Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the July 20, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


The Crowd Is Wise (When It's Focused)
New York Times (07/19/09) P. BU4; Lohr, Steve

The concept of open innovation is predicated on the idea that the Internet can improve the generation of ideas and collaborative production by a substantial order of magnitude. Yet new research and studies of recent cases imply that the success of open-innovation models relies on their specific focus on a particular job and on tailoring the incentives to draw the most effective contributors. "There is this misconception that you can sprinkle crowd wisdom on something and things will turn out for the best," says Thomas W. Malone, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Collective Intelligence. "That's not true. It's not magic." An excellent example of open innovation is the Netflix Prize, in which the movie rental company has offered $1 million to anyone who can improve the film recommendations made by Netflix's internal software by at least 10 percent. The current frontrunner is a seven-person team made up of statisticians, machine-learning experts, and computer engineers from the United States, Austria, Canada, and Israel who used the Internet to facilitate their collaboration. Participation in the contest has been wide-ranging, as the knowledge gleaned in achieving the software improvement could perhaps find multiple industry uses, such as in telecommunications or Web commerce. Another example of open innovation is online brainstorming sessions, or jams, that IBM has been holding regularly. One such jam involved the participation of approximately 150,000 employees, clients, business partners, and academics to map out guidance for IBM's emerging growth field investment strategy.

Helping Robots Get a Grip
Technology Review (07/20/09) Grifantini, Kristina

Columbia University robotics researchers Peter Allan and Matei Ciocarlie have developed a new way to control a dexterous robotic hand. The researchers realized that while human hands have 20 joints that can each bend, each joint is not capable of moving completely independently, and each joint's movement is connected to the movement of other joints. Existing software attempts to account for all the degrees of freedom in a robotic hand's joints, but this is computationally difficult and slows down the actions of the robot. Instead, Allen and Ciocarlie aimed to limit the hand's joints in the same way a human's hands are limited to allow them to control a complicated robotic hand with faster, more efficient algorithms while maintaining full functionality. The researchers experimented with four robotic hands, each with multiple joints, and developed software to control each gripper by linking its joints. During testing, the software was able to quickly calculate grasping positions to pick up different objects. The system works by determining the angle at which the hand is approaching the object and then choosing the hand position that will provide the most stable grasp. Then, if a human controller believes the position is correct, a command is given to take hold of the object. "Grasping objects with a human-like hand is a seemingly complex computational problem," says Georgia Institute of Technology professor Charlie Kemp. "This work ... shows that a complex hand may not require a complex brain."

Trust But Verify: Security Risks Abound in the IT Supply Chain
Government Computer News (07/17/09)

There are substantial national security issues associated with the use of information technology (IT) products delivered via the global supply chain, including theft of intellectual property, logic bombs and self-modifying code, deliberately concealed back doors and features for unsanctioned remote access, and risks from bogus or counterfeit products. Three years ago, ACM published a study identifying the national security risks posed by the U.S. government's use of foreign software, and the leading risk was that non-understanding of code pedigree could permit belligerent nations, terrorists, and others to undermine or sabotage software used in critical government systems. Yet the problem also applies to hardware and potential risks caused by counterfeit products or foreign computer chips and microprocessors, as well as the activities of domestic miscreants. The complexity of the IT supply chain means no clear demarcation between software and hardware pedigree from source to government system. In January 2008, the White House issued a Homeland Security Presidential Directive calling for a national priority and plan for anti-cyberthreat action, and one of the directive's initiatives is designed to address IT supply chain risks. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has identified several sub-program areas to tackle, including criteria for identifying federal government systems and networks that need augmented efforts to ensure supply chain risk management, lifecycle processes and standards, acquisition policy and legal analysis, and a process for sharing vendor threat analyses across the federal government. Meanwhile, U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) has shown considerable progress in its goal to protect the trade industry from terrorists and offer incentives and benefits to private-sector firms that meet or surpass C-TPAT supply chain security criteria and best practices.

NICTA Opens Its Software to the World
Computerworld Australia (07/16/09) McConnachle, Dahna

The National ICT Australia (NICTA) research organization has launched the OpenNICTA portal, which will allow people to view and download software developed and licensed by NICTA. OpenNICTA will serve a major role in the organization's effort to gain international attention and collaboration, says NICTA's Gernot Heiser. "Open source software is impossible to ignore and it is an important way for people to collaborate," Heiser says. OpenNICTA will offer access to 11 NICTA-developed open source releases initially, with the total number rapidly expanding during the next year. Heiser says he would like to see other research organizations follow NICTA's lead and formalize processes for releasing software to the open source community. He says research organizations have been releasing software back to the open source community for years, but the releases are generally done in an ad-hoc fashion and below the radar of authorities and the public. NICTA now has a formal process of determining if a project should be released as open source. "This procedure is something we can improve on," Heiser says. "At the moment, our hurdles are still on the high side, but it is natural that people are cautious initially."

Researchers Design a Transcription System that Allows Faster Recovery of Ancient Documents and Manuscripts
Universitat Jaume I (07/17/09)

The Universitat Jaume I Computational Perception and Learning Research Group, working with the Universidad Politecnica de Valencie, has developed State, a new assisted system for the transcription of written text that aims to speed the recovery and preservation of ancient documents and manuscripts. The State transcription system integrates several tools that enable images to be processed in a way that allows for the removal of noise and for the original image to be refined. State allows page structure to be detected, text to be recognized, and mistakes to be edited using tools such as an electronic pen applied directly to the text. Project researcher Andres Marzal says State shortens the most time-consuming part of supervised transcription--editing the automatic transcription so it is accurate. State makes it possible to save up to 50 percent of the time required to transcribe and correct ancient texts and manuscripts, which can save numerous hours when working with large documentary resources. State also uses an adaptive server, which learns from examples when a transcriber sends an action worth learning to the server, creating an improved version of the system that is available to all users. The researchers also have developed a multimodal interface to make it easier to use State.

Blind Can Take Wheel With Vehicle Designed by University Engineering Design Team
Virginia Tech News (07/15/09) Mackay, Steven

Virginia Tech's Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory Blind Driver Challenge student team has retrofitted a four-wheel dirt buggy with laser range finders, an instant voice command interface, and several other technologies to enable blind people to drive. The National Federation of the Blind, which sponsored the team through a grant, says the vehicle is a major breakthrough in independent living for the visually impaired. The buggy has been test driven by a blind driver on a closed course at the Virginia Tech campus. "It's a great first step," says Wes Majerus, the first blind person to drive the buggy. "As far as the differences between human instructions and those given by the voice in the Blind Driver Challenge car, the car's instructions are very precise." Dennis Hong, director of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory and faculty adviser to the project, says the project has great potential for spin-off technologies that could be used to help the blind in numerous ways. Early models of the blind-driver vehicle relied more on technologies used in fully autonomous vehicles, but the buggy was redesigned so blind motorists would have complete control of the driving process. The change forced the team to develop non-visual interface technologies, including a vibrating vest for feedback on speed, a click counter steering wheel with audio cues, spoken commands for directional feedback, and a tactile map interface that uses compressed air to provide information on the road and surrounding obstacles.

Car Horns Warn Against Natural Disasters
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (07/20/09)

German researchers want to use the infrastructure of a new European Union emergency system called eCall to complement the national satellite-based warning system SatWaS. Individuals currently can only receive a warning of a natural disaster via SatWaS if a radio or TV is turned on, but Germany could use eCall to trigger car horns and provide more extensive alarming. Designed to reduce car accidents, eCall features a global positioning system sensor and a mobile phone component, which is activated only in an accident and can transmit data, such as time of the accident, coordinates, and driving direction of the vehicle, to an emergency call center. A team from the Fraunhofer Institute for Technological Trend Analysis INT in Euskirchen wants to equip cars with radio receivers so that civil protection agencies would be able to send a message to cars, within certain boundaries and with engines off, to sound their horns. ECall will be rolled out in new cars starting in September 2010. "If all new vehicles are equipped with eCall from the end of next year, the warning system may be ready for use after an establishment phase of two to four years," says Guido Huppertz from the INT's Technology Analyses and Forecasts department.

Waterloo Researchers Bring Web Access to Developing Regions
Computerworld Canada (07/17/09) Lau, Kathleen

University of Waterloo researchers have released a beta version of Vlink, an open source technology that is designed to provide robust and inexpensive Web access to people in developing regions. The researchers say affordable Web access is needed for email, healthcare, and information on agricultural best practices. "Without access to this information, farmers, doctors, students are left behind," says University of Waterloo professor Srinivasan Keshav. The biggest hurdles to Internet access in developing areas are keeping Internet access both inexpensive and robust. Vlink is capable of working where other forms of communication are unreliable or even non-existent, Keshav says. If a phone line goes down, Vlink attempts to retry the data transmission so a connection can be made once the line is reconnected. If no communication links are available, emails can be exchanged using USB memory sticks that store encrypted packets, with the USB memory sticks being physically transported between people with PCs. Keshav says Vlink also provides developing areas with the ability to accept outsourced jobs such as data entry, which could significantly improve the quality of living. "Vlink is fantastic because it provides a way to connect rural outposts without wired or wireless infrastructure," says Kentaro Toyama, principal researcher with Microsoft Research in India, which provided funding for the project. "It effectively provides a high-bandwidth, if high-latency, connection, that is matched to the environment at hand."

Robo-Wheels Go Where Caterpillar Tracks Fear to Tread
New Scientist (07/15/09) Graham-Rowe, Duncan

Rescue robots could be more useful in snowy conditions thanks to an adjustable wheel that has been developed by researchers in Japan. A team led by Taro Iwamoto of Ryukoku University has mounted six pivoting vanes on the side of a wheel, and their angle can be adjusted for the best possible traction by changing the position of the central hub. On ice, adjusting the vanes so that those underneath hook into the surface would pull the robot forward. In soft snow, the robot would be able to compact the snow by adjusting the vanes to lie flat, or use them as paddles to move the wheel. The vanes also can be adjusted to allow the robot to dig through a wall of snow and clear a path. The hub controls are in the wheel disc. Iwamoto plans to improve the maximum speed of 20 centimeters a second for the current prototype by designing a four-wheel-drive version. "We plan to test it this winter," Iwamoto says.

Tim Berners-Lee Calls for Free Web
ITPro (07/13/09) Kobie, Nicole

At a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the Web, its creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, said the Internet should not be controlled, censored, or intercepted by the government or companies. Berners-Lee said the Internet should be like a piece of white paper, which does not come with any restrictions on what the owner may write or draw. However, he does not think that Web users should always be anonymous. While anonymity is important in some situations, such as when people are speaking out against a controlling government, much of what is said and done online does not require such protection. People need to "realize that the whistle-blower syndrome is an emergency, it's an exception," Berners-Lee said. Web users also need to understand that everything they read online is not necessarily true. "Just because you can read everything out there, you shouldn't read everything out there," he said. Berners-Lee also added that the future of newspapers may be on the Internet and he emphasized the need to move government and academic data online.

USP Researchers Say Future Cars Will Communicate to Avoid Collisions
University of the South Pacific (07/13/09)

The recent First Rim Mathematical Association (PRIMA) conference in Sydney featured a demonstration of how the flocking technique could be used to control cars. Bhibhya Sharma and Utesh Chand, researchers at the University of the South Pacific's School of Computing, Information, and Mathematical Sciences, presented a computer simulation of how merging traffic would be controlled by a centralized brain and a series of algorithms. The researchers say that flocking, inspired by biology, is a common robotics strategy. "One of the advantages of flocking is that robots can work together and achieve what would take individuals far longer," Sharma says. The centralized brain would tell cars how to move in formation together, and the algorithms would create targets that they must move toward and maintain to avoid moving outside of their lanes and crashing into each other. The team is testing the technique on two-wheel robots.

Researchers to Spotlight Darknets at Black Hat
PC World (07/15/09) Vamosi, Robert

Hewlett-Packard security researchers Billy Hoffman and Matt Wood are planning to demonstrate a darknet that is capable of running entirely within a browser at the upcoming Black Hat USA conference. The darknet allows decentralized, private peer-to-peer communications, like other darknets, though it runs through a proof-of-concept browser called Veiled. Hoffman and Wood say their darknet offers a number of advantages over other darknets. For instance, their darknet is easier to use than darknets such as WASTE, which is used in the academic world to share data among researchers. In addition, the Veiled browser has a feature called Web-in-Web that enables darknet users to create private Web pages with links to content that is only available in the darknet. Like other darknets, the darknet created by Hoffman and Wood cannot be viewed by average users on the Internet, which means that it is ideal for users who want to create Web pages that they want to hide from the government, for example. Hoffman and Wood say that their talk at Black Hat USA will not provide many details about their darknet or Veiled, but they note that it will allow anyone with a passing knowledge of Web technology to go out and create their own darknet.

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