Welcome to the September 17, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
An Alliance of Major Players to Guide Open Source Software
The New York Times (09/15/14) Quentin Hardy
Several large technology firms have formed the TODO Project, a group dedicated to expediting and making open source development more focused. TODO, which stands for "talk openly, develop openly," was the brainchild of Facebook's open source team. Other founding members include Google and Twitter, cloud storage firms Box and Dropbox, open source repository Github, and online learning platform Khan Academy. Although the group has not announced what open source software it plans to focus on, it has said its priorities will be promoting standards for updating open source software, securing legal compliance, and generally developing and promoting best practices for open source development. "There is a problem here we all feel is not getting better anytime soon," says Facebook's Jay Parikh. "We feel there is a speed at which things have to move." Since the project was announced, more than 30 other companies, including The New York Times, have added themselves to its roster, although it is unclear what the standards are for joining. Parikh says the group currently is focused on developing a game plan. "We're going to get together, get things into a plan," he says. "This is going to be a journey."
Why the U.S. Might Just Need a Federal Commission on Robots
The Washington Post (09/15/14) Nancy Scola
University of Washington School of Law professor Ryan Calo makes a compelling argument for establishing a Federal Robotics Commission (FRC), according to a paper published by the Brookings Institution. Calo says an FRC could potentially help extract sense and insight from the many technological applications that separate human agency from execution. As an example of where such a body could be useful, he cites the U.S. Department of Transportation's assignment to investigate possible software issues underlying the sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles involved in serious accidents. The agency turned to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration for assistance, but Calo says such ad hoc cross-agency consultancy is not sustainable as a long-term strategy. He and others contend technological changes do not just represent variations on existing practices, but constitute completely new ones in which the outcomes are difficult to anticipate. Moreover, Calo says this emergent behavior entails many legal, ethical, and technological ramifications that can only be understood and supported with a particular type of expertise and holistic mindset. He speculates the FRC could function as a floating group of robotics specialists available to assist its allied agencies when such issues come up while developing useful expertise in its chosen field.
Internet's Security Bug Tracker Faces Its 'Y2K' Moment
CNet (09/16/14) Seth Rosenblatt
Mitre, the not-for-profit group that operates the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) vulnerability database for the U.S. government, says it has voted to change the syntax it uses to code vulnerability designations. The part of the CVE designation code being changed is the final four digits, which denote the order in which vulnerabilities are discovered over the course of a given year. Mitre's Steve Christey Coley says when CVE was launched 15 years ago, it was assigned just four digits because, "we couldn't imagine a situation where the [CVE database] would have to cover 10,000 vulnerabilities in a single year." However, with CVE on track to break 10,000 vulnerability reports this year, Coley says the Mitre board has voted to expand the CVE syntax to five digits dynamically so it will have the ability to add more digits if necessary. The move has the support of many public- and private-sector organizations from Microsoft and Symantec to government computer security organizations in the U.S., Japan, and France. However, Coley warns companies, nonprofits, and government agencies relying on CVE will need to upgrade their systems to accommodate the new syntax, or they could experience buffer overflows or other errors that could prevent them from seeing all major vulnerabilities.
Will Tomorrow's Robots Move Like Snakes?
MIT News (09/15/14) Adam Connor-Simons
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab have developed a soft robotic arm, inspired by octopus tentacles, that can snake through a pipelike environment without a human operator. The researchers note the system is part of the field of soft robotics, which has the potential to be safer, more resilient, and more efficient for certain tasks than rigid-bodied robots. For the soft robotic arm, the researchers developed algorithms to determine the body curvature needed for the robot to make a wide range of different motions. The robotic arm is so soft that a traditional motor shaft cannot be attached. Instead, the researchers designed hollow, expandable channels on both sides of the arm that, when pressurized with air, strain on the elastic silicone and force it to change shape like a balloon. The next version of the arm will be equipped with a finger-gripper that can pick up and place objects. "Designing away all the hard components forces us to think about the more difficult questions," says MIT doctoral candidate Andrew Marchese. "Is it possible to do useful manipulation with a robot that’s as soft as chewing gum?"
NIST Global City Challenge Kick-Off
CCC Blog (09/12/14) Ann Drobnis
The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in partnership with US Ignite, is launching the Global City Teams Challenge to encourage collaboration and the development of Internet of Things (IoT) standards so communities can benefit from the experience of others to improve efficiency and lower costs. The challenge will focus on issues related to transportation, disaster response, energy, healthcare, environment, and others. The challenge will facilitate partnerships between community planners and project managers, technology innovators and providers, and between different cities. It also will feature "Action Clusters" that encourage partnerships between cities/communities and innovators/providers around specific issues to jointly develop solutions. In addition, the challenge will give participants an opportunity to contribute to the development of the NIST Smart Cities framework and an IoT Global Connectivity Fabric Strategy of architectures and guidelines for interconnected "system of systems," as well as a common data exchange/data analytics model for large-scale IoT implementations. The challenge begins with a kickoff event at NIST on Sept. 29-30.
HERB: A Robot That Can Unload a Dishwasher and (Sometimes) Take Apart an Oreo
The Washington Post (09/16/14) Eric Niiler
In an interview, Carnegie Mellon University Personal Computer Lab director and professor Siddhartha Srinivasa discusses his work with the Home Exploring Robot Butler (HERB). The robot has advanced manipulation skills that enable it to perform multiple functions, including unloading a dishwasher, disassembling an Oreo cookie, and acting in a play. "[HERB] was designed and developed with the main goal of manipulating in cluttered and uncertain environments with and around people," Srinivasa notes. HERB was programmed to take the Oreo apart through the algorithmic crafting of a special Oreo cookie detector, and Srinivasa says the differing thicknesses of the cookies and cream have been problematic, with HERB only succeeding two times out of 10. Meanwhile, Srinivasa says HERB's dramatic performance is rooted in the development of open source tools to enable easy robotic programming and control by anyone. "We needed a fast interface to create several motions of HERB that were realistic and close to what [the director] wanted," he says. "The goal was to develop building blocks to be able to give them tools and software packages that anyone could use." Srinivasa predicts robots will eventually replace humans in difficult, menial, dull, and hazardous tasks.
The Quantum Revolution Is a Step Closer
University of Bristol News (09/11/14)
A team of British and Australian researchers have brought quantum computing one step closer to reality by devising a method of running a quantum algorithm that is much simpler than previous methods. Beyond the technological hurdles of creating quantum computing hardware, one of the major stumbling blocks to quantum computing is concrete demonstrations of quantum devices that are able to beat conventional computers at problem solving. Researchers at the University of Bristol's Center for Quantum Photonics, along with colleagues from the University of Queensland and Imperial College London, believe the key to this could be the use of an algorithm known as Boson Sampling, which recently was developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers. Boson Sampling uses single photons of light and optical circuits to take samples from an exponentially large probability distribution, which has been proven to be extremely difficult for classical computers. However, one of the experimental drawbacks of Boson Sampling is generating enough single photons to carry it out. "We realized we could chain together many standard two-photon sources in such a way as to give a dramatic boost to the number of photons generated," says Bristol's Anthony Laing.
Ethical Trap: Robot Paralyzed by Choice of Who to Save
New Scientist (09/14/14) No. 2986 Aviva Rutkin
Bristol Robotics Laboratory's Alan Winfield and colleagues recently tested an ethical challenge for a robot, programming it to prevent other automatons--representing humans--from falling into a hole. When researchers used two human proxies, the robot was forced to choose which to save. In some cases, it saved one proxy while letting the other perish, while in others, it saved both. However, in 14 out of 33 trials, the robot spent so much time making its decision that both proxies fell into the hole. Winfield describes his robot as an "ethical zombie" that has no choice but to behave as it does. Author Wendell Wallach says experiments such as Winfield's hold promise in laying the foundation on which more advanced ethical behavior can be built. "If we can get them to function well in environments when we don't know exactly all the circumstances they'll encounter, that's going to open up vast new applications for their use," he says. Meanwhile, the Georgia Institute of Technology's Ronald Arkin has developed algorithms for military robots as part of an ethical governor to help them make appropriate decisions on the battlefield. He applied the technology in simulated combat, where drones with such programming can choose not to shoot or to minimize casualties near non-target areas such as a school or hospital.
Smartphone Movements Could Reveal Empty Parking Spots
Technology Review (09/15/14) Caleb Garling
State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo researchers have developed PocketParker, a smartphone app that turns the device into a passive sensor that tracks the location and movements of other users who have installed the app. A remote computer analyzes the aggregate user actions and determines the likelihood that a parking lot has an open space. PocketParker pulls parking lot data from OpenStreetMap and calculates the number of spaces in a given lot based on its dimensions. The app uses the smartphone's accelerometer to determine where users are and whether they are looking for a parking spot based on their movements. During the study, the researchers had 105 smartphone users test the app over about six weeks, generating 10,827 car arrivals and departures. The researchers checked their work against photos taken from cameras they installed in the parking lots and found they were able to correctly predict how many spaces were available 19 out of 20 times. "Our goal is to prevent people from circling," says SUNY Buffalo professor Geoffrey Challen. He says the app could be integrated with a mapping app and work in the background to collect parking data.
Online Education Company edX Offering Free High School Courses
The Boston Globe (09/10/14) Matt Rochleau
Online learning collaborative edX, a partnership between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has launched massive open online courses (MOOCs) specifically tailored for high school students. edX got its start making high-level courses from Harvard and MIT available to anyone with an Internet connection, and most of its content continues to be college, if not graduate, level. But a growing portion of its user base is high school age and CEO Anant Agarwal says edX saw an opportunity to use MOOCs to help address a pervasive college readiness problem around the country. edX launched 26 new high school courses last week, on topics ranging from calculus and computer science, biology and chemistry, to French and Spanish, history and psychology. The courses were developed by 14 educational institutions, including the University of California, Berkeley, Georgetown University, and Weston Public High School. Some of the courses are designed to enable students to take the College Board's Advanced Placement exams for their given subject, and schools could allow students to take the courses for credit. Agarwal says the new courses also might be attractive for adult learners who want to brush up on skills or start exploring a new field.
Cutting the Cord on Soft Robots
Harvard Gazette (09/10/14) Peter Reuell
Researchers at Harvard University's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed an untethered soft robot. The team says it has created a four-legged robot that can stand up and walk away from its designers. Wyss Institute's Michael Tolley says the robot "is very inspired by nature, and we wanted to demonstrate that soft materials can also be the basis for robots." The system designed by Tolley and colleagues measures more than a half-meter in length and can carry as much as 7.5 pounds on its back. To give the robot such strength, the air pressure needed to operate the machine had to be increased to 16 pounds per square inch (psi), more than double the 7 psi commonly used by earlier robot designs. The team used a composite silicone material made from stiff rubber implanted with hollow glass microspheres to reduce the robot's weight. Tolley says Kevlar fabric was used ensure it was tough yet lightweight to withstand various harsh conditions. The researchers cite such hurdles as a need to increase the speed of the robots and outfit them with sensors, but Tolley says the team's achievement can eventually help transform what robots look like and how they might be used.
Researchers' New App Outs iPhone and Android Phone Energy Hogs
Network World (09/16/14) Bob Brown
Researchers from the University of Helsinki and the University of California, Berkeley have developed Carat, free iOS and Android software that identifies which apps drain the most power from device batteries and visualizes fragmentation in Apple and Android mobile operating systems. Carat already has produced live stats based on about two terabytes of data taken from more than 300,000 apps downloaded by about 750,000 users. Carat takes measurements of app energy use on a device and combines that data with hundreds of thousands of other users' data. Current data suggests 2 percent of iOS apps and 12 percent of Android apps are described as energy hogs, and about half the devices run at least one app with a high level of power consumption. For example, an Android app called Superuser, if turned off, can save 203 minutes on the battery, according to Carat. The researchers cite inefficient code or programming errors and compatibility issues between operating systems and apps as the main sources of extreme energy-draining.
How Google's Autonomous Car Passed the First U.S. State Self-Driving Test
IEEE Spectrum (09/10/14) Mark Harris
The Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles so far is the only government body to test Google's self-driving automobiles on open roads, and the May 2012 challenge was successfully passed almost immediately. Information about the test shows Google selected the route and set limits on the road and weather conditions the vehicle would encounter, and also notes Google engineers had to take control of the vehicle several times during the trip. The autonomous Prius functioned without fail in smooth, everyday traffic, manned by examiners who noted the car identified and halted for pedestrians and merged seamlessly onto a freeway up to the local speed limit. They also observed the vehicle was perhaps overly cautious and slow in its approach to some traffic lights. There were several incidents during the vehicle's 22-kilometer test drive when it was confronted by unanticipated events. For example, a bike weaved in front of the car in one instance, and the vehicle backed off before safely passing the cyclist; in another case, the auto correctly predicted a pedestrian running across the street. However, the Prius had to switch between self-driving and manual modes and then braked when dealing with a partly blocked road, requiring a safety driver to assume control.
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