Welcome to the March 23, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Chairman Randall Stephenson IBM Partners with White House to Direct Supercomputing Power for Coronavirus Research
Clare Duffy
March 22, 2020

IBM will help coordinate an initiative to supply more than 330 petaflops of computing power to scientists researching COVID-19, as part of the COVID-19 High-Performance Computing Consortium, in partnership with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the U.S. Department of Energy. The initiative will harness 16 supercomputing systems from IBM, national laboratories, several universities, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and others. Computing power will be provided via remote access to researchers whose projects are approved by the consortium's leadership board. The consortium also will connect researchers with top computational scientists. Said IBM Research director Dario Gil, "We're bringing together expertise ... even across competitors, to work on this. We think it's important to bring a sense of community and to bring science and capability against this goal."

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Stanford Device Brings Silicon Computing Power to Brain Research, Prosthetics
Stanford News
Taylor Kubota
March 20, 2020

Stanford University researchers have designed a device to link the brain directly to silicon-based technologies, which records more data and is less intrusive than current brain-machine interface technologies. The device bundles extremely thin microwires that are inserted into the brain and externally connected to a silicon chip that records electrical brain signals passing each wire. The researchers tested the device on retinal cells from rats and in the brains of living mice, successfully acquiring meaningful signals across the array's many channels in each instance. Stanford's Jun Ding said the array's design allows variation during manufacture, which "means that we can simultaneously record different brain regions at different depths with virtually any [three-dimensional] arrangement."

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Polluted city Computer Scientists Develop AI System that Predicts Air Pollution Levels
Loughborough University
March 17, 2020

Computer scientists at Loughborough University in the U.K. have developed an artificial intelligence (AI) system that can predict air pollution levels hours in advance. The technology has the potential to provide information on the environmental factors that have significant impacts on air pollution levels. The project is focused on predicting particulate matter less than 2.5 microns (10-6 m) in diameter, also known as PM2.5, a type of pollution often associated with reduced visibility in cities. The AI system predicts PM2.5 levels in just a few hours, one to two days in advance. In addition, it interprets the various factors and data used for prediction, which could lead to a better understanding of variables that can impact PM2.5 levels.

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Crowdsourcing Plot Lines to Help the Creative Process
Penn State News
Jessica Hallman
March 13, 2020

Researchers at the Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) College of Information Sciences and Technology have launched a crowdsourced system that provides writers with story ideas from the online crowd to facilitate the creative process. The Heteroglossia system lets authors share sections of their story drafts using a text editor, and online workers are tasked with brainstorming plot ideas from the perspective of fictional characters they are assigned. Penn State's Ting-Hao (Kenneth) Huang said human workers currently power the system, but artificial intelligence could be incorporated into the platform in the future. "I believe if we learn how to help creative writing or creative processes in general, we can learn more about how to build systems that can be creative."

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An MIT team found a way to “recruit” normally disruptive quantum bits (qubits) in diamond to, instead, help carry out quantum operations. Easier Scaling of Quantum Devices
MIT News
Rob Matheson
March 5, 2020

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have developed a technique to "recruit" neighboring quantum bits (qubits) made of nanoscale defects in diamond, to help conduct quantum operations instead of incurring disruptions. Certain impurities called nitrogen-vacancy (NV) centers in diamond contain electrons that can be manipulated by light and microwaves to discharge photons carrying quantum information, but the NV-center qubit is vulnerable to decoherence through interactions with surrounding "spin defects." The new method utilizes an NV center to explore its surroundings and detect nearby spin defects, then pinpoints their locations and controls them as extra qubits to support a coherent quantum state. The researchers produced and detected quantum coherence among three electronic spins, scaling up the size of the quantum system from one qubit to three by adding two nearby spin defects.

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This Drone Can Play Dodgeball
University of Zurich
March 19, 2020

Researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland equipped a quadcopter with event cameras and algorithms to reduce its reaction time to enable it to avoid a ball thrown at it from a short distance. A drone generally takes 20 to 40 milliseconds to process images and react, which may not be quick enough to avoid obstacles when flying at high speed; the new system can react in just a few milliseconds. Said Zurich's Davide Scaramuzza, “Enabling robots to perceive and make decision faster can be a game changer for also for other domains where reliably detecting incoming obstacles plays a crucial role, such as automotive, good delivery, transportation, mining, and remote inspection with robots."

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Chinese flag China to Launch National Blockchain Network in 100 Cities
IEEE Spectrum
Nick Stockton
March 20, 2020

An alliance of Chinese government groups, banks, and technology firms plans to launch the Blockchain-based Service Network (BSN), one of the first blockchain networks constructed and maintained by a central government, in April. Advocates say the BSN will slash the costs of blockchain-based business by 80%, with nodes hopefully installed in 100 Chinese cities by launch time. The network will allow programmers to develop blockchain applications more easily, but apps running on the BSN will have closed or "permissioned" membership by default. North Carolina State University's Hong Wan suggests China's government aims to make the BSN the core component of a digital currency and payment system that competes with other services. The BSN Alliance hopes the platform will become the global standard for blockchain operations, but the Chinese government's retention of the BSN's root key means it can monitor all transactions made via the platform.

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Speeding Up Machine Learning
WSU Insider
March 16, 2020

Washington State University (WSU) researchers have designed a computer architecture that achieves accuracy comparable to that of conventional graphics processing units (GPUs), while operating up to 53 times faster. WSU's Biresh Joardar and Partha Pande's architecture integrates a GPU-based platform with energy-efficient resistive random-access memory (ReRAM) to accelerate and enhance accuracy for deep neural networks (DNNs) for image segmentation. ReRAM-based architectures address the memory and bandwidth issues of GPUs, but their predictive accuracy can be undermined. To solve this issue, the researchers exploited stochastic rounding in their heterogeneous architecture to improve the accuracy of the DNN model by adding randomness.

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DDoS Attacks Could Affect Next-Generation 911 Call Systems
Help Net Security
Andrew Lavin
March 13, 2020

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Israel have found that next-generation 911 systems that accommodate text, images, and video continue to be vulnerable to many of the same cyberattacks that previous systems were. The team evaluated the impact of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on the current (E911) and next-generation 911 (NG911) infrastructures in North Carolina, and found that just 6,000 bots were sufficient to significantly compromise the availability of a state's 911 services (and just 200,000 bots could jeopardize the entire U.S.). Said BGU's Mordechai Guri, “We believe that this research will assist the respective organizations, lawmakers, and security professionals in understanding the scope of this issue and aid in the prevention of possible future attacks on the 911 emergency services."

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Facebook Offers Clues to Medical Distress, Research Shows
Stony Brook University News
March 13, 2020

Researchers at Stony Brook University and the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) found that the language people use on Facebook changes prior to a visit to the emergency room. The researchers used a machine learning model to compare patients' Facebook posts to their medical records, and learned that subtle shifts, like a switch to more formal language and/or descriptions of physical pain, preceded such hospital visits. Stony Brook's H. Andrew Schwartz said the decrease in the use of formal language appears to correlate with the use of more anxiety-related language. UPenn's Sharath Chandra Guntuku said, "This research ... could potentially be used to both identify at-risk patients for immediate follow-up or facilitate more proactive messaging for patients reporting doubts about what to do before a specific procedure."

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Ford Releases Dataset to Accelerate Autonomous Car Development
Kyle Wiggers
March 19, 2020

Automaker Ford has made freely available to researchers the Ford Autonomous Vehicle Dataset, a compilation of information culled from the testing of autonomous Ford Fusion hybrid cars on roads in the Greater Detroit Area. The company said researchers could use the Dataset to enhance the robustness of driverless vehicles in urban environments. The Dataset incorporates information captured during tests of autonomous vehicles via LiDAR sensors, 1.3- and 5-megapixel cameras, and an inertial measurement unit. Ford researchers wrote in a preprint paper, "We hope that this dataset will be very useful to the robotics and [artificial intelligence] community and will provide new research opportunities in collaborative autonomous driving."

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Is AI Good? Clothing Companies Say Yes
The Wall Street Journal
Jacob Gallagher
March 16, 2020

Microsoft developed a proprietary piece of artificial intelligence (AI) that can identify quilts and their provenance for clothing brand Bode, which repurposes aged textiles. Bode’s computer was trained on hundreds of images of roughly 30 different examples of a given quilt type to produce a baseline; then, when fed a photo of a quilt, the Bode Vault app analyzes the image for key design details, which it uses to identify the quilt variety. Microsoft developed the Vault application at no charge to Bode. Microsoft’s Maruschka Loubser, who worked on the Vault, said, “There is a big distrust, maybe not necessarily in the fashion industry, but in general around AI,” adding that she felt it was important to “demystify” AI technology.

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Three students and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University How CDC is Trying to Forecast Coronavirus's Spread
Technology Review
Karen Hao
March 13, 2020

A group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is one of several dozen teams enlisted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to adapt their annual flu forecasting techniques to predict the spread of coronavirus. The CMU team uses three methods for its flu predictions: a “nowcast,” based on recent and historical data from the CDC and other partner organizations, fed into machine learning algorithms to make predictions in real time; another model based on machine learning uses the nowcast and more historical CDC data, and a third crowdsources forecasts. Said CMU’s Roni Rosenfeld, “We're not going to tell you what's going to happen. What we tell you is what are the things that can happen, and how likely is each one of them.”

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