Welcome to the April 30, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
College Celebrates Half Century of BASIC Language
The Dartmouth (04/30/14) Sean Connolly
Dartmouth University faculty, students, and national experts today will give a series of presentations as part of a conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC) computing language and time-sharing computing being developed at Dartmouth. BASIC was developed by former Dartmouth mathematics professor John Kemeny and then student programmer Thomas Kurtz, and quickly gained popularity for its accessibility and ease of use. The conference will begin with the premiere of a documentary on the history of BASIC and it will end with a panel of experts discussing where they think computing will be in another 50 years. The use and proliferation of BASIC had an observable effect on Dartmouth students at the time, says former Dartmouth student John McGeachie. "I think the impact was to prove that ordinary people could use computers," McGeachie says. "Very quickly, high school students were using it." The innovations created using BASIC and time-sharing computing paved the way for people to interact with computers, says Dartmouth computer science department chair Tom Cormen. "No one had a computer," Cormen says. "Just the idea that you would have access was hilarious."
Ohio Surgeons Hope Chip in Man's Brain Lets Him Control Paralyzed Hand With Thoughts
The Washington Post (04/30/14) Jim Tankersley
Ohio State University researchers are hoping to take the field of bionics a step closer by enabling a paralyzed patient to move his hand by thought via a computer chip implanted in his brain. The electrode-studded chip reads commands from the brain region responsible for hand movement, while a wire connecting the chip to a port in the patient's skull transmits the neural signals along a cable linked to a computer. An algorithm then decodes the commands and adds additional instructions that would normally come from the spinal cord. The computer connects to a sleeve of electrodes wrapped around the patient's arm, which fire in a sequence to trigger muscle fibers the subject is thinking of moving. The algorithm's thought-reading ability is based on researchers decoding and engineering brain impulses transmitted by other paralyzed patients to correspond with muscle movements. The sleeve's functionality involved the researchers mapping which fibers were needed to trigger about 20 distinct hand, wrist, and finger movements. If the technology is successful, the researchers hope to apply it to other people with restricted motor functions.
New Material for Flat Semiconductors
MIT News (04/30/14) David L. Chandler
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University have discovered a two-dimensional material whose properties are very similar to those of graphene, but with some distinct advantages. The researchers say the new material, which is a combination of nickel and an organic compound called HITP, has constituents that naturally assemble themselves in a "bottom-up" approach that could lend itself to easier manufacturing and tuning of desired properties by adjusting relative amounts of the ingredients. Multiple layers of the material naturally form perfectly aligned stacks, with the openings at the centers of the hexagons all of precisely the same size. The researchers say HITP is just the first of what could be a diverse family of similar materials built from different metals or organic compounds. MIT professor Mircea Dinca says these types of materials could be used in solar cells whose ability to capture different wavelengths of light could be matched to the solar spectrum, or to improved supercapacitors, which can store electrical energy until it is needed. The researchers say HITP also could be used for basic research on the properties of matter, for the creation of exotic materials such as magnetic topological insulators, and for materials that exhibit quantum Hall effects.
Google: Driverless Cars Are Mastering City Streets
Associated Press (04/28/14) Justin Pritchard
Google's self-driving cars have made tremendous progress over the past several years, and can now accommodate thousands of previously unworkable urban challenges, according to project director Chris Urmson. "We're growing more optimistic that we're heading toward an achievable goal--a vehicle that operates fully without human intervention," he says. The driverless technology currently equipped on about 24 Lexus RX450H SUVs includes radar and laser sensors that generate three-dimensional maps of the auto's surroundings in real time, and software that identifies objects as moving vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, or static things such as signs, curbs, and parked cars. Among the milestones the project has realized is the technology's ability to read stop signs, including handheld ones, says Google's Courtney Hohne. Another challenge to be addressed is getting the cars to start again after stopping partly because they are programmed to drive defensively, and thus may linger for excessive periods of time at four-way stops. Other common tasks that need to be enabled in the cars include turning right on a red light and driving in rain or fog. Google's aim is to release the self-driving auto technology to the public by 2017.
Pig Farmers Get Smart
Youris.com (04/28/14) Mary Sweetman
The ALL-SMART-PIGS project is a European Union-backed research effort that is developing technologies for turning pig farms into smart farms. "ALL-SMART-PIGS aims to come up with a package of technologies to make pig farming more profitable while at the same time improving animal welfare," says project coordinator Heiner Lehr. The researchers are using sensors to detect animals' needs, and satisfying those needs more quickly will result in healthier animals that grow faster, Lehr notes. The equipment is designed to generate valuable insight into feed efficiency conversion, which is a key metric for both farmers and feed companies to evaluate how efficiently animals convert feed to weight gain. Lehr says these types of projects require a high level of coordination. "The big challenge has been getting everything to work together and bringing the entire supply chain from the feed suppliers to the slaughterhouses on board," he says. Lehr notes the project provides a model to achieve effective collaboration. Although large-scale producers can expect the greatest payback, "even smaller production units will get a return from investing in some smart technologies--if they choose wisely," Lehr says.
Research Shows Smartphone Sensors Leave Trackable Fingerprints
University of Illinois News Bureau (04/25/14) Jonathan Damery
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have demonstrated that fingerprints exist within smartphone sensors because of imperfections during the hardware manufacturing process. The researchers focused on the accelerometer, which tracks three-dimensional movements of the phone, but the findings suggest other sensors could leave equally unique fingerprints. When hardware is manufactured, the factory cannot produce the identical result in millions of units, and the imperfections create fingerprints, according to UIUC professor Romit Roy Choudhury. However, he notes the fingerprints are only visible when accelerometer data signals are analyzed in detail. Most applications do not require this level of analysis, but the data shared with all applications still holds the fingerprints, and if a cybercriminal wanted to perform the necessary analysis, they could do so. The researchers analyzed more than 100 devices over nine months and found they were able to differentiate one sensor from another with 96 percent accuracy. The research suggests that even when a smartphone application does not have access to location information, there are other means of identifying the user's activities. The researchers found that if accelerometer data were processed directly on the device, rather than on the cloud, the fingerprint could be removed before sending information to the application.
This 3D Printer Technology Can Print a Game Controller, Electronics and All
Computerworld (04/25/14) Lucas Mearian
Stanford University graduate students have created the Rabbit Proto, an open source three-dimensional (3D) printer attachment that lays down functioning circuitry right alongside the thermoplastic extruder head of an existing machine, enabling it to make functioning electronic prototypes. "Our project enables 3D printers to deposit conductive material along with traditional plastic," says Stanford's Alex Jais. "The conductive material can be embedded within the 3D model and printed in the same 3D printing process." The Rabbit Proto 3D print head is designed to fit onto several different versions of a RepRap printer, which is a style of machine designed to print most of their own components. The Rabbit Proto attachment enables designers to speed up their prototyping and ideation process, going from computer design to interactive prototype with one click of a mouse. "There are so many RepRap machines out there," Jais notes. "This is a great way to bring this capability to other machines." The printer head attachment is a syringe with a 15 millimeter nozzle that dispenses conductive ink.
Heartburn From Heartbleed Forces Wide-Ranging Rethink in Open Source World
CNet (04/24/14) Seth Rosenblatt
The Heartbleed bug has called attention to many inherent challenges in the development of open source software that have yet to be addressed. One of the biggest problems is the lack of money to hire cryptographic programming specialists to work on the code full-time, instead of on a volunteer basis. The Core Infrastructure Initiative, which allocates expertise and more than $1 million in support, is a move in the right direction, but security researcher Justin Troutman thinks the OpenSSL software at the core of the Heartbleed bug may require 10 times that amount. "It's not just about funding the developers who maintain it, but bringing in new experts," he says. Veracode's Chris Wysopal agrees, noting a more thorough development process is needed, with several people studying code for flaws rather than just one. "The real game is figuring out new models that guarantee a necessary level of testing and review on the software we depend on," says security researcher Dan Kaminsky. Another challenge is the fact that potentially worse open source bugs than Heartbleed may not be as swiftly remedied because they do not have as much media exposure.
A System Detects Global Trends in Social Networks Two Months in Advance
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain) (04/28/14)
Researchers at Carlos III University of Madrid, the Autonomous University of Madrid, NICTA, the University of California, San Diego, and Yale University have developed a monitoring method that identifies what information will be relevant on social networks up to two months in advance. The goal of the research was to test what is known as the sensors hypothesis on social networks, investigating if it is possible to find a group of people with a special position that would allow the information that goes viral globally on the Internet to be monitored. The researchers analyzed a sample of data from 40 million Twitter users and 15 billion followers in 2009 and found that each user had an average of 25 followers, who in turn had an average of 422 followers. "This means that a person's followers have a role in a social network that makes them very relevant when it comes to spreading or receiving information," says Autonomous University's Manuel Garcia Herranz. He says the research showed that "sensor-friends" play a more important role than what was previously believed because they receive information long before the previously chosen users. The researchers note that data from just 50,000 Twitter users is enough to achieve these levels of prediction and to know what will go viral across the entire Internet.
Quantum Communications Leap Out of the Lab
Nature (04/24/14) Vol. 508, No. 7497, P. 441 Jane Qiu
Promising results from a real-world network field trial and China starting the installation of the world's longest quantum communications network are recent indicators secure quantum data transmission is feasible. Both initiatives employ quantum key distribution (QKD) technology, which taps subatomic photonic characteristics to ensure data security. With QKD, a user can transmit a pulse of photons placed in specific quantum states that define a cryptographic key, and users are alerted to a breach because quantum states are changed by the act of eavesdropping. A joint study by Toshiba, BT, ADVA, and the U.K. National Physical Laboratory has led to the stable and secure relay of QKDs along a live lit fiber 26 kilometers between two BT stations. The quantum keys were transmitted over several weeks at a high rate alongside four channels of conventional data on the same fiber. Toshiba's Andrew Shields says sending QKD signals alongside 40 conventional data channels is possible, so quantum communication could be executed with existing infrastructure. Meanwhile, researchers aim to use the Chinese network to not only transmit financial and government data securely, but test new technologies and fundamental quantum theories on a large scale, in conjunction with a quantum satellite that scheduled to launch in 2015.
Research Holds Promise for Atomic-Scale Circuitry
HPC Wire (04/23/14) Tiffany Trader
Researchers at the University of Rochester and Duke University say they have made a breakthrough in atomic-scale circuitry design by employing a bi-layered molecular interface to transmit an electric charge across a one-molecule-wide circuit. The research team used a single layer of organic molecules to link the positive and negative electrodes in a molecular-junction organic light-emitting diode, while a second, inert molecular layer was added to better control the current. Atop that inert layer is the one-molecule-thin active layer, which conducts the charge while the lower layer acts as insulation and reduces interference. The current was controlled through small modifications to the organic molecules' functional groups, in which some groups were used to accelerate the charge transfer and others were used to decelerate it. The researchers say alteration of the functional group enables the charge to be fine-tuned to support various applications. Still, lead researcher and Rochester professor Alexander Shestopalov says the system breaks down at high temperatures. "What we need are devices that last for years, and that will take time to accomplish," he notes.
Cyber Buddy Is Better Than 'No Buddy'
MSUToday (04/23/14) Sarina Gleason
A software-generated partner can be an effective motivator for people while exercising, according to a Michigan State University (MSU) study. A team led by MSU professor Deborah Feltz tested 120 people on five different plank exercises using CyBud-X, an exercise game specifically developed for the research project. Participants were given a human partner option as well as two software-generated buddies--one representing what looked to be a nearly human partner and another that looked animated. The participant and the partner image were then projected onto a screen via a Web camera while working out. The researchers found significant motivational gain in all partner conditions. "We know that people tend to show more effort during exercise when there are other partners involved because their performance hinges on how the entire team does," Feltz says. "The fact that a nonhuman partner can have a similar effect is encouraging." The research could lead software and video game companies to create cyber buddy programs based on sports psychology.
Severe Shortage of Tech Talent in Government, Says Report
FierceGovernmentIT (04/23/14) Molly Bernhart Walker
Existing levels of information technology talent within government and civil society do not meet current needs, according to a Freedman Consulting report commissioned by the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. In addition, the report says technically skilled programmers, designers, and engineers with expertise in computer and data science working in government are not distributed evenly across agencies. "Some government agencies such as the [U.S. National Security Agency] employ legion technologists to engage in surveillance while, at the same time, other government agencies—such as those involved in social problems—are relatively starved for such talent," the report notes. This disparity in tech talent across government impacts government's ability to improve operations and provide services to citizens more efficiently. The barriers to recruitment and retention of IT workers in government and civil society include compensation, an inability of workers to pursue groundbreaking work, and a culture that is averse to hiring and utilizing disruptive innovators. However, the report says culture change and improved training could help attract more IT workers.
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