Welcome to the December 15, 2021 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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A virtual anime version of the robot “Sophia” will be released in 100 non-fungible tokens that can interact autonomously with people in a gamified environment. Humanlike Robot Sophia Becomes 'AI Being' for Metaverse in NFT Auction
Blake Schmidt
December 6, 2021

A virtual anime version of Hanson Robotics' humanoid robot Sophia will be released in 100 non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that can interact with people in the metaverse. Beginning tomorrow, the NFTs will be auctioned on the Binance NFT Marketplace. The startup beingAI created Sophia beingAI in collaboration with Alethea AI, which is constructing a decentralized protocol to develop an intelligent metaverse populated with interactive NFTs. Said beingAI's Jeanne Lim, "I believe the virtual format can allow us to scale to millions of concurrent interactions across devices and media platforms, which would create large-scale impact." Lim said she hopes the new artificial intelligence will bring humanity and technology together "to help humans attain our true nature of unconditional love and pure possibilities."

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Researchers Develop Tool to Fight Kidney Disease
University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
December 8, 2021

A multi-institutional team of researchers has developed a cloud-based tool for detecting early-stage kidney disease by measuring the presence of podocytes (specialized types of kidney cells) in the body. The researchers used a convolutional neural network to train the PodoSighter tool to identify the specialized cells within images of biopsied tissue. Said Pinaki Sarder at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, "The PodoSighter not only detects podocytes, but it spits out a report on how many of these cells are identified in each glomerulus and what the density is, a key indicator for disease progression." Podocyte density declines as renal disease progresses, so “If one day we can track the loss of podocytes, then we can determine the stage of the disease,” said Sarder.

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A rendering of “Earth's Black Box.” 'Black Box' to Chronicle Ravages of Climate Change
The Washington Post
Sammy Westfall
December 10, 2021

Australia is building "Earth's Black Box," a reportedly indestructible steel structure containing a real-time archive of climate change news and research, in the state of Tasmania. An algorithm will collect information including Earth 500, a dataset of 500 metrics related to the planet and humanity's health, along with contextual content about climate change, like news headlines and political speeches. The structure will encase solar-powered storage drives continuously downloading information from the Internet, to preserve a record of "every step we take toward this catastrophe," and provide "an unbiased account" of how humanity caused the crisis of climate change. The facility is scheduled for completion next year, and once activated, the databank will be accessible online.

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Visually Stunning Tree of All Known Life Unveiled Online
Imperial College London (U.K.)
Hayley Dunning
December 14, 2021

Imperial College London's James Rosindell and the University of Oxford's Yan Wong in the U.K. have unveiled the OneZoom tree of life, an interactive online map of links between 2.2 million living species. Users can zoom in and probe any species' relationships with others on a Web page, and can access images of over 85,000 species and their vulnerability to extinction, where known. Said Wong, “By developing new algorithms for visualization and data processing, and combining them with ‘big data’ gathered from multiple sources, we’ve created something beautiful. It allows people to find their favorite living things, be they golden moles or giant sequoias, and see how evolutionary history connects them together to create a giant tree of all life on Earth.”

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Cyber Protections Against Stealthy 'Logic Bombs' Targeting 3D-Printed Objects
December 10, 2021

Researchers at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the Georgia Institute of Technology have proposed new protections for three-dimensionally-printed objects against the introduction of unwanted computer code, or logic bombs. The researchers explored the Mystique class of attacks targeting four-dimensional (4D) printing, which induces visually harmless objects to act maliciously when a logic bomb is activated by stimuli like temperature changes to the materials printed. The researchers’ initial solution to such attacks is to use a dielectric sensor to measure the composition and diameter of raw materials passing through the printer's extruder, to ensure they meet requirements before they are printed. A second safeguard uses high-resolution computed tomography to spot residual stresses in printed objects, which can identify 4D attacks in a single printing layer with 95.6% accuracy.

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A new system both predicts the efficiency of new photovoltaic materials, and shows how much different input parameters will affect the output of solar cells. Tool Speeds Development of Solar Cells
MIT News
David L. Chandler
December 9, 2021

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Google Brain researchers have developed a computational simulator that can evaluate proposed photovoltaic cell designs and determine the modifications needed to realize desired upgrades. MIT's Giuseppe Romano said the simulator can predict a solar cell configuration's efficiency, and show how much changes to any input parameter will affect the device's output. "We are decreasing the number of times that we need to run a simulator to give quicker access to a wider space of optimized structures," Romano said, adding that the simulator "can identify a unique set of material parameters that has been hidden so far because it's very complex to run those simulations."

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Protecting Users' Private Data While They Browse
National Science Foundation
December 14, 2021

The SugarCoat tool developed by scientists associated with the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and Brave Software, with funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, can better protect users' private data while they browse the Web. SugarCoat replaces privacy-harming scripts that are critical for Website function with innocuous substitutes that have the same properties. The open-source tool is designed to be integrated into privacy-focused browsers such as Brave, Firefox, and Tor, plus browser extensions like uBlock Origin. UCSD's Deian Stefan said, "SugarCoat is a practical system designed to address the lose-lose dilemma that privacy-focused tools face today: block privacy-harming scripts but break Websites that rely on them, or keep sites working, but give up on privacy."

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Wing's delivery drone had a mixed reception in Canberra. Wing Resumes Drone Deliveries in Canberra After Raven Attacks Forced Pause During Nesting Season
ABC News (Australia)
Markus Mannheim
December 10, 2021

Alphabet's Wing subsidiary has relaunched drone-based coffee and fast food deliveries to the Harrison suburb of Canberra, Australia, following the service’s suspension in September due to attacks by nesting ravens. Ornithologist Neil Hermes discovered a pair of ravens had a nest with three chicks in a tree near a Wing customer; the ravens were approaching the drones from behind, as they would if the drone were a predator and they were trying to encourage it to leave. The service restarted after the chicks had fledged (grown wing feathers large enough for flight). Said Hermes, "We certainly need to be careful to ensure that we're aware of the impacts [of what we're doing]."

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Academic Algorithm Identifies Domestic Violence Levels During Lockdown
Royal Holloway, University of London (U.K.)
December 14, 2021

A new algorithm developed by a team of international researchers suggests domestic violence in London may have escalated by as much as 40% during the first pandemic lockdown. In order to analyze Internet search data to assess domestic violence levels in real time, the researchers identified 35 keywords often searched online by victims of domestic violence, and measured daily search intensities for the keywords in Google Trends to create a search-based domestic violence incidence metric. The algorithm calculated a 40% rise in domestic violence crimes during the first lockdown last year, versus the 6% increase reported by the police. Royal Holloway's Dan Anderberg said, "The results from the current study show that concerns, raised at the time, that victims of domestic abuse were less likely to report to the police during the lockdown were well-founded."

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Robot Plays Table Tennis After 90 Minutes of Training
New Scientist
Chris Stokel-Walker
December 10, 2021

Researchers at Germany's University of Tübingen developed a computer simulation that taught a virtual robot arm outfitted with a table tennis racket how to return virtual ping pong balls. A machine learning algorithm observed the simulation for 90 minutes, learning how the ping pong ball's path was affected by velocity and the racket's orientation. The researchers then used the algorithm to control a real robot arm at a real table tennis table, and found the robot arm could return balls within an average of 24.9 centimeters of the target location. However, it struggled with fast, slow, and backspin shots. Said University of Tübingen's Andreas Zell, "It's not worse than a regular human player. It's already on par with me."

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Closing In on Fusion
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Rachel McDowell
December 13, 2021

Researchers at energy company General Atomics used the Summit supercomputer at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory to model energy loss in fusion plasma, in order to better understand plasma turbulence. The researchers simulated plasma turbulence in a tokamak, yielding estimates for particle and heat losses anticipated in next-generation tokamaks and reactors, which will inform their design for optimized confinement. Said General Atomics’ Emily Belli, “If you want to generate a plasma with really good confinement properties and with good fusion power, you have to minimize the turbulence. Turbulence is what moves the particles and energy out of the hot core where the fusion happens.”

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Kenneth Chenault, co-chairman of the group and chairman of the venture capital firm General Catalyst. Group Backed by Top Companies Moves to Combat AI Bias in Hiring
The New York Times
Steve Lohr
December 8, 2021

Major employers in a variety of industries have signed up with the Data & Trust Alliance in an effort to prevent bias in artificial intelligence software used for hiring. With the help of corporate and outside experts and software vendors, the alliance has created a 55-question evaluation and a scoring system to identify and prevent algorithmic bias. The bias detection, measurement, and mitigation system will be used to analyze the data practices and design of human resources software. Said Walmart's Nuala O'Connor of the scoring system, "Every algorithm has human values embedded in it, and this gives us another lens to look at that. This is practical and operational."

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