Welcome to the January 5, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Wipro Building India's Fastest Supercomputer for Space Agency
LiveMint (01/03/11) Sridhar K. Chari
Wipro is building India's fastest supercomputer for use by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), which will employ the machine's data-crunching muscle for advanced computational fluid dynamic studies affiliated with building sophisticated launch platforms. The system, being built at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, will have a processing speed range of 200 to 500 teraflops, which is 1.5 times more powerful than India's current fastest computer, the Computational Research Laboratories' 132.8 teraflop Eka. The ISRO supercomputer will establish the capability of Wipro's Supernova line, offered in collaboration with Z Research. The Indian Institute of Science's Supercomputing Education and Research Center's N. Balakrishnan says that in the four years since Eka's creation, "we should have doubled our [supercomputing] capacity ... but we're not making the right investments in terms of money and effort. We should not stop at this now, but go on. We have the capability to go up to petaflops in this country." Balakrishnan predicts that supercomputing's relevance will extend not only to conventional high-tech areas such as space, defense, and weather, but also to new fields in biology and biotechnology.
Graphics Ability Is the New Goal for Chip Makers
New York Times (01/04/11) Ashlee Vance
Computer chip makers will highlight the improved visual performance of their technology at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. The focus on graphics and how well computers can process and display photos, videos, and other types of media reflects the increased graphics muscle of the chips in computers that will soon hit retail shelves and the consumer-driven explosion in high-definition Web video and digital photo-sharing. By 2013, video could account for about 90 percent of consumer Internet traffic, according to some forecasts. Intel will talk about new features in its latest generation of chips such as Quick Think Video, a transcoding engine that would be able to turn a five-minute video from a phone into something a computer could use in 18 seconds, or rework hour-long home videos in four minutes. New Intel chips also will help movie studios deliver high-definition versions of their films and move video streams between computers and TV screens. Meanwhile, AMD says computers based on its chips will display better visuals for common programs from Microsoft, game developers, and Web browser makers. AMD's chips can automatically remove some of the hand-holding jiggle from movies on Web sites such as YouTube, allowing for revamped video that is smoother and more vibrant.
Girls-Only IT Class a Step Towards Attracting More Women to Male-Dominated Industry
Toronto Globe & Mail (Canada) (01/04/11) Kate Hammer
Canada's Cardinal Leger Secondary School offers computer science classes that, historically, have been filled mostly with boys and only a few girls, mirroring the industry standard. However, last fall the school's computer science teacher, Dan Harmer, put all the girls into a single class, hoping that the single-sex environment would create a less intimidating atmosphere. "It worked, the intimidation factor was gone and the girls loved it," Harmer says. Women make up approximately 25 percent of the information and communication technology work force, according to a recent Information and Communication Technology Council report. The report also found that in the next five years Canada will face a skill shortage that could lead to nearly 90,000 unfilled jobs, and that recruiting women and aboriginals to the industry is crucial to addressing the problem. In response to the shortage of women in the industry, Cisco Systems has formed partnerships with schools such as Cardinal Leger to promote computer science for women and minorities. "I think a lot of women don't go into this field because they're afraid of being the only girl," says Cisco's Hena Prasanna. "When we asked the girls who worked in the tech industry, they said chubby guys with glasses. That's the impression they had and we wanted to change that."
The Surprising Usefulness of Sloppy Arithmetic
MIT News (01/03/11) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a computer chip that can perform thousands of calculations simultaneously using imprecise arithmetic circuits. MIT visiting professor Joseph Bates and graduate student George Shaw started by assessing an algorithm used for object-recognition systems that distinguishes foreground and background components in video frames. The researchers rewrote the algorithm so that the results were either raised or lowered by less than 1 percent. The researchers say the chip design works especially well for image and video processing applications. Currently, computer chips have four or eight cores, but the MIT chip has 1,000 smaller cores that do not produce precise results. The MIT chip also is 1,000 times more efficient than conventional chips because each core only communicates with its immediate neighbors. The researchers say the chip will be good at solving common computer science problems, such as the near-neighbor search, and computer analysis of protein folding. Intel's Bob Colwell says the chip's most promising application could be with human-computer interactions.
Volunteer Cyber Army Emerges in Estonia
NPR Online (01/04/11) Tom Gjelten
The nationwide cyberattack that took down Estonia's government, financial, and media computer networks in 2007 led the country to establish the Cyber Defense League, which consists of volunteer programmers, computer scientists, and software engineers that are ready to function under military command during a cyberattack. "[Our] league brings together specialists in cyberdefense who work in the private sector as well as in different government agencies," says Estonia defense minister Jaak Aaviksoo. Estonia realized it was especially vulnerable to cyberattacks, as 80 percent of the population pays their taxes online and participates in online banking. In fact, Aaviksoo says the importance for Estonia to have a skilled cyberarmy could lead to the government instituting a draft to ensure that every cyberexpert is available for duty. "We are thinking of introducing this conscript service, a cyberservice," Aaviksoo says. "We don't have the mechanism or laws in place, but it might be one option." The Estonian model is "a very sensible approach, and I only wish we had the same kind of relationship with our [information technology] sector that they obviously have with theirs," says former U.S. Department of Homeland Security cyberdefense coordinator Stewart Baker.
Total Recall: Data Diaries Explain Who You Really Are
New Scientist (01/03/11) Alun Anderson
The collection, archival, and search of everyday personal experiences that are recorded by cameras and other devices could support the digital diaries envisioned by Microsoft scientist Gordon Bell and others. Bell has outlined a methodology in which a person's whereabouts are digitally captured by a camera and a global positioning system device, while all phone calls, meetings, conversations, emails, and viewed Web pages are stored as well. Additionally, any paper documents a person reads would need to be scanned into the diary, and the user would be able to perfectly recall their location, activities, companions, and what they were reading and looking at with the help of a searchable database. "By having everything in e-memory you don't have to remember any more," Bell says. He envisions software that will enable people to sort and mine through digital memories to unearth patterns and insights that would never be realized without assistance. In a similar vein are personal informatics initiatives that a growing number of people are following. They are sharing techniques to monitor, collect, and sift through their data at Qualified Self sessions. Online communities also have been created that pool the results of personal data collections to uncover larger patterns.
Canadian Researcher Builds Algorithms for Filmmakers
Computerworld Canada (01/03/11) Kathleen Lau
University of Toronto researchers are developing computer algorithms that can mimic natural human movements. "We can all walk around in the world and we don't think about it ... but to make a robot or (animated) character walk and really obey the laws of physics is really hard," says Toronto professor Aaron Hertzmann. The research is focused on developing tools for video games and movies, with additional applications in data modeling, biomachines, and physical therapy. "There's a lot of beauty and warmth that comes from traditional styles of media that you don't have with conventional computer animation," Hertzmann says. "What we'd like to do is get the best of both worlds. Right now no one really knows how to do that." Hertzmann was recently awarded the 2010 Steacie Price for Natural Sciences for his work in computer animation, only the second time the award has been given to a computer scientist. "We have this starting point that we're excited about and look forward to developing new tools from," he says.
3-D Steps Up to Decode Mobility
Futurity.org (01/04/11) Susan Young
Stanford University researchers are using computer-generated three-dimensional simulations of human mobility to improve the lives of people with disabilities. The technique can help reveal the source of the problem and provide a platform for testing different treatments. "People think about cancer and cardiovascular disease as the major problems associated with aging, but mobility is also very important," says Stanford professor Scott Delp. Two years ago, Delp and his team developed OpenSim, a biomechanical research platform that simulates biological movement and analyzes data on muscle size and strength and joint motion. The team is concentrating on using OpenSim to understand and treat movement disorders such as cerebral palsy. The system allows researchers to study the patient without performing surgery. "If you make a simulation of a subject walking, we can tell you how long the hamstring muscles are during the motion and compare that to normal muscle," says Stanford's Katherine Steele. The system provides a standard method for modeling movement that until now has been unavailable, says OpenSim designer Ayman Habib.
'SMS of Death' Could Crash Many Mobile Phones
Technology Review (01/04/11) Erica Naone
Low-end mobile phones are vulnerable to hackers using short message service (SMS) communications, according to research presented at a recent conference in Germany. Compared to smartphones, low-end mobile phones feature limited functionality, less powerful processors, less memory capacity, and the inability to load new software without the permission of the carrier. Nonetheless, Technische Universitaet Berlin students Collin Mulliner and Nico Golde successfully attacked several low-end phones by setting up a miniature cellular network, using open source software to create a base station with which to communicate with the phones. Their malicious SMS communications affected the phones without any response from the user. Mulliner says a specific user could be targeted, but also notes that a large number of phones could be knocked out by sending a set of five SMS messages--to the five most popular models--to every device on a specific network. Network operators could prevent such problems by updating firmware on existing phones or by filtering out potentially disruptive SMS messages traveling across their networks.
Can Cash Prizes for Innovation Get the Economy Rolling Again?
Washington Post (01/02/11) P. G2 Annie Lowrey
Contests for innovation are back in vogue and are a major component of the Obama administration's agenda for federal government support of private-sector research and development (R&D). The 1996 Ansari X Prize for commercial spaceflight advances, which offered a reward of $10 million, demonstrated that appropriately constructed prizes can be less expensive and more effective than conventional R&D. Prize competitions encourage nontraditional thinkers from various disciplines to work together to solve a problem, and over the past 10 years the funding available for prizes has boomed to up to $2 billion, says McKinsey & Co. An often-cited 2008 study verified that prizes fuel innovation and that the quality of modern inventions is greatly impacted by them. Notable government-sponsored contests of recent years include NASA's Centennial Challenges and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's competition to invent unmanned ground-combat vehicles. Not only does open source innovation help the federal government disassemble its own research silos, but the inventions developed from contests has immediate benefits to the public. A 2009 survey by the Congressional Research Service found that the best challenges must focus on big, specific questions that are worth answering and offer prizes of commensurate value.
Interactive Window Shopping
Fraunhofer FIT (01/11)
Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications (FIT) researchers have developed a three-dimensional camera system that enables consumers to interact with items inside window displays using hand and facial gestures. The system uses image-processing software to analyze the position of onlookers' hands, faces, and eyes. Consumers could point to an item in the shop window and it would appear on a display behind the window. "Interactive shopping has been standard operating procedure in the Web for a long time," says FIT's Paul Chojecki. "Now, we're putting this technology into pedestrian passageways and shopping centers with the entire unit behind the window." The system is compatible with other software such as content management or merchandise information systems. The FIT system can identify how many consumers are standing in front of the window and can suggest items based on what products and information the people are interested in.
Scientists Squeeze More Than 1,000 Cores on to Computer Chip
University of Glasgow (United Kingdom) (12/29/10) Stuart Forsyth
A field programmable gate array (FPGA) chip has been used to create an ultra-fast 1,000-core computer processor. Researchers from the University of Glasgow and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell divided up the chip's transistors into small groups and gave each a task to perform. The creation of more than 1,000 mini-circuits effectively turned the FPGA chip into a 1,000-core processor--each working with its own instructions. They used the FPGA chip to process an algorithm that is key to the MPEG movie format at 5 Gbps, or about 20 times faster than current top-end desktop computers. "FPGAs are not used within standard computers because they are fairly difficult to program, but their processing power is huge while their energy consumption is very small because they are so much quicker--so they are also a greener option," says Glasgow's Wim Vanderbauwhede. The researchers dedicated memory to each core to make the processor faster. "This is very early proof-of-concept work where we're trying to demonstrate a convenient way to program FPGAs so that their potential to provide very fast processing power could be used much more widely in future computing and electronics," Vanderbauwhede says.
Algorithms Take Control of Wall Street
Wired (12/27/10) Felix Salmon; Jon Stokes
The bulk of trading on Wall Street and an increasing volume of global trading is governed by algorithms, and this has engendered a market that is more efficient, faster, and more intelligent than any human. However, it also is unpredictable, highly volatile, and often defies human understanding. Some of the algorithms are designed to discover, purchase, and sell individual stocks, while others were developed to help brokers carry out large trades. Consequently, the trading arena is glutted with competing lines of code, each one trying to outsmart and counter the other. Interaction between the algorithms can give rise to unexpected behaviors, and this can lead to sudden market drops such as the May 6 flash crash. In the wake of this event, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission imposed or is considering imposing safeguards such as governors for trading algorithms that would restrict the size and speed at which trades can be executed. But such measures can only slow down or halt the algorithms for a short while. "Our financial markets have become a largely automated adaptive dynamical system, with feedback," says University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Kearns.
Movie Magic Conjured by Science
Discovery News (12/30/10) Eric Niiler
Filmmakers increasingly use technology based on fluid dynamics to create realistic scenes of violent oceans and falling buildings. "It used to be that the story was limited by the technology," says Digital Domain's Doug Roble. "Now we're getting to the point where there are no limits." Roble and others are leading the way in the use of software that uses algorithms that describe the physics of nature. The mathematical formulas behind the algorithms also can be used for movie special effects. "In order to simulate it accurately, you have to take extremely small time steps to move the simulation forward," Roble says. "[Digital filmmaking] has a lot in common with foundational work with applied mathematics and computational physics," says Exotic Matter's Robert Bridson. He notes that the continued convergence of computer science and filmmaking is possible due to the new, inexpensive computing systems needed to run the software. "We will start seeing more low-budget independent types of shops producing extraordinary effects," Bridson predicts. Roble says simulating human expressions is the next frontier. "The human face is extraordinarily tough," he says. "Right now, the research community is focused on muscles and skin."
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