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

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Magnetic Bacteria May Help Build Future Bio-Computers
BBC News (05/07/12)

Researchers at the University of Leeds and the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology are studying a bacterium called Magnetospirilllum magneticum and the possibility of using it in future computer systems. The bacteria eats iron, and in the process creates tiny magnets inside themselves, similar to those in PC hard drives. The researchers say their work could lead to the creation of much faster hard drives. When the bacteria ingest iron, proteins inside their bodies interact with it to produce tiny crystals of the mineral magnetite, the most magnetic mineral on Earth. In addition to using microorganisms to produce magnets, the researchers also created tiny electrical wires from living organisms. The researchers have created nanoscale-size tubes made from the membrane of cells and a protein present in human lipid molecules. "These biological wires can have electrical resistance and can transfer information from one set of cells inside a bio-computer to all the other cells," says Tokyo University researcher Masayoshi Tanaka.

Excel Programming for Nonprogrammers
MIT News (05/08/12) Larry Hardesty

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a system that enables Microsoft Excel users to customize their spreadsheets by giving examples of how they want the data to be processed. The system can modify text strings based on just a few examples. The researchers recently expanded the power of the system by enabling it to exploit tables that establish correlations between different types of data. The table-based correlations are useful because organizations often have multiple databases that contain different types of data about the same objects. The researchers say the major challenge in designing the system was handling the range of possible interpretations for any group of examples. The key was to find a way to represent features shared by many expressions only once each, says MIT's Rishabh Singh. "If you look at the macros [small programs] that one would have to write in order to perform those text transformations manually, compared to the few demonstrations that you do as an end user, it’s quite amazing how much programming you can avoid doing through this system," says University of California, Berkeley professor Rastislav Bodik.

Surge in Postdocs Continues, According to Latest Survey Data
CCC Blog (05/07/12) Erwin Gianchandani

The recent growth in the number of new Ph.D.s in computer science and related fields pursuing postdoctoral positions has continued in 2011, according to the most recent Computer Research Association (CRA) Taulbee Survey. The survey also found that the three-year rolling average for the number of new computing Ph.D.s pursuing postdoctoral positions rose from 218 in 2010 to 249 in 2011, an increase of 14 percent. However, the rolling average for the number of new Ph.D.s hired into tenure-track faculty positions immediately following graduation fell for the seventh consecutive year, dropping from 131 in 2010 to 124 in 2011. Meanwhile, the decrease in postdocs between 2010 and 2011--from 294 to 241--is the first such decline since 2004-2005. Still, the raw numbers remain significantly higher than in the early 2000s, when the field had fewer than 100 new Ph.D.s pursuing postdoctoral positions in a given year. The survey's results heighten the need to apply renewed scrutiny to CRA's initiatives to engage the community in a dialog about this trend.

Neural Recordings: Robot Reveals the Inner Workings of Brain Cells
Georgia Tech News (05/06/12) Abby Robinson

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Georgia Tech have developed a robotic arm guided by a cell-detecting computer algorithm that can identify and record neurons in a living mouse brain with more accuracy and speed than a human. The researchers say their work provides long-sought information about living cells' activities. The technique enables researchers to classify thousands of different types of cells in the brain, map how they connect to each other, and determine how diseased cells differ from healthy cells. "If we could really describe how diseases change molecules in specific cells within the living brain, it might enable better drug targets to be found," says MIT professor Ed Boyden. The automated process can perform a skill, known as whole-cell patch clamping, that normally takes several months for a graduate or post-doctoral student to learn. The researchers also showed that their method can be used to determine the shape of the cell by injecting a dye. "If you really want to know what a neuron is, you can look at the shape, and you can look at how it fires," says Georgia Tech professor Craig Forest.

DARPA Wants Gamers to Design Medical Training Software
Government Computer News (05/03/12) Henry Kenyon

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is seeking proposals for a game-based interactive system to train medical first responders. DARPA wants to combine skills training and broad educational applications for a system that goes beyond teaching where to apply a tourniquet, for example, to reinforcing the lesson with demonstrations and discussions of the circulatory system. The agency believes game-based graphics and techniques will help make for well-rounded students who are able to react in difficult situations. "We are not seeking standard computer-based learning systems, but game-based interactive systems that are engaging and challenging to the user," states the request for proposal. DARPA wants design and development proposals to meet professional game standards. Officials say the system must be flexible enough to be used in medical training and in civilian science classes. The agency also wants game designers to create a game-based application for mobile devices to teach first responders through intelligent tutoring systems. The underlying architecture must be accessible to users, which would enable them to analyze and optimize the software.

Life-Size, 3D Hologram-Like Telepods May Revolutionize Videoconferencing
Queen's University (Canada) (05/03/12)

Technology developed by researchers at Queen's University will enable people in different locations to videoconference by talking to a life-size three-dimensional (3D) holographic image of another person. The human-scale 3D videoconferencing pod is called TeleHuman, and looks like something from the Star Trek holodeck. Users stand in front of their own cylindrical pods and talk to 3D hologram-like images of each other, which are visible 360 degrees around the pod, and they can walk around it and see the other person's side or back as well. Cameras capture and track 3D video and convert it into the life-size image. The researchers mostly used existing hardware, including a 3D projector, a 1.8-meter-tall translucent acrylic cylinder, and a convex mirror. The researchers also used the pod to create BodiPod, an application for presenting an interactive 3D anatomy model of the body. People can use gestures and speech to explore 360 degrees around the model. "Why Skype when you can talk to a life-size 3D holographic image of another person?" says Queen's University professor Roel Vertegaal.

Next-Generation Nanoelectronics: A Decade of Progress, Coming Advances
Northwestern University Newscenter (05/03/12)

Northwestern University researchers are attempting to further the development of nanoelectromechanical (NEM) switch technology with the goal of sustaining the advance of silicon-based circuits while curbing power consumption. "NEM switches consist of a nanostructure [such as a carbon nanotube or nanowire] that deflects mechanically under electrostatic forces to make or break contact with an electrode," says Northwestern professor Horacio Espinosa. He says NEM switches, which offer both ultra-low power consumption and a strong tolerance of high temperatures and radiation exposure, could be used either in standalone or hybrid NEM-silicon devices. The researchers reviewed the last decade of progress in NEM technology, providing a comprehensive discussion of the potential of these technologies, as well as the primary challenges associated with adopting them. For example, although individual NEM devices show extremely high performance, it has been difficult to make them operate reliably for millions of cycles. "NEM devices with commonly used metal electrodes often fail by one of a variety of failure modes after only a few actuation cycles," says Northwestern Ph.D. student Owen Loh. The researchers significantly increased the number of cycles NEM devices can endure by replacing the metal electrodes with electrodes fashioned from conductive diamond-like carbon films.

Delaware Girls Day Promotes STEM Careers
Converge (05/02/12) Tanya Roscoria

Wilmington University recently hosted 150 eighth- and ninth-grade girls for DigiGirlz, an event that seeks to introduce young girls to careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The girls competed in teams to program robots, and were exposed to many of the skills that technologists need, such as programming, logic, and critical thinking. Ellen Kullman, the first female CEO of DuPont, and Lillian Lowery, Delaware's secretary of education, talked about technology and offered general career advice. The Delaware Education Department and Department of Technology and Information, along with the Delaware Center of Educational Technology and Microsoft, sponsored the event. State and private-sector leaders targeted the myths girls often face when it comes to STEM careers. "'Math and science is too hard,' and 'a technology career is not for me,' and 'I don't want to be labeled a geek'--those were the things that we tried to dispel yesterday," says Elayne Starkey, chief security officer for the Department of Technology and Information. Starkey says computer science has given her the opportunity to be innovative and creative. "You're not able to sit back and say, 'Wow, I've completed all my education' because the technology changes so quickly, and that keeps things interesting and energizing for everybody," she says.

Implanted User Interface Gives Patients New Options
InformationWeek (05/02/12) Ken Terry

Researchers at the universities of Potsdam and Toronto have demonstrated that it is possible to communicate with a small user interface (UI) device that is implanted just below the skin. The researchers say implanted UI devices will enable patients to recharge and reprogram their devices without using wireless transmissions, which could be vulnerable to hacking. "So far, people have only been able to get those implants checked by making a trip to a physician or by interacting with wireless technologies such as Bluetooth," says Potsdam researcher Christian Holz. "But there hasn't been a lot of direct interaction with implanted devices, and indirect wireless communications have raised some security concerns." The researchers also say the devices can support a much wider range of applications and tasks than conventional implanted medical devices. They note that implanted units have many advantages over mobile and wearable UI devices, such as being able to travel with the user, being invisible, and being unaffected by the weather.

'Game-Powered Machine Learning' Opens Door to Google for Music
UCSD News (CA) (05/02/12) Catherine Hockmuth

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers have developed game-powered machine learning, technology that enables users to search for songs on the Web using simple key words. The researchers, led by UCSD professor Gert Lanckriet, plan to create a text-based multimedia search engine that will make it easier to access online multimedia content. Game-powered machine learning involves computers studying the examples of music that have been provided by music fans and given specific labels. The system analyzes waveforms of recorded songs in specific categories looking for acoustic patterns common to each. It then can automatically label songs by recognizing these patterns. "This is a very promising mechanism to address large-scale music search in the future," Lanckriet says. The system also can use what it has learned to design programs that elicit the most effective training from the users in the loop. For example, if the system struggles at recognizing jazz patterns, it can ask for more examples of jazz music to study. Lanckriet notes the active feedback loop combines human knowledge about music and automated music tagging through machine learning. He says it also automatically creates new programs to collect the specific human input it needs to improve the auto-tagging algorithms.

Algorithm Weighs Up Strategies for Bridge Management
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (05/02/12)

Concordia University engineers have developed an algorithm designed to help public officials decide how to manage bridges. The algorithm takes into account the physical conditions of a particular bridge and places more importance on some factors than others. For example, a bridge that is in poor shape would be seen as being a higher priority than a bridge whose drainage system is inefficient. The algorithm also looks at whether to rebuild a bridge, repair it, or increase maintenance. This feature was developed with the help of experts who chose one of those three options for each of the 20 bridges that were in a sample put together by the researchers who developed the algorithm. After choosing whether it was better to rebuild, repair, or increase maintenance, the researchers used software to simulate all of the various possibilities and determined the cost of each. Concordia's Abu Dabous says the algorithm is a powerful tool that takes into account the opinion of experts and a systematic assessment of bridges in order to identify the best strategy for dealing with problematic bridges, while simultaneously helping governments stay within the limitations of their budgets.

New Protocol Enables Wireless and Secure Biometric Acquisition With Web Services
NIST News (05/02/12) Evelyn Brown

U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researchers have developed the WS-Biometric Devices (WS-BD) protocol, which enables communication between biometric sensors over wired and wireless networks. WS-BD permits desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones to access sensors that capture biometric data, such as fingerprints, iris images, and face images using Web services. The researchers say WS-BD will simplify setting up and maintaining secure biometric systems for verifying identify because this type of system will be easier to assemble with interoperable components compared to conventional biometrics systems. Interoperability is facilitated by WS-BD through the addition of a device-independent Web services layer in the communication protocol between biometric devices and systems. "Biometric systems should be designed to anticipate the development and adoption of new advances and standards, modularizing components that are likely to become obsolete, such as biometric sensors and matcher systems, so that they can be easily replaced," says a 2010 National Academies study. Meanwhile, NIST scientist Kevin Mangold says the WS-BD protocol "would be useful to many organizations that house biometric systems, including border control and customs agencies."

Students Gain Professional Experience Through Microsoft Contest and Internships
Nevada Today (05/02/12) Megan Akers

Microsoft has partnered with the University of Nevada, Reno's College of Engineering to host a developer contest to help students learn about coding and developing their own application ideas for the Windows Phone 7. The contest gives students creative range over their own projects. The apps are evaluated based on reliability, usability, uniqueness, sustainability, and marketability, and the winning app is selected by the highest cumulative score. College of Engineering students Cody Callahan and Ray Shihab make up one of three teams who entered the contest. "Over the past year or so, my main goal for extracurricular excursions has been to gain real-world experience and to build a portfolio of projects for future job hunting," Callahan says. Callahan and Shihab's GeoHoops app asks players to bounce a basketball through a series of increasingly difficult obstacles to make a basket. The gSales app devised by students Jeremy Olsen and Matt Geyer gives users the ability to post and search for nearby garage sales. "My university classes have sparked my interest in computer science and inspired me to learn how to develop for other devices and platforms," Callahan says.

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