Welcome to the December 8, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Special Report--The State of Computer Science Education
CIO Update (12/06/10) John White
The current state of North American computer science education includes an upward trend in university enrollment for Canadian and U.S. undergraduate computing science and engineering programs, but also the erosion of computer science education in the K-12 education system, writes ACM CEO John White. This erosion could lead to a shortage of sufficiently skilled employees, putting the strategic and economic security of the United States at risk. A recent study calls for urgent improvement of K-12 science, technology, engineering, and math education by enlarging the pipeline of students who are ready to enter college and graduate with a degree in one of these disciplines. Meanwhile, the Computing Research Association Taulbee Survey found that the number of new students in higher education majoring in computer science rose 8.5 percent over 2009 while the total number of majors increased 5.5 percent for a two-year gain of 14 percent. Computer science graduation rates are expected to climb in the next several years as these students graduate. Among the elements drawing students to computing careers are competitive salaries, creativity and problem solving applications, opportunities to make a difference, and increasing realization among students and educators that computing fuels the innovation needed to sustain economic competitiveness in the global landscape.
Pay-As-You-Go Internet Plan From FCC Is Raising Questions
Washington Post (12/08/10) Cecelia Kang
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently submitted a proposal that would regulate Internet providers, and includes a provision that would allow companies to charge users for how much they surf the Web. The pay-as-you-go Internet access model could put growing online video companies at risk, according to some analysts. Although the proposal would generally prohibit broadband service providers from influencing Internet traffic, new billing models that charge by the amount of data consumed is a possibility, says FCC chairman Julius Genachowski. Some advocates warn that a pay-as-you-go system could lead to a wider gap in Internet use, where wealthy users have greater access. "The question is how this will be enforced because it has the potential to do a lot of harm," says Public Knowledge's Art Brodsky. An FCC official says the agency would act as regulator for "arbitrary, anti-consumer, or anti-competitive tiered-pricing plans" in such a system. Genachowski says the proposal was designed to protect consumers while promoting "network investment and efficient use of networks, including measures to match price to cost such as usage-based pricing." The FCC will vote on the proposal on Dec. 21.
Report Finds K-12 Computer Science Education Declining
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (12/06/10) Byron Spice
ACM and the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) recently released "Running on Empty: The Failure to Teach K-12 Computer Science in the Digital Age," a report which found that there is minimal computer science education in most U.S. elementary and secondary schools and that the amount of introductory and Advanced Placement (AP) computer science courses has decreased in the last five years. The report also found that most schools only teach students the basics of how to use a computer, instead of teaching more complex concepts. Recent federal mandates were designed to improve science, technology, engineering, and math education, but they have also minimized computer science education, according to the report. "Just like understanding a cell in biology class, understanding how a computer works is a fundamental skill for competing in the 21st century global marketplace," says Carnegie Mellon Ph.D. student Leigh Ann Sudol, co-author of the report. ACM and CSTA developed a blueprint for a K-12 computer science curriculum in 2006, and the report says that 14 states had adopted at least 50 percent of the standards set forth by the blueprint. However, the report found that the number of secondary schools that offer beginning computer science courses fell 17 percent from 2005 to 2009, and the number of schools offering computer science AP classes dropped 35 percent. ACM, CSTA, and other scientific organizations have formed Computing in the Core, a non-partisan advocacy coalition aimed at building stronger K-12 computer science education.
White House Points to Sputnik to Save Tech
Computerworld (12/07/10) Patrick Thibodeau
U.S. President Obama is calling for more investment in science and technology. Obama says the United States is facing a "Sputnik moment" because its technical dominance is being challenged by other countries, and is asking Congress to not cut education and science funding. Obama cites several statistics that indicate problems in education, such as the U.S.'s plunge from first to ninth place internationally in the proportion of young people with college degrees. "In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind," he says. Obama points to many recent technological developments in China, such as the construction of the world's largest private solar research and development facility and the world's fastest supercomputer, as examples of international competition to U.S. technological superiority. Other nations also are competing for U.S. jobs, the president warns. "When global firms were asked a few years back where they planned on building new research and development facilities, nearly 80 percent said either China or India--because those countries are focused on math and science, and they're focused on training and educating their workforce," Obama says.
China to Lead World in Innovation by 2020—Survey
Reuters (12/05/10) Ben Hirschler
China is on track to be the world's leading country in terms of innovation by 2020, according to an AstraZeneca survey of 6,000 people in six nations. The poll found that China currently comes in third place in terms of innovation, behind the United States and Japan. China is expected by 27 percent of poll respondents to take the lead over the next decade because Asian nations are investing more in science and technology research and development (R&D). A recent study from Thomson Reuters found that collective R&D spending by Asian countries totaled $387 billion in 2008, versus $384 billion in the United States and $280 billion in Europe. The survey revealed a strong optimistic undercurrent among people residing in China and India, while people living in developed Western countries were relatively pessimistic in comparison. More than 50 percent of China and India residents expected their home countries to be the dominant global innovators by 2020, while just one in 20 Britons felt the United Kingdom would be most innovative. Perceptions of the most critical scientific milestones also tended to fall along eastern or western lines, with the former playing up communications and computing and the latter emphasizing antibiotics and vaccines.
Europe Leads the Way to High Performance Computing
The EUREKA ITEA 2 software Cluster ParMA project has developed technologies that can use multicore architectures in semiconductor chips to provide substantial performance improvements for high-performance computing (HPC). The technology is already being used in the Bullx HPC platform, the UNITE development tool package, and RECOM simulation software for a three-dimensional simulator. The EUREKA project was started by University of Stuttgart researchers during the ITEA project in 2006. The researchers were trying to find a way to make existing parallel programming methods more compatible with several tasks. "A comprehensive, innovative, integrated, and validated set of programming methods and tools to harness multi-core architecture is critical for European research as well as European industry--helping computing-intensive application developers to provide advanced modeling and simulation capabilities," says ITEA's Jean-Marc Morel. The ParMA project led to the development of advanced debugging and performance analysis tools. The HPC researchers were able to combine their tools into a single package that is now being used in several new projects. They say the new applications are more flexible and can run efficiently in different environments.
Microsoft to Ramp Up Browser Privacy
Wall Street Journal (12/08/10) Nick Wingfield; Jennifer Valentino-DeVries
Microsoft says that Internet Explorer 9 will feature Tracking Protection, a privacy feature that will enable users to stop Web sites and Internet tracking companies from collecting information about them. Microsoft's announcement was welcomed by regulators and privacy groups, but criticized by trade groups that represent the online-advertising industry. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently called for the creation of a voluntary do-not-track system that would enable users to block Web sites from tracking them, but Microsoft says Tracking Protection is more powerful because it also blocks cookies and beacons. "This path is different in that it actually blocks the tracking now," says Microsoft's Dean Hachamovitch. The FTC is calling on other Internet service providers to offer similar features. "Now others in both the browser and advertising communities need to step up and develop technologies including implementing a do-not-track option," says FTC chairman Job Leibowitz. Advertisers are worried that the new tool could prevent ads from reaching consumers. "We are concerned that the new browser features will block the advertising that supports free content on the Internet, and may inadvertently block news, entertainment, and social media content as well," says Interactive Advertising Bureau CEO Randall Rothenberg.
Welcome to the Future
University of Bristol News (12/06/10)
The Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), which includes researchers from the universities of Bristol and West of England, is developing robotics that exploit new materials such as artificial muscles. BRL employs researchers in a variety of fields, including cognitive behavior, microbiology, computer science, physics, biology, neuroscience, and electrical, mechanical, and aerospace engineering. "You need to have all these experts available--and Bristol is fortunate to have such broad expertise," says BRL director Chris Melhuish. The interdisciplinary approach has led to the SCRATCHbot, a robot rat that uses whisker-based sensors and a neural architecture that is based on a rat's brain. The BRL researchers also are focusing on the interaction between humans and robots. BRL's Cooperative Human Robot Interactive Systems project is developing safe human-robot interaction techniques. Part of the project involves studying facial expressions using robot heads. The researchers also are working on swarm robotics by developing ways to optimize the interaction rules for a group of robots to achieve the highest total energy efficiency levels.
Civil-Rights Panel Weighs in on Where Minorities Fare Best in STEM Fields
Chronicle of Higher Education (12/06/10) Kevin Kiley
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently released a report that examined minority students' pursuit of degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and whether a higher percentage of minority students drop out of those disciplines due to inadequate preparation. The report, "Encouraging Minority Students to Pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Careers," found that admissions preferences based on race led to more minority students giving up on STEM degrees. However, the report noted that when black and white students enter with similar academic credentials, black students are more likely to graduate with a science degree. The report follows a 2008 hearing before the commission in which most experts testified in support of the "mismatch" hypothesis, which states that minority students perform better in STEM subjects if they attend less demanding institutions that do not have a significant gap in their level of preparation compared to other students. Rice University professor Richard A. Tapia says the mismatch theory should be used to encourage elite schools to continue to admit promising, but academically underprepared, students and provide them with more support.
Preventing Gridlock: Developing Next Generation Internet Infrastructure
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (12/06/10)
Photonics researchers in Europe are embarking on a project that could increase the current bandwidth capacity of broadband networks 100 times. The 11.8 million-euro MODE-GAP project will work to boost capacity of broadband networks by developing data-transmission technologies based on special long-haul transmission fibers and associated enabling technologies such as rare-earth doped optical amplifiers, transmitters and receiver components, and data-processing techniques. The effort could have a significant impact on future-proof networks and systems with increasing information throughput. "We are close to realizing the fundamental data-carrying capacity limits of current fiber technology in the laboratory, and although there is plenty of headroom for capacity scaling of commercial systems for the next 10 to 15 years, we need to be looking now at developing a new generation of transmission techniques, based on novel fibers and amplifiers, if we are to keep pace with society's ever increasing data transport demands in the longer term," says David Richardson at the University of Southampton, which is leading the project. "The MODE-GAP project has the potential to revolutionize the way we build and operate future generations of optical network."
Let Your Coaster Do the Talking
Technology Review (12/07/10) Duncan Graham-Rowe
Beer coasters could be used to send messages that serve as ice breakers for starting conversations in bars. Newcastle University's Tom Bartindale and Jack Weeden have developed coasters that are designed to communicate across a smart bar surface. The transparent surface features an infrared light source and a camera beneath it that enables it to recognize circular coasters. Meanwhile, a projector below the surface creates a halo around each coaster and the text messages that spin around them. The coaster is assigned a random gender and sexual preference when it is first placed on the bar, and then contacts other coasters within a 60-centimeter range by delivering pick-up lines such as "Are you a parking ticket? Because you've got 'fine' written all over you." The pick-up lines include animated heart signs that reach out to the target of the beer mat's affection. The contacted coaster scores the amorous advance based on the pick-up lines used and a preset state of interest, and will refuse to talk anymore if the potential suitor continues to score badly.
Supercomputer Hunts Child Abusers
New Scientist (12/03/10) Frank Swain
Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers are using the Jaguar supercomputer to analyze Internet traffic, looking for clues that will lead law enforcement officers to sources of child pornography. The biggest problem with monitoring child pornography online is the massive amount of it, says National Association to Protect Children executive director Grier Weeks. The researchers, led by Oak Ridge's Robert Patton, have devised algorithms that analyze traffic by studying search terms used on file-sharing networks. Search terms that indicate a query for porn are marked, and the algorithms watch to see how different IP addresses respond to the search. The system uses the information to determine which computers are posting new material to the networks. "We want to be able to say 'Hey, of all of the data you're looking at right now, here are a handful of IP addresses that you should investigate further,'" Patton says. The project will be in operation for 12 months and has been apportioned 1 million processor hours on Jaguar.
Routing It Right
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has paid a price for its survival as overseer of the domain name system in that it has ceded some of its authority to other governments, moving away from a model mainly controlled by the U.S. government amid the burgeoning population of global Internet users. Currently, Web sites have to go through national governments to purchase Web addresses in local languages. New America fellow Rebecca MacKinnon reports that Chinese bloggers are already cautious of purchasing domains through the state-controlled registrar out of concern about censorship. There are also some who see a lack of accountability in ICANN's board. The board is chosen by a nominating panel composed of representatives from trade and regional organizations. The board takes its decisions irrespective of what agreement the public comment process has generated, and ICANN critic Lauren Weinstein sees the plan to roll out thousands of new top-level domains as nothing more than a "protection racket" by the "domain-industrial complex," because companies have to purchase addresses for their brands in every new domain. ICANN plans to charge firms $185,000 per domain. However, experts say the increased use of domain shortening services and the naming systems of social networks such as Facebook should make Web addresses less prominent in the public perception.
New Psychology Theory Enables Computers to Mimic Human Creativity at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
RPI News (12/01/10) Mary L. Martialay
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute researchers are using the new Explicit-Implicit Interaction Theory to develop artificial intelligence (AI) models. The researchers say the theory, which explains how humans solve problems creatively, could provide a blueprint to building AI systems that perform tasks like humans. The model can be used "as the basis for creating future artificial intelligence programs that are good at solving problems creatively," says RPI professor Ron Sun. He worked with the University of California, Santa Barbara's Sebastien Helie to develop the CLARION cognitive architecture, a system based on the Explicit-Implicit theory that acts like a cognitive system. The researchers ran a logic test in which 35 percent of humans answered correctly after discussing their thinking and 45 percent answered correctly after working on another problem. In 5,000 trials of the same test, the CLARION system got the correct answer 35 percent of the time on the first try, and 45 percent of the time on the second try. "This tells us how creative problem solving may emerge from the interaction of explicit and implicit cognitive processes," Sun says.
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