Welcome to the November 30, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Taking the Drudgery Out of Software Development
ICT Results (11/24/09)
The European Union-funded ReDSeeDS project has created a set of tools designed to simplify the development and writing of new software programs by enabling developers to reuse pieces of previously written code. ReDSeeDS has developed a system that enables developers to search a central software repository to extract software "artifacts" from existing systems for use in new systems. ReDSeeDS project coordinator Michal Smialek says previous efforts to build software repositories did not feature the automation of the new system, so there was still a great deal of work involved for software designers. "The big difference with our platform is that it allows you to simply sketch out the requirements of your proposed new system and then these are automatically compared with the requirements and capabilities of existing systems," Smialek says. "The results are displayed to you with the differences and similarities between the old and new systems highlighted." The automation allows a developer to pick and choose what software artifacts he wants to take from existing systems and insert into the new system. Although some adaptation work may be needed to make the older pieces work in the new system, Smialek says it is still much faster and more efficient than starting from scratch for each project.
Building Real Security With Virtual Worlds
University of Maryland (11/26/09) Tickner, Neil
University of Maryland (UM) researchers are combining computerized modeling and group behavior predictions with video-game graphics to create virtual worlds that defense analysts can use to predict the results of military and policy actions. "Defense analysts can understand the repercussions of their proposed recommendations for policy options or military actions by interacting with a virtual world environment," says UM professor V.S. Subrahmanian. "They can propose a policy option and walk skeptical commanders through a virtual world where the commander can literally 'see' how things might play out." Computer scientists have created a "pretty good chunk" of the computing theory and software needed to build a virtual Afghanistan, Pakistan, or another "world," Subrahmanian says. Maryland researchers have developed artificial intelligence software that uses data about past behavior of groups to create rules about the probability of a group's potential actions in different situations. The researchers also have developed "cultural islands," which give a virtual world representation of a real-world environment or terrain, populated with characters from that part of the world who follow a behavior model. They also have developed the CONVEX and CAPE forecasting engines, which focus on predicting behavioral changes in groups using validated and historical data. "We are now at the point where, with the help of the analysts, we can start thinking about building computer-generated models that can automatically adapt to changes in group behaviors and to conditions on the ground," Subrahmanian says.
Breakthrough in 'Spintronics' Can Lead to Energy Efficient Chips
University of Twente (Netherlands) (11/30/09) Van der Veen, Wiebe
University of Twente scientists in the MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology, and from the FOM Foundation, have successfully transferred magnetic information directly into a semiconductor at room temperature. The researchers say that exchanging information at room temperature is a major step toward developing spintronics, a new, more energy efficient form of electronics. In magnetic materials, the spin orientation of an electron can be used to store information as a "1" or "0." The challenge was transferring the spin information to a semiconductor so the information could be processed in spin-based electronic components, which are expected to use far less power. To achieve the information exchange, the researchers inserted an ultra-thin layer of aluminum oxide between the magnetic material and the semiconductor. The information was transferred by applying an electric current across the oxide interface, which introduces a magnetization in the semiconductor with a controllable magnitude and orientation. This method can be used with silicon. The researchers discovered that the spin information can propagate into the silicon to a depth of several hundred nanometers, which is enough for the operation of nanoscale spintronic components. The next step is to build new electronic components and circuits capable of manipulating spin information.
Proper Use of English Could Get a Virus Past Security
New Scientist (11/27/09) Blincoe, Robert
Johns Hopkins University security researcher Josh Mason says hackers could potentially evade most existing antivirus programs by hiding malicious code within ordinary text. Mason and colleagues have discovered how to hide malware within English-language sentences. Mason developed a way to search a large set of English text for combinations of words that could be used in malicious code. This potential weakness has been recognized in the past, but many computer security experts believed that the rules of English word and sentence construction would make executing an attack through the English language impossible. Machine code requires the use of character combinations not usually seen in plain text, such as strings of mostly capital letters. University College London security researcher Nicolas Courtis says malicious code hidden in plain language would be "very hard if not impossible to detect reliably." Mason and colleagues presented their research at the recent ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security, but were careful to omit some of their methodology to avoid helping potential hackers. "I'd be astounded if anyone is using this method maliciously in the real world, due to the amount of engineering it took to pull off," Mason says.
Magic Box for Mission Impossible
Inspired by the struggles rescue workers faced following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, researchers in Norway, Spain, and Finland launched the CELTIC project DeHiGate to develop technology that ensures the use of phones and the Internet even in difficult, remote terrain and chaotic situations. "Our idea was to make a sophisticated box that you could connect to all kinds of communications centers like satellite and wireless, a box that emergency services could take with them instead of a big satellite dish," says Thales researcher Vidar Karlsen. He says the challenge was developing and testing new software to make the box work the way the researchers wanted. Spanish telecoms operator Telefonica developed a way to use large servers on the move, making it possible to deploy large networks in remote areas. Firefighters participated in simulations testing the technology, including testing emergency ad hoc radio stations to deploy communications, Internet access, and video-sharing capabilities, which allows emergency responders to track where every emergency worker is in real time. The researchers say the technology could have uses beyond emergency response. "The results and the ideas which came up in this project, both in terms of architecture and applications, have been the foundation for the development of a large project about personalization, advertising, and the use of telephone directory services," says Telefonica's Erik Miguel.
Researchers Looks to Perfect 'Babel Fish' Universal Translator
Toronto Globe & Mail (Canada) (11/24/09) Lima, Paul
University of Toronto professor Graeme Hirst says that although much progress has been made in translation technology over the last decade, researchers are still a long way from a universal small talk translator. For example, scientists at the IBM Watson Research Center have developed handheld devices capable of translating speech in near real time. Someone can ask a question in Mandarin Chinese and in a few seconds the device can translate the question to English. Translation devices capable of recognizing certain languages and translating vocabularies of certain sectors are quite effective in medical, military, tourism, and other applications. However, these devices are limited in that they work best when people speak clearly, slowly, and ask simple questions or make simple statements. "Translation is a human linguistic and cognitive task that involves understanding ideas and aligning sentences in context," Hirst says. Most text-to-text translators rely on word-to-word translators, but some more accurate systems use large volumes of text that has been correctly translated from the input language to the output language. IBM researcher David Nahamoo believes that a real-time universal translator will not be available anytime soon, but says people speaking different languages may start using a combination of speech-to-text and text-to-speech technology in the near future.
Viewpoints: Why Aren't More 'Techies' Women?
Sacramento Bee (CA) (11/29/09) P. 5E; Strange, Elena
Although technology jobs have become increasingly popular as a result of the recession, young women are still not choosing careers in technology, writes Silicon Valley computer scientist Elena Strange. A recent ACM study found that high school girls do not see computer science as an attractive field, and only 32 percent of college-bound girls see computer science as a "good" or "very good" college major. Additionally, only 9 percent of girls believe that computer science is a very good career choice, compared to 28 percent of boys. Strange says computer science professionals and organizations need to do more to encourage girls to pursue computer science, not only to strengthen the industry but because many girls would enjoy computer science if exposed to it in the right way. Strange notes studies predicting that more than 1 million tech jobs will be added to the economy between 2004 and 2014, and she says technology workers are vital to the success of the U.S. economy. Events such as Expanding Your Horizons, in which computer scientists and mathematicians encourage girls to study and pursue math and science careers, expose girls to the numerous opportunities available in computer science that they might otherwise have never experienced. Strange says that workshops can demonstrate the variety of work available in the field and get girls interested in the underlying science.
Human Brains Emulated in the Computer World
Lulea University of Technology (Sweden) (11/27/09)
Lulea University of Technology researchers have developed a computer-based architecture that mimics human brain functions and could lead to systems capable of detecting and compensating for their own shortcomings or reducing the impact of noise. The new architecture consists of three modules representing different senses. One of the models mimics a part of the brain that handles visual information, and another models the part of the brain that deals with auditory information. A third system also was developed to combine the first two. The objective is to use results from tests on how the brain combines information, such as sight and hearing, and use those results in engineering applications. "We have a model, that in important respects, has the same behavior that is measured by researchers that are investigating the nervous system," says Lulea researcher Tamas Jantvik. A significant finding of the research is the qualitative improvement that can be done in a sensory impression at the input of an additional signal through a different sensory. For example, when the libretto is displayed above the stage during an opera, not only is it easier to understand the opera but it is easier to actually hear what is being sung. The research also could be used to reduce noise that interferes with various kinds of signals and systems that automatically adjust their information processing, and as well as to systems that can autonomously determine what information is the most important and will work the best.
Selling Chip Makers on Optical Computing
MIT News (11/24/09) Hardesty, Larry
Computer chips that use light for data transmission are much more energy efficient than conventional chips, but so far they remain relegated to the lab. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers led by professors Vladimir Stojanovic and Rajeev Ram are designing optical chips that can be manufactured using existing chip fabrication processes. The researchers have shown that they can place a large density of working optical elements and electronics on a single chip, and Stojanovic hopes to demonstrate with a new batch of chips due this winter that the optics can be directly controlled by the electronics. Using existing manufacturing processes to build optical components on chips comes with a handicap, in the form of less than ideal thickness of deposition layers. Stojanovic notes that researchers attempting to add optical components to a silicon chip typically carve the waveguides out of a single silicon crystal. Such waveguides need both upper and lower insulating layers that standard chip fabrication processes cannot deposit, so the MIT researchers circumvented this problem by fashioning the waveguides out of polysilicon. Light is supplied by an off-chip laser, and the chip not only has to guide the beam, but also load information onto it and pull information off of it. Silicon rings or resonators are therefore etched into the chip to pull light of a specific frequency out of the waveguide. The ring resonators provide a bank of filters at the receiving end to disentangle the incoming transmissions--a necessity as next-generation chips' waveguides will have to carry 128 distinct wavelengths of light to satisfy bandwidth demands.
University of Minnesota Researchers Develop Virtual Streams to Help Restore Real Ones
University of Minnesota News (11/24/09)
University of Minnesota researchers have unveiled the Virtual StreamLab, a computer model that could help efforts to improve the condition of real streams. The researchers say the Virtual StreamLab provides a higher level of detail and realism of the physics of natural water flows, thanks to its use of sophisticated numerical algorithms for handling the complex geometry of natural waterways, advanced turbulence models, as well as the latest advances in massively parallel supercomputers. Researchers already have used the Virtual StreamLab to simulate St. Anthony Falls Laboratory's (SAFL's) Outdoor StreamLab, a scaled natural stream along the Mississippi River. The researchers have mapped more than 90 million data points, and now have the most accurate model of a real stream to date. Previous computer models tend to oversimplify stream systems and fail to accurately simulate the beds, bank shapes, turbulence, and the natural or man-made structures within them. "The need for more effective and reliable stream restoration strategies is clear, but the underlying physical processes which govern the behavior of a stream and its inhabitants are very complex," says SAFL director Fotis Sotiropoulos. "Our new Virtual StreamLab should provide researchers with a deeper understanding of those complexities."
University Unites Industry, Gov to Tighten Energy Sector Cybersecurity
NextGov.com (11/24/09) Aitoro, Jill R.
A Rice University program created to engage the energy industry and government about protecting power plants from cyberattacks hosted Dale Meyerrose, former CIO for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. University officials also recently heard speeches from security professionals at AT&T and Waste Management, as well as U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, co-chairman of the Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. Rice computer science professor Dan Wallach created the multiyear program with Chris Bronk, a fellow at Rice's Baker Institute for Public Policy, who used to work at the State Department's Office of eDiplomacy, where he helped launch a wiki that enabled employees around the globe to securely exchange information. The program is designed to help the industry in its efforts to organize and respond to a cyberattack. Wallach and Bronk plan to develop a private wiki for cybersecurity professionals and policymakers from the energy industry to "collect aggregate knowledge and create an institutional memory that everyone can draw on," Wallach says. They also see the development of policy objectives as a proactive way for the energy sector to engage the government on future regulations. Wallach and Bronk add that the initiative could serve as a cybersecurity model for other sectors such as health care and transportation.
Cell Phones to Provide Picture of Human Interaction
Penn State Live (11/24/09) Messer, Andrea
Pennsylvania State University (PSU) researchers are studying how emotions, physical health, and personal interactions affect individuals and those they interact with over the course of the day using real-time reports of interpersonal interactions. Study participants submit data after every significant interaction lasting five minutes or longer over the course of three weeks. Participants submit the data on smartphones with touch-screen displays and applications that provide questions on the spot, enabling participants to reflect on their interactions immediately. The study should provide a more accurate and detailed "moving picture" of people's lives, says PSU professor Nilam Ram. Participants report on their perceived health status, including general, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal health; emotions they feel as a result of their interactions; and interpersonal behavior. Ram says the study could be used to help refine prevention programs, such as those used to help overcome addictions. "If we can see patterns in an individual's behavior--for instance, if a person automatically goes for a drink when something stresses them out--we might be able to tailor messages to his or her specific pattern and head them off or at least shift them onto a path that will promote more positive, healthy growth," Ram says.
Researcher Seeks New Treatments in Old Drugs
Houston Chronicle (11/24/09) Berger, Eric
Stephen Wong, director of the Center for Biotechnology and Informatics at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute, believes bioinformatics techniques can be used to identify new uses for old drugs. Wong has developed data-mining software that finds new uses for the more than 1,000 U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs currently available. Terabytes of data on various diseases and gene mutations are available online, as are the results of publicly and privately funded clinical trials of experimental drugs. Mathematical modeling and computer analysis techniques could be used to match existing drugs with new diseases. "This would not have been possible 20 or even 10 years ago," Wong says. "But now, with the very limited number of targets available for new drug development in complex diseases, we need a new approach." His approach makes use of publicly-funded genetic and clinical trial databases and has the potential to bring drug treatments to market far faster by taking advantage of familiar and already-approved products, reducing the approval process from about 10 years to just one. The approach has already identified that a drug developed to treat renal cell carcinoma could also be used to prevent breast cancer from spreading to the brain. The use of the drug to prevent the spread of breast cancer is being tested in a Phase II clinical trial.
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