Welcome to the April 10, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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A Self-driving bus Supervised Self-Driving Shuttles Move COVID-19 Tests in Florida
The Verge
Sean O'Kane
April 6, 2020

Self-driving shuttles transporting COVID-19 tests from a Jacksonville, FL, testing site to a Mayo Clinic processing location are being trailed by human-driven sport utility vehicles (SUVs). Joe Moye with autonomous vehicle operator Beep said the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) is supplying the SUVs to shadow the autonomous shuttles to "ensure no traffic or pedestrians would potentially impact the delivery path of the COVID-19 samples and supplies." JTA's David Cawton II said with this deployment, the agency is collecting valuable information and experience "even if this service is operating with an extra layer of human oversight or remote interaction." Beep, the Mayo Clinic, and the JTA also are reportedly "closely monitor[ing]" the shuttles from a "mobile command center" to ensure deliveries proceed without problems.

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Thanks to 'Flexoskeletons,' Insect-Inspired Robots Are Faster and Cheaper to Make
UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering
April 8, 2020

Engineers at the University of California (UC) San Diego have developed a method of creating soft, flexible robots that can be accomplished using most commercially available three-dimensional (3D) printers. These "flexoskeletons," inspired by insect exoskeletons that have both soft and rigid parts, are made by 3D-printing a rigid material on a thin sheet that acts as a flexible base. It takes 10 minutes to print one flexoskeleton component at a cost of less than $1, with a whole robot able to be printed and assembled in less than two hours. Said UC San Diego's Nick Gravish, "We hope that these flexoskeletons will lead to the creation of a new class of soft, bioinspired robots."

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A humpback whale. AI Helping Scientists Understand an Ocean's Worth of Data
The New York Times
Tatiana Schlossberg
April 8, 2020

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with help from engineers at Google, trained a neural network to distinguish humpback whale songs from other ocean noise. The researchers used the resulting program to determine the occurrence of the species in islands in the Pacific, and how that may have changed over the past decade. Meanwhile, researchers at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory and the New England Aquarium are using data from satellites, sonar, radar, human sightings, ocean currents, and more to train a machine learning algorithm to create a probability model to help locate the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Said the Monterey Bay Research Aquarium Institute's Kakani Katija, "What I love about technology or the progress we’re seeing in AI, I think it’s a hopeful time because if we get this right, I think it will have profound effects on how we observe our environment and create a sustainable future."

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12k+ Android Apps Contain Master Passwords, Secret Access Keys, Secret Commands
Catalin Cimpanu
April 4, 2020

Academics from the U.S. and Europe using a tool that analyzes input form fields inside more than 150,000 Android applications found hidden backdoor-like behavior in 12,706 of the apps. The researchers used InputScope, a custom tool they developed, to analyze the top 100,000 Play Store apps, the top 20,000 apps hosted by third-party stores, and more than 30,000 apps pre-installed on Samsun handsets. The backdoor mechanisms identified by the tool include secret access keys, master passwords, and secret commands, which could allow unauthorized access to user accounts, grant hackers access to a device, or allow them to run code on a device with elevated privileges. While researchers notified all those developers whose apps had such mechanisms, they said not all have responded.

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Lawmakers Outline Proposals for Virtual Voting
The Hill
Cristina Marcos
April 7, 2020

U.S. lawmakers have urged House leaders to consider virtual voting in order to conduct congressional business while complying with health guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic. The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus outlined three proposals. One would have lawmakers phone the House clerk, who would log their votes; confirmation would be provided on their House-provided email account. The second proposal was to use videoconferencing to log votes, or an audio line for those who lack home-based Internet access. The third option involved installing voting machines similar to those on the House floor in lawmakers' district offices or homes. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have both dismissed the idea of remote voting.

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Tech Hiring Slows as Businesses Grapple with Economic Volatility
The Wall Street Journal
Angus Loten
April 6, 2020

A report by information technology (IT) trade group CompTIA found that U.S. employers slashed 19,000 IT jobs during March, even as more businesses have become increasingly reliant on tech support for remote work, e-commerce, and business continuity services. This decline stems from business volatility caused by the coronavirus outbreak. CompTIA's unemployment rate for IT jobs was more or less stable at 2.4%, versus 4.4% for all occupations. Although IT job postings in March roughly held steady at about 359,000, most openings cited remote work as a necessity, while demand for project managers and software developers—a category that includes those with artificial intelligence skills—was down. Meanwhile, tech research firm International Data Corp. expects global IT spending to drop 2.7% this year compared with last year, as the pandemic's economic impact forces cuts.

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A man spray-painting music notes. Sprayable User Interfaces
MIT News
Rachel Gordon
April 8, 2020

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a technique for spraying on user interfaces. The SprayableTech system automatically generates cardboard stencils of artwork users create in a three-dimensional editor, which can be used to apply the art to surfaces by airbrushing on functional inks. The user can add sensors and displays that control various appliances, and a microcontroller is attached to link the interface to the board that runs the code. The researchers tested SprayableTech on multiple items, including a musical interface on a concrete pillar, an interactive sofa connected to a TV, and a wall display for controlling lighting levels. CSAIL's Michael Wessely said, "We view this as a tool that will allow humans to interact with and use their environment in newfound ways.”

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Social Media Can Accurately Forecast Economic Impact of Natural Disasters
University of Bristol News
April 8, 2020

Researchers at the U.K.’s University of Bristol used aggregated social media data to accurately estimate the downtime and recovery of small businesses impacted by natural disasters. The study found the economic impact and recovery of businesses in countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic could be charted using social media. The researchers used data from public Facebook posts of local businesses collected before and after the 2015 Gorkha earthquake in Nepal, the 2017 Chiapas earthquake in Mexico, and 2017’s Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to chart the number of smaller urban businesses that were closed and later measure their post-event recovery. The researchers said their framework works in real time without the need for text analysis, and can be applied to any size area or type of natural disaster, in developed and developing countries.

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One DNA strand. 'Punch-Card' DNA Could Mean Cheaper High-Capacity Data Storage
Scientific American
Charles Q. Choi
April 8, 2020

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) researchers have proposed an alternative to custom-synthesizing DNA for high-capacity data storage, using instead a punch-card-inspired method of marking existing DNA molecules with patterns of "nicks" to encode data. UIUC's S. Kasra Tabatabaei said the approach uses enzymes to sever bonds between the molecules that constitute the DNA's backbone; a nick caused by such a severance represents 1, and its absence represents 0. Experimenting with genetic material harvested from strains of E. coli bacteria, the scientists encoded Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and a 14-kilobyte image of the Lincoln Memorial on bacterial DNA, then used commercial sequencing techniques to accurately read the files. Said UIUC’s Olgica Milenkovic, “The biggest problem with DNA data storage right now isn’t density; it’s cost, and our costs are really low and can be made even lower.”

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The Royal Dutch Shell logo. Royal Dutch Shell Reskills Workers in AI as Part of Energy Transition
Susan Caminiti
April 3, 2020

Oil company Royal Dutch Shell is offering employees the opportunity to take online courses in artificial intelligence (AI), among other things, offered by the Udacity digital learning and workforce skilling platform. According to Shell, about 2,000 of its 82,000 employees worldwide have expressed interest in the online AI courses, or their managers have approached them about taking one of the courses, which range from Python programming to training neural networks. Workers usually complete Udacity's tailored online coursework within four to six months. Shell's Dan Jeavons said, "We need to find a way to provide more and cleaner energy, and investing in AI is a key way in which we're going to do that." The program also aims to make energy-sector employment more attractive to young and digitally native workers.

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iPhone Camera Hacked: Three Zero-Days Used in $75,000 Attack Chain
Davey Winder
April 3, 2020

Ryan Pickren, a former Amazon Web Services security engineer, found at least seven zero-day vulnerabilities in Apple Safari, and was able to use three of them to successfully hijack the iPhone camera. Said Pickren, "A bug like this shows why users should never feel totally confident that their camera is secure, regardless of operating system or manufacturer." Pickren reported his findings to the Apple Bug Bounty Program in mid-December, and was rewarded with a $75,000 bounty from the company. Apple's Safari 13.0.5 update released Jan. 28 patched the three-bug camera kill chain, and the remaining zero-day vulnerabilities were addressed in the Safari 13.1 update on March 24.

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Google Launches Braille Keyboard for Android Devices
Kyle Wiggers
April 9, 2020

Google’s new virtual braille keyboard for Android devices requires no additional hardware to enable the visually impaired or blind to type on their phones. Created in collaboration with braille developers and users, the keyboard will work with devices running Android 5.0 or newer though an update to the Android Accessibility Suite on the Google Play Store. It supports braille grade 1 and grade 2 in English (with more languages to come), and employs a six-key layout, with each key representing one of six braille dots which produce any letter or symbol when tapped. Blogged Android Accessibility’s Brian Kemler, “We hope this keyboard can broadly expand braille literacy and exposure among blind and low-vision people.”

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Analytical Model Predicts Exactly How Much a Piece of Hardware Will Speed Up Datacenters
University of Michigan Computer Science and Engineering
April 6, 2020

Researchers at University of Michigan Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) and Facebook have designed Accelerometer, an analytical model for predicting exactly how much hardware accelerators will speed up datacenters. CSE's Akshitha Sriraman showed that as few as 18% of most microservices' central processing unit cycles are spent executing instructions core to their functionality, with the rest committed to common operations. Sriraman said, "Acceleration will allow us to pack more work for the same power constraints and improve resource utilization at scale, so datacenter energy and cost savings will improve greatly." Sriraman said several major cloud players have started using Accelerometer “to quickly discard bad accelerator choices and identify the good ones, to make well-informed hardware investments;” Facebook is using it to explore new accelerators as well.

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