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Welcome to the June 3, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


China Surpassing U.S. With 54.9 Petaflop Supercomputer
Computerworld (06/03/13) Patrick Thibodeau

China has developed a supercomputer capable of 54.9 petaflops, more than twice the speed of any system in the United States, according to University of Tennessee professor Jack Dongarra. China's newest system, which was built with Intel chips but also contains Chinese-produced technologies, would be the world's fastest. Dongarra says the new system, called Tianhe-2, has 32,000 multicore Intel Xeon Ivy Bridge chips and 48,000 Xeon Phi chips. The world's current fastest supercomputer is located at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and runs at nearly 18 petaflops. However, Dongarra notes that China may have the leading system for some time, as the next large acquisition of a supercomputer for the U.S. Department of Energy will not be until 2015. U.S. researchers recently warned Congress that the United States is at risk of falling behind in high-performance computing development unless it commits hundreds of millions of dollars to exascale research. China wants to produce an exascale system before 2020, while the United States is not expected to produce an exascale system until about 2025, according to industry experts.


U.S. and China Agree to Hold Regular Talks on Hacking
New York Times (06/01/13) David E. Sanger; Mark Landler

The United States and China recently agreed to hold regular, high-level talks on how to set standards of behavior for cybersecurity and commercial espionage. The talks over computer hacking will start as part of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an annual meeting of Chinese and U.S. officials on a broad range of issues. U.S. officials do not expect the process to immediately yield a significant reduction in the daily cyberattacks from China, which have resulted in the "greatest transfer of wealth in history," according to the U.S. National Security Agency's Gen. Keith B. Alexander. The Chinese government also has insisted it is a victim of cyberattacks, not a perpetrator, and Chinese officials have denied the evidence gathered by the Pentagon and private security experts that a unit of the People’s Liberation Army is behind many of the most sophisticated attacks on the United States. However, a senior U.S. official says regular meetings are needed. “It is a serious issue that cannot simply be swatted away with talking points,” the official says. He notes the meetings would primarily focus on intellectual property theft. "Our concerns are not limited to that, but that’s what needs urgent attention,” he says.


Microsoft and IBM Researchers Develop a Lie Detector for the Cloud
Technology Review (06/03/13) Tom Simonite

IBM and Microsoft researchers have created software dubbed Pinocchio that can be used to see if a cloud service performed its promised work, or whether it may have been compromised and forced to do something inappropriate. Pinocchio converts a set of operations written in the C programming language into a version with a verification system embedded within the code. The new set is then delivered to the cloud service that is doing the work. Conversion also generates a verification key that can be used to check that the results sent back by the cloud service were actually produced by performing the operations requested. “The verification key behaves like a digital signature, in that you can provide it to any third party to check a result,” says Microsoft researcher Bryan Parno. Pinocchio also could be used to enhance privacy by supplying a reliable way for companies to remotely process personal data rather than send it back to their central servers. Previous deployments of such a system demonstrated that checking a result took more time than executing the work itself. Parno says Pinocchio has been shown through testing to be less intensive for certain mathematical operations, including those at the heart of some recommendation systems.


Researchers Develop Smartphone App to Help Search for the Rare New Forest Cicada
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (06/03/13)

University of Southampton researchers have developed a smartphone app designed to help in the search for a rare cicada found only in the New Forest National Park. "Modern smartphones have extremely sensitive microphones and enough computing power to automatically detect and recognize the song of the New Forest cicada," says Southampton's Alex Rogers. “We’re hoping that the millions of visitors to the New Forest can use their smartphones to help us locate any remaining colonies of the cicada that might remain in the forest.” The app, which is available for both iPhone and Android smartphones, records a 30-second survey using the smartphone’s microphone and looks for the particular frequencies and sound patterns that characterize the cicada’s song. If the app thinks a cicada might have been heard, it prompts the user to upload the recording, so that it can be analyzed in more detail. "We’ll be able to use the reports from the app to compile a map of areas that have already been searched, in order to focus the efforts of the professional entomologists who are also looking for the cicada," says Southampton's Davide Zilli.


CCC Sponsors Challenges and Visions Track at AAMAS 2013
CCC Blog (05/30/13) Kenneth Hines

The Computing Community Consortium (CCC) has unveiled the winners for its new Challenges and Visions Track, announced at the recent Twelfth International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems. The CCC awards funding to conferences to be used for prizes to the top three papers in the track, focusing on visionary ideas, long-term challenges, and novel research opportunities. The CCC culled 24 submissions down to six semifinalists through a double-blind review, based on reviewer ratings and discussion. Committee members then ranked and voted on the semifinalists, awarding first place to Bar Ilan University's Gal A. Kaminka for "Curing Robot Autism: A Challenge." A group of Harvard University researchers claimed second place with a paper titled "Collaborative Health Care Plan Support," while a team from Japan took the third spot with "Systems Resilience: A Challenge Problem for Dynamic Constraint-Based Agent Systems."


NASA Launches Second Robot Challenge
InformationWeek (05/30/13) Elena Malykhina

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is planning its second Sample Return Robot Challenge, in which teams will compete for a chance to win $1.5 million. As part of the competition, participants will have to demonstrate a self-operated robot capable of locating and collecting geologic samples from diverse terrain. The Sample Return Robot competition is part of NASA's Centennial Challenges program launched by the Space Technology Mission Directorate, which develops and tests hardware for use in NASA's future missions. The program aims to encourage innovation in autonomous navigation and robotics technologies, according to NASA. The competition consists of two levels. Level one involves a robot having to independently travel from a starting point in search of a sample that has been identified by its onboard computer. Then it has to bring an undamaged sample to the starting point within 30 minutes. If they are able to complete the first level, teams will move on to level two, which requires a robot to return two undamaged samples to the starting point within two hours. The challenge is one of many NASA-sponsored efforts to improve robotics technologies for interplanetary exploration.


Android Antiviral Products Easily Evaded, Northwestern Study Says
Northwestern University Newscenter (05/30/13) Sarah Ostman

Researchers at Northwestern University and North Carolina State University recently tested 10 of the most popular antiviral products for Android and found each could be easily circumnavigated by even the most simple obfuscation techniques. "Many of these products are blind to even trivial transformation attacks not involving code-level changes--operations a teenager could perform," says Northwestern professor Yan Chen. The researchers used a program they developed called DroidChameleon to transform the viruses into slightly altered but equally damaging versions, which were then tested on the antiviral products, often slipping through the software unnoticed. The researchers say the products’ shortcomings are due to their use of overly simple content-based signatures, special patterns the products use to screen for viruses. They chose to study Android products because that is the world's most commonly used operating system, and because its open platform enabled the researchers to easily conduct analyses. Although Chen notes antiviral products are improving, he says "these products are not as robust and effective as they must be to stop malware writers."


Smart Map Tracks People Through Camera Networks
New Scientist (05/30/13) Hal Hodson

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have developed a map that tracks people's movements across a network of closed-circuit TV cameras and gives their location in real time. The system uses security camera footage and analyzes it with an algorithm that combines facial recognition, color matching of clothing, and a person's expected position based on their last known location. The researchers tested the map in an open outdoor setting and in the public areas of a nursing home. In the nursing home, the researchers monitored 13 people as they moved through the building over a six-minute period. The map was able to track people to within one meter of their actual position. CMU's Shoou-I Yu says the system, called the Marauder's Map, is the first to track multiple individuals over many cameras in a complex indoor environment. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Richard Radke says Marauder's Map is a smaller-scale version of a system that he is developing for tracking people in airports flagged for monitoring by security officials. "There's a lot of interest in this kind of human re-identification," Radke says.


Measuring the Most Complex System Ever Built
University of Twente (Netherlands) (05/29/13)

University of Twente researcher Aiko Pras warns that humanity has become overly dependent on the Internet. “Few people realize how dependent we have become in such a short time on the most complex technical system ever built by man, the Internet," Pras says. "Without it there would be no more cashpoints, no water from the tap, and no more food from the supermarket.” Pras is a member of the University of Twente's Design and Analysis of Communication Systems (DACS) group, which is studying communication over SCADA systems, which are responsible for monitoring and coordinating critical infrastructures such as gas and water networks and the power grid. "We’re also working on car-to-car communication, which in future will enable cars to communicate with one another, making the roads much safer," he says. Pras notes there are still lots of technical challenges that need to be overcome, such as smart measuring techniques that enable conclusions to be drawn based on only a small part of the data. "You can compare measuring the Internet with measuring the universe: that too involves enormous quantities of data and you can’t measure the things you would like to," he says.


Robot Knows When to Pour You a Beer
CBS News (05/29/13) Chenda Ngak

A robot programmed by researchers at Cornell University can anticipate human actions and assist with tasks such as opening a refrigerator door or pouring a drink. The robot uses Microsoft Kinect and a database of three-dimensional videos to scan a room and identify what action is taking place. The robot then gathers data on how various objects in the room can be used, predicts different scenarios, and determines what to do based on what move it anticipates a human will make next. Researchers in Cornell's Personal Robotics Lab say the robot does this by generating a "set of possible continuations into the future [and] chooses the most probable." An algorithm helps the robot anticipate what a person will do next. The robot has 82 percent accuracy in making predictions one second into the future, 71 percent for three seconds, and 57 percent for 10 seconds. The ultimate goal is to have the robot learn to predict human actions on its own. "The future would be to figure out how the robot plans its action," says Cornell professor Ashutosh Saxena. "Right now we are almost hard-coding the responses, but there should be a way for the robot to learn how to respond."


Almost Human: Lab Treats Trauma With Virtual Therapy
BBC News (05/26/13) Alastair Leithead

The University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) is experimenting with virtual humans to gauge the boundaries and potential of virtual interaction. The lab has created a virtual therapist named Ellie, with the ultimate goal of helping to diagnose and treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Using a gaming sensor and a webcam, Ellie assesses information such as facial expression, body language, and voice tone to identify signs of depression and mental illness and determine how best to interact with a patient. Two researchers in a separate room currently control what Ellie says and adjust her voice and body language, but soon Ellie will function independently, using the knowledge of top psychologists to conduct remote therapy sessions online. "We see it more as being an assistant for the clinician in the same way you take a blood sample which is analyzed in a lab and the results sent back to the doctor," says ICT's Louis-Philippe Morency. Ellie could be particularly useful for veterans, who lack access to an adequate number of mental health care providers and are often hesitant to discuss problems with live people, says ICT's Skip Rizzo.


Trillion-Particle Simulation on Hopper Honored for Best Paper
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (05/23/13) Linda Vu

A team of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Cray researchers described their trillion-particle simulation on the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center’s (NERSC) Cray XE6 Hopper supercomputer. The simulation tapped more than 120,000 processors and produced about 250 terabytes of data. The researchers say their work enabled them to uncover insights that will help scientists use current petascale systems to their fullest. The researchers modeled more than 2 trillion particles for almost 23,000 time steps with the VPIC plasma physics application, and the simulation utilized about 80 percent of Hopper’s computing resources, 90 percent of the available memory on each node, and 50 percent of the Lustre scratch file system. A total of 10 separate trillion-particle datasets, each ranging between 30 to 42 terabytes in size, were written as HDF5 files on the scratch file system at a sustained rate of about 27 Gbps. "This is the largest I/O job ever undertaken by a NERSC application," notes researcher Prabhat. He says numerous exascale research projects mainly focus on the I/O performance of a few select applications. The researchers plan to scale up the I/O infrastructure for the HDF5 library so more scientific disciplines can close the gap to exascale.


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