Welcome to the April 12, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
U.S. Steps Up Probe of Hiring in Tech
Wall Street Journal (04/09/10) Catan, Thomas
The U.S. Justice Department reportedly is investigating whether large technology companies have agreed not to recruit each other's employees in ways that violate antitrust laws and which prevent computer engineers and others from changing jobs for higher pay or better benefits. The Justice Department could claim that an agreement between competitors that holds down labor costs is similar to price fixing. "They're not agreeing on price, but they're kind of agreeing on costs," says antitrust lawyer Melissa Maxman. Privately, technology companies say that such agreements among companies are not anticompetitive and do not affect employees' salaries of job availability. The companies claim that it would be more difficult to collaborate on business ventures with other firms if they fear losing valuable employees. However, the Justice Department could claim that such agreements disrupt the labor market, hurting the economy by cutting incentives for other people to enter the field. "In the long run, this is going to distort and depress the incentives for people to actually develop the talents and skills that are useful in this market," says Temple University professor Salil Mehra.
Avatars Can't Hide Your Lying Eyes
New Scientist (04/08/10) No. 2755, Fisher, Richard
Giving avatars in virtual worlds expressive features such as eye movement could make communication feel more realistic and even more trustworthy. University College London's William Steptoe and colleagues outfitted a group of volunteers with eye-tracking glasses that recorded their blink rate, direction and length of gaze, and pupil dilation, and then asked them personal questions and said they could lie for some answers. The team then had another group of volunteers watch clips of avatars give the first groups' answers. Some of the avatars had eye movements that mirrored the original volunteers, but others had no eye movement at all. When asked whether they believed the avatars were being truthful, participants were able to identify 88 percent of truths correctly when the avatars had eye movement, but only 70 percent without. Steptoe believes real-world eye movement would be helpful for business meetings held in virtual worlds, or assisting communication between people with social phobias. The University of Oxford's Ralph Schroeder says the research is "unique in showing that if you give an avatar eyes that blink and move, people will treat them in a highly real way."
Will Columbia-Trained, Code-Savvy Journalists Bridge the Media/Tech Divide?
Wired News (04/07/10) Van Buskirk, Eliot
Columbia University's (CU's) new Master of Science Program in Computer Science and Journalism is a cross-disciplinary engineering and journalism degree designed to produce computer-fluent journalists and new reporting technologies. "The IT Department [at a news organization] comes up with software programs that the journalists don't use; the journalists ask for software that is computationally unrealistic," says CU computer science professor Julia Hirschberg. The program will produce a new generation of journalists who will understand both fields. "Some people coming out of high school or college possess technical savvy, but more often than not, the skill set is bordered by an ability to use Wikipedia, Facebook, and Gmail," says CU School of Journalism dean Bill Grueskin. The CU professors hope their graduates will contribute new technologies to the changing field. For example, automated journalism modules could take care of routine tasks, freeing up more time for interviews, analysis, writing, and editing. In addition, new data visualization tools could improve the way images and charts present complex information to users. The program will encourage students and faculty to synthesize raw data into relevant content for news organizations to present. Hirschberg says the program also will graduate software engineers with a journalistic foundation, which could build tools that uncover officially unreported events.
Monitoring System for Carrying Out Sleep Study at Home for Identifying Apnea-Hypopnea Syndrome
Basque Research (04/08/10) Bulegoa, Prentsa
University of the Basque Country computer scientist Afredo Burgos has developed an inexpensive and comfortable method to carry out a sleep apnea study. The system, called sleep apnea monitoring (SAMON), involves telemonitoring a patient suspected of suffering from Sleep Apneas-Hypopneas Syndrome. The system, which can be used at home without the need of medical or nursing skills, establishes a link between the patient and the doctor. In designing the system, Burgos used pulsioximetry, which involves measuring the concentration of oxygen in the blood and the heart rate using a small device that is attached to the finger. The data is then automatically sent to the doctor's computer in an email. In a preliminary test, the system read the signals measuring the concentration of oxygen and the heartbeat correctly, and the information was forwarded to the doctor's email address without any additional work from the patient. Burgos also has developed a method that can detect sleep apnea in real time and applied it to the SAMON system.
Intel Guru Says 3-D Internet Will Arrive Within Five Years
Computerworld (04/08/10) Gaudin, Sharon
Intel Labs technology evangelist Sean Koehl speculates that technological advances could make realistic three-dimensional (3D) Internet applications a reality in five years. Potential applications include making presentations at large conferences more immersive through 3D virtual world technology. Consultant Dan Olds believes that a 3D Internet will increase attendance at virtual meetings, while entertainment will undergo a revolution. Koehl says that people will still want to do certain interactions in two dimensions, such as reading text. "The things we'll do in three dimensions may be things that we don't do at all on the Internet today because it isn't feasible," he says. Koehl thinks that within 10 years or so, 3D virtual world realism may be similar to computer-generated imagery in Hollywood movies. "People are going to be able to do a lot more remotely," Olds says. "Companies could use this technology as a competitive weapon to give customers better service. A lot could shift because of this."
Robots With Better Observation
Researchers say that new three-dimensional (3D) sensing technology under development will be more similar to the human eye in the way it enables robots to observe their environment. The Three-dimensional Adaptive Camera with Object detection and foveation (TACO) project is developing a sensor system for acquiring 3D images with coarse level of details, and then applying fast object detection techniques to select areas of interest. The use of 3D foveation will enable robots to focus on the most relevant object, and scan and monitor it closely for details. The researchers say the TACO sensor will be much faster and cheaper than current 3D sensing technology. "Through the foveation process, the sensor will provide 10 times better resolution than existing sensors with hardware enabling a 10 times size resolution," says TACO technical leader Jens T. Thielemann. With more natural and human-like observation capability, robots will have more of an impact in areas such as cleaning, construction, maintenance, security, health care, entertainment, and personal assistance.
Automobile Control Research Opens Door to New Safety Features
NCSU News (04/06/10) Shipman, Matt
North Carolina State University researchers have developed a computer vision program and plan to use it to drive a car. The program would enable a computer to make sense of the traffic in multiple road lanes that a video camera records, and keep a vehicle within a lane. Professor Wesley Snyder and colleagues use algorithms to sort visual data and make decisions on finding the correct lanes, which might change as a car moves. "This research has many potential uses, such as the development of military applications related to surveillance, reconnaissance, and transportation of materials," Snyder says. "This computer vision technology will also enable the development of new automobile safety features, including systems that can allow cars to stay in their lane, avoid traffic and gracefully react to emergency situations--such as those where a driver has fallen asleep at the wheel, had a heart attack or gone into diabetic shock."
Effort Will Help Libraries Put Academic Papers in Data 'Cloud'
The Chronicle of Higher Education (04/05/10) Young, Jeff
Cloud computing has the potential to provide off-site storage for online collections of research papers, according to some librarians. As part of the DuraCloud project, the nonprofit DuraSpace organization is developing software that would make it easier for librarians to set up repositories, which would house the papers of a university's researchers. "A key design feature of DuraCloud is to leave the basics of pure storage to those who do it best," DuraSpace says in an overview on its Web site. However, the DuraCloud software would allow libraries to do more than store free research papers. The DuraSpace team is adding features for accessing, preserving, re-using, and sharing research papers, says Cornell University's Carol Minton Morris, who also works at DuraSpace. Moreover, the approach costs much less than building new data centers to run on campus. DuraSpace plans to share a version of the software with other libraries this fall.
In Search of Tomorrow's Cures
University of Texas at Austin (04/05/10) Dubrow, Aaron
University of Texas at Austin (UTA) researchers are using physical models and supercomputers to create a more robust way of searching for new drugs. Working with the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) and the Texas Institute for Drug and Diagnostic Development, UTA professor Pengyu Ren led a team that developed computational algorithms for drug discovery using the Ranger supercomputer. "We're testing and developing computational approaches that can best reproduce the experimental data of protein-ligand binding that has been reported in the literature," Ren says. The researchers are experimenting with algorithms that use explicit or continuum methods to describe the solvent environment and account for entropic contribution to protein-ligand binding via molecular dynamics simulation. "Pengyu's work is an excellent example of how current advances in computing power are enabling scientists to take a fundamentally different approach to virtual drug discovery," says TACC's Michael Gonzales. Ren also is involved in a joint project with UTA's Kevin Dalby, examining how computation will guide the search for selective inhibitors for protein kinases, which are clinically relevant to cancer and other diseases. "If this works, it will improve our ability to design drug candidates that are more potent with fewer side effects," Ren says.
In Profile: Missy Cummings
MIT News (04/05/10) Bettex, Morgan
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Mary (Missy) Cummings, who directs the Humans and Automation Laboratory (HAL), is developing improved systems for human-computer interaction. Her area of focus involves making it easier for humans to supervise automatic control systems, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in the execution of cognitive tasks. "It's about offloading skill-based tasks so that people can focus specifically on knowledge-based tasks, such as determining whether a potential sniper is a good or bad guy by using the UAV to identify him," Cummings says. She concentrates on how design precepts, such as display screens, can impact attention span and other supervisory control factors when humans operate complex systems. Over the past 12 months, Cummings and her students have designed an iPhone application capable of controlling a small UAV, enabling the device to be flown by any phone operator. The HAL group also is devising models of human tedium to help design systems to prevent people who oversee automatic control technologies from becoming bored.
United States, Europe, Japan Agree on Data Center Efficiency Metric
IDG News Service (04/05/10) Niccolai, James
U.S., European, and Japanese government agencies and industry groups are expected to announce an agreement on how to measure the energy efficiency of data centers. The agreement establishes a common metric that data centers worldwide can use to report their energy efficiency levels, potentially providing a yardstick for companies to assess the efficiency of their own data centers and measure the effectiveness of energy-saving techniques at other facilities. The Green Grid, a U.S.-based industry consortium, orchestrated the agreement, which is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the European Union Code of Conduct, and the Japan Ministry of Economy. The participating groups have agreed to use Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) as their preferred energy efficiency metric. PUE, developed by the Green Grid, divides the total energy consumed by a data center by the amount of energy used to power the technology equipment, showing how much energy is lost to mechanical and electrical systems. The Green Grid also is working with representatives from China, India, and other large markets to have them participate in the initiative as well.
Online Interactions Have Positive Effects for Real-Life Communities
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (04/05/10) Ciciora, Phil
University of Illinois (UI) researchers say that online interactions have positive outcomes for real-life communities by forming a support mechanism for communities at the intersection between online communication and the offline world. Social networking, civic participation, community support during emergencies, and other applications have all led to the rapid development and widespread use of online technologies, which creates ties that bind offline communities, say UI professors Caroline Haythornwaite and Lori Kendall. "Online communication always reinforces local relationships and local identities that build networks of interacting individuals who are mutually aware of each other," Haythornwaite says. The participatory culture that exists online is a very important trend, both socially and economically, according to the professors. "Socially, the Internet provides a platform for just about anyone to contribute, and everyone benefits by having many different angles on a news event or topic," Haythornwaite says. "Economically, the ease of publishing Web pages challenges traditional publishing, which we can see played out in the battle between the traditional news media and blogs, news aggregators, and Twitter."
Invisibility Cloak That Generates Virtual Images Gets Closer to Realization
PhysOrg.com (04/02/10) Zyga, Lisa
Engineers from Southeast University in Nanjing, China, have developed a material that can serve as more than an invisibility cloak. The optical transformation media, or illusion media, makes an object invisible as well as generates images in its place. Enclosing an object in an illusion medium layer will result in the appearance of another object or multiple virtual objects. "Hence it can be applied to confuse the detectors or the viewers, and the detectors or the viewers can't perceive the real object," says Southeast University engineer Tie Jun Cui. The main difference between illusion media and an invisibility cloak is that the new approach uses scattered electrical field patterns to generate virtual images. The proposed optical device would operate at microwave frequencies. Moreover, illusion media would be easier to fabricate with artificial metamaterials. "All permitivity and permeability components of our illusion media are finite and positive," Cui says.
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