Welcome to the June 21, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Fear of Thinking War Machines May Push U.S. to Exascale
Computerworld (06/20/13) Patrick Thibodeau
The push for the United States to adopt and fund an exascale development program may get a boost from concerns about worsening U.S. security, given the potential for high-performance computing machines to be weaponized. "When it comes to intelligent software, the U.S. is preeminent and we simply cannot lose that because the repercussions in the future, defense-wise, would be very bad," warns Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Selmer Bringsford. Meanwhile, IDC analyst Earl Joseph sees a growing migration of leading researchers to exascale sites as such capability is deployed outside the United States. Furthermore, exascale systems will better enable the advent of big data, leading to machines "whose intention is to learn," notes IBM's David McQueeney. IBM recently held a congressional forum on cognitive computing to discuss topics that included China's Tianhe-2 supercomputer, which enabled China to retake the top spot for global supercomputing. Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) is introducing the American Supercomputing Leadership Act, mandating the Energy Department to devise a coordinated exascale research program. A source reports that at least $200 million in annual funding will be sought for the program, while Joseph predicts the installation of an exascale system outside the United States by 2015 or 2016.
A Detailed 3-D Atlas of a Human Brain
Technology Review (06/20/13) Courtney Humphries
European Human Brain Project researchers have developed BigBrain, an electronic model that will enable scientists to explore the anatomy of a single brain in three dimensions at far greater detail than previously was possible. The researchers imaged the brain of a healthy deceased 65-year-old woman using magnetic resonance imaging and then embedded the brain in paraffin wax and cut it into 7,400 slices, each just 20 micrometers thick. The researchers then took on "the technical challenge of trying to stitch together 7,500 sheets of Saran wrap" into a 3D object using digital-image processing, says McGill University professor Alan Evans. The project represents one step toward realizing neuroscientists' aspiration of looking at the human brain "with the sort of cellular resolution [with which] we can look at mouse or fly brains," says Harvard University researcher Joshua Sanes. Evans notes that one of the major goals of several brain initiatives worldwide, including the European project and the U.S.'s recently announced BRAIN Initiative, is to integrate different kinds of data about brain structure and function, and to create computational models of the brain to study processes such as childhood development or neurological diseases.
Ferromagnetics Breakthrough Could Change Storage as We Know It
Network World (06/19/13) Jon Gold
The positive or negative poles of a very thin ferromagnet behave in a predictable manner when placed next to specific types of materials, according to a team of researchers led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Geoffrey Beach. The discovery means it is possible to switch a value on a disk from 1 to 0 using about 1/100th the energy used in current systems. Beach says hard disks could be replaced with magnetic solid-state devices. "In a hard disk, bits are fixed in position on the surface of the disk, and individual bits are accessed by physically rotating the disk," Beach notes. "If the bits are instead stored as a series of magnetic domains arranged along a magnetic nanowire, they can be moved by shifting the domains using an electrical current, without any mechanical motion." He says the new method of writing to magnetic media would be more energy efficient, faster, and could replace RAM and do away with the need to perform boot sequences when computers are powered on. Beach points out that the materials needed for magnetic solid-state devices are the same as those used in present-day hard disk drive technology.
In New Tools to Combat Epidemics, the Key Is Context
New York Times (06/19/13) Amy O'Leary
The BioMosaic project intends to construct a more comprehensive perspective of foreign-borne disease threats in the United States by integrating three separate data tools into a single app for guiding decisions at the time of an epidemic. BioMosaic merges airline records, disease reports, and demographic data so that public health officials can gain a picture of health risks through a website and an iPad app, and then dispatches preventive measures to individual cities, counties, or hospitals to help stop a larger outbreak. “It really helps you get right to the heart of the matter: That concept that a global event in Haiti becomes a local event in five counties in Florida and five counties in New York,” says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Marty Cetron. Similar tools in this vein include the HealthMap mapping tool, which monitors on-the-ground disease reports, and BioDiaspora, a project designed to track human movements around the world by amassing an immense database. Harvard Medical School professor John Brownstein says the ultimate goal for this type of technology is the ability to predict epidemics before they start, but BioDiaspora creator Kamran Khan notes that politics, distressed resources, nationalism, fear, and other forces can thwart even the best data tools.
Microsoft Unleashes Bug Bounty Program--for Betas, Too
ZDNet (06/19/13) Zack Whittaker
Microsoft recently announced plans to launch three bug bounty programs, which are designed to eliminate security vulnerabilities in its software before and after its products are released. The bug bounty programs will specifically include the company's pre-release software, such as Internet Explorer 11 preview, helping Microsoft stamp out bugs before its products are released into the general public. Most Internet Explorer 10 security bugs were disclosed after the browser was pushed out into the wild because only then could the researchers receive a financial reward for their discoveries through a third-party broker, according to Microsoft. "When brokers offered money, researchers reported them, so during the betas there was no incentive to report them," says Microsoft's Katie Moussouris. "Microsoft wants to fill that gap." Microsoft is splitting its security strengthening efforts across three programs, with bounty rewards ranging from $11,000 to $100,000. All three bug bounty programs start on June 26 and continue on an ongoing basis, and anyone is eligible, including researchers from rival firms and anyone 14 years of age or older. "This is the smartest thing we can do," Moussouris says. "A few years ago, most researchers were going to Microsoft directly. We want to bring that back."
Virtual Universities Abroad Say They Already Deliver ‘Massive’ Courses
Chronicle of Higher Education (06/19/13) Jeffrey R. Young
As massive open online courses (MOOCs) aligned with Ivy League institutions gain popularity, international virtual universities gathering this week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the annual Learning International Networks Consortium note they have already been teaching thousands of students at a time via online courses. However, these virtual universities do not intend to supplement their content with lectures from renowned professors at top-tier universities. “Transferring education from the United States to Africa wouldn’t work,” says African Virtual University director Bakary Diallo, “because we have our own realities, our own context and culture.” The African Virtual University and the Virtual University of Pakistan have been teaching large-scale courses for over a decade, and school officials say outside courses are out of context for their students. MOOCs pose unique challenges in Africa due to the courses' reliance on video lectures, because Africa lacks sufficient bandwidth for downloads and experiences intermittent power outages. Due to these issues, the African Virtual University still offers traditional course materials such as texts and DVDs. Academic Partnerships senior adviser Sir John Daniel says long-running virtual universities such as Britain’s Open University, founded in 1969, are more effective than MOOCs at reaching underserved students.
What Makes People Click?
University of Bristol News (06/18/13)
Researchers at the University of Bristol have used machine-learning techniques to model the reading preferences of the audiences of 14 online news organizations. The model of news appeal is based on words contained in an article's title and text introduction, which is what makes readers click on a story. In analyzing millions of articles available to readers of online news over the course of nearly 18 months, the team in the Intelligent Systems Laboratory compared articles that became most popular on a given day on an outlet with those that did not. The team identified the most and least attractive keywords, scored articles by reader preferences, ranked articles by their appeal, and studied what might explain the reading choices. The researchers found a significant correlation between demographic profiles of audiences and their preferences. They also found that appeal is related to writing style and content. "People are put off by public affairs and attracted by entertainment, crime, and other non-public affairs topics," notes professor Nello Cristianini.
Seeing the Human Pulse
MIT News (06/20/13) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed an algorithm that can accurately measure the heart rates of people depicted in digital videos by analyzing imperceptibly small head movements that accompany the rush of blood caused by the heart’s contractions. During testing, the algorithm produced pulse measurements that were consistently within a few beats per minute of those produced by electrocardiograms (EKGs). The algorithm also was able to provide useful estimates of the time intervals between beats, a measurement that can be used to identify patients at risk for cardiac events. The video-based pulse-measurement system could be useful for monitoring newborns or the elderly, whose sensitive skin could be damaged by frequent attachment and removal of EKG leads. The algorithm works by combining several techniques common in the field of computer vision. First, it uses standard face recognition to distinguish the subject’s head from the rest of the image. It then filters out any frame-to-frame movements whose temporal frequency falls outside the range of a normal heartbeat. Finally, the algorithm uses a technique called principal component analysis to decompose the resulting signal into several constituent signals.
California Institute of Technology (06/18/13) Marcus Woo
Computer scientists, artists, and designers discussed the emerging science of big-data visualizations during a recent symposium hosted at the California Institute of Technology. The panelists detailed their visions for the potential of data visualization's utility, power, and beauty. "Visualization is another entry point to the same practice--another kind of inquiry that we are already engaged in," says Caltech professor Hillary Mushkin. Artist Jer Thorp says the promise of big data is that it contains hidden insight and knowledge. "To gain that deeper understanding, we must embrace the inherent complexity of data, according to data," Thorp says. Data visualization also can be interactive, enabling users to manipulate layers of information. Although data visualization has been around for many years, only recently has the need to visualize lots of complex data come about, notes Caltech's Anja-Silvia Goeing. This requires a change in mindset concerning data visualization. Designer Eric Rodenbeck emphasizes that visualization must be considered a medium through which data can be explored, comprehended, and communicated. This summer, Caltech researchers will mentor undergraduate students from around the United States to work on data-visualization research projects.
Which Qubit My Dear? New Method to Distinguish Between Neighboring Quantum Bits
UNSW Newsroom (06/18/13) Deborah Smith
University of New South Wales (UNSW) researchers have proposed a method for distinguishing between quantum bits (qubits) placed only a few nanometers apart on a silicon chip, a development they say could lead to the construction of a large-scale quantum computer. UNSW professor Michelle Simmons notes that a qubit based on the spin of an individual electron bound to a phosphorus atom within a silicon chip is one of the most promising systems for developing a practical quantum computer because of the silicon's widespread use in the microelectronics industry. "However, to be able to couple electron-spins on single atom qubits, the qubits need to be placed with atomic precision, within just a few tens of nanometers of each other," which she says poses a technical problem in how to make them and an operational problem in how to control them independently. The researchers solved these challenges by developing a method by which they are able to read-out the spins of individual electrons on a cluster of phosphorous atoms that had been placed precisely in silicon. "If each electron is hosted by a different number of phosphorus atoms, then the qubits will respond to different electromagnetic fields--and each qubit can be distinguished from the others around it," says UNSW's Holger Buch.
Slime Mold Could Make Memristors for Biocomputers
New Scientist (06/18/13) Paul Marks
The feeding fronds of the slime Physarum polycephalum have memory resistance, according to University of the West of England researchers. They say the garish yellow slime that grows on rotten leaves and logs one day could be used to build exotic computers. "Slime mold can be used to perform all the logic functions that conventional computer hardware components can do," says researcher Ella Gale. Slime mold also has a knack for finding the shortest path to nutrients, and Gale's team is exploring whether this characteristic can be used to design the most efficient circuit patterns for biocomputers. Memristance was predicted in 1971 by the University of California, Berkeley's Leon Chua. Although Chua is not convinced of the impact that the mold memristors could have on computer chips of the future, he says the finding underscores how important they are in the biological world.
Body-Double: Lifelike Android Demoed at Futuristic Conference
LiveScience (NY) (06/15/13) Tanya Lewis
Osaka University Intelligent Robotics Laboratory director Hiroshi Ishiguro displayed a highly realistic robot in his own image at the recent Global Futures 2045 International Congress, as part of his ongoing efforts to erase the dividing line between humans and robots. Ishiguro's double is known as a Geminoid, which is an android that resembles a real person and is controlled remotely. He says the Geminoid could easily be accepted as Ishiguro's actual body. Ishiguro also developed a female android that displayed clothing in a retail store, and participates in a traveling android theater starring robots with lifelike expressions. As he gained experience with creating robots, Ishiguro realized that slight imperfections are necessary for realism. For example, his own Geminoid likeness has a perpetual small frown. Ishiguro's Telenoid is a gender- and age-neutral robot that enables users to imagine a face on its pillow-like appearance. The Telenoid was popular among the elderly in Denmark in Ishiguro's testing. A smaller version of the Telenoid, called the Elfoid, serves as an anthropomorphic mobile phone.
Best Supercomputers Still Not Best for Big Data
IEEE Spectrum (06/17/13) Mark Anderson
The ability to sift through massive data sets, an essential quality for solving many of the most significant big data problems in high-performance computing, is beyond the capacity of even the most advanced supercomputers, according to Micron Technology's Richard Murphy. Murphy chairs the executive committee of the Graph 500, which measures a supercomputer's speed when running needle-in-a-haystack search operations. “Graph 500 is more challenging on the data movement parts of the machine--on the memory and interconnect--and there are strong commercial driving forces for addressing some of those problems,” Murphy says. “Facebook is directly a graph problem, as is finding the next book recommendation on Amazon, as [are] certain problems in genomics, or if you want to do [an] analysis of pandemic flu. There’s just a proliferation of these problems.” Murphy observes that gains in processing power are often accompanied by a reduction in ability to rapidly access memory banks and hard drives, which is critical to data mining. “If you look at large-scale commercial problems, the data is growing so fast compared to the improvement on performance you get from Moore’s Law,” he notes.
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