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Welcome to the February 24, 2016 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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UW Engineers Achieve Wi-Fi at 10,000 Times Lower Power
UW Today (02/23/16) Jennifer Langston

It is possible to support Wi-Fi transmissions that consume 10,000 times less power than conventional techniques, according to a team of University of Washington (UW) researchers partly funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation. The researchers note their Passive Wi-Fi system also uses 1,000 times less power than current energy-efficient wireless communication platforms. The system can relay Wi-Fi signals at up to 11 Mbps for decryption on any Wi-Fi-equipped device. The researchers say the breakthrough involved the decoupling of the digital and analog operations involved in radio transmissions, with the passive Wi-Fi framework assigning the analog functions to a single device in the network that is plugged into the wall. Meanwhile, sensors use almost no energy to communicate with any routers, phones, and other devices with a Wi-Fi chipset. "We wanted to see if we could achieve Wi-Fi transmissions using almost no power at all," says UW professor Shyam Gollakota. The team tested Passive Wi-Fi under real-world conditions, and found the sensors and a smartphone can communicate from as far apart as 100 feet. They speculate near-zero-power wireless communication will help enable an Internet of Things.

On-Chip Random Key Generation Done Using Carbon Nanotubes
Ars Technica (02/22/16) John Timmer

A joint IBM-academic team has developed a process in which carbon nanotubes are used to randomly wire part of a chip, which is then used to generate cryptographic information, delivering an innately secure on-chip facility for hardware-based encryption. The process was developed following the team's discovery that it is possible to produce conditions in which, on average, about 50 percent of the gates in an appropriately prepared area of the chip would be filled by nanotubes. The nanotubes are coated by a negatively-charged detergent so they become water-soluble and are channeled to a section of the chip patterned with a positively-charged substrate. Varying the spacing enables refinement of the number of locations that end up filled by a nanotube. Conditions can be established so, for example, 60 percent of the gates are occupied by a nanotube, but it is impossible to know in advance which ones will be filled. The result is a group of bits that are randomly conducting or non-conducting, from which cryptographic keys can be seeded. Moreover, combining metallic and semiconducting nanotubes enables each bit to be in one of three potential states, boosting storage density. The researchers built 64-bit test hardware and demonstrated the ability to consistently generate similar keys, suggesting it is not affected by environmental noise.

Researchers Are Developing Shape-Shifting Fluid Robots
Inside Science (02/19/16) Charles Q. Choi

Bar-Ilan University researchers say they have created fluid robots that could operate better than solid robots in chaotic, hostile environments. The fluid robots are composed of materials similar to Silly Putty that can behave as both liquids and solids, enabling them to perform tasks that conventional machines cannot. The researchers experimented with non-Newtonian fluids, which have varying viscosities depending on the rate that mechanical force is applied against them. After testing several non-Newtonian fluids, the researchers developed prototype fluid robots made of blobs of starch grains suspended in a sugary solution. Sound waves from audio speakers under the surface where the blobs rested help control their mechanical properties, and depending on the volumes and frequencies of the sounds, the researchers can make the blobs move. They found this technique could make the fluid robots drag metal items more than five times their weight. Moreover, the blobs can change shape, split into smaller blobs that could be controlled individually, merge to form larger blobs, and drip through gratings. The researchers say these attributes suggest fluid robots could be used in search-and-rescue missions.

Facebook's New Map of World Population Could Help Get Billions Online
Technology Review (02/22/16) Tom Simonite

Facebook is building maps that describe patterns of population density in the world's poorest countries in unprecedented detail. The company plans to use the maps as part of its effort to expand Internet access to the more than 4 billion people who are not currently online. Facebook believes other companies and organizations could put the maps to good use, and recently released the new maps for free. "These higher-resolution data will be useful in optimizing the location of health and sanitation facilities, planning energy and transportation networks, improving resource management and access, and facilitating humanitarian assistance," says Robert Chen, director of Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network. The maps show population density on a grid with squares only 10 meters across. Facebook used image-recognition software trained to read satellite images for signs of human habitation and how dense it is. The company says it took billions of satellite images and thousands of computers working for weeks to create the maps.

How to Build an Unbeatable Poker-Playing Robot
The Atlantic (02/22/16) Adam Kucharski

The allure of building superior poker-playing computer programs is the chance to tackle the challenge of dealing with missing information. A good game-playing algorithm backed by heavy computing muscle can bypass the problem of a lack of available data, and this was the strategy followed by University of Alberta researchers in their development of their Cepheus program. Cepheus mastered poker by practicing the game over and over at a rate of about 2,000 games a second, and employed a "regret minimization" algorithm, which reflects on past games and learns from errors. The bot demonstrates it is possible to work out an optimal strategy in complex situations, and the range of scenarios to which such algorithms could potentially apply is vast, according to the researchers. Still, the University of Alberta's Jonathan Schaeffer believes humans will continue to outclass game-playing algorithms by their ability to quickly make assumptions about opponents with little available data. Fellow University of Alberta researcher Michael Johanson notes human players' practice of aggression to beat opponents is another skill computer programs are attempting to mimic. "An aggressive strategy that puts a lot of pressure on opponents, making them make tough decisions, tends to be very effective," he says.

New Tools Developed to Help SMEs Efficiently Scale Up Cloud Services
CORDIS News (02/23/16)

The European Union-funded CLOUDSCALE project has developed tools to build scalable cloud applications, which are designed to boost the performance of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) while also helping them expand their cloud-based services. CLOUDSCALE's tools enable SMEs to analyze the scalability problem in detail and to identify bottlenecks within the application. The tools also use minimal computational resources to quickly and accurately assess the scalability of certain cloud-based services. For example, CLOUDSCALE Environment is a desktop application that integrates the different tools developed by the project. Meanwhile, CLOUDSCALE Analyzer enables users to accurately assess the scalability, elasticity, and efficiency of cloud-computing applications, and CLOUDSCALE Extractor is a reverse-engineering tool for automatic model extraction. Another new tool, DynamicSpotter, automatically detects software performance problems in Java-based enterprise software systems. Static Spotter is another reverse-engineering tool, which automatically detects search patterns that can influence scalability. A key aspect of the project is ensuring industry relevance because a greater uptake of CLOUDSCALE tools will help guarantee scalability becomes less of a problem for organizations looking to implement cost-effective and flexible cloud-based systems.

Detecting Hidden Malicious Ads
Northwestern University Newscenter (02/22/16) Amanda Morris

Northwestern University researchers, in an attempt to stop attacks from hidden malicious advertisements, have developed a dynamic system for Android-based devices that detects malicious ads and locates and identifies the parties that permitted them to reach the end user. The researchers tested the system on about 1 million apps in two months, and found although only about 0.1 percent of ads are malicious, that total is still quite large because about 2 billion people own smartphones worldwide. Ads that ask the user to download a program are the most dangerous, containing malicious software about 50 percent of the time, according to the researchers. The software electronically clicks the ads within apps and follows a chain of links to the final landing page, and then downloads that page's code and completes an analysis to determine if it is malicious or not. The software also uses machine-learning techniques to track the changing behaviors of malware as it attempts to elude detection. The researchers currently are testing 10 times more ads with the goal of developing a more efficient system. "The smartphone has become a treasure for attackers, so they are investing heavily in compromising them," says Northwestern researcher Yan Chen. "That means we will see more and more malicious ads and malware."

Robotic Reasoning
UDaily (DE) (02/22/16) Karen B. Roberts

University of Delaware (UD) researchers are studying the advantage of linking multi-sensor systems aboard an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to enable the vehicle to synthesize sound data in real time so it can independently make decisions about what action to take next. The researchers tested whether a modular AUV used for deep-sea research could be programmed to autonomously make decisions and trigger new missions based on biological information. The researchers preprogrammed the computers onboard the AUV to make certain decisions. For example, while surveying the ocean at depths of 1,640 to 3,000 feet below the surface, the onboard computers analyzed the sonar data of marine organisms in the water based on their size and density. When the acoustic sensors detected the right size and concentration of squid, it triggered the AUV to report its position in the water and then run a preprogrammed grid to map the area in finer detail. "It was a really simple test that demonstrated that it's possible to use acoustics to find a species, to have an AUV target specific sizes of that species, and to follow the species, all without having to retrieve and reprogram the vehicle to hunt for something that will probably be long gone by the time you are ready," says UD researcher Mark Moline.

Carnegie Mellon, Stanford Researchers Devise Method to Share Password Data Safely
CMU News (02/22/16) Byron Spice

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon (CMU) and Stanford universities recently persuaded Yahoo! to publicly share password frequency statistics for about 70 million of its users. "It's the kind of information that legitimate researchers can use to assess the impact of a security breach and to make informed decisions about password defenses," says CMU professor Anupam Datta. The researchers used the data to develop a method to let organizations share statistics about users' passwords without putting those customers at risk. The new method distorts numbers in the dataset so the list is "differentially private," a mathematical definition that guarantees the released statistics do not reveal whether any specific individual's password is included in the dataset. Password frequency lists for large user groups can be analyzed to help organizations set authentication policies that balance security with usability, or to predict which user accounts are most vulnerable, according to former CMU Ph.D. student Jeremiah Blocki. The new algorithm adds just enough distortion to the frequency lists to make them useless to hackers, but still enable researchers to see the high-level patterns they seek in the data. The algorithm is based on the exponential mechanism, which introduces minimal distortion but is not computationally efficient in general. The researchers developed a computationally efficient version of the exponential mechanism by exploiting the inherent mathematical structure of a password frequency list.

Dartmouth Researchers Invent 'Magic Wand' to Improve Healthcare, Cybersecurity
Dartmouth College (02/19/16) John Cramer

A new digital "magic wand" developed by Dartmouth College researchers makes it easy for people to connect their devices to Wi-Fi. The system, called "Wanda," was developed as part of a U.S. National Science Foundation-funded project. The Trustworthy Health and Wellness initiative aims to protect patients and their confidentiality as medical records move to electronic form. The team's solution is designed to make it easy for people to securely add a new device to their home or clinic Wi-Fi network. Wanda is a small hardware device that has two antennas separated by one-half wavelength and uses radio strength as a communication channel. Users pull the wand from a USB port on the Wi-Fi access point, carry it close to the new device, point it at the device, and within a few seconds the wand securely beams the secret Wi-Fi network information to the device. "We anticipate our 'Wanda' technology being useful in a wide variety of applications, not just healthcare, and for a wide range of device management tasks, not just Wi-Fi network configuration," says Dartmouth professor David Kotz. Dartmouth doctoral student Tim Pierson says Wanda was received by volunteer testers, who noted how frustrating it can be to configure wireless devices at home.

Wearable Robot Transforms Musicians Into Three-Armed Drummers
Georgia Tech News Center (02/17/16) Jason Maderer

Drummers now can play with three arms using a wearable robotic limb developed by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). The two-foot-long "smart arm" knows where it is located at all times, listens to the music, and then improvises based on the beat and rhythm, says Georgia Tech professor Gil Weinberg, director of the Center for Music Technology. Built-in accelerometers enable the robot to sense distance and proximity, while on-board motors enable it to rise, lower, and twist, and human motion-capture technology enables it to move naturally. Weinberg and a team of students built the arm after creating a robotic prosthesis for an Atlanta drummer. Weinberg says a robotic device that is part of a person's body is a completely different feeling from working alongside a regular robot because it learns how the person's body moves and can augment and complement their activity. "It becomes a part of you," he says. Weinberg notes the next step is linking the arm's movement to brain activity, and he thinks surgeons could potentially use the technology to assist or participate in surgeries.

Combating the Sinister Side of Crowdsourcing
Utah State University (02/16/16) Matt Jensen

Utah State University (USU) researchers are developing new tools that detect and target crowdsource manipulation, and USU professor Kyumin Lee recently received a U.S. National Science Foundation CAREER Award to combat this growing and lucrative corner of the Internet. The $516,000-grant will help the researchers create the algorithms and systems for defending the open Web from emerging threats. The goal of the project is to analyze the behavior of 'crowdturfers' and stop them in their tracks. Lee says it also is possible to create a blacklist of suspicious crowdsourced tasks to help users distinguish legitimate tasks from harmful ones. "Given our classification and clustering techniques, detecting almost all crowdturfers becomes a distinct possibility in the near future," he notes. Lee reports the study will enable authentic crowdsourcing service providers and target sites, including social media, product review sites, and search engines, to detect crowdsource manipulation while protecting information quality and trust. In addition, as part of the project, Lee will develop two new courses related to data science and will improve on ways to recruit more female students to study computer science.

United Nations CITO: Artificial Intelligence Will Be Humanity's Final Innovation
TechRepublic (02/19/16) Dan Patterson

In an interview, United Nations (UN) chief information technology officer Atefeh Riazi emphasizes artificial-intelligence (AI) innovation as the next nexus of human technological advancement, which she says makes it imperative people consider both the positive and negative moral and ethical implications and craft appropriate policy. "I'm looking at the machine language, and the path we're creating for 10, 20, 30 years from now but not fully understanding the ethical programming that we're putting into the systems," Riazi says. "[Information technology (IT)] people are creating the next world. The ethical programming they do is what is in their head, and so policies are being written in lines of code, in the algorithms." Riazi stresses the pressing need to address AI's social, cultural, and economic impact, and she says the UN is being held back in leading such dialogues because of strong political opposition. She says the root of this resistance is the notion of physical borders still existing, when the world has been virtualized by the Internet and digitization, and such boundaries are no longer relevant. Riazi cites the paradox of IT and technology, in that their invisible risks are downplayed compared to their visible risks. "IT policy makers in particular have a responsibility to consider the ramifications and unintended consequences of rapidly-evolving innovation," she says.

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