Welcome to the January 4, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
The Future of Brain-Controlled Devices
CNN.com (01/04/10) Hammock, Anne
Several researchers are developing brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) to create new technologies for use in fields ranging from medicine and military operations to entertainment and video games. BCIs come in two basic varieties--noninvasive, which uses electrodes placed on the scalp to measure brain activity, and invasive, in which electrodes are connected directly to the brain. Georgia Tech University's Melody Moore Jackson leads research in neuroprosthetics and helped develop a smart wheelchair called the Aware Chair, which can be controlled by brain activity. Jackson also is working on an invasive procedure that would enable patients to type messages on a computer using just their thoughts. The University of Washington's Rajesh Rao is using a similar concept to develop robots that can do household chores for paralyzed people. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Ed Boyden says tiny optical devices can be implanted that would enable blind people to see. "We don't know what the limits are yet," Jackson says. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working on a project known as Silent Talk that would allows soldiers to communicate with just their thoughts. Such technologies also open the door to ethical issues. "You can imagine communicating with your friends through the devices, and that opens up a lot of ethical issues," Rao says.
Trying to Add Portability to Movie Files
New York Times (01/04/10) P. B1; Stone, Brad
The Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), an alliance of technology companies and Hollywood studios, is developing a digital standard that consumers could use to rent and buy TV shows and movies once and play them on any device. All of the major Hollywood studios, except for Walt Disney, as well as Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Comcast, Intel, and Best Buy are DECE members. The proposed system would keep track of digital purchases in an online "rights locker." DECE has designed a new file format that will allow any company to create a compatible device. Soon, DECE will announce 21 new members, including Samsung Electronics, Nokia, Motorola, Netflix, Tesco, Cox Communications, and Liberty Global. Disney is planning a similar system called KeyChest, which may involve working with Apple. And Amazon.com recently launched Disc+ On Demand, a service that lets consumers who buy specific DVDs and Blu-ray discs view the same titles for free on demand. DECE says its system is further along, with technical specifications being available to other companies in the next few months and services being available to consumers as early as next year. "The market desperately needs this, but in some senses it is already moving past it toward rental of content over ownership," says IDC's Danielle Levitas. Sony's Mitch Singer says the industry must move fast to embed its technology into digital services and devices. "Consumers shouldn't have to know what's inside," Singer says. "They should just know it will play."
The Real Frankenstein Experiment: One Man's Mission to Create a Living Mind Inside a Machine
Daily Mail (UK) (01/04/10) Hanlon, Michael
Professor Henry Markram has announced that his team will develop the world's first artificial conscious and intelligent mind within a decade through his Blue Brain project. The effort seeks to construct a computerized copy of a human brain within one of the most powerful computers in the world. It is hoped that this mind will achieve self-awareness and become capable of thinking, reasoning, expressing will, and possibly emotional experience. The hub of Markram's experiment is his lab at the Ecole Polytechnique's Brain Mind Institute, and project investors include the Swiss government, IBM, and the European Union. Rather than trying to mimic what a brain does, Markram's strategy is to model the brain's biology from the bottom up by dissecting the mind at the cellular level, analyzing the billions of links between brain cells, and then mapping out these connections into a supercomputer. Markram is convinced that consciousness is a process that emerges once a sufficient level of organized complexity is reached, and the hope is that a digital model of an actual brain will begin to exhibit brain-like behavior. Markram is currently building a software model of a rat's neocortical column in IBM's Blue Gene supercomputer, and the professor speculates that a vastly more efficient, custom-built machine is needed to successfully model a human brain--a milestone that should be achieved before the end of the current decade thanks to exponentially increasing computer power. Markram has decided to keep some of the Blue Brain project's computer coding secret in order to prevent intelligent machines from being used for malevolent purposes, such as creating futuristic weapons.
Where the Jobs Are...
Computing Community Consortium (01/04/10)
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently released a 10-year forecast of job growth that projects "professional and related" occupations will increase by 16.8 percent between 2008 and 2018. The professional and related category, which includes computer science jobs, is expected to be the fastest growing category of the 10 major BLS occupational groups. All occupations are projected to grow an average of 10.1 percent. The professional and related category is comprised of eight occupational clusters, including computer and mathematical jobs. The government forecasts a 22.2 percent increase in computer and mathematical jobs by 2018. Moreover, computer science occupations are projected to account for nearly 60 percent of all job growth among all fields of science and engineering over the next eight years. About 13.4 percent of job growth in science and engineering fields is likely to be in engineering positions.
As the Refrigerator Said to the Hi-Fi...
ICT Results (01/04/10)
Researchers working on the European Union-funded Hydra project have developed a type of service-oriented middleware that can connect different electrical devices through a wireless network. Hydra is designed to reduce the complexity of connecting different devices, using different technologies made by different manufacturers, says Markus Eisenhauer, the project's coordinator. "We have some prototypes and demonstrators running where we have used an ordinary PlayStation 3 as a home control center," Eisenhauer says. Hydra would enable all household appliances, including electricity meters, TVs, refrigerators, stereos, and heating and lighting systems, to be connected to a wireless network. Hydra also could be used in health care, specifically the monitoring of patients in their homes. The system can be programmed to monitor vital signs such as blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and oxygen saturation. The agriculture industry also could use Hydra. In one trial, pigs were fitted with tags to track their movement inside a pen, and heating and cooling systems can be optimized based on whether the pigs are inside or outside their enclosure. Another Hydra trial used sensors to measure soil humidity, which could help farmers pinpoint the best time to sow their crops.
Japan's Robot Revolution Moves From Factory to the Home
Christian Science Monitor (12/31/09) Vol. 102, No. 6, P. 22; Kambayashi, Takehiko
Japan is undergoing a revolution in robot technology as increasingly intelligent robotics make the transition from labs and factories to the outside world and everyday consumer applications. Already in use in Japan are robots that pour drinks, play pool, dance, function as elderly caregivers, clean, serve food, and provide companionship. "We see robots as media just like a mobile phone," says Norihiro Hagita with Kyoto's ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories. "And just like a mobile phone, robots would be indispensable in future." A primary factor fueling Japanese robot development is the country's shrinking workforce, especially in areas such as medical care. To fill this void, Toyo Riki of Osaka has developed several machines--one to greet visitors at hospital entrances and another to help patients with physical rehabilitation. Toyo Riki president Narito Hosomi says young people's unwillingness to learn craftsmen's skills is one reason why advanced robots are needed. In some cases, robots are being developed to handle dirty or dangerous jobs, such as firefighting or planting seeds in rice paddies. Meanwhile, other robots are being designed to perform repetitive tasks in homes or at restaurants. Carnegie Mellon University's Curt Stone notes that Japan is "doing a great job on manipulation and hardware--the ability to make robots do what you want to do."
Q&A: Researcher Karsten Nohl on Mobile Eavesdropping
CNet (01/01/10) Mills, Elinor
German security expert Karsten Nohl made headlines at the recent Chaos Communications Congress hacker conference in Berlin by demonstrating that the encryption function for Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) technology is insecure. Nohl showed how easy it was to eavesdrop on GSM-based cell phones, which account for about 80 percent of the mobile phone market. As part of an open source, distributed computing project launched in August, Nohl released a code book for cracking GSM encryption to the public. The problem with GSM's A5/1 encryption function is that its 64-bit key is not long enough to handle the computing power of today, he says. "When the algorithm was designed 20 years ago when CPU [central processing unit] cycles and storage were much more expensive, it must have seemed a lot more secure," he says. "However, the A5/1 function should have been replaced years ago when researchers first discussed practical attacks." Nohl notes that the tables developed to crack the A5/1 function could not crack A5/3, the newer encryption used in third-generation networks, which also is considered a security patch for GSM networks.
New Visa Proposal to Help Create the Next Big Thing
BBC News (12/31/09) Shiels, Maggie
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) has proposed a startup visa that would allow foreign entrepreneurs to stay in the United States to start companies that are potentially profitable as part of a proposed retooling of the U.S. immigration system. The goal of the visa is to simplify the U.S.'s EB-5 visa system, which was originally set up 20 years ago to attract foreign money to the United States. Every year 10,000 EB-5 visas become available, but securing one requires applicants to invest $1 million and create 10 full-time positions. The startup visas would be awarded to foreign entrepreneurs whose business plan attracts either $100,000 from an angel investor or $250,000 from a primarily U.S.-based venture capital operating company. Applicants also must demonstrate that their business will produce a profit and at least $1 million in revenue, or create five to 10 jobs. Critics have said that such a proposal will take away jobs from U.S. citizens, but advocates counter that new jobs will be created. "If just 10,000 thousand startup visas were made available this would mean over 3,000 additional new innovative and funded companies would be based in the U.S. every year," says YouNoodle co-founder Kirill Makharinsky. "They would generate more than 10,000 jobs on average every year. In the first 10 years that would add up to over 500,000 highly-skilled new jobs."
Intelligent Wheelchairs Will Navigate on Their Own
Asian News International (12/30/09)
A smart wheelchair developed at Lehigh University will be different from previous intelligent models in that the technology will cross-reference the maps it makes of its surroundings, using a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) system and other sensors, with three-dimensional (3D) maps loaded into its memory. The Lehigh team is developing the 3D maps. The smart wheelchair will be able to detect and avoid stationary objects such as trees, poles, parking meters, and corners. The Lehigh team also plans to develop software that will enable the chair to predict the location of moving obstacles such as pedestrians and cars, and avoid them. Lehigh professor John Spletzer says the team wants to take wheelchair autonomy to another level. "It will not be limited to structured indoor environments," he says. "Instead, it investigates the much more difficult problem of autonomous operations in unstructured environments outdoors."
Japan's Mobile Phone Marvels Go Back to the Future
Agence France Presse (12/30/09) Zeller, Frank
NTT DoCoMo envisions a future where a stressed-out businessman may unwind from his hectic life by taking a virtual stroll through medieval Tokyo and chatting with the avatars of his real-world friends while admiring pollution-free views of Mount Fuji from the comfort of his living room. He would be wearing three-dimensional glasses and moving about by waving a super-networked mobile phone that is attached to his wrist like a watch. The wearable phone that DoCoMo envisions for 2020 will be fitted with a small flip-out screen and capable of projecting images onto a wall or into thin air in the form of a hologram. It also will serve as an ID to enter the family home or to board a flight and to video-chat with friends and the office and as a remote control to give orders to home appliances. Partially charged kinetically through body movements, the device will be equipped with simultaneous translation software to connect the user to anyone, anywhere, anytime. "By having a phone you can do almost everything," says DoCoMo's Takeshi Natsuno. DoCoMo co-develops phones with manufacturers. Recent offerings include Fujitsu's bright-yellow Kids Phone F05A, which features a pull-string alarm that emits a shrill noise and sends an email alert to the parents that instantly pinpoints the child's location. The two halves of another phone are held together magnetically and can be easily separated, allowing users to talk and surf the Internet at the same time, or to split the device into a TV and a remote control. Other products include a cell phone with a small solar panel that in a pinch can give the user a few extra minutes of power, a phone with a 10-megapixel camera, and a range of waterproof models.
The Year in Robotics
Technology Review (12/29/09) Grifantini, Kristina
In 2009, researchers developed new robots that can perform a variety of tasks, including medical rehabilitation, military operations, and mimicking social skills. Many researchers think giving robots social skills will help them assist people in homes, schools, and hospitals. A Carnegie Mellon University group created a robot that knows when to speak based on eye contact, while University of California researchers built a machine-learning program that allows a robotic head to develop more accurate facial expressions. A group of Swiss inventors created generations of robots that evolved to deceive each other when exposed to limited resources. University of Calgary researchers modified a Roomba to move away from a user when it detects high stress levels. Many robots were developed to help improve rehabilitation by monitoring and adjusting a patient's movement. This year also saw great development in robotic grasping technology. Columbia University researchers were able to make more efficient robotic hands by limiting their dexterity to be similar to that of a human hand. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency developed the Chembot, which can squeeze under doors and other small openings.
'Super-Needle' Training Surgeons
BBC News (12/30/09) Griffiths, Hywel
Bangor University researchers have developed a medical training program that can benefit patients and doctors. The ImaGINe-S simulator uses technology called force-feedback to recreate the feeling of guiding a surgical needle into the body. Force-feedback allows the user to feel the pressure of pushing the virtual needle and sliding a wire through the body. "What we're trying to do is create a virtual patient that a doctor or nurse can practice on," says Bangor professor Nigel John. The user wears three-dimensional glasses to see an image of the patient and uses two handheld devices to simulate the scanner and needle. Many modern procedures need minimal intervention with a needle, as opposed to full open surgery, says Royal Liverpool Hospital professor Derek Gould. Interventional radiology is known as pin-hole surgery because it creates such a tiny puncture in the patient. As pin-hole surgery becomes more common, the ImaGINe-S team hopes to see the program being used in many different health services.
10 Fool-proof Predictions for the Internet in 2020
Network World (01/04/09) Marsan, Carolyn Duffy
Network World offers 10 “surefire bets” about what the Internet will look like in 10 years. They include: 1. As computer scientists work to improve the Internet's design, the global network is expected to change dramatically over the next 10 years. The Internet currently has about 1.7 billion users, but the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) expects the Internet will have nearly 5 billion users by 2020. 2. The Internet also will be more geographically dispersed in 10 years, spreading to more developing regions. 3. Ten years from now, the Internet will be a network of things, not computers. Today, the Internet has approximately 575 million host computers, but the NSF expects infrastructure sensors alone to surpass the number of host computers by several orders of magnitude. 4. The Internet also will carry more content. Cisco estimates that global Internet traffic will increase to about 44 exabytes per month by 2012. 5. In 2020, the Internet will be wireless. In the second quarter of 2009, the number of mobile subscribers hit 257 million, representing an 85 percent increase year-over year for high-speed data networking technologies. By 2014, approximately 2.5 billion people will subscribe to some form of mobile broadband, according to Informa. 6. More services will use cloud computing. The NSF is encouraging researchers to develop better ways to map users and information in a cloud-computing infrastructure. 7. Ten years from now, the Internet also will be greener. Future Internet architecture needs to be more energy efficient, as the amount of energy used by the Internet doubled between 2000 and 2006, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 8. Network management will be more automated in 2020. The NSF is researching new network management tools for the future Internet, including automated reboot systems, self-diagnosis protocols, finer-grained data collection, and better event tracking. 9. The Internet will not rely on constant connectivity. Researchers are studying communication techniques that can handle delays or easily forward information to different users. 10. The Internet will attract more hackers, and computer scientists will work to make it more secure.
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