Welcome to the December 3, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
New Coalition Drawing Up Nationwide Broadband Access Strategy
The Washington Post (12/03/08) P. D3; Kang, Cecilla
Tax breaks, low-interest loans, subsidies, and public-private partnerships will be needed to realize U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's goal of providing access to affordable high-speed Internet service to every American, said a coalition of technology and telecommunications companies, labor unions, and public interest groups. Such steps are necessary to encourage companies to invest in upgrading and expanding their high-speed networks, the group said. The creation of the group, whose members have frequently disagreed on technology policy, is an effort to solve such differences. "The coalition is a positive in that it demonstrates we agree that we have a broadband problem, which not everyone was willing to admit to two years ago," says Free Press policy director Ben Scott. "The key is whether we'll see this group produce policy solutions that will require difficult choices." Communications Workers of America president Larry Cohen says the union supports a proposal by Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) that would redefine broadband as download speeds of 10 megabits per second, up from the current definition of 768 kilobits per second, which is far below the standards of many other nations. Some coalition members have suggested requesting funds from the U.S. government as part of the economic stimulus plan, an idea that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently supported.
Paper Ballots Touted as Most Secure
The Denver Post (12/02/08) Ingold, John
Colorado's Election Reform Commission discussed the reliability of electronic-voting machines during a recent meeting. Voting-machine expert and Rice University professor Dan Wallach addressed the state officials, county clerks, and elections experts charged with improving the state's elections policies and said e-voting machines are vulnerable to tampering. "In terms of the systems that are available today, hand-marked paper ballots counted by scanners are the best technology," Wallach said. Some of the largest counties in the state are using e-voting machines, but many counties still rely primarily on paper-ballot voting. More county clerks have begun to make security an issue, said Paul Craft, an expert in voting-machine certification. "You simply cannot continue to operate systems out there that cannot be secured," Craft said. U.S. Election Assistance Commission Chairwoman Rosemary Rodriguez said her agency is in the process of creating stronger voting-machine security standards.
A Human Approach to Computer Processing
The University of Nottingham (12/02/08) De Cozar, Tara
University of Nottingham scientists are researching "granular computing," a computer paradigm that examines groups or sets of information, called information granules, instead of looking at each piece of information individually. Examining data in granules exposes new patterns and relationships, potentially leading to new types of computer modeling in a variety of fields. Nottingham professor Andrzej Bargiela says the granular approach to computing is inspired by the human thought process. "Creating abstractions from detailed information is essential to human knowledge, interaction, and reasoning," Bargiela says. "The human brain filters the flood of information and distils knowledge subconsciously." He says humans remember the message or purpose of information, not the specific details. For example, people remember conversations, but not every specific word, which would be the raw data in a computer system. Bargiela says a granular computing approach to information processing may lead to human-information processing technology, and could provide a breakthrough in dealing with information overload in a wide variety of applications. Several Nottingham Ph.D. projects explore the application of granular computing, including projects on urban traffic monitoring and control, job scheduling, time-tabling, and protein classification.
New Approach Eliminates Software Deadlocks Using Discrete Control Theory
University of Michigan News Service (12/02/08) Moore, Nicole Casal
University of Michigan (UM) researchers have developed Gadara, a software controller that can anticipate and prevent program deadlocks. "Previously, engineers would try to identify potential deadlocks through testing or program analysis and then go back and rewrite the program," says UM professor Stephane Lafortune. "The bug fixes were manual, and not automatic. Gadara automates the process." Yin Wang, a doctoral student working with Lafortune, says that problems such as deadlocks usually need to be solved by the original programmer, but the goal of Gadara is to allow anyone to solve the problem. Deadlocks are becoming an increasingly pressing problem as multicore chips become more common and more complex, and as software programs perform many more tasks simultaneously. Gadara works by analyzing a program to find potential deadlocks, and inserting control logic into the program to ensure the program does not deadlock. Lafortune says Gadara uses a unique combination of discrete control theory and complier technology, which provides the logic and allows Gadara to use feedback to prevent deadlocks. The compiler technology, developed by UM professor Scott Mahlke, enables Gadara to operate on real-world applications.
Professor's Work Erases Technological Barriers
Seattle Post-Intelligencer (12/03/08) Paulson, Tom
University of Washington computer scientist Richard Ladner is working with people with disabilities to help them get more out of technology. Ladner has launched a variety of projects to make life easier for those without hearing or sight, including MobileASL, which uses video-compression to enable deaf cell phone users to simultaneously see each other over the phone to communicate; and WebAnywhere, a screen reader program that enables blind people to surf the Web from any computer with the help of a computerized voice that reads text. Working with blind computer science and engineering doctoral student Sangyun Hahn, Ladner developed the Tactical Graphics project, which created a program that can rapidly transform a visual image into a touch-based image using bumps on paper that the blind can read, similar to programs that convert text into Braille. Hahn says the goal is to offer the Tactical Graphics program to organizations that can further develop it so blind students can easily access visual information in addition to text. Ladner also has developed AccessMonkey, a Web page translation project, and WebinSitu, a project that collects data on access problems for the blind. Ladner also helps run summer programs to get deaf and blind students interested in science, engineering, and math.
The UPC and the Guttmann Institute Are Developing a Cognitive Telerehabilitation Program That Uses Virtual Reality
Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (11/27/08)
The Cognitive Rehabilitation Platform (PREVIRNEC), developed by the Guttmann Institute and Spain's Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya, is a telerehabilitation program that will help people with cognitive deficits due to acquired brain damage. PREVIRNEC is designed to treat cognitive sequelae associated with brain damage using a three-dimensional (3D) space that will help people improve their functional capacity in daily life activities. Therapists using the PREVIRNEC platform can personalize treatment plans, automatically program intensive rehabilitation sessions for the required amount of time, monitor results, and adjust the level of difficulty according to a patient's performance in previous sessions. The software supports the rehabilitation of affected cognitive functions by representing everyday, real-life situations in a virtual world. The software offers patients a 3D IT platform on which to perform their cognitive rehabilitation exercises, and provides a Web interface for the therapist that can be used to program different exercises for each individual and to monitor performance, access progression, and adapt treatment programs as needed. The virtual rehabilitation program includes scenarios such as a kitchen simulation in which patients have to execute tasks such as putting things away in the refrigerator or preparing a salad. Such tasks are difficult to simulate in a conventional clinical setting.
Open-Source Developers Set Out Software Road Map for 2020
Computerworld (12/02/08) Sayer, Peter
At the 2008 Open World Forum conference in Paris, a group of open source software advocates released "2020 FLOSS Roadmap," a report that establishes a road map for the software industry through 2020. The report makes several predictions about the role free, libre, and open source software (FLOSS) will play by 2020. The report predicts that FLOSS will become mainstream by 2020, and will contribute to a reduction in the digital divide. The report also predicts that social networks will rely on ubiquitous, open cloud-computing services, and will enable people to interact with friends, businesses, and governments. CIOs worried about vendor lock-in will strongly support the use of FLOSS, which will be at the core of green data centers and other business models with low ecological impacts, the report says. However, obtaining widespread acceptance of open source software will require significant action, the report notes. Governments will have to favor open source standards and services, which will require a stable and neutral legal context that establishes a clear definition of open standards and services and how they can be made and implemented, the report says. A clear legal framework also could help prevent the proliferation of software licenses. Investors should fund research efforts looking to develop strategic FLOSS technologies, and governments and businesses need to establish academic and professional training programs to educate a new generation of software developers.
You're Leaving a Digital Trail. What About Privacy?
The New York Times (11/30/08) P. BU1; Markoff, John
About 100 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students have accepted free smartphones that track their every move as part of a research project, and these and other technologies are enabling collective intelligence, which promises to open up new social services and benefits. But collective intelligence also has the potential for misuse, such as allowing the government to identify members of a protest group by tracking social networks. "Some have argued that with new technology there is a diminished expectation of privacy," says Electronic Privacy Information Center executive director Marc Rotenberg. "But the opposite may also be true. New techniques may require us to expand our understanding of privacy and to address the impact that data collection has on groups of individuals and not simply a single person." Cornell University sociologist Michael Macy observes that people and organizations are increasingly electing to interact with one another via digital technologies that record traces of those interactions, which enables scientists to analyze those interactions in ways that were deemed impossible five years ago. The MIT Media Lab's Alex Pentland says the surveillance-society traps that lurk in collective intelligence technologies can be evaded, and he has proposed precepts to ensure that people have ownership rights to their behavioral data. The principles dictate that people are entitled to possess their own data, that they control the data that is collected about them, and that they may redeploy, remove, or destroy their data as they see fit.
An ACE for Visually Impaired Students in Computer Science
National Science Foundation (11/25/08) Cruikshank, Dana W.
Project Accessible Computing Education (ACE), a National Science Foundation-funded initiative at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), is designed to better prepare visually-impaired students in middle school and high school for success in computer science programs in college. The visual nature of modern technology makes it difficult for visually-impaired students to participate in programming courses and other types of computing instruction. Visually-impaired students also frequently lack the computing resources and training that other students receive before entering college, and there is a lack of role models in computing to inspire these students. RIT professor and ACE principal investigator Stephanie Ludi says encouraging visually-impaired students to enter computer science will benefit everyone who uses a computer because of the unique perspective these students can contribute, potentially creating software that is more usable for everyone. Last year, ACE held an interactive workshop, called ImagineIT, for visually-impaired students and their parents. The workshop gave the students an opportunity to address real-world computing applications and learn about career opportunities in computing. Participants worked collaboratively on several challenges, including building and programming Lego Mindstorm robots to interact with the environment and navigating through a maze to find a sound source.
Developing a Neighborhood Watch for the Internet
Northwestern University News Center (11/24/08)
Northwestern University researchers have developed the Network Early Warning System (NEWS), a way of detecting and reporting Internet network performance problems in real time. Current monitoring systems attempt to identify network anomalies and can look for issues that could result in performance problems, but are unable to tell whether individual users are actually experiencing problems. However, millions of Internet users generate data traffic that could be used to provide information on whether the network is working or not. Sharing such high-level information on the user experience could create an efficient and accurate system to detect where such problems occur in real time. Northwestern professor Fabian Bustamante and doctoral student David Choffnes are using this technique to build a participatory approach to detecting, isolating, and reporting network anomalies. By collecting information from natural data traffic, NEWS measures only problems that affect end users. NEWS can incorporate knowledge of normal network traffic to prevent false alarms, and confirm suspected problems by checking with nearby users. Bustamante and Choffnes are using the concept behind NEWS to build other services, such as comparison shopping for different Internet service providers based on performance records.
Internet2: Full Speed Ahead
InformationWeek (11/24/08) No. 1212, P. 40; Smith, Roger
The Internet2 nonprofit consortium is engaged in the development, implementation, and use of networking technologies that harness protocols such as IPv6 to tap a massive volume of new URL address space, along with a multitude of middleware and security capabilities that together will facilitate networking applications that are not currently possible with the existing global commercial Internet. The Internet2 Network merges IP and optical networking in a new Dynamic Circuit Network (DCN), which functions as a switching service that will establish short-term circuits among end users who need a large amount of dedicated bandwidth. "In much the same way cloud computing has the potential to make computing resources available on demand, we're experimenting with DCN to make bandwidth available on demand," says Internet2 executive Gary Bachula. Internet2's high-speed network is expected to be a key component in the testing of predictions of high-energy physics when CERN's Large Hadron Collider becomes fully operational in 2009. The collider is expected to generate approximately 15 million gigabytes of data per year, and more than 70 Internet2 university members and 3,000 American researchers will participate in the research, with each expected to download or transmit some 2 terabytes of data during a four-hour window every couple of weeks. Dedicated, customizable, on-demand bandwidth will be allotted to each researcher by the DCN. It will be critical in the future for the U.S. emergency 911 system to accommodate text, data, video, and other formats that are becoming increasingly common in modern personal communications; doing so is the goal of the U.S. Transportation Department's project to build the Next Generation 911 system, which used contributions from a team directed by the telecommunications director at Texas A&M University's Internet2 Technology Evaluation Center.
If You Liked This, You're Sure to Love That
The New York Times Magazine (11/23/08) P. 74; Thompson, Clive
Netflix threw down the gauntlet to basement hackers and amateur mathematicians to develop a way to improve the accuracy of its DVD recommendation engine by 10 percent, with a $1 million jackpot as the prize. The Netflix system learns customers' preferences by the ratings they assign to movies when they log into their accounts, and the challenge has inspired 30,000 hackers across the globe to concentrate on the problem. The first major turning point in the Netflix competition came when a team named Simon Funk boosted the recommendation engine's accuracy by nearly 4 percent using singular value decomposition, a mathematical method that uncovers "factors" that customers like or dislike; the algorithm runs until it clusters together films that share qualities with predictive value. Most of the leading teams engaged in the contest downplay the importance of customers' personal information because it is too crude. Yet competitors' progress is stalling as their accuracy improvement rate approaches 10 percent, and computer scientist Len Bertoni partly blames the "Napoleon Dynamite" problem, in reference to the kind of quirky movie that defies easy categorization and tends to deeply polarize audiences, resulting in wildly divergent Netflix ratings. This kind of problem raises questions about the degree to which human taste is predictable, and the ability of computers to accurately evaluate human preferences and account for idiosyncrasy. Most competing teams believe that continuously tweaking the singular value decomposition technique is not sufficient to reach the 10 percent benchmark, and say that what is needed is some way to digitally clone the love/hate dynamic that defines hard-to-classify independent movies.
Quantum Computers Could Excel in Modeling Chemical Reactions
Harvard University Gazette (11/20/08) Bradt, Steve
Quantum computers could potentially improve upon the capabilities of conventional computers in modeling and predicting complex chemical reactions, concludes a new study by researchers at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Haverford College. The researchers say the time to simulate a chemical reaction would not exponentially increase with the complexity of the reaction when a quantum computer is used. A quantum computer of about 100 qubits in size would be needed to outperform current classical supercomputers. "This is still far beyond current prototype quantum computers," says Harvard graduate student Ivan Kassal. "And although it might take millions of quantum elementary operations on a few hundred quantum bits, our work suggests that with quantum computers that are as fast as modern conventional computers, one could simulate in seconds a chemical reaction that would take a conventional computer years." The use of quantum computers in simulating chemical reactions could lead to significant breakthroughs in drug design, materials science, and other fields.
Six Ways to Build Robots That Do Humans No Harm
New Scientist (11/18/08) Simonite, Tom
A new book by Yale University ethicist Wendell Wallach and Indiana University professor Colin Allen, titled "Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right From Wrong," argues that we need to establish how to make robots both moral and responsible machines, and that eventually a computer or robot will make a decision that causes a human disaster. Wallach and Allen explore six strategies that could reduce the chances of such an event. First, make sure all computers and robots are never in a position where they must make a decision in which all the consequences cannot be predicted in advance. The likelihood of this strategy being widely deployed is highly unlikely however, as engineers are already building computers and robotic systems for use in environments where actions cannot always be predicted. Second, do not give robots and computerized systems weapons. Semi-autonomous robotic weapons already exist, in the form of cruise missiles and Predator drones, and military planners are very interested in developing robotic soldiers as a way to reduce the deaths of human soldiers. Third, the authors suggest installing robots with Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics," which state that robots should not harm humans or allow them to come to harm through inaction, robots should always obey humans, and that robotic-self preservation is the lowest priority. Fourth, program robots with principles for behavior that are more general than simplistic rules. Fifth, educate robots like children. Machines that learn as they go through new experiences could develop a sensitivity to the actions that people consider to be right or wrong. Finally, create machines capable of mastering emotions such as empathy, and give robots the ability to read non-verbal social cues.
Fast Company (11/08) No. 130, P. 118; Salter, Chuck
Microsoft technical fellow Gary Flake was tapped by his current employer to improve the agility and adaptability of the company's culture through inventiveness so that Microsoft could realize advanced research areas as actual products faster. Flake says his focus is on making great technological jumps rather than incremental improvements, which is critical if Microsoft is to create visually compelling applications that allow information to be organized and displayed in new ways online. Flake founded Live Labs, a rapid-development Web team, for this purpose, and since its inception less than three years ago the group has rolled out dozens of new technologies. Flake believes Live Labs' most substantial impact will be as a "perpetual startup" that gives birth to other startups, releasing its new technologies and teams to other Microsoft divisions and pushing the company's culture forward. Flake is committed to bridging what he perceives as a gap between Microsoft's researchers and product engineers, with the former group focusing on long-term research and the latter driven to deliver in the short term, which leaves little room for experimentation and daring. Live Labs is comprised of teams of two or three researchers and engineers who apply for early short-term funding to develop a concept, and the system is designed so that early funding does not ensure further rounds in order to prevent the continuance of failing projects. One of the innovations to come out of Live Labs is Photosynth, a Web application that allows everyday snapshots to be stitched together into a 360-degree virtual environment. The photos are stored online at Microsoft, while the three-dimensional rendering is synthesized on the user's computer by software.
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