Welcome to the February 20, 2019 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Call to Ban Killer Robots in Wars
BBC News
Pallab Ghosh
February 15, 2019

A scientific coalition is urging a ban on the development of weapons governed by artificial intelligence (AI), warning they may malfunction unpredictably and kill innocent people. The coalition has established the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots to lobby for an international accord. Said Human Rights Watch's Mary Wareham, autonomous weapons "are beginning to creep in. Drones are the obvious example, but there are also military aircraft that take off, fly, and land on their own; robotic sentries that can identify movement." Clearpath Robotics' Ryan Gariepy advocates for a ban, and cautions that AI's abilities "are limited by image recognition. It...does not have the detail or context to be judge, jury, and executioner on a battlefield." The New School in New York's Peter Asaro adds that illegal killings by autonomous weaponry raise issues of liability, which would likely make the weapon's creators accountable.

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Companies Roll Out Gunshot Detectors at the Office
The Wall Street Journal
Chip Cutter
February 19, 2019

Corporate executives worried about workplace shootings are discreetly installing gunfire-detection systems in U.S. offices and factories. The Rackspace cloud computing company in Texas has had 150 gunshot-detection sensors deployed around its San Antonio office, designed to blend into the environs. The sensors were originally designed for use in combat situations, using a combination of acoustic and infrared technology to "see" the flash of a gunshot while also hearing it. The systems can be engineered to alert police and instantly send texts and other alerts to employees. Once the sensors detect a gunshot, the devices can track the shooter as he moves through a building, via a camera connection; each new gunshot can be localized by another device in the network. According to Shooter Detection Systems CEO Christian Connors, the sensors can tell a gunshot from a car backfiring, firecracker exploding, or balloon popping, because they listen for a muzzle blast's specific signature.

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A portrait of Jeff Dachis The Instant, Custom, Connected Future of Medical Devices
The New York Times
Janet Morrissey
February 14, 2019

A growing number of companies are using Internet of Things technology to create new medical treatments facilitated by connected, customized devices. One example is the One Drop diabetes self-management system, which combines sensors, an app, and a Bluetooth glucose meter to track and monitor blood glucose levels, food, exercise, and medication. One Drop uses artificial intelligence to predict a patient's blood glucose level over the next 24 hours, and suggests strategies for controlling fluctuations. Other new medical innovations range from implants to help paralysis victims walk to smart pills that detect when patients fail to comply with their drug regimens. Another emerging technology uses three-dimensional printers to manufacture patient-tailored medical devices, such as knee joints and spinal implants, based on the patient's magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography scans.

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Ethiopian coffee farmers Coffee Farmers Bet on Blockchain to Boost Business
Thin Lei Win
February 17, 2019

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said in a recent report that blockchain technology could potentially address challenges faced by smallholder farmers by "reducing uncertainty and enabling trust among market players." Blockchain facilitates shared access to data maintained by a computer network, and can rapidly trace the myriad parties involved in food production and distribution. The Agriculture Alliance of the Caribbean (AACARI) has embarked on a blockchain project, which entails auditing by accredited professionals to ensure farmers comply with Global GAP (good agricultural practices) standards, and a digital marketplace where buyers can find information about the produce. Vijay Kandy of AcreCX, the company building AACARI's blockchain platform, said farmers could bypass intermediaries and deal directly with buyers via the auditing process. Buyers would no longer need to rely on middlemen to ensure farmers are adhering to Global GAP.

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App Reveals Hidden Landscapes Within Georgia O'Keeffe's Paintings
Sid Perkins
February 16, 2019

Northwestern University researchers have developed an easy-to-use app that can zoom in on the smallest details of a painting, and visualize them in three dimensions. The technique could help art conservationists and historians preserve imperiled artwork, and also reveal hidden secrets underneath the canvas. For example, conservationists originally thought small "blebs" in the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe were embedded grains of sand, but they were later identified as byproducts of chemical reactions between components of the paint. Northwestern's app could monitor the blebs' growth, and help conservationists determine ways to diagnose problems, prevent or retard damage, and perhaps restore the painting; the app-rendered images also could indicate the presence of older paintings beneath more-recent surface layers. A beta version of the app is being used by conservators at a number of museums, with a finalized version to be publicly issued later this year.

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A picture of a flying kite Renewable Energy Generation With Kites and Drones
Universidad de Carlos III de Madrid (Spain)
February 19, 2019

Researchers at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) have developed software for analyzing energy-generation systems based on kites and drones. They used the software to study Airborne Wind Energy Systems (AWES) behavior while converting the kinetic energy of the wind into electricity. Said UC3M's Ricardo Borobia Moreno, "The simulator can be used to study the behavior of AWES, optimize their design, and find the trajectories maximizing the generation of energy." The researchers also have devised an AWES flight testbed, equipping two kitesurf kites with instruments to monitor key information, such as the position and speed of the kite, attack and sideslip angles, and tether tensions. Flight data recorded by these instruments was used to validate different software tools, including the simulator and an estimator of the different parameters, characterizing the state of the kite at each instant.

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Walmart Putting Trailers Equipped With VR Technology in Parking Lots, With Plans to Bring It to Stores
Lauren Thomas
February 14, 2019

Walmart said over the next few weeks it will set up trailers in the parking lots of certain of its stores, so customers can experience the movie "How to Train Your Dragon" via virtual reality (VR) technology. Users will wear VR headsets and sit in special chairs to immerse themselves in the film environment, enabled by the Spatial& tech firm launched by Walmart's incubator Store No. 8. The retail chain has been using VR headsets to train store employees, with plans to enhance the in-store shopping experience with Spatial& solutions. Spatial& CEO Katie Finnegan said the VR trailers could allow shoppers to immersively try out products, and Walmart could consider new VR applications as more items are bought online. Said Finnegan, "The square footage opens up a lot of possibilities. This 100,000-square-foot box can really be transformed into a place for entertainment, experiences, and community-building."

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A new tracking system An Energy-Efficient GPS System to Uncover the Secret Lives of Flying Foxes
IEEE Spectrum
Michelle Hampson
February 15, 2019

Researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia have developed a new type of GPS tracker that predicts how much an animal may move, accounts for the overall energy budget of the tracking device, and then adjusts energy consumption accordingly. The design was created to track flying foxes, also known as fruit bats, in Australia because they are important seed dispersers and because they serve as a vector for infectious diseases. More accurate tracking requires taking more frequent GPS samples, which means the device will consume more energy. The CSIRO researchers developed a system that involves three layers that collectively allow for more accurate localization on a device small enough to be fitted to a flying fox or other such animal. The device accounts for the general movement patterns of the species being studied, and the system learns to recognize these patterns. Said CSIRO researcher Philipp Sommer, "Our evaluation results have shown that our approach can significantly increase positioning accuracy for a dynamic energy budget."

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A doctor checking in on his patient through the bot Is That a Robot? Dr. Bear Bot Helps Care for Kids at Local Hospital
The Washington Post
Sadie Dingfelder
February 14, 2019

Children's National Health System in Washington, D.C., is the first pediatric hospital to deploy a remote-monitoring virtual liaison robot in its cardiac intensive care unit (ICU). "Dr. Bear Bot" makes rounds in the ICU, monitoring patients' vital signs through a connection to a control center, where physicians like cardiologist Alejandro Lopez-Magallon can interact and communicate with patients via the robot. The system gives Lopez-Magallon a unique perspective on the patients, so he can interpret long-term trends in their health that may be overlooked by bedside staff. The setup also gives Lopez-Magallon easy access to medical images, which he can pull up and show to parents or nurses via the robot's screen. With the Dr. Bear Bot system, the cardiologist can keep a close eye on all the patients in the ICU, and address problems before they become serious.

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Visualizing Mental Valuation Processes
ETH Zurich
Peter Rüegg
February 19, 2019

Researchers at ETH Zurich in Switzerland have developed a computer model that can predict certain human decisions. Scientists could use this new tool to predict, for example, which food someone in a supermarket to choose to buy. The team tested and calibrated the model using valuations from a pool of test subjects, who were asked to assess 60 everyday products from a Swiss supermarket. For each product, each participant was asked how much they wanted to eat it at the end of the experiment. After the first rating phase, the process was immediately repeated to account for the variability of brain signals to produce such ratings. In the second experiment, the test subjects were presented with two products at the same time and were asked to choose one. In this case the computer, which had already been fed the data from the first experiment, was able to predict the participants' decisions with high accuracy.

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These Android Apps Have Been Tracking You, Even When You Say Stop
Laura Hautala
February 14, 2019

International Computer Science Institute researchers estimated that about 17,000 Android apps collect identifying information, creating a permanent record of the activity on the owner's device. This practice apparently violates Google's policy on collecting data that can be used for targeted advertising. The apps track users by linking their Advertising ID number with other identifiers on the phone that are hard or impossible to reset, such as the phone's media access control address, International Mobile Equipment Identity, and Android ID. Fewer than 33% of identifier-collecting apps accept only the Advertising ID, as recommended by Google's best developer practices. The researchers noted the apps have been installed on at least 100 million devices. Google said it has investigated their findings, and taken remedial action on certain apps.

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Improved RNA Data Visualization Method Gets to the Bigger Picture Faster
Kendall Teare
February 14, 2019

Yale University mathematicians have updated a bioinformatics data visualization technique, accelerating the rendering time of a million-point single-cell RNA-sequencing dataset from more than three hours to 15 minutes. Said Yale's Yuval Kluger, "Using our approach, researchers can not only analyze single-cell RNA-sequencing data faster, but it also can be used to characterize rare cell subpopulations that cannot be detected if the data is subsampled prior to t-SNE (t-distributed Stochastic Neighborhood Embedding)." The update is called fast interpolation-based t-SNE (FIt-SNE). The researchers also applied heatmap-style visualization to the FIt-SNE results, which simplifies visualization of the expression patterns of thousands of genes at the single-cell level simultaneously. FIt-SNE is expected to expedite further research to track embryonic development on a cell-by-cell basis.

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A person holding a newspaper The AI That Can Write Fake News Stories From Handful of Words
Jeremy Kahn
February 14, 2019

The OpenAI research group has demonstrated artificial intelligence (AI) that can compose authentic-looking fake news articles from a few fragments of information. After being fed a few sentences of sample text, the software successfully generates a persuasive, but completely false, seven-paragraph news story. The AI was trained to perform language modeling, or predicting the next word of a piece of text based on knowledge of all previous words. OpenAI's Jeff Wu suggested the software could have beneficial applications, like helping creative writers generate ideas or dialogue, or hunting for bugs in software code. Meanwhile, New York University's Sam Bowman and OpenAI policy director Jack Clark agreed the AI's abilities are currently too inconsistent for it to be weaponized for spreading disinformation.

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Supercomputing Effort Reveals Antibody Secrets
R & D
February 13, 2019

Vanderbilt University Medical Center and San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) scientists have facilitated a new perspective on the human immune system's infection-combating mechanisms, via refined gene sequencing and computing methods. The effort concentrated on antibody-producing white blood cells called B cells, which were cloned and sequenced to a total of 40 billion, to ascertain their clonotypes. The researchers also sequenced the B-cell receptors from umbilical cord blood from three infants. The SDSC used its computing muscle to process multiple terabytes of data yielded by the experiments. Said Vanderbilt's Wayne Koff, "This study marks a key step toward understanding how the human immune system works, setting the stage for developing next-generation health products through the convergence of genomics and immune monitoring technologies with machine learning and artificial intelligence."

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