Welcome to the February 1, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
UN Calls for Global Cyber Treaty
Australian Associated Press (AAP) (02/01/10)
International Telecommunications Union Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure says the world is moving closer to seeing nations go to war over a cyberattack and an international accord is needed before that happens. "The framework would look like a peace treaty before a war," Toure says. Nations would guarantee to protect their citizens and their right to information, promise not to harbor cyberterrorists, and agree not to launch an attack on another country. Although former U.S. intelligence director John Negroponte says the intelligence community would balk at a global cyberaccord, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) says the prospect of a war over a cyberattack is now being considered in the United States. Microsoft's Craig Mundie says at least 10 countries could carry out sophisticated attacks that could appear to come from anywhere. Other experts say that about 20 countries are in a cyberspace arms race and are preparing for possible hostile actions over the Internet. "People don't understand the scale of criminal activity on the Internet," Mundie says. "Whether criminal, individual, or nation states, the community is growing more sophisticated."
Smart Dust? Not Quite, but We're Getting There
New York Times (01/30/10) Lohr, Steve
Nanotechnology experts say sensors may soon be powerful enough to be the equivalent of tiny computers. Hewlett-Packard (HP) recently began a 10-year project called Central Nervous System for Earth aimed at embedding up to a trillion pushpin-sized sensors worldwide. HP researchers also recently announced the development of sensors with accelerometers that were up to 1,000 times more sensitive than the commercial motion detectors used in Nintendo Wii controllers. Sensor technology also is becoming more energy efficient. State-of-the-art sensors can handle a greater data workload at a greater distance, without batteries, than ever before, says Intel's Joshua Smith. Intel is developing a sensor that combines radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology with an accelerometer and a programmable chip that can draw power either from an RFID reader or from the ambient radio power from TV, FM radio, and Wi-Fi networks. Meanwhile, University of California, Los Angeles professor Deborah Estrin and her colleagues have designed several projects that use cell phones and people for data gathering, establishing an emerging field known as participatory sensing.
Learning From the Brain: Computer Scientists Develop New Generation of Neuro-Computer
Graz University of Technology (Austria) (02/01/10)
Researchers from the Institute for Theoretical Science (IGI) at the Graz University of Technology are creating a new generation of neuro-computers based on learning mechanisms found in the brain. The Brain-i-Nets research project aims to develop intelligent machines that can both think for themselves and actively learn. "In contrast to today's computers, the brain doesn't carry out a set program but rather is always adapting functions and reprogramming them anew," says IGI professor Wolfgang Maass. The scientists are researching the mechanisms of how synapses change within the brain in order to develop new learning methods for artificial intelligence systems.
Educators Seek New Ways to Steer Kids Toward Technical Fields
Government Technology (01/27/10) Nichols, Russell
School systems across the United States are pushing students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by providing joint programs with local universities. For example, Hughes STEM High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, in collaboration with the University of Cincinnati, developed a digital backpack program, which provides students with an iPod, a digital camcorder, a tripod, and microphones, for hands-on learning. The school represents part of a statewide effort to create STEM schools and learning opportunities. In New York, the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services joined with Clarkson University to create the St. Lawrence County STEM Partnership. The program unites faculty and students from Clarkson with 200 local instructors to enhance STEM teaching. The partnership includes workshops and summer programs with competitions. In Colorado, STEMapalooza was created by the University of Colorado and brought more than 100 exhibitors from around the state to promote STEM subjects and careers.
Assistive Technology Helps Dementia Sufferers Get Through the Day
ICT Results (02/01/10)
European researchers have developed a system to address a range of different needs of mild dementia patients and have devised a device to meet those requirements. The COGKNOW project, developed by doctors and computer scientists from the Netherlands, Sweden, and Northern Ireland, created home-based and mobile devices, which dementia sufferers can use to make their lives easier. Both the home-based device, a flat-screen monitor, and the mobile device, a smartphone with a simplified user interface, use touch-screen technology and are dedicated to the COGKNOW application. "The application takes control of the device and makes it impossible for the user to activate the more difficult-to-use functions of these devices," says the project's scientific coordinator Johan Bengtsson. The system was field-tested on user groups in three countries, and the majority of users and caregivers reported significant improvement in their ability to get through the day. "If COGNOW only extends people's ability to look after themselves for an extra few months, then the savings are still potentially billions of euros," Bengtsson says.
Energy-Harvesting Rubber Sheets Could Power Pacemakers, Mobile Phones
Princeton Engineering News (01/27/10) Emery, Chris
Princeton University researchers have developed power-generating rubber films that can harness natural body movements such as breathing and walking to power electronic devices such as pacemakers and mobile phones. The material generates electricity when flexed and is very efficient at converting mechanical energy into electrical energy. The Princeton team says they are the first to successfully combine silicone and lead zirconate titanate (PZT), which is a ceramic material that generates an electrical voltage when pressure is applied to it. "PZT is 100 times more efficient than quartz, another piezoelectric material," says Princeton professor Michael McAlpine. Electronic devices built with the rubber film could be implanted into a person's body to continuously power medical devices and the body would not reject them, McAlpine says. The material also could be used to create microsurgical devices, he says.
Robots Display Predatory-Prey Co-Evolution, Evolve Better Homing Techniques
Popular Science (01/28/10) Fox, Stuart
Researchers at the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems in the Ecole Polytechnique Federale of Lausanne are studying evolution in robots. The robots' operating systems started with a set of basic instructions and some random variations that changed every generation in virtual mutations. After each trial, the code for the most successful robots got passed on to the next generation, while code for the less successful robots was bred out. The researchers designed hunter robots that pursue prey-bots, maze-running bots, and robots designed to deposit a token in a given area. The predator robots were initially programmed with better eyesight, while the prey-bots had more speed. Over 125 generations, the hunter robots learned to approach the prey from blind spots and to hide against walls, while the prey-bots learned to stay away from walls and retreat with its sensors facing the hunter robots. The maze-running bots learned to navigate the maze without any mistakes in less than 100 generations. The token-depositing robots received points for placing tokens in a marked area, with more points resulting in more offspring. The robots evolved to help each other, especially those robots from the same code lineage.
2010 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index Reveals Ways to Enhance Teens' Interest in STEM
Lemelson-MIT Program (01/28/10) Staadecker, Julie
A recent Lemelson-MIT Invention Index survey found that teens are enthusiastic about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), with 77 percent interested in pursuing a career in those fields. The survey found that hands-on activities outside the classroom are some of the most effective ways to engage youth ages 12 through 17. Teens listed activities such as field trips and places outside the classroom where they can go to build things and do experiments as the best ways to garner interest in STEM subjects. Two-thirds of teens chose hands-on projects as the type of classroom-based educational method they enjoy most. "Increasing teens' exposure to STEM through hands-on activities will result in a more positive perception of these important subjects," says Lemelson-MIT's Leigh Estabrooks. More than half of teens would be more interested in STEM simply by having teachers who enjoy the subjects themselves. The Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam initiative is one way teens can get direct access to hands-on learning with STEM professionals. InvenTeams are teams of high school students, teachers, and professionals that receive grants to invent solutions to real-world problems.
Signing Contracts on the Telephone
The Fraunhofer Institute for Secure Information Technology (SIT) in Germany has developed VoIPS, software that prevents the tampering and manipulation of telephone calls. The software is designed to create a digital signature that would make an archive of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone calls legally binding. Currently, it is possible to change or conclude contracts over Internet telephony. The researchers say that businesses can use VoIPS with IP telephone systems to record a contract once a customer confirms the deal. The digital signature technology divides the telephone calls into intervals and signs the transmitted data packets with corresponding metadata. VoIPS assigns a distinctive encoded digital stamp to each interval, which ensures that the separate packages are stored in the correct order. As a result, the key information of stored calls is combined in an indivisible chain, and would make it easy for a business to see when a call has been changed.
Education, R&D Are Among White House Cyber Czar's Goals
IDG News Service (01/27/10) Gross, Grant
U.S. White House cybersecurity director Howard Schmidt says educating Web users about risks, working better with other governments, and increasing federal support for cybersecurity research and development (R&D) will be among his top priorities. Schmidt also wants to create a national cybersecurity education program to help Web users protect themselves. Schmidt called for better security at businesses and from vendors to help keep tough security decisions away from end users. "We should not be looking to the end user, the consumer, and our employees to be sort of the policemen of their desktops," he says. Software developers are doing a better job of writing secure software, but vendors can do even more, Schmidt says. Cybersecurity R&D also needs to be a top priority, he says. "We need to be looking at a number of years in the future," Schmidt says. "Investing in research and development is key." Working with other governments to counter cyberattacks also is vital, and the U.S. government must develop an "organized, unified response" to cyberattacks, he says.
Insectlike 'Microids' Might Walk, Run, Work, in Colonies
Purdue University News (01/26/10) Venere, Emil
Purdue University researchers have developed microids, miniature, insect-like robots that feature tiny legs and mandibles built using solid-state muscles. Computer simulations indicate that microids will have much better dexterity than previous microscale robots. The microids might be able to "scavenge vibrational energy" from the environment to recharge their power supply, says Purdue professor Jason Clark. "Because the microids are solid state without any discrete parts such as gears that wear due to frictional contact, they will likely be long-lasting and robust," Clark says. The solid-state muscles also will enable the robot to easily move through harsh environments such as sand or water. The mini-robots could be mass produced using established techniques in the semiconductor industry. The microids are designed to move like most insects, using a tripod gait in which only three of the six legs are on the ground at a time.
McMaster University Researching RFID in Public Transit
Network World Canada (01/26/10) Meckbach, Greg
McMaster University researchers are developing a radio frequency identification (RFID) application that would enable public transit operators to monitor the location of crews working on subway tracks. The subway system is difficult to work on because some sections are above ground while other sections are below ground, which can affect the behavior of the RFID equipment, says McMaster RFID Lab (MRAL) founder Pankaj Sood. MRAL is working on a system that would let inspectors and other track workers wear RFID cards and have their location transmitted to readers near the tracks. MRAL will look at other systems besides RFID and study how people react to the data provided, Sood says. "It needs to be in a format that they should be able to process and respond to in a timely manner," he says.
Spasers Set to Sum: A New Dawn for Optical Computing
New Scientist (01/25/10) Mullins, Justin
Optical computing could get a new lease on life with the development of the spaser, a minute laser developed under the discipline of nanoplasmonics. Nanoplasmonics focuses on the nanoscale properties of plasmons, which lurk on and beneath the surfaces of metals and exhibit light-like behavior. Researchers at Georgia State and Tel Aviv universities theorized that plasmons could be amplified like light, and they conceived of a laser-like device that multiplies single plasmons to convert them into arrays that spin in the same direction. Some experts view spasers as a fundamental building block for optical information processing, as they are tiny light sources that can be switched on and off at will, and are just slightly larger than the smallest electrical transistor. Spasers' metallic nature could be their biggest advantage or their Achilles' heel, because while a plasmonic device would be able to process and store data under the harshest radioactive conditions, it also would require a completely distinct infrastructure to that used to manufacture silicon chips. Plasmonics and electronics also could be incorporated into a hybrid chip. The plasmons could replace the wires that link transistors together to significantly speed up processing.
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