Welcome to the May 27, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Helping Robots Pull It All Together
MIT News (05/27/15) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a new algorithm that enables autonomous robots to collaborate on assembly tasks on the fly. The team was nominated for two best-paper awards for the algorithm during the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers' International Conference on Robotics and Automation. Planning is very time-consuming because any robot in an assembly operation can perform any of the actions, and during collaboration they must avoid colliding with each other and the optimal way for each robot to grasp each object it is manipulating must be determined. The algorithm devises a plan that ignores the grasping problem. "Our solution considers a multi-step assembly operation and optimizes how the robots place themselves in a way that takes into account the entire process, not just the current step," says MIT professor Daniela Rus. The team tested the algorithm on robots assembling a chair, and the algorithm has the potential to significantly reduce the planning time of robot teams. The algorithm defers its most difficult decisions about grasp position until it has made all the easier ones, so that it can be interrupted at any time and will still have a workable assembly plan.
New Chip Makes Testing for Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Faster, Easier
University of Toronto (05/26/15) Marit Mitchell
University of Toronto researchers have developed a simple chip to test for antibiotic resistance in just one hour. "We wanted to determine whether bacteria are susceptible to a particular antibiotic, on a timescale of hours, not days," says University of Toronto researcher Justin Besant. The new chip concentrates bacteria in a space two nanoliters in volume, increasing the effective concentration of the starting sample; the high concentration is achieved by flowing the sample through microfluidic wells patterned onto a glass chip. At the bottom of each well a filter, composed of a lattice of tiny microbeads, catches bacteria as the sample flows through. The bacteria accumulate in the nano-sized well, where they are trapped with the antibiotic and a signal molecule called resazurin. If the bacteria are killed by the antibiotic, they stop metabolizing resazurin and the electrochemical signature in the sample remains constant. However, if they are antibiotic-resistant, they continue to metabolize resazurin into resorufin, changing the electrochemical signal. The new chip is equipped with electrodes that detect the change in current as resazurin turns into resorufin. "The next step would be to create a device that would allow you to test many different antibiotics at many different concentrations," Besant says.
Factory Reset in Android Phones Leaves Sensitive User Data Behind
IDG News Service (05/22/15) Lucian Constantin
Android phones are typically reset to their factory state before consumers sell or dispose of them, but researchers recently found this often does not wipe all sensitive user data from the device. A test on 21 previously owned smartphones running Android versions between 2.3.x and 4.3 found it is possible to recover emails, text messages, Google access tokens, and other sensitive data after the factory reset function had been used. The study was conducted by University of Cambridge researchers Laurent Simon and Ross Anderson on devices purchased from eBay between January and May 2014. The devices included models from Samsung Electronics, HTC, LG Electronics, Motorola, and three from Google's Nexus line of phones. In 80 percent of the cases, the researchers recovered the Google master token that could enable an attacker to re-synchronize the device with the previous owner's Google account, thereby gaining access to the emails, contacts, Wi-Fi passwords, and other data backed up to that account. The researchers estimate up to 500 million devices may not properly erase the data partition where the operating system and the apps store credentials, and up to 630 million may not sanitize the SD card where multimedia files are usually saved.
Connected Cars, Data Traffic Jams, to Challenge Mobile Operators
Phys.Org (05/22/15) Nancy Owano
A new report from Machina Research suggests the rise of connected cars could create major network traffic headaches for mobile network operators. The report said certain cell sites could see data traffic nearly double over the next 10 years, driven in large part by increasing numbers of connected cars packed with navigation, safety, and entertainment devices that will vie with mobile devices for access to mobile networks. The Machina report referenced a Gartner study estimating that one in five vehicles worldwide will have some form of wireless network connection by 2020, amounting to more than 250,000 connected vehicles. Machina Research CEO Matt Hatton says while these connected cars are unlikely to consume a great deal of data, they will add to the total traffic volume that network operators will have to deal with. If not properly addressed, this could lead to dropped data sessions in affected areas. Steve Bowker of TEOCO, a network assurance and analytics company, says network operators "need to more seriously consider how to cope with these demands for reduced latency, higher bandwidth, more signaling, and higher [quality of service]. This requires a more sophisticated and comprehensive approach to mobile network planning."
Making Computer Science More Inviting: A Look at What Works
The New York Times (05/21/15) Claire Cain Miller
The University of Washington (UW) offers lessons other universities and technology companies can learn from in attempting to increase the number of women in fields where they remain underrepresented, such as computer science. Many colleges' efforts in attracting women to underrepresented fields are supported by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), an organization that provides consultants to college faculties on how to change their programs to recruit and retain women. Last week, NCWIT presented UW with an award for having succeeded in this effort. The award was based on the fact that last year, 30 percent of UW bachelor's degrees in computer science went to women. The university has used three main tactics to diversify its student base. First, it tries to get girls interested in computer science early on, by teaching local elementary and high school teachers and students about computing through workshops and field trips. In addition, the university overhauled its introductory computer science course to make computing more accessible and inviting to a broader range of people. UW also has tried to build a sense of community for women studying the topic by sending students to tech companies or conferences for women in tech to meet others in the field.
Researcher Invents Fake Password Technology to Confuse Hackers
Purdue University Information Assurance and Security group researchers have developed ErsatzPasswords, a security system that makes it much harder for hackers to obtain usable passwords from a leaked database. Hackers "will still be able to crack that file, however the passwords they will get back are fake passwords or decoy passwords," says Purdue doctoral student Mohammed H. Almeshekah. ErsatzPasswords adds an additional step to traditional encryption methods. With the new system, a password is run through a hardware-dependent function, such as one generated by a hardware security module, before it is encrypted. Almeshekah says the extra step adds a characteristic to a password that makes it impossible to restore it to its accurate plain text without access to the module. In addition, ErsatzPasswords can be configured to alert a network administrator when a fake password is entered, or to automatically create a fake account when a fake password is entered. Since only one password file needs to be stored, "even if we want to verify the real password, we don't need a different file," Almeshekah says.
Supercomputer Unlocks the Secrets of Plant Cells to Create More Resilient Crops
University of Melbourne (05/21/15) Jane Gardner
In conjunction with the Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative (VLSCI), scientists from the Universities of Melbourne and Queensland in Australia and IBM Research have used supercomputers to move a step closer to identifying the nanostructure of cellulose. The research is part of VLSCI's longer-term program to develop a three-dimensional computer-simulated model of the entire plant wall. The researchers used VLSCI's IBM Blue Gene/Q supercomputer, known as Avoca, to carry out the quadrillions of calculations required to model the motions of cellulose atoms. "Thanks to IBM's expertise in molecular modeling and VLSCI's computational power, we have been able to create models of the plant wall at the molecular level which will lead to new levels of understanding about the formation of cellulose," says University of Melbourne researcher Monika Doblin. Cellulose has proved difficult to study because the physical methods of studying plant cells are too invasive and disrupt the processes that would need to be studied, so the researchers turned to supercomputers to model cellulose at the atomic level. The insights they have gained could help the development of more disease-resistant crops and boost the sustainability of the pulp, paper, and fiber industry.
UR Takes Deep Dive Into Big Data
Democrat and Chronicle (05/22/2015) James Goodman
The University of Rochester (UR) made data science a high priority in its 2013 Strategic Plan, and the university is in the process of building itself up as a center for data science research into diverse areas. UR began positioning itself as a center for applying high-performance computing in 2008 when it acquired IBM's Blue Gene/P supercomputer. The university obtained an IBM Blue Gene/Q supercomputer four years later. Its pivot toward data science began with a partnership between the university, IBM, and the state of New York centered on UR's Health Sciences Center for Computational Innovation. UR will soon start construction on the new Wegmans Hall, which will house the Goergen Institute for Data Science. A new one-year masters degree program in data science will begin in the fall and the university is currently preparing to introduce a new bachelors degree in data science. These programs will include a partnership with industrial affiliates such as IBM, Xerox, and Wegmans, which will offer joint research and development projects and provide internships for students. The new focus on data science has already yielded projects such as research associate Solomon Abiola's Node smartphone app, which is designed to help monitor and notify the public of possible outbreaks of Ebola.
Brain Implant Allows Paralyzed Man to Sip a Beer at His Own Pace
New Scientist (05/21/15) Helen Thomson
Implants placed in the region of the brain that governs planning of motor movements could give people who have suffered spinal injuries more fluid movement. The California Institute of Technology's Richard Andersen and colleagues placed an implant in the posterior parietal cortex of a man paralyzed from the neck down. They report the man controlled a robotic arm with unprecedented fluidity. People with similar injuries have controlled prosthetic limbs using implants placed in the motor cortex, but placing implants in an area of the brain responsible for the mechanics of movements has resulted in delayed, jerky motions, as the person thinks about all the individual aspects of the movement. Each implant contained electrodes that recorded the activity of hundreds of individual neurons, and the patterns of electrical activity from each neuron firing while the subject imagined making different arm and eye movements were recorded for almost two years. The researchers then transmitted data from the implant to a computer, which translated it into instructions to move a separate robotic arm. "We thought this would allow us to decode brain activity associated with the overall goal of a movement--for example, 'I want to pick up that cup', rather than the individual components," Andersen says.
A Folding Drone That's Ready for Takeoff in a Snap
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (05/20/2015)
Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and Switzerland's National Center of Competence in Research have developed a tiny quadrotor drone that can fit in the palm of your hand and take off in a fraction of a second. The drone's four arms, made of fiberglass and light inelastic polyester, fold around its body in the shape of a trapezoid when it is not in use. The drone uses the force of its rotors to extend the articulated arms and then rise into the air, and the entire process takes only a third of a second. Possible applications for the drone include releasing large numbers of them over a disaster zone to take pictures or establish contact with victims. The designers have several ideas for improvements to future versions of the design, including the ability to fold the drone's arms back up automatically, larger and lighter models, and strengthening the arms so they can withstand crashes. The principle behind the drone's folding arms also could be applied to other flying devices in the form of wings or a protective cage.
Cooling the Cloud: Binghamton Ph.D. Student Sets Sights on Improving Data-Center Efficiency
Binghamton University (05/20/15)
Binghamton University researchers have used empirical research and computer modeling to develop a foundation for a systematic analysis of the university's new data center. Although aisle containment systems, which segregate hot air from cold air in data centers, have been gaining popularity in the industry because they have been estimated to save 30 percent of cooling energy, it is as yet unclear how they increase the risk of overheating, or how to design them for greatest safety and optimum energy efficiency. The Binghamton researchers attempt to answer those questions by including guidelines for the initial characterization of data center facilities, such as air flow, turbulence, pressure, velocity, momentum, and cooling capacity, according to researcher Husam Alissa. Over the next two years, Alissa expects to refine the analysis, moving back and forth between data collection and computational fluid dynamics, validating the models along the way. "This is a subject of critical business importance that has not yet been investigated at the university level or at the industry level, and Husam is establishing a basis to ably assert the accuracy of his modeling and methodologies," says IBM's Ken Schneebeli.
WALK-MAN Sets the Bar High for DARPA's Robotics Challenge Finals
CORDIS News (05/20/15)
An international group of researchers has developed the WALK-MAN robot to seamlessly operate in environments damaged by disasters. WALK-MAN demonstrates unprecedented dexterity and strength that enable it to make Shaolin-inspired gestures, turn heavy valves, open doors, and drive a car. In addition, WALK-MAN can walk, crawl over uneven terrain, move heavy masonry, or manipulate pneumatic drills. The system can complete all of these tasks autonomously or by means of a remote control. The robot's hands are based on human hands, combining robustness and adaptability to perfectly grasp and manipulate hand tools. WALK-MAN's head is equipped with a stereo vision system, a rotating three-dimensional (3D) laser scanner, and a depth camera for 3D mapping and sensing. WALK-MAN will represent the European Union at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Robotics Challenge Finals on June 5-6. The winner of the challenge will be the robotic system that best showcases the ability to maneuver in degraded environments, manipulate tools designed for humans, and make decisions in partial autonomy based on operator command and sensor inputs.
Computational Aesthetics Algorithm Spots Beauty That Humans Overlook
Technology Review (05/22/15)
The photo-sharing site Flickr is home to about 200 million images, but most of them go largely unseen and unappreciated. A team of researchers from the University of Turin and Yahoo Labs in Barcelona, Spain, have developed a machine-vision algorithm that can identify and highlight beautiful images, enabling it to spot the hidden gems among Flickr's millions of obscure images. The team began by crowdsourcing human opinion on the aesthetic quality of 10,000 pictures taken from the Flickr database, a mix of popular and unpopular images in four categories: people, nature, animals, and urban subjects. Each image was rated by at least five humans according to five aesthetic categories. Their beauty ratings were used to train the team's machine-vision system, Crowdbeauty, which used criteria such as contrast, brightness, color patterns, and composition to predict the beauty rating of any given image. CrowdBeauty was then turned loose on a database of 9 million images from Flickr that have fewer than five favorites. The team then crowdsourced opinion on the images selected by the system and found they were rated almost as favorably as Flickr's most popular images.
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