Welcome to the September 27, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Creating Matter That Behaves Like Luke Skywalker’s Light Saber
In a discovery that could advance quantum computing, scientists at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created a new photon-based matter that is essentially like the light sabers in the movie Star Wars. The team was able to bind photons together to create photonic molecules, contradicting existing knowledge about light behavior. "What we have done is create a special type of medium in which photons interact with each other so strongly that they begin to act as though they have mass, and they bind together to form molecules," says Harvard professor Mikhail Lukin. "This type of photonic bound state has been discussed theoretically for quite a while, but until now it hadn't been observed." Lukin says comparing the new matter to a light saber is an accurate analogy, with photons pushing against and deflecting one another when they interact. To bind the photons, the researchers pumped rubidium atoms into a vacuum chamber, then cooled the atom cloud to a few degrees above absolute zero using lasers. Weak laser pulses then fired single photons into the atom cloud, creating energy that excited the atoms and slowed the photon. The energy then moved from one atom to another, leaving the cloud with the photon.
Harvard Plans to Boldly Go With 'SPOCs'
BBC News (09/24/13) Sean Coughlan
Harvard University is moving beyond massive open online courses (MOOCs) to small private online courses (SPOCs). Like MOOCs, SPOCs are offered for free over the Internet, but registration is limited to tens or maybe hundreds of students, rather than the tens of thousands that can enroll in a MOOC. SPOCs have a selection process for applicants and the ability to tailor the course experience. Fees and course credits for SPOCs could emerge in the future. Transitioning online education to more flexible and sophisticated formats is an "almost inevitable evolution," says Harvard professor Robert Lue. "The MOOC represents just the first version of what we can do with online education," he says. "We're already in a post-MOOC era." However, Harvard will continue to offer MOOCs, along with SPOCs and traditional classroom-based courses. SPOCs will offer smaller class sizes that will increase student engagement and allow more thorough assessments, as well as the possibility of improved certification. Universities cannot afford to ignore online learning, as MOOCs have already raised questions about the benefits of physically being on campus and in the classroom, Lue says. "Institutions that sit back and watch, they may be in trouble," he says. "One can imagine a large institution where there isn't much difference between online and classroom--and then you'd be silly not to realize there's a problem."
Scientists Use Math--and Computer War Games--to Show How Society Evolved
Los Angeles Times (09/24/13) Monte Morin
University of Connecticut researchers developed mathematical formulas and computer simulations to discover how complex societies evolved. They concluded that an increase in the intensity of armed combat, as well as the spread of military technology, facilitated the rise of large, complex societies. The researchers hypothesized that a key mechanism in the formation of ancient empires was the use of horses by nomadic steppe dwellers to attack agricultural communities. The researchers tested this hypothesis by creating an elaborate mathematical war game that divided the ancient world into squares of 60 square miles each. The squares were given numerical values to designate their elevation, as well as to distinguish between agricultural lands and desert. Additionally, historical records were consulted for the simulation of population groups. The simulation was designed to replicate the period of history between 1500 BC and AD 1500. After comparing their model results with the growth and density of actual empires during that time period, the warfare model was 65-percent accurate. "The model developed here does well at predicting the broad outlines of where and when such societies have traditionally formed and persisted," according to the researchers.
3D-Printed Objects Outgrow Their Printers
New Scientist (09/26/13) Niall Firth
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed Hyperform, a method for printing large-scale objects using standard three-dimensional (3D) printers. "It's challenging the notion that we always need a machine that's bigger than the thing it's printing," says MIT Self-Assembly Lab researcher Skylar Tibbits. Hyperform converts the object to be printed into a single long chain made from interlocking links. An algorithm then determines how that chain can be packaged together into the smallest cube possible using a Hilbert curve. The resulting cube is small enough to be printed inside a standard printer. After this cube is printed, the chain can be unraveled and assembled by hand to create the desired object. In order to make the process even easier, the researchers developed a new type of 3D printer that is capable of much higher resolution than consumer 3D printers. Instead of printing out several layers of plastic, the new printer uses stereolithography, in which a pool of liquid plastic is added to the base of the printer and a laser traces out the desired pattern, allowing the liquid plastic to cure and solidify. The method can form layers just 25 microns thick, with details as minuscule as 300 microns.
The Power of Teaching Girls to Code
The Atlantic (09/25/13) Bonnie Tsui
Although the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that by 2020 there will be 1.4 million jobs in computer science, American universities are on pace to produce enough qualified graduates to fill less than a third of those jobs, and a tiny fraction of those graduates are women. Girls Who Code wants to change that trend. The organization recently expanded from one computer science immersion camp in New York to set up similar programs in Detroit, San Francisco, and San Jose. In Detroit, Girls Who Code hosted 20 girls for eight weeks in partnership with General Electric (GE) and the Knight Foundation. "If you look at who the girls are exposed to--half of our most senior IT leaders are women--they were literally seeing themselves there," says GE representative Kim Bankston. "The mentors the girls had were women with 10 to 20 years of experience in IT. They could tell their story of growing up in Michigan and going into this field." The campers spent time in GE's aviation center, research facilities, and robot garage, to learn about automation and app design. Their final projects showcase the inventive ways in which the girls learned to use technology to deconstruct and solve problems. One group created an app called Sisters Understanding Math and Science, which included inspiring quotes, examples of female leaders, and games.
Robotic Fabrication in Timber Construction
University of Stuttgart researchers are studying the potential of robotic prefabrication in timber construction, and they have developed a lightweight timber construction system combining robotic prefabrication with computational design, simulation processes, and three-dimensional surveying technologies. The researchers hope to develop innovative, successful, and sustainable construction systems made from wood. Traditionally, timber fabrication processes were focused on either manual work or mass production of single elements. Robotic fabrication would expand the range of manufacturing possibilities and offer more freedom for developing innovative, material-oriented, and adaptive construction systems. The robotic fabrication research requires the development and application of novel architectural design, planning, and simulation processes. The researchers are focused on the coherent digital chain from the geometry modeling to the structural analysis and digital fabrication, along with subsequent tracking of tolerances and geometrical deviations. Innovative and practical construction principles are continuously being studied and developed thanks to Stuttgart's robotic fabrication equipment.
Supercomputing Enables Climate Time Machine
HPC Wire (09/23/13) Tiffany Trader
Climate models are improving with each generation of supercomputer, enabling more exact predictions of extreme weather events and global warming. The effectiveness of a model is sometimes tested retroactively, to determine whether its results would foreshadow real-world events. For example, researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth System Research Laboratory used a backwards-facing analysis in the 20th Century Reanalysis Project. The scientists entered data from extreme global weather events from 1871 to the present day into supercomputers at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center and the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility to develop a virtual climate time machine. "The model accurately predicted a number of extreme weather conditions, including El Niño occurrences, the 1922 Knickerbocker snowstorm that hit the Atlantic Coast, the 1930s Dust Bowl, and a hurricane that smashed into New York City in 1938," says science writer Jon Bashor. The researchers then used the data assimilation system for actual predictions to forecast future warming patterns, and thus independently verified that global land warming has been taking place since 1901.
New Device to Revolutionize Gaming in Virtual Realities
Technische Universitat Wien (09/20/13) Florian Aigner
A new device developed by researchers at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Vienna) will allow users to walk almost naturally through virtual spaces without running into the real walls of the room. With the Virtualizer, the user is fixated with a belt in a support frame that also registers the rotations of the body; the feet glide across a low-friction surface, and sensors pick up the movements and feed the data into the computer. "Coming to terms with the low friction takes a little bit of practice, but soon one can run across the smooth sensor plate quite naturally," says TU Vienna student Tuncay Cakmak, who developed the device with other students and a virtual reality expert. The Virtualizer can be used with standard three-dimensional (3D) headgear to pick up the user's viewing direction and display 3D pictures, independent from leg motion. Users will be able to run and look in different directions, but the displayed visual data will be in line with their physical motion. As the feeling of presence in the virtual world is stronger, it becomes easier to assess distances and proportions, and movement has an element of physical exercise. A product could hit the market for gamers in 2014.
Spirals of Light May Lead to Better Electronics
California Institute of Technology (09/25/13) Jessica Stoller-Conrad
California Institute of Technology (Caltech) researchers have developed a device that can help steady the electrical currents needed to power high-end electronics and stabilize the signals of high-quality lasers. The research marks the first time that such a device has been miniaturized to fit on a computer chip. "Our device provides a consistent light frequency that improves both optical and electronic devices when it is used as a reference," says Caltech professor Kerry Vahala. The researchers stabilized the light's frequency by developing a silica glass chip resonator with a specially designed path for the photons in the shape of an Archimedean spiral. "Using this shape allows the longest path in the smallest area on a chip," says Caltech researcher Hansuek Lee. "We knew that if we made the photons travel a longer path, the whole device would become more stable." In the new design, photons are applied to an outer ring of the spiraled resonator with a tiny light-dispensing optic fiber. The photons then travel around four interwoven Archimedean spirals, ultimately closing the path after traveling more than a meter in an area about the size of a quarter.
Teaching a Computer to Perceive the World Without Human Input
National Science Foundation (09/20/13) Marlene Cimons
Computers can learn to recognize objects, but they cannot understand what they see. University of California, Merced professor Ming-Hsuan Yang wants to enable computers to identify an object even when something about it changes, such as its position. Yang is developing computer algorithms to give computers using a single camera the ability to detect, track, and recognize objects, even when they drift, disappear, reappear, or become obscured by other items. His goal is to simulate human cognition without human input. The research could improve assistive technology for the visually impaired, have applications in medicine and traffic modeling, and boost navigation and surveillance in robots. "The Holy Grail of computer vision is to tell a story using an image or video, and have the computer understand on some level what it is seeing," Yang says. His project also includes devising a code library of tracking algorithms and a large data set, which will become publicly available. The research is being funded with the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award Yang received in 2012.
UCSB Researchers Make Headway in Quantum Information Transfer Using Nanomechanical Coupling of Microwave and Optical States
University of California, Santa Barbara (09/23/13) Julie Cohen
University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) researchers have developed a nanomechanical transducer that provides strong and coherent coupling between microwave signals and optical photons. "We have found that there actually is a way to translate electrical quantum states to optical quantum states," says UCSB researcher Jorg Bochmann. The researchers recently published a paper describing the concept and presenting a prototype device that uses an optomechanical crystal implemented in a piezoelectric material in a way that is compatible with superconducting qubits. Using this device, the researchers were able to generate coherent interactions between electrical signals, very high frequency mechanical vibrations, and optical signals. "In the next step, we would have to actually input quantum signals from the electrical side and then check whether the quantum properties are preserved in the light," Bochmann says. The prototype transducer is fully compatible with superconducting quantum circuits and is well-suited for cryogenic operation, according to the researchers. "The coupled dynamics of the system should be the same at low temperatures as in our room-temperature measurements, albeit with a lower thermal background," says professor Andrew Cleland.
Human Robot Getting Closer
University of Twente (Netherlands) (09/20/13)
University of Twente (UT) researchers are implementing the cognitive process of the human brain in robots, and the research could lead to the development of the latest version of the iCub robot. "The application of cognition in technical systems should also mean that the robot learns from its experiences and the actions it performs," says UT researcher Frank van der Velde. "A simple example: a robot that spills too much when pouring a cup of coffee can then learn how it should be done." The newest version of the robot will have haptic sensors and costs 250,000 euros. "The new iCub has a skin and fingers that have a much better sense of touch and can feel strength," which makes interaction with humans more natural, according to van der Velde. The researchers also are developing electronic circuits that resemble a web of neurons in the human brain. "In combination with the iCub robot, it can be investigated how the experiences of the robot are recorded in such materials and how the robot is controlled by nano-neural circuitry," van der Velde says.
Beautiful Brushstrokes Are Drawn from Data
Princeton University (09/19/13) John Sullivan
Princeton University researchers have developed RealBrush, a program that allows artists to quickly and easily produce realistic brushstrokes on their computers. RealBrush combines graphics algorithms with big data storage and retrieval techniques to allow computer artists to create, bend, and shape a wide variety of brushstrokes. The program also allows for effects such as smudging, smearing, and merging of different types of media. "Our goal is to have it look like a photograph of a real stroke but to have it follow whatever path you happen to be drawing," says Princeton professor Adam Finkelstein. The program uses sample brushstrokes as baselines indicating fundamental characteristics of the strokes. The program then uses those samples to warp and blend the original strokes into any curves or forms the user wants. "If you are a casual user, you can use pre-captured strokes," says Princeton researcher Jingwan Lu. "Or you can paint your own strokes and record those in our system. You can share those with your friends," The RealBrush approach is an example of a change in programming that has the potential for huge impact in many fields, including graphic design, according to Finkelstein.
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