Welcome to the November 12, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Google Uses Searches to Track Flu's Spread
New York Times (11/12/08) P. A1; Helft, Miguel
The widespread use of the Internet as a quick-check medical resource has led to a new early warning system for fast-spreading influenza outbreaks called Google Flu Trends. Tests of the new Web tool from Google.org, Google's philanthropic unit, suggest that it may be possible to detect regional outbreaks of the flu a week to 10 days before they are reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For example, in February, the CDC reported that flu cases had recently risen in the mid-Atlantic states, but Google says its search data showed a spike in queries on flu symptoms two weeks before the report was released. The new Google Flu Trends service analyzes searches as they are submitted, creating graphs and maps of the country that could show where the flu is spreading. The CDC reports are slower because they rely on information collected and compiled from thousands of health care providers, labs, and various other sources. Some public health officials say the Google data could help accelerate the medical community's response to a flu outbreak, which would reduce the disease's spread and possibly save lives. CDC's Dr. Lyn Finelli says the earlier the warning, the earlier that prevention and control measures can be deployed. "This seems like a really clever way of using data that is created unintentionally by the users of Google to see patterns in the world that would otherwise be invisible," says MIT Sloan School of Management professor Thomas W. Malone. "I think we are just scratching the surface of what’s possible with collective intelligence."
Taking Aim at Far-From-Perfect Photos
MSNBC (11/10/08) Nelson, Bryn
The rapidly-developing field of computational photography could revolutionize the use of digital cameras by providing software for manipulating images in nearly unlimited ways. For example, one software program can merge multiple camera shots to replace a bad facial expression in a group photo. Another program can combine pictures taken with and without a flash to illuminate people's faces while still providing a good image of a night-time background, and another program can create crystal-clear details by shifting the focus of the image after the picture has been taken. Meanwhile, Stanford University researchers are developing Frankencamera, an open source digital camera that enables users to add and remove features as easily as adding and removing LEGO parts. "With hardware and software and algorithms, there's just no end to what we can do with cameras and computational photography," says Stanford professor Marc Levoy. "I think it's going to be very exciting." ACM's annual Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques (SIGGRAPH) conference has provided a big boost to the development of computational photography. At this year's conference, researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab introduced a technique called motion-invariant photography, which can be used to remove the blur from pictures of moving objects. The method currently works well on horizontal blurs and the researchers are working on extending its capabilities to two dimensions. Another feature in development, digital refocusing, enables a photographer to refocus a picture after it is taken in case the wrong subject was the main focus of the picture.
Computers Make Sense of Experiments on Human Disease
European Science Foundation (11/12/08) Lau, Thomas
A recent European Science Foundation (ESF) workshop called for a collaborative effort to use computers to create predictive models of human diseases. Human disease research generates a massive amount of potentially valuable insights that current computer modeling approaches cannot exploit properly. However, significant advances in the modeling of a few specific diseases have been made. A major focus of the ESF workshop was to generalize such advancements and create a more coherent body of expertise throughout the field of computational disease analysis, says the Institute d'Investigacions Biomediques August Pi Sunyer's Albert Compte. The workshop highlighted the potential benefits of integrating data from different levels, such as the cellular, molecular, or tissue level, which could provide more detailed and flexible models, and greater ability to identify causes of diseases and predict possible cures in the future. Another valuable application of computer-based mathematical disease models lies in studying the phenomenon of addiction to drugs such as nicotine and helping to reconcile conflicting theories. Many experts at the workshop were confident that a coherent framework for building multi-level mathematical models on the basis of available data will lead to a better understanding of many diseases and conditions such as drug addiction, which could in turn lead to better therapies and treatments.
New Regulations Will Soon Swell IT Workloads
IDG News Service (11/12/08) Schwartz, Ephraim
Analysts and industry experts concur that IT will have to assume a major workload increase to satisfy new government regulations expected to emerge next year in response to the financial turmoil. "The last two tsunamis to hit IT, the Patriot Act and Sarbanes-Oxley, required companies to know their customers and to know themselves and their [own] finances," says Acquire Media CEO Larry Rafsky. "Now, the upcoming regulations will say, 'Know your customers' finances.'" There is a call for greater transparency in the linkage between companies and what they trade, and Rafsky says this consequently mandates more use of auditing and tracking applications and their underlying business processes. Sybase's Sinan Baskan predicts the emergence of regulatory reporting requirements with tighter scrutiny and a higher degree of detail than what is currently required, while IT organizations at brokerage houses will need to "reconstruct the transaction cycle" because the new regulations will attempt to coerce financial providers to prioritize clients' interests by guaranteeing that pricing reflects actual value. Baskan says the new requirements should be applicable to all transactions in financial and retail accounts, which will enlarge IT's workload. The emergence of global or at least multinational regulations will likely raise the cost of compliance for IT, but Software AG's David Wright says that IT will not be given additional funding. "They will have to take [the money] from existing budgets unless they can produce a return on investment and business case based on consolidation and rationalization," he says.
Maastricht University Researchers Produce 'Neural Fingerprint' of Speech Recognition
Maastricht University (Netherlands) (11/10/08)
Scientists from Maastricht University in the Netherlands have used neuroimaging and data-mining techniques to map brain activity as it recognizes speech sounds and voices. The researchers mapped the brain activity of seven study subjects who listened to three different speech sounds spoken by three different people, then used data-mining techniques to develop an algorithm to translate the brain activity into unique patterns that determine the identity of a speech sound or a voice. The acoustic characteristics of vocal cord vibrations serve as unique and specific neural patterns that determine brain activity. The researchers also found that part of the complex sound-decoding process takes place in the same areas of the brain as early stages of sound processing. The processing of speech appeared to be less hierarchical and spread out more across the brain. The research could impact future developments in computer systems for automatic speech and speaker recognition.
IT Salaries Take Tiny Leaps
Computerworld (11/10/08) Hoffman, Thomas
Salaries for information technology (IT) professionals have essentially stalled, reveals Computerworld's 22nd annual Salary Survey. The survey, based on responses from 6,801 U.S. IT workers, found that total compensation rose an average of 3.5 percent this year, down slightly from the average of 3.7 percent reported in 2007. Meanwhile, bonuses for IT professionals rose an average of only 0.2 percent in 2008, compared to 2007's 3.4 percent increase. "I think IT professionals have reluctantly accepted that the days of special treatment for IT--which did endure for nearly a decade--are gone," says Mercer's David Van De Voort. The best advice for IT workers stuck at a certain pay level is to try to tie their own performance to the company's bottom line, or draw a connection between how their work has helped the company to improve its productivity or operational efficiency, says consultant David Weldon. IT salaries should increase once the economy improves, but individual increases will largely depend on the technical skills that companies require, says Robert Half Technology's Katherine Spencer Lee. Lee believes there will be a continuing demand for IT professionals with business intelligence skills who can help design and develop dashboards that senior managers use to more closely track sales and expenses. Despite the small salary increases, 60 percent of survey responders were either satisfied or very satisfied with their total compensation packages, although 52 percent of respondents also said they are looking for new jobs.
Virtual Consultancy to Foster Business Innovation
ICT Results (11/06/08)
European researchers working on the EU-funded PIM project have developed a semantics-based software platform to help small and medium enterprises (SMEs) develop the knowledge, skills, and expertise they need to be more innovative. "Our semantics-based knowledge management platform is a kind of virtual consultancy," says Milan Technical University researcher and PIM project manager Daniela Guarnieri. "It gives SMEs the chance to research their ideas, find solutions to problems, and locate experts who can help them without spending too much time, effort, or money." The PIM platform, which has been tested by more than 100 SMEs in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovenia, uses semantic information to make business cases, innovation studies, and best-practice reports accessible regardless of language or format. Users can search for information, uploaded to the PIM platform by other companies, business schools, and universities, to find solutions to problems, research new ideas, find other users and companies with expertise in certain areas, and create online communities for collaboration. "By using semantics, searches return results that are more meaningful to the person doing the searching, and it also allows us to cross language and technological barriers," Guarnieri says. "The technology itself is well known, the real innovation is in the services we have developed and how we are using them."
Intelligent Airlines Meet Passenger Needs
Science Daily (11/12/08)
Computer scientist Dimitris Kanellopoulos of Greece's Technological Educational Institute of Patrasin is developing an intelligent Web portal that will be capable of understanding the requirements of people looking for a seat on an airplane. The portal would be capable of locking onto the meaning of keywords as passengers describe their traveling preferences. The semantic information would be matched against a knowledge database of traveling options related to the time of flights, seating, eating, check-in arrangements, and other variables. Kanellopoulos uses a special conceptual model as part of the knowledge database provided by airlines, and the airlines ontology he developed enables the Web portal to understand what each passenger wants. Kanellopoulos says the model is an extension of the latest Web search tools that enable travelers to search for seats on different airlines, as well as car rental, hotel reservation, vacation packages, and other travel products and services.
Microsoft Takes Computer Science Into Fight Against HIV
IDG News Service (11/06/08) Lemon, Summer
Microsoft researchers are applying computer science techniques to provide scientists with a new way of examining the virus that causes AIDS, which may lead to the development of an effective vaccine and other medicines, says Microsoft's Rick Rashid. Rashid says the effort is focused on new ways of thinking about how to describe and analyze systemic activities within a cell. "We've been finding that a lot of underlying computer science theory, especially computer science languages, can actually be used to describe cell processes, and then the mathematics that we use to analyze programs can also be applied to analyze cell activities because there's an underlying mathematical relationship," he says. "It's opening up people's minds to how computers can help them, not just to do their work better, but how the underlying theory and underlying computer science changes the way they look at their problems." Since 2005, Microsoft has worked to apply machine-learning techniques, including technology used in spam and antivirus filters, to AIDS research, with the goal of finding genetic patterns in HIV that could be used to train the human immune system to fight the virus. Last year, Microsoft released software for four tools developed by Microsoft Research to help researchers analyze the genetic makeup of HIV. "The idea is that because the genome is basically digital, it can be described as a string and analyzed as a string," Rashid says. "It opens up an opportunity to think about a lot of problems in that space as data mining or machine learning problems." Microsoft researchers also are exploring ways of applying computer science to computational biology.
Study Shows How Spammers Cash In
BBC News (11/10/08)
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) hijacked a working spam network to analyze its economic value. The analysis found that spammers can make money by getting just one response for every 12.5 million emails sent. However, the researchers say that spam networks may be susceptible to attacks that make it more costly to send junk email. The researchers, led by UCSD professor Stefan Savage, took over a piece of the Storm spam network and created several proxy bots that acted as conduits of information between the command and control system for Storm and the hijacked home PCs that send the junk mail. The researchers used the machines to conduct their own fake spam campaigns. Two types of fake spam were sent, one that mimicked the way Storm spreads using viruses and the other aimed at tempting people to visit a fake pharmacy site and buy an herbal remedy to boost their libido. The fake pharmacy site always returned an error message when potential buyers clicked a button to submit their credit card details. The researchers sent about 469 million spam messages, and after 26 days and almost 350 million email messages, only 28 "sales" were made. The response rate for the campaign was less than 0.00001 percent, and would have resulted in revenues of $2,731.88, just over $100 a day for the measurement period. The researchers say that spam's small profit margin indicates that spammers would be economically susceptible to any disruptions in their networks.
NTIA Chief to ICANN: Proceed With Caution
Meredith Baker, chief of the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), speaking at ICANN's recent meeting in Cairo, Egypt, warned that ICANN must ensure it has effective strategies in place to protect consumers and brand owners as the domain marketplace expands. In particular, she called on ICANN to address dispute resolution procedures, better clarify fee structures, and determine how best to distribute excess revenues. NTIA is currently reviewing ICANN's progress as part of a three-year agreement to extend the contract between the organization and the U.S. Commerce Department, which expired in September 2006. Baker also said the new agreement will need to include performance metrics, results-based budgeting processes, fact-based policy development, better cross-community deliberations, and more responsive consultation procedures.
Proof by Computer
New developments in the use of formal proof in mathematics are investigated by a series of articles by leading experts, published in the December 2008 edition of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. The traditional method of proving theorems involves mathematicians presenting the argument in narrative form, and the correctness of the arguments is decided by the analysis of other mathematicians, in informal discussions, in lectures, or in journals. Problems of reliability inevitably crop up because the process of verifying mathematical results is basically social and therefore prone to error, and so the field of formal proof was developed to circumvent these shortcomings. A formal proof is one in which every single logical presumption has been checked all the way back to the basic mathematical precepts, and technology has advanced in recent years so that computer proof assistants that perform such checking are sufficiently powerful to accommodate challenging proofs. If the use of these assistants proliferates, the practice of mathematics could be dramatically revised. One vision is to have formal proofs of all central mathematical proofs, which Thomas Hales of the University of Pittsburgh compares to "the sequencing of the mathematical genome." The quartet of articles analyzes the current state of the art of formal proof and offers practical guidance for employing computer proof assistants.
N.C. Uses Bar Codes to Match Voters With Ballots
Government Computer News (11/03/08) Jackson, William
A new bar-code scanning voting system was used by more than 2 million voters in North Carolina since the polls opened in that state on Oct. 16 for the U.S. presidential election. "It is an extremely simple solution," says Marc Burris, IT director for North Carolina's Board of Elections. "The poll workers are already taxed with so many duties, so we wanted a simple and economic solution." The front end of the system is a handheld bar-code scanner that matches the voter with the proper ballot. The back end is a geographic information system tied to the statewide voter-registration system that assigns the appropriate ballot type to each voter, depending on their home jurisdiction. Burris says this is the first time this type of system for ballot distribution and management has been used for an election. The board initially considered using a personal digital assistant to do the scanning, but the devices were too expensive, were ergonomically impractical over long periods of use, and were generally too complex. The bar-code scanner was chosen because the system is simple to use. A poll worker scans a bar code on the voter's affirmation card and a corresponding code on the ballot being issued. The scanner turns on a green light and gives an audible tone if they match, and displays an error message if there is a mismatch. The back-end of the system is linked to the registration system to indicate the proper type of ballot for each voter based on where they live.
Coordinated Avoidance Maneuvers
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Information and Data Processing are developing software that enables cars to coordinate maneuvers in dangerous situations to prevent collisions. The program automatically forms a network of car-to-car communications to monitor driving conditions. "In dangerous situations, the cars can independently perform coordinated maneuvers without their drivers having to intervene," says Fraunhofer Institute's Thomas Batz. "In this way, they can quickly and safely avoid one another." The researchers are using cognitive automobiles that are equipped with car-to-car communications and integrated sensors such as cameras, GPS, and radar systems so they can autonomously recognize their surroundings and avoid potential obstacles. The vehicles form cooperative groups that can act in unison, made up of cars that are traveling in the same direction and are in radio range of each other. The groups are constantly being redefined as cars move in and out of range. Every vehicle in a group automatically transmits its current position and driving situation to a car that has been designated to be the group coordinator. Sudden dangers, such as a child running into the road, are recognized by both the car immediately affected and the group coordinator. If the car in danger cannot stop or swerve because of other cars, the coordinator takes control and orders the other vehicles to swerve to avoid the collision. The researchers are working on improving the program's ability to recognize and assess dangerous situations and to choose appropriate driving maneuvers.
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