Welcome to the November 2, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Predicting What Topics Will Trend on Twitter
MIT News (11/01/12) Larry Hardesty
Twitter uses a proprietary algorithm to determine which items are trending. However, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a new algorithm that can, with 95 percent accuracy, predict which topics will trend an average of 90 minutes before Twitter's algorithm puts them on the trending list. Similar to other machine-learning algorithms, the MIT algorithm combs through data in a sample set and tries to find meaningful patterns. However, what makes the MIT algorithm different is that it is nonparametric, meaning it makes no assumptions about the shape of patterns. The new algorithm compares changes over time in the number of tweets about each new topic to the changes over time of every sample in the training set. Those samples whose statistics resemble those of the new topic are given more weight in predicting whether a new topic will trend or not. The system's accuracy should improve as the size of the training set increases, according to MIT professor Devavrat Shah. Additionally, the new algorithm could be applied to any sequence of measurements performed at regular intervals.
Rats and Humans Meet via Virtual Reality and Robotics
BBC News (10/31/12)
University College London (UCL) and University of Barcelona researchers recently completed a research project that involved human subjects controlling a rat-sized robot, and rats controlling a human-shaped avatar in a virtual reality environment. The technique is known as beaming, which combines both robotics and virtual reality to try to improve on flatscreen display-based video conferencing methods. "Video conferencing does not give participants the physical sensation of being in the same shared space, and certainly not the physical capability to actually carry out actions in that space," says UCL professor Mandayam Srinivasan. The human subjects were in a virtual reality lab in Barcelona, and movement-tracking cameras helped them control rat-sized robots that shared a cage with actual rats. Similarly, the movements of the rats were tracked in their cage and used to control an avatar projected into the virtual reality world the human subjects experienced with a head-mounted display. The tests showed that the technology could be used to help future researchers explore places too dangerous for humans to go themselves, according to Srinivasan.
China Is Building a 100-Petaflop Supercomputer
IDG News Service (10/31/12) Michael Kan
The Chinese National University of Defense Technology is developing Tianhe-2, a supercomputer expected to run at 100 petaflops when it is launched in 2015. Tianhe-2 could help keep China competitive with the future supercomputers of other countries, as industry experts estimate computers will start reaching 1,000-petaflop performance by 2018. The Chinese government is aiming for China's supercomputers to reach 100 petaflops in 2015, and then 1 exaflop in 2018, according to Institute of Software Chinese Academy of Sciences professor Zhang Yunquan. Chinese supercomputers previously have relied on U.S.-made chips and software, but the Chinese government wants to develop more homegrown technology in future supercomputer systems. "I think in the future, as China tries to reach for exascale computing, the designs of these new supercomputers could fully rely on domestic processors," Zhang says. "I wouldn't dismiss the possibility." The European Union, Japan, and the U.S. have similar goals to create 100-petaflop systems by 2015, according to University of Tennessee professor Jack Dongarra. However, he notes building more powerful supercomputers is rife with technical and financial challenges.
Apple Shake-Up Could End Real-World Images
New York Times (10/31/12) Nick Wingfield; Nick Bilton
Apple may soon move away from many of the visual tricks and design techniques that have previously been staples of the company's products. Many Apple products have gadgets and applications based on skeuomorphism, which means they resemble the appearance and behavior of real-world objects. However, that design strategy, which Steve Jobs championed, may be abandoned as new executives take charge. University of Washington professor Axel Roesler says Apple's software designs have become overloaded with nostalgia and unnecessary visual references to the past, and he expects that to change. "Apple, as a design leader, is not only capable of doing this, they have a responsibility for doing it," Roesler says. "People expect great things from them." Meanwhile, Microsoft recently has been praised for taking greater creative risks in the design of its software than Apple has. Microsoft's style relies on typography and sheets of tiles that provide access to programs and are updated with photos and other online information. Some designers describe certain functions in Apple's software as throwbacks to the past, and the next generation of iOS and OS X will likely have clean edges and flat surfaces, replacing the current natural textures that now define Apple's software.
Despite Efforts to Close Gender Gaps, Some Disciplines Remain Lopsided
Chronicle of Higher Education (10/29/12) Katherine Mangan
Gender inequality in the teaching and engineering fields remains pronounced despite colleges' diversification efforts, with the U.S. Education Department estimating that in 2010 women received the bulk of undergraduate, master's, and doctoral degrees in education, while far fewer women received those degrees in engineering. Women are still a minority in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines after more than 10 years of outreach, and a new Rice University study found that both male and female scientists cite gender discrimination as an underlying factor. University of California at Irvine professor Kristen Renwick Monroe points to "implicit prejudice" against women, especially those with children, when it comes to hiring and promotion in science and engineering fields. Meanwhile, a 2010 report from the American Association of University Women pointed to the prevalence of cultural stereotypes of science and math as fields for men and art and humanities as female-oriented disciplines. Exacerbating the situation is a dearth of mentors and role models in traditionally male fields, while even academics who claim to support women can be biased. Drawing men to the field of education also is a problem, given stereotypes of male teachers as having suspicious motives, and lower salaries for teachers.
Smart Cities: Bridging Physical and Digital
Economic and Social Research Council (10/26/12) Sarah Nichols; Jeanine Woolley
Researchers at the University of Leeds and University College London have developed a spectrum of high-tech methods to visualize and consider the modern city. An exhibition showcased at the Economic and Social Research Council Festival of Social Science 2012 details how cities are becoming smart and shows how tools such as online mapping and modeling are changing the urban experience. Leeds' Amy O'Neill says modern technology enables real-time person-to-person interaction. "This means that it can be used to provide intelligence about cities...through social media such as Twitter and Facebook," she notes. "We have been combining data from traditional sources such as government and commercial surveys, data that has been captured from buildings and vehicles using sensor devices, personal data, for example from tweets, and data which has been volunteered by the public, for example on traffic movements." O'Neill cites the growth of ways to obtain real-time city information, often through smartphone apps that frequently involve engagement with friends. Underlying cities' increasing smartness is the existence of this information and the innovative ways it can be visualized and utilized.
Non-Volatile Memory's Future Is in Software
Computerworld (10/25/12) Lucas Mearian
The next five years will witness a sea change in the non-volatile memory (NVM) market, with denser and more reliable technologies challenging the prevalent NAND flash memory, as server, storage, and application vendors are devising new specifications to optimize their products' engagement with NVM. "Industry efforts are under way to remove the bottleneck between the processor and the storage," says the Storage Networking Industry Association's Jim Pappas, who leads the association's NVM technical working group. The group is concentrating on three specifications: Improving operating system (OS) speed by instilling awareness of a faster flash medium's availability, providing direct flash access to apps via the OS, and enabling the use of new NVMs as system memory. The first spec effort aims to determine how to accelerate OS performance so that any app could be advantaged by the gain. The second focus would give apps a direct access mode or OS bypass mode fast input/output channel to the NVM. The third initiative would develop a spec enabling NVM to have dual functionality as a system memory and as mass storage. "We're focusing on that shared characteristic of this next-generation memory," Pappas says.
Computer Scientist Turned Artist
National Science Foundation (10/25/12) Marlene Cimons
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Erik Demaine is a computer scientist turned artist with expertise in computational origami, the mathematical study of bending and folding. Together with his father Martin, Demaine has created artworks that explore how science and art inspire each other. Demaine uses computational algorithms to perform his folding research, and he frequently employs a computer drawing program that can draw lines and circles and pinpoint the intersections, so he can print it out and fold it. Demaine notes that although mathematical tools for creating straight crease origami exist, curved creases have been the real challenge. "The mathematical goal is to be able to automatically design, with a computational tool, any [three dimensional] form you want with these curved creases," he says. Among the practical applications to Demaine's work is the challenge of finding ways to move large objects through smaller spaces. "There are a lot of scientific and engineering applications to having a physical object that can change shape," Demaine notes. "This comes up in transportation or in the human body in blood vessels."
Humanoid Robots Are Focus of Research at Purdue
Purdue University News (10/24/12) Emil Venere
Purdue University is involved in an international initiative to develop humanoid robots capable of responding to disasters. Purdue's focus is the creation of algorithms for the robot to climb an industrial ladder and traverse an industrial walkway, says Purdue professor C.S. George Lee. The algorithms are being used to program a HUBO II robot, and Lee says the project combines research in computer vision, locomotion and balance control, and machine learning. The effort is part of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Robotics Challenge. The researchers are using wireless technology to communicate with the robot. One student has programmed HUBO II to perform tai chi, using a Microsoft Kinect camera to capture himself doing the movements and then transferring the information to the robot, enabling it to execute the captured motions. The robot's two computers respectively process vision data from a head-mounted camera and control its 38 motors. "There are numerous other potential applications for humanoid robots of the future, including space exploration, assisting the elderly, and working side-by-side with people in various environments," Lee notes.
CMU Joins Forces in Repurposing Supercomputers
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (10/23/12) Debra Erdley
Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the U.S. National Science Foundation, New Mexico Consortium, and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) recently launched the Parallel Reconfigurable Observational Environment (PRObE) program, a supercomputer research center using a cluster of 2,048 recently retired supercomputers from LANL. "They decommission them every three or four years because the new computers make so much better results," says CMU professor Garth Gibson. PRObE partners successfully decommissioned and saved the computer clusters for reuse. Although the main facility will stay in Los Alamos, CMU's Parallel Data Lab in Pittsburgh will house two similar but smaller centers. The Pittsburgh facilities will enable researchers to perform small experiments and demonstrate to the PRObE committee that they are ready to request time on the facility in Los Alamos. “Unless they leave universities for government or industry jobs, researchers and students rarely have access to these expensive large-scale clusters," Gibson says. "That means they don't get the training and education necessary to develop innovations." PRObE's launch means that researchers will have the opportunity to experiment with supercomputers. "We are taking a resource, handing it to scientists and saying, 'Do your research on a dedicated facility,'" Gibson notes.
Need a Hand? Wearable Robot Arms Give You Two
New Scientist (10/26/12) Hal Hodson
Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers Federico Parietti and Harry Asada have created prototype wearable robot arms that are designed to learn and anticipate their user's requirements by training its limb-governing algorithms to perform specific actions beforehand. For example, the arms were taught where to grab objects and how much force to apply when assisting people in drilling into a loose metal plate, using data from cameras watching workers perform the task and from sensors attached to their bodies to track their movements. The semi-autonomous appendages extend out in front of the body from the hips and are strapped to a harness, which contains the control circuitry. The researchers built the arms from softer material to address safety concerns, using series elastic actuators to ensure the arms cause less damage if they go out of control. Boeing funded the robotic arms’ development, and their initial application could be to assist workers in the assembly of aircraft. However, Parietti and Asada say the broader objective is to facilitate seamless interaction between the limbs and their wearers so that "humans may perceive them as part of their own bodies."
Open Root: The Grandfather of the Internet Takes on ICANN
TechWeekEurope UK (10/29/12) Jerome Bouteiller
Louis Pouzin is one of the originators of the Internet in France, designing the Cyclade system in the early 1970s, and later creating the datagram protocol that Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn used as the basis for the TCP/IP protocol. Pouzin is now retired, but has remained involved in the Alternative Domain Name System roots movement. "Changing this root must be approved, first by ICANN [the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers], and then [the U.S. Department of Commerce]," Pouzin says. "While in actuality, there are many roots created by other organizations, to allow access to sites which, for various reasons, have [top-level domains] that do not exist in the ICANN root servers." Pouzin is not denouncing the ICANN-backed system, but wants to offer other design options. To this end, he has set up the French-based Open Root site, which Pouzin has designed to be controlled by its users. "Open Root should be independent of the ICANN root, a sanctuary for users rejected by ICANN, or refusing the conditions imposed by the organization," Pouzin says. "Another group of interest is the citizens of countries whose languages are not supported by ICANN."
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