Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the July 14, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Carnegie Mellon Launches $7 Million Initiative Using Robots to Boost Science, Technology Majors
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (07/13/10) Spice, Byron

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has launched Fostering Innovation through Robotics Exploration (FIRE), a new initiative that will leverage students' interest in robots to increase U.S. enrollment in computer science majors. FIRE is designed to reverse a significant national decline in the number of college students majoring in computer science, science, technology, engineering and mathematics. FIRE will develop tools that enable middle and high school students to expand on their interests in robots. "The idea is that these programs must be rigorous, but fun--what we call 'hard fun,' " says FIRE director Robin Shoop. The Human-Computer Interaction Institute's Alice Project will work with FIRE to create an Alice Animation Competition designed to increase the number of girls engaged in computer science. The Alice team will collaborate with CMU's Robotics Academy to add virtual worlds to ROBOTC, a programming language that works with many of the educational robotic platforms used in robotics competitions. FIRE also will reach out to national organizations such as the Girl and Boy Scouts, 4H, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to engage more students in activities that prepare them to be future innovators.

Solving the Crisis of Choice Online
ICT Results (07/12/10)

European researchers are developing technology that could solve the "crisis of choice" that people face when shopping online. "There is so much information available today that people often don't know where to find content that interests them," says Alexander Voss, a researcher at Microsoft's European Innovation Center. Voss and his colleagues are developing advanced methods, models, and algorithms that bring personalized recommendations to Web content, interactive TV channel guides, and e-commerce. "We use several types and sources of information to personalize the system's recommendations," Voss says. The system, called MyMedia, also enables content providers to change their parameters to see how the changes affect users' responses to recommendations. The researchers say the technology will help customers of online retailers find media content and other products that interest them. "We're not just looking at choices in terms of yes or no, but also maybe," Voss notes. "Just because someone didn't watch a certain video doesn't mean they wouldn't want to, they simply might not have had the time or felt like it at that moment."

IT Employment Jumps for First Time Since 2008
InformationWeek (07/13/10) Murphy, Chris

The first significant quarterly growth in information technology (IT) employment has occurred since the wave of layoffs in late 2008. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS') quarterly current population survey report shows that IT employment rose an estimated 5 percent during the second quarter. The increase comes as a surprise, considering the overall economy is not creating many jobs, and management and professional jobs overall have been stagnant. IT unemployment is still high at 5.4 percent, with 232,000 IT professionals unemployed. However, more than 4 million IT professionals are now working again, which is the third highest quarterly IT employment figure in the past decade of BLS survey data. Meanwhile, InformationWeek Analytics' recent survey found that companies were beginning to focus on growth-oriented IT projects. Thirty-four percent of 333 U.S. IT leaders were looking to hire for specialized skills, and another 11 percent were looking to hire across many areas.

Robots as the Next Big Industry?
Computerworld (07/14/10) Thibodeau, Patrick

Although a lot of artificial intelligence (AI) research has moved away from robotics, creating algorithms for business intelligence, finance, the Web, and other uses, robotics research has begun to make a comeback. Today, robotics researchers have faster computers, more reliable machinery, and dozens of algorithms that are routinely used in robotic tasks, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Leslie Kaelbling. For example, Brown University's Sarah Osentoski has developed a robot equipped with a computer and camera that enables users to watch their cats via the Web. The Brown University Robotics Lab plans to create a crowdsourcing-like environment to test robotics algorithms over the Web. "Robotics is at a point right now where it is still very preliminary," Osentoski says. Meanwhile, Georgia Institute of Technology's Socially Intelligent Machine Lab, led by professor Andrea Thomaz, has demonstrated a robot called Simon, which has a likeable face and eyes that will turn to look at a user. Thomaz says the lab focuses on developing robots that can interact with humans and learn from them.

Taking Computer Games Into the Future
University of Essex (07/12/10)

Computing experts from the University of Essex, Imperial College, and the University of Bradford are working to make artificial intelligence (AI) smarter, which will make it easier to use and more adaptable for game programmers. The Monte-Carlo Tree Search (MCTS) method will serve as the foundation for the research project, and MCTS has resulted in major advances in the computer version of Go. "For players of video games it has the potential to give [non-player characters] the 'wow factor' as they behave in more human-like and realistic ways, taking the player by surprise with their intelligence and empathy," says professor Simon Lucas, who is leading the project at Essex. Lucas' team is working on a special type of generic AI that can be easily applied and adapted to games. "There are significant challenges to overcome, but the potential for video games is huge," Lucas says.

ECS Releases All Public Data in Open Linked Data Format
University of Southampton (ECS) (07/13/10) Lewis, Joyce

The University of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) recently became the United Kingdom's first university department to release all of its public data in an open, linked data format. This includes data about research papers in the Eprints archive, people in the school, research groups, teaching modules, seminars and events, buildings, and rooms. All public resource description framework data from and is now available and can be reused for any legal purpose, including derivative works and commercial use. "We believe that in the future this will become common practice for certain types of open data, and it is our responsibility to lead the way in setting the standards of best practice," says ECS's Christopher Gutteridge. "This announcement will ensure more data is released in the right format to enable new innovative uses of the information," says Southampton professor Nigel Shadbolt.

Tiny Springs Could Reduce Microchip Waste
Technology Review (07/13/10) Simonite, Tom

Palo Alto Research Center researchers led by Eugene Chow have developed a technique for making computer chips more reliable and less wasteful. The researchers pattern a surface with microscale springs that compress slightly under a chip's weight. The springs form a lasting, secure electronic connection when the two surfaces are glued together. Chow says the spring-approach is designed for the processors used in supercomputers or high-end servers. The chips are combined into multichip modules, a design that accelerates signal transfer when the modules are packed closely together. "Eventually this could be in a high-end cell phone--everyone wants to get more chips into everything, and this can help, because the pitch [the horizontal distance between connections] can be so small," Chow says. The finished spring is coated with a layer of gold for strength and a better electronic connection. Chow says manufacturers can position the electronic springs more accurately than solder, which helps boost computing performance.

UC Robotics Research Set to Transform NZ Horticulture Industry
University of Canterbury (New Zealand) (07/12/10) Green, Richard

University of Canterbury (UC) researchers are developing an intelligent, robotic vision-based pruning system that could save New Zealand's horticulture industry $27.5 million a year. The system will feature vision-based, real-time, three-dimensional modeling, interfaced to multiple high-performance robotic arms with cutters to automate pruning. "Such a fast vision-based pruning system is only possible using recently developed camera technology with efficient cutting-edge computer vision-based tracking and [artificial intelligence (AI)] algorithms," says UC's Richard Green. He says the robotic technology will use AI to recognize plant features and synchronize multiple cameras and high-speed robot arm pruners. The system's immediate application will be vine pruning, but Green says eventually it could be used for general harvesting and pruning in the agriculture industry.

New Research Can Spot Cloud Computing Problems Before They Start
NCSU News (07/12/10) Shipman, Matt

North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers have developed a system that will enable large-scale, computer-hosting infrastructure providers to more accurately predict anomalies and address them before they become major problems. "If you can predict an anomaly, you are able to track the exact conditions that are leading up to a problem, diagnose what is wrong, and put corrective actions into place much more quickly," says NCSU professor Xiaohui Gu. She says the anomalies can lead to slowed response times, lower user capacity, and host failures. The researchers developed a collection of models that examine system activity in a variety of different contexts in order to accurately predict problems. "We were 50 percent more accurate at predicting anomalies than any existing programs, and had an 80 percent lower rate of false alarms," Gu says.

Students, Meet Your New Teacher, Mr. Robot
New York Times (07/10/10) Carey, Benedict; Markoff, John

Robots that can engage people and teach them simple skills are being developed in a handful of laboratories around the world, and are finding use as teaching aids. The most sophisticated models are fully autonomous and directed by artificial intelligence software such as speech recognition and motion tracking. Scientists say innovation is progressing to the degree that these devices should start to learn as they teach. Socially engaging robots such as the University of California, San Diego's (UCSD's) RUBI enable preschool children to score significantly higher on tests, compared with less interactive learning. UCSD neuroscientist Terrence J. Sejnowski observes that making a robot more human-like in appearance does not engender better social interactions, when what matters most is the machine's behavior. He says that subtle elements such as the timing of the robot's response, or its physical rhythm, can go a long way toward facilitating social interaction. Robots that mimic people's movements are seen as particularly engaging with autistic children, as the mimicry appears to cultivate a kind of trust and boost sociability, says University of Connecticut professor Anjana Bhat.
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Scientists Use Computer Algorithms to Develop New Vaccines
University of Miami (07/09/10) Guma-Diaz, Marie

University of Miami computer scientist Dimitris Papamichail, in collaboration with Stony Brook University scientists, have developed an approach to producing vaccines for new strains of the influenza virus. The approach, called Synthetic Attenuated Virus Engineering (SAVE), uses algorithms to design viruses that serve as live vaccines, which are synthesized to specification. "We have been able to produce an entirely novel method to systematically design vaccines using computer algorithms," Papamichail says. The researchers used SAVE to make a synthetic genome of the influenza virus containing hundreds of changes to its genetic code, which enables the synthetic version to elicit an immune reaction against the wild-type virus. Papamichail says the technique features a large safety margin. "The probability of all the changes reverting themselves to produce a virulent strain is extremely unlikely," he says.

Innovation: Shrewd Search Engines Know What You Want
New Scientist (07/09/10) Barras, Colin

Yahoo! researchers have found that by providing search engines with basic demographic information it is possible to boost their chances of identifying user intent correctly. Personal information can be harvested from users who sign up for other services, such as email, that search engines provide. The best way to determine what a person is interested in is to use eye tracking to see what the person looks at on the screen, but analyzing mouse clicks also is effective, say Emory University researchers Qi Guo and Eugene Agichtein. Recent studies suggest that about 70 percent of people use the mouse to help follow text on screen, making cursor tracking an inexpensive way to check how people read a search results page. The Emory researchers built a Web browser add-on that tracks the cursor and tested it on 10 volunteer users, asking them to conduct searches that were either looking for information or for something to buy. The volunteers' mouse movements revealed their intent with 96 percent accuracy. Meanwhile, the University of Washington's John John has developed a system, called Searchaudit, which uses search engines and hackers as guides to malicious sites and forums.
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A to Z of Programming Languages: Smalltalk-80
Computerworld Australia (07/08/10) Hutchinson, James

Much of modern-day programming is based on the Smalltalk-80 programming language, which was co-developed by Alan Kay, widely thought to be the father of the concept of object-oriented programming (OOP). "I think 'real [OOP] design' in terms of protected and interchangeable modules to make highly scalable systems has not been achieved yet, and is desperately needed," Kay says. "However, Smalltalk at its best was only a partial solution." Kay says that during his involvement in Smalltalk's development, a considerable portion of the control domain was not completed, while the overall concepts of what programmers were doing did not get fleshed out as originally intended. Kay does not think that Smalltalk--or any modern programming systems--are appropriate for real-world programming challenges. He believes that the appetite for improving computer programming and engineering is profoundly absent compared to the 1960s. "Academia in particular seems to have gotten very incremental and fad-oriented, and a variety of factors [including non-visionary funding] make it very difficult for a professor and a few students to have big ideas and be able to make them," he says.

Computer Imaging That Aids Science
Harvard University Gazette (07/07/10) Alberti, Angela

The emerging field of visualization uses computer graphics representations to help scientists and others envision, manage, and interact with large quantities of complex data in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Harvard University postdoctoral computer science research fellow Miriah Meyer sees visualization is the marriage of art and science, of new discovery and in-depth learning, of being a sightseer and an architect of new cultures. "As a global community, we have tons of data, whether medical, financial, or from scientific devices," and visualization can be a helpful took in making sense of all that data, Meyer says. She has conducted research involving volumetric data, from MRIs or CT scans, and mapping that data into interactive three-dimensional images for physicians. Her work has enabled doctors to more realistically and interactively see various layers and organs inside the human body. "A huge part of what I do is to get inside the head of researchers to understand what they truly want to see out of their data," Meyer says. She then writes software and designs interactive computer tools that process the data and convert it into interactive images.

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