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Welcome to the January 13, 2021 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Edmund Melson Clarke, Creator of Model Checking, Dies at 75
IEEE Spectrum
Joanna Goodrich
January 11, 2021

Computer science pioneer Edmund Melson Clarke has died at age 75. He helped to develop model checking, used today by Intel, Microsoft, and other technology giants to verify designs for integrated circuits, computer networks, and software. At Duke University, Clarke and E. Allen Emerson researched techniques for confirming error-free computer performance, and authored a seminal 1981 paper on model checking. In 1995 a team led by Clarke evaluated the method on an IEEE standard for interconnecting computer components, exposing design flaws that prompted the tech industry to apply model checking to its systems. Clarke, Emerson, and computer scientist Joseph Sifakis were named recipients of the 2007 ACM A.M. Turing Award for their role in developing model checking into a highly effective verification technology that has been widely adopted in the hardware and software industries.

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A woman wearing a mask at CES. CES Goes Full Pandemic with Smart Masks, Stickers to Detect Covid, Biggest Wi-Fi Update in Years
The Washington Post
Geoffrey A. Fowler; Heather Kelly; Dalvin Brown
January 11, 2021; et al.

The 2021 Consumer Electronics Show is highlighting innovations spurred by Covid-19, such as the Active Plus face mask from the AirPop air wearable device company. The mask can monitor the user's workout and outside air quality while exercising, through a "Halo" sensor that connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth. BioIntelliSense's BioButton can detect Covid-19 symptoms by tracking the wearer's skin temperature, respiratory rate, heart rate, activity level, and sleep, culling a few days' data into a diagnosis. Meanwhile, the Wi-Fi 6E update is basically a new industry standard for routers and wireless devices, which can now access the 6 gigahertz wireless spectrum for added reliability, in order to remedy spotty connections. Said Sandeep Harpalani at Netgear, "It's solving this issue you have today of the huge number of devices in the home."

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CRISPR Gene Editing Used to Store Data in DNA Inside Living Cells
New Scientist
Layal Liverpool
January 11, 2021

Columbia University researchers edited DNA within living bacterial cells using CRISPR technology to encode and store information, in a possible step toward a new model of long-term data storage. Columbia's Harris Wang and colleagues inserted specific DNA sequences that encode binary data inside E. coli cells by assigning different arrangements of the sequences to different English letters, then extracted and sequenced this DNA to decode the information. Thomas Heinis at the U.K.'s Imperial College London cautioned that factors like mutations in DNA during cell replication could degrade the encoded data. Nick Goldman at the U.K.'s European Molecular Biology Laboratory-European Bioinformatics Institute said DNA data storage is unlikely to replace digital storage for a long time, adding that the Columbia team's work is "a little step along the way to something that might do that."

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Tweaking AI Software to Function Like a Human Brain Improves Computer's Learning Ability
Georgetown University Medical Center
January 12, 2021

Neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center and the University of California, Berkeley have developed a model that enables artificial intelligence software to function more like a human brain and learn new visual concepts more quickly. The software identifies relationships between entire visual categories; the standard approach involves identifying objects using only low-level and intermediate visual features like shape and color. Georgetown's Maximilian Riesenhuber explains, "Our model provides a biologically plausible way for artificial neural networks to learn new visual concepts from a small number of examples. We can get computers to learn much better from few examples by leveraging prior learning in a way that we think mirrors what the brain is doing."

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A three-dimensional image of a small figurine. Researchers Acquire 3D Images with LED Room Lighting, Smartphone
Optical Society of America
January 11, 2021

Researchers at the U.K.'s University of Strathclyde used a smartphone and LEDs to perform three-dimensional (3D) optical imaging, without the need for complicated manual processes to sync up the camera and lighting. Strathclyde's Emma Le Francois said, "We wanted to make photometric stereo imaging more easily deployable by removing the link between the light sources and the camera." The Strathclyde team developed algorithms that uniquely modulate each LED, which allow the camera to ascertain which LED produced which image, to enable accurate 3D image reconstruction. The technique also features its own clock signal, so image acquisition can be self-synchronized with the LEDs by using the camera to passively detect the LED clock signal. The researchers used this method to image a 48-millimeter-tall figurine that was 3D-printed with a matte material, realizing an error of just 2.6 millimeters when the object was recorded from a distance of 42 centimeters.

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Programming Languages: Python Rules While Java Dips
Liam Tung
January 5, 2021

Software-quality tracking company Tiobe named Python 2020's top programming language because its popularity outgrew that of all other languages in its index last year. Usage of Python rose 2.01% during 2020 on Tiobe, while usage of Java dipped 5% over the same period. Tiobe CEO Paul Jansen credits Python's versatility, its ease of learning, and high productivity for its longstanding popularity, but said C still claims the top spot on the ranking for 2020 because of its better performance. Said Jensen, "Nowadays [Python] is the favorite language in fields such as data science and machine learning, but it is also used for Web development and back-end programming and growing into the mobile application domain and even in [larger] embedded systems."

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An actor robot runs on a playpen trying to catch the visible green food, while an observer machine learns to predict the actor robot's behavior. Robot Displays a Glimmer of Empathy to a Partner Robot
Columbia University
Holly Evarts
January 11, 2021

A robot developed by researchers at Columbia University Engineering's Creative Machines Lab can predict the future actions and goals of its partner robot, based on visual observations. The researchers put the subject robot in a 3x2-foot playpen and programmed it to look for and move toward any green circle it could see, with the green circle sometimes occluded by a tall red cardboard box. After watching its partner for about two hours, and without explicit information about its partner's visibility handicap, the observer robot was able to predict its partner's goal and path 98 out of 100 times across varying situations, based on a few seconds of video. Said Columbia’s Boyuan Chen, "Our findings begin to demonstrate how robots can see the world from another robot's perspective."

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Rice Model Offers Help for New Hips
Rice University News
Mike Williams
January 11, 2021

Rice University engineers hope to improve outcomes for people with replacement joints by computer-modeling how artificial hips may evolve, incorporating fluid dynamics, roughness of joint surfaces, and other variables. Aiming to innovate more robust prostheses, the researchers said the model could ultimately help clinicians tailor hip joints for patients based on gender, weight, age, and gait variations. The Rice team modeled actual human motion-capture data and data from instrumented hip implants, in an effort to accelerate and simplify simulations to forecast wear and failure points. Contact mechanics, fluid dynamics, wear, and particle dynamics were analyzed simultaneously, while the changing makeup of synovial fluid between bones was factored in as well. The Rice researchers noted future versions of the model will embed more novel materials being utilized in joint replacement.

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Computer Scientists: We Wouldn't Be Able to Control Superintelligent Machines
Max Planck Institute for Human Development (Germany)
January 11, 2021

An international team of computer scientists concluded, based on theoretical calculations, that a superintelligent artificial intelligence (AI) would be beyond human control. The researchers proposed a theoretical containment algorithm to ensure a superintelligent AI cannot hurt people by modeling its behavior first and stopping it if deemed harmful, yet analysis indicated such an algorithm cannot currently be built. Said Iyad Rahwan at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Human Development, "If you break the problem down to basic rules from theoretical computer science, it turns out that an algorithm that would command an AI not to destroy the world could inadvertently halt its own operations. If this happened, you would not know whether the containment algorithm is still analyzing the threat, or whether it has stopped to contain the harmful AI."

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Electrically Switchable Qubit Can Tune Between Storage, Fast Calculation Modes
University of Basel (Switzerland)
January 11, 2021

Researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland and Eindhoven University of Technology (TU Eindhoven) in the Netherlands have produced a qubit that can be switched from a stable idle mode to a fast calculation mode, paving the way for a large number of qubits to be combined into a powerful quantum computer. The researchers developed the switchable qubits via "hole spins," which are formed when an electron is deliberately removed from a semiconductor; the resulting hole can adopt two states (up and down). The new qubits allow spins to be coupled selectively to other spins by tuning their resonant frequencies. Said the University of Basel's Dominik Zumbühl, "The spin can be coherently flipped from up to down in as little as a nanosecond. That would allow up to a billion switches per second. Spin qubit technology is therefore already approaching the clock speeds of today's conventional computers."

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A “smart cushion” built into office chair contains sensors that monitor the heart rate and tally the minutes spent at office workstations. Slouch or Slack Off, This 'Smart' Office Chair Cushion Will Record It
The New York Times
Tiffany May; Amy Chang Chien
January 12, 2021

"Smart cushions" designed by Chinese technology company Health Boost IoT Technology and used as office chairs have engendered controversy over privacy and surveillance. Originally engineered to monitor users' health, flag bad posture, measure heart rates, and calculate minutes spent at work stations, the cushion was used by Health Boost's human resources (HR) manager to surveil workers. Health Boost CEO Zhang Biyong said the cushions were meant to reduce workplace fatigue and prevent pains caused by long office hours, with the sensor-collected data supposedly used to encourage corrective habits. He added that the cushion's users consented to participate in a study designed by a researcher at the Netherlands' Eindhoven University of Technology. Zhang also said HR is responsible for monitoring staff's health, describing the cushion as "a tool that can help HR maintain the health of workers."

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State Department Sets Up Bureau for Cybersecurity, Emerging Technologies
The Hill
Maggie Miller
January 7, 2021

The establishment of a new bureau at the U.S. State Department for cybersecurity and emerging technologies has been approved by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The Bureau of Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technologies (CSET) will help spearhead diplomatic programs around these topics, including prevention of cyber conflicts with potentially adversarial nations. The announcement came as the federal government continues to deal with Russia's breach of information technology company SolarWinds, which affected the State Department and about a dozen other federal agencies. A State Department spokesperson said, "The need to reorganize and resource America's cyberspace and emerging technology security diplomacy through the creation of CSET is critical, as the challenges to U.S. national security presented by China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and other cyber and emerging technology competitors and adversaries have only increased since the Department notified Congress in June 2019 of its intent to create CSET."

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A worker on the production line of Beijing chipmaker Renesas Electronics. Auto Production Disrupted by Chip Shortages
Camila Domonoske
January 12, 2021

A global shortage of computer chips has hit automakers worldwide, a problem compounded by spiking demand for new cars. Kristin Dziczek at the Center for Automotive Research said semiconductors are "controlling the engine and the emissions and [they're] even in the switches for raising and lowering your windows." The shortfall stems from the pandemic-related suspension of auto manufacturing, which prompted the global semiconductor industry to sell more chips to other buyers. Resurgent demand for chips from other sectors has further strained the global supply; a spokesperson for auto-parts supplier Continental said, "The bottlenecks from the semiconductor industry are expected to continue well into 2021." This means consumers could have trouble finding certain vehicle models for the next several months.

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