Welcome to the April 15, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
U.S. Chip Block May Delay China's 100 Petaflop Supercomputer
IDG News Service (04/13/15) Michael Kan
China's plans to double the processing power of Tianhe-2, the world's fastest supercomputer, may be in jeopardy. The Tianhe-2 uses Intel's Xeon chips, but the U.S. government has banned the company from shipping the chips to China due to concerns the nation is using the supercomputer in "nuclear explosive activities." Tianhe-2 has a theoretical peak speed of 54.9 petaflops, and with the upgrade the supercomputer was expected to reach a new peak speed of 100 petaflops this year. "I think the U.S. doesn't want the Tianhe-2 to reach 100 petaflops," says Institute of Software Chinese Academy of Sciences professor Zhang Yunquan. Several supercomputers around the world are being developed to reach or exceed 100 petaflops. In the U.S., 100-petaflop machines are not expected to be ready until 2017, notes University of Tennessee professor Jack Dongarra. He predicts the denial of the chips will likely fuel efforts in China to develop its own chip technology. "Now China is being forced to develop its chip technology," Zhang says. "We wanted to cooperate with the U.S. on these supercomputer projects, but we can't do that."
Why the 'Position Gap' Is More Important Than the Wage Gap for Women in Tech
The Washington Post (04/14/15) Andrea Peterson
Despite the recent focus on the bias against women in the technology sector, research has shown that, at least in terms of wages, the tech sector is far less unequal than other fields. A 2104 analysis by Harvard labor economist Claudia Goldin found female engineering managers make about as much as their male counterparts and female programmers and computer scientists make about 90 percent of what their male counterparts make. Meanwhile, female financial specialists make only two-thirds of what their male colleagues do. However, researchers note there is a more important gap in the tech sector, which has been called the "position gap." Women are far less likely to move up the ladder into higher-paid positions in the tech sector. "A woman might be doing a job where she's paid relatively equal to her peers, but there are a lot of men with similar qualifications who are at levels above her," says the Anita Borg Institute's Elizabeth Ames. A recent Dice survey found the top 10 tech positions held by men almost all paid more than the 10 top tech positions held by women. Diversity reports also have shown that women are less well-represented in technical and leadership positions, where compensation tends to be higher.
Breakthrough Opens Door to Affordable Quantum Computers
University of New South Wales (04/13/15) Dan Wheelahan
University of New South Wales (UNSW) researchers have for the first time encoded quantum information in silicon using electrical pulses, a breakthrough they say brings the construction of affordable large-scale quantum computers one step closer. "We demonstrated that a highly coherent qubit, like the spin of a single phosphorus atom in isotopically enriched silicon, can be controlled using electric fields, instead of using pulses of oscillating magnetic fields," says UNSW researcher Arne Laucht. The new method uses a very localized electric field to distort the shape of the electron cloud attached to the atom, which has the effect of modifying the frequency at which the electron responds. The findings suggest it could be possible to locally control individual qubits with electric fields in a large-scale quantum computer using only inexpensive voltage generators. In addition, the researchers note this specific type of quantum bit can be manufactured using conventional technology, greatly reducing the time and cost of development. The new technique relies on the placement of the qubits inside a thin layer of specially purified silicon that contains only the silicon-28 isotope. "This isotope is perfectly non-magnetic and, unlike those in naturally occurring silicon, does not disturb the quantum bit," says UNSW professor Andrea Morello.
Alan Turing Manuscript Sells for $1 Million
CIO UK (04/14/15)
A 56-page handwritten manuscript by mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing has sold at auction for more than $1 million. The manuscript is considered to be the most extensive handwritten manuscript of Turing's still in existence. Turing apparently wrote in the notebook in 1942, during his time working to break German military codes at Bletchley Park, England. Turing's writing in the notebook relates to the foundations of mathematical notation and computer science. Cassandra Hatton, senior specialist at the Bonhams auction house, says the writing may have been part of Turing's efforts to create a universal computer language. "He's studying the work of many other people who were working on universal languages and I think it's because Turing himself was thinking about working on a universal language," Hatton says. Turing left the notebook and the rest of his papers to his friend and fellow mathematician Robin Gandy, who subsequently wrote his own private journal in the middle pages of the notebook. The current owner of the notebook was not disclosed by Bonhams. The final bid for the notebook was $1,025,000 from a collector who wished to remain anonymous. Bonhams says a portion of the auction proceeds will go to charity.
Study Suggests STEM Faculty Hiring Favors Women Over Men
Inside Higher Ed (04/14/15) Colleen Flaherty
Women candidates for tenure-track positions in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are favored two-to-one over male candidates, suggests a new study by Cornell University's Wendy M. Williams and Stephen Ceci. Previous research by Williams and Ceci suggested women's life choices better explain their under-representation in STEM fields than discrimination in hiring or journal reviews. The new study presented 873 science and engineering faculty members at 371 U.S. colleges and universities with either narrative summaries describing hypothetical candidates for professorships or the hypothetical candidates' full curriculum vitae. Faculty reviewers in all four fields studied--biology, psychology, engineering, and economics--strongly preferred female candidates to male candidates, with the only exception being male economists, who showed no gender preference. In experiments comparing candidates with different family situations, women preferred divorced mothers to married fathers and men were neutral. Both men and women strongly preferred single, childless women to married fathers. Williams and Ceci say they hope their study can push back against the perception the academic STEM fields are hostile to women, an idea they say "can become self-reinforcing by discouraging female applicants."
U.S. Navy Researchers Get Drones to Swarm on Target
Network World (04/14/15) Michael Cooney
The U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) has developed Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST), a system that lets small unmanned aircraft swarm and act together over a particular target. The LOCUST system features a tube-based launcher that can send multiple drones into the air in rapid succession. The system then uses information-sharing between the drones to implement autonomous collaborative behavior in either defensive or offensive missions. The launcher and unmanned systems have very small footprints, enabling LOCUST to take off from ships, tactical vehicles, aircraft, or other unmanned platforms, according to the U.S. Navy. "The recent demonstrations are an important step on the way to the 2016 ship-based demonstration of 30 rapidly launched autonomous, swarming [unmanned aerial vehicles] UAVs," says ONR program manager Lee Mastroianni. ONR also has developed the Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing, a system that can simultaneously swarm several unmanned boat drones, which could be used for intelligence gathering or military missions. The U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency also are developing drone-swarming technology.
On the Road to Spin-Orbitronics
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (04/13/15) Lynn Yarris
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers have developed a new method for manipulating the "spin-textures" of magnetic domain walls in ultrathin magnets, a breakthrough they say could revolutionize the electronics industry. The chirality, or "handedness," of spin texture determines the movement of a magnetic domain wall in response to an electric current. The researchers say their technique could be used to create domain walls designed for desired electronic memory and logic functions. "Our findings pave the way to use the spin-orbit forces that act upon electrons in a current to propel magnetic domain walls either in the same direction as the current, or in the opposite direction, or even sideways, opening up a rich new smorgasbord of possibilities in the field of spin-orbitronics," says Berkeley Lab researcher Andreas Schmid. He says the development of spin-orbitronics could lead to smaller, faster, and more energy efficient devices through solid-state magnetic memory. There are two types of magnetic domain walls known to exist in magnetic thin films, and both types of walls can have either right-handed or left-handed chirality. "Our findings introduce Bloch-type chirality as a new spin texture and might allow us to tailor the spin structure of chiral domain walls," says Berkeley Lab researcher Gong Chen. "This would present new opportunities to design spin–orbitronic devices."
Illinois Teams With Google to Develop More Secure Smartphones
University of Illinois News Bureau (04/10/15) Katie Carr
Researchers at the University of Illinois' Coordinated Sciences Lab (CSL) and Google are collaborating to make passwords obsolete by using a range of behavior analysis techniques to authenticate users to their smartphones. The researchers want to use sensors on phones that provide weak identifying information to determine if the owner is in possession of the phone. "The project aims to combine these weak identifiers and fuse them all together in order to get a strong indication of whether the phone is in the right person's hands," says CSL professor Nikita Borisov. As part of the project, Google has collected a large data set from about 1,000 volunteers to develop a prototype. The researchers will use the various sensors, readings, pictures, and other behaviors to ensure that whoever is using the phone is the owner. "The end goal is that all the authentication analysis would be done on the phone, with the data never leaving the phone, which potentially mitigates some of the privacy concerns," Borisov says. The researchers will have to overcome several challenges in pursuit of their goal, including how to gather data when the phone is locked and dealing with battery life issues.
Space Scientists Create Common Data Hub, Universal Language for Mission Data
Austrian Academy of Sciences (04/10/15)
A consortium of European researchers have debuted a new common data hub that will enable space scientists to compare data from numerous different space missions. This task has previously been very difficult because space missions often use purpose-built instruments, as well as data acquisition and number-crunching tools that are built using mission-specific data structures and protocols; this results in reams of data that cannot be easily compared against data from other missions. The new IMPEx portal provides space scientists with a single point of access to a suite of tools designed to make searching for, visualizing, and comparing space mission data much easier. The new portal will enable scientists to better understand complex observational data and to compare computer-simulated data with actual observational data. The tools provided by IMPEx include the CDPP AMDA (Automated Multi-Dataset Analysis) tool, which offers scientists easy-to-use data-mining capabilities. Another tool is CDPP 3DView, which offers three-dimensional visualization capabilities for data such as spacecraft trajectories and planetary ephemerides. The first application of the IMPEx tools was a detailed comparison of observational data from the European Space Agency's Venus Express mission and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Messenger mission to Mercury against existing simulation models.
Teaching Tykes to Program Robots
National Science Foundation (04/10/15) Aaron Dubrow
Tufts University professor and Scratch Jr. creator Marina Umaschi Bers has developed the KIWI robotic kit, known as KIBO, which teaches programming via robotics, without screens, tablets, or keyboards. KIBO, which is designed for students in pre-kindergarten through second grade, enables users to scan wooden blocks to give robots simple commands, and in the process teaches them about sequencing. Students combine a series of commands to make the robot interact with its environment. In addition, KIBO comes with a curriculum, lesson plans, badges, design journals, and teacher training. In March, Bers and Tufts researcher Amanda Sullivan conducted an eight-week pilot study of the KIBO curriculum. The researchers found the participating pre-kindergarten children were able to master basic robotics and programming skills, while older students were able to master increasingly complex concepts using the robotics kit. The researchers believe the skills of programming and engineering will help children learn to think in new ways. "When we teach children how to read and write, we don't expect everyone to become a journalist or a novelist," Bers says. "But we believe they'll be able to think in new ways because it opens the doors to thinking. We believe the same thing for the skills of programming and engineering."
NSF Brings Together Computer Scientists, Industry for New Tech Hub
UT Dallas News Center (04/09/15) LaKisha Ladson
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is creating the iPerform Center for Assistive Technologies to Enhance Human Performance, an Industry/University Cooperative Research Center at the University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas) that will help the region become a research hub for technology that enhances human abilities. NSF awarded UT Dallas $325,000 for five years to create the center, so researchers involved would attract industry partners that pay a fee to fund precompetitive research. In addition, UT Arlington researchers received separate funding to participate in iPerform and entice partners. "The projects conducted within the center will help advance basic research in areas such as computer vision, machine learning, user interfaces, brain imaging, human-robot interaction, human-computer interaction, virtual reality, and simulation," says UT Dallas researcher Ovidiu Daescu. He says the assistive technologies developed at iPerform will improve workplace safety and training, enhance sensory and cognitive capabilities, and lead to the development of wheelchairs that move with minimal assistance from the user. Daescu says iPerform will focus mostly on creating software for assistive technologies, rather than the hardware tools.
VEST Helps Deaf Feel, Understand Speech
Rice University (04/08/15)
Rice University computer and electrical engineering students are developing a vest that will enable deaf people to sense and understand speech. The vest is embedded with dozens of actuators that vibrate in specific and very complex patterns to represent words. The low-cost and non-invasive Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer (VEST) responds to input from a smartphone or tablet app and converts that input into tactile vibration patterns on the user's torso. Haptic feedback takes the place of auditory input. An algorithm enables the VEST to "hear" only the human voice and screen out distracting sounds. In addition to the actuators, the system includes a controller board and two batteries. With training, the brains of deaf people will adapt to the translation process. "As they use the vest more, they get feedback and know whether they are right or wrong and start to memorize patterns," notes VEST algorithm developer Scott Novich. "People are able to identify words they have never encountered before."
Turning Tiny Robots Into Student Recruiters
UNM Newsroom (04/09/15) Karen Wentworth
The Santa Fe Institute, in collaboration with the University of New Mexico (UNM), hopes to excite high school students about the possibilities of computer programming by showing them the results of programming. As part of the NM Computer Science for All program, UNM recently demonstrated its iAnts project to students from Nex+Gen Academy in Albuquerque. The iAnts are tiny robots made from iPods, placed on wheels, and programmed to communicate and swarm the way real ants do. One UNM student programmed a simulation that visualizes how the iAnts engage with each other and the obstacles in their environment. The visualization enables students and researchers to see how parameters of the model can change the number of tags that are found and the number of collisions that occur between robots. UNM professor Melanie Moses and her students are building simulations to explore how real ants might perform when they are given tasks. She also is helping to expand the program into a permanent part of the curriculum in state high schools. Several local schools already have been trained in the curriculum, and this summer, UNM plans to offer an online course to help prepare teachers and a course on campus for dual credit for high school students.
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