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Welcome to the December 18, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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The ACM logo over shaking hands. ACM Recognizes 2020 Distinguished Members for Contributions that Propel the Digital Age
December 16, 2020

ACM has named 64 2020 Distinguished Members, all longstanding, for outstanding contributions to the computing field through achievements that advance the discipline. The inductees' accomplishments cover a broad range of technical areas including data science, mobile and pervasive computing, artificial intelligence, computer science education, computer engineering, graphics, cybersecurity, and networking. ACM president Gabriele Kotsis said, "With the Distinguished Member designation, ACM celebrates specific contributions of these members and their career growth as reflected in a long-term commitment to the field, as well as their collaboration with peers in supporting a global professional association for the benefit of all."

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EU Commissioners and chief at an online news conference. EU Unveils Revamp of Cybersecurity Rules Days After Hack
Associated Press
December 18, 2020

The European Union (EU) announced this week it would revamp its outdated cybersecurity rules, just days after the European Medicines Agency was hacked and data on a new coronavirus vaccine was accessed. The new proposals from the European Commission would update the current Network Information System regulations dating from 2008 and allow the EU to levy substantial fines for violations. The proposal calls for an "EU-wide Cyber Shield" that would link national security authorities to help detect early signs of attacks using artificial intelligence and machine learning. It also would establish a cyber unit to respond to incidents and threats, and increase cooperation between countries and organizations like NATO. The commission's Margaritis Schinas said, "We know that we are a target. We need to modernize, reinforce, and adapt."

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Sango Suh, shown with a comic-style background. Ph.D. Candidate Uses Comic Strips to Teach Coding
University of Waterloo Cheriton School of Computer Science (Canada)
December 16, 2020

Ph.D. candidate Sangho Suh and colleagues at Canada's University of Waterloo Cheriton School of Computer Science taught coding to novice programmers using comic strips. The Cheriton team first studied how to design coding strips, identifying programming concepts and creating strips to formulate the design process; it then created a design board or canvas, with five sections corresponding to the steps in the design process. Design workshops with undergraduate and graduate students and high school science teachers followed. Cheriton's Edith Law said, "Participants praised the potential of coding strips to engage, motivate, and interest students in learning to code."

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Number of Students Taking Computer Science Degrees Up 7.6% in 2020
Computer Weekly
Clare McDonald
December 14, 2020

The British Computer Society (BCS) found that 30,090 U.K. students chose to study computer science (CS) at the university level in 2020, an increase of 7.6% from 2019 levels. BCS' Julia Adamson said this is important "because the [U.K.] government has stated that tech skills should be the 'rocket fuel' which powers the U.K.???s economic recovery." BCS also estimated 65.1% year-on-year growth in the number of students taking artificial intelligence degrees this year, and a boost in acceptance to software engineering courses. Women accounted for only 16.2% of computer science degree students in 2020, according to BCS, an increase of only 1% year-on-year. According to the U.K.???s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), the number of women accepted to computer science-related courses via UCAS reached 4,880 this year, up slightly from 4,275 in 2019.

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A programmable metasurfaces. Super Surfaces Use Terahertz Waves to Help Bounce Wireless Communication Into the Next Generation
Princeton University
Adam Hadhazy
December 14, 2020

Princeton University researchers invented a programmable "metasurface" that lets engineers control and focus incoming terahertz waves, a step toward higher data transmission rates. The device can beam the transmissions in any desired direction, not only facilitating dynamically reconfigurable wireless networks, but also opening new high-resolution sensing and imaging technologies for next-generation robotics, cyber-physical systems, and industrial automation. The metasurface is built with standard silicon chip elements, and features hundreds of programmable terahertz elements paired with active electronics that collectively resonate with the structure. This enables geometric adjustments several billions of times per second, splitting an incoming terahertz beam up into multiple dynamic, directable beams that can maintain line of sight with receivers. Brown University's Daniel Mittleman said, "The key takeaway is that we are now getting a handle on practical methods for actively controlling the wave front, beam size, beam direction, and other features of terahertz beams."

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Tiny Quantum Computer Solves Real Optimization Problem
Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden)
December 17, 2020

Researchers at Sweden's Chalmers University of Technology showed that a small but well-functioning quantum computer was able to solve a small portion of a real logistics problem in the aviation industry. The researchers successfully executed the Quantum Approximate Optimization Algorithm (QAOA) on a quantum computer comprised of a processor with two qubits to solve the problem of assigning aircraft to routes. Although their demonstration involved just two airplanes, they simulated solving the same optimization problem for up to 278 aircraft, which would require 25 qubits. Chalmers' Giulia Ferrini said, "The results remained good as we scaled up. This suggests that the QAOA algorithm has the potential to solve this type of problem at even larger scales."

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An illustration of monitoring signals from satellites in space. Method Finds Hidden Warning Signals in Measurements Collected Over Time
MIT News
Daniel Ackerman
December 17, 2020

A new technique developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Spain's Rey Juan Carlos University uses a generative adversarial network (GAN) to identify anomalies in time series data. The TadGAN approach could be used to detect and respond to significant changes in a range of high-value systems. The researchers aimed to create a general framework for anomaly detection that could be applied across industries. TadGAN can distinguish between normal and anomalous data points by checking for discrepancies between the real-time series and a fake GAN-generated time series. Supplementing the GAN with an autoencoder algorithm helped the researchers strike a balance between being vigilant and raising too many false alarms. In anomaly detection tests on 11 datasets, TadGAN outperformed ARIMA, the traditional approach to time-series forecasting, for eight datasets. Said MIT's Sarah Alnegheimish, "We want to mitigate the stigma about artificial intelligence not being reproducible."

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A Chrome search prompt. Up to 3 Million Devices Infected by Malware-Laced Chrome, Edge Add-ons
Ars Technica
Dan Goodin
December 16, 2020

Researchers at Czech Republic security firm Avast on Wednesday warned that up to 3 million devices have been infiltrated by malware-impregnated Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge browser extensions that steal personal data, and reroute users to ad or phishing sites. The Avast team identified 28 tainted Chrome and Edge extensions, advertised as tools for downloading content from sites like Facebook, Instagram, Vimeo, and Spotify; some extensions were still available for download from Google and Microsoft as of Avast's posting. The researchers also discovered malicious code in the JavaScript-based add-ons that lets them download malware onto an infected computer. It remains unknown if the extensions came with the malware preinstalled, or if the developers waited for them to gain a critical user mass before adding a malicious update. Another possibility is that legitimate developers created the extensions, then unwittingly sold them to malefactors.

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Photo of the FERM robotic arm at work. Framework Can Train Robotic Arm on 6 Grasping Tasks in Less Than an Hour
Kyle Wiggers
December 16, 2020

The Framework for Efficient Robotic Manipulation (FERM) developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) achieves highly sample-efficient robotic manipulation algorithm training. The developers said FERM can teach a robotic arm six grasping tasks from just 10 demonstrations, amounting to 15 to 50 minutes of training time. The UC Berkeley team said FERM initially collects and stores demonstrations in a "replay buffer," in order to pretrain an encoder machine learning algorithm; a reinforcement learning algorithm then trains on images "augmented" with data produced by the encoder and the initial demonstrations. The researchers said FERM combines a robot, a graphics card, two cameras, and a reward function that directs the reinforcement learning algorithm toward a goal. The framework enabled an xARM to learn the six grasping tasks within 25 minutes of training (over 20 to 80 episodes of training), with an average 96.7% success rate.

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In a First, USAF Uses AI on Military Jet
The Washington Post
Aaron Gregg
December 16, 2020

U.S. Air Force (USAF) officials said artificial intelligence (AI) was used for the first time on a military aircraft, when an algorithm called ARTU?? on Tuesday controlled radar and tactical navigation on a U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane during a training flight. USAF???s Josh Benedetti said ARTU?? intentionally lacked a manual override to "provoke thought and learning in the test environment." People involved in the test said the AI performed specific tasks while separated from the flight controls, which a human pilot handled. Assistant Air Force Secretary Will Roper said ARTU?? was trained against an opposing computer to scan for oncoming missile and missile launchers, and had the final say on where to orient the plane's sensors. ARTU?? is based on open source algorithms, and Roper said the purpose of test is "to shock the Air Force and the [Defense] Department as a whole into how seriously we need to treat AI teaming."

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Ireland's Barry O'Sullivan Receives Global Cybersecurity Award
Jenny Darmody
December 16, 2020

Barry O'Sullivan, a professor at Ireland???s University College Cork and director of the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics, this week became the first Irish recipient of the Nerode Prize, awarded by the European Association for Theoretical Computer Science and the International Symposium on Parameterized and Exact Computation for outstanding research in multivariate algorithmics. Sullivan was named to receive the award for a paper that resolved the directed feedback vertex set problem, one of the most well-known open problems in the field of complexity theory. The Nerode Prize committee recognized the paper for "its excellent technical exposition and its introduction of a seminal technique that has led to many key research directions in parameterized complexity."

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An illustration of the explosion of a type of supernova. FSU Computational Scientist Demonstrates How Supernovae Detonate
Florida State University News
Kathleen Haughney
December 17, 2020

Florida State University (FSU) computational scientist Tomasz Plewa and colleagues have demonstrated the conditions underlying the explosion of Type Ia supernovae through refined computational analysis. Earlier studies proposed that flames existed within the star from the onset of detonation, but Plewa's study did not assume this, accounting only for turbulence and nuclear burning. The FSU team's computer calculations showed that the flame could occur naturally and spread over time due to the self-heated, sustained turbulence. The turbulence produces an environment where the flame can be efficiently accelerated, inevitably leading to an explosion. Said Plewa, "The time here is measured in milliseconds. It all happens very, very quickly."

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The Continuing Arms Race: Code-Reuse Attacks and Defenses
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