Welcome to the September 18, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
The Dismal State of America's Decade-Old Voting Machines
Wired (09/15/15) Kim Zetter
Almost all U.S. states are using technologically outdated touchscreen and optical-scan voting systems that are at least 10 years old, according to a report by the New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. "[T]he majority of systems in use today are either perilously close to or past their expected lifespans," warn report authors Larry Norden and Christopher Famighetti. Also alarming is most of the machines run the Windows XP operating system, which is no longer supported by Microsoft--so there will be no new patches for any new security flaws found in the software. The business failure of several voting machine vendors compounds the problem of servicing the units, with 43 states using discontinued systems. A major complication with superannuated voting systems is their vulnerability to crashes and screen freezes, which can lead to voter disenfranchisement. The report authors say the 2002 allocation of about $4 billion to help states update voting equipment via passage of the Help America Vote Act "fundamentally changed the voting machine market, and it did so before new voting system standards or testing programs were in place." However, now money for replacing the antiquated machines is tight, with nearly 36 states complaining they lack needed funds. The Brennan Center estimates the cost of replacing systems could be as high as $1 billion.
Microsoft to Spend $75 Million to Boost Computer Science in Schools
USA Today (09/16/15) Jessica Guynn
Microsoft this week announced it will invest $75 million over the next three years in initiatives to increase access to computer science education for youth, marking a major expansion of the company's YouthSpark program, which aims to get young people interested in computer science to build a larger, more diverse talent pool for the technology industry. As part of the new investment, Microsoft will provide nonprofit organizations with donations and resources. In addition, Microsoft will expand its outreach into high schools through its Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program, which pairs engineers from Microsoft and other high-tech companies with teachers to team-teach computer science in high schools. TEALS aims to be in 700 high schools in the next three years and in 4,000 over the next 10 years, focusing on urban and rural districts to reach more underrepresented groups. The TEALS program helps prepare teachers to eventually run the course themselves, according to Microsoft president Brad Smith. He says these efforts are designed to create a more technologically-literate workforce, especially among African Americans, Latinos, and women. Microsoft "cannot service the people of the world if we don't have an employee population that reflects the population of the world," says Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
HPC User Forum Presses NSCI Panelists on Plans
HPC Wire (09/17/15) John Russell
Attendees at last week's High-Performance Computing (HPC) User Forum pushed U.S. National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI) agency representatives to clarify the forthcoming implementation plan from the NSCI Executive Council. Among NSCI's strategic objectives are expediting delivery of an exascale computing system, using a holistic approach to boost the capacity and capability of a resilient national HPC ecosystem, and ensuring the U.S. government, industry, and academia all benefit from HPC innovations via public-private partnerships. Technology issues NSCI panelists cited included the end of Moore's Law, power management, extinction of single-thread performance, higher fidelity models, modernizing code, and future computing. Panelists and attendees strongly agreed on the challenges to large-scale data analytics, while there was less consensus concerning governance and collaboration. Sandia National Laboratories' Rob Leland pressed the need to sufficiently fund and implement NSCI for the U.S. to maintain its technological dominion of the HPC sector, citing the "erosion of Moore's law" as a factor in the intensification of competition. Meanwhile, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications' Bill Kramer suggested HPC-as-a-service must be a required element of any strategy to induce widespread industrial use of HPC technology. The U.S. National Science Foundation's Irene Qualters stressed the importance of coordination, but cautioned "the [idea] that you just have everyone marching in one line is wrong."
Europe Gears Up for Land, Air, and Sea Robotics Competition
IEEE Spectrum (09/16/15) Fausto Ferreira
Researchers, engineers, and robots from 21 countries are competing in the euRathlon 2015 Grand Challenge, a contest designed to assess how well the participants' cooperative robot systems perform realistic tasks as part of a simulated emergency-response operation. After three practice and preparation days, there will be separate trials in land, sea, and air, as well as challenges involving operation in two of those domains to evaluate collaborative behaviors. The final days of the contest will pit aerial, marine, and land robots against each other in a Grand Challenge event. Among the participating robots are two humanoid models--the Italian Institute of Technology's WALK-MAN and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology's DRC-HUBO--which will demonstrate search and rescue in disaster-response situations. Another demonstration will showcase the Robot-Era personal assistant from the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies' BioRobotics Institute. The purpose of the euRathlon event is to encourage research and collaboration in robotics, and to develop approaches for gauging robot performance via an open benchmarking process. The main challenge will transpire near a thermal power plant in Piombino, Italy, and involve land, sea, and air robots working together to execute various tasks in a simulated disaster area.
Artificial Intelligence in Medicine: Now There's an App for That
The Economist (09/19/15)
Nearly 80 percent of diabetics will develop retinal damage within a decade due to diabetic retinopathy, a condition in which damage to the blood vessels supplying the retina impair vision. The condition can cause blindness if not detected and treated early and the California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF) believes artificial intelligence (AI) technology could help make detection easier by automating the screening process. Lacking any AI expertise of its own, the organization turned to Kaggle, a website that helps organize competitions for statisticians and data scientists. CHCF provided $100,000 in prize money and uploaded thousands of retinal images, featuring both diseased and healthy retinas, to enable the website's members to develop an algorithm that could detect the disease. Trained doctors agree with each other about whether or not an image of a retina shows signs of diabetic retinopathy about 84 percent of the time. Within five months, the contest's winner, University of Warwick statistician Benjamin Graham, was able to develop an algorithm that agreed with doctors 85 percent of the time. Although CHCF wants to introduce the technology in clinics across California, an uncertain regulatory landscape regarding medical AI is making it hold the technology in reserve for now.
The Search for a Thinking Machine
BBC News (09/17/15) Jane Wakefield
A new level of machine learning is helping to facilitate the advancement of computer intelligence to such a degree that some experts believe machine intelligence will match that of people by mid-century. Efforts toward this goal include those of researchers at Stanford University's Computer Vision Lab, which has a mission to make computers able to perceive and understand their environment. Lab director Fei-Fei Li says her approach in teaching computers to see is based on that of giving algorithms "the kind of training data that a child is given through experiences in both quantity and quality." To this end, Li and a colleague used crowdsourcing platforms to build ImageNet, a database of 15 million images across 22,000 classes of objects organized by everyday English words. Using ImageNet in combination with neural networks, Li and her team have taught computers to recognize images. The resulting image-reading machine can write fairly accurate captions for a wide range of images, although its visual intelligence level is only equal to that of a three-year-old child and contextual understanding remains elusive. The researchers' next challenge is to enable machines to understand entire scenes, human behaviors, and relationships between objects.
The 2015 Grace Hopper Celebration ABIE Award Winners
CCC Blog (09/15/15) Khari Douglas
The Anita Borg Institute (ABI) has announced the winners of its 2015 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) ABIE Awards, which recognize female leaders in the realm of computer science. Winners are nominated by their peers and chosen by a panel of fellow technologists and former ABIE winners. This year's winners include Rice University professor Lydia E. Kavraki, who won the Technical Leadership ABIE Award for her research into physical algorithms and their applications in robotics, computational structural biology, and translational bioinformatics. Google software engineers Michal Segalov and Daniela Raijman were awarded the Social Impact ABIE Award for founding Google's Mind the Gap program, which encourages high school girls to pursue computer science and math in high school. Maria Celeste Medina, cofounder of Brazilian software startup Ada IT, and Mai Abualkas Temraz, a coordinator at the Gaza Sky Geeks tech accelerator and co-working hub in the Gaza Strip, were awarded the Change Agent ABIE Award. Joanne McGrath Cohoon, a University of Virginia professor who has researched the gender imbalance in computer science for almost two decades, was awarded the Richard Newton Educator ABIE Award. Finally, Lydia Tapia, a professor at the University of New Mexico, was awarded the Denice Denton Emerging Leader ABIE Award for her efforts to establish methodologies for the simulation and analysis of motion.
ASU Professor to Lead White House Effort to Get More Minority Women Into Science, Technology
Arizona Republic (09/15/15) Anne Ryman
The White House Council on Women and Girls has asked Arizona State University professor Kimberly A. Scott to lead the National Academic STEM Collaborative, an initiative that aims to create and share proven projects and highlight best practices that are happening at high schools and colleges. The collaborative will consist of nine universities and nine non-profit groups. The new consortium will serve as a "central unit" where proven ideas can be shared and made accessible, with the goal of using a new research-based strategy to increase the number of underrepresented groups in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Despite improvements made in the number of women entering STEM careers, the numbers are "still low" in terms of the percentage of women who are African-American, Native American, and Latino, according to Scott. In addition, the numbers of minority girls taking Advanced Placement tests in computer science in high school is low compared with their percentage of the U.S. population. In 2007, Scott founded CompuGirls, an online program that teaches girls ages 13 to 18 technology skills, as well as "soft skills" such as collaboration and problem solving.
How Tomorrow's Battles Will Be Fought in Augmented Reality
Motherboard (09/15/15) Emiko Jozuka
For nearly three decades, Bob Stone has worked in the field of virtual reality (VR), and he now sees the technology's applications becoming a reality, particularly in the military realm. Stone is working with British defense firm BAE Systems to develop augmented reality systems that would help military personnel and decision-makers optimize their situational awareness. However, Stone notes a lot of questions remain about how best to do this. "Does it need to be visual? Does it need to look like the real world? What happens if we introduce video, and live feeds from news channels and social networking sites?" he asks. One current idea is a "wearable cockpit" worn by pilots that could enable them to customize their aircraft interface based on personal preference and mission objectives. Another idea is the "portable command center," which would enable a user wearing a VR-headset and interactive gloves to summon up and interact with a mixed-reality environment displaying various aspects of the battlefield, including the landscape, newsfeeds, and data from surveillance drones. However, issues remain, such as the long-term effects of such systems on their users and compensating for the imperfection and unreliability of the data on which such simulations would be built.
Software Helps Create Sign Language Dictionaries, Voice-Activated Games for Hearing Impaired
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (09/15/15) Byron Spice
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has released open source software that young students with hearing disabilities can use to create video dictionaries of sign languages and practice vocalization. CMU students participating in the TechBridgeWorld research group's Student Technology ExPerience (iSTEP) this summer created the tools. The Sign Book platform enables users to make a custom dictionary of the local sign language, says CMU student Erik Pintar. He notes the tool can capture sign videos and relevant pictures for each entry and categorize them by topic. Meanwhile, the Speak Up! platform is designed to encourage young hearing-impaired students to make sounds. CMU students Amal Nanavati and Maya Lassiter, along with human-computer interaction researcher Minnar Xie developed a series of games that provide visual feedback on the volume and pitch of sounds. "By providing teachers with the tools to create their own signs and come up with their own games, these solutions have the potential to be relevant for different communities and their unique needs," says TechBridgeWorld founder and CMU professor M. Bernardine Dias. "By releasing the software open source, our hope is that other educators will find our tools useful and that the open source community will build on the work we started."
Dew Helps Ground Cloud Computing
A "cloud-dew" architecture could enable cloud users to maintain access to their data when they lose their Internet connection, says University of Prince Edward Island professor Yingwei Wang. He notes the architecture follows the conventions of cloud architecture, but in addition to the cloud servers there are "dew" servers held on the local system that act as a buffer between the local user and the cloud servers. Wang says this configuration prevents data from becoming desynchronized, which happens if one reverts back to the old-school approach of holding data only on the local server whether or not it is networked. "The dew server and its related databases have two functions: first, it provides the client with the same services as the cloud server provides; second, it synchronizes dew server databases with cloud server databases," Wang notes. The dew server retains only a copy of the given user's data, and the lightweight local server makes the data available with or without an Internet connection and synchronizes with the cloud server once the connection is established. Wang says the architecture could be used to make websites available offline.
First Detailed Public Map of U.S. Internet Backbone Could Make It Stronger
Technology Review (09/15/15) Tom Simonite
University of Wisconsin (UW) researchers have created a map that shows the paths taken by the long-distance fiber-optic cables that carry Internet data across the continental U.S. Until now, the exact routes of those cables, which belong to major telecommunications companies, have been unavailable to the public, despite their importance to the public infrastructure. "Our intention is to help improve security by improving knowledge," says UW professor Paul Barford. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is making the map and the data behind it available through the Predict project, which offers data relevant to Internet security available to government, private, and public researchers. Knowing the exact location of the most important Internet cables could help make the network more robust. It took about four years for the researchers to compile the map, which they did by accessing public records created by the permitting process for laying cables. "I see this...as part of a broader push to have more transparency around Internet policy issues that can inform a broader debate," says Tim Maurer, head of research at the New America Foundation's Cyber Security Initiative. Maurer and Barford say the map could impact the debate over net neutrality.
UMass Amherst Researchers Receive $1-Million Grant to Improve Utility Smart Metering, Energy Services, and Conservation
University of Massachusetts Amherst (09/14/15) Janet Lathrop
The U.S. National Science Foundation has awarded a three-year, $1-million grant to University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst) researchers and others to improve electricity use based on smart meter data. The team will work with Holyoke Gas & Electric to develop smart energy services. UMass Amherst professors Prashant Shenoy, David Irwin, and Simi Hoque will use the high-speed processors at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center to manage smart meter data. One service, iProgram, will use smart meter data to calculate the most cost-effective thermostat up-down schedule for a given home. Shenoy says many people have programmable thermostats, but few may use them well or even at all. By programming heat to come on just before people wake up in the morning, turning it down when they leave, and then back on in the evening can save 5 to 10 percent of energy costs in many cases, he notes. Meanwhile, the Green Demand Response service will address the problem of inflexibility in the grid by regulating elastic loads. The PowerTrip service will provide real-time energy event notifications and suggest conservation tips to users. The researchers say the project should improve grid efficiency, encourage energy conservation, and promote local renewable energy sources.
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