Welcome to the May 5, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
U.S. Domain Deregulation Could Fragment World Wide Web Into 'Splinternet'
The Washington Times (05/05/14) Victor Kotsev
President Barack Obama's intention to relinquish U.S. control of domain name oversight has critics in an uproar, warning the innovation and free exchange of information that has had a transformative effect on culture and business worldwide is at stake. "One serious threat is the fragmentation of the global Internet into national 'splinternets,'" says Freedom House's Gigi Alford. "If users in different countries have different experiences of the Internet, then we're replicating the old analog way of living as a fragmented global community, with all the analog inequalities and restrictions." Some developing countries such as Turkey are attempting to crack down on social media in order to censor dissidents, while Iran's Halal Internet is a walled-off virtual space that hinders access to numerous international websites in favor of strictly governed domestic iterations of popular social media. Critics of the Turkish government are preparing to circumvent any major blockages to Internet access through measures such as interconnected networks of wireless routers. Meanwhile, developed nations such as Germany are weighing the creation of "national Internet spaces," ostensibly to shield citizens from surveillance such as that attributed to the U.S. National Security Agency.
Giving Robots the Sense of Touch
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (05/02/14)
Glasgow University researcher Ravinder Dahiya will spend the next four years developing ultra-flexible tactile skin for robotics and prosthetics. Dahiya, who received an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council grant for the research, believes he has found a way to incorporate electronics and sensors on bendable silicon surfaces that will be 50 micrometers thick. "So far, robotics research has focused on using dexterous hands, but if the whole body of a robot is covered with skin, it will be able to carry out tasks like lifting an elderly person," he says. Dahiya will work with other specialists at the university to create silicon-based nanowires that are printed on bendable substrates in a way that eventually will lead to flexible electronics or tactile skin with distributed sensors and electronics. The printing technique will produce high-performance electronics at a low cost base. Tactile skin would enable robots to interact the way humans do as they lift and gauge the right amount of pressure while performing various tasks. "In such a scenario, robots should have skin so that they can feel like we do--whether the surface is hard or soft, or rough or smooth," Dahiya says. "They should be able to feel weight."
Researchers Try New 'Twist' on Smartwatches
IDG News Service (04/30/14) Tim Hornyak
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have developed a prototype smartwatch that can be controlled by twisting, panning in two dimensions, tilting, or clicking its face. Users also would be able to interact with the display in more ways to move and zoom around a map, snap a photo, or adjust the volume. A demo on YouTube shows how the prototype can be used to play the first-person shooter "Doom." The prototype, which was exhibited at the recent ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Toronto, is billed as a way to overcome the small form factor and input limitations on standard smartwatches. "Since our fingers are large, and people want smartwatches to be small, we have to go beyond traditional input techniques," notes Gierad Laput, a Ph.D. student at CMU's Human-Computer Interaction Institute. "Digitizing watchface mechanical movements offers expressive interaction capabilities without occluding the screen. It is a simple yet clever idea, and it is easy to implement." Laput says additional input options could include three-dimensional pan, yaw, and pitch and roll.
Surveying African Cities using Twitter
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (04/30/14) Jan Overney
Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) working on the Afrotech Future Africa Initiative are using Twitter to help determine quantitative information on economic activity, population counts, and other measures in developing countries. The researchers focused on Nairobi, Kenya, a city with a diverse population of more than three million inhabitants, seeking to develop ways to make sense of the data generated by Twitter users. "While each individual message, each tweet, may contain only trivialities, analyzed in large numbers, they can reveal potentially interesting information," says EPFL researcher Darshan Santani, who developed a website that visualizes geo-localized tweets sent from Nairobi. Tweets collected over a three-month period appear as dark red dots lining the main roads that lead into Nairobi. Meanwhile, word clouds present the most frequently used words at various locations on the map, showing how the use of social media varies across the city. "Our goal is to get all the labs on board whose work would be advanced by having access to this and other data sources, for example, to better understand the spread of infectious diseases or how a city's limits evolve over time," says Afrotech director Jonathan Ledgard.
NSA Launches 'Lablets' Tech Initiative With Major U.S. Universities
VentureBeat (04/29/14) Richard Byrne Reilly
The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is partnering with tech-heavy U.S. colleges and universities on the protection of Internet infrastructure. Under the "lablets" program, colleges and universities have an opportunity to receive research money and expertise as part of an academic collaboration in the name of Science of Security (SoS). The small labs will conduct research while championing the need for SoS, with the goal of building out the concept between government, the private sector, and schools. The ultimate goal is for "developing this platform to bring scientific rigor to research in the cybersecurity domain," according to NSA. The five core issues to be addressed are scalability and composability, policy-governed secure collaboration, security metrics, resilient architectures and understanding, and accounting for human behavior. NSA already has awarded funds and resources to Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Maryland, and the University of North Carolina to set up lablets on campus. "This joint venture will focus on the discovery of formal underpinnings for the design of trusted systems, which include contributions from the disciplines of computer science, mathematics, behavioral science, economics, and physics," NSA says.
Tablet Computers for Global Literacy
Tufts Now (04/30/14) Marjorie Howard
Researchers at Tufts University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently gave 40 children in rural Ethiopia tablet computers equipped with more than 300 specially designed apps to help them learn reading basics. Within a week, the children had all the apps up and running. Each app addresses some of the basic processes needed to learn to read, such as the alphabet, letter-name knowledge, letter-sound correspondence, basic decoding principles, and sight word recognition. Within a year, the children had learned the alphabet, could recognize some words by sight, and had figured out how to use applications that would help them learn even more. One of the most successful apps was TinkrBook, which presents an interactive story that invites children to play with the text and graphics to explore how these changes affect the narrative. In the future, the researchers hope to bring tablets to India, Bangladesh, and Uganda, as well as to rural American communities where there are no preschools. "The idea is to create a way to teach reading anywhere," says Tufts Center for Reading and Language Research director Maryanne Wolf. "We are building an overall template for teaching in any language."
Sketching on Tablets Promising for Collaborative Design, Creativity
Purdue University News (04/28/14) Emil Venere
Purdue University researchers have developed skWiki and Juxtapoze, two cyberlearning platforms that enable non-artists to create illustrations rivaling the work of expert designers. The researchers note the platforms eliminate the need for drawing skills in developing new designs. "I think this is the beginning of a new field of computer-supported creativity where you are extending the human mind," says Purdue professor Karthik Ramani. The researchers say the platforms also represent an important step toward replacing or changing the use of paper to create designs. "Our research shows that when using the skWiki system, designers generate more ideas, which is an indicator of creativity, and are more collaborative in discussing their ideas," says Purdue professor Lorraine Kisselburgh. The platforms operate on servers and do not require users to install any software. The skWiki platform enables collaboration with multimedia, including text, sketches, photos, and "vector images" important for computer-aided design and other applications. Meanwhile, Juxtapoze focuses on individual creativity, and accesses databases of shapes to help users find the right ones. The two platforms can be used in combination, as a user could sketch the concept with Juxtapose and then allow others to work on it with skWiki.
As Strong as Its Weakest Link: Experiments Determine Real-World Limits of Graphene
Georgia Tech News Center (04/29/14) John Toon
Researchers at Rice University and the Georgia Institute of Technology have measured the fracture toughness of imperfect graphene for the first time and found it to be somewhat brittle. The researchers concluded that graphene is really only as strong as its weakest link, which they determined to be "substantially lower" than the intrinsic strength of graphene. "Graphene has exceptional physical properties, but to use it in real applications we have to understand the useful strength of large-area graphene, which is controlled by the fracture toughness," says Georgia Tech professor Ting Zhu. Imperfections in graphene significantly lessen its strength, with an upper limit of about 100 gigapascals for perfect graphene previously measured by nanoindentation, according to the researchers. "The material resistance to the crack growth--the fracture toughness--is what we're measuring here, and that's a very important engineering property," says Rice professor Jun Lou. The researchers used a combination of experimentation and computer modeling to provide a level of detail that enabled them to better understand the fracture process, and the tradeoff between toughness and strength in the graphene. "This research provides a foundational framework for further study of the mechanical properties of graphene," Zhu says.
Science Council Approves Big-Data Privacy Report
Federal Computer Week (04/30/14) Adam Mazmanian
The President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) has released "Big Data and Privacy: A Technological Perspective," a report on new ways to build privacy protections into information technology systems. The report's authors back the routine, consistent use of encryption and other security technologies to protect personal data as it moves across networks. They also support boosting research and adding scale to some types of security protections that are now being implemented manually. Technology can help reduce privacy risks but policy is needed as well, says report co-author and University of California, Berkeley professor Susan Graham. Although the PCAST brief did not include new policy recommendations, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology is creating a privacy engineering framework analogous to its work on cybersecurity standards. Part of the problem is that policymakers do not have a framework for talking to engineers about privacy, and there is a lack of clarity about what is meant by privacy in a networked world. "We believe that technology alone can't reduce privacy risks," Graham says. "There has to be policy as well."
World's Thinnest Nanowires May Lead to Foldable Tablets, Smartphones
Computerworld (04/29/14) Sharon Gaudin
Researchers at Vanderbilt University have created nanowires that are 1/1,000th the width of the microscopic wires used today to connect transistors in integrated computer chips. Just three atoms wide, the tiny metallic wires could eventually enable scientists to create paper-thin, flexible tablets and smartphones. Junhao Lin, a doctoral student and visiting scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, made the nanowires using semiconducting materials that naturally form layers one molecule thick. Scientists have used transition-metal dichalcogenides to build an atomic-scale honeycomb lattice of atoms that has exhibited several important properties such as electricity, strength, and heat conduction, and researchers have created functioning transistors and flash memory gates out of the material. The new nanowires are not built as standalone wires. Lin used a finely focused beam of electrons to build the nanowires into the honeycomb lattice, along with the transistors and gates. It is all built as one thin, flexible material. "Looking to the future, we can create a flexible two-dimensional material," says Vanderbilt professor Sokrates Pantelides. "You could potentially have screens or pages that are flexible like a sheet of paper. You might be able to fold them and then open them up to see the screen."
Recruiting the Next Generation of STEM Employees
U.S. News & World Report (04/28/14) Delece Smith-Barrow
Hiring experts in various fields contended at the recent U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference that introducing programs to reach students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels will help nurture next-generation science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) employees. Shell Oil's Michael J. Alvarez details his company's outreach initiatives, which include supplying two- and four-year scholarships and internship programs, teaming with science-focused organizations, and building a Web presence that gives students, teachers, and parents resources for the next generation of potential engineers. Meanwhile, Motorola Solutions and Texas Instruments participate in robotic competitions for students, and Caterpillar has fostered strategic university partnerships. "We do research work with faculty and students at those universities," says Caterpillar's Gwenne A. Henricks. However, key issues these efforts have not addressed include immigration reform that must parallel initiatives to foster domestic STEM professionals. "Otherwise we run the risk as businesses of losing those jobs elsewhere," says Motorola Solution's Michele Aguilar Carlin. Building strong science and math cultures in education is another challenge to be met, according to Texas Instruments' Samantha Dwinell.
Meet the Fed's First Line of Defense Against Cyber Attacks
Foreign Policy (04/28/14) Shane Harris
The U.S. Federal Reserve's first line of defense against cyberattacks is the National Incident Response Team (NIRT), which includes about 100 closely monitored employees who sift through the Fed's networks daily looking for indications of hacking. NIRT's sensors are so sensitive that if a Fed employee at any of the system's 12 regional U.S. banks links an unauthorized device to his work computer, NIRT will be notified and, if necessary, seize the computer and run forensic tests on it, according to a former NIRT member. A NIRT representative told the U.S. Inspector General the team's primary services include security monitoring, forensic analysis of traffic flows and attempted cyberattacks, and alerts and warnings about potential dangers. NIRT also is tasked with warning Fed employees about malware they have found on the Internet and hacking methods attackers might use. NIRT mainly operates from the East Rutherford Operations Center in New Jersey, while NIRT's forensic analysts work at the Fed's New York branch. Former NIRT employees also say a team committed to developing network penetration techniques to defend the central bank's own systems is based at the San Francisco Fed branch. NIRT is on the lookout for experts who can reverse-engineer malware, analyze traffic flows, execute "post mortem" examinations of compromised computers, and devise defensive security techniques on the fly.
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