Welcome to the January 10, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Tech Women Are Busy Building Their Own Networks
The Washington Post (01/08/14) Ann Friedman
Despite their under-representation in technology careers, women are present in the field and are increasingly networking with one another to expand their opportunities. The gender gap in technology receives significant attention, but some say focusing on this discrepancy diminishes the accomplishments of the women who are working in the field. "As much as we need to increase diversity, we need to increase visibility of current diversity," says Natalia Oberti Noguera, founder and chief executive of the Pipeline Fellowship, which trains women to become startup investors. Several networks have formed to focus on advancing the careers of women in technology, including Women in Tech, Tech LadyMafia, ACM's Women in Computing (ACM-W), and the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT). Meanwhile, informal networks and more organized communities for women are springing up, many of which are outside of Silicon Valley. Oberti Noguera speculates that women entrepreneurs feel more welcome in cities with a less-established startup culture, while other observers suggest that cities such as Washington, D.C., and New York are based on a stronger networking culture. Washington, D.C., also provides opportunities with government and nonprofit groups that can fulfill the need to do meaningful work, which many women in the technology industry cite above financial objectives as their top goal.
Setting Rules for the Internet of Things
The Wall Street Journal (01/09/14) Gautam Nagesh
Speaking on a Consumer Electronics Show (CES) panel Wednesday, U.S. officials discussed the government's role in the Internet of Things. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen said it is essential that the designers of Internet-enabled devices incorporate security and privacy to prevent any adverse repercussions among consumers. Ohlhausen also said she is reluctant to impose new rules, noting the commission already has enforcement authority over companies that are deceptive or cause harm to users. Roger McDowell, a former member of the FTC, agreed with Ohlhausen. "I think regulators need to be very careful and allow markets to develop, not try to guess where it's going to go because they’re probably going to be wrong," McDowell said. In a separate interview, Federal Communications Commission commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said regulators need to allow the use of more unlicensed radio spectrum to accommodate the expanding demand for mobile data and streaming video. The commission is exploring ways to expand the amount of unlicensed spectrum, such as by leveraging unused TV channels.
STEM Entrepreneur: Government and Corporations Should Work Together to Help Schools
U.S. News & World Report (01/09/14) Allie Bidwell
There is still much work needed to fill the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs gap in the United States, more than 20 years after the Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) was launched, according to testimony founder Dean Kamen gave Thursday before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology's Subcommittee on Research and Technology. "I always believed that I would run out of the mentors and corporate sponsors long before we satisfied the needs in all the schools," Kamen said. "But what we ran out of was the ability for the schools, especially the ones that need us most, to be able to participate in this, even though corporate America is doing all the heavy lifting." He noted that although FIRST has thousands of sponsors and hundreds of thousands of volunteers, government and the private sector should be working more closely together to support schools' STEM efforts. "Let the government figure out how to make sure the schools do support their teachers, and do support the program, and give them access to leverage all of this incredible commitment from industry," Kamen said.
How to Track Vehicles Using Speed Data Alone
Technology Review (01/07/14)
Rutgers University computer scientists have created an algorithm that can determine a vehicle's destination using only its starting location and speed, amid growing concerns about the handling of location data by car insurance companies and other firms. Many insurance companies attempt to preserve data privacy by gathering only time-stamped driving speeds, but not location data. However, the new algorithm calls into question the efficacy of maintaining privacy by using only speed data and knowledge of the user's home address, which insurance companies also know. By gathering data over a period of weeks and matching patterns of speed changes to road topology, the algorithm can reveal a vehicle's route. Obtaining accurate data and narrowing down a huge number of possible routes present significant challenges, which the algorithm overcomes by stretching or compressing distance data in an "elastic pathing" approach. Bernhard Firner and his colleagues tested the algorithm by measuring speed characteristics of seven drivers traveling from their homes to 46 destinations made in 240 separate trips. The team was able to forecast the final destination to within 500 meters for 20 percent of the trips.
Safer Vehicles Brake and Steer Out of Harm's Way
Chalmers University scientists and a team at Volvo are developing technology that could improve upon automated vehicle safety systems that work with braking or steering to avoid collisions. The vehicle control system would take over steering and breaking when it detects an imminent collision. The team is developing an algorithm that can make split-second decisions on behalf of a driver. The algorithm would select the intervention type when a risk arises based on the vehicle's sensor readings. Current systems often are predefined to use either braking or steering to avoid accidents, but the algorithm could apply a much more appropriate braking or steering decision to avoid imminent collision. The team has successfully tested the algorithm on common accident types. Moreover, the algorithm can be adjusted for additional factors, such as keeping the vehicle on the road regardless of collision scenario, which would be especially helpful when driving on bridges. The researchers also note the technology could be used to develop a general collision avoidance system.
Governments Urged to Set Up Global Bounty System to Buy Security Vulnerabilities
Techworld (01/08/14) John E. Dunn
Stefan Frei of NSS Labs and co-author Francisco Artes propose the creation of an international organization for buying security vulnerabilities. Frei previously had estimated that at any given time criminals have access to about 100 zero-day vulnerabilities known only to them. Meanwhile, a lucrative marketplace has developed for security vulnerabilities identified by security researchers, some of whom are willing to sell their discoveries to the criminal underground. Frei and Artes say the scale of the problem is such that it cannot be effectively handled by individual vulnerability bounty systems such as those run by Microsoft and Google, and that national governments should instead band together to create an International Vulnerability Purchase Program (IVPP) that could purchase vulnerabilities before criminals obtain access to them. According to Frei and Arte, an IVPP would do this by paying market or even above-market rates for vulnerabilities. Although these rates could be as high as $150,000 per flaw, Frei says, "the cost of purchasing all vulnerabilities in a given year, and at competitive prices, is remarkably low compared to the losses that are estimated to occur as a result of cybercrime."
Robotics Expert Warns Future 'Is Coming Much Faster Than We Think'
The Wall Street Journal (01/07/14) Steve Rosenbush
The product announcements coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show indicate automation will continue to move deeper into the mainstream. Robots will make life more convenient, enhance efficiency, and bring benefits such as the ability to rescue people from hazardous areas, but the machines also will compete with human labor and could cause large-scale economic and social dislocation. The technology itself may not be as challenging as the emerging social, ethical, and economic issues, says Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) professor Illah R. Nourbakhsh, whose new book, "Robot Futures," discusses a future in which people share the planet with superhuman robots. "I think we need a serious public discussion...about the relationship between people and robots, which is like a new species that we are inventing," Nourbakhsh says. The technology will need to be more fully developed in order to understand the social implications, and Nourbakhsh believes this future "is coming much faster than we think." To prepare for this future, Nourbakhsh founded the CREATE Lab at CMU, with the mission of funding projects that put robotic technology in the hands of communities and non-profit groups.
Engineers Make World's Fastest Organic Transistor, Heralding New Generation of See-Through Electronics
Stanford University (01/08/14) Tom Abate
Researchers from Stanford University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have developed the world's fastest thin-film organic transistors, which they say prove that the technology could achieve the performance needed for high-resolution TV screens and similar electronic devices. They say the transistors can operate more than five times faster than previous examples of thin-film organic transistors. The researchers developed a new process to make organic thin-film transistors with electronic characteristics comparable to those found in expensive, curved-screen TV displays based on a form of silicon technology. Traditionally, researchers drop a special solution, containing carbon-rich molecules and a complementary plastic, onto a spinning platter, which deposits a thin coating of the materials over the platter. In the new method, the researchers spun the platter faster, and they only coated a tiny portion of the spinning surface. The changes had the effect of depositing a denser concentration of the organic molecules into a more regular alignment, resulting in an improvement in carrier mobility, which measures how quickly electrical charges travel through the transistor. The researchers say that further improvements to their process could lead to the development of inexpensive, high-performance electronics built on transparent substrates.
Computer Algorithm Seeks to Crack Code of Fiction Bestsellers
Inside Science (01/08/14) Joel N. Shurkin
Stony Brook University researchers have developed an algorithm that can predict which books will be successful with 84-percent accuracy. They used stylometry to generate a statistical analysis of literary styles in several genres of books, and identified characteristic stylistic elements more common in successful stories than unsuccessful ones. A book was considered successful when it was critically acclaimed and had a high download count from Project Gutenberg, a database of 44,500 books in the public domain. The books chosen for analysis represented all genres of literature, from science fiction to poetry. The researchers took the first 1,000 sentences of 4,129 books of poetry and 1,117 short stories and then analyzed them for various factors, including parts of speech, use of grammar rules, the use of phrases, and distribution of sentiment. The research found that successful books made greater use of conjunctions to join sentences and used more prepositions than less-successful books. The researchers also found a high percentage of nouns and adjectives in the successful books, while less-successful books relied on more verbs and adverbs to describe what was happening. Communications researchers believe journalists use more nouns, pronouns, and prepositions than other writers because those word forms give more information, according to Stony Brook researcher Yejin Choi.
Welcome to the Era of Radical Innovation
Computerworld (01/07/14) Patrick Thibodeau
As microprocessors reach the limit of their ability to decrease in size, Moore's Law is reaching the end of its tenure in computing and a new age of innovation might emerge as a result. The European Commission released a report saying the end of Moore's Law means there will no longer be "mere extrapolation" of existing technologies, but rather a need for "radical innovation in many computing technologies." Meanwhile, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) recently said that innovation beyond Moore's Law will require "new scientific, mathematical, engineering, and conceptual frameworks." For example, NSF says new materials will be necessary that can work in quantum states or "molecular-based approaches including biologically inspired systems." New technologies could take the shape of carbon digital circuits composed of nanotubes, which could offer a tenfold improvement over current technologies in terms of performance and energy usage. Quantum computing also could supplement or replace microprocessors. Experts at the recent SC13 supercomputing conference predicted a lack of stability and certainty in the future as technology stops advancing in a regular, predictable manner.
Researchers Find Ways for More Efficient Control of Wind Power
NCSU News (01/02/14) Matt Shipman
Researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and Johns Hopkins University have written algorithms to help optimize power grids after discovering that wind power plants at strategic locations can make grids more resilient to disruptions. As power travels through a grid, small oscillations occur after a disturbance, but are typically mitigated by controls inside the power generators. However, oscillations can be sustained if controls are inadequate, reducing power transfer efficiency, threatening grid stability, and possibly resulting in widespread power outages. Wind farms that are poorly located in relation to the grid can intensify oscillation problems, but those at favorable locations can help reduce oscillations. However, geographical factors sometimes prevent the installation of a plant at favorable locations. Therefore, the researchers developed algorithms that match control efforts between wind farms and energy storage facilities. "By matching the behavior of the two controllers, we can produce the desired damping effect on the power flow and restore stable grid behavior," says NCSU professor Aranya Chakrabortty.
Faster Method of Boarding Planes Devised by Clarkson University Researchers
Clarkson University News (01/06/14) Michael P. Griffin
Research from Clarkson University should enable airlines to improve the boarding experience for passengers. The research addresses a method that will reduce boarding time by at least several seconds and keep areas of the plane from becoming overloaded with bags, says Clarkson professor R. John Milne. "Airlines could provide a smoother boarding experience for passengers by utilizing the research," Milne says. The strategy involves assigning passengers to a specific seat based on the number of bags they carry, which leads to an even distribution of luggage throughout the plane. Each row of seats will likely have a passenger with two bags, a passenger with one bag, and a passenger with no bags. Clarkson student Alexander Kelly tested the strategy by running thousands of simulated airline boardings through a computer model. The expedited boarding process will save airlines money on each additional passenger. "You add that up over thousands of flights a day over the course of a year; it could really make a difference," Milne says. "For instance, a large airline like Delta may be able to save about $10 million a year."
Motorola Patents E-Tattoo That Can Read Your Thoughts by Listening to Unvocalized Words in Your Throat
Extreme Tech (01/07/14) John Hewitt
Motorola Mobility has filed a patent application for an electronic smart tattoo that can intercept subtle voice commands, subvocal commands, and subconscious thoughts. The device would read an auditory signal from the tattoo and convert it into a digital signal. The signals from the brain, conveyed by spikes on the hundreds of laryngeal nerve fibers, are already digital, but they bear no similarity to an auditory signal at this point. After conversion in the many muscles that control the speech organs, there is still no single signal that could be sent to a transducer to generate sound recognizable as speech. Although it is unclear if the strain gauges could pick up an actual speech signal in the same way that a conventional microphone could, they could at least generate useful information. In addition, built-in electromyography and electrocardiography electrodes could generate electrical records of muscle activity, and perhaps eventually compound nerve potentials. Although throat microphones have been in use since the 1930s, this patent highlights a great jump forward in technology with a smart tattoo that can wirelessly transmit data.
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