ACM TechNews


Welcome to the January 18, 2019 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

Please note: In observance of the U.S. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday, TechNews will not be published on Monday, Jan. 21. Publication will resume on Wednesday, Jan. 23.

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robot at Henn na Hotel check-in desk Robot Hotel Loses Love for Robots
The Wall Street Journal
Alastair Gale; Takashi Mochizuki; David Pierce
January 14, 2019


A hotel in Japan hyped as the world's first robot-staffed hotel has eliminated more than half of its robots due to mounting complaints. The Henn na, or "Strange," Hotel, whose goal was to address labor shortages with robots, as well as appeal to foreign tourists with its unique concept, experienced frequent robot malfunctions that increased overtime for human staff. Adding to guests' frustration was the robots' inability to keep pace with popular digital assistants like Alexa or Siri, as well as their limited interaction and informational capabilities. In response, newer Strange Hotel branches are only deploying robots that have proven useful, in addition to solutions like solar energy and facial-recognition systems for guestroom keys. Hideo Sawada, president of the travel company that owns the hotel, said, “When you actually use robots you realize there are places where they aren’t needed—or just annoy people.”

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Oxford University Oxford Suspends Research Grants From Huawei Over Security Concerns
The Telegraph (United Kingdom)
James Cook
January 17, 2019


Security concerns have prompted Oxford University in the U.K. to sever ties with Huawei and indefinitely suspend acceptance of the Chinese tech company's gifts and research sponsorships. An email sent to computer science doctoral students at the university said the Committee to Review Donations will reconsider this decision in three to six months. According to one source, the decision was spurred by a Telegraph story in December citing lawmakers on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee as urging U.K. universities to exercise "extreme caution" over their connections to Huawei. The company has faced criticism from intelligence agencies around the world over its links to China's government, despite denials that its technology could be used for espionage. Huawei-supported academic projects in the U.K. have included research into mobile phone networks and audio tech, and funding for a Cambridge University computer laboratory and a 5G Innovation Center at the University of Surrey.

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Data Breaches, Cyberattacks Top Global Risks Alongside Natural Disasters, Climate Change
ZDNet
Danny Palmer
January 16, 2019


The World Economic Forum (WEF) has listed large-scale cyberattacks and massive data breaches among the five most probable risks facing the world today. WEF cited cyberattacks for their potential to hobble critical infrastructure, ranking them fifth most likely to occur this year, while data breaches ranked fourth. Moreover, 82% of individuals polled by WEF see an elevated risk of cyberattacks leading to the theft of money and data, and 80% said the risk of cyberattacks causing operational disruptions is higher. WEF ranks the combination of cyberattacks and the breakdown of critical information infrastructure second in likelihood to occur only to extreme weather and failed climate change mitigation. WEF said Internet of Things devices and connected objects embedded within industrial environments could potentially offer attackers an easy way to infiltrate infrastructure and orchestrate cyberattacks with "devastating spill-over effects," damaging critical services and causing billions of dollars in destruction.

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tool for nonprogrammers, illustration Democratizing Data Science
MIT News
Rob Matheson
January 15, 2019


Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a tool for nonstatisticians that automatically generates models for analyzing raw data. The tool takes in datasets and generates sophisticated statistical models normally used by experts to analyze, interpret, and predict underlying patterns in data. The tool currently resides on Jupyter Notebook, an open source Web framework that allows users to run programs interactively in browsers; users can write just a few lines of code to uncover insights into a range of topics. The system uses Bayesian modeling, a statistical method that continuously updates the probability of a variable as more information about the variable becomes available. The tool uses a modified version of "program synthesis," a technique that automatically creates computer programs given data and a language to work within. Said MIT’s Feras Saad, “People have a lot of datasets that are sitting around, and our goal is to build systems that let people automatically get models they can use to ask questions about that data.”

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Walgreens employ stocking shelves Microsoft, Walgreens Join Forces to Take on Amazon in Healthcare
CNN
Paul R. La Monica
January 15, 2019


Walgreens is partnering with Microsoft to develop new healthcare delivery models, technology, and retail innovations to advance and improve the future of healthcare. The companies plan to combine the reach of Walgreens' more than 8,000 U.S. stores and retail locations worldwide with the power of Microsoft's Azure platform. As part of the partnership, Walgreens plans to roll out a dozen pilot "digital health corners” in 2019 that are aimed at the merchandising and sale of select healthcare-related hardware and devices. The companies said the partnership will help Walgreens gain personalized data about their customers' health, which will result in improved nutrition and wellness solutions for customers. The partnership appears to be a move by the companies to counter Amazon's growing influence in healthcare. Said Don Townswick of insurance investment management solutions provider Conning, "Tech companies can either sit back and wait to see if Amazon messes up in health care or they can get involved now."

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cryptocurrency purse, illustration Academics Design Cryptocurrency to Better Bitcoin
Bloomberg
Alastair Marsh
January 17, 2019


Researchers from seven U.S. colleges are collaborating on the design of a new cryptocurrency that aims to reach unheard-of speeds while still supporting a decentralized framework. The Unit-e virtual currency is the first project from the Distributed Technology Research (DTR) nonprofit, which hopes to process as many as 10,000 transactions a second with Unit-e, after the currency is launched in the second half of this year. To realize this, DTR deconstructed blockchain technology to understand its performance limits and design solutions that operate as close to these limits as possible. The researchers have created new mechanisms for reaching consensus, boosting speed via new ways of sharding (in which each node maintains only one blockchain segment) and new payment channel networks. Said Pramod Viswanath of at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, bitcoin “was a breakthrough that has the capacity to change human lives, but that won’t happen unless the technology can be scaled up."

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Two skulls on a tabletop. Research Finds Serious Problems With Forensic Software
NC State News
Matt Shipman
January 14, 2019


North Carolina State University (NC State) and University of South Florida (USF) researchers found significant flaws in forensic software designed to calculate the age of individuals based on skeletal remains. They used DXAGE software to analyze the bone mineral density data from 470 women, and compared the resulting estimated age with each woman's true age; the software's estimates were usually off by 14.25 years. USF's Jonathan Bethard said, "We think this inaccuracy is primarily due to the small sample size used in developing DXAGE. It may also be due, in part, to DXAGE relying on remains from cemeteries, where they may have been buried for decades." NC State's Ann Ross cited DXAGE's use of a "black box" neural networking program as another possible limitation, since it offers little clarity on how the software functions.

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A street light on a coastal road in San Diego San Diego's Smart Streetlights Yield Firehose of Data
IEEE Spectrum
Tekla S. Perry
January 16, 2019


San Diego, CA, has set up about 2,000 sensor-laden smart streetlights that can gather pictures, sounds, and other data. So far, the city has focused on the image data, using it to count pedestrians and cars as they move around the city. Officials are still considering other possibilities, such as using the streetlights to locate gunshots, track airport noise, or monitor air quality. In addition, the city has ordered 1,000 more smart streetlights to supplement its initial order of 3,200, the remainder of which will be installed in the next month or two. Said the city’s Eric Caldwell, "We want to see if we can build a tool, based on a more accurate model of how traffic and pedestrians behave, to optimize traffic for law enforcement.”

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Venture Capitalists Balk at Proposed Export Limits on AI, Quantum Computing
The Washington Post
Cat Zakrzewski
January 15, 2019


Venture capitalists are warning the Trump administration against limiting exports on emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing, arguing it would stifle overseas sales for U.S. startups. National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) CEO Bobby Franklin said his organization only supports constraints on the export of tech specific to defense. Tight government control on AI exports, especially to China, could conflict with Silicon Valley's business interests. Defense officials see the U.S. competing with China in an AI arms race, while investors and industry executives are keen to gain footholds in the Chinese market. NVCA's Jeff Farrah said the evolution of AI and quantum computing is outpacing industry efforts to arrive at a universal definition of the technologies, and his organization has little faith the government can meet this challenge in a fair and balanced manner.

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How Do You Fight an Algorithm You Cannot See?
TechCrunch
Danny Crichton
January 15, 2019


Activists in Germany have facilitated a method to assess the accountability of proprietary algorithms via a crowdsourcing platform. They designed the OpenSchufa platform for the purpose of detailing how potential borrowers' credit scores are algorithmically generated by Germany's Schufa credit bureau. Since the platform's rollout, several thousand people have donated their financial scores, and the activists determined the Schufa algorithm is significantly error-prone, creating relatively negative scores without any negative proof. OpenSchufa is just one of a number of movements by theorists pushing for accountability of "black box" algorithms, to ensure their decisions can be explained. Software engineers can test algorithms to determine if their output matches the expectations of a test set, but they currently lack insight into how the algorithms reach their final decisions.

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Anonymous Yet Trustworthy
University of California, Santa Barbara
Harrison Tasoff
January 15, 2019


University of California, Santa Barbara researchers have designed an app to help dissidents in authoritarian countries maintain their anonymity while supporting trustworthy identities in their communications. SecurePost guards group members' anonymity and confirms the reliability of their posts; it runs on the Android operating system, letting communities create secure groups on Twitter and Facebook to sustain a consistent, visible presence on social media and accrue trust with their readership over time. The app allows groups to operate without any list of individual members, and checks posts for any content lacking appropriate credentials. This ensures each member remains anonymous even if the group is infiltrated or hacked, all while communications from the community itself are verified as trustworthy. SecurePost users can invite new members to join by exchanging secure quick response codes visually or over a trusted link, using a pair of visible, public keys and a second pair of concealed, private keys to send and receive encrypted information.

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Charting Career Paths Trumps Focusing on Skills in Computer Science
Forbes
Alison Derbenwick Miller
January 14, 2019


Research by Couragion (which helps match students to STEM careers) that was funded by Oracle Academy suggests U.S. computer science (CS) students may be overemphasizing skills rather than career paths, with implications for a possible restructuring of K-12 CS education. CS courses offered in K-12 schools concentrate mainly on robotics, coding, and popular programming languages. However, most learners, particularly girls and minorities, still shun CS. The Couragion-Oracle Academy study determined the software developer careers that existing CS education practices prepare students for are least aligned to student preferences. This implies the need for a different learning path focused on appealing to students' desire for meaningful careers, friendly work environments, and fulfillment of wanted goals.

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The device developed by UCLA researchers to detect parasites in blood. Easier Detection of Parasites in Blood
Daily Bruin
Manya Kidambi
January 16, 2019


University of California, Los Angeles researchers have developed a device that can detect the presence of small parasites in blood or other bodily fluids. The tool illuminates a sample with laser light and records a video of its holographic patterns, which features a time-varying image pattern originating from a parasite's locomotion. This movement generates a signal that is analyzed by a three-dimensional-motion analysis algorithm and machine learning to ascertain the number of parasites present in the sample. Deep learning is employed to analyze these "hot spots" and determine whether a parasite is present in a specific area. The researchers think the device could aid research to better understand parasites' motion mechanics, and to develop new disease treatment methods.

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The Sparse Fourier Transform
 
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