Welcome to the August 13, 2021 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Klarna CEO Sebastian Siemiatkowski in the company's office in Stockholm, Sweden. How Sweden Became the Silicon Valley of Europe
Colm Fulton; Supantha Mukherjee
August 11, 2021

Klarna's Sebastian Siemiatkowski, billionaire founder of the Swedish fintech company, attributes his success to the Swedish welfare state, particularly a 1998-2001 government policy to give a computer to every household. During that period, the program purchased 850,000 home computers, distributing them at no cost to nearly 25% of Sweden's then-4 million households. At 16, Siemiatkowski started coding on the computer his family received, and more than two decades later, his $46 billion payments firm is preparing to go public. Some technology executives and venture capitalists say the computer policy, the nation's early investment in Internet connectivity, and its social safety net, including free childcare and income insurance funds, help foster innovation. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that Sweden has the third highest startup rate, ranked by startups per 1,000 employees. Atomico's Sarah Guemouri noted that Stockholm ranks second behind Silicon Valley for unicorns (startups valued above $1 billion).

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SARS-CoV-2 Detection by ML Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy
Michael Greenwood
August 11, 2021

Scientists in Turkey and the U.S. designed surfaces optimized for detecting severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), then used machine learning to interpret the Raman spectroscopy-generated dataset. The researchers mated a silicon base to a gold nanostructure coated in thiol-modified primary DNA aptamers. Saliva samples from individuals suspected of having COVID-19 were blended with Cy5.5-modified fluorescent secondary aptamers, then deposited on the sensor; a laser excited the sensor and measured Raman shift spectra within the 548-to-1,620-cm-1 range. The researchers computationally sifted out and optimized the gold nanostructure pattern on the sensor, while an algorithm iteratively mutated the existing optimum surface, selecting the top 20% of the current "generation" to pass on their features. The team said the sensor realized 99% sensitivity and specificity in detecting SARS-CoV-2, or 95.2% with unprocessed saliva.

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helicopter carries water bucket to extinguish forest fire Wildfire Simulation Heats Up
August 10, 2021

An international team led by researchers at Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) has generated an accurate forest-scale simulation of wildfire behavior. The model must incorporate tree combustion and fluid dynamics, and factor in environmental variations like tree density, terrain, and wind. Said KAUST's Torsten Hädrich, "Our work can help to make real forest fires more predictable by simulating potential fire scenarios with real forestry data. We are also able to simulate how firebreaks in forests can be used to contain fire spread." The researchers' technique can simulate trees as collections of branch-like modules, which Hädrich said "provides a way to control the level of detail for the simulation."

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Expedition 59 Flight Engineer David Saint-Jacques prepares Astrobee robotic assistant for a mobility test. Meet ISAAC, Integrating Robots with Space Stations of the Future
Frank Tavares
August 11, 2021

Engineers at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) developed software to facilitate autonomous functions of a spacecraft's operating and robotic systems. The ISAAC (Integrated System for Autonomous and Adaptive Caretaking) software recently completed its first testing phase aboard the International Space Station, using a single free-flying robot to investigate a simulated fault. The second phase involves managing multiple robots transporting cargo, while the third and final phase will test the system against more complex fault scenarios. ISAAC aims to support technologies on spacecraft and space stations for remote and autonomous caretaking when they are unoccupied, or when communication with ground controllers is limited or unavailable. NASA's Trey Smith said, "Our long-term vision is that it can transform a spacecraft into an autonomous robotic system itself."

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supercell thunderstorm with storm clouds and lightning Stanford Researchers Use AI to Unlock Extreme Weather Mysteries
Stanford University
Rob Jordan
August 10, 2021

A machine learning tool developed by Stanford University researchers aims to more accurately predict extreme weather events. The researchers trained a machine learning algorithm to detect large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns tied to extreme precipitation, defined as above the 95th percentile, with a focus on the upper Mississippi and the eastern Missouri watersheds. The algorithm found multiple factors responsible for increased extreme precipitation in the region, and accurately identified more than 90% of extreme precipitation days. Among other things, the researchers determined that higher precipitation intensity on those days were linked to higher atmospheric moisture flows from the Gulf of Mexico that resulted in heavy rainfall in the Midwest. Stanford's Frances Davenport said, "While we focused on the Midwest initially, our approach can be applied to other regions and used to understand changes in extreme events more broadly. This will help society better prepare for the impacts of climate change."

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36-foot-long mobile substation connected to INL's full-scale Power Grid Test Bed New Technology Can Block Cyberattacks from Impacting the Nation's Electric Power Grid
Idaho National Laboratory
July 20, 2021

Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and Visgence Inc. demonstrated that their Constrained Cyber Communication Device (C3D) can prevent cyberattacks from affecting the national power grid. The researchers showed that the device automatically blocks remote access attempts that could indicate a cyberattack and informs operators of the abnormal commands. The C3D autonomously reviews and filters commands sent to protective relay devices, which order breakers to shut off electricity flow in the event of a disturbance but are not designed to block quick and stealthy cyberattacks. The researchers built and connected a 36-foot mobile substation to INL's full-scale electric power grid test bed. When a sudden power spike command was sent to the substation relays, it was blocked immediately by the C3D device. INL's Jake Gentle explained, "The C3D device sits deep inside a utility's network, monitoring and blocking cyberattacks before they impact relay operations."

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cyber-ish DNA strand made of zeros and ones. Study Shows Potential of DNA-Based Data-Structures Systems
Newcastle University (UK)
August 12, 2021

New DNA data structures can store and retrieve information from DNA molecules in an ordered manner, according to a study by researchers at the U.K.'s Newcastle University. The researchers used DNA polymers to deploy an in vitro stack data structure that uses chemical reactions to record combinations of two different DNA signals (0s and 1s), dispatch them into solution in reverse order, then re-record. The stack stores and recalls data as DNA signal strands (ssDNA) in a last-in first-out configuration by assembling and truncating polymers of single ssDNA strands. The structure may ultimately be incorporated in vivo to store messenger RNAs and reverse the order of a translational response. Newscastle's Harold Fellermann envisions such structures employed within living cells, which "might be used in environmental monitoring, bioremediation, green production, and even personalized nanomedicine."

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Researchers Take Step Toward Next-Generation Brain-Computer Interface System
Brown University
August 12, 2021

A team of scientists from Brown University, Baylor University, the University of California, San Diego, and wireless technology company Qualcomm has moved a step toward a future brain-computer interface system that uses a network of ultra-small sensors to record and stimulate brain activity. These silicon "neurograins" independently capture and transmit neural signals wirelessly to a central hub for coordination and processing; the hub is a thumbprint-sized patch attached to the scalp, which also wirelessly powers the tiny chips. The team used 48 neurograins to record signals in a rodent characteristic of spontaneous brain activity, and to stimulate activity through tiny electrical pulses. Brown's Arto Nurmikko said, "Our hope is that we can ultimately develop a system that provides new scientific insights into the brain and new therapies that can help people affected by devastating injuries."

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generated faces used to test Twitter's image cropping algorithm Student Proves Twitter Algorithm 'Bias' Toward Lighter, Slimmer, Younger Faces
The Guardian
Alex Hern
August 10, 2021

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EFPL) graduate student Bogdan Kulynych received $3,500 as the winner of Twitter's first ever "algorithmic bug bounty." Kulynych determined that the social media giant's image cropping algorithm prefers faces that are lighter, younger, and slimmer. To prove bias, Kulynych created artificially-generated faces that differed slightly in terms of skin tone, width, gender presentation, or age and ran them through the cropping algorithm. Kulynych found that the software focused more on faces that were younger, slimmer, and lighter rather than older, wider, or darker. Twitter's Rumman Chowdhury said, "We create these filters because we think that's what 'beautiful' is, and that ends up training our models and driving these unrealistic notions of what it means to be attractive."

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smart dashboard, illustration City PhD Researcher Develops Smart-Car Identity and Access Management System
City University of London
August 10, 2021

Researchers at the City University of London in the U.K. have developed an identity and access management system to make smart cars less vulnerable to cyber attacks. Via usage control policies, the SIUV system issues privileges to drivers or applications based on their credentials or claims. Access to in-car resources is based on the issued privileges. Subject claims, resource attributions, and environmental conditions are monitored continuously, allowing the system to reevaluate policies or revoke issued privileges and usage decisions as necessary. Meanwhile, the system uses verifiable credentials to ensure claims are secure and verifiable. The researchers indicate that the U.K. Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency could issue cryptographically verifiable credentials as driver's licenses, with SIUV employed to validate the claims within the credential on an ongoing basis and allow or deny access to in-car components based on its usage control policy evaluations.

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a grid map made of puzzle pieces along with measuring tools like calculator and sliderules, illustration Mathematicians Are Deploying Algorithms to Stop Gerrymandering
MIT Technology Review
Siobhan Roberts
August 12, 2021

Mathematicians are implementing algorithms designed to halt gerrymandering—the partisan manipulation of U.S. Census data to redraw electoral maps for one political party's gain. These programs could dramatically affect redistricting, and offer an objective and practical test for flagging gerrymandered maps. The tools that various scientists have designed deliver an extreme-outlier test, comparing a map suspected of being gerrymandered with a large collection of bias-free maps, and generating a random sample that reflects the probability that any drawn map will meet various political criteria. The ensemble maps account for various district-drawing principles, incorporating their interaction with a state's geopolitical geometry. Duke University researchers will load the 2020 Census dataset into an algorithm and produce an array of typical, nonpartisan district plans for North Carolina; this should yield protective benchmarks, and in September the team will release the maps and hope state legislators consider them.

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chain mail supporting a weight 3D-Printed Chain Mail Alternates Between Flexibility and Rigidity
New Scientist
Matthew Sparkes
August 11, 2021

A team of California Institute of Technology (Caltech) scientists three-dimensionally-printed plastic or aluminum chain mail that boasts flexibility or rigidity as needed. When compressed, the mesh can assume a rigidity up to 25 times stiffer than when uncompressed. The link shapes, which include octahedrons, pyramids, and rhomboids, are pushed together in a way so that the links come into contact with each other at several points, impeding movement and creating a rigid whole. Caltech's Chiara Daraio suggests a smart fabric with adaptable stiffness could lead to diverse innovations, ranging from a lightweight mesh to support broken bones to a larger grid of metal links for erecting tents or temporary bridges.

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5G Shortcut Leaves Phones Exposed to Stingray Surveillance
Lily Hay Newman
August 10, 2021

Researchers at the University of Stavanger in Norway and Technische Universität Berlin in Germany found that major phone carriers in those countries continue to deploy 5G in "non-standalone" mode. This means the existing 4G network infrastructure is used as a starting point for issuing 5G data speeds, leaving phones vulnerable to stingray surveillance. Stingrays trick devices into connecting to them and track devices using IMSI numbers, which 5G is designed to encrypt. University of Stavanger's Ravishankar Borgaonkar said, "You're getting the high speed connection, but the security level you have is still 4G." However, Pennsylvania State University's Syed Rafiul Hussain said carriers will still run parallel 4G and 3G infrastructure even when 5G standalone mode has been implemented. Hussain explained, "4G stingray attacks, downgrading, man-in-the-middle attacks—those will exist for years even though we have 5G."

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