Welcome to the August 31, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
A New Language for Phone Networks
Technology Review (08/31/09) Lemos, Robert
University of Cambridge professor Jon Crowcroft is leading a research effort to change how cell phones send information by creating peer-to-peer mobile device networks, or pocket-switched networks, that would enable cell phone users to send information directly to each other. This type of ad hoc network could allow victims of a natural disaster to continue to communicate even if cell towers are knocked out, for example. Crowcroft hopes that people will develop a wide range of applications should the technology take off. The University of Cambridge researchers recently unveiled the D3N programming language, which is designed to capitalize on the inherent characteristics and simplicity of pocket-switched networks, including asynchronous communications and simple-to-express queries. The declarative language allows programmers to focus on the application logic instead of the algorithms that are unique to pocket-switched networks. "One of the goals is to keep it very simple so that people can make very complex, very interesting applications easily," Crowcroft says. D3N is based on Microsoft's F# project, and adds concurrency control to handle the ad hoc nature of sending data between a variable number of asynchronous nodes. Unlike other cell phone ad hoc networking languages, D3N includes knowledge on how pocket-switched networks operate, making programming for such networks simpler, and making it easier to test applications written in D3N, Crowcroft says.
It's Semantic--Easier Solution to Annotate and Search Images
ICT Results (08/27/09)
The European Union-funded IMAGINATION project has developed ImageNotion, software for organizing, searching, and navigating archives of digital images. ImageNotion's tools for semantic image annotation and search link the content of photos and concepts to make the images understandable to computers. The developers say that ImageNotion's system eliminates much of the complexity of developing an ontology for semantic searches by combining annotation with a variety of other technologies, including text mining, object recognition, and facial detection and identification. "When you mention ontologies to most people they just switch off," says IMAGINATION coordinator Gabor Nagypal. "Because of that, our goal has been to make the technology transparent and intuitive to use." Nagypal says the face-detection system, which identifies the presence of people in a photograph, has an accuracy rate of about 80 percent, and the face-recognition system, which attempts to identify people in a photograph, produces consistent results after about five to 10 images of a person have been tagged. ImageNotion also simplifies navigating between photographs. For example, clicking on a person's face in one photograph will automatically take the user to other photographs of that person.
From Understanding the Health of Ourselves to the Health of Our Planet, SC09 Masterworks Program to Present Compelling Lineup of Experts
Business Wire (08/31/09)
The Masterworks program at ACM's SC09 conference, which takes place Nov. 14-20 in Portland, Ore., will address how high performance computing (HPC) is being used to develop solutions for challenges in a broad range of areas, including Internet searches, social networking, sustainability, and medicine. Experts from Google and Facebook will discuss the computer architecture demands of providing Web services to millions of users in a cost-effective manner. Other presentations will shed light on how seismic analysis is being used to find petroleum and for oil reservoir modeling, and how HPC is helping the government meet its wind-power generation goals. Guests have been invited to discuss how molecular simulation could bring predictive, systems-level understanding of complex biological systems such as Alzheimer's disease and the swine flu virus. Another session will cover how health care is using grid technology and how HPC-level simulation is impacting surgical decisions. "This year's Masterworks lineup perfectly conveys our 'Computing for a Changing World' theme and how this is also changing our view of high performance computing," says Intel's Wilfred Pinfold, general chair of the SC09 conference.
An Intelligent System Avoids Forgetting Things
University of Granada (UGR) researchers have developed a system that uses artificial intelligence to help the elderly and people with special needs avoid forgetting to perform important tasks. The system uses sensors deployed throughout a person's environment to monitor their actions, and mobile devices to remind them of important tasks. The UGR system is a prototype that helps control the activities of people with special needs, in a non-intrusive manner, while increasing their independence, says UGR's Maria Ros Izquierdo. The UGR system recognizes the everyday actions of the user using radio frequency identification labels discreetly placed on objects the individual interacts with the most. When the person touches these objects, a signal is sent to a computer or mobile device in the house or in an assistance center. Artificial intelligence is used to analyze the activities of the people to compile a list of actions, such as taking the keys and cell phone before leaving the house. "It is not necessary to use cameras or microphones, and the devices which are used do not entail any technological complications for users, nor do they modify their daily routines," Ros says. The researchers are testing the system using the Tagged World, an intelligent space that simulates the rooms of a house, with sensors embedded in the environment to help the system recognize the behavior of its residents.
Innovation: Get to Hospital to See the Future
New Scientist (08/31/09) Simonite, Tom
Modern hospitals provide a glimpse into how people will interact with machines in the future, according to a new Gartner report on the future of human-computer interaction. Speech recognition is an example of how health care is leading the world in the use of new technology. Consumers can use voice-recognition systems that enable them to make hands-free phone calls and to control computer systems, but the technology's current state of usability is largely due to the rehabilitation industry. The greatest achievement of modern voice recognition is enabling people who are unable to physically use a mouse or keyboard to access technology. For these people, voice recognition is as much a medical device as an office aid, and many of them supported and used the technology when it was far below its current quality. Haptics is another technology with consumer potential that is currently being used in medicine, primarily for remote surgery, training, and interpreting complex scans. The computer interface technologies that will likely be the most common in the future are currently available in hospitals, including mind-controlled computers. The victims of accidents and injuries are the first to receive technological implants to control technology. By testing and developing technology in the medical field, not only can technology researchers refine and improve the technology by observing its actual use, but the designs benefit from the safety and usability requirements established by regulators such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
IBM 'X-Rays' a Molecule
InformationWeek (08/29/09) Gonsalves, Antone
IBM researchers have imaged the inner structure of a molecule, an achievement they say could lead to smaller, faster, and more energy-efficient processors and memory devices. The researchers say the breakthrough is a milestone in surface microscopy, which explores the use of molecules and atoms in nanotechnology. The new breakthrough comes two months after IBM scientists used the same method, called non-contact atomic force microscopy, to measure the charge states of atoms within a molecule. The two discoveries are considered major advances in the understanding of how an electrical charge transmits through molecules or molecular networks. Understanding how a charge is distributed at the atomic scale is essential for building smaller, more powerful, and more energy-efficient computing components. To capture an image of the inner structure of a molecule, IBM scientists used an atomic force microscope at an ultra-high vacuum at minus 451 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing the researchers to look through the electron cloud covering the molecule to see its atomic structure.
Singularity Taps Students' Technology Ideas
San Francisco Chronicle (08/28/09) P. C1; Temple, James
The first graduates of Singularity University, a new school supported by NASA, Google, and others, recently unveiled their visions for leveraging emerging technology to solve some of humanity's problems. The university's mission is to develop leaders who will build on rapid advances in and convergence across areas such as biotechnology, supercomputing, nanotechnology, and robotics to solve major hurdles. During the course of the nine-week interdisciplinary graduate studies program, the 40 graduating students were asked to develop projects that could improve the lives of 1 billion people within 10 years. The students were divided into four teams and focused on different challenges. One team developed new systems to facilitate communications following disasters, including smartphone applications that provide global positioning system-based evacuation guidance or relay a patient's vital signs from "e-triage" bracelets. Another team plans to take advantage of advances in three-dimensional printing technologies to create the actual components of affordable housing from materials such as cement or polymers. The third team developed a text message-based, information-sharing system for use in marketplaces, job boards, and other means of accelerating economic growth in developing countries. The fourth team proposed an intelligent transportation grid that would make vehicle use safer and more efficient by using sensors and cell phones to provide real-time travel updates, enabling owners to rent their vehicles when not using them, and eventually incorporate autonomous or self-driving vehicles.
Making Global Science Networking More User-Friendly
University of Illinois at Chicago (08/27/09) Francuch, Paul
University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) computer scientists have received a three-year, $1.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to make its OptIPuter system easier to use. EVL researchers helped develop the OptIPuter's software, which enables scientists in remote locations to load massive amounts of digital data from supercomputers and visualize high-resolution images. Scientists at any participating site can manipulate the data, run simulations, compare results, and learn from the shared experience. Nearly 40 OptIPuter research centers, called OptIPortals, around the world have been established over the past few years. "What we want to do now is turn this from a research project into a product people can easily use," says UIC professor Andrew Johnson. The EVL researchers want to make OptIPuter as easy to use as a personal desktop computer. "Just as personal computers are the portals to today's Internet, OptIPortals are the portals to the super Internets of the future," says UIC professor Jason Leigh. The EVL researchers want to make it easier to run simulations and add data to a visual display wall using devices ranging from normal laptop computers to the Blue Waters Petascale supercomputer being built at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The researchers also want to eliminate the format conflicts that currently can hinder the editing or manipulation of visualizations and the streaming of additional data.
OpenCL: Parallel Programmers' New Best Friend
CNet (08/28/09) Glaskowsky, Peter
Apple's new Snow Leopard operating system features the Open Computing Language (OpenCL), new parallel programming technology that Apple hopes will become a standard for use with all operating systems. Apple has released OpenCL to the Khronos Group, an independent standards organization that also manages the OpenGL standard for three-dimensional rendering. OpenCL works with graphics processing units (GPUs), but was designed from the start to achieve the best performance from multicore processors. OpenCL supports both CPU- and GPU-optimized programming, and can choose the right code depending on what hardware is available. OpenCL also can capitalize on both task-level parallelism, in which multiple tasks are running simultaneously, and data-level parallelism, in which a single instruction within a task is applied to multiple data items at once. However, OpenCL's biggest advantage is that no other parallel-programming language will be as widely supported. Both AMD and NVIDIA will have OpenCL drivers for their GPUs, AMD and Intel will support OpenCL on their CPUs, and AMD has already shipped its first OpenCL implementation for its Athlon and Opteron processors. It is even possible that future releases of OpenCL may be able to work with less common hardware, such as field-programmable gate arrays.
Microsoft Research Keeps Dreaming Big
Business Week (08/27/09) Walters, Helen
Microsoft's research division, led by Rick Rashid, employs 850 scientists who are free to explore their own interests, even if those interests may not pay off for 10 to 20 years, if at all. "The point of a basic research group is really to do the things you don't know you'll need," Rashid says. However, this approach has become increasingly rare. As cost-cutting efforts have grown, some technology companies are pressuring their researchers to focus on practical ideas that will lead to financial gains in the short term, but Microsoft is standing by its hands-off, academic approach to research. Although Microsoft has recently experienced financial pressure, Craig Mundie, the company's chief research and strategy officer, says there are no plans to change the research strategy. Rashid says Microsoft Research has made important contributions to new products, including Natal, a new gaming system that captures the physical movement of players using cameras, and Bing, Microsoft's search engine. He says researchers are investigating potential breakthroughs in robotics, health care, security, and privacy. Rashid says he does not want to become overly practical or short-term, and he plans to continue to recruit the smartest people he can find and give them the opportunity to explore their interests.
Taiwan University Students Build Tour Guide Robot
IDG News Service (08/20/09) Nystedt, Dan
Engineering students at National Taiwan University recently demonstrated a robot that is capable of creating two- and three-dimensional maps of an area and then providing guided tours. During the demonstration in a campus museum, the group used a wireless remote control during the initial run-through, in which the robot created a map of the museum floor and then was able to maneuver throughout the floor on its own. The robot uses laser light similar to radar to determine the depth and dimensions of rooms and the location of objects, and laser mapping and global positioning system technology enable it to navigate corners and obstacles. The team designed the robot to raise or lower its head to speak more directly to humans, using a charge-coupled device in its eyes. It is also capable of showing facial expressions such as happiness, surprise, and sadness. Maps and other data are displayed via a liquid crystal display touchscreen on its back. The robot moves on wheels and is three feet tall. The team plans to make improvements to the guided mapping technology and the robot.
The Grill: Aaron Walsh
Computerworld (08/24/09) King, Julia
Boston College professor Aaron E. Walsh has a vision of making state-of-the-art education freely available to anyone with a computer and Internet connectivity through a combination of interactive virtual reality technology, digital media, and collaborative online course environments. That vision helped nurture Walsh's brainchild, the nonprofit Media Grid--a public infrastructure for three-dimensional and virtual reality content. Walsh says immersive education could ease the absorption of complex information, because it is more engaging. "We will develop a comprehensive and complete form of study so someone with access to a computer could take rich, compelling courses and learn at the same level as someone going to a university," he says. "With simulations and virtual environments, we'll have such a large body of information that it will be up to the individual to decide what they want to learn." Walsh notes that the immersive education content in the Media Grid is generated by members, which could be teachers, students, administrators, or anyone else tied to education. "They can get access to the technology for free, they can access community groups, and they have the ability to get going right away," he says. Walsh admits that immersive education will not raise test skills. "Right now, it's an engagement tool," he says. "You need to engage [students] before they can start to learn."
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