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Welcome to the December 7, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Ventilator Sharing Could Be Feasible in Crisis Situations to Mitigate Equipment Shortages
December 3, 2020

A computational model developed by researchers at health and wellness organization Geisinger, Bucknell University, and software research and development company Kitware found it could be feasible to support two patients on a single ventilator. The research is timely, given the shortages of ventilators and other medical supplies and equipment experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic. The researchers said, "Computational simulation provides an opportunity to quickly develop guidance over a wide range of possible clinical scenarios without incurring patient risk." The team developed whole-body physiological simulations of 287 Covid-19 patients using Kitware's Pulse Physiology Engine software, which indicated that patients with similar levels of lung function and oxygen saturation were most likely to achieve satisfactory outcomes when using a single ventilator. Kitware's Rachel Clipp said, "Having the ability to leverage these capabilities during a pandemic provides valuable clinical information that can be used to inform medical treatment in resource-constrained situations."

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A police drone in the air. Police Drones Starting to Think for Themselves
The New York Times
Cade Metz
December 5, 2020

Police agencies in four U.S. cities are participating in the Drone as First Responder program, launching unmanned aerial vehicles in response to emergency calls. The Chula Vista, CA, police dispatches drones, with a certified pilot federally on the roof of the Police Department to oversee launches and pilot the drones upon their return; a special drone from Silicon Valley’s Skydio avoids obstacles on its own and can follow a particular person or vehicle. The latest drone technology would allow police to operate autonomous drones relatively inexpensively, although civil liberties proponents are concerned. Greater police use of drones could eliminate any expectation of privacy outside the home, as the drones collect and store more video footage. The American Civil Liberties Union’s Jay Stanley said, "It could allow law enforcement to enforce any area of the law against anyone they want."

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BGP route leaks can be hugely disruptive, but soon they may be a lot less common. Broken Piece of Internet Backbone Might Finally Get Fixed
Lily Hay Newman
December 2, 2020

A coalition of Internet infrastructure partners known as Mutually Agreed Norms for Routing Security (MANRS) has created a task force to assist content delivery networks (CDNs) and other cloud services in adopting filters and cryptographic checks to fix design weaknesses in the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP). This comes after years of slow progress in making BGP—the Internet's foundational, universal routing system—more secure. High-profile CDNs like Cloudflare and Google have promoted their efforts to implement BGP best practices and safeguards in their own systems. MANRS is promoting Routing Public Key Infrastructure (RPKI), a public database of routes that have been cryptographically signed and validated. Google, for instance, completed RPKI registration for more than 99% of its routes last month. Said MANRS project lead Aftab Siddiqui, "With nearly 600 total participants in MANRS so far, we believe the enthusiasm and hard work of the CDN and cloud providers will encourage other network operators around the globe to improve routing security for us all."

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A Loon balloon above Nevada. Google's AI Can Keep Loon Balloons Flying for Over 300 Days in a Row
New Scientist
Karina Shah
December 2, 2020

An artificially intelligent pilot developed by Alphabet's balloon-manufacturing subsidiary Loon can keep huge stratospheric balloons aloft in a fixed position for hundreds of days to operate as floating cell towers for remote regions. The pilot, trained via deep reinforcement learning, compensates for the harsh winds at those altitudes by releasing air to descend or adding it to ascend, riding currents in the desired direction. The artificially intelligent controller consults historical wind records, weather forecasting, and current local wind patterns to model various scenarios and determine the optimal course. Loon earlier this year announced that a balloon using such a controller had achieved a new continuous stratospheric endurance record of 312 days.

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Hitting the Quantum 'Sweet Spot': Researchers Find Best Position for Atom Qubits in Silicon
University of New South Wales Sydney Newsroom
December 1, 2020

Researchers from Australia's Center of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T) at the University of New South Wales Sydney (UNSW), working with colleagues at Australia’s Silicon Quantum Computing firm, identified the ideal positioning for qubits in silicon in order to scale up atom-based quantum processors. Precise placement of phosphorus atoms in silicon is necessary to produce robust interactions between qubits, which CQC2T's Sven Rogge said are needed "to engineer a multi-qubit processor and, ultimately, a useful quantum computer." CQC2T's Benoit Voisin said scanning tunneling microscope (STM) lithography techniques developed at UNSW can find the "special angle, or sweet spot, within a particular plane of the silicon crystal where the interaction between the qubits is most resilient."

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Robotics Researchers Propose AI That Locates, Safely Moves Items on Shelves
Venture Beat
Kyle Wiggers
November 26, 2020

Two new robotics studies detail methods for locating occluded objects on shelves and solving "contact-rich" manipulation tasks. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley developed the Lateral Access maXimal Reduction of occupancY support Area (LAX-RAY) system, which predicts an object's location even when only a portion of it is visible. LAX-RAY achieved 87.3% accuracy in a simulation, which translated to about 80% for a real-world robot. Meanwhile, Google developed the Contact-aware Online COntext Inference (COCOI), which uses video footage and readings from a robot-mounted touch sensor to encode dynamics information into a representation, which then permits a reinforcement learning algorithm to plan with “dynamics-awareness,” increasing its robustness in difficult environments.

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App, Infrastructure Alert Users About Data Collection Around Them
Carnegie Mellon University
Daniel Tkacik
December 3, 2020

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's CyLab have developed the IoT Assistant app to inform users of Internet of Things (IoT) devices around them. Users can explore a map of nearby IoT devices and access information about the data collected by those devices, how the data is used, how long it is retained, who has access to the data, and whether the devices have privacy controls. In addition, users can opt to receive notifications about data collection going on around them. An IoT Portal contains the database of IoT devices and systems that show up in the IoT Assistant app and incorporates device templates that vendors can use to describe their IoT systems. CyLab's Norman Sadeh said, "We want to make it very easy for people who deploy IoT technologies to publicize the presence of their resources and their data practices."

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Digital prints of pollen samples, some of which date back thousands of years, produced by Cardiff University’s bioimaging hub. Not to Be Sneezed At: How 3D Printing Is Supersizing the Tiny World of Pollen
The Guardian (U.K.)
December 7, 2020

Oliver Wilson at the U.K.'s University of Reading created a platform for three-dimensionally (3D)-printing oversized models of pollen grains from high-quality scans. The online 3D Pollen Project allows anyone to print grain replicas, and pollen from 35 plant species has been scanned and modeled to date. Wilson developed the platform with researchers at the U.K.'s Hull and Cardiff universities, and New Zealand's Massey University. The team created a set of accurate, 3D-printed scale models of pollen grains up to 3,000 times their actual size. Bee ecologists in Brazil, U.S. school teachers, and Irish archaeologists are among those using the models. Wilson said, "I'd like to create a broad spectrum with each branch of the tree of plant life represented, for researchers, schools, and other users."

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Programming Languages: Microsoft TypeScript Leaps Ahead of C#, PHP, C++ on GitHub
Liam Tung
December 2, 2020

GitHub's 2020 State of the Octoverse report has elevated TypeScript, a superset of Microsoft's JavaScript, to the level of fourth-most popular programming language, ahead of C#, PHP, and C++. TypeScript was ranked in seventh position in 2018, and has grown in usage significantly since then. Microsoft sought to improve JavaScript via TypeScript, which incorporates a static type system that compiles into JavaScript without type annotations, enabling code to run in browsers as pure JavaScript. Developer analyst firm RedMonk’s James Governor believes TypeScript's growing popularity is attributable to its ability to fulfill JavaScript developers' need for "type safety." The language has found significant use by Web developers with large JavaScript codebases like Slack, Airbnb, and Bloomberg.

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Study Outlines What Creates Racial Bias in Facial Recognition Technology
UT Dallas News Center
Stephen Fontenot
December 4, 2020

A study by Alice O'Toole and Jacqueline Cavazos of the University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas) named the underlying factors that engender racial bias in facial recognition technology. O'Toole said different mechanisms contribute to biases; Cavazos categorized contributing factors as either data-driven (affecting the algorithm’s performance) or operationally defined (stemming from user input). O'Toole noted a reduction in training image quality makes racial bias more pronounced, while Cavazos said operational bias can be introduced based on where the threshold is set between matching and nonmatching decisions, and on what types of paired images are selected. Said O'Toole, "We have learned so much about the complexity of the problem that we have to acknowledge that there may never be a solution to the problem of making every face equally challenging to a face recognition algorithm."

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A shape-Changing Robot. Shape-Changing Robots Adapt to Their Environments
Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science
November 30, 2020

Researchers at Yale University have invented an adaptable robot that changes shape and gait to suit different environments. A comparison of shape-changing robots to single-shape robots found the shape-shifters were superior in their ability to operate in certain environments. The shape-shifting robots are designed to deploy inner bladders to ball up and roll on flat or slightly inclined terrain, then switch to a flat pancake-like shape and follow inchworm-like locomotion to negotiate uphill surfaces. The Yale researchers adapted computer models to physical counterparts, often simplifying designs and then exploring various shape-shifting mechanisms. Ph.D. student Dylan Shaw said, “The final robot design was driven by a combination of what we observed in the simulations and what we knew could be achieved in reality. With the software, you can make crazy shape-changing robots with dozens of independent moving parts.”

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Neuroscientists Find a Way to Make Object-Recognition Models Perform Better
MIT News
Anne Trafton
December 3, 2020

Neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and IBM have developed a method to improve the performance of object-recognition models in overcoming a flaw in which small changes to an image that are nearly imperceptible to human viewers can result in errors. The researchers added a new layer to these models that mimics the earliest stage of the brain's visual processing system. The V1 layer, the first stage in the ventral visual stream to the brain’s inferior temporal cortex, was added as a convolutional neural network to three object-recognition models, making them four times more resistant to making mistakes on images due to "adversarial attacks," or to small changes like altering the colors of a few pixels. The models were less likely to misidentify blurred or distorted objects. Said MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab Co-director David Cox, "The fact that adding neuroscience-inspired elements can improve robustness substantially suggests that there is still a lot that AI (artificial intelligence) can learn from neuroscience, and vice versa.”

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