Welcome to the March 15, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Berkeley Prof Helped Divvy Up Search to Many Servers
Wall Street Journal (03/15/10) Clark, Don
ACM has named University of California, Berkeley computer science professor Eric Brewer the recipient of the 2009 ACM-Infosys Foundation Award for his contribution to the development of highly scalable Internet services. Brewer broke down jobs, which once required large and expensive servers systems, so they could be handled by many inexpensive, small machines. Brewer also developed a way to replicate computing chores so that if one server went down, another would provide the answer without users noticing an interruption. He also developed Brewer's wireless hypothesis, which suggests providing communications and computing capabilities to developing nations is more helpful than waiting for more conventional components of their economies to take shape. Instead of using Wi-Fi technology to cover a small area, Brewer developed technology called WiLDNet that can send signals in a single direction over long distances at a very low cost. Applications of WiLDNet include helping to remotely diagnose eye ailments by using wireless videoconferencing. "He demonstrated not only could you help people but you could advance the state of the art," says Berkeley computer science professor David Patterson. The award, which is sponsored by the Infosys Foundation, includes a $150,000 prize.
Effort to Widen U.S. Internet Access Sets Up Battle
New York Times (03/12/10) Stelter, Brian; Wortham, Jenna
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposes to offer a 10-year plan to implement broadband Internet as the reigning communications network in the United States. FCC officials say the commission's recommendations will include a subsidy for Internet providers to wire rural U.S. regions currently without access, a voluntary auction of some broadcast spectrum to open up space for wireless devices, and the development of a new universal set-top box that links to the Internet and cable service. The FCC says the proceeds from the spectrum auctions alone should pay for the plan. About one-third of U.S. residents either lack broadband Internet access, cannot afford it, or opt not to have it. In a February address, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said that broadband wiring would be of immeasurable help to the U.S.'s construction of cutting-edge computers and applications, otherwise "it would be like having the technology for great electric cars, but terrible roads." Another part of the plan calls for outfitting 100 million households with high-speed Internet with a maximum speed of 100 Mbps by the end of this decade.
Safety Issues Loom as Humanoid Invasion Approaches
New Scientist (03/10/10) Marks, Paul
As robot technology advances, and their use puts them in closer contact with humans, safety has become a top priority for some researchers. "Safe interaction needs a lot more than speech and language processing on the part of the robot," says Bristol Robotics Laboratory's Chris Melhuish. Bristol researchers are developing facial interaction technology that will make it clearer what a human can expect from a robot. Meanwhile, the pan-European iCub open source humanoid robot project, led by the Italian Institute of Technology's (ITT's) Giorgio Metta, is developing robot skin that can measure contact pressure. The most dangerous part of a humanoid robot is the legs, says ITT engineer Darwin Caldwell, who is working to make robot legs with less impact energy by using joints with lightweight brushless motor drives, contact sensors, and spring-loaded limbs. "By introducing compliance we could have robots that interact safely for humans and ensure robots don't break themselves," Caldwell says.
For Quantum Computer, Add a Dash of Disorder
Science News (03/11/10) Grossman, Lisa
The augmentation of the coupling between light and matter in quantum systems by disorder could eventually lead to fast quantum computers that are easy to construct, according to a study from researchers at the Technical University of Denmark. They have demonstrated that randomly arranged materials can capture light just as well as ordered ones. The researchers built a waveguide featuring holes that were randomly drilled into a gallium arsenide crystal, and also incorporated quantum dots as a substitute for atoms that could become entangled with photons. The quantum dots were induced to emit photons by hitting them with a laser, and the researchers discovered that 94 percent of the photons stayed close to their emitters, creating spots of trapped light in the crystal. The quantum dots also emitted photons 15 times faster after a light spot formed around them. If these light corrals can be entangled with each other, the system could one day support a quantum network in a randomly organized crystal.
Supercapacitors Boost Efficiency
University of Waikato (03/11/10)
Waikato University researchers have developed working prototypes of a supercapacitor that could enable mobile phones and laptop computers to run longer between charges. The supercapacitors are designed to absorb the waste energy from linear power supplies and reuse it. Waikato engineer Nihal Kularatna says the researchers continue to address the issue of limiting the electrical interference generated by linear power supplies. Today's electrical equipment operates at lower voltages, and linear power supplies are capable of delivering high quality power at low efficiency. Supercapacitors have a sizable internal surface area and electrical storage capacity, and are able to absorb and discharge electricity very rapidly. The efficiency of a low dropout regulator circuit has been improved from 42 percent to more than 80 percent, Kularatna says.
UMass Amherst Computer Scientists Develop an Emotion-Sensitive, Computer-Based Tutor That Improves Girls' Math Scores
University of Massachusetts Amherst (03/10/10) Lathrop, Janet
University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMA) computer scientists have developed a computer-based, emotionally perceptive math tutoring program aimed at girls. "According to our studies, the extra support they need compared to boys is more about emotion than information," says UMA professor Beverly Woolf. Studies have shown that girls in fifth grade thrive on extra attention and respond to supportive characters and positive feedback. The software's computer-based lessons use these techniques as well as sensors and cameras that can recognize when students are happy, stressed, or feeling confident. During testing, girls preferred receiving emotional support that matches their mood, but it seemed less important to boys. Currently, the software can correctly identify the mood of the user about 70 to 80 percent of the time. Other groups, such as low achievement and special needs students, also have shown improvement after using the software.
Computational Modeling Improves Refinery Performance
Curtin News (03/10/10) Ratcliff, Shaun
Advanced computer modeling has enabled British Petroleum (BP) to determine the best design and operating conditions for its oil refinery in Kwinana. BP teamed up with the Curtin University of Technology and the University of Newcastle to develop a computational fluid dynamics (CFD) model for the refinery's catalyst strippers, which use steam to separate hydrocarbons from the process that breaks up heavy crude oil into smaller molecular parts. A team led by Curtin's Center of Process Systems Computations (CPSC) used the CFD model to evaluate the internal structure that impacts the interactions between gases and solids, and to determine the optimal mix of steam, catalyst, and hydrocarbons inside the stripper. CPSC director Vishnu Pareek says simulating a few seconds of real-time interaction in the catalyst stripper used to take weeks. "This project used innovative techniques to achieve realistic flow predictions with the least amount of computational effort required," he says. BP says the CFD model will help save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on steam usage.
Malicious Systems of a Feather Flock Together
Government Computer News (03/11/10) Jackson, William
Indiana University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers have developed a method for finding where malicious systems originate. The researchers performed a statistical analysis of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses from blacklists to identify Internet service providers, hosting services, or other autonomous systems with high levels of blacklisted IP addresses. "We wanted to be able to say if a particular network is doing a good job of cleaning up its machines," says Oak Ridge researcher Craig Shue. The researchers found that some autonomous systems have more than 80 percent of their IP addresses blacklisted. Three U.S.-based hosting providers accounted for more than six percent of one of the blacklists, a disproportionately large percentage for the size of the systems. "This indicates that some [autonomous systems] have either too lax a security policy or may be intentionally harboring cybercrime," the researchers say. The next step is to evaluate the quality of the blacklist data.
Researchers Use Light From LEDs to Send Data Wirelessly
Computerworld (03/10/10) Hamblen, Matt
Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications researchers have experimented with using visible light from commercial light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to transmit data wirelessly at speeds of up to 230 Mbit per sec. One advantage to using light to carry data over Wi-Fi or another system is that the lights are already in the room, says Fraunhofer researcher Jelena Vucic. A signal from a LED is generated by slightly flickering all the lights in unison at a rate millions of times faster than the human eye can detect. Although the bandwidth for commercial LEDs is limited to a few megahertz, Vucic's team increased the amount tenfold by filtering out all the light except for the blue part of the spectrum. The researchers say the data rate could be doubled with some modulation adjustments.
NSF Seeks New Approach to Helping Minority Students in Science
Chronicle of Higher Education (03/10/10) Basken, Paul
U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) programs that assist specific racial and ethnic groups would be consolidated under a new proposal from the agency. According to the Obama administration's budget recommendations for the 2011 fiscal year, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program, the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, and the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program would be replaced by the $103 million Comprehensive Broadening Participation of Undergraduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program, which would be allotted 14 percent more in funding than the three programs currently receive. NSF director Arden L. Bement Jr. says the number of minority students majoring in the sciences was not increasing fast enough under the old approach. "Linear growth is no longer acceptable, so we have to go into geometric growth," Bement says.
IBM Will Research Mobile Access for the Elderly, Illiterate
IDG News Service (03/09/10) Ribeiro, John
Researchers at IBM Research India, India's National Institute of Design, and the University of Tokyo's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology are investigating a common, open source user interface for mobile devices that will ease their use by older or illiterate people. IBM Research India's Nitendra Rajput says the goal of the research is to uncover common points and differences in the response to IT by both the aged and the illiterate, and to develop a multimode interface that both groups can access. He notes that although voice would seem to be the most applicable technology for access to information on mobile phones for illiterate people, it may not be the optimal choice for communicating information such as statistical tables or pictorial data. The researchers also are exploring other information accessibility options, including the use of images as an accessory to text and audio material.
Computer Says No
University of Leeds (03/08/10) Dixon, Guy
Errors, bias, and the tendency to try to confirm what we think continue to impact decision-making when people rely on computers for extra information, says Leeds University professor John Maule. He notes that computers are designed to assume that people will act logically. "Many problems in how we make decisions have been attributed to limitations in how we memorize and process information, and computers are often used to overcome these restrictions," he says. "But because many computer systems have been developed without a full understanding of how people actually think, computers can lead people to make bad decisions." He believes people need to think more critically about how they approach the large quantities of information computers analyze and evaluate. Maule also says there is a need for more advanced information technology systems with an understanding of human psychology.
Analytical Eye: Viewing Through the Data Jungle
Visualization techniques can help improve the understanding of the large volumes of data people accumulate, according to researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research (IGD). The researchers combined analytical methods and visualization techniques in a new system, Visual Analytics, which empowers users. "The user and the computer interact closely, but the user is always in the forefront," says IGD's Jorn Kohlhammer. "He or she makes the decisions, not the system." Today's business intelligence programs often use analytical methods that only display data in the form of lists or reports. However, Visual Analytics can display data in a mosaic of colored surfaces, which immediately catch the eye. Displaying information in different colors and in different patterns makes it easier to notice connections and relationships, and ultimately evaluate the data more accurately.
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