Welcome to the March 7, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Stanford Offers More Free Online Classes for the World
Stanford Report (CA) (03/06/12) Jamie Beckett
Stanford University is introducing five free online classes in March as the next step in a university initiative to use new technologies to improve education. The classes follow the launch of pilot classes last fall, which drew more than 350,000 participants. "Stanford has been a pioneer in online education for many years, and we are pleased to continue expanding and refining our online offerings to benefit both our own students and students around the world," says Stanford University provost John Etchemendy. Three classes--Design and Analysis of Algorithms, Natural Language Processing, and Cryptography--will launch March 12, and Game Theory and Probabilistic Graphical Models will launch March 19. People enrolled in the free classes do not get Stanford credit for their work, but they do receive a statement of accomplishment if they successfully complete a course. "Advances in video technology, social networks, and collaboration software have put us at an inflection point in technology for higher education," says Stanford professor John Mitchell, who will chair a multidisciplinary faculty committee on educational technology. The committee will explore some of the complex issues around providing high-quality online education, as well as create an on-campus lab for experimentation.
As New iPad Debut Nears, Some See Decline of PCs
New York Times (03/05/12) Nick Wingfield
The growing popularity of tablets may be a sign that they will soon overtake traditional personal computers (PCs) as the leading device on the market. When Apple's iPad first hit the market in 2010, PCs outsold tablets 20 to one, according to Canalys. However, last year that ratio had fallen to six to one in favor of PCs. For the last two years, PC sales have been flat, while tablet sales have boomed. "From the first day it shipped, we thought--not just me, many of us thought at Apple--that the tablet market would become larger than the PC market, and it was just a matter of the time that it took for that to occur," says Apple CEO Timothy D. Cook. The tablet boom will become even more pronounced as the younger, tech-savvy generation ages, predicts technology entrepreneur Tim Bucher. "Tablets are on fire, there's no question about that," says venture capitalist Brad Silverberg. Although Silverberg was mainly referring to the success of the iPad, other vendors also have launched popular tablets, including Amazon's $199 Kindle Fire, and the forthcoming release of Windows 8 could further boost the market.
Can Social Media Predict Election Outcomes?
USA Today (03/06/12) Scott Martin; Jon Swartz
The Republican presidential candidates are hoping to tap social media to sway the Super Tuesday elections by using social media to collect data on voters, while tech companies are analyzing social media trends to make forecasts of the U.S. electoral outcomes. "When you have big data in real time that streams, it gives you the ability to predict this," says IDC analyst Mike Fauscette. Several firms make software that lets customers perform market research based on online data, and much of this work is founded on text analysis that mines decades of linguistics research. For example, an analysis of Twitter data by Attensity projects that Mitt Romney will grab the most votes on Super Tuesday. However, others caution the technology is still in its infancy. Forrester analyst Zach Hofer-Shall says if any of the predictions based on social media come close, "I would argue it's coincidental. There are a number of problems with it." Carnegie Mellon University professor Noah Smith also has doubts. "It's a fascinating area of research, but it's not yet mature," Smith says. Others note that Twitter data is easily manipulated. "You can hire people to tweet for you and you can have it [Twitter] robo-tweet," says Hewlett-Packard's Bernardo Huberman.
Deutsche Telekom Claims Record Data Transfer Record
BBC News (03/06/12)
Deutsche Telekom researchers recently achieved a usable bit rate of 400 Gbps over a single channel of its fiber-optic network, more than double the 186 Gbps record set by researchers in the United States and Canada last year. The researchers sent data along the company's network between Berlin and Hanover and back again, a total distance of 456 miles. The experiment delivered a maximum 512 Gbps down each channel, of which 400 Gbps was usable data, which is the equivalent of transmitting 77 music CDs simultaneously in one second. Each optical fiber can carry up to 48 channels, which means the total potential throughput could reach up to 24.6 Tbps. Deutsche Telekom says the achievement was realized by working with Alcatel Lucent to create new technologies installed in its terminal stations at either end of the fiber. Much of the speed upgrade was accomplished via enhancements to the software used for forward error correction, which allowed a limited volume of corrupted bits to be corrected without having to resend the information. "It means improvements can be carried out without digging up the existing fiber, without massive hardware replacement--that's actually the charm of the thing," says Deutsche Telekom's Heinrich Arnold.
A New Direction for Game Controllers
University of Utah News (03/05/12) Lee J. Seigel
University of Utah researchers have developed a video game controller that vibrates like existing devices, but also pulls and stretches the thumb tips in varying directions to simulate different sensations. "I’m hoping we can get this into production when the next game consoles come out in a couple of years," says Utah professor William Provancher. He says the controller provides directional cues to the player by stretching the skin of the thumb tips in different directions. "We have developed feedback modes that enhance immersiveness and realism for gaming scenarios such as collision, recoil from a gun, the feeling of being pushed by ocean waves, or crawling prone in a first-person shooter game," Provancher says. As part of the new controller, each ring-shaped thumb stick is equipped with a round, red "tactor" that looks like the eraser-head-shaped ThinkPad TrackPoint or point stick that comes with several laptop computer brands. During testing, the researchers found that users' brains made the necessary mental rotation of the directional tugs so they could perform just as well if their thumbs were angled as if their thumbs were straight. The researchers plan to adapt the game controller for use as a smartphone peripheral device.
Developing Robots That Can Teach Humans
National Science Foundation (03/05/12) Miles O'Brien
University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) researchers are studying gaze behavior in humans to create algorithms that can reproduce it in robots and animated characters. "These are behaviors that can be modeled and then designed into robots so that they [the behaviors] can be used on demand by a robot whenever it needs to refer to something and make sure that people understand what it's referring to," says UW-Madison's Bilge Mutlu. The researchers say there will be major benefits to making robots and animated characters look more like humans. "We can build animated agents and robots that can communicate more effectively by using the very subtle cues that people use," says UW-Madison's Michael Gleicher. The researchers designed experiments to study the effect of robot gaze on humans. "We are interested in seeing how referential gaze cues might facilitate collaborative work such that if a robot is giving instructions to people about a task that needs to be completed, how does that gaze facilitate that instruction task and people's understanding of the instruction and the execution of that task," Mutlu says. During testing, the researchers found that when robots used human-like gaze cues, the study participants were much faster in completing tasks.
'Smart Fur' Lets Robo-Pets Read Owners' Emotions
InnovationNewsDaily (03/05/12) Rachel Kaufman
University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers have developed a robotic bunny that uses "smart fur" to mediate a user's emotions, calming them down or cheering them up by leading them through deep-breathing exercises. The researchers say smart fur sensors can tell the difference between a petting motion, a scratch, or a breath, and ultimately will recognize up to 30 gestures. "The end goal of this would be to try to infer a person's emotional state, given how they're touching the fur," says UBC graduate student Anna Flagg. During testing, seven volunteers were recruited to scratch and pet the smart fur in their own way. Despite the differences, there were enough similarities that the system could tell the difference. The wired robot rabbit already has helped children with anxiety disorders and children on the autism spectrum. The researchers now are trying to adapt the technology for adults, perhaps by applying it to a smartphone. "It would be interesting to have a little companion with me that could see when I'm becoming stressed and help guide my breathing, and maybe even notice it's happening before I notice it," says UBC professor Karon MacLean.
Microsoft Devises Faster, More Power-Efficient Mobile Browsing System
V3.co.uk (03/05/12) Gareth Morgan
Microsoft is developing PocketWeb, a mobile browser system that offers faster search results and conserves battery life. PocketWeb is designed to predict which Web sites a user is likely to visit and then pre-fetch the Web addresses. Microsoft's Dimitrios Lymberopoulos is leading the development effort, which includes profiling the browsing patterns of 8,000 Bing users via their mobile Web access logs. An analysis of the logs found that users typically visited a small number of Web sites very often and a larger number far less frequently. The researchers also were able to predict whether a user was likely to visit a familiar page or a new destination based on the time of day and current activity, and determined that it would make less sense to pre-fetch data when users are exploring new Web pages. "For about 80 percent to 90 percent of the users we can accurately pre-fetch 60 percent of the [uniform resource locators] within two minutes before the request," the researchers say. The researchers also found that pre-fetching data used the same or less energy in up to 98 percent of cases.
Cloud Will Create 14 Million Jobs, Study Says
InformationWeek (03/05/12) Paul McDougall
Cloud computing technologies will help create nearly 14 million technology-related jobs worldwide by 2015, resulting in $1.1 trillion in revenue annually, according to a Microsoft and IDC report. "For most organizations, cloud computing should be a no-brainer, given its ability to increase [information technology (IT)] innovation and flexibility, lower capital costs, and help generate revenues that are multiples of spending," says IDC's John Gantz. The report says cloud technologies are creating jobs through direct hiring by IT vendors and organizations as they build out cloud technologies and infrastructures, and by simplifying IT, which enables companies to dedicate more resources to strategic projects that can grow their businesses. "Enterprises that embrace cloud computing reduce the amount of IT time and budget devoted to legacy systems and routine upgrades, which then increases the time and budget they have for more innovative projects," Gantz notes. The majority of the new cloud jobs will be created in media and communications, manufacturing, and banking. In addition, emerging markets such as Brazil, India, and China are expected to see 186 percent, 99 percent, and 84 percent growth in cloud-related jobs, respectively.
Stuxnet: Computer Worm Opens New Era of Warfare
CBS News (03/04/12) Steve Kroft
The Stuxnet computer worm demonstrates the ability of a cyberattack to inflict significant physical damage, and leading U.S. military, intelligence, and law enforcement officials warn that its emergence heralds a coming cyberattack on the U.S.'s critical infrastructure. "We have entered into a new phase of conflict in which we use a cyberweapon to create physical destruction, and in this case, physical destruction in someone else's critical infrastructure," says former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency director Gen. Michael Hayden. Symantec's Liam O'Murchu says it is probable that an intelligence agency was behind the Stuxnet operation. "You're really looking at a government agency from some country who is politically motivated and who has the insider information from a uranium enrichment facility that would facilitate building a threat like this," O'Murchu says. Israel and the U.S. are the most likely countries considered capable of launching such a cyberattack, and possessing the motivation to do so. Hayden notes that unlike a physical weapon, a cyberweapon does not destruct when used. "So there are those out there who can take a look at this, study it, and maybe even attempt to turn it to their own purposes," he says.
Carnegie Mellon University researchers are using the underlying functionality of Microsoft's Kinect technology to make an immersive Panopticon that monitors a user's movements and gives them feedback. The prototype, called Armura, is an extension of an earlier Microsoft project, OmniTouch, which combined a Kinect-like array of sensors with a small, shoulder-mounted projector. Armura takes the idea a step further by mounting both sensors and a projector on the ceiling, which frees the user from having to carry anything. The actual detection is done by infrared light, which reflects off the user's skin and clothes. A camera and software identify the different positions of the user's body parts. The key to the technology is distinguishing between the gestures and positions, matching the user's intention to the pose precisely enough that the correct consequence follows, but not so precisely that slightly non-standard gestures are ignored. The outcome is that if an individual holds his hands out like a book, information is projected on each palm as if that palm were a page. Page turning is enabled by folding the hands, while arm movements will display the locations of particular exhibits or shops.
Research in Programming Languages
Tagide (03/02/12) Crista Videira Lopes
Crista Videira Lopes has had a difficult time determining whether academic research in programming languages (PLs) is a worthwhile endeavor. She notes that in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, language processor development was a major issue, given the limited speed and memory capacity of the computers of the day. However, she says that urgency has waned with the advent of PCs and decent low-level languages. Lopes also sees no apparent correlation between a PL's success and its emergence in doctoral or post-doctoral research, while a significant common element in all modern PLs, particularly the popular ones, is the dearth of actual innovation they offer. This leads her to speculate whether PL innovation, in the context of doctoral work, has hit a wall. Lopes points to some well-known goals of language design--performance, human productivity, and verifiability improvements--and writes that "someone wanting to do doctoral research work in programming languages ought to have one or more of these goals in mind, and ... ought to be ready to demonstrate how his/her ideas meet those goals." She also has yet to see any study that persuasively shows that a PL, or certain PL features, increases the productivity of software development.
Workforce From the Digital Cloud
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (03/01/12) Monika Landgraf
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) researchers have developed a quality management system to help maintain the standard level of work performed by crowd workers. A crowdsourcing project must ensure that the quality of the various micro-jobs remains at a high level. "This is a big challenge, as the contributions of the individual crowd workers in a crowdsourcing scenario can be controlled to a limited extent only," says KIT's Robert Kern. The quality management system is designed to address this issue. "We combine the contributions of several crowd workers by means of statistical methods and derive the quality of the work rendered from the degree of the contributions' agreement and, thus, ensure the required quality of the overall result," Kern says. KIT's quality management system already has been implemented in collaborative projects in the industry. For example, clickworker.com has used the quality management system in a people cloud, which provides a scalable number of workers through the Internet. People clouds are employed when non-automated tasks are carried out, such as allocating images, searching information, or writing texts.
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