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Welcome to the August 31, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

Please note: In observance of the Labor Day holiday, TechNews will not be published on Monday, Sept. 3. Publication will resume Wednesday, Sept. 5.

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Software Meant to Fight Crime Is Used to Spy on Dissidents
New York Times (08/31/12) Nicole Perlroth

Sophisticated, commercially available spyware originally designed to aid in criminal investigations is being used by repressive regimes to track political dissidents, according to evidence turned up by Google engineer Morgan Marquis-Boire and computer science Ph.D. student Bill Marczak. The software, FinSpy, can capture computer screen images, record chats on Skype, log keystrokes, and avoid detection by popular antivirus programs. Research has tied FinSpy to servers in more than 12 countries, although no government has admitted to using the software for the purpose of surveillance. FinSpy's maker, U.K.-based Gamma Group, says it sells monitoring software to governments for criminal surveillance only, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Eva Galperin notes monitoring dissidents is a typical application of the spyware in countries "where the rule of law is not so strong." Marquis-Boire and Marczak's analysis of suspicious emails sent to Bahraini activists uncovered spyware in the emails that reported back to the same Bahrain-based command-and-control server, and the apparent use of the software for activist surveillance suggested broader utilization. FinSpy was found to be operating in 10 other countries, and Marquis-Boise says in one instance the software was running on a Turkmenistan server.

Scanning Your Home With Kinect Could Improve 3D Robot Vision
Wired News (08/28/12) Dave Mosher

Researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology have developed [email protected], an open source and browser-based Web site that enables users to record pieces of their environments in 3D with a Kinect camera. The project could enable researchers to collect 3D data to improve navigation and object-recognition algorithms that allow robots to traverse and manipulate indoor environments. "Users get access to 3D models they can embed anywhere on the Internet, and we use this data to create better computer-vision algorithms," says Royal Institute of Technology roboticist Alper Aydemir. He says in the future, helper robots must be able to distinguish a refrigerator from an oven. "If you can get real-world 3D data for 5,000 refrigerators, you can develop an algorithm to generalize a refrigerator and then test a robot’s ability to generalize them," Aydemir says. He notes that as computing power, server bandwidth, and algorithms improve, the 3D models will have increased detail and improved realism. “I think making 3D models should be as easy as making a YouTube clip,” Aydemir says. “The long-term vision is that experiencing 3D places should be easy, whether you’re trying to sell a couch or seeking advice to remodel a kitchen.”

This Touch Screen Knows Your Touch
Technology Review (08/31/12) David Talbot

Rutgers University researchers have developed a device that could enable rapid switching between settings for people who share the same device, allow a game to distinguish between multiple players using the same screen, replace passwords, or provide an another layer of protection in addition to passwords. The technology involves a battery-powered ring with flash memory that holds a code, and a signal generator that transmits the code as tiny voltage spikes. Touch screens then pick up those spikes, and software on the phone reads them as password-like data. "Imagine every electronic gadget knowing who you are and adapting to your preferences, or even offering you personalized information" because it knows your touch, says Duke University's Romit Roy Choudhury, who notes the technology "opens new directions in user interaction and authentication." The Rutgers approach has great potential because many devices already support swiping, but few commercial devices have retina readers or finger scanners. "The key to figuring out who is using a device is to understand who is touching the screen, and that is what our technology can do," says Rutgers professor Marco Gruteser.

eResearch Tools Improve Technological Tracking of Animals
UQ News (08/30/12) Madelene Flanagan

University of Queensland (UQ) researchers have developed the OzTrack project, which aims to build a suite of eResearch services to support the needs of the Australian animal-tracking community. The eResearch tools will help scientists and research managers better interpret and manage data based on animal location tracking, says UQ's Wilfred Brimblecombe. "OzTrack will provide analysis and data-curation tools which will be easy to use and which will provide more opportunity for data reuse," Brimblecombe says. He says OzTrack could help Australia's research community by providing a platform to develop the next generation of research into aquatic, avian, and terrestrial animal behaviors. OzTrack also is designed to facilitate improved quantification of species distribution patterns over time and improved understanding of the impact of environment on threatened species. "Once completed, OzTrack will assist researchers and resource managers by illustrating where animals go, why they go there, who they go there with, and what they do once they get there," says UQ's Hamish Campbell.

Recapping the 2012 MUCMD Symposium
CCC Blog (08/27/12) Suchi Saria

The second annual symposium on Meaningful Use of Complex Medical Data included more than 110 attendees from more than 30 academic and research institutions. The symposium's goal was to highlight research that seeks to provide valuable clinical tools that make use of complex medical data. For example, researchers at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, U.K. and McLaren Electronic Systems presented a talk that aimed to inspire the audience to work toward developing a telemetry system for monitoring patients in the intensive care unit. Many of the talks and sessions focused on learning about problems within the current clinical environment. For example, Vanderbilt University researchers described their efforts in integrating technology to reduce medical errors within the operating room. The need for well-developed software that smoothly integrates with clinicians’ workflows came up as a recurring theme during the symposium. University of California, San Diego's Lucila Ohno-Machado discussed iDASH, a framework for sharing data between institutions. Children’s Hospital Boston's Kenneth Mandl discussed the SMART platform, which provides an interface layer to electronic medical records (EMRs) so that calls against multiple EMRs can be standardized. University of Southern California's Yolanda Gil discussed various workflow systems to enable researchers to keep track of experimental workflows.

Connoisseur of Chaos
MIT News (08/29/12) Larry Hardesty

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher Russ Tedrake is studying how people learn to walk by building humanoid robots and training them to walk like humans. The experiments began with a wooden figure with moving legs that, when placed at the top of a ramp, will walk down it powered only by gravity. Although Tedrake notes the construction of the ramp walker is simple, its limbs’ response to external forces is difficult to describe mathematically. Tedrake used machine-learning techniques to train the algorithm, and he got the walker to work on flat ground. Tedrake, along with three other researchers, formed the Robot Locomotion Group at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which aims to explore how to harness the complex dynamics of mechanical systems to make robotic control more versatile and efficient. The group continues to work on bipedal walkers, but also has branched out to study the dynamics of flight. In addition, the researchers are working to develop control algorithms that enable a humanoid robot to perform rescue operations during a disaster. "I have been working tirelessly to make our approaches scale to the complexity of a full humanoid," Tedrake says.

Computer Viruses Could Take a Lesson From Showy Peacocks
MSU News (08/29/12) Layne Cameron

To test theories in mate attraction in nature, Michigan State University (MSU) researchers developed Avida, a virtual world in which promiscuous computer programs compete and reproduce. The researchers programmed the different pieces of software, known as Avidians, to mutate when they copy themselves, which leads to differences in reproductive rates. The researchers programmed the Avidians with the ability to grow sexual displays, similar to peacock tails. The researchers also allowed the Avidians to choose their mates at random. As the MSU team predicted, the Avidians targeted the showiest mates for reproduction. The researchers then altered the Avidians' genetic code to allow them to grow exaggerated displays practically for free. The researchers expected this alteration to diminish the evolutionary benefits of preferring showy mates, but "even when we eliminated the costs of these displays, they still evolved to be an indicator of a male’s genetic quality," says MSU researcher Chris Chandler.

Visual Programming Means Anyone Can Be a Coder
New Scientist (08/29/12) Douglas Heaven

New York University programmer Toby Schachman has developed Recursive Drawing, an experimental programming interface that enables coders to incrementally build complex, fractal-like structures. The interface allows users to manipulate the underlying source code by dragging parts of the patterns around. Schachman says the ideas behind the interface could change the way programming is performed in the future. He says there would be no need to be concerned about changing the underlying code, because "the form that you're working in resembles the thing that you're creating." Although there is still a major gap between writing the text and seeing what the running program does, "bringing in graphical ideas like Schachman does can definitely reduce this gap," says Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium researcher Peter van Roy. Recursive Drawing is part of a trend that will help democratize programming, predicts City University in London researcher Sara Jones. "It opens up the process of programming to a broader community of people, including artists, architects, and designers, for whom the unnecessary translation of ideas into text may constitute a frustrating and unwelcome block to the flow of creative ideas," Jones says.

How Algorithms Rule the World
Fast Company (08/29/12) Arnie Cooper

When Christopher Steiner started researching his book "Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World," he planned to focus solely on Wall Street. However, he soon shifted his focus to explore how the power of algorithms has spread far beyond Wall Street and now touches all aspects of modern life, especially with today's young innovators. Steiner recently spoke with Fast Company about his upcoming book and how algorithms affect the modern world. "If you look at who has the biggest opportunity in society right now, who’s the most upwardly mobile and could just build something out of nothing, it’s developers," Steiner says. One of the chapters of the book is titled, "Wall Street Versus Silicon Valley," which discusses the ongoing competition between Wall Street firms and technology companies for the best developers. "People don’t realize how many software engineers Wall Street takes off the market," Steiner says. However, he warns that the danger with Wall Street is that the whole system is focused so much on speed that there is no time to write tests. In addition, Steiner notes that "most people don’t know that there are algorithms that decide how customer service calls get routed or how customer service requests will be treated."

Russia Joins the Supercomputer Race
Izvestia (Russia) (08/24/12)

The Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) is building a supercomputer that it says will have a capacity of 10 petaflops, which would make it the most powerful in Russia. Even before the new system is completed, the supercomputer will surpass the current most powerful computer in Russia, the Lomonosov, which has a capacity of 1.7 petaflops. “It is the beginning of the era of 10-petaflops computers. We are absorbing and utilizing the technology," says Boris Shabanov, deputy director of RAS' Joint Supercomputer Center. "Our goal is to complete the first two elements by the end of the year, and then the technology will make it possible to upgrade its capacity to 10 petaflops within a reasonable time--over the next year--provided there is adequate investment." Shabanov notes that energy efficiency will be a key feature of the new supercomputer, and when finished it will be one of the most energy-efficient machines in the world, ranking second in the Green 500 supercomputer rating. The system's energy efficiency "is achieved with the help of the unique cooling system and cutting-edge x86 coprocessors," Shabanov notes. When fully operational, the supercomputer is expected to be one of the 10 fastest in the world.

Morality for Robots?
NIU Today (08/27/12)

In Northern Illinois University professor David Gunkel's new book, "The Machine Question: Critical Perspectives on AI, Robots, and Ethics," he examines ethical issues raised by 21st century computers, robots, and artificial intelligence. "If we admit the animal should have moral consideration, we need to think seriously about the machine," Gunkel says. He notes that real decision-making machines are integrated into business, personal lives, and national defense. "In a way, this book aims to connect the dots across the disciplinary divide, to get the scientists and engineers talking to the humanists, who bring 2,500 years of ethical thinking to bear on these problems posed by new technology," Gunkel says. South Korea recently created a code of ethics to prevent human abuse of robots, and vice versa, and Japan is developing a code of behavior for robots, especially those employed in the elder-care industry. Gunkel says the moral community has been much too restrictive when considering artificial intelligence. "Just as the animal has been successfully extended moral consideration in the second-half of the 20th century, I conclude that we will, in the 21st century, need to consider doing something similar for the intelligent machines and robots that are increasingly part of our world," Gunkel says.

'Mind Hackers' Could Get Secrets From Your Brainwaves
ZDNet (08/27/12) Jack Schofield

Researchers at the University of Oxford, University of California, Berkeley, and University of Geneva recently published a paper that discusses how electroencephalograph headsets, which are used in brain-computer interfaces, could pose a threat to privacy. The researchers were able to develop a recognition model by showing volunteers photographs of people they did not know, and then showing them a face they did know. The researchers then attempted to detect unknown data. One theory goes that a person's place of residence could be determined by showing test subjects pictures of homes and looking for the recognition response triggered when the right image is displayed. The researchers found homes correctly about 60 percent of the time. By showing people images related to credit cards and PINs, a hacker also might be able to discover private banking details, according to the researchers. The technology also could be used for market research, or for interrogation purposes. In the future, brain hackers could be able to capture useful signals without a subject's cooperation, perhaps through a combination of face- and brain-scanning, the researchers say.

A Peace Corps for Civic-Minded Geeks
Wall Street Journal (08/26/12) P. C12 Holly Finn

The new nonprofit Code for America (CfA), a kind of peace corps for geeks, has led the way in bringing online efficiency to offline government systems, handpicking a team of tech stars each year to take time off from their jobs and offer their services to local governments. CfA fellows have designed more than 35 apps, for everything from urban blight to school buses, and the group also runs an Accelerator program for civic startups. It took two CfA fellows just two and a half months to complete one government project that was expected to take two years and cost $2 million. CfA puts its fellows in a warehouse in San Francisco, where they bond with each other. "Coding sprints, design sprints, they're with us," says CfA executive director Jennifer Pahlka. The CfA fellows act more like a stealth team of computer-savvy SEALs when they fan out to do five-week research residences within city governments across the country. There are 26 fellows in eight cities this year, while 550 people have applied for 25 to 30 spots next year.

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