Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the July 22, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


IBM's Watson Breaks New Ground in Artificial Intelligence
Federal Computer Week (07/21/11) Henry Kenyon

One of the major challenges that the computer science industry has been facing is the development of a machine that can answer unmodified human questions. "We consider it a long-standing challenge in artificial intelligence to emulate a slice of human behavior," says IBM Research's David McQueeney. One of the potential applications for IBM's Watson computer system, which became famous playing Jeopardy, is supporting physicians' medical decisions with data in the form of cited medical papers and with quick, real-time responses to questions. Though IBM has developed computers that can beat humans in chess, it takes much more scientific effort and computational work to understand human language, McQueeney says. IBM used Jeopardy's format to provide a question-and-answer response platform with a high degree of precision in real time. Watson is able to discern meaning from the arrangement of words and their sentence structure. Watson also has a temporal reasoning system that allows it to find data through time and geospatial calculations, weigh evidence, and understand the meaning of rhymes. Watson's underlying technology, DeepQA, is a massively parallel probabilistic evidence-based architecture, which IBM's researchers continue to improve. The success of Watson has demonstrated that computers can now support human interactivity tasks that they were unable to do before, McQueeney says.


Robots Use Kinect to Understand Our World
New Scientist (07/21/11) Jacob Aron

Cornell University researchers are teaching robots to understand the context of their surroundings so that they can pick out individual objects in a room. "We have developed an algorithm that learns to identify the objects in home and office scenes," says Cornell's Hema Koppula, who is conducting the research with Abhishek Anand. The key to the system is Microsoft's Kinect sensor, which works with the algorithm to recognize particular objects by studying images labeled with descriptive tags such as "wall," "floor," and "tabletop." The researchers used 27 labels, 10 each for office and home scenes and seven that applied to both. The system also can take relative locations into account, such as the fact that computers are usually found on top of a table, not underneath it. The algorithm was able to achieve 84 percent recognition success for office locations and 74 percent recognition success for home locations. "The next aim is to also include humans in the learning process, [with a robot] observing humans and being able to learn attributes of objects," Koppula says.


Discovery May Overcome Obstacle for Quantum Computing: UBC, California Researchers
University of British Columbia (07/20/11) Brian Kladko

Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of California, Santa Barbara say they have made a major advance in predicting and eliminating environmental decoherence, a phenomenon that has been one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome in developing quantum computers. Quantum computing's potential depends on switches that can achieve state superposition, which means they can simultaneously be in the "on" and "off" position. However, efforts to achieve superposition have been blocked by decoherence. "For the first time we've been able to predict and control all the environmental decoherence mechanisms in a very complex system, in this case a large magnetic molecule called the 'Iron-8 molecule,' " says UBC professor Phil Stamp. The researchers prepared a crystalline array of Iron-8 molecules in a quantum superposition, and noticed that the decay of superposition due to decoherence was particularly slow. "Our ability to understand everything from the atom to the Big Bang depends on understanding decoherence, and advances in quantum computing depend on our ability to control it," says University of Southern California professor Susumu Takahashi, who contributed to the research.


Apache Hadoop to Get More User-Friendly
InfoWorld (07/20/11) Paul Krill

A planned upgrade to the open source Apache Hadoop distributed computing platform is intended to make the platform more user-friendly. The upgrade, known as Hadoop 0.23, will feature improvements for high availability, installation, and data management, and is set to be released in the second quarter of 2012. "A big focus for us is going to be adding tools for monitoring and distributing and management, [with the goal of making it] much easier for organizations to use Hadoop," says HortonWorks CEO Eric Baldeschwieler. The new version of Hadoop will have improvements in availability, performance, and scalability, which is important for large customers such as Yahoo! and Facebook. Hadoop 0.23 will come with a new HCatalog data management software layer that will allow users to store data in a more traditional table style, as well as additions to the MapReduce programming model. Currently, users can work with two higher level languages, called Pig and Hive, on top of Hadoop. "What HCatalog's going to allow is for Pig and Hive and MapReduce itself to operate on one set of tables," Baldeschwieler says.


DARPA Seeks to Learn From Social for Warfare
InformationWeek (07/19/11) Elizabeth Montalbano

The U.S. Department of Defense's (DOD's) Defense Advance Projects Research Agency (DARPA) has launched the Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program, which aims to develop new ways to use social media sites to help it utilize technology for military missions. DARPA says it wants to use social media on an emerging technology base, focusing on mobile devices, which will be crucial to how social media can help the military. "The conditions under which our armed forces conduct operations are rapidly changing with the spread of blogs, social networking sites, and media-sharing technology, and further accelerated by the proliferation of mobile technology," says a Broad Agency Announcement posted on the FedBizOpps.gov Web site. Social media can help the DOD better understand the environment in which it operates and use the information to support its missions, according to DARPA. The SMISC program aims to detect, classify, measure, and track how ideas are formed, developed, and spread over social media. The program also wants to develop recognition of persuasion campaign structures and influence operations across social media sites.


Google Labs Is Shutting Down
eWeek (07/20/11) Darryl K. Taft

Google announced that it will shut down its Google Labs Web site, which hosts experimental projects the company is developing. "While we've learned a huge amount by launching very early prototypes in Labs, we believe that greater focus is crucial if we're to make the most of the extraordinary opportunities ahead," says Google's Bill Coughran. However, he says Google will continue to push speed and innovation, which were the driving forces behind Google Labs, and notes that Google will continue to conduct in-product experimentation with Gmail Labs and Maps Labs. Google Labs has served as a channel for some of the projects Google engineers devised during the 20 percent of their working time that Google encourages its employees to experiment and work on new projects. One recent project to come out of Google Labs is Spiffy, a Flash-to-HTML5 conversion tool. "Spiffy animations benefit from the recent advancements in JavaScript execution speed and hardware-accelerated [two-dimensional] graphics in the browser," says Google's Marcel Gordon.


Hi-Tech Weather Forecasts for 60K Villages
IBNLive (07/20/11)

India's Center for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) has agreed to use its Param supercomputers to provide the Indian Meteorological Department with more effective monitoring of climatic conditions across the country. The supercomputers will monitor rains and flood controls, as well as climate and weather forecasting. CDAC director Rajat Moona says system is capable of providing information about the weather three days in advance at six-hour intervals. The high-performance computing platform will process large amounts of information from India's 60,000 villages, including more than 5,700 in Karnataka. "The climate of one village depends not just on that village but the parameter from other places," Moona says. "There are thousands of villages and all of them cannot be covered, but supercomputing would help achieve this." He says CDAC would need more computing power to provide finer simulation.


Fewer Verbs and Nouns in Financial Reporting Could Predict Stock Market Bubble, Study Shows
University College Dublin (07/19/2011)

University College Dublin researchers say the stock market can be predicted by the way financial commentators describe market activity. The researchers examined 18,000 articles published by the Financial Times, the New York Times, and the BBC, plotting the way words were used from 2006 to 2010 into a computer model. The team found that there was increasing convergence in language used to describe market activity, and many reporters began to use the same language ahead of the 2007 crash. Immediately after the bubble, financial commentators began to describe market activity with a wider range of nouns and verbs. "Our analysis shows that trends in the use of words by financial journalists correlate closely with changes in the leading stock indices," says Dublin professor Mark Keane. "Google predicted car sales from analyses of search queries, and the Amazon book recommender system captures consumer preferences by correlating book titles, so why not listen to the language used by financial commentators to see if it could help predict the stock market," says Dublin researcher Aaron Gerow.


Computer Scientists Say It's Time to Start Looking at Treatment of Data Waste
PhysOrg.com (07/19/11) Bob Yirka

Johns Hopkins University researchers recently published a paper arguing that data waste management on computer systems should be handled the same way physical-world waste is managed. The researchers, led by Hagib Hasan and Randal Burns, analyzed a MacBook laptop, a desktop running Ubuntu Linux, and a Fedora Linux fileserver to determine what percentage of the files on each of the computers had not been accessed since their creation. The researchers found that the percentage of unused files on the MacBook, desktop, and server were 20.6 percent, 47.4 percent, and 57.1 percent, respectively. In addition, the percentage of disk spaced being used for each was 98.5, 38.1, and 99.5, respectively, indicating that many of the files using a lot of disk space had never been used after they were created. The researchers suggest using a pyramid strategy, similar to the one put in place by waste management companies, with different levels of how to deal with waste, including disposal, recovery, recycling, reuse, and reduce. They say the ultimate goal is to create software that does not generate waste data in the first place.


Eye-Tracking Technology Could Benefit Disabled Children
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (07/19/11)

Researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London, are pursuing the next step in using eye movements as an alternative to standard computer interfaces. The team is developing assistive technology that would recognize the intent of eye movements and enable software to work with children with disabilities. The researchers are designing software that uses an eye-tracker to determine how eye movements correspond with a person's preferences. After identifying a pattern of eye movements for a user, algorithms manipulate designs on the screen to gradually evolve and match the user's preferences. The goal is to enable the computer to anticipate a user's intent through eye movement, rather than tell the user to look for their favorite design. The technology will be made available to visitors of the Science Museum, as part of its Live Science program. "The experiment at the Science Museum will enable us to validate this technology using a large and diverse population of users, and also to gather feedback on the user experience," says Royal Holloway researcher Tim Holmes.


Seeing Promise and Peril in Digital Records
New York Times (07/16/11) Steve Lohr

Electronic health records have both pros and cons. They can potentially curb costs and enhance care, but they also are difficult to use, cluttered, and distracting. "This is an issue that potentially affects the health and safety of every American," says University of Maryland computer scientist Ben Shneiderman. A 2009 U.S. National Research Council study determined that electronic health record systems were often badly designed and could "increase the chance of error, add to rather than reduce work flow, and compound the frustrations doing the required tasks." The Obama administration plans to devise standards for measuring how effective and simple digital patient records are to use through the application of human-computer interaction, which is particularly significant because 2011 is the year the U.S. government starts investing in efforts to expedite the adoption of computerized patient records. The industry is opposed to what it sees as government-forced standardization, but health technology officials say they do not plan to dictate what digital patient records should look like. "If we standardize the right things, we can promote innovation rather than stifle it," says Douglas Fridsma with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Who Needs Humans?
Newsweek (07/18/11) Daniel Lyons

In recent years, robots have become more and more intelligent, moving past being mere assistant workers, and actually taking jobs away from humans. From self-service checkout lines at the grocery store to industrial robots and even robots that read piles of legal documents for law firms, robots continue to take jobs that were once reserved for human employees. "Robots continue to have an impact on blue-collar jobs, and white-collar jobs are under attack by microprocessors," says University of California, Los Angeles professor Edward Leamer. Since the recession started, robots have permanently eliminated 2.5 million U.S. jobs. The U.S. gross domestic product has reached pre-recession levels, but with 6 percent fewer workers, according to Leamer. Although robots are not always cheaper than human workers, for the most part they are better workers. "In some cases the quality requirements are so stringent that even if you wanted to have a human do the job, you couldn't," says Robotics Industry Association president Jeff Burnstein. Robots also are being used to perform medical surgeries because their precision allows patients to recover in less time and have fewer complications, according to Intuitive Surgical's Myriam Curet.


Cyber Camp Develops Tomorrow's IT Security Pros
Government Technology (07/18/11) Hilton Collins

The 2011 U.S. Cyber Challenge Summer Camp, recently held at Cal Poly Pomona, is part of a national effort to find 10,000 people to train as the country's next generation of information technology (IT) security professionals. "The goal of the U.S. Cyber Challenge is to find and develop 10,000 cyberwarriors," says Cal Poly professor Dan Manson. Sponsors of the event include the SANS Institute, SAIC, Microsoft, Booz Allen Hamilton, Lockheed Martin, and the CIO Council. Many participants are invited to the camp, but they must pass a 24-hour test to be allowed to participate. They also must be between 18 and 49 years of age. "You bring all these people together, and what they have in common is a shared passion to learn cybersecurity," Manson says. Cal Poly's camp offers courses, a career fair, an ethics panel, and lectures from speakers on IT issues. The camp involves participants going on the offensive side of hacking to shut down networks and steal information, although most of the participants are more familiar with defensive strategies. The government wants to grow the competition every year, recruiting new participants and launching more camps in other regions of the country.


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