Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the May 14, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


They Walk. They Work. New DNA Robots Strut Their Tiny Stuff.
Wall Street Journal (05/13/10) Hotz, Robert Lee

Two independent research teams have generated an atomic-scale assembly line where robots fashioned from DNA molecules can ambulate, follow instructions, and cooperate to fabricate rudimentary products. Both research groups focused on mobile DNA walkers with legs composed of a string of genetic enzymes, and each appendage moves forward according to its chemical attraction to sequences of biochemicals deposited before it. In one project, researchers led by Columbia University biochemist Milan Stojanovic built a molecular machine that moved on its own along a track of chemical instructions. Meanwhile, New York University researchers led by chemist Nadrian Seeman integrated a programmable DNA track and a group of mobile robotic walkers with a series of independently controlled molecular forklifts that can transport parts on command, in effect creating a working nano-factory. The robots could be programmed to put together up to eight different shapes through the trigger of different DNA sequences.


When Good Enough is Better
MIT News (05/13/10) Hardesty, Larry

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a system that automatically finds parts of computer code where accuracy can be traded for significant increases in speed. In one set of tests, the system analyzed video data for transmission over the Internet and cut the coding time in half with no noticeable effect on the video quality. The researchers say the approach could have advantages for any system that needs to process data in real time. The system also could benefit programs that need to look for patterns in huge masses of data, such as Web site recommendation engines. The MIT system minimizes a common computer programming process called a loop. The researchers call the new technique "loop perforation" because it punches holes in loops by skipping every other step in the loop, or as many steps as possible without sacrificing too much accuracy. The system searches through a program, perforating each loop in turn, executing the program, and using standard measures to gauge the effect on performance. It then determines which loops' perforation provides the greatest increases in speed with the smallest drop in performance.


Reprogramming Electronic Noses to Get a Whiff of New Smells
Ars Technica (05/12/10) Gitig, Diana

Electronic noses have been used in medical, environmental, and industrial applications to analyze odorants. However, e-noses are trained to recognize a set of scents, and are limited to picking up the odors included in their reference database. Computer scientists now report the development of an e-nose capable of predicting and mimicking how an olfactory receptor will respond to different scents. This e-nose, which is tuned to the receptive range of an actual olfactory receptor, was able to predict whether 12 odorant receptors from Drosophila would respond to 21 new odorants with approximately 75% accuracy. Still, the e-nose does not reveal which molecular features, such as size, shape, or charge, enable it to interact with its receptor. However, the team views this as an advantage because the method can be used to analyze mixtures of odorants, and looking for molecular features can help lead to the identification of key features and new ligands. All ligand-receptor interactions could be studied.


NASA Looking to Six-Legged Robot to Build Human Outpost on Mars
Computerworld (05/12/10) Gaudin, Sharon

NASA is developing a six-legged robot that can walk or roll on wheels, and ultimately aims to help set up a habitat on Mars for future astronauts. The robot, called Athlete, has been a work in progress for the past five years at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says NASA's Brian Wilcox. The robot is designed to move easily across the various types of terrain on the moon, on Mars, or even on an asteroid. The hexagonal machine stands about 10 feet off the ground when its legs are fully extended. It can step over a 10-foot wall and is designed to carry payloads of more than 14.5 tons on Mars. "Athlete is being designed for the moon or Mars--really any terrestrial body that has moderate gravity," says Wilcox. NASA expects Athlete to be ready for a robotic mission to Mars by 2015. Two or three pairs of Athlete robots should be working on Mars before astronauts arrive there, says Wilcox. Athlete also is designed to work alongside the 300-pound Robonaut robot that is scheduled to be carried to the International Space Station aboard the NASA space shuttle Discovery in September.


Technology Linked to Happiness, Study Claims
BBC News (05/12/10)

A recent Chartered Institute for IT (BCS) survey of 35,000 people worldwide found there are positive links between access to technology and feelings of well-being. Access to communication devices was found to be the most valued. The study found that women in developing countries, and people of both sexes with low incomes or poor education, were most influenced emotionally by their access to technology. "Our hypothesis is that women in developing countries benefit more because they are more socially constrained in society," says BCS researcher Paul Flatters. Ownership of technology is a status symbol in many cultures, says Intel researcher Kathi Kitner. Though having a computer is considered an indicator of having a good education worldwide, the emerging middle classes of India think it also is a sign of prosperity, says Kitner.


Teachers Plan to Teach in 3D
University of Hertfordshire (05/12/10)

Computer scientists at the universities of Hertfordshire and Southern Denmark are on track to finish building technology that would bring virtual reality to Europe's classrooms. Society has embraced 3D technologies for entertainment purposes, and it is now time to use 3D virtual worlds to enhance the learning experience, says David Lee of the Realtime3D team at Hertfordshire. "Education technology will no doubt follow suit in using these innovative technologies that would have a real benefit to everyday lives," Lee says. "So far our research has shown that there is a desire from schools and universities to be able to offer an alternative method of teaching than standard textbook methods, one which brings the classroom to life." The researchers say the virtual world of 3D has the potential to better engage students by transforming the learning environment. The initiative also will train 100 teachers how to use 3D virtual worlds in their classrooms.


'Tamper Evident' CPU Warns of Malicious Backdoors
The Register (UK) (05/12/10) Goodin, Dan

Columbia University scientists have developed a chip design that prevents microprocessors from being equipped with malicious backdoors that could be used to steal sensitive information or receive instructions from adversaries. The researchers' "tamper evident" microprocessor is designed to monitor operations flowing through a CPU for signs that its microcode has been altered during the design cycle. "The root of trust in all software systems rests on microprocessors because all software is executed by a microprocessor," the researchers say. The tamper-evident chip features two engines hardwired into a processor that continuously monitors chip communications for anomalies. One of the engines, called TrustNet, sends an alert whenever a unit executes more or fewer instructions than is expected. The second engine, called DataWatch, watches chip data for signs the CPU has been maliciously modified.


Photonic Chip Aims to Boost Data Transmission Speeds
Computerworld Australia (05/12/10) Lee, Rebecca

A postgraduate student at the University of Sydney has demonstrated a photonic chip that has facilitated a new record for data transmission speeds--1.28Tbps--along a single optical channel. Trung Duc Vo, who is researching the development of a photonic transmitter chip for Ethernet networks, was able to avoid the usual electrical-optical-electrical conversion in information processing, which reduces the cooling time for the chip. The Australian National University and Danish Technical University are collaborating on Vo's research project for the ARC Center of Excellence for Ultrahigh-bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems (CUDOS). The research is still in the early stages, and Vo is testing the technology to see if it produces consistent results. "The technology will probably be sold in instrumentation markets before we bring it to the telecommunications market," says CUDOS director Ben Eggleton.


U.S. Struggles to Ward Off Evolving Cyber Threat
Reuters (05/12/10) Stewart, Phil; Wolf, Jim

More than 100 foreign spy agencies, as well as criminal organizations and terrorist groups, are probing U.S. computer systems thousands of times per day and scanning them millions of times daily, says U.S. Department of Defense official James Miller. He says authorities have failed to stay ahead of the cyberattacks, which have resulted in the loss of an enormous amount of data. Miller says the problem is compounded by the fact that the U.S. does not fully understand the vulnerabilities that hackers are taking advantage of. However, he says there are several steps the U.S. could take to improve cybersecurity, including working with private industry to protect potential vulnerabilities in vital infrastructure such as power grids and financial markets. Miller also says the U.S. needs to focus on developing more computer programmers, since countries such as China and India are expected to produce many more computer scientists than the U.S. will over the next 20 to 30 years.


Students, Professor Find Novel Way to Improve Cancer Treatment by Using Amazon.com Resources
University of New Mexico (05/12/10) Wentworth, Karen

University of New Mexico (UNM) computer scientists used computer time purchased from Amazon.com as an inexpensive way to complete the complex calculations needed to map radiation treatments. Precise calculations that target tumors with as little damage to surrounding healthy tissue can take hundreds of hours of processing time to determine where every proton and electron from the treatment beam is most likely to go. It is expensive for clinics to buy and maintain sophisticated computers to perform the calculations. However, the UNM researchers have found that clinics could buy the computer time from Amazon at 10 cents an hour to perform the calculations. The researchers reduced the calculations into pieces so they could use 200 computer nodes to run them. If the system works in practice the way the researchers envision, patients should have fewer side effects from radiation treatments, physicians should be able to treat cancer more effectively, and overall costs should be reduced.


W3C Launches XProc Spec
eWeek (05/11/10) Taft, Darryl K.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has released XProc, an Extensible Markup Language (XML) pipeline specification for managing XML-rich processes. W3C says the specification "provides a standard framework for composing XML processes [and] streamlines the automation, sequencing, and management of complex computations involving XML." XML is used throughout enterprise computing environments because it provides a standard way to manipulate data. "What we haven't had is any standard way to describe how to combine [XML functions] to accomplish any particular task," says XProc specification co-editor Norman Walsh of MarkLogic Corporation. "That's what XProc provides." Co-editor Henry Thompson of the University of Edinburgh says, "XProc exemplifies what W3C does best: We looked at existing practice--people have been using a number of similar-but-different XML-based languages--and we produced a consensus standard, creating interoperability and critical mass." W3C notes that XProc features a test suite that covers all of the required and optional steps of the language as well as all the static and dynamic errors.


Operation Reboot: IT Professionals Become Computer Science Teachers
U.S. News & World Report (05/10/10) Cimons, Marlene

A three-year, Georgia Tech-sponsored program called Operation Reboot is helping 30 information technology (IT) professionals reenter the work force as high school computer science teachers. The program pairs an IT worker with an existing computing teacher. They co-teach at least two computing classes for one year, allowing the IT professional to learn the ins and outs of the classroom, and the teacher to get an education in information technology. "A lot of people who teach computer science classes don't have any formal training in computer science," says Georgia Tech director of computing outreach Barbara Ericson. The teachers and IT workers both attend workshops throughout the school year and summer, and are assigned a mentor--an experienced computer science teacher--who meets with them periodically to talk about the issues they are having in school. "Sometimes, you're the only computer science teacher in the school, and it's hard to discuss things with anyone else at the school because nobody understands what you are talking about," Ericson says.
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Evolution of Large-Scale Social Networks Focus of MSU Study
MSU News (05/11/10)

A team from Michigan State University (MSU) will study how large-scale social networks such as YouTube and Wikipedia change as users come and go over time. The researchers want to understand how interaction on social networks benefits users. "A deeper understanding of the structure of social networks and how that structure evolves can be applied to a variety of social issues," says MSU professor Hayder Radha, the principal investigator for the project. "For example, norms around health behavior and information seeking have been shown to be defined by social networks, so knowing how to affect those networks could create better health outcomes." The research will be funded with a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.


The Rover's All Right
Corvallis Gazette-Times (OR) (05/16/10) Hatch, Cheryl

Oregon State University (OSU) students are building the Oregon State Wireless Active Learning Device (OSWALD), a remote-controlled Mars rover that features an extendable arm and a pan-tilt head with a video camera and global-positioning system device. OSWALD is a team project of the OSU robotics club, and will be entered in the University Rover Challenge, which takes place June 3-5. In the competition, the rover must perform a series of tasks, such as using its arm to push buttons and insert a three-prong electrical plug, as well as perform a remote survey of a site and find and retrieve a sample. The team's main goal is to improve on last year's fourth place finish at the competition and to keep OSWALD from getting stuck on anything. "It can pivot over obstacles and keep all six wheels on the ground," says OSU student Tyler Slone.


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