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Welcome to the July 29, 2019 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Two people working on their computers Australia to Police Tech Giants' Algorithms
BBC News
July 26, 2019

Australian regulators have announced their intent to launch the first office committed to policing algorithms used by technology giants like Facebook and Google, to better understand how the companies match ads to users. Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg said, "These companies are among the most powerful and valuable in the world. They need to be held to account and their activities need to be more transparent." A special branch of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) will be established to oversee this task. The ACCC announcement followed a separate announcement by U.S. authorities of plans to scrutinize tech firms.

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Researchers to Launch Intentionally ‘Vulnerable’ Blockchain at Black Hat
Lucas Mearian
July 26, 2019

Cybersecurity firm Kudelski Security will launch a "purposefully vulnerable" blockchain, with plans to demonstrate the system at the upcoming Black Hat conference. The FumbleChain project, designed to highlight vulnerabilities in blockchain ecosystems, is written in Python 3.0, making it simple for anyone to read and modify its source code. In addition, FumbleChain is modular, allowing users to hack and add new challenges to promote continuous learning. The system will be available as both a code download on GitHub and as a demo on Kudelski's website, allowing testers to experiment with its features and learn how it works without having to download code. Said Kudelski's Nathan Hamiel, "What we wanted to do was create this pre-made blockchain, create this educational framework around it so you can learn more about it and more about blockchain security."

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This Deep Neural Network Fights Deepfakes
University of California, Riverside
Holly Ober
July 18, 2019

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) have developed a deep neural network architecture that can identify manipulated images at the pixel level with high precision. The researchers labeled nonmanipulated images and the relevant pixels in boundary regions of manipulated images in a large dataset of photos. The team trained the network on general knowledge about the manipulated and original regions of photos. Then, they tested the neural network on a set of images it had never seen before, and found it was able to detect altered images most of the time. The researchers say their methodology could be adapted to detect deepfake videos, though there are challenges to overcome. Said UCR's Amit Roy-Chowdhury, “It's a challenging problem. This is kind of a cat and mouse game. This whole area of cybersecurity is in some ways trying to find better defense mechanisms, but then the attacker also finds better mechanisms."

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Police officers with VR goggles VR Helps Police Train for Active-Shooter Scenarios
Government Computer News
Stephanie Kanowitz
July 24, 2019

The New York City Police Department (NYPD) is using virtual reality (VR) to help train officers for active-shooter scenarios. In April, about 200 officers from NYPD's patrol level, Counterterrorism Bureau, and Emergency Service Unit participated in a test of the technology in which they moved through a virtual version of the city's National September 11 Memorial. The VR system increased the number of times each group of trainees could practice in a certain scenario from three to about 30. “That's important because that's repetition, that's exposure, and that's also more problems and more critical thinking that the officer has to deal with,” said NYPD Detective Raymond McPartland. “At no point do they get accustomed to one version of a problem, because we can change it on a whim."

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Three individuals from College of Science looking at the board Virginia Tech Researchers Lead Breakthrough in Quantum Computing
Virginia Tech News
Lon Wagner
July 24, 2019

A team of chemistry and physics researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) developed an algorithm that can more effectively calculate the properties of molecules on a noisy quantum computer. With today's quantum computers, scientists have to deal with so much noise accumulating within a circuit that a computation degrades and renders any subsequent calculations inaccurate. The Virginia Tech team solved this problem by developing a method that grows the circuit in an iterative way. Said Virginia Tech researcher Nick Mayhall, "We start with a minimal circuit, then grow it as we add on logic gate after logic gate in short circuits until the computer finds the solution."

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Revised Computer Code Accurately Models Instability in Fusion Plasmas
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory
Raphael Rosen
July 24, 2019

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have updated the plasma simulation code known as TRANSP by installing a new bit of code called a kick model into one of the code's components. The kick model allows TRANSP to simulate particle behavior more accurately than before. The updated model, aided by subprograms called NUBEAM and ORBIT that model plasma behavior by analyzing raw data, could help scientists better understand and predict the leakage of subatomic particles. The researchers found the updated version of TRANSP accurately modeled the effect of sawtooth instability—a kind of disturbance affecting fusion reactions—on the movement of highly energetic particles that help cause fusion reactions. Said PPPL researcher Mario Podesta, "We now see a path forward to improving the ways that we can simulate certain mechanisms that disturb plasma particles."

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Students in Evolutionary Biology and Diversity Introduction course Study Addresses Low Female Participation in STEM Classrooms
Cornell Chronicle (NY)
Linda B. Glaser
July 24, 2019

Cornell University researchers have found that increasing class size has the largest negative impact on female participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classrooms. The researchers used data from 44 science courses across multiple institutions, including Cornell, the University of Minnesota, Bethel University, and American University in Cairo, Egypt. The team used this data to calculate female participation from more than 5,300 interactions between instructors and students over a two-year period. The researchers found classes begin to negatively affect students when they exceed enrollments of 120 students. Said former Cornell researcher Cissy Ballen (now a researcher at Auburn University), “We show that class size has the largest impact on female participation, with smaller classes leading to more equitable participation.”

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Researcher creating models of molecules The Computational Protein Designers
Jeffrey M. Perkel
July 23, 2019

While natural proteins are difficult to modify without disrupting their overall structure, researchers are finding that making proteins from scratch allows them to design the molecules to be more forgiving. For example, researchers can build enzymes that act in ways unknown to nature, using co-factors and amino acids not found in the standard macromolecular toolkit. Scientists have grown more skilled at imparting function through weeks of computational time and months of iteration over the past several years. In addition, computational advances and a broadening user base are making the process even more accessible. Said ETH Zurich researcher Donald Hilvert, "The combination of computation, structure, molecular biology, detailed biophysical measurements—all of this is coming together in such a beautiful way."

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Scientists Print Magnetic Liquid Droplets
Berkeley Lab News Center
Knvul Sheikh
July 18, 2019

A team of researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) created a new type of material that is both liquid and magnetic, using a modified three-dimensional (3D) printer. The team was investigating the idea of forming liquid structures from ferrofluids (solutions of iron-oxide particles that become strongly magnetic in the presence of a magnet) to determine if a ferrofluid can become magnetic but still look and feel like a liquid. The researchers used a 3D-printing technique they had helped co-develop to print 1mm droplets from a ferrofluid solution containing iron-oxide nanoparticles just 20 nanometers in diameter. Said Berkeley visiting scientist Tom Russell, “This opens the door to a new area of science in magnetic soft matter.”

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AI Generates Interesting Story Endings
Kyle Wiggers
July 22, 2019

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University developed an artificial intelligence (AI) program that creates more "diverse" endings for a given story by training models to focus on important phrases and promoting the use of non-generic words. The team used seq2seq to create mathematical representations of words belonging to the context of the target story, and to learn those words' relationships and translate them back into human-readable text. The researchers incorporated key phrases from the story context using the RAKE algorithm, then trained the model on the ROCStories corpus to generate the endings. According to the researchers, further work is needed to ensure the outputs “entail the story context at both the semantic and token levels,” and that each ending is logically sound and consistent with the rest of the story.

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Willian Barr Barr Warns Time Is Running Out for Companies to Open Encryption
Chris Strohm
July 23, 2019

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said time may be running out for major technology companies to reach a voluntary agreement providing law enforcement officials access to the encrypted communications of their users. Said Barr, “While we remain open to a cooperative approach, the time to achieve that may be limited." Barr's comments come as the Trump administration is making a renewed effort to break a stalemate among law enforcement agencies to access encrypted communications, which technology companies have resisted. The effort includes enlisting the help of international partners. and will be raised at a meeting of officials from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, an intelligence alliance known as the Five Eyes. Said Barr, “The rest of the world has woken up to this threat. It is time for the U.S. to stop debating whether to address it and start talking about how to address it.”

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