Welcome to the December 22, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Obama Vows a Response to Cyberattack on Sony
The New York Times (12/19/14) David E. Sanger; Michael S. Schmidt; Nicole Perlroth
President Barack Obama on Friday vowed the U.S. will "respond proportionally" to the cyberattack against Sony Pictures, which has been linked to North Korea. The Sony hack has become a broader national security issue following threats to carry out attacks on movie theaters that show the satirical film "The Interview," which centers on a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and is believed to have been the impetus for the attack. The president said the U.S. response would come "in a place and time and manner that we choose," and he would continue to be briefed about potential responses while in Hawaii for a two-week vacation. Obama also criticized Sony for its decision to pull the movie from theaters, saying the move sets a dangerous precedent and could encourage other nations and dictators to target U.S. media in an effort to silence messages they dislike. Sony's CEO responded that the company still intends to release the movie, but has not yet settled on a distribution channel. The original hack has been traced back to North Korea by both the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and independent researchers, who point to similarities to earlier North Korean attacks. In an interview broadcast Sunday, Obama called the North Korean cyberattack against Sony an act of cyber-vandalism and not an act of war.
Google Seeks Partners for Self-Driving Car
The Wall Street Journal (12/19/14) Joseph B. White; Rolfe Winkler
Google is seeking auto industry partners in its efforts to produce a fully autonomous car, according to project director Chris Urmson. "We don't particularly want to become a car maker," Urmson says, adding "it would be goofy for us to try to replicate" the automotive expertise of the major automakers. He says Google's plan involves two stages. First, the creation of a fleet of more advanced "beta one" prototype Google cars that will be three generations more advanced than its current model. Google plans to begin road-testing these prototypes in in early 2015, before debuting its fully autonomous car between 2017 and 2020. Google's approach to self-driving cars is different from that being taken by most automakers. Urmson says the current plans are for Google's car to have a top speed of 25 miles per hour and be classified as a neighborhood electric vehicle. It also will be completely autonomous and without a steering wheel. Meanwhile, most automakers are looking to slowly integrate autonomous or semi-autonomous driving technology into their vehicles while still retaining the ability for the driver to take direct control. General Motors, for example, is set to introduce what it calls "super cruise," in a 2016 Cadillac sedan.
Better Software Cuts Computer Energy Use
CORDIS News (12/15/14)
The European Union-funded ENTRA project aims to develop tools to help software engineers create energy-efficient code, which could reduce electricity consumption at data centers by up to 50 percent and improve battery life in smart devices. The ENTRA tool is an experimental software prototype based on programming semantics that tells programmers how much energy will be consumed as a result of the code they are writing. The software runs alongside the program and, through code analysis and energy modeling, shows how much the code is going to cost the computer in terms of energy use. The ENTRA tool shows energy use in terms of watts or in absolute energy requirements depending on the speed of the processor. The ENTRA prototype is being tested on real-time audio processing, robot, and motor control, and real-time networking. "The whole approach is independent of any particular hardware or application domain in the sense that it is based purely on the programming language semantics and a general energy model," says project coordinator John Gallagher. "So we could apply the same techniques to high performance computers."
Georgia Tech Research Finds Copyright Confusion Has 'Chilling Effects' in Online Creative Publishing
Georgia Institute of Technology (12/14/14) Joshua Preston
The Internet has made it easy for people to share their creations with a mouse click, but they also find protecting their work and legally using other content increasingly frustrating. As a result, amateur creative types are choosing not to share, reuse, and remix content, and this is having a chilling effect on Web publishing, according to new research from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). Copyright is often discussed in creative communities online, and is estimated to be the subject of 13 percent of posts in YouTube help forums. Creators seeking to reuse content want to avoid trouble, while creators fearing infringement want to protect their work. Potential solutions for online communities include recommending "plain English" copyright policies and having website owners answer copyright-related questions. "This study reveals that copyright policy is an important aspect of interactions between creators in these online communities, and therefore should be an important part of the user model in design decisions," says Georgia Tech's Casey Fiesler, a Ph.D. candidate in human-centered computing. Fiesler will present "Understanding Copyright Law in Online Creative Communities" at the 18th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, which takes place March 14-18, 2015, in Vancouver, Canada.
In One Aspect of Vision, Computers Catch Up to Primate Brain
MIT News (12/18/14) Anne Trafton
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have found the most recent version of deep neural networks match the primate brain. Because these networks are based on neuroscientists' current understanding of how the brain performs object recognition, the success of the latest networks suggest neuroscientists have a good grasp of how object-recognition works in the human brain, according to MIT professor James DiCarlo. He says this knowledge could lead to better artificial intelligence technologies and new ways to repair visual dysfunction. First, the researchers measured the brain's object-recognition ability, and then they compared this with representations created by the deep neural networks, which consist of a matrix of numbers produced by each computational element in the system. Each image produces a different array of numbers, and the accuracy of the model is determined by whether it groups similar objects into similar clusters within the representation. "Through each of these computational transformations, through each of these layers of networks, certain objects or images get closer together, while others get further apart," notes MIT researcher Charles Cadieu. The researchers now plan to develop models that can mimic other aspects of visual processing, including tracking motion and recognizing three-dimensional forms.
6 Aging Protocols That Could Cripple the Internet
InfoWorld (12/18/14) Serdar Yegulalp
The biggest threat to the Internet is that it evolved over time with various protocols, very few of which were designed with security in mind. For example, the BGP protocol is used by Internet routers to exchange information about changes to the Internet's network topology. However, it also is among the most fundamentally broken, as Internet routing information can be poisoned with bogus routing information. One of email's underlying protocols is SMTP, which has no inherent security due to its origins in a time when cyberattacks were not common. Meanwhile, a warning for domain name system (DNS) security was sounded in 2008 when a massive flaw in the protocol's design was discovered. That spurred work on DNSSEC, a security extension for DNS, as a way to keep forged data from being inserted into DNS servers. However, DNSSEC needs to be implemented to work in the first place. NTP keeps the clocks of computers around the world in sync, but it is a product of an age in which security was not a top priority, making it possible to use the mechanics of the protocol, in conjunction with a fleet of compromised computers, to launch denial-of-service attacks. Meanwhile, Internet Protocol (IP) version 4 is fast running out of Web address space, and the only solution is a migration to IPv6. Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) has had a replacement for years, but only now are Internet organizations replacing it.
First Steps for Hector the Robot Stick Insect
Bielefeld University (12/16/14)
Bielefeld University researchers have developed Hector, a robot based on a stick insect that has passive elastic joints and an ultralight exoskeleton. The researchers note Hector is unique because it is equipped with many sensors and it functions according to a biologically inspired decentralized reactive control concept known as the Walknet. By 2017, the walking robot will be equipped with additional abilities as part of a major project at the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC). One major aspect of the project is the fusion of large amounts of data from sensors so the robot can walk more autonomously than before. "The way that the elasticity in Hector's drives acts is comparable to the way that muscles act in biological systems," says Bielefeld professor Axel Schneider. The researchers also programmed a virtual version of Hector to test experimental control approaches without damaging the robot. CITEC united eight research groups in a large-scale project to optimize Hector. The researchers currently are working on equipping Hector's front section with far-range sensors. "A major challenge will now be to find an efficient way to integrate these far-range sensors with the posture sensors and joint control sensors," says Bielefeld professor Volker Durr.
Switching to Spintronics
Berkeley Lab News Center (12/17/14) Lynn Yarris
Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Cornell University have successfully used an electric field to reverse the magnetization direction in a multiferroic spintronic device at room temperature. This suggests a new approach to spintronics and smaller, faster, and less expensive ways of storing and processing data. Berkeley Lab's Ramamoorthy Ramesh says his team used "a multi-step switching process to demonstrate energy-efficient control of a spintronic device." In earlier research, Ramesh's team had discovered a two-step switching process that relied on ferroelectric polarization and the rotation of the oxygen octahedral. "The two-step switching process is key as it allows the octahedral rotation to couple to the polarization," says Cornell University's John Heron. "The oxygen octahedral rotation is also critical because it is the mechanism responsible for the ferromagnetism in bismuth ferrite." Ramesh, Heron, and their co-researchers used heterostructures of bismuth ferrite and cobalt iron to form a spin-valve, or a spintronic device consisting of a non-magnetic material sandwiched between two ferromagnets whose electrical resistance can be readily changed. X-ray magnetic circular dichroism photoemission electron microscopy images revealed a correlation between magnetization switching and the switching from high-to-low electrical resistance in the spin-valve.
What Are MOOCs Good For?
Technology Review (12/15/14) Justin Pope
Although massive open online courses (MOOCs) have not revolutionized the higher-education model the way advocates expected them to, they still have value. In September, researchers led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) David Pritchard published a study of an online course, which determined the MOOC effectively communicated difficult concepts, even to students who were not up to MIT's standards. MOOCs essentially are content, similar to textbooks, that when used as the centerpiece of a well-taught course can benefit learners. MIT's Sanjay Sarma says many of the MOOCs' underlying technologies, which are interactivity- and assessment-centered, can be useful for students on campus. Meanwhile, Harvard University's David Malan notes MOOC tools add another dimension to his lectures by enabling them to be split up online into shorter segments, so students can spend as much time on each unit as they require. "We're nearing the point where it's a superior educational experience, as far as the lectures are concerned, to engage with [students] online," he says. Pritchard says MOOCs are prompting people across higher education to consider how they can warrant charging huge lecture fees to students when better and less costly courses are available online. He also thinks MOOCs could play a role in education at the high school and lower levels, given that teachers are already a major audience.
Big Data Analysis Reveals Gene Sharing in Mice
Rice University (12/16/14) Mark Williams
Rice University scientists have identified at least three cases of cross-species mating in "old world" mice that likely enabled the passage of genetic material and had an impact on their evolutionary paths. Rice biologist Michael Kohn and computer scientist Luay Nakhleh report two species of mice from various locations in Europe and Africa have shared genetic code at least three times over the centuries. Kohn tracked the genetic roots of mice to see how favorable evolutionary traits develop, while Nakhleh studied evolution by comparing genomic data. The study compared the genome-scale data of 21 mice that originated in 15 different locations in Europe and Africa. Kohn, Nakhleh, and lead author Kevin Liu employed Rice's supercomputers and open source PhyloNet-HMM software to locate statistically likely connections between re-sequenced complete genomes in addition to newly determined ones and some collected previously. One of the genomic regions, or tracts, appears to predate the colonization of Europe by M. m. domesticus, and the other likely affected the subjects' sense of smell, indicating an evolutionary advantage for mice looking for food or mates. Kohn expects future studies will show evidence of more hybridization among mice from the regions studied and beyond.
Control of Shape of Light Particles Opens the Way to 'Quantum Internet'
Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands) (12/15/14)
Researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology and the FOM Foundation have demonstrated control of individual light particles in a short amount of time, which is a prerequisite for a working quantum computer. Photons emitted by atoms normally have an asymmetric shape, but the shape, or the way their energy is distributed over time, must be symmetric for successful transmission of information. The team achieved the breakthrough by embedding a quantum dot--a piece of semiconductor material that can transmit photons--into a photonic crystal, creating an optical cavity. They then applied a very short electrical pulse to the cavity, which influences how the quantum dot interacts with it and how the photon is emitted. The team used electrical pulses shorter than a nanosecond. "It's like the shutter of a high-speed camera, which has to be very short if you want to capture something that changes very fast in an image," says team leader Andrea Fiore. "By controlling the speed at which you send a photon, you can in principle achieve very efficient exchange of photons, which is important for the future quantum Internet."
Female Role Models Vital to Entice Women Into Technology Sector
V3.co.uk (12/16/14) Roland Moore-Colyer
Salesforce vice president Melissa di Donato says successful women in technology need to be visible to others in the industry. "Women in particular take inspiration from other women," she says. Di Donato wants women in top executive positions to serve as role models and mentors for other women in the industry and to inspire future generations. She suggests such an individual could be Sharon White, who will become the first female CEO of Ofcom, Britain's communications regulator. Di Donato also acknowledges a need for digital skills to be developed at the grassroots levels to encourage more young women to consider a career in technology. Regarding her own career, di Donato says she rarely encountered problems related to her gender, noting she was, and still is, a "business person not a business woman," and the hurdles she faced were typical of anyone on a career path. However, having a daughter changed all that because di Donato's viewpoint shifted to the question of, "What kind of world do I want my daughter to go into?" She started advocating initiatives to make the technology sector more open to women and to create a path for her daughter if she wants to enter that field.
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