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Welcome to the February 2, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Hackers Use Old Lure on Web to Help Syrian Government
The New York Times (02/01/15) David E. Sanger; Eric Schmitt

Hackers working on behalf of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been very successful in stealing crucial battlefield data from rebels, according to a FireEye study examining the use of cyberattacks and espionage in the Syrian civil war. The study details one incident in which a rebel fighter was contacted via Skype by someone purporting to be a young Lebanese woman. When the fighter asked for a picture of his new chatmate, the picture he received contained malware that copied data from his computer, including tactical battle plans and troves of information about the fighter and his comrades. There are suggestions that such cyberespionage operations have helped Assad's forces to thwart major rebel offensives. The study also explores the more well known exploits of the so-called Syrian Electronic Army, which many officials believe to be based in Iran and largely confines itself to denial-of-service and cyber-vandalism attacks against targets in the U.S. like news organizations and banks. However, the study found U.S. intelligence has had dramatic access to Syria's Internet backbone since 2010, when it intercepted several network devices bound for the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment and bugged them, a fact revealed in leaked documents provided by Edward Snowden.
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MIT Randomizes Tasks to Speed Up Massive Multicore Processors
IDG News Service (01/30/15) Joab Jackson

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed SprayList, an algorithm that can improve the way large multicore processors manage their workloads by assigning tasks more randomly. SprayList enables processors with many cores to spread out the work so they do not get in each other's way, which eliminates bottlenecks that can hold back performance. The algorithm implements priority queues so they will continue to be effective for up to 80 cores. As part of the new system, the core is assigned a random task, reducing the chances of creating a bottleneck from two cores contending for the same task. The researchers tested SprayList on a Fujitsu RX600 S6 server with four 10-core Intel Xeon E7-4870 processors, which supported 80 hardware threads, mimicking an 80-core processor. When used to juggle fewer than eight processing threads, SprayList was slower than a set of more traditional algorithms. However, as more threads were introduced, the performance of the established algorithms leveled out, while SprayList's performance continued to increase linearly, as measured by operations per second. "Users who specifically choose to use a priority queue require that items with the highest priority are selected before items with low priority," says MIT researcher Justin Kopinsky.

Pursuing a Major Advance in Environmental Sensing
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (01/29/15)

A multidisciplinary project at the University of Southampton could lead to a major advance in environmental sensing. Professors Kirk Martinez and Jane Hart plan to combine technologies from the Internet of Things (IoT) in creative ways in a sensor network system. Working with researchers from the University of Dundee, the team will develop the concept for environment sensing and test it in the Cairngorm Mountains, which contain some of Britain's most vulnerable habitats. The concept will involve embedding sensors into the remote and hazardous landscape, enabling live measurement of the environment for the first time throughout the whole year. The goal of the two-year project is to use the cutting-edge technology to observe hydrological, peatland, and frozen ground processes in the mountains. "IoT-inspired sensor networks offer a revolutionary new way of investigating the environment," Martinez says. Hart notes the next stage for sensor network research involves revolutionizing networks' user-friendliness to increase their use by environmental scientists. "We will be carrying out research into turning this new technology into a sensor network that is robust and reliable enough to be used in environmental monitoring," she says.

Building the Next Generation of Efficient Computers
UConn Today (01/28/15) Colin Poitras

University of Connecticut (UConn) researchers say they have discovered new information about the kinetic properties of multiferroic materials, which could be a key breakthrough for scientists looking to create a new generation of low-energy, highly efficient, instant-on computers. The researchers used a powerful atomic force microscopy (AFM) system on a multiferroic compound known as bismuth ferrite and discovered a previously unknown two-step ferroelectric switching process. The breakthrough enabled them to develop a unique spintronic memory device that switches its magnetization with the application of an electric field rather than an electrical current. The researchers say this led to a novel low-energy, highly efficient nonvolatile memory device known as a spin valve that operates at room temperature, and could be a harbinger of the future when it comes to faster, less expensive, and cooler temperature ways for storing and processing data. "By coupling the magnetic and electric fields, we've shown that you can make a more efficient electromagnetic device that will sense a magnetic field change 10 times more efficiently than comparable technologies," says UConn's Bryan Huey. The researchers say they also provided critical data by capturing the steps of the switching process in three dimensions using atomic force microscopy. "By measuring in all three dimensions, we now know the switching steps for every single position, and at the nanoscale," Huey says.

Out of Control AI Will Not Kill Us, Believes Microsoft Research Chief
BBC News (01/28/15)

Microsoft Research chief Eric Horvitz, who recently received the AAAI Feigenbaum Prize for outstanding advances in artificial intelligence (AI) research, thinks AI systems eventually could achieve consciousness, but he doubts they could become a threat to humanity. Several prominent individuals recently have argued otherwise, warning AI could eventually supersede and threaten humanity. However, Horvitz says, "I fundamentally don't think that's going to happen." Many of the teams at the research lab Horvitz runs at Microsoft's Redmond headquarters are devoted to AI, and one division is continuing to develop Microsoft's Cortana, a voice-controlled digital assistant similar to Apple's Siri. Horvitz expects such assistants to be major drivers for innovation in AI. "The next, if not the last, enduring competitive battlefield among major IT companies will be artificial intelligence," he says. Although Horvitz does not see AI posing an existential threat to humanity, he does worry the technology could be a threat to people's privacy. However, he also sees the technology as the potential solution to these very same privacy concerns. "I think that we will be very proactive in terms of how we field AI systems, and that in the end we'll be able to get incredible benefits from machine intelligence in all realms of life, from science to education to economics to daily life," Horvitz says.

Robotics Gets Celebrated With 17 New Projects Under H2020
CORDIS News (01/27/15)

The first projects under the European Union's Horizon 2020 initiative include 13 that focus on the development of industrial and service robots and four that seek to validate more innovative robotic solutions in the real world. The overall vision for the projects is to draw inspiration from humans, overcome limitations of the body, provide support for tedious or difficult tasks, and assist with global challenges. ROBDREAM would have robots reflect on previous experiences during downtime, and Soft-bodied Intelligence for Manipulation and Cognitive Interaction in Motion also will have robots learn from humans. CENTAURO will develop a centaur-like robot that human operators control by means of a full-body telepresence suit relying on augmented reality. RETRAINER would help neurological patients recover arm and hand function, and EUREYECASE would assist surgeons with vitreoretinal eye procedures. FLOURISH would offer precision agricultural techniques to help accommodate the expanding world populace. Other projects would have robots clean up nuclear waste, inspect disaster sites, and survey underwater installations.

IBM's Sophisticated Cryptographic Algorithm Protects Your Identity
Help Net Security (01/28/15)

IBM researchers have developed Identity Mixer, a cloud-based technology that uses an algorithm to encrypt the certified identity attributes of a user in a way that enables the user to reveal only selected pieces to third parties. Identity Mixer can be used within a digital wallet, which contains credentials certified by a trusted third party. "With Identity Mixer now in the cloud, developers have a very strong cryptographic tool that makes privacy practical; it is a piece of software that you can incorporate into any identity management service enabling the service to verify that an individual is an authorized user without revealing any other personal information," says Brown University professor Anna Lysyanskaya. IBM researchers are working with academic and industrial partners in Europe and Australia in the Authentication and Authorization for Entrusted Unions pilot project to demonstrate the cloud version of Identity Mixer. For a pilot test in Germany, 20 test participants will be equipped with sensors for in-home activity and status monitoring. The data gathered from these sensors will be transferred to a dedicated cloud server and analyzed to determine the type of assistance required. A second pilot will support Australia's freedom from exotic diseases, using Identity Mixer to enable secure sharing of sensitive information in a timely matter across remote locations and among collaborating partners.

How a Box Could Solve the Personal Data Conundrum
Technology Review (01/26/15)

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London and the University of Cambridge say they have developed a solution for the problem of safely managing personal information. Their solution is Databox, software that could facilitate a new generation of business models in which both individuals and companies profit from the personal data revolution. Databox is a networked service that collates personal information from all of a user's devices and also can make that data available to organizations the owner permits. Databox gathers information about browsing habits, buying behavior, financial details such as bank statements, email and social media contacts, calendar entries, and a wide range of other factors. The researchers note the system requires a great deal of trust on the part of the user, as well as any company or organization that accesses the data. Databox also must permit controlled access to it, so third parties must be able to selectively query any information the user allows them to access. Meanwhile, the user must be able to control how this data is accessed and be able to change the settings when necessary. There also must be incentives for all those involved to use Databox, such as a mechanism that enables third parties to pay for using the data.

A Robot to Help Improve Agriculture and Wine Production
RUVID Association (01/28/15)

A group of European researchers is developing an unmanned robot, equipped with non-invasive advanced sensors and artificial intelligence systems, to help manage vineyards. The researchers say the robot will provide reliable, fast, and objective information on the state of the vineyards to grapegrowers, such as vegetative development, water status, production, and grape composition. The robot is part of the VineRobot project, which offers a large quantity of automatically obtained data that any user will be able to interpret easily. "Robots like the one we are developing within this project will not substitute the vine grower, but will facilitate their work, so they can avoid the hardest part in field," says University of La Rioja researcher Javier Tardaguila. The first year of development has focused on the robot's mobility in the field and improving its various sensors. In the coming year, the researchers want to give the robot the autonomy to safely drive between the vineyard lines using stereoscopic vision, integrating a side camera that will provide information about the vegetation status of the plants and possible bunches, and also the coupling of the sensors on the robot.

UOIT Gets Funding for Linguistics Research
Oshawa Express (01/27/15)

The Canada Foundation for Innovation wants to explore the importance of data management to Canada, and it has awarded a $55,000 grant to a University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) researcher to study new ways of managing linguistic data. Christopher Collins, UOIT's research chair for linguistic information visualization, and his team will design new analytics in lab, using the latest human-computer gesture-based interface technologies to assess terabyte-scale datasets. Collins says questions abound on how to gain useful insight from the massive and growing volume of language data. He also notes the surging amount of digital information could potentially pose an economic drain on society. "The Canada Foundation for Innovation's support will help us explore new interactive data-mining tools and automated language analysis technologies to help do innovative things such as detecting collective emotions in text," Collins says. In announcing the grant, Federal Minister of State for Science and Technology Ed Holder noted such efforts intend "to push the boundaries of knowledge, create jobs and prosperity, and improve the quality of life of Canadians."

Self-Powered Intelligent Keyboard Could Provide a New Layer of Security
Georgia Tech News Center (01/22/15) John Toon

Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) researchers have developed a self-powered non-mechanical intelligent keyboard that could provide a stronger layer of security for computer users. The self-powered device generates electricity when a user's fingertips contact the multi-layer plastic materials that make up the keyboard. "This intelligent keyboard changes the traditional way in which a keyboard is used for information input," says Georgia Tech professor Zhong Lin Wang. "Every punch of the keys produces a complex electrical signal that can be recorded and analyzed." The intelligent keyboard records each letter touched, and captures information about the amount of force applied to the key and the length of time between one keystroke and the next, which could provide a new biometric for securing computers from unauthorized use. "This has the potential to be a new means for identifying users," Wang says. "With this system, a compromised password would not allow a cybercriminal onto the computer. The way each person types even a few words is individual and unique." The researchers evaluated the authentication potential of the keyboard by asking 104 users to type the word "touch" four times, and recorded the electrical patterns produced. Using signal analysis techniques, they differentiated individual typing patterns with low error rates, Wang says.

The Unique Spatial Firing Patterns of the Hippocampal Place Cells
Phys.Org (01/28/15)

In an interview, University of Maryland professor Anu Aggarwal discusses her research in the use of Bayesian integration by hippocampal place cells to integrate information at a single cell level instead of at a network level as previously theorized. She says her research area is the implementation of hippocampal configuration in silicon and the development of a theoretical computational neuroscience model that defines the hippocampal place cells' distinctive spatial firing patterns. "The hippocampus is involved in spatial navigation and encoding space and time information on new episodic memories, which, if implemented in hardware, can be very useful in autonomous spatial navigation, e.g., in robotics," Aggarwal notes. She reports in a paper the chip measurement outcomes yielded by silicon implementation of a Bayesian integration synapse and conductance neuron, which combined can execute information processing at the single cell scale. "The silicon implementation of place cells is important as it has applications in autonomous spatial navigation and memory," Aggarwal says. She notes the field of neuromorphic engineering is challenged with developing more efficient system building blocks in terms of space and power consumption, and tapping the brain's plasticity to design more adaptable machines. Aggarwal's current focus is on deploying silicon versions of different brain elements to create systems for augmenting autonomous robotic spatial navigation.

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