Welcome to the November 15, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
How Open Data Empowers Citizens of Poorer Nations
New Scientist (11/13/13) Niall Firth
In developed countries, government-run websites can be used as forums for citizens to access data on crime, health, and transport, or comment directly on a variety of issues. However, in the developing world, infrastructure is often fragile and checks on institutional power and corruption are not always strong, making access to the same type of data difficult. In South Africa, the Parliamentary Monitoring Group is using open source software to launch a site that helps citizens familiarize themselves with their local politicians in advance of next year's national elections. The site will present information about the candidates and will be designed to work on mobile devices. In Nigeria, the Budgit website forced the government to repeal its decision to remove fuel subsidies, using official data to create easy-to-understand infographics to illustrate exactly how much money the government was wasting every year. In India, Transparent Chennai uses government data to empower poor residents who usually get overlooked. The World Wide Web Foundation is leading a two-year project to study the impact of the open data movement. Although the report shows the developing world still lags behind the West, the difference such data can make in terms of accountability and transparency there cannot be overstated, says foundation researcher Tim Davies.
IBM to Announce More Powerful Watson via the Internet
New York Times (11/13/13) Quentin Hardy
IBM on Thursday announced that its Watson supercomputer will be available as a cloud service to third-party users at a significantly lower cost than in the past, marking the latest effort in a recent push among large technology firms to make supercomputers more accessible. Pay-as-you-go arrangements are offering small companies and even individuals the ability to use technologies that only the largest companies could afford a few years ago. "The next generation will look back and see 2013 as a year of monumental change," says IBM's Stephen Gold. "This is the start of a shift in the way people interact with computers." Other companies such as Amazon are offering similar arrangements, and Cycle Computing recently said it had used Amazon’s cloud of computer servers to run a solar-panel materials project in 18 hours that would have taken 264 years on a single server. As competition among advanced computing systems rises, prices are expected to drop and computing capabilities will rise for a broader range of users. "Companies, governments, and people will struggle to figure out what to do with all this," says Gartner analyst Jamie Popkin. "It means there is going to be a new pace and velocity, making people rethink when humans make decisions, while machines make other decisions."
Shocker: Women Outnumber Men in This Year's Tech Hires
InfoWorld (11/14/13) Bill Snyder
Women represented a majority of workers filling new technology jobs created through September of this year, for the first time in at least 10 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Through September of this year, 39,000 jobs were created in computer systems design and related services, with women claiming 60 percent of these positions, up from 34 percent for all of 2012. Over the last 10 years, women filled an average of 30.8 percent of 534,000 new technology jobs. The number of women hired is roughly the same as in previous years, but the number of men has dropped, for reasons that remain unclear. However, as of September, women still represented only 31 percent of the nearly 1.7 million people working in the tech sector, a figure that has remained static over the past decade, according to the BLS. Experts are not sure if the latest BLS numbers indicates the start of a new trend. "Is this really positive change? It's too early to say," says the Anita Borg Institute's Elizabeth Ames. "But we are seeing more awareness of the issue and seeing leaders in the technology business realize it is an imperative to bring women into tech workforces."
Machine Learning Branches Out
MIT News (11/14/13) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed an algorithm that applies an artificial intelligence technique to new tasks, which could prove useful in analyzing data ranging from flight delays to social networks. The researchers say the technique expands the class of datasets whose structure can be efficiently deduced and describes data in a way that greatly facilitates using it. The team applied the algorithm to commercial airline flight data, and the algorithm was able to use the flights' scheduled and actual departure times to efficiently infer information about flight delays through U.S. airports. In addition, the algorithm identifies airports in which delays are most likely to have broader impacts, which makes it easier to understand the behavior of the network holistically. The work uses probabilistic graphical models to simplify reasoning about data correlations by removing consideration of certain dependencies. A graph for a structureless dataset would link every node to every other node. The algorithm sequentially eliminates nodes in the graph that break loops, then uses another algorithm to calculate the proximity of statistical dependencies in the resulting graph compared to those of the fully connected graph.
International Reach of MOOCs Is Limited by Users' Preferences
Chronicle of Higher Education (11/13/13) Hannah Winston
Speakers at Transatlantic Science Week, sponsored by the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, note that massive open online courses (MOOCs) might democratize higher education globally, but significant progress would be required to reach such a point. Norway's minister of education and research Torbjorn Roe Isaksen says MOOCs could "give people all over the world access to education," but he is not aware of MOOCs focusing on developing countries in South America and Africa. In addition, Isaksen says MOOC provider data show that most students already have degrees and are looking to further their learning, indicating that the courses might not draw people who have not had access to higher education. "If MOOCs are going to contribute to the democratization of society, they need to reach new learners," says University of Bergen professor Dag Rune Olsen. Even China, where college overcrowding forces students to go abroad, is not fully embracing MOOCs, says Institute of International Education president Allan Goodman. Students at a recent education exposition in China told Goodman they were aware of MOOCs, but still wanted the on-campus college experience. MOOCs need to understand what students are seeking with on-campus learning if they are to flourish, says Harvard University professor Chris Dede.
SDSC Uses Meteor Raspberry Pi Cluster to Teach Parallel Computing
UCSD News (CA) (11/12/13) Jan Sverina
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers have build Meteor, a Linux cluster using 16 Raspberry Pi computers as part of a program to teach children and adults the basics of parallel computing. Meteor is a complement to Comet, a new supercomputer to be deployed in early 2015 thanks to a $12 million U.S. National Science Foundation grant. "The goal of Meteor is to educate kids and adults about parallel computing by providing an easy-to-understand, tangible model of how computers can work together," says the San Diego Supercomputing Center's (SDSC) Rick Wagner. The researchers already have started developing a curriculum for high school students as part of SDSC's education program. The researchers also have worked with UCSD undergraduates on projects supported by Meteor, with students creating games that operate across the cluster. This fall, Wagner started teaching a visualization and computing course using Meteor to help visualize data generated by SDSC's high-performance computing systems. "This kind of development and learning is what the Raspberry Pi is ideal for: taking a complex problem and allowing someone to solve it in a simple, unconstrained environment, as well as encouraging students to design new hardware that we haven’t yet imagined," Wagner says.
NSF Advances National Efforts Enabling Data-Driven Discovery
National Science Foundation (11/12/13) Lisa-Joy Zgorski
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) recently announced several partnerships aimed at big data discovery, innovation, and education. In March 2012, the Obama administration announced its National Big Data Research and Development Initiative, and NSF has served as a leader in the project. When the initiative began, six federal departments and agencies promised more than $200 million in new commitments to help create big data tools and techniques to extract knowledge and accelerate discovery and innovation. NSF has developed foundational technologies, created infrastructure, and encouraged research communities. NSF also has made progress with big data in areas such as obtaining value from cancer genome data and understanding human language processing to improve search engines. "We are seeing tremendous progress--data are accelerating the pace of discovery in almost every science and engineering discipline," says NSF's Farnam Jahanian. "These discoveries lay the groundwork for a national innovation ecosystem that will strengthen the foundations of U.S. competitiveness for decades to come."
NSA Leaks Could Inspire a Global Boom in Intrusive Surveillance
Technology Review (11/12/13) Tom Simonite
The recent leaks of U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs could inspire governments and security services in developing economies, according to a recent University of Toronto Citizen Lab report. The report warns that governments that already impose authoritarian controls on the Internet, such as China, India, and Saudi Arabia, may try to boost those efforts with NSA-style bulk collection programs. "No doubt one implication of Snowden's revelations will be the spurring on of numerous national efforts to regain control of information infrastructures through national competitors to Google, Verizon, and other companies implicated, not to mention the development of national signals intelligence programs that attempt to duplicate the U.S. model," says Citizen Lab director Ron Deibert. He notes that India, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates already have insisted that BlackBerry add interception technology to its services, and recommends restricting U.S. agencies to requesting specific, limited information about certain accounts on a case-by-case basis, rather than harvesting bulk data for later processing. "Many countries of the global South lack even basic safeguards and accountability mechanisms around the operations of security services, and their demands on the private sector could contribute to serious human rights violations and other forms of repression," Deibert says.
'Something Very Big Is Coming: Our Most Important Technology Project Yet,' Hints Stephen Wolfram
Mathematica and Wolfram|Alpha creator Stephen Wolfram on Wednesday said he and his team have developed a general-purpose knowledge-based language called the Wolfram Language that covers all forms of computing in a new way. The language will enable the team to create something new using all of the computational knowledge, symbolic programming, algorithm automation, and other resources they have developed for Wolfram|Alpha, Mathematica, and CDF. The development will be "profoundly important in the technological world, and beyond," Wolfram says. "In most languages there's a sharp distinction between programs, and data, and the output of programs. Not so in the Wolfram Language. It's all completely fluid...And everything becomes both intrinsically scriptable, and intrinsically interactive. And there's both a new level of interoperability, and a new level of modularity." He says the Wolfram Language and the Universal Deployment System offer an immensely powerful new universal platform. The team is releasing several tools that utilize the Wolfram Engine and the Universal Platform, including the Wolfram Programming Cloud, the Wolfram Data Science Platform, the Wolfram Publishing Platform, and Mathematica Online.
At Senate Hearing, Google Warns of 'Splinternet' but NSA Does Not Budge
IDG News Service (11/14/13) John Ribeiro
Robert Litt, general counsel for the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told a U.S. Senate committee that if Internet companies provide information about the number of surveillance orders they receive for user data, the country's adversaries could gain information on which services to avoid. "Providing that information in that level of detail could provide our adversaries a detailed road map of which providers and which platforms to avoid in order to escape surveillance," said Litt and Department of Justice deputy assistant attorney general Brad Wiegmann in a prepared statement. As the government defended its data collection and disclosure policies, a Google representative cautioned that U.S. surveillance practices could fracture the Internet. Google called for broader reforms "with the goal of ensuring that government surveillance programs are rule-bound, narrowly tailored, transparent, and subject to oversight." U.S. surveillance programs such as Prism have led some governments to limit the flow of information over the Internet between their country and the U.S., noted Google's Richard Salgado. "Today, calls for the Internet to be regulated by the UN-chartered International Telecommunications Union or other United Nations institutions and put solely under government control are louder than ever," Salgado said.
NASA Does Long-Distance Software Fix on Mars Rover Curiosity
Computerworld (11/13/13) Sharon Gaudin
Engineers at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) restored full operations to the Mars rover Curiosity on Oct. 10 after a software glitch stalled the robotic rover last week. The software problem occurred the same day NASA updated Curiosity's software. An error in the onboard software triggered an error in a catalog file, which caused an unexpected reset when the catalog was processed by the new version of rover's flight software. NASA engineers reviewed the data that Curiosity sent to Earth Thursday night and replicated the problem in testbeds. They fixed the glitch by writing and testing new commands and uplinking them to Curiosity on Sunday. The updated flight software will make it easier for scientists to determine distance in the images Curiosity takes and also will give the rover more stability while it is drilling. "We are well into planning the next several days of surface operations and expect to resume our drive to Mount Sharp this week," says NASA's Rajeev Joshi.
The Internet of Things Needs a Lot of Work
IDG News Service (11/12/13) Stephen Lawson
Mobile connected devices present too many challenges for users, said industry leaders during a panel at the recent Open Mobile Summit. Frog Design's Mark Rolston notes that users have to link devices, enter passwords, manage home Wi-Fi, and deal with corporate IT departments at work, and are near their limit for babysitting devices all day. The experts say the whole premise of mobile interfaces is wrong, noting devices should be asking users what they want and learning from prior events rather than forcing users to ask. "There's just a million use cases you can think of where today there's [an] interface to try to understand what the user wants, and in the future there should just be action that does the right thing," says Rick Osterloh at Google's Motorola Mobility subsidiary. He says a car should automatically connect to the Internet by itself and automatically turn on the light when the driver reaches home. Rolston also notes that rather than using a phone to control devices in the home, the many connected appliances together should form a computer of their own. "The computer is not this box in the corner, or box in your pocket, it's something you are surrounded by," Rolston says.
The Human Touch Makes Robots Defter
Cornell Chronicle (11/06/13) Bill Steele
Cornell University researchers are developing ways to help humans and robots work together to find the best way to do a job, an approach known as coactive learning. "We give the robot a lot of flexibility in learning," says says Cornell professor Ashutosh Saxena. "We build on our previous work in teaching robots to plan their actions, then the user can give corrective feedback." The researchers started by trying to teach a Baxter robot to work on a supermarket checkout line. Baxter can be programmed by moving its arms through an action, but it also offers a mode in which a human can make adjustments. However, it is not always obvious to a human operator how best to move the arms to accomplish a particular task. The researchers thus added programming that enables the robot to plan its own motions. As the robot executes its movements, the operator can step in and guide the arms to fine-tune the trajectory. The researchers say the learning algorithm they developed enables the robot to learn incrementally, refining its trajectory a little more with each adjustment.
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