Welcome to the August 28, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Defying Experts, Rogue Computer Code Still Lurks
New York Times (08/26/09) Markoff, John
Conficker, a rogue software program that was discovered spreading across the Internet last November, continues to baffle top security experts working to eradicate the program and discover its origin and purpose. Conficker uses a flaw in Windows software to co-opt machines and connect them to a virtual computer that can be remotely controlled by the software's creators. More than 5 million computers, including government, business, and home computers in more than 200 countries, are now under the control of Conficker, giving the malicious program computing power far beyond the world's largest data centers. Computer security experts from industry, academia, and the government are working together in a highly unusual collaborative effort to stop the program. So far, their efforts have succeeded in decoding the program and developing antivirus software that removed the software from millions of computers. "It's using the best current practices and state of the art to communicate and to protect itself," says Conficker Working Group director Rodney Joffe. "We have not found the trick to take control back from the malware in any way." Researchers speculate that Conficker could be used for a variety of purposes, including sending massive amounts of spam, stealing information such as passwords and logins by capturing keystrokes, or delivering fake antivirus warnings to trick users into buying fake antivirus software. Perhaps the most concerning possibility is that the virus was not launched for criminal purposes, but rather by an intelligence agency or military in a foreign country looking to monitor or disable another country's computer network.
A Data Deluge Swamps Science Historians
Wall Street Journal (08/28/09) P. A6; Hotz, Robert Lee
The British Library's Jeremy Leighton John is working to find ways of archiving the massive amounts of data being generated and studied by scientists so future generations can authenticate and better understand today's discoveries. Scientists who collaborate over email, Google, YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook are leaving behind fewer physical records, and often the information technology systems used in their research efforts are incomprehensible to other researchers and historians. The computer-intensive experiments can create millions of gigabytes of data, which is stored and retrieved using electronic systems that quickly become obsolete. "It would be tragic if there were no record of lives that were so influential," John says. San Diego Supercomputer Center experts say that never before have so many people been able to generate so much digital data, or been able to lose so much of it so quickly. Every 15 minutes, computer users worldwide generate enough digital data to fill the U.S. Library of Congress. This problem is forcing historians to become scientists and scientists to become archivists. Digital records cannot be read without the right hardware, software, and passwords, and electronic records are difficult to verify and easy to alter or forge. Researchers are scrambling to find ways of preserving digital records to ensure that the information produced by today's scientists will still be accessible to researchers and historians in the future.
Scholarship Sponsorships for Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Announced by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology
Business Wire (08/26/09)
The Anita Borg Institute (ABI) for Women and Technology has announced that Cisco, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems will be among the sponsors for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) scholarship program. The scholarships provide undergraduate and graduate students--particularly domestic and international students, minorities, and students with disabilities--with money to offset the expenses they incur by attending the Grace Hopper Celebration, a four-day technical conference jointly produced by ABI and ACM, which is being held in Tucson, Ariz., from Sept. 30-Oct. 30. The conference, which highlights the research and career interests of women in computing, will give attendees an opportunity to network and to participate in technical and career development and mentoring activities. "Retention of young technical women is crucial to meeting the growing need for technical talent," says ABI's Jody Mahoney. "ABI saw that 79 percent of scholarship recipients from last year believed that attending the conference had a positive impact on their commitment to a technology career."
Keyboard Style Could Give Early Warning of Dementia
New Scientist (08/26/09) Marks, Paul
University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) researcher Lisa Vizer and colleagues say that the first signs of age-related cognitive problems could be detectable using software that monitors telltale variations in an individual's typing patterns. The UMBC researchers have determined that an individual's typing rhythm is distinctive and reasonably stable over time, but that rhythm can change when under temporary stress. The researchers wanted to know if the mental stress of a cognitive or physical condition also would be detectable. A group of volunteers with an average of 12 years experience typing performed several keyboard exercises, such as writing emails, and then underwent either mental mathematics tasks to stress them cognitively, or intense physical exercise to stress them physically. The subjects then retook the keyboard tests to compare their performances, focusing on factors such as keystroke length, word length, and vocabulary. The researchers found that cognitive stress led to more changes in keystroke characteristics and physical stress resulted in more linguistic changes. Vizer says if monitoring software should detect a typing pattern that deteriorates over a period of time it may suggest the user consider seeing a doctor.
New Attack Cracks Common Wi-Fi Encryption in a Minute
IDG News Service (08/27/09) McMillan, Robert
Hiroshima University's Toshihiro Ohigashi and Kobe University's Masakatu Morii say they have developed a way to break the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) encryption system used in wireless routers in about one minute. Last November, researchers demonstrated how WPA could be broken, but the Japanese researchers have taken the attack to a new level. The first attack worked on a smaller range of WPA devices and required between 12 and 15 minutes to execute. Both attacks work only on WPA systems that use the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) algorithm, and neither work on newer WPA 2 devices or WPA systems that use the more secure Advanced Encryption Standard algorithm. Wi-Fi Alliance's Kelly Davis-Felner says WPA with TKIP was developed as a type of interim encryption method when Wi-Fi was first evolving, and Wi-Fi-certified products have had to support WPA 2 since March 2006. "There's certainly a decent amount of WPA with TKIP out in the installed base today, but a better alternative has been out for a long time," Davis-Felner says. Most enterprise Wi-Fi networks feature security software that would detect the man-in-the-middle attack described by the Japanese researchers, says Errata Security CEO Robert Graham, but the development of a practical attack against WPA should give people a reason to dump WPA with TKIP.
From Terabytes to Petabytes: Computer Scientists Develop New Hybrid Database System
Yale University (08/26/09) Muzzin, Suzanne Taylor
Yale computer scientists recently demonstrated HadoopDB, their new open source system for managing huge amounts of data, at the VLDB conference in Lyon, France. The computer scientists used the gathering to discuss the results of a performance analysis and to provide an overview of its characteristics, run-time performance, loading time, fault tolerance, and scalability dimensions. HadoopDB combines parallel database management systems (DBMS) technology with the MapReduce software framework to handle petabytes of data. DBMS technology is good for managing structured data that might have tables with trillions of rows of data, while MapReduce, which is used by Google to search data on the Web, allows for greater control in retrieving data. "We get the performance of parallel database systems with the scalability and ease of use of MapReduce," says Yale professor Daniel Abadi. Some tasks, such as those involved in finding patterns in the stock market, earthquakes, consumer behavior, and outbreaks, will now only take hours rather than days. "People have all this data, but they're not using it in the most efficient or useful way," Abadi says.
Simulation Could Mitigate Wildfires
The Engineer Online (08/25/09) Zolfagharifard, Ellie
Technology would have helped improve the response of emergency services in Greece in fighting recent forest fires near Athens, says Vassilios Vescoukis, an assistant professor at the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA). Vescoukis, who is helping to develop fire-prevention technology as part of the Firementor project, called on the government to continue to support the ongoing development of the project's sophisticated software. He says spatial data, forest-fire simulation algorithms, operational logistics, monitoring tools, and incident management could be used to create an integrated forest-fire, crisis-management system. A network of sensors using temperature-activated alarms and a wireless communication unit would transmit data on the distribution of temperature. However, software is needed to give emergency services a better understanding of how fast a fire will evolve, which routes it could follow, how many vehicles are required to fight the fire, and where they should be located. "In practice, the authorities that use this system can prepare a number of disaster scenarios well ahead of time," Vescoukis says. "The technology is proven and as soon as the government provides more support and we have a large-scale installation of the system, then I believe the technology will progress rapidly."
IU Cognitive Scientists Receive $3.1 Million for Innovative Training Methods
Indiana University (08/25/09)
Indiana University (IU) Bloomington researchers have received a five-year, $3.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop and deploy new methods for training tomorrow's scientists. NSF says the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program is intended to "catalyze a cultural change in graduate education" through new models for graduate student education and training that go beyond the traditional disciplinary boundaries. IGERT also is intended to promote diversity in student participation and preparation and create a world-class, inclusive, and globally engaged science and engineering workforce. "Building on our existing strengths in the psychological and brain sciences and complex systems, as well as our new activities in robotics, this award will allow us to offer a unique training program on situated, embodied, and dynamical approaches to cognition," says IU Bloomington professor Randall Beer, the principal investigator for the grant. IU Bloomington will focus on the interaction that occurs between an agent's body and environment and its brain and the role that interaction plays in the production of behavior and cognition. The primary motivator for the "dynamics of brain-body-environment interaction in behavior and cognition" IU training initiative is to decompose systems into their essential parts and to then put those parts back together to show how they interact to form a functioning and adaptive whole. Graduate students will receive training in a variety of areas, including computational simulations, mathematical analysis, experimental methods, robotics, and neuroscience.
Inventor Demonstrates Humanoid Robot's Latest AI Abilities
PhysOrg.com (08/25/09) Zyga, Lisa
Independent inventor Le Trung recently demonstrated the newest version of his robot-controlling software called Bio Robot Artificial Intelligence Neural System (BRAINS). Trung has spent the past two years developing the software, which can speak in English and Japanese, solve high school math problems, provide the weather forecast, understand more than 13,000 sentences, sing songs, identify objects, focus on objects or people of importance, read newspapers and other materials, and mimic physical human touch. Similar to a human brain, the software, which is designed to work with a robot Trung created called Aiko, can interact with the surrounding environment, process information from the environment, and record that information in its memory. Once the robot's internal memory is full, saved information can be transferred to a server database, where it could be shared with other robots. The BRAINS software could allow Aiko to perform a variety of tasks. For example, in the home, Aiko could help the elderly by reminding them when to take their medicine or assist children with their math homework. In a corporate or public environment, Aiko could fill positions at information desks, giving directions and instructions and informing people of what events are taking place. In the future, Trung hopes to enable Aiko to perform tasks such as making coffee, cooking bacon and eggs, or giving a neck massage. "Future improvements include making the voice with more emotions and feelings when speaking, improving the silicone material on her face so that she can do facial expressions like humans, and redesigning the body and arm system to move more naturally and carry heavier things," Trung says.
Virtual 3-D Lab Aims to Stimulate Learning
eSchool News (08/24/09) Prabhu, Maya T.
Students at a Baltimore County, Md., high school will be among the first to use a three-dimensional (3D) Virtual Learning Environment developed by the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and the university's Center for Technology Education. The Virtual Learning Environment will enable students to explore the area surrounding Mount St. Helens in a vehicle that can change from an aircraft to a car to a boat, to help teach them about how the environment has changed since the volcano's eruption in 1980. A coalition including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and the University of Baltimore is launching the environment, which is modeled after a state-of-the-art, 3D visualization facility at APL used for various U.S. Department of Defense and NASA projects. The Center for Technology in Education's David Peloff says the Virtual Learning Environment is the result of a recently completed federal grant that allowed researchers to explore how gaming and simulation technology could help teach children. Peloff says the area surrounding Mount St. Helens was chosen because the ecosystem has changed drastically over the past 30 years, and it is an excellent place to start integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the virtual environment. The Virtual Learning Environment features 10 high-definition, 72-inch TV monitors, arrayed in two five-screen semicircles that enables students to interact with what they see on screen using a custom-designed digital switch and touch-panel controller. In an adjoining lab, 30 workstations consisting of three interconnected monitors, display the same environments, allowing the lessons to be approached by teams or individual students.
UK Team Digs Into Data From Scroll Scans
Lexington Herald-Leader (KY) (08/23/09) Warren, Jim
University of Kentucky (UK) computer researchers are about to start a crucial stage in their effort to discover what is written on two Roman scrolls that were buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. The researchers spent July in Paris, France, making CT scans of the scrolls, and recently returned to Lexington, Ky., with 2 terabytes of computer data generated by the scans. The researchers will now run that data through sophisticated computer processing at the UK's Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, with the goal of creating three-dimensional images of the scrolls. "We're starting the serious work now," says project leader Brent Seales. "Seeing the text is going to be the trick, but we have some tricks of our own that we think will help." The effort to unroll the Roman scrolls is part of the UK's Enhanced Digital Unwrapping for Conservation and Exploration (EDUCE) project. The scrolls, which are so fragile that touching them causes surfaces to flake and turn to powder, were scanned using a scanning system developed at UK that took multiple X-ray snapshots, based on medical CT scanners, but operating at a much higher resolution. Each snapshot produced a two-dimensional X-ray picture that goes all the way through the scroll, and was taken at a slightly different angle, creating a 360-view of the scroll. Whether the scrolls are readable or not may depend on the type of ink that was used. If a carbon-based ink was used it may be difficult to separate the carbon ink from the carbonized papyrus, but if a metal-based ink was used it may be readable.
Three New Laws of Robotics for the Early 21st Century
EDN (08/24/09) Leibson, Steve
Ohio State University's David Woods and Texas A&M's Robin Murphy have proposed three new laws of robotics that can be applied to robots available today. The new laws recognize that robots are not yet autonomous and are usually under the supervision of human beings, if not under their direct control. The new laws of robots are: A human may not deploy a robot without the human-robot work system meeting the highest legal and professional standards of safety and ethics; a robot must respond to humans as appropriate for their roles; and a robot must be endowed with sufficient situated autonomy to protect its own existence as long as such protection provides smooth transfer of control that does not conflict with the first and second law. These new laws will still be difficult to implement, but they are achievable given today's technology, writes Steve Leibson.
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