Welcome to the November 15, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Chinese Supercomputer Overtakes Jaguar
ZDNet UK (11/15/10) Erica Ogg
China's National University of Defense Technology's Tianhe-1A supercomputer has taken the top ranking from Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Jaguar supercomputer on the latest Top500 ranking of the world's fastest supercomputers. The Tianhe-1A achieved a performance level of 2.67 petaflops per second, while Jaguar achieved 1.75 petaflops per second. The Nebulae, another Chinese-built supercomputer, came in third with a performance of 1.27 petaflops per second. "What the Chinese have done is they're exploiting the power of [graphics processing units], which are...awfully close to being uniquely suited to this particular benchmark," says University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne professor Bill Gropp. Tianhe-1A is a Linux computer built from components from Intel and NVIDIA. "What we should be focusing on is not losing our leadership and being able to apply computing to a broad range of science and engineering problems," Gropp says. Overall, China had five supercomputers ranked in the top 100, while 42 of the top 100 computers were U.S. systems.
U.S. Building Next Wave of Supercomputers
Computerworld (11/12/10) Patrick Thibodeau
Both the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) are building 20-petaflop supercomputer systems that are expected to ready in 2012. The new systems would be much more powerful than today's fastest supercomputers. James Hack, director of ORNL's National Center for Computational Sciences, says their machine will use accelerators to boost performance, but he offered no other details about its design. Lawrence Livermore's machine is being built by IBM and could be eligible for consideration on the June 2012 Top500 list, says LLNL's Don Johnston. Meanwhile, China also is looking to build more powerful supercomputers, and analysts say the global attention of the supercomputing race may raise the profile of the industry and boost government funding. The international supercomputing competition is occurring in conjunction with the development of new architectures and programming models to support exascale systems, which are 1,000 times more powerful than a petascale system. Exascale will have "tremendous implications for human health, biology, and many other fields, too," says ORNL's Jeremy Smith.
Rats to Robots--Brain's Grid Cells Tell Us How We Navigate
Queensland University of Technology (11/12/10) Niki Widdowson
Queensland University of Technology (QUT) robotics researchers have formulated a theory on how the brain combines separate pieces of information to map out familiar environments and navigate them. The theory was prompted by practical improvements that were made to the navigation system of robots that were having problems with some navigational tasks. QUT's Michael Milford says that Norwegian researchers recently discovered new cells in the brains of rats that are arranged in a grid and fire every time a rat is in one of a number of locations. Preliminary evidence also suggests that other animals, including humans, have certain cells that fire only when they are in a certain place. A person who may not be paying attention when exiting an elevator would begin to think he or she is on the second floor when seeing a Coke machine and then a photocopier. "We are postulating that the 'grid cells' help put these two pieces of information together to tell you you're on the second floor," Milford says. "In this study we are able to enhance our understanding of the brain by providing insights into how the brain might solve a common problem faced by both mobile robots and animals."
New Research Provides Effective Battle Planning for Supercomputer War
University of Warwick (11/12/10) Eleanor Lovell
University of Warwick researchers have been studying and comparing the supercomputing systems in China and the United States to provide an analysis that will benefit the battle plans of both sides in an escalating war between two competing technologies. The researchers compared the general-purpose graphics processing units (GPUs) used in China's 2.5 Petaflops Tianhe-1A with the BlueGene supercomputing designs used in the United States. The researchers, led by Warwick professor Stephen Jarvis, used mathematical models, benchmarking, and simulations to determine the likely performance of the computing designs. "In our paper we show that BlueGenes can require many more processing elements than a GPU-based system to do the same work," Jarvis says. The researchers found that small GPU-based systems solved problems between three and seven times faster than traditional CPU-based designs. "Given the crossroads at which supercomputing stands, and the national pride at stake in achieving exascale, this design battle will continue to be hotly contested," Jarvis says.
All Optical Transistor
Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (11/12/10) Bastien Confino
Researchers at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne's Laboratory of Photonics and Quantum Measurements have built a device that acts like an optical transistor. The device makes use of an optical microresonator, which traps light in a tiny glass structure that guides the beam into a circular pattern, and the structure vibrates at well-defined frequencies. When light is injected into the device, the photons exert a force greatly enhanced by the resonator that deforms the cavity and couples the light to the mechanical vibrations. If two light beams are used, the interactions of the two lasers with the mechanical vibrations result in an optical switch in which the strong control laser can turn on or off a weaker probe laser. "We have known for more than two years that this effect was theoretically possible," says Max-Planck Institute scientist Albert Schliesser. Baptized optomechanically induced transparency could enable an optical light field to be converted into a mechanical vibration for the first time, and could have a wide range of applications in telecommunications. Moreover, the switchable coupling could allow researchers to control optomechanical systems at the quantum level.
New Standard for Supercomputing Proposed
Sandia National Laboratories (11/15/10) Neal Singer
Sandia National Laboratories has developed Graph500, a new supercomputing rating system that will be released at the Supercomputing Conference 2010. Graph500 tests supercomputers for their skill in analyzing large, graph-based structures that link the many data points used in biological, social, and security problems. "By creating this test, we hope to influence computer makers to build computers with the architecture to deal with these increasingly complex problems," says Sandia's Richard Murphy. However, Graph500 was not created to compete with the Linpack standard test for supercomputers. "There have been lots of attempts to supplant it, and our philosophy is simply that it doesn't measure performance for the applications we need, so we need another, hopefully complementary, test," Murphy says. The Graph500 benchmark creates a large graph that inscribes and links huge numbers of participants, and a parallel search of that graph. Machines designed to do well on the Graph500 test could be used for problems in cybersecurity, medical informatics, data enrichment, social networks, and symbolic networks. "Many of us on the steering committee believe that these kinds of problems have the potential to eclipse traditional physics-based high-performance computing over the next decade," Murphy says.
Supercomputers 'Will Fit in a Sugar Cube,' IBM Says
BBC News (11/12/10) Jason Palmer
IBM researchers led by Bruno Michel have developed a water-cooling method for creating supercomputer processors that could shrink them to the size of a sugar cube. The approach, called Aquasar, involves stacking many computer processors on top of one another and cooling them with water flowing between each one. Aquasar is almost 50 percent more energy efficient than the world's leading supercomputers, according to IBM. "In the future, the 'Green 500' will be the important list, where computers are listed according to their efficiency," Michel says. The water-cooling system is based on a slimmed-down, more efficient circulation of water that borrows ideas from the human body's circulatory system. "But several challenges remain before this technology can be implemented--issues concerning thermal dissipation are among the most critical engineering challenges facing [three-dimensional] semiconductor technology," Michel says.
China Stakes Its Claim as U.S. Rival in Innovation
Live Science (11/11/10) Jeremy Hsu
China is expected to overtake Japan and the United States in the number of patent filings by next year. Georgia Tech professor Diana Hicks says the country's strong innovation results will be maintained by its continued training of scientists and engineers, improvements to its universities, and support of private research and development. The number of granted Chinese patents has gradually climbed from 2000 to 2006 to 40 percent of patent filings, concurrent with the steady decline of U.S. patent-granting rates to about 50 percent. Hicks points out that each nation has its own patent-granting rates that hinge on the number of patent examiners and the size of the patent office's budget, while each country may issue different kinds of patents that make it tougher or easier for innovators to file. A Thomson Reuters report found that China issues "utility patents," which are intended to be "relatively inexpensive, quick, easy to obtain, and suited to inventions having a short commercial life." No equivalent patent has been established by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The Chinese may be stepping up efforts to secure higher-quality patents, as indicated by the growth in U.S. patents granted to Chinese inventors, which soared from 119 patents in 2000 to 1,655 in 2009.
Cerf Warns Over Address Space Squeeze
Financial Times (11/11/10) Tim Bradshaw; Joseph Menn
Google chief Internet evangelist Vint Cerf is raising the alarm about the effect the impending depletion of Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) addresses will have on the Internet. IPv4 addresses are expected to be gone by next spring, and once that happens it will be difficult to add new users or devices to the Internet, Cerf says. In addition, there are compatibility problems between IPv4 and the Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), which is designed to take its place. That means that there could be connection problems between markets where Internet usage is widespread and growing markets where more new connections will be needed. Cerf is lobbying White House officials to accelerate the U.S. implementation of IPv6. Only a small number of business Web sites, Internet service providers, and routing equipment currently use IPv6, despite the fact that the technical foundations for the protocol have been available for several years. "It's going to be a big problem," Cerf says. "This is the most tumultuous time for the Internet since we launched the thing."
Simulator to Help Airlines Stay Aloft
Swinburne University of Technology (Australia) (11/11/10) Lea Kivivali
Swinburne University researchers are developing a simulator for airline operations controllers designed to help them make better decisions under pressure by simulating airline operations and analyzing controller responses to unplanned flight disruptions. "Airlines will be able to access the simulator Web site via high-speed internet connection and use its real-life scenarios to help select, train, and up-skill their ops controllers," says Swinburne's Peter Bruce. The simulator will be able to determine how many passengers are disrupted and for how many minutes by flight decisions taken, and simulate the cost to the airline of the choices made. Bruce is working with programmers from Swinburne's Faculty of Information and Communications Technologies to develop the simulator, which incorporates factors that operations controllers must consider when making decisions. "You have to be able to make decisions on two different levels concurrently--rational step-by-step ones and intuitive ones which come from experience--and both have to be made very quickly," he says.
Reaching for Sky Computing
International Science Grid This Week (11/10/10) Miriam Boon
Researchers are developing tools to combine independent cloud computing environments to form an architectural concept dubbed sky computing by researchers at the Universities of Chicago (UC) and Florida in a recent paper. "[In the paper] we talked about standards and cloud markets and various mechanics that might lead to sky computing over multiple clouds, and then that idea was picked up by many projects," says UC's Kate Keahey. Inspired by the paper, the Universite de Rennes 1's Pierre Riteau contacted Keahey to explore the sky computing concept further. The researchers used Grid'5000 and FutureGrid, two cyberinfrastructure platforms for large-scale parallel and distributed computing research, to create a heterogeneous environment for testing the sky computing concept. "The biggest challenge was being able to make it go to a large scale, because when you switch from about 30 machines to 1,000, you have a lot of issues that appear, and for this we had to improve some parts of the system," Riteau says. "The fact is that cloud computing created new patterns, and we are having to figure out now how to build tools that will take advantage of those patterns," Keahey says.
Army Avatars Join the Battle for Hearts and Minds
New Scientist (11/10/10) Matt Kaplan
Researchers at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies (USC-ICT) are developing realistic, immersive virtual-reality programs for the U.S. military in which the soldiers are trained by being presented with avatars that behave like the people they will meet in the field. "When two people converse, the speaker influences the listener and the listener influences the speaker, so you have a constant dynamic in action, with a lot of subtle expressions that are influencing that interaction," says USC-ICT's Louis-Philippe Morency. The researchers used software to analyze recordings of 50 people describing to 50 listeners what they had just seen in a video. The software detected nodding in the listener and searched for visual and verbal cues from the speaker. The program resulted in a list of cue combinations that were highly likely to elicit nods. A big hurdle for the researchers is that different cultures evaluate facial gestures in different ways. The researchers are feeding a detailed analysis of such cultural behavioral differences into a training environment known as ELECT-BiLAT, which will be used by soldiers being deployed to Iraq.
R&D Gap Between Advanced, Emerging Economies Narrows: UNESCO
Xinhua News Agency (China) (11/10/10) Tang Danlu
The science/technology gap between emerging and developed economies is closing due to increased research and development (R&D) investment, according to the U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO's) 2010 Science Report. The report says the global financial crisis of 2008 caused R&D investment in advanced economies to decline, while China, India, and Brazil have led the emerging world in catching up to their developed counterparts because the crisis had less of an impact on them. Asia's portion of gross domestic R&D spending rose from 27 percent to 32 percent between 2002 and 2007, while R&D spending fell in the European Union, the United States, and Japan. UNESCO director general Irina Bokova says science and technology players that previously held a dominant position are ceding that leading status to "a multi-polar world with an increasing number of public and private research hubs spreading" to more emerging economies. Still, UNESCO reports that the United States, Europe, and Japan still lead in terms of both patents and favored hubs for researchers and scientists. The bulk of global patent volumes is controlled by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the European Patent Office, and the Japan Patent Office, and their patents are widely considered to be of high quality.
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