Welcome to the August 17, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
DNA 'Organises Itself' on Silicon
BBC News (08/17/09)
Researchers have demonstrated how to get engineered "DNA origami" to self-organize on silicon, which could enable semiconductor manufacturers to create chips with significantly closer components, leading to smaller devices and faster computers. The DNA origami can be designed to serve as a scaffold for electronic components only six billionths of a meter apart, about eight times better than existing technology. Several research efforts have demonstrated that DNA can be used to store or manipulate data and to solve simple computational tasks, but the new demonstration leverages the ability to design DNA strands into regular shapes such as triangles. The computer industry would like to use next-generation materials with favorable electronic properties, such as carbon nanotubes or nanowires, but these structures are minuscule and difficult to manipulate. However, the chemical groups attached to DNA helices could be used as anchor points for these structures. This technique is particularly useful because the regular shapes of DNA origami enable them to fit precisely into the shaped pits the researchers made in silicon or carbon using standard techniques. "The combination of this directed self-assembly with today's fabrication technology eventually could lead to substantial savings in the most expensive and challenging part of the chip-making process," says IBM Almaden Research Center's Spike Narayan. IBM says it could take up to 10 years to implement the new technique.
Hackers Stole IDs for Attacks
Wall Street Journal (08/17/09) Gorman, Siobhan
Russian hackers stole U.S. identities and software tools for use in a cyberattack against Georgian government Web sites during the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, according to a new report by the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit. The report says that Russian hackers converted Microsoft software into a cyberweapon and collaborated on popular U.S.-based social-networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter, to coordinate attacks against Georgian sites. Although the cyberattacks were closely examined following the war, the connections to the United States had remained hidden until this year. Personal and credit card information stolen from U.S. citizens was used to register Web sites that launched the botnet attacks, and once the attacks started, Facebook and Twitter were used to exchange attack code and encourage others to join the attack. Experts say the study shows how cyberwarfare has outpaced military and international agreements, which do not account for the possibility of using U.S. resources and civilian technology as weapons. Identity theft, social networking, and modifying commercial software are all common attack strategies, but combining these strategies raises the attack to a new level, says former U.S. Department of Homeland Security cybersecurity chief Amit Yoran. White House officials are now studying how laws of war and international obligations need to be adjusted to account for cyberattacks. The U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit says the Georgian attacks were perpetrated by Russian criminal groups, and had no clear link to the Russian government, but the time of attacks, which started only hours after the military invasion started, suggests the Russian government may have at least indirectly coordinated with the cyberattackers.
The Corporate Lab as Ringmaster
New York Times (08/16/09) P. BU3; Lohr, Steve
The advent of the Internet era is shrinking the role of corporate research and development (R&D) laboratories in the innovation process, according to experts. Michael Schrage with the Center for Digital Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology forecasts that the idea-production process will continue its migration from large corporate labs' centralized model and toward "populist innovation." He says that a great deal of traditional corporate R&D has been subsidized by profits that face more and more Internet-era economic pressures. Corporate R&D's best option at this point is to embrace a federated model that takes advantage of all the work by outsiders in learning institutions, startups, business partners, and government labs, with the corporate lab functioning as an innovation coordinator and integrator, Schrage says. The federated strategy has been taken up by Hewlett-Packard (HP), with HP Labs devoting greater resources to fewer projects, while also systematically seeking outside ideas via an annual contest that solicits grant proposals from universities across the globe. "We are tapping the collective intelligence, selectively, of leading academics around the world," says HP's Prith Banerjee. One such academic is University of Southern California electrical engineer Alan E. Willner, whose project with HP Labs is an attempt to reduce power consumption and raise data-transmission speeds between computers in data centers and eventually even within chips. Although a federated approach works for certain problems, experts say corporate lab R&D is unmatched when focused on multidisciplinary challenges in projects soon going to market.
Energy-Aware Internet Routing
Technology Review (08/17/09) Knight, Will
A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Carnegie Mellon University, and Akamai indicates that an Internet-routing algorithm that tracks electricity price fluctuations could save major Internet companies millions of dollars each year. Such an algorithm could reduce energy use by as much as 40 percent by rerouting data to locations where electricity prices are the lowest for that particular day. MIT Ph.D. student Asfandyar Qureshi first outlined the concept of a smart routing algorithm capable of tracking electricity prices in a paper in October 2008, and this year Qureshi and colleagues approached Akamai researchers to obtain the real-world routing data needed to test the concept. The researchers analyzed 39 months of electricity pricing data for 29 major U.S. cities and noted a surprising amount of volatility, even among geographically close locations. The team then created a routing scheme to take advantage of daily and hourly fluctuations in electricity costs around the country, creating an algorithm that compares the physical distance needed to route information, which also increases cost, against the likely cost savings from reduced energy consumption. The routing scheme was tested on nine Akamai servers over 24 hours, and the researchers found that in the best scenario a company could cut energy use by 40 percent.
Doing What the Brain Does--How Computers Learn to Listen
Max Planck Society (08/13/09) Abrell, Barbara
Researchers at Germany's Leipzig Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging in London have developed a mathematical model that could significantly improve computers' ability to automatically recognize and process spoken language. The researchers say their new language processing algorithm could eventually imitate brain mechanisms and help machines perceive and understand the world around them. The researchers created a mathematical model that was designed to imitate, in a highly simplified manner, the neuronal processes that occur during human speech comprehension. The neuronal processes were described by algorithms that processed speech at several temporal levels. The model was able to recognize individual speech sounds and syllables and was able to process accelerated speech sequences. Additionally, the system had a brain-like ability to predict the next speech sound, and if the prediction was incorrect because the speaker made an unfamiliar syllable out of familiar sounds, the system could detect the error. "The crucial point, from a neuroscientific perspective, is that the reactions of the model were similar to what would be observed in the human brain," says the Max Planck Institute's Stefan Kiebel.
Experimental Tech Turns Your Coffee Table Into a Universal Remote
Wired News (08/14/09) Ganapati, Priya
The recent ACM SIGGRAPH conference offered a video demonstration of Control of Remotely Interfaced Systems using Touch-based Actions in Living spaces (CRISTAL), a multitouch tabletop display that acts as a universal remote. Australian researcher Christian Muller-Tomfelde, who is currently writing a book on research in tabletop displays, says CRISTAL is easy to use. "It is a clever use of the tabletop as a 'world-in-miniature' interface to control room elements," he says. CRISTAL uses a camera to deliver a streaming video view of the room, including the TV, radio, DVD player, lamps, and digital picture frames, on the tabletop. The video image of a device acts as the interface, so the user could make a sliding motion on the TV to adjust the volume. The user also could drag the image of the cover of a movie on the multitouch screen and drop it on the image of the TV to watch it. The team behind CRISTAL says such a tabletop remote could cost $10,000 to $15,000, and could reach consumers in a few years if it is combined with Microsoft's Surface multitouch display. "We wanted a social aspect to activities such as choosing what to watch on TV and we wanted to make the process easy and intuitive," says the University of Waterloo's Stacey Scott, who worked on the CRISTAL project.
New Carnegie Mellon U. Project Will Build Online Community-College Courses
Chronicle of Higher Education (08/14/09) Parry, Marc
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is adding a community college component to its Open Learning Initiative, which gives about 300 classrooms around the world access to software-enhanced, college-level online course material in a variety of subjects. Human-computer interaction specialists will team up with software engineers, scientists who study how people learn, and community college faculty experts to develop courses for the Community College Open Learning Initiative. The Open Learning Initiative makes use of digital environments that are capable of tracking the progress of students, providing feedback, and notifying professors about the specific areas of struggle for students. CMU hopes to improve the completion rates for courses by 25 percent. The community college version of the Open Learning Initiative will make use of a hybrid model that combines online teaching with time in a traditional classroom. CMU has secured $4.5 million in funding for the project, which could reach 40 community-college partners within three years.
Harvard Research Team Receives $10M NSF Grant to Develop Small-Scale Mobile Robotic Devices
Harvard University (08/12/09) Rutter, Michael Patrick
A Harvard University-led, multidisciplinary team of computer scientists, engineers, and biologists have received a $10 million National Science Foundation Expeditions in Computing grant to develop small-scale robotic devices based on the biology of a bee and the insect's hive behavior. The researchers hope to advance the field of miniature robotics and the design of compact, high-energy power sources, as well as create new ultra-low-power computing and smart electronic sensors, and improve coordination algorithms to manage multiple, independent machines. "Nature has bred astonishing solutions to complex real-world challenges," says Harvard professor Robert Wood, the principal investigator of the project. "This research aims to understand the biology of bees and use this understanding to advance multiple topics in computer science and engineering." Wood and his colleagues say that nature-inspired research could lead to the development of novel methods for designing and building an electronic surrogate nervous system capable of sensing and adapting to changing environments, and advance the field of small-scale flying mechanical devices. The five-year project could lead to technological advances in robust, bio-inspired computer systems that coordinate complex behavior using input from multiple independent parts, smart materials, and novel, miniature power sources that could be used in a variety of devices. The researchers also will work with the Museum of Science in Boston to create an interactive exhibit to educate and inspire future scientists and engineers.
Internet 'Immune System' Could Block Viruses
New Scientist (08/12/09)
A system that fights highly infectious computer viruses by embedding defense mechanisms in key parts of the Internet has been developed by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researcher Scott Coull and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor Boleslaw Szymanski. The modus operandi of computer worm infection is malware scanning the Internet for vulnerable computers and transferring itself to those systems. Coull and Szymanski say the isolation of worms entails coaxing the Internet's core computers or autonomous systems to collaborate, and each system is managed by an Internet service provider (ISP). In their model, the researchers imbued each system with the ability to spot a compromised computer, which may announce itself by making a series of random requests to link to other computers, the majority of which will fail. Once a threat within the autonomous system's network is detected, the system stops receiving and forwarding messages from the infected computer, and also notifies its peer autonomous systems about the identity of the threat. Upon the recognition of a genuine threat, all autonomous systems can contain the compromised computer or computers and halt the worm's spread. Coull and Szymanski's model indicates that the viability of this strategy depends on cooperation between about 30 percent to 35 percent of the autonomous systems in the Internet. Collaboration and trust between the ISPs running the systems would be essential, Coull says.
NSF Awards UCLA Engineering $10M to Create Customized Computing Technology
UCLA News (08/11/09) Kromhout, Wileen Wong
The National Science Foundation's Expeditions in Computing program has awarded the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science a $10 million grant to work on a new technology called domain-specific computing. The technology could revolutionize medical imaging and hemodynamic simulation by providing a more cost-effective, energy-efficient, and customizable computing option for preventative, diagnostic, and therapeutic procedures. The new UCLA Center for Domain-Specific Computing (CDSC) will oversee the research. CDSC director Jason Cong says domain-specific computing holds significant advantages. He says domain-specific computing uses a customizable architecture and custom-oriented, high-level computer languages especially designed for a particular application or domain. "The broader impact of our work at the CDSC will be measured by the new digital revolution enabled by customized computing," Cong says. "We will demonstrate the feasibility and advantages of the proposed research in the domain of health care, given its significant impact on the national economy and quality-of-life issues." He says CDSC's work will enable physicians to see inside the brain to assist in real-time surgery, and to perform preventive procedures much faster using automatic analysis and diagnosis of MRIs and CT scans. "Much of the work that relies on people today may take hours or days to complete with existing computing technology, but with the domain-specific customizable technique, the work can be done in minutes," he says.
Algorithms Help Unravel the Secrets of Ancient Documents
Jerusalem Post (08/11/09) Fisher, Hannah
Computer science and humanities researchers at Israel's Ben-Gurion University (BGU) have partnered to decipher historical Hebrew documents, using a unique algorithm to ascertain wording by uncovering similar handwriting patterns that help determine author and date. One of the project's challenges is that many of the original Hebrew texts have been scratched off and overwritten with Arabic text. BGU professor Klara Kedem says the document base is comprised of "100,000 medieval Hebrew codices and their fragments [that] represent the book production output of only the last six centuries of the Middle Ages." She notes that foreground and background lettering are difficult to segregate given the documents' deterioration, so the algorithm covers the text in a dark gray hue that highlights lighter colored pixels as background space and identifies the darker pixels as delineating the original Hebrew lettering. Few documents have survived fully intact, and "we are trying to piece them together like a big puzzle," says Uri Ehrlich, director of BGU's Prayer Research Project. The algorithm has been presented by Kedem to other universities and research centers to aid in the deciphering of a large number of texts.
The Grill: MIT Media Labs' David Merrill on Tangible Computing
Computerworld (08/10/09) Forrest, Sara
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab graduate student David Merrill has co-invented Siftables to facilitate more natural and tangible interaction with digital media in a field he refers to as embodied media. "Embodied media offers a new point in the interaction design space between tangible and graphical user interfaces," Merrill says. "It combines elements of both paradigms--physically embodied manipulatives that can be grasped and moved by hand, and screens that can show visual information." Merrill says the graphical display is a central feature as it permits the interactive roles and content assignments to manipulatives to be visually understandable to the user and dynamically assigned at runtime. Siftables came out of an investigation Merrill conducted with Jeevan Kalanithi on how human-computer interaction might be enabled by manually manipulating a body of minuscule active, computational objects. Merrill describes Siftables as a hybrid platform that combines concepts from tangible interfaces, pervasive computing, and sensor networks with the flexibility of pixels that defines graphical user interfaces. In their current incarnation, Siftables are small interactive computers equipped with a graphical display, neighbor and motion sensing, a rechargeable battery, and wireless communication. Merrill says each Siftable's size is primarily dictated by the display. The present display is big enough to show an image thumbnail or symbol such that it is easily recognizable from across a tabletop.
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