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

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A sign reads El Salvador President Steps in to Fix Bitcoin Rollout Snags
Nelson Renteria
September 9, 2021

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has interceded in the troubled launch of a bitcoin payments application, urging users to report problems on his Twitter feed. He asked users to close and restart the government-backed Chivo app if a "currently under maintenance" error screen appeared. He has sent numerous tweets telling users how to download Chivo, which advertises commission-free transactions and which his governments hopes will be embraced by unbanked Salvadorans. Bukele later said the digital wallet app was being disconnected for the second time to "improve user experience and the problems it had during the day." Douglas Rodriguez, the head of El Salvador's central bank, said bitcoin adoption needed time to "mature," while JP Morgan Chase said some technical snags are unsurprising, given the nation "had only three months to prepare for this grand experiment."

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Veteran programmer Tom Smith shows how Codex can instantly generate computer code from a request in plain English. AI Can Now Write Its Own Computer Code. That's Good News for Humans.
The New York Times
Cade Metz
September 9, 2021

Experts suggest new artificial intelligence (AI) technology that can write its own programs poses no threat to coders' jobs, and may enhance human productivity. Research laboratory OpenAI trained its Codex system on a massive dataset of prose and code so users can ask the system in plain English to write programs that perform specific functions; it can write programs in 12 computer languages and translate between them, although it is highly error-prone and cannot think on its own. According to OpenAI, Codex generates correct code 37% of the time, which makes it useful only to seasoned coders. Tom Smith of AI startup Gado Images said Codex could help train a new generation of programmers, as well as helping accelerate everyday tasks by directing them to basic coding elements or toward new concepts.

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Almost No One Encrypts Their Emails Because It Is Too Much of a Hassle
New Scientist
Chris Stokel-Walker
September 10, 2021

A study by researchers at Germany's Leibniz University Hannover of 81 million email messages sent from January 1994 to July 2021 found that only 0.06% of the emails were encrypted. The researchers also found that encryption tools like S/MIME or PGP were used by only 5.46% of the 37,000 university students and staff in the study. Leibniz's Christian Stransky noted that "S/MIME and PGP are not very usable for normal users," as they require the use of specialist email clients and, in some cases, third-party tools. Alan Woodward at the U.K.’s University of Surrey said, "With the rise of end-to-end encryption in messaging apps [such as WhatsApp], which just happens as if by magic, users naturally use that route if they want to have a private conversation."

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3D Printing Helps Ultracold Quantum Experiments Go Small
Karmela Padavic-Callaghan
September 7, 2021

Three-dimensionally (3D)-printing components can scale down equipment needed for ultracold quantum experiments significantly, thanks to physicists at the U.K.'s University of Nottingham. The researchers constructed their experimental setup out of blocks that they 3D-printed in precise shapes. The team printed a vacuum chamber out of a lightweight aluminum alloy rather than fashioning it from heavy metals, and a lens-mirror array was slotted into a holder printed out of a polymer. Nottingham's Somaya Madkhaly said, "We reduced the size by about 70%, compared to a conventional setup." The team optimized the setup using an algorithm designed to find the best placement for magnets.

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Projects in the VR section of the Venice Film Festival range from films in which the viewer can look around but not interact with objects, to projects in which they embody an avatar Art, Terror Show VR Potential at Venice
September 9, 2021

The Venice Film Festival shined a spotlight on virtual reality (VR), with film projects that allow viewers to observe without interacting with objects as well as those in which they embody an avatar and become fully immersed in an interactive world. The projects included "Goliath," which portrays a man's descent into schizophrenia with visual effects and interactive experiences. The festival's Michel Reilhac said, "The tech has reached the point where the makers are no longer fascinated by the tech ... where it can call itself a fully-fledged artform." Reilhac attributes quick developments in the field to increased interest in "social VR," such as digital gaming. Said Reilhac, "It will become ubiquitous when the headsets become glasses."

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Tech Advances Put Annual Doctor Visits on Critical List
The Wall Street Journal
Ron Winslow
September 6, 2021

The pandemic has disrupted annual doctor visits, and digital technology, imaging, gene sequencing, and artificial intelligence (AI) will likely further virtualize physical examinations. Adding more technology to physicals could further distance the doctor-patient relationship, but designers of digital medical technologies see opportunities for improvement. Rochester, MN's Mayo Clinic is sending laboratory kits to patients ahead of physicals, so patients can get blood sampled at local clinics for standard and genetic analyses, then discuss the results with physicians virtually. Mayo eventually expects to collect additional patient data remotely using smartphone and smartwatch applications, wearable sensors, and blood pressure cuffs.

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ML Approach Better at Spotting Enzymatic Metals in Proteins
University of Kansas News
September 8, 2021

The new Metal Activity Heuristic of Metalloprotein and Enzymatic Sites (MAHOMES) machine learning (ML) model distinguishes between enzymatic and non-enzymatic metals in proteins with 92.2% precision. University of Kansas (KU) researchers developed MAHOMES to differentiate non-chemical reaction-inducing metalloproteins from reaction-enabling metalloenzymes, which closely resemble each other. KU's Ryan Feehan assembled a structural dataset of enzymatic and nonenzymatic metalloprotein sites, then tested ML differentiation strategies with KU's Meghan Franklin. They trained MAHOMES to analyze and predict whether a cleft in a protein was enzymatic, and the model realized 90.1% recall in distinguishing active from inactive sites. KU's Joanna Slusky thinks this approach could help boost enzymes' usefulness in the production of life-saving drugs and other industrial processes.

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Stretchy Robot Worms Could Inch Their Way into Tech Applications
University of Glasgow (U.K.)
September 6, 2021

Engineers at the U.K.'s University of Glasgow have designed soft robots that can move like inchworms and earthworms. The roboworms can stretch up to nine times their own length and use a form of proprioception—the ability of organisms like worms to perceive their spatial position—to squeeze into tight spaces. Magnets attached at either end of the robots' bodies help them to locomote along a metal surface, while intrinsic strain sensors measure electrical resistance caused by a graphite-impregnated skin to sense their movements in relation to their bodies. The university’s Ravinder Dahiya said, “The ability of soft robots like these to adapt to their surroundings through seamlessly embedded stretchable sensors could help autonomous robots more effectively navigate through even the most challenging environments.”

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A U.S. Postal Service truck zipping through Washington, DC. Faulty USPS Software Cost Trucking Contractor $110 Million, Led to Mass Layoffs, Company Claims
The Washington Post
Jacob Bogage
September 10, 2021

Florida trucking contractor Postal Fleet Services (PFS) claims faulty software long used by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) cost it $110 million over four years. The company contends defects in dynamic route optimization (DRO) software were documented in a 2019 report by the USPS inspector general (IG). DRO was intended to slash transportation costs and make the USPS more responsive to fluctuating mail volume, and designed to pay contractors via global positioning system tracking and automated truck manifests. However, the IG found the pilot program showed the truck manifest software recorded inaccurate trip mileage, travel times, routing, sorting, and mail processing times, and equipment requirements. The USPS did not correct these flaws, which led to overpayments as well as underpayments, and for PFS resulted in contract termination and mass driver layoffs.

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Singapore Researchers Develop 'Reconfigurable' Memory Chip Technology
Eileen Yu
September 2, 2021

An international research team led by the National University of Singapore has developed an electronic memory device with the ability to be reconfigured to perform a variety of computational tasks. Inspired by the human brain, the molecular memristor can be reconfigured by altering applied voltages and can store information for subsequent retrieval and processing. The researchers demonstrated that the device can complete complex computations in one step, then be reprogrammed immediately to perform another task. The researchers said, "An individual molecular memory device could perform the same computational functions as thousands of transistors, making the technology a more powerful and energy-efficient memory option."

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Emissions From Computing, ICT Could Be Worse Than Previously Thought
Lancaster University (U.K.)
September 10, 2021

Global information and communications technology (ICT)'s greenhouse gas emissions may be worse than previously calculated, suggest researchers at the U.K.'s Lancaster University and sustainability consultancy Small World Consulting. The team said earlier estimates of ICT’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions at 1.8% to 2.8% likely are conservative, as they do not factor in the full life-cycle and supply chain of ICT products and infrastructure. The researchers suggest a share of 2.1% to 3.9% of emissions could be more accurate, although uncertainties surround these calculations. The team also warns that new computing and ICT trends such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and blockchain and cryptocurrencies could further increase ICT emissions.

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An algorithm developed by Lithuanian researchers can predict the possibility of a person developing Alzheimer’s disease with near 100% accuracy. This Technology Can Predict Early Alzheimer's with Near 100% Accuracy
Pascale Davis
September 6, 2021

A method for analyzing brain images developed by researchers at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) in Lithuania is more than 99% accurate in predicting the possible onset of Alzheimer's disease. The method, which uses artificial intelligence and deep learning, was used to analyze functional MRI images from 138 subjects. The researchers determined their technique performed better than traditional methods in terms of accuracy, sensitivity, and specificity. KTU's Rytis Maskeliunas said, "Obviously, such high numbers are not indicators of true real-life performance, but we're working with medical institutions to get more data."

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