Welcome to the January 25, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Storing Digital Data in DNA
Wall Street Journal (01/24/13) Gautam Naik
Researchers seeking a biological solution to the world's ever-growing amount of digital information have successfully encoded audio and text on fragments of DNA, and later retrieved them with 99.99 percent accuracy. The researchers note that DNA could sit in a storage device for thousands of years without degrading. Scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory's European Bioinformatics Institute held an experiment in which they downloaded various audio and textual content onto a computer and represented it as computer code. A program then converted the code into letters corresponding to DNA's four chemical bases, and segmented the code string into about 150,000 fragments and indexed them. A lab machine used the information to generate DNA that was then fed into a sequencing machine, which read back the DNA fragments as the letters A,C,G, and T. The next step involved software reassembling the DNA fragments in the proper order, converting them back to 1s and 0s that were interpreted as the original content file, which could be played back. The next challenge for DNA data storage is making the process more commercial and affordable.
Bipartisan Group of Senators to Introduce High-Skilled Immigration Bill
The Hill (01/24/13) Jennifer Martinez
H-1B visas would jump to a cap of 115,000 from the current cap of 65,000 under a high-skilled immigration bill that will be introduced in the Senate next Tuesday with bipartisan backing. If the cap is hit early in the year, a "market-based H-1B escalator" would allow even more visas with a cap of 300,000. The bill's sponsors, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), believe the measure is "very doable" and will help the U.S. economy. The technology industry is likely to support the Immigration Innovation Act, as the bill is currently titled, as a way to help fill engineering, programming, and research jobs. The bill also would lift the current 20,000-per-year cap on H-1B visas for those with advanced degrees from U.S. universities, and permit dependent spouses to work in the United States.
White House Announces 'National Day of Civic Hacking'
PC World (01/24/13) Katherine Noyes
The White House Office of Science Technology and Policy has announced the National Day of Civic Hacking, which will take place June 1-2. The White House says the event marks the first time local developers from across the country will come together for such a purpose. The National Day of Civic Hacking is "an opportunity for software developers, technologists, and entrepreneurs to unleash their can-do American spirit by collaboratively harnessing publicly released data and code to create innovative solutions for problems that affect Americans," according to the White House. A coalition of organizations, companies, and government agencies will support the event and host activities nationwide. Federal agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Census Bureau, and the Department of Labor will offer specific challenges for hackers. Activities are open to anyone who wants to participate in the civic hacker community, regardless of their skills. The event will be held in conjunction with Random Hacks of Kindness and Code for America's Brigade meetings. The Innovation Endeavors' Super Happy Block Party will serve as its model.
MIT Scientists Achieve Molecular Data Storage Breakthrough
TPM Idea Lab (01/23/13) Carl Franzen
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a method for storing data on individual molecules at room temperature, which could lead to a 1,000-fold improvement in storage density. The method was demonstrated on a type of "supramolecule," which was created by binding graphene molecules to zinc atoms. "Each molecule is around one nanometer in dimension and hence this will let us achieve storage as high as 1,000 terabytes per square inch," says MIT's Jagadeesh Moodera. The researchers were able to get the molecules to store binary data by placing them between two electrodes, which were used to change the conductivity of the molecules between two states, representing the 1 and 0 of binary code. “The idea here is to be able to have more and more information available in your portable pocket device,” says MIT's Karthik Raman. “Hence if such a work can make it to technology, with the existing size of our portable device we can store 1,000 times more information in the form of documents or music or high quality video files.” The researchers believe their work could eventually lead to quantum computing and quantum bit memory.
Touch-Sensitive Video-Screen Floor Is in Step With You
New Scientist (01/23/13) Paul Marks
Hasso Plattner Institute researchers have developed an eight-square-meter pressure-sensing floor that can recognize users by their weight, track their movements, and display video for them to interact with. The researchers say the technology could lead to a variety of ways to control objects in the home, play games, or assist older or disabled people. The prototype floor consists of a piece of 6.4-centimeter-thick glass installed in a hole cut into a standard floor, and an infrared camera and high-resolution video projector in the room below that tracks footprints and beams video onto the glass. "This pressure sensor is of such high resolution that the floor can recognize anything from shoe prints to fabric textures to someone's knees," says the Hasso Plattner Institute's Patrick Baudisch. The researchers have developed software that recognizes what those objects are doing and responds by generating relevant video. "The future of computer interfaces is to become more sensitive to people's needs," says New York University's Ken Perlin. "A floor that understands where you are and what you are doing is a logical step in that direction."
Intellectual Property Industry Must Move Information Into Public Domain
The Hindu (India) (01/24/13) Anuj Srivas
Google vice president and ACM president Vint Cerf, referring to the recent suicide of computer activist Aaron Swartz, says greater sharing of information and open access are needed. “One of the things that was common amongst the community that created the Internet, was that we were fairly homogenous, and that in order to obtain information--we would share it. Not buy it," Cerf says. He believes Swartz's death was preventable and notes that recent events highlight the problems that intellectual property faces when it goes onto the Web. "While we have to be conscious of the harm that occurs on the network, we have to make sure we don’t solve bad behavior by just trampling all over people’s human rights," he says. "The need of the hour, therefore, is to see the intellectual property industry actively moving information into the public domain." Cerf cites Creative Commons as a good example of how to get things into the public domain. "This is all in the framework of working with creators, technologists, and legislators," he says.
IBM Predicts Cognitive Systems as New Computing Wave
Investor's Business Daily (01/24/13) Brian Deagon
IBM expects cognitive computing systems to usher in a new era of computing by being capable of learning and adapting through their mimicry of human senses. Some of the technology to enable cognitive computing already exists, but more needs to be created, says IBM's Bernie Meyerson. He predicts that Moore's Law will have ended its usefulness within three or four more generations, and cognitive computers will step in to fill the void. "These machines will perform better because they learn, they adapt, they sense--and by doing that you don't program it so much as you can teach the system to learn," Meyerson says. At the heart of cognitive computing is providing the machine with richer input to inform its decision making. In terms of mimicking the sense of hearing, a cognitive system would not only hear the actual sound, but also understand the underlying meaning, such as by detecting stress in a child's voice that might give it clues to interpret the cause of the distress. Meyerson says a similar mechanism would apply to the cognitive machine's sense of sight, where can learn from seeing one image to recognize similar images.
A Free Database of the Entire Web May Spawn the Next Google
Technology Review (01/23/13) Tom Simonite
Common Crawl recently launched a Web crawler that makes a giant copy of the Web that is accessible to anyone. The system provides more than five billion Web pages for free to researchers and entrepreneurs so they can try strategies that would otherwise only be possible for those with access to vast resources. “The Web represents, as far as I know, the largest accumulation of knowledge, and there’s so much you can build on top,” says Common Crawl founder Gilad Elbaz. “But simply doing the huge amount of work that’s necessary to get at all that information is a large blocker; few organizations … have had the resources to do that.” The Web pages are made available through Amazon's cloud computing service. A programmer could set up an account with Amazon and start analyzing Common Crawl data, notes the nonprofit's director Lisa Green. Last year, Common Crawl launched a project to find new uses for the data. One of the winners used Wikipedia links in crawl data to build a service that can define the meaning of words. Common Crawl's data is likely unique because fresh, large-scale crawls are rare, says University of California, Santa Barbara professor Ben Zhao.
A New Group Aims to Make Programming Cool
New York Times (01/22/13) Nick Wingfield
Code.org was founded with the goal of increasing the education of computer science in classrooms and sparking more excitement about the subject among students. Code.org's first project will be a short film starring various technology industry celebrities, who will talk about how programming can be exciting and accessible. The video's purpose is to challenge the stereotypical cultural image of programmers, says Code.org founder Hadi Partovi. The nonprofit organization is part of a much broader movement by the technology industry to train more people in computer science at a young age. Code.org also will create a database to help parents find schools where computer science is already being taught and to advocate ways of making it more available to students. A lack of qualified teachers is one of the most serious problems blocking greater access to computer science in classrooms, Partovi says. "It’s difficult to convince people who are getting the highest salaries in industry to get one of the lowest-paying jobs," he notes. Partovi also believes that part of the problem is the development of devices such as the iPhone that hide their complexity from users, which discourages people from understanding more about how they work.
An Explosion in Innovation
Wall Street Journal (01/22/13)
Innovation in eight emerging areas of science and technology is poised to skyrocket as the number of people online grows from 2 billion in 2010 to 5 billion by 2020, says X PRIZE Foundation CEO Peter Diamondis. Biotechnology, especially synthetic biology, will see a huge increase in innovation, Diamondis says, pointing to the food production implications of Craig Venter's recent discovery of a way to raise photosynthesis efficiency 300 percent. Computational systems enable researchers to model almost anything from any location using cloud computing, and networks and sensors offer immense volumes of data that can be mined for unlimited discoveries. Artificial intelligence and robotics will also have a profound impact on innovation, Diamondis says. Digital manufacturing in the form of 3D printing will enable consumers to print whatever they want whenever they want, altering global manufacturing. Another field that will be transformed through innovation is medicine, with technology such as handheld mobile devices capable of immediately diagnosing illnesses. Meanwhile, in nanotechnology, Diamondis says efforts are underway to increase battery energy and power storage densities 300 percent to 500 percent.
Stand Tall and Keep Cool
Tyndall National Institute (01/21/2013) Julie Dorel
Researchers at the University College Cork's Tyndall National Institute and the National University of Singapore have designed and fabricated ultra-small devices for energy-efficient electronics. The researchers say the devices could provide new ways to reduce overheating in mobile devices, and also could help in electrical stimulation of tissue repair for wound healing. The devices are based on molecules acting as electrical valves, or diode rectifiers. "We are following up lots of new ideas based on these results, and we hope ultimately to create a range of new components for electronic devices," says Tyndall's Damien Thompson. The researchers' computer simulations show how molecules with an odd number of carbon atoms stand straighter than molecules with an even number of carbon atoms, which enables them to pack together more closely. The researchers also found that these devices can suppress current leakage, allowing them to function more efficiently and reliably. "Dr. Thompson’s work is an exciting new avenue to exploit molecular design to achieve new ways to perform information processing," says Tyndall professor Jim Greer.
Unique Software Supports Behavioral Intervention Programs
Economic & Social Research Council (01/21/13) Sarah Nichols
University of Southampton researchers have developed LifeGuide, software that enables other researchers to create interactive Internet-based intervention programs to support behavioral change. "Researchers don't need to employ special programmers and it can be readily modified to suit many different contexts," says Southampton professor Lucy Yardley. The program enables researchers to create and modify two dimensions of behavioral interventions, including providing tailored information and advice, and supporting sustained behavior. "The Internet can give access to services offering information and advice on many health problems," Yardley says. "Services can also be made interactive and individually tailored, and they can be set up to support people with reminders, feedback, action planning, and chat rooms." LifeGuide also supports evaluation of interventions, such as online questionnaire assessments and automatic follow-ups. More than 1,000 researchers worldwide have registered to use LifeGuide in the last two years. Southampton professor Paul Little has used LifeGuide to develop and customize online communication training packages for health professionals. "Using this software in the project made it easy and inexpensive to adapt our training materials for the different countries we are collaborating with," Little says.
Google Declares War on the Password
Wired News (01/18/13) Robert McMillan
Google's Eric Grosse and Mayank Upadhyay have published a research paper that explores hardware-based alternatives to the traditional password. "Passwords and simple bearer tokens such as cookies are no longer sufficient to keep users safe," say Grosse and Upadhyay. They envision a variety of solutions, ranging from cryptographic USB devices to smart card-embedded rings that would seamlessly log a user into their various online accounts without the need to enter a username or password. “We’d like your smartphone or smartcard-embedded finger ring to authorize a new computer via a tap on the computer, even in situations in which your phone might be without cellular connectivity,” say Grosse and Upadhyay. They note that such a scheme would be extremely useful in defeating phishing attacks by replacing easily transmitted or stolen digital credentials with a single physical object. However, Grosse and Upadhyay see several obstacles to such authentication solutions, namely a nearly total lack of support for them across most online services and Web sites. Another problem is that the sort of authentication tokens they envision would have to be closely guarded and reported missing if lost, which is a more cumbersome process than resetting a compromised password.
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