Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the December 16, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


University of Toronto Physicists Lay the Groundwork for Cooler, Faster Computing
University of Toronto (12/14/09) Bettam, Sean

Researchers at the University of Toronto (UT) have discovered new behaviors of light that could lead to faster optical information processing and compact computers that do not overheat. UT's Sajeev John and Xun Ma were attempting to study optical switching as part of an effort to develop an all-optical micro-transistor. Their research led to the discovery of a new dynamic switching mechanism. "This discovery can enable photonic computers that are more than a hundred times faster than their electronic counterparts, without heat dissipation issues and other bottlenecks currently faced by electronic computing," Ma says. The new mechanism manipulates atoms, or quantum dots, using lasers. The quantum dots can control other streams of optical pulses, creating the possibility of optical information processing. The new mechanism can perform logic operations over multiple frequency channels in trillionths of a second at microwatt power, or about one millionth of the power required by a household light bulb. John says the new mechanism would significantly surpass the performance of current electronic transistors.

Of Girls and Geeks: Environment May Be Why Women Don't Like Computer Science
UW News (12/14/09) Schwarz, Joel

A University of Washington (UW) study indicates that the stereotype of computer scientists as geeks who stay up all night coding and have no social life may be driving women away from careers in computer science. The study found that the stereotype can be invoked just by the appearance of the classroom or work environment. "When people think of computer science the image that immediately pops into many of their minds is of the computer geek surrounded by such things as computer games, science fiction memorabilia, and junk food," says UW professor Sapna Cheryan. "That stereotype doesn't appeal to many women who don't like the portrait of masculinity that it evokes." Cheryan set up four experiments to examine the reasons why the proportion of women in computer science is dropping. In all four experiments, women were turned off by stereotypical items such as Star Trek posters, video game boxes, and Coke cans. "Instead of trying to change the women who do not relate to the stereotype, our research suggests that changing the image of computer science so that more women feel they fit in the field will go a long way to recruiting them into computer science," Cheryan says. The media also plays a role by constantly portraying computer scientists as computer geeks, she says. The stereotype also may be turning off some men. "We need to broaden the image of the field so both women and men feel more welcome," she says. "In workplaces and universities we can do this by changing the way offices, hallways, and labs look."

Visit Pompeii With the Victorians in Second Life
University of Bristol News (12/16/09)

University of Bristol researchers have built a three-dimensional recreation of the Pompeian Court in the virtual world Second Life. The Pompeian Court was a life-size replica of a Roman house in Pompeii that was lost when a fire destroyed London's Crystal Palace in 1936. The iron and glass superstructure featured a series of reconstructed courts from past epochs, from Egypt to the Renaissance, and the Pompeian Court was decorated with paintings from wall frescoes uncovered in Pompeii's ruins. The virtual model includes a digitized collection of the paintings displayed in the Pompeian Court, an archive of the guidebooks, and press reviews of the court. "The model helps us to compare the strategies the Victorians used to build, inhabit, and engage audiences with their immersive Pompeian environment with the techniques made possible by the technology at our disposal today," says Bristol's Shelley Hales. Using online avatars, visitors will be able to explore the house on their own or take guided tours, meet other visitors, participate in learning activities, and interact with virtual Victorian and Pompeian inhabitants.

A Deluge of Data Shapes a New Era in Computing
New York Times (12/15/09) P. D2; Markoff, John

Some weeks before his disappearance at sea almost three years ago, Microsoft researcher Jim Gray delivered a speech in which he argued that computing was transforming scientific practice into a "fourth paradigm" era incarnated as a vast flood of observational data that threatens to inundate researchers. Gray contended that the only way to deal with this deluge is to build a new generation of scientific computing tools for the purpose of managing, visualizing, and analyzing the data surge. In the wake of this revelation, Gray's colleagues at Microsoft Research have published a collection of essays written by researchers at Microsoft and elsewhere that, among other things, document a new generation of scientific tools that increasingly meld sensor and computer technology and are able to capture vast volumes of data. "The advent of inexpensive high-bandwidth sensors is transforming every field from data-poor to data-rich," says University of Washington eScience Institute director Edward Lazowska. Meanwhile, Jeannette M. Wing with the U.S. National Science Foundation's Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate, says the fourth paradigm shift is supporting a growing perspective of computer science known as computational thinking, in which scientists are being pressured to share all scientific data as a result of the data boom and the plunging cost of computing and communications. This concept dovetails with the emergent trend of cloud computing, which is espoused by companies convinced that the Internet-driven shift is toward centralized computing facilities. Science Commons director John Wilbanks writes in his chapter that "data is not sweeping away the old reality. Data is simply placing a set of burdens on the methods and the social habits we use to deal with and communicate our empiricism and our theory."

Researchers From the University of Seville Work on Sensors to Obtain Environmental Information from Donana
Andalucia Innova (12/15/09)

New wireless sensors developed by researchers at the University of Seville will obtain environmental information as part of the ARTICA research project. The network of sensors will be placed in Spain's Donana Natural Park and will gather information from the surrounding area on temperature, humidity levels, the oxygenation of a given area, and ultraviolet radiation. Carlos Leon de Mora, the project's lead researcher, says the devices are relatively simple and are low cost, which makes their field deployment easier. "The wireless network of sensors, due to their simplicity, can be developed in mass," Mora says. "Therefore, they are very suitable to cover large areas or those areas that are particularly remote where deploying a traditional communications network does not make sense." The researchers expect to deploy the fully operational network of sensors into Donana Natural Park by the end of the year. ARTICA plans to develop a platform that can process the information collected from the environment and transmit it to the University of Seville where the data can be analyzed. "The network of sensors does not only gather data, but it also integrates artificial intelligence: each sensor node processes the data that has been obtained and, intelligently, transmits solely the relevant information," Mora says. The researchers are still developing the algorithms and hardware needed for the sensor nodes as well as the network's communication protocols and middleware.

Inside Higher Ed (12/15/09) Kolowich, Steve

Indiana University computer scientists have developed the Tenurometer, a tool for evaluating the impact of scholars in their field. Tenurometer counts the number of contributions to the literature and how frequently articles have been cited. Tenurometer uses the h-index, which combines the scholarly output with the influence of the work, but adds the universal h-index to measure how experts from other disciplinary backgrounds are impacted by the research. "We have computer scientists, and physicists, and we have social scientists, and people from many different backgrounds, who publish in lots of different areas," says Indiana professor Filippo Menczer. However, the various communities have different citation methods and different publishing traditions, making it difficult to compare the influence of a sociologist and a computer scientist, for example. The universal h-index controls for differences in the publishing traditions, as well as the amount of research scholars in various fields have to produce to make an impact. Menczer is especially excited about the potential to help show how the disciplines are merging into one another.

Glasgow's Joking Computer (12/11/09) Edwards, Lin

A computer that is capable of using simple language rules and a large vocabulary to generate cracker-style jokes, based on puns, is the subject of a new exhibit at the Glasgow Science Center in Scotland. The Joking Computer uses software initially developed to help children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy improve their language skills and create new jokes to tell their friends and family. Aberdeen University's Judith Masthoff says the Joking Computer offers an enjoyable experience that might encourage some children to choose a career in computer science. Aberdeen University scientists developed the Joking Computer, and the software resulted from a partnership between the universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Dundee. The Joking Computer, which was funded by an award from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, will be exhibited next year in science workshops and festivals throughout the United Kingdom.

University of Minnesota Computer Scientists to Help Track Global Climate Change Through New Data Mining Tools
University of Minnesota News (12/15/09) Mathre, Ryan

The University of Minnesota (UM) and the Planetary Skin Institute have announced a partnership to use data-mining tools to track historical changes in the Earth's ecosystems and relate them to climate change. The Planetary Skin project aims to develop a global "nervous system" that will connect sensors distributed around the world and in outer space. The project initially will focus on global forests, but eventually also will cover agriculture and degraded lands, says UM professor Vipin Kumar. The project will use new data-mining methods developed by Kumar and his research team to monitor global land-use changes. "This will allow us to greatly expedite the development and integration of advanced data-mining capabilities for the monitoring of the global ecosystem that is urgently needed in the context of climate change," Kumar says. The project plans to explore vital global issues such as energy use, water scarcity, and food security. Researchers say changes in global forests account for about 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, but the relationship between forests degradation and certain elements of the carbon cycle are still unknown. A main component of the first prototype of the Planetary Skin project, to be released in 2010, will be the tracking of how much and where carbon is held by rain forests.

Computing With a Wave of the Hand
MIT News (12/11/09) Hardesty, Larry

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab researchers have devised a way to turn liquid crystal displays (LCDs) into lens-less cameras through the use of embedded optical sensors. At ACM's SIGGRAPH Asia conference on Dec. 19 the researchers will demonstrate a gestural interface through which users can manipulate on-screen images. "The goal with this is to be able to incorporate the gestural display into a thin LCD device and to be able to do it without wearing gloves or anything like that," says Media Lab Ph.D. candidate Matthew Hirsch. The system uses an array of liquid crystals backed by an array of optical sensors. The crystals display a black-and-white pattern of squares that directs light to the sensors behind the crystals. This pattern enables the system to computationally disentangle the images, capturing the same depth information as a pinhole array would, only much faster. Lab experiments showed that the researchers could manipulate on-screen objects with hand gestures, and seamlessly switch back and forth between gestural control and ordinary touch screen control. "[This system] is much better than just figuring out just where the fingertips are or a kind of motion-capture situation," says Paul Debevec with the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies. "It's really a full three-dimensional image of the person's hand that's in front of the display."

New Open Source Stack Saves Money
Vienna University of Technology (12/14/09)

Vienna University of Technology researchers have created the Open Source EtherNet/IP Adapter Stack for connecting a wide range of industrial products that already follow open Ethernet communication standards. "The stack's small footprint, modularity, and flexibility make it both a time- and cost-saving solution for product developers seeking a standard EtherNet/IP communication stack for industrial products," says Alois Zoitl, director of research at Vienna's Odo Struger Laboratory. Scalable and written in the C programming language, the stack includes all basic objects required by the Common Industrial Protocol (CIP) specification and allows for the addition of other optional or vendor-specific CIP objects that further expand the functionality of products. The EtherNet/IP open source stack complements the commercial off-the-shelf Ethernet TCP/IP and UDP communication stacks used inside many Ethernet-enabled devices. The stack offers support for both explicit messaging (server) capability and implicit I/O (adapter) target connections. Incorporated into a product, the stack can help speed up the EtherNet/IP compliance testing process prior to the release of the product.

US University Coding the Future of News
Agence France Presse (12/16/09) Lefkow, Chris

Researchers at Northwestern University's Intelligent Information Lab (InfoLab) have been developing an Internet-based customized newscast for more than three years. The project, called News at Seven, features software that creates a virtual news show using animated anchors and text-to-speech technology. Viewers can choose from a variety of avatar anchors and customize a newscast to particular interests, says InfoLab director Kristian Hammond. He says the voices for the avatar anchors are currently the project's biggest limiting factor. "The nature of computer-generated voices is that they're not actually very expressive right now," Hammond says. "That limits the system considerably." Another InfoLab project, called Stats Monkey, writes a story about a baseball game using only the box score. Stats Monkey uses statistical models to determine what the news is in the game and is able to single out key plays and players. Stats Monkey also can use quotes and pictures to enhance the story. The researchers plan to test Stats Monkey on swimming and even business stories such as a company quarterly report. "Anything where you have raw numerical information," Hammond says.

Top Futurist, Ray Kurzweil, Predicts How Technology Will Change Humanity by 2020
New York Daily News (12/13/09) Kurzweil, Ray

Futurist Ray Kurzweil looks ahead over the next decade to project how humanity will be reshaped by technology. He predicts that between now and 2020, state-of-the-art technologies will spread "to every corner of the country and [begin] to make innovations once consigned to the realm of science fiction real for millions of Americans." Fueling this trend will be an exponential expansion in the power of information technology. Kurzweil forecasts that by 2020 memory devices will be integrated into garments, while smartphone displays will eventually give way to eyewear that can transmit images directly to human retinas. "That virtual display will be able to take over our entire visual field of view, putting us in a three-dimensional [3D] full immersion virtual reality environment," he projects. "We'll watch movies virtually and read virtual books. A lot of our personal and business meetings will take place in these 3D virtual worlds." Another innovation Kurzweil envisions by 2020 is pop-ups in humans' visual field of view that provide background information about the people and locales being observed. By 2020 the futurist also thinks that intelligent accident avoidance systems will be incorporated into cars, while self-driving automobiles will at least be undergoing experimentation.

Surgery on Beating Heart Thanks to Robotic Helping Hand
EurekAlert (12/11/09) Lucraft, Mithu

Researchers at France's Montpellier Laboratory of Informatics, Robotics, and Microelectronics have developed a computerized three-dimensional (3D) model that enables surgeons to use robots to operate on a beating heart. The technology predicts the movement of the heart as it beats and enables the surgeon to perform a procedure as if the heart was stationary. The researchers say the model could make possible less invasive surgical heart procedures. The robotic technology, known as the thin-plate spline deformable model, anticipates the movement of the heart and the movement of a breathing chest wall. The approach relies on a mathematical representation of the heart's surface as it moves in three dimensions. The 3D model predicts the heart's movements in a single step, making it faster in real surgical environments. The researchers say the 3D model will have multiple surgical applications, particularly in less invasive procedures that require a high level of precision and could have life-altering consequences.

Five Ways to Revolutionize Computer Memory
New Scientist (12/07/09) Heber, Joerg

Various technologies are under development in labs worldwide to dramatically enhance computer memory capacity beyond that of flash memory. Magnetoresistive random access memory enables memory to be written and read in as little as a nanosecond thanks to its magnetization, but researchers are struggling to solve the problem of magnetization's tendency to spread to neighboring cells when changed. Meanwhile, ferroelectric random access memory (FeRAM) combines speed with low power demands, but its charge-based nature means that switching the ferroelectric with sufficient speed requires the additional charge to be stored in close proximity. Thus, every FeRAM memory cell has a capacitor attached to it, which takes up valuable space. Phase-change random access memory (PCRAM) stores information in the atomic structure of materials with two distinct solid phases--an amorphous phase where the atoms are arranged in no specific pattern, and a patterned, crystalline phase. PCRAM offers extremely fast switching times but comes with high power requirements, although energy efficiency is likely to increase as the devices get smaller. Resistive random access memory takes advantage of electrochemical reactions that change the bond structure of certain crystalline solids, creating stable memory states that can only be switched by the application of a high voltage of the correct polarity. "We can switch our devices in a nanosecond or less, and the energy required is in the order of a picojoule," says Hewlett-Packard researcher Stan Williams. Racetrack memory is a concept, devised by IBM scientists, in which bits are stored as tiny domains of opposing magnetization that are threaded out along a nanoscale magnetic wire. Stuart Parkin of IBM's Almaden Research Center says that even a flat micrometer-sized wire could have storage capacity comparable to that of flash memory.

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