Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the July 29, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Netflix Challenge Ends, But Winner Is in Doubt
New York Times (07/28/09) Lohr, Steve

Netflix's $1 million contest to design a better movie preference-matching algorithm ended on July 26th, with two teams in a near tie and the outcome of the contest still in doubt. Last month, an international team called BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos declared that it had developed algorithms that could improve the movie recommendations Netflix provides to its users by at least 10 percent. The contest rules then gave other teams 30 days to try to beat BellKor's. Minutes before the deadline, a team consisting of other reassembled teams, called The Ensemble, submitted an entry that just beat out BellKor's on the Netflix public Web leaderboard. However, BellKor's team members claim that they are the winners since Netflix contacted them to validate the entry, and that their entry had a better test score than The Ensemble. Netflix's Steve Swasey says a winner has been named, and one likely will not be announced until sometime in September. He says the Web leaderboard is based on what the teams submitted, but Netflix's in-house researchers and outside experts must validate the teams' submissions and review the submitted code, design documents, and other materials.

U.S. Supercomputing Lead Rings Sputnik-Like Alarm for Russia
Computerworld (07/28/09) Thibodeau, Patrick

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently criticized his country's information technology industry for failing to develop supercomputing technology, and urged a drastic change in the country's use of high-performance computing. At a Security Council Meeting on Supercomputers in Moscow, Medvedev pointed out that 476 of the world's top 500 supercomputers were manufactured in the United States. "If we are talking seriously, a huge number of entrepreneurs, not to mention officials, do not know what supercomputers are," Medvedev says. "Today, businesses and federal agencies do not manifest their interest in supercomputer technology." He says that Western countries are using supercomputers to design products, such as aircraft, but in Russia, most design is still done on paper, and only a digital approach can create a "breakthrough effect" that will significantly improve the quality of life in Russia. Medvedev has promised to invest in supercomputing technology, and warned that without it Russian products will not be competitive or of interest to buyers. Russia does has some advantages going for it, as the engineering and mathematical expertise that helped Russia launch its space program still continues today, and Western companies have established research and development facilities in Russia to use that talent.

ACM SIGGRAPH Announces Winners of New Award Honoring Achievement in Digital Art
ACM (07/28/09)

Minneapolis College of Art & Design professor Roman Verostko and University of California, Davis professor Lynn Hershman Leeson are the winners of the first ACM SIGGRAPH Distinguished Artist Awards for Lifetime Achievement in Digital Art. ACM's Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques created the award to honor digital artists who have made significant contributions to the field of digital art. Verostko, honored for helping to create and promote digital art, created the first software-driven "brushed" paintings with oriental brushes mounted on his pen blotter. Hershman Leeson, honored for her innovations involving a broad range of applications, has helped create a better understanding of how new technology can be used to bring artistic sensibilities to new formats. "The dual award serves to emphasize that artists with significantly different approaches in their use of technology have pushed the frontiers of the field of computer graphics, interactive techniques, and new media production," says Cynthia Beth Rubin, chair of the ACM SIGGRAPH Arts Awards Committee. ACM SIGGRAPH plans to honor Verostko and Hershman Leeson at the 2009 SIGGRAPH conference on Aug. 3 in New Orleans.

Semantic Technologies Could Link Up UK Learning
University of Southampton (ECS) (07/28/09) Lewis, Joyce

The United Kingdom should use Semantic Web technologies to link up its education system, according to a new report from researchers at the University of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS). Experts from the ECS Learning Societies Lab believe that extending the capabilities of information on the Web and linking information in meaningful ways can help with student retention and curriculum alignment, as well as support critical thinking. The Semantic Technologies in Learning and Teaching Report identifies more than 36 soft semantic tools, such as topic maps and Web 2.0 applications, and hard semantic tools, such as Resource Description Framework, as being relevant to the education sector. The report offers a roadmap for developing the tools for a linked data field across institutions of higher and further education. "We hope that this project will influence the research agendas and budget allocations of institutions in the U.K. and of the funding councils," says report co-author Thanassis Tiropanis. "Semantic technologies are available to us now and we already have lightweight knowledge models in institutional repositories as in internal databases, virtual learning environments, file systems, and internal or external Web pages; these models can be leveraged to make a big difference in learning and teaching."

Researchers Try to Stalk Botnets Used by Hackers
New York Times (07/27/09) Markoff, John

To track the spread of botnets, Sandia National Laboratories computer security specialists Rob Minnich and Don Rudish have converted a Dell Thunderbird supercomputer to simulate a mini-Internet of one million computers. The researchers hope to be able to infect their test network with a botnet in October and watch and collect data on how it spreads. One of the project's key challenges will be tricking the botnet into thinking it is operating on the real Internet. The Sandia computer, called MegaTux, is an example of a new kind of computational science in which computers are used to simulate scientific instruments. "One of the advantages of such a system is that we can stop the simulation at any point and look for patterns," Rudish says. The researchers say no one has previously tried to program a computer to simulate more than tens of thousands of operating systems. In addition to simulating the Internet, Sandia's Keith Vanderveen says the research will be valuable for exploring the design of future supercomputers that could have millions, instead of thousands, of processors, and could be invaluable for researchers looking to design new, more secure protocols for the Internet. "We will have a test bed where we will be able to try things out at Internet scale," Vanderveen says.

Summer Program Opens High-Tech World to Deaf Students
Seattle Times (07/29/09) Thompson, Lynn

The University of Washington's (UW's) Summer Academy for Advancing Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Computing, funded by the National Science Foundation, aims to diversity the computer science work force by encouraging deaf and hard-of-hearing students to pursue advanced degrees and careers in computer science. Many of the students involved in the program are being exposed to technology careers for the first time. The nine-week program, launched by UW professor Richard Ladner, recruits 10 outstanding math and science students ages of 16 to 22 from around the country. The students live on campus and take college-level programming courses and earn a certificate in computer animation. The program includes field trips to Microsoft, Google, Adobe, and Valve, a computer-game company. Students also meet deaf professionals at those firms, and learn methods for functioning in a hearing work environment. The students work in teams to create a three-minute video short as their final product. Program coordinator Rob Roth, who is deaf, says hearing-impaired students are more likely to be channeled into careers repairing computers than writing software or designing new applications, but he believes they are capable of much more.

Taking the Hard Work Out of Software
ICT Results (07/28/09)

A new software development platform developed by the European Union-funded ETICS project automates many of the day-to-day tasks required in software development. The open source system uses grid software and a distributed computing infrastructure to operate on multiple platforms. The system allows results from around-the-clock builds and tests to be monitored over the Web, and the configuration of metadata for the software in development can be viewed and edited over a secure Internet connection. "By automating many of their day-to-day tasks, the ETICS system supports software managers, developers, and testers in obtaining higher quality software," says CERN's Alberto Di Meglio, who is managing the project. New features under development in the ETICS 2 project will allow software developers to design and run complex tests over distributed networks, which the project's developers say is a rare ability even in high-end commercial test and management applications.

Smart Machines: What's The Worst That Could Happen?
New Scientist (07/27/09) Campbell, MacGregor

A panel of 25 artificial intelligence (AI) scientists, roboticists, and ethical and legal scholars have spent the past year discussing the risks of developing machines with human-level intelligence. The panel, organized by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, examined the feasibility and ramifications of possible AI scenarios, such as the Internet becoming self aware, conscious computers, or a smartphone virus capable of mimicking the phone's owner. The panel was focused on exploring what will happen when AI goes beyond assisting humans, including what breakthroughs are expected, what effects these advancements will have on society, and what precautions should be taken. Panel members unanimously agreed that creating human-level artificial intelligence is possible in principle, but estimates for achieving that objective ranged from 20 years to 100 years. Panel member Tom Dietterich, from Oregon State University, noted that much of today's AI research is not focused on creating human-level AI, but rather on creating systems that excel at a single task. One realistic short-term concern the panel noted is a smartphone virus that mimics the digital behavior of humans, which could be used to impersonate that individual with little or no external guidance from its creators. Researchers say such a virus is already possible. "If we could do it, they could," says Carnegie Mellon University's Tom Mitchell.

Barcode Replacement Shown Off
BBC News (07/27/09) Fildes, Jonathan

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed Bokodes, a new barcode format that could replace the current barcodes used on retail products. Bokodes are 3mm-diameter powered tags capable of containing thousands of times more information than striped barcodes, and can be read by a standard mobile phone camera. Bokodes, which will be displayed at ACM's SIGGRAPH 2009 conference, consist of a light-emitting diode covered by a tiny mask and lens. Information is encoded in the light shining through the mask. The light is seen with different levels of brightness depending on the angle from which it is viewed and how the information is encoded. The researchers say that Bokodes have several advantages over traditional barcodes, including the fact that the tags are smaller, can be read from different angles, and can be read from far away using a standard mobile phone camera, up to a distance of 60 feet. Initially, Bokodes may be used in factories or industrial settings to track objects. However, eventually they could be used in consumer applications, such as supermarkets, where products could be researched using a mobile phone. A shopper could take a picture of a product and receive pricing and nutritional information. The tags currently cost about $5 each, but the researchers believe the technology could be refined so the tags are reflective and do not require any power, which would lower the cost to about five cents each.

Technology on Way to Forecasting Humanity's Needs
Indiana University (07/23/09) Chaplin, Steve

Indiana University professor Alessandro Vespignani believes that advances in complex networks theory and modeling and new access to data will enable people to make predictions with unprecedented accuracy. Vespignani says that new sources of basic information, such as the proven ability to track as many as 1000,000 people over a period of six months, will give researchers new knowledge on aggregated human behavior. Such "reality mining" could give researchers and scientists the ability to accurately predict events such as mass population movements, invasions of new organisms into ecosystems, and catastrophic events. "It is analogous to what happened in physics when we saw the shift from the study of atomic and molecular physics to the study of the physics of matter," Vespignani says. "Here we see a movement from the study of a small number of elements, or small social groups, to the study of the behavior of large-scale social systems consisting of millions of people that can be characterized in space, both social and geographic, and in time." Vespignani acknowledges the problems in creating a predictive system that includes social adaptations. For example, large-scale data is still needed on how information spreads and society reacts during a crisis, though Vespignani believes improved communications databases could solve such issues.

If You're Happy, Then We Know It: New Research Measures Mood
University of Vermont (07/23/09) Brown, Joshua, E.

University of Vermont scientists have developed a system for measuring the collective happiness in the blogging and online writing community. Vermont professors Peter Dodds and Chris Danforth have developed a remote-sensing mechanism capable of recording how millions of people around the world were feeling on any particular day. The researchers' system mines through about 2.3 million blogs, looking for sentences that start with phrases such as "I feel" or "I am feeling." Then, using a standardized psychological valence of words established by the Affective Norms for English Words, each sentence is given a happiness score on a scale from one to nine. Even words not directly related to feelings, such as pancakes, vanity, and lazy, receive scores. "It's like measuring the temperature. You don't care where the atoms are," Dodds says. "You want to know the temperature of this room or this town. It's a coarser scale. We're interested in the collective story." The researchers say that although blog writers are generally younger and more educated than average, they offer a broad representative of the U.S. population, with bloggers distributed throughout the country and evenly split between genders and race. Many blogs also are connected to demographic data, enabling the researchers to measure the happiness of different groups, such as people under a certain age in a certain state. The method also can be applied to other forms of written text, including song lyrics, presidential speeches, and Twitter messages.

Clarkson Project Will Protect Cyberspace
Watertown Daily Times (NY) (07/22/09) Jacobs, Alex

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $1.2 million grant to five research institutions to develop a computer program for detecting weak areas in cryptographic protocols that protect the Internet. Led by Clarkson University, the group plans to use logic algorithms to simulate everything that can go wrong when information is sent through protocols in order to determine where improvements should be made in security. The software would be made available to individuals and protocol developers so they can analyze the security of their programs and automatically detect attacks. "You can imagine, everything we do nowadays involves computers, whether it's small things like buying something online without somebody stealing your credit card number, or it's also big things, like all of the country's infrastructure, the military and the government's secret communications," says Clarkson's Christopher A. Lynch, the project's lead investigator. Clarkson will work with researchers from SUNY Albany, the University of New Mexico, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

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