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August 8, 2007

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Welcome to the August 8, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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SIGGRAPH: Microsoft the New Research Powerhouse in Graphics?
Computerworld (08/08/07) Lai, Eric

Industrial Light & Magic, Adobe Systems, and Nvidia are widely considered to be some of the most recognizable and state-of-the-art research companies in computer graphics, but Microsoft may soon be considered the most prominent name in the field. At this year's ACM SIGGRAPH conference for academic and industrial computer graphics research, one out of every eight papers was presented or co-presented by a researcher from Microsoft Research, and at the 2006 SIGGRAPH conference, Microsoft presented or co-presented one out of every five papers. The head of Microsoft Research's interactive visual media group, Richard Szeliski, says that Microsoft presents more papers than MIT, Stanford, or any other institution that does research. Microsoft also recently announced a deal to license graphics technology developed at Microsoft Research to Weta Digital, the visual effects company co-owned by Academy Award winner Peter Jackson. One of Microsoft's SIGGRAPH papers is a photograph deblurring software program that combines two pictures taken in low light--one blurry because of a camera shake due to long exposure and the other grainy because it was taken at regular speed--to create a single, high quality image. The software determines how the camera moved, corrects the image, and overlays it on top of the stable but grainy image to create a clean and detailed picture. Eventually, digital cameras may automatically take two simultaneous pictures and use this process in low-light conditions. Another Microsoft presentation, Photo Clip Art, outlines how to create a global database of photographic clip art that can use software to help users figure out the size and scale of inserted clip images based on the background of the picture. Another piece of software, called Soft Scissors, solves the problem of how to cut and paste an image with complex backgrounds and edges, like hair blowing in the wind and blades of grass, in real time. Szeliski says that Soft Scissors could be produced immediately, but programs like Photo Clip Art may need to resolve non-technology problems, such as photo copyright issues, before being released.
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No Robot Left Behind?
Government Computer News (08/06/07) Dizard, Wilson P. III

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA's) Biologically-Inspired Cognitive Architecture (BICA) program is promoting the development of artificial intelligence software that mimics human brain functions, and it may eventually host a Grand Challenge in which alternative methods of building brain-like systems compete against one another. BICA examines advances in cognitive psychology and the science of the human brain's biological structure to build software that is better able to copy human abilities than any previous artificial intelligence. BICA leaders say that AI has progressed slowly but surely over recent decades. "However, we have fallen short of creating systems with genuine artificial intelligence - ones that can learn from experience and adapt to changing conditions in the way that humans can," according to DARPA. "We are able to engineer specialized software solutions for almost any well-defined problem, but our systems still lack the general, flexible learning abilities of human cognition." The five-year BICA program has completed its first phase by commissioning eight research teams to combine findings in brain biology and psychology to help build blueprints for functioning computers that could learn and understand like humans. Currently, the second phase of the project is seeking proposals from vendor teams to develop and test models of human cognition based on the architectures built in the program's first year. DARPA has not yet announced a challenge competition that would compete the resulting AI systems against one another, but vendor documents submitted in the first phase of the program refer to a potential challenge as part of the program.
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Better Than High Definition
Technology Review (08/06/07) Greene, Kate

High-definition displays are becoming increasingly popular, but a new technology, called high-dynamic range (HDR), could replace high-definition as the preferred choice for breathtaking media presentation. While high-definition creates sharp displays by using more pixels, HDR creates sharp displays by creating greater color contrast. This means that on an HDR display, the brightest whites are hundreds of thousands of times brighter than the darkest blacks. Greater contrast makes images appear more realistic. "A regular image just looks like a depiction of a scene," says Roland Fleming, a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics. "But high-dynamic range looks like looking through a window." Fleming presented his research on high-dynamic displays at the SIGGRAPH graphics conference, and he believes that the realism of HDR will drive consumer demand for the technology. Manufactures include Samsung, Phillips, and British Columbia start-up Dolby. A significant challenge for HDR is one that high-definition has been struggling with--overcoming the perception that there is not any content to take advantage of the technology. Many people have waited on buying high-definition televisions because they feel there is a lack of high-definition content, but many content providers do not want to pay the expenses associated with providing high-definition content until there are more high-definition televisions in consumers' homes. Another challenge facing Fleming and HDR researchers is how to display regular images. Fleming says regular images can be processed using software that adds contrast by amplifying individual pixels, which can be done when the display is backlit using numerous LEDs instead of a single backlight. The pixel-amplifying algorithm can easily be incorporated into the display and automatically enhances low-contrast images in real time.
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SKorea Draws Up Code of Ethics -- For Robots
ABCmoney.co.uk (08/07/07)

South Korea has set the ambitious goal of having a robot in every home by 2013, and jobs for robots may include anything from guarding the border to caring for the elderly, so the country is developing a code of ethics for robots to be released by the end of the year. "We are setting rules on how far robotic technology can go and how humans live together with robots," says Myongji University professor Kim Dae-Won, who leads a team of 12 scientists, doctors, psychologists, and robot developers. "A society in which robots and humans live together may come faster than we think, probably within 10 years," Dae-Won predicts. The code of ethics will set broad guidelines to prevent robots from being used for undesirable or dangerous purposes, and to find a way for humans and robots to coexist, not to restrict the development of robots, Dae-Won says. The charter will focus on ensuring humans maintain control over robots, robots are never used for illegal actions, any data acquired by robots is fully protected, and that robots can be easily identified and traced. Dae-Won says that military robots will require separate rules not established by the charter, and that manufacturers may have to face questions surrounding potential legal liability. South Korea is making a significant effort to incorporate robots into daily life, focusing on its prowess in information and communications technology to compensate for the fact that it lags behind the United States in military and multi-function robotics and Japan in humanoid robotics. The government has spent about 100 billion won ($108 million) on the robotics industry every year since 2004, and several robotics projects are near the point of completion. Last year, South Korea unveiled a high-tech sentry robot, capable of being armed, to guard the border with North Korea, and another robot called OFRO was to be deployed as a security guard at a school. South Korea also plans to build the world's first robotic theme park called "Robot Land" by 2012, and has received bids from 11 provincial governments and cities looking to host the park.
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Teaching Hacking Helps Students, Professors Say
Register (UK) (08/07/07) Lemos, Robert

City College of San Francisco computer science professor Sam Bowne said he did not encounter any problems in his ethical hacking class, during a presentation at the DEFCON 2007 hacking conference. Bowne said most of the students who took the course, "Ethical Hacking and Network Defense," were in their 30s and 40s, had children, were not interested in being hackers, and saw the information as helping them in their jobs. He said there was one student who did not follow the course material, but added that this failing student was still helpful in that he maintained all the computers in the lab. Some security firms and universities have sought to limit such courses to computer intrusion and cybercrime for fear that they may one day have to protect their systems and networks from computer science students that they taught hacking strategies. Community colleges have largely embraced the idea, and the courses have improved. Advocates say students gain a better understanding of what risks corporate networks and personal computers face. "It is not so much that you are teaching hacking, but comprehensive security," says Leon Johnson, a security analyst with the University of Texas at San Antonio. "If you teach only defensive security, that is not enough."
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UC-San Diego Computer Scientists Shed Light on Internet Scams
University of California, San Diego (08/06/07) Kane, Daniel

University of California computer scientists have found significant differences between the infrastructure used to distribute spam and the infrastructure used to host the online scams that profit from spam, a discovery that should help reduce spam and shut down illegal online businesses and malware sites. Geoff Voelker and Stefan Savage, both professors at UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, found that while thousands of compromised computers are used to distribute spam, only a handful of individual servers host the scams that spam directs unwary Internet users to. "A given spam campaign may use thousands of mail relay agents to deliver its millions of messages, but only use a single server to handle requests from recipients who respond. A single takedown of a scam server or a spammer redirect can curtail the earning potential of an entire spam campaign," write the UCSD computer scientists in a paper accepted for publication at the USENIX Security conference. Voelker says that the scam infrastructure is critical to the profitability of spam campaigns, and that the current scam infrastructure is particularly vulnerable to common blocking techniques like blacklisting. Using a new approach called "spamscatter," the researchers were able to study over 1 million spam messages from a live feed, and were able to identify URLs in real time and follow the links to the destination server. Then the server location and captured screenshots of the destination Web pages were recorded and grouped together using a technique called "image shingling," which matches visually similar Web pages based on images rendered in a Web browser rather than URL text or spam email content. By identifying Web pages that look alike, the computer scientists identified scams across servers and domains that had shared infrastructure, lifetime, stability, and location, and found that about 94 percent of scams advertised in spam emails with embedded URLs were hosted on individual Web servers. Of the 6 percent of scam servers that were distributed across multiple servers, few used more than 10 IP addresses, and one scam used 45 servers. More than half of scam servers identified were located in the United States, 14 percent were in Western Europe, and 13 percent were in Asia.
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A Little Privacy, Please
Scientific American (07/07) Vol. 297, No. 1, P. 92; Walter, Chip

Director of Carnegie Mellon University's Laboratory for International Data Privacy Latanya Sweeney is dedicated to upholding people's privacy in an increasingly security-conscious world through the development of software. Her lab has devised "anonymizing" programs that can replace a person's face in a surveillance camera image with a new, impossible-to-identify facial image crafted from other faces in a database. Another brainchild of Sweeney's is the Identity Angel program, which combs the Internet and compiles thousands of identities by connecting names in one database with addresses, ages, and Social Security numbers distributed throughout others--enough information to commit identity theft--so that vulnerable people can be alerted to the problem and take corrective action before they can be exploited by malevolent parties. As a fellow of MIT's National Library of Medicine, Sweeney wrote the Scrub System program to improve the protection of several Boston hospitals' medical records; the program mined patient records, treatment notes, and letters between physicians to extract and delete a greater range of personal patient identifiers than standard search-and-replace software could. According to Sweeney, the ultimate solution is the upfront incorporation of privacy protection into the design and usability of new technologies by engineers and computer scientists. "Society can [then] decide how to turn those controls on and off," she reasons.
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Virtual Reality Helps GIs Deal With PTSD
Associated Press (08/04/07) Mitchell, Melanthia

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects an estimated 15 to 30 percent of Iraq war veterans, can cause nightmares and flashbacks so severe that some veterans suffering from it unwillingly withdraw from society, so in 2005 the Office of Naval Research provided a $4 million grant to several organizations to study how virtual reality can help treat PTSD. Today, the Madigan Army Medical Center is planning to start a treatment system that uses virtual reality to recreate the conditions of war to help treat PTSD. During a demonstration at Madigan, Staff Sgt. Jeff Ebert, who does not suffer from PTSD, is visibly jolted when a concussion from a simulated bomb rocks the mock Humvee he is driving. Ebert views the scene using a headset while he sits in a chair on a platform that rumbles and shakes to simulate the vehicle's motion. Smells like body odor, gun smoke, or burning rubber can also be added to enhance the simulation. Madigan clinical psychologist Greg Reger, a former Army captain who served in Iraq for a year with the 62nd Medical Brigade, says the treatment starts by interviewing the soldier to learn what caused the PTSD, and then tailoring a virtual reality scenario for that person. "What this technology does is it gives us an environment to help facilitate soldiers telling of their own story," Reger says. Virtual reality, combined with behavioral therapy, is also being used to treat patients with a variety of phobias, including the fear of flying, heights, and spiders. Previous treatments for PTSD generally involved either group or individual psychotherapy, or asking the patient to imagine the experience. "The issue is you want to access the fear hierarchy in patients," says Mark Wiederhold, president and director of Virtual Reality Medical Center in San Diego, Calif. "Only about 15 percent of people are good imaginers. They have difficulty maintaining that state of imagining a scenario. Virtual reality is a much more vivid experience."
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Worldwide Malware Study Set for Launch
Dark Reading (08/02/07) Wilson, Tim

The Worldwide Observatory of Malicious Behavior and Attack Tools (WOMBAT) will gather and correlate malware data from many of the different researchers who study malware and try to identify trends as far as where the malware comes from and how it multiplies. The three-year project, which is scheduled to start in January 2008, has been given a $7.1 million grant by the European Union and corporate sponsors, including France Telecom, Hispasec, and an undisclosed "major security provider." "There are many different groups and projects that track malware, and they can tell us a lot about the malware itself," says Stefano Zanero, a researcher at the Italian university Politecno de Milano and founder and CTO of Secure Network. "But they all have flaws, and they don't tell us very much about the people who create the malware. The goal of WOMBAT is to find out the root causes of the observed attacks, and to use the data we've correlated to help predict upcoming threats." The objective is to see if there is any correlation and to gather data to answer some of questions surrounding Internet security. "Why hasn't the industry seen a major worm attack since 2004? Why has no worm ever targeted the Internet's router infrastructure? Why isn't there more evidence of cyberterrorism? We don't have enough data," says Zanero. WOMBAT has been reviewed and received support from a number of malware research and security groups, including the Internet Motion Sensor, Clearstream, and Hewlett-Packard's Trusted Systems Lab. WOMBAT will begin working at the beginning of 2008, will develop sensors capable of tracking and correlating malware data by 2009, and will complete data analysis by 2010.
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Talking Back to Teacher
Chronicle of Higher Education (08/03/07) Vol. 53, No. 48, P. A27; Fischman, Josh

Classroom lectures are becoming more engaging through new technologies such as interactive slides, in which the teacher writes material on a screen image or slide on his computer that is posted to other students' computers. Students write their comments or answers on top of the slide and send it back to the teacher's computer, and then the teacher can display the various answers on a projector. This interaction is facilitated by free software created by University of Washington computer science professor Richard J. Anderson. Answers students submit through this method are anonymous, which removes the stigma of calling attention to one's lack of knowledge. "There are no names associated with the answers, so you tend to see a lot more classroom participation," says Virginia Tech professor Joseph G. Tront. There is some uncertainty whether the deeper involvement students have in classroom lectures through this innovation is actually improving educational achievement. "We think it works, but the assessments haven't been clear-cut," says Grove City College professor Vincent F. DiStasi, who explains that how well instructors employ the technology as an educational tool plays a key role in students' performance.
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California Moves to Lock Down E-Voting Systems
Computerworld (08/04/07) McMillan, Robert

California is placing some tough restrictions on the use of e-voting systems. Polling stations will be limited to using no more than one of the Diebold AccuVote-TSx and Sequoia Edge Model e-voting systems. Also, county registrars will be responsible for reinstalling the machines' software and firmware, resetting their encryption keys, and implementing measures to guard against physical access to the e-voting systems. The state has similar security measures in place for the use of Hart InterCivic voting machines, except the single-machine restriction. California continues to evaluate Election Systems & Software e-voting machines, which were decertified because the vendor was late in providing access to the systems, and could approve ES&S's products for use in time for the February 2008 elections. Several days before the mandate, the state released a review of the e-voting machines, in which several research teams found a number of security problems in the systems, which enabled them to gain access to the machines and overwrite firmware, bypass locks on systems, forge voter cards, and install a wireless device on the back of a GEMS server.
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Humanoid Robots Learn Like People
Nikkei Weekly (07/23/07) Vol. 45, No. 2295, P. 16

Osaka University professors Minoru Asada and Hiroshi Ishiguro recently unveiled the "assist robot," a product of the Asada Synergistic Intelligence Project, funded by the Japan Science and Technology Agency. Despite the name, the assist robot is incapable of lending any assistance, instead it actually relies on human assistance, as the robot can only stand and walk like a unsteady toddler with the help of a person. The robot is covered in a soft silicone rubber skin and can sense touch thanks to 200 tactile sensors. The purpose of building a robot that is unable to perform any functions is to learn how robots respond to human assistance. "By studying how robots respond to the assistance and movements of humans, we can learn what capabilities are truly essential for human-robot communications," Asada says. "By applying that knowledge back once more to robot development we can advance with the design of humanoids." Asada says that researchers studying artificial intelligence often fail to examine and understand human intelligence, which is essential to making robots more human-like. "Building a robot that can perform complicated movements like a human right from the start would be impossible," Ishiguro says. "What we want to do is advance the robot a little at a time, just like in human development, where babies that at first can't even roll over eventually learn to walk." The ultimate goal is not simply to get the robot to walk more realistically, but to understand how the robot learns to perform human-like movements and then apply that knowledge to robot engineering.
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Prototype Software Tools Plugs Security Leaks
LinuxElectrons (07/31/07) Tommy

University of Illinois at Chicago computer security expert V.N. Venkatakrishnan says that despite assurances from Web browsers that online transactions are secure and will not be intercepted by a third party, often the information is accessible after it enters a merchant's or a bank's computer. Venkatakrishnan, an assistant professor of computer science and co-director of UIC's Center for Research and Instruction in Technologies for Electronic Security, is developing software that will help keep sensitive information private. Venkatakrishnan's software breaks up private, protected data entering programs written in C to separate it from the information that is open to public access. The tool automatically identifies the private and public information, and monitors the program and information flow, like a watchman monitoring two different areas. "Taken together, the public and private zones replace the original functionality of the program," Venkatakrishnan says. "It enables you to enforce different policies on these zones." A prototype of the system has been successfully tested on medium-scale software programs, and Venkatakrishnan received a two-year, $250,000 single-investigator grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a way to scale-up the tool for use on large-scale programs such as mail readers and Web browsers. Venkatakrishnan expects the tool to be tested and ready for public release within two years.
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Interactive in Three Dimensions
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (08/07)

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology (IDMT) have developed a new type of media player that, for the first time ever, allows for interactive environments to be displayed in 3-D. The system could be used to display concerts that allow the user to walk up on stage, for example. "Our system allows us to actively involve the viewers--they can walk through rooms and select objects, for instance," says Uwe Kuhhirt, head of the development team at IDMT. "Camera perspectives can also be interactively selected. Ambient sensors that determine factors such as the brightness, the temperature or the number of spectators, enable the scene to be dynamically controlled-- for example, the viewer can be integrated into the three-dimensional scene with the aid of a video camera." Two- and three-dimensional elements can be combined and displayed on the media player because each element, like a person or a sound, can be individually encoded and added to the scene. The player generates different views for the left and right eye, which causes the scene to be perceived in 3-D. For anyone who does not have access to a 3-D display, the three-dimensional scenes can still be viewed on any type of monitor, including cell phones and televisions. "The player receives the data, such as a scene from a concert, and calculates the optimum image and sound reproduction for the respective playback system," Kuhhirt says. Several interactive applications will be available for visitors to try out at the consumer electronics show IFA, which will be held in Berlin on Aug. 31-Sept. 5.
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