Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the August 20, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Tech Industry Holds Closed Door Talks on Open Internet
BBC News (08/20/10) Shiels, Maggie

The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), representing leading technology industry firms, recently held a closed-door meeting to discuss the future of the open Internet. The meeting was in response to the controversial plan by Google and Verizon that would allow Web providers to give certain types of Internet traffic priority over others. Those opposed to Google and Verizon's plan argue that limiting the concept of net neutrality could lead to a two-tiered Internet. "Great progress has been made to develop Internet openness principles in recent weeks," says ITI president Dean Garfield, but he says more work is needed "to ensure cross-sector support and to preserve Internet access, innovation, and investment." However, net neutrality supporters say the closed-door meeting is worrisome. "Industry talks that don't have any public process or consumer interest are not likely to result in good policy making that promotes the public interest," says the Free Press' Aparna Sridhar. "Developing meaningful open Internet rules is a job that is best done at the [U.S. Federal Communications Commission] with full public input from a diverse variety of stakeholders and not limited corporate closed-door meetings."

What Does 'P vs. NP' Mean for the Rest of Us?
Technology Review (08/19/10) Pavlus, John

Although the current consensus is that Hewlett-Packard Labs research scientist Vinay Deolalikar's approach is fundamentally flawed, a verified P versus NP proof would conclusively determine what kinds of problems are and are not computer-solvable. NP-class problems in existence hold significant implications for pattern matching and optimization in a broad area of subjects. Such subjects include the arrangement of transistors on a silicon chip, the development of accurate financial prediction models, and analysis of cellular protein-folding behavior. The P versus NP problem queries whether these two classes are identical, which entails that every NP problem would feature a concealed shortcut permitting computers to rapidly come up with perfect solutions. Proving P is not equal to NP would validate widely accepted assumptions, such as the inability to efficiently factor massive composite numbers that form the foundation of modern cryptography. Still, "even if you proved that P does not equal NP ... it would have to radically expand our understanding of those capabilities, and make many new things possible with computers, in addition to all the clever workarounds we've already found," says Georgia Tech's Richard Lipton.

Detecting Depression Online
Israel21c (08/19/10) Kloosterman, Karin

Bar-Ilan University (BIU) professor Yair Neuman led an effort to develop software that can determine a person's emotional state by scanning and analyzing data posted on blogs and social networking sites. "The software program was designed to find depressive content hidden in language that did not mention the obvious terms like 'depression or ‘suicide,' " Neuman says. "A psychologist knows how to spot various emotional states through intuition. Here, we have a program that does this methodically through the innovative use of Web intelligence." Clinical psychologists tested the software and found that it successfully identified depression 78 percent of the time. The program scanned more than 300,000 English-language blogs that are linked to mental health Web sites and identified the 100 most depressed and the 100 least depressed people by analyzing their responses to metaphors and questions. "It can provide a powerful way to screen for depression through blogs and Facebook," Neuman says. "It analyzes text--the written language--and it can help us to identify people who are presenting signs of depression."

Research Paves the Way for Unselfish Computerized Agents
University of Southampton (ECS) (08/19/10) Lewis, Joyce

Adam Davies, a Ph.D. student at the University of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science, has developed a computer simulation that could describe how selfish agents learn to cooperate in nature. Davies' adaptive system encourages agents to stop behaving selfishly and to choose actions that favor the common good instead. The approach is based on Hebbian learning, a learning process that occurs in the brain, to develop agents that behave as creatures of habit and can learn to make decisions that maximize global utility. "Our research looks at the effect of a strategy for increasing total utility in systems of selfish agents," Davies says. "With this strategy in place, selfish agents make decisions based on their learnt preferences rather than their true utility."

Adaptive Software--a Late Bloomer
ICT Results (08/20/10)

European researchers have developed a prototype platform that promises to support adaptive software capable of automatic contextual reconfiguration. Middleware developed by the MUSIC project combines dozens of factors--user location, the device in use, time of day, Internet connection strength, light levels, and battery condition--to make an educated guess about the user's context. The user does not have to configure the MUSIC platform, as it gleans its possible settings from the high-level behavior descriptions embedded within most modern software. These descriptions tell the MUSIC program what settings can be modified, and the platform then employs the most suitable settings for a given context. MUSIC coordinator Geir Horn says the platform developers chose to use Java rather than create software from scratch that would install on any device. A plug-in model also was used to enable useful expansion of the software.

Scientists Develop Mobile Foetal Surveillance System
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (08/18/10)

A mobile fetal surveillance system is being developed by researchers at Ulster University, Queens University Belfast, and the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital that could help prevent stillbirth by notifying doctors when a baby's life is at risk. The researchers are developing software that can analyze ultrasound images from women who are five to six months pregnant to determine if it is possible to assess the baby's health. "Pregnant women who have already experienced a stillbirth, and women who are thought to be at high risk, stand to benefit most from this new surveillance system," says Ulster's Joan Condell. The researchers also want to develop a mobile device that pregnant women could use away from the hospital.

NIST Is Nearly Ready to Pick the Next Hash Algorithm
Government Computer News (08/18/10) Jackson, William

Developers of the 14 semifinalist algorithms for the new SHA-3 Secure Hash Algorithm standard will defend their work at the second U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) candidate conference. The final selection for a new standard hashing algorithm for the federal government is expected by early 2012, says NIST's Bill Burr. "All in all we've got quite a bit of performance data," Burr says. "At this point, we have a surprising amount of data on hardware implementation on all 14 candidates." SHA-3 will augment the algorithms specified in Federal Information Processing Standard 180-2, which includes SHA-1 as well as SHA-224, SHA-256, SHA-384, and SHA-512, collectively known as SHA-2. The conference will give the entrants an opportunity to address the results of the analysis and testing over the past year. The field of 14 will eventually be narrowed down to a final five algorithms, which will be analyzed and tested again before the final choice is made in the winter of 2012.

Toshiba Claims Data Storage Breakthrough
InfoWorld (08/18/10) Williams, Martyn

Toshiba says it has achieved a breakthrough in data storage technology that could lead to hard drives with much higher capacities than are currently available. Toshiba says it has developed prototype bit-patterned, magnetic-storage technology that is built at a density equivalent to 2.5 terabits per square inch. The storage capacity is five times greater than Toshiba's current highest-capacity drive, which has a density of 541 gigabytes. Bit-patterned media breaks up the recording surface into numerous magnetic bits, each consisting of a few magnetic grains. Toshiba's scientists say they have produced a media sample in which the magnetic bits are organized into a pattern of rows, which act as markers to where data is stored. Toshiba says the first commercial bit-patterned drives should be available in about three years.

Virtual Reality You Can Touch
ETH Life (08/16/10) Hoffman, Claudia

ETH Zurich researchers have developed a method that can produce virtual copies of real objects, which can be "touched" and sent over the Internet. The goal of the Immersence project was to develop new methods for virtual haptic interaction. ETH Zurich researcher Matthias Harders led a subproject that focused on interaction between people and virtual objects. The system involves a three-dimensional scanner recording an image of an object, while a user simultaneously senses the object using a haptic device. In order for the user to be able to see and feel the virtual copy of the object, special equipment is needed, including data goggles with a monitor onto which the virtual object is projected, and a sensor rod with small motors. Software calculates when the virtual object and the sensor rod meet, and then sends a signal to the motors in the rod, braking the user's movement and simulating resistance. "Our approach can be viewed as an extension of photography," Harders says.

New Computer Model Advances Climate Change Research
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (08/18/10) Hosansky, David; Drummond, Rachel

The U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) has released the Community Earth System Model (CESM), software that can help scientists study climate change in much greater detail. CESM will be one of the primary climate models used for the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment. CESM can be used to simulate the components of Earth's climate system, including the oceans, atmosphere, sea ice, and land cover. "With the Community Earth System Model, we can pursue scientific questions that we could not address previously," says NCAR's James Hurrell. The modeling software enables scientists to develop a broader picture of Earth's climate system by analyzing factors such as marine ecosystems and greenhouse gases. "Decision makers in diverse arenas need to know the extent to which the climate events they see are the product of natural variability, and hence can be expected to reverse at some point, or are the result of potentially irreversible, human-influenced climate change," Hurrell says.

A Hop, Skip and a Jump on the Moon--and Beyond
MIT News (08/18/10) Bettex, Morgan

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Jeffrey Hoffman is collaborating with engineers at Charles Stark Draper Laboratory to design the Terrestrial Artificial Lunar and Reduced Gravity Simulator (Talaris), a prototype robotic explorer that can hop over, instead of traverse, a planetary surface. The researchers say that hopping would make it easier for the data-collecting robotic vehicle to access tricky sites, such as craters and cliffs, and travel greater distances. Talaris is equipped with guidance, navigation, and control software and uses two propulsion systems. The main system consists of four downward-pointing electric fans that provide lift. The second system uses compressed nitrogen gas to maneuver the vehicle as it operates in the simulated gravity conditions. Hopper technology could enable a human mission to Mars in which astronauts orbiting the planet could use a high-bandwidth signal to tele-operate hoppers on the Martian surface, says MIT's Phillip Cunio.

How Do We Talk About Our Town?
University of Melbourne (08/16/10) Scott, David

A University of Melbourne research team of linguists, computer scientists, and spatial information scientists is developing methods for understanding the way users explain location and how they type descriptions into mapping services such as Google maps or in-car navigation services. The first part of the project is a mobile phone game that encourages users to log onto and describe where they are. Computers struggle to translate the simple and natural language used to describe locations, and this obstacle needs to be overcome to enable smarter navigation and mapping services, says Melbourne professor Stephan Winter. "Improving the way computers recognize natural language is not just for greater convenience and more effective communication, but also for more serious situations such as taking calls in emergency call centers where operators are often faced with the dilemma of inputting vague data about the location of a distressed caller into an information system which only understands specific and accurate details," Winter says.

Web Could Be Stylized by New W3C Font Platform
Computerworld (08/17/10) Jackson, Joab

The World Wide Web Consortium's Web Fonts Working Group has launched version 1.0 of the Web Open File Format (WOFF), compression technology that will provide a platform for open source and commercial providers to make their fonts easily available across the Web. The majority of text rendered on the Web is currently done in a small number of typefaces, including Arial, Veranda, and Times New Roman. WOFF will provide a platform for fonts that can be used by all browsers. After a font owner posts a font in a WOFF container on the Web, a browser uncompresses the font and uses it to render the text. Web pages specify the font needed with a Cascading Style Sheets-based declaration. The major Web browser makers are all adding or considering adding WOFF support to their programs, and Mozilla already provides WOFF support in Firefox version 3.6. The open source Fontforge font editor also will support WOFF.

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