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Welcome to the July 9, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Python Bumps Off Java as Top Learning Language
IDG News Service (07/08/14) Joab Jackson

Python has surpassed Java as the top language used to introduce U.S. students to programming and computer science, according to a new survey published by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). Python is the most popular language for teaching introductory computer science courses, as eight of the top 10 computer science departments now use Python, in addition to 27 of the top 39 schools, according to Philip Guo, a computer science researcher who compiled the survey for ACM. In addition, Coursera, edX, and Udacity, the three most popular online class providers, also offer introductory programming courses in Python. Python has several qualities that make it a good candidate for universities. For example, Python has a simpler syntax than Java or C++, which enables novices to start writing programs almost immediately, and it can be scaled up for heavy industrial use. Another popular language for teaching programming is MatLab, a mathematically-oriented language often used to introduce scientists and engineers to programming. Java has been the most popular language for teaching programming to students for at least the past 10 years, and Guo notes the survey is the first to show Python has passed Java in popularity.


European Effort for Computer-Simulated Brain Draws Fire
The New York Times (07/08/14) Joshua A. Krisch

The Human Brain Project, a European effort to promote the development of tools for studying the brain established last year and funded by the European Commission, was criticized Monday in an open letter from hundreds of neuroscientists around the world. The scientists took issue with the project's stated goal of creating a complete computer simulation of the human brain, calling it infeasible based on current research. The letter also criticizes the project's $130 million annual funding and the recent dissolution of its Cognitive Architectures branch. Henry Markram, director of the Human Brain Project, says the letter was a wake up call that the project was doing a very poor job of communicating its mission to the scientific public. Markram says that although a complete simulation of the brain is one of the project's goals, it is a distant one. For the moment, Markram says the project is focused on gathering neurological research into searchable databases that will make it easier for scientists in disparate fields to access and integrate the data into their own research. He also acknowledges the project has done a poor job explaining its funding, only $65 million a year of which actually supports the project, while the rest takes the form independent neuroscience research carried out by EU member states.
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U.S. Innovation System Endangered by Weak Policies, Strategies, New Report Says
FierceGovernmentIT (07/06/14) Dibya Sarkar

The leaders in the innovation race will likely be nations with strong business, regulatory, and innovation policy environments, according to a new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). However, the report says the United States is beginning to fall behind in policies, strategies, and investment that support and nurture innovation. "While the U.S. has relatively strong business and regulatory environments, it lacks a comprehensive and coordinated innovation strategy and has seen key government inputs, including federal investment in research and development, decline," says report author and foundation president Robert Atkinson. The report identifies areas of strength for the United States, such as managerial talent, enterprise use of information and communication technologies, customer demand, and a collaborative culture. However, global competitors are ramping up their innovation strategies, infrastructure, and investment while the U.S. Congress has been focused on other matters. Policies that could really make a difference include reforming immigration to attract more foreign, high-skilled workers and entrepreneurs, and improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, according to ITIF.


Reconfiguring Robots Learn to Look After Themselves
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (07/08/14) Jason Ford

Engineers at Sheffield University want to give autonomous robots the ability to reconfigure themselves if faults occur with their onboard systems. The team in the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering (ACSE) envisions autonomous robots one day conducting missions too hazardous for humans, such as nuclear or deep-space scenarios. The ACSE group has developed software that enables Quadcopters to learn about their surroundings using a forward-facing camera, and have demonstrated mid-air collision avoidance through the use of game theory. The Quadcopter/robot starts with no information about its environment. To make sense of its environment, the robot builds up a three-dimensional map of its surroundings by overlaying different frames from the camera and selecting key reference points within the scene, while other sensors pick up barometric and ultrasonic data, which provide additional clues. The information is fed into autopilot software to enable the robot to navigate safely, as well as learn about the objects nearby and navigate to specific items. The team next plans to focus on enabling multiple robots to interact and collaborate for complex tasks.


A Robot Invasion Is Near
The Wall Street Journal (07/07/14) Illah R. Nourbakhsh

Illah R. Nourbakhsh, professor of robotics and director of Carnegie Mellon University's Create Lab, looks 20 years into the future and predicts a world in which robots suffuse all aspects of daily life. Nourbakhsh foresees a world full of robots and robotic technologies, including robot baristas, self-driving cars, and smart appliances, which are all tied together by the Internet. "Every physical action you take will have a digital consequence, and every digital act will push back on the physical world," he says. Although this will be tremendously empowering for many people, making them "feel like a powerful puppet-master," he also warns it will incite "robot smog," discontent and discomfort over the extent to which robots come to dominate the labor force. Nourbakhsh says the proliferation of robots and robot labor will accelerate the economic trend away from valuing labor to valuing capital, and growing economic inequality more broadly. "An elite capital ownership class will stand on the far side of a robot-ownership gap that will dwarf the inequality of today's labor divide," he warns. However, Nourbakhsh says this will be offset by the democratizing power of robot technologies to enable communities and citizens more access to better information than ever before.
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When a Computer Ages You
The Washington Post (07/02/14) Tara Bahrampour

Biodemographer Jay Olshansky and computer scientist Karl Ricanek are hoping to harness facial-recognition and age-progression technology to estimate people's life spans and future health based only on a photograph. Olshansky says the idea came to him during a conversation with an insurance underwriter, who noted people who live longer tend to look younger than other people their age. Together with Ricanek, who has developed facial-recognition technology for government and law enforcement, and a team of biostatisticians and computer scientists, he is developing the online database Face My Age. Users will be invited to submit a photograph of themselves, which then will be analyzed using facial-recognition algorithms that also account for demographic information like age, sex, race, education level, and smoking history to estimate their apparent age. Olshansky hopes the program will eventually be able to tell users the apparent age of different parts of their face and ultimately predict how long they will live and how healthy they will be in old age. The researchers expect the Face My Age website to produce increasingly more accurate assessments and predictions as more people participate. "Imagine taking your iPhone and snapping a selfie and putting it into our website and discovering that your eyes are that of a 50-year-old, your lips are that of a 70-year-old, your cheeks are that of a 50-year-old," Ricanek says.
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Power Consumption of Robot Joints Could Be 40 Percent Less, According to a Laboratory Study
University of the Basque Country (Spain) (07/03/14)

UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country researchers are studying how to propel robotic systems in a more energy-efficient way. The researchers have developed a method that, in some laboratory cases, can cut energy consumption by up to 40 percent. The researchers experimentally verified the advantages that could be gained from taking both the polynomial and the fractional-order reconstructions into consideration. They found the polynomial or fractional-order reconstructions may be of interest in flexible joints, such as elbows and wrists. When the reconstruction is linear on a constant, not flat slope, it is defined as fractional-order reconstruction and, despite being well known, it has been little considered up to now, the researchers note. UPV/EHU researcher Unai Ugalde-Olea says lab tests with fractional-order reconstruction have shown "the energy needed to drive the motors is considerably reduced. In ideal cases, this reduction could be up to 40 percent without losing precision in the anticipated path." Ugalde-Olea says the next step is to determine whether it is possible to achieve similar savings on an industrial scale.


The Next Big Programming Language You've Never Heard Of
Wired News (07/07/14) Cade Metz

The success of D, a programming language some see as the successor to C++, has surprised even its creators, Walter Bright and Andrei Alexandrescu, who have worked on the language for the last eight years. However, D is now being used and its development supported by Facebook, where Alexandrescu works as a research scientist. D seeks to blend the speed and power of languages like C++ and Java with the ease of use of interpreted languages like Ruby and PHP. It is not alone in this goal, which is shared by Google's Go and Apple's recently announced Swift. Even at Facebook, where D has been used to rebuild pieces of the social network's back-end software, it faces competition from Hack, which is being used to build many of Facebook's front-end services. However, D has momentum behind it. Facebook has hosted the two most recent D conferences and is considering using it in lieu of C++. D also is among the top 20 or 30 most popular languages in use around the world, based on the activity of users of online developer services such as GitHub and Stackoverflow. Alexandrescu says what the language needs now is the serious financial backing of a big-name software company, using Sun Microsystems' support of Java in the 1990s as an example.


Using Computers to Model our Computer, the Brain
Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (07/03/14) Kathleen Estes

Researchers at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology's Computational Neuroscience Unit (CNU) have developed STEPS, a computational simulator designed to help scientists understand neuronal signaling pathways at a molecular level. The STEPS system was first developed in 2009, and since then has been significantly enhanced, most recently by two new toolkits. STEPS and other computational neuroscience simulators rely on detailed reconstructions of the complex shape of the neurons. One of the new toolkits simplifies the recreation of neuronal morphology for the researcher. The second toolkit enables researchers to visualize STEPS simulations of those reconstructed morphologies in real time, both graphically and numerically. The STEPS project is part of a worldwide research initiative by the European Commission called the Human Brain Project. The researchers aim to integrate STEPS with other computational models that examine the cellular and neural network levels to create a massive virtual human brain. CNU is one of only two laboratories in Japan that are part of the Human Brain Project. "I just want to see what's going on in the brain, and I want others to see it easily as well," says CNU's Weiliang Chen.


Georgia Tech Researchers Develop 'Encore' to Monitor Web Access
Georgia Institute of Technology (07/01/14)

Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) researchers have developed Encore, a tool for measuring the accessibility of Web pages. Encore installs itself when a user visits a website by adding a single line of code to the Web page, and then discreetly collects data. The monitoring automatically takes place in the background after a page has loaded, and does not affect a site's performance or a user's experience. Most users will not realize that any monitoring is happening, although Encore can notify them; it does not track browsing behavior. The researchers say the data collected could help determine where, when, and how pages are blocked and help find ways to get around restricted access. "People who work on Internet freedom--ranging from policymakers to the developers of tools for improving access to information--need accurate information about what information is inaccessible and when it becomes blocked," says Georgia Tech professor Nick Feamster. "Encore is the first tool that makes it possible to provide this kind of information continuously, on a global scale."


Can Software Make Health Data More Private?
Technology Review (07/02/14) David Talbot

University of Illinois researchers say they have developed software that could give people more control over how their personal health information is shared between doctors and medical institutions. The program, which can determine which parts of a record may inadvertently reveal aspects of a patient's medical history, works by enabling the patient to decide what parts of the medical record to keep private. The program then provides a clinician with advice on how to amend the record to ensure this occurs. The software bases its recommendations on a machine-learning analysis of many other medical records, revealing details that could be associated with past medical history. The researchers say the tool eventually could automatically eliminate those additional details to keep that information confidential. However, for health information to be shared, patients must give approval, and many are wary of oversharing, notes University of Illinois professor Carl Gunter. "Unless you give the patient some control over this, they will not share any information," Gunter says. "And that is going to cost the health-care system a great deal."


The New Atomic Age: Building Smaller, Greener Electronics
University of Alberta (06/27/14) Bryan Alary

University of Alberta researchers say they are developing atomically precise technologies that have practical, real-world applications. "Our ultimate goal is to make ultra-low-power electronics because that's what is most demanded by the world right now," says Alberta professor Robert Wolkow. "We are approaching some fundamental limits that will stop the 30-year-long drive to make things faster, cheaper, better, and smaller; this will come to an end soon. An entirely new method of computing will be necessary." The researchers have observed how an electrical current flows across the skin of a silicon crystal and also measured electrical resistance as the current moved over a single atomic step. The researchers also have observed how single electrons jump in and out of quantum dots, and devised a method of monitoring how many electrons fit in the pocket and measuring the dot's charge. They say these breakthroughs give them the ability to monitor the charge of quantum dots and has resulted in a way to create quantum dots that function at room temperature. "That's exciting because, suddenly, things that were thought of as exotic, far-off ideas are near," Wolkow says.


Stanford Engineers Envision an Electronic Switch Just Three Atoms Thick
Stanford Report (CA) (07/01/14) Tom Abate

Stanford University researchers have developed a flexible crystal material that can form a paper-like sheet just three atoms thick and behave like a switch. Although the switching aspect of the material only exists in computer simulations, the researchers hope the work will inspire experimental scientists to fabricate the material and use it to create new electronic devices. They say the potential electronic material could reduce battery-draining power consumption in conventional devices. Stanford University graduate student Karel-Alexander Duerloo says the switchable material is formed when one atomic layer of molybdenum atoms gets sandwiched between two atomic layers of tellurium atoms. The computer simulations show it only takes a small effort to change the atomic structure of this three-layer material from a non-conductive state into a conductive state. The crystalline lattice's switch-like behavior stems from its ability to be mechanically pulled and pushed back and forth between two different atomic structures--one that conducts electricity well, the other that does not. The researchers hope future experimental scientists will explore possible uses of this three-atom-thick switch. In theory, such electronic materials could potentially reduce battery-draining power consumption in existing devices such as smartphones. The switch also could make the creation of smart apparel possible.


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