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Welcome to the February 20, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Nanotubes Seen as Alternative When Silicon Chips Hit Their Limits
New York Times (02/19/13) John Markoff

Stanford University researchers have demonstrated a microelectronic circuit composed of 44 transistors fabricated entirely from carbon nanotubes. The development indicates that carbon nanotubes could be the best choice to replace silicon-based chips when they reach their fundamental physical limits. The Stanford technology reinforces the idea that when the silicon era stalls, the scaling-down process will continue, and carbon nanotubes will permit designers to continue to increase the power and capacity of computers in the future. "The bottom line is you can expect an order of magnitude in power-saving at the system level," says Stanford professor Subhasish Mitra. He notes that nanotubes offer tremendous potential to increase the battery life of mobile devices. The challenge with carbon nanotubes in their type state is that they form a giant "hairball" of interwoven molecules. However, by chemically growing them on a quartz surface, the researchers are able to align them closely and in regularly spaced rows. The Stanford researchers say they have perfected a circuit technique that makes use of redundancy to work around the imperfectly formed wires.


Other Countries Court Skilled Immigrants Frustrated by U.S. Visa Laws
Washington Post (02/18/13) Kevin Sullivan

Business and academic leaders are concerned that U.S. immigration laws are forcing the departure of highly skilled foreigners educated in U.S. universities. Unlike other countries, the United States does not offer specific visas for young entrepreneurs who want to start businesses in America. "We train these people and then we push them away, while Chile and the U.K. and Canada are coming in to recruit them," says the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Bill Aulet. President Obama and some members of Congress have suggested creating a "startup visa" for foreign entrepreneurs. An EB-1 visa currently exists for people with "extraordinary ability," but these visas are among the most difficult to get. About half of all Ph.D.'s working in science and technology are foreign-born, according to a Brookings Institution study, and about 40 percent of all MIT graduate students are from other countries. MIT's Leon Sandler notes it costs about $250,000 to educate a single Ph.D. student and the U.S. government pays for at least 80 percent of MIT’s graduate research. "Essentially, we are funding their research, spending a quarter-million dollars in taxpayer money; then we make it hard for these people to stay here," Sandler says.


Future Science: Using 3D Worlds to Visualize Data
Associated Press (02/20/13) Carla K. Johnson

University of Illinois at Chicago researchers are conducting experiments with CAVE2, a virtual world consisting of eight-foot-high screens and 72 stereoscopic liquid crystal display panels. "In the next five years, we anticipate using the CAVE to look at really large-scale data to help scientists make sense of that information," says the University of Illinois at Chicago's Jason Leigh, co-inventor of the CAVE2 virtual-reality system. "CAVEs are essentially fantastic lenses for bringing data into focus." He says the CAVE2 virtual world could change the way doctors are trained and improve patient care, or it could help pharmaceutical researchers model the way new drugs bind to proteins in the human body. However, the system's size and expense may be barriers to its widespread use, says University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Henry Fuchs, who predicts smaller technology, such as Google's Internet-connected eyeglasses, will do more to revolutionize medicine than CAVE-type systems. Nevertheless, Fuchs calls CAVE2 a national treasure and others are creating virtual scenarios for testing in the CAVE2, such as a Mars flyover generated from actual U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration data.


Obama Seeking to Boost Study of Human Brain
New York Times (02/17/13) John Markoff

The Obama administration is planning a project tentatively known as the Brain Activity Map aimed at creating a comprehensive map of the human brain. The project could advance artificial intelligence research, uncover new mental illness treatments, and enhance the understanding of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, autism, and schizophrenia. Obama is expected to include the project in his budget proposal next month, and scientists involved in the Brain Activity Map hope for federal funding of at least $3 billion over the next 10 years. The project differs from the recently announced European Human Brain Project that will create a silicon-based “brain” using supercomputer simulation, which opponents argue is based on knowledge that is theoretical, incomplete, or inaccurate. Several new approaches have emerged for brain mapping, such as developing a series of molecule-size machines to noninvasively serve as sensors to measure and store brain activity at the cellular level, possibly storing brain activity on synthetic DNA. The Office of Science and Technology Policy would lead the project with participation from the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Science Foundation.


Picture-Perfect
MIT News (02/19/13) Helen Knight

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a processor chip that can quickly perform tasks such as creating more realistic or enhanced lighting in a photograph without destroying the scene's ambiance. The researchers note the technology could be integrated with any smartphone, tablet computer, or digital camera. One such task, High Dynamic Range, is designed to compensate for limitations on the range of brightness that can be recorded by existing digital cameras. To accomplish this, the chip's processor automatically takes three separate low dynamic range images with the camera, including a normally exposed image, an overexposed image, and an underexposed image. The chip then combines the three images to create one image that captures the entire range of brightness in the scene, says MIT's Rahul Rithe. The chip also can enhance the lighting in a darkened scene more realistically than conventional flash photography. "As algorithms such as bilateral filtering become more accepted as required processing for imaging, this kind of hardware specialization becomes more keenly needed," notes Microsoft Research's Michael Cohen.


Tongue-Tingling Interface Lets You Taste Data
New Scientist (02/15/13) Hal Hodson

A new device can turn the tongue into a display for output from environmental sensors. The device, called Tongueduino, consists of a small pad containing electrodes, and users put the pad on their tongue. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Gershon Dublon says that when connected to an electronic sensor, the pad converts signals from the sensor into small pulses of electric current across the grid, read as a pattern of tingles by the tongue. Dublon says a person's brain can quickly adapt to the new stimuli and integrate them into its senses. For example, the device could be attached to a sensor that detects Earth's magnetic field, enabling the tongue to be used as a compass. "You might not have to train much," Dublon says. "You could just put this on and start to perceive." A wireless version could be used in augmented-reality applications that deliver information to users inconspicuously, without interfering with their vision or hearing, notes the Georgia Institute of Technology's Blair MacIntyre.
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Complex Systems Made Simple
Northeastern University News (02/15/13)

Northeastern University network scientists have developed an algorithm capable of identifying the subset of components, or nodes, that are necessary to reveal the overall nature of a complex system. The approach uses the interdisciplinary nature of complexity for its method of observing such systems that have connectedness as their essence. "Thanks to the links between components, infor­ma­tion is dis­trib­uted throughout a net­work," says Northeastern professor Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, founding director of the Center for Complex Network Research. "Hence I do not need to mon­itor everyone to have a full sense of what the system does." The researchers first identify all the mathematical equations that describe the system's dynamics. For example, in a biochemical reaction system, the researchers can look at how the variables are affected by each of the smaller reactions between peripherally related molecules, and then draw a graphical map of the system. The nodes that form the foundation of the map would serve as a set of essential sensor nodes for understanding any other part of the whole.


DARPA Wants Teeny-Tiny Fluids to Cool Down Next-Gen Microchips
Wired News (02/15/13) Robert Beckhusen

U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) researchers want to embed stacked microchips with tiny fluid channels to circulate small drops of water. The agency issued a solicitation asking the industry to develop designs for microfluidic cooling systems that could be incorporated into microchip stacks, called ICECool. To stop the water from interfering with the electrical flow of the chips, the system needs to include an insulator coated with water-repellant material. The microchips' electrodes also must be insulated from the drops in order to keep a steady flow. Other issues to be solved include managing the pressure in order to prevent the water from drying or burning up, and transferring excess heat away from the microchips. Duke University professor Krish Chakrabarty proposes a method to automatically switch off electrodes when they get too hot. Water near those electrodes is then dropped on an indium tin oxide plate between the electrode and the fluids channels, which then absorbs the heat and dissipates it away. “More generally, proposed approaches should be crafted to be scalable and adaptable to the environment of a modern military electronic system,” the DARPA solicitation says.


New Method to Measure the Redundancy of Information
University of Hertfordshire (02/14/13)

Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire have developed a way to measure information redundancy. Information duplication is sometimes intentional, but unintended and unnecessary redundancy can impact data compression, data storage, or increase the effort required to administrate data. The team used information geometry tools to develop a mathematically precise method that measures redundancy in a system with three variables. The approach captures many of the intuitive properties of redundancy, and an added bonus is a novel information-geometric interpretation, which the researchers say has not been done before. The method measures how much the information in one variable lies "in the same direction" with respect to the other variable about which you want to know more. One immediate use is to track how information flows through a system, and the researchers say this could be a valuable tool in neuroscience and the study of networks, agents, and other complex scenarios in which it is essential to trace the origin and the effects of information flow.


Moving Into the Cloud
CORDIS News (02/14/13)

The European Union's MobiCloud project aims to create an online collaborative platform using cloud technology to facilitate the development of mobile applications for public transport, construction, and other business-critical areas. End users, mobile developers, application vendors, system integrators, and cloud service providers will come together on MobiCloud to create end-to-end solutions with a large return on investment. MobiCloud offers a mobile mash-up screen that culls data from different corporate information technology systems, and displays different services based on a user's context, such as location or skill set. These services respond in real time to changes such as work orders or fault reports. MobiCloud will enable smaller companies to quickly develop mobile versions of existing applications, reduce costs, and increase economic growth. The project is co-funded by the European Commission under the ICT Policy Support Program, part of the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Program.


A Quantum Dot Energy Harvester: Turning Waste Heat Into Electricity on the Nanoscale
University of Rochester News (02/14/13) Leonor Sierra

University of Rochester researchers have proposed a type of nanoscale engine that would use quantum dots to generate electricity from waste heat, potentially making microcircuits more efficient. "The system is really a simple one, which exploits certain properties of quantum dots to harvest heat," says Rochester professor Andrew Jordan. The technique involves combining millions of microscopic engines in a layered structure. Jordan says that such a device about one square inch in area could produce about a watt of power for every one-degree difference in temperature. Each of the proposed nanoengines is based on two adjacent quantum dots, with current flowing through one and then the other. The system utilizes a quantum mechanical effect called resonant tunneling, which means the quantum dots act as perfect energy filters. When the system is in the resonant tunneling mode, electrons can only pass through the quantum dots when they have a specific energy that can be adjusted. Quantum dots can be grown in a self-assembling fashion out of semiconductor materials, permitting a practical way to generate many of the nanoengines as part of a larger array, and in multiple layers.


Work-Force Demand for STEM Students Spurs Efforts at Community Colleges
Chronicle of Higher Education (02/11/13) Katherine Mangan

Community colleges are stepping up efforts to turn out science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduates. Post-secondary education will be required for 92 percent of STEM workers by 2018, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. Although about 65 percent of STEM job openings will require a bachelor's degree, postsecondary schools have not focused enough on the 35 percent of openings that will require a certificate or associate degree, the center says. With efforts underway to encourage low-income women and minorities to pursue STEM careers, community colleges with their diverse enrollment are a natural fit to increase STEM graduates. The first step for community colleges is to make students more aware of STEM jobs openings, but several obstacles exist to enticing students to STEM majors. Community-college students are more likely than other college students to face financial challenges and to be juggling work and family demands with school, so they are reluctant to undertake lengthy STEM programs. In addition, many students view STEM fields as "uncool," requiring schools to improve the culture around the field. Furthermore, well over 50 percent of students entering community colleges require remedial courses and drop out before even reaching credit courses.
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Making Mobile Robots Work Together
McGill University (Canada) (02/08/13) Katherine Gombay

McGill University's new Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Canadian Field Robotics Network (NCFRN) is enabling applications to develop robotic tools that will advance planetary exploration and environmental measurement and understanding. NCFRN will be critical to future environmental, hydroelectric, and resource identification and monitoring. NCFRN received a $5-million grant through the NSERC Strategic Network Program funded by Industry Canada, and will receive another $5 million in research support through direct in-kind contributions from industry and government partners. Over the next five years, McGill researchers will receive $1.3 million through NSERC’s Strategic Partnership Grants to support nine projects in various areas. NCFRN will combine the skills of Canada's top robotics researchers to work with robots that interact with people or are capable of moving on land or in air or water. In addition, the network will enable environmental monitoring of Canada’s coastlines, mining and resource identification, planetary exploration, pipeline monitoring, border surveillance, and search and rescue. Environmental disasters could be handled via the network, and smart wheelchairs also are under development. Finally, NCFRN will train students to introduce robotics technologies into many industries that currently do not use robots.


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