Welcome to the December 9, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Computer Science Education Week Starts
I Programmer (12/08/13) Sue Gee
Computer Science Education Week, which takes place Dec. 9-13 (and of which ACM is a founding partner), is expected to reach more than 4.5 million students around the world, with more than 37,000 events planned in 167 countries. The level of participation and the number of activities this year far exceeds previous years. The dramatic increase in participation can be attributed to the Hour of Code initiative from Code.org, which aims to ensure that every student has the opportunity to learn to code. Code.org has contributed a set of 20 puzzles designed to teach the basics of computer science. The puzzles are based on Blocky, a visual programming language that has blocks users drag and drop to write programs and characters from popular games. CSEdWeek.org says more than 1.3 million people already have learned an hour of code. Meanwhile, Microsoft Research has developed TouchDevelop, a tutorial for creating flying monsters and crazy drawings on smartphones and other touch-enabled devices. Microsoft Research's Kodu Game Lab also offers Hour of Code Kodu Touch Primer, which consists of five one-hour experiences--one for each day of the week.
Tech Giants Issue Call for Limits on Government Surveillance of Users
The New York Times (12/09/13) Edward Wyatt; Claire Cain Miller
Eight major technology companies on Monday are taking their strongest stance ever against programs that collect vast amounts of user data by calling on the Obama administration and Congress to set limits on government surveillance activities. The companies also are encouraging foreign countries not to react to U.S. spying by walling off the Internet. They stressed that governments should limit surveillance to specific known users and called for more transparency around what governments request and why. "We are focused on keeping users' data secure, deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorized surveillance on our networks, and pushing back on government requests to ensure that they are legal and reasonable in scope," the group said in an open letter that appeared in full-page ads in national newspapers. The companies also say they support laws allowing firms to disclose when a government asks for data and what it seeks. "People won't use technology they don't trust," says Microsoft's Brad Smith. "Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it." The Obama administration is reviewing the U.S. National Security Agency's surveillance activities and could release a report this week.
Most People See Tech Innovation as the Key to Better Health
Computerworld (12/09/13) Lucas Mearian
More than 70 percent of respondents to a Penn Schoen Berland survey of 12,000 adults conducted across eight countries said they would be comfortable using toilet sensors, prescription bottle sensors, or swallowed health monitors to collect personal health data. The survey also found that most people believe tech innovation holds the best promise for curing fatal diseases. In addition, 53 percent of respondents said they would trust a test they personally administered as much or more than if performed by a doctor, and 57 percent of respondents believe hospitals will eventually become obsolete because care could take place inside their home. Through remote-monitoring equipment, a primary care physician could log into a patient's cloud-based online medical record and review daily blood glucose, blood pressure readings, and body weight, all of which could be uploaded from a patient's Wi-Fi-equipped home monitors, according to New York University's Dr. Andrew Litt. The survey also found that 66 percent of respondents want a personalized healthcare regimen designed specifically for them based on their genetic profile or biology. "Technologies such as high-performance computing and big data analytics have the power to change the face of health in this world, and most people seem to desire that," says Intel's Eric Dishman.
Confirming the MOOC Myth
Inside Higher Ed (12/06/13) Carl Straumsheim
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are neither transforming education nor yielding large profits, but more time is needed to experiment with various applications, said participants at a conference hosted by the University of Texas at Arlington. Preliminary results from the MOOC Research Initiative, a grant program founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and administered by Athabasca University, were presented at the conference. The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education presented research that analyzed the study habits of 1 million students in 16 Coursera courses between June of 2012 and 2013. "Emerging data...show that [MOOCs] have relatively few active users, that user 'engagement' falls off dramatically especially after the first one to two weeks of a course, and that few users persist to the course end," the study says. Speakers noted that MOOCs can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop, which has created a problematic scenario in which some institutions develop MOOCs while others buy them. However, some say more time is needed to research MOOCs and test different uses, as students are benefiting from the courses in unexpected ways. For example, Wake Technical Community College and Udacity created an introductory algebra review MOOC to prepare students for college placement tests, but found that more than two-thirds of users were using it to improve their general math skills.
How to Use Mind-Controlled Robots in Manufacturing, Medicine
University of Buffalo researchers are developing brain-computer interfaces (BCI) to control robots with their minds. The researchers recently demonstrated their BCI technology, which they note is relatively inexpensive at a cost of $750 and is a non-invasive external device. The technology is designed to read electroencephalography brain activity using 14 sensors and transmit signals wirelessly to a computer, which then sends them to a robot to control its movements. Pramod Chembrammel, a doctoral student in the Virtual Reality Laboratory, spent a few days training the device then successfully controlled a robotic arm. Chembrammel used his thoughts to get the robotic arm to insert a wood peg into a hole and rotate the peg. "It was incredible to see the robot respond to my thoughts," he says. Buffalo professor Thenkurussi Kesavadas says the technology potentially could provide relief to factory workers who perform repetitious tasks, improving productivity as well as safety, and paraplegic patients could use it to better control assistive devices.
Database Tracks Toxic Side Effects of Pharmaceuticals
NCSU News (12/05/13) Matt Shipman
North Carolina State University researchers have updated an extensive toxicology database, which they say should make it easier to track information about the unintentional toxic effects of therapeutic drugs. Over the course of a year, the team involved in the Comparative Toxicogenomics Database (CTD) read and coded more than 88,000 scientific papers on therapeutic drugs and their involvement in adverse events such as hypertension, seizure, kidney failure, and liver disease. The structured format enables the information to be combined with other data to make novel predictions, such as which genes are key to connecting the drug and the adverse event. "This could be useful in gene-testing patients to tailor the correct medicine or it could help design future therapeutics by alerting safety researchers to avoid those pathways and potential toxic outcomes," says the CTD's Allan Peter Davis. The group also designed a new phenotype module. As a result, the system will allow investigators to connect phenotypes to diseases, which may enable scientists to prevent how chemicals cause toxicity.
Iowa Now (12/04/13) Tom Snee
University of Iowa researchers have developed an algorithm for dating sites that uses a person's contact history to recommend more compatible partners. The researchers examined data from 475,000 initial contacts involving 47,000 users in two U.S. cities over a 196-day span. Of the users, 28,000 were men and 19,000 were women, and men made 80 percent of the initial contacts. The data suggests only about 25 percent of those initial contacts were actually reciprocated, according to University of Iowa professor Kang Zhao. To improve that rate, the researchers developed a model that combines a client's tastes, determined by the types of people the client has contacted, with the user's attractiveness determined by how many of those contacts are returned and how many are not. Zhao says the combinations of taste and attractiveness do a better job of predicting successful connections than relying on information that clients enter into their profile, because what people put in their profile may not always be what they are really interested in. Although the data the researchers studied suggests the existing model leads to a return rate of about 25 percent, a recommender model could improve such returns by 44 percent, Zhao notes.
Human-Computer Interface Technologies Follow Consumers' Actions, Offer Help
VTT Technical Research Center (12/04/13)
The VTT Technical Research Center of Finland recently organized a pan-European project called Smart Composite Human-Computer Interfaces (SMARCOS), which focused on developing technologies based on Internet sharing between devices. The SMARCOS initiative allows the interfaces of various smart devices to follow consumers' actions and react to their needs. The project's researchers say the technology is unique because it makes use of information on the actions and processes of several people in a single situation to guide the operation and functions of device interfaces. The physical interface remains unchanged, but the intelligence and functionality of the user interface level improves. The researchers say the functions of an interface respond with greater accuracy to users' needs when devices, services, and applications are able to follow and predict the users' actions. The interfaces can be distributed among devices and surfaces, helping users to be supported better by their digital services and applications. SMARCOS researchers developed multi-device interface technology as well as real-time consumer behavior interpretation technology. In addition, several tools and software applications were developed for use in building smart, roaming interfaces. The researchers note that SMARCOS also set the foundation for integrating physical products and cloud services and creating new business opportunities.
Algorithm Aids Treatment of Breast Cancer
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (12/04/13)
Researchers from the University of Alberta and Alberta Health Services have developed an algorithm that can predict whether estrogen is sending signals to cancer cells to grow into tumors in the breast. Using machine learning, the team identified three genes involved in cancer growth. Led by University of Alberta professor Russ Greiner, the researchers designed an algorithm that was 93 percent accurate in predicting the estrogen receptor status of tumors. They used data from frozen tumor samples stored at the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation Tumor Bank at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton. The team later tested the algorithm on other data sets with similar success, and cross-checked the results with existing tests by pathologists using traditional receptor-receptor testing. "Essentially, we've identified something inexpensive and simple that could replace receptor testing done in a clinical lab," says the Cross Cancer Institute's John Mackey. He says the method is poised to exploit new gene-sequencing technologies, which strive to understand the inner workings of cancer cells with a goal of customizing treatments for individual patients. "At some point it's going to be cheaper to take a tumor and put it into the machine and get these thousands of signals about its biology than it is to do the increasing number of required tests using traditional techniques in a lab," Mackey says.
Students Can Create Animations of Garfield the Cat With New Version of Carnegie Mellon's Alice Software
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (12/03/13) Byron Spice
Carnegie Mellon University recently released version 2.4 of the Alice Project, free educational programming software that enables beginners to create animations using a simple drag-and-drop interface to select character objects, props, and scenes from a gallery of three-dimensional models. Alice 2.4 is geared toward middle and high school students, and features all of the popular characters from the Garfield comic strip, including Garfield, Odie, Jon, and Nermel. The developers say the Alice materials eventually also will be accessible through the Professor Garfield Web portal, which provides a variety of educational games and materials. "Alice is used in classrooms around the globe, so we appreciate the influence an internationally recognized character such as Garfield has on school children," says Alice Project director Wanda Dann. She notes that Alice currently is used in more than 15 percent of colleges and universities and has become a popular teaching tool in secondary schools.
Active Learning Model for Computer Predictions
UWM News (12/03/13) Mark Riechers
University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Rob Nowak has been exploring an active learning model of computing, in which the machine receives all of the data up front. At first, the data has no labels and the machine makes very poor predictions, improving as a human expert supplies labels for some of the data. Nowak and his student Kevin Jamieson applied this principle to an iOS app that can predict which craft beers a user will prefer. The similarities between data points were based on flavor, color, taste, and other characteristics defined by the terms used to describe beers in reviews. The app can use that data to find the closest match for beers the user might like. In addition, finer point comparisons offer the algorithm more reliable data to improve its categorizations and predictions over time. Nowak says their process enables computers to process data much faster, because they require less human help to categorize the data. He notes the algorithm's efficiency makes a bigger difference as data sets get larger and human labor cannot keep pace.
New York Magazine (11/29/13) Jeff Wise
As the importance of programming as a life skill grows, parents are beginning to seek coding education for their children. Some parents are hiring tutors to teach their children programming, both as a strategically valuable skill and as an intellectual exercise. "Coding is absolutely a question of literacy," says Georgia Institute of Technology professor Mark Guzdial. "Those who don’t have access to this kind of education are going to be missing a core skill." Concerns about economic inequality are rising as more affluent families pay for coding opportunities that lower-income families cannot afford. "I think this is the most important issue domestically. It's frightening. Parents who have money are pushing their kids to learn coding," says Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani. "Kids whose parents don't have money are being left behind." Even as the tech industry forecasts a shortfall of 1 million workers by 2020, 90 percent of U.S. high schools do not offer computer programming. "We have a clear disparity between the needs of industry and the number of computer-science graduates we produce," Harvey Mudd College president and former ACM president Maria M. Klawe recently told a Senate committee. "We simply do not have enough students graduating high school with an interest in pursuing computer science."
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