Welcome to the December 29, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Earth Project Aims to 'Simulate Everything'
BBC News (12/27/10) Gareth Morgan
An international research team is working on the Living Earth Simulator (LES), a project designed to produce a system that can simulate everything happening on Earth, with the goal of predicting human actions that shape societies as well as environmental forces. "Many problems we have today--including social and economic instabilities, wars, disease spreading--are related to human behavior, but there is apparently a serious lack of understanding regarding how society and the economy work," says Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's Dirk Helbing. The LES system would be able to predict the spread of diseases, develop solutions to combat climate change, and identify signs of a financial crisis before it takes place, Helbing says. The system would need data concerning every activity taking place on Earth, as well as next-generation supercomputers that can process the vast amounts of data. Although the hardware is not available yet, much of the data is already being collected, Helbing says. The LES team has identified more than 70 online data sources that can be key contributors to the project. The LES project needs to create a framework that can transform that data into models that are relevant to what is going on in the world, which will most likely use semantic Web technologies, Helbing says.
Concern at Governments' Moves to Control Web
Financial Times (12/29/10) Joseph Menn
The continuing WikiLeaks disclosures are prompting governmental efforts to increase Web control, which is causing concern among those who see the Internet as a democratic, ungovernable entity. "This momentum toward securitization is helping legitimize and pave the way for greater government involvement in cyberspace," according to the OpenNet Initiative. For example, many U.S. lawmakers have scolded companies that assisted WikiLeaks, while the Obama administration has launched a high-profile pursuit of legal action against the group and its founder. "Free expression should not be restricted by governmental or private controls over computer hardware or software, telecommunications infrastructure, or other essential components of the Internet," according to the Internet Engineering Task Force. Meanwhile, a United Nations group recently moved forward with plans to set up a governmental group for advice on how to redesign the Internet Governance Forum, a move that has drawn criticism from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and Google. "If they move to the mode that is proposed, that's the first step in trying to create a governance organization that takes actions--and while I can understand the appeal, especially for some governments, I don't think it bodes well," says Google's Vint Cerf.
IBM Sees Holographic Calls, Air-Breathing Batteries
Bloomberg (12/23/10) Ryan Flinn
Every year, IBM surveys its 3,000 researchers to find five ideas that are predicted to become realities in the next five years. This year's list includes holographic conversations projected from mobile phones, air-breathing batteries, computer programs that can identify traffic jams before they happen, cars and phones equipped with sensors that analyze environmental information, and cities powered by excess computer server heat. "They have continued to do research when all the other grand research organizations are gone," says Stanford University professor Paul Saffo. In 2010, IBM spent $5.8 billion on research and development, 6.1 percent of the company's total revenue. "All this demonstrates a real culture of innovation at IBM and willingness to devote itself to solving some of the world's biggest problems," says IBM's Josephine Cheng. Many of the predictions, such as sensors as environmental data providers, are based on current IBM projects. In 2010, IBM partnered with the California State Water Resources Control Board and the City of San Jose Environmental Services to gather information about waterways, using specially designed smartphone applications. In 2015, IBM researchers see the use of battery models that rely on energy-dense metals that can recharge just by interacting with the air.
Georgia Tech Team Helps Decode Newly Sequenced Strawberry Genome
Georgia Tech Research News (12/26/10) Abby Vogel Robinson
An international research consortium consisting of 75 researchers from 38 institutions has sequenced the genome of the woodland strawberry, which could lead to tastier, hardier varieties of strawberries and other crops. The woodland strawberry's genome consists of 14 chromosomes and about 240 million base pairs. Georgia Tech professor Mark Borodovsky and researcher Paul Burns led the consortium's efforts in identifying protein-coding genes in the sequence. The Georgia Tech researchers used the GeneMark.hmm-ES+ pattern-recognition program to identify nearly 35,000 genes and assign 55 percent of those to specific gene families. The program uses the probabilistic Hidden Markov Model to locate the boundaries between coding and non-coding sequences. "Our approach to gene prediction in the strawberry genome proved highly effective, with 90 percent of the genes predicted by the hybrid gene model supported by transcript-based evidence," Borodovsky says. The consortium's research will allow breeders to create plants that can be grown with less environmental impact, better nutritional value, and larger yields. "The wealth of genetic information collected by this strawberry genome sequencing project will help spur the next wave of research into the improvement of strawberry and other fruit crops," he says.
Software Said to Match Quantum Computing Speed
IDG News Service (12/23/10) Joab Jackson
University of Waterloo researchers have shown that for some computing problems, using the right software algorithms could enable classical computing techniques to work just as well as quantum computing. The researchers demonstrated how a seldom-used algorithm could achieve new levels in problem-solving performance when used on contemporary computers and theoretically match quantum computing speeds. "One striking implication of this characterization is that it implies quantum computing provides no increase in computational power whatsoever over classical computing in the context of interactive proof systems," according to the paper. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Scott Aaronson and colleagues recently proved that quantum interactive proof systems are just as difficult to solve as classical interactive proof systems, by using the matrix multiplicative weights update method to devise a new algorithm. The algorithm provides a method for solving problems using parallel processes, matching the efficiency of quantum computing. The researchers illustrated that "for a certain class of semi-definite programs you can get not the exact answer but a very good approximate answer, using a very small amount of memory," Aaronson says.
Robot Teachers With a Human Face
JoongAng Daily (South Korea) (12/28/10) Kim Hee-jin; Hong Gweon-sam
The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology developed robot teachers that were recently used for teaching English at 21 Korean elementary schools. The egg-shaped Engkey robot can speak, ask questions, and hold general conversations in English. The robots will be remotely controlled by human teachers in the Philippines. The robots are equipped with a camera so the teachers can see the students, and the teacher's face also is shown on a screen for the children. The robots will be charged with instructing after-school programs. "The robot can handle only a small number of students per class, about eight students," says education official Kim Mi-yong. The robots also will be used as assistant teachers for regular English classes, according to the education office. The robots will be especially helpful for students living in rural areas where foreigners are reluctant to live, according to the Center for Intelligent Robotics.
CSTB Committee Emphasizes Parallel Computing Innovations
Computing Community Consortium (12/22/10) Bill Feiereisen
The technical challenges of providing the computing horsepower for the digital future recently described by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology are detailed in a new report from the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board. The report's authors recommend "that our nation place a much greater emphasis on [information technology] and computer science research and development focused on improvements and innovations in parallel processing, and on making the transition to computing centered on parallelism." The paper identifies high priority needs, such as new computing stacks that execute parallel rather than sequential programs and that effectively manage software parallelism, hardware parallelism, power, memory, and other resources. Other high priority needs include algorithms that can exploit parallel processing, parallel-computing architectures driven by applications, portable programming models, and open interface standards for parallel programming systems. The authors call for "research and development on much more power-efficient computing systems at all levels of technology, including devices, hardware architecture, and software systems."
Texas A&M Prof Helps Develop First High-Temp Spin-Field-Effect Transistor
Texas A&M University (12/23/10) Shana K. Hutchins
Researchers at Texas A&M University were part of an international team that recently announced the development of an electrically controllable device that works using an electron's spin. The team, which also included scientists from the Hitachi Cambridge Laboratory, the University of Cambridge, the University of Nottingham, the Academy of Sciences, and Charles University, combined the spin-helix state and the anomalous Hall effect to create a spin-field-effect transistor that operates at high temperatures and is equipped with an AND gate logic device. The researchers say the device can be used in several fields involving spintronics research, since it can be an effective tool for manipulating and identifying spins in semiconductors without disrupting the spin-polarized current or using magnetic components. The device is an electrically controllable solid-state polarimeter that can convert light into electronic voltage signals. The team's discovery has shifted the focus of spintronics from theoretical speculation to prototype development, says Hitachi's Jorg Wunderlich. "For now, the device aspect--the ability to inject, manipulate, and create a logic step with spin alone--has been achieved," says Texas A&M's Jairo Sinova.
Cyber Shop Assistants at Your Service
Scotsman (United Kingdom) (12/26/10) Peter Laing
Scientists in Scotland believe supermarket shoppers are more likely to embrace a self-service checkout that is humanized with realistic eye movements and facial expressions. Abertay University researchers envision next-generation machines that are capable of making subtle expressions for encouraging shoppers and sympathizing with them when they run into problems. "A lack of trust, the worry that they won't be able to work the machine or something will go wrong, may be addressed by designing a human-computer interface that is both friendly and responsive," says Abertay's Robin Sloan. In tests, a fully animated cyberassistant with eye-tracking equipment proved that shoppers quickly followed simple cues to look at the correct option on the self-service checkout and made self-service checkout 40 percent faster. The team also wants to use tracking technology that would enable the cyberassistant to determine where shoppers are and what they are doing. "A repeated command to 'scan an item' is unhelpful if the user is not currently facing the machine," Sloan says.
Intel: Why a 1,000-Core Chip Is Feasible
ZDNet UK (12/25/10) Jack Clark
Intel has developed experimental chips with 48 and 80 cores through its Terascale Computing Research Program. At the Supercomputing Conference 2010, Intel's Timothy Mattson claimed that the Terascale Program's 48-core chip could theoretically scale to 1,000 cores. The 48-core chip's architecture could support 1,000 cores because Intel does not have cache coherency overhead, Mattson says. "The challenge this presents to those of us in parallel computing at Intel is, if our [fabrication department] could build a 1,000-core chip, do we have an architecture in hand that could scale that far?" he says. "And if built, could that chip be effectively programmed?" Mattson says that there is no theoretical limit to the number of cores that can be used, but the number of cores does depend on how much of the program can be parallelized, and how much overhead and load imbalance a program can uphold. He says a key question is whether there are usage models and applications that need that many cores. "As I see it, my job is to understand how to scale out as far as our fabs will allow and to build a programming environment that will make these devices effective," Mattson says. "I leave it to others in our applications research groups and our product groups to decide what number and combination of cores makes the most sense."
Computers Spot Mistletoe Hugs and Kisses
University of Oxford (12/22/10)
Oxford University researchers have developed technology that can automatically recognize human interactions such as hugs, kisses, handshakes, and high fives. The research is aimed at developing computers that can analyze video footage on TV, movies, and Web sites. "Once you can recognize these interactions the applications are numerous--for instance, you could automatically search home videos and YouTube for kisses and handshakes or even fast forward [closed-caption TV] to find incidents," says Oxford's Alonso Patron-Perez. The technology is based on computer-vision and machine-learning algorithms. The computers are programmed to detect different cues, such as head position and relative body motion, which the system uses to determine what type of interaction has occurred. "This work enables computers to make sense of how people are behaving in video footage in a way that has simply not been possible before," Patron-Perez says.
Vertical Search Across the Educational Horizon
Researchers at Hewlett-Packard and Innovation Works are developing a more precise Web searching system that can examine specific sites, known as verticals. The researchers want to use an embedding process, traditionally used in relational databases, and modify it for use on the Internet. "The technologies can be used to support structured queries over contents extracted and aggregated from the Web," according to the research team. They have focused on using the system to search online educational resources. Although the new method requires some human monitoring to help organize the information, the process can be automated to a certain degree using machine-learning technologies. The researchers say their system is another step toward "the convergence of database technology and information retrieval in the era of the Web."
TU Scientists in Nature: Better Control of Building Blocks for Quantum Computer
Delft University of Technology (12/23/10) Karen Collet; Michel van Baal
Scientists at the Delft University of Technology and the Eindhoven University of Technology have found a method for controlling qubits, a major breakthrough that they say could facilitate the development of future high-speed quantum computers. The researchers discovered a way to manipulate the qubits with electrical fields instead of magnetic ones. The spin-orbit qubits "employ the advantages of both electronic control and information storage in the electron spin," says Delft scientist Leo Kouwenhoven. The researchers also were able to embed qubits into nanowires made of semiconducting indium arsenide. "These nanowires are being increasingly used as convenient building blocks in nanoelectronics," and they can be used as an effective platform for quantum information processing, Kouwenhoven says.
Meet the Data-Storing Bacteria
PC World (12/23/10) Elizabeth Fish
University of Hong Kong researchers have inserted 90 gigabytes (GB) of data into the DNA of a colony of 18 E.coli bacteria in an attempt to test its capability of storing electronic data. Bacteria possess enormous storage capacities, considering a gram contains about 10 million cells, and each cell can hold about 5 GB. Moreover, different types of cells are more radioresistant than others, which suggests that data in certain cells would survive a nuclear explosion. However, accessing that data is problematic. The researchers say that retrieving data from DNA cells currently is "tedious and expensive," and they note that stored data would be jeopardized because DNA cells can mutate. The team has only used genetically modified bacteria and copyright information data storing for testing.
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