Welcome to the March 8, 2021 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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White House Cites 'Active Threat,' Urges Action Despite Microsoft Patch
Jeff Mason
March 8, 2021

The White House has advised computer network operators to further efforts to determine whether their systems were targeted by an attack on Microsoft's Outlook email program, warning of serious vulnerabilities still unresolved. Although Microsoft issued a patch to correct flaws in Outlook's software, a back door that can allow access to compromised servers remains open; a White House official called this "an active threat still developing." A source informed Reuters that more than 20,000 U.S. organizations had been compromised by the hack, which Microsoft attributed to China; although for now only a small percentage of infected networks have been compromised via the back door, more attacks are anticipated. Said the White House official, "Patching and mitigation is not remediation if the servers have already been compromised, and it is essential that any organization with a vulnerable server take measures to determine if they were already targeted."

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One of the zipline drones. Ghana Using Drones to Deliver Coronavirus Vaccines to Rural Communities
Business Insider
Grace Dean
March 5, 2021

San Francisco-based startup Zipline is delivering coronavirus vaccines to rural communities in Ghana via autonomous drones as part of the World Health Organization's COVAX program. The Ghanaian service started March 2 with Zipline's deployment of 4,500 doses across the Ashanti Region in 36 separate flights, in partnership with Ghana's government and United Parcel Service. Each six-foot-long drone's flight is monitored from its distribution center, and the aircraft can fly nearly 100 miles round-trip on a single battery charge while conveying four pounds of cargo. Orders can be scheduled ahead or placed on demand for just-in-time delivery, and drones can be dispatched within seven minutes of an order's receipt. The drones drop their cargo to destination sites via parachute.

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From Vote to Virus, Misinformation Campaign Targets Latinos
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Will Weissert
March 7, 2021

Campaigns to target Latinos with misinformation on topics ranging from the presidential election to the coronavirus vaccine highlight how social media and other technologies are being exploited to such a degree that countermeasures cannot keep up. Examples include doctored videos and images, quotes taken out of context, and conspiracy theories. Former Democratic Party chairman Tom Perez said, "The volume and sources of Spanish-language information are exceedingly wide-ranging and that should scare everyone." An academic study found that most false narratives in the Spanish-language community "were translated from English and circulated via prominent platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, as well as in closed group chat platforms like WhatsApp, and efforts often appeared coordinated across platforms." Watchers of Spanish-language content online point to a shortage of reliable sources with sufficiently large followings to consistently dispel falsehoods.

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Rapid 3D Printing Method Moves Toward 3D-Printed Organs
University at Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Cory Nealon
March 5, 2021

Researchers at the University at Buffalo (UB), Syracuse University, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Western New York Healthcare System, and the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center have developed a three-dimensional (3D) printing method that is reportedly 10 to 50 times faster than the industry standard. The technique combines stereolithography and hydrogels, the latter of which required optimization to enhance speed and accuracy. UB's Chi Zhou said the process "significantly reduces part deformation and cellular injuries caused by the prolonged exposure to the environmental stresses you commonly see in conventional 3D printing methods." The researchers said the technique is especially conducive to printing cells with embedded blood vessel networks, which is expected to be critical to the manufacture of 3D-printed human tissue and organs.

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Portrait of a robot. The Robots Are Coming for Phil in Accounting
The New York Times
Kevin Roose
March 6, 2021

Many U.S. companies are adopting software to perform tasks ranging from simple accounting to more sophisticated cognitive work that previously involved teams of employees, and white-collar workers are concerned. This robotic process automation (RPA) trend is growing rapidly, and independent experts warn that layoffs can follow major corporate RPA efforts, which are implemented to reduce costs rather than improve workplace conditions. Craig Le Clair at advisory firm Forrester Research said RPA bots' affordability, ease of use, and compatibility with back-end systems are their key selling points to executives, who would rather boost short-term profits than make expensive, time-consuming upgrades. Research by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University economists indicated that task automation has outpaced the creation of new jobs since the late 1980s, possibly because of popular "so-so technologies" that are sufficient to replace human beings, but do not boost productivity or job creation.

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Launching the new Honda self-driving car. Honda Launches Advanced Self-Driving Cars in Japan
March 5, 2021

Japanese automaker Honda has launched a limited roll-out of its new Legend, which it calls the most advanced driverless vehicle licensed for the road, in Japan. The Legend's capabilities include adaptive driving in lanes, passing and switching lanes in certain conditions, and an emergency stop function if a driver is unresponsive to handover warnings. The Legend's autonomy is rated Level 3 on a scale of 0 to 5; analysts said a true Level 4 vehicle, in which a car no longer requires a driver at all, is a long time off. Experts said the Legend's limited rollout would help gauge demand for more autonomous vehicles.

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Research Team Unlocks Strategies Driving Neuron Connections
University of Oregon
Jim Barlow
March 2, 2021

A team of researchers led by the University of Oregon (UO) documented the behavior of dendrites, the branching harms of neurons, using high-resolution imaging and three-dimensional (3D) computer modeling. The team's goal was to understand how targeted neurons in the retina could connect to electrodes designed to address vision loss caused by retinal diseases. The researchers used 3D modeling to manipulate the dendrites of more than 1,600 neurons into unnatural forms. UO's Conor Rowland said the researchers were able to demonstrate that "the fractal weaving of the natural branches is balancing the ability of neurons to connect with their neighbors to form natural electric circuits while balancing the construction and operating costs of the circuits."

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Autonomous Underwater Robot Saves People From Drowning
Fraunhofer Institute (Germany)
March 1, 2021

A research team at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Optronics, System Technologies, and Image Exploitation has developed an underwater rescue robot with the help of the city of Halle's water rescue service. The autonomous system will aid lifeguards and lifesavers, and rescue swimmers from drowning. Surveillance cameras register the movements and position of a distressed swimmer and transmit coordinates to the robot, which is dispatched from a docking station on the pool floor. Upon reaching the swimmer, the robot carries them to the surface, with a mechanism for fixing the swimmer in place preventing him/her from sliding down as they surface. The robot requires acoustic sensors to rescue people in lakes with limited visibility; a test under such conditions showed the robot could successfully rescue a dummy swimmer in just over two minutes.

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Pigs are susceptible to swine, avian, and human influenza viruses. Vaccine Development Software Shows Promise in Influenza Effort, Could Help Defeat Coronavirus
Los Alamos National Laboratory News
March 1, 2021

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the University of Nebraska, and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital designed an algorithm for vaccine development that could generate a broadly reactive influenza vaccine for swine flu, and also potentially lead to pan-influenza and pan-coronavirus vaccines. The Epigraph algorithm has been utilized to forecast therapeutic human immunodeficiency virus vaccine candidates, and has demonstrated potential for the creation of a pan-filovirus vaccine against diverse Ebola and Marburg strains, shielding against disease in animal models. LANL's Bette Korber said, "The tool creates a cocktail of vaccine antigens designed to maximize efficacy across a highly diverse population."

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The ear of a locust inside a special sensory chip. Meet the Israeli Robot That 'Hears' Through Dead Locust's Ear
The Jerusalem Post
March 2, 2021

Researchers at Israel's Tel Aviv University (TAU) have connected a dead locust's auditory organ to a robot, which responds to sounds picked up by the ear. TAU's Ben M. Maoz said, "Our task was to replace the robot's electronic microphone with a dead insect's ear, use the ear's ability to detect the electrical signals from the environment—in this case vibrations in the air—and, using a special chip, convert the insect input to that of the robot." In a demonstration, the locust's ear caused the robot to move forward in response to a single hand clap, and move backward when the researchers clapped twice. Said Maoz, "This initiative opens the door to sensory integrations between robots and insects—and may make much more cumbersome and expensive developments in the field of robotics redundant."

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Researchers Discover Privacy-Preserving Tools Leave Private Data Unprotected
NYU Tandon School of Engineering
March 3, 2021

At the New York University Tandon School of Engineering (NYU Tandon), researchers found machine learning frameworks underlying privacy preservation tools that use generative adversarial networks (GANs) designed by third parties are not very effective at safeguarding private data. Analysis determined that privacy-protecting GANs (PP-GANs) can be subverted to pass empirical privacy checks, while still permitting the extraction of secret information from "sanitized" images. NYU Tandon's Siddarth Garg said, "While our adversarial PP-GAN passed all existing privacy checks, we found that it actually hid secret data pertaining to the sensitive attributes, even allowing for reconstruction of the original private image." The researchers applied a novel steganographic approach to adversarially modify a state-of-the-art PP-GAN to conceal its user ID from sanitized face images, which could pass privacy checks with 100% secret recovery rate.

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Mantis Shrimp Inspires Breed of Light Sensors
NC State News
Mike Kudenov; Matt Shipman
March 3, 2021

Researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and South Korea's Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology have developed an optical sensor inspired by mantis shrimp eyes that can capture hyperspectral and polarimetric images. The prototype Stomatopod Inspired Multispectral and POLarization sensitive (SIMPOL) sensor is an organic electronic sensor that can simultaneously register four spectral and three polarization channels. Charge-coupled devices (CCDs) used in smartphones have just three spectral imaging sensors and two polarization channels, while the SIMPOL sensor measures both color and polarization channels at one point; CCD imaging sensors are spread across several points. The NCSU researchers determined in simulations that the SIMPOL design could be applied to detectors that can sense up to 15 spatially registered spectral channels.

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