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Welcome to the January 23, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Atlas Unplugged: DARPA Challenge Robot Gets Major Makeover
Computerworld (01/22/15) Sharon Gaudin

Teams headed for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Robotics Challenge finals in June who were using Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot have had to do without their robots recently, as the company took them back and rebuilt them into a "75-percent new" robot dubbed Atlas Unplugged. Only the feet and lower legs of the original Atlas robot, which measures six feet, two inches high and weighs more than 300 pounds, remain the same. Most of the new additions are focused around onboard energy storage and energy efficiency. In addition, Atlas Unplugged no longer needs to be tethered to an external power source. The arms of the robot also have been redesigned, emerging lower down on the torso in a configuration that gives it greater strength to help it get back up should it fall over. Other new features include wireless communication and a newer, quieter hydraulic pump. Robotics Challenge teams who were using the Atlas expected to receive their new versions by today and will have to adapt the software they were using on the original robot to the new chassis.


Survey: Governments' Pledge to Be 'Open by Default' Still Mostly Talking Point
NextGov.com (01/21/15) Hallie Golden

The G8 countries in 2013 pledged themselves to the "open by default" (OBD) movement, which calls for robust public access to government data. The G8 were joined in their pledge by the G20 and the United Nations last year. However, a new report from the World Wide Web Foundation (WWWF), backed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, says little has been done by the member countries to honor those pledges. According to the second annual Open Data Barometer Global Report, only 8 percent of the 86 countries surveyed make public access to government spending data free and easy. For government budget data the number is 13 percent, and just 3 percent for company ownership data. The most open country was the U.K., on the strength of its providing access to land ownership data, something the second-place U.S. does not offer. The report says one of the major forces holding back progress on open government data is a lack of well-functioning right-to-information laws, which only 17 percent of the surveyed countries have. Another issue is a lack of resources, and the WWWF's Jose M. Alonso says leading nations should increase their aid to developing countries to help them build open government data systems.


Massive Chip Design Savings to Be Realized
University of Twente (Netherlands) (01/22/15)

A new functional programming language developed by researchers at the University of Twente makes it possible to demonstrate a chip design transformation is completely error-free. Using the new programming language, the researchers say they can prove chips' design transformations do not alter the chip's behavior, unlike traditional methods, which require an evaluation at each step of the design process. A key component of the research involves the CLaSH compiler, which transforms hardware descriptions as written in the Haskell functional language into a lower-level description. Standard software is then able to create a chip from this description. The work of doctoral candidate Christiaan Baaij concerns the development of this compiler, allowing for the automatic generation of the hardware from an abstract description. The researchers already have presented their findings to the corporate sector, and collaboration projects have been launched with the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research and other groups. The High Performance Computing Center Stuttgart also has expressed interest in the work. However, Baaij notes, "functional programming is not part of the standard curriculum. I am becoming more hopeful, though. Apple released its Swift language recently, a functional language for app development."


This Robot Has the Mind of a Worm
United Press International (01/21/15) Brooks Hays

A research project dubbed Open Worm seeks to develop artificial intelligence technology by focusing on worm intelligence, and is one of the first examples of a synthetic biological system. The globally collaborative project saw a recent breakthrough when its software enabled a robot made of Lego bricks to act entirely on its own. The software is the replication of the brain of a common roundworm, and it does not feature any pre-programmed actions. The robotic worm currently can only replicate part of the persona of Caenorhabditis elegans, such as by approaching objects curiously and backing away, or seeking nearby food. However, researchers working on the project say it may not be long before the worm robot is evading predators and finding mates. "We know we have the correct number of neurons, we have them connected together in roughly the same way that the animal has, and they're organized in the same way in that there are some neurons that give out information and other neurons that receive information," says Open Worm project coordinator Stephen Larson. "We feel we've gone a long way down the road, but we still know that there's a lot that's been left out and there are a lot of assumptions--at the moment it represents one point in a line of iterative improvements."


NASA, Microsoft Collaboration Will Allow Scientists to 'Work on Mars'
NASA News (01/22/15) Dwayne Brown; Guy Webster; Veronica McGregor

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Microsoft researchers are collaborating to develop OnSight, software that will enable scientists to work virtually on Mars using wearable technology called Microsoft HoloLens. OnSight "fundamentally changes our perception of Mars, and how we understand the Mars environment surrounding the rover," says NASA Mars Science Laboratory program executive Dave Lavery. OnSight will use real rover data to create a three-dimensional simulation of the Martian environment where scientists around the world can meet. "We believe OnSight will enhance the ways in which we explore Mars and share that journey of exploration with the world," says NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory OnSight project manager Jeff Norris. The OnSight system uses holographic technology to overlay visual information and rover data into the user's field of view. Members of the Curiosity mission team wear a Microsoft HoloLens device, which surrounds them with images from the rover's Martian field site, enabling scientists and engineers to interact with Mars in a more natural way. Scientists also will be able to use OnSight to program activities for many of the rover's science instruments by looking at a target and using gestures to select menu commands. The OnSight program is part of NASA's partnership with Microsoft to investigate advances in human-robot interaction.


How the Next Generation of Botnets Will Exploit Anonymous Networks--and How to Beat Them
Technology Review (01/21/15)

Makers of malicious botnets increasingly are turning to the Tor network, which is designed to enable people to anonymously communicate across the Internet. Northeastern University's Amirali Sanatinia and Guevara Noubir say botnets can exploit this anonymity by using a technique called onion routing, which encapsulates messages within various layers of encryption. As a result, no server along the route knows anything about the message except its next destination. Sanatinia and Noubir have dubbed such botnets OnionBots, and in a new paper they detail a way to neutralize them. Their idea is to inject programs into the network that preferentially attach to OnionBots; the programs then reproduce themselves and effectively surround each OnionBot so it is no longer linked to any other part of the network. "There are still many challenges that need to be preemptively addressed by the security community, we hope that this work ignites new ideas to proactively design mitigations against the new generations of crypto-based botnets," Sanatinia and Noubir say. Although it may be risky to do so publicly, it also may help them access the widest pool of security talent.


Attempts to Predict Terrorist Attacks Hit Limits
Nature (01/20/15) Quirin Shiermeier

Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001, academics, security officials, and insurance adjusters have sought to use data analysis to understand the changing nature of terrorism, as well as to predict it. The University of Maryland at College Park, for example, now maintains the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), which compiles data related to terrorism. Researchers working with the GTD have been able to show terrorism has increased since the turn of the millennium, with most attacks occurring in the Middle East, Africa, and south Asia. GTD data also shows 60 percent of all terrorism fatalities in the last decade have occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In addition, the GTD has made it clear the nature of terrorism is changing, with groups seeking to radicalize individuals who will carry out lone-wolf attacks, rather than planning and executing attacks of their own. Aaron Clauset, a computer scientist in Colorado, has used the GTD to show terrorist attacks follow a power law, with smaller strikes eventually being followed by a much larger strike on the scale of the 9/11 attacks. Meanwhile, insurance companies have sought to use terrorism data to set rates for terrorism insurance, but with mixed success. It can be difficult to gather complete data and the definitions of what count as terrorism are often fluid, making predictions tricky.


Fujitsu Psychology Tool Profiles Users for Risk of Cyberattacks
IDG News Service (01/21/15) Tim Hornyak

Fujitsu researchers are integrating psychology into profiling software to make computer security more personalized. Fujitsu Laboratories is developing an enterprise tool to identify people who may be more vulnerable to cyberattacks based on how they use email, Web browsers, keyboards, and the mouse. The software assumes the majority of attacks exploit mistakes made by users, such as clicking malicious links or accidentally emailing the wrong person. The software can be compared to "an action log analysis that looks into the potential risks of a user," says a Fujitsu Labs spokesperson. The researchers found individuals who are more comfortable taking risks also are more susceptible to virus infections, while those who are confident of their computer knowledge are at greater risk for data leaks. The tool can display warnings such as, "You are vulnerable to being scammed. Be careful," after a risk analysis, as well as create bar graphs to indicate a user's vulnerability to viruses, scams, and data breaches compared to the risk profiles of other departments in their organization. The software also can analyze a user's attention level when reading privacy policies by tracking the distance their mouse moves. Fujitsu says any identifying information is removed from the collected information prior to analysis, and data would only be collected with the consent of users.


Optimizing Optimization Algorithms
MIT News (01/21/15) Larry Hardesty

Optimization algorithms are used to determine the minimum values of mathematical functions, and are widely used for such purposes as evaluating design tradeoffs and control systems as well as finding patterns in data. At a conference in mid-January, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Hossein Mobahi and John Fisher presented a way to generate a sequence of simplified functions that ensure the best approximation the method can offer. Their approach attempts to identify a convex approximation of an optimization problem through the use of Gaussian smoothing, which converts the cost function into a related function that gives a weighted average of all the surrounding values. The technique also minimizes abrupt dips or ascents in the cost function's graph. The weights assigned the surrounding values are determined by a Gaussian function, or normal distribution, also known as the bell curve. The width of a Gaussian function is determined by a single parameter. Mobahi and Fisher initially use a very wide Gaussian, which, under certain conditions, yields a convex function, and gradually contract the width of the Gaussian to generate a series of intermediary problems. By the time the width of the distribution becomes zero, the original cost function is recovered because every value is the average of itself.


10 Cool Network and Computing Research Projects
Network World (01/21/15) Bob Brown

Network World provides an overview of 10 network and computer technologies currently being worked on by companies and universities, many of which involve security, big data, and simplifying current technology. For example, the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility is developing a "lazy supercomputing" method, which seeks to boost supercomputer performance, while new memory technology being developed by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Connecticut could yield lighter and less energy-hungry computing devices. The U.S. National Science Foundation is devoting $10 million to developing CloudLab, a cloud infrastructure for researchers. Rice University is developing a tool called PLINY, which will act as an autocomplete and autocorrect feature for programmers. German researchers are developing automatic code analysis tools that will detect second-order security vulnerabilities in servers. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers are developing Fastpass, a tool to make data routing faster and more efficient. The Georgia Institute of Technology is developing the open source Encore tool, a single line of code that can be embedded in a website to see if its users are facing online censorship. The University of Massachusetts Amherst recently released a tool called CheckCell, which can identify errors in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. Finally, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Hawaii are collaborating on a conversational and interpretive computer capable of creating easy-to-digest visualizations of research data.


MOOCs Deliver Robots for Everyone
Computerworld Australia (01/20/15) Adam Bender

The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia will offer two massive open online courses (MOOCs) on robotics, which will be free and open to the public worldwide. Peter Corke, who created the courses, expects the MOOCs to attract some high school science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students in addition to undergraduates whose universities may lack a strong robotics program. "It could also be helpful for STEM professionals looking to expand their skill set--with big players like Google, Apple, and Boeing pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into robotics and automation, it's an industry that'll be screaming for workers into the near future," Corke says. QUT's Introduction to Robotics MOOC is designed to develop the fundamental mathematics and algorithm skills that underlie robotics. Students with a LEGO Mindstorm kit will have the opportunity to build a robot arm and write the control software for it, while the Robotic Vision MOOC introduces students to the field of computer vision. Students will be able to build an intelligent vision system that can recognize objects of different colors and shapes. Corke says the courses were developed over 16 months in conjunction with QUT's eLearning Services team. "Both MOOCs involve theory, mathematics, and programming," he notes.


Software Teaches Computers to Translate Words to Math
University of Illinois News Bureau (01/20/15) Liz Ahlberg

New software developed at the University of Illinois helps computers understand the mathematical reasoning expressed in language, potentially improving search engines and access to data in addition to strengthening math education. The key hurdle the researchers encountered was teaching the computer to identify quantities and units in text regardless of how they are expressed, which humans do unconsciously. The software also had to determine what to do with the identified numbers and find any accompanying equations within the text. For example, the computer needed to ascertain if an amount is exact or approximate, static or dynamic, a range, presented in relation to something else, and detect other contextual cues a reader intuitively understands. The researchers tested the software's abilities to identify and normalize quantities in text, to perform searches regarding monetary currencies, and to understand and solve elementary school-level math word problems. They found the software performed well and even outperformed the average elementary-level student on standardized word problems, says Illinois professor Dan Roth. "As we move forward and want to help kids understand math, it makes sense to use technology," Roth says. "This shows that computers could help people learn in ways that could not be done before."


Malware Could Steal Data From iPhones Using Siri
IEEE Spectrum (01/16/15) Neel V. Patel

Researchers at the Warsaw University of Technology and the National Research Council of Italy have found a security vulnerability, called iStegSiri, in the iPhone 5 series of smartphone. The security flaw could be exploited by malicious software and compromise a user's personal information via Siri, the phone's personal assistant program. The defect relies on steganography, a technique that hides the fact that a secret message has ever been sent. The researchers say they wanted to create a steganographic attack on the iPhone or iPad to get the attention of the security community because current security systems are not able to counter steganography very well. IStegSiri converts a secret message into an audio sequence that mimics the alternation of voice and silence found in a typical spoken directive. When the message is sent to the cloud server, an unknown third party could inspect the conversation and apply a decoding scheme to extract the data. The researchers say the best way to counter this kind of security hole are solutions that act on the side of the server, such as dropping any connections to the server that involve suspicious audio patterns that deviate from typical language behaviors.


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