government Computer News (09/01/08) Vol. 27, No. 22, Walsh, Trudy

Larry Roberts, one of the founders of ARPAnet, which later became the Internet, says today's Internet is being overloaded with video and peer-to-peer network traffic, which was never one of its designed uses. Roberts says he had a perception that knowledge would be made available instantly to everyone around the world, entirely on computers, and while the current version of the Internet is doing that, more needs to be done. At first, Roberts says, all the computers were incompatible, and there was no way to move information. Ray Tomlinson built the first file transfer mechanism, called Send Message and Read Message, and started sending messages. Roberts says he read the first email envelope in 1971, and notes that email looks about the same today. At the time, all messages sent were text and data, with binary data being transferred for photographs. The ARPAnet researchers almost immediately starting testing voice, which had a low enough bandwidth that they knew it would work, but they never believed that video would be feasible. The network was not, and still is not, designed to carry video, Roberts say. "It doesn't scale," he says. "Changes will have to happen to make video work over the network in the scale we're using it." In five years, Roberts hopes to see a significant deployment of systems that protect users and provide equality, and that manage video properly. Lastly, Roberts hopes more network security will be added, though he does not know how that will be achieved.
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UD's Swany Finds Quicker Computer On-Ramp
Delaware Online (08/31/08) Ruth, Eric

University of Delaware computer scientist Martin Swany has spent the past eight years working on a better, quicker "on-ramp" for Internet data that researchers can use to move from the old Internet to the next-generation Internet2. Swany's hardware and software system, called Phoebus, offers Internet2 users a more reliable and user-friendly way to send data through dedicated pathways, eliminating the competition for bandwidth space normally encountered on the Internet. Such transfers are possible on Internet2 without Phoebus, but only with the help of computer engineers with skills far more advanced than the typical researcher. Syracuse University scientists studying the detection of cosmic gravitational waves are already using Phoebus to send enormous packets of data from one side of the continent to the other. One researcher has been able to send data that used to take 40 days to transfer in as little as four days. "The Phoebus part of it really makes it easy for users to use," says Rick Summerhill, chief technology officer for the Internet2 consortium. "These are gateways that form the basis of a data movement service that allows more users, not just users that are data engineers ... to get all the performance," Swany says.
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Concurrency Work Happens in Parallel
Software Development Times (08/15/08)No. 204, P. 3; Worthington, David

Microsoft seeks to switch to parallel computing throughout its divisions, and is trying to make the transition easy on developers. The concurrency division's initial work in this area is oriented around its development of a concurrency that functions on top of Windows, and the addition of extensions and libraries to existing .NET programming languages so that a common scheduling framework for developers can be created. Microsoft's research labs are exploring new languages that are designed for parallelism, and these languages and libraries will have corresponding tools, says Microsoft's Lynne Hill. Microsoft Robotics Group general manager Tandy Trower says his division's concurrency strategy involves technologies that scale across machines, and so far its primary developments include the Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio composed of the Concurrency and Coordination Runtime (CCR) and a distributed runtime called Decentralized Software Services (DSS). CCR enables coordination of components and transactions, while DSS scales out across networks. Trower says DSS employs uniform resource identifiers to represent components in a representational state transfer framework that keeps components deeply isolated, and components forward operations to a real-time, machine- and human-readable transport document, which consequently issues the updates. Meanwhile, Microsoft distinguished engineer John Manferdelli is tasked with creating new operating system technologies, and among his areas of concentration is distributed parallelism. He projects that most future operating systems will possess specialized application programming interfaces to address concurrency and could deploy new nonkernel mode scheduling either by relying on runtimes or by developing completely new systems.
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