Welcome to the November 2, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Intel Claims Memory Research Milestone
InformationWeek (10/29/09) Gonsalves, Antone
Intel and Numonyx recently announced a breakthrough in computer memory research that they say could eventually result in a less expensive and better-performing alternative to existing memory technologies. The two companies have been collaborating on a type of non-volatile memory called phase-change memory (PCM), and report that they have successfully stacked multiple layers of PCM arrays within a single 64 Mb die. By creating a vertically integrated memory cell composed of PCM and an ovonic threshold switch, the researchers demonstrated that it is possible to use the technologies to create chips that cost less and offer better performance and memory densities than traditional NAND flash memory. PCM could provide a better alternative to NAND because it uses significantly less voltage. While NAND uses an electrical charge to store and read memory, PCM uses heat on chalcogenide glass, the same material used in re-writable optical media. Lower voltage use enables PCM to store more memory in a single die while using less power, and at a smaller scale than is possible with NAND. However, switching to PCM may require significant changes to production processes.
Meeting Notes Progress for Women in Academic Science, but More Work to Do
Chronicle of Higher Education (11/01/09) June, Audrey Williams
The current state of women in academia was addressed during the annual meeting of the grant recipients of the U.S. National Science Foundation's Advance program. Advance grants have helped fund initiatives for increasing the number of female scientists and engineers, as well as creating family-friendly university policies, networking groups, and mentor programs to help schools retain them. University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) president Freeman A. Hrabowski III says it is time to focus more on the attitudes of department chairs, professors, and top administrators rather than the numbers. At UMBC, which received a $3.2 million Advance grant in 2003, 54 percent of assistant professors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are women. "You can't change attitudes unless you know what people really think," says Hrabowski. He says colleges must continue to work toward institutionalizing the effects of the Advance grants in the current economic climate. "Even when we're cutting the budget, we have to say we really believe in this, and we're going to keep doing it," he says.
Software That Fixes Itself
Technology Review (10/29/09) Naone, Erica
Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have developed ClearView, software capable of finding and fixing certain types of software bugs within a few minutes. ClearView can operate without assistance from humans and without access to a program's underlying source code. By observing a program's normal behavior and creating a set of rules, ClearView can detect certain errors, including those caused by malicious programs. ClearView detects any anomalies that violate the rules and provides several potential patches that would force the software to follow the rules. The patches are applied directly to the binary, bypassing the source code. ClearView analyzes the possible solutions to decide which ones are the most likely to work and installs the top candidates and tests their effectiveness. If additional rules are violated or the patch crashes the system, ClearView rejects those solutions and finds another. The researchers say the system is particularly effective on a group of machines running the same software. They tested ClearView by installing it on a group of computers running Firefox and using an independent team to attack the Web browser using 10 different approaches. ClearView successfully blocked all of the attacks by detecting the anomalies and terminating the application before the attack could take effect. ClearView was presented at ACM's recent Symposium on Operating System Principles.
Study: No Shortage of U.S. Engineers
BusinessWeek (10/28/09) Herbst, Moira
The United States, contrary to popular belief, is not lacking graduates in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, according to a study by researchers at Georgetown and Rutgers universities. The study suggests the problem is that many of the top graduates are taking financial and consulting jobs. "It is now up to science and technology firms to attract the best and the brightest graduates to come work for them," says Rutgers professor Hal Salzman. The researchers say that employers could address recruiting challenges for the best talent by increasing the appeal of careers in STEM fields through bigger salaries and other incentives. However, Microsoft and other employers say the problem of drawing talent would more likely be solved by adding more of premium candidates to the talent pipeline than by boosting salaries. At a hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology last March, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates cited a decline in student interest in the sciences and contended that immigration policy needs to be changed to help fill the void in the labor market. He pushed for an extension of the period that foreign students can work in the United States following graduation, elevating the current limits on H-1B visas, and issuing many more green cards annually. Critics of the Georgetown/Rutgers study's conclusions include Computer Science Teachers Association executive director Chris Stephenson, who says that high schools have steadily been dumping computer science courses over the past six years. "It's clear that the number of students taking computer science is dropping," she says.
Thwarting Cyber Criminal
Norwegian University of Science and Technology (10/30/09)
Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) say they have developed a digital signature system that is 17,000 times faster than current systems used for verification and 10,000 times faster in providing a digital signature. They say the new system, MQQ, was developed as a way to address the biggest pitfalls in current data security systems. Existing systems, when used with smart card applications or at credit card payment terminals, are often slow, do not protect against quantum computing attacks, and have not been optimized for parallel processing. MQQ was developed using a trapdoor function, which is generated by quasigroup string transformations based on multivariate quadratic quasigroups. The researchers say that MQQ's security is enhanced by a signing speed that is 10,000 times faster than corresponding RSA and elliptical curves digital signatures. The researchers also say that MQQ is one of the first algorithms specially designed for parallel processing, which allows the system to benefit from the recent trends in multicore parallel processing. "Due to the nature of its design, MQQ is secure against quantum computing attacks," says NTNU professor Dailo Gligoroski. He says MQQ also has been found to be secure against all known multivariate quadratic attack methods.
Xerox Claims Breakthrough in Printable Circuitry
V3.co.uk (10/30/09) Thomson, Iain
Xerox says it has developed a new form of silver ink that aligns its molecules to conduct electricity more efficiently. The breakthrough enables electronics to be produced on a wider range of materials and at lower costs because a clean room would no longer be needed to print circuitry on new materials. "We will be able to print circuits in almost any size from smaller custom circuits to larger formats such as wider rolls of plastic sheets, unheard of in today's silicon-wafer industry," says the Xerox Research Center of Canada's Hadi Mahabadi. Printing circuitry on materials such as plastics was impossible because traditional metallic inks typically require a temperature of more than 800 degrees centigrade. However, the new ink is liquid at about 140 degrees. "We have found the silver bullet that could make things such as electronic clothing and inexpensive games a reality today," says Xerox's Paul Smith.
SPECIAL: Listen, Watch, Read--Computers Search for Meaning
ICT Results (10/30/09)
The European MESH project has developed an integrated platform that combines semantic search with a variety of other tools to deliver more relevant results for a wider variety of sources. The MESH system can search annotated files such as photographs, videos, sound recordings, text, document scans, or any other media to find relevant responses to semantic search terms. The platform uses a variety of techniques, including optical character recognition, automated speech recognition, automatic annotation of video, and photographs that track salient concepts. While building its semantic search platform, the MESH project also developed some cutting-edge technology, says MESH project coordinator Pedro Concejero. For example, the project's automatic annotation for video is capable of identifying the general scene setting, detecting the general topic of the video, and recognizing the number of salient objects, such as people, within a scene. Concejero says the MESH platform could find use in numerous standalone commercial applications. The project's researchers will continue to develop new applications.
U.S. Cyber War Policy Needs New Focus, Experts Say
Computerworld (10/29/09) Gross, Grant
Three cybersecurity experts recently told a meeting of the Congressional Cyber Caucus that current U.S. policies for protecting the United States against various forms of attack won't work for defending against cyberwarfare. Rand Corp.'s Martin Libicki said a policy of cyberdeterrence modeled after the strategy for nuclear attacks is problematic, largely because it is difficult to identify attackers, particularly when some nations appear to be sponsoring private attackers. Libicki also said it may be difficult for the U.S. to follow through with counterattacks when U.S. cyberexperts do not know how much damage those attacks could do. Good Harbor Consulting's Paul Kurtz said it is still unclear what the U.S.'s cyberwarfare policies will look like, which is particularly troublesome because the United States lacks a definition of what constitutes an act of cyberwar. Additionally, it may be unwise to label some countries as cyberadversaries, Kurtz said. For example, although the Chinese government is often blamed for encouraging or sponsoring cyberattacks, the U.S. government needs to engage the Chinese about cyberdefense. U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit director Scott Borg said the U.S. government needs to recognize that cyberattacks can cause "horrendous damage," and that attacks on targets such as electricity generators could have a long-lasting effect, primarily due to the U.S.'s limited ability to support new parts for damaged generators. Most of the parts for electricity generators come from China and India, and Borg said that emergency planners have not found a way to replace those parts quickly. He said shutting down electricity in a large area of the U.S. for several months would have the same level of economic damage as a nuclear attack.
Holding the Line Against Forgeries
New York Times (10/29/09) Wall, Barbara
Eric Postma, an artificial intelligence professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, estimates that forgeries account for about 99 percent of the artwork for sale on the international market. Postma says that "auction houses could be doing more to protect client interests by having a more open attitude toward innovations that may help to establish authenticity." He says that new computer technology-based methods could make a substantial contribution to art authentication. His team has developed algorithms that can evaluate paintings based on brush stroke configurations, pigment, and canvas weave. Postma says that this digital analysis technique successfully indicated that a painting attributed to Vincent Van Gogh for many years was probably a forgery because its brush strokes were too prominent. Postma says the works of Rubens, Gauguin, and Monet are currently undergoing analysis, and "provided we have a large enough database of paintings to work from, I see no reason why we could not apply our methods to Old Masters and modern works of art alike." He says an ultimate goal is to invent an algorithm that can encompass a painting's entire visual structure. Postma acknowledges that many art historians view digital analysis with suspicion, partly because the algorithms are still under development, and partly because a full service is infeasible until a sufficiently large painting database has been constructed.
Cell Phones Become Handheld Tools for Global Development
UW News (10/29/09) Hickey, Hannah
University of Washington (UW) doctoral students have developed Open Data Kit, a free suite of mobile tools that can be used by organizations that need inexpensive methods for gathering information. Open Data Kit uses the open source Android mobile operating system to turn cell phones into versatile data-collection devices. For example, the students say the devices could provide organizations with the ability to take pictures of deforested areas, add the location coordinates, and instantly submit that information to a global environmental database. Open Data Kit already is being used by the Grameen Foundation Technology Center to evaluate its Ugandan text-messaging information hotline, D-Tree International is using the suite in Tanzania to guide health workers treating young children, the University of California, Berkeley's Human Rights Center is using the platform to record human rights violations in the Central African Republic, and this fall the Jane Goodall Institute and the Brazilian Forest Service will use the suite to monitor deforestation. Open Data Kit can be used to collect data; store, view, and export data on remote servers; and manage devices in the field from a central office. The Open Data Kit also enables a phone to quickly record a location, scan a bar code instead of requiring the numbers to be entered by hand, and upload data automatically using a cellular network.
Living Wallpaper That Devices Can Relate To
New Scientist (10/28/09) Campbell, MacGregor
The Living Wall project, led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab researcher Leah Buechley, features an electronically enhanced wallpaper that can interact with other devices, including lamps, heaters, and music systems. The wallpaper uses magnetic and conductive paints to create circuitry in attractive designs. Combining the wallpaper's circuits with inexpensive temperature, light, and touch sensors, light-emitting diodes, and Bluetooth capabilities turns the wallpaper into a control surface capable of communicating with nearby devices. For example, a user could touch a certain flower to turn on a lamp or adjust the room's temperature. "Our goal is to make technologies that users can build on and change without needing a lot of technical skill," Buechley says. To create the electronic wallpaper, the researchers started with steel foil sandwiched between layers of paper coated with magnetic paint. Conductive paint was then used to create the wallpaper's visual motif as well as the circuits, which can be attached to sensors, lights, and other devices. The system runs at 20 volts, drawing approximately 2.5 amps when fully loaded with devices. "You can go up and touch the wall and not even feel a tingle," Buechley says. She says the wallpaper is intended to demonstrate how existing technology can be used in innovative ways in materials and applications that are usually thought of as low tech.
The Past, Present and Future of AI
TechRadar (10/24/09) Hardwidge, Ben
The idea that fully-fledged artificial intelligence (AI)--thinking machines that could mimic human intelligence precisely--would be realized by the year 2000 was driven by early breakthroughs in the field, such as the Logic Theorist program. The program successfully utilized a computer to solve logic problems through a virtual reasoning system that employed decision trees. However, since then the AI field has been one of deferred dreams, as many of the milestones predicted for the turn of the millennium have yet to come to pass. "The reality of the engineering requirements [of AI] and what it really takes to make this work was much harder than anybody expected," says David Ferrucci, leader of the IBM Watson project team. He cites the development of chess-playing computers as an example of an advancement that created false hope about AI overall. The enormous difficulty computers have in emulating distinctly human abilities, such as communicating with people via natural language, demonstrates what a hard challenge AI creators face. Among the latest AI achievements is Aberystwyth University's Adam, a robot that can make scientific discoveries using a method known as abduction. "Adam can ... abduce hypotheses, and infer what would be efficient experiments to discriminate between different hypotheses, and whether there's evidence for them," says Aberystwyth's Ross King. "Then it can actually do the experiments using laboratory automation." However, King says the really complex problems involve humans interacting.
CALVIN: Clarifying California's Old and Murky Water Problems
CITRIS Newsletter (10/09) Slack, Gordy
The CALifornia Value Integrated Network (CALVIN) is an economic-engineering water model that taps 70 years' worth of hydrological data compiled from various sources to simulate California's water storage and distribution system. CALVIN simulates the engineering structures of the state's water system along with economic demands for water so that users can assess the impact of changing either economic or engineering parameters. CALVIN must be fed reliable data, and advancements in accurate sensor technology have been key to providing this function. "This revolution in sensors has buried us in numbers," says University of California, Davis (UC Davis) professor and CALVIN co-creator Jay Lund. "And the numbers are meaningless, unless you organize them so they bear insights into what's really going on and how it's likely to play out in the future. That's what is really exciting and important about the work. We're trying to develop insights, not numbers." UC Davis researchers have employed CALVIN's data-crunching abilities to help California resolve complex and pressing water challenges, such as the disposition of the San Francisco Bay Delta.
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