Welcome to the April 20, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
ACM Names 2012-13 Athena Lecturer
CCC Blog (04/19/12) Erwin Gianchandani
The Association of Computing Machinery's Council on Women in Computing (ACM-W) recently named Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher Nancy Lynch its 2012-2013 Athena Lecturer. Lynch has been recognized for her advances in distributed systems enabling dependable Internet and wireless network applications. The Athena Lecturer award comes with a $10,000 honorarium to celebrate female researchers who have made fundamental contributions to computer science. Lynch's "ability to formulate many of the core problems of the field in clear and precise ways has provided a foundation that allows computer system designers to find ways to work around the limitations she verified, and to solve problems with high probability," says Mary Jane Irwin, who heads the ACM-W Athena Lecturer award committee. Lynch devised new distributed algorithms, designed precise models for analyzing distributed algorithms and systems, and discovered limitations on what distributed algorithms can achieve. Her research produced the FLP result, which is characterized as a mathematical problem encompassing the challenge of establishing agreement in asynchronous distributed systems in the presence of failures. The research has had a major impact on the design of fault-tolerant distributed data management systems and communications systems.
New Nanodot-Based Memory Tech Sets Speed Record
Asian News International (04/19/12)
New electronic memory technology that makes use of nanodots can write and erase data 10 to 100 times faster than existing mainstream charge-storage memory products. The team behind the technology used a layer of non-conducting material embedded with discrete, or non-overlapping, silicon nanodots, each approximately three nanometers across and each functioning as a single memory bit. To control the memory operation, the researchers covered this layer with a thin metallic layer, which functions as a metal gate that controls the on and off states of the transistor. The team reached the speed milestone by using ultra-short bursts of green laser light to selectively anneal or activate specific regions around the metal layer of the metal gate of the memory. Since the sub-millisecond bursts of laser light are very brief and precise, they are able to accurately create gates over each of the nanodots. The researchers say the method is particularly robust because individual charge failures would barely influence the other nano-sites, which makes for a stable and long-lived data storage platform. "The materials and the processes used for the devices are also compatible with current mainstream integrated circuit technologies," says National Nano Device Laboratories researcher Jia-Min Shieh.
Open Source Hardware Movement Seeks Legitimacy
IDG News Service (04/17/12) Agam Shah
A group of technologists recently established the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHA) to promote the creation and sharing of hardware or electronic designs. OSHA aims to foster growth in the open source hardware movement. Open source hardware is similar to open source software because designs can be applied to commercial applications from which companies can make money. "It has many similar principals of open source software, but differs because hardware is a different beast [with] different methods, formats, and issues than software," says OSHA founder Alicia Gibb. She says OSHA will host the annual Open Hardware Summit conference, which will act as a forum for technology professionals to discuss devices, manufacturing, design, business, and law. "We publish all the files needed to improve, make derivatives, or re-manufacture the things built," Gibb says. Many open source hardware projects are based on the Arduino microcontroller, which serves as a prime example of how open source hardware works. The open source hardware movement also has received support from organizations such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research. "Many open source hardware projects will not be the type of thing that are eligible for copyright protection," notes Public Knowledge attorney Michael Weinberg.
New Julia Language Seeks to Be the C for Scientists
InfoWorld (04/18/12) Paul Krill
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed Julia, a programming language designed for building technical applications. Julia already has been used for image analysis and linear algebra research. MIT developer Stefan Karpinski notes that Julia is a dynamic language, which he says makes it easier to program because it has a very simple programming model. "One of our goals explicitly is to have sufficiently good performance in Julia that you'd never have to drop down into C," Karpinski adds. Julia also is designed for cloud computing and parallelism, according to the Julia Web page. The programming language provides a simpler model for building large parallel applications via a global distributed address space, Karpinski says. Julia also could be good at handling predictive analysis, modeling problems, and graph analysis problems. "Julia's LLVM-based just-in-time compiler, combined with the language's design, allows it to approach and often match the performance of C and C++," according to the Julia Web page.
Iris Recognition Report Evaluates 'Needle in Haystack' Search Capability
NIST News (04/17/12) Evelyn Brown
U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researchers recently conducted a study evaluating the performance of iris recognition software from 11 organizations and found that some techniques produced very rapid results. The researchers say their study is the first independent comparison of commercially available algorithms that use iris recognition to find an individual match within a large database of potential identities. NIST evaluated 92 iris recognition algorithms from nine private companies and two university labs. The challenge was to identify individuals from a database of eye images taken from more than 2.2 million people. "This ability to pick out a 'needle in a haystack' quickly and accurately is crucial, and we found some algorithms can search a haystack thousands of times larger than others," says NIST researcher Patrick Grother. Success rates ranged from 90 to 99 percent among the algorithms, which means that some programs produced 10 times more errors than others. "When combined with the feedback that this study provides to the industry and the use of the iris in combination with other biometrics, the findings will push accuracy toward 100 percent," Grother says.
Getting to the Root of Genetics
MIT News (04/17/12) Jennifer Chu
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Manolis Kellis heads the university's Computational Biology Group, a team of computer scientists who are using computational techniques to understand the genomic basis of complex human disease. The group, which works with other experimental scientists at the Broad Institute, Harvard Medical School, and other institutions, is developing a computational method to search through the human genome to find key patterns that regulate genes. The researchers hope to get to the genetic roots of diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's, and cancer. They are examining chromatin, which is the combination of DNA and proteins into tight packages that fit inside a cell's nucleus. The researchers are currently studying DNA samples from hundreds of patients and healthy volunteers to see how regulatory motifs change in their genomes, and how these changes relate to disease. "The availability of personal genomes, personal epigenomes, disease phenotypes, and medical records for thousands of individuals has completely changed medical genomics from a place where getting any dataset was extremely hard, to a place where analyzing the datasets is often the bottleneck," Kellis says.
New Research Could Mean Cellphones That Can See Through Walls
UT Dallas News (04/18/12) LaKisha Ladson
University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) researchers have developed an imager chip that enables mobile phones to see through walls, wood, plastics, paper, and other objects. One aspect of the technology involves tapping into an unused range in the electromagnetic spectrum, while the other aspect is a new microchip technology. "We’ve created approaches that open a previously untapped portion of the electromagnetic spectrum for consumer use and life-saving medical applications," says UTD professor Kenneth O. The technology enables images to be created with signals operating in the terahertz range without having to use several lenses inside a device. The new UTD microchip is based on complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology, which the researchers note is common in many electronic devices. "The combination of CMOS and terahertz means you could put this chip and receiver on the back of a cell phone, turning it into a device carried in your pocket that can see through objects," O says. He notes consumer applications for the technology could include finding studs in walls and authenticating documents. "There are all kinds of things you could be able to do that we just haven’t yet thought about," O says.
[WWW] Founder Berners-Lee: CISPA a Threat to Privacy Rights
eWeek (04/18/12) Jeffrey Burt
With a U.S. House vote on the contentious Cyber-Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) rapidly approaching, World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee warns that the legislation jeopardizes everyone's privacy rights, not just those of U.S. citizens. He says legislation “is threatening the rights of people in America, and effectively rights everywhere, because what happens in America tends to affect people all over the world.” Advocates say CISPA provides government and businesses with the tools required to defend against cyberattacks. However several advocacy groups say CISPA could suppress the Internet's basic freedom and openness as well as provide the government with too many intimate details about Web users--a point Berners-Lee raises. He notes that "often people will confide in the Internet as they find their way through medical Web sites ... or as an adolescent finds their way through a Web site about homosexuality." CISPA closely follows the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, proposed bills that Berners-Lee notes were stopped by a big public outcry. "It’s staggering how quickly the U.S. government has come back with a new, different threat to the rights of its citizens,” he says.
Software Helps Spot Groups of Fake Online Reviews
New Scientist (04/16/12) Paul Marks
Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and Google have developed software that can identify groups of fraudulent online reviews that attempt to steer the sentiment of products or businesses. In the past, researchers have used Amazon's the Mechanical Turk to assess reviews, but UIC's Arjun Mukherjee and Bing Liu and Google's Natalie Glance decided to use paid experts, and then train software to differentiate between spammers and genuine reviewers. The researchers say the behavior of groups who collude to kill or hype products stuck out like sore thumbs. Spamming groups often file their reviews in quick bursts and the language they use is very similar, considering each reviewer is briefed by a contracting agency. "Although labeling individual fake reviews and reviewers is very hard, to our surprise labeling fake reviewer groups is much easier," the researchers say. Deceptive reviews are a growing problem, but the research suggests that moderators of sites will be able to identify them more easily in the future.
For Women to Think Mathematically, Colleges Should Think Creatively
Chronicle of Higher Education (04/15/12) Theodore P. Hill; Erika Rogers
Addressing the U.S. shortage of women in hard sciences requires getting women into a more mathematically inclined mindset, which can be facilitated by more creative thinking by colleges, write Georgia Institute of Technology professor Theodore P. Hill and former California Polytechnic State University professor Erika Rogers. They cite a failure by experts to "connect the dots between creativity, hard sciences, and basic gender differences." Hill and Rogers refer to broad agreement among experts and lay observers that men achieve more creatively than women. They argue that research on women's dearth of representation in other creative disciplines also may yield insights about their underrepresentation in hard sciences. Research has uncovered greater playfulness, curiosity, and willingness to take risks among men than among women, and suggested ways to instill more creativity in women include setting up playrooms and apportioning time for creative play. Researchers also have suggested creating an "innovation hothouse" that drives the goals of teaching imagination, selecting risky, unconventional solutions, and working through failures as part of the creative process. "Encouraging a culture of creative opportunity may not directly increase the relative creative achievement of women in the hard sciences ... but it's worth a try," Hill and Rogers conclude.
Secret Computer Code Threatens Science
Scientific American (04/12) Jeremy Hsu
Although modern science calls for researchers to share their work so that their peers can verify the success or failure of experiments, most researchers still do not share the source code for the software used in their projects. However, a group of researchers is pushing for new standards that require newly published studies to make their source code available. "As computing becomes an ever larger and more important part of research in every field of science, access to the source code used to generate scientific results is going to become more and more critical," says Harvard University researcher Andrew Morin. Of the 20 most-cited scientific journals in 2010, only three require that computer source code be made available upon publication. The researchers propose that public funding or policy-setting agencies should support the idea of openly sharing source code. In addition, research institutions and universities should use open source software licenses to allow for source-code sharing while protecting the commercial rights to possible innovation spinoffs from research. "The encouraging thing is that all of the proposals we have made have already been implemented by various journals, funding agencies, and research institutions in one form or another," Morin says.
Beyond Turing's Machines
Science (04/13/12) Vol. 336, No. 6078, P. 163 Andrew Hodges
Alan Turing's most profound achievement is arguably the principle of a universal machine that makes logic rather than arithmetic the computer's driving force, writes the University of Oxford's Andrew Hodges. Turing also defined the concept of computability, and suggested that mathematical steps that do not follow rules, and are thus not computable, could be identified with mental intuition. His 1950 treatise presented a basic argument that if the brain's action is computable, then it can be deployed on a computer or universal machine. Turing later suggested that modeling of the human brain might be impossible because of the nature of quantum mechanics, and his view of what is computable has not changed despite the advent of quantum computing. Many thought-experiment models investigate the implications of going beyond the constraints of the computable, and some require that machine elements operate with unlimited speed or permit unrestricted accuracy of measurement. Others more deeply explore the physical world's nature, with a focus of how mental operations relate to the physical brain and the need to rethink quantum mechanics because uncomputable physics is basic to physical law. Hodges says this way of thinking is part of Turing's legacy even though it superficially runs counter to his vision.
Man and Machine: Better Writers, Better Grades
University of Akron (04/12/12) Eileen Korey
University of Akron researchers recently completed a study comparing human graders and software designed to score student essays. The study concluded that human graders and the software achieved virtually identical levels of accuracy, with the software proving more reliable in some cases. The technology could help teachers go through more essays and give more writing assignments to improve student writing, says Akron researcher Mark Shermis. The study examined more than 16,000 essays from six state departments of education, with each set of essays varying in length, type, and grading protocols. The study challenged nine companies to develop software that could approximate human-graded scores for the essays. "This technology works well for about 95 percent of all the writing that's out there, and it will provide unlimited feedback to how you can improve what you have generated, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Shermis says. The study stems from the Automated Student Assessment Prize contest, which the Hewlett Foundation sponsors to evaluate the current state of automated testing and to encourage further developments in the field. The contest offers $100,000 to anyone who develops new automated essay scoring techniques.
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