Welcome to the October 1, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Change to 'Bios' Will Make for PCs That Boot in Seconds
BBC News (10/01/10) Mark Ward
The Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) is set to replace Bios as the dominant PC startup software and could allow computers to start in just seconds. The UEFI Forum, which is overseeing the technology's development, says UEFI will replace Bios in most PCs by 2011. "Conventional Bios is up there with some of the physical pieces of the chip set that have been kicking around the PC since 1979," says UEFI Forum's Mark Doran. "It was never really designed to be extensible over time." AMI's Brian Richardson says that Bios' age was hampering the development of 64-bit computing. "Drive size limits that were inherent to the original PC design--two terabytes--are going to become an issue pretty soon for those that use their PC a lot for pictures and video," Richardson says. He also says that UEFI will boost the development of PC control systems for tablet computers and other portable devices. For example, Doran says UEFI will make it easier for devices to produce keyboard-type information. "The extensible part of the name is important because we are going to have to live with this for a long time," he notes.
Computers to Read Your Body Language?
ICT Results (10/01/10)
European researchers working on the MIAUCE project are developing a range of technologies based on a computer's ability to read human body language. The researchers want to teach computers how humans walk, stand, to understand gestures, and to read facial expressions. "The motivation of the project is to put humans in the loop of interaction between the computer and their environment," says MIAUCE project coordinator Chaabane Djeraba. The researchers have developed prototypes of three applications. The first can monitor the safety of crowds at busy places by installing computers equipped with surveillance cameras to detect situations such as accidents on escalators. The computer decides when the activity becomes abnormal, such as when someone has fallen on an escalator and caused a pileup that needs intervention. The second application monitors how customers behave in shops. "We would like to analyze how people walk around in a shop, and the behavior of people in the shop, where they look, for example," Djeraba says. The third prototype is an interactive Web TV application that enables viewers to select what they want to see. The application involves a user's Webcam monitoring their face to see which part of the screen they are looking at.
In a Computer Worm, a Possible Biblical Clue
New York Times (09/29/10) John Markoff
; David E. Sanger
The presence of the word Myrtus in the code of the Stuxnet worm is being investigated to see if it can shed light on the malware's origin and purpose, with some experts saying it is an allusion to the Book of Esther. The Biblical tale relates the Jews' thwarting of a genocidal Persian plot by a preemptive attack, which has fueled speculation by some specialists that the worm, which targets a specific type of command module for industrial systems, is an attempt to undermine Iran's nuclear enrichment program. Others say the word is misinformation intended to cast suspicion on Israel as the culprit and place pressure on Iran. Stuxnet exploits a Siemens computer that is suspected of being in operation at Iran's uranium enrichment facility, and a decline in operating centrifuges at the plant is considered by some to be a sign of the worm in action. The difficulty experts have had in tracing the source of Stuxnet reflects both the attractiveness and the risk of computer attacks in a new era of cyberwarfare. Malware is appealing to intelligence agencies as a weapon because it leaves no clues to the identity of its perpetrators. However, the lack of traceability makes deterrence difficult, and explains why many have cautioned against the use of cyberweapons.
Feelings by Phone
University of Cambridge (09/29/10)
Computer scientists and psychologists at the University of Cambridge have developed EmotionSense, a system for tracking emotional behavior via smartphones using speech-recognition software and phone sensors. EmotionSense is designed to use a phone's recording tools to analyze audio samples of the user speaking and compare them with an existing speech library. The built-in global positioning system software is used to cross-reference the audio samples with the user's location, and Bluetooth technology and the phone's recording data are used to identify who the user is talking with. The data will enable psychologists to better understand how people's emotions are influenced by their surroundings, the time of day, or their relationships with others. "Everyone has a mobile phone, so potentially they are a perfect tool if you want to track the behavior or emotional condition of large numbers of people," says Cambridge's Cecilia Mascolo. "What we are trying to produce is a completely non-intrusive means of achieving that which also respects privacy."
Google Offers JPEG Alternative for Faster Web
CNet (09/30/10) Stephen Shankland
Google has developed a new format for Web images called WebP, which it says can reduce image file sizes by 40 percent compared to the widely used JPEG format. Like JPEG, WebP is a lossy format, which means it trades image quality for file size but aims to reproduce an image so that it comes as close as possible to the original when viewed by human eyes. "When we took a bunch of images, recompressed them from their current lossy formats into WebP, we saw on average about 40 percent decrease in size, which is staggering," says Google researcher Richard Rabbat. Google plans to release a utility to convert graphics into WebP images, and eventually plans to build WebP directly into Google's Chrome browser. However, encoding WebP images takes about eight times longer than JPEG and decoding them takes slightly less than twice as long, Rabbat says. It also could be tough to compete with JPEG. Previous efforts to promote better Web graphics formats have had little impact, and Rabbat acknowledges that "the challenges are tremendous."
Smartphone Apps Harvest, Spread Personal Info
Penn State Live (09/29/10) Andrea Messer
Researchers at Penn State and Duke universities have found that publicly available cell phone applications are releasing consumers' private information to online advertisers. The researchers developed a realtime monitoring service called TaintDroid that analyzes how private information is obtained and subsequently released by smartphone applications. In a study of 30 popular applications, TaintDroid found that 15 send users' geographic location to remote advertisement servers. The study also found that seven of the 30 apps send a unique hardware identifier, the phone number, and SIM card serial number to developers. "The cases we found were suspicious because there was no obvious way for the user to know what happened or why," says Penn State's William Enck. The researchers note that applications rarely provide privacy policies that state how users' information will be used, and users have no way of knowing where applications send that information.
Breakthrough in Quantum Computing
University of New South Wales (09/28/10) Peter Trute
A team led by engineers and physicists at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has developed a single electron reader to measure the spin of an electron in silicon in a single-shot experiment. The reader represents a breakthrough in the development of a quantum computer, which needs to change the spin state of individual electrons as well as measure the change to form a qubit. UNSW's Andrea Morello and Andrew Dzurak led the team, which included researchers from the University of Melbourne and Aalto University. "Our device detects the spin state of a single electron in a single phosphorus atom implanted in a block of silicon," Morello says. "The spin state of the electron controls the flow of electrons in a nearby circuit."
Computer Graphics to Help Streamline Green Building Design
Cornell Chronicle (09/29/10) Anne Ju
Cornell University researchers are developing simulation software that streamlines the process of making buildings meet sustainability requirements, which will enable architects to employ environment-conscious design principles from the start. The three-dimensional simulation tool lets architects include information such as temperature, the behavior of light, and total energy use at the beginning of the design process, factors that should help cut down on the expense of consultation and the labor of going back to change a building's design, says Cornell professor Don Greenberg. "You can have the greatest impact in the early stages of the design process," Greenberg says. "You can make the big changes and see where it's going." Cornell professor Kevin Pratt says the key to sustainable design is tightly coupling a building to its environment, and that the simulation program makes it possible for designers to immediately understand all aspects of the building environment and reduce its carbon footprint.
EU Losing the Race to Fund IT Research
IDG News Service (09/27/10) Jennifer Baker
The European Union is falling behind in funding and fostering research, said Neelie Kroes, the European Commission's (EC's) digital agenda commissioner, speaking at the recent ICT 2010-Digitally Driven conference. In the past three decades, the EC has invested 20 billion euros in information technology (IT) research, making Europe responsible for 25 percent of the global IT market. Worldwide IT research has resulted in venture capital investment, patents, and high-wage employment. Several IT projects were on display at the conference, including BeAware, which has created wireless sensors to measure how much energy is used by household appliances. The Solid State Lighting project has developed organic light-emitting diodes that are five times more efficient than conventional lighting. Other projects included Presenccia and Playmancer, which are virtual technology solutions that could help people with physical or mental disorders. Also demonstrated at the conference were Kompai and iCub, intelligent robots designed to assist ill, disabled, or elderly people.
Researchers Say Web Searches Are Good Predictors of Success
PhysOrg.com (09/29/10) Lin Edwards
Web searches are an indicator of the success of movies, games, and songs, according to a Yahoo! research group. The researchers collected data on the number of Web searches made on movies, games, and songs up to six weeks before their release, and compared the information to measures of success such as box office grosses and video game sales. They also compared the Web search data with traditional prediction indicators such as movie reviews, production budgets, critics' ratings, previous rankings on Billboard charts, and the Hollywood Stock Exchange. Although the study found that traditional predictors were generally better, Web search data outperformed traditional predictors in the area of non-sequel video games. However, combining Web search data and traditional data resulted in the most accurate predictions. Web search data also is very useful when there is a sudden change in trends. Lead researcher Sharad Goel believes Web search data will become a key analysis tool as long as it remains available from search engines.
Flying Robot Swarm Takes Off
Wired News (09/27/10) Olivia Solon
The Ecole Polytechnic Federale de Lausanne is experimenting with flying robots that would create a communications network for rescuers in disaster areas. Researchers involved in the Swarming Micro Air Vehicle Network project have equipped 10 flying robots with autopilot capabilities to control altitude, airspeed, and turn rate, and have designed a microcontroller that uses three sensors--a gyroscope and two pressure sensors. The robots have a global positioning system module for logging flight journeys, and the swarm controllers running Linux are connected to an off-the-shelf USB Wi-Fi dongle. Army ants serve as the inspiration for the way the flying robots lay and maintain communications pathways between a base node and users in the environment. Deployed as node micro air vehicles (MAVs), the flying robots spread out to create a grid for depositing and detecting virtual pheromone through local communication. And as ant MAVs, the robots travel along this grid until they reach an unoccupied position, which then becomes a node MAV, to extend the grid until there is a connection with the target user in the environment.
Semiconductor Could Turn Heat Into Computing Power
OSU News (09/27/10) Pam Frost Gorder
Ohio State University researchers Joseph Heremans and Roberto Myers are combining the fields of spintronics and thermoelectronics to create a new hybrid technology called thermospintronics, which uses a semiconductor material called gallium manganese arsenide to convert heat into electronic spin. After further development, thermospintronics could enable integrated circuits that run on heat instead of electricity. A possible application of thermospintronics involves a device sitting on top of a traditional microprocessor and directing waste heat away to run additional memory or computations. The researchers studied how heat can be converted to spin polarization, an effect called the spin-Seebeck effect, which was first identified by Tohoku University researchers using a piece of metal instead of a semiconductor. "We've proven we can get the same results as the Tohoku group, even when we take the measurements on a sample that's been separated into two pieces, so that electrons couldn't possibly pass between them," Heremans says.
In The World: Health Care in the Palm of a Hand
MIT News (09/27/10) Morgan Bettex
Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have developed Sana, an open source-based system that uses mobile devices to improve health-care access in developing countries. Sana relies on Google's Android operating system to connect health-care workers in rural regions with physicians in urban areas. Sana enables workers to collect patient data, including pictures and videos, and send it via a text message to an electronic database. "What makes Sana unique is that the solution development and implementation is a shared responsibility with local stakeholders, which ensures sustainability," says World Health Organization program manager Getachew Sahlu. Sana is one of several mobile-health systems aimed at the developing world, including ChildCount+, an application designed to improve child survival and maternal health using text messages to coordinate community health-care workers. Another program, Click Diagnostics, focuses on the implementation of mobile-health software instead of software design.
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