Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the November 4, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Amir Pnueli, Distinguished Computer Scientist and Researcher, Dies
ACM (11/04/98)

New York University computer science professor and ACM A.M. Turing Award winner Amir Pnueli passed away suddenly on Nov. 2. He received international recognition as a pioneer in verification, the process of formally demonstrating that systems behave as their designers intended. Pnueli's introduction of temporal logic, a formal method for specifying and reasoning about the behavior of systems over time, to computer science earned him ACM's 1996 Turing Award. The award praised his 1977 paper, "The Temporal Logic of Programs," as a landmark in the field of reasoning about dynamic system behavior. Pnueli additionally shared the 2007 ACM Software System Award for Statemate, a software engineering instrument that lets developers formally specify their programs' exact desired behavior.

Social Networking Meets Ambient Intelligence
ICT Results (11/04/09)

European researchers working on the ASTRA project are combining the instant sharing capabilities of social networking with emerging ambient intelligence systems that use sensors and smart objects to create an awareness of a user's activities. The researchers say that combining the two technologies could create a new way to stay in touch with friends and relatives. The ASTRA system would use smart objects and sensors distributed throughout a person's office or home to continually update their status information, automatically informing friends and families if a user is busy in a meeting or doing a chore and unable to answer the phone, for example. "Not only is this information generated automatically, depending on the criteria set by each user, but it does not have to be displayed on a computer screen or in any other distracting way," says the Research Academic Computer Technology Institute's Achilles Kameas. "In a smart home or office environment, the system could let users know if someone is available for a phone call or not simply by changing the color of the frame of a photo of them." Phillips Electronics and mobile operator Telenor are conducting trials of the ASTRA technology, and Kameas says the response from test users has been positive, though some have raised concerns about privacy and security issues. He says the ASTRA system is similar to Facebook in that users can determine how much information is shared and who has access to that information. The researchers plan to launch a follow-up initiative for adaptive pervasive awareness systems based on the concept of a trustworthy personal "bubble" to ensure privacy.

Is the U.S. Killing Its Innovation Machine? (11/03/09) Patterson, David A.

The Bush administration's edict that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) give the lead role in information technology (IT) research projects to companies rather than academia has severely weakened the U.S. IT industry. Restoring the original model is key to undoing the damage and protecting the country's global domination of IT, writes University of California, Berkeley professor and former ACM president David A. Patterson. Another flaw in the Bush-era DARPA operational model was the requirement that DARPA-funded programs reach milestones in 12 to 18 months or face cancellation, a prospect that Patterson calls "absurd." He writes that as a result of these policies, "not much progress has been made in solving some of the biggest IT problems confronting us. One worth singling out in particular is developing technology so software can run on multi-core, or parallel, processors." Patterson says that under the leadership of Tony Tether, DARPA allocated tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to private companies, but none of the research they performed with those funds has made much of a dent in the parallel processing challenge. He warns that if another nation successfully meets this challenge, "the software center of the universe could move from the United States to someplace else."

NC State Research Shows Way to Block Stealthy Malware Attacks
NCSU News (11/03/09) Shipman, Matt

North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers have developed a way to block rootkits and prevent them from contaminating computer systems. Rootkits often work by hijacking a number of hooks, or control data, in a computer's operating system. "By taking control of these hooks, the rootkit can intercept and manipulate the computer system's data at will," says NCSU professor Xuxian Jiang. To prevent a rootkit from taking over an operating system, Jiang's research team determined that all of an operating system's hooks had to be protected. "The challenging part is that an operating system may have tens of thousands of hooks--any of which could potentially be exploited for a rootkit's purposes," Jiang says. "Our research leads to a new way that can protect all the hooks in an efficient way, by moving them to a centralized place and thus making them easier to manage and harder to subvert." By placing all of the hooks in one place, the researchers were able to leverage hardware-based memory protection to prevent the hooks from being hijacked. The research will be presented at the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security in Chicago on November 12.

Robots Primed for 'Are You Being Served' Role in Arabic
Agence France Presse (11/03/09) Galal, Ola

Researchers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have developed "the world's first Arabic-speaking conversational humanoid robot," says UAE University professor Nikolaos Mavridis. The robot, named Ibn Sina, could be used as a receptionist, sales staff, or shopping assistant, Mavridis says. "There [are] a number of things he can do on his own: answer a couple of questions, connect to the Internet to get information and show you things on the screen regarding what you want to buy," he says. "We're very close to being able to get him to work as a receptionist or a helper in a mall." The robot speaks in classical Arabic, and can answer questions with human-like facial expressions. The physical robot, including motors used to make facial expressions, was created by Hanson Robotics, while UAE University researchers developed the software. Mavridis and his team worked for more than a year to develop the software that functions as the mind of the robot and provides vision, speech, memory, and motion. The robot can detect faces and objects, transcribe speech to text, and understand people speaking and talk back.

Anita Borg Institute, CSTA and the University of Arizona Hold K12 Computing Teachers Workshop
Business Wire (11/03/09)

The high level of interest in the first K–12 Computing Teachers Equity Workshop at the 2009 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing indicates that computer science and information technology teachers are very concerned about engaging an increasingly diverse student population. More than 650 teachers applied for the workshop, and at least 100 attended the event. University of California, Los Angeles senior researcher Jane Margolis, author of "Stuck in the Shallow End: Race, Education, and Computing," delivered the keynote speech. The workshop addressed the need for systematic change in public education if underrepresented minority students and girls are to help meet the growing need for computing professionals. Participants discussed potential solutions for recruiting diverse students, teaching methods, and creating curriculum that appeals to diverse groups. A white paper on equity issues in computer science education will be published before the end of the year, and will include solutions for teachers, STEM practitioners, and other interested stakeholders. "The K12 Computing Teachers Workshop at the Grace Hopper Celebration was created to help address one of the greatest challenges facing the high technology industry, the need to bring more students into the technical pipeline," says the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology's Deanna Kosaraju.

First Test for Election Cryptography
Technology Review (11/02/09) Naone, Erica

An election in Tacoma Park, Md., held this November will be the first to use Scantegrity, a new vote-counting system that uses cryptography to ensure that votes are cast and recorded accurately. Scantegrity's inventors say the system could eliminate the need for recounts and provide better assurance that an election was conducted properly. Scantegrity allows voters to check online to ensure their votes were counted correctly, and officials and independent auditors can check to make sure ballots were tallied properly without seeing how an individual voted. Scantegrity developer David Chaum says the system uses a familiar paper ballot, which requires that voters fill in the bubble next to the name of their preferred candidate. The ballot is then fed into a machine that scans it and secretly records the result. The difference from other systems is that a special type of ink and pen are used, and when the voter fills in a bubble on the ballot a previously invisible secret code appears. The voter can record the code or codes and check them online later. If the code appears in the online database, the ballot was counted correctly. Every ballot has its own randomly assigned codes, which prevents the process from revealing which candidates a voter selected. Auditors can ensure all votes were counted correctly by comparing a list of codes corresponding to votes and a list of the results. University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor Alan Sherman says Scantegrity is fundamentally better than other systems in regards to integrity, and makes it possible to audit elections with much greater accuracy and certainty.

Animated Ink-Blot Images Keep Unwanted Bots at Bay
New Scientist (11/03/09) Barras, Colin

Indian Institute of Technology Dehli computer scientist Niloy Mitra says that Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart (CAPTCHA) security tests would be more difficult for computers to solve, and easier for humans, if they were animated. Mitra, along with Tel Aviv University's Daniel Cohen-Or and colleagues in Taiwan, have developed "emerging images," which are seemingly random assortments of blotches from which a coherent image emerges after a few seconds. To create the emerging image, the researchers developed an algorithm that identifies key features within an original image and converts those features into an array of ink blots. The algorithm then removes a number of the splats to make it harder for bots to reconstruct the original shape while leaving enough information for a human to identify the image. The number of splats and the background noise can be adjusted to make the emerging image easier or harder to spot. Tests on 310 volunteers showed that 98 percent recognized more than 80 percent of the emerging images at the easy setting. And a test of three state-of-the-art software systems found that computers were only able to identify whether an image contained a horse or a human 51 percent to 60 percent of the time. When the researchers used the algorithm to convert three-dimensional animations into emerging videos, they found that all volunteers could spot the animated figure even when the emergence setting was on very hard. Mitra says adding animation makes recognition much easier for humans and much more difficult for computers.

HTML 5 Progresses Despite Challenges
InfoWorld (11/03/09) Krill, Paul

Development of HTML5 is progressing, but the highly anticipated upgrade to the Web language still faces some major hurdles, particularly its lack of a standard video codec, says the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C's) Philippe Le Hegaret. HTML5 features new video capabilities, support for offline applications, and the Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) specification. It is scheduled to move to a candidate recommendation phase by the end of 2010, which would last two years before final adoption could occur, according to Le Hegaret. "The underlying issue is finding a video format that is royalty-free," he says. "So far, we haven't been able to provide one video format that can satisfy everyone." Fallback scenarios could involve having a developer define a page to work in the Safari and Firefox browsers, and then provide two video formats. Le Hegaret says HTML5's multimedia capabilities could give developers less reason to use proprietary technologies such as Microsoft's Silverlight or Adobe Flash, except that those technologies would still be more advanced than HTML5. Although he praised SVG, which provides a language for describing two-dimensional graphics and graphical applications in XML, he said Microsoft's lack of support for SVG in Internet Explorer remains an "elephant in the room." However, Le Hegaret noted that Microsoft has not released plans for Internet Explorer 9, which could include SVG support.

AI Spacesuits Turn Astronauts Into Cyborg Biologists
Wired News (11/02/09) Keim, Brandon

A research team led by University of Chicago geoscientist Patrick McGuire has successfully tested a feature-identifying system that could one day be used by "cyborg astrobiologists." The algorithms were able to pick out lichen from surrounding rock, and could be capable of handling other types of data. The team has incorporated a Hopfield neural network, a type of artificial intelligence for finding patterns in incoming data, into the system. McGuire envisions space explorers wearing data-crunching Hopfield networks on their hips. "You would have a very complex artificial intelligence system, with access to different remote sensing databases, to field work that's been done before in the area, and it would have the ability to reason about these in human-like ways," he says. McGuire hopes to train the network to process different textures, and then conduct analysis ranging from the microscopic to landscape-wide scales. The system could be used to search for Martian meteorites on Earth or uploaded to Mars-roving robots, until humans are ready to explore the surface of the planet on their own.

New Keys for the Diffusion of Information in Social Networks
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain) (11/02/09)

Information in social networks travels at an unexpectedly slow pace over the Internet with the exception of a few mass events, according to a study by researchers at Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M) and IBM. The researchers say the spread of information in social networks is largely determined by the heterogeneity of internauts in their response time. Traditional models estimated that internauts respond in approximately one day and, consequently, it takes one day for information to be transmitted. However, the study found that the spread of information occurs at two speeds due to user activity. "Those who respond very quickly to emails, technology addicts who are always connected, are the ones responsible for spreading certain rumors or campaigns quickly via Internet," says UC3M professor Esteban Moro. The study found that more interesting information spreads faster because people forward the message more quickly. However, if information is not very interesting, diffusion is slower because it is controlled by people who take a long time to respond, causing some rumors or information to remain dormant in social networks long after it has been released. The researchers created a mathematical model that explains why viral campaigns take so long to work and assesses a campaign's potential impact. "With this experience, we have been able to predict, within a small margin of error, how many people will receive the information, and how long it will take to reach them," Moro says. "It is the first time that we have come up with quantitative models which enable us to predict what is happening."

New Honeypot Mimics the Web Vulnerabilities Attackers Want to Exploit
Dark Reading (10/29/09) Higgins, Kelly Jackson

Glastopf is a new open source Web server honeypot project that enables researchers to study Internet attacks by acting as Web servers with thousands of vulnerabilities that provoke cybercriminals into attacking. Glastopf creator Lukas Rist says the program dynamically emulates vulnerabilities that attackers are looking for, so the decoy is more realistic and can gather more detailed information. "Many attackers are checking the vulnerability of the application before they inject malicious code," Rist says. "My project is the first Web application honeypot with a working vulnerability emulator able to respond properly to attacker requests." Rist built Glastopf through the Google Summer of Code program, in which student developers write code for open source projects. Glastopf uses a combination of known signatures of vulnerabilities and records the keywords an attacker uses when visiting the honeypot to ensure they are indexed in search engines, which attackers regularly use to find new targets. The project has a central database to collect Web attack data from the honeypot sensors, which are installed by participants who want to share their data with the database. "The project will contribute real-world data and statistics about attacks against Web apps--an area where we do not have good collection tools yet," says Rist's project mentor Thorsten Holz. He says Glastopf tricks an attacker by returning content that is often found on vulnerable versions of Web applications, such as characteristic version numbers or similar information.

Taking a Touching Approach to Transport Ticketing and Home Care for the Elderly
EUREKA (10/27/09) Tuikka, Tuomo

The EUREKA ITEA software Cluster SmartTouch project used near-field communications (NFC) technologies to provide easy-to-use touch-based interactive mobile services, such as paying transportation fares or choosing a meal through a touch-based mobile device. The project has developed a service platform for a variety of uses, including accessing and controlling home entertainment and caring for the elderly. The ITEA project united a number of technology and service providers, researchers, and commercial companies to explore how NFC technology can be applied to commercial products. The project incorporated protocols, enablers, applications, security, and privacy, and created an inexpensive and open solution with no gateway requiring complex configurations. The ITEA consortium enabled participating companies to update their product portfolios with NFC technology, and a variety of commercial products and services are already being marketed as a direct result of the project, including a touch-based menu for ordering food; smart systems for paying for transportation, cinema tickets, and sporting events; and systems to enable the elderly to use electronics in the home.

Will Smart Grid power IPv6?
Network World (10/29/09) Marsan, Carolyn Duffy

The Obama administration's effort to transform the U.S.'s electric transmission system into a smart grid could help accelerate the adoption of the next-generation Internet standard IPv6. The Smart Grid would deploy new smart electric meters, automated utility substations, and new sensor networks capable of capitalizing on the abundant space and built-in security provided by IPv6. The White House recently announced that it has awarded $3.4 billion in stimulus grants to electric utilities in support of 100 modernization projects. The grants are being matched by private sector funds for a total investment of more than $8 billion in the U.S.'s electricity grids over the next three years. Federal officials say the Smart Grid will support Internet standards, though it is still undecided whether it will support the current Internet architecture built on IPv4 or whether it will help promote IPv6. Although IPv6 has been available for more than a decade, its adoption has been slow due to a lack of an urgent driver to compel companies to upgrade their routers, servers, and applications to support IPv6. However, IPv4 is approaching the limits of its capacity in terms of space, and Internet experts say it is critical for Smart Grid projects to embrace IPv6. "If Smart Grid is going to be successful, it will support tens of millions of devices or potentially hundreds of millions of devices," says American Registry for Internet Number CEO John Curran. "We don't have that much IPv4 address space left for that project." The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) also is pushing for IPv6's adoption. "IPv6 is honestly a better solution," says former IETF chair Fred Baker. "If you're putting 5,000 homes in a single subnet, you can do that in IPv4, but I wouldn't want to try it … We can do it in a simpler, more scalable and more robust way with IPv6."

Endowment Fund to Support ICT Research
CSIRO (10/22/09) Finlay, Jo

Australia will continue to serve as a hub for research into wireless technologies as a result of new funding from the Science and Industry Endowment Fund. An initial round of grants has been announced, and up to $10 million will go toward a project that will expand the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's (CSIRO's) research into next-generation applications, including those that have the potential to support Australia's National Broadband Network. The Science and Industry Endowment Fund will provide $2 million to help CSIRO and Macquarie University establish a joint professorial chair and associated appointments in wireless communications over seven years. Also, $7.5 million will be provided over two to three years to establish up to 100 scholarships and fellowships in information and communication technology mathematics, engineering, and other scientific disciplines. The scholarships and fellowships will help Australia address its skills shortage in areas such as computer science, electrical engineering, mathematical sciences, and physics. "We are in a position to continue to deliver real benefits to Australia from research into high-speed wireless communications," says CSIRO group executive Alex Zelinsky. CSIRO is providing the Science and Industry Endowment Fund with $150 million from the proceeds of its Wireless Local Area Network technology licensing program.

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