Welcome to the March 4, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
UAB Develops a Simple Defense for Complex Smartphone Malware
UAB News (02/28/13) Kevin Storr
University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) researchers have developed Tap-Wave-Rub (TRW), a set of hand-gesture techniques to prevent sophisticated malware from secretly attacking smartphones. The researchers say their TRW system will turn the phone's weakest security component, the user, into its strongest. "The most fundamental weakness in mobile device security is that the security decision process is dependent on the user," says UAB professor Nitesh Saxena. For example, a malware writer whose goal is to make hidden phone calls or texts to premium-rate numbers may hide a malicious code within a game app; when prompted at the time of installing the game app, pressing yes would allow the game to make phone calls. TWR relies on a standard proximity sensor, which saves power by turning the screen off when a phone is near the user's ear, to verify the user's desire to voice-dial or message by requiring the user to tap, wave, or rub their hand over the sensor before actions are completed. "We purposely designed the TWR program to not involve yes/no and to force people to stop for a moment and think about whether or not the action requested by the phone is what they really would like their mobile device to perform," Saxena says.
Vint Cerf Sees an 'Interspecies Internet' to Talk With Animals
CNet (02/28/13) Dara Kerr
Google chief Internet evangelist and ACM president Vint Cerf, along with musician Peter Gabriel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Neil Gershenfeld, and cognitive psychologist Diana Reiss have proposed a new inter-species Internet that would facilitate communication between humans and animals. They discussed their vision at the recent TED conference. "All kinds of possible sentient beings may be interconnected," Cerf says. "We're beginning to explore what it means to communicate with something that isn't just another person." Cerf previously has discussed the idea of an interplanetary Internet that could facilitate communication between planets, satellites, asteroids, robotic spacecraft, and crewed vehicles. He believes the Web could connect the cosmos. "What that means is that what we're learning with these interactions with other species will teach us, ultimately, how we might interact with an alien from another world," Cerf says. "I can hardly wait."
Considering Data's Effect on Society
The New York Times (03/04/13) P. B6 Steve Lohr
A group of academics, business executives, and journalists recently met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Media Lab to discuss the concept of data-driven societies. MIT professor Alex Pentland gave a presentation titled "Reinventing Society in the Wake of Big Data," which focused on the fact that the most important data becoming available is information about people's behavior. He says the specific behavioral data could lead to changing how we think about society and how a society is governed. Pentland notes that new technologies enable researchers to track social phenomena down to the individual level and the social and economic connections among individuals. He says the ability to monitor such tiny patterns means "we're entering a new era of social physics." Former U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt said at the meeting that a data-driven society could make government more efficient, and help it transfer income to people who would benefit the most. However, he wonders if data-driven decisions would be politically acceptable.
Wireless Connections Creep Into Everyday Things
Associated Press (02/27/13) Peter Svensson
The next wave of the wireless revolution will center on machine-to-machine communication that occurs without human intervention, and several examples of the technology were on display at the recent Mobile World Congress. Qualcomm, for example, is demonstrating a coffeepot that works on a timer controlled by a tablet computer or Internet alarm clock. Tethercell is showing a mock AA battery containing a smaller AAA battery that fits in a regular battery compartment to allow smartphones and tablets to order the battery to shut off a device within a range of 80 feet. Meanwhile, General Motors unveiled an update to its OnStar wireless assistance service that supports faster data connections as well as remote engine diagnostics and software upgrades. Vodafone announced a "smart" car application that informs car insurance companies of vehicle usage and driver style scores and also can offer safety advice. As the world progresses toward an "Internet of Things" that will link everyone and everything, 12.5 billion smart devices will exist by 2020, not counting phones, PCs, and tablets, compared with the current 1.3 billion devices, according to Machina Research. Connecting smart devices with one another is the next major challenge.
The Internet Needs a Plan B
Wired News (02/27/13) Michael V. Copeland
One of the Internet's first users, Danny Hillis, spoke at TED 2013 about his concern over the network's vulnerability. He notes that systems from all walks of life now depend on the Internet for service and administrative functions. Although much attention is paid to protecting individuals online, little focus is given to protecting the Internet. “We’re setting ourselves up for disaster, like we did with the financial system,” says Hillis, pointing to recent incidents such as the grounding of all flights west of the Mississippi due to a single router glitch. Another incident occurred when Stuxnet coding led to the loss of control and ultimate destruction of a centrifuge at an Iranian nuclear facility, which did not think of itself as Internet-connected, Hillis notes. In the event of an effective denial-of-service attack on the Internet, "we don’t have a Plan B--we don’t have a plan for how to communicate when the Internet is in trouble,” he says. Hillis thinks a secondary network based on new protocols should be created for emergency events to enable police stations, hospitals, and airports to continue to function. Private industry might be willing to fund the creation of a backup Internet and subscribe to it as a service, Hillis says.
Supercomputing Challenges and Predictions
HPC Wire (02/27/13) Richard L. Brandt
The future of supercomputing was a popular topic at SC12 in Salt Lake City last November. Flying cars were not on the agenda, but experts made smarter predictions, such as improved weather forecasting and faster discovery of new drugs. IEEE has created a summary of the supercomputing predictions and challenges made by its members at the event. Materials sciences research will lead to cheaper batteries with more capacity, says Rajeev Thakur, technical program chair of SC12 and deputy director of the Mathematics and Computer Science Division at Argonne National Laboratory. Thakur also believes more questions about the universe will be answered as a result of cosmological simulations. Bronis de Supinski, co-leader of the Advanced Simulation and Computing program's Application Development Environment and Performance Team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, predicts a better power grid, but says the need for cheaper power and less dissipation would present problems. He also sees issues with memory bandwidth and capacity, while Thakur cites funding as an area of concern.
'Wet' Computer Server Could Cut Internet Waste
University of Leeds (02/27/13) Chris Bunting
University of Leeds researchers are testing Iceotope, a liquid-cooled computer server that they say could greatly reduce the carbon footprint of the Internet. Conventional computers use air to cool their electronics, but all of Iceotope's components rely on a silent liquid-cooling process that takes advantage of the natural convection of heat. The researchers calculate that Iceotope's design cuts the amount of energy needed for cooling by 80 percent to 97 percent. "The important thing for the future of computing and the Internet is that it is more than 1,000 times more effective at carrying heat than air," says Leeds researcher Jon Summers. The non-flammable liquid coolant, called 3M Novec, can be in direct contact with electronics because it does not conduct electricity. The system uses a low-energy pump located at the bottom of the cabinet that pumps water to the top, where it cascades down throughout all 48 modules due to gravity. A third coolant can be drawn from grey water sources such as rainwater or river water, further reducing the environmental impact of the server.
Sandia’s New Fiber Optic Network Is World’s Largest
Sandia National Laboratories (02/28/13) Sue Holmes
Sandia National Laboratories says it has built the world's largest fiber-optic local area network (LAN). The network consists of 265 buildings and 13,000 computer network ports, bringing high-speed communications to some of the labs' most remote technical areas for the first time. The network also will save an estimated $20 million over five years through energy and other savings and not having to buy replacement equipment. Once the network is fully operational, Sandia expects to reduce energy costs by 65 percent. Sandia says it needs the best computing capability possible for the problems it addresses as part of its support for the National Nuclear Security Administration. "We had already thought through what this might mean to us, what it might mean to our lifecycle costs and where the investments would be, and we were already pretty comfortable with fiber and the technologies that go with it," says Sandia's Steve Gossage. Buildings with copper LANs have separate networks for phones, computers, wireless, and security. However, fiber-optic links put everything in a single network cable, which eliminates many power-consuming switches and routers and makes the network simpler to operate and less expensive to install.
New Technology for Animation Film Experts
Max Planck Gessellschaft (02/27/13) Christian Theobalt
Max Planck Institute for Informatics researchers have developed a technique for creating virtual worlds. The researchers say their technology will simplify the work of cartoon makers, and assist doctors and athletes with motion analysis. Current motion-capture techniques require actors to wear a body suit with markers attached to it. The researchers say their technique eliminates the need for the markers but captures the movements quickly and realistically. The method also enables actors to wear their normal clothes and be filmed with ordinary cameras. "The system even detects a person’s movements when they are covered up by other objects or when there are disturbances in the background," says Max Planck Institute's Nils Hasler. "This will allow us to shoot visual effects outside of the studio in the future, for example, out in open nature." The researchers note that athletes also could use the technology to analyze specific body movements. In addition, Hasler says the technology will make it easier for doctors to depict and track the degree of recovery after operations on joints.
Engineers Deconstruct Smartphones to Find New Uses
IDG News Service (02/27/13) Martyn Williams
Developers increasingly are reusing the components of smartphones for new applications. Smartphones now pack so much power and so many sensors into a very small space, and at a relatively low cost. Their hardware as well as software such as Android offer advantages for development. For example, Strand 1, a nano-satellite based on a Google Nexus One cellphone, recently was launched into space on a rocket. Meanwhile, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits used a smartphone when they were asked to devise a camera that could be mounted on the back of an eagle to provide a bird's-eye view of its life. They dismantled the phone and repacked some components to develop an eaglecam that contained a camera module, processor, and memory, and could communicate wirelessly, enabling real-time video streaming from the back of the bird. Another camera developed by Fraunhofer retains the compass, gyroscope, temperature sensor, accelerometer, and barometer often found in modern phones, and features a Bluetooth interface for connection to other devices such as a global positioning system unit. That means the camera can receive sensor data as well as record video.
Salford Ph.D. Student Develops Revolutionary Elderly Care Robot
University of Salford (02/26/13)
University of Salford researchers have created an interactive care robot designed to help care for elderly people in nursing homes. Salford's Antonio Espingardeiro has developed the prototype elderly care robot, which can remind people to take medications and exercise, as well as tell jokes. The robot can be programmed to perform routine health interventions, and facial-recognition technology enables it to remember the preferences and requirements of each patient. Espingardeiro also has designed the robot to provide 24-hour emergency notifications and directly connect to carers or doctors through videoconference or short messaging service. He believes the robot has the potential to improve the quality of life for the elderly. "I've already established that robots can provide meaningful interaction to supplement human contact, and from my work with care homes, I've seen first-hand how both staff and residents benefit from their presence," Espingardeiro says. He hopes to receive financial backing to conduct field trials and refine the robot's system.
Connecting the (Quantum) Dots
University of Pittsburgh News (02/26/13) B. Rose Huber
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Delft University of Technology have developed a method that better preserves qubits for use in quantum computers. The researchers say that hole spins, rather than electron spins, can keep quantum bits in the same physical state up to 10 times longer than before. The holes within hole spins are empty spaces left when electrons are taken out, notes Pittsburgh professor Sergey Frolov. The researchers used extremely thin filaments made of indium antimonide nanowires to create a transistor-like device that could transform the electrons into holes. They then precisely placed one hole in a nanoscale box called a quantum dot and controlled the spin of that hole using electric fields. "Our research shows that holes, or empty spaces, can make better spin qubits than electrons for future quantum computers," Frolov says. He notes the approach is far more advantageous than magnetic control, which has typically been employed until now. "To create a viable quantum computer, the demonstration of long-lived quantum bits, or qubits, is necessary," Frolov says. "With our work, we have gotten one step closer."
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