Welcome to the December 7, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
With Lure of Cash, M.I.T. Group Builds a Balloon-Finding Team to Take Pentagon Prize
New York Times (12/07/09) P. A22; Markoff, John
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research group beat out about 4,300 other teams on Saturday in a Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) contest to test human social networking. DARPA released 10 eight-foot weather balloons across the continental United States on Saturday and challenged competitors to correctly identify the longitude and latitude coordinates for each balloon as quickly as possible. The first team to correctly identify the location of all 10 balloons won $40,000. The MIT group set up a Web site asking people to join their team and offered to share the prize money with people who offered correct information. "This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform an experiment at a massive scale," says MIT's Riley Crane, part of a group of researchers that study human interactions involving computer networks. Crane describes the MIT strategy as a "recursive incentive structure." The MIT researchers received contributions from 4,665 participants. They said their techniques could be used for finding criminals and missing children, as well as possibly stopping impending terrorist attacks. "They got a huge amount of participation from shockingly little money," says DARPA's Peter Lee.
Small Companies Add Value by Sharing Commercial Information
ICT Results (12/04/09)
TraSer, developed by researchers in Hungary, Romania, the Netherlands and Finland, is a track-and-trace open source program that enables small companies to share commercially sensitive information and monitor the movement of materials and products from suppliers to customers. TraSer also allows companies along the supply chain to share data, instead of having the information owned or controlled by a central authority. The program creates a unique product identifier by combining a product identification code with a company Web address, which does not depend on registration with a centralized authority. "TraSer is designed as an entry-level solution platform," says Elisabeth Ilie-Zudor, coordinator of the TraSer project and a researcher at the Computer and Automation Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. "We strove to keep it as simple as possible in operation. Still, it remains vital to understand what is actually done in a track-and-trace network to make it work." By eliminating the need for a centralized service, the network is less vulnerable to malfunction or abuse. A TraSer network has a core of connected company servers, surrounded by an 'envelope' of clients. Those clients can access information from bar codes, radio frequency identification tags, or other carriers of a product's unique identifier. TraSer also can adapt to a wide range of input types because the interface between client and server is uniform. Ilie-Zudor says that "companies need to view shared data as an investment where the creation of a better picture for everyone leads to a payback in cost reductions, better working methods, and greater coordination."
First-Ever Computer Science Education Week Targets Issues in Teaching Computer Science
ACM and its partners have launched the first-ever Computer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek) to bring greater attention to the need to improve computer science (CS) education at the K-12 level. "The conversation about computer science education speaks directly to the issues of innovation, competitiveness, and a healthy future," says ACM CEO John White. Computers are becoming more ingrained in everyday life, but the percentage of high schools offering rigorous computing courses fell from 40 percent to 27 percent from 2005 to 2009. Created by a U.S. House of Representatives resolution, CSEdWeek views CS education as a critical element of the national science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) movement, and not as an add-on or an optional course. Best practices for CS education are highlighted on the Web site www.csedweek.org, which serves as the central hub for CSEdWeek. The site offers computer science curriculum guides, data, research, posters, and brochures, and provides a platform for sharing ideas on improving CS education. CSEdWeek is the second week in December, and was chosen in honor of computer science pioneer Grace Murray Hopper, who was born on Dec. 9, 1906. ACM is leading the joint effort of the Computer Science Teachers Association, the Computing Research Association, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, the Anita Borg Institute, the National Science Foundation, Google, Intel, and Microsoft.
Software Models Aid Genetic Study
BBC News (12/07/09)
New modeling software called Qlucore is being used by researchers at King's College to study how genes react to toxins. The gene-modeling software can sort through thousands of entries in a spreadsheet very quickly and produce results in hours rather than days or weeks, as was the standard with earlier techniques. One gene test can generate 100,000 or more data points, but Qlucore has significantly reduced the time it takes to analyze that data. "We moved within one year from getting one gene a week to getting information on thousands of genes in a matter of hours. That put a lot of challenges to us," says King's College's Thoas Fioretos, Qlucore's developer. "If you do not have this type of software, it's like sitting in front of an Excel spreadsheet with 6,000 pages. You cannot find patterns in that, you cannot ask if this gene is expressed with another." Despite the success of the modeling technique, researchers say their understanding of how genes work together, or even individually, is not yet complete, says King's College's Stephen Sturzenbaum.
Researchers Build Artificial Immune System to Solve Computational Problems
PhysOrg.com (12/03/09) Zyga, Lisa
Oklahoma State University (OSU) researchers have published a study on the use of artificial immune systems (AIS) in evolutionary algorithms. By copying the way a living body acquires immunity to disease through vaccination, researchers have designed an AIS to more efficiently solve optimization problems. The results show that the biologically motivated approach is better at exploring a greater amount of space than previous methods. Unlike previous forms of AIS, the OSU system capitalizes on the way that vaccines can improve the performance of the immune system. Vaccines enable immune systems to detect new, weakened antigens and develop a biological memory so they can recognize the same antigen in the future. The researchers drew inspiration from how vaccines work in designing the new AIS. They inject the AIS with certain points in the decision space that act as a weak antigen, or vaccine. When comparing the new algorithm, called Vaccine-AIS, to other types of AIS, the researchers found that Vaccine AIS outperformed the others by locating the optimum point in a plot in fewer evaluations. "AIS was originally designed for data mining, anomaly detection, and the like," says OSU's Gary Yen. "Its use as an optimization tool is a very young research area but its performance is drawing interest from researchers."
Single-Atom Transistors Are the Smallest Yet
PC World (12/04/09) Springmann, Alessondra
A team of researchers from Finland and Australia has discovered a functional transistor that has an active region composed of a single atom. Quantum tunneling is used to move electrons between the single phosphorus atom and the leads of the transistor. The tiny device offers precise control of the changes in voltage on an electrode, which could mean a new generation of atom-scale processors might lead to nano-scale electronics such as computers and other devices. The team's focus was not "to build the tiniest transistor for a classical computer, but a quantum bit, which would be the heart of a quantum computer that is being developed worldwide," says Mikko Mottonen, one of the project's researchers.
Are We Invited to the Nanotechnology Party?
Computing (12/03/09) Oxley, Alan
Computers scientists are poised to play a key role in the development of nanotechnology, writes British Computer Society member professor Alan Oxley. Computer scientists can offer the simulations, computer graphics, and other services needed to create passive nanostructures, then nanostructures that perform primitive functions, and then programmable miniscule machines, also called nanites. Moreover, computer scientists can lay the theoretical groundwork for miniscule machines that are capable of creating other nanites that work collaboratively toward a common goal. The building of such miniscule machines is predicted to begin around 2020, and computer science will need to continue to mature to make this a reality. Software agents, networking, and algorithms modeled on collaborative animal behavior will be helpful for programming and controlling the armies of miniscule machines with simple rules. Also, genetic algorithms will be helpful for addressing problems over successive generations. However, computer scientists will have to look at the issue in reverse to deal with nanites that have mutated.
Local Governments Offer Data to Software Trackers
New York Times (12/07/09) P. B1; Miller, Claire Cain
Local governments are trying to make government data more accessible to citizens, and some are turning over data to programmers to make it more usable. One example is Stumble Safely, a Web site that combines Washington, D.C., crime reports with information on sidewalks, bars, and subway stations so a person can map out the least dangerous route home at night. Proponents say that such initiatives can help citizens evaluate government performance. "It will change the way citizens and government interact, but perhaps most important, it's going to change the way elected officials and civil servants deliver programs, services, and promises," predicts San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. By distributing data in easy-to-use formats, states and cities hope that people will generate sites or applications that use the information in ways never considered by local government. "The timing now with the open data movement is really critical because there are a lot of open source tools that really make that data usable," says Eric Gundersen, who helped create the Stumble Safely site. Governments are attempting to make the process of opening up data more open by requesting that people vote for what data sets they want made available. However, there has been resistance from certain government agencies and officials who find the notion of opening up data sets to programmers tantamount to allowing exploitation of information for purely entrepreneurial purposes. Meanwhile, San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C. have hosted contests to encourage software developers to produce applications with their data, and the developers are using the data to build businesses.
New Cell Phone Technology Allows Deaf People to Communicate Anytime, Anywhere
Cornell Chronicle (12/02/09) Ju, Anne
Researchers at Cornell University and the Mobile American Sign Language (ASL) project have created cell phones that enable deaf people to communicate in sign language. Cornell professor Sheila Hemami says the new technology allows deaf people "untethered communication in their native language." The Mobile ASL team designed their phone based on standard videoconferencing technology. The phone is designed to send clear, understandable video over existing limited bandwidth networks. Because ASL requires efficient motion capture, the researchers had to make video compression software that could deliver video at about 10 frames per second. They also had to work within the confines of the standard wireless 2G network, which only allows transmission of video at about 15 to 20 kilobits per second. Frank Ciaramello, a graduate student working on the project, says they studied how ASL developed to make the technology easier for deaf people to use. "The facial expressions are really important in ASL, because they add a lot of information," Ciaramello says. The researchers decided to make the cell phone video clearest in the face and hands, while detail could be spared on the torso and background. The researchers are now perfecting their intelligibility metrics and looking for ways to bring down the cost of integrating the software into the phones.
Optical Pressure Sensors Give Robots the Human Touch
New Scientist (12/01/09) No. 2736, Graham-Rowe, Duncan
Researchers at Belgium's Ghent University have developed artificial skin that uses the detection of light as its feedback mechanism. Jeroen Missinne and colleagues use two layers of parallel polymer strips lying perpendicular to each other to form a grid, and they are separated by a thin sheet of plastic. The polymer strips act like optical fibers due to their shape, which facilitates internal reflection and reduces light loss, as they receive light. Pressure on the flexible skin pushes the strips closer together and allows light to move to neighboring strips. The skin is highly sensitive, and the strips can be as close as 125 micrometers. Missinne demonstrated the artificial skin embedded with optical sensors at the recent IMEC Flexible and Stretchable Electronics workshop in Ghent. The team will continue to conduct tests through the end of the year to prove that the skin is capable of distinguishing between different objects and different patterns of forces. "We're desperate for new materials to let robots be able to feel the world," says Chris Melhuish of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the United Kingdom.
Researchers Develop 3-D Squeezable Input Device
IDG News Service (12/01/09) Kirk, Jeremy
Researchers at Cambridge Consultants have developed a squeezable mouse-like input device called Suma. The Suma device is made with adaptable foam that contains light actuators surrounding a sensor core. When the Suma is squeezed, the actuators detect pressure and movement changes. The signals produced by squeezing the device are processed with Suma's built-in software and then sent to software programs that can accommodate the device. Cambridge Consultant's Duncan Smith says Suma can manipulate the viewpoint of both the user and the object the user is looking at simultaneously, which is not possible with other controllers. Smith says the Suma is "very much a whole picture of the inside of your hand." He says developers also have put an accelerometer inside Suma, which allows for more movement control. Cambridge Consultants is developing several versions of Suma that will be shown in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Cray Studies Exascale Computing in Europe
EE Times (12/02/09) Merritt, Rick
Cray has announced the Exascale Research Initiative less than a month after Intel said it was setting up an exascale research center with European partners. Cray's partnership involves three European institutions, including the University of Edinburgh and the Swiss National Supercomputing Center. The goal of the initiative is to build a supercomputer capable of performing an exaflop, a quintillion calculations per second, by the end of the decade. The research teams will collaborate with Cray's European software partners. Cray has made an undisclosed investment in the University of Edinburgh's new Exascale Technology Center, which is scheduled to be formally launched this month. The Swiss researchers are working with Cray as part of the HP2C program, which is studying future large-scale simulation applications.
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