Welcome to the January 20, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
U.S. Keeps Science Lead, But Other Countries Gain
Wall Street Journal (01/16/10) P. A5; Lahart, Justin
The United States remains the world's leader in science and technology, based on factors such as gross dollars spent, relative spending on research, research articles published, and patents granted, according to the National Science Board's biennial report on science and engineering. The report says the U.S. accounted for nearly one third of the $1.1 trillion spent on research and development (R&D) worldwide in 2007. From 1998 to 2007, R&D spending grew between five and six percent annually in the United States, Japan, and the European Union. However, R&D spending in India, South Korea, and Taiwan grew an average of nine to 10 percent per year during that period, and Chinese spending grew by more than 20 percent per year. Out of approximately 760,000 research articles published in 2008, 25 percent were written by U.S. researchers. Chinese scientists published about eight percent of the research articles, up from one percent in 1988. U.S.-based inventors accounted for 49 percent of the patents granted in 2008, down from 55 percent in 1995.
China Details Homemade Supercomputer Plan
Technology Review (01/19/10) Mims, Christopher
Researchers at the Chinese Institute of Computing Technology (ICT) have built a supercomputer using only home-grown microprocessors. The supercomputer, known as the Dawning 6000, will run Linux and will be completed by mid 2010 at the latest, says ICT's Weiwu Hu. The Dawning 6000 is part of ICT's Loongson family of computers, which all will use chips based on the MIPS instruction set. The new supercomputer uses Loongson 3 chips in clusters of up to 16 cores. "This is a very high-performance MIPS architecture where, when it's run in a cluster configuration, it becomes very powerful," says MIPS Technologies' Art Swift. Some analysts estimate this configuration could require as few as 782 16-core chips. The main differences between the Loongson 3 chip and earlier versions is it includes hardware translation of x86 instructions and it uses multiple cores, each capable of processing commands independently. One component not included in the Loongson 3 is multithreading, which allows a single core to execute multiple instructions simultaneously, and is included in some Intel and Sun chips. The Loongson 3 could be used in everything from desktop computers to set-top boxes.
New Toolbar to Aid Web Accessibility
University of Southampton (ECS) (01/19/10) Lewis, Joyce
A team at the University of Southampton is working on a toolbar that promises to make the Web more accessible. The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) TechDis toolbar is designed to read text aloud and check spelling. It also offers a dictionary, text enlargement, color, and font changes. Moreover, users do not need specially installed assistive technologies to use the JISC TechDis toolbar with Web services such as wikis, blogs, social networks, and Twitter. "The toolbar, which is quick and easy to install, will make Web sites a lot easier for people to use," says toolbar developer Sebastian Skuse. "For example, a visually impaired user can switch any Web page into a high contrast mode, increase the text size, or have the page read to them." The team will now pursue beta testing of the toolbar, which can be downloaded for free and works with any platform. Skuse says the team also is considering extending the toolbar for use on mobile devices.
Organized Chaos Gets Robots Going
Max Planck Society (01/17/10) Beck, Christina
Gottingen scientists have created a walking robot that can switch between multiple gaits depending on the surrounding environment. The robot uses a single central pattern generator, which is a tiny network consisting of two circuit elements. Using several interconnected sensors, the robot's central pattern generator analyzes the input signals and generates the appropriate gait. The connection between the sensors and the central pattern generator can be preprogrammed or learned through the robot's experience. With further development, the robot will be equipped with a memory device which will allow it to complete movements even if certain obstacles are out of view of the sensors.
Synthetic Dialogue: Researchers Endowing Computers With the Gift of Gab
RPI News (01/19/10) Mullaney, Michael
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) researchers are developing unified theories of language and cognition, which would allow for more meaningful linguistic interaction between humans and computers. "The goal of our project, quite simply, is to make computers understand language," says RPI professor Nicholas Cassimatis. The project requires developing a cognitive architecture that mimics the structure of an intelligent mind. The new architecture will work with linguistic and artificial intelligence to overcome traditional challenges faced in teaching natural language to computers, such as decoding ambiguous language; using context clues from the environment; and interpreting changing beliefs, goals, and intentions of other speakers. "We want to devise a unified theory that will allow humans to better understand our own language capabilities and, in turn, interact more naturally and more effectively with computers," Cassimatis says.
Going Beyond Moore's Law by Using the Third Dimension
PhysOrg.com (01/18/10) Zyga, Lisa
Institute of Physics and Chemistry of Materials of Strasbourg (IPCM) researchers have manufactured microwires that self-assemble themselves into a three-dimensional (3D) template and connect to electrodes with an accuracy of a few micrometers. IPCM's Jean-Baptiste Fleury, David Pires, and Yves Galerne started by filling the space between two substrates with a nematic liquid crystal. The scientists then created a defect line in the liquid crystal, which enabled them to produce a programmable disclination. The nematic liquid crystals also attract small objects to the disclinations. "As far as I know, there are no other means, at the moment, able to produce microwires self-connected in 3D on designed electrodes," Galerne says. The researchers think the process can be extended to produce large numbers of microwires, which could lead to the development of large-scale 3D integrated circuits.
Companies Fight Endless War Against Computer Attacks
New York Times (01/17/10) Lohr, Steve
The growing sophistication of cyberattackers and the susceptibility of even the best defensive measures is highlighted by the recent attacks against Google from within China, according to security experts. Despite the billions of dollars that government agencies and corporations are spending each year on specialized anti-malware programs, malicious hackers appear to have the edge. A recent Computer Security Institute (CSI) survey of nearly 450 companies and government agencies found that 64 percent reported malware infiltration, versus 50 percent the previous year. CSI director Robert Richardson says that malware is an ever-growing threat, and notes that "now the game is much more about getting a foothold in the network, for spying." Some experts say the long-term solution to the threat of malevolent hackers is to steer the software industry on a path toward maturation, with standards, defined responsibilities, and accountability for security lapses directed by forceful self-regulation or by the government.
Making It Easier to Save Energy
People will be able to find out how much power individual appliances in their home consume at any given time using new programs developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology's (FIT's) Markus Eisenhauer. He has created an energy protocol that extends FIT's Hydra middleware technology to allow for communication between devices. Consumer appliances such as dishwashers and TVs would get a power plogg, a small adapter located between the power plug and the power outlet, for reporting power consumption to PCs via a radio signal. In addition to viewing the information over a computer, people would be able to point their cell phone's camera at an appliance to see the amount of power consumed and even use it to control the device. "Using a cell phone as the display and control unit allows people to check the energy consumed by their devices or appliances," Eisenhauer says. "For example, it can be used to display the consumption by room, switch devices on and off, and dim lights."
Easy-Build Wireless Networks
ICT Results (01/18/10)
A consortium of research institutes has developed network-centric middleware for group communications and resource sharing across heterogeneous embedded systems (MORE), new middleware that is applicable to the entire spectrum of wireless standards. MORE was designed to make network creation quicker and easier, and also enables the efficiency of many types of machinery and systems to be constantly monitored. While other middleware platforms aim to simplify one area of wireless technology, MORE tries to unify all approaches, says project coordinator Stefan Michaelis. MORE is designed to deal with the limitations of embedded systems, such as wireless sensors. These sensors are often bogged down by Web services based on service-oriented architecture protocol (SOAP). MORE transcodes SOAP messages into purged binary messages, which Michaelis says greatly reduces the support data required for communication.
Multilingual Translation System Receives Over 2 Million Euro in EU Funding
University of Gothenburg professor Aarne Ranta is leading an effort to create a reliable translation tool that covers most of the European Union languages. The open source Multilingual On-Line Translation (MOLTO) project, which is funded by the European Union (EU) and includes three universities and two private companies, is different from other translation tools in that it begins with grammar rules, with wide-ranging coverage coming later, Ranta says. MOLTO uses a technique based on type theory to bridge natural languages. Type theory enables MOLTO to express each type in a language-impendent manner. "The purpose of the EU grant is to enable us to use the MOLTO technology to create a system that can be used for translation on the Internet," Ranta says. Although similar technology already exists, MOLTO's goal is to make the technology more user friendly for a larger number of users, he says.
Intel Joins Search for Thought-Controlled Tech
San Jose Mercury News (CA) (01/17/10) Johnson, Steve
Researchers are developing technology that would enable people to control electronic devices using only their thoughts. The technology uses software that can analyze and interpret patterns in the brain's electrical activity when people think about specific words or actions. "If we could access the global information network simply by using the power of our thoughts, it would open up incredible new opportunities for computing technology," says Intel's Dean Pomerleau, who has been working with Carnegie Mellon University researchers to study brain patterns. The U.S. Army is working with University of California, Irvine researchers to study how to harness brain waves to send nonverbal messages in battle. Meanwhile, Mayo Clinic researchers think thoughts can be read faster by placing sensors inside the skull. The Mayo Clinic's Jerry Shih says that one day people's brains could be implanted with microchips similar to those used for personal computers. Already, University of Southern California researchers have implanted chips into the brains of rats to try to study ways to boost memory, with applications for Alzheimer's patients in mind.
Today's Threat: Computer Network Terrorism
University of Haifa (01/17/10)
The University of Haifa's Yaniv Levyatan says that cyberterrorism is just as much of a threat to today's governments as more conventional forms of terrorism. "A fleet of fighter planes is not necessary to attack a power station; a keyboard is sufficient," Levyatan says. "And if you don’t have the skills, there are enough mercenary hackers who can do it for you." Among international hackers, there is a growing trend to threaten national infrastructures for ransom, he says. Recently, most online fighting has focused on attempts to immobilize leading Web sites, but the next step is to target systems controlled by computer networks such as financial systems, power stations, hospitals, television broadcasts, and satellites, Levyatan says.
Nanotube Transistors Shrink Smaller Than Silicon Size
New Scientist (01/15/10) Barras, Colin
Aaron Franklin and colleagues at IBM's Watson Research Center report that it is now possible to reduce the size of nanotube transistors to 15 nanometers. "That's about half the length of the best silicon technology on the market today," Franklin says. A nanotube in a transistor must connect two metal electrodes, and researchers usually place the third gate electrode nearby. However, performance is limited by restricted current flow due to the creation of an electrical barrier at the point where a nanotube joins any metal. Franklin's team placed the gate electrode below the nanotube, rather than above it, which enables the two to be placed closer together. The new placement gives the gate a greater impact on the electrons inside the nanotube and enables them to break through the electronic barriers. Although the development provides new insights into scaling carbon nanotube transistors, commercialization is unlikely until it becomes easier for researchers to physically manipulate nanotubes to build devices.
Artificial Intelligence Is More Than Just Talk--Google's Top Inventor
Silicon Republic (01/14/10) Kennedy, John
Peter Norvig, head of research for Google, says that humans will soon be talking to computers. Norvig notes that humans and computers are already communicating, but not using the same language. He explains that humans use keywords rather than whole sentences to communicate with a search engine, which is unable to understand a person as well as another human. "But on the other hand, [the search engine] is giving us answers that a person wouldn't, so it has its strengths and weaknesses," Norvig says. He also expects the proliferation of mobile phones to lead to a different type of interaction with the Internet. Speech recognition will allow mobile phone users to talk more and displays will shrink. "The advantages with mobile are that if you're in a specific location and you ask a specific query then--because of [global positioning systems]--there's going to be an answer that's appropriate to the location," Norvig says.
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