Welcome to the August 19, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
IBM Pursues Chips That Behave Like Brains
Associated Press (08/18/11) Jordan Robertson
IBM researchers announced the development of two prototype chips that can process data similarly to the way humans digest information. IBM says the chips represent a major breakthrough in a six-year-long project involving 100 researchers and about $41 million in funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The prototype chips are based on parallel processing, which is important for rendering graphics and analyzing large amounts of data. The chips' ability to adapt to different types of information that it was not specifically programmed to expect is a key feature, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Giulio Tononi, who worked with IBM on the project. The new chips have parts that behave like digital neurons and synapses, and each core has computing, communication, and memory functions, according to IBM Research's project leader Dharmendra Modha. "The key, key, key difference really is the memory and the processor are very closely brought together," Modha says.
Latest in Web Tracking: Stealthy 'Supercookies'
Wall Street Journal (08/18/11) Julia Angwin
It is almost impossible for computer users to detect new, legal techniques employed by major Web sites that track people's online activities through the installation of files called supercookies. Researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley say that supercookies can re-create users' profiles after they have erased regular cookies. Supercookies are stored in different places than regular cookies, such as inside the Web browser's cache of previously visited Web sites. The Berkeley researchers determined, for example, that Hulu.com was using supercookie methods to store tracking coding in files related to Adobe Systems' Flash player, which enables numerous online videos. They also discovered that Hulu's Web site featured code from Kissmetrics, a firm that analyzes Web site traffic data, and which was embedding supercookies within users' browser caches and into files associated with the latest iteration of HTML. Meanwhile, a Stanford researcher has identified a history-stealing tracking service on Flixster.com, which uses software to mine a person's Web browser history on their computer to try to ascertain the sites the person has visited. The company then uses that information for targeted advertising.
Romance vs. STEM
Inside Higher Ed (08/16/11) Josh Jaschik
State University of New York at Buffalo professor Lora Park recently completed a series of research projects, the results of which suggest that when college-age women think about romance, they become less interested in studying science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. However, college-age men can be interested in romance without any impact on their engagement in STEM. Further study of these results could help confront the gender gap in STEM fields, according to Park. In one experiment, participants were shown images related to love or images that related to intelligence goals. Women who were exposed to the romantic images had less positive feelings about STEM fields when surveyed later, while men who were exposed to the same images had the same feelings about STEM as before the test. "This is about the cumulative impact of romantic images and scripts for women's lives" that women are exposed to from very young ages, Park says. The key is to let women "think about their future possible self" not in ways that are dictated by "the script" they have picked up over the years, but by their potential, according to Park.
Teraflop Turf: Bringing Back India's Supercomputing
Economic Times of India (08/18/11) Hari Pulakkat
Bringing India's supercomputing efforts back to a vanguard position is the goal of an ambitious program recommended by the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Prime Minister. The Indian Institute of Science's N. Balakrishnan has called for a large effort involving the development of several supercomputers of varying speeds, and the Planning Commission has agreed to fund the initiative in principle. The project would primarily use commercially available chips but develop state-of-the-art technologies in many other fields. It also would entail a major engagement with the private sector. The project would network Indian scientists and engineers at an unprecedented scale, and make massive computing resources easily available to India's scientific community and the private sector upon completion of its initial phase. "The success of such a project would also depend on its commercial viability," says Vijay Bhatkar of the Center for the Development of Advanced Computing. "So they would need to be general purpose machines capable of solving industrial problems as well." Members of the Indian supercomputing community are calling for a judicious combination of imports and domestic development, while some scientists are attempting to get Indian researchers in the habit of using supercomputers around the world.
Staying in Shape: How the Internet Architecture Got Its Hourglass Shape and What That Means for Future Internet Architectures
Georgia Tech Research News (08/15/11) Abby Robinson
Georgia Tech researchers have developed EvoArch, a computer model that describes the evolution of the Internet's architecture, suggesting that similar protocols compete with each other, driving some of them to extinction. Understanding the evolutionary processes behind the Internet's architecture could help computer scientists design new protocols. However, EvoArch suggests that unless the new Internet avoids widespread competition, it will evolve an hourglass shape similar to today's Internet. The current Internet architecture consists of six layers. Layers at the top and bottom contain many items, while the middle layers do not. EvoArch showed that even if future Internet architectures are not designed in the shape of an hourglass, they will change into that shape over time. The model showed that the top layers are so specialized that they do not compete with each other and rarely go extinct. "To avoid the ossification effects we experience today in the network and transport layers of the Internet, architects of the future Internet need to increase the number of protocols in these middle layers, rather than just push these one- or two-protocol layers to a higher level in the architecture," says Georgia Tech professor Constantine Dovrolis.
One of the challenges of virtually reproducing the look of fabric is replicating the nuanced ways it reflects light, but Cornell University researchers have devised a technique that taps computerized tomography (CT) technology to analyze fabric structure at a high resolution and then ports the output into computer-generated imagery (CGI). The CT image is built out of X-ray images taken from many different angles. CT permits the recording of the three-dimensional structure of fibers, with all of their defects, and several small fabric scraps can then be stitched together into a full garment within a computer. Light reflection is more realistic for the CGI garment because the internal structure of each piece of fabric matches that of an actual scrap of cloth. The Cornell researchers demonstrated realistic renderings of felt, gabardine, silk, and velvet at the recent ACM SIGGRAPH 2011 conference. One researcher says the technology could be potentially applicable to online retailing.
PARC Hosts Summit on Content-Centric Nets
EE Times (08/12/11) Rick Merritt
Xerox PARC is planning an event focused on content-centric networking, a new approach to organizing Internet traffic that could provide greater security and faster connections to popular content, but will require new protocols and changes in hardware design. "We think it's definitely a concept that will change how people design high performance hardware," says PARC engineer Jim Thornton. PARC recently won a U.S. National Science Foundation grant to develop the concept, working with a handful of universities as part of the Named Data Network project. "The sense we have is this is doable, it won't kill us, and forwarding hardware has always stepped up to the challenges new application demands," Thornton says. In a separate European project, Alcatel-Lucent, Orange, and several French universities are working on similar ideas. The September PARC meeting aims to gather researchers to share their work on the software. Content-centric networks could enable the pervasive caching of popular Web content based on actual demand. It also could lead to new levels of security and privacy, as content packets could carry digital signatures that would authenticate authorized users and verify that no one has tampered with the data.
NAND Flash Can Verify a Device's Identity
IDG News Service (08/12/11) Stephen Lawson
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and Cornell University have developed software to test variations in flash behavior that are unique to each chip, allowing a company to verify that a flash chip is authentic by comparing it to results from when it left the factory. The technology also could be used to prevent counterfeiting devices such as cell phones and tablets that use flash chips, or to allow governments to find bugged devices on spies, according to UCSD professor Steven Swanson. He says that testing flash silicon as a proxy for an entire device provides an authentication technique that does not require hardware changes. The only requirement is firmware and an infrastructure for testing devices at key points in the supply chain. The system uses physically unclonable functions, which are variations in manufacturing that are unique to each element of a flash chip. The technique has the advantage of using immutable characteristics of the chip, so it could be carried out and repeated at any stage when a supplier or manufacturer wanted to verify the hardware, notes analyst Roger Kay.
Robot 'Mission Impossible' Wins Video Prize
New Scientist (08/12/11) Melissae Fellet
Free University of Brussels researchers have developed Swarmanoid, a team of flying, rolling, and climbing robots that can work together to find and grab a book from a high shelf. The robot team includes flying eye-bots, rolling foot-bots, and hand-bots that can fire a grappling hook-like device up to the ceiling and climb the bookshelf. Footage of the team in action recently won the video competition at the Conference on Artificial Intelligence. The robotic team currently consists of 30 foot-bots, 10 eye-bots, and eight hand-bots. The eye-robots explore the rooms, searching for the target. After an eye-bot sees the target, it signals the foot-bots, which roll to the site, carrying the hand-bots. The hand-bots then launch the grappling hooks to the ceiling and climb the bookshelves. All of the bots have light-emitting diodes that flash different colors, enabling them to communicate with each other. Constant communication enables Swarmanoid to adjust its actions on the fly, compensating for broken bots by reassigning tasks throughout the team.
Study Predicts Ward Patients at Risk of Critical Event
Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists (08/12/11) Meaghan Shaw
Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists researchers recently completed a computer analysis of routine blood tests and found that they can predict the likelihood of the patient having cardiac arrest or dying up to 12 hours before it occurs. The researchers developed software that analyzed six million blood tests taken from about 500,000 patients over a five-year period to determine the risk of death, cardiac arrest, or intensive care admission. The program was able to predict, on average, a critical event 10.2 hours before it occurred in a ward patients, and 11.9 hours in an emergency department patient. The software sends a message to the patient's doctor if it predicts the patient is likely to die, have a cardiac arrest, or need intensive care within the next 24 hours. The researchers are planning to install the program at Austin Health hospital to continuously collect information from blood tests. "If it looks like this is potentially useful, then the next step is a randomized control trial with patients who are in the risk zone, and half of them will receive standard care and the other half will be linked in to the alerts and we're going to see if it makes a difference," says Austin Health professor Rinaldo Bellomo.
Researchers Fight Cholera With Computer Forecasting
OSU News (08/11/11) Pam Frost Gorder
Ohio State University researchers are working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to develop a computational model that could forecast where cholera outbreaks are likely to occur. The CDC wants to know if the disease is spreading through contaminated water or through human contact. The researchers hope to identify typical patterns of cholera outbreaks and identify regions that are important to controlling the spread of the disease. The researchers found that when a new strain of cholera invades a country, it typically starts with an initial wave in the fall, and then reappears into much larger outbreaks the following summer, a pattern that held true during a recent outbreak in Haiti. "There are lots of different factors to consider--environmental conditions affecting the ability of the cholera bacteria to persist in water bodies, variation in water quality and sanitation in different locales, infection-derived immunity, seasonal drivers such as rainfall," says Ohio State professor Joseph Tien. Modeling the Haiti outbreak is proving to be difficult because hospitals, the United Nations, and UNICEF are all providing data differently, forcing the researchers to develop algorithms that can fit all the diverse data together.
The Public, Playing a Molecule-Building Game, Outperforms Scientists
Chronicle of Higher Education (08/12/11) Rachel Wiseman
Researchers at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon universities are using EteRNA, a Web-based crowdsourcing game, to understand how RNA molecules fit together. The researchers, led by Stanford's Rhiju Das and Carnegie Mellon's Adrien Treuille, designed EteRNA so that the intellectual legwork behind RNA design could be completed by about 26,000 novice scientists. Players are given a puzzle design, such as an RNA molecule in the shape of a star or a cross, which they must fill in with components, representing nucleotides, to produce the most viable solution. The community of players then votes on the blueprint that they think is most likely to succeed. The researchers select the highest rated blueprints and synthesize them, reporting the results back to the crowd. EteRNA has produced results that are more effective than computer-generated arrangements. "EteRNA players are extremely good at designing RNAs, which is all the more surprising because the top algorithms published by scientists are not nearly so good," Treuille says. The researchers believe the program shows great promise for integrating machine learning, experimental data, and crowdsourcing to generate new ideas.
Science News (08/13/11) Vol. 180, No. 4, P. 26 Alexandra Witze
Two-dimensional graphene is a material that could yield novel electronics through its unusual physical properties. The bonds between the carbon atoms in graphene afford the material significant strength and flatness, while the electrons behave as if they have zero mass, unstoppable and moving at a constant velocity. Placing a graphene sheet on top of different substances yields different electronic effects, while bilayer graphene makes building new electronic devices possible because it creates a band gap that enables the electron flow to be controlled. Devices that exploit graphene's unique properties can now be designed due to experiments in which graphene was placed atop a boron nitride substrate, which allows the electrons to flow without interference. A new age of graphene electronics could be ushered in with IBM researchers' creation of the first integrated circuit fashioned completely from the material. The inexpensiveness of graphene could make graphene circuits popular for portable devices such as smartphones. Graphene also is highly moldable, making it applicable for touchscreens, solar cells, and biological sensors.
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