Welcome to the November 28, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Government Backs Call for Classroom Coding
BBC News (11/28/11)
The current teaching of computer science and information technology is "insufficiently rigorous and in need of reform," according to the British government. Without reform, future United Kingdom (UK) professionals would lack key skills and the nation would risk losing its standing as a video games and visual arts center, according to a recent Next Gen report. The report also found that current information and communication technology classes tend to focus on how to use software instead of how to write it. The Next Gen report offered compelling ideas about how to make the UK a hub for video games and visual effects, according to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. "We need to invest in talent that will ensure the UK remains at the forefront of games creativity," says creative industries minister Ed Vaizey. The Next Gen report also has led to a nationwide campaign, backed by Google, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Sega, Electronic Arts, Activision, Talk Talk, and the Guardian Media Group, to develop a more hands-on approach to teaching technology in the classroom.
New Programming Language to Plug Information Leaks in Software
University of Gothenburg (Sweden) (11/23/11)
University of Gothenburg researcher Niklas Broberg has developed Paragon, a programming language that automatically identifies potential information leaks while a program is being written. "Paragon is an extension of the commonly used programming language Java and has been designed to be easy to use," enabling programmers to add new specifications to already created Java programs, Broberg says. Paragon works in two stages. The first stage specifies how information in the software can be used, who should be allowed to access it, and under what conditions. The second stage of security happens during compilation, where the program's use of information is analyzed in depth. If the analysis identifies a risk for sensitive information leaking or being manipulated, the compiler reports an error, enabling the programmer to immediately resolve the issue. "Achieving information security in a system requires a chain of different measures, with the system only being as secure as its weakest link," Broberg says.
'Pre-Social Network' Finds You Friends in Your Hang-Outs
New Scientist (11/24/11) Paul Marks
Scientists at Boeing's research center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed Jyotish, technology that could lead to a new kind of social network that can tell users where and when people with similar interests tend to gather. Boeing developed the technology to predict the movements of work crews in aircraft factories, but Illinois researchers Long Vu and Klara Nahrstedt say it could have other applications. Jyotish creates maps of people's movements by monitoring the connections their smartphones make to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networks. Data on users' movements could be used to create a mobile version of Facebook that enables people in the same area to meet up. "Indeed, this version of Facebook could even recommend that people create a hang-out event because they are likely to be in the same location in the future," Vu says. The technology can be very useful as long as users' identities are kept private, says University College of London computer scientist Peter Bentley. "They could ensure that computer resources are in the right places at the right times so everyone would always have a good Wi-Fi signal, for example," Bentley says.
Twenty States Involved in Changing Science Instruction
eSchool News (12/11) Vol. 14, No. 10, P. 86
Twenty states will assist the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in writing new standards for teaching science in schools from kindergarten through high school as part of the academy's effort to promote more analytical and conceptual thinking. The nonprofit Achieve organization is coordinating the initiative, which will incorporate more engineering into lessons and focus less on memorizing facts. The idea for new standards began some time ago in conversations among education policy makers and scientists who saw the need to improve science instruction. The National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, released a framework in July for offering a more in-depth curriculum for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. The framework's ideas will be put into a grade-specific list of science standards, detailing what should be taught as students move through their school years. The first draft of the new science standards will be released in winter 2012 for public comment, the second draft will be available in the spring, and the standards will be finalized by the end of next year. As a result, the impact on classrooms and students will not be seen for several years.
Important Step Toward Computing With Light
MIT News (11/23/11) David L. Chandler
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed technology that could lead to the creation of silicon-based photonic chips. The new device is a diode for light, says MIT professor Caroline Ross. The diode for light is similar to an electronic diode, which allows an electric current to flow in one direction but blocks it from going the other way, except in this case the light diode creates a one-way path for light instead of electricity. Ross says that without such a device stray reflections could destabilize the lasers used to produce the optical signals and reduce the efficiency of the transmission. The researchers created the light diode by placing a thin film of garnet over one half of a loop connected to a light-transmitting channel on the chip, which resulted in light traveling through the chip in one direction, while light traveling the other way got diverted into the loop. The technology could boost the speed of data transmission systems because light travels much faster than electrons and because optical computing enables multiple beams of light, carrying separate data streams, to pass through a single optical fiber without interference.
Computer Spots Micro Clue to Lies
University of Oxford (11/23/11) Pete Wilton
Oxford University researchers are developing software that can recognize micro-expressions that appear when people lie. These micro-expressions "can be used for lie detection and are actively used by trained officials at U.S. airports to detect suspicious behavior," says Oxford researcher Tomas Pfister. The two major problems with trying to program a computer to recognize micro-expressions are that they are involuntary and they occur for only a fraction of a second. The researchers tried to solve the first problem by inducing micro-expressions in a group of volunteers. To overcome the problem of the limited number of frames, the researchers used a temporal interpolation method in which each micro-expression is interpolated, which makes it possible to detect the micro-expressions even with a standard camera. "Our initial experiments do indicate that our approach can distinguish deceptive from truthful micro-expressions, but we will need to conduct further experiments to confirm this," Pfister says.
NIST Improves Tool for Hardening Software Against Cyber Attack
NIST News (11/22/11) Chad Boutin
U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researchers have expanded the Software Assurance Metrics And Tool Evaluation Reference Dataset (SRD), a free online tool that was originally designed to help programmers defend their software against hackers. The SRD "is for companies that build static analyzers, whose use is expanding within the software industry," says NIST's Michael Koo. "It will help their products catch the most common errors in the software they are supposed to check. It brings rigor into software assurance, so that the public can be more confident that there are fewer dangerous weaknesses in the software they use." SRD version 4.0 contains 175 broad categories of weakness types that encompass more than 60,000 cases of code errors. Each specific case is about a page of computer code showing a problem written in languages such as Java, C, and C++. The researchers say the next step for improving the SRD is to include errors in more languages and in longer stretches of computer code.
Undercover Researchers Expose Chinese Internet Water Army
Technology Review (11/22/11)
The Internet Water Army is a group of individuals in China who are paid to inundate the Internet with comments, gossip, or other content to build up or demolish the consumer ranking of products and services, and University of Victoria researcher Cheng Chen and colleagues went undercover as posters to expose the group's modus operandi. The posters are typically tasked with registering on a Web site and then producing content in the form of posts, articles, links to sites and videos, etc., which is frequently pre-prepared. Once having determined the system's workings, the researchers analyzed the pattern of posts appearing on several major Chinese sites. They then sifted through the posts manually, identifying those thought to be from paid posters, and then seeking behavioral patterns that can distinguish them from genuine users. According to their analysis, paid posters post more new comments than replies to other comments, they post more often, and they move on from a discussion faster than legitimate users. The paid posters also take shortcuts, frequently cutting and pasting the same content. The researchers created software to look for these patterns, and it can identify paid posters with 88 percent accuracy.
Q&A: Exascale Now a Global Race for Tech
Computerworld (11/22/11) Patrick Thibodeau
Peter Beckman, director of the Exascale Technology and Computing Institute at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, recently spoke with Computerworld about current developments in exascale computing. Beckman says that to develop an exascale system, the entire software stack will require an integrated approach, which means the real focus should be on advancing computing techniques. He says an exascale machine will become its own computation problem, one that cannot be solved just by buying more disks. A multi-level plan is needed, including nonvolatile random access memory and even novel technologies such as phase-change memory, Beckman says, adding that there needs to be a way to compute and then analyze and perform the storage and analysis closer together. Although he says there are some types of data that are easier to work with in this way, there needs to be a way to slice the data and do the analysis on that data in an integrated architecture. If the Europeans are successful in developing an exascale system, it paves the way to put more funding into research and development, Beckman notes. The Chinese also are developing an exascale system with an emphasis on using only domestically made technologies.
Structured English Brings Robots Closer to Everyday Users
Cornell Chronicle (11/22/11) Anne Ju
Cornell University researchers have demonstrated a robot that understands and executes English commands. The team in the Autonomous Systems Lab is developing algorithms and a software toolkit called Linear Temporal Logic Mission Planning (LTLMoP), which combines logic, language, and control algorithms to make this possible. In the demonstration, Mae, a two-foot robot humanoid made by Aldebaran Robotics, simulated looking for missing items in a grocery store while also avoiding spills in the aisles, and depending on what she found, the robot took action based on the specifications she received. "You don't want to have a programmer who's been doing the job forever to have to write the code for every single behavior, as is currently done in the field," says Cornell professor Hadas Kress-Gazit. "You want to take what someone said and automatically generate the code for the robot to successfully accomplish its task." LTLMoP is a high-level specification that can be written in structured English. The robot can be given a specification of the type of behavior it should exhibit at all times, rather than a list of things to do in order, notes graduate student Cameron Finucane.
DOD Looks to Make a Game of Software Testing
InformationWeek (11/22/11) Elizabeth Montalbano
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently launched the Crowd Sourced Formal Verification (CSFV) project, which aims to use crowdsourcing technology to provide a fun way for the public to participate in software verification. Traditional program verification is not widely practiced due to high costs and because many program verification problems resist automation. "This is particularly an issue for the Department of Defense because formal verification, while a proven method for reducing defects in software, currently requires highly specialized talent and cannot be scaled to the size of software found in modern weapon systems," DARPA says. CSFV aims to develop methods to automatically transform formal software verification problems into end-user games people can play. The games will create solutions that can help a formal verification tool verify a software property, according to DARPA.
Kilobots Are Leaving the Nest
Harvard University (11/21/11) Michael Patrick Rutter
Harvard University computer scientists and engineers have developed technology designed to test collective algorithms on hundreds or even thousands of tiny robots called Kilobots. A potential high-value application for future multi-robot systems is the development of sophisticated algorithms that can coordinate the actions of tens to thousands of robots. The quarter-sized, insect-like devices scuttle around on three toothpick-like legs, interacting and coordinating their own behavior as a team. The machines are fully autonomous once they are deployed, indicating that there is no need for a human to control their actions. The Kilobots were created by members of the Self-Organizing Systems Research Group led by Harvard professor Radhika Nagpal. Swarms of 1,000 bots resemble social insects such as ants and bees that can efficiently search for and find food sources in large and complex environments, collectively transport large objects, and coordinate the building of nests and other structures. Kilobots are designed to provide scientists with a physical testbed for advancing the understanding of collective behavior and realizing its potential to deliver solutions for a wide range of challenges.
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