Welcome to the May 27, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Viral Epidemics Poised to Go Mobile
National Science Foundation (05/21/09) Van Pay, Lisa; Cruikshank, Dana W.
A research team led by Northeastern University Center for Complex Network Research director Albert-Laszlo Barabasi set out to investigate why smartphone and mobile device users have been largely unaffected by computer viruses. The researchers examined calling and mobility data from more than six million anonymous mobile phone users to create a comprehensive picture of the threat mobile phone viruses pose. The results of the study indicate that a highly fragmented market share has effectively prevented virus outbreaks so far. However, the researchers predict that viruses will become a serious threat once a single mobile operating system's market share grows large enough, which could happen sometime soon. "We haven't had a problem so far because only phones with operating systems, so-called 'smartphones,' are susceptible to viral infection," says researcher Marta Gonzalez. "Once a single operating system becomes common, we could potentially see outbreaks of epidemic proportion because a mobile phone virus can spread by two mechanisms: a Bluetooth virus can infect all Bluetooth-activated phones in a 10-30 meter radius, while a Multimedia Messaging System virus, like many computer viruses, spreads using the address book of the device." Gonzalez says that hybrid viruses, which can infect via both routes, are the most significant threat.
How IBM Plans to Win Jeopardy!
Technology Review (05/27/09) Talbot, David
IBM researchers are developing Watson, a natural-language processing system that will compete against human players in a game of Jeopardy! Demonstrations of the system will take place throughout the year, and a final televised match, hosted by Alex Trebek, will be held in 2010. Questions will be spoken aloud by Trebek, but fed into the machine as text during the competition. Watson project leader and IBM computer scientist David Ferrucci says the system divides questions into pieces and searches its databases for related knowledge and makes connections to create a result. Watson is not designed to search the Web. Whether or not Watson beats a human competitor, the project will further research in the field, says University of Washington computer scientist Dan Weld, who is participating in a U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project focused on developing machines that understand natural language. "DARPA's involvement will focus the research of many people at top universities and research labs to push on integrated systems that can actually read a broad array of documents," Weld says. University of California, Berkeley computer scientist Marti Hearst says that natural-language processing researchers have made significant progress in the past 10 years. She says "pitting IBM's Watson question-answering system against the top humans in a game of Jeopardy! is a fun way to publicize and showcase this progress."
Tongue in Check
Washington Post (05/24/09) P. E1; Garreau, Joel
The growth of the Web has facilitated a revolution in translation technologies that are primarily based not on language rules but on vast volumes of text translated by humans into different languages. For example, Google's Translate project can instantaneously translate text among 41 languages. Google research director Peter Norvig's vision for Google Translate is to make billions of routine pages more accessible to ordinary people. Norvig says that running a newspaper article through Translate allows the readers to get the gist of the article, although he adds that "it will be very rare that you think a native speaker did the translation." He foresees the inevitable advent of cell phones that translate conversation, and in November Google unveiled an application to search on any topic by talking into an iPhone. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is testing a universal translator that converts spoken English words into native tongues, and vice versa. It is the agency's goal to equip each U.S. soldier with an affordable iPod-size interpreter via its Spoken Language Communication and Translation System for Tactical Use (TRANSTAC) project. TRANSTAC program manager Mari Maeda wants the devices to be networked so that if one soldier spots an error in translation, all the devices will learn. Carnegie Mellon University's Alex Waibel says that translation by machines--even highly accurate translation--is complicated by the fact that most people speak broken English, while speaker/listener bias can add to the difficulty of understanding the machine's translation.
Hi-Tech Aims to Improve Lifestyle
BBC News (05/26/09) Ward, Mark
A three-year project is exploring how people react and behave when information on their energy use and activity levels are presented to them through mobile phones, energy meters, and online social networks. Previous research found that the way people are told about poor lifestyle choices can influence how they react and respond. Instead of simply telling people to stop, it is more effective to reveal how their behavior compares to their peers. Through three separate investigations, the Charm Project, led by Kingston University reader Ruth Rettie, will collect data about consumption or usage behavior in relation to sustainability, send that information back to the participants, and see how their behavior changes. The first investigation will use mobile phones that feature software capable of measuring their users' activity levels using accelerometers to measure how far people walk and global positioning systems for those that bike. Participants will be given feedback on their activity levels and whether they are more or less active than others in the group. Information may be presented in different ways, such as a flower garden representing all users, with more active members' flowers growing taller. A second investigation will monitor household energy use. Information on a home's energy use could be sent back to the resident using a text message, a project Web site, or a postal letter. The third investigation will focus on the social networking site Facebook and will explore how friends influence one another and see what methods are necessary to get people to live a more sustainable way of life.
New Memory Material May Hold Data for One Billion Years
ACS PressPac (05/20/09)
Alex Zettl and colleagues say enclosing an iron nanoparticle in a hollow carbon nanotube could serve as the foundation for a memory material for the next generation of iPods, smartphones, and other mobile devices. The scientists used electricity to control the nanoparticle, moving it back and forth to act as a programmable memory system, in that digital information could be recorded and played back with conventional computer hardware. The experimental memory device offers a storage capacity of 1 trillion bits of information and a lifetime of more than 1 billion years. An increasing amount of digital images, music, and other data is being packed onto silicon chips, but the 10 to 100 gigabits of data per square inch on current memory cards only have a lifetime of 10 to 30 years.
Paperless Proof, the E-Government Magic Act
ICT Results (05/23/09)
The French public financial institution Caisse des Depots et Consignations has developed the Fournisseur d'Acces Securises Transactionnels (Secure Access Gateway Provider), known as FAST, which turns email into the electronic equivalent of registered mail. The system can provide automated and secure document exchange, legally recognized acknowledgement of receipt, electronic certificates and signatures, and traceability, time-stamping, and archiving of electronic documents. FAST will enable users to electronically file life-event certificates and official documents. The European Union (EU) is funding the FASTeTEN project to expand the system to work across the rest of the EU. FAST technical coordinator Jean Francois Navarre says France has developed a variety of new e-government functions using the platform. He says that FAST can be used at a municipal, regional, national, and pan-national level throughout the EU to provide transparent, secure, and easy-to-use e-government services for citizens and businesses. A trial of the system in the Spanish region of Valencia is using FAST with the local government's e-procurement platform to generate legally binding proof of calls for proposals and transactions. A second trial in Sheffield, England, is testing a pilot system to manage the contacts between schools and parents. "We took stock of the paperwork being used in the local school system to see what could be put onto the FAST platform to reduce the need for parent-based signatures," says Jonathan Gay, the project partner in charge of the Sheffield trials.
Europe's Fastest Computer Unveiled in Julich
Forschungszentrum Julich (05/26/09)
The German supercomputing center in Julich has added three supercomputers, including the fastest machine in Europe. The new supercomputer at Forschungszentrum Julich, JUGENE, is capable of performing 1 trillion calculations per second and was built with energy-efficient computer technology. Researchers will access JUGENE from a computer system offering platforms for studying everything from climate change and the function of new semiconductors to how proteins are folded in cells and how to improve fuel cells. The petaflop-scale machine is housed at the Gauss Center for Supercomputing, which is the partnership of the national supercomputing centers in Stuttgart, Garching, and Julich. The German and North Rhine-Westphalia governments supported and funded the project. "The supercomputer JUGENE will secure Europe independent access to a decisive key technology of the 21st century," says Achim Bachem, chairman of the board of directors of Forschungszentrum Julich and coordinator of the European Supercomputing Alliance PRACE.
Online Life Can Be Convenient as Well as Dangerous
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (05/18/09) Heinrichs, Allison M.
The rapid growth of technology and the cyberworld has made today's youth excellent technological multitaskers, and created entirely online businesses, but cyberspace also presents dangers to unwary users. Nielsen Online and the International Telecommunication Union estimate that 1.6 billion people, 23.8 percent of the world's population, were Internet users in March, up from 16 million people, or 0.4 percent, in 1995. The rapid growth of Internet users in virtual worlds is primarily due to teenagers and people in their 20s, says Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Human Computer Interaction Institute professor Robert Kraut. "Younger kids are too technologically unsophisticated to know what to do, and older people in their primary earning years have too much stuff to do," Kraut says. "And retirees, though they no longer have too much to do, have difficulty changing habits and learning technology." He says the sweet spot for introducing technology and networking sites is college-age students, who want to stay connected to old friends and quickly make new ones. "People are basically spending or living an increasingly large percent of their lives in cyberspace," says CMU Mobile Commerce Lab director Norman Sadeh. "Whether it's email or other channels available through the Web, clearly there is a demand among people for sharing more information." However, virtual worlds can be dangerous. Sadeh says people want to share information but they are learning that it is unsafe to be completely open about everything.
Agents Which Haggle and Resolve Conflict
University of Southampton (ECS) (05/21/09) Lewis, Joyce
Autonomous computerized agents developed by researchers in the United Kingdom are now capable of organizing a trip or social event, or autonomously negotiating on eBay through a mobile phone or a computer. The team has spent 10 years developing argumentation-based negotiation (ABN) algorithms, and says they now making it possible to develop software agents that work in real-life settings. The ABN algorithms give the software agents strategies for arguing and resolving conflict in a multi-agent task allocation scenario. "My view is that haggling will become very much the norm in all forms of online societies and that it is simply too costly and time-consuming to be done by humans," says Nick Jennings at the University of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science. "This work takes us much closer to having autonomous computerized agents which work on our behalf to plan social or business events." The team's work is the subject of the paper "Dialogue Games That Agents Play Within a Society," which will appear in the June issue of the journal Artificial Intelligence.
IBM Boosts Vietnam IT With New Innovation Center
EE Times Asia (05/26/09)
IBM recently opened the first IBM Innovation Center in Vietnam to help local communities build skills and develop new technologies to support demand for digital infrastructure projects. The center, which will be located in Ho Chi Minh City, will provide business partners and academics throughout Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos with access to training workshops, consulting services, technical infrastructure, and hands-on learning to help bring new technologies to the market. The IBM Academic Initiative will work with the University of Technology, Vietnam National University (VNU) in Ho Chin Minh City to establish a new university cloud computing center and a cloud curriculum. The College of Technology, VNU in Hanoi will establish a Service Science Management and Engineering department and jointly develop curriculum with IBM. IBM also will launch the first Vietnamese language version of its developerWorks, a global site to help IT professionals advance and improve their skills. IBM efforts in Vietnam are due to the country's accelerated IT growth. As Internet use in Vietnam has grown rapidly, the country's IT sector has expanded more than 20 percent annually. The Vietnam IBM Innovation Center will provide technical experts and customized hands-on support to test and validate users' software technologies before they go to market, and will offer training and access to open standards-based and emerging technologies.
Soccerbots Learn How to Fall Gracefully
New Scientist (05/20/09) No. 2708, Griggs, Jessica
Soccer-playing robots in Chile are learning to fall in a controlled way, reducing the chances of damaging themselves or their environment and helping them quickly return to the game. The robots can even fall over intentionally to stop a shot on goal. University of Chile in Santiago researchers, led by Javier Ruiz-del-Solar, are training two teams of soccerbots for the RoboCup competition. Inspired by the controlled falling taught in some martial arts, Ruiz-del-Solar wanted to find the best ways for a robot to fall. His team developed a set of equations that quantify how much damage a fall is likely to cause, compensating for the speed with which the robot falls, the forces and torques on each of its joints, and the position of vital components relative to the ground. Ruiz-del-Solar put their simulated soccerbot through a series of different fall sequences, simulating the stresses on each joint. The researchers found that a major way to minimize damage is for the robot to fold its legs underneath it, making the robot less likely to hit its head on the ground. Another successful strategy is to use a fall sequence consisting of several movements, so the falling body has several points of contact with the ground. The researchers tested these strategies using their UCH H1 robot, which they built to compete in RoboCup's Humanoid League. The researchers say their work could have a major impact on humanoid robot development.
Dawn M. Taylor on Brain-Computer Interfaces
Computerworld (05/18/09) Anthes, Gary
Brain-computer interface research is finally starting to take off because the expansion of computer capacity has broadened people's ability to digitize and process numerous individual neural impulses concurrently and apply more sophisticated mathematical decoding algorithms to those impulses, says Case Western Reserve University professor Dawn M. Taylor. She is a researcher at the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) Center, where the focus is the restoration of movement and function to paralysis victims through the application of electrical current to the peripheral nerves. "Basically, we are reconnecting the brain to the muscles so people can control their paralyzed limb just by thinking about doing so," Taylor says. "Intended movements can also be used to control other technologies, such as prosthetic limbs, assistive robots, or a computer mouse." Taylor says the least invasive method for recording neural signals is external surface electroencephalograms, while sensors also can be implanted atop the brain, within the skull, or under the scalp. She says that ideally the same neurons should be recorded for decades so the brain can learn how to trigger those neurons to control a device. Taylor postulates that advancements in technology miniaturization and wireless communication should eventually enable the shrinkage of all the equipment and processors used in the lab to a package that can be carried on a wheelchair or implanted within the body. She says the FES Center has developed a hand-grasp system for people who cannot move their hands due to spinal cord injuries, which has been commercialized. Taylor also says that electrode technologies can be used to stimulate the brain and circumvent fissures in the neural pathways that bring sensory information in.
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