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Welcome to the May 17, 2021 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Facebook’s European headquarters in Dublin, Ireland. Facebook Loses Bid to Block Ruling on EU-U.S. Data Flows
The Wall Street Journal
Sam Schechner
May 14, 2021

Facebook has lost its attempt to block a European Union privacy ruling that could bar its sending of information about European users to U.S. computer servers. Ireland's High Court rejected Facebook's procedural complaints about a preliminary decision on data flows from the country's Data Protection Commission (DPC), which spurned Facebook's argument that it had allocated too little time for the company to respond, or issued a judgment prematurely. Legal experts say the reasoning in Ireland's provisional directive could apply to other large technology companies that are subject to U.S. surveillance statutes, potentially disrupting trans-Atlantic data flows and billions of dollars for the cloud computing, social media, and advertising sectors.

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Precise Touchscreens, Thanks to AI
ETH Zurich (Switzerland)
May 12, 2021

A new artificial intelligence (AI) technique developed by computer scientists at ETH Zurich more precisely estimates where a finger touches a mobile phone screen, to reduce typing errors. ETH's Christian Holz explained the CapContact AI “estimates the actual contact areas between fingers and touchscreens upon touch,” then “generates these contact areas at eight times the resolution of current touch sensors, enabling our touch devices to detect touch much more precisely." The researchers found their novel deep learning approach eliminates low-resolution input sensing errors, which they said are responsible for a third of errors on current touchscreen devices.

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Simulating Sneezes, Coughs to Show How COVID-19 Spreads
Sandia National Laboratories
May 11, 2021

Two groups of computer scientists used computer facilities at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories to create detailed simulations of droplets sprayed by coughs or sneezes, to demonstrate how COVID-19 spreads. A study that modeled coughing with and without a breeze and with and without protective barriers found that protective barriers offer protection from larger droplets, while tiny particles can remain airborne for an extended time and can travel farther, depending on environmental conditions. A second study, which modeled smaller aerosol droplets under various conditions, found that face masks and shields can prevent them from traveling far.

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A new algorithm coordinates the performance of robot teams for missions in complex, unpredictable environments. Helping Robots Collaborate to Get the Job Done
MIT News
Daniel Ackerman
May 13, 2021

An algorithm developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California, San Diego aims to foster cooperation between information-gathering robot teams. The algorithm balances data collection and energy expenditure to avoid having robots perform maneuvers that waste energy to gain only a small amount of data. Using the researchers' Distributed Local Search approach, each robot proposes a potential trajectory for itself as part of the team, and the algorithm accepts or rejects them based whether it will increase the likelihood of achieving the team's objective function. A test involving a simulated team of 10 robots showed that the algorithm required more computation time, but guaranteed their mission would be completed successfully.

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Police Departments Adopting Facial Recognition Tech Amid Allegations of Wrongful Arrests
60 Minutes
Anderson Cooper
May 16, 2021

U.S. police departments are adopting facial recognition technology, despite complaints of wrongful arrests resulting from its use. Clare Garvie at Georgetown University Law's Center on Privacy and Technology thinks facial recognition has been involved in hundreds of thousands of such cases, in which users incorrectly assume the technology is faultless, given the mathematical basis of its matches. The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology's Patrick Grother evaluates prototype facial recognition algorithms, and his team published a landmark study which determined that many facial recognition algorithms found it difficult to distinguish between Black, Asian, and female faces. Grother said false negatives arising from such errors could lead to wrongful arrests. Since last summer, three Black men have sued for wrongful arrest involving facial recognition; said Garvie, “The fact that we only know of three misidentifications is more a product of how little we know about the technology than how accurate it is."

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Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. Irish Health System Targeted in 'Serious' Ransomware Attack
Associated Press
May 14, 2021

Ireland's health service said a ransomware attack led by "international criminals' forced the shutdown of its information technology systems on May 14. Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who called the incident "very serious," said it could last for days. Steve Forbes at U.K. Web domain registry Nominet said the breach highlights concerns about the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to worsening attacks by hacker gangs and criminals, and threatens to exacerbate a health system already strained by the pandemic. Forbes said the Irish hack and the recent disruption of the Colonial Pipeline in the U.S. show that "criminal groups are choosing targets that will have the greatest impact on governments and the public, regardless of the collateral damage, in order to apply the most leverage."

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The Way We Use Emojis Evolves Like Language, Changes Their Meaning
New Scientist
Chris Stokel-Walker
May 14, 2021

The first study of emoji use over time found that their use and meaning evolves like language, with changes dictated by context. Researchers at the U.K.'s University of Edinburgh tracked emoji use between 2012 and 2018 on Twitter, reviewing 1.7 billion tweets (with duplicate content and non-English tweets filtered out). They used models that identify the semantics of how words are used based on surrounding words to analyze the tweets, to attribute meanings to the emojis used and to note changes to those meanings. Edinburgh's Alexander Robertson said the researchers found patterns in the meanings of emojis that are also found in words, like seasonality (different meanings ascribed depending on the time of year). Effie Le Moignan at the U.K.'s Newcastle University said the research is important but limited, because "this does not generalize beyond Twitter."

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Flash Memory's 2D Cousin is 5,000 Times Speedier
IEEE Spectrum
Charles Q. Choi
May 14, 2021

A two-dimensional relative of flash memory is about 5,000 times faster than standard flash drives and can store multiple types of data instead of just zeroes and ones, according to new research. Scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences theorized that atomically flat van der Waals heterostructures could eliminate performance-degrading defects on silicon films, and they produced one from an indium selenide semiconducting layer, a hexagonal boron nitride insulating layer, and multiple electrically conductive graphene layers atop a silicon dioxide-silicon wafer. The researchers said the device could theoretically store multi-bit data with multiple electric states, each written and erased using a different voltage-pulse sequence, for as long as a decade.

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A blue-gray Gnatcatcher, an endangered species. Approach to Identify Genetic Boundaries of Species Could Impact Policy
San Diego State University NewsCenter
Padma Nagappan
May 13, 2021

Evolutionary biologists have designed a computational approach to genomic species delineation that builds on current methods for designating a species as endangered or at risk. San Diego State University's Jeet Sukumaran said the approach addresses the difficulty of differentiating between two populations separated geographically, versus two populations of two distinct species. Said Sukumaran, "Our method, DELINEATE, introduces a way to distinguish between these two factors, which is important because most of the natural resources management policy and legislature in our society rests on clearly defined and named species units." Said the University of Kansas, Lawrence’s Mark Holder, "Our method allows researchers to make statements about how confident they are that two populations are members of the same species. That is an advance over just making a best estimate of species assignments."

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Interior of a 2021 Ford F-150 Raptor. Ford Launches Over-the-Air Upgrades to Millions of Cars
Michael Wayland
May 13, 2021

Ford Motor said it has launched technology to enable significant over-the-air (OTA) upgrades to its vehicles, with plans to roll it out to 33 million autos by 2028. Ford calls the remote updating technology Power-Up. The automaker said it already has sent OTA updates to more than 100,000 F-150 pickups and Mustang Mach-E customers since late March; according to Ford, one update to the F-150 to fix a battery drainage problem saved the company over $20 million in warranty costs. OTA updates also directly connect manufacturers to consumers, boosting potential earnings from data fleet monetization and recurring revenue opportunities for new features or upgrades.

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An Automated Box on Wheels—with Personality
Norwegian SciTech News
Nancy Bazilchuk
May 13, 2021

People find boxy talking robots humorous and engaging, which may make robotic technology more acceptable in everyday life, according to new research. Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) scientists studied robotic Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) deployed at St. Olavs Hospital in Trondheim, Norway, which were equipped with voices with a distinctive local dialect, rather than a generic Norwegian voice. NTNU's Roger A. Soraa said, "We found that these robots, which were not created to be social robots, were actually given social qualities by the humans relating to them." Soraa said this quality helps people accept the robots, which he described as "emissaries of technologies."

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Researchers 3D-Print Complex Micro-Optics with Improved Imaging Performance
Optical Society of America
May 13, 2021

A team of researchers at Germany's University of Stuttgart used three-dimensional (3D) printing to generate micron-scale lenses that can be used to correct color distortion during imaging and enable small, lightweight cameras for various applications. The researchers used two-photon lithography to fabricate apochromatic lenses that integrate refractive and diffractive surfaces, and showed these lenses could reduce chromatic aberration by measuring the focal spot site for three wavelengths and comparing them to a simple refractive lens with no color correction. Images captured by the 3D-printed achromatic lens reduced color seams significantly, but only images taken with the apochromatic lens completely eliminated them.

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Research Could Improve Cache Efficiency by 60%
Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science
Aaron Aupperlee
May 11, 2021

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) collaborated with Twitter to develop a system that could improve the speed and efficiency of the social media platform. The researchers examined how Twitter items were stored and accessed in dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) cache, and developed Segcache to improve the use of limited cache space. Tweets immediately displayed in a user's Twitter feed come from the cache; without it, tweets from everyone they follow would have to be retrieved from the hard drive. Segcache groups items in the cache to permit metadata sharing and allows for expired cache items to be removed more quickly and with fewer scans. CMU’s Juncheng Yang said the use of Segcache “could potentially allow Twitter to reduce the largest cache cluster size by 60%.” Twitter is working to incorporate the research into its production system.

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