Welcome to the September 9, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Why They Chose STEM
Inside Higher Ed (09/07/11) Libby A. Nelson
Although most U.S. college students pursuing science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) degrees decided to do so in high school, just 20 percent said that their pre-college education prepared them "extremely well" for those fields, according to a recent Microsoft and Harris Interactive survey. However, 55 percent of respondents said they were "very well" prepared to study STEM in college. The survey also found that male and female students chose to pursue STEM degrees for different reasons. Female students are more likely to want to make a difference, while males are more likely to be inspired by a lifelong enjoyment of games, toys, and clubs focused on the hard sciences. The survey, which polled 500 undergraduate students working toward STEM degrees at U.S. institutions, reinforces that good teaching and preparation are crucial to attracting and keeping students' interest, according to Microsoft's Jane Broom. Students mentioned high salaries, intellectual stimulation, and the potential for future jobs as key motivating factors for why they chose to pursue STEM degrees. The survey also found that 66 percent of the students think the United States, compared to other countries, is doing a poor job of teaching STEM subjects.
Hacking Targets Multiply
Wall Street Journal (09/09/11) Jennifer Valentino-DeVries
U.S. government officials and security researchers warn that cyberattacks are a growing threat for all types of devices as they become linked to the Internet or cell phone networks. "They aren't just in automotive systems but in security systems, industrial control systems, medical devices," says iSec Partners' Don Bailey. He and iSec colleague Mathew Solnik recently demonstrated that they could unlock and start a car by sending text messages to the vehicle's alarm system, and the implication is that this same method could be used to interfere with businesses or critical services. The researchers point out that devices connected to a cellular network have several vulnerabilities, including chips that may not be able to manage complex security measures, and an inability to authenticate the network they receive messages from. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is working with technology manufacturers and users to understand the dangers, and a DHS official notes that protecting the devices is especially challenging because they cannot easily be patched on a routine basis. Bailey says that better microcontrollers could mitigate some hacking threats, while devices also should be required to authenticate the sources of messages and their networks.
Smartphones as Helpers During Disasters
Technische Universitat Darmstadt (09/07/11)
Technische Universitat (TU) Darmstadt researchers have developed the overlay-hybrid network (OHN), a system that enables smartphones to automatically and autonomously organize an energy-efficient, ad-hoc network. The researchers say the technology could be very useful in the event of disasters in which normal communications infrastructures have been destroyed. TU Darmstadt professor Ralf Steinmetz says the latest generation of smartphones comes equipped with a wide variety of sensors, which make them ideally suited to collecting environmental-sensor data in cases where conventional communications infrastructures have failed. As soon as smartphones receive a special SOS signal, the OHN autonomously establishes connections with other smartphones, creating an ad-hoc network. Within that network, the individual smartphones act and collaborate as sensor nodes and autonomously decide which of them is to collect specific kinds of data. "We utilize the collaborations among the smartphones to both prevent rescue workers from being drowned in a flood of data and preclude potential traffic jams on the network, which is the worst thing that could happen when every second counts," says TU Darmstadt's Parag Mogre.
As Tech Evolves, Will PCs Be Left Behind?
USA Today (09/06/11) Jon Swartz
The rapid shift from personal computers (PCs) to mobile devices and cloud-based computing has restructured the high-tech industry. Technology has exhausted the limits of the PC as a platform and the future will center on mobile devices, predicts Google chairman Eric Schmidt. "The PC device has evolved in terms of size, shape, use, and ubiquity," says former IBM executive Pat Richards. The younger generation, especially, is abandoning desktop computers and laptops for smartphones and iPads. The switch to mobile devices is apparent in the latest sales trends, as sales of smartphones will rise 56 percent to 467.7 million this year, according to Gartner, while tablet sales will grow nearly four times to 69.8 million this year. However, some experts believe the PC is not dying and instead is simply changing its size and shape, as handheld devices become the new must-have consumer product. In the future, consumers will get information from whatever device best suits the data, says VMWare CEO Paul Maritz. He says a person's data "will determine what devices look like, rather than the other way around, because it will outlive any particular piece of hardware where it may reside."
Ten Years After 9/11, Cyber Attacks Pose National Threat, Committee Says
Computerworld (09/07/11) Jaikumar Vijayan
Catastrophic cyberattacks are a very real threat to U.S. security, according to a study from the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Preparedness Group (NSPG). The study underscores worries from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence community about terrorists striking against U.S. assets without ever penetrating national borders, with the threat against critical infrastructure systems being especially potent. "As the current crisis in Japan demonstrates, disruption of power grids and basic infrastructure can have devastating effects on society," the report says. The NSPG report acknowledges that the U.S. government has made significant strides in meeting many of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations, but notes that progress has been slow in several key areas. For example, the availability of radio spectrum for public safety purposes still needs to be substantially broadened, while a recommendation to establish a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board with the federal government's executive branch is still not completely implemented. "If we were issuing grades, the implementation of this recommendation would receive a failing mark," the report concludes.
Quantum Logic Could Make Better Robot Bartenders
New Scientist (09/06/11) Melissae Fellet
Researchers are studying how quantum logic can be used to give robots multiple personalities to make them act more like humans. University of Monash roboticist Simon Egerton was inspired to explore quantum logic in robotics by a story, written by Intel chip manufacturer Brian David Johnson, about a bartender robot named Jimmy that has multiple personalities. There is a scene in the story in which Jimmy learns he has multiple personalities and starts questioning his creator's drink orders, instead of just refilling drinks. "That inspired me to take that scene in the story and feed it back into the science now," Egerton says. He and his colleagues have set up a competition to find a program that instructs a bartender robot to question the customer's nonsensical drink order. The drink order serves as the input, which can result in different personality outputs, such as a question or a sassy refusal to fill the order. The outcome is "not irrationality, but a very structured way of jumping between different contexts," says Vrije Universiteit Brussel researcher Diederik Aerts. The researchers plan to release a set of quantum logic controllers for programmers to incorporate into their own bartender programs for the competition.
The Next Wave of Botnets Could Descend From the Skies
Technology Review (09/07/11) Robert Lemos
Stevens Institute of Technology professor Sven Dietrich demonstrated SkyNet, a remote-controlled aerial vehicle that can automatically detect and compromise wireless networks, at the recent USENIX security conference. Dietrich showed how such drones could be used to create an inexpensive, airborne botnet controller. SkyNet consists of a toy helicopter and a lightweight computer equipped with wireless reconnaissance and attack software. The researchers control the drone with a 3G modem and two cameras attached to the device. "[Our] drone can land close to the target and sit there--and if it has solar power, it can recharge--and continue to attack all the networks around it," Dietrich says. SkyNet also can be used to create and control a botnet, creating a weak spot in a wireless network, known as an air gap, to prevent investigators from identifying where the attack originated. At the recent Black Hat Security Briefings, security consultant Richard Perkins presented the Wireless Aerial Surveillance Platform, a repurposed Army target drone that can scan for and compromise wireless networks. "We could identify a target by his cell phone and follow them home and then focus on attacking their less secure home network," Perkins says.
MU Researchers Use New Video Gaming Technology to Detect Illness, Prevent Falls in Older Adults
MU News Bureau (MO) (09/06/11) Samantha Craven
University of Missouri researchers are using motion-sensor technology to monitor changes in assisted-care facility residents. For example, Missouri professor Marjorie Skubic and doctoral student Erik Stone are using Microsoft's Kinect device to monitor behavior and routine changes in patients, which can indicate increased risk for falls or early symptoms of illness. "The Kinect uses infrared light to create a depth image that produces data in the form of a silhouette, instead of a video or photograph," Stone says. He says using Kinect can alleviate "many seniors' concerns about privacy when traditional Web camera-based monitoring systems are used." Meanwhile, Missouri professor Mihail Popescu and doctoral student Liang Liu developed a fall-detection system involving Doppler radar, in which the system identifies changes in walking, bending, and other movements that could reveal an increased risk of falling. "If emergency personnel are informed about a fall right away, it can significantly improve the outcome for the injured patient," Liu says. Both motion-sensing systems provide automated data to care providers, alerting them when a patient needs help.
Engineers Find Leaky Pipes With Artificial Intelligence
University of Exeter (09/05/11)
University of Exeter researchers are using artificial intelligence software to monitor water systems to identify leaky pipes and flood risks. The software continuously receives and processes data coming from the flow and pressure sensors in the water system. The program searches for anomalies that indicate a leak and alerts the control room operator when one is found. The operator also receives information on the location and suggested courses of action. The software uses graphics processing units to assess and visualize flood risks much faster than older systems. The researchers say that water companies and local authorities could use the technology to identify problems, reducing the risks and potential consequences. "We are using the latest artificial intelligence and computer gaming technologies to help them find ways of identifying leaks and other problems faster than ever before," says Exeter professor Zoran Kapelan.
Window Shopping Goes High Tech With Gesture Recognition
IDG News Service (09/04/11) Nick Barber
The Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute is using its motion-tracking technology in a system that could change the look of department store windows. The Interactive Shop Window system enables shoppers to learn more about products in store display windows when the store is closed. Stores would position the system, which includes a flat-screen monitor, behind the glass of their front window. When a shopper points at a product, the display box holding it would light up and show information about it on the screen, and window shoppers would be able to view the product in different colors and sizes and learn more about it. A Fraunhofer team has been working on the motion tracker for a decade, and is looking for partners to further develop the Interactive Shop Window. The researchers note that several issues still need to be addressed. For example, the pointer sometimes jumps around the screen, or something will be selected that was not intended. In addition, shoppers will need to learn exactly where to stand and make gestures in a defined area for the motion tracker to see them.
Report on the Fourth Conference on Artificial General Intelligence
KurzweilAI.net (09/03/11) Ben Goertzel
The Fourth Conference on Artificial General Intelligence (AGI-11) differed in tone from earlier conferences in that there was a feeling that AGI, while more cutting-edge than AI research and development (R&D), was a valuable and viable R&D segment, writes Ben Goertzel. In his opening remarks, Google's Peter Norvig said that much of the research happening at Google is part of an overall corpus of work that is ultimately heading toward advanced AGI. Goertzel observes a conspicuous absence of dramatic breakthroughs presented at AGI-11. "Rather, there was more of a feeling of steady incremental progress," he notes. "Also, compared to previous years, there was less of a feeling of separate, individual research projects working in a vacuum--the connections between different AI approaches seem to be getting clearer each year, in spite of the absence of a clearly defined common vocabulary or conceptual framework among various AGI researchers." Goertzel anticipates a breakthrough in the science of general intelligence, but wonders whether this watershed will be reached before or after an AGI system with near-human-level capability is engineered. He stresses that it should be possible to produce a powerful AGI system through incremental improvements from the current state of knowledge.
GAO Reviews Americans' Interest-Level in Cyber Jobs
NextGov.com (08/31/11) Aliya Sternstein
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) will soon release a report on the cybersecurity staffing challenges confronting government agencies. The human capital study will help federal auditors better understand the draw, or lack thereof, of cybersecurity careers. The U.S. needs an estimated 30,000 information security professionals, but there may not be enough interest among the population to meet the demand. "We know that a lot of people in the area are concerned that there aren't enough [people] between industry and all of the civilian agencies," says GAO's Davi D'Agostino. Federal departments and companies have long raised the issue of the need for more graduates with math and science degrees to fill computer and software engineering positions, notes GAO analyst Nelsie Alcoser. Public-private consortiums such as the U.S. Cyber Challenge are helping to address the issue. "When we talked to, for example, the National Security Agency, they said you need people with the right degrees and then they will give them an intense training on their methods and tactics," Alcoser says.
Special Report Highlights 'Greatest Hits' of Scientific Supercomputing
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (09/02/11) Dawn Levy
The Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment (INCITE) program, which is jointly managed by the Argonne National Laboratory and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is developing INCITE in Review, a special report that will highlight the 22 greatest hits of science and engineering accomplishments made by researchers running complex simulations on the U.S. Department of Energy's supercomputers. "Whether it's gaining a better understanding of the universe or engineering solutions for a growing, energy-hungry populace, the investigations enabled by INCITE are making the world a smarter, more sustainable place," says National Center for Computational Science director James J. Hack, who co-wrote the report's introduction. "We are proud to tell the story of INCITE's role to date in advancing the frontiers of human knowledge for the benefit of all." INCITE projects are designed to accelerate breakthroughs in fields in which major advancements would be impossible without supercomputing. Since INCITE was created, researchers have been allotted more than 4.5 billion supercomputer processor hours, with 1.7 billion in just the 2011 calendar year.
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