Monthly Archives: June 2017

Build software for faster Computer

Imagine you were able to solve a problem 50 times faster than you can now. With this ability, you have the potential to come up with answers to even the most complex problems faster than ever before.

Researchers behind the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Exascale Computing Project want to make this capability a reality, and are doing so by creating tools and technologies for exascale supercomputers – computing systems at least 50 times faster than those used today. These tools will advance researchers’ ability to analyze and visualize complex phenomena such as cancer and nuclear reactors, which will accelerate scientific discovery and innovation.

Developing layers of software that support and connect hardware and applications is critical to making these next-generation systems a reality.

“These software environments have to be robust and flexible enough to handle a broad spectrum of applications, and be well integrated with hardware and application software so that applications can run and operate seamlessly,” said Rajeev Thakur, a computer scientist at the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory and the director of software technology for the Exascale Computing Project (ECP).

Researchers in Argonne’s Mathematics and Computer Science Division are collaborating with colleagues from five other core ECP DOE national laboratories – Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, Oak Ridge and Los Alamos – in addition to other labs and universities.

Their goal is to create new and adapt existing software technologies to operate at exascale by overcoming challenges found in several key areas, such as memory, power and computational resources.

Checkpoint/restart

Argonne computer scientist Franck Cappello leads an ECP project focused on advanced checkpoint/restart, a defense mechanism for withstanding failures that happen when applications are running.

“Given their complexity, faults in high-performance systems are a common occurrence, and some of them lead to failures that cause parallel applications to crash,” Cappello said.

“Many ECP applications already feature checkpoint/restart, but because we’re moving towards an even more complex system at exascale, we need more sophisticated methods for it. For us, that means providing an effective and efficient checkpoint/restart for ECP applications that lack it, and providing other applications a more efficient and scalable checkpoint/restart.”

Cappello also leads a project that focuses on reducing the large amounts of data that
is generated by these machines, which is expensive to store and communicate effectively.

“We’re developing techniques that can reduce data volume by at least a factor of 10. The problem with this is that you add some margin of error when you reduce the data,” Cappello said.

“The focus then is on controlling the margin of error; you want to control the error so it doesn’t affect the scientific result in the end while still being efficient at reduction, and this is one of the challenges we are looking at.”

Memory

For information that is stored on exascale systems, researchers need data management controls for memory, power and processing cores. Argonne computer scientist Pete Beckman is investigating methods for managing all three through a project known as Argo.

“The efficiency of memory and storage have to keep up with the increase in computation rates and data movement requirements that will exist at exascale,” Beckman said.

“But how memory is arranged in systems and the technology used for it is also changing, and has more layers,” he said. “So we have to account for these changes, in addition to anticipating and designing around the future needs of the applications that will use these systems.”

With added layers of memory on exascale systems, researchers must develop complementary software for regulating these memory technologies that give users control over the process.

“Having controls in place is important because where you choose to store information affects how quickly you can retrieve it,” Beckman said.

Power

Another key resource that Beckman and Argo Project researchers are studying is power. As with memory, methods for allocating power resources could speed up or slow computation within a high-performance system. Researchers are interested in developing software technologies that could enhance users’ control over this resource.

“Power limits may not be at the top of the list when you’re dealing with smaller systems, but when you’re talking about tens of megawatts of power, which is what we’ll need in the future, how an application uses that power becomes an important distinguishing characteristic,” Beckman said.

“The goal for us is to achieve a level of control that maximizes the user’s abilities while maintaining efficiency and minimizing cost,” he said.

Processing Cores

Ultra-fine controls are also needed for managing cores within an exascale system.

“With each generation of supercomputers we keep adding processing cores, but the system software that makes them work needs ways to partition and manage all the cores,” Beckman said. “And since we’re dealing millions of cores, even making small adjustments can have a tremendous impact on what we’re able to do; improving performance by say, two to three percent, is equivalent to thousands of laptops’ worth of computation.”

One concept Beckman and fellow researchers are exploring to better manage cores is containerization, a method for grouping a select number of cores together and treating them as a unit, or “container,” that can be controlled independently.

“The tools we have now to manage cores are not as precise, making it harder to regulate how much work is being done by one set of cores over another,” Beckman said. “But we’re borrowing and adapting container concepts into high-performance computing to give users the ability to operate and manage how they’re using those cores more carefully and directly.”

Software Libraries

Applications rely on software libraries – high-quality, reusable software collections – to support simulations and other functionalities. To make these capabilities accessible at exascale, Argonne researchers are working to scale existing libraries.

“Libraries provide important capabilities, including solutions to numerical problems,” said Argonne mathematician Barry Smith, who leads a project focused on scaling two libraries known as PETSc and TAO.

PETSc and TAO are widely used for large-scale numerical simulations. PETSc is a library that provides solutions to specific numerical calculations. TAO is a library that provides solutions to large-scale optimization problems, such as calculating the most cost-effective strategy for reloading fuel rods in a nuclear reactor.

In addition to scaling diverse software libraries, ECP scientists are also looking for ways to improve their quality and compatibility.

“Libraries have traditionally been developed independently, and due to the different strategies used to design and implement them, it’s been difficult to use multiple libraries in combinations. But large applications, like those that will run at exascale, need to be able to use all the layers of the software stack in combination,” said Argonne computational scientist Lois Curfman McInnes.

McInnes is co-leading the xSDK project, which is determining community policies to regulate the implementation of software packages. Such policies will make it easier for diverse libraries to be compatible with one another.

“These efforts bring us one step closer to realizing a robust and agile exascale environment that can aid scientists in tackling great challenges,” McInnes said.

At South Korea Airport There are robots that are ready to help you

INCHEON: Robots will start roaming South Korea’s largest airport this summer, helping travelers find their boarding gates and keep its floors clean as the country prepares for its first Winter Olympics game.

Starting this month, Troika, a self-driving robot made by LG Electronics, will rove the Incheon International Airport, telling travelers how long it takes to get to boarding gates and escorting them to their flights. A jumbo cleaning robot will help cleaning staff swab the wide expanses of floors in the airport west of Seoul.

Troika, about the size of a young teen, is equipped with a rectangular display on its front that looks like a giant smartphone screen and can show flight information, an airport map and weather data. Its partly rounded head has a flat touchscreen face that displays blinking or smiling eyes or information.

The guiding bot responds to its name.

Travelers can insert their tickets into its scanner to get flight information, and Troika will then ask if they want to be escorted to their gates, warning laggards to “Please stay closer so I can see you”.

Troika’s debut piqued the interest of many in the airport. Heads swiveled and children approached with curiosity as the 140-centimenter (4 foot 6 inch) robot with its white body and black screens glided through the terminal.

Robotics is gaining ground in South Korea, where many big businesses are automating factory production lines. South Korean researchers have won awards in international robot competitions. In 2015, South Korea’s Team KAIST beat the U.S. and Japan to win the DARPA Robotics Challenge with a humanoid that completed tasks without losing balance. But South Korea has been slow to introduce human-like robots or interactive robots in public places like hotels or stores, unlike its neighboring Japan where Softbank’s humanoid Pepper is no stranger.

Incheon International Airport Corp. believes it is the first to introduce such service-oriented robots in a South Korean public space. Another state-owned airport operator, Korea Airports Corp., which operates 15 international airports in South Korea but not Incheon airport, also has teamed up with local companies to introduce air-purifying robots to measure air quality and clean terminals.

Incheon International Airport Corp. said in a statement that it does not expect the robots to replace human workers, but just to help, especially with overnight shifts and physically demanding tasks.

Future plans include deploying robots to advise travelers about items that are banned on flights, serve food in airport lounges and carry cargo.

South Korea expects the robots to burnish its reputation as a technology leader when the country hosts the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

But its maker LG is still working out the kinks.

Troika can recognize its location inside the airport terminal and navigate around passers-by and obstacles, said Kim Hyoungrock, the chief research engineer at LG Electronics who oversaw the robot’s development.
It’s meant to be a fast learner: By July, Troika will be speaking English, Korean, Chinese and Japanese, Kim said. However the robot can only perform a few simple tasks it has been programmed to carry out.

During a recent test run it failed to recognize some voice commands, such as when Amethyst Ma of San Jose, California, asked how she and her kids could catch a bus to the city.
Still, such machines could be quite useful for overseas travelers, Ma said.
“It’s becoming common in a lot of public places so that’s why I came to it right away,” she said. “It’s a source of information, especially if we don’t speak the local language.”

WhatsApp Shaves Off a Little More Privacy

WhatsApp on Thursday announced an update to its terms and privacy policy — the first in four years.

Among other things, the changes will affect the ways users can communicate with businesses while continuing to avoid third-party banner ads or spam messages, according to the company.

However, WhatsApp will begin to share some personal details about its 1 billion users — such as phone numbers and other data — with Facebook, its parent company. The information sharing will permit better tracking of basic metrics, allowing Facebook to offer better friend suggestions, for example — and of course, to show more relevant ads.

Connected Network

The increased connectivity and information sharing might not be apparent to WhatsApp users initially. Further, neither WhatsApp nor Facebook actually will read any messages, which are encrypted. Phone numbers and other personal data won’t be shared with advertisers.

Despite those limitations, the fact that WhatsApp will share any relevant information with Facebook has raised some flags.

“This announcement should be very concerning to WhatsApp users, who have been promised many times by both WhatsApp and Facebook that their privacy will be respected and protected,” said Claire T. Gartland, consumer protection counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“That is why many individuals use WhatsApp in the first place,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

“WhatsApp may claim otherwise, but this is really the beginning of the end of privacy through that service,” warned Jim Purtilo, associate professor in the computer science department at the University of Maryland.

“We’ve seen this cycle before. Web users visiting sites with a browser once had some sense of privacy, but it didn’t take servers long to figure out how to share traffic data with one another and piece together profiles of each user,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“Today, any time you visit a site which offers a Facebook login or an AddThis tag, you also transmit a trace of your activity to big corporations to analyze and use,” Purtilo added. “Just browsing is enough — traffic analysis lets companies fill in the blanks, and this paints a pretty rich picture of you. You’d be pretty naive to think they go to this trouble for your benefit.”

End of Privacy

The warnings over privacy concerns actually go back to 2014 when Facebook first acquired WhatsApp for approximately US$19.3 billion.

“Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Consumer Protection Bureau, sent a letter to the companies during Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp warning the companies that the privacy promises made to WhatsApp users must be respected,” recalled EPIC’s Gartland.

“WhatsApp’s blog describes two different means of opting out of the proposed new sharing,” she noted, “and neither of these options appear consistent with Rich’s letter, which requires Facebook to get users’ affirmative consent before changing the way they use data collected via WhatsApp.”

Moreover, it does not appear as if WhatsApp even plans to secure what could be considered “meaningful, informed opt-in consent from its users to begin sharing this information with Facebook,” Gartland suggested.

Opt-Out Process

Users will be able to opt out, according to WhatsApp, but it likely will require reading the fine print — something few users actually do.

“WhatsApp says in a FAQ that existing users can opt out of sharing account information with Facebook for use by Facebook to improve the user’s ‘Facebook ads and predicts experiences’ in two ways,” said Karl Hochkammer, leader of the Honigman Law Firm’s information and technology transactions practice group.

“One way to opt out is to click the ‘read’ hyperlink before accepting the new terms of service and privacy policy, scroll to the bottom of the screen, and uncheck the box,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“This is set up to make the default rule an opt-in, with the option of opting out, so if someone agrees to the new terms and privacy policy without opting out, WhatsApp is also saying that a user has 30 days to make this decision by changing the user account’s settings,” Hochkammer explained. “Even if someone opts out, the information will still be shared with Facebook, but it won’t be used in connection with the user’s Facebook account.”

This method of opting out, in essence, could result in a user’s private information still being shared with Facebook.

“All WhatsApp has effectively said is that they are ready to apply the same analysis techniques to messaging as had previously been done for Web browsing,” remarked Purtilo.

“Privacy goes out the window at that point, even if bit by bit,” he added. “You can’t monetize such services without knowing how to tailor your advertising, and the only way to tailor it is by opening up the traffic and content for analysis, so that big corporations will have an even richer picture of you.”

Will Users Care?

It could be that WhatsApp can’t afford to disregard the wishes of an installed base of more than 1 billion users, but it’s questionable whether many of those users actually care about the new policies.

“On one level, this was probably inevitable. Facebook is a public company that faces investor scrutiny to make a profit,” observed Greg Sterling, vice president of strategy and insight at the Local Search Association.

“It is the logic of the market, and thus was unlikely that WhatsApp could continue with the small subscription model,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “It simply has too large a user base for Facebook to ignore from the advertiser point of view.”

Though there may be a loud and vocal minority that objects, most users will accept the changes.

“Look at the many changes that Facebook has made over the years,” said Sterling.

“That hasn’t had a detrimental impact on the company, even as many of its users are distrustful of Facebook,” he pointed out.

WhatsApp “is probably betting that users who would never try their service under these terms are now sufficiently dependent that they give up their data rather than invest the effort to find alternate products,” said Purtilo, “and we’ve seen that before as well. This is how privacy dies, bit by bit.”

Cool Technology iPhone

Multi-touch screens

The iPhone’s most obvious contribution was to ditch the physical keyboard.

Prior to 2007, phones fell into two main camps: feature phones with a numeric keypad or “smartphones” like the Blackberry with a full QWERTY keyboard. The latter sometimes came with a touchscreen but they required a stylus to operate and weren’t really suitable for typing.

The iPhone instead featured a 3.5-inch (9 centimeters) LCD screen with multi-touch technology. Not only did this get rid of the stylus in favor of what Jobs said was the ultimate pointing device — our finger — it enabled “smart” functions like pinch-to-zoom and physics-based interaction that presented on-screen elements as real objects with weight, size and intuitive responses.

More importantly, it allowed the screen to cover the entire face of the phone, which was the basis of many of the devices’ other innovations.

Multi-touch screens The iPhone’s most obvious contribution was to ditch the physical keyboard. Prior to 2007, phones fell into two main camps: feature phones with a numeric keypad or “smartphones” like the Blackberry with a full QWERTY keyboard. The latter sometimes came with a touchscreen but they required a stylus to operate and weren’t really suitable for typing. The iPhone instead featured a 3.5-inch (9 centimeters) LCD screen with multi-touch technology. Not only did this get rid of the stylus in favor of what Jobs said was the ultimate pointing device — our finger — it enabled “smart” functions like pinch-to-zoom and physics-based interaction that presented on-screen elements as real objects with weight, size and intuitive responses. More importantly, it allowed the screen to cover the entire face of the phone, which was the basis of many of the devices’ other innovations.

Google Maps

It may seem strange to list Google Maps as an innovation made popular by the iPhone, but Steve Jobs was central in bringing Google’s mapping smarts to mobile devices when he asked Google to build an app for the iPhone.

It was the first smartphone to feature the app, and even though the original iPhone didn’t feature GPS, this was rectified in later versions, allowing Google to add the turn-by-turn satellite navigation capability that is now standard in smartphones.

Google Maps It may seem strange to list Google Maps as an innovation made popular by the iPhone, but Steve Jobs was central in bringing Google’s mapping smarts to mobile devices when he asked Google to build an app for the iPhone. It was the first smartphone to feature the app, and even though the original iPhone didn’t feature GPS, this was rectified in later versions, allowing Google to add the turn-by-turn satellite navigation capability that is now standard in smartphones.