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Welcome to the January 31, 2022, edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Smartphone, MD: Going Viral
The Current (University of California, Santa Barbara)
Sonia Fernandez
January 28, 2022

A smartphone application and laboratory kit developed by scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) working with Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital physicians can diagnose COVID-19, COVID variants, and flu virus infections. The smaRT-LAMP kit costs less than $100 to build, and only requires a saliva sample from the patient. The free app uses a smartphone's camera to analyze a chemical reaction in the sample, and can provide a diagnosis in just 25 minutes. UCSB's Michael Mahan said, “Nearly half the world’s population has a smartphone, and we believe that this holds exciting potential to provide fair and equal access to precision diagnostic medicine.”

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A neon image of a brain. Lego Robot with Organic 'Brain' Learns to Navigate Maze
Scientific American
Saugat Bolakhe
January 28, 2022

Researchers at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research and the Netherlands' Eindhoven University of Technology have built a maze-solving robot based on an organic neuromorphic chip. The team constructed and incorporated a circuit of organic polymer transistors into a Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot. The chip controls the direction in which the robot's wheels move. The researchers created a honeycomb-like maze for the robot to navigate. The polymer circuit received a corrective stimulus whenever the machine made a wrong turn, which helped train the robot to make binary decisions toward solving the maze. "The device learns in the same way we teach kids, giving rewards if they are correct or not rewarding if they are wrong," said City University of Hong Kong's Arindam Basu.

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Employers Desperate for Data Scientists as Demand Booms
Owen Hughes
January 27, 2022

The latest IT Skills Report from Polish developer screening and interview platform DevSkiller found a sharp increase in demand for data scientists. Data science-related tasks that recruiters set for job candidates in the interview process soared 295% in 2021, driving a 154% spike in demand for Python skills. Almost a third of data science coding tests featured data analysis, and DevSkiller CEO Jakub Kubrynsk said data science's growing popularity is unsurprising, "given how valuable data has become to companies across the globe." Demand for skills including cybersecurity, quality assurance, and proficiency in the programming languages PHP, Scala, and Blockchain also grew rapidly last year, according to the report, which concluded, "Companies are spending big on building the right teams of data scientists who can help them grow more dynamically."

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Image of a bitcoin. Quantum Computers a Million Times Too Small to Hack Bitcoin
New Scientist
Matthew Sparkes
January 25, 2022

Researchers at the U.K.'s University of Sussex found current quantum computers would have to become about 1 million times larger to crack bitcoin. Sussex's Mark Webber said a bitcoin transaction's cryptographic key is only vulnerable for “a finite window of time” amounting to “10 minutes to an hour, maybe a day.” Webber and colleagues calculated that breaking bitcoin encryption during a period of 10 minutes would require a 1.9-billion quantum bit (qubit) system; cracking it in an hour would need 317 million qubits. IBM's record-breaking superconducting quantum computer has just 127 qubits. Webber thinks it could take a decade to realize a quantum system of sufficient size to hack bitcoin.

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Millions of Routers, IoT Devices at Risk as Malware Source Code Surfaces on GitHub
Dark Reading
Jai Vijayan
January 26, 2022

Researchers at AT&T’s Alien Labs reported that the authors of the BotenaGo malware have uploaded its source code to GitHub, making it easy for other criminals to use the malware in their own attack campaigns, or to develop new variants. BotenaGo, first identified in November by Alien Labs researchers, contains exploits for more than 30 vulnerabilities in routers and Internet of Things (IoT) devices from multiple vendors including Linksys, D-Link, Netgear, and ZTE. Alien Labs' Ofer Caspi said, "Antivirus (AV) vendor detection for BotenaGo and its variants remains behind with very low detection coverage from most of AV vendors," with just three out of 60 AV vendors currently capable of detecting the malware.

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A conceptual representation of the role of phonons in cuprate superconductivity. Solving Superconducting Mystery with Supercomputer Computations
January 30, 2022

A multi-institutional team of researchers demonstrated that phonons—vibrations discharged from oscillating crystal atoms—contribute to superconductivity in copper-based materials. Clemson University's Yao Wang used the Texas Advanced Computing Center's Frontera supercomputer to simulate experiments conducted at Stanford University's Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource. The results relied on variational non-Gaussian exact diagonalization, a mathematical and algorithmic technique for executing matrix multiplications on billions of elements. Wang said the results describe a method for manipulating Coulomb interactions, the attraction or repulsion of particles due to their electric charge. "This research gives new insights into the mystery of cuprate superconductivity that may lead to higher temperature superconducting materials and devices," said the National Science Foundation's Daryl Hess. "They may find their way into future cellphones and quantum computers."

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From left to right, an example of a brain scan image with a false structure ( Medical Image AIs Need a Good 'Hallucination Map'
IEEE Spectrum
Michelle Hampson
January 27, 2022

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have developed a technique to identify when image reconstruction algorithms could be creating false structures or "hallucinations." UIUC's Mark Anastasio explained that, for example, "a hallucination that resembles a tumor-like structure may influence a radiologist to conclude that a lesion is present in the tissue or organ being imaged, when it is actually not." The new technique maps out errors in reconstructed images that are not attributable to the raw image data. In tests against three image reconstruction models, the researchers found that the new technique effectively detected such hallucinations.

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Marina Picasso, granddaughter of artist Pablo Picasso, and her son Florian Picasso pose with a ceramic artwork created by the artist. Picasso's Descendants to Sell More Than 1,000 NFTs Linked to Never-Before-Seen Ceramic Work
The Washington Post
Claire Parker
January 26, 2022

Pablo Picasso's descendants plan to auction off more than 1,000 digital pieces representing a previously unseen ceramic work by the Spanish artist. The non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are connected to a ceramic piece the artist created in October 1958. Purchasers will not own the ceramic or rights to images of it; they will be buying digital tokens, unique digital representations of the piece that certify their authenticity. Florian Picasso, his great-grandson, said, "We're trying to build a bridge between the NFT world and the fine art world." The NFTs will be accompanied by music compiled by Florian Picasso, songwriter John Legend, and rapper Nas. A portion of the proceeds of the auction are to be donated to charity.

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Open-Source GPU-Capable Fluid Dynamics Code Developed
UNM Newsroom
Melanie Furber Fudge
January 27, 2022

Brian Romero and Svetlana Poroseva at the University of New Mexico (UNM) created an open-source computational fluid dynamics solver for modeling supersonic flows with shock waves. The Fast Interface Evolution, Shocks, and Transition in the Atmosphere (FIESTA) code is graphical processing unit (GPU)-capable. Romero said FIESTA was run on GPU clusters at the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "Running simulations on GPUs produced simulation results over 10 times faster than if we ran on a CPU [central processing unit] cluster," he said. "Since we could run so quickly on GPUs, we were able to do multiple simulations to explore the effects of different parameters on the shock-driven Kelvin-Helmholtz instability."

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U.N. Testing Technology That Processes Data Confidentially
The Economist
January 29, 2022

The U.N.'s Privacy-Enhancing Technologies (PETs) Laboratory enables national statistics offices, academic researchers, and companies to collaboratively test PETs in order to identify and remediate technical and administrative glitches. Its first project sought anomalies in import and export data from national statistical offices in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Italy, and the Netherlands. One test evaluated secure multiparty computation, in which the data to be analyzed is encrypted by keepers and remains on-premises; findings sent back to the original inquirer do not include the information on which answers are based, and the results are processed by a differential privacy PET to inhibit reverse engineering. A second test rated trusted execution environments, and both processes detected anomalies.

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Physical Systems Perform ML Computations
Cornell Chronicle
David Nutt
January 26, 2022

Cornell University researchers have trained physical systems to execute generic machine learning computations, demonstrating an early but viable substitute for conventional electronic processors. The training process enabled demonstrations with mechanical, optical, and electrical physical systems. The mechanical system involved a titanium plate positioned atop a speaker to create a driven multimode mechanical oscillator; the optical system beamed a laser through a nonlinear crystal to convert the incoming light's colors into new colors by combining photon pairs, and the electrical system harnessed an electronic circuit with a resistor, a capacitor, an inductor, and a transistor. The researchers fed each system pixels of an image of a handwritten number, encoded in a light pulse or an electrical voltage, and returned a similar type of optical pulse or voltage as output. "It turns out you can turn pretty much any physical system into a neural network," said Cornell's Peter McMahon.

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An example of a bug in a system tool that gives attackers unfettered root privileges on machines running most versions of Linux. Bug Lurking for 12 Years Gives Attackers Root on Most Major Linux Distros
Ars Technica
Dan Goodin
January 25, 2022

Polkit, a system-wide privilege manager for Unix-like operating systems, contains a 12-year-old memory-corruption vulnerability that grants attackers root privileges on systems running most major Linux distributions, warn researchers at security firm Qualys. Users can execute commands with high privileges using Polkit's pkexec component, followed by the command; people with limited system control can exploit the PwnKit flaw in pkexec to escalate privileges all the way to root. According to Qualys' Bharat Jogi, "The most likely attack scenario is from an internal threat where a malicious user can escalate from no privileges whatsoever to full root privileges. From an external threat perspective, if an attacker has been able to gain foothold on a system via another vulnerability or a password breach, that attacker can then escalate to full root privileges through this vulnerability." A separate source released proof-of-concept exploit code; researchers warn PwnKit's exploitation in the wild is inevitable.

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