Welcome to the August 13, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
As Data Overflows Online, Researchers Grapple With Ethics
The New York Times (08/12/14) Vindu Goel
Researchers are excited about using personal data collected by various social media websites to transform social science research. However, many also say there needs to be ethical guidelines in place for these types of studies. Cornell University professor Jeffrey T. Hancock is developing such guidelines by leading a series of discussions among academics, corporate researchers, and government agencies. "This is a giant societal conversation that needs to take place," Hancock says. Meanwhile, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University are planning panels and conferences on the topic, and several academic journals are working on special issues focusing on ethics. Microsoft Research is offering a software tool to help scholars quickly survey consumers about the ethics of a project in its early stages. Although existing federal rules governing research on human subjects generally require consent from those studied unless the potential for harm is minimal, the rules never anticipated large-scale research on Internet users and provide inadequate guidance for it, according to many social science scholars. Too often, researchers conducting digital experiments work in isolation with little outside guidance, according to Indiana University professor Mary L. Gray. Gray and a team of Microsoft researchers spent the last two years developing an ethics advisory committee and training program for researchers in the company's labs who are working with human subjects.
No Boys Allowed: Girls Who Code Takes on Gender Gap
USA Today (08/12/14) Jessica Guynn
The nonprofit Girls Who Code's summer program has grown from 20 girls in one classroom in 2012 to 380 girls in classrooms at 16 companies across the country. "I want to give girls the opportunity to be the next Mark Zuckerberg," says Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani. "I won't be satisfied until I get every company in America to sign up and until I reach every girl in America." Women make up half of the U.S. workforce but hold just 25 percent of the jobs in technical and computing fields. "We need programs explicitly about girls coding. We need to flip the switch, and I think Reshma is doing that," says Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, who has been a major supporter of the Girls Who Code program. The curriculum was designed by educators, engineers, and entrepreneurs to get girls interested in coding. At the end of a seven-week crash course, the girls develop a project and pitch it to engineers. "Whether it's clean water or obesity, these girls see a problem they are facing or that their family is facing and they try to solve it," Saujani says.
Spectacular 3D Sketching System Revolutionizes Design Interaction and Collaboration
UdeM News (08/11/14) William Raillant-Clark
University of Montreal researchers have developed a system that enables users to collaborate on 3D sketches and create a 3D design within an immersive 3D environment. The team presented Hybrid Virtual Environment 3D (Hyve-3D) at this week's ACM SIGGRAPH conference in Vancouver, Canada. "Hyve-3D is a new interface for 3D content creation via embodied and collaborative 3D sketching," says lead researcher and professor Tomas Dorta. He notes users create drawings on handheld tablets, and the 3D images are the result of an optical illusion created by a widescreen high-resolution projector, a specially designed 5-meter-diameter spherically concave fabric screen, and a 16-inch dome mirror projecting the image onto the screen. The system is driven by a MacBook Pro laptop, a tracking system with two 3D sensors, and a pair of iPad mini tablets, each attached to a tracker. "Our system is innovative, non-intrusive, and simple," Dorta says. He also notes Hyve-3D has artistic, industrial, architectural design, engineering, medical 3D, game design animation, and movie-making applications. "My team is looking forward to taking the product to market and discovering what people do with it," Dorta says.
'Seeing' Through Virtual Touch Is Believing
UC Magazine (08/11/14) Tom Robinette
University of Cincinnati (UC) researchers have developed tools based on a device called the Enactive Torch that enable the visually impaired to judge their ability to comfortably pass through narrow passages. The device uses infrared sensors to "see" objects in front of it. When the Enactive Torch detects an object, it produces a vibration through an attached wristband. The buzzing increases as the device approaches an object, enabling the user to make judgements about where to move based on a virtual touch. "Results of this experiment point in the direction of different kinds of tools or sensory augmentation devices that could help people who have visual impairment or other sorts of perceptual deficiencies," says UC graduate student Luis Favela. The researchers asked test subjects to make perceptual judgements about their ability to pass through an opening from a few feet away without needing to shift their normal posture. The researchers tested participants' judgements using only their vision, using a cane while blindfolded, and using the Enactive Torch while blindfolded. The researchers found the three types of judgements were equally accurate. "When you compare the participants' judgments with vision, cane, and Enactive Torch, there was not a significant difference, meaning that they made the same judgments," Favela says.
IT Jobs: Which States Show Most Growth?
InformationWeek (08/08/14) Kevin Casey
Dice's August jobs report found Texas leads in technology job growth in 2014 based on new hiring data, followed by Florida, North Carolina, Oregon, and Washington. Texas saw the largest percentage gain in new technology-related jobs during the first six months of 2014, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The state added 8,100 positions from January through June, bringing its combined IT payrolls to 143,000 people, an increase of 6 percent. Dice president Shravan Goli says the economy has steadily inched its way out of post-financial-crisis gloom. States with established tech hubs were able to promptly return to pre-recession levels in terms of hiring activity on Dice. State-specific drivers for IT hiring include Florida's techCAMP initiative, which helped the state add almost as many IT jobs in the first half of 2014 as it did in all of 2013. Goli also cites IT expansion in industries beyond technology. "All kinds of different companies are leveraging technology, especially as you think about big data, mobile, social, cloud, security--all of these have given rise to new consumer and business touch-points and new opportunities [for companies] to grow their business," Goli says. In Texas, Goli pointed to the oil and gas industry generating new IT jobs in Houston.
Turning a Regular Smartphone Camera Into a 3D One
Technology Review (08/11/14) Caleb Garling
Microsoft researchers have demonstrated that applying simple modifications and machine-learning techniques to smartphone cameras can turn them into 3D depth cameras. The researchers want to make access to developing 3D applications easier by lowering the costs and technical barriers for such devices. They modified the cameras by removing the near-infrared filter, which is often used to block normally unwanted light signals in pictures. The researchers then added a filter that only allowed infrared light through, as well as a ring of several near-infrared light-emitting diodes, which made each camera function as an infrared camera. As part of the project, the researchers focused on modeling human hands and faces. After developing a set of training data, they found they could measure a person's motions at a speed of 220 frames per second. The researchers note the massive amount of training data enables the system to build enough associations with the data points in the pictures so it can then use additional properties of the image to estimate depth. "The only limitation is what sort of training data that you give it," one researcher says. "The approach in itself can be tailored to work on any other scenario." The researchers will present a paper on their work at this week's ACM SIGGRAPH conference in Vancouver, Canada.
NIST 'Global City Teams Challenge' to Create Smart Cities
NIST News (08/05/14) Chad Boutin
The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and several partners have unveiled a year-long Global City Teams Challenge to help communities worldwide address such issues as air quality, traffic management, and emergency services coordination. NIST is inviting communities and innovators to create teams that will foster the spread of "smart cities" that take advantage of networked technologies. The U.S. Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration will support the challenge by assisting U.S. companies that want to export their products or services overseas for the first time or expand their international client base, and by connecting participants with government officials around the globe. The challenge will kick off Sept. 29-30, with a two-day workshop at NIST's Gaithersburg, MD, campus that will bring together city planners and representatives from technology companies, academic institutions, and nonprofits. US Ignite, a nonprofit focused on the creation of next-generation Internet applications, will host a website in which communities and technology innovators can sign up to create teams addressing particular smart city goals and challenges. Partners in the challenge include the U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Health and Human Services, Intel, IBM, Juniper Networks, Extreme Networks, and ARM Holdings.
Pairing Old Technologies With New for Next Generation Electronic Devices
UCL News (08/11/14) Bex Caygill
University College London (UCL) researchers say they have discovered a new method to efficiently generate and control currents based on the magnetic nature of electrons in semi-conducting materials. Tapping electron spins for electronics requires an efficient technique for electrically producing and detecting spins to make devices capable of processing the spin information with low-power consumption. The spin-Hall effect helps create spin currents, which enables spin information transfer without the flow of electric charge currents. If the spin-Hall effect is used correctly, it could revolutionize spin-based memory applications. For example, the researchers reported a 40 times larger effect than previously achieved in semiconductor materials, with the largest value measured comparable to a record high value of the spin-Hall effect observed in heavy metals. The researchers say their breakthrough demonstrates that future spintronics might be able to rely on relatively inexpensive materials that can be used to process spin information with low-power consumption. "Our results are the start of the story but are a proof of principle with a promising future for spins; as we know that there is existing matured semiconductor growth technology, we can stand on the shoulders of the giants," says UCL researcher Hidekazu Kurebayashi.
Novel Face Recognition System Developed by CUHK Faculty of Engineering Achieves 99.15 Percent Accuracy
The Chinese University of Hong Kong (08/06/14)
Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) say their novel facial-recognition system is the most accurate system in the world. Humans recognize faces at an accuracy rating of 97.53 percent on Labeled Faces in the Wild, according to a team led by professors Xiaoou Tang and Xiaogang Wang. However, CUHK's recognition system, which was tested using thousands of picture sets, can recognize faces at an accuracy of 99.15 percent, regardless of changes in lighting, make-up, and camera angles. The researchers say this is the first time computing algorithms have reached human face verification performance on this dataset. "The key challenge of face recognition is to develop effective feature representations for reducing intra-personal variations while enlarging inter-personal differences," Wang says. "With deep learning, the system is provided much more powerful tools to handle the two types of variations and significantly improves the accuracy of face recognition." He says the technology has applications in security, law enforcement, Internet, and entertainment. For example, the system could help law enforcement and security agencies identify individuals among a crowd of thousands, because it can target a vast multitude of objects in very complex environments.
Dazzling Beams of Light Map Invisible Wi-Fi Networks
LiveScience (08/08/14) Agata Blaszczak-Boxe
Newcastle University student Luis Hernan has found a way to map wireless networks with beams of light using an instrument called the Kirlian Device, which constantly scans for wireless networks and translates signal strength into light-emitting diodes. The device then captures the networks using long-exposure photography, mapping them as vibrant beams of light. "Through these colors, you can see how the wireless network is behaving," Hernan says. "The idea is that the colors allow you to see the differences in signal strength. The greater signal strength normally comes as a red, and weaker strength comes as a blue." Hernan also has developed a free Kirlian Device app for Android smartphones that will show how a wireless network is behaving in colorful and ghostly images. "My main motivation [for developing the wireless-network imaging technique] at the beginning was understanding how these technologies started changing the way that we live, and especially changing the way that we see space and [how] we understand architectural space in a way," Hernan says. He notes society's growing dependence on smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers means people are always seeking better Wi-Fi or mobile signals, and these networks are changing the way people comprehend space.
Energy Harvested From Body, Environment Could Power Wearables, IoT Devices
IDG News Service (08/11/14) Agam Shah
As consumer electronics get smaller, it is becoming increasingly important to start implementing new energy-harvesting techniques to keep devices powered for long periods of time. Low-power wearable devices may soon stop using batteries and start drawing energy generated by body heat and movement, as well as ambient energy from the environment. Chip performance and energy efficiency of some wearables are reaching a point where it has started becoming "convenient for us to replace the battery and replace it with ambient energy," says Texas Instruments lead designer Yogesh Ramadass. He notes energy tapped from the body and environment is in the microwatt range, so it cannot be used for smartwatches or fitness trackers, which draw milliwatts of energy. However, energy-harvesting technologies could be relevant in smoke detectors, alarm sensors, smart meters, and remote controls, according to researchers. They say in the coming year there will be billions of Internet-connected devices supplying real-time information. The energy efficiency of circuitry plays a major role in determining the size, weight, and operating time of self-powered Internet of Things devices. "You can think of a wearable kind of system where you are applying a thermoelectric device and the temperature difference between the body and ambient [heat] is going to provide the energy to power a system," Ramadass says.
Georgia Tech Automates Monitoring of Web Censorship
Government Computer News (08/05/14) Patrick Marshall
Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) researchers are developing Encore, a tool to automate the process of monitoring Web censorship using a single line of code. Encore runs when a user visits a site where the code is installed, and then collects data on potentially censored websites reachable from the user's location. However, users may not want their computers to be used to access other computers without their knowledge, and Webmasters who insert Encore code are not required to notify visitors to their site that Encore is installed. Although Encore does not track users' browsing history, it does check on whether suspected sites are reachable from a user's computers. "Encore can only give you binary information--could I reach this content or not," notes Georgia Tech professor Nick Feamster. "We're basically trading off depth to get breadth." Moreover, Feamster says Encore cannot yet scan the Internet for blocked content, and for now depends on lists of suspected blocked content maintained by others. "For abundance of caution, Encore currently only conducts a conservative set of measurements meant to demonstrate its technical merit," the researchers say. "We are investigating how to tailor the set of sites that Encore measures to both yield interesting results and minimize risk to users."
Photo Editing Algorithm Changes Weather, Seasons Automatically
News from Brown (08/04/14) Kevin Stacey
Brown University researchers say they have developed an algorithm to control the weather in photographs. The technology lets users alter various transient attributes of outdoor photos, such as the weather, time of day, and season, using simple commands. A photo taken on a sunny day can be made to appear rainy by inputting a photo and typing "more rain," for example. The algorithm can edit photos based on 40 commonly changing outdoor attributes. "We want anybody to be able to manipulate photographs as easily as you'd manipulate text," says Brown professor James Hays. The team is still fine-tuning the program, but hopes to have a consumer version of the program soon. The algorithm works by dividing images into regions, or clusters of pixels, and relying on a database to determine how colors in those regions should change with a given attribute. Participants in a study preferred the system's expression of given attributes about 70 percent of the time compared to that of conventional approaches to automated editing. "To be able to manipulate an image better, you need to be able to understand the image better--to understand the material objects in the image and the boundaries of those objects," Hays says. A paper describing the research will be presented this week at the ACM SIGGRAPH conference in Vancouver, Canada.
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