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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


In Search of a Robot More Like Us
New York Times (07/11/11) John Markoff

Although robot technology continues to improve, researchers say there is still a long way to go before robots can perform physical tasks with the same ease as humans. "All these problems where you want to duplicate something biology does, such as perception, touch, planning, or grasping, turn out to be hard in fundamental ways," says Willow Garage's Gary Bradski. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently funded three competing efforts, all of which are aimed at developing inexpensive robotic arms and hands. However, there is still a major debate about how to even start such an undertaking. Many roboticists believe in a bottom-up approach, teaching robots one task at time and developing a library of tasks that will ultimately resemble human capabilities. Other researchers think that more advanced artificial intelligence software needs to be developed before robots can truly mimic human behavior and perception. "No one really knows what sensors or perceptual algorithms to use because we don't have a working hand, and because we don't have a grasping strategy nobody can figure out what kind of hand to design," says robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks.


ICT and Automotive: New App Reduces Motorway Pile-Ups By 40 Percent
University of Bologna (07/11/11)

University of Bologna researchers have developed an automatic car accident detection system that could reduce the number of vehicles involved in a crash by up to 40 percent. "Basically, what we are doing is placing cars in peer-to-peer communication," says Bologna professor Marco Roccetti. When a car is involved in an accident, it sends out a signal to other cars on the road, which in turn send the signal to cars further down the road. The keys to the system are making the signal transfer as fast as possible and preventing it from overloading with signals. When a car sends an accident alarm signal, all other cars within 1,000 meters receive the signal, but only one of them sends it on to cars farther away. To make the signal move as fast as possible, a car must forward the alert message to another car that can then send the signal as far as possible. Since the cars are in a peer-to-peer network, they all know each other's location, speed, and signal strength. "The technologies we are using are already mature and available," and it "could be integrated directly into the car dashboard, or in the [satellite navigation system]," says Bologna's Alessandro Amoroso.


Computer Learns Language By Playing Games
MIT News (07/12/11) Larry Hardesty

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Regina Marzilay has adapted a system she developed to generate scripts for installing software on a Windows computer based on postings from a Microsoft help site to learn to play the Civilization computer game. The goal of the project was to demonstrate that computer systems that learn the meanings of words through exploratory interaction with their environments have much potential and deserve further research. The system begins with no prior knowledge about the task or the language in which the instructions are written, making the initial behavior almost completely random. As the system takes various actions, different words appear on the screen. The system finds those words in the instructions and develops hypotheses about what those words mean, based on the surrounding text. The hypotheses that consistently lead to good results are referred back to more frequently, while the hypotheses that are proven unsuccessful are discarded. In the case of the computer game, the system won 72 percent more often than a version of the same system that did not use the written instructions, and 27 percent more frequently than an artificial intelligence-based system.


DHS Claims Foreign Suppliers Have Embedded Malware in U.S. Electronics
eWeek (07/11/11) Fahmida Y. Rashid

Foreign suppliers are pre-loading malware and other cyberattack tools onto consumer electronic devices, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS's) Greg Schaffer. He says the problem is being investigated by a joint DHS/Department of Defense task force. A federal report issued in January on the U.S./China supply chain speculated that a component could be compromised or a capability designed to enable cyberattacks somewhere in the chain. Schaffer says that although both DHS and the White House had been aware of the threat for some time, it is "one of the most complicated and difficult challenges" the department faces. For example, it is challenging to ascertain whether vulnerabilities found in software and hardware were defects that were overlooked or were inserted intentionally for malicious aims. Meanwhile, the White House published a Cyber Policy Review, which said the threat remains real, although only a fraction of these incidents have been unearthed. The White House wants to offer private companies incentives to exchange information with the federal government to help identify and defend against threats.


Computer Science Tops List of Best Major for Jobs
Software Development Times (07/08/11) Rachel Gottfried

Computer science has topped the National Association of Colleges and Employers' list of best majors for jobs for the first time since 2008. This year, 56.2 percent of computer science majors have received job offers, and the offer rate has risen 13.8 percent from 2010. Students who earned degrees in computer science are obtaining more offers of employment than any other major because computer scientists are needed in many different industries. "There are many different companies that need to hire computer scientists," says the association's Mimi Collins. However, another reason computer science majors are receiving more offers is because there is a shortage of people graduating with such degrees. Things change quickly in the field, so employers want recent computer science graduates because they have the latest skills. "When I picked my major, I knew there wouldn't be a lack of jobs as a computer scientist, and that was part of the appeal," says Annabelle Evans, who graduated with a degree in computer science from the University of Southern California in 2008.


Prettier Websites Make for More Trusting Web Surfers, Study Finds
University of Melbourne (07/11/11) Laura Soderlind

More visually appealing Web sites have led to an increase in online consumer trust, says University of Melbourne professor Brent Coker. "With Web sites becoming increasingly attractive and including more trimmings, this creates a greater feeling of trustworthiness and professionalism in online consumers," Coker says. He developed a formula to track patterns and trends in online behaviors and purchasing, called Webreep, and began using it to map the Internet in 2007. The formula creates a score for 130 Web site industries based on visual appeal, trustworthiness, ease of use, search quality, information quality, information relevancy, and load speed. Coker notes that pretty Web sites will not be enough to keep online shoppers from defecting to other sites if they do not have interesting information. He also found that people are sharing links and recommending sites largely due to social networking sites, and are developing relationships with the Internet similar to the way we build connections with other people. "Compared to five years ago, we are more trusting of attractive Web sites, less tolerant of Web sites that have irrelevant information, and more likely to introduce ourselves to Web sites that are new," Coker says.


Geo-Immersion Makes Maps Come Alive
National Science Foundation (07/11/11) Miles O'Brien

University of Southern California (USC) computer scientist Cyrus Shahabi, working in USC's Integrated Media Systems Center, with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation, is developing geo-immersion technology, which blends the real and virtual worlds together. "The idea was to capture a real-world environment and then render it virtually so it feels like you are in that area," Shahabi says. Geo-Immersion technology combines existing information databases and social networks with maps. The computing concept is the basis for several new applications, which Shahabi also is helping to develop. One application, known as the clever transportation project, monitors traffic in real time, coloring congested roads red and clear roads green. "[It] shows how the trend of traffic changes over the course of time," Shahabi says. Another application, iCampus, shows users the locations of their Facebook and Twitter friends in real time. The app also analyzes building floor plans and energy usage inside campus buildings. Shahabi says that another app called iWatch, which includes facial-detection capabilities while following people from location to location, could be beneficial to law enforcement officers.


XBRL Group Offers Cash Prize for Open Source Tools
IDG News Service (07/11/11) Chris Kanaracus

XBRL U.S. has created a competition to encourage the development of better tools that work with the Extensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL) standard for financial reporting. The government requires U.S. companies to submit financial data in the XBRL format to make it easier for investors to search through and analyze the information, but investors have not shown much interest in viewing the data. There is a lack of viable tools for reviewing files, Financial Executives International said in a letter to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission earlier in this year. XBRL U.S. is offering a $20,000 cash prize, and participants will be able to use any open source licensing model. Participants have until Jan. 31, 2012, to submit their open source software tools, and XBRL U.S. will link to them rather than host the entries. XBRL U.S. says the focus on open source tools is not an endorsement of that model over vendors' proprietary products. "We just wanted to open the door as much as possible," says XBRL U.S.'s Michelle Savage.


Raspberry Pi: Rise of the $25 Computer
Christian Science Monitor (07/11/11) Chris Gaylord

Raspberry Pi developers have created a computer designed to inspire a new generation of computer programmers but inexpensive enough to enable schools to give them to students for free. The prototype could lead to $25 computers designed specifically for students. The system comes with a powerful processor, a memory card reader with 32 gigabytes of storage, a screen connector ready for HD graphics, and up to three USB ports for a keyboard and other accessories. The system also comes with open source software that can handle common Internet tasks, while providing tools for users to create programs and share their developments. The developers were able to remove all of the more expensive parts of typical computing systems, such as the screen and keyboard, because these parts are usually already owned by users, according to Raspberry Pi's David Braben. He says the company estimates that the new devices could be given to every student in Britain in a particular grade for $24 million. The group hopes to partner with a corporation or nonprofit to fund the manufacturing, which would keep the computers free for the students.


Mining Social Networks to Predict Your App Choices
New Scientist (07/08/11) Jamie Condliffe

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Media Lab have analyzed the smartphone use of students on social networks in an attempt to determine whether they could forecast which apps they would download. The project involved 55 postgraduate students, and their smartphone use was monitored over a period of five months. The team created software to identify the most significant friends of each student, note the apps those friends were using, and determine the probability that a given app is owned by a user, based on what their closest friends owned. "We thought, 'Can we use social networks to find which apps people might find interesting?'" says MIT's Wei Pan. The researchers say that determining the importance of each friend was one of the project's more difficult aspects. During testing, their system correctly predicted 45 percent of the apps on each person's list, compared with about 10 percent accuracy for complete guesses. The team believes the research could be useful for developers who want to gain insight into why people choose to download certain apps.


Software Could Help Protect Against Mosquito-Borne Diseases
South Dakota State University (07/08/11)

South Dakota State University (SDSU) researchers are developing software to help protect people from mosquito-borne illnesses. SDSU professor Mike Wimberly has developed computational methods to analyze remote sensing data and determine when mosquito-borne illnesses are likely to quickly spread. Meanwhile, SDSU professor Yi Liu and a student team are developing software to take the early warning system out of the lab and into the field. The final product is expected to be completed by the end of July. The software will include a graphical user interface, data processing capabilities, a data downloading system, statistical processing, and a re-projection model for different types of data. Wimberley's system uses different data sources, such as Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, a satellite system, and the Tropical Rainforest Monitoring Mission. Liu's software will enable Wimberly and other researchers to analyze the factors that could lead to a mosquito-borne illness outbreak, without the bandwidth that researchers require in the lab. The final product also could help government health agencies monitor conditions that could lead to outbreaks.


CAVE-CAD Software Will Help Mine Human Brain to Improve Architectural Design
California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (07/06/11) Chris Palmer

The California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) has developed computer-aided design (CAD) software called CAVE-CAD, which can monitor human neurological and physiological responses. "CAVE-CAD is an ideal tool for the architectural designer to create an experience of space on a human scale that allows the potential user or client to respond in real time to ideas and concepts while immersed in the design," says Calit2 professor Eduardo Macagno. CAVE-CAD was developed for use in Calit2's StarCAVE, a 360-degree, 16-panel immersive virtual reality environment that enables researchers to interact with virtual architectural renderings in three dimensions. CAVE-CAD also enables users to navigate building designs at their own pace. "We let you push back the walls or move the ceiling…in real time, and experience changing form without relying on your imagination," says Calit2's Eve Edelstein. CAVE-CAD incorporates technology from SoniCAVE, another Calit2-developed technology, which enables CAVE-CAD researchers to simulate the acoustical environment of a building design. The CAVE-CAD system also features sensor technology that monitors user's responses to architectural renderings projected in the StarCAVE.


Zoobotics
Economist (07/07/11)

Engineers are building robots modeled after shrews, octopuses, lampreys, insects, and other animals to mimic functions that could prove to be useful applications. For instance, researchers at Pisa's Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies are developing an artificial octopus with flexible, grasping appendages covered in pressure sensors so that it knows what it is gripping. The goal is to enable the robot to help people in the execution of difficult underwater tasks, such as shutting off leaking oil valves. Another Sant'Anna team is building a lamprey-inspired machine that employs wavelike locomotion to propel itself forward, through the use of circular segments equipped with electromagnets. Flying robots based on insects include the University of Delft's DelFly, which uses electrically powered wings modeled after a dragonfly to alternately hover or fly at high speeds. The device is fitted with a camera so that it can adjust its direction and altitude. Replicating the Etruscan shrew's sensitive whiskers is the objective of University of Sheffield engineers, through a mechanical reproduction of the animal's head dubbed Shrewbot. The machine has 18 whiskers of varying lengths that move independently, which could enable it to function in places where visibility is poor.


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