Welcome to the April 2, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Supreme Court Weighs Software Patents
The Washington Post (03/31/14) Robert Barnes
It is not yet clear whether the U.S. Supreme Court will help bring greater clarity to the rules governing software patents as they deliberate over Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International. U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., representing the Obama administration, asked the court for a broader ruling making software eligible for patents only when it provides an "improvement in computing technology or an innovation that uses computing technology to improve other technological functions." The case has divided the technology industry, with some companies worried about the loss of their existing patents, and others wanting the court to set a much higher standard for awarding software patents. Attorney Carter Phillips, who represents Alice Corp., warns the Supreme Court's ruling could have a major impact on the software industry. He says the court could "inherently declare, and in one fell swoop, hundreds of thousands of patents invalid, and the consequences of that it seems to me are utterly unknowable." Justice Stephen G. Breyer seems the most interested in a broader solution, noting currently companies are not in "competition on price, service, and better production," but on "who has the best patent lawyer."
NSA Performed Warrantless Searches on Americans' Calls and Emails
The Guardian (04/01/14) Spencer Ackerman; James Ball
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper acknowledged in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has performed warrantless searches of its databases to obtain data from Americans' phone calls and emails. Clapper noted in his letter, which was sent in response to Wyden's request as to whether NSA had actually performed such searches, that "U.S. person identifiers" are used in searches of the databases to obtain intelligence on "non-U.S. persons" who are believed to be located overseas. Documents released by Edward Snowden indicate the searches are performed under procedures approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court in 2011. The information that is analyzed is collected under Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which states the federal government can collect the content and metadata of Americans' communications without a warrant if they are in direct contact with foreign surveillance targets. Clapper said in his letter these searches are legal under Section 702 and compliant with the Fourth Amendment. Wyden disagreed, saying the searches are unconstitutional and they represent a "threat to the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans."
Robot 101: Learning to Work With Humans
MIT News (04/01/14) Eric Brown
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Interactive Robotics Group director Julie Shah is focused on teaching inherently safe robots to work in teams with people, and vice versa. "We're looking to develop fast, smart-tasking algorithms so robots can work interdependently with people," she says. Shah envisions future factories where industrial robots work safely with humans by putting them on mobile bases and rails thanks to new safety standards and technology. She points out today's cutting-edge robot training methods rely on demonstration and interactive rewards, but her research indicates robots are frequently unclear as to what the reward is referring. Shah studied training techniques of human teams to improve those for robot training, and learned cross training was a consistent factor in effectiveness. Her research team tweaked modified learning methods and algorithms so the robot gets input by switching roles with the person, rather than receiving it as a positive and negative reward. Shah says the experiment yielded improvements in objective measures of team performance, gains in concurrent motion between human and robot, reductions in idle time, and subjective improvements. Shah also aims to optimize task planning and deployment in hybrid human-robot teams through her research.
Can a Computer Craft Compelling Stories?
USC News (03/27/14) Orli Belman
University of Southern California professor Andrew Gordon, who leads the Narrative Group at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, has a new project that involves getting computers to read and generate stories, using the knowledge in those stories to become more intelligent. The project, called Heider-Simmel Interactive Theater, is a Web-based application that enables users to make their own movies and write their own stories using triangles. "This research is trying to solve a fundamental problem in human-computer interaction," Gordon says. "The end goal is to collect enough data to test and train our systems to recognize actions and narrative so that computers will tell stories that are as creative and compelling as the ones people are telling." The researchers want to collect large volumes of data so the system can be tested and trained to recognize actions and motivations. The project is funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research.
Immigrants From the Future
The Economist (03/29/14) Oliver Morton
Robots intrigue both designers and enthusiasts in a way that goes beyond the technology's current practical applications, and this offers novel insight into what people desire from technology. Many robots that participate in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Robotics Challenge (DRC) are designed as humanoids because they must function in a setting that is shaped to human specifications. In addition, real-world robots continue to be influenced by expectations cultivated and continuously fostered by science fiction. However, actual robot technologies still fall short of their fictional counterparts, and most of the capabilities the founders of the artificial intelligence field envisioned--generalized intelligence, comprehension, planning, etc.--have not been realized. For example, giving robots the ability to walk moderately well has been a decades-long effort entailing a massive amount of funding. Many of the most advanced robots in the DRC also are tele-operated with human monitors. Meanwhile, Google's recent acquisition of a large stable of robot engineering talent and intellectual property sends a message that at least one major, innovative company has faith in the field's future prospects. Most robots are perceived as extensions of rather than substitutes for humans, and meeting the challenge of making robots able to work with humans requires them to become socially humanoid.
NSA Infiltrated RSA Security More Deeply Than Thought
Reuters (03/31/14) Joseph Menn
Months after revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) paid RSA to adopt the now-discredited Dual Elliptic Curve cryptography system as the default in software used by a broad spectrum of Internet and computer security programs, academic researchers report a second NSA tool compounded the software's vulnerability. The Extended Random extension for secure websites could help decrypt a version of the Dual Elliptic Curve software tens of thousands of times faster, the researchers warn. The Dual Elliptic Curve random number generator had long been a target of cryptologists' suspicions, but the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology and RSA only abandoned the technology after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released documents about a deliberate flaw in the software enabling NSA to crack the encryption. The Extended Random protocol was promoted as a way to make the numbers generated by the Dual Elliptic Curve even more random. However, the researchers analyzed the protocol and found the additional data the protocol sends before a secure connection begins makes it dramatically easier to predict the following secure numbers. RSA says it did not intentionally weaken security on any product. "We trusted [NSA] because they are charged with security for the U.S. government and U.S. critical infrastructure," says RSA's Sam Curry.
Microsoft Builds a Digital 'Monkey' to Hunt Fraudulent Ads
Technology Review (03/28/14) David Talbot
EU Funding for Robots That Learn and Think for Themselves
CORDIS News (03/28/14)
The European Union is funding a project that seeks to develop robots for small and medium-sized enterprises that are able to handle frequent changes in the manufacturing process. The robots developed for the three-year SMErobotics project would enable companies to change processes and assignments without having to call in specialists. A key objective is to enable humans and robots to learn from each other for the overall benefit of industrial manufacturing, which calls for better software components. The goal is to augment state-of-the-art industrial robots with cognitive abilities, according to SMErobotics coordinator Martin Hagele. An intelligent robot system "should learn intuitively and efficiently from its human operator--continuously improving its performance in collaboration with the worker," Hagele says. Technologies to be presented at the Automatica trade fair in June include a lightweight robot for small production runs, a sensor-controlled welding robot capable of learning from a welder, a cost-effective robot cell for general manipulation tasks such as machine feeding, and innovative software. The SMErobotics project runs through the end of next year.
DARPA Looks to GPUs to Help Process Big Data in the Military
IT Pro (03/31/14) Clare Hopping
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to use graphics-processing units (GPUs) to help analyze big data in support of governmental and military efforts. Speaking at the recent GPU Technology Conference, DARPA project manager Chris White said the agency is looking for people to help them understand real-world battlefields using GPUs. White said DARPA needs expertise to help develop the XDATA cloud to process data from military sensors and communications systems, which will help soldiers make informed decisions quickly. Although GPUs can provide help to process the data, such a complex and specialized solution also needs investment to make it work more effectively, according to White. "Our goal is to apply the principles of big data analytics to identify and understand deep commonalities among the constantly evolving corpus of software drawn from the hundreds of billions of lines of open source code available today," says DARPA program manager Suresh Jagannathan. "We're aiming to treat programs--more precisely, facts about programs--as data, discovering new relationships among this 'big code' to build better, more robust software."
Network World (03/27/14) Steven Max Patterson
Student Designs App to Help Commuters Stay on Track
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (03/27/14)
The Realtime Trains Web service is now available as a smartphone application. U.K. commuters will be able to obtain real-time updates on rail delays, arrivals, and departures, and other information before it is announced in train stations. The app is unique in that it only uses open data from Network Rail. "The information I'm using effectively represents past events," says Tom Cairns, a student at the University of Southampton who launched the app. "I've had to develop algorithms to adapt this data so that I can build accurate predictions of the future." The lack of information during his daily commute to school prompted Cairns to create the Realtime Trains website two years ago, and he says more than 100,000 people use it each month and it handles more than 350,000 real-time requests each day. Cairns plans to expand the service to include other transport inquiries, including buses. The free app is available for iOS and Android devices.
ETH Inaugurates Europe's Most Powerful Supercomputer
Science Business (03/26/14)
ETH Board president Fritz Schiesser recently inaugurated Piz Daint, a supercomputer housed at the Swiss National Supercomputing Center (CSCS) that is now ranked as the most powerful computer in Europe. Piz Daint is the result of the first phase of the national High-Performance Computing and Networking Strategy. Although Piz Daint has been at CSCS for about a year, only recently did it break the petaflop barrier following an upgrade from 12 computer cabinets to 28 and a hybrid expansion with graphics processing units (GPUs). In addition, the combination of GPUs and conventional processors, which together can process about 3.2 billion computer operations per watt, makes Piz Daint one of the world's most energy-efficient supercomputers in the petaflop performance class. "Thanks to projects like [the Swiss Platform for High-Performance and High-Productivity Computing] and [the Platform for Advanced Scientific Computing (PASC)], [CSCS director] Thomas Schulthess and his team have also managed to position Swiss researchers at the cutting edge of algorithm and software development worldwide," says PASC's Ralph Eichler.
Virtual Reality Technology to Be Used for Art and Self-Expression, MIT Professor Says
Boston Business Journal (03/27/14) Sara Castellanos
The entertainment industry hopes to deliver on the cultural fantasy of immersive virtual worlds. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab professor D. Fox Harrell says many people dream of the immersive experience popularized by the holodeck in "Star Trek." In an interview, he discusses the future of virtual reality and why it is such a hot topic in the tech world. "Many people desire to express themselves as they can only imagine and see what it is like to experience other identities," Harrell says. His research group, the Imagination, Computation and Expression Laboratory, researches and develops various virtual reality experiences, with a focus on interactive storytelling, gaming, and social media. Harrell sees the true advantage of virtual reality in enabling new types of computer-based experiences used for purposes such as art, engendering empathy, and empowering people. He says Facebook's $2 billion acquisition of virtual reality firm Oculus VR could help popularize virtual reality technology and provide the impetus for developing new forms of art, entertainment, and communication.
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