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ACM TechNews
August 27, 2008

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Welcome to the August 27, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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China Aims for Petaflop Computer in 2010
IDG News Service (08/27/08) Niccolai, James

China has increased its investment in its homegrown Godson microprocessor in the hopes of building its first petaflop-class supercomputer in 2010, says one of China's senior engineers. Although China trails its international rivals in chip development, it is making a strong effort to catch up, says Zhiwei Xu, CTO of the Institute of Computing Technology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. China has produced four Godson processors, and last year China reached an agreement with STMicroelectronics to manufacture and sell the chips, which are now used by 40 companies in set-top boxes, laptops, and other products, Xu says. Next month, China will complete the design for a new version of the chip, called Godson 2g, that offers more functionality. China also plans to be able to integrate graphics capabilities on the same silicon as the main processor, similar to current AMD and Intel products, sometime next year. Meanwhile, China is working on the Godson 3, its first multi-core chip, which the country hopes will allow it to build a high-performance computer in 2010 with a processing speed of 1 petaflop per second, matching the speed of the world's current fastest computers.
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A New Breed of Hackers Tracks Online Acts of War
Washington Post (08/27/08) P. D1; Hart, Kim

Investigators at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab are monitoring the use of cyber attacks in international warfare. While many of the investigators joined the Citizen Lab to help residents in countries that censor online content, the evolving demands of the Internet have shifted their focus to cyber attacks, how traffic is routed through countries, where Web sites are blocked, and how Internet traffic patterns form. The Citizen Lab started as a collaborative effort with Harvard Law School and Cambridge and Oxford universities to track patterns of Internet censorship in countries that use filters. Citizen Lab researchers developed a software tool called Psiphon to help users bypass such Internet filters. However, over the past year the researchers have had to increase their efforts to gather evidence on Internet assaults, as online attacks are becoming increasingly important to military strategies and political struggles. Before Russia invaded Georgia in early August, the Citizen Lab noticed sporadic attacks aimed at several Georgian Web sites. Such attacks would be particularly effective against countries that rely on critical online activities such as online banking. After the ground war started, massive raids on Georgia's Internet infrastructure were deployed using techniques similar to those used by Russian criminal organizations, which was followed by attacks from individuals who found online instructions for launching their own attacks, crippling much of Georgia's communication systems. Weeks later, researchers are still trying to find the origin of the attacks.
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The Multicore Challenge
Computing Community Consortium (08/26/08) Patterson, David

The jump to multicore processing is not based on a breakthrough in programming or architecture, but rather a retreat from the harder task of building power-efficient, high-clock-rate, single-core chips, writes former ACM president David Patterson, professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. Numerous startup companies have tried to commercialize multiple-core hardware over the past few years only to be met with failure as programmers accustomed to improvements in sequential performance failed to adopt parallelism. If researchers manage to meet the parallel challenge, the future of IT will most likely be prosperous, but if not, failure could jeopardize both the IT industry and sections of the economy that depend on the rapid improvement of information technology. Such a failure could also provide an opportunity for the leaders in IT to move from the U.S. to wherever someone finds the solutions to writing efficient, parallel software. With such a crisis looming on the horizon, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's choice to decrease funding for academic research in computer systems research since 2001 is troubling, Patterson writes. The lack of government support has driven industry to fund academic research efforts. Research efforts at Berkeley, Stanford University, and the University of Illinois are being funded by private industry, but it is unlikely private companies will spend more resources on such projects. Patterson argues that the U.S. government needs to return to its historic role of uniting great minds to solve important problems.
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Web 2.0 Goes Mobile--The New Platform Brings Web Services to the Mobile Phone and Telephony to the Web!
Fraunhofer Institute (08/27/08)

Fraunhofer FOKUS has developed a new platform that will allow mobile phone users to take advantage of Web services and enable Web users to gain telephony functions. At IFA 2008, Fraunhofer FOKUS demonstrated "Mobile Car Sharing" and "Location-based Digital Notepads" as model applications for Mobile Widget Runtime. The platform for mobile Web 2.0 offers shared user experience, mobility, and location-dependency as key features, and Web 2.0 services can be quickly implemented and easily changed, says Fraunhofer Institute FOKUS researcher David Linner. Users do not need permanent Internet connectivity to access the services provided by Web applications. For example, Web applications will be able to use Bluetooth, satellite navigation, MMS, instant messaging, and telephone conferencing. Mobile Widget Runtime can serve as a standalone platform for complete applications, or can be used with existing applications to extend them further, even without knowing all the technical information about the base application.
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Pittsburgh Puts Robots to Work, and Some Can Even Be Eaten
Wall Street Journal (08/27/08) P. A1; Ansberry, Clare

Last year, professors at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute launched Robot 250, a community outreach program to get residents more involved and interested in robotics. About 500 local Pittsburgh residents are now involved with the program as amateur robot designers. Many of the community roboticists focused on everyday problems. For example, participants designed a robot to take photos of speeding cars, one that waves its arms when street noise gets too loud, a robotic sheep designed to be a novelty lawnmower, and robot flags that raise and lower automatically. Some of the robots are designed for even less purposeful tasks, such as a robotic handmade of carved cucumbers and cheese that flexes whenever someone claps or laughs near the device. Another project, a robotic Rice Krispies Treats man, pivots whenever the lights are dimmed. The year-long program coincides with Pittsburgh's 250th birthday. University professors visited 13 neighborhoods to distribute materials, instructions, and troubleshooting advice. "We wanted to put technology into the hands of as many people as possible," says Robotics Institute professor Illah Nourbakhsh, who came up with the Robot 250 concept. Participants built about 75 robots, ranging from small paper flowers with buds that opened and closed, to a working wooden roller coaster. Many of the robots were on display at the Robot 250 block party, which was hailed as the city's largest and most diverse public gathering of robots.
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MIT Lauds S'pore Scientist
Straits Times (08/26/08) Kesava, Shobana

Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Technology Review magazine has named Singaporean biochemist Victor Tong one of the top 35 young innovators in science and technology for developing computer models that have the potential to usher in an age of personalized medicine. Tong, who is also trained in computer science, worked with computer scientists, virologists, and chemists to map how the different genetic makeups of people can impact how they react to viruses. The computer models have a 90 percent accuracy rate of identifying the correct method for creating an immune response. The research means that people who do not respond to a certain vaccine could quickly have an alternative that is based on their genetic code. Tong was trained in Singapore and works at the Institute of Infocomm Research under the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research. He always loved computer games and programming, and saw the SARS outbreak as an opportunity to merge those interests with biology. "SARS made me think about how I could make the maximum impact to improve people's lives," Tong says.
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Revealed: The Internet's Biggest Security Hole
Wired News (08/26/08) Zetter, Kim

Eavesdropping via Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) is no longer a theoretical vulnerability, as demonstrated by security researchers Anton Kapela and Alex Pilosov at the recent DefCon hacker conference. They unveiled a method that exploited the protocol so that they could silently monitor and intercept unencrypted Internet traffic bound for the conference network and reroute it to a system they controlled, and it is feared that this tactic could be used to commit corporate espionage, nation-state surveillance, and data mining by intelligence agencies without the need for ISP cooperation. Kapela said the security hole is not an actual software bug or protocol error, but rather a flaw that stems from "the level of interconnectivity that's needed to maintain this mess, to keep it all working." BGP's trust-based architecture makes the protocol vulnerable to claims from unfriendly routers that they are trustworthy, and Pilosov and Kapela have eliminated the outages such hijacks typically generate by forwarding the intercepted data surreptitiously to the actual destination. To prevent the data from boomeranging back to the attacker, the researchers employ Autonomous System (AS) path prepending that causes a chosen number of BGP routers to reject their deceptive advertisement, and then use these ASes to route the captured data to the appropriate recipients. Kapela noted that ISPs could prevent BGP eavesdropping by aggressively filtering to permit only authorized peers to draw traffic from their routers, and only for particular IP prefixes. The problem lies in the enormous amount of work this would entail, and the unaffordable cost of performing such filtering on a global scale. Douglas Maughan with the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate concluded that "the only thing that can force [ISPs to fix BGP] is if their customers ... start to demand security solutions."
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Personalised Maps Show the View From the Street
New Scientist (08/19/08) Barras, Colin

New research that has the potential to improve online mapping services was recently presented at ACM's SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles. The latest mapping services can overwhelm users with the amount of information they are able to provide, but a team at the University of California, Berkeley has developed software than can generate personalized maps and essential information. The present version of the software is based on San Francisco, and displays some of the more notable cultural, visual, and structural landmarks throughout the city. The software can display a straight-forward three-dimensional depiction of a landmark. For more information, the software can generate an oblique projection that shows all visible sides of the landmark, which will appear distorted. And roads have been widened so that the streets remain visible. Also, users can choose a purpose such as shopping to generate more shops, or food to focus more on restaurants.
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Wireless Sensors Learn From Life
ICT Results (08/25/08)

The European Union-funded WINSOC project is working to find ways of organizing wireless sensor networks to make them more durable and prevent problems such as node failures and large-scale traffic jams. WINSOC, which involves researchers in Europe and India, is unique in that it draws from discoveries made while studying living organisms to help develop self-organizing networks of wireless sensors. "Living systems are intrinsically robust against cells dying or being damaged," says WINSOC's scientific coordinator Sergio Barbarossa of the University of Rome. "The behavior of most organs is an emerging feature, resulting from the interaction of many cells, where no cell is particularly robust or even aware of the whole behavior." Barbarossa says the starting point in the WINSOC project was to provide mathematical models of biological systems and translate those models into algorithms that could be used to determine how the sensor nodes should interact with each other. A prototype sensor node is under development, but the main challenge is to make the network able to sustain operations even when several sensors fail. WINSOC's approach is to have sensor nodes communicate with each other to create a consensus on what data is being recorded. The network then finds the best path through available nodes to relay information to a control center. A prototype network of geological sensors has been installed in the Idduki rainforest of Kerala, India, to detect landslides during the monsoon season.
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Internet Researcher Warns Innovations Lagging
San Francisco Chronicle (08/23/08) P. C1; Abate, Tom

Internet researcher and industry entrepreneur Judy Estrin has written "Closing the Innovation Gap," a book in which she warns that the environment for innovation in Silicon Valley and the United States as a whole has taken a turn for the worse. Estrin says that an overemphasis on short-term growth, quick fixes, and fast profits has diluted the curiosity and patience that leads to true innovation and the potential for future economic growth. She argues that corporate financial pressures and less government funding have undermined support for the forward-looking research that leads to innovative and revolutionary products. Estrin says that just as trees need good soil and climate to create healthy forests, startup companies and research efforts need a strong network to foster innovation. "What happens to trees is root rot in which the leaves and branches look fine for a while until the tree topples over and dies," she says. "We've already got the root rot." Estrin says the U.S. should focus on Sputnik-like challenges, such as creating energy or reducing energy consumption, understanding climate change, improving health care, and improving personal and national security. Achieving these goals will require more than money, she says, and will demand an understanding of the intangible characteristics of the innovation ecosystem.
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Carnegie Mellon System Thwarts Internet Eavesdropping
Carnegie Mellon News (08/25/08) Spice, Byron

Carnegie Mellon University researchers have developed Perspectives, a Web security system that can prevent man-in-the-middle (MitM) Internet eavesdropping attacks. Perspectives also can protect against attacks that exploit the recently disclosed flaw in the Domain Name System. The researchers have incorporated Perspectives into a free Mozilla Firefox extension. Perspectives uses a set of friendly sites, or notaries, to authenticate Web sites for financial services, online retailers, and other transactions that require secure communications. By independently querying the desired target site, the notaries can check to see if each site is receiving the same authentication information, or digital certificate, in response. If one or more notaries report authentication information that is not the same as the information received by the browser of other notaries, a user would have reason to suspect that the connection has been compromised. Although certificate authorities already help authenticate Web sites to reduce the risk of MitM attacks, Perspectives adds another layer of security and will be particularly useful when visiting sites that use self-signed certificates instead of certificate authorities. Perspectives also can detect if a certificate authority has been tricked into authenticating a fake Web site and warn the user that the site may be compromised.
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We Must Do More to Encourage Girls to Pursue Science Careers
San Jose Mercury News (CA) (08/19/08) Cheng, Josephine

Despite recent studies showing that girls are doing as well as boys in math from grades two through 11, more must be done to encourage girls to pursue science and technology fields as a career, writes Josephine Cheng, IBM Fellow and lab director at the IBM Almaden Research Center. Although outnumbered, women have made significant contributions to computer science. For example, Grace Murray Hopper invented the first computer compiler in 1952. In 1991, Hopper became the first woman to receive the National Medal of Technology. One reason why more young women are not pursuing science and technology careers may be that many people still believe that girls are not as good at math and science as boys, despite evidence to the contrary. Many companies, schools, and industry role models are working to change this perception. IBM, for example, hosts a science and technology summer camp for girls. A recent camp at IBM's Almaden Research Center and Silicon Valley Lab was geared specifically toward middle-school-aged girls. Another effort, Nerd Girls, a club founded by women engineering students at Tuft's University, is working to dispel negative stereotypes about girls and technology with the intention of showing that young women can be athletic, fun, and outgoing while being extremely intelligent in science and math.
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Technology That Outthinks Us: A Partner or a Master?
New York Times (08/26/08) P. D1; Tierney, John

Computer scientist and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge predicted in a 1993 essay that computer technology would advance so dramatically that a new form of superintelligence would emerge by 2030, an event he dubbed the Singularity. He is concerned about some of the potentially negative effects of such a development, including the possible obsolescence of reading and the abbreviation of people's attention spans. Vinge envisions the possibility of intelligence amplification, in which people steadily increase their intelligence by pooling their knowledge with each other and with computers, perhaps via a direct brain-computer interface. He also projects an alternative scenario in which artificial intelligence trumps human intelligence. He doubts that under such circumstances superintelligent machines would submit to human control or remain confined to laboratories. Vinge has been urging people to get smarter through computer collaboration in order to avoid such a possibility. "I think there's a good possibility that humanity will itself participate in the Singularity," he says. "But on the other hand, we could just be left behind."
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Caltech Researchers Awarded $10 Million for Molecular Programming Project
California Institute of Technology (08/18/08)

The Molecular Programming Project, a collaborative research effort by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the University of Washington, has been awarded $10 million by the National Science Foundation's Expeditions in Computing program. The Molecular Programming Project aims to establish a fundamental approach to the design of complex molecular and chemical systems based on the principles of computer science. The researchers will develop tools and theories for molecular programming that will enable a systematic design and implementation in the laboratory. The researchers say molecular programs could one day be used to manufacture nanoscale objects, create biochemical circuitry, explore the inner workings of a cell, and act as "programmable therapies" that can be placed within living cells to diagnose and respond to diseases. "Our project is a response to the fact that the molecular systems people are building today are now so complex, and their behavior so intricate, that future progress hinges on developing the intellectual and practical tools for mastering that complexity, the kinds of tools that computer science has already developed for silicon computers," says principal investigator and Caltech professor Erik Winfree.
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Welcome to the Quantum Internet
Science News (08/16/08) Vol. 174, No. 4, P. 24; Castelvecchi, Davide

A quantum Internet could potentially harness the properties of quantum physics to transfer software and data between future quantum computers, which could outperform ordinary computers by running multiple operations simultaneously, in superposition. Harvard University's Mikhail Lukin is confident that a lab demo of a quantum network will be furnished within a few years. An important step is the creation of a secure common encryption key by tapping the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, which prevents interference since the act of eavesdropping changes the states of the entangled particles. Quantum communication becomes more challenging as the distance between points on a network increases, making the establishment of an encryption key exponentially slower. Lukin and colleagues have worked out a scheme for long-distance, quantum-encrypted communication by producing entangled pairs of photons that are far apart. Long-distance entanglement at a reasonable speed could be enabled through a method for storing pairs of photons that have been successfully entangled while other pairs are still being created, and Lukin, fellow Harvard researcher Lene Hau, and others generated the first rudimentary quantum memory in 2001. The most recent quantum memory development involved the capture of two entangled photon states in an atom cloud and the on-demand release of those states. Lukin says a practical quantum memory will eventually need to store data on some kind of solid support.
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