Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the July 19, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Tech Firms, Civil Liberties Groups to Demand More Sunlight on NSA Surveillance Data
Washington Post (07/17/13) Craig Timberg

Tech firms and civil liberties groups have presented a letter to President Barack Obama and Congressional lawmakers requesting an increase in the amount of information reported publicly about U.S. government surveillance initiatives. The letter has more than 50 signatories, and calls on the U.S. government to remove restrictions that keep companies from reporting the number of surveillance requests they receive for national security purposes, such as requests under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Security Act Amendments Act, and national security letters. The letter also asks the government to issue its own regular reports that provide an overall account of the data it is harvesting from telecom and technology companies. "The U.S. government's refusal to allow companies to release figures reflecting these requests prevents them from taking basic steps to preserve public confidence in U.S. Internet services," the letter says. The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) organized the letter, which was backed by more than 20 companies, as well as many trade and press freedom groups. "All we're asking for in this letter is the same type of general numerical information that has been published about law enforcement surveillance for years," says CDT's Kevin S. Bankston.

Microsoft Has an Operating System for Your House
Technology Review (07/18/13) Tom Simonite

Microsoft researchers have created the Lab of Things, software that provides a centralized control panel for Internet-connected devices within a home or building. Smart-home devices are increasingly available, but most work independently, making control and monitoring a challenge. In addition, the Lab of Things will provide standards for developers to create applications that will enable new uses of smart devices in areas with the software installed. The Lab of Things software also "lowers the barrier to deploying field studies in connected homes" because researchers and volunteers are often inconvenienced in studies that combine multiple types of sensors and other devices, necessitating short trials, says Microsoft researcher Arjmand Samuel. The Lab of Things, which builds on the earlier HomeOS, is available on the project’s home page to be installed onto a home computer, after which it will automatically detect devices on the same network. Automation might find its greatest success in office buildings, which offer large potential energy savings. In addition, nursing-home facilities could use the technology to monitor patient movements.

U.S. Makes a Top 10 Supercomputer Available to Anyone Who Can 'Boost' America
Computerworld (07/17/13) Patrick Thibodeau

The federal government is offering the use of a Vulcan supercomputer, which is now operating at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL), to U.S. businesses that can help make the country more competitive. Businesses would have to demonstrate they can accelerate advances in science and technology and help develop the country's high-performance computing workforce. Companies could use the government system for proprietary work in exchange for covering "their fair portion of the operating costs of the computer centers," says LLNL's Jeff Wolf. The U.S. government posted an ad in June on its Federal Business Opportunities clearinghouse for vendors to attract attention to the initiative. The lab is now "receiving responses daily and expects the rate to increase as we get through the summer into fall," Wolf says. He notes that candidates range from startups to multinationals. "We're offering to help companies solve their high-impact business problems, and accelerate their research, development, virtual prototyping, and testing of new products and complex systems--activities that can boost their productivity and global competitiveness," Wolf says. "These businesses need to either model and simulate a larger system, add more physics to the modeling, increase fidelity, or accelerate simulation time-to-results."

Eye-Tracking Could Outshine Passwords If Made User-Friendly
UW Today (07/16/13) Michelle Ma

University of Washington researchers have developed a biometric authentication technique that identifies users based on their eye movements. "This is the beginning of looking at biometric authentication as a socio-technical system, where not only does it require that it be efficient and accurate, but also something that people trust, accept, and don’t get frustrated with," says Washington professor Cecilia Aragon. The researchers put subjects through several types of authentication, and then asked for feedback on the technology's usability and perceived security. The study used an ATM-lookalike computer screen with eye-tracking technology. The subjects were presented with three types of authentication, including a standard four-number PIN, a target-based game that tracks a person's gaze, and a reading exercise that follows how a user's eyes move past each word. Most of the study subjects said they did not trust the standard PIN system, and most of the subjects assumed that the more advanced technologies would offer the best security. However, during one trial the researchers deliberately caused the eye-tracking system to fail, and the users lost faith in the new technology. The researchers now plan to look at developing similar eye-tracking authentication for other systems that use basic cameras, such as desktop computers.

Making Digital Heritage a Thing of the Present
CORDIS News (07/16/13)

The results of a project funded by the European Union show that the three-dimensional (3D) digitization of artifacts and sites is inexpensive, effective, and practical for the long-term conservation of cultural heritage. The Tools and expertise for three-dimensional collection formation (3D-COFORM) project, was launched in 2008 and led by the University of Brighton. The consortium developed a technical research program to address the various aspects of digitization, including 3D capture, 3D processing, material properties, the semantics of shape, integration with media and textual sources, and describing digitalized objects. The project reports improved and more realistic representations of digital cultural heritage artifacts, better documentation, and higher cost-effectiveness. The research team also looked to improve mass-digitization efforts, and showed how easy it is to access databases of 3D representations of cultural artifacts. In addition, 3D-COFORM created the Virtual Center of Competence for 3D, which provides organizations with the knowledge to launch their own 3D digitization projects. The project comes at a time when European museums are maintaining digital collections of relics or carrying out digitization as a backup record.

Bill Gates on the Future of Education, Programming, and Just About Everything Else (07/15/13) Derrick Harris

At Microsoft's recent Faculty Summit, Bill Gates expressed his views on a range of topics, including education, patents, computer science, and machine learning. Although Gates believes U.S. education is flawed, with the United States having the highest dropout rate for higher education of any wealthy nation, he says massive open online courses (MOOCs) can remedy the situation. Gates says online courses enable students to acquire job skills and enable physical institutions to customize education. He acknowledges that MOOCs are still in the early stages and significant work remains to be done, but notes that MOOCs might be able to help teachers ensure that students get the cognitive and social benefits of attending school in person. In terms of intellectual property, Gates says that software in developed countries pays salaries and enables companies to invest in innovation that brings global improvements. "Anybody who thinks getting rid of [patent law] would be better … I can tell you, that's crazy," he says. Gates also notes that tremendous computing power and storage are creating a "golden age of computer science" that is transforming society. For example, advanced robots are already in use in farming applications, and within 20 or 30 years, robots might be able to perform surgery in remote areas.

Study Finds Clues on How to Keep Kids Engaged With Educational Games
NCSU News (07/15/13) Matt Shipman

North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers are developing a game-based curriculum that teaches middle-school students about computer science principles. As part of the project, the team has conducted a study aimed at determining the effectiveness of educational gaming tasks in teaching computer science concepts and at monitoring the level of engagement of students. The researchers divided students from a local middle school into two-person teams, and tested each team on the game "Engage," which allows only one student at a time to control gameplay. They found that for each team, the student more likely to stay engaged was the one actively performing the game tasks, while the second student would often lose focus. The finding could help improve game design, says NCSU professor Kristy Boyer. "For example, we could assign tasks to the navigator [the second student] that are critical to team success and make sure that each student has an opportunity to take the controls during each gameplay session," Boyer says.

Putting Humans Into the Visual Equation
CITRIS Newsletter (07/15/13) Gordy Slack

University of California, Santa Cruz professor James Davis says small-scale image-analysis technology is not yet refined enough to produce accurate and reliable results, despite advances in machine vision over the past several decades. Davis receives requests from entrepreneurs seeking to resolve problems with image analysis, to enable them to perform functions such as comparing cell sample photos to stored images of different pathological cells. These entrepreneurs typically find that computer vision is roughly 20 years behind the level of advancement they expect. "It just doesn't work as well as they need it to in order to get reliably accurate results," Davis says. The best current approach is to use computer algorithms for preliminary searches and then use human employees to verify results. Davis is using a CITRIS seed grant to improve the interface between the automated algorithmic component of visual searches and the human part, using engineers to write code that in some places calls for human verification. In addition, Davis' colleague on the project, University of California, Merced professor Ming-Hsuan Yang, intends to use Davis' work to hasten his own research. Yang and his team are creating super-resolution machine-vision systems that can zoom in on and clarify images.

The University of Alicante Invents a Mobile Guide for the Blind
Asociacion RUVID (07/12/13)

University of Alicante researchers have developed a smartphone application that helps the blind avoid aerial obstacles such as branches or awnings. The program, developed as part of the Aerial Obstacle Detection project, relies on a stereo camera to detect the proximity of obstacles in the way of the user. When an obstacle is detected, the app creates a vibration or sound, alerting the user of the upcoming obstacle. The alert becomes more frequent as the user approaches the obstacle. The researchers note the program is meant to be used as a complement to walking sticks and guide dogs, solving their main limitation of not being able to detect aerial obstacles. The app also leverages data from the phone's magnetometer and accelerometer. The researchers say the app works with any smartphone equipped with either dual front cameras or a single camera that incorporates a system to obtain two separate environmental observations. The program obtains about 30,000 measurements per frame at a rate of nine frames per second.

Graphene Promises Cooler, Greener Computing
Green Computing Report (07/12/13) Tiffany Trader

New research on graphene could lead to more energy-efficient and longer-lasting computers. A research team from Chalmers University of Technology has used a graphene layer to cool tiny hotspots that have normal working temperatures ranging from 55 degrees to 115 degrees Celsius. "We have been able to reduce this by up to 13 degrees, which not only improves energy efficiency, it also extends the working life of the electronics," says Chalmers professor Johan Liu, who led the project. Liu says a thin layer of graphene could reduce the working temperature inside a processor by up to 25 percent. Graphene's heat-dissipating effect could benefit any electronic system that has efficient-cooling issues, but the research could have a particularly big impact on data centers, as cooling often compromises half of all the energy they consume. "This discovery opens the door to increased functionality and continues to push the boundaries when it comes to miniaturizing electronics," Liu says.

UCSC Researchers Develop 3D Display With No Ghosting for Viewers Without Glasses
UC Santa Cruz (07/12/13) Tim Stephens

University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) researchers have created a 3D+2D television that offers three-dimensional images to viewers with stereo glasses while maintaining a normal, two-dimensional picture for those without glasses. Current 3D TVs project a different image to each eye through stereo glasses, leaving viewers without the special glasses to see superimposed images that appear blurry, in an effect known as "ghosting." The 3D+2D TV shows separate left and right images to viewers with glasses, but viewers without glasses see only the left image. A third image also is displayed that is the negative of the right image, which cancels that image out so that those without glasses see only the left image. The researchers conducted several experiments to determine the optimal brightness ratio between right and left images, and they also conducted experiments to quantify issues with the depth perception of moving objects when one eye sees a darker image than the other. UCSC professor James Davis developed the new TV along with several graduate students, and will present the technology at SIGGRAPH 2013 on July 25.

Using Big Data to Design Policies to Improve Airline Customers' Experiences
National Science Foundation (07/15/13)

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Laurie Garrow says the Internet is providing new ways to design policies that may benefit airlines. Her research seeks to explore ways in which researchers and policy makers can use big data to better understand how customers respond to airline practices. "Some have questioned whether showing seats as being unavailable to non-premier customers misleads customers into purchasing a premium coach seat," Garrow says. "These individuals argue that the practice of blocking seats may lead customers to believe a plane is fuller than it is, and encourage them to pay more to reserve a window or aisle seat towards the front of the plane." By using publicly available data on seat maps and pricing from a major U.S. airline, Garrow shows that customers' purchases of premium coach seats are strongly influenced by seat map displays. She also found that customers avoid seating in middle seats and seats near the back of the plane by purchasing premium coach seats. This suggests that if a major U.S. airline were to block certain rows of seats for premier customers, it could sell more premium coach seats and potentially increase seat revenues by more than 10 percent.

Free Online MIT Courses Are an Education Revolution
New Scientist (07/15/13) Alison George

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Anant Agarwal is the president of edX, a massive open online course (MOOC) provider founded last year by MIT and Harvard University to offer free online classes from top-tier universities. "The MOOC movement is democratizing education," says Agarwal in an interview. "In the past, top universities had this funnel and admitted only the top few percent of applicants. From the get-go, a lot of students without the right economic or language background were not able to get in. We're flipping the funnel. We're saying everybody can try. If you can cut it, we'll give you a certificate of mastery." He says that in addition to making education more accessible, online learning will improve traditional education by enabling ideas that have not been widely applied, such as self-paced learning, to be put into practice on a large scale. Agarwal says the best model blends online and classroom components. "When our blended circuits and electronics course was taught at San Jose State University in California, outcomes were staggeringly good," he says. "Traditionally, about 40 percent of the students fail the class; this time, the failure rate fell to 9 percent."

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