Welcome to the December 30, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
Please Note: In observance of the New Year's Day holiday, ACM TechNews will not be published on Friday, Jan. 1. Publication will resume Monday, Jan. 4.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Cellphone Encryption Code Is Divulged
New York Times (12/29/09) P. B3; O'Brien, Kevin J.
German encryption expert Karsten Nohl says he has deciphered and published the secret code used to encrypt most of the world's cell phone calls in an effort to call attention to vulnerabilities in global wireless system security. The privacy of 80 percent of mobile calls worldwide is shielded by the 21-year-old global system for mobile communication (GSM) algorithm, whose security Nohl said was inadequate at the Chaos Communication Congress, a four-day conference of computer hackers that runs through Wednesday in Berlin. In August, Nohl challenged other hackers to assist him to crack the GSM code, and through the collaborative initiative the algorithm's code book was eventually reproduced through random combinations. Nohl says the code book was accessible on the Internet via services such as BitTorrent. Although the GSM Association devised a 128-bit successor to the 64-bit algorithm originally adopted in 1988, the majority of network operators have not upgraded to the new code. At the hacker conference, Nohl warned that the hardware and software required for digital surveillance of cell phone calls were freely available as an open source product in which the coding is available for individuals to customize. Nohl's decryption efforts were deemed illegal by the GSM Association, but ABI Research executive Stan Schatt says the disclosure, while not threatening in itself, makes the case that companies and governmental organizations should take the same measures to guarantee the security of their wireless conversations as they do with antivirus software for computer files.
Moving Video to "CAPTCHA" Robot Hackers
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (12/29/09)
Tel Aviv University (TAU) researchers have developed a new Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart (CAPTCHA) security mechanism designed to stop computer algorithms programmed to beat current CAPTCHA technology. TAU's Danny Cohen-Or led a research team that created video CAPTCHA code that uses an emergence image--an object on a computer screen that only becomes recognizable when it is moving. Humans are very good at identifying these types of images while computers are not. "Computer vision algorithms are completely incapable of effectively processing emergence images," says TAU professor Lior Wolf. The researchers also are developing ways of generating hidden images in a natural background, such as an eagle or a lion in a pastoral mountain setting. "A good CAPTCHA has to be something that's easy for people but hard for a computer," says Cohen-Or.
A Way to Find Iraqi Enemy's Bomb Supplies
Baltimore Sun (12/29/09) Roylance, Frank D.
University of Maryland (UM) researchers have developed the Spactio-Cultural Abductive Reasoning Engine (SCARE), a system that can predict where explosive caches are located. SCARE uses data from past attacks on U.S. and Iraqi soldiers in Baghdad to determine where the insurgents hid the bomb supplies. Army Capt. Paulo Shakarian, now a UM computer science doctoral candidate, and UM professor V.S. Subrahmanian fed the program information concerning the ethnic and religious breakdown of Baghdad's neighborhoods and the location of the attacks and the explosive caches found during 2007 and 2008. SCARE analyzed the data and determined that the typical distances between caches and attack targets ranged from 1.1 kilometers to just under two kilometers. Of 14 predicted cache targets located by SCARE, eight were found to be less than one third of a mile from actual cache sites. Shakarian says data that accurate is very useful to the military. "It's easier for you to deny [access to or from] the area in a circle 700 meters around these predictions," he says. The program uses abductive reasoning, by finding the best explanation for a set of observations. The researchers hope to inspire a Pentagon research laboratory to run an independent test of the SCARE program using real-time data on bomb attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Subrahmanian says SCARE also can be used in non-military situations. For example, the program could be used to model the behaviors or large institutional investors or political organizations, he says.
Hearing Assistance Comes to the Home
ICT Results (12/29/09)
European researchers working on the Hearing at Home (HaH) project have developed a technology platform designed to help the hearing-impaired. HaH features a TV set-top box (STB) that links hardware from around the house to the TV so that users can access several different appliances at once. Normally, when a person suffering from hearing loss gets a hearing aid, an acoustician must test a wide range of frequencies to determine which ones to boost and which to suppress in order to maximize sound clarity. "With our STB, the user can go through this test, by themselves, in 10 minutes," says HaH's Jochen Meyer. The STB also aids users with other household activities. For example, when the phone rings, an alert appears on the TV screen. If somebody comes to the door, another alert shows up. The system also links to household appliances, including fire alarms, washing machines, microwaves, and ovens. In addition, the STB comes equipped with an animated avatar that can accurately lip sync any audio coming from the TV. The researchers are currently testing the system in Oldenburg, Germany, and Madrid, Spain, while investigating other applications for the technology.
Exponentials R Us: Seven Computer Science Game-Changers From the 2000's, and Seven More to Come
Xconomy (12/24/09) Lazowska, Ed
In an article for Xconomy, University of Washington professor Ed Lazowska identifies seven game-changing computer science advancements that emerged over the past decade and speculates on seven others to come in the years ahead. The technologies that came to the fore in the first decade of the 21st century--search, digital media, e-commerce, cloud computing, etc.--are marked by exponential growth. Ubiquitous high-bandwidth connectivity to all of the world's digital data, to name one example, has accelerated the momentum of mobility and the increasingly central role of the mobile phone, Lazowska says. Cloud computing, meanwhile, facilitates universal access to and sharing of data, making private data centers less and less desirable. Among the technologies that Lazowska envisions coming into their own in the next decade are smart homes equipped with cheap sensors and machine learning that will, among other things, make the homeowner's electricity bill instantly accessible. Lazowska also anticipates the eventual ubiquity of instrumentation within the human body so that medical diagnoses can be performed with all the convenience, speed, and efficiency of an automotive checkup. Intelligent robots also are expected to become mainstream in the next decade as they migrate from structured to unstructured environments. Lazowska projects a flood of data supported by the mass rollout of cheap high-bandwidth sensors that make data collection by all kinds of devices and venues easy and affordable, and this will set up the challenge of developing automated tools that can extract meaning from this vast corpus of information.
Japanese Researcher Unveils 'Hummingbird Robot'
Agence France Presse (12/28/09)
Japanese researchers have developed a hummingbird robot that has the potential to help rescue people trapped in damaged buildings, search for criminals, or operate as a probe vehicle on Mars. Controlled with an infrared sensor, the robot can move up and down and turn right and left. The robot is about the size of a real hummingbird and has a micro motor and four wings that can flap 30 times per second. The researchers want to continue to develop the robot to make it capable of hovering in one spot in mid air, and also plan to add a micro camera by March 2011. "First, we need to learn about effective mechanism from natural life forms, but we want to develop something to go beyond nature eventually," says Chiba University researcher Hiroshi Liu.
Hybrid Education 2.0
Inside Higher Ed (12/28/09) Kolowich, Steve
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is using $4 million in private grants to explore how software developed under the aegis of the Open Learning Initiative could be used in combination with classroom education to accelerate the teaching and learning process. The use of the software in conjunction with two weekly 50-minute class sessions in an introductory statistics course was able to cut the learning time in half. "If [students are] all getting that baseline information, [faculty] can spend that class time going deeper and doing something much more interesting, so they can really leverage that you're an expert, because right now, oftentimes the faculty expertise is wasted," says Open Learning Initiative director Candace Thille. The researchers have developed an online program that teaches students itself, rather than just being a teaching medium used by an educator. The software functions like a virtual private tutor, testing students constantly as they work through linear lessons and adapting to the speed with which they exhibit comprehension of different concepts. It also exploits the opportunity to interact directly with a unique student, which professors teaching large classes lack. One of the sticking points of the online learning program is the awarding of institutional credit to students who demonstrate sufficient learning of the material. Thille says the current model depends on a credentialed instructor to verify written assessments' assertions that a student has either earned credit or not. The great promise of hybrid education as promoted by CMU researchers and desired by the U.S. government is a higher level of efficiency.
AI Aims to Solve In-Game Chatter
BBC News (12/26/09) Vallance, Chris
Several researchers are developing ways to make video game characters more realistic in the ways in which they interact with users. For example, 221b, a game based on the new Sherlock Holmes movie, requires players to have real conversations with characters in the game. Users must question virtual witnesses to obtain information. "It's our role to predict what you might know at that point in the game and the questions you might ask," says Existor's Rollo Carpenter, who developed the technology used in 221b. "The ways that you might say things to them are almost unlimited." Instead of using a limited list of possible answers, the in-game characters can make a "fuzzy interpretation" of what is said to them and the program uses pattern matching to find an appropriate answer. Other games such as Rockstar Games' Facade, which has completely interactive characters, uses a background drama manager to keep the story going, says Rockstar's Alex Champandard. Meanwhile, the University of Wales' Mike Reddy applauds the techniques used in the Nintendo DS puzzle game Scibblenauts. The game uses semantic implementation to enable users to force different objects or people to interact. The game provides more than 22,000 words and can implement all possible interactions, according to Reddy.
Cockroaches Offer Inspiration for Running Robots
Oregon State University News (12/28/09) Stauth, David
Oregon State University (OSU) scientists are researching the fundamental biological and mechanical principles that enable certain animals to run efficiently. The researchers hope to use that research to create the world's first legged robot that can run over rough terrain. The OSU team is focusing its research on cockroaches and guinea hens, both of which have unique traits that help them move easily. For example, cockroaches run instinctively without reflex control, which requires very little energy and makes them a good model for robots. "If we ever develop robots that can really run over rough ground, they can't afford to use so much of their computing abilities and energy demand to accomplish it," says OSU professor John Schmitt. The guinea hen can change the length and angle of its limbs to automatically adjust to an unexpected change in ground surface by as much as 40 percent of its hip height. That is equivalent to a human running at full speed, stepping into a 16-inch-deep hole, and never missing a step. In a computer model, researchers have created a robotic system that could recover from a change in ground surface almost as well as a guinea hen. Running robots could be valuable in difficult or dangerous jobs such as military operations, law enforcement, or space exploration, Schmitt says.
Wireless Smart Sensors Inspect Bridge
Futurity.org (12/24/09) La Montagne, Jennifer; Bragorgos, Celeste
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, and the University of Tokyo have developed and deployed a network of wireless smart sensors on a bridge in South Korea to monitor its structural health. Dubbed the Illinois Structural Health Monitoring Project, the sensor network was designed to create a reliable alternative to traditional structure inspection techniques, which can be expensive and unreliable. The researchers' technology uses concurrent and distributed real-time processing to solve the issues of cost effectiveness and safety, which are problematic with traditional centralized approaches. "Our research in distributed structural health monitoring using wireless sensor networks overcomes these problems and promises a robust, significantly lower-cost safer alternative to traditional structure inspection techniques," says UIUC professor Gul Agha. The research also produced a customizable software framework, which makes the development of structural health monitoring applications easier. More than 40 institutions around the world are using the framework of sensors and software, says UIUC professor Bill Spencer.
The Body Electric
New York Times (12/27/09) Saletan, William
Author Michael Belfiore writes in his book "The Department of Mad Scientists" how the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is leading an incremental human-machine integration. Among the agency's initiatives is a project to render U.S. Army cargo vehicles driverless so that human casualties to bombs or enemy fire are minimized. Such an innovation would dovetail with an insurance analyst's prediction that robotic drivers or automated vehicles will be very appealing to aging baby boomers. A subsequent DARPA project focuses on robotic surgery, and operating machines directed remotely by surgeons are already in use at more than 850 hospitals. These machines employ sensory feedback, while a new version of the technology features Ethernet connectivity, which could enable the doctor to manipulate a mechanical body anywhere with a solid cable or wireless link. DARPA also is developing mobile, completely automated robot surgeons that can operate free of human intervention, because wounded troops need rapid aid, sometimes in places where broadband or doctors are unavailable. Bionic limbs with mutual adaptation are another focus area for DARPA, and amputees are undergoing surgeries so that myoelectric appendages can read their motor signals with greater accuracy. These enhancements are envisioned as eventually boosting human performance beyond the capabilities of non-enhanced people.
Technology Predictions for 2010
Telegraph.co.uk (12/24/09) Richmond, Shane; Barnett, Emma; Warman, Matt; et al.
Among the technology trends predicted for next year is the advent of mainstream broadband-enabled television, with the BBC and other U.K. players participating in Project Canvas. The initiative involves the installation of a set-top box with an Internet link, establishing a means to access Web sites and their content via the TV. Although the popularity of Twitter signals that real-time social networks have become well-entrenched, the challenge remains in gathering their short-form contents together in a genuinely practical format. Twitter is saturated with people's opinions, which makes it nearly impossible to present them in a manner in which their relative merits are apparent. Augmented reality also is poised to progress in 2010, having already been a hit with early tech-savvy adopters in such applications as compasses and global positioning systems in cell phones. Location-based games are expected to proliferate while navigation displays will shift from bird's-eye-view map-based schematics to arrows on the road. Meanwhile, three-dimensional (3D) TV is on the way, with both Panasonic and Sky verifying that they will release 3D TVs and Sky's announced rollout of a dedicated 3D channel. The unknown factor is whether consumers will be willing to adopt the technology, and the initial cost of the 3D TVs is expected to be high. Another challenge the technology will need to overcome is consumers' resistance to wearing special glasses while watching TV, at least until next-generation TVs with screens that automatically perform 3D rendering appear.
First Programmable Quantum Computer Created
Science News (12/19/09) Vol. 176, No. 13, P. 13; Sanders, Laura
Researchers led by David Hanneke of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology have constructed the first programmable quantum computer. Two ions of beryllium chilled to almost absolute zero and trapped by an electromagnetic field on a gold-plated alumina chip functioned as the quantum bits (qubits). The ions were manipulated into executing the processing operations via short laser bursts, and were kept cool and still by magnesium ions. The researchers programmed the computer to perform operations on a single beryllium ion and on both of the beryllium ions together. The new system carried out 160 randomly selected processing routines. Each program was run 900 times, and the system functioned accurately 79 percent of the time, on average. It has been estimated by earlier research that a practical quantum computer must be accurate 99.99 percent of the time, and Hanneke says the system's accuracy could be upgraded with stronger lasers and other enhancements. "What's most impressive and important is that they did it in the way that can be applied to a larger-scale system," says University of Washington in Seattle physicist Boris Blinov. "The very same techniques they've used for two qubits can be applied to much larger systems."
Knowledge Computing Offers New Perspectives in Scientific Computing
Fraunhofer Institute (12/16/09)
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Algorithms and Scientific Computing (SCAI) and the Julich Supercomputing Center (JSC) have employed automated annotation software on grid-connected supercomputers to execute queries in more than 50,000 pharmaceutical patents. Queries currently yield interesting insights into biological-chemical intersections, and the analysis of chemistry is multi-modal in the sense that text- and image-based information can be analyzed concurrently. The annotation services in the grid infrastructure was managed through the use of the Uniform Interface to Computing Resource (UNICORE) grid middleware, which also controlled the input/output data streams from the patents database to the annotation services, and monitored the overall progress. The knowledge extraction was performed by a supercomputer linked to the infrastructure of the German Grid Initiative by UNICORE, says JSC researcher Achim Streit. "This initial step of the experiment demonstrates what is possible today and shows the potential for more complex production runs in the future, using [high-performance computing] systems connected in grid infrastructures," he says. Fraunhofer SCAI director Ulrich Trottenberg notes that through this effort, Fraunhofer "has contributed to a new field of applications for supercomputers: What we call knowledge computing is likely to become a new discipline on its own."
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