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Welcome to the December 11, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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The U.S. Treasury Department building. U.S. Agencies Hacked in Months-long Global Cyberspying Campaign
Associated Press
Frank Bajak
Matt O'Brien
December 14, 2020

Hackers infiltrated the U.S. Treasury and Commerce department networks in a months-long global cyberespionage campaign targeting governments and the private sector disclosed Sunday. The Department of Homeland Security's cybersecurity branch issued a directive for all federal agencies to sift their networks for further compromises. The news broke just days after cybersecurity company FireEye reported a network breach that industry experts said bore the hallmarks of Russia, which apparently is behind the latest threat. Cybersecurity expert Dmitri Alperovitch said multiple agencies will be scrambling to patch their systems. FireEye's John Hultquist said, "The actor is operating stealthily, but we are certainly still finding targets that they manage to operate in."

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Abramson in the mid-1970s. Norman Abramson, Pioneer Behind Wireless Networks, Dies at 88
The New York Times
December 11, 2020

Norman Abramson, a pioneer in the development of wireless computer networks, has died at age 88. Abramson headed a team that worked on a project at the University of Hawaii originally designed to transmit data to schools on the Hawaiian islands by means of a radio channel. The group devised a solution in the late 1960s and early 1970s that would prove widely applicable, allowing multiple digital devices to send and receive data over a shared radio channel in a way that did not require complex scheduling of when each packet of data would be sent. The resulting ALOHAnet wireless network, launched in 1971, was a smaller, wireless version of ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet. "It was an incredibly audacious idea, real out-of-the-box engineering," said Google chief Internet evangelist and former ACM president Vinton Cerf.

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A robot hand with energy-generating solar e-skin. Solar-based Electronic Skin Generates Its Own Power
IEEE Spectrum
Payal Dhar
December 13, 2020

Researchers from the U.K.'s University of Glasgow have created an energy-generating electronic skin (eSkin) from miniaturized solar cells that can deliver tactile perceptions for touch and proximity sensing without the use of dedicated touch sensors. The eSkin's solar cells produce energy in response to light; in proximity mode, light intensity indicates an object's distance from a cell, with infrared LEDs incorporated to improve proximity sensing. Proof-of-concept tests with an eSkin-wrapped three-dimensionally-printed robotic hand found an energy surplus of 383.3 milliwatts generated from the palm of the robotic arm. Glasgow's Ravinder Dahiya said, "Solar skin is a step ahead [in e-skin research], because it will start to work when the object is approaching... [and] have more time to prepare for action."

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Automating Material-Matching for Movies, Video Games
MIT News
Adam Conner-Simons
December 10, 2020

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Adobe researchers described a new system they developed for texturing computer-generated objects as being easy as capturing a photo of an object and reconstructing it on a laptop. MaTCH uses a "DiffMat" library that supplies the various building blocks for constructing different textured materials, while dozens of "procedural graphs" comprise different nodes that convert input into output in specific artistic ways. Said Shi, "The neural network selects the most appropriate combinations of filter nodes until it perceptually matches the appearance of the user's input image." The team tested MaTCH on rendered synthetic materials and real materials captured on camera, and found the system can recreate materials more accurately and at higher resolution than current state-of-the-art methods.

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A healthcare worker uses a robot to carry out consultations with patients suffering from the coronavirus at NOVA hospital in Monterrey, Mexico. EU Rights Watchdog Warns of Pitfalls in Use of AI
Foo Yun Chee
December 14, 2020

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) has called on policymakers to provide further guidance on how basic human and data privacy rights apply to artificial intelligence (AI), to ensure that future AI laws protect them. FRA's Michael O'Flaherty said, "AI is not infallible, it is made by people???and humans can make mistakes. That is why people need to be aware when AI is used, how it works, and how to challenge automated decisions." FRA said AI rules must respect all fundamental rights, and protections must be in place that include a guarantee that people can challenge AI-made decisions and that companies must be able to clarify their AI decision-making mechanisms. The agency also urged more research into AI's potentially discriminatory impact so Europe can guard against it, adding that the EU must further explain how data protection rules apply to AI.

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Fighting Wildfires in Australia Goes High Tech
The Wall Street Journal
Mike Cherney
December 14, 2020

Australian researchers are working with the private sector on technologies to spot wildfires faster and better forecast their path. The government-funded FireTech Connect project aims to help startups explore concepts like laser-equipped drones to map dry areas at higher fire risk, and satellite detection of extreme fire behavior. An October blaze at a timber plantation was captured by a solar-powered sensor as part of a network deployed across Victoria state; such sensors incorporate optical and thermal cameras, flame detectors, particle counters, and ground-vibration readers. Meanwhile, researchers in Canberra are working with a local firefighting agency to install video cameras on four fire towers, to determine whether the cameras detect new fires faster than human monitors in fire towers.

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Students work on a project in a computer science principles course. Report: AP CS Course Is Diversifying the Field
The Washington Post
Nick Anderson
December 13, 2020

The College Board is reporting progress in diversifying computer science (CS) education among U.S. high school students, thanks to an Advanced Placement (AP) course introduced four years ago. The nonprofit says the AP CS Principles course attracted more students in long-underrepresented demographics than an older course focused on programming. Roughly 114,000 students nationally took the AP CS Principles exam this year, almost twice as many as took the older AP CS test on the Java programming language. Female students accounted for 34% of test-takers, while 7% were black, 18% were Hispanic or Latino, and 22% were Asian; the older exam's takers were 25% female, 3% black. 11% Hispanic or Latino, and 33% Asian. Former U.S. Education Secretary John King said the course is helping to address demographic disparities "by offering historically underrepresented students the chance to participate in rich, engaging STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning that can open the door to new knowledge, postsecondary study, and career pathways."

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Artificial Visual System of Record-Low Energy Consumption for the Next Generation of AI
City University of Hong Kong
December 10, 2020

An international team led by City University of Hong Kong (CityU) researchers has built an ultralow-power-consumption artificial visual system that mimics the human brain to execute data-intensive cognitive tasks. Working with colleagues at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, and Japan's Kyushu University and University of Tokyo, the researchers used quasi-two-dimensional electron gases in an artificial neuromorphic system to reduce energy consumption 93% compared to human synapses. CityU's Johnny Chung-yin Ho said, "We believe our findings can provide a promising strategy to build artificial neuromorphic systems for applications in bionic devices, electronic eyes, and multifunctional robotics in future."

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'The Robot Made Me Do It:' Robots Encourage Risk-Taking Behavior in Humans
University of Southampton (U.K.)
December 11, 2020

Robots encourage humans to take more risks, according to researchers at the U.K.'s University of Southampton. The research team enlisted 180 undergraduates to participate in a computer assessment requiring them to press a keyboard's spacebar to inflate an onscreen balloon; with each press, the balloon inflated slightly and a penny went to a "temporary money bank," with random explosions causing players to lose money, and the option to "cash in" and go to the next balloon. A third of the test group took the test alone, another third took the test with a robot giving them instructions, and the final third took the test with a robot providing instruction and encouragement. The third group took more risks, while the other groups' behavior did not change significantly. Southampton's Yaniv Hanoch said, "Receiving direct encouragement from a risk-promoting robot seemed to override participants' direct experiences and instincts."

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Computational Method Validates Images Without 'Ground Truth'
The Source (Washington University in St. Louis)
December 11, 2020

Researchers from the Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) have developed a computational method to determine the level of confidence that should be associated with measurements of an image that lacks ground truth. The method, called Wasserstein-induced flux (WIF), does not allow users to determine if an entire image is probable, but rather if any given point in the image is probable, based on assumptions built into the model. The analysis yields a single number per data point, between -1 and 1. The closer the analysis' result is to 1, the more confident a scientist can be that a point on an image does accurately represent the thing being imaged. Said WUSTL's Matthew Lew, "Using this model, you'd be able to test on data that has no ground truth, where you don't know if the neural network was trained with data that are similar to real-world data."

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The Continuing Arms Race: Code-Reuse Attacks and Defenses
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