Welcome to the October 16, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
White House National Strategic Computing Initiative Workshop
CCC Blog (10/14/15) Helen Wright
The White House National Strategic Computing Initiative Workshop will be held on Oct. 20-21, and will include topics such as the convergence of data-intensive and numerically intensive computing, hardware technology for future high-performance computing (HPC), and improving productivity in HPC application development and deployment and workforce development. The workshop aims to bring together industry, academia, and government for a briefing on the challenges and opportunities of increasing computing demands, the increasing role of big data, and the evolving technological landscape. The day one keynote speaker will be Thomas Theis, executive director of the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative (NRI) at the Semiconductor Research Corporation. The day two keynote speaker will be University of California, Berkeley professor Kathy Yelick, associate laboratory director for computing sciences at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The workshop is a response to President Barack Obama's July 29, 2015, executive order creating the National Strategic Computing Initiative, a government-wide effort to develop a multi-agency vision and federal investment strategy that maximizes the benefits of HPC to strengthen the U.S.'s economic competitiveness, increase sector-based productivity, unleash new scientific discovery, and grow regional innovation ecosystems.
Vint Cerf and 260 Experts Give FCC a Plan to Secure Wi-Fi Routers
Computerworld (10/14/15) Darlene Storm
A group of 260 network and cybersecurity experts, including Google chief Internet evangelist and former ACM president Vint Cerf, have sent an open letter to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) critiquing the agency's recently proposed rules for Wi-Fi routers and RF devices and offering an alternative proposal. The FCC's proposed new rules are meant to improve the security and performance of the Internet, but one document in particular sparked fears among some that the agency planned to ban open source router firmware such as DD-WRT and Tomato. The letter says an open source approach is the only way to ensure the security of Wi-Fi routers, many of which it says ship with "ancient code, rife with security holes and bugs." The letter recommends the FCC instead require that all software-defined radio, wireless, or Wi-Fi radio vendors make their device drivers and radio firmware public in order to maintain FCC compliance. Vendors also should be certain that shipped routers include secure firmware and that router owners have ultimate control over updates. In addition, the letter says vendors should provide regular updates to keep up with regulations and patch disclosed security vulnerabilities. It also asked the FCC to "review and rescind" rules that conflict with open source best practices.
MOOCs Haven't Lived Up to the Hopes and the Hype, Stanford Participants Say
Stanford Report (10/15/15) Dan Stober
Many institutes of higher education launched massively open online courses (MOOCs) three years ago, but researchers at Stanford University say they have not been as effective as many educators had hoped. The completion rates for MOOCs remain low because without a solid academic background, the classes may be too challenging for many students to follow, say Stanford professors John Mitchell, Candace Thille, and Mitchell Stevens. In addition, the majority of MOOC students have been college-educated men from industrialized countries even though they are largely free or low-cost. MOOCs also have prompted a widespread interest into research about how people learn, notes Thille. She is interested in adapting a successful intervention technique for students in collaboration with Stanford professor Carol Dweck's research group, Project for Education Research That Scales. The goal is to embed interventions into online learning environments to re-engage disengaged students and encourage them to adopt a growth mindset toward learning. Stevens says other MOOC questions needing a resolution include "who owns the data?" However, he remains optimistic about the potential of MOOCs. "We're still in the horse-and-buggy stage," Stevens says. "The boundaries are blurring between online and face-to-face."
Study Asks: Can Math Teachers Teach Coding?
eSchool News (10/14/15) Laura Devaney
The U.S. National Science Foundation is funding a study by computer education experts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Brown University, and Bootstrap that will examine how students and teachers learn math and computer science. The study will build on the prior work of the long-time collaborators, research partners, and founders of Bootstrap, a program that teaches algebra and geometry through programming video games. Bootstrap has been integrated into math and technology classes in school districts across the U.S. since it was developed a decade ago. "Math and computer science are usually taught in different ways that don't align, but we've developed an approach that integrates them to enable transfer of skills from one to the other," says WPI professor Kathi Fisler. The three-year, $1.5-million grant comes at a time when middle and high schools across the U.S. are looking to integrate computer science into their curricula. The results of "Exploring Transfer Between Computing and Algebra and its Effects on Mathematics Pedagogy and Self-Efficacy in Computing Teachers" could help better prepare students for science, technology, engineering, or math fields. The findings also could help ease the coming shortage of computer science teachers.
Hackers Can Silently Control Siri From 16 Feet Away
Wired (10/14/15) Andy Greenberg
Researchers at French information security agency ANSSI have demonstrated an attack that could enable hackers to use radio waves to silently activate an Android or iPhone's voice command features. The attack would let hackers execute any number of voice commands, allowing them to make calls or send texts, direct the phone's browser to specific websites, or cause the device to send out spam or phishing messages via email or social media. The attack requires that an Android phone or iPhone have a pair of headphones with a microphone plugged into its jack. The headphones enable attackers to use its cord as an antenna, picking up radio waves that trigger the voice command software. The researchers say they generated the waves using a laptop, a software-defined radio, an amplifier, and an antenna. Depending on the size and power of the setup, it has an effective range of six-and-a-half to 16 feet. However, the researchers acknowledge the attack has significant limitations, particularly the requirement that the target device has microphone-enabled headphones plugged into it. In addition, some implementations of Google Now will not activate from the lockscreen, although all iPhones have Siri enabled from the lockscreen by default. Attentive users also would be able see the phone executing voice commands and counteract them.
Flowing Toward Red Blood Cell Breakthroughs
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (10/13/15) Eric Gedenk
A team of researchers from Brown University, ETH Zurich, and the Swiss National Supercomputing Center is using Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Cray XK7 Titan supercomputer to help understand and fight diseases affecting red blood cells. Led by Brown's George Karniadakis, the team hopes to simulate hundreds of millions of red blood cells in an attempt to develop better drug delivery methods and predictors to curb tumor formation and sickle cell anemia. The team's research has made it a finalist for this year's ACM Gordon Bell Prize—one of the most prestigious awards in high-performance computing—to be presented at the SC15 supercomputing conference in Austin, TX, next month. The team uses dissipative particle dynamics in its simulations to study blood flow as a collection of individual particles rather than a single fluid object. Project collaborator and Brown doctoral researcher Yu-Hang Tang is also focusing on how blood and cancerous tumor cells might be separated by microfluidic devices, and his simulations are one to three times larger—in terms of the number of simulated cells and computational elements—than the field's current state–of–the–art methods. Tang and his collaborators exploited Titan's graphics-processing unit (GPU) accelerators and developed uDeviceX, a GPU-driven particle solver to help plot individual particles in the simulation.
Closing Cybersecurity's Race Gap
Federal Computer Week (10/09/15)
During an event last week on Capitol Hill, experts from the private sector and government discussed the dual issues of a government cybersecurity labor shortage and the significant underrepresentation of women and minorities in the field. The event was organized by the office of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), the Institute for Critical Infrastructure and Technology, and the International Consortium of Minority Cybersecurity Professionals (ICMCP). According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, fewer than one in five information security analysts are women, and only 9.7 percent are African American and 6.1 percent are Latino. However, as ICMCP board chairman Julian Waits pointed out, although there are not enough women and minorities in the field, there are not enough people of any background to cover the demand for cybersecurity workers. Throughout the day, panelists offered a variety of ideas for how to improve minority representation in cybersecurity. Some suggested organizations take measures such as removing the names from resumes to combat subconscious bias in hiring processes. Education and mentorship also were important themes. Howard University's Computer Science Department chair Legand Burge III discussed the importance of role models, noting how his father obtaining a Ph.D. in electrical engineering helped inspire him to pursue cybersecurity early in life.
New Tool Expands Tracking of Personal Data on the Web
Columbia University (10/12/15) Kim Martineau
Columbia University researchers have developed Sunlight, a second-generation tool designed to bring transparency to the Web. Sunlight was built on XRay, which linked ads shown to Gmail users with text in their emails, and recommendations on Amazon and YouTube with their shopping and viewing patterns. The researchers say Sunlight more accurately matches user-tailored ads and recommendations to pieces of information supplied by users. They also say Sunlight is the first tool to analyze numerous inputs and outputs together to form hypotheses that are tested on a separate dataset taken from the original; each hypothesis and its linked input and output are then rated for statistical confidence. The researchers sent 300 messages with sensitive words in the subject line and the body of the email to 119 Gmail accounts, and found 15 percent of the ads that followed appeared to be targeted. Some of the ads seemed to contradict Google's policy to not target ads based "on race, religion, sexual orientation, health, or sensitive financial categories," according to the researchers. The team also set up fake browsing profiles and accessed the 40 most popular sites on the Web to see which ads showed up; they found only 5 percent of the ads appeared to be targeted, but some seemed to violate Google's advertising ban on products and services facilitating drug use.
Think Twice About Android Root
UCR Today (10/12/15) Sean Nealon
University of California, Riverside (UC Riverside) researchers say they recently conducted a first-of-its-kind study of the Android root ecosystem in order to uncover how many types of variations of Android root exploits exist publicly and how they differ from those offered by commercial root providers. They also wanted to find out how difficult it is to abuse these exploits. The researchers found few of the exploits could be detected by mobile antivirus software and there are systematic weaknesses and flaws in the security protection measures offered by commercial root providers that make them vulnerable to being stolen and repackaged in malware. "Unfortunately, there is not much users can do except hope that a security update gets pushed out quickly by Google, vendors, and carriers, which they usually aren't," says UC Riverside professor Zhiyun Qian. He notes their research found attackers can acquire these exploits by impersonating a regular user. In addition, large commercial root providers have a large repository of root exploits, which gives attackers a strong incentive to target such providers. The researchers studied seven large commercial root providers, one of which was found to have more than 160 exploits, which the researchers subcategorized into 59 families.
A Light Touch May Help Animals and Robots Move on Sand and Snow
Georgia Tech News Center (10/10/15) John Toon
Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) researchers have discovered a correlation between variables such as appendage design with performance across a range of surfaces, which could help future robots avoid getting stuck in loose soil on distant planets. The researchers systematically varied the stiffness of the ground to mimic a variety of surfaces, and then studied how running lizards, geckos, crabs, and a robot moved through these differing surfaces. They said the key measure is how far legs or wheels penetrate into the surface. "You need to know systematically how ground properties affect your performance with wheel shape or leg shape, so you can rationally predict how well your robot will be able to move on the surfaces where you have to travel," says Georgia Tech professor Dan Goldman. The researchers used variations in continuous air flow to vary the substrate's resistance to penetration by a leg or wheel. They used a bio-inspired hexapedal robot, Sandbot, to study average forward speed as a factor of ground penetration resistance and the frequency of leg movement. The researchers found the average speed of the robot declined as the increased air flow through the trackway made the surface weaker. In addition, increasing the leg frequency makes the robot's speed decrease more rapidly with increasing air flow, according to the researchers.
Looking for Answers
The Economist (10/10/15)
Dysmorphology is the idea that neurological and behavioral conditions cause changes in the body's shape that can be used for diagnosis, and Oxford University researchers Christoffer Nellaker and Andrew Zisserman want to make dysmorphology work better by using face-recognition technology. They are developing software that learns to identify syndromes, or collections of co-occurring symptoms, by examining pictures of people who have been diagnosed with them. The program pays attention to features in each face critical to a diagnosis, such as the shape and position of the eyes, eyebrows, lips, and nose, after which it clusters together faces with common characteristics. The program is able to learn to ignore factors such as inconsistent lighting, background, or angle of presentation. The researchers have tested the system on 1,400 pictures of people with eight of the most common disorders, such as Down's syndrome and progeria, or rapid aging in children. The software was able to divide the photographs spontaneously into eight clusters, which agreed 93 percent of the time with doctors' diagnoses of these disorders. Nellaker and Zisserman now are working with teams in other countries and are launching a website to gather more pictures of such conditions to improve the system's accuracy.
Researchers From Kiel and Bochum Develop New Information Storage Device
Kiel University (10/12/15)
Scientists from Kiel University and Ruhr University Bochum say they have developed a new way to store information that could enable the size of storage cells to be reduced to atomic dimensions. The researchers say the technology also would lead to more efficient, universal storage devices that combine the advantages of all storage devices and move as little data back and forth as possible. The approach calls for moving away from charge-based storage and toward a type that is based on electrical resistance. The team built an ion conductor a few nanometers thick to utilize quantum-mechanical effects for the flow through the storage cells. The tunnel effect enabled the researchers to move ions within the storage cell at voltages above one volt and to move electrons at voltages far below one volt. "This way, ions can be specifically used for storing and electrons specifically for reading data," says team member Martin Ziegler. The researchers believe the new resistance-based storage devices could even simulate brain structures, and they say fast pattern recognition and a low energy consumption in connection with enormous parallel data processing would facilitate revolutionary computer architectures.
Hilary Mason: Use Data Science and Machine Intelligence to Build a Better Future
TechRepublic (10/14/15) Erin Carson
Algorithms are enabling machines to perform increasingly "creative" functions that people previously thought only humans could do, such as re-imagining artwork like the Mona Lisa, said Fast Forward Labs CEO Hilary Mason this week in her opening keynote at the 2015 Grace Hopper Women in Computing Celebration. Mason believes there is increasing focus on data science and machine learning because more computing power is available, researchers know what to do with data when they have it, and they have access to more of it. Mason noted companies like hers sit in between established companies, startups, and academic research to define what makes for machine intelligence technology. She said they look for theoretical breakthroughs, changes in the economics that constrain what the entity is trying to achieve, and new data that might become available to make it possible to execute an idea. Mason said her eight-person team makes products that examine areas such as deep learning and natural language generation. For example, she noted they came up with a prototype for writing effective real estate ads. "It's a pretty wild and undefined field, and that's what's wonderful about it," Mason said.
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