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Welcome to the April 13, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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As Encryption Spreads, U.S. Grapples With Clash Between Privacy, Security
The Washington Post (04/10/15) Ellen Nakashima; Barton Gellman

In recent months, law enforcement and the technology industry have been deadlocked on the issue of data encryption on smartphones and digital devices. There is a growing consensus among the industry that strong encryption on these devices should be the default, but law enforcement warns this could potentially cut them off from crucial evidence. Adm. Michael S. Rogers, head of the U.S. National Security Agency, recently proposed a solution in which tech companies create a multi-part key that could unlock the encryption on any of their devices, but with the individual parts held by different individuals or groups so no one could unlock a device on their own. However, industry officials say any approach that involves a universal key represents an unacceptable vulnerability. The multi-part key proposal is one of several possible solutions to the deadlock being compiled by White House aides as part of a report they expect to present to President Barack Obama this month. The goal of the report is to offer the president possible compromises that could allow for the use of strong encryption, while also permitting law enforcement a means of breaking that encryption if necessary. So far, no solution is without its drawbacks.
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DARPA Wants Software That Adapts, Lasts Over 100 Years
Network World (04/09/15) Michael Cooney

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently announced the launch of the Building Resource Adaptive Software Systems (BRASS) project, which was launched to develop software systems that can adapt and survive for more than 100 years. BRASS will develop the computational and algorithmic requirements for software systems and data to remain robust in excess of 100 years, which should significantly improve software resilience, reliability, and maintainability. The program will focus on the issues of high costs and frustration with current software systems that continue to grow in complexity. BRASS wants new, clean-slate approaches resulting in the automated discovery of relationships between computations and the resources they utilize, as well as techniques to safely and dynamically incorporate optimized, tailored algorithms and implementations constructed in response to ecosystem changes. "Technology inevitably evolves, but very often corresponding changes in libraries, data formats, protocols, input characteristics, and models of components in a software ecosystem undermine the behavior of applications," says DARPA's Suresh Jagannathan. The BRASS program will be divided into three 16-month phases focusing on reducing the time to repair vulnerabilities, allowing various syntactic and semantic forms of adaptation to be applied over large code bases, enabling adaptation to be generally applicable for a significant fraction of the code base, and reducing analytics and runtime monitoring overhead.

Graphics in Reverse
MIT News (04/13/15) Larry Hardesty

Programs of less than 50 lines written in a probabilistic programming language are just as effective as conventional systems with thousands of lines of code for completing some standard computer-vision tasks, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "The whole hope is to write very flexible models, both generative and discriminative models, as short probabilistic code, and then not do anything else," says MIT graduate student Tejas Kulkarni. The MIT researchers considered four computer-vision problems, each of which involves inferring the three-dimensional (3D) shape of an object from two-dimensional (2D) information. The technique is known as inverse graphics, an idea that was first developed with the original artificial intelligence research. One of the tasks the researchers focused on is constructing a 3D model of a human face from 2D images. The new program describes the face as containing two symmetrically distributed objects--the eyes--with two more centrally positioned objects beneath them, representing the nose and mouth. If the program is fed enough examples of 2D images and their corresponding 3D models, it can create the eyes, nose, and mouth on its own. The researchers found the new technique has an error rate 50- to 80-percent lower than conventional programs.

IBM Sets Memory Density Record
EE Times (04/09/15) R. Colin Johnson

IBM Research says it has stored 123 billion bits of uncompressed data per square inch on low-cost, particulate magnetic tape developed by FujiFilm. The company says this is a world record for storage density on magnetic tape, and it will enable 6 GB cartridges to increase their capacity to 220 TB when the technology is commercialized. IBM says tape capacity will double every two years for at least the next 10 years. "Also, because of the explosion in the rate at which data is being created, there is a huge demand for cost-effective storage solutions both on premises and in the cloud," notes IBM Research's Mark Lantz. He says the main contribution to raising IBM's tape storage capacity from 85.9 to 123.0 Gbits per square inch is the precision with which it has come to control its track positioning servo mechanisms. The tape costs just two to three cents per gigabyte, and the only downside is it takes five to seven years for lab demonstrations of tape capacity to make their way to commercial products. "One of our most impressive accomplishments is the demonstrated precision of 5.9 nanometers over the full range of tape speeds from 1.23 meters (4 feet) per second to 4.15 meters (13.6 feet) per second," Lantz says.
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Communication Devices 'Enable' Children With Disabilities
Northeastern University News (04/07/15) Jason Kornwitz

Northeastern University researchers have developed two low-cost communication devices that enable children with cognitive and physical disabilities to more effectively interact with their caretakers. The researchers created a communications button and iPad touchscreen guard and delivered them to disabled children living at two orphanages in Ecuador. "By linking up the expertise of faculty and students in different colleges, we can inspire our students, help those in need, and build great and relevant projects," says Northeastern professor Waleed Meleis. The iPad touchscreen guard consists of a three-dimensional printed case and a clear plastic screen guard including four holes to guide users' button pushing. The communications button is a large, blue, bumpy construct mounted at eye-level that, when pushed, issues a prerecorded command. Although the device currently is designed to play back only the most recently recorded utterance, instructors can record a new word or phrase at any time. "We wanted to make the button as simplistic as possible, so that it wouldn't break," says Northeastern researcher Marina Eaves.

'Let's Encrypt' Will Try to Secure the Internet
InformationWeek (04/09/15) Charles Babcock

The Linux Foundation announced it will support the Internet Security Research Group's (ISRG) "Let's Encrypt" project, which is seeking to develop an easy-to-use tool for encrypting website and mobile data traffic. ISRG was formed in 2014 as a public benefit corporation, and there currently are 40 developers from multiple companies and organizations working on the project. Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin says his organization will support Let's Encrypt with "whatever they need" to take it from pilot project to widely available Internet service. The group's support most likely will take the form of funds for hiring full-time employees to work on the project. Let's Encrypt is similar to the effort that yielded the OpenSSL encryption standard in the late 1990s. SSL has since become a mainstay among websites seeking to encrypt and protect their traffic. However, several major vulnerabilities, most notoriously the Heartbleed bug discovered last year, have undermined confidence in OpenSSL, so the hope is Let's Encrypt can produce a more reliable tool. Zemlin says the goal is to remove the cost barriers associated with strong encryption, which he says should enable the encryption of message traffic on the Internet to be "universally adopted."

The Most Popular Programming Languages Are Rapidly Changing
Quartz (04/08/15) Max Nisen

There has been a rapid shift in the programming languages developers use most, according to an annual survey of developers by Stack Overflow. The poll found JavaScript has been the most popular programming language for the past two years. SQL led in 2013 but has fallen substantially, as have many of the C languages. The biggest growth in usage involved Node.js and AngularJS, Stack Overflow found. One reason the popularity of programming languages changes so fast is so many developers are self-taught, rather than the product of a four-year degree in computer science. As a result, they often are comfortable picking up newer and newly in-demand programming languages. Stack Overflow also asked users what languages they want to learn or work with in the future, and Android led at 17.7 percent, followed by JavaScript, Python, Node.js, and AngularJS.

Rage Against the Machines: A Computer Engineer Battles Malicious Bots
New Jersey Institute of Technology (04/07/15) Tracey Regan

New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) researchers have developed a next-generation CAPTCHA system that requires viewers to identify text, but presents it in video animation rather than in the distorted letters users currently must identify to pass the security test. The new system, called Simultaneously Contrast and the Persistence of Vision CAPTCHA, relies on the human ability to process rapidly displayed discrete images as continuous animation. The technology also depends on the human eye's tendency to interpret colors differently if they are set against a contrasting background, which adds an additional hurdle for bots. "It is easy for humans to pass the test by simply identifying the text of the short video, but difficult for machines to extract meaning from it," says NJIT professor Nirwan Ansari. The test also was designed to simplify access for humans. Other CAPTCHA systems are becoming tougher for humans to solve, but the NJIT text is simple and thus easy to recognize, according to Ansari. The system was designed to use as a safeguard against directory attacks and website intrusions, among other vulnerable access points and transactions.

Robotics Can Now Give You a Leg Up--Literally
Computerworld (04/06/15) Sharon Gaudin

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and North Carolina State University are developing a lightweight, unpowered, wearable exoskeleton that fits over the lower leg, cupping the heel and foot, which they say could reduce the energy people use to walk by 7 percent. The exoskeleton uses a spring that mimics the Achilles tendon and a clutch that acts like calf muscles, both of which are not fueled by human energy, to increase walking efficiency. "It reduces the tension in your calf muscles so it reduces the energy you expend to maintain that force," says CMU professor Steve Collins. Meanwhile, researchers from other institutions are developing exoskeletons to help soldiers and the disabled. For example, the U.S. military is developing the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, which is designed to feed soldiers real-time information, while making them stronger, giving them more stamina, and healing wounds. In addition, University of Bristol researchers are developing soft robotic clothing in order to give the disabled or elderly extra strength and balance. "Someday soon, we may have simple, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive exoskeletons to help us get around--especially if we've been slowed down by injury or aging," Collins says.

Can Bluetooth Power the IoT Mesh Network?
Government Computer News (04/07/15) Patrick Marshall

Bluetooth is an excellent candidate for connecting devices in an Internet of Things (IoT) because it is widely employed in various smart devices and uses very little power, says the Bluetooth SIG's Errett Kroeter. However, it currently is architected as a hub-and-spoke network, with devices communicating only with a single hub, while an IoT network requires a mesh architecture in which devices can communicate directly with each other, passing data along to its ultimate destination. In March, the Bluetooth Smart Mesh Working Group held its first meeting to begin work on developing a standard for Bluetooth mesh networks. Most equipment--any device that supports Bluetooth 4.0 and higher--would be able to use it, according to Kroeter. He says a new security model will be required because devices will be able to communicate directly with each other, and the range of devices may not be any greater than the current 300 feet. The group is scheduled to publish a standardized solution in early 2016.

Human Cruise Control App Steers People on Their Way
New Scientist (04/02/15) Hal Hodson

University of Hannover researcher Max Pfeiffer is leading a project using electro-stimulation to remotely steer subjects along intended routes while they otherwise are engaged. The method uses a phone that transmits signals via Bluetooth to electrodes attached to the subject's legs to trigger their sartorius muscles, so the controller guides their steps without any conscious effort on the subject's part. Pfeiffer reports the electrode's current provokes a tingling sensation that fades the more someone uses the system. He has guided students manually, but he plans to embed the mechanism within other applications. For example, Pfeiffer envisions automatic navigation apps that make it unnecessary for users to constantly glimpse their phone to reorient themselves. He says the directing of crowds is another potential application. "Imagine visitors to a large sports stadium or theater being guided to their place, or being evacuated from the stadium in the most efficient way in the case of an emergency," Pfeiffer's research team speculates. Although public acceptance of the technology is problematic, the advent of wearable computing might give it credibility.

AI Doomsayer Says His Ideas Are Catching On
Technology Review (04/07/15) Tom Simonite

In an interview, Oxford University professor Nick Bostrom says his warnings about the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI) are beginning to be echoed by prominent scientists and technologists. He says AI may constitute one of the biggest threats to intelligent life on Earth, not least because it could potentially result from the efforts of a small group, or one additional unit of resources. His recommendation for researchers or organizations pursuing projects that could increase AI's power is to cultivate in-house competency in AI safety research, by establishing a strong working relationship between those working on AI and those considering safety issues. "For example, could you design an AI motivation system [so] that the AI doesn't resist the programmer coming in to change its goal?" Bostrom asks. "There is a whole set of things that could be practically useful, like boxing methods--tools that can contain an AI before it is ready to be released." Among the breakthroughs Bostrom cites as an indication AI is approaching a high level of sophistication to the degree it could be potentially threatening are more common-sense reasoning abilities, overall learning proficiencies in diverse domains, and more flexible planning capabilities. "My long-term view is that it's most likely we either end up in a bad or very good place, not somewhere that's so-so," he says.

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