Welcome to the June 13, 2016 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Number of Blacks Lagging in Computer Science Field
Diverse Education (06/13/16) Jamal Eric Watson
The inaugural National Society of Blacks in Computing conference, which attracted more than 90 participants from across the U.S., included three tracks focused on undergraduates, graduate students, and future faculty and research scientists. Although the number of black Ph.D.s in computer science has steadily increased over the past few years, much more work still needs to be done, according to industry experts. The Institute for African-American Mentoring in Computing Science (IAAMCS) aims to be a resource for African-American computer science students and faculty. The IAAMCS also wants to increase the number of African-Americans who receive Ph.D. degrees in computing science, and to promote and engage students in teaching and training opportunities while adding more diverse researchers into the advanced technology workforce. One of the conference sessions for undergraduates focused on how to craft a personal statement for graduate school, while another session focused on the tenure process and publishing in academic journals within the field. The conference gives black computer science students "a sense of community, a network of resources, and affirmation that people who look like them can succeed in computing," says University of Florida professor Kyla McMullen.
Bringing Programming--and Social Change--to Girls
National Science Foundation (06/08/16) Robert J. Margetta
A group of eighth-grade girls participating in the U.S. National Science Foundation's Co-Robots for CompuGirls event programmed a pair of two-foot humanoid robot avatars to help with the process of interviewing for a science, technology, engineering, and math position. The robots could converse, but the "interviewer" could not see the "applicant." The program wants students to consider not just the programming that goes into robots, but also the potential social benefits that researchers could achieve with intelligent machines that work cooperatively with people. Co-Robots for CompuGirls also aims to increase the representation of girls in robotics education. The program, led by Marquette University professor Andrew Williams and Arizona State University social scientist Kimberly Scott, enables researchers to bring culturally responsive humanoid robotics education to underrepresented girls. "In our educational system, a lot of the time girls don't see themselves becoming engineers or computer scientists or working with robotics," Williams says. She notes Co-Robots for CompuGirls seeks to develop a curriculum schools could put into widespread use, helping middle-school-aged girls envision themselves using technology. "Underrepresented groups and women need to be able to see themselves as potential creators of technology, not just users, and see themselves as using technology to positively affect society," Williams says.
Reconfigurable Robots Could Make a Splash in Rescue Missions
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (06/09/16) Jason Ford
Sheffield University researchers have created an aquatic robot system that could be used for underwater search and rescue operations, or to perform inspections inside aging water pipes. The robots can be assembled into arbitrary shapes, enabling them to be customized to meet the changing demands of their task. The researchers developed six prototype cubic modules, which were assembled with four micro-pumps built into them. The prototypes float on the surface of water and use their pumps to achieve motion via Modular Hydraulic Propulsion (MHP). "This concept could enable underwater robots to move far more precisely than is currently possible," says Sheffield University researcher Roderich Gross. The researchers gave the robot the task of detecting and moving toward a light source, and it executed the mission with what the researchers described as a decentralized brain. "Each module contains an identical fraction of it," which means that "all modules are identical, and hence, if a module breaks it can easily get replaced," Gross says. MHP could offer new solutions to problems currently requiring reconfigurable systems to move precisely in confined spaces. The researchers speculate in the future, miniaturized versions of MHP robots could enter the vascular network to monitor the health of patients or deliver drugs in a targeted manner.
NSF Funds 'Wearable Doctor'
EE Times (06/10/16) R. Colin Johnson
The U.S. National Science Foundation-funded Health and Environmental Tracker (HET) project, currently in the fourth year of a decade-long development process, recently unveiled a functional prototype. The tracker is designed to tap the wearer's own bodily energy as a power source, and to anticipate attacks of asthma or other chronic maladies and recommend immediate remedial action. The device consists of a wrist-worn sensor hub, a chest-adhering patch, and a handheld breathalyzer or spirometer. The wristband monitors airborne volatile organic compounds and ozone along with ambient humidity and temperature, then transmits collected data wirelessly to medical professionals. The patch features sensors that track a patient's movement, heart rate, respiratory rate, oxygen levels in the blood, skin impedance, and wheezing in the lungs, while the spirometer measures lung function. Clinical trials to start this year will be used to determine the conditions for an imminent asthma attack, so a specialized and less expensive model can be created. Should different factors induce attacks in different people, individualized versions will be developed. The HET project won an award for the energy-tapping spirometer, featuring an electrical generator powered by the user blowing their breath into it.
Tongue-Machine Computer Interfaces Are Here
Motherboard (06/12/16) Michael Byrne
Tongue input technology using glossokinetic potential (GKP) is capable of directing motorized wheelchairs and could possibly lead to successful silent speech-recognition technology. Tokyo's Laboratory for Advanced Brain Signal Processing has created a tongue-machine interface that responds to GKP, which are electric potential responses generated by tongue movement. The tip of the human tongue has a negative charge, and researchers can trace tongue positions by measuring decreases in potential at points of contact between the tongue and surrounding tissues. Because tongues are muscular organs with a wide range of mobility, they have the potential to represent an equally wide range of information. The researchers measured their interface's reaction time via experiments in which subjects responded to visual cues by moving their tongues. A "tongue rudder" was created to track horizontal tongue movements and control a motorized wheelchair, and the researchers say the technology has the potential to translate horizontal, vertical, and forward-backward movements into speech. "A fast and reliable technique to trace tongue movements is important for speech scientists who try to understand how speech is controlled by the tongue or how the tongue is disrupted in various speech disorders," they note. "GKP can provide a simple and cost-effective method to trace tongue movements that is able to detect the contact of the tongue with other articulatory organs."
Light Packing More Data Has Potential to Increase Bandwidth by 100 Times
University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) (06/10/16)
Researchers at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research are seeking alternative solutions to replace traditional optical communications systems about to hit a bandwidth limitation. They have demonstrated a way to potentially boost bandwidth 100-fold by using more than 100 patterns of light in an optical communication link. Light possesses a pattern formed by its intensity distribution, and the researchers say the uniqueness of the patterns enables them to be used to encode information. Their research leverages three degrees of freedom, and in the first step the researchers used digital holograms written to a small liquid-crystal display to demonstrate the possibility of having a hologram encoded with more than 100 patterns in multiple hues. The device was rendered "color blind" so the same holograms could be employed to encode many wavelengths. "One hundred holograms were combined into a single, complex hologram," says Wits School of Physics' Carmelo Rosales-Guzman. "Moreover, each sub-hologram was individually tailored to correct for any optical aberrations due to the color difference, angular offset, and so on." Wits University professor Andrew Forbes says the next step is to collaborate with a private-sector firm to develop a real-world demonstration of the technology.
Johns Hopkins Scientists Show How Easy It Is to Hack a Drone and Crash It
Johns Hopkins University (06/08/16) Phil Sneiderman
Johns Hopkins University (JHU) researchers have raised concerns about how easily hackers could cause unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to ignore human controllers and potentially crash. They discovered three ways to send rogue commands from a laptop to interfere with an airborne hobby drone's normal operation and crash it. "The value of our work is in showing that the technology in these drones is highly vulnerable to hackers," says JHU researcher Lanier A. Watkins. The researchers attacked a drone with 1,000 wireless connection requests in rapid succession, each asking for control of the UAV. The digital barrage overloaded the device's central processing unit, causing it to shut down and go into "an uncontrollable landing." In a separate experiment, the researchers transmitted to the drone an exceptionally large data packet that exceeded the capacity of the buffer allocated for such information within the UAV's flight application. For a third exploit, the researchers repeatedly sent a fake digital packet from their laptop to the drone's controller, telling it the packet's sender was the drone itself. "We demonstrated here that not only could someone remotely force the drone to land, but they could also remotely crash it in their yard and just take it," Watkins says.
Researchers Find the Right Balance to Speed Wireless Downloads Through Judicious Use of Duplexing
New York University (06/08/16)
Researchers at New York University (NYU) and Trinity College have developed a method to improve spectrum efficiency by deploying a combination of half and full duplex radios in base stations. Full duplex radios offer superior efficiency while half duplex radios provide a wider coverage area. "There are many more outages and dropped calls due to the high level of interference [with full duplex]," says NYU professor Shivendra Panwar. The researchers noted the advantages of full duplex radios and half duplex radios, and hypothesized mixed full and half duplex cells could enable wireless providers to customize networks to meet demand and improve spectral efficiency as needed without excess interference. The researchers generated mathematical models of base stations with varying configurations of half and full duplex radios, and then ran simulations to predict the relationship between efficiency and coverage areas. "The beauty of this system is that it's tunable and would allow providers to adjust the mix of cells based on the needs of a region," says NYU researcher Sanjay Goyal. In addition, since download traffic far exceeds upload traffic on most networks, the researchers showed a mixed-cell system could enable faster downloads at the expense of upload speed, which is less likely to be noticed by customers.
The Social Media Profile of the Black Lives Matter Movement
Georgia Tech News Center (06/07/16) Jason Maderer
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) have analyzed nearly 29 million tweets surrounding Black Lives Matter (BLM) events to identify the social media patterns of its activists. The study is among the first to examine the online language of the BLM movement. The researchers examined tweets related to three police shootings in 2014 and one in 2015, and found a change in tone on Twitter the day before protests sprung up around the U.S. They also plugged in data of more than 10,000 deaths attributed to police shootings since 2000, and outlined which states, based on their African-American population, had the highest rates of deaths. They also found the BLM community had the ability to bond over the course of many months, unlike other social movements. On average, 36 percent of first-time BLM users participated in a subsequent event, according to the researchers. "The Black Lives Matter movement realizes it's part of a long-term social transformation and shows continual engagement," says Georgia Tech postdoctoral student Shagun Jhaver. "And it continues despite having no formal hierarchical structure."
Researchers Discover New Way to Turn Electricity Into Light, Using Graphene
MIT News (06/13/16) David L. Chandler
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and elsewhere discovered a sheet of graphene can cause an electric current to surpass the speed of decelerated light and rapidly and efficiently generate an intense, focused beam. "Graphene has this ability to trap light, in modes we call surface plasmons," says MIT postdoctoral researcher Ido Kaminer. He notes these particles' speed through the material is "a few hundred times slower than light in free space." A related property of graphene is its ability to induce electrons to pass through it at about 1/300th the speed of light in a vacuum, which is sufficiently close to the plasmons' velocity so significant interactions might transpire between the two particles, if the graphene could be tuned to get the speeds to match. MIT professor Marin Soljacic says the conversion of electricity to light "is made possible because the electronic speed can approach the light speed in graphene, breaking the 'light barrier.'" The researchers think tapping this phenomenon, called the Cerenkov effect, could eventually be part of more efficient, more compact, faster, and more tunable alternatives for particular applications. They speculate graphene-based systems could potentially function as critical on-chip components for the production of new, light-based circuits. Soljacic plans to develop working, proof-of-concept versions of graphene as an on-chip light source.
ASU Now (06/06/16) Monique Clement
Arizona State University's (ASU) Assistive Technologies class is giving students the chance to make independent living easier for members of the community who have disabilities. "Clients put together a description of their proposed semester-long, team-based project, which I then present to the students during the first day of class," says ASU professor Troy McDaniel, who is leading the course. McDaniel has more than a decade of experience working on assistive applications in the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing, which encompasses research in human-computer interaction and other areas. McDaniel says some of the proposed projects can be made possible with an interdisciplinary focus. For example, the Haptic Compass Belt can indicate direction to the wearer, while the Low Vision Food Management app can perform tasks such as reading labels on containers and keeping track of food stocks in a pantry. Users label shelves with X and Y coordinates and sections labeled A, B, C, and so on, and enter in the app where they place an item. When they need to take inventory, the app can tell them what they have and where to find it in a cupboard. The Neural-Controlled Mouse Click enables users to signal a click with a specific thought, and the Body Language Mirror reads body language and indicates emotion.
Automatic Debugging of Software
Singapore Management University (Singapore) (06/06/16)
Singapore Management University (SMU) researchers have developed Adaptive Multimodal Bug Localization (AML), an adaptable, automated approach for debugging software that combines elements of previous solutions. AML collects debugging hints from both bug reports and test cases, and then performs statistical analysis to pinpoint program elements that are likely to contain bugs. "While most past studies only demonstrate the applicability of similar solutions for small programs and 'artificial bugs' [bugs that are intentionally inserted into a program for testing purposes], our approach can automate the debugging process for many real bugs that impact large programs," says SMU researcher David Lo. AML has been successfully evaluated on programs with more than 300,000 lines of code. Automatically identifying buggy code will help developers save time and enable them to redirect their debugging efforts to designing new software features. The researchers also want to develop an Internet-scale software analytics solution, which would involve analyzing massive amounts of data that passively exist in online repositories. Lo says the technique would transform manual, painstaking, and error-prone software engineering tasks into automated activities that can be performed efficiently and reliably.
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