Welcome to the September 25, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Military Lags in Push for Robotic Ground Vehicles
New York Times (09/22/13) John Markoff
As private companies move forward with self-driving vehicles, the U.S. military has been slow to deploy the technology. Despite a goal set by Congress to have unmanned vehicles represent a third of the military's combat fleet by 2015, government spending restrictions and technological challenges have made that all but impossible. Last month General Motors and Nissan announced plans to sell fully autonomous vehicles before the end of the decade, while Google already has a small fleet of autonomously-driving vehicles. These civilian advances will gradually make their way into military technology. Although one-third of the military's air fleet has been autonomous since 2012, autonomous ground vehicles have remained elusive, facing the additional challenges of unpredictable terrain and hostile environments. In addition to technological challenges, concerns have emerged about robots taking over the role of human ground soldiers and the morality of using robots in warfare. However, the military does have the Legged Squad Support System, a four-legged robot that follows soldiers into the field and totes as much as 400 pounds of equipment. In addition, last year the first completely autonomous ground supply vehicle, the Squad Mission Support System, carried over 10,000 pounds of supplies to a combat outpost in Afghanistan, and next year the military plans to use the vehicle for additional missions.
New Computing Curriculum 'Still Does Not Meet IT Industry Needs'
Computerworld UK (09/21/13) Anh Nguyen
Although the reform of the information and communication technologies (ICT) curriculum in the United Kingdom is a step in the right direction, it does not have the right balance to be truly successful, according to consultant Bob Harrison. "There was too much emphasis on computer science, to the detriment of digital literacy and information technology," he says. "The issue is about balance. There are a lot of teachers who think it is too narrow and too specific and it will not suit the needs of all pupils and it currently does not suit the needs of the IT industry." Many in the IT industry have welcomed the new curriculum, but supportive organizations such as BCS, Chartered Institute for IT, represent just the computer science segment of the industry. "Coding and programming is only one very small part of the IT industry," Harrison says. Another problem with the new curriculum is the fact that the government has given educators just one year to master the new curriculum. "We've got a seismic shift in the national curriculum for ICT to computing and the support for the seismic shift is based on volunteerism," Harrison notes.
Wi-Fi Sniffing Lets Researchers Take Social Snapshots of Crowds
Techworld Australia (09/19/13) Rohan Pearce
Sapienza-Universita di Roma researchers have used Wi-Fi probe requests from smartphones to take a social snapshot of large gatherings of people. Over a three-month period, the researchers collected more than 11 million probes from about 165,000 individual devices. The operating systems of wireless devices can include a preferred network list (PNL), which incorporates some of the SSIDs of Wi-Fi networks the device has previously connected to, and some devices will include this information in their probe requests. The researchers found disparities in the devices that incorporated PNLs in their probe requests. The researchers determined that 92 percent of Blackberry devices disclose part of their PNL, while HTC, Sony, Apple, Samsung, and Nokia devices did not reveal this information as often. Having found SSIDs of networks devices had previously connected to, the researchers were able to conduct statistical analyses of the networks' names. "We can regard the PNL of a device as a list of significant places visited by the user--significant enough that the user spent some time to connect to the access point," say the researchers. "Therefore, the fact that two users share one or more SSIDs in the PNL of their devices should intuitively provide some information on the existence of a social relationship between the two."
BOLD Idea for 'Big Data'
Rice University (09/20/13) Jade Boyd
The U.S. National Science Foundation recently gave a team of Rice University researchers a grant to develop the Big data and Optical Lightpaths-Driven Network Systems Research Infrastructure (BOLD), which is a customized, energy-efficient optical network that can feed massive amounts of data into Rice's supercomputers. "Above all, for this network design to be appealing to industry, it has to be energy-efficient, scalable and nonintrusive to the end user," says Rice University professor T.S. Eugene Ng. BOLD will rely on optical data-networking switches, which have much higher capacity than typical electronic switches that are used mostly in Internet data centers. "Optical networking devices consume very little power and can support enormous data rates, but they must first be configured, for example, by moving microelectromechanical mirrors into position, to establish a circuit," Ng says. BOLD will be a hybrid network that combines electronic and optical switches. It also will contain new silicon-photonic switches that do not have the delays of traditional switches. "To make use of these three types of technology, we need an intelligent layer that can analyze data flow and demand, all the way up to the application layer, and dynamically allocate network resources in the most efficient way," Ng says.
Rising to the STEM Challenge
HPC Wire (09/19/13) Tiffany Trader
As many as 3 million jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) could go unfilled in the United States by 2018 because there are not enough highly skilled workers, and the skills shortage would put the nation at a competitive disadvantage. The country could head off the STEM crisis by helping to expose students, especially girls and minorities, to STEM subjects early, and surrounding them with a community of STEM professionals. Qualified teachers must be recruited and provided with a means of developing into effective instructors. The United States will need more than 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade, according to the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. The authors of the report say the nation needs to focus on two complementary goals to meets its STEM needs. "We must prepare all students, including girls and minorities who are underrepresented in these fields, to be proficient in STEM subjects," they note. "And we must inspire all students to learn STEM and, in the process, motivate many of them to pursue STEM careers."
New Computer Program Redefines Interview Preparation
University of Rochester News (09/19/13) Julia Sklar
University of Rochester researchers have developed My Automated Conversation Coach (MACH), an interactive program designed to strengthen users' social skills, especially as they pertain to conversations. Users practice social interactions in front of a computer screen that is equipped with an animated character that can visibly respond to them. The interaction is then recorded and analyzed. The conversational criteria that the program analyzes include social cues such as smiles, tone of voice, speed of talking, eye contact, and the use of filler words. "The data is super objective, but how we each interpret them is super subjective," says Rochester researcher Mohammed Hoque. The researchers tested 90 Massachusetts Institute of Technology undergraduates by having them interact with counselors at the career center, with some of the participants also using the MACH system. All 90 subjects returned to the same counselor for a second interaction, which were then rated by additional counselors. The results show that the MACH-trained participants scored higher. "That's a really good indication that people are not only learning how to interact with the system, but learning how to generalize [their social interactions] to other people," Hoque says.
3D Mapping is a 'Pisa' Cake for Aussie Scientists
CSIRO (Australia) (09/18/13)
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) researchers have developed Zebedee, a handheld three-dimensional (3D) mapping system that includes a laser scanner swaying on a spring to capture millions of detailed measurements of a site. Specialized software then converts the system's laser data into a detailed 3D map. The researchers have used the technology to create the first-ever interior 3D map of Italy's Leaning Tower of Pisa. "It can often take a whole research team a number of days or weeks to map a site with the accuracy and detail of what we can produce in a few hours," says CSIRO researcher Jonathan Roberts. "Within 20 minutes we were able to use Zebedee to complete an entire scan of the building's interior. This allowed us to create a uniquely comprehensive and accurate 3D map of the tower's structure and composition, including small details in the stairs and stonework." The researchers also collaborated with Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna researchers who believe the research will have significant impact on preserving the cultural heritage of the site. "Having a detailed 3D model of the world’s most significant cultural heritage sites could also be used to allow people who cannot physically visit these sites to better understand and appreciate their history and architecture," says Perceptual Robotics Laboratory assistant professor Franco Tecchia.
Internet Archaeologists Reconstruct Lost Web Pages
MIT Technology Review (09/18/2013)
Previous research by Old Dominion University researchers Hany SalahEldeen and Michael Nelson suggests that links shared over social media platforms such as Twitter were disappearing at the rate of 11 percent within a year and 27 percent within two years. SalahEldeen and Nelson have now embarked on an effort to reconstruct deleted posts and resources in part from the clues they leave behind on the web. SalahEldeen and Nelson used the Twitter search engine Topsy, which allowed them to enter the address of a missing resource and return the tweets that refer to it, or to obtain the resource's tweet signature. They then extracted the top five most frequent terms in this signature and used them as a search query in Google. The result was a list of potential replacements for the lost resource. SalahEldeen and Nelson also tested how closely the replacement candidates matched the original resource by carrying out the same process for resources that had not disappeared and then comparing the replacement candidates with the originals. They report that the replacements had a 70 percent textual similarity to the original resource about 40 percent of the time.
European Space Agency Fires Up Cloud Research Platform to Crunch Geohazards Big Data
ZDNet (09/18/13) Toby Wolpe
The European Space Agency (ESA) recently launched a cloud-based geohazards research platform that allows researchers to analyze large amounts of satellite earthquake and volcanic data. The SuperSites Exploitation Platform (SSEP) gives researchers access to 13 terabytes of geohazards data, including 50,000 radar screens. SSEP includes scalable on-demand processing, collaboration tools, and a range of algorithms to process and share information with virtual research communities. "This platform will provide authorized users with simple access tools to view and retrieve data from multiple archives, to place their tasking requests, to fetch data, and to report results back to data providers, which will make a larger pool of data available to scientific data users," says ESA's Jordi Farres. "The SSEP model complements the legacy model where data was shipped out and processed at a user's premises." In addition, SSEP's cloud toolbox offers virtual desktop resources, configured with software and licenses for analyzing and processing the data, according to ESA.
Supercomputing the Transition From Ordinary to Extraordinary Forms of Matter
Brookhaven National Laboratory (09/18/13) Karen McNulty Walsh
Scientists are using powerful supercomputers to understand how the subatomic soup of the early universe transformed into today's visible matter. Physicists are using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory to smash atomic nuclei together at close to the speed of light, and then sophisticated detectors and supercomputers to study the collision debris. In particular, scientists are looking for large fluctuations in the excess of certain kinds of particles produced from collision to collision. They want to compare experimental observations with predictions from complex calculations, and plot specific points of the phases of the components of atomic nuclei to reveal details of the transition and other characteristics of matter created at RHIC. Supercomputers enable the scientists to simulate the type of fluctuations needed for the wide range of temperatures and densities at RHIC, and they are helping to provide data needed to map nuclear phase diagrams. The machines start by mathematically modeling all the possible interactions of subatomic quarks and gluons as governed by the theory of Quantum Chromodynamics. To simplify the challenge the computers look at interactions of quarks and gluons placed at discreet points on a four-dimensional lattice accounting for three spatial dimensions plus time.
Scaling Up Personalized Query Results for Next Generation of Search Engines
NCSU News (09/18/13) Matt Shipman
North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers say they have developed a way for search engines to provide users with more accurate, personalized search results that is more than 100 times more efficient than previous approaches. Their method involves examining a user's "ambient query context," which means the user's most recent searches to help interpret the current search. The researchers note that their approach looks beyond the words used in a search to associated concepts to determine the context of a search. "We are identifying the context of search terms for individual users in real time and using that to determine a user's intention for a specific query at a specific time, [which] allows us to deal more effectively with more complex searches than traditional search engines," says NCSU professor Kemafor Anyanwu. The researchers also have developed a technique that includes new ways to represent data, new ways to index that data so that it can be accessed efficiently, and a new computing architecture for organizing those indexes. "Our new indexing and search computing architecture allows us to support personalized search for about 2,900 concurrent users using an 8GB machine, whereas an earlier approach supported only 17 concurrent users," Anyanwu says.
Ella Gale: Building a Neuromorphic (Brainlike) Computer
Scientific American (09/16/13) Beatrice Lugger
Ella Gale, one of the young researchers attending the 1st Heidelberg Laureate Forum in Germany, says her interest is unconventional computing. The British research fellow is jointly working at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory and the University of the West of England, and she says she is interested in building a neuromorphic computer from memristors. "I think that the lack of success so far in making truly intelligent machines may be because we have so far lacked brain-like components to make it: however, even if memristor networks fail at this task, it would be interesting," Gale says. She also is interested in using bio-inspired approaches in computing as a source of novel algorithms. Gale initially earned a degree in chemistry, but became interested in computer science while pursuing a Ph.D., as computational simulations enabled her to see its usefulness to physical science. Post-doc, Gale switched to using chemistry to build computers. "I think I was attracted to computer science because it is a new field with wide-open vistas and there is a lot of room to be a generalist, in fact a general overview is necessary for computing in a way that it isn't for the natural sciences," she notes.
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