Welcome to the December 23, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Japanese Team Dominates Competition to Create Generation of Rescue Robots
New York Times (12/22/13) John Markoff
The Schaft robot, developed by a group of Japanese researchers, dominated the U.S. Pentagon's Defense Advance Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Robotics Challenge 2013 Trials on Friday and Saturday. The robot completed the eight required tasks in the international challenge almost flawlessly, losing points only because the wind blew a door out of the robot's grasp and because it was not able to climb out of a vehicle after it successfully navigated an obstacle course. The Schaft team is one of eight of the 16 participating teams that was selected to move on in the competition and become eligible for a $1-million prize to help them prepare for the final event next year, which offers a $2-million prize. The DARPA challenge aims to create a generation of mobile robots that will aid in disaster situations, traveling and working where humans cannot. After the Schaft robot, robots from the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory rounded out the top five. Participants said the event marked a watershed in the evolution of robot technology. "This was a Woodstock for robots," says Boston Dynamics' Marc Raibert.
Research Trio Crack RSA Encryption Keys by Listening to Computer Noise
PhysOrg.com (12/19/13) Bob Yirka
University of Tel Aviv researchers have shown that it is possible to crack 4,096-bit RSA encryption keys using a microphone to listen to high-pitch noises generated by internal computer components. The central processing unit emits a high-pitched noise as it operates, which fluctuates depending on which operations it is performing. The researchers developed software to interpret noise data obtained using basic microphones. However, listening and detecting the noise made by a computer as it processes a single character in an encryption key would be impossible, so the researchers developed a method that causes the noise to be repeated enough times in a row to enable its capture. By listening to how the computer processes the cyphertext, the researchers can map the noises made by the computer as it analyzes different characters, thereby enabling encryption keys sent by others to be cracked. The researchers note their technique can be ported to various machines, and they also found that low-bandwidth attacks on computers are possible by measuring the electrical potential of a computer's chassis while the circuitry is busy.
Go Easy on MOOCs
Inside Higher Ed (12/19/13) Carl Straumsheim
The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on Wednesday released a report recommending the federal government not interfere with massive open online course (MOOC) vendors and providers. Furthermore, the report suggests accreditors waive some of the standards required of institutions seeking approval for traditional programs. "It would also be premature to impose standards and regulations that might impair the power of competitive market forces to motivate innovation," the report says. "If the bar for accreditation is set too high, the infant industry developing MOOC and related technology platforms may struggle to realize its full potential." The report also says grant programs should be created to support research into online education and MOOC effectiveness, with a "national exchange mechanism" such as a "center for high-scale machine learning" to facilitate data access. MOOC accreditation is a contentious issue, with faculty critics arguing that MOOCs should be subject to more oversight and regional accreditors rebutting charges that they are hindering new technologies. The council developed the report, which will be the first in a series on technology in higher education, over the past year through discussions with higher education experts whose recommendations have been incorporated.
New Data Compression Method Reduces Big-Data Bottleneck; Outperforms, Enhances JPEG
UCLA Newsroom (CA) (12/18/13) Matthew Chin
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers say they have developed a new method of data compression that outperforms existing techniques, such as JPEG for images, and that could eventually be integrated into medical, scientific, and video-streaming applications. Their technique reshapes the signal carrying the data in a way that resembles the graphic art technique known as anamorphism, which creates optical illusions in art and film. The researchers found that it is possible to achieve data compression by stretching and warping the data in a specific way according to a new mathematical function. The new function, called anamorphic stretch transform (AST), operates both in analog and digital domains. The researchers note that AST does not require prior knowledge of the data for the transformation to occur. "Our transformation causes feature-selective stretching of the data and allocation of more pixels to sharper features where they are needed the most," says UCLA's Bahram Jalali. In addition, AST can be used for image compression, as a standalone algorithm, or combined with existing digital compression techniques. "Reshaping the data by stretching and wrapping it in the prescribed manner compresses it without losing pertinent information," Jalali says.
'Approximate Computing' Improves Efficiency, Saves Energy
Purdue University News (12/17/13) Emil Venere
Purdue University researchers are developing computers capable of approximate computing, which means they can perform imperfect calculations that are good enough for certain tasks that do not require perfect accuracy, potentially doubling efficiency and reducing energy consumption. "The need for approximate computing is driven by two factors: a fundamental shift in the nature of computing workloads, and the need for new sources of efficiency," says Purdue professor Anand Raghunathan. The researchers developed a range of hardware techniques to demonstrate approximate computing, showing a potential for improvements in energy efficiency. The researchers also have shown how to apply approximate computing to programmable processors, which are found in computers, servers, and consumer electronics. "In order to have a broad impact we need to be able to apply this technology to programmable processors," says Purdue professor Kaushik Roy. "And now we have shown how to design a programmable processor to perform approximate computing." The researchers achieved this by altering the instruction set, which is the interface between software and hardware. Quality fields added to the instruction set let the software tell the hardware the level of accuracy required for a given task. The researchers also produced a prototype programmable processor based on this approach.
Computing Experts Lead in World's First Large-Scale Verifiable Political Election
University of Surrey (12/17/13) Peter La
University of Surrey researchers, working in collaboration with the universities of Luxembourg and Melbourne, say they have developed a secure electronic voting system that could make controversial election results a thing of the past. The researchers signed a contract with Australia's Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) to develop the back-end software for a supervised e-voting system that will be used at the Victorian State election in 2014, which the researchers say will make it the world's first large-scale verifiable political election. "Concerns about security in e-voting meant that the VEC wanted end-to-end verifiability in their voting system," says Surrey professor Steve Schneider. "After the 2014 Victorian state election, we aim to roll out our system more widely." End-to-end verifiability means the system uses cryptography to confirm information about the election that can be checked independently. The secrecy of the ballot is ensured because votes are decrypted in a cryptographically secure and verifiable way, so that no one can tell which decrypted vote corresponds to which encrypted vote. "The strength of end-to-end verifiability is that all participants--the VEC, candidates, scrutineers, and voters--can be completely sure that the actual vote cast is the same as that received and counted," says VEC's Warwick Gately.
Doctoral Student From Netherlands Studies How to Evolve Artificial Brains to Mimic Those in Animals
University of Wyoming (12/17/13)
University of Wyoming doctoral student Joost Huizinga is studying how to create computer brains that function similarly to animal brains. To accomplish this, he is examining how evolution led to animal and human brains that are hierarchically and modularly organized. "The goal of my research is to look at modularity and regularity," Huizinga says. "Both have been researched separately. My goal is to combine them." Modularity refers to the brain's innate, neural structures with distinct, evolutionarily-developed functions, while regularity refers to repeated patterns in the brain. Most artificial brain research involves a neural network designed to accomplish a single task in "a very entangled way," Huizinga says. "Everything (in the computer brain) is associated at the same time." Huizinga is developing a model with distinct modules that would, in his cube example, separately recognize the pattern and the cube. He is developing "cost connections" that penalize the artificial brain for very long connections from the far left side of the brain to the far right, because shorter connections enable the creation of more modules, which in turn allows for more functions. To establish regularity, Huizinga is using artificial DNA with significantly fewer genes than there are connections and neurons in the brain to force the reuse of information and develop regular patterns.
How to Find the Rarest of the Rare in Southern Skies
UA News (AZ) (12/17/13) Shelley Littin
In a joint project with astronomers at the National Optical Astronomical Observatory (NOAO), University of Arizona computer scientists are developing software that will parse up to 10 million alerts of astronomical objects nightly from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), slated to go live in Chile in 2022. The LSST will photograph the entire Southern Hemisphere every three nights for 10 years to create an unprecedented map of the sky that will depict changes in astronomical objects almost as they happen. The scientists must determine how to compare the 1 million to 10 million astronomical objects the LSST finds nightly to the catalog of known objects, prioritize them, and create a list of the most important objects on which astronomers worldwide should focus. The team must winnow as many as 10 million objects down to 10 or 100 within a 37-second time frame. "If we don't keep up with that, we'll get behind," says NOAO's Tom Matheson. "It's a classic big data computer science problem." To meet this challenge, the team is creating Arizona NOAO Temporal Analysis and Response to Events System (ANTARES), software that could eventually have other big-data applications, such as credit card alerts, national security alerts, or major disease outbreak prediction.
Cornell Researchers Print 3D Speaker
IDG News Service (12/17/13) Martyn Williams
Cornell University researchers say they have successfully fabricated a working loudspeaker using a three-dimensional (3D) printer, representing one of the first times a complete electronic device has been printed from scratch. The speaker's plastic body, conductive coil, and magnet were all printed using a Fab@Home printer, and the speaker was almost ready for use as soon as printing was finished, according to the researchers. Fab@Home was developed by two Cornell students to help researchers experiment with 3D printing. However, many 3D printers do not have the capability to print with different materials, and fabricating a single device requires the selection of materials that work well together, the researchers note. They also point out that in order to print the conductive coil and copper and plastic from the same printer, different temperatures and curing times were required.
Researchers Develop New Expert-Finding Technique for Online Forums
Virginia Tech News (12/16/13) Sookhan Ho
Virginia Tech researchers have developed ExpertRank, an expert-finding technique for online forums. ExpertRank evaluates expertise based on both the expert's authored documents and their social status within their knowledge community. "Companies such as GE, Dell, IBM, KPMG, Microsoft, and Google have amassed a huge volume of data--in addition to knowledge exchanges on internal discussion forums, employee emails and other internal communications, and Web-based customer service interactions," says Virginia Tech professor G. Alan Wang. He notes ExpertRank "could be easily extended or modified to these data to help build expert databases or organizational memory systems that facilitate knowledge exchange among employees." During testing, the researchers found that ExpertRank significantly outperformed commonly used document-based expert-finding techniques. "It is convenient and effective for both users who seek knowledge and those who are willing to share," Wang says. He notes that few expert-finding systems consider both document-based relevance to a given query and the expert's social importance, and ExpertRank fulfills this purpose.
Wikipedia's Secret Multilingual Workforce
Technology Review (12/13/13)
Research has determined that versions of Wikipedia content in different languages have little overlap, with the English edition, for example, containing just 51 percent of the articles in German. University of Oxford researcher Scott Hale reports that a group of people who edit Wikipedia in multiple languages could correct this problem, noting "such multilingual users may serve an important function in diffusing information across different language editions of the project." A study by Hale found that such individuals, about 8,000 in all, comprise a small but critical minority of editors; this number constitutes about 15 percent of the 55,000 editors that Hale estimates were responsible for 3.5 million significant edits to Wikipedia between July 8 and Aug. 9. The researcher determined that some Wikipedia editions have more multilingual editors than others, and smaller editions have a higher portion of multilingual editors overall. Hale found these multilingual editors to be more active than their monolingual equivalents, making 2.3 times as many edits on average. In addition, nearly 50 percent of the articles added by multilingual editors receive no editing by monolinguals, while multilinguals also tend to edit the same articles in different tongues.
Can Smartphones Snap Out of Technological Stupor?
Associated Press (12/13/13) Michael Liedtke; Youkyung Lee
Smartphone innovation has been stuck in a holding pattern, and smartphone and software makers are attempting to step up the pace. Flexible display screens are seen as a breakthrough that could boost consumer appeal, while making the devices even easier to carry around could happen as smarter tracking tools and voice-recognition technology enable the phones to understand their owners' behavior and habits. Building smartphones with more pliable displays will require imbuing the device's battery, chips, and other key elements with flexibility as well. Flexible screens also will likely be manufactured from plastic, which is very susceptible to high temperatures, oxygen, or water. The drive to increase smartphone intelligence seems to be further along than display screen innovation, with both Apple and Google offering voice recognition technology and virtual assistants so smartphones can engage in rudimentary dialogues and offer helpful tips. The ultimate aim is for smartphones to become so intuitive and efficient that they reflexively serve their owners' needs. Tomorrow's smartphone "will be small enough to carry with you at all times without thinking about it, and it will be essential enough that you won't want to get rid of it," predicts futurist Paul Saffo. "It will become a context engine. It will be aware of where it is, where you are going, and what you need."
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