VOA Science & Tech
Updated: 37 min 33 sec ago
Ford is showing off its new fleet of electric vehicles. Some of the standouts include a new hybrid plug-in and the promise of a new, all-electric model by 2022. The U.S. automaker plans to have a fleet of 40 different electric vehicles on the roads in the next three years. VOA'S Kevin Enochs reports.
British agriculture is going high-tech. Farmers recently tested cutting-edge technology like robots that autonomously tend fields and wireless cattle that may connect faster to the farm than you to your favorite app. Incoming message from Arash Arabasadi.
Recent technological advances demonstrated by China have started an intense debate on whether it is set to take a lead in the field of artificial intelligence, or AI, which has extensive business and military applications. U.S. concerns about China's AI advances have also influenced, in part, the ongoing trade negotiations between Washington and Beijing. Both the United States and European Union are taking measures to stop information leaks that are reportedly helping Chinese companies at the expense of Western business. But many analysts are saying that Chinese corporate and defense-related research in areas like AI and 5G wireless technologies can thrive on their own even if information from the Western world is shut off. China is already reportedly leading in several segments of businesses like autonomous vehicles, facial recognition and certain kinds of drones. The U.S.-based Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence recently captured attention when it reported that China is a close second after the United States when it comes to producing frequently-cited research papers on artificial intelligence. The U.S. contribution is 29%, and China accounts for 26% of such papers. "The U.S. still is ahead in AI development capabilities, but the gap between the U.S. and China is closing rapidly because of the significant new AI investments in China," Bart Selman, president-elect of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, a professional organization, told VOA. Political advantage Chinese President Xi Jinping has in recent months encouraged Communist leaders to "ensure that our country marches in the front ranks when it comes to theoretical research in this important area of AI, and occupies the high ground in critical and AI core technologies." He also asked them to "ensure that critical and core AI technologies are firmly grasped in our own hands." Analysts said China's political system and its government's eagerness to support the technological advancement were key reasons it could build infrastructure such as cloud computing and a software engineering workforce, and become a big player in artificial intelligence. Chinese companies enjoy special advantages in deploying new technology like facial recognition, which is often difficult in democratic countries like the U.S., said William Carter, deputy director and fellow in the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "China does have strengths in terms of application development and deployment, and has the potential to take the lead in the deployment of some technologies like autonomous vehicles and facial recognition where ethical, social and policy hurdles may impede deployment in the U.S. and other parts of the world," Carter said. China's capabilities in image and facial recognition are possibly the best in the world, partly because government controls have made it easier to generate data from a wide range of sources like banks, mobile phone companies and social media. "These capabilities arise out of the use of deep learning on very large data sets. In general, China has the advantage of having more real world data to train AI systems on ... than any other country," Selman said. Other areas where China has shown significant advances are natural language processing (in Chinese only) and drone (unmanned aerial vehicle) swarming. "China also has unique capabilities that are not found in the U.S. or Europe. I'm thinking of electronic payment platforms [e.g. AliPay] and the super app WeChat that provide an advanced platform for the rapid introduction of further AI technologies," Selman said. U.S. role Last February, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order asking government agencies to do more with AI. "Continued American leadership in artificial intelligence is of paramount importance to maintaining the economic and national security of the United States," Trump was quoted as saying in an official press release accompanying the order. Critics have said that Trump's order does not suggest enhanced government investment and plans for attracting fresh talent in AI research and development, which is essential for growth and industry competition. Gregory Allen is an adjunct senior fellow with the research group Center for a New American Security. He was recently quoted as saying that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is spending the most on research and development at $2 billion over five years. In contrast, the Chinese province of Shanghai, which is a city government, is planning to spend $15 billion on AI over 10 years. "So literally, we have the U.S. federal government at present at risk of being outspent by a provincial government of China," Allen said. China's AI capabilities have limits. They suffer from major weaknesses in areas like advanced semiconductors to support machine learning applications. "At the end of the day, when it comes to most major AI fields, China is not the technological leader and is not the source of most foundational innovations," Carter said. The U.S. still dominates in the overall market for self-driving car technology, machine translation, natural language understanding, and web search. China has gained a strong presence in a few segments of these businesses, largely because of its vast domestic market. Despite the competition, collaboration and exchange of ideas occur between the two countries in the AI field, although this aspect is less discussed, Carter added. "Politically, the dynamic is more competitive; economically and scientifically, it is more collaborative," he said.
College student Fatima Guerra, 19, will be the first to admit, she’s into some really nerdy stuff. “Like, up there nerdy.” "Way up there nerdy," she says. "All the way up into space." Guerra is an astronomer in training, involved since a high school internship with a small project at the Adler Planetarium, with big goals. “Our main goal was to see if the ozone layer is getting thinner and by how much, and if there is different parts of the Earth’s atmosphere getting thinner because of the pollution and greenhouse gases,” she told VOA from the laboratory at the Adler where she often works. Coding ThinSat Data that sheds light on those circumstances is gathered by a small electronic device called “ThinSat” designed to orbit the Earth. It is developed not by high-paid engineers and software programmers, but by Chicago-area students like Guerra. “We focused on coding the different parts of the sensors that the ThinSat is composed of. So, we coded so that it can measure light intensity, pressure.” “This stuff is very nerdy,” Jesus Garcia admits with a chuckle. “What we hope to accomplish is look at Earth from space as if it was the very first exoplanet that we have. So, imagine that we are looking at the very first images from a very distant planet.” As a systems engineer, Garcia oversees the work of the students developing ThinSat for the Adler’s Far Horizon’s Project, which he outlines “bring all types of students, volunteers and our staff to develop projects, engineering projects, that allow us to answer scientific questions.” Garcia says the students he works with on the project cross national, racial and cultural divides to work toward a common goal. “Here at the Adler, we have students who are minorities who have been faced with challenges of not having opportunities presented to them,” he said. “And here we are presenting a mission where they are collaborating with us scientists and engineers on our first mission that is going into space.” Rocket carries project into space As the NASA-owned, Northrop Grumann-developed Antares rocket successfully blasted off from the coast of Virginia on April 17, it wasn’t just making a resupply mission to the International Space Station. On board was ThinSat, the culmination of work by many at the Adler, including Guerra, who joined the Far Horizons team as a high school requirement that ended up becoming much more. “A requirement can become a life-changing opportunity, and you don’t even know it,” she told VOA. “It’s really exciting to see, or to know, especially, that my work is going to go up into space and help in the scientific world.” Daughter of immigrants It is also exciting for her parents, immigrants from Guatemala, who can boast that their daughter is one of the few who can claim to have built a satellite orbiting the Earth. “I told them it might become a worldwide type of news, and I’m going to be a part of it. And they were really proud. And they were calling my family over there and saying, ‘She might be on TV.’ And it’s something they really feel a part of me about,” Guerra said. Long after the data compiled by ThinSat is complete, Guerro will still have a place in history as a member of a team that put the first satellite developed by a private planetarium into space. She says her friends don’t think that’s nerdy at all. “It’s cool, because it’s interesting to see that something so nerdy is actually going to work, and is going to go up into something so important,” she said.
For some, the launch of a rocket into space to resupply the International Space Station is a routine mission. But for a group of students working with the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, it is a historic moment marking the achievement of a lifetime. VOA's Kane Farabaugh has more from Chicago.
Facebook Inc said on Wednesday it may have "unintentionally uploaded" email contacts of 1.5 million new users since May 2016, in what seems to be the latest privacy-related issue faced by the social media company. In March, Facebook had stopped offering email password verification as an option for people who signed up for the first time, the company said. There were cases in which email contacts of people were uploaded to Facebook when they created their account, the company said. "We estimate that up to 1.5 million people's email contacts may have been uploaded. These contacts were not shared with anyone and we are deleting them," Facebook told Reuters, adding that users whose contacts were imported will be notified. The underlying glitch has been fixed, according to the company statement. Business Insider had earlier reported that the social media company harvested email contacts of the users without their knowledge or consent when they opened their accounts. When an email password was entered, a message popped up saying it was "importing" contacts without asking for permission first, the report said. Facebook has been hit by a number of privacy-related issues recently, including a glitch that exposed passwords of millions of users stored in readable format within its internal systems to its employees. Last year, the company came under fire following revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, obtained personal data of millions of people's Facebook profiles without their consent. The company has also been facing criticism from lawmakers across the world for what has been seen by some as tricking people into giving personal data to Facebook and for the presence of hate speech and data portability on the platform. Separately, Facebook was asked to ensure its social media platform is not abused for political purposes or to spread misinformation during elections.
Google said Thursday it will start giving European Union smartphone users a choice of browsers and search apps on its Android operating system, in changes designed to comply with an EU antitrust ruling. Following an Android update, users will be shown two new screens giving them the new options, Google product management director Paul Gennai said in a blog post. The EU’s executive Commission slapped the Silicon Valley giant with a record 4.34 billion euro (then $5 billion) antitrust fine in July after finding that it abused the dominance of Android by forcing handset and tablet makers to install Google apps, reducing consumer choice. The commission had ordered Google to come up with a remedy or face further fines. The company, which is appealing the ruling, said the changes are being rolled out over the next few weeks to both new and existing Android phones in Europe. Android users who open the Google Play store after the update will be given the option to install up to five search apps and five browsers, Gennai said. Apps will be included based on their popularity and shown in random order. Users who choose a search app will also be asked if they want to change the default search engine in the phone’s Chrome browser. Android is the most widely used mobile operating system, beating even Apple’s iOS.
South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. said it has received a few reports of damage to the main display of samples of its upcoming foldable smartphone and that it will investigate. Some tech reviewers of the Galaxy Fold, a splashy $1,980 phone that opens into a tablet and that goes on sale in the United States April 26, said the phone malfunctioned after only a day or two of use. “We will thoroughly inspect these units in person to determine the cause of the matter,” Samsung said in a statement, noting that a limited number of early Galaxy Fold samples were provided to media for review. Screen cracking, flickering The problem seems to be related to the unit’s screen either cracking or flickering, according to Twitter posts by technology journalists from Bloomberg, The Verge and CNBC who received the phone this week for review purposes. Samsung, which has advertised the phone as “the future,” said removing a protective layer of its main display might cause damage, and that it will clearly inform customers such. The company said it has closed pre-orders for the Galaxy Fold because of “high demand.” It told Reuters there is no change to its release schedule following the malfunction reports. From phone to tablet The South Korean company’s Galaxy Fold resembles a conventional smartphone but opens like a book to reveal a second display the size of a small tablet at 7.3 inches (18.5 cm). Although Galaxy Fold and Huawei Technologies Co Ltd.’s Mate X foldable phones are not expected to be big sellers, the new designs were hailed as framing the future of smartphones this year in a field that has seen few surprises since Apple Inc. introduced the screen slab iPhone in 2007. The problems with the new phone drew comparisons to Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 phone in 2016. Battery and design flaws in the Note 7 led to some units catching fire or exploding, forcing Samsung to recall and cancel sales of the phone. The recall wiped out nearly all of the profit in Samsung’s mobile division in the third quarter of 2016. Samsung has said it plans to churn out at least 1 million foldable Galaxy Fold handsets globally, compared with its total estimated 300 million mobile phones it produces annually. Reviewers puzzled Reviewers of the new Galaxy Fold said they did not know what the problem was and Samsung did not provide answers. Bloomberg reporter Mark Gurman tweeted: “The screen on my Galaxy Fold review unit is completely broken and unusable just two days in. Hard to know if this is widespread or not.” According to Gurman’s tweets, he removed a plastic layer on the screen that was not meant to be removed and the phone malfunctioned afterward. Dieter Bohn, executive editor of The Verge, said that a “small bulge” appeared on the crease of the phone screen, which appeared to be something pressing from underneath the screen. Bohn said Samsung replaced his test phone but did not offer a reason for the problem. “It is very troubling,” Bohn told Reuters, adding that he did not remove the plastic screen cover. Steve Kovach, tech editor at CNBC.com tweeted a video of half of his phone’s screen flickering after using it for just a day.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued its first guidelines on digital health intervention. The U.N. agency said governments can improve the health of their citizens by using digital technology to make health systems more efficient and responsive to their patients. The United Nations said 51 percent of the world's population has access to broadband internet service. Chief WHO scientist Soumya Swaminathan said increased availability and use of digital technology offers new opportunities to improve people's health. She told VOA the technology enables people, even in the remotest settings, to leapfrog into the development of a more effective, inclusive health system. With the use of mobile phones, computers and laptops, she said it is possible to bypass the intervening stages many countries have had to go through. "So, a health worker in Congo can directly start using a mobile phone if the government is able to provide one to the health worker and get away from filling 30 paper registers, which occupy about one-third of front-line health workers time," she added. New recommendations The new guidelines include 10 recommendations on how governments can use digital technology for maximum impact on their health systems. A WHO scientist specializing in digital innovations and research, Garrett Mehl, said the recommendations deal with issues such as birth notification. "Knowing that a baby has been born is critical to knowing how to provide vaccinations; knowing that the mother needs different post-natal care visits," he said. "But without knowing that there was a birth that has happened, it is difficult to trigger those events in the health system." The guidelines also address privacy concerns.They have recommendations for ensuring that sensitive data, such as issues of sexual and reproductive health, are protected and not put at risk.
Scientists in Israel have revealed what they say is the world's first 3D-printed heart using human tissue. It's hoped the small heart will pave the way for transplants without donors, when every hospital might have access to 3D organ printers. Faith Lapidus reports.
Tech toys used to be their own category at the toy store, but just as technology has become unavoidable in day-to-day life, so too has it become more integrated into toys for children. Tina Trinh reports.
Microsoft recently rejected a California law enforcement agency’s request to install facial recognition technology in officers’ cars and body cameras because of human rights concerns, company President Brad Smith said Tuesday. Microsoft concluded it would lead to innocent women and minorities being disproportionately held for questioning because the artificial intelligence has been trained on mostly white, male pictures. AI has more cases of mistaken identity with women and minorities, multiple research projects have found. “Anytime they pulled anyone over, they wanted to run a face scan” against a database of suspects, Smith said without naming the agency. After thinking through the uneven impact, “we said this technology is not your answer.” Prison contract accepted Speaking at a Stanford University conference on “human-centered artificial intelligence,” Smith said Microsoft had also declined a deal to install facial recognition on cameras blanketing the capital city of an unnamed country that the nonprofit Freedom House had deemed not free. Smith said it would have suppressed freedom of assembly there. On the other hand, Microsoft did agree to provide the technology to an American prison, after the company concluded that the environment would be limited and that it would improve safety inside the unnamed institution. Smith explained the decisions as part of a commitment to human rights that he said was increasingly critical as rapid technological advances empower governments to conduct blanket surveillance, deploy autonomous weapons and take other steps that might prove impossible to reverse. ‘Race to the bottom’ Microsoft said in December it would be open about shortcomings in its facial recognition and asked customers to be transparent about how they intended to use it, while stopping short of ruling out sales to police. Smith has called for greater regulation of facial recognition and other uses of artificial intelligence, and he warned Tuesday that without that, companies amassing the most data might win the race to develop the best AI in a “race to the bottom.” He shared the stage with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who urged tech companies to refrain from building new tools without weighing their impact. “Please embody the human rights approach when you are developing technology,” said Bachelet, a former president of Chile. Microsoft spokesman Frank Shaw declined to name the prospective customers the company turned down.
Google has blocked access to the hugely popular video app TikTok in India to comply with a state court's directive to prohibit its downloads, a person with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters on Tuesday. The move comes hours after a court in southern Tamil Nadu state refused a request by China's Bytedance Technology to suspend a ban on its TikTok app, putting its future in one of its key markets in doubt. The state court had on April 3 asked the federal government to ban TikTok, saying it encouraged pornography and made child users vulnerable to sexual predators. Its ruling came after an individual launched a public interest litigation calling for a ban. The federal government had sent a letter to Apple and Google to abide by the state court's order, according to an IT ministry official. The app was still available on Apple's platforms late Tuesday, but was no longer available on Google's Play store in India. Google said in a statement it does not comment on individual apps but adheres to local laws. Apple did not respond to requests for comment, while TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Google's move. TikTok, which allows users to create and share short videos with special effects, has become hugely popular in India but has been criticized by some politicians who say its content is inappropriate. It had been downloaded more than 240 million times in India, app analytics firm Sensor Tower said in February. More than 30 million users in India installed it in January 2019, 12 times more than in the same month last year. Jokes, clips and footage related to India's thriving movie industry dominate the app's platform, along with memes and videos in which youngsters, some scantily clad, lip-sync and dance to popular music. Challenge to court's ban Bytedance challenged the state court's ban order in India's Supreme Court last week, saying it went against freedom of speech rights in India. The top court had referred the case back to the state court, where a judge on Tuesday rejected Bytedance's request to put the ban order on hold, said K. Neelamegam, a lawyer arguing against Bytedance in the case. TikTok earlier said in a statement that it had faith in the Indian judicial system and was "optimistic about an outcome that would be well received by millions" of its users. It did not comment further on the judge's decision. The company, however, welcomed the decision to appoint a senior lawyer to assist the court in upcoming proceedings. The state court has requested written submissions from Bytedance in the case and has scheduled its next hearing for April 24. Salman Waris, a technology lawyer at TechLegis Advocates & Solicitors, said the legal action against Bytedance could set a precedent of Indian courts intervening to regulate content on social media and other digital platforms. In its Supreme Court filing, Bytedance argued that a "very minuscule" proportion of TikTok content was considered inappropriate or obscene. The company employs more than 250 people in India and had plans for more investment as it expands the business, it said.
Automakers are showcasing electric SUVs and sedans with more driving range and luxury features at the Shanghai auto show, trying to appeal to Chinese buyers in their biggest market as Beijing slashes subsidies that have propelled demand. Communist leaders wanting China to lead in electric vehicles have imposed sales targets. That requires brands to pour money into creating models to compete with gasoline-powered vehicles on price, looks and performance at a time when they are struggling with a Chinese sales slump. General Motors, Volkswagen, China's Geely and other brands on Tuesday displayed dozens of models, from luxury SUVs to compacts priced under $10,000, at Auto Shanghai 2019. The show, the global industry's biggest marketing event of the year, opens to the public Saturday following a preview for reporters. On Monday, GM unveiled Buick's first all-electric model for China. GM says the four-door Velite 6 can travel 301 kilometers (185 miles) before the battery needs charging. VW showed off a concept electric SUV, the whimsically named ID. ROOMZZ, designed to travel 450 kilometers (280 miles) on one charge. Features include seats that rotate 25 degrees to create a lounge-like atmosphere. Communist leaders have promoted "new energy vehicles'' for 15 years with subsidies to developers and buyers. That, along with support including orders to state-owned utilities to blanket China with charging stations, is helping to transform the technology into a mainstream product. "People's mindset and governmental policies are more encouraging toward e-cars than in any other country,'' said VW CEO Herbert Diess. Electric vehicles play a key role in the ruling Communist Party's plans for government-led development of Chinese global competitors in technologies from robotics to biotech. Those ambitions set off Beijing's tariff war with President Donald Trump. Washington, Europe and other trading partners complain Chinese subsidies to technology developers and pressure on foreign companies to share know-how violate its market-opening commitments. Electric car subsidies end next year, replaced by sales quotas. Automakers that fall short can buy credits from competitors that exceed their targets or face possible fines. "Most of the traditional car makers are under huge pressure to launch NEVs,'' said industry analyst John Zeng of LMC Automotive. Last year's Chinese sales of pure-electric and hybrid sedans and SUVs soared 60% over 2017 to 1.3 million, or half the global total. At the same time, industry revenue was squeezed by a 4.1% fall in total Chinese auto sales to 23.7 million vehicles. That skid that worsened this year. First-quarter sales fell 13.7% from a year ago. Still, China is a top market for global automakers, giving them an incentive to go along with Beijing's electric ambitions. Total annual sales are expected eventually to reach 30 million, nearly double last year's U.S. level of 17 million. Under Beijing's new rules, automakers must earn credits for sales of electrics equal to at least 10% of purchases this year and 12% in 2020. Longer-range vehicles can earn double credits. That means some brands can fill their quota if electrics make up as little as 5% of sales. Also Tuesday, Nissan Motor Co. and its Chinese partner displayed the Sylphy Zero Emission, an all-electric model designed for China. Based on Nissan's Leaf, the lower-priced Sylphy went on sale in August. Mercedes Benz displayed its first all-electric model in China, the EQC 400 SUV. The Germany automaker says it can travel 400 kilometers (280 miles) on one charge and can go from zero to 100 kph (62 mph) in 5.2 seconds. Mercedes plans to release 10 electrified models worldwide, with most built in China, according to Hubertus Troska, its board member for China. Some Chinese rivals have been selling low-priced electrics for a decade or more. China's BYD Auto, the biggest global electric brand by sales volume, unveiled three new pure-electric models last month. All promise ranges of more than 400 kilometers (280 miles) on one charge. Last week, Geely Auto unveiled a sedan under its new electric brand, Geometry, with an advertised range of up to 500 kilometers (320 miles) on one charge. Geely's parent, Geely Holding, launched a joint venture with Mercedes parent Daimler AG in March to develop electrics under the smart brand. Geely Holding is Daimler's biggest shareholder and also owns Sweden's Volvo Cars. Beijing wants to force automakers to speed up innovation and squeeze out producers that rely too heavily on subsidies. But the technology minister acknowledged in January that China faces a difficult transition as that spending is ending. Keeping development on track "will be a challenge,'' said Miao Wei, according to a transcript on his ministry's website. The shift creates an opportunity for fledgling Chinese automakers that lag global rivals in gasoline technology. They have just 10% of the global market for gasoline-powered vehicles but account for 50% of electric sales. The end of subsidies should lead to dramatic changes, said Zeng of LMC Automotive. He said longer-range, feature-rich models from global majors will replace small producers that cannot survive without subsidies. Electric vehicles "will be much more competitive,'' said Zeng. As the cost of batteries and other components falls, industry analysts say electrics in China could match gasoline vehicles in price and become profitable for manufacturers in less than five years. EVs carry a higher sticker price in China than gasoline models. But industry analysts say owners who drive at least 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) a year save money in the long run, because maintenance and charging cost less.
Most wireless communications use RF or radio frequency communications to send data back and forth. But all that information can slow things down. One National Science Foundation supported researcher is using light to send information, and, as we hear from VOA's Kevin Enochs, it’s quicker and more secure than RF.
The vibrant colors and hues that make up Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings soon will be on full display for color blind visitors The vibrant colors and hues in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings soon will be on full display for color blind visitors. The Santa Fe museum announced Monday it's teaming up with California-based EnChroma to expand the gallery experience through special glasses. Starting May 3, visitors with red-green color blindness can borrow glasses to see O'Keeffe's work in the way that she intended. One of the museum's curators, Katrina Stacy, says O'Keeffe in her later years developed visual impairment from macular degeneration and turned her attention to sculpture. Stacy says the project with EnChroma has ties to that part of the artist's story. EnChroma co-founder Andrew Schmeder says O'Keeffe juxtaposed colors from nature in ways that evoked emotion and seeing that relationship between colors has been challenging for people with color blindness.
The Israeli start-up behind last week's failed lunar landing has vowed to create a second mission to steer a privately funded spacecraft onto the moon. Morris Kahn, Israeli billionaire and chairman of SpaceIL, the nonprofit that undertook the botched lunar mission, says he's already formed a task force of engineers and donors that will build another spacecraft. He called the new mission a lesson in persistence for "the younger generation." SpaceIL confirmed Monday that the crew will convene in the coming weeks to figure out how to fix the technical glitches that caused the first mission to crash, while still keeping the venture relatively fast and cheap. The crash ended an ambitious eight-year effort to make Israel the fourth nation to land on the moon.
Women are woefully underrepresented in technology, science, engineering and mathematics jobs in South Africa. But for the last decade, a homegrown, UNICEF-supported program has worked to bring 11,000 lower-income high school girls into these industries. Among those students was Raquel Sorota. Sorota has come a long way from her humble upbringing in Johannesburg’s Tembisa township. She now works as a risk engineer at a top South African insurance company. She was those one of those South African high school girls who went through the UNICEF-supported TechnoGirls program, which started in 2005. She was selected for the program in 2009. Now 24, she says it changed her life. “My life has literally never been the same again,” she said. “So, before the program, I wanted to be a doctor and today I’m an engineer, through that program. So I think a lot of what I think I took from that program was how it exposed me to the world of engineering. I think for the longest time I never knew how broad that world was and that I could have a place in that world, most importantly.” Bright, disadvantaged girls The program selects bright high school girls from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, gives them exposure to professions in science, technology, engineering and math, pairs them with mentors, and follows them through their university studies. The program’s founder, Staff Sithole, says this is about much more than creating a new crop of workers. This, she says, is about changing the world — and who runs it. “It is more an instrument, or a program, which is contributing towards gender equality. So rather than just running advocacy programs, let’s come with something that can change the circumstances, can be a purposeful targeted intervention of contributing towards gender equality,” she said. Challenging obstacles For high school students Gugulethu Zungu and Queen Makaile, the obstacles are more than just lack of opportunity. Both are physically challenged; they were both born with different, rare genetic defects that have affected their appearance and their health. Both were chosen to participate in the program this year for their high grades in math and science. Zungu says the program led her to identify her dream career — forensics — but also to expand her horizons. “I like investigating and solving mysteries. And it actually makes me believe that, indeed, nothing is impossible. You just have to think out of the box,” she said. Makaile, who has struggled with hearing and vision problems as a result of her rare defect that has also given her asymmetrical facial features, says she now wants to be come a journalist, to show the world that her thoughts matter more than her looks. For these girls, nothing, they say, will stand in their way.
Women are woefully underrepresented in technology, science, engineering and mathematics jobs in South Africa. But for the last decade, a homegrown, UNICEF-supported program has worked to bring 11,000 lower-income high school girls into these industries. VOA's Anita Powell catches up with a few such "TechnoGirls" in Johannesburg and brings us their stories.
The world’s largest aircraft took off over the Mojave Desert in California Saturday, the first flight for the carbon-composite plane built by Stratolaunch Systems Corp., started by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, as the company enters the lucrative private space market. The white airplane called Roc, which has a wingspan the length of an American football field and is powered by six engines on a twin fuselage, took to the air shortly before 7 a.m. Pacific time (1400 GMT) and stayed aloft for more than two hours before landing safely back at the Mojave Air and Space Port as a crowd of hundreds of people cheered. First flight 'fantastic' “What a fantastic first flight,” Stratolaunch Chief Executive Officer Jean Floyd said in a statement posted to the company’s website. “Today’s flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground launched systems,” Floyd said. “We are incredibly proud of the Stratolaunch team, today’s flight crew, our partners at Northrup Grumman’s Scaled Composites and the Mojave Air and Space Port.” The plane is designed to drop rockets and other space vehicles weighing up to 500,000 pounds at an altitude of 35,000 feet and has been billed by the company as making satellite deployment as “easy as booking an airline flight.” Saturday’s flight, which saw the plane reach a maximum speed of 189 mph and altitudes of 17,000 feet, was meant to test its performance and handling qualities, according to Stratolaunch. Demand for satellite deployment Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975, announced in 2011 that he had formed the privately funded Stratolaunch. The company seeks to cash in on higher demand in coming years for vessels that can put satellites in orbit, competing in the United States with other space entrepreneurs and industry stalwarts such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Stratolaunch has said that it intends to launch its first rockets from the Roc in 2020 at the earliest. Allen died in October 2018 while suffering from non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma, just months after the plane’s development was unveiled. “We all know Paul would have been proud to witness today’s historic achievement,” said Jody Allen, Chair of Vulcan Inc and Trustee of the Paul G. Allen Trust. “The aircraft is a remarkable engineering achievement and we congratulate everyone involved.”