Welcome to the March 23, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Multicore Chips Pose Next Big Challenge for Industry
IDG News Service (03/20/09) Shah, Agam
Increasing the number of processing cores has become the main way of improving the performance of server and PC chips, but any added benefits will be significantly reduced if the industry is unable to overcome hardware and programming challenges, according to participants at the recent Multicore Expo. Most modern software is written for single-core chips and will need to be rewritten or updated to capitalize on the increasing number of cores that chip manufacturers are adding to their products, says analyst Linley Gwennap. Off-the-shelf applications can run faster on central processing units with up to four processor cores, but beyond that performance levels stall, and may even decrease as additional cores are added, Gwennap says. Chip manufacturers and system builders are working to educate software developers and provide them with better tools for multicore programming. Intel and Microsoft have provided $20 million to open two research centers at U.S. universities dedicated to multicore programming. Gwennap says the lack of multicore programming tools for mainstream developers may be the industry's biggest obstacle. Nevertheless, some software vendors are developing parallel code for simple tasks, such as image and video processing, Gwennap says. For example, Adobe has rewritten Photoshop so the program can assign duties to specific x86 cores, improving performance three- to four-fold, he says.
A Bill to Shift Cybersecurity to White House
CNet (03/20/09) Condon, Stephanie
U.S. lawmakers are developing legislation that would take cybersecurity responsibilities from the Department of Homeland Security and give them to the White House. The legislation would create an Office of the National Cybersecurity Advisor, part of the Executive Office of the President. The office would have the power to disconnect "critical" computer networks from the Internet if it believes those networks are at risk. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) says cybersecurity is a top concern that is not receiving enough attention. The enormity of cybersecurity threats makes the White House the best choice for coordinating cybersecurity responsibilities, says James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which issued a report last year advising President Obama on cybersecurity issues. Giving the White House cybersecurity responsibility was one of the top recommendations of that report. The legislation is still being drafted and may change, but it would make the White House National Cybersecurity Advisor responsible for coordinating cyberefforts within the intelligence community and civilian agencies, as well as for coordinating the public sector's cooperation with the private sector. The advisor could disconnect any critical networks from the Internet if they were found to be at risk of a cyberattack. The legislation also could subject both government and private sector networks to cybersecurity standards established by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and may lead to a professional licensing and certification program for cybersecurity professionals.
Catering to Car Buyers' Desires
ICT Results (03/23/09)
The European Union-funded CATER project aims to develop a better way to present customization options to car buyers online, overcoming the limitations of dealers' catalogs and the vehicle configuration options on carmakers' Web sites. The project is using immersive virtual reality and emotional design to ensure that a buyer's actual car compares to the car they experienced online. "By giving people the chance to immerse themselves in the car in [three-dimensional] virtual reality (VR), they can better understand what the options are, how they look, and will feel more confident about making a purchase," says CATER project coordinator Manfred Dangelmaier, from Germany's Fraunhofer IAO. Instead of scrolling through catalogs, shoppers that visit dealerships with CATER's immersive vehicle "configurator" will be able to visualize all of the vehicle options and variations on a high-resolution, three-dimensional wall display, or even in a VR cave, enabling them to more fully experience the car before making a purchase. The Cater system is less expensive than previous VR systems. "In addition, it would save dealers from having to have such large showrooms as you would only need cars for test drives not to show off different finishes," Dangelmaier says. CATER researchers also developed an emotional design tool that enables shoppers to define what they want in a car and the system will provide specific details that fit those definitions. The project also developed a database framework to enable dealers to communicate customers' choices with manufacturers and part suppliers to improve logistics and supply chain management.
Scientists Make Quantum Leap in Developing Faster Computers
University of Manchester (03/19/09) Haile, Deborah
Researchers have developed components that could someday be used to develop quantum computers, say scientists at the University of Manchester and the University of Edinburgh. The breakthrough components were created by combining tiny magnets with molecular machines that can shuttle between two locations without the use of external force. The magnets could be used as the basic components in quantum computers. "The magnetic molecules involved have potential to be used as qubits, and combining them with molecular machines enables them to move, which could be useful for building quantum computers," says Edinburgh professor David Leigh. "The major challenges we face now are to bring many of these qubits together to build a device that could perform calculations, and to discover how to communicate between them." Manchester professor Richard Winpenny says "the remaining challenge is to learn how to do the switching, and that's what we're trying to do now."
Tapia 2009 Celebration Announces Technical Program
HPC Wire (03/19/09)
The 2009 Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computer Conference will feature papers, panels, workshops, poster sessions, Birds-of-a-Feather meetings, a doctoral consortium, and a robotics competition. The Tapia Celebration is organized by the Coalition to Diversify Computing and sponsored by ACM, the Computing Research Association, and the IEEE Computer Society. This year's conference, which will take place April 1-4 in Portland, Ore., is themed "Intellect, Initiative, Insight, and Innovation." The conference will feature technical papers on security, data mining, machine learning, diversity, human-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, biological systems, wireless networking, parallel computing, and grid computing. The Doctoral Consortium will give Ph.D. candidates an opportunity to receive feedback on their research and will include presentations on simulation models, wireless privacy, and pattern recognition. The poster competition, part of the ACM Student Research Competition (SRC), will select the top three posters in the graduate and undergraduate student categories that will advance to the ACM SRC Grand Finals. Students also will be able to participate in a robotics competition that will test their skills in building and programming robots to operate in both virtual and real-world environments. The Birds-of-a-Feather Sessions will focus on virtual worlds, accessibility issues, the use of technology in social issues, and the new image of computing.
UC San Diego and IBM Launch Center for Next-Generation Digital Media to Power Tomorrow's Virtual Worlds
California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (03/17/09) Ramsey, Doug
The University of California, San Diego (UCSD) has announced the launch of the Center for Next-Generation Digital Media, a new campus center dedicated to inventing the next generation of virtual worlds, online games, and high-fidelity digital cinema. IBM provided a Shared University Research award to help launch the new center, which includes IBM's newest System z10 server with the Cell Broadband Engine. IBM's Bernie Meyerson says the award will give students access to IBM's newest hybrid computing system and will allow them to access security features and "specialty engines" designed to handle a new generation of virtual world applications. "By significantly increasing the experiential richness of virtual worlds, we think they will become a proving ground for creating and interconnecting digital media of all forms, starting with games and cinema," says UCSD professor Sheldon Brown. "As virtual worlds and digital cinema develop more visual sophistication and cultural literacy about how we use them, they will start to intersect and will become much richer and more complex." Brown says IBM System z10's high volume processing capabilities and the dense computing power of IBM's Cell/Broadband Engine multiprocessor technology makes real-time, virtual word interaction a possibility. Brown and his Experimental Game Lab team will use the IBM server to develop and operate a virtual world that will potentially host thousands of users 24 hours a day.
Survey Suggests Economy Could Lead to Cybercrime Increase
Purdue University News (03/18/09) Bush, Jim
Researchers at Purdue University's Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS) say the results of a new study show that companies worldwide are facing a growing number of cybersecurity threats, highlighting the need for businesses to be extra vigilant in protecting intellectual property. The study, "Unsecured Economics: Protecting Vital Information," found that companies lost an estimated $4.6 billion in intellectual property last year through cybercrime, and that the global recession may cause those losses to rise. The study found that cyberthieves have evolved beyond basic hacking and stealing credit card numbers and personal data to targeting intellectual property. In addition, the study found that an increasing amount of vital data, including intellectual property and sensitive customer data, is being lost in the transfer between companies and continents, and that the average company has $12 million worth of sensitive information stored abroad. The researchers also found that the global economy crisis is creating a "perfect storm" in information security risks as companies face increased pressures to reduce spending and cut staff, which could potentially result in weaker defenses and increased opportunities for cybercriminals. "We are connected around the world in this global economy, but we don't have the rules, the same laws, or the same attitudes about protecting information," says CERIAS executive director Eugene Spafford. "It's going to take cooperation among governments, private industry, and the people who work in the areas of information security to bring cybercriminals to justice and lessen the problem."
Telephone Service for the Deaf
Universidad de Alcala (03/20/09)
Spanish researchers at the Universidad de Alcala (UAH) and the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid, working with the Instituto de Ciencias del Hombre, have developed a telephone service called TELESOR that provides hearing-impaired users with better access to telephone communications. TELESOR supports real-time communications through mobile phones or personal digital assistants (PDAs). The service works similarly to a chat, says UAH researcher Jose Luis Martin. Through the service, hearing-impaired users can type a message they want to send on their PDA or mobile phone, and send it to TELESOR's phone number. An operator receives the text on a computer and sends any response to the user's device. A major advantage of TELESOR is that hearing-impaired users no longer need an intermediary to mediate their telephone communications. TELESOR also enables the deaf and mute community to access emergency telephone services.
Dartmouth Researchers' "Self-Correcting" Gates Advance Quantum Computing
Dartmouth News (03/12/09) Knapp, Susan
Dartmouth College researchers Kaveh Khodjasteh and Lorenza Viola have developed a way to create more robust quantum gates, which are used to build quantum circuits. "An outstanding challenge stems from the fact that quantum bits are incredibly more prone to errors than their traditional-sized counterparts," says Viola, the director of Dartmouth's Quantum Information Science Initiative. "All quantum gates, the building blocks for implementing complex quantum-mechanical circuits, are plagued by errors originating from both the interaction with the surrounding quantum environment or operational imperfections." The researchers have found a way to construct new quantum gates that can be "dynamically corrected" out of sequences from the available faulty gates, which essentially cancels the net total error. Viola says exploiting known relationships between unknown errors is the key. "Dynamically corrected gates allow for substantially higher fidelity to be reaching quantum circuits, and can thus bring the implementation of reliable quantum-computing devices closer to reality," she says.
Engineer: Computer Learning, Electrical Stimulation Offer Hope for Paralyzed
University of Florida News (03/18/09) Hoover, Aaron
University of Florida professor Warren Dixon says electrical stimulation can be combined with computer learning technologies to help people regain precise, life-like control of paralyzed limbs. Dixon's research is still in the early stages, but so far his progress indicates that computer-aided electrical stimulation could help people who suffer from the effects of strokes and spinal cord injuries. Dixon says stroke victims who work at regaining the ability to walk often unconsciously drag their toes, causing them to trip and stumble. He plans to develop a pacemaker-sized device that would deliver the right stimulation to the calf at the right time in a person's gait to lift their toes and help them walk more naturally. The device could be customized to each person's weight, activity, and diet, and also could act as a kind of robotic therapist for patients by guiding them in the proper action while slowly reducing its electrical input. Dixon says the device also could improve electrical stimulation as a whole, which currently tends to cause rough, full movements that lack the subtle bends and twists that make a major difference in movement control and variation. He is working on adaptive learning techniques that will give a computer the ability to learn from a patient's actions and reactions and adjust its stimulation accordingly.
Augmented Reality Under Water
Fraunhofer FIT (03/12/09) Deeg, Alex
The Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology (FIT) has developed an augmented reality (AR) system for underwater use that outfits a scuba diver's mask with a display that overlays computer-generated virtual scenes onto real underwater surroundings. The AR technology is being explored to find applications for professional divers. Underwater use is a major challenge for technical systems, which have to be waterproof and robust enough to withstand the pressure of diving. FIT's AR system is a waterproof display in front of a diver's mask that allows the diver to see the real underwater environment as well as additional virtual objects. An ultra-mobile PC, worn on the diver's back, detects underwater markers in a video stream supplied by a camera on top of the diver's mask. The system uses pictures from the camera and data from inertial and magnetic field tracking of the diver's orientation to generate three-dimensional scenes. The researchers developed a prototype AR game that places divers in the role of an underwater archaeologist in search of a treasure chest. The researchers say the prototype game is a robust platform that could be used to develop technology to support professional divers in the maintenance of bridges, offshore oil rigs, or dams.
Wag the Robot? Brown Scientists Build Robot That Responds to Human Gestures
Brown University (RI) (03/11/09) Lewis, Richard
A Brown University-led team of robotics researchers has demonstrated how a robot can detect and respond to nonverbal commands in various environments without having to adjust for variations in lighting. "We have created a novel system where the robot will follow you at a precise distance, where you don't need to wear special clothing, you don't need to be in a special environment and you don't need to look backward to track it," says Brown professor Chad Jenkins. A demonstration of the robot shows Brown graduate students using a variety of hand and arm signals to instruct the robot. The user can walk with his or her back turned to the robot and naturally move around corners, down narrow hallways or in an outdoor parking lot. The robot reliably follows approximately three feet behind and will back up when a student turns around and approaches the robot. The researchers augmented a PackBot, developed by iRobot, with a commercial depth-imaging camera and a laptop with software that enables the machine to recognize human gestures and respond. The researchers say their work has resulted in advances in visual recognition and a depth-imaging camera, which makes possible a robot that doesn't require remote control or constant vigilance, Jenkins says. "Advances in enabling intuitive human-robot interaction, such as through speech or gestures, go a long way into making the robot more of a valuable sidekick and less of a machine you have to constantly command," says iRobot's Chris Jones.
Sign Language By Cellphone
IEEE Spectrum (03/09) Vol. 46, No. 3, P. 16; Westly, Erica
Researchers at the University of Washington and Cornell University are working on the mobileASL project, which is developing a mobile phone that would enable deaf users to have real-time conversations in American Sign Language (ASL). A major hurdle the project faced was the low bandwidth available on wireless networks, which forced the researchers to find a balance between speed and quality. Most compression algorithms do not focus on the aspects of the video that are needed to make ASL easily understandable. Cornell professor Sheila Hemami studied how the human visual system understands video, and has been working on integrating an intelligibility metric into mobileASL's video-compression software to allow the phones to maximize compression. The intelligibility metric recognizes which areas of an image need to be in high resolution, such as the signer's hands, and which can be in low resolution. The researchers also had to find a way of preserving battery power despite the high power demands of video compression and decompression, which was solved by implementing a variable frame-rate system that oscillates between high and low frame rates depending on whether the user is signing or watching the other person sign. After four years of work, the researchers are close to a functional prototype.
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