Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the October 19, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Scientists Create Computing Building Blocks From Bacteria and DNA
Imperial College London (10/18/11) Colin Smith

Imperial College London researchers say they have developed a method for building logic gates out of bacteria and DNA, which makes them the most advanced biological logic gates ever created. "Now that we have demonstrated that we can replicate these parts using bacteria and DNA, we hope that our work could lead to a new generation of biological processors, whose applications in information processing could be as important as their electronic equivalents," says Imperial College London professor Richard Kitney. The researchers say that biological logic gates could eventually form the building blocks for microscopic biological computers. The key advantage to the new biological logic gates is that they behave like electronic logic gates. The biological logic gates also are modular, which enables them to be fitted together to make different types of logic gates. The researchers now will attempt to develop more complex circuitry consisting of multiple logic gates.


Wearable Depth-Sensing Projection System Makes Any Surface Capable of Multitouch Interaction
Carnegie Mellon University (10/17/11) Byron Spice

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Microsoft have developed OmniTouch, a wearable projection system that enables users to turn any object into a graphical, interactive surface. OmniTouch is equipped with a depth-sensing camera that tracks the user's fingers on a surface. The projector can superimpose keyboards and other controls onto any surface, automatically adjusting for the surface's shape and size. "It's conceivable that anything you can do on today's mobile devices, you will be able to do on your hand using OmniTouch," says Carnegie Mellon Ph.D. student Chris Harrison. Although the current model is mounted on a user's shoulder, future models could be the size of a deck of cards or a matchbox, so that it could fit into a pocket or be integrated into other handheld devices. In addition, OmniTouch does not require calibration, which means users can just wear the device and immediately use its features. "We see this work as an evolutionary step in a larger effort at Microsoft Research to investigate the unconventional use of touch and gesture in devices to extend our vision of ubiquitous computing even further," says Microsoft researcher Hrvoje Benko.


An Ecosystem of Supercomputers to Take India to Next Level
Financial Express (India) (10/17/11) Ajay Sukumaran

As part of the 12th Five Year Plan, which runs from 2012-2017, India's ministry of science and technology is considering the development of an ecosystem of high-performance computers that would provide supercomputing access to at least 25 percent of the country's scientific population. The Indian Institute of Science's N. Balakrishnan is leading a national effort to map India's capability in supercomputing, including building a four-tier ecosystem of machines with greater involvement in the private sector. The first tier will include about six supercomputers with between 3 and 6 petaflops of computing power each, followed by 12 to 20 supercomputers that run at 200 to 500 teraflops. The third tier will include 20 to 50 systems with 10-teraflop speed, and the lowest rung will include 50 to 100 regional 1-teraflop supercomputers. "On the software development side, both for programming on the multicore as well as for scientific software development, the private industries will play a significant role," according to Balakrishnan. He says that once the 12th plan is complete, India will look to develop an exaflop system.


'Son of Stuxnet' Virus Could Be Used to Attack Critical Computers Worldwide
MSNBC (10/18/11) Bob Sullivan

Symantec researchers have discovered a new virus that they say is very similar to the Stuxnet virus that was used to attack Iran's nuclear program. Like Stuxnet, the new virus--which is known as Duqu and may have been in use since last December--targets industrial command-and-control systems. In addition, much of the code used in Duqu is similar to the code used in Stuxnet. Both Stuxnet and Duqu also use fraudulent digital certificates, which are purportedly issued by Taiwanese companies. As a result, Duqu must have either been created by the same group that developed Stuxnet or was created by a group that was able to obtain Stuxnet's source code. However, there are some differences between Stuxnet and Duqu, which creates a backdoor in the systems it infects and connects them to a command computer in India. For example, although Stuxnet was designed to attack the computers used in Iran's nuclear research program, Duqu is not as targeted, and may be designed to collect intelligence such as design documents before an attack on infrastructure computers is launched, Symantec says.


Georgia Tech Turns iPhone Into SpiPhone
Georgia Tech News (10/17/11) Michael Terrazas

Georgia Tech researchers have found that hackers could use smartphones to sense keyboard vibrations and decipher complete sentences with up to 80 percent accuracy. "We believe that most smartphones made in the past two years are sophisticated enough to launch this attack," says Georgia Tech professor Patrick Traynor. The technique uses the phone's accelerometer to sense the vibrations, and although the phone's microphone would be more effective, most manufacturers install security around the microphone but not the accelerometer. The technique works by detecting pairs of keystrokes, instead of individual keys, because it is still too difficult to detect single keystrokes reliably, according to Traynor. The system can measure whether keys are on the left or right side of the keyboard, and whether they are near to each other or far apart. Working with dictionaries of about 58,000 words, the system achieved word-recovery rates as high as 80 percent. Although the attack can be thwarted by simply moving the phone more than three inches away from the keyboard, the researchers say that a more user-friendly solution would be for manufacturers to add a layer of security for phone accelerometers.


Analyzing the Words of Psychopaths
Cornell Chronicle (10/17/11) Bill Steele

Cornell University professor Jeff Hancock and colleagues at the University of British Columbia used computer analysis to study the speech patterns of psychopaths. The researchers note that psychopathic criminals use certain words that reveal a lack of empathy for the feelings of others, an emotional flatness, and a detachment from their crimes. As part of their experiment, the team taped and transcribed the stories of 14 imprisoned psychopathic murderers and 38 convicted murderers who were not diagnosed as psychopaths. The researchers then used computers to analyze the stories. The computer analysis found that psychopaths used more conjunctions such as "because," "since," or "so that," which implied the crime "had to be done" to obtain a particular goal, and they used twice as many words relating to physical needs, such as food, sex, or money, while non-psychopaths used more words about social needs, including family, religion, and spirituality. "Our paper is the first to show that you can use automated tools to detect the distinct speech patterns of psychopaths," Hancock says.


A Step Forward Toward Quantum Computers
Asociacion RUVID (10/18/11)

Researchers at Universitat Politecnica de Valencia (UPV) and Universitat Miguel Hernandez d’Elx (UMH) have developed a model that describes the full operation in a quantum regime of integrated optical modulators, which makes it possible for quantum computers to reach speeds of about 100 gigabytes per second. The modulators could be used in future logical systems and quantum computers by applying the properties presented in the study, says UPV's Jose Capmany. "The ability to integrate several of these components into an optical chip opens the door to designing more complex, less expensive circuits by taking advantage of the economies of scale provided by photonic integration," Capmany says. The UPV-UMH study is a step toward the development of quantum communication and quantum computers, which would be a revolution in the telecommunications field. "Currently, one of the obstacles to their development is that the demonstrations that have been made were based on extremely bulky assemblies, which entailed conditions that can only be reproduced in controlled laboratory environments," Capmany says.


BBC Mulls New Effort to Kickstart Computer Education
GigaOm.com (10/17/11) Bobbie Johnson

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is launching BBC Micro, a digital literacy program designed to spark a computer science education revolution in the United Kingdom. BBC Micro is being led by Manchester Metropolitan University academics, who have been contacting industry leaders to ask them for ideas and contributions. BBC aims to develop a "project with the specific purpose of encouraging an interest in computers, computer science, and computer programming amongst young people." The government and private companies could get heavily involved as well, according to Manchester Metropolitan University professor Keri Facer. The group is responding to the advice of media critics and academics, who suggest that open technology systems are crucial to a healthy democracy and that the next generation of computer users needs to be able to manage those systems.


Could a Computer One Day Rewire Itself?
Northwestern University Newscenter (10/17/11) Megan Fellman

Northwestern University researchers have developed a nanomaterial that can guide electrical currents, which could lead to a computer that can redesign its internal wiring to become an entirely new device based on changing needs. "Our new steering technology allows us to direct current flow through a piece of continuous material," says Northwestern professor Bartosz A. Grzybowski. The material is a combination of silicon- and polymer-based electronics, creating a new classification of electronic material known as nanoparticle-based electronics. "Besides acting as three-dimensional bridges between existing technologies, the reversible nature of this new material could allow a computer to redirect and adapt its own circuitry to what is required at a specific moment in time," says Northwestern researcher David A. Walker. The researchers say the technology could lead to a device that reconfigures itself as a resistor, a rectifier, a diode, or a transistor based on signals from a computer.


SU Professor Uncovers Potential Issues With Applications Built for Android Systems
Syracuse University (10/13/11)

Syracuse University professor Wenliang Du recently presented a paper on potential problems with mobile applications written for the Android system using the WebView platform. Du says the problem with WebView is that the platform allows developers to embed browsers in their apps, which creates thousands of browser applications on mobile platforms but with no way of determining which apps are trustworthy. In addition, to improve an app's functionality, developers have slowly begun opening up holes in the protective sandbox to provide a better user experience but, as a result, user information is no longer as secure. "In industry, developers are usually carried away by the fancy features they create for their products; they often forget about or underestimate the security problems caused by those features," Du says. "This has happened many times in the history of computing. The design of WebView in Android is just another example of this." He recently submitted a proposal to Google to explore ways to keep the aesthetic properties of WebView while making the applications more secure.


Secure Android Kernel Could Make for 'Classified' Smart Phones
Government Computer News (10/13/11) Henry Kenyon

Researchers at George Mason University, the U.S. National Security Agency, and Google have developed a hardened kernel for the Android 3.0 operating system that could make smartphones available for military operations and emergency response teams. The kernel enables the U.S. Army to issue smartphones or tablet devices to troops in combat. The White House also is interested because the hardened kernel could help fulfill a government plan to create a secure national wireless network for first responders. The problem with getting the military to use smartphones has been attaining the right security accreditation. The new Android kernel is currently being tested for a Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 certification. "That's the first level of security that we've got to get before we start moving onto being able to ultimately do secret [communications]," says the Army's Michael McCarthy. The White House Communications Office wants to move the executive branch from BlackBerry devices to Android-based phones because the new kernel allows Android systems to be secured at a higher clearance level, McCarthy says.


Intelligent Cars Alert Each Other to Hazards
Technische Universitat Munchen (10/11/11)

Technische Universitat Munchen (TUM) researchers are developing a test scenario for 120 vehicles to use simTD, a car-to-X communication system that aims to promote safer, more efficient traffic flow. "The common standard should now allow us to investigate how drivers adopt this technology in everyday scenarios and to what extent we can improve road safety, prevent congestion, and reduce [carbon-dioxide] emissions," says TUM professor Fritz Busch. The wireless simTD technology enables information to be transferred directly to other vehicles or to roadside stations. The vehicles transmit information on the traffic conditions to the control station, which can then predict and manage the traffic flow. The system also alerts drivers to oncoming hazards. "With the simTD-system, we are presenting a trendsetting technology that will allow vehicles from leading German manufacturers to network with one another and with the traffic infrastructure," says project coordinator Christian Weiss.


All for One, 'R-one' for All
Rice University (10/12/11) Jade Boyd

Rice University researchers are developing R-one, an inexpensive but sophisticated robot designed for use in classrooms. "I want to support a curriculum where every student has their own robot and can study individual lessons, and where they can also work in teams, using their robots collectively in multi-robot systems," says Rice professor James McLurkin. Researchers at Rice's Multi-Robot Systems Laboratory are developing hardware and software that will enable robots to work together in swarms, but when McLurkin arrived in 2009 it cost about $2,000 to build each of the robots. "Lowering the cost was a way to make it possible for our lab to study large swarms, but it was also a way to give something back to the robotics community--to make it possible to put these into any classroom or aftercare program that wants them," McLurkin says. The parts for the R-one robot cost about $200 and can be assembled in a few minutes. Next year the researchers plan to offer the R-one as a kit that can be assembled at home or in school. McLurkin is already using the R-one in his introductory engineering course at Rice, giving each student a robot on the first day of class.


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