Welcome to the August 18, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Step 1: Post Elusive Proof. Step 2: Watch Fireworks
New York Times (08/16/10) Markoff, John
A proposed proof of the P versus NP problem posted by Hewlett-Packard mathematician Vinay Deolalikar posits that P does not equal NP, which implies that there are problems which computers cannot solve yet which have easily recognizable solutions. This is a key underlying precept of modern cryptography. But the proof also is significant for inspiring Internet-based collaboration by complexity theorists and others for the purpose of discussing the proof. The theorists employed blogs and wikis to conduct real-time discussion and analysis of the proof, and this kind of collaboration has emerged only relatively recently in the math and computer science communities. New York University professor Clay Shirky contends in a recently published book, "Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age," that the development of these new collaborative tools is fostering a second scientific revolution by ushering in a new paradigm of peer review. "It's not just, 'Hey, everybody, look at this,' but rather a new set of norms is emerging about what it means to do mathematics, assuming coordinated participation," he says.
World Record Data Density for Ferroelectric Recording
American Institute of Physics (08/17/10) Bardi, Jason
Tohoku University researchers have recorded data at a density of 4 trillion bits per square inch, which is a world record for the experimental ferroelectric data storage method. This density is about eight times the density of today's most advanced magnetic hard drives. The new data-recording device scans a small cantilever tip that rides in contact with the surface of a ferroelectric material. Data is written when an electric pulse is sent through the tip, changing the electric polarization and nonlinear dielectric constant of a tiny circular spot in the substrate beneath. The reading of data occurs when the tip detects the variations in nonlinear dielectric constant in the altered regions. "We expect this ferroelectric data storage system to be a candidate to succeed magnetic hard disk drives or flash memory, at least in applications for which extremely high data density and small physical volume is required," says Tohoku's Yasuo Cho. The researchers note that many practical improvements would be needed for commercial viability, such as increasing the speed and accuracy of reading the data and developing a low-cost ferroelectric substrate.
Deaf, Hard-of-Hearing Students Do First Test of Sign Language by Cell Phone
University of Washington News and Information (08/16/10) Hickey, Hannah
University of Washington scientists are developing a device that can transmit American Sign Language (ASL) over U.S. cellular networks. "This is the first study of how deaf people in the United States use mobile video phones," says Washington professor Eve Riskin. The researchers were able to improve image quality around the face and hands using optimized compressed video signals, which reduced the data rate to 30 kilobytes per second. Their MobileASL tool also features motion detection technology, which extends the device's battery life by shutting down after it detects that it is not in use. MobileASL was recently tested by 11 participants for three weeks. "We know these phones work in a lab setting, but conditions are different in people's everyday lives," Riskin says. The Washington researchers note that Apple iPhone's FaceTime videoconferencing application uses nearly 10 times the bandwidth of MobileASL, which can be integrated with any device that has a video camera on the same side as the screen. "We want to deliver affordable, reliable ASL on as many devices as possible," Riskin says. "It's a question of equal access to mobile communication technology."
Engineering and Music: A Powerful Duet for Art and Science
National Science Foundation (08/16/10) O'Brien, Miles
The University of Rochester's Music Research Lab is developing technologies that reflect the expertise of musicians as well as scientists and engineers. Rochester professor Mark Bocko uses a computer to analyze every aspect of how a musician interacts with an instrument to create the sound. "So, what the computer learns is how hard they were blowing, the blowing pressure at every instant in time, what their mouth clamping force was on the reed, and the fingering they used," Bocko says. His data has led to improvements in music compression. A normal compressed music file processes about 1.5 million bits of data per second. However, when a musician plays an instrument, there are much less than 1.5 million bits of data per second being transmitted from the musician to the instrument, according to Bocko. He taught a computer how to play a clarinet, and was able to compress the resulting file to about 1,000 times the size of a typical MP3 file. Bocko says the technology could be used to improve videoconferencing to eliminate video-to-audio lag, or to enable music to be played live over the Internet.
Mobile Flaw Could Cloak Clicks
Technology Review (08/17/10) Lemos, Robert
Stanford University researchers have found that mobile Web sites are extremely vulnerable to attacks from malicious sites using a technique known as tapjacking, which tracks users' clicks as a way to steal passwords and other data. Smartphones are more vulnerable to tapjacking because it is hard to tell which sites are secure, since an attacker can "draw anything he wants on the screen, and the user cannot tell what's real and what is from the attacker," says Stanford postdoctoral fellow Elie Bursztein. "People buy things on their phone, they use Facebook and Twitter, and soon enough they will be doing banking on the phone," Bursztein says. The researchers recommend using frame-busting code to prevent a Web site from creating an invisible frame to display another page. "Mobile Web site security should be taken as seriously as nonmobile Web site security--otherwise, bad things can happen," Bursztein warns.
A Chip That Digests Data and Calculates the Odds
New York Times (08/17/10) Vance, Ashlee
Lyric Semiconductor, a startup launched from research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, plans to build a chip that can compute likelihoods, technology that could help determine which book a consumer will want to buy from Amazon.com or help create better gene-sequencing equipment. "We decided there are lots of probability problems out there that are so important they deserved their own hardware," says Lyric cofounder Ben Vigoda. The technology also could be used to find the best search results for an individual user, or the likelihood that an email message is spam. Lyric says its chip can perform these calculations using just a few transistors along with specially designed algorithms that are geared toward probability. The U.S. Department of Defense is financing Lyric's chip development, in hopes of using the technology to sort through data communications streams to find useful data. However, the technology eventually could be used by corporations working with large data sets.
A Robot That Identifies Doors From Their Handles
Basque Research (08/16/10) Bulegoa, Prentsa
A multi-disciplinary research team at the University of the Basque Country's (UPV/EHU's) Robotics and Autonomous Systems Group are developing intelligent, semi-aware cognitive robots. "The robot has to be aware of what it is doing and, more and more, be capable of improving its behavior, its learning," says UPV/EHU's Basilio Sierra. For example, the team has developed Tartalo, an intelligent robot that can differentiate doors from their handles. "The robot does not have hands but, when it approaches the door slowly, it knocks on the door and asks" for someone to open it, says UPV/EHU's Elena Lazkano. She notes that Tartalo features software that enables it to identify door handles, which is challenging because they can have many different shapes. Sierra says the researchers are focusing on applications for disabled and elderly people. "The end goal would be to buy yourself a robot [that is] capable of getting around by itself, seeing rooms and being aware of what the dwelling is like, being capable of moving about the house by itself, and helping to do household chores," he says.
Clothing to Power Personal Computers
University of Southampton (ECS) (08/16/10) Lewis, Joyce
Researchers at the University of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science are developing technology that would enable individuals to power electronic devices through their clothes and the carpets they walk on. Southampton's Steve Beeby and his team will use rapid printing processes and active printed inks to create an energy-harvesting film for textiles. This film also can be printed on carpets, enabling people to generate energy as they walk around the home or office. "We will generate useful levels of power, which will be harvested through the films in the textiles," Beeby says. "The two big challenges in smart textiles are supplying power and surviving washing." The research will provide a toolbox of materials and processes suitable for a range of different fabrics, which will enable users to develop the energy-harvesting fabric best suited to their requirements. Beeby says the technology will likely be used to power wireless health monitoring systems in addition to consumer products and automotive applications.
Systems Biology Software Package Developed at VBI Is Now Open Source for All Users
Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (08/16/10) Bland, Susan
Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) professor Pedro Mendes led the development of Complex Pathway Simulator (COPASI), open source systems biology software that helps users develop models and simulations of biochemical networks. The software supports the Systems Biology Markup Language standard and provides researchers with the computational tools needed to investigate how a system is working through the construction of biochemical models. COPASI is used by advanced modelers because it includes sophisticated algorithms. One of COPASI's main features is the ability to automatically adjust model parameters to reproduce experimental results that help justify the validity of the chosen model. The software's new open source license allows commercial users to freely use the software. "Third parties will now be able to develop and distribute software packages that use the program and it can also be included in other software bundles, such as Linux distributions," says VBI project manager Stefan Hoops.
Tell Me Where You Are and I'll Tell You What I See
Fondazione Bruno Kessler (Italy) (08/12/10)
Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FBK) researchers have developed a system that can analyze a mobile phone-produced photo and generate information about the location. Marmota mobile AR "integrates technologies and findings from different disciplines, from cartography to computer graphics, and sophisticated machine vision algorithms," says FBK researcher Michele Zanin. The system tracks the user's location by using their phone's global positioning system and communicates with the central Marmota server. The user receives a high-resolution, 360-degree image of the scene, which, based on user priorities, can include such information as country names and altitudes. "One of the innovative aspects of the system is that the rendering provided to the user shows aspects that are actually visible from the observation point, excluding hidden ones that, with the classic effect of a cloud of unreadable points, would create confusion," Zanin says. The system also could be used to correlate photos taken of a landscape with synthetic three-dimensional models.
Encouraging the Next Generation of IT Workers
Computing (United Kingdom) (08/16/10) Sahota, Dawinderpal
The number of information and communications technology General Certificate of Secondary Education students in the United Kingdom has dropped 33 percent, according to a Royal Society study, which also found a 57 percent drop in A-level computing students in the past eight years. "The biggest issue is the negative effect the current system will have on future careers in this sector," says E-skills UK's Margaret Sambell. She says the education system is not producing the right mix of information technology (IT) and business skills required for modern employers. "With globalization, a lot of programming and testing work is sourced overseas and the work in the UK is much more centered on business integration of technology." Software professionals who can deliver business benefits from technology are the most in demand roles in IT management, strategy, and planning, according to E-skills' research. Employers are trying to improve IT education themselves. Five years ago, 50 employers developed a partnership with E-skills and 13 universities. "Students on this course are learning how to manage technology projects as well as derive business benefits from technology," Sambell says.
Feds Strengthen Cybersecurity Workforce Plans
InformationWeek (08/13/10) Hoover, J. Nicholas
Representatives from both the public and the private sector who attended a recent cybersecurity conference said that progress has been made in developing and executing strategies for creating a stronger U.S. federal cybersecurity workforce. For example, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has launched an effort to sharpen and redefine cybersecurity job policies and has established working groups for redefining competency models for federal cybersecurity professionals. In addition, an effort is being made to improve the structure of the federal government's cybersecurity workforce. However, despite these efforts, conference attendees acknowledged that more needs to be done. For example, they noted that it can often be difficult for hiring managers to determine who is qualified for cybersecurity jobs or what additional training employees need. Meanwhile, there is a debate over whether the federal cybersecurity workforce needs its own job series to better define what cybersecurity professionals do. OPM's Maureen Higgins says her agency also is considering whether the government needs to change its hiring authorities and practices.
University of Texas at Austin (08/11/10) Dubrow, Aaron
University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) researchers have developed SMall Aircraft Risk Technology (SMART), software that can run thousands of simulations on a given part of a plane and produce detailed reports on its structural integrity. The UTSA team used the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) to help develop SMART, which analyzes information about stresses, speed, altitude, and the material properties of the metal components. The system uses a probabilistic approach, with randomly chosen inputs, which significantly increases the computational time required to run the analysis. UTSA professor Harry Millwater wanted to make sure the SMART code could run simultaneously on multiple processing cores, which accelerates performance. "They knew they needed things to run faster, and they knew that [high-performance computing] was an avenue, but it's just not something that they had direct exposure with locally, so they sought out a mechanism to get some assistance," says TACC's Karl W. Schultz. TACC helped SMART run 188 times faster by instituting a new message passing interface version of the code. The new system is expected to help decision-makers who need to make quick determinations concerning nationwide flight policy.
Enhancing Patient Safety With Hand-Held Technology
Hospital News (08/10) Richards, Kate
The Centre for Global eHealth Innovation, the University Health Network, and Mount Sinai Hospital are developing smartphone technology designed to enhance the safety of at-risk patients by augmenting nurses' ability to monitor a patient's vital signs and detect clinical deterioration. The Early Warning Scores application will alert critical care response teams when patients deteriorate. "This new technology is meant to complement what nurses are doing by facilitating the entry of vital signs and validating concerns about a deteriorating patient," says Toronto General Hospital's John Granton. The application features an easy-to-use interface that enables nurses to enter vital signs directly from a patient's bedside. The researchers also are working on a way to transfer vital-sign data directly from the bedside monitors to the program. The research team is refining the Early Warning Scores software for use in a pilot program that will be conducted at the Toronto hospital this fall.
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