Welcome to the October 21, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
New Report on Energy-Efficient Computing
National Science Foundation (10/20/15) Aaron Dubrow; Dan Francisco
Novel research could help overcome the barriers that are limiting progress in computing, according to a new report from a workshop jointly funded by the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). The report says energy efficiency is key to improving the performance of computing, and notes energy inefficiencies are resulting in overheating computing systems and thermal management issues. The report also says the pace of performance increases has slowed at a time when the amount of data computer users produce is exploding. "Fundamental research on hardware performance, complex system architectures, and new memory/storage technologies can help to discover new ways to achieve energy-efficient computing," says Jim Kurose, assistant director of NSF's directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. "Partnerships with industry, including SRC and its member companies, are an important way to speed the adoption of these research findings." The Grand Challenge for Future Computing has called for new approaches in order to operate computing systems with the efficiency of the human brain. The findings and recommendations of the report also align with the National Strategic Computing Initiative.
Academics Present New Breakthroughs for Fundamental Problems in Computer Science
University of Bristol News (10/19/15)
University of Bristol researchers this week presented papers on two fundamental problems in computer science at the IEEE symposium on Foundations of Computer Science in California. The first paper, from a team led by Raphael Clifford, relates to the question of whether there exist problems that are provably hard to solve. Clifford's team proved hardness results for versions of matrix vector multiplication problems and showed further hardness results for problems in which the data change dynamically. In the second paper, a team led by He Sun presented the first algorithm for constructing linear-sized spectral sparsifiers that run in almost-linear time. Spectral sparsifiers are used to help speed up big data applications that deal with graphs featuring millions of vertices. The researchers accomplished this by approximating the input of a given graph, but with far fewer vertices, enabling algorithms to run faster. The researchers were able to prove they could construct a spectral sparsifier for any graph in almost linear time, and the output of every sparsifier would yield a constant number of vertices. The researchers say the result is almost optimal in respect to the time complexity of the algorithm and the number of edges in the spectral sparsifier.
Girls Who Code Starts Alumni Network
National Journal (10/19/15) Emily DeRuy
The nonprofit Girls Who Code hosts summer camps and programs that teach programming to girls in an effort to close the technology gender gap. The group will use those clubs and camps to offer computer science education to 10,000 middle- and high-school girls in 40 states by year's end, and it recently announced the founding of an alumni network for program graduates. "We felt like the alumni network was the way to keep women in the pipeline so they can be professionals," says Girls Who Code CEO Reshma Saujani. She says the network should help girls sustain their interest in tech careers as their educational and professional paths progress. The group reports 90 percent of its graduates have declared a major or minor in computer science, or are planning to do so. Saujani notes Girls Who Code also has announced alliances with 20 tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft, which will offer alumni paid internships so their college-to-career trajectory is as smooth as possible. Girls Who Code joins other national initiatives to fuel and maintain girls' interest in coding, such as the Fullstack Academy programming boot camp's forthcoming Grace Hopper Academy, and the Obama administration's push for science, technology, engineering, and math education for women and minorities.
A Robot Finds Its Way Using Artificial "GPS" Brain Cells
Technology Review (10/19/15) Will Knight
Researchers in Singapore have shown that simulated versions of a pair of brain cells known to be involved in navigation can help a small wheeled robot find its way around. Roboticists increasingly are using systems inspired by the brain to help robots see and carry out tasks, but the approach taken by Haizhou Li of the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research and his colleagues involves a more direct effort to emulate the brain. Li's team started by creating software simulations of a pair of brain cells, known as "place" and "grid" cells, which have been shown to fire at various points when animals move around a given area, and are believed to be involved in the process of giving animals an innate sense of the world around them and their location in it. After creating their simulated place and grid cells, Li's team gave them control of a small robot and allowed it to roam around an office space. Although the system does not yet function at the same level as current top-of-the-line navigation systems, the researchers believe given time it will offer a more efficient and reliable means for machine navigation.
Research Proposes Using CGI Models and Steganography to Hide User Identity in Videos
The Stack (UK) (10/19/15) Martin Anderson
Researchers at the University of Zagreb have proposed a new method for protecting the privacy of individuals whose images are captured by security cameras. The researchers say allowing unrestricted access to the footage of innocent individuals in locations such as transit hubs, banks, and shopping centers could enable them to be tracked without their knowledge. To protect individuals' privacy, the researchers have proposed a method of converting the images of individuals captured by security cameras into depersonalized three-dimensional avatars that still contain the unaltered information. Their process begins with using histogram of oriented gradients (HOG) technology to pick out individuals. Segmentation using GrabCut, a tool being researched by Microsoft, separates the individuals from the background. The researchers then use Microsoft's Kinect sensor to conduct pose estimation on the individual, enabling them to develop a skeletal animation that is then used to build a full computer-generated imagery model that takes the place of the individual in the footage. The original footage is encoded into this model using steganographic encoding so it can be retrieved for any future investigations. The researchers aim to use multiple Kinect sensors in future research to capture a wider array of movement data to build better models.
Toward a Smarter Grid
California Institute of Technology (10/19/15) Kimm Fesenmaier
California Institute of Technology professor Steven Low believes the electric grid is on the verge of accommodating distributed, interconnected, and omnipresent intelligence. His vision is that inexpensive computers and sensors will enable active, intelligent endpoints that can produce, sense, communicate, compute, and respond. Low expects the grid to evolve into "the largest and most complex cyberphysical system ever seen." Low's team, which combines expertise in computing, engineering, control theory, and economics, aims to guide the grid's transformation and ensure its proper management by developing underlying devices, systems, theories, and algorithms. One project focusing on engineering sought to address the optimal power flow problem, resulting in the ability to compute a solution and then determine whether it is globally optimal for nearly all distribution systems. Another initiative seeks to anticipate the number of home/business owners likely to install rooftop solar panels as far as three decades out, so utilities can plan appropriately. Low's team also devised an approach to handling demand response so the grid is not overtaxed while eliminating a lag between consumers and utilities. The researchers did this by having consumers preemptively enter their sensitivity to various prices on their smart devices, which then send that data to the algorithm that operates the network.
Why Robot That Gets 'Tired and Hormonal' Is a Good Thing
BBC News (10/18/15) Max Evans
Having certain robots operate using the electronic equivalent of an endocrine system could present advantages, according to researchers in Aberystwyth University's Intelligent Robotics Group. In one example, the university's ExoMars Rover employs coded hormones triggered when the machine's electric current and temperature exceed a certain level in order to change the rover's behavior and facilitate smoother performance. Another benefit of a robotic endrocrine system is its ability to enable the machines to save power and deactivate non-essential operations when energy levels are low. Aberystwyth Ph.D. student Jim Finnis thinks the integration of hormone cascades into various future robots could make them seem less stilted and increase people's comfort levels with them. "Where you are living with a robot all of the time, a hormonal system might help," he says. "Instead of a robot that suddenly announces it has run out of power and switches off, the robot's behavior would become more slow. It would start taking more rests and pauses, it would stay still longer. Eventually, it would announce it is going to bed."
X-Ray Scans Expose an Ingenious Chip-and-PIN Card Hack
Wired (10/19/15) Andy Greenberg
French computer security researchers last week published a paper detailing a tactic used by a group of French fraudsters to subvert the chip-and-PIN payment card security system that has long been standard in Europe and is now being rolled out in the U.S. The researchers, from France's ENS university and the CEA science and technology institute, studied the fraud as investigators in the criminal case. The five fraudsters were caught in 2011 and 2012 after using fake credit cards to make nearly 600,000 euros worth of purchases. The French researchers were at first prohibited from disassembling the fake cards as they were evidence, so instead they X-rayed the cards and reverse-engineered their computational activity. They found the fraudsters had taken the chips from stolen credit cards, soldered them together with a small chip popular with hobbyists, and then glued the chips onto fake credit cards. When the fake cards were inserted into a card reader, the hobbyist chips would spoof a message telling the reader that whatever PIN was entered was the correct PIN. A similar attack, although using much bulkier equipment, was first demonstrated by Cambridge University researchers in 2010.
UMD Researchers' Computer Beats 'Jeopardy!' Star Ken Jennings at Trivia
Diamondback (MD) (10/18/15) Lexie Schapitl
University of Maryland (UMD) researchers have developed QANTA, a computerized question-answering system that defeated former "Jeopardy!" champion Ken Jennings 300 to 160 in an exhibition trivia bowl match at the University of Washington in Seattle on Oct. 2. QANTA features a system that reads the questions in text form and creates a set of possible answers, and a system that looks for evidence supporting each possible answer from sources such as Wikipedia, books, and poetry. QANTA previously competed in a quiz bowl match against a team of other former "Jeopardy!" contestants, and tied with the team 200 to 200. The researchers added more data to QANTA before the match with Jennings. The system struggled with popular-culture questions, which depend on changing trends instead of established facts and sources, according to UMD doctoral student Mohit Iyyer. The researchers plan to add more information to the system moving forward. QANTA, a joint project at UMD's information studies college and its Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, also could have applications in language translation and political discourse. In addition, the researchers want to improve QANTA so it can track and predict opponent behavior in a debate, says UMD professor Hal Daume III. In an effort to advance the field as a whole, the researchers made all of QANTA's code open source.
Stanford Engineers Create Artificial Skin That Can Send Pressure Sensation to Brain Cell
Stanford Report (10/15/15) Tom Abate
Stanford University researchers have developed a plastic "skin" that can sense pressure levels and generate an electrical signal to deliver the sensory input directly to a living brain cell. The technology replicates one aspect of touch, the sensory mechanism that enables humans to distinguish the pressure difference between a limp handshake and a firm grip. "This is the first time a flexible, skin-like material has been able to detect pressure and also transmit a signal to a component of the nervous system," says Stanford professor Zhenan Bao. The device is composed of a top layer that creates a sensing mechanism and a bottom layer that acts as the circuit to transport electrical signals and translate them into biochemical stimuli compatible with nerve cells. The top layer features a sensor that can detect pressure over the same range as human skin. The researchers exploited this capability electronically by scattering billions of carbon nanotubes through the waffled plastic. When pressure is applied to the plastic, it squeezes the nanotubes closer together and enables them to conduct electricity. The researchers then hooked the pressure-sensing mechanism to the second layer of the artificial skin so it could carry pulses of electricity to nerve cells. Going forward, the researchers want to develop different sensors to replicate different aspects of the human sense of touch.
Researchers Take First Steps to Create Biodegradable Displays for Electronics
MU News Bureau (MO) (10/15/15) Sheena Rice
University of Missouri (MU) researchers plan to use organic components in screen displays, with the hope of creating biodegradable electronics. Working with researchers from the Federal University of ABC in Brazil, the team has developed organic structures that could be used to light handheld device screens. Using peptides, or proteins, the team has demonstrated that these tiny structures, when combined with a blue light-emitting polymer, could successfully be used in displays. "This discovery creates the first biodegradable active layer in organic electronics, meaning--in principle--we can eventually achieve full biodegradability," says MU professor Suchismita Guha. She notes the peptides can configure themselves into complex nanostructures or nanotubes, and using them as templates for other materials is the main thrust of their research. "By combining organic semiconductors with nanomaterials, we were able to create the blue light needed for a display," Guha says. She notes the researchers will need to achieve the same results with red and green light-emitting polymers to make a workable screen for mobile phones and other displays. The researchers point out the development of biodegradable electronics could help reduce electronic waste in the world's landfills.
UCF Researchers Perform World's First Automated Mass-Crowd Count
UCF Today (10/15/15) Kimberly Lewis; Zenaida Kotala
Software developed at the University of Central Florida (UCF) is designed to automate the process of counting large-scale crowds. UCF conducted a test run of the software in September in Barcelona during an event in which demonstrators called for the independence of the Catalonia province from Spain. The software was used to analyze 67 aerial images, and it calculated a total count for each of the images within 30 minutes. The images and calculations were sent to Pompeu Fabra University statisticians, who concluded the count for the entire crowd was about 530,000. "Automated computer analysis of such large-scale and dense crowds has never been done before," says UCF professor Mubarak Shah. "We will continue to push the envelope of state-of-the-art in-crowd analysis so that it can help the authorities and governments manage real-time safety of large crowds and perform post-event analysis of such gatherings." The process of examining aerial photographs one at a time is tedious and can take up to a week, and the UCF software would dramatically cut down on the time it takes to count large-scale crowds. The researchers say the software could enable organizers to quickly gain key information needed to plan events and respond to emergencies.
'Our Time to Lead': An Interview With Telle Whitney at Grace Hopper 2015
The Huffington Post (10/19/15) Samantha Parent
In an interview at this year's Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC), Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology CEO Telle Whitney said 2015 is "our time to lead." She noted this theme is highlighted at GHC so women can avail themselves of leadership training tools. Although Whitney acknowledged stagnation in women's progress in terms of undergraduate computer science (CS) degrees and the tech workforce, she also cited U.S. National Science Foundation statistics indicating that gains are being made. She said a joint Anita Borg Institute/Harvey Mudd College program will work with CS departments across 15 U.S. universities to boost female and minority undergrad majors. Whitney also noted the enormous growth in attendance and diversity, and the representation of tech companies, at GHC since its inception in 1994 reflects the soaring interest women have in technology. She said attendees come to connect with others in different fields, as well as for professional development. Whitney also points out attendees can take back the knowledge they gain from the conference and apply it to their own programs, or join local communities. She reports the institute is launching ABI.Local to help foster communities that host Grace Hopper Celebrations to stoke interest both nationally and internationally.
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