Welcome to the December 14, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
EU to Give Secret Anti-Censorship Software to Human Rights Activists
IDG News Service (12/12/11) Jennifer Baker
The European Union (EU) has launched a new strategy that will provide technology to human rights activists living in countries with poor track records on human rights that helps them bypass strict censorship laws. EU Digital Agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes says the Arab Spring was the wake-up call for governments to recognize the power of the Internet in building freedom and democracy. "Enabling citizens of authoritarian countries to bypass surveillance and censorship measures depends on two basic conditions: availability of appropriate technologies (in particular software programs that can be installed on one's desktop computer, laptop, smartphone, or other device) and awareness, both of the techniques used by authoritarian regimes to spy on citizens and censor their communications, and of the appropriate counter-measures to use," says the European Commission (EC). The EC plans to distribute "Internet survival packs" to activists, which will contain existing technology as well as new software designed to aid them in getting their message out. Free software activists say that any new software should be developed with open source principles in mind. The EC also plans to raise awareness among activists about the opportunities and risks of communication technologies. "Technology can support human rights, but we must also ensure it is not used against those struggling for freedom," Kroes says.
High-Energy Physicists Set Record for Network Data Transfer
California Institute of Technology (12/13/11) Sonia Chernobieff
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the University of Victoria, the University of Michigan, the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), and Florida International University transferred data in opposite directions at a combined rate of 186 gigabits per second (Gbps) in a wide-area network circuit at the recent SC11 conference, setting a new world record for data transfer. The researchers say the achievement will help establish new ways to transport the increasingly large quantities of data that travel the world via global fiber networks. "Having these tools in our hands allows us to engage in realizable visions others do not have," says Caltech professor Harvey Newman. The researchers reached transfer rates of 98 Gbps between the University of Victoria in British Columbia and the Washington state convention center in Seattle using a 100-Gbps circuit. With a simultaneous data rate of 88 Gbps in the opposite direction, the team reached a sustained two-way data rate of 186 Gbps between two data centers. "The 100-Gbps demonstration at SC11 is pushing the limits of network technology by showing that it is possible to transfer petascale particle physics data in a matter of hours to anywhere around the world," says Institute of Particle Physics in Canada's Randall Sobie.
Speed of Light Lingers in Face of New Camera
New York Times (12/12/11) John Markoff
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed an ultrafast imaging system that can capture light as it passes through liquids and objects. The project started as an attempt to capture reflected light and then compute the paths of the returning light, which could create images of objects that are not directly visible. The researchers, led by MIT professor Ramesh Raskar, modified a streak tube, which is a supersensitive device that scans and captures light. Using the modified streak tube, the researchers were able to create slow-motion movies, showing what appears to be a bullet of light that moves from one end of a bottle to the other. The streak tube works similarly to a cathode-ray tube in a computer monitor. Raskar says that each horizontal line is exposed for just 1.71 picoseconds. The researchers record about 500 frames in just under a nanosecond to create the slow motion movies. "It is so much slow motion you can see the light itself move," Raskar says. The technology could be applied to smartphone software, allowing the device to capture and interpret reflections from different objects. The technology allows the naked eye to see information that has until now been rendered as data and charts.
Putting the 'Art' in Artificial Intelligence
MIT News (12/12/11) Helen Knight
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Antonio Torralba is developing artificial intelligence (AI) systems that can interpret images to understand what scenes and objects they contain. "I wanted to build systems that could put objects into context, to try to understand how different objects relate to each other," Torralba says. He says the systems could be used to annotate all images shown online, making them more easily searchable, in addition to allowing robots to recognize where they are in a building, based on what furniture and objects are around them. Torralba also is developing systems that can scan short video clips and predict what is likely to happen next based on the scene. He says that if AI systems can learn how to predict what will happen next in this way, given all the available information about a particular situation, it should help them anticipate how their actions will influence future events, just as humans can. He also has created his own digital artwork by superimposing multiple images together. "The superimposition of all these images gives this quality that looks as if it were produced with a pencil, but these are digital photographs," Torralba says.
Program Aims to Recruit More Women From Muslim Countries to Study Science in the U.S.
Chronicle of Higher Education (12/11/11) Karin Fischer
The U.S. Department of State recently launched the NeXXt Scholars Program with women's colleges to encourage more women from Muslim-majority countries to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees. The program will pair undergraduate students with a female scientist, who will act as a mentor, and the students also will participate in the New York Academy of Sciences. Women make up less than 20 percent of all students from Muslim countries earning bachelor's degrees in STEM fields from U.S. institutions. The State Department's Sandra J. Laney, who founded the NeXXt program, believes the number of foreign Muslim women pursuing STEM degrees could be higher if their families were more educated about women's colleges, which graduate women in STEM fields at nearly twice the rate of coed colleges. The State Department wants to recruit 75 students over the program's first two years, starting with the fall 2012 entering class. Although there is no monetary award that comes with being named a NeXXt scholar, Laney says that many of the colleges will offer financial aid. The U.S. Agency for International Development will provide $50,000 to launch the mentoring program and provide memberships to the New York Academy of Sciences.
The Tech Jobs Hiring Boom Is Real--for These Skills
InfoWorld (12/12/11) Bill Snyder
New Application Makes Supercomputing Simple
Murdoch University (12/12/11) Val McFarlane
Murdoch University researchers have developed Yabi, an open source application that they say could provide a revolutionary way of accessing supercomputers. Yabi simplifies supercomputing tasks through a Web-based workflow environment. "The Yabi system takes away that need for writing scripts and tools and turns the analytic procedures into a simpler drag-and-drop activity, where scientists can log in, drag tools in, and chain them together to create workflows," says Murdoch professor Matthew Bellgard. He says the tools can run on supercomputers without the need for human intervention, which will enable researchers to access multiple supercomputing resources in a transparent fashion using the Web interface. "We’ve been thinking about it for quite some time, but it’s only in the last five years that Internet technologies have matured in such a way that we can then leverage them in order to implement a really robust system," Bellgard says.
Malware Rebirthing Suites Intensify Security Arms Race
ScienceNetwork Western Australia (12/10/11) Nic White
Computer systems and critical infrastructure could be defenseless against a coordinated strike involving different kinds of malware, warns Edith Cowan University senior lecturer Murray Brand. He calls the theoretical attack strategy a malware rebirthing botnet. Antivirus software is unlikely to detect new malware that is very different from any known malware. In this scenario, an attacker would use a worm to create a botnet of infected slave computers, then upload a honeypot program to attract and capture other malware from the Internet. The captured malware would be sent back to the attacker and altered in a rebirthing suite, improving its defenses against antivirus programs with anti-analysis tools and tailoring them for an attack before distributing them among the botnet. The attacker now has an array of advanced, customized malware that can be directed against a target system from multiple angles. "Recognition of malware is dependent upon an analyst having already analyzed the behavior of the malware and extracted an identifying signature," Brand notes. He says that most of the components needed to develop a malware rebirthing botnet already exist.
New Tiny Circuit May Lead to Smaller, More Powerful Devices
Computerworld (12/09/11) Sharon Gaudin
Researchers at McGill University and Sandia National Laboratory have developed a circuit that has two wires just 150 atoms apart. Analysts say the tiny circuit design could lead to smaller devices that produce less heat than the ones currently available. "Our devices, like phones, tablets, PCs, and living-room devices, could either do a lot more and provide a better experience or use even less power and become even smaller than they were before," says analyst Patrick Moorhead. The research also helps to understand how to manufacture chips at smaller scales and how to manage the heat that is produced. "Getting to 15 nm or 16 nm will mean smaller and more powerful devices that are more energy efficient," says consultant Dan Olds. Moorhead notes that "this effectively extends Moore's Law. And by shrinking die size and power within the same performance band, this could effectively enable performance levels of a tablet today to be brought into a device like a watch or even jewelry."
University Department Chairs See Need for Improved K-12 STEM Curriculum
THE Journal (12/07/11) David Nagel
Improving the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curriculum is the single most important step that K-12 schools can take to prepare students for college, according to the Bayer Facts of Science Education XV survey, which polled 413 department chairs at 200 research universities across the United States. The survey asked department chairs how students could be better prepared for college, and about 48 percent of respondents cited the need to improve the K-12 curriculum. The survey found that 69 percent of respondents said students should start building a foundation in STEM education as early as kindergarten and elementary school. In addition, 30 percent of female department heads said students should begin in preschool, compared to just 14 percent of male department heads. Other factors the department heads cited as important for preparing students for college included improving STEM counseling and teacher preparation and training, and relying less on standardized tests and teaching more problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.
DARPA Eyes Mobile Apps to Fly Drones
InformationWeek (12/07/11) Elizabeth Montalbano
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is seeking smartphone application developers for its Adaptable Sensor System program, which currently uses a commercial development model to facilitate rapid delivery and configuration of sensor systems. Development typically takes three to eight years under that model, according to DARPA. "The rapid advancement and sophisticated capabilities in today's smartphone technology provide opportunities to revolutionize the way sensor systems are developed and used," says DARPA's Mark Rich. "The integrated processing, storage, communications, navigation, and orientation functions built into smartphone hardware and software can be leveraged to create far more powerful distributed sensor devices than we use today." Mobile app developers could specifically help with the collection, organization, storing, and sharing of video. DARPA also wants to share information over communications interfaces such as Skype, and develop and implement rich user interfaces to display what is happening in a sensor array on a Google Maps-like interface.
Researchers Find Best Routes to Self-Assembling 3D Shapes
Brown University (12/07/11) Richard Lewis
Researchers at Brown and Johns Hopkins universities have developed optimal configurations for creating three-dimensional (3D) geometric shapes, which could lead to the development of electronic circuits and 3D sensors. The Brown researchers developed the algorithmic tools, while the Johns Hopkins researchers tested selected configurations. The researchers first determined the best two-dimensional arrangements, known as planar nets. The Brown algorithms then identified the best planar nets to produce self-folding 3D structures. The Johns Hopkins researchers confirmed the nets' design principles with experiments. "We uncovered striking geometric analogies between natural assembly of proteins and viruses and these polyhedra, which could provide insight into naturally occurring self-assembling processes and is a step toward the development of self-assembly as a viable manufacturing paradigm," says Johns Hopkins professor David Gracias. The researchers built models and developed software to find the optimal nets, identifying six that fit the algorithmic bill for viruses that are shaped like dodecahedra. The Johns Hopkins researchers heated the nets, which caused the hinges to fold upward, rotate, and form a polyhedron. "Quite remarkably, just on heating, these planar nets fold up and seal themselves into these complex 3D geometries with specific fold angles," Gracias says.
New Move to Use Robots for Stroke Rehabilitation
University of Hertfordshire (12/06/11) Emily Iversen
The European Commission is funding the development of robotic devices to help people recover from strokes. The Supervised Care and Rehabilitation Involving Personal Tele-robotics project will develop robotic devices that facilitate repetitive movements of the hand and wrist that would be performed during chronic phases of stroke rehabilitation. "The project focus on hand and wrist exercise presents the least researched area in this field and has the potential to make a big contribution to personal independence," says the University of Hertfordshire's Farshid Amirabdollahian. "Our developed prototypes will be available for home use and in a motivating and engaging context, which should provide easier and more frequently available tools, which should in turn affect the patient recovery." Patients will be able to use the tele-robotic communication platform in their own home, and remote management will help cut down on the number of hospital visits. Patients and off-site health-care professionals would receive immediate feedback. The three-year project also will pursue more natural interaction for therapeutic human-robot interaction.
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