Welcome to the March 4, 2019 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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An image of the space capsule SpaceX Crew Capsule, With Dummy Astronaut, Docks With Space Station
The Wall Street Journal
Andy Pasztor
March 3, 2019

A new-generation SpaceX capsule autonomously docked with the International Space Station, in a successful test of the safety and reliability of computers and maneuvering systems deemed essential to carry U.S. astronauts on future missions. The goal of the flight was to test navigational equipment, automated flight-control features, and laser-assisted positioning hardware. After liftoff from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, the Crew Dragon capsule—containing a mannequin with sensors that recorded environmental changes and forces—executed a faster-than-usual maneuver to the docking point. U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and SpaceX officials said the extra acceleration was necessary to prevent certain thruster parts from freezing and potentially breaking off. Additional testing will be conducted before the capsule's splashdown, as NASA works toward privatizing human transportation to low-Earth orbit and eventually to the Moon's surface.

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A teacher showing a little girl the binary-code basics on the computer screen Closing the Gender Gap in the Tech Industry
60 Minutes
Sharyn Alfonsi
March 3, 2019

Some organizations hope to make the technology sector more inclusive by interesting and recruiting more women in the profession. Code.org's Hadi Partovi said, "It's [an] audacious goal is to teach computer science to every student in America from kindergarten through the 12th grade, with online lessons that begin with the simplest concepts of computer science." Partovi also said the tech gender gap has worsened in recent years, and he partly blamed the fact that many attempts to recruit women, usually in high school or college, start too late. Code.org aims to interest girls as young as kindergarten age in computing, with classes designed to include a majority of female and unrepresented minority students.

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Amazon Thinks AI Will Help Solve Its Counterfeits Problem
Kaya Yurieff
February 28, 2019

Amazon recently unveiled Project Zero, an artificial intelligence (AI) system to stop counterfeit products from appearing on its website. The new system will allow brands to remove counterfeit items on their own without Amazon's help. The project uses machine learning that constantly scans Amazon stores and removes suspected fakes. Companies give Amazon their logos, trademarks, and other information about their brands, and Project Zero scans product listings every day for fraudulent items before they are purchased. The system offers a unique code for every item, which brands place on products during the manufacturing process. When products with these special serial numbers are ordered on Amazon, the company scans and verifies the authenticity of the purchase. Said Forrester vice president Brendan Witcher, "This gives retailers and brands one less thing to put that much time and attention toward when they're struggling today to create their own relationships with customers."

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IBM Doubles Quantum Performance
Computer Business Review
Ed Targett
March 4, 2019

IBM said it has advanced quantum-computing performance while recording the lowest error rates it has ever quantified. The company measures performance through Quantum Volume, a full-system metric encompassing gate and measurement errors, device cross talk and connectivity, and circuit software compiler efficiency. The company says quantum performance has doubled every year since 2017. However, according to IBM, quantum computers are still too ‘noisy’ to allow meaningful computations, especially since quantum switches typically begin to fail after just fractions of a second (compared to the scale of years before classical switches typically fail).

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Flaws in 4G, 5G Allow Snooping on Calls, Pinpointing Device Location
Steven Musil
February 26, 2019

An academic research team has found security flaws in the 4G and 5G cellular networks that can be exploited to spy on phone calls and localize mobile devices. 5G is expected to dramatically speed up mobile devices and give them low latency, as well as upgrading security. The Torpedo attack leverages a flaw in the standards' paging protocol used to alert phones to incoming calls or text messages; multiple calls made in a short duration could permit a nearby attacker to pinpoint the device, transmit fake texts, and launch a denial-of-service attack. The researchers added that Torpedo clears a path for two more exploits, one of which allows a hacker to access a victim device's International Mobile Subscriber Identity (ISMI) via a brute-force attack. A third exploit, Piercer, couples the ISMI with the target's phone number to facilitate user location tracking.

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MIT’s new mini cheetah robot Mini Cheetah Is First Four-Legged Robot to Do a Backflip
MIT News
Jennifer Chu
March 4, 2019

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have engineered a four-legged robot modeled after a cheetah. The 20-pound mini cheetah robot is basically a powerpack that can bend and swing its legs wide, so it can walk either right-side up or upside down, as well as trotting over uneven ground at about twice the speed of an average person. The robot also can right itself after being kicked to the ground by swinging its elbows quickly, and is able to perform a 360-degree backflip from a standing position. The robot can compensate for a broken limb or motor, as each leg is powered by three identical, swappable electric motors built from off-the-shelf parts. MIT's Benjamin Katz said the mini cheetah's modular design is advantageous compared to a larger predecessor, because adding or modifying the smaller robot does not require an across-the-board redesign.

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This Professor Suffers from a Mystery Disease, so She Developed an App to Track Its Effects
Fast Company
Courtney Biggs
March 1, 2019

Noemie Elhadad, an associate professor of biomedical informatics at Columbia University, has developed Phendo, an app that allows endometriosis patients (of which Elhadad is one) to document their medical histories, symptoms, medications, supplements, energy levels, diet, treatments, moods, and pain levels on a daily basis. As of January, the Phendo app had more than 6,000 participants in over 65 countries, making it the largest collection of clinical data about endometriosis in existence. The data set will allow Columbia University's Citizen Echo team to begin phenotyping endometriosis. Said Elhadad, "Identifying these phenotypic subgroups will help us answer questions like why some women respond well to some treatments, why some are infertile, and why some see no relief in their symptoms after menopause." Elhadad hopes to apply the model to other underfunded, underresearched areas of women's health, such as polycystic ovary syndrome. She is in the process of launching a Women's Health Research Initiative at Columbia University called Even.

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Mozilla Updates Common Voice Dataset
Venture Beat
Kyle Wiggers
February 28, 2019

Mozilla has released the latest version of Common Voice, its open source collection of transcribed voice data that incorporates more than 1,400 hours of voice samples from 42,000 contributors across 18 languages. The release is part of Mozilla's effort to make it easier to build voice-enabled apps, services, and devices. In addition to the release, data collection efforts in 70 languages are currently underway via the Common Voice website and mobile apps. Common Voice consists of voice snippets, as well as voluntarily contributed metadata useful for training speech engines, such as speakers' ages, sex, and accents. Collecting that data requires a lot of legwork, and Mozilla recently rolled out an improved Common Voice web tool with simplified prompts in order to streamline the process. In the coming months, Mozilla will experiment with different approaches to increase the quantity and quality of data collected, through community efforts and new partnerships.

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Software Tracks Activity of Neurons in Real Time
Alina Shrourou
February 28, 2019

Researchers at the Flatiron Institute have developed software to automate the monitoring of neuron activity via a mix of standard computational methods and machine learning techniques. The researchers demonstrated that the calcium imaging analysis (CaImAn) software can localize active neurons with near-human accuracy, and greater efficiency. CaImAn facilitates real-time data analysis, and the challenges it faced include analyzing up to 1 terabyte of data generated hourly by calcium imaging; compounding the challenge was noisy data caused by overlapping fluorescent signals from different neurons. Said Flatiron's Andrea Giovannucci, "The algorithm subtracts the background voices and focuses on a few," showing individual cerebellar granule cells exhibit distinct activity patterns.

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Program Uncovers Errors in Biomedical Research Results
University of Sydney
March 4, 2019

Researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia and the University of Grenoble Alpes in France have developed a fact-checking program to find errors in published biomedical research results. The "Seek & Blastn" program verifies the identities of published nucleotide sequence reagents by looking for sequences within papers, and comparing them with a comprehensive genetic knowledge database. In combination with manual analysis, the fact-checker identified 25% of 155 papers as containing sequence errors, including both completely wrong sequences and typographic errors. The University of Sydney's Jennifer Byrne said, "Our hope is that tools like Seek & Blastn will prospectively deter publications that describe incorrect nucleotide sequence reagents and may flag existing publications so that their conclusions can be re-evaluated."

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A man trying out a virtual reality headset that stimulates a radioactive spot test VR: The New Education Prescription
Purdue Exponent
Jackie Le; Chase Putrich
February 25, 2019

Purdue University researchers working with the university's Envision Center have developed a virtual cleanroom environment to train pharmacy students on compounding procedures and technique. Purdue's Steven Abel said the virtual setting is more affordable to the university than setting up and running actual cleanrooms. Purdue's Kara Weatherman is working with the Envision Center to incorporate augmented reality to help students better visualize elements of pharmacy with no visual component, like radiation. Her program will allow learners to see radiation emissions overlaid on real-world objects via a Microsoft HoloLens. Weatherman also is developing a simulation that would allow users to scan for hidden radiation spots in a virtual landscape using a virtual reality headset and paddle-like manual controllers that appear to the user as a survey meter.

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Hackers Can Slip Invisible Malware Into 'Bare Metal' Cloud Computers
Andy Greenberg
February 26, 2019

Researchers with the security firm Eclypsium have demonstrated that hackers could rent a server from a cloud computer provider and alter its firmware, concealing revisions that persist even after they stop renting it and someone else rents the same machine. In this way, malefactors could plant malware within the code, allowing them to eavesdrop on the server, change its data, or destroy it at will. The researchers said this method affects bare metal servers, in which a customer rents and fully controls an entire computer in an attempt to enhance performance or security. The Eclypsium team focused on the firmware of a powerful component in IBM's Super Micro servers, offered to users of its baseboard management controller (BMC). The BMC is employed to remotely monitor and administrate the server, and its capabilities include accessing memory and altering the operating system.

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An animated image of a tablet being held up and birds drawn on it AI Empowers Conservation Biology
Roberta Kwok
March 4, 2019

University of Hawaii researchers have used artificial intelligence (AI) from Conservation Metrics to track the deaths of seabird species on the island of Kauai, by automatically detecting collisions from audio input. The results suggest many bird deaths come from power-line collisions, and the researchers are working with a utility company to test whether shining lasers between power poles would reduce the number of collisions. Such initiatives demonstrate how outsourcing AI services can streamline and improve conservation biology projects, as well as the increased accessibility of AI, a result of the development of point-and-click tools and dedicated programming libraries. Also proving useful are browser-based tools like Wildbook, a software framework produced by the nonprofit Wild Me in Oregon, and its academic partners. Wildbook employs neural networks and computer vision algorithms to identify and count animals in images, as well as to spot individual animals within a species to facilitate more accurate tallies of wildlife populations.

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