Welcome to the October 27, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Researchers Attack Transistors to Slay Vampire Power
CNet (10/26/10) Martin LaMonica
A European Union (EU) research project aims to boost the efficiency of electronics and stop the flow of wasted energy when the devices are not in use. Project Steeper researchers are working to create transistors that enable devices to operate 10 times longer on a battery charge and to not lose energy in standby mode. The researchers say that less leaky transistors could be manufactured within six to 10 years. The project is being led by the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne and IBM and includes several other European academic and commercial research organizations. "We are really optimizing the individual transistor, the building block of the processor," says IBM Zurich's Heike Riel. "We are working on an existing technology platform, which is very important so we can stick to using (silicon) wafers." One group of researchers will attempt to make the transistors using silicon and silicon germanium, and another group will use semiconducting nanowires. A working nanowire semiconductor device could be ready within three years, and a second phase of the project will develop the manufacturing processes to build the chips.
R&D and the Economic Crisis: Top EU Firms Cut Investment Less Than US Rivals, but Europe Still Well Behind
Research and development (R&D) investment by top European Union companies slipped by 2.6 percent last year compared to a 5.1 percent reduction in U.S. R&D investment, while Japanese companies maintained their investment levels and companies based elsewhere in Asia continued to experience high R&D expansion, according to the European Commission's (EC's) 2010 EU Industrial R&D Investment Scoreboard. European firms' R&D performance exhibits weakness in key high-tech sectors such as biotechnology, software, and semiconductors. For U.S. firms, high R&D intensity sectors, such as computer or pharmaceutical services, make up more than 66 percent of total R&D. Meanwhile, medium-high R&D intensity sectors such as automobiles and electronics are predominant for European and Japanese companies, with high R&D intensity sectors comprising about 33 percent of total investment. EC commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn says "the wide gap with the top U.S. companies in areas like software and biotechnology and the continuing rapid rise of Asian-based companies highlight the innovation emergency Europe is facing."
Research on Avoiding Fraud in Biometric Identification
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain) (10/26/10)
Researchers at Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M) are analyzing biometric identification technologies in an effort to avoid fraud and improve the security of facial, iris, fingerprint, and vascular recognition systems. "What we are trying to do is detect those attempts so that the system can then act accordingly," says UC3M's Raul Sanchez Reillo, who is leading the effort. The researchers are evaluating the strength of current biometric systems in response to different kinds of attacks, and are creating algorithms and other techniques that detect attempts at fraud, such as using a colored contact lens to recreate a specific iris. The researchers say that the robustness of the recognition algorithm and the inclusion of antifraud mechanisms are essential to keeping falsifications from violating the security systems. "Currently, we are working very intensely on the ocular iris as well as written signatures, although previously we have worked on fingerprints, and in the near future we will be working on facial recognition," Reillo says.
Washington Post (10/26/10) Cecilia Kang
Officials from several U.S. government agencies are slated to join a new Internet privacy subcommittee being formed by the Obama administration. The subcommittee, which will be led by U.S. Commerce Department counsel Gen. Cameron Kerry and assistant attorney general Christopher Schroeder, will consist of officials from the departments of Homeland Security, State, Commerce, and Justice who will advise the White House on Internet regulatory and legislative issues. Consumer advocacy groups have applauded the creation of the subcommittee, because it demonstrates that the Obama administration is increasingly taking notice of online privacy concerns. Such concerns have grown more pronounced in the wake of several recent online privacy breaches, including ones at Facebook and Google. However, consumer advocacy groups are also worried that the administration may have formed the subcommittee in order to control issues for special interests, and not give consumers much of a say in discussions about Internet privacy issues. However, Kerry and Schroeder have vowed to strike an appropriate balance between consumers' online privacy expectations and the needs of Internet stakeholders such as private industry, law enforcement agencies, and other public-safety government agencies.
Virtual Engineer to Predict Machine Failure
University of Portsmouth (10/26/10)
University of Portsmouth scientists have created a system that uses artificial intelligence techniques to predict when machines need repairing. The virtual engineer system uses sensors to monitor vulnerable parts of a machine, such as the bearings, while predictive software analyzes performance, alerting technicians to problems. "This new diagnostic system prevents potential mechanical failure by identifying the faulty or worn-out part before it causes a problem," says Portsmouth researcher David Brown. "During the process of monitoring the machine, the software literally learns more about how it works, which parts are becoming worn, and anything else that could potentially cause mechanical failure." He says the system will result in significant cost savings for companies because they will no longer need to keep a specialist engineer on call. "It's the first time this kind of technology has been used on this scale in the processing industry," Brown says. "The traditional approach to machine maintenance is being blown out of the water by real-time diagnostics."
Congress Mulls Multiple Bills to Reform H-1B Visa Program
Network World (10/25/10) Julie Bort
Congressional members have introduced more than 200 bills aimed at modifying the U.S.'s visa rules, which govern how foreign workers become eligible for U.S. technology jobs. Some of the bills seek to restrict a company's ability to import workers, while others try to make it easier to get visas or keep foreign workers once they are in the United States. For example, H.R. 5397 and S. 887 impose several restrictions on the use of H-1B and L-1 visas, such as prohibiting methods that prioritize visa workers over U.S. workers. H.R. 4321 involves comprehensive immigration reform. H.R. 4259 expands the eligibility of EB-5 visas and adds a $2,500 application fee. S. 2804 restricts employers from getting visas for foreign workers if they have had large layoffs of U.S. workers. S. 3029 and H.R. 5193 create a new visa for foreign entrepreneurs backed by venture capitalists. H.R. 1791 allows aliens who have earned a Ph.D. in the U.S. in science, technology, engineering, or math to stay permanently. H.R. 5658 increases the cap on H-1B visas by 20 percent. None of the bills has yet to make it out of a committee.
UA Engineer Designs Better Error-Correction Code
UA News (AZ) (10/25/10) Pete Brown
University of Arizona professor Bane Vasic has led the development of an error-correction decoder that outperforms belief propagation algorithms. Vasic compares the decoder to solving a Sudoku puzzle, in which the puzzle's cells represent transmitted data bits that need to be reconstructed. "A neat property of this new algorithm is that there is no need for a brain or some central intelligence to solve the puzzle, because the cells solve the puzzle collectively," he says. "No individual cell has a global knowledge about the solution, but collectively the cells find the solution by passing messages among one another." Originally, it was thought that the new algorithms would need to arrive at a solution that nearly solves the puzzle, but that would have made them too complex. Instead, the researchers found that in many cases the "simple decoder outperforms belief propagation to the extent that errors are reduced by 90 percent," says Vasic, who adds that the discovery "opens up a plethora of beautiful theoretical problems."
Game Characters to Get Authentically Rumpled Clothes
New Scientist (10/24/10) Shanta Barley
Carsten Stoll of the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Germany and colleagues will present a technique for animating computer-generated clothes at the SIGGRAPH Asia computer graphics conference in Seoul, South Korea, in December. The technique will allow computer game developers to make the clothes of game characters rumple, ripple, and ruffle realistically as the action unfolds. The team generated a three-dimensional (3D) laser scan of an actor in costume and manually added a virtual skeleton, then recorded video footage of the actor moving and uploaded it into a program that tracks that actor's silhouette through each frame. The software compares the 3D scan with the sequence of the silhouettes, and identifies the parts of the actor's outline that deform most freely, which indicates that they are covered in loose cloth. Next, the software calculates how the actor's virtual skeleton beneath the clothes moves through the sequence, and analyzes how it collides with the clothing. The software is designed to apply that information to a second skeleton, and animators can manipulate the virtual double to act out new sequences not performed by the real actor, with realistically moving and crumpling clothes.
As E-Voting Comes of Age, Security Fears Mount
Agence France-Presse (10/24/10) Rob Lever
New technologies that allow voters to cast ballots using the Internet or other electronic means are gaining popularity in the United States and elsewhere, despite growing security concerns. Thirty-three U.S. states are allowing some email, fax, or online ballots in 2010, according to the Verified Voting Foundation (VVF). These systems have the potential to increase voter participation but their security remains in question. For example, University of Michigan computer scientists recently hacked into a Washington D.C. pilot Internet voting system and changed the password directing the system to play the university fight song. "Within the first three hours or so of looking at the code we found the first open door and within 36 hours we had taken control of the system," according to Michigan professor Alex Halderman. He says that during the attack they discovered that hackers from Iran and China also were trying to hack into the system. "After this, there can be no doubt that the burden of proof in the argument over the security of Internet voting systems has definitely shifted to those who claim that the systems can be made secure," says VVF chairman David Jefferson.
On the Threshold of the Avatar Era
Wall Street Journal (10/23/10) Jaron Lanier
Humanity is technologically on the brink of the avatar era, in which it becomes possible for people to virtually embody digital avatars that are not restricted to the humanoid model, writes Microsoft Research partner architect Jaron Lanier. He points to the phenomenon of somatic cognition, in which "the human body is extended by physical objects that map body motion into a theater of thought and strategy not usually available to us." Lanier notes that mapping values from body poses enables humans to learn to inhabit other kinds of bodies, a phenomenon known as homuncular flexibility. A significant milestone in avatar technology is a method to measure what the human body is doing with a specialized camera, enabling the body to be instantly mapped to an avatar without wearing a special suit. Lanier says it is likely that avatar tracking will initially be popular as a tool for games and other leisure activities, while further ahead he envisions the technology as an educational instrument. "When we can successfully inhabit a nonhuman avatar, we are exploring not only the brain's deep history, but also the potential far future of all the creatures for which it is preadapted--what might happen in hundreds of millions of years," Lanier says.
Scrutinizing Facebook Spam
Technology Review (10/22/10) Tom Simonite
Northwestern University researchers recently conducted a study involving downloading more than three million Facebook profiles to determine how the accounts are used to send out spam. "For normal users, it mostly remains a myth, but spam has been a big problem to Facebook," says Northwestern researcher Yan Chen. The researchers looked for spam in 190 million wall posts by hunting for Web addresses. In total, 200,000 spam posts from 57,000 different user accounts were picked out of 2.08 million posts containing Web links. University of California, Santa Barbara's Ben Zhao, who contributed to the research, says the study is the first to examine spam activity on such a large scale. "The results are quite surprising to me--that even last year there was so much activity," Zhao says. "I think this is the harbinger of things to come, as Facebook attracts more of the wrong kind of attention." The researchers say that the spam activity patterns their study uncovered could be used to create algorithms to prevent future attacks. "We expected that attackers would mostly create new accounts to send spam attacks, but in fact, most are sent via compromised accounts," Chen says. "That may be harder than creating new accounts, but it is more effective to send spams to real friends."
Researchers Revamp Asimo Robot's BMI Technology
Tech-On! (10/22/10) Tomonori Shindou
Researchers at Japan's National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) and Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International have developed brain machine interface (BMI) technology that can continuously estimate the movements of a user's finger and reproduce them by noninvasively measuring their brain activity. "Because the latest BMI technology can smoothly reconfigure rapid movements, it gives the user a feeling of controlling a robot by himself," says NICT's Hiroshi Imamizu. The BMI technology combines an electroencephalograph with a high-time resolution and a near-infrared brain measurement device. The researchers also combined a magnetoencephalograph (MEG) with high-time resolution and functional magnetic resonance imaging with a high spatial resolution. The system learns from the data collected from 200 rounds of fingertip movements per user. Based on the MEG data, the current is estimated at 1,500 current sources, which are virtually and evenly arranged on the surface of the brain. To use the latest BMI technology, the user has to actually move a finger, but the researchers aim to develop BMI technology that can be used just by imagining a movement.
W3C Updates HTML5, Makes Math Easy
IDG News Service (10/22/10) Joab Jackson
The World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C's) updated MathML standard for rendering mathematical notations on Web pages better portrays math symbols and supports more languages. MathML 3 represents basic symbols such as for multiplication, long division, subtraction, and the carries and borrows addition symbols. Educational Web page designers will be able to add the symbols to pages without having to embed small images of the symbols or formulas into the pages. The symbols also aid assistive technology, such as screen readers, in interpreting mathematical material. MathML 3 also will render mathematical symbols in Arabic and other languages that move from the right side of the page to the left. W3C wants MathML to be included with other standards being incorporated into browsers that support HTML5, such Cascading Style Sheets and Scalable Vector Graphics.
Light on Silicon Better Than Copper?
Duke University News (10/21/10) Richard Merritt
Duke University electrical engineers have designed and demonstrated microscopically small lasers integrated with thin film-light guides on silicon. The structures, which also are capable of connecting the lasers to channels that accurately guide the light to its target, have the potential to replace copper as the carrier of information in electronic products. The research will be helpful to engineers working to create smaller and faster computers and devices because light is viewed as the basis for the next-generation information carrier. "We came up with a way of creating a thin film integrated structure on silicon that not only contains a light source that can be kept cool, but can also accurately guide the wave onto its next connection," says Duke's Sabarni Palit. "This integration of components is essential for any such chip-scale, light-based system." Duke professor Nan Marie Jokerst says a big challenge will be to reliably facilitate "talking" between individual chips or components, and notes that the systems would need to run on a small amount of power to make them portable.
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