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Welcome to the January 9, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Meet Cepheus, the Virtually Unbeatable Poker-Playing Computer
The Washington Post (01/08/15) Meeri Kim

A team of researchers at the University of Alberta says it has created a virtually unbeatable poker-playing computer program that is the first of its type. The program, called Cepheus, builds on the legacy of computers and programs that have bested the best human players at games such as chess and checkers. However, there is a difference: those games are what are known as perfect-information games, in which both players know everything that is happening in a game at a given moment. Poker, by comparison, is an imperfect-information game and requires complex judgment calls, such as when to bluff and when to fold. Cepheus plays heads-up, limit hold 'em, which is a two-player poker game with fixed bet sizes. Cepheus learned the game by playing against itself and learning from its "regrets," according to one of the researchers. The program has now played against itself so much that its creators are confident Cepheus could beat any human player, and they have created a website in which people can play against it. The researchers note the technology used in Cepheus could be used to tackle other tasks, ranging from how best to treat diabetes to negotiating a resolution to hostage situations.
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Researchers Work to Counter a New Class of Coffee Shop Hackers
Georgia Tech News Center (01/08/15) John Toon

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) say hackers can see what a computer user is doing by analyzing the low-power electronic signals a laptop emits when it is not connected to the Internet. Georgia Tech researchers are studying where these information leaks, known as side-channel signals, originate so they can help computer designers develop strategies to plug them. The researchers have developed a metric for measuring the strength of the leaks to help prioritize security efforts. "Even if you have the Internet connection disabled, you are still emanating information that somebody could use to attack your computer or smartphone," says Georgia Tech professor Alenka Zajic. Side-channel emissions can be measured several feet away from a computer using a variety of spying methods. As part of a demonstration, Zajic typed a password on one laptop that was not connected to the Internet, while a colleague on the other side of a wall read the password as it was being typed by intercepting side-channel signals produced by the first laptop's keyboard software. "We are measuring computers and smartphones to identify the parts of the devices that leak the most," Zajic says. "That information can guide efforts to redesign them, and on an architectural level, perhaps change the instructions in the software to change the device behavior."

FCC Chair Calls for 'Just and Reasonable' Rules for Broadband
Computerworld (01/07/15) Matt Hamblen

U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler on Wednesday called for an open Internet that protects innovators and consumers while also making sure Internet service providers (ISPs) retain economic incentives to continue building better networks. Wheeler plans to give the other four members of the FCC his specific recommendations on Feb. 5, with a commission vote scheduled for Feb. 26. "When the president said he was for Title II, there was an effort made to say that Wheeler and the president were pulling in opposite directions, but we're both pulling in the same direction for no blocking, no throttling, and no paid prioritization," Wheeler says. He favors an approach that that will not force unneeded regulations on ISPs. "We'll propose rules that say no blocking, no throttling, and no paid prioritization, and add that there is a yardstick against which [service provider] behavior should be measured, and that yardstick is 'just and reasonable' actions by carriers," Wheeler says. Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shapiro thinks network priority should matter, especially in granting users network access in national emergencies. Meanwhile, FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn says she wants to use open Internet deliberations to reach rules that protect average Internet users.

Adding Leap Second This Year Expected to Cause Internet Problems
Phys.Org (01/07/15) Bob Yirka

A leap second will be added to the year this summer, and many Internet companies are concerned this will cause problems for websites. Services such as Foursquare, Reddit, LinkedIn, and Yelp reported problems the last time a leap second was added in 2012. The International Earth Rotation Service will add the leap second at 23:59:59 on June 30, the halfway point of the year, to synch up atomic clock time with the Earth's rotational time. Computer systems can become confused when their clocks show 60 seconds, rather than roll over after 59, and the confusion can lead to blackouts. Other computers will show the 59th second for two seconds in a row, which can result in problems as well. Google once again will employ a workaround that forces servers to use extra time in making updates over the course of the year. With the "smear around" approach, they do not notice that a leap second has occurred. Because of such disruptions, some in the technology sector have called for the wholesale elimination of time based on the Earth's movement. That would make little difference in the near term, but at some point people would find their clocks mismatched with days and nights, perhaps requiring a leap minute or hour.

Doing More With Less: Steering a Quantum Path to Improved Internet Security
Griffith University (01/07/15) Michael Jacobson

Griffith University researchers have demonstrated the potential for quantum steering to be used to enhance data security over long distances, discouraging hackers and eavesdroppers, and resolving issues of trust with communication devices. "Quantum physics promises the possibility of absolutely secure information transfer, where your credit card details or other personal data sent over the Internet could be completely isolated from hackers," says Griffith professor Geoff Pryde. Quantum steering involves a measurement made on one party's quantum system changing the system held by another. Pryde notes that although quantum steering is a weaker form of entanglement, the technique operates paradoxically to maintain communication security while tolerating greater real-world loss and removing the need for absolute trust in devices. The researchers used special photon quantum states to program a measurement apparatus at each step of sending the code. In a demonstration, measurement devices representing the two parties were built and received entangled photons from a quantum source. Another photon source, representing the referee, was used to prepare the quantum states for programming one apparatus. "The quantum-refereed steering protocol can match tests for strong entanglement, in not requiring trust in the measuring devices, and has the further advantage of being robust to noise," says Griffith researcher Michael Hall.

Spin Designers
MIT News (01/07/15) Mike Lotti

The Center for Spintronic Materials, Interfaces, and Novel Architectures (C-SPIN) is a University of Minnesota-led team of 32 professors and more than 100 graduate students and post-doctoral researchers from 18 universities that wants to use the spin of electrons on nanomagnets, instead of electric charge, to encode zeros and ones in future computers. If C-SPIN is successful, future computers could be 10 times faster than today's systems, while using only 1 percent of the energy. "I'm part of a work flow that includes researchers from Arizona, California-Riverside, Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon, Minnesota, and Penn State," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Caroline Ross. "With the Center's coordinated funding, we are making significant progress." Ross is focused on developing methods to pattern ultra-small magnetic structures, as well as magnetic "insulators" that help control the way spin is shared with neighboring magnets and other devices. Meanwhile, MIT professor Geoffrey Beach is studying ways to reduce the power required to "switch" magnetic spin, a process that changes zeros to ones and ones to zeros. Although spin-based computers are not on the near-term horizon, Beach says C-SPIN researchers have made significant progress over the last two years.

You Will Be Able to Touch the Internet by 2035, and It Will Touch Back
Quartz (01/07/15) Mike Murphy

Dresden University of Technology professor Gerhard Fettweis believes the next generation of wireless technology, G5, could be so fast that within 20 years it would match the speed of the human neural system, potentially enabling people to interact with distant places in the world in real time in a very lifelike fashion. He says that through various devices, such as robots and feedback devices, people could remotely manipulate something far away and have it feel as though they were interacting with something directly in front of them. Fettweis calls this the "Tactile Internet" in a new study published in December. Fettweis sees numerous potential applications for the Tactile Internet. For example, he says it could be extremely useful in educational settings, enabling students to virtually "travel" to far away places or allow people to learn new skills such as flying or surfing without having to leave their homes. It also could create lifelike long-distance conversations. One area of particular promise is medicine. Combined with tele-robotics, the Tactile Internet could enable a doctor half way across the world to interact with a patient as though they were in an exam room together. Fettweis says the first glimmers of the faster networks that could make the Tactile Internet possible are at least 10 years away.

Coming Soon: Better Geolocation Web Data
IDG News Service (01/07/15) Joab Jackson

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) are collaborating to make it easier to add geographic elements to online data. The two standards bodies have pledged to closely coordinate their activities and publish joint recommendations. Web developers working with geospatial data spend a great deal of time trying to understand the multiple formats and determining the best way to bridge them together. "The problem is that there are too many" standards, says Phil Archer, who is acting as data activity lead for the W3C working group. Gartner estimates up to 80 percent of data has some geospatial element to it. W3C and OGC will focus on bridging geolocational and non-geolocational data in better ways and building on previous research in the area of linked open data. They also will look to make better use of emerging standards such as the W3C's Semantic Sensor Network ontology and OGC's GeoSPARQL. Best-practices documents could be available later this year.

Intel Tech Brings Us Closer to the World of 'Minority Report'
CNet (01/06/15) Roger Cheng

Technology showcased by Intel at the Consumer Electronics Show is largely oriented around RealSense 3D, a depth-sensing camera whose success could dramatically transform human-computer interaction. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich calls 2015 "the beginning of the next consumer technology wave," and he says seven Intel partners will roll out devices outfitted with RealSense. One RealSense demo was of Intel's True Key app, in which a camera mounted in the front of a home can unlock the door by identifying a person via facial recognition. Another potential use of RealSense is in robots and drones, with Intel's demo in this area featuring RealSense camera-equipped machines that successfully negotiated obstacle courses. Also intriguing is a jacket with embedded RealSense cameras for visually-impaired users, which can perceive the surroundings and emit contextual vibrations. Krzanich also highlighted Curie, a button-sized chip with a processor, Bluetooth low-energy radio, sensors, and a dedicated engine to ascertain different sporting activities. Curie could potentially power variably designed wearables such as rings, pendants, and apparel.

Hackers Could Make Smart Homes Stupid--or Worse
Michigan Tech News (01/06/15) Jennifer Donovan

Michigan Technological University professor Shiyan Hu is working to bolster smart-home security. He says now is the time to start thinking about cybersecurity nightmares, such as people gaining control of a home's central controller to play pranks like turning on all the lights in the middle of the night. Hackers also could potentially access every smart home in a neighborhood, wreak havoc on utility bills, and cause brownouts, if not blackouts. Hu's team is using machine-learning and data-mining techniques to develop algorithms that can determine if a central controller is getting accurate data and making good decisions. The algorithms would be built into the controller and the smart devices. The team is focused on both the local devices and the systems they control. "We need to analyze the security issues in each device and design ways to cross-check the devices and the systems," Hu says. He notes smart appliances learn from repeated behavior, and one form of cyberattack Hu describes is the pricing curve attack. A hacker could deceive a central controller into thinking that electricity rates are lower at peak time, so everything that was supposed to run at one time would come on at a later time instead. Multiple attacks potentially could cripple an entire neighborhood or town.

Researchers to Design Smartphone App That Gauges Ebola Risk
University of Kansas News (01/07/15) Brendan M. Lynch

University of Kansas (KU) researchers have developed iCheqult, a smartphone app that combines data from social media posts and contact-tracing records of Ebola patients from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to give a running score of users' danger for contact with Ebola via travel or coming into contact with a known Ebola patient. The app "sends updated information of the virus to end-users. It also computes a personalized risk score for the user so that the person is informed and updated," says KU professor Jun Huan. The app will alert a user if the person visited a location that a newly reported Ebola patient visited before and assess the risk of the visit, and it provides Ebola data on any travel plan so a user can evaluate dangers of potential exposure. In addition, iCheqult will compile the latest news regarding the Ebola virus from news media and official sources. In terms of social media, "we'll focus on those messages posted related to Ebola patients, and we're interested in all types of information, including the geographical location, time information, and the physical conditions of the patient," Huan says. He notes the system will be applicable to other pandemics, such as those caused by avian influenza and severe acute respiratory syndrome.

JavaScript Surges Past Swift, R for Top Programming Language Honors
InfoWorld (01/07/15) Paul Krill

The Tiobe Index, which rates programming languages based on a formula assessing Internet searches, named JavaScript its Language of the Year for 2014. "Swift and R appeared to be the main candidates for the title, but due to a deep fall of Objective-C this month, a lot of other languages took advantage of this and surpassed these two candidates at the last moment," Tiobe says. JavaScript won the award because it jumped from a 1.569 percent rating in 2013 to a 3.274 rating in January 2015, an increase of about 1.7 percent of share. "Boosted by the successes of JavaScript libraries and frameworks like JQuery, Bootstrap, Node.js, and GWT, JavaScript really deserves this award," the report says. In addition, Tiobe predicts gains for Swift in 2015. "Objective-C will probably lose its dominant position in mobile app development, whereas Java and Swift will gain traction in that field," according to Tiobe. Tiobe's Paul Jantzen anticipates Swift to erode Objective-C's share, "but because mobile app development for Apple devices is not rising any more, it will go slower than expected. Java benefits from its dominant position in the Android ecosystem." Other trends in programming include modeling and big data, Tiobe notes.

The Hype Is Dead, but MOOCs Are Marching On
[email protected] (01/05/15)

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) were all the rage in 2012, but in the intervening two years the excitement around open online education has cooled as completion rates proved to be very low compared to initial enrollment. In an interview, Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller says much of the disappointment has more to do with outsized expectations than unimpressive performance. In particular, Koller thinks the initial coverage of MOOCs portrayed them as competing directly against colleges and universities, but she says that, at least for now, MOOCs have an entirely different audience: working people who need a more flexible education model. Koller says despite initially low completion rates, Coursera is doing very well through its model of offering users who complete a course the opportunity to purchase a Verified Certificate. The number of users taking this route has risen from 10 percent to 20 to 25 percent, and Koller says Coursera certificates are now the second most common credentials cited on professional networking site LinkedIn. She notes Coursera also is seeing a lot of interest from major companies that want to employ its materials. Koller says she expects Coursera to have 1,000 courses available this year and 5,000 within three years.

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