Welcome to the February 22, 2016 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
How the U.S. Fights Encryption--and Also Helps Develop It
The Wall Street Journal (02/22/16) Damian Paletta
Some U.S. government agencies are financing the development of encryption technologies to protect communications even as others seek to circumvent them in the interests of national security. Within the government "there are clearly tensions, and those reflect institutional perspectives, the same as personal perspectives," notes former Pentagon official Ryan Henry. "Whether you prioritize security or you prioritize freedom--institutionally, the government is split along those lines." In recent years, the government has made inroads into instant-messaging encryption to better protect sensitive messages from enemy interception, one example being the Open Technology Fund launched through a congressional allocation to the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The fund has underwritten innovations such as Gibberbot, which enables two people to communicate securely via encrypted text messages. Gibberbot was later combined into ChatSecure, a unified encryption app for Apple iPhones, which eventually was adopted by jihadists to secure their own communications. Because many new smartphones have embedded encryption, the U.S. Justice Department is pressing Apple to give the Federal Bureau of Investigation access to the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino, CA, terrorists, which Apple has vowed to fight. According to officials, the Broadcasting Board of Governors is adopting a new policy designed to prevent wrongdoers from using such tools.
Teaching Bronx Students the Language of Computers
The New York Times (02/21/16) Winnie Hu
Protect & Swerve, a website that lets users post videos of police abuses, track them on an interactive map, and play a game in which the goal is to avoid gunfire from police officers, was created by six Bronx high school students. Its success and that of its companion app highlights a growing movement in the Bronx to equip young people with the knowledge and the skills to code. Bronx schools have been offering coding lessons in schools, weekend hackathons, and training institutes for teachers. The Bronx campaign is part of a larger effort across New York City and the U.S. to ensure students will have a chance to become fluent in technology. For example, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced Computer Science for All, an $81-million education initiative that will require all of the city's public schools to offer computer science to every student by 2025. In addition, education officials say they have committed to training about 5,000 teachers in the next decade so students can learn computer science in elementary, middle, and high school. Several education and community organizations also have increased their efforts to teach coding and computer science skills. This spring, the New York Public Library plans to expand a free six-week coding course for teenagers in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island.
First Evidence for the Happiness Paradox--That Your Friends Are Happier Than You Are
Technology Review (02/19/16)
Mathematical analysis has demonstrated the validity of the claim that most people's friends have more friends than they do, while the greater popularity of those friends also may explain the increasingly viable observation that using social networks to excess makes people more unhappy. The research has engendered broad speculation that the distribution of happiness across a social network also could support a happiness paradox, in which happiness correlates with popularity. Indiana University in Bloomington's Johan Bollen and colleagues have uncovered initial evidence of a happiness paradox on Twitter, via an analysis of the most recent 3,000 tweets sent by about 40,000 Twitter users. An algorithm analyzed each tweet to determine its sentiment, and then assumed this evokes a sense of the user's level of happiness while also including the number of followers and followees for every individual. The researchers found not only a friendship paradox in action, but also a happiness paradox. They say the evidence implies the less happy the individual, the stronger the happiness paradox they face--a surprising finding because unhappy people also appear to experience a less-significant friendship paradox. "Instead of resulting from the greater prevalence of popular and happy individuals, it could come about by the social interactions between people," the researchers say. "In other words, unhappiness is more infectious than happiness for certain individuals."
White House Wants to Train K-12 Students to Be Nation's Future Cyber Defense
NextGov.com (02/19/16) Mohana Ravindranath
A $4-billion White House effort encouraging K-12 schools to offer computer science courses is part of a longer-term effort to fill the shortage of cyber experts in the federal government, according to White House Office of Science and Technology Policy adviser Kumar Garg. He says a large part of the cost share, which provides $4 billion for states, $100 million for districts, and outlines a $135-million investment from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Corporation for National and Community Service to encourage computer science education, goes toward training teachers instead of purchasing equipment. The $4-billion proposal would be implemented over three years. Meanwhile, NSF will be investing $120 million over five years through its existing funding streams in support of K-12 computer science education. Some jurisdictions are training teachers to incorporate computer science in their existing courses, while others are experimenting with having full computer science education credentials. "We highlighted the fact that there's a cybersecurity worker shortage in the government and long-term investments like Computer Science for All can complement that," Garg says. The Computer Science for All initiative complements the TechHire initiative, as more communities start to see both as a way to give their community members access to the information technology sector.
Brain Scan for Artificial Intelligence Shows How Software Thinks
New Scientist (02/17/16) Aviva Rutkin
Neural networks are so complex it can be impossible to retrace the steps a deep-learning algorithm took to reach a given result. Israel Institute of Technology researchers have developed a new technique for taking snapshots of neural networks as they work through a problem. The technique is like a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan for computers, capturing an algorithm's activity as it analyzes a problem. The image enables the researchers to track different stages of the neural network's progress, including dead ends. The researchers gave a neural network the task of playing three Atari 2600 video games: Breakout, Seaquest, and Pac-Man. They then collected 120,000 snapshots of the deep-learning algorithm as it played each of the games, and mapped the data using a method that enabled them to compare the same moment in repeated attempts at a game. The researchers say scans such as these could help others develop algorithms designed to solve real-world problems. "If you’re deploying this technology in the real world, you want to understand how it works and where it might fail," says University of Wyoming professor Jeff Clune, who was not involved in the research. "If we can understand neural networks better, then we can understand their weaknesses and improve their strengths."
Real or Virtual: Dartmouth Scientists Ask--Can We Tell the Difference?
Dartmouth College (02/18/16)
It is increasingly difficult for people to tell the difference between real photos and computer-generated images, although a little training can greatly improve such differentiation, according to a study led by Dartmouth College researchers. Dartmouth professor Hany Farid notes the push to create virtual characters indistinguishable from humans also has given rise to complex forensic and legal issues, such as the need to differentiate between computer-generated and photographic images of child pornography. The study involved perceptual experiments in which 60 computer-generated and photographic images of men's and women's faces were displayed to 250 observers, each of whom was asked to classify every image as either computer-generated or a photo. Observers correctly classified photographic images 92 percent of the time, and computer-generated images 60 percent of the time. A later experiment determined when a second set of observers was given some training beforehand, their accuracy on classifying photos slipped to 85 percent but their accuracy on computer-generated images rose to 76 percent. "We expect that as computer-graphics technology continues to advance, observers will find it increasingly difficult to distinguish computer-generated from photographic images," Farid says. "While this can be considered a success for the computer-graphics community, it will no doubt lead to complications for the legal and forensic communities."
Columbia Engineering's Computer Vision Laboratory Develops Cambits, a Modular Imaging System That Can Transform Into Many Different Cameras
Columbia University (02/16/16) Holly Evarts
Columbia Engineering professor Shree Nayar and Ricoh scientist Makoto Odamaki have developed a modular imaging system for creating a wide range of computational cameras. The Cambits system features an array of colorful plastic blocks of five different types, including sensors, light sources, actuators, lenses, and optical attachments. The blocks can be configured to produce a variety of cameras with different functions, such as high-dynamic-range imaging, panoramic imaging, refocusing, light-field imaging, depth imaging using stereo, kaleidoscopic imaging, and microscopy. "We wanted to...come up with a hardware and software system that is modular, reconfigurable, and able to capture all kinds of images," Nayar says. "We see Cambits as a wonderful way to unleash the creativity in all of us." Cambit blocks are attached via magnets, and electrically linked by spring-loaded pins that conduct power, data, and control signals from a host computer. Each block comes with an ID, and when a set of blocks are attached to each other, the host system identifies the current configuration and provides a menu of options for what the user might want to do. Within each block is a circuit board comprised of a microcontroller, an upstream interface, and a downstream interface.
A New Method to Dramatically Improve the Sequencing of Metagenomes
UC San Diego News Center (02/16/16) Ioana Patringenaru
An international team of computer scientists has found a way to enhance researchers' ability to sequence the DNA of organisms. The method, called TruSPADES, generates so-called Synthetic Long Reads via a computer. To develop their method, the researchers took the shorter reads, 100 to 300 base pairs, which were equipped with barcodes. They assembled the short reads together into Synthetic Long Reads by representing them using a de Bruijn graph, enabling researchers to determine which reads are connected together. The next step is to apply this method to the study of various microbial communities ranging from human to marine microbiomes. University of California, San Diego professor Pavel Pevzner and co-author Anton Bankevich from St. Petersburg State University are working with Christopher Dupont, a researcher at the J. Craig Venter Institute, to do that. Metagenomics is especially challenging because researchers do not study a single species of bacteria, but hundreds of them that live together in a community. When they extract a sample from the community and sequence it, they end up with bits of bacterial genomes from all of the organisms in the community. "This method gives us better results at a much smaller cost," Dupont says. "We are now assembling genomes for organisms we didn't even know existed."
Ambitious Vision for Computer Science Drives Princeton Senior Ye's Research Success
Princeton University (02/15/16) Venuri Siriwardane
Princeton University student Katherine Ye has made it her goal to apply formal methods to real-world software. The senior computer science major says the technique can expose programming errors in software critical for banking, medicine, or voting, and could block thieves and hackers. Formal methods involve the process of using mathematical techniques to specify how software should function and to verify that it meets the specifications. However, the use of formal methods in programming has been debated in the computer science community since the 1960s. Software companies have not adopted the techniques widely due to concerns they would require extensive training, add lengthy stages to software development and would not be compatible with certain software packages. "A lot of people in industry and even some in academics are really skeptical of formal methods," she notes. "Skeptics have the impression that formal methods are useless or too academic." Ye is participating in a Princeton-led project that aims to use formal methods to develop tools to eliminate uncertainty from software development. The group has received a $10-million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation. Her thesis aims to prove the security of a pseudo-random number generator.
Algorithm Makes Hyperspectral Imaging Faster
NC State News (02/18/16) Matt Shipman
Researchers at North Carolina State University (NC State) and the University of Delaware say they have developed an algorithm that can quickly and accurately reconstruct hyperspectral images using less data. The researchers say the new method creates images using instruments that capture hyperspectral information succinctly, and the combination of the algorithm and hardware enables the user to acquire hyperspectral images in less time and to store those images using less energy. Capturing hyperspectral images across dozens of wavelengths can be time-consuming, but researchers recently have developed hyperspectral imaging hardware that can acquire the necessary images more quickly and store the images using significantly less memory by utilizing "compressive measurements," which mix spatial and wavelength data in a format that can be used later to reconstruct the complete hyperspectral image. The researchers developed an algorithm that can reconstruct an image accurately and quickly. They say in model testing, the algorithm significantly outperformed existing algorithms at every frequency. "We were able to reconstruct image quality in 100 seconds of computation that other algorithms couldn't match in 450 seconds," says NC State professor Dror Baron. "Our next step is to run the algorithm in a real-world system to gain insights into how the algorithm functions and identify potential room for improvement."
Digital Baby Project's Aim: Computers That See Like Humans
IEEE Spectrum (02/15/16) Jeremy Hsu
A cognitive psychology experiment has revealed key differences in how humans and computers see images, says Weizmann Institute of Science professor Shimon Ullman. He says the results could help improve computer-vision algorithms and lead to the development of artificial intelligence that learns to understand the world the way a growing toddler does. The experiment found human vision outperformed computer vision, but human recognition dropped suddenly when slight changes make images too small or fuzzy to identify, while computer algorithms did not show a similar "recognition gap." Similar to human vision, computer-vision models rely on a bottom-up approach that filters images based on the simplest features possible before moving on to identify them by more complex features. However, Ullman says the human brain also works top-down, comparing a standard model of certain objects with a particular object it is trying to identify. He believes the top-down approach could be used to improve computer models and algorithms. Ullman and colleagues have received funding to pursue this theory via a "Digital Baby" project grant provided by the European Research Council.
Faster Airport Queues With Facial Recognition
Gemini (01/28/16) Maria Lillemoen
Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) have developed facial-recognition technology that could automate security checks at airports. The algorithms recognize people's faces based on electronic passports with a photo and ID number, says Raghavendra Ramachandra, a postdoctoral fellow in NTNU's Biometrics Laboratory. As a result, every single person would not need to stop at the airport gate. Ramachandra notes NTNU's solution does not involve storing information on individuals' movements in databases. "Privacy is our top priority," he says. "If someone were to hack the databases, they wouldn't be able to reconstruct the data. There's always the possibility of being hacked when you save information digitally, but in using biometrics we try to mitigate this risk by avoiding centralized storage." Ramachandra also says users will not find facial recognition distracting. The method of identifying people does not require contact and people will not notice anything. The technology company Safran Morpo soon will test the facial-recognition software at several airports around the globe.
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