Welcome to the June 18, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
IBM Computer Sets Speed Record
Wall Street Journal (06/18/12) Don Clark
IBM's Sequoia supercomputer system, based at the U.S. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), recently carried out 16 petaflops per second, breaking the world record set by Japan's K Computer last year, and claiming first place in the latest TOP500 list, which was released today at the 2012 International Supercomputing Conference in Hamburg, Germany. The supercomputer field has long been dominated by U.S. technology, but recently international challengers have made great strides. "It's good to see a little competition going back and forth," says Cray CEO Peter Ungaro. "I fully expect Japan and China and Europe to strike back." IBM's Sequoia system is based on a design called Blue Gene/Q, which uses chips the company designed to boost performance while saving energy. Each chip has 16 processors and is based on a technology called Power that has been used in the company's servers for many years. Supercomputers based on IBM's Blue Gene/Q design took four of the top 10 spots on the latest TOP500 list. LLNL researchers plan to use Sequoia to improve simulations used to judge the effectiveness and safety of nuclear weapons.
Verifying Ages Online Is a Daunting Task, Even for Experts
New York Times (06/17/12) Nicole Perlroth
Determining a person's age online has proven problematic, despite many attempts to do by privacy advocates, academics, law enforcement officials, technologists, and advertisers. Although an Internet Safety Technical Task Force was convened in 2008 to study different ways of verifying ages, the initiative has made little progress. "I began to learn that age verification technologies would not address any of the major safety issues we identified," says Internet Safety Technical Task Force co-director and Microsoft senior researcher Danah Boyd. Meanwhile, an informal survey of major figures in the artificial intelligence community found that little research is being done on age verification. “You never want to say never, but age verification has serious conceptual difficulties,” says University of Washington computer scientist Oren Etzioni. He and others say the problem is that the available options, such as establishing a national identity database, are considered violations of privacy. "Unlike Germany and South Korea, we don’t have a national ID system because we don’t like the idea of a big government database knowing everything about us from birth to death," says Family Online Safety Institute CEO Stephen Balkam. The current consensus is that the most effective solution is education and parental vigilance.
'Facebook for Animals' Tested on Birds
University of Oxford (06/13/12)
Oxford University researchers have developed a way of analyzing the social networks that link individual animals to each other via their study of around one million observations of wild great tits (Parus major). The researchers say the approach can automatically identify periods of intense social activity within a large number of observations, which makes it possible to examine these periods in greater detail and calculate which individuals are real "friends," instead of just random passers-by. "What we have shown is that we can analyze data about individual animals, in this case great tits, to construct a 'Facebook for animals' revealing who affiliates with who, who are members of the same group, and which birds are regularly going to the same gatherings or 'events,'" says Oxford's Ioannis Psorakis. The researchers found that their predictions based on their data about which birds were "friends," as well as which birds were starting the process of pairing up or were already in a pair, matched visual observations made by zoologists. The results suggest that individual birds do not participate in flocks at random, but favor other members of the population they interact with. The work could help researchers understand how information spreads through animal populations.
Why Do Some Programming Languages Live and Others Die?
Wired News (06/08/12) Caleb Garling
Researchers at Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley are trying to determine why some programming languages become popular while others do not. The researchers, led by Leo Meyerovich and Ari Rabkin, polled tens of thousands of programmers and analyzed 300,000 computing projects from SourceForge in an effort to determine why older languages, such as C, remain so popular. Part of the problem is that language designers do not always have practical objectives, according to the researchers. "There’s a tendency in academics of trying to solve a problem when no one actually ever had that problem," Rabkin says. He notes another problem is that designers overload new languages with extra features, which can overwhelm programmers. Meyerovich says the data also indicates that programmers are not always taking the time to really learn a new language when they start using it, which can lead to problems in the future. “Maybe the solution isn’t entirely technical,” he says. “We need to start building more ‘socially aware’ languages.” The researchers also say another issue is complacency, as most programmers learn three or four languages but then stop learning new ones.
Quantum Computers Could Help Search Engines Keep Up With Internet’s Growth
USC News (06/12/12) Robert Perkins
University of Southern California (USC) researchers have demonstrated the feasibility of using quantum computers to accelerate the process of executing a search engine's page-ranking algorithm. "This work is about trying to speed up the way we search on the Web," says USC's Daniel Lidar. Quantum computers use quantum bits, which can encode a one and a zero at the same time. This property, called superposition, is expected to eventually enable quantum computers to perform certain calculations much faster than traditional computers. Although quantum computers are not available yet to run Google's page-ranking algorithm, the USC researchers generated models of the Web that simulated a few thousand Web pages in order to demonstrate how a quantum computer might perform. The simulation showed that a quantum computer could return the ranking of the most important pages in the Web faster than traditional computers, and that this quantum acceleration would improve as more pages needed to be ranked.
Computer AI Makes Sense of Psychedelic Trips
New Scientist (06/15/12) Anil Ananthaswamy
The University of Chicago's Matthew Baggott and colleagues have used artificial intelligence (AI) to examine the effects of psychedelic drugs. The team applied machine-learning algorithms to 1,000 narratives that were written by people who are using mind-altering drugs. Analyzing reports uploaded to the Web site Erowid, the AI tool revealed that the frequency with which certain words appeared could identify the drug taken with 51 percent accuracy, compared with 10 percent by chance. The machine-learning algorithms identified ecstasy usage with an accuracy of 87 percent, and inferred that the drugs DMT and Salvia elicit a similar response even though they act on the brain in different ways. The analysis into how psychedelic drugs alter perception and intensify emotions could aid research into new and existing drugs. "You need to start with some theories about the effects of a drug," Baggott says. "Machine learning can help us form those theories."
Honeynet Project Tackles USB-Carried Malware Like Flame
CSO Online (06/15/12) Antone Gonsalves
The Honeynet Project has launched an initiative to build technology that traps malware spread from PC to PC via USB storage. Organizers of the nonprofit security research group say better security is needed because the strategy is effective in closed networks that contain highly sensitive documents, noting that portable storage drives are typically used to transfer data between computers on separate networks. USB devices were used to spread the Flame cyberespionage malware, considered to be the most sophisticated malware to date. The malware created a folder that could not be seen by a Windows PC, hiding the application and its payload of stolen documents from the user, according to experts. Sebastian Poeplau, a student at Bonn University's Institute of Computer Science, and other researchers have developed a virtual drive that runs in a USB device to trap malware. "Basically, the honeypot emulates a USB storage device," says the project's Web site. "If your machine is infected by malware that uses such devices for propagation, the honeypot will trick it into infecting the emulated device."
4 Elite CIOs Share Lessons
InformationWeek (06/14/12) Chris Murphy
A recent panel at the annual meeting of ACM's Special Interest Group on Management Information Systems included four chief information officers (CIOs), who shared real-world information technology (IT) trends with academics to help them prepare students for IT careers. Northwest Mutual CIO Tim Schaefer says financial advisers are eager to adopt technology in ways that can help the company. "I'm in all kinds of settings where I would never expect the conversation to turn to technology, and it does," Schaefer says. There are three main types of IT users, says Johnson Controls CIO Colin Boyd. One is end-user companies, another is IT providers and creators, and a third is data center infrastructure operators for cloud services and Web applications. Aurora Health Care CIO Philip Loftus worries that it will be difficult for IT professionals to shift among tech tracks, and that well-rounded technologists may become hard to find in the future. Although many people are nervous that cloud computing will move more IT operations outside the company, there is some recognition that the cloud is a good idea, says Manpower CIO Denis Edwards. All four CIOs agreed that technology has become so critical to daily operations that IT must have a "zero outage, never down" mindset.
Training Computers to See Metaphors
Inside Science (06/14/12) Joel N. Shurkin
Training computers to perceive and read metaphors is the goal of a $1.4 million project by U.S. and Israeli scientists funded by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence's Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. Finding metaphors may be the biggest challenge for the Autonomous Dynamic Analysis of Metaphor and Analogy (ADAMA) project. Illinois Institute of Technology researcher Shlomo Argamon says one metaphor identification method would entail seeking phrases where concrete terms are integrated with abstract terms. Likely signs of a metaphor include an adjective-noun combination that describes similar traits, the combination of a concrete and an abstract noun, and a noun originating from one sensory domain and its comparison to a different sensory domain, such as "I see what you are saying." To determine meaning, the computer would first analyze the feeling corresponding to the metaphor, using a word database to find patterns in the way words are employed over large volumes of data. Argamon says some metaphors are common to subcultures within communities or even individuals, and this can deliver a helpful insight into their worldview. The ADAMA project will start with the languages of English, Farsi, Russian, and Spanish.
'No-Sleep Energy Bugs' Drain Smartphone Batteries
Purdue University News (06/13/12) Emil Venere
Purdue University researchers have proposed a method for automatically detecting software glitches in smartphones known as "no-sleep energy bugs," which can completely drain batteries when the phones are not in use. "When there are no active user interactions, such as screen touches, every component, including the central processor, stays off unless an app instructs the operating system to keep it on," says Purdue professor Y. Charlie Hu. Smartphone manufacturers make application programming interfaces (APIs) available to app developers to prevent the phone from going to sleep during background operations. However, Hu says programmers "make mistakes when using these APIs, which leads to software bugs that mishandle power control, preventing the phone from engaging the sleep mode." The researchers' method automatically detects these no-sleep bugs. They found that their tool accurately detected all 12 previously known instances of no-sleep energy bugs, as well as 30 new ones. The tool adds new functionality to a basic compiler so that it can determine where no-sleep bugs might be. "The tool analyzes the binary code and automatically and accurately detects the presence of the no-sleep bugs," says Purdue professor Samuel Midkiff.
New Software Forecasts Noise Levels in a Street
University of Granada (Spain) (06/13/12)
University of Granada researchers are using neural networks to help predict and analyze urban noise. The Approximate Reasoning and Artificial Intelligence research group has developed software for determining noise frequency and the type of noise in a given area, and says it is more accurate than existing forecasting models that are based on traditional mathematical methods that use a specific set of data. "This is the first system to apply soft computing methods in urban noise assessment, and there is scarce literature available on this method," says project participant Natalia Genaro Garcia. "While many noise forecasting models have been developed in different countries, none of them is accurate enough." The system predicts urban noise levels using a dataset, such as street type, road conditions, average speed of the vehicles passing by, and road works, with a reliability of 95 percent. The researchers say the tool also will be helpful in performing urban noise mapping projects. The team is now working to limit the number of variables needed to produce an accurate forecast of noise at the street level.
Radiation-Resistant Circuits From Mechanical Parts
University of Utah News (06/12/12) Lee J. Siegel
University of Utah researchers have developed microelectromechanical (MEMS)-based microscopic devices that can withstand intense radiation and heat, which makes them suitable for use in circuits for robots and computers exposed to extreme conditions. The devices are logic gates that perform logical operations, and the researchers were able to show that they continued to work despite being exposed to intense ionizing radiation and heat from the University of Utah's research reactor. "Our devices also can be used in deep-space applications in the presence of cosmic ionizing radiation, and can help robotics to control troubled nuclear reactors without degradation," says Utah professor Massood Tabib-Azar. The MEMS logic gates are not damaged by ionizing radiation because they lack semiconducting channels, and instead they use electrical charges to make electrodes move to touch each other. Tabib-Azar notes that by having a MEMS device act as a logic gate, the number of devices needed for a computer is reduced by a factor of 10 and the reliability and speed increases. "What we have done is come up with a technique to form very narrow gaps between the bridges in the logic gates, and that allows us to activate these devices with very small voltages," Tabib-Azar says.
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