Welcome to the February 9, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Debate Deepens Over Response to Cyberattacks
The Wall Street Journal (02/08/15) Damian Paletta; Dion Nissenbaum
The debate over how to handle major cyberattacks against U.S. companies and agencies has become increasingly heated in the nation's capital in the wake of last year's hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which has been tied to North Korea. Some in both the administration and in Congress are advocating for a more aggressive posture, striking back in some way against those that target the U.S. and its companies. During a confirmation hearing before the Senate last week, Ashton Carter, the president's nominee for Secretary of Defense, told lawmakers he favored such an approach, saying the U.S. should "improve our abilities to respond...in cyberspace or in other ways." Sen. Angus King (I-ME) has said nation-states found to be behind major hacks and cyberattacks should "lose their network." However, the administration is reportedly reluctant to pursue such a strategy due to the risks of escalating cyberconflicts or potentially destroying or damaging assets being used by allies. Businesses are forbidden by law from "hacking back," the practice of tracing hackers with the idea of punishing them for intrusions or recovering stolen data. Meanwhile, most policy proposals currently revolve around making it easier for the government and the private sector to share threat information.
Society's View of IT Workers As 'Unwashed Nerds' Stops Women Entering Industry
V3.co.uk (02/09/15) Roland Moore-Colyer
Society needs to change the way it presents and views information technology (IT) careers if more women are to be encouraged to join the industry, according to BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT) president and University of Greenwich professor Liz Bacon. She says many women do not pursue IT careers because of a combination of media stereotypes of IT workers, poor career advice, and the difficulty some teachers might have when trying to teach the new coding-focused curriculum. "Most of the time, if you think of an IT person in the media it's going to be the unwashed nerd in the corner with a ponytail and sandals that doesn't have a girlfriend," Bacon says. She believes the media must do more to present a positive image of the typical IT worker. Another problem is many teachers are asked to cover IT topics but do not understand the material. In order to combat some of these issues, Bacon has created a network of senior women involved in the engineering, technology, and science sectors. Women involved with the BCS network will act as role models for younger generations to aspire to, and their success will be well publicized. More than 20 women have volunteered to join the BCS network, which also will support women returning to work with training and flexible working patterns.
Senator: Your Futuristic Car Is Putting Your Privacy and Security at Risk
The Washington Post (02/09/15) Andrea Peterson
The increasing technical complexity of vehicles is leaving drivers' security and privacy at risk, warns Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) in a new report. "Even as we are more connected than ever in our cars and trucks, our technology systems and data security remain largely unprotected," Markey says. Last year, Markey sent inquiries to 20 automakers, asking what the companies were doing to secure the technology in their vehicles against hackers and how personal data gathered through the technology is managed. Markey's report says modern cars collect a significant amount of information on driving history and drivers often cannot opt out of data collection without disabling features such as navigation. "A majority of automakers offer technologies that collect and wirelessly transmit driving history data to data centers, including third-party data centers, and most do not describe effective means to secure the data," the report says. The report calls on the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set new regulatory standards, with input from the Federal Trade Commission, that ensure a car's wireless and data-collection features protect against hacking and security breaches, require carmakers test their systems with penetration testing, require drivers be explicitly told about how data is collected and used, and give drivers a way to opt out of such features.
Looking Under the Bitcoin Bonnet: Students Aim to Enhance Transparency
Trinity College Dublin (02/04/15) Thomas Deane
Trinity College Dublin researchers are studying Bitcoin in an effort to make the cryptocurrency more transparent and reduce the risk of fraud while maintaining sufficient anonymity to make it appealing to a wide range of legitimate businesses. Although Bitcoin is attractive because it is not regulated by governments or banks, the lack of regulation leaves the system prone to fraudulent business practices or money laundering. The Trinity researchers determined a Bitcoin regulator would want to know how much currency is in circulation, how it was distributed and whether anyone was stockpiling it, and whether there were any patterns in the transactions about which people should be concerned. "We wanted to develop systems that would give a 'regulator' a degree of visibility on the flows of Bitcoin in the same way that central banks have this visibility over normal currencies," says Trinity professor Donal O'Mahony. Every time someone makes a transfer from one numbered Bitcoin account to another, it gets written into a giant public ledger called the Bitcoin Blockchain. The researchers used this ledger to look for patterns in Bitcoin transactions. "Our trawl gave us a unique insight into some very high-profile Bitcoin fraud cases that were being conducted across the world," says Trinity researcher Cian Burns.
No, the Robots Are Not Going to Rise Up and Kill You
The Washington Post (02/06/15) David W. Buchanan
IBM researcher David Buchanan says worries about artificial intelligence (AI) surpassing humans in more existential ways are overblown. Buchanan traces the recent wave of AI anxiety to what he sees as a common science fiction trope in which AI becomes conscious and decides "to kill us all." The main flaw in this trope is what Buchanan calls the "consciousness fallacy," the idea that the pursuit of AI technology will inevitable result in conscious AI. Buchanan says there is a vast gulf between "intelligence" as manifest in modern AI technology and "consciousness." Buchanan says there is "still an enormous amount of work to do before we create comprehensive, human-caliber intelligence," and we are even further away from creating human-equivalent consciousness, in no small part because our understanding of consciousness is still very basic. Buchanan also believes the development of conscious AI is unlikely because of a lack of business incentives. "Our AI tools are likely to continue to derive all of their root volition from us," Buchanan writes. "Your self-driving car will take you places you want to go and even make suggestions. But it won't argue, and when you're done with it, it will just sit in your garage, recharging."
Human Insights Inspire Solutions for Household Robots
National Science Foundation (02/04/15) Aaron Dubrow
Researchers at the United Technologies Research Center (UTRC), the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst have developed a robot that can do laundry without any specific knowledge of what it has to wash. Doing laundry is an example of a daily task that humans do without thinking but has, until now, proved difficult for robots. "The main issue is how to develop 'generalized plans,'" which are "plans that don't just work in a particular situation that is very well defined and gets you to a particular goal that is also well defined, but rather ones that work on a whole range of situations and you may not even know certain things about it," says Amherst professor Shlomo Zilberstein. The researchers overcame this hurdle by using human behavior as a template, adapting both the repetitive and thoughtful aspects of human problem-solving to handle uncertainty in their computed solutions. The artificial intelligence-based technique enabled a robot to do the laundry without knowing how many and what type of clothes needed to be washed. "What's particularly exciting is that these methods provide a way forward in a problem that's well known to be computationally unsolvable in the worst case," says UTRC's Siddharth Srivastava.
Twitter Reveals the Language of Persuasion
Cornell Chronicle (02/05/15) Bill Steele
Cornell University researchers are using automated text analysis to identify features that make Twitter messages more likely to get noticed. They developed an algorithm that, compared to humans, more accurately predicted which version of a tweet would be retweeted more. Cornell professor Lillian Lee and colleagues conducted a controlled experiment that eliminated the effects of a topic's or writer's popularity, collecting and comparing thousands of tweets on the same topic but used different wording. The algorithm searched for the occurrence of certain keywords, and compared combinations of two words that may indicate a linguistic style. The researchers found more retweets were generated when the tweets requested people to share; contained words such as please, pls, plz, and retweet; were informative; used the style of newspaper headlines; used third-person pronouns; were easy to read; and used the language of the community. The researchers also created a website where users can see what the algorithm thinks of their own tweets. They believe social scientists need to further explore why such tactics work. The research was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation and Google.
Engineering Students Make History With Firefighting Humanoid Robot
Virginia Tech News (02/04/15) Steven Mackay
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) students and the U.S. Navy recently unveiled a fire-fighting humanoid robot at the Naval Future Force Science & Technology Expo in Washington, DC. Students from the Terrestrial Robotics Engineering and Controls Lab and the Extreme Environments, Robotics, & Materials Laboratory built the bipedal, 140-pound robot, which stands nearly six feet tall. They tested the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) in a fire onboard the former U.S.S. Shadwell in Mobile Bay, AL, last fall. SAFFiR can walk, stretch, and bend its legs, swivel its head, and hold and operate a hose with its hands. The robot can see in three formats: a standard stereo camera rig, lasers to provide precise ranges to obstacles, and stereo thermal imaging for range finding through smoke and detecting heat. The long-range plan is for the robot to operate autonomously, but take instruction from sailors and fire fighters with safety as key. "These robots can work closely with human fire fighters without fire fighters being directly exposed to steam or heat, fire, and smoke," says the U.S. Office of Naval Research's Thomas McKenna.
Add a Dash of Quantum for Secure Cloud Computing
New Scientist (02/04/15) Jacob Aron
Researchers are developing new ways to secure data stored on cloud computing systems. For example, University of Vienna researchers say they used quantum technology to replicate a sort of cloud computation on a very small scale, using only a single bit. In one lab the researchers set up a server "computer" that can produce photons in a quantum state called a cobit. Normally, quantum computing is done with qubits, which can be a 0, a 1, or a mix of both in various ways. Cobits are a less-quantum version that can only be 0, 1, or an exact superposition of both, giving them fewer possible states than qubits. The server sends the cobit to the client "computer" in another lab 50 meters away. The client alters the state of the cobit it receives from the server to represent an encrypted form of the data it wants to analyze. The server then performs a quantum measurement on the cobit in order to run a more powerful computation, called a NAND gate. The client's encryption means the server cannot interpret the results of the calculations until they have been passed back to the client, which can decrypt them. "The cobit enables the client to compute problems beyond her own power," according to the researchers.
One-Atom-Thin Silicon Transistors Hold Promise for Super-Fast Computing
University of Texas at Austin (02/03/15)
A major advance involving the world's thinnest silicon material could lead to dramatically faster, smaller, and more efficient computer chips. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have demonstrated silicene can be made into transistors. Although the material, made of a one-atom-thick layer of silicon atoms, holds promise for commercial adaptation, silicene is difficult to create and work with because of its complexity and instability when exposed to air. Professor Deji Akinwande and his team worked with Alessandro Molle at Italy's Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems to address these issues. The researchers developed a new method for fabricating the silicene that reduces its exposure to air. They allowed hot vapor of silicon atoms to condense onto a crystalline block of silver in a vacuum chamber, then formed a silicene sheet on a thin layer of silver and added a nanometer-thick layer of alumina. Their process enabled them to peel off the material and transfer it silver-side-up to an oxidized-silicon substrate. Then they scraped some of the silver to leave behind two islands of metal as electrodes, with a strip of silicene between them. Because of its close chemical affinity to silicon, Akinwande says silicene could offer "an opportunity in the road map of the semiconductor industry."
Monkey Mustaches and Beards Help Algorithm Recognize Faces
LiveScience (02/03/15) Laura Geggel
New York University (NYU) researchers have developed an algorithm that can correctly identify colorful monkeys called guenons, which have mustaches, nose spots, and ear tufts, by their faces. The researchers analyzed 541 photographs of 110 monkeys of 12 different guenon species, based on the eigenface technique, which helps computers recognize human faces. The researchers say future scientists might be able to use algorithms such as this one to study which factors are important in evolution. However, they found the algorithm could not determine the monkeys' ages or sex from their faces, suggesting guenon faces have not evolved to convey this information. "If communicating sex was a key aim of guenon faces, males and females should look different from their facial appearance, but for most species they don't," says NYU professor James Higham. The algorithm works on the principle that variations among faces can be described numerically, with each individual face scored based on how it relates to a set of general faces. "We sought to test a computer's ability to do something close to what a guenon viewing other guenons' faces would do," says study author William Allen, who completed the work while at NYU, but who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hull in the U.K.
UMass Medical School, WPI Developing Smartphone App to Address Stress Eating
University of Massachusetts Medical School (02/02/15) Megan Bard; Michael Cohen
A stress-eating smartphone app to help users better understand why they overeat is being developed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). The RELAX app will have a mobile application enabling patients to track their daily activities using a smartphone and a Web-based tool clinicians can use to access patient information to help with treatment. "We want to use technology to help patients in real time, during their daily activities, and also to enhance the effectiveness of the time they spend face-to-face with their physician or counselor," says WPI professor Bengisu Tulu. The RELAX patient app will track eating patterns, daily activities, exercise, patient mood, and stress-inducing events by analyzing text inputs, barcode scanning, and global-positioning system technology. "Imagine a person driving into the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant, at a certain time of day, and getting prompted with a message asking them to think about what they are feeling and whether or not it is the right time to eat," Tulu says. She says the interactive design and the clinician's ability to engage with the patient in a more data-rich way will enable a more comprehensive approach to counseling patients about weight and stress management.
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