Welcome to the February 3, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Building a Better Battery
The New York Times (02/02/14) Brian X. Chen; Nick Bilton
Although computer chips have doubled in speed every few years, and digital displays have become significantly brighter and sharper, battery technology has not advanced much since the 20th century. Some industry experts advise focusing on improving batteries by taking small steps rather than trying to reinvent the battery itself. "Hoping and betting on new battery technology to me is a fool's errand," says former Apple vice president Tony Fadell. Over the past few years, Apple has hired engineers with expertise in power technology and battery design and has been experimenting with methods to wirelessly charge batteries with magnetic induction and solar energy. Google also has been researching new battery technologies in an attempt to extend the life of smartphones. Meanwhile, Samsung has been designing new types of batteries for wearable computers; for example, the company has introduced compact curved batteries that can be installed inside wristbands. Stanford University professor Yi Cui is developing a way to replace the carbon anodes in lithium-ion batteries with silicon. Meanwhile, University of Washington researchers have been working on a method for wireless devices to communicate without using any battery power; the technique involves harvesting the energy from TV, cellular, and Wi-Fi signals that are already in the air, says Washington professor Shyamnath Gollakota.
IBM Teams With Universities on Big Data, Analytics Research
eWeek (01/30/14) Darryl K. Taft
IBM and Texas A&M University System (TAMUS) researchers have announced a broad collaboration to drive computational sciences research through big data and analytics. The researchers say the collaboration will leverage the power of big data analytics and high-performance computing for solutions across a wide range of challenges. The joint research effort will use IBM's Blue Gene/Q technology, Power and System x servers, and General Parallel File Systems storage systems. "This brings together the best computer scientists and technology in the world to focus on issues so important to our role as a leading research institution and to our land-grant mission of serving the state while also providing resources to serve the greater good throughout the world," says TAMUS chancellor John Sharp. The researchers say they will align their skills, assets, and resources to pursue fundamental research, applied development, educational reach, and sustainable commercial activities with various projects. "With the combined research capabilities of both institutions and ready access to state-of-the-art computing technology, we feel this collaboration could produce significant scientific insights leading to industry-changing solutions and material economic impact," says IBM's William LaFontaine. IBM also will work with TAMUS researchers to assess new computing technologies that could advance data-driven science discovery and innovation over the next several years.
Conversation App Helps Parents Boost Child's Language
New Scientist (01/30/14) Hal Hodson
Parents with children who struggle to develop their language skills could soon turn to an app that is designed to provide real-time feedback on parent-child conversations. KAIST computer scientists worked with speech-language pathologists at Ewha Womans University in Seoul to develop the TalkBetter system. The system requires that parents wear a Bluetooth earpiece and microphone, while the child just wears a microphone, and all of them are connected to a smartphone. The software on the phone listens to the verbal exchanges, focusing on when parents speak too fast, do not give their child enough time to respond, or ignore speech from the child. The system alerts parents via the earpiece when any of these things happen. The KAIST team has developed a preliminary app, and full clinical trials of the smartphone-based system are under way. "We developed a preliminary app which targets and monitors group discussion, trying to give real-time feedback," says lead researcher Inseok Hwang. "If one person dominates the conversation, for instance, then the smartphone might give a gentle reminder to let others speak." The TalkBetter system will be presented at the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, which takes place Feb. 15-19 in Baltimore.
IBM's Graphene-Based Circuitry Could Boost Wireless Communications
CNet (01/30/14) Stephen Shankland
IBM researchers have built a graphene-based transistor into an integrated circuit and report that it works. The team added the graphene after the underlying silicon chip was already built, instead of constructing the chip around the carbon material. The use of graphene in next-generation chips has the potential to lead to smaller and less-expensive radio communications components in mobile phones. However, graphene is fragile, and manufacturing difficulties can damage the carbon material and undermine its performance. IBM's integrated circuit combines graphene field-effect transistors with other components used in radio communications. The company's approach works well with traditional silicon complementary metal-oxide semiconductor technology for manufacturing chips, increasing the likelihood that the radio-frequency technology can be integrated with other computing functions. The team successfully used the graphene-based receiver to process a digital transmission on a 4.3-GHz radio frequency.
'Honey Encryption' Will Bamboozle Attackers With Fake Secrets
Technology Review (01/29/14) Tom Simonite
Independent researcher Ari Juels and the University of Wisconsin's Thomas Ristenpart have developed an approach to cryptography called Honey Encryption that makes it difficult for hackers to determine when they have correctly deciphered a password or encryption key. If an incorrect key is used, the Honey Encryption software produces fake data that looks similar to actual data. "Decoys and deception are really underexploited tools in fundamental computer security," Juels says. Conventional cryptographic systems enable hackers to immediately recognize an incorrect guess because the key will generate a string of gibberish. Juels also is developing a Honey Encryption-based system to guard password manager services, which store all of a person's various passwords in an encrypted form and rely on a single master password to automatically enter users into websites. Juels says many users do not choose secure passwords for password manager services, making them an appealing target for hackers. Although some experts warn that it is not always possible to know the encrypted data in sufficient detail to produce believable fakes, Juels says adequate leaked password collections exist to create convincing alternatives. He is now developing a fake password vault generator required to protect password managers using Honey Encryption.
UA, Google Creating Digital Maps to Help Preserve Cultural Heritage of Russian Community
UA News (AZ) (01/29/14) Yara Askar
University of Arizona researchers, in partnership with Google Earth Outreach, are developing interactive and engaging digital maps of locations that hold cultural and historic significance. The researchers' primary focus is preserving the Itelmen language spoken by the indigenous communities from Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. They are developing specialized Google Maps that will have information specific to the Kamchatka communities, such as hunting areas. Eventually, the maps also will include information on natural resources and other culturally significant sites. "The maps will include many elements, and they will be based on the needs and recommendations of the indigenous community," says Oregon State University professor Drew Gerkey, who collaborated on the project. The researchers also hope to build capacity in the community to teach people in Kamchatka how to use the technology. The digital maps will be used as a device to foster dialogue between local and outside experts where previous strategies have failed, notes University of Arizona researcher Benedict Colombi. "Using these tools to make a cultural map will allow the community to create a map that accurately reflects their traditional landscape, and will encourage dialogue and sharing of knowledge between generations," says Google Earth Outreach program manager Raleigh Seamster.
Solotronics: New Quantum Dots Herald a New Era of Electronics Operating on a Single-Atom Level
University of Warsaw (01/27/14) Agata Meissner
University of Warsaw researchers have successfully created and studied two new types of quantum dots, which they say could lead to a new era of electronics called solotronics that is based on operations occurring on a single-atom level. "Quantum dots exhibit similar characteristics to atoms, and--just like atoms--they can be stimulated with light to reach higher energy levels," says Warsaw professor Piotr Kossacki. The researchers created the quantum dots using molecular beam epitaxy, a process that involves precision-heating crucibles containing elements placed in a vacuum chamber. The researchers carefully selected materials and experimental conditions to force the atoms to assemble into quantum dots. When the dots settle, the researchers introduced a new set of magnetic atoms that disrupt the energy levels of electrons in a quantum dot, which affects how they interact with light. "As a result, the quantum dot becomes a detector of such an atom's state," says Warsaw researcher Michal Papaj. The researchers say electronics operating on the level of individual atoms is a natural extension of efforts to achieve ever-greater miniaturization. "We have demonstrated that two quantum systems that were believed not to be viable in fact worked very effectively," says Warsaw researcher Wojciech Pacuski.
New "Look And Link" Wireless Technology Enables Device-to-Device Links by Pointing
IEEE Spectrum (01/27/14) Ariel Bleicher
Researchers from the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute recently demonstrated their new Look and Link wireless technology, which could improve device-to-device (D2D) communications. Current D2D technologies require tapping a smartphone to an object or choosing a device with which to connect from a drop-down list, in steps that surveys indicate deter users. To address this issue, Look and Link uses a beamforming technique that sends a phone's transmissions to the intended receiving device via an array of antennas. The researchers say their system would enable users, for example, to use smart glasses to connect to a smart sign in a restaurant window to obtain information just by looking in the direction of the sign. Whereas conventional beam patterns would signal other devices in the vicinity of the sign, the new pattern randomly alters the beam shape over short time intervals in a method the team calls "jittering." Thus, only the smart sign would receive a signal of consistently high strength, and other nearby devices would not respond. Look and Link also enables devices to connect rapidly, requiring only a few seconds compared to nearly one minute with Bluetooth, says lead researcher Young-Hoon Kim.
Cognitive Computing Can Take the Semantic Web to the Next Level
InfoWorld (01/30/14) James Kobielus
Although some observers say semantic computing has failed while cognitive computing is progressing, distinguishing between the concepts is difficult and the IT industry increasingly needs to differentiate the two. Semantic computing automates the cognitive processes that define and query the meanings of words, phrases, and concepts. Cognitive computing addresses critical, logical modes of thought. Semantic computing is central to the goals of cognitive computing, and the natural-language processing taking place in cognitive computing efforts is semantic computing. Cognitive-computing tools such as natural-language processing, pattern recognition, and machine learning are drawing out the implicit semantics from unstructured content sources. Extracted entities, relationships, and other information then help create semantic Web constructs that enable the creation of indices, tags, annotations, and other metadata that form a semantic structure over an unstructured data store. The semantic Web will play a critical role as big data, advanced analytics, and business intelligence platforms adopt cognitive-computing capabilities to automate sense-finding, natural-language processing, decision-automation, and semantic search functions.
Cool Electronic Devices With More Heat
EE Times India (01/27/14)
University at Buffalo (UB) researchers have found a way to optimize the heat in electronic gadgets to prevent failure due to overheating and possibly enable increasingly powerful computers to work within existing parameters. The researchers created nanoscale semiconductor devices in a modern gallium arsenide crystal, then sent a large voltage to the chip. The electrical current traveled through the nanoconductors, thereby raising the amount of heat circulating through the chip's nanotransistor. However, rather than causing failure, the nanotransistor spontaneously changed into a quantum state that was protected from the effect of heating and provided a strong electric current channel. "We've found that it's possible to protect nanoelectronic devices from the heat they generate in a way that preserves how these devices function," says UB professor Jonathan Bird. "This will hopefully allow us to continue developing more powerful smartphones, tablets, and other devices without having a fundamental meltdown in their operation due to overheating." UB professor Jong Han notes the behavior of the nanotransistor is the result of the quantum mechanical nature of electronics when viewed on the nanoscale. "We're not actually eliminating the heat, but we've managed to stop it from affecting the electrical network," Han says.
Stanford Researchers Reveal More About How Our Brains Control Our Arms
Stanford Report (CA) (01/28/14) Tom Abate
Stanford University researchers have written a mathematical analysis of how neurons in the brain control planned and unplanned arm movements, in an effort to advance brain-controlled prosthetic devices. The researchers recorded the electrical activity of neurons in monkeys making anticipated and unanticipated reaching motions. When the monkeys anticipated an arm movement, the neurons went into a prepare-and-hold state. However, this state did not occur when the monkeys made unplanned movements, contrary to the researchers' initial theories that a readiness phase was necessary to precede movement. In three variations of an experiment, the monkeys were trained to touch a target on a display screen, with neural activity measured for each arm motion. For the first experiment, the monkeys were shown the target but trained not to touch it until they received a signal. Next the monkeys were trained to touch the target as soon as it appeared. In the final experiment, the target moved, forcing the monkeys to change their action plan. In all three cases, awareness of the target was the first information to reach the neurons, and the prepare-and-hold state only occurred in the first experiment. The study improves basic understanding of brain science and will inform the Stanford team's work on electronic systems that convert neural activity into electronic signals to control prosthetic arms or move cursors on a computer screen.
Q&A: Creating Access to STEM Education for Students of Color
New America Media (CA) (01/29/14) Anna Challet
In an interview, Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI) director Sumaiya Talukdar discusses the Bay Area nonprofit's efforts to help students of color pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). LPFI offers low-income students of color a three-year summer program beginning in ninth grade through which they take math and science courses at Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Southern California, and University of California, Los Angeles. Students who participate in the program go on to become STEM majors in college at twice the national average rate. LPFI is working to increase computer science instruction in the Oakland Unified School District, and is organizing hackathons to raise student interest in the subject. Talukdar says that in the hackathons, students with minimal experience created mobile apps to address challenges in their community, with impressive results. "These are not students that traditionally have access to computer science but could really utilize computer science to help their communities or themselves in some way," she says. "Silicon Valley wants diverse candidates because diverse candidates think of diverse ideas and solutions." Talukdar says the greatest challenge in convincing students that they can participate in computer science is the lack of early exposure to technology.
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