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Welcome to the August 19, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Programming Competition Allows Students to 'Geek Out' and Gain Crucial Skillsets
HPC Wire (08/15/13) Faith Singer-Villalobos

The Second Annual Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) conference hosted the XSEDE13 Student Programming Competition, a contest in which student participants arranged in 10 teams tackled computational challenges. Among the problems the teams faced were calculus-based strategies for calculating the area under simple curves, producing prime numbers large enough to be used for computationally-intensive tasks, and using ensemble-based approaches to generate a probability distribution of expected outcomes. "We want students to realize their potential with analytical thinking in joining the competition," says Ange Mason with the San Diego Supercomputer Center. He says participants are not necessarily interested in following a science, technology, engineering, or math career path, which is why making the contest a yearly event, paying attention to student feedback on how to improve the event, and employing social media to maintain students' engagement were essential this year. The ultimate goal of the XSEDE competition is to help students cultivate problem-solving skills. "Students...need to change how they look at their education," says Contra Costa College's Tom Murphy. "They have the potential to become impactful contributors whether they are scientists, artists, or economists, and computation affects all fields."

NTU to Trial Singapore's First Driverless Vehicle on the Roads
Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) (08/16/13)

Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU), JTC Corp., and Induct Technologies are collaborating to introduce a driverless electric shuttle for transporting passengers between NTU and JTC's CleanTeach Park over a distance of two kilometers as a trial program. Induct's NAVIA electric shuttle will be tested and optimized by the Energy Research Institute @ NTU (ERI@N), which also will facilitate the autonomous vehicle's safe integration with Singapore traffic. The collaboration also will focus on developing and testing new charging technologies, including wireless induction and new supercapacitors for electric vehicles. Software and intelligence systems will be programmed for planned operation within a predefined route running between JTC's CleanTech One building and the NTU Yunnan Garden campus. "Both concepts of a driverless transport and an efficient electric transport are at the forefront of research for personal transportation, last-mile transportation, and for logistics applications in leading automotive companies around the world," notes ERI@N executive director Subodh Mhaisalkar. "Leveraging on NTU's expertise in engineering and clean energy, we are confident that our partnership with Induct will see us explore breakthroughs in autonomous driving, wireless fast charging, and advanced battery technologies for sustainable transportation solutions."

Foursquare Check-Ins Tell Stores Where to Set Up Shop
New Scientist (08/16/13) Chris Baraniuk

University of Cambridge researchers recently conducted a study on the use of social media to help retailers find the best locations for new stores. The team analyzed 35 million publicly available Foursquare check-ins from 925,000 users in New York over a six-month period, concentrating on three specific chains. Stores were rated based on the number of check-ins received, and multiple check-ins by the same user were modeled into a personal movement pattern to gauge overall foot traffic, how frequently people travel long distances to visit an area, and other measures. The team then assessed the ability of each factor to forecast a store's success. Check-in data for two-thirds of the stores was fed into an algorithm, which then predicted which of the remaining third of the stores would be the most successful. Although each factor alone proved highly predictive of a store's popularity, a system incorporating all of the factors was the most effective, correctly forecasting the top 10 percent of locations 70 percent of the time.

Teleported by Electronic Circuit
ETH Life (08/15/13) Fabio Bergamin

ETH Zurich researchers have for the first time teleported information between two points in an electronic circuit across of span of about six millimeters through the application of quantum physics principles. Professor and study leader Andreas Wallraff says quantum teleportation is facilitated by the system's quantum mechanical properties, specifically the entanglement established between the sender and the receiver. The experiments utilized small superconducting chip circuits on a 7 mm by 7 mm chip as sender and receiver, and controlled microwave-photon pulses generated the entanglement. The researchers employed helium to cool the chip to near absolute zero to access the system's quantum properties. They demonstrated that quantum teleportation can transmit more data from sender to receiver than is possible by classical techniques, and can relay the data much more rapidly than most previous teleportation systems. The device also makes it possible to ensure that the correct information is always read out in all four Bell-states. Teleporting information between chips is the researchers' next planned step, while their long-term goal is investigating whether quantum communication across longer distances with electronic circuits is possible. "Teleportation is an important future technology in the field of quantum information processing," Wallraff says.

Why We’re a Long Way From Computers That Really Work Like the Human Brain
Quartz (08/15/13) Leo Mirani

Despite recent advances in computers designed to simulate the human brain, significant work remains to be done before this technology achieves its goal. IBM, for example, recently announced a computing architecture based on the human brain, as part of its SyNAPSE project. The new architecture is a programming language designed for chips that reduce the gap between memory and processing power to make them faster, more compact, and more power-efficient. Meanwhile, German scientists led by computational neurophysicist Markus Diesmann are working on the Human Brain Project. No computer currently is powerful enough to run a program that simulates the brain, due in part to the brain’s interconnected nature. In computing, processors serve as the brain’s neurons, and memory functions as the synapses where neurons meet and transmit information to each other. Commercial chips can hold billions of transistors, just as the brain holds roughly 100 billion neurons. However, transistors typically have only three connections, whereas a neuron can have up to 10,000 points of connection; and a brain has about 100 trillion synapses. "There's no chip technology which can represent this enormous amount of wires," Diesmann says. He estimates that a fully working simulation of the brain will not emerge for another 10 to 20 years.

Dragonflies Can See by Switching 'On' and 'Off'
University of Adelaide (08/15/13)

The vision systems for robots could benefit from research into the visual circuit in the brain of dragonflies, suggests a team from the University of Adelaide. The brain of a dragonfly combines opposite pathways—both an ON and OFF switch—when processing information about dark objects, which likely represent potential prey. "We discovered that the responses to the dark targets were much greater than we expected, and that the dragonfly's ability to respond to a dark moving target is from the correlation of opposite contrast pathways: OFF with ON," says Steven Wiederman from the university's Center for Neuroscience Research. This mechanism is of great interest for visual neurosciences in general, and for solving engineering applications in target detection and tracking. "Understanding how visual systems work can have a range of outcomes, such as in the development of neural prosthetics and improvements in robot vision," Wiederman notes. Adelaide researchers are now working to build an autonomous robot that would emulate the dragonfly's vision and movement.

Research Shows Precisely Which Strategies Help Players Win Team-Oriented Video Games
NCSU News (08/14/13) Matt Shipman

North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers have developed a technique to determine which strategies give players an advantage at multi-player, real-time strategy (ARTS) games. The researchers say their technique offers extremely precise information about how a player's actions affect a team's chances of winning, and could be used to develop technology for use by players and developers to improve gameplay experiences. The technique uses analytic tools to evaluate logs of player actions from thousands of ARTS games. The researchers used that information to develop a set of rules governing team gameplay strategies in order to identify which approaches give teams the best chance of winning. "These tools could be incorporated into games by game developers, or could be developed into standalone training modules," says NCSU professor David L. Roberts. The researchers evaluated the attributes of individual team characters and measured how the attributes changed over the course of a game. They found that the importance of an individual character's attributes varies widely, based on the makeup of each multi-player team. "We’re currently working to use these findings to develop visualization tools that let players know how they are doing in real time, relative to the strategies we know are predictive of success," Roberts says.

Data-Sharing Scheme Shows the Way Towards Low-Cost, Flexible, and Secure Cloud Storage
A*STAR Research (08/14/13)

Researchers at A*STAR's Data Storage Institute have developed a system that enables organizations to store data on the cloud without the loss of privacy, and that permits the searching and sharing of the data. The researchers say the system preserves the benefit of the cloud's specialized low-cost storage infrastructure while overcoming its privacy and flexibility limitations. "The scheme may potentially push forward the wider adoption of cloud storage usage for organizations," says A*STAR's Shu Qin Ren. The system involves a central key manager, who specifically manages data authentication and access authorization. As part of the system, data stored on the cloud is encrypted by its owner and is indecipherable to other users. A secret code required to unlock the encryption is generated and kept by the owner, who also determines an access policy for other users. The key manager implements the policy and generates a second access key, which is then passed back to the owner. The owner then wraps the original encryption key in this second layer of protection, which enables the key to pass on the second public key to authorized third parties to allow them to access the data. "The research team is now building a secure data searching and sharing prototype to test on structured data such as in databases," Ren says.

Researchers Propose Security That Adapts to Combat Malware That Morphs
Network World (08/14/13) Tim Greene

A team of security researchers led by Georgia Institute of Technology Ph.D. student Terry Nelms has revealed a new method of blocking the efforts of malware to communicate with command-and-control (C&C) servers. The ExecScent platform uses protocol characteristics of HTTP/HTTPS requests between infected clients and C&C servers to recognize and block malicious traffic. ExecScent works by creating control protocol templates (CPT) for each known type of malware, combined with the ability to learn the normal traffic associated with a given network and spot anomalies. ExecScent uses these two parameters to determine whether a given request is suspect or not, and then blocks suspicious traffic based on an adjustable detection threshold. The higher the threshold is set, the fewer false positives will be generated, although this will also reduce the number of new C&C domains and infected hosts that are identified. Nelms, who also is director of research at Damballa, says the system operates autonomously and can adjust to a new network within two or three business days. Nelms and his team deployed a prototype of ExecScent on three large networks for two weeks and compared its results with traditional domain blacklisting of known C&C servers. He says ExecScent significantly outperformed blacklisting, finding more new C&C servers and identifying hundreds of infected machines that had previously gone undetected.

Disney Researchers Use Automated Analysis to Find Weakness in Soccer Coaching Strategy
Science Codex (08/13/13)

Disney researchers are applying artificial intelligence to the analysis of professional soccer and, in one automated technique, have discovered a strategic error often made by coaches of visiting teams. Conventional wisdom states that teams should win at home and play to a draw on the road, a philosophy that has encouraged coaches to play less aggressively when they are the visiting team, according to Disney researcher Patrick Lucey. However, computer analysis suggests it is this defensive-oriented strategy that reduces the likelihood of road wins. The researchers analyzed 380 games from a 20-team professional soccer league's 2010-2011 season and found that performance measures such as shooting and passing were similar for home and away teams. At home, the team had the ball in the opponent's defensive third more often, and thus had more shots on goal, than when on the road and played a more defensive, counterattacking style. "Visiting coaches are setting their teams up for failure from the get go," Lucey says. The researchers used ball-action data, or time-coded information about everything that is happening to the ball. The researchers note their techniques also can be used for other team sports that feature continuous play, such as basketball, hockey, and football.

Advancing Resistive Memory to Improve Portable Electronics
University of California, Riverside (08/13/13) Sean Nealon

University of California, Riverside researchers have developed technology that could lead to the next generation of memory storage devices for portable electronics such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, and digital cameras. The technology is based on resistive memory, which can be used to create memory cells that are smaller, operate at a higher speed, and offer more storage capacity than flash memory cells. "This is a significant step as the electronics industry is considering wide-scale adoption of resistive memory as an alternative for flash memory," says Riverside professor Jianlin Liu. "It really simplifies the process and lowers the fabrication cost." Liu says resistive memory could be the next step in memory storage devices because it has a simple structure, high-density integration, fast operation, and long endurance. The researchers self-assembled zinc oxide nano-islands on silicon to create the resistive memory devices. Using a conductive atomic-force microscope, the researchers observed three operation modes from the same device structure, which they say eliminates the need for a separate selector device.

Crowdsourcing Weather Using Smartphone Batteries
Science Daily (08/13/2013)

A team of app developers and weather experts have created a system that crowdsources hundreds of thousands of smartphone temperature readings. The system is based on the OpenSignal Android app, and takes advantage of the fact that smartphones have temperature sensors built into them to monitor the temperature of their batteries. The researchers used the sensors to crowdsource weather information to estimate the daily average temperature for eight major cities around the world. The researchers were able to calculate the air temperatures to within 1.5 degrees Celsius of the actual value. "The ultimate end is to be able to do things we've never been able to do before in meteorology and give those really short-term and localized predictions," says OpenSignal co-founder James Robinson. He says the app currently has about 700,000 active users, about 90 percent of whom opt in to provide statistics collected by their phones. Robinson says a smartphone's surroundings affect its temperature. He notes that the OpenSignal effort could be potentially applied to climate and weather monitoring. "The challenge is whether we can take this technique and use it in places where we don't already have reliable weather information to retune the model," Robinson says.

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