Welcome to the July 24, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
MIT's 3D-Printing Breakthrough Evokes Pixar Design Process
Network World (07/24/13) Colin Neagle
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have launched OpenFab, a programmable "pipeline" architecture that aims to eliminate the current problems with designing replicas of complex three-dimensional (3D) objects. The researchers are relying on Pixar's use of the RenderMan software and RenderMan Interface Specificat (RISpec), which could help alleviate the computational challenges associated with current 3D printing methods. The researchers say RISpec, which is used to convert the details of 3D scenes into realistic 3D animations, could provide a similar function for 3D objects. The OpenFab architecture uses programs called "fablets," which are written in a new programming language and allow the user to access and change design data on-demand. The researchers also developed Spec2Fab, a methodology that helps break down the manufacturing process into several parts, each of which can consist of a different material. "With OpenFab, the user can change the material consistency of an object, for example designing the object to transition from stiff at one end to flexible and compressible at the other end," says MIT's Kiril Vidimce.
Ford Boosts Hiring of Engineers, Computer Workers
USA Today (07/23/13) Chris Woodyard; Alisa Priddle
Ford Motor Co.'s recently announcement that it is boosting its planned hiring of engineers and software workers by 36 percent is part of a larger effort by the auto industry to recruit technology workers. Ford says that about 80 percent of the new hires will be engineers and information technology workers that can help design the next generation of high-tech vehicles. The greatest need is for workers with electronics and digital skills, highlighting how the auto industry is being driven by developments in infotainment systems, electronic controls, and safety systems. "The skill set is changing, especially with the amount of electronics...in the vehicle," says SAE International's Andrew Smart. However, recruiting is challenging because automakers are looking for a special combination of skills that relatively few professionals have. "The specialties we are having trouble filling are software, electric, and electronic," says Ford's Raj Nair. "There's a lot of demand for that talent." Meanwhile, both Ford and General Motors are involved in programs to encourage high school students to study science, technology, engineering, and math subjects.
World's Cheapest Computer Gets Millions Tinkering
Agence France-Presse (07/21/13) Judith Evans
The Raspberry Pi was designed to help children learn to code but has sold widely to inventors and others worldwide, for use in everything from astral photography to robots. Nearly 1.5 million of the Linux-based devices have sold in 18 months. Raspberry Pi Foundation executive director Eben Upton and his colleagues conceived of an inexpensive computer designed for programming while they were teaching computer science at Cambridge University. They noticed that today's children lack practical programming skills. "They didn't have the grungy familiarity with the dirty bits, the hacking," Upton says. "The theory of computer science is maths, but the practice is a craft, like carpentry." As technology advanced, Upton and his colleagues realized they could create a pocket-sized device that could run multimedia programs. Users around the globe now meet in idea-sharing sessions called Raspberry Jams. One such session generated the idea for a Pi camera that will photograph endangered animals in east Africa and collect data on their habits and poaching. "It used to be very expensive--you'd have to run a laptop, with a huge car battery to power the thing," says the project's Alasdair Davies. "This saves countless power and it's easy for it to send out alerts automatically."
Carnegie Mellon, Microsoft Researchers Demonstrate Internal Tagging Technique for 3D-Printed Objects
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (07/22/13) Byron Spice
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and Microsoft have developed a process to generate internal, invisible tags for three-dimensional (3D) printed objects. The tags, called InfraStructs, can be read with an imaging system using terahertz (THz) radiation, which can safely penetrate common materials. As the imaging technology matures and becomes more affordable, Infrastructs could be used for several applications, says CMU Ph.D. candidate Karl Willis. For example, he says they could help mobile robots recognize or differentiate between things, or encode information into custom accessories used in game systems. "The ability to embed 3D patterns gives designers new opportunities in creating objects that are meant to be sensed and tracked," says Microsoft Research's Andy Wilson. "One idea is to embed a code just under the surface of the object, so that a THz beam can recover its position on the surface, wherever it strikes the object." Infrastructs aims to take advantage of trends toward high-speed electronics at THz frequencies and the rapidly growing capabilities of digital fabrication, according to the researchers. THz radiation, which falls between microwaves and infrared light on the electromagnetic spectrum, does not harm biological tissues.
Software Employment Rises 45% in 10 Years, as Angst in Engineering Grows
Computerworld (07/22/13) Patrick Thibodeau; Sharon Machlis
Software development employment has increased over the past 10 years, but not all IT areas are faring as well, according to an IEEE-USA analysis of U.S. labor data. Over the past decade, IT employment has gone up and down, but the only tech occupation that appears to have recovered to full employment is software developer, according to Economic Policy Institute analyst Daniel Costa. Researchers generally agree that the growth in software developers reflects an economy that has become more software oriented. The Brookings Institution's Neil Ruiz says the rise of software and professional services corresponds to a more software-focused economy, while the decline in manufacturing represents overseas and near-shore shifts in manufacturing. "It does not have to do with decline of R&D/innovation in the U.S.," he asserts. In fact, George Mason University professor Zoltan Acs argues that software development is innovation. Acs, citing the app development work, says, "Are these not innovations? I would be more upset if both trends [software development and electrical engineering] were down."
New App Puts Idle Smartphones to Work for Science
UC Berkeley NewsCenter (07/22/13) Robert Sanders
University of California, Berkeley researchers have developed a smartphone app that enables Android users to donate a phone's idle computing power to analyze data for projects that could lead to new scientific breakthroughs. The app was created as part of the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) project, which develops software to utilize untapped processing power donated by computer users around the world. The new app, also called BOINC, supports several popular computing projects, including Einstein@Home, which searches radio telescope data for pulsars, and FightAIDS@Home, which searches for more effective AIDS therapies. "Mobile devices are the wave of the future in many ways, including the raw computing power they can provide to solve computationally difficult problems," says Berkeley professor and BOINC creator David Anderson. The app runs only when the phone is plugged in and charging, and after the battery is more than 95 percent charged. In addition, it will only communicate with computing projects through the Internet when connected via Wi-Fi, to avoid using up a smartphone owner's data plan. "Our main goals are to make it easy for scientists to use BOINC to create volunteer computing projects to further their research, and to make it easier for volunteers to participate," Anderson says.
Disney Researchers Create Computer Models That Capture Style and Process of Portrait Artists
EurekAlert (07/19/13) Jennifer Liu
Disney researchers have developed computer models that learn an artist's drawing style, how they use strokes, and how they select features to highlight as they interpret a face into a portrait. The researchers say that a better understanding of this abstraction process can help in developing artificial drawing tools. "There's something about an artist's interpretation of a subject that people find compelling," says Disney's Moshe Mahler. "We're trying to capture that--to create a computer model of it--in a way that no one has done before." Their approach is built on a database representing abstractions of a set of artists. The database contains sketched portraits based on 24 photographs of male and female faces using a stylus pen that allows the researchers to record each stroke. Seven artists created four sketches of each photo, with decreasing time intervals allowed for each. The result was a dataset of 672 sketches at four abstraction levels. The dataset contains about 8,000 strokes for each artist, with each stroke categorized as shading strokes or contour strokes, with contour strokes subdivided into complex and simple strokes. The researchers used the system to synthesize sketches based on new face photos, and found that their sketch-generation method produced multiple, distinct styles that are similar to hand-drawn sketches.
Chips That Mimic the Brain
University of Zurich (07/22/13)
Researchers from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich say they have made a breakthrough in the effort to build an artificial brain. The researchers have demonstrated how complex cognitive abilities can be incorporated into electronic systems made with neuromorphic chips. The team sought to emulate the properties of biological neurons and synapses directly on microchips, says Institute of Neuroinformatics professor Giacomo Indiveri. The researchers demonstrated for the first time how a real-time hardware neural-processing system, in which the user dictates the behavior, can be constructed. "Thanks to our method, neuromorphic chips can be configured for a large class of behavior modes," Indiveri says. "Our results are pivotal for the development of new brain-inspired technologies." The researchers say the chips could be combined with sensory neuromorphic components, such as an artificial cochlea or retina, to create complex cognitive systems that interact with their surroundings in real time.
To Create a Robot With Common Sense, Mimic a Toddler
New Scientist (07/22/13) Celeste Biever
Artificial intelligence (AI) researcher Ben Goertzel is creating a robot called Adam Z1 that mimics that common sense of a three-year-old person, which he hopes will lead to the development of AI that surpasses human intelligence. Goertzel's goal is for the robot to be capable of creative play in the manner of a toddler, so that it can, for example, build something using foam blocks that the user has not seen before. "Once we get an AI with basic common sense, you can hybridize with existing narrow software," Goertzel says. "By putting the two together, you are going to get a whole new kind of artificial general intelligence expert--good at solving specialized problems, but in a way that uses contextual understanding." Goertzel notes that his open source AI project OpenCog is unique because it uses an architecture for general intelligence that incorporates all of the heterogeneous aspects of the human mind, whereas most projects focus on a single algorithm. The Adam Z1 robot will be a Hanson robot with an expressive face. "In terms of social interactions, it is valuable to have a robot that can convey emotions and desires," Goertzel says. "He needs to learn from people: the more engaged they are, the better data they will give to power his learning."
Study: Commerce Department App Privacy Proposal Confuses Consumers
MediaPost.com (07/18/13) Wendy Davis
The terminology of the Commerce Department's "short-form notice" privacy proposal is too ambiguous, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). The proposal calls for mobile app developers to explain their data-collection practices to consumers in one or two words, but the researchers say their findings suggest this would be confusing. Developers would describe the data collected with phrases such as "biometrics," "health information," "location," and "browser history," and describe the third parties that would receive the data with phrases such as "ad networks" and "social networks." The researchers asked 800 consumers and four experts to use the short-form terms and found that they had problems applying them. For example, respondents were not sure how to categorize measurement data requested by a fictional app called HipClothes, considering biometrics is defined as "information about your body" and "health info" as "information used to measure health and wellness." The researchers say the government should conduct more tests with consumers and refine the definition of terms before issuing a final recommendation. "When you have a bunch of lawyers and policy people coming up with the consumer tools, they're not going to come up with something that is necessarily usable," says CMU professor Lorrie Cranor.
Investigating the Dark Matter of Life
Texas Advanced Computing Center (07/18/13) Aaron Dubrow
J. Craig Ventor Institute (JCVI) researchers have developed software that organizes and analyzes fragments of DNA extracted from the ocean as part of the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition. The JCVI researchers ran the software on the Texas Advanced Computing Center's Ranger supercomputer, which enabled them to discover information about the oceanic ecosystem that would be impossible to find without massive computational power. "We take this culture-independent approach to studying microbial communities, and the result is that most of the complexity in making inferences has been transferred to the computational end of things," says JCVI professor Shibu Yooseph. The researchers note that revolutionary science needs innovative computer programmers to create tools that can turn the massive amounts of data into useful information. As part of the oceanic study, the JCVI researchers turned to MGTAXA, software that helped them determine the relationship between viruses and bacteria in the Indian Ocean. MGTAXA also enabled the researchers to develop hypotheses about the relative abundance of various microbes with more precision. These types of studies, driven by creative algorithms and powered by supercomputers, provide evidence, promote the creation of new treatment options, and help develop the methods and workflows required for future studies.
Mining for Meaning: Getting Computers to Understand Natural Language Texts
Saarland University (07/18/13)
Computer scientists at Saarland University and the University of Amsterdam are developing a procedure that will enable computers to learn to identify semantically relevant relationships within texts. Computers that are able to understand natural language texts could potentially analyze texts and provide specific answers about them. "The model that we have developed simulates how humans create texts," says Saarland's Ivan Titov. "In order to understand texts, we get our computers to work through this process but in the reverse direction: given the text the computer will uncover its meaning or even intent of the writer." The team uses millions of sentences to generate both the model and the rules contained within it. The analysis of the massive dataset requires a lot of computing power, with specially developed algorithms running on nearly 100 computers. The researchers eventually hope to use the method to get machines to automatically summarize short texts and answer questions about the content.
How Computer Viruses Really Work: Israel's Viral Historian Explains
Haaretz.com (Israel) (07/18/13) Ayelett Shani
In an interview, computer scientist Ran Levi, author of "Battle of Wits: The History of Malicious Computer Viruses," says viruses began as benign attempts to replicate computer programs and evolved through human direction. Initially, Levi says, programming enthusiasts wrote viruses as an intellectual challenge, but over time other players emerged with financial motivations. Gradually, he says, a criminal element came to dominate, paying hackers to write viruses for them. Levi notes that smartphones increasingly are the targets of viruses, as are social networks such as Facebook, with hackers "likejacking" users by persuading them to "like" something that is actually spreading a virus to their friends. Artificial intelligence also is popular with virus writers, who want their programs to have a high level of autonomous capability. For example, the Storm Worm virus was programmed to recognize investigators and law enforcement entering the network it created, and respond by attacking the network from which the attempt originated. Governments also use viruses to engage in warfare, as occurred with Stuxnet. "This is especially worrisome for Western nations, since we are extremely dependent upon our computer infrastructure," Levi says. "As soon as governments get involved in this, viruses start to become weapons."
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