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NASA Builds Atomic Clock for Deep-Space Navigation

Sun, 02/25/2018 - 12:52
Only days after the spectacular liftoff of what is currently the heaviest space rocket, the privately built Falcon Heavy, NASA announced the next launch will carry a specially built atomic clock. The new device, much smaller and sturdier than earth-bound atomic clocks, will help future astronauts navigate in deep space. VOA’s George Putic reports.

'Sooner, Faster, Now' — the Companies Surfing the E-Commerce Wave

Fri, 02/23/2018 - 22:09
Amazon's assault on the retail industry has brought misery to traditional retailers without a strong web presence. Less well noticed is the patchwork of European companies that are turning the e-commerce revolution to their advantage, supplying online giants with everything from forklift trucks and storage space to cardboard boxes and automated warehouses. Mainly bricks-and-mortar retailers such as Debenhams, H&M, and Marks & Spencer have faced a torrid few years as stretched consumers increasingly look online for bargains. Online retail sales are growing at double-digit percentage rates in every western European country, according to consultancy the Centre for Retail Research. In Britain, a fifth of transactions are now conducted online, a five-fold increase over the last decade. The world's dominant online retailer Amazon, whose shares have soared 73 percent in the last year, is outside the remit of most European investors because it is U.S. listed, so they have had to look for other ways of buying into the trend. One is investing in companies that have benefited from the rise of e-commerce. On February 16, warehouse owner Segro's shares hit a decade-high after it said space-hungry clients, many in online retail and logistics, continued to buy up storage. "There is a bull market in impatience," said Gary Paulin, head of global equities at broker Northern Trust. "Consumers want things sooner, faster, now." He advises clients to buy shares in Kion, a German forklift truck-maker that is automating warehouses for online retailers, speeding up deliveries in the process. He also flagged a turnaround at online supermarket Ocado. The company has long been targeted by short-sellers betting its share price will fall, but recently it has signed tie-ups with food retailers Casino and Sobeys, and its shares have more-than-doubled since November. Martin Todd, a fund manager at Hermes Investment Management, owns shares in Kion as well as DS Smith, a cardboard-box maker which supplies Amazon as well as a number of other online retailers. DS Smith is developing technology to custom-make boxes for Amazon that will help reduce large gaps in packages that increase freight costs. "You might think it is a pretty unsexy business ... [but] it is getting more high tech in what is traditionally a very low tech industry," Todd said. The company recently entered Britain's blue-chip FTSE 100 index for the first time. Buying some stocks exposed to online retail does not come cheap. Ocado shares are currently trading at more than 800 times forecast earnings, according to Eikon data. John Bennett, head of European equities at Janus Henderson Investors, said while traditional retailers were "absolutely dying," stocks such as Kion were too expensive for him to own. "It became a very popular name, and I tend to shy away [from widely-owned companies]," he said. "I am far too curmudgeonly on the multiples you pay." Reporting by Alasdair Pal.

Middle-School Engineering Students Compete to Design City of the Future

Fri, 02/23/2018 - 14:21
More than 40,000 middle-school-aged engineering students from around the world recently competed to design the city of the future. The competition started in the fall of 2017 and culminated in a grand-prize ceremony this week in Washington. Arash Arabasadi has more.

US SEC Calls for 'Clearer' Cyber Risk Disclosure From Companies

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 05:29
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Wednesday updated guidance to public companies on how and when they should disclose cybersecurity risks and breaches, including potential weaknesses that have not yet been targeted by hackers. The guidance also said company executives must not trade in a firm's securities while possessing nonpublic information on cybersecurity attacks. The SEC encouraged companies to consider adopting specific policies restricting executive trading in shares while a hack is being investigated and before it is disclosed. The SEC, in unanimously approving the additional guidance, said it would promote "clearer and more robust disclosure" by companies facing cybersecurity issues, according to SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, a Republican. Democrats on the commission reluctantly supported the guidance, describing it as a paltry step taken in the wake of a raft of high-profile hacks at major companies that exposed millions of Americans' personal information. They called for much more rigorous rule-making to police disclosure around cybersecurity issues, or requiring certain cybersecurity policies at public companies. Commissioner Robert Jackson said the new document "essentially reiterates years-old staff-level views on this issue," and pointed to analysis from the White House Council of Economic Advisers that finds companies frequently under-report cybersecurity events to investors. The SEC first issued guidance in 2011 on cybersecurity disclosures. "It may provide investors a false sense of comfort that we, at the Commission, have done something more than we have," Commissioner Kara Stein, another Democrat, said in a statement. Significant breaches have included those at Equifax Inc. consumer credit reporting agency, and at the SEC itself. The agency announced in September its corporate filing system, known as EDGAR, was breached by hackers in 2016 and may have been used for insider trading. The matter is under review. The new guidance will mean that corporations disclose more information about cyberattacks and risks and take steps to ensure no insider trading can occur around those events, said several attorneys who advise businesses on the subject. "This essentially creates a mandatory new disclosure category — cybersecurity risks and incidents," said Spencer Feldman, an attorney with Olshan Frome Wolosky LLP. Craig A. Newman, a partner with Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP, said the SEC guidance "makes clear that it doesn't want a repeat of the Equifax situation."

To Get a Ride, Uber Says Take a Walk

Wed, 02/21/2018 - 21:30
The latest variation of an Uber ride will require a short walk. In eight U.S. cities, the ride-hailing company is rolling out a service called "Express Pool," which links riders in the same area who want to travel to similar destinations. Once linked, riders would need to walk a couple of blocks to be picked up at a common location. They also would be dropped off at a site that would be a short walk from their final destinations. Depending on time of day and metro area, Express Pool could cost up to 75 percent less than a regular Uber ride and up to half the cost of Uber's current shared-ride service called Pool, said Ethan Stock, the company's product director for shared rides. Pool, which will remain in use, doesn't require any walking. Instead it takes an often circuitous route to pick up riders at their location and drops them at their destination. But that can take longer than Express, which travels a more direct route. Uber has been testing the service since November in San Francisco and Boston and has found enough ridership to support running it 24 hours per day. Within the next two days, the around-the-clock service will start running in Los Angeles; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Miami, San Diego and Denver. More cities will follow, Uber said. The new service could spell competition for mass transit, but just how much depends on how well it works and how good the mass transit is, said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. If buses or subways are overcrowded and Uber can provide service for a similar price, that will help with mobility. "If, however, you are cannibalizing transit that's not over-subscribed, then that becomes a bad thing," Hallenbeck said. Also, if the ride-sharing service pulls people off mass transit and creates more automobile traffic, that will add to congestion, he said. The service could complement Uber X, the company's door-to-door taxi service — or draw passengers away from it. Stock said the system should work well with public transit, providing first-mile and last-mile service for transit riders and by providing service to low passenger volume areas where it's not cost effective for public transit to serve. He also says it will reduce congestion by cutting the number of personal vehicle trips. Express already has ride-sharing competitors such as Via, which operates in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Express Pool will have normal-sized cars, at least initially, and optimally will carry a maximum of three passengers so riders aren't crammed into the vehicles. It could be expanded to six-passenger vehicles, Stock said. It will take one to two minutes for Uber's computers to match a rider to a driver and other riders and select a pick-up point, Stock said. The lower cost of the service should help Uber grow, Stock said. "More riders can afford to take more trips for more reasons," he said. Already Uber Pool accounts for 20 percent of Uber trips in the cities where it's available.

Researchers Harness the Power of Algae to Generate Really Green Energy

Wed, 02/21/2018 - 15:12
Fuel made from plants like corn, soybeans, even algae have been around for decades. Now, researchers have developed an algae-powered fuel cell that is ,self-repairing, self-replicating, biodegradable and much more sustainable than existing models. Faith Lapidus has details.

Artificial Intelligence Poses Risks of Misuse by Hackers, Researchers Say

Wed, 02/21/2018 - 08:45
Rapid advances in artificial intelligence are raising risks that malicious users will soon exploit the technology to mount automated hacking attacks, cause driverless car crashes or turn commercial drones into targeted weapons, a new report warns. The study, published on Wednesday by 25 technical and public policy researchers from Cambridge, Oxford and Yale universities along with privacy and military experts, sounded the alarm for the potential misuse of AI by rogue states, criminals and lone-wolf attackers. The researchers said the malicious use of AI poses imminent threats to digital, physical and political security by allowing for large-scale, finely targeted, highly efficient attacks. The study focuses on plausible developments within five years. "We all agree there are a lot of positive applications of AI," Miles Brundage, a research fellow at Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute. "There was a gap in the literature around the issue of malicious use." Artificial intelligence, or AI, involves using computers to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as making decisions or recognizing text, speech or visual images. It is considered a powerful force for unlocking all manner of technical possibilities but has become a focus of strident debate over whether the massive automation it enables could result in widespread unemployment and other social dislocations. The 98-page paper cautions that the cost of attacks may be lowered by the use of AI to complete tasks that would otherwise require human labor and expertise. New attacks may arise that would be impractical for humans alone to develop or which exploit the vulnerabilities of AI systems themselves. It reviews a growing body of academic research about the security risks posed by AI and calls on governments and policy and technical experts to collaborate and defuse these dangers. The researchers detail the power of AI to generate synthetic images, text and audio to impersonate others online, in order to sway public opinion, noting the threat that authoritarian regimes could deploy such technology. The report makes a series of recommendations including regulating AI as a dual-use military/commercial technology. It also asks questions about whether academics and others should rein in what they publish or disclose about new developments in AI until other experts in the field have a chance to study and react to potential dangers they might pose. "We ultimately ended up with a lot more questions than answers," Brundage said.

Off-grid Power Pioneers Pour Into West Africa

Wed, 02/21/2018 - 05:33
Standing by a towering equatorial forest, Jean-Noel Kouame’s new breeze-block house may be beyond the reach of Ivory Coast’s power grid, but it’s perfectly located for solar power entrepreneurs. Buoyed by success in East Africa, off-grid solar power startups are pouring into West Africa, offering pay-as-you-go kits in a race to claim tens of millions of customers who lack reliable access to electricity. At least 11 companies, including leading East African players such as Greenlight Planet, d.light, Off-Grid Electric (OGE), M-KOPE Solar, Fenix International and BBOXX, have moved into the region, most within the last two years. With a potential market worth billions of dollars, major European energy companies such as French utilities EDF and Engie are taking notice too. “It’s important to be there now, because the race has already started,” said Marianne Laigneau, senior executive vice president of EDF’s international division. The main challenge facing smaller companies now is how to raise enough capital to supply the expensive solar kits in return for small upfront payments from customers. Mobilizing funding for firms providing home solar systems is also part of the U.S. government’s Power Africa initiative. Major power generation projects have been slow to get off the ground so Power Africa has partnered with startups such as OGE, M-KOPE and d.light, among others, to accelerate off-grid access. In Abidjan, Kouame doesn’t know when, or if, the national grid will reach the outer edge of the urban sprawl, but thanks to his new solar panel kit he has indoor lighting, an electric fan and a television. But it’s the light bulb hanging outside his front door that he values the most. “At night we were scared to go outside,” the 31-year-old taxi driver says as his pregnant wife watches a dubbed Brazilian soap opera. “Where there is light there is safety.” Some 1.2 billion people around the world have no access to a power grid, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Lighting and phone charging alone costs them about $27 billion a year and some estimates put their total annual energy costs at more than $60 billion. While governments in much of the developing world are extending access to national networks, Africa is lagging, with less than 40 percent of African households connected, IEA figures show. But what has long been decried as a major obstacle to Africa’s development is viewed as an opportunity by entrepreneurs such as Nir Marom, co-founder of Lumos Global, the Dutch startup that built and sold Kouame his kit. “I read an article about people paying 50 cents a day for kerosene and candles, and that just didn’t make sense,” said Marom. “I said I can give them four kilowatt hours for the price of kerosene. And that started everything.” Off-grid expansion Lumos Global’s kits, which cost about $600, include a solar panel linked to a battery that supports power sockets, a mobile phone adapter and LED light bulbs. Kouame, who paid 30,000 CFA francs ($57) upfront for his kit, is now leasing-to-own. A digital counter on the yellow battery pack tells him when he needs to top up his account using his mobile phone. If he doesn’t pay, the kit, which also houses a global positioning system, shuts down. But in five years, he’ll own it outright and his solar power will be free. “Five years is nothing," he says, already weighing the option of another system to run a large freezer sitting empty and unplugged in the corner of his living room. “So my wife can do a little business.” Pay-as-you-go solar home systems (SHS) like Kouame’s have been the main driver of off-grid power expansion in Africa. In 2010, when most purchases were limited to simple lighting systems, customers spent $30 to $80 on average over a product’s lifetime, according to GOGLA, an independent off-grid industry association. Now it’s $370 to $1,120. Global revenues from the pay-as-you-go SHS sector were $150 million to $200 million in 2016, GOGLA estimates. That should jump to $6 billion to $7 billion in 2022. Most of the main players in West Africa cut their teeth in East Africa, drawn by the widespread use of mobile money transfers, a key element of the pay-as-you-go off-grid model. Success there drove annual sector-wide growth of about 140 percent from 2013 to 2016. But as the East African market becomes more crowded and mobile money services spread across the continent, many are now heading west. “I remember doing a market sizing very early on and from a number of metrics West Africa was a better market,” said Xavier Helgesen, CEO of Tanzania-based Off-Grid Electric (OGE), one of the sector leaders. About half of the overall African off-grid population are in West and Central Africa, according to the IEA. Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa's biggest economy and most populous nation, is  alone home to roughly 90 million people with no grid access. Lumos is an outlier to the extent it picked West Africa as its first market. It launched in Nigeria in 2016 and by the end of 2017 had sold 73,000 kits and was averaging 16 percent month-on-month revenue growth. Late last year, it expanded into Ivory Coast, French-speaking West Africa's largest economy. Still, despite the rapid growth to date, off-grid solar startups say more must be done to improve the capacity of solar home systems and to bring down their cost so the sector can reach its full potential. “I don’t believe off-grid electrification is a stop-gap,” said Jamie Evans, director of partnerships with d.light. “I believe it’s here to stay. If the price of batteries starts dropping precipitously, then it will almost certainly change the face of the industry,” he said. Capital  intensive The need to provide consumer financing for the relatively expensive kits means expansion requires significant capital. But banks, lacking expertise in the new sector, often shy away from lending to off-grid companies, said Rolake Akinkugbe, head of energy at Nigeria's FBNQuest Merchant Bank. “There's also a size issue. Most of the off-grid solutions, particularly those that deal with pay-as-you-go, from a funding perspective, are not within the threshold for banks,” she said. That means startups have largely relied on venture capital, impact investors looking to generate social benefits as well as a profit, and development finance institutions. But the model has its drawbacks. “Right now off-grid companies are having to constantly fundraise,” said Lyndsay Handler, CEO of Uganda-based Fenix International. In what was considered a milestone in the African off-grid sector, Engie bought Fenix in October. With access to Engie’s capital, Handler says Fenix aims to become a pan-African off-grid leader, serving millions in the near term and tens of millions further down the road. “Hundreds of millions of dollars of investment are needed to have the impact we want to have,” she said. Facing stagnating customer growth in their home markets, European energy companies such as Engie are increasingly looking abroad. Africa’s underserved, growing population is seen by many as the future. The number of Africans without grid access actually increased by nearly 14 percent between 2000 and 2016 to 588 million people. By 2030, the IEA estimates that some 80 percent of the global off-grid population will be in sub-Saharan Africa. Raphael Tilot, Engie Africa’s head of customer solutions, likens off-grid solar to the rise of the mobile phone, which leap-frogged landline networks on the continent. “Today, no one is thinking about putting telecom wires to individual houses in these places. You can look at energy in the same way today,” he said. “Mini-grids or solar home systems are a far better solution.” In addition to Engie, French giants Total and EDF also hold stakes in off-grid startups, or are partnering with them. Italian utility Enel and Germany's E.ON are investing in solar mini-grid companies. Evidence of the market growth is on exhibit on Kouame’s hillside in Abidjan, where several rooftops, including his neighbor’s, are now crowned with solar panels. “He asked me how it worked,” Kouame smiles. “Then he went and bought one of his own.”

Macron's State Reform Tsar Looks to Technology to Cut Red-Tape

Wed, 02/21/2018 - 03:47
France is ready to invest in artificial intelligence, blockchain and data mining to "transform" its sprawling bureaucracy instead of simply trimming budgets and jobs, its administration reform tsar said. The 39-year old former telecoms executive whom President Emmanuel Macron has charged with reforming the public sector said he believed technology would win support from government employees and in the end produce less costly public services. Macron himself is coming under pressure from budget watchdogs and Brussels to spell out how he plans to cut 60 billion euros ($74 billion) in public spending and 120,000 public sector jobs to fulfill pledges made in his election campaign. Chatbots - software that can answer users' questions with a conversational approach - or algorithms helping the taxman to target potential tax evaders, were some of the possibilities offered by technology, Thomas Cazenave told Reuters in an interview. "The state ... must not fall behind, get 'uberized' and shrivel up," Cazenave said. "The potential created by digitalization, data and artificial intelligence will help put fewer employees on some tasks, while reinvesting in others," he added. A 700-million-euro ($864-million) fund will help invest in IT projects over the next five years to help modernize administration in the highly centralized country and automate some activities. ‘Macron boy’ Cazenave is one of the 'Macron boys' whose mix of top civil service pedigree and private sector experience is being used to shake up France's 5.5 million-strong army of government employees and cut one of the highest public spending ratios in the world. Only two months younger than Macron, the two met over 10 years ago when they joined the highly selective corps of finance civil servants after graduating from ENA, a graduate school of public administration for the French elite. Cazenave then became the number 2 human resources executive at telecoms firm Orange, a company which transitioned from government monopoly to globalized private champion. In 2016, Macron prefaced Cazenave's book, "The State in Start-Up Mode." "Like me, the president feels very deeply that these are no longer times where public services can be reformed with small tweaks. Major transformations are needed," Cazenave said. Sensitive subject However, despite frequently referring to transformation and revolution, Macron has taken a cautious approach on belt-tightening measures, with very few details given so far on where the ax will fall. His budget minister said this month a voluntary redundancy plan could be on the cards, but did not elaborate. More details are expected to be announced in March/April but legislation is not expected before early 2019. Cazenave said taking time to consult employees was necessary to get government employees on board and to review which public services still need to be ran by government, and which can be outsourced or even abandoned. He also said previous spending cut plans, such as former conservative leader Nicolas Sarkozy's decision not to fill one in two vacancies left by retiring baby-boomers had failed to curb spending because the state's remit had not been changed. Outsourcing some public services is currently being considered, he said, but the example of British outsourcing firm Carillion's collapse showed it could not be replicated everywhere. "There is no place for ideology on the outsourcing debate, in one way or another. The private sector doesn't have a definitive superiority to the public sector," he said.  

Ceramic Body Armor Stronger than Steel

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 13:20
Kevlar body armor saves lives, and the high end vests can even stop armor piercing rounds. But that kind of protection comes at the cost of added heavy weight. A Czech Republic university is using ceramics that bring the weight of safety way down. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

Officials: Aid Sector Must Innovate to Deliver Value for Money

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 05:10
The humanitarian sector lacks creativity and must innovate to deliver more value for the money, officials said Monday, amid fears of a funding shortfall following the Oxfam sex scandal. Aid groups must make better use of technology — from cash transfer programs to drones — to improve the delivery of services, said a panel of government officials in London. "For far too long, when faced with a challenge, we've looked inward and crafted a solution that doesn't work for the communities we're meant to serve," said Mark Green, head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). "Be it in London or [Washington] D.C., we humanitarians are way behind in terms of creativity," he added. Green was speaking at an event hosted by the Overseas Development Institute, a think-tank, to launch the Humanitarian Grand Challenge, an initiative by the U.S., British and Canadian governments to promote innovation across the aid sector. Britain's aid minister Penny Mordaunt said aid groups must learn from communities' and the private sector's creativity in addressing challenges including climate shocks and malnutrition. Mordaunt cited innovations such as cash transfer programs — whereby recipients receive cash electronically rather than aid provisions — as one way to deliver humanitarian aid better, faster and cheaper, while also giving communities autonomy. Other promising technologies include gathering data on mobile phones and the use of drones to determine where the most urgent needs are in humanitarian crises, according to Mordaunt. Green said the United States had spent $8 billion on aid in 2017, of which 80 percent went to services in conflict zones. "Less than 1 percent of that money, however, went into innovations and ways to improve the delivery of aid services." British charity Oxfam has come under fire this month over sexual misconduct accusations against its staff in Haiti and Chad which have threatened its U.K. government and EU funding. Several industry experts have warned that the backlash against Oxfam could drive charities to cover up cases of sex abuse for fear of losing support and funding from the public, donors and governments.

Riding a 270-kilogram Walking Robot

Mon, 02/19/2018 - 12:48
Robotic wheelchairs are already available in some countries. But what if a disabled person needs to travel over a bumpy stretch of a road or climb stairs? A lab in South Korea is experimenting with a walking robot with a comfortable seat for a human operator. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Tiny Pacemakers Could Be Game Changers for Heart Patients

Sun, 02/18/2018 - 16:06
Tiny, new pacemakers are making headway around the world. One type, the Micra, is keeping 15,000 people’s hearts beating in 40 countries, according to manufacturer Medtronic. One of those people is Mary Lou Trejo, a senior citizen who lives in Ohio.  A healthy heart has its own pacemaker that establishes its rhythm, but people like Trejo need the help of an artificial device. Trejo comes from a family with a history of heart disease. Her heart skipped beats, and she could feel it going out of rhythm. Trejo wanted to do something to advance heart health, so in 2014, she volunteered to participate in a clinical trial for the Micra pacemaker. The device is 24 millimeters long implanted, one-tenth the size of traditional pacemakers. Traditional pacemakers Most pacemakers rely on batteries placed under the skin, usually just below the collarbone. Sometimes patients get infections after the surgery or have difficulty healing from the incision. Traditional pacemakers use leads with electrodes on one end that are threaded through blood vessels to connect to the heart. There can be problems with the leads as well. Dr. Ralph Augostini at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center says a tiny pacemaker like the Micra avoids all of these problems.  “The electrodes are part of the can, and therefore it eliminates the lead,” he said. There’s no incision in the chest to become infected and no chance of complications with the leads. Small and self-contained Augostini implanted Trejo’s pacemaker in 2014. He threaded the entire device thorough an artery in her leg up to her heart. The pacemaker has small, flexible tines that anchor it into the folds of the heart muscle. Once it’s in place, the doctor gives it a tug to make sure the pacemaker is stable before removing the catheter used to place it in the heart. The Wexner Medical Center was one of the sites that participated in the Micra clinical trial. Since the Micra received FDA approval in 2016, Medtronic has been training more physicians on the procedure. A company spokesman told VOA that this device is becoming available at other centers across the U.S. and countries throughout the world. Dr. John Hummell, a cardiologist at the Wexner Medical Center, has studied the effectiveness of this new generation of pacemakers.  “We don’t leave any wires behind and the pacemaker, the battery, the wire is all just a tiny little piece of metal sitting down in the heart,” he said. Medtronic said the results of the clinical trial showed a success rate of 99.6 percent. Dr. Richard Weachter, with the University of Missouri Health Care, says the leadless pacemakers’ complication rates are about half the rate of traditional pacemakers. The battery lasts for 14 years and after that, Weachter said, doctors can implant another one in the same chamber of the heart. They can repeat the procedure a third time if needed. The pacemaker activates only when necessary to keep the heart beating normally. Studies show that the Micra and other leadless pacemakers are safe and effective. These tiny pacemakers are not right for all patients, but as the technology develops, more people will be able to benefit from the procedure. Four years after her implant, Trejo’s doctors say she is doing fine.

Tiny Pacemakers Could Be Game Changers for Heart Patients

Sun, 02/18/2018 - 16:00
Some new, tiny pacemakers are making headway around the world. One type is keeping 15,000 people's hearts beating in 40 countries, according to the manufacturer. Studies show these small pacemakers are safe. And, as VOA's Carol Pearson reports, doctors expect the technology will help more heart patients over time.

Big Rigs Almost Driving Themselves on the Highway

Sun, 02/18/2018 - 14:36
Four automakers in Japan, including Mitsubishi and Isuzu, have road-tested a form of driverless technology. The big rigs are all equipped with a type of adaptive cruise-control system as a step toward removing the one feature you'd expect to see in the cab: a driver. Arash Arabasadi reports.

Robot Drives Itself to Deliver Packages

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 13:30
Delivery robots could one day be part of the landscape of cities around the world. Among the latest to be developed is an Italian-made model that drives itself around town to drop off packages. Since the machine runs on electricity, its developers say it is an environmentally friendly alternative to fuel powered delivery vehicles that cause pollution. VOA's Deborah Block has more.

Fashionable and Able: Designers Strive to Help the Disabled

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 13:23
A new exhibit showcases gadgets and inventions by designers striving to make disabled people's lives easier — in style. Faith Lapidus reports.

Facebook Forges Ahead With Kids App Despite Expert Criticism

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 09:47
Facebook is forging ahead with its messaging app for kids, despite child experts who have pressed the company to shut it down and others who question Facebook’s financial support of some advisers who approved of the app. Messenger Kids lets kids under 13 chat with friends and family. It displays no ads and lets parents approve who their children message. But critics say it serves to lure kids into harmful social media use and to hook young people on Facebook as it tries to compete with Snapchat or its own Instagram app. They say kids shouldn't be on such apps at all — although they often are. "It is disturbing that Facebook, in the face of widespread concern, is aggressively marketing Messenger Kids to even more children,” the Campaign For a Commercial-Free Childhood said in a statement this week. Lukeward reception Messenger Kids launched on iOS to lukewarm reception in December. It arrived on Amazon devices in January and on Android Wednesday. Throughout, Facebook has touted a team of advisers, academics and families who helped shape the app in the year before it launched. But a Wired report this week pointed out that more than half of this safety advisory board had financial ties to the company. Facebook confirmed this and said it hasn't hidden donations to these individuals and groups — although it hasn’t publicized them, either. Facebook’s donations to groups like the National PTA (the official name for the Parent Teacher Association) typically covered logistics costs or sponsored activities like anti-bullying programs or events such as parent roundtables. One advisory group, the Family Online Safety Institute, has a Facebook executive on its board, along with execs from Disney, Comcast and Google. “We sometimes provide funding to cover programmatic or logistics expenses, to make sure our work together can have the most impact,” Facebook said in a statement, adding that many of the organizations and people who advised on Messenger Kids do not receive financial support of any kind. Common Sense a late addition But for a company under pressure from many sides — Congress, regulators, advocates for online privacy and mental health — even the appearance of impropriety can hurt. Facebook didn’t invite prominent critics, such as the nonprofit Common Sense Media, to advise it on Messenger Kids until the process was nearly over. Facebook would not comment publicly on why it didn’t include Common Sense earlier in the process.  “Because they know we opposed their position,” said James Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense. The group’s stance is that Facebook never should have released a product aimed at kids. “They know very well our positon with Messenger Kids.” A few weeks after Messenger Kids launched, nearly 100 outside experts banded together to urge Facebook to shut down the app , which it has not done. The company says it is “committed to building better products for families, including Messenger Kids. That means listening to parents and experts, including our critics.” Wired article unfair? One of Facebook’s experts contested the notion that company advisers were in Facebook’s pocket. Lewis Bernstein, now a paid Facebook consultant who worked for Sesame Workshop (the nonprofit behind “Sesame Street”) in various capacities over three decades, said the Wired article “unfairly” accused him and his colleagues for accepting travel expenses to Facebook seminars.  But the Wired story did not count Lewis as one of the seven out of 13 advisers who took funding for Messenger Kids, and the magazine did not include travel funding when it counted financial ties. Bernstein was not a Facebook consultant at the time he was advising it on Messenger Kids. Bernstein, who doesn’t see technology as “inherently dangerous,” suggested that Facebook critics like Common Sense are also tainted by accepting $50 million in donated air time for a campaign warning about the dangers of technology addiction. Among those air-time donors are Comcast and AT&T's DirecTV. But Common Sense spokeswoman Corbie Kiernan called that figure a “misrepresentation” that got picked up by news outlets. She said Common Sense has public service announcement commitments “from partners such as Comcast and DirectTV” that has been valued at $50 million. The group has used that time in other campaigns in addition to its current “Truth About Tech” effort, which it’s launching with a group of ex-Google and Facebook employees and their newly formed Center for Humane Technology.

Could Mining, Analyzing Social Media Posts Prevent Future Massacres?

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 03:15
In multiple online comments and posts, Nikolas Cruz, 19, the suspect in the Valentine's Day high school shooting in Florida, apparently signaled his intent to hurt other people. I want to "shoot people with my AR-15," a person using the name Nikolas Cruz wrote in one place. "I wanna die Fighting killing…ton of people." As investigators try to piece together what led to the school shooting that left 17 people dead and many others wounded, they are closely examining the suspect's social media activity, as well as other information about him. The focus on Cruz's digital footprint highlights a question that law enforcement, social scientists and society at large have been grappling with: If anyone had been paying attention to his postings, could these deaths have been prevented? The FBI was contacted about a social media post in which the alleged gunman says he wants to be a "professional school shooter." However, though the commenter's username was "Nikolas Cruz" — the same name as the shooting suspect — the FBI couldn't identify the poster, according to the Associated Press. But what if an algorithm could have sifted through all of Cruz's posts and comments to bring him to the attention of authorities? Data mining In an era where data can be dissected and analyzed to predict where cold medicine will most likely be needed next week or which shoes will be most popular on Amazon tomorrow, some people wonder why there isn't more use of artificial intelligence to sift through social media in an effort to prevent crime. "We need all the tools we can get to prevent tragedies like this," said Sean Young, executive director of the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology. "The science exists on how to use social media to find and help people in psychological need," he said. "I believe the benefits outweigh the risks, so I think it's really important to use social media as a prevention tool." Despite the 2002 movie Minority Report, about police apprehending murderers before they act based on knowledge provided by psychics known as "precogs," the idea of police successfully analyzing data to find a person preparing to harm others is still a far-off scenario, according to experts. Predictive policing Increasingly, police departments are turning to "predictive policing," which involves taking large data sets and using algorithms to forecast potential crimes and then deploying police to the region. One potential treasure trove of data is social media, which is often public and can indicate what people are discussing in real time and by location. Predictive policing, however, comes with ethical questions over whether data sets and algorithms have built-in biases, particularly toward minorities. A study in Los Angeles aims to see if social media postings can help police figure out where to put resources to stop hate crimes.  "With enough funds and unfettered data access and linkage, I can see how a system could be built where machine learning could identify patterns in text [threats, emotional states] and images [weapons] that would indicate an increased risk," said Matthew Williams, director of the social data science lab and data innovation research institute at Cardiff University in Wales. He is one of the Los Angeles study researchers. "But the ethics would preclude such a system, unless those being observed consented, but then the system could be subverted." Arjun Sethi, a Georgetown law professor, says it is impossible to divorce predictive policing from entrenched prejudice in the criminal justice system. "We found big data is used in racially discriminating ways," he said. Using Facebook posts Still, the potential exists that, with the right program, it may be possible to separate someone signaling for help from all the noise on social media. A new program at Facebook seeks to harness the field of machine learning to get help to people contemplating suicide. Among millions of posts each day, Facebook can find posts of those who may be suicidal or at risk of self-harm — even if no one in the person's Facebook social circle reported the person's posts to the company. In machine learning, computers and algorithms collect information without being programmed to do so. The Facebook system relies on text, but Mark Zuckerberg, the company's chief executive, has said that the firm may add photos and videos that come to the attention of the Facebook team to review. Being able to figure out if someone is going to harm himself, herself or others is difficult and raises ethical dilemmas but, says Young of UCLA, a person's troubling social media posts can be red flags that should be checked out.

Belgian Court Orders Facebook to Stop Collecting Data

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 22:18
Belgian media say a Brussels court has ordered Facebook to stop collecting data about citizens in the country or face fines for every day it fails to comply. The daily De Standaard reported Friday that the court upheld a Belgian privacy commission finding that Facebook is collecting data without users' consent. It said the court concluded that Facebook does not adequately inform users that it is collecting information, what kind of details it keeps and for how long, or what it does with the data. It has ruled that Facebook must stop tracking and registering internet usage by Belgians online and destroy any data it has obtained illegally or face fines of 250,000 euros ($311,500) every day it delays.