Welcome to the January 30, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
IBM Sends Watson to NY College to Boost Its Skills
Associated Press (01/30/13) Michael Hill
IBM announced that it will provide Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) with a Watson supercomputing system. "We consider it absolutely strategic technology for IBM in the future," says IBM's Michael Henesey. "And we want to evolve it, of course, thoughtfully, but also in collaboration with the best and brightest in academia." IBM says RPI's artificial intelligence researchers will be able to help boost Watson's cognitive capabilities. The researchers want to improve Watson's mathematical ability, and help it quickly determine the meaning of new or made-up words. The RPI researchers also want to improve the system's ability to handle the growing number of images, videos, and emails on the Internet. RPI professor Selmer Bringsjord will focus on providing Watson with a deeper understanding of the structure of sentences and how dialogues unfold. "If I can make a tiny, tiny contribution in that direction, given how historic the system is, I'd be very happy and I think my graduate students would be as well," Bringsjord says. IBM and RPI say Watson also will help prepare students for careers in cognitive science and analyzing big data.
Senate’s H-1B Visa Proposal Goes Far Beyond Microsoft’s
Seattle Times (01/29/13) Kyung M. Song
Last fall, Microsoft unveiled a plan to expand the H-1B visa program for highly skilled foreign workers, but the Immigration Innovation Act, introduced on Tuesday by a bipartisan group of senators, goes beyond Microsoft's plan by increasing the annual quota of H-1B visas for those workers from 65,000 to 115,000. The bill also calls for the cap to grow every year if demand exceeds supply, potentially up to 300,000 visas per year. In addition, the bill calls for removing a separate cap of 20,000 visas for foreigners with graduate degrees from U.S. universities. The bill also charges companies an extra $1,000 for each visa, and the money will be used to improve science, technology, engineering, and math education for U.S. students. However, the legislation is expected to increase the tension between high-tech companies and unemployed workers who are worried they are being displaced by younger, lower-paid foreigners. Rochester Institute of Technology professor Ron Hira estimates that eliminating the cap on foreigners with advanced degrees from U.S. universities could eventually account for 100,000 additional visas per year. The Senate proposal includes an escalator and a decelerator to tie the annual H-1B visas quotas to market demands.
Stanford Researchers Break Million-Core Supercomputer Barrier
Stanford University (01/25/13) Andrew Myers
Researchers at Stanford University's Center for Turbulence Research (CTR) used a supercomputer with more than 1 million computing cores to solve a complex fluid dynamics problem. The researchers, using the Sequoia IBM BlueGene/Q system at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, say their work proves that million-core fluid dynamics simulations are possible. The simulation examined predicting the noise generated by a supersonic jet engine, and the research aims to design quieter aircraft engines. "Only recently, with the advent of massive supercomputers boasting hundreds of thousands of computing cores, have engineers been able to model jet engines and the noise they produce with accuracy and speed," says CTR director Parviz Moin. Computational fluid dynamics simulations test all aspects of a supercomputer. Supercomputers such as Sequoia divide the simulation's complex math into smaller parts so they can be computed simultaneously. The more cores that are available, the faster and more complex the calculations can be. "These runs represent at least an order-of-magnitude increase in computational power over the largest simulations performed at the Center for Turbulence Research previously," says CTR researcher Joseph Nichols. “The implications for predictive science are mind-boggling.”
DARPA Looking for Technology to Create 'Transient Electronics' Devices
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Vanishing Programmable Resources program was established to foster the development of "transient electronics" that dissolve when triggered. Phones, radios, remote sensors, and other electronics proliferate on the battlefield, and can be obtained by enemies to reveal sensitive information. However, tracking and retrieving every device is not viable, so the Department of Defense is seeking technology that would essentially vaporize electronics in response to a signal, possibly sent remotely to the device from a command post or triggered in response to environmental cues such as temperature. Ahead of a broad agency announcement, a Proposer's Day will solicit basic research into materials, devices, manufacturing and integration processes, and design methodologies, with the goal of yielding a circuit representing an environmental or biomedical sensor capable of remote communication with a user. “DARPA has previously demonstrated that transient electronics might be used to fight infections at surgical sites,” says DARPA's Alicia Jackson. “Now, we want to develop a revolutionary new class of electronics for a variety of systems whose transience does not require submersion in water."
Smartphone Sensors Reveal Security Secrets
BBC News (01/28/13) Mark Ward
Security researchers increasingly are studying smartphone sensors, which collect information that can help expose PINs and other security codes but are exempt from the controls that govern other phone functions. For example, accelerometers on smartphones can reveal the location on a screen that the user touches when unlocking a gadget, Swarthmore College professor Adam J. Aviv says. His team created software to gather accelerometer data and analyze the information to find matches for previously captured taps and swipes. The accuracy of the software increased with the number of guesses allowed, and after five tries, PINs were correctly identified about 43 percent of the time and patterns about 73 percent of the time. Users generally do not have to grant permission for data collection by sensors even when the information gathered has no bearing on the application used, Aviv notes. In addition to accelerometers, security researchers are testing whether gyroscopes, other orientation sensors, and even touchscreen smudges can reveal passwords. "We are starting to realize that the way we interact with these devices affects the security of these devices," Aviv says.
Big Medical Data
MIT News (01/25/13) Larry Hardesty
Last year the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) launched bigdata@csail, a big data initiative that includes several projects designed to make medical data more accessible to physicians and patients. For example, researchers in the Clinical Decision Making Group are developing methods for bringing artificial intelligence to the medical community. The group participates in a large initiative to create a database system that would link genomic and clinical data so that doctors can more easily test hypotheses about connections between genetic variations and certain diseases. The group recently presented a new approach to the problem of word-sense disambiguation, or inferring from context which of a word's several meanings is intended. Meanwhile, researchers in CSAIL’s Data-Driven Medicine Group are investigating techniques for detecting and predicting hospital-borne infections. In addition, researchers in the New Media Medicine Group are developing tools to enable members of online discussion boards to gather and organize medically relevant data about their own experiences with particular diseases and courses of treatments.
Berners-Lee Calls for Computer Science Education at a Younger Age
VG247.com (01/28/13) Dave Cook
Computer science should be taught to children at a younger age, said World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee at the recent World Economic Forum. He says technology education in schools currently focuses more on showing students how to use Microsoft Word rather than providing them with instruction on coding. "It's very important in education with this computer science, which is understanding the philosophy of computer and the mathematics of computing, and learning to really build stuff, it's very different from the IT class, and I think making that distinction very clear and maybe early on in schools is very important," Berners-Lee says. Computer science education would enable young students to gain a better understanding of how computers function and how to code applications. Berners-Lee notes that millions use Twitter and Facebook, but few understand why the services work the way they do, pointing out that the mentality is to ask a parent to buy new devices when something goes wrong.
More Using Electronics to Track Their Health
New York Times (01/27/13) Milt Freudenheim
People increasingly are tracking their health using smartphone applications and other devices that collect personal data automatically, according to health industry experts. "The explosion of mobile devices means that more Americans have an opportunity to start tracking health data in an organized way," says the Pew Research Center’s Susannah Fox. A Pew study found that 21 percent of people who track their health use some form of technology. There are currently more than 13,000 health and fitness apps available to the public, estimates Health 2.0 co-chairman Matthew Holt. For example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have developed tracking software that can chart the behavior of patients with Crohn's disease by allowing patients and doctors to watch for early warning signs of flare-up symptoms. "One of the main findings was that many patients were unaware of the amount of variation in their symptoms that they were having every day," says Cincinnati Children's Hospital professor Peter A. Margolis. The Pew study showed that most respondents with several chronic conditions found that tracking their health had led them to ask a doctor new questions, to seek a second opinion, or influenced their treatment decisions.
Microscopic LEDs Could Speed Up Wireless Communication
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (01/25/13) Stephen Harris
British researchers believe microscopic light-emitting diodes (LEDs) could make wireless communication even faster. A team led by Strathclyde University is developing a visible light communication system that transmits data via the flickering of micron-sized LEDs at speeds of up to 10 Gbps per square meter of floor area. The researchers say the technology also could be a potentially less expensive alternative to traditional wireless systems that does not take up space in the radio spectrum and could be used in places radio signals are not allowed, such as in parts of hospitals or on aircraft. Micron-sized LEDs made from gallium nitride can transmit data faster than conventional white LEDs because they can flicker on and off about 1,000 times faster, and 1,000 of them can fit into the same space as a single conventional bulb, which means bandwidth can increase by a total factor of 1 million over a similar area. The researchers note visible light communication also could be used to add data transmission to traditional light sources. As a result, the technology could enable cars to communicate with each other via their headlights.
Rice Technique Points Toward 2-D Devices
Rice University (01/27/13) David Ruth; Mike Williams
Rice University researchers have developed a method to make patterns in atom-thick layers of graphene and hexagonal boron nitride (h-BN), which could lead to the creation of two-dimensional electronics. Since Rice researchers introduced a technique to stitch the two materials together almost three years ago, the idea has received a lot of attention from other researchers interested in the prospect of building two-dimensional atomic-layer circuits, notes Rice professor Pulickel Ajayan. "It should be possible to make fully functional devices with circuits 30, even 20 nanometers wide, all in two dimensions," says Rice's Jun Lou. The research involves finely detailed patterns of graphene being laced into gaps created in sheets of h-BN. The research shows that "even by doing all kinds of growth, then etching, then regrowth, the intrinsic properties of these two materials are not affected," Lou says. The next step is to integrate a third element, a semiconductor, into the 2D fabric. "If we can do that, we can build truly integrated in-plane devices," which would lead to new options for manufacturers experimenting with flexible electronics, says Rice's Zheng Liu.
A Boost to Your Mobile Signal
CORDIS News (01/24/13)
European Union-funded researchers are developing technologies to fix the black holes in wireless coverage and free up mobile network capacity. The researchers are developing femtocells, small mobile telephony cells that improve both connectivity and coverage at the local level, and that divert data traffic off of mobile airwaves. The Broadband-evolved Femto networks (Befemto) project is a collaboration between mobile telecommunications equipment firms, mobile operators, small companies with key technologies, and several technology research and development organizations to solve problems. "By adding femtocells and small cells into the mobile network mix, we make it possible for mobile operators to improve their spectrum efficiencies through heterogeneous networks and seamless integration of the fixed-line telecoms network," says Befemto project leader Thierry Lestable. The researchers developed advanced cooperation, self-organizing, healing, and switching algorithms that enable femtocell networks to work together to provide better coverage for users. "We are focusing on the newly launched LTE or 4G networks because customers are paying a premium for these and will expect a true broadband experience: Fast, reliable, and unlimited access to everything everywhere," Lestable says.
Organic Ferroelectric Molecule Shows Promise for Memory Chips, Sensors
UW Today (01/24/13) Hannah Hickey
A new ferroelectric molecule offers potential as an organic alternative to silicon-based semiconductors, with possible applications in memory, cost-effective energy storage, and sensors, say researchers from the University of Washington and Southeast University. As a ferroelectric, the molecule has one positive and one negative side that can be reversed with an electrical field. The current performance standard for ferroelectrics is barium titanate, and the researchers say the new molecule competes impressively as an indicator of molecule alignment strength for data storage. The molecule also retains its properties at temperatures up to 307 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas a separate organic ferroelectric recently unveiled in the journal Nature only performs at room temperature. In terms of energy storage, the molecule has a dielectric constant over 10 times higher than for other organic ferroelectrics. The molecule also is promising in sensor applications, because it is an effective piezoelectric that can transform movement into electricity. To create the molecule, the researchers dissolved bromine combined with carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen in water, then evaporated the mixture to grow the crystal. Pivoting chemical bonds enable the molecule to flex. Although the organic molecule would not supplant inorganic materials, it could reduce cost and toxicity and improve flexibility and manufacturing in certain applications.
When the Mind Controls the Machines
Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (01/23/13)
Researchers demonstrated three non-invasive brain-machine interfaces at the recent Tools for Brain-computer Interaction European (TOBI) research program. Since 2008, teams from 13 institutions coordinated by Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) have focused on making better use of signals transmitted by the brain. The researchers presented Robotino, which combines electroencephalography, signal recognition, obstacle sensors, and the Internet to enable physically disabled people to take virtual walks in familiar environments and meet and talk with relatives. Another device, Braintree, is a graphical interface that enables the severely disabled to think in order to write and surf the Internet. The researchers also presented a functional electrical stimulation technique that restores some basic mobility. More than 100 patients suffering from severe motor impairments have tested the technologies, and the results are promising. "The road is still long before the 'turnkey' product is made available to physicians and patients," says EPFL professor and TOBI project coordinator Jose del R. Millan. "However, we have paved the way for a new critical approach to the physical and social rehabilitation of patients."
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