Welcome to the July 17, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Universities Face a Rising Barrage of Cyberattacks
New York Times (07/16/13) Richard Perez-Pena
Research universities in the United States are facing millions of hacking attempts weekly, most of which are believed to emanate from China and some of which university officials concede have been successful. The threat is serious because each year U.S. universities and their professors are awarded thousands of patents in a variety of areas, many of which hold significant potential value. "The attacks are increasing exponentially, and so is the sophistication, and I think it's outpaced our ability to respond," says Educause's Rodney J. Petersen. Some universities are prohibiting professors from bringing their laptops to certain countries, which should be standard practice, says James A. Lewis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There are some countries, including China, where the minute you connect to a network, everything will be copied, or something will be planted on your computer in hopes that you'll take that computer back home and connect to your home network, and then they're in there," Lewis says. "Academics aren't used to thinking that way." The University of Wisconsin's Bill Mellon says his university is spending more than $1 million to upgrade computer security for just a single program that works with infectious diseases.
Driverless Cars to Be Tested on UK Roads By End of 2013
BBC News (07/16/13)
The United Kingdom's Department of Transport recently released plans to test driverless cars on public roads by the end of 2013. The driverless cars are guided by a system of sensors and cameras, and could be safer and more efficient than conventional vehicles. The testing is being led by researchers at the University of Oxford, who have been developing the technology on an adapted Nissan Leaf at Oxford Science Park. The plan to test autonomous vehicles is part of a 28-billion-euro investment in British roads to reduce congestion. The driverless vehicles initially will be tested in "semi-autonomous" mode on lightly-used rural and suburban roads with a back-up driver ready to take over in case of an emergency. The cars feature lasers and small cameras that memorize regular journeys and draw upon knowledge of the environment in which they will be driving. "It's a great area to be working in because it's IT and computers and that's what changes things," says Oxford professor Paul Newman. "The British government sees that engineering is important." In the private sector, Google has led autonomous vehicle development, with its fleet of prototypes of a converted Toyota Prius covering more than 300,000 miles on public roads.
Power Down: DOE Poised to Order All Computers, Servers Use Less Electricity
The Hill (07/12/13) Zack Colman
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) plans to create new efficiency standards for all computers and servers in the country. In documents recently published in the Federal Register, DOE said it has tentatively ruled that the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) covers computers and servers. The federal law, created in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, is designed to curb consumer energy use. DOE said EPCA allows the agency to impose compulsory performance standards for computers and a labeling program for servers so that they use less electricity. New mandatory standards would only be possible if average household consumption tops 150 kilowatt-hours per year, total energy use exceeds 4.2 billion kilowatt-hours annually, and if a labeling rule would not be enough to get manufacturers to make or consumers to buy more energy-efficient products. Residential computer use accounted for 30.3 billion kilowatt-hours of energy annually, according to DOE in its filing, which is nearly twice the amount that would trigger a new federal standard. DOE's proposal is open for public comment until Aug. 12, after which the department will draft new rules if it decides to proceed with a final determination.
New Model to Improve Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communication for 'Intelligent Transportation'
NCSU News (07/16/13) Matt Shipman
North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers say they have developed a model to improve the clarity of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) transmissions needed to make intelligent transportation a reality. "The model helps us understand how the V2V signals are distorted, and understanding how the signal may be distorted allows you to design a signal that is less likely to become distorted in the first place," says NCSU professor Dan Stancil. He notes that this type of direct communication has very little time delay, and could warn drivers to apply the breaks in response to an event only hundreds of yards away. V2V communication relies on transmitting data via radio frequencies in a specific band. However, variables such as the constantly moving transmitter and receiver can distort the signal, causing errors in the data. The researchers realized that most roads are lined with objects that run parallel to the road itself, meaning that the objects that can distort the radio waves are not uniformly distributed in all directions. By accounting for this parallel distribution of objects, the researchers created a model that more accurately describes how radio signals will be affected by their surroundings.
PaRSEC: Designing Software for the Exascale Supercomputer Generation
ZDNet (07/12/13) Steven Vaughan-Nichols
Some experts believe exascale supercomputers that are 1,000 times faster than today's fastest petascale supercomputers will exist as soon as 2020, and significant advances in software will be required to handle this speed. Exascale supercomputing will shatter "our current programming paradigm and computing ecosystem," says Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Horst Simon, deputy director of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center. To enable efficient use of exascale speeds, University of Tennessee professor Jack Dongarra is working on the Parallel Runtime Scheduling and Execution Controller (PaRSEC) project to design software specifically for exascale supercomputers, with a $1-million, three-year Department of Energy grant. "You can't wait for the exascale computers to be delivered and then start thinking about the software and algorithms," Dongarra says. "The exascale computers are going to be dramatically different than the computers we have today. We have to have the techniques and software to effectively use these machines on the most challenging science problems in the near future." PaRSEC is a generic framework for micro-task management and architecture-aware scheduling on distributed many-core heterogeneous architectures.
'Do Not Track' Rules Come a Step Closer to an Agreement
New York Times (07/15/13) Somini Sengupta; Natasha Singer
The Tracking Protection Working Group, commissioned by the World Wide Web Consortium, has concluded that Web users should be able to tell advertising networks not to show them targeted advertisements based on their browsing activities. The group has been working for two years to establish a consensus draft document that outlines what it means when a Web user turns on a Do Not Track signal. "The public meaning of Do Not Track is to limit behavioral advertising," says Ohio State University professor and Tracking Protection Working Group chairman Peter P. Swire. A recent Forrester Research survey found that 18 percent of Web users had turned on the Do Not Track setting in their browsers, highlighting the greater awareness of behavioral tracking. The advertising industry thinks behavior tracking is a necessary part of free Web services and has proposed using the data after removing some of the collected information. However, the working group and many consumer groups oppose that approach. The working group's current draft proposal, which critics argue is too vague, says companies should avoid "unique identifiers for users or devices if alternative solutions are reasonably available."
How Machine Learning Changes the Game
Federal Computer Week (07/15/13) Konstantin Kakaes
Machine learning is making significant advances, as increasingly effective algorithms emerge that enable computers to learn on their own. Several converging factors are contributing to the real-world applicability of machine learning, including the availability of large datasets that can train learning algorithms and inexpensive computational power that enables rapid training. In addition, methodological changes, such as Flickr users tagging millions of images online, are making large datasets more useful. Speech- and facial-recognition technologies are already transforming society and are poised to make an even larger impact. For example, speech-recognition technologies have radically altered call and contact centers, and as the tools improve, government agencies with significant public interaction will gauge the extent to which automated voice-recognition systems can carry out public-facing tasks. Meanwhile, Stanford University professor Andrew Ng and his colleagues recently presented a paper showing that it is possible to train networks with as many as 11 billion parameters within days on a cluster of 16 commercial servers. After training on a dataset of 10 million unlabeled YouTube video thumbnails, the neural network had an 86.5 percent success rate in differentiating 13,152 faces from 48,000 distractor images. Autonomous vehicles also are rapidly advancing, and researchers worldwide are creating robots capable of learning.
'Virtual Lolita' Aims to Trap Chatroom Pedophiles
BBC News (07/11/13)
University of Deusto researchers have developed Negobot, a "virtual Lolita" robot that poses as a 14-year-old girl and tries to identify pedophiles in online chatrooms. Negobot uses artificial intelligence software to chat realistically and mimic the language used by teenagers. The researchers note that in the past, chatbots often were very predictable. "Their behavior and interest in a conversation are flat, which is a problem when attempting to detect untrustworthy targets like pedophiles," says University of Deusto researcher Carlos Laorden. However, Negobot uses advanced decision-making strategies based on game theory to simulate convincing conversations as they develop. Negobot can steer the conversation, and remember specific facts about what had been said previously. The system also uses child-like slang, spelling mistakes, and contractions to further try to fool the predator. The software has been tested on Google's chat service and it can be translated into multiple languages.
ID Got You, Under the Skin: Automated Thermal Face Recognition Based on Minutiae Extraction
A thermal-imaging scan for instantaneous face recognition could be the next advance in biometrics. The pattern of blood vessels just beneath the skin of a person's face is as unique as a fingerprint, iris, or other biometric indicators, according to researchers at Jadavpur University. They say an infra-red thermal-imaging camera would be able to reveal the blood-vessel pattern, even if an imposter wore a realistic mask that simulated the pattern of blood vessels in someone's face, because it would detect the blood vessels in the skin of the imposter as well. The researchers developed an algorithm that can analyze the minutiae of blood vessels in a person's face captured by an infra red scan. The thermogram reveals patterns almost down to the smallest capillary with an accuracy of more than 97 percent. The researchers say the level of precision would be enough for high-security applications, as long as the thermogram scan is tied to second or third forms of identity, such as a photo ID.
Daydreaming Simulated by Computer Model
Washington University in St. Louis (07/11/13) Michael C. Purdy
Washington University in St. Louis researchers, in conjunction with several European researchers, have developed a virtual model of the brain that daydreams like humans do. The model is based on the dynamics of brain cells and the many connections those cells make with their neighboring cells and with cells in other regions of the brain. The researchers hope the new model helps to show why certain portions of the brain work together when a person daydreams or is mentally idle. "In a way, we treated small regions of the brain like cognitive units: not as individual cells but as groups of cells," says Pompeu Fabra University professor Gustavo Deco. The researchers used brain scan data to assemble 66 cognitive units in each hemisphere of the brain, and interconnected them in anatomical patterns similar to the connections found in the human brain. They then set up the model so that the individual units went through the signaling process at random low frequencies that had previously been observed in brain cells in culture and in recordings of resting brain activity. "The spatial pattern of synchronization that we eventually observed approximates very well--about 70 percent--to the patterns we see in scans of resting human brains," Deco says.
TV White Space Pilot Targets Connectivity Gaps at U.S. University
FierceBroadbandWireless (07/10/13) Tammy Parker
West Virginia University (WVU) recently announced plans to use vacant broadcast TV channels for wireless broadband services with its TV white space (TVWS) test network. The network will offer free, public Internet access at Wi-Fi hotspots for students and faculty at WVU's Public Rapid Transit (PRT) platforms. In the future, the functionality will be expanded to add public Wi-Fi access on the PRT cars and machine-to-machine wireless data links for the transit system's control functions. To create the TVWS network, WVU partnered with the AIR.U consortium, which is affiliated with the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation and includes organizations that represent more than 500 colleges and universities. This novel use of TVWS "presents an exciting opportunity for underserved rural and low-income urban communities across the country," says acting Federal Communications Commission chair Mignon Clyburn. She says the program "will not only demonstrate how TV white space technologies can help bridge the digital divide, but it also could offer valuable insights into how best to structure future deployments." Hundreds of rural and small-town colleges and communities will follow WVU's lead in using TVWS spectrum to bring broadband to underserved areas, says New America Foundation's Michael Calabrese.
Zombies Offer Fresh Insight Into Crowd Behaviour
Science Omega (07/10/13) James Morgan
University of Essex researchers developed a computer game that simulates a zombie invasion to gather data on crowd behavior and the impact of stress on decision-making. The researchers asked participants to find the best route out of a virtual, crowded building filled with zombies, with some subjects working at their own pace and others instructed to escape as quickly as possible. The extra pressure of a time constraint led to poorer decisions and reduced the likelihood of participants discovering innovative, effective escape methods. The research could have a significant impact on crowd-management applications, says lead researcher Nikolai Bode. "Information relating to how individuals respond [in crowds] can inform our understanding of how a crowd is likely to behave," Bode says. "In a stressful evacuation situation, for example, our results suggest that a larger proportion of the crowd will retrace their footsteps than we might previously have expected." Players did not tend to follow the crowd in the game, which surprised the researchers. Bode questions whether participants respond to virtual agents in a similar manner as live people. The team plans to conduct further research, including a study of how people respond to different directional information.
Serious Game Tests GIS, Disaster Response Skills
Government Computer News (07/09/13) Patrick Marshall
Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) researchers have created software that uses geographic information systems (GIS) to refine the spatial-thinking skills of first responders. Serious Game for Measuring Disaster Response Spatial Thinking asks players to remediate a post-flood situation in which toxins have washed up on a river bank. The software adjusts to the choices a player makes as the game progresses, using Python scripts so that knowledge of GIS tools is not required. "We really wanted them to focus on looking at the map and reasoning about the relationships between the various entities," says RIT professor Brian Tomaszewski. Players receive a spatial thinking skills score and critique at the end of the game, which the researchers say helps train first responders to use GIS for disaster response and demonstrates the technology's effectiveness. The modular format of the game will enable other scenarios to easily be added, says Tomaszewski, who intends to make the software accessible to a broader audience online. "For people learning about disaster management, being able to think spatially, to understand relationships between things--distance, scale, and so forth--is important," he says. "It's a way of reasoning about the world that GIS can help enable."
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