Welcome to the October 12, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
In Supercomputing, a Turn to Energy-Saving Graphics Chips
New York Times (10/11/11) Steve Lohr
Oak Ridge National Laboratory has announced plans to deploy Titan, an energy-efficient supercomputer that will use thousands of graphics processing units (GPUs), which will give the system the potential to be twice as fast and three times as energy efficient as Japan's K computer, currently the world's fastest supercomputer. Titan will be used in research projects, including the development of "more commercially viable biofuels, cleaner burning engines, safer nuclear energy, and more efficient solar power," says Oak Ridge's Jeff Nichols. Titan will feature a hybrid design, with standard microprocessors surrounded by GPUs. The graphics processors can handle more tasks simultaneously than microprocessors while using less energy. The use of GPUs is "revolutionizing high-performance computing, yielding breakthroughs in performance and in energy efficiency," says University of Washington professor Ed Lazowska. "Titan is a very impressive accomplishment."
An Oracle for Object-Oriented Programmers
MIT News (10/07/11) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers working in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have developed Matchmaker, a system that automatically determines how objects in a large software project interact so it can inform new objects which functions they will need to perform. The system could be especially useful to programmers working with open source software, whose licensing terms require that its underlying code be publicly disclosed. Matchmaker uses the names of two objects in a network and describes how to get them to interact with each other, building up a database of object linkages in the program's source code by monitoring the program's execution. To test the system, the researchers studied eight programmers, asking each of them to perform the same task, which required linking up two different types of objects. Four of the programmers were allowed to use Matchmaker, while the other four were not. The test showed that the programmer who completed the task fastest without Matchmaker still took longer than the slowest of the programmers who used the new system, says MIT professor Armando Solar-Lezama.
Technologists Contemplate a World Without Jobs
Los Angeles Times (10/07/11) David Sarno
The death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs has left the consumer technology industry wondering if his absence will leave it without a clear direction. Apple and its products have been "the standard to which everyone compared themselves," says ACM CEO John R. White. Without Jobs as the industry's leader, the technology sector could lose focus and become a "kind of a garbage collection, cleaning up all the lessons we've learned up to this point--consolidating what we know works well, rather than envisioning it in advance," White says. University of California, Berkeley innovation scholar John Danner expects the technology industry to go through a reorienting period. "Undoubtedly people are now hunkering down in labs and studios all over the world trying to figure out how to occupy what they expect to be a vacuum, and establish themselves as the new pacesetter," Danner says. Apple's products under Jobs accelerated the adoption of personal technology by the population at large, which led to a wider interest in technology beyond hobbyists and technophiles. That interest was reflected by increased media coverage of technology, especially in the form of blogs devoted to the electronics and technology industry.
Phone Tech Transforms African Business and Healthcare
New Scientist (10/10/11) Melissae Fellet
Homegrown innovation in the developing world is leading to new technologies that are helping less advantaged societies improve the lives of their citizens. For example, the MedAfrica mobile application, developed by Kenyan computer scientists, provides Africans with medical advice and direct communication with doctors. Other apps include mFarm, which connects farmers with current market prices for produce using text messages, and an app that provides community health workers with instructions on how to treat common problems during pregnancy and childbirth. Meanwhile, the number of local developers building software for cell phones is growing, especially with the launching of several innovation labs, known as mlabs, in Kenya and South Africa. The goal of mlabs is to teach programming and business skills, as well as connect young developers with mentors. Similar centers are expected to open in Pakistan and Vietnam. "The mobile phone has revolutionized the [developing] world much more subtly and profoundly than people really know," says Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Government Aims to Build a 'Data Eye in the Sky'
New York Times (10/10/11) John Markoff
Social scientists want to mine Internet data and the digital location trails created by cell phones to predict the future. These big data storehouses could reveal sociological laws of human behavior, enabling researchers to predict social and economic instability. The U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) recently launched a three-year experiment to automatically scan the Internet in 21 Latin American countries for big data. The research will focus on patterns of communication, consumption, and movement of populations. In addition to economic and political trends, IARPA's research also will study the ability to predict pandemics and other types of widespread contagion. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently launched a similar project aimed at automatically identifying insurgent social networks in Afghanistan. The computerization of huge databases has led to the development of new statistical methods and software to manage the trillions of entries. Government-backed data-mining research has been controversial, but some computer scientists say it could have a positive effect. "I find this all very hopeful rather than scary, because this is perhaps the first real opportunity for all of humanity to have transparency in government," the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sandy Pentland.
New Computer Programme Promises to Save the Whales
University of Montreal (10/11/11) William Raillant-Clark
University of Montreal researchers have developed software that helps regulators to evaluate the ecological and economic implications of marine mammal conservation, whale watching, and marine transportation activities in the Saint Lawrence estuary. "The objective is to reduce the collision risk with whales while taking into account the impact on industry and marine transportation," says Montreal's Lael Parrott. The program maps the estuary, simulating the movements of five mammal species, the presence and movements of different types of boats, and the environmental conditions. The system is based on actual conditions observed in the estuary since 1994 and takes into account human behaviors based on interviews with those in the shipping industry. The model also takes into account several specific factors, such as the fact that the population of beluga whales is very fragile, having not fully recovered from old hunting practices from more than 40 years ago. The researchers' system can help evaluate and quantify the different factors concerning each species and its environment.
Crowdsourcing Democracy Through Social Media
Georgia Institute of Technology (10/11/11) Michael Terrazas
Georgia Tech researchers have developed a social media aggregator tool that can pull content from about 20 sources and analyze the data in real time using keywords. The researchers, led by Georgia Tech professor Michael Best, used the tool during Nigeria's presidential election last April, tracking the election process and identifying problems that arose by monitoring citizen's comments on social media platforms. At the system's highest activity level, the aggregator tracked about 50 reports a second, analyzing them based on keywords and location data. The Nigerian Social Media Tracking Center (SMTC) sent the confirmable reports of election irregularities and violence to Nigerian authorities. Overall, the aggregator collected about 750,000 reports that contained pre-identified keywords, which the Nigerian SMTC used to compose a summary report listing a series of recommendations for using social media to improve future elections. "Our ultimate goal is to delve deeper into the particulars of this, examining the information's accuracy, depth, timeliness, and scope, and comparing it along those dimensions to other sources of information," Best says. The researchers also want to develop open source software that can be used to track major events as a complementary system to traditional monitoring methods.
Graphene's 'Big Mac' Creates Next Generation of Chips
University of Manchester (10/10/11) Daniel Cochlin
University of Manchester researchers have demonstrated how graphene incorporated into electronic circuits could appear in future devices. The researchers sandwiched two sheets of graphene in between two sheets of boron nitride, creating a four-layered structure that could replace silicon chips in computers. The structure allows researchers to observe how graphene behaves when unaffected by the environment. "Creating the multilayer structure has allowed us to isolate graphene from negative influence of the environment and control graphene's electronic properties in a way it was impossible before," says Manchester's Leonid Ponomarenko. The two layers of boron nitrate are used to separate the graphene layers and to see how graphene reacts when it is completely surrounded by another material. "We did this on a small scale but the experience shows that everything with graphene can be scaled up," says Manchester professor Andre Geim. The British government plans to launch the Graphene Global Research and Technology Hub to commercialize graphene-based technologies.
NC State, IBM Researchers Develop Technique That Offers Enhanced Security for Sensitive Data In Cloud Computing
NCSU News (10/05/11) Matt Shipman
Researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and IBM have developed Strongly Isolated Computing Environment (SICE), a technique designed to protect sensitive information in cloud computing environments without significantly affecting their overall performance. SICE removes sensitive information and workload from the rest of the functions performed by a hypervisor. "Our approach relies on a software foundation called the Trusted Computing Base, or TCB, that has approximately 300 lines of code, meaning that only these 300 lines of code need to be trusted in order to ensure the isolation offered by our approach," says NCSU professor Peng Ning. SICE allows programmers to dedicate specific cores on multicore processors to sensitive workloads, which lets other cores perform all other tasks normally. The researchers say that by separating sensitive information from other functions, SICE provides high assurance for the sensitive workload and efficient cloud resource sharing. During testing, SICE used approximately three percent of the system's performance overhead on multicore processors for workloads that do not require direct network access.
Physicists to Develop New Way of Electronic Computing
UCR Newsroom (10/05/11) Iqbal Pittalwala
University of California, Riverside researchers are developing a new way of computing designed to accelerate applications that process large amounts of data, such as Internet searching, data compression, and image recognition. "Our approach is to utilize the spin degree of freedom to store and process information, which will allow the functions of logic and memory to be fully integrated into a single chip," says Riverside professor Roland Kawakami. "We are looking at a completely new architecture or framework for computing." The researchers plan to build a magnetologic gate that will serve as the engine for the technology. The gate consists of graphene contacted by several magnetic electrodes, with the data stored in the magnetic state of the electrodes. For the logic operations, electrons move through the graphene and use its spin state to compare the information held in the individual magnetic electrodes. "Our team consists of experts in spintronics, magnetoresistive memory, theoretical physics, circuit design, and [complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor] integration, a technology for constructing integrated circuits," Kawakami says.
Smartphones Used to Engage with Learners
Waterford Institute of Technology (10/06/11)
The mCommunity project is a new partnership between Pembrokeshire College, Gower College Swansea, Wales, and Waterford Institute of Technology Telecommunications Software & Services Group that will help educators deal with long-term and general unemployment using state-of-the-art telecommunications technology. The project has developed a learning platform designed for adults that are currently unemployed or not taking formal education classes. The users are given a smartphone that has access to more than 15 virtual course modules with topics ranging from confidence-building to interview techniques, with the goal of improving employment potential and opportunities through education. The mCommunity project was developed using Zimbie, an instant messaging and social networking service, which was used to create a flexible communication and virtual learning platform. Course tutors can use the mCommunity portal to specifically develop a module for an individual learner. An important component is the presence function, which allows tutors to see when learners are online and monitor how they are using and engaging with the mCommunity platform. "The programs are structured to allow learners to continue working in full-time employment whilst continuing to study part-time via a mobile device," says Gower College Swansea's Rob Murphy.
People as 'Sensors': Twitter Messages Reveal NFL's Big Plays and Fans' Excitement
Rice University (10/04/11) David Ruth; Jade Boyd
Researchers at Rice University and Motorola Mobility have developed SportSense, software that monitors Twitter posts of National Football League fans to determine to their level of excitement and keep track of the big plays. The program can tell within seconds when touchdowns, interceptions, and other big plays occur, and it can show how excited fans are about each game that is being played. SportSense also can tell which team benefited from the big play by monitoring fans' emotions and their team loyalties via the tweets. SportSense displays three graphs, one that shows the big plays and the overall excitement level of the fans watching the game, and two others that highlight the excitement level of the fans of each individual team. The researchers want to use the software to sense other events that happen in the world. "People don't often think of themselves as being sensors, but each of us constantly senses and reacts to our environment," says SportSense co-creator and Rice professor Lin Zhong. "Thanks to social media sites like Twitter, it is now possible to capture those reactions--for millions of people--in real time."
Forecasting the Future of Health and Science
Northeastern University News (10/04/11) Jason Kornwitz
Taking a proactive approach to monitoring the spread of a biological virus could transform drug deployment, says Northeastern University professor Alessandro Vespignani. "We have to anticipate the spread of a disease so doctors and policymakers can plan how to use their resources in the most intelligent ways," he says. Vespignani and his team recently received a $1.2 million U.S. National Institutes of Health grant to develop computational tools to measure the spread of pandemic diseases and social contagions. The researchers also received a $1.1 million U.S. National Science Foundation grant to study how Internet memes, rumors, and political revolutions can spread on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. "Social networking sites can be very powerful mechanisms with very deep political implications," Vespignani says. "This study will help us understand how certain tipping points for social changes may occur."
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