Welcome to the January 12, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Madrid Opts for Robotics for Its Citizens Services
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain) (01/12/11)
The Autonomous Community of Madrid is sponsoring Robocity2030, a consortium aimed at developing new applications for service robots to help improve humans' quality of life. The group is led by Universidad Carlos III de Madrid's Carlos Balaguer, and includes more than 60 Ph.D.s and 100 researchers. The project has already yielded Asibot, an intelligent domestic robot that can help the disabled and the elderly live alone without human assistance. The robot can climb on vertical surfaces and perform preprogrammed tasks, but the researchers are working on developing new systems so the robot can complete tasks on its own. The robot can lift up to 4.4 pounds, but only weighs about 22 pounds. The Robocity2030 project focuses on developing robots for quality of life in open environments and quality of life in closed environments. The open environment robots are designed to improve infrastructures to enhance citizen safety. The closed environment robots are designed to make people's everyday life easier in homes and offices. "From a technological point of view, the challenge is to make the systems much more user friendly, much sturdier, and obviously, much more affordable," Balaguer says.
MIT News (01/11/11) Larry Hardesty
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology say they have developed an algorithm that manages the bottlenecks caused by networks of wireless sensors better than previous models. The algorithm is designed to work in ad hoc networks in which no single device acts as superintendent. The system alternates communication efforts by round, which means that when a device sends its data to a neighboring device, and receives information from somewhere else, it communicates with two new devices in the following round. "The idea is that the randomized steps I take allow me to spread the information fast within my well-connected subset," says MIT's Keren Censor-Hillel. This method ensures that information will quickly reach all the devices, even those that communicate through the bottleneck. "Essentially, a node in this network can wake up and start operating by using this algorithm, and if every node in the network does the same, then essentially you give communication capability to the entire network," says Sapienza University professor Alessandro Panconesi. One problem with the algorithm is that it uses a lot of bandwidth, and finding a less-bandwidth intensive version is necessary for the system to be feasible, Censor-Hillel notes.
Dirac Testbed Reveals How Applications Are Written
Scientific Computing (01/10/11) Mike May
Graphics processing units (GPUs) are increasingly being used in high-performance computing, but "the question is whether GPUs offer an effective solution for a broad scientific workload or for a more limited class of computations," says the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Katherine Yelick. The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) and Berkeley Lab researchers recently launched Dirac, a general-purpose GPU computing testbed, to test GPUs' capabilities. "The [U.S. Energy Department] offered funds to buy a system to study how our community writes its applications, in contrast to the typical NERSC system that is intended primarily for running them," says Berkeley Lab researcher Paul Hargrove. The system allows users to study GPUs in several applications and fields. There are currently about 500 different applications used throughout NERSC, according to Yelick. "Given that a GPU can execute thousands of parallel threads concurrently, we can potentially obtain significant speedups over the same application code optimized for a CPU," says NERSC researcher Jihan Kim. NERSC's Filipe Maia is using Dirac to solve partial differential equations and conduct X-ray tomographic imaging. He notes that GPUs "can provide large increases in performance in many applications, which is often of crucial importance to test a wide range of conditions."
Virtual Reality Maps
National Science Foundation (01/10/11) Miles O'Brien
Researchers at the University of Washington, working with the U.S. National Science Foundation, have developed a computer algorithm that makes three-dimensional (3D) objects from thousands of two-dimensional images. The researchers searched for about 150,000 images on the photo-sharing Web site Flickr and then loaded them into a system of more than 500 computers. The system can transform the images into a 3D map in several hours, a process that used to take months. "This is the largest 3D reconstruction that anyone has ever tried," says the University of Washington professor Steve Seitz. The imaging system is very accurate, rendering virtual buildings to within a few centimeters of their actual size, Seitz says. "What excites me is the ability to capture the real world; to be able to reconstruct the experience of being somewhere without actually being there," he says. The researchers see the technology being used in online mapping sites, video games, and real estate signs.
New Markers for Allergic Disorders Thanks to Analysis of Medical Databases
New methods for analyzing medical databases could be used to identify diagnostic markers more quickly and to personalize medication for allergic disorders. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg have developed computation methods to simulate how a change in the interaction between several different genes in the lymphocytes controls the immune system. They identified the genes by reviewing abstracts of all 18 million articles in the PubMed database, and constructed a network model on how these genes interact. The team then carried out data simulations of how the network model reacted to repeated exposure to particles, which resulted in four reactions, and included the suppression of the immune system. Such methods will become increasingly important as the amount of information in medical databases continues to grow and becomes a key resource for investigating and verifying medical hypotheses. "These methods could reduce the need for animal trials and lead to major savings in both time and money," says the Sahlgrenska Academy's Mikael Benson. "They could also mean quicker and better-designed experiments, and their results could generate new knowledge about diagnostic markers or new medicines."
Played by Humans, Scored By Nature, Online Game Helps Unravel Secrets of RNA
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (01/11/11) Byron Spice
Researchers at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon universities have developed EteRNA, an online game that uses crowdsourcing techniques to discover principles for designing RNA molecules. The game uses simulation software to conduct training exercises, puzzles, and challenges for designing molecules. Players are scored based on how well their virtual designs can be transformed into real molecules. After each week, the top designs are created in a biochemistry laboratory to see if they fold themselves into three-dimensional shapes. "Putting a ball through a hoop or drawing a better poker hand is the way we're used to winning games, but in EteRNA you score when the molecule you've designed can assemble itself," says Carnegie Mellon professor Adrien Treuille. EteRNA's scoring system needs to be very precise because non-scientists are performing every aspect of the scientific method. "We knew that if we were to truly tap the wisdom of crowds, our game would have to expose players to every aspect of the scientific process," says Carnegie Mellon researcher Jeeyung Lee. The project's goal is to design RNA shapes that have never been seen before. "We also want to create a toolkit of basic building blocks that could be used to construct sensors, therapeutic agents, and tiny machines," says Stanford professor Rhiju Das.
Computer Simulations for Safer Planes
Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (01/10/11)
European researchers are exploring the use of computer simulation in the building of aircraft. Forty-four partners from 11 countries are examining the feasibility of replacing some of the electromagnetic compatibility tests currently carried out on planes, and they are measuring aircraft parts to create a numerical simulation of a complete helicopter at the mid-point of the project. "These tests are costly in terms of space, time, and money, repetitive, and in some cases even destructive," says the Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya's Ferran Silva. Electronic devices in aircraft are growing in number and complexity, and "conducting elements are increasingly being replaced by fiberglass and carbon composites in fuselage construction, materials which are lighter but make electronic systems more vulnerable to interference," Silva says. Using computer simulations could reduce the cost of building aircraft. The project, which is expected to be finished in early 2012, will also help improve aircraft design and safety.
Cockroach Inspires Robotic Hand to Get a Grip
Inside Science (01/11/11) Alan S. Brown
Harvard University researcher Robert D. Howe and Yale University professor Aaron Dollar have developed a robotic hand, based on the legs of a cockroach, that is better than previous models at gripping a variety of objects. The researchers drew inspiration from University of California, Berkeley professor Robert Full, who developed an eight-legged robot that could run on uneven ground very quickly using a series of springs and hinges, similar to the way a cockroach moves. Dollar and Howe started their hand as just a claw consisting of two double-jointed plastic fingers, with a motor using cables and pulleys to control them. Dollar developed an algorithm to simulate how the hand would adjust to different shaped objects with various angles in the joints. At rest, the joints range from 25 to 45 degrees, with the joints closest to the palm being the most flexible. The researchers say their model could become the basis for a new range of household and service robots that need to be able to pick up a wide variety of objects.
Artificial Life Shares Biosignature With Terrestrial Cousins
Technology Review (01/10/11)
Measurable properties should be present in any system that has evolved, and could be the key to identifying extraterrestrial forms, according to Evan Dorn and colleagues at the California Institute of Technology. The researchers looked in various samples at the distribution of biochemicals, such as amino and carboxylic acids, and found that the distribution of biomolecules in the absence of life generally reflects the thermodynamic cost of making them, but samples containing life did not follow this pattern. The researchers performed a similar kind of analysis on a system of artificial life called Avida, and found that the creatures make the same kind of stamp on their environment as terrestrial organisms do on theirs. Avidians ensure that certain bits of code are preferentially selected so that they are far more common in evolved systems than in one that is starting from scratch. The team calls a universal biosignature of evolution that could be used to spot any kind of evolved life an evosignature, and says it "may show promise for detecting alien biochemistries." The researchers say it is too early to determine whether the process of evolution could be exploited in other ways, such as by computer scientists to solve problems like factory scheduling and aircraft design, would demonstrate a measurable evosignature.
Metamorphosis Key to Creating Stable Walking Robots
New Scientist (01/10/11) Paul Marks
A study to find the quickest way to evolve walking behaviors in virtual robots was conducted by University of Vermont researcher Josh Bongard. He ran simulations involving genetic algorithms on different types of robots as they tried to reach a virtual light source and evolve a walking gait to get there. One robot slithered along the ground like a snake and gradually grew four legs, while a second robot began the simulation with four legs that moved into the vertical position. The third robot started the study with four vertical legs but could not evolve a more advanced body type. Once each robot was able to walk upright on four legs, Bongard ran the algorithm on an actual robot to study the results. The robots that had evolved the ability to walk on four legs were much more stable than the robot that was able to walk the entire time, but could not evolve. "This is what human infants do--they progress from crawling to walking gradually, even as the bones in the legs and feet change to accommodate the change in behavior," Bongard says. Other researchers also have been studying changing body plans in robots. Robert Gordon University's Chris MacLeod used a similar algorithm to teach two-legged robots how to adjust their gait to deal with the addition of two extra legs.
Now, You Can Control Computer Commands by Thought
Economic Times of India (01/08/11)
OpenViBE, a software platform that will enable users to communicate via their thoughts with a computer or any other automated system, has been demonstrated by French computer scientists. OpenViBE, which acts as an interface for translating what happens in the brain into computer commands, makes writing by thought possible, say researchers Yann Renard and Laurent Bonnet. A person wearing an electroencephalogram cap can focus her attention on a letter that she wants to spell out, and when this letter flashes, a particular brain wave is generated, picked up, detected, and interpreted by the system. "OpenViBE is a series of software libraries and modules written in C++ that can be simply and effectively integrated in order to design real-time applications," the researchers say. "Programmer users can develop their own code, while non-programmers can use the graphical interface." They say brain-computer interfaces and OpenViBE could be used by researchers studying neurological problems, clinicians assisting people with motor disabilities, and by video game developers.
Intel Says Light Peak Interconnect Technology Is Ready
Computerworld (01/08/11) Agam Shah
Intel's high-speed Light Peak interconnect technology, which links PCs to displays and external storage devices, is ready for implementation, says Intel's David Perlmutter. The Light Peak system will initially be based on copper, although the original plans were to use fiber optics, Perlmutter notes. "The copper came out very good, surprisingly better than what we thought," he says. "Optical is always a new technology which is more expensive." The Light Peak technology can transfer data at bandwidths starting at 10 gigabits per second for distances of up to 100 meters, although the use of copper may bring down the system's transmission rates. "Look at [Light Peak] as a medium by which you can do things, not necessarily as one replacing the other," Perlmutter says. The technology is expected to be used to link PCs to external devices such as displays and storage devices, but Perlmutter declined to say whether it would replace USB and other connection technologies.
Virtual Students Are Used to Train Teachers
Education Week (01/05/11) Stephen Sawchu
University researchers have developed two teaching simulation programs aimed at helping student teachers be better prepared when they first enter a classroom. University of Central Florida (UCF) researchers have developed the TeachME system and Arizona State University (ASU) researchers developed simSchool. "There's a realization that we have to be able to ensure that we can prepare teachers well for the demands of practice," says Stanford University professor Pamela L. Grossman. The simSchool system tracks how student performance changes as a lesson progresses. The virtual students will pay close attention or distract their peers depending on how engaging the teacher is. University of North Texas researchers recently expanded that program to enable users to customize individual simulated students with up to 2 million different characteristics.
US Revamps Science, Technology Standard-Setting Efforts
Network World (01/07/11) Michael Cooney
As part of the America Competes Reauthorization Act of 2010, the U.S. National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been instructed to expand cooperation with the private sector to develop standards for key technologies, including cloud computing, emergency communications, green manufacturing, and high-performance green building construction. As a result of the legislation, NIST also has eliminated four of its labs, leaving engineering, physical measurement, information technology, material measurement, the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, and the NIST Center for Neutron Research. Meanwhile, the White House's National Science and Technology Council recently issued a call for public input on the development and implementation of future standards. "The challenges of the 21st century, including the need to build a clean energy economy, reduce the high cost of health care, and secure our information technology systems, require that we actively consider ways to enhance the efficiency and responsiveness of the standards development process," says the Office of Science and Technology Policy blog. "Technical standards are not the stuff of everyday conversation, but they are crucial to smart development and economic growth."
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