Welcome to the March 14, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Japan's Internet Largely Intact After Earthquake, Tsunami
Computerworld (03/13/11) Jaikumar Vijayan
Japan's Internet infrastructure demonstrated surprising resilience in the face of the recent earthquake and tsunami, as most Web sites remain in operation and the Web is still accessible to support crucial communication functions, says Renesys' James Cowie. About 100 of Japan's 6,000 network prefixes were removed from service immediately following the quake, only to start to reappear on global routing tables in a matter of hours. A similar recovery was seen in Web traffic to and from Japan, while traffic at Japan's JPNAP Layer 2 Internet exchange service seems to have slowed by only 10 percent since March 11. Cowie says that one possible reason why Internet connectivity was less affected by the quake than other Japanese infrastructure is that undersea cables remained relatively intact, and the only noticeable breaks were in two segments of Pacnet's EAC submarine cable system, which caused blackouts in several Japanese, Filipino, and Hong Kong networks. Damage also appears to have occurred in sections of the Pacific Crossing submarine cabling system linking the United States to Asia. Cowie says that Japan's attempts to construct a dense web of domestic and international Internet connectivity "may have allowed the Internet to do what it does best: Route around catastrophic damage and keep the packets flowing, despite terrible chaos and uncertainty."
Poker Bots Invade Online Gambling
New York Times (03/13/11) Gabriel Dance
Artificial intelligence advancements have made it possible for poker bots to be skilled enough to win tens of thousands of dollars on major game Web sites, which has prompted a push to crack down on them. Improvements in the way scientists program game-playing software are making poker bots more proficient. However, poker bots are not as skilled at games as chess programs, largely because poker deals with many unknown factors, such as opponents' cards and their style of play. Poker bots also must run millions of simulations prior to a match, but storing, much less computing, information for all possible scenarios would be improbable, even with modern computers' sizable memory capacity. Many of the poker bots available online were developed by programmers as a hobby or personal exercise, and Shanky Technologies co-founder Brian Jetter says while some poker bot buyers think they can use them to make money, others employ them in intellectual pursuits. Meanwhile, Carnegie Mellon University professor Tuomas W. Sandholm says that poker bots "can rival good players, but not the best--yet."
New Technology Would Dramatically Extend Battery Life for Mobile Devices
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (03/10/11) Liz Ahlberg
University of Illinois researchers have developed a new form of ultra-low-power digital memory that is faster and uses 100 times less energy than conventional memory systems and could lead to future portable devices with much longer battery life between charges. "I think anyone who is dealing with a lot of chargers and plugging things in every night can relate to wanting a cell phone or laptop whose batteries can last for weeks or months," says Illinois professor Eric Pop, who led the research. Although current mobile devices use flash memory to store bits as charge, the industry has been experimenting with power phase-change materials (PCM), in which a bit is stored in the resistance of the material, which can be switched. The Illinois researchers lowered the power per bit to 100 times less than in modern PCM memory by using carbon nanotubes instead of metal wires to reduce its size. "By using nanoscale contacts, we are able to achieve much smaller power consumption," says Illinois graduate student Feng Xiong. Nanotube PCM memory could increase a device's energy efficiency to the point where it could run simply by harvesting its own thermal, mechanical, or solar energy, with no additional battery required, Pop says. The technology also could be used to increase data storage and supercomputing efficiency.
A Search Engine for the Human Body
Technology Review (03/11/11) Tom Simonite
Microsoft researcher Antonio Criminisi led the development of a search tool that indexes medical images of the human body and automatically finds organs and other structures on computed tomography scans. The software enables users to click on a list of organs and be presented with a touch-sensitive display of the structure. When a scan is loaded into the software, the program indexes the data and lists the organs it finds at the side of the screen, producing a table of hyperlinks for the body. Once an organ of interest has been located, a two-dimensional and an enhanced three-dimensional perspective of the structures in the area are displayed. A new scan also can be automatically matched up alongside a past one from the same patient, which can highlight the progression or regression of a condition. Criminisi says the software was developed by "training machine-learning algorithms to recognize features in hundreds of scans in which experts had marked the major organs. Indexing a new scan takes only a couple of seconds." The researchers are currently developing gesture and voice controls for the system.
Data and the Compute-Driven Transformation of Modern Science
Computing Community Consortium (03/10/11) Erwin Gianchandani
The U.S. National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Ed Seidel discussed the exponential growth of data from scientific experiments and simulation, as well as the computational power to process it, during a recent presentation titled "Data and the Compute-Driven Transformation of Modern Science" at Northwestern University. Seidel said there is a need for greater collaboration, and science can no longer be done with just a single professor working with a couple of students. He described many challenges, and mentioned the need for better computing technologies, data provenance, and software as crises. One grand challenge, he said, would be to create a cyberinfrastructure that could simulate both black holes and hurricanes. Seidel said the NSF and universities need to adjust to this new scientific reality. Universities should develop interdisciplinary programs beyond the traditional department, and computer science should be a key factor. He also said there is a need for high-performance networks for sharing and collaboration of massive amounts of data.
A Small Quantum Leap
Northwestern University News Center (IL) (03/10/11) Megan Fellman
Northwestern University researchers say they have developed a switching device that could help lead to the creation of a quantum network. The device can route quantum bits at very high speeds along a shared network without losing any information. The researchers say the switch could lead to a completely secure quantum Internet and super-fast quantum computer networks. "My goal is to make quantum communication devices very practical," says Northwestern professor Prem Kumar. The researchers are developing a photonic quantum network that does not disturb the physical characteristics, such as superposition and entanglement, of the photons being transmitted. "This switch opens new doors for many applications, including distributed quantum processing where nodes of small-scale quantum processors are connected via quantum communication links," Kumar says.
Explained: Ad Hoc Networks
MIT News (03/10/11) Larry Hardesty
Decentralized ad hoc wireless networks could be applied to distributed sensing, robotics, and personal communications. Power usage is key for many of the imagined ad hoc networking applications, and the challenge of designing communications protocols for such networks is compounded by the need to maximize data exchange efficiency so that energy consumption is minimized. The possibility that handheld devices could organize themselves into ad hoc networks becomes more intriguing as more and more power is incorporated into them. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Muriel Medard has probed whether ad hoc networking could aid the distribution of information among large localized groups. For example, Medard envisions that people's mobile phones at a sports event could form ad hoc networks to facilitate extremely efficient video data dissemination so that thousands of fans could simultaneously view high-quality replays of entirely different plays without straining the local data networks.
How Do People Respond to Being Touched by a Robot?
Georgia Institute of Technology (03/09/11) David Terraso
Georgia Tech researchers are studying how people respond to being touched by a robot. The researchers say that people generally responded positively. "What we found was that how people perceived the intent of the robot was really important to how they responded," says Georgia Tech professor Charlie Kemp. "So, even though the robot touched people in the same way, if people thought the robot was doing that to clean them, versus doing that to comfort them, it made a significant difference in the way they responded and whether they found that contact favorable or not." The team used a robotic nurse to touch and wipe a person's forearm, exactly in the same way, but note that the reaction was more positive when the subjects believed the robot intended to clean their arm rather than it tried to comfort them. The results were similar to studies involving nurses. The team also tested whether people prefer a verbal warning before touching, but the results were inconclusive because the subjects might have been startled when the robot started speaking.
New Technology to Predict Future Appearance
Concordia University (Canada) (03/08/11) Chris Atack
Concordia University's Khoa Luu has developed a more effectual computer-based method to simulate aging in photographic images, which could be used to help identify missing children and criminals on the run. Luu says the method combines the techniques of active appearance models (AAMs) and support vector regression (SVR). "The human face changes in different ways at different stages of life," he says. "During the growth and development stage, the physical structure of the face changes, becoming longer and wider; in the adult aging phase, the primary changes to the face are in soft tissue." Luu incorporated all this data into the algorithm, and he had to build two different aging functions for the project in order to account for the two periods with fundamentally distinct aging mechanisms at work. Luu first integrated AAMs and SVR techniques to interpret faces and train the computer in aging rules, and then he fed the system information from a database of facial traits of siblings and parents compiled over an extended period. The computer uses this data to predict an individual's future facial appearance.
Self-Driving Car on Road Out of Science Fiction
Washington Times (03/08/11) Rajeev Poduval
The automotive industry is quickly moving toward developing fully autonomous vehicles by employing robotic technologies, artificial intelligence, computer science, and software development. For example, General Motors (GM) recently developed a self-driving sport utility vehicle that won the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's award for autonomous driving vehicles. The company expects to manufacture fully autonomous vehicles by 2020, says GM's Alan Taub. "In less-complicated environments such as the highways, it will be ready earlier," he says. Google also is developing autonomous vehicles, and has already produced a driverless car that traveled more than 140,000 miles. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 1.2 million people are killed every year in car accidents worldwide. "We believe our technology has the potential to cut that number, perhaps by as much as half," says Google fellow Sebastian Thrun. "We're also confident that self-driving cars will transform car sharing, significantly reducing car usage, as well as help create the new 'highway trains of tomorrow.' "
New Protocols Show Up to 76 Percent Speed Jolt for iPhones, iPads
Network World (03/08/11) Tim Greene
The novel employment of accelerometers, global positioning system locators, gyroscopes, and compasses that are standard features of smartphones and tablets can speed up wireless networks by as much as 76 percent, according to research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The researchers say that deploying appropriate rate-adaptation protocols on mobile devices can boost performance by overcoming some of the innate network problems of mobile devices. Clues supplied by the built-in sensors can enhance the performance of wireless network protocols, which account for whether the device is still, how fast it is moving, and the direction it is heading in with the goal of performance optimization. The research suggests two performance improvement methods--the maximization of the bit rate at which protocols transmit data and the minimization of the number of handoffs between Wi-Fi access points to better accommodate real-time applications by reducing delay and jitter. The sensor data interpretation software has so far been developed for Linux and Android devices, but the researchers say it should be simple to embed it within other mobile platforms.
Playability or What a Video Game Must Feature to Be Successful
University of Granada (Spain) (03/08/11) Jose Luis Gonzalez Sanchez
University of Granada researchers recently conducted a study exploring the playability of video games. Granada researcher Jose Luis Gonzalez Sanchez says playability involves "the set of properties describing a player's experience when playing--be it alone or with other players--with a specific game that is intended to be both entertaining and credible." The researchers based their study on their own experiences in previous projects, which helped them determine "what children expect from video games, and in understanding what they consider to be entertaining," says Granada professor Francisco Luis Gutierrez Vela. The researchers concluded that video games have their own evaluation and formalization rules, and that there can be standards for defining what users expect from video games.
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