Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the May 18, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Remote-Sensing Satellites, Computer Models Linked to Biological World
NewsBlaze (05/14/09) Pellerin, Cheryl

Climate-related data sets, information from satellites, and mathematical models of organism behavior are being integrated through NASA Ames Research Center's Terrestrial Observation and Prediction System (TOPS) to project the ecosystemic impact of environmental change. Ecological forecasting combines physics, geology, biology, chemistry, and psychology. Making ecological forecasting tools more widely available is the objective of TOPS. TOPS generates zero- to three-hour weather "nowcasts" as well as predictions of ecological conditions. "Imagine if it were possible to accurately predict shortfalls or bumper crops, epidemics of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and West Nile virus, or wildfire danger as much as three to six months in advance," wrote NASA Ames researcher Ramakrishna Nemani and others in a recent paper about TOPS. The NASA Office of Earth Science has collaborated with the U.S. Geological Survey to devise the Invasive Species Forecasting System, which merges ecologists, computer scientists, statisticians, remote-sensing-technology scientists, natural resource managers, policymakers, and others interested in the broad spectrum of nonindigenous species that damage the habitats they encroach upon. Once completed, the system will create regional evaluations of invasive species patterns and susceptible habitats and generate plot maps of hot spots for potential exotic species incursions. Meanwhile, NASA Ames Earth scientists produced a 50-year forecast of potential ecological shifts in Yosemite National Park.

Superstumble for Japan's Supercomputer
Science Insider (05/15/09) Normile, Dennis

Two private companies have recently withdrawn from a Japanese consortium established to build the world's fastest supercomputer. The Next-Generation Supercomputer is a seven-year, $1 billion national project funded by Japan's Ministry of Education. Japan's network of national labs, RIKEN, is leading the development with support from several universities and private companies. The supercomputer would be located at RIKEN's campus in Kobe. NEC and Hitachi recently withdrew from the project. Both companies had worked on the design of processors for the supercomputer. Their withdrawal could require revisions to the computer's configuration, which might affect software being developed by other consortium members, says project head and RIKEN supercomputing expert Tadashi Watanabe. Project scientists are writing code capable of simulating the formation of a galaxy, modeling Earth's climate, and assisting in drug discovery and earthquake-resistant building designs. Watanabe says the departure of NEC and Hitachi was a surprise, but the project is doing everything possible to stay on schedule and complete the supercomputer by 2012. The supercomputer is designed to achieve speeds of 10 petaflops, which would have been the world's fastest computer when it was proposed in 2005. However, a 20-petaflop supercomputer being developed by IBM for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, also is scheduled for completion in 2012.

Are Your 'Secret Questions' Too Easily Answered?
Technology Review (05/18/09) Lemos, Robert

The "secret questions" that protect online accounts and passwords may be far less secure than commonly believed, largely because their answers are often far too simple, researchers say. Carnegie Mellon University and Microsoft researchers will present research at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy, which highlights the vulnerabilities of the secret question systems used to secure the password-reset functions to numerous Web sites. In a study involving 130 people, the researchers found that 28 percent of the people who knew and were trusted by the study's participants could guess the correct answers to the participant's secret questions, and even people not trusted by the participant had a 17 percent chance of guessing the correct answer. "Secret questions alone are not as secure as we would like our backup authentication to be," says Microsoft researcher Stuart Schechter. "Nor are they reliable enough that their use alone is sufficient to ensure users can recover their accounts when they forget their passwords." The least-secure questions are simple ones that can be guessed with no existing knowledge of the subject. Schechter says backup-authentication schemes should be reliable and allow only legitimate users to regain access to their accounts. They also should be secure, preventing unauthorized users from gaining access. The study found that secret questions fail on both accounts. "We would eventually like to see these questions go away," Schechter says. "Unfortunately, since we didn't find many questions that were conclusively good, it's hard to recommend simply changing questions."

The Origin of Artificial Species: Creating Artificial Personalities (05/14/09) Zyga, Lisa

A team of researchers has designed computer-coded genomes for artificial creatures that give them specific personality traits. The researchers say that giving artificial life forms personalities could improve the natural interactions between humans and artificial creatures. Instead of manually assigning gene values, the researchers used an evolutionary process that generates a genome with a specific personality as desired by the user. "This is the first time that an artificial creature like a robot or software agent has been given a genome with a personality," says Jong-Hwan Kim of KAIST in Daejeon, Korea. "It is critical to provide an impression that the robot is a living creature. With this respect, having emotions enhances natural human-robot interaction for human-robot symbiosis in the coming years." For example, the first artificial creature with chromosomes, Rity, can react to stimuli in real time using internal states that are composed of three units--motivation, homeostasis, and emotion--and controlled by its internal control architecture. The three units have a total of 14 states, which are the basis of 14 chromosomes. The motivation unit includes curiosity, intimacy, monotony, avoidance, greed, and the desire to control. The homeostasis unit includes fatigue, hunger, and drowsiness, and the emotion unit includes happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and neutral. The internal control architecture processes incoming information, calculates each value of internal states for a response, and sends the calculated values to the behavior selection module to generate a proper reaction.

2 Prominent Technology Scholars Cast as Extras in Latest 'Star Trek' Film
Chronicle of Higher Education (05/14/09) Young, Jeffrey R.

The late Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Randy Pausch, who won the ACM Karl Karlstrom Award in 2007 as an outstanding educator, appears in the new Star Trek film. Pausch, who died of pancreatic cancer, has a line: "Captain, we have visual." Pausch's last lecture in 2007 about achieving his childhood dreams drew more than 1 million views on YouTube. The director of the movie, J.J. Abrams, also asked Henry Jenkins, co-director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Comparative Media Studies Program, to be an extra. However, the scene in which Jenkins appears as a Klingon was cut from the film. A life-long Star Trek fan, Jenkins has written about Trekkies as part of his pioneering research into fan culture. Jenkins' scene might be included as an extra in the DVD release of the movie.

A Third Dimension for Mobile Phones
ICT Results (05/15/09)

Three-dimensional (3D) television and film has been a niche application partly because of cost, but mobile devices equipped with simpler and less expensive 3D technology could help it break out. The core components of next-generation 3D TV for mobile phones are being developed by the EU-funded Mobile3DTV project. Mobile3DTV scientific coordinator Atanas Gotchev says that coming up with the best format to represent 3D video for mobile delivery is a key challenge, and he suggests that all industrial players adopt the format in order to avoid a format war. The project elected to use as the system platform the EU's Digital Video Broadcasting-Handheld standard. To maximize the comfort and enjoyment of the 3D viewing experience, the project is using auto-stereoscopic displays, which generate 3D images that preclude the wearing of cumbersome glasses. "Auto-stereoscopic displays use additional optical elements aligned on the surface of an LCD, to ensure that the observer sees different images with each eye," Gotchev says. "As mobile devices are normally watched by a single observer, two independent views are sufficient for satisfactory 3D perception." The major impediment to broad adoption of 3D mobile TV has been a lack of compelling content, and Gotchev says the project is working to illustrate "the necessary technical evidence of the technology's potential" to content providers and operators.

'IT Will Step in on My Day Off'
Financial Times Digital Business (05/14/09) P. 6; Shillingford, Joia

In this interview, Electronic Arts senior vice-president online Nanea Reeves shares some of her predictions about the future. Reeves says that video games will have a major influence on hardware and software use by businesses by improving the speed, visual appeal, and interactivity in business applications. Executives will develop and improve their leadership skills by playing games, which force players to make quick decisions. Reeves says there is a lot of crossover between the technology used in games and in high-end financial modeling. In the public sector, video-game hardware and software will increasingly be used to simulate battlefield scenarios, and more educational software will be used in schools. As technology improves, people will spend more time in virtual worlds, with businesses offering virtual-world services to increase traffic. The processing capabilities of individual devices may go down, according to Reeves, as a growing number of applications will use servers in a remote location for heavy processing. The end devices will be used just to receive the results. Reeves predicts that someday people may rent artificial intelligence online when they are too busy performing a task to avoid losing progress in a game or to keep projects moving when taking a day off from work. Beyond 2050, Reeves believes that nanotechnology will make video games less video-based and more tactile and immersive, with players feeling the effects of what happens to their virtual-world avatar.

Game Theory and Machine Learning Offer Better Bidding Strategies
University of Michigan News Service (05/13/09) Moore, Nicole Casal

University of Michigan computer scientists combined game theory and artificial intelligence techniques to develop a way of finding the best bidding strategy through a simulated auction modeled after commodity and financial securities markets. Michigan professor Michael Wellman and doctoral student L. Julian Schvartzman presented their findings at the recent International Joint Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems in Budapest, Hungary. The researchers say their study is the most comprehensive continuous double auction strategy study ever published. A continuous double auction is an ever-changing market in which bidders exchange offers to buy and sell, and transactions occur once participants agree on a price. This ever-changing behavior makes markets difficult to study and solve. Schvartzman and Wellman evaluated and tested previous proposals for the best strategies, including waiting until the last minute to bid, randomly bidding, and accounting for the history of the bids and participants. In addition to the evaluation, the researchers added a layer of artificial intelligence and used a reinforced-learning technique, which enables the computer to learn from experimenting with actions in a variety of situations to determine what overall strategy would work best. "One could take these techniques and apply them to real markets, not to predict specific price movements, but to determine the best bidding strategy, given your objectives," Wellman says.

Robot Takes Over Tokyo Classroom
Reuters (05/11/09) Akiba, Jiro; Yokoyama, Anna

An android recently gave a lesson on science and technology to fifth-grade students at an elementary school in Tokyo. Tokyo University of Science professor Hiroshi Kobayashi reprogrammed the life-like female Saya, which was previously used as a robot receptionist at Japanese companies. "We are not looking at making something that will take over from teachers, but rather our main reason for building this robot is to use new technology to teach children about technology," Kobayashi says. "In the countryside and in some small schools, there are children who do not have the opportunity to come into contact with new technology and also there are few teachers out there that can teach these lessons." Robotic teachers would be controlled remotely, Kobayashi says. The students at Kudan Elementary School said they had more fun in class because of Saya.

City 2.0: Using Tech Building Blocks in Tomorrow's Urban Centers
Computerworld (05/15/09) Brandon, John

Ubiquitous wireless networks, sustainable data centers, the development of the smart energy grid, and the commonality of city-supplied social networks are bringing the dream of City 2.0 closer to fruition, with the next step being the melding of all these services. WiMax is seen as a key tool for effecting ubiquitous urban wireless service because it provides greater bandwidth for city services, says Intel's Tim Sweeney. Sustainable data centers are expected to help cities realize significant energy savings and facilitate the use of data centers for most city services, forming a massive network of networks that watchdogs real-time power, water, wireless, and data usage for all citizens. The smart grid is oriented around the concept of using electricity when it is available cheaply rather than at peak times, and it permits the integration of wind, solar, and other renewable sources into the energy grid. A few U.S. cities are engaged in pilot programs that allow customers to view their real-time energy usage at a Web site. Dublin, Ohio, has implemented a portal where government officials can run blogs, converse via instant messaging, and exchange documents. During the next few months, the city plans to make the private network available to the citizenry, and in a City 2.0 scenario such a system could enable residents to present ideas for city improvements, talk with politicians, and blog about their neighborhood over a secure portal that ministers to their local needs. Cloud computing could be an important tool in combining all these various services, and Yankee Group analyst Jeffrey Breen predicts that "one way or another, we will get to the point in cities where anyone who wants high-speed access will get it--and the city won't have to worry about the details of how."

Robotic Mouse Makes Maze Debut at UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering
UCSD News (05/05/09) Kane, Daniel

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Jacobs School of Engineering researchers have designed and built a robotic mouse and developed software to teach the robot to navigate through a maze. The robot navigates the maze using a pair of wheels and two self-lubricating sliders made from high-tech cutting board material. The robot, which is about the size of a cylindrical cookie jar, uses a set of distance sensors that project light onto the maze walls, which bounces back and is used to identify openings. The sensor-based approach gives the robot vision capabilities without having to deal with the complexities surrounding cameras, says UCSD student Jeffrey Wuzbach, who worked on the project. The robot was built for the MicroMouse competition, which tasks students with controlling an entire robotics system, including hardware, low-level code, high-level code, and all related debugging tools. UCSD professor Charles Tu says graduate school admissions committees and potential employers are looking for this kind of experience. In addition to designing and building the robot, the team spent five weeks building the 10-foot by 10-foot maze for the competition.

Saudi Arabia and Intel Plan R&D Center
Semiconductor International (04/29/09) Peters, Laura

In an effort to strength the Middle East's technical work force, Intel will help establish a nanoelectronics research center at the King Abdul-Aziz City of Science and Technology (KACST) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Center of Excellence in Nano-Manufacturing (CENA) will focus its research activities on MEMS/NEMS technology with an emphasis on CMOS-MEMS integration, sensor fabrication, nenotech synthesis and deposition, and networking projects of interest to local industries. The center will employ between 50 and 80 graduate students from universities in the Middle East, Turkey, and Africa (META) region. KACST is building a cleanroom for the new center. Intel will send a group of researchers to CENA to conduct research and guide graduate students and other researchers from the META region with the goal of developing the region's talent in several disciplines, including computer science, physics, chemistry, and material sciences, and turning Saudi Arabia into a top-rated knowledge society. "This agreement with Intel will pave the way to creating a rich environment in which researchers and talented scientists, not only from the Kingdom but from the Arab and Islamic region at large, to do their research in this field and leverage the capabilities CENA is set to provide," says KACST vice president Prince Turki bin Saud bon Mohammed Al-Saud.

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