Welcome to the February 27, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
NSF Requests $7 Billion to Fund Research
IDG News Service (02/26/09) Shah, Agam
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has requested a $7 billion budget for fiscal year 2010 to fund science and technology research at U.S. universities, which would be a 16 percent increase from NSF's 2009 budget. In addition to the proposed budget, the NSF will receive $3 billion from the recently passed economic stimulus package. Although NSF has not submitted a proposal on how it plans to spend that money, part of the stimulus funds would go to buying devices such as electron microscopes and robotic equipment for universities, says NSF's Dana Cruikshank. Another portion would be used in science and technology education programs. NSF has largely been focusing its recent research funding on nanotechnology, cloud computing, and supercomputing. It also launched the Science and Engineering Beyond Moore's Law program, which supports groups exploring material beyond silicon that could enhance computing. NSF also is interested in developing hardware that enables petaflop and exaflop computing, and using that power to make massive data sets relevant. The Expedition in Computing program aims to use massive computational tools and data sets to support environmental sustainability, including a better understanding of weather patterns and using water resources more efficiently.
Learners Experience Change Views About Assistive Technologies
University of Southampton (ECS) (02/25/09) Lewis, Joyce
The University of Southampton's LexDis project aims to make a wider variety of assistive technologies recognizable as useful tools to all learners. The project, led by Mike Wald and E.A. Draffan from the School of Electronics and Computer Science's Learning Societies Lab and the School of Education's Jane Seale, is assessing the difficulties disabled learners experience in e-learning programs. The researchers are exploring the problems students encounter when working online, including the use of Web 2.0 services and applications. Some of the major recommendations of the project include making more online materials available, which is critical for users who cannot handle paper-based materials easily, and increasing the level of awareness for the use of alternative formats. The project also recommends designing and developing learning opportunities and support systems that recognize the factors that influence disabled students' use of technology, particularly time. "Time is not on the disabled student's side and indeed time is a real issue for every student, so there is a genuine need to keep technologies as simple as possible," Draffan says. "We found it really useful that the students who took part in the LexDis project came up with new ideas for working with inaccessible resources and were often very innovative in the way they carried out research."
University of Texas at Austin (02/23/09) Dubrow, Aaron
Significant work in the area of tornado simulation has been conducted by a team of University of Oklahoma researchers with the aid of the Texas Advanced Computing Center's Ranger supercomputer. The team, led by professor Ming Xue, simulated several real-world tornadoes with remarkable accuracy, and the analysis of the model output is providing clues about the formation of tornadoes and the role of microphysical processes within the cloud. The difference in scale between tornadoes and the thunderstorms that generate them, combined with microphysics inside the cloud and the Doppler radar observations that must be assimilated to permit forward prediction, make powerful supercomputers a necessity for modelers. The simulations that Xue's group achieved used new techniques for assimilating high-resolution Doppler radar data and for blending this information into three-dimensional visualizations of evolving storms. "Our theory says that the cloud microphysics affect a thunderstorm's cold pool, and the cold pool affects how the mid-level updraft and rotation are positioned relative to the low-level rotation," Xue says. "We believe this relative position is a key factor affecting whether a thunderstorm can produce a tornado or not." However, Xue says it will be some time before a tool for forecasting tornadoes accurately and in real time can be developed from these methods. This advance will require next-generation high performance computing systems capable of computing at the multi-petascale level.
European Researchers Usher in Telco 2.0
ICT Results (02/26/09)
European researchers have developed OPUCE, a platform that enables non-expert users to produce converged telecom and Internet services in a matter of minutes; the project's supporters hope OPUCE will lead to the Telco 2.0 epoch. With the platform, users can generate converged services by blending Internet technologies such as instant messaging, voice mail, email, maps, photo albums, and directories with telco services. OPUCE uses Internet-based application programming interfaces (APIs) that function as a "socket" for services to engage with, and has added telecom services to these APIs. Project coordinator Alberto Leon Martin observes that "users access the front end [of the telecom network] via the Web, but the back end is still controlled and kept secure by the network operator." It is impossible to guess what new services will be spawned by this paradigm shift, but it is likely that some will be killer applications with the potential to completely revolutionize society and culture. The OPUCE developers are now focusing on devising practical commercial models. "One [model] that interests us very much is revenue sharing, where the creator, whether it is a user or an SME, and the network share revenue generated by new services," Leon Martin says.
Web Standards on the Edge
Computerworld (02/24/09) Mitchell, Robert L.
Browser bugs and ambiguities in standards are the chief reasons why the Web fails to render properly in browsers, says Google software engineer Ian Hickson, who also is editor of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) HTML 5 specification. Ambiguities and other real-world issues will be addressed by the emerging W3C CSS 2.1 specification. "Nowadays, we are not only expecting a test suite covering all the required and optional features of the specification but also a certain number of implementations as well," says the W3C's Philippe Le Hegaret. New standards have to define what happens when incorrect content is encountered, and the working group aims to define all edge cases. However, Hickson says a massive amount of effort and a considerable investment in time goes into the finding and definition of all those edge cases. "The W3C process seeks a balance between speed of progress and fairness in listening to all voices," Le Hegaret says. Some working groups are concerned that delays could encourage browser vendors to stray from the standards route. In the meantime, the W3C has made considerable progress toward CSS 3 standards, but Le Hegaret says adding new features and testing and implementing the already specified features in CSS 2.1 have significant dissimilarities.
'Cyber Footballers' Cloned
Plataforma SINC (02/20/09)
Researchers at the Carlos III University in Madrid (UC3M) have programmed clones that imitate the actions of humans playing soccer on a computer using behavioral cloning techniques. The clones learned the players' behaviors and applied that knowledge to avoid opponents and score goals. UC3M study author Ricardo Aler says the researchers used behavioral cloning to program a virtual player by observing the actions of a person playing in the simulated RoboCup league. The RoboCup is an international robot soccer championship intended to promote artificial and robot intelligence development. The event's promoters want to develop a team of totally autonomous robots that are capable of beating the best human players by 2050. Aler says there are several leagues within RoboCup, including a league of real robots and a league of simulated robots, which Aler and his team compete in using a software model called Robosoccer. "The human player plays Robosoccer as if it were a video game, and the system observes both the stimuli that the person is receiving from the screen as well as the actions he or she is carrying out on the keyboard in order to shoot or pass the ball," he says. The researchers then use behavioral learning techniques to create a model of how the person played, which is then used to create a "clone agent" that imitates the real player. Using behavioral cloning, the researchers found that the clone agent can score goals against an opponent, much like human players.
Researchers Say Gazelle Browser Offers Better Security
Campus Technology (02/26/09) Mackie, Kurt
Researchers at various universities are working with Microsoft Research to develop a more secure Web browser code-named Gazelle. The researchers recently demonstrated Gazelle on Windows Vista and with Internet Explorer's Trident renderer, and have also published a paper describing the project. Gazelle uses a browser-based operating system, a browser kernel that consists of approximately 5,000 lines of C# code and can withstand memory attacks. "No existing browsers, including new architectures like IE 8, Google Chrome, and OP [another experimental browser], have a multi-principal OS construction that gives a browser-based OS, typically called browser kernel, the exclusive control to manage the protection and fair-sharing of all system resources among browser principals," the authors write. The principals, or Web sites, communicate with each other by passing messages through the browser kernel, which manages security and the sharing of system resources. The browser uses separate processes to run a Web page and its embedded principals. Still in the prototype stage, Gazelle is slow because of its level of overhead, and the team also will have to address the browser plug-in issue.
Surprise: America Is No. 1 in Broadband
New York Times (02/23/09) Hansell, Saul
Although some countries have far more broadband-connected homes and higher broadband speeds than the United States, the U.S. leads the world in putting broadband to productive use, according to the "Connectivity Scorecard" developed by Leonard Waverman, dean of the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business. The scorecard rated 25 developed countries in terms of the extent that consumers, businesses, and government put communication technology to economically productive use, and the United States received the highest rating for broadband. The chief reason was that the U.S. has made extensive use of the Internet and computers and boasts a technically proficient workforce. Waverman's scorecard also found that government use of communications technology in the United States is on a par with its use anywhere in the world. Use of wired and wireless broadband networks by U.S. consumers lagged behind other countries, but the U.S. led for technology use and skills by consumers. A separate paper based on a poll by the Pew Internet and American Life project determined that 57 percent of U.S. residents currently have access to broadband, versus just 9 percent who have dial-up Internet access. Reasons uncovered by Pew as to why people do not use broadband include online's irrelevance to their lives, a lack of affordability, and usability issues. Unavailability of broadband was cited as a reason by only 14 percent of the people who do not currently have broadband.
'Now You See It, Now You Don't; How New Artificial Intelligence Can Help Us Understand How We See
Queen Mary, University of London (02/16/09)
Queen Mary, University of London professors Peter McOwan and Milan Verma have developed artificial intelligence (AI) software to create pictures and stimuli for visual search experiments. The researchers tested people on how they search for a target in pictures and created a genetic algorithm to develop the images and visual stimuli. AI eliminated the likelihood that participants would be able to predetermine a pattern for targets in pictures. The researchers say the use of AI demonstrates that the brain does not have separate mechanisms for easy searches and harder searches. Instead, there is just a single brain mechanism that has more trouble as the task increases in difficulty. "Our AI system creates a unique range of different shapes that run from easy to spot differences, to hard to spot differences, through all points in between," Verma says. "When we then get people to actually perform the search task, we find that the time they take to perform the task varies in the way we would expect."
Report From Dartmouth's Institute for Information Infrastructure Protection (I3P) Makes Cyber Security Research Recommendations
Dartmouth News (02/19/09) Knapp, Susan
Dartmouth College's Institute for Information Infrastructure Protection (I3P) has given the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and committee member Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) a report on the research and development challenges in cybersecurity. The report, "National Cyber Security Research and Development Challenge: an Industry, Academic and Government Perspective," contains the opinions of the executives, government officials, and researchers who took part in the series of I3P forums Sens. Lieberman and Collins co-chaired last fall. The report includes a set of recommendations from the I3P participants on how to advance research in cybersecurity over the next five to 10 years. The report also discusses several needs that became apparent during the I3P forums last year, including the need to develop a coordinated and collaborative approach to cybersecurity, the need to develop metrics and assessment tools, and the need to create an effective legal and policy framework for security. In addition, the report discusses the need to address the human aspects of cybersecurity. The report concludes that the federal government will manage and oversee many of these recommendations, though it also will have to work with the private sector to implement the suggestions.
Computerized Mobile Health Support System
Researchers at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits (IIS) have developed intelligent medical sensor devices designed to monitor the health of patients in their homes. The SomnoSENS system is a small box that is attached to the body during sleep to observe vital functions. Four adhesive electrodes record an electrocardiogram (ECG), while a finger clip measures the patient's blood oxygen level and pulse rate. Breathing is monitored using a nasal clip and expandable belts fitted around the upper torso, while a movement sensor in the device monitors the patient's body position and records how much the patient moves. Fraunhofer's Herbert Siegert says the small size of the device, and attaching the device to the body, enables it to be worn without hindering sleep comfort. The device records and stores data and transmits the data to a base station using a Bluetooth wireless interface. Physicians can then evaluate the data to make a diagnosis. Another device, the SYSvital telemonitoring system, is a small, lightweight device worn on a patient's body that records their heart rate using a three-channel ECG to identify minimum and maximum heart rates and arterial fibrillation, and also records movement. SYSvital enables physicians to evaluate a patient's heart rate in connection with physical activity. Meanwhile, the ActiSENS device is used to determine how active patients are. Siegert says ActiSENS measures a person's activity level throughout the day, helping the user reach the daily activity level that will keep them in shape.
Microsoft Hopes to Train 2 Million in IT by 2012
InformationWeek (02/23/09) Hoover, J. Nicholas
Microsoft plans to provide technology training to as many as 2 million people over the next three years, and 1 million will receive vouchers for free online coursework. With Elevate America, Microsoft is executing a broader strategy based on previous pilots, such as Elevate Miami in Florida. Microsoft says more people have shown an interest in its technical training over the past year, and believes the cost of training is a key obstacle for many people. In an attempt to find individuals who are interested in obtaining Microsoft certification, the company will work closely with state and local agencies, partners, nonprofits, and community organizations. Microsoft will offer a Web site for people who want to take the training courses online. "The economy made it important to get out there and not to wait," says Microsoft's Akhtar Badshah. "There's an incentive for state and local agencies to start offering services with the stimulus package, so it's the right time to do it."
Semantics-Empowered Social Computing
Internet Computing (02/09) Vol. 13, No. 1, P. 76; Sheth, Amit; Nagarajan, Meenakshi
The sheer scope of user-generated content (UGC) requires a level of organization in order to take advantage of the vast corpus of information and construct applications that enhance user experiences, write Amit Sheth and Meenakshi Nagarajan of Wright State University. A point of intersection between the social Web and the Semantic Web holds great potential, as it would ease the searching, integration, and exploitation of data surrounding objects. The automatic creation of accurate markups or annotations from UGC to common referenced models presents a key challenge faced by Web 3.0 applications. Sheth and Nagarajan expect the importance of the role ontologies and knowledge bases play in the generation of markups to expand. "Annotating UGC with common reference models will undoubtedly improve applications tasked with presenting a holistic view of all information available to a user," the authors write. They say that one of the most intriguing aspects of the social Web is the linkage of people not only through social connections, but through pieces of information. "Tapping this machine-accessible people-content network and its associated social and situational contexts empowers a new breed of personalized socially aware systems," Sheth and Nagarajan conclude.
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