Welcome to the January 28, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
A Tool to Verify Digital Records, Even as Technology Shifts
New York Times (01/27/09) P. D3; Markoff, John
University of Washington researchers have released the first component of a public system that will provide authentication for an archive of video interviews with prosecutors and other members of the International Criminal Tribunal on the Rwandan genocide, along with the first portion of the Rwandan archive. The system will be available for others to digitally preserve and authenticate first-hand accounts of war crimes, atrocities, and genocide. The tools are needed because advancements in technology have made it possible to alter digital text, video, and audio in nearly undetectable ways. The researchers say the system means the authenticity of digital documents such as videos, transcripts of personal accounts, and court records can be indisputably proved for the first time. The researchers have created a publicly available digital fingerprint, known as a cryptographic hash mark, that will make it possible for anyone to determine that the documents are authentic and have not been tampered with. The digital hash concept was first conceived by IBM's Hans Peter Luhn in the early 1950s, and the researchers are the first to attempt to simplify the application for nontechnical users and offer a complete system for long-term data preservation. Similar efforts to preserve a complete record of the World Wide Web and other documents led to computer scientist Brewster Kahle launching the Internet Archive in 1996. Another digital preservation effort was launched by Stanford University librarians in 2000. Their system, dubbed LOCKSS, for Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe, preserves journals by distributing copies of documents over the Internet to an international community of libraries.
PCs Will Become Sensitive
Financial Times Digital Business (01/28/09) P. 4; Shillingford, Joia
Over the next decade, IT will become increasingly pervasive but computers will be less prevalent as they are incorporated into vehicles, desks, and even furniture, predicts Rob Gear, manager of PA Consulting's IT Innovation Unit. Gear says semantic computing will make businesses more efficient. He predicts that by 2012 machines will be able to understand if a number is a birth date, flight number, or invoice, making businesses more productive when buying or selling online. In the public sector, highways will be outfitted with sensors and cars will use global positioning system devices to reduce bottlenecks. Individuals will carry fewer mobile devices, and computers will become more sensitive to people's emotions. Research in affective computing could advance e-learning by creating automated systems that can recognize when a student is confused and suggest an alternative lesson. Data storage and processing power will continue to become less expensive, and data storage capacities will continue to double. Nanoionic memory, which uses charged atoms to store information in nano systems, will lead to mobile devices that can hold a terabyte of data. Beyond 2050, Gear says artificial intelligence (AI) will have a major impact, leading to AI systems that solve specific problems such as credit card fraud.
AI Comes of Age
Computerworld (01/26/09) Vol. 43, No. 4, P. 16; Anthes, Gary
Artificial intelligence (AI) research has taken great strides in recent years, proliferating and being incorporated into practical applications. Significant AI milestones include the emergence of ubiquitous computing and more powerful computers; software capable of dealing with uncertainty, incompleteness, and anomalies; algorithms that learn and improve over time; and software agents designed to weigh costs and benefits. Among the latest AI innovations is a new generation of software that integrates learning, vision, navigation, manipulation, planning, reasoning, speech, and natural-language processing. Machine learning forms the core of many present-day AI applications, and the availability of vast volumes of information from the Internet and physical sensors has fueled the technology's progress. Carnegie Mellon University professor Carlos Guestrin says that "as the amount of information increases, our ability to make good decisions may actually decrease. Machine learning and AI can help." Most AI advances have been driven by computer science rather than biology or cognitive science, although Tom Mitchell of Carnegie Mellon University's Machine Learning Department says that new brain studies could enable an unprecedented sharing of information between these disciplines. He observes, for example, that regions of the brain follow pathways predicted by reinforcement learning algorithms used in robots. "AI is actually helping us develop models for understanding what might be happening in our brains," Mitchell says.
Testbeds to Breed Next-Generation Systems
ICT Results (01/28/09)
European researchers working on the UNITE program have developed a virtual testbed that will enable IT developers to fine-tune new devices and systems to ensure that they interact correctly with existing systems. "Until now, when a research group wanted to test something, they often had to 're-invent the wheel,' " says UNITE's Georgios Kormentzas. UNITE developers aimed to accelerate progress within and across technologies by encouraging researchers to share their work. "If you give your testing tool to the research community, you gain access to the tools of the other teams," Kormentzas says. UNITE researchers looked for common features in software tools, hardware tools, single-layer simulators, system-simulation tools, and traffic generators that would allow them to interface with each other. They also looked for ways to integrate new tools into the UNITE platform, which consists of three main components. The first is a visual display terminal (VDT) that can be used to communicate with the virtual testbed. The VDT gives users access to the UNITE controllers and the platform's testing and simulation tools. The controllers also define and designate UNITE time slots for specific actions, such as testing a communications protocol, and maintain a database of prior simulations.
ICANN Ponders Ways to Stop Scammy Web Sites
IDG News Service (01/27/09) Kirk, Jeremy
ICANN recently issued an initial report on fast flux, a technique that is being exploited by hackers and other cybercriminals. Fast flux allows a Web site's domain name to resolve multiple Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Content distribution networks use the technique legitimately in order to balance loads, lower data transmission costs, and improve performance. However, cybercriminals are using the technique to make it more difficult for Internet service providers to shut down illegal Web sites. Fast flux helps cybercriminals avoid detection and frustrate efforts to close their Web sites. Internet security experts are trying to develop a way to stop the criminal use of fast flux without restricting the technique's legitimate uses. Potential solutions include quicker identification of abusive domain names or limiting the ability of registrants to repeatedly change name servers.
Intel Researchers Demo RF Energy Harvester
EE Times (01/26/09) Mannion, Patrick
Moore's law is a key factor in an ambient radio frequency (RF) energy-harvesting project from researchers at the Intel Research Seattle Lab. At the recent Rawcon Conference in San Diego, Intel's Joshua Smith presented a paper that discussed the scavenging of 60 microwatts from a TV tower 4.1 kilometers away from the lab. The power was used to drive a thermometer/hygrometer and its LCD. The approach harvested enough energy to drive many Wireless Identification and Sensing Platform (WISP) applications. The researchers call RF scavenging Wireless Ambient Radio Power, and presented it as another WISP application. A WISP is essentially an RF identification (RFID) tag with a microcontroller on it, according to Smith. He says the increase in integration and decline in power consumption of digital circuitry has led to the improved functionality per microwatt of scavenged energy. "The range at which you can power a device [with a given amount of ambient RF energy] should double every four years," he says. The two power-harvesting techniques of RFID and TV could lead to a perpetual sensing platform that does not need batteries.
A Meeting of the Minds
Waterloo Record (Canada) (01/24/09) D'Amato, Luisa
Canada's University of Waterloo next year will host the International Olympiad in Informatics, which brings together 400 of the most talented high school students from around the world to compete against each other to solve problems that will test their skills in problem analysis, algorithm design and data structures, and programming. Waterloo professor Troy Vasiga says having the students assume the flow of wind at a certain rate and a certain number of windmills, and then asking them to determine where the windmills should be positioned in order to generate the maximum amount of energy, is the type of problem participants would face. There will be teams from 80 countries at the August 2010 event. Vasiga will chair the 2010 International Olympiad in Informatics, and also will coach the Canadian team. The International Olympiad in Informatics will be held in Bulgaria this year.
Rowan Program Aims to Promote Computer Science Among Minorities, Women
Courier Post (NJ) (01/21/09)
Rowan University's Facilitating Academic Triumph by Providing an Integrated Pipeline Experience (FATPIPE) program was established to attract more women and minority students to computer science. "Basically, I started this because we live in a technological society, and as computer science educators I feel we're ethically bound to prepare students to survive in this technological society," says Rowan professor John Robinson. FATPIPE uses several strategies to increase minority participation and help students succeed. A learning community segment called Learning in Bits and Bytes (LiBBy) helps up to 20 incoming computer science freshmen form bonds through linking courses. LiBBy requires participants to take two low-enrollment freshmen classes together with specially chosen professors, houses students together, and provides mentoring and extracurricular activities. FATPIPE also offers the Computer Science Alternate Route Program, which gives students an alternative path into computer science for those who fall just shy of meeting entrance requirements. "We take students who show potential and provide intervention to prepare them to enter the major," Robinson says. He says that once FATPIPE is more established, program coordinators will explore targeting select high schools to better prepare students for science, technology, engineering, and math majors.
Scientists Use Brownian Motion to Explore How Birds Flock Together
PhysOrg.com (01/23/09) Zyga, Lisa
Scientists are researching how large groups of animals are able to move as a single body. The phenomenon, known as collection motion, could have implications for a variety of fields, including computer science and robotics. In a recent study, researchers modeled collective motion using Brownian particles, observing the interaction of individual particles making escape and pursuit movements. The researchers modeled an individual as a Brownian particle that possesses internal energy so it can move at various speeds in reaction to external stimuli. The researchers found that at high particle densities, the escape and pursuit interactions can lead to global collective motion. Pawel Romanczuk from Humbolt University Berlin says that this understanding of collective motion could have far-reaching applications. "The understanding of collective motion is of particular interest to engineers and computer scientists working on the design of autonomous robots," Romanczuk says. "The idea is that simple communicating agents may perform complex tasks as a group without the permanent control of a human for each individual, and which are also robust against the failure of individual agents within the group. He also notes that collective motion mathematical models could be used to develop "realistic computer animations of large animal swarms or even human crowds, which are also used in movie productions."
Computers Track the Elusive Metaphor
Chronicle of Higher Education (01/23/09) Vol. 55, No. 20, P. A11; Guernsey, Lisa
University of Virginia professor Brad Pasanek has created the Mind is a Metaphor database, an online, searchable database of phrases, verses, and lines from literature that encapsulates metaphors. Pasanek's original goal was to document metaphors that are used to describe how the mind works in an effort to uncover connections between intellectual movements and how people use words to describe their thinking. However, the database also serves to test how much a piece of software can learn about a language without significant help from humans. Google computer scientist D. Sculley has been running projects on the database for the past few years and says machines are capable of learning about metaphors. Pasanek originally searched through databases of literature manually, looking for metaphors related to the mind. However, after a chance meeting with Sculley, the two began working on a machine-learning system that could identify metaphors in large databases. The researchers are now running machine-learning programs to test software programs and theories about metaphors.
Technology Will Ease Healthcare Dilemma
University of Ulster (01/27/09)
University of Ulster researchers predict that high-tech, home-based health monitoring will be a critical part of alleviating some of the pressures the healthcare system will experience as the world's population continues to age. The researchers are developing health monitoring systems that people can use in their own homes. University of Ulster's Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Centre director Jim McLaughlin says that independent living is the motivating factor. Computer Science Research Institute at Ulster professor Chris Nugent says both patients and medical professionals can benefit from patients being more involved in the management and monitoring of their health. A new international Center for Intelligent Point of Care Sensors was launched by the University of Ulster and Dublin City University to drive research and development in the area of point-of-care sensors. Point-of-care sensors are handheld, wearable, or transportable devices for use in the home, or hospitals, to provide healthcare professionals with vital signs for analysis. McLaughlin says Ulster's focus on sensory monitoring has helped make engineering and computing a popular and highly desirable undergraduate field, a change from the trends of the past few years. "What we are doing now... is bringing the university's computing, engineering, and sensor device skills together so as to address... industry's need for electronic and highly skilled computing engineers," he says.
New Wireless Standard Promises Ultra-Fast Media Applications
Georgia Institute of Technology (01/22/09) Fernandez, Don
The Georgia Institute of Technology's Georgia Electronic Design Center (GEDC) has developed a complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) chip capable of transmitting 60 GHz digital radio-frequency signals. GEDC researchers say the technology could lead to the rapid transfer of high-definition movies and other large files from a PC to a cell phone, virtually wireless desktop computers and data centers, wireless home DVD systems, in-store kiosks that can download movies to mobile devices, and the ability to move gigabytes of photos or video files from a camera to a PC almost instantly. "We believe this new standard represents a major step forward," says GEDC director Joy Laskar. "Consumers could see products capable of ultra-fast short-range data transfer within two or three years." GEDC's chip provides multi-gigabit wireless transmissions by combining 60 GHz CMOS digital radio capabilities and multi-gigabit signal processing in an ultra-compact device. Laskar says the new technology represents the highest level of integration for 60 GHz wireless single-chip solutions. "Multi-gigabit technology definitely has major promise for new consumer and IT applications," says Microsoft Research's Darko Kirovski. GEDC researchers say they have already achieved high data transfer speeds that could lead to unprecedented short-range wireless speeds, including 15 Gbps at 1 meter, 10 Gbps at 2 meters, and 5 Gbps at 5 meters.
What Links Open Source and Literature?
ETH Life (01/21/09) Salzmann, Niklaus
ETH Zurich researchers have found that the mathematical distribution of Zipf's law--the frequency of any word within a corpus of natural language is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table--holds true in other systems. The researchers tested their theory by examining the linking of Debian Linux software packets. They say the distribution trend can be found in different systems, including the number of visitors to Web sites, the size of towns, and the size of companies in various countries. By studying four versions of Debian Linux, the researchers determined that the number of incoming packet links obeys Zipf's law, and that the number of links referring a packet develops over time. The researchers say the ability to estimate the growth of Linux packets could have a significant effect on entrepreneurial endeavors, as well as the ability to predict the longevity of a company based on its size.
Predicting Politics: Professors Model Prediction Markets
Northwestern University News Center (01/20/09) Fellman, Megan
Northwestern University researchers say that political prediction markets, in which participants buy and sell contracts based on who they think will win an election, behave similarly to financial markets, except when political feelings influence decisions. Political prediction markets accurately predicted Barack Obama's victory in the last election, though researchers found that partisan feelings were so strong that they influenced trading in the 2000 presidential election. The researchers have created a model of how prices fluctuate in prediction markets, which could eventually be used to determine how events might affect the outcomes of real elections. The researchers studied the Iowa Electronic Markets' 2000 and 2004 presidential winner-takes-all markets. In winner-takes-all markets, traders make money by selling the contract of the person they believe will lose. Northwestern professor Luis Amaral says that predictive markets are designed to use the wisdom of the crowds to find out what is most likely to happen by aggregating the information possessed by a large number of people. However, opinions and feelings can distort the results of these markets. "Once you have a model like this, then you can identify what types of events are important enough to change the course of the election," says Northwestern professor Daniel Diermeier.
Strong and Connected
NCSA News (01/20/09) Bell, J. William
Ed Seidel with the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Office of Cyberinfrastructure says in an interview that the agency's cyberinfrastructure vision focuses on transformative research. He says the effort is structured around four main development areas: Virtual organizations for distributed communities; high-performance computing; data, visualization, and interaction; and education and workforce development. Seidel cites the high-performance computing initiative as particularly prominent, and says that "with the integration of the TeraGrid and beyond with [Extreme Digital], the generality of computing--resources being available and it not mattering where the jobs are done--is going to become much more fundamental. Even more than it is now. And that's going to create a shift to the national cyberinfrastructure that people use without worrying as much about the individual details." Seidel also mentions the Track 1 NSF award won by the University of Illinois, IBM, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and the Great Lakes Consortium for Petascale Computation that will be used to construct Blue Waters, a petascale computer for open scientific research. He says that these programs are designed to bring together communities to cultivate the development of applications for such systems. Seidel says the centers developing Blue Waters and other systems funded by NSF grants are responsible for developing computational science and cyberinfrastructure as a discipline, and that use of the national cyberinfrastructure should be an important component in the training of individual students and postdoctoral students.
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