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Welcome to the April 4, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Hacking IT Systems to Become a Criminal Offense
European Parliament News (Brussels) (03/27/12)

A draft law supported by the Civil Liberties Committee would criminalize the hacking of information technology (IT) systems and carry a minimum prison sentence of two years throughout the European Union (EU). The proposal also would outlaw the possession or distribution of hacking software or tools, while companies would be liable for cyberattacks perpetrated for their advantage. The draft law would set up harmonized penal sanctions against people who hack information systems. At least two years' incarceration would be the maximum penalty imposed by EU member states for such crimes, while offenses aggravated by the use of tools specifically designed for large-scale attacks or attacks that cause considerable damage would carry a minimum penalty of five years' imprisonment. Exploiting another person's electronic identity to execute an attack, and causing prejudice to the rightful identity owner, would be an aggravating circumstance as well, for which member states must set a maximum penalty of at least three years' imprisonment. European Parliament members also suggest harsher penalties for attacks committed by a criminal organization and/or that target critical infrastructure, but minor cases such as attacks that cause negligible damage will not face criminal sanctions.


Britain Weighs Proposal to Allow Greatly Increased Internet 'Snooping'
Washington Post (04/03/12) Anthony Faiola; Ellen Nakashima; Karla Adam

The United Kingdom is considering a plan to allow security services to spy on all Britons' Internet activity, a proposal that has provoked outrage but which government officials claim is essential to the deterrence of terrorism and other threats. The proposal may empower Britain's national surveillance agency to mandate the installation of thousands of devices connected to the networks of Internet service providers to give agents wider access to everyday communications. Intelligence agencies might for the first time access data such as phone call, text, and email times, destinations, and frequencies without requiring warrants. Sources briefed on the plan say agents also could use the collected information to track Internet patterns to expose terrorists and other criminals. The proposal would reportedly force communication firms to allow agents instant access to real-time data under certain conditions, such as data that could be used to pinpoint the whereabouts of a user's cell phone or computer if authorities suspected a crime was in progress. Observers say parts of the plan may exceed even the ability of United States officials to rapidly access private data. "It's a dangerous trend to have this level of surveillance being made a routine matter," warns Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Lee Tien.


A Grid-Based 'Google' to Fight Neurological Disease
CORDIS News (04/03/12)

Researchers working on the European Commission-funded Neugrid project have networked hundreds of computers to help find treatments for neurological disorders. The original goal of the project was to enable neuroscientists to quickly and efficiently analyze magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brains of Alzheimer's disease patients. The platform for the Neugrid grid infrastructure began with five 100-core nodes, interconnected with grid middleware and accessible though the Internet with a Web browser interface. "In Neugrid ... we extracted 6,500 MRI scans of patients with different degrees of cognitive impairment and analyzed them in two weeks," says lead project researcher Giovanni Frisoni. MRI scan analysis via Neugrid should help scientists glean insights into Alzheimer's. An expansion of Neugrid's infrastructure called Neugrid for You (N4U) will integrate with high-performance computing and cloud computing resources to establish a virtual lab for neuroscientists by broadening user services, algorithm pipelines, and datasets. "In Neugrid we built the grid infrastructure, addressing technical challenges such as the interoperability of core computing resources and ensuring the scalability of the architecture," Frisoni notes. "In N4U we will focus on the user-facing side of the infrastructure, particularly the services and tools available to researchers."


Giving Women the Access Code
New York Times (04/02/12) Katie Hafner

Just 22 percent of Harvey Mudd College computer science students were women in 2005. However, in 2006 Maria Klawe became president of Harvey Mudd and immediately turned her focus to increasing the number of women in computer science. This year, almost 40 percent of Harvey Mudd's computer science degrees will go to women. However, Harvey Mudd's numbers go against the national trend, where just 18.2 percent of computer science graduates are women, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In order to reduce the intimidation factor, Harvey Mudd's introductory computer science course was divided into two sections. The gold section is for those students with no prior computer science experience, while the black section is for all other students. In addition, the Java programming language has been replaced by the more accessible Python language. "We realized that we needed to show students computer science is not all about programming," says Harvey Mudd computer science department chairman Ran Libeskind-Hadas. Other schools also are making progress. The University of California, Berkeley recently redesigned its computer science courses to be less intimidating, and Bucknell University has adopted the gold version of Harvey Mudd's introductory computer science course.


UMass Amherst Computer Scientist Leads the Way to the Next Revolution in Artificial Intelligence
University of Massachusetts Amherst (04/02/12) Janet Lathrop

University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers are translating the "Super-Turing" computation into an adaptable computational system that learns and evolves, using input from the environment the same way human brains do. The model "is a mathematical formulation of the brain’s neural networks with their adaptive abilities," says Amherst computer scientist Hava Siegelmann. When the model is installed in a new environment, the new Super-Turing model results in an exponentially greater set of behaviors than the classical computer or the original Turing model. The researchers say the new Super-Turing machine will be flexible, adaptable, and economical. "The Super-Turing framework allows a stimulus to actually change the computer at each computational step, behaving in a way much closer to that of the constantly adapting and evolving brain," Siegelmann says.


Self-Sculpting Sand
MIT News (04/02/12) Larry Hardesty

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers are developing a type of reconfigurable robotic system called smart sand. The individual sand grains pass messages back and forth and selectively attach to each other to form a three-dimensional object. MIT professor Daniela Rus says the biggest challenge in developing the smart sand algorithm is that the individual grains have very few computational resources. The grains first pass messages to each other to determine which have missing neighbors. Those with missing neighbors are either on the perimeter of the pile or the perimeter of the embedded shape. Once the grains surrounding the embedded shape identify themselves, they pass messages to other grains a fixed distance away. When the perimeter of the duplicate is established, the grains outside it can disconnect from their neighbors. The researchers built cubes, or “smart pebbles,” to test their algorithm. The cubes have four faces studded with electropermanent magnets, materials that can be magnetized or demagnetized with a single magnetic pulse. The grains use the magnets to connect to each other, to communicate, and to share power. Each grain also is equipped with a microprocessor that can store 32 kilobytes of code and has two kilobytes of working memory.


To Convince People, Come at Them From Different Angles
Cornell Chronicle (04/02/12) Bill Steele

Cornell research on Facebook users' behavior demonstrates that people base decisions on the variety of social contexts rather than on the number of requests received. Social scientists previously envisioned the spread of ideas as similar to the spread of disease, but Cornell professor Jon Kleinberg says social contagion seems to be distinct from that model. "Each of us is sitting at a crossroads between the social circles we inhabit," he observes. "When a message comes at you from several directions, it may be more effective." The researchers worked with a database of 54 million email invitations from Facebook users inviting others to join the social network and analyzed the friendship links among inviters. The probability of a person joining increased with the number of different, unconnected social contexts represented. An analysis of the Facebook neighborhoods of 10 million new members seven days after joining identified clumps of friends linked to one another but not as much to people in other clumps. A follow-up check three months later found that people with more diverse clumps among their friends were more likely to be engaged. The researchers imply that mathematical models of how ideas proliferate across networks may require tweaking to account for the inclusion of neighborhood diversity.


The Benefits of Data Talking to Data
Wall Street Journal (04/02/12) Robert Plant

Some companies on the cutting edge of technology are combining data streaming with advanced data-analytics methods that let them tie information they already possess to what is happening now. This promises to transform a host of industries via the real-time application of customer information as it is being collected. For example, work by IBM researchers has facilitated item-level data communication with other item-level data, which could enhance shopping, especially in stores where impulse buys constitute the bulk of transactions. The store would electronically offer purchase suggestions to shoppers based on their current actions through their smartphone. Meanwhile, the use of real-time data streaming is enabling online dating services to offer new ways for people to get together. For example, integrating global positioning system data from members' smartphones with members' recorded dating preferences could find matches for singles at a specific locale, or even within a certain radius of their current whereabouts. Another application of the data-mining and data-streaming combination enables airline maintenance crews to receive up-to-the-minute data on aircraft in flight, accelerating repairs and reducing delays and service disruptions. Pilots also receive constant updates on weather and air traffic conditions, enabling them to plot the fastest flight route.


Meet Google's Search Anthropologist
San Francisco Chronicle (03/30/12) James Temple

Google search scientist Dan Russell is part of a small team that focuses on the human side of the search equation. The researchers conduct user surveys, pay people to test new products, and invite people into Google's offices to conduct eye-movement studies. The goal is to better understand how users interact with Google's products and why. "One of the things we can get from data is behaviors," Russell observes. "But in many cases, we don't know why the behaviors are the way they are." Russell received a master's and doctorate in computer science from the University of Rochester, then went to work at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Apple, and IBM before joining Google. Russell's techniques are known as applied anthropology. In addition to Google, companies such as Microsoft, Intel, and IBM also use applied anthropology in their research and development, according to Stanford Center for Work, Technology, and Organization co-director Stephen Barley. "Use is more than what happens at the interface level," Barley notes. "It's what happens when it's embedded into a context and workflow." People routinely dislike change, and the key for researchers like Russell is to distinguish users' aversion to change from legitimate complaints that the company is making things worse.


IBM to Develop Telescope Data Analysis System
IDG News Service (04/02/12) Joab Jackson

IBM is developing new data management and analysis technologies for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world's largest radio telescope. "This is a research project to find out how to build a computer system" that can handle exabytes' worth of data every day, says IBM researcher Ton Engbersen. The Netherlands recently granted IBM and the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy a five-year, $43.6 million grant to design a system that can handle all of SKA's data. Once operational, the telescope will produce more than an exabyte of data every day. The data will have to be downloaded from the telescope and then summarized and shipped to researchers worldwide. The researchers need to find a way to maximize all of the hardware components to use as little energy as possible. The researchers also must customize the data-processing algorithms to work with the specific hardware configuration. "We have to push the envelope on system design," Engbersen says.


Supercomputing Takes New Direction at Oak Ridge
Government Computer News (03/29/12) Henry Kenyon

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory recently completed the first phase of the upgrade of its Jaguar supercomputer. When the machine is fully updated, it will be called Titan and is expected to be the fastest computer in the world. Oak Ridge is pursuing a new architecture design path that will allow for much more powerful and energy-efficient computers, says Jack Wells, director of science at the laboratory's Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility. He says the approach calls for the use of graphics accelerators, which allow for greater processing power in a very energy-efficient power-and-size combination. The supercomputer's processing speed will increase in increments from 10 petaflops to 20 petaflops, and perhaps 30 petaflops, during the upgrades, Wells notes. Titan will support various government, academic, and commercial research projects. "We're not executing a research program; we're executing a user program," he says of the facility's availability, which will be based on user proposals. The software that runs on Titan includes S3D, which is used for the direct numerical study of combustion; De Novo, software that models radiation transport; and other types of scientific software that model everything from molecular dynamics to atmospheric movements.


DARPA Seeks Breakthroughs in Computer Vision
EE Times (03/29/12) Rick Merritt

James Donlon, who manages the Mind's Eye computer vision program at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), says computer vision researchers should focus on real-world challenges. The Mind's Eye program is working to develop breakthrough algorithms for automatically recognizing and describing human activities. Over the first 18 months of the three-year effort, the program has made some progress with a dozen systems. Donlon notes that current algorithms have difficulty detecting forearm motion, which are important for activities of high interest such as giving and taking. The program has developed a dataset of 7,676 real-life videos it has contributed to the computer vision community as a challenge to algorithm developers. Donlon says researchers tend to focus on major advances with existing, sometimes artificial, and academic datasets. The Mind's Eye program focuses on enabling breakthrough algorithms, as well as on system integrators providing implementations of new code in field-programmable gate arrays, graphics processing units, and system on chips.


Google Takes CAPTCHA Security to the Streets
InfoWorld (03/30/12) Ted Samson

Google researchers are experimenting with using street-number images from Street View to strengthen the reCAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart) authentication technology. The new technique would present users with one set of distorted text characters and one random digital picture of a street-address number taken from Street View. "We often extract data such as street names and traffic signs from Street View imagery to improve Google Maps with useful information like business addresses and locations," Google says. "Based on the data and results of these reCAPTCHA tests, we'll determine if using imagery might also be an effective way to further refine our tools for fighting machine- and bot-related abuse online." The company says the experiment is not intended to turn users into data-entry workers by having them fill in Street View data, nor is Google planning to use it to confirm its existing map data. In addition, Google is not using the images of street names or traffic signs for the experiment, according to a company spokesperson.


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