Welcome to the May 29, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Scientist Created Drones that Fly Autonomously and Learn New Routes
Researcher Jose Martinez Carranza at Mexico's National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics, and Electronics (INAOE) is developing a drone that can fly autonomously, navigating with the use of cameras and basic sensors instead of global positioning systems (GPS). The drone is part of a larger project called robust autonomous flight of unmanned aerial vehicles in GPS-denied outdoor areas (RAFAGA), which seeks to develop different methods of achieving autonomous flight in challenging situations, such as during high winds or in areas without GPS coverage. The GPS-free drone builds on work Martinez Carranza did during his postdoctoral studies at the University of Bristol in Britain, in cooperation with Blue Bear, which provided the drones and control algorithms. Martinez Carranza also received financing from various government programs. The drone is launched manually, but once in the air, its autonomous control algorithms take over, using cameras to identify its location and orient itself in its surroundings. It then uses camera images and data from accelerometers and gyroscopes to navigate to preprogrammed navigation points autonomously. Martinez Carranza sees a number of possible civil applications for the drone, including surveillance and the inspection and exploration of properties.
'Deep Web Search' May Help Scientists
Jet Propulsion Laboratory (05/22/15)
The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is collaborating on Memex, a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency platform for searching the Deep Web. Memex goes further than traditional search engines, examining not just standard text-based content, but also images, videos, pop-up ads, forms, scripts, and many other forms of data that are available on the web, but not indexed by search engines. "We're augmenting Web crawlers to behave like browsers--in other words, executing scripts and reading ads in ways that you would when you usually go online," says JPL's Chris Mattmann. JPL is one of 17 teams working on Memex and is focusing its efforts on finding ways of using Memex to facilitate searching for scientific data. The visual search capabilities of Memex could be especially useful, making it easy to search for visual information, such as spectrographic data. It also could make it easier for researchers to find published scientific data sitting in databases on the Deep Web, such as NASA's Physical Oceanography Distributed Active Archive Center and the vast amount of data generated by NASA spacecraft on a daily basis.
Dartmouth Researchers Create First Smartphone App That Predicts GPA
Dartmouth College (05/25/15) John Cramer
Dartmouth College researchers have developed SmartGPA, a smartphone app that automatically predicts college students' grade point average based on their smartphone data, taking into account their habits on studying, partying, sleeping, exercising, and other conscious and unconscious behaviors. The SmartGPA app is based on an earlier StudentLife study, which resulted in the first smartphone app that automatically reveals college students' mental health, academic performance, and behavioral trends. "Our SmartGPA results show there are a number of important study and social behaviors automatically inferred from smartphone sensing data that significantly correlate with term and cumulative GPA," says Dartmouth professor Andrew Campbell. The app relies on automatic sensing data and machine-learning algorithms to infer users' high level behaviors. The researchers tested the app by installing it on the smartphones of 30 Dartmouth students and monitoring them over a 10-week period. The results show the app, along with periodic self-reports from students, can predict the user's GPA within 17 hundredths of a point against their cumulative GPA from their transcripts. The findings show that high performers spend more time studying, were more conscious about their behavior, and had more instances of positive mood at the end of the term.
Performance Enhancing Sensor Ready for Commercialization
University of Strathclyde (05/20/15)
Researchers at the University of Strathclyde are looking to commercialize a wearable device that has the potential to boost the performance of elite athletes and fitness enthusiasts. The innovative transdermal sensor is designed to analyze data on fluid loss during physical activity. The small device attaches to the body and monitors hydration, and it uses Bluetooth technology to send the analysis back to the user's smartphone or computer. The information is useful for rehydrating properly and maintaining optimal performance. "Whether you're a serious athlete or someone who likes to keep fit, it's important to make sure you get the right amount of fluid before, during and after exercising," says Stephen Milne from Strathclyde's Department of Biomedical Engineering. The university's Medical Diagnostics Research Group developed the sensor, and Strathclyde researchers have conducted successful trials of the device in the United Kingdom, as well as in Qatar.
Advance in Quantum Error Correction
MIT News (05/26/15) Larry Hardesty
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Google, the University of Sydney, and Cornell University have developed a quantum error correction code that requires the measurement of only a few quantum bits at a time. The protocol corrects almost all errors in quantum memory. A key design element for quantum computers, quantum error correction helps preserve the fragile quantum states on which quantum computation depends. The approach helps ensure that errors are spread through the qubits in a lawful way. In this way, measurements made on the final state of qubits are guaranteed to reveal relationships between qubits without exposing their values. If an error is detected, the protocol can trace it back to its origin and correct it. Still, the team notes the approach could potentially duplicate banks of qubits, although some experts are not overly concerned about the prospect of additional qubits. MIT professor Aram Harrow says some redundancy in the hardware will likely be a necessity to ensure the efficiency of the scheme.
Researchers Develop Intelligent Handheld Robots
University of Bristol News (05/26/15)
University of Bristol researchers have developed and are studying intelligent handheld robots. They have worked on developing robot prototypes as well as on understanding how best to interact with a new kind of tool that "knows and acts," focusing on comparing tools with increasing levels of autonomy. The robots are designed to have more degrees of motion to enable greater independence from the motions of the user, and are aware of the steps being carried out, a new feature that permits an unprecedented level of cooperation between user and tool. The overall goal is to exploit the intuitiveness of using traditional handheld tools while adding embedded intelligence and action to allow for new capabilities. "There are three basic levels of autonomy we are considering: no autonomy, semi-autonomous when the robot advises the user but does not act, and fully autonomous when the robot advises and acts even by correcting or refusing to perform incorrect user action," says Bristol researcher Walterio Mayol-Cuevas. The research shows users tend to prefer a tool that is fully autonomous and there is evidence that autonomous handheld robots could significantly reduce completion time and perceived workload, notes fellow researcher Austin Gregg-Smith.
Security Researchers Start Effort to Protect 'Smart' Cities
The New York Times (05/26/15) Nicole Perlroth
By 2020, the market for smart cities is expected to reach $1 trillion, according to Frost & Sullivan predictions. However, there is no comprehensive system for vetting security and responding to cyberattacks at the city level. That is why a group of researchers and security experts from IOActive Labs and Kaspersky Lab is developing the Securing Smart Cities initiative. The researchers aim to unite private security researchers and public administrators to launch basic cybersecurity checklists for smart cities, including properly installed encryption, passwords, and systems that can be easily patched for security holes. The researchers also want to develop better security requirements and approval procedures for the vendors who install, monitor, and oversee crucial systems. In addition, the researchers want to track access to smart city systems, run regular tests to find loopholes, and launch emergency response teams that can collect reports of vulnerabilities from security researchers and share information with other cities. Finally, they want to create manual overrides for all smart city systems in the event they are compromised. "Every day we depend more and more on technology," says Argentine security researcher Cesar Cerrudo. "If that technology is not secure and protected, it will get attacked, and people and businesses will suffer the consequences."
Researchers Use Mobile Phone Data to Predict Employment Shocks
[email protected] (05/27/15) Jason Kornwitz
Researchers have used mobile phone data to detect and track changes in the economy, harnessing the power of algorithms. An interdisciplinary research team led by Northeastern University professor David Lazer believes mobile phone data can be used to improve forecasts of critical economic indicators. The team conducted studies to examine the behavior of people who were out of work in two European countries. For one study, the researchers used a structural break model to identify mobile phone-using auto-manufacturing plant workers who had been laid off. Then they tracked their mobility and social interactions, measuring quantities related to their social behavior, including total calls, number of incoming calls, number of outgoing calls, and calls made to individuals physically located at the plant. The study found job loss had a "systematic dampening effect" on mobility and social behavior. Call detail records can help predict unemployment rates up to four months before the release of official reports and more accurately than using historical data alone, according to the researchers. The technique also is fast and cost-effective, but the team still views it as a complementary tool to survey-based approaches. "Our findings are of great practical importance, potentially facilitating the identification of macroeconomic statistics faster and with much finer spatial granularity than traditional methods of tracking the economy," Lazer notes.
Smartphones, Twitter Help Gauge Crowd Size
University of Warwick researchers used data from Twitter and from Italian phone companies to develop a computer model that can accurately show the size of a crowd. The model could help first responders in an emergency, according to the researchers. The mobile phone system is cellular, meaning it is a grid comprised of pockets where users are connected via a relay antenna. When there are more users in a pocket, a spike can be seen in the volume of phone calls, short messaging services messages, and tweets. The researchers transcribed these spikes into estimates of crowd numbers. They first calibrated the model on data collected during 10 soccer matches at the San Siro stadium, where the attendance was known. The researchers then used the model to estimate the number of people at Milan's Linate airport at different times of day. "Accurate estimates of the number of people in a given location at a given time can be extrapolated from mobile phone data, without requiring users to install further applications on their smartphones," the researchers note.
Machine-Learning Algorithm Mines Rap Lyrics, Then Writes Its Own
Technology Review (05/20/15)
University of Aalto researchers developed a machine-learning algorithm that recognizes the salient features of a few lines of rap music and then chooses another line that rhymes in the same way and is about the same topic. The researchers focused on the way assonance, which describes the repetition of similar vowel sounds, appears in rap lyrics. The researchers trained the DeepBeat algorithm on a database of over 10,000 songs from more than 100 rap artists. DeepBeat converts words into phonemes and then scans the list of phonemes looking for similar vowel sounds while ignoring consonant sounds and spaces; it also seeks sequences of matching vowel sounds in the previous two lines or so, and defines the rhyming density as the average of all the longest sequences in the lyrics. This technique enabled the researchers to rank all the rap artists in the database according to their rhyming density. The team used this metric to compare the automated raps with human-generated ones. They programmed DeepBeat to analyze a sequence of lines from a rap lyric and then choose the next line from a list that contains randomly chosen lines from other songs as well as the actual line. "An 82-percent accuracy was achieved for separating the true next line from a randomly chosen line," says University of Aalto's Eric Malmi.
Virtual Worlds So Good They'll Change Our Grasp on Real Life
New Scientist (05/20/15) Chris Baraniuk
London-based Bossa Studios bills Worlds Adrift as the first game to bring real-world physics and causality to a massive online world. The developer is using new simulation technology from London startup Improbable to power a virtual world with complex, unpredictable interactions between objects and players, which is a challenge because processing the ever-changing positions of all the elements overloads servers. Most large multiplayer games use tricks and illusions to spoof complexity. Instead of making single servers simulate a whole sector of the virtual world, Improbable computes individual elements using connected "worker" programs, running across a network of servers. "The workers are like a swarm of bees or ants doing little things," explains Improbable CEO Herman Narula. Working together, the programs can achieve more than any individual server, he notes. The technology enables low-cost simulation with ubiquitous, realistic interactions, and the approach could potentially bring unprecedented accurate simulations to everything from fisheries and cancer cells to whole economies.
Aviation Agency Unveils Messaging System to Reduce Delays
Associated Press (05/22/15) David Porter
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently demonstrated its new Data Comm system at New Jersey's Newark Liberty International Airport. As a part of the FAA's Next Generation Air Transportation System, Data Comm is designed specifically to streamline the process of communicating alternate routes for planes that are awaiting takeoff and heading toward bad weather. Under the current system, that information is communicated by voice and pilots have to copy down the information and repeat it back to ensure it was received correctly, all before it is even entered into the plane's computer. With Data Comm, a process that used to take minutes could now take seconds. FAA administrator Michael Huerta compares the old system to receiving directions from a friend over the phone and Data Comm to a global positioning system preloaded with the address you want. Data Comm has been used on a trial basis at airports in Newark, NJ, and Memphis, TN, since 2013, and about 800 planes currently use the system. The FAA hopes to have Data Comm implemented at 56 airports by the end of next year, while United Airlines says it hopes to have more than half of its fleet equipped to use Data Comm within three years.
Basel Physicists Develop Efficient Method of Signal Transmission From Nanocomponents
University of Basel (05/22/15)
University of Basel researchers have developed an antireflex device for electrical signals to reduce the reflection that occurs during transmission from nanocomponents to larger circuits. This breakthrough could help facilitate the miniaturization of electronic components and boost the performance of electronics even further in the future. The new antireflex device relies on a special formation of electrical conductors of a certain length, which are paired with a carbon nanotube. This configuration allowed the researchers to efficiently uncouple a high-frequency signal from the nanocomponent. Traditionally, coupling nanostructures with significantly larger conductors is difficult because they have very different impendances, and the greater the difference in impendance between two conducting structures, the greater the loss during transmission. Sometimes the difference between nanocomponents and macroscopic conductors is so great that no signal can be transmitted unless countermeasures are taken. The new antireflex device minimizes this effect and adjusts the impedances, resulting in efficient coupling. This development brings the researchers much closer to their goal of using nanocomponents to transmit signals in electronic devices.
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