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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
National Academies Call for Science Education Makeover
USA Today (07/19/11) Dan Vergano
A new U.S. National Research Council report calls for reforming science teaching nationwide from kindergarten to high school. The report says that current high school graduates are often unable to think critically about science or pursue careers in science and engineering. Too few U.S. workers have strong backgrounds in science, technology, and engineering, and many people lack a fundamental understanding of these fields, the report says. The conventional science framework, which includes physical sciences, life sciences, earth sciences, and technology, should be introduced to school children and constantly reinforced throughout the education process, not taught only in a few grades, according to the report. "Currently, science education in the U.S. lacks a common vision of what students should know and be able to do by the end of high school, curricula too often emphasize breadth over depth, and students are rarely given the opportunity to experience how science is actually done," says the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory's Helen Quinn. The report calls for implementing its guidelines into reforms of science standards, which are already underway in many states.
Using Light to Send Data Across the Room
New York Times (07/18/11) Jennifer 8. Lee
Visible light communication continues to attract academic and commercial interest because light-based technology is practical, economical, and would provide an alternative to wireless communications networks that use radio spectrum. University of Edinburgh professor Harald Haas recently demonstrated a prototype visible light communication device at the TEDGlobal conference, using a table lamp with a light-emitting diode bulb to transmit a video of blooming flowers that was then projected onto a screen behind him. Haas built the Li-Fi device with inexpensive off-the-shelf parts. It had no antennae, and the video immediately paused when he stuck out his hand to block the light from the receiver and when he turned the light away from the receiver. Haas believes he can increase the speed from about 10 Mbps to 100 Mbps by the end of the year. Light-based data transmission technology would enable wireless communication without the need for radio gear, and it would lessen the risk of data leaving an office. Signals would be able to piggyback on lights already in use such as street lamps, car headlights, or room lighting.
Imaging Technology Throws New Light on Ancient Artefacts
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (07/20/11) Joyce Lewis
Researchers at the universities of Southampton and Oxford have modifed Hewlett-Packard Research Laboratories' Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) system to make it possible to study the intricate details of historical artifacts. The system takes 76 pictures of artifacts with the light in different positions, and then creates a new type of RTI image that enables the viewer to move the virtual light to any position to focus on any detail. "What we have done is develop the technology so that it is fast enough to be usable every day in a museum situation where you have lots of objects that need scanning," says Southampton's Kirk Martinez. As part of the project, the researchers scanned 100 clay tablets, most of which are about 5,000 years old. The RTI technology will enable researchers to study artifacts remotely in great detail, as the systems create high-quality digital versions of the artifacts. The software used in the RTI systems, as well as a guide to making personalized systems, will be available as open source.
Bringing Girls Into the Science-Major Pipeline
Chronicle of Higher Education (07/13/11) Nancy Linde
Colleges have been trying to increase the number of computer science majors, especially among women and minorities. However, compared to 10 years ago, enrollments in computer science have dropped more than 40 percent. Computer science has an image problem, and as long as teenagers think that computer science is boring, difficult, and antisocial, they will not choose it as a career, writes WGBH's Nancy Linde. WGBH and ACM, with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation, recently launched the New Image for Computing team to transform the public perception of computing among young women. Linde says the program was designed as a type of "be all you can be" campaign for computer science. The researchers developed three title ideas for the project, including Break Code, Dot Diva, and Hit Start. Although the researchers loved Break Code, market research showed that the girls liked Dot Diva, because it suggested maturity and sophistication. The girls thought the idea of a computer diva was cool and the Dot Diva title gave the project personality. The project tagline also was chosen by the girls, emphasizing the importance of making a difference in the world. Dot Diva promotes computer science as an exciting future of collaborative work and passionate commitment to making the world a better place.
Telex Promises Path Around State-Sponsored Net Censorship
InformationWeek (07/18/11) Thomas Claburn
Researchers at the universities of Waterloo and Michigan have developed Telex, a system that enables Internet service providers to provide ways around network censorship. The technology "has the potential to shift the balance of power in the censorship arms race," says Michigan professor J. Alex Halderman. Telex currently exists as a single server in a laboratory, and the researchers have not developed a deployment strategy, but they hope the project inspires future research on censorship circumnavigation. "We've even tested it using a client in Beijing and streamed [high-definition] YouTube videos, in spite of YouTube being censored there," Halderman says. Although proxy servers have previously been used to bypass online censorship, they also can be blocked, requiring new proxy servers to be established. Telex avoids the problem of blocked proxy servers by creating a proxy without an Internet protocol address. After installing downloadable client software, a user that wants to access a blocked Web site can connect to a non-blocked site outside the censor's network, making it appear to be a permitted connection to the censor.
Photonic Neuron May Compute a Billion Times Faster Than Brain Circuits
Princeton University (07/18/11) Chris Emery
Princeton University researchers and Lockheed Martin are developing fiber-optic-based computational devices that work 1 billion times faster than human neurons. The researchers say the technology could lead to computer circuits that can make instantaneous decisions in life-or-death situations, and process huge amounts of data, such as video signals that guide robotic cars. The researchers, led by Princeton professor Paul Prucnal and Lockheed Martin researcher David Rosenbluth, used clear fiber-optic cables instead of electrical wires, enabling the information to travel at nearly the speed of light. Unlike conventional fiber-optics, which converts information back into electrons before processing, the Princeton technology processes the information while it is still encoded in light. Before the project started, the researchers noticed that the mathematical equations used to model neural and fiber-optic networks were very similar in their overall formation, despite using different variables. "We are transposing learning, inhibition, and other behaviors typical of neural processing onto fiber-optic circuits," Rosenbluth says.
Girls, Their Families and Friends, Gather for Computer Science
Pacific University (07/15/11) Joe Lang
Thirty seventh- and eighth-grade girls recently completed Girls Gather for Computer Science (G2CS), a four-week computer science camp hosted by Pacific University. G2CS concluded with campers demonstrating what they had learned through 20 days of instruction. The camp seeks to increase the number of women who pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The campers studied fields such as software development, digital media design, and biotechnology through classroom instruction, lab exercises, and field trips. The camp instructors included female computer scientists, engineers, professors, and local middle school teachers. As part of the camp, the girls built Lego Mindstorm Robots, programmed animations and games with Alice, created Web pages, and dismantled and rebuilt computers. The campers recorded their experiences with a video camera and wrote daily blog posts. The campers will be tracked over a 10-year period to see if they pursue careers in STEM fields.
Twitter to Track Dengue Fever Outbreaks in Brazil
New Scientist (07/18/11) Zoë Corbyn
Brazilian National Institutes of Science and Technology researchers are using new software to analyze tweets from people who might have dengue fever to control outbreaks of the deadly disease. The software, created by the Federal University of Minas Gerais' Wagner Meira, finds correlations between the time and place where people tweet they have dengue and the official statistics for where the disease appears each year. The software filters out tweets that contain the word dengue and information on the user's location, identifying the personal experience from sentence structure and wording. The software also identifies terms such as bone pain and eye pain, which are common symptoms of dengue fever. During testing of more than 2,000 tweets containing the word "dengue" sent between January and May 2009, the researchers found that the personal experience tweets had a strong correlation with the outbreaks identified by the Brazilian Ministry of Health.
Researchers Teach Robots to Recognize What We're Doing
Cornell Chronicle (07/18/11) Bill Steele
Cornell University researchers are developing robots that can identify human activities by observation. The researchers, led by professor Ashutosh Saxena, trained a robot to recognize 12 human activities, such as brushing teeth, drinking water, laying on a couch, and working on a computer. The researchers used a Microsoft Kinect three-dimensional camera to separate the human image from the background. To simplify the software, the images of people are reduced to skeletons. The computer breaks the activities into a series of steps and sub-steps and stores them for when it is analyzing a person it has never seen before. During testing, which involved four people in five environments, the computer correctly identified one of the 12 specified activities 84 percent of the time when it was observing a person it had worked with before, and 64 percent of the time when it was observing a new person.
Swarms of Locusts Use Social Networking to Communicate
Institute of Physics (07/15/11)
The swarming behavior of locusts is created by the same social networks that humans adopt, according to a study by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Physics of Complex Systems and a U.S.-based scientist supported by the National Science Foundation. The researchers applied previous findings on opinion formation in social networks to an earlier study of 120 locust nymphs marching in a ring-shaped arena in the lab. Using a computer model that simulated the social network among locusts, the team found that the key component to reproducing the movements observed in the lab is the social interactions that occur when locusts, walking in one direction, convince others to follow them. Locusts create the equivalent of our human social networks, according to the researchers. "We concluded that the mechanism through which locusts agree on a direction to move together ... is the same we sometimes use to decide where to live or where to go out," says researcher Gerd Zschaler. "We let ourselves be convinced by those in our social network, often by those going in the opposite direction."
Machines to Compare Notes Online?
Autonomous machines, networks, and robots should publish their own suggestions for upgrading the technology on the Internet, says the University of Southampton's Sandor Veres. Giving machines and systems a greater degree of self-control will be the best way to improve them in the future, but humans will be more likely to guide and trust them if their dialogue is transparent, Veres says. An autonomously operating technical system would have some modeling of a changing environment; learning of various skills in feedback interaction with the environment; symbolic recognition of events and actions to perform logic-based computation; the ability to explain reasons of own actions to humans; and efficient transfer of rules, goals, values, and skills from human users to the autonomous system. Veres says the natural language programming sEnglish system could be used to achieve the last three technical features. "The adoption of a 'publications for machines' approach can bring great practical benefits by making the business of building autonomous systems viable in some critical areas where a high degree of intelligence is needed and safety is paramount," Veres says.
U. Va.'s Pfister Accomplishes Breakthrough Toward Quantum Computing
University of Virginia (07/15/11) Fariss Samarrai
A team at the University of Virginia has reached a breakthrough in creating massive numbers of entangled quantum memory units (qubits), or a multilevel variant called Qmodes. Qubits need to be created and precisely controlled for information processing in order to build a quantum computer. Virginia professor Olivier Pfister and colleagues have used lasers to engineer 15 groups of four entangled Qmodes each for a total of 60 measurable Qmodes, which is the most ever created. Each Qmode is a sharply defined color of the electromagnetic field, and hundreds to thousands would be needed to create a quantum computer, depending on the task. "With this result, we hope to move from this multitude of small-size quantum processors to a single, massively entangled quantum processor, a prerequisite for any quantum computer," Pfister says. The team used an optical parametric oscillator, which emitted entangled quantum electromagnetic fields over a rainbow or equally spaced colors called an optical frequency comb. Pfister and colleagues have confirmed their earlier theoretical proof that the quantum version of the optical frequency comb could be used to create a quantum computer.
SDSC's Trestles Provides Rapid Turnaround and Enhanced Performance for Diverse Researchers
UCSD News (CA) (07/14/11) Jan Zverina
The San Diego Supercomputing Center (SDSC) at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) recently launched Trestles, a supercomputer that will be used by researchers who need access to computational resources with rapid turnaround. Trestles has 10,368 processor cores, a peak speed of 100 teraflops, 20 terabytes of memory, and 39 terabytes of flash memory. SDSC is pioneering the use of flash-based memory on supercomputers, which typically rely on slower spinning disk technology. "Flash disks can read data as much as 100 times faster than spinning disk, write data faster, and are more energy-efficient and reliable," says SDSC's Allan Snavely. "Trestles uses 120GB flash drives in each node, and users have already demonstrated substantial performance improvements for many applications compared to spinning disk." One recent project to utilize Trestles is UCSD professor Francesco Paesani's effort to develop computational methodologies that can more accurately assess how particles in atmospheric aerosols affect air quality and the overall global climate. "Having access to a powerful computing cluster such as Trestles has greatly benefited us," Paesani says.
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