Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the December 12, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Mind-Controlled Robotic Limbs Become the Ants-Pants
Computerworld Australia (12/10/08) Edwards, Katheryn

University of Technology Sydney (UTS) researchers have developed prosthetic limbs that respond to brain signals by mimicking the nonelectric signals used by the central nervous system to control muscle activity. Artificial intelligence researchers used the complex interactions between ants to develop a pattern recognition formula to identify bioelectric signals that can be used in human trials. The behavior of social insects such as ants helps scientists understand the body's electrical signals enabling them to create a robotic prosthesis that can be operated by human thought, says UTS Ph.D. student Rami Khushaba. Khushaba is developing a mathematical basis for identifying which biosignals relate to particular arm movements and where electrodes should be placed to capture those signals. Nature's abundance of swarm intelligence algorithms was a major reason for using them in the development of the prosthesis, along with their use of multi-agent techniques to solve specific problems. "We can use the behavior of the ants to enhance the quality of the control systems that we employ with the robotic limbs," Khushaba says. The researchers create a map of the voluntary intent of the central nervous system by attaching sensors to the limb following an amputation to record an electromyogram. Only a few seconds of data is needed to train the system to identify patterns in the raw data during the online testing phase. Khushaba says the biggest challenge to the system's success will be maintaining speed and accuracy.

Silicon Valley Conference Aims to Raise Planetary IQ
Wired News (12/08/08) Tweney, Dylan

More than 100 people recently gathered at San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation to discuss how Douglas Engelbart's 40-year-old vision of how a network of computers could help people work more efficiently can be applied today to help foster greater collective intelligence. The Program for the Future conference featured Engelbart, Google director of research Peter Norvig, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, computer scientist Alan Kay, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professors Thomas Malone and Hiroshi Ishii. Ishii called Engelbart his hero, and cited Engelbart's inspirational effects on his own career and the computer industry as a whole. Program for the Future organizer Mei Lin Fung says the event was a "changing of the guard" from the older generation of computer engineers to a new generation of students and entrepreneurs. A presentation by Ishii highlighted how the handoff may occur, focusing on some of the work that he and students at the MIT Media Lab's Tangible Media Group have been working on, including the I/O Brush, which uses a video camera hidden inside a large calligraphy brush to draw captured images on a screen. Ishii's lab also has developed a "Minority Report"-style interface called G-Speak that enables users to interact with large datasets on wall-mounted screens and tabletop displays by "grabbing" virtual objects with their hands.

A*STAR Introduces 13 Innovative Technologies at SIGGRAPH Asia 2008
Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) (12/09/08) Wei Peng, Seeto

The Singapore Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) introduced 13 new graphics and animation, intuitive human-computer interaction, and neural signal processing technologies at ACM's SIGGRAPH Asia conference, which opened in Singapore on Dec. 10. The technologies were developed at several A*STAR research institutions, including the Institute for Infocomm Research, the Data Storage Institute, the Institute of High Performance Computing, and the Singapore Bioimaging Consortium. The technologies include image-based 3D face modeling, Brain Control for Attention Training, Brain Explorer, Camview-Total Digital SLR Capture Control, a DJ simulation game with a remote gesture control interaction mechanism, a holographic three-dimensional display system, human action recognition technology, the Interactive Multimedia Jockey System, a human-computer interaction system for large screens called Lightdraw, a machine translation program for South-East Asian languages, a MPEG-2 to H.264/AVC transcoder, and an interactive mobile image recognition system called Snap2Tell & Snap2Play. "In the exciting computer graphics industry, our multi-disciplined researchers seek to develop use-inspired research that could enhance how we live; enrich our playing and learning; and more importantly, improve how we work," says professor Chong Tow Chong, executive director of the Science and Engineering Research Council.

OpenCL: to GPGPU and Beyond
HPC Wire (12/11/08) West, John

The Khronos Group announced the ratification of version 1.0 of the OpenCL specification at SIGGRAPH Asia. OpenCL promises to expedite the development of applications that leverage the extra processing power available in the GPU. OpenCL may offer Internet service that gives an opportunity for providing high performance levels on traditional scientific computing applications for users of servers and desktops by encouraging more applications to exploit the GPU. Khronos says that another goal of OpenCL is to deliver a "programming environment for software developers to write efficient, portable code for high-performance compute servers, desktop computer systems, and handheld devices using a diverse mix of multicore CPUs, GPUs, Cell-type architectures, and other parallel processors such as DSPs." SGI's Bob Pette says OpenCL is a move toward overcoming the programming challenges of accelerator and multi-paradigm computing as well as protecting software investments as hardware technology undergoes rapid changes. OpenCL or OpenCL-based tools promise to enable developers to parallelize an application for a system with multicore processors, GPUs, or both, as both data- and task-parallel programming models are supported by the specification. "There will likely be a performance penalty--seeing as the major vendors may choose to layer OpenCL on top of their native drivers," Pette says. "And of course, mere ratification does not imply implementation."

Firms Push for a More Searchable Federal Web
Washington Post (12/11/08) P. D1; Whoriskey, Peter

As an informal adviser to President-elect Barack Obama, Google CEO Eric Schmidt is in a unique position to help correct a major oversight: The U.S. government's unwillingness or inability to make millions of its Web pages publicly accessible. "The vast majority of information is still not searchable or findable ... because it's not published or it's on Web sites which the government has put up which no one can index," Schmidt said during a recent presentation at the New America Foundation. This renders information intended for public use effectively invisible, says Google's J.L. Needham. The major Web search engines say most Web users are used to retrieving information by entering queries into one of the engines and giving up if they cannot find it there, even though much of the government's data can be accessed online by visiting agencies' Web sites. Needham calculates that 1,000 federal government Web sites are not accessible to search engine crawlers, mainly because a lot of federal government data cannot be retrieved without filling out an online form. To make federal databases visible to search engines, the government has to convert each item into a Web page and then furnish a list of those Web page addresses to the search engines. Over 25 federal agencies are working with Microsoft to make their Web sites "crawlable" by search engines, while Pamela Wright with the National Archives and Records Administration says her organization expects to make its entire database containing descriptions of its holdings available to Google by January.

The Social Life of Routers
Technology Review (12/09/08) Naone, Erica

The rapid and continued growth of the Internet has led experts to worry that current routing protocols may not be able to handle the increased traffic. Research at Spain's University of Barcelona suggests that social networking approaches could be applied to real-world networks, including the Internet's routing system. The University of Barcelona's Marian Boguna argues that research by Cornell University's Jon Kleinberg and others can be applied to real-world networks and used to design a protocol that enables routers to track less information about the network, reducing total congestion. The key is to identify the hidden bits of information that could help routers decide where to send a packet, Boguna says. The hidden bits of information could be the physical location of a router, or the type of information it last handled, which could provide clues on where to forward information to without the knowledge of the complete structure of the network. Kleinberg calls Boguna's research "a very elegant approach to exploring the underlying structures that make navigability possible in real networks" and says it has the potential "to inform a new class of routing strategies." However, University of Cambridge professor Jon Crowcroft cautions that real-world experiments are needed to see if the approach actually works. Boguna says the next step is to identify what hidden bits of information could be used for Internet routing, a process that could take several years.

Microsoft Research Develops Map Search for Unstructured Data
IDG News Service (12/10/08) Ribeiro, John

Microsoft Research India has developed Robust Location Search, software that enable users to search maps in countries where addresses are often unstructured. The program's algorithm uses underlying geospatial data to determine what location the terms in the address string match with, says Microsoft Research India director B. Ashok. In countries with unstructured addresses such as India, location is often described in an address by its spatial relationship to a landmark, instead of by a system that uses a street number, street name, city, state, and postal code. Ashok says the same location frequently has a different address or reference to multiple landmarks. Robust Location Search uses spatial intersections to analyze various terms in unstructured addresses to determine the location. The software can find the location regardless of the order in which terms are submitted or when the same address has multiple listings, and can find locations for queries submitted in other languages.

Instore Web 3.0 Scouting (12/09/08)

Scientists at Toshiba's Corporate Research and Development Center in Japan have developed word-of-mouth (WOM) Scouter, a system that will enable consumers to learn what the media generally thinks about a product while in a store. The system has shoppers use their cell phone cameras to take a photo of the barcode of a product being considered for purchase. WOM Scouter connects to the Internet and looks up the product's metadata, gathers reviews from blogs and Web sites, then uses natural language processing techniques to analyze what is being said about it. The system delivers a straightforward opinion of the reputation of the product, whether positive or negative. The Toshiba team has tested the system in an electronics store and a book store. Toshiba's Takahiron Kawamura says the semantic Web technology could deliver the current buzz about movies and restaurants as well, and could even help people decide whether to accept a job with a certain company.

Carnegie Mellon CyLab Survey Unveils Major Gap in the Way U.S. Boards and CEOs Manage Cyber Risks
Carnegie Mellon News (12/02/08) Swaney, Chriss

Carnegie Mellon University's CyLab has surveyed 703 corporate board directors and found that only 36 percent of the respondents said their board was directly involved in overseeing the management of information security. The boards were involved about 31 percent of the time in assessing risk related to IT or personal data. Only 8 percent said their boards had a risk committee that is separate from the audit committee, and 12 percent have established functional separation of privacy and security. Cybersecurity should be viewed as an enterprise risk management issue rather than an IT problem, say Carnegie Mellon researchers. "There is a clear duty to protect the assets of a company, and today, most corporate assets are digital," says CyLab's Jody Westby, lead author of the survey. The researchers offer recommendations for improving the corporate governance of privacy and security, such as establishing a board risk committee that is separate from the audit committee, reviewing existing top-level policies, and embracing security and privacy issues. "Without the right organizational structure and interest from top officials, enterprise security can't be effective no matter how much money an organization throws at it," says report co-author Richard Power.

Virtual Organizations Become a Reality
ICT Results (12/10/08)

European researchers working on the SIMDAT project have developed a suite of tools that enable corporations to deploy grid computer systems for use throughout the supply chain. The virtual organization research project leverages grid technology to securely deliver services and data across organizational boundaries, helping organizations cooperate more frequently and more easily. Until recently, virtual organizations have been difficult to establish and filled with technical and organizational issues. SIMDAT solves such problems through grid computing. SIMDAT offers tools that link processing power, databases, and different operating systems, and provides access to applications and services from across the grid. SIMDAT can accomplish this while maintaining established management and security agreements and protecting intellectual property. After a partnership is finished, SIMDAT separates the grid back into its original units. "SIMDAT is the first project that really brought grid technology to industry," says Ulrich Trottenberg, director of Fraunhofer SCAI, the coordinating partner of SIMDAT. "When we started the project, in 2004, there was the idea of grid tech in industry in principle, but all the activities were more or less academic."

Virginia Tech Is Building an Artificial America in a Supercomputer
IEEE Spectrum (12/04/08) Upson, Sandra

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University researchers have created a virtual America, modeling the lives of approximately 100 million Americans, using publicly available demographic data. The researchers hope the simulation will provide new insight into the effects of human activities and trends, such as how contagion spreads, fads grow, or traffic flows. Over the next six months the researchers expect to be able to simulate the movement of all 300 million residents of the United States. The simulation, called EpiSimdemics, matches the demographic attributes of groups with at least 1,500 people, says researcher Keith Bisset. Using as many as 163 variables, mostly from the U.S. Census, the software creates people to populate real communities, and gives each person an age, education level, and occupation that mirrors local statistics from the census. Some individuals are clustered into families, while others live alone, and certain people are employed in specific jobs based on data from a business directory. Navteq provided land-use information to assign every simulated house a real street address, as well as schools, supermarkets, and shopping centers based on their proximity to the homes. When a simulated American goes shopping, the model algorithm assigns probabilities that he or she will visit one store or another, creating a level of unpredictability. Modeling how a flu epidemic might spread through different regions has been a major application of the simulation so far.

Life Is a Highway: Study Confirms Cars Have Personality
Florida State University (11/26/08)

Florida State University Department of Scientific Computing professor Dennis Slice has co-authored a report that uses statistical analysis to confirm that many people see human facial features in the front end of automobiles and assign various personality traits to cars. "The most unique aspect of the study was that we were able to quantitatively link the perception of cars to aspects of their physical structure in a way that allows us to generate a car that would project, say, aggression, anger, or masculinity, or the opposite traits," Slice says. Almost a third of the experiment's participants, 32.5 percent, associated a human or animal face with at least 90 percent of cars. Participants were asked to rate different cars on 19 traits, including dominance, maturity, gender, friendliness, and if they liked the car. Participants liked power vehicles best, rating them as the most mature, masculine, arrogant, and even angry-looking cars. Slice says the finding raises some interesting questions for future studies on pedestrian and driver behavior. He also says the study creates a view of human's prehistoric psyches. Study researchers theorize that biological evolution has taught human brains to infer significant amounts of information on another person, including age, sex, attitudes, personality trains, and emotions, just from a glance at their face. Slice says the ability to recognize faces has been so important to human survival that people are tempted to see faces everywhere.

The Algorithm That Opens the Way for Delivery Companies
Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (12/04/08)

Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya doctoral student Miquel Angel Estrada has developed a delivery optimization system that uses a tabu search-based metaheuristic algorithm to help delivery companies find the best way of transporting and delivering their goods. The system defines the route, size of the vehicles used, and the location of stopping points, and can estimate the cost of the delivery and choose a strategy for sending the goods from three possible options. The system creates conclusions based on the variables involved. For example, the cost of handling goods in a hub affects the ideal-capacity calculations for the vehicles at the loading bays. The system demonstrates that small packages should be shipped in large trucks when handling costs are low, but vans, which can be filled faster, are better when handling costs are high. Estrada's system has been applied in situations where the vehicles are carrying full loads, and has reduced costs by 7 percent compared to solutions provided by other heuristic methods, and has improved costs by more than 12 percent when partial loads are used. The system also can calculate the extra costs delivery companies experience when vehicles are stuck in traffic, and estimates that costs rise exponentially in areas where the traffic circulates at an average of less than 40 km/h for at least four hours a day.

E-Learning Can Have Positive Effect on Classroom Learning, Scholar Says
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (11/26/08) Ciciora, Phil

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign professor Caroline Haythornthwaite says traditional classroom education techniques could be improved by examining e-learning more closely. Haythornthwaite says e-learning has been underrated at the college level, and some of its methods and techniques could be used to improve traditional classroom learning. "Compared to the more traditional educational paradigm--the broadcast model, where knowledge is delivered from professor to student from on-high--e-learning turns teaching and learning into a shared endeavor," she says. Haythornthwaite teaches both online and in-person classes as part of the college's 13-year-old LEEP program, a distance-education program that enables graduate students to complete a master of science in library and information science, a certificate of advanced study, or a K-12 library and information science certificate online. Slightly more than half of the 700 students in the program are online students. Compared to traditional classes that focus on instructors dictating content and pedagogy, e-learning is a more learner-friendly alternative that allows the teacher to operate in a different capacity, Haythornthwaite says. In e-learning environments teachers operate more as a facilitator, enhancing the collaborative nature of learning and motivating students to be more engaged and take more responsibility for what they are learning, she says.

Learning From Digital Measurements of Face-to-Face Interactions
Chronicle of Higher Education (12/05/08) Vol. 55, No. 15, P. A13; Young, Jeffrey R.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Alex Pentland has developed the sociometer, a device designed to measure social interaction digitally. "For the first time we can give everyone in an organization a little name badge with sensors in them ... and based on that we can produce a map of who talked to who and when, and how did they talk to each other," he says in an interview. Elements that the sociometer measures include the people surrounding the wearer, whether the wearer is facing them, the wearer's actions--walking, talking, sitting, standing, gesturing, etc.--and the tone of voice. Pentland says the badges can determine who is setting the pace of a conversation by analyzing the pattern of speaking versus not speaking. He observes that research has uncovered a way to predict who will come out ahead in interactions such as sales and salary negotiations by studying the tone of voice in the first few minutes of the exchange. Pentland says that "people have the ability to read each other for ... social relationships. What I've done is develop a series of computer tools that can be built into tiny little name badges or even into cell phones that allow you to read this sort of social information."

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