Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the December 4, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Grid Computing Tunes Tiny Transistors for Future Chips
BBC News (12/04/09)

The U.K. e-science grid is being used to run simulations of transistors smaller than 30 nanometers, which will help designers manage the physical constraints that come into effect when working on such a small scale. Hundreds of thousands of tiny transistors have already been simulated, using about 20 years worth of processing time. The researchers hope to understand how such small components function and determine the best way to produce future generations of nanoscale chips. "What we do in these simulations is try to predict the behavior of these devices in the presence of atomic-scale effects," says the University of Glasgow's Asen Asenov, who is leading the NanoCMOS simulation project. The current generation of chips features transistors about 32 nanometers in size, but manufacturers want to move to transistors with even smaller components. "What's happening at such dimensions is that the atomic structure of the transistor cannot be precisely controlled," Asenov says. "In order to make them work we have to put in impurities to define different regions." The researchers are learning how to best deploy materials so transistors provide reliable and dependable performance at the nanoscale.

A Report on the Discovery and Innovation in Health IT Workshop
Computing Community Consortium (12/02/09)

The Discovery and Innovation in Health IT Workshop, cosponsored by the Computing Community Consortium (CCC), attempted to make further progress on productive collaboration between computing and healthcare. The workshop investigated and characterized near- and long-term computing research challenges and opportunities in healthcare information technology (IT) and identified a spectrum of model proof-of-concept, integrative systems that might fuel fundamental healthcare IT research, according to the University of Utah's Chris Johnson. He notes that healthcare and biomedical research have become increasingly interwoven with computing, and he cites the 2004 National Institutes of Health Roadmap's observation that "because computation is integral to biomedical research, its deficiencies have become significant limiters on the rate of progress of biomedical research." Johnson stresses that there must be collaboration between agencies and communities to augment frontier or cutting-edge research at the intersection of computing and healthcare. Meanwhile, CCC member Beth Mynatt of Georgia Tech says the workshop "allowed space for the discussion of long-term challenges that, when addressed, could also solve many short-term deficiencies." She points out that numerous breakout groups at the event concentrated on strategies for patient-centered care, chronic disease management and prevention, and distributed, collaborative care. In addition, they urged computing research in challenging areas such as ubiquitous computing technologies for chronic disease management; organizational modeling and simulation to forecast the economic impact of future healthcare approaches; machine-learning methods to anticipate future health trends and treatment complications; security and privacy models for distributed, patient-centered care; and workflow and decision-support systems that actively embed health outcome data.

New Software to Simulate Future Financial Crises
ICT Results (12/02/09)

The European Union-funded EURACE project has developed simulation software capable of predicting interactions between large populations of different economic actors. The software uses the Flexible Large-scale Agent Modeling Environment simulation technology, which was developed for computer-generated images in movies. Each simulated agent is given individual and realistic behaviors and interactions to demonstrate how markets will evolve, which the researchers say makes the large-scale simulations better at testing new policies and potential changes in society. "The results of this research project will complement traditional economic statistics and assumptions about how economic actors react by enabling better testing of a policy's effects on people while still on the drawing board," says the EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media Viviane Reding. The simulations use computer-based experiments to focus on the relationships between large populations of different economic actors throughout numerous interconnected markets. This is the first time that this type of simulation technology has been applied on such a large scale using high-powered computing. By connecting hundreds of thousands of small simulated actions and reactions throughout the economy, the software can provide policy-makers with more accurate predictions of how people and the economy will react to policy changes.

Intel Unveils 48-Core Research Chip
HPC Wire (12/02/09) Feldman, Michael

Intel's Tera-scale Computing Research Program has unveiled a 48-core x86 processor that is designed for use as a research platform to jump-start manycore computing. The new chip has 1.3 billion transistors and is built on 45 nm complementary metal-oxide semiconductor technology. Intel says it contains the largest number of Intel Architecture cores ever put on a single microprocessor. The new chip represents the next phase of Intel's 2007 Polaris 80-core prototype architecture and will be used to help software researchers determine how real applications can scale from dozens to thousands of cores. It also can be used as a testing ground for new parallel computing models and applications. Intel plans to distribute at least 100 of the experimental chips to commercial and academic researchers. Intel is calling the chip a Single-Chip Cloud computer (SCC). The SCC's on-chip network offers hardware support for message passing, which will provide a high-performance environment for many cluster applications. Each core contains its own L2 cache but, unlike most CPU designs, the SCC does not offer hardware cache coherence. Instead, it offloads the task to the software, which has to coordinate reads and writes between all the caches. This leads to simpler hardware but more complicated programming.

Cellphones Team Up to Make Wi-Fi Where You Want It
New Scientist (12/01/09) Inman, Mason

Scientists at Microsoft Research India and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara have developed Cool-Tether, a system that combines the Internet connections of several smartphones to create high-speed wireless hotspots. Computers can connect to the phones using short-range Wi-Fi and request Web pages just like using a wireless router with a normal connection to the Internet. Cool-Tether manages the smartphones' wireless connections, which can quickly drain batteries, to make the system practical. A previous version of the system used as many connections as possible from nearby phones to maximize a computer's Internet connection speed, but the heavy power overhead Wi-Fi places on mobile devices limited the system's usefulness. The researchers say Cool-Tether is the first energy-aware technique for creating on-the-fly hotspots through cell phones. "Instead of blindly using all the available phones, Cool-Tether determines the optimal number of phones to use to send the contents of the Web page," says Microsoft Research India computer scientist Vishnu Navda. Every time a phone transfers a piece of data by Wi-Fi to a computer, it "lingers in [a] high-power active state for a few seconds" no matter how much data was transferred, Navda says, which drains a phone's battery quickly. Cool-Tether solves this problem by coordinating the phones to send data in fewer, longer bursts, and to make sure that each "energy tail" is associated with as much data transfer as possible. Cool-Tether uses a quarter of the energy as the previous version of the system, with little loss in download speeds.

A Vision of Computing From Microsoft's Future Thinker
CNN (12/03/09) Voigt, Kevin

Over the next 10 years, how people interact with computers will evolve drastically, with hand gesture controls becoming as common as keyboards, and file selection being determined by eye scans instead of mouse movements, predicts Microsoft chief research and strategy officer Craig Mundie. "Today, most people's interaction is through a screen--whether they touch it, type it, point or click, it's still just graphical user interface," Mundie says. "While that's very powerful and has a lot of applicability, I think it will be supplemented in dramatic ways by what we call a natural user interface." He says computers will soon be able to emulate the human senses of sight, hearing, speech, touch, and gesture, and combine them in multiple ways for people to interact with machines. The interactivity revolution will be fueled by new multiprocessor computers, which are expected to be widely available by 2012. Mundie says these new processors should provide a major performance gain, with some performances increasing by a factor of 100. One of the first major commercial applications of the new interface technology is expected to be released next year when Microsoft launches its new line of Xbox gaming consoles, which will completely eliminate the need for handheld controllers. Mundie says the new gaming interface enables players to move and use gesture controls, with the system calculating in real time the angular position of the 22 major joints in the body. Mundie envisions a day when users will simply be able to talk to their computers about solving problems. "You should be able to describe the problem or the policy you want and the computer should be able to somehow implement that," he says.

PhotoelasticTouch Combines 3D Shapes With Touchscreens
Singularity Hub (12/01/09) Saenz, Aaron

Researchers at the University of Electro-communications and the Japan Science and Technology Agency have developed a touchscreen interface that features three-dimensional (3D) elements, enabling users to squeeze the interface to interact with the computer. The PhotoelasticTouch system uses transparent rubber shapes on top of a liquid crystal display (LCD), which act as input devices. The interface was presented at ACM SIGGRAPH earlier this year, where attendees could test the interface. For example, picking up a rubber shape and twisting it could pour virtual paint onto the surface. The interface provides a more tactile interaction than normal touchscreen interfaces. In the interface, light from the LCD is polarized, and a camera above the screen records light through a polarized filter. When the transparent rubber object between the LCD and the camera is altered, the polarization of the LCD light is changed. The camera detects the change and the system responds to the deformation. Covering the entire screen with transparent rubber creates a tactile surface that responds to position and pressure. The rubber is an overlay, instead of being built into the display, because the researchers worked with off-the-shelf LCD touchscreens.

Women Make Strides in Sciences
CanWest News Service (12/02/09) Sankey, Derek

The University of Calgary's Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) program helps young women explore opportunities in underrepresented science and engineering fields. WISE enables women to connect with other female students and to seek out other campus organizations that can support them throughout their education. WISE president Searesh Munir says increasing the number of females in science and engineering fields requires constant education about new opportunities and resources. Men have dominated the science and engineering fields for years, but there has been slow, steady progress in boosting female student numbers over the last two decades. "One of the major issues women face is around self-confidence and self-esteem and so we focus on building that foundation of giving them good life skills," says Calgary's Stephanie Garrett, a member of the school's Gender and Diversity in Engineering Committee. Women face additional barriers in the workforce such as child care and an inequality in pay--women make 70 cents to 80 cents on the dollar compared to men for the same level of work. Garrett says the organization teaches women negotiation and leadership skills to overcome workplace inequalities. "Not everybody is OK in the male-dominated environment--they feel intimidated--so that's why we're here," Munir says.

CSIRO Researchers Create Giant Waves
CSIRO (Australia) (12/03/09) Bengston, Carrie

Australia's Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) has developed modeling software designed to study how oil rigs withstand the effects of giant waves in the open ocean. CSIRO's program uses fluid-flow mathematics and computer modeling to assist in the design of oil platforms. "We use a mathematical technique called Smoothed Particle Hydrodynamics, originally developed in astrophysics to model stars forming and galaxies exploding," says CSIRO's Murray Rudman. Using this technique, the researchers can create a realistic rogue wave and pound the legs and platform of the oil rig, which floats on the ocean but is tied to the ocean floor by cables. The program can compare different cable-mooring systems and materials. The results show the forces that the waves generate on the structure and cables to see if they can withstand the impact. CSIRO is applying similar techniques to modeling dam breaks and landslides.

Andalusian Parliament Is the First European One With a Documental Search Engine Based on AI
University of Granada (Spain) (12/02/09) Luna, Juan Manuel Fernandez

A search engine that uses artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to find the most relevant parts in texts for a query has been developed by researchers at the University of Granada. A team led by professor Luis Miguel de Campos Ibanez designed the intelligent search engine for the Andalusian Parliament. The prototype, called SEDA, uses AI techniques based on probabilistic graphic models to determine what would be most important to someone conducting a search of official documents. The information recovery system saves time because it focuses on recovering the information that is most relevant to the search, rather than on returning complete documents. The research team, led by Granada professor Luis Miguel de Campos Ibanez, also designed the software to find video relevant to a query in a similar manner. The researchers say the ability to recover video turns the intelligent search engine into a multimedia system.

iPhones Are Musical Instruments in New Course and Ensemble
University of Michigan News Service (12/01/09) Moore, Nicole Casal

A new computer science course at the University of Michigan teaches students how to design, build, and play musical instruments on an iPhone. The course is taught by Georg Essl, a computer scientist and musician, who has been driving the development of mobile phones as musical instruments. "The mobile phone is a very nice platform for exploring new forms of musical performance," Essl says. "We're not tethered to the physics of traditional instruments. We can do interesting, weird, unusual things." To build an instrument on an iPhone, the device can be programmed to play back information it receives from one of its many sensors as sound. The iPhone's touchscreen, microphone, global positioning system, compass, wireless sensor, and accelerometer all can be programmed so that when a person touches the display, blows air into the microphone, tilts or shakes the phone, different sounds emanate. "In order to come up with a creative piece you have to engage with the technology, but in order to make technology interesting, you also have to engage with the musicality," Essl says. "These are really hard to separate. We're trying to teach both."

Salary Survey: Chinese, Indian Engineers Expand Wish List
EE Times (11/30/09) Ojo, Bolaji

The 2009 EE Times Global Salary & Opinion Survey found that salary increases for Indian and Chinese engineers have climbed over the past five years, and the rate of increase has topped that of their European, Japanese, and North American counterparts. Competition for skilled engineers in China and India has intensified over the past 10 years as hardware and software firms have stepped up the transfer of manufacturing and design operations from Western sites to less expensive parts of the world. Both China and India are churning out thousands of new engineers each year, but high demand is causing many positions to go unfilled, forcing companies to turn to their rivals for talent. Still, many Chinese and Indian engineers are continuing to earn significantly less than their equivalents elsewhere, which is creating friction between employers and employees. Many engineers in India and China polled in the salary survey said that their current compensation packages are not adequate or equitable with their foreign counterparts' compensation. Fifty-six percent of Chinese respondents and 61 percent of Indian respondents said that they earn "less than others in the field with the same qualifications and work experience"--a concern echoed by only 44 percent and 34 percent of European and North American respondents, respectively.

Reconfigurable Computing Research Pushes Forward
HPC Wire (11/20/09)

Reconfigurable computing (RC) allows on-the-fly circuitry changes by programmers, theoretically enabling the hardware to be matched to the software. Alan George, director of the U.S. National Science Foundation's Center for High-Performance Reconfigurable Computing (CHREC), says that challenges and objectives in three key high-performance computing areas--performance, productivity, and sustainability--"are vitally important yet increasingly in conflict." He notes that many research studies indicate that RC yields superior speed and energy, thanks to the numerous benefits of adaptive, customizable hardware parallelism. "As a relatively new paradigm of computing, RC has started with emphasis in a few targeted areas, for example, aerospace and bioinformatics, where missions and users require dramatic improvement only possible by a revolutionary approach," George says. "As principal challenges--performance, productivity, and sustainability--become more pronounced, and as [research and development] in RC progresses, we believe that the RC paradigm will mature and expand in its role and influence to eventually become dominant in a broad range of applications, from satellites to servers to supercomputers." CHREC's university sites are focusing on four areas of ongoing RC research--architecture, productivity, partial reconfiguration, and fault tolerance. In the architecture category, researchers are focusing on the characterization and optimization of new and emerging devices and systems, along with techniques to promote autonomous hardware reconfiguration. "In the future, RC will become more important for a growing set of missions, applications, and users and, concomitantly, it will become more amenable to them, so that productivity is maximized alongside performance and sustainability," George predicts.

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