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Welcome to the March 24, 2021 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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People on line waiting to enter the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, a coronavirus vaccination megasite Vaccination Megasites Lean on Enterprise Tech to Keep the Line Moving
The Wall Street Journal
Angus Loten
March 22, 2021

Healthcare organizations and information technology (IT) leaders say popup Covid-19 vaccination megasites are using digital enterprise technology to accommodate surging numbers of inoculations as more Americans qualify to be immunized. Vaccination megasites across the country are using cloud communications, contact center, and systems management software from software firm NWN. NWN's Jim Sullivan said the facilities' systems must run on a secure and scalable network, which taps power and capacity from the cloud to provide flexibility for expansion. Dr. James Cardon at Connecticut-based Hartford HealthCare hospital network said enterprise IT keeps lines moving at megasites, adding, “We have overbuilt capacity” to allow for room to grow.

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have developed a deep learning neural network to aid in the design of soft-bodied robots, such as these iterations of a robotic elephant Researchers' Algorithm Designs Soft Robots That Sense
MIT News
Daniel Ackerman
March 22, 2021

An algorithm developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) helps design soft robots that gather useful environmental data by recommending optimized positions for sensors on the robot so it can better interact with its surroundings and perform assigned tasks. The research team divided the robot's body into “particles,” and the rate of strain of each was provided to a neural network that learns the most efficient sequence of task movements via trial and error. The network monitors which particles are used most often, removing lesser-used particles from inputs for subsequent trials and suggesting sensor positioning for efficient performance. MIT's Daniela Rus said, "Automating the design of sensorized soft robots is an important step toward rapidly creating intelligent tools that help people with physical tasks."

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Ultrasound Reads Monkey Brains, Opening Path to Controlling Machines with Thought
Kelly Servick
March 22, 2021

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have developed a method of predicting a monkey's intended eye or hand movements using ultrasound imaging. Their findings could help people who are paralyzed to control prostheses without requiring implants in their brains (although the technique does require a small piece of skull to be removed). Since functional ultrasound provides a less direct signal than implanted electrodes, the researchers tested whether the signal provides sufficient information for a computer to interpret the intended movement by inserting ultrasound transducers into the skulls of two rhesus macaque monkeys. The researchers found the algorithm was 78% accurate in predicting monkey eye movements, and 89% accurate in predicting an arm reach.

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Programming Language Converts Laws Into 'Provably Correct' Computer Code
March 23, 2021

A joint effort by researchers at France's National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology (Inria) and Microsoft Research yielded Catala, a programming language designed to capture and execute legal algorithms. Its creators said Catala translates laws into provably correct computer code that can be implemented transparently, which should encourage public trust in systems that are sometimes concealed, and involve many lines of obscure, customized code. Catala is based on default logic, and Inria's Denis Merigoux and colleagues said it overcomes certain problems stemming from cultural differences between the legal and programming communities.

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Newly-Wormable Windows Botnet Ballooning in Size
Zack Whittaker
March 23, 2021

Amit Serper and Ophir Harpaz at Israeli security firm Guardicore say a botnet targeting Windows devices is expanding, due to a new infection method that lets malware spread between computers with weak passwords. The Purple Fox malware attempts to guess Windows user account passwords by targeting the server message block that allows Windows to communicate with other devices. Upon infiltration, Purple Fox pulls a malicious payload from a network of nearly 2,000 compromised Windows Web servers and installs a rootkit, keeping the malware latched on to the computer while complicating its detection or removal. It then seals the firewall ports through which it gained access, and produces a list of Internet addresses and scans the Internet for other targets. Guardicore said Purple Fox infections have soared 600% since May 2020.

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Im­age Analysis Based on ML Re­li­ably Iden­ti­fies Hemat­o­lo­gical Ma­lig­nan­cies Chal­len­ging for the Human Eye
University of Helsinki (Finland)
Anu Koivusipila
March 22, 2021

Since machine learning (ML)-based image analysis can spot details in tissue that may elude the human eye, researchers at Finland's University of Helsinki used the technique to analyze microscopic images of bone marrow from myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) patients. The researchers digitized and examined sample slides using computational deep learning models, which accurately identified the most frequent genetic mutations affecting MDS progression. Olivier Elemento at Weill Cornell Medicine's Caryl and Israel Englander Institute for Precision Medicine said, "[This] study provides new insights into the pathobiology of MDS and paves the way for increased use of artificial intelligence for the assessment and diagnosis of hematological malignancies."

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Scientist Bridges the Gap Between Quantum Simulators, Quantum Computers
Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Russia)
March 22, 2021

Jacob Biamonte at Russia's Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology has bridged the gap between programmable quantum simulators and traditional quantum computers with his discovery of a computationally universal model of quantum computation. Biamonte cited the technique of variationally tuning a quantum circuit used by Google and others in order to minimize a classically calculated cost function, explaining, "This approach turns out to represent a universal model of quantum computation, meaning that a quantum simulator only needs limited additional control to execute general quantum algorithms." Biamonte said the analysis provided “a new means to implement quantum algorithms using a variational approach."

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A nurse tends to a patient with Coronavirus. How U.K., South Africa Coronavirus Variants Escape Immunity
Texas Advanced Computing Center
Faith Singer-Villalobos
March 17, 2021

Catholic University of America (CUA) researchers recently completed an analysis of immunity-resistant coronavirus variants in the U.K. and South Africa. CUA's Victor Padilla-Sanchez said the team used molecular dynamics simulations via the Texas Advanced Computing Center's Frontera supercomputer, along with the University of California, San Francisco's Chimera software. They found both the U.K. and South African variants exhibited significant mutations in the virus' spike glycoprotein, influencing the pathogen's infectiousness. Said Padilla-Sanchez, "The main computational challenge while doing this research was to find a computer powerful enough to do the molecular dynamics task, which generates very big files, and requires a great amount of memory. This research would not have been possible without the Frontera supercomputer."

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More Than Words: Using AI to Map How the Brain Understands Sentences
University of Rochester Medical Center
Kelsie Smith Hayduk
March 22, 2021

Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) and the Medical College of Wisconsin combined neuroimaging and artificial intelligence (AI) to describe the brain's mechanism for understanding sentences. The team performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on study participants as they read sentences, which indicated that brain activity crossed a network of different regions. Using Facebook's InferSent AI model, the researchers could predict patterns of fMRI activity that mirrored the encoding of a sentence’s meaning across those regions. URMC's Andrew Anderson said, "It's the first time that we've applied this model to predict brain activity within these regions, and that provides new evidence that contextualized semantic representations are encoded throughout a distributed language network, rather than at a single site in the brain."

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Wires plugged into a mussel to monitor it. Mussel Sensors Pave the Way for Environmental Monitoring Tools
NC State University News
Matt Shipman
March 23, 2021

North Carolina State University (NC State) researchers are using a new sensor system to remotely monitor freshwater mussels, to detect harmful toxins. The researchers created the sensor system from commercially available components, including two magnetometer- and accelerometer-equipped inertial measurement units (IMUs) anchored to the mussel's top and bottom shells, so the researchers can compare movement of the shell halves relative to each other. The IMUs can be wired to a solar-powered data acquisition system mounted on a stake in a waterway to wirelessly transmit data via a cellular network. Mussels tend to close their shells all at once if noxious substances are in the water, and NC State's Alper Bozkurt believes the sensor system "will ultimately enable us to use them as environmental sensors or sentinels."

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Multiple drones team up to lift a box. Control System Helps Several Drones Team Up to Deliver Heavy Packages
Georgia Tech Research Horizons
John Toon
March 22, 2021

An adaptive control algorithm developed by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) helps unmanned aerial vehicles collaborate to deliver heavy parcels. Georgia Tech's Kevin Webb designed a centralized computer system to monitor each drone lifting a package, sharing data about their location and motor thrust, and coordinating navigation and delivery instructions. Georgia Tech's Jonathan Rogers said, "We take care of the difficult issues using the onboard intelligence, rather than expecting a human to precisely measure the package weight, center of gravity, and drone relative positions." The team of drones could autonomously connect to a docking structure attached to a package via an infrared guidance system, without requiring human guidance.

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Identifying Banknote Fingerprints Can Stop Counterfeits on Streets
University of Warwick (U.K.)
March 24, 2021

Researchers at the University of Warwick's Department of Computer Science and Durham University in the U.K. said a technique called Polymer Substrate Fingerprinting could be used to identify the unique, unclonable “fingerprints” of Bank of England banknotes, in order to thwart counterfeiting. Each polymer banknote has a “fingerprint” of random translucent patterns caused by defects in the manufacturing process, which are visible when back-lit. The researchers' image-analysis method puts the banknotes through a negative-film scanner, and processes the resulting images into 2,048-bit feature vectors to uniquely identify each banknote. The team used 340 banknotes to compile a dataset of 6,200 sample images, and showed the technique could identify each banknote's fingerprint accurately, despite rough daily handling. Warwick's Feng Hao said, "This new finding gives us the basis to design a completely new anti-counterfeiting method for banknotes."

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Applied Materials Tools Use AI to Catch Mistakes on Chips
Stephen Nellis
March 16, 2021

Semiconductor manufacturer Applied Materials said it is using new fabrication technology that employs artificial intelligence (AI) to identify chip defects more effectively. The tools include the Enlight scanner—a highly advanced camera—to scan silicon wafers quickly for problem areas, and an electron microscope that zooms in for even-closer inspection. Electron microscopes are very slow, so the ExtractAI component checks only about 1,000 potential trouble areas on the wafers to predict where the biggest problems will be. Applied's Keith Wells said the AI-powered check takes roughly 60 minutes, adding, "It’s economical for the customer to do that on every wafer. We’re telling you with high confidence that these are the really killer defects."

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