Welcome to the June 20, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Justices Deny Patent to Business Methods
The New York Times (06/20/14) Adam Liptak
The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously barred the patenting of basic business methods, even if computers are used in their application. "Merely requiring generic computer implementation fails to transform that abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention," writes Justice Clarence Thomas. The patents at issue in the high court's case were held by Australia's Alice Corp., which developed a technique for mitigating settlement risks among multiple parties. The company claimed the method qualified for patenting largely because it involved shadow records updated in real time that "require a substantial and meaningful role for the computer." But the court determined the concept constituted a basic economic practice and "a building block of the modern economy." Thomas says Alice's method claims merely reiterate intermediated settlement performed by a generic computer, and the methods neither improve the computer's functions nor "effect an improvement in any other technology or technical field." He also says the high court's decision does not pose a threat to the concept of software patents. However, analysts say technology firms will carefully weigh the ruling for indications of how specific technical concepts must be to qualify for patent protection.
Quantum Computers Still Aren’t Faster Than Regular Old Computers
Wired News (06/19/14) Adam Mann
Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) recently conducted a test comparing the speed of a quantum computer and a classical computer and found they performed similarly when running optimization algorithms. "We found no evidence of quantum speedup," says ETH Zurich's Matthias Troyer. "When we looked at all problems, the machine worked the same as a classical computer." Although the researchers found some instances in which the quantum machine could solve a problem five times faster than an ordinary PC, they also discovered certain problems in which the quantum computer was about 100 times slower. However, Troyer says it was still impressive the quantum technology was able to keep up with modern computer chips, which have been honed over many decades of research. He says the researchers will continue to search for classes of problems that show a speedup on the quantum machine. Although no experiment could rule out the existence of such problems, it remains to be seen if they will only be specially tailored instances or if they could have real-world applications, according to Troyer.
Can We See the Arrow of Time?
MIT News (06/20/14) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a algorithm that can determine whether a given snippet of video is playing backward or forward with 80-percent accuracy. They say their research could lead to more realistic graphics in gaming and film by identifying subtle but intrinsic characteristics of visual experience. "We're trying to understand the nature of the temporal signal," says MIT professor William Freeman. The researchers designed three algorithms, all of which were trained on a set of short videos that had been identified in advance as running either forward or backward. The most successful algorithm begins by dividing a frame of video into a grid of hundreds of thousands of squares. It then divides each of the squares into a smaller, four-by-four grid, and for each square in the smaller grid it determines the direction and distance that clusters of pixels move from one frame to the next. The algorithm then generates a "dictionary" of about 4,000 four-by-four grids, in which each square in a grid represents particular directions and degrees of motion. Finally, the algorithm searches through the labeled examples to determine whether particular combinations of "words" tend to indicate forward or backward motion.
Computer Gender-Perception a Valuable Tool
University of Western Australia (06/18/14) David Stacey
Researchers at the University of Western Australia (UWA) have found a way to get computers to mimic human perception of gender. A multidisciplinary team of three computer scientists and two human anatomy experts developed a mathematical model that matches the gender scores people give to human faces ranging on a continuum from very masculine to very feminine. The team, led by Ph.D. candidate Syed Zulqarnain Gilani, invited 75 raters to give gender scores to the faces of 34 female and 30 male UWA students, who were about 20 years old and of different races. After analyzing the scores, the researchers developed an algorithm that combines Euclidean and geodesic distances between biologically significant landmarks in faces for scoring. "Our mathematical model is able to automatically assign an objective gender score to a [three-dimensional (3D)] face with a correlation of up to 0.895 with the human subjective scores," Gilani says. The model could be used to quickly and accurately evaluate gender scores in research into the relationship between masculinity and femininity and health, in addition to the attractiveness of cosmetic surgery. Gilani's next project involves analyzing the 3D faces of children for the detection of autism.
$50 Million Google Coding Initiative Targets Girls
USA Today (06/19/14) Marco della Cava
Google has launched a $50 million initiative to inspire more high school girls to pursue programming careers in order to close a yawning gap between supply and demand, according to Google vice president Megan Smith. "We hope to show girls that coding is fun," she says. The goal of the Made with Code effort is to demolish the stereotype of programming as a tedious and isolating technical chore and build up an image of a profession that applies to a vast number of fields. "The issue of role models is a big one, and [Made with Code] represents a new, comprehensive effort to provide just that," says Chelsea Clinton, who spoke at the project's kickoff event. The National Center for Women and Information Technology's Ruthe Farmer stresses the urgency of an industry shift from male-dominated to a more gender-equitable culture. "It's been a five-alarm fire for some time now," she says. "We need a wider swath of kids to come into the field." Code.org estimates there will be 1.4 million coding-related jobs by 2020, but qualified candidates will only be able to fill about 25 percent of them.
New A*STAR-SMU Center Combines High-Powered Computing and Behavioral Sciences to Study People-Centric Issues
A*STAR Research (06/18/14) Eugene Low
Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR) and the Singapore Management University (SMU) are forming a Center for Technology and Social-Behavioral Insights that will merge behavioral sciences with high-performance computing technology and big data analytics. The center will explore people-centric issues and human behavior, such as how people think, feel, and act in various settings. The research will inform issues in several areas, including retail, logistics, urban planning, education, and community development. Researchers will examine relationships and interactions between consumers and businesses, employees and employers, and citizens and public service providers. The research could lead to insights into attitudes and behaviors such as consumer preferences and purchasing patterns, which could aid businesses and improve customer experiences. The center could, for example, gauge fashion trends by trawling millions of websites and providing this information in real time to retailers to help tailor marketing. In addition, a study of crowd movement could improve urban planning, while exploring feedback could improve public services. "There has been increasing interest in academia, government, and businesses to use big data and behavioral sciences to address important economic and social issues," says SMU Behavioral Sciences Institute's David Chan. "Our approach in this new center will combine the data-driven sense-making methods in social technologies with the hypothesis-driven approaches in behavioral sciences."
Female Tech Staff 'in Decline' in the U.K.
BBC News (06/17/14)
The gender gap in the U.K. information technology industry is getting worse, according to a new report from BCS, the chartered institute for IT, and E-Skills U.K. The Women in IT scorecard indicates women account for just 16 percent of the British IT workforce. Moreover, the study found the problem starts early, considering girls consistently outperform boys in computing A-level results, but only account for 6.5 percent of test-takers. Girls also make up only 13 percent of entries for computer science General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs). Meanwhile, the proportion of women working as self-employed IT specialists has doubled over the past decade, and women earn 16 percent less on average than men. "The continuing decline in women entering the IT profession is a real threat for the U.K. and an issue that clearly we need to address," says BCS Women chairwoman Gillian Arnold. E-Skills U.K. CEO Karen Price also notes "this joint report provides the evidence we need to face the problem head-on, and to develop hard hitting and effective interventions to solve it."
A New Safety System for City and School Buses Will Avoid Accidents Around Bus Stops
RUVID Association (06/18/14)
Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV) researchers, in collaboration with C-Robots, have developed a safety system for city and school buses that detects the presence of pedestrians in the surrounding area of the bus stop and warns the driver of dangerous conditions. The system was developed to help avoid accidents in areas of the bus stop when the bus restarts its route. The system includes cameras placed at strategic points on the bus that enable the driver to see where the rear-view mirrors cannot, a screen placed next to the vehicle wheel, software for detecting people, and different warning devices synchronized with the software. "Our unit automatically processes the images taken by the cameras and warns the driver even if he is not looking at the screen," says UPV researcher Leopoldo Armesto. For added safety, the system includes a mechanism in the accelerator that prevents it from functioning if a risk is detected. The system also will prevent the driver from spinning the wheel toward the area around a pedestrian. "The system, at first, does not disable driving but when it detects a risk, warns the driver, slightly affecting the accelerator or the wheel," Armesto notes. "If the driver persists, it can generate an emergency lock."
The Games Genes Play: Algorithm Helps Explain Sex in Evolution
UC Berkeley NewsCenter (06/16/14) Sarah Yang
University of California, Berkeley researchers have developed an algorithm that describes the strategy genes use during sexual recombination. The algorithm addresses the dueling evolutionary forces of survival of the fittest and of diversity. "If sexual recombination speeds up the rate at which good solutions are found, it also speeds up the rate at which those solutions are broken apart," says Berkeley professor Umesh Vazirani. The researchers focused on weak selection in evolution, which occurs when one phenotype has just a slight advantage over another. "We noticed that with variation, genes have a preference for a 50-50 distribution rather than a 90-10 distribution," says Berkeley professor Christos Papadimitriou. "If we use a gambling analogy, genes don't want to go all-in. They want to hedge their bets. Even if there is an extremely successful genetic trait, evolution doesn't want to let the genes for the other traits go extinct in case they're needed later." The researchers' multiplicative weight update algorithm works by maximizing the trade-off between going all-in on a successful genetic trait and hedging its bets by minimizing its commitment to any one trait.
Project Panama Builds a Bridge Between Java and C/C+
InfoWorld (06/17/14) Paul Krill
Advocates of open source Java are gaining support for an initiative to let Java programmers access non-Java application programming interfaces (APIs), including many interfaces used by C programmers. The proposal, called Project Panama, is being floated on an opnjdk open source Java mailing list. "The main benefit of this proposal is that it will open up the world of native libraries--written in C or similar languages--to Java developers without requiring them to write anything but plain Java code," says Panama proponent Charles Nutter, who co-led the development of the JRuby language. "You just specify what library to load, what function you want to access, and its parameters and return value and the API should do the rest." The goal is to provide for native interconnect between code managed by the JVM and APIs for libraries not managed by the JVM. The challenge will be to make the API flexible enough to handle a range of native library types, including C, C++, Windows, Linux, and Solaris without making the API too difficult to use, according to Nutter.
Unicode Update Adds Emoji for Spiders, Chili Pepper, 'Live Long and Prosper,' and More
PC World (06/17/2014) Martyn Williams
The Unicode consortium has updated its character-encoding standard to include an additional 250 emoji, or small pictorial representations of things such as a smiling face, a thumbs-up, or a shining sun. Unicode 7.0 offers a spider, dark sunglasses, a hammer, an airplane arriving, a rocket, and a satellite, among other new emoji. It is not known when or if the new symbols will be available for use on cellphones. Apple, Google, Microsoft, and other phone software makers will need to provide font updates for that to happen. The latest version also includes new symbols for the Russian ruble, the Azerbaijani manat, and a host of other symbols, historical scripts, and updates to existing scripts. Unicode provides a consistent way for computer software around the world to handle and transmit characters, and has grown to encompass most of the world's languages. Emoji, originally developed in Japan for use on cell phones, are popular worldwide, especially among teens.
Stanford Scientists Develop Computer Model to Examine Fate of Indigenous Peoples
Stanford Report (CA) (06/13/14) Bjorn Carey
Stanford University scientists have created a software model that demonstrates the impact of land-use changes on the sustainability of indigenous people in the Amazon. The model predicts changes in a community's growth rate based on changes in ecological factors such as hunting practices, deforestation rate, vegetation diversity changes, and agricultural output. Population growth is restricted by human caloric demand and the nutrition that land and animals can reasonably provide. The researchers tested the model with a 100-year projection on two villages in the Amazon. The model results showed human population grew as animal population and vegetation cover decreased, then stabilized at a certain point, mirroring results in the actual village. The model suggests that if human population remains within a sustainable range in an environmental system driven by hunting and some cultivation, the forest and biodiversity can balance with the livelihoods of indigenous people. However, when populations move outside the sustainable range, the land use quickly shifts with a reduction in forest cover, damaging biodiversity and vegetation carbon stocks. The model could aid in policy and management decisions regarding indigenous lands. In the future, the researchers intend to broaden the model to include the impact of activity on the outskirts of indigenous land on sustainability.
Silicon Valley Tries to Remake the Idea Machine
The New York Times Magazine (06/10/14) Claire Cain Miller
Silicon Valley companies are turning their focus once again to innovation, with an emphasis on capitalizing on their own research in a way they did not in the past. Some observers are concerned that recent prosaic inventions, such as apps that call taxis, indicate a slowdown in innovation. Government funding on research and development (R&D) decreased during the recession and now stands at just $126 billion a year, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation, compared with $267 billion for the private sector. Meanwhile, Asian economies now represent 34 percent of global R&D spending, while the United States accounts for 30 percent. In the past, scientists at research labs backed by large parent companies, such as Xerox PARC and Bell Labs, were allowed generous time and resources to carry out their research. However, those labs eventually were dismantled and the tech startups that rose up afterwards found it more advantageous to acquire technology than to innovate. Today's technology firms are beginning to refocus on doing their own innovating, but this time with an eye on creating products that will succeed in the marketplace. The Google X lab, for example, starts its innovation process with an idea for a product and then hires the requisite talent, rather than employing academics and waiting to see what they develop.
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