Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the September 14, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Futuristic Technology--Including “Talking” Robots--Could Transform Industry
University of Aberdeen (09/13/12) Kelly Potts

University of Aberdeen researchers are developing software that enables computers and robots to communicate with humans. The researchers hope the technology will build trust between machines and humans and increase efficiency across the industry sectors in which it could be used. "Autonomous systems, such as robots, are an integral part of modern industry, used to carry out tasks without continuous human guidance," says Aberdeen's Wamberto Vasconcelos. The systems being developed use natural language generation technology, which involves complex information and data being translated into simple text summaries. "What we are creating is a new generation of autonomous systems, which are able to carry out a two-way communication with humans," Vasconcelos says. The information and data created by the system are translated into text that can be read by the user. Users can then seek additional input, either by asking the system to provide further justifications for its decisions, or by providing more information for the computer to integrate into its plans. "We hope the systems we are developing will enable a new generation of computer systems, including robots and also potentially mobile phones, which can interact with a human in useful ways," Vasconcelos says.


How Facebook Drove Voters to the Polls
Technology Review (09/12/12) David Talbot

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers have found that Facebook messages that encourage other users to vote led an additional 340,000 people to the polls in 2010. "There were one-third of a million people who actually showed up at the polls who wouldn't otherwise have if the message hadn't been shown," says UCSD's James Fowler. The researchers ran an experiment on all of the 61 million voting-age Americans who logged onto Facebook on Nov. 2, 2010. The 61 million people were divided into three categories. The first group, which had about 60 million people, got a message that said "Today is Election Day," which included an icon that said vote, an offer to help find a local polling place, the faces of up to six Facebook friends, and a note that those friends had voted. The second group, with 600,000 people, got the same message, but with no information from friends. The third group had 600,000 people who received no message. The researchers said the first group voted at a slightly higher rate than members of the other two groups. People who had seen the messages with faces of their friends also were more likely to click the "I Voted" button, which spread the message to their friends.


Computer Program Can Identify Rough Sketches
Brown University (09/12/12) Kevin Stacey

Brown University researchers have developed software that can identify simple sketches in real time, which they note is the first program that enables semantic understanding of abstract sketches. The research was presented at the recent SIGGRAPH 2012 conference. Brown professor James Hays says the key to making the program work is a large database of sketches, which can be used to teach a computer how humans sketch objects. The researchers developed the database by devising a list of 250 categories of everyday objects that people might be inclined to develop. They then used Mechanical Turk to hire people to sketch objects from each category, and accumulated 20,000 sketches. The data was fed into existing recognition and machine-learning algorithms to teach the program which sketches belong to which categories. The researchers then developed an interface in which users input new sketches and the computer tries to identify them in real time. The program currently identifies sketches with about 56 percent accuracy, compared to 73 percent for humans. "The gap between human and computational performance is not so big, not as big certainly as it is in other computer-vision problems," Hays says.


Intel Research Team Develops Electronic Probe Storage Device
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (09/12/12)

New research led by Intel marks a key step in the effort to commercialize probe-based storage technology with capabilities that exceed those of hard disk and solid-state drives. The researchers developed a long-lasting, ultra-high-density probe storage device by coating the tips of the probes with a thin metal. The device features an array of 5,000 ultra-sharp probes, which is integrated with on-chip electronic circuits. The researchers say the probes write tiny bits of memory as small as a few nanometers by sending short electrical pulses to a ferroelectric film, a material that can be given a permanent electric polarization by applying an electric field. High-speed data access requires that the probes slide quickly and frequently across the film. Wear can seriously degrade the write-read resolution of the device, so the team deposited a thin metal film of hafnium diboride on the probe tips. The metal film reduces wear and enables the probe tips to retain their write-read resolution at high speeds for distances exceeding eight kilometers. The data densities of the device exceed one terabit per square inch.


Study Analyzes Search for Information in Stock Photography Agencies
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain) (09/11/12)

Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M) researchers analyzed the search and visualization systems used by commercial stock photography agencies and found that their "search, visualization, and information-downloading systems are extraordinarily versatile from a professional point of view, and they are extremely useful for their clients," says UC3M professor Antonio Perianes. The researchers analyzed search and visualization systems to develop a profile and basic characteristics that commercial image banks must present to their clients, regardless of their size. "We have attempted to establish the minimum necessary requirements that a search program of these characteristics must contain in order to make the most of the materials that are properly described and stored in the system, making it easy for clients and users to locate and use them," the researchers say. Perianes says the researchers saw a void in the literature regarding stock photography agencies. "The importance of the digital photography market cannot be overlooked, not just due to its high net sales figures, but also because of its performance on the market, which is very similar to that of other products, as diverse as beer or pharmaceuticals," he says.


New Software Helps Reveal Patterns in Space and Time
ASU News (09/10/12) Barbara Trapido-Lurie

Researchers at Arizona State University's GeoDa Center for Geographical Analysis & Computation say they have made significant enhancements to their OpenGeoDa software. OpenGeoDa is an open source program that offers a user-friendly interface to implement techniques for exploratory spatial data analysis and spatial modeling. Version 1.2.0 facilitates space-time analysis, with maps and charts that enable users to track changes in spatial patterns over time. "For example, a series of maps could plot variations in educational achievement by school district, for a series of years," says Arizona State professor Luc Anselin. "An individual map would show clusters of high and low achievement; but adding the dimension of time makes it possible to assess the effect of a policy intervention, by comparing both achievement levels and spatial clusters, before and after the intervention." OpenGeoDa version 1.2.0 also can now provide a real-time link between maps, graphs, and statistical summaries of the same data set. Anselin notes the center's signature software has more than 75,000 users around the world and is freely downloadable. He says OpenGeoDa, first released in 2003, has been used to study everything from health care access and economic development to crime clusters.


Perfecting Email Security
EurekAlert (09/10/12)

City University of Hong Kong researchers have defined perfect forward secrecy for email and suggested a technical solution to enable email security to be independent of the server used to send the message. "An email system provides perfect forward secrecy if any third party, including the email server, cannot recover previous session keys between the sender and the recipient even if the long-term secret keys of the sender and the recipient are compromised," the researchers say. They have created an email protocol based on this principle and say it is possible to use it to exchange emails with almost zero risk of interference from third parties. "Our protocol provides both confidentiality and message authentication in addition to perfect forward secrecy," the researchers note. The protocol involves the server creating a random session hash that is then used to encrypt the encryption key for the email. The recipient then gets the key used to create the hash and returns an identification tag, which enables the sender and receiver to verify each other's identity.


Open Source Education Software Unveiled by Google
ITProPortal.com (09/13/12) Adario Strange

Google has released Course Builder, open source software for creating online education courses. Google says Course Builder does not require high-level programming skills and should be accessible to anyone with the ability to build and maintain their own Web site. "The Course Builder open source project is an experimental early step for us in the world of online education," says Google research director Peter Norvig. "It is a snapshot of an approach we found useful and an indication of our future direction." Norvig says Google researchers plan to directly interact with Course Builder users via Google Hangouts over the next two weeks. A support site has been launched, and the free software download has already received its first update. Google also is offering the Course Builder Checklist as a primer on how to get started and what to expect. "We hope to continue development along these lines, but we wanted to make this limited code base available now, to see what early adopters will do with it, and to explore the future of learning technology," Norvig says.


Tech's New Wave, Driven by Data
New York Times (09/09/12) Steve Lohr

A new wave of technological advancements in computing may be on the horizon, with researchers and entrepreneurs predicting smarter hardware and software that will automate more tasks and help improve human decision-making. Massachusetts Institute of Technology adjunct professor Michael Stonebraker believes that new software will exploit swift computer hardware advances to help researchers and businesses make sense of an explosion of data. Experts see a critical mass of related technologies supporting new products and capabilities, with examples including low-cost computing, storage distributed across thousands of computers, and inexpensive, intelligent sensors that are key to a new generation of automated machines. Stonebraker sees improvements in solid state or flash memory as particularly important, as performance increases and prices plummet. Flash memory is finding increasing use in big computers, retaining a large database in memory rather than storing data on disk drives. "All parts of the technology pipeline are gearing up at the same time, and that's how you get this explosion of new applications and uses," says Cornell University professor Jon Kleinberg. Experts note technological progress typically proceeds over a period of years before a commercial breakthrough emerges.


Optimizing Popularity Versus Similarity in Networks
UC Newsroom (09/12/12) Jan Zverina

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers recently published a paper exploring the concept of popularity versus similarity and how it impacts the growth of networks. The study shows how networks evolve optimizing a trade-off between popularity and similarity. The researchers found that although popularity attracts new connections, similarity is just as attractive. "Popular nodes in a network, or those that are more connected than others, tend to attract more new connections in growing networks, but similarity between nodes is just as important because it is instrumental in determining precisely how these networks grow," says UCSD's Dmitri Krioukov. The researchers developed a model that significantly increases the accuracy of network evolution prediction by considering the trade-offs between popularity and similarity. The model describes the large-scale evolution of technological networks, social networks, and biological networks. The researchers note that model's ability to predict links in networks could be used to predict protein interactions or terrorist connections or to improve recommender and collaborative-filtering systems. "If we know the laws describing the dynamics of a complex system, then we not only can predict its behavior, but we may also find ways to better control it," Krioukov says.


Iowa State, Ames Lab Researcher Developing New Computing Approach to Materials Science
Iowa State University News Service (09/10/12) Mike Krapfl

Iowa State University researchers are developing statistical-learning techniques to research and develop new materials. Last year Iowa State professor Krishna Rajan published a paper describing how the process helps researchers improve piezoelectrics, materials that generate electricity when they are bent. "One of the arguments we are trying to put forward in this paper is that although the potential number of variables can in fact be large, data dimensionality reduction and information theoretic techniques can help reduce it to a manageable number," Rajan says. The technique involves developing some rules of thumb about the desired material. Once the most important design rules are set, computing power can be used to search through libraries of compounds and identify promising solutions. Rajan notes the approach is based on data mining, information theory, and statistical-learning concepts. The researchers have been able to take large data sets, sort the useful information from the less relevant noise, and identify influential variables and relationships, says Iowa State professor Matt Liebman.


A Network to Guide the Future of Computing
CORDIS News (09/06/12)

The European Network of Excellence on High Performance and Embedded Architecture and Compilation (HiPEAC) aims to steer and increase European research in the area of high-performance and embedded computing systems. A new edition of the HiPEAC Roadmap, which has become a guidebook for the future of computing systems research in Europe, will be published later this year. "We didn't really set out doing it with that aim in mind, but the [European Commission] took notice of it, consulted with industry on it, found the challenges we had identified to be accurate, and started to use it to focus research funding," says Ghent University professor Koen De Bosschere. The latest edition of the HiPEAC report concludes that specializing computing devices is the most promising path for dramatically improving the performance of future computing. Therefore, HiPEAC has identified seven concrete research objectives, ranging from energy efficiency to system complexity and reliability, related to the design and the exploitation of specialized heterogeneous systems. "We can only go so far by following current trends and approaches, but in the long run we will nonetheless want and require more processing power that is more reliable, consumes less energy, produces less heat, and can fit into smaller devices," De Bosschere says.


The Computer That Beat Two Million Humans at Fantasy Football
IEEE Spectrum (09/10/12) Steven Cherry

University of Southampton researchers Sarvapali Ramchurn and Tim Matthews and Technical University of Crete researcher Georgios Chalkiadakis recently discussed their paper, "Competing with Humans at Fantasy Football: Team Formation in Large Partially Observable Domains." The paper deals with artificial intelligence, computer vision, language translation, and artificial speech. Ramchurn says they used a Bayesian approach, which involves starting "with formulating a 'prior' over what you believe the state of the world is and what is going to happen with respect to certain variables in the environment, and then you keep updating those based on what observations you get." However, in the case of fantasy football, the researchers used the performances of actual players in real games, instead of controlled observations. "So the Bayesian approach also helps you look at what happens in a sequential team-formation problem, so when things keep happening and keep getting...and observations here are actual performances in the real world," Ramchurn says. The researchers say they now want to combine human intelligence with machine intelligence in order to play out various futures and formulating probabilities of things happening in the future in a way that humans cannot do.


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