Welcome to the March 13, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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University of Sydney's Arne Grimsmo Error-Correction Scheme for Quantum Computers
University of Sydney
March 12, 2020

Researchers at Australia's universities of Sydney and Queensland and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology have created an error-correction framework for experimental quantum computers. The researchers devised platform-agnostic quantum error-correction codes that, they said, should lower the number of physical quantum switches (qubits) needed to scale up systems. The scheme is based on encoding quantum data in collections of bosons, which become indistinguishable when contained in a specific microwave or optical cavity, 'spacing things out' in an infinite Hilbert space gives you a qubit that is very robust, because it can tolerate common errors like photon loss."

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K-12 student at computer keyboard Rhode Island, North Dakota Work to Bridge Workforce Skills Gap
U.S. News & World Report
Casey Leins
March 11, 2020

Rhode Island and North Dakota are two U.S. states working to fill skills gaps in their workforces through efforts to improve students' study of computer science (CS). Microsoft, for example, helps Rhode Island and other states broaden their CS programs through its Technology and Literacy in Schools initiative, under which its Microsoft Philanthropies arm matches schools with CS engineers who co-instruct in classrooms and help schools design sustainable CS programs. Rhode Island also provides funding for teachers to take CS courses. Meanwhile, Microsoft and the Code.org nonprofit have partnered with North Dakota, the first state to develop K-12 cybersecurity standards, on its own initiative.

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Chinese Agriculture Drone Makers See Demand Rise Amid Coronavirus Outbreak
Wendy Ye
March 9, 2020

One unforeseen result of the spread of coronavirus in China is that large farms, local governments, and agricultural products distributors are buying high-tech equipment, such as drones, to deal with the changing environment. “In the first two months of 2020, we delivered 4,000 units of our newly released agricultural drones,” said Justin Gong of agricultural drone maker XAG. In the north, Beijing Yifei Technology's Liu Zhuo said he expects the company's revenue to at least quadruple this year, adding, "we received increased inquiries about agricultural drones and unmanned vehicles.” Demographic trends support greater use of technology in China's farms in the long term, as an aging population and the migration of younger people to cities leaves farms with fewer people to tend them.

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six-digit passcode screen on mobile phone How Secure Are Four, Six-Digit Mobile Phone PINs?
Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany)
Julia Weiler
March 11, 2020

Information technology security experts at Germany’s Ruhr-Universitat Bochum (RUB) and Max Planck Institute for Security and Privacy, and George Washington University assessing personal identification numbers (PIN) codes for securing Apple and Android cellphones found that six-digit PINs offer little more security than four-digit PINs. RUB's Philipp Markert said although a four-digit PIN can be used to create 10,000 different combinations and a six-digit PIN can be used to create 1 million, users prefer simple combinations that often fail to exploit six-digit PINs' full potential. The study also concluded that four and six-digit PINs are less secure than passwords, but more secure than pattern locks.

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Facebook, Twitter Suspend Russian-Linked Operation Targeting African Americans on Social Media
The Washington Post
Tony Romm; Craig Timberg
March 12, 2020

Facebook and Twitter suspended a Russian-linked campaign designed to inflame racial tensions among African Americans in the U.S. The operation combined bogus accounts and actual residents of Ghana and Nigeria, apparently deceived into thinking they were serving a nongovernmental organization by promoting inauthentic accounts, pages, and groups on the social media platforms. Twitter's Yoel Roth said the platform caught the campaign before it could generate a wide-scale following. The two social networks said the operation was found to be related to some of the same Russian actors that employed similar tactics four years ago to spread falsehoods during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaigns.

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An example of how an Amazon Alexa could determine a person’s location. Research Team Develops Voice Localization Techniques for Smart Speakers
University of Illinois Coordinated Science Lab
Rebecca Gorski
March 10, 2020

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Coordinated Science Laboratory (CSL) have created a system that uses the Amazon Alexa smart speaker's microphone array in combination with echoes of one’s voice to localize a user's whereabouts. CSL's Sheng Shen said the VocLoc system uses an "align-and-cancel algorithm” that identifies the directions from which it receives each voice signal and uses them to reverse-triangulate the location of the person speaking. The system also spontaneously learns some aspects of the room's geometry, to help with that triangulation. CSL's Romit Roy Choudhury said, "Location can help Alexa in improving speech recognition, since different speech vocabularies and models can be loaded."

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demo using artificial intelligence and facial recognition Tech Firms Seek to Head Off Bans on Facial Recognition
The Wall Street Journal
Ryan Tracy
March 8, 2020

Technology companies increasingly are backing proposed laws that would limit the use of facial recognition systems, in an effort to head off more restrictive bills being considered by some cities and states. San Francisco is one of six cities that have passed laws to stop government use of facial -recognition technology, and bans or strict limitations are being considered in New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Michigan. Microsoft supports bills in Congress and in Washington state that would allow use of the technology with oversight, and Amazon has said it supports national standards. Meanwhile, IBM is calling for "precision regulations" that do not permit mass surveillance, and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai reportedly is open to a temporary pause in the use of the technology while regulations are developed. Meredith Whittaker of New York University's AI Now Institute said such industry-supported regulations "are effectively geared to allow these companies to continue selling and profiting from these technologies, more or less unhindered."

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infant, sensors, and display screen in NICU Wireless Skin-mounted Sensors Monitor Babies, Pregnant Women in the Developing World
Northwestern University Newscenter
Amanda Morris
March 11, 2020

Northwestern University researchers have developed a wireless, battery-charged, sensor-based monitoring system for newborn babies. The soft, flexible sensors' wireless capabilities allow for more skin-to-skin contact with parents. The technology also can monitor pregnant women during labor to ensure a safe delivery and reduce risks of maternal mortality. With assistance from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Save the Children, the researchers are deploying the devices internationally, starting with hospitals in Ghana, India, Kenya, and Zambia. Said Northwestern's Shuai (Steve) Xu, "The beauty of the technology is that it can operate with a wide range of mobile devices without sacrificing accuracy, relative to the most sophisticated systems used in hospitals today."

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User interacting with protein via virtual reality Bristol Pioneers Use of VR for Designing Drugs
University of Bristol News
March 11, 2020

Researchers at the University of Bristol in the U.K. are exploring the use of virtual reality (VR) for next-generation drug design. The researchers employed VR to three-dimensionally render molecules and to determine which protein binding sites will dock with the molecules. Tests involving protein targets like influenza neuraminidase and human immunodeficiency virus protease showed that researchers, even non-experts, could build structures in VR that closely resembled those of drug complexes found in experiments. Bristol's David Glowacki said, "It is possible to unbind and rebind drugs from protein targets on a simulation timescale significantly shorter than the timescale of similar events observed using non-interactive molecular dynamics engines."

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IBM to Build Europe’s First Quantum Computer in Germany
Financial Times
Joe Miller
March 13, 2020

IBM will construct the first European quantum computer, slated to go online from early 2021, in Germany. That nation’s Fraunhofer Society research institute will function as gatekeeper for IBM's Q System One, which researchers will be able to access in accordance with the EU's position on data sovereignty. IBM Europe's Martin Jetter said an EU-based quantum computer will play a key role in shaping future European society, while the German government considers quantum computing very important to security, especially in the field of cryptography. Said Fraunhofer president Reimund Neugebauer, "Quantum computing has the potential to analyze the complex systems in business and industry, to unravel molecular and chemical interactions, to solve complicated optimization problems, and to make artificial intelligence significantly more powerful."

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A robotic tabletop device drawing blood from human arm. Robot Uses AI, Imaging to Draw Blood
Rutgers Today
Todd Bates
March 2, 2020

Researchers at Rutgers University have developed a tabletop device that incorporates robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and near-infrared and ultrasound imaging to draw blood or insert catheters to deliver fluids and drugs. The robotic device can accurately steer needles and catheters into tiny blood vessels with minimal supervision. The system uses AI and advanced imaging solutions to distinguish blood vessels from surrounding tissue, classify them, estimate their depth, and track motion. Said Rutgers' Martin L. Yarmush, “Using volunteers, models, and animals, our team showed that the device can accurately pinpoint blood vessels, improving success rates and procedure times compared with expert healthcare professionals, especially with difficult-to-access blood vessels."

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Photo of RAM cards Modern RAM Still Vulnerable to Rowhammer Attacks
Catalin Cimpanu
March 11, 2020

Extensive mitigations deployed during the last six years have failed to eliminate modern random-access memory (RAM) cards' vulnerability to Rowhammer exploits, according to researchers at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and Vrije University in the Netherlands. The investigators said a generic tool named TRRespass that can upgrade Rowhammer attacks to hack RAM cards with Target Row Refresh (TRR) safeguards. The researchers said, "This triggered an industry-wide effort in addressing the issues raised in this paper. Unfortunately ... it will take a long time before effective mitigations will be in place." The hardware community has been trying to fix the Rowhammer situation since 2014.

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A gloved hand holding rubber graphene material. Tough, Flexible Sensor Invented for Wearable Tech
Waterloo News
March 6, 2020

Researchers at the Universities of Waterloo and British Columbia in Canada and the University of California, Los Angeles have combined three-dimensional (3D) printing and nanotechnology to create a flexible sensor for wearable biomonitors. The sensor mates silicone rubber with ultra-thin graphene layers in a material suitable for wristbands, or insoles in running shoes. The material generates electrical signals when bending or moving, due to the graphene's conductivity. Waterloo's Elham Davoodi said the material can tolerate the harshest environments, and even a trip through the washing machine. Waterloo's Ehsan Toyserkani added that the sensor can be paired with electronics to make wearables that record heart and breathing rates, register the forces exerted when athletes run, and allow doctors to monitor patients remotely.

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