ACM TechNews

Welcome to the February 16, 2018 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

Please note: In observance of the U.S. Presidents' Day holiday, TechNews will not be published on Monday, Feb. 19. Publication will resume Wednesday, Feb. 21.

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Production and clean-room facilities in Intel’s plant in Hillsboro, Oregon. Old-Fashioned Silicon Might Be the Key to Building Ubiquitous Quantum Computers
Technology Review
Martin Giles
February 15, 2018

Scientists are investigating silicon as a key ingredient in the creation of scalable quantum computers. Researchers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW Madison) say they have programmed a 2-quantum bit (qubit) machine based on spin qubits to execute algorithms that are usually employed to test the effectiveness of quantum machines. UW Madison's Thomas Watson believes silicon-based systems could ultimately enable denser qubit packing than other approaches, and thus boost machines' computational power. Meanwhile, a team from Princeton University, the University of Konstanz in Germany, and the Joint Quantum Institute have detailed a method for using microwave photons to help couple distant silicon-based qubits. Intel thinks milestones such as these should help make it easier to scale quantum computers to the millions of qubits required to produce a truly practical commercial system, and it has been supporting researchers working on silicon-based quantum technology.

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U of T Expertise Helps Drive Two Supercluster Bids to Success
U of T News
Jennifer Robinson; Tyler Irving
February 15, 2018

Researchers at the University of Toronto (U of T) in Canada have helped propel two successful innovation supercluster proposals, including an advanced manufacturing cluster designed to use three-dimensional "printing and robotics to create next-gen manufacturing capabilities," says Canadian minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains. As part of the effort, U of T experts are creating electroactive polymers for flexible and wearable electronics in biomedical and energy applications. "The advanced manufacturing cluster is a fantastic opportunity to grow industry-university collaborations, as well as the overall reputation for innovation in the Greater Toronto region," notes U of T's Vivek Goel. "This will in turn accelerate the region's attractiveness as a global destination for talent, innovation, and industry." The second initiative is the SCALE.AI supercluster for building intelligent supply chains via artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. The supercluster is expected to strengthen Canadian leadership in AI and data science to transform the retail, manufacturing, and infrastructure industries.

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Harvesting robot developed by the Automated Brassica harvesting in Cornwall (ABC) project Scientists Develop Harvesting Robots That Could Revolutionize Farming Practices
Plymouth University
Alan Williams
February 14, 2018

Researchers at the University of Plymouth in the U.K. are working on the Automated Brassica harvesting in Cornwall (ABC) project to develop new technology to aid farmers in harvesting crops. The researchers are working to create robots that can work alongside humans to ensure that any gaps in productivity are filled. The ABC project relies on the concept of "variable stiffness," in which the ability of a robot to flex and bend its arms is more important in a variable environment. To accomplish a variable stiffness robot, the researchers will build on a previous project that has two arms and moves more like a human than a machine. The team also must determine how to enable the robot to identify produce that is ready for harvest and to distinguish the precise part to be taken. They will put cameras and sensors in the robot's hands that can make real-time three-dimensional models of the crop.

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AI2-THOR Interactive Simulation Teaches AI About Real World
IEEE Spectrum
Jeremy Hsu
February 15, 2018

An open source virtual training ground called AI2-THOR enables artificial intelligence (AI) agents to learn how to interact with objects in familiar home settings, which the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence's Roozbeh Mottaghi describes as safer and less expensive than real-world trials. Mottaghi and his colleagues have been developing The House Of inteRactions (THOR) as an interactive and photorealistic three-dimensional simulation of the real world. The team believes the more realistic the model, the more probable that the skills AI agents learn virtually could be seamlessly applied to the real world. The initial AI2-THOR iteration features 120 scenes based on kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, and bathrooms, along with interactive objects and realistic physics. This enables AI agents to practice handling actionable virtual objects and changing their states in a way that more closely emulates real-world interactions. A planned next step is enabling agents to communicate with each other for task collaboration.

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Individual flapping robots called “smarticles” programmed to move as a group. Smart Swarms Seek New Ways to Cooperate
Quanta Magazine
Kevin Hartnett
February 14, 2018

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are developing cooperative swarms of tiny robots called smarticles that can collectively perform complex behaviors. The smarticles have short arms that they swing back and forth, and they respond to light and tones of different frequencies. They also can be programmed to adjust the rate at which they swing their arms in response to the other smarticles in their immediate vicinity. To control the swarm, the researchers created an algorithm designed to ensure that an idealized swarm will move in a coordinated manner. The algorithm's randomness helps particles in a swarm avoid getting snagged in locally compressed states, where many isolated subgroups are clustered together but the swarm as a whole is not compressed. The randomness guarantees if smarticles wind up in small compressed groups, there is a chance individuals will still decide to move to a new location, keeping the process alive until an overall compressed state is achieved.

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Brookhaven Ramps Up Computing for National Security Effort
John Russell
February 14, 2018

Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) is stepping up a program to research and develop novel technologies and applications for addressing computing challenges in national security. "The methodologies for data analysis, including machine learning and deep learning, required for national security concerns are very much synergistic with the challenges in data sciences," says Adolfy Hoisie, chair of BNL's Computing for National Security (CSN) Department. "The spectrum of applications of interest to my department includes intelligence apps, cybersecurity, non-proliferation activities including international aspects of that, supply chain security, and a number of computational aspects of security of the computing infrastructure." Hoisie says CSN will tap ongoing research in areas that include materials design and quantum computing. "We are looking at not only creating the appropriate facilities for siting quantum computing, such as the infrastructure for deep cooling...but also looking at very significantly expanding the range of applications that are suitable for quantum computing," Hoisie notes.

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Photo of thousands of rubber ducks on a beach, taken via drone camera #EpicDuckChallenge Shows We Can Count on Drones
University of Adelaide
Crispin Savage
February 14, 2018

Researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia have shown that monitoring wildlife using drones is more accurate than traditional counting. The team set up an experiment in which they knew the correct number of animals in order to test the drone's counting accuracy. They knew they could not use wild animals because they would never be sure of the real number of individuals, and they solved this problem by using a few thousand rubber ducks and the #EpicDuckChallenge. The researchers set up fake bird colonies made of decoy ducks and challenged experienced wildlife spotters and drone operators to count them. Because counting birds in photos takes a long time, the researchers produced a computer algorithm to count the ducks automatically, and they say the results were just as good as those of humans reviewing the imagery. "Monitoring animals with drones produces better data that we can use to proactively manage wildlife," notes Adelaide's Jarrod Hodgson.

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ISTE and Partner to Advance Computer Science Education
Chloe Kim
February 14, 2018

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE, formerly the International Council for Computers in Education) and have formed a partnership to create and offer more opportunities for educators interested in teaching computer science. The partnership, called the ISTE Standards for Computer Science Education, will provide educators access to's courses and discounted ISTE membership. The goal of the collaboration is to drive a cultural shift so that more teachers identify with computer science skills, says Carolyn Sykora with ISTE's Standards Department. Although the demand for properly trained teachers has spiked due to the unprecedented interest in computer science, the shortage of trained teachers is one of the biggest hurdles in expanding access to computer science education in U.S. schools, says CEO Hadi Partovi. Separately, 16 state governors have joined a coalition to advance computer science education in their states, and more than 12 used their recent State of the State addresses to emphasize advances.

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Professor Adam Maltese, working with table of female students at the Make, Innovate, Learn Lab Makerspace. $1.2-million IU Project Looks Into Why Women Enter STEM Careers
Indiana Daily Student
February 13, 2018

Indiana University (IU) says it is launching Role Models in Engineering Education, a $1.2-million project examining why women make up such a relatively small percentage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs and what factors have encouraged women into those fields. In 2017, women comprised more than 50 percent of U.S. college-educated workers, but only 24 percent of U.S. women were involved in STEM careers, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The IU study explores how children become interested in STEM careers and topics and maintain interest into college. "If we recognize that differences exist in how people get interested, and embrace that diversity when we work to increase interest, I think we'll see better outcomes," says IU professor Adam Maltese, who is leading the project. The program aims to develop a clearer understanding of how undergraduates can act to encourage interest in STEM fields for women.

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Neural Networks Everywhere
MIT News
Larry Hardesty
February 13, 2018

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a special-purpose chip to accelerate neural-network computations by three to seven times over its predecessors and cut power consumption by up to 96 percent. "The computation [machine-learning] algorithms do can be simplified to one specific operation, called the dot product," says MIT's Avishek Biswas. "Our approach was, can we implement this dot-product functionality inside the memory so that you don't need to transfer this data back and forth?" In the chip, a node's input values are transformed into electrical voltages and multiplied by the appropriate weights, and only the combined voltages are converted back into a digital representation and stored for further processing. The device can thus calculate dot products for multiple nodes in a single step. Because all the weights are either 1 or -1, they can be deployed within the memory itself as simple switches that either close a circuit or leave it open.

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AI Is Helping Seismologists Detect Earthquakes They'd Otherwise Miss
The Verge
James Vincent
February 14, 2018

Researchers at Harvard University are using artificial intelligence to amplify the sensitivity of Oklahoma's seismographs, and the technique can detect 17 times more earthquakes than older methods in a fraction of the time. The method is similar to the voice detection software used by digital assistants, in that it uncovers the signal hidden in the noise. When applied to seismographs, the system cancels out normal geologic sounds, known as ambient seismic noise, to identify earthquakes that might be very small or far away. The researchers trained a convolutional neural network to recognize background noise, feeding it data from seismically quiet areas. Once the system learned what ambient seismic noises sound like, it can remove these from the data, leaving only the tiny quakes that had previously been hidden. The neural network also can identify the approximate location of individual earthquakes by matching the patterns they created with historical data where a tremor's location was known.

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Tissue Paper Sensors Show Promise for Healthcare, Entertainment, Robotics
UW News (WA)
Jackson Holtz
February 12, 2018

Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a new kind of wearable sensor that can detect a pulse, the blink of an eye, and other human movement. The sensor is light, flexible, and inexpensive, with potential applications in robotics, healthcare, and entertainment. The technology demonstrates that by tearing tissue paper equipped with nanocomposites and breaking the paper's fibers, the paper acts as a sensor that can detect a range of human movements. In developing this technology, the researchers used paper doused with carbon nanotube-laced water. Each piece of paper has both horizontal and vertical fibers, so when the paper is torn, the direction of the tear tells the sensor what happened. The bandage-sized sensors could be used to monitor a person's gait, the movement of their eyes, or a video game player's actions. Although the technology has only been used in laboratory settings, the researchers want to find a suitable commercial use.

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Q&A: John Quarles, UTSA Department of Computer Science
UTSA Today
February 12, 2018

In an interview, University of Texas at San Antonio professor John Quarles discusses using sophisticated technology to create video games to help people in need. One case Quarles cites involves the use of virtual reality (VR) aquatic therapy games to help disabled children, with the initial project being an in-water VR game where players play a frog that jumps on lily pads in a pond to catch insects. Quarles also has created an augmented reality program to train first responders, and has partnered his game development students with a nonprofit to develop games for wounded veterans. "This past semester, I encouraged use their skills to create a game tailored to the abilities and interests of a specific injured veteran," Quarles notes. "The results were very impressive. Some of my students even took the opportunity to use virtual reality devices to make their games accessible to veterans who otherwise wouldn't be able to play video games."

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An Architecture for Fast and General Data Processing on Large Clusters
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