Welcome to the August 8, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
A Cloud That Can't Leak
Technology Review (08/08/11) Tom Simonite
Microsoft researchers have developed a prototype data security system designed to ensure that information can only escape in an encrypted form that would be nearly impossible for hackers to decode without the decryption key. The system also can perform statistical analyses on encrypted data without decrypting it, and the results are fully encrypted as well and can only be interpreted using the data owner's key. The researchers say the prototype storage system is the most practical example of a cryptographic technique known as homomorphic encryption. The researchers, led by Microsoft's Kristin Lautner, Vinod Vaikuntanathan, and Michael Naehrig, used the most efficient parts of a fully homomorphic encryption system, resulting in a partially homomorphic system that can perform some calculations, such as addition and a few multiplications. The software was tested on a typical laptop. It was able to add together 100 numbers, each 128 binary digits long, in 20 milliseconds. The researchers "showed that taking a fundamental building block of the schemes for fully homomorphic encryption could be enough to build applications," says University of California, San Diego professor Daniele Micciancio.
Tech Girlz Rule: Microsoft Camps Designed to Draw Young Women Into Field
INFORUM (ND) (08/06/11) Marino Eccher
Microsoft Fargo draws participants from multiple states to a three-day event designed to spark interest and provide role models for the next generation of female information technology (IT) professionals. Part of Microsoft's DigiGirlz initiative, the program provides laptops and other equipment, and Microsoft employees donate their time to teach different IT skills. "We need more females, we need more males--but we really need more females to balance out the disparity," says Microsoft Fargo's Katie Hasbargen. Just 25 percent of IT jobs currently are held by women, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. In addition, a shortage of female students in technical fields leads to a shortage of female faculty and role models, which further discourages female students from enrolling, says North Dakota State University's (NDSU's) Brian Slator. NDSU, Minnesota State University Moorhead, Concordia, and 18 other schools in the region take part in Mentorship Outreach and Retention in Education, another Microsoft program designed to expose college students to female role models in the industry. The Microsoft program fosters relationships between students and teachers, as each Microsoft employee works with a small group of no more than eight participants.
The Science of Cyber Security
National Science Foundation (08/04/11) Marlene Cimons
The University of California, Berkeley's Team for Research in Ubiquitous Secure Technology (TRUST) is developing cybersecurity science and technology designed to change how organizations design, build, and operate trustworthy information systems. One of TRUST's long-term goals is to build a science base that will lead to new cybersecurity defense systems. "We believe what is missing is the science of cybersecurity--a science base, like the kind taught in medical schools, so as to enable doctors to treat and help patients," says Berkeley's Shankar Sastry. "We want the legacy of TRUST to be the start of this science base, upon which an inherent defense system can be built that will operate almost like the body's in the event of an attack." TRUST's research partners include Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, San Jose State, Stanford, and Vanderbilt universities, as well as Intel, Cisco Systems, IBM, Symantec, and Qualcomm. TRUST wants to improve anti-identity theft systems and technology that secures sensitive documents such as medical records. For example, TRUST is working with Vanderbilt's medical school on a pilot project to research privacy issues involved with medical and billing information. TRUST also is developing a cybersecurity education program.
Smart Software Spots Swaying Risk of a Crushing Crowd
New Scientist (08/03/11) Jacob Aron
The Fraunhofer Institute's Barbara Krausz has developed a system for determining when crowds have become too large by observing the way people sway slowly from side to side to keep their balance when they become trapped in a highly congested area. The software detects this motion by analyzing the movement of each pixel between different frames of crowd video footage, as highly symmetrical pixel motions indicate swaying. "It does not recognize that there is a person, we just check the pixel," Krausz says. The system highlights areas in red where there is a sudden increase in symmetrical movements, enabling event organizers to quickly investigate crowd congestion. Krausz applied the system to footage of the overcrowding at the Love Parade music festival in Duisburg last year that killed 21 people and injured more than 500. The system highlighted areas where people squeezed together as emergency vehicles arrived, producing its highest alert about half an hour before the disaster. Krausz wants to develop the system further to run crowd simulations that would advice security personnel on the best solutions, such as opening a gate at a given location.
Perfect Communication With Imperfect Chips
MIT News (08/04/11) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research affiliate Lav Varshney has shown that some of the most commonly used codes in telecommunications can guarantee the reliable transmission of information even when the decoders are noisy. Varshney's analysis also shows that memory chips can preserve data indefinitely even when their circuits sometimes fail. The key to the new analysis was not to attempt to quantify the performance of certain codes and decoders. Instead, Varshney looked at the statistical properties of whole classes of coders and decoders, showing that an average set of noisy decoders could ensure faithful reconstruction of corrupted data. "It's not very intuitive to say that this kind of scheme can work," but Varshney's analysis draws conclusions by considering what happens as the length of the encoded messages approaches infinity, says Marvell Semiconductor's Shashi Chilappagari. However, he says chipmakers will be reluctant to adopt the coding scheme Varshney proposes without "time to test it and see how it works on a given-length code."
Caltech-Led Engineers Solve Longstanding Problem in Photonic Chip Technology
California Institute of Technology (08/04/11) Marcus Woo
California Institute of Technology (Caltech) researchers have created a method to isolate light signals on a silicon chip, which they say could lead to the development of photonic computer chips. Photonic chips with integrated circuits that use light instead of electricity will allow for faster computers and less data loss when connected to fiber-optic networks. "We want to take everything on an electronic chip and reproduce it on a photonic chip," says Caltech's Liang Feng. The researchers plan to develop a photonic analog of a diode, known as an optical isolator. An optical isolator allows light to travel in just one direction between devices on a chip. To isolate light, the researchers designed a 0.8-micron-wide silicon device that allows light to go in one direction but changes the mode of the light when it travels in the opposite direction. The light travels in a symmetric mode in one direction, and in an asymmetric mode in the other direction, allowing the two beams of light to pass through each other. Although their research is just a proof-of-principle experiment, the Caltech team is developing an optical isolator that can be built onto a silicon chip.
China's Supercomputing Goal: From 'Zero to Hero'
NPR Online (08/02/11) Louisa Lim
Developing supercomputers that rank among the world's fastest and most powerful has become a priority of the Chinese government, and China is the home of the Tianhe 1-A, the world's second fastest supercomputer. National Supercomputer Center director Liu Guangming expects supercomputers to become critical contributors to Chinese economic and scientific development. "The key is that this supercomputer can fulfill our needs, including mineral exploration, bioengineering, patents, pharmaceuticals, and gene sequencing," he notes. However, critics contend that much of the compatible software can only use the Tianhe 1-A's central processing units and not the machine's graphics processing units. "Most of the people who use the national supercomputer are animation and games people," says Cao Jianwen with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Liu counters this notion, noting for instance that the Tianhe 1-A has played an important role in China's energy development. Still, the United States is far ahead of China in terms of software development, but China aims to ramp up its supercomputing innovation by building related facilities and all-Chinese chips.
DARPA Funds Hackers to Innovate Military Tech
InformationWeek (08/04/11) J. Nicholas Hoover
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently launched Cyber Fast Track, a program that will fund innovative cybersecurity efforts by groups and people that do not usually work for the government, including hobbyists, small security groups, and hackers. The Cyber Fast Track program will fund between 20 and 100 projects a year, according to DARPA project manager Peiter Zatko. The short, fixed-price contracts will be awarded within about 10 days of receipt of the proposal. Cyber Fast Track will fund experimental projects, such as commodity high-end computing and open software tools that could help the military. Cyber Fast Track also could fund community projects, such as a bug hunting exercise. "The way government is set up, it's almost impossible for the small businesses, the researchers, the hackers, to get money for research without giving up intellectual property or being purchased and having their company gutted," Zatko says. "I want to make it easier."
Computing Giants Launch Free Science Metrics
Nature (08/02/11) Declan Butler
Google and Microsoft recently launched free tools that will enable researchers to analyze citation statistics, visualize research networks, and track the most popular research fields. Google Scholar recently added Google Scholar Citations (GSC), which lets researchers create personal profiles showing all their articles in the Google Scholar database. The profile also shows how many times the papers have been cited, as well as other citation metrics such as the h-index, which measures the productivity of a scientist and the impact of their publications. Microsoft Academic Search (MAS) recently added a suite of tools, including visualizations of citation networks, publication trends, and rankings of the leading researchers in a field. Although Microsoft's platform has more features, GSC has a significant size advantage, which makes its metrics more accurate and reliable, according to researchers. MAS' content, which has grown from 15.7 million to 27.1 million publications between March 2011 and June 2011, is still a developing offering in the community, according to Microsoft Research Connections' Lee Dirks. "This is not about competition, this is about providing an open platform for academic research," Dirks says.
Facial-Recognition Software Could Help to Save Great Apes
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (08/01/11) Stephen Harris
Researchers at the Fraunhofer and Max-Planck societies are developing a program that can recognize individual apes from photos, video, and audio footage recorded in a specific place to help count the number of apes living there. "The biologists have to evaluate whether a management strategy is efficient or not," says Fraunhofer researcher Alexander Loos. The system can filter the footage to find where the apes clearly appear and then identify individuals in real time using algorithms similar to human facial recognition technology. "This technology has to be adapted but the similarities of the human face and the ape's face are clear and so we decided that it is a good idea to use face-recognition software," Loos says. The audio recognition software can classify sounds and help identify individuals. A test of the system using 24 chimpanzees at the Leipzig Zoo achieved a recognition rate of 83 percent. The researchers also are working with Bristol University scientists who have developed software to identify penguins based on their body markings.
Above the Clouds: An Interview With Armando Fox
HPC in the Cloud (08/02/11) Nicole Hemsoth
University of California, Berkeley professor Armando Fox, co-founder of the Reliable, Adaptive, and Distributed Systems Laboratory, co-wrote a paper that outlined some early challenges and advantages of high performance computing (HPC) clouds. He says in an interview that "there's a huge and largely untapped 'new middle class' of scientific computing users who would immediately benefit from running medium-to-large jobs on public clouds." Among the reasons for this is the fact that experiments on the public cloud can go faster because the provisioning of virtualized machines is quick and obviates the need for users to wait for their turn to use computer resources, while cost associativity also is realized. Although Fox acknowledges that the current cloud computing architecture may not be appropriate for all scientific computing users, he says that much can be done to customize cloud offerings to HPC. "And the exciting part here is that because of the scale and volume of commodity clouds, scientific computing users have a chance to do something they've never really had before--to influence the design of commodity equipment," Fox notes. He projects that cloud computing will be the sole means for performing big data analytics.
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Researchers Develop Webcam Tool to Improve Posture of Office Workers
American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (08/02/11) Andrew Lavin
A multidisciplinary team at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has developed a desktop Webcam tool that could help improve the ergonomic posture of office workers and reduce their risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). The team developed the automated frequent-feedback system as a training tool, which displays a Webcam photo of the current posture of a worker alongside a photo of correct posture. During testing, 60 workers received conventional and Webcam training, but photo-training was the only method to offer sustained improvement in posture over time. The photo-training method was more effective for women. "To maintain the effectiveness of an ergonomic intervention for the long term, the intervention should be a continuous process, which includes frequent feedback," according to the researchers. "This new ergonomic method can also result in preventing MSD among workers and reduce financial loss to their employers." The research recommends installing the self-modeling, photo-training software on the computers of workers to provide frequent and long-term feedback on sitting posture.
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