Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the May 16, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


HP Advances Next-Gen 'Memristor' Memory Technology
Computerworld (05/15/11) James Niccolai

Hewlett-Packard (HP) and University of California, Santa Barbara researchers have mapped out the basic chemistry and structure of what happens inside a memristor during its electrical operation, a breakthrough that could help the development of a memory technology that some see as a replacement for conventional flash and dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) technologies. "This improves our confidence and should allow us to improve the devices such that they are significantly better," says Stan Williams, director of the Memristor Research group at HP Labs. HP's breakthrough involved using highly focused X-rays to pinpoint a small channel where the resistance switching occurs. The researchers were able to map out the chemistry and structure of the channel, which led to insights about how memristors operate. Williams says that HP's memristor technology could be commercially available by the middle of 2013. Memristor-based memory technology, known as ReRAM, is one of several technologies under development that could replace flash and DRAM, which are reaching their physical limits. Unlike DRAM, ReRAM is nonvolatile, which means it retains its data when the power is turned off. Williams says that HP has built prototype ReRAM devices that can store 12 gigabytes of data per square centimeter.


Controversial Computer Is at Least a Little Quantum Mechanical
ScienceNOW (05/13/11) Adrian Cho

D-Wave Systems researchers recently published data that they say proves the creation of a quantum mechanical computer chip. However, other researchers have questioned whether quantum mechanical activity is taking place inside the devices. "It's not obvious that they've implemented a quantum algorithm," says University of California, Santa Barbara's John Martinis. The D-Wave researchers have taken a nontraditional approach to quantum computing by using quantum-annealing technology, which involves a set of noninteracting qubits and small rings of superconductor that have been set in their lowest energy ground state. The researchers perform a quantum computation by slowly turning on different interactions among the qubits. If the researchers have set up the system correctly, the ground state of the noninteracting system should naturally evolve into the ground state of the interacting system, with the answer to the problem being encoded in the interactions. The D-Wave researchers produced new data that shows how they were able to tune a qubit and apply a magnetic field to the energy landscape in a working machine. The magnetic field enables the researchers to manipulate the height of different ridges, making it easier for the qubit to achieve quantum tunneling and find the solution to the problem.


A World Full of Sensors
Technische Universitat Darmstadt (05/16/11)

Researchers at Technische Universitat Darmstadt and the University of Kassel are collaborating on a joint research project aimed at developing sensors that receive, analyze, and send data. The sensors will have to deal with subtle changes in their environments and flexibility, as well as constantly changing qualities of received and transmitted signals, an issue that can be solved with beam-forming technology, which is being developed at Darmstadt. "We intend to create conditions, under which antennae will, in the future, behave like spotlights that, once they have located a sought device, will track it, while suppressing interference by stray electromagnetic radiation from other devices that might also be present in the area," says Darmstadt professor Rolf Jakoby. The antennae will be reconfigurable, enabling them to adjust to best suit the conditions around them using built-in electronic circuitry or remote controls. Sensor communications requires that all devices be linked across all communications protocols, which the researchers say is not possible with current devices, communications protocols, and networks. "Converting all devices to a common communications protocol is infeasible, which is why we are seeking a new protocol that would be superimposed upon everything and allow them to communicate via several protocols," Jakoby says.


US Expands Immigration Opportunities for Students
Latin American Herald Tribune (05/12/11)

The Obama administration has expanded the list of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degree programs that qualify eligible graduates on student visas for an Optional Practical Training (OPT) extension. "By expanding the list of STEM degrees to include such fields as neuroscience, medical informatics, pharmaceutics and drug design, mathematics and computer science, the Obama administration is helping to address shortages in certain high-tech sectors of talented scientists and technology experts--permitting highly skilled foreign graduates who wish to work in their field of study upon graduation and extend their post-graduate training in the United States," says a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which published the expanded list. The OPT program allows foreign students who graduate from U.S. colleges and universities to remain in the country and receive training through work experience for up to 12 months. By earning one of the newly expanded STEM degrees, students can use the extension to stay for an additional 17 months.


Toward Faster Transistors
MIT News (05/13/11) Larry Hardesty

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Augsburg have discovered a physical phenomenon that could result in transistors with greatly enhanced capacitance and a way to increase a chip's clock speed without causing it to overheat. The researchers investigated the physical system that occurs when lanthanum aluminate is grown on top of strontium titanate, which results in a series of electric fields that all add up in the same direction, creating an electrical potential between the top and bottom of the material. The researchers measured the capacitance between the resulting channel and a gate electrode on top of the lanthanum aluminate. They found that the material's capacitance is so high that it cannot be explained by existing physics. "It could be a new quantum-mechanical effect or some unknown physics of the material," says MIT professor Raymond Ashoori. The researchers say that a practical use of the technology is possible if they can better understand the physical phenomena behind the material's exceptional capacitance. "It's not going to revolutionize electronics tomorrow," Ashoori says. "But this mechanism exists, and once we know it exists, if we can understand what it is, we can try to engineer it."


Understanding What Affects Beauty Through the Pirouette of a Dancer
Queen Mary, University of London (05/12/11) Bridget Dempsey

Researchers at Queen Mary, University of London, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed an in-depth method for analyzing a ballet dancer's movements to determine how humans assess grace and beauty. The researchers, as part of the Dancing Atoms project, worked with Italian ballet dancer Roberto Bolle to capture his movements using various technologies, including three-dimensional (3D) body scanning, motion capture, and digital conversions. "Modeling human movements at this unprecedented level of detail can help us to understand what affects people's perceptions of grace and beauty," says Queen Mary professor Pat Healey. "When we motion-captured Roberto, our system consolidated all the [two-dimensional] images from each infrared camera in our 12-camera array, allowing us to know the precise 3D coordinates of each reflective marker on Roberto's body in the 3D space," says Queen Mary's Stuart Battersby. He says the process provided the researchers with "the precise x, y, and z coordinates for the 42 markers on his body, recorded 120 times a second."


Foldable Display Shows No Crease After 100,000 Folding Cycles
PhysOrg.com (05/12/11) Lisa Zyga

Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology researchers have developed a prototype seamless display that folds in half without a noticeable crease in the middle. The active-matrix organic light-emitting-diode (AMOLED) display consists of two AMOLED panels, silicone rubber, a protective glass cover, and a module case. The display has a folding radius of just one millimeter, so that one panel lies on top of the other when the display is folded at a 180-degree angle. The glass cover also can act as a touch screen for the device. "All the materials in a foldable window unit (glasses and silicone rubber) must have almost the same optical properties and attach to each other strongly without any optical property change," says Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology's HongShik Shim. During testing, the display's relative brightness at its junction decreased just six percent after 100,000 folding/unfolding cycles, which the researchers say is barely recognizable by the human eye. They say the device could have applications in mobile games, cellular phones, tablet PCs, and notebook PCs.


International Project Readies Climate Models for Exascale Era
HPC Wire (05/12/11) Michael Feldman

The Enabling Climate Simulation (ECS) at Extreme Scale project was created to explore how to efficiently run climate models on future exascale systems and obtain suitable results. The project has a threefold concentration on completing models with correct results despite frequent system failures, leveraging hierarchical computers with hardware accelerators near their peak performance, and operating efficient simulations with 1 billion threads. The project is a collaborative venture between the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA) via their Joint Laboratory for Petascale Computing. INRIA's Franck Cappello says research ideas will be tested on various available high-performance computing systems, such as IBM's Blue Gene P and Q and Blue Waters. "We believe that what we will learn by testing our improvements on these machines will help us to better prepare climate code for exascale," Cappello says. He also says that ECS will cover resilience from multiple complementary strategies, including resilient climate simulation algorithms, new programming extensions for resilience, and new fault tolerant protocols for uncoordinated checkpointing and partial restart. UIUC's Mark Snir says the degree of climate change that will have occurred by the time the first exascale systems emerge perhaps means that the focus of ECS will have to be one of amelioration rather than remediation.


Software Reveals Critical Crop Growth Stages
Agricultural Research Service (05/12/11) Don Comis

The U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher Greg McMaster has developed the Phenology Modular Modeling System (MMS), software that can predict the growth stages of plants and help farmers and ranchers with time-management tasks, such as when to apply pesticides, fertilizers, and water. Phenology MMS provides common names of the growth stage to go with the scientific names, tells how to identify the stage, and when to expect each stage, based on weather reports and soil moisture. Farmers can find the right timing by answering questions such as "what is your planting date?" and choosing optimum, medium, dry, or planted in dust as a moisture-level description. The nearest weather station will provide access to weather data for running a simplified model of crop growth for each crop chosen. Phenology MMS covers many crops, including corn, wheat, barley, sorghum, dry beans, sunflowers, and several millet varieties, and it will be continuously updated. The freely available software is designed to simulate crop growth stages for the entire growing season. Farmers will be able to use it independently or with existing crop growth models.


Toughening Up Vulnerable Networks One Link at a Time
New Scientist (05/12/11) Mark Buchanan

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology researchers have developed a computer model that shows how large technological networks can be improved by making a few small changes to multiply the informational pathways. The researchers' method involves picking two random links, switching their end points, and testing the altered network by shutting down other points, similar to a malicious attack. If the network continued to be vulnerable, the researchers tried two different links. When a major improvement was found, the researchers used that as a starting point for the altered network and continued the process. The results showed that just a few changes can greatly improve a network's security features. "We were surprised by how much improvement we saw," says the institute's Christian Schneider. "Even single changes can have a huge positive effect." For example, the point-of-presence network became 25 percent more resilient after changing just two percent of its links. "This represents a significant step towards a better understanding of how vital networks can be better protected against malicious attacks," says City University of New York's Hernan Makse.
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ZendTo: Making File Transport Easier Around the Web
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (05/11/11) Joyce Lewis

University of Southampton professor Julian Field has developed ZendTo, a Web-based system that enables users to send large files around the Web much faster than by email. ZendTo runs from any Linux or Unix server or virtualization system with no size restrictions. "This is completely free and, because you run it on your own site, you can be sure that it is completely safe and private, and you retain complete control of your data, your system, and your users," Field says. He says the system is especially useful for organizations that operate in a customer service environment, considering when it sends files it incorporates customer service ticketing references so that all references are kept intact. Field previously developed MailScanner, an email security and antispam system.


Invisible Touch Interface Creates Multitouch 'Force Field'
IDG News Service (05/10/11) Nick Barber

Texas A&M University students have developed ZeroTouch, an inexpensive multitouch system that uses infrared (IR) sensors similar to TV remote controls. "I like to consider it an optical force field; it's like a picture frame where we shoot thousands of light beams across and we can detect anything that intersects that frame," says Jonathan Moeller, a researcher at Texas A&M's Interface Ecology Lab. The frame is lined with 256 IR sensors connected to a computer. ZeroTouch can be mounted over a traditional computer screen to convert the display into a multitouch surface. The multitouch controls can be used to play computer games, and suspending the screen enables the user to paint a virtual canvas. In addition, an iPhone can be used to select the colors, and the drawing appears on a display the system is connected to when a finger or hand is placed into the frame. Moeller says ZeroTouch is capable of extending beyond two-dimensional interactions. "You can stack layers [of ZeroTouch] together to get depth sensing," he notes.


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