Welcome to the April 9, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
H.P. Sees a Revolution in Memory Chip
New York Times (04/07/10) Markoff, John
Hewlett-Packard (HP) researchers have developed a new class of small switches called memristors designed to replace transistors as computer chips get smaller. Memristors are simpler than existing semiconducting transistors and can be used for both data processing and storage applications. The new design could allow engineers to stack thousands of switches in a high-rise fashion, leading to a new class of ultra-dense computing devices. Memristor-based systems could also lead to the development of analog computing systems that function more like biological brains. "The memristor technology really has the capacity to continue scaling for a very long time, and that's really a big deal," says HP's Stan Williams. The technology is based on the ability to use an electrical current to move atoms within an ultrathin film of titanium dioxide. IBM, Intel, and other companies are pursuing a different approach, called phase-change memory. Phase-change memory uses heat to shift a glassy material from an amorphous to a crystalline state and back.
Can the Kremlin's Silicon Valley Succeed?
Technology Review (04/08/10) Talbot, David
Russia is finalizing plans to start a Silicon Valley-like innovation center near Moscow. The Kremlin has chosen a site, arranged funding, and named Nobel Laureate Zhores Alferov, a physicist, as the project's science advisor. "There certainly isn't any shortage of really bright technical people with great technological ideas in Russia, and that's a strong suit," says Harvard professor of investment banking Josh Lerner. He says Russia will need to demonstrate that inventors can secure their intellectual property and protect it in the courts, and that investors will not face heavy taxes or other restrictions in financing new projects. Two major objectives of the initiative are to create a government-subsidized lab and corporate space to take advantage of Russian innovations, and to create a research university that provides Ph.D.s with access to supercomputers and other resources to develop new technologies. The overall goal is to commercialize emerging technologies in energy, biomedicine, information technology, telecommunications, and nuclear engineering, and to help Russia diversify its economy.
Picking Our Brains: Can We Make a Conscious Machine?
New Scientist (04/06/10) Biever, Celeste
The effort to create artificial consciousness is gaining momentum. "We have to consider machine consciousness as a grand challenge, like putting a man on the moon," says the University of Palermo's Antonio Chella, editor of the International Journal of Machine Consciousness, which launched last year. The closest a software bot has come to attaining artificial consciousness may be the Intelligent Distribution Agent (IDA), which was created by the University of Memphis' Stan Franklin. IDA assigns sailors from the U.S. Navy to new jobs and must coordinate naval policies, job requirements, changing costs, and sailor's needs. IDA has both conscious and unconscious levels of processing. The updated Learning IDA was recently completed, and it can learn from past experiences as well as feel emotions in the form of high-level goals that guide the decision-making process. The University of Vermont's Josh Bongard has designed a walking robot that can maintain its function after being damaged. The robot has a continuously updated internal model of itself, which is considered a key part of human sentience and takes the robot closer to self-awareness. Meanwhile, the Carlos III University of Madrid's Raul Arrabales recently developed Conscale, a program that compares the intelligence of various software agents.
Light-Based Localization for Robotic Systems
ICT Results (04/09/10)
The European Union-funded IRPS project has developed 3D LIMS, three-dimensional (3D) Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) technology that can determine the location of moving objects in a given area. The researchers use LIDAR to first build a 3D map of an area, which enables the system to locate moving objects as well as stationary ones. "It allows the system to accurately and rapidly detect changes in the environment," says IRPS manager Maurice Heitz. The researchers say 3D LIMS is not affected by shadows, rain, or fog, and provides angular and distance information for each pixel, making it suitable for virtually any environment. The IRPS team built a prototype application in which the technology was used to control buggy-like autonomous vehicles that could be used to transport passengers or luggage around an airport. "Our vision is that one day people, perhaps elderly or with a disability, will go to the airport and by speaking to a porter control center on their mobile phone or through a Web interface on their PDA, would be able to order a vehicle to take them to their boarding gate," Heitz says.
'Big Data' Can Create Big Issues
Investor's Business Daily (04/08/10) P. A4; Bonasia, J.
Tech firms are approaching the challenge of mining "big data"--immense repositories of information generated by industry and government--by using predictive analytics software to detect trends and anticipate coming events. Applications of predictive analytics include sifting credit card transactions to spot fraud, targeted marketing through the combination of data from past transactions and predictive models for pricing and special offers, and customer retention by studying profits from the patterns across a consumer's lifetime. Statistical modeling and machine learning form the two central predictive analytics technologies. PricewaterhouseCoopers' Steve Cranford says the use of predictive analysis is forcing companies to devise customer data management protocols, with implications for privacy and security. The explosive expansion of big data has led to a boom in identity theft and a widespread erosion of consumer privacy via hacking or inattention. IBM Research's Chid Apte argues that personal data should be granted more anonymity in certain cases.
New Hiring Formula Values Math Pros
Wall Street Journal (04/08/10) Vascellaro, Jessica E.
Silicon Valley technology firms are seeking employees with stronger backgrounds in statistics and machine learning, thanks to the advent of cloud computing. "When you build for the Web, you have quicker real-time access about how people are using the product," notes Facebook's Mike Schroepfer. "You have to use the data in the proper way." Employers say the most sought-after candidates can have a diversity of experience and educational backgrounds, with companies preferring a concentration on data-mining techniques over specific degrees. Local universities are attempting to boost the number of graduates with quantitative backgrounds, with Stanford University requiring computer science undergraduates to take a specialized probability course. Facebook, meanwhile, developed a boot camp program for all new engineers that included a probability and statistics training module. In addition, the company has been recruiting more people for its data science group, a team of Ph.D.s that can extract patterns out of sample sets of terabytes of data.
North Korean Red Star Operating System Details Emerge
BBC News (04/06/10)
Details have recently emerged about a homegrown North Korean computer operating system called Red Star. A report by South Korea's Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) says Red Star is designed "to control [North Korea's] own information security" and monitor user activity. The report says the operating system is designed "to control [North Korea's] own information security." The system is Linux-based, but is heavily influenced by Microsoft and includes several versions of its Office programs. Red Star, which only runs in the Korean language, includes games, an email system called Pigeon, and Mozilla's Firefox browser. The STPI report notes that North Korea has launched a cyberwar unit that targets sites in South Korea and the United States. The U.S. government forbids downloading and uploading open source software to several countries, including North Korea.
New Software Design Technique Allows Programs to Run Faster
NCSU News (04/05/10) Shipman, Matt
North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers have developed a way for computer programs to run up to 20 percent faster and possibly incorporate new security measures. The approach involves running different parts of some programs, such as word processors and Web browsers, at the same time, which allows them to operate more efficiently. The researchers' technique makes hard-to-parallelize applications run in parallel by using nontraditional approaches to break programs into threads. "We've removed the memory-management step from the process, running it as a separate thread," says NCSU professor Yan Solihin. Under the new approach, the computation thread and memory management thread are executing at the same time, enabling the program to run more efficiently. "By running the memory-management functions on a separate thread, these hard-to-parallelize programs can operate approximately 20 percent faster," Solihin says. The technique also makes it possible to develop new memory-management functions that could perform security checks without hurting the program's performance.
Augmented Reality Puts the Squeeze Into Virtual Hugs
Agence France Presse (04/05/10)
Japanese scientists at the inaugural Augmented Human International Conference demonstrated a proof-of-concept robot called iFeel_IM!, a wearable robot designed to add a sense of touch to cyberspace. "I am looking to create a deep immersive experience, not just a vibration in your shirt triggered by an SMS," says Toyohasi University of Technology professor Dzmitry Tsetserukou. The robot features sensors, small motors, vibrators, and speakers woven into a series of straps similar to a parachute harness. The device can simulate heart beats, a realistic hug, the nervous sensation of butterflies in the stomach, and a tingling feeling in the spine. University of Tokyo's Alena Neviarouskaya wrote software that searches through the emotional messages embedded in written text and triggers the appropriate sensation in the robot. The researchers say the system can distinguish joy, fear, anger, and sadness with 90 percent accuracy, and shame, guilt, disgust, interest, and surprise with 80 percent accuracy.
Twitter: A New Box-Office Oracle?
Los Angeles Times (04/05/10) Guynn, Jessica; Horn, John
HP Labs researchers have developed a way to use Twitter to gauge real-time interest in movies and accurately predict how they will perform at the box office on opening weekend. HP Labs' Sitaram Asur and Bernardo Huberman developed computational formulas that analyze Twitter feeds and use the rate at which movies are mentioned in Twitter updates to predict the first-weekend returns. The research also showed Twitter could be used to predict other events, such as how major products will be received and the outcomes of elections, according to Huberman. HP Labs studied nearly 3 million Twitter updates that mentioned 24 major movie releases over the course of three months. The researchers factored in the release date and the number of theaters the movie would be shown in, to predict the opening weekend box office performance with 97.3 percent accuracy. They also developed a system that evaluates the sentiments of Twitter updates as positive, negative, or neutral, to predict the following weekend's returns with 94 percent accuracy.
Robotic Undersea Vehicle Draws Power From Ocean
CNet (04/05/10) Guevin, Jennifer
NASA, the U.S. Navy, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the University of California, San Diego have developed a prototype underwater autonomous robotic vehicle that is powered by the ocean's thermal energy. Over a period of more than three months, the partners tested the Sounding Oceanographic Lagrangrian Observer Thermal RECharging vehicle (Solo-Trec) off the Hawaiian Islands. The partners outfitted Solo-Trec with 10 external tubes of a waxy substance known as phase-change material, which melts and expands in warm, shallow waters, and cools, solidifies, and contracts in deep waters. Warm temperatures expand the substance, pressurizing oil inside the device, which drives a hydraulic motor that recharges Solo-Trec's batteries. Solo-Trec made more than 300 dives from the ocean's surface to a depth of 1,640 feet. The underwater robotic vehicle weighs 183 pounds and has buoyancy controls; a scientific, global positioning system; and communication instruments. NASA says the technology could be used to create a fleet of autonomous bots for monitoring climate data and marine life, mapping terrain, and conducting underwater surveillance.
Researchers Enable a Robot to Fold Towels
University of California, Berkeley (04/02/10) Ness, Carol
A research team at the University of California, Berkeley has developed a computer vision system that is capable of detecting variations in the three-dimensional shape, appearance, and texture of "deformable objects," or things that are flexible and have an unpredictable shape. The system has been implemented in a prototype towel-folding robot, and is a key advance in the development of robots for handling nonrigid objects. "Many important problems in robotics and computer vision involve deformable objects, and the challenges posed by robotic towel-folding reflect important challenges inherent in robotic perception and manipulation for deformable objects," says Berkeley professor Pieter Abbeel. The algorithm allows the robot to work with towels of different sizes, colors, and materials that it has never seen before. The robot picks up a towel, uses high-resolution cameras to scan it to estimate its shape, finds two adjacent corners and begins to fold, smoothing it out on a flat surface. The robot successfully folded previously unseen towels of different appearances, materials, and sizes in 50 trials.
New Tutoring Software Reads Visual Clues
Republican (MA) (03/31/10) Freeman, Stan
University of Massachusetts in Amherst (UMA) researchers are testing a math tutoring program that uses a built-in camera to identify visual cues from the student user about what in the lesson is working. "It looks at things like frowns, the relative position of the eye and mouth, at smiles, at the direction of the look and other gestures," says UMA computer scientist Ivon M. Arroyo. The camera locates key features on the face and body and calculates how they move in relation to one another, which provides insight into the emotions of the user. The program was designed to help girls in particular, who often show diminishing interest in math as they reach high school. Using the visual cues, the program's learning companion character will give hints or encouraging words to the user. The researchers say the software is currently 70 percent to 80 percent accurate in determining a user's emotion.
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