Welcome to the September 19, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Education Site Expands Slate of Universities and Courses
New York Times (09/19/12) Tamar Lewin
Coursera recently increased its number of university partners to 33 and now provides more than 200 free massive open online courses (MOOCs). The new partners include Brown University, Columbia University, Wesleyan University, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the University of Florida, the University of Melbourne, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The quality of Coursera's partners has given the program credibility among higher education officials. Columbia initially will offer two engineering courses on Coursera, with a greater variety of courses coming over the next year, says university provost John Coatsworth. Coursera says more than one million students from 196 countries have enrolled in one of its classes. The rise of MOOCs might help leading universities reach more students, bolster their reputation, and eventually generate revenue from distributing content or issuing certificates, according to a recent Moody's Investors Service report. "We’ve started out in one direction with Coursera--which is a great company, and it’s great working with them--but it’s not clear that the current mode of producing courses is where we’re going to end up in five years," says Stanford University vice provost for online learning John C. Mitchell.
Blue Brain Project Accurately Predicts Connections Between Neurons
Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (09/17/12) Laura Spinney
Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne's Blue Brain Project (BBP) has identified key principles that determine synapse-scale connectivity by virtually reconstructing a cortical microcircuit and comparing it to a mammalian sample, making it possible to predict the locations of synapses in the neocortex. "This is a major breakthrough, because it would otherwise take decades, if not centuries, to map the location of each synapse in the brain and it also makes it so much easier now to build accurate models," says BBP researcher Henry Markram. The researchers found that the locations on their virtual model matched that of synapses found in the equivalent real-brain circuit with an accuracy of up to 95 percent. They say the discovery means that neurons grow as independently as possible and form synapses where they randomly bump into each other. Using this research, the Blue Brain team can now make a near perfect prediction of the locations of all the synapses formed inside the circuit. The discovery helps explain why the brain can withstand damage and indicates that the positions of synapses in all brains of the same species are more similar than different, according to the researchers.
From GPS and Virtual Globes to Spatial Computing-2020
CCC Blog (09/17/12) Erwin Gianchandani
Spatial computing (SC) is a set of ideas and technologies that will transform human understanding of the physical world, agreed attendees at the recently held Spatial Computing-2020 workshop, which exhibited diversity across organizations, disciplines, topics, and communities. Large organizations already use SC for site selection, asset tracking, facility management, navigation, and logistics. Meanwhile, augmented reality applications enable real-time place-labeling in the physical world and provide users with detailed information about major landmarks in the area. SC could have transformative potential in many other areas as well. The McKinsey Global Institute recently published a report estimating that smart routing could have a global worth of about $500 billion by 2020, in terms of fuel and time saved. However, current SC research is spread out among many sub-disciplines, which is holding back its scientific development. The Spatial Computing-2020 workshop featured breakout sessions grouped by SC science, system, services, and cross-cutting areas. The workshop identified fundamental research questions for individual computing disciplines and cross-cutting research questions requiring novel, multi-disciplinary solutions. The workshop also identified the key objectives, challenges, and transformative potential of SC, and facilitated a common understanding between several communities.
Golden Goose Awards: Your Tax Dollars at Work for Science Research
Los Angeles Times (09/13/12) Karen Kaplan
Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) has established the Golden Goose Awards, which honor scientists whose seemingly odd federally funded research turned out to have a significant impact on society. One of the winners of the first Golden Goose Awards is Charles Townes, whose research led to the invention of lasers, although no one realized its impact when he was working on the project in the 1950s. However, he did win a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in 1964. The Golden Goose Awards are a response to former Sen. William Proxmire's (D-Wis.) Golden Fleece Awards, which "honor" the most wasteful instances of government spending. Other Golden Goose Award winners include Eugene White, Rodney White, Dellay Roy, and Jon Weber, who discovered a widely used bone graft material by studying tropical coral in the 1960s, and Martin Chalfie, Roger Tsien, and Osamu Shimomura, whose studies of glowing jellyfish led to several medical research advances. Organizations backing the awards, which will be presented three or four times a year, include the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Progressive Policy Institute, the American Mathematical Society, and the Science Coalition.
A Robot With a Reassuring Touch
New York Times (09/18/12) John Markoff
Rethink Robotics founder Rodney A. Brooks has helped develop Baxter, an industrial robot that is equipped with an array of safety mechanisms and sensors to protect the human workers it assists. Baxter's arms can sense unexpected obstacles and adjust accordingly, and its safety mechanisms also include a crown of sonar sensors that automatically display its movements whenever a human approaches. Baxter is able to perform various simple tasks and common sense capabilities, such as recognizing that an object must be in its hand before it can move and release it. Brooks believes that robots will soon be regularly working alongside people as safety issues will be overcome, but for now Baxter comes with a large red e-stop button that immediately shuts it down. Other efforts also are under way to design robots that interact with human workers. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego and University of Washington have built several prototype hands with pliable fingers that can move as quickly as the human hand. “The big hot button in the robotics industry is to get people and robots to work together,” says Carnegie Mellon University roboticist David Bourne. “The big push is to make robots safe for people to work around.”
The Jacket That Talks to Facebook
SINTEF researchers have developed a jacket that can communicate with Facebook. Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's Department of Computer and Information Science used the Arduino platform to create the physical user interface with social media. The platform that supports the jacket communicates with an Android mobile phone via Bluetooth. The researchers inserted cables and sensors between the inner and outer layers of the jacket, and then installed a battery-operated circuit in the pocket, which controls the sensors and microphone. The jacket sleeve has a display sewn into it, showing a line of rolling text. The wearer also will feel a vibration in the neck through a small vibrator inserted in the collar. A vibration means the person has received a message, which can be read by raising an arm and looking at the display. "By using social media technology, we can enable these groups to communicate, and this jacket with a similar, customized user interface makes it easy and practical to use more advanced [information and communications technology] in demanding rescue work," says SINTEF researcher Babak Farshchian.
Alan Turing at 100
Harvard Gazette (09/13/12) Corydon Ireland
Harvard University is celebrating Alan Turing's 100th birthday with a new exhibit titled, "Go Ask A.L.I.C.E., Turing Tests, Parlor Games, and ChatterBots," which will run through Dec. 20, 2012. Turing's work in computational science was "a turning point in modern civilization," says Harvard professor Gerald Holton. A.L.I.C.E. stands for Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity, and ChatterBot describes a program designed to allow computers to engage in small talk. The exhibit follows Turing from his boyhood, through his landmark theories of the 1930s, and into his wartime science, when the Bletchley Park researcher helped to shape modern computer science. Turing also conceived the Turing Test, designed to gauge the likelihood of a machine having artificial intelligence (AI). "The Turing Test was a way to take thinking out of the domain of the metaphysical and make it into a communication act," says Joseph Pellegrino University professor Peter Galison. The Go Ask A.L.I.C.E. exhibit's interactive stations are designed to test Turing's idea that computers can simulate intuition, emotion, and consciousness, and to demonstrate its iterations through time. Viewers also can browse some of the ways that AI has been used in the mainstream media.
Carnegie Mellon Voice Verification Technology Prevents Impersonators From Obtaining Voiceprints
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (09/17/12) Byron Spice
A new system developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University makes it possible for people to preserve their unique voice characteristics. A team from the Language Technologies Institute has designed a system that converts a user's voiceprint into alphanumeric strings that can serve as passwords. The system would enable users to register or check in on a voice-authentication system without their actual voice leaving their smartphone, which would reduce the risk of fraudsters obtaining their voice biometric data and using it to access personal accounts. "To preserve privacy, we need systems that can identify you without actually hearing your voice or even keeping an encrypted record of your voice," says Carnegie Mellon professor Bhiksha Raj. The system uses mathematical functions to generate hundreds of alphanumeric strings. To authenticate the user, the system compares all of the strings with those that it has on file from the initial registration, and if enough of the strings match, the user is authenticated. The system also adds a random string of digital units unique to each smartphone to the alphanumeric strings, providing an additional level of security. In tests using standardized speech datasets, the system was accurate 95 percent of the time.
'Memristors' Based on Transparent Electronics Offer Technology of the Future
Oregon State University News (09/14/12) David Stauth
Transparent electronics could provide a next-generation replacement for some uses of non-volatile flash memory, according to researchers at Oregon State University. The team studied zinc tin oxide, an inexpensive and environmentally benign compound, and reports that the transparent compound appears to offer good performance and lower-cost materials. The development comes as private industry has shown interest in using new amorphous oxide semiconductors for the thin-film transistors that control liquid-crystal displays, but indium and gallium, part of one compound approaching commercialization, are getting increasingly expensive. Zinc tin oxide could lead to new transparent technology where computer memory is based on resistance rather than electron charge. Products using resistive random access memory, or a memristor, could become even smaller, faster, and less expensive than silicon transistors as well as transparent. The researchers say transparent electronics could be used to display information on an automobile windshield or to surf the Web on the glass top of a coffee table. However, they say more research is needed to gain a better understanding of the basic physics and electrical properties of the new compounds.
Europeana's Huge Cultural Dataset Opens for Reuse
Europeana Professional (09/12/12) Jon Purday; Eleanor Kenny; Beth Daley
The digital portal Europeana has made its dataset of more than 20 million cultural objects available to be used freely by developers, designers, and other digital innovators. Europeana has released the metadata under the Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain Dedication, which means anyone can use the data for any purpose, with no restrictions. Electronic entrepreneurs will have an opportunity to create innovative apps and games for tablets and smartphones, in addition to new Web services and portals. "People often speak about closing the digital divide and opening up culture to new audiences but very few can claim such a big contribution to those efforts as Europeana's shift to creative commons," says the European Commission's Neelie Kroes. Moreover, the move means Europeana's dataset can be used in Linked Open Data developments, and could potentially bring together data from Europe's leading libraries, museums, and archives with data from sectors such as tourism and broadcasting. "This is the world's premier cultural dataset, and the decision to open it up for reuse is bold and forward looking--it recognizes the important potential for innovation that access to digital data provides," says Europeana executive director Jill Cousins.
Exposing the Machinery of the Resistome
Texas Advanced Computing Center (09/11/12) Aaron Dubrow
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center researcher Bruce Beutler is using the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at the University of Texas at Austin to identify the key genes required to resist infection, known as resistomes, and to determine how these genes interact with one another to defend the body. Beutler plans to sequence the exomes of 8,000 mice, using the genomic data to create the most comprehensive database of functionally meaningful mammalian mutations available to science. Using TACC's supercomputing resources, the researchers will sequence the exome of every first generation mouse. By the time a third generation mouse is born, the researchers will already know all of the mutations it might contain. "We need awesome computing power to sequence 8,000 whole exomes in the mouse," Beutler says. "We weren't even talking about doing anything like this a couple of years ago. But I think with TACC, it really is conceivable." The data will be valuable for human health as well. "If you do this enough times, soon you have hundreds of genes that contribute to the immune response and you begin to be able to build a picture of the molecular machinery that protects us from infections," Beutler says.
How Artificial Intelligence Is Changing Our Lives
Christian Science Monitor (09/17/12) Vol. 104, No. 43, P. 26 Gregory M. Lamb; Carolyn Abate
Experts say artificial intelligence (AI) often changes peoples lives in subtle and invisible, rather than obvious and tangible, ways. They say the increasing ubiquity of AI applications in everyday appliances ranging from smartphones to automobiles to Internet search engines is muting people's sense of wonder at the revolutionary nature of AI. AI's landmark goal of creating a computer capable of passing the Turing test, in which a machine can fool human judges into thinking that it is human, has not been met. Consequently, the field has moved away from developing AI that mimics the human-thinking process and toward more practical manifestations, such as robots that perform routine or hazardous tasks in the home or on the battlefield, voice recognition, and self-driving cars. Voice-recognition technologies such as the iPhone's personal assistant, Siri, portend the growing informality of person/device interaction. Meanwhile, autonomous autos are currently being road-tested, and this development must overcome challenges such as having the ability to think and react as a human driver would. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Patrick Winston says the long-term goal is to combine AI's reliance on big data computing methods with the incremental approach to creating AI capable of actual reasoning.
Researchers Study How to Wedge Wireless Broadband Between TV Signals
University of Wisconsin-Madison (09/10/12) Mark Riechers
University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers are studying the best ways to utilize white space to increase the data rates of wireless communication. Wisconsin professor Parmesh Ramanathan says the 180 megahertz TV band offers the best potential for improved wireless communication because it provides almost five times the bandwidth of conventional Wi-Fi. However, tapping into unused spectrum requires reliable sensing to determine which parts of the airwaves are not being used at any given time, as well as spectrum-agile radios inside of devices that can reliably determine and switch to the clearest parts of the band for wireless communication. The researchers are pairing signal-sensing technology with accurate and easy-to-tune software radios to develop networks that could provide higher speeds to more users over wider geographical areas than conventional wireless networks. "Eventually, people will be replacing traditional Wi-Fi with these kinds of radios," Ramanathan says. "This is part of a change of how spectrum is going to work." Better technology for sensing spectrum use also will enable licensed spectrum owners to buy and sell them in less time.
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