Welcome to the September 2, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Flu Trackers Encourage Patients to Blog About It
Washington Post (09/02/09) P. A1; Ruane, Michael E.
Most tracking of disease outbreaks is currently done by doctors reporting cases of illness, but the process has a considerable lag time and excludes people who are sick but do not see a doctor. Internet-based surveillance systems may be able to trace the path of diseases faster, allowing the appropriate agencies to implement management and prevention strategies more expediently. "All these things really change the way that we can manage diseases," says Indiana University professor Alessandro Vespignani. "It's not just ... a passive approach, where we just wait for the disease and then try to do something." Google's Flu Trends system, for instance, is set up to track and analyze Internet searches for flu information to find early clues of an outbreak. Meanwhile, Vespignani has attempted to simulate an epidemic in much the same way that hurricanes are modeled by forecasters. "It's like doing weather forecasts in which you try to get all the initial conditions, and then you run your numerical models on the computer to try to anticipate what will be the evolution," he says. Singapore scientists have developed FluLog, a voluntary system that could potentially use Bluetooth cell phone technology to pinpoint the whereabouts of people who have been in proximity to infected persons. The National University of Singapore's Mehul Motani says the system employs a process known as contact tracing. Other Web-based disease-tracking programs include Australia's Flutracking project, which enlists volunteers to report suspected infection among themselves and family members. Similar initiatives also have been implemented in the Netherlands, Italy, and the United Kingdom, Vespignani says.
After the Transistor, a Leap Into the Microcosm
New York Times (09/01/09) P. D1; Markoff, John
Computer scientists are focusing on silicon nanowires and other technologies in the hope that they will help usher in a new electronics paradigm that provides greater power than transistors. The impetus behind these efforts is the inevitable day when the transistor's performance will hit its fundamental physical limits due to its steady shrinkage. "Fundamentally the planar transistor is running out of steam," says IBM's John E. Kelly III. Eventually, new materials and new manufacturing processes will be required to maintain the falling cost of computer technology. The long-term view holds to basing new switches on magnetic, quantum, or even nanomechanical switching precepts, with one possibility being to use changes in the spin of an individual electron to represent a 1 or a 0. Scientists in the lab of IBM researcher Frances Ross are investigating the concept of building FinFET switches using a new process in which gold particles are sprinkled on a substrate and then are suffused in a silicon gas at a temperature of approximately 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. The supersaturated particles precipitate into wires that grow vertically. To deliver the switching performance desired by chipmakers, the researchers must develop methods to make the nanowires superconducting as well as perfectly regular in terms of surface.
Paris Event to Showcase Role of Informatics Among the Sciences, Honor European Computer Science Pioneers
ACM (09/02/09) Meyer, Bertrand
Europe has always been at the forefront of research and technology in computer science (often called "informatics" in Europe). A combination of events in Paris on Oct. 7-9 will honor European contributions and showcase some of the most recent advances both in the science of informatics and in the use of informatics for science. The fifth edition of the European Computer Science Summit (ECSS) will take place in Paris on October 8-9, 2009, with a special workshop for new (and not so new) department heads on Oct. 7 and the first-ever ACM Europe award reception on Oct. 8. ECSS is focused on the place of Informatics is science, with the double theme: Informatics Among the Sciences and Scientific Principles in Informatics. The speakers are an impressive group of world-class researchers who will present their latest advances and debate the future of the field. ACM President Wendy Hall (Southampton University) will discuss the importance of Web science; Joseph Sifakis from CNRS, winner of ACM's 2007 A.M. Turing Award, will talk about embedded systems; and Oxford University's Georg Gottlob will explore the links between logic and informatics. As reflected in the conference theme, ECSS is not just about informatics but about its service to and relationship with the entire spectrum of modern science, where it plays an increasingly crucial role but also confronts ever more daunting challenges. The keynote speakers include experts from other disciplines such as Alain Berthoz from the College de France in Paris on the new frontiers between informatics and cognitive neuroscience; Marko Tadic from Zagreb University on the latest contributions of computer science to linguistics; and Alain Finkel from Ecole Normale Superieure on mental representations in computer science. Complementing these presentations by prestigious researchers from academia, ECSS includes a wide range of contributions from industry and government. Keynoters include Intel's Mark Harris, and Kahlil Rouhana from the European Commission, and Yrjo Neuvo from the European Institute for Innovation and Technology, who will present their views about the future role and the place of computer science in their own areas and engage in debate with the ECSS community. In addition to invited presentations, the ECSS program, prepared by the Program Committee under the direction of Antoine Petit, director of INRIA Rocquencourt, includes submitted contributions on topics of wide interest to the informatics community as well as panels and workshops, and presentations of Informatics Europe reports and initiatives. The Department Chair workshop on Oct. 7 is an opportunity for deans, department chairs, institute heads, provosts, and other members of department or institute management to hone their skills, learn from others' experiences, and talk with their peers. As the experience of the 2008 session shows, the workshop is particularly rewarding to new chairs. The workshop will open with a keynote by Willy Zwaenepoel, dean of the School of Computer and Communication Sciences at EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne), formerly of Rice University. ECSS is also the venue for the official launch of ACM Europe, a new initiative of the ACM to recognize the contributions of European computer science and expand its services for European ACM members. The launch will occur as part of a special reception at ECSS on Oct. 8, including the first-ever ACM Award Ceremony outside of North America, honoring European Turing Award winners and ACM Fellows. It will be hosted by the ACM President, Professor Dame Wendy Hall from the University of Southampton, and the Chair of the ACM Europe Council, Fabrizio Gagliardi from Microsoft Research Europe, and will be attended by many luminaries of computer science. ECSS is the yearly conference of Informatics Europe, the association of European computer science and IT departments (http://www.informatics-europe.org). The mission of Informatics Europe is to foster the development of quality research and teaching in information and computer sciences. Informatics Europe currently has 52 members, including university departments and technology companies. The deadline for early and discounted ECSS registration is Sept. 15.
6M Funding Boost for Super-Fast Computers
Queen's University Belfast (09/01/09) McElroy, Lisa
Queen's University Belfast and Imperial College London have launched a program that will conduct research into the interaction of light with matter at the nanoscale level. The research could lead to the development of computers that use light to process information. Currently, computers use nanoscale metallic wires to transfer information as an electric current, and transferring information between electronic components slows down the processing speed. However, the programs at Queen's and Imperial will focus on finding a way to send light signals along the nanoscale metallic wires in the form of light by developing nanoscale metal structures to guide and direct light. The nanoscale metal structures potentially could be used by optical computers that would operate at much higher speeds than current computers, and the science behind nanoplasmonic devices could be used to make Internet services faster. "This will also open the door to a world of possibilities in scientific fields at the interface with the biosciences, and perhaps even in the world of personal computing," says Imperial professor Stefan Maier.
SDSC Dashes Forward With New Flash Memory Computer System
UCSD News (09/01/09) Zverina, Jan
The University of California, San Diego's (UCSD's) San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) recently unveiled Dash, a flash memory-based supercomputer designed to accelerate research in a variety of data-intensive science problems. Dash is part of the Triton Resource, an integrated data-intensive resource that was launched earlier this summer for use by the University of California system. Dash, which has a peak speed of 5.2 teraflops, is the first supercomputer to use flash memory technology in a high-performance computing system. "Dash's use of flash memory for fast file-access and swap space--as opposed to spinning disks that have much slower latency or I/O times--along with vSMP capabilities for large shared memory will facilitate scientific research," says SDSC's Michael Norman. "Today's high-performance instruments, simulations, and sensor networks are creating a deluge of data that presents formidable challenges to store and analyze; challenges that Dash helps to overcome." SDSC's Allan Snavely says Dash is capable of performing random data access one order-of-magnitude faster than other machines, allowing it to solve data-mining problems that are looking for the "needle in the haystack" up to 10 times faster than even larger supercomputers that use spinning disk technology.
Open Source DNA
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (08/31/09)
Tel Aviv University professor Eran Halperin and researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have developed a mathematical formula that can be used to protect genetic privacy while providing researchers with the raw data they need to perform medical research. "We've developed a mathematical formula and a software solution that ensures that malicious eyes will have a very low chance to identify individuals in any study," Halperin says. The formula can determine which SNPs, or small pieces of DNA that differ from individual to individual in the human population, can be made available to the public without revealing information about the participation of an individual in the study. Health care and medical institutions can use software running the formula to distribute research data while keeping individual identities private. "We've been able to determine how much of the DNA information one can reveal without compromising a person's identity," Halperin says. "This means the substantial effort invested in collecting this data will not have been in vain."
VBI Researcher Receives NIH Recovery Act Funding for Infectious Disease Modeling
Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (08/31/09) Bland, Susan
Virginia Bioinformatics Institute professor Stephen Eubank, deputy director of the Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory (NDSSL) at Virginia Tech, has received a $786,797 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant to develop tools to aid policymakers in making health policy decisions. The grant will be used to create network-based models of infectious diseases that will help lead to targeted intervention strategies to fight the spread of disease. "This funding will help us continue to develop novel algorithms for the effective simulation of large populations," Eubank says. "Along with the information we have gained from our discussions with policymakers, we hope to improve our understanding of these network-based models, which will allow us to extend the use of our existing models to new areas, expand the range of questions to which models are applied, and improve communications about model outcomes." To create a detailed model of a population, the researchers start with census information, public surveys, and transportation data to create a realistic picture of the daily activities of a population. These models are then used to demonstrate how social mixing patterns can change under different interventions, such as the closing of schools or offices. Information pertaining to a specific disease can be added to help researchers pinpoint the best intervention strategies based on the situation.
Faster Searches Key to a Greener Web
University of Glasgow (United Kingdom) (08/31/09) Forsyth, Stuart
University of Glasgow researchers created a system using field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) to search a document index 20 times faster than a system based on standard processors. The researchers plan to develop the system for use in Web servers to speed up Internet searches, which they say would reduce the Internet's energy consumption and carbon cost. Estimates for the amount of carbon dioxide generated by a single Internet search request range from 0.2g per search, according to Google, to 7g per search, according to Harvard University physicist Alex Wisser-Gross. "Few people stop to think about the carbon costs of their computing," says project researcher Wim Vanderbauwhede. "By making Internet searches faster, servers will use less energy to produce results, even if the power consumption of the actual equipment is the same because they will use that energy for a fraction of the time." The researchers found that a system of two Xilinx FPGAs running the information retrieval and filtering algorithms for a document database were 20 times faster in returning results than a dual-core Intel Itanium-2 processor, and consumed only 1.25 watts each compared to the 130 watts consumed by the Itanium processor. The researchers plan to improve the performance of the current prototype and test it in a data center environment.
Filtering Network Attacks With a 'Netflix' Method
Dark Reading (08/28/09) Higgins, Jackson
University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine) researchers have developed a new method for blacklisting spam, distributed denial-of-service attacks, worms, and other network attacks. The predictive blacklisting method, which was inspired by Netflix's moving ratings-recommendation system, uses a combination of factors to improve blacklisting, including trends in the times of attacks, geographical locations and IP address blocks, and any connections between the attacker and the victim, such as if an attacker has previously challenged the victim's network. UC Irvine professor Athina Markopoulou says the predictive blacklisting method "formalizes the blacklisting problem" in regards to predicting the sources of attacks. The researchers found that their method improves predictive blacklisting, accurately predicting up to 70 percent of attacks. "The hit-count of our combined method improves the hit-count of the state of the art for every single day," Markopoulou says. She says the method could be applied to security logs gathered by firewalls, for example, helping an enterprise better defend itself against attacks. The researchers tested their algorithms using hundreds of millions of logs from hundreds of networks, gathered over a one-month period. Markopoulou says the next step is to improve the prediction rate and to understand how attackers could evade the prediction method.
UWE Scientists Design First Robot Using Mould
University of the West of England, Bristol (08/27/09) Kelly, Jane; Price, Mary
University of the West of England scientists have created a biological robot using mold. The researchers, led by professor Andy Adamatzky, developed an amorphous non-silicon biological robot, called plasmobot, using plasmodium, the vegetative stage of the slime mold Physarum polycephalum. The project aims to design the first-ever fully biological amorphous massively-parallel robot. Adamatzky says previous research has already proven that the mold can have computational abilities. "This mold, or plasmodium, is a naturally occurring substance with its own embedded intelligence," he says. "The plasmodium is capable of solving complex computational tasks, such as the shortest path between points and other logical calculations." Adamatzky says the plasmobot can sense objects, span them in the shortest and best way possible, and transport tiny objects using pre-programmed directions. Plasmobots can have parallel inputs and outputs, a network of sensors, and potentially the number-processing capabilities of a supercomputer. The mold-based robot will be controlled by spatial gradients of light, electromagnetic fields, and the characteristics of its substrate material. "It will be a fully controllable and programmable amorphous intelligent robot with an embedded massively parallel computer," Adamatzky says. He says that eventually it might "be possible for thousands of tiny computers made of plasmodia to live on our skin and carry out routine tasks freeing up our brain for other things."
Lawmakers Strike New Tone With Proposed Bill Giving Obama Power to Shut Down Internet
Network World (08/28/09) Fontana, John
The second draft of a U.S. Senate cybersecurity bill scales back language that would give the president the ability to shut down the Internet in an emergency. The bill, first introduced in April by Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), would give the president the authority to direct responses to cyberattacks and declare a cyberemergency. The bill also would give the president 180 days to implement a cybersecurity strategy after the passage of the bill. The language of the first draft of the bill, which is still in Rockefeller's Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, was rewritten regarding the president's authority to shut down both public and private networks, including Internet traffic involving compromised systems. Critics say that giving the president widespread power over the Internet is dangerous as private networks could be shutdown by government order, and those same networks could become subject to government-mandated security standards and technical configurations. The second draft contains more detailed language concerning the president's control over computer networks, and removes some language referencing the Internet. The new bill qualifies the president's authority to include "strategic national interests involving compromised federal government or United States critical infrastructure information system or network," and says the president may direct the national response to cyberthreats by coordinating with "relevant industry sectors."
Getting Your Robot On: Wearable Machines' Intimate Interface
CITRIS Newsletter (08/09) Slack, Gordy
Engineers around the world are exploring all kinds of possibilities for wearable robot interfaces, from brain implants to touch interfaces. Professor Jacob Rosen and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz's Bionics Lab have devised a robotic arm guided by the electrical signals sent by the brain through the nerves to contract the muscles. These signals can be read by electrodes affixed to the skin in key locations above the muscles. Rosen says robot device operation via electromyograph (EMG) signals is advantageous for a number of reasons, including the fact that the method is less invasive and less costly than other sources located closer to the brain. In addition, EMG is a better alternative to simple touch interfaces because it can yield new insights about muscle physiology and improve people's ability to simulate and anticipate specific movements. "We are trying to allow a loose-leash situation by developing software that employs algorithms that emulate the muscle physiology, also known as a myoprocessor, to predict what a muscle is going to do before it has begun to do it," Rosen says. He is modeling the muscles to increase his wearable robots' responsiveness to human intentions, and also is using the robots to help study how human motion works, how it goes wrong, and the best way to fix such problems. Rosen says medical applications, specifically rehabilitation, are his primary area of concentration. Rosen's EXO-UL7 robot arm can substitute for a physical therapist, permitting the remaining muscle control residing in a damaged arm to move the whole limb plus a load by compensating for gravity.
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