Welcome to the December 21, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
New Programs Aim to Lure Young Into Digital Jobs
New York Times (12/21/09) Lohr, Steve
Educators and technologists say both the image of computing work and computer science education in high schools need to change to fill what are expected to be the new American jobs of the future. Professional organizations like the Association for Computing Machinery and the National Science Foundation are working on this effort, as are major technology companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Intel. These organizations participated in National Computer Science Education Week, which took place during the week of Dec. 7, and was marked with events in schools and online activities. Technologists want to highlight the steady march and broad reach of computing so that their message resonates with parents and school administrators enough to convince local school districts to expand their computer science programs. Labor experts say that a solid grounding in computing can generate rewards well beyond computer science, noting that hybrid careers that combine computing with other fields will increasingly be the new jobs of the future. Robert Reich, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and former labor secretary in the Clinton administration, says, "[m]ost of them will not be pure technology jobs, designing computer software and hardware products, but they will involve applying computing and technology-influenced skills to every industry. Think Geek Squads in other fields." The Washington Post, meanwhile, quotes ACM CEO John R. White in a recently posted YouTube video for Computer Science Education Week that explains why the number of jobs for software engineers and network systems analysts is growing fast. "Computing is fueling countless advances,” says White, “from improving communications and advancing health care to protecting national security and improving energy efficiency to helping understand the depths of the universe."
Disentangling a Billion Dollar Opportunity--Quantum Information
Institute of Physics (12/18/09)
Leading representatives from academia, government, and industry recently met at the Institute of Physics to discuss the most recent advances in quantum information processing (QIP) and how to make the most of new opportunities available in the field. Venture capitalist Hermann Hauser gave a presentation in which he argued that an additional 50 million to 100 million pounds needs to be invested to give the United Kingdom a global lead in a field with major market opportunities, potentially reaching 5 billion to 10 billion pounds in returns. Commercial applications associated with QIP progress include secure communications and giving computers the ability to solve problems traditional computers are unable to handle. In communications, quantum processing promises to deliver quantum cryptography, while in computer processing the benefits will come from quantum systems' ability to exist in mutually contradictory states simultaneously, which allows computers to explore a far wider range of possibilities than conventional machines. "There is spectacular potential in the field of sensors, quantum cryptography, and computing," says Imperial College London professor Sir Peter Knight. "The U.K. started the second quantum revolution with the exploitation of quantum coherence in 1990 and now we need to ensure that we maintain a lead."
Real-Time Action in a Virtual World
Futurity.org (12/17/09) Strebel, Erika
A new digital system developed by the University of Illinois and the University of California, Berkeley enables people in different locations to interact in real time in a shared virtual space. Illinois professor Peter Bajcsy says the tele-immersive environment captures, transmits, and displays three-dimensional (3D) movement in real time. "It's a virtual environment that is the product of real-time imaging, not the result of programming 3D [computer-aided design] models," Bajcsy says. "Nobody has to be supplied with equipment to enable imaging and 3D reconstruction." Clusters of visible and thermal-spectrum digital cameras and large liquid crystal displays (LCDs) are deployed around a space. Information from those cameras are recorded, rendered in a 3D virtual space, and transmitted to another location. Participants at each site can see their own digital clones and their counterparts at the other site on the LCD screens. Bajcsy says the goal is to make a system portable and affordable. The researchers also are working on making data transmission more efficient. A single camera generates about 460 megabytes of data for every second of real-time footage, but only a single gigabyte of bandwidth is available, which poses a problem when systems with multiple cameras are used, Bajcsy says.
Carnegie Mellon Researcher Says Privacy Concerns Could Limit Benefits From Real-Time Data Analysis
Carnegie Mellon News (12/17/09) Spice, Byron
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) computer scientist Tom M. Mitchell says society will be unable to capitalize on real-time data analysis technologies unless questions are resolved regarding how much of a person's life can be observed and by whom. Mitchell notes that data-mining techniques are increasingly being applied to personal activities, conversations, and movements, such as deducing people's movements and patterns by monitoring their smartphone. "The potential benefits of mining such data range from reducing traffic congestion and pollution, to limiting the spread of disease, to better using public resources such as parks, buses, and ambulance services," he says. "But risks to privacy from aggregating these data are on a scale that humans have never before faced." Mitchell says technology could help limit the misuse of data. One potential approach is to mine data from numerous organizations without ever aggregating data into a central repository. For example, individual hospitals could analyze their medical records to see what treatments work best for a particular flu strain, and use cryptography to encode the results and protect patient privacy, releasing only the findings. Mitchell says a public discussion about how to rewrite the rules of data collection, ownership, and privacy will be even more important than technological solutions. "Until these issues are resolved, they are likely to be the limiting factor in realizing the potential of these new data to advance our scientific understanding of society and human behavior, and to improve our daily lives," he says.
Complex Integrated Circuits Made of Carbon Nanotubes
Technology Review (12/17/09) Bourzac, Katherine
Stanford University researchers have developed the first three-dimensional (3D) carbon nanotube circuits. Three-dimensional nanotube circuits could be a major step toward making nanotube computers, which could be faster and use less power than silicon chips. Stanford's research demonstrates that it is possible to make stacked circuits using carbon nanotubes. Stacked circuits contain more processing power in a defined space, and do a better job of dissipating heat. The Stanford circuit designs allow for the creation of more complex nanotube circuits despite the material's limitations. When arrays of nanotubes are grown to make circuits, there is a mix of semiconducting nanotubes and metallic nanotubes, which will cause electrical shorts if they are not eliminated. Previous efforts have focused on creating methods for growing straight, pure nanotubes, but the Stanford researchers instead focused on mitigating any defects to make sure the system still works. The researchers use what Stanford professor Subhasish Mitra calls a "dumb" layout. A stamp is used to transfer a flat-lying, aligned array of carbon nanotubes grown on a quartz substrate to a silicon wafer. Those nanotubes are then topped with metal electrodes and an insulating layer is inserted between the nanotubes and the wafer's surface to act as a back gate. A top gate is then added so that it will not connect with any misaligned tubes. Circuits are then etched to remove metal electrodes that are not needed for the final circuit design. The stamping and electrode-growth procedures are repeated to stack as many layers as needed before the final etching process for a 3D circuit.
Sign Language Puzzle Solved
PhysOrg.com (12/15/09) Edwards, Lin
American Sign Language contains more information and is less redundant than spoken English, according to scientist Andrew Chong and colleagues at Princeton University. The conclusion comes after measuring the frequency of handshapes in videos of signing on Web sites and videos of conversations in sign language recorded on campus. The team found that the information content of the handshapes averaged 0.5 bits per shape less than the theoretical maximum, while the information content of the fundamental units of spoken English is about three bits below the maximum possible. The finding helps explain why signers are able to keep up with speakers, even though they make hand gestures and handshapes at a slower pace. The research is key for the development of automated sign recognition technology. Researchers need to understand sign language better in order to encode and transmit it electronically by means other than video recordings.
Give a Humanist a Supercomputer...
Chronicle of Higher Education (12/16/09) Howard, Jennifer
Humanities researchers involved in the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Energy's high-performance computing (HPC) competition provided updates on their "computationally intensive" humanities projects during a recent Coalition for Networked Information membership meeting in Washington, D.C. A Tufts University team is using supercomputing resources to mine classical texts in the enormous Perseus Digital Library. Meanwhile, David Koller, at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, is using HPC resources to create digitized, three-dimensional models of cultural objects from museums and archaeological sites. Koller used a complex algorithmic alchemy to convert photographs of the objects into high-resolution images, which offer views from all angles and detail that extends to the level of individual chisel marks. The humanities researchers used HPC resources at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Although HPC resources are more available at universities, Koller believes there need to be more people who know how to help computers and humanities researchers talk to each other.
School of Computing Develops Prize-Winning Renal Diagnosis Software
University of Kent (12/14/09)
System for Early Intervention in Kidney Disease (SEIK), a renal diagnosis system developed by the University of Kent and East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, has taken second place in the 2009 Innovation in Renal Medicine national competition. Using SEIK, doctors are able to identify early renal referrals that may have gone undetected due to the lack of symptoms. SEIK also is credited with reducing the number of emergency referrals and enabling hospitals to use resources more effectively for scheduling referrals and treatment. The system is designed to analyze anonymous data from patient records, such as blood test results, blood pressure, and drug regimes; and to use a set of results to determine which patients are at risk of kidney problems. SEIK makes recommendations for care and referrals when necessary. Doctors are able to match the anonymous data and recommendations to the corresponding patient. "What started as prototype software written by an MSc student has developed into a regional medical service and has begun to have a national influence," says Kent's Roger Cooley.
Making MuSyC: Scientists Explore Energy Efficiency in Multi-Scale Computing Systems
UCSD News (12/15/09) Ramsey, Doug
The University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and nine other universities are collaborating on the Multi-Scale Systems Center (MuSyC), a new research center that will focus on improving the design of computing systems, particularly as it relates to energy efficiency. "Energy is one of the key issues to be solved in order for systems to work more efficiently," says UCSD professor Tajana Simunic Rosing. "At a very small scale such as a brain-machine interface, without energy you cannot do anything at all. At a very large scale such as a data center, if you are not efficient about how you deal with energy, you go bankrupt." The researchers say the project's multi-scale approach comes from the recognition that a new generation of applications is emerging that will run in distributed form on platforms that unite high-performance computing clusters with broad classes of mobile systems and large groups of sensors. By focusing on energy efficiency, MuSyC plans to lay a foundation for "energy smart" distributed systems that are aware of the balance between energy availability and demand, and are capable of adjusting their behavior through dynamic and adaptive optimization. The center's research agenda is initially structured to explore distributed sensor and control systems, large-scale systems, and small-scale systems. The center also may explore intermediate-scale systems such as mobile and portable devices, depending on additional funding after the center's first year of operation.
NTU and EDB Launch S$50 Million Integrated Circuit Design Research Centre
Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) (12/15/09)
Nanyang Technological University and Singapore's Economic Development Board (EDB) have launched the Integrated Circuit (IC) Design Center of Excellence. The center, named VIRTUS, aims to further the development of ultra-low-power integrated circuits for use in consumer, medical, and clean technology. The center also was established to address the global shortage of IC design engineers, especially in the area of analog and mixed signal IC design. VIRTUS will collaborate with universities, top research institutions, and industrial partners to pursue research and development in IC design and technology. "Electronics is a key enabling technology for today's high-tech world," says EDB's Damian Chan. "The EDB has identified four new growth areas--green electronics, bioelectronics, plastic electronics, and security--and VIRTUS' research areas are well aligned with the new growth areas of green electronics and bioelectronics." In addition to its primary focus of design, innovation, and enterprise, VIRTUS is also committed to training more than 100 postgraduate students and researchers in the next five years.
HP Researchers Try to Tell You Who Your Friends Are
San Jose Mercury News (CA) (12/14/09) Bailey, Brandon
Hewlett-Packard (HP) Labs researcher Bernardo Huberman and colleagues are studying how people interact and share information on digital networks. Huberman says his research takes place at the intersection of social behavior and information technology. Earlier this year their work led to a mobile phone application that gives users a constantly updated list of their most frequent contacts. A new project is testing a computer program that will automatically position items on a Web site using an algorithm that predicts their popularity. HP believes research into social computing fits into its efforts to expand its role in cloud computing, and experts agree that there is commercial value in understanding social behavior in the high-tech world. As part of Huberman's efforts to discover a formula that will predict which items will draw the most interest, Huberman and his team have been tracking the popularity of items posted on YouTube and Digg.com. The research resulted in software that predicts popularity, partially based on how new an item is and how many hits or downloads it has received in its recent past. Huberman says the program, called i-catcher, can determine how long an item should be displayed prominently to maximize attention and when another item should be put in its place.
Handheld Touch Screen Device May Lead to Mobile Fingerprint ID
NIST Tech Beat (12/15/09) Brown, Evelyn
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed software for a handheld touch-screen device that identifies fingerprints and faces. The original objective was to design and compile the requirements for the software as requested by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which needed it to run on a handheld device with a touch screen about the size of an index card. A major challenge was understanding what functions are the most important while paring down the visual interface to a miniature screen. The NIST researchers developed a tool that could take pictures of fingerprints and faces and send the data wirelessly to a central hub for analysis. However, NIST researchers decided to take the concept further to see if they could scale the design down to fit a screen only 2 inches by 3 inches. The researchers are now working with other security agencies on a program called Mobile ID, which is intended to help officers identify people quickly and easily on the scene, instead of taking people back to a station for fingerprinting. The next step is to integrate an actual fingerprint sensor into the demo program.
Learning to Love to Hate Robots
New Scientist (12/14/09) Barras, Colin
Several studies have recently been conducted to determine how humans and robots interact and how to improve the human-robot relationship. For example, a Carnegie Mellon University study examined how people responded to the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. The researchers found that people had low expectations, which Roomba then exceeded. In another study, the University of Wisconsin, Madison's Bilge Mutlu observed how hospital workers responded to TUG, a robot that carries medical supplies from ward to ward. Mutlu found that TUG was a polarizing presence. Some workers loved the robot and found it pleasant, while others hated it and found it annoying. Researchers are now trying to design robots to be more aesthetically pleasing. University College London's Kathleen Richardson says that researchers "design lots of robots to look like children so that people will imagine they have a more childlike mentality." Better-looking robots also may help humans to be more forgiving of mistakes. Although the robots are functional, it is the lack of social skills that is coming between robots and humans. "If you are going to design robots with human-like capabilities, you have to design the appropriate social behavior that goes along with it," Mutlu says.
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