Welcome to the July 29, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
New Language for Programming in Parallel
Technology Review (07/28/11) Duncan Graham-Rowe
SofCheck's Tucker Taft has developed the Parallel Specification and Implementation Language (ParaSail), a new programming language designed to maximize the potential of multicore computer processors by avoiding the problems associated with multicore chips, such as dividing tasks and sending them to each core in parallel. ParaSail, which will work on Windows, Mac, and Linux computers, is similar to the C and C++ programming languages, except that it automatically splits a program into thousands of smaller tasks that can be spread across cores, which allows for the greatest number of tasks to be completed in parallel. ParaSail also automatically debugs the programs, which makes the code safer. "Everything is done in parallel by default, unless you tell it otherwise," Taft says. ParaSail has several other components that are based on older programming languages developed in the 1980s and 1990s for supercomputers. "There are a lot of people chipping away at the problem, taking existing languages and trying to make them better at handling parallel processing," Taft says.
It's Official--Computerized Agents Do it Better!
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (07/28/11) Joyce Lewis
Robot trading agents are definitively better at trading than humans, according to University of Bristol researchers Marco De Lucas and Dave Cliff. The team conducted a re-run of the well-known IBM experiment in 2001 in which human traders competed against state-of-the-art computerized trading agents and lost. In the latest experiment, the researchers used the Adaptive Aggressiveness (AA) strategy developed at the University of Southampton in 2008. In presenting their findings at the recent International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, the researchers said that AA beat both human and robot traders. "AA was designed initially to outperform other automated trading strategies so it is very pleasing to see that it also outperforms human traders," says Southampton professor Nick Jennings, who helped develop the strategy. "We are now working on developing this strategy further."
UMD Brain Cap Technology Turns Thought Into Motion
UMD Newsdesk (07/27/11) Lee Tune
University of Maryland (UMD) researchers have developed a noninvasive, sensor-lined cap with neural interface software that could be used to control computers, robotic prosthetic limbs, motorized wheelchairs, and digital avatars. "We are on track to develop, test, and make available to the public--within the next few years--a safe, reliable, noninvasive brain computer interface that can bring life-changing technology to millions of people whose ability to move has been diminished due to paralysis, stroke, or other injury or illness," says UMD professor Jose L. Contreras-Vidal. The system uses electroencephalography (EEG) to read brain waves and translate them into commands for computers devices. The researchers have demonstrated that the technology could reconstruct the complex three-dimensional movements of the ankle, knee, and hip joints during human treadmill walking and enable users to control a computer cursor with their thoughts. UMD doctoral student Alessandro Presacco says the "EEG signals can be used to study the cortical dynamics of walking and to develop brain-machine interfaces aimed at restoring human gait function." The researchers also are working with Rice University, the University of Michigan, and Drexel University to develop a prosthetic arm that amputees can control directly with their brain.
Crowd-Simulating Software Could Improve Building Design
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (07/26/11) Stephen Harris
New crowd simulation software could help architects better understand how the design of buildings impacts the way people move through them. A team from Bath and Bournemouth universities is working with engineering consultancy Buro Happold to develop the software, which will use artificial intelligence to model how crowds move. Crowds will be modeled as a group of many individual agents rather than a single mass of people. They will be rendered in a believable way, from both a wide-angle and a close-up view, to make individuals appear realistic and show how their movements affect the rest of the group. The computerized people will be given a destination and a range of actions to choose from but will be left to determine their own route, partly based on data gathered from observing real crowds. "Our challenge is to work out what we can throw away from the sophisticated model and still get plausible-looking behavior when we've got a large number of individuals," says Bath researcher and project supervisor Julian Padget.
Microsoft's Imagine Cup Competition Seeks Diversity
Diverse Education (07/26/11) Amara Phillip
This year students from six historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)--Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, Howard, Tuskegee, and Johnson C. Smith--competed in Microsoft's Imagine Cup, and although none of the teams made it to the finals, the schools plan to send more teams to next year's competition. Many HBCUs say that science, technology, engineering, and technology (STEM) participation at their schools is much more popular than generally thought. For example, this year Tuskegee sent 16 teams to the Imagine Cup, mostly due to the efforts of professor Lee Burge, who used Tuskegee's "Ethics in Engineering Course" to introduce students to the competition. Spelman, where about 35 percent of students graduate with a STEM major, sent one team to the Imagine Cup this year. The Spelman team built a project called MToto, a mobile application that tracks a woman's progress during different stages of pregnancy and is designed to address high rates of maternal mortality in rural Kenya. Spelman professor Jakita Thomas expects the publicity for Spelman's entry to draw more competitors for next year's Imagine Cup. "Next year, participation will double, if not triple," she says.
IEEE Sets Standard for 'White Spaces' Networking at Up to 22 Mbps
IDG News Service (07/27/11) Stephen Lawson
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has published the IEEE 802.22 standard, which defines the unlicensed use of frequencies between TV channels in the VHF and UHF bands. The 802.22 standard will not interfere with TV broadcasts because it uses certain features to prevent interference, such as databases of incumbent spectrum users, according to the IEEE. The new standard could allow Internet service providers to deliver mobile data services with fewer transmitters than ordinary cellular systems by using long-reach frequencies such as those used to transmit TV across metropolitan areas and through walls. Devices will still need to have access to databases of what frequencies are being used nearby and be equipped with cognitive radio technology so they can change frequencies when necessary, and the IEEE standard incorporates those features. Farpoint Group analyst Craig Mathias expects the technology to be widely for government applications, consumer services, and backhaul from Wi-Fi networks.
For 'Creativity,' Just Add 'Crowd'
Wired News (07/26/11) Lena Groeger
Stevens Institute of Technology researcher Jeffery Nickerson is studying how to use crowdsourcing to produce creative ideas. New online tools make assembling large crowds relatively easy, but collaboration is more difficult, Nickerson says. He developed a system that enables people to "speak through the things they produce" by using a crowdsourcing marketplace, a drawing platform, and an organizational approach that mimics natural evolution. Nickerson tested the system by recruiting an initial crowd to design a chair for children. The first sketches were combined and built upon to create a second generation of chairs. Nickerson continued the experiment for three generations, resulting in 200 chair sketches. The last generation of chairs was rated as more creative, practical, and superior to the first. "Innovation comes from taking one idea from one place, another idea from another place, and combining features of both to come up with something new," Nickerson says. He says the system divides the innovation process between computers and humans, with computers managing the workflow and humans combining the ideas.
Futuristic Robotics Making Progress Today
Control Engineering UK (07/26/11)
At the recent European Robotics Forum a major topic of discussion was how the Fukushima nuclear disaster could have been aided by the use of robotics technology. Cognitive robots, whose thought processes would be similar to artificial intelligence, are possible and could help solve problems such as those encountered at Fukushima, says EUCogII project research coordinator Vincent C. Muller. "We need to focus on developing intelligent, flexible, biologically inspired alternatives," Muller says. Japanese officials could have benefited from an accurate understanding of what was going on inside the reactor, which could have been achieved using surveillance robots. "France and Germany, both nations dependent on nuclear power, have robotically equipped response teams and the Japanese should have sought help from these specialists, to whom robots are not seen as futuristic, but as standard kit," says RU Robots' Geoff Pegman. Tufts University researchers have designed a robot that mimics ballistic rolling, one of the fastest wheeling behaviors in nature. Tufts' GoQBot simulates the ballistic rolling movement of certain caterpillars, and is equipped with five infrared emitters to allow motion tracking using high-speed three-dimensional tracking systems.
NASA's iPad App Beams Science Straight to Users
NASA News (07/26/11) Wade Sisler
U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) researchers recently released the NASA Visualization Explorer, an iPad app that enables users to interact with images, video, and information about NASA's most recent Earth science research. The app features high-resolution movies, still photographs, and short stories that put the different visuals in context. The app also includes social networking interfaces, including links to Facebook and Twitter, as well as interviews with scientists and imagery from supercomputer modeling efforts. "Its one-of-a-kind content is geared to the general public, students, educators--anyone interested in the natural world," says NASA's Michael Starobin. NASA project manager Helen-Nicole Kostis says "the NASA visualization app is the latest step in a rich tradition of content production and application development." NASA researchers began working on the app soon after Apple first released the iPad in April 2010. "We just knew immediately that the iPad provided the perfect platform to showcase NASA science," says Visualization Explorer's principal designer Christopher Smith.
Building a Subversive Grassroots Network
IEEE Spectrum (07/26/11) Ritchie S. King
Commotion Wireless is the Open Technology Initiative's effort to develop mobile ad hoc networks (MANETs) so that citizens of oppressive governments can maintain digital communications in the face of Internet blackouts. Commotion envisions building software packages for cell phones, laptops, and wireless routers to enable on-the-fly support of both Wi-Fi and cellular networks. Each computer and cell phone in a MANET also must function as a router, transmitting information on behalf of other users so data can be relayed across the network. This means the network has to know the optimal route between any two devices, and to do this Commotion plans to use the Optimized Link State Routing (OLSR) protocol. OLSR tells each network device to beam a "hello" signal to all the other devices in range so that a neighborhood map for each device can be plotted out, and then the protocol combines all these maps into an overall network map, which is refreshed about every two seconds. Commotion also needs to ensure that the MANETs are secure and anonymous, and it will be adding a piece of software known as Tor that conceals the sources and destinations of network traffic.
Biological Interface Using Piezotronics
Georgia Tech Research News (07/25/11) John Toon
Georgia Tech researchers have demonstrated a type of piezoelectric resistive switching device in which the write-read access of memory cells is controlled by electromechanical modulation, which utilizes the properties of zinc oxide nanowires. The researchers say the devices could lead to a new way to interface the mechanical actions of the biological world to conventional electronic circuitry. The piezoelectrically modulated resistive memory devices are based on the resistance of piezoelectric semiconducting materials, which can be controlled through the application of strain from a mechanical action. The change in resistance can be detected electronically, which provides a way to get an electronic signal from a mechanical action. The mechanical strain could be the result of mechanical activities such as using a pen, the motion of an actuator on a nanorobot, or the beating of a human heart. "Piezoelectric materials provide the most sensitive way to translate these gentle mechanical actions into electronic signals that can be used by electronic devices," says Georgia Tech professor Zhong Lin Wang.
Rare Birds Go High-Tech to Get Tweets Followed, Cheap
Queensland University of Technology (07/25/11) Katrina Blowers
Ecologists in Australia are using high-tech tools to follow the twitter of native birds to monitor the effects of the changing environment. Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have developed automated acoustic sensors, which have been placed in the bush to record environmental sounds and transmit them to an online digital library. They also have developed software to analyze the data and identify audio segments that contain potential species. "The software filters through the audio and isolates the parts where it can identify potential species amid the cacophony," says QUT researcher Jason Wimmer. However, he says the final analysis is left to the birdwatching community because humans are better at determining the number and type of birds on a recording. About twice as many species have been detected using the approach than traditional surveys with people in the field. The high-tech approach also saves ecologists time and money. "We hope to eventually have these acoustic sensors placed all over Australia continuously streaming live data," Wimmer says.
Sandia's CANARY Software Protects Water Utilities From Terrorist Attacks and Contaminants, Boosts Quality
Sandia National Laboratories (07/25/11) Heather Clark
Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have developed the CANARY Event Detection Software, an open source program that monitors public water systems to protect them from terrorist attacks or natural contaminants. The CANARY software tells utility operators whether something is wrong with their water system within minutes. CANARY can be customized for individual utility systems with their own sensors and software, according to Sandia's Sean McKenna. The researchers used algorithms to analyze data coming from multiple sensors and differentiate between natural variability and unusual patterns that indicate a problem. When new data is received, CANARY determines whether it is close enough to a known cluster to be considered normal or whether it is far enough away to be deemed anomalous. An unintended benefit of the software is that when utility operators better understood the data being sent by their sensors, they could make changes to the management of the water systems to improve its overall quality.
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