Welcome to the August 22, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Free Online Course Will Rely on Multiple Sites
New York Times (08/21/12) Tamar Lewin
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare program is launching "A Gentle Introduction to Python," a new course that will operate as a mechanical massive open online course (MOOC) and teach the computer programming language by patching together existing resources from other open-learning sites. In addition to OpenCourseWare material, the class will use instant-feedback exercises and quizzes from Codecademy, OpenStudy, and Peer 2 Peer University. "The MOOCs that have come out in the last six months are really incredible and have truly moved the needle for online learning, but they are based on very sophisticated central platforms and require significant resources to develop," says Peer 2 Peer University co-founder Philipp Schmidt. The mechanical MOOC will not be as tightly structured as the free courses currently offered by universities such as Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania. The mechanical MOOC will not offer a certificate of completion, but students can earn a badge from Codecademy to document their achievement. The creators of the mechanical MOOC hope that the new model will help increase the percentage of students who complete their courses. "Our goal is to have everyone who participates succeed," says OpenStudy co-founder Preetha Rom.
Computer Program Recognizes Any Language
Research Council of Norway (08/21/12) Norunn K. Torheim; Else Lie
Automatic speech recognition could be transformed by technology-enabling computers to recognize any language without pre-learning, and a new approach for creating such technology is being tested by Norwegian University of Science and Technology professor Torbjorn Svendsen and colleagues. The researchers' phonetics-based approach involves training a computer to identify which speech organ components are being used, based on an analysis of the pressure of soundwaves recorded using a microphone. "We are currently developing a computer program which determines the probability of various distinctive characteristics being present or absent during sound production--for example, if there is vocal cord vibration, this indicates the occurrence of a voiced sound," Svendsen notes. "This is our method of classifying sounds." The next phase of the project involves the development of a language-independent module for use in designing competing speech-recognition solutions. The technology also can be helpful in instances entailing the concurrent use of multiple distinct languages, as it takes the system no more than 60 seconds to recognize a given spoken language. This can assist cases in which a person relaying a presentation in one language cites a quote in another, as well as in investigations requiring quick determinations of what language an individual is using.
Data and Democracy: Building Tools for Citizen Engagement
CITRIS Newsletter (08/15/12) Gordy Slack
Developing tools to promote citizen engagement, specifically direct participation by citizens in the political process, is the goal of CITRIS' Data and Democracy Initiative (DDI). One of DDI's efforts is the Rashomon Project, an open source media editing and compilation program designed to integrate several distinct sources of narrative into a single multilayered story, with a display screen showing multiple panels that can play footage side by side to facilitate a multi-perspective chronology of one event. DDI director Camille Crittenden says Rashomon could be used to build footage taken at political demonstrations into a synchronized, holistic presentation. Measuring the personal financial effects of different political scenarios is the purpose of the DDI-supported online Politify tool, developed to address a perceived dearth of empiricism in the way U.S. voters choose candidates. Politify's developers created software that lets voters feed in their own incomes and other personal data, and then crunches the numbers based on the candidate's platforms, generating the personal cost to voters that each platform, if enacted, would likely impose. "In the short term we want to support efforts to narrow the gap between eligible, registered, and active voters, especially among under-represented groups," Crittenden says.
Smart Cars Get a Connection Test in Michigan
New York Times (08/22/12) Bill Vlasic
U.S. regulators announced a 12-month, $25 million smart car initiative in Michigan to see whether highway safety can be improved via wireless communication between vehicles. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says 3,000 vehicles in Ann Arbor will be outfitted with data recorders and technology similar to Wi-Fi for sending information about accidents or dangerous traffic conditions to drivers in the connected autos. "Cars talking to each other is the future of motor safety," LaHood says. Several of the newest models unveiled by car manufacturers feature various active safety devices that notify drivers if they are in a hazardous situation, but the smart car program intends to share safety data among a linked population of autos on the road. The system can give visual or audio alerts to motorists concerning abrupt traffic shifts experienced by another connected vehicle, while data about drivers' accident and traffic change responses will be captured by onboard cameras. Federal safety regulators say the severity in approximately 80 percent of vehicle collisions involving unimpaired drivers could be mitigated or avoided through vehicle-to-vehicle communication. "The technology is there, and now we need to deploy it intelligently," says Center for Automotive Research founder David Cole.
The Wild World of Wearable Computers
Network World (08/20/12) Julie Sartain
The technology associated with wearable computers is growing quickly and could become a priority in the near future. Altimeter Group analysts call this phenomenon the sentient world, because it has to do with machines thinking and communicating with humans instead of just taking instructions. "Our research around this sentient world has more to do with the fact that machines and environments will begin to learn over time instead of simply anticipating our commands or making our commands easier to input," says Altimeter Group analyst Chris Silva. He says in the next 18 months there will be more mass-marketing applications for multiple sensors that will exploit people's omnipresent connection computers. "The eyeglasses are really cool, but they're just too far out there for a lot of people to grab any time soon," says Forrester analyst Frank Gillette. In order to realize the full potential of wearable computing, companies needs to consider the ergonomics, performance, reliability, flexibility, and manageability of the overall solution, says Motorola's Darren Koffer. For example, Belgian researchers recently presented an energy-harvesting technology that uses thermoelectric elements integrated into textiles to produce enough energy to power body sensors such as a heart rate monitor, a pulse oxymeter, or a watch.
Automated Worm Sorter Detects Subtle Differences in Tiny Animals Used in Genetic Research
Georgia Tech News (08/19/12) John Toon
Georgia Tech researchers have demonstrated an automated system that uses artificial intelligence and image-processing technology to rapidly examine large numbers of individual organisms. The researchers used the technology to study Caenorhabditis elegans, a species of nematode widely used in biological research, and found that the system's ability to detect subtle differences from worm-to-worm can identify genetic mutations that might not have been detected otherwise. By enabling thousands of worms to be examined autonomously in a fraction of the time required for conventional manual screening, the technique could change the way that high throughput genetic screening is carried out. The system relies on a camera to record three-dimensional images of each worm as it passes through the sorter. The system compares each image set against what it has learned the wild type worms should look like. It then "uses this information to determine what a mutant type may look like--which is information we didn't provide to the system--and sorts the worms based on that," says Georgia Tech's Matthew Crane. The machine-learning technology also could be applied to other areas of biology that use model genetic organisms.
Computer-Simulated Knitting Goes Right Down to the Yarn
Cornell Chronicle (08/17/12) Bill Steele
Cornell University researchers demonstrated a method for building simulated knitted fabric out of an array of individual stitches at the SIGGRAPH 2012 conference. The researchers created a three-dimensional (3D) simulation of a single stitch and then combined multiple copies into a mesh, similar to tiles in a mosaic. The computer projects the mesh onto a model of the desired shape of the garment, treating each stitch as a tiny flat polygon that can stretch and bend to fit the 3D surface. "We are actually changing the shape of the yarn loops that make up the stitches, simulating how they wrap around other loops," says Cornell professor Steve Marschner. The result is a simulation with detail down to the yarn level. The researchers tested their method with several patterns from knitting books and were able to create images of dresses, sweaters, a shaw, and a tea cozy. They note the method also has some parameters that can be adjusted to simulate the effects of different needles or yarn, or different yarn tension used by the knitter.
Researchers Hope to Transform Software Engineering Training
SF State News (08/16/12) Jonathan Morales
San Francisco State University researchers hope to improve the effectiveness of software engineering teams by learning what causes them to fail. "Failures in communication, organization, and teamwork are the primary cause of problems in software engineering," says SF State professor Dragutin Petkovic. He says the high rate of failure points to a need to rethink how software engineers are trained and managed, to ensure they develop the teamwork skills necessary to thrive in the working world. Petkovic is leading a study to determine what affects whether software engineering teams succeed and use that information to develop new software models that can objectively predict whether a team is likely to fail. He says the project will be the first to objectively and quantitatively measure the future success of a team. "You could then use this 'early prediction' to adjust your teaching and help potentially failing teams," Petkovic says. As part of the study, researchers will collect data, such as how often team members email each other or meet, how much time they spend coding, and how long it takes for problems to get resolved.
As Smart Electric Grid Evolves, Engineers Show How to Include Solar Technologies
Virginia Tech News (08/21/12) Lynn Nystrom
An optimization algorithm could help ensure that solar technologies are integrated with existing technologies such as energy storage and control systems. Virginia Tech electrical engineers have developed an optimization algorithm for selling power back to the electrical distribution industry and storing electricity on a broad scale. "Withholding distributed photovoltaic power, probably gained from rooftop panels, represents a gaming method to realize higher revenues due to the time varying cost of electricity," says Virginia Tech's Reza Arghandeh. "The distributed photovoltaic power adoption can be controlled with the help of real-time electricity price and load profile." Arghandeh worked with professor Robert Broadwater on the distributed energy storage system computation. The discrete ascent optimal programming approach insures convergence of the various power systems after a finite number of computational iterations. A solution would depend upon the day ahead forecast of load variation, market prices, and photovoltaic generation. The optimization algorithm provides a distributed energy storage charging and discharging schedule with maximized operation benefits.
Augmented Reality Kitchens Keep Novice Chefs on Track
New Scientist (08/16/12) Jacob Aron
Kyoto Sangyo University researchers have developed a kitchen with ceiling-mounted cameras and projectors that overlay cooking instructions on the ingredients. "Cooks can easily and visually understand how to prepare an ingredient for a recipe even if they have no cooking experience," says Kyoto Sangyo's Yu Suzuki. The kitchen also is equipped with a small robot assistant, called Phyno, that sits on the countertop. When the cameras detect the chef has stopped touching the ingredients, Phyno asks if that step of the recipe is complete. University of Washington researchers also have installed cameras in a kitchen to watch over novice chefs. The Washington researchers used Kinect-like depth-sensing cameras to record both the shape and appearance of kitchen objects. The system uses both object- and action-recognition technology to determine what the cook is doing. The researchers say the tracking is about 80 percent accurate, and they are working on ways to improve this figure. Newcastle University's Thomas Ploetz thinks the two augmented reality kitchen projects could complement each other by helping facilitate the automatic recognition of new ingredients.
Soft Robots Go for Color, Camouflage
Harvard Gazette (08/16/12) Peter Reuell
Harvard University researchers have applied dynamic coloration to the soft-silicone-based robots they developed last year. The team was inspired by creatures such as starfish and squid, which have the ability to control their appearance. The robots are able to camouflage themselves against a background or make bold color displays. The color layers used in the camouflage start as molds created by three-dimensional printers, and silicone was poured into the molds to make micro-channels, which were topped with another layer of silicone. The layers can be created as a separate sheet that sits atop the soft robots, or incorporated directly into their structure. The researchers pumped colored liquids into the channels causing the robot to mimic the colors and patterns of its environment. Animals use colors to communicate, and dynamic coloration could enable the robots to signal their position to other robots and the public, says Harvard postdoctoral fellow Stephen Morin. He also notes the soft robot system could potentially assist doctors with complex surgeries or search crews with rescue operations.
UCSB Researchers Demonstrate That 15=3x5 About Half of the Time
University of California, Santa Barbara (08/20/12) Andrea Estrada
University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) researchers have designed and fabricated a quantum processor that can factor a composite number into its constituent prime factors. The researchers were able to factor the number 15 into its prime factors, three and five. "We chose the number 15 because it is the smallest composite number that satisfies the conditions appropriate to test [Peter Shor's prime factoring] algorithm--it is a product of two prime numbers, and it's not even," says UCSB researcher Erik Lucero. The researchers say their achievement represents a milestone in the effort to build a quantum computer capable of factoring much larger numbers, with ramifications for cryptography and cybersecurity. "What is important is that the concepts used in factoring this small number remain the same when factoring much larger numbers," says UCSB professor Andrew Cleland. The research represents a significant step toward a scalable quantum architecture while meeting a benchmark for quantum computation. "After repeating the experiment 150,000 times, we showed that our quantum processor got the right answer just under half the time," Lucero says.
The Big Apple's Big Data Advantage
Fortune (08/20/12) Anne VanderMey
Microsoft's new research lab in Manhattan will focus on big data analysis, examining massive amounts of information created by the world's digital users, says lab director Jennifer Chayes. She says the facility will study how big data can help answer social science and economic questions, and what it means for the interaction of the social sciences with technology. One project involves studying how people make bets, because if people place bets on certain things, they are usually more invested in that thing, which can be a very effective way of collecting data, Chayes notes. The lab also has researchers that are building Vowpal Wabbit, a machine-learning platform that provides a faster way to analyze huge data sets. Chayes says the lab has strong relationships with all of the major universities in the area, such as New York University, Columbia University, and Cornell University. New York City has adopted the nickname "Silicon Alley," and it is becoming a focal point for data-intensive startups in Web 2.0 and beyond, Chayes notes. "When you look at the new companies out there, so many of them are really data-driven businesses," she says.
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