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ACM TechNews
September 22, 2008

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Welcome to the September 22, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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The World's Leading Computer Scientists Descend on Imperial for Inaugural Conference
Imperial College London (09/19/08) Smith, Colin

The British Computer Society's inaugural "Visions of Computer Science" conference is uniting academics from around the world this week to discuss the latest research advances and challenges in computer science. At the conference, hosted at Imperial College London, seven ACM A. M. Turing Award recipients will address the gathering of over 100 scientists. Imperial College London's Edith Ngai and Erol Gelenbe will present their research on novel computer algorithms for managing networks of wireless sensors. Gelenbe believes his technology has several applications, including assisting law enforcement. "Suppose a network is monitoring the number plates of all cars in a large city; most of the data is routine and not important," Gelenbe says. "But when the number plate of a stolen car is recognized by a camera this data could be forwarded very urgently over the computer network to the police to help them apprehend the suspect." A group of Imperial College researchers will discuss their research into computer hardware that can be adapted or reconfigured to rapidly solve complex scientific problems by operating multiple computer processors in tandem. The team says their multiple processors will be 10 times faster than conventional processors and could be used to analyze a variety of biological problems, such as how genes might mutate and develop into cancer.
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Electoral Apocalypse? E-Voting Woes Remain as Election Nears
Ars Technica (09/21/08) Sanchez, Julian

Two recent reports suggest that efforts to modernize the U.S. electoral system are falling short of their objectives. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued a report that summarized the findings of a year-long performance audit of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), which was established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to help states upgrade their voting systems. The EAC is supposed to provide a federal-level certification process for voting systems. The EAC has 12 certifications pending, but none are finalized, meaning states must rely on their own procedures. The GAO report says the EAC has failed to "define its approach for testing and certifying electronic voting systems in sufficient detail to ensure that its certification activities are performed thoroughly and consistently." The problem of vague criteria and procedures appears to plague EAC in a variety of areas, the report says. The EAC has failed to establish an effective and efficient repository for certified versions of voting system software for states and local jurisdictions to use to verify that their voting systems match systems the EAC has certified. A second report, issued by the Century Foundation and the advocacy group Common Cause, notes that technological changes are presenting new difficulties for states. For example, in an electoral dry-run in Colorado earlier this year, officials discovered ongoing problems with lag and connectivity in the centralized voter registration systems used to check in voters with their local polling stations. Even when machines function properly, the Common Cause study found that user confusion with electronic systems could create a problem if states have not taken adequate steps to familiarize voters with the new machines.
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Queensland Universities Supercomputer Consortium Receives $8.5M
Queensland Government (09/16/08)

Australia's Queensland Cyber Infrastructure Foundation (QCIF) will receive $8.5 million in government funding to build supercomputers that will boost research projects ranging from cancer detection, to boat design, to digitally reconstructing an Egyptian mummy. QCIF, which includes James Cook University, Central Queensland University, Griffith University, Queensland University of Technology, the University of Queensland, and the University of Southern Queensland, was established in 2001 to increase Queensland's innovative capacity using supercomputers, high-capacity data archives, visualization, and networking. The research involves about 60 projects and 340 researchers across the six universities working in areas such as nanotechnology, drug design, security, biosecurity, mining and environmental engineering, and medical imaging. One project, led by James Cook University professor Sean Connolly, is using QCIF-funded high-performance computing to explore and solve the challenges facing coral reefs, extremely complex ecosystems in which thousands of species interact with one another. James Cook University also operates an Automatic Weather Station to measure water temperature, solar radiation, salinity, and pollution levels to help understand marine biological processes and predict future coral bleaching events. The new QCIF funding will go toward upgrading the computer infrastructure, expanding the project's Industry Outreach Program, and creating a program to tackle infrastructure challenges such as urban congestion and water management.
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New IBM Center to Focus on Social Software
Triangle Business Journal (09/17/08) Noblett, Jackie

IBM has launched the IBM Center for Social Software in Cambridge, Mass., to identify the next big thing in Web 2.0 business software and discover the best business models for the applications. "We started looking at ways to integrate social software into our business and those experiences have been so successful it has convinced the company that we needed more resources in social software," says center director Irene Greif. The center will collaborate with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab to pursue research projects on whether the social applications help improve the efficiency of businesses and boost the morale of workers. "The idea here is we're sitting on a gold mine of data when it comes to how social software is used by businesses," Greif says. IBM also will work with companies on specific projects, hire additional staff for the lab, and offer internships throughout the academic year.
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Computers to Be 'Aware'
Financial Times Digital Business (09/17/08) P. 8; Shillingford, Joia

Cisco futurologist Dave Evans says quantum computing will be the next major advancement in computing, and he expects big advances in many areas of technology will come sooner than people think as developments advance exponentially. "People think technology will change at a linear rate. But we're now getting into the phenomenon of large numbers doubling very fast," Evans says. "There's an avalanche of change on the way and it's going to be very disruptive." He says that by 2012, Internet-protocol traffic will reach half a zettabyte, 250,000 times more than in 2003, and more devices will be connected to the Internet. In 50 years, the cost of a megabyte of storage has fallen from $65,000 to about a tenth of a cent. Extrapolate that trend 20 years into the future, and 6.3 petabytes will be available for $100. Businesses will use computers that autonomously manage routine tasks, giving employees more time for strategic thinking. A widespread connection to the Web, along with telepresence applications where people can see the same information over the Web at the same time, will give people a greater chance of obtaining a good education. We also could see the use of smart dust, or motes and specks, that monitor environmental factors such as air flow, humidity, and pollution. An increasing number of devices, including vehicles and even entire buildings, will be connected to the Internet, and there will be more devices connected than people at any given time. By 2010, the amount of information on the Internet will double every 11 hours, and in 10 years it will double every 11 seconds. Evans says the limits in silicon chips means quantum computing will sustain Moore's law, and by 2050 there will be computers that have the processing power of all human brains on earth.
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Taming Europe's Robots
ICT Results (09/19/08)

The European Robotics Network (EURON) is working to strengthen the links between individual labs and between labs and industry in an effort to broaden Europe's industrial base in the robotics sector. EURON aims to strengthen Europe's academic community, foster technology transfer, identify obstacles, and propose possible solutions. EURON has established a special technology prize to highlight particularly strong technology transfer demonstrations. One award winner, the iDroid, is a fully functioning, humanoid robot that consumers can build on their own. EURON also established a fund to enable labs and teams to carry out a feasibility study for specific pieces of research. One example, called PHRIDOM, examined the potential for research in physical human robot interactions. EURON also identified two obstacles to closer cooperation between labs and companies looking to undertake research projects--investment and trust. "It can take three person months to prepare a project proposal that has just a 15 percent chance of success," says EURON's Bruce Siciliano. "SMEs and systems integrators in the industry cannot afford to dedicate personnel to that." Similarly, many companies are hesitant to invest money and personnel in unusual research. Trust may be an even bigger issue, as technical solutions to some robotics problems are the focus of intense competition between manufacturers. Technical breakthroughs represent an enormous commercial advantage, and some manufacturers will not give research partners access to special technology. EURON has made significant progress in solving these issues and will continue to foster industry collaboration.
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Smart Desks Make Sci-Fi a Reality in the Classroom
Durham University (UK) (09/17/08)

Durham University researchers at the Technology-Enhanced Learning Research Group are designing new learning environments that use interactive multi-touch desks to create an interactive classroom. The desks look and act like a large version of an Apple iPhone. The researchers observed how students and teachers interact in classes and how technology could improve collaboration. The researchers then designed an interactive classroom solution called SynergyNet to reflect the group's goals of achieving active student engagement through sharing, problem solving, and creating. The team is working with manufacturers to design software and desks that recognize multiple touches on the desktop using vision systems that detect infrared light. The multi-touch desk will be the central component of SynergyNet, with desks networked and linked to a main smartboard. Several students will be able to work together at one desk, since the desks can detect simultaneous screen contact by multiple users using either their fingers or pens. A single work desk can function as a set of individual work spaces or a large screen that enables students to cooperate on a task. Software will be used to link everything together in an interactive classroom system of desks and smartboards. Teachers will be able to instantly display samples of good work on the main smartboard, and tasks can be assigned for each individual desk. Once finished, the SynergyNet software will be available to schools as free open source code.
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New Self-Steering Vehicle Designed to Mimic Movements of Ants
AlphaGalileo (09/17/08)

The way that ants find the shortest distance to their anthill or sources of food is serving as the model for keeping a self-steering vehicle on the correct path along a road. Engineers from the University of La Laguna (ULL) in the Canary Islands have developed a new algorithm, called Ant Colony Optimization (ACO), to resolve "problems of combinatory optimization" to help a driverless vehicle sense road surfaces. Ants leave a trail of pheromones as they move, and other members of the colony smell and follow the chemical substances. "The ACO technique is based, similarly, on a colony of artificial ants, in other words computational agents that work cooperatively and communicate with each other by means of artificial pheromone trails," says ULL's Rafael Arnay. The team is developing Verdino, a prototype driverless vehicle that uses a camera to gather visual data to apply the algorithms and an internal control system to process the data in real time. Verdino is being tested as an internal transport system for a housing development, and the team believes such a self-guided system could be used at tourist attractions, sporting venues, shopping centers, and also as part of remote security systems.
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Sun Aims at Google With Open-Source Project Hosting Site
IDG News Service (09/15/08) Kanaracus, Chris

Sun Microsystems has established Project Kenai, an open-source project hosting site similar to Google Code and Github. Developers can host their projects for free at Kenai, which enables the use of the Subversion and Mercurial version-control systems as well as provides issue tracking, forums, and other features. Sun's Nick Sieger says the primary goal is to nurture and grow Sun's open source communities, to demonstrate credibility in building on top of more traditional LAMP/SAMP Web stacks, and to show off the viability of Sun technologies and hardware for next-generation Web applications. Sieger says Sun will not exercise any control over projects on the site. He says the Kenai site will serve as a test of Sun's ability to produce next-generation Web applications, as it is built with the popular Ruby on Rails development framework, along with a variety of open source components and Sun technology. Sun believes that Kenai's overall architecture will solve problems associated with Ruby on Rails' reputation for scalability and reliability. "We hope to help ensure that other people won't have to feel the pain we went through to build on top of this stack, because now that we've got it up and running, we think this could be a great base for building highly scalable Web applications," Sieger says.
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From Xbox to T-Cells: Michigan Tech Researchers Borrow Video Game Technology to Model Human Biology
Michigan Technological University (09/16/08) Goodrich, Marcia

Michigan Technological University researchers are using graphical processing units designed for use in video-game machines to develop supercharged agent-based modeling techniques. Agent-based modeling simulates the behaviors of complex systems and can be used to predict the outcomes of anything from viral outbreaks to the price of pork bellies. The group aims to model complex biological systems, such as the human response to tuberculosis bacterium (TB). Michigan professor and leader of the project Roshan D'Souza says the model is several orders of magnitude faster than state-of-the-art agent modeling toolkits, but it is still only the beginning. "We can do it much bigger," D'Souza says. "This is nowhere near as complex as real life." D'Souza plans to model how a TB infection could spread from the lung to the lymphatic system, blood, and vital organs. The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor's Denise Kirschnewr, who developed the TB model for D'Souza's team, says agent-based modeling has not replaced test tubes yet, but it is a powerful new tool for medical research. Kirschnewr says computer models allow for research that would otherwise be impossible, such as creating a mouse with multiple missing genes to see what effects those genes have, or virtually testing the human response to serious maladies such as injury and infection.
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Nat'l Science Foundation Awards C.U. $10M Grant
Cornell Daily Sun (NY) (09/16/08) Parandekar, Nikhita

Cornell University's new Institute for Computational Sustainability has been awarded a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation. "Our vision is that computer scientists can, and should, play a key role in increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the way we manage and allocate our natural resources, while enriching and transforming computer science," says Cornell professor and institute director Carla Gomes. "Problems concerning the environment and sustainability are optimization problems, which computer science is good at solving." Gomes says the term computational sustainability was almost unheard of before the creation of the institute, and she hopes the institute will play a significant role in eventually making computer science a field of study in which computational models are used to work through the complex problems of sustainability. Cornell professor and institute associate director David Shmoys says the institute also aims to advance the field of computer science, as the kind of problems involved in sustainability are an excellent test bed for pushing the understanding of computation. Although the institute will be based at Cornell, researchers from Oregon State University, Howard University, Bowdoin College, the Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and the Conservation Fund also will participate.
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US Focusing Cybersecurity on Backdoors in Tech Products
IDG News Service (09/15/08) Gross, Grant

Officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the White House, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence unveiled new details about President Bush's National Cybersecurity Initiative at a recent cybersecurity conference. Among the officials in attendance at the conference was DHS deputy secretary Paul Schneider, who noted that the U.S. government needs to better protect its supply chain from hidden vulnerabilities and Trojan horses in some commercial technology products made overseas. Some credit-card point-of-sale machines, for example, have stolen credit card numbers and passwords. Schneider noted that the government plans to work with private vendors to protect its supply chain, and will implement stringent acquisition rules for commercial technology products. In addition to addressing concerns about the supply chain, Schneider noted that the government is also planning to upgrade its perimeter defense scanner, Einstein. The system is largely a passive monitoring system that alerts the government that it has been attacked after the fact. The new version of the system will allow the government to anticipate where threats will come from and prevent cyber criminals from launching attacks. Officials at the conference also noted that the National Cybersecurity Initiative will focus on other issues, including improving the sharing of information about cyberattacks and sharing government defense capabilities with private companies.
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TI's Kilby Labs to Focus on Chip Advances That 'Make a Difference'
EDN (09/12/08) Mutschler, Ann Steffora

Texas Instruments (TI) has launched Kilby Labs, a new research and design center that will unite university researchers and leading TI engineers to discover and develop life-changing opportunities for semiconductor technology. The lab is inspired by TI's original lab, where Jack Kilby first designed the chip that opened the door to 3G cell phones, portable ultrasound machines, and automotive antilock braking systems. TI emphasizes that Kilby Lab researchers will focus on chip advances that make a difference in the world. "The power to help make the world healthier, safer, greener, and more fun is what gets us excited about chip innovation, and why we come to work every day at TI," says TI Chairman Rich Templeton. "It's what motivated Jack Kilby to build the first IC and why he was able to transform the world through his ideas and inventions." TI senior VP and the lab's executive sponsor Gregg Lowe says Kilby Labs will combine TI's experience in developing new chip technologies and the company's understanding of customer needs with the dreams of a new generation of innovators. Lowe says the best way to celebrate Kilby's contributions is by providing people with the opportunity to continue his work and find new ways of improving millions of lives around the world through chip innovations.
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Software Spots the Spin in Political Speeches
New Scientist (09/17/08)No. 2674, P. 22; Hutson, Stu

Queen's University researcher David Skillicorn has created an algorithm that evaluates word usage within the text of a conversation or speech to ascertain whether a person is being truthful. The program counts usage of first person nouns, seeks out phrases that offer qualifications or clarifications of more general statements, and looks for increased rates of action verbs and negatively charged words, which signal higher levels of spin. Skillicorn used the algorithm to study speeches of 2008 presidential contenders John McCain, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, and determined that the level of spin in their addresses reflected the occasion. Voice analysis is another technique for determining spin, and Vox Institute founder Branka Zei Pollermann uses auditory analysis software to build a voice profile by mapping seven parameters of a person's speech and then comparing the profile with the speaker's facial expressions by using researcher Paul Ekman's Facial Action Coding System as a guide. Pollermann's analysis of McCain's speeches demonstrates that the candidate's flat tone and mismatched facial expressions could work against him, while Obama, who exhibits greater pitch modulation and closer correlation between speech and facial expressions, is a more politically astute speaker. Meanwhile, University of Tokyo researcher Yoshimasa Ohmoto and colleagues are working on a facial recognition system for robots and artificial intelligence agents that studies basic eye, nose, and mouth movements to determine whether a person is lying.
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