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Welcome to the December 11, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Christmas lights on trees in a snow-covered park. 'Accessible Christmas,' an Application That Allows Blind People to Enjoy Christmas Lights
Universidad de Carlos III de Madrid (Spain)
December 10, 2020

Visually impaired people can enjoy Christmas lights in Madrid through a mobile application from researchers at Spain's Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. The free Accessible Christmas app employs audio descriptions assigned to different streets, informing users of what they are looking at. The app begins operating automatically when users turn on its geolocation system, playing the audio, sharing information about the scenes depicted, and providing additional information about the display's creation. Accessible Christmas also allows users to remotely enjoy the lights by searching through the list of available streets.

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Error-Prone Quantum Bits Could Correct Themselves, NIST Physicists Show
National Institute of Standards and Technology
December 8, 2020

Physicists at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the University of Maryland, and the California Institute of Technology have developed an approach that could be used to design self-correcting quantum memory switches. The researchers experimented with a photonic cavity resonator and found that constantly refreshing the supply of photons in the cavity enables the qubit's quantum information to withstand certain amounts and types of noise from the surrounding environment. The new approach accounts for the leakage of photons to the environment. Simon Lieu of the Joint Quantum Institute and the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science said, "It’s like adding fresh water. Any time the information gets contaminated, the fact that you're pushing in water and cleaning out your pipes dynamically keeps it resistant to damage. This overall configuration is what keeps its steady state strong."

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A line of green traffic lights on Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile Smarter Traffic Lights, Calmer Commuters
The New York Times
Paul Stenquist
December 10, 2020

Artificial intelligence and other technologies promise to improve traffic systems and reduce the aggravation of commuters. Originating in Australia, the Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System uses sensors at intersections to respond to traffic conditions in real time, with signal-timing decisions made via a control box, while system-wide decisions are generated by a remote computer. Siemens Mobility's Split Cycle Offset Optimization Technique quantifies traffic at intersections and incrementally optimizes real-time signal timing. Israeli technology company NoTraffic has created what it calls the world's first autonomous traffic management platforms, currently used in Phoenix, AZ, and several California cities; the platforms, which make use of radar and video, allow municipalities to create policies and control traffic flow both at the grid level and for each intersection where the technology is deployed.

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Coders Flock Back to Crypto Projects with Prices Surging Again
Olga Kharif
December 10, 2020

Software developers are migrating back to cryptocurrency projects at record levels, with early-stage venture firm Electric Capital reporting that the numbers of new coders rose this year for more than three consecutive months for the first time since 2017. Electric estimated the number of new crypto developers grew 15% per month during the first 10 months of 2020, while more than 80% of all active developers began their work in the last two years. Open source blockchain platform Ethereum and decentralized finance applications are particularly attractive to developers. Electric's Maria Shen said, "Many projects like smart contract platforms rely on developers joining their ecosystem to be successful. Ethereum clearly has more activity and this is why other platforms fight for developers.”

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The quantum simulator team at the University of Copenhagen Researchers Can Now Achieve 'Quantum Advantage'
University of Copenhagen
December 9, 2020

Researchers at Denmark's University of Copenhagen (UCPH) and Germany's University of Bochum have created a nanochip that could be used to build a quantum simulator. The nanochip can generate sufficient photons encoded with quantum data to scale up the technology, which could realize "quantum advantage" and allow a quantum device to solve a given computational task faster than the most powerful supercomputer. UCPH's Ravitej Uppu said the nanochip constitutes "the fundamental building block" of quantum advantage. UCPH’s Peter Lodahl said, "We now possess the tool that makes it possible to build a quantum simulator that can outperform a classical computer. This is a major breakthrough and the first step into uncharted territory in the world of quantum physics.”

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An illustration of the DeepLabCut package. Real-Time Marker-Less Motion Capture for Animals
EPFL (Switzerland)
Nik Papageorgiou
December 10, 2020

An updated deep learning software toolbox developed at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne (EPFL) facilitates real-time feedback studies on animal movement and posture. DeepLabCut-Live! (DLC-Live!) is designed to enable computers to track and predict these factors free of motion-capture markers, by controlling or stimulating the animals' neural activity. DLC-Live!'s tailored networks predict posture from video frames, combined with low latency so researchers can supply real-time feedback and assess behavioral functions of specific neural circuits; the system also interfaces with hardware used in posture studies to deliver feedback to animals. EPFL's Mackenzie Mathis said, "It's economical, it's scalable, and we hope it's a technical advance that allows even more questions to be asked about how the brain controls behavior."

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A datacenter worker in the CERN physics lab. Amazon Wants to Train 29 Million People to Work in the Cloud
The Wall Street Journal
Chip Cutter
December 10, 2020

Amazon plans to help train 29 million people worldwide to work in the cloud by 2025, by building on existing programs and adding new ones in collaboration with nonprofits, schools, and others. The online retailer said the goal is to equip people with the skills for working in cloud computing at client companies aiming to fill high-technology positions. Amazon added that the free training could help people preparing for entry-level support positions, or expand existing engineers' expertise in areas like machine learning or cybersecurity. Cloud computing has become a core capability for many companies as they accelerate their adoption of digital tools. Amazon Web Services' Teresa Carlson said, "We need our customers to have the right skills if they're going to go through a digital transformation."

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Tool Will Automate Device Programming in the IoT
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Spain)
Agustín López
December 10, 2020

Researchers at Spain's Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and IKERLAN technology research center have developed a prototype tool that automates and simplifies the creation of systems that use asynchronous event-driven communication to program Internet of Things devices. The open source tool is the first to utilize the new AsyncAPI specification, which standardizes work with this class of architecture. The tool enables users to automate the generation of messages in the proper format, along with their transmission and receipt. UOC's Abel Gómez said, "By adopting this new tool, we can significantly shorten the amount of time needed to develop and launch programs, which favors interoperability, improves code quality, and in turn limits the number of errors in the software development life cycle."

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The musical robot Shimon sitting in front of a marimba. This Robot Can Rap—Really
Scientific American
Shi En Kim
December 4, 2020

Georgia Institute of Technology music technologist Gil Weinberg modified an improvisational musical robot called Shimon to create lyrics and perform in real time. Weinberg said Shimon's novel stylistic features presented unique programming challenges, and when the robot battle-raps, software renders the human opponent's spoken lyrics as text. Shimon's system identifies keywords, producing new lyrics based on custom datasets of words it has been trained on, via deep learning models. Weinberg’s research team said Shimon's use of phoneme datasets to compose new lyrics enables it to produce keyword-centric phrases in rhyme, then layer a rhythmic beat onto its speech. Shimon can rap comebacks in less than seven seconds, while improvising gestures like head bobbing and eyebrow waggling. Rapper and multimedia artist Rhys Langston said while the achievement of artificial intelligence is impressive, he doubted robots could access the inspiration that sometimes arises from things like human error.

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A chip with four transistors. Transistor Design Disguises Key Computer Chip Hardware From Hackers
Purdue University News
Kayla Wiles
December 7, 2020

Purdue University engineers camouflaged transistors by assembling them from two-dimensional (2D) black phosphorus, to thwart attempts by hackers to obtain information about chip designs in order to reverse-engineer them. Black phosphorus makes N-type and P-type transistors seem identical upon inspection, because when a voltage toggles the transistors' type, they appear exactly the same to hackers. The Purdue team said disguising transistor types using materials like black phosphorus also requires fewer transistors than other camouflaging techniques, improving space and power efficiency. Purdue's Joerg Appenzeller said, "Black phosphorus is a little too volatile to be compatible with current processing techniques, but showing experimentally how a 2D material could work is a step toward figuring out how to implement this security measure."

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A University of Washington researcher holding the Smellicopter. The Smellicopter: An Obstacle-Avoiding Drone that Uses Live Moth Antenna to Seek Out Smells
UW News
Sarah McQuate
December 7, 2020

An autonomous flying drone developed by researchers at the University of Washington (UW) and the University of Maryland College Park uses a live antenna from a moth to navigate toward smells. The Smellicopter employs an antenna taken from a Manduca sexta hawkmoth, which is linked by wires to an electrical circuit to measure the average signal received from all of the antenna’s cells. When compared with a man-made sensor, the moth antenna reacted faster and recovered more quickly. The team created Smellicopter by adding the antenna to an open source quadcopter drone platform; the drone seeks odors via a “cast and surge” protocol mimicking moths’ smell-based navigation.

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Bad News for Fake News: Rice Research Helps Combat Social Media Misinformation
Rice University
Jade Boyd
December 10, 2020

Rice University researchers have invented a more efficient method for preventing the online spread of misinformation on social media, using Bloom filters trained with artificial intelligence. Rice's Anshumali Shrivastava and Zhenwei Dai utilized machine learning to show their Adaptive Learned Bloom Filter (Ada-BF) needs 50% less memory to equal the performance of learned Bloom filters. According to Shrivastava, Ada-BF’s reduced need for memory means additional capacity for real-time filtering systems. Shrivastava said, “We need half of the space, so essentially, we can handle twice as much information with the same resource.”

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A robot dog getting up from uneven turf. Robots Learn to Get Back Up After a Fall in an Unfamiliar Environment
New Scientist
Karina Shah
December 9, 2020

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K. used deep reinforcement learning to teach four-legged robots to adapt to new scenarios, and even to pick themselves up after they have fallen. The robots were taught basic skills like trotting, steering, and fall recovery; they then were rewarded with numerical scores for achieving goals like recovering from a fall, and were penalized for falling. This enabled the artificial intelligence to learn which actions were more desirable, and to repeat them in similar situations. As a result, the robots were able navigate stairs, slippery surfaces, and gravel despite not being programmed to do so. Such autonomy could allow these robots to be used in natural disaster response. Said Edinburgh's Zhibin Li, "We can deploy these robots to do the search and rescue for us when it is too dangerous for humans."

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The Continuing Arms Race: Code-Reuse Attacks and Defenses
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