Welcome to the May 6, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Intel Increases Transistor Speed by Building Upward
New York Times (05/04/11) John Markoff
Intel announced that it has begun manufacturing microprocessors with a three-dimensional (3D) design known as a fin field-effect transistor (Finfet), which is based on an extremely small pillar of silicon that rises above the surface of the chip. Intel says the 3D design runs as much as 37 percent faster in low-voltage applications and it will be able to cut power consumption by as much as 50 percent. The 3D transistors could be used to develop chips as small as 10 nanometers, a size that Intel researchers believe could be achieved by 2015. Intel's Mark T. Bohr says the new technology indicates that the company is maintaining the progress in chip development called for by Moore's Law, which states that the number of transistors that can be etched on a piece of silicon doubles every two years. However, Intel's competitors say that Finfet technology is risky because although it may be faster, it also may provide less control over power consumption. ST Microelectronics is developing an alternative technology based on placing a thin insulating layer below traditional transistors, which could result in low-power applications for mobile devices.
Exploring the Future With Modern Information Technology
ETH Life (05/04/11) Peter Ruegg
The goal of the FuturICT global knowledge accelerator platform proposed by European researchers is to understand how the world works so that imminent crises can be predicted and possibly ameliorated or even prevented. Led by ETH Zurich scientist Dirk Helbing, the project aims to develop the Living Earth Simulator to facilitate the modeling and analysis of techno-commercial-sociological-ecological systems, and will be capable of considering interactions between up to 10 billion individuals. FutureICT plans not just to recognize early-stage financial or economic crises, but also to connect different areas together. Integral to the initiative's success is a platform that can record and analyze massive data volumes, transfer them to computer models, and make them universally usable. New data-mining methods and real-time data set collection also will be vital. The project will be interdisciplinary, bringing together computer scientists, information and communications technology specialists, complexity scientists, economists, sociologists, and sustainability and systemic risk experts. Helbing notes that endemic to the project is the challenge of developing new data encryption, storage, and processing techniques that support beneficial data mining while also protecting individual privacy and confidential commercial data.
Calling for 2011-12 Computing Innovation Fellows
Computing Community Consortium (05/04/11) Erwin Gianchandani
The Computing Community Consortium has announced a call for 2011-2012 Computing Innovation Fellows (CIFellows) as part of the U.S. National Science Foundation-sponsored CIFellows Project, which offers recent Ph.D. graduates in computer science, computer engineering, or information science an opportunity to obtain one- to two-year positions at universities and industrial research laboratories. The CIFellows Project aims to retain new Ph.D. scholars in research and teaching, while also supporting intellectual renewal and diversity in computing fields at U.S. organizations. Prospective applicants must provide statements describing their research accomplishments and goals for the CIFellowship, a letter from the Ph.D. advisor or department chair affirming their graduation date, and two confidential letters of recommendation that are to be submitted separately by the May 31 application deadline. Prospective mentors for hosting a 2011-12 CIFellow are asked to provide their name, location, personal research Web page URL, a brief description of their research interests, and a contact email address.
Revolutionary New Paper Computer Shows Flexible Future for Smartphones and Tablets
Queen's University (Canada) (05/04/11)
Researchers at Queen's University, Arizona State University, and E Ink Corp. have developed the PaperPhone, an interactive paper-sized computer. "This computer looks, feels, and operates like a small sheet of interactive paper," says Roel Vertegaal, director of the Human Media Lab at Queen's University. "You interact with it by bending it into a cell phone, flipping the corner to turn pages, or writing on it with a pen." Vertegaal expects paper computers to revolutionize interactive computing within five years. The PaperPhone smartphone prototype offers all of the functions of a smartphone, but has a 9.5 cm diagonal thin film flexible E Ink display, which makes it more portable than mobile computers. The researchers say that the interactive paper-sized computers do not consume power when nobody is using them, and the devices do not feel like a sheet of glass or metal. Larger versions will be able to store and interact with documents. The researchers also developed a wristband computer based on the technology called Snaplet.
Technology Review (05/04/11) Stephen Cass
A panel discussion at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) recent Brains, Minds and Machines symposium called for a return to the research style driven more by curiosity rather than narrow applications. Some artificial intelligence researchers, such as former MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory director Patrick Winston, said the field got off track due to a lack of funding after the Cold War ended. Meanwhile, research focusing on ever-narrower specialties such as neural networks or genetic algorithms led to a mechanistic balkanization of the field, according to Winston. "When you dedicate your conferences to mechanisms, there's a tendency to not work on fundamental problems, but rather [just] those problems that the mechanisms can deal with," he said. Winston would prefer if researchers focused on developing systems that accentuate those traits that make humans unique from other primates, such as the ability to create stories using language. "I am optimistic that in the next few years, we will make a lot of progress, and the reason is that there are many laboratories scattered in various parts of the world that are pursuing humanoid robotics," says MIT researcher Emilio Bizzi.
Robot Based on Carnegie Mellon Research Engages Novice Computer Scientists
Carnegie Mellon University (05/05/11) Byron Spice
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have developed Finch, a bird-like robot designed to make introductory computer science classes a more engaging experience. Finch can be programmed by an amateur programmer to speak, dance, or make its beak glow blue in response to cold temperature or other stimuli. Despite its basic appearance, Finch includes several features designed to keep students busy for a semester or longer, such as temperature and light sensors, a three-axis accelerometer, a bump sensor, color-programmable light-emitting diodes, a beeper, and speakers. "Students are more interested and more motivated when they can work with something interactive and create programs that operate in the real world," says CMU's Tom Lauwers. Finch can be programmed using both Java and Python. "Computer science now touches virtually every scientific discipline and is a critical part of most new technologies, yet U.S. universities saw declining enrollments in computer science through most of the past decade," says CMU professor Illah Nourbakhsh. "If Finch can help motivate students to give computer science a try, we think many more students will realize that this is a field that they would enjoy exploring."
Top Indian Supercomputer Boots Up at Space Center
HPC Wire (05/02/11) Nicole Hemsoth
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) recently launched SAGA-220, a Wipro-built supercomputer that offers a peak performance of 220 teraflops using 400 NVIDIA Tesla 2070 graphics processing units (GPUs) and 400 Intel Quad Core Xeon central processing units (CPUs). The supercomputer is India's fastest. "The present GPU system offers significant advantage over the conventional CPU-based system in terms of cost, power, and space requirements," ISRO says. The GPU-CPU combination was chosen because it can provide the power necessary for some of ISRO's core space missions. An ISRO representative says that calculations should take significantly less time using the SAGA-220. He also says the system will be "of great use when we start testing our advanced vehicles like Mark III. It will drastically increase speed of calculation and can also evaluate more parameters." The SAGA-220 supercomputer is housed at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, where most of India's aerospace research is conducted. India's second most powerful supercomputer is the government-owned PARAmcluster, which operates at about 38 teraflops at the Center for Development of Advanced Computing.
Panel: Wall Ahead in Multicore Programming
EE Times (05/03/11) Rick Merritt
A panel of experts at the recent Multicore Expo said that programmers will need new tools and methods to reap the benefits of increasingly parallel chips. "The wall is there," says Nokia Siemens Networks' Alex Bachmutsky. "We probably won't have any more products without multicore processors [but] we see a lot of problems in parallel programming." Rewriting existing programs is expensive, and although some algorithms can be changed, Bachmutsky notes that changing all the cell towers and phones is not doable. An audience member also warned that developers can no longer expect next-generation processors to boost the performance of their apps. LSI engineer Rob Munoz said that parallel software is difficult to develop, maintain, and evolve. And managing multithreaded applications where threads may move between different cores also is a problem, points out consultant Mike Anderson. He says the industry needs to understand what it means to be parallel before even thinking about a new programming language.
Rearranging the Furniture? Let Software Do It for You
New Scientist (05/04/11) Paul Marks
Virtual room design programs often require users to manually arrange furniture objects to see how they fit, but new software from researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology automates the process. The researchers programmed Make It Home to treat a room as a container for furniture objects of a known size, and which may have key relationships with each other. For example, a TV is a first-tier object that would be placed next to a second-tier object such as a Blu-ray player, and the dining table would automatically stay with a side table in all variations of the room layout. Also, users would be able to specify sight lines and which items can and cannot encroach on a pathway to a door. The software could be used by movie set designers and video game developers as well. "When a large amount of indoor arrangement is required, automatic software can save the designer a lot of time," says UCLA's Sai-Kit Yeung.
Leafsnap Combines Biometrics and Botany for Electronic Field Guide
SmartPlanet (05/04/11) Melanie D.G. Kaplan
Researchers from Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the U.S. National Museum of Natural History have developed Leafsnap, a plant identification application for the iPhone that could lead to advances in image recognition technology. "Now we have a scientific tool for botanists as well as the public," says National Museum of Natural History research botanist John Kress, who worked with Columbia researcher Peter Belhumeur and Maryland researcher David Jacobs. "Instead of being initiated by text, it's initiated by images," Belhumeur says. The system works by matching each leaf photograph against a leaf image library using shape measurements computed at points along the leaf's outline. Part of the project involved photographing leaves at a high enough resolution so that their details are apparent. The images show each leaf's flower, seed, fruit, and bark on a black background. Leafsnap currently includes 191 species of trees found in New York City's Central Park and Washington, D.C.'s Rock Creek Park, and eventually the system will contain all of the native trees found in the United States.
A Gentle Nudge in the Right Direction
The Independent (United Kingdom) (05/03/11) Yvonne Cook
The London-based Tidy Street Project involves local residents trying to reduce their energy consumption by reading their electricity meters and submitting the results to an online database and receiving feedback on their usage compared to others. The results are displayed on the road surface outside the residents' homes in the form of a giant chalk artwork, which graphically shows how Tidy Street energy use is dropping further below the Brighton average. The Tidy Street Project is one of several being conducted by Open University's Jon Bird. "One of the novel features of this project was the manual electricity monitoring," Bird says. Tidy Street is an example of what the Open University's researchers call nudge technology, which combines behavioral science and innovative technology. "Nudge technology is giving people that bit of information that will nudge their behavior towards values they care about," says Open University professor Yvonne Rogers. The next stage of the Tidy Street project will involve monitoring gas usage.
College Students' Use of Kindle DX Points to E-Reader's Role in Academia
UW News (05/02/11) Hannah Hickey
A recent University of Washington study examined how students used an Amazon Kindle DX for their course readings as part of the first long-term study of e-readers in higher education. Although the Kindle DX was designed for leisure reading, the researchers found that students needed more functionality from the devices, and often worked near a computer to make note-taking and looking up references easier. The researchers also found that students most often used the Kindle in a fixed location, and that the device was more likely to replace paper-based reading than computer-based reading. In addition, the researchers found that the Kindle disrupted a technique called cognitive mapping, in which readers used physical cues such as the location on the page and the position in the book to go back and find a section of text or even to help retain and recall the information they had read. "E-readers are not where they need to be in order to support academic reading," says Washington professor Charlotte Lee. "We found that reading is just a small part of what students are doing. And when we realize how dynamic and complicated a process this is, it kind of redefines what it means to design an e-reader."
Chinese Chip Wins Energy-Efficiency Crown
IEEE Spectrum (05/11) Joseph Calamia
The next Chinese supercomputer will use the Godson-3B processor, which can perform 128 billion floating-point operations per second while consuming only 40 watts, which tops the performance per watt of competing systems by at least 100 percent. The processor relies on a modified mesh network that features additional direct core connections to move data efficiently. The eight-core chip consists of two four-core clusters where each core sits on a corner of a square of interconnects. Each corner also is linked to its opposite through two diagonal interconnects that form an X through the square's center. Both four-core units are connected via a crossbar interconnect, and the chip's developers expect the scalability of their modified mesh to be an advantage as designers place more cores on future chips. Boosting the number of cores in a mesh puts a strain on the system, but Tilera's Matthew Mattina says a mesh interconnect offers bandwidth scaling superior to that of the ring configuration typical of most microprocessors. Godson architect Yunji Chen says a mesh design also supports more favorable latency.
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