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Welcome to the June 17, 2016 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


China Claims Exascale by 2020, Three Years Before U.S.
Computerworld (06/16/16) Patrick Thibodeau

China wants to deliver an exascale computing system by 2020, three years ahead of the U.S. plan to achieve the same goal. The system, being developed at China's National University of Defense Technology, will be called Tianhe-3, following a naming pattern that began in 2010 when China announced the Tianhe-1, its first petaflop-scale system. However, it is unclear if China will be able to achieve its plan to develop an exascale system by 2020, as U.S. experts believe the power required to run such a system--20 to 30 megawatts--will not be possible until 2023 at the earliest. The first stage of a future Chinese exascale system likely will be peak exaflop performance, and then a Linpack test making it eligible for ranking on the Top 500 supercomputing list, according to IDC analyst Steve Conway. However, he notes the measure "that counts most, but will be likely be celebrated least, is sustained exaflop performance on a full, challenging 64-bit application." Conway says that third stage probably will not happen until the 2022 to 2024 time frame, similar to the one the U.S. has set for its own sustained exascale performance.


Pro-ISIS Online Groups Use Social Media Survival Strategies to Evade Authorities
IEEE Spectrum (06/16/16) Amy Nordrum

ISIS relies heavily on social media to circulate news and radicalize people, and researchers led by Stefan Wuchty at the University of Miami have published the first formal poll of how pro-ISIS online groups operate. The researchers highlight three strategies many groups have used to avoid censorship in social media networks. Software-driven analysis of pro-ISIS groups on the social networking site VKontakte was conducted over an eight-month period, while subject-matter experts identified hashtags for algorithms to search and manually vetted the results to verify the selected groups were pro-ISIS. The researchers found 15 percent of 196 logged groups changed their names during the study period, and 7 percent flipped their visibility from public to members only. Another 4 percent reincarnated, or vanished completely, but reappeared later under a new name and earned more than 60 percent of their original followers back. Wuchty's model implies if these groups were to expand freely, they could cohere into a mega-network through which ISIS information would rapidly proliferate. Wuchty says the data from their research suggests authorities should favor monitoring and suppressing groups instead of individuals. The researchers also suggest tracking the behavior of pro-ISIS online groups might be used to signal favorable conditions for an attack.


Rediscovering Virtual Reality
The Huffington Post (06/15/16) Larry Hodges

Virtual reality (VR) applications so far have had limited commercial potential and appeal due to the cost and quality of the available technology, writes Clemson University professor Larry Hodges. "The current excitement over VR has been generated because major technology companies...are investing significant amounts of funding into VR development to produce better products at a lower cost than ever before," he says. Hodges cites exposure therapy as one field that could benefit significantly from VR, helping people conquer phobias or treat soldiers for post traumatic stress disorder. He notes the first commercially therapeutic VR product for exposure therapy was prohibitively expensive 20 years ago, while the arrival of lower-cost VR hardware and software is a recent development. Still, Hodges acknowledges downsides to VR, such as wearing cumbersome equipment that inhibits physical movement and isolation from immediate surroundings. Hodges predicts VR's continued status as a niche technology with some successful uses requiring immersive environments. He also cites its integration into mixed-reality products as a solution that "gives us the best of both worlds--a virtual reality that does not isolate us from our physical environment."


New 'GreenWeb' Tools Aim to Create an Energy-Efficient Web
UT News (06/15/16) Sandra Zaragoza

University of Texas (UT) at Austin researchers have developed GreenWeb, an open source programming framework that could make the Internet more energy efficient, enabling users to save more battery power while browsing on mobile devices. GreenWeb is a set of Web programming language extensions that enable developers to have more flexibility and control over the energy consumption of a website. "We've taken an important step toward language-level research to enable energy-efficient mobile Web computing," says UT professor Vijay Janapa Reddi. The researchers integrated GreenWeb into Google Chrome and reported energy savings of 30 percent to 66 percent over Android's default mode. GreenWeb more efficiently guides the Web browser engine to save processor energy without sacrificing user experience. The language extensions, implemented as CSS style rules, let developers express hints to the browser, which in turn conserves power when excessive computational horsepower is unnecessary. The researchers also developed AutoGreen, an automatic tool within the GreenWeb framework to assist developers in automatically making Web pages energy-friendly by continuously monitoring hardware and browser execution behavior. The researchers presented the framework this week at the ACM SIGPLAN Conference on Programming Language Design and Implementation (PLDI 2016) in Santa Barbara, CA.


HPE Shows Off a Computer Intended to Emulate the Human Brain
IDG News Service (06/16/16) Agam Shah

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) is showing off a prototype computer designed to imitate the parallelism of the human brain using circuit boards and memory chips. "We're mimicking that architecture of parallel computation using our memristor technology and a specially designed architecture," says Hewlett Packard Lab researcher Cat Graves. In the manner of synapses, learning and retention on memristor circuits are shaped by current and data flow characteristics, which "has the potential to be incredibly more power efficient, save a lot of time, reduce computing complexity, and not be clogging up the bandwidth," Graves notes. In the HPE prototype, computation occurs in cells where data is stored--similar to neurons--and then links are set up between cells, much like synapses. Graves says calculations, or "vector matrix multiplications," can be highly parallel in such an arrangement. She notes these calculations form the core of computationally intensive algorithms and applications such as image filtering, speech recognition, and deep-learning systems. The memristors are configured in a grid-like pattern connected to the Dot Product Engine, and researchers can switch grid setups on the testbed to determine which patterns are best suited for different kinds of algorithms. The prototype computer performed 8,000 calculations in one clock cycle in one specific memristor configuration.


Tech Culture Still Pushing Out Women, Study Finds
Network World (06/15/16) Jon Gold

Social dynamics and "culture fit" are a key reason why female engineers tend to leave the profession sooner than men, according to a new study released by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); the University of California, Irvine; the University of Michigan, and McGill University. "It turns out gender makes a big difference,” says MIT professor Susan Silbey. "It's a cultural phenomenon." The research involved having more than 40 undergraduate engineering students keep bi-monthly diaries, providing the study with more than 3,000 entries to analyze. The study found, especially in the case of internships, summer work, and team-building exercises, women feel excluded and marginalized with their male counterparts receiving better opportunities. The researchers say this cultural phenomenon is why women account for 20 percent of engineering degrees awarded, but make up only 13 percent of the engineering workforce. "For many women, their first encounter with collaboration is to be treated in gender-stereotypical ways," the report notes. In 2014, a GigaOm study of 12 large technology companies found they were about 68-percent male on average.


Eye-Tracking System Uses Ordinary Cellphone Camera
MIT News (06/15/16) Larry Hardesty

To make eye-tracking technology more widely accessible, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Georgia have developed software enabling smartphone cameras to capture eye movement data. The eye tracker was built using machine learning, and thus far the device's training set includes examples of gaze patterns from 1,500 users. To amass their test population, researchers crowdsourced participants and directed them to use a simple Apple application that flashes a dot on the device's screen and then briefly flashes either an "R" or "L," instructing the user to tap the right or left side of the screen. During the process, the device's camera takes continuous photos, tracking the user's gaze; on average, 1,600 images are collected for each user. The system compounds the data through layers of information processors and reaches solutions to the computational problem, which is the direction of the user's gaze. The researchers believe their software could help diagnose initial stages of neurological diseases or mental illness. "Part of the excitement is that they've also created this way of collecting data, and also the dataset itself," says Cornell University professor Noah Snavely. "They did all the legwork that will make other people interested in this problem."


Promoting Dark Skies in Europe
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (06/14/16)

University of Southampton researchers are helping citizens to address the environmental impacts of light pollution via the STARS4ALL project. As part of the project, researchers from the University of Southampton Electronics and Computer Science Web and Internet Science Group are monitoring social media during astronomical phenomena such as solar eclipses and the Aurora Borealis, concentrating on the interaction and diversity between citizen science volunteers and participants. The crowdsourced research will be used to design new apps and citizen science projects for individuals and communities to contribute data on light pollution in their locations, assure the quality of the data, and monitor the health of those communities. "This will help us to understand how we could create light sensors that are better for the environment and better for the people who live in those areas as well," says University of Southampton professor Elena Simperl. STARS4ALL is a collective awareness platform for promoting dark skies in Europe through Light Pollution Initiatives. The project will create self-sustaining light pollution initiatives that will address as many disciplines and domains as possible and will offer a platform for citizen science actions in order to increase awareness for the various environmental problems associated with light pollution.


Computing Gives Us Tools to Preserve Disappearing Languages
The Conversation (06/13/16) Steven Bird

Mass extinction of many unwritten human languages could be averted if future cyberlinguists develop algorithms to translate online recordings made of such dialects, writes University of Melbourne professor Steven Bird. "My collaborators and I want to determine what language data must be uploaded to ensure that the world's unwritten linguistic heritage is preserved and made intelligible to all future generations," he says. Bird cites the Aikuma mobile phone software as a tool for recording and interpreting languages, but a tougher challenge is analyzing the raw language data. To do this, Bird says, "the keys for decipherment are parallel texts or--in the case of unwritten languages--bilingual aligned audio recordings." His team aims to employ a deep-learning method using artificial neural networks similar to those used in digital image processing. Bird says experiments for correlating individual words of English transcription with short stretches of audio in the source language are promising. "We need to exploit this information in order to search tens or hundreds of hours of untranslated audio, flag high-value regions, then present these to people for translation," he says. The Aikuma Project seeks to "hack the dominant culture" by using the Aikuma app to record and share stories told in indigenous and immigrant languages to build interest in the preservation of vanishing tongues, according to Bird.


Creating Printable, Programmable Machines
National Science Foundation (06/13/16) Aaron Dubrow

Daniela Rus, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, is pioneering the science of printable, foldable, and do-it-yourself robotics. Working with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University, Rus is building a future in which people could produce custom robots and program them with simple natural-language commands in a matter of hours, using two-dimensional desktop technology at home. Her team is developing methods to completely automate the process, from sketches to design to printing, fabrication and, ultimately, control. Rus says part of the solution involves developing ideas and algorithms to design self-folding robots, where the machine is built flat but contains conditions within it to fold into a three-dimensional structure through the application of heat, electricity, or some other means. Her team is creating a database of robot design and control algorithms that are modular and can be combined to create new robots with a range of abilities. Rus' vision is to make robots as pervasive as computers, and to move to the democratization of physical tasks. "And along the way, we will continue to rethink computing to make it different, better, more powerful, and use it to solve humanity's greatest challenges," she says.


Fighting Virtual Reality Sickness
Columbia University (06/14/16) Holly Evarts

Virtual reality (VR) sickness associated with consumer VR headsets can be alleviated with subtle changes to the user's field of view (FOV), according to researchers from Columbia University. VR sickness is caused when the user's movement in the virtual environment differs from how they are physically standing or sitting in the real world, and the discrepancy between the visual motion cues and the inner ear's physical motion cues makes the user uncomfortable or nauseous. Columbia professor Steven K. Feiner and researcher Ajoy Fernandes developed a method to make subtle changes to FOV without the user noticing. The software restricts FOV by partially obscuring each eye's view with a soft-edged border. The size and speed of the obstruction are increased when the mismatch between physical and virtual motion are greater. Participants in the study said their VR experiences were more comfortable with the FOV restrictors and most did not notice the change in FOV. Feiner and Fernandes plan to experiment with different cutout shapes and textures and to study the effect of reducing or increasing FOV based on heart rate or optical-flow monitoring. "It is critical that the [VR] experience be both comfortable and compelling, and we think we've found a way," Feiner says.


X-Ray Experiments Show Hewlett Packard Team How Memristors Work
SLAC News Center (06/13/16)

Hewlett-Packard researchers have confirmed critical aspects of how memristors work at an atomic scale. The team conducted an x-ray experiment on a tantalum oxide device at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Advanced Light Source facility, and found even weak voltage pulses create a thin conductive path through the memristor. Reversing the voltage pulse increases the device's resistance, and the change is dramatic enough to exploit commercially. A subsequent x-ray experiment at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory's Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource facility found the tantalum atoms do not move along with the oxygen during switching. The researchers say the most promising aspect of the experiment was there was no degradation in switching over more than 1 billion voltage pulses of a magnitude suitable for commercial use. The group built memristors that lasted nearly 1 billion switching cycles, representing about a 1,000-fold improvement. The researchers say the work could lead to future computer memories that operate much faster, last longer, and consume less energy than today's flash memory.


The FBI Needs Better Hackers to Solve Encryption Standoff, Research Says
The Christian Science Monitor (06/16/16) Joshua Eaton

With U.S. technology companies refusing to allow anyone, including the federal government, access to suspected criminals' encrypted communications conducted on their devices, a leading cybersecurity expert is proposing another method for authorities to obtain the information they need without undermining the security of the millions of other consumers who also use those products. Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor Susan Landau suggests law enforcement boost the hiring of government hackers and foster in-house experts to legally hack such devices when they have a warrant. The strategy entails exploiting existing software bugs instead of having tech companies install "backdoors" in their products. Landau says the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) can bypass encryption by investing in court-sanctioned lawful hacking capabilities such as installing remote surveillance programs on computers and phones and hiring more agents with computer science backgrounds. The unacceptable alternative would compromise consumer security and give criminal hackers, among others, another exploitation option, according to Landau. She also says the FBI's paltry lawful hacking budget and resources may be one reason why the bureau wants companies to install backdoors.


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