Welcome to the October 19, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
How Human Nature Could Foil Tesla's New Autopilot
The Washington Post (10/16/15) Matt McFarland
Researchers and driving safety experts warn the new autopilot option installed in most Tesla vehicles, which at times will require motorists to assume control of their vehicle immediately, could cause unsafe conditions as checked-out drivers are not ready to safely do so. "If because of the automation, inattention goes up substantially, then the number of crashes could well go up," notes Princeton University's Alain Kornhauser. The autopilot feature alerts Tesla drivers via a chime and a visual cue to situations in which they need to take the wheel, but the hazard is their reaction time will not always be fast enough to avoid the danger. A recent Stanford University study determined a two-second warning--more time than Tesla drivers are assured--was not sufficient to expect drivers to be able to safely retake control of a vehicle that switches from autonomous to manual mode. The researchers found test subjects given five seconds of warning could safely retake control of the vehicle. Human nature dictates the better the technology, the less alert and more inattentive a person is likely to be to the task at hand. Tesla's system is geared for drivers who keep their hands on the wheel so they are still aware of the road, but it will continue functioning even if there are no hands on the wheel.
Automating Big-Data Analysis
MIT News (10/16/15) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers aim to remove the human factor from big-data analysis by using a system that searches for patterns as well as designs the feature set. Researchers enrolled the system in three data science competitions against human teams. Of the 906 teams participating in the three competitions, the researchers' Data Science Machine finished ahead of 615. In two of the three competitions, the predictions made by the system were 94 percent and 96 percent as accurate as the winning submissions, and in the third the figure was a more modest 87 percent. "We view the Data Science Machine as a natural complement to human intelligence," says Max Kanter, whose MIT master's thesis in computer science was the basis of the Data Science Machine. Kanter and his thesis adviser, MIT's Kalyan Veeramachaneni, described the Data Science Machine in a study Kanter is presenting this week at the IEEE International Conference on Data Science and Advanced Analytics in Paris. Kanter and Veeramachaneni exploit structural relationships inherent in database design in addition to categorical data, which appear to be restricted to a limited range of values, such as days of the week or brand names. The system generates additional feature candidates by dividing up existing features across categories.
How the NSA Can Break Trillions of Encrypted Web and VPN Connections
Ars Technica (10/15/15) Dan Goodin
Researchers at the universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania warn a serious flaw in the way the Diffie-Hellman cryptographic key exchange is implemented is allowing the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to break and eavesdrop on trillions of encrypted connections. For commonly used 1024-bit keys, it would take about a year and millions of dollars to crack just one of the extremely large prime numbers that form the starting point of a Diffie-Hellman negotiation. However, the researchers found only a few primes are commonly used, putting the price well within NSA's $11-billion annual budget for "groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities." "A one-time investment in massive computation would make it possible to eavesdrop on trillions of encrypted connections," say researchers J. Alex Halderman and Nadia Heninger. "While the documents make it clear that NSA uses other attack techniques, like software and hardware 'implants' to break crypto on specific targets, these don't explain the ability to passively eavesdrop on [virtual private network] traffic at a large scale." In addition, they say the technique makes it possible for other countries, including adversaries of the U.S., to decrypt communications on a massive scale. "If our hypothesis is correct, the agency has been vigorously exploiting weak Diffie-Hellman, while taking only small steps to help fix the problem," the researchers say.
Affordable Camera Reveals Hidden Details Invisible to the Naked Eye
University of Washington News and Information (10/15/15) Jennifer Langston
Researchers at the University of Washington and Microsoft Research say they are developing HyperCam, affordable camera technology that could soon enable consumers to tell if fruits or vegetables are ripe or starting to rot underneath the surface. HyperCam is a lower-cost hyperspectral camera that uses both visible and invisible near-infrared light to "see" beneath surfaces and capture unseen details. In a paper presented last month at the ACM UbiComp 2015 conference in Osaka, Japan, the team detailed a hardware solution that costs about $800, or potentially as little as $50 to add to a mobile phone camera. They also developed intelligent software that finds "hidden" differences between what the hyperspectral camera captures and what can be seen with the naked eye. In one test, the team took hyperspectral images of 10 different fruits over the course of a week, enabling the researchers to predict the relative ripeness of the fruits with 94-percent accuracy, compared with only 62-percent accuracy for a typical camera. Images of a person's hand using HyperCam revealed detailed vein and skin texture patterns unique to that individual. In a preliminary test of 25 different users, the system was able differentiate between hand images of users with 99-percent accuracy. The researchers say the technology could enhance gesture recognition, biometrics, and interactive video games.
An Algorithm Helps Robots Fall Safely
Technology Review (10/15/15) Will Knight
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Robotics Challenge in June highlighted the remaining challenges for robots working in just about any normal human environment. Tele-operated robots struggled to perform a series of tasks, and some even toppled over, which resulted in devastating damage to their instruments, motors, and other components. Most participants were focused on staying upright, but a team from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) took inspiration from the way people break a fall by sticking out an arm or a leg on the way down. The Georgia Tech researchers designed an algorithm that lets an unbalanced robot determine how to contort its body so it hits the ground with less force. The approach so far is limited by the sensing capabilities and the computational power of most robots. The group also wants to devise ways for robots to avoid hurting people if they fall over. Developing better technology for robot locomotion and balance will become increasingly important as robots are used in more complex environments and move around on legs rather than wheels.
Quantum Technology Set to Hit the Streets Within Two Years
New Scientist (10/14/15) Jacob Aron
The United Kingdom kicked off an initiative in 2013 that could result in the development of the world's most powerful quantum computer by 2020. The basic science has progressed far enough to make this vision a reality, says Ian Walmsley, head of the quantum computing hub at the University of Oxford. Walmsley and colleagues are working on a system based on trapped ions, and within two years plan to build a 20-qubit device. By the end of the five-year program, the team plans to connect up to 20 of the devices to a 400-qubit processor. "That's big enough to do a number of things that supercomputers can't currently do," Walmsley says. Since the computer is designed as a network, the qubit cells could potentially be scattered around the country, creating a kind of quantum cloud computer that many people can access. "What's available in the lab is already of the right performance," Walmsley says. "If we can show that one of these small-scale things works, then there is no barrier to scaling it up, other than manufacturing more components." Meanwhile, University of York researchers are building quantum key distribution networks over optical fibers around Bristol and Cambridge, which could be available to the public in two years.
Mobile Phone Navigation Service for Older People--Gets Them There Step by Step
VTT Technical Research Center (10/15/15)
A new mobile-phone navigation service developed by researchers at the VTT Technical Research Center of Finland promises to guide older people using public transportation to their destination, even when lost in a strange town. The service differs from standard public transport applications by offering continuous guidance during the journey, walking directions to stops and addresses, and timetables and real-time information. The VTT researchers developed the application along with other participants in the European Aiding SuStainable Independent Senior TrAvellers to Navigate in Towns (ASSISTANT) project. ASSISTANT users create a profile on the service's website, add a contact person, and then plan their journeys by entering the departure and arrival addresses and the preferred time. The system creates a suitable travel plan based on public transportation timetables, which is sent to the user's smartphone. When problems occur, the system can guide the user back onto the correct route. The researchers say the service, which also supports voice navigation, could be available by 2017.
Universities, Utility Research Protecting Nation's Power Grid From Cyberattacks
HSToday.us (10/13/15) Anthony Kimery
The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) Center for Securing Electric Energy Delivery Systems (SEEDS) aims to help safeguard the U.S.'s power utilities from cyberattacks. The $12.2-million initiative includes cybersecurity researchers from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Carnegie Mellon University, Lehigh University, Florida International University (FIU), and the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation. "Working together, we hope to reduce the vulnerability of our power grid and ensure the security of our energy delivery systems for the future," says FIU professor Osama Mohammed. The researchers will study how to help safeguard the U.S.'s power utilities from cyberattacks by addressing vulnerabilities and challenges in the grid's delivery systems. The main goal is to protect hardware assets, make systems less susceptible to cyberattacks, and provide for the reliable delivery of power if such an attack were to occur. FIU says the researchers will be testing "developments with the state-of-the-art Smart Grid Testbed," which "emulates a real-time power grid capable of replicating different types of controls for power generation, transmission, and distribution with grid-connected renewable resources and energy storage in three microgrids."
Interdisciplinary Project Analyzes 'Patchwriting' Through Math, Computer Science
Emory News Center (10/13/15) Kimber Williams
Emory University professor James Lu wants to produce software tools to support "patchwriting," copying and editing content to reshape it as original thought, as well as understandings that could lead to an informed description of effective patchwriting methods. "I am interested in artificial intelligence, which is a very broad area," Lu says. "I'm especially intrigued by what we do as human beings and how we might devise computer programs to do them better." Lu and his colleagues will use natural-language processing methods to examine the effects of patchwriting and the potential benefits the practice may offer in the classroom, especially for writing and English as a Second Language students. The software could look for semantic connections, suggesting both what has already been written and new directions that could be pursued. Lu also wants to develop computational techniques to help identify text pieces that a writer might find useful for copying. He says the project should help feed higher-level discussions on the merits and ethics of patchwriting by providing greater clarity, including a better understanding of both its strengths and limitations.
Researchers Find 85 Percent of Android Devices Insecure
Threatpost (10/14/15) Chris Brook
Mobile phone carriers chronically fail to issue patches, so many vulnerabilities linger without getting fixed for months or years. Daniel Thomas, Alastair Beresford, and Andrew Rice at the University of Cambridge have developed a scorecard for Android devices dubbed FUM, a number from 0 to 10 that breaks down how often manufacturers and network operators patch their devices. They presented their research last week at the 2015 ACM CCS Workshop on Security and Privacy in Smartphones and Mobile Devices in Denver, CO. The researchers' FUM score takes into account the proportion of devices that are free from critical vulnerabilities over time, the proportion of devices that run the latest updated version of Android shipped by the manufacturer, and the mean number of outstanding vulnerabilities affecting devices not fixed on devices shipped by a manufacturer. They hope the metric can eventually correlate to the security of Android devices on a more widespread level, noting the sheer lack of updates Android devices receive on average, just 1.26 updates a year, was part of what spurred them to more closely examine the environment. The researchers gathered information for their research from 21,713 devices via the Device Analyzer app, which has been on Google Play since 2011.
UMD Quantum Information Workshop Draws Experts From Around the World
UMD Right Now (10/13/15) Tom Ventsias
The University of Maryland recently hosted a five-day workshop examining the frontiers of quantum information. The workshop, held at the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science (QuICS), drew more than 140 quantum experts from around the world and featured presentations from established leaders in the quantum community. Attendees explored topics such as quantum algorithms, quantum complexity theory, quantum tomography, quantum information theory, and applications of quantum information to condensed matter physics. "We wanted the workshop to lead to further collaboration, and to get people to think about advances in quantum computing and quantum information science in ways they otherwise might not have," says QuICS co-director Andrew Childs. In one presentation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Scott Aaronson discussed how insights from quantum computing could reveal the nature of black holes. QuICS Fellow Christopher Monroe discussed the progress toward building a large-scale quantum computer. "One intent of putting on these types of workshops is to gather together a community of quantum researchers on a regular basis, and then build a robust community around that research," says QuICS co-director Jacob Taylor.
Alan Turing: The Man Behind the Myth
TechRepublic (10/15/15) Nick Heath
Famed mathematician and codebreaking pioneer Alan Turing's nephew Sir Dermot Turing's new biography, "Alan Turing Decoded," seeks to debunk myths surrounding his uncle that have been promulgated by the media. Sir Dermot says, contrary to the public's assumptions, his uncle was not "impossible to deal with," but instead "was difficult to follow if he was explaining something." Some of Turing's most significant claims to fame include his work on developing a "universal machine" that set the foundation for modern computer science, and his role in decrypting the German military's Enigma code in the Second World War. Sir Dermot says his uncle's codebreaking work was more or less completed by mid-1942, and for the remainder of the war he was focused on Allied communications security. During this period, Turing concentrated on advancing voice encryption, so the British prime minister and the U.S. president could have a phone conversation without worrying about their communications being tapped. Sir Dermot also says Turing spent time working on the encryption of telegraph and radio messages. "Previous accounts of what he'd been doing during that period had been incomplete," Sir Dermot notes. "We've now got a much better picture."
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