Welcome to the July 6, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Cybersecurity Plan to Involve NSA, Telecoms
The Washington Post (07/03/09) P. A1; Nakashima, Ellen; Hsu, Spencer S.; Johnson, Carrie
Current and former government officials say the Obama administration's cybersecurity plan will involve the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and telecom firms. Under the plan, a Bush-era program called Einstein 3 would employ NSA data and hardware to shield the networks of some civilian government agencies, while telecom firms would direct the Internet traffic of civilian agencies through a monitoring box that would seek out and hinder computer codes designed to intrude upon or otherwise compromise networks. The program's purpose is to validate that telecom firms can route only traffic destined for federal civilian agencies via the monitoring system, and to test the technology's effective performance on civilian government networks. The Obama administration is currently considering what components of Einstein 3 to retain, according to former government officials. Experts say the best methods for protecting U.S. computer networks require the automated investigation of email and other electronic communications content, which is already facilitated by commercial providers. Advocates of government involvement say such initiatives should tap the NSA's resources, particularly its database of computer codes that have been connected to cyberattacks or known foes. Sources say the classified NSA system is capable of deciding how to handle malicious incursions, while the program's database also would contain feeds from commercial firms and the DHS' U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team. However, potential NSA involvement is fomenting concern about unwarranted government surveillance of private communication, with former government official Stewart A. Baker noting that "the bitter battles over privacy and NSA's role in domestic wiretapping hang over cybersecurity like a toxic cloud."
Big Brother Untangles Baby Babble
BBC News (07/01/09) Fildes, Jonathan
Deb Roy, an artificial intelligence researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, is exploring children's development of communication skills through an unusual research strategy called the Human Speechome Project. He equipped his residence with a series of cameras, microphones, and terabytes of storage with which he could record his and other people's interactions with his infant son. To mine meaningful data from the massive amount of information collected, the project team devised a series of software tools. The Total Recall tool enables researchers to rapidly scan through any part of the data, while the Blitzscribe software pinpoints speech in the recordings and deconstructs it into easily transcribed sound bites. Meanwhile, the TrackMarks human-computer system analyzes video footage and provides information such as where people are in relation to one another and the position of their heads. "Just as the Human Genome Project illuminates the innate genetic code that shapes us, the Speechome Project is an important first step toward creating a map of how the environment shapes human development and learning," says Media Lab director Frank Moss. Realizing that his conclusions about children's communications development may be difficult for the scientific community to accept because they are based on analysis of only one child and are unlikely to be replicated, Roy has developed an easily installed device called the Speechome recorder. The device features an overhead microphone and camera, a touch-screen display, and sufficient storage to retain several months of recordings. Roy's ultimate goal is to develop a machine imbued with human-like learning capability.
Second Life Data Offers Window Into How Trends Spread
University of Michigan News Service (07/02/09) Moore, Nicole Casal
University of Michigan researchers are using information available through Second Life to study how "gestures," or pieces of code that users must acquire to make their avatar perform certain motions, make their way through the online community. About half of the hand gestures the researchers studied spread through the virtual world from friend to friend, instead of everyone going to the store and obtaining gestures from the source, potentially reflecting how trends spread in the real world. "There's been a high correspondence between the real world and virtual worlds," says Michigan assistant professor Lada Adamic. "We're not saying this is exactly how people share in the real world, but we believe it does have some relevance." The researchers found that the gestures that spread from friend to friend were not as widely distributed as gestures that were distributed outside of social networks, like those sold in stores or offered as give-aways. The researchers also found that users who adopt gestures early, among the first 5 percent to 10 percent, are not necessarily influencers, or users who tend to distribute gestures most broadly. "In our study, we sought to develop a more rigorous understanding of social processes that underlies many cultural and economic phenomena," says graduate student Eytan Bakshy, the author of a paper on the study. "While some of our findings may seem quite intuitive, what I find most exciting is that we were actually able to test some rather controversial and competing hypotheses about the role of social networks in influence." Bakshy will present the research at the 10th ACM Conference on Electronic Commerce, which takes place July 6-10 at Stanford University in Stanford, California.
Breaking Down the Gender Barrier
Lincoln Journal Star (NE) (07/06/09) Lee, Melissa
A recent ACM survey of more than 1,400 college-bound high school students found that 45 percent of boys see a computer science major as a "very good" choice, but only 10 percent of girls have a similar opinion. Experts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), where only 5 percent to 10 percent of approximately 350 computer science and engineering students are female, say they have noticed the problem and are working to spread the word about the urgent need for a technology-savvy work force in which both genders are equally represented. The university has launched an initiative called the Girl Empowerment and Mentoring for Computing Project (GEM), which aims to inspire girls to pursue careers in information technology. The GEM project gives female computer science students at UNL the opportunity to serve as mentors to middle- and high-school girls interested in computing fields. Participants are divided into teams, and with the help of their mentor, prepare essays on topics related to information technology, including environmentally-friendly computers, hybrid cars, and the use of technology to save endangered species. UNL faculty members judge the essays and award scholarships worth up to $1,000 per year if they attend UNL and pursue computer science as a major. UNL professor Stephen Scott says women are an "untapped market" for the computer science field. "As women have become more prominent in taking leadership roles in society, they need to be at least as informed about computing and participating at least as much as men are," Scott says.
Translate This: 'Cognition-Strength Interfaces'
ICT Results (07/06/09)
The European EYE-to-IT project is researching the use of human-computer interaction for translation by employing eye tracking, keystroke logging, and electroencephalography (EEG) technology to study brain function during translation. The researchers say their work could lead to a new era of cognition-strength interfaces that use brainwaves. The project combines EEG, eye tracking, and keystroke logging to study how individuals use computers to solve real-world problems. Combining these areas of research has allowed the project to achieve improvements in eye tracking, new tools for translators, and new solutions to hurdles that have prevented interdisciplinary research in the past. For example, eye-tracking follows the movement of the eyes, but EEG measurements require the eyes to stay still. The project developed a new visualization tool, called KiEV, that presents three data sets across a timeline so researchers can quickly identify interesting trends of artifacts to more accurately focus their research efforts. "Our work could certainly be applied to almost any task requiring cognition and computers," says project coordinator Maxim Stamenov. "We chose translation because it tackles a real problem, it is probably the most sophisticated linguistic cognitive function and thus a good test case, it is a vital area for Europe, and it reflects the interests of the partners."
Computing Climate Change: Just the Tip of the Iceberg
Scientific Computing (06/30/09) Dickens, Phillip M.
University of Maine professor Phillip M. Dickens is leading a team working on Maine's first scientific grid portal to perform climate change models and deliver real-time high-resolution visuals of output data for use by researchers, students, and educators in the state's public school system. "Distilling complex global warming research down for students' desktop computers requires a large, high-productivity computing [HPC] system that is powerful enough to create simulations of ice sheets, animations, and other visual information in real time--all while making the research results easy to interpret, whether the 'student' is a Ph.D. or a fifth grader," writes Dickens. "More importantly, the scientific knowledge gleaned from large-scale climate models is directly related to the resolution of the models, and higher resolution models require more computing power." Dickens notes that his team's design of the portal required an HPC system with sufficient computing capacity to accommodate complex problems while also consuming a minimum of space and electrical power. Dickens writes that research into climate change demands a multidisciplinary strategy, and he stresses that the use of the new system reflects researchers' adoption of an HPC grid model wherein virtual organizations can collaborate even when they are geographically scattered. The grid, to be launched this fall, will enable collaborating scientists to use as well as access data, while climate change researchers will be able to remotely feed their own data into existing climate change models through a future interface. "Going forward, the team plans to work closely with other scientists to parallelize their code so they can take advantage of the opportunities the grid provides, as well as significantly increase the models made available through the portal," Dickens says.
Researchers Unveil Whiskered Robot Rat
University of West of England, Bristol (06/30/09) Kelly, Jane; Price, Mary
Researchers from the Bristol Robotics Lab—a partnership between the University of the West of England and the University of Bristol—and the University of Sheffield have developed SCRATCHbot, a robotic rat that can look for and identify objects using its whiskers. SCRATCHbot is part of the pan-European ICEA project to develop biologically inspired artificial intelligence systems. Bristol Robotics Lab researchers are working with a University of Sheffield psychologist to develop innovative artificial touch technologies for robots that also will help researchers understand how the brain controls the movement of sensory systems. SCRATCHbot relies solely on sophisticated touch technology to identify objects, enabling it to operate in environments with poor visibility. The technology could be used in robots designed to work underground, underwater or in dusty or smoky conditions that would inhibit sight-based robots. The technology also could be use for the tactile inspection of surfaces or in domestic products such as vacuums equipped with sensors to optimize cleaning. Whiskers have several advantages over sensory systems that are more familiar to humans. For example, touch-based sensors are usually located on the fingertips, where they are vulnerable to damage, but rats can continue to use their whiskers if some break, and in theory broken robot whiskers could be easily replaced without affecting the robot's operations.
U.S. Takes Aim at Cyberwarfare
The Washington Times (07/02/09) P. B1; Waterman, Shaun
The U.S. Pentagon's decision last week to open a cybercommand for both offensive and defensive cyberwarfare activities raises a host of questions. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates issued a memo to military leaders ordering the Strategic Air Command to have the cybercommand up and running by October 2010, and also assigning Pentagon policy chief Michele A. Flournoy to head a "review of policy and strategy to develop a comprehensive approach to [Department of Defense] cyberspace operations." At a recent talk, Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III asked how cyberattacks can be deterred and prevented if it is so difficult to identify adversaries in cyberspace, while Internet Storm Center director Marcus Sachs questioned how rules that apply to real-world warfare, such as the Geneva Convention, can be extended to cyberspace. He also stressed that these issues need to be debated publicly, not privately. Gates' memo urged an "implementation plan" for setting up the cybercommand that would "delineate [its] mission, roles and responsibilities" and its "command and control, reporting and support relationships with combatant commands, [military] services and U.S. government department and agencies." Sachs inquired as to whether the long-term strategy is to have the command concentrate exclusively on military networks, or to cover the entire U.S. critical infrastructure. Lynn implied that the Homeland Security Department would continue to be responsible for the defense of federal civilian networks, while the private sector would watch its own networks. The cybercommand will be placed under the authority of the National Security Agency director. The SANS Institute's Alan Paller said that civilian defense against cyberattacks is hampered by civilians' lack of access to the military's latest, best information about attackers and their methods.
Assembling the Virtual Human
The University of Nottingham (06/29/09) Rayner, Emma
Researchers at the University of Nottingham recently announced a major advancement on the European-based Virtual Physiological Human (VPH) project, which aims to create a methodological and technological framework to deliver patient-specific computer models for personalized and predictive healthcare. The VPH project could enable academic, clinical, and industrial researchers to explore the human body as a single complex system and develop better diagnosis and treatment techniques. University of Nottingham researchers were tasked with developing a postgraduate VPH training program that provides a cross-disciplinary experience. The university is hosting a workshop to promote interaction between modelers and academic and industrial researchers working in live sciences. The Nottingham study group will investigate a specific aspect of VPH science and encourage mathematicians and medical researchers to use mathematical modeling to suggest solutions to currently unsolved biomedical problems. It also will attempt to model various problems relating to regenerative medicine. "This study group is one of the prototypes for the sort of collaborative study which will be a key feature of our new VPH training program," says Nottingham's Bindi Brook. "The course will allow postgraduates to train within the VPH network of European universities and, crucially, to access and contribute to a virtual VPH academy online."
DARPA Investigates Extreme Supercomputing
Government Computer News (06/29/09) Jackson, Joab
Future network-tethered sensor systems will be capable of unleashing an enormous amount of data, so a new breed of supercomputers will be needed to make sense of it. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is considering starting the Ubiquitous High Performance Computing (UHPC) program, and is giving the industry until July 27 to respond to its request for information on its structure and goals. "The UHPC program is seeking solutions that will explore the technologies and architectures required to enable the development of revolutionary computing architectures and systems and overcome 'business as usual' advances," says the request for information (RFI). Supercomputers need to be smarter and faster, but also smaller and less power-consumptive. The systems should be able to execute 50 billion floating-point operations/sec per watt of power, with each floating-point operation running at under 20 picojoules per operation, compared to the thousands of picojoules now required to carry out such an operation. And the underlying hardware would make writing programs much easier. The operating system and runtime solutions will have to "behave like a self-aware system that 'learns' to address a particular problem by building self-performance models, responding to user goals, and adapting to changing goals, resources, models, operating conditions and even to failures," the RFI says.
Magnet and Glue Turn Tongue Into Joystick
New Scientist (06/29/09) Simonite, Tom
Georgia Tech University professors Maysam Ghovanloo and Xueliang Huo have developed a headset that enables a person to precisely control a wheelchair or computer using only their tongue. The system uses two sensors, embedded in a wireless headset, to track a small magnet attached to the tip of the user's tongue. The sensors read fluctuations in the strength of the magnetic field as the tongue moves and transmits the signals to a computer. The system is already being used in trials with spinal injury patients, and could eventually be used to give astronauts and others a third hand in difficult situations. Ghovanloo says there are 250,000 people with spinal cord injuries in the United States, and more than half of them need an alternative way of interacting with the world due to spinal damage that prevents or restricts the use of their arms and hands. Currently available systems often use the "sip and puff" method, which involves blowing or sucking on a straw held in front of the mouth, or extended headrests that have embedded buttons that can be operated using subtle head movements. However, Ghovanloo says the tongue-driven system can accept a wider variety of commands, is less conspicuous and very precise, and is not as tiring to use. For the trials, the magnet was attached to the user's tongue using a surgical adhesive, but Ghovanloo has had magnetic tongue piercings made that may appeal more to long-term users.
Computers Aid in Cracking Deception in Plants
MU News Bureau (06/25/09) Kroll, Melody
Computer science researchers and others are working on detecting biological forms of deception, called molecular mimicry. "Molecular mimicry is a biological mechanism that a pathogen, such as a bacterium, uses to trick a host organism into accepting it and, in some cases, to alter the host's function to its own benefit," says University of Missouri professor Dmitry Korkin. Korkin is using a $613,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award to study molecular mimicry in the soybean cyst nematode plant pathogen. Soybean cyst nematode is a small parasitic roundworm that infects the roots of soybean plants, partially by secreting proteins into the soybean that change the plant's cellular function and causes the plant to create a specialized cell the nematode feeds on. Scientists believe that molecular mimicry is a part of the host-path interaction, but detecting molecular mimicry is difficult due to the massive number of proteins involved. Korkin will use concepts of machine learning and pattern recognition to identify protein binding sites in the soybean that match the nematode and narrow the field of potential protein candidates. Korkin says his research could help improve soybean cultivars for disease resistance.
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