Welcome to the February 13, 2019 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Vladimir Putin’s photo Russia Considers 'Unplugging' From Internet
BBC News
February 11, 2019

Russia is considering a brief disconnection from the worldwide Internet to test its cyber defenses, so that data shared between citizens and organizations remains in Russia, rather than being routed globally. Last year, Russia's parliament was presented a draft law, the Digital Economy National Program, mandating Russian Internet service providers (ISPs) guarantee that the country's Internet infrastructure can function independently should foreign powers attempt to isolate Russia online. The law outlines construction of Russia's own version of the Domain Name System, so it can keep operating if links to internationally based servers are severed. The test aims to have ISPs demonstrate they can channel data to government-controlled routing points, which will filter traffic so information sent between Russians reaches its destination, while any directed to foreign computers is discarded. The Russian government ultimately wants all domestic traffic to go through these routing points.

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Jeff Williams, chief operating officer of Apple Inc., speaking during an Apple event Apple's Deal With VA Is Big Step Toward Giving Patients Control Over Their Health Information
Christina Farr
February 11, 2019

Apple and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have partnered to make patients' health records accessible via iPhones. The first beneficiaries will be early adopters of Apple's health records software, through which they can view their data from participating health systems. According to industry experts, Apple is leveraging a movement to require medical records companies and insurers to provide wider access to health information, which is backed by the government and different academic groups. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this week has published new rules designed to prevent information blocking. Kenneth Mandl at Boston Children's Hospital said these rules promote a "universal approach for connecting apps to health systems, the same way you might connect an app to your smartphone."

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Making Homes Smart Could Become Easier
University of Waterloo News
February 8, 2019

Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have developed technology that could boost the affordability and ease of making houses "smart," by deploying sensors in a home with existing Wi-Fi networks. Said Waterloo's Omid Abari, "Our approach...is battery-free and it works with commodity Wi-Fi devices." The researchers developed a communication mechanism called WiTAG to facilitate use of regular Wi-Fi devices for reading data from smart devices. WiTAG is powered by radio frequency signals, and utilizes existing Wi-Fi infrastructures to read data from sensors without requiring a connection to the Wi-Fi network. Waterloo's Tim Brecht said, "Prior proposed techniques for battery-free communication do not work with encrypted Wi-Fi networks, meaning that your Wi-Fi network could not use a password."

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A Pensa Systems drone demonstrating its ability to track store inventory Retail Technology Aims to Bring Customers Back to the Store
United Press International
Nicholas Sakelaris
February 11, 2019

Two startups, Pensa Systems and Birdzi—both portfolio companies of venture firm RevTech—are developing technologies to enhance the in-store experience for customers, retailers, and manufacturers. The companies are working to give retailers the technology and tools to adapt in the "age of Amazon." Birdzi sends personalized discount offers to customers based on their previous buying habits, alerting them to sales, and even sending personalized coupons not advertised in the store. Birdzi's technology uses an artificial intelligence algorithm to produce custom offers and coupons based on what customers buy and when. Pensa Systems uses small autonomous drones to fly around stores and monitor inventory. Said Pensa Systems CEO Richard Schwartz, "This is really the next step in the Internet of Things, where the sensor gets around by itself autonomously, instead of having thousands of sensors on the shelves."

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Developing a Moral Compass from Human Texts
TU Darmstadt
February 7, 2019

Researchers at TU Darmstadt in Germany have shown that artificial intelligence (AI) machines can learn a moral compass from humans. The researchers demonstrated that machine learning can extract deontological, ethical reasoning about "right" and "wrong" conduct from written text. The team created a template list of prompts and responses, with answer templates of "yes, I should," or "no, I should not." By processing a large body of human texts, the AI system was able to develop a human-like moral compass. During testing, the system learned that you should not lie, and that it is better to love your parents than to rob a bank. The researchers presented their findings at this year's ACM/AAAI Conference on AI, Ethics, and Society (AIES) in Honolulu in January.

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NIST: Blockchain Provides Security, Traceability for Smart Manufacturing
National Institute of Standards and Technology
February 11, 2019

U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) engineers have employed blockchain technology to transmit tamper-proofed manufacturing data, imbued with traceability so all production participants know from where the data originated. NIST's Thomas Hedberg said, "Because blockchain gives us both capabilities, we can build trustworthiness into digital manufacturing networks." Blockchain is designed to ensure that the data stored in any one list of records, or blocks, cannot be altered without changing all subsequent blocks, flagging record-keepers in the network. The NIST team used blockchain to fortify the digital thread process, which requires people to interpret, translate, re-enter, and transmit data at each step, using digitized instructions that can be electronically shared and processed. These steps are aligned chronologically, making blockchain well suited to protecting a digital thread network as well as it does cryptocurrencies.

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A duck with a unicorn horn on its head The Next Wave of 'Unicorn' Startups
The New York Times
Erin Griffith
February 10, 2019

The current generation of highly valued technology startups based in Silicon Valley have benefited from the proliferation of smartphones and affordable cloud computing. Many such companies, like Uber and Airbnb, have established global empires by taking existing businesses and making them mobile; however, as those companies have matured, the easy opportunities for disrupting old-line industries have been vanishing. Many next-generation startups largely focus on software for specific industries like farms, banks, and life sciences companies, according to an analysis by CB Insights. The companies are growing fast because industries like agriculture require more software tools as they adapt to the tech era. Said Kirsten Green, a venture capitalist at Forerunner Ventures, “Maybe it's not as sexy as the companies in the first wave. A lot of those industries are big giant industries that we need in our lives and in business, and they need to be modernized.”

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Pentagon's Cloud Strategy to Catch Up to Commercial Tech Industry
The Washington Post
Aaron Gregg
February 8, 2019

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has issued a strategy document urging the establishment of a centralized, department-wide cloud computing infrastructure, to bring the Pentagon's systems into line with commercial technology. Instead of building a single cloud network for all applications, up to now the Pentagon has permitted specific agencies to erect their own clouds for narrowly defined tasks; this resulted in a patchwork strategy for system maintenance, creating unnecessary security risks and hindering software and hardware updates. These problems are compounded by a shortage of technology workers. The Pentagon has teamed up with commercial partners, like General Dynamics subsidiary CSRA, to modernize DoD's cloud infrastructure. Said the strategy document, "Rapidly providing DoD access to underlying foundational technologies, like cloud computing and data storage, on a global scale is critical to national defense and in preparing DoD to fight and win wars."

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IBM Develops Technology to Help Prevent Power Outages
Nina Chestney
February 6, 2019

IBM Corp. has developed a system that uses data collected by satellites, drones, aerial flights, sensors, and weather models to monitor the state of electrical transmission and distribution lines, and to predict where trees and vegetation threaten to cause power outages. The system aims to support grid reliability, wildfire prevention, and storm management and assessment. Said IBM’s Cameron Clayton, "The ability to layer weather data with satellite and sensor data gives utility companies powerful new insights to help them improve operations and minimize impact on their customers."

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Computer Program Aims to Reduce DNA Contamination in Microbial Samples
North Carolina State University
Tracey Peake
February 5, 2019

North Carolina State University and Stanford University researchers have developed an open source software package that identifies contaminants in a sample, using statistical patterns of the frequency and presence of contaminants versus non-contaminants. Decontam is an algorithm that uses a simple binary classifier to distinguish between contaminants and non-contaminants on the basis of two patterns across samples: contaminants will increase in frequency as the amount of input DNA decreases, and contaminants will be present in a higher fraction of negative control samples. During testing, Decontam reduced the number of sequencing reads derived from contaminants by upwards of 99% in data collected from human mouths. The method was especially good at identifying and removing contaminants most likely to interfere with subsequent analyses.

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40 Countries Agree: Cars Must Have Automatic Braking
Associated Press
Jamey Keaten
February 12, 2019

A 40-nation coalition led by Japan and the European Union have agreed to mandate the inclusion of automated braking systems within new cars and light commercial vehicles, beginning as soon as next year. All vehicles sold after that will be required to have sensors, monitoring how close a pedestrian or object might be, that trigger the brakes if a collision is imminent, or if the driver does not appear prepared to respond in time. The measure will be applicable to vehicles traveling at 42 m.p.h. (60 k.p.h.) or less. Although the U.S., China, and India are members of the United Nations forum that adopted the new regulations, they did not participate in negotiations, in order to ensure their national rules take precedence over U.N. mandates when it comes to the auto sector. The resolution's drafters inserted a provision permitting drivers to override automated braking systems, to ensure that artificial intelligence will not pre-empt human decisions.

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Picture of Thanos in the film Avengers: Infinity War And the Academy Award Goes to the Smiths Falls Programmer Behind This Megavillain
CBC News (Canada)
February 11, 2019

Disney Research computer programmer Derek Bradley, from Smith Falls in Ontario, Canada, won a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for his work on motion-capture technology used in the film "Avengers: Infinity War." According to the Academy, Bradley and colleagues designed and engineered a program that "captures exceptionally dense animated meshes without markers or makeup, pushing the boundaries of visual fidelity and productivity for character facial performances in motion pictures." Bradley said with the Medusa Performance Capture System, "An actor can come and sit in a chair, and we have a number of different cameras...focusing in on the face—typically around eight. Our technology will take the videos and turn [them] into a [three-dimensional], digital version of the actor's face, tracking every little pore and wrinkle as it deforms over time."

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Drone Captures Thousands of Years of Archaeology on Remote Scottish Islands
Jason Daley
February 6, 2019

Last fall, the National Trust for Scotland commissioned the GeoGeo mapping company to conduct a drone survey of the Small Isles archipelago, to precisely locate archaeological features. A drone was flown a total of about 250 miles for five days, capturing 4,000 ultra-high-resolution images and 420 million data points. The GeoGeo team then used a proprietary supercomputer to analyze the data and generate a fine-grained three-dimensional map of the archipelago. GeoGeo founder Paul Georgie said, "This...is currently the world's largest complete island dataset captured by drone." The compiled data is being used to update the archaeological inventory of the Small Isles, and to plan future excavations in the region. The project is one of a number of similar research efforts utilizing drones over cultural sites throughout the world.

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Jimmy Fallon drawing a stick figure Pictionary-Playing Computer Connects to Humans' 'Deep Thoughts'
Matthew Hutson
February 5, 2019

Researchers at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) have developed an artificial intelligence (AI) that can abstract and generalize knowledge to play the Pictionary drawing game. AI2's Aniruddha Kembhavi said, "This is a first step toward exploiting common sense." The researchers designed a game, Iconary, in which players choose among 1,200 icons and arrange them to articulate a randomly generated phrase, after which a partner guesses the phrase until they are correct, or requests a new sketch; anyone can play Iconary with the new neural network-based AI, which was trained by observing 100,000 human-played games. Said AI2's Ali Farhad, "We wanted to build an AI system that can collaborate with human beings, and at the same time is learning about how humans think, how they act." He added that the AI will learn, going forward, by playing Iconary against humans.

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