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Welcome to the April 15, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Apple Logo Apple, Google to Harness Phones for Virus Infection Tracking
Associated Press
Frank Bajak; Matt O'Brien
April 10, 2020

Apple and Google have launched a joint effort to help public health agencies around the world leverage smartphones to contain the coronavirus pandemic. The companies plan to add new software to handsets to make it easier to use Bluetooth wireless technology to track people who may have been infected by coronavirus carriers. The companies want to help national, state, and local governments roll out apps for "contact tracing" that will run on iPhones and Android phones alike. The system harnesses short-range Bluetooth signals, and collects information about other phones with which they came into close proximity. This data can be used to alert others who might have been infected by known carriers of the coronavirus. Said Boston University’s Tiffani Li, “It’s not a replacement for just having widespread testing, which would be more accurate, but clearly we have a huge shortage of tests.”

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Malware in phone 'Unkillable' Android Malware Gives Hackers Full Remote Access to Your Phone
Cat Ellis
April 8, 2020

Igor Golovin, a researcher at cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab, found that the xHelper malware uses a system of nested programs that makes it extremely hard to root out, even after a system restore. xHelper often is distributed through third-party stores disguised as a popular cleanup or maintenance app to improve a device's performance. When the malware is installed, it downloads a "dropper" trojan, which collects information on the device and installs another trojan. The second trojan downloads exploit code that gives it root access to the device. Said Golovin, "Using a smartphone infected with xHelper is extremely dangerous. The malware installs a backdoor with the ability to execute commands as a superuser. It provides the attackers with full access to all app data and can be used by other malware too."

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Electronic Cooling Technology to Enable Miniaturization of Quantum Computers
VTT Technical Research Center
April 14, 2020

Researchers at the VTT Technical Research Center of Finland have demonstrated an electronic cooling technology that could enable the miniaturization of quantum computers. The team experimentally suspended a piece of silicon from junctions where cooling and thermal isolation operate, and refrigerated it by feeding electrical current from one junction to another. The current reduced the thermodynamic temperature of the object by as much as 40%. David Gunnarsson at quantum-system and computer cooling solutions provider Bluefors Oy said, "The demonstrated cooling effect can be used to actively cool quantum circuits on a silicon chip or in large-scale refrigerators." VTT’s Emma Mykkänen said, “We believe that this cooling effect can be observed in many different settings, like, for example, in molecular junctions.”

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Supercomputing Future Wind Power Rise
Texas Advanced Computing Center
Jorge Salazar
April 14, 2020

Cornell University researchers employed supercomputers to project future scenarios for expanding installed U.S. wind power capacity from 7% of the nation's electricity supply today to a goal of 20% by 2030. The researchers considered plans for expanding capacity without using additional land, and determined that the U.S. could double or even quadruple its wind power capacity with little change to system-wide efficiency, and with little impact on local climate—partly through next-generation turbine deployment. The team ran simulations by applying the National Center for Atmospheric Research's Weather Research Forecasting (WRF) model over the eastern U.S., using the Cori supercomputer at the Department of Energy's National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center. Said Cornell’s Sara C. Pryor, “Our work is designed to inform the expansion of this industry and ensure it's done in a way that maximizes the energy output from wind and thus continues the trend towards lower cost of energy from wind.”

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Micrometer-size electro-optical modulator Breaking the Size, Speed Limit of Modulators: The Workhorses of the Internet
George Washington University
April 13, 2020

George Washington University (GWU) researchers have developed a silicon-based electro-optical modulator that is smaller and more efficient than state-of-the-art technologies, while matching their speed. The team built a 1-micrometer device that supports gigahertz-fast, or 1 billion times per second, signal modulation, by adding indium tin oxide to a silicon photonic chip platform. Electro-optical modulators convert electrical data from computers and smartphones to optical data streams for fiber-optic networks. The GWU modulator enables an optical index change 1,000 times larger than silicon, as well as stability against temperature changes and conveyance of multiple wavelengths of light in a single fiber-optic cable—boosting the amount of data that can move through a system. GWU's Volker Sorger said, "This sets a new horizon for next-generation photonic reconfigurable devices with enhanced performance, yet reduced size."

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How Online Status Indicators Shape Our Behavior
UW News
Sarah McQuate
April 13, 2020

Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) investigating how online status indicators influence online behavior polled 200 smartphone users and found that many people misunderstand these indicators, yet carefully tune their behavior to control how they appear to others. More than half of those surveyed said they had suspected someone had noticed their status, and more than 50% also reported logging on to an app to check someone else's status; some (43%) admitted adjusting their settings or behavior to avoid one person. The results indicated that people have little control over whether they share information with their network. Carnegie Mellon University’s Camille Cobb said practicing good online security and hygiene “includes thinking about how your online presence allows you to craft the identities that you want and manage your interpersonal relationships. There are tools to protect you from malware, but you can’t really download something to protect you from your in-laws.”

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Alarming Abusive Head Trauma Revealed in Computational Simulation Impact Study
New York Institute of Technology
April 9, 2020

A team of researchers at the New York Institute of Technology's College of Engineering and Computing Sciences created computational simulations to help clinicians and caregivers improve their understanding of the impact of abusive head trauma (AHT), the leading cause of fatal brain injuries in children under two. These more-precise simulations show that cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is designed to protect the brain only for the first shake, and was unable to prevent the brain from colliding with the skull on subsequent shakes. Said Rosalyn Chan-Akeley, OB/GYN research program manager at New York-Presbyterian Queens Lang Research Center, “Better knowledge of the brain and its response to trauma can help us to tailor treatment and possibly mitigate damage.”

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An Android version of the game called NeMO-Net NASA Created a Game That Lets You Help Map the Ocean's Coral Reefs
Ry Crist
April 9, 2020

Researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Ames Research Center have developed a game that anyone can play to help map the ocean's diversity of coral reefs. NeMO-Net players virtually travel the ocean floor in a vessel called the Nautilus, identifying and classifying whatever coral they see. The researchers will use the data collected from the game to help train the Pleiades supercomputer to recognize coral in any image of the ocean floor. As the supercomputer learns to recognize coral, researchers will be better able to map and track changes in coral populations, which are considered essential to the marine ecosystem. Said Ames researcher Ved Chirayath, "NeMO-Net leverages the most powerful force on this planet: not a fancy camera or a supercomputer, but people."

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Model Tracks Arsenic in Groundwater
Flinders University
April 8, 2020

A group of researchers from Australia's Flinders University, the University of Western Australia, and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization worked with colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology to develop a computer model that mimics the complex interactions between groundwater flow, solute transport, and geochemical reaction mechanisms. The model can more precisely identify the sources of arsenic pollution, and better predict how fast arsenic pollution is spreading in aquifers used for drinking water. The team used a field study site in Vietnam, which had collected a large quantity of useful data over the last 15 years, to develop and test the computer model. Said Flinders' Ilka Wallis, "Our computer modelling integrates much of what field- and laboratory-based researchers have learned over the past two decades to better understand the sources and distribution of arsenic-polluted groundwater."

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This is the machine Eindhoven University of Technology physicist Erik Bakkers and his colleagues used to grow hexagonal silicon alloy nanowires. After 50 Years of Effort, Researchers Made Silicon Emit Light
Daniel Oberhaus
April 8, 2020

Researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands say they have induced the emission of light from silicon. Key to this achievement was using gallium arsenide nanowires as a framework to grow nanowires with a hexagonal silicon lattice, in order to enable photons to propagate through the material. The researchers bombarded the nanowires with an infrared laser and quantified the amount of infrared light released, which was nearly equal to the amount of energy the laser pumped into the system. Pascal Del’Hay at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light said the development is “a big breakthrough that they were able to demonstrate light emission from nanowires made of a silicon mixture, because these materials are compatible with the fabrication processes used in the computer chip industry. In the future, this might enable the production of microchips that combine both optical and electronic circuits.”

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DarkHotel Hackers Use VPN Zero-Day to Breach Chinese Government Agencies
Catalin Cimpanu
April 6, 2020

Qihoo 360 has reported that foreign state-sponsored hackers have taken aim at Chinese government agencies and their employees, using a zero-day vulnerability to gain control of Sangfor SSL VPN servers. The Chinese security firm found that more than 200 VPN servers have been hacked in this campaign, 174 of which were located on the networks of government agencies in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as those of Chinese diplomatic missions operating abroad. The hackers replaced a file named SangforUD.exe with a boobytrapped version that installed a backdoor trojan on devices connected to the hacked servers. Qihoo believes DarkHotel is working to gain insights into how the Chinese government handled the COVID-19 outbreak.

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AI Techniques Used to Improve Battery Health, Safety
University of Cambridge (UK)
April 6, 2020

A machine learning method developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge and Newcastle University in the U.K. can predict battery health with 10 times greater accuracy than the current industry standard. The new method could help develop safer, more reliable batteries for electric vehicles and consumer electronics. An add-on compatible with any existing battery system, the method monitors batteries by sending electrical pulses into them, measuring the results, and processing those measurements with a machine learning algorithm to predict the battery's health and useful lifespan. The researchers trained the model by performing more than 20,000 experimental measurements. Said Cambridge's Alpha Lee, "By improving the software that monitors charging and discharging, and using data-driven software to control the charging process, I believe we can power a big improvement in battery performance."

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UC Berkeley's AI-Powered Robot Teaches Itself to Drive Off-Road
IEEE Spectrum
Gregory Kahn
April 7, 2020

University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) researchers have developed a robot learning system that can learn about physical attributes of the environment through its own experiences in the real world, without the need for simulations or human supervision. BADGR: the Berkeley Autonomous Driving Ground Robot autonomously collects data and automatically labels it. The system uses that data to train an image-based neural network predictive model, and applies that model to plan and execute actions that will lead the robot to accomplish a desired navigational task. UC Berkeley’s Gregory Kahn wrote, “The key insight behind BADGR is that by autonomously learning from experience directly in the real world, BADGR can learn about navigational affordances, improve as it gathers more data, and generalize to unseen environments."

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