Welcome to the November 22, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
HPC Experts Look Past Petaflop to the Exascale
Network World (11/18/10) Jon Brodkin
At SC10, the annual supercomputing conference, high-performance computing (HPC) experts debated whether the industry will reach an exaflop by 2020, and if the achievement will be worth the expense, which could exceed $1 billion. The experts agreed that the industry can reach exascale within 10 years, but that it could end up being too specialized to solve a broad range of issues. Exascale machines could help researchers cure diseases, improve climate research, and upgrade the ability to respond to natural and man-made disasters, according to some scientists on the panel. However, politics could stand in the way of reaching exascale computing. "Let me be blunt, [the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] doesn't seem to have any interest at this point in exascale," says the University of Illinois' Marc Snir. One big problem with future exascale systems will be power management, says the University of Notre Dame's Peter Kogge. HPC researchers may want to work with smartphone manufacturers, which are concerned with battery life, says Microsoft's Burton Smith. In addition, supercomputers might not be as useful as their measured speed indicates if data management is not handled efficiently, says the San Diego Supercomputer Center's Allan Snavely. He says there should be "envelopes of usefulness around machines" that apply to several different applications. The envelopes of usefulness would describe attributes such as memory operations and other measures that would determine whether a computer can be used for a particular application.
Silicon's Long Good-Bye
Technology Review (11/19/10) Katherine Bourzac
University of California, Berkeley researchers have created a fast, low power, nanoscopic transistor made out of a compound semiconductor material that overcomes silicon's limitations in computer chip development. Compound semiconductor materials are often fragile and expensive, "which is only okay where cost doesn't matter," says Berkeley professor Ali Javey. However, the researchers say that these hurdles can be overcome by growing compound semiconductor transistors on top of a supportive indium-arsenide wafer. The new transistors perform as well as compound-semiconductor transistors made from more complex materials and methods, Javey says. The indium-arsenide transistors are eight times more responsive to changes in voltage than silicon transistors. "Given how these devices were prepared, this performance is quite impressive," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Dmitri Antoniadis. The Berkeley research demonstrates that the indium-arsenide transistors perform well when shrunk to the nanoscale, says Intel's Michael Mayberry.
AT&T Ups the Ante in Speech Recognition
CNet (11/18/10) Marguerite Reardon
AT&T says it has devised technologies to boost the accuracy of speech and language recognition technology as well as broaden voice activation to other modes of communication. AT&T's Watson technology platform is a cloud-based system of services that identifies words as well as interprets meaning and contexts to make results more accurate. AT&T recently demonstrated various technologies such as the iRemote, an application that transforms smartphones into voice-activated TV remotes that let users speak natural sentences asking to search for specific programs, actors, or genres. Most voice-activated remotes respond to prerecorded commands, but the iRemote not only recognizes words, but also employs other language precepts such as syntax and semantics to interpret and comprehend the request's meaning. AT&T also is working on voice technology that mimics natural voices through its AT&T Natural Voices technology, which builds on text-to-speech technology to enable any message to be spoken in various languages, including English, French, Italian, German, or Spanish when text is processed via the AT&T cloud-based service. The technology accesses a database of recorded sounds that, when combined by algorithms, generate spoken phrases.
World's First Ice Touchscreen Virtually Burns
New Scientist (11/18/10) Paul Marks
Nokia researchers have built a computer touchscreen using a block of ice. The researchers say the screen is a step toward a world in which all sorts of surfaces can have computing capabilities. Nokia's Antti Virolainen says hey used digital projection technology to make the ice block interactive. The ice screen uses rear-diffused illumination, which was first developed by Microsoft in its table-based Surface touchscreen. The technology works with a near-infrared light source and near-red cameras. Users place a hand on the ice, which reflects the light toward the cameras and sends a signal to a computer that analyzes the hand's position, size, and motion. The PC is linked to a projector, which projects imagery under the user's hand. "New forms of interaction, sensing, and content delivery for future mobile devices could come out of it," says Nokia's Jyri Huopaniemi.
IBM, Intel Question Key Top500 Supercomputer Metric
Computerworld (11/18/10) Joab Jackson
Researchers at IBM and Intel are questioning the methods by which the supercomputing Top500 list is compiled. "The Top500 [uses] an artificial problem--it doesn't measure about 80 percent of the workloads" that are usually run on supercomputers, says Intel's John Hengeveld. The main problem that some researchers have with the Top500 list is the single metric used to measure the supercomputers, called Linpack. It is hard to determine the actual application speed from the current benchmark, according to an attendee at the Top500 awards ceremony. Linpack is best suited to measure the computational power of a machine, especially in solving linear equations. However, the metric is not very good at estimating the memory performance of a supercomputer, which is an important part of many data-styled problems, Hengeveld says. Another drawback is that Linpack does not measure reliability, says IBM's Dave Turek. In recent years, many researchers have developed new metrics for measuring supercomputers, such as Virginia Tech's Green500, which measures energy efficiency, and the new Graph500, which measures performance for data-intensive applications.
Georgia Tech Researchers Design Machine Learning Technique to Improve Consumer Medical Searches
Georgia Tech News (11/17/10) David Terraso; Matt Nagel
Georgia Tech (GT) researchers have developed a machine-learning model that enables medical Web sites to learn dialect and medical terminology. The system, called dialect topic modeling (diaTM), learns by comparing several medical documents with contrasting levels of technical language. After collecting enough data, the system can learn which medical conditions, symptoms, and procedures are associated with certain terms. DiaTM aims to minimize the language gap between patients and the medical databases they use to find answers to medical questions. "Providing a solution for this domain will have a high impact on maintaining and improving people's health," says GT professor Hongyuan Zha. The researchers taught the program using publicly available documents from Web sites such as WebMD, Yahoo! Answers, PubMed Central, and the U.S. Center for Disease Control's Web site. The researchers found that diaTM can achieve a 25 percent improvement in normalized discounted cumulative gain, which indicates the relevance of information retrieval in a Web search. The program can be used for many other types of topic-related searches and is not limited to the medical field.
Social Networking Extends Mobile Battery Life
Researchers at the University of Zagreb, Crotia, are developing a new approach to social networking for mobile devices that is based on the context and preferences of users. The approach would provide a richer and faster experience for users, boost mobile battery life by up to 70 percent, and reduce the bandwidth burden of telecommunications providers. The researchers have developed middleware to sit between telecommunications providers and users. The system works through serendipitous cooperation, via more energy-efficient Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, between users close to each other in an urban environment. The MAgNet middleware enables telecommunication companies to create an overlay network, or social network, on top of the network of users physically situated in a mobile network environment and using mobile devices. "The system identifies mobile users near each other who are interested in the same multimedia content," says Zagreb Podobnik. "Each mobile user would download only a part of the requested content from the mobile network and then share it with other users in their locale via an ad hoc Bluetooth or Wi-Fi network." The researchers say that three proof-of-concept services prove that software agents would provide an adequate solution for implementing the middleware.
Caltech Physicists Demonstrate a Four-Fold Quantum Memory
California Institute of Technology (11/17/10) Jon Weiner
California Institute of Technology (Caltech) researchers have developed a method of quantum entanglement for a quantum state stored in four spatially separate atomic memories. The Caltech team also demonstrated a quantum interface between the memories, similar to a computer hard drive for entanglement, and four beams of light, which allows the photon distribution of four-fold entanglement across quantum networks. The research, led by professors William L. Valentine and H. Jeff Kimble, could lead to the development of quantum networks that can complete simple quantum logic operations. The Caltech team used lasers to cool four groups of about 1 million Cesium atoms to within a few hundred millionths of a degree above absolute zero. Each group of atoms has a representative spin wave that the research team was able to entangle among the four atomic ensembles. The team's findings could be used for studying the entangled spin waves in quantum magnets, according to the researchers. "Our work introduces new sets of experimental capabilities to generate, store, and transfer multipartite entanglement from matter to light in quantum networks," says Caltech's Kyung Soo Choi.
New Device Could Give Boost to Renewable Energy
UT Dallas News (11/18/10) David Moore
University of Texas at Dallas professor Babak Fahimi has developed a prototype electronic interface for routing renewable energy sources to the power grid and electrical storage facilities. Fahimi says that developing mechanisms for integrating control of energy harvesting, storage, and dispatch has been a key challenge of producing such technology. "Our Multi-Port Power Electronic Interface guarantees optimal energy harvesting from solar panels and wind turbines," he says. "This converter utilizes an adaptive controller to optimally increase efficiency and reliability for each operational condition while performing energy management algorithms to ensure the best performance." The converter works in remote areas because it can be controlled monitored wirelessly. Fahimi also says it would be ideal for use by small to medium-sized businesses, large residential buildings, and shopping centers that want to invest in renewable energy. He plans to conduct field tests in Texas and California in early 2011.
Effort Seeks to Diversify Cyber-Security Field
Missouri S&T News (11/16/10)
The Missouri University of Science and Technology (MST) is working with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) to develop a new undergraduate program designed to increase the number of women and minorities in the cybersecurity industry, which currently make up just 3 percent to 5 percent of the cybersecurity workforce. The universities have created a three-semester program for UAPB computer science undergraduate students interested in information assurance, which studies methods for improving network security. Students that complete the Southern Arkansas Information Assurance (SAIA) program will receive an information assurance minor. SAIA graduates can apply at MST for a master's or Ph.D. in computer science with an emphasis on information assurance. The program is funded through a $115,000 U.S. National Security Agency grant. UAPB is the only public university in Arkansas designated as a Historically Black College and University, making it "a conduit to get more African Americans into the information security work force," says Missouri S&T professor Bruce McMillin.
Forecast for Cybersecurity Bills Looks Cloudy in Reconvened Congress
NextGov.com (11/15/10) Dawn Lim
Uncertainty surrounds the approval of three cybersecurity bills in a reconvened Congress, given U.S. lawmakers' indecision on how to garner industry support, says Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.). She expects little action on the three bills in the lame-duck session, which means the government will still have no clear legislative mandate on which agencies are responsible for cybersecurity and the degree to which private companies should be regulated. Under the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, the president would be empowered to declare a national cyberemergency and issue crisis directives, and bring the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Computer Emergency Response Team to the vanguard of coordinating information sharing between the public and private sectors. Meanwhile, a lack of consideration for business subtleties underlies congressional disagreement over the 2009 Cybersecurity Act, which urges a testing and accreditation protocol for software the federal government and contractors employ, as well as a coordinated system to license security professionals. Clarke says the GRID Act, which is designed to deter an implosion of the U.S. electric grid, also is unlikely to pass.
What If We Used Poetry to Teach Computers to Speak Better?
McGill University (11/17/10)
McGill University linguistics researcher Michael Wagner is studying how English and French speakers use acoustic cues to stress new information over old information. Finding evidence of a systematic difference in how the two languages use these cues could aid computer programmers in their effort to produce more realistic-sounding speech. Wagner is working with Harvard University's Katherine McCurdy to gain a better understanding of how people decide where to put emphasis. They recently published research that examined the use of identical rhymes in poetry in each language. The study found that even when repeated words differ in meaning and sound the same, the repeated information should be acoustically reduced as otherwise it will sound odd. "Voice synthesis has become quite impressive in terms of the pronunciation of individual words," Wagner says. "But when a computer 'speaks,' whole sentences still sound artificial because of the complicated way we put emphasis on parts of them, depending on context and what we want to get across." Wagner is now working on a model that better predicts where emphasis should fall in a sentence given the context of discourse.
How Wise Are Crowds?
MIT News (11/16/10) Larry Hardesty
A new paper from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) demonstrates that as networks of people grow larger they tend to converge on an accurate understanding of information distributed amongst them. "What this paper does is add the important component that this process is typically happening in a social network where you can't observe what everyone has done, nor can you randomly sample the population to find out what a random sample has done, but rather you see what your particular friends in the network have done," says Cornell University professor Jon Kleinberg. The MIT paper also suggests that the danger of information cascades is not as dire as previous studies indicated. The researchers developed a mathematical model that describes attempts by social network members to make binary decisions on the basis of decisions made by their neighbors. The model assumes that there is a single right decision for all members of the network, but that some members have bad information. The researchers found that if there is no cap on certainty, an expanding social network will eventually converge on the right decision. "What we're doing is looking at it in a much more game-theoretic manner, where individuals are realizing where the information comes from," says MIT's Daron Acemoglu.
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