Welcome to the August 15, 2016 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
New Technologies for Improved Parallel Computing
CORDIS News (08/12/16)
The European Union's REPARA project has developed and registered new technologies that could make parallel computing applications more energy-efficient, less expensive, and easier to develop and maintain. REPARA was launched to develop a unified programming model for heterogeneous computers, which would transform existing source code so it can be run with multiple graph cards and reconfigurable hardware. "We've made significant improvements in both performance and energy efficiency, comparable to those that can be made with a manual development process," says REPARA project coordinator and Charles III University of Madrid professor Jose Daniel Garcia. He says the research improved three fundamental properties of the original source code: performance, energy efficiency, and maintainability. "These software products can help developers to offer engineering services to third parties by simplifying the development process," Garcia says. "We can also reduce the time that the engineers need to fine-tune a software product in a parallel heterogeneous environment, which will significantly reduce development costs and increase software development industry competitiveness."
The Bandwidth Bottleneck That Is Throttling the Internet
Nature (08/10/16) Jeff Hecht
The supply of Internet bandwidth continues to lag demand as global online traffic grows an estimated 22 percent annually. This problem is rooted in the Internet's construction atop a century-old telephone system that is rife with bottlenecks, forcing Internet companies to commit billions of dollars to clear congestion and rebuild the Internet on the fly. These companies are either tapping already existing high-speed fiber-optic cable or laying new cable, while researchers and engineers attempt to implement other upgrades, such as speeding up mobile networks. Industry experts say wireless providers must start deploying fifth-generation (5G) technology, which tops 4G network speeds at least 100-fold to meet projected demand, and whose signals must be shared more widely than is currently feasible. "The target is how can we support a million devices per square kilometer," says Rahim Tafazolli, head of the Institute for Communication Systems at Britain's University of Surrey. One effort is promoting multiple-input, multiple-output technology, which enables each radio frequency to simultaneously carry many streams of data without letting them fuse into gibberish. Another technique involves boosting mobile devices' adaptability via cognitive radio. Other projects have developed fiber to overcome the 100-Gbps data transmission limit by diffusing light over a larger core area at lower intensity, reducing noise.
Millions of VW's Cars Can Be Hacked With a Cheap Device, Experts Show
NBC News (08/11/16)
Hackers can use inexpensive and widely available tools for capturing radio signals to break into vehicles sold by Volkswagen over the past 20 years, according to researchers at the universities of Birmingham and Bochum. They say the keyless entry systems in tens of millions of vehicles are vulnerable. The researchers cloned VW remote keyless entry controls by eavesdropping on nearby drivers when they press their key fobs to open or lock their cars. Vehicles vulnerable to the attack include most Audi, VW, Seat, and Skoda models sold since 1995 and many of the approximately 100 million VW Group vehicles on the road since then. The researchers found the flaw in car models as recent as the 2016 Audi Q3. "It is conceivable that all VW Group (except for some Audi) cars manufactured in the past and partially today rely on a 'constant-key' scheme and are thus vulnerable to the attacks," the researchers contend in a paper. The only exception the researchers found were cars built on VW's latest MQB production platform, which is employed in its top-selling model, the Golf VII, which they found lacks the keyless flaw.
There's a New Way to Make Strong Passwords, and It's Way Easier
The Washington Post (08/11/16) Todd C. Frankel; Andrea Peterson
A new standard for passwords encourages the use of passphrases, which are typically 16 to 64 characters long. Studies from Carnegie Mellon University found passphrases are just as effective at online security as passwords, since hacking programs are confused by length as easily as randomness, while an added benefit is people are more likely to remember them. The Center for Democracy and Technology's Joe Hall is an advocate of passphrases, and he advises users "to think of a sentence that is shocking and unpredictable, even nonsensical." The standard is being boosted by draft recommendations from the U.S. National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) urging a password revamp that encourages longer passwords and ends the practice of forcing new ones every 60 or 90 days. NIST adviser Paul Grassi describes current passwords as "completely unusable," and notes "users forget, which creates all sorts of cybersecurity problems, like writing it down or reusing them." U.S. Federal Trade Commission chief technologist Lorrie Cranor says NIST's draft rules are an indication to agencies and companies that the retooled password guidelines have the federal government's approval. Meanwhile, consultant Guillaume Ross says businesses' reliance on legacy computers often means their adoption of new password policies is slow, because support for long passwords is difficult on those systems.
Setting Robots in Motion, Quickly and Efficiently
The Conversation (08/11/16) Daniel Sorin; George Konidaris
Motion planning in an environment that has not been pre-engineered is a difficult task for robots, requiring several seconds of computation and hundreds of watts, write Duke University professors Daniel Sorin and George Konidaris. They have developed a processor that is specially designed to handle the processing requirements of robotic collision detection while consuming a fraction of the power. Sorin and Konidaris say existing motion planning approaches rely on general-purpose computer processors that test thousands of potential motions for collisions one at a time, taking as long as several seconds to plan a movement. They note their new method uses a vast number of circuits operating in parallel and dedicated for each motion in the roadmap, which links starting poses to the end pose while avoiding obstacles. In collision detection, every motion is checked against every obstacle simultaneously and in parallel, reducing the time required to chart a movement path. Sorin and Konidaris estimate their processor performs motion planning in less than 100 microseconds and uses less than 10 watts. They also say efficient motion planning will make factory and commercial robots faster, more accurate, and capable of risk avoidance.
Bugs in the System
Bacteria could be used to improve the electronic properties of graphene, as Vikas Berry of the University of Illinois in Chicago and colleagues have discovered how to produce wrinkles controllably in graphene, using a bacterium called Bacillus subtilis. Graphene lacks a bandgap, a property needed to create the distinct "on" and "off" electronic states that transistors rely on to work, and which is induced in a material by disrupting the way its electrons are distributed. The team reports Bacillus subtilis cells form wrinkles about 33 nanometers apart, which is the separation of ridges imposed on graphene, and this is too far apart to create a significant bandgap. The ridges would have to be less than five nanometers apart to disrupt graphene's electronic structure enough, and Berry believes such distances might be achieved by using another species of bacterium. The researchers also found electrons traversing a sheet of wrinkly graphene are channeled between the ridges. They view bacteria as key to turning graphene into a semiconductor.
All Brawn, Little Brains: EPFL Students' Table-Football Robot
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (08/11/16) Laure-Anne Pessina
Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) have developed a robot that can compete against human players with average skills in table football, and they want to program the robot with some strategy and organize a competition among robots. The researchers note after several years of development, the robot has become faster, more accurate, and more powerful. They equipped the robot with new "arms" that utilize high-dynamic linear motors to position the player very quickly on the field and then engage a rotational movement with the help of another motor to shoot the ball. The motors are precise to less than a millimeter and can generate 9g in acceleration, helping the robot move faster than a human being. In addition, a high-speed camera located under the game's transparent floor follows the ball's movement. The camera collects 300 images per second, which are then processed by a computer. The researches say the system can detect the ball, stop it, and then shoot it toward the goal. "We want the robot to be able to fake out the opponent, steer clear of the opponent, and predict the ball's path and the opponent's position," says EPFL researcher Christophe Salzmann.
New Algorithm for Optimized Stability of Planar-Rod Objects
IST Austria (08/10/16) Stefan Bernhardt
Researchers at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria) have developed an algorithm that enables improved technical modeling of planar-rod structures consisting of interlocking wires. After a new structure is designed, the algorithm re-calculates the contours of the object, providing necessary adaptions of the structure and its connection points in order to guarantee optimal stability of the object fabricated by the wire-bending machine. The two-dimensional structures are then assembled into a three-dimensional object without requiring additional connectors or soldering points. "We were able to find a mathematical formulation for an exciting problem, which allowed us to solve this problem in a second step," says IST Austria professor Bernd Bickel. He notes the software provides an extremely efficient and fast alternative for low-fidelity rapid prototyping. In addition, the software allows for the verification of function and stability, resulting in the production of only the optimal object. The researchers presented the algorithm last month at the ACM SIGGRAPH 2016 conference in Anaheim, CA.
Wearable Cloud Could Be Less Expensive, More Powerful Form of Mobile Computing
UAB News (08/10/16) Tiffany Westry
Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) are investigating a wearable personal cloud--a fully functional, compact, and lightweight cloud computing system incorporated into clothing. UAB professor Ragib Hasan and postdoctoral graduate student Rasib Khan's system combines 10 Raspberry Pi computers, three power banks, a remote touchscreen display, and a jacket. "Our overall approach is to create a generic atmosphere or platform that users can customize to fit their needs," Khan says. "The wearable cloud can act as an application platform, so instead of modifying or having to upgrade hardware, this wearable model provides a platform, and developers can build anything on top of it." A wearable cloud removes the need for mobile and wearable devices to be powered by complex processors, and converts them into "dumb terminal devices" or controllers linked via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. The system enables the user to request services with a user-intuitive display and interactions, and the computational task is transmitted to the wearable cloud. Nodes within the jacket are activated and compute the task collectively, with displayable results relayed back to the terminal device. Hasan and Khan envision the wearable personal cloud enhancing first responders and soldiers' communications in disaster and battlefield scenarios.
New R Extension Gives Data Scientists Easy Access to IBM's Watson
IDG News Service (08/11/16) Katherine Noyes
Columbus Collaboratory has developed a new open source R extension called CognizeR, which is designed to make it easier to program IBM's Watson artificial intelligence (AI) system. R is a coding language widely used by data scientists for statistical and analytics applications, and CognizeR enables data scientists to tap into Watson's cognitive AI services without leaving their native development environment. Watson services for language translation, personality insights, tone analysis, speech-to-text conversion, and visual recognition are among the first to become available through CognizeR. "What's really interesting is that people will now be able to take their preexisting R models and embed them in Watson," says IDC research director David Schubmehl. The new extension will open Watson up to data scientists who have been working with predictive analytics models for the first time. "The goal is to use 'cognitive' computing to combine machine learning with assessments of confidence and human wisdom for feedback," says analyst Nik Rouda. Since R is one of the most popular languages for data science, including machine-learning applications, Rouda says CognizeR fills a gap in which many data scientists could not directly use their preferred analytics tools with Watson.
Protecting Privacy in Genomic Databases
MIT News (08/09/16) Larry Hardesty
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Indiana University have developed a system that protects patients' personal information in genomic databases by adding misinformation to the query results it returns. Scientists could look for drug targets with slightly inaccurate data, but the researchers say the system could still return answers close enough to be useful. The team implemented a technique called "differential privacy," and they say the system reduces the chances of privacy compromises to almost zero. Differential-privacy methods add noise, or random variation, to the results of database searches, to confound algorithms that would seek to mine private information from the results of several, tailored, sequential searches. Finding an efficient algorithm for calculating Hamming distances on the fly is one of the system's chief innovations, as is its ability to correct for population stratification. The algorithm assumes the largest variations in a given population are the results of differences between subpopulations, filters those differences out, and hones in on the ones that remain. The researchers say applying the approach to an instantly searchable online database of genetic data could make biomedical research much more efficient.
New UTSA Study Addresses Lack of American Engineers and Scientists
UTSA Today (08/08/16) Joanna Carver
Researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) conducted a study to identify the factors that determine a young student's likelihood of succeeding in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The researchers note the U.S. has produced relatively low numbers of students proficient in math and science and skilled workers in those fields. UTSA researcher Huy Le says these students have the ability and interest to enter STEM fields, but have not been actively encouraged to pursue a STEM career. In the study, the researchers evaluated eighth grade students up until six to nine years after they first applied to college, and psychological evaluations were conducted to assess how well students would acclimate to the STEM environment. Le found no difference between the abilities of girls and boys to succeed, but notes boys were generally more interested in the field. He reports educators and counselors could help influence students by introducing them to the benefits of a career in math or science. "This is a critical issue in our economy right now," Le says. "We have a crippling deficit of participants in the STEM field, and if we can encourage our students to pursue this path, we'll be on our way to eradicating it."
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