Welcome to the March 19, 2021 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Avi Wigderson and László Lovász. 2 Win Abel Prize for Work That Bridged Math, Computer Science
The New York Times
Kenneth Chang
March 17, 2021

Mathematicians Avi Wigderson of Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study and László Lovász of Hungary's Eötvös Loránd University share this year's Abel Prize—considered the Nobel Prize of mathematics—for advancing fundamental concepts in computers' problem-solving capabilities. Their research entails proving theorems and developing techniques in pure mathematics that are practically applied in computer science, especially cryptography. Lovász co-created the LLL algorithm, which has been used to uncover weaknesses in certain cryptographic systems. Meanwhile, Wigderson's work includes demonstrating that any mathematical proof could be cast as a zero-knowledge proof. The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters cited Wigderson and Lovász "for their foundational contributions to theoretical computer science and discrete mathematics, and their leading role in shaping them into central fields of modern mathematics."

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Mobility Data Used to Respond to Covid-19 Can Leave Out Older and Non-White People
Carnegie Mellon University Heinz College
March 17, 2021

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon (CMU) and Stanford universities assessed smartphone-based mobility data used to respond to Covid-19, and found older and non-white voters were less likely to be included. The team audited the SafeGraph mobility dataset containing information from roughly 47 million mobile devices nationwide, harvested from mobile applications for which users opted in to geolocation. To overcome a dearth of demographic information, the researchers used North Carolina voter registration and turnout records and voters' travel to polling site locations on Election Day. The researchers said the lack of older and non-white voters in the mobility data could result in under-allocation of vital health resources to vulnerable populations.

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A delivery drone demonstration in Haifa, Israel. Israeli Town Abuzz with Delivery Drones in Coordinated Airspace Test
March 17, 2021

Rural Hadera, Israel, recently was turned over to five private firms that flew drones across its airspace as national authorities tested the responses of a central control room in the city of Haifa, 56 km (35 miles) away. The purpose of the control room is to safely coordinate the unmanned aircraft with each other, as well as with planes and helicopters. The Israel Innovation Authority's Hagit Lidor said, "This is an opportunity for the regulators to learn what is needed to establish delivery drones as a daily reality, and for the drone operators to learn what is expected of them in turn."

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Malware was Written in an Unusual Programming Language, to Stop It From Being Detected
Danny Palmer
March 11, 2021

Researchers at cybersecurity firm Proofpoint have determined a hacking group known as TA800 is distributing new malware written in the Nim programming language, in order to make it harder to detect. The NimzaLoader malware, distributed via phishing emails that connect to a fake PDF downloader, is intended to give hackers access to Windows computers and the ability to execute commands on them. Proofpoint's Sherrod DeGrippo said, "TA800 has often leveraged different and unique malware, and developers may choose to use a rare programming language like Nim to avoid detection, as reverse-engineers may not be familiar with Nim's implementation or focus on developing detection for it, and therefore tools and sandboxes may struggle to analyze samples of it."

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Illustration of a drug molecule and target protein. Faster Drug Discovery Through Machine Learning
MIT News
Daniel Ackerman
March 15, 2021

The DeepBAR technique developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers combines chemistry and machine learning to rapidly calculate the binding affinities between drug candidates and targets. DeepBAR completes calculations of binding free energy in a fraction of the time required by previous methods. The technique utilizes the binding free energy-calculating Bennett acceptance ratio (BAR) algorithm in deep generative models, creating two reference states for each endpoint with sufficient resemblance to enable direct BAR usage without intermediate steps. DeepBAR calculated binding free energy nearly 50 times faster than previous methods in tests with small protein-like molecules. MIT's Bin Zhang says this efficiency means "we can really start to think about using this to do drug screening, in particular in the context of Covid."

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Argument Technology for Debating with Humans
Chris Reed
March 17, 2021

Scientists at IBM Research AI in Haifa, Israel and Dublin, Ireland have developed Project Debater, an artificial intelligence system that can engage with humans in debating contests. The technology combines new strategies for collecting and interpreting argumentatively relevant material from text with techniques for repairing sentence syntax, which permit the system to use sentence fragments from source materials when presenting its arguments. These are integrated with pre-prepared data clustered around key themes to provide knowledge, arguments, and counterarguments about various topics, and supplemented with pre-authored text for introducing and structuring presentations during a debate. Project Debater addresses the problem of acquiring sufficient data to compute an effective solution to a set challenge by narrowing its focus to about 100 topics, and harvesting raw material from large datasets.

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A man and a woman with a robot in collaborative work environment. Robots Increase Gender Pay Gap Despite Raising Wages Overall
New Scientist
Matthew Sparkes
March 15, 2021

Researchers at King's College London in the U.K. studied the impact of automation on 20 European countries and found that automation pushed up all wages on average, but widened the gender pay gap. The study determined that the number of robots per 10,000 workers rose an average 47% from 2006 to 2014, and correlated a 10% increase in robot workers to a 1.8% boost in the gender pay gap. The researchers attribute the increased pay discrepancy to the fact that more men hold medium- and high-skilled jobs that disproportionately benefit from automation. Countries with already high gender inequality and less support for women in the workforce saw a bigger increase in the gender pay gap due to automation, according to the research, which also found no statistically significant impact on the gender pay gap in countries with low gender inequality.

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Smart Device Push Brings IT, R&D Teams Together
The Wall Street Journal
John McCormick
March 15, 2021

Information Technology (IT) staffers at consumer packaged goods companies increasingly are working with research and development (R&D) teams to develop more connected devices. To develop Colgate's new smart toothbrush, the R&D team worked on the brush head and sensors, while the IT team developed the underlying application, which uses machine learning to analyze data collected by the toothbrush to make recommendations for brushing better. Colgate's Mike Crowe said, "It is really about maximizing the use of the combined skills." The IT and R&D teams at Proctor & Gamble (P&G) also have collaborated on a smart toothbrush, a personalized skin-care analyzer, and a facial-hair style assistant. McKinsey’s Ed Roth said teaming IT and R&D is not without its challenges. “It’s not a natural pairing,” Roth said, because each unit is staffed by people from a different work culture.

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New York City traffic. How AI Can Help Curb Traffic Accidents in Cities
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Spain)
Santiago Campillo
March 15, 2021

An interdisciplinary research team led by Spain's Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) is leveraging artificial intelligence to reduce traffic accidents in cities. The researchers trained neural networks to detect probable hazards in an area and found that certain patterns in urban scene layout—such as the arrangement of street furniture and the location of parked cars, advertisements, and façades—may impact accident rates. The researchers developed a heuristic method to improve urban scenes, but it requires urban planners, architects, or engineers to implement changes based on the algorithm-driven data. UOC’s Javier Borge said, “Our biggest hurdle is data availability: the analysis requires a rich collection of street view images and open, geolocalized data on accident rates with details of those involved, which are not currently easy to obtain."

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When Memory Qubits, Photons Get Entangled
University of Bonn (Germany)
March 12, 2021

Physicists at Germany's University of Bonn have demonstrated quantum entanglement between a stationary quantum bit (qubit) and a photon directly coupled to an optical fiber. The researchers used an optical resonator comprised of two opposing mirrors on the end facets of two optical fibers, and partly ablated the fiber with a laser pulse and clad the fiber ends with a reflective coating. The resonator can facilitate the coupling of photons to optical fibers, and greatly streamline their distribution in a network. The Bonn team noted that even from 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) away, the ion and photon sustained their entanglement. Bonn's Michael Köhl said, "Our presented system is well-suited as a node in quantum networks."

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Electrical transmission towers. U.S. Grid at Rising Risk to Cyberattack, Says GAO
The Hill
Zack Budryk
March 18, 2021

An analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that distribution systems within the country's electrical grid are increasingly vulnerable to cyberattack, "in part due of the introduction of and reliance on monitoring and control technologies." The GAO found this vulnerability is growing because of industrial control systems, which increasingly are accessed remotely. The study said the systems overall are not covered by federal cybersecurity standards, but in some instances have taken independent action based on those standards. The report urges the Secretary of Energy to work with state officials, industry figures, and the Department of Homeland Security to better mitigate distribution system risks.

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The Dyret quadruped robot. Robot Adjusts Length of Its Legs When Stepping From Grass to Concrete
University of Oslo
Eivind Torgersen
March 15, 2021

The quadruped Dynamic Robot for Embodied Testing (Dyret) engineered by researchers at Norway's University of Oslo (UiO) can adjust the length of its legs to adapt to different terrains, learning the most efficient configuration for each on the fly. Former UiO researcher Tonnes Nygaard said, "The robot uses a camera to see how rough the terrain is, and it uses sensors in the legs to feel how hard the walking surface is. The robot continuously learns about the environment it's walking on and, combined with the knowledge it gained indoors in the controlled environment, uses this to adapt its body." Nygaard added that when learning through experience, the robot “is able to break free from the assumptions and traditions that we humans make, often erroneously."

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Algorithm Could Reduce Complexity of Big Data
Texas A&M Today
Stephanie Jones
March 15, 2021

Researchers at Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at Austin, and Princeton University have developed a machine learning (ML) algorithm that can find and extract the most prominent features of a dataset in one pass. The algorithm can add a new cost function to an artificial neural network that provides the exact location of salient features directly ordered by their relative importance, which increases processing efficiency. While currently only applicable to one-dimensional data samples, the research team hopes to extend the capabilities of the algorithm to manage more complex structured data.

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