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Welcome to the October 26, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


DARPA Wants Robotics to Rise to the Challenge of Disasters
PC Magazine (10/24/12) Chandra Steele

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge calls on teams to create robots that can minimize human peril in man-made and natural disasters. The participating teams are divided into Track A, which will develop robots and software, and Track B, which will use ready-made Atlas robots and design new software for that system. "The reason for doing this is to open the aperture as wide as possible, so that we can gather teams that are not in traditional robotics fields, that may not have been used to sending in proposals to DARPA, maybe from other parts of the world that aren't used to doing business with us," says DARPA Challenge program manager Gill Pratt. The robots must be able to drive a vehicle, open a door, climb a staircase, and connect a cable or a fire hose. "The robots that we're developing, the technology that we're developing here, are strongly geared toward operating in environments that have been originally engineered for human beings," Pratt says. The challenge also focuses on human-robot interaction. "We want to have these tools outlast the program and be the foundation for catalyzing the field of robotics, particularly helping to make the design of robots move from an art to a science," he says.


Study Reveals Impact of Public DNS Services; Researchers Develop Tool to Help
Northwestern University Newscenter (10/25/12)

Northwestern University researchers have found that public Domain Name System (DNS) services could slow down users' Internet connections, and have developed namehelp, a solution that could speed up Web performance by as much as 40 percent. The Northwestern researchers, led by professor Fabian Bustamante, found that users' Web performance can suffer due to the hidden interaction of DNS with Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), which help performance by offering exact replicas of Web site content in computer servers around the world. The namehelp system runs personalized benchmarks in the background, from within users' computers, to determine their optimal DNS configuration and improve the Web experience by helping sites load faster. The researchers also found that, for a user who is receiving less than optimal Web performance, namehelp automatically fixes it by interacting with DNS services and CDNs to ensure they get the content from the nearest possible copy.


100,000 New Jobs for Tech Industry Through Midyear 2012, Report Says
Network World (10/25/12) Ann Bednarz

The TechAmerica Foundation analyzed four high-tech job sectors, including software services, engineering and tech services, technology manufacturing, and communications services, and found positive job growth in three of them for the first six months of 2012. The only field that lost jobs during that time was communications services. Overall, the study found 99,300 new jobs, increasing the industry's job count by 1.7 percent to 5.99 million at the end of June 2012. "America can only realize the full promise of an innovation economy with smarter public policies focused on developing and attracting the best talent, investing in research and development, and growing and securing our information infrastructure," says TechAmerica Foundation president Jennifer Kerber. The study also found that the technology industry had monthly job gains in 16 of the 18 months between January 2011 and June 2012, yielding an increase of 3.3 percent and nearly 200,000 jobs. "With job growth in three of the four tech sectors, we remain optimistic about continued growth into the future," says TechAmerica Foundation's Matthew Kazmierczak.


In the Heart of Afghanistan, Entrepreneurs Innovate for Peace
Fast Company (10/15/12) Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Afghanistan's growing technology industry could be a way to help boost the economy and maintain peace, says INEX IT administrator Mahdi Rezaei, who recently established an ACM chapter in Kabul. "Now ACM members can be aware of technology events around the world and bring change to our academic societies and our technology market," Rezaei says. At the recent ACM Kabul inaugural event, about two dozen tech professionals gathered at the Afghanistan Cultural House to discuss cloud computing and learn about ACM. Although Afghanistan's enthusiasm for computing initially was a surprise to ACM officials, they knew the organization had to provide its support. "My initial reaction was, 'What? This makes no sense,' because I picture Kabul as a city under siege with incredible security issues and with all the standard things that make innovation and education difficult," says ACM CEO John White. "It is clearly a statement about how these individuals in Afghanistan perceive themselves as professionals who really want to be connected to the global computing community." It also was significant that a few women attended the event. "Investing in technology inside Afghanistan and focusing on business rather than war can change the whole game," says aspiring Afghan tech mogul Jamshid Sultanzada.


Pentagon Advised to Overhaul Science and Tech Hiring
NextGov.com (10/25/12) Brittany Ballenstedt

The U.S. National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council released a report that calls for the U.S. Defense of Department (DoD) to overhaul its recruiting and hiring practices and reassess its requirements for security clearances to effectively compete for critical workers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Factors such as limited opportunity for career growth, underutilization of employee skills, and a slow and impersonal hiring process also make it difficult for the department to recruit and retain skilled employees in STEM fields. "The relatively small fraction of U.S. citizens graduating with first degrees in a STEM field, combined with our demonstrated inability to forecast sudden increases in demand for specialized STEM workers to support national security needs, can place the nation in jeopardy," the report says. DoD could improve recruitment and retention by creating programs that challenge employees to innovate, and through rotational assignments in government and private-sector jobs. The report also says DoD should be prepared in times of urgency to educate highly capable but not STEM-qualified individuals with advanced degrees in science and engineering, as the Naval Postgraduate School currently does.


Intel Readies for Programmable Smart Cars
Computerworld (10/23/12) Sharon Gaudin

Intel researchers are developing technologies that could be used in future driverless smart cars and enable them to be updated at any time with the latest services and applications. Intel is focusing on developing small, energy-efficient multi-core chips that can make cars more intelligent. "We would need a lot of compute power for a car to understand that if there's a ball rolling on the street, there might be a kid running after it," says Intel's Michael Konow. The researchers' goal is to save power and space, which is important because there is almost no space left, so they are creating strangely shaped boxes to squeeze chips into the tiny amount of space left, Konow says. When automakers are able to add multi-core chips to vehicles, they will have greatly increased functionality, such as updated navigation options, more safety features, and social applications. The key challenge for engineers working on smarter cars is to ensure safety and security, notes Intel researcher Enno Luebbers. "[Automakers] don't want to re-engineer a whole system, but have to find a way to protect systems from external attacks," Luebbers says.


Robots Get Around by Mimicking Primates
New Scientist (10/24/12) Will Ferguson

Georgia Tech researchers are developing a guidance system for robots that mimics how primates visualize an unfamiliar environment. First the researchers give the robot a destination, or a simplified image of how objects in their environment will look from a certain perspective. The robot then uses depth information from a built-in Kinect motion sensor to establish how objects look in its surroundings. Finally, the robot rotates the orientation of objects to match the destination and plots a path. During testing, a small four-wheeled robot used this method to find its way six meters across a lab floor to the right spot. This research marks the first time that a robot has demonstrated the ability to receive visual instructions and act on them without a map, says Georgia Tech's Ronald Arkin. Robots with the ability to interpret an outside perspective would greatly improve their ability to navigate in the absence of conventional technologies, such as global positioning systems. "We expect this to give a cognitive push to robot navigation," Arkin notes. "It moves you in the general direction you need to go and then your other systems take over."


Researchers Launch Innovative, Hands-on Online Tool for Science Education
UCSD News (CA) (10/22/12) Ioana Patringenaru

Two computer science graduate students have developed an online tool designed to teach science by requiring students to complete increasingly difficult problems at their own pace. University of California, San Diego's (UCSD's) Phillip Compeau and St. Petersburg Academic University's Nikolay Vyahhi created Rosalind, which also automatically grades homework assignments. The students primarily designed the platform for biologists who want to learn bioinformatics. Rosalind has attracted more than 1,600 beta testers from more than 50 countries. "Rosalind is already helping students who are brave enough to dive into bioinformatics without waiting for their universities to update their curricula, and it's only a matter of time before this model spreads to other disciplines," predicts UCSD professor Pavel Pevzner. Compeau says that "by automating grading, we hope to foster individualized instruction and fuel the transition from traditional textbook exercises to a programming-driven homework environment." He notes that Rosalind also could complement large-scale, online open education platforms such as Coursera and Udacity.


Acoustic Barcode System Allows Scratch and Scan Data Retrieval
Gizmag (10/22/12) Paul Ridden

Carnegie Mellon University researchers are developing an acoustic barcode system that takes the sound of an object scraping across a series of parallel notches etched into a surface and converts it to a unique binary identification. The barcode part of the system consists of a series of parallel grooves and ridges on the surface of an object designed to produce a unique, complex sound when something is scraped across the top. The fixed-physical-length design encodes each 1 as a notch and each 0 as the space in between. The burst of sound produced as an object is swiped across the barcode is picked up by a piezo contact microphone. The reading system has been developed to compensate for variations in swipe speed by calculating a unit length implied by each gap. This number is then averaged with the previous unit estimates, allowing the value to drift as decoding proceeds, according to the researchers. The system was tested by having users swipe six types of barcodes using a fingernail, a dry erase marker, and a mobile phone, which performed at 87.4 percent accuracy, 77.9 percent accuracy, and 66.4 percent accuracy, respectively.


World’s Top Supercomputer Simulates the Human Heart
Popular Mechanics (10/22/12) Kathryn Doyle

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) researchers say they used Sequoia, currently ranked as the world's most powerful supercomputer, to develop the fastest computer simulation of the human heart. The researchers used a highly scalable program called Cardioid to model the electrical signals traveling from cell to cell. Cardioid treats each cell like a unit. "The processes within a cell are captured in a set of 19 ordinary differential equations, so we can't get inside that because they're treated as a single entity," says LLNL's Fred Streitz. The researchers say this process should enable them to investigate the competing theories for how cells are arranged in the heart. The Cardioid model works well for researching arrhythmia because the system's longer run time allows researchers to simulate the introduction of an anti-arrhythmic drug into the bloodstream, seeing the point when drug levels spike and when they drop off. "The details that differentiate individual hearts can be very fine, and our ability to model at extraordinarily high resolution, currently a factor of eight greater than previously, that allows us to capture very fine differences," says LLNL's Dave Richards.


UT Professor Aims to Increase Number of Women in IT, Computer Science
The Horn (TX) (10/22/12) Monica Kortsha

University of Texas at Austin professor Lecia Baker recently received a $1 million U.S. National Science Foundation grant to fund programs and research that promote and support women in information technology and computer science. An important part of the grant is that it also helps fund the creation of resources for the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT). The materials are free, and they aid in disseminating information to outreach organizations, teachers, and employers. "One of the biggest problems is we have a country where kids and the adults that influence them don’t know what computer science is,” Baker says. “In high school it’s always an elective and it’s usually not even considered against foreign language or orchestra.” She also notes that women often are underexposed to computer science because of gender stereotypes and social expectations. The stereotype of the computer scientist as a solitary coder is an image that could keep women away from the field, says Women in Computer Science (WiCS) president Bri Connelly. Both NCWIT and WiCS support the University of Texas Computer Science Roadshow, a program in which students visit K-12 schools to show them what computer science is like.


'Giant PlayStation' Titan Supercomputer to Solve Biggest Riddles
Australian (10/21/12) Jonathan Leake

Scientists are preparing to boot up Titan, a supercomputer that will carry out 20,000 trillion calculations a second, about 4,000 trillion calculations a second faster than Sequoia, currently the fastest computer in the world. Titan will use graphics processors similar to those in PlayStation gaming consoles, which were made by NVIDIA. Oak Ridge National Laboratory will use Titan to create computer models of greenhouse gas emissions to study climate change, simulate the way fuel burns in diesel engines to improve efficiency, and make it available to scientists in various fields. Supermarkets, banks, and insurance firms recently have joined the military and academic establishment in rolling out supercomputers, using the machines to build models of consumer behavior. The race to build the most powerful computer continues, with Cambridge University working on a machine that is expected to be 150 times faster than Titan. Capable of between 2 million trillion and 3 million trillion calculations per second, the machine will be used to help search for planets that could support life. "It is the most ambitious project we have ever attempted," says Paul Calleja, director of Cambridge's high-performance computing center.
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Automated Meter Reading Systems Make Life Easy for Intruders
PhysOrg.com (10/20/12) Nancy Owano

Millions of analog meters that measure water, gas, and electricity consumption have been replaced by automated meter reading (AMR) systems. New methods enable these devices to broadcast readings by radio every 30 seconds for utility companies to read as they pass by with a wireless receiver. However, University of South Carolina at Columbia researchers say intruders can tune into the same information. They warn that smart meters collect energy consumption data, which could reveal sensitive personal information from homes. For example, since energy usage often drops near zero when a house is empty, the data could be used to identify which homes are vacant at a given time. The researchers studied AMR meters that make data publicly available over unsecured wireless transmissions. "They use a basic frequency hopping wireless communication protocol and show no evidence of attempting to ensure confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity of the data," the researchers say. They suggest alternative schemes based on defensive jamming, which could be easier to deploy than upgrading the meters themselves.


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