Welcome to the October 10, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
Please Note: In observance of Columbus Day, TechNews will not publish on Monday, October 13. Publication will resume on Wednesday, October 15.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Asia Trumping US on Science R&D
Christian Science Monitor (10/10/08) P. 3; Spotts, Peter N.
Some science-policy specialists in the United States are warning that federal support for research and development (R&D) may be weakening. The immediate problem is the continuing budget resolution the president recently signed. Congress postponed final passage of the federal budget to next March, which means that, except for the Defense Department, federal agencies responsible for performing or funding research must hold spending at or below fiscal year 2008 levels. The continuing resolution's effect on research, combined with recent funding trends, is "very hurtful," says Steven Fluharty, vice president for research at the University of Pennsylvania. Researchers in the physical sciences have been promised more money through the American Competitiveness Act for the past three years. However, Fluharty says it has reached a point where funding agencies issue calls for research proposals but the money is never delivered, wasting everyone's time. Beginning with fiscal year 2005, federal spending on research has fallen off after accounting for inflation, and the decline may advance into fiscal year 2009 with an expected revision to inflation figures, according to a recent analysis by the American Association for Advancement of Science. Although the United States spends more on R&D than any other country, the growth rate of U.S. R&D spending has largely stalled. U.S. industry today now seems far less likely to conduct basic research. For example, Bell Laboratories, which earned six Nobel Prizes, has reportedly all but shut down its work in basic physics, and its parent company has shifted its focus to more product-oriented research in math, computer science, and wired and wireless networking.
Community Colleges Seen as Source of Engineers
Chronicle of Higher Education (10/10/08) Vol. 55, No. 7, P. A1; Brainard, Jeffrey
Engineers in the United States suffer from a lack of abundance and diversity, and community colleges are being tapped as a solution to this shortfall thanks to their large percentage of minority students and the fact that their low tuition costs are encouraging enrollment. There is general agreement among educators that giving more people an opportunity to study engineering will help produce top engineers and increase the workforce's technological savvy. Research by the Department of Education and individual universities indicates that engineering students who transfer from two-year colleges earn better grades and graduate at slightly higher rates than those who started at four-year institutions, yet a 2003 report from the Department of Education found that only about 33 percent of students who enroll in public, two-year colleges eventually transfer. To raise the number of engineering students who transfer from Montgomery College in Maryland to the University of Maryland in College Park, officials from across the state's public and private institutions have worked out a statewide agreement governing the transfer of credits for engineering students from two-year institutions that defines analytical skills and areas of competence expected of prospective transfers. The success of this agreement, if enacted, will greatly depend on students receiving sufficient financial aid and effective advice from academic counselors and mentors. A 2005 study from the National Academy of Engineering on community-college transfers lauded initiatives to cultivate student support networks, and California's MESA Community College Program, which pays colleges to operate academic workshops and supports industry advisory boards, is one such effort. Each campus participating in the program is equipped with a "student study center" where students of engineering and science are encouraged to study together.
Medical Data 'Internet' Goes Live, Boosts Research
ANU News (10/08/08) Couper, Simon
The Australian National University (ANU) has launched a new digital network that will enable medical and life scientists to share information gathered over thousands of cases. The ACT node of the BioGrid network is a collaborative venture between ANU and BioGrid Australia. The node will enable practitioners in hospitals, universities, and research centers to share and aggregate data on many diseases. "BioGrid is like a large medical Internet, meaning that clinical researchers can access information from existing research and clinical databases across many disease types at multiple institutions," says ANU researcher Andrew Janke. "There are thousands of records of patient data available on the grid, which has a high level of security to ensure that the integrity of the information and privacy of individuals are protected." Researchers using the BioGrid can access data to test hypotheses using their own analytical tools. The information in the virtual repository will be extracted on a regular basis from all source databases and mapped back into local repositories at each site. The ACT node of the BioGrid also connects to larger Australian projects, including the Australian Cancer Grid and the Australian Normative and Dementia Imaging Collaborative Network. The processing power will be provided by the ANU supercomputer facility.
Intelligent Machines? Think Again
Financial Times Digital Business (10/08/08) P. 1; Cane, Alan
Artificial intelligence (AI) has never quite delivered on its promise, and today the term "machine learning" has become the preferred description for systems that have some awareness of their environment and the ability to respond to changing circumstances. At Microsoft's Cambridge laboratory, researchers developing a video camera designed for teleconferencing that is equipped with built-in intelligence so that participants do not have to think about whether they are on camera and in view. The camera tracks participants as they move, making video communication more natural. The project demonstrates several aspects of the modern approach to AI. First, by improving quality and usefulness, it fulfills a business need. Second, it is low key and essentially invisible to the user. Third, the tasks it is asked to perform are within the limits of existing technology. Microsoft researcher Andrew Blake says the goal now is to build intelligence into machines we are already familiar with, instead of creating systems capable of performing tasks on their own. Expert systems, once considered the silver bullet that would transform the use of AI in business, never fulfilled their early promise because the task was too complex. The biggest advancements in AI have come through the Web, with machine-learning probabilities that help in data management and similar tasks. Blake says the real contributions from AI are found in intelligent apprentices and helpers, and not in autonomous systems, such as the robots found in traditional science fiction.
U.S. Failing to Promote Math Skills, Study Finds
New York Times (10/10/08) P. A15; Rimer, Sara
The United States is not developing the math skills of both boys and girls, particularly among students at the highest levels, according to a study published in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. The study also found that the few female students who do succeed in math are almost all immigrants or the daughters of immigrants from countries where mathematics is more highly valued. The study suggests that while many girls have the ability to become top math researchers, scientists, and engineers, they are rarely identified in the United States. A major reason, according to the study, is that American culture does not value talent in math, and discourages both girls and boys from excelling in the field. "We're living in a culture that is telling girls you can't do math--that's telling everybody that only Asians and nerds do math," says University of Wisconsin professor Janet E. Mertz, the study's lead author. Mertz says her study is the first to examine data from the most difficult math competitions for young people, including the USA and International Mathematical Olympiads for high school students and the Putnam Mathematical Competition for college undergraduates. She says another part of the problem is that while the best young math scholars are wooed by elite colleges, they are largely invisible to the public. "There is something about the culture in American society today which doesn't really seem to encourage men or women in mathematics," says Michael Sipser, head of MIT's math department. "Sports achievement gets lots of coverage in the media. Academic achievement gets almost none."
Cambridge Lab Sets Quantum Key World Record
Techworld (10/09/08) Dunn, John E.
Researchers at the Toshiba Cambridge Research Lab (CRL) have demonstrated the ability to shift quantum encryption keys at speeds of 1Mbps. The research makes it possible for secure Quantum Key Distribution to be used on optical networks with multiple nodes. Until this breakthrough, low secure key distribution speeds limited the technology to point-to-point links. The breakthrough was the result of engineers finding a way to make hardware better able to filter the "electron avalanches" that normally limit the technology. Quantum encryption uses principles from quantum physics to guarantee not only the data stream, but the keys used to encrypt the data stream. The bits that make the keys are encrypted into patterns of photons that, if intercepted in any way, corrupt the communication and alert the users that an attack has been made. The principle is sound, but relating the physics to semiconductor engineering is more difficult. The problem is that each photon used to communicate the key triggers an avalanche of electrons, which can become electronic noise that results in key errors. This problem can be prevented by turning off the equipment to dampen the effect, or limiting clock speeds to 10MHz. Both solutions limit throughput. The CRL researchers have developed a way to harness usable signals from much weaker electron fields without creating noise, enabling much higher clock speeds. The number of nodes is still limited to four, but the breakthrough is a major step forward.
Q&A: E-Voting Security Results 'Awful,' Says Ohio Secretary of State
Computerworld (10/08/08) Friedman, Brad
Ohio voters who do not trust touch-screen systems to properly record their votes will be given the option of a paper ballot thanks to a policy dictated by the results of Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner's Evaluation & Validation of Election-Related Equipment, Standards, & Testing (EVEREST) analysis, which uncovered "critical security failures" in every system evaluated by teams of both corporate and academic computer scientists and security specialists. Brunner says in an interview that the results of the EVEREST tests exceeded her worst expectations. "When I finally saw the results of our [EVEREST] tests, I thought I was going to throw up," she says. "I didn't think it would be that bad. And it was--it was awful." Vote dropping was observed in the tabulators of systems manufactured by Diebold's Premier Elections Solutions subsidiary. At the federal level, voting systems have to be certified as an entire end-to-end unit, and certification by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) requires companies to submit every piece of hardware and software to a single unit in order that tests can ascertain whether they all function together without problems. The EAC recently overhauled its certification process, but Brunner calls the process "very cumbersome." She notes that Ohio's boards of elections are instructed to tally the votes by hand if necessary, and sees value in such a practice, at least as a pilot program. "I'm not so sure I'd want to experiment during the presidential elections," Brunner says.
Alliance to Study Video Games for Math and Science Education
Redmond Developer News (10/07/08) Nagel, David
Microsoft and eight colleges and universities have launched the Games for Learning Institute, a new alliance to study how video games can be used to get middle school students more interested in science, technology, education and mathematics subjects. The institute will be housed at New York University (NYU), and Columbia University, the City University of New York, Dartmouth College, Parsons, Polytechnic Institute of New York University, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Teachers College are also part of the consortium. "Microsoft Research, together with NYU and the consortium of academic partners, will address these questions from a multidisciplinary angle, exploring what makes certain games compelling and playable and what elements make them effective, providing critically important information to researchers, game developers and educators to support a new era of using games for educational purposes," says Microsoft Research's John Nordlinger.
A Computer Program Reports on Air Quality in the Major Spanish Municipalities
Universidad Politecnica de Madrid (10/08/08)
Google recently revealed the Google Earth Outreach for Spain, a scheme that offers charitable organizations and non-profit institutions the knowledge and resources needed to use Google Earth and Google Maps to publicize the work they do among the general public. The Universidad Politecnica de Madrid's School of Computing Environmental Software and Modeling Group's efforts on air research are one of the leading Spanish projects participating in the scheme. The group is using Google Earth Outreach to demonstrate the air quality forecasting system for all Spanish municipalities with a population of more than 50,000. School of Computing professor Roberto San Jose led the development of the forecasting system, which accounts for traffic, industry, and biogenic emissions to calculate estimated air pollutant concentrations for the upcoming 72 hours. The forecasts, itemized according to four atmospheric pollution levels, are shown in Google Earth graphics mode. Other Google Earth Outreach Spain participants include Intermon Oxfam and Spain's Sustainability Observatory. Google Earth Outreach offers information on a variety of subjects, from significant changes in land use over the last few decades, to Intermon Oxfram's 18 development and fair-trade projects around the world.
Visualizing Election Polls
University of Utah (10/06/08) Siegel, Lee J.
University of Utah computer scientists have developed software that analyzes opinion data and displays the results in interactive graphs and charts. "We have developed new techniques for exposing complex relationships that are not obvious by usual methods of statistical analysis," says University of Utah professor Richard Riesenfeld, co-author of a study outlining the new way of visualizing polling data. When polling results are made available, extensive survey data is often reduced to a few key questions. Producing tables and graphs with traditional poll-analysis software requires training and manipulating a spreadsheet containing large grids of numbers, says Utah doctoral student Geoff Draper. Draper, as part of his Ph.D. thesis, developed software that creates charts that can change in real time as the user drags and drops different parameters into the middle of the graph, enabling on-the-fly manipulation. Although it was developed for analyzing poll or election results, Draper says the program is general enough that it could be used to analyze any type of demographic data. For example, he says a university could use it to categorize students by various demographic groups, health officials could use it to analyze the demographic characteristics of patients with a certain disease, or homeland security officials and police could use it when looking for common factors among known terrorists or criminals.
Helping the Disabled Make Use of Public Transport
ICT Results (10/04/08)
European researchers working on the MAPPED project have developed personal navigation software to help disabled people make better use of public transportation. The software lets disabled people know in advance which bus routes, subway lines, and rail links are disabled-friendly. MAPPED extends technology used in GPS navigation devices, and incorporates information about public transportation timetables and routes and points of interest. MAPPED coordinator Gary Randall says a point of interest for someone with a disability is often very different from points of interest for the non-disabled. Randall notes, for example, that someone with limited mobility would want to know if a building has an elevator or if all access points have steps, while a blind person may want to know in advance if a certain supermarket has someone available to help with their shopping. The system obtains such information wirelessly from a preloaded database and presents it to the user in a variety of formats tailored to the individual's needs, including visual maps and audio instructions. After testing the system in Dublin and Winchester, 84 percent of the users said they would find a route planner such as the MAPPED device useful in their daily lives.
Boston University Partners in NSF Challenge to Create Next Generation Wireless Network Using Visible Light
Boston University (10/06/08) Rosenberg, Ron
Boston University (BU), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the University of New Mexico (UNM) have received an $18.5 million National Science Foundation grant to launch the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center, a program to develop optical communications technology that would make light-emitting diodes (LEDs) the equivalent of a Wi-Fi access point. Researchers expect to build data communications capabilities out of low-power LEDs to create "smart lighting" that would be faster and more secure than modern networking technologies. BU professor Thomas Little says the technology could enable a situation in which computers, iPhones, TVs, radios, and thermostats could all communicate with users when they walk into a room just by flipping the wall light switch. "This could be done with a LED-based communications network that also provides light--all over existing power lines with low power consumption, high reliability, and no electromagnetic interference," Little says. "Ultimately, the system is expected to be applicable from exiting illumination devices, like swapping light bulbs for LEDs." Rensselaer and UNM will work on developing novel devices and applications to better understand the proliferation of smart lighting technologies and the materials wireless devices need to interface with on a network. BU will focus on developing the solid state optical technology that will form the backbone of the network. "This is a unique opportunity to create a transcendent technology that not only enables energy efficient lighting, but also creates the next generation of secure wireless communications," Little says.
UW Creates a Computer Mouse Driven by Sound
Seattle Times (10/06/08) Seven Richard
The University of Washington's (UW's) Vocal Joystick software enables people with disabilities to control their computers using the sound of their voice. Different sounds trigger different cursor movements. For example, saying "Ahh" causes the cursor to rise to the top right corner of the screen, while "Ooo" moves the cursor straight down, and "Ohh" moves the cursor to the bottom right. Regulating their vocal volume enables users to control the speed of the cursor, and making a soft clicking sound is the same as clicking with a mouse. The Vocal Joystick project is one of a series of UW assistive technology projects that range from enabling the blind to use touch screens to developing an alternative to the point-and-click method of computer navigation. The Vocal Joystick has been tested on spinal-cord-injury patients at the UW Medical Center to evaluate how users learn to produce the correct vowel sounds, memorize the directional patterns, and manipulate cursor speed. The Vocal Joystick offers several advantages over other assistive technologies. First, it can detect basic sounds at about 100 times a second to create fluid adaptive cursor movement. The software also is easier to use because it allows users to exploit a large set of sounds for both continuous and discrete movement, and to make adjustments on the fly.
How Much Security Do You Expect From Your Pacemaker?
University of Massachusetts Amherst (10/03/08)
University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Kevin E. Fu is developing zero-power technology and low-power cryptographic protocols for implantable medical devices. Fu, who earlier this year showed that an implantable heart defibrillator is vulnerable to hacking, won a three-year, $449,000 National Science Foundation grant to improve the security in implanted cardiac devices without compromising their safety and effectiveness. Fu will research sharing data over the Internet and the use of wirelessly programmable implants. He says the research comes at a critical time because few, if any, implanted devices share patient data outside secure settings such as clinics, and none are re-programmable from remote locations. However, Fu says future devices could allow a patient with an implanted cardiac device to go on vacation while the device continues to deliver information to the patient's physician over the Internet, enabling the doctor to modify the electrical output as needed, similar to adjusting prescriptions. Maintaining privacy and security will be crucial. "With medical devices, we don't have the luxury to fix security after the fact," Fu says. "This is where our research comes in."
Robot That Looks Like Young Girl Unveiled
Telegraph.co.uk (10/08/08) Moore, Matthew
Researchers at Osaka University say the latest version of robogirl, also known as Repliee R-1, has the most realistic robot suit ever created. Robogirl has flexible silicone skin and dozens of sensors and motors, which enable it to navigate its surroundings like a human. Robogirl's human-like appearance (it has eyes that blink and pig tails) is designed to help get people comfortable with the idea of interacting with a robot. "More importantly, we have found that people forget she is an android while interacting with her," says professor Hiroshi Ishiguro. "Consciously, it is easy to see that she is an android, but unconsciously, we react to the android as if she were a woman." The team designed Repliee R-1 to perform basic tasks for the elderly and disabled. Technical glitches in the previous version of the robot made the young Japanese woman appear as if she were having spasms.
Software That Could Win the Stanley Cup
Computerworld Canada (10/06/08) Schick, Shane
The University of Toronto's Ryan Lilien is developing the Computational Analysis of Ice Hockey Gameplay, a system that uses machine vision technology to analyze the play of hockey teams. Lilien says the Gameplay system can help a hockey team improve by understanding its own performance, as well as the performance and intuition of its opponents. He plans to apply machine vision technology, which today is mostly used to inspect packaged goods in a manufacturing setting, to NHL games. The system's software will study where players move, their habits, and play styles. Specially developed algorithms will attempt to reason, under uncertain conditions, why type of patterns emerge and what relationships those patterns have to winning or losing a game. Lilien says the program analyzes what leads up to a shot being taken and what allowed it to happen. "Tracking the puck is hard. It's small," Lilien says. "As a hockey fan, you don't always see the puck, but you know based on the position of the players where the puck is and where they're moving. The computer could do the same thing."
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