Welcome to the August 3, 2018 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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View of earth from inside spacecraft AI, Quantum, Space Commercialization Among White House R&D Priorities
Government Computer News
Chase Gunter
August 1, 2018

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy released a memo highlighting artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing as research and development (R&D) priorities for the White House for fiscal year 2020. The document says the Trump administration has lobbied for federal R&D funding to be "focused primarily on basic and early-stage applied research" while upholding its deregulation and privatization agenda. The White House says investment in AI, quantum science, and supercomputing is "critically important to our national security and economic competitiveness." AI, machine learning, and "smart and digital manufacturing" are also cited as vital to the manufacturing sector. The administration is urging investment in science, technology, engineering, and math education and workforce development for tomorrow's technology workforce.

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TACC Wins Next NSF-Funded Major Supercomputer
July 30, 2018

The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) beat out other research institutions for the next U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded big supercomputer. The Towards a Leadership-Class Computing Facility-Phase 1 award is worth about $60 million for the system and another $60 million for five years of operations. In describing the project's requirements, the NSF solicitation said the Phase 1 system should have at least two- to three-fold time-to-solution performance improvement over the UIUC's Blue Waters system for a broad range of computational and data-intensive workflows that require the highest capabilities in terms of scale, throughput, and data analytics. Blue Waters is a 13 petaflops system powered by AMD Opteron processors and Nvidia K20 graphics-processing units.

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Fields Medals Awarded to 4 Mathematicians
The New York Times
Kenneth Chang
August 1, 2018

This year's recipients of the Fields Medal are Peter Scholze with the University of Bonn in Germany, Caucher Birkar of the University of Cambridge in the U.K., Akshay Venkatesh of Princeton and Stanford universities, and Alessio Figalli with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Scholze was honored for his work with fractal structures called perfectoid spaces. Birkar, who specializes in algebraic geometry, or links between numbers and shapes, focuses on "minimal models," where the solutions to equations can be substituted by a simpler set that embodies the key qualities but are more comprehensible. Venkatesh, whose work covers a broad range of math disciplines, was described as “truly a universal mathematician” by University of Wisconsin mathematician Jordan Ellenberg. Figalli concentrates on "optimal transport," a problem which he says has applications in economics and meteorology.

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Major Quantum Computing Advance Made Obsolete by Teenager
Quanta Magazine
Kevin Hartnett
July 31, 2018

Eighteen-year-old Ewin Tang at the the University of Texas, Austin has proven that classical computers can solve an important computing problem with performance potentially comparable to that of a quantum computer. The "recommendation problem" relates to how services determine which products consumers might like to try, one of the best examples of a problem that is exponentially faster to solve on quantum computers. In 2016, scientists published a quantum algorithm that solved the recommendation problem exponentially faster than any known classical algorithm, but it did not prove that a fast classical algorithm could not exist. In 2017, Tang set out to find such an algorithm, and he discovered one that ran in polylogarithmic time and was exponentially faster than any previously known classical algorithm. Tang said the previous answer to the recommendation problem was "one of the most definitive examples of a quantum speedup, and it's no longer there."

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Silhouette of a drone against sunset background Nevada Launches Drone Safety Research Center
Government Computer News
Matt Leonard
August 1, 2018

The state of Nevada has announced the launch of the Nevada Drone Center of Excellence for Public Safety, which will direct research into the proper use of aerial drones to avoid collisions with people on the ground and other aircraft in national airspace. The center will focus on application areas such drone surveillance, remote sensing, wildland firefighting, gas-leak detection, and delivery of medical equipment and organs. Chris Walach with the non-profit Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems says the new facility "will help advance infrastructure protections, drone detection innovations, enhance air safety, and expand air commerce in Nevada." He says the center is taking an aggressive approach toward solving the challenge of mitigating drone incursions into the National Airspace System, currently one of the Federal Aviation Administration's greatest challenges.

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Table covered in one hundred dollar bills How the SamSam Attacker Stole Millions From U.S. Companies
Help Net Security
Zeljka Zorz
August 1, 2018

A report by U.K. security software and hardware firm Sophos offers insights into the operations of SamSam ransomware, which has been used to extort almost $6 million from victims. Sophos analysts say SamSam differs from most ransomware in that it encrypts not only document files, images, and other personal or work data, but also configuration and data files required to run applications such as Microsoft Office. Victims whose backup strategy only protects the user's documents and files cannot recover a machine without reimaging it, according to the analysts. The researchers could not determine how attackers identify potential targets, speculating they probably obtain lists of vulnerable servers from other hackers on the dark web or use publicly available search engines such as Shodan or Censys. The researchers suggest the best defense against SamSam is to ensure "machines are as up to date as possible, and that employees use secure authentication methods, including strong passwords, and to use two-factor authentication where possible."

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New Class of Materials Could Make Batteries Charge Faster
University of Cambridge
Sarah Collins
July 25, 2018

Researchers at Cambridge University in the U.K. have identified a group of materials that could be used to make higher-powered batteries. The team found lithium ions move through materials with a complex crystalline structure at rates that far exceeded those of typical electrode materials. Although the materials, called niobium tungsten oxides, do not result in higher energy densities when used under typical cycling rates, they are useful for fast charging applications. In addition, the materials' physical structure and chemical behavior provide valuable insight into how a safe, super-fast-charging battery could be constructed. The niobium tungsten oxides have a rigid, open structure that does not trap inserted lithium, and they have larger particle sizes than many other electrode materials. Cambridge's Kent Griffith says these oxides are very easy to make and do not require additional chemicals or solvents.

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Himma Aklilu and Christopher Holland, SMASH Wharton scholars Program Aims to Address Gap for Students of Color in STEM
The Philadelphia Tribune
Ayana Jones
July 31, 2018

A collaboration between SMASH (Summer Math and Science Honors) Academy and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School aims to provide underrepresented high school students of color with the resources needed to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. The program site, SMASH Wharton, will provide a three-year, free residential college preparatory program to high school students in the greater Philadelphia area. Beginning the summer after ninth grade, 35 students will spend five weeks immersed in classes in biology, computer science, design thinking, economics, marketing, and math. SMASH Wharton's Latoya Tufts says, "What is great to see is that we have scholars that are being introduced to new topics that they don't get access to in their high schools." SMASH also offers programs at the University of California, Berkeley; Stanford University; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of California, Davis; Morehouse College in Georgia, and Wayne State University in Michigan.

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Origami bee, illustration An Insect-Inspired Drone Deforms Upon Impact
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich
Laure-Anne Pessina
July 25, 2018

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have developed an origami-like drone that is flexible enough to absorb shocks without breaking and return to its original shape. The drone was inspired by insect wings, which demonstrate the advantages of both stiff and flexible structures. When airborne, the drone is stiff enough to carry its own weight and withstand the thrust of the propellers. However, if it collides with another object, it uses its flexibility to absorb the shock and minimize damage. There is a trend in robotics to create "softer" robots that adapt to a given function and operate safely alongside humans, but some applications also require rigidity. EPFL's Dario Floreano says, "With our system, we have shown that you can strike the right balance between the two."

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Twitter Could Help With Wildfire Rescue and Relief Efforts, Forest Service Officials Say
Sacramento Bee
Hannah Holzer
July 28, 2018

Twitter could help predict air quality levels in areas affected by wildfires, according to a study from U.S. Forest Service scientists. The researchers mined more than 39,000 tweets specifically referring to 15 wildfires that ravaged California during the summer of 2015 or that included the words "wildfire" or "smoke." These tweets were annotated with a metadata-derived site based on the tweet's place of origin or the sender's location, and then assigned to a local air quality monitoring station in a nearby region. The tweets were tied to air quality data using pollution levels reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the day of the posting. Scientists aim to develop a simplified technology for monitoring tweet content to provide efficient air quality predictions in real time.

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New Technology Gives Clinicians Inside View of Patients' Joints in Motion
Katie Willis
July 26, 2018

Researchers at the University of Alberta (U of A) in Canada have created technology that is helping physicians see how patients' joints function when in motion. U of A's Pierre Boulanger says the research is aimed at creating "a complete dynamic model of the entire knee joint in motion, including bone, muscle, and cartilage." Specifically, Boulanger says the researchers are attempting "to use advanced neural network techniques to segment these knee structures using standard MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and then track them using a novel real-time open MRI machine to capture the motion." Using a deep learning algorithm, the technique can automatically segment knee anatomy based on samples provided by clinicians. The technology could help physiotherapists and orthopedic surgeons understand how their treatments affect the body over time.

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Research Robots Sometimes Left Unsecured on the Internet, Study Finds
Brown University
Kevin Stacey
July 24, 2018

Brown University researchers have found up to 100 exposed systems running the Robot Operating System (ROS), with as many as 19 considered to be fully operational robots. The researchers also demonstrated it is possible to control these robots remotely, spying on camera feeds and sending commands to move the robots around. The team came to these conclusions following a worldwide scan of hosts running ROS over three different periods last year and this year. The researchers sent queries to more than 4 billion IP addresses worldwide, looking for programs running on the transfer communication protocol port that ROS normally uses. After creating the list of IP addresses that responded to that port, the team sent passive ROS commands to confirm the program on the other side was ROS. The team, which demonstrated the possibility of controlling the exposed robots remotely, said its findings underscore the importance of robot users paying attention to security in an increasingly connected digital world.

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