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Welcome to the July 8, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Security Experts Oppose Government Access to Encrypted Communication
The New York Times (07/07/15) Nicole Perlroth

A group of security experts are against the U.S. and British governments demanding special access to encrypted communications, which they warn would place the world's most private data and critical infrastructure at risk. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies counter a lack of access would foil their efforts to monitor various enemies. U.S. National Security Agency director Michael S. Rogers has proposed making it obligatory for technology companies to develop a digital decryption key divided into pieces and secured to guarantee no one individual or agency could use it alone. The security technologists authored a study analyzing government proposals, which determined any attempt to grant the government "exceptional access" to encrypted communications was technically impractical and would leave confidential data and critical infrastructure vulnerable. SRI International's Peter G. Neumann says the migration of many critical systems online in the past several decades has worsened the problem of exploitation. He and the other study authors cite a lack of trust in authorities, compounded by increasing agency breaches. They also note a mandate from U.S. and British governments to set up backdoor keys to communication would prompt China and other foreign governments to follow suit. "Such access will open doors through which criminals and malicious nation-states can attack the very individuals law enforcement seeks to defend," the experts caution.
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BBC Offers Free Tiny Computers to UK Students
InformationWeek (07/07/15) Thomas Claburn

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is partnering with more than two dozen companies and organizations to provide at least 1 million British school children with a free pocket-sized computer. The device, called the BBC micro:bit, is similar to the Arduino and Raspberry Pi computers used by hobbyists. These small computers have become popular among educators in recent years as a way to teach students about programming. The BBC micro:bit features a variety of sensors, including an accelerometer for sensing motion and a magnetometer for sensing orientation, two programmable buttons, a microUSB connector, and Bluetooth networking capabilities. Students will be able to use it as a controller, sensor, or interface for mobile phones, computers, or consumer electronics. The new device harks back to a similar program run by the BBC in 1981, when it offered the BBC Micro computer as a way to improve computer literacy. The BBC hopes the new BBC micro:bit will help students learn and develop computer skills, and help to build a high-tech workforce. The computers are expected to show up in British schools this October.


Hi-Tech 'Dog Translator' Harness Lets Owners Communicate With Canine Companions
Daily Mail (United Kingdom) (07/06/15) Mark Prigg

A new dog harness outfitted with sensors and a computer developed by researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) can sense the animal's movements and sounds, and is equipped with speakers and vibrating pads to enable owners to communicate with their pets. "You can think of the 'smart harness' as a platform for two-way computer-mediated communication between dogs and handlers," says NCSU professor David Roberts. One smart harness prototype includes a twin battery back on both sides of the dog, a mounted webcam, vibrating motors, and a wireless USB adapter. Scientists are testing the harness by transmitting signals to it via a laptop to see how the dog reacts. Potential applications include training pets and working animals such as guide dogs and search-and-rescue dogs. "We're using this technology to ask some very fundamental questions about the nature of the way that animals can perceive computer-mediated communications and the way they can interact with computers in order to send digital signals across wireless communication links to handlers," Roberts says. The technology also can send signals back to the handler indicating the dog's position and movements. The technology is customizable, with one prototype having electrocardiography electrodes and other sensors to monitor vital signs indicative of the canine's health and emotional state.


Seeing the World Through Assistive Glasses
Bielefeld University (07/02/15)

A multi-disciplinary team at Bielefeld University is working to develop augmented reality glasses that could help the elderly and the disabled better perform everyday tasks. The Adaptive and Mobile Action Assistance in Daily Living Activities (ADAMAAS) project is being funded in part by a grant from the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research. The project is led by Bielefeld's Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interactive Technology (CITEC), and members of many of the university's faculties, including Psychology and Sports Science, also are contributing to the effort. The ADAMAAS project uses augmented reality glasses provided by SensoMotoric Instruments and incorporates a wide array of technologies and techniques from different disciplines, including computer vision, eye tracking, and augmented reality technologies and insights from the fields of memory science and corrective intervention. The ADAMASS glasses monitor the wearer's performance of everyday tasks such as baking, making coffee, exercising, and household repairs and provide the user with feedback displayed on a virtual plane in their field of vision. The hope is the technology can be used to help the elderly and those with disabilities live more self-sufficient lives.


Could Black Phosphorus Be the Next Silicon?
McGill Newsroom (07/07/15) Chris Chipello

McGill University and Universite de Montreal researchers have found when electrons move in a phosphorous transistor, they do so only in two dimensions, a discovery that could help engineers design more energy-efficient transistors. Unlike graphene, which acts like a metal and has been studied as a potential replacement for silicon in future electronics, black phosphorus is a natural semiconductor, meaning it can be readily switched on and off. "The toolbox of the future for transistor designers will require a variety of atomic-layered materials: an ideal semiconductor, an ideal metal, and an ideal dielectric," says McGill University professor Thomas Szkopek. "All three components must be optimized for a well-designed transistor, and black phosphorus fills the semiconducting-material role." The researchers examined how the electrons moved in a phosphorous transistor by observing them under the influence of a magnetic field. "What's surprising in these results is that the electrons are able to be pulled into a sheet of charge which is two-dimensional, even though they occupy a volume that is several atomic layers in thickness," Szkopek says. This breakthrough is important because it could facilitate the manufacturing of black phosphorous.


Sounds Bad
The Economist (07/04/15)

University of Southern California's Stefan Scherer and Carnegie Mellon University's Louis-Philippe Morency are seeking to use computers to diagnose depression. The researchers believe technology could offer a more reliable way to spot symptoms, and they have used a computer to record and analyze the behavior of people who are depressed, including their speech, facial expressions, and eye movements. Depressed people's speech is the subject of their latest research, which shows a tendency to run their vowels together when they speak. Although the difference in vowel-space ratio was small compared to normal speech, the researchers say the finding advances their previous work. Scherer and Morency have developed an algorithm based on factors such as length of smile and frequency in looking at the ground, and report it is 75-percent effective in diagnosing depression. For now, they envision their diagnostic system working with doctors and enhancing patient observation.


TAU/Tsinghua University Project Uses Crowdsourced Computing to Improve Water Filtration
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (07/06/15)

Tel Aviv University (TAU) and Tsinghua University researchers, working at the new TAU-Tsinghua XIN Center, used IBM's World Community Grid to conduct an experiment in crowdsourced computing, carried out by more than 150,000 volunteers who contributed their own computing power to the research. The researchers used the crowdsourced computing to simulate the flow of water molecules flowing through nanotubes, and found that, under the right conditions, vibrations of water-carrying nanotubes, called phonon oscillations, can produce a 300 percent improvement in the rate of water diffusion. "We've discovered that very small vibrations help materials, whether wet or dry, slide more smoothly past each other," a breakthrough that could enhance water transport and improve water sanitation and desalinization, says TAU professor Michael Urbakh. He notes the research shows crowdsourced computing is playing an increasingly major role in scientific breakthroughs, and that the range of questions that can benefit from public participation is growing all the time. The computer simulations were designed by TAU researcher and Tsinghua graduate Ming Ma. "The project represents the very positive cooperation between the two universities, which is taking place at XIN and because of XIN," Urbakh says.


Elon Musk Gives $10 Million in Grants to Study Safe AI
InformationWeek (07/06/15) David Wagner

Inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk has given the Future of Life Institute (FLI) $10 million to be distributed as 37 grants to research projects designed to keep artificial intelligence (AI) "robust and beneficial." The institute's purpose is to protect the human race from what its founders perceive as existential threats from AI, but despite the alarmist tone, Musk's grants will support fundamental research necessary to improve such technologies. "FLI catalyzes and supports research and initiatives for safeguarding life and developing optimistic visions of the future, including positive ways for humanity to steer its own course considering new technologies and challenges," according to the institute. One project funded by Musk's grant seeks to train autonomous AI to respond to situations it does not comprehend in ways a person would, without intervention. University of California, Berkeley's Paul Christiano aims to develop efficient mechanisms to provide human oversight. Another grant to Carnegie Mellon University's Manuela Veloso will focus on how to make AIs explain their actions so people can better understand them and take remedial measures. Association of the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence president Tom Dietterich believes the FLI grant will concentrate on what he calls the "unknown unknowns," or aspects of AI that its designers have not foreseen.


Can Computers Be Creative?
CORDIS News (06/30/15)

The European Union is funding a project that represents a major advance in the field of computational creativity. The What-If-Machine (WHIM) project is developing the world's first fictional "ideation" software, which generates fictional mini-narratives or storylines, using natural-language processing techniques and a database of facts mined from the Web. The software then twists the facts to create what-ifs, such as, "What if there was a woman who woke up in an alley as a cat, but could still ride a bicycle?" Moreover, the software is designed to evaluate the potential usefulness or quality of its generated ideas. The project initiated crowdsourcing experiments to assess the performance of the software, and WHIM researchers report it gradually gains a more refined understanding of people's preferences. WHIM researchers are considering turning the software's narratives into video games. Another major project involves the computational design of a musical theater production, including the storyline, sets, and music. In addition to applications in the arts, the researchers say the software could be used to ask probing what-if questions to panelists at scientific conferences.


A New Computer System That Can Detect Sarcasm, Irony in Emails
IBN Live (07/04/15)

A computer science student in Israel has developed a computer system that can detect emotional sentiment in text messages and emails. The system works by recognizing repeated word patterns, according to Eden Saig from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Saig applied machine-learning algorithms to posts on Facebook and Twitter and used the results to automatically identify patterns in everyday communication. In addition, through the use of statistical analysis, Saig was able to gear the system to recognize content structure that could be considered condescending or slang. He designed the system to identify key words and grammatical habits that are characteristic of sentence structure implied by the sentiment of its content. "Now, the system can recognize patterns that are either condescending or caring sentiments and can even send a text message to the user if the system thinks the post may be arrogant," Saig says. He believes the system could detect content that suggests someone is considering suicide.


Student Hackathon Builds Out Assistive Tech
Campus Technology (07/02/15) Dian Schaffhauser

The student team that took the top spot at the ATHack assistive technologies hackathon at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) earlier this year continues to develop their winning device. The team is now designing a low-cost sip-and-puff joystick controller that enables users to operate a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. The prototype Puffin, as the device is called, costs about $200 to make. Moreover, the MIT team wants to make the device smaller and more configurable. The designers note the rainproof and fully positionable device can be mounted just about anywhere, such as on a bed, wheelchair, or plane seat, and folds into a bag for transport. In addition, device sensitivity can be configured for its user. The MIT team is pulling together grant money to make additional Puffin joysticks to test on more people this summer, and to see how far interfaces can be tailored to people's abilities. "We think this approach will work even outside those differences commonly labeled as 'disabilities,'" the team says.


Army Researcher Invents New Ways for Intelligence Analysts to Visualize, Interact With Information
Army Research Laboratory (06/30/15) Joyce M. Conant

U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) scientists say they have developed a user interface that facilitates the visualization, navigation, and manipulation of tens of thousands of images. Earlier this year, DARPA selected the research for its Visual Media Reasoning (VMR) program to help intelligence analysts search, filter, and explore visual media via advanced computer vision and reasoning techniques. "The goal of DARPA's VMR program is to extract mission-relevant information, such as the who, what, where, and when, from visual media captured from our adversaries and to turn unstructured, ad hoc photos, and video into true visual intelligence," says DARPA's Jeff Hansberger. DARPA researchers wanted the design to be completely driven by the analysts, their task, and the information they interact with, so they initially ignored specific technology constraints and instead began to explore how users naturally interact with collections of physical photos and how computers have attempted to replicate or re-interpret the manipulation of collections of images. The user interface provides improved speed and pattern-detection support and major benefits. In terms of speed, the interface has a very flat interaction hierarchy and uses the power of zoom to navigate. In terms of pattern-detection support, Hansberger says the researchers created visual diagrams made from the images themselves to highlight patterns and relationships across the attributes that analysts focus on.


Who's Going to Force Car Tech Into the 21st Century? Weirdly Enough, AT&T
Digital Trends (07/06/15) Jeremy Kaplan

AT&T's Drive Studio in Atlanta has a mission to rethink the car of the future so it is smarter and safer, according to AT&T CEO Ralph de la Vega. The studio offers a laboratory environment where scientists, engineers, and designers can develop and test new smartcar technologies, such as apps that communicate with each other, voice control, and location awareness. Drive Studio director Brian Greaves says automakers are interested in the full integration of various apps with their vehicles, which is what consumers desire as well. AT&T aims to build networking directly into cars via its 4G LTE network, and the resulting connected vehicles can be linked to at any time, Greaves notes. "We can pull diagnostics data, we can remotely start and stop these vehicles from anywhere," he says. Other intelligent vehicle system apps the studio is working on include those designed to function collaboratively, pulling together information about weather, navigation, parking availability, and other data to ease arrival at a destination hours ahead of time, for example. AT&T Drive Studio's Russel Vegh says voice-command systems are another area of concentration, with aspirations such as instructing the car to view connected cameras in your home.


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