Welcome to the November 3, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Researchers Use Technology to Improve Voting
Wall Street Journal (11/02/10) Courtney Banks; Lauren Goode
The Voting Technology Project (VTP), founded 10 years ago in response to the problems that occurred in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, is working to ensure that electronic voting machines used in this year's election operate properly, especially in states that have close races, such as Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. One of the major problems the VTP faces is that although many of the voting machines were purchased between 2004 and 2006, they are already becoming obsolete. "The industry is very capital poor, and there's not a lot of money going into research to develop better equipment," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor and VTP researcher Charles Stewart. MIT professor Ronald Rivest has been working to develop a system that would allow voters to confirm that their ballots have been counted and recorded correctly. The system, called Scantegrity II, calls for voters to mark their ballots with special pens that expose codes next to the names of the candidates they select. Voters can then look up the serial number on the election Web site to confirm that the codes they marked were registered to their ballot.
Robot's Space Debut 'Giant Leap for Tinmankind'
Associated Press (11/02/10) Marcia Dunn
The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is sending a humanoid robot, called Robonaut 2 (R2), to the International Space Station for the first time. R2 is made of aluminum and nickel-based carbon fiber and has more than 350 electrical sensors throughout its body. R2 is humanoid from the waist up and measures three feet, four inches tall and weighs 330 pounds. It can carry out preprogrammed orders by itself, once the orders are given. The objective is to help astronauts, not replace them, NASA says. "While it might be just a single step for this robot, it's really a giant leap forward for tinmankind," says NASA's Rob Ambrose. Once onboard the space station, R2 will undergo tests to see how it performs in weightlessness when attached to a fixed pedestal. NASA plans to send legs next year that will enable it to perform indoor chores, and future torso and computer enhancements will allow it to take space walks. R2 is expected to be onboard the space station until it stops operating sometime after 2020.
Virginia Tech Computer Scientist, Student Design Award Winning Software to Combat Hacking
Virginia Tech News (11/01/10) Lynn Nystrom
Virginia Tech professor Daphne Yao and former student Deian Stefan have developed Telling Human and Bot Apart (TUBA), a remote biometrics system based on keystroke dynamics data. The TUBA authentication framework can identify when a computer program designed by a hacker is producing keystroke sequences in order to fool users. "Our work shows that keystroke dynamics is robust against the synthetic forgery attacks studied, where the attacker draws statistical samples from a pool of available keystroke datasets other than the target," Yao says. TUBA can be used as a tool to identify anomalous activities on a personal computer, including activities that can be due to malicious software, according to the researchers. "Keystroke dynamics is an inexpensive biometric mechanism that has been proven accurate in distinguishing individuals," Yao says.
New JHU Computer to Enable Data Analysis Not Possible Today
Johns Hopkins University (11/01/10) Lisa De Nike
Johns Hopkins University (JHU) researchers are developing the Data-Scope, a tool that will be able to analyze large datasets from both "little picture" and "big picture" perspectives. The project, backed by a $2.1 million National Science Foundation grant and led by the Institute for Data Intensive Engineering and Science's Alexander Szalay, is a cluster of computers that will be able to analyze as much as five petabytes of data. "Computer science has drastically changed the way we do science and the science that we do, and the Data-Scope is a crucial step in this process," Szalay says. "At this moment, the huge data sets are here, but we lack an integrated software and hardware infrastructure to analyze them. Data-Scope will bridge that gap." The range of material that the Data-Scope can analyze will be "breathtakingly large, from genomics to ocean circulation, turbulence, astrophysics, environmental science, public health, and beyond," he says. At least 20 research groups within JHU are working on data problems totaling three petabytes, according to Szalay. "The Data-Scope will allow us to mine out relationships among data that already exist but that we can't yet handle and to sift discoveries from what seems like an overwhelming flow of information," he says.
Intel, Toshiba, Samsung Aim to Halve Chip Circuitry Size
Computerworld (10/29/10) Lucas Mearian
Intel, Toshiba and Samsung reportedly are collaborating to develop NAND flash chips and microprocessors that are half the size of those used today. The goal is to significantly increase the density and capacity of solid-state drives and create faster central processing units that use less power. The agreement reportedly calls for the companies to work together to reduce the size of NAND flash chips from the current 20 nanometer (nm) sizes to 10 nm by 2016. All three companies will likely use smaller lithography to make the denser NAND flash chips, while Intel also is expected to develop faster microprocessors, according to the Nikkei Daily news agency. Producing denser NAND flash chips will enable chip manufacturers to pack more capacity into the same space, which reduces costs. Although Intel has refused to confirm the reports, the Nikkei news agency says Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry may fund up to half of the project's expected $122 million cost.
U of T Researchers Develop 'Hi-Def' Copy Number Variation Decoder
University of Toronto (11/01/10) Paul Cantin
CNVer, a computer algorithm developed by researchers at the University of Toronto, promises to simplify the discovery of the precise number of copies of genes in the human genome. The algorithm analyzes human DNA and detects genetic variants that determine individual traits such as disease susceptibility. Professor Michael Brudno compares CNVer to a game of "spot the difference," in that glitches are searched for in sub-microscopic pieces of DNA. "Imagine two near identical images--one photograph containing two cars, and the other only one. If you cut those images into snippets and shuffled them [which is what happens when during DNA sequencing], it would be difficult to detect which image fragment belonged with the original picture," he says. "We have developed sophisticated methods to scrutinize connecting fragments around, or between, the vehicles, allowing both the number of cars [or copies of a gene] within the photograph and their location to be accurately reconstructed." The information enables researchers to obtain a high-level view of the genome, while only looking at the individual small pieces, according to Brudno.
Online Social Networks and Human Behavior
U.S. News & World Report (11/01/10) Marlene Cimons
Online social networks have become important laboratories for social scientists studying human behavior. "The volume of online social networking is exploding, and it appears it is becoming more pervasive than real-life social networking," says Suffolk University professor Dan Stefanescu. Online social networks provide data that can be used to engineer new social systems and predict certain events and economic outcomes, Stefanescu says. Suffolk University researchers are studying the structure of online social networks and looking for properties that characterize them. "When studying different behaviors in online social networks, such as flow of information, bargaining power, flow of influence, it is useful to be able to characterize a node with respect to the whole network," Stefanescu says. He says the researchers use certain measures that can "describe various aspects of the 'importance' of a node in a network: how connected the node is, how easily it can reach other nodes, how much it mediates the connection between other nodes, etc." Stefanescu and colleagues are also studying interrelationships between offline characteristics of users, such as gender or culture, and their Internet preferences. They want to better understand the correlation between these offline characteristics and their online behavior, such as communication patterns and relationship building.
Robots Are Lords of the Dance at South Korean Festival
Agence France-Presse (11/01/10)
Robots danced in competitions, played football, engaged in taekwondo matches, ran obstacle races, and participated in a parade at the recent Robot World in South Korea. The various tasks provided an opportunity to assess the sensory and movement skills of the robots. Billed as the world's largest robot festival, Robot World has drawn about 120,000 visitors and 6,000 participants for demonstrations of the latest developments in robotics every year since its launch in 2006. This year, Robot World attracted at least 120 companies and 8,000 contestants. Hyun Yun-Duk, a teacher from Incheon mechanical technical high school, says the robots have improved from a year ago. "They are now much more like human beings," Yun-Duk says. Researchers from countries such as the United States, India, Spain, and Japan participated in the various events.
Piracy Technology to Revolutionize Market Research in Cinema
University of the West of England, Bristol (11/01/10)
Researchers in the University of the West of England's (UWE's) Machine Vision Lab are working with Aralia Systems to develop piracy tracking technology for movie theatres as well as software systems for market research data collection. "We plan to build on the capabilities of current technology used in cinemas to detect criminals making pirate copies of films with video cameras," says UWE's Abdul Farooq. The researchers will use two-dimensional imaging technology to detect emotion and three-dimensional data measurement to collect movement data. "By measuring emotion and movement film companies and cinema advertising agencies can learn so much from their audiences that will help to inform creativity and strategy," Farooq says. "It is envisaged that once the technology has been fine-tuned it could be used by market researchers in all kinds of settings, including monitoring reactions to shop window displays." The Machine Vision Lab has previously collaborated with Aralia to develop scene analysis, object recognition, and content management technology.
In D.C.'s Web Voting Test, the Hackers Were the Good Guys
Washington Post (10/30/10) Jeremy Epstein; David Jefferson; Barbara Simons
Washington, D.C., held an Internet voting experiment in September during which a team of University of Michigan hackers successfully penetrated election computers and rigged the electoral outcome, demonstrating the extreme national security hazards of online voting, write SRI International computer scientist Jeremy Epstein, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researcher David Jefferson, and former ACM president Barbara Simons. They say the test verifies that Internet voting systems can be assaulted from anywhere by any malicious individual or entity, and effective defense is a virtual impossibility. Worse still, a cyberattack against an election may be completely invisible to election officials. The computer security community agrees that no secure Internet voting framework exists for public elections, and that simply correcting the problems highlighted by the recent experiment will not ensure the system's security. Epstein, Jefferson, and Simons contend that the hacker team "has done our nation an enormous service" by calling attention to the dangers of Internet voting, but they lament that more than 30 U.S. states are permitting the use of online voting systems in the midterm elections, despite the lessons learned from the D.C. experiment.
Computer Scientists Make Progress on Math Puzzle
UT Dallas News (10/28/10) David Moore
University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) professors Linda Morales and Hal Sudborough have made progress on the Topswops mathematical puzzle. Stanford University computer scientist Donald Knuth previously proved an exponential upper bound on the number of Topswops steps, but Morales and Sudborough proved a lower bound that is better than that proposed in Knuth's conjecture. "What I find fascinating about a problem such as bounding the Topswops function is connected to its simplicity, to its fundamental nature, and to the complexity and difficulty of finding an answer," Sudborough says. "Our research uncovered permutations whose iterate sequences have a fascinating structure, which upon analysis have revealed hitherto unknown lower bounds for the problem," Morales says. Knuth called their proof technique both "elegant" and "amazing." "There is much more to learn from the problem," Morales says. "We have tantalizing hints of more revelations just waiting to be uncovered."
UM Researchers Are Studying Child-Mother Interactions to Design Robots With Social Skills
University of Miami (10/28/10) Marie Guma-Diaz
University of Miami developmental psychologists and computer scientists from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) are studying the interaction between infants and mothers, and will use the findings to program a baby robot to learn social skills. In the first phase of the project the researchers learned that babies develop turn-taking skills, and the pattern of play becomes more stable and predictable with age. The project will use the findings to program Diego-San, a 1.3-meters-tall robot modeled after a one-year-old child built by Kokoro Dreams and UCSD's Machine Perception Laboratory. Diego-San will shift its gaze from people to objects using the same principles babies use to play and develop. "A unique aspect of this project is that we have state-of-the-art tools to study development on both the robotics and developmental psychology side," says UCSD's Paul Ruvolo. "On the robotics side we have a robot that mechanically closely approximates the complexity of the human motor system and on the developmental psychology side we have a fine-grained motion capture and video recording that shows the mother infant action in great detail."
Ten Years to Save the Touchscreen
New Scientist (10/27/10) James Mitchell Crow
Touchscreen technology relies on a mixture of indium tin oxide (ITO), two metallic oxides that are both electrically conducting and optically transparent. However, no one is sure how much indium there is left, says Yale University researcher Thomas Graedel. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that worldwide indium reserves amount to about 16,000 tons, and will run out by 2020. Now researchers are starting to look for chemically similar materials to act as a replacement. One option is zinc oxide, which is readily available for a fraction of ITO's cost. But it is not as conductive, transparent, or physically resilient as ITO. Meanwhile, Northwestern University researchers have developed a material based on cadmium oxide with just a sprinkling of indium that is just as transparent as ITO and three to four times as conductive. Another issue for the widespread use of ITO in touchscreens is its ability to withstand long-term use, as over time the material degrades and becomes unstable. Conducting polymers might offer an alternative to ITO, but the challenge has been making them easier to manipulate. Princeton University researchers have found an additive that not only dissolves the polymer, but also disrupts the interactions between individual polymer chains.
Robotic Limbs That Plug Into the Brain
Technology Review (10/27/10) Emily Singer
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has backed the development of two new sophisticated prosthetic limbs that can move with natural dexterity and can be controlled with human thought. The new designs have about 20 degrees of independent motion and can be operated using several different interfaces. One device, developed by DEKA Research and Development, can be consciously controlled using a system of levers in a shoe. Meanwhile, Applied Physics Laboratories (APL) researchers have developed a second prosthetic arm with an even greater array of possible movements and have applied to begin human testing. The APL team wants to work with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the California Institute of Technology to begin implanting spinal cord injury patients in 2011. The new design will be similar to that used in cardiac pacemakers and deep brain stimulation devices, but the prosthetic arm carries out more complex functions than a pacemaker, and therefore more information is needed to control it.
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