Welcome to the September 3, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Google Developing Quantum Computing Chip
eWeek (09/02/14) Jeffrey Burt
Google announced it is expanding its efforts to develop quantum computing technology by partnering with researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara to develop quantum processors. Google, like many large tech companies, is searching for the next advance in computer hardware after the current silicon-based technology reaches its physical limits. Among other solutions, such as neural processors and carbon nanotubes, Google is investing in quantum computing through its Quantum Artificial Intelligence unit setup at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center, which uses a quantum computer built by partner D-Wave Systems. Hartmut Neven, director of engineering for the quantum research group, says it plans to continue its collaboration with D-Wave and will upgrade the Vesuvius machine they are running at the Ames center. However, the Google team also is looking for a partner that can help it develop quantum processors and chose the Santa Barbara researchers because of their pioneering work in the field. Stability and reliability have been major problems for current quantum computing systems, and the Santa Barbara team earlier this year reported they had created a quantum computing array that achieved true reliability.
Brainy, Yes, but Far From Handy
The New York Times (09/01/14) John Markoff
Robots already can outperform humans in areas such as strength and precision, but humans still are ahead of robots in the use of the senses, especially that of touch. Humans have sophisticated sense organs that enable them to sense pressure, sheer forces, temperature, and vibrations. Recent research found that dynamic human touch can distinguish ridges on the molecular scale. Roboticists and computer scientists are trying to close the gap with the study of haptics and kinematics. Mako Surgical, which makes surgical robots, is working to integrate haptics into its robots to allow surgeons more tactical and precise feedback while they carry out delicate surgeries. HDT Global is working to develop robots that combine acoustic sensors, sensors in joints, and software to better sense and respond to human contact, with the goal of creating "compliant robots" that will be able to sense and behave safely around humans. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology recently demonstrated a method of fabricating taxels, bundles of transistors they hope to use in the design of touch-sensitive applications. Such applications could include synthetic skin, like that developed by researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Other researchers are exploring algorithms that tie together the input from various robotic senses and enable robots to act on them.
Policymakers Hail STEM Education as a Strong Foundation, Pushing Innovation
The Washington Post (09/01/14) Wesley Robinson
U.S. government officials and advocates for greater investment in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education are tweaking their message, advocating STEM as a gateway to economic success, even if graduates eventually go into different fields. Among these are officials with the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, who recently pointed to STEM education as a means to greater global achievement. The new emphasis is a slight shift away from calls to increase STEM enrollment and graduation as a means of heading off a skills shortage in those fields. Some economists and labor analysts say there is no STEM labor shortage and cynics argue that calls for more STEM graduates have more to do with keeping the supply of skilled workers high to depress wages than they do with meeting employers' actual needs. Meanwhile, a recent study found that almost three-fourths of those who receive a degree in a STEM field go into jobs in other fields. However, advocates such as Ryan Carson, founder of Treehouse, and James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, say regardless of any labor shortage, STEM jobs remain plentiful and relatively high-paying, and a STEM education equips students with skills that can be applied to almost any job.
Pushing the Start Button on a Computer Science Curriculum for K-12 Schools
Los Angeles Times (09/01/14) Sara Hayden
The Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF) recently invited more than two dozen education and business leaders from across California to discuss how to get more children interested in computer science, in one of the first statewide initiatives to address the future of a formal computer science curriculum for K-12 schools. "We need to rethink whether we need to be more aggressive in our approach," says California Board of Education president Michael Kirst. "There is no clear consensus on what students need to know and need to be able to do." The purpose of the discussion was to identify what students should learn, how to raise awareness about computer science courses, and how to increase access to them. Representatives from various schools, the College Board, the Computer Science Teachers Association, tech companies, and other organizations discussed creating policies that make computer classes accessible and encouraging students to take them. One possibility is giving teachers professional development opportunities to raise the number of instructors qualified to teach computational thinking and problem-solving. "It's the start of a conversation," says SVEF president Muhammed Chaudhry. "California has the potential to be a leader in this."
Tech Talent Hunt Tries New Venue: Middle School
The Wall Street Journal (08/30/14) Daisuke Wakabayashi
Both Google and Apple are aggressively courting ever-younger talent in their efforts to develop the next generation of programing prodigies. In 2012, Apple lowered the minimum age requirement for attending its developer conference from 18 to 13, and opened its scholarship program covering the costs of attending the conference to younger teens. This year, minors claimed almost half of the 200 scholarships Apple made available. Google also focused on young programmers during its Google I/O developer conference this year, hosting 200 minors ages 11 to 15 for a special half-day event aimed at introducing them to the basic tools used by Google developers. Many young programmers hope to follow in the shoes of Nick D'Aloisio, now 18, who sold his news-summary app Summly to Yahoo for $30 million and this year won a design award for another app at Apple's developer conference. Despite the fact that many young developers cannot actually list their apps under their own names due to age restrictions on the App Store, several have formed companies to manage their business. For example, 14-year-old Grant Goodman, who has developed three apps, recently incorporated Macster Software to manage the business.
NIST Kicks Off Round 2 of SmartAmerica Challenge
Government Computer News (08/29/14) Kathleen Hickey
The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently announced the launch of the Global City Teams Challenge, which is the second round of the SmartAmerica Challenge. The Global City Teams Challenge is a contest to develop technology that addresses local community issues, such as air quality, traffic management, and emergency services coordination. NIST will help organize teams, known as "action clusters," of representatives of local governments, nonprofits, and private companies to build, deploy, or test applications based on the Internet of Things (IoT). "The Global City Teams Challenge will help communities around the world work together on shared challenges," says NIST Smart Grid and Cyber-Physical Systems Program Office director Chris Greer. He says the project's results will help the office develop technology-neutral standards that will facilitate research and adoption of IoT technologies. "Our goal is to cut in half the time and money it will take for cities to deploy advanced engineering and information technologies to better manage their resources and improve everything from health and safety to education and transportation," Greer says. Other partners in the challenge include the U.S. National Science Foundation, the departments of Health and Human Services and Transportation, as well as Intel, IBM, and other technology companies.
Researchers Get $1.5 Million to Develop Solar Astronomy Data on Larger Scale
Georgia State University (09/03/14) LaTina Emerson
Georgia State University (GSU) researchers have been awarded a $1.5-million U.S. National Science Foundation grant to develop software tools that can process large sets of solar astronomy data and enable scientists to perform analyses on scales and detail levels that have never been possible before. The researchers are working to improve tools that were originally designed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory Feature Finding Team to sort through large volumes of solar imaging data and identify features and phenomena of interest to solar researchers. "Traditional approaches to dealing with data fail miserably with the volume of data being generated, and we need innovative algorithms and software tools to analyze the data and infer new knowledge in a timely manner," says GSU professor Rajshekhar Sunderraman. "Even though this project specifically targets solar data, the methods and tools devised would be applicable to a wide range of other domains." The project provides access to a scalable and high-end tracking and analytics toolkit for solar events, and improves the basic science needed to meet the goals of national space weather programs. The software also could be applied to terrestrial weather analytics, climate-related research, and analyses of migration dynamics.
Real Tremors, or Drug-Seeking Patient? New App Can Tell
University of Toronto (08/29/14) Marit Mitchell
University of Toronto researchers say they have developed the world's first app designed to measure tremor strength, providing objective guidance to direct treatment decisions. The researchers say the app also could be used to make predictions about whether the tremor is real or fake. The researchers tested the app on 49 patients experiencing tremors in emergency rooms, as well as 12 nurses trying to mimic the symptom. The study found that 75 percent of patients with genuine symptoms had tremors with an average peak frequency higher than seven cycles per second, while only 17 percent of nurses trying to fake a withdrawal tremor were able to produce a tremor with the same characteristics. The app uses data from an accelerometer to measure the frequency of tremors for both hands for 20 seconds. "Our app may also be useful in assisting withdrawal management staff, who typically have no clinical training, and determining which patients should be transferred to the emergency department for medical treatment or assessment," says University of Toronto professor Bjug Borgundvaag.
Controlling a NASA Robot on the Web
News from Brown (08/27/14) Kevin Stacey
Researchers at Brown University and the University of Texas at Austin recently participated in a week-long hackathon at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Johnson Space Center to develop a Web interface for computers and tablets that can operate complex systems for the remote control of robots. The researchers previously had developed a user interface that can control robots of all kinds with an off-the-shelf Web browser. NASA wants the team to adapt the interface for the Robonaut 2 (R2) humanoid robot. R2 currently can only be controlled by computers with specialized software that communicates with its operating system. The new interface creates a software bridge that enables a Web browser to communicate with the operating system. "Before the hackathon started, we only had a first pass of a Web interface, but by the end we were able to demonstrate through simulation a working interface for control of the Robonaut 2," says Brown's John Raiti. The researchers created thousands of lines of code during the hackathon. "Most of the work I did at the hackathon revolved around setting up the basic structure to enable communication between our [browser-based] front-end and the back-end server on which robot code actually runs," says Brown researcher Matt Wong.
New Degree Program Is Big Test for MOOC-Style Higher Ed
PBS NewsHour (08/27/14) Timothy Pratt
A new online masters degree program in computer science at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) is showing potential as a model for success with a massively-open-online-course (MOOC) curriculum. MOOCs became popular after elite institutions such as Harvard University began making online courses from some of their most prominent faculty available, but MOOCs have seen little success, with high dropout rates, faculty support on the wane, and slowing growth. However, the Georgia Tech program is different; faculty and students say those taking the course are much more engaged and committed to the program. Georgia Tech's MOOC students also are different from the average MOOC user: they tend to be slightly older and are working while taking their courses. The entire program also comes with a several-thousand-dollar price tag, which some students say gives them a stake in completing it. Previous research on similar paid online programs at community colleges found they have completion rates between 68 and 82 percent, compared to 5 percent for those who registered for the first MOOCs offered by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last year.
Chinese Scientists Create Robot Arm Powered by Thought That Can Play Rock-Paper-Scissors
South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) (08/26/14)
Zhejiang University researchers have equipped a patient with a special robotic arm that she can control with the power of her thoughts. The researchers started the project in 2006, and by 2012 had demonstrated that a monkey could command a robotic arm to pinch or grasp. Now the technology has been adapted for human use. "Compared to [previous] robotic hands controlled by monkeys, this technology is tailored for human use, [and] thus is more challenging," says Zhejiang professor Zheng Xiaoxiang. The researchers found the patient could control the robotic hand with her mind with about 80-percent accuracy. Although the researchers used a previously-developed brain-wave-reading implant, they were able to eavesdrop on the electric signals passing between the implant and medical equipment without affecting the treatment for the first time. "The implant was buried in the [patient's] cerebral cortex with minimum damage by surgery, so it can read more sophisticated and various brain waves," Zheng says. The robotic hand reads the patient's brainwaves through the implant and translates them into actions. Zhejiang professor Zhang Jianmin says the latest experiment showed Chinese progress in brain-machine interface research, bringing new hope to patients afflicted with motor dysfunctions in their limbs.
New Smartphone App Can Detect Newborn Jaundice in Minutes
University of Washington News and Information (08/27/14) Michelle Ma
University of Washington (UW) researchers have developed BiliCam, a smartphone application that checks for jaundice in newborns and can deliver results to parents and doctors within minutes. The researchers say the technology could serve a screening tool to determine whether a baby needs further blood testing. BiliCam relies on a smartphone's camera and flash and a color calibration card. The user places the card on the baby's belly and then takes a picture with the card in view. The card calibrates and accounts for different lighting conditions and skin tones. Data from the photo are sent to the cloud and analyzed by machine-learning algorithms, and a report on the newborn's bilirubin levels is sent almost instantly to the user's phone. "The advantage of doing the analysis in the cloud is that our algorithms can be improved over time," says UW professor Shwetak Patel. The researchers ran a clinical study with 100 newborns at UW Medical Center and found BiliCam performed at least as well as conventional screening tools. "BiliCam would be a significantly cheaper and more accessible option than the existing reliable screening methods," says UW doctoral student Lilian de Greef.
Researchers Work to Harden Cyber Infrastructure from WMD
Government Computer News (08/27/14) Kathleen Hickey
University of New Mexico (UNM) researchers are testing recovery solutions for cyberinfrastructure attacks under realistic, real-world conditions, including the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), in a project funded by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The testing is based on prior research into the design and evaluation of robust counter-WMD solutions to implement novel survivability algorithms and validate their effectiveness in live distributed backbone networks under emulated WMD stressors, according to a FedBizOpps announcement. "Modern backbone cyberinfrastructures are comprised of multiple technology domains/layers and support scalable connectivity across large distances," notes a UNM press release. "However, most existing recovery schemes focus only on single or limited dual node/link failures." The research is focused on conducting field trials of new recovery paradigms and validating their performance in realistic settings. The first part of the project examined the implementation of detailed algorithms inside distributed networking protocol stacks. The researchers also are designing and running detailed test-case scenarios to validate these schemes for a wide range of disaster conditions over live network infrastructures.
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