Welcome to the May 13, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Intel Launches Visual Computing Institute
EE Times (05/13/09) Hammerschmidt, Christoph
Intel and Germany's University of Saarland have launched Intel VCI, a new visual computing institute that will focus on software architectures and algorithms for visual computing, including new user interfaces and visualizing three-dimensional (3D) environments. Intel VCI will be located on Saarland's campus and will work with the German Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which plans to use VCI's facilities for research on next-generation applications such as the 3D Internet. Other German research centers, including the Max Planck Institutes for computer science and software systems, also will be able to access VCI. Intel's Justin Rattner says Intel has been working with Saarland scientists for years. "Given the growing importance of visual computing, it absolutely makes sense to intensify our cooperation and turn the institute into an internationally renowned center and motor of visual computing," Rattner says. VCI will work to improve the analysis, processing, transfer, and presentation of visual and other multi-dimensional data for use in research and the consumer electronics industry. The researchers will investigate how multicore computing architectures can support a more intuitive user interaction as well as the presentation of detailed 3D graphics.
Mathematical Advances Strengthen IT Security
European Science Foundation (05/11/09) Valleley, Sofia
A new cryptography approach based on the mathematical theory of elliptic curves is considered a leading candidate to replace the widely used RSA public key security system. Elliptic curves could enable more efficient cryptography and provide an optimum combination of security and processing efficiency. The European Science Foundation (ESF) recently held a workshop to discuss the potential for elliptic curves and other modern techniques of mathematics in cryptography and information technology security. "The impact of the elliptic curve method for integer factorization has played a role in introducing elliptic curves to cryptographers, albeit for attacking the underlying problem on which RSA is based (the difficulty of factoring integers)," says David Kohel, convenor of the ESF workshop, from the Institut de Mathematiques de Luminy in Marseille, France. Kohel says the advantage of elliptic curve cryptography is its immunity to the specialized attacks that have degraded the strength of RSA, meaning smaller keys can be used to provide the same levels of protection. "In general, the cryptographer has the benefit over the cryptanalyst (the person attacking the cryptosystem) as he or she can select the key size for any desired level of security, provided everyone has the same base of knowledge of best attacks on the underlying cryptosystem," he says.
Obama Aides Debate Role of Proposed Cyber Czar
Washington Post (05/13/09) P. A6; Nakashima, Ellen; Hsu, Spencer S.
The U.S.'s leading security officials want President Obama to create a new White House cybersecurity czar as part of the National Security Council, who would be charged with protecting both public and private-sector computer networks, sources say. Meanwhile, at a recent cabinet meeting, other officials said the new cyberczar also should report to the National Economic Council. At the end of the cabinet meeting, Obama aides concluded that the new cyberczar's role, which is a deputy assistant to the president, would be limited to security and not broader cyberpolicy issues such as tax or antitrust matters. The review of the position has led to significant debate over how much power to give the position. "The United States must treat cybersecurity as one of the most important national security challenges it faces," according to a report issued by a commission formed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The report recommended the president appoint an assistant and establish a National Office for Cyberspace to oversee Homeland Security and intelligence community cyberoperations. However, jurisdiction fights have complicated the review, which was supposed to last only 60 days but has been ongoing for three months. "The bottom line is, whatever title this person has, if they don't have real authority, then they will not be effective," says Richard A. Clarke, a security adviser to the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Ensuring Universal Access in Digital Homes Makes for an Easier Life
The EUREKA ITEA software Cluster ANSO project is working to integrate domestic networked multimedia, home control, and communications devices. The digital home project wants to create intelligent sensors, actuators, wireless networks, and terminal devices that will seamlessly blend into living spaces. The researchers say it may be possible to incorporate all of the features of a home's electronics into a single device that also can work with the next-generation of smart appliances. "The main problem now lies in the overabundant and overwhelming variety of incompatible standards and technologies in home automation, communications, and multimedia systems," says project leader Tommi Aihkisalo, from the Finnish research institute VTT. "There are dozens of home control and automation networks and protocols available and even more in the field of multimedia and communications," Aihkisalo says. "All these technologies are competing with each other and are incompatible--lacking intercommunications abilities." ANSO is promoting open interfaces to replace proprietary and vendor-controlled systems and has developed an applications platform and related software technologies that permit access to applications that combine home automation, communications, and multimedia. ANSO evaluated market and end-user needs and found that a variety of standards would have to coexist, which is why the project focused on a unified middleware solution for interoperability.
Tracking Cyberspies Through the Web Wilderness
New York Times (05/12/09) P. D3; Markoff, John
The Internet is rife with cybercriminals and online eavesdroppers, and countering this threat is the job of cybersleuths. One of the key tools in cybersleuths' arsenal is sniffer programs that can sort out and decode scores of common Internet protocols that are used for all kinds of data communications. One such sniffer is Wireshark, a free and easy to use open source software program. Wireshark was used by the University of Toronto's Information Warfare Monitor research team to uncover evidence that the Dalai Lama's office had been compromised by Ghostnet, a surveillance operation that may possibly be run by the Chinese government. The biggest challenge to cyberforensics is the issue of attribution, or determining who precisely is spying, stealing data, or perpetrating other kinds of cybermischief. The Toronto researchers are seeking to address this problem through a fusion methodology in which Internet data is studied in the context of real world occurrences. "We had a really good hunch that in order to understand what was going on in cyberspace we needed to collect two completely different sets of data," says social scientist Rafal Rohozinski. "On one hand we needed technical data generated from Internet log files," Rohozinski says. "The other component is trying to understand what is going on in cyberspace by interviewing people, and by understanding how institutions work."
Cutting-Edge Robots Show Off in Japan
Technology Review (05/12/09) Grifantini, Kristina
Researchers from around the world are meeting at a conference in Kobe, Japan, to discuss recent advancements in robotics. University of Pennsylvania researchers will present their most recent version of RiSE, a four-legged robot capable of walking on the ground and climbing a tree or pole. RiSE uses tiny claws made from surgical needles to dig into a vertical surface. Another robot that will debut at the conference is Adelopod, developed at the University of Minnesota. Adelopod is about the size of a video controller, and instead of using legs or wheels for propulsion, the robot flips itself over and over, using a pair of 12-centimeter arms. The tumbling mode of travel is simple, saves energy, and does not require complex hardware, the researchers say. The robot's small size also allows it to reach places other robots could not. Researchers at the Institute of Automatic Control Engineering at the Technical University of Munich in Germany have designed a robot capable of finding its way around a city without the use of global positioning systems or preloaded maps by asking pedestrians for directions and using gesture and voice recognition to interpret commands. The robot uses human tracking, obstacle detection, and map building to navigate through a city. Boston University (BU) also has designed a robot capable of navigating a city, though it is much smaller. BU's Robotic Urban-Like Environment system allows cars to understand simple, high-level commands from humans. The miniature robotic cars can safely reach their destinations, move in the correct lanes, stop at red lights, and park on their own. "We wanted to give the robots the freedom to make choices by themselves as long as they are safe and accomplish whatever the human operator specified as a task," says BU professor Calin Belta.
A (Virtual) Smart Home Controlled By Your Thoughts
ICT Results (05/11/09)
The European Union-funded Presenccia project has developed brain-computer interface technology that could eventually enable users to control the interconnected electronic devices in future smart homes. Electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment is used to monitor electrical activity in a user's brain, and after a period of training, the system learns to identify distinctive patterns of neuronal activity produced when a user imagines turning on a light switch or controlling a media device. The ability to move and control objects in real life or in virtual reality (VR) using only the power of thought could help amputees learn how to use a prosthetic limb or allow people confined to a wheelchair experience walking in virtual reality. "A virtual environment could be used to train a disabled person to control an electric wheelchair through a brain-computer interface," says Presenccia project coordinator Mel Slater. "It is much safer for them to learn in VR than in the real world, where mistakes could have physical consequences." One application developed by the project allows people to control a small robot using a system, known as Steady State Visual Evoked Potentials, which could be adapted for a wheelchair. Four lights on a small box flicker at different frequencies, which trigger different reactions in the brain when the subject looks at each light. Each of the four lights could be used to move the wheelchair in a different direction. Another approach allows people to type with their thoughts by staring at a character that they want to type. The researchers say that better software, hardware, and a more thorough understanding of EEG data could give people with "locked-in syndrome" new means of communication.
Online System Rates Images by Aesthetic Quality
Penn State Live (05/05/09) Spinelle, Jenna; Messer, Andrea
Pennsylvania State University (PSU) has launched the Aesthetic Quality Inference Engine (ACQUINE), an online system for determining the aesthetic quality of an image. The online photo-rating system helps establish the foundation for determining how people will react emotionally to a visual image. ACQUINE delivers ratings--from zero to 100--within seconds, based on visual aspects such as color saturation, color distribution, and photo composition. PSU researchers hope to improve upon the system's current performance level of more than 80 percent consistency between human and computer ratings. "Furthermore, aesthetics represents just one dimension of human emotion," says PSU professor James Z. Wang. "Future systems will perhaps strive to capture other emotions that pictures arouse in people." Wang says that linking cameras to ACQUINE could potentially enable a photographer to instantly see how the public might perceive a photo.
ICANN Heading to a Fork in the Road
InternetNews.com (05/08/09) Corbin, Kenneth
As the expiration of ICANN's agreement with the U.S. Commerce Department approaches, stakeholders are weighing in on the fate of the organization. European Union officials have come out in support of a restructuring of the organization that would transfer oversight from the U.S. government to a group of representatives from 12 countries. Another proposal, released by the Technology Policy Institute, supports ICANN remaining U.S.-based but says oversight should be transferred to private-sector registries. "Accountability is a perennial issue with ICANN. People complain about it all the time," says Technology Policy Institute president Thomas Lenard. "Except for the pretty loose ties to the U.S. government, ICANN really is only accountable to itself." However, critics of the new proposal say it runs the risk of removing other important stakeholders from the process, including Internet service providers and Web site owners. NetChoice executive director Steve DelBianco said the proposal would be similar to the Federal Communications Commission giving broadcast stations the power to decide who gets access to wireless spectrum. "We're not seeking privatization—we're already private," says ICANN vice president Paul Levins. He says the current model has "worked tolerably well. It's successful."
A Nimbus Rises in the World of Cloud Computing
National Science Foundation (05/08/09) Cruikshank, Dana W.
An Argonne National Laboratory cloud computing infrastructure project called Nimbus recently demonstrated that the technology is beginning to realize its full potential. The Nimbus project developed an open source cloud computing infrastructure to allow scientists working on data-intensive research projects to be able to use virtual machines with a cloud provider. Nimbus also enabled users to create multiple virtual machines to complete specific computational tasks that could be distributed over the cloud while still working in tandem with each other. Such flexibility allows users to configure virtual machines and connect them to resources on a cloud, regardless of who is providing the cloud. Nimbus researchers, led by Argonne's Kate Keahey, say the flexibility and on-demand computing power provided by cloud computing is vital to projects that are extremely data-intensive, such as research efforts in experimental and theoretical physics. For example, Nimbus has been deployed to support the STAR nuclear physics experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory's Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider, in which researchers are using Nimbus to turn the massive amounts of data generated by their project into viable simulations.
World's First Quantum Cryptography Network Developed in China
Chinese Academy of Sciences (05/07/2009)
Researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China say they have developed the first optical quantum cryptography network. The quantum communication system enables three users to speak in real time with telephones, or one user to broadcast to the other two users by using one-time pad encryption. The network makes use of a chained topography to forward secret keys in a hop-by-hop manner along QKD links. As a result, there are no conditions for using one-time pad authentication and encryption for information transmission. The middle node serves as trusted relays and increases the key generation rate to a higher degree. Researcher Pan Jianwei adds that his team has extended the key generation distance to 200 kilometers.
Atom-Thin Material Could Replace Silicon for Chips
InformationWeek (05/05/09) Jones, K.C.
Graphene could be used to make smaller, faster computer chips, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Made from carbon atoms, the transparent material is as thick as one atom and 200 times as strong as steel. "It's the most extreme material you can think of," says MIT professor Tomas Palacios, who is working to use the nanoscopic material to make frequency multipliers to enable faster computer chips. To increase the production of graphene, MIT researchers are considering using chemical vapors and equipment that is compatible with semiconductor processing. However, researchers would not be able to use this method for computer chips until the quality and uniformity of sheets of graphene are improved. Graphene also could be used in solar-cell electrodes and quantum-based electronic devices.
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