Welcome to the July 29, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
As Tech Booms, Workers Turn to Coding for Career Change
The New York Times (07/28/15) Steve Lohr
People from diverse walks of life are switching careers as they seek a future in the burgeoning U.S. technology industry, with emphasis on learning coding and data analysis. The drive to develop technical skills is accelerating as companies in nearly every industry implement some kind of digital initiative, either by necessity or to keep pace with their peers. Many companies currently are offering lucrative salaries and perks to people with mastery over cloud computing, mobile apps, data analytics, and other tools for reducing business costs, customer outreach, and automated decision-making. In March, the White House announced the TechHire initiative to coordinate the efforts of the federal government, cities, corporations, and schools to train people for the thousands of jobs currently available in the tech sector. Coding "boot camps" such as Hack Reactor and Galvanize will graduate about 16,000 students in 2015, equaling about 33 percent of the estimated number of computer science graduates from U.S. universities, according to a recent Course Report survey. "These are skilled and ambitious people who are seeking an on-ramp to the tech industry," says Galvanize CEO Jim Deters. Course Report co-founder Liz Eggleston says most students are in their 20s and 30s, with the typical pupil being a "29-year-old career changer."
China Pushes to Rewrite Rules of Global Internet
The Wall Street Journal (07/28/15) James T. Areddy; Jeff Elder; Yang Jie
China's government aims to redraft the rules of the global Internet, wresting control from digital leaders such as the United States so it can regulate the Internet on its own terms. Chinese president Xi Jinping and a host of conservative stakeholders are putting pressure on foreign companies to splinter the international Internet system by passing security statutes, including one that would force foreign equipment vendors to hand over encryption keys to local authorities. China's government also is supporting and incubating domestic companies that are developing semiconductors and servers to replace those provided by Western firms. Using national security as an argument, China also proposed the United Nations adopt an Internet "code of conduct" so any government could effectively reject technical protocols interlinking the worldwide Internet. Experts say this paints a grim picture for online freedom as well as fair competition. "Nations enforcing their own Internet restrictions present a tension between national interests and participation in a global marketplace," warns New America's Rebecca MacKinnon. China's strategy may work to its disadvantage, as curbing Internet freedoms could estrange users and engender distrust of the regime. It also could restrict Chinese development if domestic researchers and others are denied access to online resources that help foster innovation.
Intel, Micron Launch 'Bulk-Switching' ReRAM
EE Times (07/28/15) Peter Clarke
Micron Technology and Intel say they have jointly developed 3D XPoint, a new chip based on a breakthrough yielding a non-volatile memory that exhibits a "bulk material property change" at the intersection of metal access lines. The companies say the technology could have a transformative effect on the electronics industry and computer architectures for data centers and possible deployment in solid-state drives. However, to do this, it must deliver on its promise of being up to 1,000 times faster than NAND flash and eight to 10 times denser than dynamic random-access memory (DRAM). Micron CEO Mark Durcan says a wafer fabrication plant in Utah is producing a 3D XPoint memory integrated circuit with a 128-GB capacity, built from two planes of 64 GB with one bit per cell. "The switching mechanism is via changes in resistance of the bulk material," Intel says. Intel's Rob Crooke notes the memory is nonvolatile, dense, and fast, as well as scalable in both the x-y plane and the z direction. "The technology has been under development since 2012, hundreds of engineers have been involved," Crooke says. Durcan and Crooke note their companies will be investing in making the technology at the Utah fab, while the expansion of its manufacture into other fabs within the Intel-Micron network is possible.
Researchers Hack Air-Gapped Computer With Simple Cell Phone
Wired (07/15) Kim Zetter
Israeli scientists have successfully exfiltrated data from air-gapped computers by using the GSM network, electromagnetic waves, and a cell phone. Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev report developing malware called GSMem, which leverages the emission of electromagnetic waves from computers by forcing the system's memory bus to serve as an antenna and relay data wirelessly to a phone over cellular frequencies. In combination with a rootkit called the ReceiverHandler, which is embedded in the cell phone's baseband firmware, the malware can infiltrate the computer via physical access or through interdiction. The malware facilitates the exchange of data across all channels to produce enough amplitude when it wants to transmit a binary 1. Transmission of a binary 0 only requires the computer to emit at its regular amplitude. Fluctuations in the transmission enable the phone's receiver to differentiate between a 0 and a 1, converting it into those numbers and later into human-readable data. GSMem is hard to detect because it consumes only 4 kilobytes of data when running, while composed of a series of simple central-processing unit instructions that do not have to engage with the application programming interface. The research will be detailed at the USENIX Security Symposium in August.
Scientists in Greece Design Cryptographic E-Voting Platform
The Wall Street Journal (07/29/15) Ania Nussbaum
Researchers in Greece report the design of what they call the world's first encrypted electronic voting system in which voters can confirm their votes go to the intended candidate. The process occurs on a distributed, publicly-available digital ballot box called DEMOS, which first generates a series of randomized numbers, with each voter assigned two sets of numbers respectively corresponding to the voter and the voter's preferred candidate. Once the encrypted vote is cast, the data is transmitted to multiple servers, which store the information until the election is over. Election outcomes then are posted on a bulletin board, a publicly accessible repository with all of the election information. DEMOS developer Bingsheng Zhang says the board "can be potentially implemented using the blockchain technique of Bitcoin." However, dedicated hackers could still circumvent the DEMOS system, according to University of Athens professor Aggelos Kiayias. He notes encrypted numbers tied to voters and to their candidate must be generated by a "clean" computer that has not already been compromised. Additional security also would have to be deployed to ensure the identification keys are not intercepted and manipulated when they are transferred from the computer to the voter and back.
Musk, Hawking Warn of 'Inevitable' Killer Robot Arms Race
Wired.co.uk (07/27/15) Michael Rundle
Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and 1,000 academics, researchers, and public figures have called for a ban on autonomous weapons. In an open letter presented at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Buenos Aries, the Future of Life Institute signatories warned "starting a military AI arms race is a bad idea." The letter says AI could benefit humanity in many ways, but the technological trajectory is obvious. The letter defines autonomous weapons as those that "select and engage targets without human intervention." Autonomous weapons would be ideal for assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations, and selectively killing a particular ethnic group, the letter notes. "We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity," the letter says. The United Kingdom says it is not developing lethal AI, but the potential to build such weapons already exists and is developing fast. The U.S. military recently commissioned a report examining the future of warfare, which predicts "swarms of robots" will be ubiquitous by 2050.
China Building One of the World's Fastest Astronomical Computers to Power Giant, Alien-Seeking Telescope
South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) (07/28/15) Stephen Chen
China's new Sky Eye 1 supercomputer is expected to be the fastest astronomical supercomputer in the world, topping Japan's Aterui. Sky Eye 1's peak performance will exceed 1,000 teraflops, according to Ren Jingyang, vice president of the Chinese high-performance computer (HPC) company Sugon. China plans to connect the supercomputer to the largest radio telescope in history, the 500-meter aperture spherical telescope (FAST), which will search for alien life and investigate dark matter. Larger than 30 football fields, FAST's enormous dish will collect a level of data that would overload an ordinary computer. The supercomputer will be hosted at a facility near the telescope in Guizhou with a high-speed data link connecting them that is capable of transmitting up to 100 gigabytes of data per second. The calculation demands of the FAST telescope are expected to exceed 200 teraflops per day, says Zhang Peiheng, director of the HPC research center at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Consortium Including MIT Awarded $110M National Grant to Promote Photonics Manufacturing
MIT News (07/27/15) David L. Chandler
The American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics (AIM Photonics) will unite government, industry, and academia to advance domestic capabilities in integrated photonic technology and better position the U.S. relative to global competition. Federal funding of $110 million will be combined with about $500 million from AIM Photonics' supporters in state and local governments, manufacturing firms, universities, community colleges, and nonprofit organizations across the country. "Photonics holds the key to advances in computing, and its pursuit will engage and energize research and economic activity," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) provost Martin Schmidt. Photonic devices are viewed as instrumental in advancing computing speed and efficiency. The initiative is "one of the first of this kind in the U.S., and the bet is that the innovation and research here, combined with the manufacturing capability, will allow our companies to really take off," says MIT professor Lionel Kimerling. The evolving integration of photonics and electronics will have a great impact on many different technologies, including LIDAR systems, biological and chemical sensors, and new kinds of medical imaging systems, among others. "The goal of this initiative is to lower the barriers to entry in this field for U.S. companies," MIT professor Michael Watts says.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell Steps Into Virtual Reality at Stanford Lab
Stanford Report (07/24/15) Bjorn Carey
National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell's tour of professor Jeremy Bailenson's Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) at Stanford University demonstrated how virtual reality technology and methods could improve training and officiating, among other applications. Bailenson's focus of study is how virtual experiences can influence real-world behavior. Among the VHIL's projects in the football arena is a collaboration with the school team to generate 360-degree virtual representations of game play, which enables quarterbacks to repeatedly read defenses in the injury-free space of the simulator. The demo showed quarterbacks trained in the simulator improved decision-making by 30 percent, and made decisions about one second faster. Among the uses for the technology Goodell envisions is enhancement of fan experience that incorporates players and coaches' perspectives. Also of interest to Goodell is the development of a training suite for referees so they can review action and more finely differentiate between legal and illegal plays. Another intriguing aspect of Bailenson's work is exploring how virtual environment immersion can help build empathy and foster positive, real-life behavioral adjustments. "My job is to make virtual reality feel like a physical experience so that it changes you and makes you a better person in the real world," Bailenson says.
India Loves MOOCs
Technology Review (07/27/15) George Anders
When massively open online courses (MOOCs) first became available several years ago, proponents expected them to revolutionize education and shake up the established higher-education system. Although this has not yet happened in the U.S and Europe, MOOCs have taken off in a big way in India, where they are meeting a need for education, particularly technical education, with which the rapidly developing country's network of technical schools and institutes cannot keep up. Indian students now account for the second-largest group using MOOCs from leading providers Coursera and edX. Indian high school students and graduates use MOOCs to study for the country's extremely competitive university entrance exams. Students who do not make the cut use MOOCs to get the skills they cannot acquire elsewhere. MOOCs are even popular among students at India's most prestigious schools, and with many young professionals. Many in India believe MOOCs are the key to solving India's shortage of qualified instructors and the country's Ministry of Resources Development is working to build an Indian MOOC platform called Swayam. However, such efforts have been slow to take hold as many of India's schools have yet to be convinced to grant credit for MOOCs and give their instructors the flexibility they need to develop their own online courses.
How Virtual Reality Will Take Us Deeper Into the Real World
New Scientist (07/27/15) Simon Ings
The desire for more immersive video games has spurred much of the current innovation in virtual reality (VR) technology, but VR's potential extends far beyond games. Educators also are excited about VR's potential to teach people about the world. Peter Saville, art director for British independent record label Factory Records, and physicist Brian Cox recently announced their intention to create an immersive visualization of the cosmos, called The Age of Starlight. Cox says virtual reality will enable people to not just read about and imagine animals such as woolly mammoths, but to actually experience them. "We will be able to inject people with complex thoughts in a way that's easier for them to understand," Cox says. London's Natural History Museum has harnessed VR for First Life, a virtual experience of life during Earth's Cambrian epoch, narrated by David Attenborough. VR also is being used to find new ways of interacting with data. At the recent Develop games conference in Brighton, U.K., Wellcome Trust and Epic Games announced the winner of its Big Data challenge, which challenged game developers with finding new ways of visualizing large data sets. One team, Hammerhead, used VR to create a system for visualizing genomic information.
A Wi-Fi Reflector Chip to Speed Up Wearables
Jet Propulsion Laboratory (07/22/15) Elizabeth Landau
Researchers at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the University of California, Los Angeles are developing microchips for wearable devices that reflect wireless signals instead of using regular transmitters and receivers. The new method transmits information up to three times faster than regular Wi-Fi. "The idea is if the wearable device only needs to reflect the Wi-Fi signal from a router or cell tower, instead of generate it, the power consumption can go way down [and the battery life can go way up]," says JPL researcher Adrian Tang. If incoming energy is absorbed by the circuit, that represents a "0" in the computer's binary code, and if the chip reflects the energy, that represents a "1." The switch mechanism uses very little power and enables the fast transfer of information between a wearable device and another kind of technology capable of receiving the data. The researchers say they were challenged by the fact that the chip in the wearable device needs to differentiate between the real Wi-Fi signal and the reflection from the background. They solved this problem by developing a wireless silicon chip that constantly senses and suppresses a background reflection, enabling the Wi-Fi signal to be transmitted without interference from surrounding objects.
Did These Researchers Just Create an Autistic Computer Program?
Extreme Tech (07/25/15) Graham Templeton
Baylor College of Medicine researchers Ari Rosenberg and Jaclyn Sky Patterson claim to have modeled a theorized cause of autism--divisive normalization (DN)--in an artificial neural network (ANN), with the effect of that simulation exhibiting recognizably autistic behavior. The DN theory suggests autistic brains are so active that the activity of any single neuron is inhibited by the activity of the general population of surrounding neurons. ANNs are organized along the principle that one minuscule adjustment to the behavior of all neurons carries a major cumulative effect on the final outcome of the data being processed. Rosenberg and Patterson's experiment used an ANN to simulate the primary visual cortex, and they began tinkering with its parameters to see if the DN theory could be used to span the gap between autism's subjective effects and the ANN's numerical operations. Comparing two ANNs--one representing a normal person's visual processing and the other an autistic subject's--showed the former consistently bested the latter, mirroring the same trends as human test subjects. Additional tests with "tunnel vision" and the known linkage between statistical inference and autism demonstrated correlation with autistic subjects as well.
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