Welcome to the March 26, 2018 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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robotic hand Keeping a Tight Hold on Things: Robot-Mounted Vacuum Grippers Flex Their Artificial Muscles
Saarland University
March 23, 2018

Researchers at Saarland University in Germany have developed a novel vacuum gripper that enables robot arms to pick up objects and move them around freely. The system does not need the application of compressed air to generate the vacuum, and it is energy-efficient, quiet, and suitable for use in clean rooms. It employs artificial muscles, which are bundles of ultrafine shape memory wires that can tense and relax similar to real muscle fibers. The wires also serve as sensors and can detect, for example, when the gripper needs to readjust or tighten its grip. The technology is based on the shape memory properties of nickel-titanium alloy, which Saarland professor Stefan Seelecke says gives the wires "the highest energy density of all known drive mechanisms, which enables them to perform powerful movements in restricted spaces."

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earwig wings Earwigs and the Art of Origami
ETH Zurich
Peter Ruegg
March 22, 2018

Researchers at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and Purdue University have developed multifunctional origami structures that emulate the framework of an earwig's wing, and fabricated them as three-dimensional (3D) printed objects. Computer models of the insect's wing demonstrated that the crucial factor in the wing's design is its elastic folds, which can function either as an extensional or rotational spring. These models were transferred to a multi-material 3D printer so the team could directly manufacture a 4D object made of four stiff plastic plates linked to each other by a soft elastic joint. The spring functions of the connecting folds were coded into the material to enable them to perform extensional or rotational movements, mimicking the earwig's wing (which is stable when open, but folds together automatically on even the lightest touch). The researchers then transferred the principle to larger elements and printed a self-folding spring origami gripper.

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carbon nanotube coating of accelerometer Supersensitive Accelerometer Could Be the Answer to Better Drone Control
IEEE Spectrum
Samuel K. Moore
March 21, 2018

Researchers at the University of West Florida have developed a new accelerometer that is up to 1 million times as sensitive as a conventional smartphone accelerometer, while maintaining sensitivity up to a car-crash-scale 100 gs. The team developed a three-dimensional supercapacitor to act as an accelerometer. At rest, the capacitance across any pair of walls is basically zero, because the internal electrolyte is not touching the nanotubes. Acceleration in any direction will squash the electrolyte down, driving it into the nanotubes opposite the direction of the acceleration and into the nanotubes of neighboring walls. This process basically forms supercapacitors between the walls, enabling the researchers to measure their individual capacitances and providing an accurate measure of acceleration. The device yields an accuracy of 75 nanofarads for every g, versus femtofarads per g of typical capacitive accelerometers, says University of West Florida professor Ezzat G. Bakhoum.

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Dominic Raithel Making Monitors Brighter: Researchers in Bayreuth Discover a Way to Control the Color of OLEDs
University of Bayreuth
March 23, 2018

Researchers at the University of Bayreuth in Germany have discovered how the spatial structure of conjugated polymers can be used to control the colors of organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) and help increase the brightness of monitors. The polymers studied by the Bayreuth researchers have backbones that are chemically identical and bent to different degrees, but the excitation energy always spreads over the same distance. Bent polymers emit green or blue light, while elongated polymers radiate yellow or red light. "When these polymers come to be used in organic light-emitting diodes, their various spatial structures can be utilized to precisely control the color of the light emit from the OLEDs," says Bayreuth's Dominic Raithel. In addition, the researchers found the elongated polymers possess a scaffold formed by its side chains, which stabilizes the elongated structure without weakening the optical emission.

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IARPA Launches Challenge to Improve UAV-Captured Imagery
Unmanned Aerial Online
Betsy Lillian
March 21, 2018

The U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) recently announced the UG2 Prize Challenge for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), gliders, and ground data entries. The goal of the challenge is to advance the analysis of images collected by small UAVs by improving image restoration and algorithm performance. "This prize challenge seeks to improve image quality via software techniques, which will allow more actionable intelligence from low-quality images, such as those off of a small, fixed-wing UAV," says IARPA program manager Chris Boehnen. "Analysts need these types of tools to sift through the large amounts of imagery they receive on a daily basis." IARPA notes it wants the challenge to attract a broad pool of researchers, from both domestic and international industry and academic institutions. Participants must submit their algorithms for evaluation to IARPA's challenge performer, the University of Notre Dame, by April 1.

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Illustration of Facebook logo on a laptop Researchers Find Leaky Apps Put Privacy at Risk
Northeastern University News
Allie Nicodemo
March 22, 2018

Social media platforms, web browser extensions, and mobile platforms can leak user information, threatening user privacy, according to three different Northeastern University research efforts. Professor Alan Mislove discovered a flaw in Facebook's advertising platform that allowed potential hackers to uncover users' phone numbers. Although Facebook's ad system is not designed to give user identities to advertisers, Mislove was able to match users to private data by creating multiple custom audiences and cross-referencing information. Other platforms have similar capabilities that could inadvertently leak information. A second Northeastern group, led by doctoral student Michael Weissbacher, found that dozens of popular browser extensions were leaking users' web history. His team identified 32 browser extensions, with a combined total of 8 million users, that were actively leaking web history data. A third group, led by doctoral student Jingjing Ren, discovered that some Android applications have become less secure over time and leaked users' personal information.

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MIT’s Soft Robotic Fish swimming in water MIT Unleashes a Hypnotic Robot Fish to Help Save the Oceans
Matt Simon
March 21, 2018

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed the Soft Robotic Fish (SoFi), a potentially powerful tool for studying ocean life. Traditional underwater vehicles are typically tethered to a boat because radio waves do not travel well in water, but the MIT researchers use acoustic signals to control SoFi, enabling users to pilot the robotic fish untethered from nearly 70 feet away. In addition, classical robot actuators can be clunky, but SoFi is a type of soft robot that uses pressurized water to move. SoFi's tail contains two hollow chambers that pump injects with water, and when the water is cycled back and forth, it causes the undulation and the wiggling of the tail, says MIT's Robert Katzschmann. SoFi also has a cylinder that compresses and decompresses air with a piston that helps give the robot structural integrity and enables it to reach depths of 60 feet by controlling internal pressure.

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A child’s drawing of a woman in a lab wearing lab coat. U.S. Children Now Draw Female Scientists More Than Ever
Northwestern University Newscenter
Hilary Hurd Anyaso
March 20, 2018

Researchers at Northwestern University have analyzed five decades of "Draw-a-Scientist" studies conducted since the 1960s, and found U.S. children now depict scientists as female more than ever. They say this trend suggests children's stereotypes connecting science only with men have weakened over time, which is consistent with more women becoming scientists and children's media depicting more female scientists on TV shows, magazines, and elsewhere. The Northwestern study is the first systematic, quantitative review of the "Draw-a-Scientist" literature and combined results from 78 U.S. studies, including more than 20,000 children in kindergarten through 12th grades. The researchers also analyzed how children form stereotypes about scientists across childhood development, with the results suggesting children do not associate science with men until about age five. The researchers also found during elementary and middle school, the tendency to draw scientists as male rose strongly with age.

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RIT Researchers Improve Fabrication Process of Nanostructures for Electronic Devices
Rochester Institute of Technology
Michelle Cometa
March 20, 2018

Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) researchers have discovered a more efficient fabricating process to create nanostructures for semiconductors. Furthermore, they have found that materials other than silicon can be used in the development process to increase the performance of electronic devices. The I-MacEtch (inverse metal-assisted chemical etching method) fabrication process can help meet demand for the powerful nanotechnologies used in tools ranging from smartphones to new quantum computing applications. The process combines the benefits of two existing methods, wet etching and reactive ion etching (REI). Researchers have been using MacEtch extensively for processing silicon, but the RIT researchers are also looking at ternary alloys such as indium-gallium-phosphide. For solar cells, the researchers aim to improve devices by reducing the cost of making the cells while increasing their efficiency.

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Two photos of same male face, one blushing. At First Blush, You Look Happy—or Sad, or Angry
Ohio State University
Pam Frost Gorder
March 19, 2018

Ohio State University researchers have discovered a previously undocumented connection between the central nervous system and emotional expression in the face. The study shows people can identify other people's feelings up to 75 percent of the time using only subtle shifts in color around the nose, eyebrows, cheeks, or chin. To conduct the study, the researchers took hundreds of photos of facial expressions and separated the images into different color channels. Computer analysis revealed that emotions like "happy" or "sad" formed unique color patterns. To test whether colors alone could convey emotions, the researchers superimposed the different emotional color patterns on pictures of faces with neutral expressions. The researchers also wrote algorithms that recognized human emotion based on face color with up to 90 percent accuracy. The researchers hope the algorithms will help artificial intelligence recognize and emulate human emotions.

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A New Kind of Quantum Bits in Two Dimensions
Technische Universitat Wien
Florian Aigner
March 19, 2018

Researchers at the Technische Universität Wien in Germany have discovered that combining two ultra-thin material layers has implications for quantum electronics. Working with researchers from Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen University in Germany and the University of Manchester in the U.K., the team created a new type of quantum dot that allows for much more accurately tunable energy levels of confined electrons. The researchers combined graphene and hexagonal boron nitride; the resulting quantum dots allow fine control of individual electrons by tuning their energy levels directly, which is critical for modern quantum technologies. The researchers carried out simulations showing that oscillations in graphene on hexagonal boron nitride form the ideal scaffold to control electron energies, which allows the quantum dot to move continuously and to smoothly change properties. Energy levels of the electronic states inside the quantum dot change based on the position of the tip of the scanning tunneling microscope.

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