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Tech to Soon Offer Way for People to Interact Across Generations

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 01:20
Google, Amazon and Apple have capitalized on technology that makes virtual personal assistants possible.  Now a new application allows the user to have a virtual conversation with a video recording of a real person.  How does that work and why is it needed?  VOA’s Elizabeth Lee explains.

Tech To Soon Offer Way for People to Interact Across Generations

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 08:30
Google, Amazon and Apple have capitalized on technology that makes virtual personal assistants possible.  Now a new application allows the user to have a virtual conversation with a video recording of a real person.  How does that work and why is it needed?  VOA’s Elizabeth Lee explains.

Self-driving Test Vehicle Added to Auto History Museum

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 02:16
One of General Motors' first self-driving test vehicles is going on display at an automotive history museum in suburban Detroit. The Henry Ford history attraction announced Tuesday that it has acquired a modified pre-production Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle. The GM-donated vehicle originally made its debut testing on the streets of San Francisco in 2016. Now it will be displayed at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn.   The camera- and sensor-equipped vehicle is the first autonomous car to be added to The Henry Ford collection. It'll be next to a 1959 Cadillac El Dorado at the "Driving America" exhibit, which chronicles the history of the automobile.   The Henry Ford President and CEO Patricia Mooradian says self-driving capabilities "will fundamentally change our relationship with the automobile." She says the acquisition ``is paramount in how we tell that story.''

At Age 30, World Wide Web Is ‘Not the Web We Wanted’

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 00:16
At the ripe old age of 30 and with half the globe using it, the World Wide Web is facing growing pains with issues like hate speech, privacy concerns and state-sponsored hacking, its creator says, trumpeting a call to make it better for humanity. Tim Berners-Lee on Tuesday joined a celebration of the Web and reminisced about his invention at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, starting with a proposal published on March 12, 1989. It opened the way to a technological revolution that has transformed the way people buy goods, share ideas, get information and much more. It’s also become a place where tech titans scoop up personal data, rival governments spy and seek to scuttle elections, and hate speech and vitriol have thrived — taking the Web far from its roots as a space for progress-oriented minds to collaborate. As of late 2018, half of the world was online, with the other half often struggling to secure access. Speaking at a “Web@30” conference at CERN, Berners-Lee acknowledged that a sense among many who are already on the Web has become: “Whoops! The web is not the web we wanted in every respect.” His World Wide Web Foundation wants to enlist governments, companies, and citizens to take a greater role in shaping the web for good under principles laid out in its “Contract for the Web.” Under the contract, governments are called upon to make sure everyone can connect to the internet, to keep it available and to respect privacy. Companies are to make the internet affordable, respect privacy and develop technology that will put people — and the “public good” — first. Citizens are to create and to cooperate and respect “civil discourse,” among other things. “The Contract for the Web is about sitting down in working groups with other people who signed up, and to say, ‘Ok, let’s work out what this really means,’” Berners-Lee said. It was unclear, however, how such rules would be enforced. Berners-Lee cautioned it was important to strike a balance between oversight and freedom but difficult to agree what it should be. “Where is the balance between leaving the tech companies to do the right thing and regulating them? Where is the balance between freedom of speech and hate speech?” he said. The conference, which brought together Internet and tech experts, also gave CERN the chance to showcase its reputation as an open-source incubator of ideas. Berners-Lee worked there in the late 1980s, and had been determined to help bridge a communications and documentation gap among different computer platforms. As a young English software engineer at CERN, Berners-Lee, who is now 63, came up with the idea for hypertext transfer protocol — the “http” that adorns web addresses — and other building blocks for the web. The “http” system allowed text and small images to be retrieved through a piece of software — the first browser — which Berners-Lee released in 1990 and is considered the start of the web. In practice, the access to a browser on a home computer made the internet easily accessible to consumers for the first time. Speaking to reporters on Monday, Berners-Lee recalled how his research was helped his former boss at CERN, Mike Sendall, who wanted a pretext to buy a then-new Next computer by Steve Jobs’ Apple needed for his research. Berners-Lee said Sendall told him to ”‘pick a random program to develop on it ... Why don’t you do that hypertext thing?’” Berners-Lee has since become a sort of father figure for the internet community, been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and named as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century by Time magazine. While he now wants to get the debate going, other panelists expressed concerns like the increasing concentration of control of the internet by big corporate players, and fretted about a possible splintering of cyberspace among rival countries. “The challenges come from the same things that make it (the Web) wonderful, and that’s the difficulty,” said conference panelist Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science. “The openness is wonderful, the connectivity is wonderful, the fact that it was created as a network for academics who are kind of into trusting each other...” she said. Now with the Web, “there’s an enormous amount of centralization going on, with a few big players becoming gatekeepers. Those few big players have built, basically, surveillance machines,” she said. “It’s based on surveillance profiling us and then targeting us for ads — which wasn’t the original idea at all.”

US Warns of WTO Action Over 'Discriminatory' New Digital Taxes

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 21:34
The U.S. is weighing a complaint at the World Trade Organization against "discriminatory" new taxes on digital giants such as a Facebook and Google which are being planned by France and other EU nations, a top US trade official said Tuesday. "We think the whole theoretical basis of digital service taxes is ill-conceived and the effect is highly discriminatory against US-based multinationals," Chip Harter, a Treasury official and US delegate for global tax talks, said in Paris. Speaking ahead of two days of talks at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Harter added that "various parts of our government are studying whether that discriminatory impact would give us rights under trade agreements and WTO treaties." The OECD is spearheading talks aimed at forging a new global agreement on taxing technology and digital giants who often declare their income in low-tax nations, depriving other countries of billions in revenue. But that overhaul is expected until next year at the earliest, prompting France, Britain, Spain, Austria and Italy to move ahead with their own versions of a so-called "digital services tax" as soon as this year. Last week France unveiled draft legislation that would set a 3.0-percent levy on digital advertising, the sale of personal data and other revenue for tech groups with more than 750 million euros ($844 million) in worldwide revenue. It would be applied retroactively from January 1, 2019, while the measures in the UK and other European countries might not come into effect until next year. "We do understand there's political pressure around the world to tax various international businesses more heavily, and we actually agreed that that is appropriate," Harter told journalists. "But we think it should be done on a broader basis than just selecting a particular industry," he said.    

China Tweaks Tech Supremacy Plan

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 18:57
For the first time in recent years, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s annual Government Work Report did not mention Made in China 2025, the country’s ambitious plan to achieve high-tech dominance, and that has analysts asking whether Beijing is going to completely overhaul the plan or keep it going quietly behind the scenes. Made in China 2025 relies heavily on government subsidies to Chinese companies and their ability to acquire new technologies covering 10 different sectors such as electric cars, emerging bio-medicine, next-generation information technology, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence. The plan is part of China’s broader industrial policy outlined in the 13th Five-Year plan, which lays out government goals from 2016-2020. It raised concerns, however, because of China’s use of forced technology transfers and specific targets to capture market share by 2025. The plan has been a focus of discussion between U.S. and Chinese negotiators, with Washington demanding an end to subsidies given to local companies under the plan. The United States also wanted China to do away with unfair trade practices that include the forcible transfer of technology from foreign companies. A significant portion of technologies used in China in the 10 listed sectors come from foreign sources. But the government is now amending laws that will leave Chinese companies in a somewhat difficult situation. It is also expected to cut subsidies it gives to local companies in order to overcome objections raised by the United States during the trade war. New laws and policy changes that the government is bringing on during the ongoing sessions of China’s legislature, or National People’s Congress (NPC), would seriously affect its ability to acquire foreign technology. “China will suffer in the short run but in the medium run they seem to be fine,” said Lourdes Casanova, director at Cornell’s Emerging Markets Institute. To a great extent, Chinese companies have used three means to acquire technology: the use of borrowed or stolen ideas, the forcible transfer of know-how from foreign partners and the purchase of foreign companies. Acquisitions by Chinese companies have now become problematic because of growing cautiousness and recent legislation in the United States and European Union. Some analysts believe there were design defects in the 2025 plan itself, and the government has been rethinking it for some time now. “The original 2025 plan was too nationalistic and too top down. It was wasteful,” Mats Harborn, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, told VOA. “They [government leaders] thought technology should be owned by Chinese companies. There was a ‘we can do this on our own’ attitude,” “There is a shift or maturity in understanding. There is an understanding that China cannot do all things on its own. It has to use international value chains and integrate as much as possible,” Harborn said. New information emerging now suggests there has been a struggle within the government about the suitability of this grandiose plan. “It [the strategy] should not have been done that way anyway. I was against it from the start, I did not agree very much with it,” Lou Jiwei, China’s finance minister between 2013 and 2016, said on the sidelines of the legislative meeting in Beijing. Other legislators told VOA the government is making adjustments in accordance with public opinion. Putting less emphasis on Made in China 2025 “reflects a more rational approach by the government, to reduce unnecessary obstacles, noises and reaction, to keep moving forward in a positive direction,” said Tang Nong, a NPC delegate from Guangxi. “The government is moving forward with the 13th Five-Year plan. What is Made in China 2025, is it a plan or a broad outline?” asked Sun Xianzhong, an NPC delegate and professor of international law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Analysts believe the government may revamp and repackage the plan, but it is unlikely to soften its efforts. “The government remains committed to moving China's economy up the value chain and will continue to use a variety of active industrial policies to achieve this goal,” said Duncan Innes-Ker, regional director for Asia at The Economist Intelligence Unit. Harborn believes the government will shift from the idea of acquiring new technologies to absorbing them in the industrial value chain. “This is a wakeup call. The new focus will be on integrating the best technologies at the best price and creating the best final product or service,” he said. State owned companies in China may be better able to readjust themselves if the 2025 plan is revamped because their focus is more on revenues than on profit. “For a state-owned company, profits going down in favor of revenues or jobs, so what’s the problem? They are fine,” said Casanova adding, “Profits are less or not of primary consideration.”      

US Warns Germany a Huawei Deal Could Hurt Intelligence Sharing

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 18:50
The United States on Monday warned Germany about future "information sharing" if it uses "untrusted vendors" in its 5G telecom infrastructure amid debate over whether Chinese IT giant Huawei is an espionage risk. The Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell sent a letter to German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier on Friday warning that in such a case the US could scale down intelligence and other information exchanges. A U.S. Embassy spokesperson told AFP on Monday it would not comment on diplomatic communications, but added that its position on 5G network security was well known. "To the extent there are untrusted vendors in the networks of an ally, that could raise future questions about the integrity and confidentiality of sensitive communications within that country, as well as between that country and its allies," the spokesperson said. "This could in the future jeopardize nimble cooperation and some sharing of information. We are engaging intensively with our allies on how to secure our telecommunications networks to ensure continued interoperability." German minister Altmaier confirmed he had received the letter, but told AFP he could not comment on its contents, adding: "We will respond quickly". Germany, like other EU countries, has relied heavily on US intelligence on terror and other threats provided by the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and other spy services. The US and several other Western nations, fearful of the security risks posed by the company closely tied to the Chinese government, have shut Huawei out of tenders for the development of the newest 5G infrastructure. The Chinese telecoms behemoth has strenuously denied the espionage allegations. Germany, anxious to not get sucked into the maelstrom of an ongoing U.S.-China spat over a multitude of issues including trade, has taken a cautious stance on the issue. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said it was necessary to talk to Beijing "to make sure that the company does not simply give up all data that is used to the Chinese state, but that there are safeguards". Some measures in the works include adding a non-spying clause, a requirement to publish code sources used in the infrastructures as well as allowing independent laboratories to carry out tests on the components used. Huawei has quietly become a leading supplier of the backbone equipment for mobile networks, particularly in developing markets thanks to cheaper prices. Germany, although it is Europe's leading economy, has seen its mobile infrastructure lag behind, with most Germans having access only to 3G. The 5G network is meant to be 100 times more rapid than 4G, and is viewed as the next major step in the digital revolution that makes data transfers almost instantaneous.      

Apple: 'It's Show Time' March 25, TV Service Announcement Expected

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 10:55
Apple on Monday invited media to a March 25 event at the Steve Jobs Theater on its campus in Cupertino, California, where it is expected to launch a television and video service. Sources previously told Reuters that the company is targeting April for the launch of a streaming television service that will likely include subscription TV service. Apple often launches products and services in the weeks following an event. In its invitation, Apple did not specify the focus of the event and gave a single-line description: "It's show time." Apple has long hinted at a planned video service, spending $2 billion in Hollywood to produce its own content and signing major stars such as Oprah Winfrey. Sources familiar with the matter earlier told Reuters that the service may resell subscriptions from CBS, Viacom and Lions Gate Entertainment's Starz among others, as well as Apple's own original content. The TV service is expected to launch globally, an ambitious move to rival services from Netflix Inc and Amazon.com's Prime Video. Apple's App Store, where the service is likely to be distributed, is currently available in more than 100 countries. The potential sales from a television service have become a focus of investors after Apple in January reported the first-ever dip in iPhone sales during the key holiday shopping period and said it would lower iPhone prices in some markets to account for foreign exchange rates. Apple is also in discussions with HBO, part of AT&T-owned WarnerMedia, to become part of the service and it could yet make it in time for the launch, according to a person familiar with the matter. While there is a chance Apple will update its iPads or Apple TV devices later this month, the event is likely to be Apple's first major media event in which hardware is not the primary focus, said Ben Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies. That is a big shift for Apple, which earlier this year moved to make its Apple Music services work on smart speakers from rivals such as Amazon and partnered with Samsung Electronics to let Samsung television owners watch video purchased from Apple on Samsung sets. "I don't look at that as saying Apple has given up on the (Apple smart speaker) HomePod or the Apple TV - those will be the products where Apple Music or an Apple movie experience work the best," Bajarin said. "But Apple is smart to not limit the places people can consume their services."

Governments Seek UN Scrutiny of Technologies to Cool the Climate

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 10:15
As climate change accelerates, the United Nations Environment Assembly will this week consider whether to start assessing, and setting rules on, technologies that could pull carbon out of the atmosphere or block some of the sun's warmth to cool the Earth. Delegates at the week-long meeting in Nairobi will debate a proposal from Switzerland, backed by 10 other countries, to begin examining geoengineering technologies, which backers say could help fend off the worst impacts of runaway climate change. If adopted, the proposal could lead to the highest-level examination yet of the controversial technologies, which have gained prominence as efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions fall short. "We need to have an understanding on the implications of using such technologies, and how they would be governed in the future," Siim Kiisler, Estonia's environment minister and president of the Nairobi meeting, told journalists on Monday. "Just ignoring the issue does not help. We have to talk about it," he said. Franz Xaver Perrez, Switzerland's environmental ambassador and head of its delegation in Nairobi, said his nation had concerns that sun-dimming technology, in particular, could have "a tremendous negative impact." Nonetheless, "we should not be guided by concerns, but have a better understanding of the situation first", he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, noting that "we might need multilateral control of these technologies." Opponents say the technologies present huge potential risks to people and nature, and could undermine efforts to cut emissions, not least because many are backed by fossil-fuel interests. "These technologies provide a perfect excuse for delaying action or weakening our current emissions reduction targets," warned Carroll Muffett, president of the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law, in a telephone interview. Rapidly slashing emissions - by switching to greener power, preserving forests and similar measures - remains the cheapest and safest way to fend off worsening droughts, floods, storms and other impacts of global warming, he said. But research is moving ahead fast on two groups of alternative technologies to curb climate change, as emissions continue to rise. One set aims to suck heat-trapping carbon out of the atmosphere and store it underground, or use it in other ways. The other focuses on cooling the planet by blocking some of the sun's energy, through measures such as high-altitude planes that spray reflective sulphur particles into the stratosphere. 'Light' use In a paper published on Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, scientists modeling the use of solar geoengineering technology said limited deployment - to halve expected warming over the next century, rather than stop it entirely - could dramatically lessen risks from stronger tropical cyclones, for instance. Earlier modeling of solar geoengineering to avert all projected warming flagged the possibility of changes in water availability, sparking fears the technology could shift monsoons, and create "winners" and "losers." Opponents of the technology have suggested it could even be "weaponized," with a water-short country deploying the technology to improve its rainfall at the expense of neighbors. But the new modeling suggests no region would see dramatic shifts with lighter use of the technology, although the scientists noted the results were based on an "idealized" study. Lead author Peter Irvine, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University, said solar management would need to work hand-in-hand with reducing emissions, and could not "replace mitigation." David Keith, the leader of a team focused on solar geoengineering research at Harvard and a co-author of the study, said the modeling suggested "geoengineering could enable surprisingly uniform benefits" if used with mitigation efforts. Option to ban A high-profile report released by climate scientists last October, exploring how to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, the most ambitious goal set by governments in the 2015 Paris Agreement, specifically did not consider the use of solar geoengineering. It said the technology was untested, had "substantial" risks, and would not address the problem of oceans becoming more acidic as they absorb growing amounts of carbon dioxide. Muffett said bodies such as the U.N. Environment Assembly, if they did begin exploring geoengineering technologies, should leave open the possibility of banning them entirely, as progress on their development could boost pressure to deploy them. The assembly also should make sure any panel assessing the technologies included representatives of poorer countries and indigenous groups, while excluding those who held patents on the technologies or stood to profit from them, he said. This week's meeting is not the first effort to explore and potentially regulate the emerging technologies. Member nations of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010 set a non-binding moratorium on the use of geoengineering technologies, though agreed to permit research on them. And an ocean pollution convention has banned the dumping of iron into the sea to boost uptake of carbon dioxide by algae, while also allowing research on the topic. Janos Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative, which hopes to spur effective governance of the emerging technologies, described the U.N. Environment Assembly's focus on them as a positive step. "What is needed is governments to engage and start a serious conversation about these issues," he said. If approved, the Swiss-backed proposal being presented in Nairobi this week would require U.N. Environment to analyze the technologies and report by August 2020 on how they could be governed and used at scale, among other things.

Brazil to Sign Accord with US on Space Technology Next Week

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 10:05
The United States and Brazil have negotiated an accord to safeguard U.S. space technology the South American nation hopes will be used in commercial rockets lifting off from its launch site near the equator, the Brazilian government said on Monday. The agreement is being wrapped up in time to be signed next week during a visit to Washington by President Jair Bolsonaro. "Negotiations are being concluded with a view to signing an agreement during the presidential visit to Washington," a foreign ministry official said. Brazil hopes to get a piece of the $300 billion-a-year space launch business by drawing U.S. companies interested in launching small satellites at a lower cost from the Alcantara base run by the Brazilian Air Force on the South American country's north coast. Because of its location close to the equator, launches burn 30 percent less fuel and rockets can carry larger payloads, though Brazil is aiming for the cost micro-satellite niche market that is growing fast, Air Force officers said. Space cooperation between the United States and Brazil took a big step forward when they signed a Space Situational Awareness (SSA) agreement last year during a visit to Brasilia by former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis. The accord on sharing real-time tracking data on objects and debris in space is needed to develop a satellite launching business without the risk of collision. In December 2017, Boeing and Lockheed Martin visited the Alcantara space center, which is especially attractive to smaller firms, such as Tucson, Arizona-based rocket-maker Vector Launch Inc because of its location. But without the technology safeguard agreement (TSA) that protects sensitive American space launch and satellite technology, no U.S. rocket could blast off from Brazil. A previous attempt at a U.S.-Brazilian space partnership was scuttled in 2003 when the TSA ran into resistance from the leftist government of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and was thwarted by Brazilian lawmakers. It floundered because U.S. unverified access to the Alcantara base was not acceptable to Brazilian politicians on sovereignty grounds. The TSA is seen by Washington as opening opportunities for greater cooperation in aerospace and defense between the two countries.

Berners-Lee: World Wide Web, at 30, Must Emerge from 'Adolescence'

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 08:45
The fraying World Wide Web needs to rediscover its strengths and grow into maturity, its designer Tim Berners-Lee said on Monday, marking the 30th anniversary of the collaborative software project his supervisor initially dubbed "vague but exciting." Speaking to reporters at CERN, the physics research center outside Geneva where he invented the web, Berners-Lee said users of the web had found it "not so pretty" recently. "They are all stepping back, suddenly horrified after the Trump and Brexit elections, realising that this web thing that they thought was that cool is actually not necessarily serving humanity very well," he said. "It seems we don't finish reeling from one privacy disaster before moving onto the next one," he added, citing concerns about whether social networks were supporting democracy. People who had grown up taking the internet's neutrality for granted now found that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump had "rolled that back." There was also a threat of fragmentation of the Internet into regulatory blocs - in the United States, the European Union, China and elsewhere - which would be "massively damaging." In an open letter to mark the anniversary, Berners-Lee said many people now felt unsure about whether the web was a force for good, but it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that it could not change for the better in the next 30 years. "If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web," he wrote. "It's our journey from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future." But he was optimistic because of a strong resolve among governments to avoid balkanization of the Internet, and a strong resolve among people in social networks who had - surprisingly - been shocked at people trying to hack elections. He said the editorial power of Facebook's algorithm was "scary", but Facebook was clearly thinking about such questions a great deal, and that it and other social media firms backed the principle of letting users extract and move their data. Amid the concern, Berners-Lee said the anniversary was something to celebrate, and warmly recalled how his boss ordered a computer model that CERN did not possess, a deliberate "plot" to enable his project under the guise of testing the interoperability of different computers. The boss, Mike Sendell, had penciled in an assessment of his idea as "vague but exciting." "Thank goodness it wasn't 'Exciting but vague,'" Berners-Lee said.

Amazon Domain Battle Rages as Internet Overseer Postpones Decision

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 07:05
Brazil on Monday thanked the global body that oversees internet addresses for extending until April a deadline for Amazon basin nations to reach a deal with Amazon.com in their seven-year battle over the .amazon domain name. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) meeting this week in Kobe, Japan, decided to put off a decision that was expected to favor use of the domain by the world's largest online retailer. Amazon basin countries Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname have fought the domain request since it was made in 2012, arguing that the name refers to their geographic region and thus belongs to them. ICANN has agreed to put off a decision until after April 21, Brazil's foreign ministry said in a statement that insisted that Amazon nations remain "firmly opposed" to allowing the company to have exclusive use of the domain name. "In our view, due to its inseparable semantic link to Amazonia, this domain should by no means become the monopoly of one company," the ministry said. The statement said Brazil and its seven Amazon partners will continue to negotiate in good faith with Amazon.com to try to reach a "mutually acceptable solution" to the domain dispute. Amazon.com declined to comment. ICANN placed Amazon.com's request on a "Will not proceed" footing in 2013, but an independent review process sought by the company faulted that decision and ICANN then told the Amazon basin nations they had to reach an agreement with the company. In October, with little progress toward any agreement, ICANN said it would take a decision at this week's meeting in Japan, which was widely expected to favor Amazon.com. The Amazon nations have so far not agreed to the company's offers, which have reportedly included millions of dollars in free Kindles and hosting by Amazon web services. Amazon nations should be able to share in the management and use of the domain, to defend the region's cultural heritage, foster economic growth and the digital inclusion of the people who live in the region, Brazil's statement said. Brazil hopes Amazon.com will "show a high sense of public responsibility and political and cultural sensibility," it said.

Alexa, Are You Male or Female? 'Sexist' Virtual Assistants Go Gender-Neutral

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 03:12
Barking orders at a digital device that responds in a woman's voice can reinforce sexist stereotypes, according to academics and creatives who launched the first gender-neutral artificial intelligence voice Monday. Responding to such concerns, a Denmark-based team has created a voice nicknamed Q that was presented at the South by Southwest (SXSW) creative festival in Texas and is designed to be perceived as neither male or female. "There is no reason that a voice has to be gendered," said Julie Carpenter, a research fellow in the ethics and emerging sciences group at California State Polytechnic University, who advised the project Q team. "Emerging technology is being designed to rely on these ancient stereotypes." Leading digital assistants such as Apple's Siri, the Amazon Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana are generally presented as female, Carpenter told Reuters. All three have feminine names and mostly offer a woman's voice as the default setting, although Siri is set up to sound male in some languages. "People seem to have a preference for female voices when the role of the AI is more supportive and to assist or help someone, while they associate male voices with an authoritative tone or an area of expertise," Carpenter said. Apple and Amazon were not available for comment. A spokeswoman for Microsoft said they had researched voice options for Cortana and found "a female voice best supports our goal of creating a digital assistant." She said the company had explored adding a male voice option to Cortana. Create debate A team at Vice Media's Virtue creative agency came up with the concept for the Q voice to highlight concerns over gendered technology and offer an alternative, in a project for Copenhagen Pride. "It isn't easy to create a genderless voice," said Nis Norgaard, a sound designer at Thirty Sounds Good studio, who produced Q. He used research which found male voices are usually pitched between 85 to 180 hertz (Hz) and women's are typically between 140 to 255 Hz to identify a potential neutral range where the two overlapped. It was not just pitch that defined the perceived gender of a voice — men tend to have a "flatter" speech style that varies in pitch less and they also pronounce the letters "s" and "t" more abruptly, said Norgaard. The team working on Q recorded the voices of 22 transgender and non-binary people as a basis for the voice, both in an effort to represent a wider spectrum of gender and because it was thought they would sound less obviously male or female. One final recording was chosen as Q, which was then digitally manipulated to make it more gender-neutral. The finished voice was tested by more than 4,000 volunteers. About half said they could not tell the gender and the other half were roughly evenly divided between guessing it was male or female. Currently, users can only interact with Q via a website. However, Emil Asmussen, a director at the Virtue agency, said he hoped it would push major tech firms to consider widening their digital AI options to include genderless voices. "We really have high hopes this can create some debate around the world and start a dialogue going with some of the big tech companies," he said. "They have a giant opportunity because we are on the brink of an AI revolution."

In Rural Nepal, Solar Irrigation Helps Keep Families Together

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 02:45
Bhadri Sarki used to walk for more than an hour to fetch enough water to irrigate just one apple tree. But since a solar-powered water pump was installed in her village, about 350 km (217 miles) northwest of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, she can hydrate her whole orchard in a few hours. “We have a sufficient amount of water available in the field, and the only work left is to nurture the plants,” Sarki told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. A local official and farmers said improved access to water was helping apple growers in the mountainous region sell surplus produce to boost incomes, reducing pressure on men to migrate in search of work. With an intellectually disabled daughter at home, and her house-builder husband frequently in India, Sarki had found it difficult to find time for daily chores before the pump arrived. The mother-of-three suffered a uterine prolapse and heart-related problems due to her workload and had to visit hospital often, she said. But with water now available on their doorstep, the family’s land is producing more, and there is less financial pressure for Sarki’s husband to go and work across the border. For Sarki and other women in Jumla district in Karnali province - the poorest in Nepal, and with less than a quarter of its land irrigated — the new solar water pump is helping make a tough life easier. Installed about a year ago by development agency Practical Action, the pump was funded by the European Union and Jersey Overseas Aid, a state development agency, at an initial cost of 1.3 million rupees ($11,465). About 14 solar panels produce enough power to pump 20,000 liters of water per day up from the Tila River, which is collected in storage tanks and distributed to fields as needed. Menila Kharel, knowledge management coordinator at Practical Action, said the pump lifted water 90 meters (295 ft), and served 70 households in Dhaulapani village, which has no electric power connection. The UK-based charity has installed six solar pumps in different parts of Jumla — famous for its apples, walnuts and a rare local rice — as well as in neighboring Mugu district. Erratic snow The local government has decided to replicate the scheme on a larger scale in other parts of Jumla district after its success in Dhaulapani. Gangadevi Upadhyay, deputy head of Tatopani rural municipality, said the local authority had started putting in a solar pump in Dagivada village, with an estimated budget of 10 million rupees, which would benefit almost 300 households. “This technology is especially beneficial to women in Jumla where they carry out most of the work in the fields,” she added. Tika Ram Sharma, a senior officer for the Prime Minister’s Agriculture Modernization Project, a 10-year government effort, said Jumla had plenty of sunshine nearly all year round, while the Tila is a perennial river. Both renewable resources had gone untapped, but the solar-powered pump meant they were now being fully utilized, he added. “The pump has proved beneficial at times when traditional methods such as harvesting snow are becoming impractical due to its erratic pattern,” added Sharma. According to a new assessment by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu, future projections point to less snow cover and snow water across basins in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region as the climate warms. Jumla received sufficient snowfall this year for the first time in nearly a decade, local farmers said. Jumla was declared Nepal’s first organic district in 2007, but farmers were unable to make the most of its agricultural potential as they lacked a reliable source of irrigation. Apple bounty Now they have started seeing yields rise since the water pump made irrigation easier. “I used to harvest only what would be sufficient for our family consumption but after this scheme arrived, I have started making some money by selling apples and beans,” said Parwati Rawat, a farmer in Dhaulapani village. The apples used to go pale due to insufficient water, but their quality and color is now much better, she added. Rawat has started inter-cropping high-value vegetables in her apple orchard, instead of less thirsty crops like finger millet, which fetched lower prices. Since the pump was installed, men are finding they need to leave the village less often to make a living, because families are growing enough produce to sell some of their harvest. “My husband often used to go to India for work, but now he doesn’t need to go as frequently as before,” Rawat said. Her husband, Hasta Bahadur Rawat, said they earned a profit of up to 42,000 rupees in one season from selling apples. Tatopani official Upadhyay said many men from Jumla migrated during the winter, returning for the summer - but the rate of migration was slowly decreasing. Firstly, local people were collecting medicinal plants and trading them on a larger scale, she said. Secondly, many farmers in Jumla had started to embrace apple-growing as a business activity since they gained access to road transport in the past decade - and, more recently, electric power for irrigation. “Solar pumps can help in taking apple farming to commercial scale more easily,” Upadhyay added.

High-Tech Baton Lets Blind Musicians Follow Conductor's Lead by Feel

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 05:13
A company that designs and develops musical instruments for people with physical disabilities has created a conductor's baton which allows the visually-impaired to follow its movements. As Faith Lapidus reports, this opens up the potential for blind musicians to join more orchestras.

Boeing Likely to Face New Questions After Another 737 Crash

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 04:58
Investigators rushed to the scene of a devastating plane crash in Ethiopia on Sunday, an accident that could renew safety questions about the newest version of Boeing’s popular 737 airliner. The Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed shortly after taking off from the capital of Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board. The plane was new. The weather was clear. Yet something was wrong, and the pilots tried to return to the airport. They never made it. In those circumstances, the accident is eerily similar to an October crash in which a 737 Max 8 flown by Indonesia’s Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea minutes after takeoff, killing all 189 people on the plane. Safety experts took note of the similarities but cautioned against quickly drawing too many parallels between the two crashes. Alan Diehl, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said the similarities included both crews encountering a problem shortly after takeoff, and reports of large variations in vertical speed during ascent, “clearly suggesting a potential controllability problem” with the Ethiopian jetliner. But there are many possible explanations, Diehl said, including engine problems, pilot error, weight load, sabotage or bird strikes. He said Ethiopian has a good reputation, but investigators will look into the plane’s maintenance, especially since that may have been an issue in the Lion Air investigation. By contrast, the Ethiopian Airlines CEO “stated there were no defects prior to the flight, so it is hard to see any parallels with the Lion Air crash yet,” said Harro Ranter, founder of the Aviation Safety Network, which compiles information about accidents worldwide. “I do hope though that people will wait for the first results of the investigation instead of jumping to conclusions based on the very little facts that we know so far,” he said. Boeing representatives did not immediately respond for comment. The company tweeted that it was “deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew” on the Ethiopian Airlines Max airplane. The Chicago-based company said it would send a technical to the crash site to help Ethiopian and U.S. investigators. A spokesman for the NTSB said the U.S. agency was sending a team of four to assist Ethiopian authorities. Boeing and the U.S. investigative agency are also involved in the Lion Air probe. Indonesian investigators have not stated a cause for the Lion Air crash, but they are examining whether faulty readings from a sensor might have triggered an automatic nose-down command to the plane, which the Lion Air pilots fought unsuccessfully to overcome. The automated system kicks in if sensors indicate that a plane is about to lose lift, or go into an aerodynamic stall. Gaining speed by diving can prevent a stall. The Lion Air plane’s flight data recorder showed problems with an airspeed indicator on four flights, although the airline initially said the problem was fixed. Days after the Oct. 29 accident, Boeing sent a notice to airlines that faulty information from a sensor could cause the plane to automatically point the nose down. The notice reminded pilots of the procedure for handling such a situation, which is to disable the system causing the automatic nose-down movements. Pilots at some airlines, however, including American and Southwest, protested that they were not fully informed about a new system that could automatically point the plane’s nose down based on sensor readings. Boeing Chairman and CEO Dennis Muilenburg said in December that the Max is a safe plane, and that Boeing did not withhold operating details from airlines and pilots. Diehl, the former NTSB investigator, said the Ethiopian Airlines pilots should have been aware of that issue from press coverage of the Lion Air crash. The 737 is the best-selling airliner in history, and the Max is the newest version of it, with more fuel-efficient engines. The Max is a central part of Boeing’s strategy to compete with European rival Airbus. Boeing has delivered about 350 737 Max planes and has orders for more than 5,000. It is already in use by many airlines including American, United and Southwest. The Lion Air incident does not seem to have harmed Boeing’s ability to sell the Max. Boeing’s stock fell nearly 7 percent on the day of the Lion Air crash. Since then it has soared 26 percent higher, compared with a 4 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index.

AP Explains: What Facebook's 'Privacy Vision' Really Means

Sun, 03/10/2019 - 16:00
Mark Zuckerberg's abrupt Wednesday declaration of a new ``privacy vision" for social networking was for many people a sort of Rorschach test. Looked at one way, the manifesto read as an apology of sorts for Facebook's history of privacy transgressions, and it suggested that the social network would de-emphasize its huge public social network in favor of private messaging between individuals and among small groups. Looked at another way, it turned Facebook into a kind of privacy champion by embracing encrypted messaging that's shielded from prying eyes — including those of Facebook itself. Yet another reading suggested the whole thing was a public relations exercise designed to lull its users while Facebook entrenches its competitive position in messaging and uses it to develop new sources of user data to feed its voracious advertising machine. As with many things Facebook, the truth lies somewhere in between. Facebook so far isn't elaborating much on Zuckerberg's manifesto. Here's a guide to what we know at the moment about its plans. What's happening to Facebook? In one sense, nothing. Its existing social network, with its news feeds and pages and 2.3 billion global users and $22 billion in 2018 profit, won't change and will likely continue to grow. Although user growth has been stagnant in North America, Facebook's global user base expanded 9 percent in the last quarter of 2018. But Zuckerberg suggested that Facebook's future growth will depend more on private messaging such as what it offers with its WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram Direct services. The Facebook CEO said private messaging between individuals and small groups is "by far" the fastest growing part of online communications. Naturally, Facebook wants to be there in a big way. What's changing in messaging? Its first step will be to make its three messaging services communicate better with each other. That would let you message a friend on WhatsApp from Facebook Messenger, which isn't currently possible. It would also link your messaging accounts to your Facebook ID, so people can find you more easily. Zuckerberg also promised to greatly increase the security of these messages. It will implement so-called end-to-end encryption for messaging, which would scramble them so that no one but the sender and recipients could read them. That would bar access by governments and Facebook. WhatsApp is already encrypted this way, but Messenger and Instagram Direct are not. The first change users might notice is their address book, said Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia. While your Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp contacts might be quite different now, if the services combine to some degree, your contact lists will, too. "As these services merge, we might end up basically having these huge combined address books from three messaging services," he said. ​When will this happen? You're not likely to see any of these changes soon. In his blog post, Zuckerberg said the plan will be rolled out "over the next few years. ... A lot of this work is in the early stages." And it's subject to change. EMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson points out that previous Facebook visions of the future haven't quite panned out. A few years ago, for instance, Zuckerberg predicted that video and augmented and virtual reality would be a much bigger part of Facebook than what materialized. But it shows that Facebook is trying to adapt as people shift toward services like Instagram and WhatsApp over Facebook, which today has 15 million fewer U.S. users than in 2017, according to Edison Research. In his post, Zuckerberg said he expects Messenger and WhatsApp will eventually become the main ways people communicate on Facebook's network. "There's not a sense that things will fundamentally change overnight, or even probably this year," Williamson said, "But it signals Facebook is thinking more seriously about embracing the way people communicate today." What will it mean for privacy? Encrypted messaging is in many ways a big plus for privacy. But the way Facebook collects information about you on its main service site isn't changing, said Jen King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society "This is limited to a very specific part of the platform and it doesn't really address all the ways Facebook is still collecting data about you," she said. So users should still be alert about privacy settings and careful about what they choose to share on Facebook. Facebook is likely to collect data about your messaging — so-called metadata that, according to security experts, will let it know whom you communicate with, when and how often you text them, where you are when you do it and for how long. That can tell Facebook a lot about you even if it can't read the contents of your messages. ​What about vanishing posts? Though the timeline is hazy, Zuckerberg did outline other changes users will eventually see. He said the company is looking at ways to make messages less permanent, a la Snapchat or Instagram "Stories," which disappear after 24 hours. "Messages could be deleted after a month or a year by default,'' Zuckerberg wrote. "This would reduce the risk of your messages resurfacing and embarrassing you later.'' Zuckerberg said users will have the ability to change the time frame or turn off auto-deletion. "And we could also provide an option for you to set individual messages to expire after a few seconds or minutes if you wanted.'' What about payment procedures? Facebook will likely also expand the way users can use its platform to pay for things, said Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy and technology policy for Consumer Reports. Zuckerberg didn't mention any new payment plans specifically but did bring up payments four times in his post. Currently, Facebook lets its users pay friends or businesses digitally by linking a credit card or PayPal account, and that method is not likely to change soon. But as Facebook looks to emulate Chinese behemoth WeChat, it could let you reserve a table through Facebook instead of going through an outside app, or order an Uber. "Ideally, Facebook will try to get a cut of all transactions," Brookman said. A digital currency of Facebook's own is also rumored to be in the works. "Like many other companies, Facebook is exploring ways to leverage the power of blockchain technology," Facebook said in a statement. "This new small team is exploring many different applications. We don't have anything further to share."

Eavesdropping on Rare Birds

Sun, 03/10/2019 - 14:10
In a technology that's been heralded as a breakthrough in conservation, remote recording devices are 'eavesdropping' on one of the rarest birds in New Zealand to monitor how they are adjusting after being released into a protected reserve. Faith Lapidus reports.

Geneticists Help Investigators Solve Cold Cases

Sun, 03/10/2019 - 13:55
U.S. scientists say they are using a unique method of analyzing DNA and researching genealogy to help investigators solve decades-old murder cases. Maxim Moskalkov visited Parabon Nanolabs in Reston, Virginia to learn more.

Warren: Tech Giants Have `Too Much Power,' Need Breakup

Fri, 03/08/2019 - 22:39
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren says the technology industry is too heavily concentrated among the biggest companies and she has a plan to address that. The Massachusetts senator is proposing legislation targeting tech giants with annual revenue of $25 billion or more. It would limit their ability to expand and break up what she calls "anti-competitive mergers" — such as Facebook's purchase of Instagram and Amazon's acquisition of Whole Foods. Warren says the biggest tech companies have "too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy." She says they've "bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else." She's releasing the plan before a visit to New York City, where Amazon recently scrapped a plan to open a new headquarters.

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