Welcome to the January 11, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
New Advanced Computing Institute to Tackle Big Problems
Seattle Times (01/09/13) Katherine Long
The University of Washington (UW) and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) recently formed the Northwest Institute for Advanced Computing, with the goal of solving some of the world's most challenging problems. The institute is designed to find ways to mine the huge amounts of data generated every day by scientific instruments and household electronics, says PNNL associate director Doug Ray. For example, Ray says new computational techniques can help design a smart electric grid system, and analyzing biological data can help find causes and cures for diseases. Ray notes that computer modeling also can be used to study climate change, and cell phone data could be analyzed to find ways of minimizing traffic jams. UW and PNNL researchers will work together using advanced computer systems to facilitate data-driven scientific discovery and improve computational modeling. "The new center is fundamentally about methodology," says Ed Lazowska, director of the UW eScience Institute. "UW and PNNL have significant and complementary strengths; together we’ll be able to do amazing things."
Your Gadgets Are Slowly Breaking the Internet
Technology Review (01/09/13) David Talbot
Ever-mounting numbers of wireless devices are straining Internet capacity, and a number of U.S. labs aim to address this problem, with the overarching challenge being a Web overhaul to accommodate an anticipated 15 billion network-linked devices by 2015. Among the concepts under development is reworking networks to acquire data from the nearest location rather than from a data center at a fixed address. The University of California, Los Angeles' Named Data Networking (NDN) project would assign addresses to data packets that stress the information they contain in addition to the IP addresses of their point of origin and their destination. Such codes could effect easy exchange of data directly between devices, and this approach could allow cryptographic attachment of security and privacy settings directly to the data, instead of depending on antivirus programs, firewalls, and similar measures. Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist David Clark says the NDN project "really changes the underlying model of what a network does. It replaces communication among end points with access to data, wherever it may be." New Internet architectures also could enable devices to attach to multiple networks simultaneously.
Spear Phishing: Researchers Work to Counter Email Attacks That Gain Recipients’ Trust
Georgia Tech News (01/08/13) John Toon
Georgia Tech researchers are working to counter threats from spear phishing. The success of spear phishing attacks depends on finding the weakest link in a corporate network, which can be just one person who falls for an authentic-looking email. "To keep these attacks out, email users have to do the right thing every single time," says Georgia Tech's Andrew Howard. The researchers are working to help email recipients by taking advantage of the same public information malware authors use to con their victims, much of which comes from Securities and Exchange Commission filings or social media sites. "We’d like to see email systems smart enough to let users know that information contained in a suspect message is from an open source and suggest they be cautious," Howard says. Other techniques to counter the attacks may come from having access to all of the traffic entering a corporate network. For example, network security tools could use information about similar spear phishing attempts to warn other members of an organization. "We are looking at building behavioral patterns for users so we’d know what kinds of email they usually receive," Howard says.
Gaming Technology Meets Elder Care in Europe
InformationWeek (01/08/13) Gary Flood
European computer scientists, academics, and health care professionals are collaborating on Verve, a $6 million project to study how gaming technology can help people with chronic neurological and mental health disorders. The researchers aim to build therapeutic tools based on what they find useful from personalized virtual reality environments, 3D Web graphics, and serious computer games to help vulnerable people complete daily activities in a fulfilling and dignified way. The researchers want to create computer-generated avatars that look and speak like believable humans, and place them in computer games to model everyday scenarios such as cooking and shopping. Verve will use XML3D, XFlow, and other related technologies to create a common visualization platform for the users. "We're looking to see if we can solve specific clinical problems by employing existing technology from the entertainment sector that's never been applied to clinical issues," says Trinity College professor Richard Reilly.
Smartphones Make Identifying Endangered Animals Easy
New Scientist (01/10/13) Hal Hodson
Harvard University researcher Walter Scheirer has developed a smartphone-based machine-vision system that automatically recognizes and counts specific animals. Scheirer says the system could help biologists make quicker, more accurate judgments about the health of fragile ecosystems. Although automated camera traps are already in use, they are not selective enough. "Right now, we have to manually go through every photo to identify species and separate photos of interest from false photos," says Princeton researcher Siva Sundaresan. The system starts by scanning the environment for objects that could be the animals it is looking for. It looks for pixel clumps that are new to the scene, then studies them to determine whether they represent any of the animals it has been trained to recognize. The algorithms analyze the content of each frame and look for patterns of pixels that identify the animal. Testing has shown the system can distinguish between three different species of ground squirrel 78 percent of the time. Scheirer says the goal is to develop an inexpensive, easy-to-use system that can automatically detect animals in any environment.
Intel Plans on Controlling Computers With a Dirty Look
Computerworld (01/09/13) Sharon Gaudin
Perceptual computing was the focus of Intel researchers at the recent International CES conference. Intel views gestures, voice commands, and facial expressions as ways to control computers in the not-so-distant future. Intel's Alastair Ong presented a demonstration in which he controlled a computer using hand gestures. "Right now, we use keyboards and mice," he says. "We're moving away from that. We're looking for ways to improve the user experience. What's more empowering than controlling our computers?" Perceptual technology would recognize, for example, when a gamer looks frustrated and could make the game easier, or would notice when a cook has flour on her hands and could turn the pages of an online recipe. Some observers wonder whether perceptual computing could be used in advertising, and Ong says that could work by enabling the technology to show an ad for coffee to someone who looks tired. He says Intel sees perceptual computing as a way to improve the user experience.
Keeping to Your New Year Resolutions With PiFace
University of Manchester (01/08/13) Daniel Cochlin
University of Manchester researchers are using Raspberry Pi and PiFace, an add-on device that powers real-life applications, to create a program that helps monitor users' New Year's resolutions. The program takes the form of a chicken that gives orders to resolution-breakers and tweets them to the user's Twitter account to publicly shame them for breaking their resolutions. The researchers say Raspberry Pi and PiFace are simple and user-friendly ways for computers to interface with the world. The researchers also have developed a series of workshops for school teachers, hoping to transform how computing is taught in schools. "This is an exciting development, taking computing out of its box and allowing schoolchildren to play with the science of computing," says Manchester senior lecturer David Rydeheard. "The combination of Raspberry Pi and PiFace creates a cheap personal laboratory for computer science that every child can own." The workshops have attracted more than 50 teachers per session. "After seeing what Raspberry Pi and PiFace could do we had suggestions including an automated insulin monitor that can dial 999, and another that automatically reorders food when it detects the cupboard is bare," says Manchester's Andrew Robinson.
Berkeley Lab Contemplates Stepping Stone to Exascale Supercomputer
HPC Wire (01/08/13) Michael Feldman
The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) at Berkeley Lab recently began installing Edison, a Cray supercomputer that will exceed two peak petaflops when it is fully deployed. NERSC also is planning a next-generation system, code named NERSC-8, which could be the center's last major deployment before reaching the exascale stage. The center's plan is for NERSC-8 to start operations before the end of 2015. In addition, NERSC is planning another system, known as Trinity, a supercomputer for the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the Sandia National Laboratory (SNL), which also is slated for deployment in 2015. Since both systems will be installed in the 2015-2016 time frame and are intended to run for four to six years, they represent the pre-cursor to exascale systems, which are scheduled to be developed by 2020. NERSC-8's goal is to deliver a system that performs 10 to 30 times faster than Hopper, the NERSC-6 model. Trinity's performance is expected to be 20 to 60 times faster than Cielo, the fastest LANL/SNL system to date. The biggest challenge will be to provide a system that can run the 600 science applications currently in use on Berkeley's hardware.
NSA Documents on 'Perfect Citizen' Program Raise Many More Questions
eWeek (01/08/13) Robert Lemos
More than two years after the Wall Street Journal disclosed the Perfect Citizen program, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) released documents from the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) detailing the initiative, but redacted material in the documents continues to provoke questions from digital rights groups. The issues concern whether Perfect Citizen is a program to help protect digital infrastructure from cyberattack, or to monitor private networks. The Wall Street Journal described Perfect Citizen as a system that "would rely on a set of sensors deployed in computer networks for critical infrastructure that would be triggered by unusual activity suggesting an impending cyberattack." At the time of disclosure, NSA's Judith Emmel said the system "does not involve the monitoring of communications or the placement of sensors on utility company systems." But NSA blanked out sections of the recently released documents covering three of the five technical mandates that set the scope of Perfect Citizen, as well as many descriptions of the skills required by specialized software engineers running the system. EPIC's Jeramie Scott says his group needs the missing information to verify the extent of Perfect Citizen. "There is something going on here, and we need more information to confirm the extent of this program," Scott says.
The Future of Search
Wired News (01/04/13) Tom Vanderbilt
Google fellow Amit Singhal and colleagues are working on improving Web search so that Google will understand terms as things with an Internet life and a history of their own, keying them to individual searchers through increasingly refined techniques such as speech, gesture, or gaze recognition. Google's Knowledge Graph has helped make Google smarter by supporting a paradigm in which the system does not seek Web pages containing a string of letters, but specific entities, Singhal says. "Search now understands that the Taj Mahal is a building, but also a music band, a casino and a bunch of restaurants," he notes. The focus of the Knowledge Graph is working out what the searcher wants to know, parsing disambiguation and screening out noise. The graph was beta-tested by many people in its User Experience Lab, which enlisted two-way mirrors and eye-tracking devices for the tests. Early studies focused on whether users even saw the Knowledge Graph, and they frequently did not. Another technology that may play a role in advancing search is a neural network for unsupervised learning developed by Jeff Dean in Google's Systems Infrastructure Group. This form of learning could be designated unsupervised search, as the machines would not only locate but also interpret what they find, a search engine that produces its own algorithms.
Iamus: Is This the 21st Century's Answer to Mozart?
BBC News (01/02/13) Sylvia Smith
Spanish researchers are developing Iamus, a project aimed at creating software that can write musical scores without human help. "Each composition has a musical core that becomes ever more complex and evolves automatically," says University of Malaga professor Francisco Vico. Iamus is given specific information that lays out which instruments have to be composed for the desired length of time. The activity is controlled by an algorithm inspired by biological processes. Similar to human genome mutations, Iamus alters and rearranges its source material to create complex pieces of music. "It evolves the composition inside the machine," Vico says. So far Iamus has only composed pieces in the contemporary classical style, but the researchers say it has the potential to compose in other genres using instruments to which it has not yet been introduced. "If we instruct the computer to use more notes, like for example in Hindu or Arabic music--they have more notes to the scale--then Iamus will be able to compose pieces that relate to those cultures," says Gustavo Diaz-Jerez, a software consultant and pianist. "It's just a matter of extending the knowledge of the computer."
Iowa State Computer, Electrical Engineers Working to Help Biologists Cope With Big Data
Iowa State University News Service (01/07/13)
Iowa State University researchers are using sensors and software to precisely control the light, temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide inside tiny plastic cubes, each of which holds one seedling, so that researchers can study how the environment affects a plant's phenotype. Although plant scientists understand plant genetics, they do not have much data about how genetics and environment combine to influence phenotype, says Iowa State professor Liang Dong. However, Dong's microsystem instrument will generate more data than scientists can easily analyze. "We're seeing a proliferation of new instruments in the biological sciences," says Iowa State professor Srinivas Aluru, who is leading an initiative to build researcher teams that can solve big data problems in next-generation DNA sequencing, systems biology, and phenomics. The research teams are developing computing solutions that utilize emerging technologies such as cloud computing and high-performance computers. The computational biology initiative has so far attracted $5.5 million for four major research projects.
Teaching Computers to Hear Emotions
IEEE Spectrum (01/04/13) Steven Cherry
Researchers have developed software that can identify six distinct emotional states imparted by a person's voice with 81 percent accuracy. The software works by splitting speech up into 60-millisecond intervals and then extracting and measuring the factors of loudness and pitch in various ways. The researchers studied the variables' absolute values and how much they changed from one interval to the next, and then analyzed the frequency content or formants. University of Rochester professor Wendi Heinzelman says the model generated by the software can be trained to recognize such features in angry speech, happy speech, and so on. The advantages of this approach include lower data storage requirements, power consumption, and transmission needs, while it also allows the computation to be quicker than in other methods that use whole segments of speech, according to Heinzelman. The researchers trained and tested the algorithm using a database of utterances spoken by seven professional actors so that it could produce what Heinzelman calls the ground truth. The emotions the software was trained to identify included anger, sadness, disgust, neutrality, fear, and happiness. Heinzelman says the app is intended to be used by therapists or clinicians for diagnosing psychological disorders.
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