Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the March 9, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Apple Adds Sharper Screen and Speed to New iPad
New York Times (03/07/12) Nick Wingfield

Apple unveiled a new version of the iPad that features a high-definition screen, a faster wireless connection, and several other refinements. However, the iPad design itself went largely unchanged. "In many ways, the iPad is reinventing portable computing and outstripping the wildest predictions," says Apple CEO Timothy D. Cook. The most noticeable change to the new iPad is the screen, which Apple says provides better resolution than high-definition TVs and can display text and images that appear as sharp as they would on a printed page. The new iPad also will operate on the fourth-generation cell phone network technology known as LTE. Although the new iPad is somewhat heavier and thicker than the iPad2, its subtle hardware design changes reflect the fact that most of Apple's innovations happen in software, says analyst Charles Wolf. Meanwhile, PC industry critics say the iPad is not well suited for creating content. However, Apple sought to undermine that argument with several new applications, such as a new version of iPhoto, which edits digital photos, and a new version of GarageBand, which enables up to four people play together in a virtual band through wirelessly connected iPads.


Teach Your Robot Well (Georgia Tech Shows How)
Georgia Tech News (03/08/12) Michael Terrazas

Georgia Tech researchers have identified the types of questions a robot can ask during a learning interaction that are most likely to lead to a smooth and productive human-robot relationship. The questions are about certain features of tasks, which the researchers identified by studying the people who will regularly use the robots. “People are not so good at teaching robots because they don’t understand the robots’ learning mechanism,” says Georgia Tech Ph.D. student Maya Cakmak. "We wanted to find out the best kinds of questions a robot could ask to make the human-robot relationship as 'human' as it can be." During testing, the researchers asked human volunteers to assume the role of the robot by asking questions of a human instructor. The instructors then rated the questions based on how "smart" they were. The questions were marked as either feature, label, or demonstration queries. The researchers found that 72 percent of the participants thought the feature queries were the smartest questions. "These findings...will help manufacturers produce the kinds of robots that are most likely to integrate quickly into a household or other environment and better serve the needs we’ll have for them,” Cakmak says.


Testing Unbuilt Chips
MIT News (03/09/12) Larry Hardesty

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed Hornet, a software simulator they say models the performance of multicore chips much more accurately than its predecessors. The researchers recently developed a new version of the simulator that factors in power consumption, patterns of communication between cores, the processing times of individual tasks, and memory-access patterns. Hornet is designed to complement, not compete with, more traditional approaches for analyzing chip performance, says MIT Ph.D. student Myong Hyon Cho. The different tasks performed by a chip's components are synchronized by a master clock, and during each clock cycle every component performs one task. The researchers note that Hornet is much slower than its predecessors, but it can provide a "cycle-accurate" simulation of a chip with 1,000 cores. "'Cycle-accurate' means the results are precise to the level of a single cycle," Cho says. Hornet could have advantages in situations in which "you want to test out several ideas quickly, with good accuracy," says Cornell University professor Edward Suh.


Study: Salaries Poised to Rise for Workers With Mobile, Cloud, UI Skills
IDG News Service (03/06/12) Fred O'Connor

Information technology (IT) workers who have experience with popular technologies may see significant salary increases this year, according to a Bluewolf survey. Companies may boost wages from 2011 levels for workers with backgrounds in mobile application and software development, cloud computing, data analysis, and user interface design, according to the survey, which covered several IT positions, including executives, software developers, and system administrators, and provided job salary data in six U.S. markets. The survey also found that workers with skills such as iPhone app development, Web site coding in HTML5, and database construction with MySQL are in high demand. Developers with experience on mobile operating systems from Google and Apple should expect average salaries of $98,000, while the top salary range for business intelligence developers will increase nationally to the $88,000 to $110,000 bracket, according to the survey. Bluewolf also foresees a greater business need for staff with user-experience backgrounds. Experience with cloud computing technologies also may prove valuable, according to the survey.


Finding Your Friends and Following Them to Where You Are
University of Rochester News (03/06/12) Peter Iglinski

University of Rochester professors Henry Kautz and Jeffrey Bigham and graduate student Adam Sadilek developed software that tracked heavy Twitter users based on the location data of their friends. The researchers developed a computer model for determining human mobility and location, sampled the location data of select individuals who had public profiles and enabled global positioning system location sharing over a two-week period, and were able to determine a person's location within a 100-meter radius with 85 percent accuracy. "Once you learn about relationships from peoples' tweets, it makes sense that you can track them," Sadilek says. In another experiment, they ran the models in reverse, fully used individuals' location data and content from their tweets, but ignored their list of followers, in an attempt to predict Twitter friendships. The researchers compared the models with the actual network of friendships, and found they were correct 90 percent of the time. "It's harder than most people think it is to protect our privacy online, but there are ways to use this new reality for good," Kautz says. The researchers plan to use the model for tasks such as tracking and predicting the spread of communicable diseases.


AI Designs Its Own Video Game
New Scientist (03/07/12) Jacob Aron

Imperial College London researchers have developed Angelina, an artificial intelligence system that can create video games nearly from scratch. Angelina creates games using cooperative co-evolution, a technique that involves separately designing different aspects of the game, such as the layout of each different level, enemy behavior, and power-ups that give the players extra abilities. Angelina creates a level by randomly selecting from a list, then scattering enemies and power-ups throughout the level. The system then combines the aspects and simulates a human playing the game to see which designs lead to the most fun or interesting games. Angelina then cross-breeds and mutates the most successful games to evolve a new generation, and repeats the cycle about 400 times. Imperial College London researcher Michael Cook says the games can match the quality of some Facebook or smartphone games. "In theory there is nothing to stop an artist sitting down with Angelina, creating a game every 12 hours, and feeding that into the Apple App Store," Cook says. He also notes developers could use a system such as Angelina as a collaborative tool for designing games.


A Minute With...Computer Scientist Sheldon Jacobson on "March Madness"
University of Illinois News Bureau (03/07/12) Liz Ahlberg

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign computer science professor Sheldon H. Jacobson recently discussed the mathematics behind the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Jacobson notes that despite the unpredictable nature of the tournament, patterns can be found that can help predict what will happen. "Our research suggests that in the Elite Eight and beyond, we can model the performance of how far seeds progress," he says. "An implication of such a model is that it is less important which teams are playing each other, but rather, which seeds are playing each other." Jacobson and his students created the BracketOdds Web site to assist fans filling in their brackets. The site translates Jacobson's research into a Web tool for anyone interested in assessing the seed combinations for their brackets in the Elite Eight and beyond. The site also can compute the odds against seed combinations occurring that have never happened. The odds provide a measure of likelihood for a certain set of seed combinations to occur in a given round, Jacobson notes. "Relative odds rather than absolute odds are the best way to use the information from the site,” he says.


Cebit 2012: 3D Animations for Everyone
Max Planck Gessellschaft (03/06/12)

Max Planck Institute for Informatics researchers say they have developed two programs that enable novice users to quickly create elaborate three-dimensional (3D) animations. In traditional 3D animations, after creating a static digital representation of a character, making that character move is accomplished by manually defining a motion skeleton and attaching it to the character's individual components. The pair of Max Planck-developed programs significantly shorten and simplify these two steps of the creation process. "It has never been easier to create and animate a custom 3D character than today," says Max Planck researcher Thorsten Thormahlen. The software uses 3D model databases, which offer data sets defining the shape of a character or an object. The algorithms split the 3D models in the database into components and remember how they were connected. Users can then select two of the processed models they want to combine into a new and unique model. The newly created model can be animated with another algorithm, a defined movement sequence, and a target skeleton.


New Method for Estimating Parameters May Boost Biological Models
NCSU News (03/06/12) Matt Shipman

North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers have developed a method for estimating the parameters used in oscillatory systems, which could advance modeling in research fields such as cancer and fertility. "The method we’ve developed should expedite the development of more accurate parameters, which can be used to create more precise and predictable models of oscillatory biological systems," says NCSU professor Cranos Williams. The researchers focused on developing optimization algorithms that would manipulate the surface characteristics of the objective function itself. Their approach factors in the frequency of the concentrations within the system, meaning how often each concentration is repeated, to generate a new objective function that reduces the impact of system oscillations. "By generating a new objective function that factors in the frequency of the system oscillations, we are able to eliminate many of the hills and valleys, resulting in a surface with the same optimal point, but that is easier to search," Williams says. He notes the approach also makes it easier for optimization routines to identify a functional working set of parameters that can then be used to predict the activity of the modeled system.


Tiny Linux Computer Punches Above Its Weight
Network World (03/06/12) Jon Gold

The $25 Raspberry Pi computer could have an impact far beyond the educational sector, with early production runs showing significant demand for the technology. The credit card-sized Raspberry Pi is a fully functional Linux computer, complete with Ethernet and USB ports and HDMI output. To use it, people need to plug in a keyboard and attach the device to a TV. The device was created by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, which wants to improve computer science education by making an affordable, flexible platform available to budding programmers. The group believes that people who are applying to university computer science programs today are not as skilled as applicants years ago. One reason is because they do not have access to highly programmable devices that the previous generation used to learn about computing. Aside from educational applications, the open source technology could catch on with activists around the world. For example, a developer of an encrypted communication app designed to circumvent online censorship says he can use Raspberry Pi as a tiny, inexpensive server for activists in countries that suppress freedom of speech.


Supporting Early Diagnosis of Diseases Through Algorithms for the Analysis of Human Respiration
Saarland University (03/05/12)

Saarland University computational bioinformatics researchers have developed algorithms designed to help doctors diagnosis diseases. The researchers worked with the Korea Institute for Science and Technology Europe to analyze the examination results of doctors, and used calculation methods to find models within the measured products of metabolism, called metabolites, which can identify a disease in a body like a fingerprint at a crime scene. "The huge problem is that we have a crime scene with millions of possible indicators, of which maybe only two or three are relevant," says Saarland's Jan Baumbach. The decision as to which combination of metabolites indicates a disease is left to the classification algorithms. Using the samples, the algorithms learn training material that aids them in automatically placing unknown data into categories "healthy" or "disease X." "Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, for example, can be analyzed very accurately, with a failure rate of under 5 percent," Baumbach notes. He says the hardware needed to bring the technology to smartphones could be available within five years.


5 Thieves, 5 Cities, 12 Hours: Can Twitter Catch Them?
Government Computer News (03/05/12) Kathleen Hickey

The U.S. State Department's Tag Challenge will offer a $5,000 prize to anyone who can use Twitter and other social media and online tools to track down five fictional jewel thieves at large in Washington, D.C., New York, London, Stockholm, and Bratislava, Slovakia. Participants will be given mug shots and brief descriptions of each thief, and tasked to locate the suspects, photograph them, and upload the images, with the winner being the first one to upload all five photos within a 12-hour window. The contest’s purpose is to demonstrate social networks' ability to uncover information via sharing and spreading data. "It has become increasingly obvious over the past few years that open source information, especially in an age of social networking, can be at least as valuable as classified information," said former U.S. counterintelligence executive Marion Bowman. The contest was inspired by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's 2009 DARPA Network Challenge, in which contestants had to use the Internet to find the whereabouts of 10 weather balloons scattered across the continental U.S. A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology won the $40,000 prize by finding the balloons in a matter of hours. The contest begins March 31.


App Turns Tablet Into Math Aid for Visually Impaired Students
Vanderbilt University (03/05/12) David Salisbury

Vanderbilt University researchers have developed a tablet application designed to assist visually impaired students in subjects that are hard to comprehend without the aid of normal vision, such as algebra, graphing, and geometry. The researchers say the app could have a major impact on how science, technology, engineering, and math subjects are taught to the visually impaired. The app takes advantage of a user's sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to enhance the remote control of machines, devices, or virtual objects. "When I began reading articles about haptic technology being incorporated into these new touchscreen devices, I realized that the people who really need haptics are people with impaired vision because they heavily rely on their sense of touch to 'see' the world around them," says Vanderbilt graduate student Jenna Gorlewicz. The researchers programmed the tablets so they vibrate or generate a specific tone when a student's fingertip touches a line, curve, or shape displayed on the screen. "If one of these tablets were networked wirelessly to the teacher's computer, then, when he or she projects a graph or equation on the screen at the front of the class, the same graph would appear on the student's tablet," Gorlewicz says.


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