Welcome to the September 29, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Census: Women Closing in on Male-Dominated Fields
USA Today (09/29/10) Jack Gillium
Younger generations of women are closing the gender gap in science and business and now account for nearly half of those college majors traditionally dominated by men, according to a USA Today analysis of the latest Census data. In 2009, about 47 percent of science and engineering degree holders ages 25 to 39 were women, compared with 21 percent among those 65 and older. "Larger percentages of these professions are attracting women," says Society of Women Engineers executive director Betty Shanahan. Women make up a majority of graduates in psychology and the biological sciences, but trail in engineering and computer science. "Girls see (engineering) as a very 'white male' profession, which it is, and they don't get messages about how they can balance their personal lives and a very exciting career," Shanahan says. The Census data shows that compared to older generations, women under 40 had greater parity with men in such majors as humanities, business, education, and science. However, gender pay inequities persist, with a woman's median earnings about 78 percent of a man's.
India's Surveillance Plan Said to Deter Business
New York Times (09/27/10) Vikas Bajaj
; Ian Austen
The Indian government's demand that network operators give them the ability to monitor digital communications whenever the Home Ministry decides that it is vital to national security could deter global businesses and keep India from becoming a hub for technology innovation, according to some critics. "If there is any risk to that data, those companies will look elsewhere," says former Canadian ambassador to India Peter Sutherland. The government already has threatened to block encrypted BlackBerry services, but it also wants access to other popular Internet services, such as Skype and Gmail. However, critics say that India's security efforts may not protect the country but instead will violate the privacy of companies and citizens. "The concern of corporate users and general users of BlackBerry is that if this is allowed, the government will become the single biggest repository of information," says Indian technology lawyer Pavan Duggal. The government also has reduced the importation of foreign telecommunications equipment, for fear that it contains malicious software. Meanwhile, other countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia, are trying to implement various Internet security measures similar to India's, as is the United States, which recently proposed new electronic eavesdropping powers.
Technology to Improve Safety in the 'Danger Zone'
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (09/22/10) Joyce Lewis
University of Southampton engineers have spent the past five years working with various research groups on the Autonomous Learning Agents for Decentralized Data and Information Networks (ALADDIN) project, which is developing techniques for building decentralized autonomous systems for dynamic environments. "The ALADDIN project has developed autonomous agents which will make decisions on their own without direct human control and can then interact with other similar autonomous agents to get things done," says Southampton professor Nick Jennings. During the project, the teams employed the ALADDIN algorithms in a situational awareness demonstrator involving weather sensors, a disaster-rescue simulation to show how autonomous agents would operate and communicate in a scenario such as an earthquake, and a building evacuation simulator that used agents to get people in a tower block to safety. "The challenge in practice is to detect whether the information coming from each agent is accurate or to be able to ascertain if it is not reliable," says BAE Systems' Simon Case.
First Improvement of Fundamental Algorithm in 10 Years
MIT News (09/27/10) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers, in collaboration with colleagues at Yale University and the University of Southern California, have demonstrated the first improvement to the maximum-flow (max flow) algorithm in 10 years. The max flow problem calculates the maximum amount of data that can move from one end of a network to another, considering the capacity limitations of the network's links. The researchers' new approach represents a network's graph as a matrix. Each node in the graph is assigned one row and one column of the matrix, with the intersections representing the amount of data that may be transferred between two nodes. The researchers can evaluate the whole graph at once by repeatedly modifying the numbers in the matrix and resolving the equations. "My guess is that this particular framework is going to be applicable to a wide range of other problems," says Cornell University professor John Hopcroft, co-recipient of the 1986 A.M. Turing Award. "When there's a breakthrough of that nature, usually, then, a subdiscipline forms, and in four or five years, a number of results come out."
Saying High-Tech Is a Meritocracy Doesn't Make It So
Huffington Post (09/16/10) Caroline Simard
It is hard to support the assertion that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy that rewards good ideas regardless of gender, writes Caroline Simard, leader of the Anita Borg Institute's research and executive program initiative. Simard cites findings from a 2008 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study that even in meritocratic-oriented environments, women and minorities receive less remuneration for equal performance, and the occurrence of such bias is more probable when individual managers have more discretion. She maintains that this bias is neither deliberate nor purposefully perpetrated by men to marginalize women--and that women are just as likely as men to subscribe to stereotypes about technology and science. Simard chiefly blames the underrepresentation of women in the highest positions of power, especially in male-dominated disciplines. She notes that more than 2,000 women in technology will attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference, which takes place Sept. 28-Oct. 2 in Atlanta. Simard says that conference attendees will network, advance their careers, mentor each other, and present their technical work. In addition, 60 high-tech executives, many of them male, will be on hand to offer solutions for change.
Researcher Builds Machines That Daydream
iTnews Australia (09/22/10) Liz Tay
An effort to develop algorithms that would enable computers to think freely and convey emotions was discussed recently at the World Computer Congress in Brisbane, Australia. Murdoch University professor Graham Mann says intelligent systems should have emotions built into them before they can function. "I believe that it is possible--if we start to model the way human beings reason about things--to achieve much more flexible processing of storylines, plans, even understanding how human beings behave," he says. Mann developed a conceptual parser that enables machines to identify the "feel" of Aesop's Fables. His algorithm was based on Plutchick's Wheel of Emotions, which illustrates emotions as a color wheel and disallows mutually exclusive states from being experienced simultaneously. During testing, the machine freely associated three stories, and said, "I felt sad for the bird," when queried about the association. Mann says the algorithm could be used by entertainment content providers to suggest and deliver rated movies, or by the gaming industry to automatically provide a cultural context for characters.
NSF Urges Lawmakers to Back Use of Better Science Data
Federal Computer Week (09/24/10) Alice Lipowicz
The U.S. House's Research and Scientific Education Subcommittee recently held a hearing on the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) approach to scientific policy. The NSF created the Office of Science of Science and Innovation Policy in 2005 to develop better tools for determining the effect of science policy decisions on science, innovation, and research. NSF, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the National Institutes of Health recently launched the Star Metrics program to measure the effects of federal research spending on innovation, science, and competitiveness. The science of science policy must be able to change direction and cross boundaries, says NSF's Julia Lane. However, she says analysis has been hampered by a lack of agreement on basic definitions and boundaries. Lane says the goals of the Star Metrics program are to improve evidence-based decision-making, build a scientific community to study science, and develop better data. Meanwhile, Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, says the general principles the public understands about the value of scientific research to society is being challenged by the current economic climate.
A Cleaner Printout, With Some Extra Ads
Technology Review (09/27/10) Tom Simonite
Researchers at Hewlett-Packard's (HP's) Multimedia Interaction and Understanding Lab have developed software that extracts the key text and images from online articles and produces a clutter-free printout. "By some statistics, almost half of the printouts on HP's printers come from the Web, but the experience is really terrible compared to office or PDF documents," says HP researcher Parag Joshi. The system also can insert advertisements to match the article's content. Picking the right ads for the printouts involves extracting meaning from the text. "Once we identify the main content, we use machine learning to find matching semantic categories," says HP researcher Sam Liu. The final layout is chosen from a set of templates that arrange an article into columns similar to a news magazine. Unlike similar browser plug-ins such as Readability, the HP system retains relevant images and reformats the page to include new advertisements. The researchers also are a planning a feature that would automatically combine several articles into one printout.
Nokia Touchscreen Creates Texture Illusion
New Scientist (09/28/10) Paul Marks
Nokia has developed a prototype of its N900 smartphone featuring technology that lets users feel the texture of icons on the screen. "The idea is to have everything on a touchscreen give tactile feedback," says Nokia researcher Piers Andrew. The technology is based on the electrovibration effect, in which the feeling of touch is simulated using a metal surface carrying an alternating voltage. Nokia placed a layer of indium oxide next to a layer of hafnium oxide to create the electrovibration effect. Andrew says the technology is a work in progress, and acknowledges that it "is not necessarily the most attractive sensation for some people." Other research groups are exploring similar ideas, and Toshiba is developing electrostatic displays. "Tactile feedback is the most glaringly omitted dimension in touchscreen devices like the Apple iPhone or iPad," says McGill University's Yon Visell. "The device can feel what we're touching, but we can't."
Vigilant Camera Eye
Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology have replicated key aspects of the human eye and brain in a new automated camera system. The researchers say that Smart Eyes' human-like capabilities in identifying and processing moving images could be used to enhance security in public areas and buildings. The system, developed as part of the European Union's Smart Eyes: Attending and Recognizing Instances of Salient Events project, makes use of a fixed surveillance camera that covers a certain area and two ultra-active stereo cameras. The hardware resembles human eyes in that the cameras can fix on and follow various points quickly in succession, but also can zoom in on details. However, the heart of the system is a program that automatically analyzes image sequences by ascertaining the degree of movement of each pixel, identifying the particular active areas of a scene, learning motion patterns and storing them as models, identifying and classifying events, and identifying image patterns. The system picks out salient events and focuses on them using the active stereo cameras.
UI Researchers Design Tool to Improve Wikipedia Accuracy
University of Iowa News (09/23/10) Tom Snee
University of Iowa researchers have developed a tool that detects potential vandalism and improves the accuracy of Wikipedia entries. The tool uses an algorithm to compare new edits to a page with the words in the rest of the entry, alerting a page manager if something does not fit. The researchers tested the tool by reviewing all the edits made to the Abraham Lincoln and Microsoft entries--Wikipedia's two most vandalized pages. The tool reviewed more than 4,000 edits for each entry, and although some are still on the page, most have been deleted and archived. The statistical language model algorithm finds words or vocabulary patterns that are not found elsewhere in the entry. "Experimental results show that our approach can identify both large-scale and small-scale vandalism and is strong in filtering out various types of graffiti and misinformation instances," says Iowa professor Padmini Srinivasan. The algorithm also has the ability to adapt to detect future forms of vandalism. "It learns to recognize changes so it keeps one step ahead of the vandals," says Iowa professor Nick Street.
Video Simulations of Real Earthquakes Made Available to Worldwide Network
Princeton University (09/22/10) Kitta MacPherson
Princeton University researchers have developed ShakeMovie, a system that can quickly produce realistic movies of earthquakes based on computer simulations. The researchers hope that ShakeMovie can help scientists improve their understanding of earthquakes and develop better maps of the Earth's interior. "In our view, this could truly change seismic science," says Princeton professor Jeroen Tromp. During a seismic event, data from seismographs measuring ground motion are collected by a worldwide network of more than 1,800 seismographic stations, which determine the earthquake's location, depth, and intensity. ShakeMovie computes the Earth's motion in three dimensions based on the earthquake data, as well as what is known about the subsurface structure of the region. The program also plugs in data capturing surface motion, including displacement, velocity, and acceleration, and maps it onto the topography of the region around the earthquake. Earthquake simulation movies will be available for download about 1.5 hours after the occurrence of a quake of magnitude 5.5 or greater.
'Secure Zone' Suggested to Counter Computer Threat
Associated Press (09/23/10) Lolita C. Baldor
U.S. computer systems need to be better insulated from cyberattacks without interfering with the public's online activities, says U.S. Cyber Command director Gen. Keith Alexander. He has proposed the creation of a "secure zone" for computer systems covering federal agencies, financial networks, and critical infrastructure. "You could come up with what I would call ... a protected zone, that you want government and critical infrastructure to work in that part," Alexander says. He notes that establishing such a system is "fairly straightforward" from a technical standpoint, while the real problem is ensuring everyone's satisfaction with the scheme and communicating it to the public. Up to 85 percent of U.S. critical infrastructure is controlled by the private sector, and ensuring its protection requires private-public partnerships, Alexander says. He cautions that it could take years to develop an effective cyberdeterrent, and it would require progress in the military's ability to defend its networks and retaliate against the source of cyberattacks. The United States must devise counterattack strategies "that adversaries know we will use if we deem necessary," Alexander says.
Robots Could Improve Everyday Life at Home or Work
Cornell Chronicle (09/21/10) Anne Ju
Cornell University scientists are developing robots that can perform household chores without human intervention. "Just like people buy a car, I envision that in five to 10 years, people will buy an assistive robot that will be cheaper or about the same cost as a car," says Cornell professor Ashutosh Saxena. One of the biggest challenges is enabling robots to learn in uncertain environments. One of Cornell's projects is a robotic arm with a gripper. The robot uses a camera to evaluate an object and determine the best way to grab it. The researchers say the technology will eventually be developed into a dishwasher-loading robot. "Although the objects may differ in appearance, they should share some common grasping patterns, and those patterns have some features that we are looking for," says Cornell's Yun Jiang. Other Cornell researchers are working on a robot that can find a specific object in a cluttered room.
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