Welcome to the September 21, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Babbage Analytical Engine Designs to Be Digitized
BBC News (09/21/11)
The Science Museum in London has agreed to digitize Charles Babbage's original plans, developed in the late 1830s, for a mechanical computer, which could be used to create a full working model of his Analytical Engine. Researchers are working on a project to build a mechanical computer based on Babbage's sketches, and they say the digital documents will enable them to analyze the different ideas among the sketches and settle on a definitive version of the machine. After studying the documents, the researchers will produce a computer simulation of the Analytical Engine before actual construction begins. "The machine itself is going to be enormous, about the size of a small steam train, so the simulation is important to allow anyone access," says Science Museum in London researcher John Graham-Cumming. The Analytical Engine is expected to have the equivalent of about 675 bytes of memory and run at a clock speed of 7Hz. "[The Analytical Engine] is actually quite fast given that it's all in cogs, so Babbage was thinking about something relatively powerful," Graham-Cumming says. The museum plans to make the sketches available to researchers worldwide.
White House Targets Innovative Education Technologies
InformationWeek (09/19/11) Elizabeth Montalbano
The White House has formed a nonprofit organization to create new learning technologies that will help improve the performance of U.S. students. The National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies (Digital Promise) will help research and develop advanced tools designed to transform education. The center will be charged with identifying breakthrough technologies, such as the digital tutor project of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Navy. Digital Promise also will conduct quick assessments to determine which tools are working, and improve investment in educational technologies to help boost the current market for learning technologies. Startup funds and support will come from the Department of Education, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Digital Promise will also bring together a coalition of business leaders and educators. "If America is going to continue to succeed in the global economy, it is vital that we transform the use of educational technology," says U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Escaping Legacy IT Systems
MIT News (09/20/11) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a computer model of a corporate information infrastructure that could help information technology managers predict the effects of changes to their networks. The researchers compared their model's predictions to data supplied by Ford Motor and found that its estimates of response times for queries sent to company servers were within 5 percent to 13 percent of real times. The researchers, led by graduate student Sergio Herrero-Lopez, professor John R. Williams, and researcher Abel Sanchez, modeled every processor in every server, every connection between processors and disk drives, and every connection between servers and between data centers. The researchers also modeled the way in which processing tasks are distributed across the network by software running on multiple servers. "We take the software application and we break it into very basic operations, like logging in, saving files, searching, opening, filtering--basically, all the classic things that people do when they are searching for information," Herrero-Lopez says. In addition, the researchers' model represents each of the transactions in terms of the computational resources it requires to execute.
5 More Tech Breakthroughs: Innovations in Access, Power and Control
Computerworld (09/20/11) Brian Nadel
Five new technology breakthroughs could change the way users power and interact with their devices and access the Internet. The Wireless Gigabit Alliance has developed the WiGig specification that supports wireless communications at the 60 GHz transmission band, which is enough to transmit an entire high-definition movie in just a few seconds. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech researchers have developed high-output nanogenerators that can produce between 2 and 10 volts from a flexible chip, which is enough energy to power very small devices. PowerCast has developed a method for transmitting power via radio waves, and the company's goal is to develop technology that can extract usable amounts of power from ambient sources such as Wi-Fi signals. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers are trying to extend the useful life of batteries in mobile devices by adding gallium-indium microspheres that can help the battery repair itself. And researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are developing NeuroSys, a project involving brain-computer interfaces. The researchers are monitoring volunteers' brains to develop patterns of brain activity related to nouns and verbs. The program has amassed a vocabulary of 1,000 words and can create simple sentences from subjects' brain patterns.
Indiana University Announces $1.1 Million Fund Establishing World's Largest Student Prize for Software, Technology Business Plan
Indiana University (09/19/11) Steve Chaplin
A group of investors recently created a $1.1 million fund to support $250,000 in annual prizes to Indiana University (IU) Bloomington students that submit the best business plans for a student-led company focused on Internet and software technology. "Our students will leave IU more prepared to be competitive at every level because of the opportunity [Building Entrepreneurs in Software and Technology (BEST)] will provide to be intellectually creative on a unique stage," says IU president Michael McRobbie. Conversations between School of Informatics and Computing Dean Bobby Schnabel, who chairs ACM's Education Policy Committee, and three IU alumni led to the creation of BEST, which is funded by 10 IU graduates who are now chief executives of their own firms. The competition, which is open to all two-person teams of IU Bloomington seniors and graduate students, will be held in three phases over the course of two semesters. The first place winner will receive at least $100,000 to invest in their company, and the university will receive an initial 10 percent equity stake in each winning company. "We fully expect this to become a model of successful alumni co-venturing with IU that will grow in the future," Schnabel says.
Gamers Succeed Where Scientists Fail
UW News (09/19/11) Leila Gray
Gamers have produced an accurate model of the structure of a retrovirus enzyme within three weeks, according to University of Washington researchers. The model was good enough for the researchers to determine the structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus. Scientists have been trying to determine the configuration of this class of enzymes, called retroviral proteases, for more than a decade. "We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed," says Washington researcher Firas Khatib. The players used the game Fold-it, which was created by computer scientists at the university's Center for Game Science in collaboration with Washington professor David Baker. The online protein folding game, which allows players to collaborate and compete in predicting the structure of protein molecules, has thousands of players worldwide. The model generated by the gamers "indicates the power of online computer games to channel human intuition and three-dimensional pattern-matching skills to solve challenging scientific problems," according to the researchers. Scientists could potentially use the model in the development of retroviral drugs, including AIDS medications.
Mining Data for Better Medicine
Technology Review (09/19/11) Neil Savage
Researchers are utilizing digital medical records to conduct wide-ranging studies on the effects of certain drugs and how they relate to different populations. Data-mining studies also are being used to uncover evidence of economic problems, such as overbilling and unnecessary procedures. In addition, some large hospital systems are employing full-time database research teams to study electronic records. Stanford University researcher Russ Altman is developing tools to analyze the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Adverse Event Reporting System, a database containing several million reports of drugs that have harmed patients. The Stanford researchers have developed an algorithm that searched for patients taking widely prescribed drugs who subsequently suffered side effects similar to those seen in diabetics. "There's just an incredibly wide range of possibilities for research from using all this aggregated data," says Margaret Anderson, executive director of FasterCures, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "We're asking, 'Why aren't we paying a little bit more attention to that?'"
Brandenburg Gate Mission Accomplished
Freie Universitat Berlin (09/17/11)
Freie Universitat Berlin researchers have developed an autonomous car driven by computers. The on-board computers receive information from sensors and control the accelerator, brakes, and steering wheel, enabling the car to avoid obstacles, adjust its speed, or change lanes when necessary. The goal of the project is to develop technologies that can be transferred to driver-assistance systems, new safety systems, or to fully autonomous vehicles. The car determines its position on the street using a very accurate global positioning system. The car has three laser scanners at the front and three at the back that can detect any car or pedestrian in a 360-degree radius. A black-and-white video camera is used to detect the lane lines while two color cameras are used to detect traffic lights. During a test drive in Berlin, the car successfully recognized and processed 46 traffic lights during each of the four runs. "The standards used to measure safety in autonomous cars will be far more severe than for humans, but once all pieces fall into place, autonomous cars will be safer than cars driven by persons," says Freie professor Raul Rojas.
Data May Not Compute
Harvard Gazette (09/16/11) Alvin Powell
The fast pace of technology's advance has left some data behind as data stored on tapes, floppy disks, and other media that is now unreadable by modern computers is essentially lost. In addition, file formats change as new programs are developed, making older programs obsolete. To help save this lost data, Harvard University's Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS) is leading the Dataverse Network Project, which provides archival storage for scientific research projects. IQSS provides professional archiving standards designed to ensure future access to data. Once a researcher's data is entered into the system, it is converted from its original file format into a basic one that ensures the information will remain readable for decades. When that format becomes obsolete, the system will automatically convert the data to a new format that also is designed to last for decades, says IQSS director Gary King. The institute currently hosts more than 350 individual researchers' Dataverses, which includes about 40,000 studies and 665,000 files, according to IQSS' Merce Crosas. The software's open source design allows other researchers to add features that can be shared with the community of users.
New Tsunami Software Will Help Protect Vulnerable Coastal Communities
University of Nottingham (United Kingdom) (09/16/11) Lindsay Brooke
University of Nottingham researchers have developed software that could help protect coastal communities from tsunamis. The software is designed to calculate the run-up of the tsunami, predict flooding as it reaches dry land, and simulate the accompanying morphological change for specific sediment types. "This software, and indeed the work we've been doing generally on swash type motions, is world leading," says Nottingham professor Nicholas Dodd. "We can now explore different scenarios for such an impact to deliver worst-case scenarios to inform disaster preparedness as well as the design and location of infrastructure." The software is a product of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership between Nottingham and HR Wallingford, an independent research and consultancy. Dodd and Nottingham's David Kelly developed the mathematical model in collaboration with Michiel Knaapen from HR Wallingford's Coasts and Estuaries Group. The project made use of Kelly's Ph.D. work at the university on simulating swash motions--both the motion of water as it covers and uncovers the beach with waves as well as beach change.
Subversive Apps Help Citizens Fight State Silencing
New Scientist (09/17/11) Kat Austen
Two members of the P2P Foundation are working to compile a real-time interactive map of the entire Internet to identify the physical and virtual locations where access could be easily compromised as well as the entities that have the power to set up network blockades. The map would enable activists to identify the degree and exact location of a network outage, which would give them a better chance of circumventing blockades either by routing through open paths or by using services located abroad such as Telecomix. James Burke and Chris Pinchen launched the ChokePoint Project in March, inspired by the effort of Egyptian authorities to crack down on Internet use in January. "With every country in the world sending network data, over time we'll see the trends of big data patterns," Burke says. P2P Foundation partners are writing software for hiding data transfer and anonymizing its source, which will be available later this year. All code will be made open source.
Social Media for Dementia Patients
SINTEF researchers are developing a version of the popular Facebook social media site that offers a simpler user interface designed for elderly people and those with dementia. "Why should elderly people be excluded from the social media, which are the communication platform of the future?" says SINTEF researcher Tone Oderud. The researchers want to develop a Web-based communications application that is simple and secure for elderly and senile users, their relatives, and caregivers. They say that social media can become an important tool for improving the quality of life of elderly people, while easing the burden on therapists and caregivers. In testing, the application has shown that simple contact between relatives and the support services improved all users' security. "The tests have shown us that there is great potential for all in the fields of caregiving and digital communication," Oderud says.
The Cyborg in Us All
New York Times Magazine (09/14/11) Pagan Kennedy
Within the next decade there is likely to emerge a new kind of brain implant for healthy people who want to interact with and control machines by thought. One technology under development is the electrocorticographic (ECoG) implant, which is less invasive than other devices and capable of riding on top of the brain-blood barrier, sensing the activity of neuron populations and transmitting their communications to the outside world as software commands. Research to study the potential of ECoG implants is being funded by the U.S. Defense Department as part of a $6.3 million Army project to create devices for telepathic communication. Carnegie Mellon University engineer Dean Pomerleau says he is most eager to see a "two-way direct-brain interface" that would "revolutionize human experience." Gerwin Schalk, a pioneer in ECoG development, proposed in a 2008 paper in the Journal of Neural Engineering that humans could be trained to think in computer-recognizable patterns to generate bursts of thought that function as software code. An even less invasive brain-machine interface than the ECoG implant is being researched at Dartmouth College, where scientists are creating an iPhone linked to an electroencephalography headset.
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