Welcome to the January 2, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Tech Giants Brace for More Scrutiny From Regulators
New York Times (01/01/13) Somini Sengupta
Pentagon Looks to Fix 'Pervasive Vulnerability' in Drones
Wired News (12/31/12) Noah Shachtman
The U.S.'s fleet of robotic drone aircraft has a "pervasive vulnerability" because their control algorithms are written in a fundamentally insecure manner, according to Tufts University researcher and U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program manager Kathleen Fisher. She says the problem stems from the lack of a systematic way for programmers to check for vulnerabilities as they design the software that runs the drones. Fisher is leading the High-Assurance Cyber Military Systems (HACMS) program, a $60 million, four-year effort to develop a secure coding methodology. "Many of these systems share a common structure: They have an insecure cyberperimeter, constructed from standard software components, surrounding control systems designed for safety but not for security," Fisher notes. She says the industry needs a universal software checker that finds the flaws in programs. Although it is impossible to write a program that can tell if another will run forever, verifying that a particular program will always work as promised is only extremely difficult. The HACMS researchers are trying to improve on earlier research that was able to verify 8,000 lines of code in 11-person years. HACMS also is funding research into software that can write near-flawless code on its own.
Agile Developers Needed, Demand Outpaces Supply: Study
eWeek (12/30/12) Darryl K. Taft
The number of advertised agile software development jobs outnumbers active candidates by 4.59 to one, according to a recent Yoh Services study. The skills gap has made it difficult for companies to quickly source talent on demand, and puts them at risk of hiring technical professionals that have poor agile methodology skills. The Yoh study found that from a total of 558,918 agile jobs advertised from 2010 to 2012, more than 50 percent require at least 10 years of experience, while less than two percent require less than two years of experience. The study also found that during that same time period, there were 121,876 active candidates, which means there were 17 candidates for every 100 job openings. In addition, although agile development methodologies have become more popular in the last five years, training for frontline development positions has not kept pace. "These discrepancies can hurt the hiring companies in the form of increased costs, salaries, and turnover," says Yoh's Don Hanson. Yoh's Bob Schatz says agile developers have a lot of leverage, which forces employers to "clarify the extent of their agile programs, whether they're established, new, or still just an idea."
No Women in CS? Well, Not for Long
TechCrunch (12/27/12) Billy Gallagher
Less than 21 percent of undergraduate computer science (CS) majors at Stanford University are female, and many students say stereotypes, misconceptions, and lack of confidence cause women to drop the introductory CS lasses in large numbers. Research indicates that the two biggest factors for the dearth of female CS students is a lack of confidence and not having a firm grasp of what CS is really about and what its applications are. Stanford students Ayna Agarwal and Ellora Israni recently founded she++, a Stanford community for women in tech. "We would like to see a self-sustaining community of female technologists in the Bay Area working to collaborate with and inspire each other to make technology a field as welcoming to women as it is to men, and to have this community be a model for similar microcosms throughout the nation and the world," Israni says. The organization has collected a database of collegiate role models, nominated by professors and friends, from around the U.S. to feature on their Web site. Many major tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft, also are working to improve the college demographics in CS departments.
China Toughens Its Restrictions on Use of the Internet
New York Times (12/29/12) Keith Bradsher
The Chinese government has issued new rules that force Internet users to give their real names to service providers and require Internet service providers to delete postings deemed forbidden by the government as well as report those postings to law enforcement officials. The new laws have made it more difficult for commercial companies to protect their secrets and for regular users to view international Web sites that the government finds damaging to its control. Although users can still post comments and blogs under fake names, they will have to register their real names with the service provider. Critics say this requirement will squelch open discussion in the country more so than it already is, with the government prone to detaining or jailing Internet posters who are critical of China's political party. The rule changes appear to be aimed at those using mobile devices to connect to the Internet. Most in the country with fixed or landline Internet access already had to give their real names upon registering for Internet service, but only about 70 percent of those using mobile devices had registered with their real names, according to Chinese government officials.
Now, 'Smart Closet' to Help You Dress Up
The Times of India (12/28/12)
Researchers at the National University of Singapore and the Chinese Academy of Science are developing Magic Closet, a smart closet system that uses artificial intelligence to suggest occasion-based and color-appropriate outfits. “The Magic Closet can be used as a mobile personalized clothes management app,” according to National University of Singapore researchers Si Liu and Shuicheng Yan. “It can also be used as a plug-in system in online shops to help customers choose suitable clothes.” The Magic Closet software makes outfit suggestions for 10 different occasions, including weddings, funerals, work, and dates. The software also matches clothing to an item the user already owns, taking suggestions from the user’s wardrobe and from online shops. The researchers trained the program with more than 24,000 photos of outfits from online shopping sites and photo-sharing communities. They searched for photos that were highly rated to catch fashionable combinations. The researchers also asked people on Amazon's Mechanical Turk Web site to match their photos with occasions and keywords and then developed a program to analyze the tagged photos, looking for rules they could incorporate into the recommendation system.
Computers May Someday Beat Chefs at Creating Flavors We Crave
NPR Online (12/25/12) Joe Palca
IBM researchers are developing a computer that can understand how people come up with new ideas, including new food recipes. “The goal in computational creativity is to come up with new things that have never been seen before,” says IBM's Lav Varshney. The researchers are developing a program that can invent new recipes that taste good and are part of a healthy diet. The researchers first give the computer access to a database of recipes that have already proven to be successful. “Then we remix them, substitute things, do all kinds of other modifications, and generate millions of new ideas for recipes,” Varshney says. The researchers then attempt to predict which recipes people will like, based on basic principles of chemistry and psychology. They say the program could be used to make school lunches more appealing to students or to help combat obesity by finding dishes that satisfy people’s food cravings without as many calories.
The Anti Pinch to Zoom
Technology Review (12/24/12) Nidhi Subbaraman
Two-fingered command gestures such as pinch to zoom are not always applicable to the smartphone interface, and alternative gestural commands are under development at several institutions. For example, the Fat Thumb method proposed by University of Calgary researchers suggests that the position of the thumb on the screen can translate to various commands. The researchers say thumb contact areas are sufficiently distinct to be translated to different commands. Such commands could include map panning with only the tip of the thumb touching the phone, and zoomability facilitated by placing the thumb flat on the screen. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Washington's Human-Computer Interaction Design labs are developing GripSense, where the use of inbuilt accelerometers, gyroscopes, and vibration motors enables various commands according to how the smartphone is held and squeezed. For example, zoomability could be effected by squeezing the phone at certain intensities. A GripSense developer says the method can distinguish between several unique grip intensities, as well as recognize which hand is holding the phone. By testing GripSense algorithms on a smartphone, the researchers found they could differentiate between three intensities of pressure with 95 percent precision.
NYC's Tech Community Lends Culture and Code to Hurricane Sandy Relief Efforts
Forbes (12/24/12) Alex Kantrowitz
Several relief organizations met with technology developers to solve some of the inefficiencies experienced by those trying to help people recovering from Hurricane Sandy. The meeting's participants identified the need for better coordination and communication between the groups as the most important issue to overcome. They also brought up the importance of real-time data sharing and efficient supply management. After the issues were identified, the meeting's participants created apps to address the problems. The Voluntarily app helps relief organizations coordinate their door-to-door operations by centralizing canvassing data and making it accessible to those who need it. Another app, Pingo, enables users to drop a pin on a map in the location they believe their loved ones to be, and then users close to the pin can help look for them and change the color of the pins if a missing person is found. The developers also created uGov, an app that gives volunteers a series of questions to ask and then instantly lets them know what programs are available based on the answers. New York Tech Meet Up's Jessica Lawrence notes it is up to the organizations in the field to use the apps and agree to better share information with each other.
Poor SCADA Security Will Keep Attackers and Researchers Busy in 2013
IDG News Service (12/21/12) Lucian Constantin
The security of supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and other types of industrial control systems (ICS) has been a hotly debated topic in the technology industry since the Stuxnet malware was discovered in 2010. "We will see an increase in exploitation of the Internet accessibly control system devices as the exploits get automated,” predicts Digital Bond CEO Dale Peterson. He says the biggest restriction to finding large numbers of SCADA and ICS vulnerabilities is researchers getting access to the equipment. Most SCADA security experts want initial control devices such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to be re-engineered with a focus on security. “What is needed is PLCs with basic security measures and a plan to deploy these in the most critical infrastructure over the next one to three years,” Peterson says. Many SCADA security experts think the first step is to institute government regulations that would force the operators of critical infrastructure to secure their industrial control systems. Meanwhile, Kaspersky Lab's Vitaly Kamluk believes there will be more malware targeting SCADA systems in the future. "The Stuxnet demonstration of how vulnerable ICS/SCADA are opened a completely new area for whitehat and blackhat researchers," Kamluk says. "This topic will be in the top list for 2013."
Education Nonprofit Gets $3 Million for New Math, Science Programs in 23 Districts Including Oakland
Oakland Local (12/20/12) Barbara Grady
Citizens Schools recently received a $3 million U.S. Department of Education grant to bring science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) educational experiences to students. The nonprofit plans to use the grant money to serve 23 school districts across the U.S., including Oakland Unified School District. The Citizen Schools program will set up and expand after-school programs in Oakland to be apprenticeships with technology professionals who would involve them in hands-on engineering and computer science projects. “These hands-on STEM apprenticeships not only help students build skills but also spark their interest in STEM subjects,” says Citizen Schools' Stacey Gilbert Lee. The grant will fund 500 apprenticeships a year. “As more information becomes electronic, the inability to get online can leave entire communities at an extremely dangerous disadvantage,” says Black Girls Who Code founder Kimberly Bryant. Oakland also recently launched Get Connected Oakland, which put 1,500 Internet-connected computers in two public places within Oakland Housing Authority campuses. “As a country, we need more STEM professionals but we are not preparing our students to become STEM professionals,” Gilbert Lee says.
The Life-Saving Real World Results of Intelligent Vehicle Systems
CORDIS News (12/20/12)
The European field-operational test on active-safety functions in vehicles (euroFOT) project recently completed the first-ever pan-European field operational test to assess the benefits of intelligent vehicle systems (IVS) on traffic safety and efficiency. The euroFOT project relies on a range of new smart technologies that could reduce the number of accidents, save fuel, cut emissions, and reduce traffic jams. The project involved collecting data from 1,000 advanced systems-equipped cars and trucks for more than a year. The new technologies included adaptive cruise control (ACC), which uses radar to maintain a pre-set distance from the vehicle in front, and collision warning systems that alert the driver to potential front-end collisions. Cars equipped with both ACC and forward-collision warning systems could result in up to 5.7 percent fewer accidents that result in injury or death, according to euroFOT researchers. “The data shows that there are widespread social and economic benefits from IVS technologies, in addition to avoiding potential accidents,” says Ford Research & Advanced Engineering Europe's Aria Etemad. The researchers say that in the future, further analysis of the data could lead to new systems that support drivers' need to improve their safety, comfort, and driving habits.
Victorian Counting Device Gets Speedy Quantum Makeover
New Scientist (12/20/12) Jacob Aron
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a quantum version of a Galton Board, a device that uses classical mechanics to make calculations and study statistical distributions. MIT's device uses the laws of quantum mechanics to perform certain calculations faster than a machine using any other method, including conventional computation. The device, known as a boson sampler, consists of several channels that snake from one end of a board to the other. The channels intersect at certain points, which enables photons from different channels to interfere and change their paths. When photons are placed into certain tunnel openings at one end according to a pattern, their emergence at the other follows a predictable distribution. However, their paths are governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, ensuring that much larger versions of the device would not produce the same distribution. Quantum effects dictate that when two photons within the network meet, they must both go left or both go right. “It's that little bit of physics which makes this machine work in a quantum way,” says the University of Oxford's Ian Walmsley. He notes that as the patterns get more complicated, producing the same distribution in a non-quantum way would require much more computation and therefore take longer.
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