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ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


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Volume 6, Issue 620: Friday, March 19, 2004

  • "Why Software Still Stinks"
    Salon.com (03/19/04); Rosenberg, Scott

    Seven out of 19 software pioneers interviewed by Microsoft Press editor Susan Lammers 20 years ago for her book "Programmers at Work" were reunited at a March 16 panel to discuss the current state of software, and all of them observed that software is still excessively complicated for both programmers and users. "Software as we know it is the bottleneck on the digital horn of plenty," argued International Software founder and 20-year Microsoft code guru Charles Simonyi, but the panelists offered differing and conflicting approaches to address this problem. Simonyi believes that software design and engineering should be separated; he says giving designers the means to sculpt software will cultivate a programming "silver bullet" that can eliminate the most formidable challenges of many software development initiatives. Virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, on the other hand, proposed a more radical solution: Removing the brittleness of software by modeling it after biological systems, a field known as biomimetics. Lanier and Macintosh pioneer Jef Raskin disparaged the open-source software movement as devoting too much attention to the sharing of code and not enough to the code itself, but Macintosh operating system author Andy Hertzfeld defended open source, claiming that developers do it "because they want people to use the stuff!" The panelists found hope for reinventing software in technologies such as RF tags, global networking, and mobile telephony; Ashton-Tate Framework creator Robert Carr noted that the average cycle of technology transformations is 20 years, and the Internet has only reached the halfway mark. Rethinking programming and designing better software cannot be accomplished unless software pioneers become more willing to share their work. Other participating panelists included gaming pioneer Scott Kim and VisiCalc co-creator Dan Bricklin.
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  • "The Web: Hacker Turf War Raging Online"
    United Press International (03/17/04); Koprowski, Gene J.

    A turf war between three groups of rival hackers is being waged over the Internet, the prize being the many computer systems their malware threatens to compromise and zombify worldwide. In computer worms such as MyDoom, Netsky, and Bagle, Central Command analysts have uncovered messages intended to provoke virus writers, such as "wanna start a war?" Central Command VP Steven Sundermeier characterizes this battle as "a war for power and seniority," while experts fear that this rivalry could have a substantial negative commercial impact on the government and economy of the United States, and even become a serious threat to U.S. national security. Futurist R. Pierce Reid, formerly with General Dynamics, says the federal government is not entirely ready to counter a coordinated attack orchestrated by cyber-terrorists. A continuing source of mystery is who is training these cyber-vandals and what their political motivations are, although there have been reports of a North Korean military facility where hacking is taught. Several projects are underway to root out cyber-terrorists by scrutinizing the code of the malware they use: Britain's National Hi-Tech Crime Unit is studying connections between extremist organizations and virus-authoring cooperatives, looking for patterns in source code that could offer clues to the hackers' identities. The U.S. Northern Command's Joint Protection Enterprise Network, which was launched this month, is an Internet-browser-based system that facilitates the rapid exchange of anti-terrorism data between intelligence agencies online. Computer experts think terrorist hackers could do substantial damage to the private sector, although it is unlikely they could cripple the federal government. However, some specialists do not exclusively blame Islamic extremists for all cyber-crimes: Some perpetrators are amoral businesses that want to commit corporate espionage or sabotage.
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  • "Who Should Govern the Net?"
    CNet (03/18/04); McCullagh, Declan

    Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) Chairman and Internet pioneer Vint Cerf says his organization is moving forward on technical innovation, expanding top-level domains (TLDs), cooperation with other core Internet players, and international policy adherence. He sees the United Nation's International Telecommunications Union as a partner that needs to address significant governmental policy issues outside of ICANN's mandate. Cerf says charges from VeriSign CEO Stratton Sclavos that ICANN is hindering innovation are untrue, and gives recent work on the ENUM concept as proof: That system will significantly expand the function of the domain name system (DNS) without affecting existing services. The current dispute between VeriSign, which controls the most popular TLDs, is not necessarily unexpected with the increasing commercialization of the Internet; Cerf was one of the strongest backers of a commercialized Internet because he realized the Internet needed to be self-supporting if it was to continue to grow. Issues concerning the Internet's core architecture, however, are more problematic than issues dealing with peripheral functionality: IPv6 is an example of how difficult major changes to core infrastructure can be. Cerf says these limitations make the Internet more easy to expand in some areas while more slow to expand in others--the number of TLDs is certainly set to expand, but Cerf says more might not necessarily be helpful. Additionally, he says there are some technical problems concerning newer domains that are longer than three characters, since some software developers did not anticipate TLDs to extend beyond that. The process for selecting new TLDs is becoming more ordered, Cerf says. He admits there is reason for European government worries about Whois data and that database technologies can help by only providing information to authenticated parties, though systems need to be put in place to identify requests.
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  • "E-Vote Snafu in California County"
    Wired News (03/19/04); Zetter, Kim

    Napa County, Calif., Registrar of Voters John Tuteur reported Thursday that a glitch caused an optical scan machine used in the March 2 primary election to miss 6,692 out of 468,001 votes recorded on over 13,000 absentee ballots. An employee of Sequoia Voting Systems, the machine's manufacturer, did not calibrate the device to read dissimilar types of ink--in this case, dye-based inks usually employed in gel pens--prior to the election, which caused the machine to fail to record some votes. Once the machine was recalibrated, Napa County started rescanning the approximately 13,000 ballots this week, only to run into trouble on March 17 when the device jammed; a new machine was ordered and the recount was completed the following day. Critics of e-voting systems claim the machines are vulnerable to tampering and provide inaccurate results, although most of their criticism is directed toward paperless systems. Tom Martinez, a representative of state Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland), said the Sequoia glitch confirms the need for machines that have voter-verifiable paper trails. "This is a perfect example of what can happen if we rely solely on machines with no paper trail--we lose the confidence of the election," he declared. Perata and Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) called on Secretary of State Kevin Shelley to de-certify touch-screen machines prior to the upcoming presidential election, which would force counties to employ optical scan machines that use a paper ballot. Darren Chesin, a consultant to the state Senate elections and reapportionment committee, reasoned, "If I were a county that was using [paperless touch-screen machines] now, I would at least be making preliminary preparations to use something else."
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  • "Viruses Lurk as a Threat to 'Smart' Cellphones"
    Wall Street Journal (03/18/04) P. B4; Nasaw, David

    The growing power of "smart phones" is increasing their susceptibility to malware, which Network Associates predicts could cost North American wireless carriers as much as $2.5 billion in two years. As a result, the wireless industry is preparing itself for a major virus assault that targets intelligent cellular phones. Less advanced "dumb" phones may not be vulnerable to a virus infection, but an attack on smart phones could have an impact on voice traffic for all phones in a cell network, because voice and some data are piped along the same channels. U.S. wireless carriers claim they can shield themselves from infection by scanning wireless data traffic and filtering out suspicious behavior, which would thwart phones from transmitting viruses embedded within text messages to multiple numbers. Although IDC researcher Sally Hudson says the wireless industry is making a valiant effort to address the threat of smart-phone viruses, she warns that "the current protection for mobile networks is poor." Symantec and Network Associates have responded to the threat by issuing antivirus products for the leading handheld platforms, while F-Secure has devised software that can wirelessly transmit antivirus updates to phones, as well as an antivirus filter that wireless carriers can deploy on their download platforms to safeguard users retrieving games, ring tones, and other programs. Meanwhile, operating-system manufacturers are working to reduce vulnerabilities: Symbian, for example, is building a program that will permit a certain degree of authentication to the integrity of applications written for its operating system. For now, the prospect of launching a virus attack against smart phones is not attractive to hackers, given the small number of vulnerable phones currently in use."> Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Scientists Vying for Special Funds"
    Tri-Valley Herald (CA) (03/19/04); Hoffman, Ian

    Since former Bell Labs research chief Charles McQueary took the position of undersecretary for science and technology at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, his office has been deluged with over 5,500 security technology proposals. Among them are "motes"--tiny wireless devices that can be mated to sensors to monitor heat, humidity, light, motion, or metal--developed by Berkeley computer science professor David Culler with Defense Department funding. Such sensors can broadcast data via wireless laptop or satellite to anywhere on the planet, and Culler and fellow Berkeley researcher S. Shankar Sastry are convinced that wireless sensor webs will be an essential component of homeland security. Noting that current U.S. infrastructure is too difficult to shield from sabotage and attacks, Sastry asserts that mote technology could more effectively and efficiently monitor power plants, transportation systems, and buildings. "I think if DHS acted as the lead agilizer for buying these technologies then a lot of the privately owned infrastructures would jump in and they would also upgrade," Sastry says, adding that Silicon Valley firms would have more market opportunities as a result. Though the DHS only spent approximately $100 million on science and technology in 2003, spending is expected to skyrocket this year, with $385 million to be apportioned to biodefense efforts. McQueary says that at the core of every homeland security problem lie sensors such as Culler's, but networking them remains a formidable challenge. McQueary explains that his agency's task is to simplify the analysis of a massive volume of data.
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  • "Prototype System Developed by Wright State University Computer Engineer Allows Blind to 'See'"
    AScribe Newswire (03/18/04)

    Wright State University (WSU) researchers, in conjunction with Arizona State University (ASU), have developed a prototype wearable device dubbed "Tyflos" that allows blind people to perceive their surroundings via audio information. Tyflos consists of camera-equipped glasses wired to a laptop carried on the user's back; the system identifies the images the camera picks up and converts them into audio descriptions piped into the user's ear, while the user can control the system vocally with a small microphone. Leading the WSU researchers in Tyflos' development is Ohio Board of Regents Distinguished Professor of Information Technology Nikolaos Bourbakis, who plans to conduct system trials with visually handicapped students in conjunction with the WSU Office of Disability Services. "The Tyflos camera captures images from the surroundings, and the portable computer reconstructs the 3D space for motion detection, body tracing, face recognition and moving objects," Bourbakis explains. "This will make it possible for the blind and vision impaired to improve their independent mobility and social interaction, while succeeding in their professional endeavors." Bourbakis adds that the project employs cutting-edge robotics and computer vision technology. An extension of the Tyflos system will allow visually impaired individuals to independently navigate their surroundings, while a pair of future extensions will assist blind users in artistic pursuits such as writing and drawing. The project is underwritten by a four-year $1.1 million National Science Foundation grant awarded to WSU and ASU.
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  • "The Future of the GPL"
    Linux Insider (03/15/04); Halperin, David

    The SCO Group, in launching lawsuits against Linux users, is arguing against the constitutionality of the GNU General Public License (GPL), but Columbia University law professor and Free Software Foundation (FSF) counsel Eben Moglen says the litigation will have no bearing on any changes the license may undergo--although he does not deny that the GPL must adapt itself to a new software and commercial environment. Moglen defends the GPL's constitutionality and maintains that the license adheres to all the requirements of existing copyright law, which is itself constitutional. He reports that he and Richard Stallman of the FSF are working on GPL version 3, and promises that a discussion draft will be released and a public conversation initiated. Many more voices will contribute to the conversation than there were in 1991, when GPL version 2 was launched; whereas 13 years ago only independent software developers and research computer scientists needed convincing of the GPL's viability, today the needs of people in nearly every country have to be considered. "It's an unimaginable alteration in which multinational corporations as sophisticated and well-funded as any on Earth need to have their opportunity to speak on relatively equal terms with teenage program developers working in their homes in far-flung corners of the world," Moglen comments. The Columbia professor believes version 3 will address three areas: The on-licensing of additions or alterations to the code when employed in Web services or similar applications; patents, which Moglen says are showing up in the wrong places; and the "trusted computing" issue. Moglen believes that as a result of the SCO litigation, "People are now realizing that how you vet the code that you put in the free software project...are really important."
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  • "New Hacker Program Prompts Alert"
    Washington Post (03/18/04) P. E5; Krebs, Brian

    A new hacker tool has emerged to take advantage of the peer-to-peer networking abilities that file-sharing networks use, and computer security experts are watching for it. The Phatbot tool is thought to have already infected hundreds of thousands of computers that use the Windows operating system, which means that hackers could control the computers and link them into P2P networks to send spam or flood Web sites. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has sent out an alert to some computer security experts about the tool, warning that it hunts for passwords and tries to take down antivirus and firewall software. Symantec senior director Vincent Weafer describes Phatbot as "a virtual Swiss Army knife of attack software;" the tool is a kind of Trojan horse, but much more evolved than most such programs. It usually gets in through security flaws in Windows or through a backdoor installed by the Bagle or Mydoom Internet worms, and links the computers into a network so that hackers can issue orders through a variety of routes, making it much harder to shut down. Most major antivirus products detect the tool, but it can disable the software. A DHS cybersecurity official says, "The concern here is that the peer-to-peer like characteristics of these 'bot networks may make them more resilient and more difficult to shut down," since Phatbot attacks can only be completely shut down if every infected computer is found. Home broadband users and computer networks at colleges and universities are the primary Phatbot targets so far, but TruSecure chief scientist Russ Cooper says "U.S. e-commerce is in serious threat of being massively attacked by whoever owns these networks" if P2P networks of hundreds of thousands of computers are infected.
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  • "No Outlet? Don't Worry, an Ethernet Cable May Do"
    New York Times (03/18/04) P. E5; Shachtman, Noah

    Ethernet cables can conduct both data and electric power because they do not interfere with each other thanks to differing frequencies: Electricity travels at about 60 hertz, while data signaling travels in the 10 million to 100 million hertz range. This and the inexpensiveness of Ethernet cable has made it an alluring choice for a small but growing stable of businesses, while power companies such as Cinergy are using the technology to sell broadband access to homeowners. Most offices already have broadband access, but setting up electrical outlets for wireless network access points can be very expensive, since it usually entails installing outlets on the ceiling where maximum coverage for the widest possible area can be supplied. Grossmont Union High School District in La Mesa, Calif., elected to deploy Ethernet cable throughout its 11 high schools to provide the institutions with Internet Protocol telephony, although assistant superintendent Warren Williams does not plan to stop there; in the works is the installation of a digital security camera system that will tap electrical power from and feed video to a central hub, as well as a networked system of loudspeakers so that a single message can be piped into every classroom simultaneously. "It's a cost-effective way to drive devices without doing electrical upgrades," Williams notes--and maintenance is simpler as well. Ethernet cables can only carry 13 watts of power, which is not enough to run an average laptop. This development requires the adoption of new standards, most likely. Steven B. Carlson, leader of the IEEE task force charged with overseeing the Power Over Ethernet project, cautions that raising the amount of power a cable can channel could generate additional heat that "might be too much for some components in the wiring path to withstand."
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  • "Finally, Apple Speaks to the Blind"
    Business Week (03/16/04); Salkever, Alex

    At the 19th annual Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference, Apple Computer unveiled its Spoken Interface, a tool designed to help visually impaired users navigate a computer desktop and Web pages by vocalizing and giving sound cues to what is happening on the screen of their Macs. The interface will be embedded within the next version of the OS X operating system. The technology is advantageous to Apple from both a business and public relations perspective: Without a screen reader, Apple would no longer qualify for government contracts, while visually handicapped schoolchildren would have little choice but to use Windows systems, which could further isolate them from sighted students and earn Apple the enmity of advocacy organizations. A Mac with a built-in screen reader is also a good bargain for blind users in terms of cost. Mac developers will be able to set up easy interoperability between their software and Spoken Interface through the use of open application program interfaces for screen-reading modules. Moreover, Apple's Chris Bourden says many of the programs developed using Apple's Cocoa programming environment can work with Spoken Interface with no code modifications, while others will require just minor modifications. Apple has elected to get feedback on Spoken Interface from the assistive-technology community, a strategy that flies against its traditional approach of keeping mute about its software. "I think [Apple] is doing phenomenal work," notes National Center for Accessible Media director Larry Goldberg. "I wouldn't say [that] it's better than [leading Windows screen reader] JAWS yet, but it could be." Beyond its short-term benefits for the blind, Spoken Interface could have a long-term effect on how people--not just the disabled--use computers.
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  • "Some Experts Say Offshore Outcry Masks U.S. Shortage of Technology Labor"
    Chicago Tribune (03/14/04); Chandler, Susan

    Despite all the uproar about overseas outsourcing of technology jobs, many industry analysts say the United States will soon be facing a serious shortage of IT workers: Increasing computerization, retiring Baby Boomers, and lower enrollments in technology programs at schools will all contribute to an IT worker shortage. On the other hand, the relatively few people who have been displaced by offshore workers, politicians appealing to popular sentiment, and a real overall shortage of jobs are contributing to offshoring paranoia. Forrester analyst John McCarthy notes that technology jobs actually grew by 10 percent last year and that the U.S. economy continues to become more reliant on technology, and he estimates about 290,000 IT jobs, mostly low-level positions such as programmers, have gone overseas since 1999--just a tiny fraction of the 130 million U.S. jobs. McCarthy admits contributing some to the hype in a late 2002 report in which he predicted 3.3 million U.S. service industry jobs would be shipped overseas over the next 15 years; he says that breaks down to just 220,000 jobs each year, about as much as the national economy can produce in one month given a reasonably positive economy. Some of the current anger about offshoring may actually be due to the fact that IT is becoming a mature industry where employees are not compensated as lavishly as in the recent past: "The IT worker has gone from 60 to zero," says McCarthy. Political fashions are not helping address the looming shortage in IT workers, says former Motorola CTO and current vice provost at Illinois Institute of Technology Dennis Roberson, whose school has placed 96 percent of its engineering graduates for each of the last three years. Other experts such as Microsoft's Bill Gates and former presidential Council of Economic Advisors member Randall Kroszner agree. U.S. companies have long been moving their call center and technical support operations to low-cost locales such as South Dakota, says Kroszner.
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  • "RFID Chips Watch Grandma Brush Teeth"
    New Scientist (03/17/04); Biever, Celeste

    A number of companies illustrated how wireless radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips could simplify and improve the care of the elderly in a March 16 demonstration for government officials in Washington, D.C. Such chips, affixed to everyday objects such as toothbrushes, chairs, and toilet seats, could facilitate at-home, automated monitoring of the elderly. Intel's Eric Dishman demonstrated a glove with an embedded RFID reader that clocks any tagged objects the wearer comes into physical contact with and transmits their IDs to a central PC; the PC infers the person's behavior via probabilistic reasoning, and loved ones and other concerned parties can check up on the wearer's activities over the Internet. The PC could also be programmed to automatically flag abnormal behavior patterns--the failure to take medication, for example--and alert relatives via email or SMS message. Intel's Brad Needham aims to develop an RFID reader that can remain stationary and determine a person's activities by recording the movement of tagged objects. The advantages of RFID tags is their low cost and lack of required infrastructure, noted the University of Washington's Don Patterson, who added that such tags will eventually become ubiquitous as manufacturers and supermarkets deploy the chips to improve supply-chain management and deter theft. MIT's Kent Larson, whose team has developed a network of temperature sensors and embedded cameras to ascertain people's behavior, said, "The health system is facing a collapse. The center of gravity has to move from the hospital and into the home."
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  • "Apple's Ron Okamoto Previews WWDC 2004"
    E-Commerce Times (03/17/04); Weisman, Robyn

    Apple worldwide developer relations vice president Ron Okamoto says this year's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) will host a wide range of developers from many platforms and industries. Last year's conference saw about 3,000 developers, including a greater number of first-time attendees and people whose experience with Apple is largely confined to the Unix-based Mac OS X, which has been around for four years. Okamoto says Java, open source, Unix, Win32 API, and classic Mac coders will all be at this year's WWDC, and that more enterprise developers will be attending as well. Apple has made a conscientious effort to draw a rich set of developers by offering a diverse range of tools and working on a broad range of projects, spanning the iPod on the consumer end all the way up to the supercomputer cluster built with Virginia Tech. Apple featured its first dedicated track for enterprise developers last year and garnered some of its best attendances and positive comments. This year, the WWDC will include more representation for the life sciences community since the informal gatherings held previously are drawing tremendously more people; since much of the life sciences work is done in Unix, the Mac platform is the first to give programmers access to the Web, email, and other desktop applications while they are coding. Okamoto says Apple will give developers a good idea of technology direction at the company and says the G5 processor, the strong OS X foundation, and the portability of the PowerBook product make for great opportunities going forward. Still, Okamoto would not comment on the possibility of a new operating system version this year.
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  • "Q&A: Quality Software Means More Secure Software"
    Computerworld (03/17/04); Willoughby, Mark

    Cigital CTO and author Gary McGraw posits that software quality and software security are inexorably linked, and though he acknowledges that the software industry has started to take software security more seriously, he cautions that "they have a long way to go." McGraw says the security, reliability, dependability, and availability of software must be considered throughout every phase of the software's life cycle, arguing that the earlier a flaw is detected, the less risk it will pose. McGraw puts software problems into two categories, bugs and flaws, and contends that people are devoting too much concentration to the former and not enough on the latter. McGraw says that common "garden variety" hacker exploits can be remedied with solid software processes, but static analysis will not fix more fundamental software flaws. The strategy he advocates is to start with an outstanding software process, and overlay it with security best practices; McGraw lists abuse cases, requirements analysis for security, and risk analysis for design as examples of such practices. In talking about his and Greg Hoglund's new book, "Exploiting Software: How to Break Code," McGraw maintains that the tome "makes it clear that the way you break a system is not about attacking security features but by figuring out what assumptions a designer or coder has made and making those assumptions go away." The CTO cites the work of USC security guru Barry Boehm, who determined that about 50 percent of software problems occur at the requirements level, approximately 25 percent crop up at the design level, and only a few are caused at the coding level; McGraw adds that finding and fixing problems at the requirements level carries far less cost than fixing problems in the field, and notes that software patches are being exploited by hackers to find security holes.
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  • "ST to Lead European 'Ambient Intelligence' Project"
    CommsDesign (03/10/04); Walko, John

    STMicroelectronics will head a European research initiative that focuses on making "ambient intelligence" technology commercially ready for everyday objects. PolyApply will be a four-year research project that will involve 20 European companies, academic and research institutes, including Philips, Siemens, Thomson Multimedia, CEA-LETI, and IMEC. "Ambient intelligence" involves the integration of sensing, computing, communications, and other electronic functions into everyday objects. The European Commission, as part of its Sixth Research, Technological development and Demonstration Framework Program, will partially fund the research into a scalable version of the communication technology, which will rely on low-cost, polymer-based electronic circuits. ST's Gianguido Rizzotto will coordinate the development of materials, devices, and circuits that allow everyday objects to communicate with one another using low-cost, RF-communication links. "Although silicon technology has underpinned most advances in electronic devices and applications for many decades and will continue to have this fundamental role for at least the next 10 years, there are many exciting potential applications that can only be enabled by the development of new technologies, such as polymer electronics, that are inherently much less expensive than silicon," says Rizzotto.
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  • "Tough Road to Quality Code"
    InformationWeek (03/15/04) No. 980, P. 51; Sullivan, Laurie

    Because the reliability of automotive software can impact an automaker's reputation among consumers, manufacturers are facing increasing pressure to ensure that such software is free of errors. Automakers are altering their operations to address the industry's adoption of software by more closely inspecting suppliers to make sure that their software development and testing procedures are rigorous, for example. Chrysler VP Mark Chernoby points out that glitchy software can hurt customer satisfaction and slow down manufacturing cycles, which leads to cost elevation--while the growing presence of software in vehicles raises the likelihood of additional quality errors and business risks. Experts claim in-vehicle software quality appears to be improving, a conclusion apparently borne out by statistical data; however, software-quality standards organizations are currently pursuing separate standardization efforts, and this lack of unity could seriously hamper manufacturers' rollout of software-driven improvements. In-vehicle software is also growing in complexity: Whereas software was previously designed to augment the performance of a particular function, some contemporary cars boast integrated software that controls multiple automotive functions. In addition, drive-by-wire systems employing software rather than physical mechanisms to control braking and steering have started to show up. Engineers note the possibility of software errors being introduced during the testing stage--for instance, leaving debugging code in the finished vehicle is risky, since it could disrupt the function of another device. Automatically generated software code is appealing to the auto industry because it could theoretically keep errors to a minimum if not eliminate them completely; the trade-off to this approach is a lack of human-style thinking, which is important to testing for the real-world effectiveness of code and feature development.
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  • "Technology That Speaks in Tongues"
    Military Information Technology (03/15/04) Vol. 8, No. 2; Chisholm, Patrick

    Military personnel are employing a growing arsenal of automatic translation devices in an effort to overcome the language barrier many soldiers face while stationed abroad--a barrier that is all the more difficult because linguists are scarce. One such device is VoxTec's Phraselator, a ruggedized handheld that translates spoken English phrases into their foreign-language equivalents, and which can be turned on through a touch screen or by voice recognition. The Phraselator comes with a toolkit that lets users construct language models in the field, a convenient feature for troops who may need specific phrases not pre-programmed into the device. SpeechGear and the Office of Naval Research are collaborating on Interact, a forthcoming software product that will supply two-way, real-time voice-to-voice translation of uninterrupted free speech. Interact is but one product in a family of automated translation tools SpeechGear is prepping, which includes Interprete, a Phraselator-like device that can also support two-way speech and permits users to add their own vocabulary directly into the system as well as build new translation and phrase permutations; Camara, which can translate signs, documents, and any other text that can be captured in a photograph; and Expres, which can translate PowerPoint presentations either in a fast, rudimentary manner or in a more refined fashion. CogniGenix VP John Taylor remarks that CogniGenix Machine Translation software is trained to recognize language and correct itself using intelligent neural network principles, offering translation accuracy levels that are almost human. Meanwhile, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has teamed up with StreamSage to develop a translation system for signal intelligence and other electronic broadcasts, one that will provide English translations of foreign-language audio. AFRL electronics engineer Steve Smith explains that StreamSage's appeal lies in its attempts to automate machine translation training, while StreamSage's Tim Sibley adds that more speech recognition research will be needed to address problems such as background noise and bandwidth limitations.
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  • "Inside the Stupid Fun Club"
    Software Development (03/04) Vol. 12, No. 3, P. 40; Morales, Alexandra Weber

    The Stupid Fun Club founded by robot enthusiasts Will Wright and Mike Winter is a sort of think tank whose goal is to determine how people relate to robots by building machines programmed to exhibit unusual behavior, and filming people's reactions to them, mainly as a source of entertainment. "I think robots tell you a lot more about humans than they tell you about technology," Wright remarks. A typical Stupid Fun Club experiment is a "Sad Robot" designed to lie on the ground and cry for help; Wright notes that people's reactions to the machine ranged from talking to it to ignoring it to trying to help it to cannibalizing it for parts. Another robot built by the Stupid Fun Club consists of a dancing snowman toy mounted on a wheeled platform with a circular saw, designed for demolitions. "When we take these [robots] in public, it seems like the people who are less technically savvy are the ones who interact with it, whereas the people with technical backgrounds are standing there reverse-engineering it," Winter observes. Wright points out that many research labs working on humanoid robots do not test them in the real world. The hobbyists take note of artificial intelligence research projects such as genetic programming and adaptive systems, which Wright calls especially promising. He believes that a lot of software will be produced through evolutionary programming within a few years, which will take software development out of humans' hands and lead to substantial changes in the way people relate to software. Wright also acknowledges that the invention of intelligent machines has sinister aspects that technologists such as Bill Joy are warning against. It is his prediction that fully autonomous machines with conversational skills will emerge within two decades.
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