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Welcome to the September 17, 2021 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Illustration of a facial recognition scan. Australia's 2 Largest States Trial Facial Recognition Software
Byron Kaye
September 17, 2021

The Australian states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria are testing facial recognition software that lets police verify whether people are home during COVID-19 lockdowns. Software maker Genvis developed the technology last year with Western Australia state police to help enforce pandemic movement restrictions. The system has people respond to random check-in requests by taking a “selfie” photograph which, if not verified by the software against a “facial signature,” could prompt a police visit. A test of similar technology last month in the state of South Australia provoked outrage from privacy advocates about potential surveillance overreach. The University of Technology, Sydney's Edward Santow said, "Facial recognition technology might seem like a convenient way to monitor people in quarantine but...if something goes wrong with this technology, the risk of harm is high."

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A worker performs geo-tagging in a corn field in Guna, India.  Amazon, Microsoft Swoop In on $24-Billion India Farm-Data Trove
Shruti Srivastava
September 16, 2021

Technology giants including Amazon, Microsoft, and Cisco Systems are preparing to access data from India's farmers in a campaign to modernize the country's agricultural sector. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has signed preliminary contracts with those companies and a number of local businesses to share data compiled since 2014, starting next April. The idea is to feed information on crop patterns, soil health, insurance, credit, and climate trends into a database for analysis via artificial intelligence and data analytics. The results would inform development of personalized farm-to-fork services for the agricultural sector that the big technology companies could sell to the government and directly to farmers. Ernst & Young predicts India's agri-technology sector could potentially generate about $24 billion in revenue by 2025.

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Gene-sequencing machines at Ginkgo Bioworks. Biology Starts to Get Technological Makeover
The New York Times
Steve Lohr
September 16, 2021

Research universities, government agencies, and chemical and pharmaceutical firms large and small are advancing the emerging field of synthetic biology, which combines engineering and computing to create new organisms or genetically enhance existing ones. The Ginkgo Bioworks startup operates a mechanized laboratory, and CEO Jason Kelly said its ultimate goal "is to make it as easy to program a cell as it is to program a computer." Ginkgo can provide expertise, enzymes, or complete cells, depending on the client; most projects focus on significantly boosting the efficiency or speed of specific biochemical processes in a cell. Industry newsletter SynBioBeta forecasts total funding for the synthetic biology sector could exceed $30 billion in 2021.

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Astronaut Thomas Pesquet with Astro Pi computers aboard the International Space Station. Raspberry Pi Heading into Space for Python Programming Challenge
Liam Tung
September 14, 2021

Upgraded Raspberry Pi computers will return to the International Space Station (ISS) for use in what the European Space Agency (ESA) calls the Mission Zero and Mission Space Lab challenges. Mission Zero invites coders to write a Python algorithm to take a humidity reading onboard the ISS that is shown to the astronauts with a personalized message. ESA said Mission Space Lab challenges teams of young people "to design and write a program for a scientific experiment that enhances our understanding of either life on Earth or life in space." The new Astro Pi units are Raspberry Pi 4 Model B featuring 8 GB of memory, a camera, a machine learning accelerator, sensors, gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, and a light-emitting diode matrix for visual feedback. ESA said the accelerator will allow teams "to develop machine learning models enabling high-speed, real-time processing."

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Predictive Computer Model Anticipates Surges in COVID-19 Infections, Mortalities
News-Medical Life Sciences
Emily Henderson
September 16, 2021

Scientists at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) programmed a predictive computer model to flag spikes in COVID-19 cases and fatalities. They trained the NSGA-II model using data on deaths and infections worldwide throughout 2020; when tested on actual pandemic data, the model proposed contingencies that would have slashed infection and mortality rates by up to 76% in Japan, 65% in South Korea, 59% in Pakistan, and 89% in Nepal. The model recommended timely, country-specific advice on interventions, and forecast daily surges of confirmed cases and deaths at a confidence level of 95% compared to actual cases in the four countries over the past year. NTU's Zhang Limao said, "The critical knowledge discovered in historical data enables us to provide early warning, preparation, and prevention for crisis control and enhance the resilience of human societies."

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A Walmart bag on the back seat of a self-driving Argo AI vehicle. Walmart to Test Self-Driving Cars with Ford, Argo AI
Michael Wayland
September 15, 2021

Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, is extending its self-driving vehicle program to include Ford Motor and Ford/Volkswagen-backed autonomous car startup Argo AI, in order to trial autonomous deliveries in Miami, the District of Columbia, and Austin, TX. Customers can place order groceries and other items online for door-to-door autonomous delivery under the program. Walmart's Tom Ward said, "This collaboration will further our mission to get products to the homes of our customers with unparalleled speed and ease, and in turn, will continue to pave the way for autonomous delivery." An Argo AI spokesperson said the partners initially will deploy a small fleet of autonomous delivery vehicles in each of the three trial cities, which will expand over time. Argo AI's Bryan Salesky said the deployments will demonstrate "the potential for autonomous vehicle delivery services at scale."

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A researcher testing the glyphosate sensor on samples of orange juice. 3D-Printed Sensor Can Detect Herbicide in Beverages
WSU Insider
Sara Zaske
September 14, 2021

Engineers at Washington State University (WSU) and DL ADV-Tech have developed a low-cost sensor device that can detect and quantify the herbicide glyphosate in liquids. WSU's Yuehe Lin said, "We designed it to be portable and used 3D [three-dimensional]-printing to make it small and compact, so that it can be used anywhere—in the lab or in the field." The device uses technology similar to that of glucose detectors that measure blood sugar levels; it employs conducting polymer nanotubes imprinted with molecule-sized cavities that can bind glyphosate molecules, which are coated on a 3D-printed device that measures glyphosate concentrations with an electric current.

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A traditional polarization image setup is used to capture various objects submerged in turbid water. Technology Makes It Possible to See Clearly Through Murky Water
OSA - The Optical Society
September 15, 2021

Researchers at China's Tianjin University devised a methodology that automatically generates clear images through murky water. The new process combines a traditional polarized imaging framework with an algorithm that automatically identifies the optimal parameters to suppress the scattering of light by particles clouding the water. Said Tianjin's Haofeng Hu, "Our experimental results show that our method has distinct advantages in terms of suppressing scattering, recovering details and reducing noise when imaging different objects in water with various turbidities. While background regions are often not visible in dense turbid water, our method was able to accomplish clear vision in this environment.”

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A smartwatch on the wrist of a young student sitting at a desk. Smartwatches: The Classroom Nuisance
The Wall Street Journal
Julie Jargon
September 11, 2021

Educators complain that smartwatches are distracting students, or worse, encouraging them to cut class, text friends, and even cheat. Teaneck, NJ-based education-technology coach Jeanne McVerry said although her district's tech-use policy does not expressly ban smartwatches, she strictly limits their use. Georgia-based high school math teacher Diana Johnson said constant interruptions from parents texting kids on smartwatches or phones break students' train of thought. Apple's new Schooltime feature allows Apple Watch wearers to block access to notifications and applications, including Messages, during school hours. San Mateo High School in northern California requires students to lock cellphones into secure pouches that prevent their use during school hours; the school does not yet have policies restricting the use of smartwatches or other digital devices.

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PHP Maintains Enormous Lead in Server-Side Programming Languages
Ars Technica
Jim Salter
September 13, 2021

A report by Web technology information platform W3Techs found that PHP remains the leading server-side language currently in use by a wide margin. W3Techs' Web server survey reviews technologies used on Websites in Alexa's top 10 million list, and includes a year-over-year chart beginning with January 2010. PHP commands a 78.9% share as of Sept. 13, up from 72.5% in 2010; the only other language showing significant expansion is Ruby, with a 5.2% share. The results indicate no clear challenger for PHP, with the decline of ASP.NET failing to increase the use of PHP or any other single language significantly.

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A whale’s fin emerging from the ocean. 'Whoop'—Autonomous Method Precisely Detects Whale Vocalizations
Florida Atlantic University News Desk
Gisele Galoustian
September 15, 2021

Florida Atlantic University (FAU) scientists applied artificial intelligence and machine learning (ML) in designing a technique for detecting the up-call or "whoops" vocalizations of the North Atlantic Right whale. The system uses Multimodal Deep Learning (MMDL) algorithms to assess acoustic recordings for the presence of up-calls, outperforming conventional ML methods. The researchers confirmed the MMDL model's efficacy for Right whale up-call detection with Cornell University's dataset. FAU's Laurent M. Chérubin said, "The near-zero false-positive, false-negative and false alarm rates indicate that this new MMDL detector could be a powerful tool in the detection and monitoring of the low density, endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, especially in environments with high acoustic-masking."

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The autonomous tugboat Nellie Bly at sea. Smart Tugboat to Journey More Than 1,000 Miles, Autonomously
Popular Science
Colleen Hagerty
September 14, 2021

A 35-foot-long tugboat carrying passengers will embark from Hamburg, Germany, on a 1,000-nautical-mile (1,150-mile) autonomous voyage around Denmark, using long-range computer vision and a sensor-to-propeller system called the SM300. Autonomous vessel software and systems developer Sea Machines Robotics said this technology enables "path-planning, obstacle avoidance replanning, vectored nautical chart data, and dynamic domain perception." U.S.-based commanding officers will be able to plan and monitor the voyage remotely, and reroute the tug if necessary. Sea Machines' Michael Johnson said, "Just as other land-based industries shift repetitive manual drudgery from human to predictable robotic systems, our autonomous technology elevates humans from controller to commander with most of the direct continuous control effort being managed by technology."

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A pixelated cloud. Encryption Technique Better Protects Photographs in the Cloud
Scientific American
Harini Barath
September 16, 2021

The Easy Secure Photos (ESP) tool created by Columbia University computer scientists can encrypt cloud-stored photos while still allowing authorized users to browse and display their images. ESP preserves blocks of pixels while shifting them around to obscure the image; it splits the photo into three separate files to contain its red, green, or blue color data, then scrambles the pixel blocks surrounding the files. The files remain valid, but appear as grainy black-and-white static to unauthorized users. The files can still be compressed and are compatible with many cloud storage platforms, so users with the right decryption keys can view them in their original form. Users also can access their photos from multiple devices via ESP, using a system in which each device has its own unique key pair.

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Providing Sound Foundations for Cryptography: On the Work of Shafi Goldwasser and Silvio Micali
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