Welcome to the July 12, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Modest Debut of Atlas May Foreshadow Age of 'Robo Sapiens'
The New York Times (07/11/13) John Markoff
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has developed Atlas, a humanoid robot equipped with laser and stereo vision systems, as well as dexterous hands. Atlas is designed to perform rescue functions in situations in which humans cannot survive. Altas robots, which are made from aircraft-grade aluminum and titanium and weigh 330 pounds, will take part in a Pentagon contest in which competing teams of technologists program them to climb into a vehicle, drive to a destination, get out of the vehicle, cross a rubble field, open a door, use a power tool, and turn a valve. The robots will be linked to a remote host computer and guided by human operators. In addition, DARPA will vary the data speed available to the robots during the competition. Therefore, the systems that are more autonomous will have a significant advantage because they will be able to complete tasks while they are not under direct human control. "What the prior DARPA challenges did is that, by injecting all of these resources and by having a strong and visible competition, they really pushed the field over that hump, and now people know that it can be done," says DARPA program manager Gil Pratt.
Move Over, Linpack: Supercomputers Get New Performance Test
IDG News Service (07/10/13) James Niccolai
The Linpack test, which was developed in the 1970s and has been the basis for the Top500 list of the world's fastest supercomputers for the past 20 years, is no longer the most useful benchmark for how well a system can perform, says Linpack creator and University of Tennessee professor Jack Dongarra. He says a new metric, called High Performance Conjugate Gradient (HPCG), could change the way vendors design supercomputers and provide customers with a better measure of the performance they can expect from real-world applications. Dongarra says HPCG is needed because computer vendors optimize their systems to rank highly on the Top500 list, but if that list is based on an out-of-date test, it encourages vendors to develop systems that are not optimal for today's applications. "We don't want to build a machine that does well on this 'fake' problem," he says. "We want to build a machine that does well for a larger set of applications." Dongara says HPCG will be introduced gradually over time, and it could be several years before it becomes the primary method for ranking supercomputers. Starting in November, the Top500 list will begin ranking computers based on HPCG alongside the current Linpack benchmark.
Writing Programs Using Ordinary Language
MIT News (07/11/13) Larry Hardesty
Programmers can use ordinary language rather than specialized programming languages for some tasks, which could assist programmers and allow nonprogrammers to work with common file types, according to two papers from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. "I don’t think that we will be able to do this for everything in programming, but there are areas where there are a lot of examples of how humans have done translation,” says MIT professor Regina Barzilay, a co-author on both papers. Using examples from the Web, the researchers trained a computer system to convert natural-language descriptions into symbol combinations called regular expressions that enable more flexible file searches than the standard desktop search function. The researchers also created a system that learned to handle data stored in various file formats, based on particular programming competition specifications. Although regular expressions do not map well onto natural language, the researchers learned that they have equivalents that do map well. Using a graph, the researchers represent all equivalent versions of a regular expression simultaneously, so the system has to learn only one way of mapping natural language to symbols, and is then able to find a more concise version of the expression using the graph.
5D Optical Memory in Nanostructured Quartz Glass Could Lead to Unlimited Lifetime Data Storage
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (07/09/13)
University of Southampton researchers have experimentally demonstrated the recording and retrieval process of five-dimensional (5D) digital data in nanostructured glass by femtosecond laser writing. The researchers say the technology, dubbed "Superman memory crystal," enables 360 terabytes of disk-data capacity, thermal stability up to 1,000 degrees Celsius, and nearly an unlimited lifetime. The information encoding is realized in five dimensions: the three-dimensional positions of the nanostructures, as well as their size and orientation. The researchers were able to record a 300K digital copy of a text file in 5D using an ultrafast laser, producing extremely short and intense pulses of light. The file was written in three layers of nanostructured dots separated by 5 micrometers. "We are developing a very stable and safe form of portable memory using glass, which could be highly useful for organizations with big archives," says project leader Jingyu Zhang. The self-assembled nanostructures change the way light travels through glass, modifying the polarization of light, which can then be read by a combination of optical microscopes and a polarizer.
Japan-U.S. Network Opportunity: R&D for "Beyond Trillions of Objects"
CCC Blog (07/11/13) Shar Steed
The U.S. National Science Foundation recently issued a solicitation for Networking Technology and Systems, Japan-U.S. Network Opportunity: R&D for "Beyond Trillions of Objects," a joint research and development program that addresses a subset of the issues that come up when environments with trillions of device and information objects are network-connected, as is expected to be the case by the year 2020. "This trend will require novel approaches for network design and modeling, new technologies for network management and control in support of object mobility, and flexible networks with the speed, capacity, and environmental characteristics needed to accommodate communications among objects in the emerging world," according to the solicitation. The program will focus on network design and modeling, mobility, and optical networking. NSF's solicitation mirrors a solicitation from the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology of Japan, and submitted proposals should describe joint research projects with Japanese counterparts. The proposal deadline is Oct. 9, 2013.
Feds Asked to Sit Out Defcon Hacking Conference This Year
IDG News Service (07/11/13) Lucian Constantin
Defcon hacking convention organizers have asked federal government workers not to attend the event this year, because of tension in the hacker community over recent revelations of the U.S. government's electronic surveillance efforts. "When it comes to sharing and socializing with feds, recent revelations have made many in the community uncomfortable about this relationship," says Defcon founder Jeff Moss. The decision highlights the tensions that have been building within the information security community for some time, according to Verizon's Kyle Maxwell. "While not new, I feel a mood in the hacker community that has resurged to levels I've not seen in years," Maxwell says. "The Snowden affair really only brought to the fore problems that seemed to worsen during the Bush administration, then got quiet with many people feeling that perhaps things will change under President Obama." However, others say that Defcon organizers are just trying to avoid conflicts during the event and not discourage people from coming. "From shouting matches, to physical violence, to 'hack the fed,' something bad might occur," says Errata Security CEO Robert Graham. "Or, simply attendees will choose to stay away."
This Accused Hacker Is a Jerk. Here’s Why He Shouldn’t Be a Felon.
The Washington Post (07/09/13) Timothy B. Lee
Dozens of computer security experts have filed a brief in support of Andrew Auernheimer's attempt to overturn his recent conviction on federal computer-hacking charges. AT&T had accidentally published tens of thousands of email addresses to a public website and Auernheimer, known by his online handle "Weev," used an automated program to download them. He then gave the addresses to the media in an attempt to embarrass AT&T, an action the government said violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which makes it a federal crime to access a computer system without authorization. However, computer experts warn the decision could slow down legitimate security research. The government argues that Auernheimer should have known that the information was not intended to be accessed by third parties. However, AT&T's decision not to protect the website with a password or other security measure should settle the issue, says University of Pennsylvania professor Matt Blaze. The kind of automated downloading Auernheimer used, called "scraping," is very common and is used by search engines to build their indexes; the courts have previously held that even unwelcome website scraping does not violate anti-hacking laws. Blaze notes that automated Web-scale research can have significant public benefits.
A Technological Edge on Wildfires
The New York Times (07/07/13) Kenneth Chang
As global warming makes wildfires increasingly frequent and dangerous, technology is helping to combat the problem. For example, the U.S. Forest Service uses computer simulations of fires to study the impact of different weather patterns, topography, and vegetation. "You would sort of get a map that depicts a likelihood of fire occurrence," says the Forest Service's Elizabeth Reinhardt. In addition, weather satellites record information such as data on forming thunderstorms, which can precede dangerous high winds. Remote-controlled unmanned aircraft provide infrared photographs showing a fire's area, which can be transmitted to firefighters' mobile devices. "That information could all be available on mobile devices in real time so folks could reference that periodically as they’re out in the field fighting the fire," says the Forest Service's Tim Sexton. The Forest Service has experimented successfully with mobile devices in the past and this summer will conduct a pilot program with Android tablets. Firefighters use a range of off-the-shelf software and customized applications, and the Forest Service intends to adopt cloud computing to improve access to computer models and databases. However, the largest obstacle remains gaining Internet access at every fire, and one option would be an ad hoc mesh network that enables firefighters to share information.
Your Facebook Friends May Be Evil Bots
InfoWorld (07/08/13) Eagle Gamma
University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers have found that groups of social bots could lead to disaster for large online destinations, or even threaten the fabric of the Internet, having ramifications for the broader economy and society as a whole. The UBC researchers created a "social botnet" and unleashed it on Facebook's more than 1 billion profiles. These social bots pose as online users, adding posts that seem like they came from real people. However, they secretly promote products or viewpoints, and could even siphon off private information. The bots can steal information on a massive scale when coordinated by a botmaster, and the UBC researchers developed a program that creates Facebook profiles and friends regular users. "We saw that the success rate can be up to 80 percent," says UBC's Kosta Beznosov. The bots follow a specific set of behavioral guidelines that place them in positions from which they can access and disseminate information. The bots explore the social network, progressively expanding through friends of friends. The research is based on a principle called triadic closure, in which two parties connected by a mutual acquaintance will likely connect directly to each other. The complexity of social botnets makes it difficult to develop an effective security policy, the researchers note.
CGI Lighting, Scanning Deliver More Realistic Face
Phys.Org (07/06/13) Nancy Owano
Advances in computer-generated imagery are providing the gaming and movie industries with more realistic facial imagery. Imperial College London's Abhijeet Ghosh and the University of Southern California's Paul Debevec say they are able to make the virtual face so realistic that the renderings detail pores, blemishes, wrinkles, bumps, and shadows. Their team simulates light reflecting off human skin using a special lighting system and camera. Each simulated light source is split into four rays--one that bounces off the epidermis and three that penetrate the skin to different depths before being scattered. Ghosh presented the system at this year's Games and Media Event at Imperial College London, where he discussed polarized spherical gradient illumination and "ways of measuring layered skin reflectance including surface and subsurface scattering using a small set of measurements under controlled illumination." Using a special scanner, Ghosh and Debevec took high-resolution images of human skin from volunteers' cheeks, chins, and foreheads, merging skin renderings with the simulated lighting technique to provide overall results. Ghosh also envisions consumers going to a kiosk for face-scanning to allow the software to display what their face would look like with a particular foundation, for example, to provide them with a virtual try-before-you-buy experience.
Photo App Lets You Swipe to View a Scene From Any Angle
New Scientist (07/04/13) Hal Hodson
Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer vision researchers have created a smartphone app called CrowdCam that finds a specific camera perspective on the action at an event without the need for a user to search through every shot. The app measures the visual similarity between images, then estimates the angle between the camera's direction for all of the images, automatically creating a virtual array of photographs arranged by the location from which they were taken. Users can swipe in the direction from which they want to view the action, and the system will display the best matching photo. In addition, the app processes the images to maintain the subject's position as the user swipes through the array to smooth the viewing experience. A range of devices is compatible for uploading photos for spatial sorting by a central server, and results are returned to a smartphone or tablet. The app will "greatly enhance shared human experiences spanning from events as personal as parents watching their children's football game to highly publicized red carpet galas," the researchers say.
Software to Construct Everything With Legos
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (07/01/13)
Romain Testuz, a graduate student in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne's Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Geometrics has developed an algorithm that automatically translates a three-dimensional (3D) representation into Lego pieces. Testuz's software takes 3D images and converts them into a detailed level-by-level plan of how to build the design using Legos. The algorithm starts with the smallest bricks and works up to the largest bricks, and if the bricks do not fit, the model will not work. Testuz and his supervisor, Yuliy Schwartzburg, use graph theory to address structural weaknesses, depicting each piece by a top and each connection by an edge to automatically pinpoint weak spots in the structure. In addition, the software offers construction solutions based on available materials. "The first challenge was to find research that had been conducted on this subject and to understand what wasn't working in pursuit of a better solution," Testuz says. He notes the software also enables users to choose the color of the model or any part of it.
Green500 Founder on Getting to Exascale: 'Something's Gotta Change'
Green Computing Report (07/05/13) Tiffany Trader
Green500 founder and Virginia Tech professor Wu Feng says the latest Green500 rankings of the world's most energy-efficient supercomputers show impressive activity at the top of the list, but overall energy-efficiency numbers are not encouraging for exascale projections. "The biggest thing that has come out over the last year and a half is that at the top of the list, the energy efficiency is increasing much faster than the mean and the median of the Green500...but that's only for the top-end machines, the rest of the list is really not improving that much," Feng says. The 50 most energy-efficient supercomputers are primarily custom homogeneous BlueGeneQ systems or heterogeneous systems with graphics-processing units or coprocessors, with only a few homogeneous commodity-based central-processing units. Power consumption is still rising, Feng notes, and efficiencies are only improving because more is being done with the power used. Feng says we are on an unsustainable path of having an exaflop supercomputer that consumes 300 megawatts or more. "We can work on continuing to make the systems more energy-efficient by bringing the power consumption down, but ultimately something's gotta change," he says. "It's part of our mission to ensure that supercomputers are only simulating climate change and not creating it."
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