Welcome to the February 25, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
U.S. Said to Be Losing Competitive Edge
New York Times (02/25/09) P. B9; Lohr, Steve
The U.S. economy has lost much of its competitive edge during the past decade, concludes a new Information Technology and Innovation Foundation report. The United States ranked sixth among 40 countries and regions, based on 16 indicators of innovation and competitiveness, and placed last in terms of progress made over the last decade. The indicators included venture capital investment, scientific researchers, spending on research, and educational achievement. The report mirrors a 2005 report by the National Academies, which warned that the U.S.'s lead in science and technology was eroding while many other nations were strengthening their science and technology sectors. The report says that countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, Finland, and China are pursuing policies that nurture a broader "ecology of innovation," which generally includes education, training, intellectual property protection, and immigration. Overall, the most innovatively competitive nation was Singapore, largely due to a national innovation strategy that features heavy investments and recruiting lead scientists and technologists from around the world. Information Technology and Innovation Foundation president Robert D. Atkinson says the U.S. should create government programs to attract investment and talent and to improve the workforce skills of local workers. The report recommends federal incentives for U.S. companies to innovate at home, ranging from research tax incentives to workforce development tax credits.
IT Not So Green
University of Calgary (02/24/09)
University of Calgary professor Richard Hawkins says there is no evidence that information technology (IT) reduces the world's environmental footprint. "It was once assumed that there was little or no material dimension to information technology, thus, it should be clean with minimal environmental impact," says Hawkins, the Canada Research Chair in Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy. "However, we are finding that reality is much more complicated." Hawkins says that digital technologies require a lot of energy to manufacture, and they create a massive amount of electronic waste. Electronics also use a lot of electricity, with some estimates claiming that technology uses about the same amount of energy as the world's air transport system. Hawkins notes that many IT manufacturers are developing more environmentally friendly technology. "But probably most of the negative environmental impacts occur in the form of completely unintended, second, and third-order effects," he says. "These 'rebound' effects may not be mitigated by inventing 'greener' IT products and, indeed, may be intensified by such changes." Hawkins says the problem is that IT has been applied so extensively that its environmental implications, both positive and negative, are often overlooked. Hawkins is developing a more reliable basis for identifying and analyzing IT's contribution to the environmental footprint.
In Science and Technology, Efforts to Lure Women Back
Wall Street Journal (02/25/09) P. D1; Shellenbarger, Sue
Numerous return-to-work programs are emerging in the science, engineering, and technology sectors, as many employers expect a talent shortage due to the high quit-rates among experienced women. Honeywell, General Electric, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the British government have all launched re-entry programs to help women scientists, engineers, and technology professionals obtain the skills they need to restart their careers. Some of the programs provide training, coaching, networking, and referrals, while others provide jobs with low return-to-work barriers through special training and mentoring. More than 40 percent of highly qualified scientists, engineers, and technicians in lower-level jobs are female, but more than half quit in the middle of their careers, the Center for Work-Life Policy reports. Women in science, engineering, and technology often face isolation, extreme job pressures, long hours, and become discouraged after about 10 years, which is when family pressures also increase. However, after several years at home, many women want to return to work. In a partnership with the Society for Women Engineers, Honeywell recently launched a hiring program that includes extensive training and mentoring for engineers who have been out of the workforce. BBN Technologies has increased efforts to attract at-home professionals, including luncheons for ex-employees, and IBM offers an extended-leave program to enable women to return to work. General Electric has launched an international program called Restart that offers flexible hours and other incentives to attract female technology professionals back to work.
Virtual Teach Hospital System (VTHS) Project Aims to Transform Medical Training
University of Leicester (02/24/09)
The Virtual Teaching Hospital System is an interdepartmental collaborative project between the University of Leicester's medical and computer science departments that has developed software for enabling medical students to practice diagnosing patients using real patient data. The simulation program will improve the supervision of medical students during their clinical placements and provide feedback on their diagnoses and treatment choices using a Web-based medical decision support system. In the simulation, medical students can talk to patients and record clinical symptoms and laboratory or radiological data into the program, which will provide suggestions on possible diagnoses. The students then interpret those suggestions and provide reasons for their conclusions. "The teaching system will assist medical students in rehearsing the problem-solving process and help decide what patient information is needed to determine a possible diagnosis and management, while combing the knowledge of the patient’s history," says postgraduate student Adwoa Donyina. "This expert system will provide guidance and direction with the evolving notion of what might support or refute the diagnosis."
ACM Fellow Ed Catmull Garners an Oscar for Computer Graphics Leadership
AScribe Newswire (02/24/09)
The Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has honored ACM Fellow Ed Catmull for his lifetime of technical contributions and leadership in the field of computer graphics. Catmull, a computer scientist, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, and president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, received an Oscar for the Gordon E. Sawyer Award at the Scientific and Technical Awards Presentation. In 1995, Catmull was made a Fellow of ACM for "his many and noteworthy advances in computer graphics as an individual researcher, as an inspiring leader in the field, as a director of organizations, and as a mentor for many." During his career Catmull founded the computer graphics laboratory at the New York Institute of Technology, the computer division of Lucasfilm, and Pixar Animation Studios. In 2000, Catmull and his team received an Academy Award of Merit for their advancements in motion picture rending for Pixar's "RenderMan." Catmull also has received two Scientific and Engineering Awards from the Academy, and shared a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy in 2005.
Chips With Everything
University of Bristol News (02/24/09)
University of Bristol professor David May's research has led to the design of electronic systems that combine hardware and software in one environment. May's research idea was to find a way of designing electronic systems as collections of small programmable computers at a cost low enough to embed them in toys and clothes. An initial design of the new computer architecture used a large array of low-cost processors on a chip that would be configured using software instead of hardware. Four years after May's initial design, undergraduate student Ali Dixon used it to create a model of the processor that could be simulated on a PC. May and Dixon started working on a compiler for the processor, with the goal of enabling each processor to work independently while running concurrently. A significant effort was made on the ability of the array of processors to handle the input and output of data. "This has been a neglected area over the past 30 years of computer technology, but providing a flexible way for the concurrent software to control data passing in and out of the chip is fundamental to the new architecture," May says. The research resulted in 17 patent applications on new ways of handling input and output, memory access, and instruction scheduling, and a new company, XMOS, to commercially develop the new architecture, dubbed Xcore.
Microsoft Demos Augmented Vision
Technology Review (02/24/09) Greene, Kate
Microsoft researchers recently demonstrated augmented reality software that can superimpose computer-generated information onto a digitized view of the real world in real time. Microsoft Research's Michael Cohen says an augmented reality-enabled smartphone could be used as a portal to information. "You could be out on the street, hold the device up, and it could recognize a restaurant and deliver ratings and the menu," Cohen says. Microsoft's augmented reality software analyzes scenes from a camera and matches those images to images from a database to overlay supplementary information on the display. Microsoft researchers say that a smartphone with augmented reality would enable engineers to overlay plans for pipes on images of city streets, or allow users to see a bus route and estimate when the next bus is due at a certain stop. Augmented reality has been in development for more than a decade, but only recently has the computing power and hardware of smartphones become sophisticated enough to handle the technology. Nokia and Columbia University are developing an augmented-reality system, and Japan's Tonchidot is developing a commercial product. Instead of orienting itself using the global positioning system or Wi-Fi signals, which many augmented reality systems do, Microsoft's system focuses on recognizing objects within a scene using computer-vision algorithms.
New Direction in Teaching Computer Science Emphasizes Activity, Interaction, Critique
Washington University in St. Louis (02/23/09) Fitzpatrick, Tony
The Washington University in St. Louis computer science department is using a new "active learning" approach to teach undergraduate students in an effort to better prepare them for the work place. Active learning uses a learning-laboratory-based tutorial teaching concept in which students are encouraged to get out of their seats, move around, and interact with classmates. "At the heart of active learning is the hallmark of interactive face time and students taking a more active role and not just repeating what a professor wants to hear," says Washington professor Cindy Grimm. "We think it provides a motivation to learn things that they have to know to do something that they really want to do." Students watch lectures online in the evening before coming to class, enabling them to actively learn while in the classroom instead of using that time for passive lectures. Washington professor Ron Cytron says active learning is based on the Socratic teaching method, which asks students a question and allows them to struggle instead of giving them solutions and a lecture. Grimm and Cytron say the new approach can initially be uncomfortable for both students and professors. Some argue that lectures are being discarded because students have poor attention spans, but Cytron says that is not the reason. "Students today have a different attention span and use more of their sensory inputs when it comes to learning," he says. "Today's freshmen have been doing interactive things with friends for years. We find that we need some kind of stimulus to keep them involved."
Quantum Dance: Discovery Led by Princeton Researchers Could Revolutionize Computing
Princeton University (02/18/09) MacPherson, Kitta
A Princeton University-led group of international scientists has observed a unique behavior in the spin of electrons within a new material that could be used to revolutionize computing and electronics. Theorists have predicted that atoms placed in certain configurations would result in odd quantum behaviors from electrons. The researchers, which included scientists from the United States, Switzerland, and Germany, have been looking for a material that would produce those conditions. The team recently reported that it witnessed the exotic behavior in a crystal carefully constructed from an antimony alloy laced with bismuth. "We believe this discovery is not only an advancement in the fundamental physics of quantum systems but also could lead to significant advances in electronics, computing, and information science," says Princeton professor Zahid Hasan. Using new techniques to survey the structure, the researchers recorded groups of electrons spinning in a synchronized quantum movement, which involved a strange form of rotation. Unlike most objects that return to their original "face" after revolving in a full circle, the harmonized electrons need to rotate two full turns to return to the same orientation. "This discovery has the potential to transform electronics, data storage, and computing," says the National Science Foundation's Thomas Rieker. "The spin-sensitive measurement techniques developed here may shed light on other important fundamental questions in condensed matter physics such as the origin of high-temperature superconductivity."
Microsoft Aims to Build a Better Thesaurus
CNet (02/20/09) Fried, Ina
Microsoft's Writing Assistance project is using techniques from translation software to develop a better thesaurus. Christopher Brockett, a computational linguist and the Microsoft researcher in charge of the project, says that machine translation can be used to create better thesaurus results. For example, if a word in Chinese translates to two different English words, it is probable that those two words are synonyms. The machine translation approach has two major benefits over traditional electronic thesauri. First, the new approach can work in phrases instead of just single words, and it can draw context from the phrase being used. Brockett will demonstrate a prototype at the end of February at TechFest, Microsoft's annual internal science fair. Brockett says the thesaurus effort is still young and that the algorithms are still being developed. "We're still working on the algorithms and how much work we give to the language pairs," he says. "We have to get the quality up. There are usability issues that have to be looked into." Eventually, Brockett hopes that the technique could be used to effectively translate whole sentences. Beyond its use in Word, the research also could help improve Web searches.
New Bluetooth Standards to Bring Speed, Energy Efficiency
Network World (02/18/09) Reed, Brad
The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) is working on two new standards to improve the wireless technology's speed and energy use. Bluetooth SIG executive director Mike Foley says the specifications will greatly increase the number of applications that can use Bluetooth. The low-energy specification, which should be finished by the end of 2009, will enable Bluetooth technology to be used in devices that require less energy than cell phones or personal computers, such as watches or heart-rate monitors. Syncing a Bluetooth watch with a cell phone would enable a watch to alert the wearer when their phone receives a call. Garner analyst Nick Jones says the new Bluetooth specifications are the most important wireless technologies to watch over the next two years. "The low-energy Bluetooth standard will open up a lot of possibilities," Jones says. "With the new low-energy mode there is the potential to build sensors that can talk to your mobile phone and be controlled remotely, such as the thermostat in your house." The other new Bluetooth specification is a high-speed standard that Foley says will significantly increase Bluetooth users' ability to send data between devices. Foley says the Bluetooth SIG's goal is to have Bluetooth achieve speeds of up to 100Mbps, which will allow for high-definition video streaming.
Duke Software Dramatically Speeds Enzyme Design
Duke University News & Communications (02/16/09) Basgall, Monte
Duke University researchers have developed software that shows experimentalists how to alter the machinery that bacteria uses to make natural antibiotics. The program is a set of computer rules known as algorithm K* that can sort through all possible shapes and changes of a key enzyme that produces a natural antibiotic called gramicidin S, says Duke professor Bruce Donald. The new software could lead to more automated redesigning of old drugs to counter drug-resistant germs. "It is essentially a new pathway to make novel antibiotics," Donald says. "There are many possible changes you can make to a protein, but the algorithm can test out orders of magnitude more variations than laboratory experiments alone." He says the algorithm should enable researchers to quickly discover findings that would otherwise take longer through experimental techniques. "It should, in principle, be possible to redesign any enzyme simply by inputting the protein's shape into the algorithm and telling it what you want it to do," Donald says. The algorithm includes a "dead-end elimination" feature that can analyze all possible chemical interactions and flexible molecular architectures to eliminate scenarios that will not work. The K* algorithm is available as open source code for researchers to evaluate and use in their research.
Artificial Intelligence -- Child's Play!
Gorge, a prototype of a computer game that exposes children to artificial intelligence (AI) technology, will be presented at CeBIT in Hannover, Germany, in early March. Developed by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology (IDMT), Gorge requires players to move teams of pieces around a board and reach a destination that is determined by the die. When a piece lands on a square that is already occupied by another piece, the players have to push the piece onto the next unoccupied square. The paths are crisscrossed by gorges, which can only be crossed if a piece is helped by another piece. In turn, the piece can decide whether to help the other piece get out of the gorge or leave it to perish. Children can play against each other, against the computer, or have one computer play against another. "That's even more exciting because the person can set how 'good' or 'bad' the machine is," says IDMT director Klaus Peter Jantke. The player can define the rules, such as whether to always pull a piece out of a gorge or to never go into a gorge, and can observe the resulting heroic or villainous behavioral patterns developed by the AI game.
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