Welcome to the February 24, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Experts Warn of Catastrophe From Cyberattacks
CNet (02/23/10) Mills, Elinor
A panel of experts told U.S. senators at a recent hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation that the United States would be defeated in an all-out cyberwar, and reducing this vulnerability will not occur until the government takes a more active interest in safeguarding the nation's network. Former director of national security and national intelligence Michael McConnell warned that greater government involvement may not happen until after a "catastrophic event" transpires. The focus of the hearing was the Cyber Security Act of 2009, which would oversee organizations and companies that supply critical U.S. infrastructure, mandate licensing and certification for cybersecurity professionals, and sponsor grant and scholarship programs.
Light-Based Computing, Quick as a Thought
PIK Research Portal (02/24/10) Eickemeier, Patrick
A consortium of European research institutions is working on a new, photonic computing model under the aegis of the PHOCUS project. The system envisioned by the project uses light to communicate, potentially raising energy efficiency far above that of current supercomputers. The reservoir computer concept is inspired by the rapid information processing architecture of the human brain, in which stimuli or inputs are fed into neural networks or reservoirs. Inputs remain detectable in the reservoir for a certain time, and this input memory, coupled with the emerging response of the reservoir, converts the input into a large number of dynamical states of the reservoir, producing a high-dimensional state space. The researchers say that photonic systems could be employed to comprehend and eventually imitate some of the brain's functionalities. PHOCUS' ultimate target is photonic deployment of reservoir computing, running at high data rates, as an alternative to supercomputers for operations that require reduced size and less power consumption.
Just Like Mombot Used to Make
New York Times (02/23/10) Daly, Ian; Aoi, Yasue
Robots that serve and prepare food have been developed by various institutions and companies, mainly to promote new technological breakthroughs, to imbue robots with personalities to help overcome an animus toward them, and to position the machines for work in other industries. For instance, researchers at Switzerland's Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory invented the Chief Cook Robot, an omelet-making machine that can be "taught" to perform complex tasks. Underlying such efforts is the desire to change the often threatening and distrustful way we perceive robots, says NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory roboticist Heather Knight. The spate of food-serving and food-making robots calls attention to the fact that developers are migrating away from a previous focus on efficiency and toward one of personality and more comfortable human-machine interaction.
Magnet Magic Puts Phone Control in the Air
New Scientist (02/23/10) Fleming, Nic
Deutsche Telekom (DT) researchers have developed MagiTact, software that makes it possible to control a cell phone by moving a hand-worn magnet close to it. MagiTact works on devices with a compass sensor, such as the Apple iPhone and Google's Nexus One. The software tracks changes to the magnetic field around a cell phone to identify different hand gestures. "The idea is to develop a way to interact with mobile devices through more natural human gestures," says DT researcher Hamed Ketabdar. Meanwhile, Hasso Plattner Institute researchers are working to improve touchscreen interaction by adding a touch-sensitive pad to the back of devices and by studying the angles at which users' fingers touch the screen to make buttons smaller.
Glasgow University Teams With Intel for Nanoscale Memory Design
Electronics Weekly (UK) (02/23/10) Williams, Alun
The European Union is funding research into the design of future microchips. Glasgow University professor Asen Asenov says developers need new circuit and system design to shrink the size of transistors for more powerful circuits. Glasgow is participating in the Tera-scale Reliable Adaptive Memory Systems (TRAMS) consortium, along with Intel Iberia, Interuniversitair Micro-Elektronica Centrium, and the Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya. "We hope this project will result in new chip design paradigms for building reliable memory systems out of unreliable nanoscale components cheaply and effectively, heralding the era of terascale computing," Asenov says. TRAMS will focus on next-generation complementary metal-oxide semiconductor transistors and microchips.
Stopping Stealthy Downloads
Technology Review (02/22/10) Krebs, Brian
SRI International and Georgia Tech researchers have developed Block All Drive-By Download Exploits (BLADE), free software that can stop Internet attacks brought on by visiting a Web site. BLADE acts by halting downloads that are initiated without the user's consent. In 2009's fourth quarter, about 5.5 million Web pages contained software designed to install unwanted malware on visitors, according to Dasient. The researchers tested BLADE and found that it blocked all of the more than 5,150 malicious programs unleashed by the 1,205 drive-by URLs they tested. Adobe's PDF Reader accounted for more than half of the applications targeted by the drive-by exploits and Sun Microsystems' Java platform attracted about 25 percent of all drive-by attacks, with most of the remaining exploits being aimed at Adobe Flash and Internet Explorer. Experts say that BLADE still needs to be tested in real-world settings, and SRI's Phil Porras notes that it cannot stop all Web-based malware, such as social-engineering attacks.
Photos of the Future
The Independent (02/24/10) Piesing, Mark
Stanford University researchers are developing the Frankencamera, an open source digital camera that they hope will lead to a computational photography revolution. "Computational photography will change how we do photography," says Stanford professor Marc Levoy. "It would allow you to fix things that you can't currently--whether by combining pictures in a different way, or by fiddling with optics so that more is recorded than on a normal camera." The goal is to turn the camera into a powerful computer, with the ability to change the focus of a shot after it has been taken, take three-dimensional photographs, and convert photographs into drawings, diagrams, or watercolors. Meanwhile, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ramesh Raskar notes that researchers are already exploring the next step beyond computational photography. For example, Raskar notes that Microsoft is developing software to generate "sense photographs," which capture the sense of the real experience, not just what the camera and computer are able to record.
Rutgers Researchers Show New Security Threat Against 'Smart Phone' Users
Rutgers University (02/22/10) Blesch, Carl
Rutgers University (RU) computer scientists have demonstrated how rootkits could surreptitiously instruct a smartphone to eavesdrop on a meeting, track its owner's location, or rapidly drain the battery. Smartphones "run the same class of operating systems as desktop and laptop computers, so they are just as vulnerable to attack by malicious software, or malware," says RU professor Vinod Ganapathy. Rootkit attacks on smartphones could be especially effective because smartphone users tend to carry their phones with them all the time, which creates opportunities for attackers to eavesdrop, extract personal information, or pinpoint the users location using the phone's global positioning system.
Computers Turn Flat Photos Into 3-D Buildings
New York Times (02/22/10) Markoff, John
Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) and Cornell University are developing PhotoCity, a system that uses graphics algorithms to create three-dimensional (3D) renderings of buildings, neighborhoods, and cities from unstructured collections of two-dimensional digital photos. To improve the quality of the renderings, the researchers plan to combine their system with a social game that permits teams to add images where they are needed to improve the visual models. The researchers also plan to accept public submissions, in an effort to collect 3D renderings of cities such as New York and San Francisco. The emergence of such collaborative systems has great promise for capturing the creative abilities of people and networked computers, says the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Peter Lee.
What Is the Identity of Identity in the Digital Age
ICT Results (02/15/10)
The Future of Identity in the Information Society (FIDIS) is a network of excellence established to prepare Europe for emerging digital identity issues. "We concluded that it is not one, single concept, but rather it is a host of pieces of information about an individual," says FIDIS' Andre Deuker. According to FIDIS, a person's identity comprises all of the pieces of information that define a particular individual, from their DNA to how they like their coffee. One FIDIS project is photo response non-uniformity, which can identify the camera that took a particular picture by looking at the information underlying a specific image. Other FIDIS initiatives include special radio frequency identity tags and identity management systems (IMSs). FIDIS examined several IMS platforms and created a database for them, with the hopes that it will lead to greater interoperability between systems.
MIT News (02/19/10) Hardesty, Larry
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a system that can interpret sketches drawn on computer tablets. The sketch-recognition technology grew out of a collaboration with Pfizer, says MIT Ph.D. student Tom Ouyang. "We once visited their labs, and we noticed that on all their whiteboards and even on some of their windows they had all these chemical structures drawn using dry-erase markers, and when we talked to them they mentioned that they used these graphical diagrams all the time," Ouyang says. The system combines information about the physical appearance of the final sketch with information about how it was drawn. Ultimately, the researchers see the software as part of a larger project to make interactions with computers as natural as interactions with human beings. "We want to interconnect this with some of the other things we've done with speech and Web-based lookup so that one could walk up to the whiteboard and sketch a molecule and say, 'Has anybody published anything like this?'" says MIT professor Randall Davis.
Data Center Project Could Produce Jobs, Partnerships
Binghamton University (02/18/10) Coker, Rachel
Binghamton University (BU) researchers are studying a holistic approach to data centers that could make them much less costly to operate and significantly reduce the carbon footprint for information technology. "The amount of energy we spend running our data centers in the U.S. is about 2.5 percent of the total national energy expenditure," says BU professor Kanad Ghose. Meanwhile, the number of data centers is growing because of increasing demand for online services. Ghose says that most data centers only run at 40 to 60 percent of their maximum capacity. Cooling the data centers also requires a lot of energy. Ghose and BU professor Bahgat Sammakia are developing ways to spread the workload across all the machines in a network, planning in advance for the workload allocation and the cooling budget. The researchers are planning to set up an experimental data center to improve energy efficiency. Ghose wants to achieve an energy reduction of about 15 percent, which could translate into savings of more than 25 percent.
Near-Threshold Computing Could Enable Up to 100x Reduction in Power Consumption
PhysOrg.com (02/17/10) Zyga, Lisa
University of Michigan (UM) researchers are developing near-threshold computing (NTC) technology, which could allow electronic devices to operate at lower voltages than normal. The researchers say that NTC could enable future computer systems to reduce energy requirements by 100 times or more. NTC allows for advanced scaling of complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) devices, while improving energy efficiency. "The major impact of the work is that, for a fixed battery lifetime, significantly more transistors can be used, allowing for greater functionality," says UM professor Ronald Dreslinksi. NTC also could help decrease power requirements without overturning the entire CMOS framework. Operating at near-threshold voltages could allow devices to require less energy while minimizing energy leakage. The researchers say that NTC could have nearly universal applications in data centers and personal computing. NTC also could be useful in sensor-based systems. By reducing the power requirements by up to 100 times in sensors, NTC could lead to future sensor designs.
Malaysian Women Redefine Gender Roles in Technology
Stanford News (02/08/10) Schechter, Ruth
In Malaysia, women make up between 50 and 60 percent of the computer industry's employees and many of them hold management positions. Computing and programming are considered "women-friendly" professions because men do not see indoor work as masculine and much of Malaysian society stigmatizes women who work outdoors as lower class. "In the U.S., technology and masculinity are very connected, which is not the case in Malaysia," says Lulea University of Technology professor Ulf Mellstrom. Women initially left their villages to seek jobs in the electronics industry. Those jobs were replaced with technological jobs, which enabled newly educated women to assume positions of authority. Mellstrom says the transition was facilitated for women in computer science by role models from the electronics industry. He says the critical mass of women in the computer sciences has created "a symbolic space" that continues to provide new role models for other women.
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