Welcome to the April 3, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
U.S. Targets Overseas Cyberattackers With Sanctions Program
Reuters (04/02/15) Jeff Mason; Andrea Shalal
U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed an executive order allowing economic sanctions to be used against individuals or groups outside of the U.S. that carry out cyberattacks against U.S. interests. The action allows the U.S. Treasury Department to add such groups or individuals to the official sanctions list of designated nationals, which would have the effect of freezing their assets and barring U.S. financial institutions from doing business with them. According to the president, the new order enables sanctions to be used against those that use cyberattacks to harm critical infrastructure, misappropriate funds, steal trade secrets, or disrupt computer networks, which would include companies using cyber means to carry out industrial espionage. "From now on, we have the power to freeze their assets, make it harder for them to do business with U.S. companies, and limit their ability to profit from their misdeeds," Obama says. However, some observers warn the new order is worded too broadly, especially in light of how difficult it can be to determine the identity of a cyberattacker. Mark Rasch, a former Justice Department lawyer, says the order could create "a compliance nightmare for companies."
Surveying the MOOC Landscape
Inside Higher Ed (04/02/15) Carl Straumsheim
Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have issued what their researchers describe as "one of the largest investigations of massive open online courses (MOOCs) to date," involving an analysis of 68 MOOCs, 1.7 million learners, 10 million hours of activity, and 1.1 billion logged events. The study encompasses courses offered by Harvard and MIT between July 24, 2012, and Sept. 21, 2014, via edX, which the institutions co-founded. HarvardX's Justin Reich says one purpose of the study was to provide university leaders insights to inform MOOC-related decision-making, especially in terms of measuring learner performance. The MOOCs were clustered into four curricular content areas: computer science; humanities; social science; and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The researchers found the nine computer science MOOCs accounted for more than half of enrolled learners, while the STEM courses enrolled both the youngest learners and the most non-U.S. learners. Nearly 50 percent of humanities MOOC enrollees were female, while social science courses were most likely to draw learners holding bachelor's degrees. Reich says Harvard and MIT's MOOCs also offer researchers a way to visualize the paths students follow, which could provide clues into what makes a MOOC successful. "Different kinds of courses are attempting to do different kinds of things and probably should be evaluated differently," he says.
NSF CISE Posts Big Data Regional Innovation Hubs Program
CCC Blog (04/02/15) Helen Wright
The U.S. National Science Foundation's (NSF) Director of Computer and Information Science and Engineering on March 27 announced the Big Data Regional Innovation Hubs program. The program is part of the larger National Big Data Research and Development Initiative, which was launched in 2012 to address some of the U.S.'s most pressing research and development challenges related to big data. The first phase of the new program will be soliciting proposals for the new innovation hubs, the goal of which is to bring together the public and private sectors around specific big data challenges. Each hub will focus on key challenges and opportunities in its given geographical region, and facilitate partnerships and share resources around key issues such as privacy and data sharing, and themes such as energy, transportation, and healthcare. NSF will sponsor a series of regional, intensive workshops to help aid the establishment of each innovation hub as part of the first phase of the program. The next phase will focus on building out various sectors of particular interest, and the final phase will focus on connecting the various hubs together into a national big data innovation ecosystem.
How Computers Trawl a Sea of Data for Stock Picks
The Wall Street Journal (04/01/15) Bradley Hope; Rob Copeland
Hedge-fund firms such as Two Sigma Investments employ scientists and engineers to program computers to scour vast volumes of information from newswires, earnings reports, weather bulletins, Twitter, and other sources, and then trading algorithms make stock picks based on certain indicators extracted from the data. This new iteration of quantitative investing diverges from traditional practice by using real-world information instead of statistical relationships among securities prices. The method involves developing a multitude of trading models that each generates a trade suggestion, which is processed by an algorithm that weighs each suggestion based on its model's historical performance. A risk-management algorithm then checks the suggested trade to ensure no stock or sector overexposure, and finally the trade is placed automatically by an execution system. All of Two Sigma's funds follow a big data strategy, using data sources that include news bulletins, National Weather Service reports, market data, tweets, and information from smartphone users who have consented to be monitored by a retail-trend-analysis firm. The algorithms' authors are highly proficient at parsing large volumes of data, with skills in such fields as machine learning and physics. Two Sigma possesses more than 100 teraflops of computing power to enable its computers to sift data around the clock, and more than 11 petabytes of storage capacity.
Coding for Cars: The Next Generation of Mobile Apps
InfoWorld (04/02/15) Peter Wayner
Automakers increasingly see the car as a platform for app development in light of the growing popularity of smartphones, the Internet's speed and sophistication, and the need to stay competitive. Developers therefore will need to rethink user interfaces (UIs), connection strategies, and other elements to create automotive apps in anticipation of autonomous vehicles. Automakers are cautiously making their proprietary computing platforms available to developers, and one of the biggest challenges developers face is the inconsistency of vehicle network connections, mainly due to geographically-related bandwidth disruptions. One possible solution is to download the entire database to the car, but keeping the local version updated will be a problem. The advent of robot drivers will make humans a secondary priority for computerized cars, with traffic information, route changes, and other critical decision-making data directed to the robot. In anticipation of this, the enterprise platform should design the application programming interface to handle both human and algorithmic requests. Vehicle-generated data will only expand with the arrival of robot drivers, and likely will drive new business opportunities for analyzing that data. Meanwhile, a hands-free automotive UI model is starting to take root as manufacturers are concerned about apps' potential for driver distraction, and in-vehicle search will become more complex and time-reliant.
A Robot Prepared for Self-Awareness
Bielefeld University (03/31/15)
Hector is an ambulatory robot developed at Bielefeld University endowed with a rudimentary form of consciousness, and new research has yielded a software architecture that could enable Hector to perceive itself as others perceive it. "With this, he would have reflexive consciousness," says Bielefeld Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology professor Holk Cruse. He and fellow researcher Malte Schilling are exploring the extent to which higher-level mental states may emerge in Hector with this architecture, even though these characteristics were not embedded into the machine beforehand. Software programs enable Hector to walk with an insect-like gait and potentially find a path to a distant target, while an expansion program gives it the ability to simulate imagined behavior to solve problems that stymie the other programs. Cruse and Schilling previously ascertained Hector's control system could adopt inner mental states to make goal-directed behavior possible, and how emotional traits may manifest in the system. Their new research demonstrates the potential emergence of reflexive consciousness by having Hector observe its inner mental state to guide its actions, according to Schilling. "With our software expansion, the basic faculties are prepared so that Hector may also be able to assess the mental state of others," he says. "It may be able to sense other people's intentions or expectations and act accordingly."
Reviewing Online Homework at Scale
MIT News (03/30/15) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have developed a system that automatically compares students' solutions to programming assignments, and batches those that use the same methods. The OverCode system produces an individual program template for each technique, using names that a large number of students happen to have converged on. It then displays these templates side-by-side and grays out the shared code, enabling instructors to pull up from any template a list of the student programs that align with the programming approach. Instructors who recognize variants across templates that make no difference in practice also can craft rules establishing the equivalence of alternatives. OverCode could enable online course instructors to provide generalized feedback that addresses a broader range of students, as well as providing information on how computer science courses could be better designed. Not only does the system compare programs' code, it also sees the values that variables adopt as the programs execute. Variables that assume the same values in the same order are deemed identical. Usability studies determined OverCode users performed reviews of students' solutions to introductory programming assignments significantly better than standard tool users for the most difficult assignments. The researchers will present their system this month at the ACM CHI 2015 conference, which takes place April 18-23 in Seoul, Korea.
Smartphone Face Recognition 'Improved' by Copying the Brain
University of York (03/31/15) David Garner
Face recognition security for smartphones and other automated recognition devices could be greatly improved by having users store an average of their photos rather than a single image, according to University of York researchers. They say performance could soar to almost perfect levels when users morph together several different photos of themselves. The idea for the technique comes from studies of human face recognition. The brain forms abstract representations of the faces it knows, and people are very good at recognizing their family and friends over a spectrum of conditions. The researchers say using average images is a simple way to copy these representations and improve automatic face recognition. The team tested Samsung Galaxy's face unlock system and found it to be generally very good at rejecting imposters, but noticed it often failed to recognize the owner of the device as well. "We chose to study the Samsung Galaxy because it is a very popular phone which comes with working face recognition technology," notes York University researcher David Robertson. "However, we expect this technique to work across a wide range of phones and other automated recognition devices."
Roll Up Your Screen and Stow It Away?
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (03/30/15)
A structure based on a synthetic hybrid molecule of peptides and DNA could be used to produce thin, transparent, flexible screens, according to researchers at Tel Aviv University. The team designed and synthesized different peptide nucleic acid sequences, and then tried to build nano-metric architectures with them. Among the discoveries, the structures were found to emit light in every color, and light emission was observed also in response to electric voltage, making it a perfect candidate for opto-electronic devices such as display screens. The research harnesses bio-nanotechnology to emit a full range of colors in one pliable pixel layer, compared to several rigid layers that make up the screens of existing electronic devices. The researchers say their findings could lead to the development of convenient portable devices that can be easily rolled up and put away. They note the material is light, organic, and environmentally friendly. Moreover, the use of only one layer could help minimize production costs and lead to lower prices for consumers. "Once we discovered the DNA-like organization, we tested the ability of the structures to bind to DNA-specific fluorescent dyes," says Tel Aviv University's Or Berger. "To our surprise, the control sample, with no added dye, emitted the same fluorescence as the variable. This proved that the organic structure is itself naturally fluorescent."
Wearable Technology Can Help With Public Speaking
University of Rochester NewsCenter (03/30/15) Leonor Sierra
An intelligent user interface for smart glasses developed by a team from the University of Rochester can help people with public speaking. Called Rhema after the Greek word for "utterance," the system is designed to record a speaker, transmit the audio to a server to automatically analyze the volume and speaking rate, and then present the data to the speaker in real time. The team from Rochester's Human-Computer Interaction Group recently presented a paper on the system at ACM's Intelligent User Interfaces conference in Atlanta. The researchers note designing a system that was minimally distracting was a challenge. "One challenge is to keep the speakers informed about their speaking performance without distracting them from their speech," they say. The researchers tested the system with a group of 30 native English speakers using Google Glasses, and learned the best approach was delivering feedback every 20 seconds in the form of words. They also enlisted Mechanical Turk workers to test whether a speaker using the system would be distracting to an audience. The team believes the technology also could benefit people with social difficulties and customer service workers.
New U.S.-Japan Collaborations Bring Big Data Approaches to Disaster Response
National Science Foundation (03/30/15) Aaron Dubrow
The U.S. National Science Foundation and the Japan Science and Technology Agency announced they will jointly fund six collaborative big data projects to enhance future disaster management. The projects target solutions to the challenges of capturing and processing disaster-associated data and improving the resilience and responsiveness of emerging computer systems and networks in the face of catastrophes to enable real-time data analytics in their aftermath. One project will entail researchers designing a computer platform for decision-makers to employ during disasters to analyze incoming data and coordinate responses. Another will focus on smartphone-based emergency communications networks that evolve dynamically, and a third will investigate resilient networks, social-media mining, and information dissemination during disasters. New techniques to compress, transmit, and query sensor network data for disaster applications also will be developed, as will olfactory search algorithms that use sensors to trace the source of airborne or seaborne pollutants or other hazardous agents. The sixth joint project will involve the design of context-aware and user-specific information-delivery systems deployed during disasters to provide citizens with accurate information. Recent studies suggest big data and data analytics for disaster management will need new strategies for analyzing heterogeneous data so timely decisions can be made amid fluctuating demands.
Big Data Allows Computer Engineers to Find Genetic Clues in Humans
Washington University in St. Louis (03/27/15) Beth Miller
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis' School of Engineering & Applied Science analyzed big data from the International HapMap Project and the 1000 Genomes project to uncover the evolutionary history of the gephyrin gene on chromosome 14, as well as clues about its contribution to neurological diseases. Genetic data from 3,438 individuals was analyzed, and the researchers found up to 80 percent of the gene's haplotypes were perfect yin and yang types. They traced the split back to the Ancestral haplotype, or that of the most recent common human ancestor, using a technique called BlocBuster to evaluate correlations between genetic markers known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). The technique computes correlations between each pair of SNPs, then builds a network of those correlations in which researchers can perceive clusters of correlated markers. "The BlocBuster approach is a paradigm shift from the conventional methods for genome-wide association studies...where one or a few markers were examined at a time," says Washington University professor Weixiong Zhang. He also notes the approach can be tweaked to examine complex characteristics and diseases. "It is suitable for analyzing traits, such as body weights, which are determined by multiple genetic factors, and genetic patterns in populations, such as the yin-yang haplotypes we discovered," he says.
Online Voting Still Faces Security Issues
Government Computer News (03/25/15) Mark Pomerleau
The security and privacy issues of online voting will persist for some time, according to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Center for Applied Scientific Computing researcher David Jefferson. Some advocates think the security measures that shield online shoppers from hackers could be applied to online voting, but Jefferson cites the current lack of a strong authentication or verification solution for online shopping, as well as the present ban on proxy voting. Others have proposed an open source platform as a solution that will enable groups to confirm system integrity and guarantee accountability and voter access, but this opens up the possibility of exploitable back-door vulnerabilities. Jefferson also cautions email voting, currently undergoing experimentation in some states, is particularly exploitable as email headers can be easily counterfeited, while email does not employ end-to-end encryption or offer reliable authentication methods. In addition, he says the absence of a reliable online bogus ballot detection system is a further handicap. "Internet elections are essentially impossible to audit, and there's no meaningful way to recount because there are no original indelible records of the voters' intent against which to compare the outcome," Jefferson notes. He also says the best current secure Internet voting models, end-to-end auditable cryptographic protocols, are still being researched and developed.
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