Welcome to the June 29, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
National Lab, IBM Team Up on Supercomputer Initiative
NextGov.com (06/27/12) Joseph Marks
IBM and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are collaborating on an initiative to harness supercomputing to help industry identify trends and develop new technologies. An upcoming supercomputer named Vulcan will rely on some of the same ultrafast technology used by Lawrence Livermore’s Sequoia, which was recently named the globe’s fastest supercomputer. IBM says Vulcan will focus on evaluating unclassified data to facilitate the formation of new technologies in applied energy, green energy, manufacturing, data management, and other fields. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Steven Ashby says the federal government must set standards for how data should be organized as well as invest in basic research in computer science and mathematics to uncover patterns in massive data troves. For example, he says the government can invest in proofs of concept in such fields as financial analysis to demonstrate the value of big data analysis to the private sector. IBM's David McQueeney notes big data is currently "underexploited because we haven’t had computer power at the right price point to do the rather complicated extraction of unstructured data to provide real insights. It’s been underappreciated because the size of the systems that can hold and manipulate the data haven’t been present."
Tech Companies Announce 'Girls Who Code' Initiative
New York Times (06/26/12) Nick Bilton
Four technology firms--Twitter, General Electric, Google, and eBay--say they are joining the "Girls Who Code" organization, which seeks to increase the number of young women in the fields of programming and engineering. The organization will soon launch a mentoring and teaching initiative in New York. Girls Who Code was founded by hedge fund lawyer Reshma Saujani, a former New York deputy public advocate, who plans to begin the coding program in the city this summer. She intends to expand the program to other cities in 2013. Saujani notes that although 57 percent of college graduates are women, only 14 percent of computer science and engineering degrees are awarded to them. Twitter engineer Sara Haider says the company would begin "an eight-week intensive program to teach basic principles of computer science and coding as well as sessions on design, research, and entrepreneurship." Meanwhile, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo says "our support for this initiative represents our commitment to invest in, encourage, and empower more women pursuing opportunities in technology."
Man or Machine?
Wall Street Journal (06/29/12) Alan Murray
In an interview, artificial intelligence pioneer and inventor Ray Kurzweil discusses advances in artificial intelligence and what it means to be human. Kurzweil notes the human brain has 300 million pattern recognizers in the neocortex. "We are learning how these modules work, how they wire themselves," he says. "The technique that we have evolved in the field of artificial intelligence is mathematically equivalent to what the brain is doing." There are very few differences between higher-level forms of reasoning and machine calculations, according to Kurzweil. "The success of something like Watson is a testament that we are making real progress in getting computers to do similar things to what the brain is doing," he says. Every year, Kurzweil runs a Turing test on his computers and has seen steady improvement. "My prediction all along has been that computers will be able to deal with a full range of human intelligence by 2029," he says. Kurzweil also thinks that computers will eventually achieve consciousness. "If you have a system that is as intelligent as a human and really is convincing in its emotional responses and can make us laugh and cry--and that's what I'm saying will happen by 2029--then my belief is, it is conscious," Kurzweil says.
A Robot Takes Stock
Technology Review (06/29/12) Katherine Bourzac
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have developed Andyvision, a robot that scans a retailer's shelves to create a real-time interactive map of the store, which customers can browse using an in-store screen. Andyvision also conducts a detailed inventory check, identifying each item and alerting employees if an item is low or has been misplaced. The robot utilizes a combination of image-processing and machine-learning algorithms, a database of two- and three-dimensional images showing the store's stock, and a map of the store's layout. CMU professor Priya Narasimhan says that although none of the technologies are revolutionary, it is the combination of different types of algorithms running on a low-power system that makes the system unique. The robot identifies items by looking for barcodes and text, using information about shape, size, and color, as well as information about the structure of the store, such as which items belong next to each other. "If an unidentified bright orange box is near Clorox bleach, it will infer that the box is Tide detergent," Narasimhan says.
Period of Transition: Stanford Computer Science Rethinks Core Curriculum
Stanford University (06/18/12) Andrew Myers
Stanford University's computer science faculty embarked on an initiative to reinvent its core curriculum about five years ago. "We needed to make the major more attractive, to show that computer science isn't just sitting in a cube all day," says Stanford associate chair for education Mehran Sahami. "Computer science is about having real impact in the world." The goal of the curriculum rethink was to show computer science majors direct, real-world applications of their skills, as well as attract students from other fields to see how computer science impacted their disciplines. Sahami notes, for example, that computers have helped usher in a dramatic transformation in animation, "and artists with a knowledge of computers are increasingly in demand." So that students would have more flexibility, Sahami pared the curriculum to six core courses, three of which focus on theory while the others stress systems and programming. Students can opt for specialist tracks in subjects such as artificial intelligence, systems, theory, graphics, and human-computer interaction. Stanford's revised computer science program has experienced an 83 percent gain in enrollment in its first two years, and Sahami notes that more than 90 percent of all undergraduates currently take at least one course in computer science.
Future-Predicting System Cuts App Loading Time
New Scientist (06/27/12) Paul Marks
The loading time of applications could be reduced by having a system predict when users want to use apps, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The predictive-caching approach involves guessing which software routines are most likely to be needed for the next stage of a computerized process. As a result, the right app would be ready when the user needs it, without booting from scratch. The system makes use of a smartphone's location and motion sensors to learn when the user typically runs an app. For example, the software would check the time a person walks to a commuter train station each day and opens a train-times app to see if trains are running on schedule. The software would sense the user is walking and preload the app, with the current train information retrieved by the time the user arrives at the street corner where the user typically opens the app. In tests, the software reduced six seconds from the average 20-second boot-up time for apps on Windows phones, but used 2 percent of the battery per day.
Europeans Develop Open Source Software for Biosciences
CORDIS News (06/27/12)
Life sciences researchers for the first time will be able to examine the spread of cancer cells in a three-dimensional environment and determine how effectively viruses and targeted drugs enter cells. New open source software for multidimensional image visualization, processing, and analysis has made this possible. A German and Finnish team has spent the past 10 years working to streamline and optimize the BioImageXD software. The team was able to generate precise software specifications for processing imaging data using open source principles, and develop software that would be accessible to all researchers. BioImageXD can help bioscience and biomedical researchers generate new analysis methods, simultaneously process myriad images, and analyze millions of molecules. Tests showed that BioImageXD is faster and more sensitive than similar programs. Jyrki Heino led the research team at the University of Jyvaskyla, and Pasi Kankaanpaa, who now works at the Turku Center for Biotechnology as coordinator of the Cell Imaging Core, headed the project's development.
Kasparov Versus Turing
University of Manchester (06/26/12) Daniel Cochlin
Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov took on Alan Turing's chess program during the University of Manchester's Alan Turing Centenary Conference, and defeated Turochamp in just 16 moves. Turing wrote the program more than 60 years ago, designing it to play semi-intelligently using rules of thumb to pick smart moves. He tried to implement the program as soon as the Manchester Ferranti Mark 1 computer was built at the university, but did not finish the work. Although Turing designed Turochamp to play two moves ahead, and calculate the hundreds of moves available, Kasparov thinks at least 10 moves ahead. The Russian grandmaster played Turochamp during his lecture at the conference, and praised Turing for his research. "He wrote algorithms without having a computer--many young scientists would never believe that was possible," Kasparov says. "It was an outstanding accomplishment." The four-day celebration of the life and legacy of Turing featured speakers from all over the world, including Google vice president and ACM President-Elect Vint Cerf, IBM's David Ferrucci, nine ACM Turing Award winners, and one Templeton Prize winner.
Communication Scheme Makes Popular Applications 'Gracefully Mobile'
MIT News (06/28/12) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed the mobile shell (Mosh) remote-login program, which addresses the lack of mobility of the popular Secure Shell (SSH) program. The researchers also note Mosh's underlying communication scheme could upgrade the performance of many other mobile apps. Mosh accommodates roaming better than SSH by jettisoning the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). "[TCP] has this one big, big problem: It provides a reliable, in-order byte-stream abstraction between two fixed endpoints," says MIT professor Hari Balakrishnan. He says with mobile apps, it is less critical that every byte of data be displayed in the exact order in which it was transmitted. Balakrishnan and graduate student Keith Winstein devised the state synchronization protocol, which favors the timely receipt of data about the most recent state of the app over the receipt of extensive information about previous states. "Mosh is a gracefully mobile application," Winstein notes. But he points out that there are many popular network apps that lack graceful mobile capability, even though they are intended for mobile devices.
Super Wi-Fi Network Eyed for Rural College Towns
IDG News Service (06/26/12) Grant Gross
AIR.U, a consortium of higher education associations, public interest groups, and technology companies, has launched an effort to bring more super Wi-Fi broadband service to university towns in rural areas. AIR.U will use TV white spaces, which are readily available in rural areas, to expand coverage and capacity in communities with below average broadband services. "Rural spectrum can be used in all kinds of new and exciting ways," says Gig.U executive director Blair Levin. The AIR.U plan comes after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission recently approved the use of the white spaces for unlicensed broadband use. AIR.U plans to launch super Wi-Fi pilot programs in six rural university towns in the first three months of 2013, according to Declaration Network Group CEO Robert Nichols. "We believe these pilot networks will demonstrate a very cost-effective way to upgrade university and community connectivity," says Wireless Future Project director Michael Calabrese. He notes that many rural university towns have several idle TV channels that could be utilized for wireless broadband, and he says in some regions 70 percent of the TV spectrum is unused.
Rewriting Quantum Chips With a Beam of Light
City College of New York (06/26/12) Jessa Netting
Researchers from the City College of New York (CCNY) and the University of California, Berkeley have harnessed light to control the spin of an atomic nucleus to encode information, a milestone that brings the promise of ultrafast quantum computing one step closer to realization. By using laser light to pattern the alignment of spin within atoms so that the pattern can be rewritten on the spur of the moment, rewritable spintronic circuits may one day become a reality. Electron spins' habit of rapidly switching back and forth has been a persistent obstacle to using electrons for quantum computing, and to suppress this behavior the researchers employed laser light to generate long-lasting nuclear spin magnets that can control electron spin. This was achieved through the creation of a spintronic circuit by illuminating a sample of gallium arsenide with a pattern of light that simultaneously aligned the spins of all the atomic nuclei and their electrons. "What you could have is a chip you can erase and rewrite on the fly with just the use of a light beam," says CCNY professor Carlos Meriles.
Researchers Use Computer Model to Probe Mysteries of Human Immune System
Virginia Tech News (06/25/12) Lindsay Taylor Key
Virginia Tech University researchers have developed a computational model that provides a framework to better understand the responses of the human immune system's macrophage cells. The researchers used the Metropolis algorithm to determine possible molecular mechanisms giving rise to priming and tolerance. "The concept of priming refers to the fact that if macrophages are exposed to a small dose of bacterial endotoxins, they are primed to respond strongly to a second exposure to a large dose of endotoxin," says Virginia Tech professor Jianhua Xing. "The concept of tolerance refers to the fact that if macrophages are exposed to a large dose of bacterial endotoxins initially, they are temporarily resistant to endotoxin challenges afterwards." The Metropolis algorithm already is widely used in physics and chemistry. The results of the model could guide future experimental studies to identify molecules contributing to macrophage priming and tolerance. "We are convinced that mathematical modeling will provide novel insights into macrophage behavior, with significant medical implications," says Virginia Tech researcher John Tyson.
Interactive Map Like GPS for Roman Empire
Science News (06/25/12) Rachel Ehrenberg
Stanford University researchers have developed an interactive map of the Roman Empire called ORBIS that features roads, rivers, and sea routes. ORBIS allows users to calculate travel times and costs, enabling researchers to test hypotheses and develop new ones about the economic, social, military, and political conditions of the ancient Roman Empire. The map is arranged around 751 sites in an area of approximately 4 million square miles. The sites were settlements or landmarks considered significant for traversing the empire, which spanned three continents. The map includes data on the strength and direction of wind and ocean currents, which can cause travel to vary significantly in summer and winter. Stanford digital humanities specialist Elijah Meeks, one of the map’s creators, says the network of dominant routes changes based on what is being moved, such as military troops or a shipment of slaves from Thrace to Capua. ORBIS helps uncover the importance of sea routes across the Mediterranean, Black Sea, and coastal Atlantic Ocean. Meeks notes that sea travel allowed for speeds of 80 kilometers per day, although a 24-hour horse relay was capable of moving information even faster, at 250 kilometers in a day.
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