Welcome to the February 9, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Revolutionary Microchip Uses 30 Times Less Power
Rice University (02/08/09) Ruth, David
Rice University scientists have developed a microchip that runs seven times faster and uses 30 times less power than existing chip technology. Rice professor Krishna Palem says the chip's technology, dubbed probabilistic complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (PCMOS), builds on the CMOS technology already used by chip manufacturers, which means chipmakers will not have to buy new equipment to produce PCMOS chips. Palem says PCMOS uses probabilistic logic, a new form of logic developed by Palem and doctoral student Lakshmi Chakrapani. "A significant achievement here is the validation of Rice's probabilistic analogue to Boolean logic using PCMOS," says Intel's Shekhar Borkar. "Coupled with the significant energy and speed advantages that PCMOS offers, this logic will prove extremely important because basic physics dictates that future transistor-based logic will need probabilistic methods." Silicon transistors become noisy as they get smaller, and engineers have solved this problem by increasing the operating voltage to overpower the noise, making smaller transistors more power-hungry. PCMOS lowers the voltage and deals with noise and computational errors by embracing the errors and uncertainties using probabilistic logic, Palem says. The PCMOS prototypes are application-specific integrated circuits specially designed for encryption. The researchers plan to follow up their proof-of-concept work on encryption with proof-of-concept tests on microchips for cell phones, graphics cards, and medical implants.
FY 2008 Data Show Downward Trend in Federal R&D Funding
National Science Foundation (02/05/09) Pollak, Melissa F.
The latest data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) indicates a $3.5 billion decline in federal funds obligated for research and development (R&D) between fiscal years (FY) 2007 and 2008. Adjusted for inflation, the data illustrates a nearly 5 percent reduction in R&D, with the expected FY 2008 total 7.3 percent lower, in constant dollars, than that posted in FY 2005. Spending on research is expected to drop 2.5 percent and development spending is expected to drop 6.5 percent, in constant dollars, from their prior-year levels. Obligations for research by all federal agencies fell at an estimated average annual rate of 2.1 percent between FY 2004 and FY 2008, while research obligations rose at an average annual rate of 6.9 percent between FY 1996 and FY 2003. Funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which comprises over 50 percent of total federal research support, is largely fueling these trends. The Energy Department's research budget is expected to surpass that of the Defense Department for the first time, while NSF is expected to receive the biggest average yearly increase between FY 2006 and FY 2008 at 4.8 percent. Eighty-eight percent of NSF's FY 2008 research obligations are focused on the mathematics and computer sciences, physical sciences, engineering, environmental sciences, and life sciences categories. The annual level of federal basic research obligations slipped at an average annual rate of 1.9 percent between FY 2005 and FY 2008, and this decline may reflect a continuing slowdown in basic federal research funding; a similar drop is indicated in federal obligations for applied research.
Semantic Web Promises a Smarter Electricity Grid
ICT Results (02/09/09)
European researchers working on the S-TEN project have developed a generic framework for information and communications technology architectures and applied semantic Web technologies to make networks self describing. In such a network, each component, such as a volt meter or wind turbine in the case of a power grid, autonomously publishes information on what it is, where it is, and what it does. Creating energy sources, such as solar and wind farms, capable of creating semantic data understandable to both machines and humans should lead to more efficient automated grid management and better decision-support systems for human operators. Smart power grids could efficiently supply a town or city with locally generated power, and feed excess power into a wider supply network, creating a more cost-efficient system. "Instead of storing information in a centralized database, the S-TEN approach is for each node, each sensor or device connected to the network, to have its own intelligence," says Bernhard Schowe-von der Brelie, a researcher at the FGH research institute in Mannheim, Germany. The network can be accessed through a Web interface to show current status, what objects are part of the network, and what they are doing. The interface also provides network monitoring and control to enable preventative maintenance strategies, Schowe-von der Brelie says.
The Cybercrime Wave
National Journal (02/07/09) Vol. 41, No. 6, P. 22; Harris, Shane
The online crime business has never been better and the rising threat of cybercrime stems from criminals' realization that the Internet offers a more profitable, efficient, and less risky avenue for theft than physical attacks. Online fraud cases referred to the Internet Crime Complaint Center in 2007 totaled $239 million, and a Symantec study of online criminal behavior and its accompanying business models concluded that credit card data is the item most sought after by online black marketeers. RSA Security researcher Uriel Maimon says the cyber black market has a global outsourcing model in which hackers in different nations sell or rent their tools or services to criminals in other nations. An increase in fraud is inevitable as growing numbers of people pay their credit card bills online, open electronic brokerage accounts, or bank on the Internet. TJX was struck by a massive network intrusion in 2006 wherein tens of millions of account numbers were compromised, while in January payment processor Heartland Payment Systems reported an even larger data breach possibly orchestrated by "a global cyber-fraud operation," says Heartland's Robert Baldwin. The incident has spurred Heartland to develop "end-to-end encryption" to shield information as it passes through the network or is stored in databases. Intelligence and security officials also are concerned that tools and methods used by cyber-thieves could be employed by cyber-terrorists or nation-states to inflict damage on the U.S. economy. Computer-security consultant Tom Kellermann says that government, and not the market, is the only body that can fight cybercrime in a consistent manner. "The reality is, we've been building our vaults out of wood in cyberspace for too long," he warns.
Engineering Graduate Student Narrows Gap Between High-Resolution Video and Virtual Reality
UCSD News (02/04/09) Siedsma, Andrea
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) graduate student Han Suk Kim has developed a "mipmap" algorithm that reduces high-resolution video content so it can be played interactively in virtual-reality environments (VEs). Kim also has developed several optimization solutions that will allow for a stable video playback frame rate, even when the video is projected onto non-rectangular VE screens. Jurgen Schulze, Kim's advisor and a project scientist at UCSD's division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), says Kim's algorithm will allow for the display of super high-resolution 4K video in Calit2's virtual auditorium. Kim developed his algorithm from a technique called mipmapping, which is used to design computer games, flight simulations, and three-dimensional (3D) imaging systems. Using mipmapping to reduce the level of detail and downscale the size of high-resolution video allows for the streaming of video in real time at 25 frames per second. Kim added various optimizations for constant frame and rendering rates, which enabled him to rotate, zoom, and manipulate the video playback screen to create a fully interactive, 3D experience. "Our approach reduces the memory required to display high-resolution images, depending on distance and visual perspective," Kim says. "If the area is big and close to the viewer's face, the video is streamed at a high resolution; if it's small and far away from the viewer's face, it's streamed at a low resolution."
Ballot Box Blues Continue
Government Computer News (02/05/09) Jackson, William
Nearly a quarter of U.S. overseas and military voters who requested ballots for the 2008 Presidential election did not receive them, and 40 percent received ballots too late to be sure they would be returned in time to be counted, according to a survey of 24,000 overseas and military voters conducted by the Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF). During the 2008 election, about 4.75 million voters used three OVF Web sites to help them cast ballots in their respective state elections. State programs that allow the use of email messages and faxes to request absentee ballots in the past election did not appear to help very much, as nearly 24 percent of respondents who emailed requests and 21 percent of those who faxed their requests did not receive ballots. A common problem is the length of time it takes for paper documents to reach voters and election officials through traditional mail. OVF president Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat says voters also are partially to blame, as they do not read and follow instructions. For example, many states that allow emailed and faxed registration forms or absentee ballot requests require that electronic requests be verified by signed copies sent by mail, a step that is often ignored by voters. Dzieduszycka-Suinat says a better solution is to allow the electronic delivery of blank ballots to voters, which is supported by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Ballots could be securely distributed by telephone, fax, email, and Web-based services using existing technology safeguards, NIST says.
NASA Fashions Mountain Climbing Robot
Network World (02/05/09) Cooney, Michael
The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has unveiled Axel, a prototype rover that is capable of traversing extremely rough terrain, including rappelling off cliffs, traveling over steep and rocky terrain, and exploring deep craters. NASA says Axel could help future robotic spacecraft better explore and investigate foreign planets such as Mars, and help search-and-rescue missions explore dangerous terrain on Earth. The single-axel robot contains computing and wireless communications capabilities, has an inertial sensor for autonomous operations, and is capable of operating upside down and right side up. Axel also has a tether that allows it to attach to and descend from a larger lander, rover, or another anchor point. The single-axel design allows the robot to be part of a larger system in which an Axel robot could be deployed by a larger rover to explore steep terrain, or multiple Axel rovers could be coordinated in a variety of configurations to carry larger payload modules. Axel also could become part of the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR) project that NASA recently announced. The EATR project is intended to develop and demonstrate an autonomous robotic platform capable of performing long-range, long-endurance missions without the need for manual or conventional re-fueling.
Google Makes it Easy to Spy on Kids, Workers
Associated Press (02/05/09) Liedtke, Michael
Google recently upgraded its mobile maps software with a feature called Latitude that allows users with mobile devices to automatically share their location with others. The feature expands on a tool released in 2007 that allows mobile phone users to check their own location on a Google map. The new feature raises several security concerns, but Google is trying to address this issue by requiring each user to manually turn on the tracking software and making it easy to turn off or limit access to the service. Google says it will not retain any information on its users' movements, and that only the last location recorded by the tracking service will be stored on Google's computers. The software uses cell phone towers, global positioning systems, or a Wi-Fi connection to find users' locations in the United States and 26 other countries. Each user can decide who can monitor their location. Latitude will initially work on Blackberrys and devices running on Symbian software or Microsoft's Windows Mobile. Eventually the software will be able to operate on some T-1 Mobile phones running Google's Android software and Apple's iPhone and iTouch devices. Google also is offering a PC version of the feature. The PC program will allow people who do not have a mobile phone to find the locations of contacts or keep track of their children.
W3C: Interoperability Key to Social Networking
eWeek (02/04/09) Taft, Darryl K.
A World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) report on the future of social networking calls for an interoperable distributed social Web framework. The report says social networking applications should share profiles and data across networks so companies can offer new Web 2.0 applications. The report, based on the W3C's Workshop on the Future of Social Networking, noted that social networking sites are hindered by a lack of interoperability. Workshop participants said that enabling users to share profiles and data across multiple networks would allow social networking sites to grow and create possibilities for a decentralized architecture for the social Web. Workshop participants also noted that many users are unaware of the impact of social networking on their privacy. The two-day conference focused on a variety of topics, including the nature of less centralized and more distributed social network architectures, the increase of contextual information associated with social networking users, and the tendency for existing social networks to exclude potential users with disabilities or mobile devices.
Catalonian Researchers Design Smart Room
Plataforma SINC (02/04/09)
Researchers at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Spain have developed a "smart room" that can interact with people. The room contains 85 microphones and eight cameras that serve as the eyes and ears of a projected talking head capable of recognizing speakers and focusing on their position. The room is intended to change how users interact with computers by presenting an interface that more closely resembles what humans are accustomed to. "We don't interact with another human with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, rather we talk to a person, who sees us and reacts accordingly," says project researcher Josep Ramon Casas. "This room works in the same way." When a person enters the room, a multi-mode detection system is used to detect and analyze the individuals. The room's cameras and microphones allow it to see and hear what is going on inside, and to react when addressed by a person. Casas says the projected head moves in sync with its speech, and can move to look at the person it is talking to. He says the room is meant to provide the information-based functions that modern computers provide, but in a more innovative and natural way. The researchers say the smart room could be applied to an educational environment. During a class, the room could alert the teacher when students raise their hand, play a message to continue the lesson if the teacher leaves, help students complete tasks on time, and provide students with homework reminders when they leave.
Student Open Source Software Brings Personal Finance to the iPhone
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (02/03/09) DeMarco, Gabrielle
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute computer science students Amit Kumar and Devin Ross, part of the Rensselaer Center for Open Software, have developed Vault, open-source software for Apple's iPhone that enables users to log, track, and manage their personal spending. "People are always carrying their phone everywhere already," Ross says. "We saw the potential to centralize a task that many people could use daily." Categories such as groceries have been programmed into Vault, but users will be able to add categories for other expenses. The software logs the transaction and modifies the user's account balance. Kumar and Ross have designed Vault to use the global positioning system to find the closest bank branch, and allows users to link to the bank's Web site or place a call to the bank. Users do not log their personal account information into the software.
Mars Rover Recovers After Bout of Amnesia
New Scientist (02/03/09) Courtland, Rachel
On January 25, the Mars rover Spirit failed to perform the day's instructions, and the rover also may have suffered amnesia, as it failed to record its activities in its non-volatile memory. Spirit appears to be operating normally now, but the rover's controllers are still not sure what happened. "At this time, we don't know whether the problem was a one-time event--whether it was induced by a cosmic ray--or whether it might be an indicator of aging hardware," says NASA project manager John Callas. Spirit's controllers originally believed the rover may have remained stationary because it was confused about its location, so the team commanded the rover to orient itself by finding the Sun with its panoramic camera. Spirit pinpointed the Sun, which was several degrees away from where the rover expected it to be, and the team determined that the source of the misalignment was a slight offset in the rover's accelerometers. However, the offset does not explain why the rover did not move, and it is unclear how long the rover operated with the accelerometer glitch. The rover, which has been on Mars for five years, is emerging from its winter hibernation. Over the winter, Spirit was temporarily classified to be in "serious but stable" condition after a dust storm caused the rover's power levels to drop to an unprecedented low. Enough sunlight is now reaching the rover's solar panels to provide it with enough power for more than an hour of activity.
Researcher Proposes Statistical Method to Enhance Airport Secondary Security Screenings
University of Texas at Arlington (02/03/09)
University of Texas at Austin computational biologist William H. Press says he has developed a better way to select people for secondary security screenings at airports. Press calls the method square root bias sampling, and says it statistically chooses people for extra screening more efficiently and fairly. In security screenings at airports, individuals are taken aside for more thorough screening based on their "prior probability," which could include their ethnic profile. For example, the statistical information used might consider someone from the profiled group, Group P, as 16 times more likely to be a terrorist than someone from the average group, Group A. With square root bias sampling, individuals in Group P would be screened only four times more often then people in Group A, as four is the square root of 16. Fewer people from Group P would face repeated screenings, but they would still be screened more than the average person. The current approach screens the same people over again, which is not the best way to use security resources, Press says.
UAHuntsville Lab Combines Psychology With Technology for Unique Research Projects
University of Alabama in Huntsville (02/02/09) Maples, Joyce
University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAHuntsville) professor Anthony Morris directs the school's Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory, which combines psychology and technology to research work performed by human factors engineers. Experimentation and research projects include human operator interactions with complex systems such as aircraft, and designing work stations that are logical, user friendly, and can help prevent injuries. For example, Morris and UAHuntsville graduate student Sage Jessee have been working with the Human Research and Engineering Directorate of the Army Research Lab to evaluate the head and eye movements of Black Hawk helicopter pilots. The project involved using eye-tracking in a video game-like simulator to monitor the pilot's point of gaze and head position during flight scenarios. The researchers created an "attentional landscape" that characterized the general gaze of the pilot, and identified specific eye measures that correlate with mental workload. The result of the project was a new ergonomically designed cockpit that enabled pilots to spend 90 percent of their time looking outside windows instead of continuously staring at the instrument panel.
RFID's Security Problem
Technology Review (02/09) Vol. 112, No. 1, P. 72; Naone, Erica
New U.S. passport cards and driver's licenses issued by Washington and New York state are designed to enable U.S. citizens to cross international borders more efficiently through the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags containing identity data that can be scanned by readers. But RFID technology has generated controversy because of its potential for privacy infringement, and studies of the new cards indicate that they can be exploited by ID thieves as well as by governments for the purpose of tracking people. Both the federal passport cards and the Washington driver's licenses boast electronic product code (EPC) tags that earned a passing grade from the U.S. Homeland Security Department, and which are inexpensive as well as capable of being read from an unusually long way off. Researchers from the University of Washington and RSA Laboratories see the latter capability as a means to facilitate invasive tracking, and also perceive a privacy issue in the tags' ability to store a unique number. The researchers also conclude that border security would be threatened by unauthorized reading, since the cards' ID numbers can be easily retrieved and therefore easily counterfeited. In addition, the Washington cards' EPC tags can be disabled by a ""kill"" command that is supposed to come from authorized users, and the state's failure to set the PIN on the cards it distributed means that anyone with RFID readers can set it themselves and issue kill orders. Some of the weaknesses in the federal passport cards and the Washington licenses are not apparent in New York's enhanced driver's licenses, which contain chips with serial numbers to guard against counterfeiting. Their memory banks are locked to shield them against unauthorized use of commands, but the New York licenses also raise the same privacy concerns the other cards do.
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