Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the February 8, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Obama to Announce $100 Million Plan to Train New Educators
Washington Post (02/06/12) David Nakamura

President Barack Obama has unveiled a plan to invest $100 million to help train 100,000 new educators over the next 10 years that is designed to address a shortage of U.S. mathematics and science teachers. Obama will ask Congress for $80 million to support new Education Department grants for colleges that develop innovative teacher-training programs. Two years ago Obama called on Congress and business leaders to help alleviate the lack of teachers with science, engineering, technology, and mathematics expertise. A group of 14 foundations, universities, businesses, and education groups responded to Obama's challenge by raising $22 million for the education plan, says Carnegie Corp.'s Talia Milgrom-Elcott. The money will be given to more than 100 organizations that provide teacher training and have gone through the application process, Milgrom-Elcott says. Private organizations such as Google, Teach for America, and the University of Chicago also have pledged resources to the cause, say White House officials. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. 15-year-olds placed in the bottom third and the bottom quarter for science and math literacy, respectively, among 30 developed countries.


Groups: Congress Should Scrap SOPA, PIPA and Start Over
IDG News Service (02/07/12) Grant Gross

The U.S. Congress should do away with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), two controversial copyright enforcement bills, and start over with attempts to target foreign Web sites accused of infringement and counterfeiting, according to more than 70 industry groups. The bills would harm free speech, innovation, cybersecurity, and job creation, according to a letter the groups wrote to Congress. The letter noted that about 14 million people participated in 18 online protests against the bills. "The concerns are too fundamental and too numerous to be fully addressed through hasty revisions to these bills," the letter says. The letter asked lawmakers to determine the true extent of online infringement, questioning studies and numbers put forth by the bills' supporters. Although Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the lead sponsor of SOPA, has said that he doesn't plan to move forward with the legislation, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the lead sponsor of PIPA, plans to continue to push for that bill's passage. Leahy says he welcomes the input of others in improving the bill's provisions. "This is the time to suggest improvements that will better achieve our goals," he says.


Scripps Research and Technion Scientists Develop Biological Computer to Encrypt and Decipher Images
Scripps Research Institute (02/07/12) Mika Ono

Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have developed a computer made entirely from biomolecules that can decipher images encrypted onto DNA chips. The scientists say their research is the first demonstration of a molecular cryptosystem of images based on DNA computing. "In contrast to electronic computers, there are computing machines in which all four components are nothing but molecules," says Scripps Research professor Ehud Keinan. He notes the hardware and software in the biological computers are complex biological molecules that activate one another to carry out some predetermined chemical work. The input is a molecule that undergoes specific, predetermined changes, following a specific set of rules, and the output of the chemical computation process is another well-defined molecule. The system is based on a 75-year-old design by Alan Turing. When appropriate software was applied to the biological computer, it could decrypt fluorescent images of the Scripps Research Institute and Technion logos. Keinan says biomolecular computing devices have advantages over electronic computers in specific applications, such as computing trillions of chemical steps in parallel.


Engineers Boost Computer Processor Performance By Over 20 Percent
NCSU News (02/07/12) Matt Shipman

North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers have developed a technique that combines graphics processing units (GPUs) and central processing units (CPUs) on a single chip, boosting processor performance by an average of more than 20 percent. "This approach decreases manufacturing costs and makes computers more energy efficient," says NCSU professor Huiyang Zhou. He notes that GPUs are capable of executing many individual functions very quickly, while CPUs are better at performing more complex tasks. "Our approach is to allow the GPU cores to execute computational functions, and have CPU cores pre-fetch the data the GPUs will need from off-chip main memory," Zhou says. He points out that the approach is more efficient than traditional methods because it enables CPUs and GPUs to do what they were designed to do. During initial testing, the researchers found that their approach improved fused processor performance by an average of 21.4 percent.


Google Unveils 'Secret Lab' for Radical Ideas
InformationWeek (02/06/12) Thomas Claburn

Google recently held a private technology gathering for innovators, and plans to share some of the discussions and related materials through the Web site WeSolveForX.com. "Solve for X is a place where the curious can go to hear and discuss radical technology ideas for solving global problems," Google says. "Radical in the sense that the solutions could help billions of people." The site is designed to be a forum for fostering discussion about seemingly insurmountable problems such as climate change and cancer. "The conference is driven by short, technology rich presentations on topics ranging from low-energy, low-cost water desalinization to stretchable silicon biosensors," says Google's Richard DeVaul. Other topics included using crowdsolved labor to tackle science problems, electronic-waste mining, transforming education, improving agriculture, synthetic biology, and carbon-negative biofuels. Google's Google X laboratory houses projects such as self-driving cars and robots. The secret lab might restore some luster to Google's image, which was slightly marred after the recent shutdown of Google Labs by CEO Larry Page.


Wolfram, a Search Engine, Finds Answers Within Itself
New York Times (02/06/12) Steve Lohr

Stephen Wolfram is ready to unveil Wolfram Alpha Pro, an update to the three-year-old search engine that instead of mining the Web like Google and Microsoft's Bing, culls its own database to find answers to users' queries. Wolfram describes Alpha Pro as the next step of what can be accomplished with a computational knowledge engine. "We’re starting to have the ability to understand data and images in the way we understand text queries," Wolfram says. The original version of Wolfram Alpha was based on the knowledge base of Wolfram's Mathematica program, but the new version draws on many more subject domains, which should make it more useful to average users. Several large companies, including Microsoft, have licensed Wolfram Alpha technology to develop specifically tailored corporate versions of the Wolfram Alpha database, and about 25 percent of Wolfram Alpha queries come from Siri users. Wolfram Alpha is one of several efforts to develop greater understanding of semantics, says University of Washington computer scientist Oren Etzioni. "It raises the stakes for everyone around the table," Etzioni says.


How to Predict the Spread of News on Twitter
Technology Review (02/07/12)

Bernardo Huberman and colleagues at Hewlett-Packard's Social Computing Lab have developed an algorithm that can predict how popular new stories will become. Journalists rely on their gut feeling and their understanding of the dynamics of their audience when they choose to write about topics, but the algorithm could automate this process. During a single week last August, the team examined the content of news stories and scored each article on the news source that generates and posts the article, the category of news, the subjectivity of the language, and the people and things named in the article. They measured the way the stories spread across the Twitter network to see which became popular and how quickly, then determined how an article's score in each criterion is linked to its eventual popularity. "Our experiments show that it is possible to estimate ranges of popularity with an overall accuracy of 84 percent considering only content features," the team says. The research could impact how articles are written and edited. News organizations could homogenize their stories to optimize them for the algorithm, but automation also could lead to more tightly written and better focused articles.


MIT's New Free Courses May Threaten (and Improve) the Traditional Model, Program's Leader Says
Chronicle of Higher Education (02/06/12) Jeffrey R. Young

In an interview, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) provost L. Rafael Reif and professor Anant Agarwal say MITx, a new set of online courses, will be run separately from OpenCourseWare, which puts materials from its traditional courses online. MITx will focus on creating new courses designed to be delivered entirely online and for free to the public. Students who want a certificate after passing a series of online tests will have to pay a modest fee. To verify students, MIT plans to work with companies that offer testing sites around the world, including providing identity checks and proctoring services for the exams. Agarwal notes that MIT will give certificates with an actual letter grade for completing MITx courses. He also says the plan is to make the MITx software available online, and notes that there has been much interest from other universities and school systems in licensing the technology. "Our objective is to actually use MITx to even increase further what we do on campus, to make it stronger and to be able to resist and survive and do very well in this potential disruptive situation," Reif says. Agarwal believes that online technologies and mechanisms will improve the on-campus experience.


Italian Professor Launches Challenge to Google
Agence France-Presse (02/06/12)

Google faces a new challenge from Italian computer science professor Massimo Marchiori, who launched a new search engine and social media network on Monday. Marchiori, who used to teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed the algorithm for the Internet page ranking service HyperSearch in the 1990s, and his research inspired future Google founder Larry Page. Marchiori, who currently teaches at the University of Padua, calls his new site Volunia. Users will be able to view the components of particular Web sites to find subjects of interest more quickly as well as interact with others who might be looking at the same Web pages. Marchiori says such functions will soon be incorporated into all the other major search engines, including Google and Yahoo! He describes the Web as a living place. "There is information but there are also people," Marchiori notes. "The social dimension is already present, it just has to emerge."


My Connectome, Myself
MIT News (02/07/12) Anne Trafton

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher Sebastian Seung studies brain connectome shapes and believes that they can reveal more about a person than their DNA can. Max Planck Institute of Medical Research neuroscientists have taken extremely thin slices of brain tissue and generated electron-microscope images of all the neural connections within each slice. However, Seung says mapping those connections could take 100,000 years for a single worker to trace the connections in one cubic millimeter of brain tissue. He has led a group of MIT researchers who have developed an artificial intelligence system to analyze the images. The system requires human guidance, and the researchers are enlisting the help of the general public through a Web site called eyewire.org. Eyewire project participants will guide the computer program when it loses track of where a neuronal extension goes in the maze of neurons. Seung says the research could be applied in futuristic applications, such as uploading human brain patterns into computers or freezing bodies to preserve them until technology is developed to bring them back to life.


To Make a Social Robot, Key Is Satisfying the Human Mind
Kavli Foundation (02/03/12)

The Kavli Foundation recently brought together three pioneers in human-robot interactions to discuss advancements in social robotics, as well as the technological hurdles the field will face in the future. One of the keys for a successfully designed social robot is considering how it communicates verbally as well as physically through facial expressions and body language, says University of Southern California professor Maja Mataric. Another key is matching a robot's appearance to a human's perception of its abilities. University of California, San Diego professor Ayse Saygin found that as people observed highly human-like robots compared to less human-like robots, the brain detected the difference and did not respond well. "We found that when we matched the personality of the robot to that of the user, people performed their rehab exercises longer and reported enjoying them more," Mataric says. A social robot also should be able to learn socially, and Georgia Tech professor Andrea Thomaz has developed a robot that can learn from humans through speech, observation, demonstration, and social interaction. Thomaz says she is working to build the key components of social intelligence into her robots.


Double-Sided Touchscreen Changes When You Fold It
New Scientist (02/03/12) Duncan Graham-Rowe

Juergen Steimle, a member of the Fluid Interfaces Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, has developed novel ways to interact with foldable displays. Steimle has created a projection-based display that tracks movement. The display uses six overhead infrared cameras and two high-definition digital projectors, and projects onto a passive white tablet also created by Steimle. The user holds the tablet, which contains sets of spring-loaded, reversible hinges so that they could be folded like a book or a pamphlet. The system monitors the way the tablet is folded, using the act of folding and the resulting form as a means of interaction, and will treat a flat tablet as one display and switch to a two-display mode when the tablet is bent in the middle. When the tablet is closed, the menu options can be displayed on the cover to alter the contents inside. Users also would be able to adjust the color, contrast, volume, and other settings because the cameras are able to detect the angle of rotation on the hinges. Steimle will present his work this month at the Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction Conference in Kingston, Ontario.


Big Data's Arrival
Inside Higher Ed (02/01/12) Paul Fain

WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) researchers have created the Predictive Analytics Reporting Framework, a database that measures 33 variables for online coursework based on 640,000 online college students. The variables help track student performance and retention across a wide range of demographic factors. Six major for-profit institutions, research universities, and community colleges are sharing the information and tips on how to use the data. The researchers found that at-risk students do better if they ease into online education with a small number of courses, which contradicts traditional methods that promote full student immersion. The researchers say their work highlights the benefits of predictive analytics and "big data" in higher education. They say the framework could provide institutions with sophisticated information about small subsets of students. For example, Arizona-based Rio Salado, a two-year college, has used the database to create a student performance tracking system. The system measures student engagement through their Web interactions, how often the look at textbooks and whether they respond to feedback from instructors, as well as their performance in coursework. The researchers plan to begin a second round of data collection, with up to 18 new institutions.


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