Welcome to the December 9, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Scientists Promise an End to Web Attacks
V3.co.uk (12/07/09) Neal, David
Research on new encryption technology that has the potential to make cyberattacks "computationally impossible" will be presented at the ASIACRYPT 2009 security and cryptology conference in Japan. Paul Morrissey, Nigel Smart, and Bogdan Warinschi from the University of Bristol's Department of Computer Science will demonstrate how the technique can be used to prevent attacks such as denial of service. The approach also provides two-factor authentication that does not overburden users. The researchers will discuss how to transfer information between databases in a truly encrypted way in a second paper. Also, researchers from Bristol will present a third paper on the "basic constructions in cryptography," which they argue could be applied to applications such as the Web browser.
Rethinking Artificial Intelligence
MIT News (12/07/09) Chandler, David L.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is embarking on the Mind Machine Project (MMP), an initiative led by artificial intelligence (AI) pioneers to create new breakthroughs by rethinking fundamental AI assumptions. "Essentially, we want to rewind to 30 years ago and revisit some ideas that had gotten frozen" while fixing basic mistakes made over the years, says MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld. He says the MMP aims to specifically address the three biggest quagmires in AI research--the modeling of thought, the reliable simulation of memory, and bridging the gap between computer science and physical science. Tackling the first challenge entails establishing what Gershenfeld calls "an ecology of models" so that problem-solving can be facilitated in multiple ways. Addressing the memory issue involves teaching computers to learn to reason while incorporating rather than excluding inconsistency and ambiguity. The third AI research area requires a new programming approach called reconfigurable asynchronous logic automata, whose goal is to "re-implement all of computer science on a base that looks like physics," representing computations "in a way that has physical units of time and space, so the description of the system aligns with the system it represents," Gershenfeld says. One of the projects the MMP group is developing is a brain co-processor, an assistive system designed to help people with cognitive disorders by monitoring a person's activities and brain functions, determining when he or she requires help, and supplying precisely the right piece of information at the right time.
In India, Anxiety Over the Slow Pace of Innovation
The New York Times (12/09/09) P. B1; Bajaj, Vikas
Even as India has emerged as a growing hub of technological know-how and outsourcing business that the rest of the world admires, there is anxiety within India that the country is not living up to its innovation potential as reflected by its lack of trend-setting products. The Indian government and corporations invest significantly less on research and development (R&D) than other nations, and Indian companies funded by venture capitalists are far fewer compared to overseas. Infosys co-founder Nadathur S. Raghavan says India is being constrained by a number of factors, including an educational system that focuses on rote learning rather than problem solving, a financial system that tends to shun investment in unproven concepts, and a culture that frowns on failure and atypical career choices. Analysts say entrepreneurial ventures such as Sloka Telecom are more likely to generate the next wave of jobs than big, entrenched Indian tech firms. Indian Institute of Management professor Rishikesha T. Krishnan says that entrepreneurship continues to be restrained by government control over such sectors as manufacturing. In the United States and elsewhere, wealthy individuals or angel investors provide the seed capital for many startups, but in India most rich investors prefer to invest with relatives or close friends because it is thought to be less risky. Nevertheless, innovation researcher and former tech entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa says the climate for Indian startups has improved substantially over the last few years, and it should continue to improve partly because companies such as General Electric have recruited scores of engineers in India to work in R&D. He anticipates that these engineers will inevitably outgrow the companies they are working for and establish new firms with entrepreneurs that previously failed with startup attempts.
Television Control for the Remote
ICT Results (12/07/09)
European researchers have developed a new system for delivering interactive communication that is being tested in the jungles of Brazil and the mountains of Italy. The System for Advanced interactive digital television and Mobile services in BrAzil (SAMBA) sends digital TV signals embedded with Java applications into remote towns that have electricity but no phone lines. A set-top box is placed on the TV and connected to the house's main electricity supply. The power line is used as the return channel so the viewer can send instructions over the system. The power line is limited to a data transfer rate of about 2 Mbits per second for the return channel, which is good enough to support the transfer of text and XML files and photos. The researchers say the key to the SAMBA system is its focus on remote villages and towns that do not have Internet access. The people in these villages are not familiar with the Internet, but they are familiar with TV. The SAMBA system can be used in several ways, including allowing circles of elderly people to get information all at once or enabling sports clubs and associations to broadcast information to one village or valley. The SAMBA researchers plan to use knowledge gained from the tests in Brazil and Italy in other developing countries.
FCC Plans to Formalize Internet Rules on Net Neutrality Draw Fire
USA Today (12/09/09) P. 1B; Cauley, Leslie
Internet service providers (ISPs) are unhappy at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's (FCC's) plan to formalize rules for net neutrality--the notion that all ISPs should treat all traffic on their networks equally--and thus preserve the Internet's openness. Under the plan, no ISP would be permitted to impede any online content, exhibit favoritism for their own content, or discriminate among Internet traffic. Net neutrality would be applicable to all broadband platforms, including wireless, and ISPs would have a mandate to publicly report any slowdowns in traffic they implement. "This is the policy that will shape the future of the Internet," says Free Press public policy director Ben Scott. The major ISPs say the FCC agenda is tantamount to pointless regulation, and they argue that regulation is unnecessary given the Internet's massive growth and prosperity over more than four decades without government intervention. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski contends that net neutrality is essential to the long-term security of the millions of consumers who rely on the Internet, noting that "doing nothing would impose its own form of unacceptable cost. It would deprive innovators and investors of confidence that the free and open Internet we depend on today will still be here tomorrow." Genachowski also says that non-action "would be a dangerous retreat from the core principle of openness--the freedom to innovate without permission--that has been the hallmark of the Internet since its inception, and has made it so stunningly successful as a platform for innovation, opportunity, and prosperity."
African Computer Scientists Recognized
TWAS (Italy) (12/07/09)
The Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), and Microsoft Research have awarded the inaugural TWAS-AAS-Microsoft Award for Young Scientists to Youcef Bentoutou, Omar Fakih Hamad, and Tshilidzi Marwala. Funded by Microsoft, the award was created to recognize the work of young researchers that has the potential to improve the development of Africa. The award offers a cash price of about $10,500. Bentoutou, a researcher at the Centre des Techniques Spatiales in Arzew, Algeria, specializes in image processing and computer vision, and developing applications in medical imaging and remote sensing. Hamad, a lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, is constructing multimedia data communication systems and multicast technology for education and community development. And Marwala, a dean at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, is studying the application of computational intelligence to engineering, finance, and medicine. "Computer science has a key role to play in tackling some of the developing world's greatest challenges, from education to infrastructure, and it's vital that we support and encourage the scientists and researchers who are working to address these issues," says Microsoft Research Cambridge's Andrew Herbert.
A New Step Forward for Robotics
Christian Science Monitor (12/06/09) Vol. 102, No. 2, P. 33; Emspak, Jesse
Realizing the dream of two-legged, ambulatory robots has been hindered by the complexities of walking dynamics, which until recently were beyond the abilities of computers to understand. But progress has been made through projects such as Boston Dynamics' PETMAN, a pair of steel and plastic legs tied to a system of power cables that is capable of walking on its own using the heel-to-toe motion favored by people. Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert notes that scientists originally thought that walking robots should be permanently stable, and early robots were designed to know precisely where each foot should land and calculate all possibilities beforehand. The PETMAN project is funded by the U.S. Army, which needs a machine that can model realistic human motions to test hazardous equipment. Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition researcher Jerry Pratt is impressed by PETMAN's ability to move its legs in several directions rapidly. He has developed a bipedal robot called M2V2 that can stand on one foot and shift laterally using sensors in its legs. Chris Atkeson with Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute says that walking robots could be used to provide insights on why older people tend to fall and help develop new assistive methods.
Optimism as Artificial Intelligence Pioneers Reunite
The New York Times (12/08/09) P. D4; Markoff, John
An optimistic outlook has returned to the field of artificial intelligence (AI) 45 years after the pronouncement by computer scientist John McCarthy that a thinking machine could be created within a decade. Fueling the renewed optimism is rapid progress in AI technologies. More than 200 of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory's (SAIL's) original scientists recently convened for a reunion, where the optimism was palpable. On hand were such luminaries as Don Knuth, who wrote the definitive texts on computer programming, and spell-checker designer Les Earnest. Other SAIL alumni included Raj Reddy and Hans Moravec, who made important foundational contributions to speech recognition and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. The development of the graphical user interface was based on the philosophy of simplicity defined by SAIL veteran Larry Tesler, while McCarthy, who was SAIL's director, developed the LISP programming language and the time-sharing approach to computers prior to joining the laboratory. The strides that AI has made in recent years is especially apparent at Stanford, where a team of researchers developed an autonomous vehicle that successfully traversed 131 miles of mountain roads to win the 2005 Grand Challenge held by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. "We are a first-class citizen right now with some of the strongest recent advances in the field," says current SAIL director and Stanford roboticist Sebastian Thrun.
ECS Researcher to Undertake First Internet-Scale Musical Analysis
University of Southampton (ECS) (12/07/09) Lewis, Joyce
University of Southampton professor David De Roure is a principal researcher for the Structural Analysis of Large Amounts of Music Information (SALAMI) project, which is enabling the online analysis of music from around the world. SALAMI is funded by the United Kingdom's Joint Information Systems Committee, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The project will provide significant analysis of up to 350,000 songs from many time periods, including folk, classical, contemporary, improvised, and live music. "To date, musical analysis has been conducted by individuals on a small scale," De Roure says. SALAMI will allow for a far wider range of music to be studied than ever before. The project will use a set of algorithms and tools for extracting features from recorded music, with the goal of producing an open source dataset for thousands of musical pieces. De Roure says the data will be an invaluable resource for music scholars, providing perspectives previously unavailable.
Eureqa, the Robot Scientist
PhysOrg.com (12/07/09) Edwards, Lin
Eureqa is a free program developed at Cornell University's Computational Synthesis Lab that takes raw data and derives mathematical laws in a matter of hours. Cornell researchers developed Eureqa as a successor to a series of robots that can repair themselves. The same algorithms used in earlier robots have been adapted for the analysis of any kind of data that can be presented in a spreadsheet. The algorithms may help scientists find complex equations and laws. Cornell's Hod Lipson, one of the program's developers, thinks Eureqa can have a major impact in many biological fields involving interactions between proteins, genomes, and cell signals, which are extremely complicated and, thus far, nearly impossible to explain mathematically. Vanderbilt University's John Wikswo uses Eureqa to study the effect of cocaine on white blood cells. The program derives both mathematical equations and the experiments needed to come up with the equations. However, Eureqa has not been perfected yet. The program has a tendency to return correct equations, but with variables that cannot be understood. The University of Texas Southwestern's Gurol Suel encountered this problem in his data on cell division and growth. Suel does not understand the equations Eureqa produces, but says the results are still useful and can be used as the foundation for further studies. Eureqa's developers are working on devising an algorithm to help explain equations the program finds.
Research Developed at the School of Computing Empowers the Web of Data
Universidad Politecnica de Madrid (Spain) (12/07/09) Martinez, Eduardo
Researchers at the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid's School of Computing have developed an access protocol for data resources defined in RDF(S), a set of recommendations promoted by the World Wide Web Consortium for characterizing metadata in the Web. RDF(S) combines the RDF language used for metadata definition and the RDF Schema, an extension of the RDF language for defining vocabularies. RDF(S) differs from other computer languages in that it has been designed specifically for the Internet environment and machine consumption, which enables data compiled on the network of networks defined in RDF(S) to be processed automatically by computer applications in adherence to user needs. The access protocol to data resources blends grid technology with the web of data, and this yields more robust access to systems making rigorous use of this class of resources. The project has produced a tool for leveraging RDF(S) data resources that boasts both substantially greater power and security. The tool offers mechanisms for querying as well as modifying the data resources, making it a boon to systems developers.
Scientists, Lawyers Mull Effects of Home Robots
Associated Press (12/05/09) Donald, Brooke
Scientists and legal scholars are studying the likely effects of the inevitable bond that will form between humans and robots in the coming decade. Although robots have been interacting with humans outside the home for years, recently there has been an increase in home robots. By 2015, personal robot sales will exceed $5 billion, according to Allied Business Intelligence. Microsoft's Eric Horvitz, president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), recently assembled a team of scientists to explore the future of human-robot interactions. "As we rely more and more on automated systems, we have to think of the implications," Horvitz says. "It is part of being a responsible scientist." A report on their discussions is due next year. As home robots become more sophisticated, questions about product liability come into question. A recent panel discussion at Stanford Law School said the original manufacturer might not be liable if a robot started acting improperly. "Robots can often be instructed, they can be programmed, you can have software that is built upon by others," says Stanford's Ryan Calo. AAAI recommends more research into the psychological reactions humans have to personal robots. The group also suggests that robots be designed with the ability to explain their reasoning.
Paper Screens Could Provide Depth to Computer Display
New Scientist (12/03/09) Barras, Colin
Researchers at Germany's University of Magdeburg have designed an inexpensive interface system that uses a ceiling-mounted projector and an infrared camera to detect the placement of objects on a horizontal, table-top screen. A special piece of paper called a Paperlens carries infrared-reflecting markers, which are tracked by the ceiling-mounted camera, enabling the computer to calculate the position and orientation of the Paperlens with an accuracy within 1 centimeter in all directions. Data on the position of the paper is sent to the projector, which can then project an image onto the Paperlens, providing information relevant to the main image displayed on the table-top screen. Images also can be stacked on top of each other to create a three-dimensional image. Several applications for the Paperlens have already been demonstrated, including using it as a magnifying glass for an image displayed on the table top. "The most important contribution from our point of view is not the technology itself but the systematic usage of the space above the table top," says Magdeburg's Raimund Dachselt, the leader of the Paperlens team. Queen's University's Roel Vertegaal says the Paperlens system breaks from traditional desktop designs and offers a "new way of computing."
Obama Warns Against Turning Away the 'Best and the Brightest'
Computerworld (12/04/09) Thibodeau, Patrick
At the recent White House jobs summit, President Barack Obama addressed the need to admit foreign students into the United States. Obama said the intellectual freedom enjoyed in the United States is what draws the "best and brightest" minds from around the world. "If those students start seeing a closed door, then we are losing what is one of our greatest competitive advantages," Obama said. Recently, the demand for H-1B visas has been on the rise after lagging for several months. If the demand continues to grow, the legal cap of 85,000 visas for 2010 will be reach in a matter of weeks. H-1B visa demand generally mirrors the economy's performance, and with only 11,000 jobs lost in November, compared to 741,000 in January, the rise in H-1B visa applications is not surprising. Obama said that foreign students can provide the U.S. with an entrepreneurial spark and encourage new innovations. He said that once foreign students "study here they start enjoying the intellectual freedom and the entrepreneurship, they decide to stay, and they start new businesses. Suddenly you've got a whole new generation of folks who are creating Intel or other extraordinary businesses."
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