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Welcome to the March 7, 2016 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Taking Baby Steps Toward Software That Reasons Like Humans
The New York Times (03/06/16) John Markoff

MetaMind is one of a multitude of startups promoting pattern-recognition software as a way to advance the field of artificial intelligence when paired with vast datasets by using deep-learning methods. MetaMind on Sunday published a study detailing the strides its researchers have made in creating software that can answer questions about the contents of both textual documents and digital images. The research indicates a steady progress toward "conversational" agents that can engage with humans, with MetaMind's emphasis on a dynamic memory network with the potential to simultaneously process inputs that include sound, sight, and text. The company's software adds the ability to both recall a sequence of statements and concentrate on portions of an image. "Another step toward really understanding images is, are you actually able to answer questions that have a right or wrong answer?" asks MetaMind founder Richard Socher. He notes automated customer support is one of the commercial uses for which his company is employing the technology. Computer scientist Oren Etzioni thinks MetaMind's report relies on datasets that are less than ideal. Etzioni's Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence is focused on the creation of software capable of answering questions taken from standardized elementary school science tests.
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Ray Tomlinson, Email Inventor Who Picked the @ Sign for Addresses, Dies
IDG News Service (03/07/16) John Ribeiro

Raymond Samuel Tomlinson, who is credited as the inventor of email and introduced the "@" sign in email addresses, died last week at the age of 74. In 1971, Tomlinson developed ARPANET's first application for network email by integrating the local inter-user mail program SNDMSG he was working on with an experimental file transfer program known as CPYNET, which permitted messages to be sent to users on other computers. Tomlinson told Computerworld in 2007 his goal was to build the first email system enabling messages to be sent from a person on one computer over a network to someone who was using an entirely different computer. When asked why he chose the "@" sign, he said, "the at sign just makes sense. The purpose of the at sign (in English) was to indicate a unit price (for example, 10 items @ $1.95). I used the at sign to indicate that the user was 'at' some other host rather than being local." Tomlinson received a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1963 and also studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining research and development company Bolt Beranek and Newman, which is now Raytheon BBN Technologies.

Browsing in Public
MIT News (03/07/16) Larry Hardesty

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have developed Eyebrowse, a system that enables Web users to share self-selected aspects of their online activity with their friends and the general public. The goal is to give users, academics, and other scientists conducting research in the public interest access to browsing data that major Web companies currently collect and mine to better target products to individuals. In addition, the researchers say Eyebrowse could encourage changes in the regulatory environment that would give Web users more control over what type of data is collected and how it is used. The researchers presented their work in a paper last week at the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW 2016) in San Francisco. The paper describes the results of a survey of potential end users, which helped guide the system's design. The findings suggest Web users could find it beneficial to share data about their online activities. "If people do buy into voluntary tracking, then maybe we don't need involuntary tracking, and that would be pretty wonderful," says MIT professor David Karger. Eyebrowse currently consists of a website and an extension to Google's Chrome Web browser.

Humanoid Robots Can't Outsource Their Brains to the Cloud Due to Network Latency
Ars Technica (03/02/16) Paul Marks

Osaka University roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro says offloading a humanoid robot's intelligence to a data center or a cloud computer is impractical because network latency issues ensure the android's interaction speed would be adversely affected. He says the result would be a robot whose reaction time is too slow for humans to engage comfortably with it. The issue plays a role in Ishiguro's latest area of research, an android that can hold dialogues with people on limited topics while performing believable, dynamic body language. Ten local personal computers feed intelligence to the android, which assimilates data from various sensors. The robot also is capable of vocal and facial recognition, according to Ishiguro. He says the next step in the android's development is the creation of an "intention engine" so it can identify the conversational intentions of the humans it observes and with whom it speaks. "For the robot, it's better to understand the human's intentions and desires if they are to have better relationships with humans," Ishiguro notes. The roboticist also plans to deploy an English-language chatbot engine so the android becomes multilingual, an important consideration in the transition to what Ishiguro calls a "robot society," in which robots are routinely used "in daily situations."

Light-Up Skin Stretches Boundaries of Robotics
Cornell Chronicle (03/03/16) Tom Fleischman

Cornell University researchers have developed electroluminescent "skin," which stretches to more than six times its original size while still emitting light. The hyper-elastic light-emitting capacitor (HLEC) consists of layers of transparent hydrogel electrodes sandwiching an insulating elastomer sheet. The material has two key properties in its ability to enable robots to change color and for displays to change their shape, says Cornell professor Rob Shepherd. He believes these properties could help give robots the ability to have an emotional connection with humans. "When robots become more and more a part of our lives, the ability for them to have an emotional connection with us will be important," Shepherd says. "So to be able to change their color in response to mood or the tone of the room we believe is going to be important for human-robot interactions." The HLEC, which can endure more than twice the strain of previously tested stretchable displays, is capable of being integrated into a soft robotic system. The material also has applications in wearable electronics in that it would help enable devices to fully conform to the wearer's shape.

'Bending Current' Opens Up the Way for a New Type of Magnetic Memory
Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands) (03/04/16)

Magnetic random-access memory (MRAM) is more efficient and robust than other kinds of data storage, but switching bits still requires too much electrical power to make large-scale application practical. Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) researchers say they have solved this problem by using a "bending current," an approach that flips the magnetic bits faster and more efficiently than with conventional methods. The new method involves sending a current pulse under the bit, which bends the electrons at the correct spin upwards, and so through the bit. "It's a bit like a soccer ball that is kicked with a curve when the right effect is applied," says TU/e researcher Arno van den Brink. Although the technique is exceptionally fast, it needs something to make the flipping reliable. Early attempts to do this required a magnetic field, but that made the method expensive and inefficient. The TU/e researchers say they solved this problem by applying a special anti-ferromagnetic material on top of the bits, enabling the requisite magnetic field to be frozen, achieving energy efficiency and low cost. "This could be the decisive nudge in the right direction for superfast MRAM in the near future," van den Brink says.

Researchers Develop an Intelligent Data Scanner That Scans the Internet to Detect Signs of Organized Crime
University of Granada (Spain) (03/03/16)

An international team of researchers has developed ePOOLICE, an intelligent data-scanning system that enables users to scan Web pages and emails to search for evidence of organized crime. The scanning system is comprised of several components that work together to monitor the Internet and automatically produce alerts about scenarios that could indicate a rise in threats related to organized crime. The system relies on natural-language semantic filtering, knowledge representation, data mining, information fusion, and big data intelligence analysis. The goal of the ePOOLICE system "is the development of tools for anticipating and more effectively battling the establishment and expansion of organized crime groups devoted to crimes such as human and drug trafficking, the production and distribution of child pornography, and cybercrimes," says University of Granada researcher Maria Jose Martin Bautista. She says the system is especially useful because it can create a safe environment in which to utilize the data. The researchers note the system was designed to preserve the constitutional right to privacy while using state-of-the-art technology to ensure citizens' safety.

Dynamic Cyber Warning Software Looks Promising
UAH News (03/01/16) Jim Steele

University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) researchers have developed software they say could be used to alert users when they are about to give away sensitive personal information online. The software, originally developed to adapt eye-recognition equipment for use in behavioral research involving online information disclosure, also has been effective in displaying warnings in a dynamic manner that are more readily perceived and less easily dismissed by the user. The eye-tracking system detects the direction of a user's gaze on a computer screen and records how long they gaze at that spot. Afterward, the software uses those two functions to determine when a user's eyes remain on a request for sensitive personal information, and at that moment the system displays a warning box. The app then tracks the amount of time the user's eyes are on the warning, and the box remains on the screen until sufficient time has passed to ensure it has been read. "That's the novelty here, is using the eye tracker as an input to warn people what not to do," says UAH professor Frank Zhu.

A Road Map for Advancing Women in Tech
UCLA Newsroom (CA) (03/02/16) George Foulsham

A new study from the Luskin Center for Innovation report, based on information from the University of California, Los Angeles' April 2015 Women in Tech conference, makes eight core recommendations for boosting diversity and advancing and retaining women in the technology sector. The most important recommendation is offering quality mentorships, says report co-author and former Luskin Center project manager Rebecca Sadwick. "The importance of understanding this and actively seeking resources to advance men and women's careers equitably is vital," she stresses. The report's other recommendations include using data to evaluate diversity, giving female entrepreneurs access to funding models that reduce bias, reducing subconscious bias in the hiring process, standardizing performance reviews, expanding public-private partnerships, building on mandate-driven public policies, and committing to diversity at all leadership levels. "There needs to be more strategies from both the private and public sectors to really affect change comprehensively," says the Luskin Center's Sarah Godoy. Sadwick notes public and private firms are more likely to implement strategies that directly impact their ability to attract diverse talent, by studying effective tactics in other companies and nations. "Companies that make it a priority at all levels of leadership to counter systemic inequalities that limit their talent pool have remarkable success," she says.

Computer Scientist Gets CAREER Boost for Cybersecurity Project
UT Dallas News Center (03/02/16) Chaz Lilly

The U.S. National Science Foundation has awarded University of Texas at Dallas professor Alvaro Cardenas a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award for his research on cyber-physical systems (CPS). Cardenas will receive more than $500,000 in funding over five years. His research project focuses on the security and protection of cyber-physical critical infrastructures such as power grids, water distribution networks, and transportation networks. Cardenas plans to investigate how monitoring the physical system can indicate a cyberattack. His research also focuses on privacy issues related to CPS and proposes ways to minimize the dangers of the unprecedented levels of data collection involving CPS devices. For example, Cardenas says he wants to help create guidelines for smart thermostats that would enable the industry to achieve its data goals while minimizing the collection of data to only what is necessary. Cardenas says his algorithms could be used in smart grids, smart meters, power systems, and automobile systems.

New Vulnerability Discovered in Common Online Security
University of Adelaide (03/02/16)

Researchers from the University of Adelaide, Tel Aviv University, and the University of Pennsylvania say OpenSSL, one of the world's most common security software packages, is vulnerable to a side-channel attack, which enables a hacker to take important information about software by examining the physical workings of a computer system. The researchers found it is possible to eavesdrop on the workings of the OpenSSL encryption software. They measured highly sensitive changes in the computer's timing, which enabled them to recover the private key OpenSSL uses to identify the user or the computer. However, the likelihood of someone hacking a computer using this method is slim, according to the researchers. "At this stage, we have only found this vulnerability in computers with Intel's 'Sandy Bridge' processors," says University of Adelaide researcher Yuval Yarom. "Computers with other Intel processors may not be affected in the same way." There have been debates about this kind of attack on OpenSSL for more than 10 years, and now the researchers have finally proved the vulnerability exists. "With OpenSSL being the most commonly used cryptographic software in the world right now, it's important for us to stay vigilant against any possible attack, no matter how small its chances might be," Yarom says.

Will Unlocking Apple's iPhone Also Unlock a Pandora's Box?
BU Research (03/04/16) Sara Rimer

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's pressure on Apple to write new code so it can unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists threatens to undermine U.S. cybersecurity, according to Boston University professor Sharon Goldberg. In an interview, Goldberg notes there are other sources--the phone company, the phone's global-positioning system, as well as others--that can be tapped to reveal unencrypted sensitive information. She also cites a report refuting law enforcement officials' argument that companies' growing use of encryption for iPhones and other devices is obstructing their ability to collect data for surveillance, when increasing Internet use is creating more opportunities to gather data on people. Of particular concern for Goldberg is the likelihood that Apple will create an entirely new set of vulnerabilities hackers could use to attack innocent users, if it develops new software that negates the iPhone's password security. "Apart from giving increasing numbers of people access to this sensitive code, it also means that Apple's code-signing key would have to be used frequently," she warns. In the event this key is stolen or exposed, malefactors could load malware onto any Apple phone, Goldberg notes. "This would be a step backward at a time when we need to improve cybersecurity, not weaken it," she says.

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