Welcome to the November 6, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Cities First to Benefit From Internet of Things, If We Can Write Better Software
TechRepublic (11/05/15) Dan Patterson
A panel led by Google chief Internet evangelist and former ACM president Vint Cerf at a New York University event this week discussed how city dwellers could be the initial benefactors of the Internet of Things (IoT). Cerf said although a future of multitudinous IoT devices is exciting for technologists, networking complexity will be a major challenge. Potential benefits of an IoT architecture cited by the panelists include linked devices that send data back to cities, and a smart electrical grid that boosts urban efficiency by permitting metropolitan areas to optimize how energy is used and distributed. The latter application could prevent and mitigate the impact of brownouts, and enhance energy demand capabilities. The panel also agreed device data networked at a large scale will help inform and protect urban residents by improving city service monitoring capabilities, while local open data access through application programming interfaces (APIs) could potentially empower third-party developers to create applications that fulfill granular neighborhood-specific needs. Connected neighborhoods will enable improved communication with city service providers, as well as easy access to regulation and data, local ombudsman and advocates, and library and educational facilities, according to the panelists. Among the challenges Cerf raised are those related to API access to and control of data, standards and interoperability, and integrity of personal data.
Net of Insecurity: The Kernel of the Argument
The Washington Post (11/05/15) Craig Timberg
The Linux operating system has come to dominate the online world, but critics increasingly warn of persistent security weaknesses that should have been corrected long ago. Linux creator Linus Torvalds has argued against adding more security features, claiming the OS' performance and reliability would suffer; yet even supporters are worried about vulnerabilities in the kernel, and also complain Torvalds' security stance is too passive. Bugs exploited by hackers in recent years did not involve the kernel itself, but experts caution the kernel is being targeted by malefactors building botnets, and is also attracting the interest of government spies as Linux has proliferated. Critics say attempts to harden Linux's defenses depended on surrounding the OS with barriers that could not possibly deter all attackers. Torvalds responds that his critics poorly understand the fact that security must always be weighed against priorities that include speed, flexibility, and ease of use. He also opposes the practice of publicly warning users of bugs, which gives malicious hackers an advantage until the software patches are issued. Instead of creating protections against "classes" of code defects, Torvalds advocates better coding overall. The decentralized Linux development process also is cited by critics, as no systemic mechanism for spotting and fixing bugs before hackers discover them exists.
Still No African-Americans Taking the AP Computer Science Exam in Nine States
Education Week (11/03/15) Liana Heitin
Although the population of students taking the Advanced Placement (AP) computer science exam grew by about 24 percent from 2014, it has continued to be predominantly white and male, according to the College Board. Female test-takers experienced a slight increase over the year, but at just 22 percent of the test-taking population, under representation remains prevalent. The Georgia Institute of Technology's Barbara Ericson analyzed the data and found 10 U.S. states had fewer than 10 girls take the AP exam, while year-over-year growth of the overall female pass rate was 3 percent for a total of 61 percent. Non-white or Asian test-takers inched up by only half a percentage point to 13 percent. Ericson estimates fewer than 10 African-American students took the exam in 23 states. Moreover, no black students took the exam in Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming, which is still fewer states than last year. The overall pass rate for African-American students climbed from 33 percent to 38 percent year-over-year, but there were significant variances between states. The College Board seeks to make computer science more accessible to all students via its AP Computer Science Principles course, which it will launch next year.
Europe's Largest Data Observatory Turns Big Data Into Big Images
Motherboard (11/03/15) Emiko Jozuka
This week marks the official opening of Imperial College London's KPMG Data Observatory, the largest such facility in Europe, which can convert big data into imagery projected onto a huge, circular wall-screen so users can look for patterns in an immersive environment. The observatory is equipped with 64 monitors powered by 32 computers, and enhanced with 313 degrees of surround sound. Imperial Business Analytics director Mark Thomas Kennedy says the purpose of the observatory is to "take advantage of years and years of evolution," and leverage humans' ability to recognize patterns visually. "The more we can turn data into something visual, the more people can actually respond to what's going on in the world, and take decisions that move organizations forward," he notes. For example, Kennedy thinks businesses would be less risk-averse if they could visualize patterns emerging from earlier or planned decisions. "Looking at these visualizations is a way to get signal from noise," he says. "Data transactions are happening all the time, but there's not visibility." Kennedy says tracking all of this visually via tools such as the observatory could lead to instruments that can track something that is not being observed.
Cornell Leads New NSF Federated Cloud Project
HPC Wire (11/03/15)
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is underwriting a five-year, $5-million project led by Cornell University to construct the Aristotle Cloud Federation, a federated cloud of data infrastructure building blocks that will support scientists and engineers requiring elastic workflows and analysis tools for large-scale data sets. The use cases of the cloud federation's users will demonstrate the importance of sharing resources and data across institutions so the actual time it takes researchers to obtain scientific results can be optimized. "The goal...is to develop a federated cloud model that encourages and rewards institutions for sharing large-scale data analysis resources that can be expanded internally with common, incremental building blocks and externally through meaningful collaborations with other institutions, commercial clouds, and NSF cloud resources," says Cornell's David Lifka. Metrics supplied by the University at Buffalo's XD Metrics on Demand and the University of California, Santa Barbara's Queue Bounds Estimation Time Series will enable researchers and administrators to make informed decisions about when to employ federated resources outside their institutions. "We plan to use Aristotle to exploit cloud-based parallelism and perform asynchronous, interactive analysis of complex environmental models that generate thousands of data files," notes Cornell researcher Patrick Reed.
In Coding Classes, Boston Schools Aim to Provide 21st Century Skills
The Christian Science Monitor (11/04/15) Max Lewontin
Dearborn STEM Academy, a public high school in Boston, is hoping teaching technology skills will help prepare its students for a 21th century economy. Local education nonprofit BPE took over the school this summer and has made teaching technology skills part of its mission. "Our goal is definitely that we'll be able to get folks jobs before they leave high school," says Dearborn principal Lisa Gilbert-Smith. "We want to make sure that our kids...have marketable skills, that they actually can get work in the technology field, and that they're exposed to technology to utilize in whatever careers they eventually choose in their lives." The school is building a new campus, which will have expanded technology facilities, and is planning to introduce an internship program that will connect students with local technology companies. Jonathan LoPorto, one of the school's computer science teachers, says he has had conversations with students about how technology will change job opportunities that will be available to them. Dearborn's program is part of a broader movement in the U.S. to provide more extensive technology education in schools. For example, New York City recently announced a plan to have all of the city's public schools offer computer science courses by 2025.
Google Aims to Make VR Hardware Irrelevant Before It Even Gets Going
Technology Review (11/03/15) Tom Simonite
Google and Facebook are pushing virtual-reality (VR) technology along two different lines. Google's Cardboard project mates a free cardboard box with commercially available smartphones to create a VR headset, while Facebook's Rift is a proprietary headset. Cardboard may have the upper hand because it is less expensive and uses already existing technology, giving VR a chance to expand out of niche uses, says Google's Clay Bavor. Cardboard's basic design includes an app that bisects the phone's display, while the goggle's lenses project a slightly different viewpoint to each of the user's eyes to enable depth perception. To interact with the onscreen content, the user presses a button on top of the goggles, which causes a piece of metalized fabric to swing against the phone's touchscreen and registers the tap of a fingertip. Cardboard could be improved by Google's Project Tango, an effort to develop three-dimensional sensors and software to help phones and tablets precisely track their position in space. Bavor also says add-on devices are redundant, noting "we prefer to tune the software and components of the smartphone to work well as opposed to adding complexity and things you need to charge."
With AI Advances, Facebook Tests M, Your Newest Assistant
Computerworld (11/03/15) Sharon Gaudin
Facebook chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer says the volume of data Facebook serves to users' News Feeds is increasing about 50 percent annually, adding, "the best way I can think of to keep pace with this growth is to build intelligent systems that will help us sort through the deluge of content." Facebook has been making artificial intelligence (AI) a priority for several years, and Schroepfer notes the Facebook A.I. Research (FAIR) team already has made gains in image recognition and natural-language processing. The FAIR team says its new image-recognition AI system can detect images 30-percent faster while using 10 times less training data than previous industry benchmarks. It also merged its image-recognition technology with a system it calls Memory Networks, which is designed to read and answer text questions. Schroepfer says one of the goals of the company's AI research efforts is to perfect M, an AI digital assistant Facebook is developing and which currently is being tested. The goal is to produce a system that can complete multi-step tasks with minimal assistance; for example, purchasing a gift and having it shipped to the right person or making travel arrangements.
Army Research Laboratory Selects USC Institute as Base for Breakthroughs in Science and Technology
USC News (11/03/15) Orli Belman
The U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL), as part of an initiative to facilitate scientific breakthroughs, plans to recruit up to 70 researchers to be based at the University of Southern California's (USC) Institute for Creative Technologies. The new research center, called ARL West, will leverage USC and regional expertise to broaden its abilities for the discovery, innovation, and transition of science and technology. "[This] announcement serves as recognition that ICT has established itself at the national forefront of this important work and that we have the opportunity to achieve even greater societal benefit through the establishment of this new model of government-university collaboration," says USC president C.L. Max Nikias. ARL West will focus on human information interaction, which involves research into how humans generate and interact with data to make decisions more effectively and efficiently. "This collaboration, in an open work environment, will further develop the work we do for our service members and the nation," says ARL director Thomas Russell. ARL West also will conduct research in fields such as robotics, haptics, and data visualization, and will provide a model for building open and diverse teams to address complex problems, according to USC vice president of research Randolph Hall.
Into the Uncanny Valley: 80 Robot Faces Ranked by Creepiness
New Scientist (11/02/15) Aviva Rutkin
Experiments administered by Stanford University biostatistician Maya Mathur and the University of California, San Francisco's David Reichling sought to determine the scope of the uncanny valley--the point at which a lifelike robot stops attracting people and instead repels them--so designers have tools to make machines that humans are more comfortable around. The researchers surveyed 66 workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk to score a series of 80 robot faces on a scale of 1 to 100 in terms of how mechanical and how human they appeared. The participants also had to rate how enjoyable they would find interacting with such robots on a daily basis. Mathur and Reichling determined the robots' perceived friendliness closely corresponded with the uncanny valley curve. Follow-up experiments asked 92 workers how much money they would give a robot to invest, which the robot would then triple and decide whether and how much to give back to them. The researchers found the sum of money that participants opted to give to the robot also followed the uncanny valley pattern. "I think, ultimately, these data suggest that the uncanny valley is a real and tangible problem," Mathur says.
Robots at the Reporting Desk
Penn State News (10/30/15) Katie Jacobs Bohn
Pennsylvania State University (PSU) researchers recently conducted a study examining news articles written by robots. They presented 435 participants with an article on one of three subjects--health, finance, or politics. All of the articles were generated by a robot, but half of the participants were told they were written by a human journalist. In addition, half were told their assigned article was from The New York Times, while the other half was told it came from the National Enquirer. The researchers found the participants preferred financial articles written by the robot, but favored health articles written by humans. There was no preference for political articles. "It seems that we might not be as comfortable with robots delivering news related to health, because of an 'eeriness' or a creepy feeling the participants felt, and our results backed this up," says PSU Ph.D. candidate Andrew Gambino. The researchers also developed a method to measure how uneasy the participants felt about a robot writing the news. Participants were asked how much they agreed with specific statements, and the researchers found those participants who thought they were reading robot-written stories tended to display higher levels of eeriness.
The Navigation App for Buildings
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (11/02/15) Romy Zschiedrich
Researchers in Germany have developed a smartphone app for navigation inside large public buildings such as exhibition halls, airports, shopping centers, and museums. The team from the Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems (IPMS) in Dresden makes use of wireless local-area networks (WLAN) and reports that with local radio networks, smartphones can be located indoors to within about two meters. The researchers developed software to evaluate the signal strength of the WLAN spots and determine the position of a smartphone. Similar to navigation devices in cars, the user selects their target destination and is presented with a two-dimensional bird's-eye view of the target and current positions, marked with dots and the shortest route on the map. The position point moves as the user moves. If the destination is outside the screen or on a different floor, arrows point the way. "We can bring any large map sharply and without any annoying delays onto every screen," says IPMS' Christian Scheibner. The Android app obtains all of the necessary data from the user's server. The researchers note open interfaces make it a simple and straightforward process to install the positioning and navigation algorithms and the graphical representations in customers' applications.
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