Welcome to the December 1, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
IBM Claims Breakthrough in Laser-Based Chips
Wall Street Journal (12/01/10) Don Clark
IBM recently announced a breakthrough in the development of silicon-based chips that send data using pulses of laser light. IBM says the research sets the stage for future chips that can send more than a trillion bits of data per second, about 25 times faster than the optical components currently used in high-performance computers. IBM's Yurii Vlasov says the first commercial applications of the technology should reach the market in three to five years. Silicon is much less costly to use than more common optical materials, but is inefficient at emitting light. Researchers have overcome these barriers using modulated pulses of laser light to encode data and detect signals. Luxtera has developed silicon photonic chips built for transceivers with four data channels that can transmit 40 gigabits of data per second. IBM is focusing on developing optical and electrical components on the same piece of silicon, which would make chips much smaller and less expensive. IBM can currently create data channels that are one-tenth the size of other silicon components, Vlasov says. Intel also is working on lasers and other optical components made from silicon. "We already have a functional link running in the lab, and we are aggressively moving to higher bandwidths," says Intel's Mario Paniccia.
FCC Chairman to Propose Plan for Net Neutrality
Washington Post (12/01/10) Cecilia Kang
U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Julius Genachowski will announce a plan today that prevents Internet service providers (ISPs) from choosing specific traffic over others that pass through their networks. However, the plan does not include changing the method the FCC uses to regulate broadband providers. Genachowski says the FCC has "a sound legal basis" to try to attain net neutrality guidelines that would keep networking companies from blocking or loading certain Web sites faster than others. Genachowski has shifted his strategy from last summer when he wanted to reclassify broadband to something similar to the more strictly regulated phone service, but was rebuffed by a federal appeals court and strongly opposed by ISPs. However, the new plan could still face legal challenges, and many Republicans have criticized any extended Internet regulation as anti-business. The FCC's five-member commission will vote on the proposal on Dec. 21. The rules are not as strict for mobile carriers, which under the plan would be prohibited from stopping competing voice and video applications, but would not have the same rules as cable and telecom companies against servicing certain sites and applications on their networks.
China Breaks Ground on Futuristic Supercomputer Complex
Computerworld (11/30/10) Patrick Thibodeau
China recently held a ground-breaking ceremony and released the designs for its new supercomputing center, which will be located in Changsha. The rendering consists of two buildings, one saucer-shaped and the other rectangular. The underground level of the saucer-shaped building would be an ideal location for the Tianhe-1A supercomputer, and the round roof could be used for water collection. The rectangular building could hold labs, classrooms, and offices, says Bick Group's Tad Davies. China wants to develop at least one system capable of 50 petaflops to 100 petaflops by 2015, according to an official from the Supercomputing Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences. China also has set the goal of creating an exascale system, which is thousands of times faster than a petaflop, by 2020. "[China seeks to] integrate electronic warfare, cyberoperations, [psychological operations], denial and deception, and kinetic attack to defeat adversary information systems," says U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center's China issue manager Wayne Ulman. The Chinese also have demonstrated how supercomputers can be used to determine the radar cross-section of an airplane or ship, notes Rand Corp.'s Roger Cliff.
A Brain Boost for Information Overload
Columbia News (11/30/10) Adam Piore
Columbia University professors Paul Sajda and Shih-Fu Chang have developed C3Vision, a computer vision system they say could revolutionize how huge amounts of visual data are processed by using a computer to increase the power of the human brain. C3Vision combines the object recognition abilities of humans with the massive processing capabilities of computers, Sajda says. The system features a device that monitors brain activity as a user views a database of photographs, and uses electroencephalography data to rank which pictures created the strongest cortical recognition responses. The system identifies patterns in the visual characteristics of different high-ranking photos, such as color, texture, and shapes. It then scans the database of more than 50 million images and locates those that rank high in the important visual characteristics. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has provided $2.4 million to develop an 18-month testing program for the technology and the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency wants to use C3Vision to search for objects in satellite images.
NC State and IBM Researchers Discover New Way to Patch Holes in the 'Cloud'
NCSU News (11/29/10) Matt Shipman
Researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and IBM have developed Nuwa, a cloud-based method to update a computer's security programs when they are offline. Nuwa safeguards virtual machines from cyberattacks by assuring their receipt of security upgrades. "The tool we developed automatically analyzes the 'script' that dictates how a security patch is installed, and then automatically rewrites the script to make it compatible with an offline system," says NCSU professor Peng Ning. Nuwa exploits IBM's Mirage system, which is used to complete efficient offline introspection and manipulation, allowing cloud administrators to fix different virtual machines (VMs) at the same time. Nuwa utilizes an already available technology that allows cloud computing systems to work more efficiently by saving one version of a computer file that is used by different VMs. The researchers note that cloud computing permits users to generate many VMs on a single computing platform, but many VMs are not used often, and their long-term dormancy presents a security problem because offline VMs do not get security upgrades and are thus susceptible to cyberattacks.
P2P-Based Alternative to DNS Hopes to Challenge ICANN
IDG News Service (11/30/10) Mikael Ricknas
Former Pirate Bay spokesperson Peter Sunde is leading an effort to develop a peer-to-peer (P2P) alternative to the Domain Name System (DNS), which is currently controlled by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Sunde says the goal of the P2P DNS project is to keep the Internet uncensored and decentralized. He says the first step is to create a new root server, followed by a new DNS system. The project's infrastructure will be based on BitTorrent technology, which should help enable the creation of a system that users can trust more than the current DNS, Sunde says. One major hurdle for the group's efforts could be the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, which would enable the U.S. government to shut down Web sites suspected of hosting infringing materials and allows the U.S. Justice Department to mandate that Internet service providers retransmit consumer traffic away from those infringing Web sites. Sunde says that some proof-of-concept code has already been developed and a Request for Comments is forthcoming. However, others say it will be challenging to develop a system with the necessary robustness to compete with the existing DNS.
American Universities See Decline in Foreigners Earning Science Doctorates
Chronicle of Higher Education (11/29/10) Paul Basken
The number of doctorates in science and engineering granted by U.S. universities rose 1.9 percent last year, but the number of foreigners earning advanced degrees fell for the first time in more than five years. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) reports that students with temporary visas earned 12,217 doctorates in science and engineering in 2009, down 3.5 percent from 12,686 a year ago. NSF's Mark K. Fiegener attributes the decline to tough economic conditions, but notes that data earlier in the decade pointed to slowed enrollment of international students at U.S. graduate schools. The Bush and Obama administrations have stressed the importance of foreign enrollment to the future technological and economic competitiveness of the country, but Congress has pushed back due to concerns about competition for scarce jobs. A 2005 report by the National Academies suggested ways to improve competitiveness, including granting more visas to foreign students in science and engineering, but a recently released follow-up report said that its key recommendations had not been addressed. Women were largely responsible for the increase in doctorates in science and engineering in 2009, with a 5 percent increase in the number of women earning science and engineering doctorates to 13,593. Men earned 19,849, a decline of five doctorates from their 2008 total.
Ping Pong Robot Learns by Doing
IEEE Spectrum (11/29/10) Samuel Bouchard
Max-Planck Institute researchers are trying to create robots that can handle uncertain situations, act more safely, and learn by doing. The team, led by the Robot Learning Lab's Jan Peters, aims to design robots that can learn tasks without requiring human helpers to determine their every move. When learning a new task, the robot breaks down the movement into simple motor behaviors, making it easier to learn the skill. In a simulation learning experiment, the researchers were able to teach the robot to hit a ping pong ball on a string with a paddle in less than an hour. The same skill took three months to program manually, according to Peters. The researchers also tried to teach the robot to swing a ball on a string and get it to land in a cup, which is much more difficult than simply paddling a ball on a string. "For every new attempt, when the robot reduces the distance by which the ball misses the cup, the robot receives a 'reward,'" Peters says. The robot can sink the ball for the first time after 40 to 45 trials and succeeds every time after 90 to 95 trials, Peters says.
Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) has automatically designed a moving robot using a genetic software algorithm. Without the intervention of a designing engineer, IPA was able to model the movements for robots consisting of cylinder-shaped tubes with ball-and-socket joints that take different shapes depending on external factors and the purpose at hand. The algorithm includes fitness functions that select movement elements that advance the robot. It determines the shape of the tubes, the position of the movement points, and the position of the actuators. "The only input needed is: 'Move forward as efficiently as possible along a level surface,'" says IPA developer Andreas Fischer. Environmental conditions such as unevenness, climbing stairs, or swimming in water are simulated, and the designer has the opportunity to choose the best solution from a multitude of options. "Another advantage is that the algorithm often spits out surprising variations--'mutations' that would not necessarily have occurred to the designer," Fischer says.
Smartphone App Monitors Your Every Move
New Scientist (11/26/10) Duncan Graham-Rowe
A new smartphone application monitors a phone's microphone, global positioning system, and accelerometer to determine the routine activities of the user. Jigsaw's pattern-recognition algorithms enable it to identify a range of behaviors, and allow users to have a very detailed log of how active they are each day. Users could set Jigsaw to send the results to their friends on Facebook or other social networking sites, or have it produce records that could be useful to doctors or fitness trainers. The app recognizes activity patterns and uses information from other sensors to further define the activity. Jigsaw kicks in the more active the user is, which helps minimize the drain on the phone's battery. "Without smart power management it would drain the battery in six hours," says Dartmouth College's Hong Lu, who developed the app in collaboration with the Nokia Research Center. Raw data is not sent to a server and the amount stored is limited by the phone's memory, which addresses potential privacy issues.
No Command, and Control
Four British universities and BAE Systems have been working for five years on the Autonomous Learning Agents for Decentralized Data and Information Networks (ALADDIN) project, which aims to develop intelligent robots to handle battlefield decisions. The program has resulted in robots that collect and share information, then weigh the options to determine what to do, make a decision, and complete it. So far, ALADDIN project researchers have tested the technology in simulated disasters such as earthquakes, but BAE Systems wants to use the results to enhance military logistics, communications, and combat management strategies. ALADDIN's components collect and analyze data using a series of algorithms that constitute the center of the project. The algorithms were developed using game theory, probabilistic modeling, and optimization methods. Some of the algorithms create auctions to distribute resources among competing users. ALADDIN can help process data from about 7,000 unmanned aerial vehicles that are currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. BAE Systems wants to develop cooperative drones, which could allow a pilot to control an entire squadron of robotic aircraft on missions. The university researchers, led by the University of Southampton's Nick Jennings, are focusing more on civilian applications.
Bonn Physicists Create "Super-Photon"
University of Bonn (Germany) (11/25/10)
University of Bonn researchers have developed a new source of light made of condensed photons, which they say could be used to design new X-ray lasers and more powerful computer chips. The photons are created by rubidium atoms that have been cooled to a very low temperature and concentrated in a sufficient number, which suddenly become indistinguishable and behave like a single "super particle." Physicists call this a Bose-Einstein condensate. The number of photons decreases as the temperature falls, which makes it very difficult to attain the number of photons necessary for Bose-Einstein condensation to take place. The Bonn researchers used two highly reflective mirrors to bounce a light beam back and forth. The photons from the light beam collided with dissolved pigment molecules, which transferred their temperature to the photons, keeping them intact to create the Bose-Einstein condensate, says Bonn professor Martin Weitz. The photonic Bose-Einstein condensate has a key advantage to contemporary lasers in that they can produce very short-wave light, says Bonn's Jan Klars. The short-wave photonic Bose-Einstein concentrate light could be used to make more detailed logic circuits in semiconductors.
Caregiver Software to Guide Mentally Impaired Patients
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (11/22/10) Siobhan Wagner
Researchers in Scotland are developing technology that helps caregivers monitor the progress of patients with brain injuries, dementia, or mental health conditions. The software, called Guide, is designed to verbally prompt patients by asking questions and waiting for answers. The current Windows-based prototype requires fitting speakers and microphones in strategic areas in a user's home where everyday tasks take place. Guide makes use of a voice-recognition program to decode the answer, and the researchers have developed decision trees or protocols for making tea, a smoothie, and moving from a wheelchair to a bed. Although Guide is not intended to replace human caregivers, it will help eliminate some of the mundane repetitive elements of working with people who have difficulty with memory, sequencing everyday tasks, and planning. "This means that carers may have to say the same things to them repeatedly, which could be detrimental to their relationship," says Stirling University's Catherine Best. "Guide could take over some of this repetitive prompting function, freeing user and carer to have more positive social interactions."
Spaf on Security Education in 2011
GovInfoSecurity.com (11/23/10) Tom Field
Purdue University professor Eugene Spafford says that both industry and government are focusing more on the need for students to receive training in information assurance. "We've had people in Washington talking about [the] need for putting in resources, so the awareness has increased and that is good," Spafford says. However, he points to a dearth of resources provided by industry, such as equipment and training. Also, the government has not supplied funding to boost the number of students going through programs or to raise the resources and classrooms to get the training. Spafford says students currently entering the computing field are a lot more comfortable with the technology as well as with adopting new technology. He points to education's willingness to cooperate with government and business to grow information assurance to desired 2011 levels. "Business at the back end has to be willing to hire students and to state a preference where students who get the kind of training that is going to demonstrate that they understand how to produce quality code, take issues of privacy and security into account rather than simply doing the sort of quick and flashy Web programming that often leads to security problems and privacy violations," says Spafford.
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