Welcome to the January 26, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Report Calls for Boost in IT Research, Policies
Science (01/23/09) Charles, Dan
U.S. President Barack Obama's transition team has received a copy of a National Academy of Sciences report that recommends several strategies the United States could follow as information technology research and development becomes increasingly globalized. Randy Katz, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who co-chaired the panel that wrote the report, says the top spot that the United States holds in information technology research and development is being challenged. The report suggests the United States would be a better place for innovation if small startups that want to go public did not have to contend with the costly financial reporting requirements for disclosure. The patent system should be reformed to discourage litigation, the report adds. Also, more funding is needed for research into the biggest challenges. Katz says the High-Performance Computing and Communications initiative of the 1980s and 1990s is the type of "programmatic research [that can] build communities of researchers that collaborate and also compete while pursuing a particular goal."
Can Networked Human Computation Solve Computer Language Comprehension?
University of Essex (01/26/09)
University of Essex researchers are seeking volunteers to participate in Phrase Detectives, an online game designed to help determine if human computation can lead to better computer-based language comprehension. Essex professor Jon Chamberlain says Phrase Detectives, which is part of the AnaWiki project, is an attempt to resolve the bottleneck that exists in creating annotated linguistic resources. The project aims to develop an extensive linguistic resource by using volunteers to investigate anaphoric references. Players read through texts and make annotations to highlight relationships between words and phrases. Players may be asked to "name the culprit," which involves being given a word or phrase and finding occurrences of that phrase earlier in the text. "The best way to understand a language is to have lots of examples where the meaning has been clarified," Chamberlain says. "Unfortunately, creating this type of resource is both time consuming and expensive but the new approach offered by Phrase Detective should address this resource shortage. The same methodology could also be used to create resources for machine translation, semantics, and other linguistic phenomenon." Players have made more than 40,000 annotations in just four weeks, though researchers hope more players will join and that people will add new text to the site for analysis.
Technology Gets a Piece of Stimulus
New York Times (01/26/09) P. B1; Lohr, Steve
The $825 billion stimulus plan proposed by U.S. President Barack Obama and House Democrats includes a $37 billion investment in three high-technology areas: broader high-speed Internet access, computerized medical records, and smarter electrical grids. A study prepared for the Obama transition team concluded that putting $30 billion into those three areas could produce more than 900,000 jobs in the first year. In addition to creating jobs, advocates say government investment in these areas will create a foundation for more business innovation and efficiency, and help create new digital industries. "The appeal of these kinds of investments is that you not only get the stimulative effect but also build a platform for productivity gains and long-term growth," says former Federal Communications Commission senior official Blair Levin, a technology policy adviser on the Obama transition team. Investing in the U.S.'s digital infrastructure will create as many jobs as public works projects, advocates say, and would be the modern equivalent of building highways in the 1950s. All three initiatives would require a broad base of skilled workers.
Computer Scientists and Industry Partners Discuss Advances in Networked Computing at CNS Research Review
University of California, San Diego (01/23/09) Fox, Tiffany
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego's Center for Networked Systems (CNS) are working to make networked infrastructure faster, safer, and more efficient through cloud-based computing. Scientists at CNS and the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology recently met to discuss their progress on some of the top challenges facing their organizations. The review addressed a variety of issues, including improving the performance of applications on "thin clients" such as iPhones and detecting malicious Web sites by analyzing various URL characteristics. Several CNS presentations focused on improving how applications are developed and shared between machines, including how to get video applications to run faster and more smoothly on thin clients and how to accelerate the "send-receive" update loop between clients and servers. Eliminating scams and malicious activity on the Internet also is a priority for CNS, and two presentations focused on identifying and analyzing how spammers and hackers target users. The "Beyond Blacklists: Learning to Detect Malicious Web Sites From Suspicious URLs" lecture provided a number of lexical features and IP-based characteristics for detecting malicious URLs, spam phishing, and other exploits.
New Insight Into How Bees See
Monash University (01/23/09) Blair, Samantha
Monash University bee researcher Adrian Dyer has made a discovery that could lead to improved facial-recognition systems: honeybees can learn to recognize human faces even when seen from different angles. "What we have shown is that the bee brain, which contains less than 1 million neurons, is actually very good at learning to master complex tasks," he says. "Computer and imaging technology programmers who are working on solving complex visual recognition tasks using minimal hardware resources will find this research useful." Dyer says bees use a mechanism of interpolating or image averaging previously seen views to recognize faces from new angles. His study found that the highly constrained neural resources of bees, which have brains only 0.01 percent the size of a human brain, have evolved so that they can process complex visual recognition tasks. "The relationships between different components of the object often dramatically change when viewed from different angles, but it is amazing to find the bees' brains have evolved clever mechanisms for problem solving which may help develop improved models for [artificial intelligence] face-recognition systems," Dyer says.
Technology Review (01/23/09) Naone, Erica
Stanford University researchers are developing Semantic Email Addressing (SEAmail), an email system that enables users to direct a message to people who fulfill certain criteria without knowing their email addresses or even their names. Stanford University professor Michael Genesereth says email addresses are an artificial way of directing messages to the right people. "You want to send messages to people or roles, not to strings of characters," Genesereth says. SEAmail can direct mail be simply typing in a person's name or addressing a message to a group of users with a description, such as "all professors who graduated from Harvard University since 1960." SEAmail addresses messages similarly to how search queries are structured. The user can either enter a person's name or a set of logical requirements. The system is limited by how much information it has on potential recipients. SEAmail requires detailed data on the people sending messages to one another, including interests and other defining categories. Genesereth's team is researching ways to combine existing databases without affecting how they are already being used. However, getting good data for SEAmail from the Internet is significantly harder than it is within an organization. Genesereth says that although semantic standards can enable systems to extract information about people from Web pages, outdated information could degrade the quality of the SEAmail system.
Software Improves and Predicts Outcome of Lifesaving Children's Heart Surgery in 3D
Georgia Institute of Technology (01/23/09)
Georgia Tech College of Computing School of Interactive Computing researchers have developed Surgem, software that enables pediatric cardiac surgeons to manipulate a three-dimensional (3D) model of a patient's actual heart to explore surgical options. The researchers say that Surgem can significantly increase the likelihood that children with complex abnormalities will have quicker recoveries and a better quality of life. "We designed a sophisticated graphic interface where the operator holds a 3D tracker in each hand to rotate, pull, and twist the digital model of the patient's anatomy," says professor Jarek Rossignac. "It takes surgeons only minutes to master the program, because interacting with 3D shapes by holding a tool in each hand is what they do every day." The technology creates a 3D model of a patient's heart using data from MRI scans. Surgeons can use Surgem to obtain a detailed look at the patient's heart functions and to design surgical procedures for the best post-operative performance. Computational fluid dynamic analysis can simulate the heart's post-operative behavior to help the surgeon determine which option will be the most effective for the patient. Pediatric cardiologists and surgeons have been refining Surgem and the process used to analyze surgical options.
Shoe Phone Offers Medical Device Potential
Flinders University (01/23/09)
A computer scientist at Australia's Flinders University has developed a shoe phone. Paul Gardner-Stephen built the shoe phone as a theater prop, but he believes the device could be used to deliver health-related information to home nursing caregivers or senior-care facilities. The bioinformatics expert says the shoe is a good place to put the electronics needed to store and relay medical data such as pulse, blood pressure, and blood oxygenation. The shoe also can take advantage of the large forces that are conducted as a person stands and walks, and energy can be harvested for charging the device during regular activity. "A shoe-based device would not only be easy to wear, it could run significantly longer between battery charges," Gardner-Stephen says. "The shoe-based platform makes it possible to detect shocks and orientation changes resulting from, for example, a fall."
'Horizon Report' Names Top Technology Trends to Watch in Education
Chronicle of Higher Education (01/22/09) Kolowich, Steve
The use of smart phones and other mobile devices to run more services will be one of the top technology trends to watch in education, according to Educause's Learning Initiative and the New Media Consortium. The 2009 Horizon Report says cell phones or handheld computers could be used to run third-party applications that consolidate teaching, learning, and administrative services. Cloud computing is seen as providing campus users with greater access to tools and information, while reducing the cost. Smart objects and electronics that have geo-locators are capable of broadcasting their location and will be used in field research, such as for tracking the movement of animal populations or mapping data sets to study weather, migration, or urban development patterns. Meanwhile, the personal Web will make it easier for students, professors, and administrators to find Web-based information. Also, semantic-aware applications will allow for more efficient Web searches, and for organization and presentation that better describe the conceptual relationships of collected data.
Building a Better Spam-Blocking CAPTCHA
Computerworld (01/23/09) Vaughan-Nichols, Steven J.
Malware designers and spammers have become increasingly adept at tricking Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart (CAPTCHA) security systems on Web sites. Spammers and crackers have created programs capable of defeating CAPTCHAs, and have released cracking software to enable anyone to beat them. These programs use optical character recognition (OCR) software to sort through a CAPTCHA's squiggly text. If a program fails, it tries again, exploiting the fact that some CAPTCHAs do not present new text to users who fail the first time. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) computer scientists are now working to redesign CAPTCHAs to create a more secure system. The first redesign, known as reCAPTCHA, uses the Google Books Project and the Internet Archive to find words that the two projects' OCR systems were unable to recognize. Human users are asked to identify these words to sign up for Web sites, helping complete the two projects' digitalization of older books in the process. CMU researchers also are exploring image-based CAPTCHAs. The ESP-PIX system requires users to pick a word that describes four objects in an image, and the SQ-PIX system asks users to choose one image from a group of three and trace the outline of the object within the image. However, the researchers say these systems still have some flaws, since people can easily create abnormal descriptions or lack the dexterity to accurately trace an image onscreen.
Advocates Worry Electronic Voting Allows Fraud
Medill Reports (01/21/09) Barker, Jeffery
Many election officials in the United States would like to see a return to paper-ballot voting, which they say is faster and more reliable that touch-screen voting. Illinois state representative Mike Boland wants to limit touch-screen machine use to handicapped voters, and is calling for stricter recount policies after witnessing problems in Ohio and other states. Current Illinois law requires an automatic recount of 5 percent of an election's vote. Boland and the Illinois Ballot Integrity Project (IBIP) want to raise the recount to 10 percent of the vote. Illinois precincts offer voters two options at the polls. Touch-screen machines provide voters with an ATM-like interface that voters press to make their choices and receive a grocery-style receipt. Voters can either confirm the receipt or vote again. Voters also have the option of voting on a traditional paper ballot that is read by an optical scanner. In DuPage county, most voters chose the optical scanner. IBIP's Robert Wilson says the organization opposes touch-screen voting because of its cost, inaccuracy, and security concerns. The IBIP is primarily concerned because there is no review of the software used in touch screen voting, says IBIP's Melisa Urda. Urda says the machine's software "is so porous that someone with a cell phone could hack into it."
Robo-Forklift Keeps Humans Out of Harm's Way
MIT News (01/21/09) Chandler, David
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are developing a semi-autonomous forklift that can be remotely directed. The device is intended to safeguard human forklift operators from risks involved in loading and unloading goods, says Matt Walter, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). The forklift undergoes an initial training phase when it "learns" the layout of a particular storage site. Afterwards, the forklift can be commanded to transport goods from one place to another at the facility. A human supervisor uses stylus motions and a wireless tablet computer that displays views from the forklift's camera. Researchers are adding some autonomous features, such as the ability to avoid people and obstacles. The machine reverts back to a regular, manual forklift when a person sits in the operator's seat. The research is part of several CSAIL efforts that focus on "the development of situational awareness for machines," says MIT professor Seth Teller.
Detecting Internet Routing 'Lies'
Network World (01/20/09) Marsan, Carolyn Duffy
Internet routing and scaling expert Geoff Huston will work for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Resource Public Key Infrastructure Initiative (RPKI) to strengthen Internet security. Huston will serve as a co-chair on the Internet Engineering Task Force Security Inter-Domain Routing Working Group, which is developing standard technologies for providing security mechanisms for inter-domain routing. Huston also is the chief scientist at APNIC, the Regional Internet Registry for the Asia Pacific Region, which is working to introduce digital certification of number resources. Attacks on the routing system can hijack Internet addresses and redirect traffic to unintended destinations, allowing the attacker to send users to malicious Web sites, or allow an attacker to inspect transit traffic undetected. These attacks rely on a single feature in the Border Gateway Protocol that allows a party to "lie" in routing and for the lie to spread across an entire network. The RPKI is a critical component of a mechanism that will detect such lies. RPKI allows users to verify the accuracy and authenticity of routing information and correctly identify instances of invalid routing information. Huston says several efforts are underway to provide tools that implement RPKI services, and the next steps are to use the RPKI framework for the creation of tools that allow Internet service providers (ISPs) and enterprises to digitally sign authorities that relate to routing assertions and provide tools that allow ISPs and others to validate routing information by matching authorities to the information sent through the inter-domain routing system.
Building Tomorrow's Scientists, Mathematicians Today
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (FL) (01/17/09) Qualman, Rick R.
Math and science must become more popular with young children if they are to take advantage of the employment opportunities as the world becomes smarter, writes Rick R. Qualman, IBM's senior state executive for Florida. The retirement of Baby Boomers already means that between 250,000 and 500,000 IT jobs could go unfilled over the next five years. Also, fewer students are enrolling in computer science programs, and test scores in math and science at the middle school level are below the national average. Florida schools will not be able to solve the problem on their own, considering the state's budget woes. "We, as parents, business professionals, and community leaders must also take action, encouraging young people to excel in math and science and supporting those who have expressed an interest in such careers with mentors and resources to help them stay on course and succeed," Qualman says. He says that starting Transition to Teaching programs would be a way for companies to prepare employees to become math or science teachers when they retire. "Our children can succeed in tomorrow's smart world--if they are prepared," Qualman says.
It's Written All Over Your Face
Science News (01/17/09) Vol. 175, No. 2, P. 24; Quill, Elizabeth
Scientists trying to understand the factors underlying facial attractiveness are employing computer technology to specify the essential properties of beauty. They are learning that faces with a lack of distinctness tend to be more appealing, while a symmetrical face does not automatically make someone beautiful. A computer has been trained by Tel Aviv University researchers to identify what people would rate as an attractive female face by automatically extracting measurements of facial features from raw images graded by study participants. The computer condensed the thousands of features it considered, and then used these preferences to predict attractiveness in a new set of faces. Researchers discovered that the computer reflected the human bias for left-left images. Now that the isolation of facial features for analysis has been achieved using computers, University of Western Australia evolutionary psychologist Hanne Lie says the next step will be to reconstruct attractiveness, in keeping with her suspicion that the perception of attractiveness is a holistic process.
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