Welcome to the September 16, 2016 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
ORCHID Recognized for Major Collaboration
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (09/15/16)
The ORCHID project, a research initiative involving the U.K.'s University of Southampton, recently received the top prize in the data and connectivity category at the Collaborate to Innovate Awards. The awards were aimed at identifying some of the U.K.'s more impressive and innovative examples of engineering collaboration. The ORCHID project addressed how humans and intelligent software systems can function together in a seamless and effective manner. The goal was to make sense of the volume, variety, and unrelenting stream of data that is available today from a range of sources such as phones, computers, and sensors. The project directly trained and employed 50 researchers and Ph.D. students from the U.K.'s universities of Southampton, Oxford, and Nottingham, together with industrial partners. The ORCHID project resulted in 30 follow-up projects, led to a new multi-disciplinary research community, and launched a range of startup companies. For example, researchers developed a device that provides users with a thermal analysis of their house to reduce their energy consumption. "I think the main reason this collaboration was so successful is because researchers learnt to trust each other's methods and capabilities and we were all highly motivated to have an impact both in terms of producing high quality research terms and solving key real-world challenges," says Southampton researcher Sarvapali Ramchurn.
Pioneering Research Paves the Way Towards Exascale Optical Networks
University of Bristol News (09/14/16)
Researchers at the U.K.'s University of Bristol and Japan's National Institute of Information and Communication Technology (NICT) are jointly exploring how space division multiplexing (SDM) technologies can be leveraged to yield the full benefits of optical networking and boost capacity. "By combining state-of-the-art technology and SDM knowledge from NICT together with Bristol's long experience in optical networking, we were able to conduct groundbreaking research accompanied by numerous network experiments," says postdoctoral researcher George Saridis of Bristol's High Performance Networks Group. Standard single-mode fiber link-based optical fiber networks currently support the bulk of global data communication needs, but cutting-edge optical multicore fibers (MCFs) and similar types of SDM technologies could potentially scale up interconnection capacity in modern networks. The researchers' solution could integrate multiple streams of frequency/time multiplexed data in the same fiber structure, by using either different cores or/and light modes. The capacity of MCFs' connections are in the range of multiple petabits per second, supporting an exascale network. "The University of Bristol is the leading research field on flexible network systems and this collaboration will open a new era of ultra-high capacity, fully dynamic, fully flexible optical network systems," says NICT's Naoya Wada.
Why Computer Science Education in K-12 Settings Is Becoming Increasingly Essential
The Huffington Post (09/14/16) Mehran Sahami
Expanding U.S. students' access to computer science (CS) across grades K through 12 is an important goal that holds tremendous opportunity for future generations, writes Stanford University professor and ACM Education Board co-chair Mehran Sahami. He estimates CS classes currently are available to about half of U.S. high schools, and only one in four schools offers an actual computer programming course. Sahami stresses CS promises far more than simply a means for training next-generation coders. "Learning CS helps students develop systemic thinking skills for problem solving, practice logical deduction, and learn to express themselves with greater precision and clarity," he writes. Moreover, Sahami says K-12 CS education can give students a better understanding of computing's capabilities and limitations. "This, in turn, facilitates more informed decision making and an ability to more deeply consider questions like how vulnerable is the information someone shares online, what are the safety considerations in autonomous systems like self-driving cars, and how can information technology be harnessed to address issues of poverty and inequality," he says. Sahami also notes "having all students learn CS will help to broaden participation in computing, especially among women and underrepresented minorities."
Sussex Physicists Develop New Touchscreen Technology
University of Sussex (United Kingdom) (09/15/16)
Researchers at the U.K.'s University of Sussex say they have developed a new touchscreen technology based on electrodes made from indium tin oxide (ITO) that overcomes the limitations of traditional display, phone, and tablet material. The researchers have shown it is possible to produce pixels that are small enough for high-definition liquid-crystal displays (LCDs), such as smartphones and next-generation TV and computer screens. The Sussex study examines some of the intricacies of patterning silver nanowire films to produce detailed electrode structures. The researchers show for the first time that ITO is compatible with more demanding applications such as LCDs and organic light-emitting diode (LED) displays. "In this research we have applied a mathematical technique to work out the smallest subpixel size we can make without affecting the properties of our nanowire electrodes," says University of Sussex researcher Matthew Large. The researchers also demonstrated the incorporation of silver nanowires into a multi-touch sensor reduces production cost and energy consumption. "Silver nanowire and silver nanowire/graphene hybrids are probably the most viable alternatives to existing technologies," says Sussex professor Alan Dalton.
How America's 911 Emergency Response System Can Be Hacked
The Washington Post (09/09/16) Kim Zetter
Researchers at Israel's Ben Gurion University created a method for disabling the U.S. 911 emergency system with telephony denial-of-service (TDoS) attacks. The technique involves planting malware on mobile phones so they automatically make fake 911 calls without their owners' awareness, creating a call-center bottleneck. The malware can thwart a 911 system's attempts to blacklist the hijacked phones because it makes the devices send random IDs to cell towers, changing the ID with each call. The Ben Gurion team tested the method with a simulated cellular network modeled after North Carolina's 911 network, and found 6,000 infected smartphones are sufficient for causing statewide disruption. They also estimated a national disruption could be launched with 200,000 infected phones circulated across the U.S. The National Emergency Number Association's Trey Fogerty says his group has long known about the TDoS threat, and warned the U.S. Department of Homeland Security about it four years ago. "We actually believe that the vulnerability is in fact worse than [the researchers] have calculated," he says. The Ben Gurion team suggests state-level disruptions could be prevented by building redundancy into 911 networks, while a federal solution is to waive carriers' requirement to process calls from phones that are not attached to a service plan.
Media Lab Conference Addresses Gender Bias, Diversity, and Inclusion in STEM
MIT News (09/14/16)
At last week's No Permission, No Apology conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Media Lab, MIT alumna and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith delivered a keynote address calling for a push against implicit gender bias and for more diversity and racial equity in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines. "The essence of the conference is community building," said the Media Lab's Monica Orta. "It isn't enough to create access to a space; we also have to make that space one in which all members can thrive." Orta stressed how men can help diversify spaces by looking beyond inculcated gender stereotypes. "Being cognizant of how to pull others in and the ways in which we make a space more or less welcoming has a huge impact," she said. Meanwhile, Wellesley College Associate Provost Robbin Chapman recommended the development of a "thrive mosaic," or a network of personal resources that evolves along the course of a career. "You need mentors, advocates, connectors, and accountability partners who are familiar with your work and help you get it done," she said. MindSpring Metro DC partner Denise Minor urged women to establish a clear presence that demonstrates value even in a male-dominated domain.
NSF Awards $25M in New Projects in Support of the Computer Science for All Initiative
CCC Blog (09/14/16) Aaron Dubrow
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) on Wednesday announced more than $25 million in awards for the Computer Science (CS) for All initiative, whose goal is to facilitate thorough and engaging CS education in schools across the U.S. Among the projects NSF is underwriting in fiscal year 2017 via its CS for All awards is a multi-institutional effort led by the Education Development Center (EDC) to scale up teacher training for the "Beauty and Joy of Computing" (BJC) course by preparing Master Teacher Facilitators, developing a BJC professional development course, and further testing and refining instructional materials. Also receiving NSF funding this year is a research project led by California State University, San Marcos, that will examine how relationships among interest, competency, self-efficacy, identity, and values influence devotion to the pursuit of an information and communication technology career pathway for young women, especially Latinas. In addition, NSF will provide funds to Northwestern University to develop and implement an integrated, interdisciplinary curriculum at the school level, performing a deployment study of whole-school design, development, and use of resources for the integration of computational thinking with other science, technology, engineering, and math fields. NSF anticipates an additional $100 million investment in CS for All over the next for four years.
U.S. Coast Guard, CMU Team on Hoax Caller Crackdown
InformationWeek (09/14/16) Jessica Davis
A collaboration between the U.S. Coast Guard and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is applying expertise in speech-recognition and speech-processing algorithms to crack down on hoaxers who post fake distress calls. The algorithms, developed by Rita Singh, a senior systems scientist at CMU's Language Technologies Institute, analyze the micro-properties of both voice and speech in the recordings of such callers. Singh says it is only now that the technology to accurately extract such micro-properties exists. "We are using machine-learning algorithms to measure these micro-features, and we keep inventing new ones every day," she notes. Singh also says the algorithms can profile crank callers and determine whether they are being threatened, how healthy they are, their race and ethnicity, the level of confidence in their voice, and their personality and truthfulness. "You cannot change how fast your muscles move, your vocal tract inertia, your lung volume, your skeletal structure," Singh says. "And all that influences voice. It's still ongoing research, but we are discovering things about how we can home in on those aspects of voice and speech that will allow us to make reliable and accurate estimations from the voice about the person's characteristics."
Engineers Teach Machines to Recognize Tree Species
Now@Caltech (09/13/16) Robert Perkins
A new method developed by engineers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has the potential to change the way urban forests are surveyed. Caltech professor Pietro Perona says the approach relies on data from satellite and street-level images, such as those from Google Maps, and can automatically create an inventory of street trees. Working in Pasadena, CA, computer-vision specialists first developed a way to automatically "look" at any specific location in the city using aerial and street-level images from Google Maps, and then created an algorithm to detect objects within these images and calculate their geographic location. Perona says the team used artificial neural networks to train the algorithm to determine which objects were trees. The group then trained the algorithm to identify 18 of the more than 200 species of trees in Pasadena. The researchers compared the algorithm's results with those of a 2013 tree survey and found the algorithm could detect the identity of a tree's species from Google Maps images with about 80-percent accuracy. Perona says cities eventually could use the computer-vision software as part of a long-term technological solution for the management of urban forests.
NSA Dares College Students to Locate, Disarm Bombs Controlled Through the Net
NextGov.com (09/14/16) Aliya Sternstein
The U.S. National Security Agency's (NSA) annual codebreaking contest is now underway. The Codebreaker Challenge offers an entirely fictitious storyline in which terrorists develop a new type of remotely controlled Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that poses a threat to troops deployed overseas, presenting young computer scientists with the kind of threat NSA faces daily. NSA officials say the agency is confronting cybersecurity students with such a scenario partly as an intelligence analyst recruitment effort. Participants in the contest face six tasks of increasing difficulty, with the ultimate goal of being able to disarm the IEDs remotely and permanently render them inoperable without risk of civilian casualties. Network traffic analysis is one of the new specialties college undergraduate and graduate students will have to apply during the competition. "Software reverse engineering and network analysis are two disciplines that are critical foundations of both NSA's defensive mission and its support to offensive missions carried out by the military," says NSA spokesperson Clarese Wilson. For the first time, the student competition includes a beginner track so freshmen with basic skills can compete. A scoreboard on the contest website ranks participating students by tasks solved; the site also includes four online lectures about hacking techniques, including heap overflow and format string attacks.
Harnessing Big Data to See the Big Picture in Ecology
Michigan State University (09/12/16) Layne Cameron
A multidisciplinary Michigan State University (MSU) team consisting of computer scientists, data scientists, statisticians, and ecologists will use a $4.2-million U.S. National Science Foundation grant to scale up traditional ecology to regional and continental scales. The evolving field is called "macrosystems ecology," and it can be very important in helping solve many challenges prompted by the changing climate. The researchers want to use big data and state-of-the-art computer tools to harness and combine knowledge from individual studies and scale them up to show what is happening today and what could happen in the future. The researchers note there are many significant data challenges that must be overcome when simultaneously studying so many ecosystems, such as missing values, "noisy measurements," unknown relationships among hundreds of variables, and computers that might still be too slow when trying to model all the lakes in an entire county. "Our goal is to build a suite of novel computer science methods to explore the data to help us learn about all of the freshwater systems in the U.S., even from data that are messy and incomplete, and to share those methods with other scientists conducting such work," says MSU professor Jiayu Zhou.
Political Inequality Leads to Digital Inequality
University of Konstanz (09/08/16)
Researchers from the University of Konstanz in Germany and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich conducted a study showing politically excluded ethnic groups have less access to the Internet than included groups in the same country. As a result, the researchers say societal groups who would benefit the most from modern information and communications technology have lower levels of access. The researchers used a new method for measuring Internet density in the settlement regions of the individual ethnic groups. They analyzed Web traffic from a major Swiss Internet provider and found it was possible to approximate Internet penetration in the settlement regions of the different groups. The study also showed if ethnic groups are excluded from power, their level of Internet connectivity suffers both in autocracies and democracies. However, in democracies there are comparatively few of these excluded groups. "If the Internet and social media are distributed very unevenly and follow existing political divisions, those groups which actually need the Internet have only limited access," says University of Konstanz professor Nils Weidmann. The study suggests the role of the respective governments must not be underestimated when thinking about whether and under what circumstances the Internet can be a catalyst for political change.
How Big Data and Algorithms Are Slashing the Cost of Fixing Flint's Water Crisis
The Conversation (09/08/16) Jacob Abernethy; Eric Schwartz
University of Michigan researchers are using data analytics methods similar to those employed by Facebook and Amazon to help solve the water contamination in Flint, MI. A challenge for recovery has been a lack of useful information and understanding of locations most at risk for lead contamination. Only about 30 percent of homes in Flint have had their water tested, and city officials have had difficulty identifying which homes are at risk. By leveraging algorithmic and statistical tools, the Michigan team has been able to produce a more complete picture of the risks in Flint. The researchers say data connected to the water crisis was compiled, including more than 20,000 water samples, records of home service lines, and information on land and water usage. Records of service line installations and the materials used for each home's pipes are incomplete, but machine-learning techniques were able to seek patterns in the existing records and predict the type of material in a home's service line with 80-percent accuracy. Data on individual homes, including the year of construction, location, value, and size, also were used to create risk profiles. The researchers say they have made the risk assessments available to Flint officials and residents via a mobile application.
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