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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Online Mapping Shows Potential to Transform Relief Efforts
The New York Times (03/28/11) Steve Lohr

Online mapping could transform humanitarian services if better coordination and communication between digital volunteers and agencies is achieved, according to a new report compiled by the United Nations Foundation, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Vodafone Foundation, and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. "Haiti showed everyone that it is going to be crucial to adopt and use these technologies to make humanitarian work better, faster, and more efficient," says Adele Waugaman, senior director of a technology partnership between the United Nations and various Vodafone foundations. Online mapping organizations such as OpenStreetMap, Crisis Mappers, Sahana, and Ushahidi were instrumental in helping the recovery efforts after the earthquake in Haiti. "On the technology side, Google, Microsoft, and OpenStreetMap have really democratized mapping," says United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs strategy advisor Nigel Snoad. Experts say the response in almost any crisis would be improved by closer communications between digital volunteers and on-the-ground relief workers. The report, "Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies," will be presented Monday at an international aid and development meeting in Dubai.


ORNL Simulating Japan Nuke Crisis
Knoxville News-Sentinel (03/28/11) Frank Munger

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) are using supercomputer clusters to run simulations that could help resolve the nuclear crisis in Japan. The lab assembled a research team soon after the crisis began at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, says ORNL's Jeff Nichols. One of the first issues the researchers studied involved simulations of what could be happening in the pools of used nuclear fuel that are stored in the reactor sites. Any new information the researchers gather is sent to U.S. Energy secretary Steven Chu. "They also have the ability to inform our Japanese counterparts over there and help guide them in their decision-making," Nichols says. The research team is using programs developed by the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, in addition to other programs that could be useful to the simulations, Nichols says.


In a Country Known for Robots, Their Chief Tasks Didn't Include Nuclear Safety
The Washington Post (03/27/11) Brian Vastag

Japan's focus on building humanoid robots that perform tasks that humans can already do, instead of building robots that can go where humans cannot, has made it more difficult to respond to the nuclear disaster that followed the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. "We should have focused on response and disaster-mitigation robots," says Satoshi Tadokoro, who builds search-and-rescue robots at Tohoku University. Even after a 1999 nuclear accident, Japanese organizations as well as private robotics companies, did not focus on disaster-mitigation robots. However, Japan's Nuclear Safety Technology Center has built two robots that feature equipment designed to withstand high radiation and provide disaster assessments. One of the robots was dispatched to the Fukushima Daiichi site last week. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy is evaluating its robotic inventory at the request of the Japanese government, according to an agency spokeswoman. The Energy department has built several robots designed to clean up radioactive waste. Internationally, France and Germany are the only countries with ready-to-launch robots that are designed to deal with nuclear disasters.
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The First Plastic Computer Processor
Technology Review (03/25/11) Tom Simonite

European researchers have developed a computer processor and memory chip made from plastic semiconductors. The researchers used 4,000 plastic transistors to create the plastic microprocessor, which is built on top of plastic foil. "Compared to using silicon, this has the advantage of lower price and that it can be flexible," says IMEC's Jan Genoe. The commands are coded into a second foil etched with plastic circuits that can be connected to the processor to load the program. "There are research groups working on roll-to-roll or sheet-to-sheet printing, but there is still some progress needed to make organic transistors at small sizes that aren't wobbly," Genoe says. The researchers expect plastic processors to be used in applications where silicon is prohibited by cost or physical inflexibility. University of Minnesota researchers recently developed a type of organic dynamic random access memory (DRAM), which works with the processor for short-term data storage. Organic, printed DRAM could be used for short-term storage of image frames in displays that currently are made with printed organic light-emitting diodes. That would enable more devices to be made using printing methods and eliminate some silicon components, reducing costs, says Minnesota researcher Wei Zhang.


IIIT to Break Online Language Barrier
The Times of India (03/25/11) Abdul Kalam

The International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) Hyderabad is ready to launch a machine-translation system that enables users to convert content from one language to another, which would help bridge the digital divide between Indian dialects. IIIT first plans to launch a system for four pairs of Indian languages for Internet users, which will enable users to translate the available content from Hindi to Punjabi, Punjabi to Hindi, Urdu to Hindi, and Telugu to Tamil. "In fact, we are working on 18 pairs of languages," says IIIT's Rajeev Sangal. "Four more pairs will be added in another three to four months and the entire set will be ready in about a year or so." Some rough edges need to be smoothed out in converting Hindi text to Urdu and Tamil to Telugu, says IIIT's Dipti Misra Sharma. Rahmat Yousuf Zai, who is working on Urdu-Hindi and Hindi-Urdu translation, says there initially will be some syntactical or spelling challenges, but those issues will "be sorted with feedback and suggestions from the users." Sharma notes that India has 122 spoken languages, with 234 others listed as mother tongues or dialects. India has selected 22 of these as scheduled languages that encompass 96 percent of the Indian population.


Yahoo Working on Hadoop MapReduce 2
Computerworld (03/24/11) Lucas Mearian

The next generation of Apache Hadoop will likely be released this year, says Yahoo!'s Todd Papaioannou. Apache Hadoop enables batch processing of petabytes of data, but it does not effectively manage resources across thousands of servers in a cluster. As a result, developers are working to improve its utilization, scheduling, and management of resources. Yahoo!, which contributed about 70 percent of the code for the current iteration of Hadoop and the Hadoop Distributed File System (HDFS), is working more closely with the Apache Hadoop community because it allows the open source community to help with development efforts. In addition to Apache, Hadoop uses an iteration of a Google-originated programming technique, MapReduce, for building parallel programs. Hadoop enables MapReduce to perform parallel batch processing. "The next generation of HDFS will be more resilient, available, and reliable," Papaioannou says. Yahoo! also has launched H Catalog, a table metadata management schema for Hadoop that recently went into the Apache version.


BrainGate Neural Interface System Reaches 1,000-Day Performance Milestone
Brown University (03/24/11) David Orenstein

More than 1,000 days after Brown University researchers implanted the BrainGate system into a woman with paralysis, giving her the ability to control a computer cursor accurately through neural activity alone, the system still works. "This proof of concept ... is an important step for the field," says Brown professor Leigh Hochberg. The woman performed two point-and-click tasks by thinking about moving the cursor with her hand, averaging better than 90 percent accuracy in both tests. "These results highlight the potential for an intracortical neural interface system to provide a person that has locked-in syndrome with reliable, continuous point-and-click control of a standard computer application," says Brown professor John Simeral. The BrainGate system combines hardware and software to sense electrical signals produced by neurons in the brain. The system uses a tiny silicon electrode array to read the neural signals in the brain tissue. "This is the first demonstration that this microelectrode array technology can provide useful neuroprosthetic signals allowing a person with tetraplegia to control an external device for an extended period of time," Hochberg says. Although fewer electrodes were recording data when the device was analyzed 2.7 years after it was implanted, the researchers attributed the decreased signal quality to engineering, mechanical, or procedural issues.


Microsoft Scheme Sniffs Out Unused Wireless Spectrum
Network World (03/25/11) Tim Greene

Microsoft researchers have developed SpecNet, an architecture for measuring whether licensed radio frequencies are being used so that unlicensed devices can utilize the unused white space. The licensed portions of the radio spectrum currently prohibits unlicensed wireless devices from using those frequencies, even if they are unused. The researchers want to enable users to utilized this unused white space in the radio spectrum. "Opportunistic spectrum access (OSA) is now increasingly seen as a necessity to meet the growing demands of wireless applications," the researchers say. If a device needed bandwidth in a given area, it could query SpecNet and determine what frequencies are available, says Microsoft's Anand Padmanabha Iyer. SpecNet could measure available spectrum remotely and estimate the area covered by the primary transmitter of individual frequencies in certain areas. Although white space use has been approved by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, no other country has permitted OSA. The researchers say that SpecNet could broaden international spectrum use studies and push other countries to approve OSA.


New Way to Detect Epileptic Seizures
Concordia University (03/23/11) Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins

Concordia University researchers have developed a computer-based method using electroencephalograms (EEGs) to detect epileptic seizures as they happen, which could lead to new insights on the brain's electrical activity. Seizures have certain recognizable patterns that look like spikes on an EEG recording. "EEG recordings may cover a period of several weeks," says Concordia professor Rajeev Agarwal. "That's a lot of data to review. Automating the process is difficult, because there's no exact definition for a seizure, so there's no template to look for." The researchers, led by Ph.D. candidate Rajeev Yadav, developed an algorithm that measures the angles of the spikes on an EEG recording, with a series of sharp spikes indicating a seizure. In the study of EEG recordings of seven epileptic patients, the method detected every seizure with a very low rate of false positives. "Our method may allow health professionals to gain a much clearer picture of patients’ brain function," Agarwal says.


Researchers Find a New Way to Mix Computers and Neurons
ZDNet (03/23/11) Chris Jablonski

Nerve cell tendrils recently grew through tiny tubes made of semiconductor material in groundbreaking research conducted by University of Wisconsin, Madison graduate students. The research could help scientists in their efforts to regenerate nerve cells damaged due to disease or injury, as well as contribute to the development of nanomedicine, including areas such as brain-computer interface technology. Graduate student Minrui Yu and biomedical engineer Justin Williams say they first created tubes of different sizes and shapes made out of silicon and germanium. The tubes closely resembled the outer insulating sheath that covers parts of normal nerve cells, both physically and electrically, and were small enough for a nerve cell to clasp onto, but not so big that it could fit all the way inside. The team then coated the fabricated tubes with nerve cells from mice. Yu and Williams say the nerve cells began to send tendrils through the tunnels, and in some cases followed the contours of the tubes, meaning that in theory nerves could be grown into structures. The researchers now want to set up nerve cells to follow pre-planned paths through tubes and use listening devices to record the electrical emissions between the cells.


Can Biometrics ID an Identical Twin?
IEEE Spectrum (03/11) Eliza Strickland

University of Notre Dame professors Kevin W. Bowyer and Patrick J. Flynn recently presented the results of a facial-recognition software evaluation that was performed at the 2009 Twins Days Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio. The researchers took photographs of 126 pairs of identical twins under studio light and natural light and ran the photos through three facial-recognition programs that performed best in a U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology evaluation. The programs were relatively successful when analyzing photos taken under the studio light. The researchers measured the programs by the equal error rate, which is the point when the program is just as likely to make a false positive match as it is to make a false negative mismatch. When using the studio light, all three programs had an equal error rate of less than five percent. "Even identical twins are distinguishable, but it's a collection of minute differences: a mole here, a crooked tooth there," Bowyer says. The researchers recommend using high-resolution images to improve facial-recognition software's success. However, when they tested the programs using the natural light photos, the results were much worse, as the programs often produced matching errors.


Quantum Computing Device Hints at Powerful Future
BBC News (03/22/11) Jason Palmer

Researchers displayed a quantum computing device during the recent American Physical Society meeting. The researchers presented a chip that holds nine quantum devices, including four quantum bits that perform the calculations. Scaled up, the device could vastly outperform conventional computers, and the research team says scaling up to 10 qubits should be possible this year. "We're now at a point that we can start talking about what the architecture is we're going to use if we make a quantum processor," says the University of California, Santa Barbara's Erik Lucero. The team found a way to completely decouple interactions between the elements of their quantum circuit by using what it dubbed the RezQu architecture. The quantum states of the qubits--paired superconductors known as Josephson junctions--must be manipulated, moved, and stored without destroying them. Described as basically a blueprint for a quantum computer, the RezQu architecture was the subject of several presentations at the meeting. The researchers say that RezQu's scalability makes it a good candidate for the far more complex circuits that a quantum computer would need.


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