Welcome to the September 1, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
In observance of the Labor Day holiday, ACM TechNews will not be published on Friday, Sept. 3, and Monday, Sept. 6. Publication will resume Wednesday, Sept. 8.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Advances Offer Path to Further Shrink Computer Chips
New York Times (08/30/10) Markoff, John
Researchers at Rice University and Hewlett-Packard (HP) have developed technologies that promise to continue the rapid miniaturization of computer chips. The Rice scientists have developed a way to build reliable small digital switches, a vital part of computer memory, which could shrink to a significantly smaller scale than is possible using current methods. The researchers say the new technology could lead to single chips that store as much as today's highest capacity disk drives. Meanwhile, HP is preparing to produce memristor-based technology that has the potential to push computer data storage to extremely high densities in the coming decade. "When you get down to these scales, you’re talking about the ability to store hundreds of movies on a single chip," says Richard Doherty, president of the Envisioneering Group, a consumer electronics market research company. Other companies, including IBM and Intel, are pursuing a competing technology called phase-change memory, which uses heat to transform a glassy material from an amorphous state to a crystalline one and back. Phase-change memory could lead to the development of flash chips that retain information after their power is turned off.
FCC Adjusts Final Rules on Use of Vacant TV Band
Wall Street Journal (08/31/10) P. B3; Schatz, Amy
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is close to passing a proposal that would free up the vacant spectrum between TV channels, known as white space, which would allow technology and telecommunications companies to introduce new wireless devices and services. Technology companies want to use the white space because signals sent on that spectrum can travel long distances and move through buildings, enabling the companies to build wireless networks that are stronger than current Wi-Fi hot spots. The empty airwaves "represent a unique opportunity to spark next-generation broadband networks across the country," says Google's Rich Whitt. "We're very eager for the commission to give the green light to start innovating and building new services on these airwaves." Some of the white space is needed to prevent TV signals from bleeding into each other, and broadcasters and wireless-microphone users worry that using the spectrum will cause interference. However, FCC officials have recently met with broadcasters and other interested parties to discuss the remaining obstacles to freeing up the vacant spectrum. The issue could come to a vote as soon as the FCC's September meeting.
The Robots Are Cutting in on Our Dance Moves
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) (08/28/10) Phillips, Nicky
Four humanoid robots recently danced in Australia with the Melbourne dance troupe Wickid Force. A team of Sydney scientists spent several months fine-tuning motor control algorithms that enabled them to program the robots for the highly controlled, fluid dance movements. The robots' dance moves were based on a routine choreographed by Wickid Force, and computer scientist Benjamin Johnston developed a programming language that made it easier to direct their movements. Johnston watched small sections of the choreography video, placed the robots in the appropriate dance positions, and stored the data in their memory. Each musical beat was matched to a dance move, and the robots' clocks were synchronized so they would dance in unison. Johnston says it took two hours to program every five seconds of dance. "It's all about having precise control over a robot's body," says University of Technology professor and project leader Mary-Anne Williams. "We need to be able to do that better if we want to have robots in our home."
EmotionML: Will Computers Tap Into Your Feelings?
CNet (08/30/10) Shankland, Stephen
The World Wide Web Consortium's Multimodal Interaction Working Group is developing the Emotion Markup Language (EmotionML), a new specification aimed at formalizing emotional states in a way that computers can understand. EmotionML also is being developed to improve communication between people and computers. "Today's computers force humans to adapt to them, which causes more and more difficulties to most people," says EmotionML standard editor Marc Schroeder. "Future computers should be able to interact with humans in ways that humans find natural." He says EmotionML developers have encountered various difficulties in developing emotion-detecting technology, including shortcomings in sensing technology, such as error-prone facial expression recognition; the possibility that an erroneous reading of emotion could cause more damage than no reading at all; and insufficient quality in technology to express emotion. However, Schroeder says they also have made much progress, including the development of a broader palette for capturing subtle emotional states than what's typical today.
Grim Numbers Point to the End of the Venture Capital Era
Mercury News (08/25/10) O'Brien, Chris
The latest study from the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) found that 10-year returns on venture capital investments turned negative at the end of last year and plummeted in the first quarter of this year, while 90 percent of surveyed venture capitalists expect industry contraction through 2015. Mercury News columnist Chris O'Brien says this trend signals a venture industry in free fall, and NVCA president Mark Heesen says that fewer innovative companies are being founded amid the increased difficulty in obtaining venture capital. The platform for the venture sector's financial model was having a substantial number of their portfolio companies hold initial public offerings (IPOs), but the IPO market has been in a holding pattern this past decade, and a revival of IPOs this year has not happened. The combined trends of fewer startups and wide-ranging consolidation translates into an impediment to job creation, and O'Brien concludes that "with venture capital in retreat, we must look elsewhere for a new model for startup funding to kick-start [Silicon Valley's] next era of innovation and the kind of job creation we desperately need."
To Win Over Users, Gadgets Have to Be Touchable
New York Times (09/01/10) Miller, Claire Cain
Scientists including Microsoft Research's Eric Horvitz say natural user interfaces, such as touch screens, have seeped into people's daily existence more quickly and completely than other technological behaviors because the act of touching a screen is so natural, intimate, and intuitive He predicts that the future of electronic gadgetry will reside in combining people's impulses to point, gesture, and coordinate with each other. Apple's iPhone mainstreamed touch- and gesture-based interfaces through the seamless fusing of various technologies, says SRI International engineer Harsha Prahlad. IBM Almaden Research Center scientist Shumin Zhai conducted a study of iPad users in which he observed that "people inevitably point at the screen, thinking something would happen--it's such a natural behavior." Sony is about to roll out a new line of e-readers that, for the first time, are all equipped with touch screens, while similar offerings from Amazon.com, Panasonic, and others have been or will soon be introduced. Next-generation screens may be enabled to translate users' gestures, eye movements, and speech into action.
Designer Optoelectronics--Quantum Mechanics for New Materials
ICT Results (08/27/10)
The European Union-funded Novel Advanced Transparent Conductive Oxides (NATCO) project has developed novel transparent conductive oxides (TCOs) through a combination of computer modeling of quantum mechanics and precision fabrication processes. The resulting materials have a broad range of potential applications in sensors, solar cells, smart windows, and many other commercial, consumer, and scientific products. The NATCO team investigated strontium cuprate, doped with varying amounts of barium, as an alternative to an oxide of indium doped with a small portion of tin, which suffers from weak transparency and high cost. Calculations applying quantum mechanics projected that the barium-doped strontium cuprate would yield materials that would meet the researchers' precise transparency and conductivity specifications. One of the most promising applications of the project's new TCOs is in the area of highly sensitive biosensors. Project coordinator Guy Garry plans to apply NATCO's first-principles modeling and precision fabrication strategy to examine more complex materials, such as ferroelectric substances.
UT, ORNL Collaborate to Improve Accuracy of Climate Change Models
Daily Beacon (TN) (08/31/10) Hargett, Robbie
Researchers at the University of Tennessee (UT) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) are part of a seven-institution project that is developing methods for predicting climate change more accurately. The project is using data mining to "discover hidden patterns among model-simulated variables that are relatively better predicted and establish their relations with those that are not, with the goal of improving predictions of the more crucial variables," says ORNL's Auroop Ganguly. "Turns out that some of the less well predicted model variables may be more important for climate change impacts and policy," Ganguly says. ORNL researcher Evan Kodra is evaluating how much uncertainty there is in climate modeling extreme events. UT's Karsten Steinhaeuser is researching data mining and machine learning, with a focus on applications to climate change. "My research on the use of complex networks to represent the climate system will be used for quantifying and reducing uncertainty in model outputs, which in turn will guide impact assessments due to changes in projected future climate," Steinhaeuser says.
Vulnerability in Commercial Quanto Cryptography
Norwegian University of Science and Technology (08/29/10)
Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the University of Erlangen-Nurnberg, and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light have developed a way to remotely control the photon detectors in quantum cryptography systems. "Unlike previously published attempts, this attack is implementable with current off-the-shelf components," says NTNU's Vadim Makarov. "Our eavesdropping method worked both against MagiQ Technology's QPN 5505 and ID Quantique Clavis2 systems." Quantum cryptography is used to distribute a cryptographic key across an optical network, using the laws of quantum physics to guarantee its secrecy. However, Erlangen-Nurnberg professor Gerd Leuchs notes that the technology's security depends on quantum physics as well as its proper implementation. The labs will work with ID Quantique on countermeasures for the vulnerability.
Building the Future Internet
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (08/27/10)
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) professor Tarek Abdelzaher and his team are working with researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles and other institutions to develop a new Internet architecture called Named Data Networking (NDN). The researchers say that NDN will shift the Web's focus from where addresses and hosts are located to what users and applications need and care about. The researchers studied a set of problems necessary to validate NDN, including routing scalability, fast forwarding, efficiency of signature generation and verification, trust models, network security and defense, content protection and privacy, and fundamental communication theory. The UIUC team will demonstrate how NDN can simplify the development of applications and improve their efficiency and make them more reliable. "Since the amount of information that sensors and other modern technology generates and stores grows exponentially, whereas our ability to comprehend and consume it does not, future applications will be centered increasingly around some notion of information distillation--that is to say, bridging the growing gap between the increasing amounts of raw data on one end and the human need for succinct actionable information on the other," Abdelzaher says.
China Researchers Claim Faster MRAM
EE Times (08/27/10) Johnson, R. Colin
Electrically switching between magnetic domains "halfway" enables magnetic random access memory (MRAM) to store binary bits at faster switching speeds and at a fraction of the power consumption normally required, according to Chinese researchers. A team at Tsinghua University has built an electrically switched MRAM bit cell with just two layers of different ferroelectric films. An electrical signal was capable of affecting the magnetic polarization of the bit cell by scattering the walls of the striped domain in the bilayered structure. As a result, the structure was transformed into a single domain that changed the resistivity of the film just enough to detect. The team showed that applying an electrical voltage to the MRAM bit cell allowed the presence or absence of domain walls to be used to store information. The researchers are now working to enhance the technique for commercial use.
NSF Project at Carnegie Mellon Will Develop Architecture That Makes Internet Secure, Smart
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (08/27/10) Spice, Byron; Swaney, Chriss
The U.S. National Science Foundation will fund a $7.1 million project led by Carnegie Mellon University researchers to develop a next-generation Internet architecture that addresses security and reliability shortcomings. The eXpressive Internet Architecture (XIA) Project will include innate security features to assure users of the legitimacy of downloaded documents and accessed Web sites, and help them locate desired content wherever it is most accessible. By making the numeric codes computers use to identify documents into hash values, XIA will enable the computer to mathematically ascertain whether the document it receives is consistent with its identifying hash value, or if it has been changed. The system also will use public key cryptography to determine the trustworthiness of Web sites through its Accountable Internet Protocol method. In addition, XIA will enable users to address packets for the content they seek, rather than to a host site, which could substantially shrink network traffic by removing redundant downloads.
Learn to Play by Playing
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology have developed Song2See, software designed to make learning to play music easier and more entertaining. Song2See turns a user's favorite songs into practice pieces that can be compiled as a practice folder. The software evaluates if the right notes are being played and if the rhythm matches the song. The pitch, tempo, key, and degree of difficulty can all be adjusted according to the user's preferences. "It is our goal to offer people who want to learn an instrument even more fun and variety, using elements that they perhaps already know from computer games," says Fraunhofer researcher Christian Dittmar. "In order to run the note recognition in the background, we had to teach the software to accurately recognize the tones of the varied instruments and not be confused by accompanying music."
MIT News (08/24/10) Hardesty, Larry
Numerous scientific fields employ computers to deduce patterns in data, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers led by graduate student Vincent Tan have taken an initial step to determine how much data is enough to support reliable pattern inference by envisioning data sets as graphs. In the researchers' work, the nodes of the graph represent data and the edges stand for correlations between them, and from this point of view a computer tasked with pattern recognition is provided a bunch of nodes and asked to construe the weights of the edges between them. The researchers have demonstrated that graphs configured like chains and stars establish, respectively, the best- and worst-case scenarios for computers charged with pattern recognition. Tan says that for tree-structured graphs with shapes other than stars or chains, the "strength of the connectivity between the variables matters." Carnegie Mellon University professor John Lafferty notes that a tree-structured approximation of data is more computationally efficient.
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