Welcome to the January 5, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
New Years Honours--Dame Wendy Hall
University of Southampton (ECS) (12/31/08) Lewis, Joyce
ACM President Wendy Hall, a computer science professor at the University of Southampton and a former head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science, has been appointed to The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire as a Dame Commander. Hall has played a leading role in the development of computer science and has held many prominent positions throughout her career. In 2003, Hall served as president of the British Computer Society, and in 2005 she became the first woman to be elected senior vice-president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. Hall also is the first person from outside North America to serve as president of ACM. In 2006, Hall was one of the founders of the Web Science Research Initiative, along with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Nigel Shadbolt, and Daniel Weitzner. Hall has been a staunch advocate of creating opportunities for women in science, engineering, and technology, has sought to ensure that women are equal beneficiaries of technological advancements, and has served as an example of achievement and dedication for women. "I am thrilled to have been honored in this way," Hall says. "It is of course exciting for me personally and for my family, but it is also a tribute to all the people I have worked with in my career as a scientist and engineer both at Southampton and in the wider community."
Google Hopes to Open a Trove of Little-Seen Books
New York Times (01/05/09) P. B1; Motoko, Rich
Google has been scanning printed books for four years, enabling users to access a vast source of information that has been largely inaccessible because the books containing that information were largely unavailable or difficult to find. Google book search engineering director Dan Clancy says every month users view at least 10 pages of more than half of the one million out-of-copyright books Google has scanned so far. A settlement in October with authors and publishers who brought two copyright lawsuits against Google will allow the company to provide access to a much wider collection of books, including some still under copyright protection. Although the commercial possibilities of the digital library are largely unexplored, no one, including Google, expects the book program to create significant revenue. "We did not think necessarily we could make money," says Google founder Sergey Brin. "We just feel this is part of our core mission. There is fantastic information in books. Often when I do a search, what is in a book is miles ahead of what I find on a Web site." The arrangement may breathe new life into copyrighted books that are out of print, and allow authors to make money from titles that have been out of commercial circulation for years, which account for about 5 million of the 7 million books that Google has scanned so far. Stanford University librarian Michael A. Keller says that Google's digital books will make a lot of previously unavailable material available to students in small towns, and says the digital book effort is "really important."
Smarter Than the Average Desk
Science (01/02/09) Saini, Angela
Durham University's Active Learning in Computing group's Usability Lab is developing what could become the classroom of the future. The lab is creating devices such as a giant glass table with a tactile computer interface, and Star Trek-like consoles that can display images such as water resting on gray pebbles that respond with ripples in the water when touched by a student. The technologies could lead to multi-touch desks that enable students to work together in teams on interactive projects. "What I want to do is take all the best parts out of different styles of classrooms," says lab director Elizabeth Burd. "Our approach is that knowledge is there to be found by students, not to be learned." The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency reports that schools and colleges are investing heavily in the technologies being developed at Durham University, which are highly interdisciplinary and require the expertise of computer scientists, education experts, and psychologists. In the United Kingdom, technology is becoming increasingly prevalent in the classroom. A 2003 U.K. government initiative, the Higher Education Funding Council for England initiative, has led to more than half of all school classrooms replacing traditional chalkboards with interactive whiteboards, which can be connected to a computer to display information from the Internet. The initiative has funded the Active Learning in Computing group and many similar groups.
Livermore Lab Pioneers Massive Debugging Tool
Government Computer News (12/29/08) Jackson, Joab
Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have created the Stack Trace Analysis Tool (STAT), a debugging tool that enables developers to find software bugs in programs spread across 200,000 processors. STAT can help debuggers by encircling the problem area within a large parallel program, narrowing the potential field to allow more thorough commercial debugging programs to fix the problem. The open source program is not a full-featured debugger, but a tool to help find the general area the problem occurred in. "We wanted to develop lightweight tools that would help the heavyweight tools by identifying processes that behave in a similar fashion," says Lawrence Livermore researcher Gregory Lee, who presented a paper on the new software at the recent SC08 conference. Lee notes that many full-featured debuggers for parallel processor-based programs are already available, but such programs do not scale well for programs that operate on thousands of processors because they cannot complete their analysis within a reasonable amount of time. STAT capitalizes on the fact that most parallel applications run similar processes on multiple nodes. It works by collapsing identical processes into a single visual representation, and gathering information about the processes and merging them into a tree graph. STAT can create a three-dimensional tree graph to show the program running over a length of time.
Reality Gets Hyperlinked
ICT Results (12/31/08)
European researchers working on the MOBVIS project have successfully attached hyperlinks to pictures taken on a mobile phone, allowing mobile phone users to instantly obtain information based on their surroundings. The hyperlinks can lead to information on the history, art, architecture, services, and context of all the features in the photograph, completely rewriting the rules for navigation, exploration, and interaction with the physical environment surrounding the user. The MOBVIS project also has developed applications for the technology on the mobile phone. The system uses a database of geo-referenced panoramas that establish points of reference in the streetscape, and are used to match building monuments, banners, and logos. Information relating to a building or monument can be added to the database manually, after which it can be provided to mobile phone users. The system works because of a higher-dimension, feature-matching algorithm developed at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia that can accurately detect small but important differences between similar objects by the appearance of the photo subject and the context of the streetscape. In initial tests, the system was able to reliably detect the correct building 80 percent of the time.
Military Hoping Chat Bots Will Replace Deployed Parents
InformationWeek (01/02/09) Claburn, Thomas
The U.S. Department of Defense is soliciting proposals for the development of an artificial intelligence program that young children would be able to communicate with when their active duty parents are not available to talk. "The child should be able to have a simulated conversation with a parent about generic, everyday topics," according to a post on the Pentagon's Small Business Innovation Research Web site. "This is a technologically challenging application because it relies on the ability to have convincing voice-recognition, artificial intelligence, and the ability to easily and inexpensively develop a customized application tailored to a specific parent." The military is seeking a solution that young children can use when Internet and phone communication are not an option, so it has ruled out Skype or similar technologies. Boston University psychology professor Catherine Caldwell-Harris questions whether a young child will understand that an avatar on a screen is supposed to be their parent.
The A-Z of Programming Languages: F#
Computerworld Australia (12/23/08) Edwards, Kathryn
Microsoft Research Cambridge researcher Don Syme says in an interview that the goal of the F# programming language, which he developed, "has been to ensure that typed functional programming in the spirit of OCaml and Haskell finds a high-quality expression on the .NET framework. These languages excel in tasks such as data transformations and parallel programming, as well as general purpose programming." Syme's team is currently bringing F# up to product quality, which involves the removal of some experimental features along with library and language cleanups. Syme says F# shares a core OCaml language that allows the cross-compilation of many programs, and adds that the combination of F# Interactive with Visual Studio enabled F# users to design fast, accurate code using Visual Studio's background type-checking and Intellisense while interactively surveying a problem space via F# Interactive. Guaranteeing that programming in F# is simple and intuitive has been one of the key priorities for Syme's team this year. He says that "F# really enables the .NET platform to reach out to new classes of developers, and appeal to domains where .NET is not heavily used." F# and C# clearly have a complementary relationship, Syme says.
For the Blind, Technology Does What a Guide Dog Can't
New York Times (01/04/09) P. BU1; Helft, Miguel
Google engineer and computer scientist T.V. Raman, who lost his eyesight at 14, is developing tools to help him take advantage of objects or technologies that were not designed with blind users in mind. Some of Raman's work includes a Rubik's Cube covered in Braille and a software program that can read complex mathematical formulas out loud. Raman also has built a version of Google's search that is customized for blind users. Raman is currently working on making touch-screen devices more accessible to the blind. Instead of focusing on how a device should work if a user cannot see, Raman approaches his design by asking how should a device work if the user is not looking at the screen. A touch-screen device's lack of buttons makes it difficult for the visually disabled to use them. However, Raman says that with the right adjustments, touch-screen phones, many of which have GPS and a compass, could help blind people navigate the world. Raman and Google engineer Charles Chen have already given a cell phone with Android software the ability to speak, and are working on ways to allow blind people, or anyone not looking at the screen, to enter text, numbers, and commands. Raman has created a dialer that works based on relative positions. The dialer interprets any place a user first touches to be the 5, which is the center of a regular telephone pad. By sliding a finger in a corresponding direction, up and to the left for 1, down and right for 9, Raman can enter a phone number. Raman and Chen also are working on several other input methods.
Broadband on Rails
Technology Review (12/30/08) Kremen, Rachel
University of York researchers have developed a new satellite dish for providing Internet access on moving trains, which cannot be equipped with traditional Internet satellite dishes because of height restrictions due to tunnels. The small dome-shaped plastic lens is designed to track multiple satellites at once, improving the reliability of the connection. York research fellow John Thornton says much of the United Kingdom's railway infrastructure is old and cannot accommodate traditional satellite dishes, which are about 62 centimeters high. The new lens, developed with funding from the European Space Agency, is only 30 centimeters high. Thornton says the lens was able to receive digital video broadcasts in laboratory tests. The new lens also provides increased reliability. Traditional satellite dishes can only track a single satellite at a time, and must be able to move to track the signal. However, the new lens features a motorized antenna called a feed. Only the feed has to move to track a signal, instead of the entire dish. Furthermore, several feeds can move about the surface of the lens simultaneously, collecting signals from multiple satellites. The multiple feeds could be used for redundancy, in case one stops working, or could be used to track different data streams, such as an Internet connection and a TV broadcast.
Artificial Intelligence: Robots Rule When It Comes to Holiday Shopping
Scientific American (12/26/08) Greenemeier, Larry
Retailers are using robots to help warehouse workers find fast-selling products more quickly. The robots, built by Kiva Systems, are programmed with maps of the warehouse they operate in, and have artificial intelligence (AI) software that uses logic to help them navigate the warehouse. The robots also have optics to read specially placed markers on the floor. Experts say the robots, which can efficiently move shelves full of heavy inventory or clean up messes automatically, are a more accurate representation of modern AI than the humanoid robots seen in science fiction. Kiva chief scientist Peter Wurman says that retailers' use of AI robots shows that massive, multi-robot systems are finally being used at the commercial level. Each Kiva robot can communicate wirelessly with a central computer network in a warehouse to obtain the direction to travel when needed, but the robots can mostly operate independently. "After a robot visits a pick station and the worker there takes an item from or deposits an item on the robot's shelves, the robot will contact the central server to determine where it will go," Wurman says. "The server will tell the robot where to take the shelves, but it will not tell the robot how to get there." The robot determines the best route on its own using a map of the warehouse stored in its memory and navigation software to avoid colliding with shelves and other objects. "AI suffers from the fact that it's so easy to imagine the human-level intelligence in a robot that you could interact with like you interact with people," Wurman says. "But the AI field has made a lot of progress."
UVa Scientists Marry Humanities, Technology
Charlottesville Daily Progress (VA) (12/31/08) Lee, Aaron
University of Virginia (UVa) researchers at the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities are using supercomputers to construct digital three-dimensional (3D) models of historic architecture, as well as ancient art and artifacts based on data collected using laser and light scanners to measure historical sites and objects. David Koller, assistant director of the institute, has been gathering the object scans. He says scientists have been trained to incorporate supercomputer analysis into their research, but the idea has been foreign for humanists until recently. Koller hopes that his work will help reduce the amount of time researchers spend in labs searching through artifacts collected in the field. For example, an archaeologist could uncover several fragments that were once part of a pot. Each fragment could be scanned and submitted to a computer that uses algorithms to reconstruct the fragments into a single object. Such technology could replace the trial-and-error method now used to reconstruct such artifacts. Koller also believes that 3D modeling could help restore statues and architecture that are damaged after being scanned. Institute for Advanced Technologies in Humanities director Bernard Frischer says that Koller's work will provide access to statues and historical sites through the Internet. UVa researchers have been given 500,000 hours of access to supercomputers maintained by the Department of Energy in Berkeley, Calif., as part of a collaboration between the department and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Cyborg Cockroaches Could Power Own Electric 'Brains'
New Scientist (12/30/08) No. 2689, P. 22; Robson, David
Engineers are creating insects that can be controlled through electronics by implanting electrical stimulators that zap certain nerves or brain cells to trigger an impulse to move in the desired direction. The insects, which can be controlled by remote control or a preprogrammed chip, may soon be able to generate the electricity required to control them, prolonging their controllable life span. Powering these chips has been difficult, as wires from external power sources restrict an insect's movement, and most batteries are too heavy to be put on an insect, says Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology researcher Keisuke Morishima. He has suggested that the insects themselves could be used to power the chips. As a proof of concept, Morishima glued a piezoelectric fiber to the back of a Madagascar hissing cockroach. The movements of the cockroach squeezed and stretched the fiber, generating electricity through mechanical stress. Morishima's experiment demonstrated that the cockroach can generate more than 10 millivolts in a single fiber, meaning that about 100 fibers would be enough to power the stimulator implants. University of Reading cybernetics expert Kevin Warwick believes it may be difficult to store the generated energy in order to provide a steady supply while operating a controllable insect and that 100 fibers may be too heavy for an insect to carry. However, Warwick says the method could be applied to larger animals such as rats, which could generate more power when controlled using a similar system.
Leaving the Rat Race to Save the World
Computerworld (12/22/08) Vol. 42, No. 50, P. 18; Waxer, Cindy
Companies are offering their IT employees the opportunity to volunteer for projects in developing countries, and some IT workers, frustrated by a lack of purpose, are leaving the corporate world and lending their expertise to nonprofits. IBM started a program to send 100 workers to Romania, Turkey, Vietnam, the Philippines, Ghana, and Tanzania to work on projects integrating economic development with IT, and the number of applicants was stunning. Meanwhile, the nonprofit Geekcorps organized by the International Executive Service Corps sends IT professionals to developing nations to assist in computer infrastructure development projects. The appeal of high-tech jobs with a social purpose, such as those offered through non-governmental organizations (NGOs), is growing among skilled IT professionals. NGOs have emerged as serious competition for corporations in the search for IT talent in an increasingly tight labor market. "Companies are starting to realize that they don't just have a financial responsibility but a social responsibility as well," says Geekcorps volunteer Ryan Whitney. Increasing numbers of companies are realizing that overseas volunteer programs allow IT employees to gain experience that can be of benefit to enterprise IT teams by cultivating their leadership skills, to name one example. However, volunteerism can be viewed as a turn-off for certain employers, while another issue is that volunteers may be unprepared for the culture shock of moving to another, less developed country.
Cellular Firms Eye Hands-Free Future
Nikkei Weekly (12/15/08) Vol. 46, No. 2367, P. 21
Japan's NTT DoCoMo and KDDI are developing wearable information accessories for a time when mobile phones will be too small to be operated manually. DoCoMo anticipates the accessorization of wireless phones by 2020, resulting in wearable devices equipped with telephony and email capability. This milestone requires the development of new technologies that can support the same level of operability of current handsets, but without buttons or keyboards. NTT DoCoMo Research Laboratories is focusing on a cellular phone design that users can control with their eye movements via a headphone-like interface that translates eye position and line of sight into commands. Meanwhile, KDDI R&D Laboratories is collaborating with the University of Tokyo on software that can enable cell phones to show what lies beyond obstructing edifices using a GPS receiver and a set of sensors. The handset captures data on the surrounding environment and displays information about the buildings and establishments that lie ahead of where the user directs the device.
A Fairer, Faster Internet Protocol
IEEE Spectrum (12/08) Vol. 45, No. 12, P. 42; Briscoe, Bob
An overhaul of the Internet's sharing protocol will boost both the Internet's speed and simplicity, writes BT researcher Bob Briscoe. The Transmission Control Protocol's (TCP's) sharing rules do not really allocate all users fair bit rates, as they are purported to do, and adding capacity is not a viable solution. Briscoe offers a solution that starts by making it easier for programmers to run TCP more than once, contrary to the traditional model of TCP-friendliness. Programmers establish a weight parameter to control the number of shares a user's computer takes from the network, which guarantees super-fast browsing rates by setting the weights high for light interactive usage and low for heavy usage. The second part of the challenge involves encouraging everyone to flip the weights, and Briscoe says he and his colleagues have hit upon a method to reveal congestion to facilitate the enforcement of limits. This "refeedback" process starts with a congested router marking some package with a debit, after which the receiver transfers the debit marks into congestion-feedback packets. The next step involves the sender reinserting the feedback into the forward data flow as credit marks, with the outcome being that computers at the end still spot and manage congestion, but the packets they transmit now have to indicate how much congestion they will come up against on their way through the Internet, allowing networks to restrict excessive congestion as packets enter the Internet. The network is able to eject packets if the balance of passing marks is consistently in debt.
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