Welcome to the April 15, 2016 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Chip, Implanted in Brain, Helps Paralyzed Man Regain Control of Hand
The New York Times (04/13/16) Benedict Carey
A quadriplegic man with a brain chip implant has regained control of his right hand via arduous repetition and practice with technology that transmits his thought impulses directly to the hand's muscles. The interface bypasses Ian Burkhart's injured spine and connects with a computer, sending movement signals to the hand via a sleeve on his arm. The chip in his brain is positioned in an area that governs hand movements, and in it are 96 "microelectrodes," which record the firing of individual neurons. Following surgery, Burkhart had the firing patterns of attempted hand movements decoded with software developed at the Battelle Memorial Institute. Battelle's Herbert Bresler says the code required regular recalibration because "the signal changes constantly as learning happens, and we had to adjust to those changes. The machine learned as Ian Burkhart learned." After a year of training, Burkhart was successfully able to pick up a bottle and pour its contents into a jar, and to pick up a straw and stir the contents. The results of the experiment demonstrate "an advance toward a goal we all have, to provide as much independence to [paralyzed] patients as possible," says Rajesh Rao, director of the University of Washington's Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering.
Lack of Confidence Proving to Be Real Killer for Women in Technology
Network World (04/14/11) Bob Brown
Separate studies characterize the challenges for women in the technology field, with Pluralsight and Women Who Code collaborating on a poll of 1,500 women who cited a lack of advancement opportunities, role models, mentors, and work-life balance. Women with more experience and responsibility faced more impediments than younger counterparts, and 60 percent of female leaders said having more women on their teams would work to their advantage. A lack of confidence was named the most common obstacle to career advancement by respondents, followed by being part of a male-dominated work environment. Moreover, only 8 percent of female respondents called startups ideal for them, with about 50 percent preferring a mid-sized company. The prospect of working around the clock could likely be discouraging women from considering startups, as survey respondents listed flexible work hours and paid vacation/holiday leave as highly desirable. Meanwhile, a Hired.com study analyzing data from approximately 100,000 job offers found firms offer women an average of 3 percent less pay than men for the same jobs. In addition, more than 66 percent of the time men get higher salary offers than women for the same jobs at the same organization.
Obama Announces Computer-Science-for-All Initiative
CIO (04/15/16) Kenneth Corbin
The White House on Tuesday announced a slate of initiatives to advance education in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, including a $200-million investment from Oracle to provide computer science education to 125,000 U.S. students. "In the new economy, computer science isn't optional--it's a basic skill, along with the three Rs," President Barack Obama said at the sixth annual White House science fair. He called on schools and businesses to encourage students "to actively engage and pursue science and push the boundaries of what's possible." Obama also cited "structural biases" within STEM fields as obstacles to be surmounted, and said ensuring all students have access to hands-on STEM education should be prioritized. As part of the White House's STEM campaign, the U.S. Education Department is issuing guidance to states, districts, and individual schools to help obtain federal grant money to improve instruction in computer science. More than 500 schools have pledged to extend access to computer science education, partly thanks to support from Code.org. The US2020 nonprofit also is supporting a new online program to match STEM workers to mentoring and volunteering opportunities.
Human Mind Excels at Quantum-Physics Computer Game
Nature (04/13/16) Elizabeth Gibney
A team of scientists led by Aarhus University physicist Jacob Sherson has developed a video game that follows quantum-mechanical laws, but at which non-physicist players excel. It offers support to the theory that using computer games to crowdsource scientific solutions can be extended to quantum physics. The Quantum Moves game is modeled on the problem of how fast a laser can move an atom between wells in an egg-box-like structure without changing the atom's energy. The game represents the atom as a liquid sloshing around in a well, and in one level players manipulate a cursor to control a second well, which they use to gather the liquid and return it to a base, with the liquid behaving according to the laws of quantum mechanics. Once they find ways to transfer the liquid, a computer then converts their mouse movements to solutions to the real-world quantum egg box. About 300 volunteers were enlisted to play this level a total of 12,000 times, and more than half of the solutions they helped create were more efficient than those produced solely by computer algorithms. Sherson says this breakthrough suggests the human mind might be more capable of understanding the quantum realm's unique rules than previously considered.
Women in Computing Group Taps Princeton Routing, SDN Researcher as Athena Lecturer
Network World (04/14/16) Bob Brown
ACM's Council on Women in Computing (ACM-W) has named Princeton University professor Jennifer Rexford as its 2016-2017 Athena Lecturer in honor of her contributions to computer science. Rexford was recognized for her work in improving Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) and for contributions that have led to software-defined networks (SDNs). As the newly named Athena Lecturer, Rexford will be invited to present a talk at an ACM event and gets a Google-funded $25,000 honorarium. "BGP is the 'glue' that binds the Internet together and Jennifer's innovations have vastly improved the BGP's effectiveness," says Judith Olson, who heads the ACM-W awards committee. "Her work played an important role as the Internet became a worldwide phenomenon, and she continues pioneering work to address the growing challenges presented by issues such as scalability and security." Aside from her work with BGP and SDNs, Rexford is the author of more than 170 publications and holds 12 U.S. patents. Rexford also received the 2004 ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award, which is given annually to an outstanding young computing professional.
Autonomous Vehicles Cannot Be Test-Driven Enough Miles to Demonstrate Their Safety
RAND Corporation (04/12/16)
Autonomous vehicles would have to drive hundreds of millions of miles and, in some cases, hundreds of billions of miles to generate enough data to clearly demonstrate their safety, according to a new RAND report. As a result, alternative testing methods must be developed to supplement on-the-road testing, which could be in the form of accelerated testing, virtual testing and simulators, mathematical modeling, scenario testing, and pilot studies. Researchers caution it may not be possible to establish with certainty the reliability of autonomous vehicles prior to making them available for public use. The researchers say in parallel to creating new testing methods, it is imperative to develop regulations and policies that can evolve with the technology. Although the total number of crashes, injuries, and fatalities from human drivers is high, the rate of these failures is low in comparison with the number of miles that people drive. "The most autonomous miles any developer has logged are about 1.3 million, and that took several years," says RAND study co-author Susan M. Paddock. "This is important data, but it does not come close to the level of driving that is needed to calculate safety rates. Even if autonomous vehicle fleets are driven 10 million miles, one still would not be able to draw statistical conclusions about safety and reliability."
Why a Chip That's Bad at Math Can Help Computers Tackle Harder Problems
Technology Review (04/14/16) Tom Simonite
A computer chip from Singular Computing whose creation was underwritten by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) could yield benefits for computer systems faced with myriad challenges precisely because it cannot perform math operations correctly. Singular CEO Joseph Bates says the S1 chip's fuzzy mathematical operations might boost the efficiency of problematic computing tasks, especially those involving data that comes with real-world noise or that requires some approximation. Bates says the S1 will be beneficial for applications such as high-resolution radar imaging, filtering three-dimensional information from stereo photos, and deep learning. A simulated test using software that tracks objects in a video demonstrated the S1 could process frames nearly 100 times faster while consuming less than 2 percent of the power of a conventional processor performing exact math. Bates is constructing a batch of error-prone computers that each integrates 16 S1s with a single conventional processor. DARPA will receive five such machines this summer for experimentation by government and academic researchers. The goal is to prove the technology's potential and attract interest from the chip industry. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab professor Deb Roy says interest in approximate computing is growing as coders want to extract data from photos and video, or seek machines that can sift meaning from real-world and human behavioral information.
Patching Up Web Applications
MIT News (04/15/16) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers leveraged some aspects of Ruby on Rails to develop a system that can quickly analyze tens of thousands of lines of application code to find security flaws. The researchers tested 50 popular Web apps written with Ruby on Rails and found 23 previously undiagnosed security flaws. The system took no more than 64 seconds to analyze any given program using static analysis, which aims to generally describe how data flows through a program, says MIT professor Daniel Jackson. The researchers rewrote libraries so the operations defined in them describe their own behavior in a logical language. The process turned the Ruby on Rails interpreter into a static-analysis tool, which produces a formal, line-by-line description of how the program handles data. The researchers used the tool to build three different debuggers for Ruby on Rails apps, each requiring different degrees of programmer involvement. The researchers also identified seven different ways in which Web apps typically control access to data. For each of these data-access patterns, the researchers developed a logical model that describes which operations a user can perform on what data, and under what circumstances.
Can Your Smartphone Drive Your Car?
Government Computer News (04/12/16) Patrick Marshall
A key hurdle to making affordable mobile robots is the high cost of sensing and navigating equipment, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers say a low-cost alternative to light detection and ranging is a smartphone equipped with a $10 laser attachment. Called Smartphone laser distance sensor (LDS), a prototype developed by MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory uses the smartphone's camera to record reflections of low-energy light bursts from the laser, which is mounted at the bottom of the phone. The position of objects is determined by computing where the light falls on the camera's sensor. MIT researcher Jason Gao says the prototype is fast and accurate enough to guide vehicles moving at speeds up to almost 10 miles per hour. At a range of three to four meters, the system can gauge depth to an accuracy measured in millimeters, while at five meters accuracy declines to 6 centimeters. Gao says the team believes it can improve the accuracy and resolution to levels sufficient for ordinary driving. As processors and smartphones become more powerful, the team expects the capabilities of Smartphone LDS to improve rapidly as well. Gao says the team expects the technology to be used in various types of robots, such as self-driving vehicles, drones for package delivery, and robots used for picking up trash.
A Flexible Camera: A Radically Different Approach to Imaging
Columbia University (04/13/16) Holly Evarts
Columbia University researchers have developed a sheet camera that can be wrapped around everyday objects to capture images that cannot be taken with one or more conventional cameras. They designed and fabricated a flexible lens array that adapts its optical properties when the sheet camera is bent. The system enables the sheet camera to produce high-quality images over a wide range of sheet deformations. "We believe there are numerous applications for cameras that are large in format but very thin and highly flexible," says Columbia professor Shree K. Nayar. He notes if such an imaging system could be mass produced, it could be wrapped around a wide range of objects, and lead to cameras the size of a credit card that a photographer could flex to control its field of view. The new "flex-cam" requires a flexible detector array and a thin optical system that can project a high-quality image on the array. However, bending the camera would result in gaps between the fields of view and adjacent lenses. To solve this problem, the researchers developed an adaptive lens array made of elastic material that enables the focal length of each lens in the sheet camera to vary with the local curvature of the sheet in a way that mitigates aliasing in the captured images.
Firefighters' Positioning System May Be Used to Monitor Walking Difficulty for Elderly
KTH Royal Institute of Technology (04/08/16) David Callahan
Researchers at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology have fine-tuned a positioning system used in fire rescue operations to collect data on people's foot movements. By examining how forces are distributed in the foot, clinicians could potentially identify such problems as early-stage Parkinson's, says KTH professor Peter Handel. Researchers in Sweden will work with a group of senior citizens in September to test the system. "This kind of information could also allow caregivers to predict when people should start using mobility aids--before further problems arise," Handel says. The system, consisting of an accelerometer, gyroscope, and processor, is placed in the shoe using special insoles to measure the movement of the foot and directional changes, whether the user walks, runs, jumps, or crawls, according to Handel. Other potential uses for the technology include behavioral research and sports, in which athletes could use positioning technology to measure their own movements and analyze whether these can be optimized to improve performance or to reduce damage. The Open Shoe Project started as a joint collaboration between KTH and the Indian Institute of Science, and it is now run within Seamless Affordable Assistive Technology for Health, an Indo-Swedish project with KTH, University of Gavle, Robotdalen, and Brepus Castel as Swedish partners and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur and the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore as Indian partners.
UW-Led Research Team Wins $7.5M MURI Grant to Defend Against Advanced Cyberattacks
UW Today (04/08/16) Jennifer Langston
The U.S. Defense Department has awarded a $7.5-million, five-year Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative grant to a University of Washington (UW)-led research team to study advanced persistent threats. "Right now, there is no good understanding of the interactions in these complex cyberattacks or how to mitigate them," says principal investigator Radha Poovendran, director of UW's Network Security Lab. The researchers will develop a comprehensive scientific framework to understand advanced persistent threats and mathematically represent adversarial cyber interactions. They will employ statistical modeling, adaptive game theory, machine learning, and control and systems theory in modeling the strategic interactions between these stealthy malware attacks and cyber defense mechanisms to combat them. The team will develop methods to determine how quickly the cyber environment changes and whether a given defense can be effective within the rate of change of the cyber environment. As a result, systems would know when to keep deploying a particular defense or switch to something else, as well as the chances of success.
Toward a More Inclusive STEM Workplace
UA News (AZ) (04/07/16) Lori Harwood
University of Arizona (UA) professor Beth Mitchneck says colleges and universities should include and advance more female professors to boost diversity in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. "If we're excluding half the population from being full partners in the scientific enterprise, then we as a society lose out," she warns. Mitchneck offers a six-part plan structured around the need to learn social science research, have leaders understand the context and be accountable for diversity and inclusion, look for external catalysts, concentrate at the department level, collect and publicly share data, and institute policy change. According to the U.S. National Science Foundation, only 21 percent of full professors in science fields and 5 percent of full professors in engineering are women, despite women earning about 50 percent of the doctorates in science and engineering in the U.S. "There are a lot of different incentives for universities to hire women or minorities, but then they haven't changed the conditions under which they work," Mitchneck observes. Because the system is saturated with subtle prejudices, she advises the campus community to read the relevant social science research for an "understanding of the myriad ways in which bias contributes to stereotype threat, belonging uncertainty, work-life imbalance, and a host of other negative outcomes."
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