Welcome to the July 15, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
In Search for Intelligence, a Silicon Brain Twitches
Wall Street Journal (07/14/09) P. A14; Naik, Gautam
Blue Brain is a supercomputer-powered software model designed to closely simulate the activity of a rat's neocortical column (NCC) in the hope of gaining insights into the emergence of human intelligence so that a virtual human brain can be realized in 10 years. "We're building the brain from the bottom up, but in silicon," says Henry Markram, who is leading the Blue Brain project at Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. The rat NCC was researched to collect genetic, chemical, and electrical information that was applied to the creation of millions of software equations, and then Markram recorded real-world data directly from rat gray matter to assess the software model's accuracy. When Blue Brain is stimulated, the IBM-supplied supercomputer calculates and displays the neuronal connections in three-dimensional images. The simulation has exhibited some unusual behavior, such as spontaneous synchronized flashing of artificial neurons in response to stimuli. Markram speculates that if a rat brain simulation could mimic the activity of an actual rat brain accurately enough, the same model could be used as a framework for developing a software model of the human brain. However, California Institute of Technology researcher Christof Koch says Markram's experiment is limited by a lack of algorithms.
Catching Spammers in the Act
Technology Review (07/15/09) Lemos, Robert
Indiana University researchers have exposed some of the methods spammers use to collect email addresses and send junk mail through multiple computers. In a paper scheduled to be presented at the Conference on E-mail and Anti-Spam, the researchers explain how they studied spammers' methods to obtain email addresses. The researchers used various techniques to match the programs that collect email addresses from Web pages, including exposing 22,230 unique email addresses on the Web for more than five months and watching for spam sent to those emails. The study found that an email address included in a comment posted to a Web site had a significantly higher probability of receiving spam. Only four of the email addresses submitted to 70 Web sites during a registration received spam, while half of the email addresses posted on popular sites received spam. The researchers also created a Web site on their own domain and waited for their pages to be crawled. Each visitor to the Web site saw a different email, which the researchers hoped would determine how often programs that crawl sites are actually operated by spammers. The researchers were able to identify characteristics that were unique to spamming crawlers, which could make it easier to detect and fight these programs. People can protect themselves from email harvesting by using simple obfuscation techniques, such as replacing the @ symbol with the word "at" when posting an email address.
Metro Urged to Add Safety Backup
Washington Post (07/14/09) P. A1; Sun, Lena H.; Hohmann, James
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says the electrical system designed to prevent Washington, D.C., Metro trains from crashing was inadequate and called on the U.S. Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to install a real-time, continuous backup that would notify train operators of potential problems and halt trains when necessary. In addition, NTSB recommended that the FTA advise other transit agencies that use similar automated systems that they must have adequate safety redundancy and confirm that those agencies take the required action to guarantee that the backups are deployed. NTSB found that the June 22 fatal crash of two commuter trains demonstrated the vulnerability of Metro's train control system to a single-point failure. The system depends on track circuits to maintain a safe distance between trains, using audio frequencies transmitted between the train and the rails. Federal investigators and Metro officials said the track circuit where the collision took place was intermittently unable to detect a train following the replacement of a key component five days earlier. It was the probe's conclusion that Metro had "no automatic monitoring" that would identify and immediately report that a train was no longer being detected, while communication between the train operators and downtown controllers in Metro's operations control center did not take place prior to the crash. The track circuit has continued to malfunction despite the replacement of all its components, and Metro Board Chairman Jim Graham called on the NTSB to find out why. The NTSB said additional software or circuitry could be created to spot problems in real time and inform workers when such problems are detected, while Metro said that there currently are no commercially available systems that could give the FTA the kind of advisories recommended by the board. "We will be developing a new system that will be specifically tailored to Metro," Metro officials said.
Japanese Scientists Aim to Create Robot-Insects
Agence France Presse (07/14/09) Suzuki, Miwa
Japanese scientists are working to create insect-robot hybrids, including robot-moths capable of detecting drug stashes and robot-bees capable of navigating earthquake rubble to find survivors. Tokyo University Research Centre for Advanced Science and Technology professor Ryohei Kanzaki's goal is to obtain a thorough understanding of the human brain and be able to repair connections damaged by disease or an accident, which will first require a very close examination of insect "micro-brains." The human brain has about 100 billion neurons, while insects have far fewer. However, despite their small size, insect brains excel at specific tasks, including complex aerobatics used to catch another bug while flying, proof that insects have "an excellent bundle of software" that has been refined by hundreds of years of evolutions, Kanzaki says. For example, male silkmoths can locate females more than a kilometer away by sensing their pheromones. Kanzaki wants to artificially recreate insect brains. "Supposing a brain is a jigsaw-puzzle picture, we would be able to reproduce the whole picture if we knew how each piece is shaped and where it should go," Kanzaki says. "It will be possible to recreate an insect brain with electronic circuits in the future. This would lead to controlling a real brain by modifying its circuits." Kanzaki's team has already succeeded in genetically modifying a male silkmoth so it reacts to light instead of odor, or to the odor of a different kind of moth.
46th Design Automation Conference Offers Six Workshops on Design Techniques, Careers, Emerging EDA Applications and More
Business Wire (07/13/09)
ACM's 46th Design Automation Conference (DAC) will give industry professionals an opportunity to learn more about front- or back-end design issues and participate in special-interest workshops. "This year's workshop lineup will give attendees new insights and unforeseen knowledge," says Diana Marculescu, 46th DAC coordinator for workshops and colocated events. "Perhaps even more important, workshop participants will benefit from the opportunity for networking with their industry peers, which is one of the special benefits of DAC." Workshops on front-end tools and methodologies include "MPSoC: Current Trends and the Future," which will have speakers covering topics in design tools, methodologies, and programming of Multiprocessor Systems-on-Chip (MPSoCs). The Virtual Platform Workshop will complement the new DAC User Track by focusing on the latest SoC design challenges. Another workshop, "Marketing of Technology: the Last Critical Step," will help companies in their effort to launch products, and bio-design automation will be the topic of the workshop on emerging applications. Meanwhile, career advice will be the theme of the "Young Faculty Workshop" and the 10th annual "Workshop for Women in Design Automation." DAC takes place July 26-31, 2009, in San Francisco.
The Engineer Online (07/14/09)
A consortium of five European research institutions will build a robot that is capable of swimming in water like a fish, and even detecting and reacting to the changes in the flow of water moving around it. "Currently, most aquatic robots can't maneuver very well in the shallow water near the shore because they just get smashed against the rocks by the force of the waves," says Bath University lecturer William Megill. The Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia is leading the consortium, and will design the robot and its propulsion system with Riga Technical University in Latvia. A team from the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Lecce, Italy, is charged with developing a sensor that mimics the organ found in fish, called the lateral line, that enables them to detect and react to the flow of water, in an attempt to give the robot the same capability. The University of Verona will develop software to emulate fish's complex nervous system and enable the robot to interpret changes in the current so it can adjust its swimming behavior accordingly. Another IIT team in Genoa will design the computer hardware and electronics to interpret the lateral line data and control the robot. The Ocean Technologies Lab at Bath will use the Fish Locomotion and Sensing project to study fish biology.
The Internet Is Self-Organizing Into a Global Meta-Computer
Cellular-News (07/13/09) Sciama, Yves
Biologist Joel de Rosnay speculates on the evolution of digital civilization, of which the Internet is just one component. "There is little overall planning in the development of the World Wide Web, but rather a myriad of initiatives by individuals or small groups," he observes. "We are witnessing the genuine self-organization of a 'cooperative' or 'connective' intelligence--terms I prefer to call 'collective.' " De Rosnay says the global meta-computer that the Internet is evolving into is being reprogrammed from within by its very users through their multitudinous activities. He predicts that in a matter of decades the meta-computer will have an immune system with which it can fight spam and malware in the common interest. "The potential [for cooperative intelligence] is excellent: For example, by rethinking the relationships between politicians and cybercitizens ... we could invent a genuine cyberdemocracy, a much more participatory democracy that would complement the traditional representative democracy," de Rosnay says. He sees an intersection of complex sciences and the emergence of analogous laws in diverse disciplines, which invites the possibility of returning "to an era of specialists who have a detailed knowledge of a given field but at the same time transcend this through a systemic approach."
Futuristic Fibers Could Replace Camera Lenses
ScienceNOW (07/10/09) Berardelli, Phil
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a new type of fiber that is capable of producing images without the need for a lens. Multimaterial fibers are flexible and translucent, consist of metal electrodes connected to a semiconductor, and are covered by an insulating polymer sheath. Light is detected by the semiconductor layer in the fiber, which also relays signals via the electrodes to a microprocessor. The signals from the fibers are combined by the microprocessor to determine the light's intensity, direction, and color. The researchers used visualization software to process the data, recreate the source image, and then display it on a monitor screen. The approach could be used for stealth wallpaper or to enable a soldier's uniform to provide a full view of the battlefield. It also solves the problem of having a damaged lens. The development "should inspire others to find ways to integrate nanoscale components," says materials scientist Rod Ruoff of the University of Texas at Austin. "I found myself wondering, for example, whether such components might conceivably be embedded in glass fibers, as well as in polymer fibers."
Microsoft's Mundie Describes Computing Shift
InfoWorld (07/13/09) Gohring, Nancy
Microsoft chief research and strategy officer Craig Mundie says future computers will do more work for people autonomously with less reliance on human input. "I've lately taken to talking about computing more as going from a world where today they work at our command to where they work on our behalf," Mundie says. At Microsoft's recent annual Faculty Summit, Mundie addressed a group of university professors and government officials. He emphasized that computers are still only tools, and that unless users have done an apprenticeship to learn how to master the tool they are unlikely to use computers to their full capabilities. Microsoft's shift in focus to more autonomous computers comes after 10 to 15 years of working to enhance human-computer interfaces, including handwriting, gesture, voice, and touch interaction. "The question is, Can't we change the way in which people interact with machines such that they are much better to anticipate what you want to do and provide a richer form of interaction?" Mundie asks. He compares the current shift in computing technology to when people realized they could use video cameras to piece together pieces of film to create a movie, instead of just recording entire plays. In one demonstration, Mundie used gestures to move documents and files around wall surfaces in the office of the future, where any surface is part of a virtual world, and used a virtual keyboard on the screen in his desk.
Q&A: Robotics Engineer Aims to Give Robots a Humane Touch
CNet (07/08/09) Kerr, Dara
Georgia Institute of Technology robotics engineer Ronald Arkin has dedicated his life's work to the development of ethical battlefield robots embedded with a sense of guilt that could eventually make them more effective than human soldiers at reducing civilian casualties. Arkin says the robots would be designed to comply with internationally prescribed laws of war and rules of engagement. He describes the machines' guilt system "as a means of downgrading the robot's ability to engage targets if it is acting in ways which exceed the predicted battle damage in certain circumstances." Researchers have established thresholds for analogs of guilt that cause the robot to eventually refuse to use certain types of weapons or refuse to use weapons altogether if battlefield conditions reach a point where the predictions it is making are intolerable by its own standards, Arkin says. It is his theory that ethical unmanned systems can potentially perform more humanely than soldiers in battle, and he mentions counter sniper operations or the capture of buildings as possible applications where they might outperform people in this regard, with enough morality engineered into them. Arkin says one of the issues that could lead to errors by ethical robots is the question of responsibility. "We have worked hard within our system to make sure that responsibility attribution is as clear as possible using a component called the 'responsibility advisor,' " he says. Arkin built an override mechanism for the robot's guilt system, but the machine would still force responsibility on human users by alerting them of the potential ethical infractions it believes it could commit by following a certain course of action.
Computer Learns Sign Language by Watching TV
New Scientist (07/08/09) Barras, Colin
Software developed by researchers at the University of Oxford and the University of Leeds has autonomously determined the basics of sign language by watching TV programs that are subtitled and signed. The researchers first designed an algorithm to recognize gestures, without assigning a definition to those gestures, made by a signer on TV. The software focuses on the arms to determine the rough location of the hands, and identifies flesh-colored pixels in those areas to identify precise hand shapes. The researchers exposed the system to about 10 hours of TV footage that contained both sign language and subtitles, and tasked the software to learn the signs for a mix of 210 nouns and adjectives that would appear several times throughout the footage. The program analyzes the signs that accompany each of the words whenever they appear in the subtitles. When it was not obvious which part of a signing sequence corresponded to the given word, the system compared multiple occurrences of the word to isolate and identify the correct sign. The software correctly learned 136 of the 210 words. University of Leeds researcher Mark Everingham says some of words have different signs, so a 65 percent success rate is quite high given the complexity of the task. Researchers at the University of Surrey have developed a similar system that scans all of the signs in a video sequence to identify signs that appear frequently and likely represent common words. Both approaches could be used to create a way to automatically animate digital avatars capable of signing fluently for deaf TV program viewers.
Capturing Images in Non-Traditional Way May Benefit AF
Air Force Office of Scientific Research (06/19/09) Callier, Maria
Research funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research could lead to advancements in data encryption and wide-area, high-resolution photography. The researchers, led by Princeton University's Jason W. Fleischer, used an optical device called a nonlinear crystal, instead of an ordinary lens, to capture an image. In traditional photography, every image is made of a collection of light waves and a lens that refracts the waves toward a detector. However, in the nonlinear material, the waves "talk" to each other and interact, creating new waves and distorting themselves. The distortion is a type of physical encryption, though it would be useless if it could not be reversed. The researchers' algorithm provides a way of undoing the distortion to recover the original signal. The reversing algorithm also can be used to capture information that is lost by other imaging systems. The researchers obtained photos of different objects using the image-capturing equipment, and in every case the images consistently have a wide view and high resolution. Fleischer and the researchers are now looking for new materials to increase the level of wave mixing for stronger, faster interactions at lower light levels.
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