Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the June 4, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


A Search Engine for Social Networks Based on the Behavior of Ants
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain) (06/04/12)

Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M) researchers have developed SoSACO, an algorithm that accelerates the search for relationships among elements present in social networks. The researchers note that one of the main technical questions in the field of social networking involves locating the chain of reference that leads from one person to another. SoSACO solves this problem by accelerating the search for routes between two nodes that belong to a graph that represents a social network. SoSACO is based on the way ants move when they search for food. "The early results show that the application of this algorithm to real social networks obtains an optimal response in a very short time (tens of milliseconds)," says UC3M researcher Jessica Rivero. SoSACO enables the system to more easily find these routes, and without modifying the structure of the graph. "This advance allows us to solve many problems that we find in the real world, because the scenarios in which they occur can be modeled by a graph," the UC3M researchers say.


Women Engineers Trace Tech Gender Gap to Childhood
Associated Press (06/04/12) Marcus Wohlsen

Despite an ethos of innovation and a focus on the future, men still dominate many areas of the technology industry. Less than 20 percent of bachelor's degrees in computer science currently go to women, according to U.S. government statistics, a fact that could be due to a lack of role models both in popular culture and in everyday life. "The reason there aren't more women computer scientists is because there aren't more women computer scientists," says Facebook director of engineering Jocelyn Goldfein. She notes that unlike professions such as law and medicine, girls are very unlikely to encounter programmers in their own lives unless their parents are software engineers. "We don't really have that same kind of interaction with software engineers as we go about our daily lives," Goldfein says. She notes that female programmers developed some of Facebook's most popular features. However, Rockmelt CEO Eric Vishria says the competition to hire women has started to heat up as companies see that they need diverse perspectives to build products that attract the widest audiences. He says startups that do not hire women early on risk creating a male-dominated culture that will put off potential female hires.


Skeleton Key
Northwestern University Newscenter (06/01/12) Megan Fellman

Northwestern University researchers have found that different complex networks share similar backbones. The researchers stripped varying networks down to their essential nodes and links and found that the networks possess skeletons with common features. They also studied different biological, technological, and social networks and found that they have evolved according to basic growth mechanisms. Northwestern professor Dirk Brockmann notes researchers had already determined that diseases spread in a similar way, and the new knowledge about common network structures could be used to predict how a new outbreak might spread. The researchers developed a method to identify a network's hidden core structure and demonstrated that the skeletons possess some underlying and universal features. The networks the researchers studied varied in size and in connectivity. "The key to our approach was asking what network elements are important from each node’s perspective," Brockmann says. "Interestingly, we found that an unexpected degree of consensus exists among all nodes in a network." The researchers were able to produce a skeleton for each network consisting of all of the links that every node considers important.


Massachusetts Offers a New Model for Academic HPC
HPC Wire (05/29/12) Robert Gelber

Several universities in Massachusetts will share high-performance computing (HPC) resources in a unique facility model by the end of the year. The Massachusetts Green High-Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) will feature terascale hardware and the necessary infrastructure to enable its users to remotely access computing resources, including power, network, and cooling systems. University members include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Boston University, Northeastern University, and the University of Massachusetts system, and they must develop new strategies of implementation. The universities will provide their own hardware and migrate research to the $95 million center. MGHPCC executive director John Goodhue says the challenge will be to make the physical hardware act as a set of private local machines for the various users. He says high-bandwidth network pipes and machine virtualization should make that possible. The center could serve as the model for future HPC collaboration if it proves to be a success, but Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor Francine Berman says "social engineering of the stakeholders is dramatically difficult." Potential challenges may entail MGHPCC's ability to generate groundbreaking research and papers versus expanding its user base, which usually receives less attention.


Technology to Monitor Bird Sounds, Impacts of Environmental Change
Oregon State University News (05/31/12) David Stauth

Oregon State University (OSU) researchers have developed a multi-instance, multi-label machine-learning system to simultaneously listen to multiple bird sounds. The system is designed to identify which species are present and how they might be changing as a result of habitat loss or climate change. The researchers say the system should provide an automated approach to ecological monitoring of bird species that is much more practical than human researchers sitting in the field. "Now we can tell down to the second when a bird arrives, leaves, when and where it’s choosing to nest, that type of information," says OSU's Forrest Briggs. The system also could be used to identify other forest noises besides bird sounds, and it could be utilized with other animal species, such as grasshoppers, crickets, frogs, and marine mammals. Briggs says the omnidirectional system's error rate is comparable to that achieved by human subjects, and notes that in one day of testing it generated 548 10-second recordings of sounds from 13 distinct bird species.


Minimizing the Outcome of Disasters by Simulating the Effects of Different Actions
VTT Technical Research Center (05/31/12)

European CRISMA project researchers have developed a decision-support tool to help government authorities, responders, communities, and private parties prioritize the events in an ongoing crisis. The CRISMA project, led by the VTT Technical Research Center, is developing a crisis-planning tool designed to improve the safety of Europeans by providing information on disasters and the effects of the various decisions and measures applied to address the crisis using modeling and simulation technologies for evaluating the effects of the measures taken on hypothetical scenarios. The project will help develop solutions to complex crisis scenarios, which can lead to massive damage and that require cooperation among various authorities and private parties. The researchers are developing an integrated modeling system to simulate the most likely crisis situations as well as more remote scenarios, and the required measures and their effects. The system will be used for short- and long-term planning, and training purposes. The researchers say the CRISMA system helps to make complex issues more concrete to decision makers, and helps to understand how various accidents and crisis scenarios affect the people, society, infrastructure, the buildings, services, and the economy.


Finding Good Music in Noisy Online Markets
MIT News (05/31/12) Larry Hardesty

Columbia University researchers began an online social-media marketing experiment in 2004, creating nine versions of a music download site that presented the same group of unknown songs in different ways. The researchers wanted to measure the effect of early peer recommendations on the songs' success, but found that different songs became hits on the different sites and that the variation was unpredictable. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers recently revisited that experiment and found that it contains a definitive quantitative indicator of quality that is consistent across all of the sites. The MIT researchers also found that the unpredictability of the results may have as much to do with the way the test sites were organized as with social influence. The MIT researchers developed a mathematical model that predicts the experimental results with high accuracy. They found the percentage of customers who would download a given song after sampling it was consistent across all the sites, and the difference in download totals was due to the decision to sample the song in the first place. "The model that they propose does a good job of providing insight into what’s happening in the experiment," says Princeton University professor Matthew Sagalnik.


Research Shows How Computers Can Help Combat Bullying in Schools
University of Kent (05/30/12)

Avatar-mediated communication can help resolve problems of bullying in schools, according to researchers at the University of Kent. In a six-month study of students aged 12 to 13, the researchers found that students who used software that incorporates the latest gesture and facial recognition technology felt more positive toward other students. Moreover, students who used computer-generated images of themselves liked and trusted their partner significantly more. These students also had better ideas for combating bullying. The latest avatar technology can produce avatars that respond to facial and gesture cues, which can improve social interaction. The technology also would enable students to remain anonymous. "Advances in avatar technology have great potential to transform the way we connect and empathize with each other using computers," says Kent lecturer Jim Ang. "And, as our research has shown, it's an excellent platform to help young people, who are very comfortable with all forms of technology, to resolve conflict in schools." Kent lecturer Ania Bobrowicz says "we are planning to take the findings from the project into the next stage to investigate the effectiveness of using avatar technology with pupils with social interaction and learning difficulties in mainstream education."


Stanford Psychologists Aim to Help Computers Understand You Better
Stanford Report (CA) (05/29/12) Brooke Donald

Stanford University researchers have developed a quantitative theory of pragmatics that could lead to more human-like computer systems that use language as flexibly as humans do. The mathematical model helps predict pragmatic reasoning and also could help treat people with language disorders. The research, led by Stanford professors Michael Frank and Noah Goodman, is part of a broader trend to try to understand language using mathematical tools. The researchers recruited 745 participants to take part in an online experiment. The participants saw a set of objects and were asked to bet which one was being referred to by a particular word. The results enabled the researchers to create a mathematical equation to predict human behavior and determine the likelihood of referring to a particular object, and they are currently applying the model to studies on hyperbole, sarcasm, and other aspects of language. The pragmatic reasoning prediction model could eventually lead to the creation of machines capable of better comprehending inference, context, and social rules. "It will take years of work but the dream is of a computer that really is thinking about what you want and what you mean rather than just what you said," Frank says.


Could Ears Be the Perfect Biometric?
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (05/28/12) Joyce Lewis

Ear identification could provide as distinctive a form of identification as fingerprints, says University of Southampton's Mark Nixon, a professor in the School of Electronics and Computer Science's Communications, Signal Processing, and Control research group. Nixon is studying ear biometrics, and believes there are possible applications in security systems. He says the ear provides a cradle-to-grave method of identification because it does not change much over the course of a person's life. For a security system, photos of individual ears could be matched against a comparative database. "During walk-throughs at security checkpoints, cameras could digitally photograph passers-by comparing their ears against others in a database," Nixon says. "Used in combination with face recognition, ear recognition offers a second point of comparison in cases where all or part of a face might be obstructed, for example, by make-up." Nixon also believes images of ears would draw fewer privacy concerns, compared to a database of facial images.


Face-Reading Software to Judge the Mood of the Masses
New Scientist (05/28/12) Lisa Grossman

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers are developing MindReader, software that can read the feelings behind facial expressions. The software could result in empathetic devices and is being used to evaluate and develop better advertisements. The researchers say the software is getting so good and so easy to use that it could collate millions of peoples' reactions to an event as they sit watching it at home, potentially replacing opinion polls, influencing elections, and perhaps fueling revolutions. "I feel like this technology can enable us to give everybody a non-verbal voice, leverage the power of the crowd," says Rana el Kaliouby, a research scientist at MIT Media Lab's Affective Computing group. The MindReader software tracks 22 points around the mouth, eyes, and nose, and notes the texture, color, shape, and movement of facial features. The researchers used machine-learning techniques to train the software to differentiate between happiness and sadness, boredom and interest, and disgust and contempt. During testing, the software was better than humans at telling joyful smiles from frustrated smiles.


Coding Contest Shows How Big Data Can Improve Health Care
IDG News Service (05/25/12) Fred O'Connor

The recent Health 2.0 Boston Code-a-thon brought together information technology (IT) professionals, medical workers, and other experts with an interest in health IT to show how data analytics can improve health care. The competition featured about 85 participants who formed groups to create an application that turns health care data into useful information for patients and care providers. The winning team created No Sleep Kills, a Web site that enables users to access information on how poor sleeping patterns can lead to car accidents. "The whole goal of getting more health data digital is so you can start doing meaningful things with data," says Guy Shechter, who helped develop No Sleep Kills. The site takes information from several sources, including publicly available data from the U.S. government. Event coordinator Deb Linton says the team won first place because it adhered to the competition's theme of using big data by incorporating multiple data sources. Health 2.0 co-chairman Matthew Holt notes that technology can only reach patients and caregivers if the tech community works within the health care system.


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