Welcome to the August 21, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Autonomous Machines Prompt Debate
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (08/20/09) Nathan, Stuart
The United Kingdom's Royal Academy of Engineering has released a report that calls on legislators and opinion-makers to start addressing how autonomous machines will affect society. The report says the technology needed to develop many autonomous systems is either already available or closer than many people think, and the legal system needs to catch up. "We're very used to automatic systems, such as the braking assistance technology now standard in most cars," says Southampton University professor Will Stewart, a contributor to the report. "But traditionally, engineers have designed these things so that they're used with a human operator. As we move towards autonomous systems, we're taking the human further and further away from the machine." The report explores autonomous transportation, which the authors believe may be as few as 10 years away, and smart homes, particularly in regards to caring for the elderly. "We expect to see a new generation of systems that will become tools that are in some respects almost like people, but will also pose some of the same ethical and management issues as people do," Stewart says. Report contributor Chris Elliot says a major problem is that the legal framework does not exist to handle potential problems, such as if an autonomous truck should malfunction and cause an accident. Elliot says the legal and ethical systems need to catch up, and the engineers developing these systems need guidance on how their machines are licensed and approved.
Study Finds that Online Education Beats the Classroom
New York Times (08/19/09) Lohr, Steve
Students' performance in online education settings tended to trounce that of those receiving face-to-face instruction, according to a study SRI International carried out for the U.S. Education Department. The study analyzed the comparative research on traditional versus online education over a 12-year period, with the bulk of the studies done in colleges and various adult continuing-education programs. The report found 99 studies in which there were quantitative comparisons of online and classroom performance for the same courses, and an analysis determined that students doing some or all of the course online would rank in the 59th percentile in tested performance on average, versus the average classroom student scoring in the 50th percentile. Lead study author Barbara Means says the report indicates that online learning often outclasses traditional instruction, and the report suggests that online education could experience sharp growth during the next several years. Experts say the real promise of online education is delivering learning experiences that are more customized to individual students than classrooms, which facilitates more learning by doing. Philip R. Regier, with Arizona State University's Online and Extended Campus program, expects continuing education programs to exhibit the most growth in the near term, and he also predicts that online education will continue to gain ground in the transformation of college campuses. Regier says the growing use of social networking technology will hasten the evolution of online learning into a model where students help and teach each other by creating new forms of learning communities.
It's Microsoft vs. the Professors With Competing Data Center Architectures
Network World (08/20/09) Greene, Tim
Microsoft and University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers have separately developed divergent methods for solving shortcomings in data center architectures. Microsoft aims to provide high performance for all traffic, regardless of demand, while the UCSD researchers focus on allowing the free migration of virtual machines (VMs), minimal configuration when adding new hosts to a network, and quickly solving failures. Microsoft's approach also addresses VM migration and Layer 2-like addressing, but uses a method that calls for installing an agent on every endpoint, which conflicts with UCSD's approach to adjust switch software and leave the endpoints alone. The UCSD researchers, led by professor Amin Vahdat, propose blending Layer 2 and Layer 3 connectivity in data centers, which would allow for massive scaling that is otherwise limited by Layer 2 factors and reduces the management and configuration demands of Layer 3. UCSD's PortLand scheme would support VM migration, which Layer 3 cannot do because VMs can move from server to server, each with a different IP address. Microsoft's VL2 architecture handles the addressing problem by introducing a two-tiered system: a location-specific IP address, and an application-specific IP address that follows applications as they move between VMs. In the VL2 architecture, each server is associated with the location-specific IP address of the switch it is attached to and a VL2 directory system maps the location IPs to the application IPs. VL2 has some features PortLand lacks, including the ability to refuse to provide the location-specific IP address if access policies deny the initiating server connectivity to the destination server. The researchers presented their work at ACM' SIGCOMM 2009 conference, which takes place Aug. 17-21 in Barcelona, Spain.
UAB Wins NSF Grant to Train Teachers to Use XO Laptops
University of Alabama at Birmingham (08/19/09) Short, Gail
Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) will help fourth- and fifth-grade teachers in the Birmingham City School System develop science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curricula that can be used with XO laptop computers. The school system provided each child in grades one through five with an XO laptop last year, and UAB researchers and Birmingham teachers want to use the computers to spur young, minority students' interest in STEM. UAB researchers and Birmingham teachers will evaluate the impact of the STEM curricula on student learning, teacher and student confidence in using the computers, and also assess students' interest in STEM careers. "By targeting fourth- and fifth-grade teachers and students, we expect to impact students' engagement and preparedness in science, technology, engineering, and math before they move into a critical educational and career decision-making process," says UAB professor Shelia Cotten, the project's principal investigator. The project is funded by a two-year, nearly $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
Web Tools Help Protect Human Rights Activists
Reuters (08/19/09) Finkle, Jim
A new generation of Internet privacy tools is being developed to prevent governments from gathering data, such as where users access the Internet from. One tool, called Tor, scrambles information before sending it over the Web, hiding the user's location. Tor can bypass firewalls, which makes it a popular tool among activists in countries such as China and Iran. Tor connects users to a second PC that links to a third computer, which does not know the location of the first machine, making it impossible to trace the identity of the person accessing the Web. "Tor is a tunnel," says Tor Foundation executive director Andrew Lewman. "What you send into it comes out the other end, untouched." The U.S. government has contributed $250,000 of the $343,000 in income the foundation reported in 2007. Tor enables surfers to bypass Internet censorship software, whether it is implemented by a government or a company aiming to keep workers off of sites such as Facebook while at work. It also can protect against identity theft and deletes all Web session information after closing a browser. Tor was used to coordinate demonstrations following the disputed presidential election in Iran, and has been used in China and Iran to enable citizens to access Gmail, Twitter, and other communication sites when blocked by their governments. The adoption of Tor has been hurt by its speed, as not all users allow traffic to flow through their computers, which makes the service slower than regular Web browsing. A similar technology is Freegate, which was developed by the banned Falun Gong movement in China.
Where Phones in Class Are OK
Inside Higher Ed (08/20/09) Lee, Stephanie
University computer science departments are increasingly incorporating iPhone programming into their classes, teaching students how to create the applications sold on Apple's App Store. Many institutions are participating in Apple's free iPhone Developer University Program, which provides students with tools to develop, test, debug, and share applications. University of Michigan at Ann Arbor computer science professor Elliot Soloway uses the app development classes to challenge his students' technical and entrepreneurial skills. A 48-hour programming contest and other activities have led to unique projects, such as a graphing calculator and an alarm that notifies users of bus arrivals. Most of Soloway's classes normally have about 15 students, but his class that involves the iPhone has drawn 50. "The lure for them wasn't just mobile programming," Soloway says. "It was finding they could take an idea and make money from it, all in one semester." To succeed in the iPhone app market, which is flooded with thousands of apps, developers need an interdisciplinary knowledge of computer code, design, business, and marketing, professors say. "I tell all students that in five years, they won't be doing iPhone programming, they'll be doing something else," says Mississippi State University professor Rodney Pearson. "The concepts will be the same, they'll just be learning a new language or platform to apply it to."
'Rich Interaction' May Make Computers a Partner, Not a Product
Oregon State University News (08/19/09) Stauth, David
Oregon State University (OSU) researchers are developing rich interaction computers capable of wanting to communicate with, learn from, and get to know users as people. "There are limits to what the computer can do just by its own observations and efforts to learn from experiences," says OSU professor Margaret Burnett. "It needs to understand not just what it did right or wrong, but why. And for that, it has to continue interacting with human beings and make constant changes in its own programming, based on their feedback." OSU researchers say many advanced learning systems start learning as soon as they are delivered to a user's desktop to help create a customized system for the user. Many of these systems are based on word statistics, set rules, similarities, and other approaches, but even the most advanced systems only allow a user to tell the computer whether something is right or wrong, and do not allow them to explain the actual problem. OSU professor Weng-Keen Wong says they want to develop algorithms that will enable the end user to ask the computer why it did something, read its response, and explain why the computer's action was a mistake. The researchers say a major challenge is creating interactive systems that are easy enough for non-computer programmers to interact with. "For machine learning to reach its potential the computer and the user have to interact with each other in a fairly meaningful way, the computer really needs to get to know your situations and understand why it made a mistake, so that it can try not to make the same mistake again," Burnett says.
A-Z of Programming Languages: Scala
Computerworld Australia (08/18/09) McConnachie, Dahna
The Scala programming language, which runs on the Java Virtual Machine, could become the preferred language of the modern Web 2.0 startup, according to a Twitter developer. Scala creator Martin Odersky says the name Scala "means scalable language in the sense that you can start very small but take it a long way." He says he developed the language out of a desire to integrate functional and object-oriented programming. This combination brings together functional programming's ability to build interesting things out of simple elements and object-oriented programming's ability to organize a system's components and to extend or adapt complex systems. "The challenge was to combine the two so that it would not feel like two languages working side by side but would be combined into one single language," Odersky says. The challenge lay in identifying constructs from the functional programming side with constructs from the object-oriented programming side, he says. Odersky lists the creation of the compiler technology as a particularly formidable challenge he faced in Scala's development. He notes that support of interoperability entailed mapping everything from Java to Scala, while another goal of the Scala developers was making the language fun to use. "This is a very powerful tool that we give to developers, but it has two sides," Odersky says. "It gives them a lot of freedom but with that comes the responsibility to avoid misuse."
Calit2 Visualization Team Develops 3-D Technology From Modified HDTV LCD Screens
UCSD News (08/17/09) Fox, Tiffany
University of California, San Diego researchers at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) have developed NexCAVE, a nine-panel, three-dimensional visualization display that uses high-definition television (HDTV) LCD flat screens. NexCAVE was inspired by Calit2's StarCAVE virtual reality environment, which provides 360-degree, 3D viewing but uses an expensive projection system that requires constant maintenance. NexCAVE features a projector-free LCD flat panel design. By wearing polarized stereoscopic glasses, scientists can use NexCAVE to visualize massive data sets in three dimensions at a level of detail impossible to obtain on a desktop. "The NexCAVE's technology delivers a faithful, deep 3D experience with great color saturation, contrast, and really good stereo separation," says Calit2 research scientist Tom DeFanti. "The JVC panels' xpol technology circularly polarizes successive lines of the screen clockwise and anticlockwise and the glasses you wear make you see, in each eye, either the clockwise or anticlockwise images," he says. "This way, the data appears in three dimensions." The NexCAVE's HDTV panels also overlap, which allow the screens' frames to be minimized by half, creating a better, uninterrupted 3D image. DeFanti says the researchers' next goal is to create an autostereo NexCAVE that will not require the use of glasses.
Bridging Worlds by Design
Kingston University London (08/19/09)
Kingston University London will work with Sony, Samsung Design Europe, the British Film Institute, and others to create Digital Media Kingston, a new academic program designed to break down the barriers between arts and sciences. "We need to move away from the idea that arts people are 'creatives' and scientists are 'techies,' " says Digital Media Kingston development coordinator Karen Cham. "This is a serious skills gap which has been identified by industry and that's where Kingston University is spearheading change." The initiative will allow postgraduate students in computer gaming and three-dimensional imaging courses to collaborate across up to four faculties at Kingston University. Sony's Sarah Lemarie says that in games development and similar fields it is critical that team members are capable of communicating with their colleagues from other specialties using the correct terminology, regardless of whether their focus is technical, creative, or artistic. "By bringing these disciplines together in Digital Media Kingston, the university is ensuring their students will have exactly the right mindset, experience, and skills that they need to perform in the creative media industries," Lemarie says. Starting in September, Digital Media Kingston will offer six postgraduate courses, including Games Development and 3D Computer Generated Imagery, followed by a new course in special effects in 2010. "We're offering what industry is telling us that it needs," Cham says. "Our students will be fully equipped to play a major part in the digital age, which underpins everything in the 21st century."
Organic Electronics a Two-Way Street, Thanks to New Plastic Semiconductor
University of Washington News and Information (08/17/09) Hickey, Hannah
University of Washington researchers have succeeded in allowing both positive and negative charges to flow through organic electronics. "The organic semiconductors developed over the past 20 years have one important drawback. It's very difficult to get electrons to move through," says Washington professor Samson Jenekhe. "By now having polymer semiconductors that can transmit both positive and negative charges, it broadens the available approaches." A major flaw in existing organic semiconductors has been the limitation of transmitting only positive charges. "Because current organic semiconductors have this limitation, the way they're currently used has to compensate for that, which has led to all kinds of complex processes and complications," Jenekhe says. Working with University of Kentucky professor Mark Watson, Jenekhe has developed an organic molecule capable of transporting both positive and negative charges, which eliminates the need to use two separate organic semiconductors. The material will enable organic transistors and other information-processing devices to have simpler designs and more closely resemble how inorganic circuits are made. Jenekhe says the material has resulted in the best performance ever seen in a single-component organic polymer semiconductor, with electrons moving five to eight times faster through the new device than any other polymer transistor. A circuit made from the material generated a voltage gain two to five times greater than previously seen in a polymer circuit.
IBC 2009: Immersive Dome--Don't Just Watch, Join the Action!
The Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Architecture and Software Technology FIRST has designed the Immersive Dome, a digital dome projection system that enables viewers to participate in the creation of content. A camera films and projects the faces of viewers live onto a dome movie screen, and viewers can use a three-dimensional (3D) mouse to shift the projection on the screen, enabling them to interactively change the image and sound. The Immersive Dome, which is like sitting in the middle of a lava lamp, uses six projectors to generate five partial images on its interior side, and one at the apex of the half dome. The projector cluster is controlled by Screen Player software, developed by FIRST. The software produces a colored full image and displays cluster projections in real time with a resolution of 4,000 by 4,000 pixels. The developers say the Immersive Dome offers a 3D aural experience that surpasses conventional surround sound. The Spatial Pan sound system, developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology, uses eight standard loudspeakers as well as special electro-acoustical transformers that turn the dome into a medium for filling up the interior space with sound. The developers say the Immersive Dome could be used in planetariums, cinemas, theme parks, simulators, multi-media installations, and in the high-end home cinema market.
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