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Welcome to the March 5, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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First Course Offered by MITx Begins Today
MIT News (03/05/12)

More than 90,000 people have signed up for the first course in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) MITx online-learning initiative, which starts March 5. "We are eager to see how MITx courses can add even greater value to our traditional, time-tested approach to teaching," says MIT provost L. Rafael Reif. Circuits and Electronics, which is open to the public, will introduce engineering in the context of the lumped circuit abstraction, helping students make the transition from physics to the fields of electrical engineering and computer science. "We have built MITx in such a way that we will be able to release the software to the world as open source and to invite developers everywhere to help us improve the features we’ve created as well as invent new ones," says MIT professor Anant Agarwal. The course features an introductory video describing how to use the platform, a schedule, an e-textbook, and a discussion board. Each week students will watch video lectures and demonstrations, work with practice exercises, complete homework assignments, and participate in an online interactive lab designed to replicate its real-world counterpart. Students also can take exams and check their grades as they complete the course.

New Potato-Spotting AI Built With Off-the-Shelf Tech
BBC News (03/02/12)

Researchers at the University of Lincoln Robotics Lab are applying artificial intelligence (AI) to the challenge of spotting blemishes in potatoes that result from diseases such as silver scurf and common scab. Lincoln's Tom Duckett says the task is difficult because potatoes tend to go green when they get too much light, but in red potato varieties greening looks more black. The Lincoln team has incorporated AI into the Trainable Anomaly Detection and Diagnosis (TADD) system, and used a human expert to train the technology to identify diseased and damaged potatoes. "Existing computer-vision systems have to be programmed and calibrated," Duckett says. "Our system is different, it learns from some samples provided from a human expert." The researchers used a Webcam and a standard desktop computer. The system uses a graphics processing unit (GPU) to extract information from images. "What a GPU is doing in a games context is turning information into graphics or images, whereas we're using it in a reverse way to extract information from images," Duckett notes. TADD has performed as well as its human trainer in testing at a local potato-buying company. The Lincoln team believes TADD can be adapted for other produce.

Science-and-Engineering Workforce Has Stalled in U.S., Report Says
Computerworld (03/02/12) Patrick Thibodeau

As a percentage of the total labor force, science-and-engineering (S&E) workers accounted for 4.9 percent of the workforce in 2010, a slight decline from the three previous years when S&E workers accounted for five percent of the workforce, according to a Population Reference Bureau (PRB) study. The data could indicate either a supply or demand problem for S&E workers, or it could be signaling a shift in the composition of the workforce, says Miken Institute researcher I-Ling Shen. She notes that one possible explanation is that PRB's data defines S&E workers broadly, including those in labor-intensive jobs without advanced degrees who may have been replaced by automation. Another factor could be the fact that S&E workers who are 55 and older accounted for 13 percent of the S&E workforce in 2005, and 18 percent in 2010. "This might imply that there aren't enough young people entering the S&E labor force," Shen says. Although the data might not indicate an outright shortage of S&E workers, it could reflect a combination of factors related to the recession and offshoring, says PRB's Mark Mather.

UT Professor Leads Research Into Autonomous Intersection Technology
Austin American-Statesman (TX) (03/04/12) Christina Pena

University of Texas researchers, who already have developed an autonomous sport utility vehicle (SUV), are now developing an autonomous intersection that lets driverless vehicles navigate without stoplights or stop signs. The SUV features software that controls the brakes, throttle, and steering, while a navigator function chooses paths on the road. These two functions communicate with a revolving sensor on top of the SUV that detects the road and objects around the vehicle. For an autonomous intersection to work, a program will be installed in the intersection to communicate with the vehicle's software. The two systems use dedicated short-range communication to communicate wirelessly 300 to 400 meters away, which will enable driverless vehicles to know when the intersection is clear. "The autonomous intersection, technologically, I believe is already feasible to be widespread," says Texas professor Peter Stone. "I wouldn't be against it happening in the next 20 to 25 years." However, due to the expenses involved, which can reach $75,000 for one sensor array, the technology's first practice applications could be for the U.S. military.

DARPA: Consumer Tech Can Aid Electronic Warfare
InformationWeek (03/02/12) Elizabeth Montalbano

Foreign adversaries have surpassed the U.S. Department of Defense's electronic warfare capabilities through their acquisition of widely available consumer technologies, says the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Kaigham Gabriel. He cites computing, imaging, communications, sensors, and other areas that were once exclusively controlled by military systems, but which are now accessible to "hundreds of millions of people." Gabriel says "in both waveform complexity and carrier frequency, adversaries have moved to operating regimes currently beyond the capabilities of our systems." He points to several underlying reasons why electronic warfare capabilities can be supported by commercial electronics. For one, the improvement of microelectronics' performance is concurrent with their shrinkage in size, with Gabriel noting "smaller microelectronic devices are able to switch faster and, thus, operate at higher frequencies." Gabriel also cites the advent of programmable chips and field-programmable gate arrays, which enable the programming of device components after manufacture, as a factor that has accelerated the devices' production and made such products more affordable. "It is now possible to purchase commercial off-the-shelf components for more than 90 percent of the electronics needed for an electronic warfare system," he notes.

Bangalore to Get India's Fastest Supercomputer
IBN Live (03/01/12) Anantha Krishnan M.

India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research will soon house the country's fastest supercomputer. The unnamed high-performance computing system is expected to deliver a sustained performance in excess of 250 teraflops (T-Flops), and will be used for research in genome informatics, geo-science informatics, and engineering science. As part of the 12th five-year plan, the Indian government plans to push the nation into the supercomputing elite. The CSIR Center for Mathematical Modeling and Computer Simulation (CSIR C-MMACS) also is getting a data center and a visualization hyperwall. "CSIR C-MMACS presently has a 24 T-Flops system, which is listed among the top in the country," says C-MMACS' R.P. Thangavelu. "Over the next few years, CSIR plans to upgrade their supercomputing capacity to 10 petaflops." CSIR director general Samir K Brahmachari notes that "today, all 40 CSIR labs in India are interconnected using the National Knowledge Network, which enables all scientists to access the supercomputing facility remotely. The new system would enhance the capabilities in areas such as genome analysis, weather modeling, computational fluid dynamics, and the like."

Pushing the Boundaries of Artificial Intelligence
BU Today (03/01/12) Courtney Humphries

Boston University Neuromorphics Laboratory researchers are developing an artificial intelligence-based robotics technology that can sense, learn, and adapt. The research is part of the lab's Modular Neural Exploring Traveling Agent (MoNETA) project, which is developing technology that would become the brains behind virtual and robotic agents that can learn on their own and interact with new environments. "We want to eliminate, as much as possible, human intervention in deciding what the robot does," says lab director Massimiliano Versace. MoNETA project researchers are developing algorithms that produce lifelike behavior without telling the program what to do. The researchers also are developing an operating system for the artificial brain, known as the Cog Ex Machina. The software for the Cog Ex Machina will run on a memristor, which the researchers say will enable hardware designers to build chips with unprecedented density that operate on very low power. Meanwhile, Boston doctoral student Sean Lorenz is developing a method to interface the robot with an electroencephalogram cap. The target application is robotic devices that enable people with disabilities to interact with the world through a brain-machine interface.

New Computers Respond to Students' Emotions, Boredom
Notre Dame News (03/01/12) Susan Guibert

University of Notre Dame researchers have developed AutoTutor and Affective AutoTutor, intelligent tutoring programs that model and respond to students' cognitive and emotional states. The researchers say the technology offers new learning possibilities for students and redefines human-computer interaction. The programs can gauge a student's level of knowledge by asking questions, analyzing the answers, identifying and correcting misconceptions, responding to questions, and sensing frustration and boredom through facial expressions and body posture. "In addition to enhancing the content of the message, the new technology provides information regarding the cognitive states, motivation levels, and social dynamics of the students," says Notre Dame professor Sidney D'Mello. AutoTutor helps students learn technical content by holding a dialogue in natural language, simulating teaching and motivational strategies of human tutors, modeling students' cognitive states, and using its student model to dynamically customize the interaction to individual students answering students' questions. Affective AutoTutor adds emotion-sensitive capabilities by monitoring facial features, body language, and conversational cues. "AutoTutor and Affective AutoTutor attempt to keep the student balanced between the extremes of boredom and bewilderment by subtly modulating the pace, direction, and complexity of the learning task," D'Mello says.

Internet Voting Systems Too Insecure, Researcher Warns
Computerworld (03/01/12) Jaikumar Vijayan

Internet voting systems are innately insecure and should not be allowed in the U.S.'s upcoming general elections, says Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories computer scientist and Verified Voting chairman David Jefferson. "There's a wave of interest across the country, mostly among election officials and one agency of the [Department of Defense], to offer Internet voting" to overseas citizens and members of the military, Jefferson notes. However, he says “from a security point of view, it is an insane thing to do." Currently, 33 states allow citizens to use the Internet to cast their ballots, and in most of them voters submit their ballots via email as a PDF attachment. However, Jefferson notes that ballots sent via email lack encryption, which means that any entity can view, filter, substitute, or modify the ballot. Some states use systems that allow voters to log into a Web portal, authenticate themselves, and submit their ballots. However, Jefferson warns that portals are prone to all of the security vulnerabilities and attacks that pertain to other Web sites. In addition, he says election officials in charge of such systems often do not have the technical expertise or the resources needed to detect or protect their systems against such attacks.

Simulator Computes Evacuation Scenarios for Major Events
Technical University Munich (Germany) (02/28/12)

Technical University Munich (TUM) researchers are leading the Interactive Pedestrian Simulation for Regional Evacuation (REPKA) project, which is developing emergency evacuation software that can be used to compute different scenarios at specific venues and simulate the behavior of tens of thousands of people. The researchers say the simulator could help organizers identify variables in advance. "We can use the program to run any number of 'what-if' simulations," says TUM researcher Angelika Kneidl. The REPKA project was developed by researchers from several universities and companies in collaboration with the authorities and security services in Kaiserslautern. The simulator is based on a force model in which destinations, obstacles, and people all exert a force on individual pedestrians. "One of the challenges was to model these forces in such a way that the program can be applied to all possible scenarios and behavior patterns," says TUM professor Andre Borrmann. The program is designed as a training simulator that users can operate themselves. "Our aim, however, is to prevent panic from breaking out in the first place through proactive planning," Kneidl says.

Automated Stress Testing for Web 2.0 Applications Helps Web Developers Find Programming Errors
Saarland University (02/27/12)

Saarland University researchers are developing methods for automating and systematically testing Web applications for malfunctions and security vulnerabilities. Saarland's Valentin Dallmeier and Martin Burger have developed Webmate, software that autonomously checks Web applications such as Google Mail, Facebook, and Amazon. "This is still done manually and therefore causes not only very high costs, but also high levels of risk for companies and the community," Burger says. After businesses and their Web administrators type in their Web address, the software will assess how the various components of the Web 2.0 application are connected to each other and via which menus, buttons, and other control panels users are interacting with the application. Webmate will generate and conduct test scenarios, and immediately notify developers of issues such as incompatibility with a version of a browser, a nonexistent control panel, a disconnected database, a non-responding server, or dead links. Dallmeier and Burger say Webmate is a low-cost solution for finding programming errors and security holes.

Stroustrup Reveals What's New in C++ 11
InfoWorld (02/24/12) Paul Krill

Texas A&M University professor Bjarne Stroustrup recently spoke with InfoWorld's Paul Krill about the past, present, and future of C++, which was recently upgraded via the C++ 11 release. "C++11 became an international standard late last year, and the C++ compiler purveyors are now busy implementing it," Stroustrup notes. "Many features and the entire new standard library are already shipping." He says C++ 11 will serve as standard and type-safe support for thread-level and lock-free concurrency, which is an improvement on the various non-standard concurrency libraries that have been available for C++ for decades. In the future, Stroustrup says C++ will have improved support for lightweight concurrency, more libraries, and several new minor features. He says C++ is more flexible and tends to perform slightly better than Java, C#, and other dynamic scripting languages. C++ also has significant strengths compared to virtual machine-based languages when it comes to building infrastructure, according to Stroustrup. "C++ can be competitive even where performance isn't a critical issue, but there the choice will be made more on the availability of libraries and developers than on the languages themselves," he says.

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