Welcome to the January 11, 2019 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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The Constitution atop an American flag. Politicians Who Block Citizens on Social Media Violate First Amendment
Ars Technica
Cyrus Farivar
January 7, 2019

A federal appeals court in Virginia ruled that a Loudoun County official who blocked a citizen's access to her official Facebook page violated the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech. The court determined Phyllis Randall, chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, was in violation for blocking Brian Davison on Facebook for 12 hours in February 2016. Davison suggested financial impropriety at a town hall meeting involving Randall, and wrote a lengthy post on her page that Randall blocked; although Randall revoked the block soon after, Davison’s post remained deleted. Following litigation by Davison, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Randall's Facebook page "bear[s] the hallmarks of a public forum," where public speech cannot be discriminated against. Wrote U.S. District Judge Barbara Milano Keenan, "The Supreme Court should consider further the reach of the First Amendment in the context of social media."

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Why Data Scientist Is the Most Promising Job of 2019
Alison DeNisco Rayome
January 10, 2019

LinkedIn has identified data scientist as the profession holding the greatest promise for U.S. workers in 2019, according to an analysis of data the site has from millions of member profiles, job openings, and salaries. Data science jobs, which LinkedIn ranked ninth last year, offer a median base salary of $130,000, and experienced 56% more openings year-over-year in 2018. According to a ranking of the best jobs in America by employment site Glassdoor, Python, R, and SQL expertise are the skills employers cite most often in data science job postings, while data mining, data analysis, and machine learning skills also are highly valued. Core data scientist, researcher, and big data specialist are among the top-rated careers in data science. There are currently more than 4,000 data science job openings across the U.S.

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computer persona Ellie How to Improve Communication Between People, Smart Buildings
USC News
Gary Polakovic
January 9, 2019

University of Southern California researchers determined dialogue between people and smart building systems can improve with a virtual avatar representing building management, with social banter key to improving those communications. The researchers exposed several hundred participants to an office setting in virtual reality, followed by an actual office environment for a smaller cohort; participants interacted with a virtual human agent programmed to make pro-environmental requests, to see whether they cooperated. People responded better when the agent was acting on behalf of the building manager, rather than when it personified the building. Having the requests as part of a social dialogue, like small talk, instead of as a monologue, also improved cooperation. The researchers said, "Including a social dialogue may have helped to overcome the difference between personas by making the building persona more relatable."

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Smartbeat video baby monitor CES 2019: 'Family Tech' Gadgets Appeal to Parental Anxiety
Associated Press
Matt O'Brien
January 10, 2019

This week's CES 2019 highlighted "family tech" products tapping into parental anxiety. One example is Woobo, a sociable toy that talks in a child-like voice and makes chores that children might be less inclined to do more entertaining. Also showcased were "contactless" baby monitors, including a device from Raybaby that uses radar to detect breathing patterns, and the computer vision-equipped Nanit baby monitor; the latter watches infants from overhead, measuring sleeping patterns by tracking the movements of a specially-designed swaddle. Even more advanced is a pregnancy band from Owlet, which wraps around a pregnant woman's abdomen to track fetal heartbeats via electrocardiogram. The band sends a morning wellness report to a user’s smartphone app, with details including an expectant mother’s contractions and sleep positions, and warnings if fetal heartbeat or movements fall outside normal ranges.

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AI vs. the Hackers
Dina Bass
January 3, 2019

Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and various startups increasingly are shifting from older "rules-based" security technology designed to respond to specific kinds of intrusion, and are implementing machine learning algorithms that analyze massive amounts of data on logins, behavior, and previous attacks to adapt to hackers' constantly evolving tactics. Not only are they using machine learning to secure their own networks and cloud services, they also are providing the technology to customers. For instance, Dutch insurance company NN Group NV uses Microsoft's Advanced Threat Protection to manage access to its 27,000 workers and close partners, and keep everyone else out. NN Group’s Wilco Jansen says, "We need to be on constant alert, and these tools help us see things that we cannot manually follow."

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STEM classroom STEM Instruction: How Much There Is, Who Gets It
Education Week
Sasha Jones
January 8, 2019

U.S. students and teachers continue to experience unequal access to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-related classes and resources, according to a Horizon Research survey of 1,200 schools and 7,600 teachers. The survey found K-3 students spend an average of 57 minutes a day on math and 18 minutes on science, compared to 89 minutes dedicated to reading/language arts. In grades 4-6, students spend an average 63 minutes per day on math and 27 minutes on science. Just a quarter (26%) of elementary schools were found to offer computer science, versus 38% of middle schools and 53% of high schools. Moreover, at the high school level, 70% of students have access to computer science, compared to 53% of schools offering instruction in that discipline. Said Horizon Research president Sean Smith, "What I hope is that with this data we'll have a better sense on how to move forward."

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Hardware-Agnostic Side-Channel Attack Works Against Windows, Linux
Catalin Cimpanu
January 7, 2019

Researchers have defined a new hardware-agnostic/remote side-channel attack against operating systems (OSes) such as Windows and Linux. The hack targets the OS itself, rather than microarchitectural design flaws in computer components. The attack keys on "page caches," or a portion of memory where the OS loads code for use by one or more apps, like executables, libraries, and user data. The attack initially exploits mechanisms in Windows and Linux that let a developer/app check if a memory page is present in the OS page cache, specifically the "mincore" system call for Linux and the "QueryWorkingSetEx" system call for Windows; hackers then engage with the OS via a malicious process, generating page cache eviction states that release old memory pages from the OS page cache. As the page cache system writes the purged data to disk, induces errors, or loads new pages into the cache, the data being processed can be inferred. Microsoft has fixed the way Windows deals with page cache reads in a Windows Insiders build, while discussions are ongoing on how to deal with Linux patches.

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Starship robot delivering groceries Why Your Ice Cream Will Ride in a Self-Driving Car Before You Do
The Wall Street Journal
Christopher Mims
January 5, 2019

Autonomous vehicles that transport people get lots of media coverage, but autonomous delivery could transform all of retail, accelerating the shift from stores to e-commerce, long before self-driving cars actually hit the road. However, engineers must address artificial intelligence issues associated with the technology, while local governments must create special lanes for self-driving delivery wagons. Removing people from inside an autonomous vehicle allows researchers to do more with the design of the vehicle, both in terms of hardware and software. Grocery delivery is one application that is ready for disruption because it is prohibitively expensive for most consumers; autonomous grocery delivery could be a potential industry of the near future. Today, almost all autonomous vehicles need human monitors of some kind, and all are vulnerable to malicious actors.

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Researchers Aim to Prevent Delays in Smartphone Data Use
The Daily Mail
January 10, 2019

Researchers at Queen's University Belfast in the U.K. have developed a system to reduce delays in data processing on smart devices. Said the university's Blesson Varghese, "Edge computing offers a much faster solution for smart devices by bringing application services onto hardware that is geographically closer to users. This means that a proportion of the data can be processed there and doesn't need to be sent all the way to the distant cloud." According to Varghese, multiple traditionally cloud-hosted applications can service users from adjacent locations like a home router, so delays experienced by app users are reduced. The researchers said their work concentrates on developing strategies and software tools underpinning a comprehensive edge solution, with the goal of making Britons the first public edge computing adopters.

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UK police officer U.K. Police Force Is Dropping Tricky Cases on Advice of an Algorithm
New Scientist
Joshua Howgego
January 8, 2019

The Kent Police Department in the U.K. is using an algorithm to help decide which crimes are solvable and should be investigated by officers. The Evidence Based Investigation Tool (EBIT) generates a probability score of a crime's solvability. Since it began using EBIT, the department investigates about half as many reported assaults and public order offenses, saving time and money. EBIT was created by University of Cambridge researcher Kent McFadzein, who trained the algorithm on thousands of assaults and public order offenses. The system identifies eight factors that affect whether a case is solvable, including whether there were witnesses, closed-circuit TV footage, or a named suspect. Said Ben Linton of the Metropolitan Police, “Police officers naturally want to investigate everything to catch offenders. But if the solvability analysis suggests there is no chance of a successful investigation, the resources might be better used on other investigations.”

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Researchers Redesign a Cancer-Busting Protein—Without Side Effects
Science Magazine
Robert F. Service
January 9, 2019

University of Washington researchers used computer modeling to design a new protein that mimics the immune-boosting protein interleukin-2 (IL-2), while avoiding its dangerous side effects. The researchers studied atomic maps of IL-2 interacting with desirable receptors, and with an undesirable receptor. They then programmed the Rosetta protein-design software to maintain the needed interactions with the desired receptors, but eliminate the portion that binds to the unwanted receptor. Rosetta produced 40 options, 22 of which the team synthesized and tested, slightly altering the best options to improve the designer protein's stability and its effectiveness at binding the desired receptors.

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neurosurgeon using VR Virtual Reality Gets Real in the Operating Room
Andrew Zaleski
January 9, 2019

A growing number of hospitals and medical centers are embracing virtual technology (VR), with the goal of providing better and faster training for resident doctors and surgeons. Stanford University students learn anatomy by walking around a lifelike digital hologram of a lung, and transport themselves inside a heart to see the valves and pumping blood. VR technology helps students learn faster, which is especially important in countries like China and India, where a combined 6 million new physicians will be needed by next year. VR can be used either as a fully immersive experience, in which users see only a computer-generated environment, or as a part of mixed reality, in which three-dimensional images are projected onto the physical world. The University of Washington in Seattle’s Richard Satava said VR “gives us a way to judge whether the medical student has learned what they are supposed to learn.”

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quadruped robot The Clever Clumsiness of a Robot Teaching Itself to Walk
Matt Simon
January 8, 2019

University of California, Berkeley and Google Brain researchers have developed a quadrupedal robot that taught itself to walk in two hours, demonstrating its ease at adapting to new environments. They used maximum-entropy reinforcement learning, incentivizing the machine to perform random actions that are beneficial; real-world experimentation became more practical via a technique to automatically tune "hyperparameters" so the robot's algorithms could work with specific simulated environments. The researchers trained the robot in a real, albeit controlled, laboratory setting, making it more adaptable to environmental variations. OpenAI's Matthias Plappert said, "This work...convincingly shows that deep reinforcement learning approaches can be employed on a real robot. It's also impressive that their method generalizes so well to previously unseen terrains, even though it was only trained on flat terrain."

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Quantum Scientists Demonstrate 3D Atomic-Scale Quantum Chip Architecture
UNSW Newsroom
Isabelle Dubach
January 8, 2019

Researchers at the Center of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, have demonstrated the ability to build atomic precision qubits in a three-dimensional (3D) device by using an atomic quantum bit (qubit) fabrication technique to multiply layers of a silicon crystal. The researchers showed the feasibility of an architecture that uses atomic-scale qubits aligned to control lines, essentially very narrow wires, inside a 3D design. The team also said it is able to align the different layers in its 3D device with nanometer precision, so they can read qubit states with a single measurement with ultra-high fidelity. Said lead researcher Michelle Simmons, "This 3D device architecture is a significant advancement for atomic qubits in silicon. To be able to constantly correct for errors in quantum calculations—an important milestone in our field—you have to be able to control many qubits in parallel."

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