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Welcome to the January 25, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Europe Weighs Tough Law on Online Privacy
New York Times (01/23/12) Somini Sengupta

Europe is considering new legislation that would force Internet companies to obtain explicit consent from consumers about the use of their personal data, delete that data forever at the consumer’s request, and face fines for failing to do so. The regulations would require Web sites to tell consumers why their data is being collected and retain it for only as long as necessary. "Companies must be transparent about what they are doing, clear about which data is being used for what," says the European Commission's Viviane Reding. The European Parliament will deliberate on the proposal this year and it could go into effect as soon as 2014. One of the most contested provisions of the proposal is the right to be forgotten, which refers to an Internet user’s right to demand that their accumulated data on a particular site be deleted forever. Critics warn that it is not as simple as pressing delete, as data is often transferred or licensed to third parties. "You’re not going to get a unilateral right for someone to say I want you to destroy all the information you have about me," says Intel's David Hoffman. The European regulation could serve as a blueprint for other countries.

Google Looks to Speed Up the Internet
InfoWorld (01/24/12) Paul Krill

Google researchers want to overhaul the Internet's Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) transport layer and have suggested ways to reduce latency. According to the company's Make the Web Faster team, the key to reducing latency is saving round trips. The researchers recommend increasing the TCP initial congestion window to improve TCP speed. "The amount of data sent at the beginning of a TCP connection is currently three packets, implying three round trips to deliver a tiny, 15K-sized content," says Google's Yuchung Chen. "Our experiments indicate that IW10 [initial congestion window of 10 packets] reduces the network latency of Web transfers by over 10 percent." Google also wants the initial timeout reduced from three seconds to one second. The company has developed the TCP Fast Open protocol, which reduces application network latency, and proportional rate reduction for TCP, and the team is encouraging its use. Google's work is open source and disseminated through the Linux kernel, Internet Engineering Task Force standards proposals, and research publications to encourage industry involvement.

Massive Courses, Sans Stanford
Inside Higher Ed (01/24/12) Steve Kolowich

Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun and University of Virginia professor David Evans have launched Know Labs, a for-profit enterprise designed to offer affordable high-quality college courses to tens of thousands of students through Udacity, an online learning portal. Thrun will teach a course on autonomous vehicles and Evans will teach an introductory course in computer science. Although Thrun's course will require some background in mathematical and engineering concepts, Evans' course will be targeted to students with no background in computer science. "The goal is to have a course that anyone who is willing to put in the effort will be able to take," Evans says. The Know Labs model is based on the success of Stanford's open online courses, which debuted last fall. The advanced online class in artificial intelligence, taught by Thrun and Google's Peter Norvig, attracted 160,000 enrollees, 20,000 of whom completed all of the coursework. The artificial intelligence course was intended as a proof-of-concept for Know Labs' course-delivery model, says company co-founder David Stavens. "We really see this new online class not just as a means to offer free education, but also as a way for some of our most talented students to find new, better jobs," Thrun says.

Neural Network Learns to Identify Group Sizes Without Knowledge of Numbers (01/23/12) Bob Yirka

Universita di Padova cognitive science researchers Ivilin Stoianov and Marco Zorzi have demonstrated approximate number sense (ANS) in an artificial intelligence network. The researchers used a neural network that learns to recognize images and to respond to what it has seen, feeding it 51,800 images, each a unique layout of rectangles of various sizes. The system generated new images that revealed an awareness of the relative size of different groups without having to perform any counting. The team then used another program that enabled the system to compare different groups seen during the first run, and the system made educated guesses on which was bigger or smaller. The researchers believe the system made educated guesses on group size similar to the way the process occurs in the human brain. The research is a key step in creating machines that think rather than simply crunch numbers. For example, computer systems that can learn to use ANS could be integrated into robots to make them more useful.

Collision in the Making Between Self-Driving Cars and How the World Works
New York Times (01/23/12) John Markoff

The legal and ethical implications of autonomous vehicles recently were discussed by Silicon Valley technologists, legal scholars, and government officials at Santa Clara University. Google has demonstrated that autonomous vehicles could replace human drivers and greatly reduce human error, which causes most of the 33,000 deaths and 1.2 million injuries that occur in the U.S. each year. Google's autonomous vehicles currently have driven 200,000 miles without an accident. Nevada was the first state to legalize driverless vehicles, and similar laws have been introduced in Florida and Hawaii. However, several issues, such as whether police should have the right to pull over autonomous vehicles, are unresolved, according to the University of Minnesota's Frank Douma. "It’s a 21st-century Fourth Amendment seizure issue," Douma says. The U.S. government does not have enough information to determine how to regulate driverless technologies, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's O. Kevin Vincent. Even after intelligent cars match human capabilities, significant issues, such as legal liability and insurance, would remain, says Stanford University's Sven A. Beiker. In addition, autonomous vehicles rely on global positioning systems and satellite data, which are vulnerable to jamming by computer hackers.

The Mathematics of Taste
MIT News (01/24/12) Larry Hardesty

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers used genetic programming, in which mathematical models compete with each other to fit the available data and then cross-pollinate to produce more accurate models, to analyze taste-test data. Swiss flavor company Givaudan asked researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) to help interpret the results of taste tests in which 69 subjects assessed 36 different combinations of seven basic flavors. For each subject, the researchers randomly generated a mathematical function that predicted scores according to the concentrations of different flavors. After all of the functions were assessed, the best ones were recombined to produce a new generation of functions, and the whole process was repeated about 30 times. To establish the model's accuracy, the CSAIL researchers developed another model to validate their approach. Taste preference "is a pretty brilliant area in which to apply the evolutionary methods--and it looks as though they're working, also, so that's exciting," says Hampshire College professor Lee Spector.

Where Creativity Meets Technology
Boston Globe (01/22/12) D.C. Denison

In an interview, Jennifer Chayes, managing director of Microsoft Research New England, says the industry represents science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) wrong to young people, especially women, who often have an image of a nerdy guy at a computer, programming. Chayes, who chose science over a career in visual arts, says STEM fields can be very creative and collaborative, noting that she has never just sat at a computer and programmed. Chayes says she always works with other people and loves the human interaction, which is what she tries to explain to young women. "I love when another person's thinking sparks something in my mind, and my thinking sparks something in others." Chayes also notes that Microsoft employs a lot of nontechnical people to better understand how people want to use technology, adding that technology is moving toward greater interaction with social sciences. "So much of technology really depends on this interaction of engineering and technology with social sciences," she says. "So if someone gets interested in the social sciences, and starts doing work in this space, I think they put themselves in a much better position to get reemployed."

Twitter Bots Create Surprising New Social Connections
Technology Review (01/23/12) Mike Orcutt

A group of freelance Web researchers have created a Twitter bot, called a socialbot, that can fool users into thinking the bots are real people and serve as virtual social connector, accelerating the natural rate of human-to-human communication. The system grew out of the Web Ecology Project, an independent research group focused on studying the structure of social media phenomena. Some of the Web Ecology Project researchers, led by Tim Hwang, created their own organization, called the Pacific Social Architecting Corp., to continue the development of socialbots. In further experiments, the group tracked 2,700 Twitter users, divided into randomly assigned target groups of 300, over 54 days. The first 33 days served as a control period, during which no socialbots were deployed. Then, during the 21-day experimental period, nine bots were activated, one for each target group. On average, each bot gained 62 new followers and received 33 incoming tweets. The researchers also found that there was a 43 percent increase in human-to-human follows, after the socialbots were introduced, compared to the control period.

Next Generation of Supercomputers Requires Radical Redesign
Mother Nature Network (01/22/12) Jeremy Hsu

The next generation of exascale supercomputers could complete one billion billion calculations per second, which would be 1,000 times faster than today's most powerful supercomputers. However, just one exascale system would require the power equivalent to the maximum output of the Hoover Dam. Researchers recently gathered to discuss the challenges of supercomputing energy efficiency during a workshop held by the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM) at Brown University. "We've been increasing computing power by 1,000 fold every few years for a while now, but now we've reached the limits," says ICERM director Jill Pipher. The U.S. Department of Energy wants to develop an exascale supercomputer that would use less than 20 megawatts of power by 2020, which would require a drastic change in computer architecture. Changing computer architecture would also require a rewrite of the software programs that run on conventional computers. "Now, if you're building these new machines, you're going to have to try writing programs in different ways," Pipher says. One promising solution is using graphics processing units (GPUs) instead of central processing units (CPUs). GPUs use almost eight times less energy than a CPU per computer calculation.

Life-Like Robot Being Built in Ottawa Lab
CBC News (Canada) (01/20/12)

University of Ottawa researchers are developing a robot that mimics a human face's expressions and a human hand's tactile processes, which they say could be useful in fields such as nursing, nuclear plant maintenance, and explosive detail disposal. The key part of the technology is a touch-sensitive artificial skin made of elastic silicon and embedded with tactical and temperature sensors, which can sense contact, as well as the profile, temperature, and elasticity of object surfaces. The researchers, led by Ottawa's Emil Petriu, are using a robot as their test subject, replacing its mechanical parts with the more life-like parts. "It's critical that they should have a warm, fuzzy feeling or they don't feel human," Petriu says. The researchers embedded tubes that circulate hot water in the artificial skin to match natural skin temperature. The researchers also mounted a set of actuators, which serve as artificial muscles, to the anatomically correct skull, which the researchers hope will result in a highly life-like face.

10 New Open Source Projects You May Not Know About
PC World (01/20/12) Katherine Noyes

Black Duck Software recently announced the winners of its fourth annual Open Source Rookies of the Year program, bringing attention to lesser-known open source software projects. Two of the 10 winners are Bootstrap, a toolkit from Twitter for developing Web applications and sites, and BrowserID, a secure, decentralized, open source, cross-browser way for signing onto Web sites based on the user's email address. Black Duck described Canvas as "the only commercial open source learning management system (LMS) and the only LMS native to the cloud." Cloud Foundry is an open platform-as-a-service that provides a choice of clouds, developer frameworks, and application services. Moai is a mobile platform for game developers that offers cloud-based game services and rapid development of iOS, Android, and Chrome titles using the Lua scripting language. Mooege, OpenShift, Orion,, and Salt are the other winners. "The data underlying the 2011 Open Source Rookies list is consistent with shifts we see in our day-to-day business, where cloud, mobile, and gaming draw great support from involved communities of open source developers," says Black Duck Software CEO Tim Yeaton.

OK, Computer
ITPro (01/19/12) Stephen Pritchard

Voice-control systems, which have seen a boost in popularity since the release of Apple's Siri voice-recognition technology, have many everyday applications, especially in fields that require hands-free controls, such as transport, logistics, and manufacturing. Another growth market for the technology is voice biometrics. There are currently 10 million voice prints in use worldwide, and that number is expected to reach 25 million by 2015, according to Nuance. The growth is being driven by a greater use of voice biometrics for customer authentication, especially in financial services, says Opus Research, which predicts that the use of voice biometrics will grow steadily as the technology becomes more accurate and more responsive. Although accuracy, both with false positives and false accepts, has been an issue, improved algorithms, faster processors, and better microphones on mobile handsets have helped to address the problem. Also driving the voice application market are companies being pushed by regulation and security breaches to fortify their data access controls. In addition, businesses prefer voice biometrics because it requires relatively little technology, and it is less intrusive for users than other biometrics.

DARPA Set to Develop Super-Secure 'Cognitive Fingerprint'
Network World (01/17/12) Michael Cooney

U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) researchers are developing security technologies that go beyond recognizing complex passwords. DARPA's Active Authentication program aims to develop "novel ways of validating the identity of the person at the console that focus on the unique aspects of the individual through the use of software-based biometrics." Active Authentication focuses on the computational behavioral traits that can be observed through how people interact with the world. Such systems might look at the unique words a user types or examine the length of sentences and use of punctuation to determine user authenticity, says DARPA's Richard Guidorizzi. Other examples of the computational behavior metrics of the cognitive fingerprint include keystrokes, eye scans, how the user searches for information, how the user selects information, how the user reads the material selected, eye tracking on the page, the speed with which the individual reads the content, and the methods and structure of communication. DARPA says the authentication platform will be developed with open application programming interfaces to allow for the integration of future software or hardware biometric innovations.

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