Welcome to the February 13, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
Please note: In observance of the Presidents' Day holiday, TechNews will not be published on Monday, Feb. 16. Publication will resume Wednesday, Feb. 18.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Vint Cerf Warns of 'Digital Dark Age'
BBC News (02/13/15) Pallab Ghosh
Former ACM president Vint Cerf, one of the pioneers of Internet technology and now a vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, worries about a forthcoming "digital Dark Age" in which the rapid pace of technological advancement will leave behind mountains of data people will no longer be able to access. "Old formats of documents that we've created or presentations may not be readable by the latest version of the software because backwards compatibility is not always guaranteed," Cerf said at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Cerf's proposed solution to the problem is taking an "X-ray snapshot" of data, which includes not just the information but also descriptions of the application, operating system, and hardware it runs on. He says this digital snapshot would then be uploaded to the cloud where it could, in theory, live on in perpetuity. Cerf says ensuring such data could be read by future generations will require a standardized description, which he calls "digital vellum." He notes such techniques already have been demonstrated by Carnegie Mellon University's Mahadev Satyanarayanan. Cerf says the technique is "not without its rough edges, but the major concept has been shown to work."
Obama Heads to Tech Security Talks Amid Tensions
The New York Times (02/12/15) David E. Sanger; Nicole Perlroth
President Barack Obama is meeting with several top U.S. technologists at Stanford University today to discuss cybersecurity issues, but many expect the meeting to be tempered by growing tensions between the tech industry and the government. The revelations of U.S. cyber-espionage activities by Edward Snowden have brought major U.S. tech companies in conflict with the government as they seek to maximize the security of their products in the face of government desires for backdoor access and secret keys for surveillance purposes. Companies such as Google and Apple have made no secret of their desire to apply strong encryption to their products, which would make it impossible for anyone, include the government, to easily spy on them. Some, such as Google, have directly challenged the government by setting out to whittle away at the government's stockpile of zero-day security exploits. However, these firms also are looking to the government for help fighting off hackers and cyber-spies and strengthening protections against the theft of intellectual property. Many are pessimistic about the chances of relations between the government and the tech sector improving. Herb Lin, a cybersecurity expert who spent 20 years at the National Academy of Sciences, says, "the relationship has been poisoned, and it's not going to recover anytime soon."
NASA Rides Artificial Intelligence to the Moon and Mars
Computerworld (02/11/15) Sharon Gaudin
The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) many probes and rovers offer scientists unique opportunities to study the solar system, but with limited flight and operation times, scheduling as many experiments and observations as possible can be difficult. Stephen Smith, an artificial intelligence (AI) researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, notes it took "something like 300,000 man-hours" to schedule two weeks of observations during NASA's Jupiter fly-by. However, the space agency now is using AI to make this job easier. NASA used an AI system to help its scientists schedule the observations of the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer in the fall of 2013. That system was ground-based and used by flight controllers to construct and send commands to the lunar space-craft. "The more complicated missions get and the farther away spacecraft get, the harder it gets for the normal ways of doing business," says John Bresina, a computer scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center. "AI is one of the ways you can deal with that issue." Smith says complex scheduling tasks can prove overwhelming for human actors, but AI is perfectly suited to the task.
Data Storage for Eternity
ETH Zurich (02/13/15) Angelika Jacobs
ETH Zurich researchers say they have found a way to store information for more than a million years by encapsulating the information-bearing segments of DNA in glass and then using an algorithm to correct mistakes in the data. Two years ago, researchers discovered that genetic material found in fossilized bones several hundreds of thousands of years old could be isolated and analyzed if it has been encapsulated and protected. The ETH Zurich researchers encapsulated the DNA in silica spheres with a diameter of about 150 nanometers, and stored it at a temperature of 60 to 70 degrees Celsius for up to a month, replicating within a few weeks the chemical degradation that takes place over hundreds of years. This method enables the researchers to compare the storage of DNA in a sheath of silica glass with other common storage techniques. The researchers found the DNA encapsulated in the glass shell was particularly robust, and the information can be read by separating it from the silica glass with a fluoride solution. However, the data also must be able to be read free of error. The researchers developed a scheme to correct errors based on the Reed-Solomon Codes, which are similar to those used in the transmission of data over long distances.
How to Interest Girls in Computer Science and Engineering? Shift the Stereotypes
UW Today (02/11/15) Deborah Bach
Inaccurate stereotypes depicting computer scientists and engineers as geeky, brilliant, and socially awkward males are the key culprits in the underrepresentation of women in computer science and engineering, and broadening those stereotypes is important to attracting more girls to the two fields, according to a University of Washington study. Although women earn about 50 percent of undergraduate degrees in biological sciences, they obtain only 18 percent of computer science degrees. In addition, misconceptions about girls' ability in math take hold as early as second grade, and combine with stereotypes about the culture of the two fields as being incompatible with traits associated with women, such as a desire to work with and help others, according to the study. "Our work uncovers a kind of double whammy that discourages women from the field--a combination of false stereotypes about women's abilities, coupled with a narrow view of the culture of the field and who can be successful computer scientists," says study co-author Andrew Meltzoff. The researchers tested how these stereotypes affected young women by having female undergraduates talk to actors about their studies and interests. Three male and three female actors were used, and all said they were computer science majors. Half of the actors were instructed to fit the stereotypes of computer science majors. Afterwards, the students paired with the stereotypical actors were significantly less interested in majoring in computer science.
A Crypto Trick That Makes Software Nearly Impossible to Reverse Engineer
Wired News (02/11/15) Andy Greenberg
SyScan security researcher Jacob Torrey has developed Hardened Anti-Reverse Engineering Systems (HARES), a scheme that encrypts software so it is only decrypted by the computer's processor at the last possible moment before the code is executed. Torrey says the HARES scheme prevents reverse-engineering tools from reading the decrypted code as it is being run. "It protects software algorithms from reverse engineering, and it prevents software from being mined for vulnerabilities that can be turned into exploits," he says. HARES uses a hardware trick called a Translation Lookaside Buffer (TLB) Split, which segregates the portion of a computer's memory where a program stores its data from the portion where it stores its own code's instructions. HARES keeps everything in that "instructions" portion of memory encrypted so it can only be decrypted with a key that is stored in the computer's processor. "You can specifically say that encrypted memory shall not be accessed from other regions that aren't encrypted," says Lab Mouse Security researcher Don Andrew Bailey. Many hackers use a reverse-engineering technique called "fuzzing," which involves entering random data into the program with the goal of causing it to crash, and then analyzing the crashes to locate more serious exploitable vulnerabilities. However, Torrey notes using that technique on a program encrypted with HARES would render the crashes completely unexplainable.
Legislators Want Computer Science to Count for Language Requirement
Campus Technology (02/09/15) Dian Schaffhauser
A bipartisan bill introduced by legislators in Washington State would count two years of computer science toward the foreign language requirement for purposes of admission into college in the state. A similar effort in Kentucky last year cleared the state's Senate and is now undergoing further work before the House educational subcommittee. Only 40 percent of high schools count credits earned in a computer science class toward requirements, while the rest treat such courses as electives, according to a recent study by the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA). In the report, CSTA recommends counting computer science courses toward graduation requirements. The proposal to expand computer science education would help prepare students for jobs in high tech, says Washington state legislator Chris Reykdal, co-sponsor of the bill. "It strikes me that we don't give kids a meaningful shot in getting some computer science basics before they go to university," he says. Co-sponsor Chad Magendanz also is promoting a bipartisan proposal to expand computer science education to ready students for careers in high tech. "If we give more children access to computer science learning now, they'll have greater opportunities in the future," he says.
Researcher Receives $1 Million NSF Grant to Devise New Supercomputing Model
Texas Tech Today (02/10/15) John Davis
Texas Tech University professor Yong Chen has received a $1-million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation to create a faster and improved method for supercomputing. Chen will lead a team of researchers to develop a new concept called "compute on data path" that seeks to achieve data-centric computing. The approach would assimilate and analyze more and different types of data used in scientific discovery and do so all at once. "This is more how an investigation to see whether a new concept is feasible and whether a change can be made to the current software stack to make it a more data-centric way to have significantly better productivity in scientific discovery," Chen says. He notes as data volume grows over time in the existing computing-centric model, the data flows heavily into the computer system, creating a bottleneck of information. In contrast, Chen says his approach will "model computations and data as objects and move the computation objects to the data objects instead of moving the data to the computations."
Automating the Data Scientists
Technology Review (02/13/15) Tom Simonite
Researchers at the University of Cambridge and Google are developing software that could automate some of the work performed by data scientists, with the goal of making sophisticated data skills more widely available. The "automated statistician" software receives raw data and creates a report that uses words and charts to describe the mathematical trends it finds. "It's not meant to replace exactly what a statistician would do, but it can help a lot," says Cambridge professor Zoubin Ghahramani. For example, the system was given a decade of data on air travel, and it produced a nine-page report with four mathematical explanations for trends seen in the data that could be used to produce forecasts. The software utilizes a large collection of statistical techniques, which can be combined to create different mathematical models. First, the software tries out the simplest of those methods on the data, and then selects the ones that best explain the data for another round of experimentation, adding more mathematical techniques to see what happens. Finally, the best model is used to generate the report.
With Google Glass App Developed at UCLA, Scientists Can Analyze Plants' Health in Seconds
UCLA Newsroom (CA) (02/09/15) Shaun Mason
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers have developed a Google Glass application that enables the wearer to quickly analyze the health of a plant without damaging it. The app analyzes the concentration of chlorophyll, which indicates water, soil, and air quality. Conventional methods for measuring chlorophyll concentration involve removing some of the plant's leaves, dissolving them in a chemical solvent, and then performing the chemical analysis. With the new Google Glass app, leaves are examined and then left functional and intact. The system relies on an image captured by the Google Glass camera to measure the chlorophyll's light absorption in the green part of the optical spectrum. The system also has a handheld illuminator unit that can be produced using three-dimensional printing. The user controls the device with the Google Glass touch control pad or with the voice command feature. The system photographs the leaf and wirelessly sends an enhanced image to a remote server, which processes the data from the image and sends back a chlorophyll concentration reading in less than 10 seconds. "This will allow a scientist to get readings walking from plant to plant in a field of crops, or look at many different plants in a drought-plagued area and accumulate plant health data very quickly," says UCLA professor Aydogan Ozcan.
Smartphone App Tracks Students' Class Attendance Automatically
Missouri S&T News (02/06/15) Joe McCune
Facial-recognition algorithms power a new smartphone app that will enable college instructors to take classroom attendance more effectively and efficiently. Students will no longer be able to sign in for a friend who did not make it to class, says Missouri University of Science & Technology professor Zhaozheng Yin. The app works by moving the smartphone in a sweeping motion across the room and taking a few seconds of video to capture all students present. The initial video is stored and then is used to compare subsequent classes, enabling the app to automatically record attendance. Yin developed the original facial-recognition algorithms with student Xunxiang Mao. "In the future product, this can be integrated with learning-management systems, and parents can monitor them," Yin says. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps has provided Yin with a $50,000-grant to broaden the research of a previous NSF grant to investigate social intelligent computing, and the professor is exploring other potential applications for the facial-recognition algorithms.
Security Gaps Found in 39,890 Online Databases Containing Customer Data
Saarland University (02/10/15)
Researchers at Saarland University's Center for IT-Security, Privacy, and Accountability (CISPA) have found that anyone can call up or modify several million pieces of customer data online, including names, addresses, and emails, because of a misconfigured open source database upon which millions of online stores and platforms base their services. Three CISPA students were able to demonstrate this vulnerability for 40,000 online databases in Germany and France. If the operators stick to the defaults in the installation process and do not consider important details, the data is available online and completely unprotected, according to the CISPA researchers. The flaw currently affects 39,890 online databases. "The databases are accessible online without being protected by any defensive mechanism," says Saarland professor Michael Backes. "You even have the permissions to update and change data. Hence we assume that the databases were not left open on purpose." The researchers informed the database vendors, as well as international computer emergency response teams. "A database unprotected like this is similar to a public library with a wide open entrance door and without any librarian," Backes warns. "Everybody can enter."
Cynthia Breazeal: Social Robotics Pioneer. MIT Lab Leader. Proud Mom
TechRepublic (02/06/15) Lyndsey Gilpin
In an interview, Cynthia Breazeal, director of the robotics lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and creator of the crowdsourced Jibo family robot, explores her life and career. Breazeal was the child of scientists and became captivated by robotics after seeing Star Wars at the age of 10. Her first encounter with robotics was at the University of California, Santa Barbara when she was studying electrical and computer engineering. After reading an article about planetary rovers, she pursued graduate studies in space robotics at MIT. She reports being amazed by her first visit to the MIT robotics lab, and after reading about the success of the Sojourner probe on Mars she began to wonder about what applications robots might have closer to home and became engrossed in social robotics. She says creating a robot capable of navigating the social landscape of a home is arguably much more complicated than designing a robot to navigate the Martian landscape, and it was more than a decade before Breazeal decided to pursue Jibo. She views Jibo as a platform that enables people to interact with technology in a social context rather than having to devote their attention to a device such as a smartphone.
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