Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the November 17, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Racetrack Memory
Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (11/16/10) Bastien Confino

Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne professor Mathias Klaui is working on a racetrack memory technology that could be 100,000 times faster and consume less power than current hard disks. Klaui's solution for a high-volume, ultra-rapid, nonvolatile read-write magnetic memory involves data recorded on magnetic tape that would be a nickel-iron nanowire, 1 million times smaller than the classic tape. Nothing would move mechanically, as the bits of information stored in the wire would be pushed around inside the tape using a spin-polarized current, which would reach the speed of several hundred meters per second in the process. Each bit of information would be clearly separated from the next by domain walls with magnetic vortices so that the data can be read reliably. Millions or even billions of nanowires could be embedded in a chip, which would provide enormous capacity on a shock-proof platform. Computers equipped with racetrack memory would be able to boot up instantly. Racetrack memory does not need to be powered every millionth of a second like RAM, so energy consumption could be reduced by nearly a factor of 300 while the memory is idle. A device could be ready for market in five to seven years.

A Conversation With Ed Catmull
ACM Queue (11/13/10) Pat Hanrahan

In a conversation with Stanford University professor Pat Hanrahan, Pixar Animation Studios president Ed Catmull recalls that during his time in the University of Utah computer graphics program he had a clear objective of developing computer graphics technology to make motion pictures. "We believed that achieving the appearance of reality was a great technical goal--not because we were trying to emulate reality, but because doing it is so hard that it would help drive us forward," Catmull notes. He says Pixar brings together both artistically and technically inclined people, which sets up both "a creative axis" and "an organization axis of managing and making things happen." Catmull observes that creative and organizational skills are distributed identically in both groups. Though he stresses that technical change is vital to maintaining the health of the film and animation industry, people have a tendency to prefer stability, while Catmull thinks a state of continuous change is actually preferable. The key to successfully developing new software is the ability to navigate back and forth between two extremes--full engagement and full protection. "[Research and development] is something you really need to protect, but you don't set it up with an impermeable wall," Catmull says. "There comes a time when you need to go into the messy arena, where you actually begin to engage."

Survey of Women, Men in IT Shows Differing Views
CNet (11/16/10) Lance Whitney

A recent Technisource survey of men and women in information technology (IT) found differences in opinion in areas such as compensation and career challenges. More than 75 percent of the women surveyed do not think that their compensation is equal to that of men in the industry, while almost half of the men think that pay is equal between the sexes. Meanwhile, 42 percent of women said they think that IT is generally a male career path, but only 30 percent of men shared that belief. The survey found that 73 percent of female IT professionals feel that women do not have enough role models in the industry, compared to 53 percent of men who were asked the same question. However, women and men tended to agree in other areas. Only 24 percent of women and 26 percent of men felt that society encourages young women to pursue math and science careers, and 78 percent of women and 66 percent of men said that IT needs more female professionals. Both women and men felt equally satisfied with their jobs, as nearly two-thirds of all respondents said they plan to spend the rest of careers in IT.

Next Computing Target--Exascale Systems
EE Times (11/15/10) Rick Merritt

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently launched the Ubiquitous High Performance Computing program to develop exascale-class systems by 2018. DARPA's program enlisted four teams, led by NVIDIA, Sandia National Labs (SNL), Intel, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to develop a petaflop-class system in a 57 kilowatt rack prototype computer by 2014. NVIDIA chief scientist William Dally says they are trying to reinvent the future of computing to meet performance, power, and programmability goals. The Sandia team is designing networking concepts for sending heavily threaded messages between systems as the basic units of work and wants to eliminate the load-store approach to computation by keeping large data sets in memory. "Most of the teams are looking at redesigning memory systems in some way, such as using deeper hierarchies, but our approach is to move computation as close to memory as possible," says SNL's Richard Murphy. At SC10, the annual supercomputing conference, a panel of experts discussed the need for a new model of computing to overcome "a severe barrier of parallelism, power, clock rate, and complexity" in modern multicore processors. Dally says the researchers need to develop new memory hierarchies, better ways of organizing cores, and faster links in order to achieve their goals.
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Saving Our Data From Digital Decay
AlphaGalileo (11/16/10)

European researchers are studying how egovernment archives could be safely stored using an alternative to digital media. The researchers conducted a feasibility study that analyzed encoding techniques to allow digital data to be saved to microfilm and then to test data recovery and cost issues. Documents stored on microfilm will allow future generations to access the information by scanning the microfilm into whatever the current modern system is and applying optical character recognition to re-digitize and decode the data. The team also suggests that the amount of microfilm could be reduced by converting a stream of text into a barcode system that would still be entirely analog but would rely on knowledge of the conversion key to return the data to digital form. "With a lifetime of more than 100 years a lot of media migration projects (which are usually necessary every three to seven years) could be avoided, saving money, effort, and precluding the risk of data loss as technology diverges away from today's standards," the researchers write.

Research Into the Scientific Potential of Time of Flight Cameras
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain) (11/16/10)

Scientists at Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M) have incorporated a time of flight (TOF) camera into a communications system designed to capture three-dimensional (3D) movements and transmit information to a computer for processing and further transmission. The scientists recently demonstrated the sensor as part of an interface for a video game, and the communication system enabled users to move their hands as if holding a virtual steering wheel to control the game's car. The communication system has the potential to revolutionize artificial systems in the future because it can capture much richer data than traditional sensors, says UC3M's Miguel Angel Patricio. TOF offers 3D information without having to use classic stereoscope systems. "These new sensors offer in-depth information, which is of great interest when working with artificial vision systems," Patricio says. The scientists are seeking applications for the sensor in medicine, video surveillance systems, biometric face identification, analysis of player movement in sports, and man-machine interfaces.

Chips in Football Helmets to Monitor for Concussions
Network World (11/16/10) Jon Brodkin

Intel researchers are working with football helmet manufacturers and several universities to develop technology that can monitor brain damage in real time and build helmets that minimize the risk of injury. "Future technologies could include helmets with built-in Intel Atom chips that measure and feed real-time data to medical personnel," Intel says. "Using supercomputers ... researchers are simulating collisions to study the impact on the brain, and use that information to design new football helmets that reduce the risk of short- and long-term injuries." The researchers are working to simulate football hits and study their affect on the brain. The simulations use wireless transceivers and accelerometers to produce visualizations of stresses on the brain, and compare them with other impact data to determine if a serious injury has occurred. "When combined with impact simulation, this could better safeguard players by identifying potential injuries quickly so that medical personnel can respond faster and have information as soon as they reach the player on the field," Intel says.

Tools to Create Avatars That Preserve Same Identity and Manner of Interacting on Any Visual Support
Basque Research (11/15/10) Prentsa Bulegoa

Maria del Puy Carretero at the Vicomtech-IK4 center has proposed and validated a series of tools and an architecture that enables a virtual person to perform equally on a computer screen, mobile telephone, or a personal digital assistant, without impacting the identity and manner of interaction. Carretero used the markup languages AMD Core Math Library and Virtual Human Markup Language as computer applications to determine the avatar's appearance and manner of interacting. The tools allow for simple labeling of the avatar using the two languages, and make it easier to specify and edit the appearance and behavior of the virtual person and facilitate its integration into different applications and devices, preserving its identity. Carretero also has designed a multi-device architecture that facilitates the integration of the virtual personage into different devices, with the same appearance, voice, and behavior. She says the interaction between the user and the avatar is immediate, and interacting with the avatar on a local network instead of online would lead to a great savings of Internet traffic data.

A Minority Report Interface for the Rest of Us
Technology Review (11/16/10) John Pavlus

Two programmers have developed Toscanini, a free gestural computer interface that provides a connection between a user's movements and digital instruments such as synthesizers, keyboards, or anything that can be controlled through a MIDI connection. The software, developed during a 24-hour hacking contest, runs on Texas Instruments' Wireless Watch Development Tool, which is equipped with an accelerometer. "Currently it acts like a MIDI keyboard, except you can control the knobs with your movements," says co-creator Lindsey Mysse. "But it doesn't have to make music. It can control a mouse. You just put it on your wrist and make something happen." The software is in alpha and uses Max/MSP, a visual programming language, so other programmers can modify it. "Unlike Kinect or Wii, this is intended to be hacked," says co-creator Robby Grodin. "You can record your movements as musical 'macros,' or build your own apps." Mysse says Toscanini will be useful to artists who want to add randomness to their digital works.

Israeli Researchers Pursue Brain-Operated Computing
Jerusalem Post (11/15/10) Gali Weinreb

Tel Aviv University (TAU) scientists are developing a miniature electronic component that can read signals from nerve cells and transmit them to a computer. The researchers, led by TAU professor Yael Hanein, hope to develop a computer that can recognize different brain patterns for characterizing words, body movements, and other human brain functions. The researchers are working to develop components that could be part of an artificial eye. "Here, the component has to perform the opposite task, one that is perhaps even more complicated--to read the situation in the outside world, and to transmit this to the nerve cells in a form they can understand," Hanein says. The researchers are building their brain-computer interface using technologies from a variety of fields, including medicine, chemistry, biology, electrical engineering, and zoology. "Several paralyzed people already use this technology to communicate with the world," Hanein says. "They move the cursor very slowly, and there are still mistakes, but now the road doesn't seem so long."

Pitt-Led Researchers Develop New Nanoscale Light Sensor Compatible With Etch A Sketch Nanoelectronics Platform
University of Pittsburgh News Bureau (11/14/10) Morgan Kelly

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Wisconsin at Madison have developed a nanoscale light sensor that can be combined with near-atomic-sized electronic circuitry to produce hybrid optic and electronic devices. The device can be electrically tuned to change its sensitivity to different colors in the visible spectrum, and works like a microscopic Etch A Sketch. Pittsburgh professor Jeremy Levy says the rewritable nanoelectronics platform they developed could be used to create a high-density memory device and a transistor called a SketchFET that is just two nanometers in size. The researchers demonstrated a method for incorporating light sensitivity into these electronic circuits, using the same techniques and materials. "These results may enable new possibilities for devices that can sense optical properties at the nanoscale and deliver this information in electronic form," Levy says.

11 Hot Skills for 2011
Computerworld (11/13/10) Stacy Collett

Nearly a quarter of respondents to Computerworld's annual Forecast survey said they were planning to hire information technology (IT) workers in the next year. "We're talking about hiring. It's happening now," says Robert Half Technology's Dave Willmer. "Companies that cut staff or implemented hiring freezes are realizing they need employees now to help upgrade IT systems and prepare their firms for potential growth." Nearly half of survey respondents said they plan to hire programmers and application developers. Project management, help desk, technical support, and networking skills also are in high demand. "Finding somebody with that virtualization experience and the ability to convert nonvirtual environments into virtual environments probably is the biggest reason some networking skills are hard to find," Willmer says. In addition, companies are seeking IT professionals with security skills, including those with expertise in identity and access management and threat and vulnerability assessment. About 21 percent of survey respondents said that data center skills, especially storage experience, will be in top demand. Other in-demand skills highlighted by the survey included Web 2.0, infrastructure and communications integration, business intelligence, collaboration architecture expertise, and people who understand the business and can communicate technical concepts to business units and customers.

Bridging the Rural Digital Divide in Borth and Ynyslas
BBC News (11/12/10)

Nottingham University researchers recently launched the Bridging the Digital Divide initiative, which will enable residents living in rural areas to upload and download data about their area. The information will be available for access through mobile phones, online, or on visitor center displays. "There is a huge amount of information available to people in urban areas, so that when you walk down a street you can access a street map, find the nearest restaurant, or the history of a building you are standing outside," says Nottingham's Alan Chamberlain, one of 12 researchers working on the project. However, he says people living in rural areas have access to much less information, and the initiative is an attempt to bridge that gap. Borth and Ynyslas were chosen as test sites for the project because of the variety of activities available to people in those areas. "We will work with local people and groups so they can use the latest technology to represent themselves by providing the information that will be useful to people visiting the village," Chamberlain says.

Atari Co-Founder Nolan Bushnell on the Future of Software
CNet (11/12/10) Daniel Terdiman

Atari cofounder Nolan Bushnell recently spoke at the Oredev conference in Malmo, Sweden, on the future of software, focusing on 10 areas that he thinks will shape the world of technology and culture. Bushnell says the 10 areas include auto-cars, personal robots, health, bio implants, identity, government, swarm computing, augmented education, augmented reality, and power net. He says "the biggest thing for the near future is auto-cars, which will change everything." He notes that the technology already is cost-effective, and expects auto-cars to be available in five years. "Think of no traffic congestion, highways that can hold 30 times as much traffic," Bushnell says. "Half the energy costs. It just goes on and on." The first phase will be to keep the seat belts and seats facing forward, but at some point, the passenger compartment will become a more communal space, with a table, a desk, and a video screen. He says another area of change will be the elimination of credentials. "The physical metrics are better and cheaper and will be deployed," Bushnell says. He also predicts the use of cloud computing that will containing all medical information and layers of security. In addition, he says government downsizing and personal robotics will be big software opportunities.

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