Welcome to the December 12, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Jesse Jackson Gets Silicon Valley to Talk Diversity
USA Today (12/11/14) Jon Swartz
Representatives from across the technology industry on Wednesday attended a Silicon Valley summit on the issue of diversity in the tech workforce organized by Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition and hosted by Intel. Jackson told representatives from Google, Cisco, Pandora, Microsoft, and many others, that although a lack of gender and racial diversity in the tech sector remains a nagging problem, "there's nothing we can't do," noting the industry is a solutions-oriented business. Many speakers at the event, including Rosalind Hudnell, Intel's chief diversity officer, acknowledged creating a more diverse tech sector would take time. Gwen Houston, general manager of global diversity at Microsoft, said there has been little progress to date because tech leaders are often not held accountable for diversity issues. Houston said commitment to diversity has to come from the top, noting her own experience getting Microsoft's then-CEO Steve Ballmer on board with a program to increase diversity. Many speakers also emphasized diversity is good business, including activist and #YesWeCode project founder Van Jones, who said tech companies are leaving "too much genius on the table" by not pursuing diversity.
Web Inventor Berners-Lee: The Hidden Cost of Mass Surveillance
TechRepublic (12/11/14) Nick Heath
Sir Tim Berners-Lee this week discussed the need for governments to end mass online surveillance at the launch of a report from the World Wide Web Foundation on the state of the Web. The group's latest annual Web Index report examined Internet policies in 86 countries and found weak to non-existent laws guaranteeing online privacy in 84 percent of them, up from 63 percent in last year's report. The report says the increase is in part due to new revelations about government spying activities that have revealed greater abilities on the part of governments to "circumvent due process and the rule of law," even in countries with privacy laws. The report notes several countries are actively dismantling privacy safeguards, and cites as examples a new French law granting numerous agencies the power to snoop on French Internet users without judicial authorization and the U.K.'s Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill. The report says the general trend is toward "bulk collection of data in secret and by default." The report also found online censorship on the rise, with moderate or extensive censorship efforts in 38 percent of countries. Berners-Lee renewed his call for a bill of rights for the Internet that would guarantee users privacy, which he says is even more necessary in the era of the Internet of Things.
More-Flexible Digital Communication
MIT News (12/12/14) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology adjunct professor Madhu Sudan, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research New England, says he and his colleagues have begun to describe theoretical limits on the degree of imprecision that communicating computers can tolerate, with implications for the design of communication protocols. "Most of the work is really in trying to abstract, 'What is the kind of problem that human communication tends to solve nicely, [and] designed communication doesn't?'--and let's now see if we can come up with designed communication schemes that do the same thing," Sudan says. The research is based on previous work conducted in 2011 that focused on the minimum number of bits that one device would need to send another in order to convey all of the information in a data file. In the new research, not only do sender and receiver have somewhat different probability estimates, but they also have slightly different codebooks. The researchers were able to devise a protocol that would still provide good compression. However, that method works only if the servers know in advance which bits to add up, and if they store the files in such a way that data locations correspond perfectly. The new protocol could provide a way for servers using different file-management schemes to generate consistency checks in real time.
Blue Sky Ideas Track Held at Foundations of Software Engineering Symposium
CCC Blog (12/09/14) Helen Vasaly
The Computing Community Consortium (CCC) sponsored a Blue Sky Ideas Conference Track during the ACM SIGSOFT International Symposium on Foundations of Software Engineering, which took place Nov. 21-26 in Hong Kong. The track highlighted visionary ideas, long-term challenges, and opportunities in software engineering research that are not popular subjects in the field. Marian Petre from Britain's Open University and Daniela Damian from Canada's University of Victoria took first prize for the paper "Methodology and Culture: Drivers of Mediocrity in Software Engineering?" Second Prize went to Sebastian Elbaum from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and David S. Rosenblum from the National University of Singapore for "Known Unknowns: Testing in the Presence of Uncertainty." Third prize went to Marc Palyart and Gail C. Murphy from Canada's University of British Columbia, Emerson Murphy-Hill from North Carolina State University, and Xavier Blanc from France's University of Bordeaux for "Speculative Reprogramming." The authors of the winning papers received travel awards from CCC.
Organic Electronics Could Lead to Cheap, Wearable Medical Sensors
UC Berkeley NewsCenter (12/10/14) Sarah Yang
University of California, Berkeley researchers are developing an organic optoelectronic sensor that could add blood-oxygen levels to the list of vital signs measured by fitness trackers. The technology relies on a carbon-based design, which is thin, inexpensive, and flexible enough to be worn like a Band-Aid during exercise. The researchers tested the prototype against a conventional pulse oximeter and found the pulse and oxygen readings were equally accurate. Conventional pulse oximeters normally use light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to send red and infrared light through a fingertip or earlobe. The new organic sensors used red and green light, which yield comparable differences to red and infrared light in terms of distinguishing high and low levels of oxygen in the blood. The researchers used a solution-based processing system to deposit the green and red organic LEDs and the translucent light detectors onto a flexible piece of plastic. The device calculates a pulse by detecting the pattern of fresh arterial blood flow. "We showed that if you take measurements with different wavelengths, it works, and if you use unconventional semiconductors, it works," says Berkeley professor Ana Arias.
Media Portrayals of Women in Tech: Google Joins Nonprofits to Drive Change
Tech Republic (12/10/14) Conner Forrest
Many have noted the decline of women's participation in computer science since the 1980s has accompanied the proliferation of media portrayals of men and women that send the message women do not belong in technical fields. Google wants to change that and has joined with nonprofits the Entertainment Industries Council (EIC) and the National Center for Women & IT (NCWIT) to create a new award for the best media portrayal of women in tech. The three groups are looking to the public to help select the nominees by commenting on a Google+ video about the award. "What we're looking for are nominations of portrayals of women in technology that are positive, realistic, and reinforce the idea that this is a place that women can work and be successful, and be considered contributors to society," says NCWIT's Ruthe Farmer. Ann Crommett, program manager for computer science in media at Google, says the hope is the award will help spur more positive media portrayals of women in tech, which could "do for CS what 'CSI' did for the field of forensic science, changing its gender make-up and increasing its appeal to a wider audience." Farmer also hopes recognition from the award will encourage media creators to continue digging into these characters.
Smart Panel Ponders AI's Future
EE Times (12/09/14) Jessica Lipsky
The Silicon Valley Forum last week hosted a conference in which industry experts predicted the future of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and other areas of machine/human interaction. Modar Alaoui, whose company Eyeris develops AI for facial recognition, says AI's immediate future lies in ambient intelligence in devices such as smartphones and smart cars. Pneubotics CEO Kevin Albert says he would like to see AI robots or computers that learn without being told. Numenta CEO Jeff Hawkins, whose company has developed a computational framework for AI, says "our work here is not being human-like at all. It's about understanding the general principles of intelligence that we can apply to all kinds of problems." Hawkins believes the fastest way to achieve this is through reverse-engineering the neural cortex to understand its principles and applying them to machines. IBM's John Wolpert observes AI developers are working with unknown subsystems. "You do more teaching than you do programming," he says. "The technical skills required are more social; I want more liberal arts majors for this stuff. You still need lots of skills, but not to work with the systems." Lux Capital's Shahin Farshchi cites a need for a "level of obsessive focus on products and solving specific problems that we see in software."
Two Robots, One Challenge, Endless Possibility
Jet Propulsion Laboratory (12/09/14) Elizabeth Landau
The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is developing robots that can enter dangerous places. JPL's Brett Kennedy says such robots could undertake simple actions to curb further damage. A robot called RoboSimian was originally created by JPL researchers for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge, and the team won a spot to compete in the finals, which will be held in June 2015. The RoboSimian team is working with the University of California, Santa Barbara and the California Institute of Technology to increase how fast the robot can walk. During the DARPA challenge, the robot must drive a vehicle and get out of it, deal with debris blocking a doorway, cut a hole in a wall, open a valve, and cross a field containing hurdles such as cinder blocks. JPL researchers have used the limbs from RoboSimian to form another robot called Surrogate, which was designed to be more human-like and with a specialty for handling objects. However, Surrogate currently is limited to moving on tracks and has only one set of stereo-vision eyes, or a pair of cameras mounted to its head, whereas RoboSimian has up to seven sets of eyes.
The Coming Era of Egocentric Video Analysis
Technology Review (12/08/14)
Egocentric videos, which are those shot from the perspective of the filmmaker, are becoming increasingly common with the proliferation of head and body-mounted cameras. Egocentric filming techniques often are used by people who want to conceal their identity, but two Israeli researchers have found they can include a lot more identifying information than users realize. Yedid Hoshen and Shmuel Peleg at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem have demonstrated that biometric signatures can be extracted from egocentric videos by analyzing the "optical flow" associated with a given filmmaker. The ways an egocentric film maker moves, including their gait, is unique to them in many ways and the flow of how objects, edges, and surfaces move from frame to frame can be extracted from sequences even a few seconds long. Hoshen and Peleg used data extracted from videos of varying length from different users to train a neural network to spot each user's unique signatures and then tested it on different videos from the same users. They found identifying video from a given filmmaker using this method was straightforward and had a high degree of accuracy. The researchers say the technique could have forensic applications, as well as biometric applications, such as locking a given camera to a given user.
Paper: A Better Way to Find Communities in Networks
Santa Fe Institute (12/08/14) John German
Researchers at the Santa Fe Institute have found a better way to identify communities in networks, which is they say is key to understanding how networks function. In theory, the highest-modularity set reflects the network's true community structure, but the problem for one popular approach is that it often finds many highly modular structures with nothing in common. The Santa Fe team borrowed the notion of free energy, and the number of different configurations a system has at a given energy, from statistical physics. The method enabled the researchers to find many structures with high modularity and ensure that each individual structure is fairly similar to the next. The researchers also applied the cavity method, originally designed to find the lowest energy states in spin glasses. The method, known in computer science as belief propagation, is similar to an elaborate game of telephone, and as players receive input from neighbors, their own beliefs about what group they are in change. Once everyone is confident about which group they are in, the algorithm can find how a network breaks down into communities.
Germanium Comes Home to Purdue for Semiconductor Milestone
Purdue University News (12/08/14) Emil Venere
Purdue University researchers say they have created the first modern germanium circuit using germanium as the semiconductor instead of silicon. Germanium is one of the materials being considered to replace silicon because it could enable the industry to make smaller transistors and more compact integrated circuits, according to Purdue professor Peide Ye. Germanium is considered to have a higher mobility for electrons and electron holes than silicon, a trait that makes for ultra-fast circuits. The researchers demonstrated how to use germanium to produce two types of transistors needed for complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) electronic devices. The material can be used for P-type and N-type transistors, which points to possible applications for germanium in computers and electronics. The material has properties that make it difficult to create an N-type contact with low electrical resistance for good current flow, but doping the germanium alters its properties and the areas containing the most impurities have the lowest resistance. The researchers showed how to etch away the top layer of germanium, exposing the most heavily doped portion, which provides a good contact point. The etching creates recessed channels, which serve as gates needed for CMOS transistors to switch on and off. Research shows the inverter is the best-performing non-silicon inverter demonstrated so far, according to Ye.
University Teams to Vie for Supercomputing Championship
Campus Technology (12/02/14) Michael Hart
The High Performance Computing Advisory Council (HPCAC) announced 11 teams will participate in the ISC 2015 Student Cluster Competition. The list includes teams from Germany's Chemnitz University of Technology and University of Hamburg, the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil, Jamia Millia Islamia in India, the University of Tartu in Estonia, the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Spain, the University of Science and Technology in China, a combined team from Purdue University and EAFIT University in Columbia, two undetermined universities from China, and an undetermined university from South Africa. The competition will be held during the ISC 2015 conference scheduled for July 13-15, 2015, in Frankfurt, Germany. In real time, the teams of six undergraduate students will build clusters of computers they have designed on the trade show's exhibit floor. They will seek to demonstrate the greatest performance against predetermined challenges and benchmarks. "This is an opportunity to showcase the world's brightest computer science students' expertise in a friendly, yet spirited, competition," says ISC Group managing director Martin Meuer.
Applying HPC to Improve Business ROI
Scientific Computing (12/09/14) Suzanne Tracy
One of the goals of the recent SC14 conference on high-performance computing (HPC) was to assess the economic and scientific value of HPC systems. In particular, the event intended to help small and medium-size businesses and other users better understand the benefits of adopting HPC and to justify HPC investments. IDC's Innovation Excellence Award Program recognized the achievements of several HPC users, such as researchers from Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who helped develop simulations for designing next-generation nuclear reactors based on computational fluid dynamics code Nek5000. Meanwhile, the Center for Pediatric Genomic Medicine at Children's Mercy Hospitals Kansas City was recognized for developing the first genome center inside a children's hospital and one of the first to focus on genome sequencing and analysis for inherited childhood diseases. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Aeronautics Mission Research Directorate was honored for working to reduce aircraft noise, fuel consumption, and engine emissions though the use of simulations to render accurate representations of the aerodynamic mechanisms that generate airframe noise and to evaluate novel noise-reduction concepts for an aircraft's flaps and landing gear.
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