Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the July 19, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


15 Nations Agree to Start Working Together to Reduce Cyberwarfare Threat
Washington Post (07/17/10) Nakashima, Ellen

After several unsuccessful attempts, the United States and 14 other nations have reached an agreement that aims to reduce the threat of cyberattacks on their computer networks. The agreement calls for the United Nations to create a set of standards that outline what types of behavior are acceptable on the Internet. In addition, the agreement calls for the signatories--including China and Russia--to exchange information with one another on national legislation and cybersecurity strategies and take steps to help less developed countries protect their information technology networks. Although the signatory countries are not required to abide by the provisions of the agreement, an Obama administration official called it a step forward. Council on Foreign Relations cyberwarfare expert Robert K. Knake says the agreement significantly alters U.S. posture and is part of the White House's strategy of diplomatic engagement.

Europe's First Mobile Robotic Bin-on-Call
ICT Results (07/19/10)

Researchers working on the European Union-funded DustBot project have built a robot for on-demand trash collection that is well suited for use in the historic centers of many European cities and towns. The researchers say that these locations are often a web of streets that are narrow, pedestrianized, or otherwise inaccessible to vehicles, but the robot can navigate the narrowest of alleys to remove trash right from a resident's door. DustBot project coordinator Paolo Dario says the robot, called DustCart, is mounted with cameras and other sensors designed to help it avoid collisions, and it uses a triangulation system to navigate its way to homes. DustCart has three levels of intelligent control--autonomous, built-in systems including motion sensing, obstacle avoidance, and user-interface functions; the ambient intelligent environment, which supervises the robot; and the human control center, which monitors operations but only intervenes in an emergency. "We've taken the very best and most advanced robotics components to build DustCart, which solves a very real problem for waste authorities across Europe," Dario says. "Yes, it is a bin on wheels--there's the drawer in which you place your bag of rubbish or recycling--but there's a lot more to the robot than that."

Friday's PCAST Meeting: Science Envoys, Health IT, STEM Education
Computing Community Consortium (07/18/10) Gianchandani, Erwin; Hensel, Chase

The Science Envoys program could be an effective tool for diplomacy, say Bruce Alberts, Elias Zerhouni, and Ahmed Zewail, founding member of the program. Speaking at the July 2010 meeting of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), the scientists said a "focus on capacity building," in which foreign nations are taught to teach themselves, rather than taking technologies to them, would help improve diplomatic relations. The envoys noted that developing nations trail the United States in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, adding that there is currently a global shortage of 10 million teachers, and science education per capital continues to decline each year. Meanwhile, during the session on health information technology, the panel said the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT within the Department of Health and Human Services should be charged with advocating and promulgating standards for the exchange and privacy of secure electronic health information. Also, PCAST members evaluating STEM described how new technology could be used to advance education, and envisioned the creation of deeply digital materials such as interactive simulations, videos, and built-in tutors.

Women Getting Ahead in IT Through Qualifications and Training (07/16/10) Neal, David

The majority of respondents to a Women in Technology survey of female information technology (IT) professionals said that taking training courses or earning qualifications had the most benefit for their careers. Another 15 percent of respondents said that changing jobs had the biggest impact on their careers, while 7 percent cited being self-employed, going overseas, or establishing a business. Less than 7 percent of those surveyed said networking and mentoring had the biggest impact on their careers. The survey also found just 14 percent of respondents currently have a mentor or have had one at some point in their careers. Women in Technology's Maggie Berry says more female IT professionals should try to obtain a mentor, and she notes that there has been an influx of senior female IT leaders, which is encouraging more women to sign up for such roles. "IT has typically been seen as a boys' club, but things are definitely changing and this belief is almost a stereotype these days," Berry says. "We are seeing more and more successful females in the IT sector, and this will continue in the future."

Pitting Cloud Against Cloud
Technology Review (07/16/10) Simonite, Tom

Duke University computer scientists Xiaowei Yang and Ang Li have led an effort to develop software that enables developers to compare different cloud computing platforms on how fast they perform calculations, retrieve data, or respond to a sudden spike in demand. Yang and Li, working with Microsoft Research's Srikanth Kandula and Ming Zhang, built the suite of benchmarking tools for measuring the performance of cloud platforms without having to move applications between them. The tools use algorithms for measuring the speed of computation, the speed at which new copies of an application are created, the speed at which data can be stored and retrieved and then shuttled between applications inside the cloud, and the responsiveness of a cloud to network requests from distant places. "We are building a Web site where people will be able to download the software we used and see the results of the benchmarks," Yang says. The researchers are now working on a more sophisticated way to test cloud services. This software would capture the performance of an application when running on a local server and create a dummy version of it on several clouds to compare how they hold up.

Brussels: We Can Make the Trains Run on Time
London Daily Express (United Kingdom) (07/16/10)

Advanced software has prompted the European Commission to promise that trains will run on time. According to Brussels, new algorithms for calculations and data processing enable trains to be scheduled more efficiently, and disruptions can be handled with no reduction in safety. A dozen universities and the French rail company SNCF took part in the Arrival research project, which sought to optimize planning and avoid the domino effects of traffic disruption. The program can handle all aspects of railway management from train timetables, platform allocations, and staff distribution to dealing with disruptions as they happen, rerouting, and rescheduling. The system has made the Dutch rail network one of the most efficient in Europe, halved the average waiting times underground in Germany, and reduced delays at Palermo and Genoa, Italy, by 25 percent. "This first-class European research allows more passengers, more freight and goods on more trains to safely use the same infrastructure with increasing punctuality, passenger satisfaction, and operator profit," says the European Commission's Neelie Kroes.

Small Wires Make Big Connections for Microelectronics
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (07/15/10) Ahlberg, Liz

University of Illinois professor Min-Feng Yu and graduate student Jie Hu have developed a direct-writing method for manufacturing metal interconnects that could shrink integrated circuits and expand microelectronics. The direct-write technique creates tiny pure metal wires smaller in diameter than traditional wires and that need two orders of magnitude less bonding area. "This technique means the pads can be much smaller than what's needed for traditional wire-bonding technology," Yu says. The reduction in area could allow manufacturers to produce more chips per wafer of semiconductor material and enable more complex integrated functions in microelectronics. The process also is automated, which could help produce arrays of micropipettes to make wire bonds in bulk for more efficient manufacturing. Beyond wire bonds, Yu says the technique could be used to make a variety of metal microstructures.

Q&A: Professor of Computer Science Nick Jennings
Computing (07/15/10) Sumner, Stuart

University of Southampton computer science professor Nick Jennings uses agent-based computing to build systems out of autonomous agents that are responsive to their environment and can make their own decisions. For example, Jennings says agents can represent different parts of the supply chain. They can be used to structure the interactions and then enable users to determine how to use the system. Jennings and his research team conducted a feasibility study to examine the supply chain associated with engine aircraft repair and overhaul in conjunction with end users at Rolls-Royce. The various actors within the system, each with their own aims and objectives, were represented as autonomous software agents that interacted in online markets to procure goods and services. Jennings says that through its continual adaptation in response to change, the resulting computational economy could offer significant advantages to all its participants in terms of agility, lead times, and profitability. He notes that agents also can represent collaborations of users and form a team, called a virtual power plant.

Study: Skilled Immigrants Boost U.S. Innovation
Chicago Journals (07/14/10) Stacey, Kevin

Highly skilled temporary immigrants boost technological innovation in the United States without displacing U.S.-born workers, according to a study by Harvard Business School's William Kerr and the University of Michigan's William Lincoln. The study examined fluctuations in the number of immigrants admitted into the U.S. under the H-1B visa program and found that the number of U.S. patent applications filed by people with Chinese and Indian names increased substantially in cities and firms dependent on the program when more H-1B visas were issued. Additionally, the study found that the number of patent applications being filed by people with Anglo-Saxon names did not change. "We conclude that total invention increased with higher [H-1B] admissions primarily through the direct contributions of immigrant inventors," write Kerr and Lincoln. "We are also able to rule out displacement [of native workers]."

Researchers Create Sounds of Animated Things Breaking
Cornell Chronicle (07/14/10) Steele, Bill

Cornell University (CU) researchers are developing technology to synthesize the sounds that correspond with computer-animated images of materials being broken. The CU method examines the computer graphic model that underlies the animation, determines how the real object would vibrate when broken, and how that vibration would create sound. "We won't just compute motion and appearance and have the sound as something you bolt on afterward," says CU professor Doug James. Research shows that the sound comes mainly from the way all of the pieces vibrate immediately after the initial break. The program calculates how each shard would vibrate by taking into account how far the object was dropped or thrown to determine the amount of energy available. The system uses preloaded "soundbanks," computer routines for calculating the vibration of ellipsoids of different sizes and materials. To demonstrate the results, the researchers created videos of various objects breaking, including a wine glass, a dinner plate, a glass table covered in dinnerware, and a piggy bank filled with coins.

Five Reasons Why China Will Rule Tech
Computerworld (07/09/10) Thibodeau, Patrick

China's relentless focus on science and technology could ultimately lead it to become the world leader in technology. In China, the labor pool is getting increasingly sophisticated, the leadership is focused on innovation, and the country is adopting policies to pressure U.S. firms into transferring their technology. The country's focus on science and technology may be unstoppable for five reasons. First, China's leadership understands engineering, with eight of the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau holding engineering degrees. Additionally, China's leadership is striving to out-innovate the U.S., which translates to more money invested in technological innovations, from supercomputers to nanotechnology. Third, China's science and technical talent pool is vast. Another boon for the Chinese innovation movement is that just 3 percent of all ninth-grade students in the United States will eventually earn an undergraduate degree in science or engineering. Finally, China is getting almost all of the U.S.'s technology and succeeding in creating what it calls an indigenous innovation policy. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke says the policy is designed to encourage technology transfer and force U.S. companies to transfer their research operations to China in exchange for access to its markets.

New Project Enables Mobile Phone Use in Areas With No Reception (07/14/10) Edwards, Lin

Mobile phones will work in areas that have no telephone infrastructure, or where it has been destroyed by natural disaster or civil unrest, using a new system developed by Australian scientists. The system makes use of a temporary, self-organizing, and self-powered mobile phone network designed specifically for disaster areas. The network operates via small phone towers dropped into the area by aircraft. It also can be combined with a permanent mesh-based phone network between Wi-Fi-enabled mobile phones, with no tower infrastructure required. The system uses open source software, called Distributed Numbering Architecture, that allows cell phones to make and receive calls on their existing numbers. Integrated with the mesh network, the software turns each phone into an independent router. The device essentially "incorporates a compact version of a mobile phone tower into the phone itself," says Flinders University's Paul Gardner-Stephen. The researchers successfully tested the system in remote areas of the Flinders Ranges, and plan to improve its range beyond a few hundred meters as well as the sound quality. The goal is to provide fast, cheap, robust, and effective telecommunications systems for remote areas.

UF's ‘SubjuGator' Begins Competing Today in Robo-Sub Contest
University of Florida News (07/14/10) Hoover, Aaron

A University of Florida (UF) engineering team is among 22 groups that recently began competing in the 13th annual International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition in San Diego. The UF team's robot, called Subjugator, has won the competition three times, but not since 2007, says UF's Machine Intelligence Laboratory associate director Eric Schwartz. "We completely redesigned the software and the control systems, and in the process we redesigned quite a bit of the electronics," Schwartz says. SubjuGator is a small, shallow-water robot submarine that features two high-performance computers, six thrusters, and sensors that help it to determine its position, navigate toward or around obstacles, and identify targets. "Our submarine this year is perhaps the most contemplated design we have ever had," Schwartz says. He notes that robotic submarines have numerous applications, including monitoring the water for oil contamination, patrolling border waters, or inspecting the hulls of ships for bombs or nearby mines.

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