Welcome to the January 9, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
U.S. Report Sees Perils to America's Tech Future
Computerworld (01/06/12) Patrick Thibodeau
A new Department of Commerce report warns that certain aspects of the U.S. economy are losing their competitive edge compared to the rest of the world. "Our ability to innovate as a nation will determine what kind of economy--what kind of country--our children and grandchildren will inherit," says Commerce secretary John Bryson. The report says the U.S. ran a trade surplus in advanced technology products until 2002, but in 2010 the U.S. had an $81 billion trade deficit in this sector. The report echoes many of the concerns found in a 2010 National Academy of Sciences report, which warned that the U.S.'s innovation outlook had worsened since the last report was issued in 2005. The Commerce report was required as part of the America Competes Act, which allocates $50 billion for research funding and education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The report notes that since 1980, the federal government has provided just 57 percent of all dollars spent on basic research, compared to 70 percent before 1980. The report recommends immigration reform that allows foreign students to remain in the U.S. after receiving STEM training.
Learning, Teaching Via Video Games
Delaware News Journal (01/08/12) Wade Malcolm
University of Delaware computer science students are developing educational video games for middle school students. The U.S. National Science Foundation provided a $400,000 grant to fund the project over the past three years, and education experts see it as an innovative approach to improving access to educational technology. "It motivates the undergrads to see the value of their tech skills," says Arizona State University professor James Gee. "And the schools get the resources they need." The Delaware students created the games for a laptop designed for classroom use, but they plan to make the games available as free downloads. Many education experts worry that struggling schools will fall behind without combining video games with smaller class sizes and more parental involvement. The Lumina Foundation plans to award six grants worth $1.1 million to researchers looking for ways to provide educational technology to students that need help preparing for college. Video games could add to the one-on-one attention that teachers cannot always provide, says Lumina's Jim Applegate. The Delaware-developed video games will record data on each student, giving them more problems related to areas where they struggle and helping teachers learn their weak points.
The Man Who Wants to Translate the Web
CNN (01/08/12) Luis von Ahn
In a recent TED Talk, Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis von Ahn describes his Duolingo project, which aims to have Internet users help translate the Web into their native language. "I want to translate the Web into every major language: every Web page, every video, and, yes, even Justin Bieber's tweets," von Ahn says. He says the idea behind Duolingo is to transform language translation into something that anyone can do and that millions of people want to do, by helping them learn a new language. With Duolingo, users learn a foreign language while simultaneously translating text. Users could be asked to translate a sentence, to pronounce or listen to a phrase, or to describe what is in an image. By having multiple students translate each sentence, and then choosing the best one, Duolingo produces translations that are as accurate as those from professional translators, according to von Ahn. In addition, he notes that since users create valuable translations as a side effect, learning on Duolingo is 100 percent free, which makes it available to everyone online.
Down to the Wire for Silicon: Researchers Create a Wire 4 Atoms Wide, 1 Atom Tall
Purdue University News (01/05/12) Steve Tally
Researchers at Purdue University, the University of New South Wales, and Melbourne University have created wires a single atom tall by inserting a string of phosphorus atoms into a silicon crystal. Experiments and atom-by-atom supercomputer models of the wires showed that they maintain a low capacity for resistance despite being more than 20 times thinner than conventional copper wires in microprocessors. The researchers say the discovery could provide a roadmap for developing future nanoscale-sized computational devices. They say the discovery also moves donor-atom based silicon quantum computing closer to reality. The results show that Ohm's Law applies all the way down to an atomic-scale wire. The research's overall goal is to develop future quantum computers in which single atoms are used for computation, says New South Wales researcher Michelle Simmons. "For the first time, this demonstrates the possibility that densely doping wire is a viable alternative for the next-generation, ultra-scale metallic interconnect in silicon chips," says Korea Institute of Science researcher Hoon Ryu.
Prof Aims to Rebuild Google With Stuff in Desk Drawer
Wired News (01/05/12) Cade Metz
In 2008, Carnegie Mellon University professor Dave Anderson instructed his students to build a super-low-power domain name system using small computers powered by chips that ran no faster than 600 MHz. However, the students realized that if they combined the processing power of many of the computers they could run massive applications. The key was to split the application's duties into tiny pieces and spread them evenly across the network. "We could use these boxes to run high-performance, large-scale key-value stores--the kind of [databases] you would run behind the scenes at Facebook or Twitter," Anderson says. His project is now known as Fast Array of Wimpy Nodes (FAWN), and Carnegie Mellon research shows that many applications can be much more efficient using wimpy nodes, including Web servers and large databases. However, Google's Urs Holzle notes that "slower but energy efficient 'wimpy' cores only win for general workloads if their single-core speed is reasonably close to that of midrange brawny cores." University of San Diego professor Steve Swanson has found that wimpy nodes and flash work well together. "Adding solid state drives lets you use wimpier cores without giving up as much energy efficiency as you would if you were using a hard drive," Swanson says.
Making Personal Health Records More Usable
Indiana University (01/05/12) Cindy Fox Aisen
Indiana University researchers recently conducted a human-computer interaction study to determine the user experience for several functions of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA's) My HealtheVet system, the U.S.'s most widely used personal health record system. "Understanding how first-time users interact with their personal health records will enable us to design and implement future-generation systems that will serve the needs of patients and those with whom they wish to share health information, including doctors and other trusted parties," says Regenstrief Institute investigator David A. Haggstrom. The researchers studied four functional areas of My HealtheVet, including registration and log-in, prescription refills, tracking of self-reported health information, and searches for health information about specific topics. The study participants say that their personal health information should be downloadable as graphs that they could print and bring to a future doctor's visit. "I believe our novel, interdisciplinary-focused study yielded findings that will inform the future redesign and implementation of the VA personal health record system," says Regenstrief Institute investigator Neale Chumbler.
Defense Bill Approves Offensive Cyber Warfare
InformationWeek (01/05/12) J. Nicholas Hoover
The recently approved U.S. defense budget sanctions the Department of Defense to engage in offensive cyberwarfare to protect U.S. interests and those of its allies, while also directing the military to improve cyberdefensive measures. However, the National Defense Authorization Act does not empower the military to take any offensive cyberaction without presidential authorization. It also orders the Secretary of Defense to obtain more sophisticated cybersecurity capabilities to "discover and isolate" successful attacks for which signatures have not been created. The capabilities must be "adequate to enable well-trained analysts" to uncover advanced persistent threats, and interoperate with endpoints, network gateways, and across worldwide networks. The military is mandated to submit its strategy for fulfilling this directive to Congress by April 1. In addition, the military is required by the act to boost the population and skill sets of cyber security professionals, as well as establish a program over the next several years to spot unauthorized access, use, or broadcast of sensitive data by insiders. In October, U.S. National Security Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander noted that "the advantage is on the offense" in terms of cyber, and that the government should in some instances wage aggressive campaigns against malicious actors.
Ford Uses Online Software Tool to Simulate Visual Impairments
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (01/05/12) Sam Shead
Ford is working with Cambridge University's Engineering Design Center to simulate visual impairments to improve the driving experience in its automobiles. Ford believes many older drivers may need bifocal or varifocal glasses to read the instruments on the dashboard. As a result, Ford is using a visual impairment simulator to study how visual disabilities prevent people from reading the dashboard, and the results will be used to optimize the design of instruments so they can be safely and comfortably read by as many drivers as possible. Cambridge's Engineering Design Center developed the online software tool, which can reproduce the effects of conditions such as cataracts and color blindness. Ford can upload images to test how they might appear to people with various sight impairments. "One of the unique features of our simulation is the ability to vary the degree of visual impairment from very mild to very severe," says Cambridge's Sam Waller. Ford previously has used goggles that simulate cataracts to study the difficulties of older drivers. "The goggles are a very useful tool but this software is a big leap forward because it lets us simulate so many different impairments," says Ford's Angelika Engel.
Wanted: Supercomputer Programmers
HPC Wire (01/03/12) Michael Feldman
The U.S.'s supercomputing labs are having difficulty finding software developers that can program its state-of-the-art machines, according to a recent Daily Beast article. High-performance computing (HPC) systems require engineers trained in the details of parallel programming, such as MPI, OpenMP, and CUDA. The problem is that most undergraduate computer science courses do not teach HPC techniques, and there are only a few specialized HPC curriculums in the country, most of which are associated with the U.S. Department of Energy or the National Science Foundation supercomputing centers. “It’s not that we’ve had a drop-off in enrollments, it’s that we need an increase," says the University of Tennessee's Jack Dongarra. "We need people who can build the applications and algorithms needed to effectively use the equipment." Another problem is that other countries, such as China and India, are having more success in developing HPC talent. Other fast-growing application areas, such as mobile computing, cloud computing, and big data analytics, also are suffering talent shortages.
Researchers Develop Cloud Computing Based Disaster Management System
NDSU News (01/05/12)
North Dakota State University (NDSU) researchers have turned to cloud computing to develop a disaster management system. "Natural and manmade disasters require an effective and efficient management of massive amounts of data and coordination of wide varieties of people and organizations," says NDSU professor Juan Li, who built the cloud computing-based disaster management system in collaboration with fellow professor Samee U. Khan. The researchers make use of a Web-based social network server that provides a platform to enable users to access information, communicate, and collaborate in real time. Workers, first responders, local disaster related nonprofit organizations, volunteers, and local residents will be able to assess the system from any computing device. "Our system provides a community-based, effective, and self-scalable cloud computing environment in which a diverse set of organizations and personnel can contribute their resources, such as data, knowledge, storage, and computing platform to the cloud," Li says.
ICANN Chairman Sees Little Value in Delaying New Domain-Name Program
NextGov.com (01/04/12) Juliana Gruenwald
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is under pressure to delay the introduction of its new generic top-level domain (gTLD) program, which is set to be rolled out Jan 12. The program has been criticized by large U.S. companies, nonprofit organizations, and organizations located overseas, who say that they would have to spend millions of dollars to register domain names with the new extensions to protect their brands. Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse president Josh Bourne puts the average amount that business owners could spend on defensive registrations at $500,000. Critics also have said that new gTLDs could result in an increase in Internet fraud and make consumers more confused when surfing the Web. However, ICANN chairman Stephen Crocker says it is not necessary to delay the new gTLD program and that the program's critics have not explained why they need additional time to address certain issues. He notes that ICANN has protections in place that are designed to address the issues that have been brought up by trademark holders and others. Crocker also believes that delaying the rollout of the new gTLD program would give the impression that ICANN is being influenced by political forces.
Leaping Lizards and Dinosaurs Inspire Robot Design
UC Berkeley News Center (01/04/12) Robert Sanders
University of California, Berkeley researchers are developing robots based on lizards, giving the robots tails to help them maintain balance. "Inspiration from lizard tails will likely lead to far more agile search-and-rescue robots, as well as ones having greater capability to more rapidly detect chemical, biological, or nuclear hazards," says Berkeley professor Robert J. Full, who is working with engineers in the university's Center for Interdisciplinary Bio-inspiration and Research lab. The researchers used high-speed videography and motion capture to record how a lizard handled leaps from a platform with different degrees of traction, from slippery to easily gripped. The researchers created Tailbot, a toy car equipped with a tail and small gyroscope to sense body position, to better understand the lizards unique adaptations. When body position was sensed and fed back to the tail motor, Tailbot was able to stabilize its body in midair. Full says the actively controlled tail redirected the angular momentum of the body into the tail’s swing, as happens with leaping lizards. "Robots are not nearly as agile as animals, so anything that can make a robot more stable is an advancement, which is why this work is so exciting," says Berkeley graduate student Thomas Libby.
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