Welcome to the March 16, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
ACM Awards Judea Pearl the Turing Award for Work on Artificial Intelligence
PC Magazine (03/15/12) Michael J. Miller
ACM announced that University of California, Los Angeles professor Judea Pearl is this year's winner of the A.M. Turing Award for his work on artificial intelligence. The award, considered the highest honor in computer science, recognizes Pearl for devising a framework for reasoning with imperfect data that has changed the strategy for real-world problem solving. ACM executive director John White says Pearl was singled out for work that "was instrumental in moving machine-based reasoning from the rules-bound expert systems of the 1980s to a calculus that incorporates uncertainty and probabilistic models." Pearl worked out techniques for attempting to reach the best conclusion, even when there is a level of uncertainty. Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf says Pearl's research "is applicable to an extremely wide range of applications in which only partial information is available to draw upon to reach conclusions." He also says the successful business models of companies that search the Internet owe a debt to Pearl's work. Pearl generated the framework for Bayesian networks, which provides a compact method for representing probability distributions. This framework has played a substantial role in reshaping approaches to machine learning, which currently has a heavy reliance on probabilistic and statistical inference, and which underlies most recognition, fault diagnosis, and machine-translation systems.
‘Big Data' Emerges as Key Theme at South by Southwest Interactive
Chronicle of Higher Education (03/15/12) Jeffrey R. Young
Several panels and speakers at this year's South By Southwest Interactive festival discussed the growing ability to use data-mining techniques to analyze big data to shape political campaigns, advertising, and education. For example, panelist and Microsoft researcher Jaron Lanier says companies that rely on selling information about their users' behavior to advertisers should find a way to compensate people for their posts. A panel on education discussed the potential ability of Twitter and Facebook to better connect with students and detect signs that that students might be struggling with certain subjects. "We need to be looking at engagement in this new spectrum, and we haven't," says South Dakota State University social-media researcher Greg Heiberger. Some panels examined the role of big data in the latest presidential campaigns. Although recent presidential campaigns have focused on demographic subgroups, future campaigns may design their messages even more narrowly. "They’re actually going to try targeting groups of individuals so that political campaigns become about data mining" rather than any kind of broad policy message, says University of Texas at Dallas professor David Parry.
After Review, SourceForge Gives the Boot to Anonymous-OS Project
IDG News Service (03/15/12) Jeremy Kirk
SourceForge removed Anonymous-OS, a Linux operating system project allegedly affiliated with the online activist group Anonymous, from its open source collaboration Web site after security experts said it could be dangerous. Although the project does not appear to be connected with Anonymous, it has an intentionally misleading name and is not transparent, particularly in regards to security, according to SourceForge. "We have therefore decided to take this download offline and suspend this project until we have more information that might lead us to think differently," according to SourceForge's Community Team. Anonymous-OS is an Ubuntu Linux distribution, skinned with Anonymous logos and mottos, that includes many well-known tools for attacking Web sites and masking and analyzing Internet traffic and communications. Although Anonymous-OS appears to be security related with an "attack-oriented emphasis," SourceForge notes that it is reluctant to pass judgment on projects. However, it says "we believe this is the right decision in this case."
CERN: Cloud Computing Joins Hunt for Origins of the Universe
Tech Republic (03/13/12) Nick Heath
The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is examining whether it could double the computing power for its Large Hadron Collider (LHC) by using cloud computing resources. The LHC generates 22 petabytes of data a year, and CERN already supplements its processing with a network of 150 computing centers. CERN's Bob Jones says the additional computing power and storage space provided by the cloud could help researchers analyze LHC data more quickly. CERN also is participating in the Helix Nebula initiative, a pilot project designed to jump-start the European cloud computing industry by carrying out scientific research in the cloud. As part of that project, data from the LHC will be handled by different European Union-based cloud providers over the next two years. Other research agencies testing cloud-based research as part of the Helix Nebula project are the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). "If we can demonstrate that it is technically and financially feasible for world-leading research organizations like CERN, the ESA, and EMBL to make use of these resources then that will attract others," Jones says.
CCC Launches NITRD Symposium Website
CCC Blog (03/14/12) Erwin Gianchandani
The Computing Community Consortium recently announced the launch of a Web site that makes available a large corpus of materials from a symposium held Feb. 16 that covered 20 years of coordinated federal investment in networking and information technology (IT) research and development (R&D) via the Networking Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program. The initiative enables a framework and mechanisms for coordination across 15 U.S. agencies so that they can meet the multidisciplinary, multitechnology, and multisector challenges of modern R&D. George Strawn and Farnam Jahanian, the co-chairs of the NITRD subcommittee to the National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Technology, began the symposium. Jahanian outlined the IT discovery and innovation ecosystem, stressing how networking and IT innovations stem from a complex public-private partnership that includes academia, industry, and government. He also characterized how these investments have yielded outstanding dividends to the United States, and how new ideas and new talent must be constantly renewed. Technical presentations made throughout the event by experts covered such topics as human language technology, autonomous vehicles, sensing, privacy, security, software, scientific discovery, and data-driven approaches to health, science, and reasoning.
Microsoft Builds a Browser for Your Past
Technology Review (03/15/12) Tom Simonite
Microsoft scientist Eric Horvitz has created Lifebrowser, artificial intelligence-based software that processes photos, emails, Web browsing history, calendar events, and other documents stored on a user's computer to identify landmark events. The program's timeline interface can explore, search, and discover the landmarks as a kind of memory aid. "The motivation behind Lifebrowser is that we have too much stuff going on in our personal digital spheres," Horvitz says. "We were interested in making local machines private data-mining centers [that are] very smart about you and your memory so that you can better navigate through that great amount of content." Lifebrowser uses several machine-learning techniques to analyze personal data and determine what is important to the user. Lifebrowser and programs like it also could be used to personalize other software and Web services, notes Stanford University researcher Sudneendra Hangal, who has developed a program called Muse that enables people to analyze their email archives. Hangal says that approach would be very different from the kind of data mining-based personalization most common today, in which companies tailor content based upon the personal data available to them.
Hopkins Researchers Aim to Uncover Which Mobile Health Applications Work
Baltimore Sun (03/14/12) Meredith Cohn
Johns Hopkins University has 49 mobile health studies underway around the world as part of its Global mHealth Initiative. The initiative aims to evaluate which mobile strategies can aid doctors, community health workers, and consumers in ways equal to traditional methods. Pew Internet & American Life Project's Susannah Fox notes that more than 80 percent of Internet users have looked online for health information. Many of the 40,000 applications already available have practical purposes, such as helping patients adhere to drug regimens, helping people change harmful behaviors, and aiding in weight loss through texts about specific goals and behaviors. There also are pill bottles that send text messages when a person forgets to take their medicine. Meanwhile, mHealth researchers have developed software to help educate medical students, doctors, and other workers about how to care for burn victims. The researchers also have developed apps to train health workers caring for those with HIV and AIDS and to screen and support victims of domestic abuse. "What they all have in common is they increase how often individuals think about their health," says mHealth director Alain B. Labrique. "There is evidence that suggests some apps can have an impact."
Google Gives Search a Refresh
Wall Street Journal (03/14/12) Amir Efrati
Google is redesigning its Web-search formula to overcome the shortcomings of modern technology and to boost its market share. Google says the new search engine will produce more facts and direct answers to queries at the top of the search-results page. The company aims to provide more relevant results by using semantic search, which involves understanding the actual meaning of words. Google says the redesigned search engine will better match search queries with a database containing hundreds of millions of entries. The new search will look more like "how humans understand the world," says Google's Amit Singhal. Answers that are not already in the database will be provided by a combination of the new semantic search and Google's PageRank algorithm. The company hopes the switch to semantic search will lead users to stay on the site longer. The change is based on the 2010 acquisition of Metaweb Technologies, which developed an index of 12 million entities that has since been expanded to more than 200 million entities. Sources say some of the changes will start showing up over the next several months, but Singhal emphasizes the effort is part of a years-long process to enter the "next generation of search."
Poll Consensus on Million-Dollar Logic Problem
New Scientist (03/12/12) Jacob Aron
University of Maryland, College Park computer scientist William Gasarch has re-run his poll on the biggest problem in computer science. In 2002, Gasarch polled 100 researchers on the P versus NP problem and found that 61 percent did not believe P = NP, 9 percent believed the opposite, and the rest said they did not know or that the problem was impossible to solve. Gasarch recently polled more than 150 researchers and found that 81 percent do not believe P = NP. He says the shift is the result of the failure of computer scientists over the past 10 years to find a fast algorithm that would enable them to solve all NP problems. The latest poll also found that 53 percent of researchers believe an answer to the problem will emerge before 2100, which is down from 62 percent in the earlier poll. The Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Mass., is offering $1 million to anyone who can solve the P versus NP problem. ACM's Special Interest Group on Algorithms and Computation Theory newsletter will publish the full poll results later this year.
Guiding Robot Planes With Hand Gestures
MIT News (03/14/12) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers are developing a gesture-identification system that enables robotic planes to interpret hand gestures made by aircraft-carrier crew members. MIT's Yale Song, Randall Davis, and David Demirdjian first recorded a series of videos in which several people performed a set of 24 gestures commonly used by aircraft-carrier deck personnel. They then developed an algorithm that had to infer the body position as well as the shapes of the subjects' hands. The software represents the contents of each frame of video using three-dimensional data about the positions of the elbows and wrists, whether the hands are open or closed, and if the thumbs are up or down. The algorithm works on a series of short body-pose sequences, each of which is about 60 frames long. For each frame in a sequence, the algorithm calculates the probability that it matches each of the 24 gestures. It then calculates the weighted average of the probabilities for the whole sequence. In testing, the algorithm correctly identified the gestures with 76 percent accuracy. However, Song says the researchers are retooling the algorithm to reduce its computational complexity and boost its accuracy.
Researchers Send 'Wireless' Message Using Elusive Particles
University of Rochester News (03/14/12) Peter Iglinski
Researchers at the University of Rochester and North Carolina State University (NCSU) say they have sent a message using a beam of neutrinos. "Using neutrinos, it would be possible to communicate between any two points on Earth without using satellites or cables," says NCSU professor Dan Stancil. Technology that uses neutrinos to send messages enables them to penetrate almost any material they encounter. The researchers used one of the world's most powerful particle accelerators and MINERvA, a multi-ton detector located 100 miles underground. The researchers note that significant work still needs to be done before the technology can be incorporated into a readily usable form. The message was translated into binary code, with the 1's corresponding to a group of neutrinos being fired and the 0's corresponding to no neutrinos being fired. The neutrinos were fired in large groups because they are so evasive that only about one in 10 billion neutrinos are detected. "Neutrinos have been an amazing tool to help us learn about the workings of both the nucleus and the universe, but neutrino communication has a long way to go before it will be as effective," says MINERvA's Deborah Harris.
Google Programming Languages Failing to Gain Traction
InfoWorld (03/12/12) Paul Krill
Futurist: We'll Someday Accept Computers as Human
CNN (03/12/12) Brandon Griggs
Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil told a capacity crowd at the recent South By Southwest Interactive festival that computer technology is really part of who we are, and humans and technology will eventually merge. "We are a human-machine civilization," Kurzweil said. "If we can convince people that computers have complexity of thought and nuance ... we'll come to accept them as human." When asked by interviewer Lev Grossman whether machines with artificial intelligence would try to dominate humans, Kurzweil said he was more concerned about what humans will do to themselves. The 64-year-old author of "The Singularity Is Near" said nanotechnology that is 1,000 times more powerful than human blood cells could be injected into the bloodstream to give people superhuman endurance. Kurzweil also was asked about Apple's Siri, and he said it would only get better. Kurzweil noted that people talking to computers in natural language is an amazing threshold. He also predicted that Moore's Law will come to an end by 2020, and that within the decade search engines will no longer wait to be asked but will listen to humans in the background and provide results.
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