Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the December 1, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


A Soldier, Taking Orders From Its Ethical Judgment Center
New York Times (11/25/08) P. D1; Dean, Cornelia

Georgia Tech computer scientist Ronald Arkin thinks smart machines can behave more ethically than humans in battlefield conditions. Arkin made a report to the U.S. Army last year in which he cited some of the potential advantages of autonomous battlefield robots, including being programmed without a self-preservation instinct, thus eliminating the danger that they will attack out of fear. He also wrote that the machines can be built to exhibit no recklessness or anger and will not fall prey to "the psychological problem of 'scenario fulfillment,'" which prompts people to digest new information more easily if it conforms with their pre-existing ideas. University of Sheffield scientist Noel Sharkey noted in an interview that there is "a headlong rush" to develop battlefield drones capable of making their own decisions about when to strike, while the director of the Army Research Office's Information Science Directorate, Randy Zachery, says the army hoped this basic science would illustrate how flesh-and-blood soldiers might employ and engage with autonomous systems and how software might be designed to "allow autonomous systems to operate within the bounds imposed by the warfighter." Arkin envisions autonomous robot agents functioning as battlefield assistants in countersniper operations and other missions where there may not be enough time for a robotic device to transmit data to a human operator and await instructions. But first those machines would need to be programmed with ethical rules, such as distinguishing civilians from insurgents and who should be fired upon. Arkin has worked out a robotic system where a "governor" program blocks actions that might transgress ethical rules, such as firing upon targets in an area with civilians in close proximity. Sharkey says lethal autonomous robots should be prohibited until they can successfully demonstrate ethical behavior, and he doubts that such a standard can be met.

They're Robots, but Not as We Know Them
Computerworld New Zealand (12/02/08) Hedquist, Ulrika

Neural networking was the focus of the 15th International Conference on Neuro-Information Processing in Auckland. Researchers discussed how a better understanding of the brain could lead to more intelligent computer systems. According to Nik Kasabov, director of the Knowledge Engineering and Discovery Research Institute at AUT University, neuro-information processing has real-life applications in medicine, cybersecurity, and intelligent robots. Researchers from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan showed off neuro-genetic robots. "Robots are now not only based on fixed rules about how to behave, they now have genes, similar to human genes, which affect their behavior, development and learning," said Kasabov. And researchers from the German Honda Research Institutes discussed the co-evolution of the brain and body in robots, and robots that can change their shape were also on display. "They can evolve, in a similar way as [humans] evolve," said Kasabov.

Sharing the Browser
Technology Review (11/26/08) Vol. 105, Naone, Erica

IBM hopes to change the way people use the Web through Blue Spruce, an experimental project designed to enable users to share the browser itself. Research into mashups led IBM's David Boloker and colleagues to the realization that a tool for collaborative Web browsing could be built with many of the same tools. Blue Spruce is not a new browser per se, but rather a crafty method for connecting existing browsers together. After logging in to the Blue Spruce server, several users can engage with Web pages and applications while the software convinces the server that it is dealing with one browser. Any action a user performs on the shared page is routed to the Blue Spruce server, which transmits the change to other participants. It is IBM's hope that Blue Spruce will have application for many business workers, and although it works with just one browser at the moment, Blue Spruce is designed with compatibility in mind. "IBM, the great seller of Big Iron and custom software, has decided that simplicity plus ubiquity is a better strategy for them," observes New York University professor Clay Shirky. He says IBM's transfer of the work environment into the browser represents an acknowledgment of people's demand for tools that are easy to use regardless of what operating system they run or what programs they have.

Reding Calls for Continued R&D Investment
VNUNet (11/25/08) Neal, David

Europe must continue to invest in ICT-related research and development during the economic downturn, European Union commissioner Viviane Reding told delegates at ICT 2008 in Lyon. "At this time of economic uncertainty, we must remember that the ICT sector provides the heartbeat of the real economy, of our productivity growth, of our capacity to innovate and create jobs, and of our ability to address key societal challenges," she said. "Cuts in public and private R&D spending may be tempting, but this could irreversibly damage our economies and the ability to recover." Reding cited a workable identity card as an area for ICT research and innovation, adding that an electronic identity management infrastructure would lead to more business efficiency and citizen-friendly services. E-government and e-commerce stand to benefit from trustworthy services. Reding noted that the EU private sector spends only half as much as its U.S. counterpart on ICT research a year, while the public sector spends about 40 percent of the U.S. level. Reding plans to introduce a proposal on innovation and investment for research next year.

The UPC Will Present One of Four Projects Selected for the European Ministerial E-Inclusion Conference
Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (11/26/08)

The European Share-it project, led by Technical University of Catalonia (UPC) researcher Ulises Cortes, is one of four projects chosen by the European Commission (EC) to be presented at the European e-Inclusion Ministerial Conference. The four projects focus on using information and communication technologies to fight social exclusion on new technologies intended to promote digital inclusion. The conference, organized by the EC, the Austrian Government, and the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union, will include exhibits and demonstrations on the most imaginative and advanced initiatives currently under development in Europe that are intended to promote e-inclusion and close the digital divide. The Supported Human Autonomy for Recovery and Enhancement of Cognitive and Motor Abilities Using Information Technologies (Share-it) project features technology intended to enhance the quality of life for people with limited mobility. The i-Walker improves on conventional walkers by communicating with the user and reacting to its surroundings. The device includes voice command capabilities, as well as independent movement and a personalized intelligent software agent. The i-Walker also uses intelligent multiagent systems technology to adapt to the specific assistance needs of individual users, helping them increase their autonomy. The semi-automatic platform, Spherik, is based on a new type of spherical wheel and improves the flexibility and mobility of people using a wheelchair, particularly in tight spaces. Spherik includes a mechanism to avoid obstacles and is designed to interact with the environment.

U.S. Agency Sees Robots Replacing Humans in Service Jobs by 2025
Computerworld (11/24/08) Thibodeau, Patrick

The U.S. National Intelligence Council's (NIC's) report, "Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World," outlines the military, economic, and environmental challenges the United States will face over the next 17 years. The report predicts that by 2025, robotics could become sophisticated enough for robots to take over low-skill jobs, such as those in the fast-food service industry. Such advanced robots could have significant benefits, such as enabling robots to be used to help provide care for the elderly. The NIC report also says that robotic technologies could be used to augment human capabilities. In the future, for example, the report says it may be possible to develop an exoskeleton resembling "a wearable humanoid robot, that uses sensors, interfaces, power systems, and actuators to monitor and respond to arm and leg movements, providing the wearer with increased strength and control." The NIC says a more widespread technology could be human cognitive augmentation technologies, wearable devices that help improve vision, hearing, and memory. The agency also predicts that by 2025 there will be an Internet of Things, created by the ubiquitous use of radio frequency identification tags on a variety of physical items, such as food packaging, furniture, and paper documents. Other predictions include the emergence of new kinds of energy storage technologies.

Semantic Desktop Paves the Way for the Semantic Web
ICT Results (11/25/08)

The European Union-funded Nepomuk project has developed innovative software to make finding and sharing information on a computer significantly easier, potentially solving the "chicken and egg" problem that has hindered the development of the semantic Web. Providing information with semantic data so that the content of the information is understood by machines has been called the next evolution of the Internet, ultimately giving more structure to the often chaotic Web. However, the deployment of the semantic Web has largely stalled because there is little incentive to create semantic content when there are so few services and applications that could capitalize on its use. Nepomuk project researchers aimed to bring semantic information closer to the user, focusing on how it can help people find and structure information on their personal computers, and share that information with other users, instead of on the traditional area of how semantic information can be used on the Web. "In making data and connections between data easy to find and identify, the semantic desktop gives people a very personal motivation to start annotating their information," says Nepomuk coordinator Ansgar Bernardi. "The next logical step is for that information to be shared, and you therefore have a starting point for the semantic Web." Nepomuk's desktop solution allows users to give meaning to documents, contact details, pictures, videos, and a variety of other data stored on a user's computer, regardless of file format, application, or language, making it easier and quicker to find information and identify connections between different items. When information is added, the Nepomuk software asks users to annotate the information so it can be correctly situated, and it also crawls the user's computer to search for information and establishes connections between different items.

Saying 'Cheese' for More Effective Border Security
National Institute of Standards and Technology (11/25/08) Stein, Ben

Facial recognition systems can be extremely useful in situations that require comparing a photograph to images of known or suspected criminals, but creating a match can be almost impossible when using low-quality images. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researchers have discovered that several simple steps can significantly improve the quality of facial images collected at border points like airports and seaports. The NIST recommendations for improving facial images can be implemented relatively easily using existing facial recognition technology. The Department of Homeland Security's US-VISIT program digitally collects picture and fingerprints from travelers entering the United States, and the NIST has been working with US-VISIT to improve the processes and technologies. Following the observation of the entry-point at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., the NIST researchers identified and shared several steps for acquiring better facial images. For example, a report from NIST recommends that operators should adjust camera settings to ensure subjects are properly in focus, as well as using a traditional-looking camera in facial-recognition systems so individuals clearly recognize the camera and look directly into it when having their picture taken. In tests that followed the NIST's suggestions, 100 percent of images from the improved systems were able to capture participants' faces, with all of the participants facing the camera; the researchers also found additional improvements could be made using a graphical overlay on the camera display to better position the camera. The researchers believe such changes will improve the performance of facial recognition systems in real-world settings using existing technology.

UT Trainees Tackle Health Information Technology Issues
University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (11/17/08) Cahill, Rob

University of Texas School of Health Information Sciences at Houston (SHIS) has received a $1.3 million grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to support research by six trainees in health information technology. SHIS principal investigator Todd R. Johnson says a huge effort is underway to use health information technology to improve health care, but notes that current technology is not designed to efficiently support the needs of clinicians. As a result, Johnson says there have been numerous cases where the introduction of health IT causes a loss in efficiency and an increase in medical errors. A report by the Institute of Medicine estimates that medical errors cost the United States approximately $38 billion a year and that as many as 98,000 people die in hospitals each year as a result of a medical error. Training grant co-director Eric Thomas says that most medical errors are partially because of information overload. The trainees are working on projects that will increase patient safety. One trainee is focusing on how to design information communications systems so physicians do not miss abnormal test result notifications, while another trainee is looking to improve emergency room decision making. Another trainee is using radio identification technology to track the movements of both emergency room personnel and supplies, and another is using information from simulation studies to develop an IT solution to improve the effectiveness and timeliness of clinical decisions in emergency rooms.

Quantum Computing Spins Closer
Stanford Report (CA) (11/20/08) Stober, Dan

Stanford University researchers have successfully used ultrafast lasers to set a new speed record for the time it takes to rotate and confirm the spin of an individual electron, a major step in the development of quantum computers. The researchers were able to confine the construction of a qubit, a quantum computer's information unit, to within a nano-sized semiconductor. The qubit in the Stanford experiment was manipulated and measured about 100 times faster than with previous techniques, says graduate student David Press. The qubit was first hit with specific frequencies of laser light to define and measure the electron spin. The spin was then rotated with polarized light pulses in tens of picoseconds, before being read with another optical pulse. Similar experiments have been done with radio-frequency pulses, which are slower than laser light pulses. Press says the experiment will make quantum computing faster, and that it "pushed quantum dots up to speed with other qubit candidate systems to ultimately build a quantum computer." Although quantum computing is still years away, Press says researchers are currently developing a system of tens or hundreds of qubits to simulate the operation of a larger quantum system.

Hybrid Architectures Dominate Green500
Government Computer News (11/24/08) Jackson, Joab

The most recent version of the Green500 list was revealed at the SC08 supercomputing conference in Austin, Texas, marking the first time that high-performance computers have been capable of executing more than 500 million floating-point operations/second for every watt of energy used. The most energy-efficient supercomputer, a 2,016-processor machine at the University of Warsaw's Interdisciplinary Center for Mathematical and Computational Modeling, produced more than 536 megaflops per watt. The University of Warsaw supercomputer and the next top-six systems on the list all run IBM's multicore Cell Broadband Engine (Cell/B.E.) processor, and four of those systems use IBM's new QS22 blade server. Overall, the participating supercomputers showed a 17 percent improvement in energy efficiency over the previous Green500 list, which was created in 2006 by Virginia Tech associate professors Wu Feng and Kirk Cameron as a way of encouraging supercomputer developers to pay greater attention to how much energy their products consume. The Green500 rankings are determined by dividing the Linpack score, taken as part of the Top500 rankings, by the average amount of wattage used during the test. The machine that was first on the Top500 list, the Los Alamos National Laboratory's IBM-based Roadrunner, ranked ninth on the Green500 list. The widespread use of systems running specialized processors could lead to more energy-efficient machines. Specialized processors such as the Cell/B.E., Nvidia's Cuda-based graphical processors, or plug-in field-programmable gate arrays can provide more flops per watt than general-use processors.

CMU Does Research on Cloud Computing
The Tartan (11/24/08) Vaidya, Akanksha

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers are exploring ways of exploiting cloud computing technology. "We want to use computers that are remote from us, but it's because we need computers that are so much bigger to handle much larger sets of data than we could do with our own machines," says CMU School of Computer Science dean Randal Bryant. "We call this data-intensive computing." Bryant notes that companies such as Google and Yahoo! already have made use of cloud computing with their search engines, which are capable of scanning large amounts of data and searching for keywords. CMU is tackling similar projects on a smaller scale using a large Yahoo! cluster. One CMU project uses the cluster to process different images. The researchers have downloaded nearly 6 million images from and are analyzing them to find certain characteristics that can be used to develop a variety of applications. Another project has scientists from the human-computer interaction department examining how different people collaborate on Wikipedia projects. Cloud computing techniques also are being used to improve language translation. By comparing the same texts in different languages, sentences with the same meaning in both languages could be collected and used to translate new documents.

Agent-Based Computer Models Could Anticipate Future Economic Crisis
Argonne National Laboratory (11/14/08)

The U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory is working to create new economic models that will provide more realistic pictures of different types of markets to help prevent future economic crises. Argonne systems scientist Charles Macal says traditional economic models do not represent the market's true internal dynamics because they ignore the decision-making processes of individual consumers and investors. "The traditional models don't represent individuals in the economy, or else they're all represented the same way--as completely rational agents," Macal says. "Because they ignore many other aspects of behavior that influence how people make decisions in real life, these models can't always accurately predict the dynamics of the market." Macal and other Argonne researchers have created a new group of simulations called agent-based models to better predict how markets will act. The new models partially rely on information collected in surveys that ask individuals about factors that influence their decisions. By having a more thorough understanding of the behavior of individuals, researchers will be better able to predict and prevent economic failures. Agent-based models calculate possible decisions for each individual investor in a model, using the results of these decisions to see what impact they could have on other agents. Creating such detailed simulations relies on the availability of high-performance computers capable of managing the challenge of mathematically representing an enormous number of individual actors. Macal says five years ago it was impossible to model more than a couple of agents, but now millions of agents can be modeled.

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