Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the July 7, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


'Twitter-Like' Technology Could Make Cities Safer
Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (07/06/10)

Researchers at the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council have developed Voice Your View (vYv), technology that enables people to provide feedback about their environment, such as how safe they feel. People can use vYv to track their comments, see who agrees or disagrees with them, and view other issues reported in their neighborhood. "Think of it like a socially conscious Twitter, or an anytime, anywhere reporting mechanism," says Lancaster University professor Jon Whittle. Users can offer their comments through software installed on mobile phones or through vYv-enabled public terminals. The system then processes the comments to create an instant, location-based "wiki-display" of public opinion. Voice Your View uses natural language processing artificial intelligence technology to filter, structure, and classify users' comments and convert them into meaningful data. "There could be statistically safe areas where people feel unsafe, and vYv can provide the police service with insight into why this may be and where an extra police presence would be helpful," Whittle says.

Multi-Layered Images Projected Onto Water Droplets With New Carnegie Mellon Display Technology
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (07/06/10) Spice, Byron

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have developed AquaLux 3D, projection technology that can direct light onto and between individual water droplets, which enables text, video and other images to be displayed on multiple layers of falling water. AquaLux 3D makes it possible to create 3D images in water by using multiple layers of precisely controlled water droplets, says CMU professor Srinivasa Narasimhan. "By carefully generating several layers of drops so that no two drops occupy the same line of sight from the projector, we can use each drop as a voxel that can be illuminated to create a 3D image," Narasimhan says. The system can generate drops at a rate of 60 per second, and increasing the number of drops per second increases the brightness of the display. The researchers have used the water drops to display video images, text, a simulation of fish swimming in an aquarium, and alternating sheets of solid colors. "People can touch the water drops and alter the appearance of images, which could lead to interactive experiences we can't begin to predict," Narasimhan says.

Virtual Reality You Can Reach Out and Touch
ICT Results (07/01/10)

Technische Universitat Munchen (TUM) researcher Andreas Schweinberger led the European Union-funded Immersence project, which developed haptic and multi-modal interfaces, new signal-processing techniques, and a method to generate virtual reality (VR) objects from real-world objects in real time. The latter technology uses a three-dimensional scanner and advanced modeling systems to create a virtual representation of a real object. "We know that the more senses that can be used, the more interaction, the greater the sense of presence," Schweinberger says. Immersence project researchers also developed technology that enables human-to-human interaction in a virtual environment. Schweinberger says doctors can use the VR technology to treat patients remotely, physiotherapists could use it for training and rehabilitation, and industrial designers could work remotely by using virtually touchable digital mockups of designs over the Internet. "The research will also help in the development of cognitive robots that are better able to interact with humans," he says.

As Good As an Atomic Clock
Fresh Science (07/07/10)

University of Melbourne (UM) researchers have developed Robust Absolute and Difference clock (RADclock), a software clock that is accurate to within a millionth of a second. RADclock, developed by UM engineers Julien Ridoux and Darryl Veitch, uses the counting device already installed in each computer to keep track of how fast the quartz crystal timer is vibrating. However, because individual counters are unreliable, the program samples and analyzes time information from many computers across the Internet to construct a precise and accurate time reading. The researchers say RADclock is the first step toward a high-accuracy infrastructure that will provide any computer with access to accurate time. "Under good conditions [RADclock] achieves microsecond accuracy, which is as good as an atomic clock-enhanced computer," Ridoux says. "And it costs nothing to install."

A Soft Spot for Circuitry
New York Times (07/04/10) Harmon, Amy

Robots designed to provide companionship are making strides. Examples include a device styled after a baby seal that responds to light, sound, touch, and temperature, and which is being used to soothe distressed people, such as dementia patients. The falling cost of such machines may help lead to their wider use. Scientists have noticed that people tend to display animus toward robots that do not follow preconceived behavioral patterns. Some critics are concerned that the growing popularity of personal robots will encourage the replacement of human-human engagement. Computer scientists say such interaction stems from a fundamental human reflex to treat objects that are responsive to their surroundings as if they are living. "When something responds to us, we are built for our emotions to trigger, even when we are 110 percent certain that it is not human," notes Stanford University professor Clifford Nass. "Which brings up the ethical question: Should you meet the needs of people with something that basically suckers them?"

Reversible Watermarking for Digital Images
EurekAlert (07/06/10)

A new reversible watermarking system developed by researchers at Annamalai University in India could be used to authenticate military images. "Traditionally, source authentication and integrity verification of digital data have been carried out with digital signatures and encrypted watermarks," the researchers say. "Unfortunately, watermarking techniques modify original data as a modulation of the watermark information and unavoidably cause permanent distortion to the original data." The reversible watermarking scheme works by calculating the parameters of every pixel in an image and converting the information into a code. The Hash Message Authentication Code (HMAC) is where the distinct pixel values are selected for embedding watermark bits and the preferred pixel values are stored as a key. The generated key is used for both the watermark extraction and restoration of the original image. The authenticity of the received image can be determined by comparing the extracted HMAC to the HMAC of the restored image.

How a Smart, Decentralized Energy Web Is Essential for Managing Renewable Energy Sources (07/06/10) Zyga, Lisa

Researchers from the Italian research center CREATE-NET recently completed a study that examined the ways in which decentralized, bottom-up design approaches could play a crucial role in managing complex, massive-scale networks. The researchers determined the features that a decentralized approach would need to support large-scale networks and provide the necessary degrees of reliability. They also demonstrated how these concepts could be applied to the management of the future generation of energy smart grids--which will be characterized by distributed and renewable energy sources--and dubbed the resulting system the Energy Web. The Energy Web depicts a future in which bidirectional flows of energy will resemble the way information and data are exchanged on the Internet today, says study co-author Daniele Miorandi. The key to the Energy Web is the bottom-up design, in which laws are implemented to enable desired global behaviors to emerge from local interactions among individual components. The new approach focuses on reliability and enabling the system to evolve over time.

USB Coffee-Cup Warmer Could Be Stealing Your Data
New Scientist (07/02/10) Marks, Paul

A hardware Trojan attack can be carried out via a computer's universal serial bus (USB) port, according to John Clark, Sylvain Leblanc, and Scott Knight, researchers at the Royal Military College of Canada. The researchers found that because the USB protocol trusts devices to report their identity correctly, someone could determine the make and model of almost any USB-connected device, swap it with another compromised device that reports the same information, and the computer would not realize it. The team designed a USB keyboard containing a circuit that successfully stole data from the hard drive and transmitted it by flashing a light-emitting diode, Morse-code style, and by encoding data as a subtle warbling output from the sound card. Security programs, if they check USB devices, are more likely to look for malware on USB memory sticks. "You could mount a hardware Trojan attack with a USB coffee-cup warmer," Leblanc says. "A USB device cannot now be trusted--it may have hidden processing capabilities," warns Democritus University of Thrace computer scientist Vasilios Katos.
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Software Will Cut Millions From Nuclear Clean-Up Bill
University of Leeds (07/01/10) Gould, Paula

University of Leeds (UL) researchers have developed software that enables nuclear industry planners to find the best way of breaking up and packing contaminated equipment while minimizing workers' radiation exposure. The NuPlant program also shows how radioactive waste can be stored in the smallest possible space, reducing the number of long-term containers needed. "Independent commercial contractors have estimated that just packing this waste efficiently could lead to literally millions of pounds being saved from the public purse," says UL professor Richard Williams. NuPlant was tested by several industry partners for a variety of applications and is expected to be used in the design of nuclear reactors. The software is based on a modeling tool that demonstrates how irregularly-shaped objects fit best together. "This software tool will help engineers design new reactors with cost-effective decommissioning in mind," says Structure Vision Board chairman Neville Chamberlain.

Smart Gadgets May One Day Anticipate Our Needs
San Jose Mercury News (07/06/10) Johnson, Steve

Silicon Valley researchers predict that future consumer gadgets, embedded with sophisticated sensors and carefully designed computer software, will be able to anticipate and fulfill users' needs without having to be told. Intel researchers say that gadgets will eventually be able to read their owner's emotions. For example, a recent Intel study explored gadgets that detect mood swings "while people are driving, singing, chatting with friends, attending a boring meeting, and even while going to the dentist." Researchers at Japan's Hokkaido University recently studied devices that could serve as "artificial companions for elderly and lonely people" and car navigation equipment that could "entertain drivers by talking and possibly by joking." Oregon Health & Science University researchers have developed a smart pill that can detect the onset of dementia in older people by recording whether the patient takes their medicine. Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to develop computerized assistants for military personnel that "can reason, learn from experience, be told what to do, explain what they are doing, reflect on their experience, and respond robustly to surprise."

Thermal-Powered, Insectlike Robot Crawls Into Microrobot Contenders' Ring
University of Washington News and Information (07/01/10) Hickey, Hannah

Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) and Stanford University have designed a centipede-like robot with 512 feet arranged in 128 sets of four. Compared with other insect-inspired robots, the researchers say their model excels in its ability to carry heavy loads. It can lift more than seven times its own weight and move in any direction. The robot weighs half a gram, is about one inch long, and is about the thickness of a fingernail. Each foot consists of an electrical wire in between two different materials, one of which expands more than the other when heated. A current traveling through the wire heats the two materials and one side expands, making the foot curl. Rows of feet shuffle along in this way at 20 to 30 times a second. Because the legs' surface area is so large compared to their volume, they can heat up or cool down in just 20 milliseconds. "It's one of the strongest actuators that you can get at the small scale, and it has one of the largest ranges of motion," says UW professor Karl Bohringer. "That's difficult to achieve at the small scale."

Computer Automatically Deciphers Ancient Language
MIT News (06/30/10) Hardesty, Larry

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Southern California have developed a computer system that deciphered much of the ancient Semitic language of Ugaritic in a matter of hours. The researchers say archeologists can use the system to decipher other ancient languages and it also could help expand the number of languages that automated translation systems can handle. "We iterate through the data hundreds of times, thousands of times, and each time, our guesses have higher probability, because we're actually coming closer to a solution where we get more consistency," says MIT's Ben Snyder. To decipher a language the system makes several assumptions, including that it is related to another language, that there is a way to systematically map the alphabet of language onto another, and that the language's words share at least some roots with each other. "Each language has its own challenges," says MIT professor Regina Barzilay. "Most likely, a successful decipherment would require one to adjust the method for the peculiarities of a language."

Software Developed by UB Scientists Streamlines the Management of Large-Scale Computing Using Commercial Systems
University of Barcelona (06/29/10)

Software developed by University of Barcelona researchers for managing high-powered commercial computing systems is being used to manage data processing in one of the main experiments carried out at the Large Hadron Collider. The Barcelona researchers successfully tested the DIRAC software in simulations for the Belle project in Japan using 250 Amazon EC2 virtual machines, which provide the equivalent power of 2,000 networked processors. The test found that the new resources provide more than 95 percent efficiency, says DIRAC project director Ricardo Graciani. Over the 10-day test, which included 7,500 computing hours, an operating peak of 2,000 processors running simultaneously was reached for 18 hours. "DIRAC enables us to harness the flexibility of the Amazon system to optimize resource use according to specific requirements," Graciani says. "The cost-benefit ratio, which can still be improved, will help us to assess the suitability of resources offered by Amazon or other companies, identify possible grid-based resources, or select a suitable combination of the two solutions."

Enlist IT Tools--Not More People--to Improve Intel
Federal Times (06/28/10) P. 23; Hendler, James; Mannes, Aaron

Throwing more teams of specialists at intelligence gaps that allowed terror suspects such as the Christmas Day bomber to slip through the net will not solve the problem, write Rensselaer Polytechnic University professor James Hendler and University of Maryland researcher Aaron Mannes. Instead, they recommend implementing state-of-the art information technology that enhances human skills, as people's ability to absorb vast volumes of information rapidly is limited. "Without revamping the information systems used in the intelligence community, more eyeballs will, at best, yield diminishing returns and, at worst, exacerbate problems," Hendler and Mannes warn. The most commonly disclosed vulnerability in the intelligence collection process is that analysts must scour multiple databases to access information, and they are unable to integrate the data they mine. Hendler and Mannes note that improvements in intelligence sharing have been rendered moot by the flood of data stemming from increased capabilities. They say that analysts' identification of crucial information could be helped immeasurably by information systems that draw basic conclusions, and one technology with such potential is the Semantic Web.

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