Welcome to the April 1, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Stanford Crypto Expert Dan Boneh Wins $175K Computer Science Award
Network World (03/31/15) Bob Brown
Stanford University computer science professor Dan Boneh's contributions to cryptography have earned him the 2014 ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in Computing Sciences, which recognizes the work of young scientists and systems developers. Boneh was cited "for ground-breaking contributions to the development of pairing-based cryptography and its application in identity-based encryption." Working jointly with Matt Franklin, Boneh built a novel technique for identity-based encryption, in which a user's public identity can serve as his public key; pairing-based cryptography has eased the usability and launch of security mechanisms over the past 10 years, and ACM president Alexander L. Wolf describes Boneh's work as revolutionary to cryptography. "He has added greatly to our understanding of important problems underlying modern cryptography systems," Wolf says. "Boneh has produced new directions and given the field a fresh start." Industry standards such as IEEE P1363.3 and several IETF RFCs have formalized Boneh's research, and Boneh co-founded Voltage Security to commercialize identity-based encryption. Other cryptography and computer security applications Boneh has significantly contributed to include anti-phishing tools, compact digital signatures, fingerprinting of digital content, password protection, spam filtering, electronic voting, and side-channel attack analysis. The award includes a $175,000 prize.
Google Lab Puts a Time Limit on Innovations
The Wall Street Journal (03/31/15) Alistair Barr
Google is facing increased scrutiny on return-on-investment from its research and development spending, prompting a leaner, faster approach, especially with mobile-focused initiatives in its Advanced Technology and Projects division. Most projects in this group are granted a two-year window to prove themselves, after which they are jettisoned, folded into Google, spun off, or licensed to others. Project leaders also are replaced by mainly outside experts at the end of the two years. "We like this model because it puts pressure on people to perform and do relevant things or stop," says Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. "I've spent an awful lot of time on projects that never end and products that would never ship." Advanced Technology and Projects founder Regina Dugan says the risks of her lab's projects are offset by the relatively small investments they are given due to time and staff constraints. So far the lab has overseen 11 projects, including a smartphone with switchable components, three-dimensional mapping technology, and interactive animations and short films for smaller phone screens. Initiatives terminated for lack of progress include a project to lower mobile device power consumption. Meanwhile, Dugan says the short tenure of project leaders often makes them pursue projects with greater urgency.
Virtual Reality Is Coming to Sex, Sports, and Facebook
USA Today (03/30/15) Marco della Cava
Technologists predict virtual reality (VR) technology will evolve to the point that it will be embedded in practically all aspects of human activity. The University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies' Tim Richmond thinks VR will finally take root after decades of niche applications thanks to increased computing power and the falling price of the technology. "You can have Superman powers in the virtual environment, going where you want and accessing information at will," he says. The mass adoption of VR is likely to be enabled by popular industries such as sports, which can drive market trends. In addition to virtual enhancement of live events, VR's potential resides in its ability to immerse users in virtual environments that are fantastic and/or inaccessible with conventional methods. An example is the developing Oculus Rift Crescent Bay, which includes dinosaur-era and alien-planet environments. Institute for the Future researcher Alessandro Voto predicts the massive volumes of code needed to give life to such virtual worlds increasingly will be contributed by citizens worldwide. He is among many who feel VR's ultimate incarnation will be augmented reality, in which a virtual world will be laid over the real one, instead of a goggle device that isolates people from the outside.
After Snowden, the NSA Faces Recruitment Challenge
NPR Online (03/31/15) Geoff Brumfiel
Contractor Edward Snowden's leakage of top-secret documents on the U.S. National Security Agency's (NSA) intelligence collection and surveillance programs, including the retention of data on U.S. citizens, has dampened the agency's prospects for recruiting new talent. Every year NSA must swell its ranks with recruits from colleges and universities, many specialized in such fields as computer science and math, in order to maintain the strength of its code-making and code-breaking efforts. But an erosion of popularity in the wake of Snowden's disclosures, plus rising salaries offered by the private sector, are concerns for agency officials. "[Since the Snowden leaks] we've learned that [NSA has] been collecting this incredible amount of information," says Johns Hopkins University (JHU) professor Matthew Green. "And they're not shy about doing whatever they have to do to get access to that information." The leaks also spurred interest in cybersecurity among Silicon Valley companies, which are less trustful of the government and are willing to pay generously for talent NSA is trying to recruit. Also compounding the situation is the varying turnout of graduates skilled in areas sought by the agency. For example, JHU's Information Security Institute will produce just 31 masters this year, and only five are U.S. citizens.
Crowdsourced Tool for Depression
MIT News (03/30/15) Larry Hardesty
A new peer-to-peer networking tool that enables people suffering from anxiety and depression to build online support communities and practice therapeutic methods has been developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Northwestern University. A study comparing the new Panoply application with expressive writing found the MIT/Northwestern tool was particularly effective in training subjects to use cognitive reappraisal, and improving the mood of subjects with symptoms of greater severity. Panoply users log on and record both a triggering event and their response to it in separate fields, and then members of the support network vote on the type of thought pattern represented by the user's response to the triggering event and suggest ways to reinterpret it. A large user network was modeled for the study by hiring online workers via Amazon's Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing application to supplement study subjects' comments. The study found the average subject in the control group employed the expressive-writing tool 10 times over the course of three weeks, with each session lasting about three minutes. The average subject using Panoply logged in 21 times, with each session lasting approximately nine minutes. "We can surmise that it's a little easier to practice some of these psychotherapeutic skills for other people before turning them toward themselves," says study leader and former MIT student Rob Morris.
Initiative Launched to Get Freshmen Interested in STEM Majors
Campus Technology (03/26/15) Michael Hart
The University Innovation Fellows has launched a new program to encourage incoming freshmen to consider majoring in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Announced in conjunction with the White House Science Fair, #uifresh is intended to combat the trend of students planning to major in a STEM subject but changing their minds, often in their first year of college. The program is designed to encourage students to act as mentors to help their peers on campus learn entrepreneurial mindsets and confidence. Schools that have signed on so far include Clark Atlanta University, Michigan Technological University, New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering (NYU-Poly), North Dakota State University, Union College, University of Florida, University of Minnesota, University of Oklahoma, University of Virginia, and William Jewell College. So far, 115 institutions of higher learning are involved with the University Innovation Fellowships program, and more are expected to participate in the initiative. "It will be exciting to see how they contribute to the #uifresh (University Innovation Freshmen) campaign by thinking of new ways to engage with incoming freshmen, who may feel nervous or unsure about taking on the rigors of college-level work in STEM," says NYU-Poly professor Anne-Laure Fayard.
ASU Engineer Makes Strides in Sustainable Computing
ASU News (03/26/15) Jiaqi Wu; Joe Kullman
Arizona State University professor Carole-Jean Wu is working to improve the energy efficiency of both large- and small-scale computing nodes, including desktop processors, smartphones, and other mobile devices, as well as business-scale data centers. Wu's research focuses on designs for chip-multiprocessors and heterogeneous computing systems, energy-efficient smartphone architecture, and architectural energy harvesting techniques for modern computing nodes. In a traditional computer system, a large amount of heat is generated as the processor performs computations. Rather than allowing this extra heat to reduce performance speed, Wu harvested it with a thermoelectric generator that converts heat to electricity using a phenomenon called the Seebeck effect. "A temperature difference in the thermoelectric module creates an electric voltage differential, thereby generating electricity," Wu says. She proposes that by placing the thermoelectric module between the processor and heat sink in the computer, up to one watt of power could be harvested with commercially available thermoelectric generators. The best location for the thermoelectric generator is a place in the processor where the operating temperature is 60 degrees Celsius or below, which is typically the cache memory modules of a processor, Wu notes. She says the new method could result in optimal fan and dynamic processor voltage and frequency controls that would significantly reduce the power consumption of processors of all kinds.
Probing the Whole Internet for Weak Spots
Technology Review (03/30/15) Tom Simonite
When the FREAK encryption flaw was uncovered early in March, a team at the University of Michigan used a tool they had developed to scan the Internet to identify vulnerable websites so they could be warned before the flaw was made public. The ZMap tool was developed by a University of Michigan team led by research fellow Zakir Durumeric in late 2013. ZMap is a more efficient version of earlier tools that systematically query all of the numerical addresses for Internet devices using the IPv4 protocol. Previous tools took days or even weeks to complete the task, while ZMap can complete a scan in under an hour. ZMap had its first major test last April, searching for websites vulnerable to the Heartbleed bug. Durumeric notes almost a year later, nearly 1 percent of the top million websites are still vulnerable to Heartbleed. ZMap is now used by security researchers and Google, which reportedly is employing the tool to improve the security of its Chrome browser. However, the researchers note ZMap has some limitations. It cannot scan the much larger and growing IPv6 address space, private networks such as corporate intranets, or devices connecting via mobile data networks.
Mathematicians Build Code to Take on Toughest Cyberattacks
WSU News (03/26/15) Rebecca Phillips
Nathan Hamlin, director of the Washington State University (WSU) Math Learning Center, warns quantum computers will be able to easily crack the public encryption schemes that currently underlie a great deal of online commerce. In an effort to create a more secure solution, Hamlin and retired WSU mathematics professor William Webb turned to the knapsack problem, a theoretical puzzle that dates back to at least 1897. "Basically, it asks if you have one big number (the knapsack) and lots of small numbers (objects), what is the subset of small numbers (or objects) that will perfectly fill the knapsack," Webb says. The problem was used to create a code called the knapsack code, which was proposed as a tool for public key encryption during the 1970s, before it was defeated with two different methods. Webb and Hamlin have complicated the knapsack code using a new, complex digital system, which they say yields a code even quantum computers would have difficulty cracking. Hamlin and Webb say their new knapsack code would be able to withstand a wide variety of cyberattacks, including basis reduction.
Robots on Reins Could Be the 'Eyes' of Firefighters
King's College London (03/25/15)
A robot could lead firefighters through smoke-filled buildings, helping to save time and making it easier to identify objects and obstacles, according to scientists developing the technology at King's College London and Sheffield Hallam University. The firefighter would follow about three feet behind holding a rein that would provide data about the size, shape, and stiffness of any object found by the robot. Equipped with tactile sensors, the small mobile robot would sense any hesitation or resistance from the firefighter and adjust its pace accordingly, and would be programmed to predict the follower's next actions. By using an algorithm, the robot could detect the firefighter's level of trust. The firefighter would wear a special sleeve that covers the arm and uses electronic micro-vibrators to turn the signals received from the robot into detailed data. Firefighters would be trained to interpret this data. "We've made important advances in understanding robot-human interactions and applied these to a classic life-or-death emergency scenario where literally every second counts," says King's researcher Thrishantha Nanayakkara. "Robots on reins could add an invaluable extra dimension to firefighting capabilities."
'Virtual Nose' May Reduce Simulator Sickness in Video Games
Purdue University News (03/24/15) Emil Venere
Vertigo and nausea cased by virtual reality games potentially could be cured with the insertion of a virtual human nose in the center of the video display. "Your perceptual system does not like it when the motion of your body and your visual system are out of synch," notes Purdue University professor David Whittinghill. He thinks the virtual nose solution could be very beneficial because "you are constantly seeing your own nose. You tune it out, but it's still there, perhaps giving you a frame of reference to help ground you." Whittinghill's research team found the virtual nose reduced simulator sickness when placed within popular games. Forty-one test subjects ran several virtual reality applications of varying motion intensity, including a simulated roller coaster ride, while wearing a virtual reality headset, with some games equipped with the virtual nose and others not. "Surprisingly, subjects did not notice the [virtual nose] while they were playing the games, and they were incredulous when its presence was revealed to them later in debriefings," Whittinghill says. He notes the project aims "to create a fully predictive model of simulator sickness that will allow us to predict, given a specific set of perceptual and individual inputs, what level of simulator sickness one can expect."
Next Important Step Toward Quantum Computer
University of Bonn (Germany) (03/30/15) Johannes Seiler
Researchers at the Universities of Bonn and Cambridge have successfully connected two distinct quantum systems together in a breakthrough they say brings the development of a quantum computer a step closer. The researchers faced the challenge of making quantum dots (qDots) and ions work as a team. QDots can disseminate quantum information at extremely high speeds, but also forget the result of the calculation so quickly they are of no practical use in a quantum system. Meanwhile, ions can retain quantum data for many minutes, but are comparatively slow. QDots are generated with the same methods as normal computer chips, which require miniaturizing the structures on the chips until they hold a single electron; the decay of the electron in the qDot produces a photon, whose direction of polarization is determined by the qDot's state. University of Bonn professor Michael Kohl says the research team used the photon to excite an ion, and then stored the photon's polarization direction. He says this was accomplished by linking a glass fiber to the qDot as a transportation medium for the photon to the ion, which was trapped between two mirrors to maximize information transfer efficiency. Once the ion absorbed the photon, it was struck and excited by a laser beam, measuring the absorbed photon's direction of polarization.
Maryland College Team Wins International Cyber Policy Hackathon
NextGov.com (03/27/15) Hallie Golden
A University of Maryland University College (UMUC) team last weekend took first place at a two-day cyberpolicy hackathon over five other university teams. The participants in DiploHack competed to develop the best response to a fictional scenario, a massive cyberattack on a small country that knocks out everything from bank ATMs to the nation's broadcasting system. One of the key solutions for the winning team involved asking international sponsors to transport malware-free servers into the fictional nation of Zambonia. The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Embassy of the Netherlands organized the first joint cyberpolicy hackathon, which took place in Washington, D.C. "I'm not sure anything like this has been done before," says Thomas Dukes, a panelist at the event and the deputy coordinator for cyber issues at the U.S. State Department. The UMUC team now has the opportunity to participate in the Global Conference on Cyberspace in April in The Hague. The team's solutions are expected to have a direct influence on the organization of the Global Cyber Resilience Initiative, a cross-continental cybersecurity network.
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