Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the March 2, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


The Real High-Tech Immigrant Problem: They're Leaving
New York Times (03/02/09) Lohr, Steve

Language in the U.S. bank bailout legislation that discourages banks from recruiting skilled foreign workers on work visas has re-ignited the controversy over the hiring of foreign high-tech workers. Duke University professor Vivek Wadhwa says the real problem is not smart foreigners coming to take jobs in United States, but rather all the bright, talented, and ambitious immigrants who are leaving. Wadhwa's new report, "America's Loss is the World's Gain," estimates that 50,000 immigrants have left the United States and returned to India and China, and that during the next five years 100,000 more will return to their native countries. The report says that economics, not visa problems, is the main reason so many immigrants are leaving. Growing demand for skills and strong job opportunities in China and India were cited by 87 percent of the Chinese and 79 percent of Indians as reasons for returning. Most of the returnees are young, generally in their early 30s, and nearly 90 percent have master's or doctorate degrees. Two-thirds said that visa considerations were not a reason for returning home. Wadhwa says the United States needs to start wooing foreign skilled workers by creating "fast-track" immigration policies and incentives to stay, steps that countries such as Singapore and Australia already are taking.


Indian Colleges to Compete in IBM's 'Blue Battle'
EE Times India (03/02/09)

IBM has launched IBM Blue Battle, a technology competition for 25 Indian engineering colleges that offers students the opportunity to obtain hands-on experience with high-end technologies and IT tools as they develop solutions to difficult computing problems. "The challenge will enhance the students' knowledge on technologies that are at the helm of innovation across the industry and provide them with an opportunity to develop innovative solutions in real-work scenario," says IBM's Amol Mahamuni. "It hones their technical skills while learning basic on-the-job skills such as teamwork, organization, and working under deadlines." IBM Blue Battle will enable students to work with technologies such as multiprocessors and nanotechnology, electronics, service-oriented architecture, multi-core architecture, enterprise computing, information management, Web 2.0, cloud computing, virtualization, and high-performance computing. Mentors from IBM and the colleges will work with students during the program. Students also will be able to work on future projects using IBM products, applications, tools, and services through further collaboration and mentoring from IBM experts.


How to Share Without Spilling the Beans
Technology Review (03/02/09) Naone, Erica

A new protocol designed to allow organizations to share important information without compromising privacy through the use of smart cards was recently unveiled by Bar-Ilan University professor Andrew Yehuda Lindell. The protocol's usage involves the first party's creation of a key with which both parties could encrypt their data. The key would be stored on a secure smart card to be given to the second party. Both parties would employ the key to encrypt their respective databases, and then the first party would send his or her encrypted database to the second party, who can see what information both parties have in common. In addition, the second party would only have a restricted window of time to use the secret key on the smart card because the first party deletes it remotely using a special messaging protocol. University of Haifa professor Benny Pinkas says that Lindell's system demands far fewer computing resources to shield private information. However, RSA Laboratories chief scientist Ari Juels says that because the smart card serves as a trusted third party, finding a manufacturer that both organizations trust completely could be problematic. "Assuming that a smart card is secure against an individual or modestly funded organization may be reasonable, but not that it's secure against a highly resourced one, like a national-intelligence agency," he notes. Lindell says that in the event the chip is compromised, high-end smart cards can be designed to self destruct.


Faculty of Engineering Creates Autonomous Robot Dancer
University of Porto (02/25/09)

A graduate student at Portugal's University of Porto has used software often associated with robotic soccer to create a fully autonomous robotic dancer. Joao Oliveira has applied advanced artificial intelligence to a simple Lego NXT kit. The robot uses mathematical algorithms to perceive rhythmic musical notes and an integrated system for intelligent hearing. The project distinguishes itself "by presenting an application and a modular interface that allows some flexibility and interaction from the user on the behavior of the robot, defining the movement that it should express," Oliveira says. He also plans to create and manage choreographies between humanoid robots. Oliveira believes his project could encourage more young people to build their own robots. They would be able to use his robot to create their own dances and learn more about robotics, music, rhythm, dance and movement optimization, he says.


Data Travels Six Times Faster in the Clouds
National Science Foundation (02/25/09) Zgorski, Lisa-Joy

The University of Illinois at Chicago's National Center for Data Mining (NCDM) has developed the Sector System, a cloud-computing system that processes data from geographically distributed data centers across high-performance networks at a rate that is six times faster than competing technology. The technology behind the Sector System has an open architecture design. The system uses an alternative network protocol called UDT, which allows for a smooth and speedy transfer of data. Cloud computing is normally used to process data within a single data center, as compiling large amounts of data from geographically distributed data centers would be more difficult and costly. "With the Sector System, data-intensive computing can scale not only to a data center, but for the first time, across data centers," says NCDM director Robert Grossman. NCDM recently demonstrated the Sector System using the Open Cloud Testbed. "These innovative technologies provide unique capabilities that will enable new generations of applications that can make discoveries involving large volumes of highly distributed data," says Joe Mambretti, director of the International Center of Advanced Internet Research at Northwestern University and co-director of the Open Cloud Testbed.


Microsoft Mapping Course to a Jetsons-Style Future
New York Times (03/02/09) P. B1; Vance, Ashlee

Microsoft researchers have developed Laura, a virtual personal assistant that can complete many of the tasks filled by a real personal assistant, including scheduling meetings or booking a flight. Laura can make sophisticated decisions about the people using the computer, commenting on their attire, whether they seem impatient, their level of importance, and their preferred times for appointments. "What we're after is common sense about etiquette and what people want," says Microsoft researcher Eric Horvitz. Microsoft also recently demonstrated new software systems designed to power futuristic games, medical devices, and teaching tools. Meanwhile, Intel is expected to elaborate on plans to extend its low-power Atom chip from laptops to cars, robots, and home-security systems. These new systems are in response to a growing desire for simpler, less functional computers. Simple netbooks and inexpensive, compact laptops are currently the fastest-selling products in the PC market. As consumers stop looking for increasingly fast and powerful PCs, Intel and Microsoft are looking to redefine what the hottest computers look like. Analysts say that both companies have a history of lofty research projects that often don't translate well into consumer products, but the time may have finally arrived when available technology matches demand. For example, Laura's artificial intelligence and graphics capabilities require a top-of-the-line chip with eight processor cores, which once would have only been available in a server. However, Intel is now working on integrating similar levels of processing power into tiny chips that could fit inside any device.


Engineer Tomomasa Sato Calls for Open-Source 'Model-T Robot'
Times Online (UK) (02/26/09) Lewis, Leo

A standardized robot based on an open source operating system would give more scientists and innovators around the globe access to an affordable prototype humanoid robot, says the University of Tokyo's Tomomasa Sato. As a result, tens of thousands of researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) labs, design studios, or engineering departments would be able to test software and applications on the robot, and ultimately help bring the mass production of humanoid robots closer to reality, he says. Sato, who says the university's Mechano-Informatics department is currently focused on such a project, cautions that servant robots for every home are still decades away. Japanese robot scientists acknowledge that they have to close the gap with regard to their AI expertise. Masato Hirose, the designer of Honda's Asimo robot, believes the development of large-scale quantum computers would make a much greater volume and speed of calculations possible for future robots. "The robot has to understand a lot about the world around it," Hirose says. "If it cannot, it really is useless."


U.S. Spy Agency May Get More Cybersecurity Duties
Reuters (02/26/09) Mikkelsen, Randall

During his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Feb. 25, Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair told lawmakers that the National Security Agency (NSA) should be given more responsibility for securing the nation's IT networks. According to Blair, the NSA is best suited to handle the job of securing the nation's cyberinfrastructure because of its technology and its ability to detect attacks. Members of the House Intelligence Committee appear to be receptive to Blair's proposal, since some have said that they believe the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is not capable of continuing to play a leading role in U.S. computer security. However, Blair's proposal to give DHS' cybersecurity responsibilities to the NSA would probably not go over well with many of the lawmakers' constituents, due to the deep distrust many have for the NSA in the wake of its participation in former President George W. Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.


When Controlling a Computer Is Child's Play
New Scientist (02/21/09) Vol. 201, No. 2696, P. 18; Ananthaswamy, Anil

Researchers Pattie Maes and David Merrill at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab have designed a new human-computer interface in which users enter information into the system by rearranging smart blocks or "siftables," which relay information back to the user. Each siftable is equipped with a battery, memory, a liquid crystal display, a motion-detecting accelerometer, a Bluetooth radio to communicate with other systems, and an infrared link to sense the presence and position of nearby siftables. A cluster of siftables can be programmed to either solve problems independently, or take instructions from a desktop computer. Merrill says the siftables' initial application will probably be gaming, as "gaming is often an area where new interfaces take hold because people are more willing to try something new in a play setting than at work." Other potential applications for siftables include music production and scientific modeling. The University of Oxford's Caroline Buckee says that "siftables would make the process of formulating a model interactive and physical in a way the software can't."


Life-Giving Technology
SINTEF (02/23/09)

Norwegian medical researcher Ronald Marvik is working with Thomas Lango, a scientist at SINTEF, a Scandinavian research organization, on a computer-based solution to look inside the human body. The system transforms x-rays and nuclear magnetic resonance images into three-dimensional maps that surgeons can use to navigate when performing keyhole surgery in the abdominal cavity. The maps can show surgeons exactly where a cancerous tumor is located relative to the tip of the instrument inside the patient, and the location of the instrument relative to vital organs and blood vessels that must be avoided. "With a better view of vital organs and blood vessels, a surgeon can perform keyhole surgery with an extra high margin of safety, and can employ keyhole surgery much more often than before to remove tumors in organs that would not otherwise be easily accessible to keyhole interventions; organs such as the kidneys, the adrenal glands or the pancreas," Lango says. SINTEF researchers also are working with 17 other partners throughout Europe to develop a capsule that will be able to travel through the alimentary canal while using a variety of tools and sensors to find diseased cells. Camera pills that can be swallowed already exist, but they simply travel through the digestive system over the course of several days. The new smart capsule will be controlled by a doctor or computer system, allowing the pill to stop or even back up when something needs to be examined more closely. The pill will include sensors based on ultrasounds, spectroscopy, and possibly biosensors, and will be able to collect tissue samples.


Robots That Monitor Emotions of ASD Children
Exploration (02/17/09) Salisbury, David F.

Vanderbilt University researchers have developed a system that enables robots to monitor a child's emotional state, potentially leading to robotic playmates that help autistic children learn social skills. Vanderbilt professor Nilanjan Sarkar says research has shown that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are attracted to robots, supporting the idea that well-designed robots could become an important element in their treatment. However, he says that efforts have been limited because they have not had a way of monitoring the emotional state of the children, preventing the robot from responding automatically to their reactions. Sarkar has developed a method that uses physiological measurements to monitor the emotional state of individuals. Sarkar and Vanderbilt professor Wendy Stone recently published the results of initial experiments in which six children with ASD between 13 and 16 years old were fitted with several physiological sensors and asked to play two games--the computer game Pong and a game of basketball in which the hoop and backboard were attached to a robotic arm. The experiments provided physiological data that can be used to develop mathematical models for each individual that predict their emotional state with an accuracy of 80 percent or better. The researchers also showed that this information can be used in real time to alter the game configuration to significantly increase the child's level of engagement.


Commerce Chief Faces 5 Internet Emergencies
Network World (02/26/09) Marsan, Carolyn Duffy

Assuming former Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D) is confirmed as President Obama's Commerce Secretary, he will need to immediately begin addressing a number of issues related to Internet infrastructure. For starters, Locke will need to appoint someone to head the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Commerce Department agency that deals with most Internet infrastructure issues. But Locke will also have to take steps to deal with a number of issues himself. For instance, he will need to deploy DNS Security Extensions (DNSSEC) on the root zone--a move that the Internet engineering community has been waiting for the Commerce Department to take. Deploying DNSSEC on the root zone is important because doing so will allow the technology--which prevents hackers from redirecting Web traffic to fraudulent sites--to operate at its highest level of effectiveness. Locke will also need to decide whether to keep ICANN as a part of the Commerce Department or make it independent once its memorandum of understanding expires in September. In addition, Locke will need to deal with the controversy swirling around ICANN's proposal to create hundreds of new top-level domains. Finally, Locke will have to take steps to promote the use of IPv6, which replaces the current Internet communications protocol, IPv4. Experts say that the Commerce Department can speed the transition to IPv6--which creates new IP addresses--by integrating the protocol into its own processes and procurement plans.


Software Looks at the Road Ahead to Boost Hybrid-Card Efficiency
IEEE Spectrum (02/09) Fairley, Peter

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee mechatronics expert Yaoyu Li speculates that future drivers will be more fuel-efficient as their vehicles tap data in the latest global positioning system-enabled electronic navigators. He has devised plug-in control algorithms that employ route and traffic data to let hybrid vehicles plan how and when to use stored battery power in order to keep fuel consumption to a minimum. The algorithms use data from electronic navigators to calculate the best blend of combustion and electronic propulsion to accommodate a trip, first by parsing the driver's selected route into segments and then projecting how the vehicle should balance its use of gas and electricity in each segment. "As the vehicle approaches the next route segment, I use my current state of charge as a start point to solve a new optimization problem," he says. "I'm trying to force my actual expenditure toward my preplanned budget." En route adjustments are made by a microscale algorithm. Li's dynamic programming methodology can facilitate the incorporation of incoming traffic data or on-the-fly route changes. His simulations suggest that a plug-in sport utility vehicle with a perception of the road ahead could be 20 percent more fuel-efficient. The next step is testing the algorithms on an actual plug-in vehicle.


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