Welcome to the June 19, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
ACM Appoints Robert Schnabel New CEO
PR Web (06/18/15)
Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing dean Robert "Bobby" Schnabel has been appointed the new CEO and executive director of ACM, effective Nov. 1. Schnabel will collaborate with ACM's community of volunteers to provide strategic vision and nurture sustainable business models so ACM's global membership, publications, and revenue expansion will endure. Schnabel says among the opportunities and challenges he plans to leverage are "[ACM's] evolution as a fully international society, transforming publishing and access models, keeping up with the ever-changing pace of computing research, enhancing diversity, and serving the broad range of technical leaders and practitioners." Schnabel has previously served ACM in several roles, including chair of ACM's Special Interest Group on Numerical Mathematics, and founding chair of the ACM Education Policy Committee. In the latter office, Schnabel shepherded the establishment of Computer Science Education Week in the U.S. and the Computing in the Core industry/non-profit coalition. He also is on the board of code.org, and a member of the advisory committee of the Computing and Information Science and Engineering directorate of the U.S. National Science Foundation. In addition, Schnabel was a member of the Computing Research Association, as well as co-founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).
University of Washington and Chinese University Unite to Form Technology Institute
The New York Times (06/18/15) Nick Wingfield
The University of Washington (UW) and China's Tsinghua University have partnered to establish a new center of learning, the Global Innovation Exchange, in Seattle, where it will open in fall 2016 and offer a master's degree program in technology innovation. Microsoft is investing $40 million to get the institute started, with the partner universities contributing faculty. "This will be the first time a Chinese university has a physical spot in the U.S.," notes UW interim president Ana Mari Cauce. "That's a big deal." The institute will initially target short-term, project-based learning instead of long-term research, with areas of study including the Internet of Things and wearable technology. "China and the United States are two leading economies with enormous strengths in technological innovation," says Tsinghua University president Qiu Yong. "The higher educational collaboration between them facilitates the scientific and technological progress and social development around the world." UW's lack of money to expand its capacity has forced it to turn away a lot of students applying for computer science, and the school is undertaking a project unconnected to the Global Innovation Exchange to build a new computer science facility to boost graduate numbers.
The Secret Alliance That Could Give the Web a Massive Speed Boost
CNet (06/18/15) Stephen Shankland
WebAssembly is a joint project among Microsoft, Google, Mozilla, and Apple to create a new Internet platform that combines the reach of the Web with the speed of software written to run natively on specific operating systems. WebAssembly, which is the result of the unification of Mozilla's Firefox team and Google's Chrome team, could result in the ability to browse the Web much faster, as well as providing a smoother experience when loading Web apps. The potential "programmer liberation" that could result from WebAssembly's success would help loosen the grip that Apple and Google have on the technology industry with their iOS and Android operating systems. "I'm happy to report that we at Mozilla have started working with Chromium, Edge, and WebKit engineers on creating a new standard, WebAssembly," says project leader Luke Wagner. At its most basic level, WebAssembly provides a different way to let browsers run software written in C, C++, or other languages. WebAssembly enables developers to create a program that is between traditional programming languages and machine code, which frees the browser from the work of creating the machine code while ensuring the software will run on any device with a browser regardless of the underlying hardware. WebAssembly's intermediate state also means programmers can work with their language of choice.
Inside an MIT Researcher's Grand Plan to Create the Personal Food Computer
The Washington Post (06/17/15) Matt McFarland
Caleb Harper is the founder of the CityFarm research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, which seeks to expand the emerging field of vertical farming. Harper has developed a prototype personal food computer, which functions as a climate-controlled box for growing plants. The device is small enough to sit on a coffee table, and includes an array of sensors to monitor such conditions as carbon dioxide levels, humidity, light intensity, and pH balance. No soil is used, and the plants obtain their nutrients through a mist containing essential minerals. By using digital technologies to identify and recreate the optimal conditions for a plant, Harper's platform for making climate recipes has the potential to provide optimized foods globally, irrespective of the season. Harper is motivated by the success of open source technologies such as Linux and Mozilla, which encourage the sharing of ideas openly among all members of a community. He envisions climate recipes would be available free online, where anyone can benefit from knowing the perfect conditions for growing a particular plant. Harper wants entrepreneurs to build on and improve his system, which he hopes will cost about $300 to $500.
'Leap Second' Clocks In on June 30
InformationWeek (06/17/15) Charles Babcock
A nearly imperceptible slowing of the Earth's spin will add a leap second to the Network Time Protocol (NTP) on June 30 to keep it in sync with the slowly lengthening solar day, and the job of keeping computer clocks synchronized is a complicated one. University of Delaware professor David Mills says adding up the second can be done by counting the last second of the day twice, using a special notation on the second count for the record. NTP uses the Posix standard to coordinate clock synchronization, which dictates each day has precisely 86,400 seconds. Adding a second to June 30 and counting it accurately in NTP would permanently de-synchronize all Posix-based computers depending on NTP time servers. Mills' approach has NTP adjust and add 36 seconds when coordinating time with its atomic clock references. Meanwhile, Google says its Google Smear method can enable synchronization without a last-second clock adjustment by adding small portions of a second throughout the day on June 30. NTP maintainer Harlan Stenn objects to the smear method, arguing clocks using the method will be off by a half-second at noon on June 30, and as the day progresses, processes that depend on timing will be off by more than a half-second if they rely on the smear.
A Little Bit, Better
The Economist (06/20/15)
Commercial interest in quantum computers is picking up after years of laboratory exploration, which led to leveraging the phenomena of superposition and entanglement to produce quantum bits (qubits) and prototype machines that exist in numerous states concurrently. Still, tapping the power of these phenomena requires special algorithms that deconstruct problems into elements that, as they are run though the array of qubits, sum up the probabilities of each qubit's value to generate the most likely solution. Among the problems quantum computers should be able to handle well are those of image and speech recognition, real-time language translation, and sifting through big data to extract meaning. The key to such breakthroughs is practically making quantum bits, which need physical systems with two opposite quantum states. Google and IBM are focused on using a superconductor in which the qubit is either the direction of a circulating current or the presence or absence of an electric charge. Meanwhile, Microsoft is using anyons, or quasiparticles that only move in two directions, as qubits. A serious problem for non-anyonic approaches is error correction, but a quantum physicist recruited by Google reported a nine-qubit device with four qubits that can be interrogated without disrupting the others. Another notable project is PQCRYPTO, an effort to advance and standardize post-quantum cryptography to strengthen communications against quantum decryption.
Stanford Engineers Find a Simple Yet Clever Way to Boost Chip Speeds
Stanford University (06/16/15) Tom Abate
Stanford University researchers have demonstrated that graphene can help electrons move through tiny copper wires faster. The new method involves wrapping graphene around copper wires, which could enable transistors to exchange data faster than is currently possible. The researchers found graphene is eight times thinner than the industry standard for tantalum nitride (currently used to coat the wires), and also serves as a protective sheathing for the wires, which is a major difference compared with household wires. In household wiring, the outer layer insulates the copper to prevent electrocution or fires, but in a computer chip, the protective layer isolates the copper from the silicon. The researchers showed graphene could perform this isolating function as well as serving as an auxiliary conductor of electrons. Graphene's lattice structure enables electrons to jump from carbon atom to carbon atom straight down the wire, while effectively containing the copper atoms within the wire. The researchers say these advantages enable the new wire technology to carry more data between transistors, speeding overall chip performance. "Graphene has been promised to benefit the electronics industry for a long time, and using it as a copper barrier is perhaps the first realization of this promise," says Stanford researcher H.-S. Philip Wong.
MIT-Singapore Design Center Creates Free Software Tool to Analyze Cities as Spatial Networks
MIT News (06/15/15)
Researchers at the joint Massachusetts Institute of Technology-Singapore University of Technology and Design International Design Center (IDC) have created a free network analysis plug-in for Rhinoceros three-dimensional (3D) modeling software used by architects and urban designers. The Urban Network Analysis (UNA) plug-in enables users to describe spatial patterns of cities using mathematical network analysis methods. "Our toolbox helps planners and architects analyze these relationships and quantify how intensely different routes are likely to be utilized, how visible or connected public spaces are, or how conveniently one can get from one space to another," says IDC's Andres Sevtsuk. For example, the plug-in enables the modeling of pedestrian flow along networks, spatial accessibility between numerous origins and destinations, and detecting alternative travel routes via both two-dimensional and 3D networks. The researchers note users can create new networks based on proposed designs or edit existing networks, making iterative evaluation simple and intuitive. The use of numeric weights lets users characterize different origin and destination locations based on real-world measurable qualities. IDC's John E. Fernandez also says adding UNA metrics to the Rhinoceros 3D software environment enables users to examine how a specific spatial network performs.
Atlasify: Search Using Maps
Northwestern University Newscenter (06/16/15) Amanda Morris
Northwestern University researchers led by professor Douglas Downey have launched a beta version of Atlasify, a search engine that invites users to explore new concepts by generating cartographic atlases about subjects of interest. The project is a collaboration with University of Minnesota's Brent Hecht, who says, "Thematic cartography is very effective at helping people explore unfamiliar information landscapes. Atlasify takes this long-standing benefit of cartography and applies it to general search." When a user clicks on a country, state, province, or place of interest in the interactive visualization, an explanation of the relatedness appears. Downey credits the "richness of Wikipedia" for helping develop the project. Hecht and Downey say an explanatory semantic relatedness algorithm mines Wikipedia to determine the amount of relatedness between concepts. The project is still under development, and the researchers are working to find additional textual explanations for relationships. They are soliciting user feedback to help evaluate and improve the system, which also features such visualization options as the periodic table of elements, the U.S. Senate seating chart, and a historic timeline. Downey says users will soon be able to create their own reference systems for visualizations in Atlasify.
Researchers Create Transparent, Stretchable Conductors Using Nano-Accordion Structure
NCSU News (06/16/15) Matt Shipman
North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers have created stretchable, transparent conductors with a nano-accordion design that could be used in flexible electronics, stretchable displays, or wearable sensors. "Our technique uses geometry to stretch brittle materials, which is inspired by springs that we see in everyday life," says NCSU Ph.D. student Abhijeet Bagal. The researchers first created a three-dimensional polymer template on a silicon substrate, coated with a layer of aluminum-doped zinc oxide covered with an elastic polymer. The process produces a series of symmetrical zinc oxide ridges on an elastic substrate. "We can also control the thickness of the zinc oxide layer, and have done extensive testing with layers ranging from 30 to 70 nanometers thick," says NCSU Ph.D. student Erinn Dandley. "This is important because the thickness of the zinc oxide affects the structure's optical, electrical, and mechanical properties." The structure can be stretched repeatedly without breaking, and while there is some loss of conductivity at first, additional stretching does not affect conductivity. "We're now working on ways to improve the conductivity of the nano-accordion structures," says NCSU professor Chih-Hao Chang.
Google DeepMind Teaches Artificial Intelligence Machines to Read
Technology Review (06/17/15)
Karl Moritz Hermann and his team at Google DeepMind say the particular way some news websites display online articles facilitates the creation of a database computers can use to learn. The Daily Mail, MailOnline, and CNN websites present news stories with the main points of the story displayed as bullet points that are written independently of the text. "Of key importance is that these summary points are abstractive and do not simply copy sentences from the documents," the researchers note. An annotated database can be formed by taking the news articles as the texts and the bullet-point summaries as the annotation. Using Cloze query, which machine-learning algorithms are often used to solve, Hermann and his team anonymized the dataset by replacing the actors in sentences with a generic description. The resulting database is substantial, consisting of 110,000 articles from CNN and 218,000 articles from the Daily Mail website. The researchers are using the database to compare conventional natural-language processing techniques, such as measuring the distance between combinations of words, and more modern neural network approaches. Hermann and his team say the best neural nets can answer 60 percent of the queries put to them, indicating these machines only have trouble with queries with complex grammatical structures.
A Robot Playing 'Veo-Veo' Can Help Children With Autism
Polytechnic University of Madrid (Spain) (06/12/15)
Researchers in Spain are working to develop a more human-like robot, with a team from the Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM) focusing on the way the robot would interact visually and linguistically with humans. Such visual perception and natural language capabilities will enable advanced robots to act more "as real companions," suggests UPM professor Dario Maravall. The team from the Computational Cognitive Robotics Group currently is developing the physical, articulated, and motorized structure of the robot, and will then turn its attention to incorporating visual perception cameras, processing and image-analysis software, a recognition system, and speech synthesis. "The aim is to provide [the robot] with an appearance that resembles a primate in order to produce empathy toward the robot," Maravall says. "A companion robot, that is, an artificial partner, should have a physical appearance that provokes sympathy and affection in human users." In the future, the researchers plan to develop an application based on the interactive game "veo-veo" that will integrate artificial vision and natural-language processing. The team believes the robot could potentially assist occupational therapists working with adults and children who have special social communication needs, such as autism.
Scale-Free Gives Humans a Competitive Edge
University of Sydney (06/17/15) Victoria Hollick
Humans arrange themselves into scale-free networks to acquire a competitive edge, according to research conducted by University of Sydney researchers. Professor Mahendra Piraveenan says scientists have known for a decade that humans interact in patterns, both online and offline, which resemble scale-free networks. "Scale-free networks include many 'well-connected' nodes, hubs of connectivity that shape the way a network operates," he says. University of Sydney Ph.D. candidate Dharshana Kasthuriratne says scientists have discovered that networks of human interactions, whether in online forums such as Facebook or LinkedIn, or offline networks such as friends at a school, display this scale-free feature. Piraveenan and Kasthuriratne's study simulated the decision-making process of communities of thousands of people inside large distributed computing systems, such as computing clusters. The researchers applied what they called evolutionary pressure by rewarding participating communities if they showed higher systemic rationality, and the random interaction networks were allowed to re-wire while keeping the total number of links constant, according to Piraveenan. "Results of the simulation showed scale-free networks emerging from initially random networks of people," Kasthuriratne says.
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