Welcome to the March 13, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
FCC Sets Net Neutrality Rules
The New York Times (03/12/15) Rebecca R. Ruiz
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Thursday released the details of the new broadband Internet regulations it approved last month. The rules were presented in a 313-page document that includes the rules, their legal justifications, and comments from the commissioners. Immediately upon the document's release, net neutrality advocates and broadband providers began examining it for insight. The new rules do many things beyond reclassifying broadband Internet as a telecommunications service. For example, the rules bar the creation of so-called fast lanes, but also exempt Internet service providers from the sort of price controls typically applied to other public utilities. A provision that is likely to create controversy is one that requires "just and reasonable" conduct from market players, vague wording that effectively enables the FCC to make decisions about what conduct is acceptable on a case-by-case basis. Analyst Roger Entner predicts this provision will inspire businesses to send permission-seeking petitions to the FCC to ensure they are on the right side of the regulations. Northwestern University law professor James B. Speta says that although legal challenges to the new rules are inevitable, they appear to be based on a firm legal foundation. The new rules will go into effect two weeks after they are published in the Federal Register, which could take up to two weeks.
DARPA to Pursue 'Revolutionary' Privacy Tools
Government Computer News (03/12/15)
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is launching the Brandeis project this week, a program aimed at solving the failure of efforts to create a system to enable individuals, enterprises, and government agencies to keep personal and proprietary information private. DARPA wants to develop technologies with "revolutionary" impact that could help bridge privacy gaps that currently hold back collaboration and technology development. "Rather than having to balance these public goods, Brandeis aims to build a third option, enabling safe and predictable sharing of data while reliably preserving privacy," says DARPA program manager John Launchbury. The Brandeis program will be structured as a four-and-a-half year effort, split into three 18-month phases, each of which will result in the demonstration of experimental systems that show privacy technologies at work. The program will focus on four technical areas: privacy-preserving computation, human-data interaction, experimental systems, and metrics and analysis. Privacy-preserving computation will address the limits of current computational privacy methods so future system designers can use them as flexible building blocks in practical systems, while human-data interaction aims to develop tools and techniques to give data owners a way to decide how their data should be used. Experimental systems are designed to test the ideas of privacy-preserving computation and human-data interaction.
Innovative MOOCs Take Learning in New Directions
Campus Technology (03/11/15) Dian Schaffhauser
A pair of new massive open online course (MOOC) projects at the University of Michigan and Harvard University are exploring new applications for MOOCs at educational institutions. The University of Michigan, through its ties to Coursera, has begun producing MOOCs in Mandarin for the China market, starting with "Model of Thinking." James DeVaney, assistant vice provost of digital education and innovation at the university, says the Chinese-language MOOCs are unlikely to perform any differently out of the gate than their English-language counterparts, but he says their true value will manifest in several years' time in the data they generate. DeVaney says the data will help the university craft more effective MOOCs and inform faculty's in-person educational efforts. Meanwhile, the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) has been experimenting with offering MOOCs to alumni as a way to keep them engaged with the university. The HAA has begun offering alumni what they call "small private online courses" (SPOC), a new one every two weeks, which include lectures and other content from Harvard faculty covering topics ranging from neuroscience and poetry to history and computer science. The SPOCs have proven very popular with alumni. Some regional Harvard alumni clubs have even organized discussion programs around the SPOCs.
Researchers Develop "Visual Turing Test"
News from Brown (03/11/15) Kevin Stacey
Researchers at Brown and Johns Hopkins universities have developed a "visual Turing Test" that can evaluate how well computers understand information taken from images. The system is designed to test for a contextual understanding of photos and works by generating a series of yes or no questions about an image, which are posed to the system being tested. Each question is progressively more in-depth and based on the responses to the questions that have already been asked. The questions are geared toward measuring the computer's understanding of the contextual "storyline" of the photo. "You can build this notion of a storyline about an image by the order in which the questions are explored," says Brown professor Stuart Geman. The system is more objective than having a person ask a computer about an image because the questions themselves are computer-generated. However, a human is required to tell the test system when a question is unanswerable because of the ambiguities of the photo. Geman says the test could lead to new ways of teaching computers how to look at images.
Optical Fibers Light the Way for Brain-Like Computing
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (03/10/15)
Optical fibers made of specialty glass could be used to build computers that function like the human brain, according to researchers at the University of Southampton and Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Chalcogenides are special fibers made from glasses that are sensitive to light. The team has demonstrated how the material properties of chalcogenides can be exploited to reproduce the neural networks and synapses in the brain, with optical pulses as information carriers. The range of functions include holding a neural resting state and simulating the changes in electrical activity in a nerve cell as it is stimulated. The changing properties of the glass act as the varying electrical activity in a nerve cell, and light provides the stimulus to change these properties. This enables switching of a light signal, which is the equivalent to a nerve cell firing. The finding could lead to faster and smarter optical computers capable of learning and evolving. "This work implies that 'cognitive' photonic devices and networks can be effectively used to develop non-Boolean computing and decision-making paradigms that mimic brain functionalities and signal protocols, to overcome bandwidth and power bottlenecks of traditional data processing," says NTU professor Cesare Soci.
Making Search Engines Understand Math
EE Times (03/10/15) Bernard Cole
Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) researchers have developed Tangent, a search engine that makes it practical to retrieve information based on mathematical terms. Tangent enables users to search for formulas by entering them in the LaTeX scientific markup language, or by drawing the formula. The search engine is built on top of the Solr open source search platform, and the researchers say it can retrieve an average of 28,000 relevant results in 2.2 seconds. However, the researchers "plan to continue scaling our search engine up and make it faster," says RIT associate professor Richard Zanibbi. At a recent information retrieval competition in Japan, Tangent produced the best results for formula search and had the highest percentage of "relevant" hits. The RIT approach uses an inverted index technique, similar to that of existing text-based search engines. However, instead of finding the location of text and storing the information in a database index, Tangent uses an inverted index to map pairs of symbols in a particular mathematical equation and store the data in a symbol layout tree that contains information about position. "For many people, visual elements are the anchor for understanding how to organize things, especially with math," Zanibbi says. "We can't just rely on text-based math, we need an intuitive search engine for visual math."
Googlers' Epic Hack Exploits How Memory Leaks Electricity
Wired News (03/10/15) Andy Greenberg
The increasing density of transistors in memory chips has raised concerns that electromagnetic leakage within the chips could cause unpredictable behavior. Now, a team of Google researchers has demonstrated a method of inducing such leakage to purposefully corrupt portions of the dynamic random access memory (DRAM) of certain laptops and bypass security protections. In a post on Google's Project Zero blog, the researchers describe using what is known as the "Rowhammer" technique to create security exploits. Rowhammering involves running a program designed to target a certain row of transistors in a computer's memory with the goal of inducing electromagnetic leakage that will cause the bits in the next row of memory to be flipped. The researchers found they could use the Rowhammer technique to carry out privilege escalation attacks and that such attacks could be launched from a malicious website. However, the researchers note they used only laptops running Linux, and of those only half were susceptible to the Rowhammer attacks. In addition, many computers already use DRAM that has error-correcting features that would render a Rowhammer attack useless. Google has released a tool enabling users to test their computers to see if they are vulnerable to a Rowhammer attack, and is urging memory makers to address the problem.
Security Risks and Privacy Issues Are Too Great for Moving the Ballot Box to the Internet
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (03/09/15) Don Johnston
Thirty-three U.S. states currently allow or have experimented with some type of online voting, says Lawrence Livermore Center for Applied Scientific Computing researcher David Jefferson. With email voting, the voter's ballot, identification, and legal affirmation are transmitted as attachments to an email message. Jefferson says all email voting systems are vulnerable to attack, and can be secretly manipulated in transit by any information technology person who controls relays, routers, or servers through which the email travels. Newer Internet voting architectures are Web-based systems somewhat like e-commerce transactions, but can still be vulnerable to malicious activity, including client-side malware and denial-of-service (DOS) attacks. "Internet elections are essentially impossible to audit and there's no meaningful way to recount because there are no original indelible records of the voters' intent against which to compare the outcome," Jefferson notes. Some experimental voting systems that have yet to be deployed use end-to-end auditable cryptographic protocols. However, they also have vulnerabilities, such as the inability to address remote voter authentication and malware and DOS attacks. They also do not totally protect vote privacy or prevent automated vote selling, Jefferson says. "In addition, no one but cryptographers understands how these systems work, and that's a problem for maintaining voter trust in a democracy," he notes.
Guaranteeing Online Anonymity
Homeland Security News Wire (03/12/15)
Researchers at the Research Center for IT Security (CISPA) have developed a program that can provide an accurate assessment of the level of online anonymity an individual user achieves, even while basing the estimate on the fluctuations of the Tor network, which is one of the most popular tools for online anonymization services. Since the start of 2015, more than 2 million users have used Tor to anonymize their Internet connection data. However, Tor is not perfect because unanticipated attacks at the network level can endanger anonymity, and the degree of anonymity the network achieves is highly variable, according to CISPA researcher Esfandiar Mohammadi. In an attempt to solve this issue, Mohammadi helped develop a program that can provide an accurate assessment of the level of anonymity an individual user achieves. The technique, called MATor, is based on a mathematical model that the researchers extended to include different categories of possible attacks. The program performs its calculations using data that is aggregated once an hour and published on the network immediately. In addition, MATor takes the specifics of the respective Internet connection into account, as well as the individual configurations of the Tor software, says Saarland University researcher Sebastian Meiser.
AP Computer Science Principles Draw Arts Students Into Computational Thinking in Alabama
National Science Foundation (03/06/15) Aaron Dubrow; Katie Hendrickson
Alabama in 2013 began to allow Computer Science Principles (CSP) and Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science to count as a math credit for students' graduation requirements. Previously, computer science had been viewed as an elective that did not contribute to graduation requirements, as is the case in about half of the school districts in the U.S. Now the computer science classes are filled with arts students, who focus on creative, writing, dance, music, theater, and visual arts. "The old, mathematically-based, computing problems are not very exciting to students who use a smartphone and the Internet every day," says Alabama School of Fine Arts computer science teacher Carol Yarbrough. The students use CSP to learn computing in a context that is exciting to them, which enables them to see how computing affects their lives. The art students have embraced CSP because they are able to use math and computer programs to express their creativity, according to Yarbrough. The arts students embrace open-ended creative projects that could be frustrating to students who are more focused on math and science. Nearly half of the students taking CSP courses are young women or underrepresented minorities, compared to the 19 percent female and 12 percent underrepresented minorities who took the AP Computer Science exam last year.
States and Cities Try Smarter Signals to Reduce Red Lights
Stateline.org (03/11/15) Jenni Bergal
States and cities across the U.S. are turning to technology to improve traffic flow on chronically congested streets. Many already make use of roadway sensors, cameras, and radar to get real-time data about how many cars are on the road and how fast they are moving. The data is most often fed to traffic engineers who manually make changes to traffic light patterns to improve traffic flow. Utah has one of the most impressive such systems, with cameras, radar, and road sensors delivering real-time data on traffic conditions around the state to the Utah Department of Transportation. However, Utah, like other states and cities, is now exploring the use of adaptive traffic technologies that feed all of the data into algorithms that use it to make predictions about traffic flow and adjust traffic light timing to compensate. There also are more advanced technologies in the works. For example, vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems are being developed that enable vehicles to inform each other of their speed and position, but they also could communicate with traffic signals. These systems could enable the vehicle to provide the driver with information such as how soon the light is going to change or what speed to maintain to hit the fewest red lights, all of which could help reduce congestion.
Watch What You Say
The Economist (03/07/15)
Mu'tah University researcher Ahmad Hassanat is developing a computerized system that can analyze the shapes human lips make as they produce different sounds. These shapes, called visemes, have been difficult to analyze because there are dozens of visemes for the 40 to 50 sounds that make up the English language. Hassanat is developing a system that can detect the visual signature of entire words, using the appearance of the tongue and teeth as well as the lips. He trained the system by filming 10 women and 16 men of different ethnicities as they read passages of text. First, the computer compared the recordings with a text it knew, and tried to guess what the volunteers were saying in a second video. When the system was allowed to use the same person's training speech, it was able to identify about 75 percent of the words spoken. However, when the person's original training video was excluded from the analysis, the program's accuracy fell to 33 percent on average. Separately, Waseda University researcher Yasuhiro Oikawa in 2013 filmed a speaker's throat with a high-speed camera, measuring the tiny vibrations in the skin caused by the act of speaking. Oikawa says the precise frequencies of the vibrations could be used to reconstruct the word being spoken.
Domitilla Del Vecchio Bridges Math, Engineering, and Biology
MIT News (03/09/15) David L. Chandler
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Domitilla Del Vecchio's entire career has been building toward her current research focusing on developing biological circuits. Del Vecchio earned her undergraduate and master's degrees in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Rome. She then went to the California Institute of Technology for her Ph.D., which involved facilitating collaboration between robots and humans carrying out tasks together. As part of the automation research, Del Vecchio mathematically characterized the concept of "movemes," small units of action that could be analyzed and strung together to build up a useful sequence of activity. After earning her doctorate, Del Vecchio went to the University of Michigan to continue her research on robotic control systems, which included developing algorithms to guide automated vehicles through real-world traffic. At Michigan, Del Vecchio began working collaboratively with biologists to build circuits in cells. "That I found to be extremely exciting, trying to understand principles for engineering circuits in a cell, just like we do in electrical engineering," Del Vecchio says. In 2010, Del Vecchio left to join MIT because she was attracted to the strong program in synthetic biology and biological engineering. She has since co-authored a paper describing a significant advance toward making biological circuits practical.
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