Welcome to the November 24, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Internet's Bandwidth Health Still in Trouble, Report Says
Network World (11/21/08) Reed, Brad
Demand for Internet bandwidth will exceed the Internet's capacity by 2012, predicts a new Nemertes Research report. Nemertes originally projected that Internet traffic would eclipse capacity by 2010, but the firm has since adjusted its prediction to reflect the economic crisis. Nemertes does not expect the bandwidth crunch to cause the Internet to crash or shut down completely, but warns that users will experience brownouts that slow high-bandwidth applications such as high-definition video-streaming and peer-to-peer file sharing. A major reason for the expected growth in traffic is the increasing popularity of virtual workers who work from home or remote offices. These workers often require advanced communication and collaboration tools, such as Web and videoconferencing, according to the report. Another major contributor is the large growth in high-bandwidth applications that users access. Nemertes expects that an increasing number of Internet service providers will implement bandwidth caps that will enable them to charge extra for heavy bandwidth consumers. The firm says that if the capacity issue is not addressed, the Internet will fracture into a tiered system in which companies with the most money will pay for specialized network infrastructure that ensures their content is delivered at a higher speed, while companies with less money will struggle to make their content accessible.
Obama Administration to Inherit Tough Cybersecurity Challenges
Computerworld (11/19/08) Vijayan, Jaikumar
When U.S. President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office in January, his administration will find that many of the initiatives the Bush administration launched to improve cybersecurity are still works in progress. Among those initiatives is Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12 (HSPD-12), which aimed to improve the security of government facilities and computer networks by requiring federal agencies to issue new smart card identity credentials to all employees and contractors by the end of October. However, most federal agencies are still at least two years away from meeting that goal. But completing initiatives such as HSPD-12 is not the only thing the Obama administration will have to do to improve cybersecurity, experts say. Tom Kellerman of Core Security Technologies says the new president will also have to drum up the support of other countries if he wants to be successful in the fight against cybercrime. In addition, the federal government needs to buy safer IT products and improve the way it works with private companies to protect critical infrastructure systems and respond to emergencies, says consultant Franklin Reeder.
Spinning Into the Future of Data Storage
Queen Mary, University of London (11/24/08) Halkyard, Sian
Queen Mary, University of London scientists, along with colleagues from the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, are researching organic spintronics technology. The researchers are the first to measure how the magnetic polarization inside such devices, specifically on the component known as a read-head that is similar to a hard drive, can be lost. Unlike most electronic components, magnetic read-heads use the electron's intrinsic magnetic field, or spin, to carry information. Spinvalves are made of at least three layers, with two magnetic layers separated by a non-magnetic layer. The researchers investigated how spins travel across the non-magnetic layer in the hope of improving data storage. Queen Mary's Alan Drew says spintronics promise low-power circuits, potentially quantum circuits, and the possibility of combining communication, memory, and logic on the same chip. He says that one exciting aspect of the research is that a new combination of materials was used to make the device. "When devices are made from organic materials, which have low manufacturing costs and are very flexible, the magnetic information can be preserved for extremely long times--over a million times longer than many materials used in today's technology," Drew says. "These new materials have the potential to create an entirely new generation of spin-enabled devices."
Opening the Door to Europe's Archives
ICT Results (11/21/08)
Cross-border searches of historical digital archives can be accelerated via a single online portal with a simple graphical interface, as illustrated by the QVIZ project co-funded by the European Union (EU). QVIZ portal users can pinpoint the place and time they are interested in through the use of a map and timeline integrated with the portal's graphical interface. "Archivists traditionally ask about 'where' and 'when,' so these two entry points help to limit the search dramatically," says QVIZ assistant coordinator Fredrik Palm. The portal can retrieve the correct records from separate national archives with distinct indexing systems using an ontology describing how the hierarchy of administrative units has changed over time. QVIZ has extended the ontology to encompass 71,000 units covering all of Europe, although it is currently focused on Estonia and Sweden. The ontology also can accommodate older administrative units whose boundaries may not be well known by not relying on exact geographical coordinates. QVIZ users can lay out a path others can follow through the use of "social bookmarks" that allow visitors to tag particularly interesting or relevant information. Palm says the information to support social bookmarking resides within the QVIZ platform itself rather than inside the archival source material. The knowledge gained from QVIZ also will feed into another EU-funded project that will roll out a portal supplying access to 2 million items chosen from museums, libraries, audiovisual collections, and archives throughout Europe.
Google Executive Urges Improvements to Technology Infrastructure
NextGov.com (11/18/08) Nagesh, Gautham
Google CEO Eric Schmidt says the U.S. federal government should invest in green technology and a national computer infrastructure to help create jobs and foster American innovation. Schmidt, part of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, also supports a smart power grid that uses two-way communications and advanced sensors to deliver electricity more efficiently. He says Obama supports such an approach. Schmidt says the federal government has a critical role in creating the framework that will allow technological innovation to flourish. "Let's take this economic crisis and deal with it as an opportunity to get our infrastructure right," he says. The government also should make more frequencies available to TV and other broadcast mediums to allow for greater innovation, says Schmidt, citing the fact that only 55 percent of Americans have access to broadband, and the fact that the United States, which invented the technology, ranks 15th in the world in terms of broadband availability. Schmidt called for a universal broadband strategy to give all Americans access to high-speed Internet service by increasing competition among carriers, as well as for greater investment in research, noting that the creation of the Internet was largely due to the DARPA-furnished grants to study computer networking in the 1960s and 1970s. He also says the federal government should do more to promote math and science education and not force foreign students to leave the country after getting their education in the United States.
Media Lab Creates Center for Future Storytelling
MIT News (11/18/08)
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory, backed by a $25 million commitment from Plymouth Rock Studios, has opened the Center for Future Storytelling, a new research center that will apply leading-edge technologies to make stories more interactive, improvisational, and social. The researchers want to transform audiences into active participants in the storytelling process by combining the real and virtual worlds to enable everyone to make their own unique stories with user-generated content on the Web. Research at the center also will focus on how to revolutionize imaging and display technologies, including the development of next-generation cameras and programmable studios. "Storytelling is at the very root of what makes us uniquely human," says Media Lab director Frank Moss. "But how we tell our stories depends on another uniquely human characteristic--our ability to invent and harness technology." Research at the center will include on-set motion capture technology to accurately and unobtrusively merge human performers and digital character models, cameras that will lead to new visual art forms, morphable movie studios, holographic television, and next-generation synthetic performer technologies, including highly expressive robotic or animated characters. The center will draw from technologies developed at the Media Lab, such as digital systems that understand people's emotions, or cameras capable of capturing the intent of the storyteller.
The Online Search Party: A Way to Share the Load
New York Times (11/23/08) P. BU4; Eisenberg, Anne
Microsoft and other companies are developing social networking tools that will enable people at different computers to perform Internet searches as a team, dividing responsibilities and pooling resources and results in a shared Web space in the browser display. "Web search is usually considered a solitary activity," says Microsoft Research computer scientist Meredith Ringel Morris. "But many tasks can benefit from joint searching." For example, a family could work together on different computers on planning a family vacation, or doctors and patients could work from different places to research a medical problem. Microsoft's SearchTogether program enables people to interact online while searching for the desired information. People performing a joint search can divide tasks, such as sending half of a search's results to one person and half to another, to avoid repeated work. "A group member can log in at any time," Morris says. "Because of the automatic storing of group information in a shared repository, you can see what everyone has done while you were offline. The database is always available." SearchTogether also has a peek and follow feature that enables a group member to watch another member search, which could help novice users learn from experienced searchers.
Multi-Core and Parallel Programming: Is the Sky Falling?
Computing Community Consortium (11/17/08) Snir, Marc
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor Marc Snir acknowledges that multicore parallelism is difficult, and this difficulty can give rise to divergent perspectives. One perspective is that parallel programming is inherently difficult, while another posits that from an intrinsic point of view parallel programming is not substantially tougher than sequential programming, and is impeded by a shortfall of sufficient languages, tools, and architectures. "In this alternative view, different practices, supported by the right infrastructure, can make parallel programming prevalent," Snir reasons. He notes that there are numerous classes of parallelism that are relatively simple to learn, which suggests that hard-to-comprehend code is the result of unstructured, unrestricted interaction between concurrent threads. Although research in languages, tools, hardware, libraries, compilers, and other areas is necessary to make parallel programming easier, Snir says the ultimate solution "will be one that brings together technologies from all these areas to bear on each other." This cannot happen incrementally or reactively, and what is required is interdisciplinary research and the internalization of the co-design concept. Snir says the mainstream systems community must be put into a mindset that sustains research where a clean system slate is an agreeable point of entry.
'Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon' Game Provides Clue to Efficiency of Complex Networks
University of California, San Diego (11/17/08) Froelich, Warren; Zverina, Jan
The small-world paradigm, discovered by sociologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s and popularized by the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game, has become a source of inspiration for researchers studying the Internet as a global complex network. A study published in Nature Physics reveals a previously unknown mathematical model called "hidden metric space," which could explain the small-world phenomenon and its relationship to both man-made and natural networks such as human language, as well as gene regulation or neural networks that connect neurons to organs and muscles within our bodies. The concept of an underlying hidden space also may be of interest to researchers working to remove mounting bottlenecks within the Internet that threaten the smooth passage of digital information. "Internet experts are worried that the existing Internet routing architecture may not sustain even another decade," says Dmitri Krioukov, a researcher at the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA), based at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). CAIDA director and UCSD professor Kimberly Claffy says the discovery of a metric space hidden beneath the Internet could point toward architectural innovations that would remove this bottleneck, and Krioukov says the reconstruction of hidden metric spaces underlying a variety of real complex networks could have other practical applications. For example, hidden spaces in social or communications networks could lead to new, efficient strategies for searching for specific content or individuals.
Science Not a Solo Effort
New Zealand Herald (11/21/08) Doesburg, Anthony
University of Chicago computer scientist Ian Foster is inviting New Zealand researchers to use the Argonne National Laboratory's (ANL's) supercomputer, the world's third most powerful supercomputer. Foster is the director of the Computation Institute, an organization established in 2000 by the University of Chicago and ANL to investigate new ways of conducting scientific research using powerful computers and data networks. For example, Foster is helping to equip climate scientists with computing power to interpret large volumes of data from satellites, while also providing social scientists with the tools to predict the economic effects of climate change. The institute recently received a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant to construct a system capable of manipulating petabytes of data. The research also will speed up magnetic resonance image processing, which is used in the diagnosis of brain injuries. Foster, a native of New Zealand, began working in the United States in the late 1980s. At a recent conference of young scientists in Wellington, New Zealand, Foster discussed the increasingly collaborative nature of science. "There are interesting things to talk about relating to how technology is changing the nature of science--technologically, methodologically, and sociologically; how people work together to attack scientific problems and the tools that they bring to bear," he said.
A First in Online Gaming: Humans Team Up With AI Software
Northwestern University News Center (11/18/08) Leopold, Wendy
Northwestern University researchers have released an online game in which human players partner with artificial intelligence (AI) software as part of an effort to help computers learn to use language more naturally. At the Web site give-challenge.org, players can team up with one of four AI software systems in a treasure hunt, and provide feedback on how well the systems give instructions for solving puzzles as part of the "GIVE: Generating Instructions in Virtual Environments" project. "By collecting information from everyday computer users from around the world, we will be able to improve language processing for different kinds of intelligent agents," says Northwestern professor Justine Cassell. Feedback from the gamers will be analyzed to compare how each IT system performed in the GIVE challenge. The goal is to make computers better partners in a variety of virtual and real world situations. "The information we get will help to build better pedestrian navigation systems, develop more realistic dialogue for virtual humans in immersive virtual worlds, and eventually improve interaction with mobile robots," says Cassell, who organized the GIVE challenge along with researchers from the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany. GIVE's AI systems are based on natural language generation (NLG) technology and were created by research teams in the United States and Europe. The GIVE challenge is the largest initiative to evaluate NLG systems, and is the first time that NLG research has been made public for evaluation.
Solving the Internet Gridlock
University of Wisconsin-Madison (11/13/08) Dmytrenko, Nick
As computer programs advance and users perform increasingly complex tasks such as editing movies and producing and copying music, computers gradually slow down due to the increased demand on their processing systems. The slowdown can have a particularly negative effect on scientists who rely heavily on computing. For example, the Large Hadron Collider will require billions of calculations to effectively interpret and store results. To perform these experiments, scientists need computers to process, record, and analyze massive amounts of data. To achieve the needed amount of computing power, experiments can utilize grid computing, which uses the Internet to link computers and share work, accomplishing larger tasks in less time than would be possible with a single supercomputer. Using software developed by University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) students, grid computing promises to solve the data crisis and revolutionize how we conduct scientific research. University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Miron Livny says he believes the grid is more of a movement than a technology or thing. "What we're doing is using the Internet to create more sophisticated services," Livny says. "You submit your jobs here and through the Internet we can find other places to run your jobs." To decide which jobs take precedence, UW programmers have developed a program called CONDOR, a federally funded open-source program.
Poker Bots Raise the Stakes for Human Players
New Scientist (11/13/08) No. 2682, P. 28; Fleming, Nic
A pivotal moment in the development of artificial intelligence may have taken place at the Gaming Life Expo in Las Vegas, where a computer program called Polaris became the first program to defeat a team of world-class poker players. However, Polaris' victory does not mean that the software is an unbeatable poker player. The program excels at heads-up, limit Texas hold 'em, in which two players play against each other directly and can only bet a limited amount, which is a simplified version of no-limit hold 'em and other poker games, which can have more players. However, Polaris' developers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, believe it is only a matter of time until they develop a program that can compete at the highest levels. Darse Billings, founder of the university's Computer Poker Research Group, says he believes a poker program will be able to surpass all human players within two years at heads-up no-limit Texas hold'em. Other members of the group say it may take longer than two years, but that it will happen. University of Sheffield professor Noel Sharkey says their work will help computer systems make new inroads into new areas. "This type of technology might be very successful in the financial markets," Sharkey says. "The markets are more like poker than chess because there is incomplete information about the state of play at any time."
Jacking Into the Brain
Scientific American (11/08) Vol. 299, No. 5, P. 56; Stix, Gary
The cyberpunk genre that imagines sophisticated brain implants and machines imbued with the digital blueprints of real people to give them a quasi-immortality is far from the reality, which has made strides in areas such as thought-controlled prostheses but is limited by a lack of understanding about the basic mechanisms of neural functioning. The possibility exists of inputting text and other high-level information into the hippocampus, an area of the brain that helps to produce new memories, but critical new insights into brain functionality must be achieved to make this method technically feasible. "Just getting a lot of signals and trying to understand what these signals mean and correlating them with particular behavior is not going to solve it," says Henry Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The U.S.'s National Science Foundation and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are funding a project to develop an artificial hippocampus that the University of Southern California and Wake Forest University are jointly working on to aid people with memory deficits. A demonstration that an artificial device emulated hippocampal output would be an important move toward figuring out the underlying code that could be used to generate a memory in the motor cortex, and perhaps one day decipher higher-level behaviors. Brown University neuroscientist John P. Donoghue envisions the emergence of brain-machine interfaces that enable paralysis victims to perform simple movements within the next five years, and that one day such devices might even grant full mobility to people who have suffered upper spinal cord injuries.
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