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Welcome to the January 27, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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White House Launches Big Data, Privacy Review
InformationWeek (01/24/14) Elena Malykhina

The White House recently launched a comprehensive review of the growing use of big data analytics and its impact on the future of privacy. The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) will conduct a study examining the technological dimensions of big data and privacy, according to President Barack Obama's counselor John Podesta, who is leading the review. The working group will reach out to privacy experts, technologists, and businesses to examine "how challenges inherent in big data are being confronted by both the public and private sectors, whether we can forge international norms on how to manage this data, and how we can continue to promote the free flow of information in ways that are consistent with both privacy and security," Podesta says. The PCAST study will focus on discussions with think tanks, academic institutions, and other organizations. The study's results will be used to create a comprehensive report on future technological trends. "[The report will] identify technological changes to watch, determine whether those technological changes are addressed by the U.S.'s current policy framework, and highlight where further government action, funding, research, and consideration may be required," Podesta says.

Tech Workers' Employment Rates Beat the National Average
InfoWorld (01/24/14) Serdar Yegulalp

Overall unemployment rates for the United States fell from 7.7 percent to 7 percent over the course of 2013, but the rate for tech workers stayed around 3.5 percent, according to the latest Tech Employment Snapshot from The company reports that about 54,300 new job positions were created last year. The positions are mostly core, mainstream IT jobs such as network architects and administrators, software developers and programmers, database administrators, and Web developers. Computer support specialists were the most unemployed group with a 6.4-percent unemployment rate, and programmers were next with a 4.2-percent unemployment rate. Network architects were the least unemployed, with a mere 1.7 percent of their number currently without jobs. Meanwhile, voluntary departures of tech workers rose to about 474,800 in the second half of the year from 402,500 in the first half. Dice notes the rise in voluntary departures is a positive sign, since it opens up opportunities, triggers "career growth for many tech professionals, and instill[s] confidence in the job market." Meanwhile, Dice says layoffs and firings fell to "the lowest levels on record" at an average of 321,000 over the first two months of the fourth quarter.

Are You a Super-Spreader of Disease?
Technology Review (01/23/14)

The research of Lijun Sun and colleagues at Singapore's Future Cities Laboratory could yield insight into monitoring a specific group of disease carriers to identify nascent outbreaks early and help prevent epidemics. Such individuals have atypically large numbers of contacts with others and so they spread disease far and wide when they become infected. These super-spreaders were identified via an analysis of contacts between commuters on Singapore's bus system, as represented by the tapping in/tapping out data from smartcards. The experiment monitored the data over a week to determine whenever individual commuters shared the same bus, how often, for how long, and at what time of day. The resulting commuting patterns were so detailed that they enabled the researchers to model disease proliferation through an actual network. They built on this experiment to measure the spread of disease by tracking a smaller, more highly connected subset of the population, which was determined to be super-commuters, and thus super-spreaders of infection. Such individuals are an excellent, low-cost early-warning system, Lijun and colleagues say. They say crowdsourcing could offer one possible method for finding potential super-spreaders to monitor.

Cloud-Based Mobility Services for European Cities
CORDIS News (01/23/14)

A cloud-computing project in Europe has the potential to radically change the way people move through cities. The MOVEUS project, launched in October 2013, will use integrated cloud-computing technology to gather data on how traffic density evolves and calculate how individuals can travel in a more eco-friendly manner. The 11 partners from the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and Finland will develop technology to collect data from public buses, cars, bike-sharing systems, traffic-management systems, vehicles equipped with traffic density measurement technology, and smartphones, among other transport modes and systems. They also will design a high-capacity computing platform to process and analyze the data and measure "the pulse of urban mobility" from a global perspective. In addition to the cloud-based mobility platform, MOVEUS will offer an application programming interface toolkit granting data access to developers, user-centric services, mobility apps that run on users' smartphones and at control centers, and an energy efficiency assessment tool to measure users' performance. The consortium will test the technology in Madrid, Tampere, and Genoa until September 2016.

D-Wave Aims to Beat Any Classical Computer
HPC Wire (01/23/14) Tiffany Trader

The D-Wave Two quantum computer produced several interesting achievements during its benchmarking phase at the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, reports D-Wave founder Geordie Rose. The tests showed the quantum computer's 509-qubit Vesuvius 6 (V6) processor can rival state-of-the-art semiconducting processors, and it employs quantum information science concepts that compete with the best classical computing systems. Rose points out that a recently published paper "shows that V6 is competitive with what's arguably the most highly optimized semiconductor based solution possible today, even on a problem type that in hindsight was a bad choice." He notes it also was discovered that the problem type selected for the benchmarking was in error. Meanwhile, a blog post by Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory member Google says the machine is approximately 35,500 times faster than popular commercial solvers. Rose says this is a stunning achievement given that the system is only in its second generation. D-Wave also learned the system has been operating around the clock for about six months without a second of downtime. Finally, Rose says the fact that these advances have occurred in the last year alone leads him to predict the D-Wave processor will be able to beat any possible computer within a few more generations.

Novel Collaborative Software Helps Systems Engineers Link Performance and Cost
Georgia Tech News Center (01/22/14) Rick Robinson

Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have developed the Framework for Assessing Cost and Technology (FACT), a Web-based tool that lets physically separated participants collaborate on model-based systems engineering projects. FACT utilizes open source software components to enable users to visualize the system's potential expense, performance, reliability, and other factors. "The FACT framework lets multiple users work together online to create entire systems, including complex technology systems," says Georgia Tech researcher Tommer Ender. FACT has the capacity to consider cost and performance factors, as well as the adaptability to a wide range of systems engineering problems. The researchers note the system also can track the entire collaborative process, has advanced security and configurability features, and can collaborate among any systems engineering platforms with Web access. "These tools do an excellent job of answering the 'how fast, how well' questions, but we rarely see them working in either collaborative or cost-aware environments," Ender says. FACT enables users to take advantage of trade-space analysis, a technique that allows them to juggle performance, cost, and other factors, says Georgia Tech researcher Daniel Browne. He says "the ultimate goal is to have a reusable model-based systems engineering tool in hand, available for a wide range of customer needs."

Netflix-Like Algorithm Drives New College-Finding Tool
Chronicle of Higher Education (01/23/14) Jonah Newman

University of Minnesota-Twin Cities computer science doctoral student Daniel Jarratt has developed a recommendation algorithm to help guide high school students in their choice of colleges. Using data from the U.S. Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, Jarratt studied which data to use to compare institutions and arrived at 80 variables, ranging from the number of National Merit Scholars to the types of majors. He then wrote an algorithm that compares the attributes of a collection of colleges and points to other, similar institutions. "We're using the characteristics of colleges to get at the nascent preferences of students," Jarratt says. The algorithm has been incorporated into the PossibilityU website, which helps high school students with their college choice. PossibilityU takes three colleges that a student is interested in and generates a list of 10 similar colleges to consider. In addition, PossibilityU asks students to provide data about themselves, such as grade-point average and standardized test scores, to predict a student's chances of being admitted to and receiving merit-based financial aid at specific schools.

Near Error-Free Wireless Detection Made Possible
University of Cambridge (01/23/14) Sarah Collins

University of Cambridge researchers say they have developed a radio frequency identification (RFID) system that offers almost 100-percent accuracy over a greater range than current systems. RFID wireless-sensing technology, comprised of a reader and a tag, uses radio waves to identify an object as a serial number. RFID readers can detect tags embedded in objects and read multiple tags at once, while requiring no internal energy source or maintenance. The researchers say that compared with passive RFID systems, their system offers a 50-percent to near-100-percent gain in accuracy. In addition, the system offers a reliable detection range of 20 meters, compared to two to three meters for passive systems. The researchers achieved these gains via a distributed antenna system (DAS) similar to those used to improve wireless communications within a building. The system also addresses the problem of deadspots by multicasting the RFID signals over multiple transmitting antennas. The researchers next plan to add location functionality to enable users to see the approximate location of a tagged item within a zone. The improved range and accuracy means the RFID DAS system could have new potential applications in healthcare monitoring, real-time environmental monitoring, and purchasing merchandise.

Transponder Allows Cars to 'See' Pedestrians
EE Times (01/21/14) Christoph Hammerschmidt

Munich Technical University (TUM) researchers have developed a method to enable driver-assistance systems in vehicles to identify pedestrians and cyclists even if they are obscured by large obstacles. As part of the system, mobile handsets carried by the pedestrians and cyclists assume the function of a transponder. The car-based system transmits a unique code sequence and the transponder modifies the pattern and returns it within a very precise timing scheme. In order to detect an approaching pedestrian, the driver needs to be warned or the emergency brake has to be triggered before the pedestrian steps onto the roadway. "Thus, we reach an accuracy of just a few centimeters in the distance measurement," says TUM professor Erwin Biebl. "Along with the code-based method, this is the reason for the high performance." The system also has a cooperative sensor that identifies pedestrians unambiguously and predicts their movement behavior. The researchers say the transponders could be integrated into clothing or smart devices.

Luis von Ahn on Duolingo's Plans for 2014 (CA) (01/21/14) Anton Root

Duolingo, Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis von Ahn's language learning company and translation service, this year plans to add about 50 community-generated languages through the language incubator. In an interview, von Ahn, who received the ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award for outstanding young computer professional of the year in 2012, says he also wants to give the firm a more conversational aspect. "I think [Duolingo is] better at teaching reading and writing than it is at teaching speaking and listening, and we need to improve that," he says. "There's going to be a crowdsourcing component to that." One hurdle the language expansion project faces is learning new languages that do not utilize Latin script, and von Ahn foresees Chinese being a particularly tough challenge, since it is not alphabet-based. He also says Duolingo will concentrate this year on striving to become the leading online language learning tool, to the point where "most people you talk to on the street have heard of Duolingo, and five times as many people are using it as they are now." Von Ahn says the key to reaching this goal is making Duolingo more engaging and fun for users while learning a language. "I think the most important thing is to have a lot of users who are learning a language," he says.

Space Droids Battle to Save Earth From Comet
European Space Agency (01/21/14)

The Zero Robotics tournament is an opportunity for secondary-school students from across Europe to compete in writing algorithms that control Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (Spheres). The Spheres are autonomous satellites that hover around the International Space Station using their own power, propulsion, and navigation. The students compete in a virtual scenario in which they must save the planet from an oncoming comet. "These finals are a great combination of gaming, science, and technology," says European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers. "Robotics have a promising future to help us in orbit." The contest started last year with online rounds of increasing difficulty, as the teams faced real-world challenges such as the loss of signal, exhausted batteries, and strict deadlines. The satellites used gravitational attraction, laser repulsion, or a combination of methods to change the path of the virtual comet. "Our strategy was to navigate towards the laser power-up, avoid the space debris, take the power-up, and shoot the comet," says Tommaso Chemello, who was a member of the winning team.

Crowdsourcing a Living Map of World Health
UCSD News (CA) (01/21/14) Tiffany Fox; Catherine Hockmuth

In an interview, University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Ph.D. student Andrew Huynh discussed the role of machine learning in a project that uses crowdsourcing to create maps of large-scale health problems and environmental damage. UCSD and the Qualcomm Institute are developing a tricorder that could monitor both individual and environmental health. Using smartphones and cloud technology, citizens will transmit data such as the concentration of heavy metals in drinking water to a central server for analysis. Huynh serves as lead data scientist on the project, and helped develop the cloud analytics and storage platform that will be used to identify large-scale trends in data from sensors, individuals, and the environment. Using machine learning, Huynh is training the computer to differentiate accurate from inaccurate data. He notes that although the research value of crowdsourcing is increasingly recognized, data quality is an important issue to address. Data are entered "by people who are prone to accidents or misperception rather than a deterministic machine," Huynh says. "Determining the signal from the noise in these huge datasets is a massive problem." When the project's sensors are in place, Huynh and his team will experiment with different methods of discerning data quality.

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