Welcome to the January 10, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
1986 Privacy Law Is Outrun by the Web
New York Times (01/09/11) Miguel Helft; Claire Cain Miller
Rising use of the Internet has overtaken the main statute governing communication privacy, according to many Web companies and consumer proponents. Although they acknowledge that access to information is critical for anti-crime and counterterrorism efforts, they say they must contend with a hodgepodge of standards that the courts have not interpreted consistently. "Some people think Congress did a pretty good job in 1986 seeing the future, but that was before the World Wide Web," says University of San Francisco School of Law professor Susan Freiwald. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies are worried that their access to important information will be obstructed by advancing communications technology. Internet companies argue that online data is afforded less protection under existing privacy laws, and they argue that email should be just as protected from law enforcement inquiries as information stored in a residence. In general, law enforcement officials do not require a warrant to read email messages that are more than 180 days old, and this differentiates online surveillance from phone call or postal mail surveillance. Moreover, since 9/11 it has become increasingly common for law enforcement to demand the sealing of its requests for information from the targets of probes.
CES: The Future of Interfaces
Technology Review (01/06/11) Stephen Cass
People are no longer limited to interacting with computers via the mouse and keyboard due to the emergence of mobile computing, according to speakers participating in a panel on the future of the human-computer interface at the Consumer Electronics Show. The panelists say new applications are driving new interfaces--smartphones with touchscreens, voice-controlled automotive entertainment systems, and motion-based game controllers. They say the challenge for interface designers is to establish a common grammar for these systems to enable users to move seamlessly from device to device without having to learn to operate each one individually. As for the future, the panelists say application designers might have to consider taking into account contextual shifts between different interfaces on the same device. Such an approach would allow a smartphone's navigation app with a touch-based interface to switch to voice-based input and output when a user starts driving a car, possibly via the vehicle's built-in hands-free phone system. The panelists note that mind-controlled computers are still a long way off.
Biometrics for Care Environments
University of Kent (01/05/11)
Biometrics researchers in the United Kingdom are exploring user-friendly ways to enable telecare systems and applications to recognize individuals from their facial and vocal characteristics. Researchers from the University of Kent's School of Engineering and Digital Arts and InMezzo want to make it easier for patients receiving health care and vulnerable individuals receiving social care to access the technology. Telecare enables health and social care to monitor people remotely and receive alerts when incidents occur, and the technology often allows for the electronic transmission of personal health and welfare information. The researchers are using the audio visual functions of the healthcare delivery platform SmartCare. They also plan to develop a door entry system that recognizes the faces and voices of authorized carers and other visitors, which would help improve the safety and security of people who live alone. "This work is indicative of many initiatives in place to bring practical solutions to existing telecare technologies and we are extremely pleased with the objectives of this project and progress being made," says David Parry, CEO of the South East Health Technologies Alliance, which manages the International Center for Excellence in Telecare.
FCC Challenges App Makers to Protect Open Internet
Reuters (01/05/11) Jasmin Melvin
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has launched the Open Internet Challenge, which calls on software developers to create applications that will help Internet users determine when their Internet service provider (ISP) is interfering with content. The FCC says the apps could help create ways to measure, preserve, and track the openness of the Internet. The apps also could be used to test networks for ISPs and to collect network data for both academics and policymakers, the FCC says. The launch of the contest comes after the FCC adopted rules last month that prohibit landline ISPs from blocking legal traffic or discriminating against content that uses up large amounts of bandwidth. Meanwhile, wireless Internet carriers would be prevented from blocking access to Web sites or voice and video applications offered by competitors. "Our goal is to foster user-developed applications that shine light on any practice that might be inconsistent with the free and open Internet," says FCC chairman Julius Genachowski. The rules are expected to take effect early this year, although the implementation of the rules could be delayed by court challenges.
How New COMPETES Science Law Broadens NSF Education Programs
Science Insider (01/05/11) Jeffrey Mervis
The reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act outlines program changes designed to guarantee that all the elements of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) are involved in training the next generation of researchers and enhancing public scientific literacy. Among the new law's requirements for NSF are increasing the allowance to universities that host recipients of NSF's graduate research fellowships and receive funding to operate an NSF graduate traineeship program; splitting the cost of its two graduate training programs equally between the education directorate and the six research directorates; halting a planned merger of three programs aimed at buttressing undergraduate science and engineering programs at colleges with a large portion of minority students; and supporting undergraduate research mainly through its regular application process. The reauthorization also instructs NSF to initiate new education projects, including a replication of the University of Texas, Austin's UTEACH program to train science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors to become public school science and math teachers. NSF officials say they are already following many of COMPETES' directives. "We appreciate the outside recognition for the idea that enhancing STEM education is an NSF-wide responsibility," says NSF's Joan Ferrini-Mundy. "And COMPETES offers some wonderful opportunities for us to expand that conversation."
And Then There Were Five: Finalists Advance in NIST's SHA-3 Cryptography Competition
NIST News (01/05/11) Chad Boutin
The five finalists for the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST's) competition to find a new cryptographic hash algorithm standard have until Jan. 16 to make minor modifications to their algorithms. NIST selected BLAKE, Grostl, JH, Keccak, and Skein in December, based on public feedback and an internal review of the 14 candidates that advanced to the second round of the competition. Blake was submitted by Jean-Philippe Aumasson of Nagravision and other researchers from Switzerland and the United Kingdom; Grostl by a team from the Technical University of Denmark and TU Graz; JH by Hongjun Wu; Keccak by a team that includes researchers from STMicroelectronics and NXP Semiconductors; and Skein by Bruce Schneier and other researchers. Cryptographers worldwide will have a year to find weaknesses in the final algorithms. NIST will select the winner, to be called SHA-3, in 2012, and it will be used to augment the hash algorithms currently specified in Federal Information Processing Standards 180-3, Secure Hash Standard.
Draw the Curtains: Gigapixel Cameras Create Highly Revealing Snapshots
Scientific American (01/06/11) Larry Greenmeier
Gigapixel images, which consist of one billion pixels, have become increasingly prominent on the Internet. They are generally taken using several megapixel-sized images that are then digitally combined to provide a high level of detail. However, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been developing a camera that can take gigapixel images with one snapshot. Thus far, the equipment used for the single snapshot approach is bulky and expensive, but Columbia University researchers are developing a simpler single snapshot camera. "Rather than thinking about it as capturing the final image, you're capturing the information you would need to compute the final image," says Columbia professor Shree Nayar. The Columbia researchers are developing three gigapixel camera designs, each of which uses a ball-shaped lens and digital sensors, says Columbia researcher Oliver Cossairt. "We want to show there is a path to getting to gigapixel cameras, video, or still, using the form factor and the weight and the cost of something that would be a camera today," Nayar says. Microsoft Research Asia scientists also are developing a single-shot gigapixel camera with an accordion-style lens. "The lens does not move during image capture, which is essential for archival quality imaging of any object that is not entirely flat," says Microsoft Research Asia's Moshe Ben-Ezra.
Text-Based Video Navigation
MIT News (01/07/11) Larry Hardesty
The MIT150 Web site, celebrating the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) 150th anniversary, offers a collection of more than 100 video interviews with MIT luminaries. The Infinite Histories collection makes use of a new navigation interface that enables viewers to browse through video by clicking on keywords. The videos are launched along with a scrolling transcript underneath them, with each word highlighted as it is spoken. Viewers can browse the transcript or use a search function to find a particular term, and click on the word or group of words to automatically forward the video to the corresponding section. Another search bar next to the video window can pull up a list of all the videos in the collection that contain a given term, while an interview continues to play. Underneath each title in the list are orange hashes depicting the occurrences of the search term, on a black bar representing the video's duration. Viewers can pull up a section of the transcript by clicking on the corresponding hash, and clicking the transcript launches that section of the video in the video window.
Expitaxial Graphene Shows Promise for Replacing Silicon in Electronics
Georgia Tech News (01/06/11) John Toon
Georgia Tech researchers recently created an array of 10,000 top-gated transistors on a 0.24-square centimeter chip, believed to be the highest density graphene device ever created. Creating the array utilized a new technique involving templates etched into silicon carbide. "This is another step showing that our method of working with epitaxial graphene grown on silicon carbide is the right approach and the one that will probably be used for making graphene electronics," says Georgia Tech professor Walt de Heer. "We're not trying to do something cheaper or better; we're going to do things that can't be done at all with silicon." Graphene-based electronic devices could be made as small as a molecule, according to the researchers. "The properties that we see in our epitaxial graphene are similar to what we have calculated for an ideal theoretical sheet of graphene suspended in the air," says Georgia Tech researcher Claire Berger. The key to the development of the material is creating devices that are reliably consistent, a standard that researchers have almost achieved. "We have shown that we can make macroscopic amounts of this material, and with the devices that are scalable, we have the groundwork that could really make graphene take off," says Georgia Tech's professor Ed Conrad.
Reconstructing Ancient Rome in Less Than a Day
Triangle Business Journal (01/07/11) James Gallagher
Computer scientists at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) have created a three-dimensional (3D) model of Rome's ancient sites from photos in less than 24 hours. UNC's Svetlana Lazebnik and Jan-Michael Frahm led a team that used nearly 3 million photographs of Rome loaded onto the photo-sharing Web site Flickr, and developed about 130 3D renderings of well-known objects and places from the ancient city. The computer first analyzed each photo and categorized it by 512 markers, and then grouped like ones together. It then went back and better analyzed the grouped photos, eliminating unrelated images, studied them again to detect similarities and differences, and then combined them to create 3D renderings of specific sites with the clarity of modern video games. The researchers say the system could be used for virtual tourism, although it would need photos of the back and sides of a structure to produce a complete 3D model. Other users include the military, which could send vehicles through a city to take pictures of buildings and then recreate 3D models of streets. The researchers say the technology also could enable robotic programs to respond to what they see.
Mimic-Bots Learn to Do As We Do
New Scientist (01/05/11) Helen Knight
Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) researchers have developed a robotic system that responds to the actions of the person confronting it. The robot observes the person, analyzes the action, and stores it in its memory, all while making an appropriate response. The robot also develops a set of connections associated with a certain action, such as the action "throw" is connected to the object "ball." The robot also can request more gestures from the human if it is confused by conflicting information. KAIST's Ji-Hyeong Han says the gesture-recognition technology overcomes the limitations of speech-based commands. "Of course, robots can recognize human intentions by understanding speech, but humans would have to make constant, explicit commands to the robot," Han says. "That would be pretty uncomfortable." Socially intelligent robots that can communicate with humans through gesture and expression will need to develop a mental model of the person they are dealing with in order to understand their needs, says Bristol Robotics Laboratory's Chris Melhuish. The KAIST researchers plan to test the system using a robot with sensors that can detect users' movements and gestures.
Saving Water, One Field at a Time
Technology Review (01/06/11) Brittany Sauser
Farmers will be able to manage water use more efficiently with a new computer program from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). As part of an 18-month research project to optimize irrigation management, NASA is beta-testing software that uses data from its satellites, local weather observations, and wireless sensor networks installed in agricultural fields to calculate water balance across a field to provide farmers with information on crop water needs and forecasts. Farmers will be able to access the information from computers and handheld devices in real time. The system is an advanced version of the Terrestrial Observation and Prediction System, which NASA has used for years to model floods, droughts, and deforestation. NASA's Forrest Melton says the agency plans to make its new data sets available to consumers in the agricultural industry in early 2011. The new system should help save an enormous amount of water, says University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Mehmet Can Vuran.
Local Coders Help Improve Government Functions
Governing (01/11) Tina Trenkner
Local software programmers are helping to enhance government functions through efforts such as Code for America (CfA), a fellowship program that matches cities with coders to produce easily transferable applications for cities. Developers appear eager to support city initiatives. For example, the CfA's inaugural class included 362 applications, many from developers that had previous experience building software apps. "It's a chance [to] not only get to work with cities to really potentially make some impact, but actually build this new program to really get it online," says CfA fellow Jeremy Canfield. "I find that really compelling." Another initiative, Apps for Democracy, is a competition in which developers vie for cash prizes to develop the best apps using city data from Washington, D.C., and the inaugural contest yielded about 50 applications within a month at a cost of $50,000. The event inspired a series of copycat contests in the United States and around the world. Outside of competitions, civic innovators have gathered at "unconferences" such as CityCamp, where municipal and civic leaders convene to talk about city governments' technology challenges and solutions. CityCamps were held in Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco last year. Meanwhile, a couple of cities created research and development-type labs in which citizens could offer ideas to the CIO's office.
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