Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the August 7, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


For Today's Graduate, Just One Word: Statistics
New York Times (08/06/09) Lohr, Steve; Fuller, Andrea

The statistics field's popularity is growing among graduates as they realize that it involves more than number crunching and deals with pressing real-world challenges, and Google chief economist Hal Varian predicts that "the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians." The explosion of digital data has played a key role in the elevation of statisticians' stature, as computing and the Web are creating new data domains to investigate in myriad disciplines. Traditionally, social sciences tracked people's behavior by interviewing or surveying them. “But the Web provides this amazing resource for observing how millions of people interact,” says Jon Kleinberg, a computer scientist and social networking researcher at Cornell, who won the 2008 ACM-Infosys Foundation award. In research just published, Kleinberg and two colleagues tracked 1.6 million news sites and blogs during the 2008 presidential campaign, using algorithms that scanned for phrases associated with news topics like “lipstick on a pig.” The Cornell researchers found that, generally, the traditional media leads and the blogs follow, typically by 2.5 hours, though a handful of blogs were quickest to mention quotes that later gained wide attention. IDC forecasts that the digital data surge will increase by a factor of five by 2012. Meeting this challenge is the job of the newest iteration of statisticians, who use powerful computers and complex mathematical models to mine meaningful patterns and insights out of massive data sets. "The key is to let computers do what they are good at, which is trawling these massive data sets for something that is mathematically odd," says IBM researcher Daniel Gruhl. "And that makes it easier for humans to do what they are good at--explain those anomalies." The American Statistical Association estimates that the number of people attending the statistics profession's annual conference has risen from about 5,400 in recent years to some 6,400 this week.
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Warning Issued on Web Programming Interfaces
Technology Review (08/05/09) Naone, Erica

Application programming interfaces (APIs), software specifications that allow Web sites and services to interact with each other, have been a major factor in the rapid growth of Web applications, but security experts at the DEFCON hacking conference revealed ways of exploiting APIs to attack different sites and services. APIs have been key to the success of many social sites. John Musser, founder of Programmable Web, a Web site for users of mashups and APIs, says that the traffic driven to Twitter through APIs, like from desktop clients, is four to eight times greater than the traffic that comes through Twitter's Web site. However, Nathan Hamiel from Hexagon Security Group and Shawn Moyer from Agura Digital Security say that APIs could be exploited by hackers. The security researchers note that several APIs are often stacked on top of each other. Hamiel says this kind of stacking could led to security problems on several layers, and that APIs can open sites to new kinds of threats. In the presentation, Hamiel demonstrated that an attack might be able to use an API in unintended ways to gain access to parts of a Web site that should not be visible to the public. Hamiel says whenever a site adds functionality it increases its attack surface, and the same thing that makes APIs powerful often makes them vulnerable. Musser says any site that builds an API on top of another site's API is relying on someone else's security, and it is difficult to determine what has been built to see how well it is handled. WhiteHat Security founder and chief technology officer Jeremiah Grossman says sites that publish APIs can find it difficult to discover security flaws in their own APIs, and it is often hard to tell how a third-party site is using an API and if that site has been compromised by an attacker.

ECS Researchers Develop Intelligent Crutches
University of Southampton (ECS) (08/05/09) Lewis, Joyce

Researchers at the University of Southampton School of Electronics and Computer Science have developed a forearm crutch that features incorporated sensor technology capable of monitoring whether the crutch is being used correctly. Developed by professor Neil White and Dr. Geoff Merrett, along with Southampton General Hospital physiotherapist Georgina Hallett, the crutch contains three accelerometers that detect movement and force sensors that measure the weight being applied to the patient's leg and the position of the patient's hand on the handle. Data from the crutch is transmitted wirelessly to a remote computer, where visual information on the crutch is displayed if the patient is using the crutch incorrectly. "A growing number of people are in need of physiotherapy, but reports from physiotherapists indicate that people do not always use crutches in the correct manner," says White. "Until now, there has been no way to monitor this, even though repeated incorrect use of the crutch could make the patient's injury worse." Hallett says the smart crutches will make it easier for patients to be taught how to use them correctly and how much weight they can put on their injured leg, which will help them get out of the hospital faster and reduce their risk of causing additional damage to the already injured leg. The crutch, which was developed using inexpensive, off-the-shelf technology similar to that used in the Nintendo Wii game console, is currently suitable for monitoring and training patients in hospital environments, but the researchers have plans to develop smart crutches that could be used in patients' homes.

Broadband Is This Generation’s Highway System, FCC Chief Says
Wired (08/09) Singel, Ryan

In early August, U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski toured California to build support for the FCC's ongoing effort to create the nation's first broadband plan. Genachowski's trip, along with the 18 broadband hearings the FCC will hold before the end of the summer, is intended to show that the FCC is planning a highly ambitious proposal for the country's IT infrastructure. "Broadband is our generation's infrastructure challenge," says Genachowski. "It is as important as electricity and highways were for past generations." The stimulus package has set aside $7 billion for broadband grants and loans. Genachowski says President Obama and Congress have asked for an ambitious broadband effort, and points out that when Congress ordered the FCC to deliver a plan next February it specified that the plan should promote national priorities, including health, anti-terrorism, education, and disaster preparedness. Broadband has already advanced medical practices, including taking and sending photos of babies' eyes to ophthalmologists to help prevent retinopathy, or connecting specialists to rural hospitals to allow doctors to examine patients who are miles away. However, even less expensive broadband and technology may not be enough to persuade hospitals to upgrade to new technology because the nation's health insurance reimbursement system often will not pay for e-consults, including Medicare. "We are just scratching [the] surface of what broadband technology can do for the country," says Genachowski. "I don't think enough people appreciate the very real, practical benefits that a 21st century telecom infrastructure can provide."

SIGGRAPH Continues to Push Boundaries
TV Technology (08/04/09) Ashworth, Susan

From August 3-7, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans will host ACM's SIGGRAPH 2009 conference, which will focus on the expanding scope of the SIGGRAPH realm. Over the past few years, SIGGRAPH has expanded to including gaming, generative fabrication, and human-computer interactions in addition to the more traditional areas of computer animation and graphics. "Each year, the content presented at SIGGRAPH provides an opportunity to view the best technological breakthroughs and advancements in multiple fields," says SIGGRAPH 2009 Chair Ronen Barzel. "In no other environment is there such a high caliber of computer graphics and interactive content provided." This year, the conference is expanding into new areas with the goal of introducing the entire breadth of the medium to attendees. A new gaming and digital music track will highlight research in visual music, innovative synthesis methods, and art installations to showcase and question common assumptions about the challenges game designers and players regularly face. Part of SIGGRAPH's growing focus on video games will be dedicated to real-time rendering programs, making this year's conference "one of the most dynamic and innovative festivals in SIGGRAPH history," according to Barzel. SIGGRAPH also is expanding into other fields, including robotics, input interfaces, haptics, and experimental sensory experiences. Demonstrations and interactive installations will allow conference attendees to see how technology and computer graphics could soon change their life.

Virtual Worlds May Be the Future Setting of Scientific Collaboration (08/04/09) Zyga, Lisa

The California Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Drexel University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have formed the first professional scientific organization based entirely in a virtual world. The Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics (MICA) conducts professional seminars, popular lectures, and other events entirely online in virtual worlds. MICA is based in Second Life, where participants use avatars to explore and interact with their surroundings, and the organization plans to expand into other worlds when appropriate. MICA also is working to establish collaborative partnerships with the IT industry, including Microsoft and IBM. In addition to uniting people in an innovative, free, and convenient way, virtual worlds can provide new possibilities for scientific visualization, or visual analytics. As data sets become increasingly large and complicated, visualization can help researchers better understand different phenomena. Also, virtual worlds can allow researchers to immerse themselves in data and simulations, helping them think differently about data and patterns.

A Mind-Controlled Wheelchair is Moving Closer to Reality
Los Angeles Times (08/03/09) Gelt, Jason

Researchers are making major progress on technology that could help the severely disabled. Professor Javier Minguez at Spain's University of Zaragoza is developing a wheelchair that can be controlled by thought. The wheelchair is designed to transport people with severe neuromuscular diseases or extreme mobility challenges. The team developing the wheelchair is composed of medical engineers, senior processors, machine learning specialists, and robotics experts. Lasers mounted on the front of the chair constantly scan the surrounding area and project a real-time virtual reconstruction of the area on a computer screen in front of the user. The user's brain is connected to a computer using a skull cap full of electrodes. When the user directs his or her attention to a specific area on the screen, the computer receives those brain signals, recognizes and translates the coordinates that are being focused on, sends that information to the navigation system, and the wheelchair responds to the user's gaze. "We're trying to create a more natural way for the human to communicate with the machine," says Minguez, who wants to eliminate the electrodes and create a more comfortable mind-computer connection. The wheelchair has demonstrated very positive performance, with recent test drivers scoring better than a 94 percent accuracy rate and having no collisions.

Call for Debate on Killer Robots
BBC News (08/03/09) Palmer, Jason

As robots are increasingly used in warfare, civilian lives will be put at greater and greater risk, according to University of Sheffield professor Noel Sharkey, who says an international debate is needed on the use of autonomous military robots. Sharkey says the technology needed to reliably distinguish friend from foe is at least 50 years away, but that U.S. military forces have mentioned resolving ethical concerns over this concept. Sharkey has been working to bring more attention to the psychological distance from the horrors of war that operators of unmanned military aerial vehicles experience. The physical distance from the theater of war has lead to a greater push toward unmanned planes and ground robots capable of making decisions without the help of human operators. However, Sharkey says the problem is that robots are unable to fulfill two of the basic tenets of warfare: discriminating friend from foe, and proportionality, which is determining a reasonable amount of force to gain a given military advantage. In July, the U.S. Air Force published its "Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047," in which it predicts the deployment of fully autonomous attack planes and suggests that humans will play more of a supervisory role "monitoring the execution of decisions," instead of making the decisions. However, the report does acknowledge that authorizing a machine to make lethal combat decisions relies on political and military leaders solving legal and ethical questions.

SIGGRAPH 2009 Announces Computer Animation Festival Winners
Business Wire (08/03/09)

ACM SIGGRAPH recently announced the winners of the 2009 Computer Animation Festival at the 36th International Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques. The winners were chosen from hundreds of submissions from around the globe, submitted by both students and professional studios. Since 1999, the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival has been an official qualifying festival for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ "Best Animated Short Film" category. This year, the Best in Show Award was given to "French Roast," a film about a fancy Parisian cafe in the 1960s by Fabrice O. Joubert at the Pumpkin Factory. The Jury award Winner was "DIX," a dark short film on the complexities of psychological and obsessive behavior by BIF Production and The Mill in the United States. The Student Prize Winner was "Project: Alpha," the story of a chimpanzee recruited into the space program, by Matthias Bjarnason, Christian Munk Sorensen, and Nicolai Slothus at the Animation Workshop in Denmark.

Obama's Great Course Giveaway
Chronicle of Higher Education (08/03/09) Parry, Marc

Open courses that combine online course material with in-person instruction are seen by experts as having great potential to help students explore careers, build up their confidence before returning to school, improve retention, reduce degree costs, drive alternative ways of awarding credit, and guarantee standards no matter where students live. The notion dovetails with U.S. President Obama's plan for the country to have the highest proportion of college graduates worldwide by 2020, but Marshall S. Smith, senior counselor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, says higher education needs to attract older students whose education ended after high school or who dropped out of college. "The opportunity to attract those people would be greatly enhanced by having a bunch of really good courses that they could work on in the evenings," he says. In January Smith published an article in Science outlining his vision of "a 21st-century library" consisting of Web-based open courses for high-school and college students, and he wrote that obstacles to open access include "financial concerns, authors' fears of exposing mediocre content, the weight of traditional practice, and legitimate reasons for protecting intellectual property." Smith says the federal government would play a significant role in the funding and dissemination of open courses, which would reach students via multiple devices. Government involvement "would make those courses available to anyone, which is not the case now--and wouldn't be the case if the government didn't do it," says Smith. The courses would be easily updated thanks to their modularity, and Smith estimates that each course would probably cost about $1 million. He describes Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative as a template for the open course effort. "I think what the information technology now, finally, is affording us the opportunity to do, is to really provide that kind of personalized instruction--high-quality rigorous instruction--to everybody," says Open Learning Initiative director Candace Thille.

NCSA Researchers Receive Patent for System that Finds Holes in Knowledge Bases
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (08/03/09) Dixon, Vince

Researchers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have received a patent for a method of determining the completeness of a knowledge base by mapping the corpus and locating weak links and gaps between important concepts. NCSA research programmer Alan Craig and former NCSA staffer Kalev Leetaru were building databases using automatic Web crawling and needed a way of knowing when to stop adding to the collection. "So this is a method to sort of help figure that out and also direct that system to go looking for more specific pieces of information," says Craig. Using any collection of information, the technique graphs the data, analyzes conceptual distances within the graph, and identifies parts of the corpus that are missing important documents. The system then suggests what concepts may best fill those gaps, creating a link between two related concepts that might otherwise not have been found. Leetaru says this system helps users complete knowledge bases with information they are initially unaware of. Leetaru says the applications for this method are limitless, as the corpus does not have to be computer-based and the method can be applied to any situation involving a collection of data that users are not sure is complete.

Robots Will Change the World, But How?
University of the West of England, Bristol (08/03/09)

In his new role as a Senior Media Fellow for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), University of the West of England professor Alan Winfield says he will "encourage debate about intelligent robots in society and especially ... develop our understanding of the ethical questions around sharing our lives with robots." He notes that some fictional futuristic visions take a negative view of intelligent robots, but he says that robots have just as much potential to impact the world in a positive way. Winfield will use his fellowship to investigate and explain the rapid changes in intelligent robotics and the societal ramifications of these advances, while a second focus will be on "The Emergence of Artificial Culture in Robot Societies." He is spearheading a research project funded by EPSRC that seeks to determine the underlying reasons behind human culture by creating an artificial society of small robots and observing the emergence and evolution of traditions in that microcosm. "We plan to film these robots using natural history filming techniques ... so we can see how they react and interact to each other," says Winfield. "We will see the world through their eyes, and look at what is going on inside their 'brains.' This is groundbreaking research that has not been done before."

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