Welcome to the September 26, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
New 'Bash' Software Bug May Pose Bigger Threat Than 'Heartbleed'
Reuters (09/24/14) Jim Finkle
Computers running Unix-based operating systems, including Linux and Mac OS X, can be completely compromised by an attacker who successfully exploits a vulnerability that exists in a commonly used Unix application, cybersecurity experts say. They warn the software flaw could be a greater security threat than the recent Heartbleed bug. The vulnerability is present in Bash, an application developed by the Free Software Foundation that is used to control the command prompt in many Unix computers. Security experts believe an attacker could exploit the flaw to gain complete control over a machine running an OS that uses Bash and accesses sensitive information. Trail of Bits CEO Dan Guido notes carrying out such an attack would be relatively easy. "You can just cut and paste a line of code and get good results," he says. Guido notes an attack that takes advantage of the Heartbleed flaw would enable an attacker to spy on a computer but not gain complete control over the machine, which makes the Bash bug more dangerous. Linux providers have developed patches for the Bash flaw, but it is unclear whether a similar patch is available for OS X. "Everybody is scrambling to patch all of their Internet-facing Linux machines," says Veracode's Chris Wysopal. "It could take a long time to get that done for very large organizations with complex networks."
Facebook, Intel Back Effort to Lift Engineer Diversity
Bloomberg (09/24/14) Peter Burrows
Rectifying a lack of diversity among computer science undergraduates is the goal of the Building Recruiting and Inclusion for Diversity (BRAID) program, an effort in which several companies, including Facebook, Intel, Google, and Microsoft, will contribute $1.35 million over the next three years to 15 universities' computer science departments. Harvey Mudd College president Maria Klawe and Anita Borg Institute CEO Telle Whitney will lead BRAID, and Klawe says she aims to prove that any department can successfully direct women and minorities into computer science. She emphasizes methods used at Harvey Mudd that have boosted the appeal of computer science among female students. For example, computer science professors frequently call newly accepted students, who also are required to take an introductory course that focuses more on fun and teamwork than on previous knowledge. In addition, BRAID-participating schools will supply data for a study on the best practices for attracting and retaining female, black, and Hispanic computer science students. Among the colleges involved in BRAID are Villanova University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois in Chicago, and the University of Nebraska.
'Dr. Fill' Vies for Crossword Solving Supremacy, but Still Comes Up Short
Public Radio International (MN) (09/24/14) Adam Wernick
Computers have long been able to beat even the best human opponents at games such as chess, but humans remain dominant when it comes to the crossword puzzle. For the past three years, Dr. Fill, a crossword-solving computer program created by computer scientist Matthew Ginsberg, has competed informally at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Although Dr. Fill has steadily climbed the rankings in those three years, it was still only able to place 65th out of 600 last year. Dr. Fill is based on a massive database of past clues to crosswords used since the 1980s, as well as the contents of reference works including the whole of Wikipedia. Ginsberg says Dr. Fill solves crosswords by identifying similarities between the clues and past clues, and "then just tries to cram in the words." However, it is the particularly clever and inventive clues that inevitably oil Dr. Fill, such as a clue that suggested its answer had to be written out backward. "It's something that maybe everyone knows, but [the clue] is worded in a vague way that a computer would have a hard time figuring out if it's not in its database already," says New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz.
Animation Expert Wants to Create Computer Systems That Can Think and Feel
South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) (09/23/14) Bernice Chan
As co-founder of the University of Auckland's Laboratory for Animate Technologies, computer animation expert Mark Sagar is focusing on the creation of digital creatures that can think and feel. "I became interested in what happens if we don't use an actor to generate emotion--can we model how the brain creates facial reactions?" Sagar says. "I wanted to make interactive realistic computer characters that are really thinking and you are literally interacting with them." Sagar is not only generating uncannily human-looking virtual faces, but also studying how different areas of the brain function in conjunction with facial expression. He says imbuing a virtual character with life requires first understanding behavioral processes, and then ascertaining how to make the character behave or act according to internal motivation. The concept is these characters will possess human-like dispositions, with sensitivities embedded from "birth" that, along with their experiences, influence their personalities. "There are two factors, nature and nurture, and we want to build a system that has both," Sagar says. He also wants to make one virtual character, modeled after his daughter, capable of dreaming, with its dreams visualized by algorithms so scientists can see its mental imagery.
Can You Out-Race a Computer?
MIT News (09/24/14) Adam Conner-Simons
Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) focuses on whether computers can be trained to make inferences based on their surroundings like humans, and whether the ability to do so can outperform humans. CSAIL researchers produced an algorithm that can examine a pair of photos and overtake humans in determining factors such as which image has a higher crime rate, or is closer to a McDonald's restaurant. The researchers used a set of 8 million Google images embedded with global-positioning-system data on crime rates and McDonald's sites to teach the algorithm, and then employed deep-learning methods to help the algorithm learn how distinct qualities of the images correlate. "Before this, there hadn't really been research that's taken such a large set of photos and used it to predict qualities of the specific locations the photos represent," notes MIT student Aditya Khosla. An online demo presents a Google Street View with four directional choices, with users challenged to navigate to the closest McDonald's in as few steps as possible. Although humans usually bested the algorithm in the performance of this task, the computer was better than humans in the variant task of determining which of two photos depicted a scene closer to a McDonald's.
Ultra-Low Consumption for the Future of Electronics
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (09/25/14) Emmanuel Barraud
The European E2SWITCH project, a partnership of nine universities, research institutions, and companies, aims to develop new electronic systems with ultra-low energy consumption. The researchers want to develop ultra-low-power electronic systems based on tunnel field-effect transistor (TFET) heterostructures built on silicon substrates that exploit a phenomenon of quantum mechanics for operating at voltages up to five times lower than those of the current standard mobile phone circuit. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) is coordinating the project. "Our objective is to make the next generation of transistors, which can still operate at voltages below 0.3 Volts and even as low as 0.1V," says EPFL professor Adrian Ionescu. Cambridge CMOS Sensors' Foysol Chowdhury says his firm's core technology is founded on a complementary metal-oxide semiconductor process (CMOS), "and working on the E2SWITCH project will promote a natural transition to beyond CMOS technology, where this project will enable us to design ultra-low-voltage gas-sensing platform devices, and experiment with basic building blocks using TFET solutions to demonstrate low-voltage sensor signal-conditioning circuits for either gas- or temperature-sensing applications." The technology also is applicable to cloud and big data platforms that stand to benefit from more energy-efficient technologies.
Robotic Fabric Could Bring 'Active Clothing,' Wearable Robots
Purdue University News (09/23/14) Emil Venere
Purdue University researchers are developing a robotic fabric that moves and contracts and is embedded with sensors. The researchers say the fabric could be used to create active clothing and a new class of soft robots. The robotic fabric is a cotton material containing sensors made of a flexible polymer and threadlike strands of shape-memory alloy that return to a coiled shape when heat is applied, causing the fabric to move. "We have integrated both actuation and sensing, whereas most robotic fabrics currently in development feature only sensing or other electronic components that utilize conductive thread," says Purdue professor Rebecca Kramer. "We also use standard sewing techniques to introduce the thread-like actuators and sensors into the fabric, so they could conceivably be integrated into the existing textile manufacturing infrastructure." The researchers plan to make a class of soft robots in which all the functional elements are incorporated an elastic skin. The skin would include flexible electronics that are less sensitive to the vibration than conventional hardware. "Anything can be a robot because all of the robotic technology is in the fabric or skin," Kramer notes. She says the skin might be wrapped around a deformable object, which would be key to creating machines that can navigate alien terrains.
Build Something: The Computer Science Answer to Habitat for Humanity
Slate (09/24/14) Annie Murphy Paul
Research has found that giving students a sense of the usefulness of their studies to the greater world can help improve learning. For the computer sciences, one way of doing this is the Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software (HFOSS) project. Begun at Trinity College in 2007, HFOSS has been compared to the well-known Habitat for Humanity charity, but instead of building houses for those in need, students participating in the HFOSS project build software used by humanitarian organizations, social service organizations, and disaster-response groups. One example is the Sahana disaster-management system, which is used by organizations responding to disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. HFOSS students help to update and expand the program in accordance with standards set out by the Sahana Software Foundation. In addition to doing good in the world, HFOSS helps give students an experience of what work in the computer sciences is really like. Trinity computer science professor Ralph Morelli says the project helps debunk the popular stereotype of the isolated lone programmer by creating a complex, team-oriented process that requires students to collaborate and coordinate with other coders.
Geo-Ranking the Internet
Many factors can affect how resilient and durable access to the Internet can be in a given country, and a pair of German researchers have defined nine geographic, demographic, and political factors that can be aggregated to measure Internet resiliency at the national level. Annika Baumann and Benjamin Fabian of the Institute of Information Systems at the Humboldt University of Berlin settled on the nine following metrics: total number of autonomous systems (ASes) in a country, number of ASes per square kilometer, AS to population ratio, AS to population density ratio, total IP addresses in the country, ratio of ASes and IP addresses, IP addresses per capita, risk of becoming a target for cyberattack, and a country's World Press Freedom index rating. "A combination of these metrics will balance the geographical characteristics in such a way that only those countries will be on the top of the final lists which are superior in all areas," the researchers say. Using their metrics they found Western, primarily European, countries were the most resilient, with Latvia, Switzerland, and Romania taking the lead and the U.S. in the number eight spot behind Slovenia but ahead of Sweden. The least resilient nations were largely in Africa, but included Turkmenistan, Yemen, and North Korea.
Escape From the Data Center: The Promise of Peer-to-Peer Cloud Computing
IEEE Spectrum (09/22/14) Ozalp Babaoglu; Moreno Marzolla
Startups can lower the barrier to market entry by migrating their computing infrastructure to the cloud, although commercial clouds typically require massive data centers that consume huge amounts of electricity and can end up being a single point of failure due to their centralization. These and other problems raise the credibility of the peer-to-peer (P2P) cloud concept, in which millions of individual, Internet-connected computers distributed across the world form the cloud, write University of Bologna computer scientists Ozalp Babaoglu and Moreno Marzolla. They note initial investment in P2P clouds could be virtually nothing because they could be constructed from ordinary computing, storage, and communication gear, and they could eliminate control by a single entity as well as mitigate concerns about heat dissipation and local disasters. P2P clouds must monitor all functioning and online devices in the system and dynamically separate them among customers, using a decentralized architecture. Gossip-based protocols are advantageous in this regard because they are easy to deploy and they enable complex yet efficient global computations. Storing data in the P2P cloud also is relatively easy, as it requires the system to reduce and encrypt the data, then store it in myriad places. However, Babaoglu and Marzolla say the challenge of tamper-proofing the P2P cloud's untrusted hardware to ensure no malicious acts or computer time-hogging has yet to be met.
ARCAS: Flying Robots Will Go Where Humans Can't
CORDIS News (09/16/14)
The European Union's Aerial Robotics Cooperative Assembly System (ARCAS) project has designed a range of flying robots with multi-joint manipulator arms that work together to grasp, transport, and deposit objects. The robots' autonomy and skills are being developed to build or disassemble structures for a host of future applications, including rescue missions, inspection, and maintenance in the energy and space sectors. "The idea is that the robots should be able to fly in anywhere where it is impossible or impractical for piloted aircraft or ground robots to operate," says ARCAS project manager and University of Seville professor Anibal Ollero. Up to 10 mini-prototypes have been demonstrated working together on an indoor testbed at the Advanced Aerospace Technologies Center in Seville, Spain. They are programmed with briefing information and three-dimensional maps to orient them, and equipped with sensors to adapt to errors or changing circumstances such as weather conditions. They also are taught how to land safely in an emergency or fly home automatically if they lose contact with its base. "The robots work very well," Ollero says. "We still need to improve accuracy and repetitiveness in different conditions, but the results are very promising."
InfoWorld (09/19/14) Serdar Yegulalp
U Engineers Unlock Potential for Faster Computing
University of Utah News (09/22/14) Vincent Horiuchi
University of Utah researchers have developed a topological insulator they say could be used to create cost-effective, superfast computers that execute lightning-fast calculations without overheating. The insulator behaves like an insulator on the inside but conducts electricity on the outside and may clear a path for quantum computers and fast spintronic devices. The researchers discovered that bismuth metal deposited on the silicon can lead to a more stable large-gap topological insulator, enabling electricity to be conducted on the material's surface so a computer can operate at room temperature while maintaining stability. "We can put it on silicon so it can be married or combined with the existing semiconductor technology," says Utah professor Feng Liu. "This is very important. It makes it more experimentally feasible and practically realistic." The bismuth layer creates a large energy gap because it is atomically bonded but electronically isolated from the silicon layer. "It has the largest energy gap that was ever predicted," Liu notes. "It makes room-temperature applications a possibility for topological insulator-based devices or computers."
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