Welcome to the August 11, 2021 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Top Programming Languages: This 'Workhorse' Has Just Surged Back Up the Rankings
Liam Tung
August 9, 2021

Java has returned to second place in software developer analyst firm RedMonk's latest rankings of top programming languages, after being dethroned by Python in its second-quarter 2020 chart. In September, the Tiobe software company's Paul Jensen said Java was in "real trouble" because its share of queries for programming languages on key search engines shrank notably. However, RedMonk's Stephen O'Grady said, "The language once created to run cable set-top boxes continues to be a workhorse, and importantly one that has consistently been able to find new work to do." He suggested Java is maintaining its grip on a large slice of the enterprise applications market due to its adaptability and corporate inertia, "meaning that its would-be challengers—languages like Go, Rust, and to a lesser extent Kotlin—are competing less with Java than with each other."

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U.S. Prisons Mull AI to Analyze Inmate Phone Calls
David Sherfinski; Avi Asher-Schapiro
August 9, 2021

The U.S. House Appropriations Committee's push to study the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze prison inmates' phone calls has prisoner advocates and families warning of risks of error, misunderstandings, and racial bias. Several state and local prisons have already begun using such technology, and the House panel is urging the Department of Justice to consider potential federal utilization and to identify shortcomings in the information the tech generates. The Oxford, AL police department has deployed Verus software from LEO Technologies, which uses Amazon Web Services’ natural language processing and transcription technology to process and flag prisoner calls. Oxford Police Chief Bill Partridge said such surveillance has helped local forces solve cold case homicides and has prevented suicides. Critics warn of tools potentially amplifying racial bias; for example, a Stanford/Georgetown University analysis found Amazon's automatic speech recognition software committed significantly more errors for black speakers than white speakers.

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Illustrative image of Amazon Kindle e-readers. Israeli Cybersecurity Firm Check Point Uncovers Amazon Security Flaw
The Times of Israel
Luke Tress
August 9, 2021

Analysts at Israeli cybersecurity firm Check Point discovered a critical flaw in Amazon software that would let malefactors hijack a victim's Kindle e-reader and steal data. The analysts said the flaw would allow hackers to infect the Kindle by sending users a single, malicious e-book. Attackers could then commandeer the e-reader through an exploit chain by combining a series of security bugs, with the target not having to take any further action or have any other indications of intrusion. Sensitive user information such as Amazon account credentials or billing information could then become accessible, and the analysts warned the exploit could have enabled bad actors to victimize a specific demographic. Amazon corrected the flaw in April via a firmware update after Check Point notified the company in February.

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Big Tech Call-Center Workers Face Pressure to Accept Home Surveillance
NBC News
Olivia Solon
August 8, 2021

Colombian workers who provide outsourced customer service to major clients are being pressured by call-center companies to allow employers to monitor their performance in their homes, reports NBC News. Six employees of the call-center company Teleperformance cited contracts permitting surveillance via AI-powered cameras, voice analytics, and storage of data collected from family members, including children. Their worries highlight a pandemic-driven trend that has privacy and labor experts concerned: with many employees working from home, some employers are demanding more extensive digital monitoring to replicate office-level oversight at home. The University of California, Hastings’ Veena Dubal said, "Companies see a lot of benefit in putting in software to do all kinds of monitoring they would have otherwise expected their human managers to do, but the reality is that it's much more intrusive than surveillance conducted by a boss."

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A near real-time change in movement patterns in an area with high population density, like a crosswalk. Model Predicts COVID-19 Outbreak Two Weeks Ahead of Time
Florida Atlantic University
Gisele Galoustian
August 6, 2021

Researchers at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and Lexis-Nexis Risk Solutions have crafted a long short-term memory (LSTM) deep-learning model that could potentially predict a COVID-19 outbreak two weeks in advance. The team blended driving-mobility data compiled by the Apple Maps application, COVID-19 statistics, and county-level demographics from 531 U.S. counties. Researchers trained the model to record the impact of government responses and age on COVID-19 cases and viral spread, respectively. Results indicated that average daily cases declined as the retiree percentage expanded and increased as the youth percentage grew. FAU's Stella Batalama said the research "has significant applications for effective management of the pandemic and future outbreaks, which has the potential to save lives and keep our economies thriving."

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Neural Network Model Unravels Why People with Autism Have Difficulty Interpreting Facial Expressions
News-Medical Life Sciences
August 5, 2021

Researchers at Japan's Tohoku University developed an artificial neural network model that can help explain the difficulty people with autism spectrum disorder have in interpreting facial expressions. The model takes into account predictive processing theory, which states that the brain predicts the next sensory stimulus and adapts using such sensory information as facial expressions to reduce errors in its predictions. The model learned to predict the movement of parts of the face using videos of facial expressions and was able to generalize facial expressions not provided during training. However, the model's ability to generalize decreased along with the heterogeneity of activity in the neural population, restraining emotional cluster formation in higher-level neurons, similar to what occurs with autism spectrum disorder. Tohoku's Yuta Takahashi said, "The study will help advance developing appropriate intervention methods for people who find it difficult to identify emotions."

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ORNL 3D-printed channel fasteners for Framatome’s boiling water reactor fuel assembly. Nuclear Reactor Components 3D-Printed by ORNL Installed at TVA Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
August 9, 2021

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)'s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant Unit 2 in Alabama incorporated 3D-printed fuel assembly brackets produced by engineers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The brackets were designed by TVA, French nuclear reactor company Framatome, and ORNL's Transformational Challenge Reactor program. ORNL's Ben Betzler said, "This program bridges basic and applied science and technology to deliver tangible solutions that show how advanced manufacturing can transform reactor technology and components." The ORNL engineers 3D-printed channel fasteners for Framatome's boiling water reactor fuel assembly via novel additive manufacturing methods. Said Framatome's John Strumpell, "This project provides the foundation for designing and manufacturing a variety of 3D-printed parts that will contribute to creating a clean energy future."

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Facial recognition captured by a mobile phone camera, and facial reconstruction using NeckFace Smart Necklace Could Track Your Detailed Facial Expressions
Cornell Chronicle
Tom Fleischman
August 2, 2021

The necklace-type NeckFace facial recognition system uses infrared cameras to record images of the chin and face from beneath the wearer's neck. A team of researchers at Cornell University, China's Peking University, and Canada's McGill University designed the device, which could be used to monitor facial movements, and perhaps their cause. NeckFace improves on the bulkier C-Face headset developed by Cornell's Cheng Zhang by being less obtrusive and offering enhanced performance and privacy. Deep learning-based calculations showed NeckFace detected facial movement nearly as accurately as direct measurements using a phone camera. Zhang said, "The ultimate goal is having the user be able to track their own behaviors, through continuous tracking of facial movements. And this, hopefully, can tell us a lot of information about your physical activity and mental activities."

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MIT aerospace engineers have devised an algorithm that helps drones find the fastest route around obstacles, without crashing. System Trains Drones to Fly Around Obstacles at High Speeds
MIT News
Jennifer Chu
August 10, 2021

A new high-speed flight-planning algorithm designed by engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) trains drones to determine the quickest route around obstacles without colliding. Researchers began with a physics-based flight planning model, formulated to first simulate a drone's likely behavior while flying through a virtual obstacle course. After running thousands of racing scenarios, the team charted each scenario's feasibility to ascertain the most promising racing trajectories to test. The drone trained on this algorithm generally "won" every race, finishing the course up to 20% faster than a conventionally trained drone. MIT's Sertac Karaman said, "These kinds of algorithms are a very valuable step toward enabling future drones that can navigate complex environments very fast."

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Facebook Can Project Your Eyes onto a VR Headset
The Verge
Adi Robertson
August 4, 2021

The reverse passthrough virtual reality (VR) technique devised by engineers at Facebook Reality Labs (FRL) can project a user's face onto the front of a VR headset. The passthrough VR feature displays a live video feed from the headset's cameras, so users can see the real world while wearing the device. Researchers designed a prototype headset that augments a standard display with a stack of lenses and cameras. Stereo cameras capture an image of the wearer's face and eyes within the headset, and movement is mapped onto a digital model projected onto an outward-facing light field display. The FRL team's research highlights the potential of light field displays and opportunities for enhanced in-person social interactions.

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Gender, Personality Influence Use of Interactive Tools Online
Penn State News
Matt Swayne
August 9, 2021

A team of researchers at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), the University of Houston (UH), Chinese technology company SINA Corporation, and Google found a person's gender can dictate their use of interactive tools online. Researchers determined that people considered websites more interactive if tools for enabling communication between users, or computer-mediated communication (CMC), were available. Yet, extroverted men considered sites with human-computer interaction (HCI) tools more engaging than extroverted women, who tended to favor CMC tool-equipped sites. UH's Yan Huang said, "Interactivity also boosted attitudes about the website, improving the chances that the users would find the site interesting or appealing." Penn State's S. Shyam Sundar said such insights are valuable for developers, as "it's useful to know who will appreciate what types of interactivity you have to offer, or what kind of interactivity you should offer to which kind of people."

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'Glowworm Attack' Recovers Audio From Devices' Power LEDs
Ars Technica
Jim Salter
August 9, 2021

Israeli scientists have demonstrated a novel passive variant of the TEMPEST exploit called Glowworm, which can extract electronic conversations by analyzing devices' power indicator light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) researchers employed a photodiode mated to an optical telescope to monitor fluctuations in LED signal strength on consumer devices, including smart speakers, simple PC speakers, and universal serial bus hubs. The photodiode converts the flickering of power LED output caused by voltage changes into an electrical signal, which is processed by an analog/digital converter and played back directly. The Glowworm attack requires no active signaling, which would render it resistant to any electronic countermeasure probe; the BGU team retrieved intelligible audio from 35 meters (114 feet) away. The team is apparently the first to publish the exploit and demonstrate its empirical feasibility.

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Researchers Develop Real-Time Lyric Generation Technology to Inspire Song Writing
University of Waterloo News (Canada)
August 10, 2021

LyricJam, a new AI-powered technology designed by researchers at Canada's University of Waterloo, can generate lyrics for live instrumental music in real time. The system synthesizes lyrics that reflect the mood and emotions expressed by live music, by focusing on musical elements like chord progressions, tempo, and instrumentation. LyricJam continuously receives raw audio clips as the musician or band plays, and a neural network processes this data to produce new lyric lines. The network learns the lyrical themes, words, and stylistic devices associated with the distinct musical aspects in each clip, and more than 1,500 users worldwide have tried out LyricJam since its June release. Waterloo's Olga Vechtomova said, "The system generates poetic lines with new metaphors and expressions, potentially leading the artists in creative directions that they haven't explored before."

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