Welcome to the July 27, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man
New York Times (07/25/09) Markoff, John
Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have spurred a group of computer scientists to consider whether research that might lead to a loss of human control over computer-based systems that encompass an expanding portion of society's workload should be limited. They are worried that further innovation could have serious, negative repercussions, such as making a widening spectrum of jobs obsolete and forcing people to learn to live with machines that increasingly mimic human behavior. A conference organized by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) was especially focused on the potential that AI systems could be exploited by criminals as soon as they were created. AAAI president Eric Horvitz stressed that computer scientists must respond to the possibility of AI systems spinning out of control. "Something new has taken place in the past five to eight years," he said. "Technologists are replacing religion, and their ideas are resonating in some ways with the same idea of the Rapture." The AAAI will furnish a report that will attempt to evaluate the potential of "the loss of human control of computer-based intelligences," and also deal with socioeconomic, ethical, and legal ramifications along with the likely shifts in human-computer relationships. Horvitz said the panel was seeking ways to direct research so that technology enhances society instead of steering it toward disaster. "My sense was that sooner or later we would have to make some sort of statement or assessment, given the rising voice of the technorati and people very concerned about the rise of intelligent machines," he said.
DAC Preview: Power Again Takes Center Stage
EE Times (07/24/09) McGrath, Dylan
Low-power design will be a key theme of the 46th Design Automation Conference (DAC), with Synopsys' Cary Chin agreeing that "low power is one of the biggest challenges that designers face today." He notes that leakage power concerns at the 90nm node and below, coupled with demands for greater functionality on portable devices, are driving demand for methods to reduce both static and dynamic power consumption. "At 40nm and below, where leakage power is a dominant factor, designers across most market segments are focused on addressing power through better voltage domain management at the block level and careful management of clock trees through the chip," says Magma Design Automation's Dan Blong. MIPS Technologies' Mark Throndson says designers are following even more drastic strategies to fight advanced node leakage, such as dynamic core shutdown. Barry Pangrle with Mentor Graphics observes that designers are concentrating more on using multiple voltages and multiple voltage domains in their designs because dynamic power is proportional to the voltage squared, and he points out that "in cases where a portion of the design's functionality isn't needed, the power can be shut off to further reduce the leakage power." Leakage power relies greatly on process technology, and Pangrle says that foundries usually have multiple offerings at a given technology node, spanning the spectrum from slower transistors with better leakage power traits to faster transistors that consume more power. Designers also have to contend with the problem of the non-interoperable Common Power Format and Unified Power Format. Blong notes that computer servers are estimated to consume 1.3 percent of the world's generated electricity by next year, while Pangrle says products are being steered toward better energy efficiency by market forces.
Next-Generation Sound Systems to Minimize Background Noise
ICT Results (07/24/09)
The European HARTES project has developed tools that could change how people listen to content using embedded audio systems. The HARTES project was created to automate as much of the audio application development process as possible by enabling programmers to focus on high-level creative work, instead of the low-level work needed to ensure the application is functional. The project focused on improving audio inside vehicles, as music in a car has to compete with a variety of other noises. To improving vehicle audio, dozens of microphones were placed inside a car, along with dozens of speakers to evenly distribute sound. Application developers created high-level algorithms to process the audio and significantly improve sound quality and minimize the impact of interfering noises. The software improves audio quality by accounting for the influence of different features, such as the texture of the seats, the shape of the cabin, and the presence of passengers. "The hardware in the car lab uses a lot of different components, including a variety of general purpose processors and reconfigurable processors," says HARTES' Roberto Marega. "The applications are processed through the HARTES tool chain, and we are able to validate and demonstrate inside the car the algorithms and synthesizers for this applications platform."
MentorNet Provides Success and Service
Michigan Tech News (07/24/09) Gagnon, John
Michigan Technological University's (MTU's) MentorNet program matches students and new educators with mentors in either educational or professional positions to help graduate students, postdoctorates, and untenured professors (proteges) achieve academic and professional success through exposure to the world of work. MentorNet connects mentors and proteges for about 20 minutes a week for eight months, based on background or career interest. Proteges and mentors talk about school, internships, the job market, and running a business, among other topics. "I decided to become involved because I didn't have a mentor when I was going through school," says Derek Curtis, who came to MentorNet through ACM and is a mentor to Darius Watt, a fourth-year operations and systems management student. "It would have been great to have someone with whom I could have discussed career choices and options to help me make better informed decisions." MentorNet program manager Susan Liebau says that since launching MentorNet on campus in 1999, 360 students have used the service. Liebau likes to pair proteges with MTU alumni. MentorNet was originally intended to reach out to women and minorities in engineering, but the program has expanded to involve more people in more disciplines, though a focus on women is still present. "I am committed to seeing that the next generation of women has an easier time in the academic community, and MentorNet helps a lot," says University of Texas at El Paso professor Diane Doser, who graduated from MTU in 1978.
SIGGRAPH 2009 Adds New Focus on Music & Audio
Business Wire (07/24/09)
ACM's SIGGRAPH 2009 will increase its focus on the impact of music and audio on computer graphics and interactive techniques by featuring a Music & Audio program that offers a series of panel discussions, music performances, and courses on topics such as interactive sound rendering. "Just as important as the graphics themselves are the musical elements and how they enhance the visuals and storyline in order to complete the audience experience," says Peter Braccio, conference industry relations director. "This new focus on music and audio aims to highlight not just the close relationship music and graphic arts have to one another, but also how the integration of music and audio enhances the overall impact of visual pieces." Randy Thom, the director of sound design at Skywalker Sound, will deliver the keynote address, "Designing a Movie for Sound: How to Make Sound a Full Collaborator in the Storytelling Process." The role of sound and music in the aesthetic experience of storytelling will be discussed in the "Sound and Story" panel, and the impact of low-cost or open-source development and distribution tools on creative production will be the focus of the panel "DIY Music & Distribution." Two panels also will address new interfaces for musical expression. SIGGRAPH 2009 takes place Aug. 3-7 in New Orleans.
Healthcare Robotics Briefing
Computing Research Association (07/24/09) Norr, Melissa
The U.S. Congressional Robotics Caucus recently held a briefing on the use of robotics in healthcare. The speakers discussed how the healthcare industry is currently using robotics technology, provided demonstrations, and said continued research is needed. They also stressed that robotics technology has the potential to lower costs as the U.S. population ages. Microsoft's Tandy Trower said research funding is still largely limited to military robotics, and that there should be more of a focus on bringing concepts to the marketplace and promoting the technology. The University of Southern California's Maja Mataric noted that robotics has been helpful for stroke, autism, and Alzheimer's patients, and added that many autistic children now interact with and learn from robots. Hocoma's Charles Remsberg said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs continues to push the use of rehabilitative robotics for returning wounded veterans, and added that the technology allows for more therapy and leads to better outcomes. Carnegie Mellon University's Howie Choset said improvements in surgical robots could make surgery less invasive and decrease recovery and hospital stay time for patients.
Engineering Researchers: Supercomputer Fastest of its Type in World
University of Florida News (07/23/09) Hoover, Aaron
The University of Florida's Nova-G supercomputer, a reconfigurable computer capable of rearranging its internal circuitry for each individual task, is the most powerful computer of its kind in the world, according to the computer's designer. University of Florida's National Science Foundation (NSF) Center for High-Performance Reconfigurable Computing director Alan George says Novo-G will be used for applications in which size, energy, and high speed are important. George says reconfigurable computers can rearrange their internal circuitry like Lego blocks to create the most appropriate architecture for each task, making them 10 to 100 times faster than other computers of a similar size and 10 times more energy efficient. Although the concept of reconfigurable computers has been proven, the machines are still in the research stage and are difficult to use. A major goal of the NSF Center is to create techniques that make reconfigurable computers more accessible. "It is very powerful technology, but it is also very complicated technology," George says. "We don't want this important technology to be accessible only to experts."
Artificial Brain '10 Years Away'
BBC News (07/22/09) Fildes, Jonathan
Reverse-engineering the mammalian brain from lab data so that an artificial brain can be created is the goal of the Blue Brain Project led by scientist Henry Markram, who predicts that a synthetic human brain can be constructed within the next decade. Markram's team has built a digital simulation of the neocortical column in rats' brains, using a software model of "tens of thousands of neurons." To bring the simulation to life, the team feeds the models and several algorithms into a 10,000-processor IBM Blue Gene supercomputer. The researchers have discovered that although each neuron is distinctive, there are common circuitry patterns in different brains. "Even though your brain may be smaller, bigger, may have different morphologies of neurons--we do actually share the same fabric," Markram says. He told the TED Global conference in Oxford that an artificial brain could be especially useful in finding new treatments for mental illnesses. The Blue Brain Project also could be applied to the construction of animal models by pooling the entire global corpus of neuroscientific data on animals.
IPhone App Predicts IPv4 Doomsday
IDG News Service (07/22/09) Lawson, Stephen
Several companies and researchers have offered predictions for when the supply of IPv4 addresses will be exhausted. Hurricane Electric, for example, recently introduced an iPhone application that lists the number of domains using IPv6, the number of remaining IPv4 addresses, and the number of days until the IPv4 addresses are gone. As of July 22, the application indicated that there were 699 days until the supply of IPv4 addresses is depleted, which means that the IPv4 address space will be exhausted sometime in mid 2011. Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific Network Information Center's Geoff Huston has predicted that there are 701 days left until all of the IPv4 addresses are gone. Both predictions are just educated guesses. Hurricane Electric's prediction, for example, is based on a calculated rate of depletion of IPv4 addresses, and the company's Martin Levy acknowledges it's an inexact science. "There's no Y2K day. There's no flag day," Levy says. "It isn't like on the first day of January 2010, we all have to swap." Still, experts say organizations should not ignore the predictions because the day when the supply of IPv4 addresses is exhausted is coming quickly, even if no one knows exactly when it will happen. Among those calling for organizations to take action is Matt Ford, the Internet Society's technology program director. Ford notes that organizations that hope to successfully transition to IPv6 need to start the process now.
Can Pen and Paper Help Make Electronic Medical Records Better?
IUPUI News Center (07/20/09) Aisen, Cindy Fox
Using pen and paper occasionally can make electronic medical records even more useful to healthcare providers and patients, concludes a new study published in the International Journal of Medical Informatics. The study, "Exploring the Persistence of Paper with the Electronic Health Record," was led by Jason Saleem, a professor in the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "Not all uses of paper are bad and some may give us ideas on how to improve the interface between the healthcare provider and the electronic record," Saleem says. In the study of 20 healthcare workers, the researchers found 125 instances of paper use, which were divided into 11 categories. The most common reasons for using paper workarounds were efficiency and ease of use, followed by paper's capabilities as a memory aid and its ability to alert others to new or important information. For example, a good use of paper was the issuing of pink index cards to newly arrived patients at a clinic who had high blood pressure. The information was entered into patients' electronic medical records, but the pink cards allowed physicians to quickly identify a patient's blood pressure status. Noting that electronic systems can alert clinicians reliably and consistently, the study recommends that designers of these systems consider reducing the overall number of alerts so healthcare workers do not ignore them due to information overload.
Remote Controlled Learning: MSU Computer Engineering Labs Going Online as Part of Pilot Program
Montana State University (07/17/09) Becker, Michael
Montana State University (MSU) computer engineering students will soon be able to control laboratory equipment through their home computers. A two-year, $148,000 National Science Foundation grant will help the MSU College of Engineering determine if students learn through Web-based laboratory courses as effectively as they do from hands-on courses. The research could result in improved distance learning for students at other Montana colleges or high schools by providing remote access to advanced scientific equipment. Engineering courses, which generally have a significant laboratory component, have had difficulty providing online options because so much of the subject requires hands-on work with machines and other instruments. Efforts to overcome this limitation have involved distributing lab kits or making computer simulations available. Now, MSU is one of the first universities in the country to enable students to control real equipment remotely through their computers, says MSU professor Brock LaMeres. He will use the grant money to build four to eight logic analyzers, which will enable students to see and measure data moving between a computer microprocessor and memory chips. During the next two years, LaMeres will modify an existing microprocessor course and assess how well his students learn using logic analyzers in online and in-person courses.
How Networking Is Transforming Healthcare
Network World (07/20/09) Marsan, Carolyn Duffy
High-speed computer networks have the potential to transform the healthcare industry, according to Mike McGill, program director for Internet2's Health Sciences Initiative. Internet2's Health Network Initiative is a project to help medical researchers, educators, and clinicians see the possibilities of network applications in a medical setting. McGill notes, for instance, that Internet2 has demonstrated the ability to put a patient up on a telepresence environment with a remote psychiatrist, which would go a long way toward fulfilling the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' mandate to provide care for wounded soldiers, who often reside in rural areas but are assigned psychiatrists based in urban areas. McGill points out that 120 of the 125 medical schools in the United States are Internet2 members, and he says that Internet2 is the designated national backbone for the Federal Communications Commission's Rural Health Care Pilot Program. Groups that the Health Network Initiative has spawned include those focusing on security, the technical aspects, network resources, and education. McGill says the Obama administration is currently pushing "for electronic health records with very limited capability," and notes that the Health Sciences Initiative is "working on electronic health records that are backed up by lab tests and images, and that's a whole lot richer of an environment than just the textual record." Another project the initiative is focused on is the creation of a cancer biomedical informatics grid that is linking all U.S. cancer centers so that the research environment can be unified to exchange data. McGill describes the last mile and cultural challenges as the key networking challenges in terms of electronic health information sharing.
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