Welcome to the June 22, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Carnegie Mellon Methods Keep Bugs Out of Software for Self-Driving Cars
Carnegie Mellon University (06/21/11) Byron Spice
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have developed a method to verify the safety of driver assistance technologies, such as adaptive cruise control and automatic braking. The researchers developed a model of a car-control system in which computers and sensors in each car combine to control acceleration, braking, and lane changes, and used mathematical algorithms to formally verify that the system would keep cars from crashing into each other. "The system we created is in many ways one of the most complicated cyber-physical systems that has ever been fully verified formally," says CMU professor Andre Platzer. The safety verification systems must take into account both physical laws and the capabilities of the system's hardware and software. The researchers showed that they could verify the safety of their adaptive cruise control system by breaking the problem into modular pieces and organizing the pieces in a hierarchy. Platzer says that automated driving systems have the potential to save many lives and billions of dollars by preventing accidents, but developers must be certain that they are safe. "The dynamics of these systems have been beyond the scope of previous formal verification techniques, but we've had success with a modular approach to detecting design errors in them," he says.
NTU Unveils Newest 3D Technologies for Real-World Applications
Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) (06/20/11) Lester Kok
Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has partnered with Fraunhofer to launch Fraunhofer Interactive Digital Media (IDM), a joint research center that will develop augmented reality mobile applications. NTU also announced partnerships with the Graz University of Technology and Technische Universitat Darmstadt, which will offer joint Ph.D. programs in visual computing. The $14 million joint research center already has developed an augmented reality mobile phone, a multi-touch virtual reality table, a virtual augmented Chinese learning program, and the Augmented Physics Laboratory. "We are confident that the center will continue to develop breakthrough innovations in the digital space, especially with Fraunhofer's strong track record in application-driven research for large-scale commercial use," says NTU professor Freddy Boey. IDM already has received several requests from German companies seeking guidance on how to set up similar research centers, says IDM co-director Wolfgang Mueller-Wittig. In addition to projects focusing on virtual reality and augmented reality, the center also will work on research areas related to current requirements of the market and the economy, such as computer graphics and computer vision.
Free App Protects Facebook Accounts From Hackers
UCR News (CA) (06/20/11) Sean Nealon
University of California, Riverside (UCR) researchers have developed MyPageKeeper.org, a free Facebook application that detects spam and malware posted on users' walls and news feeds. MyPageKeeper was developed in response to a recent surge of malicious activity on Facebook. The application works by continuously scanning wall posts, news feeds, and links posted by friends of participating users. As soon as malware, spam, or other undesirable material is detected, MyPageKeeper notifies the user and enables them to remove the malicious content from their profile. MyPageKeeper was developed by UCR students Md Sazzadur Rahman and Ting-Kai Huang, as well as UCR professors Michalis Faloutsos and Harsha Madhyastha. Rahman says that Facebook "provides a fertile ground to spread malware, since users trust links and posts that are seemingly from their friends. Hackers have realized this, and they have started using it to distribute malware and conduct identity theft." Faloutsos says that Web security is following the same trajectory as desktop security as more activities move to the Internet. "People are educated about email spam," Faloutsos says. "But, now there is an implicit trust, almost validation, when someone sees a post from a friend on Facebook."
Technical University of Madrid Installs the Most Powerful Supercomputer in Spain
Universidad Politecnica de Madrid (Spain) (06/22/11) Eduardo Martinez
The Technical University of Madrid (UPM) now houses Magerit, the most powerful supercomputer in Spain, according to the latest Top500 list of the world's fastest supercomputers. Magerit is based on the IBM POWER7 architecture and can reach a theoretical peak performance of 103.4 teraflops, with a sustained performance of 72.03 teraflops. Magerit, installed at the Center for Supercomputing and Visualization of Madrid (CeSViMa), enables UPM to increase its total computing power while reducing power consumption. "At UPM, through CeSViMa, we're betting on this technology to enhance the scientific and technological level of our university," says UPM chancellor Javier Uceda. Magerit will expand support for research and development in Spain as part of the Spanish Supercomputing Research Network, and it will increase the participation in research projects of CeSViMa and UPM staff. "Supercomputing is a strategic area for technical and scientific development," Uceda says. "It is crucial for the advancement of knowledge and plays a role comparable to what was once the microscope or the telescope." Magerit will make 20 percent of its time available to the Spanish Supercomputing Network, and it will also be available to enterprises that want to advance computing technologies.
Italian Hi-Tech Software Teaches Perfect Pasta Skills
BBC News (06/22/11)
University of Bologna researchers have developed Tortellino X-perience, a multimedia teaching game that combines a traditional video with a three-dimensional representation of the user's hands. In the game, players watch a pasta maker demonstrate each step of the complicated tortellini-making process in a video, and then mimic every action with their own hands. Players' movements are tracked by gesture-recognition software using a webcam, so players can learn from their mistakes using stop-motion video. The system's most important innovation is that it does not require a console. The game uses no hardware other than an off-the-shelf webcam and a PC, making it useful for interactive, public gaming, and other applications. "The software could easily be used in museums, schools, or exhibitions, allowing people to play games--hands-free and moving their entire bodies--without having to sit in front of their computer screens," says Bologna professor Marco Roccetti. He also notes that the program's gesture-recognition software could be used in other applications. "There are other applications of these technologies, which can span from remote medicine to assistance in repairing very complex pieces of cars, aeroplanes, or other systems."
Genius of Einstein, Fourier Key to New Humanlike Computer Vision
Purdue University News (06/20/11) Emil Venere
Purdue University researchers have developed two new techniques for computer-vision technology that mimic how humans perceive three-dimensional (3D) shapes by instantly recognizing objects no matter how they are twisted or bent. The techniques, called heat mapping and heat distribution, apply mathematical methods to enable machines to perceive 3D objects, says Purdue professor Karthik Ramani. Heat mapping works by simulating how heat flows over an object while revealing its structure and distinguishing unique points needed for segmentation by computing the heat mean signature, which enables a computer to determine the center of each segment to define the overall shape of the object. In temperature distribution, heat flow is used to develop a histogram of the entire object. "Albert Einstein made contributions to diffusion, and 18th century physicist Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier developed Fourier's law, used to derive the heat equation," Ramani says. The systems simulate heat flowing from one point to another and in the process characterize the shape of an object, he says. The researchers tested the techniques on different complex shapes, and the heat-mapping method enabled the computer to recognize the objects no matter how they were bent or twisted by ignoring noise introduced by imperfect laser scanning and other nonsensical data.
CNS Computer Scientists Claim World Data Sorting Record for Second Year
UCSD News (CA) (06/20/11) Doug Ramsey
Data center researchers at the University of California, San Diego's Center for Networked Systems (CNS) recently broke two of their own world records and then set three more as their system, Tritonsort-MR, competed in the World Sort competition. The researchers say the key to the Tritonsort-MR design is seeking an efficient use of resources. "The whole aim of this project is to build balanced systems," says CNS team member George Porter. To accomplish this, "we made some improvements on the data structures and algorithms--basically, to make it a lot more efficient in terms of sending records across the network." The system set the speed record as well as the efficiency record. The competition's second-place team used 3,500 nodes to achieve their result, while the CNS team used only 52. The CNS team also won the 100 Terabyte Joulesort competition, in which teams vie to build a system that can sort the greatest number of data records while consuming only one joule of energy. The team won the competition using standard equipment that might be found in a normal data center. "Typically when you look at systems that set records like this, they're all built out of these incredibly energy-efficient pieces," says CNS team member Alex Rasmussen. "The stuff that we're using is kind of commodity server stuff."
SGI, Intel Plan to Speed Supercomputers 500 Times by 2018
IDG News Service (06/20/11) Agam Shah
By 2018, Silicon Graphics International (SGI) plans to build supercomputers that are 500 times faster than the most powerful systems today, using Intel's many integrated cores (MIC) architecture. Chips based on the MIC architecture combine standard x86 cores with specialized cores to improve high-performance computing. "[MIC] gives us the compute density we need" to support exaflops of performance by 2018, says SGI's Eng Lim Goh. The MIC architecture solves the problem of the time and cost required to produce the proper accelerators by including many specialized cores in a chip able to run standard x86 software. Intel recently demonstrated its first experimental MIC chip, which has 32 cores and combines vector processing units with standard central processing unit cores. A Xeon server with eight such chips can deliver 7.4 teraflops of performance, according to Intel's John Hengeveld. Intel also is developing the software ecosystem before it releases the first commercial MIC chip, as well as backing the development of OpenCL, a parallel programming framework. "Our intent is to have OpenCL support available on the first MIC product--Knights Corner," says Intel's Radoslaw Walczyk.
Putting a New Spin on Computing
UA News (AZ) (06/20/11) Daniel Stolte
University of Arizona researchers have proposed a way to translate the magnetic spin of electrons into measurable electric signals, a key step in the development of spintronic-based computing. "Spintronics has the potential to overcome several shortcomings of conventional, charge-based computing," says Arizona professor Philippe Jacquod. While conventional microprocessors digitize information into bits determined by the absence or presence of electric charges, with spintronics the electron's magnetic spin is what creates the bits. "You want as many magnetic units as possible, but you also want to be able to manipulate them to generate, transfer, and exchange information, while making them as small as possible," Jacquod says. The researchers propose a protocol using existing technology that only requires small magnetic fields to measure the spin of electrons. "As the electrons are flowing through the circuit, their motion through that bottleneck is constrained by quantum mechanics," and a magnetic field placed around that constriction would allow for the measurement of the electrons' spin, Jacquod says. "Our experience tells us that our protocol has a very good chance to work in practice because we have done similar calculations of other phenomena," he says.
Careless Behavior of Cloud Users Leads to Crucial Security Threats
Technische Universitat Darmstadt (06/20/11)
Cloud computing security experts often focus on the underlying infrastructure and provider, but a new analysis from researchers at Fraunhofer SIT and the System Security Lab at the Technische Universitat Darmstadt sheds light on the consequences of the careless behavior of users. The researchers studied the cloud services published by customers of Amazon Web Services and found that at least one-third of the 1,100 public Amazon Machine Images have flawed configurations. Amazon provides detailed security recommendations on its Web pages, but the researchers were able to extract critical security data such as passwords, cryptographic keys, and certificates. Attackers would be able to use the information to operate criminal virtual infrastructures, manipulate Web services, or circumvent security mechanisms. "The problem clearly lies in the customers' unawareness and not in Amazon Web Services," says professor Ahmad-Reza Sadeghi from the Darmstadt Research Center for Advanced Security. "We believe that customers of other cloud providers endanger themselves and other cloud users similarly by ignoring or underestimating security recommendations."
Spies Can Send Messages Hidden in a Google Search
New Scientist (06/17/11) Paul Marks
Warsaw University of Technology researcher Wojciech Mazurczyk says the list of search options that Google suggests as a user types in a query could be hijacked to enable others to communicate in secret. Mazurczyk and his team developed new ways that cyberattackers might try to communicate undetected, which will help security agencies develop methods to defend against the attacks. Google Suggest works by listing up to 10 suggestions each time a letter is added to a search term, based on the most popular searches made by other Google users that begin with the same letters. The researchers infected a target computer with malware called StegSuggest, which intercepts the Google Suggest lists exchanged between Google and the infected computer and adds a different word to the end of each of the 10 suggestions in the list on that particular machine. The receiver types in a random search term and notes down the additional word in each suggestion. The 10 extra words are then looked up in a codebook shared by receiver and sender, which gives each word a 10-bit binary number that can be linked to form a hidden message.
Software Extracts Your Location on Twitter Even When It's Secret
Technology Review (06/17/11) Christopher Mims
Users of online social media reveal more about themselves than they realize, and participation involves a great deal more trust than they think, suggests new research from computer scientists at Northwestern University and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. About one-third of Twitter users do not disclose their location, and in addition to leaving the field blank, many enter inaccurate or even threatening information. Nonetheless, such attempts to maintain privacy from advertisers might not work because the researchers were able to track down Twitter users through subtle hints in their communications with others. The researchers developed a machine-learning algorithm and applied it to the recent tweets of 10,000 active Twitter users. Although the team was not able to identify the Twitter users by their address or their zip code, they were able to determine the country and state where the users lived. Moreover, analyzing the data after the fact revealed some terms that were highly predictive of location, such as people who often used the word "Colorado" were from that state. Less intuitive results showed that "biggbi" was highly predictive of residence in Michigan, people who used "gamecock" were likely to be in South Carolina, and people outside Louisiana were less likely to use "crawfish."
Kilobots Are Cheap Enough to Swarm in the Thousands
IEEE Spectrum (06/16/11) Evan Ackerman
A team at Harvard University is getting closer to building a true swarm of robots. The Self Organizing Systems Research Group is starting with 25 Kilobots, but plans to expand that number to 1,024 robots. Kilobots are about the size of a quarter and can move around on vibrating legs, blink their lights, and communicate with each other. The robots can be programmed all at once, and they can be charged by sandwiching them between two conductive surfaces. The bots also can be built in about five minutes for about $14 each, so cost should not be an issue in making the robot swarm scalable. Large swarms are usually tested with computer simulations, but Kilobots could enable the researchers to try out a swarm of bots in the real world. The Harvard team plans to teach a swarm of Kilobots behaviors such as self-healing and collective transport.
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