Welcome to the March 24, 2017 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Image of quadruped robot and a graph Quadruped Robot Exhibits Spontaneous Changes in Step with Speed
Tohoku University
March 22, 2017

Researchers from Tohoku University in Japan have successfully demonstrated that by changing only its parameter related to speed, a quadruped robot can spontaneously change its steps between energy-efficient patterns, known as gait transition phenomena. The researchers achieved this breakthrough via a decentralized control scheme, using a simple local rule in which a leg continues to support the body while sensing weight on the corresponding leg. In addition, the researchers confirmed the energy-efficiency profile of the robot's gait patterns matched those measured in horses. They say the study could lead to better understanding of the mechanism of how quadrupeds can flexibly and efficiently adjust their gait when their speed is changed. The researchers hope the study will lead to a wide range of applications, such as adaptive legged robots that can be used in search-and-rescue operations.

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Image of a man’s passport Humans and Smartphones May Fail Frequently to Detect Face Morph Photos
University of York
Samantha Martin
March 22, 2017

Researchers from the University of York in the U.K. have demonstrated that both humans and smartphones have some difficulty in distinguishing face morph photos from their "real" faces on fraudulent identity cards. The researchers examined what the success rate would be if two faces were morphed together to create a "new" face. This involves taking two "real" face photos and digitally blending them to make a new, but similar face that both contributing faces can use as false ID. "Our research is important in highlighting the potential security problem with this and quantifying the risk of this type of fraud being missed," says University of York professor Mike Burton. The researchers found human viewers who knew to look for fraudulent images were unable to distinguish a 50/50 morph photo from its contributing photos 21 percent of the time, compared to 27 percent for smartphone software.

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Plants shaped like a battery Organic Electronics Can Use Power From Socket
Linkoping University
Monica Westman Svenselius
March 21, 2017

Researchers from Linkoping University (LiU) and Umea University in Sweden have developed a small, inexpensive organic converter that can connect organic light-emitting devices and printed electronics to a socket in the wall. The converter is made up of diode-connected organic thin-film transistors, operated at up to 325 volts (V), with the capacity to transform high alternating current (AC) to a selected direct current (DC). "For the first time in the world we have been able to demonstrate an AC/DC converter in organic electronics that functions at voltages above 300 V," says LiU researcher Deyu Tu. "Our converter paves the way for a wave of flexible, thin, cost-effective, and eco-friendly solutions for the electronics of the future." The researchers note this is only a proof of concept of organic power electronics, and in order to be used in real products, the power conversion efficiency needs to be improved.

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A man wearing a virtual reality headset Mathematicians Create Warped Worlds in Virtual Reality
Scientific American
Davide Castelvecchi
March 22, 2017

Henry Segerman and colleagues at Oklahoma State University have released software permitting anyone with a virtual reality (VR) headset to immerse themselves in curved, "non-Euclidean" spaces where ordinary geometric rules are inapplicable. Through the eleVR collaboration, users can explore tilings composed of geometric shapes such as pentagons and dodecahedra. Euclidean geometry is based on the assumption that parallel lines remain the same distance from each other infinitely. Non-Euclidean geometries dispense with the "parallels postulate" and give rise to two possibilities--spherical geometry, in which parallel lines eventually meet, and hyperbolic geometry, in which they diverge. The eleVR team intends to construct hyperbolic houses and streets, in addition to interactive experiences such as playing a non-Euclidean version of basketball. The researchers hope their open source software will become popular with science museums and among consumer VR enthusiasts. They also will reveal their project this summer at an arts and math event.

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Testing New Networking Protocols
MIT News
Larry Hardesty
March 21, 2017

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a system that tests new Internet traffic management protocols. Flexplane requires no hardware changes but still functions at realistic speeds, 20 times faster than networks of software-controlled routers. Flexplane maintains an efficient computational simulation of a network running the new protocol, with virtual data packets that bounce around among virtual routers. The system schedules transmissions on the real network to produce the same traffic patterns as the model. Researchers could therefore run actual Web applications on the network servers and get an accurate idea of how the protocol would impact their performance. "Flexplane takes an interesting approach of sending abstract packets through the emulated data-plane resource management solutions and then feeding back the modified real packets to the real network," says Yale University professor Minlan Yu. "This is a smart idea that achieves both high link speed and programmability."

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Sequential Programming Considered Harmful?
IEEE Spectrum
Andrew Silver
March 21, 2017

Russ Miller at the State University of New York at Buffalo teaches an introductory computer science course called "Discrete Structures" that favors parallel algorithm programming over sequential coding. Miller feels the earlier parallel programming is introduced to students, the easier it is for them to grasp it and excel. After each session focusing on a new algorithm, students mathematically analyze its theoretical performance on old parallel hardware architectures. Miller says they learn how to revise the algorithm to work on modern, real-world architecture, while skipping complicated deployment details such as syntax or debugging methods. "Something like that could work," notes Mehran Sahami, co-chair of the ACM Education Board and Education Council. Miller views the concentration on sequential programming and other material by required discrete math courses as a waste of students' time, as they will not need such knowledge until their junior or senior year.

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Transparent Silver: Tarnish-Proof Films for Flexible Displays, Touch Screens, Metamaterials
University of Michigan News
Katherine McAlpine
March 21, 2017

Researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) have combined silver with aluminum to generate extremely thin, smooth, and tarnish-resistant silver layers, while the addition of an anti-reflective coating to one layer yielded 92.4-percent transparency. The team demonstrated that the silver coating could direct visible and infrared light about 10 times as far as other metal waveguides, which could make the material applicable for speedier computing. In addition, the researchers layered the films into a metamaterial hyperlens that could be employed to produce dense patterns with feature sizes a fraction of what is possible with conventional ultraviolet techniques. The researchers say the silver films also could be incorporated into touchscreen displays as transparent conductors, replacing less-affordable indium tin oxide. The U-M team's work was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Beijing Institute of Collaborative Innovation in China.

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An Algorithm to Model Twitter Politics and 'Fake News'
William & Mary
Joseph McClain
March 20, 2017

Researchers at William & Mary have developed a new set of tools that political analysts can use in their efforts to understand the role of social media in deciding elections. The new tools include a way to look at how "fake news" is propagated through social media. Although Facebook and Twitter are widely credited and blamed for influencing major political events, an analysis of the role of social networks in the decision-making process remains speculative and crude. The William & Mary research is a "sparse graph" challenge, offering comparatively few connections between data points. The researchers developed an algorithm that constructed a mathematical portrait of the political tendencies of each of the 12 million Twitter users in the study. The researchers confirmed the predictive power of the model by running it against real-world data.

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Unexpected, Star-Spangled Find May Lead to Advanced Electronics
UT Dallas News Center
Amanda Siegfried
March 20, 2017

Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas) say they have developed a material that, when heated to about 450 degrees Celsius, transforms from an atomically thin, two-dimensional sheet into an array of one-dimensional nanowires, each only a few atoms wide. The researchers caught an image of the material during the transformation, and found it looks like a tiny U.S. flag. "The phase transition we observed, this new structure, was not predicted by theory," says UT Dallas professor Moon Kim. Since the nanowires are semiconductors, they could be used as switching devices, just as silicon is used in conventional transistors to turn electric current on and off. In addition, the nanowires are about 10 times smaller than the smallest silicon wires, and could result in powerful, energy-efficient devices. The researchers next want to determine how to separate out the individual nanowires, and overcome challenges in manufacturing and mass production.

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Seeing Sound
The Battalion (TX)
Pranav Kannan
March 20, 2017

Texas A&M University professor Tim Davis uses sparse matrix algorithms to create works of electronic art by visualizing music. Davis notes many researchers and artists have tried to go in the reverse direction and use mathematical rules to generate music. His algorithms are a form of music visualization in which an entire piece of music is rendered in a single image. Yahoo researcher Yifan Hu used Davis' matrices to test his visualization algorithms, and both researchers have worked on the graphviz algorithm, which turns a mathematical description of a graph into a visualization of nodes and edges. Davis' research has resulted in the creation of new algorithms as well as new software. To convert the algorithms into usable tools, massive amounts of code need to be generated perfectly, without any bugs. "My tool is not a paintbrush, it's an algorithm and Matlab--it's math," Davis says.

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Using Virtual Reality to Catch a Real Ball
Jennifer Liu
March 20, 2017

Disney researchers have developed ways to enhance virtual experiences involving interactions with physical objects by showing how a person using a virtual reality (VR) system can use it to catch an actual ball. Catching a ball requires many coordinated skills learned from early childhood, and this tight coordination is possible in VR, enabling users to catch real flying balls, according to the researchers. In addition, they found different styles of visualizations can lead to different behaviors, and make catching the ball easier. The researchers demonstrated the use of VR to catch an actual ball by using a motion-capture system to track the movement of the ball as well as the location of the catcher's hands and head. They note the ability of the system to predict the flight of an actual ball and visualize it for the user gives the catcher an advantage not available in the real world.

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Facebook's Secretive and Ambitious Hardware Group Is Preparing for Its Debut Next Month
Business Insider
Alex Heath
March 19, 2017

Facebook's Building 8 consumer hardware development group currently is undertaking four projects simultaneously, and the group is expected to play a major role in the company's developer conference in April. People familiar with Building 8 say one project employs cameras and augmented reality (AR), while a neuroscientist who co-developed a mind-controlled prosthetic arm is leading another initiative involving brain-scanning technology. Loup Ventures' Gene Munster says Building 8's AR project is a sign "they realize to be part of this next [tech] wave, they've got to get real and hurry." Another project led by computer vision/robotics expert Frank Dellaert suggests a consumer drone under development, while other hires and staff relocations to Building 8 imply the product may have flying capability. Overseeing Building 8's development efforts is Regina Dugan, a former U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency executive who also used to work at Google's advanced projects division.

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'Girls in STEM' Culture Is Failing Both Girls and STEM
Toronto Star (Canada)
Cleoniki Kesidis
March 23, 2017

Cleoniki Kesidis writes that a culture that tries to encourage girls to enter science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields basically guilt-tripped her into pursuing such a career, which she found unrewarding. "When the Girls in STEM culture pressures girls into careers they don't want, they make it more difficult for women who want to pursue STEM to succeed," Kesidis contends. She also says the push to recruit girls in STEM downgrades priority for more pressing industry issues, such as sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Kesidis cites bad recruitment practices such as outright lying that STEM careers have job security and offer great work-from-home opportunities for those who want children. "The percentage of women [in STEM] is low because too many leave, not because too few enter," Kesidis says. She stresses the Girls in STEM mission must change to address workplace culture and policies and support current employees to reverse attrition.

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