VOA Science & Tech

Subscribe to VOA Science & Tech feed VOA Science & Tech
science-technology
Updated: 33 min 47 sec ago

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.

SpaceX Crew Capsule Leaves International Space Station

Fri, 03/08/2019 - 17:43
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule has undocked from the International Space Station. The Dragon pulled away from the station early Friday, and an Atlantic Ocean splashdown is expected Friday morning. The Dragon brought supplies and equipment to the space station where it stayed five days as astronauts conducted tests and inspected the Dragon’s cabin. The crew capsule did not have any humans aboard, just a test dummy named Ripley, a reference to the lead character in the “Alien” movies. Ripley was riddled with sensors to monitor how flight in the capsule would feel for humans. The Dragon is the first American commercially built-and-operated crew spacecraft in eight years, since the end of the space shuttle program. The U.S. relies on Russia to launch astronauts to the space station, at a cost of about $80 million per ticket. NASA has awarded millions of dollars to SpaceX and Boeing to design and operate a capsule to launch astronauts into orbit from American soil beginning some time this year. It is not immediately clear if that goal will be reached. SpaceX is entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company. Musk is also the CEO of electric carmaker Tesla.

Facebook's Vision of Future? Looks Like Chinese App WeChat

Fri, 03/08/2019 - 02:51
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is taking the social media company in a new direction by focusing on messaging. Chinese tech giant Tencent got there years ago with its app WeChat. Zuckerberg outlined his vision to give people ways to communicate privately, by stitching together Facebook's various services so users can contact each other across all of the apps. That sounds strikingly similar to WeChat, which has become essential for daily life in China. WeChat, or Weixin as it's known in Chinese, combines functions and services that in the West are done by a number of separate companies — think of Facebook and its Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram services combined with PayPal and Uber. WeChat, launched in 2011, has the usual chat features — instant messaging and voice and video calling, though it doesn't employ top-notch encryption like Facebook's Whatsapp. Here's a look at what else it does. Mobile money The WeChat Pay digital wallet is one big reason the app has become an indispensable part of life for people in China. By linking a credit card or bank account, users can pay for almost anything: movie tickets, food delivery orders, and subway and bus tickets. You can split restaurant bills with your friends, pay your electricity bill, store digital coupons, and donate to charities. There's a "quick pay" function that lets users scan a matrix barcode to pay instead of pulling out cash or a payment card. You can also hail a ride from Didi Chuxing, China's equivalent of Uber. And in a uniquely Chinese touch, WeChat users can send each other virtual "hong bao" or "red packets," money that is traditionally gifted in red envelopes during the Lunar New Year holiday. Social The app hosts group chats where users can discuss topics like sports, technology, social issues, investment ideas, celebrities, breaking news and beyond. WeChat Moments is a scrolling social media feed where users can write posts and share photos and videos. The app rolled out a new feature this year, Time Capsule, that removes user videos after 24 hours, in an apparent attempt to mimic Facebook's Stories feature. Users can also send friends digital stickers, get access to online games and find out who's nearby by shaking their phone. Companies and organizations both inside and outside China can use the app for marketing by setting up an official account. Travel booking platform AirBnb, luxury goods company Chanel and Chinese tech giant Huawei are among brands with a presence on WeChat. The Chinese model WeChat and Weixin had nearly 1.1 billion users as of September, up 2.3 percent from the previous quarter and 10 percent from the previous year, according to its most recent quarterly earnings report. It is wildly popular in mainland China and less so in other countries, which is unsurprising because the communist leaders in Beijing have blocked its citizens from accessing Facebook and other Silicon Valley services for years. But there's one thing that WeChat doesn't let users do: Speak freely. Politically sensitive posts are regularly scrubbed from the service, illustrating how the app has become a key part of China's censorship regime because of its huge user base and outsize social influence. Hong Kong University researchers found that about 11,000 articles were removed from WeChat last year, a number that doesn't include posts blocked before publication by automatic keyword filters. WeChat also lacks so-called end-to-end encryption, considered the gold standard for privacy and used by Facebook and other services like Signal and Apple's iMessages. Chinese dissidents and activists have long suspected that authorities are able to monitor what they've been saying on the app. The company, however, has denied it keeps a record of user chats.

Microsoft Says Iran-Linked Hackers Targeted Businesses

Fri, 03/08/2019 - 00:19
Microsoft has detected cyberattacks linked to Iranian hackers that targeted thousands of people at more than 200 companies over the past two years. That's according to a Wall Street Journal report Wednesday that the hacking campaign stole corporate secrets and wiped data from computers. Microsoft told the Journal the cyberattacks affected oil-and-gas companies and makers of heavy machinery in several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Germany, the United Kingdom, India and the U.S., and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Microsoft attributed the attacks to a group it calls Holmium, and which other security researchers call APT33. Microsoft says it detected Holmium targeting more than 2,200 people with phishing emails that can install malicious code. Iran is denying involvement. Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran's mission to the United Nations, says the allegations are coming from a private company and such reports “are essentially ads, not independent or academic studies, and should be taken at face value.”  

Facebook's Vision of Future Looks a Lot Like China's WeChat

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 23:22
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is taking the social media company in a new direction by focusing on messaging. Chinese tech giant Tencent got there years ago with its app WeChat. Zuckerberg outlined his vision to give people ways to communicate privately, by stitching together Facebook's various services so users can contact each other across all of the apps. That sounds strikingly similar to Tencent Holdings' WeChat, which has become essential for daily life in China. WeChat, or Weixin as it's known in Chinese, combines functions and services that in the West are done separately by a number of separate companies — think of Facebook and its Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram services combined with PayPal and Uber. WeChat, launched in 2011, has the usual chat features — instant messaging and voice and video calling. But there's a lot more. Here's a look at what else it does. Mobile money The WeChat Pay digital wallet is one big reason the app has become an indispensable part of life for people in China. By linking a credit card or bank account, users can pay for almost anything: movie tickets, food delivery orders and subway and bus tickets. You can split restaurant bills with your friends, pay your electricity bill, store digital coupons, and donate to charities. There's a "quick pay" function that lets users scan a matrix barcode to pay instead of pulling out cash or a payment card. You can also hail a ride from Didi Chuxing, China's equivalent of Uber. And in a uniquely Chinese touch, WeChat users can send each other virtual "hong bao" or "red packets," money that is traditionally gifted in red envelopes during the Lunar New Year holiday. Social The app hosts group chats where users can discuss topics like sports, technology, social issues, investment ideas, celebrities, breaking news and beyond. WeChat Moments is a scrolling social media feed where users can write posts and share photos and videos. The app rolled out a new feature this year, Time Capsule, that removes user videos after 24 hours, in an apparent attempt to mimic Facebook's Stories feature. Users can also send friends digital stickers, get access to online games and find out who's nearby by shaking their phone. Companies and organizations both inside and outside China can use the app for marketing by setting up an official account. Travel booking platform AirBnb, luxury goods company Chanel and Chinese tech giant Huawei are among brands with a presence on WeChat. The Chinese model WeChat and Weixin had nearly 1.1 billion users as of September, up 2.3 percent from the previous quarter and 10 percent from the previous year, according to its most recent quarterly earnings report . It is wildly popular in mainland China and less so in other countries, which is unsurprising because the communist leaders in Beijing have blocked its citizens from accessing Facebook and other Silicon Valley services for years. But there's one thing that WeChat doesn't let users do: speak freely. Politically sensitive posts are regularly scrubbed from the service, illustrating how the app has become a key part of China's censorship regime because of its huge user base and outsize social influence. Hong Kong University researchers found that about 11,000 articles were removed from WeChat last year, a number that doesn't include posts blocked before publication by automatic keyword filters. Chinese dissidents and activists have long suspected that authorities are able to monitor what they've been saying on the app. The company, however, has denied it keeps a record of user chats.

NASA Schedules Its First All-Female Spacewalk

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 09:45
The U.S. space agency NASA has confirmed that it has scheduled a spacewalk by two female astronauts for the first time. A NASA spokeswoman told CNN Wednesday, “As currently scheduled, the March 29 spacewalk will be the first with only women.” The spacewalk, staffed by astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch will be the second spacewalk of three during Expedition 59, which launches March 14. Koch is a member of Expedition 59, while McClain is currently part of the three-person crew of the International Space Station. In addition to the two women in space, another woman, Canadian Space Agency flight controller Kristen Facciol, is expected to be on the console at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, providing support on the seven-hour spacewalk. Male astronauts Nick Hague and David Saint-Jacques will participate in the first and third spacewalks. It is unclear yet what is to be accomplished on the spacewalk. NASA says spacewalks are conducted for repairs, testing equipment and conducting experiments.

Microsoft: Businesses Targeted by Iran-Linked Hackers

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 08:18
Microsoft has detected cyberattacks linked to Iranian hackers that targeted thousands of people at more than 200 companies over the past two years. That’s according to a Wall Street Journal report Wednesday that the hacking campaign stole corporate secrets and wiped data from computers. Microsoft told the Journal the cyberattacks affected oil-and-gas companies and makers of heavy machinery in several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Germany, the United Kingdom, India and the U.S., and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Microsoft attributed the attacks to a group it calls Holmium, and which other security researchers call APT33. Microsoft says it detected Holmium targeting more than 2,200 people with phishing emails that can install malicious code. A call seeking comment from Iran’s mission to the United Nations wasn’t immediately returned Wednesday.

Zuckerberg Promises Privacy-Friendly Facebook, Sort of

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 04:51
Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook will start to emphasize new privacy-shielding messaging services, a shift apparently intended to blunt both criticism of the company's data handling and potential antitrust action. In effect, the Facebook co-founder and CEO promised to transform a service known for devouring the personal information shared by its users. Going forward, he said, it will emphasize giving people more ways to communicate in truly private fashion, with their intimate thoughts and pictures shielded by encryption in ways that Facebook itself can't read. But Zuckerberg didn't suggest any changes to Facebook's core newsfeed-and-groups-based service, or to Instagram's social network, currently the fastest growing part of the company. Facebook pulls in gargantuan profits by selling ads targeted with the information it amasses on its users and others they know. "It's not that I think the more public tools will go away," Zuckerberg said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press. "All indications that Facebook and Instagram will continue growing and be increasingly important." Critics aren't convinced Zuckerberg is truly committed to meaningful change. "This does nothing to address the ad targeting and information collection about individuals," said Jen King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society. "It's great for your relationship with other people. It doesn't do anything for your relationship with Facebook itself." Zuckerberg laid out his vision in a Wednesday blog post , following a rocky two-year battering over revelations about its leaky privacy controls. That included the sharing of personal information from as many as 87 million users with a political data-mining firm that worked for the 2016 Trump campaign. Since the 2016 election, Facebook has also taken flak for the way Russian agents used its service to target U.S. voters with divisive messages and being a conduit for political misinformation. Zuckerberg faced two days of congressional interrogation over these and other subjects last April; he acknowledged and apologized for Facebook's privacy breakdowns in the past. Since then, Facebook has suffered other privacy lapses that have amplified the calls for regulations that would hold companies more accountable when they improperly expose their users' information. As part of his effort to make amends, Zuckerberg plans to stitch together its Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram messaging services so users will be able to contact each other across all of the apps. The multiyear plan calls for all of these apps to be encrypted so no one but senders and recipients can see the contents of messages. WhatsApp already has that security feature, but Facebook's other messaging apps don't. Zuckerberg likened it to being able to be in a living room behind a closed front door, and not having to worry about anyone eavesdropping. Meanwhile, Facebook and the Instagram photo app would still operate more like a town square where people can openly share whatever they want. While Zuckerberg positions the messaging integration as a privacy move, Facebook also sees commercial opportunity in the shift. "If you think about your life, you probably spend more time communicating privately than publicly," he told the AP. "The overall opportunity here is a lot larger than what we have built in terms of Facebook and Instagram." Critics have raised another possible motive _ the threat of antitrust crackdowns. Integration could make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to later separate out and spin off Instagram and WhatsApp as separate companies. "I see that as the goal of this entire thing," said Blake Reid, a University of Colorado law professor who specializes in technology and policy. He said Facebook could tell antitrust authorities that WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger are tied so tightly together that it couldn't unwind them. Combining the three services also lets Facebook build more complete data profiles on all of its users. Already, businesses can already target Facebook and Instagram users with the same ad campaign, and ads are likely coming to WhatsApp eventually. And users are more likely to stay within Facebook's properties if they can easily message their friends across different services, rather than having to switch between Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram. That could help Facebook compete with messaging services from Apple, Google and others. As part of the process, Zuckerberg said Facebook will meet with privacy experts, law enforcement officials concerned about the new encryption making it impossible to uncover illegal activity being discussed on the messaging service and government officials. Creating more ways for Facebook's more than 2 billion users to keep things private could undermine the company's business model, which depends on the ability to learn about the things people like and then sell ads tied to those interests. In his interview with the AP, Zuckerberg said he isn't currently worried about denting Facebook's profits with the increased emphasis on privacy. "How this affects the business down the line, we'll see," Zuckerberg said. "But if we do a good job in serving the need that people have, then there will certainly be an opportunity" to make even money.

How You Hold Your Phone Helps Merchants Uncover Fraud

Wed, 03/06/2019 - 13:24
Can the way you hold your phone help fight identity theft and fraud? Security experts think so. Biometric security measures like fingerprint readers have become more common in fighting fraud, but another layer of defense involves passive biometrics like the angle at which a smartphone is held. Tina Trinh reports.

Jerry Merryman, 'Brilliant' Man Who Invented Calculator, Dies

Wed, 03/06/2019 - 08:02
Jerry Merryman, one of the inventors of the handheld electronic calculator who is described by those who knew him as not only brilliant but also kind with a good sense of humor, has died. He was 86. Merryman died Feb. 27 at a Dallas hospital from complications of heart and kidney failure, said his stepdaughter, Kim Ikovic. She said he'd been hospitalized since late December after experiencing complications during surgery to install a pacemaker.  He's one of the three men credited with inventing the handheld calculator while working at Dallas-based Texas Instruments. The team was led by Jack Kilby, who made way for today's computers with the invention of the integrated circuit and won the Nobel Prize, and also included James Van Tassel. The prototype they built is at the Smithsonian Institution.  "I have a Ph.D. in material science and I've known hundreds of scientists, professors, Nobel prize-winners and so on. Jerry Merryman was the most brilliant man that I've ever met. Period. Absolutely, outstandingly brilliant," said Vernon Porter, a former TI colleague and friend. "He had an incredible memory and he had an ability to pull up formulas, information, on almost any subject." 'Electronic revolution' Another former TI colleague and friend, Ed Millis, said, "Jerry did the circuit design on this thing in three days, and if he was ever around, he'd lean over and say, `and nights."'  Merryman told NPR's "All Things Considered" in 2013, "It was late 1965 and Jack Kilby, my boss, presented the idea of a calculator. He called some people in his office. He says, we'd like to have some sort of computing device, perhaps to replace the slide ruler. It would be nice if it were as small as this little book that I have in my hand." Merryman added, "Silly me, I thought we were just making a calculator, but we were creating an electronic revolution." The Smithsonian says that the three had made enough progress by September 1967 to apply for a patent, which was subsequently revised before the final application in June 1974. Born in Texas Merryman was born near the small city of Hearne in Central Texas on June 17, 1932. By the age of 11 or so he'd become the radio repairman for the town. "He'd scrap together a few cents to go to the movies in the afternoons and evenings and the police would come get him out ... because their radios would break and he had to fix them," said Merryman's wife, Phyllis Merryman. He went to Texas A&M University in College Station but didn't finish. Instead, he went to work in the university's department of oceanography and meteorology and before long was on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico measuring the force of hurricane winds. He started at Texas Instruments in 1963, at the age of 30. Telescope motor His friends and family say he was always creating something. His daughter Melissa Merryman recalls him making his own tuner for their piano. Friend and former colleague Gaynel Lockhart remembers a telescope in concrete at his home with a motor attached that would allow it to follow a planet throughout the night. Despite his accomplishments, he was humble. "He wouldn't ever boast or brag about himself, not ever," said Melissa Merryman, who became stepsisters with her friend Kim Ikovic when they set up their parents, who got married in 1993. Jerry Merryman retired from TI in January 1994, the company said. "He always said that he didn't care anything about being famous, if his friends thought he did a good job, he was happy," Phyllis Merryman said. 

Going TikTok: Indians Get Hooked on Chinese Video App Ahead of Election

Wed, 03/06/2019 - 03:19
A video clip shot on a sparse rooftop of what looks like a low-rise apartment block shows a young Indian man swaying while lip-syncing a song praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Describing himself as a proud Indian with the online identity "garrytomar", he is wearing ear-studs and shows a beaded necklace under a partly unbuttoned shirt in the 15-second clip. "Modi has single-handedly trounced everyone ... Modi is a storm, you all now know," goes the Hindi song, posted on Chinese video mobile application TikTok, the latest digital platform to grip India's small towns and villages ahead of a general election due by May. Created by Beijing Bytedance Technology, one of the world's most valuable start-ups potentially worth more than $75 billion, TikTok allows users to create and share short videos with various special effects. It is becoming hugely popular in rural India, home to most of the country's 1.3 billion people. Social media platforms such as Facebook, its unit WhatsApp and Twitter are extensively being used by Indian politicians for campaigning ahead of the election: Facebook's 300 million users and WhatsApp's 200 million have made India their largest market in the world, while Twitter too has millions of users. TikTok is fast catching up: it has been downloaded more than 240 million times in India so far, according to app analytics firm Sensor Tower. More than 30 million users in India installed it last month, 12 times more than in January 2018. "Most urban elites haven't heard of TikTok and those who have, tend to view it as a platform for trivial content. In reality, it hosts diverse content including a fair share of political speech," said Kailas Karthikeyan, a New Delhi-based technology analyst who has tracked TikTok for nine months. TikTok's video-only interface makes it less elaborate and easier to use compared to platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, making it a bigger attraction in rural India, he added. Political interest While Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress party have not officially joined TikTok, videos tagged #narendramodi have received more than 30 million views and those about Congress chief Rahul Gandhi (#rahulgandhi) have got nearly 13 million hits. Total views for political videos is far higher. Amit Malviya, the BJP's chief of information technology, said the party was tracking TikTok conversations and it was "abrilliant medium for creative expression". The party, however, has no plans as of now to officially join the platform, he said. A Congress source said the party was exploring joining TikTok and assessing how it could be used to better reach out to people in rural areas in the run-up to the election. Not all political videos on TikTok seek votes. Some videos show people waving the Congress flag on Indian streets. Another clip shows Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on a stage, with a Hindi-language rustic voiceover of her saying she will marry the Indian leader. "I would die with him and live with him," the Merkel voice impersonator declares in the video. In another TikTok post, Modi fan Yogesh Saini says the prime minister is his world, moments before opening his jacket toreveal a video of Modi on his chest. Saini, 23, isn't affiliated to any political party, but says: "It's my job to support Modi-ji, so I'm doing that," using the honorific Indian suffix. He spoke to Reuters from the small town of Sawai Madhopur in the desert state of Rajasthan. Scrutiny, backlash Jokes, dance clips and videos related to India's thriving movie industry dominate the platform. #Bollywood tagged videos have nearly 13 billion views and the app is also flooded with memes, as well as videos on cooking. TikTok, though, is facing opposition from some quarters. The information technology minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, M. Manikandan, said he will urge the federal government to ban the app as some content was "very unbearable." "Young girls and everybody is behaving very badly. Sometimes the body language is very bad, and (people are) doing mimicry of political leaders very badly," Manikandan told Reuters. A Hindu nationalist group close to Modi's BJP too has called for a ban on TikTok. TikTok said it respects local laws and there was "no basis" for the concerns. Promoting a safe and positive in-app environment was its "top priority," it said. The backlash comes as social media companies face increased scrutiny from authorities over fake news and undesirable content ahead of the polls. A federal proposal will mandate them to swiftly remove "unlawful" content when asked. A senior government official in New Delhi said the government wants TikTok to comply with the new Indian regulations as and when they kick in, but there wasn't any immediate concern on content. Still, the government has asked the Chinese company to have better checks in place to ensure its users are aged above 12, which is recommended by the app itself, the official said.  

Facebook Prohibits Foreign-funded Ads for Indonesia Election

Tue, 03/05/2019 - 12:15
Facebook says it will not allow election advertisements for Indonesia's upcoming presidential election that are purchased from outside the country.   The announcement on Facebook's website says the restriction took effect Monday morning and is part of "safeguarding election integrity on our platform."   Facebook has been criticized for allowing foreign interests to use its site to disseminate ads that may have influenced the outcomes of the last U.S. presidential election and the U.K. referendum on leaving the European Union.   The social media company said it's using a mix of automated and human intervention to identify foreign-funded election ads.   Indonesia, the world's third-largest democracy, votes for president on April 17. The campaign pits incumbent leader Joko Widodo against former general Prabowo Subianto.    

Pages