Welcome to the February 14, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
Please note: In observance of the Presidents' Day holiday, TechNews will not be published on Monday, Feb. 17. Publication will resume Wednesday, Feb. 19.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
U.S. Dominance in Science Faces Asian Challenge
The New York Times (02/13/14) Annie Lowery
A recent U.S. National Science Board report warns that although the United States remains a powerhouse in knowledge- and technology-intensive industries, the country's predominance in science and technology is fading. The report says the rise of increasingly competitive emerging economies and underinvestment in research and development might translate into a less-dominant, less-productive U.S. economy in the future. "Emerging economies understand the role science and innovation play in the global marketplace and in economic competitiveness and have increasingly placed a priority on building their capacity in science and technology," says National Science Board chairman Dan E. Arvizu. The report highlights the rise of newly industrializing nations in Asia more than it does stagnation or decline in the United States. In addition, the U.S. remains the single biggest investor in research and development, spending about $429 billion a year, compared to $208 billion for China and $147 billion for Japan, according to the report. However, the share of annual global research spending in the U.S. has declined from to 37 percent in 2000 to 30 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, the share of research done by Asian countries grew to 34 percent from 25 percent, with China's share alone growing to 15 percent from 2 percent in 2000.
Keeping Women in High-Tech Fields Is Big Challenge, Report Finds
The Washington Post (02/12/14) Jena McGregor
A recent Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) report found U.S. women working in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are 45 percent more likely than their male peers to leave the industry within a year. The study also found that about 33 percent of STEM leaders reported a woman would never reach the top position in their companies. "Even the senior guys who are in a position to make change for the women in their company don't feel like they can do it," says CTI's Laura Sherbin. The survey questioned 5,685 college-educated adults, 2,349 of whom were women, with experience in a private-sector science, engineering, or technology company. The study found gender bias underpins why women either do not think they can get ahead or are choosing to leave their organizations. "When the prevailing leaders are all men, it's very difficult for women to look, act, and sound like the leaders they succeed," Sherbin says. The report updates a 2008 CTI study which reached similar conclusions. This year's report also studied women in emerging markets and found the situation was similar in those countries.
Termite-Inspired Robots Build With Bricks
Science (02/13/14) Elizabeth Pennisi
Harvard University researchers have developed software that determines how autonomous robots can make specific structures by following the same set of rules. The researchers first tasked three compact bots with autonomously making a one-story, three-pronged structure, a job they completed in 30 minutes. The researchers say their approach enables project managers to utilize many simple robots, any of which is expendable, instead of relying on a few sophisticated ones, where the loss of one might jeopardize a project. They developed software that works backward from the planned structure, breaking its construction into a series of rules the robots can follow on their own. The robots "don't have explicit instructions to do specific things, each is just reacting to what it encounters," says Harvard's Justin Werfel. He says one challenge was getting the robots up to speed because they tend to make small errors that add up and must be corrected. The work "shows that with a simple behavior, which was programmed into the robots, you can get a type of construction done," says University of Lausanne researcher Laurent Keller. "It would be interesting to see something [built] that is more complex." Swiss Federal Institute of Technology researcher Dario Floreano notes the concept is "applicable to environments where humans cannot go."
Tech Companies Push for Greater Wi-Fi Access
The Wall Street Journal (02/13/14) Ryan Knutson; Shalini Ramachandran
Major U.S. cable and technology companies on Thursday announced the WifiForward coalition with the goal of expanding public access to Wi-Fi. WifiForward participants include Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications, Google, and Microsoft. The new group will add weight to the individual lobbying efforts members have been making for the government to allocate more spectrum for Wi-Fi. Additional spectrum for unlicensed uses would enable consumers to use the frequencies for Bluetooth and a range of mobile data devices. Mobile users in North America last year consumed about 1.4 gigabytes of data a month on average, and are expected to average 9 gigabytes a month by 2018, according to Cisco Systems. Wi-Fi now carries approximately 57 percent of all mobile data traffic in North America, which is expected to rise to 64 percent by 2018, Cisco says. The Wi-Fi push is driven partly by the cost of smartphone data plans, which many say is more than middle class families can afford. Major cable companies have been looking to make wireless inroads, and for Google and Microsoft, greater Wi-Fi access brings more users to online services and increases advertising revenue.
White House Pushes Cybersecurity Framework for Critical Infrastructure
IDG News Service (02/12/14) Grant Gross
The White House released a new cybersecurity framework on Wednesday that is designed to help critical infrastructure operators create comprehensive cybersecurity programs. The voluntary framework, developed by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, provides guidelines for what constitutes a good cybersecurity program by taking a risk management approach that enables organizations to adapt to "a changing cybersecurity landscape and respond to evolving and sophisticated threats in a timely manner." A senior Obama administration official says the framework, which builds on a presidential directive from 2013, can help "companies prove to themselves and to their stakeholders that good cybersecurity can be the same thing as good business." Administration officials hope the framework will drive changes in the way critical infrastructure operators deal with cybersecurity, in part by sparking discussions about what cybersecurity measures are beneficial. President Barack Obama says although more work is needed, the framework could be a turning point in the national discussion about cybersecurity. "Although the threats are serious and they constantly evolve, I believe that if we address them effectively, we can ensure that the Internet remains an engine for economic growth and a platform for the free exchange of ideas."
Liquid-Cooled Supercomputers, to Trim the Power Bill
The New York Times (02/11/14) Eric Pfanner
Submerging supercomputers and servers in oil or other liquids to cool them off might offer a way to reduce massive energy consumption. Mineral oil and liquid fluoroplastics do not conduct electricity, and therefore present no risk of short-circuiting or damaging equipment as water would, experts say. Submersion technology can save a facility millions of dollars a year in air conditioning electricity expenses and reduces the need for air conditioning and filtering equipment. The Tokyo Institute of Technology is cooling its Tsubame KFC supercomputer with mineral oil developed by Green Revolution. The institute made only a few adjustments to prepare the Tsubame KFC for submersion, including removing moving parts such as hard drives and fans. In November, Tsubame KFC was named the greenest supercomputer in the Green500 industry ranking. Although Cray used submersion cooling for one of its systems in the 1980s, concerns about cost and the impact of those coolants on the ozone prevented the method from gaining popularity. In contrast, new liquids are said not to deplete the ozone. Several data centers, including some U.S. Department of Defense facilities, have tested Green Revolution's cooling method. In a one-year study of the system, Intel saw a large drop in power consumption and discovered no adverse effects on its servers.
Scents That Are Sent: oPhone Delivers Aromas
Michigan Tech News (02/11/14) Dennis Walikainen
Researchers at Paris' Le Laboratorie (Le Lab) and Michigan Technological University have developed the oPhone, a device that enables odors (oNotes) to be sent via Bluetooth and smartphone attachments to other oPhones around the world. The researchers created unique aromatic profiles that are then added to the oChip, which renders the smell. The initial four oChips that will come with the first oPhones can be combined into thousands of different odors, produced for 20 to 30 seconds, according to Le Lab director David Edwards. "Imagine you are online and want to know what a particular brand of coffee would smell like," Edwards says. "Or, you are in an actual long line waiting to order. You just tap on the oNote and get the experience." Odors are initially captured in wax after they are perfected using a Le Lab aroma expert, who deconstructs the scents. The researchers replace words such as "citrus" or "berry" with actual scents that are created by ordering molecules and combining them in different percentages. "We think there could be help for Alzheimer's patients, related to the decline and loss of memory and olfactory sensation," Edwards says. The researchers already are planning improvements for an end-of-year beta release of the oPhone to a limited audience.
The Shadowy World of Wikipedia's Editing Bots
Technology Review (02/13/14)
Google engineer Thomas Steiner has developed an application that monitors editing activity on all 287 language versions of Wikipedia and Wikidata. The application posts results online in real time to enable people to view the number of bots and humans editing the sites at any time. The tool offers interesting insights into bot and human behavior and will provide administrators with an additional way to spot malicious bot activity. Bots are growing more adept at producing various types of articles. For example, automated feeds can generate stories about financial and sports results using templates that cut and paste information into appropriate locations. As automated writing advances, it is likely to become increasingly useful to sites such as Wikipedia. However, the potential for misuse of such tools also will make it more important to track automated changes to text, which could make Steiner's application even more relevant in the future.
Maybe Robots Should, Like, Hedge a Little
Cornell Chronicle (02/10/14) Bill Steele
Some robotics researchers are concerned that future robots could sound authoritarian when giving advice and are working to improve the way they interact with people. Researchers at Cornell and Carnegie Mellon (CMU) universities suggest that if robots sound a little less sure of themselves, listeners will have a more positive response. "People use these strategies even when they know exactly," says CMU professor Susan Fussell. When giving advice, the best approach is for the adviser not to claim to be all that smart, and to use formal language, according to the research. In recent experiments, human observers saw robots and humans as more likeable and less controlling when they used hedges like "maybe," "probably," or "I think," along with discourse markers, which are words that add no meaning but announce that something new is coming. To compare reactions to robot and human helpers, the researchers made copies in which a robot was superimposed over the image of the human helper. Both humans and robots were described more positively when they used hedges and discourse markers, and robots using those strategies rated higher than humans. "The robots need to seem human, so they may say things that don't seem normal when a robot says them," Fussell says.
Open Data vs. the Flood: How High-Tech Is Helping Venice Deal With High Tides
ZDNet (02/11/14) Federico Guerrini
The Acqualta project in Venice, run by #opendatavenezia, aims to engage citizens in an effort to monitor flooding in the city's canals using open data and sensor technology. "We want to test the potential of citizens as sensors, engaging residents in the production of data," says #opendatavenezia member Luca Corsato. "It's a bottom-up approach in which data is a shared resource, as opposed to the traditional idea of information being owned and distributed by a central authority." Acqualta participants must own a water gate in the Venetian lagoon, where they install a small, solar-powered sensor that wirelessly transmits the water level to a dedicated server. The data is then posted on Twitter, with tweets sent every few minutes during high tide and every half hour at other times. The sensors can help local authorities pinpoint locations where water is likely to overflow, says Eraclit's Oreste Venier, whose company developed the device. Although Venice is not directly involved in Acqualta, council members have strong ties to #opendatavenezia and hope the project will help the government reduce tide measuring costs and focus resources on flood prediction.
Quantum Computers Could Crack Existing Codes but Create Others Much Harder to Break
The Conversation (02/11/14) David Kielpinski
Quantum computers capable of cracking sophisticated codes will one day be created, but such systems also will be able to create more advanced codes, writes David Kielpinski, a professor at Griffith University's Centre for Quantum Dynamic. Kielpinski notes the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has been financially supporting non-classified quantum computing research at universities since the 1990s because of its applications in code-breaking. In addition, NSA is working on quantum cryptography to develop new security methods capable of resisting code-breaking attempts by quantum computers. Kielpinski says quantum cryptography is more ready than quantum computing for real-world use, and commercial ventures already exist that use quantum cryptography for banks and governments. Quantum computers can simulate advanced materials, such as high-temperature superconductors, at the atomic level, which could lead to civilian uses. However, Kielpinski says political and financial considerations are likely to shape the future of quantum computing.
Computer Science Professor Tony Morelli Creates Games for Disabled Children
Central Michigan Life (02/11/14) Sydney Smith
Central Michigan University (CMU) professor Anthony Morelli has developed software that encourages blind people to exercise using the PlayStation Move, Xbox Kinect, and Nintendo Wii. "Kids that are blind are generally more obese or out of shape because things such as going running can be a safety issue," Morelli says. "I wanted to create something that would be accessible to them and allow them to be active in a safe environment." The software uses sounds and vibrations to indicate to players how to move. The games were tested at Camp Abilities, a week-long camp for children who are deaf, visually impaired, or deafblind, to measure a player's heart rate and improve other areas, such as balance. Morelli developed the software while at Purdue University, and has since launched vifit.org, a website that enables free access to the games. Morelli, who teaches video game and Java programming at CMU, is working with students to create more games for disabled children. For example, his group is developing a concept called Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment, which will automatically adjust the game based on the player's past performance.
Computer Scientist Looks for Deeper Meaning in Webcam Videos
University of Kentucky News (02/10/14) Keith Hautala
University of Kentucky professor Nathan Jacobs is researching ways to use computers to interpret and understand images of outdoor scenes. His efforts could provide new ways to understand images. Jacobs has extracted patterns from large sets of images collected from Webcams and images uploaded from social networking sites. He also has built algorithms that use those patterns to make inferences and create predictions about what the images represent. "They can be patterns that we use to understand the patterns themselves, or patterns that we use to understand things about the camera or the location that we're in," Jacobs says. For example, video of outdoor scenes could provide clues on how people move through them, and how movement changes based on different factors. He says the pattern recognition could be used to detect and predict human movement, and characterizing normal movement patterns could be useful in several problem-solving applications.
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