Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the January 25, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


An Organic Transistor Paves the Way for New Generations of Neuro-Inspired Computers
National Center for Scientific Research (France) (01/22/10)

Researchers at the National Center for Scientific Research have devised an organic transistor that can emulate a synapse's primary functionalities. The researchers say the breakthrough could lead to new generations of neuro-inspired computers capable of functions comparable to those of the human brain. The nanoparticle organic memory field-effect transistor (NOMFET) successfully mimics synapse plasticity. Gold nanoparticles are fixed in the transistor channel and coated with pentacene, and they have a memory effect that permits them to imitate the way a synapse operates during the transmission of action potentials between a pair of neurons. Thus the electronic element can evolve as a function of the system in which it is encapsulated. The NOMFET's performance matches that of at least seven complementary metal-oxide semiconductor transistors that up to now have been needed to mimic plasticity. Neuro-inspired computers can address visual recognition and other challenges that are beyond the capabilities of silicon computers.

After 10 Years, Federal Money for Technology in Education
The New York Times (01/25/10) P. B2; Jensen, Elizabeth

More than a decade after it was first recommended, a trust that would function as a venture capital fund to research learning technology has finally achieved congressional appropriation through the U.S. Department of Education. The National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies will be introduced on Jan. 25 and could be awarding grants by the fall. The center's co-chairmen will include former U.S. Federal Communication Commission chairman Newton N. Minow, former NBC News and PBS president Lawrence K. Grossman, and former American Arts Alliance director Anne G. Murphy. "It's time that education had the equivalent of what the National Science Foundation does for science, Darpa [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] does for the national defense, and what N.I.H. [the National Institutes of Health] does for health," Grossman says. The group constructed three prototypes to gain support for the project--an educational video game for biology students, a museum game, and a computer simulation to train firefighters in high-rise conflagrations.

Software Development Gets a Better Production Line
ICT Results (01/25/10)

European researchers have devised a new software development paradigm using an assembly line-style development process. "Think of this as a sandwich shop, where you have different products coming from a product line that shares ingredients, which customers can pick and choose," says AMPLE project coordinator and Lancaster University professor Awais Rashid. The asset base features modular software elements that establish a Software Product Line (SPL), within which is managed the entire software lifecycle from design and development through deployment and maintenance. The AMPLE team created analyses tools that guide users on system development. Rashid says the results of the AMPLE tool analyses match those of human software experts, but the AMPLE software is capable of much faster assessment and can be used by non-experts. Other tools in the chain let companies generate their own modular software components, to put them together for a specific job, and to test and validate the resulting application. Another key element is the maintenance, repair, and modification of both the SPL and the software it creates.

Queen's Human Media Lab Makes Board Games Electronic
Queen's University (Canada) (01/22/10)

Researchers at Queen's University are calling their new technology the future of board games. The technology, which looks like a set of white, cardboard hexagrams from the game board of Settlers of Catan, enables people to play electronic games in a traditional setting around a table, while enhancing game controls. Queen's Human Media Lab (HML) professor Roel Vertegaal worked with graduate student Mike Rooke to develop the technology, which makes use of an overhead camera and a projector that allows designers to turn each piece of cardboard into a minicomputer capable of displaying video images. Vertegaal says such board games will become practical with the emergence of thin-film organic light-emitting diode screens. Meanwhile, Vertegaal also is working with HML student Eric Akaoka on research into DisplayObjects, which would allow any object to become a computer. "In the near future, a computer will have any shape or form, and iPhone-like computer displays will start appearing on any product," he says. "These organic user interfaces will be embedded in real-world interactions."

Using Supercomputers to Explore Nuclear Energy
Argonne National Laboratory (01/21/10) Taylor, Eleanor

The neutron transport code UNIC being developed by a team of computer scientists and nuclear engineers at Argonne National Laboratory enables researchers to acquire a fine-grained model of a nuclear reactor core for the first time. "The UNIC code is intended to reduce the uncertainties and biases in reactor design calculations by progressively replacing existing multilevel averaging techniques with more direct solution methods based on explicit reactor geometries," says Argonne scientist Andrew Siegel. The Argonne researchers have executed detailed simulations of the Zero Power Reactor experiments on as many as 163,840 processor cores of the Blue Gene/P and 222,912 processor cores of the Cray XT5 at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as well as on 294,912 processor cores of a Blue Gene/P at Germany's Julich Supercomputing Center. UNIC has enabled researchers to successfully represent the details of the full reactor geometry as well as compare the results directly with the experimental data. The scientists say the code could play an essential role in the development of safe, affordable, and green nuclear reactors. UNIC gives researchers a better understanding of the behavior of existing reactor systems and also allows them to anticipate the behavior of many newly proposed systems with untested design characteristics.

New Life for Magnetic Tape
Technology Review (01/25/10) Graham-Rowe, Duncan

Researchers at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratories have developed magnetic tape technology that can store 29.5 billion bits per square inch, which would allow a cartridge to store about 35 terabytes of data, more than 40 times the storage capacity of current cartridges and several times more than a hard disk of similar size. The researchers used a magnetic medium called barium ferrite, and, by working with Fujifilm, were able to orientate the barium ferrite magnetic particles so that their magnetic fields protrude perpendicularly from the tape, instead of lengthways. This arrangement allows more bits to be stored in a given area, and also strengthens the magnetic fields. Additionally, thinner tape can be used, allowing 12 percent more tape to be stored on a single spooled cartridge. Increasing the density of data on a tape makes it more difficult to reliably read information, which was already a problem due to electromagnetic interference and because the heads retain a certain amount of residual magnetism from readings. To solve these problems, the IBM researchers developed new signal processing algorithms that simultaneously process data and predict the effect that electromagnetic noise will have on subsequent readings.

Watching Crystals Grow May Lead to Faster Electronic Devices
National Science Foundation (10/21/10) Mixon, Bobbie

Cornell University researchers have learned that the thin, smooth, crystalline sheets necessary for the manufacture of semiconductors might be grown into smoother sheets by manipulating the random movement of the atomic particles influencing the crystals' formation. "The main benefit of smooth crystalline films in electronic devices is that electrons can travel from one place to another in a device with minimal disruption," says the U.S. National Science Foundation's Charles Ying. "This in turn leads to faster electronics and lower electricity consumption." The researchers reproduced the conditions of layer-by-layer crystalline growth using a solution of micron-sized plastic spheres larger than atoms but still sufficiently small to exhibit atomic-like behavior. The scientists were able to manipulate single spheres one at a time and test conditions that lead to smooth crystal cultivation in real time. A key challenge to growing thin films on the atomic scale is the atoms' tendency to randomly cohere into mounds or islands, and how long an atom spends on an island determines whether a rough spot forms during fabrication. "If the principles we have uncovered can be applied to the atomic scale, scientists will be able to better control the growth of thin films used to manufacture electronic components for our computers and cell phones," says project leader and Cornell professor Itai Cohen.

Agile Development Hitting the Mainstream, Report Says
eWeek (01/22/10) Taft, Darryl K.

Agile application development methodologies are being rapidly embraced by enterprises, according to a new Forrester Research study. Forty-five percent of the nearly 1,300 surveyed developers and information technology professionals say they use agile techniques, with analyst Dave West noting that development teams "are puzzling out the mix of methodologies and combining them to fit within their organizational realities, blending agile and non-agile techniques and practices to create a hybrid methodology that fits larger organizations." Still, 34 percent of the survey respondents say that they continue to use either an iterative or waterfall development process as their chief software delivery methodology. Ten percent of the respondents say they use the Scrum method of agile development, with West attributing the technique's simplicity, practicality, and popularity to its adoption by many agile practitioners. Twenty-one percent of developers say they employ iterative methods, while 30.6 percent say that they do not use a formal process methodology. West says that organizations transitioning to agile development need a tool strategy in addition to a support plan, flexible adoption models, and a focus on team empowerment.

Embedded Electronics Bring Pop-Up Books to Life
New Scientist (01/21/10) Venkatraman , Vijaysree

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab have developed the Electronic Popable book, a pop-up book with embedded electronic circuitry that transforms the tabs, flaps, and wheels of traditional pop-up books into switches and sensors. The book's pages also feature light-emitting diodes, sounds, vibrations, and sensors that respond to the reader's touch. For example, Venus fly traps on one page can sense and close around a reader's finger. The book was made using electrically conductive paints and fabrics, as well as custom-made magnetic components. The Electronic Popable project offers a valuable lesson in engineering design, says MIT's Jie Qi. For example, lines drawn in conductive silver paint can be both functional and decorative. Qi says conductive paints can help readers learn about electronics, providing a functional and illustrative example on the page. The researchers plan to continue to explore how craft material can be used to build circuits and serve as a learning tool.

Computer Mouse Still Rules, Says Expert
Australian Associated Press (AAP) (01/19/10) Osborne, Paul

Next-generation interactive devices, such as gestural interaction and brain-computer interfaces, are unlikely to replace the keyboard and mouse anytime soon, says Andy Cockburn, a human-computer interaction specialist at the University of Canterbury. Cockburn says the keyboard offers a very efficient way to input information into a machine and is nearly cognition-free, while the mouse provides high fidelity precision of interaction. New technology offering touch-free gestural interaction is unlikely to catch on as everyday work and home life tools because gesturing in the air is stressful, slow, causes fatigue, and is prone to error. Cockburn says that people want more efficient ways to using computers, and developing those technologies will require combining computer science with psychology and sociology. He says too many people limit computer science to mathematics and theories of computation, but other disciplines are necessary in order for systems to be designed well. "At a time when the general population is buying into technology and what it gives them in terms of online socialization and love of mobile devices, it's crazy if computer science doesn't embrace that," Cockburn says.

Teaching Computer Games
EurekAlert (01/21/10)

Rapid computer game creation (RCGC) could be used to close the digital divide, according to Nikunj Dalal and colleagues at Oklahoma State University (OSU). Schools and universities have begun to embrace RCGC, and the researchers believe teaching people with no prior knowledge of computing programming how to build computer games would be an effective way to get them involved in computing. The OSU researchers say that a preliminary survey provides clues about the potential for improving thinking and computing skills. The researchers say that people could use off-the-shelf tools to create computer games, which involves storytelling, developing characters, evaluating plots, and working with digital images and music. "The digital divide refers not only to unequal access to computing resources between groups of people but also to inequalities in their ability to use information technology fully," the researchers say. Effective teaching models for RCGC would have to be developed, and the best ways to improve critical and creating thinking and develop positive attitudes would need to be studied, they say.

Robots Climb Up the Wall (01/19/10) Edwards, Lin

Researchers led by Ben Gurion University roboticist Amir Shapiro have developed four robots that climb walls in different ways. Snails serve as the inspiration for one robot that secretes hot melted glue to stick to walls as it climbs. Another robot has four legs with fish hooks, which are used as claws for climbing rough surfaces. Shapiro also focused on smooth surfaces by designing a wheeled robot and covering its wheels with sticky tape. For smooth metal surfaces, Shapiro designed a magnetic robot that could potentially be used to check cargo ships for contraband and bombs. Shapiro's team also has designed a robot that moves like a snake, and could be used to move through holes and pipes during rescue missions. The Israeli military is interested in wall-climbing robots for intelligence purposes.

Helping Computers Understand Natural Human Speech
National Defense (02/10) Jean, Grace V.

Lockheed Martin researchers are developing software that can extract meaning from a string of spoken sentences. The technology, called Spoken Language Interaction for Computing Environments (SLICE), can interact with humans in a richer way because it can understand a speaker's intent and draw logical conclusions based on the information available, says Lockheed Martin's Kenny Sharma. One possible application is military medicine. The U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research and Lockheed Martin are applying SLICE to the development of a voice documentation system that will enable medical personnel to collect patient information as care is being administered. SLICE would record and transcribe doctors as they speak during treatment. Researchers are working with medical personnel to obtain a wide range of the lexicon and grammar typically used in trauma and triage units to help SLICE better understand each situation that may arise.

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