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Welcome to the December 3, 2021 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Strands of DNA. Scientists Claim Big Advance in Using DNA to Store Data
BBC News
Paul Rincon
December 1, 2021

Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology's Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) claim they can improve DNA data storage 100-fold with a new processor they developed. GTRI's Nicholas Guise said the approximately 100x higher density of the processor's features enables this expansion, which should be facilitated with control electronics over the next year. The technology grows unique DNA strands one chemical base at a time, which can be used to encode data in a manner similar to binary code. The approximately 2.5-centimeter (1-inch)-square prototype chip has multiple microwells, so several DNA strands can be synthesized in parallel, generating more DNA in a shorter amount of time.

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Tool Predicts Where Coronavirus Binds to Human Proteins
Cornell Chronicle
Krishna Ramanujan
November 29, 2021

Cornell University researchers have developed a computational tool for predicting binding sites on the surfaces of human and COVID-19 viral proteins. A user-friendly Web server also provided by the tool’s developers shows all protein structures, so virologists and clinicians can determine whether current drugs, or those under development, will bind to them. "The tool we developed to predict protein-to-protein interfaces is the most accurate, and we can use it to make the most informed predictions for any interactions," said Cornell's Haiyuan Yu. Yu added that the tool also provides structural models for predicting how genetic mutations to proteins in individuals potentially impact viral interactions.

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Mathematical depiction of a knot. DeepMind's AI Helps Untangle the Math of Knots
Davide Castelvecchi
December 1, 2021

Researchers at U.K.-based artificial intelligence (AI) laboratory DeepMind worked with mathematicians to use AI to identify patterns that humans had overlooked in a theory of knots and the study of symmetry, via machine learning. Knot theorists determined the saliency maps technique would be most useful in finding a pattern that linked two knot properties, which led to a formula that appeared correct in all testable cases. The University of Oxford's Marc Lackenby and András Juhász devised a proof that the formula applied to a large class of knots. Geordie Williamson and colleagues at Australia's University of Sydney used AI to discover a technique for guessing precisely which graphs and polynomials originated from the same symmetries. DeepMind's Alex Davies said the mathematicians had to customize AI techniques to the mathematical problems. Said Juhász, "Any area of mathematics where sufficiently large datasets can be generated could benefit from this approach."

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A researcher shows the vulnerability of numerous combinations of browsers and operating systems to XS-Leaks. New Attacks on Web Browsers Detected
Ruhr-Universität Bochum (Germany)
December 2, 2021

Information technology scientists at Germany's Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) and Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences detected 14 new types of Web browser-targeting cross-site leaks (XS-Leaks). XS-Leaks circumvent the same-origin policy designed to prevent the theft of information from a trusted Website, allowing hackers to identify site details that are linked to personal data. The researchers identified three defining XS-Leak characteristics and formalized a model for understanding the attacks, which also helps to detect new ones. They developed the site to automatically scan browsers for XS-leaks, and tested 56 browser-operating system combinations against 34 known XS-Leaks. RUB's Lukas Knittel said popular browsers such as Chrome and Firefox were susceptible to a large number of XS-Leaks.

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Research scientist and Ramona resident Hans-Werner Braun, who developed the HPWREN network. High-Speed Network Aids in Firefighting, Space, Environmental Research
The San Diego Union Tribune
Regina Elling
December 1, 2021

The University of California, San Diego (UCSD)'s High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN) helps Southern California emergency personnel and residents identify the locations of fires and their likely pathways through connected cameras and weather sensors. UCSD's Frank Vernon said, "By early 2010, more than 60 firefighting sites in San Diego County were connected by cameras and the Internet via HPWREN, often in difficult-to-reach areas." Over 1,000 IP addresses access HPWREN sensor data on a typical day, including space and environmental researchers. Said Vernon, "We connect and serve multiple groups and types of organizations and solve problems—from the uses in astronomy, weather, fire cameras, [and] networking serving the public agencies."

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Researchers use 3D gaming tech to measure genetic activity. VR Tool to Be Used in Fight Against Disease
Lund University (Sweden)
November 23, 2021

Researchers at Sweden's Lund University demonstrated that three-dimensional (3D) video gaming technology can be used to analyze large amounts of data from thousands of cells. The researchers developed virtual reality (VR) software called CellexalVR that provides intuitive tools to examine all the data in one place. Using a VR headset and two hand controllers, researchers can access a universe of cell populations with simple hand gestures to select specific cells for further analysis. Said Lund's Mattias Wallergård, "To be able to walk around your own data and manipulate it intuitively and efficiently gives it a whole new understanding. I would actually go so far as to say that one thinks differently in VR, thanks to the technique's ability to involve your body in the analysis process."

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Big Tech Privacy Moves Spur Companies to Amass Customer Data
The Wall Street Journal
Suzanne Vranica
December 2, 2021

Companies that rely on online advertising for revenue are collecting their own data on customers, as technology giants and governments impose privacy safeguards. Google, for example, has said it will eliminate third-party cookies on its Chrome browser by late 2023 to support user privacy. Marketers are using tools including loyalty programs, sweepstakes, newsletters, quizzes, polls and quick response codes to convince users to provide information directly to brands. The Molson Coors Beverage company said as more people opt out from app-tracking, having more customer data can help prevent cost increases when purchasing digital ads across social media channels. Marketers see possessing their own databases of consumers and their attributes as potentially helping to make their online ad campaigns more effective and less expensive.

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Two children examine an Alpha Mini robot. South Korea Trials Robots in Preschools to Prepare Children for High-Tech Future
The Guardian (U.K.)
November 25, 2021

The South Korean government has launched trials of small robots in 300 nurseries and childcare centers in Seoul as teaching aids, with the goal of preparing the next generation for a hi-tech future. The Alpha Mini robot stands 24.5 cm (about 9.6 inches) tall and can wink/blink, dance, sing, recite stories, and teach kung fu moves. The robot also features a camera that can send photos to a tablet. Said Han Dong-seog of the government's childcare division, "In the future, knowing how to manage [artificial intelligence] and related tools will be very important. We believe having this experience in nursery schools will have a lasting effect throughout their youth and as adults."

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Schematic of the bridging of the cold quantum world and high-temperature metal extraction with machine learning. Computational Approach Predicts Chemical Reactions at High Temperatures
Columbia Engineering News
Holly Evarts
December 1, 2021

Columbia University engineers combined quantum mechanics and machine learning (ML) to predict chemical reactions at high temperatures when experimental data is unavailable. The researchers said the new computation technique can accurately forecast the reduction temperature of metal oxides to their base metals. Quantum mechanics-based calculations can accurately predict the amount of energy consumed or discharged by chemical reactions at low temperatures, and the researchers added an ML model that determined the temperature dependence of a material from publicly accessible high-temperature measurements. The approach could be employed to design clean carbon-neutral processes for steel production and metal recycling.

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Tool Shows How Much Exoskeletons Reduce Back Injury Risk
Vanderbilt School of Engineering
November 30, 2021

A team of researchers from Vanderbilt University, Auburn University, and workforce wearable company HeroWear found the Exo-LiFFT interactive calculator can evaluate exoskeletons' effect on the risk of back injury. Exo-LiFFT enables safety professionals and researchers to assess the risk in minutes rather than months without costly, time-consuming experiments, and can offer evidence-based estimations of injury risk reduction. Vanderbilt's Karl Zelik said, "If we can identify the right places to deploy exoskeletons, then they can reduce injury risks as well as bodily discomfort, which impacts workers on the job and at home. Exoskeletons may also help improve worker recruitment and retention, which have been costly pain points for employers amidst the labor shortage."

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A scientist with the Canary Islands' volcanology institute, Involcan, measures the temperature of a lava flow. Island Becomes Open-Air Lab for Tech-Savvy Volcanologists
Associated Press
Aritz Parra; Emilio Morenatti
December 2, 2021

Volcanologists are using cutting-edge technologies to study a rare volcanic eruption on La Palma, one of Spain's Canary Islands. The European Union's Copernicus satellite program generates high-resolution imagery and maps of La Palma to monitor quake-induced deformations, supporting near-real-time tracking of lava flows and ash accumulation. Spanish research vessels are studying the eruption's effects on the marine ecosystem as lava extends beyond the coast. Meanwhile, the Canary Islands' Involcan volcanology institute provides daily reports to guide La Palma civil protection authorities' decisions on whether to evacuate or issue lockdowns amid rising toxic gas levels, based on analyzing terabytes of data from automatic detectors at strategic sites, as well as samples collected in the field.

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The robot is able to perch and carry objects like a bird. Stanford Engineers Create Perching Bird-Like Robot
Stanford News
Taylor Kubota
December 1, 2021

A robot developed by Stanford University engineers can perch and carry objects like a bird, using feet and legs based on those of a peregrine falcon. The stereotyped nature-inspired aerial grasper (SNAG), when affixed to a quadcopter drone, can fly, catch and carry objects, and perch on various surfaces. Studies of parrolets showed they performed identical aerial maneuvers when landing on perches of differing size and materials. Each of the robot’s legs has one motor for moving back and forth and another to grasp, while a similar mechanism absorbs and converts landing impact energy into grasping force. Stanford's William Roderick said, "If we could have a robot that could act like a bird, that could unlock completely new ways of studying the environment."

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Study Shows How ML Could Improve COVID-19 Predictive Models
News from Brown
December 1, 2021

Brown University mathematicians suggest machine learning (ML) could augment the performance of commonly used epidemiological models for predicting pandemics. Brown's George Karniadakis said nine prominent COVID-19 prediction models were incorrect and ineffective because they treated key parameter values as fixed over time. The researchers used physics-informed neural networks (PINNs) featuring equations describing physical laws governing a system to capture shifting parameters in epidemiological models. They fed PINN-outfitted models real-world data from New York City, Rhode Island, Michigan, and Italy, and allowed them to infer values for key parameters over time. In January, they used the models to make six-month forecasts based on these parameters, and case rates from January through June fell within the anticipated uncertainty window. Brown's Ehsan Kharazmi said, "This can provide some insights for making or adjusting policies."

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