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Welcome to the September 30, 2019 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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AI Researchers See Danger of Haves, Have-Nots
The New York Times
Steve Lohr
September 26, 2019

Scientists warn the growing cost of artificial intelligence (AI) research means fewer people can easily access computing power to advance the technology, which could make behemoths like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook dominant, while university laboratories get shortchanged. The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence estimated that the calculations required to perform AI tasks have ballooned approximately 300,000 times in the last six years. University of Massachusetts, Amherst researchers also found AI software can consume an enormous amount of power. Allen Institute scientists suggest changing the AI success quantification model could help resolve both cost and power issues—with efficiency as well as accuracy factored in. Large tech firms are focusing on efficiency upgrades, and they argue this will make computing power more available to outside developers and academics.

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Soft artificial skin Artificial Skin Could Help Rehabilitation, Enhance Virtual Reality
Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Laure-Anne Pessina
September 27, 2019

Researchers at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have developed a soft, flexible artificial skin, made of silicone and electrodes and equipped with soft sensors and actuators, which provides haptic feedback in the form of pressure and vibration. Strain sensors continuously measure the skin's deformation so that the haptic feedback can be adjusted to produce a realistic sense of touch. The actuators help form a membrane layer and can be tuned to varying pressures and frequencies. On top of the membrane layer sits a sensor that contains soft electrodes that measure the skin's deformation continuously and send the data to a microcontroller, which uses the feedback to fine-tune the sensation transmitted to the user. For now, the scientists have tested the technology on users' fingers. The next step, said EPFL's Harshal Sonar, "will be to develop a fully wearable prototype for applications in rehabilitation and virtual and augmented reality."

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Sign of Google Google Draws House Antitrust Scrutiny of Internet Protocol
The Wall Street Journal
John D. McKinnon; Robert McMillan; Brent Kendall
September 30, 2019

Congressional antitrust investigators are vetting Google's plans to use a new Internet protocol out of worry it could limit competitors' access to consumer data. Google said the protocol would improve online security, but U.S. House Judiciary Committee investigators are inquiring whether the data gathered by the standard will be commercialized. The protocol would modernize the domain name system, to encrypt online traffic and improve security, preventing hacker eavesdropping on websites and spoofing. However, cable and wireless companies warned the standard could block them from user data if browser users migrate to the protocol, which many Internet service providers (ISPs) do not support; ISPs also are concerned that Google may coax Chrome browser users to shift to protocol-supporting Google services. Google said the browser changes will let consumers control who shares their Internet traffic data, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation is concerned about erosion of the Internet's decentralized structure.

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How Language Shapes Password Security
IEEE Spectrum
Jeremy Hsu
September 25, 2019

Researchers at China's Peking University and the University of Virginia compared Chinese and English passwords, analyzing 106 million passwords from nine Web services, including 73 million from six Chinese-language services and 33 million from three English-language services. The team learned a supposedly strong password based on English-language precepts could actually be weak and easily guessed from a Chinese-language perspective. A key distinction is that many Chinese-language users prefer passwords composed entirely of numbers, and more often use mobile phone numbers or certain dates in passwords than English users. The researchers attempted to decrypt the passwords with the Markov-Chain algorithm, which assigns certain likelihoods to characters based on their interrelationships, and the probabilistic context-free grammars (PCFG) algorithm, which parses passwords into letter segments, digit segments, and symbol segments before guessing in order of the most probable combinations.

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An image of photovoltaic-powered sensors on RFID tags that work in sunlight and dimmer indoor lighting Photovoltaic-Powered Sensors for the Internet of Things
MIT News
Rob Matheson
September 27, 2019

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed photovoltaic-powered sensors that could potentially transmit data for years before they need to be replaced, making them useful for Internet of things devices like sensors that gather real-time data about infrastructure and the environment. The researchers mounted thin-film perovskite cells as energy-harvesters on inexpensive radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags. The researchers found that the solar power produced by the cells gives the sensors a significant boost that enables greater data transmission distances and the ability to integrate multiple sensors onto a single RFID tag. The researchers used the sensors to continuously monitor indoor and outdoor temperatures over several days. The devices transmitted data continuously at distances five times greater than traditional RFID tags. Said MIT researcher Ian Matthews, "Our next step is to integrate these same technologies using printed electronics methods, potentially enabling extremely low-cost manufacturing of wireless sensors."

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Smart Cities Could Give Visually Impaired New Outlook on Urban Life
Government Computer News
Drishty Sobnath; Ikram Ur Rehman
September 23, 2019

Smart-city projects promise to enhance the quality of life for the visually impaired, with Poland's Virtual Warsaw initiative a case in point. The city has established a network of beacon sensors to help visually impaired with independent navigation, fitted to edifices and transmitting data in real time to users' phones through Bluetooth. Meanwhile, Dubai last year conducted the pilot of an iPhone app that can render written information in metro stations as audio instructions, helping users go from entrance to ticket machine, gate, platform, and carriage. Smart cities also can help arriving travelers navigate public spaces, and implementing better connectivity for smartphones is a solid beginning. More innovative technologies could include automated data points, with tactile maps or audio systems describing surroundings, enhanced by camera-directed image recognition that enables object identification/description.

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A man 3D printing Air Force Eyes 3D Printing as Way to Trim Costs
The Washington Post
Aaron Gregg
September 27, 2019

The U.S. Air Force (USAF) is entering legal agreements with defense contractors so it can replace old aircraft parts with three-dimensionally (3D)-printed components. USAF officials said the agency has so far has printed more than 1,000 aircraft parts to save costs on discontinued components. An arrangement with General Electric's GE Aviation division will have GE set up 3D printers at USAF repair depots and train repairers on their use, with USAF paying the company a fixed fee for every printed part. Defense officials envision 3D printing as a potential remedy for the cost of military aircraft maintenance, which often exceeds the initial purchase price. Said Assistant Air Force Secretary Will Roper, “We need a new set of rules and a new business model to work with industry so that old parts don't become the limiting factor of how ready we are to go to war."

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Using Light to Speed Up Computation
American Institute of Physics
September 24, 2019

Researchers in Japan have developed a new type of processor that can potentially circumvent Moore's Law and accelerate computing, by employing power-efficient nanophotonics. The photonic accelerator (PAXEL) is positioned at the front end of a digital computer, and optimized to execute specific tasks, using less power than required for fully electronic devices. Nanophotonics run at the speed of light, and can perform computations in an analog fashion, by mapping data onto light intensity levels, with multiplications or additions then conducted by varying intensity. The researchers considered different PAXEL architectures for various applications, with fog computing a particularly interesting possibility. Fog computing uses servers in close proximity to an originating event, and a compact PAXEL affixed to a tablet or other handheld could identify signals and send data via a 5G wireless connection to nearby fog computing resources for data analysis.

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Machine Learning Helps Open Up New Possibilities for Quantum Devices
University of Oxford
September 26, 2019

Researchers at the University of Oxford and Lancaster University in the U.K. and the University of Basel in Switzerland have developed an algorithm that can be used to measure quantum dots automatically, a step toward the large-scale application of qubits. The machine learning algorithm reduces the measuring time and the number of measurements compared with conventional data acquisition. The researchers trained the algorithm with data on the current flowing through the quantum dot at different voltages. The program gradually learns where further measurements are needed, and aims to achieve the maximum information gain. Said Oxford's Natalia Ares, "For the first time, we've applied machine learning to perform efficient measurements in gallium arsenide quantum dots, thereby allowing for the characterization of large arrays of quantum devices." Basel's Dominik Zumbühl added, "The next step at our laboratory is now to apply the software to semiconductor quantum dots made of other materials that are better suited to the development of a quantum computer."

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Researchers Uncover Privacy Flaw in e-Passports
University of Luxembourg
September 25, 2019

University of Luxembourg researchers have found a flaw in the security standard used in biometric passports (e-passports) worldwide since 2004. The standard, called ICAO 9303, allows e-passport readers at airports to scan the chip inside a passport and identify the holder. The flaw allows specific non-authorized equipment to access passport data, meaning that bad actors with the right device can scan passports in close proximity and re-identify previously observed passport holders, monitoring their movements. Said University of Luxembourg researcher Ross Horne, "Thus, passport holders are not protected against having their movements traced by an unauthorized observer." Passport holders' privacy could be compromised, even though the flaw does not allow attackers to read all information from a given passport or to compromise biometric information stored in a chip inside the passport.

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Image of a man shaking hands with a robot When It Comes to Robots, Reliability May Matter More Than Reasoning
U.S. Army Research Laboratory
September 25, 2019

A study by U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) and University of Central Florida found that human confidence in robots decreases after a robot makes a mistake, even when it is transparent with its reasoning process. The researchers explored human-agent teaming to define how the transparency of the agents, such as robots, unmanned vehicles, or software agents, impacts human trust, task performance, workload, and agent perception. Subjects observing a robot making a mistake downgraded its reliability, even when it did not make any subsequent mistakes. Boosting agent transparency improved participants' trust in the robot, but only when the robot was collecting or filtering data. ARL's Julia Wright said, "Understanding how the robot's behavior influences their human teammates is crucial to the development of effective human-robot teams, as well as the design of interfaces and communication methods between team members."

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New File-Encrypting Attack Has Links to GandCrab Malware, Say Security Researchers
Danny Palmer
September 24, 2019

Security researchers in the Secureworks Counter Threat Unit suggest the new file-encrypting REvil ransomware was authored by the same creators of the GandCrab malware, who earlier this year announced their retirement. REvil appeared right before GandCrab halted operations, becoming one of the most significant ransomware families; Secureworks' Rafe Pilling said some of REvil's code overlaps with GandCrab, and artifacts in REvil suggest it may have been designed as an evolved iteration of GandCrab. The string decoding functions REvil and GandCrab utilize are almost identical, and they have common functionality that generates the same URL patterns for command and control servers. REvil and GandCrab also whitelist certain keyboard layouts to avoid infecting Russian-based hosts, implying the operations are based in the same region. The researchers speculate that GandCrab's designers launched REvil to rebrand their operations to stay ahead of law enforcement and security professionals.

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