Welcome to the October 6, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Making a Case for Diversity in STEM Fields
Inside Higher Ed (10/06/08) Chubin, Daryl E.; Malcom, Shirley M.
Diversity is often lacking in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and Daryl E. Chubin and Shirley M. Malcom with the American Association for the Advancement of Science lament that "at a time when STEM fields are increasingly important to our national security, health, and competitiveness, we are neither supporting the research nor producing the diverse pool of scientists and engineers we need to fuel our future." They cite research implying that diverse viewpoints enhance science and boost engineering's responsiveness to an international client base, and note that although just 5 percent of American workers were employed in STEM occupations as of 2006, they had a disproportionately large impact on the national and global economies. Chubin and Malcom say women, Native Americans, African Americans, and Latinos are sorely underrepresented among all STEM majors at the undergraduate level, despite the growing diversity of the student population overall. The authors identify several issues that must be addressed to boost the diversity of colleges' STEM departments, starting with the clear articulation of the educational case for diversity, illustrating its advantages for both students and society in general so that appropriate policies, practices, structural revisions, and resources can be identified and provided to offer the optimal path to diversity. A more holistic way of thinking about diversity in STEM must then be implemented, while a third issue Chubin and Malcom cite is an acknowledgment that stereotypes are still relevant and have an impact on people's views of quality and expectations for performance. "We must move toward strategies to transform an entire institution--to serve the needs of all students and faculty members, regardless of discipline, not just those with certain characteristics," the authors contend.
'Intelligent' Computers Put to the Test
Guardian Unlimited (UK) (10/05/08) Smith, David
Fifty years after mathematician Alan Turing questioned whether machines are capable of thinking, six programs will carry on a conversation with human interrogators in an experiment that will attempt to prove the answer is yes. To pass the Turing test, the software must trick the judges into believing they are talking to a human. So far, no program has passed the test, but six programs will soon answer questions posed by human volunteers at the University of Reading in an effort to do so. If any of the programs succeed, it will likely be considered the most significant advancement in artificial intelligence since the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. The achievement could also raise profound questions surrounding whether a computer has the potential to be conscious and if humans have the right to turn such a computer off. University of Reading cyberneticist Kevin Warwick believes that machines are conscious, but in a different way, much like how a bat or a rat is conscious, but different from humans. "I think the reason Alan Turing set this game up was that maybe to him consciousness was not that important; it's more the appearance of it, and this test is an important aspect of appearance," Warwick says.
Peer-to-Peer Networking Takes Internet Out of the Equation
ICT Results (10/03/08)
European researchers working on the POPEYE project have developed software that enables independent, ad hoc, secure networks to be created anytime, anywhere without using the Internet. POPEYE uses technology already embedded in many portable computing devices, and the researchers developed new software that can handle the wide variety of hardware standards in those devices, enabling devices by different manufacturers to spontaneously create a network. "It doesn’t matter if there are different brands of Wi-Fi cards or laptops, if they have a small amount of storage space and small screens, or plenty of memory and a big screen, the POPEYE system can bring them all together," says POPEYE project coordinator Nicolas Berthet. The software creates a shared repository that everyone in the network can access, allowing users to move documents and files to other devices on the network, and because the resources of the devices are being shared to create the repository, someone with a small PDA will get the same access to material as someone with a powerful laptop. The common repository only exists because the community exists, and it ceases to exist when the community disbands, ensuring documents and other material are not left in an insecure location or hub.
Computers Help Docs Spot Breast Cancer on X-rays
Associated Press (10/01/08) P. 14; Nano, Stephanie
One of the largest and most rigorous tests of computer-aided detection (CAD) software has found that a computer is as good as a second pair of eyes in helping radiologists detect breast cancer on a mammogram. Approved a decade ago, CAD programs are now used for about a third of the U.S.'s mammograms, but the value and accuracy of the technology has remained a topic of debate. However, in a randomized study of 31,000 women, British researchers investigated whether a single expert aided by a computer is as accurate in detecting cancer as two radiologists examining a mammogram, which is the common practice in Britain. The researchers found that CAD software spotted nearly the same number of cancers, 198 out of 227, as the two readers, who detected 199. In countries such as the United States, where a single reader is the standard practice, CAD software could potentially improve cancer-detection rates to the same level as countries that practice double readings. "What we demonstrated was that one reader using CAD could pick up as many cancers as the two readers could," says University of Aberdeen radiologist Fiona J. Gilbert, lead author of the study. CAD software also could decrease the cost of cancer detection, enabling women to receive tests more often and potentially detecting cancer earlier.
SC08 to Offer 25 High Performance Computing Tutorials
HPC Wire (10/01/08)
The SC08 Conference's Tutorials Program is now open for registration. The offering ranges from basic tutorials to more advanced tutorials on special topics and new developments in high performance computing, networking, and storage. Topics include parallel, distributed, and multi-core computing; parallel programming and debugging; high-performance programming languages and systems; performance modeling, analysis, and tuning; software tools and libraries; networking; and file systems and I/O. There will be 10 half-day and 15 full-day tutorials, and a one-day or two-day passport will allow participants to move freely between them on the selected days. Tutorial notes and luncheons will be available for registered tutorial attendees. SC08 is scheduled for Nov. 15-21 in Austin, Texas, and the tutorials will be offered on Sunday and Monday, Nov. 16-17. For more information and to register, visit http://sc08supercomputing.org/?pg=registration.html#reg.
Should Computer Programming Be Mandatory for U.S. Students?
InfoWorld (10/02/08) McAllister, Neil
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California State Board of Education are working to require that all students pass an algebra test before graduating from the eighth grade. Neil McAllister writes that while strengthening students' math skills is a good first step, fundamental computer literacy also should be incorporated into the curriculum of U.S. public schools. He argues that if eighth graders are required to know algebra, 10th graders should be able to program in Java. Core computer literacy will soon be an essential skill in the global job market, making programming a baseline skill instead of a differentiator, McAllister says. The time has come to shed many of the outdated yet popular prejudices and misconceptions surrounding computer literacy. Although computing devices are everywhere, programming is still considered a world for nerds, geeks, and outsiders. Today, children have every incentive to learn programming, be it to customize a Web page, create a program for Facebook, or write scripts to help with their homework. Programming now has real-world applications that are relevant to everyday lives, and teaching programming would eliminate the antisocial stigma associated with computer literacy. Even if more students did not pursue technology careers, the computer skills they learn would be applicable to numerous other careers.
Computer Hardware 'Guardians' Protect Users From Undiscovered Bugs
University of Michigan News Service (09/29/08)
University of Michigan (UM) researchers have developed a system that allows microprocessors to work around functional bugs, including ones that have not been detected. Chipmakers uncover functional bugs by simulating the different scenarios, commands, and configurations a processor may encounter. However, bugs only occur when they are triggered by certain configurations, and not all bugs are found because it is virtually impossible to simulate all possible scenarios, commands, and configurations. The researchers' system builds a virtual fence that prevents chips from operating in untested configurations. The approach tracks all the configurations the company tested, and stores that information on a miniscule monitor that is added to each processor. The monitor, called a semantic guardian, prevents the chip from operating outside its virtual fence by switching the processor into a slower, bare-bones safe mode when the chip encounters a configuration that has not been validated, treating all untested configurations as potential threats. UM professor Valeria Bertacco notes that although only a tiny fraction of processor configurations are verified, that fraction accounts for the configurations that occur 99.9 percent of the time. Bertacco says users would not even notice when the processor switches to safe mode, because it happens infrequently and only lasts a moment before switching back.
ICANN Hears Concerns About Accountability, Control
IDG News Service (10/01/08) Gross, Grant
ICANN recently held a meeting to discuss how to improve the Internet community's confidence in the organization. Although the oversight agreement between the U.S. government and ICANN expires in 2009, and ICANN officials say they have no plans to sign a new agreement with the U.S., some countries have called for the creation of an international organization to regulate ICANN. Meanwhile, most electronic-commerce companies do not want additional international control of the organization. ICANN has proposed that it remain based in the United States after the oversight agreement ends, because the country has strong antitrust and competition laws. ICANN officials also are considering limiting stakeholders from participating in multiple committees. Another proposal would create a new system for petitioning the ICANN board for revisiting a decision and allow for the organization's entire board to be removed from power. Experts say that the new system for petitioning the board would be ineffective and that removing the entire board would be too extreme a measure.
New Research to Create Reliable Electronic Systems
University of the West of England, Bristol (10/02/08) Kelly, Jane; Price, Mary
University of the West of England (UWE) researchers are working with the University of York on creating electrical systems that can diagnose and fix their own faults and failures in ways similar to the human immune system. The Self-healing cellular Architectures for Biologically-inspire highly Reliable Electronic systems (SABRE) project will be based at Bristol Robotics lab, which is jointly run by the University of Bristol and UWE. The SABRE project aims to create electronic systems based on a structure of cells with the ability to work together to defend the integrity of the system, diagnose faults, and heal problems. Bristol Robotics Laboratory's Tony Pipe says that when an electronic system fails, it should be able to cope with minor faults and continue operating efficiently. He says the few existing electronic systems designed to be fault tolerant either replicate whole subsystems or revert to a safe mode when there is a malfunction. By comparison, he notes that highly complex living organisms such as the human body are able to handle malfunctions at a lower level, by defending the system and repairing damage to cells to maintain normal functionality. SABRE researches hope to emulate this ability in electronic systems to design nature-like, fault-tolerant electronic architectures.
MIT E-Voting Project to Analyze Experience of Voters in Election
The Tech (09/30/08) Vol. 128, No. 43, Gallex, Florence
Researchers at the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP) are working to analyze the security and impact of electronic-voting systems. MIT political science department head and VTP faculty member Charles H. Stewart III says one of the issues the group is looking to solve is figuring out a way that voters can make sure their vote has been counted without receiving a paper receipt. Established by California Institute of Technology president David Baltimore and Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Charles M. Vest in December 2000, the VTP program aims to improve voting in the United States through the use of the latest technologies. The VTP program's goals include evaluating the reliability and administrative practices of existing voting systems, establishing guidelines for their reliability and performance, and proposing standards for the design of new voting technologies. In preparation for the upcoming U.S. election, MIT is trying to collect as much data as possible through two data-related projects. The first is collecting election-day returns from the states to see what difference e-voting machines make. The second project is the development of the first large-scale public opinion poll of American voters to ask them about their experience with voting on election day.
U.Va. Engineers Aim to Solve 'Burning' Computer Problem
University of Virginia (09/24/08)
University of Virginia professors Avik Ghosh and Mircea Stan are working to enable computers to produce less heat by using nanoelectronics. To solve the heat problem, Ghosh and Stan are re-examining the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that, left to itself, heat will transfer from a hotter unit to a cooler one until both have roughly the same temperature, a state called thermal equilibrium. To break or bypass the law will require Ghosh and Stan to solve a scientifically controversial, and theoretical, conundrum known as Maxwell's Demon. In 1871, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell theorized that the energy flow from hot to cold could be disrupted if there was a way to control the transfer of energy between the two units. In computers, Maxwell's Demon would allow one component to take the heat while another works at a lower temperature. This technique could be accomplished only if the degree of natural disorder, or entropy, were reduced. Ghosh says device engineering is generally based on operating near thermal equilibrium, but there are examples in nature of biological cells operating outside thermal equilibrium. Brownian ratchets, a similar concept, also will be explored. Brownian ratchets proposes that devices could be engineered to convert non-equilibrium electrical activity into directed motion, enabling energy to be harvested from a heat source.
Finding the Switches to Our Cells' 'Computer'
National Science Foundation (09/24/08)
Virginia Tech professor Naren Ramakrishnan and the National Center for Biological Sciences in India's Upinder S. Bhalla are investigating human cells from the standpoint of an electrical engineer. "A biochemical switch is a basic memory unit," Ramakrishnan says. "We wanted to try to understand the cellular basis of memory and to see exactly how cells make their decisions." The researchers used Virginia Tech's System X supercomputer to search for switch-like combinations within a cell's store of possible chemical reactions. The computer was programmed to look for combinations that formed what are known as bistable circuits, or groups of chemical reactions that can be switched back and forth into two separate but stable states. Bistable circuits enable cells to use chemical compounds to model state, similar to how a transistor switch can be set to a steady one or zero. Finding these potential switches would take a standard computer approximately 100 years of continual computations to test them all, say Ramakrishnan and Bhalla. However, the System X supercomputer was able to identify thousands of switches in a relatively short amount of time, allowing the researchers to produce a catalog of all the switch combinations they discovered. The supercomputer also allowed the researchers to map out a family tree of switches, which led to the discovery that although the switches are different, they are related to each other.
Video Game to Aid North Carolina High School Students in Meeting New State Graduation Requirement
North Carolina State University (09/24/08) Barnhill, Caroline M.
North Carolina State University (NC State) researchers, backed by a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant, are developing Games Requiring Advanced Developmental Understanding and Achievement in Technology Endeavors (GRADUATE), easy-to-use game creation tools that will help students completing North Carolina's new graduation project requirement. GRADUATE researchers will work with 40 teachers and nearly 150 members of the class of 2011 from Lee Early College in Stanford, N.C., and Hillside New Tech High School in Durham, N.C, to pilot gaming as a means to motivate more students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-related (STEM) degrees and careers. NC State professor Len Annetta says the program will investigate the effects of student-created games on the students' attitudes toward STEM fields, achievements in learning content, and motivation to enter STEM careers. Students selected to participate in the program will develop interactive video games that will motivate and enable their peers to learn about the aspects of STEM-related careers. Outstanding student-created games will be placed in a repository for future teachers and students to use to teach and learn science content. "We have seen a trend throughout the state that many students are dropping out of school because they are bored and disengaged in the classroom, not necessarily because they are unintelligent," Annetta says. "By partnering students with their teachers to create games, we are creating a new and engaging way of learning and teaching complex STEM content."
Step Right Up, Let the Computer Look at Your Face and Tell You Your Age
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (09/23/08) Kloeppel, James E.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) researchers are developing software capable of estimating a person's age by examining their face. UIUC professor Thomas S. Huang says age-recognition algorithms could be used to stop underage drinkers from entering bars, prevent minors from purchasing tobacco products from vending machines, or deny children access to adult Web sites. Huang says that a person's face provides important visual clues for estimating age, such as facial attributes, expression, gender, ethnic origin, and other factors that are crucial in image analysis. The age-estimation software consists of three modules--face detection, discriminative manifold learning, and multiple linear regression. The software was trained on a database of photos containing 1,600 faces. Huang notes that age-estimation software also could be used for security control, surveillance monitoring, and electronic customer relationship management. For example, pictures taken of a customer could create demographic data, such as how many adult men and women buy a product. Age-estimation software also could be combined with sex-identification programs to help target audiences for specific advertisements. A major benefit of using age-estimation software is that it can be used without violating anyone's privacy.
Economist Technology Quarterly (09/08) Vol. 388, No. 8596, P. 8
Managing the heat generated by computer chips, which is rising as chips are increasingly stacked on top of one another, is a pressing concern, and IBM researcher Thomas Brunschwiler and colleagues are running experiments on the liquid cooling of these chips. Their work has yielded a stacked processor permeated by a network of channels etched with standard silicon-fabrication techniques, which allow water to be pumped in a network that runs between the horizontal layers of a stack and the scores of vertical interconnections that convey data between its layers. Heat is absorbed and carried off by the water, and the current way of thinking is to harness the diverted heat for other useful purposes rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. IBM's Zurich lab has already built a prototype that pipes the water from the chips into a heat exchanger, and the next step is to connect the exchanger to a district-heating system so that it can be pumped into central heating. Water cooling could promote the use of solar energy and help reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. IBM thinks that liquid cooling of silicon solar cells can boost the amount of sunlight that can be focused on the cells without wrecking them, and subsequently increase the amount of electricity they generate.
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