Welcome to the March 16, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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person wearing mask and using smartphone Israel Takes Step Toward Monitoring Phones of Virus Patients
Associated Press
Josef Federman
March 15, 2020

Israel's government has authorized its Shin Bet security agency to use its phone-surveillance system on coronavirus patients in an effort to control the epidemic, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledging that such measures would "entail a certain degree of violation of privacy." Shin Bet would employ mobile-phone tracking technology to more precisely model a patient's movements prior to diagnosis, and identify people who might have been exposed to the virus. In response to privacy concerns, Netanyahu reduced the scope of information to be collected and restricted how many people can view the data, to shield against misuse. Yuval Elovici at Ben-Gurion University's cybersecurity research center suggested privacy issues can be minimized by culling data anonymously.

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Bombe decryption device Record Set for Cryptographic Challenge
UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering
March 12, 2020

A team of computer scientists in France and the U.S. has set a new record for integer factorization, a major challenge in the security of most public-key cryptography currently in use. The researchers used free software created by collaborators at INRIA Nancy in France to factor the largest integer of its form to date as part of the RSA Factoring Challenges. The integer is the product of two prime numbers that each possess 125 decimal digits, which took 2,700 years of running powerful computer cores to execute, using tens of thousands of machines worldwide over several months. The key the researchers cracked has 829 binary bits, while modern cryptographic practice stipulates that RSA keys should be 2,048 binary bits long at minimum. The University of California, San Diego's Nadia Heninger said, "Achieving computational records regularly is necessary to update cryptographic security parameters and key size recommendations."

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Where AI Jobs are Exploding in Number (It’s Not in Silicon Valley)
Jeremy Kahn
March 10, 2020

Four states—California, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington—account for 90% of all ZipRecruiter-advertised jobs requiring advanced artificial intelligence (AI) skills, and 60% of all AI jobs on the employment marketplace. However, ZipRecruiter also found that companies looking for AI talent also increasingly are based in five other states: Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. The growth of AI-related job postings in these states over the past two years was nearly three times faster than in four leading states. Meanwhile, Alaska, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia are lagging behind the rest of the U.S. when it comes to companies looking for AI talent.

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Milo the robot and student with autism Education Robots Offer Leg-Up to Disadvantaged Students
Financial Times
Adam Green
March 10, 2020

Some education experts think robots can help disadvantaged children, with Van Robotics CEO Laura Boccanfuso saying robots can engage children's attention without being overwhelming—an important factor for those with social communication or sensory-processing disorders. Maria Jose Galvez Trigo at the U.K.'s University of Nottingham school of computer science says robots' predictability can make them less threatening and easier for children to interact with than humans, and could help improve the children’s social and imitation skills. One robot, Milo, teaches autistic students to focus on emotions, show empathy, and better understand social situations, while a companion robot called Kaspar has simplified facial features that are easier for autistic children to understand than people’s features.

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Engineers Crack 58-Year-Old Puzzle on Way to Quantum Breakthrough
University of New South Wales
Lachlan Gilbert
March 12, 2020

Quantum computer researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney in Australia have found a way to control the nucleus of a single atom using only electric fields, which was first suggested in 1961 by Nobel Laureate Nicolaas Bloembergen. The team originally set out to perform nuclear magnetic resonance on a single atom of antimony, with the goal of exploring the boundary between the quantum world and the classical world. The researchers observed that the nucleus was refusing to respond to certain frequencies while showing a strong response at others. “This puzzled us for a while," said UNSW's Vincent Mourik, "until we had a 'eureka moment' and realized that we were doing electric resonance instead of magnetic resonance.” Said UNSW's Andrea Morello, "This discovery means that we now have a pathway to build quantum computers using single-atom spins without the need for any oscillating magnetic field for their operation."

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operating table with Li-Fi receivers Li-Fi Scrubs Into the Operating Room
IEEE Spectrum
Dan Garisto
March 13, 2020

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Heinrich-Hertz Institute (HHI) in Germany and the Czech Technical University tested the viability of Li-Fi (light fidelity) communication technology in a medical setting. Li-Fi uses optical light to wirelessly transmit information more reliably and at faster rates than Wi-Fi, and the researchers demonstrated the technology in a neurosurgery operating room in a Prague hospital. The system transferred data at rates up to 600 megabits per second. The HHI researchers addressed signal blockage by people or objects by adding four transmitters and six receivers around the operating room for a total of 24 communication channels. Said HHI's Dominic Schulz, “Even if 23 of those channels are blocked, you still have one and you can have a very robust communication.”

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Spinal Cord Injury Patients Can Imagine Resuming Many Activities Because of New Technologies
The Washington Post
Karen Weintraub
March 7, 2020

Researchers are studying ways to capture brain signals to restore some movement to paralyzed individuals through a computer interface. One method uses electroencephalography to measure brain waves from outside the brain; a second approach, spearheaded by researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, embeds electrodes just inside the skull, and a third places them inside the brain, close enough to measure the activity of individual neurons. The University of Miami system takes about 400 milliseconds to transmit a signal from the brain to the computer. The signal processing is currently done by a nearby laptop, but it could eventually work with a cellphone. Brain-computer interfaces today are about where the personal computer was in the early 1980s, said A. Bolu Ajiboye of Case Western Reserve University, adding that in the not-too-distant future, “they're going to get exponentially better."

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Photo of U.S. Senator Angus King. Panel Outlines Massive Federal Cybersecurity Overhaul
Tim Starks
March 11, 2020

After approximately a year of work, the Congressional Cyberspace Solarium Commission issued its report on the state of cybersecurity in the U.S., which included sweeping recommendations for shoring up cyberdefense and tightening cybersecurity policy responsibility in the government. The report offered 75 recommendations in total, based on information gleaned in 30 meetings and 300 interviews. Among other actions, the commission recommended the creation of a Senate-confirmed National Cyber Director, a Bureau of Cyber Statistics, House and Senate cybersecurity committees, and a special fund to respond to and recover from cyberattacks. The Commission also addressed election security, saying, "The American people still do not have the assurance that our election systems are secure from foreign manipulation. If we don't get election security right, deterrence will fail and future generations will ... wonder how we screwed the whole thing up."

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Three screens showing player, realistic avatar, and idealized avatar. Buffed-Up Avatars Deter Us From Exercising Hard
University of Bath
March 12, 2020

Researchers at the University of Bath in the U.K. demonstrated that virtual reality (VR) users are more likely to exercise better when vying with realistic, rather than idealized, avatars of themselves. Bath's Christof Lutteroth said idealized avatars appear to adversely affect physical performance, as demonstrated by participants engaged in an VR bike racing exergame. When human racers competed against generic, physically accurate avatars, they performed better and were better motivated; participants also exerted more against realistic versus idealized avatars. Said Lutteroth, "Exergame designers should definitely consider using realistic avatar customization to improve player experience and performance."

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A model of methane bubbles. Computer Model Solves Mystery of How Gas Bubbles Build Big Methane Hydrate Deposits
University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences
March 12, 2020

University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) researchers used a computer model to explain natural gas hydrate formations and how they could contribute to climate change. The model simulated bubbles flowing through hydrate deposits to solve the mystery of free-flowing methane gas, which should not be possible, according to physics. The model confirmed experimental results that hydrate formation bars the transition between gas and water, so gas can bubble through the deposit. Scaling up the model also matched evidence from field studies, and suggested that gas flowing through the subsurface can accrue in hydrate reservoirs, which could potentially be tapped as energy sources. UT Austin's Dylan Meyer said, "We believe this model will be an essential tool for future studies investigating the evolution of large, highly concentrated hydrate reservoirs that experience relatively rapid gas flow through porous media."

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Several small robots on the deck of a boat. Small Robots Could Help Look After Salmon Without Stressing Them Out
New Scientist
Leah Crane
March 11, 2020

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NUST), Estonia's Tallinn University of Technology, and the Estonian University of Life Sciences found that salmon seem to prefer small robots to larger ones, a discovery that could help guide how fish farms are automated. Monitoring of commercial fish farms is normally done by a human diver; the team conducted a test in a sea cage in Norway to compare salmon reactions to a human diver, a commercial underwater robot called the Argus Mini, and a smaller underwater robot called U-CAT. The researchers found that the salmon got closer to U-CAT and beat their tails slower around the small robot, compared to the other two, indicators of less disruption. This is important, said NUST's Maarja Kruusmaa, because "the happier the fish are, the healthier the fish are, the better they eat, the better they grow, the less parasites they have, and the less they get sick."

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Social Networks Shed Light on How Genomes Are Organized
Greg Nichols
March 13, 2020

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) computational biologists adapted an algorithm that analyzes social networks to better understand the organization of DNA and proteins within cell nuclei. The MOCHI algorithm created by CMU's Dechao Tian and Ruochi Zhang subdivides the mingled nuclear elements into communities to better understand their interoperation. MOCHI analyzed the spatial relationships of all genes within a nucleus, and identified what seem to be hundreds of communities within nuclei when applied to different cell types. CMU's Jian Ma suggested this approach could help understand fundamental cellular processes and disease mechanisms, like aging and cancer development. Said Ma, “There's a reason why these communities are formed in the nucleus. We just don't know the formation mechanisms of these communities yet."

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