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

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Covid-19 and computing New ACM Award to Recognize Research Using HPC to Combat COVID-19
May 12, 2020

ACM this week unveiled the new ACM Gordon Bell Special Prize for High-Performance Computing-Based COVID-19 Research, to be presented this year and next year. The award will single out exceptional research achievements using high-performance computing (HPC) applications to understand the COVID-19 pandemic. Nominees will be selected according to performance and innovation in their computational methods, as well as their contributions toward understanding the nature, propagation, and/or treatment of the disease. The award complements the longstanding ACM Gordon Bell Prize for outstanding achievement in HPC applications. ACM president Cherri M. Pancake said, "This new award ... hopefully will spur computer scientists at all levels to reimagine how the powerful tools of high-performance computing can be used in everything from vaccines to tracking, and perhaps even preventing the next pandemic."

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head rendering UMBC Gaming Researchers Develop Way to Render Characters with Realistic Skin
UMBC Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering
May 11, 2020

University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) researchers created a new technique for realistically rendering human skin on video game characters. UMBC's Marc Olano developed the method, which adaptively estimates the number of samples actually required to achieve the desired appearance, while minimizing the computation needed to smooth the image. Olano and his team crafted an algorithm to identify pixels that would require different rendering than others due to light gradient changes, using temporal variance to reduce the number of changes in each frame while maintaining a realistic depiction of subsurface scattering. The technique offers an efficient means for rendering photorealistic skin within the capabilities of current computing power.

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Software Developed by SMU Stops Ransomware Attacks
Southern Methodist University
May 13, 2020

Engineers at Southern Methodist University (SMU)'s Darwin Deason Institute for Cybersecurity have developed software that identifies ransomware attacks before attackers can cause catastrophic damage, even if the ransomware is new and has not been previously used. This sensor-based ransomware detection does not rely on data from past ransomware infections to detect new ones on a computer. The software searches for small but distinguishable power surges in certain sensors within computers, in order to detect unauthorized encryptions. The software then alerts the computer to suspend or terminate the infection before the encryption can be completed. SMU's Mike Taylor said the software can scan computers in a fraction of the time that existing software can, identifying malware before extensive damage occurs.

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team Uncanny Valley Australia Wins AI 'Eurovision Song Contest'
BBC News
Jane Wakefield
May 12, 2020

An Australian team won the unofficial AI ‘Eurovision Song Contest’, named for an annual international song competition cancelled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The event challenged contestants to write a song using artificial intelligence (AI). The Uncanny Valley team—made up of computer scientists, math, and social-anthropology researchers, as well as music producers—defeated 12 other teams with its song "Beautiful the World." The song had a melody and lyrics written by an AI system that was trained with audio samples of koalas, kookaburras, and Tasmanian devils. A panel of AI experts rating the entries said, "Composing a song with AI is hard because you have all the creative challenges that come with song-writing, but you also have to juggle getting the machine learning right. The teams not only pushed the boundaries of their personal creativity, but also gave the audience a look into the exciting future of human-AI musical collaboration."

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Internet-Based Voting Is the New Front in the Election Security Wars
The Washington Post
Joseph Marks
May 11, 2020

With states racing to overhaul voting amid the coronavirus pandemic, Internet-based voting is likely to become more prominent, despite persistent warnings of the technology's shortcomings in security and verifiability. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Election Assistance Commission recently issued guidance to states on the hazards of online voting systems that include ballots sent digitally to voters; ballots sent and marked online but printed out and returned by physical mail; and ballots received and returned wholly digitally. The agencies deemed the third system especially vulnerable to hackers altering large numbers of votes, blocking votes from being recorded, or undermining ballot secrecy.

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Images of pneumatic artificial muscle A Soft Touch for Robotic Hardware
University of Tokyo
May 15, 2020

A team of researchers at the University of Tokyo in Japan designed a flexible soft robot with embedded sensors and pneumatic artificial muscles (PAM), which combine rubber and fiber-based fluid-driven systems that expand and contract. The researchers used a machine learning technique called reservoir computing to model the PAM in real time, feeding data into a special artificial neural network to make the model flexible and adaptable to the environment. The material's electrical resistance changes depending on its configuration during contraction, and adding carbon makes the varying resistance more readable. Tokyo's Kohei Nakajima said this approach may lead to a new generation of soft robots that work with humans, adding that remote-sensing applications, which require real-time data processed in a decentralized manner, also could benefit.

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Planetary Exploration Rover Avoids Sand Traps with 'Rear Rotator Pedaling' Planetary Exploration Rover Avoids Sand Traps with 'Rear Rotator Pedaling'
Georgia Tech News Center
John Toon
May 13, 2020

Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) researchers and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are co-developing next-generation planetary explorers that can negotiate hills and soft granular surfaces without getting stuck in sand traps. One such explorer, the Mini Rover, uses "rear rotator pedaling" to climb slopes through a combination of paddling, walking, and wheel spinning, modeled on terradynamics. Georgia Tech's Dan Goldman said, "By avalanching materials from the front wheels, it creates a localized fluid hill for the back wheels that is not as steep as the real slope. The rover is always self-generating and self-organizing a good hill for itself." The researchers hope to scale up their findings on unusual gaits to larger robots, and to study robots in the context of their localized environments.

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The Linux and Windows logos Linux Not Windows: Why Munich Is Shifting Back From Microsoft to Open Source—Again
Cathrin Schaer
May 14, 2020

Lawmakers in Munich, Germany, have reversed an earlier decision for the city to use proprietary software like Microsoft Office, reverting to a preference for open source software. In 2006, the city began transitioning from proprietary software in order to replace outdated Microsoft Windows workstations. Changes to city government prompted a 2017 move to revert to proprietary software by 2020. Basanta Thapa at the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems said neither open source nor proprietary software is necessarily superior to each other in terms of contemporary use, with user acceptance and the interface between open and closed software often presenting obstacles.

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Companies Wrestle With Growing Cybersecurity Threat: Their Own Employees
Financial Times
Hannah Murphy
May 11, 2020

As companies navigate an increase in cyberattacks amid the coronavirus pandemic, they must contend with the security threat posed by their own employees. With the rise in remote working, more companies are turning to surveillance tools to prevent staff from leaking or stealing sensitive data, and demand is on the rise for cybersecurity firms that use machine learning and analytics to analyze employees' activity and identify problematic behaviors. India’s Mordor Intelligence said the data loss prevention market is expected to surge from $1.2 billion to $3.8 billion by 2025 as companies migrate data to the cloud. Critics are uncomfortable with the privacy and trust implications of using such tools on staff. Said former U.S. army intelligence sergeant and former Palantir executive Greg Barbaccia, “It’s intrusive, it’s not very culturally palatable.” Added Barbaccia, “To me, the insider threat is a cultural human problem. If someone wants to be need to solve the human problem.”

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Research scientist Harvey Shi demonstrates VR interface that doctors could soon use to help make medical decisions. VR Blood Flow Simulation to Improve Cardiovascular Interventions
Duke University Pratt School of Engineering
Ken Kingery
May 13, 2020

Duke University biomedical engineers are developing an enormous fluid dynamics simulator for modeling three-dimensional (3D) blood flow through the full human arterial system at subcellular resolution, in order to guide doctors in cardiovascular interventions. The HARVEY simulation tool features a graphical user interface called Harvis that anyone can use, regardless of technical expertise. The researchers tested Harvis' usage by students in tasks with either a standard mouse and computer screen, a semi-immersive virtual reality (VR) device, or a fully immersive VR experience. Duke's Amanda Randles said the students liked the semi-immersive 3D interface best. Said Randles, "With the maturity and availability of VR/AR devices, we need to understand the role these technologies can play in the interaction with such data.”

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Forecasting Urbanization
University of Delaware
Karen B. Roberts
May 8, 2020

Researchers at the University of Delaware (UD) have created a new global simulation model to predict how urban land will change over the next 100 years under different social and economic conditions. The team used data science to analyze 15 global datasets depicting various aspects of urbanization. The researchers divided the world into 375 small regions and ran a unique model for each region simultaneously, and then gathered results from all models together to create a global map. The projections show that if past urbanization trends continue, the world will build about 618,000 square miles of new urban areas over the next century. UD data scientist Jing Gao said, “These projections can help researchers and analysts understand how large-scale changes that occur over a long time period, such as climate change, may affect local urban areas."

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Light, Sound, Action: Extending the Life of Acoustic Waves on Microchips
University of Sydney
Marcus Strom
May 7, 2020

A group of researchers from the University of Sydney Nano Institute in Australia and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light in Germany found that computer chips using light and sound, rather than electricity, will support the development of future technologies such as high-speed Internet, radar, and sensors. The researchers used carefully timed synchronized pulses of light to reinforce sound waves on-chip, demonstrating that refreshing those photons is possible, meaning information can be stored and processed for a much longer time. The team timed pulses of light to quadruple the lifetime of the information stored in sound waves on the chip from 10 nanoseconds to 40 nanoseconds. Said Max Planck’s Birgit Stiller, "So far, such storage was fundamentally limited by the lifetime of the sound waves. Refreshing the acoustic waves allows us to overcome this constraint."

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Morocco Launches Fleet of DJI Drones to Tackle Coronavirus From the Sky
South China Morning Post
May 6, 2020

Morocco has expanded its fleet of DJI drones to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. Authorities are using the Chinese-made drones to issue warnings, identify suspicious movement in the streets, and break up illegal gatherings. Yassine Qamous of Droneway Maroc, the African distributor for China's DJI, said demand for drones has tripled in Morocco and other countries in the region in recent weeks, as authorities say people have not been following the strict lockdown rules imposed in March. Morocco’s International University of Rabat allowed authorities to access its facilities, expertise, and prototypes in March to deploy drones with loudspeakers or infrared cameras. The university's Mohsine Bouya said tracking apps are under development as well, adding that local law would have to be changed for them to be rolled out.

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National Lab Taps AI Machine With Massive Chip to Fight Coronavirus
The Wall Street Journal
Agam Shah
May 6, 2020

Argonne National Laboratory scientists are using an artificial intelligence (AI) system driven by a massive processor to accelerate development of treatments and vaccines for the coronavirus. The CS-1 computer from AI chip startup Cerebras Systems is running learning models to find compounds in existing or novel drugs that target the virus; the neural network on the 8.5-inch by 8.5-inch chip facilitates faster problem-solving and data processing. Argonne is collecting data on roughly 4 billion molecules from drugs on the market or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The CS-1's deep learning model analyzes this data via techniques like image recognition to predict how well a certain molecule will bind with coronavirus' proteins and inhibit its penetration and spread among human cells. The model then scores the effectiveness of molecules in blocking the virus, and the most promising compounds are flagged for further research.

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Code Nation: Personal Computing and the Learn to Program Movement in America
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