Welcome to the December 22, 2021 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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The ShakeAlert mobile app displays an earthquake warning. Seconds Before Earthquake Rattled California, Phones Got Vital Warning
The Guardian (U.K.)
Gabrielle Canon
December 21, 2021

An early-alert system managed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) on Monday warned Californians of a 6.2-magnitude earthquake by phone, seconds before it struck. The ShakeAlert system issues warnings through various agencies and applications, including Google's Android operating system. USGS sensors feed information bundled into a data package that is displayed on phones within seconds; some alert apps are available for download, but even some who had no such app on their phones received alerts. ShakeAlert sent quake warnings to about 500,000 phones before the tremors began. "We got some reports from folks that they got up to 10 seconds' warning before they felt shaking. That's pretty darn good," said the USGS' Robert de Groot.

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A DJI Inspire 1 Pro drone during a demonstration at company headquarters. Drones Take Center Stage in U.S.-China War on Data Harvesting
Bruce Einhorn; Todd Shields
December 19, 2021

Critics are increasingly worried that Chinese-made unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) purchased by Americans are harvesting sensitive data for Chinese intelligence agencies. Chinese drone manufacturer CSZ DJI Technology owns more than half the U.S. drone market, and U.S. lawmakers are considering a ban on federal DJI drone purchases. Yale Law School's Oona Hathaway said while each piece of collected data may be individually insignificant, "combined, the pieces can give foreign adversaries unprecedented insight into the personal lives of most Americans." Paul Triolo at risk consultancy Eurasia Group predicts data security "will be a defining issue for the next decade" as innovations fuel "explosive demand" for more information.

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Girls riding in the front seat of a moving roller coaster. Exploring Emotions with VR
Max Planck Gessellschaft (Germany)
December 16, 2021

Researchers at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) used virtual reality (VR) to evoke emotions as realistically as possible. Study participants experienced rollercoaster rides in VR as the researchers explored their brain activity via electroencephalography (EEG). Results indicated the degree to which a person is emotionally engaged is observable in their brain's alpha oscillations. MPI CBS' Felix Klotzsche said, "Using alpha oscillations, we were able to predict how strongly a person experiences a situation emotionally. Our models learned which brain areas are particularly important for this prediction." The researchers demonstrated that the link between EEG signals and emotional feelings is verifiable under naturalistic conditions.

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Pioneering Technique to Barcode Cells
University of Exeter (U.K.)
December 17, 2021

Researchers at the U.K.'s University of Exeter have combined artificial intelligence with microfluidics to develop a method to barcode individual cells, in order to quantify their molecular makeup more accurately and efficiently. The technique enables researchers to perform complex, detailed analyses of single cells in real time. The university's Fabrice Gielen said, "We have applied our tool for screening of thousands of single cells from real-time imaging data and efficiently barcode them with minimum cell waste. We are currently applying this tool to screen miniature in-vitro tumors formed from model neuroblastoma cells to understand why cancer progression appears to be highly unpredictable in clinical settings."

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Computer code overlays a person’s hands on a keyboard. Hackers Can Penetrate 93% of Local Networks
Infosecurity Magazine
James Coker
December 20, 2021

Research by security company Positive Technologies determined that hackers can penetrate 93% of organizations' local networks, which penetration tests confirmed the researchers could accomplish in an average of two days. The researchers also confirmed the feasibility of 71% of "unacceptable events" that 20% of the companies asked to have checked, such as disruption of processes and services, and the theft of funds and important information. The most common breach method was found to be credential compromise, mainly due to easily guessable passwords. The researchers also said most companies lacked segmentation by business processes, allowing malefactors to develop multiple attack vectors concurrently. Positive Technologies' Ekaterina Kilyusheva said countermeasures can include "separation of business processes, configuration of security control, enhanced monitoring, and lengthening of the attack chain.”

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Nabors’ Pace-R801 automated oil rig. World's First Autonomous Oil Rig Drills First Well
Houston Chronicle
Paul Takahashi
December 16, 2021

Oil and gas drilling contractor Nabors Industries has drilled its first well in West Texas' Permian Basin using its Pace-R801 autonomous rig. The rig, which combines robotic hardware and automated software, uses a robot arm to manipulate drill pipes while an automated "roughneck" on the floor links and tightens the pipes. Nabors' Travis Purvis said the Pace-R801 is designed to make drilling safer by removing some workers from the process, although operators such as drilling managers, control engineers, and maintenance workers remain essential. Purvis sees rig automation opening up opportunities for workers to reskill as electricians, mechanics, and maintenance workers, since "It does require human intervention to move and maintain these rigs, so there will always be a human element."

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A quantum computer at Sandia National Laboratories. Measuring Quantum Computer's Power Just Got Faster, More Accurate
December 20, 2021

Sandia National Laboratories scientists have designed a benchmark test for predicting the extent to which a quantum processor can perform without errors. The mirror-circuit technique is faster and more accurate than conventional testing, helping researchers create the technologies likely to realize a practical quantum computer. The method avoids measuring performance using random, disordered programs, which can miss or underestimate the compound effects of errors. Explains Sandia's Tim Proctor, "By applying our method to current quantum computers, we were able to learn a lot about the errors that these particular devices suffer—because different types of errors affect different programs a different amount. This is the first time these effects have been observed in many-qubit [quantum bit] processors."

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A schematic illustrating the primitive visual selectivity of faces that can arise spontaneously in untrained deep neural networks. Face Detection in Untrained Deep Neural Networks
KAIST (South Korea)
December 21, 2021

Scientists at South Korea's Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have confirmed that higher visual cognitive functions can emerge spontaneously in untrained deep neural networks. The researchers employed a model neural network that records properties of the visual cortex's ventral stream, and determined the involuntary face-selectivity was comparable to that seen in face-selective neurons in the brain. KAIST's Se-Bum Paik said the findings offer "a broad conceptual advance, as well as advanced insight into the mechanisms underlying the development of innate functions in both biological and artificial neural networks, which may unravel the mystery of the generation and evolution of intelligence."

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U.S. Deputy of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks sitting at the head of a table with members of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command leadership. U.S. Builds Software Tool to Predict Actions That Could Draw China's Ire
Mike Stone
December 15, 2021

A software tool developed by U.S. military commanders in the Pacific aims to predict China's reaction to U.S. actions in the region. The tool uses data since early 2020 to assess significant activities impacting U.S.-Sino relations and calculates "strategic friction," predicting whether particular U.S. actions will generate an outsized reaction from the Chinese government. The tool will enable officials to assess planned actions up to four months in advance. Said Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, "With the spectrum of conflict and the challenge sets spanning down into the grey zone, what you see is the need to be looking at a far broader set of indicators, weaving that together and then understanding the threat interaction."

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Different Strokes: Using AI to Tell Art Apart
Case Western Reserve University
December 13, 2021

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have developed an artificial intelligence algorithm that can distinguish between the brush strokes of different artists. The tool potentially could improve the identification of forgeries of famous works, among other things. The new technique reads and learns from a painting's three-dimensional (3D) topography. The researchers generated 3D surface height data for each painting, divided them into virtual patches, and trained a convolutional neural network to determine which painter made each stroke. The neural network was able to identify the correct artist 95% of the time from brush strokes about the diameter of a single bristle.

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A grid of examples of how well a deep-image classifier can determine image classes. Nonsense Can Make Sense to ML Models
MIT News
Rachel Gordon
December 15, 2021

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists found machine learning models can make confident predictions based on details that humans find nonsensical. Examples include image-processing neural networks in autonomous vehicles that classify traffic lights and street signs based on backgrounds, edges, or sky patterns. Models trained on datasets like CIFAR-10 and ImageNet exhibited overinterpretation, with CIFAR-10-trained models making confident predictions even when 95% of input images were missing, and the rest were meaningless to humans. The signals' validity in datasets means typical evaluation methods cannot diagnose overinterpretation. MIT's Brandon Carter suggests that while it may seem the model is the likely culprit for this misidentification, the datasets themselves are more likely to blame.

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Home Router Might be Intercepting Internet Traffic for a Good Reason
UC San Diego News Center
Ioana Patringenaru
December 15, 2021

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers suggest routers in homes may be intercepting and transmitting Domain Name System (DNS) traffic to a different destination than the user intends, which means "someone else gets to see all that information," said UCSD's Audrey Randall. She explained that Internet service providers often do this to shield users from malware that contacts specific DNS resolvers. The researchers found home router software redirects DNS queries to an alternate resolver, and modifies the response to appear like it comes from the originally specified resolver. Said Randall, “When this type of transparent interception is used, you think you have control over your traffic, but you don’t.”

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A quadruped robot carrying half its body weight in water bottles. Your Next Package Could be Delivered by Robot
USC Viterbi News
Avni Shah
December 13, 2021

Four-legged robots are using an adaptive control algorithm invented by researchers at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering (USC Viterbi) to move skillfully while bearing heavy weights or traversing uneven terrain. USC Viterbi's Quan Nguyen said the algorithm compares baseline conditions for the robot with the actual conditions it faces, then calculates the differences between these metrics to adjust for force or weight disparities. "This allows the robot to adapt as it carries a package on its back or walks up an uneven path," Nguyen said. USC Viterbi's Mohsen Sombolestan said the control framework would be perfect for robots that collaborate with humans, especially on applications like package delivery.

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