Welcome to the August 15, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Harvard Unleashes a Swarm of Self-Organizing Robots
IDG News Service (08/14/14) Joab Jackson
Harvard University researchers are studying how robots can mimic biological processes using artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. The researchers have developed a method enabling thousands of robots to coordinate their actions so they can complete a single task. The researchers built 1,024 small, mobile, three-legged robots, known as Kilobots that can move and communicate with one another using infrared laser beams. People can issue commands to the robots, and they will coordinate with each other to arrange themselves into the desired pattern. "The beauty of biological systems is that they are elegantly simple--and yet, in large numbers, accomplish the seemingly impossible," says Harvard professor Radhika Nagpal. The researchers say the AI algorithms that help the bots coordinate their movements could be used as the basis of semi-autonomous software and devices that would not need explicit input for each step. As part of the experiment, each robot received an image of the shape to be formed and then took turns moving into an acceptable position, based on finding the edge of the group and avoiding any traffic jams.
Meet MonsterMind, the NSA Bot That Could Wage Cyberwar Autonomously
Wired News (08/13/14) Kim Zetter
In an interview, whistleblower Edward Snowden alleges the U.S. National Security Agency is working to develop a cyberdefense system that would be able to autonomously identify cyberthreats, neutralize them, and even retaliate against them. Snowden says the program is known as MonsterMind and would create several serious foreign policy and constitutional issues. First, such a program would risk creating an international incident were it to carry out automated counterattacks against cyberattacks like distributed denial-of-service attacks, which make use of vast botnets of compromised computers. Such a retaliation could inadvertently damage infected but otherwise innocuous systems in another country. Snowden also says a program of the scale envisioned for MonsterMind would necessitate the collection and analysis of all Internet traffic, which would amount to a violation of every American’s Fourth Amendment rights. Cryptographer Matt Blaze says a program like MonsterMind is not unimaginable, and resembles in some of its details the government's Einstein 2 and Einstein 3 automated network security programs, which aim to defend government networks from malicious activity. It also recalls Plan X, a five-year cyberwarfare program run by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which seeks to map the Internet and build systems that would enable the Pentagon to carry out predetermined and pre-programmed cyberattacks.
Echoes of Y2K: Engineers Buzz That Internet Is Outgrowing Its Gear
The Wall Street Journal (08/13/14) Drew Fitzgerald
Internet providers, corporations, universities, and Web service providers could see their network performance hampered in the coming days as older networking hardware bumps up against the ever-increasing size of the Internet. The global routing table, which together with the Domain Name System helps to direct the flow of data on the Internet, has reached or exceeded a half-million routes, which network engineers call 512K. This milestone demonstrates the rapid growth of the Internet, but also is creating an issue for Web service providers, as many older network routers are unable to accommodate so many routes. The fix is relatively straightforward--tweaking the router's memory or installing new hardware--but it is also time-consuming, and companies and organizations caught off-guard could see their performance take a hit. Hosting service Liquid Web reported some of its customers' pages were having connection issues Tuesday as technicians rushed to update or replace hardware. Service disruptions are likely to continue over the next several days, but network engineers caution against the sort of hysteria that seized the public over the similarly esoteric issues underlying the Y2K phenomenon in 1999.
New Tool Makes a Single Picture Worth a Thousand--and More--Images
UC Berkeley NewsCenter (08/14/14) Sarah Yang
University of California, Berkeley researchers have developed AverageExplorer, software that can create a single photo representing a massive cluster of images. The software generates an image that averages the key features of other photos. In addition, users can give extra weight to specific features to create subcategories and quickly sort the image results. The software could be used to help computer-vision systems to distinguish key aspects of an image, according to University of California, Davis professor Yong Jae Lee, who helped develop the software. "Lots of data is needed to accurately train the system, so reducing the amount of effort and time to do this is critical," Lee says. "Instead of annotating each image individually, with AverageExplorer, we only need to annotate the average image, and the system will automatically propagate the annotations to the image collection." The researchers were inspired by artists like Jason Salavon, who has created average images from hundreds of photos to illustrate a concept. Much of the work Salavon did manually to sort and align his images has been automated by AverageExplorer. The researchers presented their work this week at the ACM SIGGRAPH conference in Vancouver, Canada.
Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg on Tech's Diversity Gap
USA Today (08/14/14) Jessica Guynn
In an interview, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says it is crucial for the technology industry to become more diverse. She notes in the case of Facebook, the company needs to do so because it builds products used by people from diverse backgrounds. Data suggests diverse teams make better decisions, Sandberg says. She believes improving the numbers of those under-represented in technology will depend on changes to the U.S. education system and addressing stereotypes about women and minorities in math and science. Sandberg also says it is essential to increase the numbers going into the corporate funnel. She estimates females currently represent 18 percent of computer science college majors, making it more difficult for companies such as Facebook to go higher than 18 percent among its coders. Sandberg also notes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg agrees that all forms of diversity and opportunity are very important. She says Zuckerberg feels the knowledge economy is about people getting the education they need to really contribute, which Sandberg says includes immigrants, women, and people of all backgrounds.
New Software Algorithm Mimics Human Perception to Turn Sketches Into 3D
UBC Science (08/13/14) Chris Balma
Designers and artists could develop new product ideas more easily using a graphics system developed by University of British Columbia (UBC) computer scientists. True2Form is designed to infer complex 3D shapes from single professional sketches. The team developed an algorithm to interpret the strokes artists use in drawings and automatically lift drawings off the page. The researchers say True2Form produces convincing 3D shapes computed from individual sketches, automatically corrected to account for inherent drawing inaccuracy. "In line-drawings, designers and artists use descriptive curves and informative viewpoints to help viewers infer the complete shape of an object," says UBC professor Alla Sheffer. "Our system mimics the results of human three-dimensional shape inference to turn a sketch curve network into 3D, while preserving fidelity to the original sketch." True2Form is designed to generate a greater range of geometric complexity in its 3D models than earlier sketch-based modeling frameworks. The team unveiled the graphics system this week at the ACM SIGGRAPH conference in Vancouver, Canada.
How People Consume Conspiracy Theories on Facebook
Technology Review (08/13/14)
A study by Alessandro Bessi and colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy, examined how people on Facebook consume conspiracy theories. They studied more than 270,000 posts created on 73 different Facebook pages and categorized them based on the type of information they contained, the number of likes each post received, the number of shares, and the individuals who contributed them. The team found about 60,000 posts involved mainstream scientific news while more than 200,000 involved alternative conspiracy news. The scientific news received 2.5 million likes, but the conspiracy news had more than 6.5 million likes. Bessi and his team concluded both types of posts are consumed in a similar way, but readers of conspiracy news are more likely to share and like a post than readers of mainstream science news. Readers who focused on conspiracy news tend not to engage with mainstream sites but instead try to broadcast the conspiracies. However, readers who focused on scientific news were more likely to comment on conspiracy pages. The two groups tended not to overlap. The study suggests people who have believed in conspiracy theories in the past are more likely to believe them in the future, while those who regularly read mainstream science news are likely to continue to do so in the future.
Racetrack Memory to Beat Hard Drives & Flash Memory
EE Times (08/12/14) Colin Johnson
Researchers at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) are exploring the possibility of applying IBM's racetrack memory method to a novel new material, which they hope will yield a new type of solid-state memory that will be faster, higher-capacity, less expensive, more reliable, and more energy-efficient than current hard drives or solid-state drives. The researchers are collaborating with the Semiconductor Research Corporation to create race track memory from the complex oxide LSMO, which has novel magnetic, electrical, and optical qualities. Racetrack memory, as created by IBM, works similarly to a conventional hard drive, but uses notched nanowires to create a solid-state solution. The racetrack memories demonstrated by IBM used strictly magnetic materials, but UC Davis researcher Yayoi Kamaura says using LSMO could vastly increase the technology's potential. Kamaura says the team is at least a year away from producing a working racetrack memory prototype using LSMO. The researchers currently are tweaking the configuration of LSMO nanowires and optimizing various parameters with the help of Oak Ridge National Laboratories, which patterns and notches the nanowires out of wafers grown by the UC Davis team.
Realistic Computer Graphics: Technology Makes It to Walt Disney in Minimal Time
Saarland University (08/13/14)
Saarland University researchers say their approach to illumination effects, developed in 2012 and quickly adopted by animation companies, can be implemented on highly parallel graphics processing units very efficiently. The technique, called Vertex Connection and Merging (VCM), involves the realistic depiction of light transport in a room, which is important within the production of computer-generated movies. The researchers developed a mathematical approach that combines Monte Carlo Path Tracing, which depicts direct light incidence on surfaces and the indirect illumination by reflecting light from surfaces in a room, and photon mapping, which works well for illumination around transparent objects. The researchers, led by Saarland University professor Philipp Slusallek, reformulated photon mapping as a Monte Carlo process, meaning they could integrate it directly into the Monte Carlo Path Tracing method. For every pixel of the image, the algorithm decides automatically, via multiple importance sampling, which of both strategies is best suited to compute the illumination at that point. The researchers also furnished mathematical proof the results of the VCM computing method are in compliance with those of the two former methods. Slusallek says the new method "vastly simplifies and speeds up the whole calculating process." Slusallek and his research group presented the new VCM method at this week's ACM SIGGRAPH conference in Vancouver, Canada.
Expanding Cybersecurity and Privacy Research
CCC Blog (08/12/14) Helen Vasaly
The U.S. National Science Foundation's Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace (SaTC) program has announced new projects designed to support cybersecurity research and education and address grand challenges in cybersecurity science and engineering. SaTC has awarded Frontier awards to help establish the Center for Encrypted Functionalities (CEF), and to the Modular Approach to Cloud Security (MACS) project. CEF’s goal is to use new encryption methods to make a computer program invisible to outside observers without compromising its functionality, through program obfuscation, which involves creating software that can hide vulnerabilities from potential adversaries and strengthen encryption and information transfer. CEF also plans to introduce cybersecurity and computer science to under-represented groups and to develop free Massive Open Online Courses on the fundamental principles of encryption. Meanwhile, MACS will build information systems for the cloud with multilayered security, and plans to use the Massachusetts Open Cloud as a testbed. MACS will build the cybersecurity system from separate functional components to develop an entire system derived from the security of its components.
Enhancing Storytelling With Haptic Feedback
Product Design & Development (08/12/14)
Researchers at Disney and Carnegie Mellon University have developed a library of 40 "feel effects" matched to descriptions that designers without a deep background in haptic effects can readily understand. "Currently, there are no guidelines to design haptic experience, so we formulated a procedure that associates haptic patterns to events in the story the same way as we describe these events with words and phrases," says Disney research engineer Ali Israr. The research focused on vibrotactile effects and specifically those created by an array of vibrators embedded into a chair back. The researchers started by designing preliminary feel effects for descriptions in everyday language. Participants then read the description, experienced the associated haptics, and were asked to rate how well each effect matched the description. Using a basic interface with sliders, the participants also were given the opportunity to show how the effect might be modified to better fit the description. The initial feeling of "light rain," for example, might be changed by sliding the value for "how many drops" to the lower end of the scale. The final effects and their descriptions then were tested on a second group of participants to determine if there was agreement between different subjects. The research was presented at the ACM Symposium on Applied Perception, which took place Aug. 8-9 in Vancouver, Canada.
Diamonds Are a Quantum Computer's Best Friend
Vienna University of Technology (08/07/14)
Researchers at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien), the National Institute for Informatics, and NTT Basic Research Labs have proposed a new architecture for quantum computing. The architecture is based on microscopic defects in diamond, which the researchers say is better suited to be miniaturized, mass-produced, and integrated on a chip than previously suggested quantum computing concepts. The architecture involves nitrogen atoms that can occupy two different spin states being injected into a small diamond. Every nitrogen defect is trapped in an optical resonator made of two mirrors and the photons are coupled to the quantum system via glass fibers. The method makes it possible to read and manipulate the state of the quantum system without destroying the quantum properties of the spins in the diamond. Each system can store one quantum bit of information. "This architecture has great potential for miniaturization and mass production," says TU Wien's Michael Trupke. The researchers have begun to create a small-scale prototype of the new architecture. "We have the great advantage of being able to collaborate with a number of internationally renowned research teams in materials research and quantum technology right here at TU Wien," says TU Wien professor Jorg Schmiedmayer.
How Recycled Solar-Powered Phones Could Save Rainforests and Change How the Tech Industry Tackles Climate Change
Tech Republic (08/08/14) Lyndsey Gilpin
Topher White and Dave Grenell used $167,000 raised through Kickstarter to launch Rainforest Connection, a startup designed to curb illegal logging. The team installs smartphones on tree canopies to transmit real-time alerts in areas where deforestation is taking place. Rainforest Connection's smartphones can pick up the sound of a chainsaw up to one square mile away, and instantly send the sound's location data to the cloud, enabling alerts to be sent to forest rangers. White says it took the team about 18 months to develop a solar panel design for powering the phones. Rainforest Connection's initial tests have so far used Android phones, some of which are up to five years old, but White says additional types could soon be used in the near future. The Rainforest Connection website enables consumers to send in their old smartphones to be retrofitted and used by the team. The crowdfunding money, as well as donations from the site, will be used to conduct pilot projects in Indonesia, the Amazon, and Africa later this year. Rainforest Connection already has several partners in these regions, and also plans to unveil a mobile app to enable users to listen to the sounds of the rainforest and eventually to receive alerts on illegal logging occurrences.
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