Welcome to the February 10, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Can Your Computer Make You Happy?
The Independent (02/10/10) Leach, Anna
Computers that can recognize users' emotional states are under development in the hope that the machines can be made capable of improving users' mood and performance. "Technologists have largely ignored emotion and created an often frustrating experience for people, in part because affect has been misunderstood and is hard to measure," according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Affective Computing lab. Birmingham University lecturer Russell Beale points out that people become more engaged with systems that seem to exhibit emotional responses. "In the same way that it's easier talking to someone who has empathy with what you're saying, who gives you extra responses apart from just a straightforward verbal reply, it makes our everyday interactions much easier," he says. "In the right cases, putting empathy into computer systems is really going to help."
The Power of 'Random'
MIT News (02/09/10) Hardesty, Larry
Communications networks' efficiency could be upgraded with a new network coding approach co-developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Network coding is a scheme in which a router mathematically combines data packets into new, hybrid packets rather than handing them off to the next router. The researchers determined that the best method for combining data at the router is random combination. In random network coding, a router receives a group of messages and multiplies each of them by a different, randomly chosen number, and combines the results together into a hybrid message. The router relays the hybrid on to the next router in the network, while also including information about the random numbers it used to generate the hybrid. Random coding produces the most gains in networks with spotty connections, but with several possible routes between sender and receiver. The MIT researchers mathematically demonstrated that if the same group of messages was transmitted to several different receivers, random coding produced the most efficient possible utilization of the network's bandwidth.
Students Find 'Lost' Office Gear With Tiny Sensors
CSIRO (Australia) (02/10/10) Valencia, Philip; Finlay, Jo
Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is developing FLECK Nano, a miniature version of FLECK sensor nodes, which can record environmental conditions and send the data to a central location point. FLECK Nanos would be used primarily indoors to monitor things such as temperature and power use. "The idea of pervasive computing has been touted for some time, but is not yet available for everyday office items," says CSIRO's Phil Valencia. Two university students have been working with Valencia to develop the miniature sensors. Australian National University's David Kooymans is focusing on reducing the energy demands of mobile FLECK Nanos and the University of Queensland's Blake Newman is looking for ways FLECK Nanos could reuse energy from the environment.
Shelved Machine Translator Gets New Life in Haiti Relief Effort
Voice of America News (02/08/10) Skirble, Rosanne
Former Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) linguist Jeff Allen has helped CMU make available a data set of English/Creole translations, which organizations such as Microsoft Research are using to aid relief efforts in Haiti. Allen previously had spent nine months collecting translation data from different people in Haiti. CMU computer scientist Robert Frederking built a portable translator for a laptop computer and sent it to Haiti, but it was never used and was sent back to CMU. Those efforts are now bearing fruit in Haiti. "We put out on the Internet site of Carnegie Mellon 13,000 parallel sentences and 35,000 parallel terms," Allen says. Microsoft Research had an English/Creole translator on the Internet within five days, including disaster-specific words and phrases based on the CMU data, says Microsoft's Vikram Dendi. "We have taken other emergency-type notification and helped translate them into Haitian-Creole," Dendi says. Meanwhile, Translators without Borders is distributing an English/Creole triage dictionary based on the new CMU data. "It contains a lot of interesting questions that you might ask someone to ascertain how serious their injuries are," says the nonprofit's Lori Thicke.
New Magnetic Tuning Method Enhances Data Storage
University of Chicago (02/08/10)
University of Chicago's (UC's) Daniel Silevitch and Thomas Rosenbaum and the London Centre for Nanotechnology's Gabriel Aeppli have developed a method for controlling the properties of magnets that could be used to improve the storage capacity of computer hard drives. Magnets' polarity has to easily switch when writing data to memory, but becomes more difficult to switch when storing or reading data. Magnets are normally heated and softened to save data and then cooled and hardened to store and read the data. The researchers' method can tune the softness of data storing magnets with a small external magnetic field, which enables the writing, storage, and readout of data at an even temperature.
Phone App Developed at UH Gauges Physical Activity
University of Houston News (02/08/10) Lindsey, Shawn
University of Houston (UH) researchers have developed Walk n' Play, an iPhone application that provides real-time statistics of physical activity. Walk n' Play enables users to track their physical activity and compete with other users. Anonymous data, including physical activity, intensity of activity, and the geographic region of the user is sent to a server at UH. "The implications of the technology are far reaching, not only for developing a healthier lifestyle, but also for doing science using novel data-gathering techniques--I dare to say it is a paradigm shift," says UH professor Ioannis Pavlidis. The Walk n' Play app tracks users' every movement, including walking and climbing stairs, and translates it into calories burned. The app provides accurate calorie counts by using a biomedical calibration process applied by the iPhone's accelerometer, which can measure metabolic activity. The method was developed in the UH Computational Physiology Lab.
Helping Haitians Find Family
University of California, Irvine (02/08/10) Main, Sherry
University of California, Irvine (UCI) researchers have created the Haiti Family Reunification Web site, which features a collective search engine dedicated to helping people in Haiti locate missing family members. The site pulls data from other Web sites and compiles it in one place. Sources include CNN iReport, the Red Cross, and the Person Finder application hosted by Google, and the site is currently tracking almost 59,000 records. "One focus of my research team is how to make search engines more powerful," says UCI professor Chen Li. "We're always trying to find real-world applications for our research results, and this disaster gave us the opportunity." The site uses technology that simplifies data access by supporting "type-ahead, fuzzy" searches, according to Li, which enables users to find information with an approximate query.
The Future of Gaming: The Hot Potato Experience
Technology Review (02/08/10)
Researchers at Greece's University of Patras have developed Hot Potato, a multiple-player, location-aware game that features rapid physical activity and Wii-like gesturing. It can be played anywhere there is a mobile phone or a wireless network. Hot Potato, built using Sun's Spot sensor network device, is a kind of virtual timer that is passed between mobile devices until the timer counts down and the potato explodes. Players can "throw" the hot potato to one another by moving close to each other and making a throwing motion with their arm. Initial tests indicate that players reacted very positively to the game. "Up to 14 players can participate in a game session simultaneously in a completely distributed environment; above this limit, inherent technology factors come into play and prevent a seamless gaming experience," says Patras' Ioannis Chatzigiannakis.
Goodbye Cables, Hello Energy Beams
New Scientist (02/08/10) Robson, David
Traction is building for the concept of wireless power transmission via energy beams, albeit at a smaller scale than previously envisioned. The three viable options include transmission by radio waves, striking a photovoltaic cell with a finely focused infrared laser beam, and magnetic induction. In the third technique, a fluctuating magnetic field emanating from one coil can trigger an electric current in another coil in close proximity--although efficiency drops as the space between coils widens. To get around this problem, Aristeidis Karalis and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have devised a method in which transmitter and receiver coils resonate in sync, boosting the portion of energy transferred in the presence of interference. "Power transfer efficiency scales independently of power, so the same efficiency can be achieved for laptops, consumer electronics such as TVs, and smaller portable devices such as cell phones," says Intel research engineer Emily Cooper. Among the concerns that wireless power transmission raises are its potential environmental effects in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. "The fact that these appliances are only 10 to 60 percent efficient means that 90 to 40 percent of the electricity the householder is paying for is wasted," says the Energy Saving Trust's Paula Owen.
And the Academy Award Goes to...a Computer Scientist
Chronicle of Higher Education (02/07/10) Parry, Marc
University of Southern California (USC) computer scientist Paul E. Debevec has earned an Academy Award in science and engineering for his pioneering work on digital facial-rendering technology, which was used in the special effects for blockbuster films such as "Avatar." For "Avatar," Debevec's methods were used to map the faces of live actors onto digital puppets. The effort involved the performers being scanned to provide three-dimensional face geometry that was very detailed. Debevec, who directs the graphics laboratory at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, believes the technology may one day have applications for higher education. "Maybe there's a little rendering of a chemistry professor at the side of the screen who smiles at you when you get the question right and frowns when you get the question wrong," he says. "[In perhaps 10 years] that computer might, through its webcam, look back at you, see where you're looking on the screen, see how engaged you are, and actually adapt itself to trying to teach you in the way that it seems to be working the best."
Princeton Scientists Makes a Leap in Quantum Computing
Princeton University (02/05/10) MacPherson, Kitta
Princeton University professor Jason Petta has developed a technique that can control the properties of a lone electron, a feat that is essential to the development of quantum computers with near-limitless capabilities. Petta's method achieves control of single electrons extremely rapidly, in one-billionth of a second, another feature that is crucial to developing new quantum computers. These controlled electrons will most likely form the foundation of a quantum computer's processing components, which are called qubits. A qubit based on the spin of an electron could have nearly limitless potential because it can neither be strictly on nor strictly off. "Petta and coworkers demonstrate a new method that utilizes the nuclear spins for performing fast quantum operations," says German University of Konstantz's Guido Burkard. The qubits are cooled to temperatures near absolute zero and trapped in two tiny corrals called quantum wells, which are on the surface of a high-purity, gallium arsenide chip. "Our approach is really to look at the building blocks of the system, to think deeply about what the limitations are and what we can do to overcome them," Petta says.
Preservation Road: Visual and Audio Records Say More Than Text Ever Could
Federal Computer Week (02/05/10) Bain, Ben
The U.S. Library of Congress' Carl Fleischhauer is leading a working group of federal agencies focused on developing federal guidelines for digitizing audiovisual materials. "We want to define a set of specifications for the creation of digitized content that are as much as possible in common between different federal agencies," Fleischhauer says. The group is moving toward publishing an advisory guideline for sound recordings, but still has work to do for video recordings. File size, storage space, and transmission time all are hurdles Fleischhauer's group must overcome. "Mostly our goal is always to stabilize the original, to inspect it and assess its condition, store [it] in the proper housing, and keep it in the right environment so that it will last as long as possible--and if necessary, we copy it to a new piece of film stock [that] should last another hundreds of years," says the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration's (NARA's) Audrey Amidon. Although NARA officials have suggested preferred formats for preserving audiovisual material, the agency does not have enforcement power, says NARA's Jeff Reed.
Soft Intelligence for Hard Decisions
Los Alamos National Laboratory's Mihaela Quirk recently wrote about the growing field of soft metrics, in which decisions without a clear "yes" or "no" answer are addressed and a justifiable answer is found. "Modern decision making challenges the human capacity to reason in an environment of uncertainty, imprecision, and incompleteness of information," Quirk says. Soft metrics are attributes of decision criteria that cannot be expressed numerically, but could be the center of a computational engine that can work with natural language rather than number crunching. The soft metrics approach could offer new ways to address issues in intelligence data analysis, risk assessment, conflict resolution, and strategy building. The approach creates a set of inference rules out of non-numerical data and expert opinion that can be programmed into a computer, thereby side-stepping political and economic considerations in assessing the information.
DASH to the Next Gen of Robots: Small, Cheap, and Feral
CITRIS Newsletter (02/10) Slack, Gordy
The University of California, Berkeley's Biomimetic Millisystems Lab has developed the Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod (DASH), a small, inexpensive, and highly durable robot that can go almost anywhere. DASH has six adherent feet and a "spring loaded inverted pendulum" of the type that allows cockroaches to climb over obstacles, says Biomimetic Millisystems Lab director Ron Fearing. DASH is capable of traveling 15 body lengths per second on flat surfaces, and is fashioned from compliant paperboard and has a single main driver motor. The robot can be geared with other electronics such as standard sensors, a cell phone camera, and Bluetooth wireless. The most critical capability that researchers are looking to instill in DASH is verticality. To this end, they are trying to replicate the adherent properties of a gecko's toes. Once adherence has been achieved, the next step in DASH's evolution will be enabling it to walk on uneven surfaces.
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