Welcome to the August 12, 2016 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Smart Yogurt and Automatic Warfare? The Future of Computers in America
U.S. News & World Report (08/12/16) Andrew Soergel
Groundbreaking achievements in the field of computing are expected in the next 35 years, according to analysts and experts. Consultant Ian Pearson thinks a "smart yogurt" that uses bacteria to culture electronic components could be developed before 2050, noting a more free-flowing gel medium could be utilized to pack "trillions and trillions of synthetic neurons into it, which are just waiting to be organized into the right structures to act as a brain." One caveat Pearson sees is the advance of artificial intelligence (AI) where computers become vastly more intelligent than people, to the point where humans are beneath machines' consideration. Pearson also notes the ramifications of "automatic war" as the military uses powerful AIs and androids. He says with such technologies "you can invade another country and have very few casualties yourself." However, Pearson says the danger is in the asymmetry it creates, which "could encourage some countries to start using nukes, because they have no defense against the super weapons we're developing." Meanwhile, University of Arizona professor Joseph Alpert predicts telemedicine advances facilitating a shift toward a regionally concentrated healthcare system, as well as digitized healthcare records and three-dimensional printing applications. Experts also speculate the loss of employment to automation could be compensated by the creation of new jobs for people.
Computer Programming Made Easier
National Science Foundation (08/11/16) Aaron Dubrow
A U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)-supported project called Expeditions in Computer Augmented Program Engineering (ExCAPE) seeks to make coding easier by developing technology that provides human operators with automated assistance. "ExCAPE aims to change programming from a purely manual task to one in which a programmer and an automated program synthesis tool can collaborate to generate software that meets its specification," says University of Pennsylvania professor and ExCAPE project leader Rajeev Alur. The ExCAPE team consists of researchers representing nine leading U.S. computer science programs, and they have created a tool called NetEgg that enables a network operator to specify the desired function of a switch using examples. NetEgg then automatically produces the code needed to deploy that behavior while guaranteeing maximal throughput for network traffic. The ExCAPE team also is pursuing the use of program synthesis tools to generate automatic feedback for students via tools such as the Automata Tutor. Meanwhile, the Syntax-Guided Synthesis method formalizes and standardizes the core computational problem in emerging synthesis tools. "This project builds on decades of foundational advances in formal methods and programming languages," says NSF program director Nina Amla. "It signals a paradigm shift in the way we teach basic programming principles, and develop reliable software systems."
Whistling Past the Graveyard: What the End of Moore's Law Means to All of Computing
CCC Blog (08/08/16) Tom Conte
Predictions of the end of Moore's Law--the doubling of computing performance every 18 months--vary among experts, but there is consensus that computing must undergo a fundamental reinvention if computing performance is to maintain its exponential growth. In addition, experts last month at the 2016 Computing Research Association Conference at Snowbird, UT, agreed the coming transformation will resonate across the full spectrum of computing. Microsoft Research's Krysta Svore predicted quantum computing will be practical within 10 years, with enough quantum bits to solve key problems that today's quantum devices cannot solve. Meanwhile, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Mark D. Hill said he expected a 1,000-fold performance gain compared to 2000 levels by 2020, which is software-visible via multicore, heterogeneity, and data center clusters. Georgia Institute of Technology professor Tom Conte predicted some forthcoming solutions--quantum solutions, for example--will hugely disrupt the layers of abstraction of the computing stack, while others will not. Experts also agreed the computing of tomorrow will significantly differ from its present state, making it imperative that all computer science and engineering fields react to these changes now. Although research is important, even more vital is educating today's computing students in the midst of rapid changes in the discipline's basics.
Microsoft Research Explores Secure Cloud Data Exchanges
eWeek (08/10/16) Pedro Hernandez
Researchers at Microsoft have proposed a new way of working with encrypted data using a cloud-based secure exchange. "New research from Microsoft aims to unlock the full value of encrypted data by using the cloud itself to perform secure data trades between multiple willing parties in a way that provides users full control over how much information the exchange reveals," says Microsoft Research's John Roach. He notes the exchange is based on multiparty computation, during which calculations using data from two or more parties fail to reveal the specifics of each individual's data. Roach says the secure data exchange uses the cloud to handle decryption tasks and broker the transfer of select data while keeping the rest of the information secret. Encryption keys are used to decrypt data inside the multiparty computation, making the data available for a computation without revealing anything except the results. "All of the computation is performed in the cloud, and the computation itself is encrypted in such a way that not even the cloud knows what is being computed, which protects any of the buyer's data used in the computation such as a proprietary algorithm," Roach says.
Coding Boot Camps Attract Tech Companies
The Wall Street Journal (08/11/16) Josh Mitchell
Employers increasingly are hiring graduates of nontraditional academies such as the Flatiron School, which offers an intense 12-week programming course. Supporters say the success of this model could transform U.S. investment in education, with a push away from granting broad degrees and toward teaching specific skills. The Obama administration will soon permit a group of students at private schools such as Flatiron to spend federal grants and loans, and U.S. Education Department undersecretary Ted Mitchell says this pilot aims to get government to concentrate "in a laser-like way on outcomes" as well as bring education more into line with economic needs. Flatiron seeks to fill a void that it says traditional schools have failed to address--that of cultivating people who can design software efficiently. On the other hand, some people doubt such coding academies can supplant four-year degrees. "Most of our hires have [computer science] degrees because we prefer to hire generalists who can work on any type of product or service," says Google's Maggie Johnson. "Bootcamp alumni tend to be more specialized." Meanwhile, Seton Hall University professor Robert Kelchen says the popularity of coding bootcamps mirrors the trend of more college graduates going back to school to expand their skillsets.
Toward a Better Screen
Harvard Gazette (08/10/16) Leah Burrows
Researchers at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Samsung say they have designed new blue-light-emitting molecules for organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) that could dramatically improve displays for TVs, phones, and tablets. OLEDs are replacing liquid-crystal displays in high-end consumer devices, but they are less competitive in large displays such as TVs due to the lack of stable and efficient blue materials. The Harvard team focused on a solution of entirely organic molecules. The researchers began by building libraries of more than 1.6 million candidate molecules and developed machine-learning algorithms to predict which molecules were likely to have good outcomes, and prioritize those to be virtually tested. The team also built a Web application for collaborators to explore the results of more than 500,000 quantum chemistry simulations. The researchers were left with hundreds of molecules that perform as well as, if not better than, state-of-the-art metal-free OLEDs. "This research is an intermediate stop in a trajectory towards more and more advanced organic molecules that could be used in flow batteries, solar cells, organic lasers, and more," says Harvard professor Alan Aspuru-Guzik.
Cyberattack Concerns Real About U.S. Presidential Election, Stanford Scholar Says
Stanford News (08/11/16) Clifton B. Parker
In an interview, Stanford University cybersecurity scholar Herbert Lin contends foreign hackers constitute a viable threat against the U.S. presidential election. He cites two possible types of voting hacks, with the less likely method being the alteration of electronic vote counts so the outcome does not reflect the will of the voters. "That kind of attack is hard to pull off, and I'm not very worried about that--though I worry about it some," Lin says. However, he says a more likely threat is the race's loser claiming election tampering by cyberattack, especially in the event of a close contest. "How would anyone ever prove that ballots, electronically cast with no permanent and auditable record, were accurately counted?" Lin asks. In terms of how the U.S. should respond to clear evidence of a foreign country hacking its political process, Lin says it requires a balancing act in "calibrating a response that exacts a penalty but does not provoke a response that is unacceptable to us--and that's a hard thing to do." He also says it is extremely likely a "baseline level of hacking" is happening all the time by all of the major powers.
User-Friendly Language for Programming Efficient Simulations
MIT News (08/10/16) Larry Hardesty
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Adobe, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Toronto, Texas A&M University, and the University of Texas have developed a programming language called Simit. Simit can accelerate computer simulations by a factor of 200 or reduce their required code by 90 percent, according to a paper the researchers presented last month at the ACM SIGGRAPH 2016 conference in Anaheim, CA. "The story of this paper is that the trade-off between concise code and good performance is false," says MIT graduate student Fredrik Kjolstad. "It's not necessary, at least for the problems that this applies to. But it applies to a large class of problems." Simit requires the programmer to describe the translation between the graphical description of a system and the matrix description, but following that the coder can use the language of linear algebra to program the simulation. During the simulation, Simit does not have to translate graphs into matrices and vice versa, instead converting instructions issued in the language of linear algebra into the language of graphs, keeping the runtime efficiency of hand-coded simulations. Kjolstad notes Simit-written programs can run on either conventional microprocessors or on graphics processing units with no underlying code revisions.
The Robot You Want Most Is Far From Reality
Technology Review (08/10/16) Andrew Rosenblum
House-cleaning robots will surely be popular, but building one will be a daunting challenge, according to researchers. Such a robot would need to analyze the types of messes in a house, formulate and execute a plan for room-by-room cleaning, and handle unexpected events. Maya Cakmak, a professor at the University of Washington who earned a three-year, $400,000 grant from the National Robotics Initiative last year to research cleaning robots, says the task goes beyond getting a machine to hold a tool to some surface. "There's the angle, how much you're pushing and pressure you're applying, how fast you move it, how much you move it, and even the orientation [of the tool] relative to the dirt," she says. Cakmak is using a technique called "programming by demonstration" to train robots in her lab. The machines learn by mimicking a researcher who shows a cleaning method for the robot's vision system. Ilker Yildirim, an expert in computational models of cognition and perception at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes machines will need to more fully understand their environment. Cakmak says designs for homes may need to be more machine-friendly and robots may need to be hackable by end users because every house is different.
Researchers Find That Android Apps Can Secretly Track Users' Whereabouts
Northeastern University News (08/08/16) Thea Singer
A team of researchers from Northeastern University demonstrated how Android applications can be manipulated to transmit sensitive information using the phone's built-in sensors. The apps must ask the user for permission to access sensitive user information, but many users do not read the requests for permissions and accidentally grant unfettered access to the app. The researchers show an Android app does not need a phone's global-positioning system or Wi-Fi to track a user's location, as apps automatically have access to sensors that detect the device's movements, orientation, and location. To test the accuracy of these sensors, the researchers built their own app that uses an algorithm to input data from the sensors into maps of the world's roads. They then simulated road trips in 11 cities and drove 1,000 kilometers around Massachusetts. Measurements were derived from the phones' change of positions and the system generated the five most likely routes for each trip, which were correct 50 percent of the time. "Adversaries can recover lots of details through these side channels," says Northeastern professor Guevara Noubir. To protect against potential invasions of privacy, Noubir recommends consumers not install unfamiliar or untested apps, while apps used infrequently should be uninstalled.
Sketch-Based Query for Searching for Relationships Among Objects in Images
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (08/11/16)
Researchers at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and the University College London have proposed a tool that generates image queries based on a sketch or description of objects in spatial relationships, which could make it easier to search large databases of images. Instead of only describing the individual objects in an image, the researchers want to develop a method for describing the relationships between objects that can be computed and searched efficiently, says KAUST researcher Peter Wonka. The researchers developed a query tool called relation-augmented image descriptor (RAID), which takes either a written description or sketch of objects in a specific spatial relationship and searches for matches in the image database based on geometric processing. "RAID allows us to search using a sentence such as 'person standing on snowboard' or to use a simple sketch of the desired composition of objects or an example image with the desired object composition," Wonka says. He notes the new method uses a novel description based on the spatial distribution of relationships over the entire object, which enables users to successfully discriminate between different complex relationships. Wonka says RAID provides a new way to describe images and could be applied to computer graphics, computer vision, and automated object classification.
Summer Programs Help Prepare Minority Students for College STEM
The Los Angeles Times (08/07/16) Nina Agrawal
Academic programs across the U.S. are working to expand science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) access and improve the success rate of minority students pursuing degrees in these majors. Several programs offered in Southern California focused specifically on helping underrepresented minority students graduate with STEM degrees, including the South Central Scholars Summer Academy. The seven-week summer program targets promising high school seniors and college freshmen with instruction in precalculus or calculus as well as English, in addition to professional development and mentoring. Chemistry, computer science, and quantitative reasoning also are available to freshmen. University of Southern California faculty teach the courses--a mix of interactive lectures and small-group workshops--on campus, and they mirror the curriculum and rigor of freshmen classes, but with more support. The idea is not only to fill knowledge gaps, but also to teach skills that will be essential for success in challenging science programs in college and beyond, says South Central Scholars executive director Joey Shanahan. Summer Academy appears to be succeeding, with its internal data showing 72 percent of participants from 2012-2015 have graduated in STEM fields or are in college and on track to do so.
Liquid Light Switch Could Enable More Powerful Electronics
University of Cambridge (08/08/16) Sarah Collins
Researchers at the University of Cambridge and colleagues from Mexico and Greece have built an energy-efficient switch that utilizes a state of matter called a Polariton Bose-Einstein condensate in order to mix electric and optical signals, while using minuscule amounts of energy. Polariton Bose-Einstein condensates are generated by trapping light between mirrors spaced only a few millionths of a meter apart, and letting it interact with thin slabs of semiconductor material, creating a half-light, half-matter mixture known as a polariton. By applying an electric field to their system, the researchers were able to control the spin of the condensate and switch it between up and down states. They say the polariton fluid emits light with clockwise or anticlockwise spin, which can be sent through optical fibers for communication, converting electrical to optical signals. The miniature electro-optical switch could lead to the development of faster and smaller electronics. "We're reaching the limits of how small we can make transistors, and electronics based on liquid light could be a way of increasing the power and efficiency of the electronics we rely on," says professor Hamid Ohadi from Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. The prototype switch operates at cryogenic temperatures, so the researchers are developing other materials that can function at room temperature.
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