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Welcome to the March 2, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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The QR code inside the Alipay app. Green is good, and allows the holder to travel freely. In Coronavirus Fight, China Gives Citizens a Color Code, with Red Flags
The New York Times
Paul Mozur; Raymond Zhong; Aaron Krolik
March 1, 2020


To manage the coronavirus epidemic, China is requiring citizens to use software on their smartphones to determine whether they should be quarantined or allowed into public spaces—but an analysis in The New York Times found that the underlying code seems to share information with the police. Citizens sign up via the Alipay digital wallet app, then receive a color code denoting their health status. An accompanying quick-response code allows or disallows users to travel freely, according to the color code. Once a user grants the software access to personal data, a program component transmits their location, city name, and an identifying code number to a server. The developers of the Alipay Health Code said the software uses big data to rate an individual's contagion risk, while critics warn the system establishes a troubling precedent for automated social control through mass surveillance.

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AI Ethics Backed by Pope, Tech Giants
BBC News
Jen Copestake
February 28, 2020


The Roman Catholic Church has agreed to partner with IBM and Microsoft to develop an ethical approach for designing artificial intelligence (AI), with Pope Francis' support. The Rome Call for Ethics asks that AI be designed to benefit the environment and "our common and shared home and of its human inhabitants." Microsoft president Brad Smith said agreeing on a universal ethical AI model may be impossible because no one has ever agreed on an ethical framework to govern their lives. IBM's John Kelly said AI would soon affect all occupations, and the best scenario is for humans to work alongside machines. Said Kelly, "AI is so close to human behavior and interaction [that] this is really important to get right, so we are really proud to team up with the Catholic Church to get this one right."

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With a small ocean robot, Northeastern researchers produced high-resolution models of icebergs in Greenland How to Stop an Iceberg in Its Tracks
[email protected]
Roberto Molar Candanosa
February 27, 2020


Northeastern University researchers used a small robot to generate detailed three-dimensional maps of icebergs in Greenland's Sermilik Fjord, to gain insights on how fast they are melting in response to climate change. A key challenge for Northeastern's Hanumant Singh was measuring massive chunks of ice in constant motion, which required the robot's algorithms to mathematically "freeze" the icebergs. The robot is basically a camera and sonar sensor mounted on a gas-powered kayak, capturing raw images of the above-water sections of iceberg. The robot uses these images to navigate around the iceberg and help the sonar measure the submerged ice. Singh said Northeastern oceanographers will use these measurements "to actually make models of what's happening to the freshwater, how these icebergs are melting, and how that's being affected by climate change."

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How Do Zebrafish Get Their Stripes? Data Analysis Tool Could Provide an Answer
Brown University
Kevin Stacey
February 27, 2020


Researchers at Brown University have developed an algorithm that could help scientists better understand self-assembled patterns in nature, such as the stripes of a zebrafish. The algorithm can quantify various attributes of shapes and patterns, allowing users to more objectively test theories about how such developmental patterns are formed. The researchers focused on zebrafish because they are excellent testbeds for examining how genetic changes can influence pattern formation. “This is a newer area of math and statistics that focuses on quantifying shape,” said Brown's Melissa McGuirl. “Essentially, it's a tool that allows us to track connected components and loops which correspond to shape features representing spots or stripes."

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An officer watching undocumented immigrants deported in El Salvador in 2018 ICE Has Run Facial Recognition Searches on Millions of Maryland Drivers
The Washington Post
Drew Harwell; Erin Cox
February 26, 2020


Maryland officials said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have run facial recognition searches on millions of state driver's license photos without first obtaining state or court approval. The technology could allow ICE agents to run a photo of an unknown person through the system, to see if it matches any potentially undocumented immigrants. Maryland grants special driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, and advocates see the state's allowance of these ICE searches as a betrayal. Georgetown University Law School's Harrison Rudolph warned that the searches could impact everyone because of the potential for misidentification due to documented racial biases in certain facial recognition algorithms.

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Flaw in Billions of Wi-Fi Devices Left Communications Open to Eavesdropping
Ars Technica
Dan Goodin
February 26, 2020


Researchers at Slovakian Internet security company ESET discovered that billions of devices are affected by a Wi-Fi vulnerability that allows nearby attackers to decrypt sensitive data. The team named the vulnerability Kr00k; it is tracked as CVE-2019-15126. The vulnerability exists in Wi-Fi chips manufactured by Cypress Semiconductor and Broadcom, affecting devices such as iPhones, iPads, Macs, Amazon Echos and Kindles, Android devices, Raspberry Pi 3's, and certain Wi-Fi routers. Kr00k exploits the fact that wireless devices disassociate from a wireless access point, exposing any unsent data frames. Rather than encrypt this unsent data with the session key negotiated earlier and used during the normal connection, vulnerable devices use a key consisting of all zeros. While manufacturers have made patches available for most of the affected devices, it is not clear how many devices actually installed the patches.

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Big Data Helps Farmers Adapt to Climate Variability
Michigan State University
February 27, 2020


Michigan State University (MSU) researchers have used big data to identify areas within individual crop fields where yields are unstable. Using data collected from satellites, research aircraft, drones, and remote sensors, and from farmers via advanced geospatial sensor suites, the researchers combined big data and digital expertise to discover that the interaction between topography, weather, and soil has a significant impact on how crop fields respond to extreme weather in unstable areas. The team quantified the percentage of every corn or soybean field in the Midwest that is likely to experience water excess or water deficit. Said MSU's Bruno Basso, "Combining big data spatially with landscape position this way could forever change the way Midwestern farmers fertilize their fields, and ultimately reduce the amount of reactive nitrogen getting into our water."

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Children and a man heading toward a helicopter Tool Aims to Assist Military Logistics in Evacuating Noncombatants
NC State News
Matt Shipman
February 28, 2020


Researchers at North Carolina State University (NC State) and the U.S. Army have developed a computational model for accelerating military operations to evacuate noncombatants, disaster response personnel, or humanitarian relief workers. The research concentrated on noncombatant evacuations in South Korea, although the model could be widely applicable. NC State's Brandon McConnell said, "What sets this tool apart ... is that it is designed for use in both planning and during operations." The model is designed to ascertain what needs to be where, and when, to complete an evacuation as soon as possible. McConnell said the new model operates in close to real time, with the goal of encouraging the design of more robust evacuation plans.

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By Studying Snakes, Engineers Learn How to Build Better Robots
Johns Hopkins Hub
Chanapa Tantibanchachai
February 18, 2020


Johns Hopkins University (JHU) researchers have developed a snake robot that can nimbly and stably climb large steps. The robotic system could advance the field of search and rescue robots that can successfully navigate difficult terrain. The researchers examined how a kingsnake, which lives in environments ranging from deserts to forests, climbed steps in Li's Terradynamics Lab. They then created a robot to mimic the animals' movements. Said JHU's Chen Li, "The animal is still far more superior, but these results are promising for the field of robots that can travel across large obstacles." Li added, "Hopefully our robot can learn how to bob and weave across surfaces just like snakes."

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Physiotherapy Could be Done at Home Using VR
University of Warwick
February 28, 2020


Researchers at the Warwick Manufacturing Group of the U.K.’s University of Warwick have combined virtual reality (VR) with three-dimensional motion-capture technology to help patients perform physiotherapy exercises at home. The researchers asked participants to step in time with an avatar viewed through a VR headset, while subtly slowing or speeding up one of the avatar's steps. Observations showed that participants had difficulty keeping time when only presented with visual information, while the addition of footsteps allowed participants to accurately maintain pace with the avatar. Said Warwick's Theo Arvanitis, "Our work and digitally-enabled technological solution can underpin transformative health innovations to impact the field of physiotherapy, and have a direct benefit to patients' rehabilitation."

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Robot specialist who gets paid to look after several robot security guards that roam offices in the San Francisco Bay Area AI is the Next Workplace Disrupter, and It's Coming for High-Skilled Jobs
The Wall Street Journal
Eric Morath
February 23, 2020


A Brookings Institution study predicts that the next wave of artificial intelligence (AI)-driven automation will target white-collar professions like marketing specialists, financial advisers, and computer programmers. AI enables computers to analyze data, anticipate outcomes, and learn from experience by recognizing patterns and making decisions—jobs typically performed by highly skilled, well-educated employees. Stanford University's Michael Webb used AI to review more than 16,000 AI-related patents to ascertain capabilities like disease diagnosis or object recognition, while examining a U.S. Labor Department database of occupations to catalog specific tasks needed for jobs. By matching the frequency of overlap between these two factors, Webb found that holders of bachelor's degrees are five times more likely to be impacted by AI than those with high-school diplomas. AI may potentially automate certain tasks for some professionals without entirely replacing them, while others could find their jobs simplified and easily filled by less-educated workers.

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Team Demos Breakthrough in Analog Image Processing
Vanderbilt School of Engineering
February 24, 2020


Researchers at Vanderbilt University the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, both in Tennessee, have demonstrated a new metamaterial-based ultrathin filter that enables analog optical image processing. The filter is based on a two-dimensional photonic crystal fashioned from silicon, which directly differentiates incoming light to image an object's edges in all directions. This nanophotonic differentiator can be combined with an optical microscope or added to a camera sensor. Vanderbilt's Jason Valentine said, "The key feature is the ability to perform image processing at the speed of light while requiring no input power and doing so in an extremely thin form factor. This opens new doors for real-time and high-speed optical analog image processing in applications such as machine vision and biological imaging."

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