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Welcome to the June 6, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Developing Autonomous Fighting Machines
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (06/06/11) Stuart Nathan

The use of autonomous systems in defense industries will likely increase, as the United Kingdom's armed forces have asked for studies involving both air- and land-based unmanned vehicles. Several unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as Watchkeeper, a reconnaissance drone, and Scavenger, a surveillance and attack bot, are on schedule to be deployed within 10 years. Ground-based autonomous vehicles, such as Pointer, an autonomous robot vehicle, and Raider, a reconfigurable vehicle, also are in development. "The basic premise is you want the robots to worry about the basic mechanics of their coordination and whatever they're doing on the battlefield and surveillance site on their own," says University of Southampton professor Nick Jennings. "Humans are better at making decisions at a strategic level, but working out how best to cover [an] area in the most efficient way and where each element of the swarm is in relation to the other elements would be worked out by the UAVs themselves." Researchers are currently working on developing the control systems for unmanned vehicles, focusing on the systems' operability. "We're concentrating heavily on non-line-of-sight communication and, even more critically, the navigational algorithms," says BAE researcher Hisham Awad.


Google, Microsoft, Yahoo Back Search Metadata Project
InformationWeek (06/03/11) Thomas Claburn

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! recently launched schema.org, an initiative aimed at creating and supporting common ways to represent Web page metadata. The project will offer Web publishers the tools needed to make Web pages easier for search engines to understand. "With schema.org, site owners can improve how their sites appear in search results not only on Google, but on Bing, Yahoo!, and potentially other search engines as well in the future," says Google fellow Ramanathan Guha. Schema.org hosts definitions for HTML tags that Webmasters can use for data markup. Schema.org is similar to sitemaps.org, an XML-based schema that helps search engines navigate Web sites, which was created by Google in 2005 and subsequently supported by Microsoft and Yahoo!. Schema.org solves some of the limitations of automated data analysis. "Automated data extraction is great when it works, but it can be error prone because different sites can represent the same information in so many different ways," according to the schema.org Web site.


Smarter Software Development
Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) (06/02/11)

Scientists from Victoria University have collaborated with researchers from other New Zealand universities over the past four years to make software development faster and more flexible and affordable. Many development efforts use the agile approach, which relies on self-organizing teams engaged in iterative and incremental work cycles in close collaboration with customers, but the process has not been researched until now. Studying 58 agile practitioners from 23 software firms in New Zealand, India, and the United States, Victoria researcher Rashina Hoda gained insight into how teams go about self-organizing, and has developed a process for others to follow. "There's no boss telling you the process to follow--instead the team has to take ownership," Hoda says. "It's also a high pressure environment--things are constantly changing and there are deadlines to meet." She has identified the critical roles in a team, naming them mentor, coordinator, champion, promoter, and terminator, and a set of practices. Hoda says support from senior management within an organization is crucial, noting that projects run more smoothly when customers are actively involved.


Why Talking Is So Much Tougher Than Math
Toronto Globe & Mail (Canada) (06/06/11) Carly Weeks

University of Toronto artificial intelligence (AI) professor Geoffrey Hinton has made major contributions in the field of machine learning. Hinton believes that in order for AI to be useful, scientists must focus on finding ways to enable computers to learn. In a recent interview, Hinton discussed AI's future, including the technology's future opportunities, and diffuses fears about the dangers of AI. He notes that AI can be based on logic or biology. Although the logical side of AI has dominated the field since its inception in the 1970s, the biological approach has recently been gaining support. In the long run, researchers want to be able to make things that are as smart and adaptable as people, Hinton says. He says that humans are generally poor at the abstract symbolic thinking involved in arithmetic or playing chess, but computers mastered these tasks very quickly. However, it has been much harder to develop AI systems that can master vision and speech recognition. Hinton notes that companies such as Google, Amazon, and Netflix have already used basic AI functions in their services.


Researchers Create Robotic Aids for Visually Impaired
USC News (06/02/11) Robert Bradford

University of Southern California (USC) researchers have developed a robotic, vision-based mobility system for the visually impaired that provides tactile messages to alert users about objects in their paths. The system uses simultaneous localization and mapping software to create three-dimensional maps of the environment. "There are many limitations to canes for the visually impaired, from low-hanging branches to large objects," says USC professor Gerard Medioni. "We wanted to build an effective system that would provide new opportunities for the visually impaired." The user receives route information through a guide vest that is equipped with four micro-motors that vibrate like cell phones and are located on the user's shoulder and waist. During testing, users liked "the system and they feel it really helps them," Medioni says. A vibration on the left shoulder indicates a higher obstacle on the left, while a vibration on the right hip indicates a lower obstacle on the right. The prototype system uses a bulky head-mounted camera, and Medioni says the researchers are now focused on replacing it with a micro-camera system that could be attached to glasses.


Long Live the Qubit!
MIT News (06/02/11) Larry Hardesty

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a technique that extends the time a qubit can stay in superposition and can measure the physical characteristics of qubits that knock them out of superposition, which could lead to better qubit designs. The MIT researchers used a superconducting circuit that enables current to simultaneously flow clockwise and counterclockwise. The technique resulted in a qubit that remained in superposition for 23 microseconds. The researchers also can filter out the noise that disrupts qubits by carefully controlling the rate at which they are hit by microwaves. In addition, the technique can be applied to other types of qubits, not just those that use superconducting circuits. The MIT researchers "are able to provide a rather detailed spectrum of the noise that the flux qubit sees," says French Atomic Energy Commission researcher Patrice Bertet.


Big Meaning in the Smallest Movements
BU Today (06/02/11) Robin Berghaus

Researchers at Boston University (BU) and Boston College have developed Camera Mouse, a tool that enables people with disabilities to operate a computer. Camera Mouse uses a computer Web cam to track a specific part of a user's face, linking their head movements to an on-screen cursor. The researchers, led by BU professor Margrit Betke, have adapted Camera Mouse to work with several popular programs and created custom software to enable users with disabilities to compose emails, edit photographs, create music, play video games, and other activities. During testing, BU's Chris Kwan and John Magee found that several users tended to move their head in a diagonal motion, making it difficult to move the cursor in a straight line. The students built an adaptive mouse program that translates the users' movements into the proper movements. Kwan also developed software that allows Camera Mouse users to edit photos and create illustrations. In addition, the researchers developed Menu Controller, which enables users to customize the button size and screen placement of drop-down menus. Menu Controller "is an important development, because it can be applied to any commercially available software to convert it into a piece of software that can then be used by people with severe motion disabilities," Betke says.


Computing Personal Genomics
HPC Wire (06/02/11) Nicole Hemsoth

At the recent National Center for Supercomputing Applications' Private Sector Program Annual Meeting, University of Illinois researcher Victor Jongeneel discussed various issues that have kept personal genomics technology from advancing. Jongeneel said the disruptive part of the technology lies in the ability to actually acquire the data. He named three technology vendors that are providing next-generation sequencing, which translates to more than 1 TB of data per human genome. The sheer size and complexity of the data needed to sequence all human genomes is the main factor that is keeping genomic research from advancing, according to Jongeneel. However, he says another key stumbling block is the lack of adequate software. Although there has been some progress by a team at Iowa State University, "their software is not in the public domain so it isn't available, we can't test it, and it's not in the community," Jongeneel said. He also pointed out that many of the people developing genomics software are not professional programmers. He noted that although they have produced some complex algorithmic ideas, the code they write "isn't up to the standards of the [high-performance computing] community."


New Directions in Data Storage Solutions
UCSD News (CA) (06/01/11) Tiffany Fox

Computer engineers at the University of California, San Diego's Center for Magnetic Recording Research (CMRR) have made a substantial contribution to the evolution of data storage technologies. In the past 15 years the density of hard drives has climbed by a factor of about 5,000, from 100 MB per square inch to about 500 GB per square inch. Increasing bit density on hard drives has led to Kryder's Law, which predicts that the growth of areal density will not follow a perfect logarithmic vertical scale, but rather will experience several vertical leaps in growth as evolutionary innovations are introduced. CMRR's incoming director, Eric Fullerton, helped invent antiferromagnetically-coupled media, facilitating the storage of 100 GB of data per square inch of disk area. This enabled the progression of the upward arc of data storage capacity, even as the hardware continued to shrink. Researchers at CMRR and elsewhere are aiming to realize the storage of 1 trillion bits per square inch in commercial disk drive technology. Strategies to reach this goal include bit-patterned media, in which an array of minuscule magnetic islands that each store one bit is created on the surface of hard disks. Another approach is heat-assisted magnetic recording, which maximizes density by writing data onto a disk with a laser.


Social Media Fortifies Bond Between Scientists
Technician Online (NC) (06/01/11) Mark Herring

More than 1 million users from 200 countries are using a social network for researchers called ResearchGate. Launched in 2008, the Web site is meant to serve as a way for facilitating the exchange of information among researchers, providing message boards, group following, and other tools for communicating ideas with each other. ResearchGate is the creation of Ijad Madisch, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital. "I want to provide a service for people to bridge gaps in communication and to keep people informed about what their colleagues are doing in their respective fields," Madisch says. Similar to other social media tools, ResearchGate offers a feature that enables scientists to post their research publications on their own profiles. "This won't replace a library or scientific journal by any means, but it will allow people to really follow their peers and receive advice from them," Madisch says. The social media site is open to researchers from all science fields, but most users work in biology, medicine, computer science, chemistry, and physics, according to Madisch.


A Brainy Innovation Takes Flight
Northeastern University News (05/31/11) Matt Collette

Northeastern University engineering students have developed a computer interface that allows a pilot to fly a simulated airplane with his or her brain by looking at specific points on an array of light-emitting diodes mounted on plexiglass in front of a TV screen. "Typically, a pilot has a joystick and a throttle and those allow him or her to do a myriad of things," says Northeastern's Mike Nedoroscik. "We've been able to achieve up to eight commands, which allowed us to fly the plane and do a couple of flight maneuvers." The students used FlightGear, an open-source flight simulator, to design the computer system, and were able to achieve accurate results about 80 percent of the time. Northeastern professors Waleed Meleis and Deniz Erdogmus, a brain-computer interface expert, worked with the students on the project. Erdogmus provided them with access to his equipment, which enables users to control computers or robots with signals from different parts of their body.


Superfast Search Engine Speeds Past the Competition
U.S. Department of Energy (05/31/11) Jon Bashor

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers have developed FastBit, a new approach to searching huge databases. The researchers say FastBit, which was originally designed to help nuclear physicists sort through billions of data records to find specific pieces of information, can search databases up to 100 times faster than large commercial database software. The software organizes data into formats known as Bitmap indices, which translate variable values into strings of bits. Historically, Bitmap indices have been used to organize data that has a limited number of values, but scientific data typically has a large range of values. FastBit partitions data by variable, known as vertical partitioning, which cuts down on memory overhead and speeds processing. FastBit provides multiple nested levels of encoding and enables a rapid narrowing of the search as the software locates the precise information. FastBit's developers also created a method of compressing the bitmap indices that enables rapid performance of logical operations simultaneously on large groups of data.


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