Welcome to the June 19, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
China Intent on Requiring Internet Censor Software
New York Times (06/19/09) P. A8; Wong, Edward; Vance, Ashlee
U.S. computer manufacturers say the Chinese government is standing firm on its requirement that all new computers sold in China beginning in July come with pre-installed censorship software, contrary to previous reports. In addition to the censorship software, an employee in Beijing's Spiritual Civilization Office says the Chinese government plans to recruit 10,000 volunteers to monitor online content by the end of the summer. The online-monitoring effort is part of a plan to "purify social civilization," the employee says. The Chinese government also is extending its control over the Internet by directly warning some online services. For example, the China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Center, a government-support Internet watchdog group, recently criticized Google's Chinese-language Web site for linking to "pornographic and vulgar" sites, and said that Google must eliminate the offending links. China's efforts so far to block content that is either pornographic or potentially damaging to the Communist Party has largely been circumvented by savvy computer users, leading to China's new requirement. Many people say the censorship software, called Green Dam-Youth Escort, will be used to block Web sites with unfavorable political content, though officials insist the software will be used primarily to block pornographic content. Computer experts also have discovered major security vulnerabilities that would enable hackers to easily hijack the computers.
Carnegie Mellon Develops Java Programming Tools Employing Human-Centered Design Techniques
Carnegie Mellon News (06/17/09) Spice, Byron
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have developed Jadeite and Apatite, two tools designed to help programmers choose between the thousands of options available in the application programming interfaces (APIs) used to write Java applications. Jadeite and Apatite use human-centered design techniques to reduce the amount of time and guesswork that often is needed when working with Java APIs. Selecting APIs is a key aspect of Java programming, but it is not intuitive, says CMU professor Brad A. Myers. More than 35,000 methods are listed in 4,100 classes in the current Javadoc library of APIs, and more are being added with each Java update. Myers says working with Java APIs is a problem for developers at all levels. Jadeite (Java Documentation with Extra Information Tacked-on for Emphasis) improves usability by enhancing existing Javadoc documentation. For example, Jadeite displays the names of API classes in font sizes that correspond with how often they are used, based on Google searches, helping programmers avoid rarely used classes. Apatite (Associative Perusal of APIs That Identifies Targets Easily) allows programmers to browse APIs by association to see what packages, classes, and methods are often used with each other. Apatite also uses statistics on the popularity of each item to provide weighted opinions of the most relevant items.
O'Brien: Gap Between Boys and Girls Persists in Tech
San Jose Mercury News (CA) (06/16/09) O'Brien, Chris
A recent ACM study concluded that there is still a major gap between how teenage girls and boys view computers and careers in computer science. The nationwide ACM survey of college-bound high school students age 13 to 17 found that 45 percent of boys thought majoring in computer science would be "very good" while only 10 percent of girls shared that viewpoint. There were also major disparities when asked about different technical tasks, such as learning a new software program, setting up a wireless network, or editing music or video on a computer, with boys consistently giving more confident responses than girls. "Using technology doesn't necessarily enhance your idea of creating technology," says Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology president Telle Whitney. "If you think about how you think about your car, it kind of makes sense. I think many girls are like that." In the ACM study, when asked to do a word association based on computers, boys responded with words like design, games, and video, while girls responded with words like boring, hard, and nerd. "As long as teenagers believe that computer science is boring, difficult, anti-social, or doesn't have much impact on solving the world's problems, they're unlikely to choose it for their future," the study says. Whitney says the Borg Institute is working to change these misconceptions among young women by arguing that computer skills are necessary for success in a world that is increasingly dominated by technology. Whitney believes that much of the change will come from establishing mentoring programs so girls can find successful role models in the technology industry. "One of our messages is that you can like pink and you can like princesses and still be good at programming a computer," she says.
IBM Investing $100 Million in Mobile Research
CNet (06/17/09) Whitney, Lance
IBM has announced that it will spend $100 million during the next five years on a research project designed to make mobile technology and communications more efficient and easier to use. "Mobile devices are gradually becoming ubiquitous and helping us transcend many boundaries--geographical, economic, and social, among others," says IBM Research-India director Guruduth Banavar. "With high penetration, a simple user interface, and significant cost advantage for end users, mobile telephony holds the future of communication and exchange of information for the enterprise." IBM plans to focus on mobile enterprise enablement, emerging market mobility, and the enterprise to end user mobile experience. IBM already has developed a new technology called BlueStar, which automates the use of mobile phones and applications within a large enterprise. Meanwhile, IBM Research has established a pilot program in southern India, as part of their emerging market mobility effort, that will help consumers and small business owners find and share Internet information over their cell phones. To create an enterprise to end-user mobile experience, IBM plans to analyze consumer and business habits to enable the mobile Web to provide better personalized content. "Mobility and the associated analytics will change virtually every enterprise business process," says IBM Telecom Research chief technologist Paul Bloom.
Games Without Frontiers
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (06/16/09)
Imperial College London professor of cognitive robotics Murray Shanahan is using graphics processing technology originally developed for the gaming industry to advance artificial intelligence (AI) research. Shanahan says that gamers' demands for increasingly realistic graphics have driven a corresponding increase in the processing capabilities of graphics processing units (GPUs). He says researchers in other fields are capitalizing on the potential these GPUs contain, and manufacturers are now producing specialized units for applications outside the gaming industry. Shanahan is developing large-scale neural networks that replicate how biological brains provide intelligence. "We're interested in simulating large numbers of neurons," he says. "If we ever wanted to make a robot move around using something that was a simulation of a brain, we would need to make millions of neurons work in real time." Shanahan is making progress, but still has more to accomplish. The human brain has about 100 billion neurons, and Shanahan's team is currently at around 100,000, which is roughly equivalent to an ant. He says biologically inspired artificial intelligence will be needed to advance traditional AI research to the next level. "Using traditional AI techniques, we've pretty much reached a plateau of intelligence and it's hard to see how we're going to be able to move beyond that," Shanahan says. "That's the motivation for trying to go back to the way nature has done it and try to replicate the way brains do things."
Scientists Create Hybrid System of Human-Machine Interaction
Florida Atlantic University (06/16/09)
Florida Atlantic University (FAU) scientists have developed Virtual Partner Interaction (VPI), a hybrid system capable of examining real-time interactions between humans and machines. The researchers say that VPI is a major step toward understanding the laws of coordinated behavior, known as coordination dynamics. The equations of coordination dynamics describe how the coordination states of a system change over time. An interdisciplinary group of scientists at FAU's Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences created VPI. The researchers submitted the equations of human coordination dynamics to the machine and studied the real-time interactions between the human and virtual partners. The researchers say their findings create a new possibility to explore and understand a variety of interactions between people and machines, possibly leading to a completely new type of machine. "With VPI, a human and a 'virtual partner' are reciprocally coupled in real time," says FAU professor J. A. Scott Kelso. "The human acquires information about his partner's behavior through perception, and the virtual partner continuously detects the human's behavior through the input of sensors. Our approach is analogous to the dynamic clamp used to study the dynamics of interactions between neurons, but now scaled up to the level of behaving humans."
Contracts Without Lawyers?
ICT Results (06/19/09)
European researchers working on the Contract project are developing computer systems capable of autonomously creating, monitoring, and managing online contractual agreements. The Contract project has developed a set of verification algorithms that enable on- and offline validation of e-business interactions based on contracts. Individuals and organizations can use the verification process to test for conflicts between a contract they are about to enter and other obligations that exist from previous contracts. The project also has developed a set of tools and libraries for inspecting the execution of contracts, which, along with the verification process, has been made publicly available. The project faced two major hurdles when developing the tools. The first was finding a contractual language that was expressive enough to be applicable to a variety of contractual agreement scenarios while still capable of being translated into terms a computer could understand. The second was increasing the level of semantic abstraction that service-oriented agreement technology could handle at execution time. The researchers say the electronic contracting language they developed is revolutionary because it goes beyond defining contractual clauses. The language's operational descriptions include the protocols that manage the contract process and enable computers to automatically activate, cancel, or suspend contracts in certain circumstances.
Futurephile: A World With Less Waiting
Financial Times Digital Business (06/18/09) P. 6; Shillingford, Joia
The day will come when everyone will wear glasses that feature a computer overlay, which will be capable of processing the faces of passersby and telling you if you have met someone before, where you met the person, and his or her name, predicts IBM inventor Andy Stanford-Clark. By 2012, he expects businesses will operate more on alerts for everything, including when a product is running low, and by 2020 software will enable computer systems to perform less processing and consume less energy. In the public sector, open source software will gain traction by 2012, and by 2020 government agencies will be able to provide information to citizens in a more cohesive and connected manner. As for individuals, ambient technology will soon tell them that the next bus will arrive in two minutes, and in 10 years intelligent systems will control the flow of traffic and give drivers more clear runs of green lights. Stanford-Clark expects that networking will focus more on ubiquity, and adding more real-world data to the virtual world will enable it to overlap more with the physical world. He also shares his thoughts on 2050 and beyond. "If you want a pizza, you will tap a number into a machine, pour in some particles, and press a button," he says. "When you've eaten, you'll be able to pour in more particles and make yourself a pair of trainers."
Staying Ahead of the Game
WA Today (06/15/09) Hill, Jason
University of Melbourne researcher Florian Mueller was awarded this year's Fulbright Postgraduate Scholarship in Technology for his research into video games that combine the advantages of sports with the benefits of networked computers, enabling players to compete from distant locations. Called "sports over a distance," Mueller has developed prototype games using networked computers, videoconferencing cameras, and projectors for tennis, soccer, and boxing. Mueller says his research stems from a desire to find better ways to build connections between people separated by large distances. He says that sports can create very intimate, social, and trusting relationships, even between people who have never met before. Most online video gamers communicate through headsets or text chat, but Mueller says digital cameras offer significant benefits other systems do not provide, including emotional communication and a greater ability to anticipate what other players will do next. "Creating better games that make use of this link has huge potential for more emotional, engaging, healthy, and social games, and technology has the opportunity to make a big contribution in a way that sports alone cannot," Mueller says.
Japan Explores Using Cell Phones to Stop Pandemics
Associated Press (06/06/09) Alabaster, Jay
The Japanese government is funding an experiment by a Softbank subsidiary that will simulate the spread of pandemic diseases in school using a virtual virus that spreads between cell phones. Softbank plans to pick an elementary school with about 1,000 students and give them phones equipped with global positioning systems (GPS), which will enable the location of the children to be recorded every minute. A few students will be designated as "infected," and their movements over the previous days will be compared to other students' movements. The GPS data will be used to determine which children have interacted with the infected students and are at risk of contracting the disease. In a real outbreak, the families of students exposed to sick children could be notified by mobile phone that their child is at risk, helping prevent the disease's spread. "The number of people infected by such a disease quickly doubles, triples, and quadruples as it spreads," says Softbank's Masato Takahashi. "If this rate is decreased by even a small amount, it has a big effect in keeping the overall outbreak in check." One of the goals of the experiment is to determine how people react to having their location constantly tracked, since they would not be required to sign up for the system if it were launched for real. Another issue is how to notify people that an outbreak is happening. "If we don't think carefully about the nature of the warning, people that get such a message could panic," says Institute of Information Security professor Katsuya Uchida.
New Exotic Material Could Revolutionize Electronics
SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (06/15/09)
Physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University have discovered that the compound bismuth telluride acts as a topological insulator, enabling electrons to flow freely across its surface with no loss of energy. The material has the potential to lead to much faster and more efficient computer chips and serve as the foundation for spintronics. Bismuth telluride serves as a topological insulator at room temperature, but the tests suggest that the material could withstand even higher temperatures. "This means that the material is closer to application than we thought," says physicist Yulin Chen. The electrons are well-behaved, and adding a voltage leads the special spin current to flow without heating the material or dissipating. "This could lead to new applications of spintronics, or using the electron spin to carry information," says theorist Xiaoliang Qi. The researchers add that bismuth telluride is a three-dimensional material that could be easily fabricated with current semiconductor technologies.
The Grill: Jane Margolis
Computerworld (06/15/09) Carpenter, Joyce
The convergence of technology, education, and diversity is the topic of a new book written by Jane Margolis of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Her book is based on research at three Los Angeles "digital high schools"--a predominately Latino school, a predominately African-American middle- and working-class school, and a school in an affluent white neighborhood where one third of the students were local and two thirds were non-local minorities. Margolis, an academic at UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, says the schools with highest concentrations of minority students featured only the most elementary of computer science instruction. She identifies a lack of curricula, sequence of courses, computer science teaching methods courses, professional development opportunities, and a learning community as the most significant challenges that teachers are facing. Margolis says a lack of qualified educators is a far more critical shortage than an absence of new technology in schools. An earlier book by Margolis focused on the college-level challenges that computer science students must contend with, and she notes that female students' impetus for studying the field was often connected to other disciplines, such as robotics or space or environmental science. "We described this as computing for a purpose, as opposed to just hacking for hacking's sake," Margolis says. "Unfortunately, too many students experienced the first years of the curriculum and culture as more narrow and programming-centric; too many of the female students then felt they didn't belong in computer science and felt a gap between their motivation and the computer science culture and curriculum." Margolis says the situation has changed, and more people are now realizing that computer science must be introduced and contextualized in college in a meaningful, exciting, and interesting manner. Margolis will be a keynote speaker at the Computer Science and Information Technology Symposium on June 27 in Washington, D.C., which is sponsored by the ACM-launched Computer Science Teachers Association.
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