SciTech Roundup, Nov. 22

CMU Research Roundup

Face masks and verbal communication

In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many localities have asked residents to wear face masks. While important to protecting health, it might prevent us from seeing facial cues that help us understand what others are saying. Students Lindsay Zhang, Ananya Vasudev, Sophia Hill, and Anyah Stempien-Smith published a paper called "The Role of Face Masks in Native and Non-Native Speech Perception" investigating how native and non-native English speakers understood videos of speakers speaking with and without a face mask. They found that there was not a significant difference between native and non-native speakers in perceiving speech.

Do employers really look at your social media profile?

It has always been rumored that employers look at social media profiles, but do they really, and how does it impact hiring decisions? Alessandro Acquisti, professor of information technology and public policy in Heinz College, and Christina Fong, a research scientist in Dietrich's Department of Social and Decision Sciences, sought to answer this question in a study titled "An Experiment in Hiring Discrimination via Online Social Networks." In the study, they created online social media profiles for four different job candidates: one Muslim, one Christian, one gay, and one straight, and their profiles contained personal information. They then sent the same resume and cover letters, which did not reveal this personal information, to more than 4,000 job openings. They found evidence that employers did look at candidates' social media profiles, and that while interview callback rates overall did not differ between Muslim, Christian, gay, and straight candidates, they did find that employers in Republican areas exhibited bias against Muslim candidates.

Magnetism to make computers faster

As technology continues to improve, we will need more and more energy to fuel our devices. One method of reducing energy consumption is to magnetize random access memory (RAM), which is used to load applications that you want to access right away. To magnetize RAM, researchers are looking into better understanding domain walls, which separate uniform magnetized regions. Control over these domain walls could allow for fast magnetic memory by encoding 1s and 0s in bits using domain orientation. Carnegie Mellon researchers in conjunction with those of other universities found a quantitative explanation for how domains react when a magnetic force is applied.

SciTech Headlines

Amazon's workers can look at your purchase history

An investigation by Wired reveals that Amazon's workers have nearly unprotected access to your data, allowing them to look at the shopping history of celebrities, listen to what you say to Alexa, and see insecurely stored passwords. Amazon also gave broad data access rights to customer service representatives that allowed them to view nearly anyone's purchasing history for the sake of answering customer questions quickly. Sellers on Amazon have also been able to pull detailed customer data from Amazon without customer consent. It was also found that there was a two-year period when the credit card numbers of American Express accounts were exposed to employees. Employees have also sold customer information to outside brokers and product sellers.

Some records of this insecurity date back to 2015, and as the company grew, these data security problems piled up. Some issues relate to how company teams would store copies of company data they were using for analytics, copies that are hard to track and secure. The information security division of Amazon could not figure out where all the company data was, so they could not protect it. Amazon, prioritizing customer experience over all else, was unwilling to fund growth in the security division, and leadership in the division came and went. With all these issues, Amazon’s information security division has been fragmented and dysfunctional in recent years.

All adults can get a Pfizer or Moderna booster shot now

The FDA has cleared Pfizer and Moderna booster shots for all adults now, an expansion of the eligibility requirements from September.

U.S. intends to buy 10 million antiviral pills

Though yet to be officially announced, the Biden administration plans to buy about 10 million of Pfizer's antiviral pills that help reduce the risk of hospitalization and death in unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. There are still many questions surrounding these antiviral pills, however. Currently, there are two manufacturers — Merck and Pfizer — and it is hard to tell which one is more effective as preliminary tests conducted were not performed under the same conditions. It is unknown whether these pills can be taken together or whether they work on vaccinated patients that contract COVID-19, as both companies performed tests only on unvaccinated individuals.