Welcome to the June 14, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Patients Put at Risk by Computer Viruses
Wall Street Journal (06/14/13) Christopher Weaver
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning manufacturers of medical devices such as heart monitors that their products may be at risk of being infected by computer viruses. "We are aware of hundreds of medical devices that have been infected by malware," says the FDA's Bill Maisel. Although Maisel notes the agency is not aware of any deaths or injuries resulting from a virus, he says, "it's not difficult to imagine how these types of events could lead to patient harm." The agency now is recommending that device makers submit security plans to prevent cyberattacks when seeking FDA approval for their products. The FDA also advises hospitals to be more vigilant in reporting cybersecurity failures, which can be difficult to detect. Malware in key medical systems is extensive but poorly understood. For example, records from the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) show that more than 40 viruses have infected hundreds of devices at VA hospitals. Most of the infections uncovered so far are caused by malware such as Conficker, usually after device software has been updated using a thumb drive. Technology experts note that some device makers are reluctant to acknowledge the problem or make the effort to design more secure products.
Automated 'Coach' Could Help With Social Interactions
MIT News (06/14/13) David L. Chandler
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed My Automated Conversation coacH (MACH), software that can be used to help people practice their interpersonal skills until they feel more comfortable with situations such as a job interview or a first date. MACH uses a computer-generated onscreen face, along with facial, speech, and behavior analysis and synthesis software to simulate face-to-face conversations. MIT's M. Ehsan Hoque says many people with social phobias want "the possibility of having some kind of automated system so that they can practice social interactions in their own environment." The software uses the computer’s webcam to monitor a user’s facial expressions and movements, and its microphone to capture the subject’s speech. The system then analyzes the user’s smiles, head gestures, speech volume and speed, and use of filler words, among other factors. "While it may seem odd to use computers to teach us how to better talk to people, such software plays an important [role] in more comprehensive programs for teaching social skills [and] may eventually play an essential step in developing key interpersonal skills," says University of Southern California professor Jonathan Gratch.
New Tasks Become as Simple as Waving a Hand With Brain-Computer Interfaces
UW News (06/11/13) Michelle Ma
University of Washington (UW) researchers have shown that the human brain approaches brain-computer interfaces in a way that is similar to the execution of simple motor skills, suggesting that people could learn to control robotic or prosthetic limbs without ongoing concentration on the task. “There’s a lot of engagement of the brain’s cognitive resources at the very beginning, but as you get better at the task, those resources aren’t needed anymore and the brain is freed up," says UW professor Rajesh Rao, who conducted the study along with his colleagues. The study involved seven people with severe epilepsy who were hospitalized for a monitoring procedure to identify the point of origin for seizures, which required a thin sheet of electrodes to be located directly on top of the brain. Using only their thoughts, the patients were asked to move a mouse cursor on a computer screen, with the electrodes capturing brain signals and sending them to a computer for analysis. The computer identified the patient's intended movements within 40 milliseconds and updated the cursor's movement. Initially, significant brain activity was centered in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with learning new skills, but frontal brain activity lessened over time and the brain signals took the form of those seen during more automatic actions.
Advanced Placement Adds New Computer-Science Test
Wall Street Journal (06/13/13) Caroline Porter
High school students will have another opportunity to earn college credit in computer science. The College Board's Advanced Placement (AP) Program plans to offer a second computer science program to its class offerings, called AP Computer Science Principles. The new program will focus on the "creative aspects" of computing, while teaching the intellectual concepts and practical applications of computer science. The growing interest in training students for careers in the sciences has prompted the move. "The idea of computing really does apply to almost anyone who would want to continue in post-secondary education because these are essential concepts and skills that cut across a lot of different fields of study," says Lien Diaz, the senior director of AP curriculum and content development. The existing AP computer-science program, Computer Sciences A, concentrates on programming. The National Science Foundation will provide a $5.2 million grant to help fund the program.
Carnegie Mellon Method Uses Network of Cameras to Track People in Complex Indoor Settings
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (06/11/13) Byron Spice
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have developed a method for tracking the locations of multiple individuals in complex, indoor settings using a network of video cameras. The researchers say their method was able to automatically follow the movements of 13 individuals in a nursing home, even though they sometimes moved out of view of the cameras. The system relies on multiple cues from the video feed, including apparel color, person detection, trajectory, and facial recognition. The CMU algorithm located individuals within one meter of their actual position 88 percent of the time. "The goal is not to be Big Brother, but to alert the caregivers of subtle changes in activity levels or behaviors that indicate a change of health status," says CMU's Alexander Hauptmann. The researchers now are studying additional ways to use video to monitor resident activity while maintaining privacy. They also note the technology could be used in areas where security is a concern, such as airports and public facilities. The researchers used previously recorded nursing home video for their study and say that more work is needed to enable real-time monitoring.
Tech, Education Leaders Talk STEM Challenges
Politico (06/12/13) Bobby Cervantes
Although education and technology leaders support the Obama administration's efforts to open the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields to more students, the challenge is in finding resources for underfunded schools. The Obama administration’s efforts include preparing and recruiting 100,000 new STEM teachers and opening opportunities to get more young students interested in STEM, notes White House deputy director for technology and innovation Tom Kalil. “We have open jobs," Kalil says. "We could be hiring more people if we had workers coming from the schools." National Alliance for Public Charter Schools CEO Nina Rees says the technology industry and teachers need to get more students interested in STEM fields and explain what it can do for them after they graduate. Rees also says increased testing could help educators evaluate student progress, while others say teacher accountability could be enhanced by making sure state education agencies offer a path for tech professionals to teach. However, Citizen Schools CEO Eric Schwartz says that to achieve these goals, there needs to be a cultural shift in classrooms, including a longer school day, combined with involvement from tech communities.
The Body Electric: Researchers Move Closer to Low-Cost, Implantable Electronics
OSU News (06/10/13) Pam Frost Gorder
Ohio State University (OSU) researchers say they are developing technology that could lead to low-cost electronic devices that work in direct contact with living tissue inside the body. The first planned use of the technology is a sensor that will detect the very early stages of organ transplant rejection. One of the hurdles to the development of implantable sensors has been that most existing electronics are based on silicon, and electrolytes in the body interfere with the electrical signals in silicon circuits. "The challenge is to bridge the gap between the affordable, silicon-based electronics we already know how to build, and the electrochemical systems of the human body," says OSU professor Paul Berger. The researchers say they have developed a new coating that could bridge that gap. They tested whether electrolytes could be blocked from entering silicon with a layer of aluminum oxide and determined that the oxide coating effectively blocked electrolytes from the solution so the sensors remained fully functional. A device using the technology could detect certain proteins the body produces when it is just beginning to reject a transplanted organ. Berger says the work represents the first step toward creating devices that could be implanted in the body long-term.
Big Data: When Cars Can Talk
InformationWeek (06/11/13) Jeff Bertolucci
Intel research scientist Jennifer Healey discussed the possibility of having vehicles communicate with each other in a recent TED Talk. Healey said the technologies already exist to make this a reality, and noted that the benefit would be safer roads. The idea is to get digital devices, including GPS systems, stereo cameras, short-range radios, and two-dimensional laser range finders common in auto-backup systems, to share data and work together. "In the future, with cars exchanging data with each other, we will be able to see not just three cars ahead, [but also] three cars behind, to the right and left, all at the same time," Healey said. She also noted that the use of algorithms and predictive models will give connected vehicles the ability to predict future events. "We can predict the accident, and we can predict...which cars are in the best position to move out of the way," Healey said. However, despite the many benefits of the technology, Healey also acknowledged the privacy concerns. "I think the biggest problem that we face is our own willingness to share our data," she said. "I think it's a very disconcerting notion, this idea that our cars will be watching us, talking about us to other cars."
UC San Diego Launches New Research Computing Program
UCSD News (CA) (06/10/13) Jan Zverina
The University of California, San Diego (UCSD) has rolled out the Triton Shared Computing Cluster (TSCC), a follow-up to the 2009 Triton Resource computing initiative. The new high-performance research computing system will serve researchers at UCSD, other UC campuses, and external academic, nonprofit, and corporate users. The cluster, which is designed and operated by the San Diego Supercomputer Center, features the latest hardware and a participation model that better suits researchers with relatively steady computing needs. TSCC will use the condo computing model, which enables users to buy computing nodes and have them installed in the cluster, where they form part of a shared resource for a period of four years. Each computing node contains two Intel Xeon E5-2670 Sandy Bridge processors with eight cores each, and 64 gigabytes of main memory. The system network (interconnect) across the entire system is 10 Gigabit Ethernet. Users also will be able to purchase larger memory nodes, utilize higher performance interconnect for low-latency parallel computing, and purchase nodes with NVIDIA graphics processing units.
Computer Scientists Grapple With How to Manage the Digital Legacy of the Departed
Science News (06/10/13) Rachel Ehrenberg
The current emphasis on privacy and access shows a disconnect between rules and regulations over the disposition of digital legacies and the technological advancements for generating them. “Right now the contemporary discussion is privacy and utility,” says Will Odom, with Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute. “It’s not about how digital materials will be represented in any meaningful way.” Odom points to the basic disparity between digital and tangible heirlooms, which makes management of the former especially problematic following the owner's passing. Since scale has no relevance to digital material, it is an easy matter to wind up with orders of magnitude more digital items than tangible ones. Moreover, making decisions about digital legacies is complicated by the fact that they can be easily hidden from view. Despite these difficulties, many people attempt to curate digital heirlooms, as research by Odom and colleagues found that people follow similar rituals with digital objects as they do with physical objects. The researchers conclude that grief in the digital era might be eased if there were devices allowing people to engage with digital objects in the same way people interact with heirlooms. They have devised a trio of devices that display a deceased person’s photos, tweets, and other digital heirlooms on screens incorporated into oak veneer boxes.
National Day of Civic Hacking Unleashes "Geek Power" on Municipal Problems
AmericanCity&County.com (06/10/13) Derek Prall
The recent National Day of Civic Hacking involved an estimated 11,000 individuals, who gathered at 95 events across 38 states using computer skills to solve community problems with the help of open municipal data. The inaugural event brought together civic leaders, programmers, and everyday citizens with a shared interest in using technology to better communities. The events were nationally supported by the White House, Rally Software, and Intel, and facilitated at the local level by organizations such as SecondMuse, Code for America, and Random Hacks of Kindness. "Many people think the term 'hacking' means something bad," says Dawson County, Georgia, Development Authority executive director Charlie Auvermann. "Actually, there are many good hackers, and hacking contests are very popular across the country." The events generated many apps that local governments could use, including a Los Angeles-based app designed to help backyard chicken farmers. Civic-minded programmers worked on 13 projects in the Hack for MN event, including a student tutoring website, transit apps, and a phone-poll-finding tool, while programmers in Rockaway, N.Y., developed an app to help address storm damage.
At Grameen Foundation, an International Nonprofit Becomes a Software Developer
Capital Business (06/09/13) Steven Overly
The Grameen Foundation, a nonprofit that provides healthcare to pregnant women in developing countries, has developed Mobile Technology for Community Health (Motech), an open source software platform that nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations, and humanitarian groups are using to address pandemics such as tuberculosis and HIV. "We’re a nonprofit developing software that we hope other nonprofits will build on top of," says Grameen Foundation's John Tippett. Grameen's Steve Wright notes, "at the highest level, what we’re doing is helping these organizations be more efficient and more effective in the same way any well-funded business would be more efficient or effective with technology.” The Grameen Foundation also has developed TaroWorks, a program that enables humanitarian organizations to create customized surveys. The organizations produce questionnaires designed to collect information about the people they aim to assist. Field workers then employ mobile phones or computers to perform the surveys and submit responses. Wright says TaroWorks helps organizations make decisions about the communities they serve and the development programs they offer based on tangible evidence. "We want them to build products and services that are useful to the poor, based on data," he says.
When Will My Computer Understand Me?
Texas Advanced Computing Center (06/07/13) Aaron Dubrow
University of Texas at Austin professor Katrin Erk is using supercomputers to improve natural language processing. Computer scientists and linguists have been working for more than 50 years to help computers understand human language, primarily by programming semantics as software. However, these efforts fail to capture all of the knowledge that people bring to understanding language, including context, an understanding of the speaker's intention, and an understanding of syntax and logic. Erk believes that mining an immense volume of texts and using implicit links between words to develop a weighted map of relationships could be more effective. In 2009, Erk began using the Texas Advanced Computing Center's parallel computing systems and now has access to a special Hadoop system on the Longhorn supercomputer, which can run computational models in hours instead of the weeks required on a desktop computer. Erk created a model using hundreds of thousands of documents that allows the meaning, value, and limits of an idea to vary according to context and conditions. "If I give you a sentence such as, ‘This is a bright child,' the model can tell you automatically what are good paraphrases and what are bad paraphrases," Erk says. She notes that this paraphrasing model could be particularly useful in automatic information extraction.
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