Welcome to the November 18, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Foreign Firms Troll for Tech Grads
USA Today (11/16/11) Jon Swartz
Foreign technology companies, many of which are led by foreign-born tech workers who left the U.S. due to visa issues, increasingly are recruiting some of the U.S.'s best students. Although many top-level U.S. technology graduates will get domestic job offers, they will not get the type of high-level engineering and product-development jobs that overseas companies can provide. "Spending a couple years overseas is not a bad idea professionally, and our work environment is similar to a U.S. company," says India-based Snapdeal CEO Kunal Bahl, who studied at the University of Pennsylvania but was unable to get an H1-B visa to stay in the United States. The domestic drain on science, technology, engineering, and math students comes as President Obama tries to get lawmakers to change the U.S.'s immigration laws. "While we shut our doors and keep entrepreneurs, engineers, and scientists out, other countries are welcoming them," says Duke University's Vivek Wadhwa. The Chinese government is currently offering permanent residence visas, comparable salaries, and other incentives to lure U.S. graduates. The movement of tech talent overseas could lead to a negative trend for the U.S. economy, which relies on immigrants, entrepreneurs, and risk takers, warns immigration lawyer Michael Wildes.
The Bumpy Road to Exascale: A Q&A With Thomas Sterling
HPC Wire (11/17/11)
Indiana University professor Thomas Sterling says in an interview that an effort is underway to cultivate an international community committed to the goal of developing a shared software stack for exascale computing. He cites several issues that could be problematic, one of which is a lack of clarity on the execution model needed to steer the stack's development. Sterling prefers a revolutionary approach for meeting exascale challenges, and notes that "without a paradigm shift in the manner in which computation is organized and conducted ... there will not be adequate efficiency or scalability to fully employ systems capable of exaflops performance by 2020." The second issue Sterling raises concerns how the work and credit for bringing exascale computing about will be shared among international stakeholders. He says at least three initiatives in Europe, China, and Japan are focused on exascale development, and points to meaningful international engagement as a critical factor in making a future exascale approach workable. Sterling says that "international discussions can begin to converge on a global strategy of cooperation. But this will not work unless there is an overriding execution model to which all parties can agree and to which all component layers, wherever developed will be compliant."
Smart Swarms of Bacteria Inspire Robotics Researchers
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (11/17/11)
Tel Aviv University (TAU) researchers have developed a computational model that describes how bacteria move in a swarm, a discovery they say could be applied to computers, artificial intelligence, and robotics. The model shows how bacteria collectively gather information about their environment and find an optimal plan for growth. The research could enable scientists to design smart robots that can form intelligent swarms, help in the development of medical micro-robots, or de-code social network systems to find information on consumer preferences. "When an individual bacterium finds a more beneficial path, it pays less attention to the signals from the other cells, [and] since each of the cells adopts the same strategy, the group as a whole is able to find an optimal trajectory in an extremely complex terrain," says TAU Ph.D. student Adi Shklarsh. The model shows how a swarm can perform optimally with only simple computational abilities and short term memory, Shklarsh says. He notes that understanding the secrets of bacteria swarms can provide crucial hints toward the design of robots that are programmed to perform adjustable interactions without needing as much data or memory.
Exascale Computing Seen in this Decade
Computerworld (11/16/11) Patrick Thibodeau
A major focus at the SC11 supercomputing conference is developing an exascale computing system, which would be about 1,000 times more powerful than any existing system. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which will fund the development of exascale systems, wants a functional exascale computer by 2020 that will not use more than 20 megawatts (MW) of power. "We're in a power-constrained world now," says Nvidia's Steve Scott, who believes the DOE's 20 MW goal can be achieved by 2022. "The performance we can get on a chip is constrained not by the number of transistors we can put on a chip, but rather by the power." To reach the required level of power efficiency to develop an exascale system that runs on 20 MW, power usage technology will have to be improved by a factor of 50, according to Scott. Intel plans to meet the 20 MW exascale goal by 2018, says Intel's Rajeeb Hazra. However, before reaching the exascale level, vendors will produce systems that can scale into the hundreds of petaflops, such as IBM's Blue Gene/Q system, which is capable of 100 petaflops.
Software to Investigate Cybercrime's Social Side
New Scientist (11/16/11) Jacob Aron
Secure Business Austria researcher Markus Huber has developed software that can take a social snapshot of someone's Facebook profile, enabling police to examine a suspect's data without Facebook's input. The software requires the suspect's Facebook authentication token, which is obtainable if the police have already seized the suspect's hard drive. Once the police have the token and have installed the custom Facebook app, they can log into a suspect's account and gain access to all of the data the suspect normally has access to, except contact details for their friends. The system then presents the information in several ways, including listing a suspect's friends according to the number of messages sent or building a timeline of a suspect's social activity, which could make it easier to gather evidence. Meanwhile, Liverpool John Moores University researchers are developing software that aims to comb social networks where information is publicly viewable in search of suspects. "We can do filtering based on certain criteria such as geographical location or people in a university," says Liverpool researcher Norulzahrah Zainudin.
APLU Panel Addresses Challenges of Minorities Enrolled in STEM Fields
Diverse Online (11/15/11) Lydia Lum
A recent Association of Public and Land-grant Universities meeting found that despite increased efforts to raise the number of U.S. minority college students seeking science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) degrees, they still face many of the same issues as they did several decades ago. "Minorities are too often steered into low-achieving programs, and they have academic difficulties from a young age," says Stratford STEM Magnet High School's Sharon Matthews. At the meeting Lorenzo Esters presented preliminary findings of a survey of STEM students, faculty, and administrators, focusing on best practices in recruitment, retention, and graduation of underrepresented students at 14 U.S. institutions. More than 50 percent of minority male student respondents were first-generation college attendees, relying on grants or loans to pay for tuition, and 11 percent of those students worked at least 26 hours a week in outside jobs. In addition, 71 percent of students said they felt the need to prove themselves, and 73 percent did not use the available mentoring programs. Other national surveys have indicated that minority college students in STEM fields typically do not seek out mentors, notes University of California, Los Angeles professor Sylvia Hurtado.
Beauty Now in the Eye of the Algorithm
Technology Review (11/17/11) David Talbot
Xerox Research Center Europe computer scientists have developed technology that sorts photographs by their content as well as their aesthetic qualities. The technology could help with tasks such as choosing which of hundreds of digital photos should appear in an album. "What they show is that now you don't need a human to select images that are going to be judged beautiful," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Aude Olivia. The technology learns about quality photographs by studying photos that have been placed on public display in online photo albums. "We try to learn what it is about these features that makes photos 'good,'" says Xerox's Craig Saunders. The technique is based on previous Xerox research that aims to improve image recognition by categorizing photos by their visual vocabulary. The technologies can develop knowledge about what pieces correspond to certain types of images by studying Internet-based photos that are already tagged with text identifying what is in each photo. Xerox recently announced the development of a system that can find images that have similar characteristics, sorting through five million images in less than a second.
Georgia Tech Develops Speedy Software Designed to Improve Drug Development
Georgia Institute of Technology (11/15/11) Jason Maderer
Georgia Tech researchers have developed a computer model that could enable scientists to determine why a newly created drug does not bind well to its intended target. In the past, computer algorithms that study the interactions between molecules have been slow, which limits the type of research that can make use of quantum mechanical methods. However, Georgia Tech researchers say their program can study larger molecules faster than any other program. "Our fast energy component analysis program is designed to improve our knowledge about why certain molecules are attracted to one another," says professor David Sherrill. "It can also show us how interactions between molecules can be tuned by chemical modifications, such as replacing a hydrogen atom with a fluorine atom." The tool will help advance rational drug design. Georgia Tech will distribute the code free of charge, as part of the open source computer program PS14, which should be available in early 2012.
New Computer Interfaces Challenge Touch Screens
IDG News Service (11/15/11) Nick Barber
Researchers at several recent conferences have shown how new interfaces could change the future of human-computer interaction. For example, at this year's Computer Human Interaction (CHI) conference, the University of British Columbia's Vincent Levesque demonstrated a way to change the feeling of a touchscreen, sometimes making it slippery and other times making it sticky. "This is actually the same technology used in many cell phones or other devices, but it runs at a higher frequency so you don't feel the vibration itself," Levesque says. Also at the CHI conference, Texas A&M University researchers presented a gesture-controlled systems called ZeroTouch, which is equipped with 256 infrared sensors that create a spider web of light. When the web is broken, the computer interprets the size and depth of the break and displays it as a brushstroke. When ZeroTouch is placed over a computer screen it becomes a touchscreen. Meanwhile, Hasso Plattner Institute researchers have developed imaginary interfaces that enable users to interact with mobile devices when they are not in front of them. And at Ceatec 2010, TDK presented electroluminescent displays, which are intended for use as the main display panel in mobile phones and other devices.
Walls Have Eyes: How Researchers Are Studying You on Facebook
Time (11/14/11) Sonia van Gilder Cooke
Facebook's trove of personal information is so encyclopedic that researchers are using the site's advertising tool to pinpoint their desired demographic with scientific accuracy, according to a recent Demos report. The report focused on European right-wing extremist groups, and used Facebook's data to find 500,000 fans of right-wing groups across Europe. The researchers linked these Facebook users to a survey that asked questions about their education level, attitudes toward violence, and optimism about their own future. Demos' research is just one example of how Facebook is becoming a popular tool among scientists. There are currently more than 800 million active users adding an average of three pieces of content daily, driving the number of academic papers with the Facebook's name in the title up almost 800 percent over the past five years. Researchers say Facebook's data also could be used to address social health problems. For example, a University of Wisconsin-Madison study found that undergraduates who discussed their drunken exploits on Facebook were significantly more likely to have a drinking problem than those students who did not discuss the topic online.
W3C Proposes Do Not Track Privacy Standard
InformationWeek (11/14/11) Matthew J. Schwartz
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) released the first draft of its proposed standard for implementing Do Not Track online, which is designed to give consumers the ability to opt out of having their personal information and online browsing habits tracked by advertisers, marketers, and Web sites. The final W3C standard, which will be released next summer, will detail how consumers can express their tracking preferences, and how Web sites will acknowledge those preferences. "The overall goal is to match the expectations of the users," says W3C Tracking Protection working group co-chair Matthias Schunter. "The working group has just started, but the big achievement at this point isn't the documents that we've put out, but that we've gathered all of the big players in the space together." The working group is creating the Tracking Preference Expression, which will define a standard for how a browser can tell a Web site that a user wants more privacy, and the Tracking Compliance and Scope Specification, which details how Web sites should comply with Do Not Track preferences.
Face Recognition Makes the Leap From Sci-Fi
New York Times (11/12/11) Natasha Singer
Facial detection and recognition technologies are starting to come into their own, with applications that include software for digital billboards that gauges a passer-by's characteristics to display targeted ads. Meanwhile, the SceneTap smartphone app uses cameras with facial detection software to scout Chicago bars so bar-hoppers can decide what establishments to patronize. Facebook also has introduced a tool that uses facial recognition to identify a user's friends in photos and automatically suggest name tags for them. Some regulators say the technologies offer tremendous marketing opportunities while also having the potential to seriously compromise privacy. "It's a future where anonymity can no longer be taken for granted--even when we are in a public space surrounded by strangers," warns Carnegie Mellon University professor Alessandro Acquisti. To address the problem of invasive marketing practices supported by facial recognition, Maneesha Mithal at the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection believes consumers should be offered the choice of whether to be subject to such practices.
Stanford Joins BrainGate Team Developing Brain-Computer Interface to Aid People With Paralysis
Stanford University (11/11/11) Tanya Lewis
Stanford University researchers have joined the BrainGate research project, which is investigating the feasibility of people with paralysis using a technology that interfaces directly with the brain to control computer cursors, robotic arms, and other assistive devices. The project is based on technology developed by researchers at Brown and Harvard universities, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center. BrainGate is a hardware/software-based system that senses electrical signals in the brain that control movement. Computer algorithms translate the signals into instructions that enable users with paralysis to control external devices. "One of the biggest contributions that Stanford can offer is our expertise in algorithms to decode what the brain is doing and turn it into action," says Stanford's Jaimie Henderson. He is working with Stanford professor Krishna Shenoy, who is focusing on understanding how the brain controls movement and translating that knowledge into neural prosthetic systems controlled by software. "The BrainGate program has been a model of innovation and teamwork as it has taken the first giant steps toward turning potentially life-changing technology into a reality," Shenoy says. The researchers recently showed that the system allowed a patient to control a computer cursor more than 1,000 days after implementation.
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