Welcome to the October 4, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
World Wide Web Creator Rules DRM Support Should Be Baked Into Web Tech
ZDNet (10/03/13) Nick Heath
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) director Sir Tim Berners-Lee is backing measures to embed support for copy-protected media in HTML5. Proposals to add Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) to the next specification for HTML have prompted letters of protest from multiple digital rights groups and activists. EME would provide a hook for DRM-protected audio, video, and other content within HTML. It is necessary to provide support for digital rights management within HTML to avoid scenarios in which movie studios remove films from the Web to prevent piracy, according to W3C CEO Jeff Jaffe. The EME specification describes an application programming interface (API) that would interact with a DRM-protected file when the media was played, and has been published by the HTML working group as an editor's draft but has not yet been endorsed by the W3C. "We're not going to standardize proprietary DRM systems, but on the other hand we don't want it to be excluded from the Web platform," Jaffe says. "The compromise is a set of open APIs that give a standard framework to bring in this content via plug-in, but where we don't standardize the plug-in."
House Democrats Push Ahead on Immigration, H-1B
Computerworld (10/02/13) Patrick Thibodeau
U.S. House Democrats have introduced a comprehensive immigration bill that is similar to the legislation approved by the Senate. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), pointing to the Senate's bipartisan vote, says Democrats and Republicans might find more common ground on immigration than other issues. Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA) says high-tech companies in her state have urged lawmakers to make immigration reform a top priority. "Whether it's an ultrasound manufacturer who needs an acoustic engineer, a video-game developer looking for a 3D modeler, companies in my district are in extreme need of specialized high-skilled workers," DelBene says. She notes the bill "has increased protections for American workers so they aren't displaced." Like the Senate bill, the House bill would raise the annual H-1B cap from 65,000 to 110,000, with an escalator that would let the limit increase to 180,000. The bill also exempts U.S. graduates with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math from existing caps on green cards, and includes provisions that would raise salaries for H-1B workers by eliminating the lowest wage levels in the first tier of the four tier prevailing wage levels.
Surprisingly Simple Scheme for Self-Assembling Robots
MIT News (10/04/13) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed M-Blocks, cube-shaped robots with no external moving parts that can climb over and around one another, leap through the air, roll across the ground, and move while suspended upside down from metallic surfaces. Each M-Block contains a flywheel that can reach speeds of 20,000 revolutions per minute. When the flywheel is braked, it imparts its angular momentum to the cube. In additionally, each edge and every face of the M-Block is equipped with magnets that help the cubes attach to one another. Although the researchers say the ultimate goal is to miniaturize the modules, they believe a more refined version of their system could prove useful even at its current scale. "It's a low-tech solution to a problem that people have been trying to solve with extraordinarily high-tech approaches," says Cornell University professor Hod Lipson. The MIT researchers are building an army of 100 cubes, each of which can move in any direction, and are designing algorithms to guide them. "We want hundreds of cubes, scattered randomly across the floor, to be able to identify each other, coalesce, and autonomously transform into a chair, or a ladder, or a desk, on demand," says MIT's John Romanishin.
Print a Working Paper Computer on an $80 Inkjet
New Scientist (10/03/13) Paul Marks
Researchers at the University of Tokyo and Microsoft have developed a method to print the fine lines of electronic circuitboards onto paper using an inkjet printer loaded with ink containing silver nanoparticles. The researchers say their method fills a void in the capabilities of 3D printers, which can print the casing for a gadget but not the printed circuits that go inside it. They say the ink does not need heat to release its silver, and the particle size, viscosity, and surface tension were just right for it to deposit flat silver conductors onto the paper. To turn the nanoparticles into working circuits, the team avoided soldering and instead used a conducting glue to attach components such as resistors and capacitors. The researchers used the technique to develop a moisture sensor that detects rainfall with one circuit and soil humidity with another, transmitting its readings via a printed Wi-Fi antenna. The researchers also created more complex inkjet-printed circuits, with microprocessors and memory chip connectors. "In 20 years, you really will be able to hit 'print' and make yourself a mobile phone," says University of Tokyo professor Yoshihiro Kawahara.
New 'White Spaces' Research From Microsoft and China Makes It Easier to Find Vacant Spectrum
Network World (10/02/13) John Cox
Researchers at Microsoft and the Chinese University of Hong Kong say they have developed a method for identifying and using vacant white space spectrum for Wi-Fi in a simpler, more-efficient, and less-expensive way. The project focused on analyzing indoor white spaces. The researchers created algorithms and software, used with radio-frequency (RF) sensors, to create a system to identify and track indoor white spaces. They say their system, White-space Indoor Spectrum EnhanceR (WISER), is able to identify 30 to 50 percent more white space spectrum than alternative methods. A cluster of RF sensors in a building sample the airwaves to identify and assess indoor white spaces. Some of the WISER algorithms profile the building while others detail where to place the sensors, according to Microsoft researcher Ranveer Chandra. One major advance with WISER is that a wireless client device does not have to perform the white space spectrum sensing itself, and instead just needs to determine its location using any indoor location technique. WISER can be embedded in future Wi-Fi access points, "which would make it very simple to deploy," Chandra notes. WISER was designed to minimize the cost of the spectrum sensors, and to improve the accuracy of identifying usable white space channels without causing interference.
Graphene Could Make Data Centers and Supercomputers More Efficient
Technology Review (10/02/13) Mike Orcutt
Graphene could be a far better and less-expensive option for facilitating highly efficient optical communication in chips for data centers and supercomputers. Several industrial research labs are working toward using optical interconnects that rely on germanium to turn light into 1s and 0s, but graphene has the potential to surpass the performance of germanium photodetectors in several important aspects within a few years, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Dirk Englund. He says graphene has exceptional electronic properties and would enable devices made of the material to work at very high frequencies, which in principle would allow for handling more information per second. The material can absorb a broader range of wavelengths, which could be exploited to transmit more data streams simultaneously in the same beam of light. Graphene photodetectors work well without applied voltage, which could reduce the energy needed to transmit data, and in principle would require a simpler and potentially less-expensive process to integrate them on a silicon chip. Graphene does not strongly absorb light, but research groups have addressed this problem by designing on-chip detectors consisting of a graphene sheet paired with a silicon waveguide.
Strap It On, Wearable Tech Taking Off
Associated Press (10/01/13) Martha Mendoza
The wearable technology market is poised to grow rapidly over the next few years, said attendees at a recent wearable technology conference in San Francisco. "Everyone agrees the race is just beginning, and I think we're going to see some very, very big leaps in just the next year," says tech entrepreneur Manish Chandra. People will have to adapt to the new capabilities that wearable technology enables, says Georgia Tech professor Thad Starner, an adviser on Google Glass. Unlike computers and tablets that demand a user's primary attention, wearable technology is designed to operate in the background, Starner says. "It seems like a paradox, but when you pull the technology closer to your body, there's a seamless interaction, it's more an extension of yourself," he says. However, concerns are arising over issues of privacy and user willingness to wear devices and interact in new ways. A recent Cornerstone OnDemand survey of 1,029 Americans aged 18 and over found that 42 percent of workers were not willing to don wearable technology for their jobs. Bandwidth also is an issue, as there currently is not adequate network service to support constant, universal wireless use, although that situation will change, says consultant Ritch Blasi.
Computer Program Lets Users Learn Keyboard Shortcuts With Minimal Effort
Saarland University (09/30/13)
Saarland University researchers have developed software that assists users in identifying and learning keyboard shortcuts so they can become as fast as expert users. The new interface mechanism is integrated within programs using a toolbar, a menu, or ribbons as a graphical user interface. By making the shortcuts readily accessible to all users, the researchers want to increase the use of hotkeys among less-experienced users and help them maximize their performance by using consistent shortcuts. To accomplish this, the researchers, led by Gilles Bailly, developed an interface mechanism that enables hotkey browsing, supports physical rehearsal, and assures rapid hotkey identification. "If the user is in the middle of a workflow, he does not need to remove his hands from the keyboard and reach for the mouse," Bailly says. To test the software, the researchers asked volunteers to identify icons in toolbars and select them as fast as possible. The results show that amateurs used the keyboard shortcuts four times more often after they had sampled them for a few minutes.
Project Sonar Crowdsources a Better Bug Killer
InformationWeek (09/30/13) Mathew J. Schwartz
Rapid7 chief research officer HD Moore is developing ways of identifying vulnerable Internet-facing systems and devices through exhaustive scans of the Internet. At the recent DerbyCon 3.0 conference, he sought to crowdsource this effort by launching Project Sonar. "Project Sonar is a community effort to improve security through the active analysis of public networks," Moore says. He reports that this will involve "running scans on Internet-facing systems, organizing the results, and sharing the data with the information security community." Rapid7 recently released approximately 3 TB of data gathered from numerous scans, but Project Sonar invites researchers to not only comb through this data, but perform their own scans. Until very recently, exhaustive port scanning could take years and required the use of numerous devices, but new platforms including the open source ZMap network scanner and Errata Security's Masscan tool can carry out such scans in minutes. However, Moore notes that although obtaining such data is easier now, analyzing it requires a great deal of manpower--hence Project Sonar's call to crowdsource the effort.
CU, MIT Breakthrough in Photonics Could Allow for Faster and Faster Electronics
University of Colorado Boulder (09/30/2013) Laura Snider
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) say they have made a pair of breakthroughs in the field of silicon photonics that could lead to faster electronics. The researchers developed a technique that enables microprocessors to use light instead of electrical wires to communicate with transistors on a single chip, a system that could lead to extremely energy-efficient computing. "The transistors will keep shrinking and they'll be able to continue giving you more and more computing performance," says CU-Boulder professor Milos Popovic. "But in order to be able to actually take advantage of that you need to enable energy-efficient communication links." Popovic says that using light waves instead of electrical wires for microprocessor communication functions could eliminate the limitations currently faced by conventional microprocessors and extend Moore's Law into the future. Last year, Popovic collaborated with MIT researchers to show that the integration of photonics into microelectronics is possible. "We use this fabrication process and, instead of making just electrical circuits, we make photonics next to the electrical circuits so they can talk to each other," he says.
Is Massive Open Online Research the Next Frontier for Education?
UCSD News (CA) (09/30/13) Doug Ramsey
The University of California, San Diego (UCSD) is launching Bioinformatics Algorithms-Part 1, a new Coursera massive open online course (MOOC) that incorporates a substantial research component for the first time. "To our knowledge, this is the first major online course that prominently features massive open online research, or MOOR, rather than just regular coursework," says UCSD professor Pavel Pevzner. The researchers also have developed a book for supporting the course that will soon be available in e-book form. In addition, the course provides access to Rosalind, a free online resource for learning bioinformatics through problem solving. "The platform allows biologists to develop vital programming skills for bioinformatics at their own pace, and Rosalind can also appeal to programmers who have never been exposed to some of the exciting computational problems generated by molecular biology," says researcher Nikolay Vyahhi. The course will cover many algorithms underlying fundamental topics in bioinformatics. "If you don't already know a [computer] language, you can probably start from ground zero by working on introductory problems on Rosalind, which will give you the basics in Python after about 10 hours of problem-solving," says Rosalind co-founder Phillip Compeau.
Scrambled Code Keeps Software Safe
IEEE Spectrum (09/26/13) Davey Alba
Computer scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), IBM Research, and the University of Texas at Austin have developed a "mathematical obfuscation" scheme to prevent hackers from reverse-engineering software. Instead of the compiler translating the script directly into machine code as takes place with ordinary programs, the compiler in the new scheme would first convert the code into an intermediate form, and then an obfuscating compiler would translate this into a mathematical puzzle that would take hundreds of years to solve. A jigsaw verifier program, written in machine code, would then try to put the puzzle pieces together, and if successful the completed puzzle would instruct the CPU on creating the correct output. However, if the puzzle pieces could not be assembled, possibly because a hacker had tampered with the code, the output would be incorrect. "The modified software would not give you any insight into how the original software works," says UCLA professor Amit Sahai. The researchers say their work demonstrates that indistinguishability obfuscation, which computer scientists have long struggled to prove, is possible. Although the obfuscation scheme currently requires too much computation for practical use, its developers think a feasible system could emerge within 10 years.
Kurzweil: The Human Brain on IT
SearchCIO.com (09/30/13) Linda Tucci
Information technology (IT) is causing the rate at which the world is changing to accelerate, says inventor, futurologist and 1978 ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award recipient Ray Kurzweil. He says language, the first information technology, developed over hundreds of thousands of years, and the time frame for new technologies grew progressively shorter, with cell phones being popularized in Western culture in seven years. "Imagine asking prehuman humanoids, 'what's it going to be like when you invent language, art and science?'" Kurzweil asks. "Today, we can understand the question and take a guess." Kurzweil says the next major change will occur in the human brain, which will grow using the power of IT. "The world changes rapidly, and in fact, it changes more and more rapidly, fueled by the exponential growth of our information technology," Kurzweil says. "It is the application of linear logic to how technology will change that gets us into trouble." Exponential improvements in price, performance, and size take place with technologies that make an impact, he says, noting that the first Kurzweil Reading Machine cost $50,000 and was as large as a washing machine, but now the technology is built into software and can read any book. IT and business leaders must think ahead to what the world will hold in the future, he says.
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