Welcome to the November 1, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Paperless E-Voting a Concern This Election, Say Watchdogs
Computerworld (10/29/10) Jaikumar Vijayan
Some election monitors are concerned that about one in four U.S. registered voters will be casting their ballots using electronic voting machines that offer no verifiable paper records. Paperless e-voting systems are being used in Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, and South Carolina, according to the Verified Voting Foundation (VVF). Meanwhile, most voters in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia will use direct-recording electronic voting systems to cast their ballots. VVF president Pamela Smith warns that paperless e-voting systems make it difficult to verify the accuracy of electronic votes. E-voting systems can experience technical difficulties and are susceptible to tampering, which makes the need for a paper trail all the more important, says New Yorkers for Verified Voting founder Bo Lipari. The 2002 Help America Vote Act has prompted most states to use some kind of verifiable paper record system, with some requiring voters to mark ballots and then scan them into optical reading devices, while others are direct-recording systems that generate paper copies. Of even more importance is an easy way to detect tampering, says the Center for Election System executive director Merle King.
‘Wireless' Humans Could Form Backbone of New Mobile Networks
Queen's University Belfast (10/28/10) Lisa McElroy
Queen's University Belfast (QUB) researchers have developed wearable sensors that could create new ultra-high bandwidth mobile Internet infrastructures and reduce the density of mobile phone base stations. The researchers say the technology could lead to vast improvements in mobile gaming, remote healthcare, the precision monitoring of athletes, and real-time tactical training in team sports. The QUB researchers are studying how small sensors, carried by members of the public in next-generation smartphones, could communicate with each other in an extensive body-to-body network. "The availability of body-to-body networks could bring great social benefits, including significant healthcare improvements through the use of body-worn sensors for the widespread, routine monitoring and treatment of illness away from medical centers," says QUB's Simon Cotton.
Robot Teachers Are the Latest E-Learning Tool
Chronicle of Higher Education (10/31/10) Jeffery R. Young
Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) researchers are building robots to provide English instruction to schoolchildren. The researchers, led by KIST's Mun Sang Kim, are designing the robots with realistic facial features, arms that enable them to gesture, and sensors so they can keep their distance from students. The robots can teach either by leading students through preprogrammed exercises or by being operated remotely over the Internet. The researchers say the goal is to be able to build robots that are less expensive than hiring teachers from abroad to teach English. "The role of robots will go up steadily, and the role of human teachers will shrink," Kim says. The brightly colored robots are about three feet tall, display facial expressions as they speak, and have built-in speech recognition technology. The researchers have developed 40 prototypes, which will be placed into service at 18 elementary schools for a three-month pilot test.
ASCII Crimps Program Development, Coder Says
IDG News Service (10/29/10) Joab Jackson
Programming languages are unnecessarily difficult to work with because they rely on the artificial constraint of using only American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) characters, contends Poul-Henning Kamp in an article in the November issue of Communications of the ACM. Kamp says modern programming languages are restricted by the rules set in place by computers developed decades ago. Google engineer Rob Pike recently created a new language called Go designed to simplify programming. However, Kamp says Go is still based on ASCII text. "Why keep trying to cram an expressive syntax into the straitjacket of the 95 glyphs of ASCII when Unicode has been the new black for most of the past decade?" he writes. Kamp argues that Unicode is a better foundation for programming because it expands on ASCII's limited number of characters to a wider range of other languages. "Unicode has the entire gamut of Greek letters, mathematical and technical symbols, brackets, brockets, sprockets, and weird and wonderful glyphs," he writes. Using this wider range of characters would keep programming languages from having to resort to developing a convoluted syntax to enable advanced functionality, according to Kamp.
Robot, Object, Action!
ICT Results (10/29/10)
European researchers working on the PACO-PLUS project have developed robotic demonstrations to illustrate object-action complexes (OACs) as a new approach to robotic cognition. OACs represent a combination of perception of and action upon any given object. "The first thing a robot will do when it encounters an object for the first time is to lift it before its eyes and then rotate the object so the robot gets a look at it from all angles," says PACO-PLUS project co-coordinator Tamim Asfour. The basic principle in the OAC concept is the idea that interaction with the environment leads to more sophisticated strategies over time, and ultimately gives rise to intelligence. PACO-PLUS researchers also have developed a method for teaching robots to learn from human observation and human coaching.
Three-Dimensional Maps of Brain Wiring
Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands) (10/28/10)
Eindhoven University of Technology researchers have developed a software tool that converts magnetic resonance imaging scans to three-dimensional images, helping physicians to study the neural connections of patients' brains. "With this new tool, you can determine exactly where to place the stimulation electrode in the brain," says Eindhoven professor Bart ter Haar Romenij. "The guiding map has been improved: Because we now see the roads on the map, we know better where to stick the needle." The researchers say the system also could lead to new insights into neurological and psychiatric disorders and note that it is especially accurate in identifying intersections of nerve bundles in the brain. "You can now see for the first time the spaghetti-like structures and their connections," Ter Haar Romenij says. The tool uses as its foundation the recently developed High Angular Resolution Diffusion Imaging (HARDI) technology. The software tool handles the processing, interpretation, and interactive visualization of the HARDI data.
Ryerson Researchers Are Building an Intuitive Interface, Leading the World in Context-Aware Computing
Ryerson University News (10/28/10) Dana Yates
Ryerson University researchers are developing a context-awareness communication system that provides mobile-device users with more control over how, when, and where they receive voice and video calls. The system can consult a user's daily schedule, location, and the profiles of the people in the area to determine if a call should be sent directly to voice mail or be redirected to someone else. "We are building an intuitive and image-based interface that takes these contexts into consideration, enabling people to set their own rules and preferences about how others can communicate with them," says Ryerson professor Hossein Rahnama. He says the new technology frees users from the limitations of traditional, text-based options when grouping contacts on mobile devices or social networking sites. The system also enables groups of people to be sorted visually, using pictures, graphics, and their situational information.
New Software Eases Analysis of Insect in Motion
Case Western Reserve University (10/27/2010) Kevin Mayhood
Case Western Reserve University researchers developed software that enabled them to provide the first detailed analysis of how cockroaches use all six legs at the same time to walk, run, and turn. Case Western's John Bender says the program enabled the team to analyze 106,496 individual points from three-dimensional (3D) images of cockroaches in hours, and with about 90 percent accuracy. He says the old method of analyzing the 3D movement of the 26 leg joints of a cockroach frame-by-frame would have taken at least a couple of weeks. The software automates the work and eliminates some of the subjectivity in analyzing each frame individually. The movement of cockroaches could provide a model for rescue robots that would move through debris of disasters to find survivors. The team is now using the software to analyze changes in coordination as cockroaches change walking speed and turn. The open source software also could be used to study the movement of other insects.
Driverless Vans End 8,000-Mile Test Drive to China
Associated Press (10/28/10)
The European Research Council's 8,000-mile robotic car test, which began in Italy on July 20, came to a conclusion as four unmanned electric vans successfully completed their journey in Shanghai, China. The vehicles, equipped with four solar-powered laser scanners and seven video cameras that work together to detect and dodge obstacles, are part of an experiment aimed at improving road safety and advancing automotive technology. The vans did not use maps as they traveled through remote parts of Siberia and China. The computerized artificial vision system, called Generic Obstacle and Lane Detector, analyzed the information from the sensors and automatically adjusted the vehicles' speed and direction. "The idea here was to travel on a long route, on two different continents, in different states, different weather, different traffic conditions, different infrastructure," says University of Parma researcher Alberto Broggi. The technology will be employed to analyze ways to complement motorists' abilities, with potential applications in mining, farming, and construction.
From Touchpad to Thought-Pad?
National Institutes of Health (10/27/10) Daniel Stimson
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently completed a study using brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) showing that it is possible to manipulate complex visual images on a computer screen by thought. The researchers found that when study participants had their brains linked to a computer displaying two combined images, they could force the computer to display one of the images and remove the other. "The subjects were able to use their thoughts to override the images they saw on the computer screen," says University of California, Los Angeles professor Itzhak Fried. In the study, BCI technology was used as a tool to understand how the brain processes information, and to understand how thoughts and decisions are shaped by the collective activity of single brain cells. "This is a novel and elegant use of a brain-computer interface to explore how the brain directs attention and makes choices," says NIH researcher Debra Babcock. "The remarkable aspects of this study are that we can concentrate our attention to make a choice by modulating so few brain cells and that we can learn to control those cells very quickly."
Study Finds Support for Presidential Net 'Kill Switch'
CNet (10/27/10) Lance Whitney
Sixty-one percent of U.S. citizens believe the president should be authorized to control or even shut down portions of the Internet in the event key U.S. systems are struck by a cyberattack from a foreign power, according to the latest Unisys Security Index. The study suggests that the U.S. public may favor pending cybersecurity legislation that accords the president such authority by granting the government the power to force Internet providers, search engines, software companies, and other private firms to comply with emergency measures set up by Department of Homeland Security. Fifty-nine percent of poll respondents said they were extremely or very worried about the U.S.'s national security in relation to the war against terrorism, 57 percent were worried about identity theft, and 57 percent harbored concerns about credit and debit card fraud. Respondents were less anxious about Internet security, with only 34 percent "seriously concerned" about the security of shopping or banking online. "Our survey shows that the American public recognizes the danger of a cyberattack and wants the federal government to take an active role in extending the nation's cyberdefense," says Unisys' Patricia Titus.
Twitter Tool Roots Out Disguised Mass Postings
New Scientist (10/27/10) Jim Giles
Indiana University researchers led by professor Filippo Menczer have developed a method for detecting attempts to artificially inflate the popularity of people and ideas through Twitter. The researchers investigated the patterns of tweets created by and between Twitter accounts and found several ways in which some accounts were being used in potentially deceptive ways. Anonymous, automated accounts can be programmed to retweet certain messages so that they appear more often in search results. Another technique called Twitter cooperative creates a network of multiple accounts that send near-identical messages, which bypasses Twitter's anti-spam system. The researchers are using these and other examples to train software to recognize unusual patterns of tweets. Menczer says that during testing the system was able to detect about 85 percent of the questionable tweets he collected.
Someone's Watching You
Technology Review (10/28/10) Tom Simonite
FX Palo Alto Laboratory (FX Labs) has developed myUnity, a communications application that can tell users if a coworker is busy at the desk, talking on the phone, or has left the building. MyUnity gives users a visual contact list showing what their contacts are doing. The program draws on multiple sources of information, including the location of a cell phone running the app and information processed from a user's Webcam. Information is collected by a suite of software and sensors that feed data back into the cloud, where users' clients can access it. The software employs color codes and text to show if coworkers are sitting alone at their workstation, or if they are away from their desk but still in the office. MyUnity can tell if coworkers are working at their desk by tapping into their Webcam or a security camera with a view of their workspace. Interviews with MyUnity users have shown that the tool can help enhance communications, says FX Labs researcher Jacob Biehl. "We saw a reduction in the number of emails being sent and an increase in face-to-face communication--that showed we were providing awareness of opportunities for those meetings to occur," he says.
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