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Software: Heal Thyself

by Brian Blum on August 10, 2010

in Israel,Products,Research

ibm-research

IBM research facility in Haifa

If your computer gets sick, would you rather give it a full system overhaul or the equivalent of a digital Advil to relieve the symptoms? Onn Shehory and his team at Israel’s IBM Haifa research facility have developed much more than a computerized analgesic. Say hello to the world’s first self-healing software.

The project – called SHADOWS for “a Self Healing Approach for Developing cOmplex softWare Systems” – was proposed by Shehory and funded by the European Union’s 6th Framework Program, a technology initiative that invests in promising international endeavors. The idea was to emulate how the human body behaves and apply it to software.

“When you develop some sort of dysfunction, the body senses this and reacts automatically,” Shehory says. “It is essentially self-monitoring.” SHADOWS does the same for computer systems. “It recognizes specific misbehaviors, classifies them into possible types of problems, and then for the serious ones, makes the appropriate adjustments,” he says. This may include inserting new lines of codes before a program runs or moving around memory resources, to prevent the most common reasons for system crashes.

In the case of memory, for example, Shehory explains that “we can manipulate the usage of memory without actually knowing where the problem is coming from. We don’t have to find the bug, just to know that something is wrong.”

That’s the same way that a pain and fever medication acts on the body. “Instead of a week of fever, you might just have a half an hour at the end of the week,” he says. “It doesn’t remove the root cause – the virus – but it will prevent the fever from coming back for a long time.

“In order to continue benefiting from the advances and innovations becoming available in the IT landscape, software developers and architects must begin to design software… to incorporate internal safeguards that can both identify and repair problems,” adds Yaron Wolfsthal, head of the Reliable Systems Technologies group at the IBM Haifa lab.

The need for self-healing software is clear: Computer systems are now ubiquitous, a part of everything from dishwashers to managing a countrywide electricity grid. The problem is that software systems are inherently buggy. Even utilizing software testing, reviews and other protective measures, “with millions of lines of code, it’s too difficult to identify all the problems in advance,” Shehory says.

Traditional approaches to fixing software have meant calling on engineers to sift through the code, locate the bug and repair it – a process that’s akin to searching for a needle in a digital haystack. And yet, “we can’t afford for systems to fail on critical missions… or even non-critical missions,” exhorts Shehory.

SHADOWS doesn’t go so far as to create self-aware artificial intelligence – no worries about a Terminator-style SkyNet attacking the planet. Nor is it specifically targeted at preventing terrorists from bringing down global networks. “It’s not about security, it’s about the robustness of the code,” Shehory explains, although he suggests that since SHADOWS can identify problems as they start to brew, it may allow programmers to jump into action if they sense a cyber-attack is imminent.

SHADOWS is sophisticated but doesn’t require any changes to existing legacy computer systems – it can sit alongside those programs monitoring their action and only start working its magic when it detects something awry. Shehory hopes, however, that programmers will speed things up by manually inserting “comments” when they write the software that can direct SHADOWS to look at, say, only 10,000 rather than a million lines of code.

The genesis of SHADOWS was a proposal IBM in Israel made to a European Union program that promotes collaboration in research and technology across Europe. Eight other partners joined IBM in the three-year, $5 million project – major universities including the University of Potsdam in Germany and the Brno University of Technology in the Czech Republic, and technology heavyweights such as Phillips Electronics of the Netherlands and the Spanish phone carrier Telefonica, which provided a case study on the use of the SHADOWS technology. The EU pays for 50 percent of the project with the IBM lab responsible for the other half.

Despite the innovation, SHADOWS is not yet ready for prime time – it’s more a general research-oriented framework than an actual, saleable product – although parts of it may be commercialized. Each partner in the project owns its own intellectual property should a marketable solution ultimately be developed.

In the meantime, Shehory is considering applying for a second stage grant to address the technology’s biggest limitation: The resistance of the people who write the computer systems that need SHADOWS to inserting machine-generated code automatically into their babies.

“The psychological effect is very strong,” Shehory admits. “If SHADOWS writes some new code, the programmer might be hesitant, thinking ‘can I trust this, will it work properly?’ “The solution may be as simple as adding a feature that “recommends” the change, allowing the engineer to decide whether or not to accept it.

Still, Shehory says, “we’re trying to find technical ways to address this difficulty without human intervention.” Software – heal thyself.

This article originally appeared on Israel21c.

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New Study: Why we Forward Emails

by Brian Blum on February 16, 2010

in Interactive,Research

Jonah Berger

Jonah Berger

Katherine Milkman

Katherine Milkman

If you’re like me, you probably receive a lot of forwarded emails from friends with shots of awe-inspiring photography or some insight about why humans behave in the strange, amusing or crazy ways they so often do. Now, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania can tell us why.

These researchers – Jonah Berger and Katherine A. Milkman – were pretty serious about their study. They intensively analyzed The New York Times list of most-emailed articles, checking it every 15 minutes for more than six months, reviewing the content of more than 7,500 articles, and controlling for factors such as where the articles appeared on the site (i.e., home page, tech page, etc.) wrote John Tierney in The Times last week.

The results are consistent with what tends to fill up my own inbox: positive rather than negative themed articles, and long pieces on intellectually challenging topics. Take that, silly dancing cat videos.

Berger and Milkman said that the most shared emails were those that “inspired awe,” and that science articles were particularly popular. And not just reviews of the latest gadget. “You’d see articles shooting up the list…about the optics of deer vision,” Berger told Tierney.

Of the thousands of articles flagged during the research period, a random sample were rated by independent readers for qualities like “providing practical value” or “being surprising,” Tierney wrote. The researchers also used computer algorithms to track the ratio of “emotional” words in an article and to assess their relative positivity or negativity.

Explaining why “awe” sells…or at least results in more frequent forwarding, Berger explained that the most emailed articles tended to be those that triggered an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” That might include standing in front of a beautiful piece of art or listening to a grand symphony.

Of course, there were also the show-off’s. If you send an article off about quantum mechanics, you might preface it by writing “of course this is just a superficial treatment.” And there were the fear mongers, too, who shared pieces on impending terror attacks or tax increases (in equal measures, I’m sure).

But it’s the awe that’s the stickiest. “If I’ve just read this story that changes the way I understand the world and myself, I want to talk to others about what it means. I want to proselytize and share the feeling of awe,” Berger concluded.

So, am I doing my job here on this blog? I’m not sure. I try to write about interesting topics, perhaps even those that will surprise you (“Kids Consuming 11 Hours of Media a Day”) or that will provide some scientific insight (“Addicted to Email”). But do you feel a sense of awe when I share my thoughts on the latest Apple products or the latest trend of TV viewers tweeting live while they’re watching Heroes?

I’m not a big believer in writing exclusively for SEO, making sure my keywords are all punk’d out to their stickiest max. That would go for posting only awe-full articles too. If there’s something that I believe would be of value to you, my dear reader, I’ll blog it. And vice versa. If you enjoy what I’ve shared, feel free to forward it…regardless of what the researchers say.

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Kaiser Kids and Internet Report

Cover from KFF Report

A new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation confirms what most parents already know: that our kids are literally tethered to the Internet or other means of consuming media the better part of the day.

The report, which has been the talk of the blogosphere since it was released yesterday, found that children and young adults aged 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day on their computers, in front of a television, or accessing media on a smart phone or mobile device.

That number doesn’t include talking or texting on a cell phone (another two hours a day). And if you calculate in multitasking – i.e., surfing the web while listening to music – the amount of media content taken in comes to nearly 11 hours total per day.

The shocking part is that when the same study was conducted five years ago, its authors concluded that media use could not possibly grow further from the six and a half hours clocked in 2004.

Donald Roberts, one of the researchers and a professor at Stanford University told The New York Times that “I remember writing a paragraph saying we’ve hit a ceiling on media use, since there just aren’t enough hours in the day to increase the time.”

Roberts and crew were apparently wrong.

The study’s results come as no surprise to my wife and I. All three of our children have their own computers, which are constantly on even while “studying.” The older two also have an iPhone and iPod Touch and know where all the open WiFi hotspots are in town. If they have a long bus ride, they load up the latest episodes of How I Met Your Mother or Dexter before leaving in the morning.

While the amount of time teenagers spend online or watching TV or movies is surprisingly high, it’s not like we didn’t do the same when we were younger – at least as much as we could with the technology of the times. I distinctly remember my parents complaining that I couldn’t possibly study properly with music or the TV on. But my grades came out fine.

That’s not necessarily the case today, though. The grades of 47 percent of the heaviest media users in the report were C or lower. Those heavy media users were also more likely to report that they were bored or sad, that they got into trouble, didn’t get along well with their parents, or were not happy at school.

A number of years ago – before the advent of all the latest hi-tech toys – our kids had become hopelessly addicted to the tube. We took the radical step of going “cold turkey” and forbidding television entirely. The kids were mortified at first, but tell us today that it was one of the best things we did as parents.

But their TV watching is now just as high – if not higher – than when we first detoxed; it’s simply not in the living room anymore. We have thought about taking their laptops away, but the kids have moaned that they need them for schoolwork – which is true.

And then there is the role model of their parents. Both my wife and I are in front of our respective computers constantly. And we multitask too. I am constantly flitting between Firefox, to Word for an article I’m writing, to splicing in a few stolen minutes of The Office or Flash Forward – all the while listening to Internet radio or some of the 100 GB of music on our shared home server.

So how can we criticize our children when their parents are equally guilty? The one thing that ruffles a teenager’s feathers more than anything else is perceived hypocrisy.

And there have been certain benefits to the always-on society we’ve created. When my son was visiting Poland with his high school class, he found a WiFi connection at the Auschwitz concentration camp and Skyped me from there, bringing me into his experience without paying a penny.

Ultimately, there’s no turning back. Our kids aren’t going to unplug and this is probably just an interim stage on the way to even more insidious connectivity. Someday, we’ll probably be able to pipe the Internet directly into our brains.

Indeed, that future may not be so far off. An Australian company is already working on an interface to bring sight to the blind by implanting a chip that bypasses the optical nerve. It’s just a hop skip and a jump to an entirely wireless mind (can you say Cylon?)

What are we going to do then? Threaten to remove their batteries? If Apple has anything to do with it, the power supply will be hard wired in – like all of Apple’s iPod products. Need a new chip? Just replace your head.

Some more findings from the Kaiser study:

  • 76% of 8 to 18-year-olds have MP3 players (up from 18% in 2004).
  • 64% say the TV is usually on during meals and 45% say the TV is left on “most of the time” even if no one is watching.
  • 71% have a TV in their bedroom; 50% have a console video game player
  • The amount of time spent watching regularly scheduled TV declined by 25 minutes a day from 2004. But factoring in TV on the web and cell phones, total TV consumption increased from 3:51 hours to 4:29 hours a day.
  • 74% say they have a profile on a social networking site.
  • About half of young people say they use media either “most” (31%) or “some” (25%) of the time while they’re doing their homework
  • Respondents to the survey spend an average of 1:35 hours a day sending or receiving texts.

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