Welcome to the November 29, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
War Machines: Recruiting Robots for Combat
New York Times (11/27/10) John Markoff
The U.S. Army is developing military robots to handle a wider range of assignments, including taking down snipers and serving as night watchmen. However, despite the advantages to using robot warriors, opponents of the technology say it lowers the barriers to warfare and could lead to a new technological robotic arms race. "Wars will be started very easily and with minimal costs" as automation increases, says Yale University's Wendell Wallach. Opponents also cite the difficulty in identifying soldiers, such as with the Predator aircraft, which have been responsible for the deaths of Iraqi and Afghan civilians due to collateral damage or mistaken identity. However, the technology's proponents, such as the Naval Postgraduate School's John Arquilla, argue that software-controlled weapons systems do not act out of anger and can make better decisions on the battlefield. "Some of us think that the right organizational structure for the future is one that skillfully blends humans and intelligent machines," Arquilla says. The military currently uses more than 6,000 remote-operated robots in combat situations. The U.S. Congress has instructed the Pentagon to make one third of ground combat vehicles remotely operated by 2015, while defense contractors are building robots that can carry gear or serve as guards. In addition, the Army recently held a contest to design mobile micro-robots that operate in swarms and can map hostile areas and detect potential threats.
Graduate Students Create Recyclable Laptop
Chronicle of Higher Education (11/24/10) Paige Chapman
Graduate students at Stanford University and Aalto University have created a prototype of a recyclable laptop that can be disassembled in about 30 seconds. The Bloom laptop is almost entirely made of components that can be recycled with other household materials, while the liquid crystal display screen and circuitboard can be separated and sent to specialized recycling facilities. "I think where the group really nailed it on the head is where they tried to understand how to modify consumer behavior in a way that would promote green thinking," says Stanford's John Feland. The team found that an ordinary laptop, with an average lifespan of about two years, took an average of 45 minutes and 120 steps to take apart. These discoveries inspired the researchers to simplify the laptop design by creating pieces that could slide or snap apart, says Stanford's Aaron Engel-Hall. The Bloom design also makes it easier to replace individual parts, instead of forcing consumers to buy a whole new machine if one component breaks down, Feland says.
World First to Provide Building Blocks for New Nano Devices
University of Nottingham (United Kingdom) (11/23/10) Emma Thorne
University of Nottingham scientists have demonstrated for the first time that a three-dimensional (3D) molecular structure can be built upwards from a surface. The researchers introduced a guest molecule, a buckyball or C60, onto a surface patterned by an array of tetracarboxylic acid molecules. The buckyballs sit above the surface of the molecule and encourage other molecules to form around them due their spherical shape. "It is the molecular equivalent of throwing a pile of bricks up into the air and then as they come down again they spontaneously build a house," says Nottingham professor Neil Champness. "Until now this has only been achievable in [two dimensions], so to continue the analogy the molecular 'bricks' would only form a path or a patio but our breakthrough now means that we can start to build in the third dimension." Champness says the new process could shape the future of nanotechnology. The breakthrough could impact the development of new nano devices such as optical and electronic technologies as well as molecular computers.
Out of Many, One In-box
Technology Review (11/24/10) Tom Simonite
Nokia researchers are developing a universal in-box that collects messages and updates from different smartphone applications and organizes them in one location so users can see everything at once. The universal in-box resembles a normal email in-box, but the stream of messages can be emails, text messages, call logs, tweets, Facebook updates, or Flickr photos. "The universal in-box brings together all those communications into one place so the user does not need to check separate apps," says Nokia researcher Rafael Ballagas. The system makes it easier for users to track and participate in conversations that involve different types of messaging and enables them to devote less thought to the communication medium and more to the people they are contacting, says Nokia researcher Tim Sohn. The in-box runs on cloud software to keep from overworking a smartphone's computing and battery power. It features an aspect called Lenses, which creates a mini in-box that is specific to a certain group of people or topic. "You can create your own lenses for different points of interest, whether that's your high school friends or another community like your work contacts," Sohn says.
European Union Funds Cloud Security Project
IDG News Service (11/22/10) Jeremy Kirk
The European Union is funding Trustworthy Clouds (TClouds), a research project aimed at developing a series of technical advances that will increase the security of cloud computing. TClouds will explore the legal issues involved with the privacy and security of cloud systems, says IBM Research Zurich computer scientist Christian Cachin. TClouds also will develop security standards, better privacy-protecting systems for transferring data between companies, open application programming interfaces, and secure cloud management components. TClouds researchers will work on developing more secure and reliable cloud computing systems in two main industries. First, TClouds will look at how a public lighting network can be feasibly transferred to a cloud-based system. Then the researchers will focus on health care, testing a system that can remotely monitor and diagnose patients and store data in the cloud that can be accessed by patients, doctors, and pharmacists. The goal of the health care project is to reduce costs while preserving privacy.
Short, On-Chip Light Pulses Will Enable Ultrafast Data Transfer Within Computers
UCSD News (CA) (11/24/10) Daniel Kane
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers have developed a compact, low-power pulse compressor on a silicon chip that solves a problem in creating optical interconnects in electronic devices. The compressors use a nanoscale, light-guiding tool known as an integrated dispersive element that makes it possible to build optical interconnects with faster data rates and that operate at lower temperatures. The researchers say the new devices will be important for future optical connections in high-speed, digital electronic processors and digital information systems. "Next generation computer networks and computer architectures will likely replace copper interconnects with their optical counterparts, and these have to be complementary metal oxide semiconductor compatible," says UCSD's Dawn Tan. The researchers say the new compressors also could be a cost-effective way to develop imaging technologies such as time-resolved spectroscopy, which creates three-dimensional images of biological tissues. The compressor works by first broadening the spectrum of an incoming beam of laser light. The integrated dispersive element then changes the light so that each spectrum in the pulse is moving at the same speed, resulting in pulse compression.
Software Allows Interactive Tabletop Displays on Web
Purdue University News (11/23/10) Emil Venere
Purdue University researchers have developed Hugin, a system that enables users to work with large visual displays and touchscreens over the Internet. "We created a software framework that allows more than one display to connect and share the same space over the Internet," says Purdue professor Niklas Elmqvist. Hugin was designed for touchscreens to work with any input device, Elmqvist says. In the future, the system's collaborative capabilities could help workers in fields such as defense, the stock market, and emergency response. "In future iterations it might allow integration of mobile devices connected to the tabletop so emergency responders can see on their small device whatever the people in the command center want them to see," Elmqvist says. The Hugin framework enables collaboration between workers via time-series charts that shift over time. The researchers are making Hugin freely available for others to use and modify. "Other people will be able to use it as a platform to build their own thing on top of," Elmqvist says. "They will be able to download and contribute to it, customize it, add new visualizations."
A New Take on Computer Security
The MEDEA+ Trusted Secure Computing (TSC) project aimed to develop new technologies that can secure computing, communications, and multimedia devices, and yielded innovations that focus on integrity management, user identification, authentication, and privacy management. "Protection mechanisms must be present in all system layers, from basic hardware to the basic input/output system and including the operating system," says project leader Jean-Pierre Tual. He says the TSC project's two main goals were "to develop a family of embedded silicon components enforcing secure and trusted computing and to propose a European alternative to U.S. initiatives related to trusted computing standards while keeping interoperability with some already existing approaches." Tual says the TSC project formed industrial and academic partnerships, which led to the development of more than 10 applications for securing and enforcing privacy in both personal and professional areas. Examples of the work include direct transcoding of digital-rights data from Blu-ray to DVD recorders, file-transfer control in entertainment networks, and anonymity management for third-generation mobile phones. Currently, about 90 percent of laptop computers are built with a trusted processor module, another output of the TSC project.
UC Breakthrough May Lead to Disposable e-Readers
University of Cincinnati (11/22/10) John Bach
University of Cincinnati researchers have developed a low-cost, paper-based, disposable e-reader. The researchers say the paper could be used as a flexible substrate for an electrowetting (EW) device. EW can display content such as text, photographs, and video by applying an electric field to colored droplets within a display. The technology was developed by Cincinnati professor Andrew Steckl and doctoral student Duk Young Kim. "One of the main goals of e-paper is to replicate the look and feel of actual ink on paper," Steckl says. The researchers found that the new EW technology performed similarly to glass-based devices. "With the right paper, the right process, and the right device fabrication technique, you can get results that are as good as you would get on glass, and our results are good enough for a video-style e-reader," Steckl says.
Worth a Thousand Million Words: Researchers Create 3-D Models From Online Photo Databases
UNC News (11/22/10) Patric Lane
Computer scientists from the University of North Carolina (UNC) and ETH-Zurich have created three-dimensional (3D) models of Rome's major landmarks on a personal computer using commodity graphics hardware in less than 24 hours. The technique automatically recreated Rome from the 3 million images of the city available online. They also used online photo databases to recreate the landmarks of Berlin in the same manner. "Our technique would be the equivalent of processing a stack of photos as high as the 828-meter Dubai Towers, using a single PC, versus the next best technique, which is the equivalent of processing a stack of photos 42 meters tall--as high as the ceiling of Notre Dame--using 62 PCs," says UNC professor Jan-Michael Frahm. "This efficiency is essential if one is to fully utilize the billions of user-provided images continuously being uploaded to the Internet." Frahm says eventually the models could be incorporated into applications such as Google Earth or Bing Maps to enable people to explore cities from their homes. Other potential uses include incorporating the technology in disaster response software to recreate 3D models from video taken from an aircraft. Damage could be accessed remotely, saving time and money.
EU, US and NATO to Work Together on Cyber Defense
IDG News Service (11/22/10) Jennifer Baker
The European Union (EU), the United States, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have approved a range of new plans to meet cyberdefense challenges. The European Commission recently announced proposals to develop systems to make citizens and businesses more secure in cyberspace. Cooperation between member states, EU institutions, and international partners will be coordinated by an EU cybercrime center to be set up within three years. In addition, the EC wants to establish a network of Computer Emergency Response Teams by 2012, positioning a team in each member state. Meanwhile, NATO has adopted its Strategic Concept Charter, which includes an agenda to devise new proficiencies to counter cyberattacks on military networks, without going so far as to launch preemptive cyberstrikes, which is preferred by the Pentagon. EU and U.S. leaders also have announced the establishment of a working group on cybersecurity that will concentrate on potential cyberthreats to regular consumers. EU leaders also say that a swift compromise on an overarching EU/U.S. data protection pact could resolve other data transfer agreements.
Researchers Link Most Spam to Only 50 ISPs
InformationWeek (11/18/10) Mathew J. Schwartz
The majority of spam messages come from a limited number of Internet service providers (ISPs) and countries, according to a study by researchers at Delft University of Technology and Michigan State University. Of the 109 billion spam messages that the researchers collected in a spam trap from 2005 to 2009, more than half were hosted by a group of 50 ISPs. In addition, the study found that more than 60 percent of infected machines--which are responsible for 80 percent to 90 percent of the world's spam—are located in the 33 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsored the study, along with Estonia, Russia, Brazil, China, Indonesia, India, and South Africa. "The bulk of the infected machines are not located in the networks of obscure or rogue ISPs, but in those of established, well-known ISPs," the researchers say. The results of the study suggest that spam could be combated by improving security at the ISPs that are responsible for the majority of the world's spam.
Sensors Monitor Older People at Home
CNN (11/19/10) John D. Sutter
Sensor networks are being increasingly used in the homes of older adults. The systems collect data about a person's daily habits and condition and transmit the information to doctors and family members. "It's a wonderful system for helping older people to stay independent as long as possible," says Charlton Hall Jr., who uses the system in his home. Hall's system features motion sensors in every room and on every exterior door. There also is a sensor beneath Hall's mattress pad that informs doctors about his sleeping habits. The monitored-all-the-time lifestyle will become routine for older adults in the United States within five years, and will be common for everyone soon after that, says Oregon Center for Aging & Technology director Jeff Kaye. The Oregon lab has conducted research indicating that sensor systems will enable doctors to detect early signs of Alzheimer's, dementia, and a person's susceptibility to falls. However, Kaye says the researchers are still determining how to integrate the various technologies to be most effective. He also says that more things need to be monitored to increase the value of the information provided. "The temperature you sleep at, the particulate matter in the air, the ambient light your body experiences ... drastically can change your physiology, and we are barely aware of it," Kaye says.
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