Welcome to the January 24, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Computers With Creative Personalities
National Science Foundation (01/21/11) Marlene Cimons
Northwestern University researchers are developing a series of artificial intelligence (AI) projects based on enhancing computer ingenuity by generating new products. The researchers want to create computers that can make their own personalized documents, news shows, and news stories. "It all comes from understanding the angle of a narrative, of what is important," says Northwestern professor Kristian Hammond. One of the programs can read a document, learn the key elements, and fuse that information with more facts and data taken from other sources to create a new, more complete product. "We are building systems that can generate compelling, informative, enlightening experiences that people will want to consume," Hammond says. Another version of the technology can create virtual news shows with avatar anchors that can argue different sides of a story, gaining information from a variety of sources on the Internet. Other prototypes can examine congressional voting behavior or contribute to AI research. "We are building a system aimed at being able to create news stories around every single vote that takes place, and can explain why that vote has taken place in that particular way," Hammond says.
The Human Touch, in Robots
A*STAR Research (01/21/11) Lee Swee Heng
Researchers at the A*STAR Institute of High Performance Computing are developing robots that can respond directly to human speech. "When robots come to live in a human space, we need to take care of many more things than for manufacturing robots installed on the factory floor," says A*STAR researcher Haizhou Li. He leads the ASORO program, which has developed seven robots since 2008, including a robot butler, a robot home assistant, and OLIVIA, a robot receptionist that also serves as a research platform for studying social robotics technologies. OLIVIA can track human faces, eyes, and lip movements, as well as locate the source of human speech using head-mounted microphones. Li wants to upgrade OLIVIA to enable it to learn from speakers and to be capable of making taxi reservations and to shake hands. "What we are investigating now is how we can take context into account, and how behaviors can develop over time," says A*STAR's Martin Saerbeck, who is developing a robotic tutor that focuses on teaching children vocabulary. In a recent study, two groups of children studied with two different versions of the iCAT robot, one more socially responsive than the other. The children with the social iCAT robot scored significantly higher and showed higher intrinsic and task motivation than those children working with the standard teaching-style iCAT robot.
With Cloud Computing, the Mathematics of Evolution May Get Easier to Learn in College...and Easier to Teach in High School
University of Buffalo NewsCenter (01/21/11) Ellen Goldbaum
University at Buffalo researchers have developed Pop! World, a cloud computing-based educational computing platform that enables users to access research data for resource-intensive programs without sacrificing speed or quality of service. "The cloud serves as a way to distribute resources for free without limits on how many people can access it and with no regard to what kind of computer you are downloading to," says Buffalo professor Jessica Poulin, who developed Pop! World with Bina Ramamurthy and Katharina Dittmar. The researchers developed the program with the goal of getting college students more excited about population genetics and other evolutionary studies. Pop! World was designed in Adobe Flash, making it highly visual and appealing to young users. The current version demonstrates evolution with red and green lizards, but can be adapted to any population of organisms. The program also can be made more or less complex based on the proficiency of its users. "Our idea was to use general principles of population genetics not only to convey the principle in the context of evolutionary biology but to make sure that students understand visually what's happening with the mathematics behind it," Dittmar says.
How Computer Games Could Help Us All Make Better Decisions in Life
Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (01/20/11)
Queen's University Belfast researchers, in conjunction with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, have developed a training program that can be adapted for video-game systems. The researchers studied ways to train people to make better decisions by helping them factor in all the available information, including their own uncertainty and natural biases. They developed the World of Uncertainty Quiz, which teaches users to account for uncertainty and learn from past experiences. "It's the first-ever online quiz designed to let people estimate how sure they are of their answers and score more highly if they don't ignore their uncertainty but realistically assess it," says project leader David Newman. The game can be used by both the public and private sector to enhance decision-making. "The game we've developed is a research tool that's enabling us to find out much more about the thought processes and psychological mechanisms involved in decision-making," says Queen's University Belfast researcher Jyldyz Tabyldy kyzy.
Securing the Cloud
University of Texas at Austin (01/20/11) Daniel Oppenheimer
University of Texas at Austin (UT) researchers are working on the NEBULA project, a U.S. National Science Foundation-funded study to develop a more cloud-compatible Internet architecture by enhancing data transfer security. "An intermediate provider should be able to know where the packet's been and should be able to exercise its policies about the downstream provider that's going to handle the flow next," says UT professor Michael Walfish. He has worked with colleagues at Stanford University, the Stevens Institute of Technology, and the University of California, Berkeley to develop ICING, a system that allows information to choose its own path, picking different providers, and arriving at its destination with a record of where it came from and each stop it made. "What we do is take a packet, a unit of data, and we add some fields to the head of the packet," Walfish says. ICING enables victims of denial-of-service attacks to cut off the connection from the attackers faster and with more accuracy.
Giving Hackers a Printed Invitation
Technology Review (01/21/11) Robert Lemos
At the Shmoocon conference in Washington, D.C., researchers demonstrated how hackers are using printers to infiltrate corporate computer networks. "These devices have gone from being standard, simple printers that got on the network to the point where they are totally integrated in the business environment," which makes them a prime target, says security consultant Deral Heiland. He demonstrated how hackers could use a program called Praeda to gain access to a company's networked printers using standard security flaws and configuration holes. Once Praeda gets inside a network, it can steal passwords, files, and gain access to other devices. "We have found out that with a lot of printers, that data is not obfuscated very well," Heiland says. Meanwhile, security researcher Ben Smith developed Print File System, a program that automatically finds weak printers via the Internet and reconfigures them to act in a distributed storage network. "Depending on the devices, most of the time, you can find 20 to 30 unsecured devices [on a local network] and you can get a gig of storage to 30 gigs of storage," Smith says.
Challenging the Limits of Learning
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (01/19/11)
Researchers at Tel Aviv University have developed software that models the human mind to explore language acquisition, and report that the early results suggest that people actually learn language. The program learns basic grammar using a bare minimum of cognitive machinery, similar to what a child might have, says Tel Aviv's Roni Katzir. He used unsupervised learning to program his computer to learn simple grammar on its own, and the machine-learning technique enabled the program to see raw data and conduct a random search to find the best way to characterize what it sees. The computer looked for the simplest description of any data using the Minimum Description Length criterion. Katzir was able to explore what kinds of information the human mind can acquire and store unconsciously, and whether a computer can learn in a similar manner. He believes the research has applications in technologies such as voice-dialogue systems, or for teaching robots how to read visual images. "Many linguists today assume that there are severe limits on what is learnable," Katzir says. "I take a much more optimistic view about those limitations and the capacity of humans to learn."
Mobility in Elderly Assessed With iPad
Wake Forest University News (01/19/11) Cheryl Walker
Wake Forest University researchers have developed the Mobility Assessment Tool (MAT), software that grades mobility in elderly adults using video animation. The researchers say the assessment can be completed in about five minutes and produces a score to help patients understand their mobility limitations and act as a yardstick to measure progress. Users watch short animated videos of people performing everyday tasks, such as walking up stairs or carrying a bag of groceries. After screening the videos, users touch the screen to indicate which tasks they are capable of. "In pilot testing, we found that the animation technology allowed older adults to project themselves into the tasks," says Wake Forest's Tony Marsh. The researchers say MAT could be used to write activity prescriptions to improve mobility in older patients. "This is a tool that could be used quickly in a physician's office or out in the field," says Wake Forest's Jack Rejeski, who developed MAT with Marsh. MAT will be used in the LIFE study, a multiyear U.S. National Institutes of Health project that seeks to determine the effects of physical activity and successful aging interventions on major mobility disabilities.
Harvard Scientists Control Minds of Worms
Harvard Crimson (01/19/11) Julie R. Barzilay
Harvard University scientists have developed a system that combines software with laser technology to control the minds of worms. The Controlling Locomotion and Behavior in Real Time (CoLBeRT) system directs laser light to activate or inhibit specific neurons in the worm's brain, enabling scientists to control its behavior. The researchers were able to make the worms change direction, alter speed, and lay eggs. "This is an exciting tool because it potentially allows us to go in and poke around inside the nervous system of a living organism," says Harvard's Andrew M. Leifer. The worms are easier to work with because they only have 302 neurons, while humans have about 100 billion neurons. "A basic understanding of neural circuits in simpler creatures like worms and flies may eventually help us understand the human brain," says University of Pennsylvania professor Christopher M. Fang-Yen. Harvard's Adam E. Cohen wants to develop new optical tools that can watch impulses form, and combine that information with the CoLBeRT technology to determine how brain circuits work.
Unhackable Data in a Box of Bacteria: Future of InfoSec?
Computerworld (01/18/11) Darlene Storm
Chinese University researchers are working to show that bacteria represents the future of information security. The researchers say bacteria can be used for biostorage, and add that data such as text, images, music, and video would be immune from cyberattacks. They note that hardy strains of bacteria can be found everywhere, and one type can even survive nuclear radiation. Such biostorage would take up very little space, as one gram of bacteria could hold the same amount of information as 450 hard drives with 2,000 gigabytes each of storage capacity, according to an Agence France-Presse report. "This means you will be able to keep large datasets for the long term in a box of bacteria in the refrigerator," says Chinese University's Aldrin. The researchers also note that data stored in bacteria could be encrypted. They envision a future of biocomputers and biocryptography, in which data is stored in bacteria cells and DNA is mapped to easily locate specific information. "We believe this could be an industrial standard in handling large-scale data storage in living cells," the researchers say.
Smart Use of Mobile Phone Power
University of Portsmouth (01/18/11)
University of Portsmouth senior lecturer Mohamed Gaber is researching how smartphones could be combined to quickly collect and process information without using centralized computers. Gaber says the combined processing power of smartphones could revolutionize healthcare monitoring, crime fighting, and live business intelligence. "This is the first time a method has been found to stream information collected from smartphones working together," he says. The data-streaming method does not interfere with the phones' normal use. Tests have shown that as few as eight mobile devices can each handle up to 40 percent of all possible measurements in a network setting, according to Gaber. "It is the combination of the power and the acquired data on each device that would make the difference," he says. The new method would allow for data analysis to be more localized, and the processing speed would be much faster and cheaper than sending the data to a central hub.
Experts Meet to Enhance Arabic Language for IT
The Peninsula (Qatar) (01/17/11)
Experts in natural language processing technologies are meeting in Doha, Qatar, to discuss ways to improve communications technologies for the Arabic language. Twenty scientists from academia and industry are participating in a two-day conference to explore how technology can be used to support the Arabic language. The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development believes collaboration between the industrial and academic research communities is needed to address the issue. The foundation wants the roundtable to help find a role for the newly formed Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), such as crafting better methods for data acquisition. "The future of the Arabic language is digital and QCRI is seeking to leverage these technologies to keep Arabic alive and well in the digital world," says QCRI executive director Ahmed Elmagarmid. "This roundtable brings together thought leaders from academia and industry whose unique perspectives will help identify the most beneficial line of research for QCRI to pursue."
Rise of the Robot Astronomers
New Scientist (01/18/11) Anil Ananthaswamy
Mount Palomar Observatory's Palomar Transient Factory uses artificial intelligence (AI) to locate variable stars, known as transients. "Our grand goal is to remove astronomers from the real-time loop of looking at images and doing discovery of astronomical transients," says University of California, Berkeley researcher Joshua Bloom. Astronomers need to use robots to help conduct research due to the vast amount of data that modern telescopes produce. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope uses a 3,200-megapixel camera to find up to 100,000 transients per night. Many astronomers use neural network software to analyze images and distinguish starlight from that of galaxies. The astronomy.net project uses machine-learning algorithms to mark certain points in the sky with coordinates, which can then be recalled at a later date by other users. The Virtual Observatory is a huge collection of astronomical data that AI software studies to locate parts of the sky that are worth examining more closely.
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