Welcome to the March 9, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Professor Gets Computing's 'Nobel'
Boston Globe (03/09/11) Calvin Hennick
Harvard University professor Leslie G. Valiant, an artificial intelligence pioneer, has been awarded ACM's 2010 A.M. Turing Award. Valiant's research was the basis for applications including email spam filters, speech recognition software, and IBM's Watson computer system. "This connection with the achievements of the previous winners, and of Turing himself, is more than anyone in my field can reasonably expect," Valiant says. Cornell University professor Jon Kleinberg praised Valiant's adventurous research and noted that machine learning, Valiant's specialty, is the foundation for tools that computers use to solve problems on their own. "He takes on questions that are fundamental, but very hard to attack, like how do intelligent agents learn? Or how does the brain compute?" Kleinberg says. Valiant's 1984 paper, "A Theory of the Learnable," was a landmark in the computer science field because it led to the processes that enable computers to decide which emails could be discarded and which Web search results are the most relevant, says Microsoft Research New England's Jennifer Chayes.
Software Progress Beats Moore's Law
New York Times (03/07/11) Steve Lohr
Computing performance improvements resulting from better algorithms are more common than improvements attributable to faster processors, contradicting the conventional wisdom that hardware outpaces software in terms of computing developments, concludes a White House-commissioned report. The White House advisory report cites research, including a study of progress over a 15-year span on a benchmark production-planning task, which found that the speed of completing the calculations improved by a factor of 43 million. "The ingenuity that computer scientists have put into algorithms have yielded performance improvements that make even the exponential gains of Moore's Law look trivial," says University of Washington professor Edward Lazowska. He says that this progress can be seen in the development of artificial intelligence fields such as language comprehension, speech recognition, and computer vision.
Open Source an Open Goal for Health Care IT--Research Finds Both Cost and Security Benefits
University of Warwick (03/08/11) Peter Dunn
Researchers at the University of Warwick and University College London (UCL) have found that open source software could be more secure than more expensive alternatives. "If the code is in the public domain, and the user and programmer community are engaged, then the buyer can profit from more people inspecting and fixing the code leading to higher quality source code and in turn software," says UCL's Carl Reynolds. Warwick professor Jeremy Wyatt says that although open source critics argue that public code makes it easier for criminals to exploit vulnerabilities, "our work ... shows that the evidence does not bear this out and in fact open source software (OSS) may be more secure than other systems." Open source allows for the independent analysis of a security system, which makes bug patching easier and forces developers to spend more time and effort making the code secure, Wyatt says. The researchers also disagree with the notion that OSS is riskier due to liability issues.
Identifying 'Anonymous' Email Authors
Concordia University (Canada) (03/07/11) Chris Atack
Concordia University researchers led by professor Benjamin Fung have developed a technique to determine the authors of anonymous emails with a high degree of accuracy. Malicious anonymous emails can "transmit threats or child pornography, facilitate communications between criminals, or carry viruses," Fung says. Although authorities can use the Internet protocol address to locate the building where the email originated, they have no way to differentiate between several suspects. Fung's method uses speech recognition and data-mining techniques to identify an individual author. First the researchers identify the patterns found in emails written by the suspect, and then they filter out any patterns that also are found in the emails of other suspects, leaving only the patterns that are unique to the original suspect. "Using this method, we can even determine with a high degree of accuracy who wrote a given email, and infer the gender, nationality, and education level of the author," Fung says. Testing showed that the system can identify an individual author of an anonymous email with up to 90 percent accuracy.
Smart-Grid 'Stockbrokers' to Manage Your Power
New Scientist (03/07/11) Duncan Graham-Rowe
Scientists are developing smart electrical grids that use agent-based technology to manage energy supply and demand. The existing grid system follows the standard supply and demand rules, but this pattern is not ideal for renewable energy, which involves needing power when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. Software-agent systems could enlist batteries already present in the home as temporary energy storage units. University of Delaware at Newark researchers Willett Kemton and Nathaniel Pearre have developed a set of seven electric vehicles that use vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology. The vehicles can communicate wirelessly with an agent-based server that manages the cars as if they were part of a distributed utility company. V2G can respond to the grid in less than four seconds, which is much faster than current systems. Additionally, each vehicle in the V2G fleet produces revenue of about $4,000 per year. The agents in an ideal smart grid also could act as their own energy brokers, helping to reduce the cost of electricity for consumers. The University of Southampton recently launched Orchid, a project aimed at developing semi-autonomous agents for a smart grid system.
Teaching Robots to Move Like Humans
Georgia Institute of Technology (03/07/11) David Terraso
Getting robots to move in a more human-like fashion is the key to having them use non-verbal communication to interact more naturally with humans, say researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Professor Andrea Thomaz and Ph.D. student Michael Gielniak have studied how easily people recognize what a robot is doing by watching their movements. The team programmed a robot to perform a series of human movements, optimized the motion to allow for more human-like movements, and then had human subjects watch the robot and identify its movements. The human subjects were able to more easily perceive what the robot was doing because of its more human-like motion, and they also were asked to perform the movements they saw. The human subjects had an easier time mimicking the robot's movements, Thomaz and Gielniak say. "It's important to build robots that meet people's social expectations because we think that will make it easier for people to understand how to approach them and how to interact with them," Thomaz says. In the future, Thomaz and Gielniak want to get the robot to perform the same movements in different ways.
'Killer App' for Research Launched
University of Oxford (03/07/11)
Oxford University researchers have developed the collective wizdom (colwiz) researcher and development platform, an open source platform that manages the entire research lifecycle from the initial idea to publication of the results. Colwiz is run through the Oxford Isis Innovation's Software Incubator and can replace the various applications currently used for collaborative research with an integrated suite of tools that are custom-built for fast and efficient management of the research process, says Oxford professor David Gavaghan. Colwiz utilizes a library that enables users to manage publications using desktop applications and cloud-based applications. "We are working with some of the leading researchers in Oxford who are undertaking projects funded by hundreds of millions of pounds in grant funding, but without any underpinning IT platform," says Colwiz co-founder Tahir Mansoori. He says Colwiz will be useful in solving large interdisciplinary research projects. "By breaking down the research process into its key components we have figured out which tools were potentially the most important," Mansoori says. "We then custom-built each tool from scratch and integrated them seamlessly into a single platform for individual and group productivity."
New Robot to Help People to Walk Again
University of Hertfordshire (03/08/11)
University of Hertfordshire researchers will build cognitive features into a new robot designed to help people with damaged limbs walk again. The high-level control of the robots and their synergy with human behavior will be based on biologically-inspired principles and methodologies developed at Hertfordshire's School of Computer Science. "We believe that all organisms optimize information and organize it efficiently in their niche and that this shapes their behavior--in a way, it tells them to some extent what to do," says Hertfordshire's Daniel Polani. "We believe it will help our system to take decisions similar to organisms and to better 'read' the intentions of the human it supports." The techniques also will be used to balance the lead-taking between human and robot. The aim of the four-year Cognitive Control Framework for Robotic Systems (CORBYS) project is to have robots understand what humans need so they can operate autonomously. CORBYS will develop two demonstrators, including a mobile robot-assisted gait rehabilitation system, and a self-aware system that will be capable of learning and optimally matching the requirements of users at different stages of rehabilitation.
The New Cyber Arms Race
Christian Science Monitor (03/07/11) Mark Clayton
Many experts agree that the worst-case cyberwarfare scenario will not be strategic, large-scale digital conflict, but a prolonged period of cyberespionage, sabotage, and low-level assaults that damage electronic networks. One estimate from the Cyber Conflict Studies Association found that more than 100 countries are currently accumulating cybermilitary capabilities, including both offensive and defensive software. The Stuxnet worm demonstrated that cyberattacks can cause real damage, and the release of the constituent elements of its software code on the Internet means that it could be downloaded and reverse-engineered by all sorts of malevolent parties. Former U.S. National Counterintelligence executive Joel Brenner anticipates that cyberattacks that target industrial processes and military systems "will become a routine reality." Training exercises in which hackers attack simulated industrial systems have shown that U.S. industries are significantly underprepared for cyberattacks, and former National Security Council chief counter-terrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke warns that foreign countries are "preparing the battlefield" in key U.S. industries and military networks by planting rootkit trapdoors that will enable them to cripple operations of critical infrastructure. The anonymity that hackers and other attackers can assume thanks to the Internet makes retaliation against cyberattack perpetrators as well as deterrence a difficult proposition.
New Magnetic Resonance Technique Could Revolutionize Quantum Computing
Technology Review (03/07/11)
Harvard University researchers have developed a method for increasing the number of qubits in supercomputers by shrinking part of a magnetic resonance machine to the size of a pinhead. The researchers placed a powerful magnet at the scanning tip of an atomic force microscope, which created a magnetic field gradient in an area just a few nanometers wide. The technique enables the researchers to stimulate and control the magnetic resonance of individual electrons. The researchers, led by Harvard's Mike Grinolds, tested the system on nitrogen vacancies in diamonds, which, when they are placed close together, create quantum logic gates with more than one set of inputs and outputs, a perfect environment for quantum computers. However, the gates will only work if the electrons can be manipulated in the right way, which is what the new magnetic resonance technique accomplishes. The discovery has "intriguing potential applications ranging from sensitive nanoscale magnetometers to scalable quantum information processors," Grinolds says.
STEM Grants Help Attract More Students to Sciences
Seattle Times (03/05/11) Jack Broom
Washington STEM, a nonprofit organization aimed at improving the quality of education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), recently announced 15 grants totaling $2.4 million. The grants are the first part of what the organization hopes will be $100 million worth of projects over the next 10 years. "We [in Washington] have one of widest gaps in the country between technology jobs being created and students being equipped with the skills needed to fill those jobs," says Washington STEM's Brad Smith. One of Washington STEM's key priorities is to boost technology education for minority students, who currently make up less than 5 percent of those earning college degrees in STEM fields. The grants range in value from $5,718 for Neah Bay middle schools to $628,700 to help the Bellevue School District establish STEM-focused lessons that can be used by schools across the state. "At our core, we believe we're the most innovative, entrepreneurial country in the world, and that is what will take us forward in the 21st century," says Washington STEM CEO Julia Novy-Hildesley.
High Anxiety: Virtual Reality in a Michigan Tech Lab
Michigan Tech News (03/04/11) Marcia Goodrich
Michigan Technological University (MTU) professor Scott Kuhl recently held an open house for MTU's virtual reality lab. The lab is equipped with a camera in each corner of the room that tracks light-emitting diodes on a user-worn headsets. As a user moves around the room, the system tracks the movement and changes the display accordingly. The lab also can display actual images in addition to computer-generated imagery, such as a 360-degree, three-dimensional view of Canyonlands National Park pieced together from photos. The virtual reality lab can help researchers make other virtual reality programs better. "Everyone wants to use virtual reality to train people for things that are dangerous," Kuhl notes. He says the more accurately simulators model the real world, the better the training becomes.
Digitizing Urdu: Software Will Improve Analysis of Documents, Social Networks in Pakistan's National Language
University at Buffalo News (03/03/11) Ellen Goldbaum
University at Buffalo researchers have developed a software system that enables the computational processing of documents in Pakistan's Urdu language. The system can handle data mining in Urdu and enables more accurate transliteration from Urdu to English. "This is the first comprehensive, natural language processing system for Urdu," says Buffalo professor Rohini Srihari. "It facilitates electronic tasks ranging from the simplest keyword search to sentiment analysis of social networks, where you use computational methods to analyze opinions in a country or culture." She says information extraction uses linguistics and computer science to extract information such as entities, relationships between entities, and events from large collections of unstructured text. "Now we have developed the first system that will recognize everything in a raw--unprocessed--Urdu document," Srihari says. "It will be able to plot all the interesting names, dates, times, all the entities that might be of interest in a particular set of documents. That's what allows you to start data mining, whether it's blogs, social networks, or comments on a news site."
Just Like Me: Online Training Helpers More Effective When They Resemble Students
NCSU News (03/02/11) Matt Shipman
People are happier and perform better in online training programs when the online helpers are similar to the participants, according to a North Carolina State University (NCSU) study. "Efforts to program helper agents that may be tailored to individuals can yield very positive results for the people taking the training," says NCSU's Lori Foster Thompson. The researchers evaluated the superficial similarities, such as gender and race, between 257 study participants and helper agents for an online training program, analyzing each participant's communication style and similarity to the helper's communication style. The participants reported being more focused on the training when the helper matched their race and gender, the researchers say. In addition, the participants learned more from the program when the helper's communication style matched their own. "We found that people liked the helper more, were more engaged, and viewed the program more favorably when they perceived the helper agent as having a feedback style similar to their own--regardless of whether that was actually true," Thompson says.
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