Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the December 13, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


NSF Extends Program Encouraging African Americans to Pursue Careers in Robotics, Computer Science
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (12/09/10) Byron Spice

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is extending its support of the Advancing Robotics Technology for Societal Impact (ARTSI) Alliance, a program designed to encourage African Americans to pursue careers in robotics and computer science. The ARTSI Alliance, formed in 2007, includes nine major research universities and 19 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which are developing additional curricula and outreach activities and continuing a summer research program for undergraduates. In three years the alliance has served more than 300 undergraduates, established robotics courses and laboratories, delivered more than 60 robots to HBCUs, funded 50 summer internships for HBCU students to work in labs at major universities, held three faculty summer workshops, and organized annual ARTSI student research conferences. ARTSI also has introduced robotics-based outreach activities targeted at middle and high school students. "The U.S. government is emphasizing the importance of STEM education--science, technology, engineering, and mathematics--for maintaining competitiveness in a high-tech world," says Carnegie Mellon University professor David S. Touretzky. "Our country must draw upon its entire talent pool to develop the next generation of researchers and educators."

SARTRE Car Platoon Road Tests to Begin (12/10/10) Lin Edwards

The Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) project in Europe has begun to integrate software and hardware into two vehicles that will be used in its first on-road tests before the end of the year. The project's researchers are developing a wireless system that will enable vehicles on public roads to join in a platoon, or a semi-autonomous road train of vehicles, with a professional driver at the front. Vehicles would be able to join and leave the platoon at any point. However, while in the platoon, the vehicles will become part of the train. A computer will take over steering, braking, and acceleration, and drivers will be able do other activities such as eat breakfast, read a book, operate their computer, or talk on their phone. The lead vehicle in the platoon would follow a set route and speed. SARTRE, a three-year project working toward a five-vehicle convoy over the next two years, will help validate the sensors, actuators, and control system developed for the project. However, the researchers say that a fully operational system is likely another decade away. They say that such a system would improve traffic flow, reduce journey times, save fuel, and reduce traffic accidents.

Collective Memory
MIT News (12/10/10) Larry Hardesty

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) aim to grant stable, shared memory to unstable networks through a nine-year-old project that began in 2001. The Reconfigurable Atomic Memory for Basic Objects (RAMBO) system is designed for scenarios in which soldiers or other network members lack access to a central server that could store important information. The system circulates the information among the members themselves in a way that everyone will always have access to the most recently updated information regardless of who joins or leaves the network. "It's supposed to look like an instantaneously accessible memory, like if you have one machine in one location," says MIT professor Nancy Lynch. "We wanted to have that same appearance, but really, it's running on mobile devices out in the field." RAMBO features algorithms that recognize changes to the network's structure, and copy data to new devices so that the informational majority is preserved. RAMBO's memory system is set up so that each network device can store or retrieve information on an autonomous basis, while its reconfiguration system demands that the network make some collective decisions.

Problem-Solving Ants Inspire Next Generation of Algorithms
University of Sydney (12/10/10) Katie Szittner

University of Sydney researchers have found that ants can solve difficult math problems as well as adapt the optimal solution to fit a changing problem. The researchers say their results will help computer scientists develop better software to solve logistical problems and maximize efficiency in different industries. The researchers tested the ants using a version of the Towers of Hanoi problem, a toy puzzle that asks players to move disks between rods while following certain rules and using the fewest possible moves. The researchers converted the puzzle into a maze in which the shortest path corresponds to the solution with the fewest moves in the toy puzzle. The findings suggest that when the ants use an exploratory pheromone they are much better at solving a problem in a changing environment, which is similar to many real-world human problems. "Discovering how ants are able to solve dynamic problems can provide new inspiration for optimization algorithms, which in turn can lead to better problem-solving software and hence more efficiency for human industries," says Sydney researcher Chris Reid.

Creating Better Digital Denizens
Irish Times (Ireland) (12/09/10) Claire O'Connell

The generation of more socially realistic digital human beings without using excessive amounts of computational power is the goal of research being conducted by scientists at Trinity College Dublin. "We try to work out what it is about the appearance and the behaviors and voices of virtual humans--be they in crowds or groups or on their own--that makes them more appealing and believable," says Trinity professor Carol O'Sullivan. Among the projects her team is focusing on is Metropolis, whose aim is to realistically simulate a virtual Dublin founded on research in cognitive neuroscience, engineering, and computer graphics. O'Sullivan says it is crucial to get crowds right in the virtual environment, and her team has been attempting to devise smarter ways of instilling greater diversity in crowds without producing a model for each individual. "We used eye tracking to see how people view parts of the body when they are looking at the crowd and we found they focused almost exclusively on the body and the face," O'Sullivan says. "When we changed the lower body it had no effect at all." O'Sullivan notes that revising virtual humans relatively inexpensively and in real time can be as simple as adding a beard, hat, or glasses or changing the skin shade, hair color, or texture of their top.

SU Receives $3.4 Million Federal Grant to Benefit Women in Sciences
Daily Orange (NY) (12/08/10) Dara McBride; Jon Harris

Syracuse University recently received a five-year, $3.4 million U.S. National Science Foundation grant to study ways to attract and retain more female professors in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Female representation in STEM fields at Syracuse currently sits at almost 21 percent, compared with the 33 percent national average for female STEM professors. Despite the low proportion of female STEM faculty members, more than half of the Syracuse students enrolled in STEM fields are female. The grant "will hopefully increase the diversity in a department really lacking in role models for graduates and undergraduates," says Syracuse chancellor Nancy Cantor. The university will use a core team of faculty members to execute four main project initiatives, including a recruiting program geared toward women with disabilities and women of color, a plan to support leadership development for all faculty members, a corridor scheme providing professional development and opportunities for affiliation with business, and a networking initiative that helps female faculty connect with each other, mentors, and other resources on campus. The researchers also will study the different obstacles women face in trying to gain success in STEM fields.

Avant-Garde Music Offers a Gateway to Artificial Intelligence
RPI News (12/09/10) Mary L. Martialay

Creative Artificially-Intuitive and Reasoning Agent (CAIRA) is a joint project between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute artificial intelligence researchers and musicians to develop an electronic conductor of improvised avant-garde performances. The researchers say the challenge involves employing interconnecting cognitive components to enable the conductor to comprehend and respond to the music in an appropriate way. Music professor Pauline Oliveros says that although music is understood by most people in terms of pitch, volume, and rhythm, the researchers also are focused on texture, density, and timbre. CAIRA follows up a pilot project that supported the development of software that analyzes and classifies attributes related to the latter three musical elements, says researcher Doug Van Nort. "The software listens, extracts, and parses what we're playing, and may feed it back to us in a different form or a replica," Oliveros says. "It makes decisions about what it thinks is working in improvisation as it's happening." Researcher Jonas Braasch describes the project as a combination of algorithms that model human hearing via auditory scene analysis, and then make musical choices based on the simulation of human cognition through the use of the extracted acoustic data.

Quantum Links Let Computers Understand Language
New Scientist (12/08/10) Jason Aron

University of Oxford researchers are using a form of graphical mathematics to develop an approach to linguistics that could enable computers to make sense of language. Oxford's Bob Coecke and Samson Abramsky used a graphical form of the category theory, a branch of mathematics that allows different objects within a collection to be linked, to formulate quantum mechanical problems more intuitively by providing a way to link quantum objects. The researchers are using that graphical approach to create a universal theory of meaning in which language and grammar are encoded as mathematical rules. Most existing human language models focus on deciphering the meaning of individual words, or the rules of grammar, but not both. The researchers combined the existing models using the graphical approach that was designed for quantum mechanics. Coecke developed an algorithm that connects individual words. The Oxford team plans to teach the system using a billion pieces of text taken from legal and medical documents.
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Geotagging Reveals Not Only Where You Are, but Also People You Might Know
Cornell Chronicle (12/08/10) Joe Schwartz

Cornell University researchers have found that when comparing photos posted on the Internet, as few as three co-locations could predict that two people posting different photos were socially linked. The researchers say their results could have implications for online privacy. They used Flickr's photo-sharing Web site to access about 38 million photos. Users label their photos with the time and place they are taken and some cameras automatically add this information to the photos with built-in global-positioning systems. When two people posted several pictures from the same locations and at around the same time, there was a good predictor that those people would have a social network connection, according to the researchers. "It's not that you know with certainty, but it's a high likelihood that these people know each other," says Cornell's Dan Huttenlocher. Similar conclusions could be drawn reached from credit card purchases, fare card transactions, and cell phone records, the researchers say. "While it's obvious that a photo you post online reveals information about what is pictured in the photo, what is less obvious is that as you post multiple photos you are probably revealing information which may not be pictured anywhere," Huttenlocher says.

UCSF Team Develops "Logic Gates" to Program Bacteria as Computers
UCSF News (12/08/10) Kristen Bole

University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) researchers have genetically engineered E. coli bacteria with a specific molecular circuitry that will enable scientists to program the cells to communicate and perform computations. The process can be used to develop cells that act like miniature computers that can be programmed to function in a variety of ways, says UCSF professor Christopher A. Voigt. "Here, we've taken a colony of bacteria that are receiving two chemical signals from their neighbors, and have created the same logic gates that form the basis of silicon computing," Voigt says. The technology will enable researchers to use cells to perform specific, targeted tasks, says UCSF's Mary Anne Koda-Kimble. The purpose of the research is to be able to utilize all of biology's tasks in a reliable, programmable way, Voigt says. He says the automation of biological processes will advance research in synthetic biology. The researchers also plan to develop a formal language for cellular computation that is similar to the programming languages used to write computer code, Voigt says.

Python 3.2 Tweaked for Parallel Development
IDG News Service (12/08/10) Joab Jackson

Python's developers plan to offer greater support for writing multithreaded applications in the 3.2 version of the open source programming language. The first beta version of Python 3.2 has been released, with developers concentrating on bugs, general improvements, and maintaining the language syntax and semantics of Python 3.0. The pre-release version offers a package that brings together a set of functions that could make concurrent programming easier for multicore processors. "Python currently has powerful primitives to construct multi-threaded and multi-process applications but parallelizing simple operations requires a lot of work," according to the original proposal for the project. A new top-level library will include several classes that could ease concurrency programming, such as the ability to execute calls asynchronously. Other new features include an improved Secure Sockets Layer module, a new module to access configuration information, as well as an extension that enables the programming language's source code files to be shared among different versions of the Python interpreter.

How Rare Is that Fingerprint? Computational Forensics Provides the First Clues
UB News Services (12/07/10) Ellen Goldbaum

University at Buffalo researchers have developed a method to computationally determine how rare a particular fingerprint is and how likely it is to belong to a specific crime suspect. The Buffalo researchers created a probabilistic method to determine if a fingerprint would randomly match another in a database. The researchers say their study could help develop computational systems that quickly and objectively show how important fingerprints are to solving crimes. "Our research provides the first systematic approach for computing the rarity of fingerprints in a scientifically robust and reliable manner," says Buffalo professor Sargur N. Srihari. Determining the similarity between two sets of fingerprints and the rarity of a specific configuration of ridge patterns are the two main types of problems involved in fingerprint analysis, Srihari says. The Buffalo method relies on machine learning, statistics, and probability.

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