Welcome to the February 4, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
School Leaders Mostly Mystified by Computer Science Education
THE Journal (02/02/15) Dian Schaffhauser
A disparity exists in the type of computer science (CS) education available to students in higher- versus lower-income schools, according to a new Oracle Academy survey of U.S. teachers administered by the Computer Science Teachers Association. The survey of more than 500 secondary school teachers found that 77.5 percent reported their schools offered CS courses, although this could refer to anything from business management to robotics courses. However, only 60 percent of those schools where a majority of students qualified for free or reduced lunch offered CS courses, compared to 80 percent of more prosperous schools. The numbers were similar for extracurricular CS programs, as only 40 percent of poorer schools offered such programs compared to 100 percent of the wealthier schools. The broad range of subjects considered computer science was another problem, as was the fact that only 40 percent of schools permitted a CS class to count towards a requirement in math, science, or technology. The report made a number of suggestions, including that CS courses be counted towards math or science credits and graduation requirements, and that schools work together to establish common standards for the CS curriculum.
In Net Neutrality Push, FCC Is Expected to Propose Regulating Internet Service as a Utility
The New York Times (02/02/15) Steve Lohr
Experts and insiders widely expect the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to propose regulating Internet service as a utility, a move advocated by many, including President Barack Obama. The expected proposal would reclassify high-speed Internet service as a telecommunications service rather than an information service under Title II of the Communications Act, which would give the FCC stronger legal authority to regulate Internet service. The proposal is expected to be put forward by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who insiders believe will advocate a light-touch approach to Title II regulation, similar to that used by the FCC to regulate mobile voice services in the early 1990s. Wheeler also is expected to include mobile data services in the proposal alongside high-speed Internet services. The FCC is not expected to release a copy of the proposal before it is voted on later this month. Wheeler had previously advocated a regulatory scheme that would have allowed Internet service providers to make deals with content providers to improve their service as long as they were "commercially reasonable," but that proposal was met with strong criticism. President Obama's public call for Title II regulation in November is seen as being responsible for Wheeler's change of heart.
Researchers Determine How the Brain Controls Robotic Grasping Tools
University of Missouri (02/02/15) Jeff Sossamon
University of Missouri (MU) researchers suggest the cerebellum may play a critical role in controlling assistive robots for the disabled. "We found that the brain didn't necessarily evolve to control modern robotic arms, but rather the cerebellum, an ancient portion of our brain that has remained relatively unchanged, plays a vital role in helping us reach and grasp with these tools--often with only minimal training," says MU professor Scott Frey. As part of the study, participants completed a series of ordinary reaching and grasping tasks involving colored wooden blocks, and regions of the brain were monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Participants were then introduced to a robotic arm that performed the same reaching and grasping tasks when they pressed specific buttons. Finally, participants were told that the next day's tasks would involve controlling the robot remotely by video feed from within an MRI scanner. "After subjects learned that pressing one button would result in grasping objects with a robotic arm, this same movement resulted in a dramatically different pattern of brain activity than pressing an identical button known by them to have no effect on the robot’s behavior," Frey says. The findings suggest the cerebellum might be a potential target for brain-controlled interfaces.
Report on the White House Announcement on the Precision Medicine Initiative
CCC Blog (02/02/15) Beth Mynatt
U.S. President Barack Obama's recent announcement of the White House's Precision Medicine Initiative includes a $215-million request for research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Cancer Institute, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), writes Georgia Institute of Technology professor Beth Mynatt. NIH would be allocated $130 million to establish a national database of 1 million volunteer donors who will have their genetic profiles studied, while the National Cancer Institute would receive $70 million to study genetic causes of cancer. In addition, the FDA would receive $10 million toward boosting its knowledge of individualized therapy to better regulate the field, and $5 million for building the computing and privacy elements of the genetic-data network. Mynatt notes there appears to be bipartisan support for the initiative, based on the pledge to trim healthcare costs by reducing ineffective treatments and promoting growth in value-based care. She says the integrated modeling and simulation of genetic data and disease, as well as machine-learning approaches for identifying sub-cohorts of patients who share specific traits that may be amenable to genetic therapies, present clear opportunities for computing researchers. However, Mynatt cautions the initiative did not spotlight the potential incorporation of environmental, behavioral, and psychological data in the development of personalized healthcare interventions.
Graphene Displays Clear Prospects for Flexible Electronics
University of Manchester (02/02/15) Ben Robinson
University of Manchester and University of Sheffield researchers have demonstrated that new two-dimensional (2D) designer materials can be produced to create flexible, transparent, and more efficient electronic devices. The research shows graphene and other 2D materials could be used to create light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for the next-generation of electronics, making them incredibly thin, flexible, durable, and even semi-transparent. The LED device was built by integrating different 2D crystals, and it emits light from across its entire surface. "We envisage a new generation of optoelectronic devices to stem from this work, from simple transparent lighting and lasers and to more complex applications," says University of Manchester researcher Freddie Withers. Using these heterostructures to create bespoke functionality and the introduction of quantum wells to control the movement of electrons could result in new possibilities for graphene-based optoelectronics, reports the University of Manchester's Sir Kostya Novoselov. "The range of functionalities for the demonstrated heterostructures is expected to grow further on increasing the number of available 2D crystals and improving their electronic quality," he says.
Creating a Responsive, Energy Efficient Computing Cloud
CORDIS News (01/30/15)
A project that seeks to make the cloud computing environment more energy-efficient is now researching the power consumption of software systems and the accurate sizing of data centers, according to information technology researchers at a recent symposium on software performance in Stuttgart, Germany. The consortium behind the European Union-funded CACTOS (Context-Aware Cloud Topology Optimisation and Simulation) project also plans to collect data on the actual use of the cloud infrastructure to help prioritize resources. The effort's objective is to deliver a set of tools and methods to help data center operators analyze hardware and software behavior and overall infrastructure performance. All operations carried out in a cloud environment are being mapped, so workloads can be attributed to the most suitable resources, which means data can be transmitted to the best-fitting data center at a given time. In the event of failure, the next-best matching place will be automatically detected and the workload rerouted. The researchers highlighted several tools including CactoSim, which enables users to simulate optimization models, predict the behavior of applications on different resources, and validate and improve models. The ability to model and adopt the best configuration to specific needs should enable data managers to lower costs and achieve greater energy efficiency.
Reengineering Privacy, Post-Snowden
Harvard University (01/28/15) Caroline Perry
Privacy experts from across business, government, and academia recently gathered at Harvard University for the fourth annual Symposium on the Future of Computation in Science and Engineering to address "Privacy in a Networked World." One of the issues discussed was the inherent vulnerability of the multitude of legacy systems that underlie everything from email and social networks to search engines, e-commerce, and electronic medical records. U.S. Federal Trade Commission chief technology officer Latanya Sweeney warned all of these systems are "headed for a major disaster." Bruce Schneier and Edward Snowden, calling from Moscow, discussed the controversy surrounding surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Schneier said one of the problems is that because all nations today share common communications technology, NSA's efforts to spy on only certain targets gives them the ability to spy on everyone. Schneier also noted today's Internet is "built for surveillance," with advertisers and others routinely tracking Internet users. Snowden advocated for the widespread use of cryptography to secure individuals' data, while Cynthia Dwork, co-creator of differential privacy, said there are limits to what cryptography can secure. Dwork called for ethical, policy, and business solutions to secure new and emerging technologies that can monitor people's moods, among other things.
BitTorrent Tests Websites Hosted in the Crowd, Not the Cloud
Technology Review (01/28/15) Tom Simonite
BitTorrent is testing Project Maelstrom, an experimental Web browser that makes it possible for sites to be hosted by a shifting crowd of individuals on their personal computers. Project Maelstrom has developed a modified version of Chromium, the open source version of Google's Chrome browser. The browser can access conventional websites, but it also can be used to publish and browse websites that do not reside on any particular server. Project Maelstrom accesses those sites by grabbing the data from the browsers of people who are already viewing it or have recently visited the site. The browser's peer-to-peer method makes it possible to efficiently deal with large crowds and provide resistance against denial-of-service attacks that shut down sites by bombarding them with traffic, according to BitTorrent's Rob Velasquez. When a new torrent site is published, the browser of the first person to visit must retrieve it from the computer of the person who created it. Then the third person to visit the site can draw the data from two sources, and as more and more users visit the site, the number of sources grows accordingly. The Maelstrom technology could appeal to entertainment artists and publishers as a way to efficiently distribute their content. University of California, Irvine professor Sharad Mehrotra notes it also might provide a way to keep vital online information flowing in an emergency.
Faster Raspberry Pi Brings Low-Price Computing Power to Education
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (02/02/15) Stephen Harris
The latest version of Raspberry Pi is six times faster than its predecessor and delivers the same amount of power as a standard personal computer. The extremely low price point was the biggest challenge, says Raspberry Pi Foundation founder Eben Upton. The Foundation promotes credit card-sized Raspberry Pi computers as an affordable tool that children can use to learn programming. Priced at about $35, the Raspberry 2 has four times as many processor cores and twice as much memory as its predecessor, and can run the new Windows 10. Upton says the other challenge was moving from a package-on-package system, in which the memory was part of the main system-on-chip, to a discrete system with a separate chip that could provide more memory but that required a more complex way of communicating with the rest of the computer. "There was a lot of exciting engineering went on at the silicon level," he says. Children will be able to do more with the new model, from creating more complex games to controlling robots. "The objective was always to give kids the power to do what they dream," says Raspberry Pi hardware designer Pete Lomas.
German Professor Develops Method to Secure IoT Smart Device Data
eWeek (02/01/15) Wayne Rash
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology professor Martina Zitterbart is developing a way to hide data transmitted on the many smart devices that will run on the Internet of Things. The main problem involves finding a way to share necessary information with organizations that collect data, providing the requisite information to interact with consumers while maintaining security and privacy. Zitterbart has developed a methodology in which usage data is anonymized by combining total usage with that of several nearby users, adding a random number, and then dividing that total by the number of users. The method ensures that no single number being reported is the same as their actual usage, and because of the random number, their actual number cannot be easily determined. The method gives organizations "exactly the information they need but not more," Zitterbart says. The researchers are still working on solutions that limit the amount of data sharing that takes place. "We are playing around with not having such central solutions but having self-organized ways," Zitterbart says.
UCSB Hackathon Draws Participants, Sponsors From Across State
Daily Nexus (CA) (02/02/15) Juliet Bachtel; Addie Burk
SB Hacks' first annual University of California, Santa Barbara Hackathon saw hundreds of students from across California participate in an expo to showcase the projects they worked on throughout the weekend to compete for prizes. The hackathon took place over 36 hours and included competitive computer coding and coding based-workshops during which more than 500 participants from schools all over California were put into small groups to create projects that qualified them to win cash or tech-gadget prizes. SB Hacks also held a series of educational tech talks to introduce participants to new topics in computer science and to assist hackers with project challenges that had arisen over the course of the competition. The talks covered a wide range of topics, including a discussion on game design and workshops for platforms such as Cydia, eSports, and Angular, and for teaching Swift, an iOS programming language used to design applications. University of California, Los Angeles computer science major Dee Chen was part of a team that created a portable paper piano for learning how to play piano, while West College computer science major David Anderson's team created a device to monitor the oxygen consumption rate in a person's heart.
Shopping Through the Lens of IT
Penn State News (01/28/15) Katie Jacobs
Pennsylvania State University (PSU) researchers are studying how smart cameras could eventually guide visually-impaired shoppers to find the items they need. The researchers are using a $10-million U.S. National Science Foundation grant to replicate the human vision system using information technology as part of the Visual Cortex on Silicon project. "This project brings together the strengths and efforts of technical leaders in multiple disciplines," says PSU professor Vijaykrishnan Narayanan. Visual Cortex on Silicon aims to create sophisticated smart cameras that will replicate or surpass the abilities of the human vision system so they can can interpret complex scenes and complete complicated tasks while using less than 20 watts of power, according to the researchers. Researchers are hoping the cameras will not only record images, but also interpret them. For example, the cameras will not just identify an item as a jar of peanut butter, but also be able to determine whether it is the kind the user requires. The cameras will be used in mobile devices, meaning energy efficiency is key to fitting a complex system into a small piece of hardware. The researchers are also examining using haptic sensors, which give tactile feedback through vibration.
Microsoft Ecologists Compute Future of the Planet
Business Weekly (01/27/15) Kate Sweeney
Environmentally focused computer scientists at Microsoft Research Cambridge will discuss their work at an upcoming agriculture technology summit in the United Kingdom. The focus of the Computational Ecology and Environmental Science Group's research and software development has been improving the predictive modeling of environmental processes and delivering environmental information. For example, the group has developed a fast and intelligent service for retrieving climate information for any geographic region. The researchers also developed new process-based agricultural models for wheat and maize, which can be calibrated to predict crop properties using heterogeneous datasets that include satellite imagery, historical ground-based data, and live feeds from devices. Overall, the aim is to develop the new concepts, methods, and software tools needed to produce useful predictive models of ecological systems. "Now we're looking to get some of these systems trialed to establish whether we can provide genuine impact for businesses," says computational scientist Matthew Smith.
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