Welcome to the December 27, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
IBM's Racetrack Memory Moves Closer to the Checkered Flag
IDG News Service (12/23/10) Robert McMillan
IBM is close to commercializing racetrack memory, an experimental technology that uses electric currents, instead of magnetically charged atoms, to move collections of electrons, called magnetic domain walls, along a tiny wire. Racetrack memory would be able to read and write data much more quickly, and using much less power, than existing storage technologies. "It's like a kind of magnetic wave that we're moving along without having to move the atoms," says IBM researcher Stuart Parkin. "It would be a million times faster to access the first bit, and use much less energy, and there would be no problem with crashes." Parkin says the first racetrack chips could store hundreds of gigabytes of data using wires a few microns long and just 30 nanometers wide. IBM researchers recently released a paper reporting that domain walls have mass and can manipulate the data on a racetrack trip accurately. Parkin says this breakthrough means the researchers can now focus on more practical issues regarding commercializing the technology, such as how to build reliable racetrack-based chips. "Those are the questions that we can only address by building prototypes and testing them for a period of time," he says.
Gadgets Bring New Opportunities for Hackers
New York Times (12/26/10) Ashlee Vance
Consumer electronics makers are rushing to connect their products to the Internet and are ignoring security issues in the process, warns Mocana CEO Adrian Turner. As devices such as Internet TVs and smartphones become more popular, so do security threats that take advantage of the new products' unprotected features. "When it comes to where the majority of computing horsepower resides, you're seeing a shift from the desktop to mobile devices and Web-connected products, and inevitably, that will trigger a change in focus within the hacking community," says Layer 7 Technologies' K. Scott Morrison. Security companies are trying to develop new security technologies, such as fingerprint scanners and facial recognition systems, but these measures have thus far failed to become mainstream. One idea is to let consumers report security threats and have their data locked or erased until the problem is resolved. The new types of attacks will require a new approach to Internet security, says Symantec CEO Enrique Salem. For example, the many capabilities of today's smartphones present new security challenges. "The good smartphones have been pretty well designed," Morrison says. "The problem now is the flood of secondary phones that bring interesting diversity and also open up holes for hackers." Mocana researchers say a more immediate threat may be the vast number of new Internet-ready consumer electronics devices.
The Emotional Computer
University of Cambridge (12/23/10)
A new University of Cambridge film explores professor Peter Robinson's research on the role of emotions in human-computer interaction. Released on Cambridge's YouTube channel, "The Emotional Computer" shows how emotions can be used to improve interaction between humans and computers. "We're building emotionally intelligent computers, ones that can read my mind and know how I feel," says Robinson, who is leading a team in the university's computer laboratory. One system tracks features on a person's face, calculates gestures being made and infers emotion, while a second analyzes speech intonation to infer emotions, and a third analyzes body posture and gestures. Research student Ian Davies is studying how to apply these technologies to command-and-control systems. "Even in something as simple as a car we need to know if the driver is concentrating and confused, so that we can avoid overloading him with distractions from a mobile phone, the radio, or a satellite navigation system," Davies says. Robinson says computers also need to express emotion, and one team member is animating figures to mimic a person's facial expression and another is experimenting with a robotic head modeled after Charles Babbage to explore empathy and rapport building.
Intel, AMD to Unveil Combination Chips
Wall Street Journal (12/27/10) Don Clark
Chip manufacturers are ready to offer a new advance that involves combining standard microprocessors and graphics processing units (GPUs) onto one chip, which they say will lead to faster, less expensive computer systems. The new technology "is going to change the way people build PCs and buy PCs," says Intel CEO Paul Otellini. The chip developers say that integrating the chip technologies reduces the distance that signals travel within computers and will enable low-priced computers to perform functions that currently require more expensive PCs, such as the ability to watch high-definition TV or quickly convert files into different formats. However, some industry experts believe that consumers will continue to prefer systems with separate GPU chips because they offer optimal performance for some video games and other programs that involve image rendering. Nevertheless, Intel is ready to launch a major overhaul of its core product line using an integrated design known as Sandy Bridge. Meanwhile, Advanced Micro Devices is preparing a new system called Fusion, which combines the two technologies and is expected to be ready in 2011. NVIDIA, which develops GPUs, claims that Intel's Sandy Bridge chips do not support Microsoft's DirectX 11 programming technology, which is crucial for many popular video games.
Researchers Train Software to Help Monitor Climate Change
Penn State Live (12/22/10) Matthew Swayne; Andrea Messer
Penn State researchers have developed software that automatically analyzes satellite data that could help monitor environmental conditions over time. The program uses probability to study satellite images and sensory data concerning ocean structures. "All of the data and information that is continually collected by satellites and sensors can cause tons of problems for scientists, who simply don't have the time to analyze every pixel of every satellite image," says Penn State professor James Wang. The researchers started the study by creating a database of ocean structures and the training the program to identify changes in them. They tested the technology using National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration data. "In almost all cases, the proposed methodology improves the accuracy rate and reduces the number of features necessary to get a good ocean structures classification," says visiting professor Jose A. Piedra-Fernandez. The researchers say the program might uncover clues on small changes in ocean temperature that could have big effects on global climate conditions. The program uses the Bayesian system, which needs less data for learning than other probability-based decision systems, which reduces the computational cost of the system.
Sunderland University in Virtual Research Scheme
BBC News (12/22/10)
The University of Sunderland is participating in Education in Cultural Understanding, Technology Enhanced (eCUTE), a study that aims to use virtual worlds to resolve cultural differences, especially in children and young people. The program will use intelligent characters who exhibit different types of cultural behavior in virtual environments. The study involves eight research partners from institutions in Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan, in fields such as cultural psychology, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, human-computer interaction, and cultural computing. Sunderland researchers will focus on assessing the virtual worlds in the learning process. "We anticipate significant impacts for the games sector and for cultural learning," says Sunderland's Lynne Hall. The virtual worlds developed by the project will contain characters that display diverse cultural, social, and ethnic behaviors, and will model different situations that users can experience and learn from. The program will be tested on children aged nine to 11 and young adults aged 18 to 25.
Berkeley Lab to Help China Improve Energy Efficiency of Data Centers
Berkeley Lab News Center (12/21/10) Julie Chao
The U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is working with the Chinese researchers to improve the energy performance of China's data centers in an effort to reduce carbon emissions. The project is run by the Berkeley Lab's Dale Sartor and the China Energy Group's Bo Shen. "The overall cost of both utility-supplied and onsite-generated power is expensive, so therefore, it can be even more cost-effective for China than here to take energy efficiency actions," Sartor says. China offers a good opportunity to implement new data center standards because it is still in the beginning stages of development but is close to rapid growth. He also says that China wants to focus on the information technology (IT) industry to help move their economy beyond manufacturing. "They see the kinds of services India is providing as something their population can profit from," Sartor says. "So the IT industry growth is potentially huge." Moreover, in contrast to the United States, most Chinese data centers are government-owned or controlled, making it easier to quickly implement changes. "Our goal is to reduce or eliminate the need for mechanical [compressor] cooling," Sartor says. Berkeley Lab researchers also plan to work with China to develop more advanced concepts, such as warm-water liquid cooling and DC power.
Smarter Systems Help Busy Doctors Remember
Northwestern University News Center (IL) (12/21/10) Marla Paul
Northwestern University researchers have developed a tool that analyzes electronic health records and alerts doctors during an exam when a patient's care is not up to standards. The researchers say the software greatly improves physician's performance in caring for patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The program also enhances preventative methods in vaccinations and cancer and osteoporosis screenings. The new system involves a small yellow light on a computer that alerts the doctor when something is wrong with a patient's care. The doctor clicks on the light and is shown what part of the patient's treatment has been missed or overlooked. The system takes several standard aspects of patient care and compiles them in one location. "For this to work well, they have to view the alerts and reporting system as their personal quality improvement tools," says Northwestern's David Baker. During testing, the program increased the number of heart disease patients receiving cholesterol-reducing medication by 6 percent, the number of pneumonia vaccinations by 10 percent, and the number of colon cancer screenings by 5 percent. "The gains are modest, but if you are already at 90 percent and go to 94 percent, that's important," says Northwestern's Stephen Persell.
Microchips Now Used in Everything From Toilets to Tombstones
SiliconValley.com (12/20/10) Steve Johnson
Technology manufacturers are finding new ways to develop commonplace objects equipped with microprocessors to make them more useful to people. For example, Intel is developing football helmets with microchips that wirelessly contact doctors when athletes suffer severe head injuries. Advancements in microprocessor technology also have led to high-tech gravestone markers, running shoes, fishing lures, and writing pens. "They're becoming more programmable, they're getting faster, and they're getting communications functions built into them," says IDC's Shane Rau. Livescribe has developed a chip-powered ink pen that has a camera and audio recorder that enables users to remember what was said when reviewing handwritten notes. AquaOne Technologies recently introduced a microchip-equipped toilet that will automatically turn off the water if the toilet starts to leak or overflow. Meanwhile, Toto has developed an intelligent toilet that analyzes heath data based on the user's urine. Memory Medallion has created a microchip for grave stones that tells the deceased's life story with text, photos, video, and audio files, which visitors can download by aiming their smartphones at the chip. British researchers also have developed a computerized cat door that will only open for the cat that has a microchip recognized by the system.
AI Defeats the Hivemind
Technology Review (12/20/10) Christopher Mims
Yelp researchers recently tested a supervised learning algorithm to see if the program could outperform Mechanical Turk, a system that is designed to complete tasks that are easy for humans but difficult for machines. The researchers found that many Mechanical Turkers may not be as successful at completing the online tasks as the new algorithm. The test involved 4,660 volunteer Mechanical Turkers who had to correctly identify a type of business and find the company's phone number and address based on its Web site. Just 79 of the testers were able to complete the task. Those testers were then given a test involving finding information about three businesses at a time, in order to find results that most Turkers agreed were correct. The researchers performed the same series of tests using a Naive Bayes classifier algorithm. In most test cases, the algorithm correctly identified the category of a business a third more often than the human volunteers. In the automotive category, the program was twice as likely to get the category of business right. The researchers say the results suggest that the Mechanical Turk system is broken, and they hypothesize that it could be due to its extremely low wage scale.
Virtual Girl Can Read Nine Emotions
Business Day (New Zealand) (12/20/10) Claire Rogers
New Zealand researchers have developed Easy with Eve, an attractive avatar for teaching math to primary school students. Easy with Eve makes use of complex algorithms for detecting and responding to expressions and movements, motion-detection technology, and vision systems, and its developers believe the technology has other applications. Unitec professor Hossein Sarrafzadeh, who led the development of the avatar, is now working on Dr. Eve, a health advice application. "If you have a health question then Eve will come up on your monitor and hold a discussion with you and give you some medical advice," Sarrafzadeh says. Unitec is assisting China Medical University in investigating the technology's potential to detect cancer cells, and is working with Massey University on turning Eve into an intelligent sales agent that would distinguish between serious shoppers and browsers based on their facial expressions and gestures. Eve is still a few years away from being used in classrooms. "We've done some work on language translation so hopefully in the next couple of years Eve will be able to speak and understand different languages," Sarrafzadeh says.
Software Improves Understanding of Mobility Problems
Economic & Social Research Council (12/16/10) Danielle Moore; Jeanine Woolley
New software could help clinicians, health care practitioners, and design professionals better understand the mobility problems of the elderly. The software takes motion capture data and muscle strength measurements of older people performing everyday activities and generates a three-dimensional animated stick figure with visual representations at the joints showing the demands of the mechanics of movement. The visualization software is the result of a research collaboration between the Glasgow School of the Art and the University of Strathclyde, with support from the U.K. Research Councils' New Dynamics of Aging program. Design professionals could use the visualization software to improve the design of products, landscapes, and buildings. The software also could help health care practitioners better understand mobility challenges, and help clinicians devise better approaches to assessment, diagnosis, and rehabilitation. "The visualization software is a simple yet highly effective tool to help older people and professionals explain, discuss, and address mobility problems," says Glasgow professor Alastair Macdonald. "Better understanding of older people's mobility can help health care professionals improve diagnosis or treatment of problems, and design professionals to adapt the way they design for older people."
Sharing the Airwaves: Michigan Tech's Tian Researches Cognitive Radio
Michigan Tech News (12/17/10) Marcia Goodrich
Michigan Tech University professor Zhi Tian is developing cognitive radio technology that uses a system of intelligent devices to identify white spaces in the radio frequency spectrum and use them to transmit their own radio signals. Cognitive radios could be linked in a peer-to-peer network and make a collective decision about which frequencies to use, without help from a central controller. The Michigan Tech researchers are using compressive sampling, which employs the lack of radio signals occupying the spectrum, to reduce the amount of data needed to find the white spaces while maintaining accuracy. The compressive sampling method could gather more information faster than current approaches. And the cognitive radio system could collect the information about the white space frequencies and send it to smart cell phones. "Eventually, we want them to communicate good information to each other that percolates around the network," Tian says. The research is being applied to U.S. military operations, with the military studying how to use small sensors in war zones to detect enemies, explosives, and biological weapons. The same techniques could be used to improve civilian sensor networks used for monitoring infrastructure.
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