Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the December 19, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


U.S. Risks Its Standard of Living Without Boost to Research, House Science Chairman Says
Computerworld (12/18/08) Thibodeau, Patrick

U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology, says the United States must increase basic research and development (R&D) funding or risk a decline in its standard of living. Gordon says that other nations are increasing their funding for R&D while the U.S. is remaining stagnant and even decreasing in some areas. The National Science Foundation reports that federal funding for basic research has not kept pace with inflation over the past two years. Gordon says the federal government must assume a larger role in basic research. The Obama administration is expected to support a $600 billion to $800 billion economic stimulus package next year. Gordon says it will be important that the stimulus package support "twofers," projects that can deliver quick gains and increase employment but also lead to major technological advancements later. One potential twofer is research into lighter and longer-lasting batteries, Gordon says. Other projects could include fostering interoperability standards that will lead to improved healthcare IT systems; improving science, math, and technology education; and increasing funding for R&D programs that focus on managing electronic waste.

Creating Software That Opens Worlds to the Disabled
New York Times (12/18/08) P. B7; Flanigan, James

University of Southern California (USC) computer science students and graduates have established Project: Possibility, a nonprofit organization that is developing technology solutions to help disabled people lead more independent lives. Project: Possibility recently held a two-day software-writing competition in which eight groups of volunteers developed a program to help the disabled, including one program that enables vision-impaired shoppers to use their cell phones to hear descriptions and prices of products at the supermarket. Another program enables physically disabled users to guide a computer mouse using brain waves and eye movement. Project: Possibility was started two years ago by USC computer science graduate student Christopher Leung, who was working on a project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the time. Leung says he created a solar system visualization program for blind students visiting the lab to enable them to feel the textures of other worlds using force feedback, and realized there was a need for similar solutions. The volunteer effort is now based at USC. Leung says that Project: Possibility plans to be completely open source and make all programs developed under the project available for download, modification, and use by anyone for free in the hope that similar programs will be developed at other universities. The organization will host a competition in February at the University of California, Los Angeles, and plans to develop a Web site where disabled people and software developers can collaborate on new ideas and add to existing programs.

U.S. Spending on Research to Fall
Wall Street Journal (12/18/08) P. B2; Nail, Gautam

U.S. research and development (R&D) funding will drop next year as corporations and the federal government cut spending, predicts a Battelle Memorial Institute report. After accounting for inflation, total U.S. spending in R&D is expected to fall by about 1.6 percent in 2009, the report says. Without adjusting for inflation, R&D spending is expected to increase about 1.72 percent to $383.5 billion in 2009, up from $377 billion this year. Battelle report co-author Jules Duga says that any drop in R&D spending may only be temporary. "We've been through this sort of change in the past and returned to steady-state growth," Duga says. "Managers and those in the boardroom continue to believe in R&D--they take a long-term view." Industry, the largest source of R&D funds in the U.S., is expected to spend $257 billion next year on R&D, down about 1.3 percent from this year after adjusting for inflation, though that figure does not account for investments made by U.S. companies overseas. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is expected to spend $99 billion in 2009, a drop of 2.9 percent after adjusting for inflation. U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has emphasized the need for greater government support in science, medicine, and R&D, but the new administration will not be able to make significant changes in R&D priorities in the fiscal budget until 2010.

SIGGRAPH 2009 Art Papers Explore Art in a Digital World
Business Wire (12/16/08)

ACM SIGGRAPH is now accepting submissions for Art Papers for SIGGRAPH 2009 through Jan. 8, 2009. Papers should present challenging ideas about the creation of art and its place in society, with the goal of informing artistic disciplines, setting standards, and sparking future trends. Digital arts, interactive techniques, and the theme of the SIGGRAPH 2009 juried art gallery, BioLogic Art, are the core topics for the Art Papers. SIGGRAPH will collaborate with Leonardo, the Journal of the International Society of the Arts, Sciences and Technology, to publish a special issue that highlights SIGGRAPH 2009 Art Papers and features the BioLogic Art exhibit. "SIGGRAPH concerns itself with the innovation and education crossroads of art, science, and technology," says Jacquelyn Martino, chair of SIGGRAPH 2009 Art Papers. "So, naturally we are thrilled to collaborate with Leonardo in the publication of this year's Art Papers." Authors will have an opportunity to present their papers in 20-minute sessions and field questions after their presentations. SIGGRAPH 2009 is scheduled for August 3-7, in New Orleans, La.

Plugging a Password Leak
Technology Review (12/19/08) Kremen, Rachel

Researchers from Harvard University's Center for Research on Computation and Society, the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University have improved the security of browser-based automatic log-in procedures. The researchers focused on password managers created with browser bookmarklets that use JavaScript to automatically log in a user to a Web site. The researchers identified a major flaw in bookmarklets in which an attack could trick bookmarklets into revealing all of a user's passwords. Bookmarklet-based password managers generally store passwords on a central server, and when a user visits one of those sites the user is automatically logged in. However, the researchers found that bookmarklets could not be trusted to know what Web site the user was actually visiting, meaning a few lines of code would be enough to trick the system into logging into a malicious site. The researchers found a solution that checks the referrer header instead of checking a browser window's location. The improved bookmarklet uses the secure socket layer (SSL) data transfer protocol to prevent the header from being easily forged. The researchers say that in the future a new browser feature called postMessage will enable browser windows to securely transfer information back and forth, providing even better security than the SSL solution.

Gesture Recognition
EurekAlert (12/18/08)

Gesture-recognition technology could be used to make virtual worlds seem more realistic and to help people with physical disabilities interact with computers, says Manolya Kavakli with Macquarie University's Virtual and Interactive Simulations of Reality Research Group. Kavakli and colleagues have developed the DESigning In virtual Reality (DesIRe) and DRiving for disabled (DRive) gesture-recognition systems. "DesIRe allows any user to control dynamically in real-time simulators or other programs," Kavakli says. "DRive allows a quadriplegic person to control a car interface using input from just two LEDs on an over-shoulder garment." Users of the systems would wear datagloves, which have illuminated LEDs that are tracked by two pairs of computer webcams to give the computer an all-round binocular view for monitoring hand or shoulder movements. The input could then be fed to a program, a game, simulator, or an avatar in a three-dimensional virtual environment.

Computing in a Molecule
ICT Results (12/19/08)

Scientists from 15 European academic and industrial research institutions are working on the European Union-funded Pico-Inside project, which was established to develop a molecular replacement for transistors. The researchers, led by Christian Joachim of the Centre for Material Elaboration & Structural Studies at the French National Scientific Research Centre, say the use of molecular-sized computer components could lead to atomic-scale computing. Joachim notes that nanotechnology focuses on shrinking parts down to the smallest size possible, while the Pico-Inside team is working from the opposite end by starting with the atom and determining if such a small bit of matter can be used to create a logic gate, memory source, or other component. "The question we have asked ourselves is how many atoms does it take to build a computer?" he says. "That is something we cannot answer at present, but we are getting a better idea about it." So far, the researchers have designed a logic gate with 30 atoms that performs the same task as 14 transistors. The researchers also have explored the architecture, technology, and chemistry needed to achieve computing at the molecular scale and to interconnect molecules. Project researchers have focused on two architectures, one that mimics the classical design of a logic gate, and another, more complex process that relies on changes to the molecule's conformation to execute logic-gate inputs and quantum mechanics to perform the computation.

Fat Fingers No Problem With 'See-Through' Touchscreen
New Scientist (12/18/08) Carras, Colin

Electronic devices continue to be made smaller and smaller, making some question exactly when these devices will be considered too small to be functional. However, tests of a new prototype device show that touch-screen targets smaller than a centimeter across can be usable by combining a screen on the front with a touch-sensitive pad on the back. When touch screens become too small, users with larger fingers have difficultly accurately hitting touch-screen targets because their fingers can block the touch buttons from view, says Patrick Baudisch, a researcher at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany, and Microsoft Research. To solve this problem, Baudisch and Daniel Wigdor form Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs developed the LucidTouch, a device that enables users to interact with a screen by touching the back of the device. A new, smaller prototype of the device, called NanoTouch, has a 6-centimeter screen and a touchpad of the same size on the back. NanoTouch enables users to move a tiny cursor on the screen by touching the back of the device. NanoTouch displays an image of a finger on the screen as the user's finger moves across the back, as if the device were transparent. A small spot marked on the end of the digital finger is used to interact with buttons onscreen. Tests show that targets only 1.8 millimeters wide were easy to use on the NanoTouch. Baudisch says the NanoTouch's accuracy could lead to tiny devices with screens as small as a centimeter that are still easy to use.

Doing Quality Control on Computerized Genome Science
Ars Technica (12/16/08) Timmer, John

Gene prediction programs that identify the DNA sequences that code for proteins face challenges that require the predictions to pass a number of tests, writes John Timmer. These tests are performed and weighed differently by different algorithms, which means that a single genome can contain different numbers of genes depending on which software is used for analysis. "What's really needed is some sort of quality check for the gene prediction algorithms, so that we have some sense of the error rate, and some data to help us improve them," Timmer says. He cites two recent papers that tackle this challenge, one of which describes software that can be employed to scan the sequences of predicted proteins and recognize errors by tapping knowledge about specific parts of proteins called domains. The software's authors rely on the assumption that, to a certain degree, gene prediction programs connect these domains in nonsensical ways, and they have worked out software tests designed to spot five common mistakes of this type. The second paper takes a biological approach to error correction, and involves the isolation, dicing, and separation of all the proteins from cells of an experimental organism. Each protein fragment is then sent through a mass spectrometer, enabling the researchers to identify the protein sequence according to its molecular weight.

For Chip Makers, Hybrids May Be a Way Forward
New York Times (12/15/08) Markoff, John

Chip manufacturers are experimenting with exotic materials as an alternative to silicon in an effort to boost computer speeds and improve energy efficiency. Materials such as gallium arsenide and indium phosphide, which are more difficult and expensive to manufacture than silicon, are being used to build so-called III-V semiconductors. Chip manufacturers are developing techniques to build hybrid chips that integrate radio or optical communications functions, potentially enabling the operation of III-V-based transistors with lower power consumption without losing performance advantages. At the recent International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco, researchers from Intel and MIT reported on their efforts to make ultrafast transistors, which could be dozens of times faster than modern silicon-based transistors. Intel reported the successful creation of a blend of both silicon and a III-V compound, indium antimonide, capable of running as fast as 140 gigahertz. Intel executives say the new hybrid transistor could eventually be used to continue to shrink the size of transistors. Intel's Mike Mayberry says it may take four generations of chips before the new hybrid approach is used in a commercial capacity, but it could lead to widely available, inexpensive consumer electronic devices.

The Fastest Computers Are Going Hybrid
Government Computer News (12/15/08) Vol. 27, No. 29, Jackson. Joab

A clearly recognizable trend at the recent SC08 conference in Austin, Texas, was a general shift in supercomputer design toward using multiple types of processors in a single system. Over the past decade, an increasing number of the supercomputers on the Top500 list have used commodity processors. Although commodity processors are not as powerful as vector processors designed specifically for the high-performance computer market, they are much less expensive and provide more processing power per dollar. Meanwhile, developers have started augmenting commodity processor-based supercomputers with specialty processors, including floating-point accelerators, field-programmable gate arrays, repurposed graphics processing units, and processors designed for video-game consoles. The industry is shifting toward using a combination of processors because using both commodity processors and specialty processors makes highly efficient yet powerful and inexpensive machines. "Power performance has become a very important metric as of late--some feel even more important than [simply] performance," says University of California, Berkeley graduate student Kaushik Datta, who presented the results of a study he led about the best ways to design multicore systems at the SC08 conference. "As you specialize the chip, you're able to be much more efficient with what you are doing with the flops," says Intel senior research scientist Timothy Mattson.

IBM Labs Promises Five Innovations
IDG News Service (12/15/08) Weil, Nancy

IBM researchers' list of promising new technologies includes the ability to "talk" to the Web; information collection and retrieval systems that cover us when we forget something; solar technology built into asphalt, windows, and paint; genetic maps of every person's DNA; and personal digital shopping assistants that alert salespeople when someone needs help and avatars to allow shoppers to see what clothing looks good. IBM creates the list by consulting with leading innovators at the company, says Sharon Nunes, IBM's vice president for Big Green Innovations. The spoken Web project has been in development at IBM for more than 30 years. Creating a spoken Web interface could enable users to verbally respond to email and instant messages. Nunes says the technology exists in bits and pieces, and that scaling and social acceptance are the major hurdles to widescale use. Meanwhile, IBM researchers say that conversations, reminders, lists, and daily encounters will be recorded, stored, and analyzed using portable and stationary devices, such as mobile phones with built-in microphones and video cameras, to help users remember everything. IBM also says that cheaper computational power will allow for widespread, inexpensive genetic mapping, enabling healthcare professionals to consult a patient's DNA for screening and preventative treatment.

Will Biometrics Measure Up to the Future?
CNN (12/13/08) Fong, Cherise

Biometric security applications have failed to take hold in the U.S., but European organizations are starting to use the technology. Germany's IT-Werke has deployed a fingerprint payment system in 120 Edeka outlets, and in June launched a six-month pilot of a similar system in conjunction with the Equens payment processor in the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn. Footprints, palm prints, veins in hands or fingers, face recognition, iris scans, retina scans, hand geometry, facial thermograms, and body odor are other physiological biometrics that serve as the basis for ID systems. Other biometric ID systems focus on behavior, such as voice prints, signature or handwriting dynamics, keystroke dynamics, and gait. "Commercial products are still primarily limited to fingerprint ID technologies applied to door locks and PCs/laptops," says Hanseok Ko, director of Korea University's Intelligent Signal Processing Laboratory. Motorola is currently marketing its Mobile AFIS device, which can record both fingerprints and facial images, link to wireless networks to upload data, integrate bar code scanners, a smart card reader/writer, GPS, and phone, and can be held in the palm of a hand. It is easier to forge credit card signatures than to commit biometrical ID theft, but it is possible for thieves to illegally access and duplicate archived prints and use them to generate artificial models. "Public acceptance of biometrics has been slow to grow, and will continue to be an issue until issues of privacy and security of data have been brought up to a level acceptable by the majority of people," says Biometrics Institute general manager Isabelle Moeller.

Car Key Jams Teen Drivers' Cell Phones
University of Utah (12/11/08) Siegel, Lee J.

University of Utah researchers have developed the Key2SafeDriving, a car key that prevents drivers from talking on the cell phone or sending text messages while driving. "The key to safe driving is to avoid distraction," says Utah professor Xuesong Zhou, who developed the key along with Utah graduate student Wally Curry. "We want to provide a simple, cost-effective solution to improve driving safety." Zhou says that using the Key2SafeDriving system will ensure that teen drivers are not talking while driving, which can significantly reduce the risk of getting into car accidents and possibly lower insurance costs. The key contains a device that wirelessly connects with the user's cell phone through Bluetooth or RFID technologies. To turn on a car, the driver must either slide the key out or push a button to release the key, which turns on the device and puts the phone into driving mode, which displays a "stop" sign on the phone's screen. When in driving mode, the phone cannot be used to make calls or send text messages, except for calling 911 or other pre-approved numbers. Incoming calls are automatically answered with a message saying the user is driving and will return the call when safe. When the key is removed from the car, it can be slid back into the device to return the phone to normal.

The Ethical Frontiers of Robotics
Science (12/19/08) Vol. 322, No. 5909, P. 1800; Sharkey, Noel

Unexpected dangers and ethical dilemmas are inherent in the use of service robots, including the care of children and senior citizens and the military's development of autonomous robotic weaponry, writes University of Sheffield professor Noel Sharkey. American and Japanese research on child-minding machines finds that children cultivate a close bond with robots, and the effects of long-term exposure to this form of caregiving on children's psychological and social development have yet to be measured. But studies of early primate development demonstrate that infant animals permitted to develop attachments only to inanimate surrogates exhibit an extreme degree of social dysfunction. In spite of these potential risks, there are no international or national laws or policy guidelines except in terms of negligence, which has yet to be tested in court for mechanical surrogates and may be difficult to prove in the home. There also are issues about robots that care for seniors, stemming from the fact that they do not satisfy the need for regular human contact that is considered critical to a person's quality of life. Although most robotic weapons systems in use today retain a human decision-maker to determine when to apply deadly force, the development of completely automated weapons is being planned. The ethical conundrum lies in computational systems' inability to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants in close-contact encounters.
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