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Welcome to the May 29, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


'Largest Hackathon Ever' Gives NASA a New Payload of Space Apps
Government Computer News (05/28/13) Kathleen Hickey

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has announced the five best-in-class winners of its second yearly Space Apps Challenge, in which more than 9,000 participants from 44 countries competed to develop software, hardware, data visualizations, and mobile or Web apps in one of 58 challenge categories that aimed to contribute to space exploration and help improve life on Earth. Among the winners is T-10, a mobile app designed to help astronauts shoot photographs. The app alerts the astronauts 10 minutes before the space station is set to fly over a chosen location to photograph, while earthbound T-10 users also can be alerted when the station is visible in their region. Another winner is Popeye on Mars, a reusable, aeroponic greenhouse that can be deployed on the red planet to produce and harvest spinach. A crowdsourced project, Greener Cities, aggregates microclimate data via low-cost sensors and network linkage in urban gardens for use by city officials to monitor neighborhood air quality, and by scientists to obtain more understanding about global climate. It remains to be seen which of the winning apps NASA will adopt, but the agency is currently using at least two apps from last year's challenge.


How Computers Can Learn Better
MIT News (05/29/13) Larry Hardesty

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers say they have developed a reinforcement-learning algorithm that enables computer systems to find solutions much more efficiently than previous algorithms. The researchers also have developed a programming framework designed to make it much easier to set up and run reinforcement-learning experiments. The software, called RLPy, should enable researchers to more efficiently test new algorithms and compare algorithms' performance on different tasks, says MIT's Alborz Geramifard. The new algorithm identifies pertinent features in reinforcement-learning tasks by building a data structure that represents different combinations of features. The algorithm then determines which combinations of features dictate a policy's success or failure. Geramifard says the new algorithm identifies an initial feature on which to base judgments and then looks for complementary features that can refine the initial judgment. "Think of it as like a Lego set," he says. "You can snap one module out and snap another one in its place." During testing, the researchers say their algorithm evaluated policies and produced more reliable predictions in one-fifth the time of previous algorithms.


Computer Network Piecing Together a Jigsaw of Jewish Lore
New York Times (05/27/13) Jodi Rudoren

Scientists are using an artificial intelligence program operating on a powerful computer network to help reconstruct 157,514 document fragments collected over a millennium that reveal insights about Jewish life along the Mediterranean. The effort includes more than 100 connected computers at Tel Aviv University, analyzing 500 visual cues for each of the fragments to check more than 12 billion possible pairings. The project estimates that the process, which commenced May 16, should be complete by about June 25. Once the digital comparison of the 12 billion potential pairs is accomplished, the computer will produce lists of a few hundred probable joins, which must be verified by scholars or hobbyists. Also under development is a jigsaw puzzle feature employing touchscreen technology that allows users to rotate, enlarge, and skew document fragments to see if they fit together. "The thing [this technology] really makes possible is people from all walks of life, in academia and out, to look at unpublished material," says Cambridge University's Ben Outhwaite. "No longer are we going to see a few great scholarly names hoarding particular parts of the genizah and have to wait 20 years for their definitive publication. Now everyone can dive in."


Light-Beam 'Twins' Take Data Farther
BBC News (05/27/13)

Bell Laboratories researchers have developed a method involving paired light beams that can increase the data-carrying properties of fiber-optic cables. The researchers say that paired beams can travel four times farther than a single beam, and they used the technique to send a signal of 400GB/s down 12,800 km of optical fiber, farther than the longest trans-oceanic fiber link. What limits the distance a given light signal can travel is how much power there is in the beam. However, increased power leads to more light interacting with the material of the fiber, which adds "noise" to the beam and limits the fidelity with which data can be transmitted. The researchers created a pair of phase-conjugate beams, each carrying the same data. The noise that each gathers is a mirror image of that on the other, according to Bell Laboratories researcher Xiang Liu. "At the receiver, if you superimpose the two waves, then all the distortions will magically cancel each other out, so you obtain the original signal back," Liu says. "This concept, looking back, is quite easy to understand, but surprisingly, nobody did this before."


Smartphone Chips May Power Servers, Researchers Say
IDG News Service (05/25/13) Agam Shah

Researchers in Spain believe smartphone chips could one day supplant x86 processors used in most leading supercomputers, noting a historical trend of less-costly chips replacing faster but more expensive processors in high-performance systems. "Mobile processors are not faster...but they are significantly cheaper" than microprocessors, say researchers at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC). They also found evidence to support their prediction in the benchmark results of a comparison between ARM chips from Samsung, Nvidia, and Intel. The researchers determined that ARM processors were more power-efficient on single-core performance than the Intel processor, and that ARM chips can scale effectively in high-performance computing environments. However, the researchers also cite ARM design deficiencies, such as limited memory storage and a lack of error-correction technologies, network off-load chips, and standard input/output interfaces. But the BSC researchers foresee such weaknesses being addressed with the evolution of the ARM server market, and the possibility of further price reductions with more competition. There is growing interest to use mobile processors in servers as companies seek lower data-center power bills, and BSC researchers want to build prototype systems that help enhance performance-per-watt.


Cradle Turns Smartphone Into Handheld Biosensor
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (05/23/13) Liz Ahlberg

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers have developed a cradle and app that uses a smartphone’s built-in camera and processing power as a biosensor to detect toxins, proteins, bacteria, viruses, and other molecules. "We’re interested in biodetection that needs to be performed outside of the laboratory," says Illinois professor Brian Cunningham. He also notes smartphones "have really powerful computing capability and imaging. A lot of medical conditions might be monitored very inexpensively and non-invasively using mobile platforms like phones." The cradle holds the phone's camera in alignment with a series of optical components, which the researchers note are usually found in much larger and more expensive laboratory devices. Although the cradle holds only about $200 of optical components, it performs as accurately as a large $50,000 spectrophotometer in the lab, making the device portable and affordable for fieldwork in developing nations. The researchers are collaborating with other groups across the University of Illinois to explore applications for the phone-based biosensor. "It’s our goal to expand the range of biological experiments that can be performed with a phone and its camera being used as a spectrometer," Cunningham says.


Technion Scientists Develop an Advanced Biological Computer
Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (05/23/13) Kevin Hattori

Technion-Israel Institute of Technology researchers have developed and constructed a molecular transducer, which is an advanced computing machine built entirely of biomolecules. The device can compute iteratively using the output as a new input for subsequent computations. The system also produces outputs in the form of biologically meaningful phenomena, such as resistance of bacteria to various antibiotics. "As shown in this work and other projects carried out in our lab, these systems can interact directly with biological systems and even with living organisms," says Technion professor Ehud Keinan. "No interface is required since all components of molecular computers, including hardware, software, input and output, are molecules that interact in solution along a cascade of programmable chemical events." Keinan notes the research is significant because it demonstrates how a synthetic-designed computing machine can compute iteratively as well as produce biologically-relevant results. "Although this transducer was employed to solve a specific problem, the general methodology shows that similar devices could be applied for other computational problems," he says. Keinan also says the transducer is able to read and transform genetic data, accommodate molecular-scale miniaturization, and possesses the aptitude to generate computational results, which interact directly with living organisms.


Milwaukee-York Researchers Forward Quest for Quantum Computing
University of York (05/23/13) Caron Lett

Researchers at the universities of York and Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) are studying the properties of ultra-thin films of new materials that could lead to the development of quantum computing. The researchers say their collaboration is focused on understanding, tailoring, and tuning the electronic properties of topological insulators (TI), which are nanoscale-sized materials with surfaces that host a quantum state of matter. "In this work, we wanted to investigate if these properties of surface electrons are indeed 'protected' from scattering off of imperfections such as grain boundaries, a type of native and commonly found defect in the thin films made by nanosize films growth techniques," says UWM professor Lian Li. "And we found that these properties, although slightly modified, are indeed robust against such scattering effects." The researchers are exploring the properties of thin films, and issues such as whether inherent defects enhance or modify the materials' properties. "We need to understand how to engineer these defects so that we can control the electronic properties of topological insulators if the dream of quantum computing is to become a reality," says York lecturer Vlado Lazarov.


Perfect Skin: More Touchy-Feely Robots
CORDIS News (05/23/13)

The European Union-funded skin-based technologies and capabilities for safe, autonomous and interactive robots (ROBOSKIN) project has developed sensor technologies and management systems that give robots an artificial sense of touch. The researchers aimed to create cognitive mechanisms that use tactile feedback and behavior to make sure human-robot interaction is safe and effective for future applications. The electronic sensors process the tactile data using software that has been front-loaded to include basic robot behaviors. "We had to generate a degree of awareness in the robots to help them react to tactile events and physical contact with the outside world," says Genoa University professor Giorgio Cannata. The ROBOSKIN project generated a geometric map using continuous contact between the test robot and the environment to build parameters for the data to be assimilated by the machine into behavior. ROBOSKIN has developed a production system for building tactile sensing into different robots. "We are still at the pre-commercial demonstrator stage, but the latest version of our tactile sensors clearly have wider potential in industry as factories seek safe, cost-efficient ways of using robots in closer contact with human workers," Cannata says.


Play Your Way to Work With Interactive Games
New Scientist (05/23/13) Douglas Heaven

New interactive games are designed to make commuting to work more of an entertaining experience, with possible application toward boosting the efficiency of transport networks. Researchers at the Exertion Games Lab at Australia's RMIT University have developed Cart-Load-o-Fun, which can be installed on buses, trams, or trains. The game involves two players who must cooperate to move a dot around a screen, acquiring objects and avoiding enemies by squeezing pads affixed to a tram's overhead handholds. The tram's movement adds to the fun because players need to use the handholds to steady themselves as they play. RMIT University's Floyd Mueller says the game helps create the perception of a faster trip among passengers, while the tram company likes the game because it encourages the use of the handholds, increasing passenger safety. Meanwhile, Chromaroma can transform the London Underground into a gaming environment for commuters by converting data collected every time they check in or out of a station into game stats. Players earn points for passing through certain stations or by competing for the fastest time between stops. Transport for London thinks the game has crowd control applications, in which players are rewarded for avoiding crowded stops, for example.


Ulster Scientists Develop Smartphone 'Assistance Agent' for Older People
University of Ulster (05/22/13) Audrey Watson

University of Ulster researchers are developing Help-on-Demand (HoD), a smartphone application designed to help older people fully engage in an increasingly self-serve society. The researchers say HoD will provide location-based, context-sensitive, and personalized assistance, enabling older users to carry out and solve common tasks and problems. "Each user will have a specifically tailored user interface, which will accommodate health problems such as dyslexia and poor vision, and also location-based context such as Internet connectivity," says Ulster senior lecturer Liming Chen. The researchers say HoD should be ready for a real-world trial and adoption by the end of 2013. The HoD system is being developed as part of the Situated Adaptive Guidance for the Mobile Elderly (MobileSage) research project. "Our ongoing MobileSage research could radically improve life for older people and help them maintain their independence," Chen says. "It will also ease the burden on family members, care persons, and other secondary end users as the primary end user will be equipped to solve daily challenges themselves."


IBO, a New Smart System to Support Medical Staff
Technical University of Madrid (Spain) (05/22/13)

A Technical University of Madrid researcher is participating in a study that is developing Intelligent Biomedic Organizations, a bioinformatics model that provides data analysis from genetic expression. The study proposes an organizational model specifically designed to provide medical staff support for their daily tasks during data analysis, in addition to establishing an intelligent system for classification and pattern prediction from large volumes of data. The system is based on reasoning strategies taken from cases for reorganization and automatic planning according to previous instances. The system aims to simulate human behavior, and to look for similar problems that occurred in previous cases. It utilizes data mining, statistics, and artificial intelligence techniques, which are applied as actions to workflows. The system is designed to simulate medical staff behavior in laboratories conducting the pre-processing states, information filtering, and joining and classifying in a way that enables the model to pick the techniques to be applied to the various stages of the research project.


How Evolution May Help Build Better Robots
Live Science (05/22/13) Wynne Parry

Researchers at Cornell University and the University of Wyoming simulated evolution using virtual robots and then watched the robots adapt their own movement strategies. Using two kinds of muscle tissue--soft support tissue and bone tissue--the researchers ran simulations favoring the tissue configurations that traveled the fastest from the starting point to the end point. The mathematical simulation was then left to run more than 1,000 generations of robots. "We see really cool stuff as a result of that, without any interaction from me or anyone else, just this process unfolding itself," says Cornell doctoral student Nick Cheney. "I would never come up with anything that looks remotely like that." The successful robot designs were named the L-Walker, the Incher, the Push-Pull, the Jitter, the Jumper, and the Wings. Although these virtual robots do not physically exist, they could be created with three-dimensional printing. The researchers note that real-world robots are usually designed to perform a specific function in a highly restricted environment, and therefore do not adapt.


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