Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the December 18, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Computers With Brain-Like Intelligence are Getting Closer to Reality
IDG News Service (12/17/13) Agam Shah

Millions of dollars have been spent in the development of neuromorphic computer chips that mimic brain-like functionality to make computers smarter. Analysts say the technology could enable humans to control machines with their minds, and it could even boost the mental, visual, and cognitive capabilities of humans. Researchers want to create advanced computers with neural chips because they replicate the brain's circuitry and can retain information and make decisions based on patterns discovered through probabilities and associations. They say computers based on neural chips will be able to accomplish cognitive tasks and respond to a wide range of stimuli. Although the technological groundwork is being laid today, it could be decades before chips can actually simulate the human brain. For example, new data-processing techniques are needed that allow more information to be fed to computers, according to researchers. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing neuromorphic chips as part of the multiphase Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (Synapse) project. Next year, Synapse researchers will present a new neural chip system that will have a novel design of memory arrays so that large numbers of connections can be made among digital neurons. Other neural chip research efforts include Stanford University's Neurogrid and the University of Manchester's Spinnaker project.


Judge: NSA’s Collecting of Phone Records Is Probably Unconstitutional
The Washington Post (12/16/13) Ellen Nakashima; Ann E. Marimow

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon on Monday ruled that the U.S. National Security Agency's (NSA) daily collection of virtually all Americans' phone records is almost certainly unconstitutional. "I cannot imagine a more 'indiscriminate' and 'arbitrary invasion' than this systematic and high tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval," Leon said in his ruling. "Surely, such a program infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment." The decision contradicts the secret deliberations of 15 judges on the U.S.'s surveillance court, which only hears the government's side of cases and has maintained that NSA's program is lawful. "We believe the program is constitutional as previous judges have found," says Justice Department spokesperson Andrew Ames. The ruling, which Leon put aside pending a government appeal, comes as Congress debates whether to end NSA's bulk collection of phone data or endorse it in a federal statute. Leon said the size and scope of NSA's program amounts to a "dragnet" that uses "almost-Orwellian technology" to intrude on people's privacy and is "at best, the stuff of science fiction."
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Too Few Women in Fed Tech Jobs; Too Many Challenges for Them
NextGov.com (12/16/13) Brittany Ballenstedt

Women remain underrepresented in information technology (IT) and other science and math fields, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) Women's Work Group report. For example, the report found that women account for just 31 percent of federal IT positions. The gender disparities in the federal government are in part a result of women earning substantially fewer degrees in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. "The lower percentage of women receiving STEM degrees results in substantially fewer women than men available in the applicant pool to recruit to federal STEM positions, which presents a formidable challenge to efforts to increase women's representation in federal STEM occupations," the EEOC report says. In addition, the report notes that even for women who hold STEM-related degrees, many still encounter challenges in being hired, promoted, and supported compared to their male colleagues. The report recommends that agencies increase scholarship programs and partnerships with universities to stimulate STEM interest, create internship programs that encourage the participation of women, and provide STEM employees with mentors. It also recommends establishing interagency networks that foster professional associations among women in STEM fields, and hosting seminars and conferences that provide networking opportunities for female STEM workers.


Welcome to the Super Bowl for Robots
Associated Press (12/15/13) Geoff Mulvihill; Kevin Begos

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is sponsoring a robotics competition aimed at developing a robot that can function in disaster zones where the conditions could be threatening to humans. The 17 teams in the competition are working toward a $2-million prize to advance their research. The teams will be evaluated Friday and Saturday in Florida for how well they complete several tasks, including opening doors and getting into an all-terrain vehicle. Some of the teams, such as Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Laboratories, qualified for the competition by doing well in a virtual version and were given a prebuilt robot to use with their software. Lockheed's entry received assistance from students at the University of Pennsylvania and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "We want the system to be intuitive to untrained operators," says Lockheed researcher Bill Borgia. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers built their CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform (CHIMP) from scratch over the last 14 months specifically for the DARPA challenge. "We wanted to design a robot that had roughly human form, so that it fits in the environment that humans operate in," says CHIMP researcher Anthony Stentz. "But we didn't want to take on the difficult task of building a machine that is too humanlike."


Meteor Aims to Make JavaScript Programming Fun Again
InfoWorld (12/16/13) Paul Krill

The Meteor open source JavaScript platform, released in 2012 with the goal of streamlining Web application development, is moving toward its 1.0 release in early 2014, says Meteor Development Group's Matt Debergalis. Debergalis, who co-wrote Meteor, says the program is designed to simplify Web programming to make it more fun and inclusive for a wider range of programmers. He notes that Meteor's developers were motivated by a move toward thick client applications, in which most of the code runs within the Web browser rather than in a data center, resulting in programs that are more interactive and engaging. Because of this shift, Meteor offers a live page updates feature that enables developers to write templates that automatically update when the database changes. Debergalis says older frameworks such as PHP and Rails were designed to send one page at a time from development to the browser, and lack the infrastructure to create today's interactive apps. Meteor also includes a real-time wire protocol called Distributed Data Protocol that, unlike HTTP, allows the server to publish data into the client to provide continuous information updates.


A Village Storage System for Developing-World Facebook Friends
Technology Review (12/16/13) David Talbot

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) researchers, working with colleagues in Zambia, have developed Kwaabana, a file-sharing prototype that uploads content to a separate website served by one local PC. The researchers hope to solve the problem faced by many people in rural Africa, who have satellite Internet connectivity, but often find that their uploads of photos and other content fail. "People share photos and videos quite frequently to people who are physically close to them," says UCSB professor Elizabeth Belding. A user signs up with Kwaabana and discloses his or her location. The system then imports a list of friends from the user's Facebook account. The content to be uploaded is stored on the local PC and overnight, when the bandwidth is free, the system uploads the photo to a remote server. The uploader receives a message saying the photo has been shared, and a friend within the same local area will receive a URL for the file that is the local copy while a friend located somewhere else will get a URL for the copy stored in Santa Barbara when it becomes available hours later. Princeton University's Vivek Pai says the technology deals with file sharing in a new way by keeping bandwidth use to a minimum.


Unusual Suspects
MIT News (12/15/13) Elizabeth Dougherty

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have integrated computational and experimental approaches to discover biologically meaningful RNA folds. "There's much that's uncertain about RNA," says MIT professor Manolis Kellis. "Our approach combining computational predictions and experimental measurements can really help us go in the direction of understanding the machinery behind the countless cellular processes that involve RNA." Kellis and former MIT postdoc Stefan Washietl spent several years developing algorithms to forecast the ways in which RNA strands are likely to fold. Meanwhile, UCSF experimental biologists were devising a technique to investigate how RNA strands fold inside a living cell using dimethyl sulfate, which binds only with unfolded strands of RNA. The UCSF team used an algorithm written by Manolis and Washietl to translate the data they gathered into RNA structures. The researchers discovered that experimental evidence from studies of RNA structures in test tubes matched Kellis' computational predictions, but observations in living cells did not. Further study proved that RNA inside an energy-depleted cell folds more readily, indicating that cells are expending energy to allow only particular RNA folds of value to form.


U.K. Center to Study Threat of Industry Cyberattacks
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (12/13/13)

Cyber threats to Britain's infrastructure and industries will be the focus of the new Research Institute Into Trustworthy Industrial Control Systems at Imperial College London. Researchers will examine how vulnerable the industrial control systems that run power stations, transport systems, and factories are to cyberattacks. They also will investigate ways to avoid threats through the development of new technologies and procedures. Moreover, researchers will look for ways to shore up industrial control systems, which have been increasingly connected to the Internet, without impacting operations. IT networks are patched daily to help limit attacks, but it is more difficult to regularly install upgrades for industrial control systems because they need to operate continuously for months at a time. In addition, researchers will study how a lone attack on a business or industry could potentially affect other businesses and the rest of the infrastructure. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Cabinet Office are jointly funding the institute.


Keeping the Lights On
The UCSB Current (12/12/13) Sonia Fernandez

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) researchers have developed the Koopman Mode Analysis (KMA), an algorithm they say can predict future massive instabilities in the power grid and make power outages a thing of the past. "If we can get these instabilities under control, then people won't have to worry about losing power, and we can put in more fluctuating sources, like solar and wind," says UCSB professor Igor Mezic. Current power grid methods rely on a steady, abundant supply, producing enough energy to flow through the grid at all times, regardless of demand. However, should part of a grid already operating at capacity fail, widespread blackouts all over the system can occur. The algorithm promises to prevent the cascade of blackouts and their subsequent effects by monitoring the entire grid for early signs of failure in real time. The researchers say KMA is a dynamic approach based on a concept related to chaos theory, and is capable of monitoring seemingly innocuous fluctuations in measured physical power flow. KMA uses data from existing monitoring methods to track power fluctuations against the greater landscape of the grid and predict emerging events, resulting in the ability to prevent and control large-scale blackouts and the damage they can cause.


Low-Power Tunneling Transistor for High-Performance Devices at Low Voltage
Penn State News (12/12/13) Walt Mills

Pennsylvania State University researchers have developed a type of transistor, called a near broken-gap tunnel field effect transistor (TFET), which they say could make possible fast and low-power computing devices for energy-constrained applications such as smart sensor networks, implantable medical electronics, and ultra-mobile computing. TFET uses the quantum mechanical tunneling of electrons through an ultrathin energy barrier to provide high current at low voltage. "This transistor has previously been developed in our lab to replace MOSFET transistors for logic applications and to address power issues," says Penn State researcher Bijesh Rajamohanan. "In this work, we went a step beyond and showed the capability of operating at high frequency, which is handy for applications where power concerns are critical, such as processing and transmitting information from devices implanted inside the human body." The researchers tuned the material composition of the indium gallium arsenide/gallium arsenide antimony so the energy barrier was close to zero, which enabled the electrons to tunnel through the barrier when desired.


Online Tool Aids Clinicians' Efforts to Treat Injured Workers
University of Alberta (12/11/13) Bryan Alary

University of Alberta researchers have developed a Web-based tool to help health professionals determine the right course of treatment for injured workers. The software uses machine learning to analyze injury and treatment records from a workers' compensation database to create a tool that recommends an appropriate course of rehabilitation. "The goal of this tool, and all our rehabilitation strategies today, is to be able to help these people feel healthy again, participate in productive work, and reintegrate into their jobs as quick as possible," says Alberta professor Doug Gross. The program is based on an algorithm that relies on information from a provincial database of 8,611 workers who, after undergoing initial treatments, were referred for assessments to determine whether they were ready to return to work. "For me, it was an obvious example of the type of approach we can do through machine learning," says Alberta professor Osmar Zaiane. During testing, the program proved about 85-percent accurate in recommending the right treatment, a success rate that was more reliable than assessments done by professional medical practitioners. "This is about the clinicians making decisions and how we can help augment those decisions," Gross says.


That Thing Attached to Your Hand? It Might Be Doomed
Harvard Gazette (12/11/13) Alvin Powell

In an interview, Harvard University professor Woodward Yang says the personal technology market will experience business disruptions due to constant innovation. As Apple and Samsung compete in the smartphone market, the technology is becoming commoditized, enabling new players to emerge with competitive offerings. "As the technology matures, you get a disruption," Yang says. "It's not a disruption of technology, though, but a disruption of the business, the high-margin business." As new players cut into the margins that established companies earn on smartphones, older players are forced to innovate with technologies such as smartwatches, Google Glass, and the iCloud. "This is the motivation behind the relentless innovation in tech and the differentiation that it gives your products so that you can command higher margins and larger market share," Yang says. However, new devices will not supplant smartphones in the near future, because devices such as Google Glass and smartwatches "aren't big enough for the processor, data storage, cellular communications circuitry, and especially the battery, so you still need a smartphone," Yang notes. He says smartphones rose to mainstream use because they fill the need to check email, hold conversations, and use the Internet from any location. New technologies that effectively fulfill specific consumer needs are likely to meet with similar success, Yang predicts.


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