Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the April 19, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Deciphering the Movement of Pedestrians in a Crowd
CNRS (04/08/10) Theraulaz, Guy

Most current models of crowd dynamics consider that pedestrians move independently of one another, trying to reach their destination while avoiding collisions. However, Universite Toulouse researchers, in partnership with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, found that depending on the situation, 50 percent to 70 percent of pedestrians walk in small groups, usually consisting of two to four members. The study, led by Guy Theraulaz, found that when pedestrians have enough room, they choose to walk side by side. However, when the crowd is very dense, the group forms a concave structure, which facilitates communication but makes forward motion difficult and forces others to take avoidance maneuvers. Numerical simulations based on these observations found that the presence of pedestrian groups reduces overall foot traffic efficiency by about 17 percent compared to situations in which pedestrians walk alone.


Out of the Loop in Silicon Valley
New York Times (04/16/10) Miller, Claire Cain

Although technology hubs such as Silicon Valley boast that they are open to good ideas irrespective of the age, educational level, or station in life of the inventor, women are finding that gender bias still exists. The Center for Women's Business Research estimates that women own 40 percent of the private businesses in the United States, yet Astia, a nonprofit group that advises female entrepreneurs, reports that women create just 8 percent of the venture-backed tech startups. Studies also indicate low numbers of female tech company CEOs, software engineers, and venture capitalists, compared to their male counterparts. Research shows that the bottom line benefits from investing in women as tech entrepreneurs, as venture-backed startups run by women use 40 percent less capital on average than male-managed startups and are increasingly involved in successful initial public stock offerings. Factors inhibiting women from climbing the tech hierarchy include a lack of successful role models and education, while another is the difficulty of maintaining a work/family balance when running a startup.


Scientists Work to Keep Hackers Out of Implanted Medical Devices
CNN (04/16/10) Sutter, John D.

Researchers are developing ways to prevent hackers from accessing and remotely controlling medical devices that emit wireless signals. For example, Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Nathanael Paul is designing a more secure insulin pump that cuts some of the wireless connections between parts of the system. Other researchers are looking for security solutions for pacemakers and cardiac defibrillators. Some researchers have suggested protecting the devices with passwords, but doctors and nurses would have to be able to control the devices in the case of an emergency. "If you have a patient that's unconscious on the ground, you really don't want the medical staff to have to figure out what security system they're using," said University of Washington's Tamara Denning at the recent CHI 2010 conference. The passwords could be tattooed in the form of a barcode on the patient's skin, either with visible ink or ink that can only be seen under ultraviolet light, Denning said. Security issues for medical devices will increase when these devices are connected to phones, the Internet, and other computers, notes University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor Kevin Fu.


University Helps Canterbury Cathedral Digitize Archives
University of Kent (04/16/10)

University of Kent researchers have launched DocExplore, a project to provide Canterbury residents and visitors with access to some of the older or more fragile documents held in the Cathedral Archives. DocExplore researchers will develop an interactive system that enables digitized versions of valuable historical documents to be explored using a touchscreen. Users will be able to access translations and transcripts; read about the period in which the documents were written; and access additional text, image, sound, and video resources that are part of the system. DocExplore eventually will offer users an even wider variety of tools for both the casual visitor and for academic historians. "Canterbury Cathedral Archives continues a tradition of record-keeping that dates back at least 1300 years," says Kent's Yiqing Liang. "We are proud and excited to be part of such an important tradition."


Cat Brain: A Step Toward the Electronic Equivalent
University of Michigan News Service (04/14/10) Moore, Nicole Casal

University of Michigan (UM) computer engineer Wei Lu has developed a memristor that can connect to conventional circuits and support a process that is the basis for memory and learning in biological systems. "We are building a computer in the same way that nature builds a brain," Lu says. Today's most advanced supercomputer can accomplish certain tasks with the brain functionality of a cat, but it is 83 times slower than a cat's brain, according to Lu. So far, Lu has connected two electronic circuits with one memristor, demonstrating that the system is capable of a memory and learning process called spike timing dependent plasticity, which refers to the ability of connections between neurons to become stronger based on when they are stimulated in relation to each other. Spike timing dependent plasticity is thought to be the basis for memory and learning in mammalian brains. The next step is to build a larger system, Lu says. The goal is to achieve the sophistication of a supercomputer in a machine the size of a two-liter soda bottle.


Weizmann Institute Scientists Have Developed an Electronic 'Nose' That Is Able to Predict the Pleasantness of Novel Odors
Weizmann Institute of Science (04/15/10)

Weizmann Institute of Science (WIS) researchers have developed eNose, an electronic system that can predict the pleasantness of novel odors. The system consists of chemical sensors that produce a unique electrical pattern for each odor. The researchers programmed eNose to estimate the odor along a particular perceptual axis. The scientists developed the axis by asking a group of native Israelis to rate the pleasantness of a selection of odors on a 30-point scale, and this dataset was programmed into eNose. After exposing eNose to a new set of odors, the researchers found that the system was able to rate the pleasantness of the odors with 80 percent accuracy. The scientists then tested the eNose predictions against a group of recent immigrants to Israel from Ethiopia to see if the system would work across cultures. The results showed that eNose's ability to predict the pleasantness of novel odors was just as good for the native Ethiopians. The researchers say the system could provide new methods for odor screening and environmental monitoring, and may allow for the digital transmission of smells as well as a way to add scents to immersive environments.


Researcher Aims to Secure RFID Tags
IDG News Service (04/16/10) Barber, Nick

Technology for providing alerts when information on radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags is being accessed and controlling access to private information was on display during the recent CHI 2010 conference. Working with Microsoft Research, Nicolai Marquardt, a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary, has developed four prototype RFID controller groups. The first group provides direct feedback to users by either lighting up, vibrating, or making a sound when the tag is being accessed. The next group features controllable tags, including a button that has to be pressed to activate the RFID and a touch sensitive tag that has to be held to read its information. In the third group, one tag is light sensitive and prevents data from being accessed when the RFID card is in a pocket, and the other tag is tilt sensitive and can only be accessed when pressed flat against a reader. The fourth group makes some information on an RFID tag always accessible, but more private information can only be accessed by moving the tag closer to the reader.


Feds Seek to Sniff Out Toxic Chemicals With Cellphones
Network World (04/13/10)

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is funding the development of a working system that would enable cell phones to detect dangerous chemicals, such as gas released via an accidental or intentional leak. Under the Science and Technology Directorate Cell-All project, DHS wants to add an inexpensive chip to smartphones that would be programmed to alert users of the presence of toxic chemicals, and alert public safety officials of a possible broad release of poisonous chemicals. The smartphones would detect, analyze, and issue an alert in about 60 seconds. Alerts from a number of phone users would help public safety officials distinguish false positives from real emergencies. Qualcomm, NASA, and Rhevision Technology are refining the technology, and DHS is in talks with cell phone makers on adopting it for use in consumer products. DHS expects to have 40 prototypes in about a year, and the first would detect carbon monoxide and fire.


Hand-Held Projector Images Respond to the Real World
New Scientist (04/14/10)

A prototype of a handheld projector created virtual characters that interacted with the real world at the recent Virtual Reality 2010 meeting in Waltham, Mass. During the presentation, the device, called Twinkle, created a cartoon fairy that ran and bounced along paintings on a wall and the surface of a bottle. The animated graphics are capable of responding to patterns, shapes, or colors, as well as three-dimensional objects such as a person's hand. The projector illuminates a scene, a camera tracks key elements such as a line drawn on a wall, and an accelerometer assists in sensing its motion and position. Software matches the pixels detected by the camera with the animation, and makes corrections in the angle of projection and distance from the surface. The University of Tokyo's Takumi Yoshida says the device could be added to a cell phone. Yoshida's team also envisions having animated graphics from multiple projectors interact.
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NASA: Humanoid Robot Slated to Live on Space Station
Computerworld (04/14/10) Gaudin, Sharon

A humanoid robot is set to become a permanent member of the International Space Station in September. The NASA space shuttle Discovery will transport Robonaut 2 (R2) to the orbiting station. R2 will be the first humanoid robot to stay at the space station, and officials hope to learn more about how humans and robots can work together for future missions. "The use of R2 on the space station is just the beginning of a quickening pace between human and robotic exploration of space," says NASA's John Olson. "The partnership of humans and robots will be critical to opening up the solar system and will allow us to go farther and achieve more than we can probably even imagine today." R2 has a helmeted head, a torso, two arms and two hands, and wheels for locomotion. The design of R2's hands will enable it to handle tools aboard the space station. R2 initially will be limited to a small space inside the space station, but could be adapted to provide assistance throughout the station as well as outside during spacewalks.


Gridjam: Experimental Music Project
Swinburne University of Technology (Australia) (04/13/10) Kivivali, Lea

High performance collaborative network computing will allow musicians in distant locations to deliver successful performances, according to Jack Ox, co-creator of Gridjam, a new high-speed international optiphonic network. Musicians, who need to see facial expressions and body movements in real time, would be able to use Gridjam to create a live, partly improvised, three-dimensional (3D) visualized performance. The music would appear as colored shapes and remain as a 3D graphical sculpture after the performance. The artists define the metaphoric relationships of the colors, images, shapes, motions, and placement of the visualized musical shapes. "Gridjam is important because it shows that artists in dispersed locations can reconnect, performing and responding to each other with great intimacy," says Ox. Networks that are fast enough to deliver real-time performances to real-time audiences will eventually replace physical places and specific cities as cultural centers, according to Ox.


Keeping Medical Data Private
Technology Review (04/13/10) Gammon, Katharine

Vanderbilt University (VU) researchers have developed an algorithm designed to protect the privacy of medical patients while maintaining researchers' ability to analyze large amounts of genetic and clinical data. Although patient records are anonymized, they still contain the numerical codes, known as ICD codes, which represent every condition a doctor has detected. As a result, VU professor Bradley Malin says it is possible to follow a specific set of codes backward and identify a person. Malin and his colleagues found that they could identify more than 96 percent of a group of patients based only on their particular set of ICD codes. To make patients more private, the researchers designed an algorithm that searches a database for combinations of ICD codes that distinguish a patient and then substitutes a more general version of the codes to ensure each patient's altered record is indistinguishable from a certain number of other patients. The researchers tested the algorithm on 2,762 patients and could not identify any of them based on their new ICD codes.


HP Researcher: Power Efficiency Has a Long Way to Go
IDG News Service (04/12/10) Jackson, Joab

The information technology and consumer electronics industries could make quantum leaps in terms of improving the power efficiency of electronic systems and devices, says Hewlett-Packard (HP) researcher Parthasarathy Ranganathan. He says that based on the theoretical physical limits of the power costs to transfer information, the energy used by a single handheld device could power a billion desktop computer processors. Multi-use devices, such as smartphones, almost always use more energy than single-use devices such as MP3 players. "This requirement results in designers using the 'union' of maximum requirements of all application classes," Ranganathan says. He suggests that one technique which could be more widely used is "spending energy to save energy." The idea is to develop new capabilities that lower overall energy usage, even if the new capabilities themselves require additional energy to run. One example would be a program that regularly scans the memory of servers to reclaim portions that have been reserved by programs but are no longer being used. Another suggestion is to examine the power consumption of a system by looking at the entire ensemble of components, rather than focusing on the consumption of individual units.


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