Welcome to the January 30, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Scientists Say AI Fears Unfounded, Could Hinder Tech Advances
Computerworld (01/29/15) Sharon Gaudin
Artificial intelligence (AI) researchers and industry analysts attending this week's AAAI-15 conference in Austin, TX, say fears about AI and the development of smart robots that recently have made headlines could slow research into an important technology. "The thing I would say is AI will empower us not exterminate us," says Allen Institute for AI CEO Oren Etzioni. "It could set AI back if people took what some are saying literally and seriously." The fears over AI are based on recent comments made by physicist Stephen Hawking and Space X and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who both said AI poses a threat to humanity. However, John Bresina, a computer scientist in the Intelligent Systems Division at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center, said he was surprised to hear Musk and Hawking's statements about AI. "I'm not worried about the danger of AI," Bresina says. "I don't think we're that close at all." Still, ethics in AI was a major topic of discussion at the conference. "Robotics is very far from having any consciousness and understanding of what it's doing, but we're still responsible to discuss the potential harm and see what we can do to mitigate it," says U.S. National Science Foundation division director Lynne Parker.
China Further Tightens Grip on the Internet
The New York Times (01/30/15) Andrew Jacobs
Chinese officials this week took action to block the functioning of several virtual private networks (VPNs) its citizens use to circumvent China's online censorship apparatus. Officials have long tolerated VPNs, which are used by a broad spectrum of Chinese citizens, ranging from business people to academics and scientists to artists. However, the Chinese government has been stepping up its online censorship activities in recent years as part of a push for what it calls "cyber sovereignty," which is the idea the government has the right to block online content it objects to. The cyber sovereignty campaign has seen the degradation or outright blocking of numerous services Chinese citizens use to communicate with the rest of the world. Chinese scientists and academics are particularly incensed about the difficulty they now face in getting access to Google Scholar. Many within and without China say the government's efforts to block Internet content are proving a major impediment to the government's stated goal of shifting the country's economy away from its reliance on manufacturing and construction to a more entrepreneurial model. The restrictions make it difficult for foreigners to do business and are causing many bright Chinese entrepreneurs to consider leaving the country.
Even Nameless Data can Reveal Identity, Study Finds
The Wall Street Journal (01/30/15) Robert Lee Hotz
Even commercial and government data that has been stripped of personally identifying information can be tied to a specific individual, according to a study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The researchers used a new formula to analyze the anonymized credit card transaction records of 1.1 million shoppers at 10,000 stores over a three-month period. The data had been scrubbed of any names, account numbers, or other obvious identifiers, but the researchers still only needed four bits of secondary information in the form of metadata, such as location or timing, to identify the unique individual tied to a particular purchasing pattern. The transaction metadata could be used to make a match with other publicly available data, such as social media account usage and check-in apps like Foursquare. Even without identifying a specific individual the researchers were able to determine certain characteristics, such as an individual's gender or their income bracket. The new technique is likely to be of interest to research firms, advertisers, trade associations, and other entities that build and rely on extensive databases of customers. It also could raise fresh concerns about the government's use of metadata and other online databases in conjunction with its other surveillance efforts.
Sustained Investment in Research Is Needed to Combat Cyberthreats, CISE AD Tells Congress
Computing Research Policy Blog (01/29/15) Brian Mosley
In testimony before the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee's Research and Technology Subcommittee on Tuesday, Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) assistant director Jim Kurose said sustained basic research investment is necessary for countering growing cyberthreats. He also stressed the need for behavioral researchers' participation in this effort, since effective solutions must be social-technical in nature. In addition, Kurose said there must be closer communication between federal agencies, especially the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, and industry in order to get the most up-to-date information on ever-changing threats and best practices. Kurose's views were echoed by all of the witnesses at the hearing, which included both private- and public-sector experts. In response to subcommittee chairwoman Barbara Comstock's (R-VA) query on how Congress should engage with constituents on the cybersecurity issue, witnesses generally agreed everyday people must take a serious view of the threat and use all available security tools. "Utilizing targeted emails, spam, malware, bots, and other tools, cybercriminals, "hacktivists," and nation-states are attempting to access information technology systems all the time," Comstock noted at the hearing. "The defense of these systems relies on professionals who can react to threats and proactively prepare those systems for attack."
Business Secretary Cable Announces Partners in the Alan Turing Institute
Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (01/28/15)
The U.K.'s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has selected five universities to lead the Alan Turing Institute, which is intended to be a global leader in the analysis and application of big data and algorithm research. The Institute, which will be based at the British Library in London's Knowledge Quarter, will be led by the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Oxford, Warwick, and University College London. The creation of the new entity is being overseen by EPSRC, which invests in research and postgraduate training across Britain. The Institute is being funded over five years with 42 million British pounds from the U.K. government, and the university partners will contribute further funding. In addition, the Institute will seek to partner with other business and government organizations. EPSRC CEO Philip Nelson says the Institute "will use the power of mathematics, statistics, and computer science to analyze big data in many ways, including the ability to improve online security. Big data is going to play a central role in how we run our industries, businesses, and services."
Coder Creates Smallest Chess Game for Computers
BBC News (01/28/15) Leo Kelion
The Sinclair ZX81 computer game 1K ZX Chess is no longer the smallest-sized chess computer program, as French coder Olivier Poudade has created BootChess, which is only 487 bytes in size, and the code can run on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux computers. David Horne's 1K ZX Chess contained 672 bytes of code and had held the record for 33 years. Poudade, who says creating something smaller seemed impossible at first, achieved his goal by making BootChess even more basic than its 1982 predecessor. The board and pieces are represented by text alone, with P representing pawns, Q used for the queens, and full stops put in the place of empty squares. Poudade hopes BootChess will inspire more programmers to get involved in the sizecoding scene. "[It] demonstrates why assembly language is still the language of choice to excel [at] in programming," he says. "[And it] reminds others that optimizing in computer programming is not only about speed, but also about size."
CSI Computer Science: Your Coding Style Can Give You Away
ITWorld.com (01/28/15) Phil Johnson
Researchers at Drexel University, the University of Maryland, the University of Goettingen, and Princeton University have developed a code stylometry using natural language processing and machine learning to determine the authors of source code based on coding style. The researchers say the technology could be applicable to a wide range of situations in which ascertaining the originating coder is important, such as to help identify the author of malicious source code. The researchers say they developed abstract syntax trees derived from language-specific syntax and keywords, which capture a syntactic feature set that "was created to capture properties of coding style that are completely independent from writing style." They tested the code stylometry by gathering publicly available data from Google's Code Jam, taking solutions to several identical problems for a group of users as a training dataset in order to learn the style of each coder. The researchers then looked blindly at solutions the same coders wrote to another problem and tried to identify the author of each. The code stylometry achieved 95-percent accuracy in identifying the author of anonymous code. In addition, the researchers found coding style is more well-defined through solving harder problems. "This might indicate that as programmers become more advanced, they build a stronger coding style compared to newbies," according to the researchers.
Qubits With Staying Power
MIT News (01/29/15) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Brookhaven National Laboratory researchers say they have developed a new technique that extends the superposition time of a promising type of qubit a hundredfold. The researchers say their breakthrough could enable the indefinite extension of quantum-secured communication links, a commercial application of quantum information technology that currently has a range of less than 100 miles, and eventually practical quantum computers. The new qubit design employs nitrogen atoms embedded in synthetic diamond. The researchers found that when nitrogen atoms happen to be situated next to gaps in the diamond's crystal lattice, they produce "nitrogen vacancies," which enable researchers to optically control the magnetic spin of individual electrons and atomic nuclei. "Amongst all the crystals, diamond is a particularly good host for capturing an atom, because it turns out that the nuclei of diamond are mostly free of magnetic dipoles, which can cause noise on the electron spin," says MIT professor Dirk Englund. The new device consists of a ladder-like diamond structure with a nitrogen vacancy at its center, which is suspended horizontally above a silicon substrate. "The higher collection efficiency will lead to both faster generation and faster verification of entanglement, so it is analogous to being able to increase the clock rate of a computing device," says University of Cambridge researcher Mete Atature.
Study: 100 Percent of Women of Color in STEM Have Experienced Bias
Fortune (01/26/15) Shalene Gupta
Women of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields face a double jeopardy, according to University of California Hastings professor Joan Williams. Her new study reveals 100 percent of women of color said they have experienced gender bias, compared with 93 percent of white women. However, women of color also report encountering ethnic and racial stereotyping. Williams, who has studied gender for more than two decades, interviewed 60 women of color and surveyed 557 women, both white and of color. Women of color reported instances of being mistaken as janitors, as well as conflicts over asserting and expressing themselves. "If you study gender, it's typically about white women," Williams says. "Women of color get lost in the shuffle." The study offers some best practices employers can adopt to combat this bias, such as providing mentors and creating focus groups to assess bias at the firm. Williams also says women of color can take matters into their own hands by creating a cohort of women and men who regularly celebrate each others' successes.
U.K. Computer Science Professor Leading Major Breakthrough in Reading Ancient Scrolls
University of Kentucky News (01/20/15) Whitney Harder
A new type of software will enable University of Kentucky professor Brent Seales to read text within damaged ancient Herculaneum papyrus scrolls, which cannot be physically opened. The software is being designed to run high-resolution images from the jumbled-up surfaces in order to decipher the letters and, eventually, words and passages. "The software will combine novel methods for finding the scroll surfaces together with a user-guided interface for correcting mistakes and improving the automatic first-guess," Seales says. Using the data Seales and his colleagues already have, the software will extract a page to identify where that page is within the scrolls. The program will enable the team to optimize the scanning process and "pull out large sections and flatten them," Seales says. His research is being funded by a three-year, $500,000 U.S. National Science Foundation grant and by Google. Seales hopes to release the working software and datasets for scholars to examine as soon as possible. This spring, he plans to go to Grenoble, France, with researchers Seth Parker, Daniel Delattre, and Roger Macfarlane to conduct scans on two scrolls scanned in 2009 using Seales' software and a newly developed x-ray technique called propagation-based phase contrast imaging.
Can Drones Hunt With Wolf Pack-Like Success? DARPA Thinks So
Network World (01/26/15) Michael Cooney
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DAPRA) wants to launch a program that would enable groups of drones to operate with collaborative autonomy under the supervision of a single human commander. The Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE) program would enable drones to find targets and respond under established rules of engagement. Drones operating under the CODE system would continuously evaluate themselves and their environment and present recommendations for actions to the mission supervisor who would approve, disapprove, or direct the group to collect more data. CODE would rely on collaborative algorithms to enable unmanned aircraft to geo-locate targets, provide navigational aid, protect each other, dynamically assign tasks, and optimize group composition and resources. "Just as wolves hunt in coordinated packs with minimal communication, multiple CODE-enabled unmanned aircraft would collaborate to find, track, identify, and engage targets, all under the command of a single human mission supervisor," says DARPA's Jean-Charles Lede. The agency plans to discuss developing Open Architecture for CODE during two meetings in March.
Turning Pac-Man Into a Street-Based Chase Game Using Smartphones
Technology Review (01/19/15)
Researchers led by Thomas Chatzidimitris at Greece's University of the Aegean have invented a real-world application of the iconic video game Pac-Man using Android smartphone technology. PacMap enables players to negotiate a labyrinth of actual city streets by determining their location on OpenStreetMap using the smartphone's global positioning system (GPS) sensors. The local street network is then overlaid with a Pac-Man grid dotted with coins, which players collect while being chased by virtual ghosts. The ghosts are programmed either to travel along random paths calculated with standard algorithms, or to follow players using more sophisticated processes. Although the ghosts that follow could calculate the shortest route to the player via a commercial mapping service, the game recalculates the ghost's routes each time the player changes location by extracting the grid's topology and then using a standard shortest-route algorithm. The researchers say their methodologies for circumventing the limitations of commercial mapping services could be applied to any future location/map-based chase games.
Cuban Youth Build Secret Computer Network Despite Wi-Fi Ban
Associated Press (01/26/15) Michael Weissenstein
Small groups of young people in Havana, Cuba, in 2001 built a system called SNet, or streetnet, to circumvent their country's Internet restrictions. They pooled funds to create private networks of connected home computers with extra-strong Wi-Fi antennas and Ethernet cables that communicate with each other across relatively long distances. The computers act as nodes that distribute signals to a smaller network of about 12 other computers in the immediate area. About 2,000 users connect to SNet on an average day, and about 9,000 computers are connected in total. Rafael Antonio Broche Moreno, an electrical engineer who helped build SNet, says there is an implicit agreement with officials that lets SNet operate so long as it respects Cuban law, which includes not discussing politics, sharing pornographic material, or connecting SNet to the real Internet. Many Cubans pay about $1 to receive weekly deliveries of pirated movies, TV shows, magazines, and instructional media saved on USB memory drives. The system also has a Facebook-like social network and a copy of Wikipedia that is frequently updated by users with Internet access. Broche Moreno estimates the entire SNet cost about $200,000 to build, while similar but smaller networks exist in other cities and provinces in Cuba.
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