Welcome to the August 25, 2021 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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38 Million Records Were Exposed Online—Including Contact-Tracing Info
Lily Hay Newman
August 23, 2021

Over 1,000 Web applications mistakenly exposed 38 million records online that included sensitive information. Analysts at security firm Upguard traced the leak to a flaw in Microsoft's Power Apps development platform, where the data was stored. Power Apps is designed to ease the generation of Web or mobile apps for outside use, and manages internal databases and supplies ready-made application programming interfaces (APIs). The researchers learned the platform automatically rendered data publicly accessible when enabling APIs. Organizations affected by the data exposure included American Airlines, the Maryland Department of Health, and the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority; none of the data is known to have been compromised, and Microsoft has fixed the flaw.

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These robots can work independently on tasks that require cooperation. These Robots Can Move Your Couch
UC News
Michael Miller
August 23, 2021

University of Cincinnati (UC) engineers taught two robots to move a couch together without either robot directing the other. The robots employ genetic fuzzy logic, which emulates human reasoning by substituting degrees of rightness or wrongness for simple binary classification (yes-no), while genetic algorithms learn from past results and optimize performance. In simulations of hauling a virtual couch around two obstacles and through a narrow door, the machines successfully completed the task 95% of the time; they also completed the task when encountering two unfamiliar obstacles and a door in a different location 93% of the time. UC's Andrew Barth said, "If you can train robots to work semi-independently with as little information as possible, then you made your system more robust to that failure and made it easier for large groups to collaborate."

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Andrew Leakey (left) and Jiayang (Kevin) Xie were among the researchers that developed an improved method for analyzing features of plant leaves that contribute to water-use efficiency. Imaging, ML Methods Speed Effort to Reduce Crops' Need for Water
University of Illinois News Bureau
Diana Yates
August 24, 2021

New imaging and machine learning (ML) tools developed by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (U of I) scientists can analyze the genomic features of plant leaves as a means of increasing water-use efficiency for crops. The team analyzed lighter green pores (stomata) on leaves of corn, sorghum, and grasses of the genus Setaria to determine their role in water-use efficiency during photosynthesis. U of I's Jiayang Xie repurposed an ML tool designed to help driverless cars navigate complex environments into an application that could rapidly identify, count, and measure thousands of cells and cell features in each leaf sample. According to U of I’s Andrew Leakey, the researchers found “the size and shape of the stomata in corn appeared to be more important than had previously been recognized,” which will inform future efforts to breed crops that use water more efficiently.

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Winemakers Tap AI to Salvage Grapes as Wildfires Rage
The Wall Street Journal
Angus Loten
August 23, 2021

Software startup Tastry Inc. has developed an artificial intelligence (AI) model that can help California winemakers salvage grapes damaged by wildfire smoke. The model narrows down viable blending options that can mask smoky flavors, reducing production delays compared with manually taste-testing numerous variations. Tastry's system creates unique flavor profiles by analyzing the chemical compounds in different grapes, then digitizing those profiles and combining them with a dataset of digitized responses from proprietary consumer-palate surveys. Tastry's Katerina Axelsson said, "If your grapes are tainted by smoke, Tastry's palate profiles and AI can run all kinds of combinations of compounds to arrive at a blend that most people will like."

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Tool Could Help Authors Bust Writer's Block in Novel-Length Works
Penn State News
Jessica Hallman
August 24, 2021

A new semantic frame forecast tool could help authors overcome writer's block by anticipating the future development of an ongoing novel-length story. Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) researchers first define the story’s narrative into 1,000 or more text blocks or semantic frames, with each frame embodying clustered concepts and related knowledge. Then a predictive algorithm analyzes the story so far, and predicts possible semantic frames occurring in the next 10, 100, or 1,000 sentences. Penn State's Kenneth Huang said tests showed the technology is generalizable and applicable to novels and scientific articles, so "we could probably [use] it on news and on other genres." Huang envisions the tool enhancing human creativity, suggesting "the machine's outputs could inspire something that the writer didn't think of before."

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Using Your Smartwatch to Reduce Stress
University of Houston News
Laurie Fickman
August 24, 2021

The University of Houston's Rose Faghih and colleagues have constructed a closed-loop system to use smartwatch-type wearables to collect data via skin conductance response (SCR) to monitor and lower stress. The technology installs two electrodes on the wearable device that can detect stress signals in the wearer's SCR as they sweat; on detecting such signals, the wearable triggers reminders to engage in stress-reducing activities. Faghih employed signal processing methods to track the hidden cognitive stress state in electrodermal activity, and designed a control algorithm for regulating the stress state. Said Faghih, "This study is one of the very first steps toward monitoring brain responses using wearable devices and closing the loop to keep a person's stress state within a pleasant range."

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The silicon chip at left contains three optical microresonators that envelop photons and generate a microcomb to convert photons from single to multiple wavelengths. Research Group Opens Path Toward Quantum Computing in Real-World Conditions
University of Virginia Engineering
Karen Walker
August 20, 2021

A scalable quantum computing platform designed by researchers at the University of Virginia (UVA) and South Korea's Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology can generate quantum speed on a small photonic chip more efficiently. The UVA researchers demonstrated workable multiplexing of quantum modes in integrated photonic platforms, which unlocks a pathway toward quantum computing for real-world conditions. Multiplexing lowers the number of devices needed to achieve quantum speed by two or three orders of magnitude. UVA's Olivier Pfister said, "The future of the field is integrated quantum optics. Only by transferring quantum optics experiments from protected optics labs to field-compatible photonic chips will bona fide quantum technology be able to see the light of day."

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BlackBerry licenses the QNX operating system to original equipment manufacturers, which use it to build products and devices for their customers. BlackBerry Resisted Announcing Major Flaw in Software Powering Cars, Hospital Equipment
Betsy Woodruff Swan; Eric Geller
August 17, 2021

BlackBerry has announced that a vulnerability in its old but still widely used operating system, QNX, that could allow hackers to cripple devices ranging from cars to critical hospital and factory equipment. The vulnerability was reported by security researchers at Microsoft in April, and many companies whose operating systems and software contained the vulnerability publicly disclosed it in May, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). Sources say BlackBerry initially denied the BadAlloc vulnerability affected its products, then sought to warn its direct customers privately. Said David Wheeler of George Mason University, “BlackBerry cannot possibly fully understand the impact of a vulnerability in all cases. We need to focus on helping people understand the software components within their systems, and help them update in a more timely way.”

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This Technology Could Bring the Fastest Version of 5G to Your Home, Workplace
UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering
August 23, 2021

University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego) researchers have developed a system that could ensure 5G connectivity is both ultra-fast and reliable. A major challenge faced by 5G systems is that connectivity can be blocked if obstacles get in the way of the laser-like millimeter wave transmissions between a base station and a receiver. The new system overcomes this challenge by splitting that single millimeter wave into multiple beams that take different routes from the base station to the receiver. The researchers developed algorithms that instruct the base station to separate the beam into multiple paths, learn the most efficient paths in a given environment, and optimize the angle, phase, and power of each beam. UC San Diego's Dinesh Bharadia said, "Our multi-beam system gives you a higher throughput while transmitting the same amount of power overall as a single-beam system."

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Cutting 'Edge': A Tunable Neural Network Framework Towards Compact, Efficient Models
Tokyo Institute of Technology News (Japan)
August 23, 2021

A sparse convolutional neural network (CNN) framework and training algorithms developed by researchers at Japan's Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) can seamlessly integrate CNN models on low-power edge devices. The 40-nanometer sparse CNN chip yields high accuracy and efficiency through a Cartesian-product multiply and accumulate (MAC) array and pipelined activation aligners that spatially shift activations onto a regular Cartesian MAC array. Tokyo Tech's Kota Ando said, "Regular and dense computations on a parallel computational array are more efficient than irregular or sparse ones. With our novel architecture employing MAC array and activation aligners, we were able to achieve dense computing of sparse convolution."

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The inflatable robotic hand (left) can provide amputees real-time tactile control. Inflatable Robotic Hand Gives Amputees Real-Time Tactile Control
MIT News
Jennifer Chu
August 16, 2021

Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and China's Shanghai Jiao Tong University have constructed an inflatable neuroprosthetic hand that restored rudimentary sensation to an amputee's residual limb. The researchers fabricated the device from the soft, stretchy elastomer EcoFlex, constructing five balloon-like fingers embedded with fiber segments and linked to a three-dimensionally-printed "palm." The team inflated the fingers and bent them into specific positions using a simple pneumatic system. Electromyography sensors positioned where the prosthetic attaches to the user's limb feed signals to the pneumatic system, with an algorithm decoding muscle signals and relating them to common grasp forms. MIT's Xuanhe Zhao said the hand’s design “can be improved, with better decoding technology, higher-density myoelectric arrays, and a more compact pump that could be worn on the wrist. We also want to customize the design for mass production, so we can translate soft robotic technology to benefit society.”

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