Welcome to the February 7, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Better Software Design for Planes, Trains and Cars
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (02/04/11) Joyce Lewis
University of Southampton researchers are developing Rodin, an open source software toolkit aimed at helping the embedded software industry to model and design products. The toolkit includes a program for automatically generating software from high-level modes, and another tool, a theory plug-in, that takes product modeling to a more advanced stage. "Software is a vital component of most modern systems yet software engineering is still quite immature in comparison to more established engineering fields," says Southampton professor Michael Butler. "Industry is starting to realize that if they use modeling tools, they can reduce errors in the design of software products and improve reliability." The tools were initially developed as part of the European Union's Rigorous Open Development Environment for Complex Systems project, but Southampton researchers are developing them further under the Industrial Deployment of Advanced System Engineering Methods for High Productivity initiative.
Engineers Grow Nanolasers on Silicon, Pave Way for On-Chip Photonics
UC Berkeley News Center (02/06/11) Sarah Yang
University of California, Berkeley researchers have developed a method for growing nanolasers directly onto a silicon surface, which could lead to faster, more efficient microprocessors. "Our results impact a broad spectrum of scientific fields, including materials science, transistor technology, laser science, optoelectronics, and optical physics," says Berkeley professor Connie Chang-Hasnain. Optical interconnect technology is the leading choice to overcome the communications bottleneck in silicon-based computer chips, but silicon is extremely poor at creating light, which has led researchers to use III-V semiconductors to create light-based devices. However, Berkeley's Roger Chen says "growing III-V semiconductor films on silicon is like forcing two incongruent puzzle pieces together." The Berkeley researchers solved this problem by growing nanopillars made of indium gallium arsenide, a III-V material, directly onto a silicon surface. "This technique is potentially mass manufacturable, since such a system is already used commercially to make thin film solar cells and light-emitting diodes," says Chang-Hasnain. In testing, the nanopillars generated near-infrared laser light at room temperature and the components' tiny dimensions allowed for increased density and energy efficiency. "This research has the potential to catalyze an optoelectronics revolution in computing, communications, displays, and optical-signal processing," she says.
DARPA Seeks Security Expertise From a Nontraditional Source: the Hacker Community
NextGov.com (02/04/11) Dawn Lim
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently launched the Cyber Fast Track program, which will reward security research done quickly and inexpensively, criteria designed to attract nontraditional developers such as hobbyists, startups, and hackers. "Since the early '80s there has been some contingent of cyber researchers and hobbyists operating in low-budget settings," says DARPA's Peiter Zatko. He says limited resources force these groups to be extremely creative. DARPA also wants to apply the Cyber Fast Track process to other areas of defense. Zatko says the agency is looking toward unconventional solutions to cybersecurity problems because the current strategy of layering costly defensive security applications onto large IT infrastructures isn't sustainable. DARPA found that defensive applications contained about 10 million lines of code, while 9,000 samples of malware used only 125 lines of code. Although it is counterintuitive, more lines of code makes a system more vulnerable to attacks. An IBM metric suggests that for every 1,000 lines of code, there could be as many as five bugs introduced to the system. "You're spending all this effort layering on all this extra security, and it turns out that's introducing more vulnerabilities," Zatko says.
MobiSocial Taps Smart Phone Technology
Stanford Daily (02/04/11) Nardos Girma
Researchers at Stanford University's Mobile and Social (MobiSocial) Computing Research Group are developing ways to use near-field communications (NFC) technology to enable wireless devices to interact in new ways. "What really excites us is that you get two objects really close together, and that in itself is enough to make them interact," says Stanford's Ben Dodson. "You don't have to press buttons. You don't have to launch an app even. You just get them close together and something happens." NFC research is part of a much larger MobiSocial project, which recently received $10 million in U.S. National Science Foundation funding. The project involves a collaboration between MobiSocial researchers and private companies to more efficiently incorporate NFC technology into products. "A lot of companies are focusing on proprietary software. They like to lock people in on their own proprietary systems," says Stanford professor Monica Lam, a faculty director for the project. "And that's the reason why our project is focused on breaking down the barriers to openness."
What Did George Washington Really Look Like?
ScienceNOW (02/04/11) Sara Reardon
Researchers at the New Jersey Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are developing software that could help reveal what famous historical figures really looked like. New Jersey Medical School physician Eric Altschuler and MIT's Krista Ehinger are comparing portraits completed by 19th century painter Gilbert Stuart with photographs of his subjects, including president John Quincy Adams and senator Daniel Webster. The researchers developed an algorithm that analyzes the comparable differences between the paintings and the photographs, revealing that Stuart often gave his models fuller cheeks and higher eyebrows. The researchers also applied the algorithm to paintings that did not have a matching photograph, effectively subtracting Stuart's signature changes. The researchers also are adding more variables to the algorithm, such as the color, texture, and shape of the face. They note that as more photographs of the individuals are found, the more accurate the algorithm will become, and they recently launched a Web site where descendants can submit old photos. The researchers also are analyzing portrait-photograph combinations of less popular historical figures. "As other examples are found, we can go back and test them against our model," Altschuler says.
Effective Search Terms Yield the Right Information
University of Gothenburg (Sweden) (02/04/11)
Information retrieval is a multidisciplinary subject that needs greater contributions from linguists to improve the effectiveness of searches, says the University of Gothenburg's Karin Friberg Heppin. Much of the work in the field involves the development of search algorithms and engines, but Friberg Heppin says asking for information in the right way also can make a difference. She has written a doctoral thesis on natural language processing that shows the importance of looking at the terms people type into a search box. She used a database of medical texts written in Swedish to examine what makes search terms effective or ineffective. Heppin says the language used can determine the usefulness of the documents to a person, noting that the use of the word "flu" would result in documents that would be of interest to patients, while the word "influenza" would be a better choice for doctors. "Users usually know what kind of information they are looking for, but they don't know what question to ask," she says. "The problem these days is not for the search engine to locate the right documents, but to make the most relevant texts end up towards the top of the list."
Informatics Students Discover, Alert Facebook to Threat Allowing Access to Private Data, Bogus Messaging
Indiana University (02/03/11) Steve Chaplin
Facebook has repaired a security vulnerability discovered by Indiana University doctoral students Rui Wang and Zhou Li, which allowed malicious Web sites to find a visitor's real name, access their private data, and post misinformation. The vulnerability took place when a user gave Facebook permission to share information with other Web sites. Whenever a site makes such a request to Facebook via the user's browser, Facebook passes a random string called an authentication token back to the requester for identification. Facebook recognizes the holder of that token as a legitimate Web site and provides unblocked access to the shared data. "Basically, any user with a valid Facebook session loses anonymity and privacy to any Web site, even one with embarrassing or sensitive content," Wang says. Li says that "our attack utilized a feature of Adobe Flash called unpredictable communication, and an important distinction between an unpredictable communication and a normal communication is that the former is done through a connection where the name starts with an underscore symbol."
New Research Center by NTU, ETH Zurich and UNC-Chapel Hill Will Make Virtual Communication a Reality
Science Business (02/02/11)
Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are collaborating to create the BeingThere Center, an international research project for telepresence and telecollaboration. "This project cuts across multiple disciplines of science and engineering as it includes robotics, high-definition [three-dimensional (3D)] video, and 3D graphics," says NTU professor Nadia Magnenat-Thalmann. One of the projects being developed is a telepresence room that virtually links with several other rooms around the world, equipped with wall-sized displays that give the illusion that the rooms are next to each other. The researchers also are working on a 3D graphical representation of a person that can be seen by several users in different locations. "One of the most important imperatives for the research conducted within BeingThere is the seamless integration of visual display into everyday environments," says ETH Zurich professor Markus Gross.
Professor Creates Medical Search Engine
Daily Targum (NJ) (02/02/11) Jonathan Shao
Columbia University professor Noemie Elhadad and Rutgers University professor Amelie Marian are developing PERSEUS, a search engine for patient-written content. PERSEUS lets users find accurate information from credible online forums, using sophisticated filters to aid in the process. "You can search for others who have had your condition and read about their experiences or search for information about a treatment and what people have to say about it," Elhadad says. PERSEUS assumes that patients are more trusting of online communities than they are of their own doctors, which makes them reveal information on the Web that they would normally withhold from a physician. "Our goal is to help patients find emotional support in online communities and to let them rely on each other for specific information about their symptoms or a treatment," Elhadad says. Health care professionals will be able to use PERSEUS to learn what concerns patients have about different aspects of their treatments and symptoms, Marian notes. The researchers also plan to develop machine-learning and pattern-recognition algorithms to deal with misspellings and inaccurate information that is often mistakenly posted on the Web by patients.
Quantum Cryptography Is Not Picky, Physicists Prove
University of Warsaw (02/02/11)
University of Warsaw physicists have proven cryptographic keys can be obtained from entangled particles that come from noisy sources. The researchers conducted an experiment involving a laser emitting short pulses of light at a high frequency through a nonlinear crystal, sometimes producing entangled photons. The researchers collected data on the entangled photons, measuring their polarization state. "We needed statistical confidence that a generated quantum state was indeed the state we had had in mind," says Warsaw researcher Rafal Demkowicz-Dobrzanski. The data showed that it was possible to securely transmit about 0.7 bits of a cryptographic key for each four entangled photons, in spite of the noisy entanglement. The researchers say the results could be very important to the field of quantum cryptography, proving that it is possible to use future sources of entangled photons for transmitting quantum cryptographic keys, no matter how the entanglement is generated. "Even if a new source generates noisy entanglement, it will be possible to put it to efficient use if it proves to be more productive or less expensive than the current ones," says Warsaw professor Konrad Banaszek.
IEEE Spectrum (02/11) Peter Kogge
Supercomputing performance upgrades are unlikely to be as spectacular in the next decade as they were in the last two, writes University of Notre Dame professor Peter Kogge. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency hoped that an exaflops-class supercomputer would be practically realizable by 2015, but a panel Kogge organized to debate this question concluded that such a breakthrough requires a complete rethinking of supercomputer construction in order to dramatically minimize power consumption. An additional challenge is keeping a massive number of microprocessor cores busy at the same time. Kogge says that "unless memory technologies emerge that have greater densities at the same or lower power levels than we assumed, any exaflops-capable supercomputer that we sketch out now will be memory starved." Another daunting challenge is providing long-term storage with sufficient speed and density to retain checkpoint files, while reducing the operating voltage would make the transistors susceptible to new and more frequent faults. Nevertheless, Kogge thinks exaflop systems are attainable, but creating such a supercomputer "will demand a coordinated cross-disciplinary effort carried out over a decade or more, during which time device engineers and computer designers will have to work together to find the right combination of processing circuitry, memory structures, and communications conduits."
Virtually Feeling Fat
Inside Science (02/01/11) Charles Q. Choi
Researchers at the University of Barcelona and University College London are conducting experiments using virtual reality to examine how it affects self-perception. Previously, the researchers found that a virtual arm can feel as if it were attached to a person's body. The illusions are based on prodding a person's real body in the same way that the user's virtual reality counterpart is being touched. Now the researchers are making volunteers feel as if they are fatter than they really are. The test subjects tap their own stomachs with a stick, while a virtual version pokes their own much larger belly. The subjects were instructed to tap their bellies in rhythm with the beat of a song that was played through headphones. When the taps were synchronized, the subjects reported that their bodies felt bigger than normal. "Although I did expect the results, I still find it surprising how liberal the brain is in allowing apparent changes to the body," says Barcelona researcher Mel Slater. The most important implication of these results "is that it might be possible to apply perceptual illusions in the cognitive therapy of body image-related disorders," says Karolinska Institute's Valeria Petkova.
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