Welcome to the September 29, 2017 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Scientists Move Step Towards 'Holy Grail' of Computing by Creating Brain-Like Photonic Microchips
University of Exeter
September 27, 2017

Researchers at Exeter and Oxford universities in the U.K. and the University of Munster in Germany have developed photonic microchips that emulate the human brain's synapses using light instead of electricity. The chips are fabricated from phase-change materials combined with specially designed integrated photonic circuits whose synapses can operate at 1,000 times the speed of their human counterparts. The researchers say their work is a key step toward machines capable of functioning and thinking in a similar manner to the brain while using photonic systems for faster and more power-efficient operation. Exeter professor C. David Wright says the project addresses two major issues in electronic computing--the more power computers consume as they become faster, and their lack of built-in learning and parallel processing capabilities--"not only by developing...new brain-like computer architectures, but also by working in the optical domain to leverage the huge speed and power advantages of the upcoming silicon photonics revolution."

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A stack of phones, tablets and laptops New Electronics Convert Hissing Sound to Improve Signal
R&D Magazine
Kenny Walter
September 26, 2017

Researchers at Osaka University in Japan are using single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) to create a summing network stochastic resonance (SR) device that detects subthreshold signals and has a self-noise component. The researchers say SR could be used to enhance signal transmission in a new generation of devices, including bio-inspired sensors and computer processors. The researchers tested 10 molecules adsorbed in the SWNTs as noise generators, and found the SWNT/PMo12 combination was more than twice as effective as the other combinations. The team created a SWNT network in which up to 300 carbon nanotubes were aligned parallel to each other between chromium electrodes, which boosted signal detection. "The functional capabilities of our network SR device, which relies on dense nanomaterials and exploits intrinsic spontaneous noise at room temperature, offer a glimpse of future bio-inspired electronic devices," says Osaka University professor Megumi Akai-Kasaya.

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New 'Building Material' Points Toward Quantum Computers
University of Copenhagen
Henrik Larsen
September 28, 2017

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and Purdue University in Indiana have demonstrated the production of Majorana particles in a new building material. The researchers combined two ultra-thin sheets of indium arsenide and aluminum in a sandwich, and placed it atop a wafer. The team then carved out a nanowire from the sandwich layer to generate a state in which electrons within the wire behave in the manner of Majorana particles. "We are now able to design the nanowire on a laptop--and include the details we go for," says University of Copenhagen professor Fabrizio Nichele. "Further down the road production capacity will no doubt increase--which will allow us to use this technique in order to construct computers of significant size." Nichele notes functional quantum computers could "very well be based on some form of integration of a number of different techniques and different materials, whereof some may be based on our research."

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A swarm of bees Introducing a New Robotic Class With Abilities Out-Performing Existing Machines or Even Biological Organisms
September 27, 2017

The European Union-funded E-SWARM project has yielded the first self-assembling multi-robot system that exhibits sensorimotor coordination equivalent to that seen in monolithic robots. The E-SWARM researchers say their system can adjust its organization, autonomously cohering into shapes and sizes based on the task or environment. The project makes use of units linked via a mergeable nervous system (MNS), which includes a centralized decision-making unit called the "brain unit." The robots self-reconfigure by absorbing units of different capabilities into their gestalt body, forming larger clusters with a single centralized controller. The MNS robots also can divide into separate bodies with independent brain units, and self-repair by eliminating or replacing malfunctioning body parts, including a malfunctioning brain unit. The researchers note the system is designed to be scalable, both in terms of computational resources for robotic control and response time to stimuli. The team says MNS robots likely will be designed to adapt to changing task requirements.

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U.S. Coalesces Plans for First Exascale Supercomputer
Tiffany Trader
September 27, 2017

The delivery date for the U.S.'s first exascale supercomputing system, Aurora, has been extended from 2018 to 2021, while its target capability has been enlarged from 180 petaflops to 1 exaflop, according to announcements at Tuesday's Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee meeting. Despite this promise, the Collaboration of Oak Ridge, Argonne, and Lawrence Livermore (CORAL) initiative to build two distinct pre-exascale architectures has not met its goal. Sources say several people at the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) are disappointed with the Intel/Cray partnership contracted to deliver Aurora, because of its inability to fulfill its objective of providing a 180-200 petaflops system by 2018. The scientific/research community sees the non-delivery of Aurora as significantly disruptive to them, especially because the supercomputer was wanted by both the DoE and Argonne National Laboratory. However, two other CORAL projects at the Oak Ridge and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories remain on track.

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Empty phone messaging bubbles Computer Scientists Address Gap in Messaging Privacy
University of Birmingham
Luke Harrison
September 27, 2017

Researchers at the universities of Birmingham and Oxford in the U.K. and the University of Luxembourg have developed a new security protocol to address a persistent problem in end-to-end encryption. The researchers note current protocols maximize the fact that hackers using man-in-the-middle attacks can only intercept electronic messages sent via a compromised network. The team's Detecting Endpoint Compromise in Messaging (DECIM) protocol resolves the issue of attackers in a position to intercept all of a victim's messages long-term by hacking either an Internet service provider or a messaging service operator. The researchers say DECIM makes sure the recipient's device automatically certifies new key pairs, storing the certificates in a tamper-proof public ledger. "There's no silver bullet in the field of end-to-end encryption, but we hope that our contribution can add an extra layer of security and help to level the playing field between users and attackers," says the University of Luxembourg's Jiangshan Yu.

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The Coming Software Apocalypse
The Atlantic
James Somers
September 26, 2017

The growing complexity and connectivity of software and the fact that its foundational requirements can lead to serious and potentially disastrous consequences has prompted a group of coders to combat the abstract approach to programming. The Communications Design Group's Bret Victor says thinking about software systems via code is difficult, which plays directly into their high incidence of bugs. His solution is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get interface to enable programmers to write and revise code and see the immediate effects of those changes on the application under development. Some programming experts are following Victor's lead, with Microsoft's Chris Granger having built a prototype coding environment designed to provide instant feedback to developers on software behavior. Also gaining favor is a model-based approach that is still sufficiently unambiguous for computers to comprehend, while of paramount importance is the creation of a program to convert the models into actual code that can be proven to function correctly all the time.

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New NSF Transdisciplinary Research in Principles of Data Science (TRIPODS) Awards
CCC Blog
Helen Wright
September 27, 2017

The U.S. National Science Foundation has announced it will fund 12 Transdisciplinary Research in Principles of Data Science (TRIPODS) projects with $17.7 million in grants. The projects will bring together the statistics, mathematics, and theoretical computer science communities to develop data science platforms. The TRIPODS Phase I awards will support the establishment of small collaborative institutes, while Phase II awards will focus on the foundation of larger institutes. Phase II awardees will be selected via a second competitive proposal process from among the Phase I institutes. Technological innovations and unprecedented access to computing infrastructure have led to a boom in data from different sources, whose availability--its volume and variety, and the speed at which it is collected--is transforming research in all scientific and engineering fields. The TRIPODS awards will enable data-driven discovery using major investments in state-of-the-art mathematical and statistical tools, improved data-mining and machine-learning strategies, and enhanced visualization capabilities.

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The five different ‘exoskeletons’ used by the Primer robot 'Superhero' Robot Wears Different Outfits for Different Tasks
MIT News
Adam Conner-Simons; Rachel Gordon
September 27, 2017

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have developed Primer, a shape-shifting robot that can reconfigure itself into different exoskeletal "outfits" to perform distinct tasks. Primer is controlled with magnets to make it walk, roll on wheels, sail on water, and glide, using plastic-sheet exoskeletons that fold into specific shapes in response to heat and dissolve in water when no longer needed. "Our approach shows that origami-inspired manufacturing allows us to have robotic components that are versatile, accessible, and reusable," says MIT professor Daniela Rus. The researchers note Primer also can wear multiple exoskeletons at once, and their next goal is to broaden the robot's capabilities, from driving in water to burrowing in sand to camouflaging its color. "With this metamorphosis-inspired approach, we can extend the capabilities of a single robot by giving it different 'accessories' to use in different situations," Rus says.

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Big Data Conquers Legal Analysis
Swiss National Science Foundation
September 28, 2017

Research funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation has led to the establishment of a free and publicly accessible integrated database of 15,000 legal cases related to international economic law. Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies professor Joost Pauwelyn in Switzerland and University of Ottawa professor Wolfgang Alschner in Canada set up the database, and researchers are currently performing big data analyses on underlying international pacts. Comparing treaty texts since 2015 is a task being conducted by Alschner and a colleague, with Alschner noting, "Legal practitioners will be interested in seeing how international treaties have evolved over time. This will help them to identify treaties that no longer conform with today's practices and therefore need renegotiating." The researchers also say the tool should promote greater use of computer-aided methods among legal scholars. "We could back up abstract concepts with empirical data or develop novel theories based on new insights," Alschner says.

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3d rendering of a human face The 3D Selfie Is Here
University of Nottingham (United Kingdom)
Lindsay Brooke
September 26, 2017

Researchers at the University of Nottingham and Kingston University in the U.K. have developed a new Web application that can render a two-dimensional (2D) facial image as a three-dimensional (3D) construct. The researchers say people can use the app to upload a single color image and quickly produce a 3D model showing the shape of their face. The team trained a machine-learning convolutional neural network on a massive dataset of 2D pictures and 3D facial models, enabling it to reconstruct 3D facial geometry from a single 2D image while also deducing the non-visible parts of the face. "The main novelty is in the simplicity of our approach, which bypasses the complex pipelines typically used by other techniques," says Nottingham professor Georgios Tzimiropoulos. "We instead came up with the idea of training a big neural network on 80,000 faces to directly learn to output the 3D facial geometry from a single 2D image."

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NMSU Computer Science Professor Receives Grant to Discover Biological Patterns
NMSU News Center
Billy Huntsman
September 26, 2017

New Mexico State University professor Joe Song recently received a U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to develop automated methods to discover molecular patterns from human and mouse genomics data. "We will develop novel data science methods to delineate how molecular networks are rewired in major cell and tissue types in humans and mice," Song says. He says the research should contribute to the development of software that can be used to better study molecular activities programmed by genomes. "It has become clear that unexplored data may contain critical signals of development, which a biologist may not know how to extract," Song notes. He says software that is programmed correctly to parse through the data can discover hidden patterns more effectively than humans, who can often be biased. Song's next step in the project is to develop prototype computational methods and test them on sample datasets to ensure functionality.

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Why Futurist Ray Kurzweil Isn't Worried About Technology Stealing Your Job
Michal Lev-Ram
September 24, 2017

In an interview, Google engineering director Ray Kurzweil says artificial intelligence (AI) will be far more beneficial than harmful in the long term, and the "singularity" when computers overtake human intelligence should be welcomed. Kurzweil notes his convictions of AI's overall benefits partly stem from human history, where technological innovation has helped humanity more often than worsened it. However, Kurzweil acknowledges, "All of these technologies are a risk. And the powerful ones--biotechnology, nanotechnology, and AI--are potentially existential risks." In terms of advanced technologies eroding the workforce via automation, Kurzweil is convinced the elimination of certain trades by AI will be offset by the creation of new types of jobs. "It creates a difficult political issue because you can look at people driving cars and trucks, and you can be pretty confident those jobs will go away," Kurzweil notes. "And you can't describe the new jobs, because they're in industries and concepts that don't exist yet."

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October 2017 Issue of Communications of the ACM
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