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Welcome to the April 1, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Could Google Tilt a Close Election?
Washington Post (03/31/13) Craig Timberg

Psychologist Robert Epstein sees potential for a dominant search engine such as Google to sway close elections without most voters noticing by manipulating search rankings so that a favored candidate wins by pushing up positive links and pushing down negative ones. The most vulnerable voters to this type of election fixing would be those least tuned in to other information sources, such as campaign ads or news reports. Epstein's scenario is based on the possibility of the manipulation being an inside job, which would be hard to detect at first. Epstein and others say Google's potency alone, with about two-thirds of the U.S. search engine market in its control, is such that legal safeguards are needed. Countering such views is Georgetown University professor David Vladeck, who says search engine-based electoral manipulation is difficult, given the sheer volume of other information available to voters. There also are differing views on what kinds of rules, if any, would sensibly and effectively rein in search engines. "The more trust we give to these kinds of tools, the more likely we can be manipulated down the road," warns Wellesley College professor Panagiotis T. Metaxas. “We need to understand, as people, as citizens, why we believe what we believe.”


Biological Transistor Enables Computing Within Living Cells, Study Says
Stanford University (03/28/13) Andrew Myers

Stanford University bioengineers have created a biological transistor they call a transcriptor, which is made from genetic material instead of gears or electrons. “Transcriptors are the key component behind amplifying genetic logic--akin to the transistor and electronics,” says Stanford's Jerome Bonnet. The transcriptor allows computation to take place within living cells to save information such as a cell's exposure to external stimuli or environmental factors, or switch cell reproduction on or off. “Biological computers can be used to study and reprogram living systems, monitor environments, and improve cellular therapeutics,” says Stanford's Drew Endy. In biologics, a transcriptor controls the flow of RNA polymerase as it moves along a DNA strand, just as an electronic transistor determines electron movement along a circuit. “We have repurposed a group of natural proteins, called integrases, to realize digital control over the flow of RNA polymerase along DNA, which in turn allowed us to engineer amplifying genetic logic,” Endy says. The researchers use transcriptors to create logic gates, which they call Boolean Integrase Logic (BIL) gates, that can obtain true-false answers to biochemical questions within a cell. To hasten the development of a biological computer, the researchers have placed the BIL gates in the public domain to allow others to build on their work.


Making Robots Mimic the Human Hand
New York Times (03/29/13) John Markoff

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is engaged in an initiative to build low-cost artificial hands through the work of two teams from iRobot and Sandia National Laboratories. Technologies the teams are using to reduce costs include widely available products such as cellphone cameras and sensors. One hand under development is three-fingered while another is four-fingered, and among the delicate operations they can perform is picking up and manipulating tweezers to pick up a straw. A two-armed robot equipped with the hands also can remove a tire from a car. Challenges DARPA hopes to meet in the project's next phase include designing a robot arm and hand that can search for a improvised explosive device tactilely. Meanwhile, the agency has picked Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the University of Southern California to continue development of high-level software for next-generation robot arms. Whereas in the past DARPA asked software developers to create robotic programs for generic individual motions, now it has a mandate for robots capable of executing a specific task.


Researchers Find Surprising Similarities Between Genetic and Computer Codes
Brookhaven National Laboratory (03/28/13) Chelsea Whyte; Peter Genzer

Survival of the fittest evolutionary theory also applies to technological systems, according to computational biologist Sergei Maslov of the Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory. Together with Stony Brook University graduate student Tin Yau Pang, Maslov compared the frequency with which components "survive" in bacterial genomes and Linux operating systems. The researchers sought to understand why some specialized genes or computer programs are very common while others are fairly rare, and how many components in any system are too essential to be eliminated. "If a bacteria genome doesn't have a particular gene, it will be dead on arrival," Maslov says. "The same goes for large software systems. They have multiple components that work together and the systems require just the right components working together to thrive." The researchers examined the frequency of important pieces of genetic code in the metabolic processes of 500 bacterial species and found a similarity with the frequency of installation of 200,000 Linux packages on more than 2 million computers. The most frequently used components in both the biological and computer systems are those that allow for the most descendants, so the more a component is relied upon by others, the more likely it is to be required for full system functionality.


Mobile App Turns iPhone Into a Biologically-Inspired Hearing Aid
University of Essex (03/27/13)

A free mobile app developed by a team at the University of Essex could be an example of the future of hearing-aid technology. Inspired by biology, BioAid is designed to turn an iPhone or iPod into a hearing aid, while replicating the complexities of the human ear. A standard hearing aid amplifies all sounds, some frequencies more than others, offering only a single setting. However, the app also compresses the very loud sounds that can make certain social situations intolerable for people with hearing loss. BioAid offers six fixed settings, each of which has four fine-tuning settings that allow the user to find the perfect match for their impairment. This exploratory process replaces the hearing test. In the future, tiny, phone-based hearing aids could be dispensed and adjusted remotely. “This new device opens up many intriguing research possibilities allowing scientists to explore new ideas in hearing aid design and how they work in everyday settings," says Essex's Wendy Lecluyse. "At the moment, we are particularly interested to find out how the preferred setting of each user corresponds with their hearing problem.”


Crowd-Funding Is Working for Open Source Projects
Network World (03/27/13) Bryan Lunduke

The company behind the LiveCode development tool has used crowd-funding to raise the money it needs to create an open source edition of its software. The goal was to raise about $500,000 via Kickstarter, and there were some concerns leading up to the final days of the campaign, but the company ended up raising nearly $750,000. Although many open source initiatives are worthwhile projects, funding is nearly impossible to find. However, the success of the LiveCode campaign suggests crowd-funding could help fund open source projects in certain circumstances. The developers behind the image organization tool Shotwell recently started a crowd-funding campaign through indiegogo because they want to continue to develop an open source email client called Geary; they hope to raise $100,000.


Internet Maverick Launches Free Coder School in Paris
Wired News (03/27/13) Klint Finley

French Internet mogul Xavier Niel plans to open a free school for software developers in November. Niel, a self-taught programmer who never attended college, founded France's first entrepreneurship school, and he intends to contribute up to 20 million euros toward Paris-based 42 to keep it tuition-free. The school will offer project-based learning rather than lectures, with an emphasis on peer-to-peer learning. In addition to programming skills, Niel says 42 will teach habits that companies demand, including productivity, collaboration, lifelong learning, and self-investment. The school will admit up to 1,000 students a year, and applicants must be between the ages of 18 and 30. Students who complete a series of games on the school's website will be given a one-day try-out at 42, which will not be an officially accredited school. Applicants do not need to know how to program and there will be no degree requirement.


Google Australia Funds Universities to Spur Computer Science
Computerworld Australia (03/28/13) Rebecca Merrett

Google Australia's Computer Science for High School program provides funding to 12 Australian universities to develop workshops that help high school teachers promote computer science in their curricula. Funding varies based on the number of participants and other associated costs and is capped at $15,000 for each program, according to Google. "We need to ensure that we’re equipping our students to be future creators, rather than just consumers, of technology," says Google Australia's Sally-Ann Williams. Google Australia hopes the increase in the number of universities being funded will ensure computer science education at high schools is current with the needs of the industry and will grow university information and communications technology (ICT) enrollments. "We hope that by supporting computer science at the high school level, we’ll increase the number of bright young Australians that go into computer science at the university level," Williams says. The number of students completing an ICT-related degree has fallen 50 percent in the last 10 years, according to an Australian Computer Society study, which also found that women make up less than 20 percent of the total ICT-related occupation workforce.


NSF Official on New Supers, Data-Intensive Future
HPC Wire (03/28/13) Nicole Hemsoth

Two U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded supercomputers, Stampede and Blue Waters, recently moved closer to their goals of advancing major human-centered scientific projects pertaining to the environment, genomics, disaster preparedness, and epidemiology. Dell and Intel's Stampede launched into large-scale distributed research, while the Cray-backed Blue Waters system at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications is poised for formal introduction as well. NSF’s Alan Blatecky says these are two major NSF investments in high-performance computing created with diverging goals. Stampede will serve a high volume of users with an emphasis on boosting the range of applications available and increasing data-crunching capacity. Blue Waters will provide a very small user base of possibly a dozen people with deep, specific research applications. Users will face challenges in leveraging the supercomputers' many cores, and NSF will provide programming and computer science support to help domain specialist scientists. Stampede and Blue Waters will primarily focus on socially-oriented missions such as earthquake predictions, flood outcomes, disaster response situations, and HIV and epidemic modeling.


New Clues to Wikipedia's Shared Super Mind
Santa Fe Reporter (03/27/13) John German

The cooperative nature of Wikipedia is critical to its high level of accuracy and usefulness, according to a study by Santa Fe Institute research fellow Simon DeDeo. The study found that Wikipedia is the product of an extremely cooperative human social system, which has proven as accurate as traditional encyclopedias. Wikipedia's entry on former President George W. Bush underscores the value of having many people contribute to each entry, because it "reads as if it was written by aliens who didn't care [about Bush]--although we know it was written by people who cared a lot,” DeDeo says. Wikipedia can be studied as a social system because each Wikipedia edit is recorded. “It's almost like you had closed-circuit cameras running as a society is creating itself, so every move could be studied and watched,” DeDeo says. The behavior patterns create what can be seen as a historical grammar, like that of a language or bird song. The historical language that develops and maintains Wikipedia might be expected to follow a constricted grammar as well, but Wikipedia behavior is constantly generating new patterns of behavior, possibly because it is the product of many minds.


Holograms Add New Dimension to Fighting Fire
Government Technology (03/26/13) Colin Wood

A researcher in Italy is combining holograms with thermal imaging to make fighting fires safer. Thermal imaging can see through smoke, but not flames that can obscure people in need of rescue. The National Research Council's Pietro Ferraro has developed hologram technology that uses laser beams and numerical-processing software, enabling the device to see through flames and generate a 3D image of a room. Combined with thermal imaging, the technology would enable firefighters to see through smoke and flames during a rescue. The software can construct a single frame of imagery in less than a half a second. A relatively small amount of processing power is required, which means the task can be handled by a regular laptop or mobile device. Ferraro has conducted experiments in a laboratory that simulated outdoor conditions. "We are strongly confident about the possibility to bring this technology out of the lab," he says. "We think that in a few years, these systems could be applied for fixed installations, for example in hospitals, schools tunnels, or even highways."


RIT Researchers Develop Advanced Video and Image Processing
Rochester Institute of Technology (03/26/13) Michelle Cometa

Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) researchers are developing intelligence processing technologies to handle very large volumes of data, and to distinguish objects, scale, complexity, and organization. The researchers were awarded two U.S. Department of Defense grants to continue advancing this technology. The first grant, Hierarchical Representation of Remote Senses Multimodal Imagery, aims to advance the foundation for object-based image analysis of remotely sensed images, and to explore the use of topological features to improve classification and detection results. The second grant, Spatio-Temporal Segmentation of Full Motion Airborne Video Imagery, focuses on the development of a segmentation methodology to differentiate the unique cues of moving and still objects derived from full-motion video capture. "It all comes down to efficiently handling large amounts of image data collected from satellites and video streams, which are not necessarily big images, but I can collect video for hours," says RIT professor David Messinger. He says the system the team is producing will be adaptable for identifying structures and objects of various sizes, shapes, and timescales.


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