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Welcome to the September 24, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Study Suggests Link Between Ethnicity, Gender Stereotypes, and Interest in STEM
Inside Higher Ed (09/24/14) Kaitlin Mulhere

African-American women are more likely than white women to be interested in pursuing a course of study in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) field during college, according to a new study. Researchers from Tulane University, the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Kansas, Xavier University, and California State University at San Bernardino examined data from four large studies of college students at the beginning of their college careers and found African-American women are often much more likely to express an interest in STEM than their white counterparts. In one study, 23 percent of black women said they planned a STEM major compared to 16 percent of white women. In another study, the numbers were 37.6 percent and 18.8 percent, respectively. The researchers said African-American women have a less gender-stereotyped view of STEM fields. On studies that measure the extent to which participants associate certain subjects with one gender or the other, African-American women were less likely to view STEM subjects as being stereotypically male. However, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation, only 8 percent of African-American women graduate with a STEM degree, compared to 10 percent of white women, which means some other factor leads to disproportionate attrition of African-American women during their STEM studies.


MIT Study Finds Learning Gains for Students Who Took Free Online Course
The Washington Post (09/23/14) Nick Anderson

A new study of students taking a massively open online course (MOOC) on physics offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) through the edX platform it founded jointly with Harvard University found students who finished the class exhibited levels of learning comparable to those of students who took a similar in-person class at MIT. MOOCs have been dismissed by some as a promotional gimmick and others have claimed such classes would not result in much learning. However, the study by MIT, Harvard, and China's Tsinghua University is the first to study the learning progress of MOOC students. Researchers followed the students who took Tech Review, a MOOC offered on edX in 2013, which is based on an MIT remedial physics course. They found that although the class had a very high attrition rate (only one in 17 students completed the course), those who remained through to the end exhibited similar levels of learning progress across categories such as education level and their background in math and physics. The students also all made similar amounts of progress, scoring better at the end of the course on a test administered both at the start and at the end. The levels of progress also were similar to those experienced by students who took the remedial physics course on which the MOOC was based.
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Artificial Intelligence That Imitates Children's Learning
University of Gothenburg (Sweden) (09/18/14) Catharina Jerkbrant

University of Gothenburg researchers are developing an artificial-intelligence program that learns to solve problems across multiple arenas. The program is intended to replicate certain aspects of children's cognitive development, according to researcher Claes Strannegard. The research is an example of artificial general intelligence, in which scientists focus on creating software with a generalized type of intelligence to solve problems in vastly different areas. "We postulate that children learn everything based on experiences and that they are always looking for general patterns," Strannegard says. For example, he says when a child learning multiplication observes that two times zero equals zero, and three times zero equals zero, they can identify a pattern and conclude that 17 times zero equals zero as well. When a child realizes a certain pattern can lead to incorrect conclusions, they can stop applying that pattern. The program developed by the researchers works similarly by identifying patterns by itself. "We are hoping that this type of program will eventually be useful in several different practical applications," Strannegard says. "Personally, I think a versatile household robot would be tremendously valuable, but we're not there yet."


Protecting Our Processors
National Science Foundation (09/23/14) Aaron Dubrow

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) recently awarded nine research grants totaling almost $4 million to 10 universities under a joint program focused on Secure, Trustworthy, Assured and Resilient Semiconductors and Systems (STARSS). The awards support research at the circuit, architecture, and system levels on new strategies, methods, and tools to decrease the likelihood of unintended behavior or access. "Through this partnership with SRC, we are pleased to focus on hardware and systems security research addressing this challenge and to provide a unique opportunity to facilitate the transition of this research into practical use," says NSF's Keith Marzullo. NSF involvement in STARSS is part of its Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace portfolio. The nine research projects being supported by the STARSS program cover a wide variety of fields. For example, Carnegie Mellon University researchers will develop and implement secure chip odometers to provide integrated circuits with both a secure gauge of use and an authentication of provenance to detect counterfeit integrated circuits. Meanwhile, researchers at Case Western Reserve University and the University of Florida will develop a comprehensive and scalable framework for intellectual property trust analysis and verification.


Big Data Helps Marist College Predict, Prevent Poor Student Performance
The Wall Street Journal (09/22/14) Clint Boulton

Marist College has developed a predictive analytics program to identify students at risk of failing a course by a semester's third week. In 2013, Marist chief information officer Bill Thirsk partnered with the school's computer science faculty to build a solution based on an open source business analytics program. The software monitors where students clicked in online course reading materials, the time spent on those pages, whether they posted to an online class forum and how long the post was, and how long it took them to complete homework. An early version of the software would email at-risk students directly to warn them to study harder. Marist subsequently opted to incorporate the role of professors, who can schedule a meeting with the student, recommend online tutorials, or provide other assistance. Marist's use of analytics is currently limited to students working on master's degrees in public administration, but the college's career services program also plans to use the software to determine whether students are on track to obtaining experience toward professional goals. Thirsk says he will work with the deans of Marist's other school programs to adopt the technology, which is freely available through its open academic analytics initiative, which was supported by a $250,000 grant from the nonprofit EDUCAUSE.
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New RFID Technology Helps Robots Find Household Objects
Georgia Tech News Center (09/22/14) Jason Maderer

The latest robots use lasers and cameras to "see" and locate objects and people, but even using the most advanced methods they have trouble recognizing people and objects and can have trouble locating objects that are hidden. However, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) and the University of Washington say they have found a simple and elegant solution to this problem: tagging items with ultra-high-frequency radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags. They equipped a PR2 robot with articulated, directionally sensitive antennas and an algorithm they developed that enables the robot to use the antennas to locate specific RFID-tagged objects. The researchers note their approach has numerous advantages over existing methods. For example, because the robot is not estimating an object's precise three-dimensional location, but homing in on it over time, the algorithm can be much simpler. RFID tags also can contain very detailed information about a given item, enabling the system to be very specific. Former Georgia Tech student Travis Deyle says the system could, for example, find and bring the correct medication to the correct patient in a medical setting. Georgia Tech professor Charlie Kemp notes it also could be used in a household setting, with a robot being able to locate and bring any appropriately tagged item to the owner.


GoogleX to Circle the Earth With Internet-Connected Balloons
Computerworld (09/23/14) Sharon Gaudin

GoogleX's Project Loon aims to provide wireless Internet access to billions of people living in remote locations by building a ring of balloons around the Earth. The balloons communicate with specially designed antennas on the ground, which in turn connect to ground stations that connect to the local Internet service provider. In June 2013, Google launched 30 high-altitude balloons in New Zealand, and "in the next year or so, we should have a semi-permanent ring of balloons somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere," says GoogleX director Astro Teller. He says Google should soon have enough balloons to prove the project is feasible. The balloons are designed to provide wireless Internet access using the same LTE protocol that mobile devices use. Each balloon will offer data at rates of 22 megabits per second to fixed antennas, and five megabits per second to mobile handsets. Analyst Dan Olds commends Google for wanting to provide Internet access to remote and impoverished users, but questions whether the balloons will offer adequate bandwidth. "The issue is how many people can you support with a balloon?" he says. Olds says although the bandwidth available should support basic Internet access, video calls and other high-bandwidth activities could overwhelm the service.


The Hidden World of Facebook "Like Farms"
Technology Review (09/19/14)

A study by researchers at University College London and colleagues systematically investigated the nature of so-called Facebook "like farms," services which will direct Facebook Likes to a given Facebook page for a fee. It has been speculated that such services use bots to deliver the Likes or employ networks of real Facebook users who receive a small fee for their Likes. The researchers tested these hypotheses by creating several Facebook pages for "Virtual Electricity," which had no content except for a single sentence in the page description reading, "This is not a real page, so please do not like it." They then used Facebook ads to generate visits to five of the pages, paid four like farms to populate another eight fake pages with Likes, and then compared the two outcomes. Their findings strongly suggest at least one of the like farms, AuthenticLikes.com, employed bots, due to very rapid spikes in likes followed by inactivity. The researchers say other services also clearly used bots, but employed methods meant to make their behavior more similar to that of normal Facebook users. The profiles used to provide like farm Likes had a much higher number of Likes than the average user: more than 1,000, compared to just 40.


Video Games Could Dramatically Streamline Education Research
WSU News (09/18/14) C. Brandon Chapman

Washington State University (WSU) researchers have developed the Student Task and Cognition Model, a computational modeling method for conducting research on science curricula in classrooms designed to be both easier and more cost-effective than previous systems. The method involves a computer "learning" student behavior and then "thinking" as students would. WSU professor Rich Lamb says the process could revolutionize the way educational research is done. As part of the process, computers examine student responses to science tasks and then mimic the way students think. "Now, instead of taking a shotgun approach, we can test the initial interventions on a computer and see which ones make the most sense to then study in the classroom," Lamb says. As part of the Student Task and Cognition Model, students were given scientific tasks to complete in an electronic game. The researchers used statistical techniques to track everything and assess each task as a success or failure. "The computer is able to see what constitutes success, but it's also able to see how students approach science," Lamb says. He notes the program can collect data on 100,000 students for the cost of running software on a computer.


Soft Robotics 'Toolkit' Features Everything a Robot-Maker Needs
Harvard University (09/19/14) Paul Karoff

Harvard University researchers have developed the Soft Robotics Toolkit, a platform of downloadable open source plans, tutorial videos, and case studies to aid developers in the design, manufacture, modeling, characterization, and control of soft robotic devices. The researchers say the toolkit will offer scientists a degree of detail not normally found in academic research papers, including three-dimensional (3D) models, bills of materials, raw experimental data, multimedia step-by-step tutorials, and case studies of various soft robot designs. Soft robotics is becoming an increasingly vital field with the emergence of inexpensive 3D printing, laser cutters, and other manufacturing advances. "The goal of the toolkit is to advance the field of soft robotics by allowing designers and researchers to build upon each other's work," says Harvard professor Conor Walsh. He says the creation of a common resource for sharing design strategies, prototyping and fabrication techniques, and technical knowledge will encourage the development of new types of soft devices, tools, and techniques. "Open design can have as disruptive an influence on technology development in this century as open source did in the last," says Trinity College Dublin professor Gareth J. Bennett.


Fingertip Sensor Gives Robot Unprecedented Dexterity
MIT News (09/19/14) Larry Hardesty

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northeastern University have developed a robot equipped with tactile sensors that enable it to grasp a USB cable draped over a hook and insert it into a USB port. The researchers note the sensor can fit on the robot's gripper and the processing algorithm is fast enough to give the robot real-time feedback. "People have been trying to do this for a long time, and they haven't succeeded because the sensors they're using aren't accurate enough and don't have enough information to localize the pose of the object that they're holding," says Northeastern professor Robert Platt. The sensor consists of transparent, synthetic rubber coated on one side with a metallic paint. The rubber conforms to any object it is pressed against, and the paint evens out the light-reflective properties of various materials, enabling precise optical measurements. The researchers also developed algorithms that can infer the three-dimensional structure of ridges or depressions of the surface against which the sensor is pressed. "Having a fast optical sensor to do this kind of touch sensing is a novel idea, and I think the way that they're doing it with such low-cost components--using just basically colored [light-emitting diodes] and a standard camera--is quite interesting," says University of Pennsylvania professor Daniel Lee.


Victoria Team Defends Title With Speedy Robot
Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) (09/22/14)

Victoria University of Wellington students will travel to Sydney, Australia, to defend the title won by their team last year at the Australasian National Instruments Autonomous Robotics Competition. The team beat 15 other teams from Australia and New Zealand to take top honors in the 2013 competition with its autonomous mining robot. The theme for this year's contest is agriculture, with the robots competing in farming-inspired challenges, which include gathering seeds and putting them in the planting area. The Victoria team has made several changes for the 2014 competition, according to team leader Robby Lopez. "This year the challenge is quite different," he notes. "With our entry Bolt!, we're really going for top speed and have made major redesigns to the chassis. We've also changed our software." The team had to accomplish five milestones over the course of the year, which tested different aspects of the robot's capabilities. Lopez says although the team gained valuable experience last year, it still faced some major challenges in developing this year's robot. "Solving the problems created by the more complex design was a nightmare, but after seeing the test results we're happy that we went the extra mile," he says.


Organization Sets Out to Make Secure Communication Tools More User-Friendly
IDG News Service (09/19/14) Lucian Constantin

A new organization called Simply Secure says it wants to make the growing number of open source privacy tools more user-friendly. The organization, which is being supported by Google, Drop Box, and the Open Technology Fund, will sponsor usability studies of existing tools and work with user-experience researchers and designers and software developers to correct usability issues identified during the research. Simply Secure also plans to conduct public audits of user interfaces and code. Simply Secure's launch comes amid greater demand for secure communication tools, which has been spurred by news of data breaches and Internet surveillance. Developers have sought to meet this demand by creating encrypted email services, online anonymity tools, and other technologies, although critics say some tools are difficult to use. Apache Software Foundation co-founder Ben Laurie, who sits on Simply Secure's advisory board, and Google Open Source research lead Meredith Whittaker say many users will not utilize these tools if they find it confusing or cumbersome to do so. "We're excited for a future where people won't have to choose between ease and security, and where tools that allow people to secure their communications, content, and online activity are as easy as choosing to use them," Whittaker and Laurie say in a blog post.


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