Welcome to the September 30, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Replacing Silicon With Nanotubes Could Revolutionize Tech
Computerworld (09/30/13) Sharon Gaudin
Stanford University researchers recently announced the development of the first functioning computer that uses only carbon nanotube transistors. The researchers say replacing silicon transistors with carbon nanotubes could make any electric device smaller and more powerful and could lead to a new generation of faster electronic devices that use less energy than those built using silicon-based transistors. "Hypothetically, if researchers can remove the current issues by using carbon nanotubes, and manufacturers adopt it, they could build smaller everything with less power required," says analyst Patrick Moorhead. He notes that if carbon nanotubes become a viable alternative to silicon, major manufacturers will quickly look to move to the new technology, despite the high cost of reworking their manufacturing processes. "The new technology would impact every device that uses chips, from cars to watches to phones to computers," Moorhead says. Analyst Dan Olds says the carbon nanotubes could enable a revolutionary leap in electronics technology. "It takes much less power to change the state of a carbon nanotube versus today's transistors," Olds says. "We would see devices that can do a whole lot more useful work while using a whole lot less juice--and that's a great combination."
Visually Impaired Turn to Smartphones to See Their World
The New York Times (09/29/13) Nick Bilton
Advocates for the visually impaired say smartphones and tablets could be the most helpful assistive aid to emerge since the invention of Braille. The visually impaired can employ a smartphone's voice commands to read or write, navigate using global positioning systems and compass apps, determine denominations of money with a camera app, and also take photographs. The Apple iPhone includes features designed to help people with vision problems snap pictures. For example, an assistive mode enables the device to vocalize how many heads are in a picture and their position in the frame. Another Apple technology of help to the blind or near-blind is VoiceOver, billed as the world's first gesture-based screen reader. The app lets blind people engage with their devices using multi-touch gestures on the screen, for example prompting the phone to read displayed text aloud by swiping two fingers down the screen. Additional apps can help users visualize colors by pointing their phones at an object to trigger a detailed audio description of its hue. The iPhone also supports more than 40 distinctive Braille Bluetooth keyboards.
Building Disaster-Relief Phone Apps on the Fly
MIT News (09/30/13) Larry Hardesty
People with minimal programming skills can quickly build cellphone apps designed to assist disaster relief efforts through new tools created by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Qatar Computing Research Institute. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Jim Handler says the project is one of the first to focus on two key issues of disaster relief at once: how to acquire and pull together the needed data, and how to make that data available to the people who need it. The tool combines new Web standards and the intuitive, open source MIT App Inventor software, which enables non-programmers to create apps for devices running Google's Android operating system by integrating color-coded graphical elements. The tool requires that the accessed data be formatted in accordance with the resource description framework, which is used by many government agencies. "We're hoping that we'll have a kind of cyclic effect," says MIT's Lalana Kagal. "As people use these apps more, they will automatically generate structured data. And as there's more structured data out there, there will be people building more apps to consume them, which will in turn generate more structured data."
UK to Create New Cyber Defence Force
BBC News (09/29/13)
The United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence (MoD) is planning to recruit hundreds of reservists as computer experts to work alongside regular forces as part of the new Joint Cyber Reserve Unit, which aims to protect computer networks and safeguard data. The creation of the Joint Cyber Reserve Unit will enable MoD to draw on individuals' talent, skills, and expertise gained from their civilian experience to meet cyberthreats, according to a Ministry of Defence statement. "We will build in Britain a cyberstrike capability so we can strike back in cyberspace against enemies who attack us, putting cyber alongside land, sea, air, and space as a mainstream military activity," says MoD's Philip Hammond. "Our commanders can use cyberweapons alongside conventional weapons in future conflicts." MoD says that starting next month it will target current and former reservists, as well as civilians that have the necessary skills and expertise. "People think of military as land, sea, and air," Hammond says. "We long ago recognized a fourth domain--space. Now there's a fifth--cyber."
NSA Gathers Data on Social Connections of U.S. Citizens
The New York Times (09/28/13) James Risen; Laura Poitras
In November 2010, the National Security Agency started exploiting its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans' social networks, according to newly discovered documents and interviews with officials. The computer analysis of such data, which was designed to "discover and track" connections between intelligence targets overseas and people in the United States, previously was permitted only for foreigners because of concerns about infringing on the privacy of American citizens. However, a January 2011 NSA memorandum authorized the agency to conduct "large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata without having to check foreignness" of every email address, phone number, or other identifier. In addition, NSA can enhance the communications data with material from public, commercial, and other sources, such as bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration, and global positioning system location information, according to documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden. NSA officials declined to reveal which phone and email databases are used to create the social network diagrams, and Snowden's documents do not specify them. NSA also will not disclose how many U.S. citizens have been monitored, but an agency spokeswoman notes that "all of NSA's work has a foreign intelligence purpose."
Job Market Embraces Massive Online Courses
The Wall Street Journal (09/26/13) Douglas Belkin; Caroline Porter
Employers are increasingly joining the massive open online course (MOOC) fray, allowing workers to acquire skills with market value at a low cost. Although MOOCs have made top-quality courses available to a much larger pool of students, most have not offered any type of credentials--but that situation is starting to change. Udacity last week announced the Open Education Alliance to offer online courses developed in collaboration with companies including Google and AT&T, and providing students with a free certificate. In addition, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and MOOC partner edX are launching their XSeries courses, with assistance from about 50 companies. Students will be able to earn a verified certificate in computer science, supply-chain management, and other subjects for about $700. Open Education Alliance companies will create at least one class at a cost of about $250,000, for which they will receive access to a talent pool with desired job skills, says AT&T's Scott Smith. Although critics worry that corporate involvement will slant the educational experience in favor of companies at the long-term expense of students, many students are looking for ways to make education more affordable. "What we are really establishing are educational pathways for people who want skills that are relevant to contemporary jobs," says Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun.
Google's 'Hummingbird' Hatches New Search Formula
Associated Press (09/27/13) Michael Liedtke
The formula underlying the Google search engine has been overhauled as part of Google's Hummingbird update, with the goal of yielding better answers to increasingly complex queries. Google's Amit Singhal says the retooling will impact the analysis of about 90 percent of Google's search requests, and give the search engine a more secure grasp of comprehending concepts rather than words. Singhal notes the change was necessary because people have become so dependent on Google that entering lengthy questions into the search box instead of just keywords has become routine. Also informing Google's decision to launch Hummingbird was the emergence of smartphones and Google's voice-recognition technology, which has intensified people's habit of submitting search requests in sequences of spoken sentences similar to an ongoing dialogue. Google also announced updates to search features geared toward more concise information provision so people will not need to go to another website. For example, Google's Knowledge Graph now can compare the attributes of two different things, and it also can be queried to sort through certain types of data. Google's updates to its search engine have thus far not engendered widespread animosity from other websites, suggesting that the changes have not prompted a dramatic reordering in how sites rank in the Google recommendations.
Some Robots Are Starting to Move More Like Humans
Technology Review (09/27/13) Aviva Hope Rutkin
University of Zurich researchers have developed Roboy, a four-foot-tall humanoid robot with a set of muscles inspired by the human musculoskeletal system. The plastic muscles work together via electrical motors and artificial tendons, enabling Roboy to mimic the flexible mechanics of biology, and could lead to a new class or robots that are lighter, safer, and able to move in a more natural way. "If you're interested in more natural kinds of movements, tendon-driven technology needs to be explored," says Zurich researcher Rolf Pfeifer. Robots designed to mimic human movement can help researchers explore how biomechanics can lead to more intelligent behavior. "I think [Roboy] can be a really interesting research platform for learning in systems with many degrees of freedom," Pfeifer says. However, one of the biggest obstacles for tendon-driven engineers is finding a way to effectively model the human body's complex motions. "The calibration of tendons is a challenge for [artificial intelligence] research," says the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sisir Karumanchi.
Smart Cities: Citizens Come to Their Sensors
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) (09/26/13) Lauren Frayer
Santander, Spain, has become a model for high-tech smart cities worldwide, equipped with 12,000 smart sensors that are transforming daily life in the small port city on the Bay of Biscay. Funded by the European Union, the sensors transmit information about parking availability, surf conditions at local beaches, and trash receptacle levels. Sensors gather data that travels to antennas, which transmit it to a command and control center. From there, information can be sent to digital panel displays, for example, in parking lots to inform drivers of space availability. Data also is sent to applications on individuals' smartphones, with real-time information on road closures, bus delays, and the pollen count. University of Cantabria researchers manage the sensor system, and use Santander as a testing ground for digital experiments. Santander mayor Inigo de la Serna now uses an app called the Santander City Brain daily as a forum for communication with citizens. Furthermore, the city has reduced electricity bills by about 25 percent and garbage costs by 20 percent. De la Serna plans to expand the smart city program by adding wireless water and electricity meters.
Supercomputers Help Solve a 50-Year Homework Assignment
Brookhaven National Laboratory (09/26/13) Karen McNulty Walsh
A group of theoretical physicists are using supercomputers to calculate the decay of one type of subatomic material with hopes of answering why the early universe ended up with an excess of matter. Without that excess, the matter and antimatter created in equal amounts in the Big Bang would have completed annihilated one another, and our universe would have contained nothing but light. Physicists believe there was a violation of symmetry, and they call it charge conjugation-parity (CP) violation. They sought to develop a theory to explain the decay of a subatomic particle known as a kaon into two other particles called pions, which are composed of quarks. This mathematical description could be used to calculate how frequently it happens and whether or how much it could account for the matter-antimatter imbalance in the universe. The team has developed complex algorithms and has written sophisticated software packages that some of the world's most powerful supercomputers use to describe the behavior of quarks and solve the problem. Thus far, the results of the calculation show how frequently CP-violating weak interaction occurs and the strength of the CP violation at the quark level, says Taku Izubuchi at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory.
Penn Researchers Use Facebook Data to Predict Users' Age, Gender and Personality Traits
Penn News (09/25/13) Evan Lerner
A computational analysis of language used online could provide as much insight into personalities as traditional methods used by psychologists, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. Seventy-five thousand people voluntarily completed a common personality questionnaire through a Facebook application and made their Facebook status updates available for research purposes The interdisciplinary team drilled into more 700 million words, phrases, and topics to look for overall linguistic patterns, an open-ended language that more meaningfully correlates with specific characteristics. The researchers used machine-learning techniques to build computer models that were able to predict the individual's age, gender, and their responses on the personality questionnaires they took. The researchers note the prediction models were surprisingly accurate. For example, the team was correct 92 percent of the time when predicting users' gender based only on the language of their status updates. The method also suggests a new way of conducting research, by having volunteers submit their social media feeds for anonymized study.
Supercomputer Bolsters Innovative Stroke Research
HPC Wire (09/25/13) Tiffany Trader
Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Diego used National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center supercomputers to test the efficacy of a new treatment for stroke victims that could be safer and more effective than either surgery or drugs. The group used the supercomputers to model the effectiveness of microbubbles and high intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) for breaking up clots that cause strokes. "One day, HIFU could be a useful medical treatment for people who are stroke victims," says Berkeley professor Andrew Szeri. "But before this can happen, we need to establish some fundamental background work, which includes understanding how HIFU accelerates damage to a clot when bubbles are present." The supercomputers are enabling the researchers to gather adequate data to make the case for further study.
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