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Welcome to the November 6, 2019 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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An apple store With Laser, Researchers Say They Can Hack Alexa, Google Home, Siri
The New York Times
Nicole Perlroth
November 4, 2019

Researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) and the University of Electro-Communications in Japan used laser pointers, or even flashlights, to effectively hijack digital assistants like Google Home, Amazon's Alexa, and Apple's Siri from hundreds of feet away. U-M's Kevin Fu said, "It's difficult to know how many products are affected, because this is so basic." The researchers said the devices' microphones respond to light as if it were sound, as they contain a small plate called a diaphragm that moves when sound hits it. Focusing a laser or flashlight on the diaphragm can reproduce this movement, and translate it into electric signals; correcting this flaw would require redesigning most microphones. U-M's Daniel Genkin said keeping home-based voice assistants out of the line of sight from outside is one simple solution.

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What Reddit's Basketball Fans Can Tell Us About Online Discourse
CU Boulder Today
Daniel Strain
November 4, 2019

University of Colorado, Boulder (CU Boulder) researchers used software to analyze the language patterns in 2.1 million posts on r/nba, Reddit's platform for basketball discussions. The researchers found more frequent fan interaction correlated with increasingly negative comments, with swearing and hate speech more likely to be used. According to CU Boulder's Chenhao Tan and Jason Shuo Zhang, allowing fans of different NBA teams to interact online may backfire, causing vocabulary to deteriorate. Said Tan, "When intergroup contact occurs ... some negativity can spread back to a user's home setting and make the situation even worse." However, Tan added, “I think that studies like ours can help in pointing the direction toward how we can create healthier platforms for people to have these kinds of conversations.”

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International Study Finds Major Inequities in Computer Literacy
Education Week
Alyson Klein
November 5, 2019

A study by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement found inconsistent computer literacy rates across 12 countries, while more widely variable achievement levels also were evident. Learners of higher socioeconomic status had higher computer literacy scores, on average. The nations ranking highest in the study were Denmark and South Korea; U.S. student performance received a middling rating. Educators' computer literacy also appears inconsistent, with 95% of teachers saying they were comfortable using the Internet to find resources, versus 57% who felt self-confident in using digital tools for online collaboration. Girls generally outscored boys in computer literacy skills, according to the study.

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Given a photo of a mystery bird (top), the A.I. spits out heat maps showing which parts of the image are most similar to typical species features it has seen before. AI Birdwatcher Lets You 'See' Through the Eyes of a Machine
Duke Today
Robin A. Smith
October 31, 2019

Researchers at Duke University developed an artificial intelligence tool that can identify as many as 200 species of bird from photos. The researchers fed a deep neural network 11,788 photos of birds from those species. After that training, the team found the program was able to identify the correct species of bird in an image up to 84% of the time. Similar technology is used to tag people on social networking sites, identify suspected criminals in surveillance cameras, and train self-driving cars. However, most deep learning approaches to computer vision learn from the data without explicitly being programmed, creating an environment in which users cannot tell how the algorithms "think" when they classify an image. The Duke deep learning model explains the reasoning behind its analyses, making it clear exactly why and how it came up with an answer.

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Microsoft Teams Up with Warner Bros. to Store Superman on Glass Storage
The Verge
Tom Warren
November 4, 2019

Microsoft developed a proof-of-concept for glass-based data storage, partnering with Warner Bros. to store a copy of the 1978 Superman movie using this technique. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said the company employs highly resilient quartz glass as part of its Project Silica initiative for advanced data storage/preservation. Infrared lasers encode the data into voxels, a three-dimensional version of pixels, which are stored in the glass, and machine learning algorithms can decode the patterns to read back the data. Vicky Colf of Warner Bros. said, "If Project Silica's storage solution proves to be as cost-effective and as scalable as it could be ... this is something we'd love to see adopted by other studios and our peers and other industries."

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Printer Creates Extremely Realistic Colorful Holograms
Optical Society of America
October 31, 2019

Researchers have developed a printer that generates detailed, colorful three-dimensional (3D) digital holograms. The CHIMERA printer employs off-the-shelf lasers and high-speed printing to create holograms with wide fields of view and full parallax on specially-designed photographic material. CHIMERA can create holograms from 3D computer-generated models, or from scans via a dedicated scanner, while the holograms can serve as templates for holographic duplicates. Said Yves Gentet of Ultimate Holography, "The new system offers a much wider field of view, higher resolution, and noticeably better color rendition and dynamic range than previous systems." The researchers said that as technology improves, their hologram printing approach may be used for medical or other advanced applications.

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Intelligent Network for Better Water Management
Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
November 4, 2019

Droople, a startup from Switzerland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, has developed an intelligent flow meter that can measure buildings' water consumption and identify potential energy savings. The meters are installed at the point of use, collecting and transmitting data through a low-power wide area network (LoRaWAN), to a cloud-based software program that extracts useful information. Droople's smart meters run on batteries, and use a LoRaWAN, so they can operate maintenance-free for three to five years. Droople CEO Ramzi Bouzerda said, "Our program runs the data through a series of algorithms to extract the useful information."

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Intuitive in the Virtual Reality
Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf
Simon Schmitt
October 29, 2019

Researchers at Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf in Germany and Johannes Kepler University Linz (JKU) in Austria have developed an electronic sensor that can simultaneously process both touchless and tactile stimuli. When applied to human skin, the sensor could provide a seamless interactive platform for virtual and augmented reality applications. The researchers said the sensor was conceived as an electronic counterpart to human skin, and could “massively amplify” the interaction of people and machines. Said JKU's Martin Kaltenbrunner, "A better interface between humans and machines can be built on this foundation."

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Picture of an ambulance Drones: For When Medical Intervention Has to Get There Before an Ambulance
IEEE Spectrum
Emily Waltz
October 31, 2019

Researchers at Maimonides Medical Center in the New York City borough of Brooklyn found that medical drones carrying emergency supplies can reach 911 callers in New York City significantly faster than ambulances. The study demonstrated that first responders from emergency medical services (EMS) arrived on the scene of emergencies in about 9.5 minutes on average, while drones arrived in about 6.5 minutes. In emergencies where every second counts, drones could fly ahead of first responders to deliver drugs and supplies. In addition, drones could be equipped with a small videoconferencing screen through which a dispatcher could instruct a 911 caller what to do with the medical supplies. Said Maimonides researcher Mark Hanna, "We're not trying replace EMS. We're trying to augment the standard of care."

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EU Patches 20-Year-Old Open Source Vulnerability
Alex Scroxton
November 4, 2019

A bug bounty program hosted by the HackerOne cybersecurity firm on behalf of the EU Free and Open Source Software Audit (EU-FOSSA) led to a two-decade-old flaw in an open source network file transfer application being patched. The flaw could have allowed a malefactor to crash the PuTTY application and exploit it to remotely execute code. HackerOne's Shlomie Liberow said, "Tools like PuTTY are complex and it contains some functionality that isn't always used, (possibly making it) harder to uncover some security issues." The PuTTy flaw is one of 133 vulnerabilities unearthed during the EU-FOSSA program.

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Small vehicles on a prop set Better Autonomous 'Reasoning' at Tricky Intersections
MIT News
Rob Matheson
November 4, 2019

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Toyota researchers have developed a new model to help autonomous vehicles determine when it is safe to proceed into traffic at intersections with obstructed views. The model uses its own uncertainty to estimate the risk of potential collisions or other traffic disruptions at intersections. The system considers critical factors including nearby visual obstructions, sensor noise and errors, the speed of other cars, and the attentiveness of other drivers. Based on its measured risk, the system may instruct the car to stop, pull into traffic, or move slightly forward to gather more data. The researchers tested the system in more than 100 trials of remote-controlled cars turning left at a busy, obstructed intersection in a mock city, with other cars constantly driving through the cross street; the system helped the cars avoid collisions 70% to 100% of the time.

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RoboBee flapping its wings. RoboBee Powered by Soft Muscles
Harvard University John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Leah Burrows
November 4, 2019

Researchers at Harvard University's John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed a resilient RoboBee powered by soft artificial muscles that can experience collisions without being damaged. The researchers built upon electrically-driven soft actuators, which are made using dielectric elastomers—soft materials with good insulating properties that deform when an electric field is applied. Said SEAS researcher Elizabeth Farrel Helbling, the robot’s ability to absorb impact without damage “would come in handy in potential applications such as flying through rubble for search and rescue missions.”

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Microsoft 2020 Imagine Cup
Northeastern University Institute for Experiential AI

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