Welcome to the September 18, 2017 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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brain circuitry, illustration Computers Are Taking Design Cues From Human Brains
The New York Times
Cade Metz
September 16, 2017

Researchers are taking biological cues to remodel computing after the human brain to overcome the physical limits of semiconductors. "The existing [computing] approach is out of steam, and people are trying to re-architect the system," says former Stanford University president John Hennessy. Newer machines are no longer channeling all tasks through a single chip, but instead fragmenting them into smaller jobs distributed among farms of less power-consumptive, specialized chips. Former U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program manager Gill Pratt expects an artificial intelligence "Cambrian explosion" to come from this trend, as the specialized low-power chips operate similarly to the brain. This architecture is yielding significant milestones, such as Microsoft's creation of a neural network with superior speech-recognition capability compared to people. Using graphics-processing units and specialized chips to respectively teach neural networks tasks and perform them could potentially help devices eventually accommodate more, and more complex, operations on their own.

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Inside the Equifax Hack
The Wall Street Journal
AnnaMaria Andriotis; Michael Rapoport; Robert McMillan
September 18, 2017

The Equifax breach, attributed to a server flaw disclosed by Cisco researchers that went unpatched, has potentially exposed an estimated 143 million Americans' personal information. One source suggests a state-sponsored actor is the likely perpetrator, in view of the scale and sophistication of the breach, and the nature of the compromised data. Cisco in March reported a vulnerability in Apache Struts, a popular open source program for building interactive websites where customers must complete online forms. Equifax in late July found suspicious network traffic associated with its U.S. online dispute portal Web application, which led to the discovery of the Apache Struts flaw's existence in some areas. However, patching following this discovery was unable to prevent the data theft. Although much remains unknown about the hack attack, it bears similarities to the attack disclosed last year by Yahoo Inc., and some experts say the bug was known and could have been patched.

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vector graphic Kathy Yelick Charts the Promise and Progress of Exascale Science
Tiffany Trader
September 15, 2017

In an interview, ACM Fellow and ACM/IEEE Kennedy and Athena award recipient Kathy Yelick of the University of California, Berkeley, discusses the scientific applications fueling exascale computing. Yelick says these include national security, energy, manufacturing, infrastructure, and scientific discovery, and each field comes with an exascale challenge demanding about 50 times the computational power of current systems. "These projects are not simply scaling or porting old codes to new machines, but each represents a new predictive or analytic capability," Yelick says. She sees progress toward exascale, noting, "Much of the [Exascale Computing Program (ECP)] software and programming technology can be leveraged across multiple applications, both within ECP and beyond." Yelick also expects new machine-learning software will be developed that can support much higher performance levels. "Some of our policies around the use of [high-performance computing] need to change to better fit data workloads, both to handle on-demand computing for real-time data streams and to address the long-term needs for data provenance and sharing," she says.

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Encryption-Breaking Quantum Computers Getting Closer, Warns Canadian Expert
IT World Canada
Howard Solomon
September 13, 2017

Michele Mosca at the University of Waterloo's Institute for Quantum Computing in Canada warns of a one-in-six chance that a quantum computer capable of cracking RSA-2048 encryption could arrive by 2026, up from a one-in-seven chance a year ago. Mosca says the annual Quantum Safe Workshop was partly founded "to have a higher-level discussion" on defending against quantum computing. "This is about how do we get these tools ready for show time--how do we get them from our whiteboards and labs to deployed products protecting citizens," Mosca notes. He says during the last six to eight months there has been significant progress toward scalable quantum computing by public and private efforts worldwide. The pivotal innovation will be the generation of logical quantum bits trapping physical ones that can scale and are fault-tolerant. Mosca stresses chief information security officers need to a have quantum-safe plan ready and deployable, and he and a colleague have released a quantum risk assessment methodology.

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folded printable structures 'Peel-and-Go' Printable Structures Fold Themselves
MIT News
Larry Hardesty
September 13, 2017

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and colleagues say they have developed a new method to generate a self-folding printable structure. The structure starts folding without any outside stimulus as soon as it is peeled off the printing platform, a key advantage for incorporating a wider range of materials and more delicate structures, including printable electronics. The researchers built a self-folding printable device with electrical leads and a polymer "pixel" that shifts from transparent to opaque after applying a voltage. The fabrication technique employs a new printer-ink material that expands upon solidification, and the angle at which a joint folds also can be precisely controlled in this hinge design. The team says the short-term benefits of this approach could include the custom manufacture of sensors, displays, or antennas whose functionality relies on their three-dimensional shape. The researchers envision the possibility of printable robots as a longer-term innovation.

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SLAC-Led Project Will Use Artificial Intelligence to Prevent or Minimize Electric Grid Failures
SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
Glennda Chui
September 14, 2017

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory will integrate artificial intelligence with vast datasets and industry expertise to pinpoint weaknesses in the electric grid, fortify those vulnerabilities in advance, and restore power faster in the event of outages. The goal of the Grid Resilience and Intelligence Project is an autonomous grid that digests routine power fluctuations from clean energy sources caused by disruptions while minimizing human intervention. "All the tools we develop will be made available either commercially or as open source code," says Sila Kiliccote with SLAC's Grid Integration, Systems, and Mobility lab. The lab will develop machine-learning algorithms to process data from satellite imagery and other sources and accumulate knowledge about how electrical distribution systems function. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association will help implement the tools SLAC develops on standard utility industry platforms, make them available to members, and help embed them within existing industry planning and operational workflows.

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Stretchy Artificial 'Skin' Could Give Robots a Sense of Touch
Live Science
Tracy Staedter
September 12, 2017

Rubberized electronics and sensors that function normally when stretched up to half of their length could operate as artificial skin on robots, according to a University of Houston study. The skin, which can perceive strain, pressure, and temperature, was used in experiments to accurately sense the temperature of hot and cold water in a cup, as well as to convert computer signals transmitted to a robot hand into finger gestures representing the alphabet of American Sign Language. The researchers say their innovation solves two key issues--the challenge of mass semiconducting polymer production due to cost or complexity, and the efficiency of electron transmission through the material. They mixed inexpensive nanowires with polydimethylsiloxane to fabricate an elastic material serving as a stable semiconductor that can be scaled up for manufacturing. The team applied strips of the material to the robot hand's fingers, which then acted as a sensor that produced different electrical signals when the fingers bent.

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NSF Funds Project to Enhance Cybersecurity of Electronic Circuits
University of Arkansas
September 11, 2017

A team led by University of Arkansas professor Jia Di received a U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to support research into security issues in computing hardware. Di will work with colleagues at the University of Central Florida on a project to enhance the security of the circuits used in electronics. As the manufacturing costs of integrated circuits have decreased, more modern electronic systems are using commercial, off-the-shelf integrated circuits, which can result in security and trust concerns as end-users lack access to the design details for the circuits. The project, funded by the Security and Trustworthy Cyberspace program within the NSF, aims to design an automated trustworthiness and security analysis framework to help end-users identify and analyze design flaws and potential security vulnerabilities.

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Sheldon Jacobson and Douglas King, developers of a new algorithm for state legislators. Congressional Redistricting Less Contentious When Resolved Using Computer Algorithm
Illinois News Bureau
Lois Yoksoulian
September 11, 2017

Researchers at the University of Illinois have proposed a computer algorithm that could ease congressional districting and make the process fairer for constituents. "One thing we are very keen on is making sure that we are using publicly available data so that everything we are doing is very transparent, with the same data that would be available to other districting stakeholders," says Illinois' Douglas M. King. The geographically-based and data-driven algorithm would enable users to specify the goal that guides the creation of the districts, and then generate the districts computationally while enforcing other requirements, such as each district being contiguous. The researchers say their algorithm accelerates computations by collecting insights from state geography. They analyze population and political affiliation to illustrate the algorithm's computational results, which produces contiguous district shapes more efficiently. "As data scientists who study and analyze algorithms, we bring a nonpartisan approach to this problem," says Illinois professor Sheldon H. Jacobson.

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Setup used to investigate materials for a telecom-compatible quantum memory. Credit: Stuart Hay Connecting Up the Global Quantum Internet
Center for Quantum Computation & Communication Technology
Kristin O'Connell; Will Wright
September 12, 2017

Researchers at the Australian National University's (ANU) Center for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology say they have taken a major step in building the practical components of a global quantum Internet. The team has demonstrated an erbium-doped crystal's unique application for enabling a global telecommunications network that harnesses quantum-mechanical properties. ANU professor Matthew Sellars says the breakthrough shows how to dramatically improve the storage time of a telecom-compatible quantum memory. "Memories allow us to buffer and synchronize quantum information, operations necessary for long-range quantum communication," notes ANU's Rose Ahlefeldt. Erbium ions make conversion to and from the communications wavelength unnecessary because they can operate in the same band as existing fiber-optic networks. "We've shown that erbium ions in a crystal can store quantum information for more than a second, which is 10,000 times longer than other attempts, and is long enough to one day send quantum information throughout a global network," says ANU's Milos Rancic.

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Oswego Professor Earns Grant to Support Big Data Work in Alzheimer's Research
SUNY Oswego
September 13, 2017

State University of New York Oswego professor Sungeun Kim and several colleagues have been awarded a grant of nearly $119,000 from the U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine to employ big data methods to facilitate earlier and more precise diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. Kim says the research's value resides in integrating layers of vast datasets from disparate sources and then testing and validating it to analyze genes, biomarkers, and patient data for better predicting the manifestation of such neurodegenerative disorders. Kim notes this would clear a path for earlier treatment and more effective medications. The results would be fed into the development of software that would be made available to other researchers in the field. "If we can develop a toolkit to more accurately identify people at risk years earlier, we have more chance to intervene in the progression of the disease," Kim says.

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Q&A: The AI Composer
Laura Spinney
September 13, 2017

In an interview, Luc Steels with the Free University of Brussels in Belgium discusses how music inspires computer scientists. "Musical composition is a lot like parallel programming," Steels says. "You have to organize complex material in time, and convey meaning." Steels says his collaborative opera with librettist (and neuropsychiatrist) Oscar Vilarroya is informed by computer science, noting, "I hear the music in my head, then I try to recreate it mentally to pin down what each instrument should be playing. I choose a harmonic framework and a rhythmic structure, and I fill in each instrument's contribution, using the computer as an editing tool until the music resembles what I heard originally." In terms of how Steels expects opera to be transformed by new technology, he predicts actors will don virtual reality eyewear, and audiences will share the performers' perspectives. "This will heighten the sense of blurred boundaries," Steels says.

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