ACM TechNews
Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the February 8, 2016 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Cambridge Researcher Develops Smartphone App to Map Swiss-German Dialects
University of Cambridge (02/08/16)

A smartphone app that crowdsources and maps the proliferation of Swiss-German dialects, has been developed by researchers at the Universities of Cambridge, Zurich, and Bern. The Dialakt App created by Cambridge's Adrian Leemann and colleagues, which is available for iOS devices at no charge, is founded on a quick 16-question survey from which the app predicts a user's home dialect location. Users can verify or modify the dialect to reflect the actual location, and underlying each question is a map from the Linguistic Atlas of German-Speaking Switzerland, which documents language use in Switzerland about seven decades ago. The Dialakt App employs a series of keywords to predict a user's location, with the largest numbers of Swiss-German speakers found in Zurich, Bern, and Aargau. The app also showed prediction accuracy to be higher among older speakers, while the worst projections were for those aged 15 to 20, indicating how local dialects have changed, especially in younger generations. "Greater mobility, and modern mass media, increases the range of variant dialects that people may come into contact with, which favors the transmission of more frequently used and geographically widespread variants of the language over rarer and more isolated dialects," Leemann says. He notes, "apps like this one have the potential to complement existing data-collection techniques and to provide evidence that the traditional method cannot hope to gather."

Why We Won't Trust Robot Cars Until They Drive Just Like Us
ZDNet (02/03/16) Danny Palmer

Eight separate research projects into autonomous vehicles will receive financial support from the U.K. government. One of the largest projects is "MOVE-UK," an initiative that brings together Bosch, Jaguar Land Rover, and others. The project involves a fleet of sensor-equipped Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles to be driven around the London Borough of Greenwich by people to determine how real drivers react in traffic. The goal is to help future autonomous vehicles drive like human drivers. The theory is that motorists using the road at the same time as a driverless car will be more likely to trust it if it acts like a human, says Wolfgang Epple, director of research and technology at Jaguar Land Rover. Data from sensors in these cars will reveal the natural driving behaviors and decision-making that drivers make, including complex and stressful scenarios such as yielding at roundabouts and intersections, how drivers merge into traffic, and how they react to an emergency vehicle approaching them in heavy traffic. Drivers will need to completely trust the vehicle before they opt-in and engage automated systems. Epple says if drivers have confidence in the automation, they will be able to switch from one mode to the other, so the autonomous mode will help with any challenging or less-stimulating activities on the journey.

Computer Science Meets Economics
MIT News (02/04/16) Larry Hardesty

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Constantinos Daskalakis primarily concentrates on applying computer science methods to game theory. His doctoral dissertation proved computing the Nash equilibrium for a three-person game is computationally intractable, which meant that, for any but the most basic of games, all the computers in the world would be unable to calculate its Nash equilibrium in the lifetime of the universe. Daskalakis therefore contends it is doubtful real-world markets modeled by game theorists have converged on Nash equilibria. After his doctoral thesis, Daskalakis focused on importing notions of approximation from computer science into economics. Although he discovered even relatively coarse approximations of general games are still computationally intractable, other game theory problems are more amenable to computational analysis. In 2012, Daskalakis and a student team solved the long-time problem of structuring auctions for multiple items so that, even if all the bidders adopt strategies that maximize their own returns, the auctioneer can still leverage the biggest profit. Daskalakis envisions his research challenge as bringing more of the economics aesthetic into computer science, and to this end he has developed new tools in the field of optimal transport theory, which analyzes the most efficient way to move objects or data between multiple origins and destinations.

'Social AI' Lets Mario and Luigi Learn How to Save the Princess on Their Own
Gizmag (02/04/16) Dario Borghino

A new development in artificial intelligence (AI) harnesses the power of social interactions to learn more about the world. Researchers at University of Tubingen in Germany have developed a Super Mario video game clone with new AI software that enables game characters Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, and Toad to talk to each other in plain English and learn by observing each other's actions. The characters, which are equipped with different abilities and limited knowledge, are motivated by four different objectives--food, health, completing the level, and learning more about the world--and cannot be directly controlled by users via keystrokes. The characters collaborate to achieve a common goal, and they are able to complete a level on their own through their own curiosity and social intelligence and very little, if any, explicit human instruction. Researcher Fabian Schrodt says one of the main goals of the project is to make artificial social intelligence easier to teach, as well as advancing human-machine interaction in areas such as driving assistance.
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Next Billion People Online Will Get Odd Versions of the Internet
New Scientist (02/03/16) Aviva Rutkin

Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) researchers have built Cuba Intercambio, an email-based service that connects Cubans to people who act as their online proxies. Only 5 percent of the Cuban population is connected to the Internet. Cuba Intercambio receives users' queries by email and puts them up on a Facebook group. Anyone outside Cuba can look up the information requested and send it back, making the whole system deliberately low-tech, according to Georgia Tech researcher Amy Bruckman. Cuba Intercambio is one of several projects trying to connect the Internet to parts of the world that have limited or no access, such as parts of Africa, South America, and Asia. The researchers found Cubans wanted to use the Internet to find trustworthy sources of information, or simply alternatives to the national media or government sources. "Cuba is one of the last places in the world where we can watch the introduction of the Internet to a relatively developed culture," Bruckman says. This gives the researchers a chance to observe people using the Internet for the first time, perhaps providing insight into how it can transform lives.

Smart Thermostat Puts Energy Money Saving at Household Fingertips
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (02/05/16)

University of Southampton researchers have developed a prototype "smart" thermostat, which enables users to control their heating based on the price they want to pay rather than setting it by temperature alone. The researchers produced three different smart thermostats that automated heating based on users' preferences and real-time price variations. One of the thermostats enables users to explicitly specify how the heating should respond to price changes. The two other thermostats are learning-based models, which use artificial intelligence to automate the temperature settings based on learned households' preferences. The researchers tested all three models in a month-long field study involving 30 UK households. During the study, the energy price was changed every 30 minutes, and the participants could view those changes. The researchers found the participants used all three thermostat systems to effectively manage their home heating and create temperature preferences based on real-time prices. "People were more aware of their energy consumption and were happy with the autonomous system controlling their heating on their behalf given real-time prices," says University of Southampton researcher Alper Alan. However, the researchers also found price was not the only factor users considered when heating their homes; other key factors included outside weather, occupancy, and daily activities within the house.

'On-Ramping' Paves the Way for Women Scientists, Engineers to Return to Academia
UW Today (02/04/16) Jennifer Langston

University of Washington (UW) researchers interviewed 10 women who successfully transitioned into university faculty or instructor positions after working as corporate scientists or industry or government researchers. The study found numerous benefits--to students, researchers, and academic institutions looking to diversify their faculty--making the return to academia easier. The interviews explored the challenges and rewards in making the transition, the support and tools that made it easier, and how the skills women acquired in industry helped or hindered them. "We saw that there were some really good women out there who just needed some encouragement and a road map on how to translate their skills from industry into academia," says UW professor Eve Riskin. One common strategy for increasing women faculty in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) departments is to hire from other universities. However, this approach fails to increase the number of female STEM faculty nationally. The UW On-Ramps workshops aimed to broaden the pool of women from which universities can hire by helping qualified women with nonacademic career trajectories navigate the transition to academic employment. The On-Ramps workshops offered professional development advice, in-depth discussions that included personal issues and life stories, interactions with other potential on-rampers, and exploration of strategies for reaching their academic goals.

Verification Code or Cyberattack?
New York University (02/02/16)

New York University researchers have tested the premise that two-factor authentication could be cracked by tricking people into sharing their verification code. The team constructed a scenario in which a hacker, armed only with the target's mobile phone number, attempts to log into a user's account and claims to forget the password, triggering a verification short-messaging-service (SMS) text. In a pilot test, in which hackers followed up directly with a second SMS requesting the user forward the verification code to confirm the phone is linked to the online account, 25 percent of mobile phone users forwarded the verification code to the attackers upon request. Users are as likely to fall for the ruse as they are for a traditional phishing scam. The researchers took the study one step further by surveying 100 email account holders who use two-factor authentication, and reported more than 60 percent said they do not routinely verify the source of SMS verification requests. Moreover, 20 percent said they would forward a verification code if requested by a major email provider.

Project Embeds Computer Science Lessons in Math Instruction for K-5 Students
University of Illinois News Bureau (02/02/16) Sharita Forrest

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is funding an initiative to integrate computing with elementary school mathematics. The two-year Track 1 Exploratory Integration Project is a collaborative partnership among researchers at the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago, and faculty and students at schools in Champaign, IL. The research team will create research-based learning trajectories for each grade level, developmental paths to achieve those goals, and possible activities that will help students obtain the necessary knowledge and skills in each discipline. Early experiences are key, says co-principal investigator Maya Israel, a professor of special education at the University of Illinois. "By the time many kids enter middle school, they have opted out of math and science because their limited access to these experiences tells them they probably won't be good at these things," Israel notes. The $550,000 project is part of a larger $1.2-million grant from the NSF STEM+C initiative to the University of Chicago. The initiative supports research and development of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and computing curricula for primary and secondary schools.

Researchers Index Dark Web, Find Most of It Contains Illegal Material
Extreme Tech (02/01/16) Ryan Whitwam

King's College London researchers recently conducted a study to discover how much of Tor, a network composed of layers of encrypted relays through which data is passed, is devoted to illegal content. Most people use Tor to reach sites on the open Internet anonymously, but there also are sites hosted entirely within Tor, called hidden services. It is these hidden services sites that the researchers sought to quantify. In order to get a proper sample of all the hidden services within Tor, the researchers built a Python script that that explored the dark web, starting with the popular Tor search engines Onion City and Ahmia. The bot's job was to scrape the content from each page and upload it for analysis; when the bot found a link to another hidden service, it would jump to that one and scrape it, too. The researchers used an algorithm to process all the content collected and sort it into categories. The script indexed 5,205 live websites and a total of 2,723 pages were classified by content. According to the analysis, 57 percent of the sites hosted illicit content, and there are about 35,000 total hidden services active within Tor; the goal of the project is to establish a more moderate perspective on the role of encryption.

Senior Citizens May Accept Robot Helpers, but Fear Robot Masters
Penn State News (02/01/16) Matt Swayne

Pennsylvania State University (PSU) researchers have found the mental models formed by senior citizens, particularly the negative and positive notions about robots, indicate they would likely accept robots as helpers and entertainment providers, but are worried about giving up too much control to the machines. As part of the study, the researchers interviewed 45 adults between the ages of 65 and 95 years old, and found this group views robots as useful in the physical, informational, and interactional aspects of their lives. The results show seniors may be less likely to use robots that are designed to be more autonomous. "Seniors do not mind having robots as companions, but they worry about the potential loss of control over social order to robots," says PSU professor S. Shyam Sundar. Attitudes on control may reflect how the media influences people's perceptions of robots, according to the researchers. The researchers say their study is important because as the U.S.'s population grows older, computers and robots may be needed to supplement human workers in providing medical treatments and caregiving. "Robots in that human-command and robot-servient role have the potential to help seniors fill several of those needs," notes former PSU researcher Justin Walden.

Connected Autonomous Vehicles Promise Travel Freedom for Older Adults in the Future
University of West of England, Bristol (02/01/16)

Researchers from the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory will participate in an effort to develop connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs). The team will help address the mobility needs of older adults who may use CAVs. As part of the Flourish project, the researchers will design and develop adaptable human-machine interfaces (HMIs) that are responsive to different users. The researchers say the HMIs will enable users to communicate intuitively, confidently, and safely with autonomous vehicles. The researchers also will develop a driving simulator to help optimize the designs of the vehicle interfaces. "We will optimize the design and usability of these interfaces through psychology and human factors testing and multiple rounds of user trials so that design is informed by, for example, human needs, expectations, and cognitive ability," says UWE Bristol researcher Phil Morgan. He says CAVs have the potential to revolutionize mobility for older adults. "UWE researchers with expertise in applied psychology and human factors, assistive technology, and understanding people's transport requirements, will work with older adults with a range of needs and expectations," says Bristol Robotics Laboratory professor Praminda Caleb-Solly. "This will result in the development of a set of key scenarios considering people's travel needs and barriers and constraints related to the participants' accessibility needs."

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