Welcome to the March 1, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Facebook, Google Tech Gurus to Design Cancer Research Game
Reuters (02/28/13) Kate Kelland
Cancer Research UK is working with private-sector technology experts from Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other companies to design and develop a mobile game aimed at accelerating the search for new cancer drugs. "By harnessing the collective power of citizen scientists we'll accelerate the discovery of new ways to diagnose and treat cancer much more precisely," says Cancer Research UK's Carlos Caldas. As part of the project, a group of 40 computer programmers, gamers, graphic designers, and other specialists will participate in a weekend "GameJam" to turn the charity's raw genetic data into a game format for future citizen scientists. After the GameJam, an agency will develop the resulting program with the goal of launching it in mid-2013. Although technology advances enable scientists to process data faster than ever, much of it still needs to be analyzed by humans rather than machines. "With the collective power of hundreds of thousands of people across the globe helping our scientists to analyze this data we could drastically speed up research," says Cancer Research UK. "The human eye can detect subtle changes that machines are not programmed to look for--leading to serendipitous discoveries providing clues to the causes and drivers of the disease."
This Amazing 3-D Desktop Was Born at Microsoft
Wired News (02/26/13) Ryan Tate
Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Jinha Lee, through an internship at Microsoft Applied Science, developed a three-dimensional computer interface called SpaceTop that lets users virtually reach into a computer screen to manipulate items such as Web pages. Using a transparent LED display and two cameras, SpaceTop monitors gestures and eye gaze to alter perspective. Lee says 3D interfaces and gesture controls will become increasingly prevalent. He notes that traditional computers limit interaction to a single screen, but people prefer to work with physical interfaces that interact in multiple modalities; for example, when people read a book, they can highlight or underline words and write notes in a notepad. Although not all users will want 3D capability for tasks such as writing email, 3D interaction is especially useful for collaboration, design, and new activities such as virtually trying on clothes, Lee says. He has demonstrated a concept video of a smartphone app that lets users virtually try on watches from a Web store using augmented-reality goggles. The ultimate success of 3D interfaces might hinge on details such as the timing of 3D interface suggestions to a user, and the distance a user must travel to interact with the interface.
Camera Inside Spiraling Football Provides Ball's-Eye View of Field
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (02/27/13) Byron Spice
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and Tokyo's University of Electro-Communications have developed BallCam, a football with a camera built inside. The researchers have demonstrated that a camera embedded in the side of a rubber-sheathed plastic foam football can record video while the ball is in flight, giving spectators a unique, ball's-eye view of the playing field. Although the raw video is unwatchable because the ball spins at 600 rotations per minute, the researchers have developed an algorithm that converts the video into a stable, wide-angle view. The BallCam was developed as part of a larger study of digital sports. "We're interested in how technology can be used to enhance existing sports and how it might be used to create new sports," says Carnegie Mellon University's Kris Kitani. The BallCam system uses a single camera with a narrow field of view to generate a dynamic, wide-angle video. When processing the video frames, the algorithm uses the sky to determine which frames were made when the camera was looking up and which were made when it was looking down. The upward frames are discarded and the remaining overlapping frames are combined using software to create a large panorama.
Google's Vint Cerf Talks Identifiers vs. Pseudonyms Online
ZDNet (02/27/13) Rachel King
Google chief Internet evangelist and ACM president Vint Cerf, speaking at the 2013 RSA Conference, discussed axiomatic authentication, or pseudonyms versus precise identification. Cerf touched on the debate concerning digital signatures and just how authoritative the technology is, noting that it often depends on the jurisdiction of where the digital signature was created, given that some countries have passed laws that digital signatures are just as legal as printed signatures. "There all kinds of details that we have to work out that this can be trusted as much as physical signatures," he says. "It's often the case that people try to imbue the digital environment to insist it provide more functionality and assurance than the real world does." Cerf challenged the developers and engineers in the audience to design a system that capitalizes on digital signature's strengths to develop systems to manage or access authenticated devices. However, based on the growing number of connected and mobile devices around the world, Cerf says developers should consider the fact that many of these devices are going to be a part of the human environment. "We want strong authentication to be our friend here," he notes.
Gates, Zuckerberg Champion Computer Programming in New Nonprofit Video
Reuters (02/26/13) Gerry Shih
Parents should demand that more schools teach computer programming, according to a new online video campaign from Hadi and Ali Partovi, brothers who formed Code.org, a nonprofit organization created to promote computer science education. The Partovi brothers immigrated to America from Iran in 1984, and Hadi says an early interest in computers and a formal education in writing software has put them in a position to have flourishing careers. The brothers graduated with computer science degrees from Harvard University, and launched companies that were sold to Microsoft and MySpace. The 10-minute video includes familiar startup scenes, as well as interviews with tech entrepreneurs such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, and some unexpected pop celebrities. The brothers also have lined up endorsements from Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and American Federation of Teachers union leader Randi Weingarten. "Computer programming, right now, is the best embodiment of the American Dream," Hadi says. "The tragedy is the skills it takes are not hard to learn, but only 10 percent of schools offer [computer science] courses, and these are usually the privileged schools."
Computer Scientists Prevent Data Theft on Smartphones and Tablet Computers
Saarland University (02/27/13)
Saarland University researchers have developed SRT Appguard, software that prevents Android-based smartphones and tablets from turning into digital spies against their owners. The program scans every selected app installed on the device and indicates its real behavior, such as accessing private contacts, establishing a connection to the Internet, or tracking the user's position, says Saarland University professor Michael Backes. SRT Appguard takes advantage of the fact that Android apps, which are written in Java, run in a virtual machine. Before the suspicious app starts, Appguard scans the storage of the virtual machine to detect security-critical functions. Although Appguard does not manipulate the bytecode, the researchers say it does direct the function call within the virtual machine to the security monitor, which observes the suspicious method calls and can block them if necessary.
Blueprint for an Artificial Brain
Bielefeld University (02/26/13)
Bielefeld University's Andy Thomas is developing an artificial brain using memristors, which are electronic microcomponents that imitate natural nerves. Having already developed a memristor capable of learning, Thomas and his colleagues are now trying to put the memristors together in a brain blueprint. Similar to an electronic version of a synapse, a memristor connects electric circuits and learns from previous impulses sent by the circuits. Thomas says the similarity to synapses makes memristors especially fitting for creating an artificial brain and a new generation of computers. To make a neuromorphic computer work, certain principles of nature must be transferred to technological systems. For example, memristors must recall earlier impulses and neurons must only respond to an impulse that goes beyond a specific threshold. Learning responses, such as those demonstrated in Pavlov's classic dog experiment, are possible with memristors because they are capable of greater information storing refinement than the bits on which previous computer processors have been based, Thomas says. For example, while bits only have on and off modes, memristors can raise or lower resistance continuously. "This is how memristors deliver a basis for the gradual learning and forgetting of an artificial brain," Thomas notes.
Clever Battery Completes Stretchable Electronics Package
Northwestern University Newscenter (02/26/13) Megan Fellman
Researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois have demonstrated a flexible lithium-ion battery that can power stretchable electronics. The researchers have demonstrated a battery that continues to work even when stretched, folded, twisted, and mounted on a human elbow. They note the technology can be used anywhere, including inside the human body. "When we stretch the battery, the wavy interconnecting lines unfurl, much like yarn unspooling," says Northwestern professor Yonggang Huang. "And we can stretch the device a great deal and still have a working battery." The power and voltage of the stretchable battery are similar to a conventional lithium-ion battery of the same size, but the flexible battery can stretch up to 300 percent of its original size and still function. The stretchable electronic circuits are equipped with pop-up technology that enables circuits to bend, stretch, and twist. In addition, the stretching process is reversible, and the battery can be wirelessly recharged. The researchers produced an array of minuscule circuit elements linked by metal wire pop-up bridges; when the array is stretched, the wires pop up rather than the rigid circuits.
What Is the Internet of Everything?
Government Technology (02/26/13) Colin Wood
Professor Ravi Pendse is promoting the Internet of Everything at Wichita State University and the surrounding community, to advance the much-discussed scenario in which all people and objects are connected to a common Internet backbone. He says that as the cost of sensors drops, such a concept is closer to becoming reality. Among Pendse's projects are moisture sensors that will be part of a smart sprinkler system that conserves water. With sensors costing one dollar or less and the Internet already in place, he says the system's startup cost is minimal. Countries around the world are facing water conservation issues, and the sprinkler system could serve as a prototype solution. “This gives us another inexpensive way to perhaps look at our resources and leverage the infrastructure that is inevitably going to be there," Pendse says. Some sensor networks already exist, and data analytics and improved connectivity through mobile devices will instigate further growth. Pendse says city managers should investigate ways to use an Internet of Things to bring value to citizens, such as by affixing sensors to light poles to alert the public to peak pollution periods.
Wearable Display Meets Blindfold Test for Sensing Danger
Phys.Org (02/23/13) Nancy Owano
University of Illinois researchers have created a wearable device called SpiderSense that gives its wearers extra-sensory perception about their surroundings, which could improve navigation safety for the blind or assist cyclists and drivers in traffic. Using ultrasonic reflections from objects, SpiderSense helps users navigate without using vision by projecting information about the user's environment onto the skin to provide extra directional awareness of surrounding objects. For example, when the ultrasound detects movement closer to the microphone, the arms exert increased pressure on the body. Modules are distributed across the suit and controlled through a controller box, which holds the power source, electronics, and system logic. The modules and the controller box are connected via 10-pin ribbon cables, but eventually could rely on a wireless Bluetooth connection. To test SpiderSense, the researchers asked blindfolded students to throw cardboard ninja stars at approaching "attackers," and the students accurately sensed the approaches 95 percent of the time.
Lessons From Cockroaches Could Inform Robotics
University of Michigan News Service (02/22/13) Nicole Casal Moore
University of Michigan researchers are studying how biological systems stabilize themselves, which could help them design steadier robots. During testing with cockroaches, the researchers found that they were able to maintain their footing mechanically, using their momentum and the spring-like architecture of their legs, instead of relying on impulses sent from their central nervous system to their muscles. "The response time we observed is more than three times longer than you'd expect," says Michigan professor Shai Revzen. To gather information about the roaches' gait, the researchers used a high-speed camera to constantly measure the position of each of the insects' six feet, as well as the ends of its body. Software then merges the continuous data collected from the cameras into an estimate of where the roach is within its gait cycle. Revzen says the findings suggest the insect adjusts its gait only at whole-step intervals rather than at any point in a step. Periodic, rather than continuous, feedback system might lead to more stable walking robots. "The animals obviously have much better mechanical designs than anything we know how to build," Revzen says. "But if we could learn how they do it, we might be able to reproduce it."
Planet-Spotting Algorithms Help Detect Cancer
Network World (02/22/13) Michael Cooney
Computer algorithms that enable astronomers to find planets and galaxies can be used in a system that allows medical workers to spot breast cancer cells. The Cancer Research U.K. Cambridge Institute and the Department of Oncology and the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge have collaborated to accelerate breast cancer diagnosis. Researchers have automated the process of peering through microscopes to detect subtle differences in the staining of tumor samples, which is similar to the process of using a telescope to search for distinct objects in the night sky. The team tested the algorithms by using them to assess levels of known biomarkers for aggressive cancer in samples from more than 2,000 breast cancer patients. "Researchers then compared the accuracy of manually scoring these results, by observing the staining of the tumor samples down the microscope, versus relying on a computer to do this automatically," the researchers say. "This showed that the new automated system was at least as accurate as the manual one, while at the same time being many times faster."
With Robots, Humans Face ‘New Society’
KTH Royal Institute of Technology (02/22/13) David Callahan
The European Union recently approved funding for the Human Brain Project, which KTH Royal Institute of Technology professor Danica Kragic says brings humanity one step closer to the prospect of living among humanoid robots. The Human Brain Project will involve 87 universities in a simulation of the cells, chemistry, and connectivity of the brain in a supercomputer, in order to understand the brain’s architecture, organization, functions, and development. However, before robots can offer some value to households, researchers and developers must overcome some significant technological challenges, Kragic notes. She says robots present some new problems for humans, such as identifying the social norms for interacting with robots. "It’s difficult to say what’s right and wrong until you are actually in the situation where you need to question yourself and your own feelings about a certain machine--and the big question is how your feelings are conditioned by the fact that you know it’s a machine, or don’t know whether it’s a machine," Kragic says. She predicts that one of the most popular consumer applications of robots will be as housekeepers, and they also could assume repetitive tasks such as operating buses or working in restaurants.
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