Welcome to the January 13, 2016 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Computing Leaders Team Up on K-12 Computer Science Framework
SD Times (01/11/16) Christina Mulligan
ACM, the Computer Science Teachers Association, and Code.org are partnering to create a new framework, called K12CS, to define the appropriate scope and sequence for K-12 computer science education. The initiative's website says computer science is a set of essential skills that are important for students' learning in school as well as for their future careers and interests. The goal of K12CS is to establish a baseline level of computer science education that all students should have, instead of preparing students to major in computer science or security jobs as software engineers. The framework is expected to be released this summer, and will be designed to identify core computer science lessons and concepts students exiting grades 2, 5, 8, and 12 should know. In addition to the three leading organizations, more than 100 advisers within the computing community, state and large school districts, technology companies, and other organizations will be involved in developing the framework. "This work is about defining the basic expectations for what every student should have a chance to learn about K-12 computer science to prepare for the emerging demands of the 21st century," according to the K12CS organization.
Google Opens Up About When Its Self-Driving Cars Have Nearly Crashed
The Washington Post (01/12/16) Matt McFarland
Google's fleet of automated vehicles, currently undergoing testing on roads in California and Texas, have had 13 near-misses in which a driver had to intervene to prevent a collision, according to a new Google report on the tests in California. The study estimated on 272 occasions in the 14-month test period drivers commandeered the cars due to software failure, while in 69 other incidents the drivers opted to take control to ensure the vehicles operated safely. The report points to a general decline in technology malfunctions since the fall of 2014. "It seems to be a pretty good sign of progress," says Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving car project. However, Princeton University's Alain Kornhauser cautions the cars' performance under easy or favorable road conditions can be deceiving. "It's informative, but it shouldn't be treated as a true measure of the vehicle's safety," says Carnegie Mellon University professor Aaron Steinfeld. The Google report cited the rate of disengagement, when the cars sense a system failure and ask the test driver to take over, as the most significant area of progress. Although this rate fell in early 2015, it increased late in the year, with Google attributing it to more difficult conditions under which cars were being tested, such as in heavy traffic and inclement weather.
U.S. STEM Funding Still Reeling From Budget Cuts
NextGov.com (01/12/16) Alanna Schubach
Although the $1.5-trillion spending measure approved by the U.S. Congress in December will shore up the National Institutes of Health with a 6-percent budget hike, other agencies and higher education institutions that lost much-needed federal grants to sequestration may still be left wanting. Some schools already have seen an erosion of opportunities for young researchers in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields as a result of earlier budget cuts. University officials are concerned these reductions could plunge the U.S. scientific community into an innovation deficit. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities' Jennifer Poulakidas warns other nations are outspending the U.S. in their research and development efforts. "We're behind, because we're not doing what we ought to be doing compared to our prior investments in science, research, and higher education," she says. Ironically, the cuts in academic science funding are concurrent with the Obama administration's aggressive push for more STEM education investment, with the president urging universities to graduate 1 million more STEM majors than they do now. Still, Poulakidas says the spending increase passed by Congress is a positive sign. "If we can continue along these lines, we'll be putting ourselves in a stronger position," she notes.
Algorithms Claim to Hunt Terrorists While Protecting the Privacy of Others
Motherboard (01/11/16) Michael Byrne
University of Pennsylvania researchers report developing an algorithmic framework that can track individuals in social networks while shielding the privacy of "untargeted" digital bystanders. "At the highest level, one can think of our algorithms as outputting a list of confirmed targeted individuals discovered in the network, for whom any subsequent action (such as publication in a most-wanted list, further surveillance, or arrest in the case of terrorism; medical treatment or quarantine in the case of epidemics) will not compromise the privacy of the protected," the researchers note. One underlying idea of the algorithms is that each member of a network comes with a sequence of bits signifying membership in a targeted group. The algorithm can only disclose a certain number of bits, so it functions to optimize this case to such a degree that as many bits-of-interest are revealed as possible. The optimization process is conducted via a statistic of proximity, a measurement of how close a given graph node is to a targeted group of nodes. The researchers used actual social networks with stochastically generated artificial target groups, and they found they could search a network for targeted members without revealing information about individuals in privacy-protected populations.
In Pursuit of an Affordable Tablet for the Blind
Technology Review (01/11/16) Signe Brewster
University of Michigan (U-M) researchers have developed an inexpensive, full-page braille tablet that could make subjects such as science and math more easily accessible to the blind and visually impaired. The device uses liquid or air to fill tiny bubbles, which then pop up and create the blocks of raised dots that form braille. Each bubble has what amounts to a logic gate that opens or remains closed to control the flow of liquid after each command, says U-M professor Sile O'Modhrain. The tablet is based on manufacturing techniques used in the silicon industry, in which chips are laid down in layers instead of having many small parts to assemble. "My observation is that, currently, even many of us who read braille well find reading it with single-line braille displays slower and more tiring than using text-to-speech or audio materials," says the National Federation for the Blind's Chris Danielsen. "I think this would dramatically change with a larger display, especially one at a reasonable price point." Although braille use has declined with the advent of new technologies, text-to-speech software is unable to convey the same visual information as braille. "Anything where you want to be able to see stuff written down, like coding or music or even just mathematics, you really have to work in braille,” O'Modhrain says.
Linux Foundation Moves Dronecode Project Forward
eWeek (01/12/16) Sean Michael Kerner
The open source Dronecode effort, a Linux Foundation Collaborative Project launched in October 2014, has grown from only a handful of members to 51. "The goal...is to establish a common platform that utilizes open source best practices and technologies to accelerate the adoption of better, more affordable, and more reliable open source software for [unmanned aerial vehicles] UAVs," says Dronecode board of directors chairman Chris Anderson. He notes there has been substantial growth and development during the project's first year as the platform now serves as the basis for multiple commercially available drone technologies. "It's also extremely encouraging to see increased member engagement and the formation of technical working groups to further advance our mission and open source technologies for UAV adoption and acceleration," Anderson says. Dronecode consists of multiple components, and also includes many projects at various layers of the stack, ranging from a real-time operating system and drivers at the bottom to mobile and cloud apps at the top. The Dronecode project is launching three technical working groups to further advance the technology. "These technical working groups were formed to focus development efforts into specific areas of growth for UAVs--camera and gimbal controls, airspace management, and hardware/software interfaces--while ensuring standardization and interoperability across the technologies," Anderson says.
New Platform to Help Business Tap Full Potential of Big Data
CORDIS News (01/12/16)
The European Union-funded JUNIPER project, which was completed in November 2015, has the potential to contribute to supporting projected growth of data streams and stored data. The project was launched in December 2012 to develop, test, and evaluate prototype technologies that could aid big data analytical software applications. The goal was to help find new patterns using advanced analytics that could lead to new business opportunities and smarter applications. For example, patterns in big data can be analyzed to better understand customer behavior and preferences by including social media data, browser logs, and text analytics. A key issue with big data has been determining how to effectively manage such large and complex information streams, with online information outpacing network capacity. Big data usually has been processed by first using a data generator to produce large streams of information that need to be filtered prior to storage, and second by an application that can reply to an end user's request. The JUNIPER project addressed these challenges by developing a real-time platform that can support a wide range of high-performance big data applications. The goal was to ensure demands for information from end users could be met via real-time exploitation of streaming data sources and stored data.
VTT's Robot Innovation Automates Short Production Runs
VTT Technical Research Center (01/11/16)
Researchers from the VTT Technical Research Center of Finland, working as part of the HEPHESTOS project within the 7th European Union Framework Program, say they have developed a quick-control system that substantially reduces the programming time for industrial robots, enabling the use of automation in short production runs of single-item products. The researchers say the time required for programming a robot has been reduced to minutes, compared to traditional programming methods, which could take an hour or more. "The new solution significantly enhances the efficiency of productive operations and opens up new opportunities for utilizing robots," says VTT principal scientist Tapio Heikkila. The new control system includes the use of two force/torque sensors, which recognize the pressure on the tool. One sensor is attached to a wireless control stick the robot uses to maneuver through the task step by step. The control stick and the control system, which operate in real time, enable human controllers to work in the same working space with the robot and directly control the robot's movements. "The interactive solution makes it possible to take advantage of the human observation capacity for carrying out the required task," Heikkila says. He notes the new system makes the teaching of new tasks and continuous paths to the robot and direct control of the robot much faster.
Can Computer Games Improve the Ability to Study?
University of Bristol News (01/08/16) Cathy Farmer
University of Bristol researchers conducted a brain-imaging study showing technological game-playing can involve brain activity that positively supports learning. The research is linked to a larger classroom study, which will include 10,000 secondary school students across Britain, and it could provide a new perspective on concerns that some children spend too much time playing computer games. The researchers will show how the gamification of learning can reduce the activity of a particular brain network that governs mind wandering. The researchers found when students tried to study by reading notes and looking at example questions, this Default Mode Network portion of the brain was strongly activated. However, when studying became a competitive game, the additional brain activity disappeared and learning increased. "This is evidence that computer games can be good for learning, if we are careful about how we design and develop them," says University of Bristol professor Paul Howard-Jones. As part of the study, 24 student volunteers experienced three types of study sessions while having their brains scanned. The brain-imaging experiment showed how the students concentrated and learned better when studying was part of a game.
UW Computer Scientists to Make Financial Products Better and More Available for the Poor
UW Today (01/12/16) Jennifer Langston
Using a two-year, $1.7-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, University of Washington (UW) computer scientists and engineers will develop, test, and deploy new technologies to make financial applications better and more available to the world's impoverished. "This technology can have tremendous impact--both for allowing people to send remittances from the city back to rural regions, and to establish savings accounts so people can have reserves so that an event like an accident or a pregnancy doesn't send them over the edge," says UW professor Richard Anderson. UW's Department of Computer Science & Engineering will set up a new Digital Financial Services Research Group to probe and surmount technological obstacles to widespread adoption of mobile financial services. The core team will include professors Tadayoshi Kohno and Franziska Roesner, who are experts in uncovering security vulnerabilities. The team also includes professor Joshua Blumenstock, who has developed a technique for measuring poverty and wealth via cellphone metadata, and professor Kurtis Heimerl, who founded the Endaga startup to build locally owned, independent rural cellular networks in remote areas. "To build this research group, we've identified a set of initial challenges to look at--the security of mobile applications for financial services and the user interface and tools to make it easier to build financial applications," Anderson notes. The team intends to prototype different technologies and develop a UW-based demonstration lab in the next two years.
Autonomous Cars in Snow: Ford, U-Michigan Test at Mcity
University of Michigan News Service (01/11/16) Nicole Casal Moore
Researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) and Ford are working to make autonomous vehicle sensors useful on snowy roads via testing on U-M's Mcity simulated urban environment. Although LiDAR sensors employed on Ford's autonomous Fusion Hybrid sedans can map lane location with fine accuracy, they cannot perceive the road when it is obscured by snow, or when the sensor lens is covered. U-M and Ford's collaborative solution involves the use of high-resolution three-dimensional (3D) maps featuring information about the road and what is above it. "The maps we create contain useful information about the 3D environment around the car, allowing it to localize even with a blanket of snow covering the ground," reports U-M professor Ryan Eustice. The driverless vehicles plot out the maps while driving the test environment in favorable weather, and the technology automatically annotates features such as traffic signs, trees, and buildings later. When the vehicles cannot see the ground, they detect above-ground landmarks to establish their location on the map. "The vehicle's normal safety systems, like electronic stability control and traction control, which often are used on slippery winter roads, worked perfectly alongside the autonomous driving software," notes Ford's Jim McBride. "We eventually want our autonomous vehicles to detect deteriorating conditions, decide whether it's safe to keep driving and, if so, for how long."
Will Computers Ever Truly Understand What We're Saying?
Berkeley News (01/11/16) Robert Sanders
The inability of computers to account for the social context of conversations the way humans do means they will never truly understand what people are talking about, according to a group of neuroscientists. University of California, Berkeley cognitive neuroscience postdoctoral fellow Arjen Stolk and his Dutch colleagues say machines do not develop a shared comprehension of the people, place, and situation that is essential to how humans communicate. Stolk contends researchers and engineers should devote more attention to the contextual details of mutual understanding, and he cites experimental results from brain scans showing humans achieve nonverbal mutual understanding via novel computational and neural mechanisms. Computers and robots' dialogue is founded on a statistical analysis of word meaning, Stolk notes. "Statistical regularities may get you far, but it is not how the brain does it," he says. "In order for computers to communicate with us, they would need a cognitive architecture that continuously captures and updates the conceptual space shared with their communication partner during a conversation." Stolk says a hypothetical dynamic conceptual framework would enable computers to resolve the innately ambiguous communication signals generated by a human, partly by tapping information retained years earlier.
Harnessing the Power of Computers to Create a Sustainable Future
Research News @ Vanderbilt (01/08/16) David Salisbury
Vanderbilt University is participating in a new national and international research network that will explore new dimensions in "computational sustainability." The U.S. National Science Foundation has awarded a five-year, $10-million grant through its Expeditions in Computing program to establish the CompSustNet computational sustainability network. At the new network, computer scientists will collaborate with environmental, material and social scientists, biologists, and physicists to harness the power of computers to address economic, environmental, and social challenges to creating a sustainable future. Vanderbilt will pursue research that applies machine learning and other computational approaches to sustainability challenges, such as managing smart electrical grids. "In short, we want to train a new generation of computer scientists who think of themselves as at the forefront of long-term sustainability research, policy, and practice," says Vanderbilt professor Douglas Fisher. The network also will feature teams from Bowdoin College, the California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Howard University, Oregon State University, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the University of Southern California. Computer scientists from Cornell will direct CompSustNet.
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