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Welcome to the February 26, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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A man demonstrating the voting machine Reliability of Pricey New Voting Machines Questioned
Associated Press
Frank Bajak
February 23, 2020


Computer security experts continue to express doubts that expensive new voting machines are reliable, considering them almost as risky as earlier discredited electronic systems. Called ballot-marking devices, the machines have touchscreens for registering voter choices and print out paper records scanned by optical readers. South Carolina voters will use the systems, which are at least twice as expensive as the hand-marked paper ballot option, in Saturday's primary. Daniel Lopresti, a computer scientist at Lehigh University and a South Carolina election commissioner, said, "What we worry is, what happens the next time if there's a programming bug, or a hack or whatever, and it's done in a way that's not obvious?" Said University of South Carolina’s Duncan Buell, "I don't know that we've ever seen an election computer, a voting computer, whose software was done to a high standard."

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A design of a child in front of codes Should All Children Learn to Code by the End of High School?
The Wall Street Journal
Robert Sedgewick; Larry Cuban
February 23, 2020


Princeton University's Robert Sedgewick and Stanford University's Larry Cuban disagree on whether computer coding should be a graduation requirement for high school students. Sedgewick feels incorporating coding skills into the K-12 curriculum benefits students and society, while Cuban said it threatens to turn public schools into job-training sites for technology companies. Sedgewick sees coding as critical to cultivating logical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving in students. Cuban sees no clear evidence that coding skills are transferable to cognitive domains like math, English, history, and science, and he warned that imposing such vocational training would undermine public schools' wider mission to foster social mobility, individual development, and civic engagement.

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Sandboxing Approach Increases Browser Security
UT News
Marc Airhart
February 25, 2020


Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), the University of California, San Diego, Stanford University, and Mozilla have developed a new Web browser security scheme. Initially deployed in the Firefox browser for the Linux operating system, the WebAssembly mechanism was created to accelerate Web apps that run within a browser, while keeping those apps within "secure sandboxes" to prevent hijacking by malware. The new RLBox framework relocates browser components that decode media files to these sandboxes. UT Austin's Hovav Shacham said, "The hope is that at some point, bugs in all of those libraries become useless for hacking Firefox. And if that happens, then user security would be greatly improved."

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How to Reduce Bias in AI? Selective Amnesia.
USC Viterbi School of Engineering
Rishbha Bhagi
February 24, 2020


Artificial intelligence (AI) researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Sciences Institute have created a mechanism for inducing selective amnesia in computing models. This adversarial forgetting methodology could help reduce bias in AI by teaching deep learning models to ignore unwanted data factors. The mechanism is used to train a neural network to represent all underlying aspects of the data being analyzed, and then to forget specified biases, resulting in models that lack those biases when making decisions. Adversarial forgetting also could enhance content generation. USC's Greg Ver Steeg said, "For content generation to succeed, we need new ways to control and manipulate neural network representations and the forgetting mechanism could be a way of doing that."

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A Fur-Friendly 'Wearable for Pets'
Imperial College London
Caroline Brogan; Madeleine Stone
February 25, 2020


Researchers at Imperial College London in the U.K. have created a wearable health-tracking sensor for pets and people that can monitor vital signs through apparel, or fur. The sensor is fabricated from a silicone-water composite and has a microphone to pick up sound waves; it is sufficiently flexible to mold to the contours of fur, clothing, or body parts and squeeze out sound-dampening air bubbles. The sensor converts sound to a digital signal that is sent to a nearby portable computer, so people can track an animal’s (or person’s) vital signs in real time. The technology could potentially help owners monitor their pets' health, allow veterinarians to monitor animals during surgery, or track people’s health without requiring direct contact with their skin.

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A group of robots preparing to swarm. Swarming Robots Avoid Collisions, Traffic Jams
Northwestern McCormick School of Engineering
Amanda Morris
February 24, 2020


Northwestern University researchers have developed a decentralized algorithm that guarantees collision and congestion avoidance, a key step toward controlling fleets of driverless vehicles. The researchers applied the algorithm to a simulation of 1,024 robots and to a 100-robot swarm in a laboratory, and in each instance the robots reliably and efficiently converged into a pre-determined shape in less than 60 seconds. To ensure coordination that avoids collisions and deadlock, the algorithm views the ground under the robots as a grid, and each robot knows its position using technology similar to global positioning systems. Each robot uses sensors to communicate with its neighbors and interpret nearby grid spaces as vacant or occupied. Northwestern's Michael Rubenstein said, "By understanding how to control our swarm robots to form shapes, we can understand how to control fleets of autonomous vehicles as they interact with each other."

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USask Computer-Based Simulator Tests Insects for Effects of Pesticide
University of Saskatchewan
February 24, 2020


Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) in Canada used computer simulation to compare the effects of two families of agricultural pesticides on locusts, and found that a newer pesticide used at low dosages is less toxic than the others. USask's Jack Gray designed a virtual flight simulator to test how non-lethal doses of pesticides can affect locusts' ability to visually detect moving objects like trees and predators; the results verified that the neonicotinoid pesticide imidacloprid impaired the insects' ability to jump and flee dangers, while the newer sulfoxamine pesticide sulfoxaflor did not. Said Gray, "These findings may be applicable to other species to understand how these pesticides affect how fast the nervous system can send information."

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A simulated Beijing in an immersion lab at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where students can learn Mandarin Chinese How Technology is Changing the Future of Higher Education
The New York Times
Jon Marcus
February 20, 2020


Experts at academic laboratories are testing new concepts and technologies to shape the future of higher education. Envisioned innovations include college via subscription, virtual reality (VR)-based language learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) teaching assistants. Institutions considering a monthly subscription model include the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), where such a subscription would permit access to a global network of mentors and advisers, and provide resources to help students improve their professional situation, gain new skills, or solicit feedback on their progress. Georgia Tech also is experimenting with a virtual teaching assistant built on IBM's Watson supercomputer, which answers questions in a discussion forum alongside human assistants. Meanwhile, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students are virtually learning Mandarin Chinese in an immersive VR construct, in dialogue with AI avatars that understand students' words, gestures, and expressions in computer-generated environments.

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Rice University Boosts 'Internet of Things' Security—Again
Rice University
Mike Williams
February 18, 2020


Researchers at Rice University have developed a technique to improve security for Internet of Things (IoT) devices significantly, while using far less energy. The new technique is a hardware solution based on the power management circuitry found in most central processing chips. The method leverages power regulators to muddle information leaked by the power consumption of encryption circuits. A breakthrough last year by the team generated paired security keys based on fingerprint-like defects unique to every computer chip. “This year, the story is similar, but we are not generating keys,” said Rice's Kaiyuan Yang. “We are looking at defending against a new type of attack that is specifically for IoT and mobile systems."

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UCI, Disney Research Scientists Develop AI-Enhanced Video Compression Model
University of California, Irvine
Brian Bell
February 18, 2020


An artificial intelligence (AI)-enhanced video compression model developed by computer scientists at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and Disney Research has shown that deep learning can provide results comparable to established video compression technology. The team showed its compressor yielded less distortion and significantly smaller bits-per-pixel rates than classical coding-decoding algorithms when trained on specialized video content. The compressor achieved similar results on downscaled, publicly available YouTube videos. “Ultimately, every video compression approach works on a trade-off,” said UCI's Stephan Mandt. "The hope is that our neural network-based approach does a better trade-off overall between file size and quality.”

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Protecting Sensitive Metadata So It Can't be Used for Surveillance
MIT News
Rob Matheson
February 26, 2020


Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a scalable metadata-protection scheme to shield the information of millions of users of communications networks against possible state-level surveillance. In the Crossroads (XRD) scheme, users send encrypted messages to multiple server chains, with each chain mathematically ensured to have at least one hacker-free server. Each server decrypts and randomly shuffles the messages before sending them to the next server down the line; the final server decrypts the last encryption layer and transmits the message to the target recipient. XRD also uses aggregate hybrid shuffle, a type of cryptographic proof that guarantees servers are properly receiving and shuffling messages to identify malicious activity. MIT's Albert Kwon said, "We want to get to the point where we're sending metadata-protected messages in near-real-time."

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A policeman demonstrates the new Axon Body 3 camera Axon Rolls Out the Next Level of Police Technology: Live-Streaming Body Cameras
The Washington Post
Tom Jackman
February 19, 2020


Police body-camera supplier Axon has deployed live-streaming cameras to the Cincinnati Police Department, allowing officers to show dispatchers or commanders crises as they unfold in real time, and helping rescuers find officers in trouble. The system automatically turns the camera on when a gun is drawn, emergency lights are activated, or a Taser is powered up. While the cameras will not include facial recognition software, they will have face-detection capabilities so police can quickly find video segments with people and react faster when footage is required for wider dissemination. Said Barry Friedman, a New York University law professor and founder of the Policing Project, “Body cameras go into sensitive places. With streaming, it won’t just be the officer, but somebody else. There have to be serious limits as to whom the video is streamed.”

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