Welcome to the August 22, 2018 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Botnet of Smart Air Conditioners and Water Heaters Could Bring Down the Power Grid
CSO Online
August 19, 2018

Princeton University researchers have determined a new class of cyberattack can hijack smart appliances online and enlist them in a botnet to orchestrate power outages. The Manipulation of demand via Internet of Things (MadIoT) strategies were tested on state-of-the-art simulators of real-world power grid models. The researchers determined a botnet of 90,000 air conditioners and 18,000 electric water heaters could disrupt power demand in a targeted geographical area, by inducing sudden spikes by switching on all the botnet-controlled appliances at the same time or deactivating them simultaneously to cause frequency instability. The researchers say, "If the imbalance is greater than the system's threshold, the frequency may reach a critical value that causes generators tripping and potentially a large-scale blackout." They also say hackers could hurt specific utilities by raising their operating costs, with simulations showing "a 5% increase in the power demand during peak hours by an adversary can result in a 20% increase in the power generation cost."

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Knuth Prize Awarded for Contributions to Computational Complexity
I Programmer
Sue Gee
August 17, 2018

Swedish researcher Johan Torkel Hastad has been named the recipient of the 2018 Donald E. Knuth Prize for his contribution to computational complexity theory. The prize is given to individuals for contributions to the foundations of computer science and is jointly bestowed by the ACM Special Interest Group on Algorithms and Computation Theory (SIGACT) and the IEEE Computer Society Technical Committee on the Mathematical Foundations of Computing. The ACM SIGACT announcement says Hastad was chosen for "his long and sustained record of milestone breakthroughs at the foundations of computer science, with major impact on many areas including optimization, cryptography, parallel computing, and complexity theory." Hastad also was recognized for three specific breakthroughs: switching lemma, in which he obtained an almost-optimal exponential lower bound on the size of constant-depth Boolean circuits for the parity function; his body of work in probabilistically checkable proofs and approximability of optimization problems; and his proof (written with several colleagues) that pseudorandom generators exist only if one-way functions exist.

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Ants in the tunnels of an ant farm Future Robot Swarms Should Copy Lazy Ants Who Let Others Do the Work
New Scientist
Timothy Revell
August 16, 2018

Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) researchers found insights into ant cooperation could be incorporated into the development of large swarms of robots. The team first placed 30 ants into a container filled with glass soil-like particles, and observed only 30% of the ants performed the majority of the tunneling. They then tested similar strategies with four excavation robots, only to find that a four-robot team kept causing congestion unless at least one robot remained idle. Georgia Tech's Daniel Goldman says the implication is that when groups of individuals cooperate, the best strategy may be for some to hang back. This knowledge might help inform the design of software for controlling robot swarms. Goldman aims to apply ant behavior dynamics to the coordination of large robot swarms in confined spaces.

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Multi-Purpose Silicon Chip Created for Quantum Information Processing
University of Bristol News
August 20, 2018

An international research team led by the University of Bristol in the U.K. has demonstrated that a multipurpose quantum processor can be deployed using light, a step toward manufacturing fully functional quantum computers from large-scale fabrication processes. The researchers engineered a silicon chip that guides single photons in waveguides to encode quantum bits (qubits). They showed the capability of fully controlling two qubits of data within a single integrated chip, which implies that any task that can be executed with two qubits is programmable with their device. Bristol's Xiaogang Qiang says, "The different properties of silicon photonics that can be used for making a quantum computer have been combined together in one device."

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Workers standing on partially constructed road in Colorado Colorado Prepares to Install 'Smart Road' Product by Integrated Roadways
IEEE Spectrum
Amy Nordrum
August 21, 2018

The startup Integrated Roadways plans to install four slabs of concrete with embedded sensors at an intersection in Denver, CO, as part of a pilot program with the Colorado Department of Transportation (DOT). The sensor package can infer the speed, weight, and direction of a vehicle, so it can notify authorities of accidents or prompt officials to adjust lanes to ameliorate congestion. The array includes an accelerometer that measures vibrations to predict a vehicle's path of arrival, a sensing fiber-optic cable to gauge strain in the pavement, and a magnetometer to quantify the width of a car's axle to determine the type of vehicle driving overhead. The sensors ascertain vehicle position, size, speed, and trajectory in real time while a gyroscope notes the slab's position to determine whether the road has shifted out of place. Said Brendan Morris of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, “I think that’s kind of the Holy Grail [for smart roads]: to figure out how you can reduce the time to discovery or recognition of an incident.”

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ShareBackup Could Keep Data in the Fast Lane
Rice University
David Ruth; Mike Williams
August 16, 2018

Rice University researchers have developed a method to keep data moving quickly when failures in computer networks occur. They say the ShareBackup strategy enables shared backup switches in data centers to accept network traffic less than a second after a software or hardware switch failure. Instead of installing redundant switches throughout a network, which can be expensive, ShareBackup involves putting fast switches and software in strategic locations that could pick up traffic from a failed switch in a fraction of a second. Rice's Eugene Ng says, "Once the backup is activated, you can take the failed device out of the production network and test it to identify which component caused the problem." The researchers are presenting the work this week at the ACM SIGCOMM 2018 conference in Budapest, Hungary.

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Prototypes of paper battery developed by researchers from SUNY Binghampton How Paper Batteries Charged by Bacteria Could Power Internet of Things
IEEE Spectrum
David Wagman
August 18, 2018

State University of New York at Binghamton (SUNY Binghamton) researchers have developed a paper-based, single-use battery that harnesses bacteria to generate an electric current, and then to consume the battery after its use. They created the biobattery by placing freeze-dried "exoelectrogens" on paper, which can transfer electrons outside of their cells. The addition of water or saliva serves to revive the bacteria and activate the battery, allowing electrons pass through the cell membrane and link with external electrodes to power the battery. Under laboratory conditions, the battery produced a maximum power of 4 µW per square centimeter and current density of 26 µA per square centimeter. The work could provide an inexpensive, sustainable way to power the billions of devices and sensors expected to come online as part of the Internet of Things.

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Color Effects From Transparent 3D-Printed Nanostructures
IST Austria
August 17, 2018

Researchers from the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria) and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia have developed a computational tool that automatically creates three-dimensional (3D) printing templates for nanostructures that correspond to user-defined colors. Users enter the color they want to replicate, and the computer creates a nanostructure pattern that produces that color. The nanostructures in the template tool do not follow a specific pattern or have a regular structure, but appear to be randomly composed, permitting greater flexibility and leading to the possibility of additional coloring effects. IST Austria's Thomas Auzinger says, "The design tool can be used to prototype new colors and other tools, as well as to find interesting structures that could be produced industrially."

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U of T Experts Use Deep Learning AI for Predictive Animation
U of T Engineering News
Nina Haikara
August 16, 2018

Researchers at the University of Toronto (U of T) in Canada and the University of Massachusetts Amherst have used deep learning algorithms to improve software for the animation and gaming industry. The team tapped insights from psycho-linguistics literature to produce VisemeNet, a network for predicting visemes (the appearance of mouth shapes), which map to vocal cord sounds. They blended the results of phonemes and facial movements, using an actor's voice as audio input to predict speech motion curves that are fully editable in animator software. VisemeNet was developed as a component of jaw and lip integration, which enables animators to create realistic and expressive speech animations of computer-generated characters.

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Power plant with sunset in background Supercomputing Simulations and Machine Learning Help Improve Power Plants
Gauss Center for Supercomputing
Eric Gedenkm
August 20, 2018

Researchers at the University of Stuttgart in Germany have developed a computer model of how coal, nuclear, and geothermal power plants could be retrofitted for cleaner, safer, more efficient and flexible operation. The researchers are using high-performance computing (HPC) to develop tools that can make supercritical heat transfer more viable. In collaboration with researchers at the Singapore Institute of Technology, the Stuttgart team used machine learning techniques informed by high-fidelity simulations on the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart's Hazel Hen supercomputer, while also working to develop a tool that can be easily employed on commercial computers. The Hazel Hen supercomputer enabled the high-resolution fluid dynamics simulations the researchers required. Going forward, the researchers aim to continue enhancing their database to further improve the simulations.

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New Algorithm Could Improve Diagnosis of Rare Diseases
Stanford Medicine News Center
Erin Digitale
August 16, 2018

Stanford University researchers have developed an algorithm that automates the matching of a patient's genetic sequence and symptoms to a disease found in scientific literature, shortening this process by 90%. The Phrank algorithm compares a patient's symptoms and gene data to a knowledge base, yielding a ranked list of which rare genetic diseases are most likely to be the cause. From this information, a clinician can verify a diagnosis within one to four hours, instead of 20 to 40 hours. The researchers say Phrank's performance is superior to that of previous algorithms in performing the same task, and it is significantly more flexible because its mathematical workings are not bound to a specific database. Stanford's Gill Bejerano says Phrank has the potential to help identify new genetic diseases, for example, when a patient's symptoms cannot be matched to previously identified human diseases.

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MQTT IoT Smart Homes Can Be Easily Hacked via Unsecured MQTT Servers
Help Net Security
Zeljka Zorz
August 20, 2018

Martin Hron of cybersecurity vendor Avast says unsecured Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT) servers can enable hackers to easily penetrate smart homes with Internet of Things devices. Hron says the MQTT protocol "works like an RSS feed: you subscribe to a topic, and once someone publishes something on the topic, the payload is delivered to all subscribers." He says the misconfigurations of MQTT servers are exploitable, and Avast researchers have identified more than 49,000 MQTT servers exposed on the Internet, of which almost 33,000 lack password protection. Hron says, "There is a need for more secure control solutions that allow consumers to confidently use technology in their homes with the knowledge that it is secure and their privacy protected.”

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