Welcome to the January 3, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Robot tractors on a farm in Hokkaido, Japan. Japan Loves Robots, but Getting Them to Do Human Work Isn't Easy
The New York Times
Motoko Rich
January 1, 2020

While Japan has embraced robots to help its various industries stay competitive, getting those systems to work to the standard of humans has been a challenge. A government initiative called Society 5.0 aims to use robots and other types of automation to help solve Japan's demographic problems and labor shortage. However, some efforts to use robots or automation have hit snags, such as when a hotel staffed by robots had to discontinue their use after customers complained. During a trial of self-driving buses in Oita City, a bus crashed into a curb, and officials realized autonomous vehicles are not quite ready to cope with real-life situations. Said Jennifer Robertson of the University of Michigan, “I think the Japanese have been more innovative in thinking about applications of robotics in everyday life. But the hype got in the way of reality."

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Drugmakers Turn to Data Mining to Avoid Expensive, Lengthy Drug Trials
The Wall Street Journal
Peter Loftus
December 23, 2019

Drugmakers are mining massive electronic medical record datasets to win drug approvals, cutting both costs and drug-development times. Instead of finding trial subjects, Pfizer, Amgen, and other drug manufacturers have simply mined hospital and doctor files for cases where patients already took a drug during routine medical care, looking for changes in blood pressure, tumor size, and other readings to see if the medicine is helping or causing a side effect. The resulting analyses were submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has cleared new uses for medications developed to treat breast cancer, bladder cancer, and leukemia, in part based on the data. Advocates suggest data-mining could enhance or replace clinical trials for secondary approvals of a new use of a drug, when patients are already taking the drug for an unapproved use and can be monitored.

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A yellow box indicates where the artificial intelligence system found cancer hiding inside breast tissue. Google System Could Improve Breast Cancer Detection
Julie Steenhuysen
January 1, 2020

A Google artificial intelligence (AI) system performed as well as radiologists at detecting breast cancer based on screening mammograms. Researchers from Chicago’s Northwestern Medicine and the U.K.'s National Health Service and Imperial College London trained the system to spot breast cancers on tens of thousands of mammograms. In comparing performance with results from a series of 25,856 mammograms in the U.K. and 3,097 from the U.S., the researchers learned the AI system could identify cancers with a similar degree of accuracy as expert radiologists. The tool cut the number of false positives by 5.7% in the U.S. group and by 1.2% in the U.K. group, and reduced false negatives by 9.4% in the U.S. group and by 2.7% in the U.K. group.

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A DNA molecule. Computer Made From DNA Can Compute Square Root of 900
New Scientist
Donna Lu
January 2, 2020

University of Rochester researchers built a computer from strands of DNA in a test tube capable of calculating the square root of numbers up to 900. Rochester's Chunlei Guo and colleagues designed the computer from 32 DNA strands; the tool uses the process of hybridization, in which DNA strands interweave into double-stranded DNA. The researchers encode a number onto the DNA by combining 10 building blocks, with each combination representing a different number up to 900, and affixed to a fluorescence marker. The researchers then manipulate hybridization to change the fluorescent signal to correspond to the square root of the original number, which can be deciphered from the hue. Guo said, "DNA computing ... holds great promise for solving problems that are too difficult or even impossible to handle by current silicon-based computers."

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Feds: No Evidence Hackers Disrupted NC Voting
Associated Press
December 30, 2019

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security investigation found no evidence that hackers caused computer errors in Durham County, NC Board of Elections systems in 2016. A failure of voter check-in software prompted forensic analysis of Durham County's electronic poll books to determine whether Russian hackers who targeted software provider VR Systems may have manipulated registration data. Laptops used in certain precincts on Election Day in 2016 displayed erroneous data to poll workers, and state officials seized 21 laptops used to check in voters. Federal investigators identified certain aspects of county cybersecurity that could use improvement, but did not find any definitive indications of threat actor activity.

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In Leap for Quantum Computing, Silicon Quantum Bits Establish Long-Distance Relationship
Princeton University
December 25, 2019

Princeton University researchers have demonstrated the interaction of two quantum-computing components, silicon spin quantum bits (qubits) spaced relatively far apart on a computer chip. The ultimate goal is to arrange multiple qubits in a two-dimensional grid to conduct complex calculations, and enhance qubit-to-qubit and chip-to-chip communication. The researchers connected the qubits through a "wire" in which a single photon picked up the message from one qubit and conveyed it to the next qubit about 0.5 centimeters away. The scientists tuned the qubits and photon to vibrate at the same frequency. HRL Laboratories' Thaddeus Ladd said, "This is an important proof-of-possibility for silicon qubits because it adds substantial flexibility in how to wire those qubits and how to lay them out geometrically in future silicon-based 'quantum microchips’."

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Lifeguards Trial Technology to Help Patrol Beaches
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
Julie Power
December 28, 2019

Several Australian beaches will test new technology this summer to monitor for danger under the Smart Beaches program. Manly Beach and three other beaches are participating in the project, using artificial intelligence-powered sensors and closed-circuit TV cameras to count crowds while an offshore buoy predicts wave conditions. Almost every moving object—including lifeguards wearing heart-monitoring watches—has been tagged with global positioning system trackers. At other beaches, Surf Life Saving Australia plans to trial "smart" drones that count crowds, identify rip currents, and alert lifeguards if swimmers enter dangerous areas. Surf Life Saving's Shane Daw said that while technology can't replace lifeguards, "it will be an extra set of eyes."

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Colleges Turn Students' Phones Into Surveillance Machines, Tracking Hundreds of Thousands
The Washington Post
Drew Harwell
December 24, 2019

U.S. colleges can track hundreds of thousands of students using short-range phone sensors and campus-wide Wi-Fi networks to assess their academic performance, monitor their conduct, or rate their mental health. Academicians and education advocates are concerned such monitoring and supervision will infantilize students and make them accept surveillance as a normal part of life. The schools rely on networks of Bluetooth transmitters and wireless access points to piece together students' movements. School and technology company officials say location tracking allows schools to intervene before problems crop up, but some institutions calculate "risk scores" based on factors such as how often pupils visit the library. Critics contend such policies could undermine student independence and discourage non-academic pursuits. The University of California, San Diego's Erin Rose Glass said, "We're reinforcing this sense of powerlessness ... when we could be asking harder questions, like: why are we creating institutions where students don't want to show up?"

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Drones Need Tracking Network for Expanded Flights, FAA Says
Alan Levin
December 26, 2019

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed a tracking network for most drones to fortify safety and prevent terrorism, allowing law enforcement to monitor their flight. The draft rules aim to further drone-driven commerce, including deliveries of consumer goods. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said regulators would be able to identify drones in their jurisdiction via remote identification technologies, and tracking would apply to all drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds. The FAA suggested private companies granted agency approval would establish drone-tracking systems patterned after current air-traffic control systems for conventional aircraft. The proposal requires drone operators to broadcast their identity on a radio frequency that can be monitored in close proximity, and concurrently upload the information through the Internet; nearby drones could then keep clear and local police could spot rogue operators.

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Alberta's Royal Tyrrell Museum is using 3D printing modelling to learn more about dinosaur behavior. 3D Printing Takes Dinosaur Research to Next Level
CBC News (Canada)
December 25, 2019

The Royal Tyrrell Museum in Canada is using three-dimensional (3D) printing to build replicas of fragile dinosaur bone specimens to advance paleontology and develop exhibits. The process involves capturing images of specimens from multiple angles and triangulation via computer programs, which yields a 3D model. The technology adds a new dimension to research on dinosaur brains by using reconstructed brain cavities. Museum curator Francois Therrien said combining a computed tomography scanner with 3D printing relieves much of the physical effort that goes into reconstructions. Said Therrien, "We can ask a lot of questions [about dinosaur behavior] that previously would have been impossible to do."

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Simulations Show Melting Glaciers Increase Risk for Glacial Lake Outburst Floods
Brooks Hays
December 31, 2019

Computer models developed by researchers at the University of Potsdam suggest thousands of lakes in the Himalayas could flood dangerously as glaciers melt from rising global temperatures. The researchers ran 5.4 billion simulations based on data from topographical maps and satellite surveys, which found 5,000 lakes with unstable moraines, raising the risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). Said the researchers, "The GLOF hazard may increase in these regions that currently have large glaciers, but few lakes, if future projected ice loss generates more unstable moraine-dammed lakes than we recognize today."

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When Machine Learning Packs an Economic Punch
MIT News
Peter Dizikes
December 20, 2019

A study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Washington University researchers found that improving a machine learning language-translation system significantly increased commerce on eBay's website. The researchers examined the impact of the eBay Machine Translation system, which initially concentrated on English-Spanish translations to enable U.S.-Latin American trade. The system boosted the number of acceptable Spanish-language item titles on eBay from 82% to 90%, and also facilitated 1.06% higher trade volume within countries for each additional word in the titles of items. MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson said, "I feel very comfortable ... saying that improvement in machine translation caused the increase in international trade."

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Retail startup Octobox opened its first unmanned convenience store at the National University of Singapore in August. Singapore's Unmanned Convenience Stores Learn from China's Failures
Nikkei Asian Review
Dylan Loh
January 2, 2020

Unmanned stores are appealing to retailers in Singapore, where workers are in short supply and labor costs are rising. Governmental support for unmanned stores has helped spur automated retail in Singapore; government agencies such as Enterprise Singapore can contribute up to 70% of the technology costs required to launch an unmanned store. Singapore's unmanned retailers are being careful not to repeat the mistakes that led to the failure of unmanned stores in other markets. For example, a recent boom in unmanned stores in China ended almost as quickly as it started, as stores struggled to move fresh groceries. Full-scale automated retail stores worldwide will grow from fewer than 500 this year to more than 44,000 by 2023, according to ABI Research.

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Computing and the National Science Foundation, 1950-2016: Building a Foundation for Modern Computing
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