• September 2012
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Harness Unused Smartphone Power for a Computing Boost

New Scientist (08/29/12) Jacob Aron

Technical University of Braunschweig researchers have found that smartphones can be joined together in a network, which when connected via Wi-Fi, can carry out increased numbers of megaflops.  The researchers joined six low-powered phones and found they could carry out a combined 26.2 million calculations per second.  Although that performance figure is low when compared to the processing power of a modern desktop computer, the research suggests that larger smartphone clusters could be useful.  The system would be most powerful when there are large groups of phones charging at the same time.  “The more people show up, the more computer power you potentially have available,” says University of Bristol researcher Simon McIntosh-Smith.  A business model could be developed to provide incentives for users to join, such as receiving subsidized phones for users who contribute time to the cluster, says Braunschweig researcher Felix Busching.


Quantum Chip Breakthrough to Be Unveiled

Financial Times (09/03/12) Ling Ge; Clive Cookson

University of Bristol researchers say they have developed a quantum chip that will lead to the creation of completely secure mobile phones and super-fast computers that are much more powerful than today’s devices.  The researchers currently are applying the technology to safe communications for mobile phones and computers.  They say their research is an important step toward miniaturizing optical quantum computers.  Although the chip is made from silicon, unlike conventional silicon chips, which work by controlling electrical current, the quantum chips manage photons to perform calculations.  Since the technology uses the same silicon manufacturing techniques as conventional chips, it will be easier for manufacturers to mass produce quantum chips.  The chips also are compatible with existing optical glass fiber infrastructure used in broadband communications because they operate at the same wavelengths.  “The global communications network, including the Internet, is powered by fiber optics, which use light to move information at high speeds between countries, cities, and buildings,” says Bristol’s Mark Thompson.  “Our devices are directly compatible–in a sense they talk the same language.”


Russia Joins the Supercomputer Race

Izvestia (Russia) (08/24/12)

The Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) is building a supercomputer that it says will have a capacity of 10 petaflops, which would make it the most powerful in Russia.  Even before the new system is completed, the supercomputer will surpass the current most powerful computer in Russia, the Lomonosov, which has a capacity of 1.7 petaflops.  “It is the beginning of the era of 10-petaflops computers.  We are absorbing and utilizing the technology,” says Boris Shabanov, deputy director of RAS’ Joint Supercomputer Center.  “Our goal is to complete the first two elements by the end of the year, and then the technology will make it possible to upgrade its capacity to 10 petaflops within a reasonable time–over the next year–provided there is adequate investment.”  Shabanov notes that energy efficiency will be a key feature of the new supercomputer, and when finished it will be one of the most energy-efficient machines in the world, ranking second in the Green 500 supercomputer rating.  The system’s energy efficiency “is achieved with the help of the unique cooling system and cutting-edge x86 coprocessors,” Shabanov notes.  When fully operational, the supercomputer is expected to be one of the 10 fastest in the world.


Can ‘Serious Games’ Be an Effective Tool for Workplace Learning?

University College London (08/23/12)

University College London (UCL) researchers are analyzing TARGET, a computer game that could help workers develop skills such as negotiating and trust building.  TARGET aims to use the Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) environment provided by the game to support the development of workers.  In each game, the user interacts with computer-based characters within a three-dimensional virtual environment and has to solve simulated project management missions, tasks, and problems.  “Serious game applications include edutainment, higher education, health care, corporate, military, and non-government organizations,” says UCL researcher Charlene Jennett.  The researchers developed three learning measures, including multiple choice questions, scenario questions, and self-assessment questions, to assess different levels of learning in TARGET.  The researchers’ initial findings suggest that TARGET could be helping learners with interpreting different scenarios in the workplace.  “Our findings also indicate that the TARGET system needs to be further developed in order to improve the experiences of users,” Jennett says.  She notes that not all serious games are effective as learning tools, which demonstrates the value of evaluation activities and “investigating whether a serious game achieves its intended learning outcomes with its intended target audience.”


Supercomputers Help New Orleans Prepare for Hurricane Isaac

Computerworld (08/29/12) Patrick Thibodeau

Researchers are using supercomputing centers at Louisiana State University (LSU) and the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) to enable emergency planners to model what will happen once Hurricane Isaac sends water into canals, levies, and neighborhoods.  The computer models also are being used to help determine the best staging areas for positioning people and supplies needed for the recovery, says LSU’s Robert Twilley.  The researchers are using an unstructured grid that enables them to concentrate the nodes in areas where the analysis is needed, such as near inland waterways and flood-prone areas.  This technique allows them to adjust the detail to where it is needed most.  The supercomputers being used can produce simulations with about 1.5 million nodes in just 90 minutes.  Meanwhile, University of Texas at Austin researchers have been running computer models at TACC to assess the impact of the storm surge on Texas.  Emergency planners “can look down at neighborhood scale and say ‘on this street along the levy we’re going to have water this high,’ and plan accordingly,” says University of Texas at Austin’s Casey Dietrich.


Watson Turns Medic: Supercomputer to Diagnose Disease

New Scientist (08/22/12) Jim Giles

IBM’s supercomputer Watson is learning to use its language skills to help doctors diagnose patients.  “It’s a machine that can read everything and forget nothing,” says physician Larry Norton at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.  Watson handles medical questions by drawing on information from medical journals and clinical guidelines.  In order to test the new application, Watson was given 188 questions that it had not seen before and achieved about 50 percent accuracy.  To improve that percentage, Watson is currently absorbing tens of thousands of medical records concerning treatments and outcomes associated with individual patients.  After being provided with data on a new patient, Watson looks for information on those with similar symptoms, as well as the treatments that have bee successful in the past.  Watson is now answering basic questions based on the treatment guidelines that are published by medical societies and is showing very positive results, according to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center doctor William Audeh.  The technology is especially useful in oncology because doctors struggle to keep up with the explosion of genomic and molecular data generated about each cancer type.


Darpa Has Seen the Future of Computing…and It’s Analog

Wired News (08/22/12) Robert McMillan

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently launched the Unconventional Processing of Signals for Intelligent Data Exploitation (UPSIDE) program, which will investigate building computers without using digital processors.  The aim is to build computer chips that are much more power-efficient than conventional processors.  “One of the things that’s happened in the last 10 to 15 years is that power-scaling has stopped,” says DARPA researcher Daniel Hammerstrom.  The UPSIDE chips could be an alternative to normal Boolean logic, in which the voltage in a chip’s transistor represents a zero or a one.  Hammerstrom wants chipmakers to build analog processors that can do probabilistic math without forcing transistors into an absolute one-or-zero state, a technique that consumes energy.  The UPSIDE program will run in two phases over a 54-month period.  The first phase will involve companies developing chips using probabilistic techniques.  The second phase will involve building mobile imaging systems using the chips.