Welcome to the June 26, 2019 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Conor Sprouls at a MetLife call center where software using artificial intelligence gives workers feedback. A Machine May Not Take Your Job, but Could Become Your Boss
The New York Times
Kevin Roose
June 23, 2019

Call centers and other workplaces are starting to use artificial intelligence (AI) programs to make workers more effective, by giving them real-time feedback. In modern workplaces, AI programs often see human workers themselves as requiring optimization. For example, Amazon uses algorithms to track worker productivity at its fulfillment centers, and automatically generate paperwork to fire workers who do not meet their targets; meanwhile, IBM has used its Watson AI platform during employee reviews to predict future performance, claiming a 96% accuracy rate. However, critics have accused companies of using algorithms for managerial tasks, arguing automated systems can dehumanize and unfairly punish employees. Workplace AI supporters insist these systems are not meant to be overbearing, but rather to make workers better, by reminding them to thank customers, empathize with frustrated callers, or avoid idling on the job.

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A person on Etsy. Tech Executives Spearhead Green Initiatives
The Wall Street Journal
Sara Castellanos
June 24, 2019

The mainstreaming of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain requires more computing power. For example, University of Massachusetts, Amherst researchers said developing a single AI model can have a carbon footprint equal to the lifetime emissions of five average U.S. cars. Information technology (IT) executives are trying to make their systems more energy efficient, by developing and tweaking software to cut waste and track how much energy operations consume. A crucial part of this effort is organizations' move to the public cloud, which reduces the need for energy-wasting datacenters; a common way that IT departments waste energy is by buying more computing or storage capacity than servers require. Migrating to the public cloud allows organizations to only pay for what they need, which cuts costs and saves energy.

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Alphabet's Plan for Toronto Depends on Huge Amounts of Data
Aarian Marshall
June 24, 2019

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs subsidiary has disclosed a master plan for its development project in Toronto, Canada, whose amenities will rely on massive volumes of sensor-collected data. The sensors would monitor all activities in the Quayside development, so traffic, pollution, and noise levels are calibrated to maintain residents' happiness. The plan calls for Sidewalks Labs to help set up a government-approved data trust, administered by transparent usage guidelines, with new safeguards for data collected in public places, where residents and visitors are not permitting collection. All data would be depersonalized and disaggregated, to protect identities and sensitive information, while sales to third parties would be banned. Sidewalk Labs also pledged to create a transparent process, to let others access collected data.

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Martin Vega checking Drive.ai software. Apple Buys Self-Driving Car Startup Drive.ai
The San Francisco Chronicle
Sophia Kunthara; Melia Russell
June 25, 2019

Apple announced its acquisition of self-driving car startup Drive.ai, which informed California officials of plans to permanently close its business. Former Drive.ai employees—including data, systems, and software engineers—have been folded into Apple. Drive.ai focused on creating kits to transform regular autos into autonomous ones, and claimed to be one of few futuristic ride services already serving the public. Last year, Drive.ai teamed with Arlington, Texas, to offer residents shuttles that used self-driving cars to transit them along a fixed route; the year before, the company said it would set up a robotaxi service for the Lyft ride-hailing provider. Apple has kept quiet on its ambitions for the driverless car space, but some observers suggest developing autonomous vehicles, and not just control systems, is on its agenda.

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CMU Among First to Pilot New 'Perlmutter' Supercomputer
June 24, 2019

Carnegie Mellon University's Zachary Ulissi will be among the first scientists to use the U.S. National Energy Research Scientific Computing (NERSC) Center's Perlmutter supercomputer, which will debut next year. Perlmutter will be able to perform 100 million billion floating point operations per second, and Ulissi said the system "will greatly accelerate both the data generation and the machine learning model development, allowing us to compute many more iterations of our models much, much faster." NERSC described Perlmutter as the first supercomputer to facilitate both data analysis and simulation. The initial user cohort is encouraged to explore modeling of complex physical phenomena and real-time data analytics via Perlmutter's graphics-processing unit framework; and state-of-the-art machine and deep learning applications. Ulissi's team will use Perlmutter to expedite investigations for new materials, to function as active catalysts for renewable energy reactions.

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Phones, Wearables Combine to Assess Worker Performance
Dartmouth College
June 24, 2019

Dartmouth University researchers have developed a mobile-sensing system that judges employee performance using smartphones, wearable fitness trackers, and a custom app. In the new system, a smartphone tracks physical activity, location, phone usage, and ambient light; the fitness tracker monitors heart functions, sleep, stress, and body measurements, including weight and calorie consumption. In addition, location beacons placed in the home and office provide information on time, at work, and breaks from the desk. All the data is processed by cloud-based machine learning algorithms trained to classify workers by performance level. The team tested the system by assessing the performance of supervisors and non-supervisors in different industries, based on self-reported behaviors provided by workers in the study group; higher performers tend to have lower rates of phone usage, experience longer deep-sleep periods, and are more physically active and mobile.

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Java, JavaScript Remain Most Popular Programming Languages
Nicholas Fearn
June 21, 2019

The JetBrains software company's State of Developer Ecosystem report found Java and JavaScript continue to be the most-used programming languages, with the former the most popular primary coding language, and the latter the most used overall. The survey identified Go as the most promising language, and Python the most studied. According to the report, 69% of 7,000 developers have employed JavaScript over the past year, followed by HTML/CSS (61%), SQL (56%), Java (50%), Python (49%), and Shell scripting languages (40%). JetBrains observed a group of secondary languages—HTML, SQL, and Shell scripting—chiefly utilized as additional languages, although "very few [developers] work with them as their major language." JetBrains labeled Windows the most-used operating system by developers, while Google Cloud Platform-using developers surprisingly outnumber Microsoft Azure users.

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Volunteer climbing in the Makawao Forest Reserve in Haiku, Hawaii. Tech Makes It Easier to Search Wilderness for Missing People
Associated Press
Audrey McAvoy
June 24, 2019

U.S. search-and-rescue teams are using technology that integrates cellphone global-positioning systems (GPS) and detailed digital maps, to coordinate large numbers of volunteers in their mission. The National Association for Search and Rescue's David Kovar said most search-and-rescue teams employ digital maps, which can range from basic Google Maps to specialized SARTopo software. Such tools were recently used to find a missing hiker in Hawaii, with volunteers downloading the GPS Tracks app, which draws lines on a map displaying where a user has trekked. Volunteers placed digital pins on maps when they encountered obstructions like cliffs or pools, and drone pilots, rappellers, and divers were dispatched to cover such terrain. Organizers fed GPS information to a California-based team, which used SARTopo to lay it over topographical maps, highlighting searched and unsearched areas.

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Parents Don't Know Enough About Cyber Careers
Clare McDonald
June 21, 2019

A SANS Institute study found parents, although aware of cybersecurity, lack sufficient knowledge to encourage their children to pursue careers in the field. The institute estimated that 72% of parents have never considered cybersecurity a future career for their children. SANS Institute chief technology officer James Lyne said the industry needs to step up promotion, to ensure parents and children are more aware of available cybersecurity roles, and their benefits to society and practitioners. According to the study, parents' insufficient knowledge about cybersecurity careers will likely impact children's understanding and perception of these positions, with 46% of parents unable to answer children's queries, and 63% unaware of how to obtain a job in the industry. Said Nazleen Rao at the U.K.'s Skinners Academy, "It is important that students...receive encouragement at home to pursue this avenue."

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Plants Are Oldest Sensors in the World. Could They Be the Future of Computers?
Fast Company
Katharine Schwab
June 21, 2019

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Harpreet Sareen suggests plants as a new building material for computer circuits. Based on previous work using leaves as motion detectors and signal transmitters, Sareen's Phytoactuators project enables computers to send electronic signals back to plants, transforming them into alert systems. "Our vision is to have this layer of digital interaction within the plants themselves so we can not only sense signals through them, but also connect our digital responses with the plant's responses," said Sareen, who envisions such systems as tools for "soft notifications," like the arrival of package deliveries triggering signals, to instruct houseplants to retract their leaves. The more advanced Planta Digitalis project has embedded a conductive wire into a plant stem, linked to a computer and functioning as a sensor, as a first step toward designing circuits inside plants.

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A professor works on code for a research project into how GitHub users report security vulnerabilities. GitHub Releases New Tools to Report Vulnerabilities
IEEE Spectrum
Rina Diane Caballar
June 21, 2019

GitHub released new security features, including a security policy and maintainer security advisories. The features coincide with a report conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada, the University of Michigan, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which found 385 out of 600 projects on GitHub used at least one vulnerable library. In addition, only 3% of GitHub projects had some kind of reporting process, such as a bug bounty program, an email address to contact about security vulnerabilities, or a Web form for submitting security issues. The researchers recommended adding a SECURITY.md file that contains contact information and the disclosure policy of a project. GitHub's security policy involves the same SECURITY.md file recommended by the researchers, although the company said it was unaware of the team's study.

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National Emergency Alerts Potentially Vulnerable to Attack
University of Colorado Boulder
Daniel Strain
June 20, 2019

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have found that emergency text alerts authorized by the U.S. president can, theoretically, be spoofed. The researchers discovered a back door through which hackers could potentially mimic the emergency text alerts, sending fake messages to people in a confined area. First the team developed software that could mimic the format of a presidential alert. Then, it discovered a method to broadcast the message into the right channel, which forced smartphones to pick it up and display it. The team aims to work with relevant authorities to prevent such an attack in the future, and have already reported their results to U.S. government officials. The researchers reported their results at the 2019 International Conference on Mobile Systems, Applications and Services (MobiSys) in Seoul, South Korea, where their study won the award for “best paper.”

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Inside of the washer, picking up the plates and bowls with a magnet. New Robotic Dishwasher for Restaurants is Taking the Dirty Work Out of the Kitchen
Adam Isaak; Lora Kolodny
June 18, 2019

Dishcraft is a start-up that builds robotic dishwashers for commercial kitchens. The system uses four basic elements: a dish drop, a robotic dishwasher, rolling racks, and the restaurant's previously installed sanitizing machine. After the dishes are washed, the machine stacks the plates and bowls into racks. Then, a worker places those racks in a sanitizer, standard equipment already used in conventional commercial kitchens. Though Dishcraft has focused on installations in high-volume cafeterias, the company can also help smaller restaurants; Dishcraft will exchange clean cookware for dirty dishes at select restaurants at the end of each meal or day, similar to a laundry service. Dishcraft only works with specific plates and bowls that the company manufactures and sells, but eventually it wants to develop a system that can handle anything that needs cleaning in the kitchen.

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Hardness of Approximation Between P and NP
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