Welcome to the November 19, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Computing From Weather to Warcraft
The New York Times (11/18/08) P. B3; Vance, Ashlee
Supercomputers, which in the past had been used primarily by governments for weapons research and by national laboratories and universities in the United States, Europe, and Japan, are reaching a wider audience as their prices fall. Just 18 months ago, China and India lacked a single system among the 25 fastest in the world. However, the latest list of the 500 fastest computers placed China in the No. 10 spot as the only nation besides the United States in the top 10, and India has the 13th-fastest machine, which beats Japan. China now has 15 of the world's 500 fastest computers, making it the top-ranking supercomputing country outside the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. Not only are supercomputers more accessible, they are being used for a wider variety of purposes, such as processing movie graphics, searching for oil, and even managing online games such as World of Warcraft. China and India "are following behind the U.S. and perhaps some other nations in Western Europe, but they are there," says University of Tennessee computer scientist Jack Dongarra, who helps maintain the Top500 list. "These countries are making a clear statement about their intentions." Meanwhile, the sharply falling cost of supercomputers is making them attractive to businesses that would have found the cost to be impractical even a few years ago. Some companies also are selling deskside machines that can process data 250 times faster than a standard PC. These computers provide scientists, engineers, and artists with direct access to powerful computers before they send larger jobs to supercomputers.
Has the IT Skills Crisis Turned a Corner?
silicon.com (11/19/08) Lomas, Natasha
The number of unfilled IT positions in the United Kingdom is dropping for the first time in years, according to silicon.com's 10th annual Skills Survey, a sign that the country's skills crisis may be abating. The percentage of respondents reporting unfilled IT positions had been rising every year, increasing from 14 percent in 2003 to 45 percent in 2007. However, only 40 percent of respondents said they have unfilled IT positions in this year's survey. The most recent survey also shows a small decline in the number of respondents who believe that there is a skills shortage in IT, supporting the belief that recruiting for IT is getting easier. Less than half of all respondents, 46 percent, agree or strongly agree that there is a skills shortage, down from the 48 percent who thought so last year. Mobile device skills are one area where the industry may be experiencing a true skills shortage, with 40 percent of respondents disagreeing or strongly disagreeing that it is easy to find workers with strong mobile skills, even as mobility is becoming increasingly important in many corporate agendas. Other IT skills in short supply are programming languages, Web services, and IT management systems. The majority of respondents, 72 percent, believe that business and technical skills are equally important to success, and there is a widespread understanding that IT workers also must now have soft skills.
Researcher: Self-Driving Cars Could Save U.S. Auto Industry
Computerworld (11/18/08) Gaudin, Sharon
Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun says the U.S. auto industry's best hope for long-term survival is to take a leadership role in developing self-driving cars. Thrun says the United States is lagging behind Europe, Japan, and South Korea in finding ways of using technology to make cars safer, more energy-efficient, and user-friendly. For example, Nissan recently demonstrated a technology called the Robot Agent that sits in the dashboard of a car and uses built-in cameras to read a driver's facial expressions to pick up cues on whether the driver is getting tired or stressed. The robot will then interact with the driver to get the driver in a better mood, or suggest that the driver pull over and rest. Thrun says the United States should be pushing these technologies more aggressively than anyone else. "For me, the American spirit is one of innovation, and I don't see this that right now coming out of Detroit," he says. "This nation should take this moment to think about why we are not the leader in automotive technology." Thrun says that refocusing on technology will not save the industry from the current crisis, but that car company engineers must immediately focus on how technology can be put to better use, particularly robotics. "We can make cars drive themselves," he says. "Human pilots are only allowed to land the planes themselves during good weather. Autopilot must be used in bad weather. With robotics, we could make cars much, much safer."
Pinning Down the Fleeting Internet: Web Crawler Archives Historical Data for Easy Searching
University of Washington News and Information (11/18/08) Tompa, Rachel
Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) and Adobe Systems have developed Zoetrope, a Web-searching tool that enables users to search archived Internet pages. "There are so many ways of finding and manipulating and visualizing data on what we call 'the today Web' that it's kind of amazing that there's no way to do anything similar to the ephemeral Web," says UW professor Dan Weld. Through Zoetrope, anyone will be able to use keyword searches to find archived Web information or look for patterns over time. The research was presented Oct. 22 by recently graduated UW computer science and engineering doctoral student Mira Dontcheva at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology. Historical Web pages could be used to research traffic patterns in a certain area, or check historical rankings of sports teams and athletes. Zoetrope can do more than just simple keywords searchers, notes UW doctoral student Eytan Adar. The application also can be used to analyze historical data or link information from different sites. For example, Adar used the program to find daily records of pollution levels in Beijing and compared that information to the number of world records broken in the 2008 Olympics on each day. Weld says that Zoetrope is aimed at the casual researcher and is really for anyone with a question.
Supercomputers Break Petaflop Barrier, Transforming Science
Wired News (11/18/08) Mason, Betsy
The surpassing of petaflop speeds by a new breed of supercomputers could facilitate a profound scientific transformation by bringing simulation to the cutting edge of science, according to leading researchers. "The new capability allows you to do fundamentally new physics and tackle new problems," says Thomas Zacharia of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "And it will accelerate the transition from basic research to applied technology." The new machines will enable scientists to run models of complex phenomena, such as weather systems, with far greater accuracy. The public's interest in climate change and its potential effects is putting pressure on researchers to create precise predictive simulations, and petaflop computers can deliver the much higher resolution needed for such models. IBM and Cray have developed machines that have broken the petaflop barrier, and Oak Ridge's Cray XT5 Jaguar has 362 TB of memory, which is 300 percent more memory capacity than any other computer, says Zacharia. So that researchers' switch to Jaguar was as seamless as possible, designers let them use existing applications rather than programming new ones.
Computers Determine When to Stop Searches at Sea
University of Portsmouth (11/19/08)
The U.S. Coast Guard hopes to add a new computer model to the software system it uses to determine where a search should be conducted to find someone lost at sea. The Coast Guard called on experts at the United Kingdom's University of Portsmouth to help develop the Search and Rescue Survival Model, which will determine when a victim can no longer survive and the search and rescue team can be called off. "The University of Portsmouth has been able to tap into and analyze data held by the Institute of Naval Medicine and the Royal National Lifeboats Institution, both critical to the development of this survival model," says Coast Guard project manager Chris Turner. A trial of the new model in U.S. waters is scheduled for late 2009. "Calculating survival time will add another layer to SAROPS [Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System]; it will be able to predict not only where a search should be conducted but when it should be stopped," says Portsmouth professor Mike Tipton.
What Has Driven Women Out of Computer Science?
The New York Times (11/16/08) P. BU4; Stross, Randall
In 1991, Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Ellen Spertus published the paper, "Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?" Nearly 20 years later there are even fewer women entering the field, and the reasons why are still largely a matter of dispute. One puzzling aspect is that the explanations for the under-representation of women established in 1991 applied to all technical fields, but women have since achieved parity with men in almost every other technical area. In all science and engineering fields, the percentage of bachelor's degrees awarded to women has increased to 51 percent in 2004-2005, up from 39 percent in 1984-1985, according to the National Science Foundation. However, in computer science the percentage of women has been declining. In 2001-2002, only 28 percent of all undergraduate degrees in computer science were awarded to women, and by 2004-2005 that number dropped to 22 percent. The Computing Research Association says that women accounted for only 12 percent of undergraduate degrees in computer science and engineering in the United States and Canada in 2006-2007 at Ph.D.-granting institutions, a drop from 19 percent in 2001-2002. Many computer science departments report that women now account for less than 10 percent of new undergraduates. University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor Jonathan Kane believes that young women felt more comfortable pursing a computer science major before the male-dominated subculture of action gaming developed. Northwestern University Center for Technology and Social Behavior's Justine Cassell says the widespread stereotype of computer science professionals as "nerds" or "geeks" accounts for the lack of interest in the field.
UBC 'Smart' Wheelchair Could Increase Mobility for Disabled Seniors
CanWest News Service (11/18/08) Chan, Cheryl
A smart wheelchair received ethics approval in Canada last week, and the prototype could be tested at a long-term care facility in Toronto in January. People with Alzheimer's or dementia are not allowed to use powered wheelchairs due to safety concerns, but a smart wheelchair would be able to do the maneuvering for them. "It's heartbreaking to walk into a long-term care facility, and you see them bumping into walls," says Pooja Viswanathan, a Ph.D. computer science student at the University of British Columbia. "They're not going anywhere, because they don't have the strength to move, they don't know where they are, they don't know where they want to go." The prototype, Navigation and Obstacle Avoidance Help, relies on a laptop stored underneath the chair and a camera mounted on the front caster to recognize landmarks and calculate space using depth perception. The smart wheelchair can be programmed to stop at a pre-determined distance from obstacles such as furniture, walls, and stairs. Viswanathan also wants to add a voice component, which would be able to remind users of their daily schedules.
Looking Forward to Chatting With Machines
Financial Times Digital Business (11/19/08) P. 6; Shillingford, Joia
Former BT futurologist Peter Cochrane believes that in the future software mash-ups will become more prevalent, with users combining different pieces of software programs to create new software. In hardware, Cochrane says the major change will be a shift toward organic screens, which are thinner than today's plasma screens, consume a third of the energy, and are brighter and have sharper contrast. PCs also will be smaller, lighter, faster, and less expensive, and extra computing power will be available on demand through cloud computing or a grid. Cochrane predicts that governments will lag behind corporations in adopting new IT technology, but there will be widespread adoption of new technology among individuals, including the use of thin-client computing, in which users can access applications on the Web instead of on their PCs' hard drives. In business, corporate IT departments could disappear. In order to survive, business will have to develop simulators so they can test decisions before choosing a course of action. By 2020, products will last longer due to nanoparticles embedded in the products, Cochrane says. He says search engines will have an element of cognition and be able to recognize content, to the point where they will know if users are working on specific projects and anticipate their needs. By 2050, Cochrane predicts that technology will advance to the point where machines are able to design other machines better than humans can, similar to how humans used to build TVs but now machines build TVs better and more efficiently.
An Algorithm With No Secrets
Technology Review (11/18/08) Naone, Erica
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is organizing a competition to find an algorithm to replace the Secure Hash Algorithm 2 (SHA-2), which is becoming outdated. NIST plans to release a short list of the best entries by the end of November, the beginning of a four-year-long process to find the overall winner. In 2005, Tsinghua University Center for Advanced Study professor Xiaoyun Wang found weaknesses in several related hashing algorithms, and since then Wang and others have found faults in several other hashing schemes, causing officials to worry that SHA-2 also may eventually be found to be vulnerable. A hash algorithm creates a digital fingerprint for messages that keep them secure during transit, but it is only considered secure if there is no practical way of running it backward and finding the original message from the fingerprint. There also cannot be a way of producing two messages with the same exact fingerprint. The weaknesses discovered by Wang and others relate to this problem, which cryptographers call a collision. It is impossible to completely avoid collisions, but the best algorithms make collisions extremely hard to produce. "Hash functions are the most widely used and the most poorly understood cryptographic primitives," says BT Counterpane's Bruce Schneier. "It's possible that everything gets broken here, simply because we don't really understand how hash functions work." NIST already has received 64 entries and is counting on cryptographers to narrow the list.
The Network of Everything
ICT Results (11/15/08)
Making personal networks (PNs) capable of managing scores of devices requires the creation of a "network of everything" to connect the devices together, and the European Union-funded MAGNET Beyond project sought to create a model that enables users to easily establish their PNs with all their devices. "We have a user-centric approach with the overall objective to design, develop, demonstrate, and validate the concept of a flexible PN that supports resource-efficient, robust, ubiquitous personal services in a secure, heterogeneous networking environment for mobile users," says MAGNET Beyond technical manager Liljana Gavrilovska. The MAGNET Beyond model calls for self-organizing devices capable of assembling into geographically distributed secure networks of personal devices, and a platform for numerous personal applications and services to support various pursuits in a manner that is reliable and trustworthy, yet inconspicuous. The platform also will support permanent or temporary linkage between PNs. The project followed the guiding principles of ease of use, trustworthiness, ubiquity, and low cost, and Gavrilovska notes that the system requires no administrators and virtually zero training. "It will ensure security and protect privacy, and it will work everywhere, even without any additional infrastructure, but still be able to exploit any available resources, like Wi-Fi or cell phone networks, for example," she says. The system's architecture also is future-proofed and endowed with contextual awareness.
NASA Unveils Lunar Image Recovery Project
CNet (11/13/08) Terdiman, Daniel
NASA is working to restore 42-year-old images taken of the moon and from the moon. The images were first taken in the 1960s by cameras onboard five separate Lunar Orbiter spacecraft. They were stored on magnetic tapes and later transferred to film for analysis. At the time, however, the full resolution of the images could not be retrieved because the technology did not exist to extract all the information. Since then, the data was stored on large tapes, waiting for a decision on what to do with them. Now, the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP), based at the NASA Ames Research Center, is translating the analog data from the 1,500 tapes taken from the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft and stored at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory into digital form, which will produce the highest resolution possible. Once the translation of the images is finished, NASA will make the images available to the public in digital form. Ames Research Center director Pete Worden says the restored images will enable researchers to compare the historical images to new ones from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to look for recent meteor impacts.
The First Metropolitan Quantum Cryptography Network Will Be Available in Spain by 2010
Universidad Politecnica de Madrid (11/07/08)
Universidad Politecnica de Madrid School of Computing researchers have developed a prototype metropolitan quantum-key distribution network that will be ready for deployment by Telefonica on any Spanish urban telecommunications network by 2010. The prototype is being developed as part of the Security and Confidence in the Information Society research and development project, which includes a consortium of 12 companies and 15 public research institutions. The project's goal is to create a new generation of integral security solutions capable of dealing with telecommunications security risks currently threatening conventional networks. The security of conventional public-key cryptography methods is based on the confidence that any attacker does not have enough computing power or mathematical knowledge to decrypt the message. However, this method is becoming less secure as computing power increases and mathematical models become increasingly sophisticated. Quantum-key distribution relies on quantum mechanics and provides a completely different way of creating cryptographic keys, providing much higher levels of security. The researchers' metropolitan quantum-key distribution network can coexist with traditional communications networks, which they say is a major advantage as networks already have all the key components and have been successfully tested in experiments.
Cellphone App Will Get Air Guitarists Wailing
New Scientist (11/07/08) No. 2681, P. 26; Marks, Paul
Georgia Tech music technologist Gil Weinberg has developed ZoozBeats, new software that will enable people to play music with their cell phones. The smart gesture-recognition software senses motion in a number of different ways to enable someone to beat the air with a phone as if it is a drumstick or strum a sequence of chords on an air guitar. Sounds can be triggered using the accelerometers built into mobile phones, when the view through a phone's camera lens changes quickly, or by simple taps on a cell phone's microphone. ZoozBeats also features an algorithm called Musical Wizard, which assists users in making music that sounds good. "It will fit, but not perfectly, so you can still learn to improve the music yourself," Weinberg says. ZoozBeats enables users to produce vocal effects and to jam with other people by downloading a Bluetooth networkable version of the sounds. "With the right tools, everyone can be creative and expressive musically--even if they don't know anything about music theory," Weinberg says.
Army Tries Holograms, Quantum Computing
DoD Buzz (11/04/08) Lowe, Christian
The U.S. Army is taking a serious interest in technologies such as virtual humans, quantum computing, memory implantation and erasure, realistic holograms, and other concepts long deemed to be science fiction, according to John Parmentola with the Army's science and technology office. Such concepts will be highlighted by experts in quantum physics, computer displays, and neurorobotics at the 26th Army Science Conference in December. Medical College of Georgia neurobiologist Joe Tsien, who has pioneered the erasure of traumatic memories in laboratory mice, says such a method could be used to help soldiers psychologically wounded by battlefield experiences. Parmentola speculates that soldiers could communicate or remotely operate weapons by thought using technology that can read, interpret, and augment electrical impulses on the surface of the scalp. Another intriguing research area for the military is quantum ghost imaging, which is the phenomenon of image rendering via the pairing of photons that neither reflect nor bounce off an object but off of other photons that do. Such technology would allow the Army to produce images of equipment and personnel through clouds and smoke. "It's like having a tracing tool ... that goes over the image and that's connected to another one on a piece of paper that exactly imitates what it is that you are tracing with the other pen," Parmentola says.
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