ACM TechNews


Welcome to the March 27, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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The Blue Waters supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign AI Versus the Coronavirus
The New York Times
William J. Broad
March 26, 2020


The C3.ai Digital Transformation Institute, a new public-private research consortium seeking to direct scientists to address large social problems with the help of artificial intelligence (AI), will first target the coronavirus pandemic. The consortium includes commitments from Princeton University, Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, the University of Illinois, and the University of Chicago, as well as the AI firm C3.ai and Microsoft. The first of the Institute's 26 annual grants will focus on efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, including speeding the development of medical treatments and designing and repurposing drugs. The grants will provide researchers up to $500,000 in funding, as well as access to computing resources from C3.ai, Microsoft, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

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A view from the top of a fence Approach Could Protect Control Systems From Hackers
IEEE Spectrum
Michelle Hampson
March 26, 2020


Researchers at Siemens and Croatia’s University of Zagreb have developed a technique to more easily identify attacks against industrial control systems (ICS), like those used in the electric power grid, or to control traffic. The researchers applied the concept of "watermarking" data during transmission to ICS, in a manner that is broadly applicable without requiring details about the specific ICS. In such a scenario, when data is transmitted in real time over an unencrypted channel, it is accompanied by a specialized algorithm in the form of a recursive watermark (RWM) signal; any disruption to the RWM signal indicates an attack is underway. Said Siemens' Zhen Song, “If attackers change or delay the real-time channel signal a little bit, the algorithm can detect the suspicious event and raise alarms immediately."

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A bag of chips How to See the World's Reflection From a Bag of Chips
Wired
Sophia Chen
March 26, 2020


Computer scientists at the University of Washington were able to reconstruct the image of a room using the metallic lining of snack bags as a mirror. The research helps to resolve technical obstacles for virtual and augmented reality technology, in which glare on shiny objects makes it difficult for computers to accurately identify them. The researchers developed an algorithm that transforms the distorted reflection in a glint of light bouncing off the bag into a blurry but recognizable image. Using a handheld color video camera with a depth sensor, they captured reflections from shiny objects from different perspectives, then used a machine-learning algorithm to reconstruct the surroundings. Some experts are concerned the technique could be abused by those who would download images online and attempt to use the algorithm to reconstruct their surroundings from shiny surfaces in the images.

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Big Data, Small Footprint
The Michigan Engineer News Center
Gabe Cherry
March 24, 2020


University of Michigan (U-M) researchers implemented a design change in the Apache Spark open-source distributed cluster-computing framework that could allow it to handle massive tasks much faster, while lightening the Internet workload. U-M's Mosharaf Chowdhury, who helped to build Spark, said the tool was designed primarily for big data centers, but it is less efficient—and leaves many central processing units (CPUs) idle—when Internet-connected machines are thousands of miles apart. Chowdhury and colleagues wrote a more proactive execution engine called Sol, which guesses which CPUs will be next in line and forwards new tasks to them. Sol also directs devices to process data locally when possible rather than constantly moving it between machines, reducing strain on the Internet and accelerating data processing.

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3D View of Methane Tracks Sources, Movement Around the Globe
NASA
Ellen Gray
March 23, 2020


The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)'s three-dimensional view of methane concentrations worldwide combines datasets from emissions inventories and simulations of wetland sources into a high-resolution model. The model also incorporated data from NASA field campaigns like the Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, along with data from the Japanese Space Agency's Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite, and the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument on the European Space Agency's Sentinel-5P satellite. The model calculates methane emissions based on known processes for certain land-cover types and the atmospheric chemistry that breaks down and removes methane from the air. The visualization displays methane's migration and behavior patterns over time based on a weather model, and highlights major concentrations in the Amazon River basin, India, China, and the Arctic.

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Second Chances in CS50
Harvard Magazine
Jonathan Shaw
March 23, 2020


Harvard University's CS50 undergraduate introductory computer science course has been stained by a record number of cases of academic dishonesty. Course instructor David Malan said interventions to discourage plagiarism have mostly failed. A paper Malan co-authored detailed attempted interventions, including two that proved effective for certain kinds of students. One is the regret clause, an option for students to self-report cheating within 72 hours of submitting work, in order to avoid disciplinary referrals. In the second approach, interventional conversations, students whose submissions look too similar are called in to explain their workflow, in the hope collaborative cheating can be curbed before it warrants a referral. Malan said students summoned for such conversations have not been called in a second time.

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Satellite-Based Algorithm Pinpoints Crop Water Use
Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation
Julie Wurth
March 20, 2020


Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed a high-resolution mapping framework to better model crop water use. The BESS-STAIR framework is made up of a satellite-driven biophysical model integrating plants’ water, carbon, and energy cycles, and a generic, fully automated fusion algorithm. The model estimates photosynthesis, and the amount of carbon and water going in and out of plants. The STAIR algorithm combines data from two complementary satellite systems to provide high-resolution data on a daily basis. Said CABBI’s Kaiyu Guan, "We are able to provide daily, 30m-resolution evapotranspiration anytime and anywhere in the U.S. Corn Belt in hours, which is unprecedented."

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Video Game Experience or Gender May Improve VR Learning
Cornell Chronicle
Melanie Lefkowitz
March 25, 2020


A study by Cornell University researchers found that students using immersive virtual reality (VR) did not learn significantly better than those who used computer-simulated and hands-on learning methods. The researchers recreated an astronomy class demonstration on understanding the phases of the moon, with a third of participants told to use a traditional hands-on method, another third to use a desktop computer simulation, and the remaining third to use VR. Students were tested before and after the experiment, and scores rose 25% after using any one of the techniques. Males in the study were far more likely to have experience with video games, and those who did had better learning outcomes in VR. Said Cornell's Andrea Stevenson Won, “This is an interesting finding, because it could potentially imply that if you can provide learners with that experience, then you could show broad benefits from immersive learning. However, more study is definitely needed.”

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Researchers Develop Intelligent Spectrum Sensing Technique for 5G Communications
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Zhang Nannan
March 25, 2020


Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Shanghai Advanced Research Institute developed a spectrum sensing technique for 5G communications that combines reinforcement learning and advanced spectrum sensing to optimize the performance of a cognitive radio network. The researchers analyzed the requirements of several typical 5G scenarios, and developed three dedicated models with optimization targets for spectrum sensing methods. They designed the intelligent spectrum sensing technique's architecture to address instability and adaptability issues. Test results showed the sensing method can adapt to situations with different optimization targets. The researchers have applied their results to the SEANET system co-developed by CAS and its Alpha campus network.

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A truck speeding through an intersection. How AI Can Reduce Traffic Congestion, Fuel Consumption
Government Computer News
Stephanie Kanowitz
March 25, 2020


Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) used artificial intelligence and machine learning (ML) to design a computer-vision system to keep traffic moving efficiently through intersections while minimizing fuel consumption. The researchers used stoplight cameras from traffic management services firm Gridsmart to gather real-world data from images of vehicles passing through intersections, and trained the cameras to identify vehicle types and their estimated gas mileage. Afterwards, they used the open source SUMO package to model traffic systems, and ran a simulation of a citywide traffic grid. They enhanced the system with the ability to train an ML algorithm to control the traffic lights, and applied reinforcement learning to keep high-fuel-consumption vehicles moving, rather than idling at traffic signals. Said ORNL's Thomas Karnowski, “What's interesting about it is you basically set up a system of rewards and penalties, and then you let the computer try different things until it learns to get the rewards and minimize the penalties."

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An empty Times Square in Manhattan State, Local Governments Ask Technologists to Aid Coronavirus Response
The Washington Post
Cat Zakrzewski; Tonya Riley
March 26, 2020


With digital services swamped by the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. state and local governments are asking technologists to volunteer to assist with response strategies. New York State has launched a "Technology SWAT team" to help develop digital tools that can assist in building infrastructure for virus screening, and as well as improving remote access to government services that could see surges in usage, like unemployment services. New York is soliciting technology companies, universities, nonprofits, research laboratories, and other organizations with technology expertise to support the project. Meanwhile, former Obama administration technology leaders and a former executive from payments company Stripe have established the U.S. Digital Response Team to match industry volunteers with local and state government efforts. The Team already has received requests to help governments collect data from coronavirus testing facilities, build systems to track data from hospitals about bed and ventilator capacity, and to model and map infection data.

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Attack on Home Routers Sends Users to Spoofed Sites That Push Malware
Ars Technica
Dan Goodin
March 25, 2020


Researchers citing data from Bitdefender security products are warning that a hack of Linksys and D-Link routers for homes and small offices is redirecting users to malicious sites that pose as COVID-19 informational resources. The researchers believe the hackers are guessing passwords used to secure the routers' remote management console when the feature is turned on, or are guessing credentials for users' Linksys cloud accounts. The hacks redirect users to malicious sites that install malware or attempt to phish passwords. Bitdefender’s Liviu Arsene said the spoofed sites close port 443, the Internet gate that transmits traffic protected by HTTPS authentication protections, preventing the display of warnings from browsers or email clients that a TLS certificate is invalid or untrusted. The researchers said these routers should have remote administration turned off whenever possible.

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