Welcome to the November 25, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Smartphones Enlisted in the Battle Versus Crop Disease
Pennsylvania State University (11/24/2015) Chuck Gill
Researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) aim to fight crop blight by issuing 50,000 open-access images of infected and healthy crops. These images will enable machine-learning specialists to develop algorithms that automatically diagnose a crop disease, which will then be given to farmers as a smartphone app. "We are encouraging the crop-health community to share their images of diseased plants, and we are encouraging the machine-learning community to help develop accurate algorithms," reports Penn State professor David Hughes. The algorithms will be embedded within smartphone apps so farmers can snap photos of their infected crops and receive instant diagnosis and treatment advice. EPFL professor Marcel Salathe says he expects to see a combination of "the enormous expertise in data science around the globe with our open-access data sets in the form of online competitions to develop the best algorithms to diagnose plant diseases. In the very near future, we'll launch the first online competition based on this growing data set that we make available today." Hughes and Salathe see this effort as a natural extension of their PlantVillage website, a free library and expert network on science-based knowledge on plant diseases.
Computers Can Perceive Image Curves Like Artists
Umea University (Sweden) (11/23/15) Anna Lawrence
Umea University researchers have developed a breakthrough concept in the field of computer vision using curves and lines to represent image shapes and recognize objects. "With this method, the computer can redraw an image using curve strokes and recognize objects through these curves," says Umea researcher Bo Li. The concept heralds new dimensions of understanding image features including points, regions, lines, and curves. This research advances the standard for future studies regarding image features, while providing practical guidance to the field. The most important element in feature extraction is the robustness, according to Li. The results show the new method enables curve and lines to be detected robustly under various image transformations and disturbances. Historically, curves and lines have not been as popular as points and regions in the field of computer vision because they lack the necessary robustness. However, Li's new theory and algorithms solve this problem. "Curves and lines are naturally more useful than points, because humans use these shapes to describe the world," Li says.
Cyborg Rose Has Electric Circuits Running Through Polymer Veins
New Scientist (11/20/15) Aviva Rutkin
Swedish researchers have made progress toward the goal of creating systems that blend technology with plants. Led by Magnus Berggren, the researchers at Linkoping University have built a working electronic circuit from an ordinary garden rose by filling its veins with conductive polymer. This is the first step toward developing electronics that can interact directly with plants, monitoring and perhaps even modifying their growth. The first step, however, was to find a material that could be introduced into the flesh of a plant without destroying it. The researchers eventually found one that worked: poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene) (PEDOT), a conducting polymer used in many traditional electronics. The researchers soaked a garden rose with the roots and leaves removed in a PEDOT solution and days later extracted it. They found the PEDOT had been absorbed into the rose's veins, or xylem, and solidified into a gel. This effectively turned the xylem into wires. Although it is only a tentative first step, Berggren and his team hope their research could eventually yield a means of building botanical circuits that enable them to sense and record hormone levels in plants.
The Algorithm That Creates Diets That Work for You
The Atlantic (11/19/15) Ed Yong
Researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science have created an algorithm that can accurately predict how a person's blood-sugar levels will spike after eating any given meal. The Weizmann team says the most common method for forecasting a person's spike in blood-sugar levels is to look at the carbohydrate content of their meal. However, carb content weakly correlates with spikes. To account for genes, lifestyle choices, bacteria in the gut, and recently eaten meals, the researchers monitored the blood sugar, diets, and other traits of 800 volunteers. The algorithm uses individual traits--some 137 factors in total--to predict a person's blood sugar responses to food. When tested on another group of 100 volunteers, the algorithm predicted sugar spikes that matched the participants' actual data with a correlation of 0.7, where 1 would be perfect, which outperforms the 0.38 and 0.33 correlations for counting carbs or calories. The algorithm also can provide people with dietary advice for keeping their blood sugar in check.
New Access to the Interior of Electronic Components
Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany) (11/23/15)
Ruhr-University Bochum (RUB) researchers can access the interior of transistors by manipulating the electron gas within them via application of resonators to produce rhythmic oscillation in the terahertz range inside. "A 2D electron gas is like jelly," notes RUB professor Andreas Wieck. "If pressure is electrically applied to the gas from above with a characteristic frequency, thickness and density oscillations are generated." The approximately 10-nm-thick oscillations follow quantum mechanical laws, so all occurring oscillations have a specific frequency in the range of 1,012 Hertz. "Pressure to the electron gas must be applied in that rapid change," Wieck notes. The RUB researchers evaporated a series of identical metallic resonators that can oscillate with the required fixed frequency 100 nm above the gas, which was embedded in a semiconductor and could be thickened or thinned via external DC voltage. They refined the electron gas to the resonators with external voltage so the alternating electric pressure of the resonators excited it optimally to oscillate in the terahertz range. The researchers suggest this technique could be of interest for sensors in chemical and environmental applications, as molecule oscillations typically happen in the terahertz range; these oscillations can be recorded with modified sensors, which can be developed to react to the frequencies of certain gases or liquids.
Supercomputing the Strange Difference Between Matter and Antimatter
Brookhaven National Laboratory (11/20/15)
An international group of physicists including researchers from the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) has published the first calculation of direct "CP" symmetry violation, and if the prediction represented by this calculation does not match experimental outcomes, it would conclusively prove the existence of new, unknown phenomena that lie outside of the Standard Model. The calculation was performed on the Blue Gene/Q supercomputers at the RIKEN BNL Research Center (RBRC). Scientists anticipate dramatic improvement in the precision of the calculation now that they have demonstrated they can manage the task. The final part of the calculation needed more than 200 million core processing hours on supercomputers, "and would have required two thousand years using a laptop," according to BNL's Taku Izubuchi. The goal of the current calculation is a highly elusive phenomenon: a one-part-in-a-million difference between matter and antimatter decay probabilities. The Standard Model successfully relates matter-antimatter asymmetries observed in earlier experiments, but the Standard-Model asymmetry cannot explain the existing preponderance of matter over antimatter in the universe. "The approximate agreement between this new calculation and the 2000 experimental results suggests that we need to look harder, which is exactly what the team performing this calculation plans to do," says RBRC's Christopher Kelly.
Quantum Simulation: A Better Understanding of Magnetism
Heidelberg University (11/20/15)
Heidelberg University physicists have devised a new way to study magnetism via quantum simulation, using four ultracold atoms at near absolute zero to build a model simulating the behavior of electrons in a solid. "Precisely preparing such a small number of atoms...allows us...to control the state of the atoms with extreme precision," says Heidelberg doctoral student Simon Murmann. The atoms are corralled in a laser light trap permitting movement in only one dimension. "Initially, there is no interaction between the atoms," Murmann notes. "In this state, they can move freely inside the trap without any fixed arrangement. But when we introduce increasing repulsion between the atoms, they can no longer pass one another and end up forming a chain. Each atom in the chain points in the opposite direction of its neighbor, one up and one down. This brings about an antiferromagnetic state." This activity is interesting because antiferromagnetism is linked to physical phenomena that could lead to far-reaching applications. "Superconductivity...was observed in antiferromagnetic materials at relatively high temperatures of only minus 135 degrees Celsius," says Heidelberg professor Selim Jochim. "We hope that our experiments will contribute to the understanding of the fundamental processes in solids. One vision is to develop new materials that will remain superconductive even at room temperature."
Designing Virtual Identities for Empowerment and Social Change
MIT News (11/18/15)
D. Fox Harrell, associate professor of digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has recently been awarded several grants, totaling $1.35 million, to support his interdisciplinary research into identity and technology. Harrell's previous research includes studies of how online video games' character creation tools reflect and reinforce cultural stereotypes and how the characters that players create reflect their own identities and attitudes. The first of the new grants, from the National Science Foundation, will fund computer science learning courses in middle and high schools in the Boston area using an educational video game developed in Harrell's Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory (ICE Lab) at MIT. The second grant, from the Qatar Computing Research Institute and MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), will examine the relationship between real-world and online identities, especially in the Middle Eastern context. Harrell is particularly interested in how social media is used in cultures different from those of the people who designed the platforms. The final grant, from the MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology, will see Harrell design dynamic avatars for "The Enemy," a virtual reality project that is designed to help foster empathy in the midst of global conflicts.
Strange Quantum Phenomenon Achieved at Room Temperature in Semiconductor Wafers
University of Chicago (11/20/15) Steve Koppes
University of Chicago Institute for Molecular Engineering researchers in professor David Awschalom's team have demonstrated that macroscopic entanglement can be supported at room temperature and in a small magnetic field. The researchers used infrared laser light to align the magnetic states of thousands of electrons and nuclei and then electromagnetic pulses to entangle them. This process induced entanglement in pairs of electrons and nuclei in a macroscopic 40 micrometer-cubed volume of the semiconductor SiC. "We know that the spin states of atomic nuclei associated with semiconductor defects have excellent quantum properties at room temperature," Awschalom says. "They are coherent, long-lived and controllable with photonics and electronics. Given these quantum 'pieces,' creating entangled quantum states seemed like an attainable goal." The methods used in this research, combined with sophisticated devices enabled by advanced SiC device-fabrication protocols, could facilitate quantum sensors that employ entanglement as a resource for transcending the sensitivity constraints of traditional or non-quantum sensors. With the entanglement working at ambient conditions and SiC being bio-friendly, biological sensing within a living organism is one particularly intriguing application.
Coming Soon: iPhones That Can 'Heal' Themselves
Times of Israel (11/18/15) David Shamah
Technion researchers hypothesize that a flexible polymer material could make it possible to use touch technology in more innovative ways, such as the development of flexible phones or tablets and electronic skin that can repair a scratched screen automatically. "We have developed a complete, self-healing device in the form of a bendable and stretchable chemiresistor where every part, no matter where the device is cut or scratched, is self-healing," says Technion professor Hossam Haick. He says flexible sensors will be able to precisely measure the makeup and touch of a user, ensuring that only their finger or thumb is the one that a device responds to. The flexibility of this new material could be used to create portable devices made almost exclusively from flexible materials. The breakthrough is a new kind of synthetic polymer that includes self-healing properties similar to human skin. In addition, the material can heal itself even at extreme temperatures, a property that can extend applications of the self-healing sensor to areas of the world with extreme climates, according to the researchers. "The self-healing sensor raises expectations that flexible devices might someday be self-administered, which increases their reliability," says Technion researcher Tan-Phat Huynh.
A Row-Bot That Loves Dirty Water
University of Bristol News (11/23/15)
University of Bristol Robotics Laboratory researchers have developed the Row-bot, a robot that mimics the way the water boatman moves and the way it feeds on rich organic matter in dirty water. The Row-bot project aims to develop an autonomous swimming robot able to operate indefinitely in remote unstructured locations by scavenging its energy from the environment. The robot collects energy by opening its soft robotic mouth and rowing forward to fill its microbial fuel cell stomach with nutrient-rich dirty water. The Row-bot then uses the bio-degradation of organic matter to generate electricity using bio-inspired mechanisms. “The work shows a crucial step in the development of autonomous robots capable of long-term self-power,” says University of Bristol professor Jonathan Rossiter. He thinks the Row-bot could be used in environmental clean-up operations of contaminants, and in long-term autonomous environmental monitoring of hazardous environments. The prototype robot combines a bio-inspired energy source and bio-inspired actuation. The first subsystem shows the power-generation capability, the second subsystem starts the refueling process and moves the robot around, and the Row-bot uses both systems to be totally independent in the water, as long as enough energy is available in the fluid.
How Well Is Hillary Clinton Tweeting? Syracuse Takes a Closer Look
The Chronicle of Higher Education (11/23/15) Kate Stoltzfus
Syracuse University researchers are planning to compile and analyze every tweet and Facebook post for every presidential candidate through the end of the 2016 election to assess what those posts augur for the campaign. This will be executed by a system known as the Social Media Tracker, Analyzer, and Collector Toolkit. Each researcher concentrates on a specific element when analyzing the messages for broader patterns, according to Syracuse professor Jeff J. Hemsley. Those factors include strategic campaign messaging, candidate/public interaction, and how people use technology. Hemsley says the research can help journalists and candidates anticipate the kinds of stories voters most respond to. Early research implies politicians use Facebook and Twitter for different purposes, with Hemsley noting Twitter is viewed as reaching a more "politically savvy" audience of journalists, activists, and academics, and is often employed for attack messages. In the meantime, Facebook is valued for reaching a general audience. "We want to begin to understand which variables of social media might be indicators of ultimate electoral success," says project participant and fellow Syracuse professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley.
Technology Meets Society: New App Helps Seniors Live Better
Notre Dame News (11/18/15) William G. Gilroy
University of Notre Dame researchers have developed eSeniorCare, a smartphone app that creates a personalized socio-ecological construct around a senior user. The app can help empower and engage seniors while providing a continuity of care allowing healthcare providers to proactively reach out to at-risk seniors when they need help. Users also can connect with care providers by sending concerns and questions as text or voice recordings. The app also features a physical health component that enables users to track a variety of health goals. ESeniorCare also has medication scheduling management, medication history, medication reminders, and medication adherence. The app lets caretakers see when medications are not being taken correctly or renewed on time and can quickly intervene to remedy the problem. One of eSeniorCare's most popular features is brain games designed to enhance cognitive health and avoid impairment. In a pilot study, the researchers tracked the medication management component for three months and the activities component for seven months; they found seniors' technology comfort and literacy increased, and there also was an increase in interpersonal interactions among all participants.
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