Welcome to the May 23, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Troves of Personal Data, Forbidden to Researchers
New York Times (05/21/12) John Markoff
Caches of big data collected by researchers at Facebook, Google, and other companies from patterns of cell phone calls, Internet clicks, and text messages by millions of users worldwide are often withheld from publication for competitive or privacy reasons, and social scientists such as Hewlett-Packard Labs' Bernardo A. Huberman argue that privately held data troves are threatening the foundation of scientific research. "If another set of data does not validate results obtained with private data, how do we know if it is because they are not universal or the authors made a mistake?" Huberman writes in a letter in the journal Nature. He says corporate dominance of data could give privileged access to an elite cohort of scientists at the biggest companies, leading to a situation in which equally talented researchers are ignored by the scientific community because they lack access. The issue is complicated by a lack of clear data-sharing guidelines at leading science journals across a wide range of disciplines. Last year the U.S. National Science Foundation said researchers to whom it allocates funds would be "expected" to share data with other scientists, and many researchers concur that this model should be applied across the entire scientific spectrum.
Web Creator Backs U.K. Open Data Institute
BBC News (05/22/12)
A United Kingdom (U.K.) institute opening in September will serve as an open data hub as the government makes more data available to the public. World Wide Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee will co-direct the Open Data Institute (ODI), along with University of Southampton professor Nigel Shadbolt. The U.K. government has already released weather and transport data, which has led to the development of novel applications and businesses. The institute plans to offer "appathons" and "hackathons" to help provide people with the skills needed to use large data sets. In addition to offering training, ODI plans to advise businesses on how to get the most out of the government data. The institute also intends to provide the government with feedback on the data it is providing, such as the novel types of information that are of interest to businesses. "As the government releases more and more of that data, the obvious question to ask is whether we are driving all the value out of that we can," Shadbolt says.
Alan Turing’s Centennial Provides a Retrospective on His Influence
SD Times (05/22/12) Victoria Reitano
ACM is hosting the Turing Centenary Celebration June 15-16, a program that includes individual talks by past A.M. Turing Award winners, as well as panel events on networked computing and other subjects. Alan Turing’s research on universal computation is one of the most important works in the field of computing over the last 100 years, says scientist Stephen Wolfram. This year's A.M. Turing Award winner, University of California, Los Angeles professor Judea Pearl, will speak on a panel about human and machine intelligence. The fact that the industry is reviewing the Turing test of universal computation, and understanding that it is not the end of the road, is a sign that the industry understands that Turing’s legacy is one of constant discovery, Pearl says. "Systems must also display autonomy, that is, providing continuous service without human intervention and dependability that is invulnerability to threats including attacks, hardware failures, and software execution errors," says 2007 A.M. Turing Award winner and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne professor Joseph Sifakis. "In the near future, another anticipated, important landmark will be the advent of the Internet of things as the result of the convergence between embedded technologies and the Internet."
Researchers Improve Fast-Moving Mobile Networks
NCSU News (05/21/12) Matt Shipman
A new method developed by researchers from North Carolina State University (NCSU) promises to improve the quality and efficiency of data transmission in mobile ad hoc networks (MANETs). MANETs present a challenge for transmitting data because the nodes that transmit and receive data are in motion, and the faster they move the harder it is for the network to identify effective relay paths for transmitting data, considering the power of the data-transmission channels fluctuates much more rapidly at high speed. The team's method improves the ability of each node in the network to select the best path for relaying data, as well as the best path for transmitting the data that ensures reliable reception. When a node needs to transmit a message, it first measures the strength of transmissions it is receiving from potential relays. The data is then plugged into an algorithm that predicts which relay will be strongest when the message is transmitted. The algorithm also tells the node the rate at which it should transmit the data. "Our goal was to get the highest data rate possible, without compromising the fidelity of the signal," says NCSU professor Alexandra Duel-Hallen.
New Mathematical Framework Formalizes Oddball Programming Techniques
MIT News (05/22/12) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a mathematical framework that enables developers to reason rigorously about sloppy computation, providing mathematical guarantees that if a program behaves as intended, so will a fast-but-inaccurate modification of it. MIT's Michael Carbin describes the framework as a type of formal verification, and says the performance gains promised by techniques such as loop perforation will give programmers confidence to try formal verification techniques. "We're identifying all these opportunities where programmers can get much bigger benefits than they could before if they're willing to do a little verification," Carbin says. The framework forces programmers to specify "acceptability properties" for each procedure in a program and by reference to the normal execution of the program. The framework also enables developers who have already verified their programs to reuse a lot of their previous reasoning. Carbin says the researchers are now working on a system that enables programmers to simply state acceptability properties.
Microsoft's FDS Data-Sorter Crushes Hadoop
The Register (UK) (05/22/12) Timothy Prickett Morgan
Microsoft researchers have developed the Flat Datacenter Storage approach, which features new sorting algorithms for the Bing search engine that beat a Hadoop cluster in the MinuteSort test, which counts how many bytes of data a system can sort using the benchmark code in 60 seconds. The Microsoft effort also beat Hadoop in the PennySort test, which measures the amount of data you can sort for a penny's worth of system time on a machine or cluster set up to run the test. However, Microsoft is only providing some clues as to how it was able to beat the Hadoop cluster by almost a factor of three, using one-sixth the number of servers. The Flat Datacenter Storage researchers increased the speed of the system using bisection bandwidth networks, which enabled each node in the cluster to transmit data at 2Gb per sec and receive data at 2GB per sec without interruption. "That’s 20 times as much bandwidth as most computers in data centers have today, and harnessing it required novel techniques," says Microsoft project leader Jeremy Elson.
Study Shows Promise and Challenges of ‘Hybrid’ Courses
Chronicle of Higher Education (05/22/12) Katie Mangan
Students learn equally well in a course that is taught partly online as they do in a traditional classroom, according to an Ithaka S+R report. However, the report says hybrid courses, which offer both online and traditional classroom instruction, will not reach their potential until they are easier for faculty members to customize and more fun for students. The conclusion that hybrid courses are no better or worse than traditional ones is not "a bland result," says study co-author William G. Bowen. "We felt it was important to do a rigorous, randomized study so we could see if the extreme claims on either side of the divide are justified." The study compared how much students at six public universities learned after taking a prototype introductory statistics course in either a hybrid or a traditional format. "We find that learning outcomes are essentially the same--that students in the hybrid format pay no 'price' for this mode of instruction in terms of pass rates, final exam scores, and performance on a standardized assessment of statistical literacy," the report says. The study applies only to interactive online courses that substitute some face-to-face instruction with computer-guided lessons.
Robotic Fish Shoal Sniffs Out Pollution in Harbours
New Scientist (05/22/12) Jacob Aron
The SHOAL project is a collaboration between European universities, businesses, and the Spanish port of Gijon that has created autonomous robotic fish that can sense marine pollution. "With these fish we can find exactly what is causing the pollution and put a stop to it right away," says SHOAL project leader Luke Speller. The robotic fish are equipped with a range of built-in sensors that detect lead, copper, and other contaminants, as well as measuring water salinity. If one of the fish senses pollution in an area, it calls others to help create a detailed map of high and low concentrations of the pollutant, enabling authorities to locate the source. The robotic fish are one--and-a-half meters long, have an eight-hour battery, and can communicate with each other and a nearby base station using very low-frequency sound waves. However, the robots also have a low data transmission rate and can only send short, predefined messages. "It's a good solution, but it requires thinking carefully about what data to transmit and how to use that data," says University of Washington roboticist Kristi Morgansen.
Totally RAD: Bioengineers Create Rewritable Digital Data Storage in DNA
Stanford School of Medicine (05/21/12) Andrew Myers
Stanford University researchers have developed a method to reapply natural enzymes adapted from bacteria to flip specific sequences of DNA back and forth, which can serve as the genetic equivalent of a binary digit. "Essentially, if the DNA section points in one direction, it's a zero. If it points the other way, it's a one," says Stanford graduate student Pakpoom Subsoontorn. "Programmable data storage within the DNA of living cells would seem an incredibly powerful tool for studying cancer, aging, organismal development, and even the natural environment," notes Stanford professor Drew Endy. The method also could form the basis of non-volatile memory. The researchers call their method a recombinase addressable data module, which they used to modify a specific section of DNA with microbes that determines how the organisms will fluoresce under ultraviolet light. The researchers had to control the precise dynamics of two opposing proteins. "Previous work had shown how to flip the genetic sequence--albeit irreversibly--in one direction through the expression of a single enzyme, but we needed to reliably flip the sequence back and forth, over and over, in order to create a fully reusable binary data register, so we needed something different," says Stanford's Jerome Bonnet.
Origami-Inspired Design Method Merges Engineering, Art
Purdue University News (05/21/12) Emil Venere
Purdue University researchers have developed Kaleidogami, a method for creating robotic systems and shape-shifting sculptures from a sheet of paper using computational algorithms and tools. "One of our aims is to provide a new geometry-inspired art form, reconfigurable structures, in the emerging field of kinetic art," says Purdue professor Karthik Ramani. The researchers also have developed Kinectogami to create foldable robot-like mechanisms that can reconfigure themselves to suit the terrain. "The folded designs have an elegant simplicity, while using paper and cardboard-like materials that are flat is practical because they are very inexpensive and lightweight," says Purdue doctoral student Wei Gao. The robotic designs consist of building blocks called basic structural units (BSUs), each of which contains two segments joined by a creased hinge, and many BSUs are linked together to create larger structures. "Whereas traditional origami allows only folding, we create our structures by folding and also making cuts to a single piece of flat, paper-like materials," Gao says. The researchers say the method also could be used in architecture to design features such as vaulted ceilings, skylights, and retractable roofs.
The UJI Is Developing a Web Platform to Facilitate Communication to Immigrants in a Court of Law
Jaume I University (05/18/12)
The JUDGENTT project, led by researchers at Jaume I University's Textual Genres for Translation research group, have developed a Web platform designed to improve the work processes for translation and interpreting professionals, and ultimately assist immigrants with communication in a court of law. The Web platform offers documentary, textual, and terminological resources that make use of information technology. The researchers say the platform includes everything from multilingual glossaries to schemas of legal systems from different countries, such as lists of documents subject to translation in legal institutions. The project will help modernize administrative processes and improve the professional image of linguists and translators. The researchers studied the socio-professional needs of legal translators in the Legal Tribunal of the Valencian Community, and determined that they lacked a suitable infrastructure for carrying out specialized translation tasks. They say the platform should ease communication between professional legal translators and immigrants. The preliminary study determined that applied translation tools were not being used, but that text translation was being done manually and sent to other institutions via fax. The researchers created a census of legal translators to analyze their work, with the aim of ascertaining their shortfalls and requirements.
Quantum Computer Leap
Australian National University (05/18/12) Sarina Talip
Disturbance has been the main technical difficulty in building a quantum computer, but new research from the Australian National University (ANU) suggests that noise could be the key to making a quantum computer operate accurately. A quantum computer requires developers to address atomic scales and microscopic systems, which are extremely sensitive to noise, says ANU's Andre Carvalho. Carvalho and collaborators from Brazil and Spain are proposing adding even more noise to the system. "We found that with the additional noise you can actually perform all the steps of the computation, provided that you measure the system, keep a close eye on it, and intervene," Carvalho says. He notes the outcomes of the measurement cannot be controlled--instead, they are totally random. As a result, patiently waiting means it would take an infinite amount of time to extract even a very simple computation. "By choosing smart ways to detect the random events, we can drive the system to implement any desired computation in the system in a finite time," Carvalho says.
Googling Cancer: Search Algorithms Can Scan Disease for Patient Risk
Txchnologist (05/17/12) Charles Q. Choi
Lund University researchers have modified Google's PageRank algorithm to develop NetRank, which scans how genes and proteins in a cell are similarly connected through a network of interactions with their neighbors. The researchers have found that NetRank can help find new targets for drugs to fight tumors and other diseases. "These decisions are mostly the result of proteins talking to each other, and if we want to predict what the cell does next, we have to, besides measuring the protein levels, take into account and better understand these networks of interactions," says Lund's Christof Winter. The researchers used NetRank on about 20,000 pancreatic cancer proteins to see which ones were the best indicators for survival. They identified seven proteins that could help assess how aggressive a patient's tumor is and guide experts to decide if the prognosis was worth trying chemotherapy or not. "Most exciting for me is that solutions to problems in one domain, such as computer science, hyperlinks in the World Wide Web, can be often successfully used in a completely different domain, such as medicine, cancer protein networks," Winter says. The NetRank system was right in about two-thirds of cases, according to the researchers.
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