Welcome to the June 28, 2019 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Google’s quantum chip New 'Law' Suggests Quantum Supremacy Could Happen This Year
Scientific American
Kevin Hartnett
June 21, 2019

A new rule named after Google AI's Hartmut Neven describes the "doubly exponential" rate at which quantum computers are gaining on classical computing systems. According to Neven's law, the first few gains in quantum computing capabilities may draw little attention, but subsequent increases will be vast, growing by powers of powers of two. Neven attributes this doubly exponential growth to a combination of the innate advantage quantum computers have over classical computers, and the rapid pace of quantum processor improvement. If Neven's law is valid, a quantum supremacy breakthrough could arrive soon. Said Neven, "We often say we think we will achieve it in 2019. The writing is on the wall."

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Women in Tech Code-a-Thon event Gender Gap in Computer Science Won't Close for 100 Years
The New York Times
Cade Metz
June 21, 2019

A study by the nonprofit Allen Institute predicts women writing published computer science research will not achieve gender equality in this century, if current trends persist. The researchers said the gender gap most likely mirrors the low population of female computer scientists, and may partly reflect male prejudice among editors of scientific journals and conferences. The Allen Institute found the number of male authors in a corpus of computer science papers was about 475,000 last year, versus 175,000 women; statistical predictions suggest gender parity will not be realized before 2137, if ever. Said the Institute's Lucy Lu Wang, "When there is a lack of leadership in computer science departments, it affects the number of women students who are trained and the number that enter the computer science industry."

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Spotting Objects Amid Clutter
MIT News
Jennifer Chu
June 19, 2019

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a technique that enables robots to quickly identify objects hidden in a three-dimensional cloud of data. This new technique could be used to improve a range of situations in which machine perception must be both fast and accurate, as in driverless cars and robotic assistants. The new algorithm prunes outliers in data streams in "polynomial time," meaning it can do so quickly, even for increasingly dense clouds of data, so objects hidden in cluttered scenes may be identified quickly and accurately. Said MIT’s Luca Carlone, “We’re getting to a level of superhuman performance in localizing objects.”

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unmanned Starsky Robotics truck Florida's Latest Oddity: Semi Trucks With Nobody Inside
The Washington Post
Peter Holley
June 26, 2019

Startup Starsky Robotics is testing unmanned semi trucks on public roads in Florida. The trucks are equipped with a hybrid driving system partly governed by a remote human operator. Starsky founder Stefan Seltz-Axmacher said, "When it comes to driving a truck, a decent person paired with a decent artificial intelligence [AI] is better than the best person or the best AI." The hybrid system leaves certain decisions, like navigating off-ramps and lane changes, up to humans, while computers are better at sustaining focus during long, uninterrupted stretches of driving. Seltz-Axmacher sees this setup as benefiting remote truck operators, who otherwise would spend long stretches on the road.

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game badges earned by mastering misinformation techniques Fake News 'Vaccine' Works: 'Pre-Bunk' Game Reduces Susceptibility to Disinformation
University of Cambridge
Fred Lewsey
June 25, 2019

Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. developed an online game to help people learn to identify disinformation. The researchers found people could learn to preemptively debunk ("pre-bunk") fake news after they are exposed to, or "inoculated" against, disinformation techniques. The researchers asked users of the online game to rate the reliability of a series of headlines and tweets before and after playing it. They found players’ perceptions of the reliability of fake news dropped by an average 21% after completing the game, while having no impact on how players perceived authentic news. Moreover, participants who were most vulnerable to false news headlines at the start exhibited the greatest "inoculation" against it after playing the game.

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How Hackers Turn Microsoft Excel's Own Features Against It
Lily Hay Newman
June 27, 2019

Researchers at threat intelligence company Mimecast have found that a feature in Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet program can be exploited to orchestrate Office 365 system hacks. Excel's Power Query permits the combination of data from various sources via a spreadsheet, which can be manipulated to connect to a malicious Webpage hosting malware. Said Mimecast's Meni Farjon, "The exploit will work in all the versions of Excel as well as new versions, and will probably work across all operating systems, programming languages, and sub-versions, because it's based on a legitimate feature." Farjon thinks a Power Query connection to a malicious site could enable attacks similar to a Dynamic Data Exchange exploit. Meanwhile, Microsoft's security intelligence warns of another Excel hack, which uses malicious macros to compromise Windows systems, even with the newest security updates.

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Artist’s impression of planets around stars in the Milky Way Astronomy Bot Speeds Search for Jupiter’s Twins
UC Riverside News (CA)
Jules Bernstein
June 25, 2019

University of California, Riverside (UCR) researchers have developed an astronomy algorithm to identify stars around which planets may revolve. The algorithm makes these predictions by analyzing stars' chemical composition via spectroscopic measurements. Researcher Natalie Hinkel designed the algorithm and trained it on a publicly available database containing the elemental constituents of more than 4,200 stars. The UCR team employed the algorithm to help spot gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn, which are likely to shield nearby Earth-like planets. Said UCR’s Stephen Kane, “Searching for planets can be a long and tedious process given the sheer volume of stars we could search. Eliminating stars unlikely to have planets and pre-selecting those that might will save a ton of time.”

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Employees wait for a shuttle bus at a 5G testing park at Huawei’s headquarters in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China. Singapore Announces Nearly $30M for 5G Innovation
Saheli Roy Choudhury; Shirley Tay; Todd Haselton
June 27, 2019

Singapore has earmarked S$40 million (nearly $30 million) to underwrite research and innovation for 5G high-speed mobile Internet, as part of a project to initiate early adoption trials in areas like maritime operations, urban mobility, and consumer and government applications. Minister for communications and information S. Iswaran said, "Our aim is to facilitate the deployment of standalone 5G networks to tap into the potential of the technology." The potential benefits of 5G include faster network speeds, low latency, and increased bandwidth. Singapore's National Research Foundation, Cyber Security Agency, and Infocomm Media Development Authority will fund research and development in 5G security, a major point of concern.

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An illustration of a cellphone tracking a drone. Harnessing Public Smartphones to Track Drones
IEEE Spectrum
Michelle Hampson
June 26, 2019

Researchers at Zhejian University in China have developed a method of tracking unfamiliar drones using crowdsensing, leveraging consumer smartphones to detect the Wi-Fi signals of nearby drones. The researchers created a database of known MAC addresses and SSIDs from all commercial drone manufacturers, allowing them to distinguish between drones and other Wi-Fi sources. If the new Cost-Effective Crowdsensing System for Detecting and LocAlizing Drones (CEDAR) system detects a MAC address or SSID that is not in the database, the researchers can analyze the mobility patterns of the Wi-Fi signal to assess the likelihood it came from a drone. The researchers found the system can detect drones within 350 meters and with an average accuracy of 87%, when no preliminary MAC addresses or SSIDs are found in the database.

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A volunteer wears a sensor-outfitted cap that detects changes in blood flow and oxygenation, thus sensing brain activity. Technology Allows Researchers to See Patients' Real-Time Pain
University of Michigan News
Laura Bailey
June 27, 2019

University of Michigan researchers have developed augmented reality (AR) technology to help doctors map patient pain in real time. The platform integrates visualization and brain data, and uses neuroimaging to explore a patient's brain. The researchers developed algorithms trained on brain pain data which, in combination with new software and neuroimaging hardware, predicted pain (or a lack of pain) with about 70% accuracy. Participants wore a sensor-equipped cap that identified shifts in blood flow and oxygenation, quantifying brain activity and pain responses. Researchers donned AR goggles to track patients' brain activity in real time on a reconstructed brain model.

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Researchers Develop 'Vaccine' Against Attacks on Machine Learning
CSIRO (Australia)
Chris Chelvan
June 21, 2019

Researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's (CSIRO) Data61 group in Australia have developed techniques to "vaccinate" algorithms against adversarial attacks. Cyberattackers often try to fool machine learning models by adding a layer of noise to an image, in an attempt to deceive the models into misclassifying the image. The CSIRO researchers implemented a weak version of such an adversary—like small modifications or distortions of a collection of images—to create a more "difficult" training dataset so the resulting model more easily withstands adversarial attacks. Said Data61's Adrian Turner, "The new techniques … will spark a new line of machine learning research and ensure the positive use of transformative [artificial intelligence] technologies."

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July 2019 Issue of Communications of the ACM
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