Welcome to the August 3, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Future Tech on Show at 36th SIGGRAPH
Associated Press (08/03/09) McConnaughey, Janet
Mk Haley, a juror for the Emerging Technologies area of SIGGRAPH 2009, says an ear-tugging navigator is the type of exhibit that will get people thinking and talking. Developed by researchers at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo, the bug-shaped helmet is mounted by six motors that pull on the ears of the wearer, leading the person to follow almost instinctively. "Human beings can really be physically manipulated so easily," Haley says of Pull-Navi. "And what other applications may there be for that?'' Researchers at Montreal's McGill University have created a virtual reality floor that can make it feel like you are walking on snow or ice and also serves as a rehabilitation tool. Among the other 31 exhibits, the Funbrella, built by a team from Japan's Osaka University, will let the holder feel how heavy a 1-inch-per-hour rain really is or feel rainfall in another town. ACM's 36th international conference on computer graphics and interactive techniques gets underway in New Orleans on Monday and runs through Friday. SIGGRAPH also offers an animation festival, game design and animation workshops and contests, a studio, an art show, and other showcases and exhibits.
Halted '03 Iraq Plan Illustrates U.S. Fear of Cyberwar Risk
The New York Times (08/01/09) Markoff, John; Shanker, Thom
At the core of the U.S. Obama Administration and its Pentagon leadership's efforts to develop rules governing cyberwarfare is the question of whether offensive measures could result in unintended damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure. Two traditional military limitations are currently being applied to cyberwar--proportionality and collateral damage, which requires militaries to minimize civilian casualties. "We are deeply concerned about the second- and third-order effects of certain types of computer network operations, as well as about laws of war that require attacks be proportional to the threat," says a senior military officer. For example, in 2003 the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies planned a cyberattack designed to freeze billions of dollars in the bank accounts of Saddam Hussein and hamstring his government’s financial system before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. However, the plan was abandoned out of concern that it could unintentionally generate worldwide financial chaos. "If you don't know the consequences of a counterstrike against innocent third parties, it makes it very difficult to authorize one," says James Lewis with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Naval Postgraduate School's John Arquilla says that "extremely restrictive rules of engagement" are holding back the use of cyberweapons, which he insists are "disruptive and not destructive." Cyberattacks may not be as physically destructive as bombs, but they could cripple vital civilian infrastructure such as power grids or water treatment plants, which can be life-threatening.
Robotics Insights Through Flies' Eyes
TU Munchen (07/31/09)
Researchers at the Munich-based Cognition for Technical Systems excellence cluster have developed a flight simulator for flies to determine the insect's neural activity while in flight in order to gain knowledge that could apply to the development of robots that can independently perceive and learn from their environment. It has been known for a long time that flies absorb many more images per second than humans, and the size of the fly's brain requires a simpler and more efficient way of processing images from the eyes into visual perception than people. The flight simulator features a hemispherical display on which researchers present various patterns, movements, and sensory stimuli to blow flies held in place by a halter. The restraint of the insect allows electrodes to register the reactions of its brain cells. Researchers at the Technischen Universitat Munchen are developing intelligent machines that can observe their environment via cameras, learn from what they see, and respond appropriately to the present circumstances. Their long-range goal is to facilitate the creation of machines capable of direct, effective, and safe interaction with people. One aspect of this project is the development of small, flying robots whose position and movement in flight will be controlled by a computer for visual analysis influenced by the example of the fly's brain. Efficient image analysis is essential if intelligent machines and humans are to interact naturally, and insights drawn from the flight simulator for flies could offer a simple strategy for bridging the technical gap between insects and robots.
A Better Way to Rank Expertise Online
Technology Review (07/31/09) Sauser, Brittany
An algorithm capable of ranking the expertise of online users and identifying those who are using a site to spam has been developed by European researchers. The Spamming-resistant Expertise Analysis and Ranking (SPEAR) algorithm assesses users according to a new set of criteria that makes intuitive assumptions about experts. "It distinguishes between 'discoverers' and 'followers,' focusing on users who are the first to tag something that subsequently becomes popular," says Cornell University professor Jon Kleinberg. He says SPEAR is a "mutual reinforcement" technique that evaluates popular users and popular content and deems expert users to be the ones who identify the most important content. Users are normally ranked by how often or how recently they add content to the system, and this approach makes the system very susceptible to Web spammers, says Ciro Cattuto at the Complex Network and Systems Group of Italy's Institute for Scientific Interchange Foundation. He says spammers see the most popular tags and begin loading advertising content with those tags, and SPEAR "performs better than anything currently available--spammers rank very low, their content is not exposed, and eventually they stop polluting the system." SPEAR uses temporal information to assess user expertise, following the assumption that the people who first discover content that subsequently receives heavy tagging can be classified as trend setters in a community. Conversely, followers find useful information later and tag it because it has already gained popularity.
Creator of Cloth Simulation Software Tapped for ACM SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics Award
Pixar Animation Studios senior scientist Michael Kass will receive the ACM SIGGRAPH 2009 Computer Graphics Achievement Award at SIGGRAPH 2009. His work in physical simulation and optimization has helped improve computer graphics and interactive techniques. Working with David Baraff and Andrew Witkin, also scientists at Pixar, Kass developed a simulator that serves as the model for today's clothing simulators. He developed a set of algorithms for untangling simulated clothing in various non-physical situations without any problematic visual artifacts. The algorithms allow for a smoother simulation of the movement of clothing when producing a movie. His software also was used in the movie "Monsters, Inc." to replicate the movement of clothing, hair, and fur on animated characters. SIGGRAPH 2009 takes place Aug. 3-7 in New Orleans.
Software Solution Identifies Skills Gaps in the Workplace
ICT Results (08/03/09)
The European Union-funded PROLIX project is developing software tools designed to analyze business processes and their associated competencies to identify skills gaps in the workplace. PROLIX has devised a methodology to ensure that what training organizations offer to workers are aligned with business requirements. Business process analysis is performed with software modeling tools augmented with competency data related to the specific business processes supplied by process managers and human resources managers. The PROLIX tools then execute a skills gap analysis so workers can be provided the training courses they need to do their job correctly. "Once we have identified what is needed to make businesses faster or more cost-effective, we can then target training and provide a measured learning outcome," says project coordinator Volker Zimmermann. PROLIX brings together a consortium of academic institutions, testbed partners, and software development partners. Most of the participants plan to continue the partnership following PROLIX's conclusion to commercialize the system or embed parts of it into their existing products.
A Police Woman Fights Quantum Hacking and Cracking
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (07/30/09)
Quantum computing will give people and institutions an enormous amount of computing power, but it will also make their data vulnerable to attack. For Julia Kempe of Tel Aviv University's Blavatnik School of Computer Science, now is the time to think about building systems that could withstand a quantum attack. She says it is only a matter of time before quantum computers become as powerful as expected by physicists and mathematicians, which means they would be able to break current encryption standards. "If a very rich person worked secretly to fund the building of a quantum computer, there is no reason in principle that it couldn't be used for malevolent power within the next decade," Kempe says. "Governments, large corporations, entrepreneurs, and common everyday people will have no ability to protect themselves." Kempe is designing algorithms for quantum computers in an effort to learn about their limitations, as well as future programs that would protect their data.
'Rosetta Stone' Offers Digital Lifeline
BBC News (07/27/09) Fitzpatrick, Michael
Researchers at Tokyo's Keio University in Japan have developed what is being called the Digital Rosetta Stone, a sealed permanent memory bank that is designed to store data for more than a 1,000 years. The researchers, led by professor Tadahiro Kuroda, have proposed storing data on memory chips made of silicon, which Kuroda says is the most stable material on Earth. The device is capable of being tightly sealed, powered, and read wirelessly, Kuroda says. "Archiving the mountains of digitalized cultural heritage we have amassed for the future is paramount," he says. The World Digital Library already is using the Digital Rosetta Stone to save the world's digital cultural history. Meanwhile, the U.S. Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) also is working to solve digital preservation problems. "Be it in solid state technology, biomechanical, and other nano-technological formats, we now realize that most of our archiving for future generations will be in digital formats, and we are here to support development in both hardware and software in these areas," says SNIA's Rick Bauer. He says SNIA has been impressed with the Digital Rosetta Stone, but notes that the technology still faces a major hurdle, as all digital preservation techniques are susceptible to magnetic polarity, and the Earth's magnetic field can wreak havoc on electromagnetic storage devices.
Want Responsible Robotics? Start With Responsible Humans
Ohio State University Research News (07/29/09) Gorder, Pam Frost
Ohio State University professor David Woods and Texas A&M University professor Robin Murphy have drafted three laws of responsible robotics that they claim are more realistic and applicable to the future than science fiction writer Isaac Asimov's laws. Woods says he believes Asimov intended to use the laws as a literary device, and did not expect engineers to design robots to follow the laws to the letter. "We wanted to write three new laws to get people thinking about the human-robot relationship in more realistic, grounded ways," he says. Woods and Murphy's three laws place responsibility on the shoulders of human beings rather than robots, and target the human organizations that develop and deploy robots. The researchers sought ways to guarantee high safety standards. Woods and Murphy's first law decrees that humans may not implement robots without the human-robot work system being in compliance with the highest legal and professional standards of safety and ethics. The second law dictates that robots must respond to people as appropriate for their roles, while the third law requires robots to be imbued with enough situated autonomy to protect themselves as long as such protection enables the smooth transfer of control and does not clash with the other two laws. "You don't want a robot to drive off a ledge, for instance--unless a human needs the robot to drive off the ledge," Woods says. "When those situations happen, you need to have smooth transfer of control from the robot to the appropriate human."
Nurses Open to Idea of Robots
A study performed by SINTEF for the Norwegian Association of Local Regional Authorities found that nurses and care-sector employees would welcome sensor and robot technology to help them in nursing homes and home care for the elderly. The survey found that cleaning, moving, and lifting patients are potential applications for care and nursing robots, and that the development and introduction of new technology should occur in such a way that the level of support they provide will be maintained or improved. During the survey, many of the participants were initially skeptical of using robots in elder care, but over the course of the interviews they started to imagine and mention scenarios in which robots could be of use. "It is worth noting that the staff still prefer themselves to perform tasks that currently require personal contact," says SINTEF Technology and Society project leader Kristine Holbo. "However, they would like routine tasks such as dealing with dirty clothes to be handled by a robot." Holbo cautions that the survey only interviewed elder-care personnel, and not the people the robots and sensors would be attending to. "We need to be sure that any devices that we introduce are functional, and have to avoid 'pushing' technology onto the users," she says.
Communal Webcasting Platform to Beef Up Campus's Popular Educational Content
UC Berkeley News (07/28/09) Anwar, Yasmin
The University of California, Berkeley is leading Opencast Matterhorn, an international effort to build a communal Webcasting platform to help colleges and universities more easily record and distribute educational content. Opencast Matterhorn will unite programmers and educational technology experts from an international consortium of higher education institutions, including ETH Zurich in Switzerland, the University of Osnabruck in Germany, Cambridge University, and the University of Saskatchewan. Matterhorn members will develop open source software to automate the recording and posting of educational material, making the process easier and less expensive. "Right now, colleges and universities want to provide their academic resources to students and global learners but are stymied by high technical barriers and costs," says Berkeley's Mara Hancock, the director of the Opencast Matterhorn project. "Opencast Matterhorn holds the promise of significantly lowering these barriers by developing open source software that meets the specific needs of academic institutions." Hancock says the project goes beyond simply positing lectures, and provides a variety of educational tools, including bookmarks and annotations, which will enable learners to "engage" the material.
Yawn Alert for Weary Drivers
An in-car system for detecting driver fatigue has the potential to reduce traffic accidents caused by tired drivers, according to Aurobinda Mishra of Vanderbilt University, Mihir Mohanty of ITER in India, and Aurobinda Routray of IIT in India. The researchers have developed software that directs an in-car camera to capture a sequence of images of a driver's face, and then analyzes changes in the face to determine when yawning is occurring. Next, the image-processing software correlates the frequency of yawning with fatigue behavior, such as eyelids getting heavy, neck muscles relaxing, and head nodding. The software and camera could be connected to a warning system to create an in-car system for alerting drivers to pull over and take a nap. In tests, the algorithm has been effective in identifying yawning. The team believes that analyzing facial expressions would be more cost-effective and convenient for drivers than having them use an electrocardiogram machine for every trip.
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