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

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Colleges Adapt Online Courses to Ease Burden
New York Times (04/30/13) Tamar Lewin

Universities are experimenting with ways to provide additional support to improve student success in online courses, which offer to ease several problems facing higher education such as access to courses, expense, and timely graduation. Almost half of all U.S. undergraduates need remedial courses when they enter college before they can start taking credit courses, which is expensive and induces many students to drop out. At the same time, state budget cuts have forced colleges to reduce available seats in required courses. These factors have created an ideal opportunity for universities to offer massive open online courses, but the majority of students who enroll in them do not begin a single assignment and very few complete the courses. Looking to improve the outcome of online courses, San Jose State University launched a pilot program with Udacity that employs round-the-clock online mentors to assist students in three online basic math courses. Early results are promising and the university is likely to scale up the offerings. San Jose State also has achieved impressive results by teaming with nonprofit online provider edX to offer a circuits course that previously had a high failure rate.

CERN Re-creating First Web Page to Revere Early Ideals
BBC News (04/30/13) Pallab Ghosh

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is recreating the first Web page to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the research center giving the World Wide Web to the world. The initiative will preserve the original hardware and software of the world's first website to allow future generations to study and reflect on the Web's impact on modern life. Furthermore, the initiative aims to reignite the spirit of openness with which the Web began. After debating whether CERN should remain the Web's home, Web creator Tim Berners-Lee and his team argued that the organization should not claim ownership and a legal document was signed to make the Web publicly available. Without that document, "you would have had Web-like things, but they would have belonged to Microsoft or Apple or Vodafone or whoever else," says CERN's James Gillies. "You would not have a single open standard for everyone." The first website serves as a symbol of the principles on which the Web was founded, says Southampton University professor Nigel Shadbolt. "We have to defend the principle of universality and universal access," he notes. "That it does not fall into a special set of standards that certain organizations and corporations control. So keeping the Web free and freely available is almost a human right."

Internet2 Backbone Serving National Supercomputer Network
Government Computer News (04/26/13) William Jackson

The Internet2 is serving the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE), a national network of supercomputers from 17 universities and research facilities. Internet2 provides the advanced networking services and requisite bandwidth for high-performance computing projects. XSEDE, an umbrella organization funded by a five-year, $121-million U.S. National Science Foundation grant, supports over 8,000 scientists with advanced visualization, storage, and gateway systems. Internet2's bandwidth will provide the environment for high-performance computing that is essential for today's big science projects. Internet2, which currently has more than 200 participating universities, labs, and companies, last summer completed a 15,000-mile core network that provides 8.8 Tbps in 88 bundled 100 GB channels. Prior to moving to Internet2, XSEDE had a backbone contract with university-owned National LambdaRail, which serves U.S. labs involved in Large Hadron Collider projects. Internet2 offers services that support bandwidth-intensive applications, such as the XSEDE-wide File System for handling large files. Although commercial providers offer 100 GB networks, Internet2 handles traffic in a way that supports the extremely high-performance needs of a small user base rather than providing low performance for many users, offering tens of gigabits of throughput for spurts of traffic.

Brain Computer Interfaces Inch Closer to Mainstream
New York Times (04/28/13) Nick Bilton

Increasingly sophisticated brain computer interfaces might soon allow users to interact with smart devices using only their minds. Researchers in Samsung’s Emerging Technology Lab are testing tablets that can be controlled with the brain, using a cap with monitoring electrodes, according to the MIT Technology Review. Car manufacturers are exploring technologies that detect when drivers fall asleep and rattle the steering wheel to awaken them. Despite these advances, experts say for the time being, real access to the brain still requires an implanted chip. However, knowledge of the brain is on the brink of tremendous advances that will significantly improve brain computer interfaces. The Obama administration this year announced a project that will create a comprehensive map of the brain, and while the complete map is expected to take a decade, improved brain computer interface products are likely to emerge within two years. The Brain Activity Map "will revolutionize everything from robotic implants and neural prosthetics, to remote controls, which could be history in the foreseeable future when you can change your television channel by thinking about it,” says molecular biologist Miyoung Chun, who is working on the project.

New Quantitative Analysis for Open Source Software Projects
Universidad de Carlos III de Madrid (Spain) (04/25/13)

Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) researchers have developed a series of tools that can extract and analyze information with the goal of allowing clients to make decisions based on objective data rather than on subjective perceptions of a project. "We use the information available in the development repositories, which store the tools used to coordinate the projects," says UC3M researcher Jesus M. Gonzalez Barahona. Afterwards data extraction and mining methods are used, and that data is then treated in order to respond to concrete questions. In fact, the researchers have their own tools to help them in this process, MetricsGrimoire and vizGrimoire, along with free software. “Currently, nobody is developing this type of tool as open source, and this allows us to offer our users and clients greater trust and transparency,” Barahona says. The researchers also have developed free, open-source software that helps in the analysis of the data. The researchers are dedicated to developing tools that can quantitatively evaluate open-source software for everyone. The tools aid in the process of data collections, analysis, and visualization, and the researchers recently used the tools to analyze the development community OpenStack.

IBM Brings Augmented Reality, Robotics to Field Engineers
eWeek (04/24/13) Darryl K. Taft

IBM researchers have developed a new system to deliver information and remote expertise to field engineers performing maintenance and repairs on critical equipment. The new system is a mobile maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) prototype that is designed to help manufacturers and companies supplying and maintaining high-value machinery. The new mobile system uses a combination of augmented reality and robotics to help field engineers accurately locate equipment. The project is the result of a collaboration between IBM and the University of Sheffield's Advanced Manufacturing Research Center (AMRC). "IBM's MRO prototype is an exciting addition to the innovative toolset used by the AMRC’s researchers and engineers," says AMRC researcher Rab Scott. The new MRO system also provides supervisors with complete visual independence and a more stable video image, according to IBM. "The MRO prototype brings together two innovative IBM technologies, developed in our European research labs in Hursley and Haifa, into a single solution for our clients," says IBM researcher Richard Lanyon-Hogg. “It offers manufacturers the opportunity to lower their costs, provide just-in-time knowledge transfer and reduce the personal risk to engineers working in difficult environments.”

Engaging Online Crowds in the Classroom Could Be Important Tool for Teaching Innovation
Carnegie Mellon University (04/29/13)

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Northwestern University have presented the findings from a pilot study on online crowds at CHI 2013, the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, in Paris. Input from social media and other crowdsourcing sites can help students identify human needs for products or services, generate large quantities of ideas, and ease some aspects of testing those ideas. Finding ways to incorporate online crowds into coursework is critical for teaching the process of innovation, says professor Steven Dow in Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute. "Social networks and other online crowds can provide input that students can't get otherwise," he notes. Along with Northwestern professor Elizabeth Gerber, Dow has set up a website to share ideas and resources on using online crowds in innovation education. "The Internet affords access to online communities to which we might not ever have access," Gerber says. "Future innovators need to know how to find and respectively engage with these communities to get the resources they need."

Battery and Memory Device in One
Julich Research Center (04/23/13)

Resistive memory cells (ReRAM) will dramatically reduce the energy consumption of modern information technology systems while significantly increasing their performance. These novel memory cells are not purely passive components, like the building blocks of conventional hard disk drives and memories, but rather they should be regarded as tiny batteries, according to Julich Aachen Research Alliance (JARA) researchers. The researchers have been able to determine the battery voltage of typical representatives of ReRAM cells and compared them with theoretical values, revealing other properties that were previously unknown or inaccessible. "During the nine-month review process of the paper now published we had to do a lot of persuading, since the battery voltage in ReRAM cells can have three different basic causes, and the assignment of the correct cause is anything but trivial," says JARA researcher Ilia Valov. The new finding is important for the theoretical description of the memory components. "In the light of this new knowledge, it is possible to specifically optimize the design of the ReRAM cells, and it may be possible to discover new ways of exploiting the cells’ battery voltage for completely new applications, which were previously beyond the reach of technical possibilities," says JARA professor Rainer Waser.

York Scientist Provides 'New Spin' on Emerging Quantum Technologies
University of York (04/23/13) Caron Lett

University of York, Institute of Nanoscience, and University of Missouri-Columbia researchers are studying semiconductor structures called quantum wells where the spins can be excited in a collective, coherent way by using lasers and light scattering. The researchers demonstrated that these collective spin excitations possess a macroscopic spin of quantum nature. Essentially, the electrons and their spins function as a single entity making them less vulnerable to spin orbit fields, so decoherence is highly suppressed. "This work has developed into a strong international collaboration which has greatly improved our understanding at [a] fundamental level of the role of many-body interactions on the behavior of electron spins," says University of York physicist Irene D'Amico. "By combining experimental and theoretical work, we were able to demonstrate that through many-body interactions, a macroscopic collection of spins can behave as a single entity with a single macroscopic quantum spin, making this much less susceptible to decoherence." In the future, the researchers hope to use these excitations as signals to transport or elaborate information at the quantum level.

Students’ Lofty Goal Is Clear
Rice University (04/22/13) Mike Williams

Rice University students are developing WashBOT, a multiyear robotics project to automate the process of cleaning recessed windows in buildings that currently present problems for both human and machine-based washers. "We decided to focus on recessed windows because there’s nothing in the market that cleans them right now," says Rice student Julia Bleck. The Rice system soaps the window with a sponge-like mop on a horizontal track and follows it with a squeegee. "We’ve had to do a lot of integration between the attachment system and the cleaning system," says Rice student Erin O'Malley. The system is equipped with sensors to stop the brush at the end of the glass, rotate the mechanism, and move it back across the window. "We tried to make the robot as close to what a window washer would do: spray water, wipe it down with a sponge, and use a squeegee," says Rice student Andria Remirez. “This is a problem with a large scope that usually requires a company, several years, and a lot of funding to solve,” notes Rice professor Fathi Ghorbel.

Humans Show Empathy for Robots
LiveScience (NY) (04/23/13) Tanya Lewis

In two new studies, researchers aimed to measure how people responded to robots on an emotional and neurological level. In the first study, participants were shown videos of a small dinosaur robot being treated affectionately or violently. The researchers assessed the participants' level of physiological excitation after watching the videos by recording their skin conductance, a measure of how well the skin conducts electricity. The volunteers reported feeling more negative emotions while watching the video of the robot being abused, and the data showed that their skin conductance levels increased, showing they were more distressed. In the second study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to visualize brain activity while the participants watched the videos. That humans would be empathetic toward the robot is unsurprising, as the machine looked and behaved like an animal, according to roboticist and BlabDroid founder Alexander Reben. "We think that, in general, the robot stimuli elicit the same emotional processing as the human stimuli," says University of Duisburg Essen researcher Astrid Rosenthal-von der Putten. She also says the growing ubiquity of robots will make understanding human-robot interactions increasingly important.

Revolutionizing Tornado Prediction
HPC Wire (04/23/13) Tiffany Trader

University of Oklahoma researchers are developing a tornado modeling and simulation system that aims to explain why some storms generate tornadoes while others do not. The researchers "hope that with a more accurate prediction and improved lead time on warnings, more people will heed the warnings, and thus loss of life and property will be reduced," says University of Oklahoma professor Amy McGovern. The researchers are working with the National Weather Service to implement an early storm warning system, called Warn-on-Forecast. The project aims to inform the public of impending storms with 30 to 60 minutes of lead time. This level of accuracy requires a high-resolution model, which takes a lot of computing power to implement. The researchers are using the University of Tennessee's Kraken supercomputer to run the simulations and the University of Texas' Nautilus supercomputer to analyze them. "The biggest thing that Nautilus does for us right now is process the data so that we can mine it, because we're trying to cut these terabytes of data down to something that's usable metadata," McGovern says. "I am able to reduce one week of computations down to 30 minutes on Nautilus, and post-processing time is reduced from several weeks to several hours."

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