Welcome to the April 3, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Self-Directed Robot Scientist Makes Discovery
Discovery News (04/02/09) Bland, Eric
A robot developed by researchers at the United Kingdom's Aberystwyth University has discovered 12 new functions for genes entirely on its own. The robot, dubbed Adam, contains a biological library of more than 12,000 chilled petri dishes, with each dish containing a different yeast strain with various genes removed from each strain. Using different tools, Adam can grab a petri dish, remove a sample of yeast, grow the sample, clean it, and analyze the results of an experiment that the robot designed. "Our goal is to make science more efficient," says University of Wales professor of biology and computer science Ross King. "If we had computers designing and carrying out experiments we could get through many more experiments than we currently can." Although Adam is still a prototype, King's team hopes that the next robot, dubbed Eve, will be able to contribute to the research for new drugs to fight diseases. Adam and Eve both have the hardware to physically manipulate objects and the advanced artificial intelligence to enable them to make their own decisions on what experiments to run, and to act of those decisions without human assistance. These types of artificial intelligence systems are still slow, but they will improve as additional research is done, says Columbia University professor David Waltz. "We have vastly more data that we can gather and vastly more powerful machines that we can work on it with and we must create more storage to save them," he says.
Move Over, Newton: Scientifically Ignorant Computer Derives Natural Laws From Raw Data
Cornell University (04/02/09) Steele, Bill
Cornell University researchers have developed an algorithm that can identify regularities in the natural world that represent natural laws. The researchers tested the algorithm on simple mechanical systems and believe that it could be applied to more complex systems. They say it could be useful in analyzing the massive amounts of data generated by experiments that use electronic data collection. The algorithm, which was created by Cornell professor Hod Lipson and computational biology graduate student Michael Schmidt, starts by taking the derivatives of every variable observed with respect to every other, creating a mathematical way of measuring how one quantity changes as another changes. The algorithm then creates equations at random from various constants and variables from the data that it tests against the known derivatives. Equations that come close to making accurate predictions are kept, altered slightly, and tested again. The process is repeated until the algorithm evolves a set of equations that accurately describe the behavior of the real system. The algorithm does not technically output equations, but instead finds "invariants," or mathematical expressions that remain true in every situation, from which humans can derive equations. Once the invariants are identified, all equations describing the system should be available. The method was tested using a spring-loaded linear oscillator, a single pendulum, and a double pendulum. Using data on position and velocity over time and acceleration, the algorithm found energy laws, the law of conservation of movement, and Newton's second law of motion. The researchers say the algorithm found these laws without any prior knowledge of physics, kinematics, or geometry.
Humanoid Robot Helps Scientists to Understand Intelligence
Imperial College London (03/31/09) Smith, Colin
Imperial College London (UCL) scientists say that a humanoid robot called iCub will help advance research into human cognition, perception, reasoning, and judgment. The researchers are investigating how humans use cognition to interact with the world. The iCub, which is about the size of a three-year-old child and has a human-like body, has mechanical joints that enable it to move its head, arms, fingers, eyes, and legs similarly to humans. UCL professor Murray Shanahan says the iCub's human-like functions are important because cognition is closely related to how we interact with the world. "Nature developed cognition for us in order to make us better at interacting with the physical and social world," Shanahan says. "If we want to understand the nature of cognition better then we really need to understand it in the context of something that moves or interacts with objects. That is where iCub can help us." The researchers are developing a computer simulation of a brain that will be linked to iCub to allow it to process information about the environment and perform simple tasks. If the research is successful, it will mark an important step toward reproducing how humans use cognition and interact with the world, Shanahan says. "If we can test our theories about cognition by building and experimenting with robots, then we may just be one step closer to really beginning to understand what makes us tick," he says.
Mapping Disasters in 3-D
Technology Review (03/31/09) Grifantini, Kristina
Texas A&M University lab's Robin Murphy and colleagues have developed RubbleViewer, a tool for modeling a disaster scene that they say is more efficient than drawing by hand. The RubbleViewer program is designed to upload pictures that are taken from small unmanned air vehicles (SUAVs), and use the algorithms of the PhotoSynth panorama-making software to combine the snapshots. Three-dimensional (3D) maps are built by extracting information from data points, which is like placing a blanket over a bunch of needle points, says Maarten van Zomeren, a graduate student at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands who helped develop the software. First responders would be able to build a topographic 3D map of an area in about a half an hour. RubbleViewer would allow them to determine the location of possible survivors by clicking on a spot to annotate the map and call up the specific photos. The developers plan to integrate RubbleViewer with SUAVs as well as land-based search-and-rescue robots for an easy-to-use first responders system. The team says the system would be cheaper and more portable than helicopter-mounted lasers.
The Future of Computer-Human Interaction: Conference to Explore the New World of Digital Life
AScribe Newswire (03/31/09)
ACM's annual conference on Computer-Human Interaction, CHI 2009, gets underway at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston on April 4. Sponsored by ACM's Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction (SIGCHI), the conference offers workshops and sessions on the global impact of mobile devices and new ways to use and improve access to digital technologies. On April 6, Nokia Design's Jan Chipchase will give a presentation on the cultural dimensions of interactive design. There also will be a panel discussion on the common ground between designing food and the user experience. On April 7 there will be a presentation by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Fluid Interfaces Group on a wearable device that offers new ways to interact with the world. Another highlight for April 7 is a panel discussion on using mobile technologies to improve education for children worldwide.
Senate Legislation Would Federalize Cybersecurity
The Washington Post (04/01/09) Warrick, Joby; Pincus, Walter
The U.S. Senate is considering legislation that would give the federal government an unprecedented amount of control over the security of the nation's information technology (IT) networks. The bill would broaden the U.S. government's cybersecurity efforts to include private IT systems that control important infrastructure, such as the electric grid and water systems. In addition, the legislation would create the Office of the National Cybersecurity Adviser, which would report directly to the president and oversee cybersecurity efforts across all federal agencies. The bill also calls on the National Institute of Standards and Technology to create measurable and auditable cybersecurity standards that both the government and private companies would be forced to meet. The legislation also contains several other provisions, including one that calls for an ongoing, quadrennial assessment of the U.S.'s cyberdefenses. The introduction of the legislation comes amid concerns that a sustained attack on the nation's private computer networks could compromise or shut down the IT systems used by banks, utilities, transportation companies, and other essential service providers. "People say this is a military or intelligence concern, but it's a lot more than that," says John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), one of the bill's cosponsors. "It suddenly gets into the realm of traffic lights and rail networks and water and electricity."
Vibrating Touch Screen Puts Braille at the Fingertips
New Scientist (03/31/09) Ananthaswamy, Anil
Jussi Rantala of Finland's University of Tampere is working on a project that would allow the visually impaired to use touch-screen devices such as iPhones. Rantala's research team is working with a Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, which has a touch screen with a piezoelectric material that vibrates when an electric signal is applied to it. They have installed software that uses a single pulse of intense vibration to signify raised dots, and a longer vibration of several weaker pulses for an absent dot. In testing, the researchers found that having users place a finger anywhere on the screen and hold it still was the best approach for receiving vibrations for reading. The mobile device then displays a character by vibrating the sequence of six dots, which is 360 milliseconds apart. "It took some time for them to start reading, because this representation is totally different from anything else that they had previously used," Rantala says. Eventually, volunteers were able to read a character in 1.25 seconds. The team will now focus on presenting words and sentences with Braille characters for vibrating touch screens.
New Program at Georgia Tech Pairs Computing With Public Service
The Chronicle of Higher Education (03/30/09) Shieh, David
The Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) has spun off a course on using technology to solve real-world problems into a new program called Computing for Good (C4G). As part of C4G, faculty and students are developing computer-based solutions to fight homelessness, the spread of HIV, and other societal problems. Stefany Wilson with the College of Computing says C4G is considering seeking industry partners and expanding faculty research efforts. Georgia Tech says enrollment for the course increased from 17 students last spring to 50 this fall. Participants in the course have developed mobile kiosks for recording war-crimes testimony in Liberia, and have built a Web-based system to monitor blood supplies. The World Health Organization has expressed interest in using the monitoring system worldwide.
Recent Research Tackles the Complexity of Self-Awareness
Universidad Politecnica de Madrid (03/31/09)
Researchers at the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid's School of Computing are using modular neural networks to model cognitive functions related to awareness and time-delay neural networks to model self-awareness. The researchers say their work represents a significant advance in the modeling of awareness and related cognitive functions. Theories related to informons, an information entity, and holons, autonomous entities that act both as part and as a whole, have been applied to the research. Awareness-associated processes were simulated and influenced the design and development of software models using modular neural networks to develop multi-entity simulators. The researchers modeled the time dimension of self-awareness using time-delay neural networks, which have shown that the image that each entity has of its qualities in the past or its expectations for the future affect on how it interacts with other entities. Similar to how individuals form groups with common interest and develop a sense of belonging on several levels, artificial entities may interact in a comparable manner to achieve a particular purpose. The research could have applications in building biological models by addressing the problem of awareness through the formulation and computer simulation of artificial models. It also could have applications in artificial intelligence by allowing for the deployment of some of these features in multi-purpose artificial systems, including robots, softbots, and multi-agent systems.
More on 'Computing Research That Changed the World'
Computing Community Consortium (03/29/09) Lazowska, Ed
Computing Community Consortium (CCC) Council chair Ed Lazowska offers his observations of CCC's recent Library of Congress Symposium, "Computing Research that Changed the World: Reflections and Perspectives." He says a number of discussions focused on emerging hybrid systems that meld humans and computers, while Pat Harahan offered clear timelines of all media's analog-to-digital transition. Lazowska also cites Rodney Brooks' remarks that the United States is leading the rest of the world in the development of robots that function in unstructured environments. However, Brooks is concerned that the United States will let its lead in that field slip away, as it did with the development of manufacturing robots. Lazowska says he believes that computing research is a truly world-changing force, and the United States is leading the world through a rich and complex ecology that includes academia, industry, and government. Lazowska estimates that it consistently takes 10 or 15 years from "research breakthrough" to "billion-dollar sector," so patience is necessary. The author also observes that information technology products are frequently created through the synthesis of multiple innovations, while recent milestones are often rooted in old ideas. Lazowska stresses the importance of serendipity in the success of computing research, pointing out that "while computing research often is motivated by a 'strategic objective'--we see a practical value if the research succeeds--we're often not very good at predicting what the greatest impact of our innovations will be."
Honda Develops Brain Interface for Robot Control
IDG News Service (03/31/09) Williams, Martyn
Honda Motor's Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR) and Shimadzu have co-developed a brain-machine interface system that enables people to control robots using only their thoughts. The system builds on work announced in 2006 by Honda and ATR researchers, who succeeded in getting a robotic hand to move by analyzing brain activity using a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. The new system measures the electrical activity in a person's brain using electroencephalography and blood flow within the brain using near-infrared spectroscopy to produce data that is interpreted into control information. The system requires no physical movement. A video released by Honda shows an individual controller sitting in a chair with a large hemispheric scanning device on his head. Honda says the system uses statistical processing of the complex information to distinguish brain activities without any physical motion. The participant in the video was shown one of four cards, which had right hand, left hand, foot, and tongue images, and was asked to visualize making a corresponding movement. After visualizing the movement, Honda's Asimo robot mirrored the movement. Honda claims a 90 percent success rate.
Connections Do Count
The Philadelphia Inquirer (03/16/09) Flam, Faye
University of Pennsylvania computer scientist Michael Kearns is exploring the connections between social networks and human behavior. Such research could revolutionize how trends and opinions spread through society, says Yahoo!'s Duncan Watts. He says that marketers and much of the public have accepted the idea that society is controlled by a minority of well-connected "influentials" who spread ideas in ways that resemble the spread of a virus. However, Kearns says there is no empirical evidence on how this phenomenon happens. To learn how influence networks work, Kearns created a social network from a group of 36 subjects, putting each subject at a workstation that was connected to between two and 18 other workstations. Subjects were asked to vote for red or blue, and if they could agree on the same color within one minute everyone would receive a financial reward. Subjects were given different preferences, with some earning more for one color than the other, creating a tension between subjects, with everyone wanting to agree but also wanting them to agree on their color. Kearns found that, depending on the connections and influence, the minority could win over the majority. Similar research includes a study performed by Watts, which found that human networks are surprisingly unpredictable and quirky, and that people are willing to change preferences to conform to a group. Another study by Cornell University computer scientist Jon Kleinberg focused on how ideas and trends spread throughout populations.
Bigger and Better, International Supercomputing Conference Moves to Hamburg
HPC Wire (03/25/09)
The International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) will change venues for the third time in its history as it moves from Dresden to Hamburg, Germany, this year. Professor Hans Werner Meuer, general conference chair, says in an interview that the move was primarily decided on the basis of the conference's ever-expanding exhibition. Meuer says the decision to keep the ISC in Germany for the time being is a sound one, as 36 percent of attendees come from Germany, while 23 percent hail from the United States and 10 percent come from Britain. One of the keynote presentations will focus on the evolution of high-performance computing (HPC) interconnects, while three in-depth sessions will cover topics that include supercomputing challenges for aeronautics research, climate simulation and HPC, and cloud computing and HPC. The cloud computing session is designed to give participants--scientists, system architects, and IT professionals--"a deeper understanding of the inherent complexity of cloud computing, as well as the necessary hardware and software components," Meuer says. "The session will put participants in a position to make technical and financial decisions based on experiences of already deployed cloud computing systems." Meuer says the expansion of the ISC is predicated on the conviction that the supercomputing industry will continue trending upward. "Especially during difficult times, it is important for people to share their experience and knowledge with their colleagues from around the world, and ISC has a tradition of doing exactly that," he says.
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