Welcome to the November 18, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Encrypted Messaging Apps Face New Scrutiny Over Possible Role in Paris Attacks
The New York Times (11/17/15) David E. Sanger; Nicole Perlroth
Obama administration officials say the Paris attacks have brought new attention to how the Islamic State has used encrypted messaging applications, many of which cannot be cracked by the U.S. National Security Agency. The incident has revived a contentious debate between U.S. intelligence officials and Silicon Valley over the government's push to compel technology companies to open a "back door" to decode encrypted data and conversations. The White House ultimately agreed with a coalition of cryptographers and computer security experts that such a move would increase the vulnerability of confidential data and critical infrastructure to wrongdoers and enemies of the U.S., and encourage terrorists to adopt encrypted services sold abroad. Security experts also say even end-to-end encryption leaves behind a trail of metadata that can be used to determine who is speaking to whom, when, and where. "Encryption is really good at making it difficult to hide the content of communications, but not good at hiding the presence of communications," says the University of Pennsylvania's Matt Blaze. He also notes even with encryption it's possible to read communications by hacking into the target device. "So this idea that encryption make terrorists' communications go completely dark has a pretty big asterisk next to it," Blaze says.
Newer Supercomputers Favor Energy Efficiency Over Raw Speed
IDG News Service (11/16/15) Peter Sayer
Investments in more energy-efficient supercomputers instead of higher-performing systems are gaining, according to the latest edition of the Top500 list of the world's most powerful computers. China's 33.86 petaflop/second Tianhe-2 has captured the top spot for the sixth straight ranking, but in recent years the index's editors have noticed a deceleration in supercomputing growth compared to the long-term trend. When the world's fastest supercomputers are rated in terms of energy efficiency, the lead system is the Tokyo Institute of Technology's Tsubame-KFC/DL at 4.86 gigaflops/watt. However, the following six rankings are new entrants based in China. A combination of Intel Xeon E5 and Nvidia Tesla processors was used to construct the seven most efficient supercomputers, all of which yield more than 3.77 Gflops/W. Only about 50 percent of the computers on the Top500 list are rated for energy efficiency, with the current average being 1.45 Gflops/W, versus 1.35 Gflops/W in July. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. systems that made the list has slipped from 231 to 200, while Europe's share has declined from 141 to 108. Chinese systems have gained over Europe, with 109 machines on the list compared to 37 in the previous index.
White, Male Tech Image Hinders Progress, Poll Finds
USA Today (11/17/15) Marco della Cava
Parents overwhelmingly think computer science (CS) skills will help their children find careers, yet that goal often seems out of reach for many of today's young girls, according to the second in an ongoing series of Gallup surveys commissioned by Google. The poll found nearly half of the K-12 students surveyed think computer scientists need to be very smart in terms of math and science, but only 42 percent of students self-identified as being "very skilled" at math, and 39 percent at science. The survey found this gap widened when girls were asked about pursuing careers as computer programmers, with 42 percent reporting they felt "very confident" they could learn the necessary skills, compared to 62 percent of boys. In addition, only 18 percent of girls said they were "very likely" to pursue computer science in the future, compared to 35 percent of boys, according to the survey. Many of the respondents attribute these figures to the characters seen practicing computer science in popular media, who are largely white and male. "These perceptions that you have to be white, male, and very smart means many kids don't see CS as being for them," says Google's Sepi Hejazi Moghadam.
NASA Gives MIT a Humanoid Robot to Develop Software for Future Space Missions
MIT News (11/17/15) Adam Conner-Simms
The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on Tuesday announced that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) will be one of two university research groups to receive a 6-foot, 290-pound humanoid robot. The CSAIL team, lead by principal investigator Russ Tedrake, will use the robot, called "Valkyrie" or "R5," to develop software as part of NASA's upcoming Space Robotics Challenge. Tedrake's team recently took part in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Robotics Challenge, and will now bring the expertise they honed teaching a robot to walk, drive, turn valves, and more for that challenge to enabling robots to perform similar tasks in space. The goal of NASA's challenge is to create more dexterous autonomous robots that can help or even take the place of humans on "extreme space" missions. Robots such as R5 could be used in future missions as either the advance guard for human astronauts, performing tasks before the humans arrive, or working alongside humans. The R5 was initially designed for disaster-relief maneuvers, but its main goal now is to operate in hostile space environments. "Advances in robotics, including human-robotic collaboration, are critical to developing the capabilities required for our journey to Mars," says NASA's Steve Jurczyk.
Latest Graph500 Ranking of Fastest Supercomputers Released by Leading Universities at SC15
HPC Wire (11/17/15)
The 11th Graph500 list of the world's fastest supercomputers was unveiled on Tuesday at the Supercomputing 2015 conference, with Japan's K-Computer holding the lead position for the second time in a row. The 10 highest-ranking supercomputers were mostly systems from Fujitsu, IBM, and China's National University of Defense Technology, with the Blue Gene/Q architecture dominating eight of the top positions. "Supercomputers are built according to the jobs they will execute, and the bottleneck for analytics codes is often memory bandwidth rather than peak floating point capability," says Georgia Institute of Technology professor David Bader. The Graph500 executive committee also announced a new streaming analytics benchmark and an infrastructure to enable the cultivation of new analytics benchmarks from the community. The initiative will formalize its comparative methodology to start the process of generating predictive analytics that plot out real application performance to benchmark measurements. The committee thinks this strategy is critical to advancing the state of the art in data-intensive platforms. "We need a set of metrics for the evaluation of any [high-performance computing] system," says University of Tennessee professor and LINPACK Benchmark creator Jack Dongarra.
UNSW Unlocks Key to Quantum Coding in Silicon
ZDNet (11/16/15) Asha Barbaschow
University of New South Wales (UNSW) researchers say they have successfully demonstrated that a quantum version of computer code can be written and manipulated in silicon with two quantum bits. The code harnesses quantum entanglement, in which the measurement of one particle, an electron, instantly affects another, in this case the nucleus of a phosphorus atom. Because the electron orbits the nucleus, "there is no complication arising from the spookiness of action at a distance," the researchers say. The researchers note they achieved the highest-ever Bell test score in their advancement. "[This] is the strongest possible proof that we have the operation of a quantum computer entirely under control," says UNSW professor Andrea Morello. "In particular, we can access the purely quantum type of code that requires the use of the delicate quantum entanglement between two particles." The researchers say employing two bits in a conventional computer enables four possible code words to be written--but in a quantum computer, "superpositions" of the classical code words also can be written and used. "We have shown beyond any doubt that we can write this code inside a device that resembles the silicon microchips you have on your laptop or your mobile phone," Morello says.
When It Comes to Jobs, Generation Z May Not Be the 'Tech' Generation After All
TechRepublic (11/16/15) Conner Forrest
Despite persistent stereotypes that younger generations have some kind of intuitive grasp of technology, their interest in pursuing careers in information technology (IT) remains relatively low, according to a new CompTIA study. The study found only 13 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds surveyed said they want to pursue a career in IT, even though 70 percent of them reported loving technology. The broader gender gap in the technology industry also holds true among the surveyed teenagers, with only 10 percent of girls saying they were interested in IT, compared to 23 percent of boys. The CompTIA says much of this lack of interest in IT among the younger generation stems from a lack of understanding and exposure to the field. Thirty-eight percent of junior-high and high-school students surveyed said their school provides no information on IT jobs. Code.org says only 10 percent of U.S. high schools offer computer science classes. CompTIA's Seth Robinson says finding ways to instill more interest in IT among the next generation is crucial, since IT is an increasingly integral part of every business in every industry. Robinson says the first step to connecting the younger generation's love for technology to an interest in IT is better education around the subject.
Researchers Develop System to Control Information Leaks From Smartphone Apps
Northeastern University News (11/16/15) Thea Singer
Northeastern University researchers say they have found "extensive" leakage of users' information into network traffic from apps on mobile devices, including iOS, Android, and Windows phones. However, the researchers say they also found a way to stop the flow. They have developed ReCon, a cloud-based system that detects leaks of personally identifiable information, alerts users to those breaches, and enables users to control the leaks by specifying what information they want blocked and from whom. The researchers studied 31 mobile device users who used ReCon for a period of one week to 101 days and then monitored their personal leakages through a ReCon secure Web page. The researchers found 165 cases of credentials being leaked in plaintext. In addition, of the top 100 apps in each operating system's app store that participants were using, more than 50 percent leaked device identifiers, more than 14 percent leaked actual names or other user identifiers, between 14 and 26 percent leaked locations, and three leaked passwords in plaintext. "Our system is designed to use cues in the network traffic to figure out what kind of information is being leaked," says Northeastern professor David Choffnes.
Japan Chases Title of World's Fastest Computer With New System
IDG News Service (11/16/15) Agam Shah
Japan says it is developing a new supercomputer with the aim to deliver 100 times more application performance than its current K supercomputer. According to the latest Top500 list of supercomputers, the K is the world's third-fastest computer. Fujitsu and the Japanese research institution RIKEN are developing the new supercomputer, which will be deployed in 2020. Japan shared details about the new supercomputer on Tuesday during the SC15 conference being held in Austin, Texas. The K supercomputer, which has 705,204 processing cores and offers 10.5 petaflops of performance, is based on Fujitsu's SPARC64 VIIIfx processors and Tofu interconnect. The system will be based on the Linux operating system and will have many storage layers. A "6D mesh" will be considered, indicating the use of a six-dimensional design, which could facilitate connections for more simultaneous central-processing units, memory, and storage compared to existing systems. Japan is developing the new supercomputer as part of a national project called Flagship2020.
Machine Vision Algorithm Learns to Recognize Hidden Facial Expressions
Technology Review (11/13/15)
A machine-vision algorithm that can detect and identify microexpressions--fleeting facial expressions that reveal deep emotions--with superior capability to humans has been developed and tested by researchers led by the University of Oulu's Xiaobai Li. Li and his team first generated a database of videos displaying microexpressions in realistic conditions, by asking a group of people to watch footage designed to invoke strong emotions while hiding their feelings as they were filmed. The displayed emotions were then linked to the emotional content of the videos. The researchers next used a single frame showing a subject's face as a standard and compared all subsequent frames against it to ascertain how the expression changed, with any change beyond a certain threshold designated a microexpression. "One major challenge for microexpression recognition is that the intensity levels of facial movements are too low to be distinguishable," the researchers note. They addressed this problem with an algorithm that "magnifies" expressions by identifying the parts of the face that move when an expression changes and distorting the face to move them further. Lastly, the algorithm categorizes the displayed emotion as positive, negative, or surprise, a process it learns from the database. Li's team says potential applications for the technology could include lie detection, law enforcement, and psychotherapy.
A Program That Captions Your Photos
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (11/16/15) Sarah Bourquenoud
Researchers at Idiap, a research institute affiliated with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, say they have developed a system that can automatically describe photos with sentences it was not taught. The algorithm is capable of making vector representations of images and captions based on an analysis of caption syntax. "When we give it a photo, the program compares the image vector to the vector of possible words and selects the most likely noun, verb, and prepositional phrases," says Idiap Ph.D. student Remi Lebret. For example, the system would break down the image of a man skateboarding into elements--a skateboard, a man, a ramp--and verbs that could describe the action--riding--before captioning the picture. The researchers say the approach is simpler and works better than existing methods based on sequence labeling with recurrent neural networks. Such an algorithm can cause problems because if it poorly predicts the beginning of the phrase, the entire caption likely will be wrong. Those systems also have a longer learning curve, and they tend to recycle previously used captions. Facebook is using the Idiap research to develop a model of automatic captions, and the algorithm could be improved by using more complex language models and linking it to larger databases.
Studying Artificial 'Consciousness' Could Pave the Way for Artificial Intelligence
Monash University (11/10/15)
Researchers from Japan and Australia are collaborating to assess whether robots or computers are capable of consciousness. The academic and industrial partners will use a five-year, $3.4-million Japan Science and Technology Core Research for Evolutionary Science and Technology grant to construct artificial intelligence (AI) based on the integrated information theory. "Our research will initially focus on the quality and quantity of the consciousness of a biological system and evaluate how information is processed and integrated within that system," says Monash University professor Nao Tsuchiya. The team of neuroscience, engineering, and AI experts will examine how the brain integrates information in various states of consciousness, and parallel projects will attempt to develop artificial networks with high information integration. For the final stage of the research, the team will examine how a robot with high information integration behaves autonomously and flexibly. Artificial consciousness could have applications in the industry and healthcare sectors.
Software Better Than Humans at Guessing How You Feel From Speech
New Scientist (11/13/15) Anna Nowogrodzki
New software developed at the University of Rochester is the first to outperform humans in identifying emotions in human speech. Graduate students Na Yang and Emre Eskimez report their system classified 700 audio samples and got the emotional sense right 72 percent of the time. They note nearly 140 people working on Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform only averaged 60-percent accuracy on the same clips. Yang and Eskimez designed the system to identify vocal tract shape, frequency, brightness, flatness, roughness, and energy from speech. They say the software does not need to record any of the speech to recognize the feeling behind human utterances, which should benefit researchers working with people who are already wary of letting them into their homes. The researchers plan to use the software to record parents' emotions when they interact with children, and the software could help researchers better understand how those emotions impact a child's development.
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