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May 30, 2007

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U.S. Colleges Retool Programming Classes
Associated Press (05/26/07) Bluestein, Greg

Across the United States, schools and universities are redesigning their computer science classes to attract more students to the field. More than a dozen universities have created "media computation" programs, which teach basic engineering using digital art, music, and the Internet with a New Media approach. Other schools are using niche fields to attract students. The California Institute of Technology, where computer science undergraduate enrollment has dropped slightly, has compensated for the decline by emphasizing bioengineering. Georgia Tech computing professor Tucker Balch blames what he calls the "prime number" syndrome for the lack of interest in computer science. Traditionally, an introductory challenge for computer science students is to write a program that generates prime numbers, Balch says, which is a good way to educate students, but probably scared away a good number of potential students as well. Georgia Tech students have been working with a miniature robot called Scribbler that they learn to manipulate by programming it to maneuver an obstacle course, draw, and create music. Georgia Tech has called the robot the "new face of computing," and plans to expand the class from around 30 to more than 200 students next semester and export the class to two other Georgia schools. Despite efforts to attract new students, the Computing Research Association reports that the number of new computer science majors has consistently declined, dropping from about 16,000 students in 2000 to only 7,798 in the fall of 2006, and only 1 percent of incoming freshmen listed computer science as a probable major, a 70 percent drop from 2000.
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After Computer Siege in Estonia, War Fears Turn to Cyberspace
New York Times (05/29/07) P. A1; Lander, Mark; Markoff, John

The relocation of a Russian bronze statue of a World War II-era Soviet soldier from a park to a military graveyard by Estonian officials triggered what some are describing as the first war in cyberspace. A month-long campaign of attacks against Estonia's electronic infrastructure flooded the Web sites of the Parliament, president, and prime minister, several Web sites of daily newspapers were brought down, and the nation's largest bank, Hansabank, was forced to shut down its online banking network. Estonian officials claim an Internet address belonging to an official in the Russian president's administration was involved in the attack, and attack plans were posted on the Internet in Russian-language forums and chat groups. Russia denies any involvement in the attacks, but has not offered to help track down the people Estonia believes may be involved, saying Estonia needs to be careful when making accusations. Estonia is one of the most Internet-dependent countries in the world, as its citizens rely on the Internet to vote, file taxes, and pay for parking and shopping with their cell phones. "It turned out to be a national security situation," says Estonia's minister of defense Jaak Aaviksoo. "It can effectively be compared to when your ports are shut to sea." Linnar Viik, a computer science professor and leader in Estonia's high-tech industry, says the attacks should serve as a learning experience. Scientists and researchers, convened by the National Academy of sciences, recently heard testimony from military strategy experts that indicated both China and Russia have offensive information-warfare programs, and the United States is also believed to have developed a cyberwarfare effort.
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Intel: Software Needs to Heed Moore's Law
CNet (05/25/07) Fried, Ina

While semiconductor technology continues to advance in accordance with Moore's Law, software capabilities are lagging behind. "The software has to also start following Moore's law," says Intel fellow Shekhar Borkar. "Software has to double the amount of parallelism that it can support every two years." Developing software to keep up with advancing chip technology is a major challenge for the industry, although server-based applications are currently accommodating multiple, simultaneous workloads. Eventually, programs will be unable to incorporate additional parallelism without reaching some inherently serial task, according to Amdahl's Law. Borkar says there are other options, as applications can handle multiple tasks and systems can run multiple applications. Programs and systems could also predict which programs a user will want and assign processor performance accordingly. No matter how the industry responds, it cannot continue along its current path. Microsoft recently issued a similar warning. "We do now face the challenge of figuring out how to move, I'll say, the whole programming ecosystem of personal computing up to a new level where they can reliably construct large-scale applications that are distributed, highly concurrent, and able to utilize all this computing power," says Microsoft chief research and strategy officer Craig Mundie. Microsoft's Ty Carlson says the next version of Windows will have to be "fundamentally different" to utilize the number of processing cores that will be standard on PCs, because while Vista is designed to handle multiple threads it cannot utilize the 16 or more chips computers will soon have, and that application software is even farther behind.
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Table Is Set for Computing
USA Today (05/30/07) P. 1B; Baig, Edward C.

Microsoft's research into transforming ordinary tables and desktops into translucent, interactive computer systems has resulted in Microsoft Surface, a tabletop that can recognize cell phones, digital cameras, special ID-coded digital dominoes, and other physical objects. The Surface can also respond to human touch, allowing kids to finger paint and adults to surf the Web without a keyboard or mouse using just simple touch gestures on the screen. At restaurants, the Surface could be used to place orders and play digital board games, and at home the Surface could become a universal remote control. The first generation of the Surface, introduced at this week's All Things Digital executive conference, is a 30-inch acrylic horizontal display that sits on top of a table about two-feet high. Surface uses cameras with infrared filters to sense objects, touch, and gestures and runs on custom software built around Windows Vista. Projectors are used to create the display on the surface. The public will most likely get their first experiences with the Surface at restaurants, hotels, casinos, and stores in November. Currently, the cost for each installation is roughly $5,000 to $10,000, but Microsoft has long-term designs ready for schools and homes in about three to five years. "We're starting at the high end, sort of like you'd think about big flat-screen displays or even the initial personal computer," says Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. "But there are ways that the hardware cost of this will come down very dramatically."
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Prize-Winning Piece of Computer Puzzle Holds Promise
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (05/30/07) Templeton, David

Carnegie Mellon University professor of computer science Steven Rudich and Alexander A. Razborov, a mathematician and computational theorist at the Steklov Mathematical Institute in Moscow, have been awarded ACM's 2007 Godel Prize for their work on the P vs. NP question, one of seven millennium problems for which the Clay Mathematics Institute is offering $1 million to the solver. While Rudich and Razborov did not solve the P vs. NP problem, by reinterpreting and collaborating on each other's work, the two were able to help explain the depth and difficulty of the question, and prove that previous preliminary steps toward solving the problem are invalid. The P vs. NP question addresses the difference between the ability to recognize creative accomplishments and the ability to produce creative work. Any formula, equation, or process of algorithms that would allow computers to recognize a problem, or creative accomplishment, and produce a comparable piece of work or solution would be one of the most significant achievements in computer science and solve the P vs. NP problem. Proving that P equals NP, or that recognition could result in creation, would create unlimited options in computer creativity, while proving that P does not equal NP would provide a perfect method of cryptography. Either solution would hold significant value to computer science. While, due to Rudich's research, most computer scientists and mathematicians are starting to believe that proving P equals NP will never be accomplished, Rudich remains optimistic. "I'm a big believer in human creativity," Rudich says. "I am optimistic that someone--maybe it won't be me--will solve this." Rudich's work did provide a unified theory in breaking computer cryptography, providing a greater understanding of computer security.
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Computer Scientists Set on Winning the Computer Virus 'Cold War'
University of Wisconsin-Madison (05/24/07)

Computer scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of California-Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon University have developed the Static Analyzer for Executables (SAFE), software that targets malware based on its behavior. SAFE examines the behavior of a program before running it and compares the behavior to a list of known malware behaviors, such as reading an address book and sending emails. Any program that performs a suspicious behavior is considered malware. Malware programmers can slip by traditional detection programs by creating a unique signature, requiring traditional malware detection programs to download updates at least every week. By examining the behavior rather than the signature, SAFE can detect malware even if it has a unique signature and only requires updates when a virus appears that exhibits a new behavior, creating a proactive defense rather than reactive. University of Wisconsin-Madison associate professor of computer science Somesh Jha calls SAFE "the next generation in malware detection." Jha and University of Wisconsin graduate student Mihai Christodorescu started working on SAFE when they tested different variations of four viruses on Norton and McAfee antivirus software. Norton and McAfee were only able to catch the original variation of each virus. SAFE caught all variations. SAFE will be particularly effective against a new type of malware that is designed to change every time it gets sent to another computer, which can create infinite variations of itself.
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How 'Hot' Is Your Code?
HPC Wire (05/25/07)

Virginia Tech computer science researchers have developed Tempest (temperature estimator), a new software tool for determining how much heat software produces. Tempest can create a thermal profile of an application and correlate the temperature measured from thermal sensors in the system to source code. "Our hope is that by releasing Tempest to the greater community, other researchers and experimentalists will apply the thermal microscope to their own systems and applications," says Virginia Tech computer science researcher Kirk W. Cameron, director of the SCAPE Laboratory. In studying the thermal properties of software, the Virginia Tech researchers learned that code behavior has a considerable impact on the temperature of devices in a system and can affect the same systems differently. The proceedings of the 2007 International Conference on Parallel Processing, scheduled for September, has accepted the research for publishing.
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Should Robots Be Built to Look More Like Us?
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (05/29/07) Hand, Eric

While the technology used in and capabilities of robots continues to advance, the robotics industry remains divided on whether robots should be given as many life-like features as possible or should they remain fundamentally nonhuman. Washington University computer scientist William Smart believes that robots are there to fulfill a purpose, not to stimulate emotions or interact. "I don't want to put fuzzy heads on my robots," Smart says. "It's a tool. You don't have an emotional relationship with a robot." It is undeniable, however, that robots continue to play an increasingly social role in society, particularly in Japan where robots are used to collect garbage, bathe the elderly, and watch children. Even Smart's own robot, Lewis, which looks like a red trash can, is designed to linger on the edges of social gatherings and take pictures. The United States generally sides with Smart's philosophy, as the most successful robots tend to be machine-like and utilitarian. Nevertheless, life-like robots are being developed. The Actroid Repliees are a series of life-like robots being developed in Japan that are capable of responding to touch and holding conversations. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Cynthia Breazeal is intentionally incorporating human features into robots to take advantage of people's inbred responses. For example, the MIT robot Kismet is capable of mimicking basic facial expressions to convey anger, surprise, and disappointment, encouraging people to personify the robot. Researchers also say that anthropomorphized robots could be useful in diagnosing children with disabilities such as autism.
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Noise Keeps Spooks Out of the Loop
New Scientist (05/23/07) Palmer, Jason D.

Texas A&M computer engineering professor Laszlo Kish has developed a secure communication system that he says is more secure, more accurate, and can be used over greater distances than quantum cryptography keys. Kish's cipher device uses a property called thermal noise, which is generated by the natural agitation of electrons within a conductor whenever any amount of voltage is passed through it, but varies depending on the resistance of the conductors. The system can be used to send information, or an encryption key, along any wire, including telephone lines and network cable between two users. Each user has a pair of conductors, one produces high resistance, the other low. When both users select the same type of resistor, either a high amount of noise or a low amount of noise will be produced, signaling both to ignore any communication. When the both chose a different type, an intermediate level of thermal noise is produced, allowing messages to be sent. Kish's cipher successfully sent a secure message down a wire 2,000 kilometers long, much farther than the best quantum key distribution (QKD) devices that have been tried so far. Tests show that a signal sent using Kish's device was received with 99.98 percent accuracy, and only 0.19 percent of bits are vulnerable to eavesdropping. Kish's system is also more durable and less expensive, as dust, heat, and vibration can damage QKD devices.
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Architects Experience Virtual Reality
Minnesota Daily (05/30/07) Gulbrandson, Kelly

Two University of Minnesota departments, the department of architecture and the department of computer science and engineering, started working together five years ago on the Immersive Design Research Program in an effort to design and create virtual renderings of buildings. Associate professor of architecture Marc Swackhamer says the benefits of the collaborative effort include allowing students to see the space in a one-to-one ratio, instead of looking at a model of the design, and enabling students to explore the virtual space and freely walk around the area as if in the actual building. The building can also be explored as if it were built at the site, and details such as color can instantly be changed. Graduate student Brain Ries says the main purpose of the lab is architecture design, but it is also used to test perception of reality and psychological reactions to being in a virtual environment. Users can walk around the lab wearing a virtual reality helmet that uses a computer to project the building design onto the screen so it can be seen in large scale and freely explored. Associate professor of computer science Gary Meyer says that while the research has a promising future, there are currently several limitations. One is finding a balance between providing enough detail but keeping the program running smoothly. The program works with polygons, but if the program becomes too detailed, it will cause the simulation to lose fluidity, ruining the sense of reality. Meyer says he wants to bring in local architecture firms and construction companies to provide real-world examples of project and program simulations and identify any possible problems, such as working with difficult material.
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Researcher: RSA 1024-Bit Encryption Not Enough
IDG News Service (05/23/07) Kirk, Jeremy

A distributed computing project has enabled researchers to factor a 307-digit number into two prime numbers in 11 months. The development, which is comparable in difficulty to cracking a 700-bit RSA encryption key, suggests that encryption for protecting banking and e-commerce transactions will need to be improved within five years, according to Arjen Lenstra, a cryptology expert at EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne) in Switzerland. The ability to determine the two prime numbers used to create a public key means it would be possible to calculate the private key and decrypt messages. The researchers created special mathematical formulas to calculate the prime numbers as part of a project that used 300 to 400 off-the-shelf laptop and desktop computers at EPFL, the University of Bonn, and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone in Japan. The 1024-bit RSA encryption is largely used for e-commerce, and it will likely take another five to 10 years to calculate prime number components of current RSA 1024-bit public keys, Lenstra says.
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Man's Best Friend that Drives You Barking Mad
Edinburgh Evening News (05/24/07) Rose, Gareth

Napier University computer scientists are working on creating an electronic companion that could take multiple forms such as a robotic dog, intelligent teddy bear, or a talking handbag. The key aspect to each is an internal memory bank containing knowledge about the background, personality, and likes and dislikes of its owner. Napier University's chairman of human-computer systems, professor David Benyon, says some of the potential applications of a computer companion include storing photographs and automatically relating to similar photos and events, monitoring fitness and diet and automatically making exercise of meal suggestions, and monitoring children's television experiences, commenting on television programs and habits. Benyon says that portable computer companions may be used to remind children which school bus to get on and what they should be doing after school. A satellite navigation companion might remind users of the last time they were at a location and what they did, such as which restaurant they liked. The first versions will be developed before the end of 2007, but with the available long-term funding, researchers believe that they have only begun to tap the project's potential. "We expect everyone to have one of these in 2012, it will be a must-have on Christmas lists," Benyon says.
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Move to Create Less Clumsy Robots
BBC News (05/29/07)

Researchers at the Department of Architecture and Computing Technology at the University of Granada hope to implant an artificial cerebellum into a robot designed by the German Aerospace Center in the next two years. The researchers have been focused on designing microchips that incorporate a full neuronal system, emulating the way the cerebellum interacts with the human nervous system, in a effort to make robots more nimble and subtle in their movements. "Although robots are increasingly more important to our society and have more advanced technology, they cannot yet do certain tasks like those carried out by mammals," says University of Granada researcher and professor Eduardo Ros Vidal. "We have been talking about humanoids for years but we do not yet see them on the street or use the unlimited possibilities they offer us." The research is a part of a greater European project called Sensopac that unites electronic engineers, physicists, and neuroscientists from numerous universities and groups such as the German Aerospace Center. The next objective in the Sensopac project is to develop artificial skin for robots to make them look more human like and have information-sensitivity like human skin. Another European research project, called Feelix Growing, is developing robots that are capable of learning from humans and responding socially and emotionally.
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Cornell Lawyers and Computer Experts Team Up to Make Government Rule-Making Accessible in Internet Age
Cornell News (05/16/07) Steele, Bill

Scientists and legal experts at Cornell University are helping the federal government in its effort to improve the request for public comment process, which recently was moved to the Internet. The Web has made it easier for people to participate in the government rule-making process, but regulators now need help when issues are generating more than 2 million comments, considering they must review every submission and respond to key points. As part of the Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative (CeRI), Claire Cardie, a professor of computing and information science, is developing software to sift and categorize comments, and to learn the rules of classification employed by agency staff that will allow a computer to eventually take over. Cardie, a specialist in natural language processing, says that while people can classify phrases and sentences in about 40 to 50 comments a day, the computer programs will be able to perform the task in seconds. Geri Gay, a professor of communication who heads the Human Computer Interaction Laboratory, is also developing a Web interface to assist people in writing useful comments. "One way to make the job easier for agencies is to make comments better," says Cynthia Farina, a professor of law. Farina also envisions Cardie developing an application that interacts with people by popping up to compliment them on a well-made point and to ask if they also have any evidence to contribute. CeRI is funded by a three-year, $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
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Robotic Researchers Learn From Ants
Electronics Weekly (UK) (05/24/07) Bush, Steve

Britain's EPSRC is investing half a million pounds (nearly $1 million) over the next three years in an effort to use the self-organization of ants and other bio-systems as the basis for developing emergent behavior in robots. The project calls for biologists at the University of the West of England to study how ants operate without central organization, while social scientists at the University of Hull delve into self-organization in human social systems within organizations and countries. Physicists at Imperial College will study self-organizing behavior mathematically and develop computer models, and researchers at the University of Wales, Newport, will develop rules and algorithms for multi-robot systems. Wales' Dr. Torbjorn Dahl notes that the researchers are not taking a "minimal intelligence approach" to mimicking ant behavior, adding that they want to determine how much intelligence is needed for emergent behavior, and not to build ants. "The EPSRC has been pushing for an interdisciplinary effort to see if there are general rules for emergent behavior," says Dahl. "And results are a lot more convincing if they can operate a robot in the real world."
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A Linux Computer in Every Garage?
LinuxDevices.com (05/22/07)

The Vehicle Infrastructure Integration Consortium (VII-C), a U.S. government and industry coalition, plans to develop a prototype design for a Linux-based wireless computer system for use in every car and along every roadside in the United States. The VII-C is funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, 10 state Departments of Transportation, and seven vehicle manufactures involved in the DOT's Intelligent Vehicle Initiative. According to the VII-C, 21,000 of the 43,000 traffic fatalities in 2003 were caused by vehicles leaving the road or entering intersections when they should not. The VII-C wants to reduce the number of these accidents by creating a massive network that connects every car to each other and to the roadside. Such a system is expected to be deployed between 2015 and 2017. Meanwhile, the VII-C has created prototype hardware that will be field-tested. The on-board equipment is based on rugged Celeron-powered PC/104 form-factor single-board computers. The on-board communication system is expected to make driving safer by signaling the approach of emergency vehicles, alerting drivers if any nearby cars activate anti-lock braking, informing car owners of recalls, and monitoring weather patterns.
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Eyeing Unnoticed Security Researchers
SearchSecurity.com (05/23/07) Fisher, Dennis

SearchSecurity.com executive editor Dennis Fisher cites six individuals whose contributions to the security domain is worth noting. Former @stake and Matasano Security researcher Dino Dai Zovi is described by Veracode CTO Chris Wysopal as "one of the top vulnerability researchers out there based on his skill." Zovi's achievements include the Vitriol virtual machine rootkit, which can undermine the Mac OS kernel, and the KARMA wireless client security assessment tool, which can allow users to view the wireless networks any client in range is searching for. Nate Lawson has a reputation among DVD hackers for co-designing Blue-Ray discs' copy protection scheme, and he also designed the first commercial IDS (RealSecure) and Decru's fibre channel encryption appliance; a major focus of Lawson's work is enhancing the security of hardware devices and embedded software. Dave Dittrich, a researcher at the University of Washington's Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity, is credited with having possibly more expertise on botnets and the development of distributed attacks than anyone else in the industry, and he is currently engaged in advanced research and forensics work on peer-to-peer malware and the command-and-control systems of immense botnets. UC Berkeley professor Vern Paxson is involved in a National Science Foundation-funded project to furnish an early warning system for new worm activity via the monitoring of unallocated IP address space, and he is also involved with DETER, a joint project between multiple universities and SRI International to explore worm behavior and defenses. Stealth malware such as virtual rootkits is Invisible Things Lab founder Joanna Rutkowska's specialty, and her work on methods for subverting hardware-based RAM acquisition drew many admirers at this year's Black Hat conference. SPI Dynamics research and development engineer Billy Hoffman rounds out Fisher's list for innovations such as Jitko, a pure JavaScript tool that can take advantage of weaknesses in cross-site scripting and construct a large-scale botnet that can be used for anything.
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Open-Source Software and Its Role in Space Exploration
CIO (05/22/07) Byrne, D.J.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) software developer D.J. Byrne says free/open source software (FOSS) and NASA make great bedfellows because both are cutting-edge-oriented communities that support a "cycle of knowledge" through the dissemination of "free floating information." Byrne reports that FOSS is pervasively embedded in the real-time operating systems, file systems, and math libraries of robotic interplanetary explorers, while space software is devised via FOSS methods and FOSS develops next-generation state-of-the-art technology such as the Couple Layered Architecture for Robotic Autonomy. Byrne explains that FOSS speeds up development cycles so that missions are ready by their launch windows, while the FOSS community is an important (and cheap) resource to review flight software, uncover and address bugs prior to launch, support system interoperability and collaboration, ensure portability, avoid paperwork and other bureaucratic hurdles through open files, mitigate future risk, implement security, and reduce total cost of ownership by saving time and labor. Byrne says it is important to comply with very rigorous software quality-assurance and dissemination needs, and notes that NASA's Software Policy mandates, among other things, that software providers have proven organizational skills and experience to deliver quality software in a timely, budget-conscious, and technically acceptable manner; that they create a software management plan that encompasses the whole of the program/project lifecycle; and that they issue software for commercial, educational, and governmental purposes in compliance with External Release of NASA Software guidelines, and in accordance with law and applicable agreements.
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Robots to the Rescue
Chronicle of Higher Education (06/01/07) Vol. 53, No. 39, P. A29; Fischman, Josh

Enrollment of students in undergraduate computer-science programs--especially female students--has plummeted in the United States, and universities are starting to agree that one reason for this drop-off is the fact that for many students, computer science courses are tedious and uninteresting. To rekindle enthusiasm, particularly among girls, institutions are incorporating robotics into their curriculum in an attempt to show students that not only can the acquisition of knowledge be a fun process, but that the skills they develop can be channeled into fascinating and worthwhile real-world applications. Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr College undertook a joint venture this past semester in which students programmed small "Scribbler" robots. "The idea is to convey key components of computing, like control over the machine," notes Georgia Tech College of Computing professor Tucker Balch. "It's very practical, and students see immediate results." The discomfort many girls feel about learning programming languages, given their unfamiliarity with the subject, can be eased with more than just robots. For instance, Carnegie Mellon University substantially increased female computer science enrollments partly by ejecting the requirement that students already have programming experience and by creating a mentorship program for women.
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