Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the January 16, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

Please note: In observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday, TechNews will not be published on Monday, Jan. 19. Publication will resume on Wednesday, Jan. 21.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Science Panel: No Alternative to Bulk NSA Collection
Associated Press (01/16/15) Ken Dilanian

A committee tasked last year with investigating possible technological alternatives to the bulk collection of data by the U.S. National Security Agency has issued its final report, which concludes no viable technological alternative exists. The National Research Council's 85-page report does not take a position on the merit or value of bulk collection, but instead examined the possibility that other technological means exist for gathering the sorts of intelligence bulk collection enables. "Restricting bulk collection will make intelligence less effective, and technology cannot do anything about this," the report says. "Whether the gain in privacy is worth the loss is a policy question that the committee does not address." Although it does not take a position on the value of bulk collection, the report suggests ways to mitigate its privacy impact by restricting the use of collected data. It suggests the use of automatic controls and regular public audits to ensure collected data is being used properly. However, critics such as Indiana University privacy expert Fred Cate say the report was set up to fail by not requiring it to examine the value of bulk data collection, which he says has not been proven to be necessary or effective in stopping terror plots.


What Advanced Tech Will Dominate Your Car by 2025? IBM Knows
Network World (01/15/15) Michael Cooney

An IBM study on the future of automotive technologies found self-healing cars featuring social networking communications capabilities and connections to the Internet of Things are the wave of the future. IBM interviewed 175 executives at automotive manufacturers, suppliers, and other businesses in 21 countries about what they expect the cars of 2025 to be able do. "By 2025, the industry will not only recreate our highly personalized and digitized lives inside our cars, but also give consumers a bigger role in defining that experience, whether as a driver or passenger," says IBM's Alexander Scheidt. Some of the study's more interesting findings include the belief of 57 percent of respondents that vehicle "social networks" will be in place by 2025 to enable vehicles to communicate a variety of information with each other that, for example, could help a vehicle diagnose a problem it is having. Nearly 75 percent expect vehicles to be able to learn the behaviors of their driver and occupants to better customize themselves and the information they provide to passengers. However, only 8 percent said fully autonomous vehicles would be common place by 2025. By contrast, 85 percent believed partially automated features would be common place and 55 percent said highly automated driving will be common by 2025.


Evolutionary Approaches to Big-Data Problems
MIT News (01/14/15) Eric Brown

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) AnyScale Learning For All (ALFA) group investigates a wide range of big data challenges. ALFA focuses on working with raw data that comes directly from the source and then investigates the data with a variety of techniques, most of which involve scalable machine learning and evolutionary computing algorithms. "Machine learning is very useful for retrospectively looking back at the data to help you predict the future," says ALFA director Una-May O’Reilly. "Evolutionary computation can be used in the same way, and it's particularly well suited to large-scale problems with very high dimensions." Within the evolutionary field, O'Reilly has particular interest in genetic programing. "We distribute the genetic programming algorithms over many nodes and then factor the data across the nodes," she says. The researchers have shown ensemble-based models are more accurate than a single model based on all the data. One of ALFA's most successful projects has been in developing algorithms to help design wind farms. "You must find out how much wind is required for the site and then acquire the finer detailed information about where the wind is coming from and in what quantities," O'Reilly says. The researchers also are trying to discover useful information from the growing volume of physiological data collected from medical sensors.


New Research Points Way to Less Vulnerable Computer Memory
University of Texas at Austin (01/14/15) Marc G. Airhart

Researchers at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Arizona State University have built one of the three components of a ferroelectric field-effect transistor (FeFET). The transistor promises to offer data storage that is quickly accessible and non-volatile. As part of the transistor that is open or closed, corresponding to the 0s and 1s in a computer's binary language, the gate would retain its state when no power is applied. Computing devices with memories built on FeFETs would be less vulnerable to losing information, and would boot up very quickly when turned on. The team developed a computer model of a crystal structure with the desired properties, and then used molecular beam epitaxy to grow a layer of barium titanate on a block of germanium. "This is the first time anyone has shown the ferroelectric field effect in a solid-state device," says UT Austin professor Alexander Demkov. Although the researchers generated a two-dimensional layered structure, they also need to create an actual, three-dimensional transistor, which includes a source and a drain, in order to build a true FeFET.


Cornell Research Steers NYC Bikes to Needy Stations
Cornell Chronicle (01/12/15) Bill Steele

Cornell University researchers have developed algorithms and data analysis tools to help rebalance the New York City Citi Bike system as efficiently as possible. The researchers first analyzed massive quantities of data to learn usage patterns and determine how many bikes would be found at each station at key times during the day. "The next step is to figure out how many bikes should be at each station at key times, so riders would find bikes available as well as open docks to put them in at the end of a ride," says Cornell professor David Shmoys. The researchers used the algorithms to create a system that generates a map showing dispatchers where bikes are needed the most, given the current state and expected usage. The researchers note the program must calculate many possible solutions across the entire city and choose the one with the best overall result. First, the algorithm represents each possible route as a separate point in a high-dimension space, then repeatedly recalculates to eliminate a large fraction of those points in each step. In the future, the researchers want to develop a system to choose the best locations for new bike-sharing sites, based on data from taxi usage and neighborhood boundaries.


Fujitsu Smart Ring Lets User 'Write' in the Air
eWeek (01/13/15) Jeffrey Burt

Fujitsu Laboratories recently demonstrated a prototype for a ring-type computing device that would enable users to "write" words in the air and select menu items without physically touching a device. The researchers say the wearable technology would enable users to work hands-free. "Because operators do not need to hold devices in their hands to receive information in the field, there are especially high expectations for the use of such wearable devices in fieldwork for which operators need use of their hands at all times," says a Fujitsu official. Fujitsu has designed the smart ring to make use of such technologies as a near-field communications tag reader, motion sensors, Bluetooth Low Energy, and a sensor-processing microcontroller that helps map the gestures of the user's hand. A mobile device with Bluetooth that is running an app from Fujitsu can track the hand motion and understand what the user is doing. The technology has a recognition accuracy rate of about 95 percent for numbers, and Fujitsu expects to commercialize the technology in 2016.


Google Translate App Gets an Upgrade
The New York Times (01/14/15) Conor Dougherty

Google upgraded its Google Translate app this week, adding two new tools that expand the smartphone app's capabilities. The first is a voice tool that provides users with the ability to translate spoken words more seamlessly than before. The tool works best with short, jargon-free sentences with a significant pause between translations, making it ideal for commercial transactions such as ordering at a restaurant. The other tool is a visual translator, which is based on the Word Lens app developed by Quest Visual. Google acquired Quest last May with the goal of incorporating its technology into Google Translate. The new tool enables users to put a piece of text in front of their smartphone's camera and receive an instantaneous translation. Google Translate product leader Barak Turovsky says the app now supports 80 languages and has about 500 million monthly users who receive about a billion translations a day. The app's underlying technology is similar to that of the company's search engine; the software crawls the Web for documents that already have been translated and performs statistic analyses on them to determine which translation is the most accurate.
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How to Predict Responses to Disease
MIT News (01/14/15) David L. Chandler

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a computer model that could provide a way to predict when populations will overreact to a disease outbreak and help public health officials take steps to limit the dangers. The model makes forecasts based on data collected from hospitals, social media, and other sources. One way of analyzing human reactions is by studying news reporting on outbreaks, as well as messages posted on social media, and comparing them with data from hospital records about the actual incidence of the disease. In many cases, the reaction to an outbreak can cause more harm than the disease itself. To study the phenomenon, the researchers examined data from the 2009 spread of H1N1 flu in Mexico and in Hong Kong, and the 2003 spread of SARS in Hong Kong. They found the model could accurately reproduce the population-level behavior that accompanied those outbreaks. "I hope in the future, if we could predict that these bad social and economic consequences are going to happen that might cost a lot of money and might cost a lot of lives, that people can take measures to counteract these effects," says MIT professor Marta Gonzalez.


The Sound of Chirping Birds in the Control Center
Bielefeld University (01/13/15)

Researchers at Bielefeld University and the University of Vienna have developed a method that allows control room staff to monitor several processes at the same time, enabling them to take preventative action in case of an emergency. The researchers note monitoring processes traditionally has been a visually supported field of work. "With our new system, we use additional acoustic signals," says Bielefeld researcher Thomas Hermann. "Our method thus enables...surveillance that can be accomplished alongside other tasks." In a simulation of the new system being integrated at a production plant, each station is assigned a distinct sound to indicate delivery, such as chirping birds, bees buzzing, branches rustling in the wind, or dripping water. If everything is running normally, all four sounds are discretely in the background. The system then simulates that the finished product is beginning to back up at the outgoing shipping station, and the sound that belongs to this station becomes increasingly loud. A staff member can then react before a disruption occurs. "It could be introduced in almost every industry in which processes are centrally controlled or monitored--everywhere from hospitals to traffic control desks for trains and buses," says University of Vienna researcher Tobias Hildebrandt.


MOOCs Aim to Strengthen Computer Science and Physics Teaching in Middle and High Schools
Forbes (01/13/15) Maria Klawe

Many agree that one of the best ways to close the gender and diversity gaps in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is to begin educating students in those fields earlier in their K-12 careers, writes Harvey Mudd College president and former ACM president Maria Klawe. She notes research has shown that early exposure to these subjects increases the likelihood students will go on to pursue them in college. However, many schools, especially those serving underprivileged populations, lack the resources for comprehensive STEM education. Only 10 percent of U.S. K-12 schools offer classes in computer science, for example, and just 5 percent of U.S. high schools are certified to teach Advanced Placement Computer Science. To fill the gap, Harvey Mudd has created three massively open online courses (MOOCs) for middle school and high school teachers. The first course, "Middle Years Computer Science," walks a teacher through the process of developing a computer science curriculum for students with a range of interest and experience in computer science. The second course, "How Stuff Moves," is designed to support students taking their first course in calculus-based physics with lectures, demonstrations, and problem sets. A third course, "Programming in Scratch," focuses on teaching young students to code in the simplified programming language Scratch. The free courses are now available through edX and begin their first session in early February.


Researchers Develop Novel Multiferroic Materials and Devices Integrated With Silicon Chips
NCSU News (01/13/15) Matt Shipman

A breakthrough by researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) could lead to the development of new electronic memory devices. The researchers say they have developed a technique to give barium titanate (BTO) ferromagnetic properties, making it multiferroic without the need for lanthanum strontium manganese oxide (LSMO). The team used a high-powered nanosecond pulse laser to create oxygen vacancy-related defects in the material, and the defects create ferromagnetic properties in the BTO. The researchers also developed buffer layers of titanium nitride and magnesium oxide, which can be used to integrate either the multiferroic BTO or the multiferroic BTO/LSMO bilayer film onto a silicon chip. The layers enable the multiferroic material to function without diffusing into the silicon and destroying silicon transistors. "These multiferroic materials offer the possibility of switching a material's magnetism with an electric field, or switching its electric polarity with a magnetic field--making them very attractive for use in next-generation, low-power, nonvolatile memory storage devices," says NCSU professor Jay Narayan, whose team is now testing prototype devices.


Carnegie Mellon's Six-Legged 'Snake Monster' Is First of New Breed of Reconfigurable Modular Robots
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (01/12/15) Byron Spice

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have developed the Snake Monster, a six-legged modular robot that can be reconfigured to meet a user's needs. "By creating a system that can be readily reconfigured and that also is easy to program, we believe we can build robots that are not only robust and flexible, but also inexpensive," says CMU professor Howie Choset. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsored the research work through its Maximum Mobility and Manipulation program, which focuses on ways to design and build robots more rapidly and enhance their ability to manipulate objects and move in natural environments. Applications for the Snake Monster and other modular robots include urban search and rescue, archaeological exploration, and inspection of power plants, refineries, and sewers. To build the robot, the researchers used the hardware expertise developed in snake robots to build small, powerful modules and used the lessons learned in controlling the snakebots to create a system architecture that can be programmed to control robots with a wide variety of configurations. "When we push the Snake Monster forward, the joints in the leg 'feel' the force of the robot being pushed and, then, in an effort to zero-out the force it feels, the robot walks in the direction it is being pushed," Choset says.


Keeping Better Tabs on Suspicious Persons
The New York Times (01/12/15) Bhavani Thuraisingham

Information technology, the Internet, and social media have become key tools for terrorists, but it remains to be seen whether these same technologies can be used to determine whether a suspicious person is likely to commit a crime, writes University of Texas at Dallas professor Bhavani Thuraisingham, executive director of the university's Cyber Security Research Institute. Thuraisingham says the difficult problems of jihadist activity and terrorism cannot be solved with technology alone and people must tread cautiously when using algorithms. She says there still needs to be a greater focus on creating appropriate procedures. Due to the debates on privacy and security over the past decade, the parameters of data collection and surveillance have not been set, Thuraisingham notes. "I believe in individual privacy, but in order to prevent terrorist attacks like the one in France, it is essential that technologists work with privacy advocates and lawyers to create a system for collecting meaningful data about people who are suspected of being radicalized," she says. Ultimately, Thuraisingham believes technology cannot be used to keep people safer unless there are policies and laws that outline rules for analyzing data about people and extracting meaningful, predictive information.
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