Welcome to the June 10, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Google Facial Password Patent Aims to Boost Android Security
BBC News (06/06/13) Leo Kelion
Google recently filed a patent suggesting users stick out their tongue or wrinkle their nose in place of a password, as requiring specific gestures could prevent the existing Face Unlock facility from being fooled by photos. The patent application suggests the software could track a facial landmark to confirm a user not only looks like the device's owner but also carries out the right action. Examples of the requests that might be made include a frown, a tongue protrusion, an open-mouth smile, a forehead wrinkle, or an eyebrow movement. The check would work by comparing two images taken from a captured video stream of the user's face to see if the difference between them showed the gesture had been made. There also are several ways the software could check that the device was being shown a real person's face rather than altered photos, such as studying other frames from the captured video steam to check that the user had made a sequence of movements to achieve the commanded gesture. The software also could monitor if there were changes in the angle of the person's face to ensure the device was not being shown a still image with a fake gesture animated on top.
Empowering a New Generation of Tech-Savvy Women by Teaching Them to Code
Co.Exist (06/06/13) Patrick James
Skillcrush offers community-driven online tutorials that teach women to code and create their own websites, with a focus on highlighting the creative side of technology. The courses, which are also open to men, include HTML, CSS, and Ruby on Rails. Founders Adda Birnir and Kate McGee modeled Skillcrush on successful classroom-based courses for women, such as Rails Bridge, and translated the effective aspects of those for an online environment. For students starting with very minimal knowledge, Skillcrush offers an Email Bootcamp, a daily newsletter with simple lessons on Internet basics such as the difference between HTML and CSS. The main class is a three-week course that offers an overview of how to compile an effective portfolio and teaches HTML and CSS through videos, cheat sheets, and interactive exercises. In addition, students learn how to buy a domain and launch a website. The course focuses on using simple language that is accessible to those without tech backgrounds. "Being able to translate your idea into a concrete reality, even a rough version of it, is really life-changing," Birnir says. "People really benefit from having these technical skills. Regardless of the industry, we can all benefit from these skill sets."
Design Automation Conference at 50: Bring on the Women, Cloud and Maybe Even Open Source
Network World (06/06/13) Ellen Messmer
The Design Automation Conference recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, prompting the industry and academic community to both take a look back and to predict what the future may hold. William Joyner, director of computer-aided design and test at Semiconductor Research Corp., reviewed the first 25 years of DACs, noting how in the 1960s people were worried that computer-based processing would hurt employment. However, he notes the technology explosion that followed alleviated those fears. University of Illinois at Urbana professor Rob Rutenbar reviewed the past 25 years of DACs, which focused more on simulations, transistors, and the first symbolic model checks. Leon Stok, IBM vice president of electronic design and automation, cautions that in the future, the industry might be concerned that the best engineering talent is leaving the field to join social-networking firms. Stok says the design-automation industry needs to make a “compelling argument” to retain talent and help it grow. He also notes the emergence of the cloud in design automation. “We have to get data from anywhere, any place,” Stok says. “We need scalable design and methodologies.”
Contact Lens Computer: Like Google Glass, Without the Glasses
Technology Review (06/07/13) Katherine Bourzac
Electronic contact lenses that place a display on a user’s cornea could one day function as a wearable computer, and researchers led by Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology's Jang-Ung Park have taken a step toward making this possible. Park and other researchers from several institutions used new nanomaterials to develop the lenses, eliminating some of the challenges of previous contact-lens displays. The team incorporated a light-emitting diode into an off-the-shelf soft contact lens using a new material that is a combination of graphene and silver nanowires, creating the first electronic contact lenses to use transparent materials. Park wants to make soft, transparent contact lenses with the functionality of a wearable computer, which requires a transparent, highly conductive material that maintains flexibility. Together with Sung-Woo Nam of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Park discovered that placing silver nanowires between sheets of graphene results in a composite with much lower electrical resistance than either material alone. In addition, the material stretches and transmits 94 percent of visible light. Samsung researchers helped coat a contact lens with the stretchy conductor and add a light-emitting diode, resulting in a material that could be integral to future contact-lens displays.
May the Best Model Win
The Scientist (06/04/13) Aimee Swartz
Crowdsourcing is increasingly helping to channel the collective knowledge of the scientific community to devise solutions to significant challenges in medicine. Sage Bionetworks and the Dialogue for Reverse Engineering Assessments and Methods (DREAM) are hosting open source, big data computational challenges for top thinkers in statistics, machine learning, and computational biology to discover new predictive models of disease. Teams compete with one another, but the competitions also encourage the collaboration necessary to answer daunting biological questions. “Meshing these data with clinical outcomes to develop predictors of who is likely to respond to therapy or who is likely to have aggressive disease is an audaciously large problem that necessitates working off of each other's insights," says Sage founder Stephen Friend. "This just simply cannot be done by one lone scientist.” The first Sage-DREAM collaboration this year asked participants to create a computer model that could improve current predictions for breast cancer prognosis and survival. Researchers analyzed clinical information as well as RNA expression and DNA copy number data from roughly 2,000 women with breast cancer. The winning group was from Columbia University’s School of Engineering, with a model based on three gene signatures that had been previously linked by the same researchers to several cancers.
To Catch a Cyber-Thief
Concordia University (06/05/13) Clea Desjardins
Concordia University researchers have developed a method for analyzing computer data that automatically identifies criminal topics discussed in a textual conversation. The method also shows which participants are most active with respect to the identified criminal topics, and provides a visualization of the social networks among the participants. The researchers say their method could slash data-crunching time from months to minutes. "Our new technique allows an investigator to cluster documents by producing overlapping groups, each corresponding to a specific subject defined by the investigator," says Gaby Dagher, a researcher at the Concordia Institute for Information Systems Engineering. "Experiments using real-life criminal data already suggest that our approach is much more effective than the traditional methods." The researchers also have developed a new search engine to help investigators identify the relevant documents from a large volume of text. "Our search engine captures the suspects’ vocabulary, and then uses it to improve the accuracy of the search results," Dagher notes. "This search engine allows investigators to pick up on [the nuances of criminal vocabulary] and quickly identify the incriminating documents."
Researchers Squeeze Record I/O From Hopper
HPC Wire (06/05/13) Alex Woodie
The NERSC Cray XE6 Hopper supercomputer achieved a sustained I/O rate of 27 gigabytes per second for a plasma physics simulation. Researchers with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Cray ran 10 separate trillion-particle datasets, each ranging from 30 to 42 terabytes in size, through the Opteron-based system, which is currently 19th on the Top500 list. The files were written as HDF5 files on the scratch system. The simulation, which used about 80 percent of Hopper's computing resources, was the largest ever for a NERSC application. "If we had attempted a run like this three years ago, I would have been unsure about the level of performance that we could get from HDF5," says Prabhat, a researcher at Berkeley and the leader of the ExaHDF5 group. "But thanks to substantial progress made over the course of the ExaHDF5 project, we are now able to demonstrate that HDF5 can scale to petascale platforms like Hopper and achieve near peak I/O rates."
Tiny Airplanes and Subs From University of Florida Laboratory Could Be Next Hurricane Hunters
University of Florida News (06/04/13)
Researchers at the University of Florida believe miniature unmanned vehicles could be used to predict the strength and path of hurricanes. The university's Institute for Networked Autonomous Systems is developing tiny airplanes and submarines to swarm over, under, and through storms. The autonomous craft would spy on hurricanes at close range; use onboard sensors to collect data on pressure, temperature, humidity, location, and time; and transmit the data in real time to enable scientists to determine their intensity and trajectory. Some of the machines fly, while others are designed to dart under waves. "Our vehicles don't fight the hurricane; we use the hurricane to take us places," says lab director and Florida professor Kamran Mohseni. The prototypes are just six inches long, weigh about the same as an iPod Nano, and cost about $250 each. Even launched hundreds at a time, they would lower the cost of hurricane reconnaissance. The vehicles also include a cooperative control algorithm that enables them to form a network and learn from the data they collect, which makes them useful for applications beyond hurricanes. Mohseni says the machines could be tested in a real-world storm in two or three years with adequate funding.
How Big Data Helps Big Cities
Christian Science Monitor (06/03/13) Vol. 105, No. 28, P. 42 Chris Gaylord
June 1 marked the first National Day of Civic Hacking, during which cities across the United States invited programmers to come together and improve local government. In New York, more than 80 teams have signed up for NYC Big Apps, a competition in which programmers try to solve digital solutions to the city's problems. Mayors across the country have released massive amounts of public data, enabling city workers to better understand city problems and helping to launch new businesses. For example, Chicago recently launched SweetAround.Us, an app that emails and texts citizens when a street sweeper is approaching their neighborhood, giving them an extra warning to move their cars. Another app, SpotHero, uses a combination of city data and business partnerships to find nearby parking spots. Brett Goldstein with Chicago's Department of Innovation and Technology says such services help increase government transparency, start businesses, and provide useful tools for residents. "We need to tell developers, 'let's solve the city's problems,'" says New York City Code for America program manager Noel Hidalgo. "Having people in government that understand the power of open data will be crucial to life in the 21st century."
Spintronics Approach Enables New Quantum Technologies
UChicago News (IL) (06/04/13) Steve Koppes
University of Chicago researchers recently published two papers describing technologies that can exploit quantum mechanics to perform tasks such as nanoscale temperature measurement and processing quantum information with lasers. The papers are based on the manipulation of an atomic-scale defect in diamonds known as the nitrogen vacancy center. "In recent years, the research focus has broadened as we’ve come to appreciate that these same principles could enable a new generation of nanoscale sensors," says Chicago professor David Awschalom. In one paper, the researchers describe a technique that offers new routes toward the development of quantum computers. The method involves developing protocols to fully control the quantum state of the defect with light instead of electronics. The quantum state of interest in this defect is its electronic spin, which acts as a quantum bit. The researchers say this technique shows promise as a more scalable approach to qubit control. The researchers also have developed a quantum thermometer application, which could lead to a multifunctional probe based on quantum physics. "Perhaps most importantly, since the sensor is an atomic-scale defect that could be contained within nanometer-scale particles of diamond, you can imagine using this system as a thermometer in challenging environments such as living cells or microfluidic circuits," Awschalom says.
Firefighting Robot Paints 3D Thermal Imaging Picture for Rescuers
UCSD News (CA) (06/05/13) Ioana Patringenaru
New image-processing techniques will enable robots to quickly explore and characterize structural fires. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) have designed an on-board software system to take thermal data recorded on a robot's small infrared camera and map it onto a three-dimensional (3D) scene constructed from images taken by a pair of stereo RGB cameras. Robots would be able to create a virtual reality picture that includes a 3D map and temperature data, as part of a plan to assist fire fighters in residential and commercial blazes. They would work together both collaboratively and autonomously, and would provide an accurate augmented virtual reality picture of the building interior in real time to rescuers. Researchers already have built the first prototype, which is a self-righting Segway-like vehicle that can climb stairs. "To be useful, the robotic scouts need to work like well-trained hunting dogs, dispatching quickly and working together to achieve complex goals while making all necessary low-level decisions themselves along the way to get the job done," says UCSD professor Thomas Bewley.
'Temporal Cloaking' Could Bring More Secure Optical Communications
Purdue University News (06/05/13) Emil Venere
Purdue University researchers have developed a method for the "temporal cloaking" of optical communications, technology that could improve security for telecommunications. "More work has to be done before this approach finds practical application, but it does use technology that could integrate smoothly into the existing telecommunications infrastructure," says Purdue's Joseph Lukens. The method, which works by manipulating the phase of light pulses, cloaks about 46 percent of the time available for sending data in optical communications, potentially making the concept practical for commercial applications. Previous researchers were only able to cloak a tiny fraction of the time available for sending optical data. "By letting [light pulse phases] interfere with each other you are able to make them add up to a one or a zero," Lukens says. Controlling the phase allows the transmission of signals in ones and zeros to send data over optical fibers. "It might be used to prevent communication between people, to corrupt their communication links without them knowing, and you can turn it on and off, so if they suspected something strange was going on you could return it to normal communication," Lukens says.
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