Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the May 5, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Complex Software Systems--Heal Thyself
ICT Results (05/03/10)

Researchers in Israel and six European Union countries working on the SHADOWS project have developed self-healing software capable of automatically detecting, identifying, and fixing errors in the programs used in complex systems. "Software systems have grown increasingly large and complex as we come to rely on them to do more things," says IBM researcher Onn Shehory. The SHADOWS project software is a set of tools that automatically sift, identify, and fix programming errors. The approach relies on a group of detection-localization-healing-assurance loops that work in the background of complex systems. The detection stage reveals the presence of problems and the localization stage identifies the fault that caused the issue. The healing stage provides automatic problem remediation. Finally, the assurance stage examines the healing that has been done to ensure it solved the problem and no new problems were introduced. "This is particularly useful when comparing different versions of the same software," Shehory says.

N.Y. Bomb Plot Highlights Limitations of Data Mining
Computerworld (05/05/10) Vijayan, Jaikumar

The recent failed bombing attempt in New York City shows the limitations of data-mining technology when used in security applications. Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, the U.S. government has spent tens of millions of dollars on data-mining programs that are used by agencies to identify potential terrorists. The Department of Homeland Security's Automated Targeting System assigns terror scores to U.S. citizens, and the Transportation Security Administration's Secure Flight program analyzes airline passenger data. However, it is unclear how effective these programs have been in identifying and stopping potential terrorist threats. Using data mining to search for potential terrorists is similar to looking for a needle in a haystack, says BT chief security officer Bruce Schneier. "Data mining works best when there's a well-defined profile you're searching for, a reasonable number of attacks per year, and a low cost of false alarms," Schneier says. However, even the most accurate and finely tuned data-mining system will generate one billion false alarms for each real terrorist plot it uncovers, he says.

'Smart Dust' Aims to Monitor Everything
CNN (05/03/10) Sutter, John D.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) recently announced a smart dust project it calls the "Central Nervous System for the Earth," in which the company plans to deploy a trillion sensors worldwide. The wireless devices will monitor ecosystems, detect earthquakes, predict traffic patterns, and study energy use. The researchers say that accidents could be prevented and energy could be saved if people knew more about the world in real time. HP has already made plans with Royal Dutch Shell to install one million matchbook-size monitors to help with oil exploration, says HP's Pete Hartwell. "We just think now, the technology has reached a point where it makes basic sense for us ... to get this out of the lab and into reality," he says. The sensors are accelerometers, similar to those used in smartphones but 1,000 times more powerful, and are about the size of a VHS tape after they are enclosed in a metal box. There are several real-world projects already underway that use wireless sensors to measure the environment and to monitor farms, factories, data centers, and bridges to promote efficiency and understand how these systems work. The power of these networks is that they eventually can be connected, says University of California, Berkeley professor David Culler. Privacy and security are issues for smart dust projects, but Berkeley professor Kris Pister says "we've got all the security tools we need underneath to make this information private."

New Technology Generates Database on Spill Damage
New York Times (05/04/10) Wheaton, Sarah

A New Orleans advocacy group is using crowd-sourcing technology to map the damage of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on the Gulf Coast and create a database on its impact on the region. In 2008, volunteers developed Ushahidi as an open source platform to help Kenyans track political violence. Ushahidi has since been used to map election irregularities in Sudan, crime in Atlanta, and earthquake victims in Haiti. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade is receiving texts, tweets, and email messages about odors, unemployed oystermen, oily birds, and more. The database of reports appears as a rainbow of dots on a map on its Web site. "You hear one anecdote and then another anecdote, but hopefully this will give a more global perspective of the damage," says Bucket Brigade director Anne Rolfes. "We will have absolutely crystal-clear data about people affected, and that should certainly inform policy makers."

Frontier Guides Computing Through the Collision Landscape
International Science Grid This Week (05/05/10) Grim, Kathryn

Researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) working on the CMS and ATLAS particle detector experiments are using a software system that helps scientists quickly distribute information needed to interpret collision data. The system, called Frontier, is based on Squid Web cache technology. "Since data is often shared between sites or pulled from a remote site, the speed of data return is critical," says U.S. Brookhaven National Laboratory engineer John DeStefano. Fermilab computer scientists Jim Kowalkowski and Marc Paterno devised the original idea for Frontier. A Frontier server takes information about the changing landscape of a particle detector from a database and sends it to other servers, which then caches the information and shares it with other computers. Frontier uses HTTP to send database requests out to servers. The system has been updated to save more time and computing power by skipping the step of reloading information if the detector maps have not been changed.

Army of Smartphone Chips Could Emulate the Human Brain
New Scientist (05/04/10) Marks, Paul

University of Manchester computer scientist Steve Furber wants to build a silicon-based brain that contains one billion neurons. "We're using bog-standard, off-the-shelf processors of fairly modest performance," Furber says. The silicon brain, called Spiking Neural Network Architecture (Spinnaker), is based on a processor Furber helped design in 1987. Spinnaker's chips contain 20 ARM processor cores, each modeling 1,000 neurons. With 20,000 neurons per chip, Furber needs 50,000 chips to reach his goal of one billion neurons. A memory chip next to each processor stores the changing synaptic weights as numbers that represent the importance of a given connection. As the system becomes more developed, the only computer able to compute the connections will be the machine itself, Furber says. Spinnaker relies on a controller to direct spike traffic, similar to a router for the Internet. The researchers have built a small version of the silicon brain with 50 neurons and have created a virtual environment in which Spinnaker controls a Pac-Man-like program that learns to find a virtual doughnut.
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A New Online System for Legal Mediation Has Been Developed
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain) (05/04/10)

Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) researchers have developed the Electronic System for Mediation and Arbitration for Disabled Persons (SEMADISC), an electronic platform for people with disabilities designed to help them resolve legal conflicts without the need for a judge. "This is an accessible electronic tool that allows individuals with disabilities to enjoy the same autonomy and independence when exercising their rights as an individual without disabilities, so that the person with the disability does not have to depend on a third person," says UC3M's Miguel Angel Patricio. The researchers have developed the first online prototype, which is accessible from any Web browser. "For this first pilot plan we are selecting and training law students who will carry out the role of mediators," says UC3M professor Ma del Carmen Barranco. A legal team that is willing to act as consultants must offer free services to those who need it in order for SEMADISC to work. SEMADISC is based on the W3C standards, and special care has been taken to maintain the user's privacy and security.

Computerised Agents for Smart Electricity
University of Southampton (ECS) (05/05/10)

University of Southampton computer scientists have developed a system of computerized agents that can manage energy use and storage in the home. The system is designed to optimize individual electricity usage and storage to improve efficiency of the electricity grid. The system will make it possible to install smart software into electricity meters, which will allow the agents to optimize the usage and storage profile of the home. "This approach focuses on the system dynamics where all agents in the system are given the freedom to buy electricity whenever they see fit and, building on this, they can then learn the best storage profile in a market place where prices keep changing," says Southampton's Alex Rodgers.

Redesigning the Web for Touch Screens
Technology Review (05/04/10) Naone, Erica

Several types of Web software are not designed to work with touchscreen technology. For example, roll-over interactions do not work on touch-based devices and many Web sites are not equipped with the ability to trigger their "soft keyboards." Although these issues are significant, they are not new, says Ben Bederson, a professor at the human-computer interaction lab at the University of Maryland. "Whether you are building a Web app, Flash app, or native app, you have to decide which range of devices you're going to support," Bederson says. Web designers will have to deal with several issues when considering touch computers, such as the fact that touch interfaces do not give users the type of control they have with a mouse. While tests have shown that a stylus can be an effective substitute, the market has largely rejected that option, he says. This problem forces designers to simplify Web sites and increase the size of interaction points such as buttons and scroll bars. User Interface Engineering's Jared Spool says the emerging possibilities for interaction are based not only on touch, but on motion sensing and location information could revolutionize Web design.

Taking Research to the Next Level
New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal (05/04/10) Cunningham, April

Canadian scientists are developing Canadian Bioinformatics Resources as Semantic Services, a suite of information technology tools designed to aid researchers in locating the online resources the government has made available to the industry. Biomedical researchers will be able to describe data by words as well as by relationships. For example, biomedical researchers could enter "produces protein product" if they wanted to know how to convert a DNA sequence into protein sequence, according to University of New Brunswick Saint John computer scientist Chris Baker. He sees the Canadian Bioinformatics Resources as Semantic Services as advancing biomedical research in all areas. "The people who are doing research into new areas, they'll be able to do their jobs faster," Baker says. "New discoveries will be made faster because of it."

Computer Science Shows How 'Twitter-Bombs' Wield Influence
Wellesley College (05/03/10) Corday, Arlie

Wellesley College computer science professor P. Takis Metaxas says "Twitter bombs"--sending many Tweets from a large number of Twitter accounts within a short period of time--are being used to affect the outcome of elections. Metaxas says Twitter bombs were used against U.S. Senate candidate Martha Coakley in the recent Massachusetts senatorial election. A Twitter bomb reaches many people very quickly. "In addition, because Google is displaying Twitter trends in a prominent place, you influence Google search results," Metaxas says. The result of the Twitter bomb was "disproportionate exposure to personal opinions, fabricated content, unverified events, lies, and misrepresentations that would otherwise not find their way in the first page (of Google search results), giving them the opportunity to spread virally," he says. In an analysis of the Coakley Twitter bomb, the researchers found that the attack was launched by the American Future Fund, the same group that attacked John Kerry's record during his 2004 presidential campaign. Metaxas is developing software to detect Twitter bombs in real time.

Computers Map, Track Earthquakes Using Motion Sensors
Emergency Management (05/03/10) Nichols, Russell

University of California, Riverside (UCR) researchers are building the Quake-Catcher Network (QCN), an expanding seismic detection system that has the potential to send warnings, save lives, and build public safety efforts when an earthquake strikes. QCN uses inexpensive motion sensors in computers to collect seismic data in real time. QCN was developed by UCR professor Elizabeth Cochran and colleagues at Stanford University to fill holes in current earthquake-monitoring efforts. Cochran says the network can be the key to an earthquake early warning system by forming a global web of seismic sensors that captures data on the spot. "When an earthquake starts, you can quickly determine the magnitude and the location," she says. QCN uses accelerometers that people add to their computers to participate in the network. As more users install the sensors, seismologists can gather data from anywhere in the world in the case of an earthquake. Cochran says QCN currently has about 1,300 users on any given day logging in worldwide.

Your Face Is All You'll Need at an ATM
Daily Nation (Kenya) (05/03/10) Wanja, Joy; Ngirachu, John

Waweru Mwangi, director of the Institute of Computer Science and Information Technology at Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta University, demonstrated his Basic Intelligent Automated Teller Machine at a national scientific conference in Nairobi. The machine uses facial-recognition technology to enable users to conduct financial transactions instead of ATM or debit cards. Mwangi says that incorporating facial-recognition technology into ATMs makes banking more secure and friendly. "We realized that many people feel uncomfortable with the card, which in some cases is retained by the machine," he says. The Intelligent ATM features a camera that captures an image of the customer's face and then sends that picture to a database for verification. Once the image is deemed authentic, the customer is prompted to enter a personal identification number or is asked a personal question.

An Optical Traffic Cop for Rapid Communication
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (05/03/10)

Tel Aviv University's Koby Scheuer has developed a nano-based filtering device using silicon rubber that is designed to enable faster communications over optical fibers. The technology is a plastic-based filter that is made from nanometer-sized grooves embedded into the plastic. When used in fiber-optic cable switches, the device will make communication devices smaller, more flexible, and more powerful, says Scheuer. The device replaces semiconductor-based filters currently used in fiber-optic cables. Scheuer says that by using a method called stamping, almost any laboratory can make optical devices out of silicon rubber. The biggest hurdle is in convincing the communications industry that polymers are stable materials, he says. The device also can be used in the gyros of planes, ships, and rockets, or inserted in cell phones.

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