Welcome to the October 21, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Congress Endorses Computer Science Education as Driver of Innovation, Economic Growth
ACM and several computing community partners commend the U.S. House of Representatives' passage of a resolution to improve the visibility of computer science as a transforming industry that propels technology innovation and improves economic productivity. The House resolution designates the week of December 7 as "National Computer Science Education Week" and calls on educators and policymakers to improve computer science learning at all education levels and to encourage increased participation in computer science. ACM is working with Microsoft, Google, Intel, the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), and the Computing Research Association to improve awareness that computer science education is a national priority. "National Computer Science Education Week will help us draw attention to the need for an educational system that values computer science as a discipline and provides students with critical thinking skills and career opportunities," says ACM Education Policy Committee chair Bobby Schnabel, dean of the School of Informatics at Indiana University. CSTA executive director Chris Stephenson notes the vital role that computing plays in people's daily lives, and stresses the urgency of building a strong computing workforce. "We need to expose K-12 students to computer science concepts to help them gain critical 21st century skills and knowledge, and we're grateful for Congress' recognition of this need as a national priority," Stephenson says. NCWIT CEO and co-founder Lucy Sanders says the annual commemoration of National Computer Science Education Week can strengthen efforts to inform students, teachers, parents, and the public about how computer science enables innovation in all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields and creates economic opportunities.
Solving the IT Graduate's Dilemma
Computerworld Australia (10/19/09) Edwards, Kathryn
The World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C's) new global information technology (IT) education-focused body used the WE Rock event at Australian Web Week to learn what the IT industry and universities believe are the best ways for Web professionals and IT graduates to prepare for the workforce. The Open Web Education Alliance's (OWEA's) John Allsopp said that new educational standards need to be formed because the industry cannot continue to rely on IT professionals to teach themselves Web development. "We need to transition a much more structured approach to educating future Web designers, Web developers, and information architects," Allsopp said. "A challenge exists to take the self-help ecosystem of the Web and make it become a profession with formal training." University of Tennessee professor Leslie Jensen-Inman acknowledged that the IT industry moves fast and academia struggles to quickly update curriculum. Meanwhile, Yahoo Design Pattern Library curator Christian Crumlish said IT graduates should have "an engineering bent, technical skills, as well as an interest in what it's like for a user." OWEA, which launches in early 2010, has prepared a white paper outlining its operational plans for the W3C.
Immigrant Scientists Create Jobs and Win Nobels
Wall Street Journal (10/20/09) P. A19; Hockfield, Susan
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) president Susan Hockfield notes that the majority of the 2009 Nobel Prize winners for physics, chemistry, and medicine are immigrants who came to the United States as scientists or as graduate or post-doctoral students. She writes that they were drawn by the openness and prestige of the U.S. system of higher education and advanced research, but "that openness stands in sharp contrast to arcane U.S. immigration policies that discourage young scholars from settling in the U.S." Student immigrants play a vital role in job creation, and Hockfield notes that foreign MIT graduates have started 2,340 active U.S. businesses in which more than 100,000 people are employed. She points out that U.S. immigration statutes require that students go back to their homelands after graduation and then apply for a visa if they wish to return and seek employment in the United States. "It would be hard to invent a policy more counterproductive to our national interest," Hockfield says. She advocates the creation of a wider-ranging immigration policy that would allow foreign students who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math to easily obtain legal permanent residence. Also critical is the aggressive cultivation of more domestic talent, especially Ph.D.s in the sciences, as other countries' graduation rates are outpacing those of the United States. "To be part of [the] global creative network we must inspire more young Americans to pursue scientific careers, and we must rapidly reform U.S. immigration policies that drive away talented young scholars who would otherwise decide to live, work, and innovate here," Hockfield concludes.
All-in-One Computerised Scheduling Will Make Airports Greener and More Efficient
Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (10/19/09)
A project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and led by University of Nottingham researchers is developing a new computerized approach to scheduling airport operations that is designed to reduce delays, speed up baggage handling, and decrease pollution. The project aims to computerize and coordinate the scheduling of take-offs, landings, gate assignments, and baggage handling. The end result will be a search engine capable of analyzing the billions of possible scheduling combinations to provide the controllers with the most efficient courses of action. Currently, these four areas are organized manually by staff members who make decisions based on observations, reports, and experience. The scheduling improvements will make flying easier for passengers and reduce pollution by minimizing the time planes spend on the ground with their engines running. The project will develop computational models for each of the four areas of operations and determine how to run those models in conjunction with each other. One of the critical issues is how long an airplane needs for preparation on the ground before it can take off. Preparation includes enough time for the safety briefing and warming the engines. Sending a plane to the runway before either of these steps has taken place will cause delays on the runway that could affect other flights.
ACM, IEEE-CS Honor Pioneer of Grid Computing
AScribe Newswire (10/20/09)
ACM and the IEEE Computer Society (IEEE-CS) have named Francine Berman the winner of the inaugural Ken Kennedy Award. Established this year, the award, named for the high-performance computing expert who founded Rice University's computer science program, honors individuals who have made significant contributions in programmability and productivity in computing, as well as in community service or mentoring. ACM and IEEE-CS sought to recognize Berman's "influential leadership in the design, development, and deployment of national-scale cyberinfrastructure." Berman, currently vice president for research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, headed the National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure when it developed a national-scale grid and created an integrated package of software to support large-scale domain applications. Berman is co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access, and has served on key advisory boards for the U.S. National Science Foundation, the National Academies, the National Institutes of Health, and other groups. Berman was a founding member and a co-chair of the Computing Research Association's Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research, and currently serves on the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology Board of Trustees. ACM and IEEE-CS will present the 2009 Kennedy Award to Berman at the SC09 Conference, which takes place Nov. 14-20, in Portland, Oregon.
Crystals Hold Super Computer Key
BBC News (10/18/09)
University of Edinburgh researchers used low-energy lasers to make salt crystals in gel, which could make it possible to store a terabyte of data in a space the size of a sugar cube within the next 10 years. The researchers focused two overlapping low-energy laser beams on a salt solution, which provided the exact right amount of energy to form a temporary crystal. Edinburgh professor Andy Alexander says the process could be used to improve on traditional methods of optical data storage such as CDs. In comparison to the two-dimensional surface of a CD, three-dimensional (3D) optical data storage contains far more layers, and tiny crystals could act as storage points. Information would be stored by making marks in a pattern and read using light. Alexander says that 3D, crystal-based devices could be available within 10 years and would enable users to easily store, access, and move massive amounts of data. "This research builds on a discovery that was made by accident many years ago, when it was found that light can be used to trigger crystal formation," he says. "We have refined this technique and now we can create crystals on demand. There is much work to be done before these crystals can be used in practical applications such as optical storage, but we believe they have significant potential."
Caltech Scientists Create Robot Surrogate for Blind Persons in Testing Visual Prostheses
California Institute of Technology (10/19/09) Oliwenstein, Lori
California Institute of Technology (Caltech) scientists have developed a remote-controlled robot capable of simulating the experience of a blind person who has received visual prosthesis implants such as an artificial retina. Caltech's mobile robotic platform, called CYCLOPS, is the first device to emulate what a blind person can see with an implant, says Caltech scientist Wolfgang Fink. An artificial retina uses a miniature camera to capture images, which are processed and sent to the implanted silicon chip's electrode array. The chip directly stimulates the eye's functional retinal ganglion cells, which send the image information to the vision centers of the brain. CYCLOPS fills a gap in the process of testing visual prosthesis by approximating what the blind can see with a prosthesis to enable researchers to make improvements. CYCLOPS can be equipped with a camera like those used in retinal prosthesis, which allows researchers to determine what the robot receives as visual input. Researchers can use CYCLOPS to test improvements in retinal implants, or to test a home or workplace to see how it can be made more accessible to a blind person with a particular vision implant. For example, if CYCLOPS can navigate a room using a 50-pixel array there is a good chance that a person seeing through a 50-pixel retinal prosthesis would be able to do so as well.
Jumping the Queue for Official Documents
ICT Results (10/21/09)
The European Union-funded SWEB project has developed secure, interoperable software that enables citizens and local governments to exchange official documents over mobile phones. The open source software's developers say that SWEB will be particularly useful in countries without an extensive fixed-line infrastructure. "With this software, regional public administrations could skip the step of electronic government and enter directly into the provision of mobile government services," says SWEB project coordinator Petra Hoepner. SWEB's developers installed and tested the software at municipal governments in Siena, Italy; Tirana, Albania; Skopje, Macedonia; and Backi Petrovac and the municipality of Stari Grad, Serbia. Authentication is provided through a security token, and other security precautions include time-stamping documents. Although the trials demonstrated that the system could be used successfully, it also raised concerns over the lack of a legislative and regulatory framework throughout the European Union that would allow governments to provide these services.
Computers Have Speed Limit as Unbreakable as Speed of Light, Say Physicists
ZDNet (10/15/09) Jablonski, Chris
Boston University physicists Lev Levitin and Tommaso Toffoli have demonstrated that if processors continue to improve in accordance with Moore's Law, an unbreakable speed barrier will be reached in approximately 75 years. Even with new technologies, there will still be an absolute ceiling for computing speed, no matter how small components get, according to Levitin and Toffoli. The two physicists have created an equation for the minimum amount of time it takes for a single computation to occur, which establishes the speed limit for all possible computers. Using the equation, Levitin and Toffoli calculated that, for every unit of energy, a perfect quantum computer produces 10 quadrillion more operations each second than today's fastest processors. However, if following Moore's Law, it would take about 75 to 80 years to achieve this quantum limit, and no system can overcome that limit. "It doesn’t depend on the physical nature of the system or how it's implemented, what algorithm you use for computation," Levitin says. "This bound poses an absolute law of nature, just like the speed of light." The physicists note that technological barriers may slow down Moore's Law as technology approaches the limit.
Nokia Opens New Research Center in Berkeley
Technology Review (10/20/09) Bourzac, Katherine
Nokia recently launched a new research center at the University of California, Berkeley that will develop technologies that can be brought to market in three to five years. The research center will primarily focus on user interfaces, cognitive radio, technologies designed for emerging markets, and applications that rely on information from sensors and global positioning systems (GPSs). At the launch event, Nokia offered demonstrations of some research projects already in development at its Palo Alto, Calif., research center, including a phone playing a three-dimensional (3D) movie. The 3D effect is created by projecting a different image to each eye. Phones with two cameras could be used to create their own 3D content, says Nokia Research Center's Henry Tirri. Nokia researchers also demonstrated a project being worked on in Bangalore, India. The company is testing a set of location-aware services that are based on text messaging, which could be useful in countries such as India, where most of the phones are limited to calls and text messages and do not offer GPS or Internet access. The system could enable a user to send a text asking how to find a specific location and receive directions in the form of a text message. The user's location is determined by his or her proximity to cell towers. Another service being tested in Bangalore enables users to display their location to someone they are texting.
Volunteering Computers for Science
Wall Street Journal (10/20/09) P. D2; Singer-Vine, Jeremy
To aid in the number-crunching needed to process ever-growing volumes of data in biomedical and other types of scientific research, researchers are recruiting citizen volunteers to contribute the power of their idle household computers. This is possible thanks to a massive network that allows scientists to parcel out the work in small chunks. The volunteers download an application onto their system that connects to a network that includes other citizen volunteers and researchers. The network assigns each system a tiny piece of a project's puzzle to solve, and sends the results back to the network's server when complete. Volunteer computing efforts are usually founded on the open source software known as the Berkeley Open Infrastructure of Network Computing (Boinc). University of California, Berkeley scientist David Anderson, who created Boinc, says two key security precautions have been implemented to mitigate the open network's security risk. One precaution uses digital signatures to prevent hackers from hijacking an existing project's network. The second precaution blocks off all Boinc activity from the rest of a host computer, which prevents any malicious code from causing significant damage. Recent advances in Internet speeds and personal computer power have helped to triple the combined power of volunteer computing efforts over the past two years, according to boincstats.com. Currently, four million computers owned by almost two million users provide approximately 60 projects using Boinc with access to about 2,500 teraflops of processing power. Projects that take advantage of such volunteer number-crunching include IBM's nonprofit World Community Grid, which lends research support to various medical and humanitarian studies.
Cheetah, Gecko and Spiders Inspire Robotic Designs
Wired News (10/16/09) Ganapati, Priya
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sangbae Kim is trying to replicate the mechanisms used by animals in robotics. Kim says the animal kingdom provides the best ideas for creating mobile robots. "Moving is one of their biggest functions, and they do it very well," he says. "That's why ideas from nature are very important for a robotic designer like me." Kim has designed several robots by adapting biological models. For example, Stickybot is a robot with foot pads based on a gecko's feet, and iSprawl is a robot that replicates the motion of cockroaches. Kim is now working to develop a robot based on a cheetah, with the goal of building a prototype robot from a lightweight carbon-fiber-foam composite capable of running 70 mph. The first step will be creating a computer model to calculate optimal limb length, weight, gait, and torque in hip and knee joints. Kim says the biggest challenge will be getting enough power from a motor to achieve the desired speed quickly. Kim and his researchers also are working on improving Stickybot, which has feet covered with tiny hairs made of rubber silicon. The silicon hairs are much thicker than a gecko's hairs, and Stickybot can only climb extremely smooth surfaces. The researchers are working to adapt the robot to climb on walls with uneven textures.
Is My Robot Happy to See Me?
Georgia Institute of Technology (10/19/09) Terraso, David
Georgia Tech researchers recently tested humans' ability to interpret a robot's "emotion" by reading its expression, and to see if there were any differences between people of different ages in how they perceived robots. Using a virtual version of the iCat robot, the researchers had the robot exhibit seven emotions at various levels of intensity, and tested how well each participant could read its emotions. The study found that older adults were less accurate in recognizing anger and fear, which was expected, but also had difficulty recognizing happiness, but not sadness. Georgia Tech graduate student Jenay Beer says the similar success both younger and older adults had in recognizing sadness could be due to the difference in how a human actually expresses an emotion and how it is exaggerated in the cartoon look of iCat. As for why older adults had difficulty recognizing the happy robot, Beer suspects that the robot simply does not do a good enough job of expressing its emotion, though it may be that older adults were not as cognizant of the facial features that differentiate happy from neutral. The study also found that people of all ages had trouble distinguishing disgust, which could be due to the difficulty in programming a robot to portray that emotion. The researchers concluded that if robots are going to be accepted by older adults in social situations, they need to be designed to display emotions that are easily recognized.
Quantum Computers Could Tackle Enormous Linear Equations
Science News (10/16/09) Sanders, Laura
Aram Harrow of the University of Bristol in England along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Avinatan Hassidim and Seth Lloyd believe that encoding large datasets of linear equations in quantum forms will enable quantum computers to quickly solve problems with billions or even trillions of variables. The team's new quantum algorithm could potentially enable quantum computers to be used for a wider range of applications. Complex processes such as image and video processing, genetic analyses, and Internet traffic control require enormous linear equations. "Solving these gigantic equations is a really huge problem," Lloyd says. "Even though there are good algorithms for doing it, it still takes a very long time." A classical computer might need at least 100 trillion steps to solve a problem with a trillion variables, while the newly proposed algorithm would enable a quantum computer to solve the problem in a few hundred steps, according to the researchers. They plan to test the algorithm in the lab by having a quantum computer solve a set of linear equations with four variables, among other problems.
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