Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the May 12, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


DNA Could Be Backbone of Next Generation Logic Circuits
Duke University News (05/11/10) Merritt, Richard

Duke University professor Chris Dwyer has demonstrated that by mixing customized parts of DNA and other molecules, billions of identical, tiny, waffle-like structures can be developed and used as the building blocks for a variety of biomedical and computational applications. Dwyer says that DNA-based switches use light to stimulate the rapid processing of ones and zeroes. "This is the first demonstration of such an active and rapid processing and sensing capacity at the molecular level," he says. Dwyer's experiments took advantage of DNA's natural ability to latch onto corresponding and specific areas of other DNA snippets. "It's like taking pieces of a puzzle, throwing them in a box, and as you shake the box, the pieces gradually find their neighbors to form the puzzle," he says. In addition to their use in computing, the nanostructures also function as sensors, which makes many biomedical applications possible, Dwyer says.

Decline Is Seen in NASA's Research Side
New York Times (05/11/10) Chang, Kenneth

The National Research Council (NRC) reviewed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) research tactics and found that the decline of basic research jeopardizes NASA's ability to study and explore the universe. The report concluded that research laboratories at the 10 NASA centers for studying materials, aeronautics, and other basic science were marginally adequate. About 80 percent of the laboratories are more than 40 years old, and differed maintenance costs have grown to $2.46 billion, up from $1.77 billion in 2004, making NASA less able to tackle challenges encountered by its space and aeronautical missions, the report says. For example, the supercomputer at the Ames Research Center in California lacks a needed $15 million uninterruptible power supply to survive an earthquake, which without it could fry the entire system. The report notes that aeronautics research has suffered in particular, as financing has dropped by nearly half over five years. NRC's Joseph B. Reagan notes that the needed funding increases for basic research are not that large.

Scientists Seeking NSF Funding Will Soon Be Required to Submit Data Management Plans
National Science Foundation (05/10/10) Zacharias, Maria C.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently announced a change in the implementation of the existing policy on sharing research data. Beginning in October 2010, NSF plans to require that all proposals include a data management plan in the form of a two-page supplementary document. The changes are designed to address the needs of data-driven science. "Researchers from numerous disciplines need to work together to attack complex problems; openly sharing data will pave the way for researchers to communicate and collaborate more effectively," says NSF's Ed Seidel. The NSF also wants to avoid a one-size-fits all approach to data sharing. Data management plans will now be subject to peer review and the approach will allow flexibility at the directorate and division levels to tailor implementation as appropriate. "The change reflects a move to the Digital Age, where scientific breakthroughs will be powered by advanced computing techniques that help researchers explore and mine datasets," says NSF's Jeannette Wing.

One Group's Answer to Transistors Behaving Badly
HPC Wire (05/11/10) Feldman, Michael

To address the problem of shrinking transistor geometries, researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of California, San Diego are developing stochastic processors. The processors are intentionally under-designed to be naturally error-prone under both normal and distressed conditions, with error tolerance supplied by either hardware or software. The underlying justification is that the looser architecture will make mass production of the processors much less expensive and simpler, while the easing of voltage scaling and clock-frequency strictures can yield substantial energy efficiency and performance gains. The stochastic research group has devised a processor that allows for a 1 percent to 4 percent error rate, which can save between 25 percent to 40 percent on power in comparison to the default design. "Our vision is that all the errors that are produced get tolerated by the software," as software-based error tolerance provides greater flexibility, says Illinois computer scientist Rakesh Kumar.

Carnegie Mellon Study of Twitter Sentiments Yields Results Similar to Public Opinion Polls
Carnegie Mellon News (05/11/10) Spice, Byron

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers analyzed the sentiments expressed in a billion Twitter messages during 2008-2009 relating to consumer confidence and presidential job approval ratings and found that they were similar to those of well-established public opinion polls. The research suggests that studying tweets could become an inexpensive, rapid way of gauging public opinion on some subjects, says CMU professor Noah Smith. "With seven million or more messages being tweeted each day, this data stream potentially allows us to take the temperature of the population very quickly," Smith says. The Twitter-derived sentiment measurements were much more volatile day-to-day than the polling data, but when the researchers looked at the results over a period of days, they often correlated closely with the polling data. The researchers say that improved natural-language processing tools, query-driven analysis, and the use of demographic and time stamp data could enhance the sophistication and reliability of the measurements.

System Designed for Accessible Emergency Notifications
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain) (05/11/10)

Researchers at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) have developed Simple Emergency Alerts fo(u)r All (SEMA4A), a system that organizes all of the parameters which appear in emergency situations, enabling users to receive notifications regarding the type of emergency and the situation in which it was produced. "It is essential for the notification system to be able to adapt the contents and choose the best means of communication, taking into account these elements in such a way that the number of people affected by the lack of information is reduced to a minimum," says UC3M professor Alessio Malizia. The researchers developed SEMA4A by analyzing the norms for accessibility, the emergency response systems, and the communication mechanisms, to generate the fastest and most efficient alert possible. The researchers say that future refinements would allow the prototype elaboration process to be automated, as well as provide validations of the accessibility guides included in the ontology. A new prototype, called CAP-ONES, has already been developed to automatically adapt alert notifications.

Lining Up "Nanodot" Memory
Technology Review (05/11/10) Graham-Rowe, Duncan

North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers have developed a method for growing magnetic nanoparticles that could lead to much more dense computer memory devices. The technique arranges magnetic nanodots, particles about six nanometers wide, in orderly arrays, making it easier to use them to store bits of information magnetically. A nanodot chip measuring one centimeter square could, in theory, store a terabit of data, says NCSU professor Jay Narayan. "The primary innovation is that we can keep all these dots ordered and aligned in the same way," he says. The technique, called domain-matching epitaxy, involves depositing a very thin layer of titanium nitride onto a substrate that serves as a template for the nanodots. The size and spacing of the dots can be controlled by varying the growth conditions, such as temperature. The nickel-based nanodots require low temperatures to function, but the researchers are working on making them out of iron-platinum, which should enable them operate at room temperature.

Quantum Move Toward Next Generation Computing
McGill University (05/11/10) Raillant-Clark, William

McGill University (MU) scientists have developed a system for measuring the energy involved in adding electrons to semiconductor nanocrystals, known as quantum dots, which is considered a key step to developing a replacement for silicon-based chips. The researchers developed a cantilever force sensor that enables individual electrons to be removed and added to a quantum dot and the energy involved in the operation to be measured, says MU's Peter Grutter. "This is essential for the development of components that might replace silicon chips in current computers," Grutter says. The technology also could be applied to lighting systems by using nanoparticles to improve their energy efficiency. "We expect this method to have many important applications in fundamental as well as applied research," says MU's Lynda Cockins.

Improved Online Security for a Tenth of the Cost
University of Hertfordshire (05/11/10)

Computer scientists in the United Kingdom are developing a system that would offer a high level of security at one-tenth the cost of existing systems that use special quantum technology. The fiber-optics system would offer security to two online users by broadcasting a continuous stream of information around the communication loop. Access to the information would be limited to users who have a secret key. "It is like using background noise to allow two users to share a secret that no one else knows," says University of Hertfordshire professor Bruce Christianson. The fiber-optics system uses a leak-proof error correction-based protocol to ensure integrity. "Various people have proposed similar ideas in the past, but our system has introduced a novel error correcting scheme, which means we can use cheap fiber-optics technology and make it work at amazingly high transmission rates," Christianson notes.

Bat Studies to Aid Roving Robots
BBC News (05/11/10) Ward, Mark

Researchers at the University of Southampton, Leeds University, and the University of Strathclyde are studying the use of ultrasonic transducers that can be used in small robotic vehicles, which could go to places that are too dangerous for humans. To develop the transducers, the researchers are examining the physiology of echo-locators, particularly bats, and how they structure the sounds they emit to help them navigate. "We're currently looking to apply these methods to positioning of robotic vehicles, which are used for structural testing," says Strathclyde's Simon Whiteley. The robots could use echo-location to spot cracks in the walls of reactors or containment vessels. The researchers also found that overlapping signals enable bats to spot objects that are smaller than the wavelengths of the sounds they produce. Researchers are studying this phenomenon further to see how it can help improve the resolution of sound-based imaging systems. By adapting the sound signals that give bats clues about the texture of an object, researchers could make medical ultrasound systems more sensitive and able to distinguish different tissue types beneath the skin.

Web Science: Exploring the Network Without Guesswork
New Scientist (05/10/10) Thomson, Rebecca

University of Southampton professor Nigel Shadbolt, speaking at a recent conference on the emerging discipline of Web science, says the Internet has become such an important technology that it needs its own field of study. Shadbolt will co-direct, with Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a new Institute of Web Science at Southampton in collaboration with the University of Oxford. Web science needs researchers from a wide range of backgrounds to assess the technical, social, legal, and political forces that are impacting the Web, he says. According to Jim Hendler of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which recently began offering the first undergraduate degree in Web science in the United States, Web science research could be used to quickly model the impact of new technologies. Although there is a financial incentive to understanding and exploiting the Web, Hendler also believes the Web should be studied for its own sake. "A more neutral, scientific view is needed if we are to understand this important force in our society and make sure it provides the services we need," Hendler says.
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Hot New Material Can Keep Electronics Cool
University of California, Riverside (05/10/10) Nealon, Sean

University of California, Riverside (UCR) researchers led by professor Alexander Balandin have developed technology that could keep laptops and other electronics from overheating. Balandin's team found that multiple layers of graphene are easier to make than single atomic layers of the material but still retain its strong heat conducting properties. In addition to experimental measurements, Balandin's team described theoretically how the material's ability to conduct heat evolves when switching from conventional three-dimensional bulk materials to two-dimensional atomically-thin films such as graphene. New approaches to managing heat in electronics include using materials with superior thermal properties, such as graphene, in silicon chips. Graphene is not a replacement for silicon, but could be used in conjunction with it, Balandin says. At first, graphene would be used in niche applications, but eventually it could be used with silicon in computer chips or for applications in ultra-fast transistors for radio-frequency communications, he says.

Optimising Medical Image Acquisition
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (05/04/10) Houlton, Sarah

An intelligent imaging project led by University College London professor David Hawkes has the potential to transform medical imaging by optimizing image acquisition. Hawkes says intelligent imaging uses a predictive model to provide more detailed information from medical image scans. "Our plan is to take a computational model of the microstructure of what we're looking for, such as a computer representation of the growth of the tissue of the abnormal blood supply or the abnormal division of cells, and then couple that with an understanding of how things are going to be moving around from respiration, cardiac motion and so on," he says. The intelligent imaging technique could be used to give a clear image of cancer cells, heart tissue, or brain activity. Hawkes also believes intelligent imaging could be helpful in treatment, such as in high-intensity focused ultrasound. "We want to make extracting that clinically relevant information the driving force behind the whole imaging process," he says.

Sociologists Invade World of Warcraft, See Humanity's Future
Ars Technica (05/09/10) Anderson, Nate

Sociologists are studying and engaging with virtual worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft to gain insights into the makeup and behavior of virtual communities, and are theorizing that such communities are fostering new patterns of intimacy that may be the foundation for future social interaction. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has provided grants to researchers for various virtual community projects and applications. For instance, a Carnegie Mellon University professor received a grant to investigate the underlying factors behind the success and failure of virtual communities. Another NSF grant funded a University of Nevada-Reno professor's effort to produce a prototype Second Life client that would enable vision-impaired players to interact meaningfully with other players. Meanwhile, Indiana University researchers conducted in-game World of Warcraft interviews to learn more about how real intimacy develops in virtual worlds and found that many real-world patterns of intimacy formation are recreated on the virtual stage.

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