Welcome to the August 23, 2021 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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The Groot prototype robot. Are You Ready for Sentient Disney Robots?
The New York Times
Brooks Barnes
August 19, 2021

Researchers at The Walt Disney Company's Imagineering division are working on a new generation of robots, advancing beyond the mechanical figures that have been on display in Disney theme parks since the 1960s in an effort to stay relevant. As part of Project Kiwi, the researchers are developing a small-scale, free-roaming robot featuring cameras and sensors that allow it to make on-the-fly decisions about what to do and say. Meanwhile, for Project Exo, the researchers are developing a full-body exoskeleton that could be applied to oversize characters like The Hulk. Disney's Asya Cara Peña said it "needs to look natural and believable. And it has to be something that different performers of different body types with different gaits can slip into with identical results."

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China Passes One of the World's Strictest Data-Privacy Laws
The Wall Street Journal
Eva Xiao; Zhao Yueling; Raffaele Huang
August 20, 2021

China's top legislative body has passed the Personal Information Protection Law, which closely resembles Europe's General Data Protection Regulation. Effective Nov. 1, the law requires any organization or individual handling the personal data of Chinese citizens to minimize data collection and obtain prior consent. The law requires facial recognition cameras in public places to be marked prominently and used only to maintain public security. Among other things, the law aims to curb algorithmic discrimination by requiring transparent automated decision-making, and for companies to allow individuals to opt out of personalized marketing. Additional rules, effective Oct. 1, require companies that process auto data to increase data security and protect personal information collected from vehicles.

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This image shows the noninvasive process by which the PhonoGraft is installed through the ear canal. The existing method involves making an incision behind the ear, which is far more invasive. Harvard's Eardrum-Restoring PhonoGraft Enters Commercial Development
Wyss Institute at Harvard
Benjamin Boettner
August 19, 2021

A biomimetic hearing-restoration device developed by researchers at Harvard University has entered commercial development. Known as the PhonoGraft, the biocompatible graft is three-dimensionally (3D) printed using a synthetic polymer-based ink system that can replicate the eardrum's circular and radial structure and its sound-conducting mechanical properties and barrier functions. The device can be implanted to repair a damaged eardrum, helping stimulate the self-healing properties of native eardrum tissue. Beacon Bio, a startup launched by members of the research team with an exclusive license to commercialize the device, recently was acquired by Desktop Metal Inc. healthcare subsidiary Desktop Health. The researchers are now seeking clearance for the device from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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Robot Could Operate Docking Station Inside the Gut
IEEE Spectrum
Emily Waltz
August 18, 2021

A robotic insulin delivery system developed by researchers at Italy's Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies can be implanted surgically in the abdomen and resupplied with insulin via swallowable magnetic capsules. The system serves as an internal docking station. When a swallowed capsule reaches the small intestine where the implant is located, the implant magnetically draws the capsule to itself, positions it for docking, punctures the capsule with a retractable needle, and pumps the insulin into its reservoir. The capsule is then released to continue through the digestive tract and out of the body. An external programming device wirelessly controls the magnetic fields, and the implant is charged wirelessly by an external device. The system could benefit people with type 1 diabetes who inject insulin multiple times per day, and potentially could be used to deliver drugs for other diseases.

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OSU Cryptography Research Leads to Huge Efficiency Gain in Secure Computing
Oregon State University News
Steve Lundeberg
August 18, 2021

A more efficient secure computation protocol developed by Oregon State University's Mike Rosulek and Lance Roy focuses on garbled circuits. Roy said a normal computer circuit has gates that execute basic data computations, while the gates in a garbled circuit are modified to encrypt the data going through them. Rosulek assumed in previous research that the most efficient construction of garbled circuits could not be surpassed, but Roy found it was possible only if a gate used all or none of the data in an input. The slicing technique Roy conceived of would leak too much data to keep the garbled circuits secure. However, Roy said, "If the way the garbled circuits were built was randomized—i.e., by rolling the dice—and some other information was kept secret, the slicing idea could be made secure."

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Control systems are a vital component of cyber-physical systems (CPS). Ensuring control systems are resilient and robust is key in thwarting malicious attacks to process safety. Novel Resilient State Estimation Method for Process Control in Cyber-Physical Systems
Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology Research News (South Korea)
August 20, 2021

Researchers at South Korea's Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST) and Hyundai Motor Company have developed a method of estimating a cyber-physical system's (CPS) internal process variables when external sensors have been corrupted. The new resilient state estimation method uses unknown input observer (UIO) to ensure state estimation can withstand malicious attacks and external disturbances. The estimates from each sensor's UIO are combined, and the error is processed to determine the true value of a system's internal state. The researchers also developed a "partial-state UIO" technique that extracts as much partial-state information as possible from each sensor if full extraction is not possible. DGIST's Yongsoon Eun said, "The proposed method gives a system a level of tolerance for faults and attacks and, in cases where it is inevitable, allows graceful degradation of system functionality. This makes it crucial to the design of CPS."

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Partition Function Zeros Are 'Shortcut' to Thermodynamic Calculations on Quantum Computers
NC State University News
Tracey Peake
August 19, 2021

A study by researchers at North Carolina State University (NC State), Georgetown University, and quantum-computing hardware and software company IonQ yielded a technique for calculating the thermodynamic properties of systems. NC State's Lex Kemper and colleagues employed a quantum computer to quantify partition function zeros, rather than the entropy, of a spin model as it was tuned across a phase transition. Kemper said, "By calculating partition function zeros, we are on the way to solving the problem of scaling to larger numbers of [quantum bits] when trying to calculate free energies and entropies in a given system." The team calculated this function on both a standard and a trapped ion quantum computer at Norbert Linke's laboratory at the University of Maryland. Said Kemper, "This is a way to use a quantum computer to get at all the thermodynamic properties of a system without necessitating huge numbers of quantum computations."

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Remote Sensing, ML Reveal Archaic Shell Rings
Penn State News
A'ndrea Elyse Messer
August 19, 2021

An international team of researchers found ancient indigenous shell rings in the American Southeast by evaluating sensing data via deep machine learning techniques. The team tapped datasets collected by satellites or aircraft using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), synthetic-aperture radar (SAR), and multispectral measurement. The researchers used deep learning to train a convolutional neural network to identify shell rings, shell mounds, and other landscape structures from the LiDAR data, then combined this information with the SAR and multispectral data; the result was the identification of potentially hundreds of new shell ring sites. Said Pennsylvania State University's Dylan S. Davis, "One difficulty with deep learning is that it usually requires massive amounts of information for training, which we don't have when looking for shell rings. However, by augmenting our data and by using synthetic data, we were able to get good results."

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The SensiCut smart sensing platform distinguishes between visually similar materials for safe use. Smart Laser Cutter System Detects Different Materials
MIT News
Rachel Gordon
August 19, 2021

The SensiCut smart laser cutter platform designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers can distinguish between different materials using deep learning and laser-guided speckle sensing microstructure scanning. The researchers fed SensiCut's deep neural network more than 38,000 images of 30 different material types, to teach it to differentiate them. MIT's Mustafa Doga Dogan said, "By augmenting standard laser cutters with lensless image sensors, we can easily identify visually similar materials commonly found in workshops and reduce overall waste. We do this by leveraging a material's micron-level surface structure, which is a unique characteristic even when visually similar to another type."

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Team Creates Software to Optimize Pharmaceutical Development
Carnegie Mellon University
Adam Dove
August 20, 2021

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and drugmaker Eli Lilly designed an automated decision support system for planning pharmaceutical research and development (R&D) activities, to optimize drug development. The Eli Lilly team developed an interface that retrieves data from the company's internal databanks on various products under development. The CMU researchers formulated mathematical models and algorithms that process the data and recommend the most efficient R&D strategy. CMU's Chrysanthos Gounaris said, "This new tool can not only help run the calculations to determine whether or not expanding the portfolio is feasible, it can also identify the bottlenecks that might be preventing this from being the case, thus providing management with insights on how to make the acquisition go forward."

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Facebook’s test of its new Horizon Workrooms remote-working app for its virtual reality Oculus Quest 2 headsets Facebook Launches VR Remote Work App, Calling It a Step to the 'Metaverse'
Elizabeth Culliford
August 19, 2021

Facebook is testing Horizon Workrooms, a virtual reality (VR) remote work app that allows users equipped with the company's Oculus Quest 2 headsets to attend meetings as avatar versions of themselves. This comes as remote work continues at many companies amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Facebook's Andrew Bosworth called the app "one of those foundational steps" toward the "metaverse," which CEO Mark Zuckerberg has described as an "embodied Internet." Workrooms users can have their avatars meet in VR conference rooms and collaborate on shared whiteboards or documents while at their physical desks and computer keyboards. Up to 16 people can collaborate in VR, or up to 50 users including videoconference participants.

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VPNs Could Be Vulnerable to Attacks That Send You to Fake Websites
New Scientist
Chris Stokel-Walker
August 17, 2021

Arizona State University (ASU) researchers have found that hackers could exploit virtual private networks (VPNs) to strip users' anonymity and send them to bogus websites by tapping what ASU's William Tolley calls "a fundamental networking vulnerability." The vulnerability monitors the presence and size of the data packets routed along the VPN. Attackers first send different-sized packets to different entry/exit ports, which if forwarded signals that the targeted port is the correct one; they can then send packets where they have altered the source address to seem as if they originate from one of the legitimate ends of the connection. The researchers say they have alerted a number of VPN providers to the attack, but it is unlikely that all currently used networks will be patched. Tolley said, "Our advice is to avoid VPNs if you're trying to keep your information private from government entities, or something like that."

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