Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the December 17, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Information Technology Needs Fundamental Shift to Continue Rapid Advances in Computing and Help Drive U.S. Competitiveness
National Academy of Sciences (12/16/10) Molly Galvin; Christopher White

The pace of advances in information technology could slow unless the United States aggressively commits to fundamental research and development in parallel computing, according to a National Research Council report. Although advances in computer microprocessors have allowed computing performance to dramatically increase, technological limitations and power management have stalled computing improvements, making parallel computing the only known alternative for improving computer performance without increasing costs and energy use, the report says. Parallel computing development relies on the research and development of new algorithms, programming models, operating systems, and computer architectures, the report says. Research also should be centered on increasing computer systems' energy efficiency, according to the report, which warns that future performance will be limited by energy constraints. In addition, the report says that parallel programming needs an open interface to promote collaboration and innovation in the industry, including designing tools and approaches for transferring modern computing techniques to parallel applications.


New Pitch for Start-Up Visas
Wall Street Journal (12/16/10) Angus Loten

The StartUp Visa Act, introduced by U.S. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) last February, would offer permanent residency to any foreign-born entrepreneur who launches a new business that gets at least $100,000 in venture capital and creates at least five new jobs in less than two years. The bill has gained strong support from both Democrats and Republicans. Immigrants are almost 30 percent more likely to start a business than non-immigrants, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. Meanwhile, University of California researchers have found that about one third of Silicon Valley technology companies were started by Indian or Chinese immigrants, and a Duke University study found that more than one-fourth of all engineering and technology firms started in the United States since the mid-1990s have at least one immigrant founder. The StartUp Visa Act is a more accessible version of the EB-5 visa, which offers residency to foreign entrepreneurs with businesses that have an investment of $1 million and employ at least 10 workers. The new bill's high capital prerequisite will attract innovative, tech-savvy entrepreneurs, says Kauffman Foundation researcher Bob Litan. The bill is expected to be reintroduced in the Senate next year.


President's Advisory Group Finds Most Federal IT Funds Being Misused
Washington Post (12/16/10) Cecilia Kang

U.S. federal agencies are using only about 4 percent to 11 percent of the funds they receive for research and development (R&D) of information technology (IT) on advancing network communications within the agencies, according to a new report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Instead, agencies have used the money for infrastructure, other research projects, and other technology. The IT R&D funds are often used to advance research in the agency's field. An agency involved with biomedical research, for instance, might use the money for large databases of protein sequences. "They involve using today's information technology to advance the forefront of other fields, not driving the forefront of networking and information technology," says Ed Lazowska, a co-chair of the working group that developed the group's report. More than 12 agencies receive about $4 billion each year for IT R&D. The report says the government needs to account for such spending to keep the U.S. from falling behind other countries in IT research investment.


Waveguides Make Quantum Computers More Reliable
Ars Technica (12/15/10) Chris Lee

British and Australian researchers have shown that quantum computing gates with very low error rates are feasible and could lead to multi-gate optical quantum computers. The researchers focused their work on developing an almost perfect circuitry, which involves making perfect beam splitters and interferometers. In a waveguide, a directional coupler replaces the beam splitter, bringing two waveguides close together. At a certain distance, light from one waveguide will transfer to the other. Interferometers also involve splitting and combining light beams. Interferometers need to control how far the light travels between two perfect beam splitters. After the researchers developed working beam splitters and interferometers, they were able to develop a controlled NOT gate, which inverts the quantum state of a qubit and can be used to construct all other logic elements. The researchers have shown that their system has very low loss waveguides with beam splitters containing a splitting ratio within a couple percent of the original design ratio. The experiments produced data with very small error bars, meaning they have developed a perfect device. The error rate is between one part in 100 and one part in 1,000, which is good enough to start developing multiple-gate systems, according to the researchers.


In 500 Billion Words, New Window on Culture
New York Times (12/17/10) Patricia Cohen

Researchers from Google and Harvard University have developed an online database of 500 billion words taken from 5.2 million digitized books published between 1500 and 2008 in English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese, and Russian. The database offers a year-by-year count of how often certain words and phrases appear, data representations, and searching tools. Users can submit a string of up to five words and see a graph that displays the phrase's use over time. "The goal is to give an eight-year-old the ability to browse cultural trends throughout history, as recorded in books," says Harvard's Erez Lieberman Aiden. The database provides research opportunities to liberal arts professors, who have historically avoided quantitative analysis, in a new field dubbed culturomics. "We wanted to show what becomes possible when you apply very high-turbo data analysis to questions in the humanities," says Lieberman Aiden. The data set is downloadable and users can develop their own search tools. The researchers estimate that the English language has grown by 70 percent in the last 50 years and the new system could be used to update dictionaries by highlighting newly popular and underused words. The database and others like it will soon become universal in humanities research, says Harvard's Steven Pinker.


Life Without Passwords--Fingerprint Scans Could Provide the Solution
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (12/17/10) Joyce Lewis

University of Southampton researcher Sara Alotaibi has developed FingerID, a system that allows the identities of owners of Web accounts to be verified with fingerprints rather than user names and passwords. Users provide their fingerprints for FingerID during a one-time registration process. After they register, users will be able to use their fingerprints to gain access to various online accounts. Alotaibi plans to expand the system to authenticate users with palm prints and facial expressions. The FingerID system's two main constituent elements are the Web site and software. "We propose a cost-effective, convenient, and secure authentication solution for undertaking secure dealings over the Internet," Alotaibi says. "It will allow Internet users to authenticate their identity in a hassle-free manner and go about their activities in a secure environment without the fear of loss of identity and money."


New Report Calls for Online Privacy Bill of Rights
Associated Press (12/16/10) Joelle Tessler

The U.S. Commerce Department has released a report calling for the development of a privacy bill of rights for Internet users that would set guidelines for companies that collect online consumer information. The proposal aims to help lawmakers and industry officials study the issues concerning Internet privacy and comes after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommended the creation of a Do Not Track tool to enable consumers to prevent advertisers from collecting users' online personal information. The Commerce report builds on the FTC suggestion in creating a blueprint for industry behavior that forces companies to give consumers direct notice about what kinds of data they are collecting and how it is being used. The proposal requires companies to give consumers the chance to opt out of certain aspects of data collection, set limits on what information is collected, and to fix errors in the information. The bill of rights would be jointly developed by government officials, consumer groups, privacy watchdogs, and industry players. Other Commerce recommendations include establishing national standards on data breaches that would force companies to notify consumers and reviewing the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which extended wiretapping laws to email messages and other data files, but is considered outdated.


Best Colleges for Women and Minorities in STEM
Forbes (12/15/10) Natalie Doss

Westminster College ranked first for graduating women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, according to a recent Forbes study. "I think our success in recruiting women into STEM is a result of prospective students interacting with successful women faculty and seeing lots of women students in the science classrooms and labs," says Westminster professor Helen Boylan. Other high-ranking colleges and universities for women in STEM included Colby College, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Harvey Mudd College, and Williams College. The Forbes study also ranked the best schools for minorities in STEM. For each school, the study compared the number of blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians to the number of whites and Asians. The study found that the best school for minorities in STEM fields is Saint Mary's University of Minnesota. Saint Mary's emphasizes bringing education to the poor. "There is this sense that part of our mission is to find kids with potential and to make it work for them when it may not have worked for them somewhere else," says Saint Mary's professor Thomas Mans. Other high-ranking schools for minorities in STEM include Westmont College, Colorado College, Christopher Newport University, and the University of Colorado Denver, according to the Forbes study.


IBM Supercomputer Set for Jeopardy Quiz Show Showdown
BBC News (12/14/10) Maggie Shiels

IBM's Watson supercomputer will be a contestant on Jeopardy on Feb. 14, 2011. The TV quiz show will be an important test for the supercomputer, which will mimic human intelligence by deciphering and answering questions without being connected to the Internet. "What I see is the potential for computers to help us with our tremendous frustration in dealing with the huge glut of information that is doubling every year," says David Ferrucci, IBM's chief scientist of Watson computing. "Just imagine being able to converse with a computer in an intelligent dialogue to help you understand and leverage all that information out there, so that people can focus on solving their problem and not get overwhelmed by information." Question-answering systems based on natural language could be used in health care to diagnose patients, parse legal documents, or handle customer problems at technical support centers. Watson will face the ultimate challenge for artificial intelligence--analyzing subtle meanings, irony, riddles, and other complexities--an area in which humans excel. IBM has been preparing Watson for the TV show by having the supercomputer play against previous Jeopardy winners.


Tracking Trick Shows the Web Where You Are
Technology Review (12/15/10) Tom Simonite

Microsoft researchers have developed a method to use a data set of Internet protocol (IP) addresses to determine where users log onto the Internet from. Tracking user IP address locations could allow advertisers to get around the "do not track" option that the U.S. Congress is considering as a way to let users opt out of advertiser tracking. First, the researchers tagged the IP address that was used most commonly by users. Any addresses more than 250 miles away were labeled as "travel." By examining the logs of different users and the times of different logins the researchers were able to label certain IP addresses as either "home" or "work." The data showed that more than 90 percent of the travel IP addresses were linked to laptop computers, while only about half of home IP addresses came from laptops, with the other half coming from desktops. "A Web application can benefit from this location context information in many ways," say Microsoft researchers Yinglian Xie and Martin Abadi. The IP location data could be used to track users when they move residences, leading to a mapping system for U.S. relocation patterns. "I'm not aware of any companies doing anything this sophisticated yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to see smaller firms experiment with it soon," says the Future of Privacy Forum's Jules Polonetsky.


Chip Provides Its Own Power
University of Twente (Netherlands) (12/12/10) Wiebe van der Veen

Developing microchips that harvest their own power is now a possibility, according to a team from the University of Twente's MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology. Working with colleagues from Utrecht University and Nankai University, the researchers manufactured a microchip with an efficient solar cell placed on top of the microelectronics. The autonomous chip does not need batteries, and can collect enough energy to operate indoors. Although using the chip as a base and applying the solar cell to it layer by layer involves fewer materials and improves performance, there is a risk during the production process that the solar cell will damage the electronics so that they function less efficiently. As a result, the researchers used solar cells made of amorphous silicon or copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS). The manufacturing process does not impact the electronics, and the CIGS solar cells also produce sufficient power, even in low light. In tests, the electronics and the solar cells functioned properly, and the manufacturing process proved to be suitable for industrial serial production with the use of standard processes.


Sci-Fi Fantasy Morphs Into Fact
Charlotte Observer (NC) (12/12/10) Whitney L.J. Howell

Duke University's immersive Visual Environment (DiVE) is a six-sided structure that provides a virtual reality atmosphere used to facilitate teaching, research, and design planning. "The technology helps people visualize and better understand their data," says DiVE director Rachael Brady. Each wall, including the floor and ceiling, acts as a large computer screen. A user wears stereoscopic glasses made with liquid crystals to allow visualizations in three dimensions and across the whole color spectrum. "This is one of the best ways to interact with computer representations of data," Brady says. The immersive technology is popular with local organizations, businesses, and hospitals, which all use the facility in the planning and design stages of projects. For example, Triangle Transit, which is planning a three-county light rail project, recently used DiVE to determine if the technology could help with future projects. "With DiVE, we will be able to better understand new spaces and learn more about the impact of our designs," says Triangle Transit project manager Juanita Shearer-Swink.


Researchers Open the Door to Biological Computers
University of Gothenburg (Sweden) (12/09/10) Anita Fors

University of Gothenburg researchers have developed genetically altered yeast cells that can communicate with each other like electronic circuits. They say the technology could lead to complex systems in which human cells help keep the body healthy. "In the future we expect that it will be possible to use similar cell-to-cell communication systems in the human body to detect changes in the state of health, to help fight illness at an early stage, or to act as biosensors to detect pollutants in connection with our ability to break down toxic substances in the environment," says Gothenburg researcher Kentaro Furukawa. The yeast cells can sense their surroundings based on predetermined criteria and send messages to other cells using signaling molecules. The different cells can be fixed together to build more complex circuits, including electronic functions. "Even though engineered cells can't do the same job as a real computer, our study paves the way for building complex constructions from these cells," Furukawa says.


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