Welcome to the October 30, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Defense University Builds China's Fastest Supercomputer
Xinhuanet (China) (10/29/09) Fei, Yu; Ruixue, Bai; Yushan, Wang
China's National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) has unveiled the Tianhe supercomputer, the fastest supercomputer in China. Tianhe runs at 563.1 teraflops on the Linpack benchmark and is theoretically capable of petaflop performance. NUDT president Zhang Yulin says the system is expected to be used to process seismic data for oil exploration, perform bio-medical computing, and help design aerospace vehicles. If Tianhe had been operational for the most recent Top 500 list, it would have ranked as the world's fourth-most powerful supercomputer. NUDT says that approximately 200 computer scientists worked on Tianhe over two years. The supercomputer was housed at the NUDT campus in Changsha, and is scheduled to be moved to the National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin at the end of this year. Tianhe features 6,144 Intel CPUs and 5,120 AMD GPUs. "As far as I know, a combination of CPU and GPU is something new used to make a petaflop computer," says NUDT professor Zhou Xingming. "After it's installed in Tianjin, we plan to add hundreds or thousands of China-made CPUs to the machine, and improve its Linpack performance to over 800 teraflops." Tianhe also could be ranked as the world's fifth-greenest supercomputer on the Green500 List, which is compiled by researchers at Virginia Tech to rank the world's most energy-efficient supercomputers.
MIT Researchers Developing Robotic Driving Companion
Computerworld (10/29/09) Gaudin, Sharon
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are developing the Affective Intelligent Driving Agent (AIDA), a robot that would act as a helpful companion for drivers. The robot would be capable of picking up a driver's usual routes and regular destinations, monitoring facial expressions for signs of fatigue or agitation, using visual clues such as winking and smiling, and communicating verbally to make suggestions about alternate routes, fuel level, energy efficiency, safe behavior, and gas stations with the lowest prices. AIDA would be embedded in the dashboard and use the Internet to provide real-time information about traffic, businesses, and gas stations along the driver's route. "With the ubiquity of sensors and mobile computers, information about our surroundings is ever abundant," says professor Carlo Ratti, director of MIT's SENSEable City Lab. "AIDA embodies a new effort to make sense of these great amounts of data, harnessing our personal electronic devices as tools for behavioral support." The MIT team is working with Audi and the Volkswagen Group of America's Electronics Research Lab on the project.
GENI Goes Global
International Center for Advanced Internet Research (10/29/09) Mambretti, Joe; Brown, Maxine D.
A consortium of network researchers has received a three-year grant from the U.S. Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI) program to develop iGENI, an international version of GENI. The GENI research initiative was launched by the U.S. National Science Foundation to create a virtual laboratory for researching and exploring future Internets at scale. Led by Northwestern University's International Center for Advanced Research (iCAIR), the consortium includes the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) at the University of Illinois at Chicago; the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) at the University of California, San Diego; Cisco Systems; and BBN Technologies. "The iGENI initiative will enable our consortium to extend and build on these partnerships in order to develop and implement a large-scale distributed environment for GENI researchers, and to make that environment available to many more research communities," says iCAIR's Joe Mambretti. IGENI will integrate multiple network resources, segments of national research and education network infrastructures, a national wide-area private network run by Cisco called C-Wave, and components of the international optical-networking Global Lambda Integrated Facility. "One of the consortium's major strengths has been its ability to develop teams, tools, and infrastructure on an accelerated schedule," EVL's Maxine Brown. "Each consortium member has over a decade of experience of active involvement in international networking infrastructure, projects, and community development."
Slump Sinks Visa Program
Wall Street Journal (10/29/09) P. A1; Jordan, Miriam; Sheth, Niraj; Fowler, Geoffrey A.; et al.
The H-1B visa program, designed to import skilled technology workers into the United States from overseas, will have thousands of vacancies for the first time in six years because of the economic downturn. Anti-immigrant sentiment in Washington and climbing costs related to hiring foreigners also have contributed to the fall-off in visa applications. "The best and the brightest who would normally come here are saying, 'Why do we need to go to a country where we are not welcome, where our quality of life would be less, and we would be at the bottom of the social ladder?' " says University of California, Berkeley visiting scholar Vivek Wadhwa. Another factor is greater economic momentum in countries such as China and India, which is enabling would-be immigrants to find new career opportunities in their homelands rather than going to the United States. Just 46,700 petitions for H-1Bs have been filed this year as of Sept. 25, whereas last year the 65,000-visa ceiling was reached in just 24 hours. Last year, 44 percent of approved H-1B visa petitions were for systems analysts or programmers, while university professionals comprised the second largest category. High-tech companies have long been petitioning the U.S. Congress to raise the cap on H-1Bs. Concurrently, some U.S. lawmakers have been urging restrictions on the program, arguing that it displaces U.S.-born employees.
Professor Working to Advance Computing as a Science
UA News (AZ) (10/28/09) Everett-Haynes, La Monica
University of Arizona professor Richard T. Snodgrass has received a U.S. National Science Foundation grant to promote computation as a true science. Snodgrass, an ACM Fellow, says the process of computational thinking is universal and highly valued in subjects such as physics, biology, and chemistry. "The problem with computer science is that a few people think it equals programming," he says. "But that doesn't emphasize the great ideas behind computer science, and that's what we want to bring out in this grant." Snodgrass and Peter Denning, director of the Cebrowski Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, will use the three-year, $800,000 grant to elevate the status of computing and encourage students, particularly girls and women, at the K-12 level to enter the field. The grant will enable them to develop and organize the "Field Guide to the Science of Computation." The guide will feature various levels, from beginner to graduate students and professionals, and provide an organized body of information on computing, including theoretical frameworks and models related to automation, communication, evaluation, design, and other topics. ACM's education board and the Computer Science Teachers Association also will collaborate on the three-year project. Snodgrass said the grant came just before the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution endorsing the need to support computer science education at the K-12 level. The resolution designated the week of Dec. 7 as National Computer Science Education Week.
Muscle-Bound Computer Interface
Technology Review (10/28/09) Greene, Kate
Researchers at Microsoft, the University of Washington, and the University of Toronto have developed a human-computer interface that uses muscle movement for hands-free, gestural interaction. A band of electrodes attached to the user's forearm is used to read electrical activity from different arm muscles. Signals are correlated to specific hand gestures, such as touching a finger and thumb together or gripping an object with a certain degree of tightness. The researchers say the technology could be used to scroll through and select songs on a MP3 player or to play a game without a controller. The project is focusing on bringing muscle interfaces to healthy individuals looking for richer input modalities, says Microsoft researcher Desney Tan. The researchers' most recent interface uses six electromyography sensors and two ground electrodes positioned in a ring around a user's right forearm to sense finger movement, and two sensors on the left forearm to sense hand squeezes. The system's software needs to be trained to associate the electrical signals with different gestures. "Most of today's computer interfaces require the user's complete attention," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Pattie Maes. "We desperately need novel interfaces such as the one developed by the Microsoft team to enable a more seamless integration of digital information and applications into our busy daily lives." The interface was demonstrated at the recent ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology.
Google CEO Imagines Era of Mobile Supercomputers
InformationWeek (10/28/09) Claburn, Thomas
Google CEO Eric Schmidt believes the future of computing lies in smart mobile devices and data centers. "A billion people on the planet are carrying supercomputers in their hands," Schmidt says. "Now you think of them as mobile phones, but that's not what they really are. They're video cameras. They're GPS devices. They're powerful computers. They have powerful screens. They can do many, many different things." Schmidt says over the next few years mobile technology will continue to advance and consumers will be exposed to new applications that are unimaginable now. For example, Google's Android phone division is working on an application that can take pictures of bar codes, identify the corresponding product, and compare prices online. Another Android application can translate a picture of a menu written in a foreign language. Cloud computing will provide the computational muscle for many of these future services, which Schmidt says is probably the next big wave in computing. He also believes that computing will continue to bring major changes to our society. "We're going from a model where the information we had was pretty highly controlled by centralized media operatives to a world where most of our information will come from our friends, from our peers, from user-generated content," Schmidt says. "These changes are profound in the society of America, in the social life, and all the ways we live."
Augmented Reality System Lets You See Through Walls
New Scientist (10/23/09) Giles, Jim
Carnegie Mellon University researchers displayed a prototype of a system that would enable drivers to see through walls at ACM and IEEE's recent International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality. The ability to see what is happening at dangerous junctions, such as blind corners, would make driving less hazardous, the researchers say. The team developed an augmented reality system that uses one camera to capture what the driver sees, another to record the blocked scene, and a computer to layer the feed of the second camera on top of the image from the first camera. Combining the images makes a wall transparent. The system has to alter images of the hidden scene so they appear as if they are being viewed from the position of a person driving a car, and prevent images of moving objects from being distorted. The team also is developing software that would integrate feeds in footage from a city's network of closed-circuit TV cameras. Cars could be built with an onboard video processor to pick up the wireless feed from the roadside cameras, the team says.
Electrical Engineers Go Head to Head With Genius on Music Playlists
UCSD News (10/27/09) Kane, Daniel
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) engineers recently measured the performance of music recommender systems they built from scratch against that of the Genius music recommender system featured in Apple's iTunes. "The system we are developing can analyze and recommend completely unknown songs by new bands as accurately as it analyzes the most popular hits," says UCSD PhD student Luke Barrington. Researchers at the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering found that Genius seems to actually capture acoustic similarities between songs by averaging statistics about how millions of listeners buy and play music. Barrington contends that Genius in reality knows nothing of song acoustics, but its success as a recommender system stems from the fact that it taps acoustic analyses of music performed by millions of people. "Our computer system works by listening to the music--it doesn't know anything about artists or albums or charts," he says. The UCSD researchers learned that the playlist generator, which they constructed using their own auto-tagging algorithms, delivered performance that was equal to that of Genius under certain circumstances. Moreover, the UCSD music recommender works for songs with which Genius is unfamiliar. The accuracy and scope of the auto-tagging algorithms are being constantly improved through music discovery games the UCSD engineers created for Facebook, which produce song-word combinations that the engineers feed into the algorithms.
Safety First for Robots
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (10/26/09) Zolfagharifard, Ellie
A three-year project by Edinburgh University researchers aims to combine the most recent advances in mathematics and engineering to develop robotic systems capable of handling flexible objects in extreme environments. The researchers have developed a technique that uses a topological model to account for the position of objects in relation to each other. The technique is based on Gauss' theory of linking numbers, which calculates the relationship between threads. "By considering the topological space using this theory, we are able to capture the invariances in the environment," says Edinburgh's Sethu Vijayakumar. "Topology-based motion synthesis is a fairly radical change in concept for programming robots. Our hope is that it will lead to robots that act more like humans." The researchers, collaborating with the Honda Research Institute Europe, plan to have a prototype humanoid robot that can dress itself by 2013. Vijayakumar says the research could lead to robots that can of help people out of burning buildings, or are capable of performing complex tasks in uncontrolled environments, such as nuclear clean-up operations. Taku Komura, the project's principal investigator, says one of the biggest challenges will be recording movements and feeding that information back to the robots.
Embedded Systems--The Whole Picture
ICT Results (10/28/09)
The European Union-funded ANDRES project was launched to find ways of helping embedded system designers find the best balance between static, reconfigurable, and analog hardware and the software those systems run. Their solution is a process that allows a designer to build an idea from an initial concept to a physical system using a modeling language and FOSSY, a design tool to assist with reconfigurable hardware. "At the core of this ANDRES framework is a modeling language plus component libraries that enable the designer to describe these integrated systems containing hardware, software, and analog components," says project coordinator Frank Oppenheimer. "That means you can focus on the application, not the technologies." The designer can use the framework to simulate the proposed system to see how it works and to test modifications before specifying how it will be implemented. The modeling language is an extension of SystemC and the ANDRES framework can be used with existing simulators for SystemC. The complete ANDRES system will be made available through an open source license to encourage the design community to adopt and continue to improve the system.
Open Source Identity: Ruby on Rails Creator David Heinemeier Hansson
Computerworld Australia (10/22/09) Gedda, Rodney
One of the most popular and successful open source software development initiatives is Ruby on Rails, created by David Heinemeier Hansson. With Rails, thousands of developers can organize sophisticated applications rapidly and consistently, and the development environment also has supported the advent of a Web application framework in which elements are employed for database connectivity and other common tasks. "I think the fundamental thing that set Rails apart was a culture of putting the programmer first," Hansson says. "The idea that Web programming should be fun and that programmers should be enjoying themselves." He believes that Rails gave the interest in frameworks a leg up, particularly for PHP programmers. Hansson says Rail is under constant development, and he responds to criticism that Rails is not sufficiently swift with the answer that it certainly could be faster, but then so could everything else. "We continue to work on it as much from a sense of professional pride as from a sense of practical need," Hansson says. He also says that cloud computing seems like a natural fit for Rails, since it promises to accelerate hardware deployment in the same sense that Rails promises to accelerate software development.
Ubiquity (10/09) Vol. 10, No. 10, Denning, Peter
An acceleration in cyberattacks against military networks and servers has brought the issue of what action the global defense community is taking to protect military systems and the worldwide Internet to the fore. Network-centric warfare expert Chris Gunderson with the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School says that "despite spending billions of dollars with the expressed purpose of fielding network-centric capability, the defense community has generally not succeeded at implementing distributed netcentric systems. Rather, we cling to the notion that military communications requirements are unique." Gunderson says this has worked to the advantage of U.S. enemies, who "have applied the netcentric principles to achieve information superiority via the open Internet and World Wide Web." He believes it is necessary for the U.S. military--and the global defense community--to abandon private networks as a means for most communications. Gunderson characterizes information overload as the "fog" of netcentric war, and he suggests several solutions to this problem. The first solution is to train our information provider network in practices that send vital information and avoid burdening netcentric fighters with large data volumes. The second step is to make the fighters capable of independent innovation and thus more adaptive to changing conditions. "As the new [netcentric] processes prove their value, larger programs will gradually adopt them as a matter of course," Gunderson predicts.
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