Welcome to the July 13, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
U.S. Scientists See H1-B Visas as Major Issue Against Progress, Says Survey
eWeek (07/12/09) Kolakowski. Nicholas
U.S. residents hold a high opinion of scientists, but only a minority feel that U.S. scientific achievements are the best in the world, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Among scientists, a majority said that a lack of funding and difficulties in the H-1B visa process for foreign scientists and students are the biggest impediments to their research. The survey found that 56 percent of U.S. scientists said H1-B visa problems are a major barrier to scientific achievement, while 87 percent said a lack of funding is a "very serious" or "serious" problem. Meanwhile, 17 percent of the U.S. public said that U.S. scientific achievements are the best in the world, and 27 percent said that the U.S.'s advances in science, medicine, and technology were the country's greatest achievements. However, 84 percent of respondents said that science has a "mostly positive" effect on society, and 70 percent said that scientists contribute "a lot" to society's well being. The scientific community's opinions about the public are not as positive, as 85 percent of surveyed scientists said the general public's lack of scientific knowledge is a problem for science, and 49 percent said that the "public expects solutions to problems too quickly."
Study Measures the Chatter of the News Cycle
The New York Times (07/12/09) Lohr, Steve
Blogs are usually about 2.5 hours behind traditional news outlets in reporting on news, according to a Cornell University computer analysis of news articles and commentary on the Web during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. Internet experts say the study is the first to track and attempt to measure the news cycle using the Web. The researchers studied the news cycle by looking for repeated phrases and tracking their appearance on mainstream media sites and blogs. About 90 million articles and blog posts, appearing between August and October 2008, were examined using the phrase-finding software. The researchers say that frequently repeated short phrases are essentially "genetic signatures" for ideas and news stories. The largest news surge in the study was generated by "lipstick on a pig," which originated in Barack Obama's dismissal of a claim by John McCain and Sarah Palin that they were the genuine voices for change in the United States. While most news originated in traditional news outlets, the study found that 3.5 percent of story lines originated in blogs and were later picked up by the traditional media. For example, when Obama said the question of when life begins was above his pay grade, the remark was first reported on in blogs. Cornell professor Jon Kleinberg says the quotes were not the primary focus of the research, but rather the capabilities of algorithms to capture quotes. He says the research will serve as a step toward understanding why certain points of view and story lines are more successful than others.
NSF Shows Off Cyber-Physical Systems on the Hill
Computing Research Association (07/10/09) Gandomi, Nathan
An open house briefing for the U.S. Congress on cyber-physical systems (CPS) was held by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Computing Research Association on July 9. Other co-sponsors of the event included ACM, the Coalition for National Science Funding, and the American Chemical Society's Science & the Congress Project. The purpose of the briefing was to allow industry and academic experts to share their insights into CPS, which have garnered increased scrutiny from the U.S. Congress since a President's Council of Advisers for Science and Technology spotlighted it for higher priority. Among the speakers at the briefing was NSF's Jeannette Wing, who said the foundation plays the role of innovation coordinator so that scientific advances throughout industry and academia can be shared and instantiated in other fields. Among the demonstrations representing the latest CPS research presented at the event were robotic and human-machine systems that could aid disabled persons, find use as behavioral study tools, assist surgeons during operations, drive unmanned vehicles, or be enabled for haptic interaction. Other systems included those capable of reasoning about human or environmental activities.
Software to Unlock the Power of Grids
ICT Results (07/13/09)
The European Union-funded GridCOMP project has developed grid-computing software and middleware that enables applications to run on multiple computers at the same time regardless of their infrastructure or architecture. "We have been developing an open source suite of products to allow parallel, distributed, multi-core computing," says GridCOMP scientific coordinator Denis Caromel. "What this means is that an application can be run on a series of machines, or a cluster of servers, or an enterprise grid comprising many machines, and even all the way up to cloud computing, or any combination of these." The developers say the new software could be used for the heavy-duty enterprise data processing requirements of financial institutions or telecom operators, which are often inefficient at using large amounts of internal computing power. The project's ProActive Parallel Software Suite would enable an organization to use all of its computing hardware, wherever it's located, to run an application simultaneously on all available machines. If not enough computing power is available in-house, outside resources, such as those available via cloud computing, can be rented to meet demand. The software features the ability to monitor quality of service on a real-time basis and automatically add or remove processing power as needed.
Tossing a Coin in the Microcosm
Bonn University (07/09/09) Karski, Michal
For the first time, University of Bonn physicists have demonstrated the "quantum walk" effect in an experiment with cesium. At the microscopic level, the phenomenon of superposition allows atoms to maintain several quantum mechanical states simultaneously, which means that an atomic "coin" can be heads and tails at the same time. The physicists held a single cesium atom with lasers, and then pulled the atom in two opposite directions, with the "heads" part being pulled to the right and the "tails" part to the left. Following that, the researchers once more placed each of both atomic components into a heads/tails superposition state. The repetition of this procedure eventually leads to the cesium atom being distributed everywhere, and only when one measures the atom's position does it "decide" where it wants to turn up because of the quantum mechanical property of interference, in which two parts of the atom are able to reinforce themselves or cancel each other out. This quantum walk can be executed numerous times, producing a curve that mirrors the atom's likelihood of presence. Artur Widera from the Bonn Institute of Applied Physics says that his team's demonstration of the quantum walk is an important step toward the development of quantum computers. "With the effect we have demonstrated, entirely new algorithms can be implemented," he says.
Plastic Circuits to Make Tougher, Greener Computers
Computerworld Australia (07/10/09) Gedda, Rodney
Australian engineers have found a way to make circuits out of plastic. The Circuits in Plastic (CIP) technology is made from recycled plastic, does not contain hazardous substances, and the packaging is part of the base circuit board, which means there is no need for additional packaging material. "The circuit board is a plastic sheet in which all components are placed in divots," says Griffith University professor David Thiel. "The conductor is screen-printed into a thin cover sheet which is then thermally bonded to the circuit board." CIP can be mechanically disassembled and recycled at the end of the circuit's life, which will help lower the carbon footprint. CIPs are waterproof, which means they could make mobile phones resistant to the weather and spills. Also, the researchers say that CIPs are cheaper to produce than their printed-circuit board counterparts.
The Next Hacking Frontier: Your Brain?
Wired News (07/09/09) Leggett, Hadley
Some scientists are concerned that as brain-computer interfaces become widely used and incorporate wireless technologies, "brain hacking" could become a reality. "Neural devices are innovating at an extremely rapid rate and hold tremendous promise for the future," says University of Washington computer security expert Tadayoshi Kohno. "But if we don't start paying attention to security, we're worried that we might find ourselves in five or 10 years saying we've made a big mistake." Kohno and his colleagues say most devices currently carry few security risks, but as neural engineering becomes more complex and widespread, the potential for serious security breaches expands significantly. For example, the next generation of implantable devices used to control prosthetic limbs will likely include wireless controls that enable physicians to remotely adjust settings. If hackers were to access this system they could take over a robotic limb. There is a precedent for using computers to cause neurological harm, including the November 2007 and March 2008 hacks of epilepsy support Web sites in which malicious programmers added flashing animations to cause seizures in photo-sensitive patients. Patients also may want to hack their own devices. For example, hacking deep brain stimulators, which already use wireless signals, could enable patients to "self-prescribe" elevated moods or pain relief, which is similar to abusing traditional medications.
New Bluetooth Application Will Let Sports Fans Share Experiences in Real Time
Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (07/09/09)
Researchers at the University of Glasgow are using ad hoc networking to make direct phone-to-phone communication possible in real-world settings without sending messages. The team has developed computer programs that will allow a sports fan in a stadium to reach up to seven other users at the same time, without using mobile phone masts. In harnessing Bluetooth, the approach enables mobile phones to share banter, photos, and video clips instantly and free of charge, without using a network. Using mobile phones in a stadium is often difficult because there is a lot of interference, and messages can take a long time to be delivered. "If a disputed goal is scored or a yellow card awarded, you want to hear what others have to say about it straight away, from their vantage point in the stadium," says project director Matthew Chalmers. "It's really about extending a social networking philosophy to sports stadia and giving spectators a richer experience by making them feel better connected with each other." The new technology could be ready for the market within two years, and also could be used in emergency healthcare situations.
IBM Security Software Masks Confidential Info
Network World (07/09/09) Cooney, Michael
IBM researchers have developed Masking Gateway for Enterprises (MAGEN), software that uses optical character recognition and screen scraping technology to identify and conceal confidential information. IBM says MAGEN can prevent data leakage and allow for data sharing while protecting sensitive business data. MAGEN works at the screen level by "catching" the information before it reaches the screen, analyzing the content, and masking sensitive details that should be hidden from the potential viewer. The system treats the information as a picture, uses optical character recognition to identify confidential sections, and places a data "mask" over those details, without copying, changing, or processing the data. IBM says customers can set masking rules that can be defined per screen structure or per application. MAGEN does not change the software program or data, but rather filters information before it reaches the screen. The software also does not force companies to create modified copies of electronic records to mask, scramble, or eliminate data. IBM says MAGEN could be used for healthcare firms that outsource customer service and claims processing functions to a third party, enabling customer service representatives to access patient records while protecting private medical information.
High-Tech Imaging Reveals Hidden Past in Ancient Texts
University of Michigan News Service (07/07/09) Provenzano, Frank
Dozens of papyrus scrolls in the University of Michigan's (U-M's) collection recently have been re-examined using high-tech imaging. The Ancient Textual Imaging Group, led by papyrology expert Stephen Bay from Brigham Young University (BYU), used multi-spectral imaging to examine ancient text written on papyrus that has become illegible due to stains, discoloration, or fading. By recording the scrolls through a variety of filters, the technology captures high-resolution color images and can reveal layers of text hidden beneath other words and letters. BYU's Ancient Textual Imaging Group is in the middle of a two-project to record illegible papyrus documents from major U.S.-based collections. Scholars and students at U-M's Papyrological Institute will examine the newly recorded images. "These new images give us insight into the writing and life of generations existing two, maybe three generations before the readable text was written," says U-M associate professor Arthur Verhoogt. Papyrus was used before the invention of paper for a variety of purposes, including literary texts, police reports, legal decrees, and letters from soldiers. The material was often reused with text on the back, or washed off and used again.
Memristor Minds: The Future of Artificial Intelligence
New Scientist (07/08/09) Mullins, Justin
The lack of a rigorous mathematical foundation for electronics impelled engineer Leon Chua to develop one, which led to the formulation of the memristor--a theoretical fourth basic circuit element in addition to the resistor, capacitor, and inductor where electric charge and magnetic flux come together. Since then the creation of memristors has been achieved, and their novel abilities might unlock key insights about the human brain that would be a tremendous step forward for the field of artificial intelligence. Advantages of memristors include rapid, nanosecond writing of data using a very small amount of energy, and retention of memristive memory even when the power is turned off. The most immediate potential application for memristors is as a flash memory replacement, while durability improvements should make memristors ideal for a superfast random access memory, says Hewlett-Packard (HP) Laboratories Fellow Stan Williams. The discovery that a slime mold was behaving in the manner of a memristive circuit in that it could memorize a pattern of events without the aid of a neuron inspired a physicist at the University of California, San Diego to construct a circuit capable of learning and predicting future signals. Much earlier, Chua had noticed a sharp similarity between synapse behavior and memristor response, leading to speculation that memristors might help engineer an electronic intelligence that can mimic the power of a brain. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has embarked on a project to create "electronic neuromorphic machine technology that is scalable to biological levels." HP's Greg Snider has envisioned the field of cortical computing that focuses on the potential of memristors to imitate the interaction of the brain's neurons. He and Williams are working with Boston University scientists to devise hybrid transistor-memristor chips that aim to replicate some of the brain's thought processes.
Robo-Bats With Metal Muscles May Be Next Generation of Remote Control Flyers
North Carolina State University (07/07/09) Shipman, Matt
North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers are developing a highly maneuverable bat-sized flying robot that could be used for a variety of purposes, including indoor surveillance or exploring collapsed mines or buildings. Doctoral student Gheorghe Bunget says the availability of small sensors means micro-aerial vehicles (MAVs) could be used for detecting biological, chemical and nuclear agents. "We are trying to mimic nature as closely as possible, because it is very efficient," says NCSU professor Stefan Seelecke. "And, at the MAV scale, nature tells us that flapping flight--like that of the bat--is the most effective." The researchers studied the bat's skeletal and muscular systems before starting development on a "robo-bat" skeleton using rapid prototyping technologies. The researchers are now completing fabrication and assembly of the joints, muscular system and wing membrane for the robo-bat, which should be able to fly using the same efficient flapping motion as real bats. Seelecke says the key is the use of smart materials, including a super-elastic shape-memory metal alloy for the joints, which provides a full range of motion but will always return to its original position. Smart materials also are being used for the muscular system.
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