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Welcome to the February 22, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Researchers Defeat Video CAPTCHA Antispam Tests
IDG News Service (02/21/12) Lucian Constantin

Stanford University researchers have developed DeCAPTCHA, a tool that uses specialized algorithms to defeat image-based Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart (CAPTCHA) implementations, such as NuCAPTCHA, which uses animation techniques to make it harder for spambots to decipher the characters. "The most difficult part of this research turned out not to be breaking NuCAPTCHA, which I've known how to do since December 2010, but rather to come up with the right abstraction to explain why video CAPTCHAs might offer better security than image CAPTCHAs and to synthesize where the extra security comes from," says Stanford's Elie Bursztein. The researchers also want to identify the best methods of improving video CAPTCHA security. Bursztein notes that although animating the individual CAPTCHA letters, as well as adding confusing backgrounds, can be defeated, it is possible to make the isolation of the correct moving object very difficult. This technique, known as track resistance, involves adding decoy objects that have the same properties as the CAPTCHA string to confuse the tracking algorithm. "When successfully implemented, tracking resistance makes video CAPTCHA secure against vision/machine-learning attacks and more secure than standard text-based CAPTCHAs," Bursztein says.


Single-Atom Transistor Is "Perfect"
University of New South Wales (02/20/12) Bob Beale

University of New South Wales (UNSW) researchers have developed a transistor from a single phosphorus atom placed in a silicon crystal. The researchers say the breakthrough could lead to a future quantum computer with superior computing efficiency. "This is the first time anyone has shown control of a single atom in a substrate with this level of precise accuracy," says UNSW professor Michelle Simmons. The device has tiny markers etched onto its surface so metal contacts can be connected to apply a voltage. "Our group has proved that it is really possible to position one phosphorus atom in a silicon environment--exactly as we need it--with near-atomic precision, and at the same time register gates," Simmons says. The researchers used a scanning tunneling microscope to manipulate atoms at the surface of the crystal inside an ultra-high-vacuum chamber. The researchers patterned phosphorus atoms into functional devices on the crystal and then covered them with a non-reactive layer of hydrogen, using a lithographic process. Finally, the device was surrounded by a silicon layer, and it contacted electrically using a system of markers on the silicon chip to align metallic connects.


Google to Sell Heads-Up Display Glasses by Year's End
New York Times (02/21/12) Nick Bilton

Google is developing experimental glasses that will stream information to the wearer's eyes in real time, and the technology should be available to the public by the end of the year. The glasses will be Android-based, will have a 3G or 4G data connection, and include sensors for motion and global positioning systems. The glasses also will have a unique navigation system. "The navigation system currently used is a head tilting to scroll and click," says Google blogger Seth Weintraub. "It is very quick to learn and once the user is adept at navigation, it becomes second nature and almost indistinguishable to outside users." The glasses also will have a low-resolution built-in camera that will be able to monitor events in real time and overlay information about locations, surrounding buildings, and nearby friends. The project is being developed by Google X, a secretive laboratory that works on futuristic projects. The glasses will utilize several Google programs, including Google Latitude, Google Goggles, and Google Maps, according to a company employee. "You will be able to check into locations with your friends through the glasses," according to a Google employee.


The Industrial Robot Revolution
Network World (02/20/12) Sandra Gittlen

A dramatic shift in how robots are made and perceived is leading to their widespread adoption and use. "Today's robots are cheaper, lighter, agile, and equipped with sensors to make them safer so they can work alongside humans," says the Robot Report's Frank Tobe. For example, Carnegie Mellon University researchers are developing robots to use in plant and tree nurseries that will automatically move containers around based on their optimal environments. Columbia University researchers are developing robots to improve medicine and surgical procedures. "You're soon going to see a whole class of small, disposable, inexpensive systems that will do simple surgeries such as gall bladder and kidney removal, and hysterectomies," says Columbia professor Peter Allen. Meanwhile, Microsoft researchers are developing a comprehensive robotics platform. "Although there are a lot of developers writing robotics applications, they are not experts in that domain," says Microsoft's Stathis Papaefstathiou. "So we want to provide the robotics development infrastructure that they will need." However, the widespread use of robots still faces several obstacles, such as the need for better batteries. "Five years from now robots will be far more ubiquitous and we'll depend on them in a much more fundamental way," says FIRST national adviser Woodie Flowers.


EU Wants Europe to Be Supercomputing Power
ITPro (02/15/12) Tom Brewster

The European Commission (EC) wants to double its investment in supercomputing and pursue exascale computing machines. To reverse a relative decline in high-performance computing use and capabilities, the European Union plans to increase investment in the industry from about $828 million to about $1.57 billion. The EC also wants to see centers of excellence established for software in scientific fields such as energy, life sciences, and climate. Kroes says high-performance computing has the potential to deliver innovations that can ultimately improve daily life. The EC also wants industry players and small and medium-sized enterprises to make greater use of high-performance systems and services. “High-performance computing is a crucial enabler for European industry and for more jobs in Europe,” Kroes says. “We’ve got to invest smartly in this field because we cannot afford to leave it to our competitors.”


Georgia Tech Develops Braille-Like Texting App
Georgia Tech News (02/17/12) Michaelanne Dye

Georgia Tech researchers have developed BrailleTouch, an iPhone application based on the Braille writing system that could enable people to text without looking at the device's screen. "Research has shown that chorded, or gesture-based, texting is a viable solution for eyes-free written communication in the future, making obsolete the need for users to look at their devices while inputting text on them," says Georgia Tech's Mario Romero. During testing, BrailleTouch users entered up to 32 words a minute with 92 percent accuracy. "We are currently designing a study to formally evaluate BrailleTouch through both quantitative and qualitative methods," says Georgia Tech graduate student Caleb Southern. "We will measure the typing speed and accuracy of visually impaired users and capture the feedback from study participants in areas such as comfort, ease of use, and perceived value." The researchers also are exploring how BrailleTouch could be used with a universal eyes-free mobile texting app that replaces soft QWERTY keyboards and other texting technologies for sighted users. The researchers designed BrailleTouch to overcome the limitations of soft keyboards, which do not provide tactile feedback, as well as physical keyboards, which often use small and numerous fixed buttons.


IBM Says Future Computers Will Be Constant Learners
IDG News Service (02/17/12) Joab Jackson

Tomorrow's computers will constantly improve their understanding of the data they work with, which will help them provide users with more appropriate information, predicts IBM fellow David Ferrucci, who led the development of IBM's Watson artificial intelligence technology. Computers in the future "will not necessarily require us to sit down and explicitly program them, but through continuous interaction with humans they will start to understand the kind of data and the kind of computation we need," according to Ferrucci. He says the key to the Watson technology is that it queries both itself and its users for feedback on its answers. "As you use the system, it will follow up with you and ask you questions that will help improve its confidence of its answer," Ferrucci notes. IBM is now working with Columbia University researchers to adapt Watson so it can offer medical diagnosis and treatment. Watson could serve as a diagnostic assistant and offer treatment plans, says Columbia professor Herbert Chase. Watson also could find clinical trials for the patient to participate in. "Watson has bridged the information gap, and its potential for improving health care and reducing costs is immense," Chase says.


Algorithm Uses Photo Networks to Reveal Your Hometown
Technology Review (02/20/12)

There is growing evidence that information gleaned from online social networks can be processed and used in ways to gain an accurate profile of an individual. The latest work involves a study of geographical clusters of photos that users upload to Flickr. Kazem Jahanbakhsh and colleagues at the University of Victoria tried to determine the hometown of Flickr users by only taking into account the geotags of photos they uploaded. People take most of their photos near their home, but estimating the location is difficult because they also are likely to take photos in clusters at other locations, such as holiday destinations. The team developed an algorithm to separate the home location from the other clusters and found that it guesses reasonably well. "In 70 percent of the cases our algorithm has predicted the place of living of people with low error," Jahanbakhsh says. Such algorithms will make it hard to keep track of privacy because there is almost certainly a market for these types of applications. However, abusive practices could lead to more stringent laws on using and processing personal information.


V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai: Inventor of E-Mail Honored by Smithsonian
Washington Post (02/17/12) Emi Kolawole

The U.S. Smithsonian Institution recently acquired the tapes, documentation, copyrights, and more than 50,000 lines of computer code that chronicle the invention of email. Email was created by V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai in 1978 while he was a high school student in New Jersey. Ayyadurai recently spoke with the Washington Post about the state of innovation and communication in the United States. He says the big problems of today involve large-scale systems, such as the educational system and the transportation system. Ayyadurai believes that today’s students want to focus on these bigger issues instead of just learning one skill in math or science. He says the United States is still the greatest country in the world in which to innovate because it has the basic infrastructure, the basic ethos, and the basic values that are needed for innovation to succeed. Ayyadurai also believes that people are now over-communicating. "I think people are over-communicating in the sense they have missed out on what is communication," he says. "A lot of time when people are texting, it's not the content--you don't need to text--but people are doing it just to connect with another human being, so a lot of the information is almost irrelevant."


Mapping Out the Future of GPS Technology
Queensland University of Technology (02/16/12) Alita Pashley

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) researchers are developing global positioning system (GPS) technology that uses cameras and algorithms to make navigating simpler and less expensive. QUT researcher Michale Milford notes that currently "there are some places geographically where you just can't get satellite signals and even in big cities we have issues with signals being scrambled because of tall buildings or losing them altogether in tunnels." The researchers have developed Sequence Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SeqSLAM), an approach to visual navigation algorithms that uses local best match and sequence recognition components to lock in locations. "SeqSLAM uses the assumption that you are already in a specific location and tests that assumption over and over again," Milford says. The research was inspired by Google's Street View, which takes pictures of every street in the world and makes them recognizable in a variety of conditions, and Milford's previous research in the navigational patterns of small mammals using low-resolution cameras. "As we develop more and more sophisticated navigation systems they depend on more and more maths and more powerful computers," Milford says.


University of Minnesota Researchers Discover That Cell Phone Hackers Can Track Your Physical Location Without Your Knowledge
University of Minnesota News (02/16/12) Kristin Anderson

Third parties can track the location of cell phone users without their knowledge, warn University of Minnesota researchers. To provide service efficiently cellular companies track their users, but their towers leak location information, notes Minnesota's Denis Foo Kune. "Your cell phone network has to at least loosely track your phone within large regions in order to make it easy to find it," he says. Cell phone towers broadcast a page to the cell phone of a user, and wait for it to respond, similar to the communication process of a citizens' band radio. Foo Kune, who worked with professors Nick Hopper and Yongdae Kim and student John Koelndorfer, says hackers can easily access that location information. "It has a low entry barrier, being attainable through open source projects running on commodity software," Foo Kune says. During testing, the researchers were able to track the location of a cell phone user on the Global System for Mobile Communications network within a 10-block area of Minneapolis. “Agents from an oppressive regime may no longer require cooperation from reluctant service providers to determine if dissidents are at a protest location,” the researchers note.


No More Virtual Pickpocketing of Credit Cards, Thanks to New Tap and Pay Technology Developed at the University of Pittsburgh
University of Pittsburgh News (02/16/12) B. Rose Huber

University of Pittsburgh researchers have devised a method to thwart credit card thieves and fraudsters with a new card design that lets a card be turned on and off. Pittsburgh professor Marlin Mickle points to the danger of enabling radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and near-field communication (NFC) credit cards to operate any time they are placed in an electromagnetic field, as thieves can use inexpensive portable readers that they can pass near an NFC card to charge purchases to it or steal cash from a bank account. "Our new design integrates an antenna and other electrical circuitry that can be interrupted by a simple switch, like turning off the lights in the home or office," Mickle says. "The RFID or NFC credit card is disabled if left in a pocket or lying on a surface and unreadable by thieves using portable scanners." The technology would let cardholders hold their NFC or RFID card in a specified area, such as on an emblem, when making a transaction. The card is activated as long as the switch is held, but the discontinuation of tactile contact causes the card to automatically deactivate. "This solution is simple and very inexpensive to integrate into the RFID and NFC credit card manufacturing process," Mickle notes.


Scientists Teach Computers to Assess Psychiatric Risk
Reuters (02/15/12) Kate Kelland

University College London researchers have developed software that can be taught to select between brain scans of healthy young people and brain scans of adolescents who are at a higher risk of developing mental disorders. "Combining machine learning and neuroimaging, we have a technique which shows enormous potential to help us identify which adolescents are at true risk of developing anxiety and mood disorders, especially where there is limited clinical or genetic information," says University College London's Janaina Mourao-Miranda. The researchers took 16 healthy adolescents who each had a parent with bipolar disorder, and 16 whose parents had no history of psychiatric illness, and scanned their brains with a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner while they performed a specially designed emotional test. The researchers then used a machine-learning program to predict the probability that an individual belongs to either the low-risk or at-risk group, and found it was accurate 75 percent of the time. The program also predicted significantly higher risk probabilities for young people who were found in follow-up screenings to have developed psychiatric disorders than for those who remained healthy at follow-ups.


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