Welcome to the December 5, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Virtual Faces Created With Emotions, Moods and Personality
University of Balearic Islands (Spain) (12/04/08)
A computer model that can display emotions and moods based on facial expressions has been developed by researchers from Spain's University of the Balearic Islands (UIB). The researchers used the personality trait research of American psychologist Albert Mehrabian to create the model, and developed algorithms to quickly generate different facial expressions. The system uses the MPEG-4 video coding standard to create images, and is capable of displaying basic emotions such as anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. "The aim of this work has been to design a model that reveals a person's moods and displays them on a virtual face," says Diana Arellano, an author of the study from UIB's Computer and Artificial Intelligence Graphics and Vision Unit. An automatic recognizer was able to identify 82 percent of the expressions generated and a group of UIB students successfully recognized 86 percent of the emotions and 73 percent of the emotional states shown on the computer. "Our next step is to leave the MPEG-4 standard aside and concentrate on a high-quality generic network, which will enable the inclusion of both wrinkles and eye, eyelid and head movements, as well as synthesize the voice," Arellano says. The researchers believe the computer model could be used by virtual tutors, presenters with personality traits, and in video game characters or interactive stories that have their own emotional motor.
Panel: Government Data-Mining Programs Lack Oversight
CNet (12/03/08) Condon, Stephanie
At a recent hearing of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, public sector experts warned Congress that the widespread collection, retention, and dissemination of information left behind by Americans performing everyday activities such as making a phone call or using a credit card has escaped public oversight and congressional scrutiny to a dangerous extent. The experts cautioned that the failure by the next Congress and administration to control the programs collecting such information would seriously damage civil liberties and national security. The Privacy Act contains too many loopholes, government data-mining programs are ineffective, and information-sharing programs are expanding with no accountability, the experts said. Panelists at the hearing said that the Homeland Security Committee should take more steps to hold data-mining programs publicly accountable, particularly programs that attempt to predict terrorist activity based on previously established patterns. Indiana University Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research director Fred Cate said predictive data-mining programs are not only ineffective, but there are few legal limits on how information can be used once it is collected, causing a "fundamental distrust" of the government. Cate also said Forth Amendment violations are possible as counter-terrorism programs collect increasing amounts of information and solicit help from traditional law enforcement.
How to Run a Million Jobs
International Science Grid This Week (12/03/08) Heavey, Anne; Williamson, Amelia; Abramson, David
Experts at the recent SC08 conference held a session to discuss emerging solutions for dealing with the challenges of running megajobs, processes that involve thousands to millions of similar or identical, though still independent, jobs using different processors. Researchers want to be able to easily specify and manage such tasks, and to readily identify successful and failed jobs. The University of Chicago's Ben Clifford says that as tools and resources change, people describe their computing jobs differently. Some established job management solutions contain a variety of features, but they tend to have a high overhead in scheduling and they are inefficient at executing many short jobs on numerous processors. Other systems are designed specifically for the data-intensive, loosely coupled, high-throughput computing grid model, which works well for many thousands of jobs, both short and long. Ioan Raicu and Ian Foster, both from the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, have designed a class of applications called Many Tasks Computing (MTC), which is an application composed of many tasks, both independent and dependent, that are "communication-intensive but not naturally expressed in Message Passing Interface," Foster says. Unlike high throughput computing, MTC uses numerous computing resources over short periods of time to process tasks. Some computer systems are being altered to run megajobs, including IBM's new throughput, grid-style mode on the Blue Gene/P supercomputer. The University of Chicago's Ben Clifford says if users can break an application into separately schedulable, restartable, relocateable "application procedures," then they only need a tool to describe how the pieces connect, making the jobs easier to run.
Waikato Researcher 'Wikifies' the Web
Computerworld New Zealand (11/27/08)
David Milne, a Ph.D. student in computer science at New Zealand's University of Waikato, is creating a Wiki-based system that can detect the topics in a document and create links to the appropriate Wikipedia articles. His software has been trained, using Wikipedia articles, to determine what is important in a document, similar to the way a human makes such decisions. Milne's research was the subject of an award-winning paper at ACM's recent Computers in Knowledge Management conference. The automatic system must successfully deal with words that have more than one meaning, terms that have similar meaning, and determine whether the topic is important enough to link to. The software could potentially make it easier to organize and retrieve documents. "Normally search engines and other systems operate using words; with this software we're dealing with concepts," Milne says. "It would be good to be able to throw any document into a digital library and know that it will organize itself."
Researcher Designs Robot That Jumps Like a Grasshopper
University of Bath (12/04/08)
University of Bath Ph.D. student Rhodri Armour has designed Jollbot, a robot that can jump like a grasshopper and roll like a ball and could potentially become a key element of future space exploration efforts. A major challenge robots face in space exploration is traveling over rough terrain. Jollbot is shaped like a spherical cage, and can roll in any direction, giving it the maneuverability of wheels while negating the problem of overturning or getting stuck in small depressions. Jollbot also is flexible and small, weighing less than a kilogram, which means it will not be damaged by landing after a jump, and it is less expensive than conventional exploration robots. Jollbot uses electrical motors to slowly store the energy needed to make jumps. "Before jumping, the robot squashes its spherical shape," Armour says. "When it is ready, it releases the stored energy all at once to jump to heights of up to half a meter." A high-speed camera was used to analyze how the robot jumps and predict how it might behave in a low-gravity environment. "Future prototypes could include a stretchy skin covered in solar cells on the outside of the robot, so it could power itself, and robotic control sensors to enable it to sense its environment," Armour says.
Tech Jobs Down Sharply But Not Out
Computerworld (12/04/08) Thibodeau, Patrick
The online job site Dice reports that the number of technology-related jobs posted online is down 26 percent from a year ago, and the Conference Board's ads for computer jobs have declined 29 percent. Nonetheless, Dice had nearly 68,000 job listings posted on Dec. 4, and the Conference Board had more than 569,000 computer- and mathematics-related job ads in November. Tech workers with the right skills will be able to find jobs, says Dice Holdings' Tom Silver. For example, ads for jobs that involve working with virtualization technology are up 19 percent, and there were about 1,500 virtualization-related jobs on Dice on Dec. 4. People with customer-relationship management (CRM) skills, especially experience with Siebel CRM software, are also in demand. However, management jobs have declined. Washington might be the best place to find IT work, as the market has 8,400 job ads listed on Dice, up 6 percent from a year ago. Miami has 700 IT job openings, up 20 percent; Cincinnati has 640, up 5 percent; and Cleveland has 630, up 3 percent.
Learning By Blogging
ICT Results (12/03/08)
European researchers working on the Intercultural Learning Campus (iCAMP) project have developed software that connects student blogs and social software tools to create a collaborative virtual learning environment. The learning environment enables university students and educators to work together on structured learning projects from any location on any kind of networking system. ICAMP researchers say the tools and learning approaches created by the project will revolutionize how higher education institutions operate. "It could change higher education completely," says iCAMP project coordinator Barbara Kieslinger of the Centre for Social Innovation in Vienna, Austria. "If it would really take off, it would lead to a democratization of these institutions." Kieslinger and colleagues at more than a dozen universities worked to narrow the divide between existing educational software tools and the social software commonly used by students. Early in the project, team members determined that blogs would be the basic building block of the project. As a result, the researchers developed Feedback, interoperable blog software that enables blogs and bloggers to easily communicate with each other and manage automatic feeds and updates. The project also created the iLOGUE tool, which structures self-directed learning by guiding students through the steps of specifying a learning contract, setting goals, identifying resources, and maintaining a learning diary.
UPM School of Computing Researchers Adapt the Moodle E-Learning Platform for Use in the Third World
Universidad Politecnica de Madrid (12/05/08)
Researchers at the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid's (UPM's) School of Computing are adapting the Moodle open source courses management system for use at the University of Ngozi in northern Burundi. Moodle is designed to help educators establish online learning communities, based on a network of students who receive distance education from a remote teacher. The Technology for Development and Cooperation (TEDECO) Group is adopting the software because the situation in Burundi is nothing like the Moodle layout or the education system common in western countries, says TEDECO director Susana Munoz. The goal is to adapt Moodle so Burundi students can receive training from a remote teacher based at the UPM's Montegancedo Campus. Adapting Moodle is the second part of the project. The first part, which was completed at the end of the last academic year, focused on data transmission infrastructures, training, and creating a satellite Internet connection for the university. The second cycle of the project is to equip the University of Ngozi with the software applications needed to operate an online learning community, including university management, library use, and student monitoring software. Moodle will enable UPM School of Computing professors to teach University of Ngozi students without having to travel to Burundi. Additional universities will benefit from the software in the future.
A Winning Web Formula
Technology Review (12/04/08) Greene, Kate
HP Labs recently demonstrated that it is possible to predict, with some accuracy, how popular an online video clip or news story will become by observing its popularity following the first few hours after its posting. Such predictions could enable online advertisers to make the most of their investments by targeting what will be the most popular Web content. Content providers also will be able to place the most potentially popular content in a prominent position on their site. The HP researchers looked at historical data collected from YouTube and news aggregator Digg, and applied mathematical models to the data sets to determine the "popularity curve" for different items. The curves enabled the researchers to extrapolate the future popularity of online content using only information on its popularity in the first few hours or days. HP senior fellow Bernardo Huberman says the first few hours of a story on Digg generally indicates whether the story will become popular or not, while videos on YouTube need to be online for about a day before an accurate prediction can be made. Huberman says that advertisers equipped with popularity predictions could determine which products could "go viral" and place special ads for those products. IBM Watson Research Center researcher Claudia Perlich says content prediction technology could be valuable, but she questions the systems under the study. "I have the slight worry that the results are driven by underlying technology," she says.
Google Gears Down for Tougher Times
Wall Street Journal (12/03/08) P. A1; Vascellaro, Jessica E.; Morrison, Scott
Google has started to cut back on its spending and on new projects in light of declining revenue growth due to the less than spectacular performance of offerings such as Web payment service Google Checkout and Google TV Ads. Google CEO Eric Schmidt says projects that "haven't really caught on" and "aren't really that exciting" will be axed, one example being SearchMash, a Web site used to experiment with the organization of search results. A virtual world where online users can create characters and rooms for them to inhabit also will be shut down. Google says that it wants to "prioritize our resources and focus more on our core search, ads, and apps business." Other Google projects whose future has been called into question by the financial crisis include Google Notebook, a site for storing and taking notes on Web pages, and Google Audio Indexing, which lets users search for phrases within online video footage of politicians. Top priorities for continued investment are advertising on mobile phones, Google's online business software, and display ads. A senior Google executive says the criteria on which the company bases its decisions of which projects to save and which to terminate has not changed, and these criteria include the number of users of a product and how much money Google thinks it can make. Another executive says Google is still committed to experimental ventures, as long as they are not too costly.
Swapping Your Body Becomes a Virtual Reality
New Scientist (12/02/08) Thomson, Helen
Neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, have used camera technology to create the illusion that a human being has swapped his or her body with a mannequin. The researchers had a male volunteer wear two CCTV cameras on his head, and also placed the goggles on the head of a male mannequin. The output from the cameras was sent to two small screens in front of the eyes of the volunteer. When both the volunteer's and mannequin's heads were tilted downwards, the volunteer saw the dummy's body instead of his own body. The scientists also stroked the stomachs of both the volunteer and mannequin simultaneously, and the volunteer saw the mannequin's stomach being touched, but after two minutes he began to feel that the mannequin's body was his own. "By manipulating sensory impressions, it's possible to fool the self not only out of its body but into other bodies, too," says Henrik Ehrsson, a research leader in the department of clinical neuroscience and head of the project. Kynan Eng, a neuroinformatics researcher at Switzerland's University of Zurich, says that with the appropriate stimulus, people could "produce measurable ownership responses to any virtual or real object."
DARPA Seeks to Mimic in Silicon the Mammalian Brain
Defense Systems (11/26/08) Robinson, Brian
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded contracts for the first stage of the Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) initiative, which aims to produce electronic systems that work like mammalian brains. The project's goal is to produce a chip that mimics how mammalian brains function, which could lead to machines capable of autonomously processing information in real-world environments. "If we succeed in manifesting this technology into reality, we could deploy computer systems that can deal with ambiguity and use a wide range of both biological and non-biological sensors to act the way the brain does," says IBM's cognitive computing initiative manager Dharmendra Modha. IBM is working with several universities on SyNAPSE. In modern computers, the processor and the memory are separated and performance is limited by how fast data can be shuffled between the two, but in the brain the synapse represents both memory and function, Modha says, thus eliminating a key processing bottleneck. The SyNAPSE project aims to replicate that structure. Modha says that recent developments in neuroscience, supercomputers, and nanotechnology could make SyNAPSE successful.
10 Microsoft Research Projects
Network World (12/01/08) Brandon, John
Microsoft is supporting a host of projects in its research and development division that are focused on tackling real-world technical challenges but could have a potentially dramatic impact on computing. One such project is Eagle 1, a tool for disaster recovery teams that captures information from multiple databases and generates real-time interactive maps through the use of geospatial mapping technology. Microsoft Surface, which has reached the product phase, promotes social interaction through a multitouch table with a ruggedized acrylic interface. Its capabilities include object recognition, optical tagging, and interaction with physical objects. LucidTouch V2 technology is a credit card-sized display screen that the user can reach behind to control a mobile device. Visual Studio 2010 upgrades Microsoft's Visual Studio development platform with new features that include unified modeling language, a debugging tool that can pinpoint non-reproducible bugs by automatically generating data sets, and an application that lets development teams visualize a model of the existing development architecture and find any existing code assets that are not well categorized. The Touch Wall is a new hardware/software interface with multitouch control that can mix and match media on the same large-screen display to enhance collaboration. The OSLO project offers a framework that allows all members of a team to access data models in a repository across the entire software development life cycle. Microsoft also is working on a robotic receptionist to be installed at the company headquarters that will help visitors find transportation, using voice and facial recognition technology. Finally, BlueTrack is mouse technology that employs a wider and brighter laser beam than conventional optics so that it can operate on uneven surfaces.
Speed Within Reach at Affordable Prices
Financial Times Digital Business (12/03/08) P. 3; Twentyman, Jessica
Supercomputers have reached new power and performance benchmarks while also increasing their availability to businesses in the past year. In June, IBM's Roadrunner machine at the Los Alamos National Laboratory reached the petaflop level by processing more than 1 million billion calculations per second, while Cray's Jaguar supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory performed the same feat in November. Dave Turek of IBM's Deep Computing group estimates that processing power increases by a factor of 1,000 once every decade or so, which has subsequently supported more refined analysis in terms of output. "We're now getting to the point where a supercomputer isn't just used to model the behavior of a single component in a jet engine, for example, but whole collections of components, working together in an integrated system," Turek says. "Or we can model different processes on a much smaller or larger scale, from the effect of a new drug on a disease at a molecular level, to the impact of human behavior on climate change over hundreds of years." The boundary between traditional supercomputing and high-performance computing (HPC) has blurred since parallel processing became available to commercial organizations in the early 1990s, and IDC estimates that sales of HPC systems costing more than $500,000 climbed 24 percent last year. But low-end systems that cost less than $250,000 are emerging as the primary growth factor as the technology becomes increasingly important to industry, government, and academic research. Modern supercomputers are using off-the-shelf components and costs have fallen, making the systems more affordable for smaller organizations.
iPRES 2008: The Push for Digital Preservation
Information Today (11/08) Vol. 25, No. 10, P. 34; Ashling, Jim
Speakers at the Fifth International Conference on Preservation of Digital Objects (iPRES) stressed the importance of digital preservation. Horst Forster of the European Commission's (EC's) Directorate-General for Information Society and Media warned that less than 20 percent of U.K. companies have any digital preservation policies, and that digital content is currently being generated at a rate that surpasses the capacity to store it. Persistent issues such as choosing what content should be digitized are a sticking point of preservation efforts, and British Library CEO Lynne Brindley called for a boost in public awareness. An iPRES session on modeling organizational goals dealt with content creators' concerns that they could lose control of their content or give valuable content away by preserving it in digital archives. Preservation is worthless if the process does not help meet organizational goals and mission, and many speakers said the complexity of the digital preservation issue is such that no single institution can address it by itself. Participants were in general agreement that although institutional collaboration is impeded by rivalry for limited resources, European Union-led cooperation was desirable and effective. Forster laid down a series of European preservation initiatives, such as the EC's identification of best practices and assistance in the policy debate. There also has been significant financial investment in digital preservation, and additional funds will be allocated for projects to produce and demonstrate preservation tools and preservation management methods.
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