Welcome to the January 13, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
'Wet Computer' Project Kicks Off
BBC News (01/11/10) Palmer, Jesse
A team of international researchers is developing a new way of building computing machinery inspired by chemical processes in living systems. The project, led by the University of Southampton's Klaus-Peter Zauner, makes use of stable "cells" with a spontaneously forming coating, similar to the walls of human cells, and uses chemistry to process signals like neurons do in the brain. The new technology "will open up application domains where current [information technology] does not offer any solutions--controlling molecular robots, fine-grained control of chemical assembly, and intelligent drugs that process the chemical signals of the human body and act according to the local biochemical state of the cell," Zauner says. The research is based on two concepts. First, the computing "cells" are encased in a lipid, which holds the liquid-based cell together. When the lipid layer of one cell touches the lipid layer of another cell, it forms a protein bridge through which chemical signaling molecules can pass. Second, chemical reactions inside the cell can be triggered by changing the concentration of bromine by a certain amount. These self-contained systems act in the same way as neurons in the human brain. "I think this project stands a real chance of bringing chemical computing from the concept stage to a practical demonstration of a functional prototype," Zauner says.
Google Threatens to Leave China After Attacks on Activists' E-mail
Washington Post (01/13/10) P. A1; Nakashima, Ellen; Mufson, Steven; Pomfret, John; et al.
Google has threatened to withdraw from China following a computer network attack targeting its email service and corporate infrastructure. Google claimed to have proof suggesting that "a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists," while noting that at least 20 other large firms have been targeted by similar attacks. U.S. officials have avoided leveling a public charge against China for the attacks because it is difficult to determine the assault's origins with certainty. Google chief legal officer David Drummond says the hacks drove the company to "review the feasibility" of its Chinese operations, while realizing that this could entail the shutdown of Google.cn and Google's China offices. He also says that Google has elected to halt its censoring of search results on Chinese Google sites, and over the next few weeks the company will engage in discussions with China on the possibility of running "an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all." Center for Democracy and Technology president Leslie Harris lauds Google's move, saying the company "has taken a bold and difficult step for Internet freedom in support of fundamental human rights."
Bell Labs to Cut the Power Consumption of the Internet
Electronics Weekly (UK) (01/11/10) Bush, Steve
Bell Labs is launching Green Touch, a consortium that includes industry, academia, and government entities from around the world with the goal of making the Internet 1,000 times more energy efficient. The Green Touch initiative will offer a five-year plan to achieve this goal, including a reference network architecture and demonstrations of key components. "A thousand-fold reduction is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world's communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day," Bell Labs says. The 1,000-fold efficiency target is based on research that looked at the fundamental properties of communications networks and technologies such as optical wireless, electronics, possessing, routing, and architecture. Bell Labs research indicates that today's information and communication technology (ICT) has the potential to be 10,000 times more efficient. The first consortium meeting is scheduled for February and will establish the five-year plan, first-year deliverables, and member roles and responsibilities. The exponential expansion of Internet services "leads to an exponential growth in information and communication technology energy consumption which we, as an industry, have to jointly address," says Bell Labs' Gee Rittenhouse.
Aussie Quantum Experiment Challenges Einstein, Computer Science
Computerworld Australia (01/12/10) Pauli, Darren
University of Queensland (UQ) and Harvard University researchers have completed an experiment that could have massive ramifications for science through the application of quantum mechanics to chemistry to predict molecular reactions. Project co-author and UQ professor Andrew White says the existence of quantum computing implies that either quantum mechanics is incorrect or computer science's underlying Church Turing Thesis is faulty. "What we have done is a 2 qubit [quantum bit], toy experiment--it won't put anyone out of a job anytime soon ... but if we scale to tens and then hundreds of qubits, that's when we will exceed the computational capacity of the planet ... that will happen [within] 50 years," White says. The experiment ran an algorithm called the iterative phase estimation to quantify the exact energy of molecular hydrogen against a predicted model. White calls the results, which were accurate inside of six parts in 1 million, "astounding." Data was calculated to 20 bits, and in some cases as many as 47 bits, and experiments were redone 30 times for classical error correction. White theorizes that the experiment's results could be utilized to forecast the outcome of chemical reactions without the innate randomness missing from controlled computer simulations.
Giving Electronic Commands With Body Language
New York Times (01/11/10) Vance, Ashlee
New human-device interface technology will soon be available that enables users to change TV channels or move documents on a computer screen with simple hand gestures. Companies have been developing this technology for years, but only recently has a breakthrough enabled them to manufacture products to a mainstream audience. The breakthrough came from a company called GestureTek, which creates interactive displays for TV weathermen, museums, and hotels. GestureTek built three-dimensional cameras that can distinguish the hand movements of users. From a soft punch up into the air to turn on the TV, to a twist of the hand to change channels, or raising the volume with an upward pat, these simple gestures can be detected by the cameras and interpreted by specially-designed computer chips. The use of gesture technology to control electronics will get a big boost later this year when Microsoft releases a new video game system based on the technology, which currently is known as Project Natal. Unlike Nintendo's Wii system, which uses handheld controllers to convert body movements into commands, Project Natal is based on body movements captured by digital cameras. Gesture-controlled TVs and computers also are expected later this year that will feature built-in cameras and could ultimately make many touch-screen controls obsolete.
Computer Contest Hopes to Inspire Young Animators
University of Manchester (01/12/10) Waddington, Alex
Participation in Animation10 should top the more than 800 schools across the United Kingdom that registered for last year's competition, according to the University of Manchester. The organizers believe the animation competition will help attract more young people to computing. Students between the ages of seven and 19 will compete to create short, animated films, using the Alice, Scratch Adobe Flash, Greenfoot, or Serif software packages. Winners will receive prizes such as laptops, digital cameras, and MP3 players. Students have until April 1, 2010, to enter the contest, and Manchester will announce the winners on May 3. "We need to encourage the brightest and the best of the young generation to engage in the challenges facing computing--not just to use computers, but to invent the next generation of hardware and software," says Manchester's Toby Howard. "And we hope this competition will go some way to raising the profile of computer science amongst children in a fun and exciting way."
CMU Brain Findings 'Big Leap Forward'
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA) (01/12/10) Cronin, Mike
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have developed new technology capable of predicting which noun, from a group of 60, a person is thinking about based on brain-activity patterns. The researchers learned that human brains analyze objects based on how they can satisfy a need, such as shelter or hunger, says Tom Mitchell, head of CMU's machine-learning department. This represents the first time scientists have identified thought patterns using concepts rather than images. The researchers hope this technology could someday help people with conditions such as autism or paranoid schizophrenia. The technology also could potentially assist those without handicaps, says Princeton University's Ken Norman. "Imagine how efficient it would be to think about something and have it appear on a computer screen," Norman says. "But we've got a very long way to go before we get to that point."
Hidden Sensor Network Detects Explosives
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (01/11/10) Zolfagharifard, Ellie
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Communications, Information Processing, and Ergonomics have developed Hazardous Material Localization and Person Tracking (HAMLeT), a sensor network system for detecting explosives. HAMLeT uses two separate sensor networks to gather chemical and kinetic information. One network uses laser scanners, which send pulses through airports and railway stations to measure the distance between objects and create a two-dimensional image of the area. This information is combined with that collected by a network of electronic sensors hidden in air ducts and wall fixtures. The hidden sensors use oscillating crystals to capture chemical molecules in the air and identify their composition. Once all the information is gathered, it is run through an algorithm that automatically marks members of a crowd with a specific color indicating their suspected threat level. The researchers also are working on a model that uses gamma spectrometers for the identification of "dirty" bombs. Further research will look into the ergonomic design of tunnels and ways to reduce the number of false positives.
Fixing a Hole in the Web
Technology Review (01/12/10) Naone, Erica
A fix that the Internet Engineering Task Force recently approved to patch a vulnerability in the protocol that encrypts sensitive Web-based communications and transactions is expected by experts to take a year or more to be fully deployed. The patch fixes the Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol, which is built into Web browsers and servers and shields critical information, and which has supplanted the Secure Socket Layer protocol. By exploiting the TLS flaw, an attacker can commandeer the first moment of the encrypted conversation between a Web browser and server and insert a command of his own. Exploiting the vulnerability requires the hacker to first carry out a man in the middle attack to capture traffic between the client and the server, and then take advantage of TLS' renegotiation feature. This feature permits a Web server or client to revise some of the parameters of an encrypted session while the session is taking place. Security professional Frank Breedijk says the protocol is patched by a draft fix that effectively produces two versions of TLS--thus keeping the danger of attack alive if either the client or the server fails to install the patch. Apache Software Foundation founding director Ben Laurie says that this double installation requirement makes the fix "unprecedented," so browser makers working to correct the problem will need to make accommodations for a period in which the client will continue communicating with unpatched servers.
Web Guru Berners-Lee Highlights Open Data
Mass High Tech (01/11/10) Moore, Galen
Linked data will transform the Internet because Web browsing would give way to using programs that automatically seek out and find useful information, according to World Wide Web Consortium director Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Government and scientific researchers have begun to make data open and available, Berners-Lee says. Bloggers also have helped to show that sharing information can bring together people with similar interests who can work toward common goals, he says. Berners-Lee cites the OpenStreetMap as an application whose edits and overlays have not been claimed by a proprietary service. He acknowledges that open data faces several challenges, such as how to fairly compensate those who compile the data used to build applications. Berners-Lee also says social media Web sites are preventing people who contribute to the networks from taking advantage of the data, and notes that putting up walls would lead to two possible outcomes. "Either you become the most powerful site in the world, or you die," he says.
Social Science Meets Computer Science at Yahoo
San Francisco Chronicle (01/11/10) Temple, James
Yahoo Labs is hiring social scientists, including cognitive psychologists, economists, and ethnographers, to help it understand what motivates users to click and remain on certain features, while dismissing others. Yahoo Labs has set up controlled experiments and employed ethnography techniques to try to answer these questions. "It is difficult for computer engineers to design interfaces that the average person is comfortable with, it takes somebody who is in some sense ignorant of the technology to be a better proxy for the users," says the Computer History Museum's Len Shustek. Yahoo wants to focus on the front-end user experience by showing results based on what people are most commonly seeking. This is a prime example of where social science builds upon computer science engineering, says Yahoo Labs' Prabhakar Raghavan. Another product of Yahoo Labs is its revamped Zync chat application. Yahoo's research found that users are more engaged in content when they can discuss the content with someone else. The Zync feature allows two people chatting in Messenger to watch a video at the same time within the application. "They have the sense that they're sharing an experience, not just exchanging information," says Yahoo's Elizabeth Churchill.
STEM Talent: Moving Beyond Traditional Boundaries
Science News (01/02/10) Vol. 177, No. 1, P. 36; Marshall, Stephanie Pace
Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy president Stephanie Pace Marshall points to a widening gap between the collaborative, exploratory, inquiry-based, and problem-centered environments needed to cultivate skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and the culture and conditions of education, which are traditionally prescriptive and risk-averse. "[Innovation] is a messy, unpredictable process and it requires a learning habitat that invites experimentation and discovery, rewards invention, and encourages the often playful pursuit of often absurd questions wherever they may lead," she says. Marshall advocates a transformation of U.S. STEM schooling and talent development to foster a more integrated generation of STEM talent, innovation, and entrepreneurial leadership. She says that this integrative design extends outside the traditional boundaries of STEM education and establishes learning in a wide variety of venues, including schools, design and production studios, museums, universities, non-governmental organizations, online pavilions, and research laboratories. "Immersing students in the real work of STEM research and inquiry, innovation, and global change leadership enables them to experience what is required to be successful in each domain," she concludes.
A Virtual Liver, a Better Chance of Life
European researchers working on EUREKA's Odysseus project have devised software to generate accurate, three-dimensional (3D) images of the blood vessels of a patient's liver, a breakthrough that has enhanced medical knowledge of the organ's segmentation. In addition, the project has yielded a system that can transmit the 3D images to outside experts in any location in real time just prior to surgery. Elements of the Odysseus project include Virtual Patient Modeling, which employs patient-specific data to facilitate preoperative evaluation, while the Diagnosis and Virtual Planning software enables navigation and tool positioning within 3D images that can be reassembled from any multimedia-equipped computer. Another element of the project is the Argonaute communication system, which permits several practitioners in different locations to interact and consult on the images concurrently. Realistic physical characteristics of texture and tissue resistance are added to the 3D model of the patient via the unlimited laparoscopic simulator and the robotic surgery simulator, enabling the simulation of surgical intervention before actual surgery. Odysseus will significantly contribute to the precision of tumor diagnosis in the liver and its treatment and will facilitate more accurate diagnosis of secondary liver tumors.
Cryptographic Showdown, Round 2: NIST Picks 14 Hash Algorithms
Government Computer News (01/05/10) Jackson, William
The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has completed round one of its open competition to create a new Secure Hash Algorithm (SHA). The cryptographic community narrowed the first round's 64 submissions down to 14 semifinalists. Fifty-one of the 64 algorithms submitted in 2008 met the competition's minimum criteria, and it took the judges a year to examine the entries for flaws and weaknesses. "We were pleased by the amount and quality of the cryptanalysis we received on the first round candidates, and more than a little amazed by the ingenuity of some of the attacks," says NIST's Bill Burr. Five finalists are expected to be named from the 14 remaining entries by the end of this year, and a new standard, which will be named SHA-3, should be ready in 2012. SHA-3 will replace the SHA-1 and SHA-2 algorithms currently being used by NIST. This is the third open cryptographic competition conducted by NIST, the first coming in the 1970s, and the second in the 1990s.
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