Welcome to the July 25, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Built for Speed: Designing Exascale Computers
Topics (07/22/14) Brian Hayes
Researchers at Harvard University's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) are focused on developing the hardware and software for exascale computers, while others are planning to apply exascale computing resources to diverse scientific fields once they become available. An exascale computer would perform at least 1,018 operations per second, and a key challenge in realizing exascale systems is minimizing their electricity consumption. A SEAS research team investigating this issue found many design parameters must be optimized simultaneously rather than individually, while another researcher emphasizes improving the design of individual transistors and the materials from which they are manufactured. Exascale systems likely will have to make do with less memory per processing core, unless new memory devices can be created. SEAS dean Cherry Murray expects heterogeneous computer architectures to dominate scientific computing in the coming years, using specialized subsystems optimized for different classes of algorithms. Also under consideration are systems specialized for one specific operation. Indeed, Institute for Applied Computational Science director Hanspeter Pfister sees a basic rethink of programming models as essential to an exascale transition. "We're beyond the human capacity for allocating and optimizing resources," he says. Pfister suggests shifting some concurrent computation onto hardware, while creating a new level of abstraction to spare coders from micromanaging parallel processes.
Physicists, Others Using Science to Help Art of Film Animation
The Los Angeles Times (07/23/14) Richard Verrier
A growing group of high-level physicists, engineers, and other scientists have recently left careers in aerospace and academia to work in the movie business. Animation artists rely on these scientists to create complex algorithms to simulate realistic-looking water, fire, dust, and other elements in movies. The researchers are drawn by the excitement of working on movies and the challenge of finding solutions to technical problems. For example, DreamWorks' research and development group has about 120 members with master's and doctoral degrees in such fields as cognitive science, astrophysics, aeronautical engineering, chemistry, mathematics, and computer science. DreamWorks Animation's Ron Henderson developed an award-winning fluid-simulation system called Flux, which generates high-resolution effects 100 times faster than previous technology. A recent project involved him tackling the challenge of creating bubble-like spheres, and he developed a new way of modeling flow on a sphere by tapping his knowledge of fluid dynamics to employ a variation on a numerical weather-prediction model. "I can go work for an oil company or I could go back to academia, but the personal gratification of doing something where you can clearly see the results of your work, and where you feel you are providing a unique benefit to the artists--that's what keeps me coming here every day," Anderson says.
Urban Jungle a Tough Challenge for Google's Autonomous Cars
Technology Review (07/24/14) Lee Gomes
Google's Chris Urmson, who heads the company's self-driving car program, said at a recent vehicle automation conference the project is entering its most difficult phase so far: building vehicles with the intelligence to navigate the chaos of city streets. Urmson said city driving requires a great deal more of an autonomous vehicle than the ability to recognize large objects and navigate around them. "You need to be able to deal with things like temporary construction," he said. Urmson said the Google research team is focusing on "understanding the semantic meaning of the world." Google wants its vehicles to be able to recognize road signs and understand any number of social queues that shape the way people interact on the road, from the make of a given car to who is driving it. Despite Google's ambitions and the great deal of excitement surrounding vehicle automation, conference attendees were conservative in their predictions of when such technology would find its way to market. More than half said it would be 2030 at the earliest before they trusted an automated car to take their child to school, with one in 10 saying they never would. Many said for the foreseeable future, self-driving vehicles would likely be limited to very controlled settings such as campuses or construction sites.
Turing's Oracle: The Computer That Goes Beyond Logic
New Scientist (07/19/14) Vol. 223, No. 2978, P. 34 Michael Brooks
An "oracle" computer proposed by celebrated mathematician Alan Turing in 1938 that goes beyond conventional human logic is the focus of a Missouri State University project exploring the possibilities of a super-Turing computer. Turing himself showed that a universal computer based solely on logic would inevitably encounter undecidable problems where a straight answer is impossible. Later research by Hava Siegelmann focused on neural networks, demonstrating these brain-mimicking circuits can learn as they go along by using their outputs to alter their input weightings until the assigned task is performed optimally. Missouri State researchers Emmett Redd and Steven Younger subsequently have collaborated with Siegelmann on developing a chaotic neural system that responds very sensitively to small changes in its initial conditions. Such as system is driven by a random, infinitely variable noise. The researchers currently are working on two chaotic machine prototypes--a neural network based on standard electronic elements, and a network that encodes its data in light. Redd and Younger hope an oracle computer such as Turing envisioned could yield insights into quantum theory and the universal limits of computation, as well as the human brain.
Understanding Vulnerabilities Key to Improving U.S. Cybersecurity Posture
Homeland Security Today (07/23/14) Amanda Vicinanzo
A new report from the Center for a New American Security diagnoses some of the cybersecurity challenges facing the U.S. government and offers possible ways of addressing those challenges. Richard J. Danzig, member of the Defense Policy Board and the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, writes in the report that the heart of the matter is the "Faustian bargain" "inherent in the technology," namely the very features that make computer technology attractive also make them risky and create potential vulnerabilities. Another challenge is the fact that security measures and cyberthreats develop in virtual lock step with each other. The best solutions to these problems seek to strike a balance between utility and security, sacrificing some functionality in order to achieve an acceptable level of security. The report suggests U.S. policy makers should work to initiate discussions with other nations, namely Russia and China, to create mutually agreed upon red lines in regards to cyberactivity as a way to curb some amount of malicious activity by all parties. It concludes with the recommendation that a research and development center be established and funded at the federal level with the specific goal or recruiting, training, and retaining cybersecurity experts for the civilian side of the federal government.
Tor Project Makes Efforts to Debug Dark Web
BBC News (07/23/14)
A co-creator of the Tor network says he has plans to patch a bug used by two Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers to de-anonymize the data of the anonymous Web-surfing service. CMU researchers Alexander Volynkin and Michael McCord were scheduled to give a presentation at this year's Black Hat security conference about a method for using a $3,000 piece of equipment to reveal the Internet addresses of its users and the servers used to conceal their identities. Volynkin and McCord claimed to have tested the method in the wild, but a notice on Black Hat's website said their talk had been pulled from the event. Some have speculated the university was uncomfortable with the presentation, as the technique being demonstrated could be considered illegal. "Monitoring Tor exit traffic is potentially a violation of several federal criminal statutes," notes the American Civil Liberties Union's Christopher Soghoian. Tor co-creator Roger Dingledine says members of the Tor Project were shown some of Volynkin and McCord's materials and that from this the group feels it has "a good handle" on the nature of the bug the researchers exploited. Dingledine says the group is planning to issue fixes to Tor relay operators that should neutralize the bug.
XSEDE14 Spotlights Recent Work, Future Plans
HPC Wire (07/23/14) Travis Tate
The recent XSEDE14 Conference was touted by chairperson Scott Lathrop and project director John Towns as a networking opportunity for attendees. The number of training event attendees topped 14,000, signifying that "we're training a larger community than just those that only use XSEDE resources, we're extending ourselves out there," Towns says. XSEDE has conducted $767 million in work in the past year, about 50 percent of which is accomplished via U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) grants. The U.S. Defense Department, the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are largely responsible for the rest of XSEDE's funding. XSEDE also has cultivated relationships with many other resource, service, and infrastructure providers such as Compute Canada, NAREGI, RIKEN, and PRACE. "What we hear from researchers, as our greatest strength, is the help aspect and human capital we have," Towns notes. "We need to know how to deploy and support these complicated infrastructures to support a broad range of disciplinary activities." Towns says collaboration between XSEDE and NSF is substantial so his group can offer hardware resources to the community. An NSF Review Panel in September will hold a review of EXSEDE's first three years and its pathway going forward.
Essays in English Yield Information About Other Languages
MIT News (07/23/14) Larry Hardesty
The grammatical habits of non-native speakers displayed in the English-language essays they write offer linguistic features about their native tongues, according to research by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Israel's Technion. "These features could be extremely valuable for creating better parsers, better speech-recognizers, better natural-language translators, and so forth," says MIT's Boris Katz. Crucial to the research was developing an algorithm that sifted through more than 1,000 English-language essays written by native speakers of 14 different languages. The system analyzed the speech segments of the words in every sentence of every essay and the relationships between them, and then sought patterns in those relationships that correlated with the writers' native languages, assigning probabilities to its deductions. The researchers found that these probability estimates provided a quantitative measure of the degree of relationship between any two languages. They also found that when the measure was used to generate a family tree of the languages in their data set, it was very similar to a tree produced from data accumulated by linguists. "We can take it one step further and use this tree to predict typological features of a language for which we have no linguistic knowledge," says MIT student Yevgeni Berzak.
Dancing Electrons Are at the Heart of a Laser Breakthrough
Dartmouth Now (07/22/2014) Joseph Blumberg
A laser devised by Dartmouth College scientists and their colleagues can produce light by applying electricity to a single artificial atom. Dartmouth professor Alex Rimberg says the development is significant because it is the first to rely exclusively on superconducting electron pairs. Electrons hop across the atom and, in the process, produce photons that are trapped between two superconducting mirrors. The process is "invisible to the human eye; the hopping electrons dance back and forth across the atom in time with the oscillating waves of light," Rimberg says. Electrical energy is converted into light via the laser, creating the ability to carry information to and from a quantum computer. The laser potentially could provide an easy way to produce the kind of quantum states of light needed to transport quantum information. "The artificial atom is made of nanoscale pieces of superconductor," Rimberg notes. "The reason for using the artificial atom is that you can now make it part of an electrical circuit on a chip, something you can't do with a real atom, and it means we have a much clearer path toward interesting applications in quantum computing."
Coding Classes: Students, Dogged Teachers Overcome Obstacles to Add Computer Science Classes
San Jose Mercury News (07/21/14) Sharon Noguchi
Although California businesses and political leaders have been encouraging high schools to increase the number of computer science classes offered to young students, it has proven problematic to get the programs off the ground. For starters, it is difficult to find qualified teachers because California does not offer a computer science teaching credential. "We don't have people with the knowledge to teach those classes, nor are those people showing up when we're looking for them," says San Jose Unified curriculum director Jackie Zeller. In addition, because computer science is not required for admittance into public universities, it must vie for enrollment with other elective courses such as music and art. Despite these obstacles, about half of the comprehensive high schools in San Jose Unified, San Jose's East Side Union, and San Mateo Union will offer coding classes in the coming fall. Over the past six years, Santa Clara University professor Dan Lewis has trained nearly 50 teachers in part of a three-sequence course targeted at kids underrepresented in the field. Lewis' summer workshop focuses more on how to teach coding, rather than on technical content. Pioneer High educator Saul Hernandez believes students' enthusiasm for programming can become contagious once they see how it ties in with real life.
Linking Television and the Internet
Fraunhofer Institute (07/14)
Researchers at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems are taking the lead in an international project to develop technology that will enable TV programs to seamlessly integrate related Internet content into their broadcasts. Project manager Heike Horstmann says the project aims to "combine television and the Internet so that viewers can directly access background information about the current program during the show, without having to spend a lot of time and effort themselves in searching for it." To accomplish this, the team is focusing on developing technology that will scan the contents of a show before broadcast via speech and image analysis to locate topic-relevant content on the Web, as well as technology to whittle down the results based on certain criteria. For example, material will be screened to ensure it complies with laws for the protection of minors and does not violate copyright. Editorial teams can then add final touches, checking for relevance and eliminating duplicates. Viewers will be able to access the material on the fly while watching the program on an Internet-connected TV or using a linked dual-screen setup. The technology currently is being used to add content to a German newscast and a Dutch documentary series.
Cloud Provides Chip Design Education to Developing Countries
EE Times Asia (07/22/14) R. Colin Johnson
Semiconductor Research Corp. (SRC) and Silicon Cloud International (SCI) are deploying electronic design automation (EDA) hardware and software in a private cloud accessible to researchers and doctoral candidates at universities around the world with the goal of educating and training new complex system-on-chip (SoC) design engineers in developing countries. "There are several countries in the world--Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brazil, Pakistan, Slovakia, Algeria, and many more--that have identified chip design as part of their national agenda, as a vehicle to move the country's economy from manufacturing and assembly to a more knowledge-based economy that increases their per capita income and makes them a bigger player in the higher-paying portion of the semiconductor supply chain," says SCI CEO Mojy Chian. The development of the Internet of Things (IoT) has intensified the interest in chip design because IoT devices have many local applications that create opportunities for developing countries to become more involved in the design aspect of the semiconductor supply chain. Chian says the new cloud services are unique in that they provide instructional materials in addition to enabling users to open up adjacent windows and perform the computer-aided design functions.
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