Welcome to the June 20, 2016 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
China Tops List of Fastest Computers Again
The New York Times (06/20/16) John Markoff
For the seventh straight time China has dominated the Top500, the biannual list of the world's fastest supercomputers. China once again has the largest number of systems among the Top500, and for the first time the world's fastest supercomputer employs Chinese-manufactured microprocessors instead of Intel chips. The latest Top500 lists 167 Chinese systems versus 165 U.S. systems, and China also leads in terms of total processing power. Factors underlying the slippage of the U.S. in the Top500 include slowing federal supercomputing support due to debates on the level of government spending on basic scientific research, and opposition to funding for industrial advancement with no direct relation to national security. The University of Tennessee's Jack Dongarra also cites last year's blockage of the sale of advanced computer chips to China for security reasons as another likely contributor to the acceleration of the development of China's own technology. Intel still supplied the chips for 91 percent of the computers on the Top500, while the Semiconductor Industry Association says the U.S. finally appears to be taking the international competitive threat seriously. Dongarra warns the U.S. effort to develop exascale computing could be overtaken by the Chinese effort due to funding shortfalls and technology challenges.
Toyota Researcher Sees Cheap Robots Possible by Mass Production
Bloomberg (06/19/16) Craig Trudell
Toyota Research Institute CEO Gill Pratt says affordable helper robots can be mass-produced by applying Toyota's production principles to their manufacture. Pratt has high hopes for robots that can assist senior citizens where they live, noting "the car of the future and the robot of the future in the home are both essentially doing the same thing." Toyota president Akio Toyoda recruited Pratt last year to run the institute, to be funded with $1 billion over five years and to concentrate on automated driving. "The car of the future is as much about software as it is about hardware, and as you put software and hardware together, what you get is a robot," Pratt says. "A robot is a kind of machine that senses and thinks and acts, and a mobile robot is one that does those things where the acting involves moving around." Pratt notes home-based robots also will have to perceive their surroundings, respond to commands, and think, plan, and take action on their own. He says Toyota has the means to apply the same scale it has used to make Corolla cars affordable to reducing the cost of robots. "Cars are everywhere," Pratt says. "I see no reason that robots couldn't be everywhere as well."
Too Cute for Their Own Good, Robots Get Self-Defense Instincts
The Wall Street Journal (06/19/16) Georgia Wells
Robot designers are developing robots that appear non-threatening, but can take action when humans attracted to their cuteness interfere with the performance of their functions, such as guarding or patrolling a location. When one such machine, the egg-shaped K5 from Knightscope, is cornered by curious crowds, it stops moving until they lose interest and walk away, or emits a shriek when they become too intrusive. The face of the K5 incorporates security-patrol operations such as surveillance cameras, thermal and ultrasonic sensors, and a navigation laser. The creation of robots such as the K5 is patterned on tests conducted to document the conditions of robot abuse in places such as Osaka, Japan, where a machine designed to help seniors buy groceries was frequently targeted and damaged by children, despite vocalized cries for help. In another case, a hitchhiking robot with a friendly face deployed along roads to test human dependence was found destroyed in Philadelphia last summer. Designers say they are attempting to create more approachable robots partly to counter the prevailing view of destructive machines presented by movies. "Because of all the doomsday scenarios people imagine with robots, their makers have to insert some cuteness," says Google's Golden Krishna.
Black Churches Put Faith in Coding Classes
USA Today (06/20/16) Jessica Guynn
Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition aims to forge a new generation of computer programmers by working with African-American churches and the FAITHTECH Labs initiative, which provides access to computers for all ages as well as coding classes for young people. FAITHTECH Labs is part of Rainbow PUSH's 1,000 Churches Connected Program, which supplies technology to boost financial literacy and technological proficiency. Rainbow PUSH has opened tech labs in San Francisco, Chicago, and Greenville, SC, with two more slated to open soon in Oakland and Richmond, CA. Each tech lab is equipped with laptop and desktop computers, printers, servers, and networking technology donated by Hewlett Packard Enterprise. "We have to get a whole new generation 'code ready,' to produce thousands of young people who can fill the pipeline to the technology industry," Jackson says. "If not us, who will?" Rainbow PUSH also is campaigning for Silicon Valley tech companies to increase hiring of African Americans and Hispanics. "Black churches have a powerful ability to assist in the educational mission of communities and to help communities flourish," says Duke University professor Valerie Cooper. "I'm excited about the possibility that people will discover a love for technology, for coding, and a love for computers."
HPE Looks to Move Data Between Computers at the Speed of Light
IDG News Service (06/20/16) Agam Shah
Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) has developed a motherboard with an optical module that has the potential to transfer data at 1.2 terabits per second, which is fast enough to transfer a full day's worth of high-definition video in one second. HPE researchers say the data transfer speed is much faster than any existing networking and connector technology, and it could replace the copper Ethernet cables widely used in data centers. The new photonics chip module, called X1, is still in the early testing stage, but it could result in a paradigm in which attaching a fiber-optic cable to computers will be as easy as attaching Ethernet cables, according to HPE silicon design lab director Michael McBride. He notes the connector technology and cables ultimately will be used in The Machine, HPE's new server design that focuses on processing by using storage and memory. The transfer range of X1 is about 30 to 40 meters, but HPE also has demonstrated separate silicon photonics technology that can transfer data at distances of up to 50 kilometers at 200 Gbps. The researchers say HPE will implement optical technology at the rack levels, which in the future may be one giant server with processing, memory, and storage separated into different boxes.
Parallel Programming Made Easy
MIT News (06/20/16) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed Swarm, a chip design that should make parallel programs more efficient and easier to write. The researchers used simulations to compare Swarm versions of six common algorithms with the best existing parallel versions, which had been individually engineered by software developers. The Swarm versions were between three and 18 times as fast, but they generally required only one-tenth as much code. The researchers focused on a specific set of applications that have resisted parallelization for many years, and many of the apps involve the study of graphs, which are comprised of nodes and edges. Frequently, the edges have associated numbers called "weights," which often represent the strength of correlations between data points in a dataset. Swarm is equipped with extra circuitry specifically designed to handle the prioritization of the weights, and it time-stamps tasks according to their priorities and begins working on the highest-priority tasks in parallel. Higher-priority tasks may engender their own lower-priority tasks, but Swarm automatically slots those into its queue of tasks. Swarm also has a circuit that records the memory addresses of all the data its cores currently are working on; the circuit implements a Bloom filter, which stores data into a fixed allotment of space and answers yes or no questions about its contents.
Software Unveiled to Tackle Online Extremism, Violence
Agence France-Presse (06/17/16)
The Counter Extremism Project (CEP), a U.S. nonprofit nongovernmental organization aiming to curb the spread of violent, extremist propaganda online, has unveiled a software tool to help social media firms find and delete radical content. The software was developed by Dartmouth University's Hany Farid, who also helped create the PhotoDNA system used to identify and eliminate child pornography online. Farid says the new system is based on "robust hashing," which finds digital signatures of content that can be tracked in order to help platforms find and stop content from being posted. CEP proposes the creation of a National Office for Reporting Extremism, similar to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which would better enable violent content to be automatically flagged and removed. "We are simply developing a technology that allows companies to accurately and effectively enforce their terms of service," Farid says. "They do it anyway, but it's slow." CEP has pitched its system to social media firms, but none have committed to adopting the technology, citing privacy and enforcement concerns. "The technology has been developed, it has been tested, and we are in the final stages of engineering to get it ready for deployment," Farid notes. "We're talking about a matter of months."
Microsoft Open-Sources a Safer Version of C Language
InfoWorld (06/15/16) Serdar Yegulalp
Microsoft has open-sourced its Checked C research project to infuse the C programming language with new syntax and typing to address some dangers of C coding, such as the bugs that led to the Heartbleed and Shellshock security incidents. Checked C alters C to resolve issues stemming from pointers, C's mechanism for direct memory access. The language offers several new kinds of pointer and array types accompanied by built-in protections. They differ from the existing unsafe pointer types in C, letting programmers use the new checked pointer types for safety and revert to the unsafe types if it becomes necessary. The challenge lies in incentivizing developers to modify existing code. To partly solve Checked C's backward-compatibility issues, Microsoft's changes keep existing C programs valid by compiling as-is, with all of the new syntax and modification to the language coexisting with its legacy version. Microsoft also says the new-style checked constructions are "layout-compatible with existing pointer and array types," and the company has partially addressed the problem of the revisions in the toolchain by deploying Checked C via a fork of the popular LLVM compiler framework. However, Checked C's migration into general use will require support from the GCC compiler.
New Study Highlights Power of Crowd to Transmit News on Twitter
Columbia University (06/15/16) Kim Martineau
A new study by researchers from Columbia University and the French National Institute (Inria) provides more insight on how people consume news on social media platforms. News editors push out a tiny fraction of the headlines on Twitter, and these stories draw a large share of interest. However, most of what readers shared and read was crowd-curated, in that reader referrals drove 61 percent of the nearly 10 million clicks in the researchers' random sample of news stories posted on Twitter. The researchers also found 59 percent of all links shared in their sample went unclicked, and presumably unread. "Readers know best what their followers want," says senior study author Augustin Chaintreau, a professor at the Data Science Institute and Columbia Engineering. "In the future, they will have more and more say about what's newsworthy." Study coauthor and Inria researcher Arnaud Legout says sharing an article without reading it is typical of modern information consumption. "Likes and shares are not a meaningful measure of content popularity," Legout says. "This means that the industry standard for [content] popularity needs to be rethought." The researchers presented their findings last week at the ACM SIGMETRICS/IFIP Performance 2016 conference in Nice, France.
Team Uses Smart Light to Track Human Behavior
Dartmouth College (06/15/16)
Dartmouth College researchers have significantly improved StarLight, a light-sensing system that continuously and unobtrusively tracks a person's behavior in real time. The new system advances the researchers' prior LiSense design by significantly reducing the number of intrusive sensors, overcoming obstructions, and supporting user mobility. The researchers examined the use of purely ubiquitous light to track users' behavior, without cameras, on-body devices, or electromagnetic interference. They were able to use StarLight to reconstruct a three-dimensional user skeleton by leveraging the light emitted from light-emitting diode panels on the ceiling and 20 light sensors on the floor. The system can track a user's skeleton as they move around in a room with furniture and other objects. The new work "addresses several key practical issues of light-based sensing, including the furniture blockage, reliance on a large number of light sensors, and user mobility," says Dartmouth professor Xia Zhou. The research will be presented this month at the ACM International Conference on Mobile Systems, Applications, and Services (MobiSys 2016) conference in Singapore.
Speaking in Song
Researchers from Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR) have developed I2R Speech2Singing, voice synthesis software they say can make anyone's singing voice sound more melodious. The software automatically produces high-quality singing while preserving the original character of the user's natural voice. The program works by polishing melody while retaining the original content and timbre of a sound. It uses recordings by professional singers as templates to correct the melody of a singing voice or to convert a speaking voice into a singing one. The software detects the timing of each phonetic sound using speech-recognition technology and then stretches or compresses the duration of the signal using voice-conversion technology to match the rhythm to that of a professional singer. A speech synthesizer then combines the time-corrected voice with pitch data and background music to produce a melodic solo. "When we compared the output with other currently available applications, we realized that our software generated a much better voice quality," says A*STAR's Minghui Dong. The researchers now are developing a way to quickly add songs to the software so large-scale song databases can be built.
The Social Life of Health Information
UCR Today (06/13/16) Sarah Nightingale
A new study from researchers at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) sheds light on what U.S. citizens are looking for when they go online for information and support about health-related issues. The researchers examined more than 20 million user posts on Twitter, Google Plus, WebMD, drugs.com, and DailyStrength for health-related keywords, medical terms, and popular drugs. The task took 10 computers more than a month to complete. The results indicated women talk more about pregnancy-related issues while men discuss pain drugs, cholesterol, and heart problems. Young people tend to discuss Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and skin problems on drug review sites and parents and homosexuality in health forums. The results also found older people discuss diabetes, heart disease, cholesterol, and muscle pain. The researchers say it is the first large-scale, data-driven study to track the content posted by different demographic groups across the U.S. "Our findings can help healthcare practitioners connect with the right people in the right places to deliver targeted educational campaigns; enable marketers to advertise products to the right audiences; and help researchers examine preventable differences in how people understand diseases and fix these disparities," says lead researcher and UCR professor Vagelis Hristidis.
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