Welcome to the July 9, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
How Far Will Tech Firms Go to Help Oppressive Governments?
CNet (07/05/12) Donna Tam
Slightly more than 50 percent of Internet stakeholders expect a future with greater corporate responsibility in terms of supporting human rights through technology, according to a recent Pew Internet survey. The study highlights the ongoing discussion of the tech industry's role in politics, activism, and freedom of speech. The study determined how far tech companies will go to help oppressive governments when it comes to controlling access to technology or following unethical business practices. Pew received answers from 1,021 Internet stakeholders for an opt-in survey that had different scenarios about the industry in 2020. Fifty-one percent of respondents said tech firms based in democratic countries will abide by a set of norms to help citizens being attacked or challenged by their governments. Thirty-nine percent said tech companies would cave to governmental pressure and profit off repressive processes, while 10 percent did not respond. The study received answers from academics, as well as companies such as Microsoft, Netflix, Google, Yahoo, Nokia, and Verizon. "I remain fairly optimistic ... that firms that try to control content in response to government intervention will risk being abandoned in droves, and thus forced to stick to a reasonable path," says Microsoft researcher Jonathan Grudin.
Android Researchers Demo Clickjacking Rootkit Vulnerability
InformationWeek (07/05/12) Mathew J. Schwartz
North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers have found that some versions of the Android mobile operating system are vulnerable to being exploited by a clickjacking rootkit, which could be disguised as a legitimate application and take control of the device. The researchers, led by NCSU professor Xuxian Jiang, developed a proof-of-concept rootkit to exploit the vulnerability within the Android framework on which the kernel runs. "The rootkit could be downloaded with an infected app, and once established, could manipulate the smartphone," the researchers say. Jiang notes the rootkit is more sophisticated than previous malware and specifically targets smartphone platforms. "The rootkit was not that difficult to develop, and no existing mobile security software is able to detect it," he says. "But there is good news. Now that we've identified the problem, we can begin working on ways to protect against attacks like these." Jiang also is in charge of the Android Malware Genome Project, which aims to share Android malware samples with the security community to help security experts better understand malware attacks and design more effective defenses.
Microsoft Training Computers to Finish Our Sentences
A team of computer scientists from Microsoft Research and colleagues from Cornell University and the University of California, Irvine are trying to determine if it is possible for computers to know what humans are going to say before they finish their sentences. The researchers devised a series of machine-learning algorithms for analyzing and understanding sentences, which use Good Turing frequency estimation. They trained the algorithms on the archive of all material published by the Los Angeles Times from 1985 to 2002, which consists of approximately 1.1 billion words, and presented them with a series of comprehension tests. The algorithms successfully filled in the blanks 53 percent of the time when working with SAT questions and 52 percent of the time when presented with passages from Sherlock Holmes novels. "Encouragingly, one third of the errors involve single-word questions, which test the dictionary definition of a word," the team says. Those mistakes could be reduced with a few tweaks, the researchers believe. Still, about 40 percent of the errors were associated with some level of general knowledge.
Suit Allows Users to Create Music Through Movement
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (07/03/12) Stephen Harris
Singer Imogen Heap performed at the recent TED Global 2012 conference in Edinburgh wearing a musical suit, which gave her a greater opportunity to create and manipulate sound and control music through the movement of her body. The suit covered Heap's hands, arms, and upper torso, and included light-emitting diodes and haptic technology to provide feedback. Heap was involved in the development of the musical suit, along with a team of electronic, software, and sound engineers, and a fashion designer and artist from Bristol University, the University of the West of England, and Queen Mary, University of London. "[W]ith all the mapping and the toolbox you've got, you can be playing an instrument at the same time as coupling together many aspects of the production side of things and controlling it in real time," says Bristol researcher Seb Madgwick. Microphones on the wrists capture sounds, and signals from sensors run through a central processor on the wearer's back that is wirelessly connected to a nearby computer. The computer uses music production software to convert movements into sounds in real time.
IBM Research Conjures Up Augmented Reality Mobile Shopping App
eWeek (07/02/12) Darryl K. Taft
IBM Research has developed an augmented reality mobile shopping application that enables retailers to personalize each individual customer's shopping experience. Consumers using the app can enter a store, download the app on their mobile device, and create a profile of features that matter to them. When they aim their device's video camera at merchandise, the app will instantly recognize items and, through augmented reality technology, overlay digital details over the images, such as ingredients, price, reviews, and discounts that are applicable for that day. If consumers opt in, information from their social networks can be merged into the information stream. The mobile device's video camera can recognize products according to shapes, colors, and other features using image-processing technologies. "By closing the gap between the online and in-store shopping experience, marketers can appeal to the individual needs of consumers and keep them coming back," says IBM Research's Sima Nadler. IBM says retailers also will be able to use the app to build in-store traffic by connecting with individual consumers, turning marketing into an unobtrusive welcomed service.
'Googling' Through Unique Audio Material: Towards a Better Search Result
Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) (07/02/12) Annemarijke Jolmers
University of Twente researchers are working on the CHoral project, which focuses on making spoken audio material from the past more accessible. CHoral is one of 18 projects from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research's Continuous Access to Cultural Heritage program. The researchers note that automatic speech recognition, when combined with search technology, can offer a method for searching through sound files. The researchers, led by Twente's Laurens van der Werff, proposed a way of evaluating the quality of automatically generated transcripts that pays more attention to how end users want to use the search results. They say the method offers the possibility of an improved analysis of where problems occur and provides leads for optimization. The CHoral project's techniques were used on collections from the Rotterdam Municipal Archive, the NIOD, and the interview archive of Aletta/IAVV. The techniques also have led to the University of Twente's SHoUT program, an open source speech recognition package. The researchers say the program makes each archived audio source accessible without the need for its own in-house specialist.
New Approach Uncovers Data Abuse on Mobile End Devices
Saarland University (07/05/12) Gordon Bolduan
Many mobile applications forward private data to third parties, but Saarland University researchers have developed the SRT AppGuard, which can prevent this data abuse by attacking the program code of the malicious apps. A recently University of California, Santa Barbara study found that among 825 examined apps for the iPhone and its operating system iOS, 21 percent transmit the ID number, 4 percent give the current position, and 0.5 percent copy the address book. SRT AppGuard analyzes every application installed on a smartphone and shows the user what kind of information it accesses and transmits to third parties. The researchers use the fact that Android apps work in a virtual machine, which is written in Java. The system saves the apps on the smartphone as executable bytecode after installation. Although the suspicious app is running, SRT AppGuard checks the bytecode for the security-sensitive instructions. The SRT AppGuard system also can block suspicious requests or change them so they cannot do more harm. "Thus, we can also prevent the use of known security vulnerabilities of the respective apps or Android operating system," says Saarland University professor Michael Backes.
Robot Avatar Body Controlled by Thought Alone
New Scientist (07/04/12) Helen Thomson
An international team of researchers, working on the Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-embodiment project, have used functional magnetic resonance imagery to scan the brain of a university student as he imagined moving different parts of his body. The researchers hope to eventually provide people with the ability to embody a robot hundreds of miles away using thought alone. Bar-Ilan University researchers first ran the student through several training stages in which he attempted to direct a virtual avatar by thinking of moving his hands and legs. The commands were sent via an Internet connection to a small robot at the Beziers Technology Institute. The system enabled the student to control the robot in near real time with his thoughts, while a camera on the robot's head allowed him to see from the robot's perspective. The researchers are fine-tuning the algorithm to look for patterns in brain activity instead of just the active areas, which will enable each thought process to control a greater range of movements. "I think it is very impressive and in the broadest sense reflects where it is that we are trying to get to in enabling communication in patients who are deemed to be locked in or even vegetative," says University of Western Ontario's Adrian Owen.
Mapping Research With WikiMaps
The evolution of a page, topic, or collection of connections on Wikipedia can be mapped using a dynamic tool from an international research team. The new tool, WikiMaps, makes use of the underlying information in the metadata of each article about the page's authors, contributions, edits, updates, and changes. The metadata "opens new opportunities to investigate the processes that lie behind the creation of the content as well as the relations between knowledge domains," say researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Collective Intelligence. They note WikiMaps combines different metrics and metadata from Wikipedia to fill in the gap of providing a fine-grained semantic network of relevant articles. "Cultural influences are deeply engrained in each of us, influencing how we act and respond to external influences," the researchers say. "WikiMaps could offer a fascinating real-time window into current history and culture, spotting trends as they are unfolding right under our noses." The tool also could be extended laterally to incorporate versions of Wikipedia in other languages.
Breaking the Brogrammer Code: Margo Seltzer's Views on Women in Computer Science
Txchnologist (06/27/12) Morgan E. Peck
In a recent interview with Txchnologist, Harvard University professor and ACM Fellow Margo Seltzer discussed the role of women in computer science. Just 25 percent of employed computer scientists are female, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and Seltzer says the biggest factor facilitating this trend is that society as a whole has done a poor job of marketing what it means to work with software. "If you look globally, there are countries where that isn't the image, and in fact, their numbers are dramatically better," she says. Seltzer also notes that there are pockets in cultures of companies that are hostile toward women. However, she says people do not find that as offensive. Seltzer also believes the bias against female computer scientists begins at early age, as boys are assumed to want to use computers but girls are not. "And it’s teachers saying stupid things without thinking about it," she says. "It’s teachers expressing surprise when the top math student is a girl." She also points out that when companies look to hire programmers, they generally want to pick from the deepest applicant pool possible. If half the potential candidates are not even applying, that means some major talent is being missed.
Researchers Develop an Artificial Cerebellum That Enables Robotic Human-Like Object Handling
Canal UGR (07/03/2012)
A robotic system developed at the University of Granada could potentially interact with humans. The Granada team initially built an artificial cerebellum, a biologically inspired adaptive microcircuit, that controlled a robotic arm with human-like precision, but movements were performed at very high speeds and a malfunction could be dangerous. As a result, this ruled out interaction with humans. The researchers addressed this issue by implementing a cerebellar spiking model that adapts to corrections and stores their sensorial effects, as well as records motor commands to predict the action or movement to be performed by the robotic arm. The team also made use of automatic learning, and developed two control systems that allow for accurate and robust control of the robotic arm during object handling. The cerebellum and the automatic control system work together to give the robot the ability to adapt to changing conditions, and thus the potential to interact with humans. The biologically inspired architectures of the model combine error training with predictive adaptive control.
New Patent Office Fighting Tech Giants for Talent
Wired News (07/02/12) Marcus Wohlsen
Silicon Valley, Calif., is one of four areas that will soon have a regional U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the challenge will be how to attract and retain qualified patent examiners in what the agency describes as "a hyper-competitive market" for high-tech workers. The region currently registers nearly 50 percent of patent applications coming from California and about 12 percent of the U.S.'s total, according to a recent survey. Proponents say that bringing the application process closer to the area will encourage more meaningful patents being granted by knowledgeable examiners. Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino expects the patent office in San Jose will employ 150 to 250 examiners. The city's proposal for a new office points out that although entry-level patent officers earn less than $61,000, benefits will help make up the difference. Mid-level patent examiner salaries typically surpass $100,000, which is a competitive rate for engineers with a similar level of experience, according to state and federal data cited in the city's proposal. The San Francisco Bay area boasts a large pool of talent, with engineers comprising about 4 percent of its workforce, or nearly 161,000 people, San Jose officials note.
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