Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the December 14, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


In Shift, U.S. Talks to Russia on Internet Security
New York Times (12/13/09) P. A1; Markoff, John; Kramer, Andrew E.

The U.S. government has reversed its policy toward bolstering cybersecurity by initiating consultation with Russia, rather than the other way round. Officials familiar with the negotiations say the Obama administration understood that more countries are developing cyberweapons and that halting a global cyberweapons arms race required a new strategy. In November, a delegation led by a Russian Security Council member convened in Washington, D.C. with members of the U.S. National Security Council and the departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security, and several weeks later the United States agreed to talk about cyberwarfare and cybersecurity with representatives of the United Nations committee on disarmament and international security. Russia has espoused the idea that an international pact is the best instrument for tackling the growing challenges posed by military operations to civilian computer networks, and people familiar with the discussions say the U.S.'s resistance to the concept has started to wear down. Viktor V. Sokolov with Russia's Institute of Information Security says the latest round of discussions signals the opening of negotiations between the two powers on a possible cyberspace disarmament treaty. An anonymous U.S. State Department official says the United States has not resisted the idea of such a treaty, and that it is hoping to use the discussions to boost international cooperation in combating cybercrime. In contrast, the official says Russia has been pursuing the restriction of cyberweapons development. U.S. officials involved in the negotiations say that in addition to the cyberweapons ban, Russia is focusing on a prohibition against cyberterrorism, which they claim is an attempt to ban "politically destabilizing speech."

Slam Dunk for Future Smart Robots
ICT Results (12/14/09)

For 30 years there has been intense research in the Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) field of robotics, which is the process by which machines employ various sensors to concurrently map out their environment and ascertain their location. "SLAM is an essential building block of autonomous robots because robots, such as planetary rovers and undersea research craft, cannot be provided with an accurate map beforehand," says Politecnico di Milano University roboticist Matteo Matteucci. "In such situations, the only solution is for them to create a representation of the environment as they go and determine their location in it by themselves." Matteucci has led the Rawseeds project, a multi-university effort to create a novel set of free benchmarking tools so that fellow roboticists can compare SLAM strategies and algorithms against each other. The researchers launched the benchmarking process by developing a unique robotic test platform that incorporated six distinct vision, laser, and sonar sensor types, which they used to capture synchronized sensor data for SLAM. They then ran the platform in different indoor and outdoor environments, adjusting factors such as lighting conditions or the presence of people or moving objects. "Our goal was to establish a common, predefined way of measuring the performance of SLAM algorithms that differ by approach and sensors used--benchmarks that other algorithms could then be compared against," Matteucci says. Future-generation robots could become smarter through the new benchmarks, he says.

Learning Computer Science From Scratch
National Science Foundation (12/10/09) Cruikshank, Dana W.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher Mitchel Resnick and colleagues at the MIT Media Lab have enjoyed great success with Scratch, a computer programming language geared toward children ages eight to 16. Scratch users write code by connecting graphical blocks together. Concurrent with the launch of Scratch two years ago was the rollout of the Scratch Web site, where programmers can publish their Scratch projects online and share them with others. Nearly 800,000 projects have been uploaded to the site since its launch, and the site has nurtured an online community that enables sharing and collaboration on Scratch projects. Resnick's motivation behind Scratch's creation was to make programming fun for kids as part of an effort to get young people more interested in computer science as well as achieve fluency in digital technologies. Resnick and his team believe Scratch is an important tool through which computer science concepts can be introduced to students. The team is creating support materials and cooperating with educators on the best way to use Scratch in the classroom. Resnick believes that digital fluency is becoming increasingly essential for many careers, including those that are outside of technology, such as the creative arts. He notes, for example, that Scratch is being used in English courses as a tool to help produce book reports.

Motion-Sensing Phones That Predict Your Every Move
New Scientist (12/13/09) Marks, Paul

Technical University of Delft researchers have developed a smartphone program that learns users' behavior patterns to provide better cell phone service. The program, developed by Delft's Arjen Peddemors and colleagues, uses predictable actions such as locking the front door, opening the garage, or getting into the car to create an electronic signature of particular events. A neural network program installed on the phone is then trained to predict what happens next and act accordingly. If a certain route takes the user out of cell phone service, the program can pause downloads or negotiate with the cell phone network to maintain 3G capacity. Peddemors says the idea of predicting mobility events could be useful in situations when preventing the loss of data is critical, such as the transmission of physiological data in heart-rate and blood-pressure machines. "By predicting the patient's movements, the upload of that critical data won't be attempted unless their behavior says it can be completed," he says.

Scientist Creates Virtual Evolution
CanWest News Service (12/11/09) Hill, Sharon

University of Windsor professor Robin Gras has developed computer simulation software that can track evolutionary processes and study ecosystems. "We have the ability to make fast computations of things that take millions of years in order to happen," Gras says. "Here in our computer, we can see that in a few days." He says the program is different from other simulation programs because it has a higher level of complexity for individual behaviors. The program accounts for multiple factors that describe the internal state of a species, including fear, hunger, sexual needs, curiosity, and satisfaction. The virtual species use these factors to help make decisions such as evading predators, searching for food, eating, reproducing, socializing, and exploring. Gras says the program can help scientists understand how species emerge, survive, and become extinct, although he says it will take years to perfect it. Gras says the key to the program is being able to jump forward and backward millions of years at a time to observe changes in behavior and to learn how and why the changes happened.

With Draft Standard, 3D Web Closer to Reality
CNet (12/10/09) Shankland, Stephen

The Khronos Group and Mozilla have announced the release of WebGL, a new standard for enabling Web browsers to support three-dimensional (3D) graphics. The draft standard is based on the Khronos Group's OpenGL graphics interface and lets Javascript developers take advantage of the fact that most video cards already support 3D graphics. The group is looking for commentary from Web developers and people who might be involved with WebGL, so that a final specification can be produced in early 2010, says WebGL chairman Arun Ranganathn. Although Microsoft has not announced whether it will provide support for WebGL in Internet Explorer, all four of Internet Explorer's major competitors have endorsed WebGL, and developing versions of Firefox, Safari, and Chrome already have it built in. Eventually, building 3D support into the Web could advance the user interfaces of Web applications. WebGL is not the only 3D Web standard under development. Google is developing its own O3D project, which is currently a browser plug-in, but will be built directly into Chrome.

3D Microchips for More Powerful and Environmentally-Friendly Computers
Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (12/10/09) Grosse, Jerome

The IBM Research Lab in Zurich, Switzerland, is collaborating with Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the Zurich Federal Institutes of Technology to develop three-dimensional microprocessors capable of transferring data 10 times faster while reducing energy consumption and heat. The CMOSAIC project builds on the idea of multicores, but will stack them vertically to allow the entire surface of the core to be connected to the next layer. The approach will allow for shorter and more numerous interconnections. Also, the team plans to insert 50-micron-diameter channels containing a cooling liquid between each core layer. The cooling liquid would exit the circuit in the form of vapor, be brought back to the liquid state by a condenser, and finally pumped back into the processor. The team plans to have a prototype of the cooling system and test it under actual operating conditions, although without a processor, next year. The microprocessors should be ready for use in supercomputers by 2015, and the version with an integrated cooling system could be commercially available by 2020.

'One Keypad Per Child' Lets Schoolchildren Share Screen to Learn Math
UW News (12/10/09) Hickey, Hannah

University of Washington (UW) computer science undergraduate students have developed MultiLearn, a system that enables up to four students to share a single computer to perform interactive math problems. The program quadruples the number of computers available for math exercises. MultiLearn, developed by UW undergraduates Clint Tseng, Heather Underwood, and Sunil Garg, was designed for use in developing countries where computer sharing is common. MultiLearn is based on another program developed at UW, called MultiPoint, which connects multiple mice to a single computer. MultiLearn connects four numeric keypads to a standard computer running Windows software. Early qualitative tests of the system in India showed positive results. Tseng and Garg are planning a trip to India to conduct a control trial, which will compare students learning with MultiLearn to students using existing math software. Further tests on the software will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to help the program adapt to individual children's needs. "In the long term, the best-case scenario is that there would be an independent developer community that takes off around MultiLearn in parts of the developing world where people have to share computers," says UW project adviser Joyojeet Pal.

Dinosaurs Hop, Skip and Jump Into 21st Century
University of Manchester (12/09/09) Sitford, Mikaela

Researchers from the universities of Manchester, Oregon, and Yale have used Hector, the U.K. Research Council's supercomputer, to gain a better understanding of how dinosaurs moved and how fast. The researchers determined that hopping hadrosaurs to be the fastest, which made sense considering the duck-billed dinosaurs were roaming the Earth with much larger predators. "We gave the computer simulation a completely free rein to come up with whatever form of locomotion it could," says Manchester's Bill Sellers. "And indeed from a completely random set of starting conditions the model generated a full range of possible gaits: Bipedal running and hopping as well as quadrupedal trotting, pacing, and galloping." The hopping gait yielded the fastest speed, followed by quadrupedal galloping and bipedal running. However, the 20th fastest supercomputer in the world also showed that the force from hopping would have destroyed the skeleton of the hadrosaurs. The team has made the software and models available for free as downloads, enabling computer users to simulate their own dinosaurs.

WiGig Fast Wireless Group Finishes Standard
IDG News Service (12/10/09) Lawson, Stephen

A standard for a technology to deliver as much as 7 gigabits per second (Gbps) over an extremely high unlicensed frequency band has been completed by the Wireless Gigabit (WiGig) Alliance. The group says that WiGig will be capable of supporting high-definition video streams or allowing users to link laptops to desktop docks and displays. The standard will likely get a leg up from its strong support and relationship to Wi-Fi. The alliance originally said that WiGig's peak speed would be about 6 Gbps, and at that rate it would have 10 times the capacity of the fastest Wi-Fi technology today. The group also has said that WiGig networks should be able to operate over distances greater than 10 meters thanks to its beam-forming feature. WiGig runs in the high 60 GHz frequency, which is unlicensed in the United States and other parts of the world. All WiGig gear will be capable of communicating at the basic level of exchanging IP packets, but the WiGig Alliance's Mark Grodzinsky says the group also is developing protocol adaptation layers to optimize the performance of specific applications. The Wi-Fi Alliance is working on IEEE 802.11AD, which also is a specification for high-speed wireless local access networks at 60 GHz, but the Wi-Fi Alliance has said that WiGig appears to complement Wi-Fi.

Southampton Supercomputer to Crunch Computations
University of Southampton (ECS) (12/09/09) Lewis, Joyce

The new University of Southampton supercomputer, which will go live in January 2010, will enable students in the school's Institute for Complex Systems Simulation (ICSS) to run a battery of tests and simulations that have never been possible before. The new supercomputer will be one of the fastest in the world, capable of more than 74 trillion calculations per second, and was built using IBM iDataPlex server technology. Students plan to conduct simulations in synthetic biology, transportation and power networks, and glaciation and oceanic processes. "We want to help students tackle modeling problems with relevance to the real social world," says Southampton professor Seth Bullock, director of the ICSS. Other students are expected to research the socio-economic modeling of business, finance, and society. Bullock also says bionanotechnology researchers will need supercomputer technology to study the construction of molecular machines and how drugs interact with living systems. "The Southampton supercomputer will enable us to build and explore new models of these kinds of complex systems," he says.

New Stanford Techniques Make Carbon-Based Integrated Circuits More Practical
Stanford Report (CA) (12/08/09) Orenstein, David

Stanford University engineers have built a chip using computing and storage elements fashioned from carbon nanotubes. They consider the device to be the most advanced of its kind because they have developed a technique to weed out the nanotube tangles that give rise to short circuits. "We are now able to construct devices and build circuits on a wafer scale as opposed to previous 'one-of-a-kind' type demonstrations," says Stanford professor H.-S. Philip Wong. The nanotube transistors are clustered in the same cascading sequences required to generate computational logic and memory, and the process used to fabricate them is compatible with the industrial very large scale integration (VLSI) manufacturing standard. The chips use three methods developed at Stanford to circumvent endemic issues affiliated with nanotubes. One enables transistors to function irrespective of whether the component nanotubes lie perfectly straight, while another allows VLSI-scale manufacturing of nanotube transistors on a chip. The third method can reliably remove metallic nanotubes that always conduct electricity even when they should not, and it is based on the idea of exposing the nanotubes to high current in order to break them up. The Stanford team has created a grid of electrodes that execute this operation. Stanford researchers also have successfully built the first multilayer carbon nanotube three-dimensional integrated circuit.

The A-Z of Programming Languages: MATLAB
Computerworld Australia (12/09/09) Edwards, Kathryn

Cleve Moler, the creator of the MATLAB programming language, says he originally developed the language to solve problems involving computations with matrices and mathematics. "The original intention was that it would be easy to use and that it would have solid mathematics underlying it," he notes. MATLAB has since transitioned into a general purpose programming language. Moler says MATLAB is used to design everyday products such as hearing aids and automobile electronics and he attributes much of its popularity to its graphics and plotting capabilities. "Whenever I read a scientific or engineering publication or journal article and there's a plot in it I look to see if it's made from MATLAB," he says. "It's [a] sort of puzzle; they don't say if it is a MATLAB plot--they don't need to--but there are clues in the way the axes are labeled and so on that indicates a MATLAB plot."

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