Welcome to the March 21, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Japan Looks at AI to Cut Costs of Rocket Launches
MSNBC (03/18/11) Adam Hadhazy
Researchers at the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science and JAXA, Japan's aerospace organization, are experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI) to make rocket launches smoother and less expensive. A safe and reliable AI system could take over some on-the-fly control of the rocket's guidance and operations. JAXA professor Yasuhiro Morita is the project manager for the Epsilon rocket, which will take major steps toward autonomy over the next few years. The Epsilon launch vehicle's sensors will form an electronic brain that can issue commands to the rocket's body. Morita says the AI system will be used to determine the cause of malfunctions and attempt to correct them. He also notes that the Epsilon rocket could be managed by a few people using laptops, compared to other rockets used today that often require dozens of workers to launch. The first Epsilon launch is estimated to cost about $46.4 million, about 25 percent less than the cost of an average rocket launch today. The Epsilon rocket also will feature onboard software that can devise its own plans for completing tasks established by human operators.
Music Is All in the Mind
Nature (03/18/11) Philip Ball
University of Plymouth composer and computer-music specialist Eduardo Miranda worked with computer scientists at the University of Essex to create a computer-music system that disabled users can control with their brain. The system uses electroencephalography (EEG) to detect the electrical impulses of neurons that could help people with severe physical disabilities to create music for recreational or therapeutic purposes. "This is an interesting avenue, and might be very useful for patients," says Maastricht University neuroscientist Rainer Goebel. Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) rely on the user's ability to learn how to self-induce certain mental states that brain-scanning technologies can detect. Users need to be taught how to associate certain brain signals with different tasks, which will result in a specific pattern in the EEG signal. For instance, the researchers can show users flashing buttons on a computer screen, which the users can push by focusing their attention on it. "When I realized the potential of a musical BCI for the well-being of severely disabled people, I couldn't leave the idea alone," Miranda says. "Now I can't separate this work from my activities as a composer."
Gesture Control: Touching the Future of Computing
silicon.com (03/17/11) Nick Heath
University of Essex bionics researcher James Cannan is building a bracelet that records every finger stroke, capturing the motion and position of each digit and using the information to determine which key has been struck. Cannan envisions people typing by jabbing their fingers at virtual keys projected before them or on glasses they are wearing. Cannan's device employs electromyography (EMG), a process that involves monitoring the electrical pulses produced by muscular contraction. These pulses are picked up by electrodes on the skin, amplified, and communicated wirelessly to a computer that uses machine-learning software to pick out patterns corresponding to specific movements. Cannan has mapped finger movements with about 70 percent accuracy using EMG, and is considering integrating EMG with acoustic myography to maximize the device's chances of accurately detecting gestures. The acoustic myography process involves using sensors affixed to the skin to listen for the sounds of muscle contractions and identify specific gestures through pattern recognition. Cannan says acoustic myography also could be used to track thumb movements, since the hand contains most of a thumb's muscles.
Carnegie Mellon Taps Tech To Tackle the Problem of Potholes
Campus Technology (03/17/11) Dian Schaffhauser
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have developed the Road Damage Assessment System (RODAS), a project that enables users with global positioning system-linked cell phone cameras and Facebook accounts to participate in road-improvement efforts by linking photos of potholes to a central tracking site. RODAS, created by CMU professors Robert Strauss and Takeo Kanade, is based on a similar system used in Chile. When a RODAS user takes a photo of a pothole, the system pinpoints its location on an online map, creating a database of road conditions that is independent of any governmental body. "We are creating a secure, independent source of information about potholes that can be used to alert government agencies and to monitor their response," Strauss says. The researchers say citizens can update the site when a pothole is repaired, when the repair fails, or when it is ignored. "This new public database is a new tool people can use to monitor what road crews are doing and to judge the efficiency of government," Strauss says.
Computer-Based Tools Can Help Improve Relationship Between Patients, Healthcare Workers
A Finnish team has developed the Personal Health Server, a system designed to assist healthcare workers, patients, and their families with medical information and services, and help them make appropriate decisions. The Personal Health Server will enable disparate e-health tools to work together and share a computer glossary of terms, definitions, and their relationships. Aalto University computer scientist Juha Puustjarvi and Pharmacy of Kaivopuisto's Leena Puustjarvi derived the ontology for the server by integrating healthcare terms culled from e-health tools, medical new sites, telemedicine applications, home-care management systems, Internet-based public health records, and health and medical blogs. The server uses the OWL Web ontology language and stores addresses, uniform resource locators, information entities, and blog items. "Patient-centered healthcare is an emerging e-health model that contributes to preventive medical care," the Puustjarvis say. "It optimizes the healthcare system to focus on patient experience and outcomes for better health and well being."
Improv Game Puts the Role-Playing Back in RPG
MIT News (03/17/11) Andrew Whitacre
Researchers at the Singapore-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) GAMBIT Game Lab have developed Improviso, a type of role-playing game (RPG) that makes the roles more realistic. "We have this popular genre of role-playing games, but Improviso is really about role-playing like you did were you were little: Pretend play," says GAMBIT researcher Jeff Orkin. The game explores how players can engage in dramatic improvisations. Each scene in the game lasts about 15 minutes and links two players--a lead actor and a director who controls as many as four other characters. The characters interact with each other behind paper masks in a low-budget movie that is set around an alien encounter. Improviso was created by Orkin's team at GAMBIT's summer program, when dozens of students spend two months at MIT developing video games that tackle key research challenges. Orkin also is developing an artificial intelligence system that generates character behavior and dialogue based on data captured from the improvised interactions of thousands of players.
Software to Predict 'March Madness' Basketball Winner
New Scientist (03/17/11) MacGregor Campbell
The goal of the March Madness Predictive Analysis Challenge, now in its second year, is to build software that can select winning basketball teams with greater accuracy than humans. Machines compete against machines to determine which algorithm can make the most accurate win predictions. Tournament brackets must be selected wholly by algorithm, and no specific team-based rules are permitted. All contests are limited to using the same data set, comprised of team and player statistics from the 2006 season until February 2011. Contest organizer Danny Tarlow has devised an algorithm that sifts through volumes of regular season data and applies probabilities toward the finding of equations that match the outcomes of each game. The software then employs those equations to choose which teams will win. "The algorithm ... just sees the outcome of each game in the season, and it tries to discover latent characteristics that best explain the outcomes," Tarlow says. Other contest entries include using genetic algorithms programmed to evolve equations capable of choosing winners, and software designed to abstract a team's strengths and weaknesses into a single number, then select the team with the higher number in each game.
'Pruned' Microchips Are Faster, Smaller, More Energy-Efficient
Rice University (03/16/11) Jade Boyd
Rice University researchers, in collaboration with researchers from Switzerland and Singapore, have developed a method for doubling the efficiency of computer chips by trimming away parts that are rarely used. "What we've shown is that we can boost performance and cut energy use simultaneously if we prune the unnecessary portions of the digital application-specific integrated circuits that are typically used in hearing aids, cameras, and other multimedia devices," says Rice's Krishna Palem. The researchers can manage the probability of errors by limiting those calculations that produce errors, which results in lower energy demands and increased performance. "Our initial tests indicate that the pruned circuits will be at least two times faster, consume about half the energy, and take up about half the space of the traditional circuits," says Rice's Avinash Lingamneni. Christian Enz, the lead researcher at Switzerland's Center for Electronics and Microtechnology, says pruning the circuits generates 8 percent more errors. However, he says that "we know that many perceptive types of tasks found in vision or hearing applications can easily tolerate error magnitudes of up to 10 percent."
More Eyes on the Classroom
reesenews (03/16/11) Kelcie Landon
University of North Carolina's Jon Bidwell is developing Classroom Analytics, a program that enables teachers to monitor student engagement to determine how people learn best. "We're working on a kind of dashboard for teachers to help them go through data, a tool that teachers can use to get student feedback in the classroom," Bidwell says. The program, which was tested at Union Independent School, uses a system of video cameras that follow and record the gazes of students to determine if they are actively paying attention to the teacher. Teachers can review the data to find out which teaching methods are most effective. The system also involves monitoring students at 20-second intervals with an iPhone app developed by Bidwell. Teachers' enthusiasm and acceptance of the system has made it a success, says Union Independent School project leader Michael Woods. Third grade teacher associate Shentelle Livan says Classroom Analytics has made the teachers better planners. "This is a platform and a model that can open a new research area for computer science," Bidwell says.
ITU Worries Over Declining Female Presence in ICT
Vanguard (03/16/11) Emmanuel Elebeke
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) commemorated the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day by addressing the declining presence of women in the information and communication technology (ICT) industry. ITU brought together a high-level panel of experts from government, the ICT industry, the education sector, and the media. Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne's Anastasia Ailamaki says girls are five times less likely to consider technology-related careers than boys. He notes that young women earned 37 percent of computer science degrees in the United States during the 1980s, but today that number has fallen to about 20 percent. In 10 years, Europe will face a shortfall of 300,000 ICT workers, and the global shortfall will be 1.2 million. Participants in the panel agree that young girls have a poor perception of the industry and lack inspiring role models. Finnish communications minister Suvi Linden says the culture of negativity around science and math affects girls as early as the primary level. International School of Geneva education specialist Inal Uygur says teachers unwittingly or deliberately discourage girls from technology careers.
In Japan, Rescue Robots Are Poised to Go From Lab to Quake Scene
Chronicle of Higher Education (03/15/11) Ben Wieder
Japanese researchers working at Texas A&M University's Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue have developed robots that will soon be put into use to help victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Tohoku University researcher Satoshi Tadokoro developed a snake-like robot that can enter small spaces and use a camera to survey them. Chiba Institute of Technology's Eiji Koyanagi has developed Quince, a small, tank-like robot that can move over debris and is equipped with sensors that can detect chemical contamination. Other robots include aerial drones that can provide live feeds of damage to tall buildings, and remotely operated underwater vehicles that can help locate submerged objects and find damaged pipes and bridges, says Texas A&M's Robin R. Murphy. Stanford University professor Clifford I. Nass and Murphy are working to make rescue robots look less creepy to improve human's interactions with them. The researchers plan to module the volume of their voices, add more light for better visibility, program them to make better eye contact with humans, and add media such as video and music.
Haptic Technology Teaches Blind Kids How to Write
University of Glasgow professor Stephen Brewster has developed a method involving haptic technology that helps teach blind children to write. Brewster has developed McSig, a force-feedback pen that helps blind children write by gently guiding their hand. The system uses Phantom Omni, an off-the-shelf haptic device, which includes a stylus mounted at the end of a motorized arm that can move and resist movement in three dimensions. "The device can guide or constrain certain types of movements, so as the teacher draws on a touchscreen the movements are echoed directly back to the student, allowing the student to feel the movements and learn the letter shapes," Brewster says. In addition to the visually impaired, Brewster wants to help other people as well. "My research is in multi-modal interaction, which is all about combining the different senses to use computers or access information, the idea being that the more ways of interacting that you can provide, the richer the data," he says.
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