Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the April 12, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Obama R&D Spending Plan Doesn't Beat Inflation
Computerworld (04/10/13) Patrick Thibodeau

Although President Barack Obama's federal budget for the 2014 fiscal year calls for increases in federal research and development (R&D) spending, the general spending boost reveals a decline when adjusted for inflation. The plan would provide $142.8 billion for federal R&D programs, an increase of $1.9 billion from fiscal 2012. However, inflation between 2012 and 2014 is projected to be about 4 percent, which means "we have to admit a decline in real terms over this period," says John Holdren with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Battelle anticipates China surpassing the United States in R&D spending in about a decade, while IDC analyst Earl Joseph expects China to create a 100-petaflop supercomputer by the end of next year. Although Holdren says the Energy Department's budget agenda calls for more spending on high-performance computing research, it "does not set a goal for [building] exascale" systems. Obama's budget calls for a 6-percent increase in the department's advanced scientific research program, and a 4.2-percent increase for networking and information technology R&D. Budget disputes between the White House and Congress have hindered U.S. progress on high-performance computing in recent years.


When a Teacher Is 2 Feet Tall
Wall Street Journal (04/10/13) Sophia Hollander

In a move hailed as the first of its kind in U.S. education, classrooms in California and New York are experimenting with robotic teachers in a range of subjects. Slated to launch this spring, the Los Angeles trial will use a robotic dragon to teach healthy lifestyle habits to first graders. The first of several planned projects involves students showing the robot how to prepare for a race, which is intended to help the students remember their lessons. The Los Angeles project will be conducted by researchers from Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California, and Stanford University. The researchers say the robots will serve as engaging assistants rather than replacements for teachers. The robots are small enough to sit on a table, with students taking turns using them in the library or part of the classroom. Designed to imitate human behavior, the robots turn their heads when students talk and gesture as they speak. The New York experiment leverages children's enjoyment of pointing out another person's mistakes with an android named Projo, which makes calculated errors the children can correct to increase awareness of their own mistakes.


From San Francisco to Chicago: Coding Bootcamps Are Booming
Associated Press (04/12/13) Terence Chea

Hacker "boot camps," such as Dev Bootcamp, are a new type of computer programming school that promise to teach students how to write code in two or three months and help them quickly get hired as Web developers. "Every single skill you learn here you’ll apply on your first day on the job," says Dev Bootcamp co-founder Shereef Bishay. These intensive training programs usually last for nine to 12 weeks, and students can expect to work 80 to 100 hours a week, mostly writing code in teams under the guidance of experienced software developers. "For people who are looking to get involved in software in a big way and don’t want to set aside four years for a computer science degree, this nine-week program is a terrific alternative," says Dev Bootcamp graduate Eno Compton. Over the past year, more than two dozen computer-coding schools have opened or started recruiting students in cities such as New York, Chicago, Toronto, Washington D.C., and Cambridge, Mass. Proponents say the academies are helping meet the increasing demand for computer programmers in the U.S. tech industry. However, as more academies become available, supporters of the programs worry that low-quality programs could damage their appeal.


Learning Analytics at Stanford Takes Huge Leap Forward With MOOCs
Stanford Report (CA) (04/11/13) R.F. Mackay

Researchers at Stanford University's Lytics Lab are analyzing data from massive open online courses (MOOCs) to study how students learn. The group, which includes graduate students, researchers, professors, and visitors from various fields, meets weekly to discuss ongoing projects. Lytics projects include a dashboard aimed at helping instructors gauge student engagement, a study of peer assessment based on peer grades in a MOOC course on human-computer interaction, automated coding assignment feedback, and student performance predictors. The study of learning analytics aims to interpret data generated by students to assess progress, predict performance, and define problems by gathering data when students complete tasks such as assignments, exams, and peer assessments. Three Lytics Lab members presented their research results at the recent Learning Analytics and Knowledge meeting. The group sought data to counter objections to MOOCs, such as the high dropout rate, and found that the wrong questions were being asked. Students take classes and drop out for various reasons, so global references to dropouts are illogical with respect to MOOCs, the group found. The researchers intend for the study to "provide educators, instructional designers, and platform developers with insights for designing effective and potentially adaptive learning environments that best meet the needs of MOOC participants."


Patterning Graphene With DNA
MIT News (04/09/13) Anne Trafton

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University have discovered a way to use folded DNA to control the nanostructure of inorganic materials, in a development that could lead to large-scale production of electronic chips made of graphene. The scientists created DNA nanostructures in different shapes and used the molecules as templates to create nanoscale patterns on sheets of graphene, a one-atom-thick carbon sheet with unique electronic properties. “This gives us a chemical tool to program shapes and patterns at the nanometer scale, forming electronic circuits, for example,” says MIT professor Michael Strano. The scientists created complex DNA nanostructures with precise shapes using short synthetic DNA strands called single-stranded tiles, each of which connects to four selected neighbors. However, DNA is not an ideal material for building because sunlight and oxygen can damage it, and it can react with other molecules. Therefore, the researchers moved the structural information stored in DNA to graphene by tethering the DNA to a graphene surface with the aminopyrine molecule and coating it with silver and then gold. Researchers are particularly interested in graphene shaped into ribbons, which could be used in digital electronics. In addition, graphene rings can function as quantum interference transistors.


Old Java Can Learn New Tricks From C, Android
Computerworld (04/10/13) Paul Krill

Java and the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) launched 18 years ago, but could still improve in areas such as locality, application isolation, and parallel operations. The JVM, which runs Java applications on multiple hardware platforms, could acquire functionality like the C language's struct feature, which improves locality by refining the linkage between memory and processors. The JVM is likely to eventually incorporate struct capabilities that will bring a smaller footprint as well as improved locality, says Doug Lea, who serves on the governing board of the OpenJDK open source Java implementation, noting that some JVM languages, such as Scala, already have struct capability. In addition, Java could improve with Google Android's failsafe capabilities that allow application isolation, Lea says. For example, Android's Dalvik VM has isolation capabilities that restrict the impact of a faulty process on another process. Automated parallel operations for the Java language and runtime also would be beneficial, says Salesforce.com's Charlie Hunt. Virtual machine improvements will emerge to cope with the issue of false sharing as multicore processors battle for memory, and will increase application performance, says Lea, adding that this issue is not specific to Java.


White House Gears Up for Second 'Hackathon'
Federal Computer Week (04/08/13) Frank Konkel

Hackers, technology experts, and developers have until April 19 to sign up for the White House's second Hackathon. The White House hopes to build on the success of the inaugural Hackathon in February, which led to several advances for improving the application programming interface (API) that drives the We the People petitioning system. The announcement for the contest notes the goal is to develop "full, production-ready applications and visualization tools" for the petitioning system under an open source license. "The White House development team drew on feedback from the Hackathon to improve the API and is adding code from its projects to a software development kit," says the Office of Digital Strategy's Peter Welsch. "If you have the skills necessary to work with APIs and develop visualizations, tools, or other services that rely their data, we want to hear from you." The second Hackathon is scheduled for June 1, and coincides with the National Day of Civic Hacking.


Tiny Chiplets: A New Level of Micro Manufacturing
New York Times (04/08/13) John Markoff

Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) is developing a system for manufacturing electronics that is similar to the laser printer technology it invented in the 1970s. The technology could lead to desktop manufacturing plants that print circuitry for electronic devices such as flexible smartphones, pressure-sensitive skin for robot hands, and disposable medical bandages that record health information. PARC researchers, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, have created a device similar to a laser printer that can print hundreds of thousands of chips no larger than a grain of sand according to a precise location and orientation. The tiny chips can function as microprocessors, computer memory, and additional circuits for computers. In addition, the chips can be microelectromechanical systems that sense heat, pressure, and motion. The researchers say the technology could enable the development of one-off custom computers, or a 3D printing system that produces smart objects with built-in computing. Although a commercially viable system is still years away, the potential economic impact of the technology is enormous, as it could trigger a new digital era in manufacturing that would make circuitboard factories around the globe obsolete.


Virtual Reality Creates Infinite Maze in a Single Room
New Scientist (04/06/13) Hal Hodson

Researchers at the Vienna University of Technology have developed a virtual reality (VR) system that enables users to step into a labyrinth and wander an endless maze of rooms and corridors, but without actually leaving their living rooms. Users wear a VR headset, and the system tracks their body and head movements and guides them through sets of virtual spaces as they pace around within a real physical space. The VR system automatically generates corridors and rooms as the user moves, in a manner that will limit the person to the real space available. The researchers note that users will not realize that they are walking around in circles. "People think they are walking in much larger environments," says Vienna University's Hannes Kaufmann. "We can simulate rooms connected by corridors, and we could simulate outdoor areas in which certain areas are restricted." The developers hope to tweak the system to accommodate another person, which would enable two people in the real world to meet simultaneously in the virtual world and explore simulated environments.


New Kit Pumps Up 3D Feedback
Lancaster University (04/04/13)

Lancaster University scientist Eduardo Velloso plans to build on the technology behind his augmented reality-based weightlifting feedback system to link computers to emotions. Velloso previously developed a computer system that monitors the movements of a weightlifter and provides information on performance in real time. “We picked weightlifting because it is an activity with specific movement," he notes. Velloso says he is in the very early stages of an emotion-recognition project, but it still involves analyzing movement. “I have moved on from weightlifting but will still be analyzing movement,” Velloso says. “By tracking a person’s movement, I want to understand the emotions the person is experiencing." He says the goal is to deduce affective states of mind from bodily expressions, rather than from facial and voice recognition. "Computers understanding emotions will be amazing," Velloso says. "We could use this method in systems to help users in improving their body language for specific situations such as a job interviews or public speaking."


Mechanical Computer Flexes Its Muscle
Ars Technica (04/05/13) Chris Lee

New Zealand researchers have developed an artificial, muscle-based computer that could have significant potential for the field of robotics. The computer is based on the concept of the universal Turing machine, whose simplest form reads just three different states, has only two internal states, and can move tape either right or left. Only six operations are possible with such a machine. The researchers built the machine out of a set of elastomers, configured so they could run sets of electrical relays that drove other muscles. The tape was pulled right and left by a set of weights controlled by a cam system, actuated by still another muscle. Once the machine was built, the researchers checked the output against manual calculations of the computer's output. The device reached a computational speed of 0.15 Hz, and in principle it is capable of calculating anything. The researchers contend this innovation is a beginning for self-thinking robotic muscles. A robot that employs local reflexive computation will probably need a fast and nonlinear feedback system, which can be naturally built into muscles, but not into routine actuators.


A Smartphone to Verify Halal Products the UPM Way
Putra University, Malaysia (04/02/13) Kuah Guan Oo

Putra University, Malaysia (UPM) researchers are developing MyHalal, a smartphone application that can verify a product's halal status. The researchers designed the software to be installed on Android-based mobile devices, which can be used as a scanner to scan the barcode of a product to confirm its halal status from a database. Information about the product, such as the name of the manufacturer and its halal certificate expiration date, also will be displayed. The software enables the smartphone to check if the product is listed halal as approved by the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM). The researchers found that JAKIM has more than 100,000 products certified as halal in its records. "So, our programmer used the barcodes of these products at JAKIM to transcribe and create a database that can be downloaded to any Android-based smartphone or tablet that will allow for offline halal verification anywhere, without the need for any external device," says UPM's Shaiful Jahari Hashim.


Advancing Secure Communications: A Better Single-Photon Emitter for Quantum Cryptography
University of Michigan News Service (04/09/13) Nicole Casal Moore

University of Michigan researchers say they have developed a more efficient single-photon emitter that can be made using traditional semiconductor processing techniques, a development that could make quantum cryptography more practical. The emitter is a single nanowire made of gallium nitride with a very small region of indium gallium nitride that behaves as a quantum dot. The researchers note the emitter is made of semiconducting materials that are commonly used in light-emitting diodes and solar cells. "By making the diameter of the nanowire very small and by altering the composition over a very small section of it, a quantum dot is realized," says Michigan professor Pallab Bhattacharya. The emitter is fueled by electricity rather than light, which makes it more practical than conventional designs. In addition, each photon it emits possesses the same degree of linear polarization. "So in cryptic message, if you want to code them, you would only be able to use 50 percent of the photons," Bhattacharya says. "With our device, you could use almost all of them."


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