Welcome to the October 3, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Ready for the Robot Revolution?
BBC News (10/02/11) Jon Stewart
Many researchers believe a robot revolution is underway that will soon change the way society behaves similarly to the way the computer revolution brought on drastic changes starting in the 1980s. Researchers are developing new laws for robot behavior and designing new ways for humans and robots to interact. "I think robotics technology will change who we are, just as eyeglasses and fire changed who we were before," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Rodney Brooks. Although there currently are commercially available robots that can perform everyday tasks, conventional robots are not humanlike. However, the time is fast approaching when robots will start looking less like machines and more like humans, says Osaka University professor Hiroshi Ishiguro. "I'm very excited about the fact that today in robotics we have machines that are sophisticated enough to be put together with people in a daily life setting," says University of Southern California professor Maja Mataric, who is leading a group that is developing robots to work with stroke patients and elderly people undergoing cognitive changes. However, users will need to trust robots, and many groups are working on making it easier for humans and robots to communicate.
Saving Energy With the "Internet of Things"
Vienna University of Technology (10/03/11)
Vienna University of Technology (VUT) researchers are working with Pacific Controls to develop Internet of things networks in which information is automatically exchanged between electronic devices, computers, and power grids. Intelligent software that can monitor and control the networks could save energy and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. The networks are based on a software platform that enables the specific devices to be controlled in an intelligent way, and bots could automatically detect and solve problems in the network. The future Internet of things needs to be designed in such a way that it can be expanded to an arbitrary size, as scalability is very important, says VUT professor Schahram Dustdar. He notes that a smart network could save money and lives, beginning with simple ideas, such as public defibrillators that automatically call an ambulance in case of emergency.
Computational Modeling Can Help Plan Vaccine Introduction, Pitt Study Finds
University of Pittsburgh News (09/29/11) Allison Schlesinger; Anita Srikameswaran
Computational modeling can predict the impact of a new vaccine introduction and identify potential disruptions before introducing new vaccines to a developing country's active immunization program, which could help prevent storage and transportation problems, according to a new University of Pittsburgh study. "Our study highlights the importance of prior planning when introducing new vaccines to avoid last-minute temporary fixes," says Pittsburgh professor Bruce Y. Lee. The researchers developed a computational model to determine the impact of introducing the rotavirus and 7-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccines to Niger's Expanded Programs on Immunization (EPI) vaccine supply chain. Introducing the vaccines to Niger's supply chain could displace other EPI vaccines from already limited storage and transport space and could prevent them from reaching patients, according to the Pittsburgh study. Computational models can help decision makers plan and understand complex systems, according to Lee. "These models could be a very helpful tool for health workers to plan vaccine supply chains," he says.
New Software Tools for Railway Signaling and Energy Distribution
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (09/30/11)
University of Southampton researchers are leading ADVANCE, a European Union-funded project to develop tools that improve the design of embedded software systems in automated railway signaling and smart energy distribution. ADVANCE will develop methods and tools for formal modeling, verification, and validation, which will lead to precise models for embedded systems that eliminate design errors before projects reach the manufacturing stage. "We are producing formal modeling and verification tools so that system designs can be tested earlier and improvements made before any commitment is made to the final design," says Southampton professor Michael Butler. The ADVANCE researchers are working with the open source RODIN software toolkit, which was originally developed as part of the Rigorous Open Development Environment for Complex Systems project. The researchers say ADVANCE's methods and tools will reduce the cost of formal modeling and verification while increasing the benefits, which will lead to a competitive edge for European systems engineering firms.
Scientists Release Most Accurate Simulation of the Universe to Date
UC Santa Cruz (09/29/11) Tim Stephens
The Bolshoi simulation, which ran on the Pleiades supercomputer at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center, is the most accurate and detailed large cosmological simulation run to date, according to researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and New Mexico State University. They say the simulation provides researchers with a powerful new tool for understanding galaxy formation, dark matter, and dark energy. "What's exciting is that we now have this highly accurate simulation that will provide the basis for lots of important new studies in the months and years to come," says Santa Cruz professor Joel Primack. The main goal of the Bolshoi simulation is to compute and model the evolution of dark matter halos. The Bolshoi simulation focused on a representative section of the universe, computing the evolution of a cubic volume measuring about one billion light years on a side. Other simulations, such as BigBolshoi, which measures a volume 64 times larger than Bolshoi, and MiniBolshoi, which focuses on a smaller part of the universe but with higher resolution, also have been run on the Pleiades supercomputer.
Women in Science? Universities Don't Make the Grade
Georgia Institute of Technology (09/29/11) Mary Frank Fox
Efforts to close the gap between men and women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields often focus on students instead of faculty and institutional structures, according to Georgia Institute of Technology researchers, who conducted a study that examined the reasons behind the continuing low numbers of women pursuing STEM degrees. The researchers found ongoing issues with the environment toward women in the classroom, the structure of academic programs, and poor faculty attitudes. These practices contribute to the long-lasting wage gap between men and women, as well as the ongoing lack of skilled scientists and engineers in the United States, according to the researchers. University program directors believe women's self-confidence and their knowledge about careers in science is a bigger obstacle than their academic ability, according to Georgia Tech professor Mary Frank Fox. She says the key issues facing undergraduate women are a lack of supportive peer relationships, a dearth of faculty advisers, unsupportive classroom climates, a lack of both faculty and administrative commitment to undergraduate women, and little attention paid to gender equity on campus.
Electronic Elections: One App, One Vote
New Scientist (09/28/11) Joel Shurkin
Rice University researchers led by Bryan Campbell have designed an iPhone app that will allow voters to cast their ballots with their smartphones. In testing, it usually took participants 90 seconds longer to cast their vote on the smartphone system. The trial involved 55 people ranging from 18 to 69 years old, with and without smartphone experience. Campbell says participants who were familiar with smartphones voted with a fewer number of mistakes, compared to selecting candidates on conventional voting systems. Adjustments could be made to the app to reduce the time it takes to vote with the smartphone system, according to the researchers. The use of smartphones to cast ballots could amplify the lingering security concerns about e-voting systems, but the team is aware of such issues and expects to address them in the future. "Some form of Internet voting seems inevitable and it follows that smartphones and other Internet-capable mobile technologies will play a role," Campbell says.
Mind-Reading Car Could Drive You Round the Bend
Guardian (United Kingdom) (09/28/11) Sam Jones
The Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) is trying to help Nissan incorporate brain-machine interface (BMI) technology into its vehicles. The goal is to enable vehicles to read the mind of its driver and predict the next maneuver to improve road safety. BMI technology requires an extremely high level of human concentration, so EPFL researchers are using statistical analysis to predict driving behavior and to evaluate a driver's cognitive state relevant to the driving environment. A BMI-enabled car would measure brain activity, monitor patterns of eye movement, and scan the environment around the car. The vehicles may be able to prepare themselves for a left or right turn--selecting the correct speed and positioning--by gauging that their drivers are thinking about making such a turn. "During our collaboration with EPFL, I believe we will not only be able to contribute to the scientific community but we will also find engineering solutions that will bring us close to providing easy access to personal mobility for everyone," says Nissan's Lucian Gheorghe.
It's All About the Hair
UCSD News (CA) (09/28/11) Ioana Patringenaru
Recent University of California, San Diego computer science Ph.D. graduate Iman Sadeghi developed a new way to light and animate characters' hair, and his method is now part of Disney's production pipeline to be used in upcoming movies. "I think his work was critical [because] he brought state-of-the-art research into our studio," says Disney's Heather Pritchett. Sadeghi's method enables animators to add realistic lighting to hair, while also adding artistic effects. The software allows artists to control the sheen, color, and highlights in animated hair. Disney animators previously used two separate systems to shade characters' hair. One is based on the physical laws that govern the way light interacts with hair, but it does not allow for any control by artists. The other is fully controlled by artists, but does not reflect how hair and light interact in the real world. Sadeghi's system combines the two older systems, giving animators complete control, while maintaining the physical properties of light and hair.
An SOS From a Failing Heart: Saving Heart Attack Patients With Computer Science
University of Michigan News Service (09/28/11) Nicole Casal Moore
Researchers at the University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, and Brigham and Women's Hospital have found subtle markers of heart damage hidden in hours of electrocardiogram (EKG) data, which could help doctors identify which heart attack patients are at a greater risk of dying soon. The findings could help provide thousands of cardiac patients with life-saving treatment in time. The researchers used data mining and machine learning techniques to analyze 24-hour continuous EKGs from 4,557 heart attack patients. The researchers found that the EKG signals from many patients who later suffered cardiovascular death contained similar patterns that are generally dismissed as noise. "By using sophisticated computational techniques, we can separate what is truly noise from what is actually abnormal behavior that tells us how unstable the heart is," says Michigan professor Zeeshan Syed. The researchers developed methods to sort through the data to find abnormalities, known as computational biomarkers, which point to defects in the heart muscle and nervous systems. The researchers found that those patients with at least one of the biomarkers were between two and three times more likely to die within 12 months of having a heart attack.
The Internet of Tomorrow: Faster, Better and Cheaper
UA News (AZ) (09/26/11) Robert Perkins
Researchers from the University of Arizona, the University of Southern California (USC), and seven other institutions say they are trying to save the Internet by making it cheaper, faster, and better. In 2008 the researchers received a five-year, $18.5 million U.S. National Science Foundation grant to establish the Center for Integrated Access Networks (CIAN). CIAN's goal is to solve the data crisis by helping optoelectronic technology reach its full potential. "CIAN is aimed at transforming the Internet to a high-speed network that uses less energy, is more reliable so that it reconfigures itself around network impairments, is scalable to make it suitable for a growing number of end users, and is not too costly," says CIAN director Nasser Peyghambarian. The Center's researchers have made key breakthroughs in transforming the way large amounts of data are transmitted and they have developed three new techniques of restoring degraded optical signals. USC's Alan Willner says computer terminals eventually could be outfitted with chips that use these techniques to clean up damaged data.
National Convocation Highlights Best Practices for Improving STEM Education
National Science Foundation (09/26/11) Maria C. Zacharias
Advances in science and engineering will be largely responsible for future economic growth and job creation, according to a new report issued by the U.S. National Research Council. The study offers best practices for improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, and provides recommendations for school districts and policymakers. About 300 educators, policymakers, and business professionals recently gathered at Drexel University to launch a national effort to put the report's ideas into action. "The 21st century is the century of science and technology--not just for people who are in the STEM enterprise, but for the average citizens of the world," says U.S. National Science Foundation director Subra Suresh. "They have to be science savvy, they have to be engineering savvy, they have to be technology savvy, just to survive in the global competitive landscape." The recommendations will be key to improving STEM learning and teaching in classrooms. The report will be shared with practitioners, state and local STEM education leaders, and others, and its findings will guide future research on STEM education.
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