Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the April 2, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Sanjeev Arora Named Winner of 2011 ACM-Infosys Award
CCC Blog (03/30/12) Erwin Gianchandani

Princeton University professor Sanjeev Arora has received the 2011 ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in Computing Sciences for his contributions to computational complexity, algorithms, and optimization. "Arora’s research revolutionized the approach to essentially unsolvable problems that have long bedeviled the computing field, the so-called NP-complete problems," according to an ACM-Infosys press release. Arora is an ACM Fellow and won the Gödel Prize in 2001 and 2010, as well as the ACM Doctoral Dissertation Award in 1995. Arora also is the founding director of Princeton's Center for Computational Intractability, which addresses the phenomenon that many problems seem inherently impossible to solve on currently computational models. "With his new tools and techniques, Arora has developed a fundamentally new way of thinking about how to solve problems,” says ACM President Alain Chesnais. “In particular, his work on the PCP theorem is considered the most important development in computational complexity theory in the last 30 years. He also perceived the practical applications of his work, which has moved computational theory into the realm of real world uses.” The ACM-Infosys Foundation Award recognizes personal contributions by young scientists and system developers to a contemporary innovation and includes a $175,000 prize.


Engineers Rebuild HTTP as a Faster Web Foundation
CNet (03/30/12) Stephen Shankland

At the recent meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force, the working group overseeing the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) formally opened a discussion about how to make the technology faster. The discussion included Google's SPDY technology and Microsoft's HTTP Speed+Mobility technology. Google's system prefers a required encryption, while Microsoft's preference is for it to be optional. Despite this and other subtle differences, there are many similarities between the two systems. "There's a lot of overlap [because] there's a lot of agreement about what needs to be fixed," says Greenbytes' Julian Reschke. SPDY already is built into Google Chrome and Amazon Silk, and Firefox is planning on adopting it soon. In addition, Google, Amazon, and Twitter are using SPDY on their servers. "If we do choose SPDY as a starting point, that doesn't mean it won't change," says HTTP Working Group chairman Mark Nottingham. SPDY's technology is based on sending multiple streams of data over a single network connection. SPDY also can assign high or low priorities to Web page resources being requested from a server. One difference between the Google and Microsoft proposals is in syntax, but SPDY developers are flexible on the choice of compression technology, says SPDY co-creator Mike Belshe.


Honeycombs of Magnets Could Lead to New Type of Computer Processing
Imperial College London (03/30/12) Simon Levey

Imperial College London researchers say they have developed a new material using nano-sized magnets that could lead to unique types of electronic devices with much greater processing capacity than current technologies. The researchers have shown that a honeycomb pattern of nano-sized magnets introduces competition between neighboring magnets and reduces the problems caused by these interactions by 66 percent. The researchers also found that large arrays of these nano-magnets can be used to store computable information. The research suggests that a cluster of many magnetic domains could be able to solve a complex computational problem in a single calculation. "Our philosophy is to harness the magnetic interactions, making them work in our favor," says Imperial College London researcher Will Branford. Previous studies have shown that external magnetic fields can cause the magnetic domain of each bar to ichange state, which affects the interaction between that bar and its two neighboring bars in the honeycomb. It is this pattern of magnetic states that could be computer data, according to Branford. "This is something we can take advantage of to compute complex problems because many different outcomes are possible, and we can differentiate between them electronically," he says.


How the Cost of Computation Restricts the Processes of Life
Technology Review (03/28/12)

Biologists and computer scientists have begun to examine what restrictions the theoretical limits of computation place on the way living things operate, which could help reduce the amount of energy needed to process information. For example, Boston University researchers Pankaj Mehta and Princeton University researcher David Schwab are studying a cell's determination of the concentration of a chemical in its environment, which is one of the simplest information processing steps in living systems. How fast proteins switch dictates the rate that information about the external chemical concentration flows into the cell. Mehta and Schwab have calculated the power consumed by this process and how it relates to the flow of information into the cell. However, over time, cells lose information as they get destroyed by things such as noise. So for a cell to maintain even the most basic knowledge of its environment, it must continually use energy. "Our results indicate that this behavior may be due to the extreme energetic constraints imposed on a metabolically dormant spore, rather than an evolutionarily optimized strategy," according to Mehta and Schwab.


Google Launches Go Programming Language 1.0
eWeek (03/28/12) Darryl K. Taft

Google has released version 1.0 of its Go programming language, which was initially introduced as an experimental language in 2009. Google has described Go as an attempt to combine the development speed of working in a dynamic language such as Python with the performance and safety of a compiled language such as C or C++. "We're announcing Go version 1, or Go 1 for short, which defines a language and a set of core libraries to provide a stable foundation for creating reliable products, projects, and publications," says Google's Andrew Gerrand. He notes that Go 1 is the first release of Go that is available in supported binary distribution, identifying Linux, FreeBSD, Mac OS X, and Windows. Stability for users was the driving motivation for Go 1, and much of the work needed to bring programs up to the Go 1 standard can be automated with the go fix tool. A complete list of changes to the language and the standard library, documented in the Go 1 release notes, will be an essential reference for programmers who are migrating code from earlier versions of Go. There also is a new release of the Google App Engine SDK.


Transparent Memory Chips Are Coming
Rice University (03/27/12) Mike Williams

Rice University researchers have developed transparent, flexible memories using silicon oxide as the active component. Rice's James Tour says the new type of memory developed by his lab could be combined with transparent electrodes developed at the university for flexible touchscreens and transparent integrated circuits and batteries developed at other labs in recent years. Tour suggests the Rice breakthrough could lead to the development of a see-through cell phone. "Generally, you can't see a bit of memory, because it's too small," he says. Tour notes that silicon itself is not transparent. "If the density of the circuits is high enough, you're going to see it," he points out. The discovery is based on 2010 memory research that was reported on the front page of The New York Times, but Tour's lab has since developed a working two-terminal memory device that can be stacked in a three-dimensional configuration and attached to a flexible substrate.


IDEAS Global Challenge Team Profile: Wecyclers
MIT News (03/27/12) Kevin Leonardi

A participant in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) IDEAS Global Challenge is Wecyclers, a crowdsourced recycling platform that will operate in Lagos, Nigeria, and is designed to incentivize the collection of recyclable materials by slum residents. The Wecyclers team intends to develop a fleet of bicycle-powered mobile collection centers and employ a short messaging service-based points platform so that those who bring recyclables to the centers can earn rewards such as clean drinking water, soap, food, or cell phone minutes purchased though the sale of the materials to the local recycling sector. "When they collect recyclable materials, they will be amassing points that can be used for something that will be of use to them," says Wecyclers team member and MIT student Bilikiss Adebiyi. He notes that the Wecyclers team is striving to have a pilot program for this summer, and both mechanical engineers and software engineers are participating in the construction of the platform. The prototype will be piloted in Lagos, with hopes to roll it out in 2013. "We have all of these ideas, but we need to have a working prototype and be able to learn from it before moving forward," Adebiyi says.


UK Youngsters Rank in Europe's Top Five for Programming Skills
V3.co.uk (03/27/12) Gareth Morgan

United Kingdom schoolchildren rank in the top five in Europe when it comes IT prowess, with a quarter of 16- to 24- year-olds having written a computer program. The United Kingdom shared fifth place with Hungary, ahead of Germany, France, and the Netherlands. Finland leads the way, as 37 percent of its youngsters have written a computer program, followed by Sweden, Austria, and Spain, according a report released as part of a European-wide e-skills audit. Moreover, university graduates with computing-related degrees accounted for just 4 percent of all graduates in 2009, down from 6 percent in 2005. Seventy-two percent of Britons have copied or moved a computer file or folder, while 51 percent claimed to be able to use basic arithmetic functions in spreadsheets. The European Commission's Digital Agenda Scorecard 2011, which measures a variety of computer skills across the whole population, comes at a time when there is increasing concern in the United Kingdom about teaching computing skills. The government pledged earlier in the year to overhaul the information technology curriculum in schools and focus more on the skills needed by employers.


The ALICE Computing Project
CERN Courier (03/27/12) Federico Carminati

The ALICE software environment (AliRoot) is a framework within which all ALICE data are processed and analyzed, and the next challenge will be to adapt the code to new parallel architectures to maximize the performance of modern hardware. The Grid implementation for ALICE required the development of a complete grid system using open source software. The AliRoot developers built a lightweight framework written in Perl, which linked together many individual open source components to create the Alice Environment (AliEn). From the beginning, the core of this system consists of a distributed file catalog and a workload-management system based on the pull mechanism, in which computer centers find appropriate workloads from a central database. AliEn was built as a metasystem aimed at presenting the user with a seamless interface while joining together the different grid systems that harness the various resources. One important step was achieved with the tight integration of AliEn with the MonALISA monitoring system, which enables large quantities of dynamic parameters related to the grid operation to be stored and processed. In the future, the ALICE grid must improve the optimization tools for workload scheduling and data access, which would increase the capabilities to exploit opportunistic computing resources.


Student's Idea Gives Graphic Details to Visually Impaired Scientists
University of Reading (03/27/12)

University of Reading student Ruth White is developing technology that will enable visually impaired researchers to feel and hear a virtual graph. The work aims to help visually impaired students use a low-cost haptics system to feel the shape of graphically presented data. "People in science and engineering subjects often need to visualize large amounts of data, but for those who are visually impaired it would be meaningless to hear a screen reader read out an almost endless list of numbers," White says. She first developed the system as an undergraduate, and is now working to improve the system as part of her final year research project, with feedback from potential users. "Ruth has developed an excellent idea, using simple but well-designed technology to make a real difference to the lives of fellow students, and I congratulate her on being asked to present her idea at Westminster," says Reading professor William Harwin. "The code she has used is open source, so engineers and designers will be able to use and build on her work for free, making it genuinely useful in the future."


Computer Scientist Drives for Comprehensive Traffic Model
University of Illinois at Chicago (03/27/12) Paul Francuch

University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) professor Jakob Eriksson is developing a traffic model that gathers and assembles data from smartphones, online maps, radio, and TV. "The long-range ambition is to build something like a roadmap, but annotated with everything that's going on at the moment," Eriksson says. He says mathematical calculations that could predict alternate routes on side streets and secondary routes could help motorists bypass traffic jams. A more dynamic, real-time traffic picture also could help commuters decide when it would be more practical to use mass transit. "This project asks, how do we combine it all into one coherent model showing the current status of the transportation network?" Eriksson notes. Initially, UIC researchers will use Chicago-area data for the project, but they plan to branch out into other cities in the future. "There may be 10,000 road segments we want to simulate in some detail with perhaps a million cars on the road during rush hour," Eriksson says. He notes that data not currently being fed into traffic reporting systems could be used for the model. Road sensors, tollway transponders mounted on windshields, and "jam cam" traffic cameras also could supply data.


Robots to Organise Themselves Like a Swarm of Insects
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (03/26/12)

A swarm of insects is the inspiration for a warehouse transport system that makes use of autonomous robotic vehicles. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) have developed autonomous Multishuttle Moves vehicles to organize themselves like insects. The team is testing 50 shuttles at a replica warehouse. When an order is received, the shuttles communicate with one another via a wireless Internet connection and the closest free vehicle takes over and completes the task. "We rely on agent-based software and use ant algorithms based on the work of [swarm robotics expert] Marco Dorigo," says IML's Thomas Albrecht. The vehicles move around using a hybrid sensor concept based on radio signals, distance and acceleration sensors, and laser sensors to calculate the shortest route to any destination and avoid collisions. Albrecht says the system is more flexible and scalable because it can be easily adapted for smaller or larger areas based on changes in demand. "In the future, transport systems should be able to perform all of these tasks autonomously, from removal from storage at the shelf to delivery to a picking station," says IML professor Michael ten Hompel.


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