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ACM TechNews
July 30, 2008

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Welcome to the July 30, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Bluetooth Is Watching: Secret Study Gives Bath a Flavor of Big Brother
Guardian (UK) (07/21/08) Lewis, Paul

Bath University's Cityware project is an experiment to learn how people move around cities that uses scanners at various locations to track people's whereabouts via Bluetooth radio signals transmitted from devices such as mobile phones, laptops, and digital cameras. The researchers behind the project say their scanners do not have access to the identity of the people being tracked. "The objective is not to track individuals, whether by Bluetooth or any other means," says Cityware director Eamonn O'Neill. "We are interested in the aggregate behavior of city dwellers as a whole." However, privacy experts note that Bluetooth signals are assigned code names that can indicate a person's identity to varying degrees. Many people use pseudonyms, nicknames, initials, or abbreviations to assign names to Bluetooth signals, and Cityware's scanners are picking up signals that are listed using people's full names, email addresses, and telephone numbers. "This technology could well become the CCTV of the mobile industry," says Privacy International director Simon Davies. "It would not take much adjustment to make this system a ubiquitous surveillance infrastructure over which we have no control." Although initially confined to the city of Bath, the Cityware project was expanded once the software was made available online, and now more than 1,000 scanners around the world detect passing Bluetooth signals and send data to Cityware's central database.
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With Security at Risk, a Push to Patch the Web
New York Times (07/30/08) P. A1; Markoff, John

Security researcher Dan Kaminsky has been urging companies to fix a potentially dangerous flaw in the Domain Name System that could allow hackers to redirect Internet traffic to copies of legitimate sites to steal financial and personal information. Kaminsky warned Internet service providers (ISPs) about the flaw before releasing information about it to the public. Kaminsky had not planned to release specifics about the flaw until August, but accurate details of the flaw were briefly published online by a computer security firm, apparently by accident. Kaminsky says he wanted to give Internet companies more time to patch the flaw. He estimates that 41 percent of the Internet is still at risk. Kaminsky's plan to eventually release specific details about the flaw will make it easier for criminals, but also pushes ISPs to patch the flaw as quickly as possible. Kaminsky's discovery and warning of the flaw highlights a greater problem with the Internet. Kaminsky believes that full disclosure of security threats can push network administrators to take action. "We need to have disaster planning, and we need to worry," he says. Experts say the rush to repair the flaw is a reminder that the Internet lacks an entity to oversee the online activities of millions of users. "This drives home the risk people face, and the consumer should get the message," says VeriSign's Ken Silva. "Don't just take for granted all the things that machines are doing for you."
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HP, Intel and Yahoo Study Ways to Make Web a Utility
Reuters (07/30/08) Auchard, Eric

Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Yahoo announced that they will collaborate on a cloud computing project aimed at turning Web services into reliable, everyday utilities. The companies are working with academic researchers in Asia, Europe, and the United States to create an experimental network to allow researchers to test Internet-based services that could be accessed by billions of users at the same time. The goal of the project is to promote open collaboration among industry, academic, and government researchers by removing financial and logistical barriers associated with computer-intensive, Internet-wide projects. The companies want to create a level playing field for individual researchers and organizations of all sizes and enable them to conduct research on software, network management, and the hardware needed to deliver Web-wide services. Prabhakar Raghavan, head of Yahoo Research and a consulting professor of computer science at Stanford University, says no single institution is going to find a solution to this challenge. Raghavan says the entire planet could eventually rely on cloud computing the same way it relies on electricity.
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Robo-Relationships Are Virtually Assured: British Experts
Agence France Presse (07/30/08)

Creating robots capable of recognizing and responding to basic human emotions is a logical step as people's lives become increasingly dependent on technology, say British roboticists David McGoran and Matt Denton. "People know about artificial intelligence but the perception is that robots are cold and calculating industrial automatons," McGoran says. "But over the last decade, there has been a new field where robots have become the opposite of that." McGoran has created the Heart Robot, named because its "heart" is visible on the left side of its body. The robot is programmed to react to sound, touch, and nearby movements, with its heart beating at different rates. Denton has developed the iC Hexapod, a six-legged robot with a miniature camera that can move the camera in response to nearby movements. Both the Heart Robot and the iC Hexapod are "emotibots," or robots programmed to react to human emotions. McGoran says people respond to robots that mimic the emotions of humans. Denton agrees, and adds that greater interaction with robots is inevitable. He says people will form emotional bonds with their robots in the same way some people care about their cars.
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UC San Diego's GreenLight Project to Improve Energy Efficiency of Computing
University of California, San Diego (07/28/08) Ramsey, Doug

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers are developing an instrument to test the energy efficiency of computing systems in real-world conditions in an effort to get computer designers and users to re-examine how they build and use computers. UCSD's GreenLight project aims to connect scientists and their labs to more energy-efficient "green" computer processing and storage systems. "Project GreenLight will train a new generation of energy-aware scientists, and it will produce energy consumption data to help investigators throughout the research community make informed choices about energy-efficient IT infrastructure," says UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox. A rapid growth in highly data-intensive scientific research has resulted in an explosion of computing facilities and a high demand for electricity. Energy use per computer server rack is expected to grow from about 2 kilowatts per rack in 2000 to an estimated 30 kilowatts per rack in 2010. Meanwhile, every dollar spent on powering IT equipment requires another dollar for cooling, essentially doubling the cost of hardware over three years. The GreenLight Instrument will use sensors in the controlled data center environment to measure temperature at 40 points in the air stream, humidity, energy consumption, and other variables, and monitor the internal measurements of the servers. Researchers hope the data will lead to ways of minimizing the power needed to run computers, to make use of novel cooling systems, and to develop software that automates the optimizing of power strategies for each computing process.
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ALIFE Conference to Reveal New Approaches to Robot Role-Play
University of Southampton (ECS) (07/29/08) Lewis, Joyce

The basic behavioral characteristics of embedded, embodied, evolving, and adaptive systems will be the focus of the upcoming ALIFE conference at the University of Winchester. This year's conference offers a record number of paper presentations. One paper, "Self-Assembly in Physical Autonomous Robots: the Evolutionary Robotics Approach," describes how self-assembly can be used to artificially evolve robots with various roles to fulfill. The University of Tokyo's Takashi Ikegami will open the conference with an address on self-organization and autopoiesis in systems of birds, robots, children, flies, cells, and oil droplets. The conference's keynote speakers include Stuart Kauffman, author of "The Origins of Order;" Peter Schuster, editor-in-chief of the journal Complexity; Eva Jablonka, author of "Evolution in Four Dimensions;" and Andrew Ellington, a pioneer in the field of synthetic biology. The Science and Engineering of Natural Systems group at the University of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science is the host of ALIFE.
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Researchers Help Define Next-Gen Social Networking
IDG News Service (07/28/08) Gohring, Nancy

Academic researchers predict that the next generation of social networking will give more people tools for defining smaller online communities in a way that mimics the real world. Rochester Institute of Technology's Liz Lawley, speaking at Microsoft Research's annual Faculty Summit, says current social tools are broken in regards to context and establishing boundaries over who to share information with. Many social network sites require users to become a part of a huge community, or force users to choose whether someone is a friend or not, with no subtleties defining relationships. "People want to create villages and they're being forced into cities," Lawley says. "That's creating a huge tension in social interactions." Academic researchers could help develop tools to allow for such specific social networking, but first they must start using the tools, Lawley says, as many have no idea how to use online tools such as sharing a bookmark with other people or moderating comments on a blog. Lawley also objects to some of the restrictions that separate children from adults online. For example, Lawley says she cannot interact with her 14-year-old son on Second Life because he has to be in the teen grid and she is in the adult grid. Shutting down sites or isolating people will not solve the problem of sexual predators, she says. And although there is merit in age verification online, it should not be used to segregate users. Instead, Lawley says it would be better for parents to teach young people how to interact safely with adults online.
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Europe and Japan Join Forces to Map Out Future of Intelligent Robots
Innovations Report (07/29/08) Lau, Thomas

Making robots that can truly learn and adapt to unexpected situations like humans, or be able to move with the fluidity and grace of animals, has been a difficult challenge. However, significant progress has been made over the last few years, and Europe and Japan are both set for a push toward a new generation of intelligent machines. A conference jointly organized by the European Science Foundation (ESF) and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) brought together researchers actively working in the fields of cognitive science and robotics. Professor Florentin Worgotter from Gottingen University in Germany suggested that with a greater understanding of how animals coordinate their movements, the principles involved in natural movement, such as mechanics, neuronal feedback, and instantaneous adaptability, could be applied to robotics. Shuuji Kajita from the Japanese research group AIST demonstrated biped robots that use new walking techniques based on the Zero-Moment Point principle, which is designed to ensure that a top-heavy system such as a humanoid robot can walk without losing its balance or placing too much stress on its points of contact. Another major focus of the ESF/JSPS conference was enabling robots to be adaptable and learn from their mistakes. University of Tokyo professor Yasuo Kuniyoshi said that traditional artificial intelligence techniques have not succeeded in making adaptable robots. He said current techniques break down events that a robot has not been programmed to expect into smaller parts in an attempt to analyze them. The problem is that the robot has no context in which to decide how to act. Alternative approaches involve imposing constraints on the robot's interactions that allow more intelligent behavior to emerge.
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Birdsong Not Just for the Birds
University of Bonn (Germany) (07/29/08)

Computer scientists at the University of Bonn in Germany are using the bird song archives of Berlin's Humboldt University to develop a voice detector that can recognize the characteristic bird songs of different species of birds. Many species of birds in Europe are being put on the red list of endangered species, but no one knows exactly how many birds are left in some species and obtaining a reliable count would require unreasonable amounts of time and energy. To solve this problem, University of Bonn computer scientists have developed detectors that can automatically recognize bird songs. By placing microphones at selected points in the wild, the system can record all sounds made over a period of time. Software then searches through the hundreds of hours of recorded material and determines how many birds of which species have been singing and for how long. Daniel Wolff of the Institute of Computer Science at the University of Bonn listened to various bird songs, scrutinized the songs in a spectrogram, and transferred the characteristics to algorithms based on mean frequencies and other characteristics. The bird song detectors are currently only calibrated for individuals species, but Wolff believes it will be possible to link them to a superdetector that can recognize numerous species, which could be combined with GPS coordinates to map bird populations.
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Clarifications Sought on Data Mining
Federal Computer Week (07/24/08) Bain, Ben

Several experts at a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) conference on implementing privacy protections in government data mining said there is confusion over what constitutes data mining. They said the lack of an agreed-upon definition and specific rules governing different types of data mining increases the chances of privacy violations. The DHS' 2007 annual privacy office report to Congress stated that there is no consensus on what constitutes data mining. The Data Mining Reporting Act, passed as part of an anti-terrorism law in 2007, defines data mining as "a program involving pattern-based queries, searches, or other analyses of one or more electronic databases." University of Massachusetts computer science professor David Jensen says data mining means many things to many different people, and that definitions that portray data mining as a process of filtering or extraction are easy to understand and to misinterpret. He says more useful definitions explain that data mining is a process involving making inferences based on probability ratings. Vanderbilt University law professor Christopher Slobogin says people could be hurt if authorities use data-mining techniques in good faith but use bad information, or if they intentionally use data mining maliciously.
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Meet Robo Habilis
ICT Results (07/23/08)

The European research project SENSOPAC has developed a human-like arm and hand that is controlled by an electronic brain modeled after the human cerebellum. SENSOPAC coordinator Patrick van der Smagt led an international team of neuroscientists and roboticists in the effort to create an intelligent, flexible, and sensitive robotic arm. To develop a robotic skin as sensitive as human skin, the researchers studied how human skin senses features such as the direction pressure is coming from. To mimic the skin's sensing abilities, researchers at the German Aerospace Center created a thin, flexible material filled with a form of carbon that changes resistance under different pressures. The material allows researchers to combine information from sensors in different parts of the skin to minimize the number of information-carrying wires. "We can soon integrate hundreds of detector elements and get the information out with just five wires," van der Smagt says. "And we have the ability to distinguish between shape, the amount of force, and the direction of force." The artificial arm contains 58 motors in opposing pairs, coupled with non-linear springs to control the arm. The hand uses 38 opposing motors and can snap its fingers, pick up an egg, or carry a cup of coffee. The researchers say their goal is to create a microchip that will allow the arm to carry out tasks requiring human-level skills in a real-world setting.
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How Secure Is Your Network? NIST Model Knows
National Institute of Standards and Technology (07/22/08)

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) computer scientists are helping managers safeguard valuable information more efficiently by applying security metrics to computer network pathways to assign a probable risk of attack to guide IT managers in securing their networks. "We analyze all of the paths that system attackers could penetrate through a network, and assign a risk to each component of the system," says NIST computer scientist Anoop Singhal. "Decision makers can use our assigned probabilities to make wise decisions and investments to safeguard their network." NIST researchers evaluate each route and assign it a risk based on how challenging it would be for a hacker. The paths are determined using a technique called attack graphs, which was jointly developed by Singhal and research colleagues at George Mason University using NIST's National Vulnerability Database (NVD) to determine risk. The NVD repository includes a collection of security-related software weaknesses hackers could exploit. For example, in a simple system composed of a firewall, a router, a FTP server, and a database server, an attacker would try to find the simplest path to the database server. Attack graph analysis would detect three potential attack paths and assign an attack probability based on the score in the NVD database. Reaching the objective would require multiple steps, so the probabilities of each component are multiplied to determine the overall risk. The next step is to expand the research to handle large-scale enterprise networks.
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Security Flaws in Online Banking Sites Found to Be Widespread
University of Michigan News Service (07/22/08) Moore, Nicole Casal

More than 75 percent of bank Web sites had at least one design flaw that could expose online banking customers to cybercriminals looking to take their money or even identities, revealed a University of Michigan (UM) study. UM computer science professor Atul Prakash and doctoral students Laura Falk and Kevin Borders examined the Web sites of 214 financial institutions in 2006. The researchers said the vulnerabilities came from the layout of the Web sites and included placing log-in boxes and contact information on insecure Web pages, or failing to keep users on the site they initially visited. Prakash says some banks have taken steps to fix these problems since the study was conducted, but overall there is still a significant need for improvement. "To our surprise, design flaws that could compromise security were widespread and included some of the largest banks in the country," Prakash says. "Our focus was on users who try to be careful, but unfortunately some bank sites make it hard for customers to make the right security decisions when doing online banking." Some of the design flaws Prakash's team looked for included placing secure login boxes or contact information on insecure pages, redirecting customers to a site outside the bank's domain for certain transactions without warning, allowing inadequate user IDs and passwords, and emailing security-sensitive information in insecure emails. The research was presented at the fourth Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security, which was held July 23-25, 2008, at Carnegie Mellon University.
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Jumping Robot Makes Light Work of Stairs
New Scientist (07/24/08) Marks, Paul

A new robot, ScoutRobot, has the ability to jump up stairs. Developed by Dong Hwan Kim and colleagues at the Seoul National University of Technology in South Korea, ScoutRobot could lead to other wheeled robots capable of leaping onto or over obstacles. Jumping robots may even be better at overcoming vertical obstacles than track robots, some of which can already climb stairs but do so at a significantly slower pace. Previous attempts to develop jumping, wheeled robots typically involved using a motor to compress a spring before releasing it against the ground, which would send the robot upwards and forwards. However, the combined weight of the jumping mechanism caused the robots to land heavily and damage delicate components. Kim and his team developed an ultra-lightweight version of a pneumatic ram. Powered by compressed air stored in two-liter plastic bottles, the ram is fired to launch the robot to the required height. To determine how much force is needed, an onboard processor calculates how fast the robot is traveling, how far it is to the obstacle, and the obstacle's height. The processor then calculates the jump and sends a signal to a solenoid valve that sends high-pressure air into the ram. Upon landing, the robot tilts slightly forward, and a small motor-powered arm rights the robot.
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NSF Funds UIC to Build New Virtual Reality Display
Electronic Visualization Laboratory (07/18/08) Leigh, Jason

The National Science Foundation has awarded $450,000 to the University of Illinois at Chicago's Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) to build the OmegaTable, a modular multi-sensory touch tabletop for two- and three-dimensional visual data interaction. The virtual-reality device will allow scientific communities to share, view, and interact with large-scale 2D and 3D data, and will enable computer scientists to study the integration of multi-sensory touch and gestural interaction techniques for the manipulation of 2D and 3D data. "Integrated visualization instruments with powerful computing capabilities are becoming important in domain science because scientists have access to more and more types of electronic data," says EVL director Jason Leigh. "These displays are the new microscopes and telescopes, enabling researchers to magnify and zoom in on interesting phenomena in today's digital world." The OmegaTable will have a resolution of at least 24 million pixels, and will be able to display 2D and autostereoscopic 3D simultaneously, without having to wear special equipment. By incorporating gestural controls, users will be able to experience virtual reality without the need for special glasses, handheld controls, or gloves. The researchers say that interaction is crucial for obtaining meaningful data interpretation, enabling them to explore what-if scenarios, and for explaining complex scientific concepts to public audiences.
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TGen Awarded $1.99 Million Grant to Advance Highly Parallel Supercomputing
Tgen (Translational Genomics Research Institute) (07/16/2008)

A $1.99 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will enable the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) to team up with Arizona State University (ASU) to build a scalable supercomputer. TGen and ASU will also build a number of computational and statistical tools. The parallel cluster-computing system will be used to study the molecular profiles of diseases, including Alzheimer's, diabetes, coronary heart disease, melanoma, pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, multiple myeloma, and breast cancer. "The parallel supercomputing system supported by this NIH grant provides a powerful resource for ASU and TGen engineers, researchers, biomedical informaticians, computer scientists, and biologists to interact in solving complex computational problems that will lead to better disease diagnosis and prognosis," says Deirdre Meldrum, dean of ASU's School of Engineering and director of the Center for Ecogenomics at the Biodesign Institute. The greater bandwidth and storage capabilities of the supercomputer will facilitate the development and use of computational models and algorithms at nearly 24 trillion operations per second.
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Hands-On Computing
Scientific American (07/08) Vol. 299, No. 1, P. 64; Brown, Stuart F.

Multi-touch computer screens could make a mouse or keyboard unnecessary for enhanced collaboration by being able to follow the instructions of many fingers at the same time. Perceptive Pixel has developed a wall-size screen that is responsive to as many as 10 fingers or multiple hands, and early adopters of the technology include intelligence agencies that require fast comparison between geographically coordinated surveillance images in their war rooms. Among the challenges of refining multi-touch screen technology are sensing the precise location of fingers, and developing software routines capable of tracking the finger movements and converting them to instructions for what should be happening with on-screen images. Perceptive Pixel founder Jeff Han devised a multi-touch screen that produces 10 or more streams of x and y coordinates simultaneously, and he points out that "the traditional [graphical user interfaces] are really not designed for that much simultaneity." Perceptive Pixel's design involves projectors that transmit images through an acrylic screen onto the surface facing the viewer, and when fingers, styli, or other objects make contact with the surface, infrared light shone inside the acrylic sheet by light-emitting diodes (LEDs) scatters off the objects and back to sensors; the data is interpreted as movements by software. Microsoft, meanwhile, has created a multi-touch table called Surface that projects imagery up through the acrylic top. In addition, an LED light source shines near-infrared light that reflects off fingers or objects back to various infrared cameras, while a computer tracks finger movements by monitoring the reflections.
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