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Apr 08
The European Commission has been scratching its head about what to call the new EU research and innovation funding program. They’re asking for help. The new funding program will replace the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) after 2013.
Provided you’re not an employee of one of the European institutions or a direct family member, you are invited to enter the ongoing competition for the new name. Your proposal “should be easily associated with research and innovation, while also being original, memorable, either usable in a wide range of languages or easily translatable, and easy to pronounce and spell,” the European Commission Web site reads.
The three best suggestions will be selected by an international jury and further voted on by the public. The winner, to be announced on 10 June, will get an all-expense-paid trip to Brussels for the European Innovation Convention later this year.
Entries will be accepted until midnight Central European Summer Time on 10 May to send your proposal.
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Apr 08

The six teams who enter the “most innovative ideas that drive green technology commercialization and entrepreneurship” will divide $12 million in this year’s i6 Green Challenge competition, sponsored by the United States Economic Development Administration.  Teams from universities and private organizations as well as entrepreneurs are among those eligible to compete. Projects can focus on renewable energy, energy efficiency, green manufacturing, reuse and recycling, green buildings, or ecosystem restoration.   Each group must submit a letter of intent by May 2 and a final proposal by May 26.  More information is here.

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Mar 28

Reported by Big Wide World Blog of New Scientist, 25 March 2011.

I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here! is a bit like an X Factor for scientists. Scientists put up information about themselves and their work on our site. Teenagers in their science classes read about the scientists, ask them questions, and then vote for which scientist they think should get a prize of £500. It’s funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Institute of Physics.

The results are in. Over the last two weeks 2785 questions have been asked by 2296 students and answered by 30 intrepid scientists.

The winners of I’m a Scientist (one from each of the six sub-groups) are -

Argon: Julian Rayner (Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute)
Chlorine: Murray Collins (Institute of Zoology – London School of Economics)
Forensic science: Mark Hill (Forensic Collision Investigation & Reconstruction Unit, Sussex Police) and Jamie Pringle (Keele University) – tied with the same number of votes
Space: Adam Tuff (York University)
Stem cell research: James Chan – (Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology, Imperial College London)
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Mar 02

Just visit Kaggle is a platform for data prediction competitions that allows organizations to post their data and have it scrutinized by the world’s best data scientists. See how it works.

Who should host a competition on Kaggle?

Crowdsourcing data modeling is an effective way to build predictive algorithms. There are any number of approaches that can be applied to a data modeling problem, but it is impossible to know at the outset which will be most effective. A consultant or in-house statisitician can try a few, but opening up the problem to a wider audience ensures that organizations reach the frontier of what is possible from a given dataset.

Most data problems can be framed as a competition:

  • > banks predict which loan applicants are likely to default
  • > government treasuries forecast tax revenues
  • > websites make personalized product recommendations
  • > hedge funds crunch data to find trading opportunities
  • > bioinformaticians search for links between genetic markers and disease

Who should compete on Kaggle?

Data scientists rarely have access to real-world data. This is frustrating when you consider that many of the world’s organizations have piles of data that they can’t make the most of. Kaggle corrects this mismatch by giving data scientists access to real-world data and problems. Best of all, the burden of collecting, cleaning and structuring the data will have been done by others.

Competitions offer participants the opportunity to:

  • > try their techniques on real-world problems and receive real-time feedback
  • > enhance their reputations and win prizes
  • > meet and collaborate with new contacts
  • > improve their skills and help to rapidly progress the state of the art in a number of different fields
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Jan 18

Reported by By Bob Brown, in Network World, January 11, 2011.

Google Science Fair looks to bring glory to science talent.

Google (NSDQ: GOOG) is urging youths ages 13 to 18 to take part in a worldwide science fair that will be hosted by the search giant online.

Google, in a blog posting titled “Google Science Fair seeks budding Einsteins and Curies,” invokes the story of its founders, onetime computer science students Larry Page and Sergey Brin, to encourage young people to take part in the event.

“Larry and Sergey were fortunate to be able to get their idea in front of lots of people. But how many ideas are lost because people don’t have the right forum for their talents to be discovered? We believe that science can change the world—and one way to encourage that is to celebrate and champion young scientific talent as we do athletes and pop idols,” Google writes.

The Google Science Fair is being conducted in partnership with CERN, The LEGO Group, National Geographic and Scientific American.  Details on how to enter are here, but the basics are that students can enter by themselves or in groups of three by April 4.  Finalists will be invited to participate in a live event at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley. Prizes include everything from a trip to the Galapagos Islands to scholarships, and entrants are free to double dip by submitting projects they are doing for local competitions into the Google Science Fair.

The Google Science Fair isn’t the first time Google has sought to inspire creativity via the contest route. It used to hold an Android Developer Challenge to entice programmers to create apps for Android smartphones. (That effort seems to have worked out pretty well, given the growing popularity of Android devices.)

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Dec 14

The DeepQA project at IBMResearch is helping to make computers smarter in their interaction with people.

IBM is working to build a computing system that can understand and answer complex questions with enough precision and speed to compete against some of the best Jeopardy! contestants out there.

This challenge is much more than a game. Jeopardy! demands knowledge of a broad range of topics including history, literature, politics, film, pop culture and science. What’s more, Jeopardy! clues involve irony, riddles, analyzing subtle meaning and other complexities at which humans excel and computers traditionally do not. This, along with the speed at which contestants have to answer, makes Jeopardy! an enormous challenge for computing systems.

Code-named “Watson” after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, the IBM computing system is designed to rival the human mind’s ability to understand the actual meaning behind words, distinguish between relevant and irrelevant content, and ultimately, demonstrate confidence to deliver precise final answers.

Known as a Question Answering (QA) system among computer scientists, Watson has been under development for more than three years. According to Dr. David Ferrucci, leader of the project team, “The confidence processing ability is key to winning at Jeopardy! and is critical to implementing useful business applications of Question Answering.”

Watson will also incorporate massively parallel analytical capabilities and, just like human competitors, Watson will not be connected to the Internet, or have any other outside assistance.

If we can teach a computer to play Jeopardy!, what could it mean for science, finance, healthcare and business? By drastically advancing the field of automatic question answering, the Watson project’s ultimate success will be measured not by daily doubles, but by what it means for society.

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Dec 14

Reported by Celeste Biever in New Scientist, 13 December 2010.

A competition to find a replacement for one of the gold-standard computer security algorithms used in almost all secure, online transactions just heated up.

The list of possibilities for Secure Hash Algorithm-3, or SHA-3, has been narrowed down to five finalists. They now face the onslaught of an international community of “cryptanalysts” – who will analyse the algorithms for weaknesses – before just one is due to be selected as the winner in 2012.

The competition, which is being run by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is a huge deal for cryptographers and cryptanalysts alike. “These are incredibly competitive people. They just love this,” says William Burr of NIST. “It’s almost too much fun. For us, it’s a lot of work.”

The need for the competition dates back to 2004 and 2005, when Chinese cryptanalyst Xiaoyun Wang shocked cryptographers by revealing flaws in the algorithm SHA-1, the current gold-standard “hash algorithm”, which is relied upon for almost all online banking transactions, digital signatures, and the secure storage of some passwords, such as those used to grant access to email accounts.

Diversity of designs

Hash algorithms turn files of almost any length into a fixed-length string of bits called a hash. Under SHA-1, it was believed that the only way to find two files that produce the same hash would require millions of years’ worth of computing power, but Wang found a shortcut, raising the possibility that online transactions could one day be rendered insecure.

So in 2007, NIST launched a competition to find a replacement.

Submissions closed in 2008, by which time NIST had received 64 entries “of widely varying quality”, says Burr. In July 2009, NIST pruned the list to 14 that warranted further consideration.

Then, on 9 December, he announced that NIST had settled on just five finalists (pdf).

“We picked five finalists that seemed to have the best combination of confidence in the security of the algorithm and their performance on a wide range of platforms” such as desktop computers and servers, Burr told New Scientist.

“We also gave some consideration to design diversity,” he says. “We wanted a set of finalists that were different internally, so that a new attack would be less likely to damage all of them, just as biological diversity makes it less likely that a single disease can wipe out all the members of a species.”

Sponge construction

The finalists include BLAKE, devised by a team led by Jean-Philippe Aumasson of the company Nagravision in Cheseaux, Switzerland; and Skein, the brainchild of a team led by famous computer security expert and blogger Bruce Schneier of Mountain View, California.

All of the finalists incorporate new design ideas that have arisen over the last few years, says Burr.

Hash algorithms start by turning a document into a string of 1s and 0s. Then over multiple cycles these bits are shuffled around, manipulated and either condensed down or expanded out to produce the final string, or hash.

One novel idea, called the “sponge hash construction”, does this by “sucking up” the original document and then later entering a “squeezing state” in which bits are “wrung out” to produce a final hash, Burr says. One of the finalists, an algorithm called Keccak devised by a team led by Guido Bertoni of STMicroelectronics, makes a particular point of using this method .

‘Brilliant woman’

The five teams have until 16 January 2011 to tweak their algorithms. Then there will be a year in which cryptanalysts are expected to attempt to break these algorithms. On the basis of these, and its own analyses, NIST will then choose the winner in 2012.

So will Wang, the cryptanalyst who attacked the initial SHA, be among those attempting to break the algorithms that are left? “We assume she may,” says Burr. “She is certainly a brilliant woman. But we hope to pick something that is good enough that she will fail this time.”

As well as finding a gold-standard algorithm, Burr is excited about the ability of such competitions to further cryptographic knowledge. The idea to use a competition to select the algorithm was inspired by the competition that led to the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) used by the US government.

“There is a general sense that the AES competition really improved what the research community knew about block ciphers,” says Burr. “I think the same sense here is that we are really learning a lot about hash functions.”

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Dec 14

Reported by Rebecca Boyle in Popular Science, 12.13.2010.

You Won’t Get Merit Badges For Winning These Contests, But You Will Get Money

There’s a long tradition of offering big cash prizes to entice talented and creative individuals to solve problems that have stymied industry and governments for decades. For example, in 1810, French cook Nicolas Appert won a 12,000-franc government prize for a food preservation method to help feed Napoleon’s army. His demonstration of putting food in airtight glass jars and sterilizing them with heat led to canning techniques that are still used today. Recently, such contests have blossomed, with many geared toward particle physicists and backyard tinkerers alike. Each year now, innovators are awarded some 30,000 prizes, worth in total about $1 billion. Here are our picks for the five most accessible.

Postcode Lottery Green Challenge

Postcode Lottery Green Challenge: Develop a marketable technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Challenge:

Create a marketable, user-friendly technology to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. To win the Dutch lottery’s prize, your invention should be refined enough to implement within two years. Judges favor creativity, sustainability and entrepreneurship.

The Payoff:

First place: about $700,000; second: about $275,000

The Competition:

A 25-year-old engineer, Scot Frank, won this year for a portable solar concentrator. The runner-up, rainforest researcher Jason Aramburu, also 25, submitted a kiln for people in developing nations to turn waste into carbon-capturing charcoal.


N-Prize: Create a small, inexpensive satellite that can be launched into orbit, circling the Earth at least nine times.

The Challenge:

Launch a satellite weighing between 0.35 and 0.70 ounces into low-Earth orbit by September 19, 2011. According to the prize’s sponsor, biologist Paul Dear, the launch must cost less than $1,600 and the satellite must circle the planet nine times.

The Payoff:

One-shot launching system: about $16,000; reusable one: about $16,000.

The Competition:

This prize is geared toward basement engineers around the world. The 26 teams that have signed up so far include both professional aerospace engineers and amateurs with no rocket-science background at all.

Sikorsky Human-Powered Helicopter Competition

Sikorsky Human-Powered Helicopter Competition: Power a chopper with only your own muscles and hover higher and longer than anyone before.

The Challenge:

Hover at least 9.8 feet off the ground for 60 seconds, using only human power and no energy-storage devices. The Sikorsky Aircraft and American Helicopter Society’s contest rules stipulate that lighter-than-air gases such as helium are not allowed.

The Payoff:

$250,000 (and a serious cardio workout).

The Competition:

Only two human-powered copters have ever flown. California State Polytechnic students hovered at eight inches for about eight seconds in 1989. A team from Nihon University in Japan set the current world record in 1994, at the same height for nearly 20 seconds.

Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge

Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge: Save the world's oceans from destruction with a more efficient, environmentally-friendly way to clean up after oil spills.

The Challenge:

Clean up oil spills better than current methods, and without any negative environmental effects. Teams selected by the X Prize Foundation will compete head-to-head for the quickest and most efficient cleanup on a test spill next summer.

The Payoff:

First place: $1 million; second: $300,000; third: $100,000

The Competition:

The X Prize Foundation hasn’t yet announced teams, but the Deepwater Horizon disaster has already proved that great ideas can come from anyone, such as the oil-tanker captain who invented a mesh sieve that snags tar balls from the ocean.

Rolex Awards For Enterprise

Rolex Awards For Enterprise: Construct an innovative prototype of "world-changing technology" in one of many categories.

The Challenge:

Build a working prototype of a “world-changing technology.” Categories include Science and Health, Environment, Exploration and Discovery, and Applied Technology. Representatives for the watch company judge entries on originality, impact and feasibility.

The Payoff:

First place: $100,000 and a gold Rolex; runners-up: $50,000 and a steel-and-gold Rolex.

The Competition:

Past winning projects were an acoustic whale-detector to protect the animals from ships, and a stove powered by discarded rice husks. Winners have included academics, professionals, entrepreneurs and students.

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