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Welcome to the August 24, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Robotics 'Critical' to NASA's Mission on Mars
Computerworld (08/23/12) Sharon Gaudin

The Mars rover Curiosity is using robotics to deliver groundbreaking new research about the Red Planet. "Robotics is a key component of the mobile robotic laboratory, in terms of being able to rove, to move around and drive," says U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) researcher Louise Jandura. The rover is equipped with 10 scientific instruments, a seven-foot robotic arm, and the ability to drive across the surface. "Curiosity is a Range Rover-size robotic laboratory," Jandura says. "All the robotics on it are equally scaled up from [its Mars rover predecessors] Opportunity and Spirit." Both Spirit and Opportunity were equipped with two-and-a-half-foot-long robotic arms, while Curiosity's is seven feet. Curiosity also has a drill on its arm that can turn a rock into powder. It can then collect the powder, sort it into larger and smaller particles, and deliver the smaller pieces to the rover's analysis instruments. Curiosity's mast, which holds several cameras, is equipped with robotic joints that enable it to move and take high-resolution color images and video. There also are robotic joints in the rover's six wheels. "We can tell the rover to drive using its wheel system and, based on images taken by its cameras, the rover can avoid obstacles," Jandura says.

Darpa Has Seen the Future of Computing…and It’s Analog
Wired News (08/22/12) Robert McMillan

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently launched the Unconventional Processing of Signals for Intelligent Data Exploitation (UPSIDE) program, which will investigate building computers without using digital processors. The aim is to build computer chips that are much more power-efficient than conventional processors. "One of the things that’s happened in the last 10 to 15 years is that power-scaling has stopped," says DARPA researcher Daniel Hammerstrom. The UPSIDE chips could be an alternative to normal Boolean logic, in which the voltage in a chip's transistor represents a zero or a one. Hammerstrom wants chipmakers to build analog processors that can do probabilistic math without forcing transistors into an absolute one-or-zero state, a technique that consumes energy. The UPSIDE program will run in two phases over a 54-month period. The first phase will involve companies developing chips using probabilistic techniques. The second phase will involve building mobile imaging systems using the chips.

In Google’s Inner Circle, a Falling Number of Women
New York Times (08/22/12) Claire Cain Miller

In an effort to address the declining number of female employees within the company, Google researchers developed algorithms to determine exactly when the company lost women and how to keep them. The researchers found that steps such as making sure prospective hires meet other women during their interviews and extending maternity leaves produce positive results in the lower levels of the company hierarchy. However, since Larry Page became chief executive and reorganized Google last year, senior women have been losing ground and been passed over for promotions. The Google algorithms found that some women who applied for jobs did not make it past the phone interview because they did not flaunt their achievements, so interviewers judged them unaccomplished. In addition, Google found that women who turned down job offers had interviewed only with men. Now, a woman interviewing at Google will meet other women during the hiring process. However, even when hired, technical women were not being promoted as often as men, in part because employees nominate themselves for promotions and women are less likely to do so. Google now has senior women hold workshops to encourage female employees to promote themselves.

Northwestern Scientists Create Chemical Brain
Northwestern University Newscenter (08/22/12) Megan Fellman

Northwestern University researchers have created Chematica, a computer network consisting of 250 years of organic chemical knowledge. The network's software optimizes syntheses of drug molecules and other compounds, combines long syntheses of compounds into shorter and more economical routes, and identifies dangerous chemical equations that could be used for chemical weapons. Chematica consists of about 7 million chemicals connected by a similar number of reactions. It uses algorithms to search and analyze the network, enabling researchers to easily access its vast trove of chemical knowledge. The researchers have demonstrated that the algorithms can find optimal syntheses that lead to drug molecules and other industrially important chemicals. Chematica also can test and evaluate every possible synthesis that exists, which enables the algorithms to find optimal ways of making desired chemicals. The researchers note that another area of application is the shortening of synthetic pathways into "one-pot" reactions, which means that all of the starting materials are combined at the very beginning and the process would proceed in one pot all the way to the final product.

National Campaign Launched to Recruit Fellows to Understand How Software Can Help Research
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (08/23/12)

The United Kingdom's Software Sustainability Institute recently started recruiting researchers to take part in its new Fellows program to develop a better understanding of the way that software is used in research. The Software Sustainability Institute is a team of experts from the universities of Edinburgh, Manchester, Oxford, and Southampton who are committed to cultivating world-class research through software. The institute team is seeking about 15 new Fellows who are based in a wide range of research areas that rely on software in science, technology, digital humanities, engineering, and social sciences. "The Software Sustainability Institute was set up in 2010 to help researchers use and develop software that is reliable, well engineered, and can be re-used by different disciplines in and outside their research programs," says the institute's Simon Hettrick. The launch event, which takes place on Sept. 10, will be an opportunity for prospective applicants to learn more about the Fellow program, network with similar-minded researchers, meet people from the institute, and learn how software can better influence research.

DARPA to Hold Proposers' Day Ahead of New Foundational Cyberwarfare Program
CCC Blog (08/22/12) Erwin Gianchandani

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently announced a Proposer's Day for its Foundational Cyberwarfare program, a new initiative that aims to create revolutionary technologies for understanding, planning, and managing cyberwarfare in real-time, large-scale, and dynamic network environments. The initiative, codenamed Plan X, also will support novel research into the nature of cyberwarfare and support the development of fundamental strategies and tactics needed to dominate the cyberbattlespace. The initiative will focus on understanding the cyberbattlespace by automating analysis techniques to assist human operators in planning cyberoperations. Plan X also will automatically construct verifiable and quantifiable cyberoperations, such as developing high-level mission plans and automatically synthesizing a mission script that is executed through a human-on-the-loop interface. Plan X will develop operating systems and platforms designed to operate in dynamic, contested, and hostile network environments. Finally, the initiative will visualize and interact with large-scale cyberbattlespaces, devising intuitive perspectives and general user experiences. Coordinated views of the cyberbattlespace will deliver planning, operation, situational awareness, and war-gaming cyberwarfare functions.

Robot Learns to Recognise Itself in the Mirror
New Scientist (08/22/12) Hal Hodson

Yale University researchers have developed Nico, a humanoid robot that can recognize its reflection in a mirror and identify its arms' location and orientation down to an accuracy of 2 centimeters in any dimension. Nico is part of an experiment to see whether a robot can pass the test of self-awareness known as the mirror test. Only dolphins, orcas, elephants, magpies, humans, and a few other primates have passed the test to date. The researchers plan to teach Nico how to recognize where its torso and head are, what shape they are, and their color and texture so it can see and react to the mark on its body. "What excites me is that the robot has learned a model of itself, and is using it to interpret information from the mirror," says Yale researcher Justin Hart. Robotic self-awareness is essential to robots working safely alongside human beings, according to Mary-Anne Williams at Sydney's University of Technology. "Many robots today not only do not recognize themselves in a mirror, but do not recognize their own body parts directly," she notes.

Computational Social Science: Making the Links
Nature (08/22/12) Jim Giles

Social science is being transformed by an emerging discipline spawned by the growth of digital data streams that promise to yield a view of individual and group behavior at extremely fine-grained levels of detail and unprecedented scales. Computational researchers verified Stanford scientist Mark Granovetter's theory that weak ties can close the gaps between social cliques and are thus vital to the proliferation of information and to economic mobility, by tapping data on 4 million mobile phone users. Computational analysis of big data also has revealed that some long-cherished assumptions are wrong. For example, researchers used data from some 900 million Facebook users to disprove theories that the spread of ideas in social networks closely follows viral contagion patterns. Practical applications of computational social science are under investigation, one example being a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study in which information about subjects' daily movements and communications is recorded and combined with surveys of emotional and physical health to identify the spread of depression and similar ailments. The issue of data access is one challenge confronting computational social scientists, with Hewlett-Packard Labs researcher Bernardo Huberman noting "many of the emerging 'big data' come from private sources that are inaccessible to other researchers."

Researchers Create 'Frankenstein' Malware Made Up of Common Gadgets (08/21/12) Bob Yirka

University of Texas researchers Vishwath Mohan and Kevin Hamlen have created a computer virus from common gadgets that can evade conventional antivirus programs. Mohan and Hamlen describe their virus, which is technically a proof of concept, as a cyber version of Frankenstein's monster. Their virus was created using snippets from commonly installed programs such as Internet Explorer or Notepad. One of the more clever aspects of the code was the part where the original kernel, the element that infects the computer, was modified and caused to look like part of a normal gadget, thus leaving no trace of itself to be found. The U.S. Air Force partly funded the research, which should help people stay a step ahead of those who create malware. Researchers could use the program to learn how to circumvent new malware before malefactors create them. Some experts have suggested that creating security software that can find objectionable behavior by code is the best way to detect new undetectable malware.

Speech Recognition Finally Finding It's Voice in Mobile Technology
eWeek (08/21/12) Robert J. Mullins

At a forum hosted by the Churchill Club of Silicon Valley, speech-recognition researchers discussed the future of the technology. Quentin Hardy, the forum's moderator and the New York Times' deputy technology editor, says speech is becoming the new user interface. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak notes that, as the technology advances, the interaction between users and machines becomes more natural. “We love our computers; we love our phones," Wozniak says. "We are getting that feeling we get from another person." Nuance researcher Ron Kaplan says speech-recognition technology has evolved from the machine understanding voice commands to understanding meaning and context. "One of the enabling technological advances that makes more accurate speech recognition possible, and makes more accurate understanding of intent possible, is the ability to accumulate large amounts of data from lots of user experiences and to sift and organize and build models from it," Kaplan says. Ford Motor recently opened a lab that is working to improve voice-recognition technology for cars. Despite recent advances, speech recognition is still very complicated. "We talk to it as if we’re talking to a foreigner," says Ford researcher Sheryl Connelly. "We talk very slowly and stilted and we have unnatural pauses."

'Acceleration Noise' Adds Realism to Animated Collisions
Cornell Chronicle (08/20/12) Bill Steele

New sound-synthesis software developed by Cornell University researchers uses an overlooked bit of physics to produce more realistic sounds for computer-generated events. "We realized that just simulating the vibrations of objects to get the sound was flawed," says Cornell professor Doug James. He says acceleration noise is missing. When rigid objects collide, they briefly accelerate back the way they came, pushing back at the air behind them and creating a pressure wave that people perceive as sound. Physicists have already worked out equations to calculate how much the acceleration pulse would be, as the sound it creates depends on the shape of the object. To make real-time computation possible, James and graduate students Jeff Chadwick and Changxi Zheng give the shape to the computer in advance so it can pre-compute how sound will propagate from that object, and then plug in the information about the acceleration pulse to synthesize the sound at runtime. Using the physics of how sound travels through air, a virtual microphone can be placed anywhere, and the use of two microphones will create stereo sound. The researchers presented their software at the SIGGRAPH 2012 conference.

One Laptop Per Child Project Developing New Laptop Tablet Device
THE Journal (08/15/12) Leila Meyer

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is developing a version of its XO device that will combine its existing laptop functionality with a full-fledged tablet mode. Part laptop and part tablet, the new XO-4 Touch device will feature an energy-efficient, optical multitouch-capable screen. The screen will offer fast-scanning capabilities, a low-latency pen and brush sensors, and the ability to detect pressure. "There is constant debate over laptops versus tablets in educational programs," says OLPC CEO Rodrigo Arboleda. "While maintaining our XO's award-winning design from Yves Behar's FuseProject, we have combined features of both devices to deliver dual benefits." The XO laptop features flash storage rather than a hard disk drive and comes with thick plastic walls and a sunlight-usable display shielded by internal bumpers. The devices have two wireless 802.11 b/g antennas that can link to both ad-hoc networks and wireless access points, and a dust- and waterproof rubber keyboard. The new XO-4 Touch could be released in the first quarter of 2013. OLPC also is developing more strategic partnerships with educational material developers to provide content for the devices.

Education Leaders See MOOCs, Distance Learning as the Future of Higher Ed
Campus Technology (08/20/12) Dian Schaffhauser

Elon University researchers recently launched the Imagining the Internet project, which presented two scenarios describing higher education in 2020 and asked Internet experts, researchers, observers, and users which of the two they most agreed with and why. Once scenario suggested that it would be similar to the way it is now, and the other suggested it would be very different. Sixty percent of the 1,021 respondents agreed with the statement that by 2020 "there will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources [and] a transition to 'hybrid' classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings." About 39 percent of respondents thought that the change would be more modest, and most universities would still require in-person, on-campus attendance of students and would still feature many traditional lectures. Although most respondents expect greater change and greater dependence on technology in higher education, many also are unenthusiastic about the transition. "They are worried over the adoption of technology-mediated approaches that they fear will lack the personal, face-to-face touch they feel is necessary for effective education," says Pew Internet Project director Lee Rainie.

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