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Welcome to the February 29, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


IBM Touts Quantum Computing Breakthrough
Computerworld (02/28/12) Lucas Mearian

IBM scientists say they achieved a major advance in quantum computing that will enable engineers to start creating a full-scale quantum computer. The development enables scientists to reduce data error rates in elementary computations while maintaining the quantum mechanical properties in quantum bits of data. IBM's Mark Ketchen says the creation of a quantum computer would make possible an exponential leap in processing power over what is possible with conventional central processing units. "We're finally to the point where devices are getting good enough where data checking and error correcting is possible," Ketchen says. "As you cross this threshold, there's a lot of excitement growing." IBM notes that a working quantum computer is still at least a decade away, but it says advances in reducing error rates and other breakthroughs open the doors to experimentation with new microfabrication techniques. "Things are getting to the point where, while we may not be ready to build a quantum computer, it's time to start thinking what a computer like this would look like and what it would it be able to do," Ketchen says. Although other scientists are doing similar quantum computing research, Ketchen says only IBM has the resources to fabricate quantum-computing chips.


Computational Sprinting Pushes Smartphones Till They're Tired
University of Michigan News Service (02/28/12) Steve Crang

Researchers at Michigan and Pennsylvania universities are developing computational sprinting technology, which is designed to push mobile chips beyond their sustainable operating limits. The researchers say computational sprinting could give users dramatic, brief bursts of computing capability to improve current applications and make new ones possible. "We're proposing a computer system that can perform a giant surge of computation, but then gets tired and has time to rest," says Michigan professor Thomas Wenisch. The researchers found that they could design a chip to run at 16 times the sustainable rate for half a second. "What our research indicates is that it's OK for the silicon to be mostly dark, if you can use it all for short bursts of intense computation," says Pennsylvania professor Milo Martin. Under the computational sprinting scheme, up to 15 additional cores would activate to work in parallel alongside the chip's main core for up to one second, which could speed up the device's response time tenfold. "If app designers can now get 10 times as much computing done in one burst, that frees their hands to pursue ideas they would have just discarded today," Wenisch says.


Colleges Are Urged to Cooperate to Bring More Women and Minorities Into Science
Chronicle of Higher Education (02/27/12) Paul Basken

EducationCounsel and the American Association for the Advancement of Science recently offered a plan for producing more science and engineering graduates by bringing research universities into student-centered alliances with two-year, liberal arts, and minority-serving institutions. The plan calls on colleges from all sectors to work harder at making sure that students at institutions with few or no science offerings have many more options for getting science and engineering training at nearby campuses. EducationCounsel's Arthur L. Coleman says the plan reflects a realization that existing efforts to improve the nation's output of science and engineering graduates have focused to narrowly on helping the students, not paying sufficient attention to the institutional structures surrounding them. A recent U.S. Department of Education report cites the Georgia Institute of Technology, which has an engineering transfer program with 19 other Georgia institutions, including community colleges, historically black colleges and universities, and other state four-year institutions. The report also cites a Massachusetts Institute of Technology program that allows students from nearby liberal-arts colleges to take a lab course. The goal is to encourage more colleges and universities to find ways to facilitate a pathway for students seeking a science and engineering education.
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Apple Loophole Gives Developers Access to Photos
New York Times (02/28/12) Nick Bilton

Application developers for Apple's mobile devices, already under fire for taking users' address book information without their knowledge, now are being accused of using their photos without a warning. After a user allows an app on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch to have access to location information, the app can copy the user’s entire photo library, without any additional notification or warning, according to app developers. Although Apple's rules do not prohibit photo copying, Apple does screen all apps submitted to the app store, which should catch any illicit behavior on the part of developers. "Conceivably, an app with access to location data could put together a history of where the user has been based on photo location," says Curio cofounder David E. Chen. In 2010, Apple made a policy change to allow full access to the photo library, which was designed to make photo apps more efficient. “Apple and app makers should be making sure people understand what they are consenting to," the Electronic Privacy Information Center's David Jacobs. "It is pretty obvious that they aren’t doing a good enough job of that.”


Removing 'Black Sheep' Could Make Internet Run More Efficiently
PhysOrg.com (02/28/12) Lisa Zyga

Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) researchers are improving network transmission efficiency by identifying certain links or edges that can be removed to decrease the overall congestion. These links, known as black sheep, are those that connect the busiest hubs. "Our main findings reveal the effect of enhancing network capacity of edge-removal in networks and the prerequisite of the effect," says CAS's Guo-Qing Zhang. The researchers demonstrated that modifying the network does not require a complicated redesign and that significant improvement is possible by deleting just a few well-chosen links. The researchers analyzed a network model that simulates packet traffic to choose which links to remove. Removing the black sheep links significantly increased the network's transmission capacity. The researchers also recently found that for this method to work effectively the network structure must be heterogeneous in terms of node betweenness values. "Our recent paper doesn't further improve network capacity of the method, but points out that heterogeneity of network structure is a necessary condition for the effect’s existence, highlights the rationality based on betweenness, and discusses the effect’s applications in engineering practice," Zhang says.


MIT Takes Aim at Secure, Self-Healing Cloud
Network World (02/27/12) Brandon Butler

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers are studying how to build a cloud computing infrastructure that recognizes and eliminates a cyberattack under normal operating procedures. The goal is to continue cloud operations even while under attack, which is a different approach from other security measures that disable a system and create outages. "Much like the human body has a monitoring system that can detect when everything is running normally, our hypothesis is that a successful attack appears as an anomaly in the normal operating activity of the system," says MIT’s Martin Rinard. "By observing the execution of a 'normal' cloud system we're going to the heart of what we want to preserve about the system, which should hopefully keep the cloud safe from attack." The researchers will try to map how cloud networks are created and operate, and then create a set of guidelines for a cloud network to constantly assess whether it is working under those parameters and return to normal operating procedures if it is not.


Electronic Tagging System Could Replace Barcodes
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (02/27/12) Sam Shead

Thin-film transistor technology could lead to the development of inexpensive, high-performance radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, according to a team from Imec's Holst Center. The researchers have developed an electronic tagging system that uses thin-film RFID tags, rather than silicon RFID tags, and believe it could offer more detailed information than barcodes. "Thin-film transistors can be deposited on a flexible substrate and have the potential to be produced at a substantially lower cost," says Imec's Kris Myny. The researchers also demonstrated that thin-film RFID tags were able to receive data from the reader first, which means the technology would prevent data transfer from being interrupted. Myny says the technology offers item-level tagging that could enable vendors to implement applications such as automatic billing and inventory management. Thin-film RFID tags also could be integrated with sensors for smart RFID tags. "In this way, they could be integrated into food packaging to provide customers with information on freshness or characteristics of this product," Myny notes.


Crowdsourcing Improves Predictive Texting
New Scientist (02/25/12) Duncan Graham-Rowe

Crowdsourcing can be used to provide the words and phrases that smartphone users need to finish their sentences, say researchers at Montana Tech and the University of St. Andrews. The researchers wanted to improve a predictive system used in Augmented and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices, which interpret the muscle twitches or blinks of disabled people and type out their words. Montana Tech's Keith Vertanen and St. Andrews' Per Ola Kristensson had nearly 300 participants imagine the phrases they might need if they had motor neuron disease or cerebral palsy, then expanded the nearly 6,000 useful responses to tens of millions of phrases by having them trawl through Twitter postings and other social media texts. They found that a system that uses crowdsourcing would need 11 percent fewer keystrokes than a standard AAC device. Kristensson notes that crowdsourcing also should benefit more standard text and speech recognition systems. "Getting adequate quantities of good quality data to build statistical [language] models is one of the most significant challenges in this area," says the University of Sussex's David Weir.
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Introducing Programming to Preschoolers
KQED.org (02/23/12) Heather Chaplin

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Lifelong Kindergarten group is working with Tufts University's DevTech Research Group to create Scratch Jr., a programming language that enables very young children to create animations, videos, and stories. "What’s most important to me is that young children start to develop a relationship with the computer where they feel they’re in control," says Lifelong Kindergarten director Mitch Resnick. “We want them to see digital technologies as something they can use to express themselves.” MIT graduate student Marina Bers helped develop Scratch Jr. She says the challenge is creating an interface that very young children can understand. In focus groups, the researchers noticed that younger children struggle with the number of blocks needed to create a program. "The relationship between cause and effect needs to be clearer for this age group," Bers says. The researchers also have been studying tutorials in videogames, which teach kids how to play without realizing they are being taught. "In our times, we need kids to be able to express ideas in different ways, and learning to work in Scratch, in a computational medium, will give them another way of expressing themselves," Resnick says.


HTML5 Still Taking Shape
SD Times (02/27/12) David Rubinstein

An unusual alignment of technology giants has embraced HTML5 as a cross-browser, cross-device development and delivery platform. "Each [company] has wanted to build and own the platform, but with the explosion of devices on the market, now they want to own the tooling services," says Telerik's Todd Anglin. However, experts say it is still too soon to declare HTML5 the Web application winner. Just 8 percent of the top 100,000 Web sites use HTML5, and just 14 percent of the top 10,000 sites have anything from HTML5, according to builtwith.com. Although every piece is not yet in place, HTML5 continues to grow and build momentum as a platform, says the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C's) Ian Jacobs. Content protection, the need for streaming, and audio implementation for gaming are specific areas where HTML5 is not fully built out, Jacobs notes. “The things we’re working on are what features do we need for trustworthy communication,” he says. "We're working on tracking protection behind the scenes, linked data, privacy, and security issues." W3C developers also are working on specifications for touch, Web storage, and an application programming interface that enables Web pages to use the WebSocket protocol for two-way communications.


Interactive 3D Graphical Objects May Soon Be Common on the Web
Saarland University (02/23/12)

Saarland University researchers will demonstrate the capabilities of the new XML3D HTML extension for online commerce at the upcoming CeBIT fair. The researchers say XML3D can enable customers to enlarge a product or visualize adjusting the parts. They note that Web developers would no longer have to use a number of different programs because XML3D is designed to describe computer scenes in spatial detail directly within the code of a Web site. The researchers' test site features the image of a high-end digital camera that appears in the center of the screen. The model is moved freely, and to enlarge or minimize it requires just a few moves of a finger on a touchpad. "Up to now, for every move of the different object modifications, innumerable photos would have to be taken and then set together to an animation with a special kind of software," says Saarland's Kristian Sons. "Furthermore, it is not necessarily the case that the potential customer's browser already has the appropriate add-on program." XML3D only requires the appropriate three-dimensional (3D) model, an Internet connection, and a browser, and text, images, videos, and 3D objects can be pictured on the site.


Bank Customers Favor Birthdate PINs
InformationWeek (02/22/12) Mathew J. Schwartz

The patterns that bank customers typically follow when choosing a four-digit PIN code gives hackers a 9 percent chance of correctly guessing their ATM code, according to a study from Cambridge University researchers. "About a quarter stick with their bank-assigned random PIN and over a third choose their PIN using an old phone number, student ID, or other sequence of numbers which is, at least to a guessing attack, statistically random," says Cambridge's Joseph Bonneau. Five percent choose a numeric pattern and 9 percent choose a visual pattern on the keypad, both of which have only a 2 percent chance of being guessed. However, the researchers found that 23 percent of users employ a date as a PIN—often their own birthdate, which attackers could obtain from driver's licenses or other identification that users carry in their wallet. To bolster the security of four-digit PIN codes, the researchers suggest preventing users from selecting 100 specific codes that would cut a thief's overall chances of guessing a PIN to only 0.2 percent, as well as preventing the use of birthdates as PINs. Still, Bonneau concedes that "too many PINs can be interpreted as dates to blacklist them all, and customer-specific blacklisting using knowledge of the customer's birthday seems impractical."


Tiny 3-D Chips
MIT News (02/28/12) Jennifer Chu

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed an approach to microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) that enables engineers to design three-dimensional (3D) configurations using existing fabrication processes. The approach allows researchers to build MEMS devices that can perform 3D sensing on a single chip. "One of the main driving factors in the current MEMS industry is to try to make fully three-dimensional devices on a single chip, which would not only enable real 3D sensing and actuation, but also yield significant cost benefits," says MIT's Fabio Fachin. The researchers based their approach on residual stress. They studied previous work on microbeam configurations and developed equations to represent the relationship between a thin-film material’s flexibility, geometry, and residual stress. "Since the process is based on a silicon substrate, and compatible with standard complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) processes, it will also offer a pathway to a smart CMOS-MEMS process, with good manufacturability," says University of Florida professor Y.K. Yoon.


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