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Welcome to the April 11, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Undergrad Computer Science Enrollments Rise for Fourth Straight Year
Computing Research Association (04/09/12) Peter Harsha

The number of undergraduate students enrolled in computer science programs rose 9.6 percent in the 2011-12 school year, the fourth consecutive annual increase, according to the Computing Research Association's (CRA's) Taulbee Survey. The data compares schools that responded to both the 2011 and 2010 Computing Degree and Enrollment Trends survey, which documents trends in student enrollment, degree production, employment of graduates, and faculty salaries in academic units in the United States and Canada that grant the Ph.D. in computer science, computer engineering, or information. The CRA Taulbee Survey also suggests that students’ interest in computer science may even be higher than indicated by the enrollment statistics, because some schools’ enrollments are constrained by enrollment caps in computer science departments. The total number of bachelors degrees in computer science awarded by U.S. schools increased by 10.5 percent in the 2010-11 school year, the survey found. In addition, total Ph.D. production in computing programs held steady in 2010-11, with 1,782 degrees granted.


DARPA Challenge Seeks Robots to Drive Into Disasters
InformationWeek (04/10/12) J. Nicholas Hoover

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced the Robotics Challenge, which will offer a $2 million prize to anyone who can build a robot capable of navigating disaster-response scenarios and using human devices that range from hand tools to vehicles. The challenge aims to improve the ability of robots to navigate rough terrain at disaster sites, operate vehicles, and use common tools, as well as to make robot hardware and software development more accessible. As part of the challenge, robots will be required to complete several discrete tasks, including traveling across rubble, removing debris from a blocked entryway, climbing a ladder, and entering and driving a car. DARPA says it will provide "a robotic hardware platform with arms, legs, torso, and head" to some entrants, although robots in humanoid form are not required to enter the challenge. "For robots to be useful to [the U.S. Department of Defense], they need to offer gains in either physical protection or productivity," notes DARPA's Kaigham Gabriel. DARPA's announcement says the "proposed research should investigate innovative approaches that enable revolutionary advances in science, devices, or systems." The challenge will take place in two phases and will finish at the end of 2014.


The Not-Too-Distant Future of Driving: When Cars Can Talk, Crashes May Be Avoided
Washington Post (04/10/12) Ashley Halsey

All cars in future will be equipped with short-range transmitters that use dedicated bandwidth to send information 10 times per second about where they are and what they are doing. The transmitters also will receive and make sense of the same information from every other vehicle within range. "The technology is solid, but you have to prove that the right type of data can be moved from one vehicle to another vehicle and that vehicle could take action on that data," says the Texas Transportation Institute's Christopher Poe. By governing the flow of traffic with real-time information, the technology can reroute drivers to avoid congestion and reduce time and fuel wasted while stuck in traffic. In addition, "this connected-vehicle technology could address about 80 percent, or four out of five, of all the unimpaired driving crashes in America," says the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA's) Ron Medford. NHTSA recently launched a pilot program with 3,000 cars in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to prove the reliability of the technology. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication is just part of the pilot program. NHTSA also has developed a vehicle-to-infrastructure system, which can communicate with several tools, including global positioning systems and traffic lights.


Geek Chic: 'Brogrammer?' Now, That's Hot
USA Today (04/11/12) Haya El Nasser

The image of the geeky techie is fading in real life, thanks to the legacy of industry giants such as Apple founder Steve Jobs and the increasing dependence of more Americans on the skills of those who know how electronic devices work. "There's been a shift in the portrayal," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher Sherry Turkle. "We're dependent on these people, so there's a power shift, a new kind of respect." Many universities have started "charm schools" that train computer science students in social etiquette. Some of the most sought-after advice is body language and dining tips when meeting with potential employers. National etiquette expert Diane Gottsman runs workshops at universities such as Baylor, Rice, and Texas A&M. "There's a wait list to get in," Gottsman notes. "In the technology field, they're great with tech but their social skills need help." Other schools, such as MIT and the University of Illinois, also have workshops to help students become more socially aware. The rising status of techies is perhaps most obvious at Apple stores, where the employees are known as “geniuses.”


Chips as Mini Internets
MIT News (04/10/12) Larry Hardesty

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have established theoretical limits on the efficiency of packet-switched on-chip communication networks, and have presented measurements from a test chip that comes close to reaching several of those limits. The researchers are developing ways for chips in multi-core systems to communicate similarly to how data packets are passed between Internet-connected computers. Each core would have its own router and would determine the best way to pass data depending on the network system. The researchers, led by MIT professor Li-Shiuan Peh, have developed two techniques to make this possible. In one method, called virtual bypassing, each router sends an advance signal to the next, so that it can preset its switch, speeding the packet on with no additional computation. During testing, virtual bypassing allowed a very close approach to the maximum data-transmission rates predicted by theoretical analysis. The other technique is called low-swing signaling, which involves a circuit that reduces the swing between the high and low voltages from one volt to 300 millivolts. The combination of virtual bypassing and low-swing signaling resulted in 38 percent less energy consumed on the test chip than previous packet-switched test chips.


Opening the Gate to Robust Quantum Computing
Ames Laboratory (04/09/12)

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Southern California have developed a method to protect quantum information from degradation by the environment while performing computation in a solid-state quantum system. They say the discovery could lead to robust quantum computation with solid-state devices and using quantum technologies for magnetic measurements with single-atom precision. "The big step forward here is that we were able to decouple individual qubits from the environment, so they retain their information, while preserving the coupling between the qubits themselves," says Ames researcher Viatsheslav Dobrovitski. Solid-state hybrid systems are important for quantum information processing systems because they consist of different types of qubits that each perform separate functions. "This type of hybrid system may be particularly good for quantum information processing because electrons move fast, can be manipulated easily, but they also lose quantum information quickly," Dobrovitski notes. The researchers found a point in which both the electron and the nucleus can be decoupled from their environment, while retaining their relationship with each other. They showed that this technique could be used for small-scale quantum information processing.


Researcher Finds Faster, Cheaper Way to Cool Electronic Devices
NCSU News (04/09/12)

A heat spreader made of copper-graphene composite could be used to cool electronic devices, particularly ones that generate a lot of heat, such as lasers and power devices, according to North Carolina State University professor Jag Kasichainula, who attached a heat spreader to an electronic device using an indium-graphene interface film. "Both the copper-graphene and indium-graphene have higher thermal conductivity, allowing the device to cool efficiently," he says. The copper-graphene film's thermal conductivity enabled it to cool approximately 25 percent faster than pure copper, which is currently used by most devices. Kasichainula notes that when devices get too hot they become unreliable. The process for creating the copper-graphene composite, using an electrochemical deposition process, is detailed in his paper. Kasichainula says the copper-graphene composite is inexpensive and easy to produce. "Copper is expensive, so replacing some of the copper with graphene actually lowers the overall cost," he notes.


Plastic Electronics: A Neat Solution
University of Cambridge (04/09/12)

Researchers at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory have developed technology they say could lay the foundation for the development of plastic electronic circuits that are fast, flexible, consume little power, and also cheap and relatively straightforward to produce. The technology offers a simpler way to fabricate high-performance plastic electronic circuits. "This is an ink that can be printed and requires little more than room temperature to reach its peak performance," says Cambridge's Auke Kronemeijer. He notes that "conventional silicon chips ... typically require more than 1,000 degrees Celsius to be fabricated." Kronemeijer and Cambridge's Enrico Gili developed new circuits that exhibited the fastest operation published to date, using this class of ambipolar organic materials and reduced the power supply requirement by about one order of magnitude so that they can already be operated using a standard 9-volt battery. They are confident the power supply requirements could be reduced further to make the technology suitable for ubiquitous electronic devices incorporating printed power supplies. They also say the technology could have a wide range of everyday applications from RFID tags on supermarket packaging to transparent displays embedded in car windscreens displaying vehicle speed or satellite navigation directions.


New Service Helps Travelers Brave Long Wait Times at U.S. Border Crossings
UCSD News (CA) (04/06/12) Doug Ramsey

University of California, San Diego researchers have developed the Best Time to Cross the Border smartphone application. The free app is designed to help motorists determine the best time to enter the United States at crossings from Mexico and Canada. The app builds on other services offered to the public for free. Border wait times are compiled by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency and updated every hour. The San Diego researchers download that data so that users can access any border crossing and see the current wait times for passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles, and pedestrian queues. The researchers say the app's main value is a series of historical graphs, which are updated several times an hour. The graphs show data from the past three months to display the average border wait, for every hour, and each day of the week. "You may not be able to reduce ... congestion, but with a little help from our app, you can make an informed decision about when and where you want to cross the border if time is a factor," says lead project developer Ganz Chockalingam.


Discovery May Lead to Significantly More Efficient Method of Data Storage
UNL News (04/06/12) Jean Jones

University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) researchers say they have discovered a more efficient method of data storage that could lead to new generations of technology. The key to the research is the scanning probe microscopy technique, which is based on exerting highly localized mechanical, electrical, or magnetic influence on an object by using a tiny physical probe and measuring the object's response. The tip of the probe can scan a surface and offer researchers feedback. The probe also can be used to electrically change the local properties of ferroelectric materials. By applying an electric potential to the probe, a nanoscale-sized bit of electrical information can be stored in the ferroelectric material, a principle that is central to data storage and similar to hard disk drives. "It's a completely voltage-free switching of polarization, which is what makes the results of this research unique," says UNL's Alexei Gruverman. He notes the research opens up a new way to store data much more densely than has been possible before. The researchers hope to build on this discovery by investigating possible applications.


Exascale Storage Group Aims to Bring I/O Up to Speed
HPC Wire (04/05/12) Michael Feldman

The European Open File System consortium created an Exascale IO Workgroup (EIOW) with the goal of designing and building open source, input/output middleware to meet the needs for exascale storage. Xyratex's Peter Braam, one of the principal drivers behind EIOW, helped facilitate much of the initial discussion on the topic. "One point that we all agreed with is that we need to start with the applications, putting aside current models, and what is it that applications will require in the exascale era," Braam says. He notes the new initiative focuses on what users need, and the increased focus on I/O will address previous imbalances. When managing data on an exascale level, there is demand for a new paradigm, which is why exascale development is the focus of the new initiative, Braam says. The first working group focused on how application programmers envision using huge data stores and what their requirements are. He says the three requirements that were most prominent were how can applications influence the life cycle of the data in terms of reuse, longevity, and importance; the topic of nested metadata providing bundles with all the data belonging to an application; and schemas to describe metadata and data structure.


Online Searches for Future Linked to Economic Success
New Scientist (04/05/12) Paul Marks

Online search queries can reveal how people living in different countries feel about the future, according to researchers from University College London (UCL). The team studied 45 billion Google search queries and found a "striking correlation" between a country's per-capita gross domestic product "and its inhabitants' predisposition to look forward." UCL's Steven Bishop, Tobias Preis, Suzy Moat, and Eugene Stanley used Google Trends to analyze search queries made in 45 countries in 2010. They counted how many searches included the term "2009" and mentioned "2011," then devised a ratio for the number of searches, calling it the future orientation index (FOI). The team checked the indices against the relative wealth of each nation--its per-capita GDP--as listed in the CIA World Factbook of July 2010, and found a strong correlation. Russia has an FOI of 0.6, while Italy has an FOI of 1.0 and France, the United Kingdom, and Germany have FOIs of about 1.2. Preis says the findings also may "reflect international differences in the type of information sought online, perhaps due to economic influences on available Internet infrastructure."


A New Framework for Innovation in Journalism: How a Computer Scientist Would Do It
Nieman Journalism Lab (04/05/12) Andrew Phelps

City University of New York (CUNY) researcher Nick Diakopoulos is developing a new framework for innovation in journalism. The research is examining a different way to devise questions for journalists. Diakopoulos identified 27 computing concepts that could apply to journalism, such as natural language processing, machine learning, game engines, virtual reality, and information virtualization. He then sifted through thousands of research papers to determine which topics garner the most and least interest. "The goal is really about making innovation in journalism more technologically literate and aware," Diakopoulos says. He reasons that the impediments to progress in news organizations are likely cultural, "not having come from a user-centered design culture, where design thinking is important or ... you really think about people's needs or values." The most practical result came from a real-life series of brainstorms conducted with CUNY students and practitioners. Diakopoulos produced a card-based game designed to encourage fast, frictionless ideation, which resulted in 54 ideas. Part of Diakopoulos' motivation behind the research is to unite journalists and technologists to advance both fields.


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