Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the March 9, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Fight Over Internet Filtering Has a Test Run in Europe
New York Times (03/09/09) P. B7; O'Brien, Kevin J.

Europe's influence over technology regulation has led U.S. companies to send lobbyists to try and influence European lawmakers as they debate Internet access policy. "The U.S. companies see the outcome of the fight in Europe as key," says Jeremie Zimmermann, a lobbyist for French Internet advocacy group La Quadrature du Net. "Each side is hoping to score points on the issue here so they can take it back to the [United States] to influence the outcome there." Net neutrality is supported by free-speech advocates and Internet businesses that want to prevent network operators from filtering Internet traffic, but Internet service providers say that basic traffic management is needed to deal with the soaring demand for bandwidth. The outcome of the debate over net neutrality could affect whether consumers will continue to have access to unlimited bandwidth for downloads on a flat-rate plan, or if they will have to pay higher fees based on the amount of data they download. European lawmakers are split on the issue, and much of the debate is taking place in Belgium, where lawmakers are close to making a decision and two committees are expected to vote on March 31 before the issue goes before Parliament on April 22. With more than 200 network operators in Europe, as opposed to the five major broadband and four cable operators in the United States, the danger that one operator could filter Internet traffic for commercial gain is rather low, says Liberty Global's Manuel Kohnstamm.


They're Taking Their Brains and Going Home
Washington Post (03/08/09) P. B2; Wadhwa, Vivek

The United States has long been a mecca of educational and employment opportunities for the best and brightest that the world has to offer, but many immigrants are returning to their homelands as the prospects for productive careers in the U.S. flag. This trend is being driven by the growth of overseas economies and a U.S. immigration system riddled with red tape, writes Vivek Wadhwa, executive in residence at Duke University. "When smart young foreigners leave these shores, they take with them the seeds of tomorrow's innovation," he writes. Wadhwa points out that nearly a quarter of all international patent applications filed from the United States in 2006 named foreign nationals as inventors, while 50 percent of the Silicon Valley engineering and technology companies founded between 1995 and 2005 were started by immigrants. Wadhwa also notes that as of Sept. 30, 2006, more than 1 million people were waiting for the 120,000 permanent-resident visas granted annually to skilled workers and their family members. Impatient and frustrated by being consigned to this limbo, many prospective residents are going home or elsewhere, where better employment opportunities exist. Wadhwa conducted a survey of 1,200 Indians and Chinese who worked or studied in the United States and then went home, and learned that 80 percent held master's degrees or doctorates in management, technology, or science. A significant percentage said that they have made substantial career advancements since leaving the United States, and Wadhwa observes that talented immigrants have often held crucial staff positions at U.S. laboratories, engineering design studios, and tech companies. "Immigrants who leave the United States will launch companies, file patents, and fill the intellectual coffers of other countries," he concludes. "Their talents will benefit nations such as India, China, and Canada, not the United States."
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Digital Revolutionaries Discuss Past, Future of Technology
Stanford Report (CA) (03/05/09) Young, Chelsea Anne

Microsoft technical fellow Butler Lampson, Google chief Internet evangelist Vinton Cerf, and Qualcomm chairman Irwin Jacobs discussed the past, present, and potential shape of digital technologies at a symposium sponsored by the American Academy for Arts and Sciences. Jacobs predicted that "[the cell phone] is going to be the main means of access to the Internet for people worldwide as we go forward," and speculated that our connection to the Internet via the cell phone will be constant. He also argued that the arms race between people who wish to secure and compromise cell phones is a never-ending one. Cerf warned about the danger of "bit rot," in which vast corpora of information could be lost because future digital technologies would be unable to interpret information recorded in older, obsolete formats. Lampson suggested as a future technology a camera- and earpiece-equipped device that can augment the user's knowledge about people through face recognition and other innovations. He also expressed confidence that automated cars will become a reality in less than two decades. Cerf said he wanted to see a "direct brain-Internet connection" that could channel answers to online queries directly to the auditory nerve.


PowerNap Plan Could Save 75 Percent of Data Center Energy
University of Michigan News Service (03/05/09) Moore, Nicol Casal

The University of Michigan plans to save up to 75 percent of the energy that computer data centers consume by putting servers into sleep mode when they are not being used. Michigan professor Thomas Wenisch and his students analyzed data-center workloads and power consumption and used mathematical models to develop their power-saving approach. The system features PowerNap, a plan to put idle servers to sleep, and Redundant Array for Inexpensive Load Sharing, which is a more efficient power supply technique. Data centers are very inefficient because they must be ready for peak performance when it is needed, which results in them wasting much of the energy that they receive. "For the typical industrial data center, the average utilization is 20 to 30 percent," Wenisch says. "The computers are spending about four-fifths of their time doing nothing. And the way we build these computers today, they're still using 60 percent of peak power even when they're doing nothing." If servers could sleep periodically data centers would be far more efficient, though the servers would have to be able to go to sleep and wake up exceedingly fast. PowerNap would require a new operating system to coordinate the instantaneous sleeping and waking, but most of the technologies that would enable this technique already exist, Wenisch says.


Computer Superpower Strengthens Attempts to Combat Common Diseases
Uppsala University (03/05/09) Waara, Anneli

Uppsala University's Multidisciplinary Center for Advanced Computational Science (UPPMAX) is expanding its operations to provide researchers with large-scale sequencing technology in an effort to find new breakthroughs in biomedical research that will help solve public-health problems. The new technology will be used to help understand the impact of the genome on the genesis of common disease, and will allow questions to be asked in a new way. For example, the technology makes it possible to map all the bacteria in a person's mouth to see why one individual develops malaria while another does not, and how the malaria parasite adapts to evade a person's immune system. The technology also can catalog all DNA modifications in a cancer cell, and could help identify the gene mutations that increase the risk of common diseases such as cancer, diabetes, obesity, and autoimmune diseases, helping create better and more targeted drugs and treatments. Such research creates massive amounts of data, and requires significant storage, memory, and processing power to be able to analyze that data. UPPMAX recently received funding to obtain three new technology sequencing machines, which will make Sweden's Uppsala University the most prominent member of this field in Scandinavia.


Swedish Research Can Make Super Mario More Realistic
Malardalen University (Sweden) (03/04/09)

Thomas Larsson, a researcher at Sweden's Malardalen University, has developed a new approach for calculating collisions involving animated objects in computer games. Special measures have to be taken to keep animated figures from running through each other. Larsson developed a faster way for making more credible collisions, and includes the use of sound effects, deformations, and other consequences, similar to how collisions occur in the physical world. The calculations help determine that objects are actually colliding with each other, and then have the objects change direction by bouncing off each other, form dents, become deformed, break into pieces, or even explode. "To animate or simulate objects that move or fly around on the screen, the objects need to be able to react to collisions," Larsson says. "In many cases the collision calculations, just like the image generation itself, have to be done in a few milliseconds, otherwise the interactivity and the experience are ruined." The approach also can be used for simulations in robotics, virtual surgery, and visualization.


Web Cubed - The Network of Everything
ICT Results (03/09/09)

The future Internet could be significantly more expansive than Web 2.0, featuring pervasive networks that link electronics, clothing, cars, and almost every other product imaginable. This new cubed network will be able to accompany and assist users in any situation by dynamically adapting to the user's location or situation. However, such an all-encompassing network presents several challenges, says BIONETS project coordinator Daniele Miorandi. "The first problem is scale," she says. "A network capable of linking everything together will be huge, and it will take some serious engineering to create a framework and platform capable of attaining this sort of scope." The Web cubed will need to be able to connect billions of devices, which will require powerful networking paradigms that make today's most powerful systems appear insignificant, Miorandi says. Heterogeneity also is a problem. Currently, there are no standards bodies working simultaneously on, for example, clothes and cars in a network, and many of the other devices that will link into the future network are equally varied. BIONETS is a collaborative effort involving several European companies to solve these problems. The project believes it has found a way to design a large scale, heterogeneous, dynamic, and complex network like the future Internet. "You look for existing solutions to similar sorts of problems, and you apply those answers to your questions," Miorandi says. BIONETS has developed information-filtering protocols, data-dissemination protocols, and data-cloud protocols that dynamically combine and separate.


Geeks May Be Chic, But Negative Nerd Stereotype Still Exists, Professor Says
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (03/03/09) Ciciora, Phil

Despite technology's growing impact on society, academic geeks, or nerds, still suffer from negative stereotypes in popular culture, which may explain why women and minorities are avoiding careers in information technology, says University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor Lori Kendall. The concept of the nerd remains an anti-social white male, and it has become more prevalent than ever as a stock character in TV shows, movies, and advertisements, Kendall says. "Ten years ago, I thought the nerd stereotype would fade as more and more people started to use computers in their everyday lives," she says. "Well, that hasn't been true." Kendall believes the longevity of the negative nerd stereotype reflects a fundamental uneasiness with computer technology and the influence it holds over our increasingly hyper-connected digital lives. "We make a distinction between business people who use PDAs and are tethered to their laptops but aren't really into it, and the 'nerds' who are really into it," she says. "So, there's some discomfort with computers that we still haven't quite resolved." Kendall has analyzed how nerds have been presented in a variety of media. Generally, the nerd character is a white male with glasses and large amounts of obscure data committed to memory. Furthermore, Kendall believes the nerd is often represented in a way that specifically contrasts with black males.


Broadband Wireless Research Gets 'Green' Light
CSIRO (03/03/09) Finlay, Jo

Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications (BUPT) have opened the Australia-China Research Center for Wireless Communications. Australia and China will use the center for joint research projects, to exchange scientists and students, and to support Australian wireless communications technologies in the global market. Seven Australian and Chinese universities have signed on as partners, and more universities and companies could join them. The center will develop technologies such as advanced antennas, signal processing algorithms, and network protocols for next-generation broadband wireless communications networks. Jay Guo, research director of CSIRO's ICT Center Wireless Technologies Laboratory and director of the new facility, says the proliferation of wireless networks means that researchers will have to rethink wireless base stations. "Typically, base stations consume 80 percent of the power used by wireless networks, with one 3G network using up some 5-10 million kilowatt hours of power each year," he says. "The Australia-China Research Center will be working on technologies which can drastically reduce the number of base stations, thereby reducing their carbon footprint."


Can a Computer Model Prevent a War?
UA News (AZ) (03/03/09) Brown, Pete

University of Arizona professor Jerzy Rozenblit has received $2 million from the U.S. Army to develop intelligent software capable of analyzing the behavior and customs of political and cultural groups. The Asymmetric Threat Response and Analysis Project (ATRAP) will allow intelligence analysts to build three-dimensional maps of interactions between conflicting groups. Mapping behavior, relationships, resources, events, and timelines could enable analysts to predict, and potentially prevent, outbursts of violence. Rozenblit says the ATRAP software will allow opposing groups to rationalize different approaches to achieving peace. "I call it CPR, which in this case stands for conflict prediction and resolution," he says. "Ultimately, these mathematical tools are intended to generate solutions that give us equilibrium, or status quo solutions." Rozenblit says ATRAP can be used to convince negotiating parties that it would not be in their best interest to deviate from the proposed solution because they would have more to lose. He recently completed the first phase of the project, which involved designing the blueprints of the software and establishing a foundation to build the tools on. The second phase involves more advanced research on the system, including behavior modeling and entity extraction.


Robotic Computer Watches Your Every Move
New Scientist (03/02/09) Barras, Colin

The Swiss Federal Institutes' Frederic Kaplan has developed the QB1, a computer that replaces the traditional keyboard and mouse with a robotic neck that enables it to follow the user's movements and is controlled by gestures. Kaplan says that conventional PCs are too demanding and awkward to use. Kaplan's QB1 has a screen that is mounted on a motorized neck, which tilts the monitor to face anyone nearby. Users interact with QB1 using hand and arm gestures, which are detected by a motion-sensing camera in the screen. The gestures appear on the screen so that users can see what effect their input is having. The screen also has several light-emitting diodes that illuminate the room with infrared light to perceive depth and obtain a three-dimensional view of the surroundings, which enables the computer to change the size of the text or other displayed information based on the distance to the user. Kaplan says people can become proficient in using QB1 in just a few minutes. He has been testing the device with different users for more than a year. "These trials in real contexts are essential to turn QB1 into a real product," Kaplan says. "We wish to attract very different profiles of users, hopefully from different countries and cultural backgrounds."


Good Vibrations
MIT News (02/26/09) Trafton, Anne

Researchers in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Sensory Communication Group are working on tactile devices that translate sound waves into vibrations that can be felt in the skin, which could help deaf people who rely on lip reading. MIT research scientist and project leader Charlotte Reed says the software they are developing could be compatible with modern smart phones, enabling the devices to act as unobtrusive tactile aids for the deaf. Most smart phones already have a microphone, digital-signal-processing capability, and a rudimentary vibration system. Tactile devices translate sound waves into vibrations, enabling users to distinguish between different sound frequencies based on which vibration pattern they feel. Tactile aids have existed for years, and current models can be held in the user's hand or worn on the back of the neck. However, the MIT researchers want to improve the devices by refining the acoustic signal processing systems to provide tactile cues that are tailored to boost lip-reading abilities. The researchers have done several studies on the frequency reception ability of the skin, which can best detect frequencies below 500 hertz. The researchers also have done preliminary studies on deaf people's ability to interpret the vibrations from tactile devices, including a device that can provide distinct vibration patterns to three fingers simultaneously. "Anyone who has a smart phone already has much of what they would need to run the program," notes graduate student Ted Moallem.


Self-Programming Hybrid Memristor/Transistor Circuit Could Continue Moore's Law
PhysOrg.com (02/26/09) Zyga, Lisa

The memory resistor, or memristor, could enable chip manufacturers to continue to shrink the size of chips while increasing their power. Memristors are passive elements, which means they cannot introduce energy into a circuit but rely on being integrated into circuits that contain active elements, such as transistors. A circuit with both transistors and memristors could provide enhanced functionality with fewer components, minimizing chip area and power consumption. Hewlett-Packard Laboratories researchers have fabricated and demonstrated a hybrid memristor/transistor circuit for the first time. The researchers demonstrated conditional programming of a nanomemristor by the hybrid circuit, proving that the same elements in a circuit can be configured to act as logic, signal routing, and memory. Routing a logic operation's output signal back into a memristor enables the circuit to reconfigure itself, creating the possibility of self-programming circuits. "It actually takes at least a dozen transistors to mimic the electrical properties of a single memristor," says Hewlett-Packard's Stan Williams. "Thus, it may be possible to continue the equivalent of Moore's law for a couple of generations, not by making transistors smaller, but by replacing some subset of them with memristors."


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