Welcome to the August 9, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
IBM Scientists Show Blueprints for Brain-Like Computing
Technology Review (08/08/13) Aviva Hope Rutkin
IBM researchers have created TrueNorth, a computer architecture designed to work more like the human brain. The architecture relies on complex simulations that could lead to a new generation of machines that function more like biological brains. The researchers used TrueNorth to demonstrate a way to use chips with neurosynaptic cores for specific tasks, such as building a more efficient biologically-inspired artificial retina. Unlike conventional computer architectures, TrueNorth stores and processes information in a distributed, parallel way, like the neurons and synapses in a brain. The researchers also developed software that runs on a conventional supercomputer but simulates the functioning of a massive network of neurosynaptic cores. The digital neurons mimic the independent nature of biological neurons, developing different response times and firing patterns in response to input from neighboring neurons. TrueNorth programs are written using special blueprints called corelets, each of which specifies the basic functioning of a network of neurosynaptic cores. TrueNorth comes with a library of 150 pre-designed corelets, each for a specific task. The researchers say the technology could eventually be incorporated into smartphones and automobiles. "We are extending the boundaries of what computers can do efficiently," says IBM's Dharmendra S. Modha, the project's lead researcher.
U.S. Consortium Forming on Industrial Internet
EE Times (08/07/13) Rick Merritt
The U.S. government is working with AT&T, Cisco Systems, General Electric, IBM, Intel, and several other companies to form a consortium to develop an industrial Internet. The goal is to define an architectural framework for open industry standards that would serve a broad swath of market sectors. The consortium could be up and running, with an initial draft of its framework and a testbed for it, within a year. Such a document and capability could impact a wide variety of commercial products and programs in the emerging Internet of things sector. The framework could define an architecture for co-engineering cyber and physical systems, identifying cybersecurity issues and solutions, addressing concerns about interoperability, identifying ways to maintain robust wireless connections, and setting standards for real-time data collection and analytics. The key will be to examine these issues holistically, says the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology's S. Shyam Sunder, who is helping to organize the consortium. "This way, you wind up with common frameworks and don't have to re-learn lessons of other domains," he says.
Broader Sifting of Data Abroad Is Seen by NSA
The New York Times (08/08/13) Charlie Savage
The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is intercepting a broader range of Americans' email and text communications than previously disclosed, according to intelligence officials. In addition to searching the communications of Americans who are in direct contact with foreigners under surveillance, NSA also is examining the communications into and out of the country of people who mention information about targeted foreigners. "In carrying out its signals intelligence mission, NSA collects only what it is explicitly authorized to collect," says NSA spokesperson Judith A. Emmel. "Moreover, the agency's activities are deployed only in response to requirements for information to protect the country and its interests." NSA is conducting the surveillance by temporarily cloning and then sorting through most cross-border emails and other text-based communications. Software then finds and stores communications with specific keywords, which human analysts later inspect, and the remaining communications are deleted with no ability to perform retrospective searching, an intelligence official says. However, privacy advocates warn that NSA's surveillance activities will change users' Internet behavior and their relationship to the government. "They'll hesitate before visiting controversial websites, discussing controversial topics, or investigating politically sensitive questions," says the American Civil Liberties Union's Jameel Jaffer.
Apple’s Tim Cook, Tech Executives Meet With Barack Obama to Talk Surveillance
Politico (08/08/13) Tony Romm
President Barack Obama recently hosted a group of tech executives and civil liberties leaders, including Google chief Internet evangelist and ACM president Vint Cerf and Apple CEO Tim Cook, for a closed-door meeting about government surveillance. The meeting followed a similar gathering earlier this week between top administration officials, tech-industry lobbyists, and leading privacy advocates. "This is one of a number of discussions the administration is having with experts and stakeholders in response to the president's directive to have a national dialogue about how to best protect privacy in a digital era, including how to respect privacy while defending our national security," an administration aide said about the first meeting. However, sources say the second meeting was more secretive, and involved mostly senior executives and representatives from the Center for Democracy and Technology and Public Knowledge. The meetings are taking place as the Obama administration has promised a more public dialogue about the U.S.'s counterterrorism policies and privacy safeguards. Meanwhile, some members of Congress have continued their push for legislation adding new checks to federal surveillance programs.
Study Finds Online Ratings Easily Overinflated
The Boston Globe (08/08/13) Carolyn Y. Johnson
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers recently conducted a study showing that although consumers are easily nudged into overinflated enthusiasm and approval, they were not similarly susceptible to negative influences when it comes to online ratings of services and products. "What this shows is when you don’t have that independence and everyone sees the history of other people's opinions, you can get big biases in the outcome," says Union College professor Christopher Chabris. The experiment was conducted on an unnamed online news website, where comments are voted up or down based on how good other readers think they are. The researchers randomly selected more than 100,000 reader comments, and as soon as they were posted, they rated some comments with one up vote, others with one down vote, and some were left alone. The researchers found that comments given an initial positive vote were 30 percent more likely to receive a very high rating versus those that were left alone, and had final ratings that were 25 percent higher than average. However, negative votes were quickly corrected by the wisdom of the crowd. "If you think even beyond ratings, if this herding behavior, or the tendency toward bubbles is true, it has implications for housing prices, stock market prices, and we need future research in other settings," says MIT professor Sinan Aral.
Searching Big Data for 'Digital Smoke Signals'
The New York Times (08/07/13) Steve Lohr
Development and aid programs are embracing the emerging field known as big data for development, which enables real-time monitoring and prediction to help efforts move faster, adapt to changing circumstances, reduce the number of communities in poverty, and sometimes save lives. The United Nations Global Pulse team is using data from social networks, blogs, cellphones, and online commerce to improve economic development and humanitarian aid in developing nations. For example, Twitter analysis can provide early indications of unemployment, price increases, and disease, offering "digital smoke signals of distress" that typically precede official statistics by several months, says Global Pulse leader Robert Kirkpatrick. However, obtaining data from private companies presents a challenge, and one of Global Pulse's key goals is to persuade mobile phone operators to enable access to text messages, digital-cash transactions, and location data. Global Pulse analyzes this data using the same software used for targeting customers with online advertising. Kirkpatrick believes that companies should engage in data philanthropy with the goal of creating a public "data commons" without personally identifying information, for development and public health research.
Google Glass, Other Wearables May Give the Disabled a New Measure of Independence
The Washington Post (08/06/13) Hayley Tsukayama
Wearable computers are making their way into the mainstream and enabling a greater level of independence for many people with disabilities. Google Glass is likely to be the first of a wave of wearable headsets, watches, fitness trackers, and other devices, with analysts predicting that sales of wearable devices could rise to as many as 9.6 million worldwide by the end of 2016. Until now, wearable technology for people with disabilities has fallen to medical firms and niche players who have made no effort to design devices with wider consumer appeal. Mainstream interest in wearable technology will herald access to less expensive and more versatile devices that people with disabilities can use with specialized apps to carry out everyday tasks, says Google Glass project adviser Greg Priest-Dorman. For example, Glass is enabling early adopter Tammie Lou Van Sant, paralyzed from the chest down 18 years ago, to resume tasks such as her photography hobby, answering her own phone calls, and responding to text messages. In addition, Van Sant uses Glass to take independent trips using the headset's access to Google Maps. Glass also is improving independence for visually-impaired users by enabling them to take photos and crowdsource answers to questions such as whether an outfit matches.
NASA Working on Tech to Take Humans to Mars--and Bring Them Back
Computerworld (08/06/13) Sharon Gaudin
The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is planning to send people to Mars between 2033 and 2043, and currently is working on the technologies that will be needed to take astronauts to the red planet and back. Future rovers will be used to build an outpost on Mars and help prepare the way for the arrival of humans. "Men on Mars will communicate with orbiters and they'll be working and living on Mars and they'll have rovers helping them," says Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary division. "We're thinking of a rover like Curiosity, in terms of volume, size, and mass, but it'll have a completely different set of instruments." Scientists are working to improve life-support systems, power sources, navigation, radiation protection, and propulsion, says NASA's Prasun Desai. He also notes that NASA is considering using three-dimensional (3D) printing to build tools and spare parts in deep space. Desai says 3D printers also might be used to manufacture food that astronauts could eat instead of freeze-dried meals.
Hive-Mind Solves Tasks Using Google Glass Ant Game
New Scientist (08/05/13) MacGregor Campbell
Researchers at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and Columbia University have developed Swarm!, a game that connects Google Glass wearers to a virtual ant colony and asks them to solve real-world problems that stump traditional crowdsourcing efforts. Swarm players leave virtual trails on a map, which behave like ant trails, fading away with time unless reinforced by other users traveling the same route. The players seek out virtual resources to benefit their colony, such as food, and must avoid crossing the trails of other colony members. To gain further resources for their colony, players can carry out real-world tasks. For example, if the developers wanted to create a map of the locations of every power outlet in an airport, they could reward players with virtual food for every photo of a socket they took. The photos and location data recorded by the system could then be used to generate a map that anyone could use. Carnegie Mellon University professor Niki Kittur says projects such as Swarm! could help solve physical world problems because they can tap into what a person is seeing.
Seeing Depth Through a Single Lens
Harvard University (08/05/13) Caroline Perry
Harvard University researchers have developed a method for photographers to create a three-dimensional (3D) image through a single lens, without moving the camera. The researchers developed a program to compute how the image would look if it were taken from a different angle based on the clues encoded within the rays of light entering the camera. "Cameras have been developed with all kinds of new hardware--microlens arrays and absorbing masks--that can record the direction of the light, and that allows you to do some very interesting things, such as take a picture and focus it later, or change the perspective view," says Harvard professor Kenneth B. Crozier. He notes the key to the technology is to infer the angle of the light at each pixel, rather than directly measuring it. The researchers took two images from the same camera position but focused at different depths, and calculated the differences between the two images, which enabled the program to create a new image as if the camera had been moved to one side. The researchers say the technique also offers a way for biologists to create 3D images of translucent materials.
Next Step in Facial Imaging
Cardiff University News (08/02/13)
Cardiff University researchers have developed a system capable of recording moving human images in three dimensions, which they say enables scientists to carry out facial movement research and transform the way patients needing facial surgery are diagnosed and monitored. "Research into facial movement has important applications in patients whose facial movement is affected by conditions such as a cleft lip, neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease, or someone who has experienced a stroke," says Cardiff's Hashmat Popat. The researchers say their work could lead to a very dense optical-tracking system that can understand and quantify the subtleties of soft tissue deformation during facial movement in babies, children, and adult subjects. "Not only will we be able to objectively assess a patient’s functional outcome and how others in the community react to the outcome, our team will be able to start advancing computerized simulation models to replicate facial expression and functional behavior for those patients undergoing treatment," says Cardiff professor Stephen Richmond.
HP CTO Lays Out HP's Vision for Future Computer Architecture
CRN (08/02/13) Joseph F. Kovar
Speaking at the recent Nth Symposium conference, Hewlett-Packard (HP) chief technology officer Martin Fink outlined his vision of a future computing architecture. The way computers are architected has to change because enterprises are now commonly handling petabytes and more of data, Fink notes. Although increasing data center power consumption could be handled by trying to better manage energy, that would be the wrong approach. "Why don't we start thinking about the problem in terms of how we stop using energy in the first place?" he asks. Computer architecture also is changing in terms of network connectivity, as new photonics cables can be used to replace the traditional copper cables currently in use. "Our math right now suggests that we can get to a point where we will use 16,000 times less energy per bit to process [data] by moving from pure copper-based systems to photonics-enabled systems," Fink says. He also believes it is time to start migrating from a storage hierarchy based on on-chip cache, main memory, and mass storage. In addition, Fink notes that HP is studying how to redesign applications to take the data scientist out of the solution and enable access to data immediately without an intermediary.
Jeff Hawkins: Where Open Source and Machine Learning Meet Big Data
InfoWorld (08/09/13) Simon Phipps
Smartphone pioneer Jeff Hawkins says in an interview that he primarily concentrates today on building machines that operate on neuroscientific principles. His current project, the Numenta Platform for Intelligent Computing (NuPIC), aims to incorporate machine-learning algorithms into an open source initiative. "Today, what you can do with [NuPIC] is stream fast data to it, and it builds models of the data in an online fashion, meaning every record that comes in is updating the model, it makes predictions, and it can detect anomalies," Hawkins notes. He speculates that the long-term societal impact of brain science is more profound than that of mobile computing. "We're going to be able to make machines that are a million times faster at thinking than we are," Hawkins predicts. "We're going to be able to make machines that have much more memory than we do. We're going to be able to make machines that can sense things that we can't sense." NuPIC currently is being applied to machine-generated data, but Hawkins says there are many more applications for which the platform might be used through the open source effort. One possible application is extending algorithms to build more sophisticated systems, such as robotics, vision, and music, while another involves embedding them in existing products.
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