Welcome to the November 9, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Generation Jobless: Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay
Wall Street Journal (11/09/11) Joe Light; Rachel Emma Silverman
Although the number of college graduates increased about 29 percent from 2001 to 2009, the number graduating with engineering degrees increased just 19 percent and the number with computer and information sciences degrees decreased 14 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Research has shown that graduating with a degree in a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM)-related field can lead to jobs in a wide range of industries. However, many students drop out of STEM majors because introductory courses are often too difficult or too abstract. In addition, many students claim their high schools did not properly prepare them to succeed in introductory STEM courses. In 2001, just 45 percent of U.S. high-school graduates who took the ACT test were prepared for college-level math and just 30 percent of ACT-tested high school graduates were ready for college-level science, according to a 2011 ACT Inc. report. Some institutions have tried to make STEM programs more accessible to students. For example, the Georgia Institute of Technology divided its introductory computer science class into three separate courses, one for computer science majors, one for engineering majors, and another for liberal arts majors.
Easily 'Re-Programmable Cells' Could Be Key in Creation of New Life Forms
University of Nottingham (United Kingdom) (11/07/11) Emma Thorne
Researchers at the University of Nottingham working on the Towards a Biological Cell Operating System (AUdACiOuS) project are developing an in vivo biological cell-equivalent of a computer operating system. The researchers say the project, which aims to create a re-programmable cell, could revolutionize synthetic biology and lead to completely new and useful forms of life using a relatively hassle-free approach. "We are looking at creating a cell’s equivalent to a computer operating system in such a way that a given group of cells could be seamlessly re-programmed to perform any function without needing to [modify] its hardware," says Nottingham professor Natalio Krasnogor. He says the technology could greatly accelerate synthetic biology research and development, which has already been linked to applications such as new food sources, environmental solutions, and medical breakthroughs. "If we succeed with this AUdACiOuS project, in five years time, we will be programming bacterial cells in the computer and compiling and storing its program into these new cells so they can readily execute them," Krasnogor says.
Sen. Casey Urges More Computer Courses
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA) (11/01/11) Michael A. Fuoco
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) recently introduced the Computer Science Education Act, legislation designed to strengthen K-12 computer science education and prepare students for computing jobs. The bill mandates that two-year grants be provided so states can assess computer science programs in schools and develop plans to increase and strengthen their capacity to offer computer science education. In addition, five-year grants will be offered to those programs that have implemented effective plans. Casey says the legislation is needed because studies indicate that, at least through 2018, the number of available computing jobs will far outstrip the supply of available workers. Since 2005, the availability of introductory high school computer science courses decreased by 17 percent and the number of Advanced Placement computer science courses dropped by 33 percent, according to Casey. "Just when we need more students to focus on this course of study it's going in the wrong direction and rapidly in the wrong direction," Casey says. He says those trends must be reversed if the United States is going to compete effectively in the global economy.
IPads Set to Play Role in Oregon Election
Associated Press (11/08/11) Jonathan J. Cooper
Election workers in five Oregon counties are enabling voters who have difficulty using traditional paper ballots to use an iPad and a portable printer to cast their vote in a special primary election to replace former U.S. Rep. David Wu. State election officials believe Oregon is the first to use iPads to mark ballots, but note that voters will not technically cast their ballots with the device. As part of the pilot project, election workers are being sent to nursing homes, parks, community centers, and other locations. After marking ballots with a tip of a finger or with a sip-and-puff device, voters will print their completed ballot and mail it to election offices for counting, just like a hand-marked ballot. Compared to the state's current equipment, election officials say the iPad makes it easier to deploy and reach more voters due to its portability, simplicity, and relatively low cost. Oregon spent about $75,000 to develop the software, and Apple donated five devices. The state plans to use the same system for the special general election in January, and the service will be made available statewide if the pilot proves successful.
It Started Digital Wheels Turning
New York Times (11/07/11) John Markoff
Researchers at London's Science Museum plan to launch a 10-year, multimillion-dollar project to build the Babbage Analytical Engine, which was conceived by Charles Babbage in the 1830s but never built. The project follows the successful effort by another group of researchers to replicate the Difference Engine No. 2, a less complicated machine. The project, which is led by programmer John Graham-Cumming and museum curator Doron Swade, already has digitized Babbage's surviving blueprints for the analytical engine. "I hope that future generations of scientists will stand before the completed Analytical Engine, think of Babbage, and be inspired to work on their own 100-year leaps," Graham-Cumming says. While Babbage devised the idea for the analytical engine, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, preserved its memory and designed a program for the unbuilt machine. Lovelace's algorithm calculated the sequence known as Bernoulli numbers. Although Babbage is often called the “father of computing,” his work languished until Alan Turing advanced his ideas. Nevertheless, Swade says "the pioneers of electronic computing reinvented the fundamental principles largely in ignorance of the details of Babbage’s work. They knew of him, there was a continuity of influence, but his drawings were not the DNA of modern computing."
New Technology Tracks Multiple Athletes at Once
Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (11/08/11) Cecilia Carron
Researchers at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne's (EPFL's) Computer Vision Laboratory, led by professor Pascal Fua, have developed a tool that enables spectators, referees, and coaches to simultaneously follow multiple players during a game. The athletes are represented on a screen with a superimposed image of their jersey color and number. The system is composed of eight standard cameras and three algorithms. The first algorithm detects individuals at a specific moment in time by slicing the playing area into small sections, removing the background from the images, and determining the probability of a player being in each of the sections. The other two algorithms connect the results for each moment to establish individual trajectories. "Other applications, like tracking pedestrians to monitor traffic in an area, or following the movement of clients in a store for marketing purposes, are being planned," says EPFL's Ben Shitrit.
Artificial Intelligence Joins the Fossil Hunt
New Scientist (11/08/11) Jeff Hecht
Researchers at Western Michigan University and Washington University in St. Louis have developed a predictive model that uses computer learning systems to identify potential fossil sites from satellite data. The researchers programmed the software by inputting a list of known fossil sites in the Great Divide Basin of southwestern Wyoming and labeling them with one of five categories--fossil-rich, barren, forest, scrub, or wetland. The software then sorted unknown areas of the basin into the five categories. In the first test, the model found "a huge portion of the basin was similar to what we had always found to be productive locations," says Western Michigan's Jay Emerson. The model also was able to identify that most of the area's fossil sites were in sandstone, but not all sandstone had fossils at the surface. The researchers modified the system to identify fossil-rich sandstone by adding two more geological requirements to the software. After the changes, the system correctly identified 79 percent of the known fossil sites as likely to contain fossils, and correctly classified 84 percent of all the other locations, according to Emerson.
The Future of Human Computer Interfaces
CIO (11/07/11) Meridith Levinson
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers are developing novel and more natural ways for people to interact with computers and access and store information. The inventions are designed to make it easier to create, communicate, and collaborate with other people. For example, augmented product displays give shoppers product information and Web access so that they can read reviews and do additional research on the products they are interested in purchasing. The Inktuitive project aims to make it easier for designers to visually represent their ideas, enabling them to sketch above the paper, while the system captures their strokes and represents them in three dimensions on a computer screen. The MemTable consists of two projectors, cameras, and mirrors, as well as software that supports brainstorming, decision-making, event planning, and story boarding. MemTable also features five types of inputs, including text, image capture, sketching, laptop capture, and audio. MIT researchers also have developed a series of techniques for building sensors, actuators, and circuit boards that look, feel, and have the physical properties of paper.
Mask-Bot: A Robot With a Human Face
Technische Universitat Munchen (11/07/11)
Technische Universitat Muenchen (TUM) researchers have developed Mask-bot, a system designed to give robots a human face. Mask-bot includes a projector that beams a three-dimensional (3D) image of a face onto the back of a plastic mask and a computer to control voice and facial expressions. When the robot talks, Mask-bot moves the head and raises the eyebrows to create a knowledgeable expression. "Mask-bot will influence the way in which we humans communicate with robots in the future," says TUM professor Gordon Cheng. Mask-bot can display realistic 3D heads on a transparent plastic mask, and can change the face on-demand. The system is equipped with a projector positioned behind the mask that beams a human face onto the back of the mask, creating realistic features that can be seen from various angles, including the side. The researchers replicated facial expressions using a talking head animation engine, a system in which a computer filters a series of face-motion data from people collected by a motion-capture system and selects the facial expressions that best match a specific sound when it is being spoken. Mask-bot also can reproduce content typed with a keyboard in English, Japanese, and soon German.
Bell Labs Builds Telepresence 'Robots'
IT News (11/07/11) Liz Tay
Bell Labs researchers are developing Nethead, a videoconferencing robot that could give remote workers a physical presence in office meetings. Nethead includes a low-cost camera and a screen that swivels on a set of robotic shoulders. Each Nethead represents a remote participant, who appears by video on the screen and can control the direction the robot faces by naturally turning his or her head. Nethead also is equipped with a turn-taking mechanism, which determines who should speak next, according to Bell Labs' Jan Bouwen. He notes that in person, people take cues from other members in the meeting to determine who should speak next. However, those cues are not available in current videoconferences. "Even with high-definition video, you can’t see who in room one is looking at who in room two," Bouwen says. "That’s a research challenge we’re trying to tackle." Other challenges involve monitoring the level of comprehension of meeting members. "Someone showing clear agreement or clear disagreement is [also] important," he says. "If you’re trying to explain something, knowing who is confused and not following is important.” Other technology under development at Bell Labs targets ad-hoc, hallway discussions.
Former ICANN Chairs Voice Concern With Domain Name Plan
National Journal (11/03/11) Juliana Gruenwald; Josh Smith
Two former Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) chairpeople recently voiced concerns about the organization's plan to start accepting applications for new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) in January. Tech investor Esther Dyson and Google chief Internet evangelist Vint Cerf chaired ICANN's board from 1998-2000 and 2000-2007, respectively. Cerf says his concerns about the new gTLD program include the potential to create confusion among Internet users and new hassles for trademark owners as well as the logistical obstacles that are triggered by any new domain registrar that becomes insolvent. Meanwhile, Dyson pointed out that "most of the people active in setting ICANN's policies are involved somehow in the domain-name business, and they would be in control of the new TLDs as well." Dyson notes that although it is worthwhile for them to attend ICANN meetings and engage in the decision-making process, for everyone else domain names are just one part of their Internet experience. She says "that means that the new TLDs are likely to create money for ICANN's primary constituents, but only add costs and confusion for companies and the public at large."
Computer Models of Faces Can Help in Psychology, Cosmetics and Surgery
Western Mail (Wales) (11/07/11) Bernie Tiddeman
Computer software for analyzing human faces is enabling psychology laboratories to learn more about sex, evolution, health, and attractiveness, writes Aberystwyth University's Bernie Tiddeman. He has developed software that is focused on extending the methods developed for images to three-dimensional models and videos. Tiddeman says that psychology researchers have used the software to show that people prefer faces that are transformed to simulate the effects of a healthy lifestyle, such as diet and exercise. When people are shown a simulation of the impact of their actions on their own face, they will be more likely to make long-term changes to their diet and lifestyle. The Web site www.faceofthefuture.org.uk offers visitors the chance to try various face transformations. Tiddeman notes that computer scientists have long been interested in the analysis and synthesis of facial images. He says the tools have applications in face recognition for security, interpreting facial expressions for robotics and human computer interaction, face reconstruction for forensics, and facial animation for animated films.
In Love With Android: Q&A With Matias Duarte
Technology Review (11/07/11) Antonio Regalado
Google Android user experience director Matias Duarte notes in an interview that games influenced the new design for Android version 4.0, which includes new features such as Face Unlock, a facial-recognition system that opens the phone, and Android Beam, which enables users to share screen information by tapping two phones together. "We go out and find people who buy a lot, or buy very little, on phones and tablets, and we try to find out everything we can about their motivations, their context, and how they shop," Duarte says. The designers wanted the interface to be a compelling, immersive experience, similar to a video game. "We absolutely set out to create those playful moments in Android," Duarte says. However, although the idea of the gamification of services has gained popularity in many industries, he says Android's developers tried to stay away from that practice in designing the new system. "In general, I am very wary and highly critical of trying to create behavioral reinforcement for objectives that are not what the user clearly is intending to do," Duarte says. He says Android's developers "invested a lot of time creating transitions between totally different activities that know nothing about each other, but despite that constraint, trying to make those transitions look good, and make it feel like one connected experience."
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