Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the July 23, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Neurons to Power Future Computers
BBC News (07/23/10)

University of Plymouth computer scientists led by Thomas Wennekers are developing novel computers that mimic the way neurons are built and how they communicate. Neural-based computers could lead to improvements in visual and audio processing. "We want to learn from biology to build future computers," Wennekers says. "The brain is much more complex than the neural networks that have been implemented so far." The researchers are collecting data about neurons and how they are connected in one part of the brain. The project is focusing on the laminar microcircuitry of the neocortex, which is involved in higher brain functions such as seeing and hearing. Meanwhile, Manchester University professor Steve Furber is using the neural blueprint to produce new hardware. Furber's project, called Spinnaker, is developing a computer optimized to run like biology does. Spinnaker aims to develop innovative computer processing systems and insights into the way that several computational elements can be connected. "The primary objective is just to understand what's happening in the biology," Furber says. "Our understanding of processing in the brain is extremely thin."

Data Mining Made Faster
University of Utah (07/22/10) Ferebee, Kate

University of Utah researchers have developed a new multidimensional scaling method that they say enables simpler, faster data mining. "The challenge of data mining is dealing with the dimensionality of the data and the volume of it," says Utah professor Suresh Venkatasubramanian. "What our approach does is unify into one common framework a number of different methods for doing this dimensionality reduction," which simplifies high-dimensional data, he says. Using multidimensional scaling to simplify multidimensional data is an attempt "to reduce the dimensionality of data by finding key attributes defining most of the behavior," Venkatasubramanian says. "Prior methods on modern computers struggle with data from more than 5,000 people. Our method smoothly handles well above 50,000 people." The researchers' new approach uses one set of instructions to perform a wide variety of multidimensional scaling that previously required separate instructions. It can handle large amounts of data because "rather than trying to analyze the entire set of data as a whole, we analyze it incrementally, sort of person by person," Venkatasubramanian says.

Passwords That Are Simple--and Safe
Technology Review (07/19/10) Garfinkel, Simson

Microsoft researchers have developed a new approach to creating passwords that retains the security of complex passwords but does away with their complexity requirements. The method makes sure that no more than a few users can have the same password, which has a similar effect on overall security when employed by organizations with millions of users. The system counts how many times any user on the service chooses a given password, and when more than a small number of users pick a password, it is banned and no one else is allowed to choose it. "Replacing password creation rules with popularity limitations has the potential to increase both security and usability," write Microsoft researchers Cormac Herley and Stuart Schechter in a paper to be published at the upcoming Hot Topics in Security conference. "Since no passwords are allowed to become too common, attackers are deprived of the popular passwords they require to compromise a significant faction of accounts using online guessing."

Protein From Poplar Trees Can Be Used to Greatly Reduce Size of Memory Elements and Increase the Density of Computer Memory
Hebrew University of Jerusalem (07/21/10)

Genetically engineered poplar-derived protein complexes have the potential to increase the memory capacity of future computers. Scientists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have combined protein molecules obtained from the poplar tree with memory units based on silica nanoparticles. The team genetically engineered the poplar protein to develop a hybrid silicon nanoparticle. Attached to the inner pore of a stable, ring-like protein, the hybrids are arranged in a large array of very close molecular memory units. Professor Danny Porath and graduate student Izhar Medalsy have successfully demonstrated the approach. They say genetically engineered poplar-derived protein complexes could lead to systems that would need much less space for memory and functional logic elements. The researchers say the approach to miniaturizing memory elements is cost-effective and could replace standard fabrication techniques.

Predicting Success With NIWA Supercomputer
New Zealand Dominion Post (07/22/10) Chapman, Katie

New Zealand's National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research (NIWA) announced that it has launched the most powerful computer in the southern hemisphere. The new supercomputer can perform 34 trillion calculations a second and can store 5 petabytes on tape. It is 100 times faster and has 500 times more disk space than the current model. NIWA says scientists will use the supercomputer to forecast the impact of severe weather events, such as flooding, storm surge, and inundation; and model climate change, river flow, ocean levels, and wave patterns. In addition, bioengineers at Auckland University will use the supercomputer to create computer models of the human body, which could lead to new approaches to diagnosing and treating patients as well as in developing new medicines. Phase two of the installment will be completed next year, which will double the speed and the disk space of the supercomputer.

Stanford 'Frankencamera' Platform Available on Nokia N900 Ahead of Unveiling at Graphics Conference
Stanford News (07/21/10) Orenstein, David

Stanford University has released Frankencamera, an open source digital photography software platform that enables users to create imaging applications for use on Nokia N900 mobile computers. Stanford professor Marc Levoy says Frankencamera brings computational photography directly to the camera by making it a programmable platform. Levoy developed Frankencamera with Nokia Research Center's Kari Pulli. "The N900 is a camera phone, but it runs a version of Linux almost as complete as that installed on personal computers," Pulli says. "What we're hoping is that if making your camera programmable adds value to the camera that this could shift the entire camera industry." The researchers have received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to use the Frankencamera platform to make single-lens reflex cameras for use by computational photography professors. Levoy says those cameras should be available within a year. Meanwhile, the researchers will demonstrate Frankencamera at the upcoming SIGGRAPH conference, and discuss six apps that were created on the platform.

3-D Gesture-Based Interaction System Unveiled
Fraunhofer FIT (07/21/10)

Fraunhofer FIT has developed a next generation touch system that enables users to interact with objects on a display without making physical contact. The gesture-based system automatically recognizes and interprets the movement of fingers and hands in real time, requires no special gloves or markers, and supports multiple users. The prototype tracks the user's hands in front of a three-dimensional camera, which follows each pixel and determines the length of time it takes light to be filmed traveling to and from the tracked object. As a result, the distance between the camera and the tracked object can be calculated. A special image analysis algorithm filters out the positions of the hands and fingers, says system developer Georg Hackenberg. User testing of the system found that it could be confused by certain elements, such as reflections caused by wristwatches and palms that are positioned orthogonal to the camera. Beyond gaming, "this technology also opens up the potential for new solutions in the range of other application domains, such as the exploration of complex simulation data and for new forms of learning," says Fraunhofer Institute's Wolfgang Broll.

Why Software Startups Decide to Patent ... or Not
O'Reilly Radar (07/21/10) Samuelson, Pamela

The 2008 Berkeley Patent Survey called on 700 software entrepreneurs to determine how software startup firms perceive, use, and are affected by the patent system. The most important reasons for seeking patents are to prevent competitors from copying the innovation, to enhance the firm's reputation, and to secure investment and improve the likelihood of an initial public offering, according to the respondents. The costs of obtaining and enforcing patents were the most frequent explanations as to why a firm would forgo patenting. More than 40 percent of the respondents cited the unpatentability of the invention as a factor in decisions to forgo patenting. The respondents ranked patents last among seven strategies for attaining competitive advantage, according to the survey. They said first-mover advantage was the most important strategy for attaining a competitive advantage. The respondents also said that patents provide only weak incentives for engaging in core activities, such as the invention of new products and commercialization. The initial findings suggest that software entrepreneurs do not find that patents provide strong incentives to invest in technology innovation.

Questions for Microsoft Research's Indrani Medhi
Wall Street Journal (07/22/10) Chang, Arlene

Microsoft Research India associate researcher Indrani Medhi, which Fortune Magazine recently dubbed one of the 50 smartest people in technology in 2010, believes that socio-economic development through technology can improve the quality of life in rural India. She says that being recognized by Fortune "has brought even more responsibility to see that our research actually meets our goals: creating assistance-free PC interaction for first-time, non-literate people, and having meaningful impact among low-literate communities worldwide." Medhi says that text-free user interfaces are design guidelines for computer-human interfaces that will enable any first-time, non-literate person, on first contact with a PC or a mobile phone, to immediately realize useful interaction with minimal or no assistance. Microsoft Research India is conducting a research project called Text-Free UIs, which aims to understand the characteristics of the cognitive styles of those with low-literacy and their implications for user interface design. Based on the research, design recommendations are being developed for non-textual user interfaces for low-literate users that use combinations of voice, video, and graphics.

Twitter Mood Maps Reveal Emotional States of America
New Scientist (07/20/10) Biever, Celeste

Northeastern University researchers spent three years analyzing Twitter messages and found that the West Coast is happier than the East Coast, and across the United States happiness peaks each Sunday morning, with a trough on Thursday evenings. The researchers analyzed all public tweets posted between September 2006 and August 2009. They then filtered them to find tweets that contain words included in a psychological word-rating system called Affective Norms for English Words. They also filtered out tweets from users outside the United States, and from those in the country who did not include their city in their Twitter profile. Each of the remaining 300 million tweets was awarded a mood score based on the number of positive or negative words it contained. Finally, the researchers calculated the average mood score of all the users living in a state hour by hour to create a timed series of mood maps. Because Twitter data is publicly available, mood can be sampled simply and quickly, and at much less cost, than using traditional polling tools, says Carnegie Mellon University's Bryan Routledge.
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A Plane That Lands Like a Bird
MIT News (07/20/10) Hardesty, Larry

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a new control system for a foam glider with a single motor that can land on a perch like a bird. MIT researchers Russ Tedrake and Rick Cory say the control system could improve the maneuverability of robotic planes and enable them to recharge their batteries by landing on power lines. Birds land precisely using a physical phenomenon called stall, and Tedrake and Cory developed their own mathematical model of a glider in stall. For a range of launch conditions, the researchers used the model to calculate sequences of instructions intended to guide the glider to its perch. Cory and Tedrake also developed a set of error-correction controls that could nudge the glider back onto its trajectory when location sensors determined that it had deviated from it. The error-correction controls makes a trajectory look like a tube snaking through space, with the center of the tube acting as the trajectory calculated by the MIT model. Once the glider is launched, it checks its position and executes the command that corresponds to the tube in which it finds itself.

Building Skills That Count
University of Texas at Austin (07/16/10) Fidelman, Laura

The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) has created a supercomputing curriculum designed to teach advanced computing skills to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin. TACC scientists and researchers are teaching students how to make use of special-purpose, high-end computer systems to solve computational problems beyond the capabilities of typical desktop computers. The majority of students have backgrounds in chemistry, biology, computer science, geosciences, mathematics, and physics. The program starts by providing students with the basics of programming in the FORTRAN and C++ computer languages, which dominate supercomputing, and leads to classes in which students write complex programs that run efficiently on supercomputers, including TACC's Ranger supercomputer. Undergraduate students can complete coursework to earn a Certificate of Scientific Computation, while graduate students complete a Portfolio in Scientific Computation.

Advance Made Toward Communication, Computing at "Terahertz" Speeds
Oregon State University News (07/19/10) Stauth, David

Scientists at Oregon State University (OSU), the University of Iowa, and Philipps University in Germany have developed a method for using a gallium arsenide nanodevice as a signal processor at terahertz speeds, which they say is a key advance for optical communication and computing. The method includes a way for nanoscale devices based on gallium arsenide to respond to strong terahertz pulses in an extremely short period, controlling the electrical signal in a semiconductor. "Electrons and wires are too slow, they're a bottleneck," says OSU professor Yun-shik Lee. "The future is in optical switching, in which wires are replaced by emitters and detectors that can function at terahertz speeds." The scientists found that the gallium arsenide devices used in their research can achieve that goal. "We were able to manipulate and observe the quantum system, basically create a strong response and the first building block of optical signal processing," Lee says. The first applications of the technology will likely be in optical communications, but the ultimate application could be quantum computing, Lee says.

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