Welcome to the November 2, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Paul Allen's AI2 Launches Search Engine Designed Specifically for Scientists
GeekWire (11/02/15) Jacob Demmitt
The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) today launched Semantic Scholar, a free search engine designed primarily for the scientific community. AI2 CEO Oren Etzioni says the search engine offers a more nuanced search across more than 3 million academic papers than Google Scholar, although Semantic Scholar is not meant to be a competitor. Powering Semantic Scholar is an array of algorithms, and the service searches within articles for subtler content instead of matching keywords. Data mining, natural-language processing, and computer vision are utilized to determine factors such as a paper's date of publication, and then the service enables researchers to filter results to find the precise item for which they are searching. According to Etzioni, Semantic Scholar could potentially advance how companies such as Google use AI to power their own search engines. "What we're doing is using AI to take...search to the next level," he says. "To go beyond keyword searches and allow you to cut through the clutter." Etzioni notes AI2 is currently seeking to double the size of the Semantic Scholar developer team and enlarge AI2's workforce by about 15 people.
Autism Glass Project Kicks Off
The Stanford Daily (11/02/15) Ribhav Gupta
The Autism Glass project is a collaborative effort between psychologists, computer scientists, doctors, and Stanford University students to develop a new Google Glasses and facial recognition software to help train autistic children in basic social skills. The resulting device employs Google Glasses' front-facing camera to read the facial expressions of people with whom the user engages. The current algorithm can differentiate between eight of the most critical reactions and then immediately communicate the information back to the child through visual or auditory cues. The device decodes and creates cues to fundamental emotions for users in real time. Principal project investigator Dennis Wall says the goal of the initiative is to apply best Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) methods and merge them with the latest technology advances. Current ABA methods such as rote memorization via flashcards do not translate into repeatable responses in natural settings, but although the Autism Glass Project can help in this regard, as project founder Catalin Voss says, "we are trying to prevent building a prosthesis at all costs." Wall theorizes that through daily application, the device will help cultivate children's confidence in their social abilities. Training community members such as parents and therapists on how to use the device also is crucial, according to project leaders.
Australians Invent Architecture for a Full-Scale Silicon Quantum Computer
IEEE Spectrum (10/30/15) Jeremy Hsu
Researchers in Australia have published a paper describing a silicon quantum computing architecture that could lead to the building and controlling of arrays of hundreds or thousands of qubits. "As you start to scale the qubit architectures up, you have to move away from operating individual qubits to showing how can you make a processor that allows you to operate multiple qubits at the same time," says Michelle Simmons, a physicist at the University of New South Wales. Together with a team from the University of Melbourne, Simmons and her colleagues have proposed a method for building large quantum arrays using silicon quantum computing methods previously developed in Australia. The research offers a solution to problems with scaling that have plagued other silicon quantum computing methods: namely how to provide enough control circuitry without making large arrays completely impractical. The solution proposed by the Australian researchers is to sandwich a two-dimensional layer of nuclear spin qubits between an upper and lower layer of control circuits, which creates a triple-layer architecture that can control many qubits simultaneously. The researchers also think the new architecture could help facilitate surface code error correction, and building arrays with this capability is one of their long-term goals.
Email Encryption Is Broken
Motherboard (10/28/15) Joseph Cox
Technology designed to encrypt and authenticate emails is ineffective because sizable portions of email traffic are either being sent without encryption or deliberately stripped of it, according to a new U.S. study on global adoption rates of email security extensions. One of the report's few positive findings is "from Gmail's perspective, incoming messages protected by [Transport Layer Security (TLS)] have increased 82 percent over the last year," largely because big providers are encrypting traffic. However, only 82 percent of the 700,000 SMTP servers associated with the top 1 million domains support TLS, while only 35 percent permit appropriate server authentication. Mass-scale attacks in which STARTTLS sessions had their encryption removed also were observed, with "the distribution...spread over networks owned by governments, Internet service providers, corporations, and financial, academic, and healthcare institutions." The researchers estimated more than 20 percent of email is being sent in cleartext in seven nations, and they warn the stripping method "results in messages being sent in cleartext over the public Internet, enabling passive eavesdropping and other attacks." Suggested solutions include implementing the equivalent of an HTTP Strict Transport Security for email. Researcher Frederic Jacobs says such a solution is undergoing standardization, but adoption is slow.
Data Mining Instagram Feeds Can Point to Teenage Drinking Patterns
University of Rochester NewsCenter (10/29/15) Leonor Sierra
University of Rochester researchers selected a group of underage Instagram users and monitored drinking-related activities via their Instagram photos by analyzing the social media tags associated with the photos using a constructed Internet slang dictionary and alcohol brands the users follow. The researchers found underage alcohol consumption happens more on weekends and holidays and at the end of the day. The researchers did not find a strong bias toward one gender for alcohol consumption, while different alcohol brands are followed in varying degrees by teenagers, an indication that brands might be targeting younger audiences in social media. In order to combat underage drinking, "we could use social media to incorporate targeted intervention and to measure the effect of any intervention," says University of Rochester professor Jiebo Luo. The researchers also want to check the results of their approach with surveys to ensure their methodology is robust before applying it to extract other information from Instagram. They hope to collaborate with people working on addressing other youth problems, such as tobacco, drugs, teen pregnancy, stress, and depression. The new method "could provide important new insights into the contexts of youth drinking and be a valuable tool for evaluating the effectiveness of school or community-based preventive interventions," says University of Rochester psychologist Elizabeth Handley.
How Wireless 'X-ray Vision' Could Power Virtual Reality, Smart Homes, and Hollywood
MIT News (10/28/15) Adam Conner-Simons
The new RF Capture technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) can pick up wireless reflections off the human body to visualize the silhouette of a person concealed behind a wall. Tracking the silhouette enables the device to trace the person's moving hand as well as differentiate between 15 different people through a wall with almost 90-percent accuracy. RF Capture beams wireless signals that traverse the wall and bounce off a person's body back to the device, and these reflections are captured and analyzed to see the person's silhouette. RF Capture scans three-dimensional (3D) space to capture wireless reflections off objects in the environment, and then monitors how the reflections vary as someone moves in the space and stitches the person's reflections across time to rebuild his silhouette into a single image. To distinguish between people, the CSAIL researchers tested and trained the device on different subjects, using various metrics. They envision the technology having significant ramifications for many industries. In filmmaking, RF Capture could facilitate motion capture without body sensors, according to the researchers. MIT professor (and 2012 Grace Murray Hopper Award co-recipient) Dina Katabi says potential smart-home applications could include automatic 911 alerts when a resident has fallen unconscious, or intelligent in-home systems operation.
Researchers Find Vulnerabilities in Use of Certificates for Web Security
University of Maryland (10/28/15) Melissa Brachfeld
Researchers say a new University of Maryland (UMD) study offers the first end-to-end evaluation of the Web's certificate revocation ecosystem. The study found website administrators are providing a large number of revoked certificates, certificate authorities are not using newer processes for distributing revocations, and browsers are not checking whether certificates have been revoked. The researchers evaluated how well website administrators handled revocations by analyzing a multi-year data-set, which included 74 full Internet scans. They found 8 percent of the certificates served had been revoked, introducing security holes, says study co-author Dave Levin, an assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. The researchers then evaluated the performance of certificate authorities, and found these files can grow to large sizes, which slow down the browser and use more bandwidth when downloaded. They also found newer techniques for distributing revocations have not been widely adopted by the certificate authorities. Finally, the researchers studied 30 combinations of operating systems and Web browsers, and found none of them properly checked to see whether certificates are revoked. "In the research space, we hope this will affect how other systems that rely on revocations are designed to better match the likely behavior of administrators," Levin says.
Fujitsu Turns to Biometrics for Data Encryption
IDG News Service (10/28/15) Martyn Williams
Fujitsu researchers say they have developed software that simplifies and strengthens security systems that rely on biometrics such as fingerprints. The software uses biometric data directly as the basis for encrypting and decrypting data. Biometric scans can be used to authenticate users and provide access to encryption keys in order to decrypt data. However, the researchers say their system uses elements extracted from the biometric scan itself as a part of a procedure to encrypt the data, making the biometric scan an integral part of the encryption system and eliminating the need for encryption keys. As a result, there is no need for smartcards and hackers will not have anything to find should they break into a network. The researchers also note that because Fujitsu's system uses random numbers to convert biometric data as part of the encryption and decryption process, unconverted data is not transmitted over a network. The approach uses error correction to smooth out slight differences in successive biometric scans resulting from variations in a user's position or motion when the scan is taken. The system has been developed to work with palm vein authentication, but the researchers say it could be adapted to work with other biometric data such as fingerprints or retina scans.
Robots Can Now Teach Each Other New Tricks
Technology Review (10/27/15) Will Knight
Two robots operating in different academic research labs have demonstrated a rudimentary ability to exchange knowledge. The PR2 research robot at Cornell University was first trained to perform a task via the RoboBrain database, and the Baxter robot at Brown University--a different type of machine--took PR2's learned knowledge and used it to determine how to perform the same operation in its own environment. Information-sharing by robots could reduce the need for significant reprogramming, as well as enabling robots to adapt quickly when confronted with a new task or an unfamiliar setting. "When you put a robot in a new situation--and in the real world it happens in every room the robot goes into--you somehow want that same robot to engage in autonomous behaviors," says Brown professor Stefanie Tellex. The physical differences between the two robots meant low-level commands would not match, so Tellex's team needed to work out a scheme to enable command transfers between the two platforms. Tellex says the goal is to enable a robot to determine how to translate data for itself, based on how its physical configuration compares with that of another robot. Cornell professor Ashutosh Saxena expects robots to increasingly share knowledge in the future.
Closing the Last Loophole for Unhackable Quantum Security
New Scientist (10/28/15) Michael Brooks
The perfection of device-independent quantum cryptography will enable devices that guarantee the messages sent on them remain confidential. The method was inspired by University of Oxford physicist Artur Ekert's conceptualization of a new form of quantum cryptography that uses a stream of photons and involves the sender creating a string of random numbers by measuring a property of each photon. However, the recipient has a separate stream of photons from the same source that are entangled with the sender's; this permits sender and recipient to perform measurements on their respective photons that will help them generate each number of a shared key. Institute of Photonic Sciences researcher Antonio Acin and colleagues saw Ekert's protocol as a way to prove whether the maker of the device is to be trusted, by applying a Bell test. Experiments by Delft University of Technology researchers demonstrated a Bell test in which the locality and the detection loopholes were concurrently closed, establishing quantum theory as a method for creating a certifiably safe cryptographic system. There are other factors that could compromise security, such as the physical theft of the cryptographic key--but device-independent quantum cryptography does appear to be achievable. "In terms of being able to verify physical security, it's the best," says the Institute for Quantum Computing's Michele Mosca.
Researchers Develop a Fast, Noninvasive Brain-Computer Interface
Medical Xpress (10/27/15) Christopher Packham
Researchers from Beijing's Tsinghua University and the University of California, San Diego, say they have developed a non-invasive brain-computer interface that offers the fastest information transfer rate (ITR) ever achieved. A popular application for the technology is speller systems for people who cannot communicate, and the ITR is as slow as five letters per minute in some systems. The researchers propose a new joint frequency-phase modulation method to tag 40 characters with 0.5-second-long flickering signals, and they have develop a user-specific target identification algorithm using individual calibration data. The speller achieved high ITRs in online spelling tasks. The team's system is based on steady-state visual evoked potentials, which detect the user's gaze direction to a target character. The researchers improved the system's performance by using a synchronous modulation and demodulation paradigm and adopting a user-specific decoding algorithm, which adjusts to individual differences in visual latency. They also implemented a new visual latency estimation approach to compensate for measuring issues caused by interference from noisy electroencephalogram signals. During tests, the mean spelling rate was about 50 to 60 characters per minute, with an ITR of about 4.5 to 5.5 bits per second.
'Spring-Mass' Technology Heralds the Future of Walking Robots
Oregon State University News (10/27/15) David Stauth
Oregon State University (OSU) researchers say they have developed a system that achieves the most realistic robotic implementation of human walking dynamics. The system is based on "spring-mass" walking, a concept that combines the passive dynamics of a mechanical system with computer control. The researchers say the technique provides the ability to blindly react to rough terrain, maintain balance, and retain efficiency of motion. Studies done with the ATRIAS robot model, which incorporates the spring-mass theory, found it is three times more energy efficient than any other human-sized bipedal robots. "We're convinced this is the approach on which the most successful legged robots will work," says OSU professor Jonathan Hurst. He says when further refined and perfected, these systems could work in the armed forces, help fire fighters save lives, and play new roles in factories. Hurst notes certain aspects of locomotion technology also could help people with disabilities. "It will be some time, but we think legged robots will enable integration of robots into our daily lives," he says. ATRIAS has six electric motors powered by a lithium polymer battery. The researchers say the technology "has the potential to enhance legged robots to ultimately match the efficiency, agility, and robustness of animals over a wide variety of terrain."
IBM's Brain-Like Chip and the Quest for a 'Cognitive Planet'
TechRepublic (10/29/15) Conner Forrest
IBM's recently announced TrueNorth chip follows the principles of brain-inspired neuromorphic computing, which aspires to intertwine computation and memory in the manner of an organic neural network. Among the challenges to achieving this milestone is the fact that not enough is known about neuronal computing yet to design a device in which algorithms are embedded in the hardware, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Nir Shavit. He says neuromorphic computing researchers are building a platform for running machine-learning processes faster and with greater efficiency. TrueNorth is unique in that it can be tiled into an array, with chips positioned next to each other in any configuration able to communicate without additional hardware. In addition, a key advantage of the chip is its energy efficiency: it can perform 46 billion synaptic operations per second while consuming only 70 milliwatts. IBM's Dharmendra Modha, recipient of the 2009 ACM Gordon Bell Prize, says one of his goals through projects such as TrueNorth is to embed intelligence in network-edge sensors. "Truly, our vision is a cognitive planet," he notes. A brain-like chip also has implications for artificial intelligence (AI), although University of Maryland professor Jennifer Golbeck is uncertain of its impact at this point. Golbeck says TrueNorth could be beneficial for AI uses involving pattern recognition, such as self-driving automobiles.
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