Welcome to the July 13, 2018 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Close up of the veins in a man’s hand Computer Science Researchers Help Answer Age-Old Medical Science Question
University of Waterloo News
Rose Simone
July 10, 2018

Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada used computer models that simulate organic structures to define how light interacts with the cellular and subcellular parts of the skin and blood to clarify how veins containing red blood get their bluish appearance. This process of simulating how materials absorb and propagate light is known as "appearance modeling," and can be applied to all objects, says Waterloo's Gladimir Baranoski. The team used this method to identify structures in the skin that scatter light, and to determine how the scattering works. The research involved using two sophisticated modeling tools: Hyperspectral Light Impingement on Skin, which simulates the interaction of light with skin; and Cell-Based Light Interaction Model for Human Blood, which models how light is absorbed and propagated by blood flowing in the veins. Both tools utilize computational algorithms known as the Monte Carlo methods, which rely on repeated random sampling to obtain results.

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Keyboard with keys backlit by red light New Insider Attack Steals Passwords by Reading Thermal Energy From Keyboards
Help Net Security
July 6, 2018

A new insider attack strategy involving the measurement of thermal energy from keyboards has demonstrated the ability to expose passwords by identifying recently depressed keys, according to researchers from the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine). UC Irvine's Gene Tsudik warns the "Thermanator" hack enables a hacker with a mid-range thermal camera to identify keys pressed on a normal keyboard up to one minute after they are touched. "If you type your password and walk or step away, someone can learn a lot about it after the fact," he says. The researchers collected thermal residues from 30 users who inputted 10 unique passwords on four commodity keyboards. The outcomes suggest whole sets of key-presses can be retrieved by non-experts up to 30 seconds after initial entry, while partial sets can be reconstructed up to 60 seconds later. Hunt-and-peck typists were determined to be especially vulnerable.

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White House Earmarks Over $1B for Quantum Technology Research
The Next Web
Tristan Greene
July 10, 2017

The White House has established an Office of Science and Technology Policy subcommittee to oversee federal backing and investment for quantum technology research as a result of diligent bipartisan support over the last several months. The government also has budgeted more than $1.2 billion in funding over 10 years for quantum computing research, reflecting experts' concerns that quantum computing technology will soon be able to break classical encryption, making all encrypted systems in the world vulnerable. The government moved more slowly to approve budgetary line items last year when a similar bipartisan push to organize a subcommittee on artificial intelligence went forward, but quantum computing is now seen as a much more urgent potential threat to national security.

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A Step Closer to Single-Atom Data Storage
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne
July 10, 2018

A team of scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland (EPFL) employed scanning tunneling microscopy to demonstrate the stability of a single-atom magnet. The researchers, who included scientists from Korea’s Institute for Basic Science and Ewha Womans University, determined atoms of the element holmium could retain their magnetization in a magnetic field exceeding 8 Tesla, which the researchers described as "record-breaking coercivity." They then raised the temperature, exposing holmium single-atom magnets to temperatures of up to 45 degrees Kelvin (45K). The single-atom magnets maintained their stability up to about 35K, and started to spontaneously align themselves to the applied magnetic field at 45K, suggesting a tolerance for relatively high-temperature perturbations and potentially leading to single-atom magnets operable at more commercially viable temperatures. Says EPFL’s Fabian Natterer, "Next we need to learn how to write information to those bits more effectively to overcome the magnetic 'trilemma' of magnetic recording: stability, writability, and signal-to-noise ratio."

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Facebook Gives Researchers 'Full Access' for Election Studies
The Wall Street Journal
Douglas MacMillan
July 11, 2018

The Social Science One academic research group says Facebook will grant its researchers "full access" to data on its 2.2 billion users to define areas of research concerning the effects of social media on elections and democracy. Facebook officials say the company's participation reflects the social network's renewed commitment to transparency and curbing abuses on the platform. Social Science One's founders said they have implemented safeguards to prevent future abuses or leaks, and they will strip personally identifying information from any datasets they provide to outside scientists, with no data ever leaving Facebook's servers. The organization also promises to closely monitor any studies involving sensitive user data. For their first project, the researchers will parse 1 million GB of information about the links users have clicked on over the past year, to identify usage patterns related to fake news.

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Person's hands folding a paper airplane on a blue background Berkeley Engineers Develop Origami Electronics From Paper
University of California, Berkeley
July 6, 2018

University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) engineers have built foldable electronic switches and sensors directly onto paper, along with a range of other prototype electronic devices. Previous efforts to fabricate electrodes onto paper with sufficient conductivity for practical use have relied on expensive metals such as gold or silver as the conducting material. The new technology solves that problem by using the inexpensive element molybdenum as the conducting metal. "We've now shown both the practicality of writing versatile conductive patterns on paper, and the durability of folding the electronic paper many hundreds of times for switching circuits on and off," says UC Berkeley's Liwei Lin.

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Microsoft to Invest $2M in Computer Science Teachers Association
Ryan Johnston
July 9, 2018

Microsoft Philanthropies is donating $2 million in funding over the next three years to the Computer Science Teachers Association (CTSA), a 25,000-member professional association dedicated to K-12 computer science education worldwide. Microsoft's Jane Broom says the investment will serve as "seed money" for the CSTA, which was founded by ACM in 2004 and has relied on corporate donations and volunteer efforts to build out its regional chapters. The funds could be used to hire new staff, to build a more robust infrastructure in communications or membership databases, or to bolster CSTA events, said Broom. In addition, Microsoft will continue to encourage other companies to support the association.

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Colorful pills and tablets in metal drug box AI Helps Stanford Computer Scientists Predict Side Effects of Drug Combinations
Stanford News
Nathan Collins
July 10, 2018

Stanford University's Marinka Zitnik, Monica Agrawal, and Jure Leskovec have developed an artificial intelligence system that can predict potential side effects from the use of combinations of drugs. Their Decagon system could potentially inform clinicians' decisions about which drugs to prescribe and help scientists identify better drug combinations for disease treatment. The researchers compiled a massive network defining more than 19,000 human proteins' interactions with each other and with drugs, then designed a deep learning technique to detect patterns in how side effects crop up based on how drugs target different proteins. They designed Decagon to deduce side-effect patterns and anticipate previously unobserved consequences from taking two drugs together. While Decagon currently only considers side effects associated with pairs of drugs, the team wants to broaden their results to include more complex regimens.

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Spectre-Like Attack Uses Speculative Execution to Overflow Buffers
Ars Technica
Peter Bright
July 10, 2018

Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Vladimir Kiriansky and independent researcher Carl Waldspurger discovered a new variation on the speculative store bypass attack. The speculative buffer overflow, which is similar to Spectre's array bounds check variant, exploits a common coding pattern: a program first checks that an array possesses an Nth element by comparing N to the size of the array; in most situations this comparison is successful, so the processor will speculatively assume the comparison is fine and attempt to access the Nth element. The speculative buffer overflow tries to write a nonexistent array element, instead of attempting to read one, which can cause the processor to speculatively execute code of the hacker's choosing. The researchers proposed hardware changes to provide broader protection against such an attack.

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Group of cyclists A Swarm of 3D-Printed Cyclists Reveals the Best Position in the Pack
New Scientist
Steve Cassidy
July 6, 2018

Engineers at Eindhoven University in the Netherlands and KU Leuven in Belgium have created the largest-ever sporting computer simulation, examining the airflow around a group of cyclists. The team divided a virtual peloton into 3 billion different cells to assess wind resistance. A supercomputer processed the data to calculate the interactions between riders, bikes, and the air around them. Previous estimates hypothesized that being at the back of a triangular formation was the best position, a spot that could experience wind resistance about 50% that of a lone rider; however, the researchers found the difference in wind resistance to be only about 5%. The team validated these calculations using data generated using 121 three-dimensionally-printed copies of human cyclists tested in a wind tunnel.

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Crystals Could Cool Down Your Future Electronic Devices
Charlie Osborne
July 6, 2018

A team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Texas, Dallas used boron arsenide crystals to cool electronic devices more effectively than current methods. The researchers say boron arsenide crystals possess "excellent" thermal properties and can "effectively dissipate the heat generated in electronic devices." After synthesizing the crystals, which do not occur naturally, the researchers tested dozens of batches of crystal, and found their thermal conductivity potential topped that of current electronics cooling materials by as much as threefold. Future studies will seek to improve the process for creating the crystals, as well as exploring their use in potential large-scale applications.

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Swiss Scientists Develop Machine Learning Algorithm to Optimize Home Solar-Plus-Storage
PV Magazine
Emiliano Bellini
July 11, 2018

Researchers at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and the University of Bamberg in Germany have developed a techno-economic simulation model designed to optimize configuration and profitability of residential solar-plus-storage power systems, which utilize solar photovoltaics in combination with battery-based energy storage. The team created its model, which utilizes a machine learning algorithm, based on real-world energy consumption data from 4,190 Swiss households. This model was designed to optimize the net present value (NPV) for each household in the dataset based on parameters such as weather, load profiles, tariffs, physical properties, and component costs. The team found annual demand is generally a key predictor of profitability for solar-plus-storage solutions. "The installation of a [photovoltaic] system is profitable for households with an annual demand above 7,000 kWh, but not for those below 3,000 kWh," the researchers said. "In between those two values and thus for a large number of households, the installation may be profitable or not, depending on the load shape and other factors."

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Sprawling Wheel Leg Robot Crawls and Climbs
IEEE Spectrum
Evan Ackerman
July 9, 2018

A sprawling robot developed by David Zarrouk at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel upgrades an earlier design's wheel-leg mobility so it can scale impediments. The Rising Sprawl-Tuned Autonomous Robot (RSTAR) features legs that "sprawl": they are angled downwards and outwards from the body. The robot incorporates an additional degree of freedom so its body can move separately from the legs, shifting its center of mass without flipping over. RSTAR can climb vertically up closely spaced walls and "crawl" through narrow gaps using a legged walking gait. Zarrouk says the design incorporates a four-bar extension mechanism to move the center of mass in the fore-aft direction so RSTAR is more dynamically reconfigurable. "This interesting feature can also be used to increase stability or to intentionally pitch up or flip upside down" when necessary, he adds.

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The Continuing Arms Race: Code-Reuse Attacks and Defenses
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