Welcome to the April 11, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Artificial Intelligence for Improving Data Processing
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain) (04/11/11)
Carlos III University of Madrid recently hosted a group of international artificial intelligence (AI) experts to discuss the technology's latest advances. Five researchers discussed issues including combinational problem-solving algorithms, reasoning robots, vision systems, and automated players. "Inviting speakers from groups of references allows us to offer a panoramic view of the main problems and the techniques open in the area, including advances in video and multi-sensor systems, task planning, automated learning, games, and artificial consciousness or reasoning," the researchers said. The University of Udine's Artificial Vision and Real Time Systems research team presented a seminar on data-fusion techniques and distributed artificial vision, focusing on automated surveillance systems with visual sensor networks. Essex University professor Simon Lucas discussed the latest trends in generating algorithms for game strategies. The University of Genoa's Enrico Giunchiglia described recent advances in logic satisfaction, which has gained importance due to its applications in circuit design and task planning. To date, AI "has been equated with automated reasoning in software systems, but in the future AI will tackle more daring concepts such as the incarnation of intelligence in robots, as well as emotions, and above all consciousness," says University of Palermo professor Antonio Chella.
Scientists Find Way to Map Brain's Complexity
Reuters (04/10/11) Kate Kelland; Sophie Hares
University College London (UCL) researchers are developing a computer model of the brain by mapping the connections and functions of nerve cells. The study is part of an a new field called connectomics, which aims to map the brain's connections. The researchers hope to understand how thoughts and perceptions are generated in the brain and how these functions affect diseases such as Alzheimer's, schizophrenia and stroke. "Once we understand the function and connectivity of nerve cells spanning different layers of the brain, we can begin to develop a computer simulation of how this remarkable organ works," says UCL's Tom Mrsic-Flogel. However, he says that effort will require years of work and huge amounts of computer processing power. In the most recent study, the researchers focused on the visual cortex of a mouse brain, which contains thousands of neurons and millions of different connections. The researchers used high-resolution imaging to detect which neurons responded to certain stimuli. They plan to use this method to create a wiring diagram of the brain area with a specific function, adding the sections of the brain that control touch, hearing, and movement.
Facebook Opens Up Its Hardware Secrets
Technology Review (04/08/11) Tom Simonite
Prior to launching its new super-efficient data center, Facebook plans to make the designs and specifications open to the public. The company wants to encourage software-style openness for hardware, and release enough information about the data center and servers that others could build them, says Facebook's David Recordon. The new data center will increase Facebook's total computing capacity by about 50 percent. The open hardware includes information about the building's electrical and cooling systems as well as the servers. The electrical design reduces the number of times that the electricity from the grid is run through a transformer to reduce its voltage on its way to the servers. A team led by Facebook's Jay Park also devised a new design for backup batteries that keeps servers running even during the brief power outage before the backup generators turn on. Instead of building one large battery store in a single room, the team used several cabinet-sized battery packs spread out among the servers. Park says a perfect data center would have a power usage efficiency (PUE) score of 1, and Facebook's new data center has a PUE of 1.07. "Facebook is successful because of the great social product, not [because] we can build low-cost infrastructure," says Facebook's Frank Frankovsky. "There's no reason we shouldn't help others out with this."
Business Information Consumption: 9,570,000,000,000,000,000,000 Bytes Per Year
UCSD News (CA) (04/06/11) Rex Graham
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers estimate that the amount of business-related information processed by the world's computer servers has reached 9.57 zettabytes per year. "Most of this information is incredibly transient: it is created, used, and discarded in a few seconds without ever being seen by a person," says UCSD professor Roger Bohn, who collaborated with James E. Short and Chaitanya K. Baru on the research. The 9.57-zettabyte estimate is based on guidance from experts, industry data, and their own judgment. "Since our capacity assumptions, methodology, and calculations are complex, we have prepared a separate technical paper as background to explain our methodology and provide sample calculations," Short says. The researchers relied on server performance per dollar invested as a way to measure different server types and sizes. "While midrange servers doubled their Web processing and business application workloads every two years, they doubled their performance per dollar every 1.5 years," Bohn says. The estimated workload of the world's servers could be an underestimate due to the fact that server-industry sales reports do not include servers built from component parts by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others, the researchers note. "In the future, data archiving and preservation will require as much enthusiasm in research and industry settings as we have provided to data generation and data processing," Baru says.
Linux Development to Get High Availability Push
IDG News Service (04/06/11) Joab Jackson
The Linux Foundation has formed a working group to focus on the development of high availability (HA) systems. The High Availability Working Group will be charged with defining a software stack for running Linux in clustered, mission-critical environments, as part of the effort to make the operating system kernel more suitable for building HA systems. The working group also will prioritize development work that still needs to done. The Linux HA stack will include several components, such as the Corosync cluster engine, the Open Clustering Framework, and the Global File System, but work remains to be done to ensure these technologies will interoperate. The working group will include engineers from Novell, Oracle, Red Hat, and other companies, as well as leaders from Linux distributions such as Debian, Fedora, and OpenSuse. "The users [of the stack] would be everyone who wants to run a Linux cluster on open source software," says Novell's Lars Marowsky-Bree. Users have expressed interest in a fully open source and vendor neutral version. By clustering the servers, "they achieve a higher availability than any single one of them would achieve," Marowsky-Bree says.
Internet Probe Can Track You Down to Within 690 Meters
New Scientist (04/05/11) Jacob Aron
Researchers at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China and Northwestern University have developed a method of identifying Internet users' locations by using businesses and universities that have their own IP addresses as landmarks. The researchers used Google Maps to find both the Web and physical addresses of an institution and created an IP address map with about 76,000 landmarks. The method goes through three stages to locate a target computer. The first stage measures the time it takes to send a data packet to the target and converts it into a distance. If a landmark machine and the target computer share a router, the time from computer to router can be measured as a distance, narrowing the search down further. Finally, the researchers repeat the first stage in greater detail. On average, the new method gets to within 690 meters, and as close as 100 meters, of the target.
High-Performance Computing Cluster Will Aid Research
Temple University (04/05/11) Preston Moretz
Temple University has a new high-performance computer cluster that will significantly enhance the high-speed computing capabilities of researchers across its campuses. Nicknamed the Owls' Nest, the Linux cluster is comprised of more than 100 computer nodes in different configurations. Temple will gradually make the computing system available to users for testing and feedback, with the goal of making it fully functional and accessible by mid June. Temple's Axel Kohlmeyer says such a time frame would allow the unveiling of the Owls' Nest to coincide with a TeraGrid/ICMS high-performance computing programming workshop, which will be held at Temple in collaboration with the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center. The Owls' Nest will enable researchers in computer and information sciences, chemistry, electrical and computer engineering, mathematics, physics, pulmonary and critical care medicine, and physical therapy to crunch massive amounts of data and perform superfast computation. The computing cluster could stimulate collaboration with other Philadelphia universities, and serve as a connection to national supercomputing resource providers.
Free Software Makes Computer Mouse Easier for People With Disabilities
UW News (WA) (04/07/11) Catherine O'Donnell
University of Washington researchers have developed two software-based mouse cursors designed to make clicking targets easier for users with disabilities. The Pointing Magnifier program combines an area cursor with visual and motor magnification. To acquire a target, the user places a large circular cursor somewhere over the target and clicks. The Pointing Magnifier then enlarges everything under that circular area to fill the screen. The user then clicks with a point cursor inside the enlarged area to acquire the target. The program includes a control panel that enables users to adjust the color, transparency level, magnification factor, and cursor area size. The researchers say that testing demonstrated that Pointing Magnifier users were able to acquire targets 23 percent faster than with conventional software. "It's less expensive to create computer solutions for people who have disabilities if you focus on software rather than specialized hardware, and software is usually easier to procure than hardware," says Washington professor Jacob O. Wobbrock. The researchers also developed Angle Mouse, software that slows the cursor down as it approaches the target. The researchers say that Angle Mouse improved motor-impaired pointing-performance by 10 percent over the Windows default mouse and 11 percent over sticky icons.
UCF Student Turns Cell Phone Into Mobile Microscope
University of Central Florida (04/05/11) Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala
Students at the University of California, Davis (UCD), and the University of Central Florida (UCF) have developed a way to turn smartphones into virtual microscopes that can detect malaria from a digital picture of a patient's blood sample. The software enables a doctor working in Africa to take a picture of the blood sample with a cell phone camera instead of having to use a microscope in a lab. An image-analysis phone application then calculates and detects where the malaria clusters are based on blood cells' location and staining, the same way it is done in a lab. "I can adapt the software to run on pretty much any platform and to potentially detect other conditions like anemia, says UCF's Tristan Gibeau. In addition, since most cell phones are equipped with global positioning systems, those using the new digital program could potentially detect outbreaks early. The digital method is less complicated than the other tests available today, says UCD student Wilson To, who came up with the idea and is a finalist in Microsoft's 2011 Imagine Cup competition, an international event that challenges students to use their imaginations and modern technology to solve global problems.
Technique for Letting Brain Talk to Computers Now Tunes in Speech
Washington University in St. Louis (04/06/11) Michael C. Purdy
Washington University in St. Louis researchers are studying a brain computing interface they developed that can be used to analyze the frequency of brain wave activity, enabling them to make finer distinctions about what the brain is doing. The research, led by Washington's Eric C. Leuthardt, involves applying the technique to detect when patients say or think of four specific sounds, including "oo" as in few, "e" as in see, "a" as in say, and "a" as in hat. When scientists identified the brainwave patterns that represented these sounds and programmed the interface to recognize them, patients could quickly learn to control a computer cursor by thinking or saying the appropriate sound. "This is one of the earliest examples, to a very, very small extent, of what is called 'reading minds'--detecting what people are saying to themselves in their internal dialogue," Leuthardt says. The researchers' next task is to find ways to distinguish what they call higher levels of conceptual information. "We want to see if we can not just detect when you're saying dog, tree, tool, or some other word, but also learn what the pure idea of that looks like in your mind," Leuthardt says.
Sandia Researchers Merge Serious Gaming, Simulation Tools to Create High-Level Models for Border Security
Sandia National Laboratories (04/05/11) Mike Janes
Sandia National Laboratory researchers have developed a high-fidelity simulation and analysis program that could help U.S. policymakers make important funding choices. The Borders High Level Model (HLM) involves a serious gaming platform called Ground Truth, a battle simulation tool known as Dante, and several collaborating organizations. "With Borders HLM, [Customs and Border Protection (CBP)] officials can simulate their defensive architectures, accurately measure their performance, and start to answer these difficult questions," says Borders HLM project manager Jason Reinhardt. As part of the Borders HLM project, the Ground Truth software has been embedded into a bottom-projected touch surface table. Sandia researchers also have been working with the University of Utah's Visualization Streams for Ultimate Scalability, which enables researchers to progressively stream in terrain and imagery data and minimize data-processing requirements. "Our high-level models tool will likely change the way CBP conducts its business, and it will probably have a real long-term impact on how large expenditures are justified or reputed on and around the [U.S.'s] borders," Reinhardt says.
In an Emergency, Word Spreads Fast and Far
Northeastern University News (04/04/11) Jason Kornwitz
New research from Northeastern University could transform the way in which real-time communications tools are used in potential tragedies. Northeastern network scientists studied the anonymous billing records of 10 million mobile phone subscribers in a western European country from 2007 to 2009, comparing call activity in the immediate aftermath of emergencies with scheduled activities such as rock concerts and sporting events. The study found that the greatest spike and quickest decline in call volume occurred after threatening disasters such as bombings and plane crashes, but call activity rose and fell more steadily after concerts and sporting events. In the most dangerous events, news spread quickly and efficiently from an eyewitness to individuals four links removed from the immediate social contacts, while news of less threatening events such as blackouts and minor earthquakes did not travel far beyond the immediate social links. "Information spreading is actually very rare," says study co-author James Bagrow. "This means that a population's innate reticence to communicate may naturally suppress false information and may explain why the disaster myth (the belief that panic is a common, widespread reaction to an emergency) continues to hold, even with today's constant communication."
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