Welcome to the February 16, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
A Fight to Win the Future: Computers vs. Humans
New York Times (02/15/11) John Markoff
In 1963 Stanford University's John McCarthy launched the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory dedicated to artificial intelligence (AI) research, while Douglas Engelbart formed the Augmentation Research Center, which is focused on intelligence augmentation (IA). Ever since, the decades-long competition between AI and IA has resulted in new computing technologies that are transforming the world. IBM's Watson supercomputer is the most recent example of how far AI technology has come. Watson is designed to advance the techniques used to process human language. The progression of natural language processing is leading to a new age of automation that could transform areas of the economy that haven't been significantly influenced by technology. IBM executives hope to commercialize Watson for use in question-answering systems designed for business, education, and medicine. In the future, almost any job that involves answering questions or conducting transactions over the phone might be made obsolete by Watson-like systems. Intelligence augmentation technology also is greatly influencing human society, with Google being the most prominent example of how IA uses software to process the collective intelligence of humans and make the information available in a digital library.
Computer Crushes Human 'Jeopardy!' Champs
Agence France-Presse (02/15/11)
IBM's Watson supercomputer trounced human champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in the second round of a Jeopardy! match. Watson beat Jennings and Rutter to the buzzer on 24 out of 30 questions. "The actual game play was just amazing, that [Watson] would know the answers and discern which one is the correct one," says five-time Jeopardy! champion Jeffrey Spoeri. "It's a terrific experiment." Watson has been under development at IBM Research labs for the past five years. After the first round ended in a tie between Watson and Rutter, the computer beat the human contestants to the buzzer for the first 12 questions and got all but one of them right. Watson displayed an impressive knowledge of pop culture, and also correctly answered many questions in the history, geography, art, and medicine categories. However, the audience groaned when Watson answered Toronto as the U.S. city with airports named after a World War II hero and a World War II battle. Nevertheless, Watson finished the round with $35,734, while Rutter had $10,400 and Jennings had $4,800. The final round takes place Wednesday.
UF Leads World in Reconfigurable Supercomputing
University of Florida News (02/15/11) Ron Word
University of Florida researchers say the Novo-G is the world's fastest reconfigurable supercomputer and that it is capable of executing some key science applications faster than the Chinese Tianhe-1A system, which was rated the world's most powerful supercomputer in the Top500 list in November. Florida professor Alan George notes that the Top500 list scores systems based on their performance of a few basic routines in linear algebra using 64-bit, floating-point arithmetic. He says many important apps do not comply with that standard, and software apps for most computers must conform to fixed-logic hardware structures that can slow down computing speed and boost energy consumption. However, reconfigurable systems feature architecture that can adjust to match each app's unique requirements, leading to higher speed and more energy efficiency due to adaptive hardware customization. Novo-G employs 192 reconfigurable processors and "can rival the speed of the world's largest supercomputers at a tiny fraction of their cost, size, power, and cooling," according to the researchers, who say it is particularly well suited for applications in genome research, cancer diagnosis, plant science, and large data set analysis.
Obama Seeks Big Boost in Cybersecurity Spending
Computerworld (02/15/11) Patrick Thibodeau
President Obama's 2012 budget proposal calls for a 35 percent increase in cybersecurity research and development (R&D) to enhance its ability to mitigate the risk of insider threats and guarantee the security of control systems such as those employed at power plants. The hike in cybersecurity research spending is part of an overarching R&D budget proposal that includes boosts in a broad spectrum of research initiatives, including robotics, climate change, and funding to increase the supply and skills of science, technology, engineering, and math teachers. Generally, the budget asks for $66.1 billion for fundamental and applied science research across all areas, an 11.6 percent increase. The Obama administration's research proposal would allocate $7.8 billion to the National Science Foundation and $5.4 billion to Department of Energy's Office of Science. The proposal especially seeks new research in advanced manufacturing technologies, such as nano-manufacturing and robotics. A grant proposal initiated by the White House last fall says the government is aiming for development of co-robots, which are systems "that can safely coexist in close proximity to or in physical contact with humans in the pursuit of mundane, dangerous, precise or expensive tasks."
Stanford Researchers Develop Wireless Technology for Faster, More Efficient Communication Networks
Stanford Report (CA) (02/14/11) Sandeep Ravindran
Stanford researchers have developed technology that enables wireless transmissions to be sent and received simultaneously on one channel, which could help build more efficient communication networks that are twice as fast as those used today. "The new system completely reworks our assumptions about how wireless networks can be designed," says Stanford professor Philip Levis. The idea for the new system came from three Stanford graduate students who wondered if radios could be designed to act in the manner of human brains when they listen and talk at the same time. The main hurdle the researchers faced was that incoming signals are overwhelmed by the radio's own transmissions, which makes it impossible to simultaneously talk and listen. The researchers adjusted the radio receiver to filter out the signal from its own transmitter, allowing weak incoming signals to be heard. The technique utilizes the fact that the radio knows what it is transmitting and how to filter it out, similar to the way noise-canceling headphones work. The most obvious impact of simultaneously sending and receiving signals is that it instantly doubles the amount of information that can be sent, which could lead to more efficient home and office networks, Levis says.
Egypt Leaders Found 'Off' Switch for Internet
New York Times (02/15/11) James Glanz; John Markoff
Egyptian leaders' successful severance of Internet access from the country's populace, though temporary, has stoked fears that other autocratic regimes have similar Web-deactivating capabilities. Evidence suggests that Egypt's government took advantage of a combination of infrastructure weaknesses, including tight government control of a small number of international portals that route data across the country and out into the world. The blockage of these portals underscores how reliant Egypt's internal networks are on moment-to-moment data from outside systems such as email servers at Google and similar companies, U.S.-based data centers, and domain name servers. "They drilled unexpectedly all the way down to the bottom layer of the Internet and stopped all traffic flowing," says Renesys chief technology officer Jim Cowie. Despite the decentralized design of the Internet, the majority of Web traffic is routed through massive centralized exchanges that enable many countries to monitor, filter, or, in extreme instances, entirely choke off the flow of Internet data. Such arrangements are more frequent in authoritarian nations than many people realize, according to Internet experts.
Web Experts Ask Scientists to Use the Web to Improve Understanding, Sharing of Their Data in Science Magazine
RPI News (02/14/11) Gabrielle DeMarco
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute researchers Peter Fox and James Hendler, writing in the journal Science, say scientists should enhance their visualization techniques by adopting methods used on the Internet. They say that current visualizations are static and cannot be easily updated or modified with new information. As scientists use better technology to create more data, these visualizations will become even harder and more time-consuming to develop. Web-based visualizations are become more sophisticated and interactive, while at the same time becoming less expensive and easier to use, according to Fox and Hendler. Web-based visualization toolkits, Web links, and RSS feeds enable users to create maps, charts, graphs, word clouds, and other custom visualizations at little or no cost. "Visualizations are absolutely critical to our ability to process complex data and to build better intuitions as to what is happening around us," Fox and Hendler write. "The challenge is that many of the major scientific problems facing our world are becoming critically linked to the interdependence and interrelatedness of data from multiple instruments, fields, and sources," making linking ability even more crucial.
Rivest Unlocks Cryptography's Past, Looks Toward Future
MIT News (02/15/11) David L. Chandler
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ronald Rivest recently gave a speech discussing the history of the RSA cryptographic system, which is currently used to secure most financial transactions and communications over the Internet. The system, which Rivest helped develop with colleagues Adi Shamir and Len Adleman in 1977, relies on the fact that it is very hard to determine the prime factors of a large number. However, Rivest notes that it has not been shown mathematically that such factorization is necessarily difficult. "Factoring could turn out to be easy, maybe someone here will find the method," he says. If that happens, Rivest says several other current methods for secure encryption could be quickly adopted. He notes that RSA has led to spinoff technologies, such as the use of digital signatures to authenticate the identify of Web sites. Rivest says future cryptographic technologies could lead to applications in secure micropayment and voting systems. He believes the study of cryptography is fascinating because it unites a wide variety of disciplines. "It's like the Middle East of research, because everything goes through it," Rivest says.
Study Shows Year-end Test Scores Significantly Improved in Schools Using Web-Based Tutor
Worcester Polytechnic Institute (02/14/11) Michael Dorsey
A recently concluded decade-long study of more than 1,000 Massachusetts middle school students found that the students who used the Worcester Polytechnic Institute-developed Web-based tutoring platform, known as ASSISTments, scored significantly better on mathematics test than the students who did not use it. The study, conducted by Worcester professor Neil T. Heffernan and Carnegie Mellon University researchers Kenneth R. Koedinger and Elizabeth A. McLaughlin, compared students' test scores at the end of the seventh grade year with comparable scores at the end of sixth grade. Those students that used ASSISTments significantly outperformed those that did not use the system. ASSISTments helps students learn by offering structured assistance to a variety of math problems. "This, essentially, is the kind of formative assessment data that saves teachers' time and makes their teaching more effective because they know who needs help as it's needed and who can move forward and remain engaged and challenged," Heffernan says.
Identifying Computer Viruses on Mobile Devices
Roanoke Times (VA) (02/13/11) Michelle Skeen
Since 2003, U.S. Military Academy computer science program director Col. Grant Jacoby has been developing a method to identify computer virus attacks on mobile devices by analyzing how much battery power is being used. First, the system detects increases in power on infected devices. Jacoby then uses algorithms to convert the power usage data into frequency charts to reveal where the highest spikes in usage are. Jacoby's method also can identify when and where the attack is taking place, using the unique frequencies produced by each attack. "It's not a foolproof product, it's just a way to find attacks on mobile devices that hasn't been done before," Jacoby says. The new method results in fewer false alarms and missed problems than other approaches, and viruses are caught after infecting only a few devices and before they can spread to a larger network, according to Jacoby.
University Professor Creates Facebook-Like Traffic Site
Computerworld Canada (02/10/11) Selena Mann
The On-Line Network-Enabled Intelligent Transportation Systems (ONE-ITS), a new social media platform for sharing information about traffic problems in a city, is open to anyone who wants to join. The universities of Toronto and Regina, and the Canadian Network for the Advancement of Research, Industry, and Education collaborated on the development of ONE-ITS. A Facebook-like platform, ONE-ITS enables users to share their expertise and data on transportation and research, with an eye toward fixing traffic problems. "If there's a problem on the freeway, people can know about it," says University of Toronto professor Baher Abdulhai. Users will be able to communicate with each other, perform research, and devise solutions for traffic issues. "The whole motivation is to reverse this fragmentation of ideas and promote the integration of ideas and views of experts," Abdulhai says. ONE-ITS will be provided to 15 universities across Canada and the United States.
Energy Aims to Retake Supercomputing Lead From China
Government Computer News (02/11/11) Henry Kenyon
The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Argonne National Laboratory has commissioned the development of a supercomputer that will be capable of executing 10 petaflops. IBM will build the machine, which will be based on a version of the latest Blue Gene supercomputer architecture. The supercomputer will be operational in 2012, and its performance will be vastly superior to today's most powerful supercomputer, China's Tianhe-1A system, which has a peak performance of 2.67 petaflops. The system also will be the most energy-efficient computer in the world due to a combination of new microchip designs and very efficient water cooling. The supercomputer, which will be housed at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, will be used to conduct a variety of modeling and simulation tests that current machines are unable to perform. By 2012, IBM also will be responsible for two other systems operating at 10 petaflops or higher--the 20 petaflop Sequoia for the DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the 10 petaflop Blue Waters system for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The new class of supercomputers is expected to pave the way for the emergence of exascale computers--machines that are 1,000 times faster than petascale systems--by the end of the decade.
3-D Films on Your Cell Phone
A solution developed by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute's Heinrich-Hertz-Institute (HHI) combines the new LTE-Advanced mobile radio standard with a video-coding technique that will enable people to watch three-dimensional (3D) films on their cell phone. The researchers developed H.246/AVC, a high-definition video format that uses a compression technique to maintain good high-resolution video quality. The researchers say that what the H.246/AVC video format is to high-definition films, multiview video coding (MVC) is to 3D films. "MVC is used to pack together the two images needed for the stereoscopic 3D effect to measurably reduce the film's bit rate," says HHI scientist Thomas Schierl. He notes that the size of 3D films can be reduced by as much as 40 percent. Cell phone users will be able to receive high-quality 3D films in connection with the 3G-LTE mobile radio standard. Radio resource management is integrated into the LTE system, which will allow for flexible data transmission while including various quality-of-service classes.
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