Welcome to the June 12, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
'Mobilization' for Math and Science Education
Inside Higher Ed (06/11/09) Lee, Stephanie
Math and science education in the United States needs to improve dramatically if the country wants to stay competitive in the 21st century, concludes a report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The report, "The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy," outlines a comprehensive plan to advance math and science learning. The plan's primary objective includes establishing high and common assessment standards in math and science for all 50 states and aggressively recruiting and supporting teachers. More than 70 organizations, including government, schools, philanthropies, and businesses, have pledged their support to the recommendations. "We have to bring math and science to the forefront," says U.S. Department of Education secretary Arne Duncan. "Perpetuating what we have is not going to get us where we want to go." Duncan says science and math teachers should be paid more than they currently are, particularly those working in underperforming communities. Teachers should also work with engineers, doctors, and professionals in technical fields to demonstrate to students how the sciences can be applied in real life. Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian says the quality of math and science learned at colleges and universities is based on strong K-12 education. The report says that colleges and universities should create partnerships with higher education and K-12 systems to increase the number of students entering college that are prepared for math and science courses.
Computing in the Quantum Dimension
ICT Results (06/12/09)
European researchers working on the Qubits Applications integrated project (QAP) are trying to solve some of the fundamental hurdles preventing real quantum computing applications. A group of 35 European scientists and industrial researchers are studying how to directly exploit quantum phenomena such as uncertainty, entanglement, and other aspects that are not fully understood. "We are not looking to create a quantum computer directly," says QAP co-coordinator Ian Walmsley. "Other people are working on that, and it will take a long time to solve that problem." Walmsley says QAP is working on some of the problems facing real-world quantum applications that could be deployed today that contain problems that need to be solved for quantum computing anyway, such as the storage of information encoded on a photon. "But by focusing on these problems, we can perhaps create important new products that could be developed in the short and medium term, and we could solve some of the fundamental problems affecting the advent of quantum computing," he says. The researchers are exploring issues such as the storage of quantum information and transmission of certain quantum states, like entanglement, over long distances using repeaters. The researchers also will be examining quantum applications for the simulation of exceedingly complex problems. The project's multidisciplinary nature is a major advantage, as computer scientists, applied mathematicians, experimental physicists, and industrial scientists and engineers are all contributing unique and diverse views and expertise, Walmsley says.
China Faces Criticism Over New Software Censor
New York Times (06/10/09) Jacobs, Andrew; Yang, Xiyun
A government directive that all PCs sold in China come with software that can censor pornography and other "vulgar" content from the Internet has sparked howls of outrage among industry executives, proponents of free speech, and computer users. Manufacturers are facing a July 1 deadline to preinstall the software on machines, and U.S. PC makers say meeting this deadline is impossible. They note that it raises a complicated issue as to whether manufacturers would be held accountable if the software clashes with operating systems or causes computers to crash. Computer experts are worried that the software could enable the Chinese government to watchdog Internet use and collect personal information. The designers of the filtering software, which is called Green Dam, insist that it cannot function as spyware. Green Dam uses image recognition technology and text filtering to block content, and its designers say the software can be disabled or deleted. Critics claim the software underperforms, censoring perfectly innocent content while allowing objectionable material to slip through. Also inspiring criticism is the Chinese government's decision not to consult computer users on the regulations or allow other companies to submit comparable software.
Software Liability Law Could Divide Open Source
ZDNet Asia (06/10/09) Ho, Victoria
The European Commission has proposed that software companies should be held liable for the security and efficiency of their products. Ovum's David Mitchell says the proposal will likely force software vendors to require support and maintenance agreements for each purchase to help fulfill warranty obligations. This requirement already matches the established business models of open source vendors, which sell support services, but the "garage open source model" of independent developers, who do not have the resources to guarantee their products at that level, would suffer, he says. Keystone Law Corporation director Bryan Tan says the proposed law will likely inflate prices for consumers outside of the European Union due to the vendors' need to provide insurance, and the "death" of some smaller vendors will lead to increased prices due to a lack of competition. Mitchell says liability will be hard to pinpoint because of the inter-dependency between hardware and software, with a software failure potentially being blamed on hardware or the installation of another piece of software. However, Allen & Gledhill partner Stanley Lai says that consumers will benefit from the proposed law. While prices are likely to go up, Lai says consumers may see that price increase as a worthwhile investment in return for quality assurance.
The Internet Is Incomplete, Says its Co-Designer, Vinton Cerf
Computerworld (06/11/09) Thibodeau, Patrick
Google Internet evangelist Vinton Cerf, the co-designer of the Internet's TCP/IP protocols along with Robert Kahn, says the Web continues to lack many of the basic features it should have, particularly in security. Cert says one of the most critical needs is authentication. Anyone who performs transactions over the Internet should be concerned about the technology and insufficient security, he says. "Authentication isn't available on an end-to-end basis at all layers of the architecture," says Cerf, co-winner of the 2004 ACM Turing Award. Although users excel at "building concrete tunnels" using Secure Sockets Layer techniques, they do not identify the end points and just secure the channel, he says. For example, it is possible to send an email with an attached, encrypted virus through an encrypted tunnel, and once it arrives it is decrypted and launches its attack. Mobile is another problem area, he says. To help solve these problems, Cerf says the U.S. government can use as a model the work being done by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in coordinating standards on the smart grid and health information technology.
Computer System for Dementia Patients
The shortage of healthcare workers has led to a demand for computer-based solutions that will allow elderly people to live in the own homes. However, the technology needed to care for the elderly is expensive, and different standards in home sensors create additional hurdles. To solve these problems, the European Union launched a series of projects to make it easier for industry to develop new equipment for elder care, including a project called Mpower, which was dedicated to creating a computer platform that could be used in numerous projects and fit a wide variety of needs. The project is testing a simple communication system based on a computer screen. The system does not need a keyboard, and features a touch screen that uses large, simple to understand icons. The screen can be used by family members and healthcare professionals to remind elderly residents to take their medication, perform other tasks, or when care givers will be arriving. The screen can relay information to care givers to inform them of whether the resident's appointments have been kept. Since last summer, several elderly people have been testing the system, which uses sensors and a global positioning system to provide smart solutions in the home and alert care givers if the resident has entered an unsafe area.
Brain-Computer Interface, Developed at Brown, Begins New Clinical Trial
Brown University (RI) (06/10/09) Hollmer, Mark
The second clinical trial of the BrainGate Neural Interface System developed at Brown University is about to start at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston. BrainGate is based on research and technology developed by professor John Donoghue, director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science. "The goal of our research is to harness the brain signals that ordinarily accompany movement and to translate those signals into actions on a computer, like moving a cursor on the screen, or the movement of a robotic or prosthetic limb," says fellow Brown professor and MGH neurologist Leigh Hochberg, who is leading the research with Donoghue. It was demonstrated in an earlier clinical trial that a computer can decode the neural signals associated with the intent to move a limb in real time and use them to operate external devices. The BrainGate interface involves a sensor implanted on a section of a study participant's motor cortex, and in earlier research sessions the computer was linked to the sensor via a pedestal on the subject's head. "We learned an incredible amount with the assistance of the first participants in the BrainGate trial, not only about how the motor cortex continues to work after paralyzing illness or injury, but also about how to harness these powerful intracortical signals for controlling computers and other assistive devices," Hochberg says. The hardware and software that decodes brain signals used to control assistive devices will be refined in the BrainGate2 trials. BrainGate2 is part of a larger research initiative to develop point-and-click capabilities on a computer screen, control a prosthetic limb or a robotic arm, control functional electrical stimulation of nerves severed from the brain due to paralysis, and further expand the neuroscience behind the field of intracortical neurotechnology.
Social Networks Keep Privacy in the Closet
Technology Review (06/11/09) Naone, Erica
Social networks are being encouraged to downplay the privacy settings they build because of the tension between the desire to have users share as much personal information as possible and the need to protect that information and restrict how it is shared between users and outside their own borders. Privacy rights groups and activists are pressuring the networks to embed tools for users to control their information, but the networks also have an interest to keep privacy out of users' minds, according to research that will be presented at the Eighth Workshop on the Economics of Information Security. "Their goal is to create a very free-flowing environment where everybody is constantly sharing everything and seeing all this data on other people," says University of Cambridge researcher Joseph Bonneau. "The best way to achieve that is to not bring up the concept of privacy." The researchers studied 45 social-networking sites and determined that more popular sites did better with privacy overall because they face greater pressure to shield user data and also have more resources to address the problem. Bonneau says the disclosure of all sites' privacy practices could help put pressure on major sites to enhance the protection of users' information. Another researcher, Soren Preibusch, speculates that standardizing privacy settings could help users understand and control their information. University of Texas at Austin professor Vitaly Shmatikov is concerned that social networks will exacerbate the situation if they start focusing less on drawing new users and more on reaping profits from the ones they have.
Experts Urge Federal Efforts on Cybersecurity
Federal Computer Week (06/10/09) Bain, Ben
The U.S. federal government needs to step up its cybersecurity efforts, experts from industry and academia recently told the House Science and Technology Committee's Research and Science Education Subcommittee. Information technology users are largely responsible for their own defense against cyberattacks, said Georgia Institute of Technology professor Seymour Goodman. He said the widespread use of cell phones and other mobile devices could lead to a tsunami in insecurity. "An effort must be made to get those people who are in the best position to mitigate risk to do so, and I think what should be done--and it's been done in other areas--industry and government need to get together, and they need to get together under some perhaps formal forum or other kind of an institutional mechanism with the mandate that they come up with greater security in cyberspace," Goodman said. Meanwhile, Applied Visions' Anita D'Amico said the government should put more money into research and development programs so that more projects can turn their work into products. Cornell University professor Fred Schneider said better formal and public cybersecurity education programs are needed. "We're not going to solve this problem only with Ph.D.s or only with bachelor's [degree] graduates," he said.
Robotic Ferret Will Detect Hidden Drugs and Weapons
Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (06/12/09)
Scientists at the University of Sheffield have developed the first cargo-scanning device that can operate inside standard freight containers and detect illicit substances. The 30 cm-long robot ferret relies on sensors that use the latest laser and fiber-optic technology to detect tiny particles of different substances. The suite of advanced sensors enables the cargo-screening ferret to generate information on the shape and density of objects or substances, as well as on what they actually consist of. Placed inside a steel freight container, the robot ferret can attach itself magnetically to the top, automatically move around and seek out drugs, weapons, explosives, and illegal immigrants, sending a steady stream of information back to its controller. "The ferret will be able to drop small probes down through the cargo and so pinpoint exactly where contraband is concealed," says project leader Tony Dodd. The scientists hope to test working prototypes within two years, and believe that cargo-screening robot ferrets could be deployed in about five years.
Does Parallel Processing Require New Languages?
Government Computer News (06/05/09) Jackson, Joab
The software-design community is split on the best approach for distributing their programs across a multicore architecture, and most programming languages were authored based on the assumption that only one processor would be working through the code sequentially. "The challenge is that we have not, in general, designed our applications to express parallelism," says Intel's James Reinders. He notes that parallel programming demands an approach with two areas of concentration--decomposing the problem so that it can be run in multiple parallel chunks, and achieving scalability. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) is funding the development of new programming languages through its High Productivity Computing Systems program. The languages use the Partitioned Global Address Space architecture, which allows multiple processors to share a global pool of memory while also permitting the programmer to retain individual threads in specified logical partitions so they will be as close to the data as possible in order to exploit the speed upgrade supported by locality. Reinders contends that coder needs would be better served by extending commonly used languages instead of building new parallel-specific languages. He says the DARPA-developed languages would be too complicated for programmers to learn, and stresses that "people with legacy code need tools that have strong attention to the languages they've written and give them an incremental approach to add parallelism."
Facebook Games for a Better Music Search Engine
UCSD News (06/03/09) Kane, Daniel
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) engineers have designed games for use on Facebook to improve their experimental music search engine. The search engine is capable of listening to new songs and automatically labeling them with keywords without human input. In April, the engineers launched the Facebook games in an application called Herd It. "The Facebook games are a lot of fun and a great way to discover new music," says UCSD professor Gert Lanckriet. "At the same time, the games deliver the data we need to teach our computer audition system to listen to and describe music like humans do." In Herd It, players select a genre of music and listen to song clips while playing the games. Some games ask players to identify instruments, while others focus on identifying music genres, artist names, emotions triggered by the song, and activities listeners could do while the song is playing. The more a player's answers match the other players' answers the more points are awarded. The song-word combinations collected through the game will enable the researchers to expand the search engine's vocabulary and the number of genres it comprehends. To label songs, the program searches for patterns in the music using machine learning. The Facebook games provide data for the algorithms to learn to label songs on their own.
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