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Welcome to the July 11, 2016 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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EU Researchers Saw Brexit Coming
CORDIS News (07/08/16)

The European Union (EU)-funded SENSEI project accurately anticipated Britain's Brexit decision based on an analysis of more than 6 million social-media conversations in the weeks leading up to the vote, according to project coordinator Giuseppe Riccardi. "It appears that the momentum on U.K. social media started to change on June 21 [two days before the referendum vote] and we watched it move," he says. Traditional pollsters predicted a vote to stay in the EU would narrowly prevail. Using a combination of human intervention and machine-reading algorithms, SENSEI estimated the tenor of U.K.-based social-media conversations made a vote too close to call on June 23. However, by late afternoon, an analysis of online dialogues led to a prediction of 48 percent of U.K. voters voting to stay and 52 percent voting to leave, which was precisely reflected in the final referendum outcome. "This is a great result for the project," says SENSEI's Hugo Zaragoza. "The ability to listen to millions of pieces of conversations and then analyzing them for sentiment, using a combination of humans and machines, has be more successful than traditional polling methods." He says the project offers a highly valuable commercial tool to help political and business commentators understand what is being said online.

Microsoft's Project Malmo Public Release Brings AI to Minecraft
InformationWeek (07/09/16) Kelly Sheridan

Microsoft announced the open source code underlying its Project Malmo is now publicly available, enabling artificial intelligence (AI) experimentation by Minecraft users. The Project Malmo platform was developed to convert the Minecraft environment into a testbed for advanced AI research so coders could experiment on GitHub with an open source license. The system had been limited to a small research group using it to create sophisticated and more general AI that could conduct tasks such as learning, decision-making, and holding conversations. Microsoft's Allison Linn says AI is essential to building systems for enhancing human intelligence, and she predicts with sufficient development AIs will be able to execute both everyday and life-saving tasks. Microsoft researcher Kayla Hofmann thinks Project Malmo will help AI researchers create new reinforcement learning strategies, and its public launch will give scientists the tools for inventing bots capable of communicating with people and with each other. Project Malmo researchers say the immersive Minecraft environment is suitable for AI research as it offers many possibilities for exploration and collaboration. Project Malmo's public rollout includes Overclocking, a feature that lets people run experiments faster than the typical speed in the world of Minecraft so they can receive results sooner.

UW, Microsoft Researchers Break Record for DNA Data Storage
UW Today (07/07/16) Jennifer Langston

Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) and Microsoft believe they have set a new world record for the amount of digital data successfully stored in and retrieved from DNA molecules. The team encoded and decoded a video of the band OK Go, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in more than 100 languages, the top 100 books of Project Gutenberg, and the Crop Trust's seed database, among other data, all on strands of DNA. In an interview, UW professor Luis Ceze, one of the lead researchers for the project, says, "the world is producing data at an incredible rate, and storage technologies need to keep up." Ceze says the team stored 200 megabytes of data. "This experiment led to several important breakthroughs that improved our ability to manipulate more complex pools of synthetic DNA," he notes. "It allowed us to better understand what kinds of errors crop up and how to deal with them." The researchers developed error-correcting codes to reliably retrieve data using their algorithms. They also developed a method for selectively reading only the data they want and not the entire dataset, using polymerase chain reactions specifically to amplify only the desired data.

Boston Is Nation's Top Tech-Talent Exporter
Computerworld (07/07/16) Patrick Thibodeau

The U.S. technology worker population currently totals 4.8 million, with about 1 million employees added over the last five years, according to CBRE's 2016 Scoring Tech Talent report. The San Francisco Bay Area was the biggest employer of tech labor, with a five-year growth rate of 61.5 percent and nearly 317,000 tech workers. CBRE also found all major U.S. cities experienced double-digit tech employment growth over the past five years. Although Boston came in 10th on the list of top U.S. tech employment markets and had the smallest growth rate of 13 percent, it also exported the largest number of tech workers--about 17,225--to other markets. CBRE research director Colin Yasukochi notes the Boston area is producing "more [tech] degrees than jobs." He says labor costs are the most overriding cost for tech firms, with the San Francisco Bay Area paying an average $31 million for 250 people, compared to Charlotte, NC's $23-million outlay for the same number of employees. Yasukochi believes the smaller tech markets will benefit from rising labor costs in the larger markets, helped along by talent availability and significant investments in high-speed broadband networks.

Scientists Use Robots to Study the Evolution of Ancient Aquatic Animals
The Wall Street Journal (07/07/16) Daniela Hernandez

Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have used robotics, mathematical models, and live mudskipper fish to study movement under different types of conditions to learn how early tetrapods may have evolved to live on land during the late Devonian Period. The researchers found the animal's tail acts as a kind of buffer against misplaced fin movements, especially on slopes. The greater the slope in the land, the more the real mudskippers and robotic versions of the fish relied on their tails for stability and to propel themselves forward. The research is part of a growing field that merges biology and robotics to study the physics of movement. "It's very cool…the key thing about this paper is data," says John Hutchinson, a professor of evolutionary biomechanics at the University of London who was not involved in the research. "It tests things with pretty rigorous modern methods." Bio-inspired robots can help scientists explore unknown concepts in ways that more traditional mathematical models and simulations cannot, according to Northwestern University professor Malcolm MacIver, who was not involved in the research. MacIver has used robots to study the evolution of swimming behavior in fish, while a separate study describes a robotic stingray modeled after real animals.
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Stanford-Led Effort Creates a New Way to Analyze and Control Networks
Stanford News (07/08/16) Glen Martin

A team of current and former Stanford University researchers has developed an analytical tool designed to make it easier to describe and manage complex networks. "Our approach uses multiple nodes and edges for our basic analytic tool," says Stanford doctoral student Austin Benson. "Instead of two cities and a flight line for an air transportation network, we'll incorporate another city or cities, and additional flight lines. That allows us to create 'motifs'--small networks that are essentially modules [of the whole] that can be used to predict and control larger networks." Stanford professor Jure Leskovec says the incorporation of more data into the fundamental network component results in a complex network description that is richer than any derived from a node-and-edge strategy. Stanford alumnus and Purdue University professor David Gleich says the methodology is based on 40 years of mathematical and theoretical computer science research, with potential applications in many scientific disciplines because technical information is increasingly translated into network terminology. A greater understanding of social networks is one insight the motif technique can yield, according to Benson. "It allows you a much closer look at 'micropatterned' relationships and, ultimately, a far better understanding of the larger network and a clearer idea of what's going on with the participants," he says.

The Strange Way Aircraft Crashes Attract Human Attention on the Web
Technology Review (07/07/16)

Web activity following news events, such as aircraft crashes, indicates how attention is biased by the severity of a disaster and its location, according to researchers from the University of Oxford. They used Wikipedia pages on aircraft crashes as a bellwether for how much attention those events received by the public, as the time taken to create a Wikipedia page after an incident and the following traffic reveal how interest in the crash varies over time. About 1,500 articles on aircraft crashes were found on English-language Wikipedia, and 500 articles were found in Spanish. The crashes were divided by region and compared to the number of incidents recorded by the Aviation Safety Network. The researchers also downloaded the traffic data to analyze the popularity of each page. As expected, people were more interested in crashes in their part of the world, with pages in English covering more events in North America, and Spanish pages covering more events in Latin America. The data shows attention to deadly incidents is more complex than a direct correlation to the number of deaths. Below a threshold of 40 deaths, attention levels are determined by the level of media coverage, location, and the people involved, while with crashes involving at least 40 deaths, attention scales along with the number of the dead.

Exploring Mechanisms to Enhance the Economic and Societal Impacts of Fundamental Advances in Information and Communications Technologies
CCC Blog (07/05/16) Jim Kurose; Fay Lomax Cook

The U.S. National Science Foundation's (NSF) Directorates for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) and Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) have announced plans to investigate new models for maximizing the societal, psychological, and behavioral effects of information and communications technologies (ICT), especially for low-income and disadvantaged individuals, families, and communities. Some types of ICT, although effective, lack sufficient development to realize their potential societal impact, and other types are ready for market distribution but are not utilized effectively following initial adoption. In addition, other types of ICT with potential lack sufficient consensus on assessing their effectiveness. Moreover, successful ICT adoption demands advancements in supportive technologies that may require large investments in public infrastructure, organizational innovation, and adjustment of public perceptions. CISE and SBE are soliciting principal investigators to submit proposals for community workshops and EArly-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) to probe strategies for promoting the definition, development, assessment, and adoption of ICT-enabled solutions to societal challenges. For EAGERs, NSF funding will cover the initial "high-risk/high-reward" planning to formulate approaches to stimulate societally-beneficial ICT development, adoption, and effective use. Successful proposals will combine knowledge from researchers and practitioners with pertinent expertise from multiple sectors.

Your Smartwatch Is Giving Away Your ATM PIN
Binghamton University (07/06/16)

Researchers at Binghamton University and the Stevens Institute of Technology have used data from embedded sensors in wearable technologies, such as smartwatches and fitness trackers, and an algorithm to crack private personal identification numbers (PINs) and passwords. The team says they were able to break codes with 80-percent accuracy on the first try and more than 90-percent accuracy after three tries. They say this is the first technique to reveal personal PINs by exploiting information from wearable devices without the need for contextual information. "The threat is real, although the approach is sophisticated," says Binghamton professor Yan Wang, a co-author of the study. "Attackers can reproduce the trajectories of the user's hand then recover secret key entries to ATM cash machines, electronic door locks, and keypad-controlled enterprise servers." The researchers say their findings help highlight the security vulnerabilities of wearable devices. In their paper, the researchers suggest developers "inject a certain type of noise to data so it cannot be used to derive fine-grained hand movements, while still being effective for fitness tracking purposes such as activity recognition or step counts." The team's paper received the "Best Paper Award" at the ACM Asia Conference on Computer and Communications Security (ASIACCS 2016) in Xi'an, China, earlier this year.

Major Energy Savings When Computers Learn to Share
Australian National University (07/05/16)

Researchers at Australian National University (ANU) have developed new computer operating system mechanisms that could make large data centers 25-percent more efficient by sharing their processing power. Computer servers spend a lot of time waiting for search requests to come in, and the new technique involves sneaking in other processes while those servers are waiting, which makes computers work more efficiently, according to ANU professor Steve Blackburn. The researchers developed a way for processes that are not time-critical to use the operating system while it is idle, and to quickly move aside when search requests come in. ANU researcher Xi Yang says the new method is very easy to implement on current hardware, and "in some cases that we studied, the new techniques made a server nine times more efficient." The key to the research was analyzing server and application performance in great detail, so the extra processes could be inserted into the gaps. "This work has the potential for enormous impact in data centers--it could save over 25 percent of the data center energy bill for these companies, a huge win," says Microsoft principal researcher Kathryn McKinley.

Predicting Terrorist Attacks by Parsing Social Media Traffic
Government Computer News (07/06/16) Patrick Marshall

University of Miami (UM) researchers have developed an analytic tool that monitors the use of selected hashtags on a social network, which enables people to identify and track the activity of ad-hoc extremist groups without having access to individual profiles. Searching for groups using hashtags is critical because hashtags, unlike individual profiles, are publicly accessible and persistent. The researchers used hashtags from the Russian social networking service VKontakte because, unlike Facebook and many other social network sites, it does not delete pro-ISIS posts. The team isolated a set of relevant hashtags, then generated a point map showing aggregated groups of individual users whose posts included a given hashtag and the relationship of those groups to each other. "Our findings suggest that instead of having to analyze the online activities of many millions of individual potential actors worldwide, interested parties can shift their focus to aggregates, of which there will typically be only a few hundred," the researchers say. They focused on the patterns of connections found in the social network instead of the content of the postings. "Right before there is an event in the real world, we see an acceleration of those groups popping out of the woodwork like mushrooms," says UM professor Stefan Wuchty. "That can be used in order to predict pretty reliably the onset of an event a couple of days away."

Professor Studies How Apps Can Affect Productivity
Penn State News (07/01/16) Katie Bohn

Pennsylvania State University professor Eun Kyoung Choe is examining the impact of applications on productivity with TimeAware, a Web app that logs the websites and apps people use during the day while calculating a score. Choe developed TimeAware in collaboration with researchers at Microsoft Research and Seoul National University, and her team used it to study whether or not the manner in which data was presented to users encouraged greater productivity. "With TimeAware, we could decide whether the data would be shown in a positive way by highlighting productivity, or in a negative way by highlighting unproductive time," Choe says. Her team employed the RescueTime app's application programming interface to create several versions of TimeAware; one displaying how much time is used productively along with a list of the most productive apps and sites, and another estimating how much time is used unproductively while listing the least productive apps and sites. Only users assigned to the negatively focused version of TimeAware boosted their productivity, while those using the positively focused version did not become more productive. "The study suggests that just looking at and being aware of your current state doesn't really help," Choe says. The researchers presented their study at the ACM CHI 2016 conference in San Jose, CA, in May.

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