Welcome to the June 17, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
China Trounces U.S. in Top500 Supercomputer Race
IDG News Service (06/17/13) Joab Jackson
China's Tianhe-2 supercomputer has overtaken the U.S.'s Titan system as the world's most powerful computer, according to the latest Top500 List, a twice-yearly ranking of the world's fastest publicly known supercomputers. Tianhe-2 was able to execute 33.86 petaflops, compared to Titan's 17.59 petaflops. China's National University of Defense Technology built Tianhe-2 with 16,000 nodes, each of which runs two Intel Xeon IvyBridge processors and three Xeon Phy processors, for a combined total of 3.12 million computing cores. The system should be fully operational by the end of the year. Still, the United States remains a dominant presence on the list, with 253 of the 500 systems. China ranks second with 65 systems, followed by the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Tianhe-2 also is notable for its use of Chinese-developed technologies. "Most of the features of the system were developed in China, and they are only using Intel for the main compute part," notes Top500 editor Jack Dongarra. "The interconnect, operating system, front-end processors, and software are mainly Chinese."
Google to Use Balloons to Provide Free Internet Access to Remote or Poor Areas
Washington Post (06/14/13) Cecilia Kang
Google recently announced Project Loon, a plan to provide free Internet access to disaster-stricken, rural, or poor areas using giant helium balloons that beam Wi-Fi signals to the ground below. Eventually, as the balloons move across the stratosphere, consumers in participating countries along the 40th parallel in the Southern Hemisphere could access the service. Project Loon aims to provide much cheaper worldwide Internet connections, says Google's Mike Cassidy. "We think we can help and start having a discussion on how to get 5 billion people in remote areas" connected to the Internet, he says. The thin plastic balloons use a mix of highly sophisticated and basic methods to deliver Internet connections of at least 3G cellular speeds. The balloons are equipped with antennas, radios, solar power panels, and navigation equipment that can communicate with specialized antennas on rooftops below. As long as one of the balloons is within a 24-mile radius, users should be able to access the network, according to Google. The company, which needs permission from local governments to access public airwaves, will first test the balloons in New Zealand. "There is an enormous problem of affordability of broadband access in much of the developing world," notes consultant Gene Kimmelman.
Computer Scientists Get Wet
Science (06/14/13) Vijaysree Venkatraman
Computer scientists are contributing to the advancement of the life sciences by supplementing their training with biology basics. "The combination of quantitative abilities and experimental biology skills is very valuable in synthetic biology," notes Timothy Lu with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Research Laboratory of Electronics. Meanwhile, Pamela Silver in Harvard Medical School's Department of Systems Biology calls the systems biology discipline a field that "seeks to understand what evolution gave us and how we got to where we are." Silver advised Harvard researcher Avi Robinson-Mosher to take a physiology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory, which gave him grounding in biology and inspired him to apply his simulation talents toward macromolecular interactions. "Systems biology offered a good combination of being able to apply my computational background to actually making things that can do something useful for people," Robinson-Mosher says. Google's Joseph Hellerstein sees the human genome project as the catalyst for the changing relationship between computation and domain science, and Google has assisted academia in tackling six big data challenges through the auspices of its Exacycle project. "Whether it is medicine, for machines through nanotechnology, in agriculture or materials, design problems require simultaneous innovation in computing and science that can only be accomplished by those with the combined skills," Hellerstein observes.
TEDGlobal: Cloud Schools Offer New Education
BBC News (06/14/13) Jane Wakefield
Newcastle University professor Sugata Mitra in February won a $1 million award to set up a series of cloud-based schools, and described his vision of the first "school in the cloud" at the recent Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Global conference. "A school in the cloud is basically a school without physical teachers," Mitra says. He plans to establish five cloud schools, with three in India and two in the United Kingdom. The glass classrooms will contain many computers and one large screen, through which moderators will Skype in. Mitra's initiative is based on the hole-in-the-wall computers that he set up in India's slums in 1999. The computers were left for children to explore without any prior instruction, and Mitra says he was amazed at the skills they developed on their own. Also at TEDGlobal, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Anant Agarwal discussed how his edX online platform could help bring top-tier university education to students in developing countries. "Education has not changed in 500 years--we still herd children like cats into classrooms at 9 a.m.," says Agarwal, who argues a different approach is needed in the developing world.
Update Your Software Without Stress or Disruption
New Scientist (06/12/13) Paul Marks
Imperial College London (ICL) researchers have developed a system that enables users to update software without any concerns of causing downtime or introducing bugs. The system employs the unused cores in multicore microprocessors to make the update process invisible to the user. Whenever an update is available, the system leaves the old version of the software running on one core, enabling users to continue accessing it, while running the update in parallel on an unused core. The execution of the two programs is synchronized in such a way that only the most reliable, dependable parts of the programs run, limiting the damage from an introduction of new bugs. "You end up with what we call a multi-version application," says ICL's Cristian Cadar. "These run in parallel and their behavior is combined in such a way as to increase overall reliability and security. But it looks and feels exactly the same to users." He notes the system worked well in tests, and can be used for larger systems, apps for smartphones, and server applications.
Metadata Reveals the Secrets of Social Position, Company Hierarchy, Terrorist Cells
Washington Post (06/16/13) Ellen Nakashima
Metadata can be tapped to uncover vital details about people, their whereabouts, and their connections with others to such a degree that entities such as the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) are exploiting it extensively. “When you can get it all in one place and analyze the patterns, you can learn an enormous amount about the behavior of people,” says researcher Daniel J. Weitzner at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. U.S. officials recently acknowledged that for the past seven years NSA has been compiling a metadata database on the phone call records of a vast number of U.S. customers. The American Civil Liberty Union's Christopher Soghoian notes that data about a communication, and not just its content, can provide important clues. In fact, Weitzner says metadata arguably reveals more information because analysis of its patterns and their correlation with real-world events is much easier than semantically analyzing a person's email and phone calls. Moreover, U.S. law makes it easier for the government to acquire metadata than content, allowing law enforcement to seize phone records, but not email metadata, without a court order.
Stanford Online Coursework to Be Available on New Open Source Platform
Stanford Report (CA) (06/11/13) Brad Hayward
Stanford University recently announced that online coursework will be available starting this summer on a new open source platform called OpenEdX, which replaces Stanford's previous Class2Go platform. Among the first programs to run on the OpenEdX platform will be Stanford's popular "Three Books" summer reading program for incoming Stanford freshmen, as well as two public courses now open for registration. Stanford will use OpenEdX as one of several platforms for both online course content for on-campus Stanford students and online classes available to the public. For the past year, Stanford has been developing open source platforms designed to make online learning widely and easily accessible. Stanford researchers added real-time chat, bulk email, new installation scripts, operations tools, and integration with external survey tools to the edX platform for its open source release. "This platform offers another avenue for the delivery of educational material from Stanford as well as an exciting opportunity for other universities to develop their own online coursework with minimal barriers to entry," says Stanford professor John Mitchell. "By giving universities the ability to manage their online coursework directly or through a third-party provider, using a high-quality platform, we hope to continue broadening access to new educational opportunities for students of all types around the world."
Danger Maps Backed by Alibaba Pinpoint Chinese Pollution
Bloomberg (06/13/13) Lulu Yilun Chen
Danger Maps, a crowdsourced mapping project, is helping users locate China's high pollution areas such as toxic-waste treatment facilities, oil refineries, and power plants. Danger Maps creator Liu Chunlei has mapped about 6,000 pollution sources based on government data and user input on China's Baidu Map. "More Internet users are starting to understand how important information and data can be for sustainable social activism,” says Social Brain Foundation director Isaac Mao. “Visual sites are very helpful for the public to understand the big picture.” In January, the Alibaba Foundation, which supports environmental groups in China, gave Danger Maps $8,150 and offered to help with technical support. Nongovernmental organizations in China increasingly are turning to online maps to boost awareness of their activities. For example, China Mangrove Conservation Network enables users to upload information on damaged mangroves from their phones, which the group adds to Baidu Map on its website. “The reason we started crowdsourcing is that if everyone can take action and add data, the level of accuracy may rise,” Liu says. “We’re not defining our image as being in opposition to the government. What we want is to create positive energy.”
Researchers Reveal Next-Generation Emergency Response Technology
National Science Foundation (06/12/13) Lisa-Joy Zgorski; Leslie Wimmer
New smartphone apps can virtually place 9-1-1 operators at the scene of an emergency. Designed by a team led by Ram Dantu of the University of North Texas, the software enables 9-1-1 operators to remotely control smartphone cameras so they can view an emergency scene. The software can monitor a victim's breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, as well as provide instructions and guidance before and during the administration of CPR. "With the current smartphone technology now in everyone's hand, we thought we could do a lot better than just audio calls," Dantu says. "We can actually transmit text; we can transmit images or video. We can revamp or transform the existing emergency dispatch protocols with a next generation 9-1-1." A text-to-speech component helps ensure clear communication and a GPS component provides first responders with information about the location of the incident. "With the advent of new technology, such as smartphones and different sensors, we should be able to get all the vital information to the 9-1-1 operators so that they can actually dispatch resources within a 60-second timeframe--that is the objective of this project," Dantu says.
Making Online Translation Accurate, Reliable, and Efficient
CORDIS News (06/12/13)
The European Union is funding Multilingual On-Line Translation (MOLTO), a project designed to create an online tool that will enable Web-content providers to automatically produce high-quality translations without specific training. Online translation tools are critical to communication and cooperation in the European Union, which has 23 official languages, but existing tools struggle with grammatical rules. MOLTO is intended to be a system with grammar rules already in place, with the eventual goal being to reach a level of accuracy such that translated texts require no editing. The project is expected to have a major impact on the automated translation field, in which open-domain browsing-quality tools that are often inaccurate currently prevail, and higher-quality, domain-specific translations are costly. By contrast, MOLTO aims to enable content creators to automatically generate high-quality documents in many languages across several domains. The researchers say the project has great potential in areas such as distance learning, electronic commerce, encyclopedia articles, contracts, manuals, and user interfaces. In addition, the tool could help translate patent descriptions and mathematical teaching material. The tool will be free to information producers, who will be able use it to simultaneously translate texts into multiple languages.
Data Highways for Quantum Information
Vienna University of Technology (06/12/13) Florian Aigner
Vienna University of Technology (TU Vienna) researchers have developed a quantum technique to mechanically couple atoms to glass fiber cables. The technique makes it possible to store quantum information over a sufficiently long period, and could be used to help develop global quantum networks based on optical fibers. "On the one hand, we use fiber-guided light, which is perfect for sending quantum information from A to B, and, on the other hand, we rely on atoms, which are ideal for storing this information," says TU Vienna's Arno Rauschenbeutel. Although there currently are different approaches to performing quantum mechanical operations and exchanging quantum information between light and matter-based memories, Rauschenbeutel says it is often challenging for these systems to store and retrieve the information efficiently. He says the TU-Vienna method overcomes this problem. "Our setup is directly connected to a standard optical glass fiber that is routinely used for the transmission of data," which he notes makes it "easy to integrate our quantum glass fiber cable into existing fiber communication networks." The method also could be used to set up a global quantum network. "By using our combined nanofiber-atom-system for setting up an optical quantum network including quantum repeaters, one might transmit quantum information and teleport quantum states around the world," Rauschenbeutel says.
Programming Model for Supercomputers of the Future
Fraunhofer Institute (06/13)
Next-generation supercomputers could benefit from the Global Address Space Programming Interface (GPI), an asynchronous programming model developed at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Mathematics (ITWM). Even as demand for supercomputers rises, the message passing interface, which supercomputers rely upon to ensure that microprocessors in distributed systems can communicate, has been in place for 20 years and is nearing the limits of its capabilities. “I was trying to solve a calculation and simulation problem related to seismic data,” says the Fraunhofer Institute's Carsten Lojewski. “But existing methods weren’t working. The problems were a lack of scalability, the restriction to bulk-synchronous, two-sided communication, and the lack of fault tolerance. So out of my own curiosity I began to develop a new programming model.” Lojewski created GPI based on the parallel architecture of high-performance computers with maximum efficiency. GPI is an asynchronous communication model based on remote completion that enables each processor to access all data directly without impacting other parallel processes, regardless of memory type. Lojewski notes GPI was created as a parallel programming interface rather than a language, which means it can be used universally.
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