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Welcome to the October 19, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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A mosaic of emojis Is Everybody Doing … OK? Let's Ask Social Media
The New York Times
Casey Schwartz
October 15, 2020

For more than 10 years, scientists at the University of Vermont's Computational Story Lab have been gauging national well-being through social media via the Hedonometer, a tool that measures word choices across millions of daily tweets. Since 2018, the Hedonometer has collected a random 10% of public tweets each day across a dozen languages, then counted words in those tweets ranked for their happy or sad connotations, and calculated a national happiness average based on the words dominating discourse. Its results indicate a steady decline in happiness, with the lowest point on May 31, about a week after the George Floyd killing; the most commonly used English words on Twitter that day included "terrorist," "violence," and "racist."

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Hammad Jeilani and Christopher Law pictured with their Apian drones. NHS Using Drones to Deliver Coronavirus Kits Between Hospitals
The Guardian (U.K.)
Aaron Walawalkar
October 17, 2020

The U.K. National Health Service (NHS) is testing drones for the transport of Covid-19 samples, blood tests, and personal protective equipment between hospitals. Remote-controlled drones initially will fly between Essex's Broomfield hospital, Basildon hospital, and Basildon's Pathology First laboratory. The project was conceived by healthcare drone startup Apian, and funded by a £1.3-million ($1.6-million) grant from the U.K. Space Agency, in the hope of establishing a network of air corridors for drones to navigate using global-positioning systems. The drone is engineered to fly at an altitude of 90 meters (300 feet) and withstand harsh weather. It is hoped that drones will shorten waiting times for couriers, free up NHS personnel, reduce unnecessary physical contact, and minimize the risk of secondary coronavirus transmission.

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Voter Check-in System to Blame for Slow-Moving Lines in Georgia
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Mark Niesse; Ada Wood
October 14, 2020

Check-in computers unable to accommodate record turnouts were mainly to blame for slow-moving lines at early voting locations this week in Georgia. The problem occurred on the eNet computer system, which maintains registration and absentee ballot records for Georgia's 7.4-million registered voters. The system could not efficiently process a massive number of requests at once, causing delays. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Wednesday said he was working with state election software company Civix to expedite check-ins and voter processing. He later announced that the company had boosted bandwidth, with counties reporting immediate improvements.

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The Contest to Protect Almost Everything on the Internet
The Wall Street Journal
Sara Castellanos
October 7, 2020

Hundreds of the world's leading cryptographers are participating in a competition overseen by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop new encryption standards for protecting online data against classical and quantum-computing cyberattacks. The contest aims to replace commonly used public-key cryptography methods by 2023, including the popular RSA approach, whose basis on integer factorization makes it vulnerable to quantum computers. Cryptographers warn that hackers could already be harvesting massive amounts of data to decrypt, in anticipation of quantum computers. Among the most promising contest submissions are algorithms based on mathematical lattices, which can resemble geometric shapes with more than 1,000 dimensions.

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An infographic of a logic board demonstrating different toehold switches that can be combined to compute the presence of multiple triggers. Deep Learning Takes on Synthetic Biology
The Harvard Gazette
Lindsay Brownell
October 7, 2020

Two teams of scientists from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed machine learning algorithms that can analyze RNA-based "toehold switch" molecular sequences and predict which will reliably sense and respond to a desired target sequence. The researchers first designed and synthesized a massive toehold switch dataset, which Harvard's Alex Garruss said "enables the use of advanced machine learning techniques for identifying and understanding useful switches for immediate downstream applications and future design." One team trained an algorithm to analyze switches as two-dimensional images of base-pair possibilities, and then to identify patterns signaling whether a given image would be a good or a bad toehold via an interpretation process called Visualizing Secondary Structure Saliency Maps. The second team tackled the challenge with orthogonal techniques using two distinct deep learning architectures. Their Sequence-based Toehold Optimization and Redesign Model and Nucleic Acid Speech platforms enable the rapid design and optimizing of synthetic biology components.

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Robot Swarms Guided by Human Artists Could Paint Colorful Pictures
New Scientist
Layal Liverpool
October 14, 2020

Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) researchers have developed a system that would allow artists to control a swarm of robots that can help create colorful paintings in real time. They tested the robots' collaborative ability using projectors to simulate colored paint trails left behind by the robots on the canvas. Each robot produces the primary colors of magenta, cyan, and yellow, which also can be mixed to produce additional hues. The robots could work together by varying the colors of the trails they laid down, while considering colors laid down by robots in close proximity. Georgia Tech's María Santos said, "At each point in time, each robot has information about the color concentrations desired by the human artist, and can get information about the relative positions of its closest neighbors and the paints available to them."

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Bringing Power Tool From Math Into Quantum Computing
Tokyo University of Science (Japan)
October 14, 2020

Scientists at Japan's Tokyo University of Science (TUS) have designed a novel quantum circuit that calculates the fast Fourier transform (FFT) in a faster, versatile, and more efficient manner than previously possible. The quantum fast Fourier transform (QFFT) circuit does not waste any quantum bits, and it exploits the superposition of states to boost computational speed by processing a large volume of information at the same time. Its versatility is another benefit. TUS' Ryoko Yahagi said, "One of the main advantages of the QFFT is that it is applicable to any problem that can be solved by the conventional FFT, such as the filtering of digital images in the medical field or analyzing sounds for engineering applications."

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A robot dolphin. Robot Dolphin Could Replace Captive Animals at Theme Parks One Day
Nathan Frandino; Lisa Shumaker
October 14, 2020

U.S. engineering company Edge Innovations has designed a robot dolphin in the hope that such animatronic machines eventually could substitute for captive animals at theme parks. The 550-pound, 8.5-foot-long animatronic dolphin, covered in skin made from medical-grade silicone, headlined an educational program in collaboration with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' TeachKind initiative. Edge's Roger Holzberg said, "The idea of this pilot is really to create a kind of 'Sesame Street' under water. Those characters taught a generation how to feel about different kinds of aspects of humankind in ways that had never been imagined before."

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A man clutching his chest. Australian, New Zealand Scientists Use AI to Predict Heart Disease Risk
Aimee Chanthadavong
October 13, 2020

An artificial intelligence (AI) system developed and trained by researchers at the University of Melbourne in Australia and the University of Otago in New Zealand can predict one’s risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) by looking into a person's retinas. The AI was trained using more than 70,000 digital retinal photographs from 15 diverse multi-ethnic and multi-county datasets. The researchers found the AI system performed the same or better than experts in predicting a patient's risk of CVD by measuring such things as blood pressure, body-mass index, total cholesterol, and glycated-hemoglobin levels. Said the researchers, "We showed that such retinal caliber measurements are correlated with CVD risk factors and are associated with incident CVD events."

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Buenos Aires Using Facial Recognition System That Tracks Child Suspects, Rights Group Says
The Washington Post
Ruby Mellen
October 9, 2020

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the city of Buenos Aires is using a facial recognition system connected to a database that includes child suspects, and is publishing warrants for their arrest, in violation of international law. Argentina's Consulta Nacional de Rebeldías y Captura database of criminal suspects collected and published the data and warrants of 166 people under 18, between May 2017 and May 2020. Facial recognition software operating in certain Buenos Aires subway stations uses this information in combination with photos from a citizen database. HRW's José Miguel Vivanco said using this information for facial recognition tracking presents huge risks of inaccuracy, given the technology's higher rate of misidentification of children.

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MSU Researchers Develop Software Tool to Assess Children's Phonological Awareness
MSU Today
Elizabeth Schondelmayer; Caroline Brooks
October 14, 2020

Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) have developed a software tool to evaluate children's ability to process the sound structure of words, also known as phonological awareness. The Access to Literacy Assessment System (ATLAS) was effective when tested with approximately 1,100 children between three and seven years old, with and without speech and language impairments. The adaptive software can tailor test items to each child, and it can help parents, early childhood teachers, and paraeducators quantify phonological progress for children with greater accuracy. MSU's Lori Skibbe said, "The ATLAS software allows children to demonstrate what they know, even if they struggle to answer questions verbally. This ensures their skills are accurately assessed, and that they receive the right support to keep them on track to meet literacy milestones."

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A young boy and girl wearing smartwatches. Undocumented Backdoor That Covertly Takes Snapshots Found in Kids' Smartwatch
Ars Technica
Dan Goodin
October 12, 2020

Researchers at Norwegian security company Mnemonic found an undocumented backdoor in the X4 smartwatch marketed by children's watch vendor Xplora. Mnemonic's Harrison Sand and Erlend Leiknes said an encrypted text message can activate the backdoor, while commands exist for clandestinely reporting the watch's location in real time, recording and sending snapshots to an Xplora server, and making phone calls that transmit all sounds within earshot. Moreover, 19 applications pre-installed on the watch are crafted by China-based security firm Qihoo 360, while Qihoo 360 subsidiary 360 Kids Guard jointly designed the X4 with Xplora and fabricates its hardware. Exploiting the backdoor requires knowing both the phone number assigned to the watch and the unique encryption key hardwired into each device. Xplora said it has developed a patch for the X4 following the Mnemonic researchers' alert.

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An injured man in an ambulance receiving aid. ML Helps to Predict New Violence Hot Spots
Cardiff University News (U.K.)
October 12, 2020

Researchers at the U.K.'s Cardiff University used machine learning (ML) to forecast new outbreaks of violence, by mapping reported incidents against the locations of retail sites serving alcohol and places where alcohol is not sold in 10 city centers across England and Wales. In comparison with a model mapping only alcohol-vending outlets, the combined model more accurately predicted levels of violence. Cardiff's Joseph Redfern said, "Our study provides a means to better understand where violence takes place and could inform new, targeted initiatives. The research also shows that such violence reduction strategies would be most effective if developed on a city-by-city basis, rather than implemented as a generic 'one-size-fits-all' approach."

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