Welcome to the April 5, 2019 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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alternate keyboard Changing How a Country Types
Aalto University
April 3, 2019

An international team of researchers led by Aalto University in Finland has created a new keyboard arrangement by using computational methods to position keyboard characters for easier, more intuitive typing. The end product is an algorithmically generated keyboard standard introduced this week by France. The AZERTY standard includes commonly used characters in the French language, as well as 60 new characters arranged in locations determined by the algorithm. The researchers built statistical models of character use in modern French, drawing on various texts and programming code, while the key presses of more than 900 people were gleaned from a crowdsourcing study to determine what could be considered an "easy" key press.

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Demonstrators protest at Amazon HQ the company’s facial recognition system. Amazon Schooled on AI Facial Technology by Turing Award Winner
Dina Bass
April 3, 2019

Artificial intelligence (AI) researchers are calling on Amazon to stop selling its facial recognition software to police. The group of 26 AI experts, including 2018 ACM A.M. Turing Award recipient Yoshua Bengio, urged the online retail giant to stop selling its Rekognition AI service to police departments, citing findings by researchers that it exhibited much higher error rates on images of darker-skinned women versus lighter-skinned men. Bengio said he hopes the protest will encourage debate that leads to companies setting up internal rules and governments adopting regulations so "the best-behaving companies are not at a disadvantage compared to the others." Amazon has refuted the conclusions of the research, to which Bengio responded, "We hope that the company will...thoroughly examine all of its products and question whether they should currently be used by police."

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MIT Terminates Funding, Research Links with China’s Huawei and ZTE
Shirley Tay
April 4, 2019

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is terminating all research and funding ties with Chinese technology companies Huawei and ZTE, due to recent U.S. federal investigations. MIT's decision mirrors similar moves made by other academic institutions in the U.S., including Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Minnesota. MIT's plan to cut ties with Huawei and ZTE is part of a larger effort to strengthen its internal evaluation of international partners. University officials have stated that engagements with countries such as China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia merit additional review beyond the usual evaluations that all international projects receive. MIT's "elevated risk" review process will focus on intellectual property, export controls, data security and access, economic competitiveness, national security, and human rights.

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GM workers assemble a test car Ford, GM, Toyota Team Up to Develop Self-Driving Safety Standards
Ars Technica
Timothy B. Lee
April 3, 2019

Ford, General Motors, and Toyota are partnering to develop safety standards for self-driving cars. Their new group, the Automated Vehicle Safety Consortium (AVSC), will be associated with the engineering group SAE International, and the founders announced the consortium's first product will be a "roadmap of priorities" to guide subsequent efforts. The AVSC said it will then release a "safety framework" for autonomous vehicles, while its website said the group will specifically concentrate on new techniques for "data collection, protection, and sharing required to reconstruct certain events."

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futuristic city, illustration The Top Companies and Cities for Blockchain Developers
Lucas Mearian
April 1, 2019

The Indeed job search site has reported witnessing a 90% increase in bitcoin, cryptocurrency, and blockchain job postings in the past year, which experts attribute to businesses transitioning from pilots to real-world deployments of the distributed ledger technology. IBM Blockchain Labs' Eileen Lowry said the growth is the result of the "basics of supply and demand," mainly driven by companies' growing awareness of the benefits of decentralized applications. Indeed found blockchain jobs are most numerous in technology regions on both U.S. coasts, as well as in Texas, the Chicago area, and Colorado. The increase in blockchain jobs has been accompanied by growth in programs that train developers and others in blockchain skills. Deloitte, IBM, and KPMG are among the companies with the greatest number of postings for bitcoin, cryptocurrency, and blockchain-related jobs, Indeed reported.

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VR Experience Takes Audience Back to 10,000 BC at This Year's Tribeca Film Festival
New York University
James Devitt
April 1, 2019

CAVE, a shared virtual reality experience that transports audiences back to 10,000 BC, will debut April 24 at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Developed by researchers at New York University, the multi-faceted virtual reality experience focuses on Ayara, a young woman struggling to decide whether to accept her role as her tribe's only emissary to the spirit world. CAVE was designed to challenge how audiences collectively experience immersive arts and entertainment. The story is told using the Parallux system, a technology that allows virtual experiences to be shared by many people in the same location. The system allows viewers to see and hear the story—as well as one another—within the same virtual environment, so they may feel as physically present in the shared world as they would when attending a live theater or concert event.

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Girls participating at Disney’s Snap the Gap event. LittleBits, Disney Launch Snap the Gap to Teach Girls STEM
Brian Heater
April 2, 2019

Open source modular electronics provider littleBits will collaborate with Disney and the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) on a nonprofit program to teach girls science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills. The one-year Snap the Gap pilot program will initially target 15,000 10-year-old girls in California, with UC Davis providing STEM professionals to mentor participants; littleBits will contribute a starter pack of magnetic modular electronics. Said littleBits CEO Ayah Bdeir, "It was always part of littleBits' mission to inspire more girls to get into STEM. We've had lots of initiatives leading to it, but this is the biggest and boldest thing that we've done." Snap the Gap hopes to expand outside California after the pilot stage concludes. Said Bdeir, "Our goal is to add five new states every year, so that we can reach all of the U.S. by 2023."

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An illustration of the Twitter logo on the back of a cellphone Crowdsourced Reports Could Save Lives When the Next Earthquake Hits
Technology Review
Charlotte Jee
April 3, 2019

A team of researchers suggests that crowdsourcing earthquake reports and combining them with traditional detection data from seismic monitoring stations could be a cheap, effective way to help close the gap between those countries that have advanced earthquake detection technologies, such as Japan and the U.S., and those that do not, such as Mexico and Indonesia. The crowdsourced reports would come from three sources: people submitting information using LastQuake, an app created by the Euro-Mediterranean Seismological Center (EMSC); tweets that refer to earthquake-related keywords; and time and IP address data associated with visits to the EMSC website. When this method was applied to such data from earthquakes that occurred in 2016 and 2017, the crowdsourced detections on their own were 85% accurate; combining the technique with traditional seismic data raised the accuracy to 97%, the researchers said. Said John Douglas, a seismology expert at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, "It's a good example of how recent developments in technology and the masses of data that are now available online in almost real time are leading to better scientific results."

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A protest against Facebook outside the European Union’s executive headquarters in Brussels last May. AI, Privacy Concerns Get White House to Embrace Global Cooperation
The New York Times
Steve Lohr
April 3, 2019

Since September, the Trump administration has been collaborating with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to create international guidelines for artificial intelligence (AI). Recent OECD guidelines propose rights and responsibilities, with the latter assigned to any individual or organizational "AI actors," covering the performance of systematic risk assessments of "privacy, digital security, safety, and bias." Also driving a reversal of previous White House policies of non-participation in such efforts are concerns about private data, as other countries follow their own initiatives. For example, Europe's General Data Protection Regulation allows people to request their data online, limits how businesses acquire and handle information, and permits class-action-style lawsuits and huge fines against violators. The U.S. Commerce Department's David Redl said such actions are spurring the White House to seek a federal law to "harmonize" American data privacy rules and better align them with the European standard to avoid market fragmentation.

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Your Drone-Delivered Coffee Is (Almost) Here
The Wall Street Journal
Christopher Mims
March 30, 2019

Iceland-based Aha, which is similar to DoorDash or Postmates in the U.S., uses aerial drones to deliver food and small consumer goods in a 2.5-mile radius, soon to be expanded to five miles with the introduction of more powerful drones. While drones might never become ubiquitous in big cities because of too many narrow streets, errant pedestrians, and unpredictable truck drivers, developers think there is potential for drone-based delivery in the suburbs. However, whether drones can be successful in the delivery industry depends on whether they can make six backyard deliveries an hour in a five-mile radius without running into houses, cars, people, trees, or power lines. Aha's drone delivery service is one of only a handful currently operating. Another is Alphabet subsidiary Wing, which recently completed a trial delivering coffee and other goods to 160 households in Canberra, Australia.

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Walmart's Latest Tool for Ordering Groceries: Google Assistant
The Washington Post
Peter Holley
April 3, 2019

Walmart this month will launch a new service in which customers can order groceries virtually through a Google Assistant. With Walmart Voice Order, vocal commands to a Google Assistant will let shoppers add items to a virtual shopping cart. The service is available only in the 2,100 Walmart locations that offer store pickup, as well as the 800 store sites that offer delivery. Marcel Hollerbach with the software company Productsup said, "Walmart's new voice-enabled shopping strategy is smart because it focuses on cart replenishment instead of completing a purchase, which aligns with how consumers want to use voice today. The reality is consumers just aren't ready for voice purchasing." Paul Michelotti at digital marketing company Avionos added that Walmart has little option but to roll out voice ordering as autonomous delivery vehicles and voice assistant shopping become more commonplace.

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A photo of the dashboard of Tesla Model S shows how researchers at Tencent were able to trick the lane detection system. Three Small Stickers in Intersection Can Cause Tesla Autopilot to Swerve Into Wrong Lane
IEEE Spectrum
Evan Ackerman
April 1, 2019

Researchers at Tencent's Keen Security Lab have demonstrated how to trick the lane detection system in a Tesla Model S to both hide lane markings that would be visible to a human, and to create markings that could cause the car's autopilot to swerve into the wrong lane without warning. The researchers showed the lane detection system a variety of digital images of lane markings to establish its detection parameters. As an output, the system specified the coordinates of any lanes that it detected in the input image. The researchers found that by using a variety of optimization algorithms to mutate the lane and the area around it, they could create several different types of adversarial images that are similar to the original but can disable the lane recognition function. In a post on the Keen Security Lab blog, Tesla responded, “This is not a real-world concern given that a driver can easily override Autopilot at any time by using the steering wheel or brakes and should be prepared to do so at all times.”

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